Nina's Reading Blog

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Archive for the ‘Mystery’ Category

Maigret’s First Case

Posted by nliakos on October 7, 2018

by Georges Simenon (in English translation by Ros Schwartz, Penguin Classics 2016; originally published in French as La première enquête de Maigret in 1949)

This could be the first Maigret roman policier I have read in translation; or maybe not; if I had read another one, I don’t remember doing so. But I am pretty sure I have not read this one in any language. Jules Maigret is a twenty-something employee of the Saint-Georges district police station (secretary to the chief inspector), very young, totally inexperienced, in love with his nascent police career and full of ambition to rise in the ranks and eventually work at the Quai des Orfèvres (the police headquarters in Paris). The chief inspector assigns him his first case: a young flautist, walking down a fancy Paris street late one night, sees a young woman leaning out of a window and screaming for help, and hears a gunshot. What happened? Was anyone injured (other than the flautist, who tried to intervene and was beaten for his pains)?

Maigret sets to work, aided by the flautist, Justin Minard. His modus operandi is not very different from what would become his signature style later: immersion into the world where the crime was (or was not) committed, getting to know all the people involved, watching and waiting and taking notes and thinking. But at this stage of his life, he lacks confidence in himself and his gut feelings, and doors do not open for him, or people jump to do his bidding, as they will later. He even comes to suspect that the Chief Inspector, for whom he has enormous respect, does not wish the case to be resolved. . . .

It’s interested to read what is essentially a prequel to the other books. The story is set in a Paris where automobiles like the De Dion Bouton share the streets with horse-drawn carriages. Maigret is a slim young man, in contrast to his later heft. He has not been married long, but a youthful Mme. Maigret is as accommodating, understanding, and trusting as ever.

Favorite quote: “He hadn’t slept with his moustache net on and he had to straighten the tips with a hot curling iron.” Really, a moustache net? Who’d have thought?

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Two by Simenon

Posted by nliakos on September 17, 2018

Maigret au Picratt’s (English version: Maigret in Montmartre), 1950

Maigret en meublé (English version: Maigret Takes a Room/Maigret Rents a Room), 1951

(in Tout Simenon Vol. 5, Presses de la Cité 1988)

I was recently inspired to re-read Maigret au Picratt’s when I watched it on my local PBS station, starring Rowan Atkinson (aka Mr. Bean) as Maigret (likable, but not at all how one imagines Maigret while reading). I was pleased to find that it was in one of my four Tout Simenon volumes (it’s a 25-volume set, each of which has about ten novels and whodunits), so I immediately started to read. When I lived in France in the early 1970s,  I used to love reading Maigret mysteries, which for some reason were not difficult for me to understand (compared to the novels), and I read a lot of them. I guess there was a lot of repeated vocabulary from one to another. I don’t remember looking up words as I read, and all these years later, I can still read them without relying on a dictionary, but it was so easy to check a word on my phone (with a choice of monolingual and bilingual dictionaries!) that I sometimes opted to do that (mostly finding that the words meant what I had thought they did, thus demonstrating the effectiveness of Understanding Vocabulary in Context).

Maigret au Picratt’s follows Inspector Maigret as he investigates the murder of Arlette, a young stripper at a bar named Picratt’s. The night before she was killed, Arlette had gone to the neighborhood police station to report that she had overheard two men in Picratt’s talking about murdering a countess. They didn’t believe her until she herself was found strangled in her room. Maigret takes over the investigation from the long-suffering Inspector Lognon (who is used to ceding his authority to Maigret), but he is not fast enough to stop the killer from murdering the Countess von Farnheim in her apartment the following day. Then it’s all hands on deck to catch the killer before he strikes again. The countess was a drug addict, and the investigation takes Maigret into the seedy underground world of addicts, alcoholics, prostitutes,  and petty criminals. Maigret’s signature investigative style of immersing himself in the culture of the killer and victim is in evidence here, as well as in Maigret en meublé, which I also read because it followed immediately after Maigret au Picratt’s (both were written while Simenon was living in Connecticut, 1950-1955).

In this story, Inspector Janvier, one of the detectives who works very closely with Maigret, is shot while staking out a suspect in the Rue Lhomond, and Maigret becomes obsessed with finding the shooter. Since Madame Maigret is away from home, Maigret rents a furnished room in the building in front of which Janvier was shot, and he immerses himself in the life and people of the little street, chatting up the tenants and the young woman (la grosse fille, in the language of the day) who owns the building and knows more than she will reveal, the neighbors, the shopkeepers and the owner of the bar where he goes to eat and drink beer and white wine. (In doing so, Maigret absents himself from his other duties at the Police Judiciaire, other than checking in on the phone from time to time, but as always, his boss (le chef) seems okay with that.) Maigret becomes increasingly frustrated as his investigation turns up nothing, but eventually, he seems to figure out what must have happened, and then he sets about getting those involved to admit their guilt.

