Books, Books, Books
The Summer of '95
-Margaret Moser "America was never innocent." James Ellroy's credo, it seems, as well as the introduction to the massive, myth-debunking American Tabloid (Random House, $25 hard), the latest work from one of America's most talented and unflinchingly brutal crime fiction writers. For Tabloid, Ellroy has clawed himself out of noir-soaked L.A. and landed his grim tale of violence, power, and hatred smack in the middle of the glassy-eyed optimism of Camelot.
Focused on a small, depraved segment of the population, Ellroy's novels probe the underworld with microscopic intensity, and show how the crimes of a few create a web of complicity. No one spins a captivating, sprawling yarn as well as Ellroy, and the sprawl reaches global proportions in Tabloid, as two ex-FBI men and a former L.A. cop attempt to manage a maze of Teamster thugs, psychotic Cubans, voyeuristic billionaires, Communist revolutionaries, ruthless mobsters, opportunistic politicians, and a megalomaniac FBI director and district attorney. Alliances are forged and broken, loyalties are bought and betrayed, and events are set in motion that somehow culminate with one of the biggest crimes in American history, on a sunny November morning in 1963.
Tabloid begins in the late Fifties with John Kennedy's ascension to the throne. Portrayed as a ruthless, aggrandizing clan, Joe, Jack, and even white knight Bobby are knee-deep in the political muck and corruption of the times. They make enemies, and they pay the price. This is no Oliver Stone-type conspiracy. There is no steely-eyed, ultra-efficient covert operation at work here. The CIA is much too inept in Ellroy's world to have pulled off the assassination. In fact, ineptitude is the engine that pushes things forward in Tabloid. Characters are made all the more believable by how they screw up so consistently, how their knee-jerk reactions create even more problems for others. As fringe players in history, all the diverse members might be joined by some sort of domino theory, but dominos just sit there until one gets knocked over. In Ellroy's world, it is easy to imagine, for example, that Jack Kennedy would never have been president if Jimmy Hoffa had been a sharper dresser.
The elements that work in Tabloid are those that work in all his writing: tough, melodramatic anti-heroes, usually unremorsefully racist and violent, caught up in complicated and dangerous events. The fiction is based around actual historical characters (mobster Mickey Cohen, movie hound Howard Hughes) and real events (the Sleepy Lagoon riots, McCarthy's red scare, the Black Dahlia murder); each book takes up a few years after the last, with continuing characters (in the unlikely event that they lived through the book before). Ellroy's previous novel, White Jazz, was a failed attempt to drastically truncate his writing style into blunt staccato riffs of sentences. Tabloid merges Jazz with his earlier style, yet it remains a kind of beat noir, choppy and a difficult read at times - not a good thing for this ambitious, 575-page novel. An ex-policeman, Ellroy understands the fine line separating cops from criminals. His stories are wild, ugly joyrides, but they breathe an air of authenticity. There are times, though, when Tabloid strains for credibility, especially in the political arena. Ellroy is wise enough to skirt some of the thornier political issues by focusing the action elsewhere, but he is not always on his turf, and occasionally slips on new ground. The sheer length of the book weighs it down, as well. A visit to Ellroy's hellish nightmare world can be engrossing, but that doesn't mean you'll want to shop there for real estate. - Jeff McCord
Nobody goes fishing just to fish. Besides being boring, frustrating, and messy, fishing eats up huge chunks of time almost as badly as a television does. And, next to women, fish are the most baffling creatures God ever created. It's possible to spend an entire Saturday playing hook tag with the little finned devils and still go home empty-handed, out of both bait and patience. A man who has never cursed has obviously never been fishing.
So why do people do it? Lots of reasons, actually. Some fish for sport (Who can catch the biggest fish? It's like a piss-off for grownups.), some for the company of other fishermen, some because they like wearing rubber pants, and some because they have a strange compulsion to spend hours under a tree, swatting insects and removing grass burrs, watching the way the sun reflects off the water and doing a little reflecting of their own.
