Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Wow! It's July Already?

I can't believe how long it has been since I posted anything here.  Life ...

Well, let's just pretend that all this time hasn't gone by and plow right in to what I've been reading. Mysteries. Lots and lots of mysteries.

Last summer I read one of Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs novels and swore I was going to go back and read all of them from the beginning. I did. Then I moved on to Charles Todd's Inspector Rutledge novels which in turn led me to Charles Todd's Bess Crawford novels. And those led me to Anne Perry's Joseph Reavely novels. Finally, I just finished The Return of Captain John Emmett by Elizabeth Speller.  The common theme? The First World War.

I enjoyed all of them but I would rate the Inspector Rutledge novels as my favorites. Charles Todd is the pen name for an American mother-son writing team who set their mysteries in the English countryside in the years immediately following World War I. Ian Rutledge is a detective inspector with Scotland Yard who has returned from World War I a damaged man, suffering from what was then called shell shock. As an officer, he was required to execute one of his sergeants for refusing to obey an order to go into battle. Rutledge is now haunted by the memory of the man, Hamish McLeod, and hears his voice as though Hamish is standing just behind him.

The cases that Rutledge is sent to solve are fairly standard mystery fare. What I really like in these books is the portrayal of Rutledge himself. His recovery from the war is very slow. Each novel takes place over a short period of only a few weeks and the next novel always seems to pick up almost immediately after the previous story ended. After 14 novels we have moved less than two years in time. I like this slow pace. The struggles that Rutledge goes through, his aversion to sleeping anywhere that might allow others to hear his screams in the night, his hesitation to get involved with any woman, all ring true to me. Todd creates, for me, a very believable universe that I can envision and relate to and yet still is clearly of another time and another place.

Todd uses the same universe for a second series of mysteries: The Bess Crawford mysteries. The universe is clearly the same because a minor character in the Rutledge books is distantly related to Bess Crawford, although so far Bess Crawford has not met Ian Rutledge. Bess 's stories are set a few years before Rutledge's stories, during the course of World War I where Bess is a nurse in France.

Although there are things I like about the novels, they have too much of a Nancy Drew feel to them for me to take them very seriously. Where Rutledge is a Scotland Yard professional, Bess is an amateur sleuth who is thrown into situations where mysteries need solving. Like Nancy Drew, Bess has a well connected father (in this case a retired army officer who is involved in some way with British intelligence) and there is even a Ned Nickerson-like character - a handsome escort who is always there for her but never gets in the way emotionally or otherwise. If the story were at all realistic he would be her gay best friend. But these aren't particularly realistic stories.

Although Bess is a nurse in France much of the stories take place in England where Bess always seems to end up. Don't get me wrong, they are enjoyable books but seem more like fluff than the Rutledge books.

The Maisie Dobbs books take place in the 20's, after the war. Maisie is still dealing with the after affects of the war in which she was a nurse. Now she has opened her own investigation agency and is trying to move on with her life. Although born to humble parents, Maisie was fortunate to find a sponsor in a wealthy woman who paid for her schooling and helped set her up in life. I didn't really have too much of a problem with this fairy godmother but I do find the storyline where Maisie falls in love with the wealthy heir to be a bit much. Fortunately this isn't a large part of the story, so far.

What is interesting is that I don't find Maisie herself particularly likeable. I constantly think she is too uptight and needs to lighten up. And I regularly think to myself that I wouldn't like her in real life. But I don't find her so annoying that I don't want to read the next book.

The Anne Perry books are different because there are only five of them and they attempt to encompass one long mystery that runs the length of the war itself. The first novel begins with the summer that the war starts and the series runs through the war, taking place partly in France where one character is a military chaplain and partly in London where another character works in military intelligence. I thought Perry did a better job than Todd of depicting the actual war, especially the smells of the trenches. But I found that I had little interest in the over-arching mystery and didn't really care when they finally solved it.   But I did like the characters that she created and I did think that she made the war and the trenches seem very real.

I finished The Return of Captain John Emmett a few days ago.  I don't think this is intended to be a series as the main character isn't a detective.  Perhaps because I have glutted myself on World War I stories, this one didn't hold any surprises for me.  The actual mystery was tied up in a way that seemed a little unbelievable to me, but not so much as to spoil the whole book. The characters were realistic enough.  But at this point I just can't be surprised by stories of the British shooting their own men and strong, healthy men coming home in vegetable states.

Someone recommended to me that I should read Pat Barker's Regeneration, which is a fictionalized account of the time spent by the WWI poet, Siegfried Sassoon, in a mental hospital during the war.  So I've picked it up and we'll see how it goes.