Archive for the ‘Detective’ Category

Richard Morgan – Altered Carbon

Sunday, November 9th, 2014

Richard Morgan produces a crime noir science fiction novel with a hard edge with Altered Carbon (2002). Some call the setting dystopian and that is not correct. Yes it is a world where corporations dominate a capitalistic society and the rich are virtually above the law and many people strive for a similar luxury combined with power. If one cares to examine things more seriously these are all choices and many can live their own life as they want. It is a worse society than today’s one but it all depends to what one compares it to.

Morgan opens the novel powerfully and immediately defines the rules of this future society. It certainly sucks in the reader. Then the rhythm changes and the story becomes a detective although with a heavy dose of violence, many interruptions and sudden twists. There is certainly not a steady course to be found which makes the detective story different while it keeps many familiar elements.

The main protagonist does a peculiar investigation. He makes strange choices and certainly in the beginning it is hard to understand what course he is following. It is a bit an early weakness in the plot. Morgan throws in a bait so that the main protagonist will follow that course tenuously. It is only at a much later stage that the pieces start falling into place.

The main protagonist is an unusual character. He is a sort of special agent with many unique skills and a long complicated history. He seems out of place as a detective but he takes care of his job resiliently. He is a bit of rebel, careless and reckless, which seems out of place with his training. It makes one wonder why he is given this job. Nevertheless his attitude allows for amusing dialogues and situations which put the reader in a different frameset.

Morgan allows the reader to really get to see the world from the perspective of the main protagonist by using a first person narrative. As he is out of place he reminisces a lot and compares what he sees with what he already knows. This way Morgan can provide the reader with plenty of background information on this future universe by throwing around many small bits where it is appropriate to do so. There never is a feeling of infodumping so this is well done.

The future universe does not have much peculiar elements. Much seems rather similar to the current world. Morgan just uses a number of things that are not much different from the traditional cyberpunk SF. He just gives it some different setup and has a few new ideas that make things different.

As a detective novel the story is somewhat unusual. It is more focused on the circumstances than the actual crime. A lot of secondary plotlines draw away the attention. It is all greatly entertaining and it provides a engaging pageturner as it is impossible to predict where things are going. The investigation seems to be going everywhere and nowhere. All in all that makes a very good read. Highly recommended.

One final note: Although this novel has a standalone story it is not the only one with this main protagonist. It is actually part of a loosely connected trilogy. So who enjoys this novel can go for another one.

Michael Chabon – The Final Solution

Sunday, June 29th, 2014

In most cases I dislike reading novels that have stories based on the characters of another writer as they can rarely create the same atmosphere and feeling and the characters presented as they should not be. On this occasion I have made an exemption to try one, although this review will of course give a verdict that is partially based on an existing view that I have. The novel, or rather short novel or novella, I am talking about is The Final Solution (2005) by Michael Chabon. Chabon is one of the few contemporary writers whose work I have always enjoyed so I give him some credit here as he might make something more out of it.

The Final Solution is a Sherlock Holmes story set in his old age. His name is not mentioned so for the reader unfamiliar with Arthur Conan Doyle’s work the recognition will not be automatic, even as Chabon adds in plenty of hints without them being to obtrusive. Writing the story this way is actually not unusual. Even Doyle himself wrote a few Sherlock Holmes stories without mentioning his name.

Chabon does not attempt to mimic anything of the style of Doyle. This is of course an essential approach as it is very hard to do so. The story is told from different points of view. There are not many characters in the story so this way we get a greater picture. Chabon keeps a relatively slow pace, at least compared to how he usually writes. It adds to the atmosphere and the setting. There is a crime and a mystery and they should be approached with care. Chabon takes his time to present several characters and his depiction is as vivid and accurate as ever. He writes with great quality prose although he keeps his words a bit more simple than usual, which is good as it would disrupt the narrative.

