Two Crackers from Once Upon A Crime

Blog editor note: Nowadays, Lia Matera is a friend on Facebook. Although I still have not met her in person, and we can't go out for coffee together because we live a couple of thousand miles apart, we actually are as good friends as two can be on Facebook, chatting, cross-commenting, and liking a lot of the same things. I was really honored to have her accept me as a friend, given that I am "just a fan". But it's true, her books are some of my favorites amongst contemporary crime drama.  

In a previous post, I bemoaned the lack of good, independent bookstores in most of Britain. Once Upon A Crime, in Minneapolis, is one of the type of bookstores I was thinking about. On my recent trip there for the birth of grand-daughter Savannah, I visited OUAC and purchased five books, reviews of which follow.

Bad Boy Brawly Brown, by Walter Mosley, is a book you will expect to be good if you are already familiar with Mosley's Easy Rawlins series. And it doesn't disappoint. The Easy Rawlins books are all in chronological order, so the story develops, society in multi-racial Los Angeles changes through the decades, and characters grow, change and in some cases die. This is the first novel after the death of Mouse, Easy's criminally violent but strangely endearing oldest friend. The ghost of Mouse haunts the story, plaguing Easy and giving him strength at the same time. This story takes place in the early 1970s, and concerns Easy's attempts to save a young boy from falling into a life of criminality through the strange politics of black power in that era. It is full of all the things you want in an Easy Rawlins story: tender family dramas and piercing sociological insights alternating with anatomically described fight scenes and thrilling car chases.

Star Witness, a Willa Jansson Mystery, by Lia Matera, is one in a series that is a personal favourite of mine. Willa Jansson is a lawyer with a colourful past. She is what we used to call a "red diaper baby"; her parents are 1960s radicals, her values are unashamedly leftist, and her heroes are secular and intellectual and revolutionary, like her parents. The early books in the series featured Willa working for a leading leftist lawyer and then, when he died in an early book, an idealistic legal cooperative. Now she works for a corporate firm, and so gets into those typical nineties-naughties conflicts of belief vs. livelihood. In this story, a bit of a departure, she gets roped into the world of alien abductees and conspiracy theorists, and gets herself tied up in some Gordian knots of legal ethics and personal responsibility. The thing that really shines about Lia Matera's books is the dialogue, both internal and external. I cannot recommend them highly enough.


Persia Cafe, by Melany Nielson

This is the fifth book that I bought at Once Upon A Crime in Minneapolis.
This is a mystery of sorts, but it features neither a cop nor a PI nor even an amateur investigator. But a crime occurs, what we would now call a hate crime, although in the time and place of the story - Mississippi in the 1960s - such a term did not exist. The principal character is a young white woman, Fannie Leary, who runs the Persia Cafe. At the start of the story, the Persia Cafe is the only place in town to eat out or even have coffee and it is patronised by whites only. The cook, of course, is black, and in the way of white families in the South, because she has worked for Fannie's family all her life, she is in the sort of relationship with them that I will not even try to describe, because you cannot understand it unless you experience it. This is the relationship that my ex-father-in-law and others of his ilk referred to when they said "We care for our nigras," in a tone and context that made it clear that "yankees" and outsiders cared not for their own nigras and were exposing them to harm. But if a black person did something to put himself outside their "protection", well, that is a relationship that it is also hard to understand, except in terms of pure evil, the natural predatory nature of the human beast coming out.
The main arc of this story is what used to happen when a white woman did something to put herself outside the protection of the Southern white men. Fannie does not quite declare herself a race traitor (as I did myself in the 1960s in suburban Atlanta, and if I had done the same in Mississippi, I may not have grown up to tell about it.) But her crime of omission is enough to get the Persia Cafe boycotted by the white community, so in a moment of supreme courage, she invites the black community to dinner at the cafe.
What we get at this point is a great picture of a small southern community on the cusp of change. Having lived through this era and this place, I can attest that the picture is accurate and believable. Oh, and Fannie solves the crime, too, the original crime, which does turn out to be murder. This is a great story, a cut above the genre.

