The Lake House, by Kate Morton

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Summer is here, and no vacation is complete without plenty of books to read. Ebooks made packing easy: just bring my Nook. This year, though, I’ve gone even lighter, reading books on my phone through the Nook and Kindle apps. Which books, though?

For long car trips (I seem to do a lot of these) I love audio books, but must select them carefully. Thrillers make me drive too fast; long-winded sentences or complicated concepts make me tune out because I can’t follow them while driving. And the actor matters as well. If the delivery is too monotone, my eyelids get heavy. I thought I’d chosen a great book for my last trip: one of my favorite authors. However, this particular novel was more of a psychological study; it would have been excellent reading (and I may come back to it) but too slow for a car trip.

If I’m flying I want a book that is absorbing but not too thought-provoking, since its purpose is to distract me from my surroundings and make the time go by quickly. For a recent flight I picked up this novel by Kate Morton, an author new to me, though this is her fifth novel.

It was perfect! I fell into the story and barely came up for air during the long day’s travel.

Sadie Swallow, a disgraced detective keeping her head down at her grandfather’s cottage in Cornwall, goes running and stumbles on a beautiful abandoned house. Fascinated by the house, she becomes riveted by the 70-year-old mystery of the disappearance of the small much-loved boy whose loss so broke his family that they could not bear to return.

The story goes back and forth in time to fill in her past and that of the elderly crime novelist who is the last remaining member of the family who lived there. This kind of time-shifting rarely works, but here Morton handles it brilliantly. Each chapter is a single time period and labeled up front, so there’s no confusion. What really makes it flow are the transitions within the text, the scene at the end of one chapter flowing seamlessly into the first scene of the next chapter; even if there is a huge time gap, the story feels continuous.

The crime novelist, Alice Edevane, older sister of the lost toddler, is easily the most intriguing character in the book. While very successful as a writer, Alice loathes publicity and is impatient with people who don’t meet her standards. Those standards emerge through her interactions with Peter, the man she hires as a personal assistant, and later with Sadie: on time for appointments, clever (in the British sense of intelligent and practical), and a quality I used to call clear through: open and honest, without social artifice—someone you can trust.

I loved spending time with Alice. And also with Sadie. As a very junior female detective she’s smart but a little too willing to go her own way, ignoring orders from above, thus getting on the wrong side of her superiors. She has a bit of a troubled background, hence being brought up by her grandparents, and is too driven by work to care for a houseplant much less a relationship.

In addition to enjoying the characters, I too fell for the house and for the life the family led there before their tragedy. Set in Cornwall and the London I’d just left how could I resist? The atmosphere reminded me a little of the first part of Atonement. I loved Sadie’s grandfather and his life as a widower, making pies for the fête, walking his two dogs. He’s at peace with himself and able to advise Sadie without seeming too good to be true.

Some cross-genre novels shortchange one or another of their genres. For example, The Girl on the Train was a good thriller, but disappointing as a mystery. Here, Morton manages to present a satisfying mystery in a historical novel that also tackles important issues in women’s lives.

There were a couple of things I thought too improbable and if editing the book would have advised Morton to change. But overall a most satisfying read. I’ll certainly take along one of her other novels on my next flight.

Can you recommend a good audio book for a car trip or one for a flight?

Jar City: A Reykjavik Thriller, by Arnaldur Indriðason

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I have long had a soft spot for Iceland, partly from Halldór Laxness’s novels, so I was excited to find this mystery set in Reykjavik. The first of Indriðason’s books to be translated into English, Jar City starts with Detective Inspector Erlendur at the scene of a murder. In the sitting room of the basement flat he finds the body of a 70-year-old man who has been hit in the head with a heavy glass ashtray. Although Icelandic murders are not complicated, Erlendur knows this case will be different. In fact, everyone at the crime scene realises that this murder is something quite special, because they have seen the cryptic note left on the body, only three stunning words.

You want to know what they are, don’t you? So did I. When a mystery opens with this sentence “The words were written in pencil on a piece of paper placed on top of the body” you don’t expect to have to get through half the book before you find out what those words are.

This trick is what Ray Rhamey of Flogging the Quill calls an information question. He explains that the first page of any novel should raise a story question—a plot question about what will happen next—but not a simple question about information that the characters in the scene obviously have but the author has chosen not to reveal. Information questions break the contract between writer and reader, a contract especially binding in a murder mystery where the reader is challenged to identify clues and put them together to reach the answer before the detective does.

