Thursday, September 27, 2007

Earlene Fowler's Benni Harper Series

Mainly Mysteries met once again on Thursday evening to discuss Benni Harper series by Earlene Fowler, writes Jeannine. Benni is the director of a folk art museum on the central California coast (think San Luis Obispo) and this brought out the “craftier” side of our members. In addition to the display of books we always have available, members brought examples of quilting and other crafts for a large and colorful display. There were traditional and original quilt patterns both large and small, needlepoint, cross-stitch, macramé, wooden bowls – we filled many tables and draped more items over chairs. In addition, several generous souls brought bounty from their gardens to share.

The food table was full as well. To compliment the Hispanic element in the series, we had chili, salsa and chips, and Mexican biscuits. There were several kinds of cakes, fresh plums and blueberry pancakes. New goodies kept arriving, so I may have missed a few. Our “refreshments” are beginning to look more like “dinner.

Eventually we tore ourselves away from the food and began the discussion. Well, we actually filled our plates, set them in front of us, and shoveled it in whenever someone else was talking. Big groups are handy that way. But on to the books….

Typical of our group, it was a very mixed reaction, from many who had read the entire series and loved them, to less satisfied readers, and one who read only 10 pages before tossing it aside.

At the beginning of the series in Fool’s Puzzle (1992), Benni Harper is a young widow, still grieving over the death of her husband in a drunken driving accident, who has tried to start a new life as a museum director, despite her only background being a BA in History. Gabe Ortiz is the new, no-nonsense police chief. Both are drawn into an investigation of a dead body found at the museum. A few of us who only read this first mystery were annoyed with Benni with her constantly withholding information from the police, no matter how many times the situation blew up in her face. Once or twice maybe, but by the third time I wanted to slap her upside the head. Unquote. We asked the other members if this is a recurring problem in the rest of the books, and one said that yes, that’s Benni’s “thing,” don’t tell Gabe because… (he’s too busy, it might upset him, she wants to check it out first, etc.), and it’s a common writer’s ploy to keep the amateur detective in the action.

After having voiced some of our annoyances, we moved the discussion to members that really enjoyed the series, and asked for favorites. Fowler's Agatha Award winning Mariner’s Compass (1999) came highly recommended as one of the more intricate and interesting plots. Benni is left an inheritance of a house from a man she does not know and with no idea why. She is required to live in the house for two weeks in order to inherit it, and what ensues is similar to a scavenger hunt looking for clues as to who he is and why Benni is to inherit. The reader, alongside Benni, puts it all together bit by bit for a satisfying mystery.

Another fan enjoyed how Benni had to learn to be a detective; she didn’t just start in being brilliant from the start, but followed more of a learning curve. She liked the pace of the story, how it unfolded slowly, had good red herrings, plausible motives, and didn’t spring new information or characters at the end. Everyone enjoyed the character of Grandma Dove – sort of the comic relief – and her pithy sayings. One member especially liked the feud she had with another character (an aunt?) wherein each would quote Bible passages in phone messages to make their point, and how furious she became when their feud moved to the Old Testament and she was forced to actually look some up.

Most people who had read the first book in the series also thought Benni mourning for her husband was very believable and handled well.

Many members had approached the series looking forward to learning more about the folk art elements and quilting pattern histories seemingly promised in the book titles (all traditional quilt block patterns), and while the author obviously had done research in what various artifacts looked like, she had done less on how to handle the items. Or perhaps this was done on purpose to reflect Benni’s lack of experience and training as a curator. Whichever, many non-experts still cringed when Benni handled material without cotton gloves, looked under material by ripping out stitching, and (prepare to cringe and wince) hung quilts on the wall using Velcro. Historical quilts. Velcro. Shudder.

Some book titles/quilt patterns had stronger ties to their story than others. In Mariner’s Compass, there is a mariner’s theme in the house and its location, as well the compass aspect of pursuing clues in every direction. In Steps to the Altar (2002) Benni is helping as a wedding planner and several secondary characters are getting married. Arkansas Traveler (2001) has a strong connection as Benni goes back to her hometown in Arkansas. In another title, a particular quilt was a clue. But other titles only touched on some aspect of folk art, and none are considered great sources of background information (as a Tony Hillerman title would be for Navajo culture, or Nevada Barr for various National Parks).

