Four Mysteries and a Memoir
Bethany Branch Library, February 16, 2001
The Fig Eater
by Jody Shields
Turn of the century Vienna, Austria, is the setting for this psychological mystery, "a city of horse-drawn carriages, masked balls, and gaslit cafes" ... that ... "hovers on the threshold between darkness and light, superstition and science." The murder of the young woman, Dora, in one of the city's main parks, the Volksgarten, introduces us to the Inspector (we never learn his first or last name). He is a devotee of the rationalist theory of criminology which reduces the crime to a scientific puzzle. Any crime is simply a set of facts and to solve the crime you must organize these facts and then determine the error in the situation. The murder victim, Dora, is from a middle-class family and her murder is one that will test the Inspector's theories on crime to the limit. The Inspector's wife, Erszebet, is a "Hungarian steeped in intuition and the lore of Gypsy mysticism." She learns of the murder from her husband and begins an investigation of her own. Her husband is unaware of Erszebet's detecting activities and he would certainly have disagreed with her investigative methods, if he had known. Using intuition and Gypsy folklore, she focuses on the psychological and human behavioral aspects of the case. "Erszebet began her study of the murder. To understand the puzzle of how her life led to her death. To know her. When she first heard the girl had died in the park, there was something -- a needle prick of menace, a cruel loneliness -- that was familiar. It felt true as a memory." This mystery contrasts many things, the different methods used to solve a crime, the cosmopolitan city of Vienna and the seedy side of this same city, the lifestyle of the middle-class families and the lifetyle of the servants who work in those family homes. And the thin layer of civility, respectability, and propriety in everyday society that barely covers the underbelly of perversity, cruelty, and depravity.
This is a classic British police procedural with several twists. Ths setting is Upper Streetham, a small village in Warwickshire, England. The time is 1919, the world still reeling from the Great War. The detective is Scotland Yard Inspector Ian Rutledge, recently returned to police duty from the bloody battlefiends of World War I. The victim is Colonel Harris, a career soldier, also recently returned from the war to his estate outside Upper Streetham, where he lived with his ward, Lettice Wood. Miss Wood is recently engaged to Captain Wilton, a young soldier back from the war, also. As you might suspect, World War I and is aftermath feature prominently in this mystery. A woman in the village continues to be shunned because she fell in love with a German prisoner of war detained in Upper Streetham during the war. Hickam, the town drunk, who suffers from shell shock, was the last person to see Colonel Harris alive. And our Inspector Rutledge, also suffering from shell shock, is dealing with his first murder case since his return to police duty and his own very personal nightmares. As a captain in the army, Rutledge was forced to order the execution of a young soldier for refusing Rutledge's command to fight. This young soldier, Hamish MacLeod, haunts Inspector Rutledge, speaking to him in a voice that only Rutledge can hear. "Inspector Rutledge had just returned to the Yard after covering himself with mud and glory in France...The doctors had pronounced him fit to resume his duties...The voice in his head was as clear as the patter of rain on the car's roof. He was used to hearing it now. Shell shock was an odd thing, it made its own rules. Understand that, and you could manage to keep your grip on reality. Fight it and it would tear you apart. He'd learned, in France, to face dying. He could learn, in time, to face living. It was just getting through the desolation in between that seemed to be beyond him." The central question of this mystery is who would want to kill Colonel Harris, a well-liked man for the short amount of time he actually spent in Upper Streetham in betwen his numerous military postings? Why has the romance between Lettice Wood and Captain Wilton suddenly cooled? Will Inspector Rutledge be able to find the killer or will he succumb to the inner torment and chaos always hovering at the edge of his next thought? With the voice of that dead, young soldier constantly questioning his judgment and character, the hunt for the killer of Colonel Harris will truly become "A test of wills."
