Friday, May 22, 2009

Lyndsay Faye

Lyndsay Faye's newly-released first novel Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson is a tribute to the aloof genius and his good-hearted friend whose exploits she has loved since childhood.

Earlier this week I asked Faye what she was reading. Her reply:
My favorite mysteries are almost always historical, and a great comment made by fellow author Marco Conelli at Southhampton's MAYHEM festival last weekend clarified one of the reasons for me: technology (from pinning your location through your cell phone to finding matching fibers in a suspect's car) is a huge buzzkill. For the real police, technology is wonderful, but for the author it can be deadly. It's simply too easy. Where is the joy in telling a suspect his alibi was busted by his own car's GPS system? As a result, I'm always delighted to find a good period mystery, and greatly enjoyed Bleeding Heart Square by Andrew Taylor, which I finished a couple of days ago.

There are several things going for this novel, not least of which is Andrew Taylor's spare, cutting prose, but one that interests me for its sheer cleverness is his use of diary entries. They're a classic device, of course, but presented here with a cunning twist--the omniscient narrator addresses you directly, presenting a passage for you to read near the beginning of each chapter. And while the murder mystery is certainly compelling, it's not more compelling than figuring out who you is. Or are, rather. It sounds rather existential without an example, and one of the best is at the beginning: "Sometimes you frighten yourself. So what is it exactly? A punishment? A distraction? A relief? You're not sure. You tell yourself that it happened more than four years ago, that it doesn't matter anymore and nothing you can do can change a thing. But you don't listen, do you? All you do is go back to that nasty little green book." The diary entry follows, but the commentary has already set an ominous tone.

Bleeding Heart Square essentially follows Lydia Langstone and Rory Wentwood, fellow lodgers at a seedy tenement, as they attempt to unravel the story of what happened to the building's owner Philippa Penhow, who vanished four years earlier--and what, if anything, their sinister landlord Joseph Serridge had to do with her disappearance, as they'd been conducting an illicit affair. The question of why Serridge is receiving rotten animal hearts through the post is also highly atmospheric. Threads of pre-WWII Facism vs. Communism run throughout to great effect, and the stark contrast of economic strata among the characters is also used wisely and well.

The other period mystery I've been reading in the past month and simply could not for the life of me put down was The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. It's an international sensation at this point, and yet I can't help mentioning it. There are so many, many lengthy period novels that promise complexity of plot and of character and yet fail to deliver on one or the other front, despite being four or five hundred pages long. This book revels in its own convoluted plot while delivering twist after twist with meticulous clarity, driven by protagonists who are all too human, revealing elements of Spanish politics that were all too gruesome. On top of that, it's four or five love stories, and a supernatural gothic potboiler, and a book about what we love so dearly--books. I could not have enjoyed it more.

For my own personal research on a future book project, I'm also reading Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. Weighing in at approximately 1,500 pages--and mind you, we only get so far as 1898--this comprehensive tribute to America's leading city is as intriguing as it is thorough. The reader might be intimidated by the sheer volume of material at first, but incredibly, every page is so fascinating that I found myself reading for pleasure and not work. The style of writing is pointed and clear, and while I confess I nodded a bit at some of the detailed political accounts regarding the early days of the city, the writers are always very careful to illustrate how politics affected the common man. And not only do they take the time to explain how New Yorkers were influenced by such huge trends as politics, immigration, law, and economics, they incorporate the sort of vivid, specific detail you'd expect to find only in a work of fiction.

I'm also an avid foodie, and it wouldn't be right to hide the fact that I'm drooling my way through The Salpicon! Cookbook: Contemporary Mexican Cuisine by Priscila and Vincent Satkoff. Even if the stellar photographs weren't what my friends and I like to call great food porn, the recipes are elegant, vibrant, regional, and contemporary--four words that I don't generally put in a row when describing restaurant-driven cookbooks. This is a fantastic cookbook, the sort that I can waste a couple of hours over just thinking about shopping, cooking, and finally eating.
Read an excerpt from Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson, and learn more about the author and her acclaimed debut novel at Lyndsay Faye's website.

--Marshal Zeringue