Nevertheless the story progresses quickly. Like many of the Sherlock Holmes stories Chabon finds the right pace and every mystery is often not as complex as it seems. Chabon keeps it up for about three-quarter of the novel. What then happens is hard to describe. He goes off track and makes a shambles of the conclusion. Despite the title the reader is not really provided with a solution. We are missing some key elements that are never explained and I remained somewhat dissatisfied. If Chabon really had wanted to do a genuine homage he should have ended story in the right style. Instead he changes the focus and the direction of the story. I didn’t get the point.

So there is much to enjoy about this novel. It is a nice homage, but of course far from the real deal. One should not read it for the Sherlock Holmes references and homage but for the story itself and the typical Chabon style and elements which makes his novels a great read because there is much here as well.

 

Wilkie Collins – The Moonstone

Monday, August 12th, 2013

In my ongoing quest for the classics of literature I have come across a lesser known classic. The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins belongs to the very first detective novels. So this was before any standard formats were used and the typical clichés were known. The Moonstone entered a new frontier and just that makes it an exciting read.

In some cases, if one encounters an early book of a genre, one runs the risk that, as it did not know of clichés it can be full of it. This is certainly not the case in the Moonstone. It is actually the lack of standards and formats which make is unique. Collins was still exploring this new genre. He did not know what would work and what would not. This resulted in a novel containing all kinds of familiar elements that are just off a little. They are very appealing but still lacking. It is imperfect. If one has read plenty of detective novels you easily pick out which elements developed into this or that later in the genre. Here they are still different and they have a different effect.

One big game changer compared to contemporary detectives is that this novel is a character piece. The characters define the plot and the mystery while usually it is the plot that defines the story and the characters needed to make it work. The plot itself is not that complex and one can fairly well guess who did it. It is only because Collins makes his characters create smoke screens that the reader remains uncertain until late in the book with a fairly baffling conclusion. The Moonstone makes its mark and it is certainly one of a kind. It will certainly survive the ages, although it should be awarded more attention that is has had as I myself only discovered it by chance.

As I wrote the novel is a character piece. This is for a large extent accomplished by telling the story in several different first person narratives. Each character is very different and creates a different atmosphere in the part in which their story is narrated. Collins has plenty of time to flesh them out. It would even have been better if other characters in the story would also have narrated a part of the story as some remain partially developed and not always as well as the other side characters have been done. Here Collins was probably constricted by the fact that he was telling a detective story and some narratives were simply not logical to present.

The Moonstone is not a perfect novel. Instead it thrives on its imperfections as a detective novel and a strong characterization. The plot floats between complex and simplistic. Some answers were quite impossible to guess while others were fairly obvious. The novel is very much a product of its time where science was only yet developing and there was still a division between higher society and government officials that limited serious investigations. This new change was at the time not ripened yet but one can see it coming. There were still constraints and the differences between social classes and their internal behavior played a large role. Collins depicts these clearly. As always, living 150 years later, it sometimes seems to strange. Are the descriptions and attitudes so distinct because they were normal and natural to the writer or something he aimed at to create a greater contrast. I am not that familiar with mid nineteenth century England to really make comments about it, but contemporary literature, in a way, always describes the times as they are written in and this is what makes them distinct as you can place them in their times. That is a difference that I note between contemporary authors writing a story that takes place many decades ago and novels written in that period.

I will not diverge to much from the actual review of this novel. I think I have said enough already. This one is certainly recommended, not only for fans of the detective genre. One last note: my edition contained extensive notes and introductions. It is advisable to skip them all until the novel is done as they are quite spoilerish.

Arthur Conan Doyle – Sherlock Holmes Complete

Monday, July 1st, 2013

I don’t read that many detectives or mysteries and one might not be surprised that I prefer those of great renown like Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle. What I like most of them is that despite the mystery centered plot their works give a vivid and recognizable picture of the then contemporary times in which they stories were written. While Agatha Christie’s novels mainly take place in the Interbellum and shortly after, all of Doyle’s mysteries take place before the first world war, in a time when modern technology was only at its breakthrough.

