Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

I picked up The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America for a couple reasons. First, it was recommended in a writing group I belong to as a book that everyone in a diverse book group liked. Next, a book group I am in picked it as one of the books to read this fall. Third, from what I heard it was a murder mystery set at a World’s Fair. I like mysteries, in general, and decided to read it earlier rather than later.

I was quite surprised when I found the book at the library in the non-fiction section. I had not realized it was a true story. I assumed I would be interested in the mystery part and not really in the World’s Fair part when I realized that was going to be mainly about building the fair. It turned out to be quite the opposite.

I never would have picked up a non-fiction book about the World’s Fair in 1893. Adding in the secondary story did prick my interest enough to start reading the book. I’m glad I did as it described a part of American history and a profession (architecture) that I had very little prior knowledge or even interest in. The impact of the Columbian Exposition of 1893 was enormous. Products introduced there or innovated during the building of the fair included spray paint, Cracker Jack, the Ferris Wheel (an amazing story on its own), and the zipper among many others. The pledge of allegiance was even written for the dedication day.

The inspiring story of building the fair is alternated with chapters about a serial killer. There is no mystery as Erik Larson makes it clear that Holmes is a killer from the beginning. Holmes (an alias) is in Chicago at the time of the fair and builds a hotel ostensibly to house visitors to the fair. No murders by Holmes ever happen at the fair, so I do not think the book is aptly titled. Holmes and the fair never really intersect except when he takes a current wife and her sister there. I do not like reading about true crime. It has none of the uplifting spirit or resolution of fictional mysteries where the perpetrator is usually caught before too many evil things happen. I felt that the book alternated between a soaring, grandiose story and a sordid, tragic one.

I would recommend reading this book and skipping the chapters on Holmes, unless you like the true crime genre.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Gasa-Gasa Girl by Naomi Hirahara

This is an excellent novel with a mystery at the core. Mas (Maseo Arai) is asked to come to New York by his daughter. He is a 70-year-old gardener. His self-deprecation and practicality allow him to help his daughter the best he can without really knowing what she wants or how she feels about him. His son-in-law and daughter both work for a Japanese-American man trying to restore a traditional Japanese garden. When their boss is killed, they are both suspects.

Mas uses his connections and his friends' connections throughout the Japanese community in New York and Los Angeles to try to determine the killer. It is an intriguing glimpse into this community. Internment camps and Mas's experience in Hiroshima when the bomb was dropped are discussed, but not dwelled upon. They are treated as rather matter-of-fact events that happened. The Japanese terms sprinkled throughout the book added to the interest. It was surprising to me that there was a special word, kibei, for people born in the US who grew up in Japan.

It is a good read as a novel and a bonus if you like mysteries as well. The writing is excellent with little gems thrown in here and there. For example, when observing his daughter's friends as they come to help when her young son is sick, "Mas could almost see all the kimochi that was being woven around his daughter and son-in-law like bolts of fabric, cocooning them from harm. But Mas knew those cocoons, no matter how saturated with love, were still fragile and vulnerable; anyone could still tear through and reach the soft parts." (pg 243)

Saturday, September 1, 2007

The Quiet Game by Greg Iles

I loved reading mysteries as a kid. I did not read many in high school or college, but a friend re-introduced them to me in grad school. Thanks Deborah! A good mystery, for me, has to have an interesting main character as well as a good plot. Greg Iles is a writer I just started reading and I highly recommend The Quiet Game.

The mystery at the heart of this thriller is the 1968 murder of a black man, Del Payton, in Natchez, Mississippi. Penn Cage, former attorney and now best selling author, inadvertently brings this case to the attention of an attractive newspaper publisher, Caitlin Masters. The resulting uproar in the town leads Penn and Caitlin to further investigate the murder. Various characters emerge to either help solve the case or keep it buried. The town is divided mostly along racial lines, although there are exceptions. Those who were in power 30 years ago are still in town and adamantly against anything being done. Most of the cops who investigated the killing are still alive and so are the FBI agents who were brought in. The action is fast-paced and involves side trips to Texas and Colorado. Greg Iles does a remarkable job showing different sides of Penn, including as a devoted father, widow, and son. A side story that has some implication for the overall plot involves Penn and his father. A complication to the emerging romance between Penn and Caitlin is the presence of his former lover, Livy Marston, and unresolved issues between them. This book is billed as a legal thriller, but very little action takes place in the courtroom.

I have a few quibbles with Iles about the likeliness of some escapes and the timing of some revealed evidence, however, it is overall, an excellent book. It kept me up past 10 pm and it is a rare book that does that these days. I have never been to Natchez, but the descriptive power of Iles allows me to almost think I have. There is a second book with Penn Cage as protagonist (Turning Angel) and two more set in Natchez (Blood Memory, True Evil).