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The Christopher Killer by Alane Ferguson
Book one of the Forensic Mysteries
11/11/11 Category: Young Adult
I was really getting into this book when I ran into a roadblock. A huge, frustrating, book-killing roadblock. Right around page 155, a printer’s error had inserted the wrong pages: it went 154, 155, 154 again, 157, 155, and then to 159, or something like that. So basically two non-consecutive pages were missing and a couple of pages had been printed twice, right at a point where the information on the missing pages was crucial to the mystery. I was willing to put up with it once, but it happened two more times in the exact same pattern. This is not something you want to discover in an exciting book two hours after the library has closed. Fortunately, the nearest branch had a copy without errors, and I finished it the next day. It still irked me, mostly because I wondered if the entire print run (3rd printing) had the same problem, and hundreds of other readers around the country had also screamed in frustration. (Also, I had to destroy the book so no unsuspecting reader would fall into the trap, and I hate doing that.)
The Christopher Killer really is that gripping a mystery—a forensic mystery, as the series title says, meaning that it’s the literary kin of CSI:All Those Cities. The main character is Cameryn Mahoney, whose father is the coroner for the small town of Silverton, Colorado, that’s not so small that he doesn’t need help. When the sheriff hires a new deputy, but refuses to hire Mr. Mahoney an assistant, Cammie asks for the job. She’s fascinated by forensics and wants to become a forensic pathologist when she grows up, she’s smart and intuitive, and best of all, she works cheap. Cammie’s being hired for such a responsible and gruesome job when she’s barely 17 is a bit of a stretch, but once you’ve accepted the premise, the story works very well.
Most of the deaths Mr. Mahoney handles are ordinary, but things heat up when a young woman Cammie worked with at the local (and only) hotel is found murdered with a St. Christopher medallion tucked into her bra. The murder method, and the medallion, are the mark of the so-called Christopher Killer, who has killed three other girls in places all across the country. Suspicion lands on a young man named Adam, a Goth-type who’s just plain weird and therefore suspect by the locals, but Cammie wonders if it might not be the mysterious and handsome young deputy, who’s also new to the town. Cammie’s friend whose name I’ve forgotten, Haven or something like that, is convinced that a talk-show psychic named Dr. Jewel can contact the dead girl’s ghost and learn her murderer’s name, and when Dr. Jewel comes to town for that purpose, Cammie’s skepticism about psychics is tested to the limit.
One aspect of this book that I liked is that Cammie is both scientific-minded and a faithful Catholic. Her thoughts about how she reconciles the conflicts between science and faith, and her questions about how psychic ability might fit with both of them, make this story unusual. The focus of the story is not on “proving” one way of thinking correct over the other, but it adds depth to Cammie’s character and gives her a good reason to start believing that Dr. Jewel may have extrasensory powers. The mystery is well-played, and the secret of the murderer’s real identity stays secret right up to the end.
It’s a new series, and for all its intensity, the book feels a little undeveloped, but that’s something that should develop over time. I’m interested to find out more about Cammie’s wayward mother, who left the family when Cammie was very young and in this book is reaching out to reconnect with her daughter; I also like the accuracy of the forensic aspects of the story, which may be too gory for some readers. My biggest problem is with Cammie’s unofficial nemesis, the forensic pathologist who believes (reasonably) that she is too young to have this job, and who (unreasonably) belittles and ignores her input right up until the point where he doesn’t, which coincidentally saves her life. Cammie’s also a little too much cleverer than the adults in the story, which is something YA authors have to balance carefully; teen readers want teen characters who are competent and able to cope in the adult world, but when teen characters are surrounded by stupid adults it’s either parody or one of those awful Disney Channel sitcoms.
I liked The Christopher Killer enough that I’m planning to read the rest of the series—just as soon as I buy a replacement copy for the horribly mangled book.
Posted on: May 12th, 2011
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
First published 1860
Wilkie Collins’ novels are considered the forerunners of today’s mystery and detective novels. What this usually means to the modern reader is a book that seems dull, cliched, with an easy to predict plot–because all the mysteries we’re used to have developed beyond the originals, and what was new and fresh a century and more ago has now been done to death. This is definitely not the case with The Woman in White. It’s suspenseful and gripping and had me unable to stop reading until all its secrets were revealed.
