Thursday, May 31, 2012

Death, Dishonesty, & Disillusionment in Dorset

An ordinary man leaves his wife after several years of marriage, convinced that his happiness may only be found elsewhere. It’s the classic “greener pastures” syndrome--nothing terribly earth-shattering there. But, when the man stabs his wife in their home, then proceeds to throw her off a nearby cliff--before disrobing and sauntering to the water’s edge, calmly following her into the same body of water--that’s the sort of thing that tends to make people sit up and take notice. And, when only one body--hers--is recovered, well, that’s when things become downright interesting.
This is David Whellams’ Walking into the Ocean...
✠ ~ ✠ ~ ✠ ~ ✠ ~ ✠
When semi-retired Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Peter Cammon receives word he’s being sent to Dorset to look into what appears to be a murder-suicide on the Jurassic Coast, he’s unsure what role they’re expecting him to play. Surely the local constabulary are better-equipped to look into the murder of one of their own than he is?
Nevertheless, duty calls, so he dons his uniform--unremarkable black suit, bowler hat, and umbrella--fills a valise with a few travel items, says his goodbyes to his own wife of more than forty years, and hops in the company car that’s been driven down from London HQ to fetch him.
As Cammon’s long-time partner Tommy Verden informs him along the way, Dorset and Devon are already dealing with a huge problem (miraculously, as yet, kept out of the media): trying to catch a serial killer who’s been cutting a bloody swath through the area’s young female population. (Making the situation even more-than-usually urgent, their part of the English Channel just so happens to be in the running to host part of the upcoming London Olympics swimming events... an honor they assuredly won’t be granted if word gets out that a murderous nutjob is on the loose.) That leaves Scotland Yard--with the highly-respected (if notoriously-difficult) Cammon as its public, on-the-scene face--heading the well-publicized spousal murder, thereby temporarily diverting attention from the Task Force working so feverishly on the serial killer case.  
With his purpose thus explained, Cammon sets to work as soon as he arrives. In no time at all, though, he realizes that his single murder will hardly be the walk in the park everyone assumes... namely, because he believes the police have it all wrong following their cursory investigation. 
After venturing out on the cliff from which the wife was thrown and having a good look around, Cammon isn’t at all convinced the husband killed himself; he suspects the fellow planned everything--including a mysterious escape made to look like a suicide--to the letter. (Whether the man succeeded in his plans--or died somewhere in the Channel--is unclear, with neither a sighting of the chap alive nor a body having been found.) The couple’s house--possibly the scene of the murder, but certainly where everything started--offers no conclusive evidence, either. From the particular destruction (what was damaged, and how it was done) to the peculiar blood trails (angry patterns that seem to tell some sort of message, in places), nothing adds up to a clear-cut explanation of what, or how, or why. 
Unsurprisingly, the local police chief is none too thrilled by what he sees as Yard interference in the form of one Peter Cammon--regardless of the diversion his investigation is providing--and does everything he can to hinder Cammon’s efforts. Fortunately, a couple of cops further down the totem pole don’t share in the chief’s animosity, and offer what help they can, from pulling reports for his perusal to putting him in touch with anyone who might know something... and even, as things progress, to filling him in on the hush-hush details of the serial killer case... because the more he looks at everything and ponders the meanings, the more he’s convinced the two cases are, somehow, inextricably linked.
✠ ~ ✠ ~ ✠ ~ ✠ ~ ✠
I find something inherently appealing about a, erm, “well-seasoned” sleuth. The experience he or she brings to a case is nearly-always invaluable, so more often than not it comes down to how “with-it”--how computer-literate and ‘net-savvy, how comfortable with gadgets and gizmos--an older detective is, and to how accurately said detective’s memory serves, whether he or she is able to solve the big mystery. 
In Peter Cammon’s case, there’s certainly no grass growing beneath his feet; he’s technologically-capable and suffers none of those pesky, age-related synaptical problems. That isn’t to say he’s without his own little quirks and foibles, however; Cammon isn’t a “people person”, but is instead quite prickly and awkward. He’s mostly a loner, marching to his own drummer... to a resigned tolerance shown by his long-suffering boss and the (mostly) patient understanding of his wife and two adult children. He is not, as a character, precisely likable, but he is interesting, and that’s fine by me.
The co-mingled cases in Walking into the Ocean are intriguing, as well. Nothing is simple; there are no givens, no easy answers, and nothing so obvious you feel as though the characters should be hit over the heads with bats. Instead, these characters are complex--real people, made more so by occasional, unexpected insights into their lives (including ways not even strictly relevant to the cases)--and their motivations believable, rather than merely convenient for the plot. (Note: A speedy read, this is not; it tends to amble rather than race toward the conclusion, much like its protagonist.)
Walking into the Ocean is the first of three books author Whellams has planned about Peter Cammon’s latter sleuthing career, and if this one’s any indication, the two remaining tales should prove intelligent, challenging diversions, as well. Nicely done, sir.

