Review: The Caretaker, A. X. Ahmad

Mm, at last, a thriller set in Martha’s Vineyard that takes into account the bloody conflict between India and Pakistan (and sometimes China) over who rightly owns Kashmir. I read about author A. X. Ahmad in NPR’s 2015 Book Concierge, and yes, I am embarrassed that it took me over a year to finally read The Caretaker. But such is the life of a reader.

The Caretaker

I was kind of joking before — I have not been specifically yearning for a mystery novel set in Martha’s Vineyard that also incorporates the Kashmir conflict. But it’s kind of great that one exists. A. X. Ahmad has written two books about ex-Indian army captain Ranjit Singh and the mysteries in which he finds himself enmeshed, and this is the first. When Ranjit takes a job as a caretaker for the rising star politician Senator Neals, who recently negotiated the return of a hostage from North Korea, he anticipates a quiet winter for himself and his family as the Martha’s Vineyard vacationers clear out for the season. Instead he ends up embroiled in international intrigue and deception, his family slated for deportation as he scrambles to figure out what is happening in time to restore their life of normalcy.

I don’t read many mysteries and am therefore not particularly qualified to speak to whether one is good, but The Caretaker was an immensely satisfying read for me. Ranjit takes the job as caretaking with the intent of using the extra cash to buy a nice winter coat for his beloved daughter Shanti. When the situation spins wildly out of control, he remains competent and careful, working through the information he possesses to try and get the situation back under control. It’s a fun and exciting story with characters I enjoyed, and I’d definitely read a second one.

In not-so-great elements, here is where I have to cop to being extremely my father’s daughter. One time I was talking to my dad about some romcom he’d checked out from the library, and I asked him how he liked it. “I didn’t like it at all,” he said, the most indignant that a human man has ever been. “The guy and girl are cheating on their boyfriend and girlfriend! This was supposed to be a comedy!”

LOOK. I would JUST HAVE PREFERRED IT if Ranjit hadn’t cheated on his wife. I just would have felt happier about him as a protagonist is all, if he hadn’t slept with the Senator’s wife — not once! SEVERAL TIMES, a bunch of them while his wife and daughter were meantime in a detention cell.

Apart from that, an excellent read. I understand that Ranjit and his wife are separated at the start of the second book in this series, The Last Taxi Ride, so if Ranjit sleeps with any ladies in that one, I won’t have to be so fussed about it.

Friends, am I being unreasonable? Is it fine for people in books to cheat on their spouses and I should just suck it up and accept it as part of the literary landscape? Also, does it seem to you that dude detectives in ongoing mystery serieses are particularly prone to cheating on their spouses?

Some books I have read before

REREADING IS AMAZING.  Sometimes I forget how many amazing books I have already read, because I am busy reading new books, which are also (sometimes) amazing.  But this is what I’ve been reading lately.

Magician’s Ward, Patricia C. Wrede

Much like Mairelon the Magician.  Too many names of people, but I don’t care because I am more interested in Kim’s learning magic and having a Season and Coming Out at a ball and having Offers of Marriage to turn down.  In pretty dresses.  Can there be more pretty dresses?  And God, pretty shoes?  I need new shoes so much.  My favorite shoes are all reaching the end of their lives – the pink ones that go with all my red-toned tops; the adorable tan strappy sandals that I wore all over the place and I love them and I don’t want them to go; and the little black ones I wore to prom (I KNOW I HAVE TO LET THEM GO) and then forgot about for several years and then rediscovered, with the sweet little kitten heel.  Sigh.

Sorcery and Cecelia, Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer

I love Sorcery and Cecelia.  Know why?  Because the two authors wrote it using the letter game!  The letter game!  They really did!  Kate has gone to London to have her Season, and poor Cecelia is stuck at home in Essex.  They have all sorts of fun with a marquis and a magical chocolate pot, and a wicked witch called Miranda, and beautiful friends and relations.

