Category Archives: Mystery

‘13, rue Thérèse’ by Elena Mauli Shapiro

What an interesting concept for a book! In terms of form, 13, rue Thérèse is unlike anything I’ve read, with the possible exception of Mark Z. Danielewski’s 2000 bestseller House of Leaves (note to self: re-read that one for a review!). Though Shapiro isn’t easy on her readers—the novel is nonlinear, incorporates photographic images, fraught with footnotes and encourages online interaction—13, rue Thérèse is nonetheless a compulsively readable page-turner. Though not without its missteps, Elena Mauli Shapiro’s novel is an exciting debut that I am excited to share with others.

In 1983, Shapiro’s mother salvaged a box of mementos from a recently deceased neighbor’s apartment in the building at the real-life 13, rue Thérèse, in Paris. That recently deceased neighbor is Louise Brunet, whose life is the subject of Shapiro’s novel. The box contains souvenirs of the owner’s life: love letters from World War I, mesh gloves, a scarf, photographs, “stray cash”. Shapiro connects the objects together with her imagination, wielding a beguiling tale of the many mysteries surrounding one woman’s life. As Shapiro proclaims in her afterword, “…[Louise] gave me the stars. I merely drew the constellations”.

What I appreciated most about this novel was the imagination of the author that created it. Shapiro manages to connect each of the seemingly random objects in the box together to create a plausible—if not uncomplicated—rendering of Louise Brunet’s life. Shapiro frames the story with the introduction of Trevor Stratton, an American professor teaching at a university in Paris. Upon his arrival at his new job, Trevor happens upon the very box Shapiro’s mother acquired in 1983 (placed there by Josianne, Trevor’s alluring secretary) and quickly becomes absorbed with its contents. By way of Trevor’s bewitching experience with the box, the reader is captivated not only by Louise’s fascinating life, but Trevor’s, Josianne’s and the many men of Louise’s as well.

While I loved the quirky nature of the mysteries of 13, rue Thérèse, these mysteries caused some problems for me as well. Essentially, there are just too many of them. As the stories of Louise, Henri, Camille, Xavier, Trevor and Josianne begin to unfold, I found the addition of Louise piano student, Garance, and her unique plight, a bit superfluous. While Garance’s set of problems do ultimately push Louise’s plot forward, I couldn’t help but wish that Shapiro had found a simpler way to achieve this and dedicated more time to either Trevor, Josianne or Louise herself.

Overall, I very much enjoyed Elena Mauli Shapiro’s debut. After getting a taste of this unique novel, I look forward to the publishing of more “interactive” books like 13, rue Thérèse in the future.

‘Turn of Mind’ by Alice LaPlante

I had read too many glowing reviews of Alice LaPlante’s debut Turn of Mind this summer to ignore the book any longer. Despite all of the raves, however, my expectations weren’t high; thrillers aren’t usually of interest to me. But as it turns out, LaPlante’s book, a unique blend of mystery and literary fiction, really is great. The author manages to combine an unreliable narrator, nonlinear storytelling and a riveting mystery into what is undoubtedly one of this summer’s best new books.

Dr. Jennifer White has recently retired from her successful practice as an orthopedic surgeon as a result of her quickly worsening dementia. Shortly after, her best friend of many years, Amanda, a retired junior high school teacher, has been murdered. What is notable, however, is that Amanda’s body is found after four of her fingers had been surgically removed. Dr. White quickly becomes investigators’ prime suspect, but due to her declining memory, is painfully incapable of even knowing herself whether she was involved. As the story unfolds, Dr. White’s deteriorating memory offers bursts of eloquent detail about her family and their relationship with Amanda’s, blurring the line between friendship and enmity.

Turn of Mind made me realize that I haven’t given thrillers a fair chance. I have always associated the suspense genre with B-movie camp, something readers need not risk finding in this novel. Instead, the suspense in Turn of Mind stems from the narrator’s gradual revelations about her family and her inconsistent relationship with Amanda. Dr. White’s children, Fiona and Mark, have power of attorney over her finances and medical care, but Dr. White rightfully suspects that either one or both of them may have ulterior motives affecting their decisions. Dr. White’s bursts of clarity also illustrate a complicated woman in Amanda, leading the reader to build a case for motive against Dr. White.

