Reading the End Bookcast, Ep.20: Mystery Tropes, a Mystery Novel, and a Game to Herald the Spring

Please forgive the delay in getting this podcast to you! We had some technical difficulties after recording the podcast, and there was some concern that this podcast was LOST FOREVER. Happily — because we have a special guest star, friend of the podcast Ashley!! — the podcast was able to be recovered, and we present it to you now. Ashley and the Jennys talk about tropes in mystery novels that we hate and love; we review J. Robert Janes’s mystery novel Mirage; and we play a game, composed by Whiskey Jenny, about flowers in book titles. You can listen to the podcast in the embedded player below or download the file directly here to take with you on the go.

Or if you wish, you can find us on iTunes (and if you enjoy the podcast, give us a good rating! We appreciate it very very much).

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Here are the contents of the podcast if you wish to skip around:

Starting at 1:13 – We have an extensive discussion of mystery novel tropes, not holding our fire when a mystery trope causes us to feel contempt or rage. Ashley proves to have an impressively wide knowledge of mystery novels of the world, confirming us in our belief that she was a good guest star to bring in.

Starting at 24:59 – I do the world’s smoothest ever segue from our discussion topic to our book review, of J. Robert Janes’s book Mirage (alternate and lamer title: Mayhem).

Starting at 39:44 – Whiskey Jenny administers a GAME in which we have to guess books with flowers in the title.

53:07 – Closing remarks and outro. (Yes, there’s no recommendation for next time. I made a recommendation, but I changed my mind later and we cut it.)

Credits
Producer: Captain Hammer
Photo credit: The Illustrious Annalee
Song is by Jeff MacDougall and comes from here.

Review: The Anxiety of Kalix the Werewolf, Martin Millar

Note: I received a copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

Scottish werewolf Kalix MacRinnalch is trying to make her life better. She’s taking remedial classes at a nearby college and trying to cut back on the violence she does to others and herself. But her plans for self-improvement are interrupted when the Guild of Werewolf Hunters — abetted in their work by Fire Queen Malveria’s deadly enemy — begins to hunt down and murder the members of the werewolf clans. And the werewolves are all:

Well, to start with, I am in favor of this ENORMOUS REVENGE PLOTLINE. The first werewolf killed by the Guild — and it’s sort of Kalix’s fault, although not completely — is Thrix’s teacher and mentor, the werewolf enchantress Minerva. Her death plunges Thrix into a spiral of depression and rage, and she becomes the driving force behind the werewolf clans’ efforts to eradicate the Guild once and for all. In past books, Thrix has been very much a voice of reason, but here she becomes someone who must be reasoned with. It’s a fun switch, and it’ll be interesting to see the fallout from it in the next book.

In other snooty werewolves who are getting into the game, The Anxiety of Kalix the Werewolf featured a satisfying number of people  being impressed with Dominil, Kalix’s frosty, competent cousin who is trying to conceal her own laudanum addiction from the clans. I can never get enough of Dominil getting shit done and not even caring what everyone thinks of her. Although her plans do not fall out exactly as she imagines in this book, she nevertheless gets to do a number of clever and resourceful things in furtherance of werewolf goals. And it’s just nice when someone says “Dominil, can you do X Impossible Thing?” and then goes off in perfect confidence that Dominil will handle it.

A new supernatural wrinkle is added to the supernatural world in the form of Scottish fairies! Hurrah, a new supernatural wrinkle! The werewolves require assistance from the fairies who live in the forests of Scotland, and the fairies are none too pleased that they’ve been neglected so long and only flattered and catered to now that the werewolves want something. There’s a helpful fairy queen as well as an extremely unhelpful fairy called Teinn who poisons the minds of the werewolf clans against their Thane. It’ll be fun to see what Teinn gets to do from here on out, as at the end of the book she heads for London to make mischief there.

