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Flesh and Blood: Elder in love

If you love mysteries, read Flesh and Blood. The ending is an absolute stunner.

The author, John Harvey, is probably better known for his Charlie Resnick novels. But here the detective is Frank Elder. Divorced and retired from the police force, he follows up an old case when one of the two men convicted is released from prison.

Shane Donald, convicted for the rape and murder of a young girl, was also questioned about another missing girl, Susan Blacklock. But Shane denied having anything to do with her.

Elder decides to look into the case again when Shane is released. And the fallout is totally unexpected.

The stunning ending really drives home the unpredictability of the human heart. Here is a girl whose father left her mother when she was a baby and yet…

Flesh and Blood well and truly lives up to its title with moving descriptions of human relationships.

Digging up the family history, Elder is drawn to Susan's mother, Helen. Living alone with her daughter's memories, she responds.

She invites him to dinner and, before they know it, they are making love. Two lonely people suddenly drawn together.

Harvey has written a memorable love scene. You can feel the intensity and awkwardness of two middle-aged loners trying to cover up their embarrassment with gentle humour:

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Books India

Paul Theroux on Kali and Calcutta

In A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta, Paul Theroux describes an animal sacrifice at the Kali temple in Kalighat. A goat, garlanded with flowers, is led bleating into a walled enclosure to the beat of drums. Once inside, the terrified creature is thrust between two upright stakes and caressed by a barefoot priest, who then hacks off its head to screeches of delight from the crowd.

The narrator, Jerry Delfont, an American travel writer invited to give talks in Calcutta (Kolkata) by the US consulate, is horrified by the spectacle. He is then led inside the temple, which is also frightening:

We shuffled past an inside window where the image of the goddess Kali, gleaming black and brightly marked, stared with orange lozenge eyes from a stack of blossoms and offerings. I was briefly frightened, jostled by the mob in this stifling place of incense and flowers and dishes of money and frantic pilgrims, who were twitching with gestures of devotion and gasping, seeming to eat the air, all of them staring wildly at the furious image.

Theroux is clearly writing as an outsider, who doesn't share the religious sentiments of the Hindus. The scene is nightmarish. Even Hindus may recoil from the animal sacrifice. And was it necessary to give such a lurid description of the image of the goddess?

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Books

Social inequality and sense of place in crime fiction

Ian Rankin fans will enjoy reading his conversation with the Indian communist leader Prakash Karat, who has read all his 17 Inspector Rebus novels and did his Master's in politics at the University of Edinburgh, in Rankin's hometown.

Rankin talks about his working-class parents, his being the first from his family to go to university — he read English at the University of Edinburgh — and his early struggles as a writer. Knots and Crosses, his first Rebus novel published in 1987, wasn't a hit with the critics and readers. Instead, piquantly, he became a crime suspect as the plot resembled a murder case, he says!

Success came only 10 years later with Black and Blue, his eighth Rebus book.

Now, says the Hindu, "Ian Rankin is the best-selling writer of crime fiction in the United Kingdom, accounting for 10 per cent of all its crime book sales."

The Indian newspaper published his conversation with Karat during his visit to India last month under the headline, "Crime fiction is about social inequality". You can read it here and here.

The headline is a direct quote from Rankin.

Discussing politics and crime fiction with the Indian communist leader, he says:

I think crime fiction is almost like a product of capitalism. It’s about social inequality. Why do people do bad things to each other? Much of the time, it’s economic. It’s to do with basic human nature — greed, a sense of injustice, other people having things that you want, a sense of grievance that something’s happened at work. That’s what I like about crime fiction specifically. It tells us that the civilised world is just a veneer, a very thin veneer.

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PD James’ leisurely murder mystery

The Private Patient by PD James

This is an Adam Dalgliesh mystery where the Scotland Yard detective enters
late into the story. And even then Commander Dalgliesh hardly occupies
centrestage. The focus keeps shifting from one character to another. His
subordinates, Kate Miskin and Francis Benton-Smith, duly get their turn in the
spotlight as do several others in this country house mystery. There is an
eminent cosmetic surgeon, a successful woman journalist who is murdered in his private hospital after surgery, and others in the country estate where he operates on wealthy patients.

