Saturday, September 10, 2011

Visit By The Goon Squad (Revisited), by Jennifer Egan

I have already reviewed this book here, but I am thinking about it again in light of Slate's recent Audio Book Club Podcast about it.  It's the format that was raised, and which I think is more deliberate than I thought before.

One way to describe this book is that it is a series of short stories that interlock around a world of rock and roll.  The two most central characters are Bennie Salazar, who goes from a member of a high school rock group to a successful producer on a comeback, and Sasha, a women who was originally Bennie's assistant.  The stories travel back and forth in time, and have as their subjects a number of people who are more or less tangential to Bennie and Sasha.  The parts to create a sort of a whole--it would not be accurate to call this "a book of short stories" because they are more connected than that, although it is hard to call it "a novel" because it is so diffuse.  It lacks a central figure or narrative arc.

I have come to the tentative conclusion that the best way to think of A Visit by the Goon Squad is as a concept album--the literary equivalent of Sargent Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band.  I still think Sargent Pepper is primarily a collection of songs, and any larger arc or form is little more than coincidence--but people have long claimed that it is the expression of a singular vision and has to be viewed as a whole.

I feel the same way about Goon Squad--there is a little bit more than mere assemblage, but less than a complete narrative.  Which is actually a very interesting artistic choice for a book about the people who make rock records.

So, I'm happier with the book as a whole when I view it through that lens.  Not a bad result!

Will, by Christopher Rush

Another book for my class on Adapting Shakespeare, this one an imagined fist person narration of the man's life, told to his lawyer: a confession in the guise of drafting a will.  Will's will--play with the puns as you like it.

It's a long book, with lots of words.  Possibly too many words.

Rush has tried to depict the man from Stratford as The Man who wrote the plays, showing us a dying Shakespeare so in love with language that it pours forth from him, recreating his own lineage, his youth, his path to London, how his life informed the writing of his plays.  He ties the great plays to the autobiographical details, making a convincing argument for the ability of a common man to write transcendent literature.  More interestingly, in crafting the man Rush finds ways to talk about the plays--which is clearly his great love.

The first third of the book is long and slow and drags on to little purpose.  In some ways, it seems like Rush felt obligated to put in every verifiable fact about Shakespeare that exists.  We get background into his parents, his grandparents, aunts and uncles, the rude mechanicals of Stratford.  Rush takes great pains to recreate the sights and smells of 16th century rural England, and especially the religious conflict.  Bloody Mary had tried to reinstate the country to Catholicism, only to be succeeded by her Protestant sister--herself on the throne less than six years by Shakespeare's birth.  Rush posits the family as less religious than prudent--fond of the old religion, but not willing to die for it.  Will speaks of a cousin of his father's, executed as a traitor to the new religion, his head stuck up on London Bridge.  It is a convincing argument for Will's refusal to commit himself to any religion.

The early part of the book has certain jobs to perform--as mentioned, it has to incorporate all the scanty facts known about Stratford Will; it has to show us a lad with enough education to plausibly have been a playwright; it has to show us a love of language and stories.  This last is done through the characterization of his maternal grandmother, "Arden Agnes" he calls her, who tells him the country horror stories of witches and ghosts, firing up his imagination in a way that plausibly provides for his later work.

The book doesn't actually come alive, however, until Shakespeare himself is 18, meets Anne Hathaway, and falls in love.  Moon-calf love, forever stealing out of his bed at night to wander the lanes between his house and hers, too shy to declare himself, too hormonal to stay away.  Was there an arrangement between Shakespeare's father and Anne's to marry off their children?  Possibly.  Anne was eight years older, and in Rush's telling, her father was dying and needed to get her landed safely.  John Shakespeare is limned as a soft touch for an old friend--no real advantage to the Shakespeare family to ally with the Hathaways, but a favor to a dying friend to see his daughter provided for.

It didn't matter, as Will fell hard for Anne, but in his stupid youth, he wasn't able to do anything but wander around on fire for her until the day of her father's funeral.  Which rather left Anne in the lurch--as happened the rest of her life.  Rush captures the joy of first love, the burn and the madness, and it is here that his Shakespeare becomes believably the man of the sonnets.

The details accumulate--the hasty marriage and rapid birth of his first daughter, Susanna, followed the next year by the twins Hamnet and Judith.  They lived in the Henley Street house with his father, and Rush paints a sad life for Anne--surrounded by her own babies, and her husband's siblings, the youngest of which was still quite small, and only Anne and Mary Arden Shakespeare to do all the work for the house full of men.  It must have been crowded--some eleven people in the one house, and Will had no employment.  This Will doesn't care for the butchery necessary to work for his father, and so he goes to London to make his fortune.

He finds work for Burbage at The Theater, starting as a livery boy, holding horses for the playgoers.  London at this time is mad for Marlowe and Tamburlaine, and Rush gives us a swift precis of the jobs Will might have done in a city where theater was cheap and popular, getting closer and closer to the stage.  It is after Will sees the botched execution of a poor, elderly priest named Hartley that he takes up the pen to write.  Drunken crowds roam the street after Hartley's death, roaring their hatred of Spain and papists.

The cries grew fainter.  I shut my eyes again.  It all went round in my head: Tarleton, Hartley, Jacki Vautrollier, Marlowe, Tamburlaine, the Armada, the drunken crowd, fuck the Pope, fuck Parma, long live the Queen!. . .That crowd down there in the street, full of blind energy and leonine pride--it was loose in London and it had no theatre for it's will.  It needed a state.  It needed to see itself up there. It needed a glass and a chronicler of the time.  The future was out there.

So he writes Henry VI, the pageant of national theater and national identity, and his star rises.  The book then paces through the questions that lie at the heart of Shakespeare studies and hits all the marks.  Marlowe did indeed die in Deptford, but it was the assassination of an operative, to keep his secrets buried.  Marlowe was a spy, and one with an inconvenient amount of damaging information, so he and those around him were picked off, one by one.  The quarrel over the bar bill was part of the plot--take him to Deptford, to wait for a boat to take him safely out of England.  Ply him with drink the long day, then pick a fight over the bill.  Marlowe will fall for it--especially drunk Marlowe, and his death will not cause repercussions.

The early epic poems, Venus and Adonis was commissioned as an attempt to get the young earl of Southampton to marry and create heir, and when it failed to convince the young man to give up his youth and settle into a premature middle age, a second (less lucrative) commission to browbeat him with the idea of what would happen should he fail to have heirs--The Rape of Lucrece.  This was also the beginning of a youthful friendship between the earl and the writer, and the reason for a first lot of sonnets.  And then Rush identifies The Dark Lady as Emilia Bassano, the Italian-Jewish wife of a court musician, an exotic beauty who was lass than discriminate with her favors.  Will fell hard, and it all ended in tears and heartbreak when Southampton (Henry Wriothesley) also found his way into her bed and Will caught them.  No more sonnets, and apparently the end of the two men's contact.  But Will was able to buy a place in the Lord Chamberlain's men with the money he made while with Southampton, so onto another chapter of the life.

Hamnet's young demise brought Will back to Stratford briefly, and he purchased New Place--out of a sense of grief and guilt, perhaps.  And then back to London to King John and then to invent Falstaff and Hal--Falstaff as the great expression of the English people, the gravitas and center of the plays, the recognition that the leaders and aristocrats are remembered, but it is the unnamed and unnumbered dead to won Agincourt and Shrewsbury, and they are the real England.  This is Rush's declaration of why Shakespeare is still relevant today--why he remains beloved.  Because he cared for the actual people of England, and spoke to them and for them.  His talent was to show the people their own roles in history. 

The book wends it's way through all the plays, all the family deaths and losses, and paints a picture of a man aged by the death of his only son, tiring of the effort of London, putting his griefs into Hamlet and Lear, his cynicism about politics into Macbeth, constrained and inspired by the players available and the life around him, but burning out.  The Tempest was his last great effort, and after that, he was burnt out entirely.

Rush offers explanations for the odd provisions of the will, the infamous "to my wife, the second best bed" is an acknowledgement of the coldness of their marriage.  Judith's limited inheritance is explained as the legal way to limit her no-good husband's access to Will's wealth; Susanna takes the bulk of the estate and Will hopes she will have sons to secure the family name.  In the end, the line burns itself out through lack of children, even female, within two generations.  There are only nieces and nephews, too far removed and thus the estate and library and possessions of Will Shakespeare get dispersed, and remain untraceable.

Rush even takes on the doggerel on Shakespeare's grave, "explaining" it as written only as well as necessary to scare off future sextons from digging up the bones and using the space for newer dead.  It also served to keep Anne Hathaway from sharing the grave--which was also important to him.  As they were never close in marriage and life, his will was to enforce similar distance in death.

It's a brave effort--a lot of scholarship and effort went into it, and it takes a fair amount of effort to read it.  So many words--words piled up on each other, phrases and clauses scattered about, lists of elements and the sheer volume of facts substituting for actual poetry or description.  But hard to love, most of the time.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

The Tamer Tamed, by John Fletcher

The second book I've "pre-read" for my course on Shakespeare and Adaptation--meaning that while classes haven't started yet, I'm trying to get a jump on the reading because I have no idea how long it's going to take me to get through these book lists.

The Tamer Tamed  is a play, written by John Fletcher probably in 1611, and at least some scholars think it was written as a way for Fletcher to introduce himself to Shakespeare.  It is a sequel, of sorts, to WS's own The Taming of the Shrew, in which Petruchio gets a taste of the medicine he so liberally dispensed to Katherine.

As the play opens, we find that Petruchio has been widowed, which from his perspective is probably just as well.  Apparently the "taming" he performed in Shakespeare's play didn't actually take, and his marriage was fraught with the level on conflict you would expect from someone as vivid and unhappy as the Katherine of Act I.  Nevertheless, Petruchio has chosen hope over experience, and married again, this time to Katherine's cousin Maria. Supposedly all that Katherine was not, Petruchio is unprepared for what happens that night, when Maria locks him out of his own house, and announces to the public that she will not be sleeping with him for the foreseeable future.