Ultimately, Turn of Mind resonates beyond its mystery component because of its honest portrayal of the complex, and sometimes brutal, nature of human relationships. In fact, for LaPlante, no relationship is sacred: husbands betray wives, daughters betray mothers, friends betray one another. While this view of companionship is rather grim, it ultimately rings true. Humans are complex as individuals so it should come as no surprise that our relationships with one another would be exponentially so.

Alice LaPlante’s debut novel is a compulsively readable hit. Turn of Mind comes recommended to mystery lovers with a thirst for something extra.

Justice for All

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin

The plot of Tom Franklin’s latest novel Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is irresistible. Mississippians Larry Ott and Silas “32” Jones enjoy a brief boyhood friendship, but drift apart due to the complications that arise from the difference in their races: Larry is white; Silas is black. However, their fates intertwine when a local girl goes missing after Larry takes her out on a date. Without a body or a confession, Larry is never brought to trial; however, the vigilante tendencies of his small Mississippi community prohibit him from enjoying any sense of innocence. Conversely, the adolescent Silas relishes success in baseball and is rewarded with a scholarship to Ole Miss. Years later, then, when another young girl disappears, Larry is again the prime suspect. However, secrets from the past are slowly uncovered as now-Constable Jones works on the new case.

Franklin’s mystery in the South is both rich with imagery and characterization and compulsively readable. Most interesting to dissect, however, is the theme of justice that permeates the lives of central characters Larry and Silas. As the mystery unfolds – and this is no spoiler – Larry’s legal innocence becomes increasingly clear. However, the concentrated microcosm of Chabot, Mississippi, continues to ostracize him, destroying his property and barring him from the local Methodist church. The cruelty committed against Larry is appalling and the reader constantly wonders (and hopes) that the communal wrong done to Larry will be put right.

Living a parallel, but disparate, life is Silas, Chabot, Mississippi’s local baseball hero. In adulthood, as town constable, Silas is in the profession justice, administering it to the criminals he encounters daily. However, as the story unfolds, Silas’s sense of justice comes deeply into question. The unexamined role he played in the murder from his childhood and his role as investigator during the present-day murder both examine Silas’s integrity and question his own receipt of justice.

One of the most memorable aspects of Franklin’s novel is its unique title: Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. Referring to the mnemonic method of teaching schoolchildren to spell Mississippi: “M, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, humpback, humpback, I”, the novel’s title refers directly to idea of education in the South. Both Larry and Silas, and really all characters in the novel, are taught to take much of what they encounter at face value, e.g. the idea that a man with white skin is superior while a man with black skin is inferior is constantly reinforced. Therefore, the haste the townspeople exhibit in ostracizing the outcast Larry comes with little surprise. However, through the twists and turns of the novel’s plot, Franklin argues emphatically that this method of thinking is deeply flawed.

Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is at the forefront a mystery, but under the surface an examination of personal justice and modern-day race relations as well. Franklin’s wonderfully realized characters will reel you into their lives and the deep messages they represent will prohibit you from forgetting them. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is an interesting read, and one that many will enjoy.

Tales from the Hereafter

THE GHOST STORIES OF EDITH WHARTON by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton’s collection of ghost stories opens with a foreword that sets the tone for the tales that follow.  Wharton admits that what is frightening to one is not necessarily frightening to another, but the stories of her collection play on her personal definition of “scary”.  In the ensuing eleven stories, themes of unfamiliar locales–usually cavernous, long-abandoned old family estates–and supernatural ghostly apparitions abound, generally leaving the reader sufficiently creeped out.  What is best about these stories, however, is not necessarily that they are scary, because admittedly, the majority of them are not.  The best part of this collection is simply Wharton’s masterful ability to wield an engaging short story.  The locations and characters come to life, and with it a mood of fear and anxiety.

