Fiction: “I is for Innocent” by Sue Grafton

InnocentI almost just typed that I is for Innocent was written by Kinsey Millhone. That’s … that’s great, Alaina. It’s been almost a month since you posted here, bringing your book blog backlog back up to 9 reviews (plus one year-end review!), and you can’t even distinguish between the author and the main character? I mean, on the one hand, I guess kudos to Ms. Grafton for continuing to make a character seem real enough that these books could be an autobiography? But on the other hand, how are you so tired, Alaina, you slept nine hours last night and just woke up from an hour’s nap, you should have this straight by now! Also, the book is right by your elbow. Come on, son.

SO ANYWAY, we’re nearing the end of the 2015 backlog, and as December was closing out, I was chomping at the bit to get as many books completed as possible. (Lousy stupid Mysteries of Udolpho, throwing off my groove.) Apparently when I’m hitting that mark, I reach for Sue Grafton because a) I’m still at the point where I’ve read them before and b) they’re a quick read. I say “apparently” because that’s exactly what I did when I read H is for Homicide back in December of 2013. So, much like when I read Festival of Deaths, it had been at least two years in-between books of series.

I’d say I need to get better at that – and, spoiler alert, I do for one of the series I’ve mentioned before – but I just got the second book in a series from the library today where I read the first book back in 2011. So, five years. Great. Good job, Alaina; you practically have to read the first book all over again to get going.

Thank god I don’t have to do that with the Sue Grafton series; I’d never finish.

As I mentioned in my review of H is for Homicide, Kinsey gets separated from California Fidelity, the insurance company that provided her office space in exchange for investigative services. Before I is for Innocent picks up, Kinsey has found a new place to operate: in the office building of Kingman and Associates. She’d done some work for Lonnie before, and they have a good arrangement. The book starts off by Lonnie giving Kinsey some work: the murder of Isabelle Barney is being dealt with again, this time in a civil suit against the unproven killer, her ex-husband David Barney. The private investigator Lonnie originally hired to gather evidence has unfortunately dropped dead of a heart attack, and the trial begins in three weeks. Kinsey thinks it’s going to be a simple case of gathering depositions and reviewing Morley Shine’s PI files. As usually happens when Kinsey gets involved, it’s not easy at all.

Everyone hates David Barney, but he had an alibi for Isabelle’s murder, so he got off at the criminal trial. Now Isabelle Barney’s first ex-husband is trying David civilly in an attempt to get closure. And Kinsey’s learning all sorts of stuff about David and who else may be a suspect, when David Barney calls her and proclaims his innocence. And unfortunately, what he’s saying starts to make sense.

Kinsey follows the evidence through numerous twists and turns, and at the end of the book, Kinsey gets to show her bad-ass side off. Compared to other series I read, there really isn’t a lot of violence in the Alphabet series, and while Kinsey does put herself into dangerous situations, it’s rare that those situations become life-threatening. Without spoiling the twists and turns I mentioned, Kinsey gets into a shoot-out with a bad guy, and the difference between life and death is literally one bullet. It is a less funny, more tense version of the Who Killed The Chandelier bit.

Man, I haven’t watched that movie in forever.

The other thing Kinsey deals with in this book is near-crippling doubt. Getting fired, so-to-speak, from California Fidelity hit her harder than she had originally thought. Kinsey’s traditional attempt to deal with things is usually to throw off a sarcastic, self-deprecating remark and continue on her merry way. (I wonder if that’s where I get it from …) But being out of a work-home, and now having to forge a new version of a working relationship with Lonnie — she experiences doubt. Does she still have it in her to continue to be a private investigator?

Spoiler alert! This book is letter I. We haven’t even reached the halfway point of the series. Yes, she’s still got it.

But everyone goes through moments of doubt in their lives. And it’s comforting to know that a person that you admire (fictional or otherwise) can have the same experience as you, even when that person is a bad ass that can demonstrate the ability to count bullets in the middle of a firefight.

And … that’s about all I’ve got for I is for Innocent. One more book until 2016!