Maria has laid in food for a month, and brought in her cousin Bianca (also from Taming of the Shrew, Katherine's sister and herself now widowed) and invites all women who have been "worn out by marriage" to join her in laying down the conditions for their domestic lives.  Soon they are joined by Maria's (originally obedient and tractable) sister Livia, who loves the handsome young Roland, but who is going to be forced by her father into marriage with the old, ugly, smelly and disgusting (but rich!) Moroso.  Other women from the city and the country join the women inside Petruchio's house, bringing supplies and taking a stand for women's rights.  All this is by the second act, with three more to go.

According to the introductory materials, The Tamer Tamed was a very popular play, and was performed in repertory with Shrew.  It was performed before Charles I and his queen, and revived during the Restoration as well.  There are records of its performance into the 18th century, and the Royal Shakespeare Company revived it and brought it to America in 2003.

Certainly, when paired with Shrew, it makes the "taming" experience less deeply uncomfortable.  On the basis of the text alone, The Taming of the Shrew feels like psychological warfare and spousal abuse.  Katherine is deprived of food and sleep and purposely disoriented for days, until her spirit is broken, and apparently her mind as well, and it's all presented as good clean fun. I have seen a few performances that have subsumed the dialogue to broad slapstick, and in those cases, Katherine gives as good as she gets, but the text itself is still troublesome. After all, from the modern perspective, what has she done that is so wrong?  She doesn't want to get married, and she has found a way to avoid it--run off all your suitors.  She's managed to make a life for herself that suits her, and the only "problem" is that her father has this ridiculous rule that her sister can't marry until she does.  Is this Kate's problem?  Should she bind herself into marriage that she doesn't want just because her father has this stupid rule?

Into town drifts this lout--a man who will take any woman, provided she is rich.  Who would want to marry him?  And why should Kate agree to be handed over to a man who is idle, wealth-seeking, and arrogantly certain of his ability to break her?  Why is this an outcome anybody should cheer for?

It's a rom-com formula in extreme--in which the people who are "fated" to be together initially cannot stand each other, but learn to see each other in new and better ways.  Which is fine, except for the abuse.  Perhaps enforcing patriarchal privilege was funnier in the 17th century than it is now, or audiences were more frightened of women than they are now, but what looks like despotic parenting and authoritarian enforcement of heterosexual male privilege just doesn't amuse me.

Fletcher's play tips the balance the other way, more or less, but does so in obviously ribald fashion, which makes the whole thing more farcical and thus less disturbing.  It also benefits from the fact that when the obviously powerless women score some advantages for themselves, they do so without the men apparently losing anything in the bargain.  From the start, Maria's demands are actually small--she wants to have authority to run the household without being questioned about it.  She wants to guarantee she will have life's amenities--clothing, food, transportation--consistent with her station.  She wants to control her own sexuality, and require her husband to gain her consent.  What does Petruchio want?  He wants to be able to sleep with his wife, get into his house, and experience domestic tranquility.  All of which he gets.  What does he lose?  Only a smidgeon of "face"--other men see his wife make demands, and they see him acquiesce.  He doesn't seem too bothered by it, as evidenced by the fact that as soon as she tells him she is going to make demands, he basically agrees to them, whatever they might be.  It is her father and some of the other men who urge Petruchio to stand fast, to beat her into submission, to assert his manly rights to be in control.  Since none of the men are ever shown to actually be in control, the stakes are pretty low.

Contrast that to Katherine's plight in Taming of the Shrew.  She doesn't choose marriage, she doesn't chose her husband, and when she is sold into marital bondage, she has no control over what she wears, what she eats, where she goes, or the nature of her relationship to her husband.  She is forced to give up all her preferences, all her autonomy, and simply agree to anything and everything he says, regardless of how crazy that may be.  Sure, as far as the text goes, we don't actually see him beating her, but there is no real guarantee that she would be allowed to object to that either.  It is the doctrine of couveture in the extreme, where two people become one, and that one is Petrucchio.

Fletcher's play has an entirely different tone--the stakes are lower, and the strategems are much less squicky.  Rather than sleep deprivation and withholding of food, as in Shakespeare, Fletcher's Petruchio makes plays for sympathy and pity.  He pretends he is ill--and Maria beats him at that game by telling everyone that he has the plague and needs to be sealed inside his house so he doesn't infect anyone else.  Petruchio is reduced to shooting his way out of his own house.  Maria compliments his intelligence, and maneuvers him into having to travel abroad.  Rather than going, he fakes his own death, and presents his "corpse" to his supposed widow, hoping she will admit she treated him badly.  Instead, she cries for his wasted live and claims that his death is a blessing, because it means that now he is spared the worse things he was bound to do if he had lived.

This is the final straw, and in a scene that suffers from being seriously underwritten, he asks "Why, why Maria?"  And for no good reason that I can see, she confesses that this was all a trick to tame him, and she has now achieved her aim.  Now she can go back to her true personality and promises to dote on him and make his life pleasant.  In the B plot, Livia has also faked an illness, and supposedly signed documents releasing Roland from their engagment, witnessed by her father and Moroso.  In fact, she has switched the documents for a marriage contract, and thus managed to marry the man she wanted to marry.  They consummate the marriage while her father and Moroso believe she is still ailing. Again, the stakes for the men are low, and the women's victory doesn't require the utter defeat of the men they are set against.  Moroso is free to find another woman to marry--he doesn't seem to have any particular attachment to Livia other than her youth, and her father doesn't seem to have any reason to have preferred Moroso than the man's money.  Meanwhile, Livia manages to arrange a happier life for herself than would have been possible if she had simply obeyed her father's orders.

The silliness of the play is so pervasive that almost any page would provide some bawdy exchanges and double entendres--for the moment, take my word for it that it is not in any way a serious meditation of gender roles.  It also is worth noting that after writing the play, Fletcher collaborated with Shakespeare on at least three plays we know of: Henry VIII; Two Noble Kinsmen;  and the lost play Cardenio.  By all accounts, Fletcher had a brilliant and productive career, producing some 50 plays before his death in 1625.

When you hear of Puritans disapproving of theater, THIS  is the kind of play they must have had in mind--it's knee deep in sexual innuendo and outright sexual talk.  Characters are forever overturning chamberpots on each other, and pissing against door frames.  It's a silly play, and one that makes Shakespeare's language that much more impressive.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Interred With Their Bones, by Jennifer Lee Carrell

This is the first book I read for my new Master's program in English literature--it is one of the many books on the syllabus for my seminar in "Adapting Shakespeare."  The course looks fantastic--focusing on Taming of the Shrew, Macbeth, Hamlet and the sonnets, it looks at ways different artists have used Shakespeare's life and works to make new works.  We will be watching movies (Kiss Me Kate and Shakespeare in Love, for example), listening to Rufus Wainwright's adaptations of the sonnets, and reading reading reading! 

Carrell is herself an academic, with a Ph.D. from Harvard in English and American lit, with other degrees from Oxford and Stanford, and this is her first novel.  It is stuffed with information and academic trivia, and should be a no-brainer for someone like me: mysterious clues leading on a chase to find a lost Shakespeare play and the identity of "who really wrote Shakespeare's plays?"  The bad news is--it's not very good.  So much so, that I was about 200 pages in before I realized that I had read this before.

Let's start with a plot synopsis.  Our Heroine and Narrator, Kate Stanley, is a former graduate student who finished her dissertation on "The Occult Shakespeare" before leaving academia for theater.  When the book opens, she is directing Hamlet at the Globe Theater in London.  (I suspended my disbelief about this one--sure, it is unlikely that a 23 year old American woman would be handed such a job, especially since as far as we are told, she had only directed a couple of amateur undergraduate departmental plays before in her life.  Your willingness to suspend the disbelief may vary.)  She has secured a Hollywood Action Star for her Hamlet, and London theater legend Sir Henry Lee has joined the cast as Hamlet's Ghost.

During a lively rehearsal, in walks Kate's former academic advisor, Roz Howard, with a challenge--Roz has found something big, bigger even than Hamlet at the Globe, and she needs Kate's help.  Roz hands over a mysterious package and arranges to meet Kate on Parliament Hill at sunset.  Roz doesn't show, the Globe goes up in flames, Kate is followed by a mysterious man who seems to want to kill her, and Roz's corpse turns up in the ruins of the Globe.  She has been killed by something injected behind her ear--just like Hamlet's father!

Kate opens the package, and we are off on a Da Vinci Code for Shakespeare.  The package contains a brooch and an card from an old card catelog.  Roz has scribbled some cryptic messages onto it, sending Kate on a "thrilling" tour of libraries across the world: Widener and Houghton libraries at Harvard; a Shakespeare archive in Cedar City, Utah; the Folger in D.C.  As a travelog, it's quite boring, actually, and I am saying this as a person who loves libraries.  In fact, her descriptions of the Archive in Utah was the part where I remembered having read this before--it was the only truly memorable part of the novel, with an English garden and a Tudor building plunked into the Utah desert.

Along the way she has Sir Henry financing her exploits, and she picks up a body guard in Ben Pearl, Roz's nephew, who Roz hired to keep Kate safe.  Not sure why Roz thought this would be necessary, or why she didn't use him to keep herself safe--no reason given for Roz to suspect that people would begin to be murdered, since she was the first victim.

But nevermind!  Don't ask questions!  Roz is dead, the Globe is in flames, the DCI Sinclair wants to question Kate about what she knows, so of course she has to sneak out of the country and run to Harvard to follow the clue of Roz's card catelog!  And within hours Kate has been chased by a sneaky man with a knife, Harvard's copy of the First Folio has been stolen, and Widener is in flames!  But there is a clue in the Houghton library involving actual historical figure Francis Child and his correspondence.  Kate finds half a letter, misfiled in Child's papers, which is vague in the extreme.  Ben steals it, Kate is attacked, they run off to Utah.

