Promises to Keep, by George Bernau

Nine stars

George Bernau delivers a powerful novel that addresses one of the great political conspiracies in U.S. History and explores it through the lens of alternate history, forcing the readers to ponder ‘what if?’ throughout. On November 22, 1963, US President John Trewlaney Cassidy is in Dallas as part of a pre-campaign swing and to address business leaders. After shots ring out, chaos ensues as it becomes clear that president has been shot in the head. Rushed to Parkland Hospital, President Cassidy is barely clinging to life, with half his head blown away and those around him covered in blood and brain matter. Doctors rush and the world waits for news, which is slow to come, exacerbated by the medical severity of the wounds and the notoriety of the patient. It is beyond grim and yet Mrs. Cassidy will not leave his side, while others hold vigil in the nearby chapel. Doctors work frantically to save the Leader of the Free World… and succeed in keeping him alive through the night. Thus begins a turn of the history wheel as Bernau weaves together a wonderful narrative where every turn begets a new unknown. While President Cassidy is clinging to life, Vice-President Ransom Gardner steps up and takes the reins of power, albeit temporarily, through a never before used presidential order to cover incapacitation. While Cassidy is unable to hold down the Office of President, Gardner takes the active role and works as best he can, alongside Attorney General and brother to POTUS, Tim Cassidy. The daily running of America waits for no man and so Gardner ‘reluctantly’ agrees to steer the ship. There is an election on the horizon, under a year away, and all eyes are on whether the elder Cassidy will be fit to run, or if Gardner ought to take the Demorats into this most auspicious battle against a group of eager Republicans, feeling they can strike at the opposition’s instability. While Washington heats up, FBI Special Agent Jim Sullivan cannot accept the single shooter premise that was presented to the world. He saw something close to a grassy knoll and is not prepared to let everything be swept under the rug. However, he is being stonewalled by his superiors and must chase down leads all on his own. This leads him to Mexico, New Orleans, and even some whispers of a Cuban connection. What Sullivan discovers is not only monumental, but could show that the failure in Dallas could spell a continued threat for all Cassidys. The deeper Sullivan digs, the more people die, leaving him to wonder if there is a major cover-up underway within the American Government. Over the next few years, Vietnam rears its ugly head and talk of Castro’s Cuba inundate political conversations in Washington, forcing the man in the Oval Office to make a major decision. Election Year 1968 is on the horizon and many are out for blood. A brilliant piece so full of twists and newly-forged history, Bernau leaves the reader wondering how much of those five years of the 1960s will be replicated in the book, and how much has been changed forever by the results of the assassination failure. Perfect for JFK buffs and history lovers alike, Bernau delivers a gem.

I have long been enthralled with the JFK assassination for as long as I can remember. Who did it? Why? What does the public not know? All this is slowly and methodically revealed in this powerful novel that allows Bernau to use the loose framework of what we all know and superimpose his own reality. The cast of characters is formidable, some of which are easily recognisable to the reader, though their altered names may force a brief scramble to recollect. The alternate history premise allows Bernau to weave an entirely new reality, which he does, while keeping a strong political flavour to the story. Of greatest interest to me was the development of the theory put forth by Jim Sullivan as to who planned and sought to execute the assassination, as well as how deep it went. Any reader who loves the Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories will be salivating as the story progresses and takes many turns, some of which make total sense, even based on the actual information on hand and available to the public. Even through the novel was published close to three decades ago, it still holds a massive gut punch that any curious and dedicated reader will love. I strongly recommend this book, which reads well, though can get bogged down in detail and numerous storylines.

Kudos, Mr. Bernau for such a sensational piece. I cannot believe I knew NOTHING about this book until I saw it online for a very reasonable price. I will surely be checking out some of your other alternate history books in the coming months.

Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff

Eight stars

Beginning a month (or forty days) of biographies, I thought I would work through this buddy read. In her biography of Cleopatra, Schiff takes the reader along a winding adventure into the world before the Common Era, where actions to unite came at the cost of land and life, both bloody endeavours. Born into the Ptolemaic dynasty that ruled Egypt, Cleopatra was of Macedonia Greek origin at a time of much political and geographic change. Her family ruled over the region with an iron fist and would not diminish themselves to speak Egyptian, choosing Greek for their daily interactions. However, Cleopatra did eventually learn the language and customs of the locals, if only to further strengthen her time as ruler of the region. After the death of her father, Ptolemy XII, Cleopatra was required to serve as co-ruler of Egypt with her brothers, Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV, both of whom she had to marry, as per Egyptian custom. However, neither liaison brought about children and Cleopatra was soon able to cast them off and reigned alone, ingratiating herself with the locals by citing that she was the reincarnated Egyptian goddess, Isis. With Egypt being eyed by Rome as a potential item of acquisition, Cleopatra headed to Europe to liaise with Julius Caesar, an event that led to a secret tryst, leaving Cleopatra the Emperor’s mistress. Nine months later, Cleopatra bore a son from this union, whom she named Caesarian, or little Caesar. Upon Caesar’s assassination in the Roman Senate, Cleopatra found herself in an interesting position, both as the mother of the Emperor’s child and as ruler of Egypt; she had to choose a side to fill the Roman void. Turning to back Marc Antony, Cleopatra and all of Egypt held their collective breath as the Roman Civil War grew in fervour, pitting Antony against Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (later known as Augustus). While events in Rome were becoming bloodier, Egypt stood in the middle as the prized possession of both factions, with Cleopatra still holding the reins of power. Her backing Antony turned romantic and Cleopatra bore him twins, Cleopatra II and Alexander Helios, as well as another son, Ptolemy Philadelphus. Their passion was strong and Schiff left the impression that it might have helped Cleopatra see Egypt as both fertile in its political and cultural heterogeneity. Schiff discusses a fairly significant hierarchy between the common Egyptian and the upper-class Greeks and Mesopotamian. During the Roman Civil War, Schiff also discusses Cleopatra fervour to exact revenge on enemies within the state, quelling any who spoke out against her, including a sister that threatened her hold on power, and sentiments that might have been interpreted as against Antony’s forces. After the loss at a key battle, Antony attempted suicide in shame, though the historical narrative differs at this point, depending on which account the reader might follow. Schiff presents both the idea that Cleopatra learned of her lover’s death and killed herself, or had Marc Antony brought to her on the verge of death and witnessed his final breath, before allowing herself to be bitten by an asp. The reader can parse through this and some of the other accounts to come up with their own personal finale, but all the same, Cleopatra’s life centred around reigning the land eventually subsumed into the new Roman Empire and her passionate connection with two famous Romans, both firmly established in the record books. A biography thick with information, nuances, and powerful symbolism, Schiff is sure to impress any reader to dares take the time to investigate the life and times of this most famous Egyptian ruler.

This is my second Schiff biography, which seeks to shed light on powerful and controversial women in history. The attentive reader will no doubt realise the onerous task of trying to amass a biography of a woman as popular as Cleopatra. Misnomers pepper the historical record, making the discovery of a true story all the more difficult, though Schiff does a formidable job in collecting a thread by which the reader can follow events somewhat fluidly. Additionally, all formal documents were created either in that time before the Common Era or within a hundred years thereafter, let alone that many were penned in languages that have either since died or been significantly altered. Schiff shows readers why she is worthy of another Pulitzer for her detailed work in weaving a digestible biography, adding fact to a narrative chock full of dates and political happenings. I found things difficult to follow at times, which could be a mix of my own mental acuity and the amount of information each chapter presented, though Schiff is not to blame for my lack of cognizance. I only wish I could have latched on better to what was being presented, as I am sure I could have ascertained even more out of this wonderful piece. Told frankly and succinctly, Schiff does a masterful job that anyone with a passion and curiosity for biographies will find endearing and truly captivating.

Kudos, Madam Schiff for another wonderful biography. I am eager to find more that you have written down the road as I continue to expand my knowledge of areas in which I am interested but know very little.

