Jul 102012

The Secret Scripture, by Sebastian Barry

Read from June 14 to 24, 2012

Four stars

Roseanne McNulty is nearing her 100th birthday and for most of her life has been an inmate at a Roscommon mental hospital, which will soon close. After many years of near-neglect of this longterm inmate, the shrink in charge, Dr. Grene, must evaluate whether she’s fit to be returned to society when the hospital closes or must be housed at the newer, much smaller replacement facility. Grene’s intrigued by this patient because the few documents in her file contradict the story she tells him of her early life in the days of the Irish civil war in the early part of the 20th century. Roseanne is not truly forthcoming in the answers she gives the shrink, but she spills the whole story onto paper in a memoir which she hides under a loose floorboard in her room. This is a sad story, as so many Irish stories are, especially the stories of Irish women, who bore the cruelist blows of the oppressive and remorseless patriarchy that was so rigidly enforced at the behest of a corrupt and corrupting church. And yet as each tragedy is described, some small and some seemingly unendurable, one finds it easy to read on because we know Roseanne has survived, and in her simple and earthy vitality, we see the reason why. And as the story nears its close, it takes a wonderful, almost magical, turn toward redemption and finishes on a soaring note.

Jul 032012

The Appearance of Impropriety, by Walter Walker

Read in June 2012

3 stars

Walter Walker delivers another solid novel — with a structural twist — in this 1993 book. It doesn’t fit easily into a genre — not really a mystery novel but not truly a legal thriller, either. Let’s just call it a lawyer book because, in the end, the hero who resolves everything to the reader’s satisfaction is a lawyer/sports agent working on behalf of his clients. Those clients are all members of the the San Francisco GoldenGaters, a professional basketball team whose members are hiding lots of interesting secrets and whose current season is beset by the rumor that the club is throwing games. Hot on the trail is an SF sports columnist. Add to that a couple of athletes who have big time talent and big time head cases, an owner from distant Massachusetts who made his money in groceries but wants a championship trophy to cement his master-of-the-universe status, a coach and a general manager with problems of their own, and readers have a potent mix of plot, sub-plots and twist the keep them guessing. Not the finest of Walker’s novels, but a definite contender.

Rules Of The Knife Fight, by Walter Walker

Read from June 12 to 14, 2012

Four stars

I slammed Walker’s 1985 novel The Two-Dude Defense, but this one is definitely recommended. Walker’s structure is unique — five sections each narrated by a separate character, all of whom are involved in some way with a strange killing that results in a civil trial for wrongful death. Readers hear from the victim, the investigator, the defense counsel, the killer, and the presiding judge, and their overlapping stories leave it to the reader to decide what really happened. A reviewer can’t say much without giving up information that might be spoilers for readers. The setting here is the San Francisco Bay area of California, and the time in the mid-1980s. Walker provides an interesting cast of characters, including several whom readers can root for, and an unusual structure that ultimately works very well. Highly recommended.

The Two Dude Defense, by Walter Walker

Read in June 2012

Two stars

In 1985 Walter Walker published a terrific legal thriller set in New England called A Dime to Dance By. After enjoying another Massachusetts-based legal thriller called The Immediate Prospect of Being Hanged, I decided to read Walker’s backlist. The Two-Dude Defense was his second novel, and it was a disappointment. Although he’d moved his locale to San Francisco, the real problem with the novel is that it’s a traditional private investigator mystery, starring a fellow named Hector Gronig. Part of the usual charm of a mystery featuring a hard-boiled PI is the investigator himself, but Gronig is hapless and unappealing. In just about every encounter he gets beat up, and at key moments he crawls into the bottle. The initial assignment Gronig accepts is to photograph an unfaithful spouse — to catch her in the act — and there are plenty of potentially interesting elements to the story, including mobsters, cults, etc. But the novel fails because the PI is unsympathetic — he’s a loser and it’s awfully hard to cheer for him. For the mystery buff, Walker is definitely a novelist worth reading, but give this title a pass