On the down side, I discovered that I’ve stopped caring about Daniel and Moonglow. Or to be more accurate, I’ve stopped caring about whether they date or not, and the question of whether they were going to date or not was pretty much the only thing either of them had going on in this book. They’re more sort of satellites orbiting Kalix and Vex. It’s okay for now, I guess, but in the next book I’d like to see them working to achieve goals of their own (school goals? work goals? anything is fine, really). My utterly favorite thing about Martin Millar (this may be in conflict with some other thing I’ve said in the past is my favorite thing about Martin Millar, but who are you, the Continuity Police? Favorite things change! Shut up!) is the way he places the magical side-by-side with the utterly banal.

American cover

British cover

British cover

American cover

Cover report: Are cover reports making me a crankier person? Surely there are covers in this world that I admire? Anyway, neither of these covers pleases me. I dislike the American one less actually, but I’m angry with it for depicting Kalix with fair hair. She has dark hair. The book says it like twelve hundred times. British cover wins on a technicality.

Edit to add: Mumsy has pointed out that the British cover uses the exact same cover photo as If I Stay. So never mind. Nobody wins. Everyone loses.

Review: The Different Girl, Gordon Dahlquist

Here is a book about a girl called Veronika who has been kept in ignorance all her life, and when her circumstances change, she is only pretty vaguely enlightened. So are we. I prefer to be more enlightened.

Veronika lives on an island with three other girls: Caroline, Isabel, and Eleanor. They are all the same exact girl, except that their hair is different colors. Their parents died in a plane crash. They live with their guardians, Robbert and Irene, who educate them and test them and try to understand them. One day, a girl called May washes up on their shore. She looks different to Veronika and the others, and she seems frightened of them. Her coming heralds the end of the life Veronika has always known.

The problem is this: I like books that work more by implication than by description. I do! I loved The Haunting of Hill House, for example, a book that does not spend much time spelling things out for the reader. However, my liking of implication-heavy books depends on trusting that the author knows how to steer the ship. In The Different Girl, there are heavy implications of Unrest back in the real world, but it’s super dull because Dahlquist doesn’t give any good details. One or two really good details, strategically and creepily dropped at intervals, would have counterbalanced a lot of the vagueness about world-building. As it was, the world outside Veronika’s island felt mad generic. Blah blah people are scared of science blah blah destroy the robots blah blah blah.

I am a reasonable woman. I do not demand that every author be Laini Taylor and N. K. Jemisin, with their flawlessly realized worlds. All I ask is some dribs and drabs of information to say what this world is about, and what its dangers are, and what the point of these girls is. Absent that, the book hasn’t got any stakes. I truly couldn’t have cared less about the fate of these characters.

I hereby propose the following guidelines for authors who are not natively gifted at world-building:

  1. Introduce a fig leaf to explain why you are not explaining more. This can be that all the characters are steeped in their normal, thus not fussed about describing it; but if a stranger washes up on shore, you really cannot keep up the non-explaining without a plausible reason.
  2. The number of details you must drop about the world is inversely proportional to their specificity, by which I mean, their ability to imply a lot while saying a little. For instance, early on in Crux, there is talk of how parents of non-neurotypical children are suspects for use of / sympathy for users of the mind-altering drug Nexus. That says a ton about the drug and the political atmosphere that surrounds it. A small number of details with that kind of specificity can go a long way.

Okay. Grumbly post over.

Do you have any guidelines you’d like authors to adhere to in their world-building?

Review: 26a, Diana Evans

Okay, it’s official. I have never, not ever, encountered a Nigerian or Nigerian-descended author who has never written about twins. If you have, drop a note in the comments. Twins are permanent residents of the Nigerian imagination. I like this fact. (In case you are not a podcast listener, Nigerians also have more twins. Than anyone else! We don’t know why, but it’s true, and it remains true even when IVF and other such things increase rates of multiple births in many Western countries.)

26a is about a family of four girls, daughters of a British father and a Nigerian mother, who live in a shabby bit of London. The oldest is Bel, Mystic Bel, who has true dreams; then come the twins, Bessi and Georgia, who do everything together; and finally the youngest, little Kemy. The book follows mainly Bessi and Georgia from the time they are seven (when their hamster dies, and they stop eating ham in tribute) into their increasingly (for Georgia) difficult and troubled adulthoods.