Caroline Stevermer and Patricia C. Wrede are obviously having fun here, and they manage a plot that hangs together really well over two locations and considering they were making it up as they went along.  Reading this again for the first time in a while, I am extra triple curious about what they changed when they decided to get it published.  I would think to play the letter game, you’d have to be quite attentive to minor details in the other person’s letter, and also be flexible enough to ditch elements of the plot you had planned if the other person said something that messed it up.  Tricky!  But it sounds so fun.  One of these days…

Crocodile on the Sandbank, Elizabeth Peters

Amelia Peabody makes me laugh.  I don’t necessarily read this series for the mysteries, though I recall finding some of them quite satisfying.  I really read them for the characters – Amelia is so determined and brilliant, and Evelyn is sweet without being sweety-sweet (usually, and when she is sweety-sweet it just makes me laugh, and she’s all There is an image enshrined in my heart – oh, Elizabeth Peters, why are you so funny all the time?); and the Emersons are charming.

Elizabeth Peters has a wicked sense of humor, and as many times as I’ve read her books, they always make me laugh.  Well-done her for giving her detective a family without making her boring – and carrying on adding family members and not forgetting them in subsequent books.  She does make oodles of good characters, though at a certain point there are too many all at once.

But I’ve strayed from the point.  Um, yes, Crocodile on the Sandbank.  Did I say, it’s set in Egypt at the end of the nineteenth century?  There are pyramids all over the place, and the characters all have sumptuous fun complaining about the treatment of antiquities (it is really shocking, to be fair – it makes me want to cry even when the antiquities in question are fictional). Plus, whenever silly characters show up, everyone makes fun of them!  Hooray!

What are some books you return to repeatedly?  If you like them so much perhaps I will like them too…

Silent in the Grave, Deanna Raybourn

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My fourth book for the RIP Challenge, because apparently I just cannot get it together to read The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher right now.  Silent in the Grave is the first of (so far) three mysteries with Lady Julia Grey, whose husband passes away at the start of this book.  After his death, private investigator Nicholas Brisbane tells her that he believes her husband was murdered.  She rejects this possibility out of hand; but a year later, after her mourning time is over, she finds clues in her house that make her wonder – was he murdered?  And if so, how and by whom?

I enjoyed this book a lot.  Obviously I am in the mood for slightly frothy set-in-England historicalish mysteries!  Silent in the Grave is – er, derivative seems harsh, but let’s just say you can see its literary antecedents.  Julia Grey owes a fair bit to Amelia Peabody (okay, yeah, have to read those again soon), and Brisbane is squarely in the tradition of dark tortured heroes.  Which is why I won’t necessarily need to own this book or the ones that follow, but I would like to get them out of the library.  Because, you know.  They’re fun.

On the other hand, I am not completely satisfied with this book’s treatment of gender issues.  Lady Julia is constantly doing silly things that cause trouble, without thinking about them, and Brisbane is all YOU ARE VERY STUPID.  Sometimes she does clever things, and this is noted, but there did seem to be a surfeit of silliness on her part, with lots of good sense and deductive skills on the side of Brisbane.  I do not like this.  I shall read Elizabeth Peters as an antidote.  And then I was not in love with the way male homosexuality was managed in the book.  I can’t put my finger on what bugged me about it, but I just didn’t care for it.  Queer Victorian history is rich and fascinating, and it seemed like Deanna Raybourn just didn’t want to be bothered with it, and made all her gay characters sort of two-dimensional.

This has not been a very positive review of a book that gave me a lot of pleasure – I just don’t want to give it a glowing review and then everyone have high expectations and then be like, Hm, this book isn’t all that great.  Because it isn’t all that great, unless you are in total guilty pleasure mode, and I am.  No judgment please.  😛

Other reviews: Bride of the Book God, A Garden Carried in the Pocket, At Home with Books, bookshelves of doom, S. Krishna’s Books, Medieval Bookworm, Reading Matters, ReadingAdventures, What Kate’s Reading, Framed and Booked, Mysteries in Paradise, Lesa’s Book Critiques, Angieville, Wendi’s Book Corner, My Random Acts of Reading, Miss Picky’s Column, The Thrillionth Page, Sadie-Jean’s Book Blog, & tell me if I missed yours so I can add a link!

