01 September 2013

Literary Mystery

aka J. K. Rowling
Bookstore shelves are overflowing with mysteries – it’s a popular genre not only because of the element of suspense but because most mysteries, and these include espionage thrillers, are plot driven, not a whole lot of descriptive prose or literary technique, thus easy to read and often just plain fun. The proverbial page-turner. I was always a fan of English mysteries like Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie and the great Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and although not well known, W. Somerset Maugham wrote terrific espionage tales, and of course I devoured Nancy Drew as a girl.
In the last twenty years, the selection of mysteries has exploded, thus sometimes difficult to find just the right one, and I tend to favor more literary works – not a snob exactly, just protective of my reading time. Although often disturbing, I admired the “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy,” and I am a fan of Henning Menkell and Elizabeth George, so once I discovered, as we all did recently, that a first mystery novel was in fact the work of JK Rowling, my curiosity was piqued. The critics were right: it’s a very good murder mystery with fully formed and diverse characters and an ending that mostly works, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading her often elegant prose and detailed descriptions of people and place. I also liked the protagonist: Cormoran Strike, a wounded veteran, the bastard child of a celebrity, a man with heart who struggles with his own demons, but not to the detriment of the mystery at hand. Another great touch was the introduction of the fledgling assistant-detective, Robyn, a temp who has always wanted to be a private investigator, and Rowling has successfully set up Strike and Robyn as a continuing tale, so watch for #2 of “The Cuckoo’s Calling” [by Robert Galbraith]. 
I will say that Rowling's inherent optimism operates in these pages, as it did in Harry Potter despite the progressively bleak story lines, so unlike her Swedish counterparts, she will never wear you down and make you want to crawl under the covers and weep for humanity. 
            Just before I read JKR, I read a novel entitled “Don’t I Know You” by Karen Shepard, published some years ago but only recently risen to the top of my pile. Not a traditional whodunnit, rather a literary work with a mystery at its core. The story unfolds via three different characters who all have something to do with the death of one woman. This is solid, often riveting psychological drama that delves deeply into parenting and romantic relationships, and the dark side of mental illness. The book takes place in 1976, well before Internet, emails or cell phones, at a time when communications were more often elusive or contradictory. While I lingered with JRK, enjoying the steady methodical connection of the dots, this novel is a page-turner, you simply have to know who did what to whom and why.
One other mystery crossed my desk recently: a self-published whodunnit that takes place in Laguna Beach. I confess that I did not finish reading “South on Pacific Coast Highway” by Gary Paul Corcoran because I found the language a bit too clich├ęd, the ghosts of too many gumshoes hovering on every page, but the setting and some of the people will feel extremely familiar to the SoCal reader and it seems a good yarn. Corcoran, who lives in LA now, lived down here for many years, so he knows of what he writes and he writes with ease, so if you are looking for a grittier mystery with a familiar locale, the Kindle edition is available at Amazon for just $3.99 and I’m sure Laguna Beach Books, if they don’t have it, can get it.

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