Ec­cen­tric mys­tery ‘In­fi­nite Black­top’ spans 25 years and three cases

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - THE PLANNER -

An ex­is­ten­tially weary PI con­fronts three ma­jor cases that may be re­lated in Sara Gran’s “The In­fi­nite Black­top,” a frag­mented take on the hard-boiled mys­tery genre.

She wasn’t sup­posed to walk away from the ac­ci­dent, but some­how, in­trepid PI Claire DeWitt sur­vives, be­cause, as she tells her­self, she is the best de­tec­tive in the world. In fact, in her whole ca­reer, there is only one mys­tery that she hasn’t been able to solve, other than how to live an emo­tion­ally bal­anced and fi­nan­cially suc­cess­ful life — the dis­ap­pear­ance of one of her best friends when they were teenagers. So as Claire sets out to dis­cover who is try­ing to kill her, the novel also cuts to this past dis­ap­pear­ance and to one of Claire’s big­gest cases in be­tween. The lat­ter, a mur­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion that she had to solve in or­der to earn her Cal­i­for­nia PI li­cense, be­comes in many ways the core of the novel; the ten­drils of mys­tery, mo­tive and in­ves­ti­ga­tion spread out across 25 years as the cases be­gin to con­verge. The quick move­ment from time pe­riod to time pe­riod, cou­pled with Claire’s in­tel­lec­tual and some­times de­pres­sive mus­ings, makes the novel slow to start, but there’s a fas­ci­nat­ing echo in these pages of clas­sic LA noir de­tec­tive fic­tion from the age of Ham­mett and Chan­dler. Like Sam Spade and his ilk, Claire is jaded, but she’s driven by “the only thing that was real, (which) was solv­ing that mys­tery and if I got hurt or if I got lost or if I died — no mat­ter what came in my way and no mat­ter who came in my way I was go­ing to solve it.” And in seek­ing truth, she dis­cov­ers faith, no mat­ter how slim and how frag­ile, in her own ex­is­tence.

Give it a bit of time to wind up and you’ll be charmed by this ec­cen­tric, en­tic­ingly art­ful mys­tery.

(Gran will speak and sign copies of her book start­ing at 7 p.m. Sept. 25 at BookPeople. Free to at­tend; only books pur­chased at BookPeople are el­i­gi­ble for sign­ing. In­for­ma­tion:

Re­turn to Mid­dleearth

Christo­pher Tolkien presents “The Fall of Gon­dolin,” the fi­nal piece in a tril­ogy of Mid­dle-earth sto­ries his fa­ther, J.R.R. Tolkien, did not live to see pub­lished.

In what he as­sures us is the last in­stall­ment, Tolkien re­turns to edit his fa­ther’s work, this time with the tale of the se­cret city of Gon­dolin. Ulmo, the great sea god, vis­its a wan­derer named Tuor and tells him his destiny: “O Tuor of the lonely heart, I will not that thou dwell for ever in fair places of birds and flow­ers. … Now must thou seek through the lands for the city of the folk called Gon­doth­lim or the dwellers in stone, and the Noldoli shall es­cort thee thither in se­cret for fear of the spies of Melko.” Tuor makes it to Gon­dolin, where he mar­ries the king’s daugh­ter and has a son, Eären­del. Mean­while, the evil Melko, whom Ulmo was so wor­ried about, is schem­ing to find the hid­den city and de­stroy it. When the city’s lo­ca­tion is given up in “the most in­fa­mous treach­ery in the his­tory of Mid­dle-earth,” a great bat­tle en­sues, and de­spite Tuor’s valor, Gon­dolin falls. The his­tory of Mid­dle-earth is so in­tri­cately de­tailed and fully imag­ined, read­ers are lucky in­deed that Christo­pher Tolkien is such an ex­cel­lent ed­i­tor. With a The Austin AmericanStatesman has teamed with Kirkus Re­views to bring you se­lect re­views from one of the most trusted and au­thor­i­ta­tive voices in book dis­cov­ery. For more re­views from Kirkus, visit kirkus­re­ full glos­sary, ad­di­tional notes, a fam­ily tree and a list of names with de­scrip­tions, it is easy to keep track of who is whose son (“Lord of the Rings” fans will be pleased to note that Eären­del is El­rond’s fa­ther) and which races of elves and orcs and gob­lins are which and live where. Tolkien also takes great care to ex­plain where each ver­sion of the story comes from and pieces to­gether its evo­lu­tion, giv­ing much-needed con­text. All this makes it easy to en­joy the tale it­self, which is beau­ti­fully writ­ten, with lyri­cal de­scrip­tions of Ulmo, Gon­dolin and even the drag­ons and Bal­rogs that dev­as­tate the city. Even the bat­tle se­quences are some­how lovely. The tone here is more like a fairy tale than the main “Ring” cy­cle, which is per­fectly suited to its shorter length.

This gor­geous novel is a must for more than just Tolkien fa­nat­ics.

“The Fall of Gon­dolin” by J.R.R. Tolkien

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