Where's Your Book Today?

That's what people always say to me at work, if I don't have a book or my PDA or my eBookwise Reader with me at lunch. I love to read and I guess it's obvious. So many books, so little time...and so much dust in my apartment.

Friday, April 07, 2006

"Straight into Darkness" by Faye Kellerman

A friend at work introduced me to Faye Kellerman's Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus series many years ago. I loved the look into a world I'd never seen before, and enjoyed watching the evolution of the relationship between Peter (cynical, rather agnostic LA cop) and Rina (devout orthodox Jew). In fact, I find that the mysteries I enjoy most are those that are strong in the character development of the investigators and their partners/friends. I don't tend to read mysteries just for the mystery.

I haven't read the last couple of Decker/Lazarus books, though, because the series has become flat and repetitive. It had jumped the shark, so to speak. The focus moved off Decker and Lazarus, and more onto Decker's grown daughter, who is--well--whiny and uninteresting. And very white-bread America. She wasn't what "hooked" me into the series.

I noticed "Straight into Darkness" on a display at the library and was pleased to see a standalone book from Ms. Kellerman. The book is set in Munich, Germany in 1929. Kellerman's notes on the back cover and in the introduction, as well as her orthodox background, led me to think this would be mostly about the coming Holocaust and the treatment of the Jews. I had expectations...but for the most part they were unfounded. This is a murder mystery, with a series of female victims, that in many ways just happens to be set in a Germany that was heading for World War II.

Because it wasn't anything I expected it to be, I'm not sure how I feel about the book. It seemed a bit gratuitous to set a book in this time in history and not have it be specifically about the war, about Hitler, about the mistreatment of millions of Jews and Gypsies, homosexuals and intellectuals, and so on. Oh, they were mentioned and were a part of the story. But I tried to think how I would feel if someone wrote a thriller about a serial killer in New York City who just happened to be murdering women on September 11, 2001. Something about it just seems wrong.

But if I don't think about that, I found it an interesting book. Kellerman writes richly descriptive prose...and I found myself immersed in a world where horses and automobiles still shared the roads, where having indoor plumbing and electrical wiring were a sign of people having money, or that they lived in a newly constructed building to have such "luxuries."

The story is told from the point of view of the detective (inspektor) investigating a series of murders. He's hindered by things that hinder us today - a desire to have a scapegoat, a politicians demand to placate the masses and avoid panic, an ambitious boss who isn't always supportive. He's also hindered by the political and societal climate of the time.

He's not a particularly likeable guy. He and his fellow cops stole money from one of the victims' homes. He cheated on his wife, but had little respect - and possibly even battered - his mistress. And stereotypically, he's a workaholic and isn't as available for his family as he could be.

And yet, in other ways, he is an honorable man. He won't back down when his boss demands he name a scapegoat - the Jewish husband of one of the victims - as the killer. He is vocal in his disgust with the politics of the Nazis. He makes an active effort to counteract the propaganda his teenage son is hearing in school. And he truly wants to solve the murders.

It was uncomfortable in some ways for me to be rooting for him. I want my heroes to be more--well--heroic. And yet you do find yourself rooting for him. You want him to solve the murders. You want him to beat the clock and get the bad guys and prove his cynical boss wrong.

With most mysteries, I either figure out who the bad guy is within the first couple chapters, or I feel there was no way I could have figure out who the bad guy was. This book was in the second category. I actually had to look back to the beginning of the book to see if we'd even met the murderer before the big reveal. (Yes).

So do I recommend it? Well, um, yeah, I guess. On my very subjective scale, I put it at 3.5 out of 5. More of a B- than a C+. The descriptions are lush. The look into life in the late 20s was fascinating. The historical context was thought-provoking.

But the stereotypes seemed harsh: All the cops are somewhat unethical. All the Germans seemed to harbor hatred for the Jews and other minorities. All the men cheat on their wives or think it is acceptable to do so. And if part of your enjoyment of a good mystery is trying to solve it yourself, just give it up. You're not going to be given enough information to do that until the end...and it'll be out of the bad guy's own mouth.

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