Written in the early 50s, these stories were probably set in the 40s. What strikes a modern reader is that in a time before cell phones, investigators on the street were very limited in their ability to communicate with their colleagues; if they were tailing a suspect, they would have to duck into a café or a bar to use a public telephone. To get from one place to another, they took taxis. Of course, there was no DNA evidence. There were no body cameras. But Maigret and his inspectors generally seem to respect the humanity of the people they are investigating and interviewing. I have no idea how accurate this depiction of the Paris police is!

Anyway, when I went to my local library recently, I checked the fiction and mystery shelves for Simenon’s books and was surprised to find only one Maigret mystery (Maigret’s First Case) and no novels. I checked it out, so soon I may be reading about Maigret in English. However, as usual, I borrowed more books than I can possibly read (four), and then I ordered Fear: Trump in the White House on my Kindle, so who knows if I will have a chance to get to it? 🙂

For a review of Pierre Assouline’s 1997 biography of Simenon, visit Hmmm. . . . not an admirable person. I much prefer Maigret!

For an interesting summary and discussion of Maigret en meublé on the website Maigret of the Month, try

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Spider Woman’s Daughter

Posted by nliakos on May 23, 2016

by Anne Hillerman (Harper 2013; ISBN 978-0-06-227049-8)

Tony Hillerman’s daughter Anne has taken up the mantle of continuing her father’s Leaphorn and Chee  mystery series. I have only read a few of these, but someone gave me this one, and I liked it well enough, although I am not so enamored of mysteries as I once was. Joe Leaphorn himself is out of action in a hospital CCU after being shot in the head by an unknown assailant. It’s up to Jim Chee and his wife Bernie Manuelito, Leaphorn’s former colleagues, to solve the mystery. Of course, there are some tense moments when it looks as though the assailant will succeed in getting rid of them, but I don’t think I will spoil anyone’s reading experience to say that the assailant’s evil plot does not succeed.

Lots of information about Navajo rugs, Chaco pots, and the Navajo way of thinking. There’s an interesting side story concerning Bernie’s relationships with her ailing mother and younger sister.

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The Silkworm

Posted by nliakos on January 2, 2016

by Robert Galbraith (aka J. K. Rowling) (Mulholland Books / Little, Brown and Co. 2014; ISBN 978-0-316-20687-7)

This is the second murder mystery featuring Cormoran Strike, private detective; I have not read the first one. I like murder mysteries and have read many; I count those of P. D. James and Ellis Peters among my favorites. Patricia Cornwell is too grisly for my taste, and this one by the author of Harry Potter is pretty grisly. Grisly, but not violent in the sense that Dick Francis’ novels are violent, where the protagonist always finds himself in near-fatal, extremely painful circumstances which he must endure in order to prevail. No, in The Silkworm, Cormoran Strike is never really in danger, and the most pain he suffers is when his prosthetic lower leg rubs his swollen stump. This is undoubtedly very painful, but not scary.

Anyway, Strike is a nice guy (like Francis’ protagonists, very likable), and his assistant Robin Ellacott is a nice person, in contrast to the majority of the characters in the novel. They are all part of the world of publishing: authors, editors, agents, publishers, and associated staff. In keeping with this theme, each chapter begins with a quotation from a 16th or 17th century British author, such as Ben Jonson, Thomas Kyd, John Webster, John Lyly, William Shakespeare and others. I wondered how the author selected them. Other than to show off her erudition, I don’t think they were necessary. I wonder if many readers actually notice them.

The book was long, about 450 pages. About 3/4 of the way through, it occurred to me that I was wasting my time. This is not to say the book didn’t hold my attention. It’s what I would classify as a “beach read”–literary fluff. There are so many more worthy things to read out there, including all seven Harry Potter booksI felt the same way about Rowling’s first adult novel. It was okay, even good, but not memorable in the way the Harry Potter books are. I hope that Rowling will keep writing until she finds that magical combination of character and plot that made Harry Potter so special.

