Monday, May 30, 2016

More than Just Murder: Mystery Novels with a Social Conscience

This morning on our walk Hubby and I discussed climate change, the controversy over a new "doctor assisted dying" bill being debated here in Canada, the health of honey bees worldwide, and the potential banning of neonicotinoid pesticides. Phew. Heady conversation for so early in the morning, especially while negotiating the stepping stones over the creek and trying not to fall on my butt. 

We don't always talk about such serious issues on our walk, although it's not unheard of, but this morning's conversation was precipitated by a couple of murder mystery novels I've recently read. Two mysteries which are definitely about more than just murder. In fact the backstory/ subject matter for each is at least as gripping as the murder plot. I love a good book that has what I call value-added. You know, those books which teach you interesting facts about places or subjects new to you, or give context to social issues. And although I love a great mystery novel, I'll admit that "value added" in the form of intelligent background on cutting edge social issues is not necessarily what I expect them to deliver. But the books I'm talking about delivered exactly that. 


walking trail between Manotick and Barrhaven along the Jock River
The stepping stones, last year. I was too busy talking and stepping for photos this morning.
The first is The Order of Things, the latest book by British writer Graham Hurley. I loved all twelve of Hurley's Joe Faraday series set in Portsmouth. And this new series set in and around Exeter, in Devon, and featuring detective Jimmy Suttle, who was a secondary character in the earlier series, does not disappoint. Especially this latest one which focuses on the grisly murder of Dr. Harriet Reilly who before her death, it transpires, had been illegally assisting some of her terminally ill patients to die. The issue of physician-assisted death is at the moment being hotly debated here in Canada. In February 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the old law banning physician-assisted dying on the grounds that it violated Canadians' charter rights. The court then gave the government a year to craft and pass a new law. But throw in an election, and a change of government, and even with the four month extension granted by the court, the government will probably not be meeting that deadline. Here's a pretty comprehensive article about the debate, the bill, and the unhappy stakeholders. So given all the recent kerfuffle, I was interested to read Hurley's sensitive handling of this particular issue. 


             

And that ain't all folks. The prime suspect for Harriet's murder is her lover Dr. Alois Bentner, a radical academic and expert climatologist, whose cottage in historic Lympstone is named "Two Degrees."  Two degrees Celsius was identified at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in 2009 as the maximum limit of warming before we risk global "climate catastrophes." Interestingly enough, Hurley's fictional character, Bentner, works at the very real Met Office Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research. You can read all about the Hadley Centre and their work here. Hurley always tells a good tale, with well-rounded characters whom we come to care about, and a plot that hangs together well. But his examination of such timely social issues through the eyes of his characters makes this latest book a wonderful read. Reviewer Bruce Lawson on Goodreads says that in a genre where there sometimes seems to be a "race to the bottom" with "ever more ludicrous plots, a cranking up of the body count, and weirder and nastier psychopaths," Hurley's book is a "beacon of excellence." He adds that, "if you love literature and have an interest in our complicated screwed up world," you need to read Hurley's latest book. My sentiments exactly, Bruce.

from Lympstone.org
Historic Lympstone, setting for Hurley's latest novel  
The second book which precipitated such heady conversation for a May morning, is by one of my favourite writers. In fact, I think that Peter May is one of the best mystery writers out there today. I devoured his Lewis trilogy. 

Peter May with his final installment in the Lewis trilogy
source

May's latest offering, Coffin Road, is set on the Isle of Harris where a man is washed up on Luskentyre beach in the opening paragraphs. Battered, dazed, wearing an orange life jacket, and without a shred of memory of who he is or what he has done, May's character attempts to piece his life back together. To discover why it seems he's been so interested in the Flannan Isles from where three lighthouse keepers mysteriously disappeared decades ago, and how, despite the fact that he doesn't know his own identity, he appears to know so much about bees. 


