Wash the Blood Clean from My Hand, by Fred Vargas

A small newspaper article puts Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg back on the trail of a serial killer he's been tracking for thirty years. The killer's M.O. is unmistakeable: a knock on the head and three puncture wounds in a row, equally spaced and equally deep. No one by Adamsberg even accepts that the murders are related since the killer always provides a fall guy: someone too drunk to remember his actions and conveniently holding the ostensible murder weapon. One of those fall guys was Adamsberg's brother, so the commissaire has a personal stake in identifying the real killer. He even knows who it is: the draconian judge who terrorized their childhood. Given the judge's power and reputation, no one took Adamsberg's accusations seriously. And now the judge has been dead for sixteen years.

Set in Paris and Quebec, where Adamsberg and several of his colleagues are sent to learn DNA profiling from the RCMP, this book is an engaging mix of complex storylines and eccentric characters. Plus, did I mention Paris and Quebec? The pacing suits me perfectly, as well: not a roller coaster ride, but action interspersed with some time for reflection. Add in some bits of esoteric knowledge and the remnants of a love affair gone wrong, and you have the perfect read for these autumn nights when the dark closes in early.

One thing that I look for in police procedurals, especially because it is so lacking in literary fiction, is a sense of office politics. I find work relationships quite fascinating, the permutations of power, the shifting alliances. Vargas delivers in spades. The relationship between the commissaire—the equivalent of a British Chief Superintendent, as the end note explains—and his co-workers contains the kind of nuances recognisable to the office-workers among us.

Brezillon, his superior, is deftly identified by a particular mannerism as someone who has risen from lower-class roots and is not ashamed of them, even as he enjoys the perks of wealth and position. Adamsberg's deputy, Danglard, also presents a challenge. Adamsberg does not know how far to trust him. The man seems loyal, but also does not bother to hide his disapproval of the commissaire. Adamsberg cannot be certain of either man's response when he himself is accused of murder.

This is the fifth book in Vargas's series. You can bet I will be looking for the others.

Hamlet (Michael Almereyda's 2000 film)

What an interesting film! Almereyda has set Shakespeare's play in a modern urban landscape, such as New York City, where all the surfaces are smooth and slick. Young Hamlet (Ethan Hawke) is home from school and trying to come to terms with the changes in his family. Hamlet's father (Sam Shepherd) is dead and Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan) has not only taken over his brother's role as king and CEO of Denmark Corporation but has married Gertrude (Diane Venora) his brother's wife. Hamlet's bewilderment turns to anger after a visit from the ghost of his father and, absorbed by his own thoughts, he ignores his girlfriend Ophelia (Julia Stiles) whose father Polonius (a restrained Bill Murray) and brother Laertes (Liev Schreiber) warn her to stay away from him.

It's surprising that I never tire of this play. As an usher at Center Stage in my teens, I saw it so many times that I had the entire play memorised. Since then I've seen many productions. I remember sitting in the theatre as Kenneth Branagh's 1996 film started and thinking that I couldn't bear to sit through the whole thing again; I just knew it too well. I gathered my things and prepared to leave. Then the first scene started and I was hooked all over again.

Almereyda has streamlined the play but not updated the language, and I'm surprised by how well the familiar words work coming from men in business suits or young people in hoodies and baggy jeans. He's added some great visual tropes, such as presenting some of Hamlet's soliloquys as part of his video diary and having the ghost show up on a security camera.

Knowing the play as well as I do, I cannot judge if it is cut so much as to be confusing. The cuts go deep, but the well-chosen visuals, such as Hamlet with his bank of video screens, Ophelia jumping into the pool, and Polonius tying Ophelia's shoelaces, add to and clarify the story. I was a little disappointed that such a critical scene as the one with the gravedigger was cut and that Fortinbras is barely mentioned. Horatio preparing to tell Hamlet's story is the capstone of the play for me: “And let me speak to the yet unknowing world/How these things came about”.