Grade for I is for Innocent: 3 stars


Fiction: “Festival of Deaths” by Jane Haddam

Festival of DeathsI guess I wasn’t really aware that it had been more than two years since the last time I read a Gregor Demarkian mystery. I became aware of that fact when, a couple of months ago, in the process of cleaning the apartment for a Christmas party, I decided to reorganize all of my bookshelves instead of, y’know, dusting. The upside? Although it is nowhere near the universally-accepted Dewey Decimal System, my books are now organized into a rhyme and reason of my own making. So, y’know; “madness.”

The downside is that, even after all of that, I need at least one more bookcase and one more wall for said bookcase. I can get the bookcase; it’s the wall that’s the hard part.

ANYWAY. I was also fairly proud of my ability to time the reading of Festival of Deaths in the same time-space as Hanukkah. But guys, I’m getting better – this time I’m only a month and a half delayed from when I finished the book? And I’ve only got two more books to review for 2015 before I can get into the 2016 titles? So, y’know; better.

I liked this one better than Dear Old Dead because the gang was back together. Dear Old Dead took Gregor out of Philadelphia, and without Bennis and Father Tibor and the backdrop of Cavanaugh Street, Gregor and the mystery became very bland and … well, boring. This book brings the mystery to Gregor in Philadelphia, so Bennis and the rest are able to tag along and offer their insights.

Dr. Lotte Goldman is a talk show host in the vein of Dr. Ruth meeting Oprah. Her topics usually discuss sex, and most of the discussions are either bringing habits that everyone has to the light, or unveiling deviant behavior. Gregor gets involved in two ways: first, Lotte wants him to be on the episode wherein “Sex and the Serial Killer” is discussed (Gregor would be talking about the serial killer aspect, as he worked with the Behavioral Sciences unit at the FBI; Gregor would not be discussing the sex aspect, because Gregor is, above all things, kind of a prude about that stuff). Second, Lotte wants Gregor to help explore the murder of one of the employees of the TV studio.

Festival of Deaths follows very the Gregor Demarkian formula very closely. The initial murder happens, then Gregor gets dragged into it after the fact. Father Tibor tells him he should totally investigate this murder; Bennis wants to help solve it too mainly because other stuff in her life is slowing down – her latest book has been sent to the editor, and now she’s faced with dealing with her empty apartment and the fact that her sister is on Death Row for killing their father. Once Gregor shows up – reluctantly; after all, he is retired – another body surfaces right under his nose, which forces him to get involved. Gregor usually identifies the murderer before the murderer kills a third person, and then in the epilogue Gregor explains to Bennis the murderer’s motive and the method.

I discussed this briefly in a previous title in the series, but the Gregor Demarkian novels are set apart from other mystery series I read in that the novels are told from third-person perspective of multiple characters. The prologue never contains Gregor; instead, Ms. Haddam introduces the cast of characters that will be involved in the mystery. One of them is the murderer; some of them are future victims. It’s an interesting way of tackling the narrative. (It’s also the reason my mother hasn’t read any of these; she started reading Not a Creature Was Stirring, the first novel, and really liked one of the characters. She then skipped ahead [it’s where I get it from!] and found out that the character she liked ended up the murderer. She put it down and never went back.)

When we view the plot from Gregor’s perspective, we learn about his Cavanaugh Street Regulars through his perceptions. We never hear Father Tibor’s inner thoughts; we can guess at Bennis’s thoughts because she’s the type of person to telegraph her every emotion onto her face.

Here are two examples of how we learn more about the supporting cast through Gregor’s perceptions. We have been told through multiple titles in this series that Tibor is a voracious reader of any and all genres. His apartment probably resembles mine, in that every available surface is covered in books. We get that reiterated in this book, along with:

[Gregor] got out of his chair and made his way back across the obstacle course of books, wondering when Tibor got the time to read like this when he spent so much time making Gregor Demarkian’s life resemble one of the wilder plays of Ionesco. [p. 73]

(Ionesco was, along with Samuel Beckett, one of the figureheads of the French absurdist dramatic period.)

