Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Master at Work

How can an author create a character who is completely unsympathetic but completely fascinating? Shouldn't I eventually have gotten fed up with an amoral, cold-blooded, manipulative conniver with the unlikely name of Undine Spragg? Not when the author is as talented as the inestimable Edith Wharton. Her heroine Lily Bart in “House of Mirth” paid dearly for her poor decisions, but in The Custom of the Country Wharton goes down another path.

The book opens with the exclamation “Undine Spragg – how can you?”, and there were many times while reading this book that I felt the same way. Undine has dragged her nouveau riche parents from the midwestern hinterlands of Apex City to New York City so she can advance into high society, and although she has her share of missteps she slowly climbs the ladder. But each time she achieves a new rung her horizon broadens, and she catches sight of her next goal. A woman's road to advancement in society was through an advantageous marriage, and Undine acquires and discards husbands in New York and Paris in much the same way as she does her expensive dresses and hats.

Each time I would think that Undine was about to get her comeuppance she would execute an unexpected pivot, leaving spouses, friends and even her own child foundering in her wake, and sail on to another success. Wharton has a keen eye for the foibles of the rich and for the customs of American and European society. She has created a character who is memorable, if not admirable, and thoroughly entertaining.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Word Nerds

Although I seldom read mysteries, I stumbled upon one (wish I could remember who recommended it) that seemed to be up my particular alley. In David Carkeet's Double Negative the murder takes place at the Wabash Institute, an Indiana linguistics think tank where socially inept academics study the babblings of toddlers in order to learn more about the formation of language. This hits three of my favorites – well-crafted plots, quirky and humorous characters, and my previously undisclosed love of linguistics.

Jeremy Cook is Carkeet's clueless hero, a star linguist caught up in the petty jealousies and feuds typical of academia. So when a colleague's dead body turns up in Jeremy's office, the cantankerous police detective, as well as some of his co-workers, suspect him. And in his bumbling way Jeremy continues to draw suspicion to himself even as he attempts to find the real killer.

Sometimes Carkeet's humor is a little broad (the murdered man's name is Stiph and a clumsy colleague's name is Woeps), but I enjoyed the clever sendup of academic life, the nerdy linguistic in jokes, and the twists and turns of the plot.