Malcolm’s Wine by Hugh Gilmore

Read: 22 August, 2014

A series of coincidences bind together a petty criminal and two bookshop workers. In the course of an evening, Brian’s friend is murdered and a bottle of wine – bought for his now-deceased son – has been stolen.

I received this book from the author via his wife – a friend of my mother’s who stitched together a beautiful baby blanket for my son. An odd connection given the theme of the book, but I suspect it had more to do with my mother’s need to tell everyone she meets that her daughter is “into books.”

The plot of Malcolm’s Wine hinges on an incestuously small cast of characters. If something happens anywhere in Ann Arbor (and surrounding area), it seems that at least two of our three characters will be involved. While the story was still being set up, it was rather too much of a stretch and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep reading.

Once the stage was set, however, it was no longer an issue. The characters behaved predictably and with consistent rationale as the plot played itself out. This is where the many loops and ties between the characters added to my enjoyment of the book, providing a measure of absurdist humour.

There are two really bad characters in the book, Klaus and Claudell (I’m guessing the naming was intentional). We don’t really see inside Claudell’s head, but we do see in Klaus’s, and the vision of the psychopath was – I found – very well done. He is disconnected from reality, but in a way that has internal logic. He was simultaneously pathetic and believable (though pathetic with a gun, which is absolutely terrifying – particularly when read so soon after the Isla Vista killings). Both Claudell and Klaus reminded me of bullies – unpredictable, riding a high or a delusion that gives their victims no way out. It made their scenes rather difficult to read through, though I appreciate the realism of their handling (not to mention their ends).

Unfortunately, I think the book would have benefited a great deal from a having had a strong editor. The narrative is a little rough around the edges – female characters, in particular, are a little cardboard and there’s some cringe-y assumptions of sexual dimorphism, particularly earlier on, that deserved some red pen striking – but the good ideas and reader handling shine through. My edition also suffered from a number of unfortunate typos, including one right on the back cover. There are enough of them to be noticed, though they don’t ruin the book.

Overall, I found it a very interesting read – a one-off mystery with believable characters that made me care about the outcome.

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Inspector Montalbano #3: The Snack Thief by Andrea Camilleri

Read: 26 November, 2012

I was introduced to Inspector Montalbano on a trip to visit my dad, who has lately been burning through the series and couldn’t stop raving about it. While I was there, we watched a couple of the TV shows, and then dad sent me The Snack Thief as a birthday present.

I can be quite picky about mysteries. I find that too often they rely on withholding information or on giving the characters absurd ideas or quasi-psychic insight to reach the correct conclusions, and that’s frustrating because it makes me feel lectured to, rather than an active participant in the solving efforts. The Snack Thief handled this perfectly – all the information is presented to the reader as it’s discovered, and any withheld information had good reasons for being withheld. When Montalbano thought that the answer lay in one direction, it’s what I would have guessed as well. When he was wrong, I was wrong too, and not frantically yelling at him to just please think about Clue X.

The characters are fantastic – they are all, truly, characters, with very amusing quirks and details. Even small side characters aren’t spared the gift of personality. While it may seem like an odd comparison, it reminded me somewhat of A Song of Ice and Fire, except, of course, that the quirks and details were funny rather than depressing and horrifying.

I highly recommend this book and, more broadly, the Inspector Montalbano series. It’s a quick read, easily finished in an afternoon, but it isn’t fluff, and it’s hilarious. My only advice would be not to read it on an empty stomach!

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The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Read: 19 September, 2010

I bought the book because I kept seeing it everywhere and I thought – why not? Then it sat on my shelf for a long time as I read other books on my reading list that were a higher priority.

When my dad came to visit, he was looking over my bookshelves and saw that I had The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. I admitted that I hadn’t read it yet, and he told me that I absolutely must. Well, with an endorsement like that, how could I refuse?

I say this because it tainted much of my experience of the book. When I got to the anal rape scene, for example, all I kept thinking about was my dad reading it… and liking it. Yes, I know, the book is excellent and I’m sure that my father’s endorsement was not predicated on a predilection for anal rape. Still, though, it made reading about anal rape even more uncomfortable that it is normally.

Not that I normally read about anal rape…

But apart from all that, this was an amazing book. It’s a mystery – a disgraced journalist is hired by a wealthy businessman to solve the 40-year-old murder of his niece. But it’s far more than that. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a statement about misogyny and violence towards women. In one way or another, each of the book’s plots and subplots hinge on hatred towards women. Larsson strikes that very delicate balance between making his point without being it. Again and again, he shows us violence against women, but he never allows it to normalize. It’s as horrific the last time as it is the first.

And boy, is it ever horrific! The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was an extremely uncomfortable book to read. Larsson takes society’s dirty little secrets and shoves them right in the reader’s face with unrelenting force. But the writing is so masterfully executed that I found myself unable to put the book down, even while my head and stomach both were reeling.

When my dad was making his pitch for the book, he said that it’s incredibly long, but that the style is so accessible that he was able to finish it in under a week. It took me only a couple of days. It takes a while to get into, introducing the vast network of characters slowly, and it might be easy to give up within the first couple dozen pages. But stick with it, the payoff is well worth the wait.

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