Welcome to Shelf Care, where I review three books related by a theme. These aren’t necessarily the latest releases, but are hopefully books you can’t believe you missed.
This column’s theme: The Process of Elimination – books where the story ends with a whole lot fewer characters than it started with.
So if you like
Murder mysteries that aren’t set after the fact
Finding the source material for a bunch of adaptations
Stories that show up on PBS. A lot.
You might like
Ten seemingly unconnected strangers are invited to an island, where someone is picking them off, one by one.
“There’s things going on, sir, that I don’t understand.”
Armstrong said sharply: “Things? What things?”
“You’ll think I’m crazy, sir. You’ll say it isn’t anything. But it’s got to be explained, sir. It’s got to be explained. Because it doesn’t make any sense.”
“Well, man, tell me what it is? Don’t go on talking in riddles.”
Rogers swallowed again.
“It’s those little figures, sir. In the middle of the table. The little china figures. Ten of them, there were. I’ll swear to that, ten of them.”
“Yes, ten. We counted them last night at dinner.”
Rogers came nearer.
“That’s just it, sir. Last night, when I was clearing up, there wasn’t but nine, sir. I noticed it and thought it queer. But that’s all I thought. And now, sir, this morning. I didn’t notice when I laid the breakfast. I was upset and all that.
“But now, sir, when I came to clear away. See for yourself if you don’t believe me.
“There’s only eight, sir! Only eight! It doesn’t make sense, does it? Only eight…”
So it’d be impossible to have a list of books on this theme without mentioning And Then There Were None, which is probably the most popular example of the concept, since, after all it is billed as “the world’s best selling murder mystery”. So it gets points for being a classic, as well as providing the template for a host of stories that followed where the murder mystery is in progress, rather than being pieced together after the fact. If there’s a weak point in all this, I found Christie’s declarative writing style works way better on the stage than on the page, and for me, it didn’t read as smoothly as some of the books it inspired, but that may be an artifact of the time in which it was written. However it certainly inspired my next selection.
Or if you like
Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None
Stand-up comedy specials
Snappy, smart-ass dialogue
You might like
Ten comics arrive on an island for a comedy special, only to find out that their acts aren’t the only thing that’s killing.
“I’ve been talking to Dave every day.”
“Dave?” Dante said.
“Dave, the caretaker. He lives here year-round. But he’s not here now.”
“Are you sure?” Janet asked.
“I searched this place top to bottom,” Meredith said through clenched teeth. “We nine are the only people on the island.”
“Are you sure?” Zoe said.
“Dave’s not here, man!” Meredith yelled, hands balling into fists.
There was silence, briefly, after her outburst.
“Now that’s a bit,” TJ said.
This is one of those rare books that really lives up to its interesting premise. The twist of retelling Christie’s And Then There Were None with comedians works beautifully, mainly because Van Lente demonstrates a thorough understanding of comedy in general, with the Cheech and Chong reference from the sample passage being just one example. Each comedian represents a different aspect of comedy. There’s the talk show host, the prop guy, the redneck stereotype, the insult comic, and so on. Part of the fun of this book is trying to guess who the real life inspiration for each character might have been, which is not to say they’re all cardboard cutouts since they gain depth as the chapters alternate with backstory from each comedian’s performances. Combine that with a plot that was really well thought out and you’ve got a terrific book. If Agatha Christie is a bit dry for you, I highly recommend giving this a read.
Or if you like
The writing style of Blake Crouch or Hugh Howey
The idea of crossing The Dirty Dozen with The Martian
Space age sentencing to transportation
Swapping one prison for another
You might like
The cheapest way to build a Mars colony would be with criminals, as they’ve got nothing to lose, and nobody’s going to care when they don’t come back. Oh, if. If they don’t come back. We totally meant if.
“You’re going to be living in something you’ve helped put together,” he said. “You’ll be relying on it not to leak or fall apart. Chances are, if you cut corners, someone dies.”
A couple of them resented his advice. Zero, and Alice. He’d have to watch their work, give it a proper assessment. Zeus, on the other hand, just got on with the job. He was probably more used to the labor and the setting—an ocean rig was going to have similarities to a spaceship or a Mars base—but the man’s skills were going to be an asset. And a spacesuit was going to hide the swastika on the back of Zeus’s neck.
Frank had never meant his life to be like this. All he’d ever wanted was a quiet existence, unremarkable and uneventful, getting up, going to work, having his family around him. Now he was going to spend the rest of his life on Mars with an ex neo-Nazi for company, not to mention whatever it was the others had done. Murderers, some of them. Murderers like him. As if this world didn’t have enough crazy, they were now exporting it to other planets.
This was a quick read with an interesting concept: doing dangerous space exploration with people who are considered expendable. Everything in it was well thought out and the plot hung together really well, making it solid, believable, science fiction.
The only bone I have to pick with the book is that the narrative takes a while to build up to the point where things start going poorly for all involved, and that going poorly is really the premise of the book. There are valid reasons for this. There’s preparation to be done before anybody gets to Mars, and groundwork to be laid for things that happen later. Besides, I’m not sure a now/then narrative structure would have worked, but the bummer is that the reader generally knows what’s coming the first third of the book and is just waiting for it to hurry up and happen. Also, while the book has a resolution, and it’s not a cliffhanger, there’s definitely more of this story to be told – sometime in 2019 – and that for sure was a twist I didn’t see coming.
So, what other books should be on this list? Leave your thoughts in the comments, and stay tuned for my next column, where the theme will be: Power-ups.