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.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Mystery Monday: Jack the Ripper Strikes Again

Calling all Ripper-ologists... Yes, Now You See Me is yet another entry in the apparently endless series of mysteries and thrillers featuring the real 19th century Jack the Ripper or a modern day copycat. (One of my recent favorites is the first series of the new British television crime series, "Whitechapel".) Happily, S.J. Bolton's police procedural is a better-than-average version of this all-too-familiar mystery novel theme, featuring a quixotic first-person narrator with some kind of indefinable link to the crimes she ends up investigating.

DC Lacey Flint is the first to discover the first of what turn out to be a string of victims -- a well-dressed woman from an affluent neighborhood, whom she discovers bleeding to death beside Flint's own car outside a housing project in South London. That's bad enough; when it becomes clear that a senior police inspector -- someone to whom Lacey finds herself attracted --  has his suspicions about Lacey herself, life gets even more complicated. Especially since the killer -- who soon strikes again -- seems not only to be fixated on replicating some elements of the Ripper crimes, but on linking them to Lacey. Is the killer playing a nasty mind game with the rookie policewoman, or is there something in Lacey's past that explains what is going on?

Bolton's use of a first-person narrator helps keep the suspense going, because a lot of that suspense -- it becomes clear -- revolves around who Lacey is and her own past. Could something in her life before she joined the police explain what is happening now? Even though we know Lacey knows more than the senior police figures about what is going on, the author never lets us inside her head quite far enough to understand what she does know. As the clues pile up and the crimes are linked by more than just an insane perpetrator, it becomes clear that the killer isn't just Jack the Ripper, but someone with a cause. Right up to the final pages, when Lacey tries to do what she thinks is the only thing that will end the bloodshed, her real identity and motivation remain unclear, along with the identity of the killer.

In many ways, this is a standard "serial killer murder mystery", albeit with a different kind of protagonist. That caveat makes a big difference to the narrative, however, and turns it into as much of a suspense story as it is a mystery. Bolton has chosen a tricky path by opting for a first-person narrator like Lacey, but she avoids most of the missteps; she also succeeds in blending enough Ripper elements with details of very modern-day crimes that the book as a whole ends up being a real page-turner. This is a cut above most police procedurals, the books that rely so heavily on the procedures of police work that they end up feeling formulaic and predictable. Lacey Flint's narrative is anything but. The climax feels a bit rushed and -- at times -- implausible, but the final pages restore a haunting sense of mystery.

Recommended to mystery and suspense fans; this isn't a literary mystery with oodles of character development and so on, but it's a great summer beach read to which I'd happily give 4 stars. I got an advance review copy of this from the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program.

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