Welcome to Murder by the Book's blog about what we've read recently. You can find our website at www.mbtb.com.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Dark Mirror, by Barry Maitland (hardcover, $24.99)

Dark Mirror is the latest David Brock/Kathy Kolla mystery. In this long-running series, the first of which, The Marx Sisters, was a stunner, Barry Maitland has admirably developed the characters of DCI Brock and DI Kolla of The Serious Crimes Unit of Scotland Yard. Maitland has given Brock and Kolla depth and human strengths and weaknesses to which most people can relate.

Maitland's mysteries, on the other hand, often bend towards the esoteric and intellectual. I am often reminded, strangely enough, of Agatha Christie, who sometimes would solve her mysteries with a solution plucked out of left field. (Remember her famous solution of German measles?) The resolutions, needless to say, are hard for the reader to puzzle out.

In Dark Mirror, an attractive graduate student dies of arsenic poisoning in the reading room of an exclusive academic library. She had been tangentially working on poisons and their influence on pre-Raphaelite society. Everyone who already knows about this topic, raise your hand! Ahh, so you might benefit, educationally speaking, from reading the discourse on how the upper-class artistic society of William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti operated.

She appeared to be a committed academic with a quiet life, so the victim, Marion Summers, proves an unlikely mystery woman. However, as more of her life is uncovered, links to unsavory characters pop up. And how was she, on a student's stipend, able to afford the three quarters of a million pound house registered in her name?

The tangle of characters from high and low classes, academia, and Brock and Kolla's personal lives should have provided more of a zip to the story, but the only real pep is provided by Pip, the replacement ingénue character for Kathy Kolla, who has aged and been promoted out of her original helper monkey position. The new romance for Kolla also briefly engages us in something other than the author's careful stage setting for the solution to Marion's murder.

This is, nevertheless, a well-written book, just a little given to plodding and exaggeration.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The even slower read . . .

In a fit of multi-tasking, I'm also reading Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City, a dense, demanding work by the author of Motherless Brooklyn. I should be finished with this sometime in 2011.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The slow read . . .

I have been reading Robert Bolano's 2666 for the last month now. It's not that the book is tedious or underwhelming; quite the opposite. I love it. I savor it. The translation is sterling. But it is work. The plot so far revolves around a mysterious German author who is the object of intellectual affection and awe by a few international groupies. I am on page 80. At this rate, I hope to finish it by the end of next year (i.e., December 2010!) and give you a report. :)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Heat Wave, by Richard Castle (hardcover, $19.99)

It's a fine line between reality and imagination sometimes. Richard Castle is a figment of TV producer Andrew Marlowe's imagination, but Heat Wave is a real book being sold under "Richard Castle's" by-line.

"Castle" is an ABC-TV show. It is about Richard Castle, a mystery novelist à la James Patterson, who pulls some political strings and gets to tag along with homicide detectives to get "background" information for his books. This means he mostly gets to hang around too-glamorous-to-be-a-real-working-detective Kate Beckett. Finally, as part of the TV show, Castle produces a book and has an inaugural signing at a bookstore. The book? Heat Wave, starring Nikki Heat, based on the fuming-but-flattered Kate Beckett.

So what have we here, for real? The book Heat Wave, starring Nikki Heat. The characters, dialogue, and plot are strangely similar to that found in an episode of "Castle." Yay for the characters, dialogue, and plot, I say! Needless to say, I love the show: a romantic comedy/drama, with a mystery. Nathan Fillion, late of the wonderful "Firefly" TV show and "Serenity" movie, is Castle, and he brings an admirable lightness to the part.

Now to the book. Tying the snappy dialogue together is a rather plodding narrative. If a book could be schizophrenic, this book is it. It's as though someone took a "Castle" script and ham-fistedly laced some narrative to tie the dialogue together. The TV show portrays author Castle as pompous but literate. The pomposity comes through in the fake-real "Acknowledgements" at the end of the book, but the literate part is harder to find. No doubt a real writer was found to create Heat Wave, but I have the impression that this isn't the book he or she would normally write. Thus the awkwardness. It becomes a little smoother (or I was worn down) later in the book, but never truly reaches a point of synthesis.

Nevertheless, I heartily endorse this book. It's like a "Castle" episode with benefits. Nikki Heat and "Jameson Rook," Castle's alter ego, are allowed to venture, romantically-speaking, where Castle and Beckett are not. Fun.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

In Tongues of the Dead, by Brad Kelln (hardcover, $24.95)

There's no ambiguity here. You aren't left wondering whether it's a fantasy or just a fantastic premise. The reader learns pretty much from the start that there are renegade angels who fathered children by human women. In modern times there are still descendents of those angels.

