website, blog and vanity nexus of writer R F Brown

Posts tagged ‘mystery’

All Things Concentered- book review of ‘ALL THINGS CEASE TO APPEAR,’ by Elizabeeth Brundage

brundage3Consider All Things Cease To Appear a work of literary merit that happens to begin with a murder suspect ruminating on Emerson and an ax in the skull of the protagonist. In other words, author Elizabeth Brundage eludes the general classification of a novel into Genre Fiction or Literary Fiction.

Genre Fiction usually gets divided into romance, horror, mystery, et cetera and then subdivided into cross genres and further complicated taxa. Literary Fiction is both difficult and easy to classify because it resides in the category of books with no category. Literary Fiction is for sale in the section of your book store where the fog never lifts, its shelve hanging unfastened between the land and sky. Is All Things Cease To Appear a mystery/thriller, a romantic/horror, or a literary fictive with genre elements? Here, context serves as an inside-out metaphor for the content, the imaginary hinterland Brundage creates.

The setting is Chosen, New York, an insular working-class town. George and Catherine Clare, intellectuals from the city, have moved to a house on a foreclosed dairy farm, also the site of the previous family’s tragic self-destruction. While George attends his new position as professor of art history at a nearby college, Catherine forgoes her career in art restoration to become restorian of the spooky, decaying property. She hires the teenage Hale brothers, a sad but bighearted trio, to repaint the exteriors, although she is unaware the house was last the Hale’s home until they were orphaned by their father’s violence and mother’s murder?/suicide.

George Clare teaches study in the Hudson River School of landscape painters, specifically George Innes, whose nineteenth century works were intended to be both observably captivating and spiritually experiential. Meanwhile Catherine Clare is experiencing her own metaphysical shift. She relies on the Hale boys and other new local friendships to navigate passage through her collapsing marriage and creeping ennui. George turns out to be a character perpetrating frauds, betrayals, and violent acts with sociopathic artifice, which culminates in his becoming the prime suspect in Catherine’s gruesome murder.

In its breadth, All Things tells the concentric history of two abused mothers who meet similar tragic fate in the same house at different times. Like any good novel, the story is rich in comparative elements, but referring to Brundage’s elements as ordinary pairings and opposites seems inadequate. Counterpoint might be a closer descriptive (Catherine plays Chopin on piano!), in the sense of independent melodies composed into one harmonic texture: Catherine is the abused mistress of the house, but the ghost of her lost predecessor, Ella Hale, continues to traverse the creaky stairs; the Hale boys still consider the house their property, and yet they are dispossessed from it; the Clares and the Hales are two families at different times appearing, concentrating, and disappearing.

These contrapuntals reflect the novel’s central philosophical platform: reality is a place where morals and meaning are uncertain concepts; time is an ebbing and disappearing focal point; life is a composition of light and darkness- like an Innes landscape that balances land and sky into a vague frontier where all things blend until ceasing to appear. Brundage performs context and content in counterpoint as genre motifs are blended with literary themes and superb prose. In this scene Eddy Hale, working outside Catherine’s house, is both a de facto permanent occupant and a frequent voyeur looking in from the outside:

“Maybe she’d come out to hang the wash. He’d watch her back, her arms reaching up, her elbows as knobby as a garden snail’s. Across the fields that had been his grandfather’s and his great grandfather’s before that, the wind spoke to him. Wait, it said… Now Catherine’s daughter was sleeping in his old room. He wouldn’t tell her. He wouldn’t tell her what had gone on in that house, how his father would come after them, turning over chairs and tables, how his mother would cry up in her room or sometimes sit in one place shaking just a little, like somebody who was scared.”

 

I suppose genre readers could find themselves disappointed to be led into a four hundred page murder mystery that neither provides a competent detective nor concludes with certainty about who is guilty. It is a risk for Brundage to write a beautiful novel wherein beauty and love depend on the unseen, and the success of heroes and demise of villains depends entirely on implication. As Brundage writes- in fog certain things, certain colors become important. Like Innes’s intention that observers of his paintings would have their souls see what their eyes could not, Brundage shows readers that the division of genre and literary fiction, like lateral time and universal logic, is mere optical illusion.