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating:  Well-hidden Mousies (or, worth the time for patient readers :))

Thursday, May 24, 2012

When First we Practice to Deceive... Bad Things Happen, Man

Decisions... large or small, we make them all day, every day, from what to wear, what to eat, which bills to pay, who to talk to and who to avoid, whether to hit the weight room or the neighborhood pub after work, what show to watch, to whether it’s more beneficial to tell the unvarnished truth about something... or to tell a lie.  
It may not come as much of a surprise that life involves so many decisions, but it definitely might give us pause, thinking about how often we choose to gloss over the truth, embellish the facts, or outright fabricate something out of whole cloth.   

It’s the latter variety--all beginning with a spur-of-the-moment fib--which fills the pages of author Jeremy Bates’ new thriller, White Lies...

                               * / * / * / * 
Katrina Burton needs nothing so much as to make a fresh start. After having lost both parents in a tragic accident years earlier and more recently losing her fiance, the memories in her Seattle home have become too hard to bear. So, she secures another teaching job, sells her house and most of her belongings, and packs her bags to make the long trek with her dog from the big city to a tiny town on the other side of the state. 
Late at night, however, finds her fighting physical exhaustion and road weariness as she tries to make out the unfamiliar highway--twisting and turning as it wends its way through the Cascades--in the sheeting rain. The last thing she expects to see reflected in her headlights is what looks like a hitchhiker trudging through the downpour along the side of the road.
Katrina performs a quick mental battle; leave the man to his fate, drenched and miles from nowhere, or offer a little kindness and rescue him from the miserable conditions? The smartest action--using her cell to call for help--isn’t an option, as the battery died earlier, so, help it is, she decides. (Cue Bad Decision Number One, here.)
Once he’s inside her car, she starts rethinking her hasty decision almost immediately (which by now, of course, is much too late). It’s not that he’s big and imposing; actually, he’s on the scrawny side, and barely into adulthood. No, the problem is that he’s belligerent, lecherous, and very drunk. Seeing no other way of extricating herself from the situation, Katrina makes up a lie about where she’s headed--improvising a cabin-at-the-lake destination--which in turn gives her an excuse to drop him off, protesting and swearing a blue streak at her, at the turnoff to the first little settlement they reach. (This, unfortunately, turns out to be Bad Decision Number Two.)
Normally, that would be the end of things, and so Katrina thinks... until she starts her new job a few days later, only to discover that one of her fellow teachers is none other than the same creep who briefly shared her car--Zach, all cleaned up and not reeking of alcohol. He makes it clear--to her, if not the other staff members--that he most definitely hasn’t forgotten being ejected from her car... and that he’s capable of holding a major grudge. Part of his plan to get revenge? To invite himself and all the other teachers to her “lake cabin” for a weekend fling. 
Now, the logical thing for Katrina to do would be to recant, saying something like no smart woman on her own would want to let a stranger know where she lived, or perhaps to laugh and say that he must have just misunderstood her, right? (Yes.) Katrina, however, isn’t really down with the whole concept of logical actions, and she proceeds to agree to hosting a party at an imaginary house she doesn’t own and of which she’s never even dreamed. (You guessed it; Bad Decision Number Three.)
There is one bright spot in the new life she’s (somewhat-clumsily) making for herself: Jack, the intriguing man she met while shopping at the hardware store one day. Handsome, charming, and easy to be around, he quickly becomes a regular fixture in her life... even coming up with a workable, face-saving solution to the party problem with Zach: just find a cabin to rent for the weekend and have the party, with no one being any the wiser. 
At first, everything goes according to plan; the guests are enjoying themselves immensely, drinking too much and carrying on like the teenagers they teach throughout the week. When things unexpectedly get a little too out of hand, though--and someone winds up brutally murdered--no amount of frantic lie-spinning or desperate covering-up of the crime (Bad Decisions Number Four, Five, Six, and so on) will suffice to get Katrina out of the horrible mess she’s in.

