Wednesday, March 07, 2007

More book reviews - decisions and secrets

Blink - Malcom Gladwell
S is for Silence - Sue Grafton

The premise of Blink is that human beings are good at making instantaneous and generally quite accurate decisions based on very little information. In some cases, apparently, when we have more information, the accuracy of our decisions does not increase along with the rise in information available. Gladwell introduces a number of examples - marriage guidance counsellors who can tell from tiny snippets of film whether a couple's marriage will survive, tasters who can instantly tell whether re-used ingredients have been used, doctors who use a simple algorithm to determine whether a patient presenting symptoms of heart attack is at real risk - and writes very entertainingly.

However, he has a tendency to repetition, as though the book was based on a series of lectures, and some inclusions, while interesting, don't exactly agree with the conclusions he draws. The highly accurate "snap decision", however, seems to be only possible if the person presented with the data and is making the decision is an expert; but Gladwell maintains that even untrained people could make a good guess based on tiny snippets of information.

It's an interesting book (similar in style to the misnamed Freakonomics, which is more about statistics than economics), and would be good for discussions after reading it, but Gladwell doesn't seem to make any real point in his book.

The second book is completely different, being the latest in Sue Grafton's "Alphabet" crime series (A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar, etc.). It's something of a departure for her, for although her heroine private eye, Kinsey Millhone, has investigated "cold" cases before (such as the excellent Q is for Quarry), the books have always been written in the first person and from Kinsey's own point of view. S is for Silence includes sections written from others' point of view, and in a past time which Kinsey could not possibly have known about. It's a device that works well in this book, fleshing out some of the incidents that give life to the characters seen only in their youth or from others' recollections.

Kinsey is one of the best-written private investigators around. She doesn't usually muscle in on police cases, and her jobs are realistic. She's an independent woman, ageing naturally through the series (she's thirty-seven in this book, set mostly in 1987), sometimes prickly, sometimes critical, but always humane and likeable.

I'd recommend almost any of Sue Grafton's books (though I haven't read the first few) - they are interesting, well-written, and not repetitious. It's not necessary to have read the others to enjoy the latest (though, like any series character, it's better if you've made the journey from A already), and it's refreshing to read a series which is not sadistic serial-killer fare (Reichs, Cornwell) and whose central character is a tough, practical and realistic woman.

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