Thursday, October 15, 2009

Exit Lines, Child's Play, Orphan's Tales: In the Night Garden, Dead Sleep

With the various Jewish holidays, I've been able to polish off a few books in the last couple of weeks.

For whatever reason, I decided to download the next two installments of Reginald Hill's Dalziel and Pascoe series, Exit Lines and Child's Play. The former was excellent; the latter was very good. Exit Lines hits just about every note perfectly. The three deaths in the story happen to three old men, and this ties in thematically with the aging of Pascoe's father-in-law, and his first signs of senility. It's rare that detective novels manage to parallel the private lives of the detectives with the mystery. In addition, Hill keeps the three investigations separate very skilfully -- it's almost like watching a juggler in action (and when a fourth investigation rears its head, he still manages to keep them all clear for the reader). Lastly, we finally get to see some real development of Dalziel's character.

The only negative I can think of comes from this being a book in a series. Dalziel is under investigation for manslaughter, and it seems like he could be on the take as well, but there's never any real suspense around those issues, since we know he's got to continue for the rest of the series.

Child's Play is very good, but, in the end, is very conventional. I feel like Hill was setting up future events -- we see some cracks in Pascoe and Ellie's relationship, and Pascoe is starting to be less of a whiz kid, and having to face up to that. We also see how political Dalziel can really be when manipulating his superiors (leading to one of the funniest scenes I've read in any mystery). But you can see Hill pulling the strings -- one or two too many coincidences, characters with guilty secrets, and so on. Standard fare for a mystery novel, but Exit Lines had me hoping for better.

Catherynne Valente seems to have tried to see how far she could take the story-in-a-story concept, and the result is In the Night Gardens. In this book (it's hard to call it a novel), a character will, say, set off on a quest to find a foozle. Along the way, he meets another character, who says that she encountered the foozle years ago, and here's her story. In her story, she runs into someone else, who tells his story, and so on. As various stories finish, she pops back out to the outer stories, moves them forward a bit, then back to a new inner story. As a formal experiment, I found this fascinating. There are rarely more than 3 pages in a row from one character's story, and yet there's never a sense of treading water -- each story is interesting, and there's constant forward movement. Her writing is gorgeous as well, changing voices for the different characters' stories easily. The one thing that was missing was a sense of emotional involvement, and that's a big lack in a book so long (almost 500 pages). Still, I'm looking forward to reading her follow-up book.

Greg Iles's Dead Sleep is a great example of why it can be so hard to write a good mystery/thriller. Most of the book is very good, setting up a great character in the middle of a scary situation. But the last few chapters, where the villain is revealed, were a complete let-down. I think there's no other genre where a relatively few pages can so quickly retroactively sink what led up to them. But in a thriller, if the climax isn't good, the rest just falls apart retroactively, so to speak.

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