Four Mystery Novels

The first three of these were audiobooks, listened to on several lengthy trips over the past few months.

Tony Hillerman: The Fallen Man

As you probably know, Tony Hillerman wrote a series of detective novels set in the Southwest, mostly on the Navajo Nation, in the area known as the Four Corners, where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah meet. I like them a lot, and I'm not sure exactly why. I mean, they're very good, but as detective novels go they're not extraordinarily so. I think it has something to do with a fascination, going back to childhood and Western movies and TV shows, with the landscape of the Southwest. 

After the first book or two, the crime-solvers are Navajo members of the Navajo Tribal Police, beginning with Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, later adding Leaphorn's subordinate, Jim Chee, and the stories often involve Navajo culture and its interactions with mainstream "white" America. One of the pleasures of the series is that the main characters develop in time. They age, their relationship to each other changes, their positions in the police force change, new characters appear, but previous ones sometimes remain in one way or another. This is the twelfth of eighteen books in the series, and it finds Leaphorn in retirement, and Chee taking on the central detecting role, frequently consulting Leaphorn. And it involves the fading of Janet Pete, Jim's fiancĂ©, and the arrival of a young female police officer, Bernadette Manuelito, who will be increasingly important. 

That broader story emerged as a patchwork for me, because I didn't read them in order. I haven't actually read many of them; they have, rather, been my first choice when I wanted an audio book to listen to on a long drive. For the most part the choice was determined by whatever the local library had on hand in audio format at the moment when I wanted one, going all the way back to those dim years when "audio book" meant Books On Tape. It would be fun to go back and read them, on paper, in their right order. That sounds like a good project for retirement, but now that I am officially retired, I don't want to devote that much time to them, with so many better works yet unread. 

I don't consider this one of Hillerman's best, but in my experience they're all worth reading. Perhaps part of the reason is that Navajo ways play a lesser role here than in some of the others, making Fallen Man a bit less distinctive. The story opens with two rock climbers on the justly famous Shiprock. One of them takes a very risky look over the edge of the ledge they're standing on, and sees, far below, the skeletal remains of a man in climbing gear. He turns out to be a young man who had disappeared several years earlier just before his thirtieth birthday, when he would have come into full ownership of the family's substantial property. That becomes, of course, a complex story involving the land, lots of money, and far-away financial interests. There's a subplot involving cattle rustling, and I've already forgotten whether it's connected to the murder case. Perhaps only in that Officer Manuelito, investigating the rustling, notices some things that prove significant to the other matter.

Not the best place to start with Hillerman, but certainly a good read. 

I have been a little disappointed in the last few Hillerman audio books that I've listened to. It seemed that the narrator was somehow not as engaging as I expected. Eventually I realized that I had been accustomed to the narration of George Guidall, whereas the newer ones are by Christian Baskous. There was something about Guidall's voice, a dry and wry quality, that seemed to fit the books better than Baskous's. I think I'll see if the library has any of the older Guidall ones. 

Ann Cleeves: White Nights and Red Bones 

These are the next two novels in the series set in the Shetland Islands with Detective Jimmy Perez as the central character. I wrote about the first one, Raven Black, back around the turn of the year, in this post. Of these two, I liked Red Bones better. Much of the plot of White Nights never really quite made sense to me. My fault, possibly. (The title refers to the summer nights which at Shetland's latitude never get entirely dark.) I didn't find the characters all that interesting, either. It begins with a bizarre incident in which a man attending an art exhibition has an emotional breakdown in front of a particular painting, and is later found dead, an apparent suicide, but of course...well, this is a detective novel. That sounds kind of promising, doesn't it? Like I said, maybe my lack of response was just me. Or maybe the book needed to be read, not listened to.

Red Bones was more engaging. It revolves around an archaeological dig almost in someone's front yard. The dig sounds interesting in itself, the site being that of a wealthy medieval merchant's home. We get a glimpse only, but an intriguing one, of the world that the merchant would have inhabited. The students doing the digging are sympathetic characters, one of them a serious student, another more of a playgirl. Guess which one becomes a murder victim. (You probably guessed wrong.) Some human remains are found in the dig. Guess when the death took place. 

