With Kanazawa once again buried in snow, holing up under the kotatsu and never moving again is sounding like a really good idea. We’ve got another month of this to look forward to, so now would be the time to dust off those doorstop-sized tomes you’ve been meaning to read for years: War and Peace, Les Miserables, Proust, Joyce, or maybe the complete works of Charles Dickens.
But in this season of rain and lightning-lit snowstorms, tackling a book as heavy as Ishikawa’s grey skies can be a bit, well… daunting. As much as I would like to finish The Tale of Genji this winter, it’s more likely I’ll turn to the books I think of as my guilty pleasures. Below are two of my favourite brain candy series’ to help get you through the long winter nights.
MARCUS DIDIUS FALCO Mysteries
by Lindsey Davis
I discovered Falco in a manner befitting his circumstances as a ‘private informer’ (part detective, part spy) in Imperial Rome: one of his books was sitting out of place on a shelf in the Reject Shop. My interest was piqued by the characters and rich backstories that had evidently been built up in the previous books. Intrigued, I went hunting for more. Ten years and a trip to Rome later, I’m still reading.
The Falco mysteries (of which nineteen books have been published thus far) are set in various places around Rome and the Empire, but the most constant setting is Falco’s flat at the top of a six story tenement on the Aventine hill, where Rome’s poor and working class plebs made their homes. Each book is a self-contained mystery in the style of the old 30s gumshoe novels, written with the tongue firmly in cheek and social satire on the agenda — a former civil servant, Davis captures with damning accuracy every crooked profession from plumbing to politics. Falco himself is more reminiscent of Edmund Blackadder than Sherlock Holmes: his cynicism is a perfect foil to the colour and drama of Rome in its early glory, not to mention the creaks and groans of its bureaucracy. Delightfully anachronistic, these books are fun and funny as hell.
The first chapter of the first book, The Silver Pigs, can be found here. Even if detective novels aren’t your thing, give this one a go; it’s so much fun, I doubt you’ll regret it.
PHRYNE FISHER Mysteries
by Kerry Greenwood
Yeah, okay, I’ve a thing for sardonic detective fiction. Phryne is a relatively new addition to my library, but what the Honourable Ms. Fisher may lack in literary chops, she more than makes up for in personality and panache. It takes a woman with class to crack skulls with a pearl-handled pistol.
Phryne Fisher is the headstrong bon vivant daughter of an English lord in the late 1920s. Tired of waltzing through the respectable tea rooms of London, Ms. Fisher packs up her eye-popping outfits and moves halfway round the world, to the city of Melbourne. Laying aside for a moment my natural antipathy toward the place (being a Sydneysider and all), these books do give a lot of insight into what my own country was like in the period that Fitzgerald immortalised for Americans. Australian cities in the 1920s were still very much colonial ports and Ms. Fisher, with her upper class poise, natural sense of entitlement and love of dangerous driving quite simply blazes through the Rainy City. Phryne Fisher’s world is a tonne of fun to read and immerse oneself in, if slightly darker in tone, as Greenwood draws extensively on her past as a Legal Aid attorney to bring both the crimes and legal processes of the early 20th century into relief.
The first book of the series is called Cocaine Blues and deals with — you guessed it! — cocaine trafficking, specifically in Melbourne’s dank opium dens. Unlike the Falco books, where each book builds and develops upon the previous, each addition in the Phryne series seems to stand alone in a relatively set universe. I admit, I do sometimes yearn for more lingering consequences but if we’re talking about brain candy, I’m happy (relatively) so long as each book is entertaining. And Phryne is endlessly entertaining!
Happy reading! ^_^