In Utah, there is conveniently a connection to somebody who is a Shakespeare collector, who has built a replica of Konigberg castle in the desert--the model for Elsinore.  This eccentric old lady is also a billionaire, and she sneaks Kate and Ben into a conference at the Folger Shakespeare Library in D.C.  There, the head librarian/archivist gets killed like Julius Caesar on the steps of the (U.S. Capitol), and Kate gets another letter, this time from a fictional Ophelia Granville, who has been investigating (actual historical figure) Delia Bacon's claims that Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare's plays.

At this point, Carrell starts interweaving so many different plots and research trails in different time eras that the whole thing becomes deeply confusing.  Kate keeps almost being killed multiple times, and leaves a trail of dead bodies behind her, as well as stolen papers.  The deeper one gets into this book, the better The Da Vinci Code looks as a model of clear prose, exciting pacing, and believable riddles.  She visits the ancestral home of the Earls of Pembroke (where the Lead Guide gets snuffed), Trinity Church in Stratford to open up Shakespeare's grave, back to Elsinore in the desert, and finally to a cave somewhere in Arizona.  By this point, things have gotten deeply weird, and I will now try to untangle the various plots and time frames.

The Contemporary Mystery Solved

In the present: Kate finds the remains of a 17th Century Spanish conquistador expedition, deep inside a cave in Arizona.  They had been sealed in, and the last one to die was a Franciscan priest, who was carrying one of the earliest editions of Don Quixote in English.  Inside that volume was a manuscript of the lost Shakespeare play Cardenio.  This is appropriate, because Cardenio's plot was taken from a subplot in Quixote.  So now, we have this buried treasure (that was "Interred with their Bones,"--get it?)  But wait!  There's more!

The priest is also carrying a letter that seems to indicate that Shakespeare was not the sole author of his plays. But before Kate (and we) can read this letter, Sir Henry grabs it and throws himself over a ledge into a pit inside the cave. Why?  Good question!  It seems that Sir Henry has been a master-mind of the entire plot of the book.  As a Shakespearean actor, he wanted to find Cardenio so he could leave a theatrical legacy as the actor who stamped himself on the play--Sir Henry Lee's Don Quixote would stand like Olivier's Hamlet in theatrical history.  However, he would not allow "Shakespeare" to be anyone or anything other than the Man from Stratford--he was deeply invested in the story of a poor boy from the sticks becoming the greatest writer of all time.  It was a foundational myth, like Abraham Lincoln becoming president--you didn't have to be connected, or well-educated, or aristocratic to succeed.  Talent could strike anywhere, and Sir Henry was proof of that.  So if the "truth" was different, he would not allow it to get out, and he took himself and the letter into the abyss to prevent any other "truth" from being proved. 

Self-sacrifice, perhaps, but made less noble by the fact that the police were closing in, and he had murdered five people (more or less) and committed countless other criminal acts in the course of the book.  He had conspired with a junior Harvard professor, who had done some of the dirty work for Sir Henry, out of jealousy of Roz Howard's scholarship and her preference of Kate over him.  He also died in the cave--I think Sir Henry shot him.  It was confusing, and I had long ago stopped caring about this plot.

So--Kate preserves Cardenio, but loses the letter that "proves" who wrote Shakespeare. The book ends with a (not at all believable) incipient romance with Ben Pearl, the staging of her Hamlet in the restored Globe, and the promise of a production of Cardenio to follow.

Who Wrote Shakespeare?

The book follows several different theories about who really wrote the plays.  The controversy does exist in actual academic and amateur circles, based on the assumption that the man from Stratford simply did not have the education and life experience to write convincingly about everything that is in the plays.  He would not have known how court life is conducted, for example; he wouldn't know about hawking, he had no legal training, etc.  There are several candidates who have been offered up as the "real" Shakespeare, but most of them have problems, such as dying before many of the plays were written, or in one case, not being born until well afterwards.

Carrell solves these problems by positing a "chimerical beast:" a consortium of aristocrats who were the actual authors.  And all your favorite candidates, plus a few dark horses, turn out to be the "real Shakespeare."  They are: Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford; Mary Sidney Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke; Francis Bacon; and William Stanley, Earl of Derby (and de Vere's son-in-law).  She leaves out Christopher Marlowe, and makes Ben Jonson aware of the deception, but not part of it.  The proof of this nonsense, such as it is, is a weird picture buried in Shakespeare's grave in Stratford--a creature composed of parts of each of the animals of these people's coats of arms.  A swan's head and neck (countess of Pembroke), eagle's wings (earl of Derby), boar's heads (Bacon) and falcon's feet (Oxford) clutching a spear (Shakespeare).

I may have some of these elements wrong, but the gist is close enough.  Four aristocrats add up to enough training and education to have written Shakespeare.  Plus the man from Stratford.  Got it?  Then let's analyze it.

First off, part of the reason the four aristocrats are even posited as possible authors of the plays is because they are known to have written plays themselves.  So why would they need (or want) to work together to produce more plays?  Carrell doesn't bother to explain, particularly--as she is too busy just trying to make the dates work out right.  Edward de Vere died in 1604, 12 years before Shakespeare died, so no matter how good of a candidate he is for the author of those plays, mortality takes him out of the running.  But if you add in his son-in-law, the Earl of Derby, then Carrell finesses that issue.  So, yes, technically it would work, but why?  Why would they do this?  As far as I can tell (and the book does get very confusing on these points) Carrell doesn't say.  Certainly, none of the members of this committee appears as a character in the book, so we never get any insight into how such a group of people would work together, and how they would produce such a body of work that wasn't immediately obvious as being by five different people.

What this does allow Carrell to do is to let just about everybody who cares about this issue be right.  Do you think Francis Bacon wrote these plays?  You are right!  Do you think Hamlet is a fictionalized autobiography of Edward de Vere?  You are right too!  Do you think the glover's son from Stratford came from the country to the city and became the greatest writer of the English language?  Congratulations!  You are right too!

How Did Cardenio End Up In America?

Cervantes finished the first part of Don Quixote in 1605, and it was translated into English by Thomas Shelton in 1612.  Carrell invents a brother to Thomas Shelton, who she names William and makes into a beautiful blond boy with a spiritual calling.  He goes to train for the priesthood in Spain, at an English school for Jesuits, who train and then return to England to minister to the remaining (closeted) Catholics.  In Carrell's world, William Shelton is the actual translator of Don Quixote, who puts his brother's name on it, since as a Jesuit he would be persona non grata in England.

For some reason, when the consortium decides to publish the Shakespeare plays in the First Folio in 1623, they send a copy to William Shelton in Spain, along with a copy of Cardenio.  I am still confused as to why they felt he needed a copy.  It is quite possible that Carrell just needed her characters to find a copy of the First Folio there in order to further the plot.  At any rate, it is explained that Cardenio was purposely left out of the First Folio, because it had served to irritate the powerful Howard family when it was first performed, and the Howards had retaliated violently, including causing the Globe to burn to the ground.  So the consortium sent the folio, along with a marked up (but not printed) copy of the missing play.

Then, for no good reason whatsoever, Carrell has William Shelton switch disciplines, leaving the Jesuits and becoming a Franciscan, so he can go to New Spain and die in the American Southwest, so Kate can find the play there.  Shelton takes Cardenio, he says because it makes him laugh, as well as an ornate volume of Don Quixote, and that's how it ends up there.

Why Was Cardenio Lost In The First Place?

This is perhaps the most confusing part of Carrell's plotting.  Actual historical personage Frances Howard was a daughter of Thomas Howard, the 1st Duke of Suffolk, who was himself a son of Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk.  (It is Thomas Howard, the 3rd Duke of Norfolk who was instrumental in getting his nieces Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard married to Henry VIII and then beheaded.  Not a nice family.)  Frances was married to Robert Devereaux, the 3rd Earl of Essex (and descendent of Elizabeth I's own personal Essex, the failed conspirator).  The marriage was a political alliance, the bride and groom 14 and 13 respectively, and the marriage may not have ever been consummated.  Essex was sent to fight in Europe, and during his absence, Frances fell in love with Robert Carr, eventually the Earl of Somerset.

There is some nonsense--which may or may not be historically accurate--about the Howards setting Frances to capture and seduce the Prince of Wales, Henry Stuart, who was a friend of her husband's.  The idea was apparently to make Prince Henry fall in love with Frances, have her marriage to Essex annulled and marry her himself.  This is not unlike the plan that got Katherine Howard married to Henry VIII.  Somehow, this plan included getting Shakespeare to write a play based on Don Quixote in which a loathsome man was married to a lovely young woman, who was rescued from her terrible husband by the prince.  It was PR propaganda move to tarnish Essex's reputation, free Frances from a bad marriage, and raise the family fortunes by getting her to be the next queen.

This plan fell apart, however, because Frances balked, already in love with Robert Carr.  Then there is an odd public humiliation where one of Frances's gloves is found on the ground at court, and offered to Prince Henry.  The prince refuses to touch it, saying "It has already been stretched by another," thus making the public accusation that Frances had already cuckh\olded her husband with Carr.  Soon thereafter, Prince Henry died, so Frances was allowed to marry Carr (after some further scandals involving the annullment from Essex, which play no part in this novel).

By then, the point of staging Cardenio was moot.  Furthermore, Cardenio was too close to "Carr," and the play no longer showed Frances in a positive light, but somehow made a mockery of the entire Howard family.  So Shakespeare was asked to suppress the play, which he refused to do.  It was (historically) performed for James I, and given some public performances at the Globe.  In retaliation, the Howards (fictionally) caused the fire that burned down the Globe in 1613.  This was apparently enough for Carrell to explain why the play was never again performed and why all copies have been lost.

Who Are The Sonnets About?

