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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 25, 2013

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Mysteries with Dogs, Young Titan

I'm beginning to measure books by how many files they're broken into when downloading the audiobook from Audible.com.

Most novels take two files; some massive books (I think of the volumes of Shelby Foote's Civil War history) are divided into three, four, or even five huge files.

(As any aficionado of Audible.com can quote, because it's repeated with the relentlessness of "please bring your seatbacks and tray tables into the full upright and locked position": Books are "divided into multiple files to make the download faster. You have reached the end of the file, but not of the audiobook.")

Mystery novels, however, are usually much slimmer. A single file. Rarely two.

On a recent cross-country trip (which I undertook merely to show my Hyundai Santa Fe enough of America that it would understand that it's not in Korea anymore) I listened to a whole slew of books -- mostly mysteries.

Good mysteries have the advantage of being very compelling, so you don't get bored as the prairies states flow past your window (or, just as boring, the endless rows of trees lining the freeways in North Carolina and Tennessee).

That can also be a disadvantage, as I once got a speeding ticket in Wyoming -- they have a speed limit in Wyoming? -- while driving a Datsun B-210. All because I was so caught up in listening to The Firm by John Grisham (abridged) that I had no idea that downhill, with a tailwind, I was nearing escape velocity.

Another advantage of mysteries for travel listening is that they're usually short. That means that you can feel that you've gotten somewhere -- the road trip might not end, but the novels do.

Robert Crais's The Suspect is a perfect example. Crais is known for his Elvis Cole and Joe Pike novels, set in Los Angeles. The Suspect, though, is out-of-series -- it doesn't overlap with any of the series books.

Yet it's a good mystery, with a complicated structure that is so well handled that there's never any loss of clarity. Which is what we expect from Crais.

However, the blurb made it clear that it's a novel about a man and a dog.

The last dog story that I cared about was Old Yeller. I read it as a child, not long after seeing the movie when it came out in 1957. I liked the book better -- it made me cry more.

But after Old Yeller I never found another boy-and-his-dog book that I much cared about. And while I have liked many dogs in my life, I have never bonded to any of them as to a human.

There are some writers who put dogs into fiction with the assumption that readers will love and care about the dog simply because it's a dog.

I, on the other hand, can only remember two stories that I've written that have dogs in them. Not because I'm anti-dog, but because I don't think of pets as being part of a completed life. I'm glad for people who have pets they love; I just don't assume that my characters will have a hankering for an animal companion.

So knowing that Suspect featured a police officer who was wounded in the same incident in which his partner was killed, and a military dog whose owner was killed in front of him in Afghanistan, I immediately assumed that the two would heal each other, yadda yadda.

Well, of course. But this is Robert Crais telling the story, and so I very quickly cared about both characters, and liked the way he got the job done.

What makes it work, besides very good story invention and clear storytelling, is that Crais does not anthropomorphize the dog. Quite the contrary. He keeps him within a reasonable approximation of a dog's point of view. Honest. Believable. And the dog does only stuff that you can believe a dog would do.

So, short as it is, Crais made me care about a dog. I cared way more about the humans, though. So sue me.

David Rosenfelt's Andy Carpenter series, on the other hand, seems to be gradually getting taken over by the dogs.

In the first book, Open and Shut, the dog is merely an ancillary character. Criminal defense attorney Andy Carpenter and the love of his life, Laurie, who is also his main investigator, also love their golden retriever, Tara. I applaud their domestic bliss, but in no way was this a book about the dog.

Carpenter writes in the first person, and he's a wise-cracking lawyer whose wisecracks are usually unembarrassing and sometimes funny. The mystery was clean and clear. The northern New Jersey setting was fun -- Carpenter (and, clearly, Rosenfelt) likes the place and the people.

I listened to the next book, and the next. Open and Shut, First Degree, Bury the Lead, Sudden Death, Dead Center, Play Dead. Six books in, and I could see signs of Maggody Syndrome -- named for the series by Joan Hess.

Maggody Syndrome takes place when a writer of a mystery series comes to rely too heavily on the same eccentric characters, the same jokes, and begins eventually to write the same book again and again. Think of Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum books, which are interchangeable, and you get the idea. Read one, you've read them all.

Rosenfelt isn't there yet, but I see danger signs. The secretary who does no work. Laurie and Andy settling into a longterm long distance relationship after she moves to Wisconsin. The nebbishy overweight hypochondriac assistant attorney. The accountant who's a wizard with computer stuff. The love-hate relationship with a friend on the police force. The crime boss who seems to show up in most of the books, having meetings and making deals with Carpenter.

My but Patterson, New Jersey, seems to have only a handful of people living in it.

