Pies and Dante

I know a woman who has never read a mystery novel. Honestly. I’m not making that up. She feeds her reading hunger with political tomes, biographies, philosophy, essays, and general non-fiction.  Admirable, I suppose.

But I for one cannot imagine a life without P.D. James or Raymond Chandler or Margaret Frazier or M.C. Beaton or Tony Hillerman or a hundred or so other mystery writers. And I love to share my finds with like-minded readers. So here are my takes on two novels that were on my summer reading list:

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

I picked up an advance reader’s copy of this little wonder at the Ann Arbor Book Festival (http://www.aabookfestival.org) in May. It took me only a few chapters to fall under the spell of the audacious, feisty, slightly sociopathic Flavia de Luce, a child chemistry prodigy who shares a rambling English country house with her reclusive, stamp-collecting father, two snarky older sisters, a gardener who suffers from violent bouts of post-traumatic stress syndrome, and a well-meaning but completely ungifted cook whose pie figures in the title—and the murder at the center of the novel.

When we first meet Flavia, she’s in a locked linen closet, roped and gagged by her sisters. Ever resourceful, she frees herself in time for dinner then retires to her chemistry lab where she plots an ingenious vendetta. But life has much bigger things in store for our heroine. During the course of the book, Flavia discovers a dead body in the cabbage patch, uncovers an ugly family secret, earns the grudging admiration of the local police, and saves her father from the gallows by facing down a murderer.

What’s not to love? Happily, my infatuation was affirmed by librarian and NPR commentator Nancy Pearl, who is also smitten with the unflappable Flavia (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=111743357).   

The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl

This is a book I should like, even admire. After all, Matthew Pearl is one of the new darlings of the publishing world, an author who has earned rave reviews for his ability to bridge the supposed chasm that divides literary fiction from mere mystery writing.  (More on that subject—a sore point with me—in another blog).

Unfortunately, by the end of the first chapter, I found myself wishing I’d made another choice.  The murder depicted in those first pages is so hideous, so nightmarish—and described in such ghoulish detail—that I felt as if my trust as a reader had been utterly violated. My immediate impulse was to close the book forever. But on further thought, I decided to read on in hopes that the author would redeem himself. Because surely all those critics couldn’t be wrong. Could they?

In his favor, Matthew Pearl is a first-rate literary historian who creates a captivating landscape.  He transports readers to Cambridge in an era when America lionized its poets and writers. We’re privy to the thoughts and conversations of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert Lowell and others.  We learn about their habits, their foibles, their personal histories, their private demons and public successes.

All of this should have been riveting. But oddly enough, it wasn’t. There was something stilted in the style of writing that made reading a bit of a chore. I had to force myself to finish the book, driven on less by curiosity about the psychopathic murders, all based on Dante’s Inferno, than about the poets and publishers who were members of The Dante Club, and therefore most able to understand the mind of the murderer—and most likely to stop him.

Of course, my criticisms are being drowned out by lavish praise from every quarter, including The Boston Globe and Dan Brown. (Dan Brown? Yes, there he is, quoted on the cover.) Am I the only voice of opposition? Let me know.

For more information about Mantra for Murder
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