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The Bellini Card (Investigator Yashim Goes to Venice)

Posted by nliakos on February 18, 2015

by Jason Goodwin

Armed with my new-found knowledge about the Ottoman Empire, I dove into the third (and for me, last, as I have already read #4-5) Yashim novel. As the subtitle says, very little of the story is actually set in Constantinople; Count Palewski goes to Venice at Yashim’s behest in search of a portrait of Mehmet the Conqueror painted by Gentile Bellini, which is rumored to have resurfaced in that city. (The portrait actually exists and is the frontispiece of Lords of the Horizons. You can see it in this Wikipedia article on Mehmet II.)  Yashim himself does not actually turn up in Venice (in disguise) until Chapter 49, just in time to rescue a pretty woman; and although this appears to be his first trip to Venice, he already seems to know his way around pretty well, or maybe it’s just that he possesses some special powers which enable him to do impossible things (like the heroes of animé). And of course he speaks multiple languages (including, here, Armenian).  But it’s hard not to like Yashim; he’s such a delightful fellow. For the remainder of the book, he goes around saving people’s lives (including his own, twice); as usual, I did not really understand the details, but I enjoyed the telling of them. And even in Venice, Yashim manages to find the opportunity to cook (but rarely to eat).

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An Evil Eye: Investigator Yashim in the Sultan’s Seraglio

Posted by nliakos on January 29, 2015

by Jason Goodwin (Sarah Crichton Books / Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011)

I got the books mixed up, and read this, the fourth in the series, before reading the third, The Bellini Card. I’ve put a hold on that one and should have it shortly. In the meantime, An Evil Eye narrates some of the changes that take place when the new sultan, Abdulmecid, takes the reins of power after his father’s death. The son has his own harem, which means that the women and children of the former sultan must be turned out. There’s plenty of intrigue along with the shift in power as the women try to hang on to their life of relative luxury and security.

Yashim is also involved in the hunt for Fevzi Ahmet, admiral of the Ottoman navy. He has apparently just turned over the Ottoman fleet to the rebellious Egyptians. Yashim has dark memories of this man, who was his teacher and mentor, but never a friend. We see the old sultan’s mother, the valide, becoming more and more frail, but she still has her indomitable spirit. Ambassador-without-country Palewski plays a role, and there’s a newcomer, too: Kadri, a clever runaway from the Palace School whom Yashim tracks down and places with Palewski. He will play a crucial role before the novel is done.

I found this story the easiest of all to follow, or maybe I am just getting used to Goodwin’s style, or his cast of characters.

While waiting for The Bellini Card, I have started reading Goodwin’s history of the Ottoman Empire, Lords of the Horizons.

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The Snake Stone: Investigator Yashim Returns

Posted by nliakos on January 24, 2015

by Jason Goodwin (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2007; ISBN 978-0-374-29935-4)

I think this one might be my favorite Yashim mystery so far (I began with the latest in the series and followed that with the first). An unlikable French archaeologist is found murdered, his body mutilated by feral dogs, and Yashim needs to find out who is responsible, since he was the last to see the man alive and could be blamed for the murder unless he solves it. Several other people meet various sticky ends or not-quite ends. We learn about the watermen’s guild, the association of Albanians who maintain and run the water which supplies Istanbul, a great city without an obvious source of fresh water. The archaeologist’s beautiful young wife appears and seduces the eunuch, who twice nearly perishes in the underground waterways below the city. The sultan dies, survived by his mother, the valide, Yashim’s friend and protector. Yashim cooks, every mince and chop deliciously described. It makes the reader’s mouth water–this reader’s, anyway. The cooking scenes are many and do not appear to contribute to the plot, or plots, but they are among my favorite parts of the book. I prefer them to the graphic descriptions of corpses.

There is a lot of trashing of Greeks, especially those in the brand-new Kingdom of Greece, which has broken away from the weakening Ottoman Empire. I’m not sure if this reflects a prejudice on the part of the Ottomans-become-Turks or on the part of the author.

I really liked this passage, in which Yashim compares “Frankish” (Western European) culture to Ottoman culture:

Yashim knew how the Europeans lived, with their mania for divisions. They parceled up their homes the way they segregated their actions. The Franks had special rooms for sleeping in, with fussy contraptions created for performing the act itself, and all day long these bedrooms sat vacant and desolate, consoled by the dust rising in the sunlight–unless they belonged to an invalid. In which case the invalid herself shared the loneliness and desolation, far away from the household activity.  The Franks had dining rooms for dining in, and sitting rooms for sitting in, and drawing rooms for withdrawing into–as if their whole lives were not a series of withdrawals anyway, tiptoeing from one room and one function to the next, changing and dressing all over again, forever on the run from engagement with real life. Whereas in an Ottoman house–even here, in the harem–everyone was allowed to float on the currents of life as they sped by. People divided their lives between what was public and what was reserved for the family, between selamlik, the men’s quarters, and haremlik: in the poorest homes, they were divided only by a curtain. If you were hungry, food was brought in. If you wished to sleep, you folded your legs, reclined, and twitched a shawl over yourself. If you were moody, someone was sure to drop in to cheer you up; ill, and someone noticed; tired, and nobody minded if you dozed. (p. 97)

It takes a comparison like this to be able to see that our way of compartmentalizing our lives is a choice; there are other, possibly better, ways to live.

