Fantasy and Murder

the-dark-horseSubjects fairly closely related to one another some of the time eh? Maybe. Maybe not.

Well, not all aspects of George R. R. Martin’s fantasies are totally fantastic and all of them include their share of the darkness and murder frequently a major part of just plain murder or crime stories. But there is so much more and that is where they entertain in their specialized settings and complicated family connections and their never-ending stories.

I began “A Song of Ice and Fire” (ASOIAF) back before the television series had been cast and, withdance-with-dragons a break before A Feast for Crows, finished it only recently. I thought I had given it up but found I could not persevere with that plan. So in August of this year (2016) I determined to finish AFFC even though it was a serious challenge. The challenge disappeared quickly once I was past page 100 and didn’t stop until I finished A Dance with Dragons (1051 pages).  I am looking forward to the release of The Winds of Winter.

If you have watched the video version and enjoyed it, don’t be deterred. I watched only the first season and then went back to my reading. I will watch more of the series but think the books do greater justice to the story and allow me to do my own imagining. Once the video image of Eddard Stark and Tyrion Lannister and Cersei and Jaime and Arya and Sansa etc. etc. are fixed in one’s mind the images will not go away but are only restrictive and not disturbing. I will leave the video until another time. Some readers are held back by the very large character list: the lists in the back of the books are exhaustive and very helpful.

I most enjoy the creativity and the major dedication and effort involved in creating this story. I would encourage you to try it for yourself and be patient with the process. My favourite part was close to the end but I loved every minute of getting there. Daenerys is my newest favourite character but the stories of Tyrion and Jaime and Cersei are rivetting and truly entertaining. Oh, and yes, don’t forget Jon Snow! or Arya or ………

tooth-and-clawAnother dragon story I read recently is written by Jo Walton and is only a slim single volume. It is titled Tooth and Claw and is a very creative look at the personal lives of dragons. It may perhaps have been intended for a preteen and/or teen reader but I (as an adult) found it delightful and perfect for a summer’s read: it succeeded in distracting me from daily worries and comforted me in its “humanity”. And the dragon characters were all people I know!

Alongside my reading of ASOIAF, I read several murder-mystery novels that were quite good.

Firstly, I read three more Walt Longmire titles (Another Man’s Moccasins; The Dark Horse; Junkyard Dogs)  by Craig Johnson. I another-mans-moccasinsenjoy the setting in Wyoming (Big Horn Country) and the characters of Walt who is the Sheriff in Absaroka county and his deputies, Vic and Branch and Ferg and the other regulars such as Ruby, the receptionist and Lucienne Connally, the former sheriff and Henry, Walt’s best friend who runs The Red Pony and is his partner when he needs extra manpower, on and off the rez. I have read seven of this series so far and find them realistic, entertaining and comforting for some reason. The latter possibly has to do with the recognizable humanity always present in the stories no matter how violent and unacceptable some of the actions might be.

blown-redI also read some Canadian mysteries including Susan Philpott’s Blown Red and Dark Territory which deal with care workers helping women threatened by men in domestic situations of a wide variety and Debra Komar’s The Ballad of Jacob Peck which was a case in New Brunswick in the early eighteen hundreds and for which Komar has used whatever written records are still available to her. This is the second of Komar’s works I have tried (The Lynching of Peter Wheeler). Komar is a forensic anthropologist and her work is non-fiction but as enjoyable a read as any fiction novel on similar subjects.

seven-days-deadI read a Greg Îles book, The Turning Angel, just to sample his work. It was a good read but has a quality I associate with American writing and which I don’t enjoy in large doses. Îles’ books are long generally I believe and I find the length unnecessary and sometimes onerous, even pedantic. I recently read a much shorter and more appealing murder-mystery called Seven Days Dead by a Canadian, John Farrow (also publishes under pen name of Trevor Ferguson) which is the second volume of  The Storm Murders series.  Farrow’s detective is retired (!) but always ends up involved directly in a murder investigation. His name is Êmile and his wife Sandra is often drawn into the action of whatever case they are involved in. This one takes place on Grand Manan in New Brunswick where the couple go for their “first real vacation”. Very exciting and all inside of less than 300 pages!