As a rule, I don’t enjoy these sorts of family-difficulties novels, but 26a won me over in a few different ways: first by Evans’s generosity with her characters, and then with her absolutely lovely writing. If perhaps she is overfond of metaphory poeticalness, she more than makes up for it in the way she talks about happiness and sadness, and about depression particularly.

I’m at work next to the filing cabinet and I’ve been thinking about happiness. Does it mean bouncing about and smiling a lot or is it that charge in the heart and wanting to cry? Does it stay always? . . . Because I’m beginning to think that happiness is a sensation, or a visitation, not a way of being. It goes up and down up and down it goes and sometimes there are bruises.

Y’all, that line happiness is a visitation hit me like a ton of bricks. That is a good line. Elsewhere, Georgia speaks about the kind of happiness you work at achieving — Georgia has to, anyway. Her twin sister, Bessi, does not have the same shadow in her that Georgia has, and happiness seems to come to her naturally.

She felt that nothing would ever hurt now, and that she might, after all, have the capacity for non-DIY happiness, the type of happiness that came by itself and could not be learnt from sources like [self-help books].

Or there’s this that Georgia’s therapist says:

Georgia sat back in her chair and her heels lifted off the floor. She said, “But how will I stop it from multiplying? How can I make it die?”

 

Katya told her it might never die, but with acceptance and good management it could be eased. “It is an endurance,” she said (endurance was a word Katya used a lot). “You overcome and chase it away, and you must be determined. You smash it to the floor. And if it is necessary you scream and tell it, I do not consent.

Diana Evans writes about depression, basically, in much the way that depression feels (or has felt) to me. For instance, Georgia comes up with drills that she can run for when the days become bad, which again, damn, that sort of thinking has been so useful to me. (I called it protocols, but the notion was the same.)

Spoilers to follow in this paragraph: If I had known going in what was going to happen at the end, I wouldn’t have read this book. Fond as I am of my own sisters, I do not deal well with stories in which people lose their own sisters. I have been known to abandon books at rest stops in Georgia when it became clear that one of the sisters in the book was going to die. 26a is particularly sad because it’s someone losing her twin sister; and because Diana Evans herself lost a twin sister to suicide.

26a is a sad, specific book. If you are not into this type of book (which I am not), its goodness depends on the specifics’ resonating with you. I can imagine it feeling sort of mystical airy-fairy if not. But for me, this was an excellent read by a first-time author, and I’m excited to read more by Diana Evans.

Do you have any authors whose books are not exactly your thing genre-wise, but their writing makes you love them anyway?

 

American cover

American cover

British cover

British cover

Cover report: Again, I’m unhappy with this on both sides. The American cover is more pleasing to look upon, yet it is generic. The British cover would not cause me to pick it up in a bookstore, but I like how the cover picks up the image of the wallpaper in Bessi and Georgia’s room, and I like how it’s cracked and peeling. My instinct was American cover, and I’m keeping it there because that’s what I did with The Village. Okay. American. By a hair. And I’m not happy with either one.

Review: Who Could That Be at This Hour?, Lemony Snicket

There was something I was always very good at, however, and that was teaching myself not to be frightened while frightening things are going on. It is difficult to do this, but I had learned. It is simply a matter of putting one’s fear aside, like the vegetable on the plate you don’t want to touch until all of your rice and chicken are gone, and getting frightened later, when one is out of danger. Sometimes I imagine I will be frightened for the rest of my life because of all the fear I put aside during my time in Stain’d-by-the-Sea.

Well, hey. Who Could That Be at This Hour? is sort of fantastic.

The problem, I felt, with the books about the Baudelaires was that they didn’t leave you much place to go. Daniel Handler (the author’s real name) is a wonderfully inventive author — my favorite idea of his being the hotel that sorts guests by their professions and puts them in rooms with numbers based on the Dewey decimal system — but the milieux were always vastly more interesting than the characters and plot. I wanted to know more about the V.F.D. and less about the tragic fate of each successive guardian, though of course it was fun to watch Violet and Klaus and Sunny figure out ways to get out of their awful situations.