Our next member was looking forward to learning something from the series, and thought the setting was good, the characters were interesting, but there was no suspense. By page 70, nothing had happened. He likened it to watching an episode of Twin Peaks (my fingers just did their dyslexic thing and typed “epidose” – which, if you’ve ever seen Twin Peaks, actually makes more sense).

The next member read Irish Chain (1995), said there was a confusing story with characters mistrusting one another, a couple of murders, and then the story picks up about halfway. She was disappointed that the characters “do uncharacteristic things.”

And then Dove in the Window (1998) was deemed “pretty good.” The reader liked the fact that Gabe was Hispanic. In this particular title there is a lot of animosity between some of the main secondary characters, with even Gabe (Mr. Police Chief) taking it to a fistfight. Obviously something does “happen” in this one.

Another member unable to attend made sure we were told that she has read all of the series and highly enjoys them (she also hated Pride and Prejudice, and loved Bangkok 8 if that tells you anything). Whereas the next member only read about 10 pages of one title and said it belonged in the Chili Peppers group instead of ours. One last criticism was that in one story, men kept grabbing Benni by the shoulder, almost like an assault, that it was very “heavy handed.” It just came out that way. She’s sorry. After we finished laughing, we all got up and took an informative tour of the crafts on display. There are some very talented people in our group. No, none of it was mine. Sigh.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Scandinavian Mysteries

A very interesting, very lively meeting last night, writes Jeannine. We discussed Scandinavian mystery authors, and the consensus was that those long dark Scandinavian winters aren’t good for you at all. But more about that later. We were fortunate to have a Danish gentleman among our members who tried to help us with pronunciation (Åsa is pronounce ōsa), and one of our other regulars had just returned from a trip to Scandinavia. She brought a digital frame for her pictures – just plug it in and a slide show begins. Lots of oooing and ahhhing over that, and gorgeous photos.

Friendship bread. Fresh blueberry pie. And all divine. Yum.

We raided our closets once again for decorations. There was a Swedish wooden horse, a knit sweater from Denmark, a porcelain plate of the statue of the little mermaid in Copenhagen, and an æbleskiver pan. Some travel flyers and lots of books, some huckwork placemats and we were all set. A little background music by Finnish folk-rock group Värttinä kicked off proceedings.

Now, on to the books.

We had someone complain that readers weren’t returning the books right away so others could read them for the meeting as well. Almost half of the members present chose the book they read because it was the only one available. Then we discovered that nobody there had read the titles we originally wanted, so that means non-members of the book club checked out the library books! Imagine, the public checking out books at the public library! What nerve. We want our own little gold library card with special privileges, and only we can check out book club selections. Ha!

Our first is a minor classic, which many had already read or seen the movieSmilla’s Sense of Snow (Danish: Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne; elsewhere the title depicted on the right was used) by Peter Høeg (sort of like the French ū, Hūg). The main character is an Inuit from Greenland living in Denmark who befriends a local child who is killed, apparently by jumping from the roof of their apartment building. It is Smilla’s “sense of snow,” with the Inuit comprehension of maybe a hundred kinds of snow, and as many words for “white,” that leads her to believe the child was murdered. Our reader loved being taken into such a different world, and said the main theme was universal, about belonging and identity. Smilla is torn between Greenlander and Danish culture, and the book explores the question of just when you become a real part of a society. A fascinating book, enjoyed by all who read it (though the rather abrupt ending annoyed me). Høeg won the Glass Key award for Nordic authors in 1993, and the Crime Writers' Association Silver Dagger for Fiction (United Kingdom) for Smilla in 1994.