* / * / * / *
White Lies is the story of a figurative train wreck in action; it’s almost ridiculously easy to see that nothing good can come from Katrina’s little fibs. The mystery is how she never quite seems to grasp that, and in truth, I had a hard time dredging up any sympathy for her, early on. (Granted, I tend to over-think things--including those little white lies which most of us tell--so other readers may or may not not find her so infernally annoying.)
Once I’d gritted my teeth and stopped trying to put myself in her shoes, though, the whole premise became almost undeniably compelling. The snowball effect, brought about by one seemingly-innocent, little white lie, told to the absolute wrong person, makes for a situation as tense and nerve-wracking as they come. I was on the edge of my seat throughout much of this one... and I suspect you will be, too.
GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating:  Enthusiastically-shivering Mousies

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Fate's a Bitch (and Then Someone Dies)

Being able to read another person's mind... it sounds like the sort of thing that could come in handy, doesn't it? “What would my friend like more than anything else on her birthday? Is that cute guy into me? Is the boss about to fire me, or give me a raise?” Knowing the answers to such things would be useful.
The sticking point with an ability like this, however, is the matter of control: being able to read someone’s mind on command... but no more. The opposite situation--having zero control over what or when you picked up another’s thoughts--would hardly provide the same usefulness. 
Now, imagine if instead of channeling someone's thoughts (fears, hopes, dreams, whatever), what you could read was his or her future... more precisely, the exact day, minute, hour--even method--of that person's death. Such is the life of one very unlucky soul, in author Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds.
Miriam Black is just a regular twenty-three-year-old girl. There’s nothing particularly striking about her; she’s a little on the scrawny side (from genuine hunger rather than from trying to achieve the emaciated model look), she’s passably pretty (but in truth not much more), and she’s smart enough to get by (but won’t be appending any fancy letters like “PhD” or “CEO” to her name in the foreseeable future). She drinks (a lot), smokes (whenever she can), does the occasional recreational drug, and gets a little wild as often as possible. (Put it this way... if there were such a thing as a “right” side of the tracks, she was born and raised--and is content to remain--on the other side.)
As with most people, though, there’s more to Miriam than meets the eye. For her, it only takes a touch--the merest skin-on-skin contact--and she instantly sees the other person’s moment of death. There’s no blocking it; she’s forced to watch it all play out in her mind’s eye. From car crashes to cancer, heart attacks to murder, suicide to death from sheer old age, she’s seen it all, hundreds, even thousands, of times.  
It’s a unique ability (curse, really) that she’s already lived with for several years. (Consider for a second what havoc touching a friend, a relative, a love interest--and seeing his/her death--would wreak on a teenager’s state of mind, and Miriam’s actions become a whole lot easier to understand, if you’re feeling judge-y.) She doesn’t even have the consolation of being able to stop some of the deaths--say, the accidents--from happening. Fate has proven to her time and again that it just doesn’t work that way.
So, she’s built up her defenses as best she can. She has no friends. She doesn’t stay in any place too long. She even uses her ability to her advantage, sometimes. When she sees that the loser who’s been hitting on her in the honkytonk bar will be dying within the next couple of hours after an epileptic seizure, it’s only natural that she sticks around long enough to see it happen (and to relieve him of his cash once it does). A girl has to survive, right?
Everything changes, though, when Miriam hitches a ride one night with a truly nice man. Trucker Louis Darling is an imposing hulk of a man, the sort who can look after himself, if need be... but he’s also kind and gentle and quietly funny. He looks at her and sees someone interesting and worth knowing (and it’s been a long time since anyone looked at her like that). 
There’s just one huge problem: the death she sees for him is, perhaps, the worst she’s ever witnessed. In only one month’s time, Louis will be tortured then horribly murdered... right in front of her... and Miriam knows there isn’t a damn thing she can do to stop it from happening. 
Or can she...?
Blackbirds is that rare book which gleefully defies pigeonholing. It’s almost certainly not quite what you expect. It’s cold and brutal, grim and oh-so dark (seriously, the shade known as “pitch-black” seems downright happy next to this)... a relentless, take-no-prisoners thrill ride on the seediest side of life. (What, you wanna get off? Tough. This ride ain’t for pussycats, baby.)
So, did I like it? Nope. I loved it. (What can I say? Intense, dark, and disturbing are my bag.) Blackbirds is so much more than just a trippy road story, though. Wendig writes with an eye for realistic settings and an ear for the way people actually talk. He gets the tortured souls, and is content to let them do their thing. He also grasps the natural hilarity which is usually present in even the grimmest of scenes (gallows humor, anyone?), and colors every page with black whimsy. It’s almost as though he lets this story happen the way it wants to; there’s no tidying up the ugliness or toning down the meanness, no diluting of the visceral elements... or of the surprisingly-touching heart at its (very grim) core.
Blackbirds isn’t for everyone. If it sounds like something in your wheelhouse, though, I can pretty much guarantee you’ll feel its impact... long after you’ve turned that last page.