Here, from Ann Cleeves's web site, are some remarks about the use of this novel as the basis of the first season of the Shetland TV series (see my post at the link two paragraphs above for more remarks on that):

Red Bones, the third instalment of Ann Cleeves' Shetland Quartet, is set in spring: a time of rebirth and celebration. And a time of death... for April is the cruelest month.

Perhaps that's why Red Bones was chosen as the basis for Shetland, a new two-part crime drama set in Scotland and starring Douglas Henshall. A special Shetland preview on November 21st was well received by the local audience, and Ann Cleeves gave it her approval too: "It's great," she said. "It's not faithful to the book but it's faithful to the atmosphere and spirit of the book. It's important that it's a good piece of TV rather than stick rigidly to the book."

I agree, Ms. Cleeves. I note, by the way, that the first novel in this series was set in winter, the second in summer, the third in spring. I haven't checked to see whether the fourth is set in autumn. (UPDATE: it is, and also the title is two words consisting of an adjective which is the name of a color and a noun: Blue Lightning.)

Ross Macdonald: The Barbarous Coast

This is one I read, in the beat-up old paperback which I bought long ago. I have most of the Archer novels, and they are, as a group, the most unsightly books on our shelves. Which seems appropriate. 

I said a good deal about Ross Macdonald in one of the 52 Authors posts, so I don't need to repeat my general opinion of and enthusiasm for his work. This novel is not his best, but since I like all of his Lew Archer novels, that's only a mild criticism. As with the Hillerman book above, I would not recommend this as the best place to start if you don't know the author's work. It's a relatively early one, and some of the later ones are better--this one appeared in 1956. But then the very first one, The Moving Target, is one of his best. 

It's a fairly typical Macdonald story: sad people who have seen their hopes thwarted--sometimes by their own foolish decisions, sometimes by the actions of others, sometimes by fortune--do things that make them even sadder, or dead. Archer moves among them, stern but compassionate. 

Something that bothered me, and which has bothered me in crime dramas generally, is the protagonist's impossible resilience and recovery after violence. The action of this book takes place over a few days. If my memory is correct, Archer receives at least two very brutal beatings which leave him unconscious. That he bounces back from these within hours and continues to work on the case, barely eating or sleeping, is implausible. .

One notable feature of this book is its bitter contempt for the movie industry. Macdonald seemed to share that with Raymond Chandler. Hollywood and Las Vegas form what you might call an axis of evil for him. In this conversation Archer is eavesdropping on a couple, a young woman, her profile "young and pretty and smooth as glass," and an older man, "an aging clown I'd seen in twenty movies":

"You said you'd catch me if I fell," she said.

"I was feeling stronger then."

"You said you'd marry me if it ever happened."

"You got more sense than to take me seriously. I'm two years behind on alimony now."

"You're very romantic, aren't you?"

"That's putting it mildly, sweetheart. I got some sense of responsibility, though. I'll do what I can for you, give you a telephone number. And you can tell him to send the bill to me."

"I don't want your dirty telephone number. I don't want your dirty money."

"Be reasonable. Think of it like it was a tumor or something--that is, if it really exists. Another drink?"

"Make mine prussic acid," she said dully.

The real import of this exchange didn't hit me until I'd read a few sentences into the next paragraph. If that guy lived into the '60s and '70s he probably had lots more fun of this sort. Sometimes it just amazes me that moviemakers consider themselves in a position to give moral lectures to the world. 

Macdonald-BarbarousCoast

This is a very ugly cover, and only partly fitting. The diving girl is justifiable because one of the young female characters is a competition diver. I presume she did not dive naked, though. I guess that red curvy thing is a boxing glove, which is fitting enough. 