But a new danger is surfacing: In the first book, Andy's client, exonerated, uses his millions from a wrongful imprisonment lawsuit to join Andy in opening a dog rescue center. That's a lovely thing, which I approve of (I've even contributed to animal rescue enterprises; I really do have a heart), and for several books the dog rescue operation is just an interesting thing that is mentioned now and then in books that are about something else.

But book 6, Play Dead, dangerously opens with a court case in which a dog's rights are asserted, and dogs begin to move to center stage. Add to this the list of the rest of the books in the Andy Carpenter series -- New Tricks, Dog Tags, One Dog Night, Leader of the Pack, and Unleashed -- and you can only suppose that the dogs are taking over the kennel.

It's as if having started an ironically faux noir series, he's decided to switch over to dog-centered cozies. I liked the noir, but will soon lose interest in the cozies.

So far, Rosenfelt still writes clever, engaging mysteries. But if, as seems likely from the titles, the series is going into a chase-your-own-tail spin, I'll probably bail out, as I did with other Maggody writers like Joan Hess and Janet Evanovich.

As a writer, I try not to write the same book twice. And as a reader, I appreciate writers who broaden their world and bring in new people from time to time.

So I'm recommending Rosenfelt's series, at least the early books, even as I also warn you of my trepidations about its steadily shrinking perimeter.

The jewel of my cross-country mysteries, though, is Jonathan Kellerman's Guilt, which was released in mid-journey. With a bad wi-fi connection in a hotel room, it took all night to download the book -- which is long enough to require two Audible.com files.

But the book carried me from somewhere west of Amarillo to Barstow, and I didn't even get a speeding ticket.

Kellerman's main character, child psychologist Alex Delaware, once came dangerously close to becoming as tedious in his relationship with Robin as Robert Parker's Spenser did in his relationship with Susan. But Kellerman caught himself much earlier on that road than Parker did. Now Robin remains as an important part of his life -- but not all that important a part of most of the recent novels.

What Kellerman brings to his mysteries is actual knowledge. He really did work as a child psychologist in the oncology unit of one of the hospitals that Alex Delaware works with. Kellerman knows the world of shrinks and doctors very well, and this is extremely helpful in this novel in particular.

The story centers around the skeletons of two babies, found within days of each other. One had been buried under an old sycamore tree; uncovered in the process of taking down the tree to save a house, it is soon dated back to the early 1950s, and Delaware begins to obsess a little in finding out whose baby it might have been, and why it was buried there.

The second skeleton is new. The bones, found strewn in Cheviot Park, seem likely to have something to do with the body of a woman who was shot in the park on the same night. And here the investigation, instead of delving into the deep past, brings us close to the present as it keeps pointing to a celebrity couple who have isolated themselves from the demanding, prying public.

As with all of Jonathan Kellerman's mysteries, the answers, when they come, are satisfying. And if the celebrity mystery makes you wonder just how much Kellerman is trying to make us think of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, that's just a brief distraction.

What really makes this series remarkable is that while the sleuth characters -- Alex Delaware and his police detective partner, Milo Sturgis -- are both very smart, they don't always guess right.

They take the evidence they have and spin out possible scenarios, then, in best scientific-method fashion, they gather new evidence to see if that picture is right.

In Guilt, Alex and Milo come up with theories that are hopelessly wrong -- though they weren't dumb. In other words, we have heroes who don't always guess right.

Think of how many novels you've read, or movies and TV shows you've seen, in which the heroes spin out elaborate theories and then act as if they're true and -- wow, who'd'a thunk it! -- they're right in every, or nearly every, detail.

Maybe that's why the Kellerman novel takes two files to download -- they go up more dead-end creeks than most novelists allow themselves.

Those dead ends might become frustrating if it weren't for the fact that Kellerman has a gift that I've seen in few mystery writers since Ross MacDonald wrote his Lew Archer novels: His incidental characters are fascinating and real.

Where Maggody Syndrome writers have a handful of stock characters with amusing eccentricities, a Ross MacDonald-ish writer populates the world with well-developed characters from every walk of life.

And it's not always the dark side. We meet some people that we adore, though they're far from perfect, and even the people we definitely don't adore are usually understandable.

But there is a dog in the series, and he's as important to the plot development as the dogs in the books by Crais and Rosenfelt. I just wanted to warn you. But I can't imagine Kellerman letting the dog take over the story, let alone the series.

One might think -- I certainly did, for a while -- that having a shrink who works as a consultant with the cops as a main character would be limiting. Far from it.

Because Kellerman wasn't just a shrink -- he was a very, very good one. A friend of mine was telling me at dinner the other night that she once did some work at the same hospital where Kellerman was practicing, and by coincidence, knew someone in publishing involved in his first novel sale.

She remembers how impressively good Kellerman was -- how beloved and respected among the hospital staff -- and how excited she was that he was getting a book deal. All that was long ago; the point is that he made a powerful positive impression in his first life, and it shows up in his writing.

