Friday, May 25, 2007

Dinah McCall's Bloodlines

Mainly Mysteries met last night to discuss Bloodlines by Dinah McCall, writes Jeannine. McCall is a pseudonym for Sharon Sala, who writes romances under her real name, and romantic suspense/thrillers under the McCall name. Bloodlines is the story of the terrifying events that happened when Olivia Sealy was a toddler and how they come back to haunt her 25 years later. When she was two she was kidnapped for ransom, and recovered after the death of her parents. Now in the present, a suitcase containing the remains of a child found in the wall of a cabin is dated to the same time, and a genetic quirk of two thumbs on one hand ties the child to Olivia’s family. The primary mystery is to find out who the child is, what her relationship is to the other Sealys, and how she died. At the same time, a crazed killer focuses on Olivia, bullets fly, rooms go up in flames, all sorts of excitement incurs, and a romance rekindles between Olivia and the detective on the case.

This made for a very good discussion because opinions were all over the place. A few people enjoyed the book immensely; a few couldn’t make it past the first few pages (“after the first few pages, my eyes refused to focus”). Most people liked the first part, but said the story did rather go to pieces by the end. The romance between Olivia and Trey seemed to annoy people more than anything else. The first member to speak said it was too romantic, “life isn’t like that.” Olivia and Trey were high school sweethearts who were split up by her grandfather because Trey was from the “wrong” part of town. They meet again during the investigation and almost immediately fall into each other’s arms as if no time at all had passed. Come again? Members thought there should have been some distance between them from change or maturity that would need to be overcome, not to mention issues of trust (touched on only lightly).

The point found most amazing by two members is that they figured out who the culprit was early into the story. They said each of them is the kind of reader that NEVER figures out who the villain is until the end. Others were equally amazed that the first two figured it out, because they never saw it coming until the end. And absolutely everyone agreed that they could have done without the baby fingernails tidbit, it was, er, um, “overkill,” and completely unnecessary, and we’d like to tear out that page, please.

While we didn’t exactly trash the novel, we were rather exuberant in picking holes in the plot. Several people who enjoyed the book admitted that there were discrepancies, but found that it didn’t matter. They were pulled into the story from the beginning and thoroughly enjoyed the ride. In fact, one person said that on a scale of 1-10 for sheer suspense, she gave it a 10. The rest were not quite so forgiving. SPOILER ALERT!! A big hurdle to overcome was the idea that two toddlers with the same father but a different mother would look so identical that one of the mothers couldn’t tell the difference between them. On which planet? END OF SPOILER ALERT. In addition, ye olde identical twin ploy came into play once again, one crazy, one sane and both unable to recognize each other after 25 years. Fires, though plausible enough, seemed to reoccur rather too often to be more than mere plot devices. Some of the characters did not ring true – Anna was all over the place, from sane to Alzheimer’s to completely whacko; Dennis seemed a totally contrived persona; and Olivia was – I’ll just say it right out – a big wimp (if anything threatening or challenging came up, she had to go off into another room and cry, leaving Trey to do all the work after he’d comforted her, of course). Oh dear, my point of view just sort of took over there, didn’t it?

Moving right along….While discussing implausibilities, one member was struck by the fact that the father (ANOTHER SPOILER ALERT!) of the two girls just happened to pick as wife and mistress “two women who look alike, and don’t they all?” I will leave to your imagination how this was interpreted by the rest of the group, but it did take several minutes for some people to pull themselves together and find their chairs after their excursion to the floor. Another person’s favorite character was the man who found the suitcase in his wall. This poor guy had big plans for remodelling the cabin now that he was retired. That was certainly spoiled; he and his wife never went back. But his character was vivid and well drawn, and disappeared after that chapter. Darn. This led us to a rather interesting discussion of architecture and home building – just how much room would have been between the studs? Could you really fit a suitcase inside? We had no definitive answer, just more questions (when was it built, where, etc.).

All in all, it was a quick, easy read with competent, never stylized prose. If you aren’t picky about details and just like being swept along in an exciting story, you’ll probably enjoy it. Don’t forget to go to our blog and register your opinion.

At this point, the discussion broadened to romantic suspense and mysteries in general. Readers of romantic suspense had all noticed that the heroes and heroines are always rich (well, at least one of them), young and beautiful. We tried thinking of titles with more “ordinary” protagonists. Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn. J.A. Jance’s characters. Quite a few names cropped up, and with them a pattern developed. Mysteries often have ordinary (older, heavier, poorer, alcoholic, etc.) characters, but in Romantic Suspense – rich, young and beautiful. For those who would like to see a romance with ordinary people, one member recommended the documentary The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill . While it primarily documents the relationship of a homeless musician with the several flocks of wild parrots in San Francisco, he says it also shows a romance between very real people.