And if you want to know about Bennis Hannaford and how she deals with people, there’s this paragraph:

What she got for herself was another cigarette, long and slim and taken from the sterling-silver Tiffany cigarette case her brother Chris had given her for her birthday a few years back. Bennis never took cigarettes from that case. She had a crumpled paper pack of Benson & Hedges Menthols in the pocket of her shirt. Gregor could only conclude that she had taken a dislike to Sarah Meyer equal to the one Sarah had taken to her. Bennis was pulling out all the stops. [p. 155]

Look, I don’t smoke, but that’s definitely one of the better ways to show people how much you absolutely hate them without saying a word. Luckily, I’ve perfected my withering glare; it’ll have to do.

Finally, the relationship between Gregor and Bennis is brought up again. Throughout the series thus far, Gregor and Bennis have maintained they are just friends. The rest of Cavanaugh Street is convinced that they should get married, but to date, there hasn’t even been the hint of any romantic love. This book takes about a page wherein Gregor reflects on his relationship with Bennis, and this is the first inclination the reader gets that Gregor may think about Bennis more than just platonically:

Even Gregor and Bennis didn’t have conversations of any formal kind. When he went down to visit her, or she came up to visit him, they talked about his work or hers or Cavanaugh Street, but mostly they talked about each other. Gregor knew everything about Bennis’s latest Zed and Zedalia novel. […] He didn’t know anything at all about the young man who had taken Bennis to dinner last week and didn’t want to know. Bennis knew all about Gregor’s last case – he always filled her in when the cases were over; he didn’t want her trying to be an amateur detective, but he did like to hear her comments once the coast was clear – but nothing about his visits to [his wife’s] grave. Gregor didn’t know if that was all right with her or not. Sometimes he worried that he didn’t do more talking to Bennis in the way men usually talk to women they are close to because he was afraid to. What would he talk about, if Bennis insisted? The fact that they now spent more time with each other than most people who were married? The fact that except for one minor technicality, they might as well be married? On second thought, that technicality wasn’t so minor after all. What was also not minor was the fact that he seemed to have wound his life around an extremely rich, extremely pretty, extremely impetuous, relatively young woman on whom he had no real hold at all. [p. 200]

I continue to enjoy these books – which is good, because I’ve got a lot of them. I will try to not let more than a few months go between this one and the next title in the series, but, y’know; no promises.

Grade for Festival of Deaths: 3 stars


Fiction: “A Poisoned Season” by Tasha Alexander

Poisoned SeasonOh boy, WordPress updated their posting screen again. Let’s all cross our fingers and hope that this will work with Sydney the Ancient Laptop’s processors!

(For those not in the know, Sydney the Ancient Laptop is my Dell Inspiron 6400 that I bought in 2007. She still runs Windows XP and iTunes 10. She will eventually be upgraded, but I also don’t want to upgrade, because Sydney is still going … well, not “strong” anymore, but “crawling with a leg wound like Christophe Waltz’s character at the end of Spectre.” Determined to keep going, y’know?)

(Also-also, if anyone reading this wants to talk about Spectre, please reach out to me! I have many thoughts about it that I want to talk to people about!)

A Poisoned Season is the second book in the Lady Emily series, and I continue to love her and her mysteries. The first book was And Only to Deceive, wherein Lady Emily Ashton mourns the death of her husband and becomes friendly with Colin Hargreaves while solving the mystery of her husband’s murder. In A Poisoned Season, Lady Emily fully comes out of her mourning period, and the way that Society reacts to some of her habits and independent tendencies is horrifying to me, a modern reader.

For instance: now that Lady Emily has safely “mourned” her husband for a year, it might be time for her to start looking for another husband. As we learned in And Only to Deceive, Emily admired her husband but didn’t love him while they were married; she only came to love him after she discovered details about his affections towards her and his scholarly pursuits. She engages in friendly banter and the occasional kiss with Colin, but she’s not ready to marry again because she enjoys being her own woman.

Oh, WordPress’s New Posting Thingy: I am not liking you. Getting rid of the “post as thumbnail” option on pictures? Having to manually scroll the posting window down as I type more? I’m not sure I’m going to like this…

So anyway – Society wants Lady Emily to get married again, and even Colin wants to marry her, but she’s just too independent to want to get hitched again. Until she begins to realize that her house isn’t technically her house – it belongs to her husband, and when the heir to the dukedom or whatever it is comes of age, Emily’s going to be out on her ear.

