Fiction Review

“Ghost Country” by Sara Paretsky

Paretsky, Sara. Ghost Country (1998)  
Delacorte, 386 pages, $24.95 hardcover 
ISBN 0 385 29933 8

I was very glad when Sara Paretsky finally proved wrong my fear (after reading Windy City Blues) that she might never publish again with the appearance of Ghost Country. Then I read the novel.  

Ghost Country starts off promisingly enough, as a story about homelessness in the city (Chicago) and the conflict between homeless people and the corporation that owns the hotel outside of which the homeless want to congregate.  The homeless, the dispossessed, the conflict between the haves and the have-nots—all of this is familiar ground to Paretsky in her V.I. Warshawski novels.

But before long Ghost Country veers away from social realism—far, far away. Two of the major characters are Harriet Stonds and her half-sister, Mara Stonds. Both orphans, the girls have been raised by their grandfather, the powerful and egotistical Dr. Abraham Stonds. Harriet, a successful lawyer, has always been the perfect child, doing exactly as she was told and expected to do; she has blond hair and white skin. Her sister Mara, in contrast, has dark, unruly hair, dark skin, and a hot temper; she’s rebellious and a constant source of trouble to her grandfather. 

As the book continues the distinction between the two women—one light, the other dark—becomes nearly allegorical although inverted, with Harriet as the Ice Maiden and Mara as a life force. Further, their grandfather, Dr. Stonds, emerges as the traditional allegorical picture of evil, while his helpmate, the housekeeper Mrs. Ephers, comes to resemble Mrs. Danvers, the devoted yet demented housekeeper in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.

Then Paretsky introduces a new character, Starr: “The woman was a horrible specimen. Her hair was piled in a massive pompadour that looked like snakes, but Harriet was more revolted by her breasts. The newcomer was naked from the waist up, and her breasts looked so enormous, Harriet had the fantasy that they were reaching across the sidewalk to suffocate her” (p. 186). And here’s the reaction of Hector Tammuz, an emergency room doctor and sympathetic character, when he sees Starr:

Naked from the waist up until one of the orderlies found an old T shirt for her. Her breasts were large and golden, like ripe gourds, the nipples glowing cherries. Even after Millie Regier, the psychiatric charge nurse, managed to cover them—a struggle, since the woman’s hair was piled high with heavily waxed curls that looked like horns; she was tall, too, so that Millie, panting and heaving, maneuvering long bronze arms into sleeves, stretching to pull over curls and braids, the woman not resisting, but not helping, staring around at the attendants, the machinery, Tammuz himself—even after those dugs, which looked as though they might suckle the whole world, were covered, Tammuz found his gaze returning to the woman’s bosom, looking past the red cotton [T shirt] (p. 189).

It’s evident that Paretsky is pushing Starr toward some symbolic or mythical significance, although exactly what the character signifies is unclear. Even Mara, Starr’s companion and champion, can’t explain her:

Why do you have to label her? It’s enough that she was here. She healed me, she healed Hector and dozens of other people. She saved my life, and Luisa’s too. Does it matter whether she did something supernatural or not? You looked into her eyes, and you saw yourself, just as you were. For some people that reflection was too horrible to endure. . . . But if you could stand your own reflection, you discovered you could like yourself (p. 377).

The book ends without satisfactorily establishing the purpose of this Earth Mother figure. Mara seems to have benefited from Starr’s presence, which is more than can be said for the reader. The best thing about Ghost Country is this reassurance that Paretsky offers in the prefatory note:  “For those worried about V.I. Warshawski, the detective has been on strike, but we are currently in mediation and should resume work together soon.”

© 2000 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“Windy City Blues” by Sara Paretsky

Paretsky, Sara. Windy City Blues (1995)

When Windy City Blues, a collection of V.I. Warshawski short stories, came out, Sara Paretsky was in the midst of a prolonged and well publicized writing slump. After I read this book, my heart sank. I feared that we might never see another Paretsky book again.

I imagined this scenario: Paretsky’s agent and/or editor said, “Sara, it’s been a while since you published a book. We need to get your name back out in front of the public. What do you have for us?”

Having completed very little of her current work in progress, Paretsky reached into the bottom drawer of her file cabinet and drew out a stack of earlier stories. In the introduction to this book Paretsky tells us she wrote these pieces when she needed to work through an idea that didn’t require a complete novel. In the “Author’s Note” she says, “These stories were written over a period of thirteen years, beginning with ‘The Takamoku Joseki’ (1982) and ending with ‘Grace Notes’ (1995), created especially for this collection.”

These stories were cobbled together into the volume published as Windy City Blues. With the exception of the addition of the new story, “Grace Notes,” nothing was done to the material to give it any kind of continuity. It looks very much as if Paretsky was desperate to publish something—anything—with her name on it.