But if this production makes anyone new to the play fall in love with the language and pursue it further, then the film is a success. I'll be satisfied if someone just recognises that the play is the source of so many sayings in common use today. Recently, Becky, a 20-year-old Londoner, posted on her tumblr blog a page from her moleskin notebook that she had filled with “Things We Say Today Which We Owe to Shakespeare”. It went viral and in only one week has gotten over 28,000 notes.

These words just don't go away. How shocking is it that a play written 410 years ago is still so relevant, so vital today! How resilient it is: cut, adapted, changed, its magic is undiminished.

This is my take-away from the film: the stories we tell matter. Our words, our stories will last far beyond our ephemeral lives.

I'm reminded of something Loren Eisely said in his memoir. Thinking about a book that changed his life, he wants to tell the long-dead author how much the man's book has meant to him. He says, “. . . all we are quickly vanishes. But still not quite. That is the wonder of words. They drift on and on beyond imagining.”

The Most Dangerous Thing, by Laura Lippman

The death of Gordon “Go-Go” Halloran brings together four people who had been inseparable for a few years in the late 1970s but have since lost touch. The two girls, Gwen and Mickey, became friends with the three Halloran boys—“Crass Tim, Serious Sean, Wild Go-Go” —after barging into their kickball game. The five of them spent long summer days exploring the wild and overgrown woods nearby before stumbling into a mystery that would challenge and change them forever.

The story also includes their parents who interested me even more than the children. I usually describe the Baltimore of the past as being a combination of the very rich who owned the mills, the blue-collar workers who toiled in them, and a small middle-class who served both. Much has changed since then, of course, including the closure of nearly all of the mills, converted into health clubs and artist studios. However, to me, the three sets of parents reflect these levels. Gwen's parents, Clem and Tally, are quite wealthy while the Hallorans struggle to maintain a household that is just a bit beyond what they can manage. An accountant, Tim moves from job to job while Doris, a housewife, is overwhelmed with trying to keep up with three boys. Mickey's mother, Rita, works as a waitress, and her “not-quite-stepfather” Rick manages a service station. I confess Rita is my favorite character, maybe because I recognise myself in her. I too think life is a hoot and regret nothing. Well, almost nothing.

The book alternates between the past and the present and between the point of view of the children and their parents. I am not usually a fan of stories told from so many (ten) points of view, but Lippman handles the transitions deftly, and I am never confused about where or when we are in the story. How she manages that is something I'm still trying to figure out. In one part the chapters in the past are labeled with the season and year, but mostly it is the voice that identifies whether it is the child or the adult speaking and the details, such as a reference to Gwen's daughter, that identify the time period. The only bit I found confusing was the use of the first person plural (we) in some sections about the children. Since each child was referenced by name, I wondered if there was a sixth person narrating those sections (there isn't). I loved Joshua Ferris's use of first person plural, but in that case there were many unnamed characters in the group, any one of whom could have been the narrator.

However, this is a minor quibble with a book that I thoroughly enjoyed. Of course I loved the local references: crabs at Connolley's, sauerkraut for Thanksgiving dinner, the jingle from the Schaefer beer commercial. And there are a few references to delight long-time Lippman readers. I've also spent time in Dickeyville, where the story is set, a most peculiar neighborhood even in a city known for its colorful neighborhoods. Reminiscent of a Cotswold village, Dickeyville is a little pocket of homes and other buildings that originated as a rural industrial village in the 19th century. Unknown to most city residents, it is a hidden place, set apart from nearby suburbs and shopping malls. Adding to its fairy-tale character, Dickeyville backs up to Leakin Park, a wild and tangled place known during Baltimore's drug wars as a dumping ground for bodies.

Wildness seems to me the core of the book. The quality of memories, individual and shared, and the use to which we put them are always concerns of Lippman's, but here there is also the idea of venturing out of the everyday world into woods where, as in a fairy tale, anything can happen. The children are unsupervised, as we all were back then, only required to be home for dinner. Our parents had large brass handbells they rang to call us home. These children are supposed to stay within calling distance of home, but find a way around that in order to plunge deeply into the woods, tearing their clothes on briars and splashing in the streams—forbidden because of pollution. I miss the freedom we had as children, to wander in nearby woods and push the rules to venture into territory our parents never dreamed of. I steeled myself to give my own children the same freedom to roam the park and woods without my supervision. They survived, of course, and I hope have good memories of catching salamanders and hauling rusty treasures out of Stony Run.

