The purpose of art is to delight us; certain men and women (no smarter than you or I) whose art can delight us have been given dispensation from going out and fetching water and carrying wood. It's no more elaborate than that. — David Mamet

"Mma Ramotswe had a detective agency in Africa, at the foot of Kgale Hill." So begins this pleasant collection of stories about the early investigations of Precious Ramotswe, an intelligent and sensible woman who, having inherited the proceeds of her Daddy's 200 cattle, decides to do something more interesting than investing in a butchery or a garage. As mysteries, these stories are slight, but they have a fine sense of place. Look again at that first sentence; just a hint of an allusion to Out of Africa, a gesture, no more. Later, she sums up the Bostwana memory of the South African Bantustans: "It was all such a waste, she thought, such an utter folly, and when the time had come it had just faded away like the illusion that it had always been."

June 16, 2003 (permalink)

A festival of changed meanings, this fine and intriguing story is the tale of the creation of The One and One Try, Authoritative, Historically Correct and Officially Approved Report on the Amazing Rise, etc., know to us as I Samuel 6 through I Kings 2. The original, Heym observes, is the tale of a remarkable revolutionary, adapted to the needs of a conservative dynast. This retelling, in turn, was composed by a Nazi-era exile who turned against the American lifestyle and returned to the East, a German intellectual who wrote in English. And, of course, the novel meant something different in 1972 Berlin than it does after a reunification that carried Heym to the German parliament.

It makes an interesting pair with God Knows, of course. Heym is less funny, less interested in the humanity of David, and (I suspect) less interested in Jewishness. He's a lot more interested, on the other hand, in the issues David faced, and in the nature of history and historical evidence. He adores textual and political seams and chasms. This bears all the signs of a book that ran away with the author, but it's a fun ride.

June 12, 2003 (permalink)

A small book with a small, profound point: a film, according to Mamet, is composed of a sequence of uninflected shots, all directed at telling the story. "The main questions a director must answer," he begins, "are: 'where do I put the camera?' and 'what do I tell the actors?'" It's a very slender book for your $14.00, but a fine one.

May 28, 2012 (permalink)

The Sinister Pig
Tony Hillerman

Hillerman's full complement -- Joe Leaphorn, Jim Chee, Cowboy Dashee, and Bernadette Manuelito -- are on hand to investigate an odd homicide, made even odder by the curious efforts of the FBI to convince everyone that everything is perfectly fine. As usual, Hillerman gets the West right, without effort or affectation. The complex plot drifts toward thriller territory, and Hillerman is (as usual) less comfortable in the halls of power.

To be honest, I think Hillerman is more effective when he lets his police work small crimes. Who keeps pushing over the new windmill? Why'd you pick up the wrong Begay? How come the people in some remote corner of the reservation think evil witches are abroad? It's exciting to see Manuelito here n the middle of an international drug cartel, but it was just as exciting in the old days to see Chee in the middle of a county-wide sheep-napping ring. Lots of people can do thrillers, Hillerman can make us care about sheep and windmills. I miss the little cases.

June 3, 2003 (permalink)

A Test Of Wills
Charles Todd

This intense, psychologically-dense police procedural dispatches Inspector Rutledge to a small Warwickshire village. The Great War is all too recent, and Rutledge, having survived the trenches, is scouting the frontiers of schizophrenia.

May 24, 2003 (permalink)

Modern C++ Design
Andrei Alexandrescu

This intriguing and influential book explores C++ techniques on the frontiers of current practice. Most of the issues addressed concern templates and generic programming, such as a typelist template for passing lists of types to templates. It uses a CAR/CDR style to handle argument lists of indefinite size. There's a flexible smart pointer class based on pluggable policies that illustrates both the design space of smart pointers and the value of policies.

In the end, I have to wonder: isn't this getting too hard? It feels like Coplien's purple book, which notoriously shows amazing things to do with C++, if only one wanted to that kind of thing. I keep wanting to ask: if you need to go to these extremes, might you just be better off in Smalltalk or Common LISP?

May 14, 2003 (permalink)

Hard Rain
Janwillem van de Wetering

Perhaps the end of a wonderful series of mysteries, Hard Rain tries something very difficult and, like Sgt. De Gier of the Amsterdam Murder Brigade, blunders about and gets away with everything. This confrontation between our commisaris and his powerful, evil cousin is exceptional for van de Wetering, whose quietly reflective and often hilarious mysteries probe zen mind, the lasting consequences of WWII in daily European life, and the essence of Dutchness.

There was a bicycle ahead now, very much in the way. De Gier missed it.

De Gier slowed down, looking for a parking place. "That cyclist shouldn't have been on the tracks. Tracks are for trams."

"We aren't a tram."

"And for emergencies," de Gier said.

"We aren't an emergency."

"We're a continuous emergency," de Gier said pleasantly, after he'd parked the car was was strolling next to Gipstra through narrow alleys. "That's why I joined the police."

May 14, 2003 (permalink)

This fine little history of the Ottoman Empire helps explain how the Ottomans came to power, and why the slow decay of their empire began almost at once. This is the story that, in the end, provides the origin for The Balkans and also for The Middle East. Recommended by the best political weblog I've seen, Talking Points Memo.

May 10, 2003 (permalink)

The Big Gamble
Michael McGarrity

McGarrity writes fine mysteries, and this is one of them. Like his previous book, Under Cover Of Law, this is a confection -- this time out, it's a Big Case in which what starts out to be a routine arson investigation ramifies into a Colossal Criminal Conspiracy. It's good, clean, well-written fun.