Bruch: Violin Concerto #1 in G Minor

I have underrated this concerto. I've listened to it three times over the past week or so, as part of my little project involving Joseph Joachim's view of the greatest violin concertos:

The Germans have four violin concertos. The greatest, most uncompromising is Beethoven's. The one by Brahms vies with it in seriousness. The richest, the most seductive, was written by Max Bruch. But the most inward, the heart's jewel, is Mendelssohn's.

I had not heard it for many years, and though I remembered liking it I thought of it as above all a technical showpiece, impressive but not necessarily deeply affecting. And on the first of these three hearings that expectation was, if not fulfilled exactly, then not contradicted, either. 

As far as I could recall, I did not own a recording, so I went to Idagio and settled on one, one of very many: Arthur Grumiaux and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw conducted by Bernard Haitink. I enjoyed it, of course, but in a casual sort of way. Very impressive. Oh, that's lovely. I like that tune. Great finale. But I was pretty sure it was not going to end up at the top of my Joachim ranking. 

Thinking I would try a different recording, just out of curiosity, I went to Classics Today and found a recommendation for another Grumiaux recording, this one with Heinz Wallberg conducting the New Philharmonia Orchestra. (The recommendation, by the way, is from David Hurwitz, whose reviews on YouTube I've mentioned before. I've also mentioned that I found him a little annoying to watch and listen to, but he's grown on me. I've begun to enjoy his quirks, his humor, and his generally unpretentious style.)

My reaction to the second Grumiaux recording one was pretty similar: beautiful, not a rival to Mendelssohn's. 

Then I discovered, while looking for something else, that I have an LP that includes this concerto. How did I not know that I have it? Well, two reasons: one, it has both the Bruch and Mendelssohn concertos, and I never know how to shelve multi-composer recordings. I have a good many of these, probably between fifty and a hundred, and they're shelved in very rough chronological order, since such albums usually include works of more or less the same period. That doesn't work very well, though it's better than nothing. And two: several years ago I came into possession of several hundred LPs that were going to go to Goodwill if I didn't take them (see this post). And most of those have hardly been organized at all. Or played. This was one of them: 

Milstein-Mendelssohn-Bruch(Image from Discogs; my copy is STEREO, to be played only with a stereo cartridge and needle to avoid damage)

The New Philharmonia Orchestra is not the same as the Philharmonia Orchestra though they are related (seems to be a long story). I don't know whether it was just the fact that this was my third hearing of the concerto within a week or so, or the nature of the performance, or my state of mind at the moment, but this time I was bowled over. It's a great concerto, fully worthy of Joachim's placement of it among the greatest. "Richest, most seductive"? Not the adjectives I would choose, but very powerful in any case and certainly among the greats.

This is a 1961 recording, and as I mentioned, it's an LP: analog all the way. The other two I heard were digital, though they're old enough that they were probably recorded in analog. And they weren't at the highest possible resolution. Whether any of that had to do with my reaction I can't say. Maybe it was Milstein himself. 

Now on to Brahms. I've heard that one fairly recently, and really thought that there had been a discussion about it here, but I can't find it. I already know that I love it. I think it's going to be hard to say that I prize any one of these over the others. 

Also, I'm adding Sibelius to this project, which at that point will put me outside of Joachim's list by nationality--he did say "the Germans"--and although the composition of the Sibelius concerto just barely falls within Joachim's lifetime, we can assume he never heard it. I've heard it, but only once or twice, and I didn't feel like I had really gotten it. Maybe I should add Tchaikovsky, too?


King Crimson in the '80s

I was not always a fan of prog ("progressive") rock. In its early-to-mid 1970s heyday I was in fact dismissive of it: pretentious, over-complicated, sacrificing good songwriting for an emphasis on virtuosity not really suited for rock music. In short, it seemed to be trying to be something that rock music isn't and shouldn't be: of interest on purely musical grounds, where it was never going to be able to compete with jazz and classical. It was twenty years later that I gave it a second look, for a non-musical reason: my then-adolescent children had gotten interested in popular music (i.e. rock) and I was trying to steer them away from the uglier stuff. 