Gaudy Night, Dorothy Sayers

A few days ago, my friend tim mentioned Gaudy Night, and I realized that I wanted nothing in the world more than to read Gaudy Night.  I know I refused to read it or even think about it earlier this year when I was reading Strong Poison, but I have rarely enjoyed a reread as much as I did this one.  Reading Gaudy Night this time was like eating cilantro – you know what it’s going to be like, and you are thinking, man, this is going to be great, but no matter how high your expectations are, you find them exactly justified.  (Did you know there’s a gene for liking cilantro?  If you don’t have the gene, cilantro apparently just tastes like soap.)  I read slowly on purpose to make it last, and every page was like a delicious layer cake made out of rainbows and kittens, with feminism icing and Oxford sprinkles.

Gaudy Night, easily the best of Dorothy Sayers’s mysteries, features Harriet Vane trying to put her past behind her.  She receives several unpleasant  anonymous notes while attending a reunion at her old Oxford college (the fictional Shrewsbury, modeled on Sayers’s college Somerville), and some time later gets word from her college that its fellows and students are the targets of an unrelenting campaign of anonymous nastiness.  Down Harriet goes to investigate, and after a while Peter Wimsey joins her.  There are many hijinks.

Oh this book is so much more than a mystery novel.  Oh how I love it.  It explores attitudes towards women and scholarship in its time (Agatha Christie Time), and the nature of integrity in writing and in one’s personal life.  Harriet and Peter have to confront their situation properly – the way that he has approached their relationship, as pursuer of a desired object, and the way that she has approached it, grudgingly enjoying his company while resenting him fiercely as a tie to her quite miserable past.

I do not like it in serials (book series, as well as TV shows) when something terrible happens and then everyone just forgets about it.  Like in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (spoilers for the pilot of Buffy), which is normally good about keeping its characters emotionally honest, we lose Jesse, and then nobody ever talks about him again, even though he was supposedly Xander and Willow’s BFF.  Gaudy Night gives Harriet a chance to face her past (the nasty murdering parts and the inescapable gratitude parts) on her own terms, resolving quite nicely, but not at all glibly, the internal and with-Peter conflicts begun in Strong Poison.

Spoilers in this paragraph, but only for one scene: Every time I read Gaudy Night, I hope that Harriet will put her Chinese chessmen away and not let them get smashed.  They sound so beautiful, and it was the first proper present he ever gave her.  I can hardly read that scene, it makes me so sad.  It is like watching the casino scene in Empire Records – except of course money can be replaced, and the chessmen were singular.

In the aforementioned chat with tim when Gaudy Night came up, I mentioned I had Murder on the Orient Express out from the library, and all the clues are highlighted in orange.  And tim said that she doesn’t really try to figure out mysteries as she’s going along, which I don’t either.  I am fine with this way of reading mysteries – if I enjoy them, it’s not because of the clues and the cleverness of the mystery.  I like finding out about all the characters and their dirty little secrets and what they kept hidden from the detectives for what reasons.  This is the fun of mysteries to me.  The reveal of the murderer is fine, but not particularly more interesting than the reveal that the society girl had an abortion or the lawyer is sleeping with his secretary, or whatever.

Which, incidentally, makes it perfectly agreeable to me to reread mysteries without having to forget who the guilty party is.

How do you read mysteries?  Do you try to solve the mystery before Poirot does, or do you just toodle along admiring the scenery like me?  Do you find you can reread mysteries, or are you done with them once you’ve read them once?  If you do spot clues, do you have to make the effort, as you are reading, to work out how each piece fits in the puzzle, or do the events of the book just churn round in your subconscious and eventually pop out an answer?  (And if the latter, why aren’t the subconscious minds of tim and me doing it?  At least one of us is very, very clever (snever) (hi, tim!), so I cannot put it down to lack of intelligence.)

