Sympathy for the Devil

Fragile In the genre of women’s fiction, Jodi Picoult, Sue Miller and Anita Shreve exemplify the unwritten ground rules: an event of some trauma or import intrudes on the seemingly ordered life of a woman living in a seeming idyllic suburban or rural town. Lisa Unger certainly plays by the rules but she also manages to add her own stamp to the genre.

The plot description of Fragile may remind some of Rosellen Brown’s excellent Before and After but that’s merely superficial. Brown was focused on the toll taken on one family. Unger chronicles the impact on an entire town. Her cross-section of characters verges on over population at the beginning of the book but once the action kicks in the pattern Unger is weaving becomes clear. Unger is particularly good at showing the reader unpleasant characters without making them cartoonish. Even her most repellant characters retain a humanity.

There were a few things in Fragile that are, well, curious. One is Unger’s choice to saddle a major male character with the name “Jones”. At least it’s not “Storm”, I guess. Then Unger has one character named “Chuck”, another “Charlie” and a third “Charlene”. If she was trying to make the three a triptych of each other it doesn’t come off. Maybe she just likes the name Charles.

An enjoyable book. Recommended for fans of Jodi Picoult, Sue Miller and Rosellen Brown.

Sisterhood of Stupidity

bad boy In the realm of pop culture the female offspring with bad taste in men and a propensity for landing in life threatening-peril has a long history. Audra in The Big Valley, Diana Fairgate in Knots Landing, Kim Bauer in 24, to name but a few, inspired in viewers like me a weekly mixture of disappointment and awe. Disappointment that yet another perfectly good to kill them had been squandered and awe that any writer could think stupidity makes compelling entertainment. Into this rich tradition Peter Robinson’s Bad Boy launches DCI Banks’ daughter Tracey Banks, hitherto not renown for her imbecility.

Tracey, however, is a comer. And she’s surrounded by several idiotic characters and situations that serve to vault her own burgeoning dimwittedness into the stratosphere. In the first few chapters we are confronted with England’s dumbest mother – what do you do if you suspect your child is in trouble? Why you toddle down to the local police station; a “gun removal” procedure that despite several characters noting that it is “by the book” strikes me as being taking from the adventures of Larry, Moe and Curly; a cardboard cutout police villain; and Tracey, who has decided to call herself Francesca to spice up her boring life. Is it any wonder that Banks himself would choose to flee the jurisdiction and vacation in California? Sadly, he’s not in search of higher IQs, he’s off searching his soul after the collapse of his relationship with a younger woman and his encounter with MI5. He’s on a California whine tour.

To make matters even more entertaining, Robinson has decided to delete the mystery portion from this installment of this mystery series. You know who did it. Banks knows who did it. The only person who is momentarily dim on this is, you guessed it, Tracey. Her decision to cleave unto the bad boy of the title is one the goofier aspects of the book – he was her friend’s boyfriend, she just fancied him until the cops got involved. Then it’s shopping, trashing Dad’s place and running from the man all day. Like Gym, Tanning and Laundry, only even dumber.

As if this isn’t enough fun, Robinson then tosses in a super-criminal known as The Farmer (cue the foreboding music) and his two psychotic henchmen. Then  he adds a graphic torture tableau. It’s a relief because for the last 20 books I’ve been saying to myself, Excellent characterizations, complex mysteries and genuine moral dilemmas are all fine and good but when is Robinson going to get serious and deliver more gratuitous victimization of women.

I’m not a fan. Robinson can do much, much better than this book that reads more like a plea for a movie deal than an entry into what has been up to know an extremely well-written, well-plotted, thoughtful mystery series. If you’re a fan of Robinson and Banks, you may want to skip this one.