Category Archives: mysteries

Conclave

9780451493446_p0_v1_s192x300  In Conclave, Robert Harris tears away the illusion of the Pope’s selection as the sacred inspiration of holy men and exposes the political machinations and corruption behind the scenes.  Although he dots the scenes with familiar Latin invocations and old-fashioned prayers, the inside debates and secret maneuvering are worthy of a political party convention.

Four candidates vie for the top job in the church: Tremblay, a Canadian who knows how to spin the media; Adeyemi, a charismatic Nigerian conservative; Tedesco, an archconservative Italian from the old school of Latin Masses; and Aldo Bellini, an intellectual Italian who would continue the Church’s reform.  Cardinal Lomeli, the well-meaning Dean of the College of Cardinals, manages his colleagues and the vote, as behind the scenes revelations threaten the process.

As the plot slowly builds to what seems an inevitable conclusion – the naming of an obscure third world cardinal who miraculously appears almost too late for the closed meeting – Harris turns the plot upside down.  Like the reference Harris makes to the painting of Peter, the first Pope, who hangs feet up on the cross, the papacy flips head over heals.  The last impenetrable glass ceiling is cracked but almost no one knows.

I read Conclave in one night – a thriller without a murder.

The Vanishing Velázquez 

l54j4lkjWhen Laura Cumming described seeing Velázquez’s famous Las Meninas in the Prada museum in Madrid in The Vanishing Velázquez, I immediately connected with her epiphany.  Copies of the famous scene do not compare to seeing the life-sized scene in person. As I listened to the docent’s information about the seventeenth century picture when I visited, I experienced those same feelings as Cumming of being in the room with the infanta and imagining she was staring back at me.

9781476762180_p0_v3_s192x300 Cumming, the art critic for The Observer, follows nineteenth century bookseller John Snare’s obsession with a long lost portrait of King Charles I by renowned Spanish artist Velázquez.  As she documents the bookseller’s journey from discovery to disgrace, she includes short lectures on Velázquez, and carefully analyzes not only the characters in Las Meninas but  also many of Velázquez’s other paintings. With a storytelling style making the facts seem like fiction, she inserts historical anecdotes taking the reader inside the portraits’ lives.

Cumming cleverly inserts her lessons on Spanish history and on Velázquez’s art, painlessly informing the reader in alternate chapters while maintaining the motivation to know more about the one particular painting discovered by the bookseller.  Although I impatiently kept looking for the next chapter about John Snare, I never skipped Cumming’s chapters about art history.  If anything, she has motivated me to return to the Prada to see the art again in the light of her review.

As much an analysis of the artist’s work as a quest for finding the missing portrait, the book draws the reader into a fascinating glimpse of the seventeenth century with tales of King Philip’s Baroque court and the characters who became the focus of Velázquez’s art.  Under commission from the king, Velázquez painted at the king’s request and his art adorned the walls of the Alcázar  palace before it burned down. Most of his work remains in Spain today at the Prada museum.

As I read the intervening chapters digressing from the hunt for the missing Velázquez, Cumming’s descriptions of the Spanish court had me stopping to investigate the royal Spanish family.  Just like the royal line of Britain, Spain’s order of succession was full of wars, intermarriage, and heirless kings.  Philip IV,  Velázquez’s patron, had a difficult reign and was succeeded by the last of the Hapsburgs.  With careful attention to many of Velázquez’s portraits and scenes, Cumming notes how he recorded the lives and interactions at court – almost the way a photographer would do today. Through Velázquez, the era comes alive, and unlike his contemporaries who sketched drafts before the final production, his paintings capture the moment in one take with no preliminaries or revisions.  His paintings captured the moments – revealing and sustaining the history through his genius.

The search for the missing portrait of Charles remains the focal point of the book.  Cumming sustains the suspense about the missing portrait as she follows Snare from respected bookseller in Reading, England to his court battles in Scotland, and his final journey with the painting to New York City.  Despite the cost he pays, both personal and financial, Snare never sells the painting.  The big mystery, however, is never solved.  Where is the painting today?

Sadly, no copy of the missing portrait exists and no recent  descendants of Snare can be found.  Nevertheless, Cumming ends on a hopeful note with a tribute – and a graceful unspoken nod to her father, whose death inspired her to research and write the story:

“The figures of the past keep looking into our moment. Everything in Las Meninas is designed to keep this connection alive forever.  The dead are with us, and so are the living consoled. We live in each other’s eyes and our stories need not end.”

Although reading The Vanishing Velázquez requires patience and a slow and careful read, the reward is a better appreciation of art history and an exciting adventure into the art world rivaling any fictional tale.