River of Darkness, Rennie Airth

Woohoo!  Between-the-wars-in-England stories are my favorite kind!  Plus, this is a mystery (I sometimes like mysteries), and although I read the end, I didn’t need to read the end necessarily, because the killer’s identity is known to the reader for most of the book.  Lovely.  Only way to do it.  See, the suspense then wasn’t about who done it, but whether he would do it again!  (I will just tell you – he would.)

In River of Darkness, Inspector John Madden, a copper scarred by his time in the trenches in the recently-over World War I, is called in on a case of brutal murder.  Colonel and Lady Fletcher, along with two of their servants, were slaughtered in their manor home, and no motive can be found for the crime.  The Scotland Yard higher-ups are inclined to view it as a robbery gone wrong, but Madden is certain there’s more to it.  Like MAAAAAAAAAAAAAAADNESS.

(That was weird.  However, I have an excuse: I just finally got internet in my apartment this morning, and it is wonderful to finally have internet, and it’s making me a little giddy.  Surrsly, y’all, I cannot do without the internet.  I know it’s bad to be dependent on technology, but I JUST AM.)

I thought the book was a good post-WWI type book.  The war has obviously left scars on the protagonist, John Madden, but also on the country and its people.  There’s some fairly pointed criticism of the army – World War I was awful, eh? – and you see how the war shaped all of the people in the novel, those who were at the front, those who weren’t able to go, the women who stayed home and waited for their brothers and husbands and fathers.  Plus, cause there was a GREAT BIG PSYCHOPATH.  It was v. suspenseful wondering whether they’d catch him before he struck again!  (Except not for me cause I hate suspense and I read ahead.)

I really enjoyed this!  I need more mysteries set after World War I!  Or just regular books set after World War I!

Thanks to litlove for the recommendation!

Have His Carcase, Dorothy Sayers

Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, together again, hooray!  Harriet Vane has gone off for a vacation in a watering-place (watering-place.  Brits are so weird.), and she happens upon a dead body, all throat-cut and bloody.  The corpse is dancer Paul Alexis, who is engaged (slightly sordidly) to an extremely rich older woman called Mrs. Weldon, and appears to have been part of a strange Bolshevik type plot.  All of the possible suspects have unbreakable alibis.  Harriet will still not marry Peter, but he carries on badgering her to marry him anyway.

I am mildly bothered by Peter’s continual badgering of Harriet to marry him even though she says no, no, no.

I love Peter and Harriet.  If I had not already put my book upstairs, I would excerpt a brief bit of it where Harriet and Peter are out merrily detecting.  The only thing is, I wasn’t in the mood for Have His Carcase at all.  I was totally in the mood for Strong Poison, and I guess I just assumed I was in the mood for Have His Carcase and Gaudy Night and even Busman’s Honeymoon.  Turns out, not a bit of it!  I got tired of Have His Carcase, but I know I love it so I didn’t stop reading it, and when I got done, I still didn’t feel satisfied.  Just not in the mood.

But it’s wonderful though.  If you haven’t read it, don’t take my cranky mood to mean that you shouldn’t read it straight away after rereading Strong Poison.  Just don’t assume that you should always, always read all the sequels to a book for which you are in the mood, because sometimes you are only in the mood to read the original book itself.  I think I am tired of mysteries for now.  I’m going to read something totally different that isn’t Gaudy Night or Busman’s Honeymoon or that other Peter Wimsey mystery I got out of the library.