Peter May makes the Isle of Harris setting come alive for the reader. He captures the harshness of the weather, and the beautiful starkness of the landscape. Like the real coffin road below, along which the character, known on Harris as Neal MacDonald, walks trying to retrace his steps, and discover himself-- literally. Now a route for hikers, the coffin road is the ancient path islanders walked carrying the coffins of their dead loved ones to the burial ground on the west side of the island. You can read a bit more about the coffin road, as well as about other ancient Scottish pathways, here

Coffin Road...from the site "Heritage Paths" of Scotland
source
Hidden behind stones on the coffin road, Neal stumbles upon several bee hives, and discovers that he appears to know much about bees. In an article in The Scotsman, May tells David Robinson that he "wanted to write about bees for a long time." Ever since a "Canadian geneticist friend...alerted him to the problem" of bees and pesticides. May handles the environmental issues and the science behind the study of neonicotinoid insecticides really well, in my view. Piquing my interest in a problem that I had heard about, but of which I knew little. 


taken from the site : The Bees House
source
"Neonics," as this class of pesticides is also called, are globally the most commonly used insecticides. And their reputed effect on bees has been widely reported. According to May's Canadian scientist friend, it's not that "the pesticides kill bees directly, but that they destroy the insect's memory-- and without memory the bees are lost and the colony dies." And without bees as pollinators one third of the world's food is in jeopardy. But also in jeopardy are the livelihoods of farmers the world over, the profits of big agro-pharma companies like Bayer, and the economies of lots of countries. So one might say that this issue is a teensy bit contentious what with all the economic arguments, the political arguments, and the scientific arguments. You can read about the EU argument over banning the use of neonics here, and about some of the scientific debate here. Those are just two of the many articles I read in my research. Phew. My head is definitely buzzing like a bee now. And I haven't even finished the book yet. 

But I will, directly after I finish this post. And after I water the garden. Hubby has 'gone fishing.' Literally. He left early this morning for Algonquin Park, hardly able to contain his anticipation to be on the road, and then on the water in his canoe. And for the next few days, I am "main man" on the old homestead, as my step father used to say. Looking after the vegetable garden and the flowers, and hoping I don't have any "battles" with mice like Hubby had when I was away last winter. 

But that's okay. The rest of my time alone will not be misspent. I'm meeting a  friend for coffee one day, another for lunch the next day, and a third for dinner and a movie on the last day. And in between, well, there's that Peter May book to finish. 

Aren't we lucky as readers to have access to the work of such talented writers as Peter May and Graham Hurley? Writers who can spin a great yarn and also have a social conscience. And who can teach us stuff about, as that reviewer on Goodreads said, "our complicated screwed up world." I swear I think every interesting fact I ever learned came from a book. Hmmm. Now that's an interesting idea for a blog post. 





How about you, dear readers? Any thoughts on mystery writers with a social conscience? Any other murder mysteries that are about more than murder to suggest? I'll soon be done my Peter May book, and I'll be trolling for something new to read. 



Linking up with Thursday Favourite Things at Katherine's Corner and All About You at Mama and More

30 comments:

  1. Very,very interesting! I'm going to mark the authors and the books. Thank you!
    I was strolling a little through your favourite books-a lot of same authors :-)
    Have you read Donna Leon? Every one of her books is dealing with some social,economical or political issue in Venice or Italy!
    Dottoressa

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    1. Thanks, Dottoressa. I have read Donna Leon... I like her characters very much. I'm also enjoying your recipes on Mater's blog:)

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  2. I'm trying to think of books I've read that have the extra dimension you describe but have been totally distracted by the Scottish Heritage Website you found . How have I missed that ? When hubbie & I are in Scotland we love seeking out historic tracks , drove roads etc & walking sections of them . Old deserted villages are a magnet to us & one beautiful narrow path we walked was Bonnie Prince Charlie's secret route 270 years ago . When we traveled around the US we were equally fascinated by the wagon trails west & ghost towns . Closer to home are the ancient paths in the Yorkshire Dales between villages , markets & churches , which were used for hundreds of years before roads existed to transport livestock , goods etc . If you love history it doesn't just involve cities of course & many of these atmospheric spots lie undisturbed in the wilds of Scotland . That's enough of me rambling on & I must now explore more of that site - thanks Sue
    Wendy in York

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    1. I wish I had know about that site before we went to Scotland a few years ago... I would have loved to walk some of those paths. I think it's wonderful that there are people who take the time to keep information like that alive, and accessible to the rest of us.