In the Introduction to this volume Paretsky says, “The eye with which I see Chicago is always half cocked for alienation and despair, because for me the city is a dangerous place where both states are only just below the surface” (p. 2). Unfortunately, the short story form doesn’t allow the author to explore these conditions. Whereas the V.I. Warshawski novels often do probe such issues, there’s no such meaty content in the stories that make up Windy City Blues.

© 2000 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee

Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)  
rpt. Warner, 1982, 281 pages, $6.99 paperback
ISBN 0-446-31078-6

Highly Recommended

Cover: To Kill a Mockingbird

The story takes place in rural Maycomb, Alabama, between the summer of 1933 and Halloween of 1935. In Part One the young narrator, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, sets the stage for the main action by introducing us to life in her small town, where the farmers have been hit hard by the Depression. We meet Scout’s brother, Jem; her father, lawyer Atticus Finch, whom the children address by his first name; and the family’s black cook, Calpurnia. We also meet Dill, a boy who spends summers with his aunt, the Finches’ next-door neighbor. Scout is almost six years old when the story begins, her brother almost 10.

The novel employs a first-person narrator. This narrator is not the young child telling the story as it happens, but rather an adult remembering events of her childhood. This technique allows the older narrator to present herself whenever necessary to supply information that the child narrator could not have known at the time or to comment on the action.

Scout, Jem, and Dill spend most of their first two summers together devising elaborate schemes to lure their neighbor, Boo Radley, out of his spooky house.

Part Two presents the central action of the novel, the trial of Tom Robinson, in summer, 1935. Bob Ewell, a shiftless and dishonest alcoholic whose family lives in a run-down old shack behind the garbage dump, accuses Tom Robinson, a black man, of raping his daughter Mayella. The town judge has assigned Atticus to defend Tom. Despite Atticus’s upstanding reputation, his neighbors have been hurling offensive remarks about him at his children because of his efforts to defend a black man.

The night before the trial Scout, Jem, and Dill watch Atticus confront a lynch mob in front of the town jail, where Tom Robinson is being held. The cowardly mob disperses when the three children appear and Scout begins talking to one of the men she knows.

After the jury delivers the verdict that everyone knows is a foregone conclusion, Bob Ewell, who feels that Atticus humiliated him on the witness stand, vows to get even. In the story’s dramatic climax, Jem and Scout are attacked on their way home from a Halloween pageant at the school. They are saved by the appearance of a man who carries the unconscious Jem home.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a double coming-of-age story involving both Jem and, to a lesser degree, Scout. In a way the novel is also a coming-of-age story about southern culture as it takes its first small step toward emerging from its racist past. 

© 2000 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“O” is for Outlaw by Sue Grafton

Grafton, Sue. “O” is for Outlaw (1999)  
Henry Holt and Company, 318 pages, $26.00 hardcover  
ISBN 0 8050 5955 5

In an introductory note Grafton explains to the reader that Kinsey Millhone time progresses at a slower pace than real time: “Since the books are sequential, Ms. Millhone is caught up in a time warp and is currently living and working in the year 1986, without access to cell phones, the Internet, or other high-tech equipment used by modern-day private investigators. She relies on persistence, imagination, and ingenuity: the stock-in-trade of the traditional gumshoe throughout hard-boiled history.” At least in terms of high-tech hardware Kinsey differs from her counterpart V.I. Warshawski, who, in her latest adventure, totes around a cell phone and a Palm Pilot, and uses a desktop computer connected to the Internet to dig up information with the help of electronic databases.

In “O” is for Outlaw Kinsey revisits her past when long-forgotten personal items surface from a storage locker previously rented by Kinsey’s first husband, Mickey Magruder. Kinsey married Mickey, a cop, when she was 19 or 20 and still a student at the police academy. The marriage didn’t last long: she filed for divorce when Mickey wanted her to lie to provide him with an alibi in an investigation that finally got him expelled from the police force. She would have divorced him eventually anyway, though, once she found out about his drinking and womanizing.

When Kinsey learns that Mickey has been shot by an unknown gunman and is comatose, she decides to find out what brought him to that fate. Her investigation involves looking into her own past as well as into Mickey’s. Along the way she finds that she may have been too quick to judge Mickey, too quick to walk away. 

When she’s finally unraveled the mystery, she returns to the dying Mickey’s bedside: 

After the rapture of love comes the wreckage, at least in my experience. I thought of all the things he’d taught me, the things we’d been to each other during that brief marriage. My life was the richer for his having been part of it. Whatever his flaws, whatever his failings, his redemption was something he’d earned in the end. (p. 318)

This is a kinder, gentler Kinsey than we’ve seen before. By providing such character nuances, Sue Grafton keeps fresh this continuing series.

