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Book Nook - 22-01-2019

Tuesday, January 22, 2019
By Deepa Gahlot

There are Lit Fests taking place all over the country, but the community of readers is dwindling. Still, passionate book lovers would like to know what others like themselves are reading. This Book Nook suggests some books, but would also like to connect with serious readers, or even casual airport book browsers. Do write in about books you have loved or hated and why. The best entries will be shared on this page. Please send your recommendations to adc.booknook@gmail.com

Hard-Boiled Detective
Sara Gran’s tough-yet-vulnerable protagonist, Claire DeWitt, belongs to the best tradition of those never-say-die, hard-boiled detectives of classic noir crime fiction. A female version of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler’s world-weary private eye heroes.

Right at the start of the third novel in the series, The Infinite Blacktop, Claire’s car is rammed into, and she is shocked that somebody tried to kill her. Trusting her own judgment over the efficiency of the police investigation (because cops hate her), she escapes in wounded condition from the ambulance. The book goes back and forth over three different cases at different stages of Claire’s life, including the unsolved disappearance of her friend Tracy, with whom she solved cases as a teen detective, inspired by the comics featuring “Cynthia Silverton, teen sleuth and girl detective.”

Then as Claire reminisces, “I became the best detective in the world, just like I’d dreamed of. I met kings and I met magicians. . . . I met people who had everything on earth except the one thing they wanted the least but needed the most — the truth. “

Claire claims she solved every single case, except Tracy’s, and gave each a peculiar   name like “The Clue of the Watercolor Butterfly,” “The Case of the Bitten Apple,” “The Case of the Broken Lily,” “The Happy Burger Murder Case.”

A few days before the hit-and-run, Claire had, on a hunch, answered an ad in one of the old comics that offered a “home-study course . . . to earn your detective’s badge from the comfort of your own home,” and sent her application to the address provided in Los Angeles. She realizes that the car that rammed into hers had Nevada number plates and after stealing a car and a credit card (she is a skilled and guilt-free thief) she heads to LA.

At some point, to earn her PI licence in California, she had picked up a cold case of the murder of an artist, that turned out to be a complicated affair. Everything seems linked to those comics and a book titled Detection, written by a French detective, Jacques Silette, who was ridiculed for his efforts, but also generated a small group of followers, who are called Silettians.

As the three cases converge, Claire goes through a lot of existential angst and philosophical musings, but her mind is always alert and her body, even in battered condition, is ready for a fight. Written with wry humour and brisk pace, The Infinite Blacktop was on a few lists of the best books of 2018. Deservedly so.

The Infinite Blacktop
By Sara Gran
Publisher: Atria
Pages: 304


 

Excerpt of  The Infinite Blacktop
I fell into consciousness with a sudden, frightening, crash. My eyes popped open into a line of bright white-hot pain. I couldn’t see anything except blinding light. I squeezed my eyes back shut.

I gasped for air—

Remember, remember.

I guess I screamed, because I heard someone scream and then I felt someone squeeze my hand and say, “You’re OK. You’re OK.”

I stopped screaming.

Thoughts fell into my head. Accident. I’d been in a car accident.

I remembered something huge and metal cracking through the door of my car and started screaming again.

“OK, easy,” the voice said. The voice was a man’s, fairly young, probably white.

I heard more sounds around the voice and felt cool air on my face. I was outside.

I heard another scream. Not me.

“I’ll be right back,” the voice said. “You’re OK, just don’t try to move.”

He let go of my hand and left.

I knew who I was, but I couldn’t form the words to understand it. My name was somewhere in my throat, but couldn’t reach my mouth.


I tried moving. Some parts moved and some didn’t. I tried raising my hand. It took a few tries for my mind to connect with my brain, then with my nerves, muscles, and flesh, but it all started working, and I lifted my hand to my eyes and tried opening them again. I forced myself not to scream. Better, but still painful. My hand was red and black against violently bright light. Pain ripped through my left eye and my eyes squeezed shut again.

Slowly, like ripping off a bandage, I opened my eyes again, and acclimated them to the light and me to the pain.

I looked around. I was in Brooklyn. No. San Francisco. No. Oakland.

Yes. Oakland.

Everything in me screamed. Adrenaline screamed the loudest.

Think, think.

Who was I?

Claire DeWitt. I am Claire DeWitt, and I am—

Another memory fell in with a thump:

I’d been on the highway. The 80 to the 880 to—

It was a Lincoln. 1982. That was the thing that came cracking through my door.

Who was driving it? And how did I know that?

The image of the Lincoln hitting me washed over me again, erasing everything else. Everything started to go black again.

Think, think.

I remembered: I am Claire DeWitt.

Didn’t I want to be a detective?

Yes. I wanted to be a detective, and I was.

I was Claire DeWitt, and I was the best detective in the world.

Think, Claire, think.

Was I on a case?