In the midst of all of this soul-searching, there’s this dude who claims to be the missing heir of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette sneaking around throughout Society, trying to get people to believe him long enough to allow him to add to his Marie Antoinette tchotchke collection. Oh, and also, somebody died.

I feel like I’m giving this short shrift, and that’s not my intent. Maybe it’s because I finished reading this book like TWO FREAKING MONTHS AGO and can’t remember more of the details of the plot, or maybe it’s because it’s almost ten o’clock on a Sunday night and I have yet to take my shower and I may have gotten sucked into catching up on The Grinder, which oh my god, I did not know I could love Rob Lowe more after Sam Seaborne and Chris Traeger, but guess what guys? I DO.

ANYWAY, you don’t need to know about my night showering or newfound appreciation for Rob Lowe. I really like this series – Lady Emily is very smart and independent, she has a gentleman caller who loves her enough that even if she doesn’t agree to marry him later, she will still get his entire library, and much like I would be in this situation, the idea of receiving a personal library – look, there’s a reason my favorite Disney movie growing up was Beauty and the Beast, and it wasn’t because of the catchy showtunes. It was because the Beast gave Belle a FRICKIN’ LIBRARY. Find me a girl who grew up at the same time as me who liked to read that DIDN’T develop “getting a library as a gift” into a romantic ideal, and I will show you a cold-hearted bitch.

I think I got off track. And I’m also getting a headache. And I should really go to bed. But I’m on my last episode of The Grinder, and Jason Alexander is playing a director with a bigger Indiana Jones-fetish than me, so I’m going to wrap this up:

If you like strong women, Victorian Society dramas, and intelligent mysteries that also has a fun, romantic element, you should definitely start reading this series. I apologize that I couldn’t do this justice, but let’s look at it this way: I have a backlog of eight freaking books, and I kind of want to get caught up before the end of the year. It would be a novelty! And let’s be real: I’ll be rereading this series in a couple of years, probably, and then I’ll be able to do this review justice.

(Just like the Grinder.)

(Have I mentioned that Natalie Morales is in The Grinder? And that I love her because she played Wendy on The Middleman, which is an excellent show that everyone should watch?)

(Hey look, I got through an entire review without mentioning Hannibal — aw, shit.)

Grade for A Poisoned Season: 3.5 stars

Fiction: “Farewell, My Lovely” by Raymond Chandler

farewell my lovelyAfter The Cocktail Waitress, I decided to continue on my journey through some of the masters of pulp fiction. While I wouldn’t exactly call Raymond Chandler a “pulp” author – his stories are, generally speaking, regarded to aspire to a higher, more “literary,” echelon – – holy shit, Alaina, can you be more of an adjunct literary professor seeking tenure? Christ, I realize it’s 10:30 and you just took a cocktail of melatonin, Aleve, and Claritin, but come on, those aren’t supposed to interact in a way to make you sound like a fuckin’ snob.

Or like you grew up in Southie. Which you fucking didn’t.

Uh, ANYWAY. Basically, Raymond Chandler and his works occasionally get grouped into the “detective novel” genre and not necessarily “pulp” – pulp implies a more lurid tone, more explicit; more sex and violence. Philip Marlowe tends to be on the more restrained side of the equation.

You’ll hopefully remember that my first foray into the world of pulp fiction was a brilliant film by one of the best directors of our generation. I’m referring to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, written and directed by Shane Black. (Oh, did you think — no, that would be incorrect. I haven’t seen that movie yet.) If you haven’t had a chance to watch this masterpiece, please set some time aside in the near future to do so. I promise: you will not be disappointed. It takes place at Christmas, even – you can kick off the season with a bang!

DISCLAIMER: As the calendar has not even approached Halloween as of this writing, PLEASE DO NOT START CHRISTMAS EARLY.

What does this movie – starring Robert Downey Jr., in case I forgot to lead with that – have to do with Raymond Chandler and the beginnings of pulp fiction? The plot of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang follows Harry Lockhart (RDJ), a two-bit thief who gets mixed up in a seedy Hollywood murder mystery, as well as a missing persons case. Strung throughout the plot of the movie is the fact that the femme fatale, Harmony, had a childhood obsession with a pulp series starring detective Johnny Gossamer. The dialogue is very hard-boiled, there’s a slight Chinatown element to one aspect of the plot (think Faye Dunaway’s character), and as Harry is fond of telling his private detective mentor, Perry: the detective always starts out with two cases, but by the end of the book, boom — it’s the same fucking case.