Two Women - A PI and A Vicar - Two Mysteries

Here are two more books that I bought at Once Upon A Crime in Minneapolis.
In the Bleak Midwinter, by Julia Spencer-Fleming, is a first crime novel, featuring one of those unlikely buddy pairs that can make detective stories either really entertaining or cringingly bad, depending mostly on the writer's skill with dialogue and narrative touch with relationships. (There is an obvious intention to start a "series" here, including a taster of the forthcoming second novel.) This writer is neither the best nor the worst I have encountered, but nearer the top than the bottom, so, so far so good. The pair is a newly appointed female Episcopalian priest and a married, male, non-religious local police chief. The scene is set to bring them together by a newborn baby being left in the church porch, and the attempts to find the mother, the father or the truth about what happened to them. Extra tension is added to the relationship by a small romantic attachment on both sides, and needs to be filled that are not being met by the wife on one hand or the vocation on the other. Not at all bad for a first timer.
The Big Dig, on the other hand, is one in a long-established and well-respected series by crime author Linda Barnes. The female PI, six-foot tall, red-headed, ex-cop Carlotta Carlyle of Boston, is very much in the V. I. Warshawski/Kinsey Mullhone vein. The Big Dig is a real project, the massive engineering feat of putting all the freeways in downtown Boston underground, the "central artery tunnel", which is the largest modern engineering project in the world. And a great setting for a mysterious death that may be a murder.


Too Posh to Pluck - the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire's Cookery Book

(Blog editor note - when I wrote this review in 2003, she was still the Duchess of Devonshire, residing in the big house called Chatsworth. Since then, her husband the Duke passed on and their son inherited, and she now lives in the small dower house. She is now in her 90s and a bit of a recluse, after having had to fend off an enamored stalker when she was a late-80-something widow! One of the things not mentioned here, because most Brits either know this or don't give a toss, is that she was Deborah Mitford, the youngest of the famous Mitford girls. By the way, she has also since becoming the Dowager Duchess written a very charming autobiography.)
I really shouldn't have this in my book reviews at all; for one thing, it's more of a tourist attraction than a book, and for another, I haven't read it. But I just read Lynn Barber's very amusing review of it, and interview with the Duchess, in the Observer Food Monthly, and it made me want to look into it. The first paragraph will give you a flavour:
"It is quite thrilling for me to meet someone who knows even less about cooking than I do - especially when she is publishing her very own cookery book. The Duchess of Devonshire - for it is she - actually begins her Chatsworth Cookery Book with the words 'I haven't cooked since the war'. She says she would have liked to make that the title, but the publishers wouldn't agree. Her friend, the hairdresser in Chesterfield, told her that her writing a cookery book was 'a bit rich!' but of course it will be - being by the Duchess, it will sell like hot cakes."
There is a recipe in the book for Oeufs Mollet which the Duchess, when pressed, chooses as her personal favourite. It is a dish she was "brought up on". (Her mother, Lady Readesdale, was an avid cook and an early health food advocate, and this was one of her mother's standards.) The dish is very simple, poached eggs with fried capers and parsley, basically, but here is what Her Grace has to say about it:
"Well it's soft, you know.' What? 'Like a hard-boiled egg only soft, and you take the shell off - quite tricky sometimes. I don't think you or I could do it! And then you put butter and fried capers." Ah, bless. Is it really possible that an 80-something year old woman, who raises prize chickens and has dined in all the best houses of the world, whose own house is one of the best in the world, and who went to the Cordon Bleu (admittedly sixty years ago) does not recognise and know the term for a poached egg?
By the way, I stole the above title from the Observer review.
But even though the Duchess got most of these recipes from her cook or in some cases, her friends' cooks or the cooks for her wildly successful farm shop at Chatsworth, I think this is a good cookbook for those who like really posh food (that would be me too, reverse snob though I am) or for those who just like reading about really posh food (also me.)


Bringing Out the Dead, by Joe Connelly

Let me make it clear that this is not a movie review; in fact, I haven't seen the movie. (Well, I hadn't when I wrote this review back in 2003, but I did see it about seven years later on TV.) But I did picture it in my head as a movie (with Nicholas Cage, indeed) all the time I was reading it. In fact, this is an almost autobiographical novel, and the author, from his picture on the back, looks enough like Nicholas Cage to make it all plausible. The writing is in some ways very cinematographic, but I doubt that quite all the inner action - the fantasies, hallucinations, bizarre metaphors for the way the first-person narrator/protagonist was feeling - would have been portrayed in the film.
I found this book to be like the bastard son of The Crying of Lot 49 (the mother) and Naked Lunch (the father). Which is high praise, coming from me. Yet the romantic in me, the old-fashioned romantic who shouldn't like Burroughs and Pynchon as much as I do, wanted Frank to get the girl. And I almost didn't care which girl, whether it was Mona (recently departed wife) or Mary (ex-junkie daughter of the man who takes the whole book to die from a heart-attack) or even Rose (deceased asthma patient who haunts Frank's night-shift days.) But, you know, he didn't. Or maybe he did.