(Side note: The Series of Unfortunate Events movie was underrated. I really liked that movie, and I would have watched more of it. It was wonderfully stylish and fun, and I did not hate Jim Carrey in it. I am sad that more movies never got made in that series. Or a television miniseries would also be acceptable.)

Who Could That Be at This Hour? is more fun from the word go, because the main character, the young Lemony Snicket himself, is not a child at the whims of doubtful fate. He’s a child with a good deal of specific training under his belt, and he’s a child who doesn’t let anything get in the way of finding out what he wants to know. At the very beginning of the book, he gets into a car with a woman called S. Theodora Markson, the least competent of the potential (VFD? we assume?) chaperones he could have chosen, under the assumption that he’ll have more leeway to do what he wants if his chaperone isn’t terribly observant or clever.

The mission is to retrieve a stolen statue (of a Bombinating Beast) and restore it to its rightful owners. Finding the statue and discerning the identity of its rightful owner is the least of Lemony Snicket’s problems, as it becomes clear rather quickly that something fishy — or quite a few things fishy — are going on in the nearly-a-ghost-town of Stain’d-by-the-Sea.

As I’ve implied, the best thing about the book is the protagonist: the young Lemony Snicket is a keen detective but not an experienced one, so you are impressed with the clues he catches and not annoyed about the clues he misses. At the end of the book, you know more about the mystery, but the mystery isn’t solved, and I am pretty psyched to read the rest of this series and get to its resolution.

(If there is one.)

(Not to spoil anything, but nothing really got resolved in the Baudelaires’ stories. I wasn’t mad and I get what Daniel Handler was trying to do, and there are a few things where I’d have liked clearer answers.)

Review: The Body Hunters, Sonia Shah

Somebody recommended The Body Hunters when I reviewed Bad Pharma earlier this year, and I’m pleased that I was able to get and read it so soon! The author, an investigative journalist, here examines the ethics of biomedical research — specifically, of American drug companies outsourcing clinical trials to companies with laxer ethical requirements than the US and large populations of sick patients to run tests on. It’s a fairly widespread practice that only gets wider-spread with each passing year.

I am an inveterate note-checker in my nonfiction. I already sort of was to begin with, and then I read Cordelia Fine’s book Delusions of Gender, which talks about how citations can be slapdash to the point of misleading. These days, if you hand me a nonfiction book and a computer, I’ll check endnotes until my fingers cramp (or until I decide the author’s reliable). That sort of fact-checking is exactly the level of tedium that pleases me, and anyway I like to know that my sources are dependable before I go quoting them hither and yon like I’m some sort of science expert.

(I mean, ideally. In my own life, I repeat things willy-nilly that I think are interesting, and then disclaim responsibility for them by forgetting where I read them. It’s the magpie approach to knowledge.)

The Body Hunters doesn’t do the thing Cordelia Fine rages over, of citing studies that say green in support of a statement that says red, but it also doesn’t adequately back up all of its points. In the third chapter, for instance, Shah says, “Shigella is a disease-inducing bacterium that kills one million people around the world every year.” The citation for this claim is a press release from a pharmaceutical company. The press release was most likely getting its information from a 1999 study published in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization, but still, I’d rather let’s cite the study itself than cite somebody citing the study, particularly since I can easily look up the study if I know where to look for it and care enough to bother. (If you’re concerned about shigellosis, the happy news is that a WHO study published in 2010, after The Body Hunters‘s publication, found that only about 14,000 people die from shigellosis-related causes every year. Deaths caused by this bacterium are still disproportionately likely to happen in Asia rather than anywhere else.)

It took me five minutes to find the original study and the updated study and add that information to this post for your delectation and delight; but Sonia Shah cited a press release from a pharmaceutical company. That is lazy.

Or here’s another one: “In 1985, a long-running government study on cardiovascular risk — the Framingham Heart Study — reported a correlation between low cholesterol levels and increased longevity.” The citation for this is a 1985 Washington Post article. It’s not hugely important here to cite the primary source, but since we’re citing things, why not cite a primary source? They’re easy to find. The Framingham Heart Study has a website. Or if it’s something that’s just known, like the dates of the Civil War, then don’t cite anything. That is also okay sometimes.