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, by Roald Dahl

Eight stars

For this end of the month buddy read, I agreed to another Roald Dahl classic, though not one I have ever attempted before. This is a story within a story, which adds additional layers in its telling and the review. Henry Sugar is a wealthy and extremely egocentric man who gambles every chance he gets. While perusing the private library of an acquaintance, Sugar comes across a school tablet containing the summary of an interview with Imhrat Khan, an Indian man with a special talent. As Sugar reads, he discovers that Khan could see the world around him without using his eyes after extensive consultation and training with a yogi. Through Khan’s tale, Sugar learns the art of intense concentration, which he feels might be highly useful for his own gambling needs. After years of training, Sugar has honed these skills, now ready to put them to use. After winning a decent amount at his favourite gambling establishment, he has a form of epiphany, seeking to turn his winnings into something better. Dahl crafts the rest of this story around Sugar and how he will use these skills around the world to benefit others, a Robin Hood of sorts. By the end, all is revealed to the reader, or at least enough to keep everyone in some degree of suspense. An interesting story that might move outside the realm of past children’s stories flowing from Dahl’s pen, but is just as delightful for readers of all ages.

Anything Roald Dahl is sure to be a highly entertaining read, which is supported with this piece. Dahl offers up another winner in this brief tale that offers two stories for the price of one. Layering both the Khan tale and the progression of Sugar’s own epiphany allows Dahl to offer two insights for his reader, if you will pardon the pun. While the cast of characters is minimal, the reader makes do with what is put before them and can discover a wonderfully engaging piece that speaks to each person differently. Working both in the heart of India (Khan) and England (Sugar), Dahl can show his reader the relatively large difference between the cultures and mindsets, though the end result remains the same; there are those who are greedy all over and those who seek to render their individual abilities for their own profit. One might say this story is geared more for the mid-level reader to better grasp the ideas presented, though the narrative and dialogue are nothing too ghastly.

Kudos, Mr. Dahl for another exciting story that I can now say that I have added to my already burgeoning collection.

The Princess Diarist (Memoir #3), by Carrie Fisher

Seven stars

In the final of her short memoirs, Carrie Fisher turns her focus onto the inevitable Star Wars franchise and her memories from being on the set in 1976. As the book opens, Fisher lists a number of memorable occurrences from the year, all of which made the filming of a low-budget space fantasy film pale in comparison, or so it would seem. While she does not mention it explicitly, years of excessive drug use and electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) surely scrambled some of the memories and would make them less than pristine. However, Fisher mentions discovering the diary she kept while working on set, which jogged her memory enough to explore many of the events from that spring. While she was the daughter of the famous duo, Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, Carrie was still forced to go through the rigours of auditioning for roles and emerge with less than stellar results in the early days. She began her cinematic life with a small role in Shampoo, a film written and starring Warren Beatty. Fisher recounts a fairly odd interaction when she, as a mere seventeen year-old, was ogled by Beatty as he decided if she ought to go bra-less on set for her one scene. From there, it was trying to sell herself for either the role of Princess Leia in Star Wars or Carrie in the eponymous film based on the Stephen King novel. George Lucas, a seemingly mute troll, saw much potential in Fisher playing Leia and so began the journey. What some have come to find as the most revealing portion of the memoir (and to which Fisher admits she waited forty years to share) is an extensive discussion about off-screen interactions between Fisher and Harrison Ford. Feeling that four decades is enough time to have held back and fearing the affair could be smeared if revealed after her death (does anyone else notice the coincidence?), Fisher discusses a kiss in the back of a production car between Ford (thirty-four) and herself (nineteen), that led to a weekend of sheet wrinkling passion and was repeated throughout filming. Fisher wrestles with admitting that Ford was married and eventually surmises that it was likely more loneliness than a true connection between them, which is further substantiated when Fisher adds a collection of her diary entries that shows the infatuation she had for Ford. These entries from her teenaged self are offset with a collection of sentiments having fermented for four decades, which makes what happened in 1976 seem less scandalous to the reader. Fisher ends the memoir with some memories of trying to ‘sell’ this film that seemed to be doing so in its own and begins what became a massive science fiction franchise, alongside the rollout of trying to keep her stardom alive alongside interactions with many a quirky fan. An interesting, though very topic-specific, final memoir in the Carrie Fisher collection, the reader can bask in much of its raw honesty alongside a number of humorous anecdotes.  