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  3. Hi Sue, they sound as though they're carefully researched and well written. As you say, not what you may have expected but definitely an added benefit! As always, thanks for the links. I'm looking forward to reading a little more around the topics. I'm finding I'm rarely reading books recently, even hubby's noticed! Not intentional, just the way it is at the moment. I obviously need to just choose a good one and get started :)
    Looks like you and Stu will both be enjoying the next few days! Hope the weathers good for you, enjoy your week!
    Rosie

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    1. We all go through reading phases, I think. Fatigue, maybe. too busy with other things. I'm finding it hard these days to finish any book that does not grab me early. I'm sooo restless.

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  4. Mark Douglas-Home is another Scottish mystery writer who delves into social and climate issues in his thrilling stories. I am as big a fan of him as I am of Peter May.

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    1. Now there is a writer I don't know about... I'll definitely look him up. Thanks!

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  5. By "not reading books" I really mean not reading any fiction as I have read a couple of books recently on Paris and San Fransico as well as reading about Canada!
    Rosie

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    1. Hard to focus on fiction when you have so much factual research to do... and such a great trip to anticipate.

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  6. I am new to your blog and am thoroughly enjoying it! I'm a 66 year old women also living in the wildness two hours from Seattle in Leavenworth, Washington. I just added these two authors to my Amazon cart and will research a little more so I can read the books in chronological order. I just returned from a trip to Scotland...wish had known about Peter May before we went. I see he has a book on the Hebrides too. I have been enjoying the Louise Penney mysteries and have her latest on my wish list for the release later this month.

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    1. So jealous that you have Peter May's Lewis trilogy yet to read. If you can, start with his first Lewis book, Black House. Hope you had a great trip to Scotland. We were there several years ago, and really loved it.

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  7. I'm not really fond of reading mysteries, but ones with "value-added" such as you've described actually pique my interest. Perhaps I'll have to check our local library for one of them once I get through the pile of summer reading that I've already chosen.

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    1. Not all mysteries are "value-added" but when they are they're my favourite form of reading.

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  8. I've just finished A lovely way to Burn by Louise Walsh. It's a thriller but the backdrop is London and world suffering a killer virus. It was an intelligent novel and the virus unconnected to the murder. I also enjoy learning from novels. I will look up Peter May. I'm ashamed to say I've not read his although heard of him of course.

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    1. And I'll look up Louise Walsh, thanks.

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  9. Love Peter May who I discovered via your blog. Must look out for Coffin Road. Value added always appealing. Belated birthday greetings. Hope your new decade is off to a good start. Iris

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    1. Thanks, Iris. Decade six is starting off well.

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  10. Leslie in OregonJune 1, 2016 at 7:13 PM

    I share your penchant for value-added mysteries and have just put the two books you reviewed in this post on hold at our library. I have enjoyed reading every book of Alan Furst, whom critics agree is the master of the international historical thriller. Many if not most of his novels are set in Europe, often France, before and/or during WWII. If you haven't read his books, I'd suggest starting with the oldest and working your way forward. For another value-added novel centered on the destruction of fauna (in this case, butterflies) by our modern world (in this book, climate change), I'd suggest Barbara Kingsolver's "Flight Behaviors." Keep your great book reviews coming, Leslie in Oregon P.S. I live in the first U.S. state that adopted a Death with Dignity statute, allowing physicians to give a life-ending prescription to people who met certain standards. It has proved to be a very comforting, empowering option to many people who have terminal illness (as well as those who may be in that situation in the future), whether they end up using it or not.

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    1. Hi Leslie,
      Hope you're feeling better these days. I will check out Alan Furst at the library. Thanks.
      As for the physician assisted dying bill..as it's been called here... I like your characterization of it as an "empowering option."