That's me. I'm not a particularly good fisherman, never will be, and don't even really want to be. I fish because it's quiet, there's nobody around to bother me, and it's one of the few sports that encourages daydreaming. Even though I usually have nothing to show for it, I'd take an afternoon with me, my pole, and whatever fish happen to be in the neighborhood over an afternoon with most people. Fishing is probably the most misanthrope-friendly sport there is.
M.R. Montgomery thinks like I do. He knows there's more to fishing than putting your hook in the water and waiting around to see if anything bites. (Usually, the only things biting are gnats, horseflies, and mosquitos.) In Many Rivers to Cross (Simon & Schuster, $22 hard), Montgomery sets out to discover (as Edward Abbey did with the desert in Desert Solitaire) what's left of the pristine American West by searching for the perfect fishing hole. In his mind, the disappearance of pure streams and creeks is the same as the disappearance of America's wilderness. He is saddened and angered by all that has been lost, yet thankful for and protective of what's left. He knows that fishing is not an answer, but a way to seek answers. And, even if there aren't any fish (or answers), he knows there aren't a whole lot of better places to look than down the shaft of a fishing pole. - Chris Gray
When my finances and ego are at rock bottom, I consider joining the army, substitute teaching, or returning to waitressing. After reading Waiting: Waiters' True Tales of Crazed Customers, Murderous Chefs, and Tableside Disasters by Bruce Griffin Henderson (Plume, $9.95 paper) - a collection of comments from waiters on such subjects as disasters, tipping, food, and chefs - however, I've decided that marching for hours or spending the day with 30 short, hyper people are my options: I will never wait again.
If I had to pick one word to describe this book, it would undoubtedly be "vitriolic." As a recovering waitress myself, I remember where all this anger towards the public comes from - evenings spent with drunks who fondle your elbows, diners with needs that rival terrorists' demands, and restaurant managers who try to convince you, in the middle of a Friday night rush, to pose nude for some "artistic photographs." But unless I'm sugar-coating my memories (which I do), I don't remember being as pissed as, say, waiter Ted LoRusso.
LoRusso on customers: "The truth? I hate them all. I hate every single one of them...I am very nice to them on the surface, but I have little ways of getting my digs in. Instead of, `Thank you very much,' I will say, `Fuck you very much,' really fast. And they never know it."
Owners: "I've worked for 15 owners, and I'd piss on every one of their graves."
Tipping: "I want 20%. That's it. I deserve it. I won't accept anything less than 15%."
LoRusso is from New York City, as are about half the other waiters, which may account for the frightening edge to this book. The other half are from the Los Angeles area, with a couple of rogues from Austin thrown in - probably because Henderson once lived here - and a 68-year-old waitress from Kingman, Arizona. But I'm not sure we can blame the hostile tone on geography alone; Henderson, as editor, major contributor, and an admitted "bitter, hateful waiter" bears some responsibility. Many of the waiters' complaints are so petty and so blistering that these whining "professionals" seem more deserving of the readers' scorn than the customers, chefs, owners, and fellow employees they lambaste.
Yet this caustic confessional can be funny. Like what Waiter X, the only anonymous waiter quoted, says about tipping: "My sister will chase you down and choke you with your Hermes scarf to get an extra dollar, but I can't do that...If you leave me a bad tip I don't want to talk to you, or look in your face. I'd rather you just walk out of the restaurant and get run over by a bus."