Even after Dalgliesh takes up the case, there is another murder. His
investigation turns up a convicted murderer in the house halfway into the story,
but this being a murder mystery, the killer here has to be somebody else.

PD James like Agatha Christie likes to depict her characters at length. And
the characters here are more interesting than the mystery itself. The Private
Patient is not a taut, suspenseful thriller. It is as much a novel of
manners, depicting the mores and lifestyle of  upper and upper middle class
people, though it does look at people lower down the social scale and their
problems, for let no one say PD James is not socially aware. That slows down the
narrative, however. It's not chatty and breezy like Agatha Christie. PD James is more meditative, commenting on life and society. She has written
more riveting mysteries in the past.

PD James unfortunately writes in a manner that makes one suspect here is a
superior woman. The leading characters tend to have stiff upper lips, the
cuisine is never fish and chips, any depiction of love is more likely to be
spiritual than physical, the music classical. It’s a bit claustrophobic.

And there’s this focus on successful people. Dalgliesh is a top detective and
a poet – though no poetry appears in this novel. The surgeon and the murdered
woman journalist are rich and successful. When Dalgliesh’s prospective
father-in-law is briefly introduced in this novel, he is described as a retired
university professor who has “done very well”. 

It may be because of the life she – PD James – has known. A former civil
servant who served as a governor of the BBC and was made a life peer, she
has won many prizes and honours. Is that why she writes about successful people,
because she knows them intimately, or is it because she is an overachiever by
nature? Her brief biography in The Private Patient mentions the girls’ school
she attended and says she has received honorary degrees from seven British
universities. And the OBE. What else remains to be accomplished?

Now 88 years old, PD James can still write a bestseller. Her fans won’t rest
until they have finished reading The Private Patient, and it is a good read. The
women in this story are portrayed sensitively, in depth if not always at length.
It is they who make it memorable though it is an Adam Dalgliesh mystery. The book ends happily on a romantic note: the right woman gets the
right man. It may have been written with women readers in mind.

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Books

Death of a Writer: A mystery deep with poetry

Michaelcollins_writer
I was floored by this Michael Collins mystery, captivated by its lyricism and intrigued by its plot. A novel nominated for the National Book Award turns out to be eerily similar to the real-life murder of a teenager. But it was written before her death.

Suspicion naturally falls on the writer. But he is  lying in a coma after trying to kill himself in his despair as a burnt-out writer and English teacher at an American liberal arts college.

The detective in charge of the case questions:

  • the beautiful graduate student who found the manuscript hidden in the writer’s home after he tried to commit suicide;
  • a bestselling author and friend of the writer who helped to get the book published;
  • the victim’s elder sister and her former boyfriend;
  • the college photographer who had been with the writer on the day he tried to kill himself; and 
  • a local policeman.

Each seems to have something to hide.

The writer bequeathed all his possessions to the graduate student, who is writing a thesis on him. The writer’s friend is in love with the student. They both gain if the book wins the award. The murdered girl was jealous of her elder sister and had sexual relations with her former boyfriend. The local policeman was in love with the sister and jealous of her former boyfriend. The college photographer held a grudge against the writer.

But this is not just a murder mystery. Michael Collins also explores the frustrations of writers, academics and small-town Americans.

The detective, Jon Ryder, thinking about his marital and financial problems, is filled with a deep sadness. He was, he realises, “born in the dying breath of American blue-collar life”.

The writing often rises to poetry.

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Ruth Rendell at 78

Who would believe she's 78? But that's Ruth Rendell as seen in a Telegraph profile which appeared on Sunday.

ruthrendell1

The hair is dyed but she looks amazingly youthful — maybe because she exercises daily and walks and takes the train to the House of Lords, where she is a member.

No less amazing is how she became a writer. She was fired as a newspaper reporter after reporting on a club dinner which she did not attend, says the Telegraph, adding:

She would have got away with it had the after-dinner speaker not died mid-speech.