Thursday, July 07, 2011

Look inside, outside, peripherally

"I think what we do is intuitive, but it's also essentially about observation." He was looking down at his cup as if he was reading the tea leaves. "If your work is about observation, then it seems only natural — to me at least — that you never stop observing. You observe obsessively . . . and minutely. You train yourself to look inside, outside, peripherally. You study art and music, the way people dance, walk, lie — and tell the truth. You record your dreams and you're willing to learn from them." He put the cup down on top of the circular end table next to him. "Am I making any sense?"

"I think so. Go on." She looked at him over the rim of her cup.

"Sadly, I can't. I only know that much. Everything influences my observation — absolutely everything." He moved slightly, as if he was uncomfortable or about to stand up, but he didn't. "Sitting at the computer just now, I noticed the wear on the desk where you put your hands every day. I noticed the imprint from a ballpoint pen where you've written letters and signed cheques on the soft wood — white pine, I think. Some keys on your computer are more worn than other, and there's a slight whitening on the edge of the desk where I suspect you rub your right hand when it's itchy or numb from working at the keyboard — but not your left, because you're right-handed."

— from Erasing Memory, by Scott Thornley.

I don't read very many mysteries. And I like them, I really do — good ones, anyway. It's just that I don't know how to go about choosing a mystery with any degree of confidence that it will be a good one.

What intrigued me about Erasing Memory: the murder victim is a violinist, the cop is cultured enough to recognize the signs that she is one, and it seems pertinent to the case that she be one (interesting to me cuz I know a little something aobut violins and violinists). Also, the fact that it's set in Southern Ontario, and an area in particular that I have some familiarity with.

So it starts off as a quiet kind of cottage mystery. The murder method is truly gruesome, but the scene of it is precise, deliberate, beautiful in its way. Detective MacNiece is shown to be the sensitive type, knows his Schubert, keeps a volume of e.e. cummings on the passenger seat of the car.

The fact that the victim is a violinist turns out to be not particularly relevant, except in helping MacNiece identify the murder as being of a personal nature (ie, not random). But by this point, it doesn't matter; the writing is smooth, the characters are interesting, and the plot has taken a weird turn. I'm hooked.

By "weird turn" I mean the story shifts from the beach and the fishing boat and the marina to something more like a political thriller.

A couple trivial things that bother me. The Polish names don't ring true (and I fail to see how this wasn't gotten right, given that the area, one the author presumably knows well, has a large Polish community). One of the cops is Swetsky, a second-generation Pole, and I can't see a genuine Polish name morphing into something like that in less than 4 generations. Another cop's friend is Bozana; I know a dozen Bożenas, but Bozana is simply archaic. (I'd be curious to know how authentic the Romanian names are.)

The other thing is the Sydney Carton reference. Not because it didn't entirely make sense, but because it was called attention to in such a self-congratulatory way (something like "when's the last time a couple cops sat around making Charles Dickens references?"). If you don't think your readers will get Sydney Carton, better to cut the whole reference out entirely.

But apart from that, it was a very engrossing read.

Good chance I will give the next MacNiece mystery a go.
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