Done: The Investigation

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I find myself at a loss of what to say about The Investigation.

At first it was like an Alice-in-Wonderland-esque tumble down a rabbit hole into infinite loops of absurd nonsense, but then in the second half, it takes a grimmer turn and tone and by the end of the book, you’re really left questioning what was the point of it all. Or was that the point?

A lot of online comments mentioned how The Investigation was Kafka-esque. I’m going to admit here that I’ve never read Kafka (shame on me) so I can’t concur or rebutt any of these statements. What it did remind me a little of was Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, except not as absurdist, and it didn’t quite leave me with a feeling of liberating self-doubt as Beckett’s play did.

The Investigation starts off only mildly absurd. The Investigator, as he is known, arrives at an unnamed town where he is supposed to find his way to the Enterprise to investigate a series of suicides amongst its employees. Everything in the book is named that way – the Waiter, the Server, the Guard, the Guide. Things turn topsy-turvy for the Investigator as nothing seems to happen according to plan. He gets a creepy feeling of being watched. It raised a lot of questions about personal identity in today’s world, are we defined by our functions in society, have we all lost our own individuality in capitalism, so on and so forth. Side note: the Enterprise always reminded me of Google for some reason.

Things get from crazy to batshit insane. Allegories either become too convoluted or simply collapsed under themselves. I was left feeling as lost as the Investigator, all my previous predictions for the ending of the book fell through. If anything, this book had the ability to keep me reading and reading, fuelled simply by the curiosity of finding out what exactly is going on. I finished the book within 24 hours, but the ending fell a little flat for me. I’m not even sure if the author intended to clear anything up by the end. I know explanations are sometimes not necessary for complex works like these, they’re deliberately left open-ended in order to facilitate thought and discussion, but when I look back and can’t seem to connect any dots, or to find out any sort of message behind it all, I begin to question the efficacy of the ending. Maybe it’s me?!

Title: The Investigation
Author: Claudel, Philippe
Genre: Absurdist, Mystery, Kafkaesque
Links: Goodreads, Amazon

Done: The Daughter of Time

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This is the first book review I’ve done in a long time! The last post I had was almost half a year ago, on Oct 18. Anyway, apologies for the hiatus. Life has been a rollercoaster, and furthermore I’ve been extremely preoccupied with my semester, which is now in its crunch time. I couldn’t have picked a worse time to do a book review, but after a series of disappointing library books, I’ve finally found one that motivated me to finish it quickly and to feel like giving it a review.

I first picked up The Daughter of Time because one of my pen pals, Michelle, recommend it to me. I only had a bare-bones idea of what it was about – something about a detective and Richard III. That in itself was enough to interest me, but shortly after delving into the book, I finally fully realised that the author was taking the classic image of Richard III as a heartless, power-hungry monarch who murdered his two boy nephews in cold blood as a way of securing his claim to the throne, and attempting to make us realise that this account of it may not be the only viable one around.

I researched up further not only on Richard III but also on how this book was received when it was first published. I did not know that this was written in 1951, and helped to launch a pro-Ricardian movement, and subsequently the establishment of the Richard III Society. If a book has been this influential in changing the minds of those who have grown up with the widely accepted story of the Princes in the Tower, it is definitely worth a read in my opinion. I love history, and the Wars of the Roses is a period that I am growing more and more interested in – it will be to no one’s surprise that I devoured this book greedily. It combined my two favourite genres nowadays – history and mystery – into a very persuasive and engaging narrative.

I have read some reviewers’ comments about how there is no story, or narrative thrust. I’m on the fence about that one. Sure, there is no story as you would expect typical narratives to go – the entire book is set exclusively in Inspector Grant’s hospital room, where he is recuperating from a broken leg and is put out of action when his attention is captivated by a portrait of Richard III. Any research and new information is done by Brent Carradine, a young American who works at the British Museum. He is the one that brings in fresh new discoveries from the annals of history to Grant’s hospital room, and there they puzzle over the glaring but overlooked unlikelihood of Richard III being the larger than life villain that history has casted him to be. So, while there isn’t any actual action, the story does bring you through Richard III’s life indirectly and I never had a bored moment while reading, or felt like skipping past particular parts – this is not something I can boast of for most of the books I’ve been reading in recent months.

