Tag Archives: murder

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (and also The Secret History because I read them together)


My book club generally picks a few books ahead so that we can all get the book early. Two of our members, unbeknownst to each other, chose back-to-back Donna Tartt books for November and December. I had never read any of her books, and had heard completely opposing opinions of her work from coworkers whose taste I normally trust. How could she be the best author coworker H ever read while simultaneously being “not finishable” to coworker E? Well, after reading The Secret History for November’s meeting and The Goldfinch for December’s, I have a theory: H must have read Goldfinch while E read The Secret History.

The Secret History is basically Evan Hunter’s Come Winter updated for a new generation (sister Julia, are you reading this? You might like it). It’s full of completely unlikeable, unredeemable characters doing awful, thoughtless, painful things to other people and then taking no responsibility and feeling no remorse for those actions. It’s not just the protagonist – his friends, his parents, and his teacher are all pretty much a waste of DNA. I kept waiting for someone to actually learn something from their colossal mistakes, but (spoiler alert) no one ever did and they kept piling bad decisions on top of one another. Skip this one, seriously, unless you like books about self-involved assholes that make you sorry you’re a fellow human. (It’s like the literary equivalent of watching Pulp Fiction, just replace the gratuitous bible quotes with Greek literature.)

The Goldfinch, on the other hand, I loved. The protagonist is just as flawed a person as the characters from Secret History, but I sympathized with him because unlike the overprivileged, snobbish characters in Secret History, Theo has horrible life experiences to overcome, so I cut him a lot of slack. (Also, his crimes don’t seem so heinous. I could see myself committing a few of them if I was a motherless shell-shocked teen. Richard and his friends’ crimes in Secret History? No excuses, they shouldn’t have done any of them. Ever.) Warning: The beginning of the novel takes forever. It says right on the book jacket that his mother dies. He tells you himself on the first page that she dies. And then it takes like 40 billion chapters for her to actually die so we can get on with the remaining events of the story. Once his mother is safely disposed of, the story picks up. We watch 13-year-old Theo as he stumbles through life with no idea what to do next, or how to do it. A childhood friend’s family takes him in temporarily, and he tries his best to fit in with them, but it doesn’t last. Neither does his stint living with his deadbeat dad in Las Vegas. It is only when Theo takes his life into his own hands, seeking out a family of his own choosing, that things start looking up for him. The problem? Theo has been essentially allowed to raise himself, and no matter how old he gets, he still keeps making decisions a 13 year old boy would make, and they keep working out about as well as you’d expect.

It all comes to a head once Theo is in his 20s, when every bad decision he’s ever made gathers to smack him in the face at once. Watching the chips fall is highly entertaining – can it get worse? Yes! It can! But wait, it’s getting EVEN WORSE!  I can’t tell you any more or I’ll spoil the story. I’ll just throw out a few reasons you might want to read it: Art theft, antiques fraud, the Russian Mafia, rampant drug use, infidelity, mental illness, denial, unrequited love…it’s all in there. And the glorious descriptions of Carel Fabritus’ The Goldfinch – the painting at the story’s center – made me want to steal it myself.

So – if you like long, rambling stories that teeter just on the brink of disaster, and you often find yourself sticking with a novel just to see what horrible thing will happen next, you might like The Goldfinch. To be fair, you might also like The Secret History – it has the same “oh shit they’re going to …” vibe, but the things that happen are far more horrible and the people far less redeemable than Theo and his collected “family”.

As a side note, I wonder seriously about Donna Tartt’s drug use. They say that writers should write what they know, but if Tartt uses even a tenth of the drugs and alcohol her characters do, how the hell does she have enough brains left to string together coherent sentences? I know I am a fairly conservative person when it comes to substance abuse (well, except for grad school, but really, what else was there to do in Kansas City for 3 years?), but holy cow, how many drugs can a person wash down with how much alcohol before they just fall down and DIE?


Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith


The third time’s a charm for Cormoran Strike and his assistant Robin Ellacott (I rambled about the first and second earlier). This book gets more personal than the previous installments, showing the reader glimpses of Robin’s past life that give us reasons for her confidence issues. We see more of Strike’s past, too – his mother has apparently provided him not only with enough enemies (and strange allies – we meet a friend of Strike’s from childhood who I hope against hope becomes a recurring character) to keep him busy but also enough material to keep his therapist (if he had one, and he should) occupied for years.

The setup: Robin gets a package, delivered by motorcycle courier. She’s in the thick of her wedding plans, so she assumes it’s the disposable cameras she ordered for the reception – until she opens it to find a woman’s severed leg. Strike reveals that he knows 4 different people that could have sent it – and the novel takes off, with the police chasing after the person Strike thinks least likely, and he and Robin tailing the other three. There is the usual stress between Strike and the police (there are those on the force still sensitive about his previous successes, which have made them look bad), Robin and her fiancé (will they resolve their differences in time for the wedding?), Robin and Strike (what exactly did Strike mean when he called her a “partner”? Will she finally be recognized as a real detective?), and once again the agency teeters on the brink of financial ruin…and of course, the suspense thickens as it becomes clear that the killer has set his sights on Robin.

The thing about this book that I really liked (though I read a review that thought this was awful) was the fact that it was told partly from the killer’s point of view. The killer himself gives us tons of tantalizing clues in his segments, but the three suspects are so similar in personality, motive, and methods that I never managed to figure out which of them it was. This is why I love this series – I haven’t picked the killer YET, and failure has never made me so happy.

Speaking of reading reviews, I found this in a review by Christobel Kent  in The Guardian:

If your taste in detective fiction runs to the minimalist, then this is not for you. If Georges Simenon is a simple, perfect kitchen stool and Agatha Christie a sensible wingbacked chair, then Robert Galbraith is a vast, overstuffed sofa, complete with dog hair and something unmentionable behind the cushions.

Yeah, that pretty much sums it up. Also the couch is upholstered in a vigorous, colorful paisley print. With texture. Enjoy.

A Pleasure and a Calling by Phil Hogan


For our “year of reading” at work, our director suggests a genre each month to get us to try books we might not otherwise read. So far it has been good for me – I read an Agatha Christie for Cozy Mystery month, a Regency Romance (with indentured servitude, mistaken identity and kidnapping by pirates!) for Romance month, and finally had an excuse to read Philip Reeve’s Fever Crumb for Steampunk month. (The month we were supposed to read Narrative Nonfiction I decided I read enough of that already without any provocation.) This month’s genre is “Thrillers”, so I dug this book up, but I think I’m going to have to read something else because this wasn’t the thriller I thought it was going to be. I don’t mean it was bad, just that it was more of a psychological suspense kind of book than the action-packed thrillride bunch of scariness I expected a “thriller” to be. So if you’re looking for car chases, frantic running through dark woods, or the fear of death every minute, look elsewhere. But if you’re looking for mildly creepy on the surface but terrifying once you think too much about it, this is your book.
Our protagonist, Mr. Heming, is a real estate agent. He is quiet, unremarkable, and even if you bought your house from him you’ve probably forgotten him. But he hasn’t forgotten you. In fact, he probably still has the key to your house and comes over when you’re not home to “get to know you”. Mr. Heming likes to have breakfast in houses where he knows the owners aren’t in. He likes to keep detailed records of his clients’ comings and goings, their browsing histories on their computers, their credit card statements, their address books – he’ll even go so far as to spend the night in crawl spaces listening to the inhabitants as they retire for bed. This is a harmless personality quirk, surely…people are just so interesting, and Mr. Heming thinks it’s only natural that he should want to know all about them. It’s even sort of amusing when Heming occasionally takes revenge on people who have wronged others – in one case, he witnesses one of his homeowners knocking the mirror off of his neighbor’s car. When the man denies this and refuses to pay for the repairs, Heming anonymously pays for it himself – and then uses the information he’s collected on the homeowner to make his life miserable. All this is weird, but still relatively innocent, and Mr. Heming seems so reasonable while he is telling you his story…until it becomes apparent that he will do anything necessary to avoid getting caught, and has in fact done some things in his past that he’s forgotten to mention to you.