The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

I received this book as a gift and it was a wonderful surprise. I had recently watched a video of Life of Pi and enjoyed it very much. I had also read Beatrice & Virgil and found it even more satisfying.

The High Mountains of Portugal is divided into three sections with very intriguing titles: Homeless,High Mountains of Portugal Homeward and Home. The book jacket blurb writes that it is “part quest, part ghost story, part contemporary fable” and it “offers a haunting exploration of great love and great loss. Filled with tenderness, humour, and endless surprise, it takes the reader on a road trip through Portugal in the last century – and through the human soul.”

The tenderness, humour, and endless surprise becomes almost immediately apparent in the first few pages after the opening sentence: “Tomás decides to walk.” He is going to walk across much of Lisbon to his uncle’s estate in “leafy Lapa” which will take about an hour. As he starts out we learn some things about his past and the reason he is walking backwards. His uncle believes that Tomás is grieving but Tomás explains that he is not grieving but rather he is objecting because everything cherished by him in life has been taken away and there is nothing left for him to do but object. This will all be explained to the reader on the walk.

In the breast pocket of his jacket, Tomás carries an old leather diary which is the life and instructions for Father Ulisses Manuel Rosario Pinto for the gift he has left for the Portugese empire. Tomás found the diary very shortly before his life as he knew it was changed forever. Tomás works as an assistant curator at the National Museum of Ancient Art.

In Father Ulisses’ diary, Tomás finds references that prove the father is afflicted by “acute homesickness”. He also eventually finds two letters requesting a gift for a parish in the High Mountains of Portugal which had suffered the destruction by fire of its chancel. He also finds verification of the crucifix having been sent from the African colonies.  Tomás wrote letters and narrowed the possibilities before deciding that he must make a journey to the High Mountains of Portugal.

And so he goes to his uncle’s house and he finds that his uncle is loaning him one of his latest acquisitions: a brand new four-cylinder Renault which he describes as “a masterpiece of engineering”. The only appeal for Tomás in this offer comes from the fact that he has only ten days to accomplish his search for the crucifix. This is happening in 1904 in Lisbon, Portugal, where only “a few of these newfangled devices have lately found their way onto the streets.” For Tomás, this “burgundy-coloured copy” “lacks in any elegance or symmetry” and “its cabin appears to him absurdly oversized compared to the puny stable at the aft into which are stuffed the thirty horses”.

His uncle explains how the car works and Tomás “understands nothing” and “stares dumbly” while his uncle presents him with a manual in French and a French-Portugese dictionary and adds “You must take utmost care to lubricate the automobile properly.” The only thing he likes is the horn, the sound of which makes him laugh.

You will enjoy Tomás’s driving experiences from your vantage point of 2016 and you will find his discovery of the crucifix equally intriguing.

In Part Two, the reader meets Eusebio Lozora, physician and pathologist, in 1938, in Bragança which has a population of 30,000. His wife is Maria Luisa Motaal Lozora who is an “amateur theologian” and takes herself very seriously. His wife “has no patience for death.” She comes to his office on New Year’s Eve and tells him that she has found the solution in the Agatha Christie novels which they both like to read. She brings him a new Christie novel to help him live with both faith and reason: “stories that put reason on brilliant display while also keeping you close to Jesus of Nazareth. That way you can hold on to your faith, should it ever waver.” After she leaves, someone knocks and he thinks she has returned but it is another Maria: Maria Dores Passos Castro. Eusebio performs an autopsy on Maria’s husband with unusual results which reveal a connection with the past and the future.

And thus we come to Part Three, Home. It begins in Toronto in 1981 and is Peter Tovy’s story. He is appointed to the Senate and moves to Ottawa. His wife Clara becomes deathly ill and his son Ben (a medical researcher) separates from his wife and she and his daughter move to Vancouver.

After Clara’s death, Peter realizes he cannot continue in the senate and goes to Oklahoma with three members of parliament and on an open day in the schedule visits a chimpanzee sanctuary, the Institute for Primate Research. Circumstances come about that see him visiting the main population of chimpanzees: “here, inside this windowless building, there is the reality of a dark and dank underworld. The smell hits Peter first, an animal reek of piss and misery, the tang of it made fierce by the heat. ”

“Some cages are empty, but many are not, and those that are not contain one thing and one thing only: a large black chimpanzee.”