Shakespeare's sonnets are famously addressed to a young man (described as "golden") and a Dark Lady.  Carrell doesn't identify the lady (as far as I can figure out, at least) but she makes the fictional William Shelton the golden boy.  William Shelton is beloved by both the Lady and William Shakespeare (actor, man from Stratford, not the consortium of aristocrats she posits wrote the plays), but he is also a passionate proto-Catholic and is a member of the extended Howard family.  The Howards were also rather famously closeted Catholics, and in an elaborate scheme, William Shelton is selected for Jesuit training by the Earl of Northampton (I think), one of the older Howards.  There is a chapter in the book where a priest is accused of treason and of being a Catholic, and hanged near St. Paul's Cathedral.  Northampton muses that the priest wasn't guilty, but had to be sacrificed or else a Howard would have been discovered.  But in a weird bit of karmic balance, Northampton decides that he needs to pay for the priest's death by creating another priest, and he spies William Shelton in the crowd at the hanging and decides he's the one who is going to be sent to Spain. 

The Dark Lady and Will Shakespeare are also there, they see the effect the priest's death has on William, and realize they have now lost him to his religious fervor.  The Lady turns out to be pregnant, but it is not clear which William is the father--Shelton or Shakespeare.  This is supposed to be important, but is not clear in the novel.  It appears that there is a girl who is nearly killed in the 1613 fire in the Globe, and she is possibly?  probably? William Shakespeare's illegitimate daughter by the Dark Lady, and thus is "balanced" with Suffolk's daughter Frances Howard.  Frances Howard's honor has been sullied by Cardenio, and so the injury to Shakespeare's daughter is therefore appropriate revenge?

This part of the plot is scattered throughout the book in chapters called "Interludes" and they are not presented in chronological order, nor are they explored or explained by the contemporary characters of Kate and Ben.  Furthermore, they don't tie in with the idea that anybody else wrote Shakespeare's sonnets.  So, does that mean that there is no controversy over the authorship of the poems--only the plays?  I don't know. and Carrell doesn't say.  It does make me wonder--if the man from Stratford wrote the sonnets, doesn't that give make it more likely that he also wrote the plays? 

Miscellaneous Shakespeariana

There are other bits of "Occult Shakespeare" scattered in the book--"occult" a word here used in a specific manner, meaning "hidden."  So, for example, there is a fair bit of chaff scattered about the book hinting that Shakespeare might have participated the King James Version of the Bible.  Kate finds some letters that indicate that committees of clerics did the initial translations, but that poets were asked to "polish" the Psalms.  There is a bit of numerology around the 46th Psalm.  The 46th word from the beginning of the Psalm is "shake" and the 46th from the end is "spear."  Allegedly, Shakespeare was 46 years old that year as well.  So were several of the members of the "chimerical beast," so it proves nothing but is probably just a bit of trivia Carrell couldn't resist.

There is also a deep inside joke about people who think that Edward de Vere was Shakespeare.  There is a shadowy character who never actually appears, named "Wesley North" who wrote a (fictional) book supporting that theory.  North is scheduled to make an appearance at a conference at the Folger, but doesn't show.  This is because he is a pseudonym for Roz Howard, who vehemently doesn't believe the Oxford theory, but enjoyed the ruse.  The joke is that the name would be cited as "North, Wes T." referring to the line from Hamlet that "I am but mad north- northwest: when the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw."  Wes North is also allegedly a teacher at an on-line university, so he can't be traced.  Internet troll, anyone?


There are others bits of lore and Shakespeare trivia in the book, none of which adds up to much.  In fact, the book itself is eminently forgettable, a book that owes a great deal to The Da Vinci Code and every bit as much to A.S. Byatt's Possession, without achieving the strengths of either of those books.  Much of the plot feels forced into shape.  The clues are vague in the extreme, requiring a great deal of explication by the characters and a great deal of acceptance by the reader.  "Obviously, this refers to the First Folio!" is the kind of dialog that gets the plot from point A to point B, where the reader wouldn't necessarily make that connection.

Nor does the overarching plot make any sense.  It is never explained why Kate is never actually killed--everybody else seems to get whacked with a great deal of economy, but for some reason the murderers never seem willing to actually off her.  For plot reasons, that's understandable--if Kate gets killed, the book ends because there is no longer anybody to solve the mystery.  But that's not emotionally satisfying, and spoils the fictional effect.

Nor is it clear why all those other people had to die, other than to create a (false) sense of threat to Kate.  If the murders were actually done by Sir Henry and his professor accomplice, and they were done to keep Shakespeare's identity secret, what did any of those murdered people know that would reveal that identity?  Nothing--especially the head of the tour guides at Wilton House in England, or the housekeeper of Elsinore in Arizona.  There is no reason why Sir Henry needed them to be dead, and doubly no reason to stage those deaths to look like ones from the Shakespeare plays.  So, if he was just a psychopath, then why didn't he kill Kate all the many times she was threatened?  No good reason, so no good thrills--just a sense that "well, it's been three chapters, time to throw in another murder."

Some of the clues were ungodly awkward as well, starting with the first one.  Roz comes to London to recruit her former protege to hunt for Cardenio.  But instead of doing the sort of things an academic would do--calling ahead, saying "I have a lead on Cardenio, and I need your help!" or writing a letter, Roz does things that only make sense in a thriller-novel universe.  Why appear mysteriously in the middle of a rehearsal of Hamlet in London when you are a professor at Harvard, and you think the manuscript is in America?  Why box up a stolen brooch with a cryptic clue and deliver it during rehearsal, rather than finding time when Kate can listen to the story?  Dinner would have been a good time.  Why even write out a cryptic clue at all?  No reason, other than "It's mysterious!"  No reason to think that Roz was the sort of person who would do that at all, actually.

Kate is not an appealing character either.  When she isn't just a piece being moved across the board, she is rather obnoxious.  She nearly gets killed, but then gets irritated when Ben tells her to do something that will keep her safe, because then she feels like they aren't being equals.  Well, no shit, Kate--you just told people your location, you used your cell phone that let the killers track you, you leave death and arson in your wake, and you are grumpy that your security guard wants to keep you from doing those things again? 

There is a confusing bit about whether Ben is the killer--he's being bruited about by the actual murderer, who points out that while he claims to be Roz's nephew, Roz was an only child.  "I just told you that to make you trust me" he says.  So who did hire him?  Was it Roz?  Was it somebody else?  Just how did he get into this book anyway?  Not clear and not satisfactorily explained.

So the book is an exercise in proving that you can be really smart, but a good thriller is harder to write than it looks.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Visit From The Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan

This book has won a bunch of awards, most notably the Pulitzer for fiction, which is no small deal.  In fact, that alone might be reason enough to make it required reading.  But it was also highly endorsed by two unrelated online sources that I often look to: Salon named it one of the best books of 2010, and the Morning News ran their annual Tournament of Books, and this book beat out Jonathan Franzen's Freedom by the narrowest of margins.  And since I had already read Freedom, it seemed that Jennifer Egan was next on the To Be Read list.

Less a novel, and more a collection of short stories, A Visit From the Goon Squad centers loosely around Bennie Salazar.  The stories jump around in time an space, and shift narrative voice, so each chapter requires some adjustment as to when and where the story takes place and how this story connects to any of the others. 

I understand the reasons a writer might prefer to link a series of stories rather than writing a single long novel.  I can do the mental gymnastic required to figure out every few pages who is talking and why I am reading this particular story.  I don't even mind doing so, if the book repays the effort.  David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas repaid the effort.  Elizabeth Strout's novel-in-stories Olive Kitteridge was worth the work.  I'm not convinced Goon Squad does.

Chapter Eight is were I started to question the bargain I had made with the author, in the story of La Doll.  "La Doll" was briefly introduced in the previous chapter as a high-powered PR maven who ran an agency where another character had a contract.  But by chapter eight, La Doll has lost everything.  We soon learn that at the height of her powers, she decided to have a party that would define her era--something that would live on in legend like Truman Capote's Black and White Ball.  She put together several (nominal) hosts, and a killer guest list.  She also designed plastic trays to be affixed to the lights, holding a mixture of oil and water that would bubble and swirl as it was heated by the lights, creating amazing mood lighting for the party.  Which it did, until the heat of the lights melted the plastic trays, dumping burning oil on all the guests.

Burn scars on models and actressess are fatal to careers, and La Doll lost all her assets in the civil suits, and served some time in prison for criminal negligence, which reduced her to the pathetic creature we meet in chapter eight.  Now known as "Dolly," she has fallen so low as to no longer even dye her hair to hide the gray.  The horror!

Dolly is in desperate straits, as she has sold pretty much everything that has market value, in order to maintain her obnoxious nine year old daughter in a ruinously expensive private school.  The daughter has forbidden Dolly from the school, lest her humiliation rub off on Lulu.  (Yes, she actually named the creature "Lulu.")  Dolly has acquiesced to Lulu's demands, to the point where she drops her daughter off around the corner so no one can see her.  And this is where both of these characters lost me.  Dolly has failed to take reality into account, and is making herself both miserable and crazy trying to keep up their impossible New York living standards while having essentially no clients.  This is stupid.  It is extra stupid for her to be completely in her daughter's control--this is not parenting, this is appeasement.  But when Egan literally has Dolly peeking in the windows of school in order to glimpse her own daughter, that's when I lost all respect for this book.

Because this is Stella Dallas at this point, and have we really gone back to the social/sexual mores of 1937 Barbara Stanwyk movies?  Seriously?  Why are we giving awards to a book that punishes a woman the way women were routinely punished in the movies of the Depression?

Look, if "La Doll" was really the powerhouse we are told she was, she would not have ended up in this place.  She would have had a halfway decent legal team who would have defended her from the criminal case, and would have easily impleaded the tray manufacturers, the light installers, the building management for the place where the party happened, and all of their insurance companies as well.  Furthermore, a PR whiz would have totally been able to spin the situation, milked the publicity, and used the oil burns as a badge of merit--you could prove you were important enough to have been there if you had the scars. 

I mean, would we have accepted a story like this about a male PR agent?  Think about Donald Trump, for example.  Trump has had numerous bankruptcies, has taken to licensing his name to questionable business deals that have cost people their life savings, and he keeps coming back.  He doesn't get reduced to the pathetic and needy wimp that Dolly is when we see her.  It's regressive and offensive, and I cannot accept that this is writing worth supporting.