It feels churlish to complain about a book like The Body Hunters, which is a friendly and easy-to-digest account of some of the ethical problems plaguing pharmaceutical research. It’s important to have such an account available, and I truly do understand that there are times when you have to cite secondary sources, even though you’d prefer to cite primary ones. And speaking generally, these lazy citations showed up in support of background information rather than in support of the main points Shah was making. But having them at all leads to this thing, you know, where I got done with The Body Hunters and felt that I had gained a broad, vague sense of the story of testing drugs in third-world nations, but that I couldn’t depend on any specific piece of information I had been given (particularly scientific information).

Perhaps not surprisingly, Shah is at her best when she’s talking about the sociology of science, rather than the science itself. The chapter about the hunt for a cheaper AIDS treatment for patients in countries poorer than the US is both fascinating and well-documented, as is the one about AIDS denialism in South Africa under Thabo Mbeki. (Which, look. That was bad and he was wrong, but it is not insane to mistrust Western scientists when it comes to ethical and accurate research in Africa.)

Given that almost a decade has passed since the publication of The Body Hunters, I’d love to read another book on the same topic that takes on the last ten years. Has drug testing on third-world patients expanded wildly, as Shah grimly predicted it would? Have ethical standards been modified and improved? If you know of any recentish books that address this, let me know in the comments! I am interested in ethical quandaries and would gladly read many more books about this one in particular!

A podcast day with no podcast

Whiskey Jenny and I extend our sincere apologies: Here it is podcast day, and we have no podcast to give you. We are experiencing technical difficulties, and we greatly fear that our most recent podcast was swallowed up by a malfunctioning computer. It was a really good one. Whiskey Jenny made up a game, and we had a special guest star in to talk with us about mysteries. We are pretty sad, but we haven’t given up hope that we’ll recover that podcast and be able to share it with you soon.

Review: The People in the Trees, Hanya Yanagihara

OH MY GOD Y’ALL, THIS BOOK. Don’t let me get your expectations up so high that you can’t enjoy it but like, OH MY GOD THIS BOOK, there are not an adequate number of words in my brain box to describe my feelings about this book right here. The People in the Trees is startling. Not startling in a plot way, but startling in the way that was like I had never read a book before and was reading my very first one right now.

The People in the Trees admittedly hits a lot of sweet spots for me: a well-imagined fictional world (the science and the places in this book are all imaginary); an audacious premise (a Micronesian tribe seems to have attained something like immortality, though at a terrible cost) treated with utmost seriousness; an unreliable narrator (Norton Perina, the scientist who discovered and published on this immortality phenomenon, is writing his memoirs); an abundance of footnotes (by a staunch admirer of Perina, also an unreliable narrator, who is editing the memoirs); and a grand profusion of ethical questions.

Perina, who is loosely based on Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, is writing his memoirs from a jail cell, where he is serving a two year sentence on charges of sexually assaulting one of his adopted Micronesian children. Before his disgrace, he was one of the most renowned and respected scientists in America for his discovery of Selene syndrome: a condition, apparently occasioned by the consumption of a particular kind of meat indigenous to the Micronesian island of Ivu’ivu, in which human lifespans are extended to as much as six times their natural length, while mental capacity becomes more and more diminished.

It’s quickly, though not crudely, obvious that Perina is a nasty piece of work, a man who simply doesn’t bother himself much about anyone around him. He’s not trying to justify himself because he’s loftily serene in his righteousness. He speaks of having regrets, yet says that he wouldn’t — couldn’t — have done anything differently. The discovery of Selene syndrome, as you might expect, has massive environmental and social consequences for Ivu’ivu, as hordes of Western scientists and pharmaceutical companies (and eventually missionaries) descend on the island. In his later years, Perina begins to bring home abandoned Ivu’ivuan children, hordes of them, a total of 43 — including Victor, whose accusations of sexual assault lead to Perina’s eventual fall from grace.