There's a book and there's an autistic kid who seems to be the only one who can read the book. There's a priest who solves problems for a cardinal at the Vatican. He seems to be at odds with other henchmen of the same cardinal at the Vatican. It's somewhat confusing.

What is ultimately confusing is why the angels must destroy their descendents in order to get back in God's good graces. Why would killing people be what God wants? Also the mystic book that supposedly tells God's secrets to humans, if only they could read it, contains pictures of plants and chubby naked women. If God's secrets involve plants and chubby naked women, perhaps we don't really need to know them.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Case of the Left-Handed Lady, by Nancy Springer ($6.99)

Enola Holmes is the much younger sister of Sherlock and Mycroft. Did you know that?

In a charming children's series, Nancy Springer has given her readers a 14-year-old girl who has the stunning Holmes intellect and powers of detection, but who also has compassion and a wider breadth of emotions.

This is the second book in the series -- the fourth was just released in hardcover – and success has not diminished Springer's ability to capture her readers, young and old, from the first page.

Since Enola's escape from her brothers' clutches and plans to turn her into a well-mannered young woman with expertise in the arts necessary to make a good marriage, she has traveled to London and established herself as a finder of what is lost, be it people or things. A 14-year-old "scientific perditorian." She is also looking for her mother, who ran away from home and who, Enola believes, is in danger. That is a running thread throughout the books, and we find out a little more each time.

In the present book, Enola sets out to find another missing young woman, Lady Cecily. Cecily, too, was being groomed to be a proper young lady with good marriage prospects. It becomes clear that she had an interest in the dark and miserable world of the English underclass, the workers and impoverished souls upon whose backs the upperclass exist. So Springer supplies an education to her readers while entertaining them with Enola's adventures.

With Sherlock and Mycroft (and Dr. Watson) actively trying to find her, Enola must also use her wits to avoid their efforts. She gives a human face to the cold and intellectual creations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. As a long-time ("The Speckled Band" in the seventh grade) fan of Sherlock Holmes, I love this series. What fun!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Ghost War, by Alex Berenson ($9.99)

This is the most excellent follow-up to The Faithful Spy. CIA agent John Wells is now famous, whether he wants to be or not, for having saved the United States from al-Qaeda terrorists. In The Ghost War, it is a year later and John is living in the U.S. He is trying to re-define his life in a world he hasn't lived in for ten years. As a deep undercover agent with al-Qaeda in the deserts of the Middle East and as a convert to Islam, John did what he had to do to survive. Now he feels he no longer fits into the world of American culture or Washington, D.C., spy politics. Neither does Jennifer Exley, his boss and girlfriend. As a result they and a few others are in a side organization that works on the fringes of legitimacy – and it works for them.

In an intense desire to rid himself of his demons or the vision of all the people he has had to kill over the years or perhaps to kill himself – even John doesn't know – he races his motorcycle hell-bent-for-leather on highways in the early hours of the morning. He doesn't kill himself, and because of his fame, he doesn't even get a ticket for speeding. Is that what his life will be like from now on – life in a bubble?

Across the world, the North Koreans have sussed out one of the U.S.'s most deeply imbedded agents. How did they uncover him? The trail leads to China and an intensely ambitious party bureaucrat. Then let's bring in a CIA mole, more of al-Qaeda, some Russians, a contentious CIA official, and an arms dealer. And this concoction works.

However, Berenson needs to learn how to better integrate his explanations of spy vocabulary. It is rather jarring when he pauses to explain the military or technical abbreviations or slang. (I realize that this says more about me than about Berenson's writing.) Otherwise, he has great pacing and drama. His mysteries and their unraveling are intelligent and provocative. He makes John Wells' psychic pain heart-wrenching. It's a difficult task but Berenson leads us into a better understanding of the cultural clashes that define our world today.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Only Milo, by Barry Smith (trade, $14.95)

I love a quirky story. I love a quirky story written in a quirky manner. That's why I picked the quirky Beat the Reaper as one of my year's best. And then along came Milo.