Another critique that some people had about this book is that Inspector Grant pretty much immediately pronounced Richard III innocent from the very moment he set eyes on his portrait, based on his face, and some people found that too unbelievable to stomach. Somehow, this aspect of things never really occurred to me while I was reading it. If so, then one might say Sherlock Holmes’s method of deduction, which also relies a lot on superficial appearances to provide insights into the person’s interior, or the entire concept behind The Picture of Dorian Gray, about how the face changes according to how he develops as a person, might be too unbelievable to stomach either. If I’m not wrong, in the past few centuries, physiognomy (“the assessment of a person’s character or personality from his or her outer appearance, especially the face” from Wikipedia) was a widely accepted mindset (read any Jane Austen book for examples). Of course, nowadays we try not to judge the book by its cover, and to reserve judgement until we know something more concrete about the person, but I think it’s still hard to avoid the fact that we do form certain initial lines of judgement based on a person’s outward appearances, though whether we choose to set this judgement in stone, or be open to being proved wrong about them is another matter. I don’t find that Inspector Grant jumps to his conclusion solely based on the portrait either. Richard III’s face merely struck him as curiously unlike how he would imagine a heartless tyrant to be, and that then launches his investigation into this long closed case – it wasn’t so much that he simply concluded directly from Richard III’s face alone.

OK, enough rebuttal! Tl;dr I enjoyed this book tons, enough to draw me out of my hiatus to write a review on it. Any fan of English history would love it.

Fun fact: did you know Benedict Cumberbatch is a distant relation to Richard III? For that connection, he was invited to recite a poem at Richard III’s re-burial, after his bones were excavated from under a city council car park lot in 2012. Fascinating! If we assume Richard III as having more claim to the throne than Henry Tudor who came after him, does that mean B. Cumberbatch has more claim to the throne than the royal family? Haha, I kid.

Done: The Woman In White

I first picked up Wilkie Collins’s The Woman In White many, many years ago under the misinformed assumption that it was a Victorian horror story. (I may also have mixed it up with Susan Hill’s The Woman In Black…) How wrong I was. After the titular woman in white appeared and after it was certainly established that she was a very real human being, I put the book away with such disappointment that I think I’ve lost my original copy.

Fast forward to the present, I have developed a better taste for classic literature and wanted to revisit The Woman In White even if it may not involve supernatural beings. I started with listening to the free audiobook from LibriVox and got so caught up in the narrative that I had to continue with the book. This time, I was very far from disappointed!

The first thing I noticed about this book is the amount of foreshadowing and suspense used. According to Wikipedia, “it is considered to be among the first mystery novels and is widely regarded as one of the first in the genre of sensation novels”, so perhaps it was the first novel that used foreshadowing in the way that we commonly associate it with today. It’s a novel told from the first-person perspective of many different characters (all somewhat unreliable narrators) in the story, and usually written at a later date, so the characters always refer to some mysterious unknown later event like: “Thank God I agreed, after what would happen later.” It made me want to just skip to the ending and find out what happened, but I persevered.

This book takes a while to warm up, though. The half, I would say, is spent mostly in expositing background story, establishing characters and just paving the way for the excitement that was to come. I don’t know if it will be to everyone’s tastes, but I enjoyed it. This is my first time reading a novel by Wilkie Collins and I’m rather taken in by his writing style. It’s humourous, it’s satirical and it’s powerful in terms of evoking emotions. Once you pass the halfway mark and when things start coming to a head, however, the book becomes a real page-turner. I took about 1.5 weeks to get through the first half (mostly by audiobook when I’m driving), and less than 2 days to finish the second half. In fact, I have to confess that I stayed up till 6.45am this morning just trying my utmost best to finish the book because I want to find out the damned ending!! (In the end, I gave up and went to bed, but finished it the next day at about 6pm)

Of the characters, my favourite has got to be Marian Halcombe. I was rooting for her from the very beginning, though Walter Hartright (our first and main narrator) described her as looking almost like a man. She is the heroine of the book, through and through. Although the mystery and adventure centers around her pretty half-sister Laura Fairlie’s interests, I felt not even half as much interest in her. Laura Fairlie came across to me as a bit of a Mary-Sue, and I would even go so far as to feel that she was a little dim-witted. The two characters that got on my nerves the most were Mr. Frederick Fairlie, Laura’s rich uncle, and Sir Percival Glyde. In Mr. Fairlie’s case, he is one of the most self-centered characters I’ve come across in a while. Other malevolent characters may also act purely in their own self-interest, but for Mr. Fairlie, he is both indolent and self-centered, which meant that he doesn’t act for anything at all. Somehow, that irritates me even more than active malevolence. At least in a book. As for Sir Percival, to list out his wrongdoings might be to spoil the plot a little so I won’t do so here. Suffice it to say that he’s the worst sort of coward.

