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Nancy Pearl's Book Reviews for 8/8/2009

Jeremy Richards

Reading a good, complex plot is like untangling Christmas lights. There's a satisfaction to the way it unravels, and if the circuits are intact, it all lights up brilliantly at the end. Today, Seattle–based writer and librarian Nancy Pearl helps us unravel both a thoughtful mystery and a heartfelt, screwball narrative.

I have recently become addicted to the mystery novels of Jane Haddam. I read a few of them years ago — her first Gregor Demarkian mystery, "Not a Creature Was Stirring," was published in 1990 — but for some reason I don't think I ever fully appreciated her until I read her newest one, "Living Witness" — the 24th featuring ex–FBI agent Demarkian — at which point I went back and avidly read all the earlier ones that I had skipped. Haddam's books aren't for thriller readers looking for adrenaline–charged page–turners; they're truly character–driven, British–style cerebral mysteries, deliciously slow–paced and intricately plotted. "Living Witness" is centered on the controversy over the biology curriculum in a small, very conservative town in Pennsylvania. 91–year–old Ann–Victoria Hadley, newly elected member of the school board, has initiated a lawsuit that would forbid the teaching of intelligent design (synonymous with creationism in her mind); and thus require the teaching of evolution in the local schools. When Ann–Victoria is found beaten nearly to death, and shortly thereafter two fellow plaintiffs to the lawsuit are found murdered, the local police chief, no fan of Darwin's theory himself, and thus a possible suspect in both the beating and the killings, calls on Gregor to take over the investigation. One of the things I especially like about Haddam as an author is the way she treats her characters. All of them — both major and minor, and on both sides of the controversy — are fully developed, as well as being treated with respect. It's easy to imagine them having real lives both before and after we meet them in the pages of this book (except for the ones killed off, of course). Although events in Gregor's personal life change and develop over the course of the two dozen books, I don't think it's necessary to read them in order. Two others I'd recommend wholeheartedly are "The Headmaster's Wife" and "Cheating at Solitaire."

I've been a huge fan of Elinor Lipman for years. There are lots of reasons why I love her books: the delectably screwballish nature of the plots, and the realistic yet infinitely– wittier–than–anything–I–ever–encounter–in–real–life dialogue, for two. For me, though, what most sets Elinor Lipman apart is the way she just adores her characters. She has such abounding affection for the people she's invented; she seems to regard even the most unpleasant ones with sympathy. It's only natural for readers to adopt an author's attitude toward her characters and, in Lipman's case, take the same delight in reading about them that she obviously took in creating them. Her new novel, "The Family Man," is a madcap romp with a heart of gold. Retired lawyer Henry Archer's biggest regret in life is that when his wife left him 25 years before, he allowed her new husband to adopt Thalia, Denise's 4–year–old daughter, whom Henry had adopted when he and Denise married. So when he's reunited with his ex–stepdaughter, now an actress (whom he never knew works at the salon where he gets his hair cut), he couldn't be happier. Complications of the wackiest sort, of course, ensue. The recently widowed Denise insists that Henry help her fight a lawsuit when her step–children try to overturn their father's will, and, more importantly for Henry, Denise introduces him to a man she's recently met while shopping. Todd, a tabletop specialist at the Gracious Home store, still lives with his mother and has never actually told her he was gay. Thalia gets a job pretending to be the girlfriend of a Hollywood actor of dubious character, and so on. You can see, I'm sure, how deliciously complicated the plot all is — it would be easy to lose track of it all. But under Lipman's skilled touch these disparate plot elements come together in a totally satisfying way. If you enjoy "The Family Man," don't miss my other favorite novels: "The Way Men Act," "The Inn at Lake Devine," and "My Latest Grievance."

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