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 16, 2012

Mystery Monday: Introducing Two Overlooked Mystery/Suspense Veterans

I'm always on the lookout for authors who are able to blend mystery and suspense in intelligent ways, creating a book that I just can't put down. And in recent months, I have finally succumbed to a friend's urging and picked up some novels by Michael Robotham, an Australian who is basing his mysteries in England, and have gone back to re-read others by Charles Cumming, an English author whose books are sold in the United States but remain relatively under the radar, it seems to me. The two are quite different in their style and in the subjects they highlight, but both are capable of crafting what I like to refer to as "thumping good reads."

The first book by Michael Robotham that I read was Shatter, one of his first to be released in the United States. It features Joe O'Loughlin, who, when we first meet him, is standing on the Clifton suspension bridge outside Bristol, charged with keeping a terrified, naked woman from jumping to her death. Oddly, she seems to be talking on a telephone, and pleading with someone -- and then she jumps, taking the mystery of her death with her, or so it seems. But when her teenage daughter shows up on O'Loughlin's doorstep to insist his mother's fear of heights made it unlikely she'd ever commit suicide that way, Joe investigates, and finds his own suspicions mounting that something drove Christine to her death -- or rather, someone, someone particularly evil.

Does this sound a bit formulaic? Well, sure. Let's face it, O'Loughlin is a flawed but appealing hero, wrestling with the onset of Parkinson's disease and his family relationships, even as he struggles to do his best to obtain justice for Christine. Will he catch the bad guy before he can destroy more lives? Will O'Loughlin figure out where he went wrong in time?  And yes, the bad guy is appallingly bad, the epitome of an evildoer, almost a caricature. But Robotham dials up the suspense so much that I ended up simply not caring all that much about the book's flaws -- I just wanted to find out what happened next. 

The next  book featuring Joe O'Loughlin is Bleed for Me, which I promptly sought out after finishing Shatter. O'Loughlin's world has changed since the previous novel, and he's trying to maintain a relationship with his two daughters, especially with teenaged Charlie. Then Sienna, Charlie's closest friend, shows up at his family's home, covered in blood and unable to speak -- and Sienna's father is found dead. Is she responsible for this crime, but driven to it? Or is she being set up? Once again, the twists and turns had me second- and third-guessing my original assumptions about what was going in Sienna's life, and making this another unputdownable novel.

Charles Cumming doesn't delve into the gritty psychological suspense terrain inhabited by Robotham, but that doesn't make his spy thrillers any the less compelling. I began to read them when they started to appear -- including the two novels featuring Alec Milius, a British spook. But Cumming's most recent books have taken his work a notch higher.

Take The Trinity Six, for example, in which Cumming plays with the theme of the Cambridge spies -- the group that included Guy Burgess, Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt, all of whom spied for the Soviet Union for decades within the heart of the British establishment. (Blunt was the curator of the queen's art collection...) Historian Sam Gaddis stumbles over what could be the coup of a lifetime when a journalist friend tells him that a possible "sixth man" by the name of Edward Crane is not only still alive (despite reports of his death 15 years previously) but ready to spill the beans. Cumming does a great job of generating tension without having to resort to 007 or Mission Impossible feats of derring-do; the suspense comes from the characters and situations, and the unravelling of the complex puzzle. That's just fine by me; I don't need action adventures to keep me reading, but I do need suspense, and Cumming delivers plenty of it in this nicely complex novel. Nope, he's not a new LeCarre -- but who is? (Incidentally, you can pick up the Kindle version of this book, released last year, for a mere $2.99 right now.)

At last week's ThrillerFest VII, Phillip Margolin argued that a suspense writer needs to “get rid of anything that will slow the action down.” I'm not sure I agree with that. I've read plenty of books with non-stop action (James Patterson? Steve Berry?) and while they can generate a lot of adrenaline, they ultimately are about as satisfying as being offered cotton candy or ju-jubes for dinner when you haven't eaten all day. The sugar rush may be fab, but it doesn't last. I need character, and uncertainty, and something ominous lurking in the background. (For more on ThrillerFest, see this report from Library Journal.)

All of these are present in Cumming's newest novel, which will be published in the United States early next month. When the newly-appointed head of MI-5 takes an unexpected holiday before taking up her new post, and then vanishes from the hotel where she is supposed to be staying, a recently-disgraced agent is yanked out of compulsory retirement and sent to figure out what is going on -- discreetly. The secret of Amelia's disappearance is quickly resolved, but only leads to a larger puzzle. The first half of the book does move a little too slowly for my taste, but it picks up dramatically in the second half, as agent Tom Kell uncovers an astonishing counterespionage plot on the part of one of Britain's ostensible allies. Again, compared to many books of this kind, there's little dramatic action, but what there is is just the right amount and in the right place in the book. While I didn't like it quite as much as The Trinity Six, it's definitely a thumping good read.

All of the books above I would rate at 4 stars to 4.3 stars. With the exception of Shatter, which was a LibraryThing Early Reviewer book, all are books that I have purchased and own.

1 comment:

  1. You are a mean, mean woman. I have three books waiting for me at the liberry, 78 here, and 9 more on hold. I did NOT need to learn about Charles Cumming! (Any relation to Alan, one wonders...)