For those of us who anticipate a snowy evening, a comfortable chair and a good whodunit, there is always a Nurse Sarah Keate mystery by Mignon Eberhart. The setting is a remote and rustic hunting lodge in the Nebraska Sandhills. The hunting lodge is filled with guests, the same guests who were there five years earlier, when rich businessman and lodge owner, Hubert Kingery, died mysteriously of heart failure. His daughter, Matil, has gathered these guests back to the lodge in hopes of finding who killed her father five years ago. There are two additional guests, Lance O'Leary, a detective posing as an acquaintance of Matil Kingery and Sarah Keate, a nurse hired to care for Matil's elderly Aunt Lucy and help detective O'Leary find Hubert Kingery's killer. Nurse Keate says of her evening journey to the lodge called Hunting's end, "the Sandhills country is not unlike the ocean in its loneliness, its immeasurable horizons...sandhills rolling so boundlessly and silently that they gave an impresion of incalculable power and strength...The snow began to fly half an hour or so before we reached our destination." The month is November, the forecast is snowy. And so the stage is set! A remote lodge in an isolated landscape. A blizzard so fierce that no one is able to leave the lodge but no one from the outside is able to get in, either. The classic "locked room" mystery! And then it happens! One of the guests is murdered, the man's body is left in his guest room because the authorities cannot be summoned. Then the body disappears, the cook begins to drink heavily, the murder victim's toupee is found on the seat of a living room chair, the host's diary is stolen, there is another murder but this body remains at the lodge!!! As more than one character states, "This is the Sandhills, anything can happen!"
The time is Spring 1945. The place is Santa Fe, New Mexico. The victim is Karl Brunner, a security officer at the Los Alamos compound near Santa Fe. Both the Santa Fe police and the security at Los Alamos would like this homicide to turn out to be just what it appears, a sexual encounter that turned violent and then deadly. But they must make sure the murder has absolutely nothing to do with the secret project at Los Alamos. In fact, the project is so secret that the town of Los Alamos and the Los Alamos compound do not officially exist. In order for the project to remain on the fasttrack, this murder must be solved and solved quickly. Since the Santa Fe police cannot investigate at a place that doesn't officially exist, Michael Connelly is brought in from the Office of War Information in D.C. to investigate at Los Alamos and to act as a liaison with the local police. It is a daunting task. The Los Alamos compound contains over 4,000 people, civilian and military. Connelly must deal with a core group of people who have been largely isolated from the outside world. Contact with the outside would distract them from their work and would present unwelcome security risks. Indeed, Los Alamos has become a very strange community in itself. The friction between the United States Army who run the project and the scientists who work to build the atomic bomb is pervasive. Each group understands the need for the other group but it is like oil and water in many aspects. And so, Los Alamos has its picnics and evening parties where the residents socialize rather superficially while they focus on the goal of the project, to bring the war to and end, draws them into an uneasy intimacy. Were the secrets of Los Alamos being leaked to the outside world by the security guard who was murdered? Was it for money or to warn the world of the terrible weapon nearing completion? Can we trust the scientists? Most are recent immigrants to the United States who were forced to flee their European homelands. Does a safe haven guarantee loyalty? And what of the United States' military allies? Have they been apprised about the secret weapon or are they playing the unsuspected friend while they secretly maneuver ever closer to that unofficial spot on the map called Los Alamos.
Rick Bragg wrote All Over But the Shoutin' for his mother, a woman abandoned by an alcoholic husband and left to raise three sons in the hardscrabble country of northeastern Alabama. His tribute to his mother is trouching, but never too sweet: the pathos of poverty and hopelessness tempered with humor and everyday acts of kindness.
Bragg's birth at a drive-in movie theter seemed to portend his eventual career as a journalist, on assignment and packed suitcase at the ready. "I am told it was a hot, damp night in late July 1959, one of those nights when the setting of the sun brings no relief. It might have been the heat, or something she ate - an orange slush and a Giant Dill Pickle - but about the time Charlton Heston laid eyes on that golden calf and disowned the Children of Israel as idol worshippers and heathen sons of lewd women, I elected to emerge. Some births are marked by a notation in the family Bible, others are acknowledged with the hoisting of glasses. For me it all began with wandering Hebrews, flying gravel and a dangling speaker."
He writes of his childhood in the backwoods of Alabama, the feel of the rich, red clay soil, the whisper of the wind through the pines in the evening and the smell of the sweat on people trying to eke out a living there. "The only thing poverty does is grind down your nerve endings to a point that you can work harder and stoop lower than most people are willing to. It chips away a person's dreams to the point that the hopelessness shows through and the dreamer accepts that hard work and borrowed houses are all this life will ever be. While my mother will stare you dead in the eye and say she never thought of herself as poor, do not believe for one second that she did not see the rest of the world, the better world, spinning around her, out of reach."
Read this book because you like to read memoirs, read this book because you like characters who are hardworking and down-to-earth, or read this book because you long to read a beautifully written and fitting tribute to all the ordinary people, those people so important in each of our lives.