From Denmark we move to Sweden. In Sun Storm by Åsa Larsson, the main character is with a law firm in Stockholm, with a very pregnant detective, an obnoxious prosecutor and other “non-stereotypical” characters. Larsson's book won Sweden’s Best First Crime Novel Award (2003), while Larsson's The Savage Altar was shortlisted for the 2007 United Kingdom's Duncan Lawrie International Dagger Award. We had been warned that Larsson sometimes had bad things happen to good animals in her books, so our member just skipped over the “blip about the dog,” and was able to enjoy the story (and she intends to read the rest of her books, a good recommendation). What fascinated her the most, as it seem to all of us, was the description of life in a high latitude, with the long bright days of summer and the long dark days of winter (which in this case meant murder).

She had also started Borkmann’s Point by Håkan Nesser, but hadn’t read enough to give a recommendation. Borkmann’s Point, part of the Chief Inspector Van Veeteren series, won the 1994 Swedish Crime Writers Academy Prize for Best Novel.

On now to another classic mystery, The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. It takes place in 1968 in Sweden when a mass murderer opens fire on a bus. It’s a police procedural featuring Martin Beck, who appears in about 10 other mysteries by the same authors. We asked her the obvious question – was he always laughing? But she hadn’t quite finished the book, so was uncertain about the full meaning of the title. She gave it a good recommendation. In 1973 a movie based on the book was released, starring Walter Matthau. The novel won the Edgar Award for best mystery in 1971.

Back to books, and the first by Henning Mankell to be discussed, Before the Frost (Swedish, Innan frosten). But our reader told us she had only read the prologue and stopped, and then brought out her usual written report just for the prologue. We knew we were in for it then. Evidently the prologue is a first person account of the Jonestown massacre in 1978, and it was a little too well-written and graphic for her, she could not bear it. And, as usual, she did NOT mince words. Before the Frost starts Linda Wallander off in her own series. She is the daughter of Kurt Wallander, a major character in Mankell's crime books. She did, however, highly recommend the true classic by Norwegian and Nobel laureate, Sigrid Undset, the trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter. Several other people voiced their avid recommendations as well. Undset's books were turned into a 1995 film of the same name by Liv Ullmann, which won Norway's national film award.

The next member also read Henning Mankell with somewhat greater success. She also had not yet finished the book Sidetracked (Swedish, Villospår), but it so far was not graphic like the Jonestown scene. There were several murders by psychopaths, with a second investigation into the identity of a girl who sets herself on fire. It is a police procedural in the series featuring Kurt Wallander, the small-town very intuitive detective who works in Ystad on the coast. This one took place in the midsummer when all is sunny and temperate. Although the book won the Academy of Swedish Crime Writers prize for 1995, she wouldn’t highly recommend it, but she will finish it.

Our final Henning Mankell is The White Lioness (Swedish, Den vita lejoninnan). This one was mine, and once again, I too haven’t finished it. But I do like it, will finish it, and will probably read more by Mankell. It is an earlier book in the series, and I was quite taken with how Kurt Wallander is confronted with his third homicide and he didn’t like it at all. Homicides are too stressful, he preferred dealing with small-town problems like burglars, missing persons and stolen bicycles, and if his job is going to turn into mostly homicides, well, he just might quit. This particular novel is a combination of investigations taking place in Sweden and in South Africa. It begins in Sweden with the disappearance of a woman, a farmhouse in the vicinity of her disappearance blowing up, and a black man’s finger found buried in the yard of the farmhouse. The detectives’ brains are thoroughly boggled. It turns out to be related to a conspiracy in South Africa by Afrikaner extremists to assassinate Nelson Mandela (it takes place in 1992, and was published in 1993, shortly after Mandela was released from prison while F.W. De Klerk is president). De Klerk’s Intelligence gets wind of this, and the story follows Wallander’s counterpart trying to make sense of his evidence as well. It’s complicated but fascinating, and I highly recommend it.

Our next person said “after hearing everyone else’s, mine is damned good!” She read Detective Inspector Huss by Helene Tursten, another police procedural set in Sweden. She said it was very much like the TV series “Prime Suspect” “without the angst and the alcohol.” It concentrates on the interaction of the team. She’s only 70 pages from the end (you notice a pattern tonight?), and she still doesn’t know whodunit. Tursten's Inspector Irene Huss series "is being filmed for Swedish television."