In the case of Arthur Conan Doyle I am of course talking about his stories about Sherlock Holmes, one of the most famous detectives ever created. Doyle wrote 4 novels and 56 short stories about him. As the works are more short of nature it is more appropriate to review these not separately but as a whole. I should also add that most of the so-called novels are of a relatively short nature, barely reaching a hundred pages, depending on the edition.

I own a very nice edition called Sherlock Holmes Complete (1985), divided into two large volumes. I bought it a long time ago and this is the third time, I think, I have read it. The stories are ordered in a chronological order. This is of relatively minor importance as Doyle has been very sloppy with his time references in most of his stories, except for three moments. The first two are of course related to the beginning and the end of what are in essence memoirs written by Doctor Watson, the ever present sidekick of Sherlock Holmes. The one other moment is caused by a break that Doyle took in his writing of Sherlock Holmes, being tired of the character. Doyle presented Holmes in a realistic fashion, no matter how fantastical the mysteries might seem. Just as the stories showed a development of Holmes over time, showing the beginning and the end of his career, he needed to give Holmes a break as well, as Doyle didn’t know if he would return to writing more stories.

I should not elaborate too much on these details. As I wrote before the stories depict an almost nostalgic view of late Victorian England. Of course it had its flaws but these were part of it. Every class of society had its peculiarities and so the stories were very recognizable. One could compare it the writings of Dickens although Doyle did not waste time on elaborate descriptions and introspections. It is actually rather surprising that Doyle wrote the stories in a very clean and sober way while his main character Sherlock Holmes was always looking for details. Doyle wrote for money and had to publish regularly. The plot thus was everything and he did not waste words where they weren’t essential. The reader will only find bare descriptions of characters or locations. Doyle gives the characteristics necessary and the reader will have to imagine it. And this works quite well.

The stories themselves are often not that complicated. Doyle simply creates puzzling situations because one has a limited view where misinterpretation plays an important role. Most of his novels are actually no better. Much of the story actually contains a separate narrative telling a more complex background of how current events came to be. The actually mystery was solved rather quickly. That doesn’t take away the fact that these stories inside the mystery are quite engaging.

One thing that I should address is that the Sherlock Holmes stories are in most cases actually more mystery than detective stories. The police may be involved most of the time, but often no actual crime is committed or apprehension of the supposed criminal does not happen. It is a detective because it is the occupation of Sherlock Holmes, but the stories themselves are of a different nature than what the common description of a detective contains.

The stories contain a wide variation of topics. What marks them is the great creativity which Doyle showed in writing so many original stories, keeping his approach and interest strong.

It is hard to say anything about the characters. Few exist which do not know them. Holmes and Watson were a pair that has been copied many times since in different but recognizable variations: the eccentric hyper-intelligent detective and his down-to-earth good-hearted common man companion. Of course I have seen many adaptations of the characters but in the end they are only adaptations. When reading their tales a different picture was created in my head which was much stronger and vivid than any of those adaptations. Making these two central characters that hard to approach I consider a great feat.

As I had done before during my previous readings of these works I enjoyed the stories intensely. It was hard to reach the end, knowing that it will take 5 to 10 years before most plots have become hazy enough for me so that I can enjoy them to the full extent again.

Peter F. Hamilton – Great North Road

Sunday, April 21st, 2013

Whenever Peter F. Hamilton writes a novel he makes sure to put in as many words as possible. His latest, Great North Road (2012), is a big one with almost 1100 pages. I don’t mind that, as long as it is written well. Luckily I’ve been reading Hamilton’s novels for some years and although it began with a rough start I can state it has always been easy as the prose is solid and the storytelling right on the mark and nowhere dreary. I know other writers who like the write big books, but most of them simply add words with little relevance that do not contribute much to the story.

