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 3, 2011

Mystery Monday: An old favorite, a series that has improved, and a new discovery

I'm constantly hunting for new mystery series to read, partly because (as I've discussed before in these cyber-pages) a number of old favorites start to disappoint after a certain number of books but mostly because it's always fun to discover a fresh voices. But my recent reading has reminded me that no matter how venerable a mystery series may be, it can still be great to read, while it can be a mistake to write off a series prematurely. But that hasn't stopped me from finding new books that I can heartily recommend, either...

These days, Ruth Rendell is probably better known for her novels of psychological suspense, written under both her own name and her nom de plume, Barbara Vine. But my favorites among her books remain the police procedurals featuring Reg Wexford, who made his debut waaay back in the early/mid 1960s. The Wexford books helped Rendell hone her craft and make her name, and along the way have benefited from her interest in psychological suspense, as her focus on characters and their motives makes these feel more like novels that happen to revolve around a crime rather than conventional police procedurals. Which is just fine by me, as I happen to relish character-driven mysteries.

 The Vault is Rendell's 23rd (gulp) mystery to feature Reg Wexford, who, if he aged as rapidly on the page as in "real" time, would be either a centenarian or dead by now. Happily for me, he has only just retired -- perhaps one Wexford year equates to five years of our time? -- but is having a hard time putting his investigative instincts to rest even as he is relishing being able to spend time with Dora, his wife, exploring London from a new home base in the carriage house on the grounds of his younger daughter's Hampstead home. So when four bodies are found buried in a former coal hole underneath a patio (which reminds Wexford of the vault of the title), he's on hand to serve as an unofficial investigator for the detectives in charge of the investigation in the way he once was. And that ambivalent role (Wexford mourns the day when the Poirots and Peter Wimseys of the world commanded respect from the authorities) makes this mystery feel fresh for readers who might have become weary following Wexford around his Kingsmarkham home.

The plot itself is nicely tangled, even if it takes a while for the suspense to mount. True, Rendell doesn't seem to be spending as much time as she once did on her Wexford novels -- the writing is less elegant and more slapdash than in prior books -- they still offer fans intriguing character studies and, in this case, a great view of today's London, from its history to its current problems, including illegal immigrants and sexual predators. Indeed, I ended up enjoying this as much for the insights into the way London and its inhabitants are changing and the people that Wexford encounters, such as the busybody arrogant former South African woman who looks down her nose at the hired help and the beleagured born-again detective whom he is assisting. This was a 4.1 star book for me, and definitely recommended for those who have been following the series; don't start reading about Wexford here, however, as you'll need some background to follow all the plot lines. (You'll also be missing out on 22 other very good mysteries!)

I was on the verge of giving up on another mystery series set in London, the Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James series that I first discovered on a supermarket shelf in Brooklyn (Key Food on Atlantic Avenue, to be precise...) back in the mid-1990s and have followed ever since. Unfortunately, some of Deborah Crombie's novels had become underwhelming, for want of a better phrase. Her two main characters had long since settled down in predictable domesticity, and some of the crimes they investigated failed to grab my attention for long. So it was only because of a whim, and an Amazon.co.uk gift certificate, that I decided to pick up a discount priced copy of No Mark Upon Her (already out on the other side of the Pond; due out in the US in February.)

The latest outing for Kincaid and James revolves around the mysterious death of a high-ranking police inspector and aspiring Olympic elite rower in Henley-on-Thames. It's nicely complex, and gives the reader insight an interesting range of characters, such as the damaged war veteran who is building a new life for himself by becoming involved in canine search and rescue and building rowing shells. Is the victim's death due to her professional work, including her research into sexual violence and possible police complicity? Is it a personal quarrel that got out of hand? Or are rowing world politics involved? Crombie navigates the myriad investigative threads with aplomb, and the result is what I think is the best book in this series to date. At heart, it's a fairly plain vanilla police procedural, but with extra attention to character, setting and all those things that help a book rise to the top of its genre, and with a decent dash of suspense thrown in; happily, however, Crombie never was tempted to take the plot past what seemed plausible. Definitely recommended; while you could read this as a standalone book, you're more likely to enjoy it if you've read some of Crombie's previous books.

And now for my new discovery... 

I had never heard of A.D. Scott until I was offered the chance to peruse an e-galley of her second book, A Double Death on the Black Isle. Once I started reading, I raced through it to reach the final page, unable to put it down until I figured out "whodunnit". The central character, Joanne Ross, is separated from her husband and working on a tiny weekly newspaper in a Highlands community in the mid/late 1950s, an era in which a woman could get a reputation for being "fast" simply by being in a hotel bar with work colleagues. When the novel opens, she and young reporter Rob are racing down to the harbor, where a trawler is on fire; after an altercation with the trawler's owner, Joanne ends up booting him into the water. Needless to say, when she travels to the Black Isle a few days later and discovers that a childhood friend has invited her to visit to witness her secret wedding to none other than the obnoxious fisherman (a mesalliance, as her friend is the daughter of the local laird...), Joanne is aghast. But then her knowledge of the Black Isle and its personalities becomes particularly relevant when two of its dislikeable residents are found dead on the same day, and Joanne must juggle her professional responsibilities, her natural curiosity, and her friendship and family relationships.

This isn't a flawless book. Scott is overly fond of throwing in Scots dialog (if ayes and forbyes and suchlike annoy you, best to steer clear...) into the story, and for those not familiar with the jargon, some kind of glossary would probably be helpful. The plot can become tangled at times, and it's a book to read more for its rich portrayal of the Highlands during the 1950s and the characters who inhabited it then than it is for the suspense. Still, I enjoyed it enough to dash out and order the first in the series, A Small Death in the Great Glen in hopes that I've struck another "must-read" series. (The new book, just out last week, is one that can easily be read on its own, once you are past the first few pages.) Time will tell, but the omens are good: 3.9 stars.

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