Tag Archives: mystery novels

Death of a kingfisher

Death of a kingfisher / M.C. Beaton

I don’t generally read a ton of mysteries anymore. It’s not that I have some problem with the genre, it’s that as I’ve grown up I’ve come to occupy a cultural headspace that makes the value structures seen in most mystery novels seem baffling. I don’t know if this is a generation thing or a philosophical thing or what, but I tend to find that mystery novels assume a set of perspectives on the part of the reader that I don’t share. 

I still do read them though. Partially because I think it’s important that I don’t get too wrapped up in reading lots of the same types of books, partially because I’m occasionally in the mood for something stupid and can’t find anything to read, and partially because I either hope it will make sense finally or that this one will be different. It’s similar to my experience with The adventures of Menahem-Mendl but more embarrassing as I’m supposed to have all the cultural context here. 

Sometimes these things are easier to pinpoint than others. With M.C. Beaton it’s fairly self-evident what the issue is.

So, Death of a kingfisher is one of the Hamish Macbeth novels, featuring the misadventures of a folksie constable in an exceedingly rural part of Scotland. They’re not quite cozy mysteries, being a bit longer than something like Miranda James, but in terms of structure and complexity they’re firmly in the cozy camp.

Plot summary

When a tourist in town for a fishing class does mysteriously, it’s up to Hamish Macbeth to bring the culprit to justice!

So how is it?

Perfectly serviceable. The plot follows more or less the same structure as your average mystery novel (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing – I say this as a reader of both epic fantasy and wuxia novels). There’s nothing really here to distinguish it to those outside the genre aside from the setting.

Now to go on an extended tangent. I feel like the mystery novel is an inherently conservative genre. I’ve seen that accusation leveled at superheroes before, which is true to some extent, but there’s a very active group of authors who are trying to subvert that, which is aided to some extent by the fact that while superheroes may be agents of the status quo most of them are also vigilantes and not the exclusive tools of “the system”. When it comes to mystery novels it seems like there’s less of a counterculture, or if there is that it’s less visible. Gun machine and Crooked little vein are the only English-language example I can think of at the moment.

Here’s an example from Hamish Macbeth: at one point he complains about how rediculous it is that he’s expected to take it easy on people found with small amounts of marijuana whereas he’s supposed to actively prosecute people who drive drunk.

Yeah, complaining about not being allowed to let people get away with driving drunk is not a way to endear me to the series. It’s a really easy example of what I mean by the inherent conservatism of the genre though. Marijuana use is a priori worse than drinking and driving not because it has a more negative impact on the people doing it or others, but because it doesn’t conform to the expected societal norms. It would be one thing if there was any justification presented for why one was somehow worse than the other, but there isn’t. It’s seen as self-evident. The idea that failure to conform to “proper society” is somehow a bad thing independent of the (real or imagined) negative impact of a given activity permeates mystery novels. This was just one example that immediately jumped out at me.

But as I’ve said it’s a perfectly serviceable mystery series with a quaint rural setting. It’s pretty quick reading – I finished this one during the downtime of a reference desk shift. It’s just not quite my thing.


I do and have recommended this series before. It’s one of my go-to recommendations for older mystery novel readers that are looking for something new that isn’t too edgy. It works pretty well for that.

The girl with the dragon tattoo

The girl with the dragon tattoo / Stieg Larsson

So, I’m a bit behind the times when it comes to trendy books. Several years ago, when everyone was reading Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, I was puttering and reading more comics than anything else. After it was recommended to me by my parents in 2012 or 2013(Hi, parents!) I watched the first part of the Canal+ TV version of the Swedish films* and figured that I’d check out the book.

So here it is, my thoughts on The girl with the dragon tattoo (Swedish title: lit. Men who hate women). I’m undecided as of yet whether or not I’ll do posts for the rest of the series.