Refreshments were provided by MM members – several kinds of chilli (the story took place in Dallas) and s’mores cookies (which go with any story). Decorations were very minimal – a suitcase and some drywall just didn’t work for me. We had some books on related subjects (DNA, women and mental illness…) and book covers for next month’s selections.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

John Le Carré's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

"We had a splendid meeting last night – everything a book club discussion is supposed to be," writes Jeanine. "It was a fairly small group, but the ideas were big and well-thought out, sometimes even touching on the profound. The title for discussion was The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carré, the story of Alec Leamas, a career spy who has grown disillusioned and stale in espionage, but must undergo one last assignment before he can 'come in from the cold.' "

Above: Checkpoint Charlie

Our display was minimalist to go with the starkness of the Cold War – black and white photos from the film (Richard Burton!), Checkpoint Charlie, Cold War icons, and the well-known shot of the soldier leaping over the barbed wire to the West. The main sustenance for the spies seemed to be cigarettes and drink, so we had an EMPTY bottle of whiskey (though an alcohol-laced discussion might be interesting….) and an EMPTY pack of unfiltered Camels (in keeping with the time period). A couple of passports, with one open to the DDR ( Deutsche Demokratische Republik – East Germany) stamps and a handful of East German coins. My birth date on the passport seemed to be the most popular item for perusal. Oops.

There is no way to discuss this book without giving away the ending, so I will move to a spoiler alert, and if you have any intention of ever reading the book, you may want to stop reading at that point. Don’t forget to get in your own 2¢ here at the Mainly Mysteries Blog.

Reactions to the book were mixed. Some people read and loved all of Le Carré’s books, some sort of liked the book, some disliked it intensely – but for many different reasons. The grimness of this spy story was both the appeal and the aversion for different people. Several disliked the overall darkness of the novel; it was well-written and believable enough, perhaps too believable, but they did not really wish to spend time there. One person said it was a “sad ending to a sad book” and there was already enough sadness in the world. Another person was incensed at what was done to Liz, the “innocent,” and that they were all evil for it, and she didn’t want to read about it. Others were fascinated with the insight into another time and place and profession, and intensity of circumstances.

Pieces of Le Carré’s background were brought into the discussion and added great depth to the understanding of the book. The people who have read more of his work, say there is the common theme of betrayal and abandonment running through all the books. He worked for the British Foreign Service for some years, so is considered to be quite familiar with the world about which he writes. One member noted that his father was a con man, and that even to the present, his dad has tried to use his son’s renown to further various financial schemes, and expected him to bail him out of subsequent disasters. Most members found both points significant and very relevant to his writing and main themes. Several members mentioned how impressed they were (and one not so impressed) with Le Carré’s ability to write this novel in only 5 weeks. Several readers looked on him as a man disillusioned with his work and government, and writing the novel was a way to purge himself of his despondency, and shed light on the darkness of espionage, a catharsis of sorts.

Naturally, in a book on this topic, the subject of good and evil, and right and wrong has to be covered. All the members agreed that only Liz was the real idealist (Communist), and even she was pretty fuzzy on what she actually believed. Fiedler (another Communist) seemed to be the only “nice” person in the espionage community, and it was he who said about his fellow spies “We’re all the same you know. That’s the joke.”) The intelligence services seem more intent on what’s expedient for “our side” than what is moral or right or even ideologically “pure.” And manipulation and subterfuge is the name of the game.

A member brought up the excellent question of just what is meant by “coming in from the cold?” What exactly is the cold? Most considered it the isolation of the spy’s life cut off from any real attachment to other people. The danger, fear and harshness of the lifestyle… the necessity for an emotionless life… giving up humanity… the distance from human warmth.

Now we come to last night’s discussion, and a great big SPOILER ALERT!!!!

Here is the big spoiler. The book is meaningless without the end, it forms the rest of the story. In fact, one member mentioned that setting up the intricate deception by British intelligence was the same as the writer’s craft, each started at the end and worked their way back, both are carefully planned backwards to achieve the final scenario. At the end of the book, Leamas and Liz are attempting to scale the Wall when they are betrayed, and Liz is shot. Leamas then makes the decision to move away from safety and back to Liz even knowing she is already dead, and to remain there in the light to force them to shoot him (which they clearly do not want to do). This brought about a splendid discussion of Leamas’ motivation – was it love, or more? Some did think it was because he loved her. Some thought it meant Leamas was finally making a choice, a non-idealist was making a stand. Or that Leamas wanted it very clear that he did not “use” Liz the way the intelligence services used people, then tossed them away. Or all of these. And one person brought it back to our discussion of “the cold,” that this was another way for Leamas to “come in from the cold.”

More pleasant asides –

Word of the meeting: revanchist. We’d all read it. On several occasions the Communists were referred to as revanchists. Did anyone know the meaning? No. Did anyone look it up? No. One of the librarians went off on a quest and returned with the definition:“ 1. The act of retaliating; revenge. 2. A usually political policy, as of a nation or an ethnic group, intended to regain lost territory or standing.” Oh.

Other favorite spy authors – Helen MacInnes, Robert Ludlum, Alistair Maclean.

One member so took to heart the Le Carré novels when he was younger and life had become quite complicated around him, that he tried to implement those skills and live as a spy in his daily life.

All in all it was a very complex and involving discussion. This synopsis only scratches the surface – I hope some people will be kind enough to elaborate more on the blog. Comparisons of the book with the movie would also be nice to read.

And through it all I didn’t have to use the bell even once.