I’d figured out I was on some kind of

gurney or bed. I sat up. My left leg and most of my ribs howled in protest. I was in an ambulance. The bright light above me was coming from the roof. The doors were open. I looked out.

 

The Lady Vanishes
British novelist Belinda Bauer’s Snap was longlisted for the Man Booker Award last year, one of the rare suspense books to be included in that hallowed roll.

The opening chapter of the novel is harrowing—eleven-year-old Jack is left in charge of his two younger sisters, Joy and Merry, in the family’s battered car, while his mother goes off to make a call. Hours pass and she does not return; the car gets hot, the kids are hungry and scared. Jack gets out of the car with the two little girls to search for their mother, and, it is a measure of a society’s callousness, that cars whizz past the three traumatized kids and nobody stops to help.

Much later, the mother’s body is found in a deserted spot. The father, unable to cope with the tragedy abandons the kids to their fate and disappears. Jack does not want to approach the authorities for fear of the siblings being sent to different foster homes by social workers. He tries look after them, but there is only so much a penniless child can do. When they are dying of starvation, Louis, a burglar, finds them, takes Jack under his wing and teaches him to become an expert thief too.
Jack’s modus operandi is to steal food for the homes he breaks into, and take naps in their beds; in his own home, he is plagued by nightmares about his mother’s disappearance. The baffled cops label him Goldilocks.

The kids pretend their father is out on work and that they are being home schooled; to prevent prying, Jack keeps the exterior of their home in impeccable condition, while inside is a mess of newspapers that Joy refuses to throw away. It is her way of coping, while five-year-old Merry, clutches a pet tortoise, compulsively mows the lawn and reads vampire books.

In a parallel story, Catherine, a pregnant woman, alone at home as her husband, Adam travels on business, finds her house broken into and a knife let by her bedside with a threatening note. For a reason she cannot explain even to herself, she does not tell her husband or the cops about the incident.

Detective Inspector John Marvel, a homicide expert, bristling at the transfer from London to Somerset, and unhappy at the downgrade to solving burglaries, is, nevertheless involved in the case, and even thinks up a scheme to trap Goldilocks.

Marvel’s colleague Reynolds, listens distractedly to his mother telling him about three wild and unsupervised kids next door, but does not act on it. Jack allows himself to be caught to bargain for solving his mother’s murder, for which he has provided clues. Marvel, longing to solve a murder, gets his wish, and the chance to interact with the amazingly smart and resourceful fourteen-year-old thief.

Bauer mixes suspense, action and a compassion for the three kids in a thoroughly engrossing novel—not Booker-worthy, but excellent in its own way.

Snap
By Belinda Bauer
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly
Pages: 352

 

Excerpt of Snap
It was so hot in the car that the seats smelled as though they were melting. Jack was in shorts and every time he moved his legs, they sounded like Sellotape.

The windows were down but no air moved, only small bugs whirred, with a sound like dry paper. Overhead hung a single frayed cloud, while an invisible jet drew a chalky line across the bright blue sky.

Sweat trickled down the back of Jack’s neck, and he cracked open the door.

‘Don’t!’ said Joy. ‘Mum said stay!’ ‘I am staying,’ he said. ‘Just trying to get cool.’

It was a quiet afternoon and there wasn’t much traffic, but every time a car passed, the old Toyota shook a little.

When a lorry passed, it shook a lot. ‘Shut the door!’ said Joy.

Jack shut the door and made a tutting sound. Joy was a drama queen. Nine years old and always bursting into tears or song or laughter. She usually got her own way.

‘How long now?’ she whined.

Jack looked at his watch. He’d got it last birthday when he’d turned eleven.

He’d asked for a PlayStation.

‘Twenty minutes,’ he said.

That was a lie. It was nearly an hour since the car had coughed and jerked and rolled to a crunchy halt on the hard shoulder of the southbound M5 motorway. That made it over half an hour since their mother had left them here to walk to an emergency phone.

Stay in the car. I won’t be long.

Well, she was being long – and Jack got that niggle of irritation he always felt when his mother was not his father. Dad would have known what was wrong with the car. He wouldn’t have sat turning the key over and over until the battery ran flat. He would have had a mobile, and not had to walk up the road to find an emergency phone like a caveman.

Merry grizzled and wriggled against the straps of her car seat, the sun on her face making her restless.

Joy leaned over and put her dummy back in.

‘Shit, it’s hot,’ said Jack.

‘You said shit,’ said Joy. ‘I’m telling.’ But she didn’t say it with her usual conviction. It was too hot for conviction.

Baking hot.

For a while, they played ‘I Spy’. S for Sky and R for Road and F for Field, until they exhausted the limited supply of real stuff and started on stupid things like YUF for Your Ugly Face.

‘Shut up!’ said Joy.

Jack was going to say YOU shut up! But then he decided not to, because he was the oldest and he was in charge. Mum had said so…

Jack’s in charge.

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