The note is only the first of several information questions in the book. Another egregious one is the identity of Erlendur’s mentor Marion Briem, whom we are told in a foreword has a gender-neutral name and whose gender is never identified by a pronoun. I’m all in favor of appreciating the spectrum of gender, but here it’s done so coyly that it just feels phoney. Information questions are a cheap way to try to create suspense instead of actually working to create suspense through the story. And they are irritating.

Aside from the information questions and some inconsistent word choices that are probably the fault of the translator (i.e., slang from different countries and different parts of the U.S. inexplicably mixed together), the book is quite good. Indriðason’s prose is appropriately spare, giving the reader a feel for life in Iceland’s capital city.

Erlendur is the usual sloppily dressed, lonely detective. He has two grown children: Eva Lind, a drug addict who provides a subplot for the book, and a son of whom we’re only told that he’s in “rehab”. Presumably that’s for recovery from alcohol or drugs rather than a knee replacement, but once again we are not given that information.

The story behind the murder is laid out well, with deceptive blind alleys and red herrings. Best of all, there is a larger story, a story about an aspect of society specific to Iceland but relevant to all of us.

You want to know what that larger story is, don’t you? Irritating, isn’t it? But in this case, I’m sparing you from a spoiler. If you can get past your irritation, the book is actually a good read.

Have you read any books set in Iceland?

A Traitor to Memory, by Elizabeth George

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I’ve been rereading this series of mysteries featuring Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley of Scotland Yard. It’s been over ten years since I’ve read any of them, so there are new additions to the series, and even back then I don’t think I’d read all of them. I do remember being astounded when I read her first book, A Great Deliverance. What a story! So many layers. And an unusually textured theme. I couldn’t think about anything else until I finished it.

The series only gets better from there. In this, the 11th book, Lynley is asked by his superior, Superintendent Webberly, to help investigate the hit and run death of Eugenie Davies. Webberly takes a personal interest because his first murder investigation as a DI was the death of Eugenie’s baby.

Interspersed with the investigation are journal entries by Eugenie’s estranged son. Gideon is a child prodigy, now a twenty-eight-year-old virtuoso who suddenly and mysteriously at the start of a long-anticipated concert at Wigmore Hall, lost the ability to play the violin. Along with it, he seems to have lost great chunks of his memory, so the psychiatrist he’s started seeing encourages him to write down what he does remember.

Among the many things George excels at is choosing titles. I am still thinking about this one. Gideon argues about the effect of his loss with his new American friend. Privately tutored as a child, until he met Libby he had no friends beyond his father and his music teacher. She keeps trying to persuade him that he is still a person even if he’s not able to play the violin. Gideon, though, whose life has been devoted to the instrument, thinks otherwise. In his journal, he asks, “How do I exist when the sum and substance of who I am and who I have been for the last twenty-five years is contained in and defined by my music?”

Interestingly, this idea calls up themes from the last book, though George doesn’t actually point that out. In that book, Lynley’s former Detective Sergeant, now demoted to Detective Constable, Barbara Havers, asks herself who she would be without her identity as a detective. This is another thing George excels at: she introduces backstory from earlier books in the series only rarely and only when it is necessary to the current story. Havers’s identity questions are left unspoken here, but add an extra dimension for a reader who recalls them.

Aside from basing identity on our vocation, there remains the consideration of memory. Does Gideon’s memory loss contribute to his feeling that he has ceased to exist? Who are we if we don’t have our memories? And since we rework our memories over the years, who are we if what we remember turns out not to be true? This last question actually get carried forward into the next book in the series.

This question of what constitutes our identity is a tangled one, fascinating in its permutations as it is carried out in various lives. It is especially interesting in the context of murder mysteries, where there are many secrets and where detectives must ferret out the hidden sides of the various characters, which in turns reveal previously unexpected aspects of their own. Everyone is changed. The end of each story leaves everyone—murderer, detectives, suspects, families and friends—in a new place.

Have you read any of Elizabeth George’s novels? Which is your favorite?

The Likeness, by Tana French

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In this second mystery from Tana French, the murder of a young woman drops like a stone into the world of her four friends, and of the detectives investigating it. Ripples spread, unsettling all of their lives and certainties and waking deeper currents.

I read this book and French’s earlier one, In the Woods, a few years ago, long enough ago that the details have faded but my memory of liking them hadn’t. That made them a good choice for listening to in the car on a couple of long trips: the story would come back to me enough that I wouldn’t have to concentrate hard to follow it but I could enjoy again the writing I loved.

The first person point of view makes these two books especially vivid. In the Woods is narrated by Rob Ryan, a detective in the Dublin murder squad. With The Likeness, his former partner Cassie Maddox, who has moved to the Domestic Violence unit, is pulled back and plunged almost against her will into investigating the death of Lexie Maddox, found stabbed in a remote cottage.