I don't think I'm giving too much away when I tell you that Milo is a killer. And I don't mean of ants or a hot pastrami sandwich or a nightclub comedy act. Milo is a frustrated novelist. He cannot beg, borrow or buy his way into the big time. So he tries every other way to get published. His first success is as a translator, despite his rudimentary Spanish, for José, a Mexican author. Judging the material he is to translate as second-rate, Milo substitutes one of his novels. When José accidentally almost unmasks the deception, Milo kills José. It is all uphill and downhill and back uphill from there.

The book speeds by because there's a lot of white space. The book looks like a typewritten (or computer written) manuscript or journal.

Short sentences.

One per paragraph.

Lots of punchlines.

Funny.

Unashamedly bloodthirsty.

All Milo wants to be is a published author. Is that too much to ask?

Birds of a Feather, by Jacqueline Winspear (trade, $14)

Maisie Dobbs, star of a now six-book series, is more than just a plucky heroine and farsighted feminist in turn-of-the-century England; she is a great mixture of a kind heart and an incisive intelligence.

This is the second book in the series. Maisie's private investigator business in London has picked up steam, thanks to her unimpeachable reputation and astute insights. She is more than a private eye, however; she is also a psychologist who tries to heal aggrieved parties and lost souls. She uses techniques of meditation and immersion taught to her by her mentor, Dr. Maurice Blanche. Maisie is extraordinary in another way: She has worked her way "upstairs" from being a maid in Lady Rowan's household to being the protégé of Lady Rowan, who has educated and helped Maisie.

It is this amalgamation of characteristics that makes Jacqueline Winspear's series so engaging and charming. Winspear writes with tenderness about the era, even as she shines a light on the injustices and atrocities of the post-World War I world.

A young woman has disappeared and her father wants her back. He hires Maisie to bring her back. Now. His brusque manner is off-putting. It is not clear whether Joseph Waite is looking for Charlotte Waite because she is his daughter or his possession. In her search for Charlotte, Maisie stumbles across the mysterious deaths of other young women. Winspear never embraces the cliché. You, the reader, may think you know what's going on, but you haven't a clue. The resolution is touching and it is hard to determine who the real villain is.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Nemesis, by Jo Nesbø (trade, $14.99) (due at the end of December)

This is a follow-up to Norwegian Jo ("Yo") Nesbø's Red Breast, an MBTB favorite last year. It continues the story of Harry Hole, maverick police detective and mostly-functional human being.

Of all the Scandanavian authors currently being translated, he is my favorite. (Kudos to Don Bartlett for a smooth translation, including colloquialisms and puns.) Both Red Breast and Nemesis move along well, seldom bogged down by angst-filled pauses. There's a good mixture of human relationships, technological flash, clue work, and twists to satisfy almost every mystery need.

Nesbø delves into his characters' pasts, sometimes in depth and sometimes just enough to whet the appetite. Harry Hole is struggling with alcoholism – now there's something new and unusual, she said facetiously – but he maintains some buoyancy in his life because of his loving relationship with Rakel and her young son, whom we met in the first book. He struggles with the death of a close colleague – also seen in the last book – and his doggedness to solve that mystery is a secondary storyline in Nemesis. (The reader knows what really happened, so it is fascinating to watch Harry try to figure it out.)

One of the main storylines concerns a bank robber. He threatens to kill a bank teller if the manager can't empty a cash container within 25 seconds. Although the manager empties the container, but not within the 25 seconds, the robber kills the teller. That murder brings Harry into the picture. He recruits young Beate Lønn, the daughter of a legendary detective, to use her extraordinary face recognition skills to locate the masked robber.

To complicate Harry's life, an ex-girlfriend, Anna, calls him to get together one last time. Say no, Harry; run! But, of course, Harry walks right into it. And now it gets messy. Anna is found dead. It could be suicide, or someone may have murdered her and made it look like suicide. Harry cannot remember arriving at her apartment, nor can he remember finding his way back to his apartment, where he wakes up the next morning with a massive hangover. Could he have murdered her or watched her kill herself? How can he investigate this incident without implicating himself? If he can't remember arriving or leaving, isn't it possible that someone may have seen him?

And what do gypsies have to do with anything?

All three storylines are fascinating. Unlike the more famous Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, which also has several storylines, Nemesis doesn't take long to build up steam. Nemesis juggles its plots nimbly. The resolutions – or lack thereof – are clever and intriguing. The addition of Beate to the police team is a welcome one. Highly recommended, but read Red Breast first.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The City of the Sun, by David Levien ($7.99)

This critically praised and award-nominated book is a page turner, but it is immeasurably sad. There have been more books written lately with the subject of missing or murdered children. Some are fantastical like The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. Some are dark and psychologically disturbing like a couple of Val McDermid's books, including Place of Execution. Levien's book is also about a missing child, and it is more realistic than a reader might want.

