03 June 2012

Mystery May fourfer!

The City & the City, China Miéville: First read this as an ARC back in '09, my first exposure to Miéville's work, and I felt lukewarm towards it at the time. While it's still not my favorite (I think Perdido Street Station and Kraken tie for that honor), I did better appreciate it this time around. It's a police procedural with a spec-fic premise that's way harder to explain than it is to read in his capable narrative: it's set in the cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma (in the same nebulous part of the world as Jan Morris's Hav), which occupy the same physical space but have wholly separate governments, languages, and history--an inhabitant of either city grows up learning the art of seeing and unseeing, realizing in an instant whether a given passersby or building or vehicle is in his own city, able to be acknowledged and interacted with, or the other, whereupon it officially does not exist to them. Looking over the border is the direst of crimes, calling out the mysterious force called Breach. In this singular environment, Beszel policeman Tyador Borlu finds himself investigating a unique and complicated murder: the victim, American archaeology student Mahalia Geary, was found in Beszel . . . but killed in Ul Qoma. And when he finds out that she was obsessed with legendary third city Orciny, the mystery deepens. Miéville doesn't so much blend genres here as snort derisively as the very notion that blending is even necessary; like his cities, they're already part of each other, no matter how fiercely we to keep them separate.

The Guards, Ken Bruen: First in a series narrated by Jack Taylor, alcoholic ex-Garda (i.e., member of the Garda Síochána na hÉireann, Ireland's police force), now picking up private-eye work in between blackout benders. What makes this fast-moving Irish noir work for me, despite its pretty standard setup, is the lyricism of its writing--almost a prose poem in places. Bruen's habit of dropping the beginning of a quote to the paragraph after its tag provides a literal rise and fall to his characters' speech that I found especially effective.

The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith: This classic thriller hardly requires my praise, but I'm givin' it anyway. Tom Ripley is a small-time con artist sent to Europe by a college acquaintance Dickie Greenleaf's father, who pays his way hoping that Tom can persuade Dickie to leave his idle life painting in Italy to come home and join the family shipbuilding business. Instead, Tom decides to not just emulate Dickie, but become him, killing him and stealing his identity and the money that goes with it. Ripley's often referred to as a sociopath, but I think he's an even more chilling creature--completely blank, a malleable substance that reconfigures itself to the specifications of what those around him expect or want, not so much a personality as a gallery of masks.

And speaking of sociopaths, there's no other way to describe Wayne Ogden, the cheerfully amoral narrator of Scott Phillips pitch-black Midwestern noir The Adjustment. He's just returned to 1946 Wichita from years as a supply sergeant in Europe, a job he used as front for a black-market gamut of drug dealing, pimping, and thievery. Now he's back to work in "public relations" for Collins aircraft, his primary duties being to keep the company's head in booze and hookers, and cover up the consequences. This is not a book for anyone who needs a protagonist with any glimmer of redeeming qualities--being in Ogden's head is a harrowing and repugnant experience--but apparently I've no such requirement, because I loved it. Been meaning to read Phillips for ages--though he lives in St. Louis now, he's a Wichita boy, with a native's nonchalant knowledge of the city, and he's a Watermark Books favorite (I grinned goofily when Ogden makes a phone call "in the back of Gessler's drugstore on Douglas," said storefront now being occupied by Watermark). On the wall of their basement autograph galley, he's drawn himself looking chagrined at a podium, thinking to himself, "Dear God, there's not a single paragraph in here appropriate for a mixed audience. Next time I'm writing a NICE book." I, for one, am glad he hasn't.

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