I just finished reading The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession. It’s a collection of twelve articles written by New Yorker staff writer David Grann. The stories cover a wide range of subjects that are all “stranger than fiction.” What I liked best was the way the author really got involved with the subjects he was writing about. In the story about the New York sandhogs who travel hundreds of feet underground to dig the new water tunnel, he goes down into the dark and dank with them. He assists the New Zealand marine biologist hunt for giant squid in a creaky little boat during a storm. He interviews murderers, convicted criminals, prosecutors, arson investigators, family members, and travels all over the world investigating and digging for the truth. Sometimes I couldn’t believe the access he had to those involved. I found it most odd that not one of the twelve stories centered on a woman. Now, you can’t tell me that women don’t get as crazy or as obsessive as men. I’d like to ask Grann about it. In the meantime, I want to read his earlier book, The Lost City of Z.
The Weed That Strings The Hangman’s Bag by Alan Bradley is the second mystery featuring Flavia de Luce, an 11-year-old chemistry whiz fascinated by poisons. The series is set in a small English village in 1950, where the de Luce family rattles around in a crumbling estate, each member preoccupied by an obsession (stamps, novels, chemistry, music). Flavia, the youngest of three motherless sisters, has almost complete freedom to conduct her chemistry experiments, roam the village on her bike named Gladys, and investigate murders. I liked the second book far more than the first, so this is encouraging for the future of this series. This one was about the murder of a famous puppeteer and the tragic death of a young boy. Flavia makes a good detective because nobody suspects she’s snooping around, or even that’s she’s whip-smart and even a little twisted. Most of the humor comes from adults underestimating her abilities while she’s busy manipulating them, when she’s not busy hatching elaborate revenge plots against her bullying sisters.
If you read Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, starting with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, then you may be left wanting more. I know at least two people here in the US who ordered the third book from the UK because they couldn’t wait until May 25th to get their hands on it. Fortunately, one of those folks is loaning me her copy! Larsson died after turning over these manuscripts to his publisher, so we won’t be seeing more of them. Henning Mankell’s The Man from Beijing has some strong similarities to the Larsson books. It is also by Swedish author, this one best known for the Kurt Wallander series. If you decide to read The Man from Beijing, don’t make the mistake of reading the inside cover or even the descriptions on Amazon. They all contain spoilers, which I will avoid here. The book begins with a horrific discovery in a small northern village in Sweden, takes you across several continents, back to the past and into the present again. The author is not entirely successful weaving together all the threads, and the diversion into Chinese and African politics is unexpected and distracting. The focus on strong female characters is what I most enjoyed. I think I will read more of Mankell.