I’m not sure what reads like this, since it isn’t my usual genre. It reminds me a little of Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places in the sense that the protagonist is really not a very good person, but you’re stuck with him because he’s the one telling you the story. It also vaguely brought back some hints of Joyce Carol Oates’ Rosamund Smith books, like Lives of the Twins, where characters turn out to be way scarier on the inside than they look on the outside.

All I can say is that I am VERY, VERY HAPPY that my husband and I changed the locks right after buying our house. Not because we suspected our realtor of being a psychopath (she’s actually quite charming), but because there was a key for each door. EACH DOOR. Who has 5 keys for one house? But better safe than sorry in case our realtor turns out to be a Mr. Heming wannabe, right?

The Secret Place by Tana French


Tana French has got her groove back, thank goodness. I really didn’t like her last book (Broken Harbor) but this one had me staying up late and reading on my work breaks to find out whodunit. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you.)

If you’ve never read Tana French, you can start with any book – they are all loosely connected by way of being about someone in the Dublin Murder Squad, but since each novel stands alone and features different detectives, there are no real spoilers. If you are only going to read one of her books, try The Likeness (if you like suspense) or Faithful Place (if you like complicated family drama). Of course if you’re a purist and intend to read them all, start with her first, In the Woods. It doesn’t matter where you start, they’re all good (as long as you avoid Broken Harbor).

The Secret Place’s protagonist is detective Stephen Moran. We met Moran initially in Faithful Place, but now he is working in Cold Cases. One morning, the daughter of his former mentor Frank Mackey comes to him with a card she found – a card with a picture of Chris Harper, a boy who was murdered on the grounds of her school, St Kilda’s, over a year ago. The card reads “I know who killed him.” Moran isn’t on the Murder Squad, but he wants to be. He shows the card to Antoinette Conway, whose case it was before it went cold over a year ago. Her partner on that case has since retired, so she grudgingly accepts Moran as temporary sidekick. They drive out to St Kilda’s to investigate, and what follows is a roller-coaster ride where he and Conway encounter defensive nuns, warring mean girl cliques, and what seem like endless layers of deception. Moran and Conway don’t know each other, so they are constantly trying to feel each other out on the fly and aren’t sure how far to trust one another – if at all. And as the evidence starts to implicate Holly, her father gets involved and Stephen has to decide whether to risk career suicide by offending his former boss or bail.

The most intriguing aspect of this story is the very real threats Stephen faces while working this case. First of all, he isn’t on the Murder Squad, and his involvement could be interpreted as poaching. Second, Conway is an outsider in the Murder Squad – the men have never accepted her, and are actively trying to drive her out. Aligning himself with her could be genius if they solve the case, but if they don’t, he may as well go back to being a uniformed cop. As a person of a lower social class and as a man, he has to be extra careful dealing with the girls at St. Kilda’s, who can so easily destroy him with any hint of impropriety on his part. He dances delicately, and it’s fun to watch.

What reads like this book? Hmmm. Some of the characters remind me of Gillian Flynn’s younger characters in both Sharp Objects and Dark Places. The fierce friendship between the girls and the isolation of their school life reminded me a bit of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, but that’s a stretch.

Sinful Folk: A Novel of the Middle Ages by Ned Hayes

sinful folk

I find the weirdest reading materials by accident sometimes. I found this book while searching for a picture book illustrated by Nikki McClure, and the cover was compelling – so I read the description. It was about the medeival period and a possible murder and a former nun disguised as a mute man raising her illigitimate son alone and suddenly I had to have it. It was based on a true story, even, and I’m a sucker for those.

