Literary Corner Cafe

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Book Review - Mysteries - The Confession by Charles Todd

The Confession is the first of the “Inspector Rutledge” mysteries written by the mother-son team Charles Todd, that I’ve read. I liked the book very much, and I’ll be reading more from this series in the future. The characters were well developed, the mystery was intricate yet believable, and the writing was very good.

Inspector Ian Rutledge, a veteran of the Great War, is Scotland Yard’s premiere inspector. During the course of a routine workday, a man Rutledge has never seen before walks into his office and confesses to the killing of his cousin five years previously. Of course Rutledge presses for details, but the mysterious man, who is dying of abdominal cancer, will only divulge his name and the name of the small village in Essex from which he hails.

Less than two weeks later, the confessed murderer is found floating in the Thames, a murder victim himself. When Rutledge learns the victim isn’t who he claimed to be, it raises a host of questions: What was the man’s real name? Is the man he confessed to murdering even dead? And if so, did the man in the Thames kill him as he said?

A gold locket, inscribed with the letter “E” is Rutledge’s only clue, and it leads the inspector to a small village on the river Hawking, where it seems everyone has something to hide.

I really enjoyed spending time with Inspector Ian Rutledge and putting the puzzle pieces together as he did. I certainly didn’t guess what was going on until near the book’s end, though the culprit was high on my list of suspects. I especially liked the addition of “Hamish,” the Scotsman Rutledge was forced to kill in the war, who now inhabits the inspector’s consciousness almost like a watchful friend. The reverberations of war – its senselessness and its atrocities – are everywhere in this book, and for me, they helped to humanize the characters.

The Todds write excellent prose, and its no-frills transparency is perfect for a convoluted mystery such as this one as it allows the reader to concentrate on character and plot. I did find some errors in printing, however. At least once the river Hawking is called the “Hawkins,” and several times an estate known as “River’s Edge” is called “River’s End.” My only other complaint centers around the number of trips Rutledge made from London to Essex and from Essex to London. At times I felt like I was reliving the horror of reading The Da Vinci Code.

All-in-all, I thought The Confession to be just about everything a good mystery should be. No, it’s not deathless prose or on par with Anna Karenina or Middlemarch, but I don’t think it aspires to be. It is, however, an entertaining way to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon.


Recommended: Yes. I think most mystery lovers will like this book. The mystery was quite well developed and the main character likable and real.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Book Review - Booker Winners - The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes’ 2011 Booker prize winning novella, is his fourteenth work of fiction, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s also one of his best. The book is narrated by, and centers around, Tony Webster, a man who is now in his mid-sixties and forced by circumstance to look back on his life forty or so years ago, and to remember people and events he thought he’d left far behind.

Tony’s an uncomplicated man, or so he likes to think, who only wanted an uncomplicated life. “I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded – and how pitiful that was.” To that end, Tony’s one and only friend is his ex-wife, Margaret, a woman with “clear edges,” with whom Tony remains on excellent terms. Indeed, Margaret seems to be the only person with whom Tony has any human contact, and Tony doesn’t seem bothered by that. Even post-divorce, Tony remains a man who chooses safety over risk. “I recycle; I clean and decorate my flat to keep its value. I’ve made my will, and my dealings with my daughter, son-in-law, grandchildren and ex-wife are, if less than perfect, at least settled.”

Tony’s life becomes unsettled and rather more complicated than he’d like when he receives an unexpected bequest of £500 and a diary from the mother of an old school chum, and, one could say, Tony’s first love, Veronica Ford. Tony has no idea why Veronica’s mother, Sarah, would give him such a bequest. He only met her once, and he remembers her as “a carefree, rather dashing woman who broke an egg, cooked me another, and told me not to take any [guff] from her daughter.” So, Tony does what many people would do, he seeks out Veronica, after forty long years, in search of answers.

Veronica, you see has “stolen” the diary left to Tony, which belonged to yet another old chum of Tony’s, Adrian Finn, an idealistic, Camus-reading, young man who committed suicide at the very young age of twenty-two, years ago, and she’s refusing, with the exception of one enigmatic page, to give the diary to Tony. Adrian, Tony remembers, always did have romantic notions about suicide, even leaving a note that said that “life is a gift bestowed without anyone asking for it” and if a person decides to renounce that gift, “it is a moral and human duty to act on the consequences of that decision.”