Worse, is it led me to reassess the stories I had already read, and they cheapened as a result of this decidedly antique sensibility.  Bennie Salazar joins a country club, and news flash!  Country clubs are bastions of White Anglo Saxon Protestant privilege and prejudice!  It's like breaking news from 1946.  And what actually happened in the country club?  Bennie joined, precisely because it was the place that was the farthest away from who he was--he forced his way into a milieu where he was not readily accepted, precisely because he would not be readily accepted, and then he got upset when he was not readily accepted!  But The Incident was so far from being an incident that it just made me mad that I had been dragged through the melodrama.

Some blowhard military type had shown up at a country club party, and was bloviating about the risk of al Qaeda having moles in New York.  As this blow hard was magnifying the risk and raising the fear level of the room, one of the members cut his eyes at Bennie and made the smallest of head shakes to discourage the anti-Muslim rhetoric.  Apparently Bennie interpreted this as implying that he was both Muslim and a terrorist, which I think was not necessarily the case.  Second, the club member doing this is someone that Bennie so distained that he referred to the man as "Cardboard."  I don't see this as Bennie being excluded by virtue of his race or religion--especially since we don't have any evidence that Bennie has a race or religion.  I don't see this as the cultural majority keeping him down--it's a pair of buffoons being contemptible.  Any other interpretation is 40 years out of date--at least.

Then lets go back to the stories about Lou, the 1970s record producer who gave Bennie his start.  Lou had a zipper problem, several failed marriages, a testy relationship with his children, and a penchant for very young women.  Lou ended up having an affair with one of the girls in Bennie's circle of friends while she was still in high school.  This made her impossibly glamorous to the other kids, but she serves as a cautionary tale in Egan's book, another anti-woman story about someone whose life was ruined because she had sex.  That's right--this girl slept with an older man, and then disappears from the book except for a single chapter where she is back from another stint in rehab, unemployed, living with her mother, no friends or relationships to her name, and no future.  She then goes to visit Lou, who is dying horribly and alone.  Because the sex and drugs and rock and roll lifestyle has to have Consequences!  Nobody gets a second chance!  Did you have sex as a teen?  Your life is ruined (especially if you are a girl)!  Did you do drugs?  Unemployable and forced to move in with your mother!  Did you divorce several wives and fail to maintain healthy relationships with your off-spring?  Then one kid will commit suicide and you will die painfully and alone!

At this point, I was over this book.  I only kept going because my book club is going to discuss it in June.

Remember that I reached this point in the middle of chapter eight--Dolly's story.  And when I went back to finish the chapter, there was a plot point I had railed about.  Kitty Jackson, former ingenue, now mostly out of work actress, had small burn scars on her wrist.  She made them herself, so she could pretend she had been at Dolly's party.  Which was a small redemption of Egan for me--if the author saw the plot hole, but the character didn't, then I was willing to give the character some credit for being unable to see the solution to her problem for reasons that belonged to the character.  The detail of the self-inflicted oil burns meant that the author saw something that the character didn't, and in that detail painted a picture of woman complicit in her own downfall.  Dolly must have felt she deserved to be punished, or that she was better off accepting her reduction rather than fighting.

Sure, it's a small detail, a small measure of willingness to consider that Jennifer Egan might be doing something more than I had given her credit for.  So I finished the book, and now I have to go back and reconsider what she is doing in each of the stories.  By the end of the book, we have looped around to focus on a character who was no more than a secondary character in the very first story, but now some 10+ years in the future.  Technology has changed, the demographics of New York have swung toward the very very young, and toddlers are the major music market.  It's not exactly dystopian, but not exactly reassuring either.  But music continues to speak to humanity.

I'll give it some more thought, but I'd love to hear from people who have read it and loved it.  What exactly did you love?

Friday, April 15, 2011

Started Early, Took My Dog, by Kate Atkinson

If you've already read any of Kate Atkinson's books, you know what to expect, and you've probably already picked up this one, if not already devoured it.  If you've not read any of her books, there's no reason to wait any longer.  Go ahead, get any one of the Jackson Brodie books and come back after you've read as many as you want.  Which will probably be the all of them.

Atkinson takes the police/detective novel and turns it inside out.  Mysteries happen, of course, there are murders, there is police procedure, there are even solutions.  But the mysteries themselves are less important as mysteries than as ways to illuminate and examine the lives of the people around them.  Her books peel away the layers that surround human lives and examine what is left. 

Maybe this sounds pretentious, but that's only because I can't articulate how she does what she does in a pithy way.  But what she is doing is what Tana French is also doing--exploring the form and tropes of the detective format and using it to do something that operates in a different universe than Dan Brown.

Let's get to spoiling right away, shall we?  Because honestly, the plot is only the engine for what else Atkinson is doing.

Start with Jackson Brodie, the former police officer and the nominal protagonist of this and three previous Atkinson books.  Brodie lost almost everything in the last book, When Will There Be Good News?  He was  literally resuscitated after a train derailment, he discovered that his wife had been a scam artist, who had married him and lived with him only as long as it took her to clear out his substantial bank account.  Everything about her had been a lie, including her name.  Now he is effectively homeless, and certainly rootless, driving around England ostensibly while doing investigative work for a woman in New Zealand who wants to find her birth parents.  It is not a coincidence that her life is faked too.  The birth certificate is forged, the names of the birth parents were invented.  It seems like the truth was buried in Leeds, and the person who might have the answers is a social worker named Linda Palliser.

Linda Palliser doesn't want to talk to Brodie, however.  She literally takes the first flight out of town and remains out of communication for the rest of the novel.  Because she doesn't dare tell anyone the truth.  So Brodie has to figure things out on his own.

The second major protagonist of the book is a woman named Tracy Waterhouse.  Tracy was a new constable in 1975 on the West Yorkshire police force, and a recent retiree from the force.  She was always a big girl, and made her career by being "one of the boys."  She never married, had no family, no social life.  So, of course, she went into private security, working for a shopping mall in Leeds.  One fateful day, she sees one too many children in jeopardy, and she impulsively intercedes.  The child's mother is a prostitute and drug addict well known to the police, and Tracy can't stand watching the 4 year old child being dragged and berated across the mall.  She has a large sum of cash, to pay the Polish builder who is renovating her kitchen, and impulsively she offers the cash in exchange for the child.  The mother grabs the money, hops on a bus, and disappears.

Despite spending her entire adult life as a law enforcer, Tracy immediately acts like a criminal and more or less goes on the run with the child.  Does this make sense?  I mean, logically, does it make sense that a 50 year old police superintendent would really think that by handing a wad of cash to a drug addict and taking custody of a neglected child from a visibly unfit parent, that she had somehow actually bought the kid?  Does she really think that she has descended to the same moral level as kidnappers and pedophiles?  Does Atkinson really expect us to buy this complete 180 of behavior?

Well, no, not really.  Because Atkinson is operating in a gray area between realism and metaphor.  She sets up the plausibility of the situation--Tracy Waterhouse was stinted of love herself, both as a child and as an adult, and she had plenty of traumatic experiences as a police officer, seeing children threatened, abused, and murdered.  So the reader can understand why she might just reach a breaking point and snap, deciding on nothing more than an emotional compulsion that this child she would save, to stand in for all the children she couldn't (or didn't) save in the past.

While it is less believable that she would then immediately consider herself to be a criminal for doing so, and run from her home, change her name, and generally skulk around rather than being the powerful force of confrontation she was throughout her career.  But Atkinson isn't interested so much in Tracy's character as she is in Tracy's situation--the sudden change of you world, the madness that is parental love, the way the inclusion of a child into your life fundamentally changes who you are.

There are parallels throughout the story--couples who struggle with infertility, women who struggle with unwanted pregnancy, a police officer whose daughter ends up in a persistent vegetative state after her husband causes an auto accident while drunk, that also kills their infant son.  There are bad parents, abusive parents, stingy parents, drug addicted parents, and the tragedy that not all the children can be saved, and not all of them manage to overcome the bad hands they are dealt.  The woman Tracy "buys" the little girl off of has other children, all the rest of whom have been placed in foster care.  One of them we later see on the streets, working as a prostitute.

On the other hand, some children manage remarkably well.  The tragic story of Michael Braithwaite, for example, has a good enough ending, although we don't get the full story until the end of the book.  The book opens in 1975, when the young Tracy Waterhouse and her partner Ken Ackerman are called to a block of flats by reports of a horrible smell.  Ken looks through the mail slot, then breaks down the door.  A prostitute by the name of Carol Braithwaite has been killed in her flat, and her 4 year old son was trapped inside with the body for nearly three weeks, subsisting on what food he could find.  He couldn't open the door, couldn't get people to notice him in the window of the unit.  Tracy picked him up to soothe him, and broke her heart.  There was some sort of cover-up, and Michael was taken away by Linda Pallister and disappeared.

At the end we learn that he was placed in a Catholic orphanage under a different name, but when he turned 18 he was given his true name and turned loose on the world.  He made a small fortune in dealing scrap metal, married, and has a normal suburban life of wife, three kids, and barbeques.  So, yay?  Sometimes things do work out?

But it's the convoluted, the ass-covering, the misery that Atkinson feasts on.  Back in 1975, what really happened?  One of the cops on the force where Tracy worked had been using Carol Braithwaite as a prostitute, and then she got pregnant and used the baby as a leverage for money, ultimately pressuring the cop (named Len Lomax) to leave his wife and marry her.  Poor Michael was the result of a previous liaison, four to Lomax daughter's two, and wanted to think of Lomax as "Daddy."  In fact, was probably encouraged to do so by Carol as part of her desperate and bi-polar desire for normalcy.  She pushed him one too many times, however, threatening to confront his (desperately childless) wife, and in his anger he throttled her to death.