The heroine’s son has been killed in a fire, along with some other boys in her village, and she and the other fathers (she is living as a man, remember) have decided to haul their bodies to the king and demand justice for their deaths. The loudest of the men is convinced that Jews are responsible – even though all of the Jews were driven from their village years before – and he convinces the others that the king should pay for not wiping out the Jews for good. This is, of course, a foolish idea. They are ill-prepared for such a journey and to travel the king’s highway without protection from the crown or a patron lord is practically suicide. Mear does not believe the story of evil Jews, and has seen evidence that one of the villagers is the culprit (and may even be the same person who killed her only female friend in the village a few years back). But she cannot bear the idea of being parted from her son, so she goes along, hoping to discover along the way who killed the boys and find some peace. 

 I devoured the first 1/4 of the book in worshipful fascination. This book was beautiful! I had discovered the book that could live forever in my heart with along with  Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book! Mear’s love for her son, her grief at the loss of his father – it was almost poetic. But then slowly, the whole story just lost its way. I began it so eager to find out who Mear was, why she had fled the monastery where she was raised, who her son’s father was , why he wasn’t present and who murdered the boys and why – but as the story went on, none of these things seemed to matter any more – I just wanted them to stop wandering around in the snow with a cartload of dead bodies, fighting amongst themselves whevever they weren’t fighting off people bent on killing them. Anyway, by the time the questions were all answered, I didn’t really care any more. Plus some of the events were so totally unbelievable I couldn’t forgive the author at all for putting them in. The idea that this ragtag group could survive all of the things they survived, only to fail so miserably at other, simpler tasks, seemed laughable. I finished the book, but under protest.

I don’t know. Maybe this was just a case where my disappointment in the end has colored the whole book for me. I still do think that the first part of the book was wonderful, so maybe another reader would like it just fine.


The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

Cormoran Strike strikes again. If you read and liked Cuckoo’s Calling (reviewed earlier here), read this one, it’s good too. Instead of models and actors, our suspects this go-round are publishers, literary agents, authors, and their various wives/lovers/hangers-on. There’s murder, disembowelment, sadomasochism, slander, infidelity, and vandalism involving dog poo. What’s not to like? On the more positive side, we start to learn a lot more about sidekick Robin and her personal life, and we see Strike finding more professional success. Plus, they get the bad guy, while thoroughly keeping the reader in the dark until the reveal. Or at least I didn’t figure it out – you might be better than I am at avoiding the author’s red herrings and picking out the condemning details. If you read it, and figure out whodunit before Strike, please let me know!

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (nudge, wink)

Hey! I made it through a J.K. Rowling book that wasn’t Harry Potter! I put this one on hold right after I found out who really wrote it, determined to try liking an adult book she wrote after my struggle with Casual Vacancy, which I admit with shame that I still have not finished. This one did not disappoint. It’s a standard mystery: a detective is hired by the brother of a dead girl to prove that her suicide was really murder. There are red herrings galore, and I admit freely that I had the villain picked twice – and was incorrect both times (she never fooled me with Severus Snape, but she fooled me twice with these people). The thing that takes this book a step above your standard mystery is the characters – the detective, Cormoran Strike, is a refreshingly complex hero who, if you heard his story secondhand, you would think was a total loser – but he isn’t, and in fact as you read and observe his methodical approach to the case, you start to admire his skills even as you shake your head at his poor life choices. His sidekick, temporary office help Robin, is also charming – she has the perfect life with a loving fiance and corporate job all lined up, but once she discovers the thrill of detective work…well, you get the feeling her life is going to follow Cormoran’s right off the cliff, but it’s going to be a hell of a trip. The various friends, family, and hangers-on of the dead girl are likewise fascinating creatures, even though most of them have few redeeming qualities. (The cast consists of fashion models, film executives, a law firm full of squabbling family members, and assorted drug addicts. These people aren’t exactly people I would choose to hang out with.)

If you like your mysteries action packed or very suspenseful (Harlan Coben, anyone?), this one probably will not be a favorite. But if you like mysteries that force you to figure out what makes a potential villain tick in order to solve the mystery (think Tana French or Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie books), you will most likely be satisfied.