What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Mystery Monday: War's violence leaves a legacy

Well, it's still technically Monday here on the west coast, where I am at present, so I hope you'll forgive the very late update! And I can't yet post the cover picture atop this post, as the bed & breakfast I'm staying in is not only sans airconditioning (a problem, as Silicon Valley has just succumbed to a heat wave) but really, deeply inadequate Internet access.

Still, I wanted to draw attention to the first in a new series of mysteries that has made its debut in England and is now crossing the Atlantic to these shores. I've just received the second book from the UK, and I'll report back on that shortly, but in the meantime, anyone who has read and enjoyed even some of the novels of "Charles Todd" (in reality, a mother/son writing duo) or Jacqueline Winspear's series of mysteries featuring psychologist detective Maisie Dobbs (indeed, even the Joe Sandilands mysteries from Barbara Cleverly), is likely to find something to relish in the pages of The Return of Captain John Emmett by Elizabeth Speller. True, it's another mystery set in the aftermath of World War I and with a plot that revolves around the war and its aftermath, but "post WW1 fatigue" after reading the Todd and Winspear books is no reason to avoid this book -- in many ways, it feels like a stand-alone novel rather than the beginning of a series, and is all the better for it, offering the reader elements that aren't part of the other two series.

Laurence Bartram, like so many other still-young men, has returned from the trenches and their horrors only to find that postwar life offers a very different and more muted kind of horror -- the perils of adjusting to "normality". The only memory of his former life, as Speller's novel opens, is the piano that his wife Louise once cherished; she and their infant son died the same day he went "over the top" on teh Western Front in a particularly brutal and pointless battle. Now Bartram tries to build a new kind of life for himself, desultorily pondering the idea of writing a book about church architecture. Then the sister of a schoolfriend, John Emmett, seeks him out. She wants his help understanding why her brother killed himself.

That's the starting point for what becomes a very good novel, even if some of its themes are overly familiar to the avid mystery buff. For instance, Bartram has a bluff sidekick, Charles, who resembles Poirot's buddy, Hastings, only with a few more little grey cells. There's a romantic interest; a cast of supporting characters who fulfill various predictable roles in the investigation and in Speller's portrait of postwar England. And yet... Speller handles these well enough that even when one part of my brain was telling me "yeah, I might have known this would happen!", another corner of it was telling it to shut up and instructing me to keep reading. Speller does an excellent job of crafting a sense of time and place. While Laurence Bartram isn't nearly as complex or nuanced a character as Ian Rutledge, the war veteran Scotland Yard detective created by Charles Todd, and the mystery isn't as intriguing as the early books in that series, the overall story is both gripping and fresh. At times the writing also goes beyond solid to reach "very good indeed" levels. This book (which I first read as a NetGalley offering) is undoubtedly a "thumping good read"; 4 stars. Evidence of how much I enjoyed it is that I ordered the sequel from the UK, forking over Amazon's hefty shipping charges. It's nice to have a fresh mystery series and a new "voice" that you enjoy...

Thinking about this book made me realize that the trauma of World War I (and particularly the trenches of the Western Front) have been a literary bonanza for mystery writers. When it comes to World War II, an older book that I dipped into last week made me realize that an utterly different kind of trend seems to be taking shape in mystery novels set against a background of World War II: the counterfactual mystery. A series of authors have now crafted mysteries or thrillers whose action takes place against the backdrop of a Britain that has been conquered by Nazi Germany in World War II. Perhaps the first of these that i read was Fatherland, the breakthrough novel by Robert Harris (who went on to write tomes like Enigma, Pompeii and Imperium.) I don't remember that much about that one -- I certainly wasn't bowled over by it -- but then a few years ago read a much less well-known book by British author Murray Davies, Collaborator, that deserves a much wider audience. In it, Nick Penny returns to occupied England and must grapple with the changes he finds, even as he is forced to work for the German occupiers and his oldest friend becomes involved in the resistance. This is an excellent and fast-paced novel that I defy you to put down... Reading SS-GB by Len Deighton reminded me -- perhaps a bit too much -- of Davies's novel. This 1970s-vintage book is an OK look at the plight of a policeman caught up by his desire to solve crime, and his need to keep multiple different German bosses happy. In both cases, the picture of England is one that is bleak, indeed, but Davies manages to structure a better story and sustain the suspense better. Seek it  out -- you won't regret it. (The other counterfactual books of this kind are written by Jo Walton, a trilogy beginning with Farthing. I'd give the Deighton book 3.2 stars, the Walton series about 3.5 to 3.8 stars, and the Davies novel 4.4 stars.

Memo to self: it's time to look at one of the non-fiction books devoted to alternative or counterfactual history that I've got on hand -- it's fun when scholars get creative and imaginative!

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