If you are currently a waiter, this book may become your manifesto. If you're an ex-waiter, this book may become your vindication. If you've lived your entire life on the receiving end of the guest check, this book may become your excuse never to eat out again. - Suzy Banks
"You can't do anything around here without stepping on somebody's toes." Indeed, this is the truth Jordan Marshall discovers in Green Hills, Texas, while defending a young man in the courtroom thriller Local Rules by Jay Brandon (Pocket Books, $22 hard). Jordan doesn't begin to understand the small town where he has become the center of attention. All he knows is that while on his way to the coast for some rest and relaxation he was stopped by an off-duty police officer for speeding (73 in a 65). When Judge Richard Waverly discovers Jordan is an attorney, he is assigned as public defender to Wayne Orkney. Seems Wayne had gone a little haywire and beat the tar out of his best friend Kevin. Problem is, the district attorney wants to put Wayne in jail and throw away the key while offering no explanation to a confused Jordan. Jordan must learn that he is no longer in San Antonio, that he is now working under local rules.
Brandon brings to life a small Texas town where everyone knows everyone's business; a town of plenty of gossip and some very well kept secrets. Jordan doesn't like the place and fails to conceal his arrogance. He wants to take care of this assault case, settling for a probated sentence, and never think of Green Hills again as long as he lives. Things are not going to be that simple after Kevin dies in the hospital and Wayne is now charged with murder. Jordan also now finally discovers the animosity directed at Wayne and himself. Kevin was a loser whose beating didn't even warrant mention in the local paper, but Jenny Fecklewhite was the town sweetheart, the girl with everything, the one who could make it out of Green Hills, the other murder victim the day Kevin was assaulted.
Local Rules centers not on the trial at hand, nor even the mystery behind Jenny's death. These surface manifestations play out the psychological and spiritual growth of Jordan Marshall. Having recently resigned as an assistant district attorney in San Antonio and being recently divorced, Jordan is starting life from scratch. He realizes that he never loved his wife and it tortures him to see her slowly taking their daughter Ashley away from him. Jordan learns from his experience in Green Hills to see past his assumptions about people and places, allowing people to come through to him rather than constantly misreading them.
Local Rules presents a gripping story with courtroom and back-room drama of the highest order. The novel opens and closes with the image of a road starting nowhere and going nowhere. Jordan Marshall learns that there are times it is best to get off that main road and learn some local rules, even if it means stepping on a few toes.
- Joe Bratcher
What is there left to say about this new book by a veteran filmmaker after Roger Ebert has already gone on record in his New York Times book review saying that if there were only one book he could recommend to people wanting to learn more about how movies are made, that book would be Sidney Lumet's Making Movies (Alfred A. Knopf, hard, $23)?
Endorse the endorsement is what's left. Lumet is one of those directors whose name you may not immediately recognize but whose work has earned a familiar berth in the American film canon. This television-trained, New York-based filmmaker has directed close to 40 feature films since the late 1950s: Some highlights include 12 Angry Men, A Long Day's Journey Into Night, The Pawnbroker, Serpico, Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and The Verdict. Although highly esteemed, Lumet has never been a critics' superstar, perhaps because his work has been generally perceived as uneven and lacking a clear personal style or theme. It is therefore ironic that, despite his association with numerous film classics, Lumet might, ultimately, become best-known for this landmark book about filmmaking.
Unlike the dishy memoirs that have become all the celebrity-publishing rage these days, Making Movies is a thoughtful and instructive guide to the art and commerce of filmmaking. Using examples from his own career, Lumet illuminates the tangle of choices facing a director during every step of the filmmaking process. And not only the choices, but the consequences, as well. In just over 200 pages, Lumet catalogues more useful information in one place than most technical manuals and textbooks combined. Choosing which lens to use, how to block a scene, what you can predict about an assistant director based on the sound of that person's voice, and why self-deception is both the filmmaker's friend and enemy - these are kinds of insights offered in this book.
Yet, for Lumet, filmmaking is a collaborative, as well as individual, process of decisionmaking. In Making Movies Lumet's generosity of knowledge and experience, told in a way that will enlighten both the professional and the amateur, may prove to be his greatest collaboration ever.
- Marjorie Baumgarten
The life of Frank Booth, the fictional freak from David Lynch's Hitchcockian weirdfest Blue Velvet, has been chronicled in Frank's World by George Mangels (St. Martin's Press, $22.95 hard) and finds the author abusing his artistic license with someone else's character.