Another relationship that Kiss Kiss Bang Bang has with Farewell, My Lovely? All the act breaks in the movie are titled, and they’re all titled after Raymond Chandler novels. I believe Farewell, My Lovely may be Day 2, but I wouldn’t swear to it in a court of law. It’s been a while since I’ve watched the movie.

Okay, the melatonin just kicked in. Let’s kick this into high gear.

Philip Marlowe is the private detective that stars in Raymond Chandler’s world. He inhabits Los Angeles in the late 1930s, early 1940s, and if you’re picturing Humphrey Bogart in the role, you would be correct, because Humphrey Bogart played Marlowe in the adaptation of The Big Sleep. Ooh, which I have on DVD now! YES. ANYWAY. Marlowe begins Farewell, My Lovely by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This time, he gets (almost literally) dragged into a bar fight by a paroled convict named Moose Malloy. Moose is looking for his lost love, Little Velma, who used to be a singer at the bar where he and Marlowe run into each other. Only the gin joint where she used to warble dried up, and she didn’t leave any crumbs behind her.

(I’d say I was sorry for that last sentence, but y’all know that I really enjoyed that.)

When no one knows what happened to Velma, Moose starts shooting up the place, then runs off in the kerfuffle, leaving Marlowe to explain what happened and why he was connected to the whole thing when the cops show up. Nulty, a cop who isn’t lucky enough to be only two days away from retirement (based on his attitude), practically shanghais Marlowe into doing his footwork for him. While Marlowe is searching for leads in the middle of nothing, he gets a call to be a bodyguard for a fellow who needs to run out of town and drop a ransom in exchange for a very valuable necklace, belonging to his (the fellow’s) lady-friend. And in this instance I actually mean friend, because the fellow happens to be gay. Marlowe agrees because Nulty’s not actually paying him squat for trying to find a lead on Moose, and everything would have gone okay except for the fact that the whole drop was a setup, Marlowe gets beaned on the head and the fellow gets dead.

As the two cases intersect and become the same fucking case, Marlowe meets two women – one becomes almost his Girl Friday, someone he almost sees himself getting serious over. The other is a classic femme fatale, full of sex and mysteries. Throughout the course of his case(s), Marlowe gets kidnapped, knocked unconscious, drugged, involved with a fake psychic, shot at, and almost drowns. But throughout everything he perseveres, because Marlowe belongs to that most rare of breeds of man: the honest kind. Keep in mind that Nulty’s not paying him, and that Marlowe hasn’t been paid for his bodyguarding work from the fellow, because the fellow is now most certainly dead. He doesn’t have any other reason to pursue either of these cases except for his curiosity and sense of justice. He may not always play the white knight (as evidenced by the deal he cuts with a shady mayor at the end of the book), but his intentions are always of the good.

It should be noted that, as the book was written in the 1940s, you will experience a fair amount of racist and derogatory terminology. So, spoiler alert, I guess.

Marlowe doesn’t have grand aspirations in his life; he’s not looking to make a name for himself, or to climb a political ladder. He’s just searching for truth and justice in a very dark and underhanded corner of our world, using the resources he had available to him while still hoping for an easier outcome:

I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room. [p. 238]

When the going gets tough, Marlowe puts his gun in his shoulder holster, his hat on his head, and his feet out the door. He does what needs to be done because in his town, no one else will.

Grade for Farewell, My Lovely: 3.5 stars

Fiction: “Proof” by Dick Francis

Proof Dick FrancisThe second book by Dick Francis I read was Proof. Obviously, I’ve read it before — I’ve read all of his novels before — but I liked this one because while his standard genre of horse-racing is present, it’s in the background, and a topic that is very near and dear to my heart takes the forefront: wine and liquor.

