Friday, June 22, 2012

Two for the Price of One: CT Mystery Book Club

I never posted on the last book for the CT book discussion group, so I am going to include my thoughts on it here, but first, my thoughts on the book being discussed this go-round.

Persson, Leif G. W.  Norlen, Paul, tr. Between Summer's Longing and Winter's End. New York: Pantheon, 2010. 

(This book was originally published in Sweden in 2002.)

This is a first: a CT mystery book club discussion book that I didn't finish and that I don't intend to finish. I read nearly 100 pages (97 to be exact) and just decided I didn't want to bother anymore.

It isn't that I hated it. It isn't even that I wasn't interested. It's just, I guess, that I wasn't quite interested enough. I mean, I sort of wanted to find out what the connection was between an apparent suicide of an American living in a student dorm in Stockholm and the 1986 murder of Sweden's prime minister (and I knew there was a connection because the jacket copy told me so), but not really, especially if it meant slogging my way through 450 more pages (and, ultimately, two more books, since this is the first in a trilogy) while keeping company with a cast of characters who, so far, had proven themselves not to be very likable while not being fascinating enough that whether or not they were likable didn't matter.

Given what I just said, you may be surprised by what I have to say next, which is that, due to the (unexpected and, to some degree -- at least, the way all publishing phenoms are -- inexplicable) success of Stieg Larsson in this country, publishers have all jumped on the Swedish mystery bandwagon, suddenly presenting us with hot, "new" Swedish authors whom our Nordic brothers and sisters have been reading almost as long as our British brothers and sisters have been reading Agatha Christie. (Okay, please excuse my exaggeration. Still. Persson isn't some new author. He's been around for a while, writing for well over 30 years.) Persson is, naturally, compared to Larsson on the cover copy (more impressive, to me, is that he's also compared to Ingmar Bergman  -- probably a slight exaggeration. I mean, Bergman's characters are fascinating). Of Larsson's books, I've only read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and (when I wasn't recoiling in shock from its most brutal and sadistic scenes), I liked it quite a lot. But from what I've now read of the two authors, I'd say Persson is a better writer. Persson, in this book, has set a stage and has gotten inside his characters' heads a little better than I remember Larsson doing. Yes, Larsson wrote psychological thrillers, but his emphasis seemed to be more on the thriller. Persson pays more attention to the psychological, and in doing so, writes more carefully, which, in this instance, means better writing.

Even so, I don't want to continue with it. Why not? I think it may have to do with a problem I have with sexism in 21st-century pop culture. I can read a book written in 1940 riddled with sexism, and, although it disturbs me, I just put it into its time and place (and I marvel when I read a book written in 1940 that attempts to attack sexism). Lately, though, I've begun to theorize that some 21st-century writers are choosing to write about other eras that allow them to live out sexist fantasies (Mad Men and its creator and head writer Matthew Weiner -- and yes, I've watched and like the show, although I've only watched episodes from the first two seasons -- spring to mind) while writing today.

I found some very offensive sexist passages in the first 97 pages of Persson's book pertaining to the way the male characters regard women. I don't know how sexist Sweden was in the late 1970s, but I am hoping that Persson was imagining a way that men used to think and act toward women and not the way they do today. I'll excuse him if he was doing the former, trying to make his work more realistic (and, really, since I haven't finished the book, I probably shouldn't be saying anything, because maybe there was a point to what he was doing. I mean, if I'd stopped reading The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo when I thought I wanted to, I would have felt quite differently about it than I did by the time I'd finished it). Still, unless you're fantasizing about "the good old days, when men were allowed to degrade women without having to worry about being attacked by feminazis", why write about it? It's the same argument I have with Larsson: so, you're the great champion of women, fighting against men who hate them? Then don't put your female character through that debasement at all. How many male heroes are subjected to such utter degradation? Rarely do we see a male character put through so much before he comes out on top. It's the same with the horribly sexist office workers on Mad Men. In the name of "telling it like it was," the writers seem (to me) to be "telling it like they wish it was and still were." Maybe it was bad, probably worse than most of the portrayals we have of the era that were written at the time, but, really, was it quite the way 21st-century male writers portray it?

