Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Sharpe's Tiger, Pictures of Perfection, Lizardmen Island, The Dead Yard

After evoking Dickens in Recalled to Life, Reginald Hill moves on to Austen in Pictures of Perfection. Considered purely as a novel, Pictures is more successful. As much as I enjoyed Recalled to Life, Hill had to stretch a bit to get Dalziel to New York, whereas Pictures is set very firmly in Yorkshire. Through the course of the novel, we hear about Enscombe's traditions and history, and it's largely a very self-contained world. By the end of the novel, even as Enscombe goes through significant changes, none of them will impinge on the outside world -- Dalziel leaves with no arrests to make, or even any crimes to report; Pascoe's life with Ellie is left unchanged. Instead, Hill focuses on village life, using Sgt Wield as a catalyst to speed up events, and as our window into this insular village.

On the other hand, Hill invites comparisons to Austen -- every epigraph comes from her letters, the opening line is a pastiche of the beginning of Pride and Prejudice, and, of course, the plot depends on entailments and the descent of property, which was a mainstay of her work. Unfortunately, I think that Hill is less successful here. His natural bent is more Dickensian than Austenian, tending more to broad humor. The ending, in which everything is resolved neatly by sudden legal maneuvering, is a great example of writing that's more Dickens than Austen.

Still, when I put the Austen allusions out of my head, I feel that this is one of the strongest entries in the Dalziel/Pascoe series.

On a totally different tack, I've been tackling Bernard Cornwell's "Richard Sharpe" series. Normally, I like to read a series chronologically in the order they were published, but it's next to impossible to find a list like that for Sharpe (and I don't feel like comparing (c) dates on each book), so I've gone to the book that's set the earliest, Sharpe's Tiger, even though it was written 17th or something. Sharpe is a private in the British Army during the conquest of India, serving under Colonel Wellsley (later the Duke of Wellington). By this point in his writing, Cornwell obviously has a good grasp on who Sharpe is, and he's presented vividly -- very smart, loyal to his friends, and not particularly scrupulous about his methods.

More interesting than Sharpe himself, though, is the setting. Cornwell has obviously done a slew of research into the period, and it's a great glimpse into history. He has a little historical note at the end about which characters and events are real (which is also forthright about the Cornwell's making up the central event of the battle of Seringpatam), and many of the real ones are so well-integrated into the story that I'd thought they were his own inventions.

I've also been reading a Japanese collection of mystery stories, and I've just finished the second one, about a man and his wife who are trapped by aboriginal "lizard men" on an unexplored island. It's a great example of how setting and humor can overcome a dismal plot. The man and his wife are to be sacrificed to the lizard woman goddess (there's an untranslatable pun in there), but when her cave door is opened, it turns out she's dead and mummified. Shock all around, and the man's wife volunteers to find the killer in exchange for their freedom. The actual details of the solution are pretty dumb (as I think most locked-room mysteries are), but I enjoyed the story anyway, because the narrator's voice is so funny -- he's completely bemused by the whole thing, and it's played very deadpan.

The first story was not so good, because it also depended on a silly plot device (in that case, a hotel in Alaska built on an iceberg which breaks away from the mainland, so the narrator's sense of direction is all screwed up because the sun is coming in from the wrong side(!). I kid you not). I really hope that the third gets away from the trick plots -- even when it's okay, like in the lizardmen story, it'd be better if the plot were stronger.

I've also started listening to Adrian McKinty's The Dead Yard. I'm about a quarter of the way in, and I gather from the foreshadowing that it's going to turn out tragic, but for now I'm mostly finding it funny. Early on, Michael is recruited by MI6 for a hair-brained attempt to infiltrate a splinter IRA cell, and ends up on the scene of a failed assassination attempt. I don't know if McKinty intended it to be funny, but I could only think of that line that "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce." There was a tense shoot-out scene in the first book, Dead I Well May Be, and here we have one assassin with a broken weapon and another whose shots go wildly off into the walls, while Michael and Kit make their escape.

So far, I'm enjoying the book -- Michael's turns of phrase are as funny as ever, and I'm enjoying his interaction with Kit. Looking forward to hearing the rest of the book. (Though Doyle can't do an American accent :-( ).

On a personal note, it was amusing for me to note that Michael arrives in Boston on the same month and year that I returned to Boston, although to rather different fates...

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