I suppose I would call myself a fan of the Star Wars films, though I am by no means one of the hardcore variety. I did find some of these behind the scenes stories to be highly entertaining and did enjoy Fisher’s take on her interactions with Harrison Ford, though do not feel it was either as scandalous or as significant as some might find. While it was insightful to learn that Fisher felt so strongly for her co-star, there came a time when the actual journal entries became too much. It became all to apparent that Ford and Fisher were on different planes (might I say ‘galaxies’ and not have a symphony of eyebrow raises?), where the young Leia was awestruck by the suave Solo. These entries were well presented, though they soon became filled with poor poetry and supersaturated in angst. I digress, but a large portion of this piece focussed on that interaction and the fallout of their (love) affair. Fisher’s insights have me wanting to learn more about the backstories of Star Wars production, perhaps away from the sexual escapades of its prime actors, though Fisher does keep things discrete and professional while not denying the feelings she had at the time and recollections of them all these years later. Throughout all three pieces, I have come to realise that Fisher is a wonderful wordsmith, delivering humour and passion with so many verbal alternatives that the reader will see that this high-school dropout surely learned a great deal in the School of Life. Perhaps more of a tell-all than past memoirs, Fisher offers more seriousness than her usual humour in this instalment, unfortunately the last.

Kudos, Madam Fisher, for all the honesty that you explored in this final collection of memories. You will be missed and your name will forever rest in the minds of many as Princess Leia, though one can hope the moniker of ejaculatory assistant fades in time.

Shockaholic (Memoir #2), by Carrie Fisher

Seven stars

In the second of her short memoirs, Carrie Fisher returns with more anecdotes and funny stories that come from her life. Again, Fisher opens with the disclaimer that she underwent electro-convulsive therapy (ECT), which erased some of her past memories. She explores ECT a little more for the reader, both its origins in pre-WWII Italy and her own experiences with the treatment. ECT remains, as Fisher describes it, as a last-ditch effort to rid the mind of those looming clouds of depression, where psychotherapy has not worked and medication would only increase the ever-present fog. Fisher considers it a ‘blast of the cement walls of the brain’, which does a marvellous job while leaving some memory loss as a byproduct. Fisher also explored a number of personal struggles that befell her throughout life, especially those she did not discuss in Wishful Drinking. Due to her depression and the traumatic experience of losing a close friend, Fisher turned back to drugs and became unable to properly raise her daughter, Billie. This strained their relationship to the point that Fisher found herself in that horrible cycle of self-medicating to ease the pain of causing her daughter increased angst. Further chapters explore an extremely frank and acerbic exchange with Senator Edward Kennedy in the mid-80s while on a blind date with another member of Congress. The banter proved highly amusing, though Fisher recounts that she was not sure what to make of this man. Fisher also had a close relationship with Michael Jackson and spends much time defending him and offering a personal plea that Jackson was not the pedophile that many made him out to be, while acknowledging his relationship with children was anything but mainstream. I am not entirely convinced, but that is for another review on a entirely separate day. With Elizabeth Taylor as a close friend to Jackson and also one of Fisher’s former step-mothers, the memoir does come full circle to discuss Eddie Fisher and the relationship he had with his daughter. Sometime strained and inevitable quite irregular, Carrie Fisher does open up and speak honesty of the man, adding her own degree of heartfelt sentiment. Another interesting piece that offers more stories outside of the famed Star Wars tales, Fisher entertains readers looking for a little humour and insight without the weighty narrative of a substantial memoir or autobiography.

While I had little interest in her two novels, veiled memoirs of sorts, I find when Fisher steps out and tells the stories about her own life, they hold more impact for the reader. Less a tell-all than a means to give the reader a better understanding of her life, Fisher uses humour and the bluntness that she was in a drug-addled state for much of these years to recount poignant vignettes that made her the woman she became. Perhaps one to be someone centric and drop names throughout, Fisher does not appear to do this for the sake of fame, but to better explain some of her views on the Hollywood and New York communities. Not hiding behind her famous parents, but also not using them as a crutch to excuse her behaviour, Fisher offers readers a ‘behind the curtain’ look at the world she lived. Told with honesty and candour, the reader cannot help but appreciate her efforts between laughing at the antics that appear on the printed page.

Kudos, Madam Fisher for not trying to candy-coat things for the reader or those with whom you have crossed paths over the years.

