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, October 10, 2011

Mystery Monday: Cherchez le terroriste...

A woman walks into a bookstore...

Well, actually, I walked into Politics & Prose, the wonderful Washington DC book temple, last summer when I was promoting my own book (Chasing Goldman Sachs, which comes out in paperback tomorrow!) I was there to sign their stock, but happened to ask a staff member what he recommended in the way of new reading. This is something I rarely do, but I was curious to see what he'd suggest. And something remarkable happened: every single book that he selected or identified for me has been a big winner, in very disparate genres. He urged me to try The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, a book that I hadn't really heard about; he said that everyone he knew was enjoying The Passage by Justin Cronin. The former was one of my fave books of 2010; the latter was a thumping good read. And he recommended a new mystery series, a paperback entitled Bruno, Chief of Police, by Martin Walker. Walker, he said, is a Brit, living in France, and writing about a local cop. I kind of wrinkled my nose; it felt too much like Peter Mayles redux. Not so, the bookstore guru argued: it's a great mystery.

And it was. So good, in fact, that I promptly downloaded book #2 to my Kindle and ordered #3 from the UK. I've just received and read #4, The Crowded Grave, and it's easily the best of the bunch. Walker is akin to Mayles, in that he reveres the sense of community and the food. But he never tells stories about the quaint natives; he is writing about Bruno, who isn't a local in St. Denis but who, since leaving the army and becoming head of the national police in the town, has made himself part of the fabric. He goes hunting in the fall; helps with the grape harvest -- and finds creative solutions to local "crimes". Best of all, Walker doesn't over-romanticize the French countryside. The world of the fictional St. Denis, in the Perigord region, is very much of today. EU environmental regulations drive farmers crazy; there is illegal immigration, growing ethnic diversity and the gradual death of a way of life, and Walker builds those themes into his novels.

In The Crowded Grave, a local archaeological dig makes two stunning discoveries of corpses -- one, dating back millennia, may reshape the way the world thinks of early man, while the other is wearing a Swatch watch. But Bruno doesn't have time to spend too much time digging into the identity of the murdered man, dead for about twenty years. Some environmental activists are wreaking havoc on local farms by letting loose ducks and geese to protest the foie gras trade, and he is on call to help prepare the town to host a summit between French and Spanish ministers to debate how to curb an upsurge in Basque terrorism. Not to mention the fact that his English girlfriend is keeping him at a distance, his ex is back in town, and there's a new, green and Green magistrate who is making his life hell. Walker deftly manages all the disparate threads, and ably jumps between the scenes of life in St. Denis, including Bruno's birthday party and the description of Bruno cooking a navarin of lamb that made my mouth water and sent me scurrying to the web in search of a recipe of my own.

This is one of those novels that isn't quite a cozy -- the denouement, bringing Bruno face to face with a bunch of murderous figures, is violent and sad -- but one that doesn't revolve around violence or crime. It's a story of a man and his community; one that happens to involve solving mysteries large and small and sometimes creating them as well. (Who is responsible for the protest that ends with farmers dumping manure on the front steps of the gendarmerie??) Definitely recommended; 4.2 stars. Some fans of Louise Penny's want to move to the fictional Three Pines in Quebec; as for me, I'm definitely hoping to relocate to St. Denis.

Also noted: Just finished the most recent in another series, one with more ups and downs in it. But in The Blood Royal, the latest in her "Joe Sandilands" mystery series set in the 1920s, Barbara Cleverly takes some risks and switches her focus somewhat. The most recent books in this series were set in 1926 and told largely through the eyes of Sandilands himself; now the military policeman turned Scotland Yard top cop is back in 1922, and working with a feisty and intriguing woman police constable, Lily Wentworth, to solve a complex series of crimes that may be the acts of Irish terrorists, or something altogether more personal. We get more of the action from the point of view of Lily, which is fresh and interesting, although it is a bit odd after so many books focusing on Sandilands. Personally, I liked this new twist, and was glad to see an ending hinting that readers will see the duo in action again. True, the preface perhaps tips the author's hand too much -- what does it matter that a young Russian aristocrat has arrived safely in London after escaping the Bolsheviks? -- but I found I didn't mind. This feels like a particularly good Agatha Christie novel, but with more attention to character than poor Aggie ever managed (she seemed to be contented with quirks, like Hercule Poirot and his little grey cells and moustaches.) Recommended; 3.9 stars.

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