On one hand, I would say that Marian Halcombe presented an interestingly feminist portrayal of a woman. In the Victorian times, the “ideal” woman would be someone like Laura Fairlie – pretty, somewhat empty-headed and can’t do anything to save herself. Marian Halcombe is none of these things. She is confident, intelligent, affectionate and also incredibly resourceful and courageous in adversity. This portrayal is probably why I always found myself firmly in #TeamMarian, but yet the way she kept belittling her own sex and being described by others as “being like a man” or “looking like a man” disturbed me a little. She would keep saying, “even though I am a helpless woman”, “even those these hands are a woman’s”, etc. as if to acknowledge that she is frustrated with being a woman and feels restricted by her own gender. I would like to see a woman who is comfortable with herself and her gender, and then to be independent by her own right, and not because she resembles a man, but I guess I have to make allowances for the time that this book was written, and the fact that the author was a man.

For a Marian Halcombe with an arguably feminist portrayal of a woman, there are always the Laura Fairlies and the Madame Foscos that reverse this feminist portrayal. Laura is pretty much always helpless, relying either on Marian or Walter Hartright to save the day. Madame Fosco, meanwhile, went from being a headstrong, opinionated and outspoken girl with feminist ideas that Laura and Marian remember from their childhood (she is Laura’s aunt), to being a completely submissive wife with literally no mind of her own. She always looks to her husband for instructions and is completely at her husband’s disposal and leisure. Neither kith nor kin had any hold on her if her husband said to the contrary.

I found the ending of the book satisfying, though I have read reviews from people who found it rather anticlimactic. However, keeping in mind the social context in which the book was written, I would say that the Secret is sufficiently shocking enough in that time and era, even if it may not be so today.

I also read someone on Goodreads saying that Wilkie Collins is a double-edged author. If The Woman In White doesn’t get you, The Moonstone will. Well, I have already purchased The Moonstone in readiness, as well as No Name. I can’t wait to dig into more of his work!

Spoilers ahead!

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Done: The Case Is Closed

It was all right. I skipped over some pages with what I found to be unnecessary details. Not sure if I’m just an impatient mystery reader or if I’m just not used to Wentworth’s style of writing. I’ve been reading tons of Agatha Christie before, so while there are elements of similarity, the narrative style and plot structure are significantly different.

The mystery in itself was somewhat interesting. I agreed with the main character Hilary when she said, “Too many alibis all over the place”. A man is shot ostensibly by his favourite nephew, the case is closed and said nephew has already served his jail sentence for a year before the action of the novel begins. I found that the details of the mystery was repeated just a tad too much, though. I get that things have to be clarified and details emphasized for the reader (also so they might have a go at picking out fishy loopholes for themselves), but I found myself skipping pages because the repetitions were getting tedious and boring.

Regarding the characters, we have Hilary, who is this nephew’s cousin-in-law, and her on-and-off-again fiance Henry Cunningham, are the main characters. Hilary and Henry’s relationship dynamics tended toward a chauvinist male and trying-to-be-spunky-but-failing female which was a common enough trope in the 1940s, but it wasn’t overly irritating to me. I particularly remember a line where Wentworth described Hilary as having flashes of thoughts about the inquest: “There was of course no logic in this, but Hilary had not a very logical mind.” Couple this with the fact that Hilary is impulsive and reckless, apparently heedless of potential dangerous situations, constantly getting herself into scrapes, and then generally requiring the assistance of her man, Henry, to get her back to safety… I guess I shouldn’t expect much more from a novel from the 40’s.

Miss Silver only appears in the middle of the book. While Christie’s detectives tend to have some point of interest or memorable quirk that engages me and gives me a pleasant pattern to look forward to in future stories, Miss Silver appears to have none of these. I don’t mean to say that Christie’s detectives are the only allowable type of detective characters, but I found nothing about Miss Silver to engage me or make me interested in reading more of her cases. The plot and action really revolves around the main characters, who certainly won’t be recurring in other novels and therefore also give me no reason for me to continue.