This is another one of those semi-epistolary novels of the 19th century–a style I love to see reconceived in the 20th and 21st. The conceit is actually more of a collection of testimonies that taken as a whole recount a very strange story. The main narrator, Walter Hartright, mentions occasionally how he managed to get verbatim records from the different people who tell the story, including how one of the first chronologically was the last he took down. It’s a very effective conceit that allows for different perspectives without stretching belief.
The story itself verges on the Gothic just enough to make it creepy, but not totally unbelievable. Hartright is engaged as a “drawing-master” for two young women, half-sisters, who live at the Limmeridge estate with their sort-of guardian, Mr. Fairlie. Marian Halcombe is dark, unattractive in face, and poor; Laura Fairlie is fair, beautiful, and an heiress. Marian is the clever one, and Laura is sweet and innocent. Guess who Hartright falls in love with? That’s right. Jane Austen had something to say about this–about how an unaccountable bias toward a pretty face often leaves a man married to a very silly woman–but Laura is at least an honorable, decent girl. Unfortunately, she’s engaged to someone else, and Hartright is too poor to marry her anyway, so tragedy ensues. Complicating matters is the occasional appearance and disappearance of the “woman in white,” the mentally unstable Anne Catherick, whose instability is either more or less than we realize, and who has a remarkable resemblance to Laura Fairlie.
That’s the setup. I would be doing you a serious disservice (see, Collins’s prose has infected me!) if I said anything else about the plot, because from this point it becomes a true mystery. Who is Anne Catherick? What Secret does she know about Laura’s fiancee and later husband, Sir Percival Glyde? What power does his strange Italian friend Count Fosco hold over him? Collins sets things up so there are obvious answers to these questions, but they’re all the wrong ones; and even when you think you know the real answers, you still don’t know the why of anything.
Collins isn’t any better about gender than any man writing in his time. The book is full of crap about “women’s gentler natures” and even Marian, that strong-minded heroine, says derogatory things about her own sex and their weaknesses. And, of course, Marian’s mannish face and wits condemn her to a life of being her sister’s companion rather than having a family and life of her own. I wonder only that any intelligent woman of that era could bear the condescension without hauling off and punching someone. It’s a stark contrast to Bram Stoker, writing barely forty years later, who idealizes his female characters but also allows them strengths they don’t have to apologize for. Still, I’ve always had a hard time criticizing writers simply for being a product of their environment; I’d like to think that a writer would be able to see past the fog of societal convention, but they’re just human, after all. And Collins is a Romantic as well as an early Victorian (middle Victorian?), so the overflowing of emotion everyone has is almost as annoying to me as his editorializing about What Women Are Like.
Go read it. Read The Moonstone, too, for another great example of early detective fiction. It is, like Dracula, a kind of prose we modern readers are unfamiliar with, but the payoff is worth the struggle.
Posted on: March 23rd, 2011
Moving a 2200-square-foot house and 4,000 books turns out to be rather draining. There’s all the packing, for one. (If you are planning a move any time soon, I highly suggest you call my mother-in-law, who is a very demon for packing and has way more energy than I do.) Then there’s the moving. We hired movers, and this was a good thing, but they started getting these pained looks every time they brought in a stack of book boxes and I said “Those all go downstairs.” And then the unpacking, which is the least strenuous but takes the most time. It’s a little like Christmas, if Santa came into your house and put all your stuff in boxes so you don’t know where your toothbrush is (not in the bathroom box) or what happened to half your drinking glasses (still haven’t found those). But in the end, you have a wonderful new home full of stuff.
And, in my case, a basement full of boxes and not enough bookshelves.
I’ve now bought and built 8 full-size bookshelves and 3 half-width ones. Since I’m not made of money, I had to compromise on real wood and go for the best of the build-it-yourself ones. Mine came from Ikea, where they take building even those particle board shelves seriously. These shelves are sturdy and attractive, with features you don’t normally get in DIY bookcases. The back bottom edges have half-ovals cut out of the bottom so they will fit neatly over a baseboard. There’s a kit with metal brackets to allow you to slot a half-wide shelf diagonally into a corner and set up the adjacent shelves evenly. It adds a surprisingly sophisticated look to the library. I also love the height, which at almost 80” has them towering over all my old shelves. They were terribly intimidated by the newcomers and had to retire to bedroom duty.