© 2000 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“Agatha Raisin and the Vicious Vet ” by M.C. Beaton

Agatha Raisin and the Vicious Vet (1993) 
St. Martin’s, 199 pages, $17.95 hardcover 
ISBN 0‑312‑09242‑3

Agatha Raisin arrived at London’s Heathrow Airport with a tan outside and a blush of shame inside. She felt an utter fool as she pushed her load of luggage towards the exit.

She had just spent two weeks in the Bahamas in pursuit of her handsome neighbour, James Lacey… (1)

Could this be the same Agatha Raisin whom we first met in Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death, the self-assertive middle-aged retiree who crashed her way into Carsley society? Indeed it is. Now having decided to stay in the village of Carsley after all, Agatha has set her mind on winning over the new occupant of the cottage next to hers. And what Agatha wants, Agatha works hard to get.

But wait. There’s another new, handsome bachelor in town, Paul Bladen, who has opened a veterinary clinic. So, after Lacey has proved elusive, Agatha decides that her cat could use a check-up. But when Agatha, dressed to the nines, arrives at the clinic waiting room, she finds just about every other woman in the village, similarly attired, there before her.

This is a mystery, so a murder occurs early on. But the murder is almost incidental. The real content of the book is the comic machinations that Agatha goes through to arouse Lacey’s interest and that Lacey goes through when he fears she’s after him. Has the inimitable Agatha Raisin finally met her match?

© 2000 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death” by M.C. Beaton

Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death (1992).
St. Martin’s, 201 pages, $17.95 hardcover 
ISBN 0‑312‑08153‑7

When we first meet Agatha Raisin, she’s 53 years old and about to retire from her public relations job in London to a cottage in the Cotswolds: “The Cotswolds in the Midlands are surely one of the few man‑made beauties in the world: quaint villages of golden stone houses, pretty gardens, winding green lanes and ancient churches […] to Agatha the Cotswolds represented everything she wanted in life: beauty, tranquility and security” (1).

It’s hard to begrudge Agatha her coveted retirement bliss. After all, she’s had a tough life. The child of alcoholic parents, she was forced to leave school and go to work at an early age. As soon as she was old enough she left her parents and went to London, where she worked her way through secretarial classes. She went to work at a public relations agency and learned all she could before starting her own business, which she’s built up “over long hard years of work.”

As a young woman Agatha was married briefly to the charming Jimmy Raisin. Once she admitted to herself that Jimmy was a drunk, Agatha walked out on him one day and has never heard from or of him since. She assumes he’s dead by now.

So who wouldn’t expect Agatha Raisin to be a bit gruff, a bit self-centered, a bit harsh? Now, after selling her business for a tidy sum, Agatha is off to fulfill her life-long dream. She’s determined to impose herself upon the village of Carsley. But is Carsley ready for Agatha Raisin?

On her first few days in the little village Agatha is offended that the villagers’ warmth does not extend beyond the superficial greetings of common courtesy. But no matter. When she sees posters announcing the annual quiche-baking contest, Agatha knows she’s found just the way to find acceptance in the village: she’ll submit the prize-winning quiche. So what if Agatha’s culinary skills don’t extend beyond warming frozen dinners in the microwave oven? She’ll just drive on into London and buy a smashing quiche at her favorite deli.

Agatha’s position in the village becomes even more tenuous when Mr. Cummings-Browne, judge of the quiche contest, dies of poisoning after eating Agatha’s quiche. Now, as Agatha sees it, the only way she can stay in Carsley is to find out who murdered Mr. Cummings-Browne. As she crashes her way through village society looking for the information she needs, Agatha Raisin learns a thing or two about life in a small, enclosed group.

Will Agatha solve the mystery and remain in her cottage in Carsley? To do so, she’ll have to mellow a bit. But not too much—without that edge to her personality, she just wouldn’t be the same Agatha Raisin.

© 2000 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“Death of a Gossip” by M.C. Beaton

Death of a Gossip (1985)
Warner Books, 179 pages, $6.50 paperback 
ISBN 0‑446‑60713‑4

Every week during salmon-fishing season a new class arrives at the fishing school in Lochdubh run by John and Heather Cartwright. But town constable Hamish Macbeth has a bad feeling about this particular class….

Macbeth is the lone police officer in Lochdubh, a small village in the Scottish Highlands. Since not much happens in Lochdubh, he keeps a pretty close eye on the fishing school classes. He also has an uncanny knack for showing up just as the sandwiches and coffee are being distributed.

The current class includes Lady Jane Winters, a woman with a sharp, biting tongue who seems to know the secrets of all the others in the class as well as of the Cartwrights and of Hamish Macbeth himself. So it’s no surprise to the reader when Lady Jane first fails to appear for a morning lesson and then later floats to the surface of the lake where the others are practicing their fly casting.