Now we travel to Iceland and Arnaldur Indriðason’s Jar City (a.k.a Tainted Blood; Icelandic, Mýrin). This is another police procedural, but one in which the detective is an “everyman” rather than a super sleuth, and the story more about the detective and his life than the crime. Our reader really enjoyed how different parts of the story were braided together into a satisfying whole. She noted that the translation was into British English, rather than American, and for those of you allergic to bad language, there is a little bit, but it’s in a prison, and what you’d expect. Indriðason wone the 2002 Glass key award for this book.

We move now to a most unsatisfied reader. She read one by the Norwegian writer Kjell Eriksson and was so unimpressed she doesn’t remember what the title was. She found the story forced, with a constant series of insurmountable obstacles and what she termed a “failed ending.” A pass on this one.

Our next member has a strong Scandinavian background, with Swedish relatives, childhood pen-pals in Scandinavia, and a period as an exchange student there. She read Norwegian Karin Fossum’s Don’t Look Back (Norwegian, Se deg ikke tilbake!, Glass Key award winner, 1997). She said her heart was in her throat from the very beginning when a small child is kidnapped. She didn’t much care for where that seemed to be going, so was relieved when it was simply setting the stage for the murder of a young woman as the central mystery. It was another story that wove together different elements, and was an excellent combination of police procedural and village life. It also had a “suspenseful ending” (and what happens next?).

Another person read a different title by Karin Fossum, He Who Fears the Wolf (Norwegian, Den som frykter ulven). It begins with a woman being watched, and then later found dead with a hoe in her head. The boy who finds her is then caught up in a bank robbery, and another very dark story follows. The wolf of the title is the barbaric behavior of some of the principals. This was our recent world traveller who was in Oslo after she read the book and mentioned it to a book store staffer there who said “Oh, we don’t like her either,” and recommended K.O. Dahl instead. She did, and it was every bit as dark as Fossum. Oh well.

And another unsatisfied reader is heard from. For such a negative review, she sure had us in stitches. Blackwater by Kerstin Ekman was, well, bizarre. Our member had read about a fourth of the book and that’s all she is willing to read. The mystery, as she put it, is why did the author write it in the first place? It was very dark and psychological, filled with flashbacks and sub plots and very confusing. Okay, here goes – it’s about a boy who falls in a well where his only company is an eel. He hides the eel in his coat when he is rescued, takes it home and keeps it in a bucket. Then he sees his father commit a murder and decides to run away from home by hitchhiking. With his eel in a bucket. Would you stop for a boy with an eel in his bucket? Yup, she lost us all there too. Oh, on another bizarre note, instead of graphic sex or graphic violence, this had graphic bathroom activity. And all this just in the first 100 pages!

Moving right along.

At this point we moved to a discussion of the effects of light and darkness on the psyche. It was suggested that some of the Scandinavian authors really needed to get some of those natural light lamps to perhaps lighten up their storytelling. One member mentioned the movie, the original Insomnia (directed by Erik Skjoldbjærg, 1997), that featured the effects of constant light on the main characters during a murder investigation in Norway. One blog compared authors like Dahl and Tursten with noir crime writers.

On another bright note, one of the members brought up a title she had read recently that might lighten things up for those disturbed by those long dark nights in Scandinavia, a book that is receiving universal rave reviews and is most definitely not just the same old thing – Three Bags Full: a sheep detective story by German author Leonie Swann (a pseudonym). Yes, you read that correctly, the sheep are the detectives and they have to find out who killed the shepherd. They’re real sheep; they don’t talk to humans like some animal sleuths. They still bleat, and occasionally get sidetracked from their investigation by their grazing (oh, that bit over there looks good). It sounds absurd, but all who have read it say it works. Three Bags Full won the Friedrich Glauser Prize for a German debut crime novel in 2006. A biography written in German, with picture, can be found here.