The boys' club of the police rallied around him, got the little girl out of the flat and gave her to a (desperately childless) pediatrician and his (botched-abortion infertile) wife, who promptly lit out for New Zealand.  Lomax didn't mention the boy, who was locked in from the outside and managed to keep himself alive until the smell of the decomposing body got the neighbors to call.  And broke Tracy's heart.  Also broke the heart of one of the other cops, the low level Ray Strickland who was sent to fetch the girl and bring her to the doctor.  He left the boy behind, unwilling to ask questions or volunteer information--he'd been told his career might depend on it.  He also questioned his own behavior--why not take the baby girl and bring her home to his own (desperately childless) wife?  Or the boy?  He didn't do either--two chances for happiness he wasted.

Tracy was left for years to believe something wrong had happened.  She noticed that the door had been locked from the outside, she noticed that Lomax and Strickland knew the layout of the flat before they should have.  Plus, she asked after Michael Braithwaite, with a vague intention of raising him herself.  She was told to stop asking questions, and that the directive came from "above."  Cops worked with criminals who had connections to cover up, fake passports, keep their careers on track while deeply compromising their own integrity.

In many ways, Atkinson is a chilly writer--this book especially is more about ideas and themes than flesh and blood characters.  We have people who have children and don't want them, people who don't have children and do want them, people who have children and are deeply ambivalent about their ability to raise them, people who are doting parents, indifferent parents, cold parents, unfit parents, parents who are doing their best with limited skills. . .a range of parent-child relationships, past and present, from both the adult and the child perspectives.  There is quite a lot of background --not directly dramatized--about the things Tracy Waterhouse has seen done to children in the course of her police work, that makes her cynical, angry and hurt on behalf of those vulnerable children.  We see the well-intentioned Jackson Brodie being flummoxed by his daughter's teen-aged behavior, his groping toward a relationship with his own four-year old son and the difficult woman he loves but can't be with.

Brodie also manages to acquire a dog, in a plot that parallels Tracy's story.  He sees the dog running off leash in a park, which is then corralled by a brute who uses a noose instead of a leash, who kicks the dog then throws it into the boot of the car.  Brodie is so incensed that he punches the guy in the solar plexus and takes the dog.  He then smuggles the dog around England in a rucksack, learning the rules of dog ownership in a parody of the way Tracy is learning to be a mother.  It's a formal device that has some resonance, but doesn't really work.  It doesn't really illuminate Brodie's character, and it doesn't really serve as commentary on how society treats children like dogs.  It did rather undermine my empathy for Tracy, to find that even she didn't treat her new-found child like a person so much as a difficult accessory.  Like a pet, in fact.

This is really a rambling review, in part because there is so much stuffed into this book.  I haven't even mentioned the Jackson Brodie doppelganger--another character who hovers ominously around the book, always a step or two ahead or behind Jackson and Tracy.  In the end he is revealed to be a "Brian Jackson," a private detective who was hired by Michael Braithwaite to find his parents, again, paralleling Brodie's search.  This allows for some of the plot to be driven by other characters confusing the two names.  Tracy thinks both the Jacksons are going to turn her in for kidnapping, when they just want to know what she knows about Carol Braithwaite.  So Atkinson is wrestling with doubling and tripling of her themes, which is intellectually intriguing if a little cold emotionally.

But Atkinson can do emotionally affecting work!  She can!  And for that, I point to her wonderful C plot character, Matilda "Tilly" Squires, a character actress whose mind is shredding with early onset Alzheimer's.  She works on preposterous police television series, flitting back and forth between her own chilly upbringing, the baby and good man she lost through the officious meddling of her "friend," and her own sinking awareness of her vanishing present.  Plotwise, poor Tilly is a bit of disaster, hanging off the main storyline like a loose thread, and then brought in as deus ex machina to finish off the bad guy and let Tracy escape.  But I'll excuse that, for the wonderful way Atkinson brings her mental deterioration to vivid life.  Honestly, it's heartbreaking and infuriating, and precisely the kind of well crafted character I wish we could have had more of in this book.

Not that I'm exactly complaining--it's a fascinating book, intricately plotted, with layers of meaning playing off against each other, raising the ongoing challenge of how our culture treats children. Atkinson also liberally sprinkles the pages with ruminations on poetry and how it illuminates our lives.  The title is taken from a poem by Emily Dickenson, and Brodie finds himself brooding (Brodie/brooding--I don't think that's a coincidence either) on her poems.  Tilly Squires finds herself pulling up quotes from the Shakespeare plays she's been in her whole life.  Poetry, fiction, cultural mores--Atkinson has stuffed this book full of ideas.  It's well worth reading.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Brothers of Baker Street, by Michael Robertson

This is the sequel to "The Baker Street Letters," which is reviewed just below, and this book starts just after the previous one ends.  Reggie and Nigel Heath are brothers who practiced law together in London.  Reggie had recently leased office space for his chambers in the building that comprises the 200 block of Baker Street in London, and it is a condition of that lease that Reggie answer and archive the letters that are delivered there for "Sherlock Holmes."  This remains a clever and potentially delightful conceit for a series, as there is no end to the kinds of requests that these letters could bring to the protagonists.

As a result of one of those letters, Reggie is now broke--he personal assets were eaten by his obligations to Lloyd's of London and his participation in the insurance syndicate that covered the Bad Guys in the previous book.  His legal practice has also suffered, and he is down to a single employee--a secretary/clerk/administrator who doesn't have much to do because there are no cases coming in.  The Sherlock letters still arrive, however, and as Reggie wants to have nothing to do with them, he packs them up and mails them to Nigel to answer.

(Incidentally, does this make any sense?  No, it doesn't.  Nigel is supposed to reply to each letter with a form provided by Dorset House, and then archive the letters at Dorset House.  He has neither of these things in LA, because Dorset House is where Reggie's chambers are, and where Reggie has a secretary with nothing to do.  So why does he do this?  So Nigel can have some presence in this book?)

Reggie's personal life remains unresolved.  He's been dating the gorgeous and successful actress Laura Henson for some time, but can't seem to be anything but a douche about it.  (This has now become a character trait for him as far as I am concerned.)  Laura has left London, and is currently in Phuket filming a movie.  She has also been seeing the fabulously wealthy media mogul Lord Buxton, who owns a particularly annoying London tabloid.  As the story begins, this tabloid has published a picture of Laura and an unidentified man together in Phuket, and the man's hand is doing something to her bikini top that seems to involve some intimate contact.

Reggie recognizes the hand as belonging to Lord Buxton, so he promptly goes to Buxton's enormous media headquarters and punches the man in the face.  This is captured by a photographer and published the next day.  Reggie may be a barrister, but he really isn't very smart, is he?  He also doesn't seem to ever consider that this kind of obnoxiousness is why Laura is choosing to spend time with Buxton rather than him.  Because god forbid that a woman have any agency when it comes to relationships.  Douche.

Anyway--an aggressively good looking solicitor shows up at Reggie's chambers with a brief for him.  Her client is a cabbie, a driver of the iconic Black Cabs of London, and he's been accused of murdering a pair of American tourists.  This is a major problem for London, as well as all the other cabbies, because Black Cabs are known for their absolute safety and their drivers' encyclopedic knowledge of London.  Their reputation is threatened by these murders, as well as by a series of robberies that led up to this outrage.  This is the kind of case that--if Reggie wins it--will bring him so much publicity that he could bounce back to his old busy legal practice.  Plus, there is an obligation (we are told) that barristers are like taxi drivers at a cab stand--they are required to take the next fare that presents itself.

But Reggie, in addition to being a douche, is also a prig.  (There!  Multifaceted character development!)  He won't take the case unless he is personally convinced that the client is innocent.  See, it all goes back to his childhood. . .and here we find ourselves adopting a ridiculous German accent and playing Freud.  Because Dad took little Reggie to a football game, to which he insisted on wearing the cap of his beloved Man U team.  Sadly, however, their seats were in the opposing teams section, and when Man U lost, the footie hooligans stole his cap, Dad snatched it back, fist fights broke out, and somehow Dad ended up arrested, which somehow caused him to lose his painting business and his will to live and life became dark and short.  So little Reggie grew up determined to become a barrister so he could protect innocent men like his Dad and correct the balance of the universe.  Again--he really lost his house painting business because of a footie scuffle?

Well, Our Little Prig Reggie has to meet the client, whose name is Walters, and learn about his life long dream to be a Black Cabbie, and how nothing else in the world is like it, and how much money he has had to invest to become one, and all the Secret and Arcane Knowledge of the Benevolent Order Of Black Cabbies and Freemasons.  Which is to say, Walters needed cash, so has a motive for the robberies, but he loves his job so much he wouldn't do anything to jeopardize it.

Reggie is unsure.  Is cab driving really such a great job?  Is it really like all the work he had to do to become a barrister?  So while riding in a Black Cab to another appointment, he casually chats up the driver and so becomes convinced that Walters must be innocent!  He will take the case!  Justice will be served! 

Yes, by this kind of logic, finding one man who loves his wife and would never murder her brutally with a dull kitchen blade means that there are no abusive husbands or wife-murderers.

So, back to chambers Reggie goes, to try to find a defense for Walters, the Tragic Cabbie.  What is the case against?  Well, if you are going to make a habit of holding up your fares, murdering them and then dumping the bodies, it's probably not a good idea to have a vanity license plate that is easily identifiable and memorable.  Which Walters has, and which was in fact seen and remembered by two separate sets of  eyewitnesses.  One of whom even called the police to report reckless driving by that cabbie.  Walters' alibi?  He was already home, alone, so he couldn't have done it. 

But wait!  There is a new letter to Sherlock, signed by "Moriarty" which gives Reggie an idea!  Check the traffic/security CCTV cameras to confirm Walters' claim that he was driving home to the other side of London at the time of the murders.  And in front of a clearly skeptical judge, the tapes show the distinctive cab with the memorable license plate somewhere completely else from the crime scene!  Walters is released until trial!  That night, more eyewitnesses see a Black Cab with the same license plate stopped on a bridge over the Thames, dumping a body into the river!  What has Reggie done?  Has he loosed a murderer from custody only so he can kill again? 