Part One of The Sense of an Ending takes place forty years in the past, and we get to know the young Tony, and the young Adrian, as well as the young Veronica, the woman who was first the girlfriend of Tony, then the lover of Adrian. We also get a glimpse of Veronica’s mother, a woman who just might – or might not – have stolen Adrian away from her own daughter.

Tony’s reminiscences and remembrances of his early life seem pretty straightforward, and the reader has no reason to doubt what he reports. In school, Tony looked up to Adrian, though he did not emulate him. The two boys parted ways when Adrian went off to Cambridge and Tony went off to a far less distinguished university. Tony’s affair, such as it was, with Veronica came to a bad end, and Adrian, the gentleman, wrote to Tony and asked his permission to date Veronica himself. Then, for reasons unknown to Tony, Adrian committed suicide.

Part Two of this slim, little book concerns itself with the goings-on once Tony reconnects with Veronica, and these goings-on are far more complicated than Tony’s school days had been.

In Part Two, Veronica has grown into a spiteful, impatient, prickly woman, who hisses and bristles at Tony rather than talk. While this would make a lot of men run the other way, Tony says Veronica’s bad temper leaves him with the desire “to go back to the beginning and change things...make the blood flow backwards,” even knowing full well that it can’t be done.

“You just don’t get it,” hisses Veronica, over and over, and she shows Tony a letter he must have written long ago, though he doesn’t remember doing so, that might explain his one-time girlfriend’s seemingly misplaced hostility.

Bit-by-bit and piece-by-piece, Tony Webster reassembles his youthful past in search of the truth. In doing so, he forms a “chain of individual responsibilities” that seek to explain how his “peaceable” life resulted in “the accumulation, the multiplication, of loss.” Along the way to this reassemblage, however, Tony lets the reader know that there are times when he probably can’t be trusted. He’s not deliberately lying to himself or to the reader, but he’s learned to see things the way he wants to see them, not the way they really are, and memory, after all, is inherently unreliable. “I have an instinct for survival, for self-preservation,” he reflects. “Perhaps this is what Veronica called cowardice and I called being peaceable.” And perhaps this “instinct for survival” is still the driving force in Tony Webster’s personality. “Maybe character freezes sometime between the ages of 20 and 30,” Tony muses. “And after that, we’re just stuck with what we’ve got. We’re on our own. If so, that would explain a lot of lives, wouldn’t it? And also — if this isn’t too grand a word — our tragedy.”

Reliable or unreliable, I found Tony Webster to be an engaging narrator. I liked him, and personally, I did trust him. I guess I just appreciated his candor. Throughout the book, I was on his side, even during those times when he seemed rather misguided. I heartily disliked the shrewish Veronica, and there were several times I just wanted to slap her (though I would never really slap) and tell her to “grow up” or something similar. If Tony didn’t “get it,” then part of the reason he didn’t was Veronica’s fault.

The Sense of an Ending is a beautifully crafted book filled with Barnes’ trademark wit and graceful writing. Some reviewers have called it a book “pervaded by the sense of death.” And yes, characters die in this novella. Adrian and Sarah, most notably, and Tony is very aware that youth is now behind him. But for me, The Sense of An Ending wasn’t so much about death as it was about the unreliability of memory, and the way we have of only remembering that which we want to remember, and perhaps “remembering to forget” the rest. It’s about the way people have of distorting their own past to become, more or less, the past they want it to be rather than the past it is.

But there’s no denying the book is chock-full of weighty subjects. One might think this would cause it to be morbid or depressing, though it isn’t at all. In fact, The Sense of an Ending is surprisingly light on its feet, though I’m not sure anyone should be surprised at that given that the author is Julian Barnes. In previous books, e.g., the novels Love, Etc. and Talking It Over, and the volume of short stories titled The Lemon Table, Barnes wrote about serious subjects, e.g., sexual jealousy and infidelity, age, time, and our eventually mortality, with a characteristically light, even jaunty, touch that made those books a joy to read.

