Fiction Review: “Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway” by Sara Gran

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Sara Gran has created an amazing character in Claire DeWitt, the detective in her brilliant series. Miserable, drug-abusing, pill-popping, possibly insane—she’s nevertheless one of the greatest private eyes in the world. As teenagers, Claire and two friends found a life-changing book by French detective Jacques Silette, “Détection,” and started practicing his peculiar methods. In Silette’s world, clues come in unexpected places—dreams, tattoos, fingerprints—not those found on a glass or a gun, but the actual whorls and arches of the finger’s print. DeWitt is first introduced in Gran’s 2011 “Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead” in which she solves the Case of the Green Parrot. In “Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway,” she’s solving the Case of the Kali Yuga. The Kali Yuga is actually a fairly complex philosophical idea (don’t worry, she explains everything quite clearly). In this particular case, DeWitt’s ex-boyfriend, still very dear to her, has been killed, and she intuitively knows it’s not the botched breaking and entering suspected by the police. Gran’s series possesses a Philip Marlowe quality with both location and character—her first book took place in New Orleans, while the second is set in San Francisco. DeWitt delves into the seedier aspects of these marvelous cities while simultaneously trying to numb herself to the associated emotional trauma of old relationships. It’s not unlike her to interview someone and then slip into their bathroom and steal their pain medication, doping up on expired Vicodin and Valium. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” by Robin Sloan

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“Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” is about a bookstore clerk in San Francisco. The store, owned by Mr. Penumbra (and, you guessed it, open twenty-four hours a day) is a bookstore lover’s dream: narrow, dark, books stacked tight and high, requiring a ladder for general accessibility.  Clay gets a job on the night shift after losing his job as a web designer for a West Coast bagel company (anyone who’s had the misfortune of eating a bagel in San Francisco will understand how tenuous such a job would be). The job comes with a list of rules that sound threatening but are, of course, specially designed to encourage breaking: “You may not browse, read, or otherwise inspect the shelved volumes. Retrieve them for members. That is all.”  Clay quickly discovers that some mysterious business is transacted at the bookstore and begins a sort of madcap adventure to solve the mystery and help Mr. Penumbra.  Along the way he uses the talents of his friends and makes new acquaintances in the technology world. His girlfriend, who works at Google, becomes integral to helping unravel the mystery.

The book is written by San Franciscan Robin Sloan, a self described “Media Inventor,” who clearly has both an enthusiastic zeal for the offerings of the digital age, and a reverential respect for much older technologies: books, typeset, codes—what his characters call “Old Knowledge.” Parts of “Penumbra” are didactic—Sloan’s character reaches out to the techy reader and pulls the neophyte in, describing programming languages, DRM, mechanical turks and even a DIY book scanner in a way anyone could understand. It’s fun how he mixes actual Google initiatives, like the self-driving car, with fantastical ones, like time-machines and organ regeneration (one presumes). Sloan, for one, welcomes our Google overlords. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: “Broken Harbor” by Tana French

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Tana French’s latest mystery, “Broken Harbor,” opens on the murder of a suburban family, the Spains. A husband and wife are viciously stabbed and their two children are suffocated in their sleep. Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy is assigned as the lead detective in this Irish mystery—he’s a hard-nosed, rule-book cop who believes, against all odds, in justice. Ever confident, Scorcher likes dropping pearls of wisdom like, “Here’s the part you never saw in interviews or documentaries, because we keep it to ourselves. Most victims went looking for exactly what they got.” His partner Richie is a rookie: young and instinctual, a bit like Holder in “The Killing.” Poor Richie has to bear the constant advice of Scorcher, who lectures him on everything from how to dress to how to interview subjects. Despite their inequalities of age, rank and social class, Scorcher and Richie begin to develop a true partnership, each carefully negotiating the exchange of trust the relationship requires. Read the rest of this entry »