Hamilton has been one of the few science fiction authors who has managed to claim a place on my top list. I don’t really need to think about buying a new novel by him and I can just pick it up if I see it. Here I do have to add I haven’t read the story collection he publish a few years ago, but that is mainly because I’m not that much of a short story fan. Their limited length simply fail to satisfy me sufficiently, most of the times.

Great North Road is actually a detective set in a future environment. For a change the time leap is not as great as in his previous novels so the setting contains a lot of familiar elements. The story is also quite earthbound. This time no space battles, sequences of space travel or explorations of future or alien tech. Personally I don’t think an SF author should always stick to the same game to prevent becoming repetitive and find some new challenges. Nevertheless quite some Hamilton tropes remain, like strange not-understood aliens and an array of rather eccentric or peculiar characters.

As usual the cast of characters is huge. A change however is that Hamilton spends more time on characterization. In essence there are five main protagonists (if I am counting right) of which two take center stage. Hamilton spends plenty of time with them to give them all the space they need. Also new in this novel are many sequences of flashbacks that he uses to fill in backgrounds. They are not annoying. Most of the story takes place in two settings so they provide some variation, not only in setting but also in mood and atmosphere. Hamilton also uses the flashbacks to showcase the new universe he has created as the two central settings are very focused and there is relatively little movement. He has spent time developing the new universe and does not want to leave them in the background. I can say that chances are low that Hamilton will write another book in this universe, so it is actually nice to see and know more.

All the time spent on the characters and the flashbacks add more layers to the story. They do not cause complexity but allow Hamilton to create a greater weave which he gradually connects with each other.

The central part of the plot that he has created, which is the storyline focusing on the murder case, is highly peculiar and utterly fascinating. Hamilton wrote investigation storylines before but here he takes it to a new level. It is new and refreshing. Everything happens in a slightly different way that we are used to and that just made it captivating to me.

Around the central part revolves a second storyline. This centers less around the now but more about what happened before and how it affects what happened later. Unfortunately this part is not very original. There are some peculiarities but overall we’ve seen it before. Another downside is that the storyline starts to drag on as it progresses. It is here that the length of the story is felt. Developments are slower and more repetitive. This is simply caused by the fact that Hamilton is not hurrying and does everything step by step until he reached the conclusion. Perhaps he was enjoying himself playing it all out meticulously.

As one can suspect the murder case storyline gets solved before the other storyline. The subsequent endgame then takes to long and the conclusion is suddenly wrapped up quickly. It almost felt as if Hamilton noticed the story was getting too long and that now he had written what he had needed to write, the loose ends were not that interesting anymore and he wanted to be done with. It almost seemed that Hamilton was taking the easy way out. Not that it would be implausible, it was just somewhat unlikely and that was rather in stark contrast to the careful worldbuilding and real people that he had developed.

So the book all around is 99% strong to good with the last 1% having a glitch. I would even have accepted it if Hamilton would have just left the last 20 pages out as these are just silliness in my opinion. No reason to give this novel some bad marks. Endings are always though. In such cases an open ending would be better than to quickly wrap everything up.

There is one last remark I do want to make. The actual plot is not that complex that is it justifies such a big novel. Hamilton simply added details, layers and flashbacks to expand it as much as he could. It did not hurt the pace as he kept that a good constant, although it was nowhere fast. One would almost think he abused the credit he has built up over the years with the big novels that did require all the space they needed. Normally this novel would have been cut to a third of its length (I’m serious) and one would have not lost anything important. Well, that’s just my opinion. Not that I say it’s too long. I love a long and great read and a short book means I will spend less time enjoying myself and thrill will be over far too soon. Anyhow, this is another great one by Peter F. Hamilton. Recommended.

Stephen Hunt – Secrets Of The Fire Sea

Thursday, September 27th, 2012

My fiftieth review of the year is Secrets Of The Fire Sea (2010) by Stephen Hunt. It is a steampunk novel that feels more like science fiction than fantasy as the fantastical element is small, although not absent. A mishmash of technology provides a mixed combination of the society of his world, which is quite different from any Earthly analogies. Overall this novel provides few insights in the world the story takes place, as its setting is located at a distant island at the edge of civilization.