The good looking solicitor, Darla Rennie, places a frantic call to Reggie--something is wrong with our client!  You must go to his home and meet me there!  Reggie goes, finds the front door ajar, no sign of Darla.  He cautiously enters, finds the gold Rolex watch taken from the murdered American tourist sitting in a bag in the front parlor.  He follows the sound of machinery through the flat to the laundry room in the back, where Walters is lying dead, bloody shirt indicating he was stabbed.  Of course Reggie opens the washing machine to see what is inside, because. . .Plot Requirement.  There is the long kitchen knife that was the murder weapon, and a pair of wineglasses in the washing machine--presumably to remove the finger prints.  Reggie, having as much sense as god gave a rock, pulls out the knife to look at it and cuts himself on the broken wineglass.  All so that when the police arrive, he can be standing over the corpse, holding the murder weapon and dripping blood.  Because that's how you prepare a case for trial in England.

Reggie gets arrested, and Laura comes to his rescue, bringing Nigel back from LA.  He immediately makes a connection between the unhinged letters to Sherlock Holmes written by "Moriarty" and concludes that Reggie is being targeted by a mad person who has become convinced that Reggie is actually Sherlock Holmes and has to pay for killing  his/her ancestor at Reichenbach Falls.  He goes to chambers, and finds Darla Rennie's business card wedged between the cushions of an office chair, and it is also drenched in perfume, which Nigel remembers as belonging to someone who was in his therapy group the previous year when he took some time off for a rest cure/nervous breakdown.  (We don't know the specifics of this, despite it being referenced in both books.  Fodder for future books, probably.)  Fortunately, he can identify this woman by her legs, and realizes that Darla Rennie isn't actually a solicitor, but probably somebody with a grudge out to get Reggie. 

Yes, this is truly what is happening.  Poor schizophrenic Darla has been taken off her meds for nefarious purposes by her doctor, leading her to lapse into the delusion that she is the great-great-granddaughter of Professor Moriarty, and that Sherlock Holmes killed her ancestor, then discovered cryogenics, preserving himself for nearly two centuries in order to come back as a London barrister.  This delusion is then hastily cobbled together with her jealous hatred of Black Cabs, since she wanted to be a driver but was cursed with no sense of direction. 

But wait!  There's more to the plot!  Because the treating psychiatrist is also a software entrepreneur who is trying to sell a system of GPS devices to be installed in Black Cabs!  Which the cabbies totally oppose, since it messes with their foundational mythos.  Why devote yourself to the Knowledge if you can have a computer installed that does it for you?  But in a further twist, the proposed GPS has surveillance video and audio, so anything talked about in the back of a cab--stock tips, celebrity misbehavior, ordinary indescretions--can be recorded and used for insider trading, blackmail and/or sold to tabloids!  Because there are actually three Black Cabs with the same distinctive vanity license plates, and two of them were used for crimes while Walters was paid to drive a route that would establish a CCTV alibi!

There is another murder of a co-conspirator, there is the discovery of the second Black Cab with the same license plate which was driven into the Thames, but discovered at low tide.  (Why didn't they just remove the license plate?  Plot Requirement I guess.)  Reggie gets out of prison and goes to confront the doctor/GPS developer, ends up being held at gun point, figures out the surveillance scheme, and then watches in horror! as Laura gets into the third cab run by the Bad Guys.  And Darla's the driver!  And she is going to murder Laura to exact revenge on Sherlock/Reggie, by driving the cab off the Tower Bridge while it opens to let a ship through. 

There is a problem with this part of the plan, however, because Laura is never going to just sit passively in the back and ride to her doom, nor is it clear how Darla was going to escape being killed at the same time.  But!  it's cinematic!  The iconic Black Cab straddling the gap as the Tower Bridge rises open!  Laura, the gorgeous actress dangling from the tip of the bridge before losing her grip and sliding down the angled roadway!  The Black Cab breaking open and Darla falling to her death (?) into the Thames!  Reggie who managed to call Nigel before the battery on his cell phone died, Nigel rallying the other Black Cabbies, who linked arms at the base of the Bridge and saved Laura when her grip gave way!

As I was reading this, I found myself thinking that this read like a novelization of a TV series.  You know, some striking images, built in recurrent episodes and characters, enough action to distract you from the fact that the plot doesn't make a whole lot of sense.  And then, on the publisher's website I found this information about Michael Robertson.
MICHAEL ROBERTSON works for a large company with branches in the United States and England. His first novel in this series, The Baker Street Letters, has been optioned by Warner Bros. for television. He lives in San Clemente, California.

Oh yeah, give me a pipe and call me "Sherlock Holmes!" I wouldn't be surprised to find that he was a television writer, or something similar.

Again--a fine enough book to read in paperback, to pick up on a second-hand table, to take to the beach.  Definitely NOT worth $25 in hardcover.  I read the e-book version, which was half the hardcover price, and probably not worth that either.  Would I watch a TV series?  I'd certainly give it a shot.  Would I recommend these books to my friends?  Probably not without some serious caveats.

The Baker Street Letters, by Michael Robertson

Great premise, intriguing mystery set up, ultimately squandered by the poor execution.  Reggie Heath is a London barrister with a fabulous life--wealthy, a partner at Lloyd's of London (which requires some serious liquidity), Queen's Counsel, dating a gorgeous actress. He's just rented the second floor of a large building for his law chambers on Baker Street.  And yes, the block the building sits on encompasses what would be 221B, the home of fictional Sherlock Holmes.

One of the conditions of the lease, then, is that Reggie is required to answer the letters that still come in addressed to Sherlock Holmes.  Reggie's rather feckless brother Nigel is given that task, and Nigel finds himself intrigued by one of the requests for help.  Twenty years ago an 8 year old girl wrote to ask Sherlock Holmes to help find her missing father, and included something she called "Daddy maps" to aid in the search.  Now Nigel has received two letters purportedly from the same girl, now an adult, asking for return of the enclosures.  Nigel believes the contemporary letters are forgeries, and the girl is in danger.

Reggie isn't interested, being far too concerned with the challenge of the upcoming hearing to reinstate Nigel's solicitor's license.  Nigel is visibly more interested in the Sherlock letters, and Reggie nags and needles and nudges his brother to get back to his "real" career.  It's pretty well sketched that Nigel is only a lawyer because he's appeasing his older brother, and so the reader is not surprised when Nigel doesn't even turn up at his reinstatement hearing, leaving Reggie to vamp frantically as he tries to cover up for his brother's unexplained absence.  It is here we find out what Nigel did to be suspended, and even here it's more about Reggie's desperate need to "protect" his brother than anything else.

There was "that thing in Kent."  Apparently Nigel won a case in court, then subsequently found his client had lied.  Deeply remorseful, he attempted to return his legal fee to the unsuccessful parties, which apparently required him to break into the women's only dorm where he ran into the under-aged (and under dressed) daughter and reached into his pants to offer her a check, only that wasn't what SHE thought he was whipping out.  At least, that's the story Reggie tells the committee.  He also lies and says that Nigel had a sudden, horrible flu, and was unable to contain his bodily fluids long enough to attend the hearing. . . .no, it wasn't any funnier in the book.

Reggie, being a douche, can't believe Nigel would blow off the hearing, and he is especially peeved because he (Reggie) had planned to go to the airport immediately thereafter, to intercept his girlfriend Laura and say something that was (he thought) going to convince her not to fly to New York to do Shakespeare on Broadway, followed by time in LA making a movie of the play.  Because he doesn't realize she's an actress maybe?  Because while he can't treat her well or ask her to marry him or even act like he loves her, he also can't stand to let her do anything other than hang around London waiting for him to call?  Oh, and there's some nonsense about how Nigel was interested in Laura first.  This does not constitute self-awareness on Reggie's part.

Fortunately for the reader, when Reggie does go back to the office, there's a dead body in Nigel's office.  It's the obnoxious chambers clerk, his head bashed in by a large reproduction Remington bronze.  The office has been ransacked, locked file cabinets broken open, and the interesting letters about the 20 year old case are missing.  The cops arrive already convinced of Nigel's guilt, and so Reggie concludes that he has to follow his brother to LA to protect him from being found guilty of this murder.

The LA Reggie ends up in is not Beverly Hills.  It would be a series of noir cliches, except almost everything happens in the harsh daylight.  Reggie spends some time tracking his brother's footsteps, but can't figure out what Nigel has been doing until he finally meets Mara Ramirez, the girl who wrote the letter 20 years ago.  He follows her to her apartment, knocks on the door, and doesn't have any insight into what a creepy thing that is to do, not even when she threatens to set her dog on him.  So she does set her dog on him, and the dog knocks him down the stairs.

Now most people would take this as a sign that maybe they aren't equipped to do this kind of stalking/detective work, and might even go see a doctor about the possible concussion.  Not Reggie--he keeps trying to get Mara to talk to him.  There is a fax he gets from Nigel, calling a meeting at 2 AM at a deserted culvert, and Reggie goes because he is stupid.  And so of course he goes there only to find a corpse in a shopping cart and of course that is the exact moment the cops show up and of course that doesn't convince him that he doesn't know what the hell he is doing.  And he goes back and talks to Mara again.

For some (not at all convincing) reason, Mara talks to him, lets him in, and shows him the little tin box where she keeps her treasures, including copies of the "Daddy maps" she had sent to Sherlock Holmes twenty years ago.  Because of course she made photo copies when she was eight.  And not just photo copies, but two complete sets--one set she sent to Sherlock, one set she kept in her tin box, and then the originals she hid "someplace safe."  Sounds like all the eight year olds you know, right?

But the documents have been stolen--they aren't in the box.  Who could have taken them?  Maybe the creepy neighbor who got himself killed and dumped into a grocery cart in the abandoned culvert?  Must have been.  But look!  Mara didn't see this, but there is a corner of one of the documents that tore off and is wedged in the box.  So of course Reggie palms it without telling her, because. . .because. . .okay, there is no reason he behaves this way, except that he is a douche.