My favorite stories came late in the collection with “Pomegranate Seed” and the finale, “All Souls'”.  In “Pomegranate Seed” Wharton introduces the reader to Charlotte Ashby, the second wife of newly-widowed Kenneth Ashby.  Kenneth Ashby was deeply devoted to is first wife Elsie, and as the story comes together it seems that Elsie may still have a hold on her beloved husband.  The source of terror in this story is the long hours that Charlotte spends first happily awaiting her husband’s return from the office and then dreading the thought that he will never return.  These are true fears most have felt at the prospect of losing a loved one and Wharton exploits this to the fullest.

Similarly, in “All Souls'” Wharton plays with the slow building of anxiety over a period of time.  In the collection’s finale we meet the dynamic and indefatiguable Mrs. Clayburn, a widow who has opted to spend the remainder of her healthy life in the estate she shared with her husband.  On All Souls’ Day, Halloween, Mrs. Clayburn receives an unexpected visitor and then spends an expertly-written and anxiety-ridden 36 hours in complete and frightening solitude.  The passage detailing Mrs. Clayburn’s day and a half alone in her cold and sprawling estate is the most frightening in the book and certainly the most memorable.

Though not always bone-chilling, THE GHOST STORIES OF EDITH WHARTON are an excellent speciment of Wharton’s writing and the perfect way to kick off the week approaching Halloween.

The Bookshop of Dreams

A NOVEL BOOKSTORE by Laurence Cosse

If there was a ever a book that expressed the collective booklover’s dream world A NOVEL BOOKSTORE is it.  Two literary zealots, Francesca, the socialite, and Ivan, the nomad, discover one another in a bookshop outside of Paris and decide to open the ideal bookstore.  The concept of the store, The Good Novel, is simple: the store will be stocked solely with tastefully good novels via an ingenious selection process allowing eight worthy contemporary writers, unaware of each others’ identities, to each select 600 titles that will, without fail, be in stock.  Financed by Francesca’s inherited small fortune, the bookshop hits the ground running and immediately attracts a horde of devout followers.  Surely every reader of this book, myself included, imagines him/herself as a part of that horde.

However, the success of this bookish utopia does not last.  Sub-par writers fueled with envy, publishers motivated by greed and critics driven by pure sloth all stand to fail as The Good Novel succeeds and as a result, they retaliate en force.  These retaliations, beginning with seemingly innocuous op ed articles and graduating to full blown attempted murder, are the conflict at the center of the novel.  However, the novel is ripe with other thematic elements: romance and fantasy included.

For me, the weakest element of the novel was the romance.  Ivan, The Good Novel’s middle-aged primary bookseller falls head over heels early on with Anis (a self-imposed nickname for Anne-Isabelle), a woman with a troubled past who is nearly half his age.  Possibly it was the age difference that threw me, or maybe the characters’ contrived loner lifestyle we are constantly reminded of, but the romance between the two, for me, fell completely flat.

However, the portion of the novel dealing with the history of the bookstore and the mystery surrounding the characters and crimes was completely engaging.  Cosse conjures a store with an intricate makeup and backstory that is both sensical and ideal to her readers.  The Good Novel is any booklover’s dream shopping haven and I found myself constantly jotting down authors and titles to sample.

A final point of note on A NOVEL BOOKSTORE is the narrative style.  Conveyed in first person, a narrator not fully revealed until the final stages reminds the reader of the personal connections one has with a bookstore of this conceptual magnitude.  The narrator imposes its presence at times and pulls back at others, but ultimately adds a great deal to the final product.  The narrator becomes a new characters whose history and positions the reader cares about and is interested to discover.

A NOVEL BOOKSTORE is a treasure for any lover of good books.  Not only is it an indulgent treat in a fantasy bookshop setting, but a persuasive treatise on the state of for-profit publishing today.  Via the fictional haven The Good Novel, this reader is reminded and encouraged by her passion for good books.