Wishful Drinking (Memoir #1), by Carrie Fisher

Seven stars

Turning to the first of her short memoirs, I was faced with some of Carrie Fisher’s most interesting sentiments and humorous anecdotes detailing a life about which I knew very little. Fisher adds as an opening disclaimer that she underwent electro-convulsive therapy (ECT), which erased some of her past memories, so things within these pages might not be as clear or succinct as their actual occurrences. Born in the worst possible situation, the offspring of two Hollywood stars, Carrie Fisher found herself in the middle of the most complex family tree imaginable. With Eddie Fisher (an apparently famous crooner of the 1950s) and Debbie Reynolds (famous Hollywood starlet at a young age) as parents, Fisher was forced to live in their blinding glory and make a name for herself. However, as with many star-studded couples, her parents moved on to bigger and better things, leaving her as a child of divorce. Does she use this excuse to explain away her decision to turn to drugs and alcohol? Not at all, or at least no more than any other child. Fisher tells of a life both in Los Angeles and New York, following her mother along her successful but fading career before she ended up on the set of Star Wars at nineteen and carving out a name for herself. This single character (Princess Leia) has permeated Fisher’s very being and she was forever unable to shake its presence. Pulling out some stories about her interactions with George Lucas to explain why wearing a bra on set would not make scientific sense, her brief marriage to Paul Simon, and eventually marrying a man who got her pregnant and eventually announced that he was gay, Fisher takes the reader through a whirlwind tour of some of her most memorable moments, all surrounding an ever-increasing dependence on pills, psychiatrists, and flashes of fame. An interesting smattering of thoughts and memories, instilled with enough humour to leave the reader feeling this is an extended comedy dialogue, Fisher presents something to tide the reader over between larger and more substantial reading assignments. Funny for what it is, but not a stellar piece for those seeking an in-depth exploration of Carrie Fisher’s life.

Some might wonder why I am reading Carrie Fisher after I panned her two novels so recently. I knew what I was getting into with this book and it delivered precisely what I expected. While I might have preferred something more linear, I found myself interested in all the adventures, follies, and downright stupidity that crossed Fisher’s path. I knew her only as Princess Leia (though I was not one to plaster posters upon my wall) and so all of this proved both intriguing and even a little entertaining. Fisher does not try to gussy up her writing or her stories. They are precisely as she remembers them, though she does remind the reader of her ECT throughout the piece, which acts as a means to understand some of the more random commentaries found herein. Engaging and even a little provocative, Fisher serves her purpose by presenting this piece, the first in what became a series. We shall see what else comes to pass as the Force flows through me for the other two memoir-ish publications.

Kudos, Madam Fisher for entertaining and intriguing me. A nice appetizer before I delve into a month of hard-going biographies

The Best Awful (Suzanne Vale #2), by Carrie Fisher

Three stars

In her follow-up ‘novel’, Fisher continues this quasi-biographical story about Suzanne Vale. In this piece, Vale seems to have come to the horrible realisation that the man who got her pregnant has since had the sexual epiphany that he is gay. Struggling with this, Vale tries to put it all into perspective while bemoaning the offspring of a dual-celebrity relationship and the issues that are sure to be bestowed on her daughter, Honey. While Vale tries to come to terms with these new realities, she begins a carefree life that sees her trying to better understand this major change. What follows is a series of events that leave the reader with ringside tickets to the slow and constant spiral of an addict still incapable of handling the hard pitches that life seems to throw. Fisher still seems happy to amass a scattering of thoughts in veiled fiction form, with strong parallels to her own life. While a decent wordsmith, Fisher may have wanted to move away from the smarmy life she lived and choose a new avenue.

I respect that everyone has their life and that an author ought to write about what they know best. That said, writing quality is a major factor in producing a decent piece of fiction (and one would hope non-fiction as well). This remained more of a train wreck than the first ‘novel’ in the series and I can only be thankful that there will be no others. The difficulties of a Hollywood star bleed through the pages of this book, though it is as though Fisher wants to excuse the behaviour that comes with the pressure of life under the microscope. I am not prepared to give her a pass, even as she has passed on, and blow rainbows into this review for something that was less than mediocre. Vale proves to be even more vapid than the first story and offers little of insight or entertainment for the reader, save her running off the rails when things get a little difficult. Another story with few characters of interest and where most were lacklustre. Again the search for a plot turns up less than the manner Jabba the Hutt might have shown on a good day. Fisher again tries to tell a monologue of her life, though does not stick with the short memoirs that she has released. This is by no means the best of anything, but it was awful.