Laying Wait For Blood – book review of ‘THE HOUSE ON SEVENTH STREET,’ by Karen Vorbeck

Mystery genre is often the product of formula. webRhianna_Davies_final_hi_res_coverThe motivations of suspects are presented first and then the sleuth’s [reader’s] job is to piece together which motivation found a plot. Most mystery characters are a virtual police lineup of hyper-motivated and obvious schemers. What’s intriguing, and refreshing, about Karen Vorbeck Williams“THE HOUSE ON SEVENTH STREET” is it’s mixture of subtleties. The novel focuses on a protagonist who is rather ordinary and only ever in the proximity of danger. Or is she?

Winna is a middle-aged divorcee returning home to Colorado to clean out her family manor. In doing so she dusts off family secrets about adultery, hidden jewelry, and suspicious deaths. The deeper Winna digs into old trunks, the more it’s apparent that someone, someone inside her small circle of family and friends, may be trying, subtlety, to kill her. But why?

Williams’ story uncannily makes us feel connected to Winna. Like Winna, we are baffled as to how seemingly trustworthy characters could possibly be suspects, could be killers. It’s true everyone’s behavior toward Winna is slightly selfish or odd. The author inserts clues mostly in the authentic dialogue, hinting at underlying greed or resentment that any of us might be guilty of amongst our closest relations. It’s unnerving because we, as Winna, like the suspects and want to trust them. This is an ingenious strategy for crafting suspense. Who does-she/do-we trust?

One complaint with “THE HOUSE ON SEVENTH STREET” is the ending, which, for me, was a sort of a flat tire. The revelation of the culprit within Winna’s midst comes without any confrontation. There are also some secondary mysteries going on which are either red-herrings, or dropped when the book ends abruptly at what feels like an enforced three hundred pages. However, I don’t want to spoil the mystery or the experience. I think reading the novel is worth the reader’s time, even if the end is too bad. Williams is gifted in her atmospheric descriptions, drawing characters who feel authentic, and cooking suspense on a gradual roast.

MEDIA LOG – 01.10.2012

(cinema) Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, d. Thomas Alfredson, 2011. I’m sure there are people who love this British Cold War cloak and dagger stuff. I’m either too dumb or too impatient to keep up with mysterious plots that turn on a word mumbled over a reel-to-reel tape recorder in a dark room. I might also benefit from an English to English lesson as everything including the title in TTSS requires having foreknowledge of British noir lingo as well as the political context. I’m pretty sure Gary Oldman is great playing the role of soft spoken detective who struggles to contain his outrage, but I miss Robert Mitchum. The ending where Oldman sets a trap to draw out the mole totally confounded me. I watched it twice and I still don’t get it. If anyone can explain it, I come with a degree in media studies and I’m all ears. 2 movie spotlights… Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, d. Guy Ritchie, 2011. The reboot of Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey Jr. in the lead a couple of years ago set out to depict the iconic detective character as uninhibited, amoral, Saturnalian, and manic. If the original Holmes was a little neurotic, the new one is supposed to be bat-shit crazy. That was an update I could live with as Robert Downey was so good and the movie was well produced. There were great effects and modern editing trends but Victorian London was believably dark and pugilistic. The action sequences were an engaging addition to a good detective story. Game of Shadows abandons the detectiving of Holmes and Watson to show them instead as adventure characters. And I find the whole adventure pretty uninteresting. What we get is an endless series of escape sequences from boring villains. Sherlock’s sleuthing acumen has become either quasi-supernatural or silly and defiant of logic. The special effects are impressive, but what Guy Ritchie has done with Holmes is turn the legend and the franchise into a video game. 1 movie spotlight… Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, d. Nicholas Meyer, 1982. Somebody just told me that after Wrath of Khan all the makers of subsequent Star Trek movies felt they had to unfairly compete with Khan, that the series reached its high watermark early. I think a lot of the films are great, especially the last two from Next Generation, Nemesis and Insurrection. Wrath of Khan is great because the characters are familiar enough that the story has time to explore Kirk’s anxieties about reaching middle age. As a character study this is manifest in Kirk being chased around the galaxy by his demons- an old enemy, his illegitimate son, the death of a friend. I hadn’t seen this movie for years and for the first time I picked up on some big holes in the science. Ironically Khan could be the best script in the series but there are better overall post-Khan Star Trek movies. 3 1/2 movie spotlights.