Frank Behr is the private investigator (and former cop) whom distraught parents hire to locate their 12-year-old son. It's been over a year since their son went out to deliver papers and never returned. The trail is cold but the parents' grief is fresh. Against all odds and his better judgment, Behr decides to take the case. It doesn't come out until much later that one of the reasons is because his own young son died, and he knows the heartache firsthand.

Clue by clue Frank uncovers a trail of bad people. He is eventually aided by Paul, the missing boy's father. This is contrary, again, to his better judgment, but Behr understands Paul's frustration and need to do something. The tension heightens with each unraveled clue. (It also should be noted that Behr is incredibly lucky with some of these breaks, but then it wouldn't be much of story without them.)

If you have difficulty reading books about children in jeopardy, pass this one by. If you read it, you will be rewarded by a compelling and intense work. You will meet characters who could be your very unlucky next-door neighbors. And Frank is the investigator you would hire if you had a problem, because he would take it to the ends of the earth, even if that proved to be the City of the Sun.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Illegal Action, by Stella Rimington (trade, $15) (c2004)

I've been meaning to read one of Stella Rimington's books for a long time. I chose Illegal Action, the third in her series featuring MI5 intelligence officer Liz Carlyle. Rimington's books have been on the edge of my vision because of one reason: She is the former Director General of MI5, with experience in counter terrorism and counter espionage.

She was "outed" by the press in England during her term as MI5's Director General, usually an unpublicized and anonymous position. According to information available on the internet, she has been unusually forthcoming about what MI5 does and what her position entailed, going so far as to write a memoir in which she described the organization.

Illegal Action is not weighted with spycraft lingo and indecipherable plots; rather, I found the writing clear and riveting. Carlyle is a work-driven woman in a male-dominated field. She has sacrificed having a family and engaging in normal social activities to retain her job and attain her status as an intelligent intelligence officer.

Rimington's plot revolves around the possible assassination of a Russian oligarch in England. Where have many of the rich Russians landed? In London. Who's watching them, Cold-War style? More Russian spies than ever before. So, who is watching the watchers becomes the final question. The answer, much to her disappointment, is Liz Carlyle.

Carlyle is transferred to counter espionage – a demotion as far as she is concerned – and imbedded as a student of Russian art in the home of one of the more flamboyant of the Russian tycoons. She is there primarily to assess if he is a potential target. Along the way she meets many suspicious characters, including the Russian's flashy English girlfriend, an emotional secretary, a garrulous Italian art dealer, and an attractive representative of The Hermitage.

The attraction of this book lies in the details. The agents from MI5 and other governmental agencies expose the fine balancing act of authority. We see their weaknesses and their strengths, and this adds to the movement of Rimington's tale. Well done, DG Rimington!

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Fleet Street Murders, by Charles Finch (hardcover, $24.99)

It's nice to take an occasional break from serial killers, sexy vampires, somber Scandanavians, and rampant crime on the streets of (fill in the name of your city here). Charles Finch has written a charming and intelligent mystery series, of which The Fleet Street Murders is the third. Set in 1860s England, Finch effortlessly evokes a tone fitting the Victorian times, and that is a large part of his charm.

Charles Lenox is the younger son in an upper class family. Not excited to enter either rectory or regiment, the traditional venues for disenfranchised younger sons, Charles has become a private detective. This lower class undertaking would be more of a family disgrace except that Charles' older brother, Edmund, a staid and responsible member of Parliament, can't wait to assist him, and Charles' reputation and success rate is nonpareil. To further lend respectability, Charles is newly engaged to the lovely, wealthy, and (last, but not least) intelligent Lady Jane Grey. Along with Graham, Charles' worthy valet, and various high- and low-born assistants, Charles seeks to rectify nefarious deeds and dastardly doings.

Finch's gentle tone doesn't mask the critical look he takes of Great Britain's class system and its law-making apparatus, but he doesn't bludgeon us with a contemporary sensibility of these issues. For example, Graham is Charles' friend and assistant investigator, but he is Charles' servant first and foremost.