That didn't work, but it did change my mind. That is, my basic criticisms were justifiable and remained intact, but I enjoyed the music anyway, which led me to listen, in most cases for the first time, to Yes and King Crimson, and to develop quite a liking for them. There were a few others, but I only made a point of hearing most of the 1970s work of those two. And of them, KC seemed to have had the most interesting post-'70s career. 

But that's not really fair. Yes was a band with a fairly consistent lineup and a very consistent sound, at least through their first decade, and seem to have faded away after that, with the exception of one commercially successful and reportedly very atypical album in the early '80s. King Crimson, on the other hand, has not been a proper band at all through much of its fifty-plus years, but rather the ever-changing musical project of Robert Fripp, in which he has included various other musicians as suits his interests and purposes. It's been the exact opposite of consistent lineup and sound--Fripp tended to disband the group, at least partially, after every album or two, and reassemble it, at least partially, and go off in a somewhat different musical direction.

As a band, King Crimson was officially dead as of about 1975. But after half a decade or so Fripp revived the name for a group  of instrumental virtuosos consisting of himself, guitarist Adrian Belew, bass player Tony Levin, and drummer Bill Bruford (formerly of Yes). This band recorded three albums, Discipline (1981), Beat (1982), and Three of A Perfect Pair (1984). 

I would suppose that fans of progressive rock in general and King Crimson in particular were disappointed in these. One of the hallmarks of prog is long compositions with a lot of virtuoso instrumental work, and, despite the very high level of technical skill of all four players, that's not what these albums are. Most of the songs are in fact songs, of fairly typical pop song length, of a piece, with little instrumental stretching out. But that doesn't mean they're simple. They're not great songs as such--you don't come away humming them, or moved by the combination of words and music. But they're interesting. Rather than the complex twists and turns more typical of prog, or the basically simple and repetitive chord changes and beat of most pop, these songs have a static sort of quality--complex, and shifting slowly rather than driving forward. If I felt more confident of my technical understanding of music I would try to describe that more precisely. 

But I can say with confidence that one fairly constant feature is the use of complex repetitive hyperactive guitar figures that slowly shift rhythmically. I find it very hard to follow them for very long. I think I've got it and then suddenly it's wait, where did the accent go? "Frame by Frame," from Discipline, is a good example.

The bass and drums are also doing a lot of complicated things with rhythm there. It's as if the whole emphasis on complexity which characterizes the progressive rock concept is focused on rhythm. Basically, this band invented "math rock" (from Wikipedia) : "a style of alternative and indie rock with roots in bands such as King Crimson and Rush. It is characterized by complex, atypical rhythmic structures (including irregular stopping and starting), counterpoint, odd time signatures, and extended chords. " A week or so ago I found a YouTube video in which Adrian Belew explains this sort of thing, the way the guitar parts shift in and out of phase, so to speak, with one player starting one of these figures, the other playing it but with one note left out, and so on, so that the beat begins to float. But I just spent thirty minutes looking and can't find the video now. 

All this may seem a long way from the long and elaborate suites so often found in '70s prog. But if you listen to "21st Century Schizoid Man," the very first track on the very first KC album, In the Court of the Crimson King (1969), you find that the connecting thread is very clear. 

To call a work of art "interesting" is sometimes to damn with faint praise, at least on my part. And the word does pretty well summarize my opinion of these three albums. But I mean it quite literally. This is not my favorite music, but it is in fact interesting, interesting enough to return to now and then. There seems to be a consensus among critics and fans that the chronological sequence of the three albums is also the sequence of their quality, the first (Discipline) being the best. I agree with that. But if one likes the style at all, they're all worth hearing. 

A group consisting of Belew, Levin, Steve Vai (a name known to anyone interested in rock guitar), and Danny Carey, drummer of the band Tool, is doing a tour under the name BEAT performing this music. They're not coming anywhere very near me, but if they did I'd go.