My review sounds unfavourable so far, but the book redeemed itself in enough moments of suspense and excitement. The plot twists were somewhat good, though few in number. Though some points about the two main characters chafed me, it wasn’t to the point where I found them outright annoying and difficult to swallow. Miss Silver was almost a non-entity besides providing an input for plot twists, so while she made little impression on me, she didn’t annoy me either. I’m not sure whether I will continue to read more Miss Silver stories, I would recommend this book for those who love mystery stories from this era.

Done: The House of Silk

While I was reviewing Death On A Pale Horse, my attention was frequently directed to what a lot of reviewers viewed as a superior Sherlock Holmes canon extension – this book: The House of Silk, by Anthony Horowitz. Luckily, I had already borrowed it from the library and had lined it up behind Death On A Pale Horse on my reading list.

In many ways, The House of Silk would definitely come up as superior if you’re a bit of a purist. This is a good old-fashioned Sherlock Holmes romp, with our dear bungling narrator Dr. Watson, Holmes landing himself in trouble, the story setting never leaving England (unlike Death On A Pale Horse) and barely leaving London, a quest to uncover what lies behind a secret conspiracy and all that. I was very entertained throughout, and the plot chugs along at a pace, never leaving a boring moment.

There are two things I’d like to point out about The House of Silk, though.

Firstly, like most other spin-offs of famous works, there is a self-conscious way in which defining characteristics of Holmes are brought up, or canon stories are mentioned. For example, the novel begins with Holmes deducing Watson’s thoughts, then Watson exclaiming at the devilry of it all, Holmes explaining his logical processes, and Watson finally admitting that it was simplicity itself. This famous scene from the canon is so frequently used in spin-offs, adaptations and anything depicting Sherlock Holmes that I could honestly have done without it. It was done once, and brilliantly, in the original books. Enough of that. It is too fantastical to assume that such a specific scene could be replicated so many times in real life between two people. If I had been Watson, if Holmes tried to intrude upon our thoughts in such a manner for the second time, I certainly wouldn’t have been as surprised and incredulous as the first time, and would’ve been less than polite in extricating his methods from him. In my opinion, if a spin-off work aims to fit itself into a canon chronology of an original work, then it should note that these little references and scenes, of which the original work is famous for, is really unlikely to happen again at another time period, even if one would’ve liked to use it as a signifier that hey, this is the famous mind-reading Sherlock Holmes that we’re writing about.

Secondly – and this isn’t a negative point this time – Horowitz injects certain points of reflections in the story which I found interesting. In the novel, Watson is supposed to be writing about this adventure of the House of Silk from his declining years, when his wife, all his friends, including Lestrade and Holmes, have passed on. As such, it is realistic to assume that Watson would be looking back with a broader perspective of a wizened elderly man, so I liked this bit. It also served as a reason for Horowitz to criticize Doyle and the times he lived in. The poignant reflections I can remember off hand are: 1) the state of the London child beggars, treated as part of the streets itself and handled almost thoughtlessly by Doyle in the canon; 2) the personality of Lestrade, described as incompetent by Doyle, but Horowitz redeems him here and portrays him not only as being effective and resourceful for someone who doesn’t have a brain like Holmes’s, but also someone who, though he is frequently a mildly antagonistic competitor, is also a firm ally of Holmes to the end; and 3) the flitting presence of Mrs Hudson throughout the canon – Horowitz’s interpretation of Watson acknowledges that he barely took the time to get to know his landlady and didn’t know much about her beyond her showing in clients at Baker Street. I enjoyed reading these little points, though it pertains to the author’s own interpretation and criticism of the Holmes canon, but it ended a nice extra dimension and food for thought for fans reading this book.

All in all, I would recommend this book for lovers of mystery novels, and especially those who are already fans of the Holmes canon. It wouldn’t disappoint.

Spoilers ahead!

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Done: Dorchester Terrace

Now, this was a solid piece of work.

Dorchester Terrace is the 27th novel in the Inspector Pitt series by Anne Perry. This series has been running all the way from 1979 up till today, 2015 (a 31st novel is expected this year). Since this is my very first introduction to the Inspector Pitt series, I get this feeling that I’ve missed out a lot, but the book explains its own sprawling backdrop and history pretty well and I never found myself confused, though I did find myself extremely curious. I am going to set about tracking down the very first novel in the series once I work my way through the pile of library books I’ve borrowed and need to finish.