Our narrator is Tony Beach, a young widower who owns a successful wine and spirits shop. Tony is a naturally … I’m not going to say “timid,” because it doesn’t really fit. He’s content in his life (in spite of desperately missing his wife, Emma), and he’s not one to go searching out trouble or ways to put himself in danger. He has a bit of guilt around his self-perceived cowardice, as he is descended from a steeplechase jockey who died on the racetrack, and his father’s father was a war hero.

In college, Tony traveled abroad to France and found he had an affinity for wine, wine-making, and wine-tasting. He had developed a parlor trick where he could distinguish different types of chocolate by taste, and his mentor had him translate that skill to wine. That opened up the possibility of building his own retail wine business, which expanded to spirits. He is occasionally hired to cater garden parties, and we meet Tony at one such garden party. He is in the middle of bringing more champagne to the tent when a horse trailer tragically breaks loose and rolls downhill, right into the tent. It collapses, and Tony springs to action. He and a new friend, Gerard, are able to rescue a good amount of people, though there are a couple of casualties. Gerard happens to be a private detective, of sorts – he is a security agent hired by corporations to solve white-collar crime without getting the police involved. And when Gerard hears about Tony’s parlor trick, he thinks he might pick Tony’s brain about his most recent case: tankers full of scotch whisky disappear from their route, and then reappear completely drained.

Tony also gets involved with having to go to numerous bars in the surrounding area, trying to see if any whiskys have been … not forged, because one can’t forge whisky, but … impersonate? No, that’s not right either — basically, seeing if what the label says on the bottle is correct. Laphroaig scotch has a very distinct taste, and if someone wants to drink Laphroaig, he had better be paying for Laphroaig and not, say, Allen’s Coffee Brandy. So the local constabulary of Scotland Yard has Tony go and sip whisky, every day, searching for fake whisky:

“You mean you might find it,” he said, “if you drank at every hostelry from here to John o’Groat’s?”

“Just Berkshire and Oxfordshire and all the way to Watford. Say fifty thousand places, for starters. A spot of syncopation. Syncopation, as you know, is an uneven movement from bar to bar.” [p. 162-163]

Much like a Johnny Gossamer novel, the missing tankers and the masquerading liquors turn out to be the same fucking case.

I really like Proof, because you don’t have to know all the jockey jargon that Dick Francis usually discusses in his novels. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, because there isn’t — but there are all sorts of these other avenues that Dick Francis has experience in — or at least, knows people in the arena that he wants to write about that he can ask questions of. I don’t think Dick Francis was a sommelier at any point in time, but almost everyone has had at least some wine and can appreciate that some people may have developed palates with regards to wine.

Basically, I wish I could do that – tell what wine it is by taste. Unfortunately, my palate is not developed whatsoever. Especially because I’m usually chugging it straight from the neck while Hannibal‘s on — OH GOD ONE MORE EPISODE OH GOD I MADE MYSELF SAD AND HORRIFIED — anyway, subtlety of flavors is not my strong suit. I am a Will Graham as opposed to a Dr. Lecter in that regard.

(Here’s the part where I stop talking about Hannibal – I can do that tomorrow, when I review the book Hannibal by Thomas Harris because I am ALL ABOUT SYNERGY AND MY LITTLE DEAD CANNIBALISM SHOW)

Anyway. I like the book. I know I’ll read it again someday. While Tony is a widower, and moments of grief do come into play in the story, it doesn’t weigh on Tony’s personality – which is good, as he is our narrator, and that would not make the book move quickly. The friendship between Tony and Gerard is a strong, fast friendship, and in a way, I wish I could read about another adventure they may have together, because they make a great team.

When Gerard is telling Tony about his enterprise as private detective, Tony makes this observation (via his narration):

Be grateful for villainy, I thought. The jobs of millions depended on it, Gerard’s included. Police, lawyers, tax inspectors, prison warders, court officials, security guards, locksmiths and people making burglar alarms. Where would they be the world over but for the multiple faces of Cain. [p. 162]

Yes — thank you, villainy, for ensuring that I get to keep my tax inspector job.

But I still say that wine trick would be pretty cool and could also make a lot of money.

