Thursday, January 27, 2011

Best Reads of 2010, Part 3

Elizabeth Zelvin

Three more books that came out prior to 2010 made it onto my list of last year’s favorite reads. I read Sue Grafton’s U Is for Undertow (2009) last January, and I thought it was her best in years. I haven’t missed a Kinsey Millhone book since A Is for Alibi, and I deeply respect Grafton’s groundbreaking achievement in creating her and keeping her alive and solving crimes. But in recent years, there have been times when I found myself reading one of her adventures dutifully rather than with pleasure. I have grown impatient with Kinsey’s isolation, her lack of personal growth, and the series device of cramming all her cases into the 1980s instead of letting time pass and the world change. But I really enjoyed Undertow: the pace, the plot, the secondary characters, the fluency of Kinsey’s voice. The fact that I liked it in spite of a crucial plot element being one of my most intense pet peeves—the accusation of child abuse that turns out to be falsified—is probably a point in favor of the book’s strength. As a therapist, I have worked with many abuse survivors over the years, and I think focusing on the exceptional cases when it didn’t really happen sends a subtle and pernicious message. I feel the same about stories that feature a false accusation of rape.

The death of Donald Westlake in 2008 at what I consider the shockingly early age of 75 was a great loss to the mystery community and to the literary community at large. I read his final Dortmunder book, Get Real, with a kind of doubled consciousness. On one level, I was thoroughly absorbed in the story; on another, I had two thoughts over and over: “This is prime stuff; Westlake’s still at the height of his powers,” and “Damn! there aren’t going to be any more.” Westlake was one of the funniest writers ever, the kind of writer you could read passages from aloud and have someone who hadn’t even read one of his books howling with laughter. To me, his voice is one of the most distinct and inimitable in fiction. Authors as distinguished and distinctive as Charles Dickens and Dorothy L. Sayers have had posthumous works completed and additional works written by other writers. But I doubt anyone will tackle the book Westlake’s death left barely started. Who could imitate or fabricate that endlessly inventive sense of humor? Get Real was particularly satisfying to me because it skewered another of my pet peeves, reality TV. Someone has the bright idea of building a reality show around Dortmunder and his engaging band of professional crooks, and what ensues is delicious and hilarious.

Ariana Franklin is another of the small group of recent authors whose first mystery, Mistress of the Art of Death, left me eager for more. I loved the next two in this historical series with endearing characters, including a delightfully strong and clever protagonist, 12th-century forensic pathologist Adelia Aguilar. Unfortunately, I found this year’s fourth entry in the series disappointing. I saw through the plot devices hiding the murderer; worse, Adelia disregarded warnings and walked into danger throughout the book in the best tradition of TSTL heroines, what readers call “too stupid to live.” On the other hand, I read and loved Franklin’s standalone, City of Shadows (2006). Franklin took a less familiar aspect of a familiar setting—Nazi Germany during the rise of Hitler—and a well-known historical puzzle—the murder of the Romanov royal family and the possible survival of the Princess, sorry, Grand Duchess Anastasia—and not only gives them a twist but sends them spinning. It’s tremendously suspenseful; a happy ending is by no means assured. And the unlikely main characters gradually engage more and more of the reader’s sympathies as the story unfolds.

I woffled about adding Tana French’s Faithful Place (2010) to my list, but in the end decided the book deserved a place there. For the third time, this gifted writer has taken an idyllic relationship and shattered it to provide the foundation of the story. For some reason, flaws in French’s work seem to make readers angry at the author rather than at the characters. (No, I take that back. It depends: one friend whose judgment I respect disliked the protagonist of Faithful Place, while I did not.) My favorite bit was the character’s rant, delivered to his nine-year-old daughter, about people who are famous without having accomplished anything. My least favorite was a gratuitous attack on therapy and therapists, another of my pet peeves and one that’s appeared in all three of French’s books. But hey, if her characters had gone through treatment—good treatment with an experienced and ethical therapist like, say, me—where would her stories be?


Sheila Connolly said...

French provides for me a great example of what I want from a book--and what I'm prepared to tolerate because the good outweighs the less good. In Faithful Place I guessed whodunnit early on, but I didn't care, since I was caught up in the characters and the setting. I sometimes wonder if her books should be classified as mystery, but I'm going to keep reading them no matter which shelf they're on.

Sandra Parshall said...

I also guessed the identity of the killer long before the end of Faithful Place, but that didn't spoil the book for me. It's a great portrait of a volatile family, but without much suspense, more literary fiction than detective fiction.

Julia Buckley said...

I love the Grafton series, too. She hasn't lost her gift or lost the spark of the series, even after all these books.

I think my personal favorites are G is for Gumshoe and I is for Innocence.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Julia, when Grafton was interviewed at the Edgars Symposium after being named a Grand Master of MWA, she talked about having realized around the time of J is for Judgment that she'd lost touch with her inner evil and had to get it back. Sounds like a good reason you found I is for Innocence particularly good.

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