Because Alex Delaware isn't a psychologist who worships at any particular shrine; he's a practical psychologist who listens with compassion and wisdom, and recognizes health as well as pathology. When we see him working with a patient, it's completely believable -- and powerfully effective.

Yet he's not a superman. Delaware always knows (and often sees) that people only make as much progress as they consent to or cooperate with. Especially lovely are the passages in Guilt where he works with the soon-to-be mother in whose yard the sixty-year-old baby skeleton was found.

All these books were entertaining, clever, well-done. They try for different goals and they all succeed. But there's more substance in the Kellerman -- and not just because it take two files to download the audiobook.

*

Even the thickest biographies and histories can't include everything -- not if they're to be readable. So there is considerable value in a writer or historian or scholar shaping a smaller frame, drawing in closer to a particular portion of a person's life, or a particular place or period or device or issue in history.

This is what Michael Shelden attempted in his book about Churchill, Young Titan. It might seem odd -- or perhaps obsessive -- for me to turn to yet another book about Churchill so recently after reading William Manchester's definitive three-volume biography.

But that is precisely why I wanted to read Young Titan right now. My memory of the Manchester work is still fresh in mind; I am able to see just how the much slimmer book fits within the scope of such a great life.

Shelden focuses on the time between Churchill's first election to Parliament and the time whenhe enters the Liberal Party cabinet on the eve of the First World War.

At the end, Shelden offers a brief and wholly inadequate summary of the issues that toppled Churchill and drove him from the government in the middle of the war.

Here is where the shorter book is most disappointing, because it seems that Shelden is quite unaware of Manchester's fully documented exoneration of Churchill for the failure of his Gallipoli campaign; Shelden seems to believe it was Churchill's errors, and not the failure of others to carry out his instructions, that led to failure.

But this comes as an afterthought -- Shelden says next to nothing about Churchill's service in the Great War, as it was called at the time. His focus is on the track Churchill followed in pursuit of domestic bliss -- that is, an appropriate wife -- and domestic power -- that is, a significant role in the government of the British Empire.

The former quest seems to be Shelden's primary interest, and it is here that he offers his most original contributions. Some information has become available since Manchester's first volume was written, and Shelden does a good job of showing how desperately Churchill seemed to fall in love each of the times he claimed to have done so.

Churchill may, however, have been much better at writing love than showing it in person. In person, his self-obsession might be off-putting to many women; in writing, he could use his dazzling skill with the pen to write with both candor and romance. He could write things he was completely unable to say.

As with so many people, he fell in love where love could not be returned; meanwhile, the one woman who fell in love with him before his wife, Clementine, could never get anything but friendship from the great-man-to-be. Yet it was a friendship that lasted his whole life, and she was the woman he had to visit personally in order to tell her that he was marrying Clementine.

Those who have read Manchester's biography know that Clementine was a superb choice; one can hardly imagine any other. Young Titan, though, makes it plain that Churchill remained the love of the other young woman's life.

On the other hand, Shelden does a fair job of dealing superficially but accurately with some (but by no means all) of the issues that shaped Churchill's public and political life during those career-building years. There are vast areas that Shelden barely touches on -- understandable, given the length he was working with, but frustrating if you know just how fascinating each story was in detail.

By the end, while I enjoyed Shelden's writing and he brought some fresh insights to Churchill the private person, Young Titan is closer to a celebrity biography than a serious one. That's not a bad thing to have written -- he remains a celebrity, fifty years after his death.

But if you are looking for a short introduction to Churchill's life, Winston's War, by Max Hastings, looks at World War II through Churchill's decisions, and Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill at War, 1874-1945, by Carlos D'Este, may not live up to its title -- it's pretty worthless from World War I onward -- but it does give a very good picture of Churchill's early military career, vital to understand him as a man and as a war leader.

*

Every now and then, I get to say "I told you so."

You know the actress Melissa McCarthy, who rules in the sitcom Mike and Molly and who stole the movie Bridesmaids?

Officially, her career really began with The Gilmore Girls in 2007.

But here's what I wrote about her in this column in early April 2003:

"I have met the funniest woman in America.

"Her name is Melissa McCarthy.

"I saw her give a triumphant performance in a sketch-and-improv show at the Groundlings in LA last night.

"She can only be compared to Gilda Radner or Phil Hartman. Dead-on timing, characters that fit her like a second skin, screamingly funny material -- even when she's making it up on the fly."

And I finished with: "But if you want to see Melissa McCarthy, you don't have to go to the Groundlings. It is inconceivable that she'll be there much longer. Talent like that goes national -- and she's overdue."

Well, it took four years for my prediction to be fulfilled. But I nailed it, didn't I?

I just wish I could see some of those sketch comedy characters again.


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