Related ReviewThe Art Forger

The Queen’s Accomplice

9780804178723_p0_v1_s192x300  Women with power may be a threat to some but Susan Elia MacNeal uses this timely theme in her latest Maggie Hope murder mystery – The Queen’s Accomplice.  With the same British flavor as her other five books in the series, MacNeal features the young British secret service agent with a flair for logic in the search for a Jack the Ripper clone who has been killing women agents.  Since first meeting Maggie Hope in MacNeal’s Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, I’ve enjoyed her feisty attitude and mathematical acumen.  Her forays into romance with fellow agents help too.

The Queen in this book is not the newly popular Victoria nor the young Elizabeth of the new Netflix series “The Crown,” but Elizabeth’s mother, who stood by her husband, King George, during the war.  Although she only has a minor role in the plot, MacNeal confirms the Queen’s influence and wartime support.   As a modern woman of the nineteen forties, Maggie Hope has many of the same issues as women today, and has the support of other women, including the Queen.

MacNeal cleverly connects Maggie’s service in the war to ongoing problems women face in their personal lives and in the workplace.  Although the book is a mystery with a killer to be found, the story offers confirmation of women’s rights in making their own decisions, and in being valuable for their contributions to society.

9780399593802   The book ends with a new adventure about to start, as Maggie waves goodbye to the Queen and boards a plane to Paris.  The Paris Spy will be published this summer – I can’t wait.

Related Reviews:

Spending Time with Twelve Year Olds

Sometimes hanging out with twelve year olds is preferable to adults.

9780345539960_p0_v2_s192x300   Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d

One of my favorite twelve year old sleuths, Flavia de Luce is back – having been expelled from boarding school in Canada.  Alan Bradley’s ninth installment in this mystery series – Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d – returns the precocious girl detective to the old deteriorating family estate at Buckshaw with all the familiar characters from his previous books. Flavia’s sisters still ignore her but her father’s old friend and the family caretaker remains faithful.  Flavia’s father is in the hospital with pneumonia, and her beloved pet hen Esmeralda has been turned into chicken soup. When she finds the dead body of a reclusive old wood carver, the mystery begins.

Clues include an Irish Hospitals’ Sweepstake ticket, a cat, and copies of children’s books by Oliver Inchbald, featuring the adventures of Crispian Crumpet, based on Inchbald’s real life son. With her usual fervor, Flavia does her homework and follows leads to uncover the true identity of the dead wood carver as well as discovering an unexpected detail that solves the case.

Flavia may be twelve years old but she is wise and resourceful, and her antics are fun to follow as she solves the mystery – a pleasant combination of Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie.

 

9781101994764_p0_v3_s192x300  Furthermore

Tahereh Mafi’s fantasy children’s book – Furthermore – focuses on another twelve year old.  Alice lives in the land of Ferenwood, where colors and magic are the local currency.  Sadly, Alice seems to have neither, and after failing a coming of age test because she chooses to dance rather than reveal her true talent, Alice sets off on a quest to find her missing father.

With the help of her sidekick Oliver, she discovers the land of Furthermore, a mixture of Frank Baum’s land of OZ and Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, with a little Harry Potter flavoring – adventure and danger, upside-down rules, twisted logic, paintings to walk through.  With its themes of friendship, family, and self-acceptance, Furthermore offers an escape with a little wisdom.

The adventures in both books get mired down in heavy descriptions and too many self-absorbing examinations by the heroine, which the reader may skip over without losing the threads of the plots.  Both Flavia and Alice are resourceful twelve year olds who are determined and thoughtful – a nice change from adult drama.

 

 

 

 

The Black Notebook

9780544779822_p0_v3_s192x300 French writer Patrick Modiano, winner of the 2014 Nobel prize for Literature, creates a film noir atmosphere in The Black Notebook.  Obscure scribblings in a writer’s notebook  trigger scenes from the seedier side of Paris, and Modiano  keeps the reader off balance by jumping from past to present to dream sequences.  Despite its short length, The Black Notebook is complicated and intriguing.

The story of The Black Notebook revolves around the narrator’s attempt to discover what became of Dannie, a mysterious woman he met in Paris nearly half a century earlier.  When he met Dannie, Jean called himself a “spectator,” noting down everything in his black notebook, which he uses to recall their time together years earlier.

Dannie associates with the “Montparnasse gang,” a shady group of criminals who help her get a place to live and provide her with false identity papers. What she does in return is left unsaid. Although a police detective, Langlais, warns Jean to beware of the gang and exposes Dannie’s many aliases, Jean continues to help Dannie with her strange requests and yearns to run away with her – despite her confession of having killed a man.  Dannie disappears and Jean grows into a famous author, but years later, he bumps into the police inspector who reveals the answers to most of his unanswered questions.

Modiano’s short book reads like a meditation on memory – what we remember and how convoluted it becomes over the years.  The mystery of Dannie is never really solved, and the author ends with more unsettling questions.

The Black Notebook may be a book for our times with its confusion, uncertainty, and elusive promises.  In the end, Jean advises – “…don’t fret about it…”