Shameful, Madam Fisher that you would continue to offer up such fictional drivel. Thank god you know how to write or this would have been the hottest mess I have come across in a long time. 

Postcards From the Edge (Suzann Vale #1), by Carrie Fisher

Four stars

In her first piece of fiction, Fisher seeks to relay some sentiments through this quasi-biographical story. Suzanne Vale is an actress who has succumbed to the horrors of addiction and finds herself in a treatment facility. While there, she recounts some of her views on fellow addicts and the trials of life on the inside. Released back into her real world, Vale begins the slow process of re-establishing herself, securing a new agent while trying to return to the life she knows so well. However, as seems to be the yoke of all those who have tasted fame, she finds herself in a form of purgatory, unsure where she fits in and how others will see her. By the end of this short piece, she has found a form of amorous connection, though it is unclear if it will be long-lasting. Truly a scattering of thoughts that tries to relate back to her own life, Fisher may have work her side-buns too tightly if this is supposed to be high quality writing.

I respect that everyone has their life and ideas that shape them. I also am sure that it is difficult to be a Hollywood actress and face the rigours of the bright lights and paparazzi on a daily basis. However, like all people, actors are people and have to face the everyday world. Fisher seeks, I think, to portray a form of herself in the Vale character, but it comes across more as a justification for acts and serves as a trivial and superficial approach to life. A few characters who were lacklustre and a plot… was there one? At times I was unsure what I was reading, wondering if this might be some form of monologue that sought to tell stories and anecdotes. This was not a story as much as it was a means to express herself without using her own name and experiences. If only to honour her recent passing, I will likely try the second Vale piece and see what comes of this, but I am certain to list RETURN TO SENDER on this particular postcard.

Thank you Madam Fisher for your insights. Perhaps stick to recounting stories about yourself and not using a straw man in the form of Suzanne Vale. 

Private Delhi (Private #13), by James Patterson and Ashwin Sanghi

Six stars

In the latest Private novel, James Patterson and Ashwin Sanghi take the action back to India, this time focussing their attention on Delhi. Jack Morgan arrives in country for an international security conference, taking some time to check on Private Delhi and its head, Santosh Wagh. After a number of near-death experiences working for Morgan in Mumbai, Wagh quit his job and returned to drowning his sorrows in a bottle of booze. However, Morgan saw much in this man and convinced him to give things another chance. Soon thereafter, Private Delhi took shape and had been thriving for a time. When a number of bodies turn up in large containers, dissolving in acid, whispers about a new serial killer emerges with the posh community on the southern part of the city. However, upon further inspection, this is not a private residence, but a house owned by the state government, which only adds to the rumours and gossip. Morgan agrees to have Private handle the matter when approached by a high-ranking member of the government, even as Wagh warns that this is solely a political competition between two powerful men. Reluctantly, Wagh leads his team into a case that has many nefarious layers in a country where nothing is clear-cut. The bodies found in those containers are missing organs and new victims soon emerge, political figures with sordid pasts. Once there is a connection between the deaths and organ procurement, Wagh can focus the investigation and limit the number of suspects, or can he? With an investigative reporter out for political blood, the investigation takes new and curious spins, which might cost Wagh everything all over again. A culturally interesting addition to the Private series, Patterson and Sanghi entertain the reader who might not be familiar with the practices in this populated portion of the world.

The advantage of the Private collection is that Patterson is able to tap into cultural and geographic nuances by engaging authors around the world to keep things fresh and spot-on. While some past novels have missed the mark, I quite enjoyed this one that seemed chock-full of cultural aspects and local customs not seen in the novels I tend to read. While I cannot speak confidently about how realistic the narrative tends to be, certain areas about organ procurement and the vast economic diversity within India seems to match information I have previously learned about the region. The array of characters keep the reader on their toes and trying to keep track of the entire cast. Wagh’s struggles do not take centre stage throughout the novel, though there is limited time to see much character growth with the purported protagonist. The plot remains rich and multi-faceted, choosing to hang on the theme of healthcare availability and how there is a significant chasm between what the members of various castes can access. Patterson and Sanghi have done well scripting this story and keeping it short enough that the reader could tackle it in a short period of time, while still leaving them wanting more. Impressive for what it is, this book remains at the top of the Private collection to date. 

