Thursday, September 15, 2011

Start and stop

It happens. You pick up a book you think you'll like -- usually one you bought some time ago thinking you'll like it -- and for whatever reason you just can't get into it. It doesn't necessarily reflect on the book. I've started books, such as The Gospel of Judas, that I abandoned, only to come back to it after my eyes were opened to Simon Mawer's talent in The Glass Room and read it with relish.

So I've had a couple of false starts lately. One was John Lescroart's Son of Holmes. This was an early book of his, before his breakthrough into bestsellerdom with the Dismas Hardy series. I saw Lescroart on a panel once and he is an engaging speaker. I read one of the Dismas Hardy books and I suppose I liked it well enough, but I didn't rush back to read another.

What attracted me to this book, which gets fairly mixed reviews on Amazon, is that Lescroart in 1987 did what I always dreamed of doing -- wrote a novel about Nero Wolfe's early days. But he did it in a way completely different from what I would do. He beat me to it in any case, because I was thinking about in the late 1980s, early 1990s. Dick Marek, who bought my financial thriller, pooh-poohed the idea because he thought the audience would be too narrow. I was worried about copyright problems, though you never had to say it was Nero Wolfe, just make it plain to fans that it was indeed he.

This is evidently what Lescroart did. His Auguste Lupa (a pseudonym because this Montenegrin always took a Caesar for his first name -- get it, Nero -- and Lupa of course is Latin for wolf) was that youthful secret agent that the sedentary detective in New York hints at through the 70-some Nero Wolfe stories. Whereas I would have just explored the adventure behind his references to being a spy for the Austro-Hungarian empire, having a house in Cairo, etc., and produce an historical thriller, Lescroart crafts a cozy murder mystery in southern France with a protagonist who already has all the traits of the mature Wolfe -- fat, beer-swilling, lip-pursing, yellow shirts and all.

So what's not to like? It comes across as warmed-over Rex Stout, prequel or not. It is, well, dull. Stout was clever to have Archie Goodwin tell the story, whereas Lescroart's narrator has virtually no personality. Who knows, maybe I'll finish it one day, but after getting halfway through, I don't really see the point.

For the other lapsed book, The Collaborator of Bethlehem by Matt Beynon Rees, I will suspend judgment. I bought this the other day at Politics & Prose and realized too late that it had appealed to me a couple of years ago as well, when I bought it the first time, started it, and stopped it. The writing is unquestionably good, and the setting in Bethlehem is great. I bought it this second time after reading The Essene Conspiracy because I liked the scenes set in Israel. However, Omar Yussef was not grabbing me as a protagonist. I get a little tired of recovering alcoholics as detective heroes, anyway, but when he is also a Muslim, it's particularly tiresome. A Christian friend of his is falsely accused of murder, but who cares? It's a little bit too much paint by the number murder mystery (didn't suspend my judgment that much apparently), but maybe I'll change my tune if I pick it up another time.

Update. Looks like I'm going to have to add David Downing's Silesian Station to the current list of starts and stops. It's probably not fair to the book, since I've been distracted by the need to repeatedly proof my own book, The Grand Mirage, and I'm also spending some time exploring the world of self-published ebooks. Hopefully, I will actually finish one of those and be able to review it for the blog.

I do think nonetheless that Downing has fallen a bit into the franchise writer trap. Since the initial success of Zoo Station, the start of a series featuring British journalist John Russell in Hitler's Germany just before the outbreak of World War II, Downing has kept to the tried and true formula, even to the point of titling each new book after one Berlin's train stations (like Paris, Vienna and other great European capitals, Berlin had a "head" station pointing in each direction of the compass). Subsequent books in the series feature the Stettin, Potsdam and Lehrter stations.

Even at this best in in the initial book of the series, Downing fell short of the drama and atmosphere of Philip Kerr's Berlin Noir, let alone the Alan Furst books. Having lived in Berlin for two and a half years, I enjoy the recreation of the local geography, but I felt like this book was just plodding along and I found myself reading it because it was the book I'm reading right now, and then not reading it.

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