Wednesday, June 29, 2011
NEW STUFF: Still Waters - Nigel McCrery
There are plenty of mysteries out there that fall into the "gardening cozy" category. Most notably Charlotte Macleod wrote a series of mysteries with an agricultural professor and as Alisa Craig she created the Grub and Stakers, gardening enthusiasts turned amateur sleuths, but her "gardening cozy" mystery novels are nothing like the story of the garden obsessed killer in Still Waters. The flowers that bloom in the spring (tra la!) have plenty to do with this case. A horticultural shrine to poisonous plants plays an important part in this highly unusual detective novel.
It also boasts one of the creepiest characters I've encountered in a while. Violet Chambers is an elderly, murderous, sociopathic identity thief. In fact, Violet Chambers isn't even her real name. She will change it twice more before the book's end when we finally learn who she really is. If you can imagine a senior citizen female version of Tom Ripley you might begin to understand what McCrery has in store for you. But unlike Ripley, who you ironically want to succeed in his criminal activities, in Violet there is a villain you love to hate and eagerly await her comeuppance.
The reason I picked up this book is for the very unusual detective character. He is Detective Chief Inspector Mark Lapslie, on "gardening leave" when the book opens as he is suffering from a condition that has gotten the better of him. He's had it for life, but it's ruining his ability to live. All because the sounds of the world - voices, music, chatter, even the ringing of his cell phone - cause him to taste a variety of pleasant and unpleasant flavors. Lapslie is one of the rare sufferers of synaesthesia, a neurological disorder that confuses sense perceptions and rewires the brain sending mixed messages. Some sufferers see colors when hearing sounds, some smell odors when hearing sound, some hear sounds when touching objects. The mixing of the sense is particular to each individual and can be bizarrely varied. Lapslie's affliction is primarily in tasting sounds and voices - most of it is not at all tasty. When he hears the Beatles tune "A Ticket to Ride," for example, he is overcome with the flavor of rotting meat in his mouth. On the other hand, the voice of his partner Emma is reminiscent of lemon and grapefruit. There's good and bad, but it often comes at inappropriate times and can be jarring to the point of dizzying distraction. It's a handicap that for Lapslie is intrusive, impossible and robbing him of so much that is enjoyable in life not the least of which is eating a meal without the interruption of surprise flavors due to the background noises wherever he may be.
This is an inverted detective novel. We know the culprit from the beginning. And we watch as Lapslie and his crew put together the pieces of the murder investigation, slowly and meticulously, while Violet carries on oblivious to the cops hot on her trail. Lapslie homes in on Violet with a combination of sound detective skills, a strange lie detector talent built into his synaesthesia, and a little bit of sheer luck. Then Violet catches by chance a headline in a newspaper and realizes she has made a terrible mistake. Through a series of unlucky events she was forced to dispose of one of her victims in a public place. When the corpse is identified and the victim's car is traced the story then becomes a competition between the cop and the killer.
You're never rooting for this killer thankfully. I've had my fill of attractive anti-heroes and anti-heroines these days. I want the bad guy -- or gal in this case -- severely punished. For those with a strong desire for justice in crime fiction you won't be disappointed with the outcome in this book.
A warning to the queasy and those who demand likable characters with whom you "must identify" -- stay away. This is a graphically written, extremely disturbing book. Violet gleefully watches her victims die in agony and methodically narrates what each of her victims will experience as they endure their poisonous throes. McCrery then goes overboard in detailing the throes and spasms of the hapless victims. Afterwards, I almost wanted to get a bucket and mop and clean up the room where I was reading the book. I admit to crying out "Oh God!" a few times and skipping right over a few of the more repulsive paragraphs. Yet like the rubberneckers on the highway who have a grotesque fascination in bloody car accidents, I was drawn into the story ever increasingly in a way that shocked me. For the combination of an intriguingly original detective and a nightmare version of the senior citizen murderer, a character usually portrayed comically when it is written about at all, Still Waters offers something unusual and potent for crime fiction readers who are tired of watered down whodunits.