Tag Archive: mystery

Pot-collecting Gone Amok

Today’s book is A Thief of Time by Tony Hillerman.

Many of you may be familiar with Hillerman’s novels, but if you are not I will give you a bit of background. Hillerman was a best-selling mystery writer who set many of his most famous mysteries among the Navajo (Dine) people. Hillerman was widely praised over the years for the way that he (a white man) was able to depict the world of the Dine and life on and off the reservation. Hillerman’s work is great mystery writing, but really it is a fantastic glimpse into Dine life.

So A Thief of Time begins with the disappearance of an anthropologist who was studying Anasazi (the ancient cliff dwellers of the Southwest whose culture remains mysterious for anthropologists and historians) pot shards. Her disappearance eventually is linked the murders of three people who, in some way or another, were involved in her search for pottery at different sites on the reservation. Drawn into the investigation because of its complexity is Lt. Joe Leaphorn who is considering retirement after the sudden death of his wife, and the young tribal policeman Jim Chee.

Together Leaphorn and Chee manage to link the deaths through painstaking  police work that takes them all over the (enormous) reservation– and they set out to try to find out what happened to the anthropologist. Along the way they encounter a motley cast of people– a Dine lawyer who Chee grows fond of, a Dine Christian evangelist who deals in pots, pot collectors, a rogue anthropologist and a white rancher. As the two tribal policeman keep looking the plot grows more and more complicated, and concludes with a clever surprise ending that I did not see coming. (I had figured out who had done all the killing, but there is quite a twist at the end that impressed me.)

But the plot is not really the reason to read the novel– the reason is the way Hillerman depicts Dine culture and the landscape. The tiny, but essential details in describing the Anasazi ruins, the remote hogans, and the trailer (complete with rain barrels and tires on top) of Officer Chee. If you have ever been up to the Four Corners area, you realize that Hillerman’s descriptions of the rutted, unpaved roads and the desolate canyons are spot on. But it is not just the descriptions that are correct, but also Hillerman’s understanding of Dine culture– like how traditionalists don’t like the white man’s custom of the handshake (usually they will offer only the briefest of one), or how they tend to nickname people by their physical characteristics, or how silence, for them is a respectful way to allow a speaker to finish a story,  whereas asking questions is considered uncouth. Hillerman also had an impressive grasp on the varieties of religions that the Dine adhere too– those who are on the Jesus Road, the Peyote Way, the Blessing Way, witchcraft and those who just sort of ignore it all.  The books are rich in understanding of the Dine way of life, and it is these little cultural nuances and understandings that lead Leaphorn and Chee to solve the mystery.

Hillerman’s books are richer than your average mystery novel and they are written well and are suspenseful enough to keep you hooked. I tend to read them whenever I travel– taking a little piece of the Southwest with me wherever I go. When I was a child my parents took me up to see the Dine and a Dine guide took us through Canyon de Chelley to see the Anasazi ruins and to be shown (and told the story) of the Long Walk. The majesty of the canyons in that area is unparalleled, and when I saw a thunderstorm move through Monument Valley as we camped on a mesa, I understood why it was known as the Valley of the Gods. It is a beautiful place, inflected with an ancient culture that today, still hangs on, even in the face of change and staggering difficulty. Hillerman portrays all of this deftly, and while I have enjoyed many of his books in the past, A Thief of Time proved to be fresh and thoughtful

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

Its a Crewel, Crewel World.

Today’s book is Crewel World by Monica Ferris, The first in the “Patterns of Murder” Needlecraft mysteries.

Okay, a word as to how I got to a mystery series that involves the needlecrafting world. J knows this about me, but even as a good friend, I doubt he knows the depths of my obsession. Anyway when I am not reading I knit, crochet, needlepoint and cross-stitch. I like to keep my hands busy. So this week was a rough one for me, with some dental work having gone awry, and as anyone knows, it can be really hard to function when you are in pain. So the week left me tired, in a haze and feeling like a limp noodle, so at the week’s end I finally got myself off the sofa and to my cross-stitch group.

Once there, my friend L came rolling in with a huge tote bag full of books. “For you” she said (she knows about the blog project) “This is stuff you can read without too much effort while your jaw heals up.”  The bag contained mostly mystery novels, and one of them was Crewel World, which I set out to read immediately.

So the setup of the book is that a woman named Margot owns a needlepoint/yarn shop in a small town in Minnesota. Her sister, Betsy, comes to live with her after her college professor husband runs off on her with a student. Margot is one of those pillars of the community that so many small towns have, a widow who is deeply involved and well liked, and Betsy is regarded by the members of the town as an oddity that Margot has to take care of out of sisterly obligation. That is until Margot is murdered in her needlecraft shop one night, leaving Betsy to try to solve the murder, keep the shop running, and deal with small town life.

