The Constant Reader

Armchair Traveler: Latest Entries in Crime Series Offer Summer Intrigue

I’m a lifelong voracious reader, particularly of contemporary fiction. Typically, I read with my morning coffee, before sleep—and when involved in a particularly wonderful book, any time I can steal in-between. In this column, I will offer my take on some of the latest and greatest. Since everyone’s taste is different and equally worthy, I welcome comments and suggestions.

Among my favorite genres is the crime series. Here, I focus on three American women who have produced multiple well-received novels with evolving interesting characters, well-thought-out plots and authentic settings abroad. The sense of place in all three is paramount.

While starting with each series’ first book is ideal, these well-crafted tomes can stand alone, too. All three authors offer new readers sufficient details of the critical facts of their protagonists’ backgrounds for new readers—but not enough to rile their fan base.

For readers who are not traveling this summer, these books—set in the U.K., Venice and Paris—will entertain and offer an armchair traveler’s view. And for those fortunate enough to be vacationing across the Atlantic, they may serve as valuable in-the-air fare as they preview or review the destination’s byways and the rhythms of the people’s characteristic languages and habits.

The Constant Reader Elizabeth George

Elizabeth George published her first Inspector Lynley series novel, “A Great Deliverance,” in 1988. Her latest installment, number 20, “The Punishment She Deserves,” was published in March. The Washington state author dates her interest in the U.K. to the “1960s when the Beatles made their initial invasion into pop culture in the United States.” She made her first trip to London in 1966 for a Shakespeare seminar. “We were given the freedom to explore the city, and I fell in love with it. I returned to England for a second visit in 1971, and I’ve traveled there ever since.” She studied English literature in college. On her website, she writes, “Why on earth do people find it so weird that I write about England? It worked well enough for Henry James.”

The latest George book features series stalwarts, the aristocratic Scotland Yard Inspector Thomas Lynley and his quirky working-class partner Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers, who go to Ludlow, a quiet medieval town in Shropshire, England, to determine whether the death of a respected deacon is suicide or murder. The story, 690 pages in length (if you are traveling, I suggest the Kindle edition), turns out to be far more complex than it first appears, and the stories of the personal and professional challenges of the continuing characters, among them Lynley, Havers and Detective Chief Superintendent Isabelle Ardery, continue to unfold.

Determining which of the characters is the “she” in the title who deserves punishment is a puzzle worth ruminating on—Havers who is threatened with punishment for her creative practices and lack of respect for protocol, Ardery whose alcoholism and concomitant life decisions earn punishment, college students who punish themselves for their youthful instincts, and assorted well-meaning but troubled, control-freak mothers who punish their families. And another major question: Who is the murderer—if there is indeed a murderer? A long and winding but eminently entertaining read.

The Temptation of Forgiveness

Donna Leon made me long for Venice well before my first visit. The New Jersey-born writer who lived in Venice for 30 years initiated her Commissario Guido Brunetti series with “Death at La Fenice” in 1992. “The Temptation of Forgiveness,” released in March, is number 27 in the series about the cases of a highly-intelligent, thoughtful and moral police commissioner, who along with a continuing cast of colorful police force comrades, confronts aspects of contemporary crime, bureaucracy and tradition in his native city. During off-hours, Brunetti shares his life of fine food and wine and the classics with his loving, academic wife and their children.

In “Temptation,” Brunetti, distressed by the cynicism and mistrust of Venetians for the police and involved in a case that causes him to consider the ethics of breaking unjust laws, turns to the heroine of Sophocles’ “Antigone,” who offers him credible advice: “I am doing only what I must do.”

Cara Black’s “Murder on the Left Bank,” number 18 in her Paris-set crime series, came out in June. The California-based author traces her preference for all things French to the French-speaking nuns at her high school where she studied French literature and became enamored of Romain Gary; on the first of her many trips to Paris, the award-winning French novelist responded to her fan letter and took her out for coffee and a cigar.

The Constant Reader Cara Black

Since starting the series in 1999 with “Murder in the Marais,” Black has chosen a different arrondissement of off-the-beaten-path Paris as the setting for each novel. Marais is Paris’ historic Jewish district, and the Left Bank is Paris’ low-rent district, which includes the Cambodian enclave of Khmer Rouge refugees and the ancient royal tapestry factories.

Black’s super chic, headstrong and fearless private investigator Aimée Leduc relentlessly pursues justice in the dangerous murder cases she takes on. “Left Bank” is no exception to the series; it is fast-paced, and, at turns, suspenseful, sad and amusing, and a source of knowledge about the customs, history and geography of the City of Light. As always, secrets from the past—Leduc’s own and the city’s—play a significant role.
This is not one of the series’ best examples. It’s less layered and atmospheric. New readers might want to start from square one.