Friday, July 6, 2007

Double Shot of Mystery (The Secret History and Some Danger Involved)

Yesterday, I wrote two long, interesting reviews of my most recent Summer Mystery Challenge reads. But you'll have to take my word on that-the internet ate them. It was very depressing. So now you have abbreviated versions of them!

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

I chose The Secret History for my Summer Mystery Challenge after Mullan talked about Tartt a lot in How Novels Work. This certainly isn't a traditional mystery; you know from the prolgoue who is killed and who killed him. The focus of the book is the "why". It's quite interesting to watch the seemingly 'inevitable' chain of events that results in murder. Tartt is very good at bringing the reader in, and making her really understand how normal people end up killing others. I really enjoyed the setting of the book. It takes place at a small liberal arts college in middle-of-nowhere, Vermont. Since I went to a small liberal arts college in middle-of-nowhere, Illinois, I loved seeing all the insularity and quirkiness of such institutions recreated. The insularity is further accented by the narrator's involvement in the Classics department; an elite group of students hand-selected by the professor who take all of their classes together and ignore the rest of the school. Except for the narrator (a poor, blue collar guy who transfers in and finds himself starstruck), the five students are incredibly rich and 'different' from others. While this was a good book, it had some flaws. One little one that just distracted me throughout was the time period. I couldn't for the life of me figure out when the book was supposed to be taking place; Tartt began writing it when she was in college in the mid-80s, and it was published in the early 90s. However, sometimes it felt like it was set a few decades earlier. Quite distracting. Also, the book was about 500 pages. The first 400 went very quickly, and I enjoyed reading them. The last 100 dragged. A lot. Like, painful, just-let-me-get-to-the-end-of-this-chapter dragging. That's my biggest problem with the book; it was in serious need of a good editor. Nevertheless, these flaws just prevented it from getting from that fifth star. I'd recommend this to people who enjoy psychological thrillers, and to anyone who went to a small liberal arts college!

Some Danger Involved by Will Thomas

Some Danger is hands-down my favorite Summer Mystery read so far. It's set in Victorian England. In the Holmes tradition, Thomas has an insanely smart and talented lead detective (Barker) whose stories are told from the point of view of a more-human assistant (Llewellyn). However, unlike Watson, Llewellyn is an intelligent human being; his confusion stems from his newness to the detecting business. Throughout the book, the reader gets to go along with Llewellyn, as he's tossed into a new environment and begins to find his bearings. The mystery itself isn't what you'd call cozy; Barker is called in to find out who's inciting violence against London's Jewish population. The reader does meet a pool of suspects, though, so you can guess who the killer is. Meanwhile, you get glimpses of both Barker and Llewellyn's difficult pasts. Thomas has created very sympathetic main characters, a realistic setting, and a tightly-woven plot. The writing itself is strong as well; not at all fancy but straight-forward and to the point. I'd highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys mysteries or historical novels.

Favourite Passages

The room had built-in bookcases on all sides, from floor to ceiling. Two comfortable chairs in studded green leather flanked an Arabian octagonal table, with an oil lamp. There was a fireplace in marble, with a fendered grate, and a faded Persian carpet that dominated the room in an abstract design of red and green. A ladder on rollers navigated most of the shelves, by means of a circular track. It was all a bibliophile could want. (145)

The most remarkable feature was his eyes, a deep golden color; they regarded you speculatively, as if you were prey. He was quick to smile, but it was a smaile that left one cold. His hand rested on a small glass dome, the kind one uses for watches or trinkets. Altogether, it was as if someone had stuffed a tiger into a suit of clothes. (166)

"What are we doing, sir?"
"That should be obvious. We are getting drunk and hearing the story of your life." (187)


Sarah said...

I was riveted by The Secret History and didn't notice its length as I was enjoying it so much. I'm sorry to hear its last pages dragged for you.

I think the vagueness re time period was delibrate, i.e reflected the insularity of the college in general, and Julian's students in particular. For me, it emphasised how cut off Henry and the others were from everything except their (archaic) studies, including conventional morality.

On a lighter note- hopefully the book doesn't make the reader understand how normal people end up killing others too well!

Sam Houston said...

I "discovered" The Secret History in an airport bookstore and read it in one sitting between Houston and London. It actually managed to keep me from getting any of the sleep that I knew I needed in order to hit the ground running in London at 6:30 a.m. But it was worth it.

iliana said...

The Secret History seems so long ago - I can barely remember anything about it. On the other hand, so glad you enjoyed Some Danger Involved! I loved the very beginning and his "tests" for the new assistant. I need to follow up on the series. I've heard it's a good one.

Melanie said...

Dare I admit that I've begun "The Secret History" twice now, and haven't made it halfway yet? Maybe on the next go-round...

MyUtopia said...

I am interested in checking out, The secret history.

Stephanie said...

Oh, sorry the internet ate your post! I hate that when it happens.
Anyway, I too read Secret History and also felt that the ending dragged a lot. Thanks for the review.