“An ear-splitting explosion of shrieking and screaming greets them. Raw fear grips Peter. His breathing is cut short and he stands rooted to the spot.”

Eventually Peter is able to observe the chimpanzees more steadily.They display various levels of aggression or agitation. Peter stops by the cage of the last prisoner because he is struck by the creature’s singular behaviour. Peter looks into the eyes and the creature looks back into his eyes. He hears a hoo-hoo sound. The guide explains that it means hello.

The ape eventually squeezes Peter’s hand without grasping or menace. “Peter doesn’t know why, but his throat tightens and he feels close to tears. Is it that no one since Clara has looked at him like that, fully and frankly, the eyes like open doors?” The ape’s name is Odo. Peter pays fifteen thousand dollars for him and takes him to the High Mountains of Portugal.

You really must read this story for yourself! It will change your life and/or your thoughts.


Beatrice & VirgilLife of Pi

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

The epigraphs (3) are important so I will choose only one:

“Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.”
-William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

I like the combo of lovers and madmen and the thought of their “seethingThe Heart Goes Last brains” as well as the idea that the fantasies of these brains understand intuitively much more than is understood through reason alone.

Having read this epigraph we walk right into the first sentence: “Sleeping in the car is cramped. Being a third-hand Honda, it’s no palace to begin with. If it was a van they’d have more room, but fat chance of affording one of those, even back when they thought they had money. Stan says they’re lucky to have any kind of car at all, which is true, but their luckiness doesn’t make the car any bigger.”

And what about the lovers and the madmen? Well, Charmaine gets the back seat and Stan takes the smaller front seat but that’s because he has to be prepared to drive away at any minute in case of an emergency such as an attempted robbery by “bat-shit crazy” vandals. Stan “feels so lonely and sometimes having Charmaine with him makes him feel lonelier. He’s let her d0wn.”

They both had good jobs not so long ago. Charmaine worked at the Ruby Slippers Retirement Homes and Clinics chain. She scheduled entertainment and special events. Stan had been a junior quality control person at Dimple Robotics, “testing the Empathy Module in the automated Customer Fulfillment models. People didn’t just want their groceries bagged, he used to explain to Charmaine: they wanted a total shopping experience, and that included a smile.” Smiles were hard but if you got it just right, Stan explained, “they’d spend extra”.

Then it happened. Charmaine was declared redundant at Ruby Slippers and Dimple Robotics closed its doors and moved west. They ran out of mortgage money and their credit cards were frozen. They walked out and drove away before the car was repossessed. Charmaine got a job in a bar and her savings kept them in gas and paid for a post office box so Stan could apply for jobs and they could wash their clothes at a laundromat occasionally. Stan decides to approach his brother for a loan.

At work in the PixelDust bar, Charmaine considers turning a few tricks to increase their savings but decides it is too dangerous and would destroy Stan.

Con gives Stan two hundred dollars and offers him a job which Stan turns down because it is probably criminal in nature.

Then Charmaine, watching television at work, sees an ad which is different from the others. She thinks the presenter must be reading her mind. “”Tired of living in your car?” he says to her….”You deserve better.”” The man encourages her to recall what her life used to be like and offers a solution.

“At the Positron Project in the town of Consilience it can be like that again. We offer not only full employment but also protection from the dangerous elements that afflict so many at this time. Work with like-minded others! Help solve the nation’s problems of joblessness and crime while solving your own! Accentuate the positive!”

“The Positron Project is accepting new members now,” says the man. “If you meet our needs, we’ll meet yours. We offer training in many professional areas. Be the person you’ve always wanted to be! Sign up now.”

Sandi and Veronica, Charmaine’s fellow workers who do turn tricks on the side, also listen to the ad. Veronica thinks they should try it but Sandi says there are no free lunches anywhere. All three are seriously weighing the options available to them in their present lives.

They all sign up and they all go on the promotional bus trip which takes them some distance into the countryside where “only the gas stations appear functional”.  Eventually they reach a gateway in a high black-glass wall. Solar generation, thinks Stan. Smart, building it in like that.”