Secrets Of The Fire Sea starts off as a murder mystery which through other storylines quickly evolves into a greater mystery. The plot develops rapidly with much happening within a short interval. Halfway through the novel the story changes as the greater mystery gets preference over the murder mystery. Hunt keeps his pace, all the while expanding his plot until it reaches a grand finale. The novel is a real pageturner and it certainly caught me as well.

There are two main protagonists from whose view the story is told although some of the side characters also get time to provide a greater perspective and more action. The better of the two is the detective who with his unusual side-kick forms a great pair that I enjoyed a lot. I certainly want to see more of them in the future. The other characters remain somewhat bland although Hunt fleshes them out sufficiently. The fast pace of the story and the steady revelations concerning the mysteries leave hardly any time for character development. This can be a choice and with the engaging plot it is not missed.

The novel is far from perfect. The plot shift halfway through the book turns the murder mystery into an adventure story. The whole murder mystery gets overwhelmed and its solution later on is presented on a side note, not having gotten enough attention with lost focus due to the adventure plot having taken preference. In the end both plot halfs do not get enough attention and combining them gives the novel as a whole a mixed mood that might separately be very enjoyable, but is not wholly satisfactory together.

That said I was quite impressed by the ideas and strong writing style of Stephen Hunt, who dodges a number of steampunk clichés, at least in this novel, and makes it much more substantial. Personally I envision steampunk to be more science fiction than fantasy, the latter being the more commonplace in a number of novels I’ve encountered the past years. As I’ve written in one or more of my blog posts certain subgenres get swamped by average or cliché novels that take advantage of the popularity but scorn the essentials of it. It causes me to avoid those subgenres although I usually go by my gut feeling (which is usually very accurate) to try something out that may be something better. Now with Stephen Hunt I have the feeling he gets the steampunk genre right and I certainly want to read more to discover if he can sustain that opinion. After completing the novel I discovered that Secrets Of The Fire Sea, although being a rather standalone novel, is the fourth novel of a series taking place in the same world. So I will have more to read in the near future. This one is certainly recommended.

Daniel Polansky – The Straight Razor Cure

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

Debut novels are often not perfect as they still lack some writing experience by the author. Most important however is that they show promise for growth. The Straight Razor Cure (2011) by Daniel Polansky is such a novel. It is a fantasy and detective story seen from an underworld perspective, taking place in a city and is told from a first person narrative. Those two choices allow the author to build up his setting and his main character. He avoids clichés by putting his main character in a position of certain power and influence, with certain limitations to make it not look too easy at times. The main character has weaknesses and strengths and contrary to the usual fantasy mainstay, seems to be on a eventually declining path. This is also something unusual as the story progresses. He wins some and loses some. What will be the final advantage remains to be seen.

The main character is likable enough although his noble attitude seems to clash with his somewhat dark position. That mix combined with a solitary nature is one of the weakness of the story. It’s not entirely plausible, although many things remain vague enough to leave room for explanation. This is another strange thing about the book. Polansky mixes into the story a number of flashbacks to give more background information. Here he provides quite some details while in the main story he refrains from going into detail, leaving other things vague. It is a minor unbalance, not really noticeable. Only for me as a reviewer, thinking about the little things, it can be seen. As there will be a sequel to the novel I expect more details will be revealed.

The flashbacks do provide intermezzos in the somewhat singular murder plot. There are some nice twists, although some elements that lead to surprises can be expected long beforehand. Luckily knowing what the surprise will be is not easy, so they are not that bothersome as they are also not that many. Polanksy focuses on his main story and does not stray much from it. Because of this there are not much hidden layers to be anticipated in the next novel, making it more or less a standalone novel.

