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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. 


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. 


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Nobody's commenting on these mystery novels, Mac! I've never read any of these people and am not much into this genre. I suppose I'm more likely to watch a movie like this than read a book; I get confused and don't know what's going on. However, I am on pg. 550 of the P/V Brothers Karamazov. I keep thinking of the Philosophy prof I told you about who doesn't like the book, or Dostoevsky, at all. I can sort of see his point as I have recently trudged through Dmitri's ravings and conversations with officials and I kept thinking they could have been significantly shorter. My thoughts were sort of, "how does it enhance the novel and reading experience to inflate scenes like this?" However, I am looking forward to the "dreams" etc. upcoming.

I figured nobody else has read them, and I'm not expressing much enthusiasm for any of them, so nobody is saying "Sounds great! I'm going to the library right now!" :-)

I think there are pretty good arguments that Dostoevsky's novels are really not necessarily all that great AS NOVELS. I mean, they're kind of a mess. There's a critical essay on Bleak House in my edition that's critical in both senses: BH is too long, too scattered, etc. to be a truly successful novel. That complaint would have more merit about Dostoevsky. It's great literature, but depending on what one thinks a novel ought to do, one might argue that it has a lot of defects.

I guess that's what I feel like I'm missing with Dostoevsky that you get from someone like Dickens in spades - entertainment! There was an article on Lit Hub this morning which was a list of novels with the worst parents ever. Dombey and Son made the list, and of course made me smile thinking about the characters therein.
But yes, the other merits of Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment (the only two I have read) certainly make these novels at least essential literature.
Thanks for putting up with my detour away from hard-boiled detective fiction! I have read several John Le Carre books, which I also don't completely understand, but I enjoy his writing style quite a bit.

Le Carre is in another league from the writers mentioned here. Peter Hitchens thinks he's England's greatest recent novelist.

I very much like the Shetland TV series. I tried reading one or two of the books and found them to be sort of along the lines of Nordic noir, but without the attraction of Nordic strangeness. If that makes any sense. :)

Found an academic journal article, "The Brothers Karamazov and the Poetics of Serial Publication" (, with this:

"I would like to address certain issues involved in the publication and reception of The Brothers Karamazov, which appeared in sixteen installments in The Russian Herald over a period of almost two years, January 1879 to November 1880. This makes The Brothers Karamazov Dostoevsky's longest serialized novel (and thus his most demanding for his readers). Since, as he admitted, it was also the novel that he had least drafted as he began serialization, it was in many ways the most demanding for him, and his need for ongoing research into such topics as the investigative process as well as his personal problems forced him no less than eleven times to miss the month's installment of a 'book' (kniga) and several times to change his plans for the novel as it unfolded."

Sounds to me as if the whole thing got a bit out of hand.

I guess you've read at least some of the Wallander books, then? I haven't but my wife has, which led to us watching, and in three cases re-watching, the BBC series, called just Wallander. I thought it was quite good overall. The re-watching was because several years ago one season had been available but not the others. Now they all are, on Amazon Prime. Oh wait, it was probably BritBox.

Not so surprising that BK is a bit of a mess then, I guess. Eleven missed deadlines out of sixteen is pretty bad.

Speaking of Dostoevsky, the old Garnett translations are out of copyright and can be found at Project Gutenberg, at least the big ones. I certainly wouldn't want to read any of the books on a screen, but having an electronic copy is handy for looking up passages.

Hillerman is partially responsible for my visiting New Mexico a few years ago -- he, and Ed Abbey!

I've never read Abbey. I'd probably like him. I have seen a bit of the Southwest and would very much like to see more.

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