Unfortunately, I still need a lot more bookcases, and I’ve run out of walls to put them against. Finding a true free-standing bookcase is difficult. Library suppliers have them, of course, but those are expensive and a lot fancier than I really need. Ordinary bookcases have this sad tendency to fall over if you stand them in the middle of a room. I could bolt them to the floor, probably, but that will have to be the last resort. It’s hard enough bolting the bookcases to the wall when you don’t have a power drill.
Still, it’s starting to look like a library, and someday the boxes will be gone and there will be wingback chairs in front of the fireplace and life will be sweet.
I’ve been reading a lot and planning several long reviews, but until I get to them, here’s a taste of what I’ve read in the first quarter of 2010:
The Empress of Mars, Kage Baker (read January 26, 2010): Baker’s Company series ended in 2007, but there are still many stories to be told in that world. If you haven’t read the main series (beginning with In the Garden of Iden) you should definitely not read this book. Not because it won’t make sense, but because you will miss the entire subtext that reveals what’s really going on with this story. At the very least, I suggest reading the short story collection Black Projects, White Knights so you will know about the Company, their immortal cyborg agents, and a few of the personalities who crop up in this novel. I enjoyed The Empress of Mars quite a bit. It was expanded from a novella, and that shows in the book’s occasional choppiness, but by the end it all comes together well.
Runner, Thomas Perry (read January 28, 2010): I am addicted to the Jane Whitefield series, despite the fact that I only started reading it after Perry stopped writing it. It was complete chance that I saw this book on the shelf in a library I normally don’t frequent. You know what it’s like when you find a beloved book you didn’t even know existed? I let it sit around the house for a few days to build up the anticipation, and it did not disappoint. In this series, Jane Whitefield helps people disappear, usually people who are in immediate danger. However, with each book it becomes more difficult for her to do her job, particularly after she gets married. In Blood Money, the previous book, Jane seems to give up on her work entirely. Runner gives her a reason to take it up again, years later—but this story also addresses the dilemma she finds herself in, whether to have a normal family or to do the thing she has a gift for. The final sentences of the novel are chilling, because she finally makes a choice…and I’m not sure how to feel about it. Start this series with Vanishing Act or Dance for the Dead; Vanishing Act feels like a prequel to me now that I’ve read all six.
Confessions of a Tax Collector, Richard Yancey (read February 3, 2010): The author of the Alfred Kropp books and the Printz-award-winning The Monstrumologist tells the true story of how he used to be the most hated man in America: an IRS agent. Yancey is a brilliant writer and always fully in control of his story, and this book is so well structured and so narratively satisfying that it could easily have been fiction. It’s a story not only about the inner workings of the Internal Revenue Service, but about the author’s development from a self-centered adolescent (emotionally, not chronologically) to a rapacious and talented agent to a mature and responsible man. I highly recommend this book, though with a language warning (they’re IRS agents, of course they swear like sailors, how else do you expect them to survive the job?).
Blackout, Connie Willis (read February 9, 2010): Willis hasn’t published a novel since Passage, nine years ago, and with Blackout the drought has ended. Willis returns to one of her favorite subjects, World War II, but with a much broader scope than any of her previous novels. I forgot while I was reading it that it is the first part of a duology (at least), and that threw me when I got to the end and found…it wasn’t. Willis moves between at least five major POV characters, all of whom have interesting stories, but I found I was more interested in the side characters than the main characters. Nevertheless, I am looking forward to the sequel, All Clear, due out October 19.
Lots and lots of P.D. James mysteries (read January through March): I discovered, or rediscovered, P.D. James last fall…but that’s sort of a stupid way to put it, isn’t it? Like she was missing and I intrepidly tracked her down, instead of what I actually did, which was start buying her books at the thrift store because they were there. These mysteries are profoundly satisfying in their own unique way, with the combination of mystery puzzle, literary style, and extraordinary characterization. Something about the style reminds me of Josephine Tey, which is never a bad thing.
I plan to give more attention to some of the other books on my list soon. First up, the latest in the Dresden Files, Changes. If I ever get the David Bowie song out of my head, that is.
Posted on: April 9th, 2010