Four pages into the book, it becomes apparent the novel is merely a guise for Mangels' tired, self-serving rhetoric, the flavor of which one might find in an angst-ridden, pseudo-intellectual, creative writing major who is trying, and quite eloquently failing, to combine the stream-of-consciousness writing styles of William S. Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson. This book never comes close to entertainment, save enlightenment.
Mangels' Frank and Lynch's Frank are reprehensibly inconsistent. The author paints Frank as a space- and time-defying villain who is pure evil from the moment of his birth, ignoring the moments of serious emotional weakness the cinematic Booth had, e.g., crying during Isabella Rossellini's vocal rendition of "Blue Velvet," and the implication that he knew Oedipus personally in the strange sex/rape/dry humping scene at the apartment. Unfortunately, what the reader gets is Mangels'Frank, who could be likened to Lynch's Frank on speed and acid with a twinge of Satanic possession. Something tells me if this novel were more aptly titled George's World,its submission envelope would have been stamped "Return to Sender" by St. Martin's long ago.
In the end, this novel leaves the sour taste of a marketing scam gone bad. The only redeeming quality of this dire piece of work is its cool black, white, and orange mosaic cover. Buy books for shelf decoration? Then this one's a winner.- Taylor Holland
Hollywood knights are the closest entities America has to royalty. Like any noble family, they are trapped in generational transmissions of property, power, and a duty to preserve the spotlight. As this one percent of working actors continues to marry within the ruling demographic, the dividends of each preceding generation appear to pay off less and less. Call it lazy blood or tired blood, but the effect is almost as deleterious as inbreeding - forced notoriety on progeny who are coerced into a love/hate relationship with a public they never wanted to depend upon for self-definition.
In 1987, Carrie Fisher, daughter of Hollywood Golden-Age actress Debbie Reynolds, offered a glimpse into this unsolicited world of distraught offspring in her semi-autobiographical novel Postcards From the Edge. Her latest endeavor, Delusions of Grandma (Pocket Books, $5.99 paper), travels past many of the same borders and signposts.
Delusions focuses on the emotional machinations of Cora Sharpe, who, like Fisher, is a screenwriter/script doctor. Cora is depressed, lonely, and in need of some kind of relationship. But a prior divorce and general inability to obtain comfort and intimacy keeps her from finding happiness. She stays with her boyfriend Ray just long enough to become pregnant, after which time she engages in heavy meditation on the process of motherhood.
While Fisher's black humor reads like a Woody Allen film, it's obvious, even through the facetiousness, Fisher still has not come to terms with many of her personal demons. The story is simply a progressed dialogue between Reynolds and Fisher from Postcards. What really makes Delusions a difficult read, though, is Fisher's refusal to play by a set of rules - any set of rules. She drops obvious references to actual icons and events, and then surrounds them with fantasy. This not only entangles the story, but confuses the motivation behind writing the book. Is she, like Woody Allen, using the medium as a therapeutic device? If this is the case, then Fisher's going to have to realize eventually that plagiarizing from your life is fine as long as you don't make a career out of it. Allen tried to recapture the vitality of Annie Hall for years, but didn't do so until Bullets Over Broadway, simply because he stopped trying to make Annie Hall again.
Delusions is a worthy read, but if Fisher doesn't use it as a bookend to Postcards, her next work will lack any freshness or direction.
- Marcel Meyer
A reflection of its author, Arthur Ashe on Tennis: Strokes, Strategy, Traditions, Players, Psychology, and Wisdom by Arthur Ashe with Alexander McNab. (Knopf, $20 hard) is a spare, elegant book that reads as quietly as Ashe spoke but packs a punch as powerful as his patented backhand. Begun before his death in 1993, and finished by his longtime collaborator, Alexander McNab, Ashe's comments are fresh and illuminating- for all levels of players. The introductions by sports personalities such as Billie Jean King, John McPhee, George Vecsey, and Lori McNeil are insightful and poignant. King's is a wonderfully candid and telling essay - a mix of reverence and resentment, of camaraderie and competition, while McPhee's is a tribute as admiring and touching as any that remarkable writer has penned.