One of the charms of Tularosa, McGarrity's wonderful first novel, is that the mysteries weren't colossal. McGarrity has a great sense of place and procedure -- he used to be a New Mexico cop, he seems to have great contacts -- but of late his plots have been growing and growing. If your detective works in Washington or Geneva, sure, it makes sense to walk those corridors of power. The point of being in New Mexico, it seems to me, is that it gives you space to work the case.

Do editors push for big plots? V. I. Warshawski is always just coming off a small case where she nailed a dishonest employee for dummy invoices or such. I felt the same way about her; I'd be happy to hear more about these mundane little bread-and-butter cases even if they don't always involve senators, helicopters, and gunplay.

May 10, 2003 (permalink)

Back Story
Robert B. Parker

"We were in a new restaurant called Spire. Susan was barely drinking a Cosmopolitan."

This pretty much sums up Parker's latest Spenser novel. It's fun. It's written with care, wit, and humor. Not many writers, after all, can make us grin with a single pedestrian adverb inserted into a simple declarative sentence,

And there's the usual Robert Parker baggage. Using brand names and plugging your favorite haunts seemed an edgy and economical in the '80s, but now it feels lazy. Every year, the dialog gets more spare and the characters more archetypical. At point point, Hawk actually mentions this to Susan and Spenser: "'You folks barely talk,' he said, smoothing Pearl's ears. 'One of you say something cryptic, the other one say, 'I know.' Pretty soon you be speaking in clicks.'"

Faults and all, I kept grinning throughout. It's good to visit with Spenser, Hawk, Susan, and Paul. They're family, and though we know their limitations, it's nice to have them around.

April 20, 2003 (permalink)

This extraordinarily lively and well written biography nicely reconciles the political, literary, and scientific careers of this extraordinarily talented colonist who did indeed become, for much of the educated world, the first American. In the course of his many sea journeys to England and France, he discovered the Gulf Stream. In the course of speculating on infectious diseases and the etymology of the common cold, he asserted that neither cold nor wet seemed likely to cause illness, but being confined in a small, stuffy space with an ailing person often does. (Adams and Franklin had a bitter argument over this one night when they had to share a room in a crowded New Jersey inn) Franklin was probably the leading scientist of his generation, and his success in London and Paris made him post-colonial decades before the colonies dreamt of a new order of things.

April 19, 2003 (permalink)

Gaudy Night
Dorothy Sayers

Returning from a conference at Oxford, I couldn't resist the temptation to pick up this wonderful academic mystery once more. I recalled rereading it in the early 1992, after another Oxford conference, but Tinderbox reminds me that I read it last year as well. That, after all, is what commonplace books are for!

What are the best mystery stories of all time? Lists are a suspect enterprise, and I certainly wouldn't want to attempt to rank them in order, but here are some suggestions for five novels that almost certainly belong on the all-time desert-island list.

  • Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night
  • John Le Carré, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
  • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles
  • Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon
  • Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

Like all such lists, mine tends to be weighted with old writers, but I think I'm fairly safe in placing these five somewhere in the top ten. Interestingly, choosing from amongst one writer's work is less difficult than I'd expected, though one could make a case for Nine Tailors , or for The Spy Who Came In From the Cold , or perhaps for The Long Goodbye .

Identifying the remaining five would take a great deal of thought. What are we to do, for instance, about Agatha Christie, for whose puzzles I don't much care but whose influence was immense? I think Hillerman fits, somewhere, but which Hillerman? I'm tempted to nominate Janwillem van de Wetering's The Maine Massacre, but I'd feel better if any of my Dutch colleagues had heard of his wonderful novels.

But the primary purpose of the inquiry is easily resolved. If there are ten spots on the list, Gaudy Night almost surely deserves one of them.

April 6, 2003 (permalink)

Yet another fine novel about a ten year-old Southern girl of spunk, imagination, and wit, Donna Tartt's long-awaited second novel shimmers with quietly fine writing. It's a long story, perhaps too long, filled with small episodes and minor characters too well drawn to cut. Because the protagonist is ten, people call this a coming-of-age story, but it's not: at the end, we still don't really know who Harriet Dufresne is going to be. That doesn't matter. She's having one hell of a summer, and we're along for the ride.

March 3, 2003 (permalink)

Spirited Away is easily dismissed as a gemlike Japanese animation, fun for fans and for families with kids. It think it's more. Here is a brilliantly realized world, rich in detail, thoroughly considered and thoroughly explained without every being over-explained.

The weight of explanation falls almost entirely on the artwork, in part because the sound track of this Studio Ghibli/Disney co-production has to accommodate both Japanese and English. That works beautifully. We see the bathhouse of the spirits, from the lowest storage room to the topmost penthouse. We see how the workers eat and sleep, what they wear, how they get their new assignments each morning.

It's fascinating to look at the character designs and concept sketches of any movie and see how the final conception emerged over time. Often, it's amazing how close a quick sketch can come to the final product: J. M. Straczynski's hurried back-of-the-envelope sketch of the original idea for Babylon 5, for example, covers not only the big arc of this 100-hour, five-year epic but also many of the small details that shape the edges of the tale. It's interesting, too, to detect patterns of compromise and negotiation: Miyazaki and the chief animator, is seemed, were constantly redrawing 10-year-old Chihiro's chest line in an organizational tug of war.

But, above all, the genius is in the details. The art is conceived in the key of red -- and (the art director notes) it's a red illuminated by incandescent light, the way you'd have seen it fifty or seventy years ago, not the cooler fluorescent lighting you'd see in a public monument today. Spirits arrive alone or with friends, and some of the minor spirits arrive in Japanese tour groups. Serving them takes a complex administration: who accounts for the bath salts? How do you prevent waste? Who serves the servants, and how do they spend their free time? It's all here, and it's all shown.

December 15, 2002 (permalink)