Like the others, this book could do with a list of characters and a glossary.

Next up: An Evil Eye: Investigator Yashim in the Sultan’s Seraglio.

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The Janissary Tree (Introducing Investigator Yashim)

Posted by nliakos on January 17, 2015

by Jason Goodwin (Sarah Crichton Books/ Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2006; ISBN 987-0-374-17860-4)

I had already begin The Snake Stone (Number 2 in the series) when my local library branch notified me to go and pick up The Janissary Tree. First things first! I put The Snake Stone aside and went to get it.

I was hoping to get some background about Yashim himself: what exactly his job is (guardian? of whom?), or why he was castrated (Goodwin mentions that eunuchs were pretty rare by the 19th century in Istanbul), but no luck. Even in this first novel, Goodwin doesn’t really set the stage clearly. We are just dumped into the action: Yashim is awakened from a dream by a summons to the serasakier (city commander of the New Guard, or Royal Ottoman Army), who informs him that four of his young officers vanished, and one has just turned up murdered. He gives Yashim ten days to solve the murder and find the missing men before the sultan reviews the troops on the tenth anniversary of the destruction of the Janissary Corps, the New Guard’s predecessor, which had become too powerful and corrupt. In addition, the sultan’s mother charges Yashim with finding out who stole some of  her jewels from the harem. Yashim manages to solve both cases (just in time!), risking his own life and that of a friend while on the trail of an assassin who commits extremely grisly murders (personally, I could have done with less graphic violence).

It’s all pretty confusing; I often found myself searching through the earlier chapters in an attempt to figure out who this or that character was. (It took three passes before I finally found Murad Eslek in Chapter 43, and even then, I wasn’t actually sure who he was.) A list of characters, such as Anne Zouroudi always provides in her Greek Detective novels, would be very helpful, as would a glossary (seraskier? kislar agha? valide sultan? tekke? kadi? Even if these terms were defined the first time they appeared, I couldn’t remember what they were later and found myself searching through earlier chapters again.) and a map of Istanbul. I must confess that when I came to the end, I couldn’t understand exactly what had transpired! (I seem to remember saying something similar about The Baklava Club.) But I am not put off; I intend to go back to The Snake Stone next.


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The Baklava Club

Posted by nliakos on January 1, 2015

by Jason Goodwin (Sarah Crichton Books, Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2014)

This was a serendipitous find–I picked it off a display in the library. It’s the most recent of a series of mysteries featuring Yashim, an investigator working for the Ottoman Sultan (and his mother, the valide) in 19th century Istanbul. Although I prefer to begin a series at the beginning, in this case I just went ahead and read the last one; now I have to go back and read The Janissary Tree, The Snake Stone, The Bellini Card, and An Evil Eye.  Goodwin has also written several nonfiction books which sound very tempting–one about the history and geography of tea, one about the history of the Ottoman Empire, one about the dollar, and one about walking to Istanbul. I love his writing style and think I will enjoy just about all of these.

In this novel set in 1842, Yashim and his friend Count Palewski, the Polish ambassador (representing a country which at that time no longer existed) become entangled in an intrigue involving three idealistic Italians, a sultry Danish woman, a Siberian hoping to secure a pardon for her father, a Polish prince, and a drunken Irish priest. Before it’s all over (and frankly I am still not exactly sure who did what), several of them are dead. I won’t say who! But not everyone is what s/he says s/he is.

Goodwin evokes the time and place with brief but telling descriptions, like this one about the public baths of Istanbul: At the public baths men and women could be washed, steamed, scrubbed, rinsed, lathered, soaked, bathed, and exfoliated; their hair could be cut, their body hair removed with wax and unguents, their nails pared, their nostrils and ears washed, their skin softened with creams and oils, their muscles manipulated, their hands and feet rubbed, their temples massaged; they could be roasted on hot platforms, and chilled in cold baths; then pummeled and stroked, kneaded and splashed down, before they emerged shining for a glass of tea and a sweet cake.  This sentence (yes! It’s only one sentence!) makes me long to visit such a bath.

Posted in Fiction, History, Mystery | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

The Bull of Mithros

Posted by nliakos on November 12, 2014

by Anne Zouroudi (Bloomsbury 2012)

The fat man is again to the rescue, figuring out who is responsible for the gruesome murder of a man stuck in a remote community with no papers, claiming the name of a well-known entertainer. Along the way he metes out justice to a variety of others, always politely but firmly, and always nattily dressed down to those polished white sneakers!

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