As fate would have it, though, I think this book is a nice inflection point in the entire story arc as a whole to start off a new beginner with. Inspector Pitt has now been newly promoted to the Head of Britain’s Special Branch (something like an internal security department) and consequently the problem(s) in this book have much more far-reaching political ramifications. Anne Perry wields her strong knowledge of the history of European politics to great effect here, and I am impressed and drawn in by the political web that she weaves around the central mystery. Now this is what I call a “stunning backdrop” to a piece of historical fiction, rich with exquisite detail but yet not overwhelming at the same time.

Allusions drawn to Inspector Pitt’s past as well as the detective and policeman he used to be made me guess that perhaps books prior to this one would deal with more home-grown detective mysteries. As such, I’m pretty glad I started off with this book, because as a starter I can appreciate it on its own without comparing it to previous stories. I’m sure that my love for familiarity and my comfort zone would lead me to lament the more serious direction and political concerns that the plot arc has taken with this book. However, having started on this book and appreciating it for what it is, I can happily continue on chronologically with the Inspector Pitt series with all its political intrigues, and check out the earlier Inspector Pitt stories with its traditional detective mysteries. I’m really excited about both of these different threads.

Anne Perry’s writing style is elegant and confident. She does not aim to make this novel sound like it came out of the Victorian era. Her language is generally modern, but written with a self-assured and well-practised hand so that it does not contrast too jarringly with the era she is writing about. Her focus is not on replicating the era itself in terms of linguistics, but in revolving around the human drama as well as the restricting hierarchies of society at that period. Her narrative style takes one into the minds of several different characters, jumping from Thomas Pitt, to his wife Charlotte, to his ex-boss Victor Narraway, to his aunt-in-law, Lady Vespasia, and so on. We are told the story from the perspectives of several different characters, and as such have a peek as to how they see the problem, themselves, and other characters, while also finding out what other characters think of them in turn. Though the narrative jumps around to different characters, I never found it confusing or hard to follow.

The plot in itself centers around what appears to be two different lines of mysteries. The first one is uncovered by Charlotte’s aunt, Lady Vespasia, who is informed that her former friend and acquaintance, Serafina Montserrat, is unwell and unlikely to recover in her old age. She visits the ailing Mrs. Montserrat, who is not only suffering from the pangs of dementia, but also the paranoia and fear that she might let slip dangerous secrets in her memories to the wrong person when she is unaware of whom she is speaking to. The entire scene, describing the bitterness of aging for such a once-brilliant personage, was heartfelt and impactful. Lady Vespasia, however, is not inclined to completely dismiss Mrs. Montserrat’s fears, although she mostly thinks it might just be pure fancy. She brings it forth to Victor Narraway, ex-Head of the Special Branch, who sets about doing his own investigative work just for the sake of having something to do, having lately resigned from a post he had held for 20 years previously.

Meanwhile, Thomas Pitt, now Commander of the Special Branch, is informed of some suspicious increase of interest regarding train signal points, and is led to believe that a possible assassination attempt might be made there against a minor Austrian Duke, due to visit England relatively soon. Though the Duke himself holds no political significance, but his assassination on English soil would carry with it widespread repercussions throughout Europe, with England at the heart of the mess. He finds trouble getting the Foreign Secretary, Lord Tregarron, to take his fears seriously. These two threads of mysteries seem wholly separate and irrelevant to each other at first, but as the book progresses, they are brought closer and closer to each until their intertwined nature and connection is revealed.

I particularly also love how Thomas Pitt encounters some very realistic problems with taking over a new, powerful position. His ex-boss, Victor Narraway, had held the position of Commander of the Special Branch for nearly 2 decades before him, and as such is given the respect that his post calls for. Thomas Pitt, however, finds that people generally think he might have been promoted before his time, and that he did not have what it takes to fill Narraway’s shoes, which consequently raises self-doubt within him. Most interestingly, Pitt reflects that perhaps it might be his own humble beginnings as a son of a gamekeeper that had held him back in gaining the social standing that his post deserves, rather than experience and skill as people claim. Victor Narraway, after all, was born a gentleman, and after his retirement from the Special Branch, was inducted into the House of Lords. Indeed, various allusions as to social standing is drawn through the novel, giving the world Anne Perry creates yet another facet.

Overall, I greatly enjoyed this book, though admittedly it took me some time to really get into it. Once the momentum started though, it was impossible to put down. I would definitely be finding more of Anne Perry’s books to read.