Kudos, Messrs. Patterson and Sanghi for entertaining and teaching me much about India in short order. I am curious to see if you two will come together again for another joint venture before long.

The Hermit, by Thomas Rydahl

Seven stars

Continuing my tour of mysteries the world over through the eyes of authors new to me, I came across Thomas Rydahl. Winner of a few Danish literary awards, I thought it worth a look, if only to compare it to some of the other Scandinavian work I have read over the past few years. Erhard Jørgensen enjoys the quiet life with his two goats. A Danish ex-patriot living on the Canary Islands, Jørgensen contradicts himself by driving his taxi around for tourists and tuning the odd piano when requested by locals. His isolated lifestyle has earned him the moniker The Hermit, though Jørgensen winces whenever he hears it, choosing to defend his lifestyle as one of a tranquil senior citizen. When the local authorities approach him for help on a case, Jørgensen throws himself into the investigation and turns this into his newest obsession. A baby has been found dead in a car, wrapped in the pages of a Danish news magazine, but no one can identify either the child or the vehicle in which he was found. As Jørgensen seeks to learn a little more, the police choose to take the easy way out and bribe a prostitute to take the fall. However, Jørgensen wants justice and and answers, even if he will have to do it alone. Where the investigation takes him, only Jørgensen knows for sure, but when he finds himself in the middle of a travesty, things take a definite turn for the worse. Now a man with secrets of his own to keep, Jørgensen struggles to keep from revealing too much while he continues to search for the truth. As things become clearer, the question remains as to whether Jørgensen will be able to convince anyone to believe him before he becomes the next victim. A superior noir mystery that takes many turns, Rydahl has a winner on his hands. Patient and diligent readers ought to take a look at this finely-crafted piece, if only to weigh-in on the discussion.

The art of reading a novel not in its original language is one that some readers may find difficult, as I have come to learn through numerous conversations and review analyses. I find that a writer cannot necessarily be held accountable for the flow and rhythm of a story when the reader is given something other than the original text, in which language has been put through some sort of sieve. While I love Scandinavian mysteries and find their stories so intriguing, they are not for everyone. This novel’s content differs greatly from the British, Australian, or even North American publications that saturate the market, which has both positive and negative attributes. With a decent translator, a story can hold its foundation effectively, though a poorly penned novel cannot necessarily be resuscitated. I would venture to say that Rydahl’s novel survived its linguistic metamorphisis, as the intricacies of the narrative work well. The great set of characters that emerge as the story flows prove highly entertaining and thoroughly captivating. Of course, Erhard Jørgensen remains the protagonist and his quirks prove both disturbing and very alluring to the attentive reader, especially his fiaxation on his life back in Denmark and the missing finger for which he metaphorically searched throughout. Rydahl develops Jørgensen slowly and pulls pieces of his backstory out throughout the narrative, as if to tease the reader into wanting more, but having to wait awhile before the full picture can be offered. The narrative is one that I would say remains uniquely Scandinavian, as it trudges along, but always gets to the key elements at just the right time. I recently read an Irish author who also enjoyed her ‘pulling molasses in January’ narrative, but Rydahl is perhaps even more methodical in his pacing. Detail is key and Rydahl certainly does that throughout, depicting the smallest thing with the most attention and pulling the reader closer to investigate. One major example is a depiction of a sexual encounter, which, while graphic in nature, is told in such frank terms with linguistic complexities that one could never feel that it is by any means smutty. I found Rydahl offering the reader doses of this detail, though no turning the entire novel into something gazed upon under a microscope, with minutiae filling the page. The symbolism is found throughout the story and the search for justice pushes the story and its protagonist forward from the opening paragraph, though there is also a keen banter in the dialogue, which peppers English, Danish, and forms of Spanish idiosyncrasies throughout. That being said, I am still not sure how I feel about the novel, Erhard Jørgensen, or the entire premise involved. Unique and memorable for sure, I am not ready to place Rydahl alongside some of my other favourite authors from the region. We shall see if time allows my thoughts to ferment a little more and for me to have an epiphany. Still, an interesting read that some who understand the noir mystery might find right up their alley. 

Kudos, Mr. Rydahl for impressing me in some places while also leaving me wondering in others. I will be sure to keep an open mind, though my first impression is surely one of an author deserving of the literary accolades that have been presented.