And it's not just a corner, like the kind of corner that you might actually expect would get caught in the seams of a tin box and would be left behind if the original pages were taken in a hurry.  No, this is a "corner" that is large enough that it contains two (illegible--of course) signatures, some identifying location data, and enough content that Reggie is able to recognize it as a geological survey (which--how does he recognize this?  Why does he recognize this?  Put it down to Plot Requirement Syndrome, where a character knows whatever is necessary to get the plot to the next scene, but no more than that).  So he goes to the geology department at Unnamed University, where the suspiciously busy head of the department can't help now, but leave the documents and he'll look at them later.

Instead, Reggie runs into a lovely graduate student who goes out of her way to look at his document, access the data base of all geological surveys ever done anywhere on the planet, where this doesn't match!  And this database search takes seconds!  And this lovely grad student serves three plot functions, being herself a victim of Plot Requirement Syndrome:
  1. She tells him that the data on his "corner" is evidence that somebody faked the survey results so that anybody using the database information to build. . .for example, a subway under LA. . .would think it was safe when it actually would blow up and kill everybody in the tunnel as soon as they hit the gas pockets.
  2. She flirts mildly with Reggie, supposedly making us think that he really is attractive and charismatic, but actually confirming that he is an ass for entertaining thoughts about this girl while he's also busy being a controlling douche to Laura.
  3. She gets to turn up dead at a time when the plot requires that Reggie get some information but also be prevented from using it in a timely fashion, so he can be discovered with yet another dead body and thus be arrested and have pointlessly hostile interactions with the local police.
Plot Requirement Syndrome is so often tragically fatal to secondary characters.  Please give generously as we fight to defeat this disease.

So now it's important to find the full documents--the originals that the 8 year old Mara hid in a safe place.  Where could that safe place be?  Let's ask Mara--but she's gone, her apartment showing signs of  her rapid departure and subsequent violent search.  But there's her art (she's an artist of course), and she paints the same thing over and over--a small yellow house with a prominent pepper tree.  Her childhood home!  And she probably hid the originals under the tree!  Reggie and Laura pretend (badly) to be a couple looking for a home, sucking in a real estate agent and wasting her time, but Laura finds the documents!  Which they take to Anne, the graduate student with PRS who says "We have to tell the Suspiciously Busy Head of the Department!" 

Soon, Reggie receives a phone call from Suspiciously Busy (and Also Nervous) Head, asking to meet at the reservoir so they can discuss the documents.  Why the reservoir?  Oh, well, Suspiciously Busy doesn't have en?ough time to come all the way to where Reggie is, and also doesn't have enough time to wait for Reggie to meet him, so they'll meet halfway.  Where Suspiciously will be running anyway, because he has enough time for that but not for an important meeting.  And Reggie will be bringing the original surveys too, right?  The ones he hasn't made any additional copies of, correct?  And where he won't tell anyone he is going? Good!

There is a tedious description of the ominous reservoir jogging path, and a too detailed description of how Reggie gets the documents stolen by a pair of roller bladers, runs a six minute mile in his business suit and shoes, ends up pushed into the water without spoiling the original documents, and gets caught with the body of the Lovely Graduate Student, who was herself obviously murdered because she told Suspiciously Busy about the forged survey documents.

The climax comes as Reggie discovers that Mara's father is one of the suspicious characters who has been lurking around the periphery of the story, and he's the one who killed the creepy neighbor and dumped the body into the shopping cart to be found by Reggie.  And Mr. Mara was the original geologist who surveyed the area twenty years ago, but agreed to fudge the numbers in order to get some pressing gambling debts taken care of.  He then ran off to Alaska for two decades, but came back just in time to find the subway approaching the area where his bad data will start killing workers.  I don't know how he found that out all the way up in Alaska, since nobody on the ground seemed to be able to figure it out.  Despite the fact that there had already been an explosion and a major underground fire.

There is a face-off in one of the gas-filled tunnels, where Reggie, Laura and Mr. Mara are to exchange the original documents (still no copies?  Just checking.  Because it would be too hard for a bunch of adults to do what an 8 year old did twenty years ago) for Nigel and Mara.  But Mr. Mara knows that the bad guys are going to try to set off an explosion and kill the five good guys, so it's important that everybody be out of the tunnels and onto the platform/elevator, because if the bad guys don't try to kill them with an explosion then Mr. Mara will try to kill the bad guys with an explosion.  In fact, the risk of explosion is so great, and it is so important that they be out of the tunnels in the event of any kind of open flame, that when one of the bad guys does light a flare--they all run down the tunnel.  And there is an explosion, and Reggie feels the flames as the fireball passes over him.  And yet all the good guys survive, and the bad guys all get killed plus burned so badly that their corpses are not identifiable.

There is a coda, where a generic corporate hack ties up all the loose ends.  Reggie gets called into an office building that was near this problematic subway site--the corporate offices of a film production company.  It turns out that it was the corporation that paid to have the survey data altered 20 years ago, as a means of recouping a bad investment in land.  Having the subway go near their real estate holdings would increase the value of all this vacant land they were holding (20 years later!), and so they sent somebody to get the maps out of Nigel's offices, plus they had planted a mole in Reggie's chambers (his secretary) and murdered the poor sap who originally answered the letters to Sherlock (he caught on and wanted a bigger bribe).  They forged the letters asking "Sherlock" to return the maps, and then hired an out-of-work actor to hang around Mara's mailbox to intercept the letter when it came.  In fact, the real mastermind (if you can use that word for such a clumsy plot) was the head of the film studio, whose giant portrait dominates the offices where Reggie is being debriefed.  And Reggie recognizes the face!  It's That Guy!  Who was inexplicably not too busy actually running a company to get personally involved in this farce of a mystery, who was on the same flight from London to LA that Reggie was on!  And was at the reservoir when Reggie was pushed!  And was the second man in the subway tunnel when the explosion happened!  Because corporate malfeasors who managed to buy land inside LA that didn't appreciate over 20 years (!) always do their own murdering and hostage exchanges.  How else will amateur detectives ever find out who was behind it all?

In a rather nice twist, the corporate goon doesn't want the company role to be made public, so he offers Reggie a substantial bribe, followed by the threat that since Reggie is a partner in a Lloyd's of London syndicate that actually insures the film company, he stands to lose his entire personal wealth if this goes public.  Carrot AND stick.  Reggie confirms that, yes, he has insured this particular company, and yes, he is liable to the full extent of his personal assets.  But he turns the documents over anyway and takes the hit.  The end.

As I said, the set up was so promising, but the execution is uneven.   The writing is drearily pedestrian so much of the time.  Action sequences are so specifically laid out as to rob them of all their drama.  Cab rides are rendered turn by turn, as if by a GPS.

The plotting is also rather poorly handled.  There is some cursory sleuthing--much of which could have been condensed if anybody in the book had ever used Google searches. Instead, Reggie calls his secretary back in London to look things up for him, which mostly serves to pad the plot. In the "climactic" explosion in the unfinished subway tunnels, the only people who end up dead are the Bad Guys, and the beautiful women who are the love interests don't even get scratched.  Yup, that's a Hollywood explosion, all right.  Believable it is not.

Robertson has also grossly miscalculated on his main characters, the Heath brothers. Nigel is clearly the more interesting brother--he's the one who is emotionally engaged by the plight of the girl/woman, the one who tries to learn the art of Holmesian deduction, the one who actually abandons a stultifying legal practice to fly to Los Angeles to solve the case. There is a potentially charming scene where Nigel assembles scraps of data to conclude that Reggie had given his secretary a raise--she is now wearing some designer clothes, there is a form for a car loan. This would have been a better scene if we had seen it dramatized, rather than have Reggie tell Laura  about it.

Since Nigel is the more interesting charcter, then he ISN'T the one we read about.  In fact, Nigel disappears for more than 80% of the book, and we are stuck following Reggie around as he tries to figure out how to make Nigel stop being so inconvenient.  This is an ongoing problem, because after bashing around LA for a hundred pages or so, Reggie finally finds Nigel, who is then immediately arrested, sent to jail,  mysteriously sprung on bail, kidnapped, blown up and left in a coma for several days.  Basically, it's as though the author has no idea of what to do with with this character so does whatever he can think of to keep Nigel out of the narrative.

Instead, Robertson has made Reggie the protagonist of this book, and Reggie is an ass.  He's judgmental about his brother, he's alternately insanely and inappropriately possessive of his girlfriend, while simultaneously unwilling to make any emotional connection with her.  He's not a very convincing detective, especially when things get rough--there is no way I believe that he would shake off all the physical abuse he receives at the hands of the various villains.  He's a London barrister, not a guy who spends his time getting knocked around physically, yet he gets up after being knocked unconscious at least three times over the course of the book and goes back for more. 

Robertson tries to give Reggie some kind of complex emotional life, revolving mostly around his failure to hold onto Laura and his (passing) guilt about having "stolen" Laura from Nigel.  That gets rather tidily resolved without any effort on his part when Nigel conveniently falls in love with Mara anyway.  Also, it's not clear why Reggie has any trouble keeping Laura as his girlfriend, since she actually joins him in LA to help him rescue his brother.  Sadly, she isn't able to save him from being a douche, and in the end their relationship is where it was at the beginning--he thinks she should be in love with him, despite the fact of his being a jerk to her at every opportunity, and he can't figure out why she might not want to spend all her time with him on his terms.

To give the book its due, though, some of it is truly charming.  Robertson has some deftness in sketching characters--the tragic Lovely Grad Student, for example, comes to life with only a few details and some good dialogue.  The premise is clever, and sets the stage for as many sequels as one can imagine, since there is no reason to run out of letters to Sherlock asking for help.  The specific details that lure Nigel into investigating--the touching letters from the marvelous eight year old Mara, the enclosed maps, then the subsequent forged letters asking for their return. . .those are beautifully done.  These are the nuggets in the trash, that make me wish Michael Robertson had given the entire book the care and attention it needed to bring the whole thing up to the level of the best bits.

I enjoyed it enough to get the second book in the series, which I'll review next.