Polansky also keeps his setting in familiar territory. His world is templated on Europe, with the central nation resembling England, and using familiar names from European countries for his foreigners although the countries’ names are of his own devising. This is not a bad thing, many fantasy authors do the same. It does depend on the way it is implemented. Polansky does provide a different geographic setting, although no map is provided.

The prose is good, easy to read, although Polansky seems to throw in an unusual word now and then. I’m not a native English speaker, but I’ve read plenty to have a fair understanding of non-typical Englishy vocabulary. Nevertheless Polansky’s unusual words were really new and rather unknown to me, while his prose didn’t really much use unusual or difficult words that often. It’s just a detail, not really important, but it’s these oddities that I noted.

Overall The Straight Razor Cure was an enjoyable read. It’s not outstanding. It’s not weak or mainstream either. It is not complex and also not cliché or too simplistic. It had its minor flaws and as a debut novel show sufficient interesting things to promise growth. As such I will certainly pick up the next installment of the series. Recommended.

Stephen King & Peter Straub – Black House

Saturday, May 12th, 2012

Often my reviews contain first time reads, but as an enjoyed book is always worthwhile for later, I do add the occasional re-read. Black House (2001), which I read first almost ten years ago, is the second joint novel of Stephen King and Peter Straub and a somewhat standalone sequel to their previous joint novel The Talisman. In this period of writing, most books Stephen King wrote have elements relating to the Dark Tower series and so does this one. We actually learn some different things of the background of the at the time still ongoing series, although they remain minor in reference. For fans of that series, this is a reason for reading this book as well and as such it feels more like a Stephen King novel than something else.

Black House contains elements of the horror, fantasy and detective genre. At times it is nasty and brutal, while it is also scintillating and tragic, which seems to be something typical for King’s style. I mainly read his Dark Tower (related) novels, so I can’t say how it works out in his other books. I’ve read nothing of Peter Straub’s work, so I can’t say which parts belong to him. There are two things that do stand out.

First is a very strong third person narrative in the form of an actual narrator talking to the reader most of the time, which is something I haven’t seen Stephen King use. To me it was not a likeable narrator as he was telling the story without personal feeling. The emotions were for the sake of the story-telling and not about the characters. The narrator also had a habit of taking too much time shifting from scene to scene, making these parts longwinded and not very interesting.

The second thing, which for me carried the story, was the powerful characterization of the many average American characters. This is one of King’s strong writing skills and at times I was quite blown away with the easy manner of how he brings them to life so distinctly. It has been some years since I read a King novel, so I am better at noticing and comparing these things.

Another King element, I assume, is that the elderly play an important part again, like he did in Insomnia and Hearts In Atlantis. With this I don’t mean a few old people have a role, but that the elderly community is involved and that certain parts of the story revolve about it.

The plot itself is quite engaging, shifting from horror to fantasy or detective with ease. All of this is interwoven with character scenes creating a multitude of strands which form a greater weave for the whole story. At times these strands seem to cross each other too often, especially as the story takes place over a relatively short time. Certain scenes are sometimes retold from different viewpoints to create a more dynamic picture. Now that I think back it is partially because of those many strands and details that are added to the story that you have the feeling that there happens too much while it does not really do so.

The downside effect of all these strands and details, combined with the longwinded narratives when shifting between scenes and the sometimes replaying of scenes from different viewpoints, is that the book is quite long. Too long in my opinion. Perhaps 100 or 200 pages could have been cut, making the story tighter and more powerful. It isn’t bad to have details. It is just that one does not have to spend time on every little character who plays something of a role in the story. Sometimes it just doesn’t matter.

Obviously as I’ve re-read the book it is certainly enjoyable. I’m no fan of horror, so certain nasty scenes I did not enjoy. Luckily they are few so that was bearable enough. The long length of the book and the not-likeable main narrative are reasons why I don’t consider it a great book. Nevertheless it is recommendable for its powerful characterizations and the Dark Tower references.