Lovin’ on Tom Stoppard

Speaking of The Mousetrap, here is a Tom Stoppard anecdote.  If you have never seen The Mousetrap and you don’t know whodunit and you don’t want to, don’t carry on reading this paragraph. You have been warned.  Tom Stoppard’s play The Real Inspector Hound is a parody of The Mousetrap and those country house type mysteries, and it’s also a parody of theatre critics.  And it steals lots of plot elements from The Mousetrap, as the title The Real Inspector Hound suggests, which might have caused the Mousetrap people to object.  But!  But but but!  They couldn’t!  Because if they objected publicly, and it got into the newspapers, then even mentioning the title of The Real Inspector Hound would give away the ending to The Mousetrap.  To me that is very funny.

I love Tom Stoppard.  Why have I not said anything at all in this blog about Tom Stoppard?  I love Tom Stoppard.  When I was in high school I went through this phase where I didn’t want to read anything but Tom Stoppard plays.  (It was a brief phase – my plays phases always are.)  Tom Stoppard is a genius. I shall reread some of his plays and review them here soon, so that I can quote him.  He writes the Britishest plays I have ever seen, and he is an absolute master of one-liners.  If you haven’t read anything by him, you should get on that.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is the obvious place to start; Dogg’s Hamlet and Cahoot’s Macbeth are fun, The Real Thing has an excellent line about Beethoven and entertains me hugely; Indian Ink and Arcadia are associated closely in my mind, and they’re both very good; and The Invention of Love is an extremely sad but still brilliant play about A.E. Housman.

Tom Stoppard.  I tell ya what.

Murder Must Advertise, Dorothy Sayers

So apparently?  Dorothy Sayers did not write her Harriet Vane books all in a row.  Murder Must Advertise happens after Peter has already met Harriet, but Harriet doesn’t feature in it at all.  In between wooing Harriet and solving mysteries with her (and getting woefully rejected), Peter still finds time to gallivant around infiltrating advertising agencies to sort out other problems.  I didn’t know this.  I thought that the books with Harriet just came one after another in direct sequence.

This makes me feel better about Peter and Harriet.  You know how the Doctor asks Donna to come traveling with him in “The Runaway Bride”, and then in the very next episode he asks Martha (mad Martha, blind Martha, charity Martha)?  And if you assume that these episodes happened within a fairly short time of each other, it makes the Doctor seem a tiny bit – just the tiniest bit – desperate.  (I can’t believe I have even written that adjective to refer to David Tennant’s Doctor.)  Whereas if you assume that a good deal of time has passed between the end of “The Runaway Bride” and the start of “Smith and Jones”, it is not so much of a problem.  I feel the same way about Peter and Harriet – I’m glad that while she’s taking vacations and writing novels and going to college reunions, he’s solving staircase mysteries like an undercover copywriting Nancy Drew.  He goes to dinner with her, but between times he solves a mystery and plays cricket!

In Murder Must Advertise, Peter Wimsey comes to Pym Advertising Agency masquerading as a copywriter, in order to discover all he can about the recent death of the copywriter he’s replacing.  The man in question went tumbling down an iron staircase, broke his neck, and cracked his head on the knob at the bottom of the staircase.  Certain parties are not satisfied that it was an accident.

Spoilers ahead in this paragraph: The ad agency had just slightly too many people at it for me to keep track of.  And I never do feel very happy about mysteries in which drugs are introduced.  That seems messy to me, and I like things to be nice and tidy.  Nice little murders committed for personal reasons.  Why add a drug ring into the question at all?  But as drug ring mysteries go, this one was fairly neat, so I didn’t object to it too terribly much.  Peter let the perpetrator commit suicide, rather than be exposed to all as a murderer and a drug dealer, to the disgrace of his loving wife and child.  Whatever, Peter.  BRING HIM TO JUSTICE I SAY.  And then do not you cry about it afterwards, you silly ass.

But never mind.  I like Dorothy Sayers, and I enjoyed Murder Must Advertise.  It was nice to see more of Chief-Inspector and Mary Parker, never enough of the family scene in Have His Carcase and Gaudy Night.  Peter working for a living was an amusing sight to behold, and I enjoyed the bits about life in an advertising agency.  I always like knowing what people in jobs that are not my job are thinking, and what they are all doing from day to day.  Besides which, I like mysteries where there are dozens of suspects and no alibis – this wasn’t quite as good as one of those country house type mysteries (like “The Unicorn and the Wasp”, hullo to my second Doctor Who reference in a single post, good heavens) or The Mousetrap – but nearly.