“Their eyes are scanned and their fingerprints taken and a plastic passcard with a number on it and a barcode is issued to each of them.” Then they are driven through the town of Consilience which is like a town in a movie of several years ago before most of them were born. At the Harmony Hotel they have drinks and snacks in the ballroom. The crowd thins out during the evening which Stan observes and thinks is a “discreet weeding”. The remainder receive a room reservation and meal vouchers and a carafe of wine and a meal in a restaurant called Together.

Stan has decided that it is not real but doesn’t want to spoil things for Charmaine who reminds him how much better this is that the back seat of a car.

This is only the beginning of course and it is dystopian fiction. You can take it on a number of different levels. If you so choose, you can see it as an absolutely crazy, wild, highly imaginative romp though a world of Marilyn Monro and Elvis Presley clones who appear in groups to entertain the clients in Ruby Slippers retirement homes along with a subplot with people who live and work in Positron/Consilience spending alternate months as staff employees in the facility and prisoners in the same facility where possibilibots were manufactured. Or, you can take it much more seriously realizing that the best comedy is always very serious.

The logic behind the project: “it was time share taken to its logical conclusion.” “Think of the savings, with every dwelling serving two sets of residents!”

If you were living in your car with no hope what do you think would be your reaction to the television offer? Seriously…Could it happen? Heard of any folks losing their homes in recent history? Oh, you think it couldn’t happen here? Well, let’s hope not.


Two Novels by Deryn Collier

Deryn Collier’s first novel was Confined Space and it was shortlisted for an Arthur Ellis Award for best unpublished first crime novel by the Crime Writers of Canada. It was published in 2012. The novel takes place in Kootenay Landing, British Columbia and Collier’s bio states that she has worked in a brewery. The latter caught my attention because it adds to the author’s credentials for me somehow. The Bugaboo Brewery is one of the main employers in Kootenay Landing.Confined Space

The investigator turns out to be the coroner which is another interesting choice. The police participate of course but the coroner is a more multifaceted individual and interacts with the community in a fuller way. The reader meets Bern Fortin in his garden where he is crouching down tapping yogurt container lids into the soil at the end of rows of late-harvest spinach he is growing for the food bank in time for Thanksgiving. In each of the plastic lids he is pouring a dose of Bugaboo Brew in an attempt to control the slugs who are attacking the spinach.

Bern was a former soldier (Lieutenant-Colonel) who had served tours in Rwanda, Bosnia and Afghanistan. His native language was French and he had been in Kootenay Landing six months. His house was a tiny bungalow which he had modified to suit his needs. He could see the brewery from his front door.

Gardening was like therapy for Bern: he needed the peace associated with growing things and in beauty, colour and life itself.

His neighbour, Mrs. Kalesnikoff, had turned out to be better than any therapist he might have found. Flowers ran riot over the fence between Bern’s and Mrs. K’s property and he had been made welcome at her kitchen table any time of day. She made cinnamon buns the size of a person’s head. She says Bern doesn’t let the dead go (“She always said the exact number of words needed to get her point across, and never more.”

We are introduced to Bern and Mrs. K and also Gavin and Belinda as well as Evie Chapelle, Safety Manager, Bugaboo Brewery and Conrad Scofield. Collier does this introducing particularly well in my opinion. She gives enough information to acquaint us with each individual sufficiently to provide a basis for investing in them as individuals: sort of fits us into the community so to speak as if we had been there for awhile.

She sets us up by having Evie receive a certificate indicating that the Bugaboo Brewery has been given a Safety Award in recognition of 500 accident-free days.

And then the accident is discovered. An accident in confined spaces. More than one accident in confined spaces. But are they  accidents?

The second Collier novel, aka the second Bern Fortin novel, is Open SecretsOpen Secret and like Confined Spaces there will be more than one secret involved:

“He looked back at the cranium on the rock and knew that it was related to everything else that was going on. Gary’s disappearance, Seymour’s death, Gia on the deck with a shotgun. Lennon’s shout: “The asshole is dead!” Even Holly Forsberg and her unspoken pain. They were all related – but how? And how much of it was his responsibility to sort out?
Who died, how they died, when they died, and by what manner. There was no room for doubt in the coroner’s crib sheet. That Gia was intelligent and witty, that he liked talking to her and admired her garden, that he did not want to cause Holly Forsberg more pain, that Dr. Sinclair did not want to be inconvenienced – these things didn’t factor in. It was a simple question: he had to find out the truth. Everyone’s secrets would come to light.
And if he was to expose their secrets, he had no business hanging on to his own.”