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating:  So many gnarly, chewed-up mousies (it isn't even funny)

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Pet Psychic, the Persian Pussycat, & the Pistol

Although I’ve always been an animal lover, my heart (surprise, surprise) belongs to cats. That does not, it should be noted, make me a “crazy cat lady” (perceived sanity and gender nothwithstanding). My house isn’t overflowing with feline tchotchkes, nor does my wardrobe contain even one t-shirt covered with kitties frolicking in a field of daisies. (Stray cat fur wafting about is a whole 'nother matter, but we won't go into that.)

So, when yet another feline-centric mystery landed on my desk, I eyeballed it warily. Would it be that rare beast, a genuinely-good book that happened to feature cats... or would it be just another tired schmaltz fest? (I swear, if one more mystery is solved by an adorable cat who walks over and puts his paw on the exact place in a conveniently-unburied letter to name the killer, I’m gonna lob that book at the nearest wall.) (Unless it’s on my Kindle, in which case I shall resort to mentally lobbing it.) Been there, done that. 

Hesitations aside, though, the description for Clea Simon’s Cats Can’t Shoot (which is actually the second in a series, following on the heels of Dogs Don’t Lie) sounded intriguing, so I decided to give it a whirl (with my own furry boycat by my side).
~ / ~ / ~
Pru Marlowe didn’t grow up intending to be an animal behaviorist--and she certainly didn’t expect to find herself scraping for work, doing as much dog-walking and poop-scooping as calling on her therapeutic skills, back in the small town she’d gleefully fled years earlier--but such are the surprises life has a way of doling out.
When she receives a frantic phone call from the police--telling her there’s been a cat shooting(?!?)--she’s a little unclear what role she’s to play at the scene. (A behaviorist specializes in observing animals, then determining their emotional and intellectual needs... something which seems impossible in this case.)  Nonetheless, she races to the mansion where the shooting took place, outraged and ready to lay into the perpetrator of such a heinous crime. What she finds, however, is a dead man, slumped over his desk, and nothing more. 
Perplexed, she waits for an explanation, but when it comes, is even more confused.  The cat is quite alive and reasonably well (albeit traumatized, hissing and mreowling from her current hiding spot in the back of the bookcase); she isn’t the victim in question... it seems that she’s the killer.    
It sounds too preposterous for words. How could a Persian kitty--this exquisite, pampered pussycat--kill a grown man? Moreover, how could she possibly work her floofy white paw around the trigger of a gun--a dueling pistol, no less--and fire it?
Unbelievably, the police insist that Fluffy (yes, “Fluffy”, pfft) is guilty of the crime, and must be quarantined at the local shelter until she can be studied and, erm, questioned. (At least Pru finally knows where she figures into the picture.) 
The next day, when Pru attempts to work with Fluffy, she becomes even more convinced that something hinky is afoot... and is a lot more likely to involve two feet rather than four furry ones. But then, Pru isn’t just your standard animal behaviorist (although she’s very careful to let everyone think that’s all she is). A couple years earlier, Pru discovered she’d been blessed (cursed?) with a newfound talent--leaving her able not only to ascertain what her animal clients were feeling, but to actually hear their thoughts... and to mentally communicate back-and-forth with them. (Unfortunately, this ability isn’t restricted to her clients; she’s also privy to the thoughts of all the birds, squirrels, and bunnies out there--of every animal within her immediate vicinity. That's a lot of noise.)