Grade for Proof: 4 stars

Fiction: “Knockdown” by Dick Francis

So, afteknockdownr the interminable hell that was The Mysteries of Udolpho, I needed some quick things to read – basically, the less convoluted the sentence structure, the better. I’m slightly pleased with myself that I didn’t pick up something by Ernest Hemingway (because if you’re looking for lack of description, always choose Hemingway*). What I did pick up were two books by Dick Francis, 1) because it has been entirely too long since I last read something by Dick Francis, and 2) they were both mercifully, wonderfully short.

*now wait for me to actually re-read something by Hemingway and completely disprove that statement.

Knockdown is 238 pages about Jonah Dereham, a bloodstock agent for steeplechasers. Dick Francis’s novels always have some connection to horse-racing; in Knockdown, it’s direct involvement, whereas in the next book I read, Proof, it’s merely tangential. Jonah is an ex-jockey – he fell off one of his mounts and dislocated his shoulder, and jockeys tend to have an expiration date. As cool as it looks, jockeying is actually a rather rough sport (so says the couch potato). So Jonah has taken his talents with horses on the field and turned it into a fine business where he buys horses for trainers and owners and takes a commission.

The titular “knockdown” comes about when Jonah gets involved – tangentially, at first, but then directly – in an bloodstock agent ring that is intent on taking payoffs in order to drive up the prices of some of the horses they’re bidding on.

She was referring to the practice that had grown up among some agents of going to a breeder before a sale and saying, in effect, “I’ll bid your horse up to a good price if you give me a share of what you get.” Far more intimidating was the follow-up: “And if you don’t agree to what I suggest I’ll make sure no one bids for your horse, and if you sell it at all it will be at a loss.” [p. 67]

Honest Jonah tries to stay out of fighting the ring, but as he is constantly attacked, he decides to fight back. His allies are his girlfriend, Sophie, and his alcoholic brother, Crispin. Well, Crispin isn’t so much an ally as a concern and driving force for Jonah, but he’s there and important to the story.

While Dick Francis’s novels tend to get grouped in the mystery section (in libraries and yes, even my categories), not all of his novels follow the who-dun-it model. In Knockdown, we learn pretty early on who’s doing what and why (greeeeed) (sorry spoiler alert!: greeeeed). What we don’t know, and what propels the action forward, is the question: how is the protagonist going to resolve this struggle?

Not all mysteries are about finding out the solution. Many are about finding a resolution.

I feel like I should make a shallow joke about something after that uncharacteristically deep statement. But … I’m kind of tired, you guys. I gotta go to work in the morning, so instead, I’m just gonna kinda … trail off … and hope no one notices I half-assed this one.

Grade for Knockdown: 3 stars

Fiction: “Blue Lonesome” by Bill Pronzini

blue lonesomeAnother rainy day, another day of database entry; another day of surreptitiously writing reviews longhand.

So Blue Lonesome — this is a weird book for me.  Well, not that the book is weird — the book itself is fairly straightforward. My relationship with the book is weird, and rich with Alaina-History.

I first borrowed Blue Lonesome from my hometown library when I was in high school. I don’t know exactly which year it was, but I know it was the year that the library was housed in the old high school while the library was being renovated and expanded. It was awesome, because the old high school was just around the corner from where I lived at the time and I was walking there like, every other day. That summer was the same summer wherein I first read And One to Die On by Jane Haddam and The Venus Throw by Steven Saylor, and a couple of authors that have made it into my rotation.

Do you guys ever experience that type of visceral memory? I mean, when it comes to memories of reading – entire scenes seared in my brain, almost like an out of body experience, where I can see myself either reading the book or first picking up the book – I am lucky enough to have a few. I can see myself in the library picking up The Venus Throw and And One to Die On – it was a sunny, summer afternoon. It was in the second row from the windows, because that’s where the “new and notable” recommendations were, and right in front of the windows were the computers that we had to use because it was the nineties and no one had computers except rich kids and libraries, and no one had EVER heard of Wi-Fi. I guess I haven’t mentioned my memory of reading The Pelican Brief for the first time, but I was in my eighth grade Maine Educational Assessment test and I had just finished the section on reading comprehension, I think? Anyway, I couldn’t leave because it was eighth grade and teachers are practically prison wardens in that age group, so I finished reading And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie, put that into my backpack, and pulled out The Pelican Brief. I can still see myself sitting in my car in the drive-through at the Starbucks near my old apartment, nose-deep into The Beekeeper’s Apprentice for the first time. And at least three Harry Potter-related memories (but here’s one for the road).