I am not quite finished this second book so I can’t reveal all those secrets. And I wouldn’t anyway of course!

If you enjoy accompanying the investigator every step of the way and trying to fit the pieces together as they are discovered, you’ll enjoy Deryn Collier’s books.  I think you will also find Bern Fortin refreshing as a character. His background is one of the secrets in this second book adding an extra dimension to the story.


Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick DeWitt

Under Major Domo MinorThis is the story of Lucien Minor or Lucy the Liar who left his parents’ home at age seventeen: neither he nor his parents had shed even a small tear at their parting.  He was going to work for the Baron von Aux in a remote castle as undermajordomo. His mother does wish him good luck and asks him to let her know how things turn out for him.

He took stock of his life before he left sitting on his suitcase and practicing smoking the pipe he’d bought the day before he left. He regretted not having an audience. He recalled the time six months before that he nearly died. The priest had administered the last rites. Lucien’s father sent the priest away.

In the night an old man wearing a shapeless sack sat in the rocking chair and Lucien told him that he was bored. The old man knelt beside Lucien and put his mouth to Lucien’s ear and inhaled. “And as he did this Lucy felt all the heat and discomfort leaving his body. The man exited holding his breath and walked down the hall to Lucy’s parents’ room.A moment later Lucy’s father suffered a coughing fit.” Lucy’s father died the following evening. Lucy’s mother held him partly responsible; Lucy never told his mother about the old man who came in the night.

Lucy’s letters in search of employment were all unanswered except one: “penned by a man named Myron Olderglough, the major-domo of one Baron Von Aux’s estate in the remote wilderness of the eastern mountain range. Mr. Olderglough had been won over by Father Redmond’s romantic description of Lucy as an “unmoored soul in search of nestled safe harbour “.  An offer of employment and terms of payment finished off the letter. The position was listed as under-majordomo and was lowly with a pay mirroring that status, however, Lucy accepted the offer.

When he arrives at the castle, he learns that the mistress has been gone a year and Mr. Olderglough is still missing her. Lucy is cautioned not to speak to the Baron if he should see him. “The Baron goes where the Baron wishes. And often as not he wishes to go nowhere at all.”

When Lucy explains that he would like to go and thank the Baron for his appointment, the major domo replies that “The Baron has no knowledge of your appointment. In fact he hasn’t the remotest interest in the mechanics of the castle. Six days out of seven he won’t even leave his room. Seven days out of seven.”

When Lucy says he will wait to thank him then Mr. Olderglough explains that “You don’t understand what I am telling you, boy. Don’t speak to the Baron if you see him. As a matter of fact, don’t see him at all, if you can avoid it. That is to say, don’t let him see you.”

After a brief discussion about the villagers (“The villagers are like children, and children can be dangerous entities in that they have no God…if there are no consequences for a person’s actions, what might his motivation be to do right by his fellow man?), Olderglough leaves this as the guiding principal regarding Lucy’s task in the house: “in the simplest terms, your foremost function is to anticipate my needs and to see to them.”

Then Mr. Olderglough takes Lucy to his room: “a cramped space with a slanted ceiling and a small window located in the centre of the lone exterior wall. The furnishings consisted of a two-drawer dresser, a rocking chair, a modest bed, and a potbellied stove pushed into the corner.” Mr. Olderglough suggests that the boy might be tired and need some rest: Lucy agrees. And so he leaves him be but returns almost immediately: “I forgot about the letters.”

He explains that every morning there will be a letter written by the Baron to the Baroness which he is to take to the train station and meet the nine o’clock train which does NOT stop. He must hold it up so that the engineer can grab it. Lucy discusses how this has been arranged and then they discuss what would happen if there were an answer(which has never happened but might).

It is also explained that Lucy is to lock himself in his room after 10 p.m.

Well, this is only the beginning. You will enjoy reading to the end. Oh, and yes. You will meet the Baron and the Baroness, Klara and Tomas, and Memel and Mewe and Agnes and one or two others. Enjoy!