The Last Six Million Seconds
Vintage Books, June 2012
This book is advertised as being in print for the first time in 15 years – a significant time frame, for fifteen years ago Hong Kong was getting ready for the handover of rule of the country from England to China, a momentous occasion after one hundred years of British rule. This is a fascinating book, with writing that is by turn wonderful, delightful and enchanting. The protagonist, “Charlie” Chan Siu-kai, Chief Inspector, Homicide, Eurasian – half Irish, half Chinese, 36 years old, and divorced from an Englishwoman. He loves his city: We are told that “Chan would have turned down the governorship of Hong Kong so long as he could always be Chinese in an Asian street market;” he “liked the smell of Chinese books, subtly different from Western books. There were no pictures on the heavy paper covers, no commercialism at all; the print was everything. It was the way books should always smell: paper, binding and words, no frills.”
As the book begins, eight weeks before the handover, a public clock, large and digital, reads six million seconds. As one bystander says, “one second for each of us – and disappearing.” As the book ends, the display shows less than two and a half million seconds left to run: 28 days to go. The time in between shines a light – not the most flattering, to be sure – on the country and the people. That unflattering portrait is not limited to the Far East, it should be noted. The book provides an insight into that world that few non-inhabitants get to see [other than events such as the very public murder of students in Tiananmen Square in June of 1989].
The cast of characters includes the Commissioner of Police, the Right Honorable Ronald “Ronny” Tsui, JP; Chief Supt. John Riley; Inspector Richard Aston, 24-year-old blond Brit; a 49-year-old alcoholic shoplifter from the Bronx; also “an aging psychopath, a sex-hungry billionairess and a scheming diplomat,” of whom Charlie says his “penthouse flat was to light, air and space what Chan’s was to darkness, asphyxiation and cramp“ and notes that he owns “the best collection of opium pipes Chan had seen outside an antiques dealer’s showroom.”
It is noted that “the Chinese Navy, always sensitive to foreign incursions, had never forgiven the theft of Hong Kong by bullies in British uniforms more than a hundred years before” and that “it was true what they told you when you first came out: The longer you remained in the Far East, the less you understood.” When he is working on a particularly gruesome triple murder at the outset of the novel, Chan believes he’s being sabotaged, but doesn’t know the source. The answers don’t come till the end, in one of many surprising turns of events. This is a dense book, but well worth the submersion. It is highly recommended.
Reviewed by Gloria Feit, November 2012.
A Pimp’s Notes
Translated by Antony Shugaar
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, August 2012
This new novel by Giorgio Faletti takes place, naturally, in Italy,Milan to be precise. The era is the late ‘70’s, made evident by asides dealing with rotary telephones and cigarettes being smoked on airplanes. The period is made clear as well, e.g.: “A politician of Aldo Moro’s stature, held captive by the Red Brigades; another one of equal prominence lying dead on a slab in the morgue, slain by persons unknown. Add to that the strain of ongoing terrorism trials and the chilly veil of fear that touches everyone and everything.”
The eponymous protagonist, nicknamed “Bravo,” is a 35-year-old man whose profession is accurately described: he is a procurer. And one with a quite startling physical handicap. He is a fascinating individual – not the sleazy person one might expect, any more than a high-class call girl, or ‘escort,’ is the same as the streetwalker. He procures discreet women of intelligence and beauty, whose clientele count among their number some of the wealthiest and most prominent men in the country. One night he encounters Carla, a woman unlike any he’s known before, and his life will never be the same. When he arranges a very special evening with one of his very special clients, things go horribly wrong. Lives are lost, and Bravo becomes hunted by those enforcing the law and those on the other side of it, and is the target of both.
Bravo has a philosophical nature, e.g., “happiness comes to him who settles for less,” and “Optimists believe that reading books helps them fight their ignorance, while realists are certain of only one thing, that books give them proof of their ignorance.” As to dining in Milan, he says: “As in all fashionable restaurants, the food is no good at all and the prices are astronomical. This is the magic of Milan by night, mysterious alchemies that transform lousy food into solid gold.” When hearing of Moro’s kidnapping, he is greatly saddened. “The photographs of his detention, his forlorn face, his death sentence, all make me think that, when you live with the suspicion that you’re surrounded by nothingness, there’s almost always something or someone ready and willing to convert that suspicion to certainty. I wonder if he thought the same thing while the vast world that he once had at his fingertips shrank to the few dozen square feet of a tiny cubicle.”
Bravo is given to tackling, and solving, cryptic puzzles, “even though apparently easy challenges often conceal tangled welters of complication . . . I have the feeling that this is a final, terminal enigma, a puzzle whose solution might be worse than the puzzle itself.” The writing is quite wonderful, and the novel compulsively readable. This is a book quite unlike anything I’ve read recently, and is recommended.
Reviewed by Gloria Feit, January 2013.
Death Comes Silently
A Death on Demand Mystery
Berkley Prime Crime, May 2013
Mass Market Paperback
This marks the twenty-first novel in the Death on Demand series featuring the mystery bookstore owner, Annie Darling, and her husband, Max, who runs Confidential Commissions, through which he offers “counsel to people in trouble.” There is, of course, a death early on, a seemingly accidental drowning of Everett Hathaway, who was, strangely [it being early January], kayaking before somehow tipping out into the water and suffering hypothermia before drowning. Very soon thereafter there is another death, one that shakes Annie to the core: The victim was Gretchen Burkholt, who had taken Annie’s place at the charity shop at which they both volunteered so that Annie could attend a booksigning at Death on Demand. When Annie returns to the shop after a series of calls from Gretchen, she discovers her body on the floor, a blood-covered ax nearby.
Annie is guilt-ridden at the fact that Annie herself should have been there, not Gretchen, and is determined to find the killer. When it becomes known that Gretchen had discovered something in the clothing that the dead man was wearing the night he died, with shocking implications, Annie is not persuaded that his death was an accident, and believes that that discovery might have led to Gretchen’s death. Annie is aided in this by the usual cast of characters: husband Max, and his mother, Laurel; local crime writer Emma Clyde, whose booksigning took place on the night Gretchen was murdered, and Annie’s long-time friend Henny Brawley. The reader is introduced to a whole cast of characters, any one of whom had a motive to kill.
The action takes place in Broward’s Rock, a barrier island 40 minutes from the South Carolina mainland described by the author as “undoubtedly the most glorious place in the universe to live.” Fans of this delightful series will smile in recognition, as I did, at Agatha, the store’s resident feline [the one who shares Annie and Max’ home is named Dorothy L]. The story shifts from one to the other of these amateur sleuths, as they pursue different aspects of the investigation while the police continue to believe that Hathaway’s death was an accidental drowning.
There are of course references to many much-loved mystery authors scattered along the way, along with the observation that “that was the comfort of mysteries. Bad things happened, but good people tried to make things better.” A sentiment with which readers of this wonderful series can agree. A charming read, and recommended.
Reviewed by Gloria Feit, April 2013.