Frank Mackey, her boss from when she worked underground, back before the murder squad, persuades Cassie to impersonate the dead woman. The two young women look almost exactly alike, rare enough, but even more astonishing is that the dead woman had assumed the identity of Lexie Maddox, one of Cassie’s undercover identities. Mackie tells Lexie’s four friends that she survived and then sends Cassie in to live among them, to see if she can identify a suspect.

This is the part I loved. The five of them, PhD students at Trinity, live in a dilapidated country mansion which Daniel has inherited. He and Abby, Rafe, Justin, and Lexie are completely self-sufficient socially, a tight unit: innocently playful and sweet together, they become an armored phalanx among strangers.

Even just driving up to the house and seeing them on the steps Cassie is thoroughly charmed, in the deeper sense of being almost under a spell. It all seems so familiar. And the golden weeks that follow—working on the house together, dancing to Abby’s singing, reading and talking in the evenings—tempt Cassie with their promise of a different life. I was reminded of the beginning of Brideshead Revisited when Charles Ryder falls in love with Sebastian’s life. French captures so well the fun of being part of a tight group of friends, when you’re young and it’s all happening for the first time and everything seems unbearably sweet.

Even as Cassie slips more deeply into their easy camaraderie, though, she is looking for anything that might point to a suspect. She explores the local folks’ hatred for the house’s inhabitants and Daniel’s cousin’s frustration over not inheriting the house himself. She begins to see cracks in the family. She hears secrets whispered at night, notices Justin’s mounting fears and Rafe’s increased drinking.

There are plenty of questions to keep my mind buzzing, not just the big ones of who killed Lexie and why, but questions about each of the four friends, about why Lexie needed a new identity, about Mackey’s intentions and what Cassie herself will choose to do at each turn.

And the story is hauntingly beautiful at times, such as when we are drawn into the world these friends have created, their hour of splendour in the grass. There is much here about innocence and responsibility and the desire for freedom that can sometimes drown out everything else. And Cassie, with her strong moral code, her chameleon-like abilities, and her doubts and temptations makes an excellent traveling companion.

What books do you like to listen to in the car?

At the Center, by Dorothy Van Soest

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In this electrifying mystery, Anthony Little Eagle is placed in a foster home. Two days later he is dead. The police think it’s a tragic accident, but Sylvia Jensen isn’t convinced. As the foster care supervisor, Sylvia ignores pressure from her manager to accept the accident ruling; she thinks they are placing the reputation of the child welfare office above concern for Anthony.

The only other person investigating the death is J.B. Harrell, a reporter. He has little faith in Sylvia’s motives or determination. A sixty-year-old white woman with a grey ponytail, a beaded necklace, and a problem with alcohol, Sylvia knows she is on dangerous ground. She is deeply engaged with the tribal communities, through her work but also her sympathies. Yet, at the same time, she fears being seen as a wanna-be Indian, a New Ager cherry-picking another culture. Harrell picks up on her ambivalence and guilt.

Woven in with the story of Anthony’s death and Sylvia’s pursuit of the truth is another story, of a Native American child fostered by a white couple for seven years. Mary struggles with discrimination against her son and lives in terror that he will be taken away from her.

As a former welfare mother, I’ve seen social workers from the other side of the desk. Most are compassionate, but some treat their clients as mentally or morally deficient. All are burnt-out by huge caseloads and funding cuts. Sylvia Jensen’s compassion is tempered by her knowledge of the system, its strengths and its faults. The author captures the realities and sometimes contradictory agendas of a child welfare office.

As she should. In addition to being a writer, Dorothy van Soest is a social worker, political and community activist, as well as a retired professor and university dean who holds an undergraduate degree in English literature and a Masters and Ph.D. in Social Work. She brings a comprehensive knowledge of the foster care system, adoption, and tribal culture to give depth and detail to this fascinating story. Full disclosure: I am acquainted with Dorothy.

I read a lot of mysteries and thoroughly enjoyed this one. While Sylvia and Harrell’s investigation into Anthony’s death captured my attention, and Mary and her son my concern, what I most liked was the glimpse into a world unfamiliar to me: the liminal space where Native Americans interact with white people. I’ve read Tony Hillerman’s mysteries, but this novel gives a different perspective.

I also appreciated the multi-faceted depiction of the different forces competing over the fate of a vulnerable child. Even when all involved have the best intentions, a solution may not be easy to find. We are but human, and every system has flaws. To me, the hope comes in seeing characters such as Sylvia and Harrell rise above their own weaknesses to try to do good in the world.

What book have you read recently that gave you hope?