Monday, December 26, 2011

Books as ballast

     Two and a half years ago, when I wasn’t paying close attention, my husband sold our house in Maine and bought one in Virginia in less than a week.
      To clarify, I knew we were thinking of such a move. I knew he was perusing real estate ads on the internet, but for me it was just an eye twinkle; for Gordon it was a ready-to-hatch plan.
      We quit our jobs, tossed half our Maine lives into a dumpster and moved the rest in a U-Haul.  It felt like I had the rug pulled out from under me. In fact, I had.  The rugs unrolled beautifully onto oak floors. The furniture landed and grew comfortable in cozy spaces. I settled, but I’m still on shaky ground.  (Mother Nature ‘s not helping: last summer we felt earth move under our feet as an earthquake’s epicenter was a little more than a stone’s throw away.)
     One way I find my footing is by reaching for and seeking out the things that have given me pleasure: yoga mats, swimming pools, woodland paths, beaches, poetry, books. Some years one predominates; others another, like animals on the Chinese zodiac – only more random and repetitive.  
     2011 was the year of the book. Books have been my ballast. My joy. 
      Books and I go back.  In my mind’s eye I know the shelf where I might find the entire series of animal tales by Thornton W. Burgess in my hometown library – a stately Victorian brick building built in 1900 which no longer houses books. I recall how at 14 or 15 I got caught reading Leon Uris’s Lust for Life under the covers with a flashlight.  How at 16 I stayed home from a school dance so I could finish Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth.  One college summer, when I still believed in tans, I covered my limbs in baby oil and worked through all of Tolkien on a lawn chair. English major in college. Ditto, graduate school.
      So this is an old habit, one I have indulged this year.

      I have not done so much reading since I was in graduate school.  Luxurious full days of reading. I had a lot to catch up on. I began with books passed my way – The Help, Cutting for Stone and moved on to read books  that were making headlines – Freedom,  the Millennium Trilogy, then to recommendations --  Paul Harding’s Tinkers,  Ron Powers’ The Echo Maker (a favorite),  and Generosity (a not-so favorite), Jennifer Egan’s The Keep (another favorite) and A Visit from the Goon Squad.  I hit the library and caught up on all the Michael Connelly mysteries (favorite mystery writer) I missed over the years.  Paul Doiron, who is also editor of Down East Magazine, where my friend Virginia Wright works, has two Maine mysteries (also favorites). Recently I was enchanted by Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus and wowed by Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot and quietly moved by Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table. Other writers I read this year include Geraldine Brooks, Jo Nesbo and Ian Rankin. Oh, and a few Patricia Cornwell (no longer a favorite).   The list doesn’t include the not so memorable – because I don’t – remember them.  I no longer carefully read or even finish mediocre books that go blah, blah, blah.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Connelly’s Bosch looks high and low at crime

Hieronymous Bosch looks at evil and does a double take.
              Michael Connelly’s latest addition to the detective Hieronymous “Harry” Bosch series “The Drop,” provides a diptych of cases, dual views of the origin of evil and pairs of parents and their kids.
               An antsy Bosch, working in Open-Unsolved cases with his partner Chu, has too little to do. Then too much. In one day, two cases are dropped on his desk.  DNA on a blood smear taken from rape and murder victim 20 years ago turns up a match and what appears to be a likely perpetrator – except 20 years ago, the suspect would have been just 8 years old.
A second case comes down from on high. City Councilman Irvin Irving’s son is dead, splattered on a sidewalk beneath the balcony of the Chateau Marmont, a possible accident, suicide or murder; a drop. Irving, Bosch’s old nemesis, wants Bosch on the case. Irving knows Bosch will do an expert job and the case this will test Bosch’s personal ethic: “Everybody counts or nobody counts,” a commitment to equal treatment no matter who the victim is, a commitment Bosch usually applies to the nobodies others ignore.  Will Bosch’s code apply to the son of his worst enemy?
The Irving drop is given high priority.  The other case has been waiting 20 years to be solved, and some feel it can wait a little longer. Not Bosch.
The cases tug Bosch first one way – leading him to crimes by the lowest of the low, and then the other, to political corruption and “high jinx” – police talk for power and influence.  His natural instincts draw him to pursue the  nearly forgotten rape and murder. Pressure from Irving as well as the police chief and an assistant Kiz Rider, Bosch’s former partner, keep pushing him back to the drop case. Bosch’s moral quest to be true to his code drives the plot right up to the final pages.
               Before both cases are solved Bosch comes in contact with the most abhorrent of criminals –pedophiles and a serial killer as well as politically compromised individuals at many levels. Everyone from a journalist pursuing stories to cops and politicians doing favors are potential double crossers. Who is trustworthy when it seems everybody – including Bosch – will cross ethical lines?
One Bosch step over the line includes romancing the social worker counseling the pedophile he’s investigating. The mutual attraction makes for the oddest of courtship rituals; Hannah wants to know where Harry stands on the age-old question– where does evil come from before they proceed with a relationship. The two work at professions that are seemingly at odds on how to respond to darkened hearts. The discussion is an occasion for a theme at the book’s core – the relationship of nature and nurture to the formation of character. That theme also plays out, ironically  in Harry and Hannah’s lives. Harry is the single parent of a teenage daughter. Maddie, who has come to live with him, since the death of her mother, wants to be a cop just like dad.  By contrast, Hannah reveals she has a bad apple son, who’s choices are so different from hers that she struggles to understand him.
While The Drop’s crimes include monstrous acts involving rape and torture, Connelly doesn’t hover over gruesome details.  There are other books for those who wish to look at grisly scenes and cringe. Even better, those curious for grotesque details can revisit the paintings of Bosch’s namesake. Connelly chooses instead to fill his pages describing old and new facets of Bosch’s character as partner, lover, father and future retiree.  Some of the most heartfelt moments are those Bosch spends with 15-year old daughter.  Precocious Maddie seems wise beyond her years – and potentially as good a detective as Bosch.  This comes with  sweet sadness for Bosch readers. He’s getting old and he knows it, feels it.  He tells Maddie he’s losing his edge: “Well, I am thinking that I’m tailing off, you know? Like anything –athletics, shooting, playing music, even creative thinking--  there’s a drop-off of skills at a certain point. And  I don’t know, maybe I’m getting there and I should get out.”
               Which brings us to the double entendre to the title –  drop doesn’t just refer to the unexplained death of Irving’s son.  DROP stands for Deferred Retirement Option Plan, a program that allows the once-retired Bosch to work, but limits how long.  That gives Bosch just a few more cases and a few more years to nurture what  the inherent qualities that dominate daughter Maddie’s nature.
I’m looking forward to discovering the results. Let’s hope Connelly, who is just 55, isn’t  thinking of taking a page from Bosch  and considering slowing down. Though he may be a card carrying AARP member, he’s still got work to do. Maddie Bosch looks like she’s  got a future that will make interesting reading.