I digress. Back to the book. Maybe it gets better. Maybe I would have eventually been ensnared by the "web of international espionage, backroom politics, greed, sheer incompetence, and the shoddy work of Sweden's intelligence force" that the jacket copy promises. Then again, maybe not.

One final maybe: maybe the big problem is that shortly after I began this one, I also began The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale. I'm afraid the latter just captured my imagination and ran off with it, leaving poor old Summer's Longing to sit all by itself, forgotten in an old hammock, mouldering in the summer's heat, humidity, and sudden violent downpours. Perhaps I'm just more of a country-house-murder-and-interesting-detective sort (especially when it's true crime that constantly refers to favorite 19th-century novels and novelists) than I am a corrupt-police-force-international-espionage sort. Uh-oh: did I just identify some sexist tendencies in my preferences?

And, now, onto the last book the group discussed:

Mosley, Walter. Little Scarlet. New York: Little, Brown, and Co., 2004.

I have to admit that I was not too keen on reading Walter Mosley. I'd tried, years ago, to listen to one of his audiobooks and hadn't been able to get into it (I now realize that this probably had more to do with the narrator than it did with the book). I did (also, years ago) see the movie Devil in a Blue Dress, and I really liked it, so I approached this book hoping it would be more like my experience with "Movie Mosley" than my experience with "Audiobook Mosley." Still, my hopes did not run high.

Yet again, hopes that hadn't gone soaring way above my head proved to be a good formula. I was fascinated and riveted from the moment I began reading this mystery, which takes place just after the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles and involves a complicated plot that eventually uncovers whodunit to a young black woman known as Scarlet. Although the plot itself and the solution to the crime are the sort that, if someone were to explain them to me, would probably have me snorting derisively (if I knew how to snort derisively, that is), casting them aside as completely unbelievable, Mosley is such a talented writer that he had me completely convinced.

His protagonist (Easy Rawlins, for those of you who don't know) is an extremely likable character. Easy has his faults, yes -- he's a bit too distracted by a pretty face, a bit too quick to jump to violent solutions to problems -- but, ultimately, he's a marshmallow. A righteous marshmallow, sure, but he has good reason to be so, having grown up black in America during the first half of the 20th century. Mosley does a superb job of helping his white readers walk in that black man's shoes, providing us with a wee taste of something we will never truly be able to understand.

Interestingly, I read this book at the same time that my church book discussion group was reading The Help (a book I'd read a couple of years ago and didn't bother to reread). Both books take place around the same time. Both books address racial issues and bigotry. They have very different approaches, and one, of course, was written by a black man while the other was written by a white woman. Still, there are similarities, not the least of which is that they both beg the question, "How far have we come since the Civil Rights movement?" Something we should all ponder in this country. I couldn't help wondering, while reading this, if Mosley chose to set his Easy Rawlins mysteries back in time because people wouldn't believe him if he wrote about how racist this country still is today (sort of the opposite of men setting their stories back in time in order to take advantage of the sexism of the era).

Anyway, I will no longer be hesitant to read another Easy Rawlins novel. (So many good mystery series, so little time... )


Susan said...

Yaaay for Suspicions of Mr Whicher! That was my book of the Year for - 2010, I think, or 2009. I really enjoyed it, even though it was about a horrific murder - and the murderer is chilling, as is the reason. I won't say more in case you aren't finished it yet. IT was so well written, and I loved the comparison to how detective fiction started around then also, with Wilkie Collins' books, and Charles Dickens. Plus the history of the police force.

I haven't read Easy Rawlins yet either. Some day, one day, I will. Did you like The Help? I got if for Christmas, and I still haven't decided if i want to read it or not. I think To Kill a Mockingbird is the best one about race relations, and I have to reread it soon.

note how I ignore Persson, I haven't read any yet by him. There is an explosion of Swedish and Norwegian mysteries now, aren't there?

Emily Barton said...

Susan, hmmm, I seem to have a pattern of loving books that have made it on your favorites list, huh? I finished Mr. Whicher and thought it was brilliant all the way through. Don't keep ignoring Persson on my account. I'm sure he's worth a read. It just wasn't the right time for me. And, yes, there certainly IS an explosion of Swedish and Norwegian mysteries now. It's getting a bit old. I wish we'd have an explosion of something else: Greek or Italian mystery writers, anyone?