I’ve already mentioned Barnes’ graceful writing and his trademark wit. His writing is also precise and economical. Barnes is a writer who doesn’t write one word more or one word less than he needs to write, and though graceful, his writing contains no frills. Here’s Tony after witnessing the Severn Bore surge wave:

I don't think I can properly convey the effect that moment had on me. It wasn't like a tornado or an earthquake (not that I'd witnessed either) — nature being violent and destructive, putting us in our place. It was more unsettling because it looked and felt quietly wrong, as if some small lever of the universe had been pressed, and here, just for these minutes, nature was reversed and time with it. And to see this phenomenon after dark made it the more mysterious, the more other-worldly.

The Sense of an Ending may be a short book, but don’t let its brevity fool you. It’s dense and complex and filled with philosophical musings and reflections. If it’s “just a good story” you’re looking for, one heavy on plot, you won’t find that here. The plot of this book is, on its surface, a simple one, though the peeling back of layer-after-layer of Tony’s life adds a depth and a richness to this novel not ordinarily found in books three or four times its length.

I know some readers who had problems with this book’s ending. I wasn’t one. The two revelations were, at least in my estimation, natural, and they happened in the most natural of ways. I didn’t sense any contrivance about the book’s conclusion.

In summing up the events of the novel, Tony Webster says:

And that’s a life, isn’t it? Some achievements and some disappointments. It’s been interesting to me, though I wouldn’t complain or be amazed if others found it less so. Maybe, in a way, Adrian knew what he was doing. Not that I would have missed my own life for anything, you understand.

I felt I was in good company with Tony Webster, and I’m glad I didn’t miss the part of his life he chose to reveal to me.


Recommended: For mature (not necessarily "older") readers who like character driven books as opposed to plot driven stories. Not too much happens in this book in the way of plot, though the book’s protagonist, Tony Webster, sets about examining his entire life to date.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Writing Tips - People Are Interested In People

Writer Roger Rosenblatt has said there are four reasons people write novels: (1) to make suffering endurable; (2) to make evil intelligible; (3) to make justice desirable; and (4) to make love possible.

I agree with Mr. Rosenblatt, but I think we could take that a step further and say simply that people write in order to understand people and the human condition. Ultimately, people are drawn to reading in order to learn about people, themselves and others. Any book, whether it’s realistic in its outlook, or whether it’s fantasy, science fiction, a mystery or thriller, a love story, etc. is going to be greatly enriched by the inclusion of characters the reader can care about and identify with.

Elizabeth George’s “Inspector Lynley” mysteries are the most popular mysteries around and have been for years now. Yes, George knows how to spin an intricate and convoluted plot that keeps the reader guessing until the last, or very nearly the last, page. But the best thing about the books is the fact that George invites the reader to inhabit Lynley’s world, to get to know him and his friends and co-workers. There was a huge outcry or protest when George “killed off” Lynley’s pregnant wife, Lady Helen Clyde, an outcry that must have pleased George in some ways because it was confirmation that her readers love and identify with her characters. Tommy Lynley experienced great emotional pain when his wife died, and the reader experienced it with him. And, just as Tommy Lynley wanted to know why such a thing would/could happen, and happen to Helen, who was a wonderful person and the victim of a random act of violence, the reader wanted to know as well. Random acts of violence are a part of Inspector Lynley’s world, but now they were hitting close to home, and, in George’s book, they were hitting close to home for the reader as well.

The above is just one example of many, and I believe if you look carefully at any book, whether it’s a lasting classic or simply popular at the moment, you’ll find the author has been able to establish a strong connection between his/her characters and the reader. The author has made us care. Are we engrossed in Captain Ahab’s search for Moby Dick? Most readers are even if they don’t care for the extensive sections on whaling. Do we care if Atticus Finch wins his case? We do. Do we care if Emma Woodhouse “sees the light” and realizes she’s in love with Mr. Knightley? We do. Do we care if there’s justice for Jean Valjean? Fervently. Does the viewer want to see Rocky Balboa win his fight/go the distance against Apollo Creed? Yes, the viewer certainly does. Sure, that’s a movie, but the principle’s the same. In fact, it's even more pronounced in mainstream movies, and the list just goes on and on. Books that endure, with a very few exceptions, are books that make us care about the central character or characters and their quest.

One of the most important things any writer or would be writer can remember is this: People are interested in people. They don’t have to be likable, (think Hannibal Lecter), but they do have to be interesting.