STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Librarian Nancy Pearl stops by from time to time with some recommended reading for us. And today she has a list of what she calls mysteries we might have missed. Welcome back, Nancy.
NANCY PEARL: Thank you, Steve, it's great to be here.
INSKEEP: And you sent me this gigantic stack of…
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INSKEEP: …books. Which one should I pick?
PEARL: Oh, that green one.
INSKEEP: Here we go. "The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie," by Alan Bradley.
PEARL: Well, this is a classic. One of those classic British mysteries just, just published in 2009. But it's set in the early 1950s in a country house in England. And a young 11-year-old - our 11-year-old heroine, Flavia de Luce, is a chemistry fanatic. And as you're reading this book and reading about the mystery, one of the side pleasures of this book is learning about all the chemistry heroes that we probably maybe learned in 10th grade chemistry but have forgotten. Now, Flavia wakes up one morning and looks out the window and sees a man lying in the kitchen garden. She goes outside. The man is dying. His last words are in Latin, but Flavia, being a brilliant little girl…
INSKEEP: Naturally knows Latin. She's 11, okay.
PEARL: And the man is saying farewell. And the local constable has plans to arrest Flavia's father. And Flavia of course does not believe her father is guilty of murder. So she determines that she is going to figure out who killed this man. Now, this involves many trips to the village by bicycle, which I just love. And at one point Flavia gets herself in a very tight spot with the man who she really has determined is the real murderer. And she knows that he's lying to her, and this is a quote from the book: "It was a lie and I detected it at once. As an accomplished fibber myself, I spotted the telltale signs of an untruth before they were halfway out of his mouth: the excessive detail, the offhand delivery, and the wrapping-up of it all in casual chitchat."
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PEARL: Doesn't it make Flavia sound great?
INSKEEP: Another book from your pile here is "The Case of the Gilded Fly," by Edmund Crispin.
PEARL: Edmund Crispin is a pseudonym for a composer named Bruce Montgomery. And this is a book that has just been republished by a small company called Felony and Mayhem, who are bringing out, I'm so thrilled, bringing out the classic books of the past. And this is a book written in the 1950s, I believe, that really echoes the golden age of British fiction. This is the true puzzle. We don't get…
INSKEEP: This is in 1945, end of World War II…
PEARL: 1945, yes.
INSKEEP: All right, go ahead.
PEARL: We don't get true puzzles the way we used to get in the days of Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers. What we get now are more thrillers and more action-oriented things. But the main character in this book is a professor of English named Gervase Fen. And this is one of those classic books which assembles a large cast of characters…
PEARL: …several of whom are going to be murdered, and only one person in this case, Gervase Fen, can figure out who's guilty. The wonderful thing about these books is that the author plays absolutely fair with the reader. So that you have all the clues right there but they are so covered over by red herrings and other devious means of, I'm convinced, punctuation that we miss, something like that. You would have a difficult time. One would have a difficult time.
INSKEEP: Oh, I would have a difficult time. I have no doubt.
PEARL: And I had a difficult time figuring out who really done it.
PEARL: That - I just made that up. I'm sure it's not punctuation.
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PEARL: I'm sure it's just red herrings.
INSKEEP: All right. Well, let's keep moving on through the stack here - China - China. Well, how do you pronounce it?
PEARL: China Mieville.
INSKEEP: Oh, China Mieville, okay. It's called "The City and the City."
PEARL: "The City and the City," oh my gosh.
INSKEEP: Now, this is one that gets a little strange.
PEARL: Yes. This is one of those books that takes a little work, but it repays you in the end. It is an absolutely stunning mystery that's set in twin cities. These are twin cities that occupy the same physical space.
INSKEEP: Parallel universe.
PEARL: They're not even parallel. They're just the right one on top of each other. And the only way that they can, that that pretense or the existence of the cities can continue is if you, living in one of those cities, ignore the presence of the other city.
PEARL: Isn't that amazing? And then a young woman is killed and an inspector is charged with finding who the murderer is. And in doing so he has to travel between cities. And it turns out that this young woman is part of this kind of offbeat illegal group that believes in, in fact there are three cities, and one of those three cities exists in between the other two.
INSKEEP: You know, as strange as this sounds, it makes me think of my own neighborhood in Washington, D.C., where there's a certain kind of person of a certain age with a certain type of family out in the street during the day…
INSKEEP: …and late at night a very different kind of people at the bars and so forth.
PEARL: And I think you can't help but read this book without thinking about real places. I mean, when I was reading this, I thought about the Middle East a lot. I thought about the former Czechoslovakia. I thought about how the world segregates itself and that that segregation is really a willingness to displace what you see in front of you.
INSKEEP: People live in the same place but inhabit almost different worlds.
PEARL: And it all works as a mystery, which is the most amazing thing.
INSKEEP: What about the world of Eliot Pattison, "The Skull Mantra"?
PEARL: Well, you pick one, in which the main character in this book is actually Tibet.
PEARL: And this is a Tibet trying to free itself from Chinese overrule.
INSKEEP: All right.
PEARL: And the main character in this book is a Chinese named Inspector Shan who is sent as punishment - used to work for one of the government ministries in China - to Tibet, to kind of teach him a lesson. And he begins to learn from the dissident monks who are also there for a kind of a punishment. Then of course a murder occurs and Shan is asked to investigate. And the thing about this book that makes this book so wonderful and that makes me love reading so much is that in any kind of book that you read, you learn something. And when you finish this book, you know so much about Tibet. And you have such respect for the monks who are living their beliefs despite physical hardships.
And you also have a real respect for this Inspector Shan, who is going to risk certainly increased comforts - more food, better housing, all those sorts of things - to follow his own conscience. It's a wonderful, wonderful novel.
INSKEEP: Well, Nancy Pearl, good to see you again.
PEARL: Thank you.
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INSKEEP: When you're checking the headlines throughout this day, you can find excerpts from Nancy Pearl's recommended mystery books at the new npr.org.