I won’t go further in terms of details because that would spoil the fun. I will say that Ferris has a sharp eye for very funny one-liners and draws convincing and very human characters. I lived in a small town in the Midwest for a year, while on an academic fellowship, and Ferris’ descriptions of how everyone knows everyone’s business in a small town are spot on. Small rural towns are odd that way, and I remember being shocked myself about how much people knew about my comings and goings when I lived in one. (My dog had a surgery that year and I remember that when I would walk very slowly with her while she was recovering people would stop me as say “Is that the little dog that Dr So-and-So operated on? I hear she is walking again and that he did a great job!” These would be people I did not know and it sort of amazed me how the ENTIRE TOWN of 5000 people  knew that my dog had knee surgery-I grew up in a huge city, so small town life was very different to me. Actually, at times it could be a shock.) Ferris also picks up on the small, petty feuds that develop over time in a small town and how the needlecraft shop served as one of the centers of gossip and activity in the town itself (and yes the town I lived in for that year had a needlecraft shop. And yes it was always bustling with gossip and people, as everyone would sit with their doughnuts and knitting and talk about who died, who was divorcing who, who had a baby, etc.) Also my guess is that Ferris must have modeled her book’s shop on one of the massive and frankly, awesome, needlecraft shops in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota. I know this because I was up in the area this past summer and stopped at a few of the shops.  Let me tell you, Minnesota does yarn shops right. Really, I have never seen so many  amazing shops in one general area.

The plot is a bit pat, but the depictions of small-town life, the knowledge of the crafts and the well drawn characters more than make up for it in this book. A pleasant and comforting read for anyone in the needlearts, plus its fun to see if you can guess who the murderer is.  It was, as L had suggested, exactly the kind of book to read when one is feeling crummy and the brain is a bit mushy. Recommended for lovers of mysteries, especially those involving the needlearts.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

P.S. For those of you who don’t know, “Crewel” is a form of embroidery done with wool.

Late Medieval Whodunnit

Okay, I’m finally veering a bit from the existentialist/curmudgeon tone I set in my first several posts (for the time being).  With the new semester starting, and things thus a little more hectic, I decided to go for something short and sweet.  On my mother’s recommendation, I picked up a mystery novel by Margaret Frazer.

The Servant’s Tale, the second in Frazer’s Sister Frevisse Medieval Mystery series, tells a story of intrigue in the most unlikely of places: a rural Benedictine nunnery (St. Frideswide) in fifteenth century England.  The story centers on Meg, a poor commoner working as a scullery maid at the monastery in order to try to scrape up enough money to make her younger son Hewe a priest.  Early in the novel a traveling band of players arrives at St. Frideswide, bringing along Meg’s husband Barnaby, who had been terribly injured in a wagon accident.  Though at first he seems to be on the mend, Barnaby dies mysteriously in the night.  The nuns assume the death came about naturally as a result of an unseen wound, but it leaves poor Meg devastated.  Unfortunately for Meg, her husband’s death is just the first of a series of deaths, culminating in a surprising ending.

Sr. Frevisse stands in a long line of religious sleuths that includes G. K. Chesterton’s Fr. Brown and Ralph McInerny’s Fr. Dowling.  What makes The Servant’s Tale (and, I assume, the rest of the books in the series) distinctive is Frazer’s descriptions of late medieval society.  Everyday, ordinary things that we in twenty-first century America take for granted – a warm place to sleep at night, the availability of various kinds of food, ease of travel – are shown to be rare commodities in medieval England.  To take but one example, before his death Barnaby gives his wife a special treat he had earned and brought back for her: an orange.  At first, Meg is unsure of what it is, and she shrieks in terror as Dame Frevisse attempts to show her how to take the skin off, thinking the nun will ruin it.  Frazer later describes the delight and wonderment of Meg and her son Hewe when they finally open the orange and partake of it at home, commenting on how different an orange is on the inside than an apple.  To us, this is common sense, but Frazer reminds us that it was not always so, and in this way reminds us of the wonder of ordinary things.

Frazer also has clearly done her homework and captures the feel of monastic life beautifully (or at least it’s the way I suspect monastic life to be).  The nuns are not all saints – they each have their foibles, pet peeves, and animosities.  Nevertheless, they regularly come together for prayer, invited with the standard Latin greetings, and they humbly obey the will of the prioress, Domina Edith.

One other aspect of the book that I enjoyed was its pace.  It is not until nearly halfway through the book that the first recognizable murder takes place.  Even then, the murders unfold slowly, and Frazer throws in just enough credible suspects and motives to keep the reader uncertain.  At the same time, as with any good mystery novel, once the crime is solved, all of the clues are seen to have been there all along.

There are some elements of the book that I cannot comment on for fear of giving away the ending, but the thing that struck me the most was Frazer’s portrayal of the medieval mind and of medieval society.  The people of the fifteenth century had very different priorities than we do, and yet in other ways were not that different from us.  This reminder, combined with the challenge of solving the mystery, makes The Servant’s Tale an engaging and worthwhile read.

Seven down, (at least) forty-five to go.