Filled with thoughtful, honest answers to the questions Ashe fielded again and again during his career, Ashe's book is like having an intimate conversation with this unprepossessing legend. He advises you on playing the big points, tells you what to do when you're behind, and gives tips on how to play a lefty. But as helpful as those hints are to the player, it is the small asides that stick with you and give you a sense of what made Ashe tick. On the tradition of shaking hands, he wrote, "I like the gesture. For me, it is a symbol of closure. It says you each have prepared and played as hard and as fairly as you could and the better player on that day won, but it has not been a life-or-death experience.... A lot of the handshakes that you see in pro tennis today are barely perfunctory.... My feeling is that, if you are going to shake hands, do it right and look your opponent in the eye. That is what I was taught, and I still consider it proper and sporting."
It is clear, from his play, from his philanthropy, and from this book, that Arthur Ashe was a man who learned each of his all-too-brief life's lessons well.
- Hollis Chacona
Though little known in the U.S., Brazilian author Paulo Coelho has sold millions of copies of his books around the world. In Latin America, only Gabriel Garcia Marquez has sold more. With the release of The Alchemist (HarperSanFrancisco, $10 paper) and The Pilgrimage (HarperSanFrancisco, $12 paper), he is poised to enjoy similar success in the States. Though he professes no interest in material wealth, the self-described aging ex-hippie notes he has made over $5 million from his three novels, a diary, and two "mystical travelogues" over the last seven years. Loved by readers, Coelho has been consistently taken to task by critics for his feel-good, New Age philosophy and simplistic presentation.
Much of Coelho's work is difficult to categorize as fiction or non-fiction. His stories are part fairy tale, part parable, and part mysticism, peppered with advice, exercises, proverbs, and gentle admonishments. In The Pilgrimage (originally released here as The Diary of a Magus), the author tells of his personal quest for knowledge and power through the Tradition of RAM (an acronym for regnum, agnus, and mundi or rigor, adoration, and mercy), a Spanish society founded in 1492. In order to find his sword, symbol of his power as a RAM Master, he must embark on a pilgrimage along the ancient Road to Santiago. He is guided by Petrus, a RAM Master. Together they travel on foot from France, across the Pyrenees and on to San Tiago, Spain. Petrus provides Coelho with a series of exercises to help him understand himself and his trek. Along the way our pilgrims meet various spirits, wise men, and, of course, demons. He must use all he is taught to prevail.
New Age philosophy aside, various references provide interest to the story. Coelho pays homage to Cervantes' Don Quixote as well as Carlos Casteñeda's Don Juan. Coelho is obviously a big fan of Don Juan, though there is only a brief passing reference to any mind-altering substances. The Order of Santiago of the Sword and even the Knights Templar themselves show up. In one passage the author's guide is revealed to be a Master Knight of the Order of the Templars when he invites his charge to attend a Templar ordination ceremony.
Some readers may be put off by the mix of New Age ideas with spiritualism, mysticism and Catholicism. Others will no doubt embrace Coelho's beliefs. Regardless of your viewpoint, this is a beautifully written book with a pervading sense of magic. Coelho presents his ideas in a much simpler manner than many of his contemporaries.
The Alchemist is a charming story of a well educated boy who chooses to become a shepherd in order to better experience the Spanish country-side. The boy, Santiago, is convinced by a recurring dream and the advice of a seer to leave his life of nomadic contentment to travel to Egypt in search of a great treasure. His route takes him through Tangiers, where he joins a caravan. On his trip to the pyramids, Santiago meets Gypsies, kings, soldiers, nomads and, by fate (there are no chance encounters in Coelho's books), an alchemist who helps him find self-understanding and spiritual enlightenment.