Anyway. It amazes me that I can see myself so clearly on that summer day, *mumblemumble* years ago, checking Blue Lonesome out of the library for the first time, but I can never remember any of the details of the plot.

No, for reals. This is the third? fourth? at least the third time I’ve read this book, and every time I pick it up, I remember that the impetus for the mystery is a character nicknamed Ms. Lonesome, that the bulk of the story takes place in authentic-Western Nevada, and that the entire novel is fairly bleak. I don’t remember Ms. Lonesome’s real name, I don’t remember the name of the narrator, the town he goes to, I can’t remember whodunit — nothing. The entire book is a blank. I know I liked it, so I pick it up again. I’ve done so three times in the past ten years but never remember any details. But I still know every goddamned word to the theme song to Ducktales. Granted, the latter is set to (very catchy) music, so I’m sure that helps, BUT STILL.

Oh great. Now I’m going to have that stuck in my head for the rest of the day.

Okay, and before I get into actually discussing the book like I’m supposed to, please take note that the book could contain the following triggers: aftermath of sexual abuse / molestation; semi-graphic imagery of suicide; and snakes.

Blue Lonesome is both the story of Jim Messenger and his obsession with Ms. Lonesome, but also a meditation on the state of being lonesome. Jim is a CPA – a middleman in his firm in San Francisco, divorced in college and never remarried; his life has become rather routine and stagnant. Until one day, when he sees a woman in his diner who strikes him as being even more alone than he is. Jim feels … solitary, I guess; not lonely, but alone. He has friends – at work, and he dates a bit, but at the end of the day he goes back to his apartment and listens to his jazz albums and generally feels okay with his life; okay, but not necessarily content.

This woman at the diner, however – she gets to him. She eats the same meal night after night, never speaks to anyone but the waitress; doesn’t even look up from her plate. She not only exudes loneliness, but also physically and emotionally repels others away from her. And Jim becomes preoccupied with her – he sees her as a kindred spirit and wants to get to know her. But the only conversation is one-sided and slightly hostile.

And then one night, she stops coming to the diner. Jim tries to stop worrying about her, but finally gives into his curiosity. Having already followed her one night to find out where she lived (but not in a stalkery way, if that’s even possible?), he visits her landlord only to find out that his Ms. Lonesome had committed suicide the week before.

Still determined to learn more about this mystery woman, he pays the landlord $20 to view Ms. Lonesome’s personal belongings. Among them, he finds a book stamped as belonging to the Beulah, Nevada Library. He knows it’s a wild goose chase, but his compulsion makes him take his annual two-week vacation early and before he knows it, he’s driving into the town of Beulah.

Ms. Lonesome does not turn out to be the beloved missing person that Jim thought she’d be. Instead, she turns out to be – oh, shit. Jesus Christ, I only returned it to the library five weeks ago, how I have I forgotten that character’s name already?! GODDAMMIT. *Googles aggressively* ANYWAY. Ms. Lonesome turns out to be Anna Burgess Roebuck, the daughter-in-law of the town patriarch. Anna was run out of town after she was accused of murdering her husband and young daughter.

Yeah – she’s not so nice now, huh?

Jim gets involved in Anna’s sister, Dacy, and he tries to solve the mystery. He’s totally that One Guy who comes into town and Stirs Up Shit in the name of Clearing Someone’s Name, but it works here. Not just as a trope, but as a true way for Jim to overcome his own solitariness. By pushing himself so far out of his comfort zone in the name of clearing Anna’s name – because he is convinced that there is no way in hell that she would have murdered her daughter; her husband, maybe, he was kind of a shitheel, apparently, but her daughter? no way – he finds himself.

Also, Anna totally didn’t do it, because that’s how things roll.

There. Hopefully, the next time I pick it up from the library, I’ll remember what the book’s about. Or, at least, I’ll know I have a handy reference to remind me.

Grade for Blue Lonesome: 3.5 stars