This book is more ambiguous morally than Lippman's other novels. I mean that as a compliment. Yes, children do things that they know or don't quite know are wrong, things that as an adult you hate to remember and can barely believe that you could have done. You could argue that there is no crime here, since these people do what they think is right. At least one reviewer thought that there was not enough “urgency” given to the mystery at the core of the book. I say that not every book is a thriller, nor would we want that. I liked the pacing: measured, thoughtful. For me the real mystery is what goes on in other people's heads. In the first part of the book Lippman explores how incurious children are about other people. Then she looks at the parents and their assumptions and quick assessments of each other. It is so hard for people (me included) to step out of our own heads. Our social mores don't lend themselves to those kinds of conversation, so spending extended time seeing the world through someone else's eyes is one of the joys of reading and writing for me.

As always, Lippman gives us young characters who ring true. It is tremendously hard to write about children without succumbing to sentimentality or making them annoyingly precocious. Yet Lippman succeeds in presenting the five children so realistically that I almost recognise them as kids I once knew. Even better, she holds them up against their adult selves, the continuum between child and adult perfectly believable. I find that path from the child to the adult fascinating. It's why I like reading memoirs and biographies. Yesterday I held a six-week-old baby and had the odd experience of a vision—just a flash—of the child as a young adult, what he would look like, what kind of person he would be. I hope I'm around to find out.

I thought the section on the parents the best part of the book, perhaps because I am at that time of life where I am assessing the choices made against Whittier's “dreams of youth”. In London this summer I saw Nick Gill's mirror teeth at Finborough Theatre, a funny and disturbing satire of a middle-class English family. The characters kept saying, even as things fell apart around them, “It's a good life.” It gave me a shock to see the same line here. Yet, Lippman is after the same kind of commentary, I think, if not quite so broad. What is a good life? What is a good marriage? What compromises do we make as adults with the dreams we had as children?

A Night Too Dark, by Dana Stabenow

With the power out all week thanks to Hurricane Irene, I've had many nights that were too dark recently. This 17th novel in the Kate Shugak series starts when a pickup truck is discovered on a rarely traveled road in Alaska with a suicide note taped to the steering wheel. It could have been there an hour or over a month, so a search is organized for the missing driver. Kate, a private investigator in the small town of Niniltna, is drafted by the short-handed police force to conduct the search, but she has barely started when she is interrupted by a ferocious crashing in the woods headed straight for her.

The truck appears to belong to a roustabout from the Suulutaq Mine. Located in the middle of the Iqaluk Wildlife Refuge, 50 miles from Niniltna, the mine is the process of being surveyed. It promises to be the second-largest gold mine in the world, so of course major interests are playing out some heavy political maneuvers, including several corporations and the Niniltna Native Association.

This is the first of Stabenow's books that I've read. Starting with #17 in a series is not such a great idea. I didn't have any trouble following the plot. At first I was a bit overwhelmed with the number of characters whom I should have already known but Stabenow does a good job of dropping in enough information so that I was able to keep everyone straight. And all the characters receive the attention they deserve. What a great cast!

The plot has lots of twists and turns and concludes satisfactorily. But what I really liked was everything around the plot: the smell of freshly caught salmon roasting over open coals, the often testy relationships and shifting alliances within the Niniltna Native Association, the response of locals to the marketing opportunities that come with the mine, the communal festivities at Old Sam's annual moose roast.

One area that particularly struck me, on this Labor Day, involves the working conditions for the employees at the mine. Workers are confined to the mine for two weeks at a time before they are flown to town for a break because it is too expensive to move them in and out weekly. Also, every payday a few more workers disappear, moving on in search of better work. The plan is to go to month-long shifts once the mine goes into operation, and that only after a battle with a head office that wanted eight-week shifts. Remembering how difficult many workers have it makes me grateful for what I have.