What can I say about The People in the Trees? It is a book with presence. From the first few pages it forces you to sit up and take notice. I think the last time I read a debut novel with this level of assurance and originality was Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Comparisons will inevitably be made to Nabokov, both to Lolita and to Pale Fire, and as high as compliment as that is to The People in the Trees, it’s a not-inconsiderable compliment to Nabokov as well.

This book right here, you guys, it rocked me like a southbound train. Three days after reading it, I still haven’t been able to read anything new. I just want to sit with The People in the Trees and think about it and reread parts of it and talk about it to everyone. (Seriously. Ask my friends-and-relations. I have not been able to shut up about this book.)

Okay! In descending order of how certain I feel that y’all will love it: Eva, Vasilly, Proper Jenny and Teresa, Aarti, and Ana, you should read this book please. It’s all about like colonization and guilt and appropriation and ethics and science! Read it, read it! (Jill, I just am not sure. I can see you loving this, but I can also see you really, really, super hating it. Use your judgment, I guess?)

American (hard)cover

American (hard)cover

British cover

British cover

American paperback

American paperback

Cover report: Between the US and UK paperback covers, I’d easily choose the US one. But the UK only published the book in paperback. Between the UK paperback cover and the US hardback cover, I’d choose the UK, I guess? Because turtle? I’m calling it for America because of the three available covers, I like the American paperback by far the best.

Review: How to Save a Life, Sara Zarr

Did I ever review Once Was Lost? A peek back at my archives tells me that not only did I not review it, I went into a great big rant about how tired I was of reading about g. d. missing white girls. (STILL SUPER TRUE.) Well, look, you wouldn’t necessarily know it to look at my blog archives, but I am a big fan of Sara Zarr’s, and it is all on the strength of the book she published in 2008, Sweethearts. Sweethearts is about a weird kid who reinvents herself and then does not know how to feel when someone from her weird-kid past comes back into her life. There were so many good things about it, not least its ability to zig into nuance when I expected it to zag into melodrama.

After two failed Sara Zarr attempts that in no way soured me on her, my loyalty has finally paid off in How to Save a Life. The story is told from two points of view (yay): Jill, a high school senior who lost her father in a car accident, and Mandy, a pregnant eighteen-year-old who has agreed to give her baby to Jill’s middle-aged mother for adoption. Mandy wants a good home for her baby but refuses to involve any lawyers or social workers, and Jill–who has been pretty much nonstop furious since her father’s death–is convinced that Mandy is trying to pull a scam on Jill’s vulnerable mother.

“Your mom does what she does, damn the torpedoes,” he used to say.

 

“Your mom’s a nut,” he used to say. “I’m just along for the ride.”

 

I mean, I get it. I sort of get it. She’s not just doing this because she wants a baby, though I think she really does. She’s doing this to say a big eff you to fate, or God, or luck, or whatever it is that took Dad away from us. I dare you, she’s saying. I dare you.

As in Sweethearts, the key to everything here is Sara Zarr’s assumption of the good will of all parties. That Jill doesn’t trust Mandy hurts Mandy’s feelings; yet you know that if it were you, and your mother, you wouldn’t be able to trust Mandy either. On both sides, the adoption depends utterly on both sides–Mandy and Robin, Jill’s mother–to count absolutely on the other one’s good faith. And as much as they both want the adoption to go through smoothly, there are times when they waver.

Another thing Sara Zarr portrays perfectly is the gap between Mandy and Jill. It’s not just financial, although it is financial; and it’s not just intellectual, although it is intellectual. Their life experiences have been so different that they might as well have come from different planets. Jill has always been able to count on the support and love of her parents; Mandy never. What’s regular to Jill is a shock and a luxury to Mandy, and it’s easy for Jill to sneer at Mandy’s tastes, and for Mandy to feel that everything has come easy for Jill.

The danger of a book where everyone’s sympathetic is that you’ll end up with a character or two who’s just too saintly. In How to Save a Life, that was Jill’s boyfriend Dylan. I could have lived without Dylan. Dylan was so endlessly patient and caring and communicative, and I’d have liked to see what frayed edges there were on him (apart from a throwaway remark about him not being brave). But that is really my only complaint. Sara Zarr is quite wonderful, and I can’t recommend her enough.