A Place for the Lost

ONE FOOT IN EDEN by Ron Rash

Ron Rash’s Southern Gothic crime novel ONE FOOT IN EDEN is a truly engaging read.  The gist of the story is this: a young couple, Billy and Amy Holcombe, discover that due to Billy’s childhood affliction of polio he cannot provide Amy with a child.  Amy seeks out the advice of the town witch doctor, Widow Glendower, and is lead to the conclusion that she must copulate with another man, neighbor Holland Winchester, to begin her family with Billy.  Amy does this but Holland’s inability to leave the affair at that result in his murder by the hand of Billy.  The result is ONE FOOT IN EDEN, a novel of the crime and its effects told through the voices of the county sheriff, Amy, Billy, Isaac, the product of the affair, and the sheriff’s deputy.

The primary theme of the novel is the idea that Jocassee, the narrators’ town, is a place for the lost.  Nestled in a valley within Appalachia, Jocassee is slowly overrun by Carolina Power and is destined to be covered by a lake that will force an exodus.  The deep connection the characters harbor with the land dooms them from the beginning.  Looming throughout the book is the awareness that the land, representing both the good and bad within each character, will eventually drown in the approaching lake.  I believe that Rash’s view of this is ultimately hopeful; when Isaac is able to escape he brings with him both the knowledge of his true father as well as the love and wisdom his acting parents.

One character that certainly cannot be ignored is the Widow Glendower, a prototypical Southern Gothic witch doctor that turns the plot wheels of the story.  It is the Widow Glendower that leads Amy to her decision to sleep with Holland; it is the Widow Glendower who condones the murder of Holland by Billy; and it is the Widow Glendower that revives Billy from a sickness that could have eliminated him from his sons’s tragedy early on.  The ultimate image of her bones, sinking to the bottom of the heart of the lake, the Holcombe and Winchester properties, suggests that evil has finally been left to rest.

The story of ONE FOOT IN EDEN is enjoyable to the last page.  Rash’s characters are complete and the reader cannot help but become invested in their fates.  I am certainly glad I found a way to get my hands on this book.

Hopped-Up Fashion Fatale

Latte Trouble by Cleo Coyle

While recovering from my wisdom tooth extraction surgery I have been happily entertained by the third installment of Cleo Coyle’s Coffeehouse Mystery series, Latte Trouble.  The general manager and part owner of the history Village Blend, Clare Cosi, finds herself in the middle of a murder mystery intertwining her own coffeehouse with the world of fashion at Bryant Park’s Fall Fashion Week.  The mystery kicks off after one of Clare’s baristas serves up a lethal latte to a patron at jewelry designer Lottie Harmon’s pre-rollout party held at the Blend.  The barista is hauled off to Rikers Island as a suspect in the murder and thus Clare is motivated to find the culprit.

I’m not sure exactly what this says about the mystery, but Cleo Coyle drops enough hints about the killer that I was able to guess the identity pretty early on.  There were, however, enough red herrings to keep me noncommital until the very end.  And even though I had a pretty good idea of who the murderer was, I was never sure of why until the clever conclusion.

Thought he plot and characters make great reading, the best part about this mystery series is the coffee culture it imbues.  Any time Clare is at her shop the reader is sure to be treated with a morsel of coffee knowledge, a helpful tip or a mouth-watering recipe.  Once the mystery is solved it is a treat to know that an appendix chock-full of such information awaits.

As other Cleo Coyle fans have mentioned, mystery #3 of the series is fundamentally different to mysteries #1 and #2 in more than a few ways, leading the reader to believe that one half of the husband and wife writing team was likely more involved than the other.  For instance, the Clare/Matt relationship is vastly different.  In fact, the two end up sleeping together, which seems at odds with the Clare persona we meet in the first two mysteries.  Matt is also less concerned with Clare’s “Nancy Drew” inclinations, contradicting the enthusiasm he radiates in book #3’s predecessors.  In the end, though, none of this is really concerning.  Latte Trouble is a fun read that has made great Saturday company for someone recovering from oral surgery!