Curiously, Fluffy seems to be blocking Pru’s efforts at communication... on purpose. What is it, Pru can only wonder, that Fluffy is trying to hide? Does it have something to do with the dead man’s wealthy widow, a nasty piece of work who makes no secret of her intense dislike for the feline? Perhaps it concerns the couple’s Girl Friday, a young woman who may have been involved on a more-intimate level with the dead man--and is now begging to be given custody of the precocious Persian. Maybe the family lawyer, who shares a fondness for old weapons (and had a hand in Fluffy’s adoption), has an idea. 
When one of her ex-boyfriends--a former NYC policeman now turned private security something-or-other--shows up out of the blue, asking strange questions (and with a mob boss in tow), Pru knows for sure that something is very wrong. And, when the shelter doctor gives her a deadly ultimatum--either Pru successfully re-socializes Fluffy so she can be put up for re-adoption, or (gulp) Fluffy will be euthanized--she knows it’s up to her, the only one putting the cat’s welfare first, to solve the mystery, clear Fluffy’s name, and save her from certain death. 
~ / ~ / ~
The mere thought of being able to converse with my beloved furbaby, as Pru does in Cats Can’t Shoot, is fantastic. (Like most pet parents, I probably have a decent handle on what he’s thinking most of the time, but to know for sure, and be able to hold actual conversations? Whoa.) It’s such a compelling idea, and author Simon handles it in a believable (and very funny) way, always allowing each of the animals that Pru interacts with to maintain his or her own natural mannerisms. (The Bichon Frise, for instance, is a feisty little fellow with plenty of attitude, far more interested in chasing down smells than in letting Pru pick his brain. The Siamese, whose human mommy is sweet but oblivious, is a royal princess, and thrives on being acknowledged as such.) These scenes are absolutely delightful, coming across very naturally rather than feeling contrived.
Pru’s relationship with her longtime roommate, Wallis the tabby, is also fabulously well-drawn. Neither is the demonstrative, touchy-feely sort; they’re prickly, independent mirrors of each other, and Wallis sarcastically offers up tidbits of wisdom in much the way she might bestow the gift of a decapitated mouse head to Pru. (Anyone who’s had a standoffish pet will identify with their relationship.)
But what about the mystery, you ask? It’s a surprisingly good one, with plenty of little twists and turns to keep you guessing until the end, and the resolution (especially the aftermath) delivers a nifty little kick.
Cats Can’t Shoot is a thoroughly-enjoyable read... thought-provoking, interesting, and funny, with a whole lot of heart. I loved it. :)

[Note: Don’t think you “must love cats” to read and appreciate this book; if you’re more of a “dog person”, that’s perfectly fine, since Cats Can’t Shoot features dogs as much as cats. This one’s for animal lovers, pure and simple--all those people willing to open their hearts and homes, and to share them with furry bundles of awesomeness.]

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: Very Enthusiastic Mousies