Strong Poison, Dorothy Sayers

Strong Poison is a comfort book of mine.  I bought it at Bongs & Noodles one time on the way back from a doctor’s appointment regarding my tendonitis.  It was a very trying year – I was doing four AP courses and two honors ones, and I was very stressed about getting good grades so I could get into college – and anyway, we stopped by Bongs & Noodles and my mother suggested Strong Poison if I was after a new book.  I read it under my desk in calculus (bad, I know, but trust me, nobody was learning anything in that class).  Those books still feel like a haven in the middle of a storm to me, even if no storm is happening.

Peter Wimsey had already starred in several of Dorothy Sayers’s (less good, I believe) mysteries, but Strong Poison is the first one where the delightful and intelligent Harriet Vane shows up.  She’s on trial for murdering her lover, and Lord Wimsey falls madly in love with her at the trial, and decides to solve the mystery and clear her name and marry her.

I love, love, love this book.  I loved it from the second Lord Wimsey started quoting Alice in Wonderland at Harriet’s trial.  Ella over at Box of Books was not in love with the first bit, where Harriet’s at her trial and all the evidence in the case is being set forth, and I can see how that part could seem tedious and expository.  When I first read it, though, I was using it to drown out lessons on differentiating sine and cosine.  You can see how, in those circumstances, just about anything would seem like a thrilling adventure novel by comparison.  It’s kept that feeling of excitement for me even after multiple rereadings.

Peter and Harriet charm me, and their relationship continues to be just as fun and brilliant all through the rest of the books.  I get irritated with Peter a little bit in Busman’s Honeymoon – take a Valium and get over it, guy! – but mostly I find him and Harriet tremendously entertaining.  Because Harriet’s not available to go out solving the mystery, Peter engages the assistance of two women from his personal secretary agency, whose exploits cause me much tension and amusement.  There is a certain element, since I am paying attention for it, of things being excessively convenient, like the secretary Peter engages happening to know about a Trust that’s gone bust, or one of the other spies happening to know all about spiritualism and how to fake seances – but it’s not too jarring.

Do you have books that never get old, no matter how many times you read them?

The Ruby in the Smoke, Philip Pullman

The Eleventh Doctor isn’t Paterson Joseph.  I really, really wanted it to be, but no, it isn’t him.  They said so today.  It’s some little child twenty-six years old (my generation, for heaven’s sake!) that nobody’s ever heard of.  Except that apparently he was in the BBC film version of Philip Pullman’s The Ruby in the Smoke.  With Billie Piper, Billie Piper!  Hurrah for Billie Piper!  So I decided to read the books and then watch the films when they come in at the library.

The Ruby in the Smoke is about a girl called Sally Lockhart whose father has just died, and there is some mystery surrounding his death and finances, and a number of other things, that she ends up having to work out.  She meets some nice people that help her, and some nasty people that don’t.  This is all in 19th-century London.  Every time someone says something about 19th-century London, I always hope they will sometime bring up Oscar Wilde, but so far they have not.

I enjoyed this – everyone’s so cheerful and they all rush round trying to get everything sorted out.  Sally can be a bit of a pansy sometimes, but when she bothers trying to be cool, she manages it handily.  I admire a girl who can handle photography and finances – though I was surprised nobody thought to worry about whether their printed photographs would give away their location to the dastardly villains who were after them.  One time I made an index for a book about photographs from this time period, which was interesting, and reading this book reminded me that I don’t remember one single thing about it.

Anyway I’ll have to see the film.  I like Billie Piper.  Maybe it will help me to feel slightly, slightly better about this new kid playing the Doctor.