New Age themes dominate. Santiago learns to pay attention to his dreams, to understand omens and signs and to use the power of positive thought. Negative thoughts are immediately exorcised. Overall the book is very positive. Coelho's writing is simple, but polished. His words apparently have suffered little at the hands of Alan R. Clarke's translation from the original Portuguese. This lovely little fable with simple, positive themes is suitable for children as well as adults. - John Avignone
Although both How To Sur- vive In The Real World by James Lowell (Penguin, $10.95) andEntry Level Life: A Complete Guide to Masquerading As a Member of the Real World by Dan Zevin (Bantam, $8.95 paper) allude to the name of the MTV series, neither are the much-needed guides on how to land a spot on the all-expense paid television serial that makes true real world problems like jobs, rent, insurance, and taxes seem like inconveniences. Unfortunately, the publishers probably found the Real World reference all too necessary in grabbing the recent graduate - who they believe would typically consider TV Guide literature. Yet, as reference guides aimed at the insecurities that surround the unprepared graduate's transition into the workplace, both Real World books tackle exactly the same ground with approaches so drastically different they are essential companions.
How To Survive In the Real World's James Lowell is a lot like the monotone professor from whom, if you're jacked up on enough speed and caffeine, you can actually learn something between naps. Despite writing drenched in the chummy and condescending wit common to stop-smoking and diet books, How To Survive nicely collects common-sense money management advice. But Lowell also covers a lot of ground, from simple car insurance tips to somewhat advanced mutual fund investment strategies. Unfortunately, How To Survive drowns in too many self-tests, checklists, and worksheets to separate it much from the economic textbooks you'd think would end with college. And besides, somebody with the insight to buy a self-help book like this probably has their shit together enough not to need it in the first place.
On the other hand, Entry Level Life is perfect for those smart enough to recognize the black humor in the minefield of creditors, roommates, and landlords ahead. With invaluable advice on fudged résumés, milk carton furniture, and Xerox-machine repairs, Dan Zevin proves he's consistently funny enough to deserve the oft-used irreverent tag. Although originally prepared for 1994's graduates, this re-issue seems timeless in both its issues and the humor itself - allowing Zevin a post-graduate A+ and Lowell a comparatively boring B by comparison. - Andy Langer
In the pantheon of Ingrate-Daughters-of-Movie-Star-Mothers-Who-Write-Blistering-Tell-All-Books-in-Site-of-all-the-Things-Mother-Did-for/to-Them, Uncommon Knowledge by Judy Lewis (Pocket Books, $6.50 paper) is the new reigning queen. Christina Crawford introduced us to this delicious new level of depravity when she wrote Mommie Dearest, but she waited until mama Joan Crawford was dead.
Judy Lewis, however, had the misfortune of being born to Loretta Young, the buck-toothed, tight-assed star of The Bishop's Wife and The Farmer's Daughter (she played a wonderful appendage). Young also starred in Call of the Wild opposite Clark Gable. Opposite him and, evidently, underneath him. Gable and Young were in their early days of stardom - he was already the denture-clacking, foul-smelling, stupendously endowed legend that reduced every woman alive to a mass of hormone-induced Jell-O. Young specialized in playing the rigidly-moralistic-country-girl-with-a-certain-correctness-to-her-passion-who-gos-into-the-real-world-and-discovers-that-her-rigid-morality-saves-the-day-and-perhaps-all-of-humanity. That was the plot to most of her movies, as well as her almighty "image." And image was everything. The decent, God-fearing public had to be carefully shielded from the tawdry peccadilloes of Hollywood stars. Why, imagine how cheated we, the public, would feel if we were to find out that this rigidly moralistic country girl, etc., etc., was, in fact, prone to human failings such as lust, just like the rest of us. I know I'd feel awful, and you would, too. But not as awful as Judy Lewis felt.
