Crime and Mystery

Let’s Discuss — A Demon in My View by Ruth Rendell

He didn’t speak. He had never known how to talk to women. There was only one thing he had ever been able to do to women and advancing now, smiling, he did it. First he rested the torch on a brick ledge at the level of his knees so that she was in shadow, so that the room took on the aspect of an alley into which a street lamp filters dimly. Then he approached her paralyzed as she was, and meeting no resistance–he would have preferred resistance–he closed his hands on her throat (2)

Readers will view the movements of the eclectic tenants of 142 Trinity from the perspective of either of two Johnsons:

1. Arthur Johnson:

  • snob
  • borderline racist
  • something of a psychopath*
  • the longest residing tenant of 142 Trinity.

2. Anthony Johnson:

  • young scholar
  • writing a thesis on psychopaths
  • having an affair with a married woman
  • the newest tenant at 142 Trinity.

These two are not related; names are purely coincidence. Sometimes when two people share a surname, they bond or make jokes about relation or generally speaking, develop a good rapport with one another…this is not the case with these two Johnsons. They do not get along at all. There’s a weird space between them that is not natural to neighbors or people you might share a building with. This tension is a undiminished easiness that consistently feeds into the storyline because one of these Johnsons has a secret–he is the Kenbourne Killer.

This is the first book I’ve read by Ruth Rendell, but it will not be the last because what Rendell really champions is the character. She creates great beings that easily come to life from the page. And then she adds the right amount of horror and thrill to make for a worthwhile read. For example:

Once she was out of the house, he had gone and stood over the baby, scrutinizing it with curious desire. It was about six months old, fat, fast asleep…A napkin, white and fleecy, secured with a large safety pin, was now visible above its legging. Safety was a strange word to apply to so obviously dangerous a weapon. Arthur removed the pin, and taut now with joy and power, thrust it up to its curled hilt into the baby’s stomach. The baby woke with a shattering scream and a great bubble of scarlet blood welled out as he removed the pin (71)

There are lesser characters and smaller plot lines that contribute to this idea that outwardly each Johnson appears to be an everyday person in the community. But even the everyday person has their secrets and it’s only a matter of time before the Kenbourne Killer terrorizes the very community he hides in.

*potentially a sociopath….I’m not really sure. I may have the two confused.

Let’s Discuss — My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

I am nothing but a corpse, a body at the bottom of a well. Though I drew my last breath long ago and my heart has stopped beating, no one, apart from the vile murderer, knows what’s happened to me. As for that wretch, he felt for my pulse and listened for my breath to be sure I was dead, then kicked me in the midriff, carried me to the edge of the well, raised me up and dropped me below (3)

Let me begin by saying this book is very well written. The narrative isn’t provided solely by one or two characters–it’s told by a ranging cast of other persons, animals and even inanimate objects*. The title of each chapter will introduce the reader to the speaker, who will subsequently narrate their point of view.

Pamuk integrates folkloric and religious elements of Turkish culture into the novel, so readers will find myth sequences woven into the main story line. Pamuk also invites the reader to participate. In some instances, characters are aware of reader presence and they’ll acknowledge when the reader has probably formed their own opinions about what has transpired in the story. And from dialogue, readers will encounter philosophical discussions about style, semi-sarcastic, xenophobic attitudes and criticisms of western culture, and generally indifferent attitudes to what many consider to be perverted or grotesque.

Essentially, the story revolves around a man named, Black, as he unravels the mystery of a disappeared miniaturist**. Black’s primary motivation to complete this task is to win over his uncle, a prominent figure in the art community. By doing this he also hopes to rekindle his love for his cousin, Shekure. For me, Black’s character is very one dimensional.  Also a significant portion of the book revolves around Black and Shekure’s relationship…which was slightly annoying because neither is particularly interesting or likable—especially Shekure. I’d like to think Pamuk included her illogical actions and irrational modes of thinking to make a point about the role of women in Turkish society***, but that may be a stretch…I really didn’t like her.

I have to say, I put My Name is Red down quite a few times. I stand by the fact that it is superbly written, but after the first chapter, the pace slowed down and my interest didn’t return until about chapter 12. Maybe I was too eager to solve the mystery. I don’t know. I just know it didn’t meet expectations…I thought I would never put a book down which opens with a chapter titled I am a corpse.

We’re talking trees, portraits, colors, etc.

** An artist whose task it was to draw in red certain words or letters in manuscripts; a painter of miniature pictures or portraits, as on china or ivory, characterized by fineness of detail

*** I am not a feminist, or  historian, or anthropologist or anything like that…and I know next to nothing about Turkey so…that’s just a guess–semi-educated guess.

Let’s Discuss — The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

But I thought everybody was supposed to be considered innocent until they were proved guilty and if there was any reasonable doubt–

That’s for juries, not detectives. You find the guy you think did the murder and you slam him in the can and let everybody know you think he’s guilty and put his picture all over newspapers, and the District Attorney builds up the best theory he can on what information you’ve got […] come in and tell you things about him and presently you’ve got him sitting on the electric chair (195)

In speakeasies and small social gatherings centered around alcohol, conversation is placed on hold by the blur of drinks, playful banter and hints of sexual innuendo.  Nick and Nora Charles, our investigative couple are “too cool” for the shenanigans they encounter. Their back-and-forth is cute, urbane and reasonably detached from the acquaintances that bring drama to their doorstep.

When Nick (former detective) and Nora (his wife) get mixed up with the disappearance of a man named Wynant and the murder of his assistant, Nick wants nothing to do with it. This attitude permeates the pages.  It’s almost overpowering. Nick doesn’t appear to give a damn–so why should the reader?

The characters and their interactions–that’s why!

The other characters (almost all are suspects) are solid. Common sense gained from other forms of crime fiction, more likely than not derived from Hammett’s prose, tells the reader the estranged, bitter and broke ex-wife would be the obvious perpetrator. But it’s too obvious. It’s not her. Mimi is so snide and phony it’s entertaining. Her coquettish, aggressive, borderline violent interactions with Nick are worth the read.

The same applies to Gilbert, Mimi’s son–what a weirdo! His obsessions are peculiar but believable. Nick indulges his forensic fascinations and they establish a bond. Gilbert is written so the reader believes he’s up to no good, and he’ll either be a detective or an infamous wrongdoer one day.

“When the murders are committed by mathematicians,” I said, “you can solve them by mathematics. Most of them aren’t and this one wasn’t.” (195)

But going back to the plot, it’s nothing special. More thought is put into portraying intricacies of detective instinct than solving the murder case. However, it’s clear Hammett’s work is an original.