*And people think keeping track of superhero franchises is complicated …

Brief plot summary

Mikael Blomkvist is an editor at the magazine Millennium. Having just lost a libel case against the wealthy Hans-Erik Wennerström, he receives a deferred prison sentence and must pay damages. Hired by another wealthy Swede, Blomkvist is tasked with solving the disappearance of a young girl nearly 40 years previously. Promised concrete evidence against Wennerström if he succeeds, Blomkvist finds himself teaming up with the socially awkward hacker Lisbeth Salander.

Continue reading The girl with the dragon tattoo

Kiln people

Kiln people / David Brin

Kiln people is a novel in the vein of “classic” sf. Not because it reads as dated, but because it takes an idea and runs with it, asking “what would society be like if X happened? What would be the benefits? What would be the drawbacks?”

Originally published in 2001, it’s part book of ideas, part hardboiled mystery.

Brief plot summary

In the future, disposable, 24-hour bodies are cheap and widely available. Instead of physically going in to work, people upload a copy of their minds into a “ditto” and send it to work in their stead. At the end of the day, the “original” can choose to inload those experiences into their own minds. Albert Morris is a “ditective” (get it? he’s a detective but he uses dittos. Don’t worry, it’s the most forced part of this book). Tasked with solving the murder of a prominent scientist, he and his veritable army of duplicates will face the expected questions of identity and the barrier between “human” and “other”.

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Since I did a fairly mainstream superhero series for my last “sequential-art-narrative” review, I’m gonna do something way more fun this time.

Bookhunter / Jason Shiga

Jason Shiga is an offbeat comics genius. He frequently attempts to push the structural boundaries of the format and generally succeeds at writing silly, exciting stories. Bookhunter is a true “graphic novel” rather than an ongoing series. It’s a combination police procedural/70s action movie/extended series of librarian in-jokes that works remarkably well.

Brief plot summary

It’s Oakland in the early 1970s. Technology is causing a rapid shift in the way libraries operate. Patron records are now stored on magnetic tape. Electronic library catalogs (initially created around 1967) are starting to pop up in public libraries. Enter the Library Police, a group of specialists dedicated to eradicating library-related crime. Summoned to the Oakland Public Library to solve the mystery of a forged Caxton Bible, the Library Police have only three days to solve “three concentric locked-room mysteries”, catch the thief, and recover the original book.

Continue reading Bookhunter

Gun, with occasional music

Gun, with occasional music / Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem is one of those authors on the “approved” list for NPR-drinking academics. As a result, he’s not a “science fiction” author. Gun, with occasional music was his first published novel, but he first achieved mainstream success with Motherless Brooklyn, a noirtype novel written from the perspective of a narrator suffering from Tourette’s syndrome.

Lethem is much beloved of literary hipsters, and like Dave Eggers I have a hard time getting into his work because of the sheer amount of obnoxious love directed his way. Gun, with occasional music was a book I attempted to read shortly after it came out, but I never got around to finishing it until last year.

Brief plot summary

Conrad Metcalf is a private detective in a world where most menial positions are held by genetically engineered animals, an individual’s worth is measured by their karma, and designer drugs are freely distributed by the government. After a former client shows up dead and a flimsy coverup makes Metcalf the number one suspect, Metcalf must avoid an angry kangaroo, gangsters, and the Powers That Be in an attempt to figure out what is going on.

Continue reading Gun, with occasional music

Gun machine

Gun machine / Warren Ellis. Originally published 2013.

This review is by special request.

Celebrated graphic novel author Warren Ellis continues his invasion of the rest of the literary world with Gun machine. Consciously written as an assault on the police procedural genre, Gun machine takes the mystery novel to places familiar yet also incredibly weird.

Brief plot description

(Spoilers for the first chapter and part of the second)

Gun machine is the story of veteran NYPD detective John Tallow. While responding to a call involving a nude man with a shotgun Tallow’s partner of 20 years is killed, and Tallow finds himself faced with solving they mystery of a sealed apartment filled with weapons linked to unsolved murders. Teaming up with two eccentric forensic analysts Tallow is made responsible for investigating and solving hundreds of murders and stopping the most prolific serial killer ever to go unnoticed.

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