But before killing off Lady Jane, Beaton cleverly uses her to fill in the necessary background of Hamish Macbeth. Except for the outdoor setting, this novel follows the formula of the traditional English drawing-room mystery. Beaton livens up the narrative, though, with her portrayal of Macbeth as the astute observer who quietly goes about identifying the murderer while the police higher-ups who’ve been sent in to solve the case continue to ridicule and ignore him.

© 2000 by Mary Daniels Brown

Author News Fiction

M.C. Beaton: Introductory Notes

M.C. Beaton is a pseudonym of Marion Chesney, who is known primarily for the more than 100 historical romance novels she has published under her own name and under several pseudonyms: Helen Crampton, Ann Fairfax, Jennie Tremaine, and Charlotte Ward. But M.C. Beaton is the pseudonym she reserves for her mystery novels.

Marion Chesney was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1936. She has worked as a fiction buyer for a bookseller, as women’s fashion editor for the magazine Scottish Field, as a reporter and theater critic for the Scottish Daily Express (Glasgow), and as a reporter for the Daily Express (London). Like her amateur sleuth Agatha Raisin, Chesney lives in a cottage in the English Cotswolds.

For more information, see her web site

According to Willetta L. Heising in Detecting Women 2, the idea for the first Hamish Macbeth novel came to Chesney while she was learning to fly cast for salmon at a fishing school in northern Scotland. Macbeth is the town constable in Lochdubh, a small village in the Scottish Highlands. He keeps a low profile, preferring to have people assume he’s of limited competence and intelligence. But, despite the intervention of more high-powered police officials, he’s able to solve crimes by careful observation of the people involved. Hamish Macbeth’s quiet but steady process of investigation has lead one reviewer to say of a novel in this series, “The pleasures of the book are akin to those of a good gossip session with a perceptive old friend.”

Beaton’s later mystery creation, amateur sleuth Agatha Raisin, is a middle-aged public relations dynamo who retires to a village in the English countryside. She’s more self-important and assertive than Hamish Macbeth, but both series deal with life in a small village. Each town presents an isolated, insular community that doesn’t take kindly to strangers—perhaps because the arrival of outsiders often causes trouble and upsets the status quo. Like Hamish Macbeth, Agatha Raisin solves crimes by observing and analyzing the people around her, but unlike Macbeth she’s pushy, nosy, and manipulative.

British readers probably prefer the Hamish Macbeth mysteries. In fact, the BBC has made the stories into a television series. American readers seem to prefer the more brash Agatha Raisin, who crashes her way through village life with more outright humor than occurs in the more subdued Hamish Macbeth books. But both series examine small-town life under the guise of a mystery. These are short books that provide the  perfect diversion when you’re in the mood for some light, amusing reading.

© 2000 by Mary Daniels Brown

List Year's Best

The Best Books I Read in 1999

Listed alphabetically by author

Berg, A. Scott. Lindbergh

Cheever, Susan. Note Found in a Bottle: My Life as a Drinker

Connelly, Michael. The Black Echo

Danticat, Edwidge. Breath, Eyes, Memory

Deane, Seamus. Reading in the Dark

Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations

Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Krakauer, Jon. Into Thin Air

Lehane, Dennis. Gone, Baby, Gone

Paretsky, Sara. Hard Time

Tyler, Anne. A Patchwork Planet

Winchester, Simon. The Professor and the Madman

Biggest Disappointments of 1999

Cronkite, Walter. A Reporter’s Life

O’Connell, Carol. Shell Game

Fiction Review

“Certain Prey” by John Sandford

Sandford, John. Certain Prey (1999) 
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 339 pages, $24.95 hardcover  
ISBN 0 399 14496 X  

In his latest Lucas Davenport thriller John Sandford does something different: he focuses on the villain as much as on the hero. And what a villain it is: Clara Rinker, the best hit woman (or hit man) around. When Rinker does a job in Minnesota and, for the first time in her career, makes a tiny mistake, she and Lucas engage in an intellectual cat-and-mouse game.

I suspect Sandford has given us Clara Rinker because of criticism that he can’t create a dynamic female character. Most of his other female characters—even the more fully developed ones like Lily Rothenberg, a police lieutenant from New York City—exist mainly to hop into bed with Davenport. But in Clara Rinker, Davenport seems to have met his match in intellect, intuitiveness, coldness, and cunning. 

There’s even a second female major character in this novel. But she’s portrayed as so over-the-top that it’s impossible to take her seriously; she’s more a caricature than a character. In fact, the contrast between the two female characters makes Clara look even more formidable than she would on her own.

Keeping a long series fresh is a challenge for any author, but it looks as if John Sandford has started out in a promising new direction here.

© 1999 by Mary Daniels Brown