Review: A Beautiful Place to Die, Malla Nunn

Fwoo. This was dark. Which I guess is what I should have expected from a murder mystery that takes places in a small town in apartheid South Africa.

The beginning: British police detective Emmanuel Cooper comes to investigate the murder of an Afrikaner police captain in the small town of Jacob’s Rest. Yes, you read that correctly. It’s a murder mystery where the victim is male. This probably happens more often than it seems to me to happen. I don’t read that many murder mysteries, partly because it always seems to be women getting killed, and I get tired of reading about beautiful lady corpses. I can read about alive ladies doing things that alive people do.

When Aarti reviewed A Beautiful Place to Die recently, I was excited to read a murder mystery by a non-American-or-British author and set in a non-American-or-British place, and as I’ve said, a murder mystery featuring a male corpse. From the get-go, it was clear that the book was going to be a nuanced exploration of racial and gender prejudice, and I was excited for it.

The end (spoilers here, but not spoilers about who did the murder because that is actually the least interesting part of this book and that’s not a criticism): If I had to choose, I’d always go with the I suppose you’re wondering why I’ve brought you here today style of ending. I got anxious reading the ending of A Beautiful Place to Die, which gets pretty violent. Since the book is really about prejudice, the violence that simmers throughout the book rarely has to do with the murderer’s identity, and nearly always has to do with preserving one idea of what people and society are like and how they are supposed to behave.

The whole: My favorite thing about A Beautiful Place to Die is also my least favorite thing about it. Malla Nunn is absolutely wonderful at depicting life in a society that not only condones but (openly) institutionalizes racism. The down side of this is that racial violence is very, very hard for me to read about in fiction. The final third of the book features a healthy dose of race-based violence, as well as (threats of) sexual violence, and if I am going to read about that, I would prefer to read about it in nonfiction.

The up side is that it’s amazing to watch Malla Nunn pick apart the assumptions, large and small, that go into creating a racist society. That she does this while writing from the perspective of a white British man is even more impressive–wonderfully, you can see Emmanuel Cooper being forced to confront his own privilege as he struggles to solve the murder of Captain Willem Pretorius:

She made a sound of disbelief low in her throat. “Only a white man would ask a question like that and expect an answer.”

 

Emmanuel felt like he was seeing her for the first time. The meek coloured girl he could deal with, even ignore, but this furious sharp-eyed woman was something else altogether.

 

“What’s the question got to do with my being white?”

 

“Only white people talk about choice like it’s a box of chocolates that everyone gets to pick from. [A white man] walks into this room and I say what to him? ‘No, thank you, sir, but I do not wish to spoil my chances for a good marriage with a good man from my community, so please ma’ baas take yourself back to your wife and family. I promise not to blackmail you if you promise not to punish my family for turning you away. Thank you for asking me. I am honored.’ Tell me, is that how it works for nonwhite women in Jo’burg, Detective?”

What’s particularly good is that discussions like these come up regardless of Cooper’s good intentions. Although he opposes apartheid and even has some personal experience of racial prejudice (his whiteness, the book suggests early on, may be more fragile than it seems), he’s still able to benefit by it, both in the issues he has to worry about day to day, and in the power he has over any black resident of Jacob’s Rest.

When I said, above, that the identity of the murderer was the least interesting aspect of the book, I didn’t mean to imply that the mystery is a bad one. It isn’t. But the book isn’t exactly about trying to solve a murder. It’s about how it would be to try to solve the murder of an upstanding white citizen in a small racist town where certain paths of investigation are acceptable and others are unacceptable, and you can tell which path is which by the skin color of the people being investigated. Malla Nunn does this spectacularly well, and despite bits of her book being quite upsetting to read, I’m looking forward to reading the next two books in this series.

American cover

American cover

British cover

British cover

Cover report: American cover wins. I didn’t choose this one. Both covers were boring to me, so I had Randon choose. He says neither draws him, but he thinks the American cover is better than the British cover.

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