The "uncommon knowledge" referred to was, in reality, the very common knowledge that Gable, (a married man, a star) impregnated Young (an unmarried woman, strict Catholic, also a star - how come these girls who are so strict about their religion get to have so much premarital sex? Is there an amendment to the Bible that I'm unaware of?). Naturally, a quick abortion was out of the question, but Gable and Young's multi-million-dollar carcasses would be worthless if this information got out. The answer was obvious: Gable divorced his wife and Young left the country. After a year of cloak-and-dagger maneuvers that fooled no one, Young announces that she has adopted a child - a little girl that she spotted at an orphanage while visiting Europe.
Remarkably or not, this child bears a devastating likeness to both Gable and Young, fanning the flames of gossip to epic proportions. Who did Young think she was fooling? Everyone knew that Clark Gable was the father of that child, and Loretta Young was her mother, everyone - everyone except Judy Lewis. Her playmates knew, and soon, even Lewis knew. Repeatedly confronting her mother over the course of her life, Lewis is met with cold denial. "Not only is Clark Gable not your real father," she is told, "I am not your real mother. You were adopted."
This is a tragedy of hideous proportion and guilt, peppered with glittering names and events from Hollywood's past. Add a dash of Lewis' perseverance for sweetness and you have a potent cocktail whose effects linger like a hangover, and you are left knowing that this book was not written out of spite, but out of the author's search to discover herself (I know, they all say that). The coup de grace of this sordid tale has a Norma Desmond-ish Loretta Young completely estranged from her daughter after admitting privately, but not publicly, that the speculation is true.
Choice moment: an aging Young pathetically introducing 17-year-old Lewis as her sister. Read it and weep. - Stephen Moser
The British invented the classic cerebral murder mystery - you know, the chunky ones, the ones that weigh at least three pounds and can double either as doorstops or as handy blunt instruments in moments of passion. Their hold on this empire, at least, remains secure with Original Sin by P.D. James (Knopf, $24 hard). A regular tome at 416 pages, Original Sin combines a strong series character in James' Adam Dalgliesh with conflicting family loyalties, brutal pasts, and stylish urban settings. James adds just enough discreet sexual tension to keep the pot simmering and stirs briskly with a sneaky surprise ending. The Brits historically have been very bad cooks, but they do know how to thicken a plot.
Tradition-bound and behind the times, Original Sin's Peverell Press stands on shaky ground. With the death of Henry Peverell, Peverell's partner's son, Gerald Etienne, succeeds to the helm. His attempts to modernize the ancient operation result in firing half the staff and antagonizing the rest. When Etienne is found asphyxiated in a little-used office, there are plenty of suspects for the murder, from Etienne's own sister to the office temp. Commander Adam Dalgliesh finds himself searching for a killer with a perverse sense of humor, who is more than willing to kill again.
The scope of James' book is pleasingly wide, from the vicissitudes of modern publishing to the French Resistance in World War II. A large supporting cast of characters surround and almost submerge - normally unheard of with a series character - Adam Dalgliesh. James provides each character, even the relatively minor ones, with a diverse personal collection of memories and motives, the better to enjoy leading her readers through the mazes of human emotion and personality she creates. This is mystery taletelling in the grand, classic manner, where psychology is more important than sex, cerebral puzzlesolving of more interest than violence. James is certainly not averse to the gruesome facts of death, but in Original Sin, these take a back seat to the intricacy of her plot.
If your taste in mysteries runs to Raymond Chandler, Robert Parker, or John D. MacDonald, as mine (I admit it) generally does, P. D. James is not likely to grab you - no bang-bang, no scantily clad wimmen, and does it really have to be so durned long? It's apples and oranges, really. Perhaps the greatest pleasure in this kind of reading is the moment after you read the last page, when you look back and admire how it was all done. It's great fun to watch a pro like James do her stuff. James provides plenty of red herrings to munch on, and her descriptions of cheap London flats and expensive country homes make great escapist brain-snacks. Original Sin is elegant, mannered, stick-to-your-ribs fare, recommended reading for true mystery buffs and Anglophiles. - Barbara Strickland