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  11. Interesting post! In the past I enjoyed reading Phyllis Whitney's murder mysteries because she described the surrounding area so well it made me want to visit them! One of her books was set in Hawaii and one in British Columbia, both of which made me desire to visit them. Blessings, Janet

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    1. Thanks Janet. I read some Phyllis Whitney a few years ago. Must check her out again.

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  12. Always happy to discover great new mystery writers -- I'm noting these two with glee. As for mystery writers who take on social issues, I see Dottoressa has already mentioned Donna Leon. Minette Walters' mysteries generally take a social issue, particularly a feminist or gender-related one, as their foundation. James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux novels, set in New Orleans, have becoming increasingly, and boldly, critical of the governmental policies that led to the environmental damage in and around the Gulf of Mexico and the shortsightedness and willful ignorance that led to the devastating failure of flood controls in Hurricane Katrina. He also takes serious shots at the government role in racism and social inequity there. And he does all this without preaching, keeping us entertained and tense and interested in characters and immersed in setting. Lee Child's Jack Reacher shines a lens on the American military. So many good writers use the genre's inherent focus on good and evil to probe serious issues, and it's so gratifying when they educate and entertain and really make us think at the same time. Thanks so much for this welcome distraction from the packing boxes -- soon I will be reading some of these recommended titles in a new favourite reading chair.

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    1. I also remember several Minette Walters novels about social issues, one about how we misjudge people.. remembering one mum on the dole who turned out to be the hero of the story... Acid Row... was the title, I think? And speaking of misjudging... I rarely read American mystery novels, being so biased towards British, Irish etc. Except for Laura Lippmann. I will have a look at the ones you mention. Thanks.

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  13. I too love Peter May and did not know yet that he had a new book out so thank you for this! Have you read Susan Hill's Simon Serrailler series? She's good one for tackling issues without getting on a soapbox. Have you read all of Peter May? I enjoyed the Enzo Files (French setting) but not as much as the Lewis Trilogy, which I adored. I've not yet read any of his China Thriller series - have you and if so, do you recommend?

    There's Ann Cleeves's Shetland series too, for more Scottish island atmosphere - I found those books really informative in terms of Shetland life. She also writes Vera Stanhope - we watch the wonderful TV series with Brenda Blethyn but I haven't read the books. --Catbird Farm

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    1. I love Susan Hill's Simon Serrailler series, too. And recently I've read a couple of small stand alone books of hers... not mysteries, quiet, character driven fiction in the vein of Barbara Pym. Really interesting, I thought.

      I've not ventured very far into Peter May's other series. I read the first Enzo book, which was okay, but not as good as the Lewis stuff. I'll try another though, to give the series a fair shake.

      Love, love Ann Cleeves books, too. Both the Vera Stanhope and the Jimmy Perez books and both TV series. Brenda Blethyn is wonderful as Vera, and the Shetland TV series is great as well. Thanks goodness the producers, directors etc of both shows have preserved the essence of the books.

      We definitely seem to have the same taste in books:)

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  14. Oooh, love Barbara Pym so I'll check out Susan Hill's stand-alones. She's quite famous for her horror novella Woman in Black (made into stage play and film) -- too scary for me. I like an intricate puzzle and a social message with my murders, thank you, but nobody reaching out from under the bed. ;-) But I didn't know about her others so thanks for that. And thanks too for the recommendation of Graham Hurley - I hadn't read him but had the newest on my wishlist. Now it's moved to my cart. - Catbird Farm

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    1. Hope you enjoy these new writers... no hands from under the bed in any of them...that I know of:)

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  15. Late to the party, but wanted to mention Jane Thynne who writes about a British actress, Clara Vine, an undercover British agent in Nazi Germany. The titles are different in the UK and the USA, but have a look on Amazon. Just one quote from the blurb: "An absolute cracker of a read...fast-paced and gripping from the start. Thynne expertly maintains the suspense, while evoking the tension of Berlin as the city gathers its strength for war."

    I have watched documentaries,films and so on, and read history books, but nothing captured the claustrophobic and febrile atmosphere of Nazi Germany like these books.



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    1. I will definitely look up Jane Thynne. Thanks for that, Sue.

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All comments, ideas, commiserations, questions, complaints... are most welcome.