Although Charles' life is already full of his private investigations, upper-crust socializing, and wedding plans, Charles has always harbored a desire to be a member of Parliament. With the help of Liberal party connections, he runs for a seat representing an area of England that he has never seen, apparently not an uncommon occurrence. Charles must travel from his home in London to meet and greet the inhabitants of the rural community of Stirrington and convince them he would be a better candidate than his opponent, who was born and bred in the area. Through Charles we meet the "ordinary" folk of the time: farmers, bartenders, grain merchants, and assorted village odd ducks. Charles is illuminated and humbled by his travels.

So, where's the murder, you ask? It seems almost incidental after we have become so immersed in the story of the political campaign. Back in London, two journalists have been murdered. One is a respectable member of the newspaper establishment and the other is suspected of obliging and furthering the cause of the criminal element of London. Charles investigates between political engagements, but both politics and the investigation suffer as a result. Lady Jane, too, adds to the chaos by requesting a delay in their marriage plans. Egad! When an acquaintance of Charles is attacked, perhaps in conjunction with the murders, the mystery takes a personal turn.

To give us this tale, Finch never slips into farce or parody. He neither lectures nor hectors. This book, gentle reader, is very entertaining and comforting. At the end of the day, there's a cozy fire, a hot cup of tea, and friends and family to carry our hero through.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

G. I. Bones, by Martin Limón (hardcover, $24)

What most of us know about the Korean War has been garnered from "M*A*S*H" reruns. What Martin Limón gives us is a complicated and dark look at South Korea twenty years after that war officially ended. In 1970s Korea, the U.S. still maintains a heavy-handed presence. George Sueño and Ernie Bascom are Army CID officers charged with solving crimes by and against G.I.s.

In this sixth book in Limón's series, Sueño and Bascom are charged with finding two things: the bones of a soldier who has been missing for twenty years and the wayward daughter of an Army bigwig.

In an eerie start to the book, Sueño and Bascom are brought to the home of a local fortune-teller. She tells them that the spirit of the long-dead soldier will not rest until his bones have been returned home. Because Sueño has a long-standing crush on Dr. Yong, the woman who brought him to the fortune-teller, he agrees to investigate the case. Sueño and Bascom's lives are complicated when a colonel's teenaged daughter apparently steals money from her father and runs away with a private, and they are ordered to find her, the private, and the money. Strangely, everything eventually ties into the mysterious "Seven Dragons," underworld lords of Seoul.

Limón takes his readers behind closed doors to see the fragile world of a Seoul that is still struggling with post-war problems: poverty, black market stealing, orphaned children, and an extensive redlight district. There is tip-toeing by both the South Koreans and the U.S. military about jurisdiction over crimes. Itaewon, the redlight district of Seoul, is not officially condoned by the military, but the military often turns a blind eye to its activities. It is in Itaewon that most of the action, both past and present, occurs.

Limón's series still has the ability to shock me. His depiction of Korea during the 50s and 70s is bleak, even as he allows rays of humanity and kindness to peek through. It is that way with G.I. Bones. With the characters of Moretti and Cort, American G.I.s, Limón seeks to balance the oafish and generally imperialistic picture of Americans abroad. With the characters of Dr. Yong and Miss Kwon, a young prostitute, he puts sympathetic faces on the sad stories of survival.

Martin will join us at Murder by the Book on Sunday, November 8, 2009, at 4:00 p.m. The public is invited to this free event.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Last Enemy, by Grace Brophy (trade, $13) (c2007)

Ah, Umbria. Maybe there would be mouth-watering descriptions of food. Maybe it would be more a travelogue than mystery. Either way, I was good. IMHO, an author can't go wrong with a book set in Italy. Grace Brophy's book is not a tourist guide, however, but she does give us a peek into life among the Umbrians. She's not so long on food descriptions, but her readers can feel the satisfaction of a good cuppa joe, Italian style.

Although aristocratic ranks were abolished in a governmental leveling process, there are many people, descendants (or pretenders) of tribal families, who insist on their lordly due. One such is Count Casati. Although his wife is English born and raised, she insists on being addressed as Countess. Aristocratic lineage does not, however, immunize them from death, the "last enemy." Their niece, an American, is found murdered in the family crypt.

Enter Commissario Alessandro "Alex" Cenni, who also has foreign roots – his grandmother Hannah is from Sweden. And Rita Minelli, the niece, had a Canadian friend who is supposedly doing an academic study in Assisi and becomes a suspect. And one of the other suspects is a refugee from Croatia. Does anyone not have foreign connections?

Alex Cenni is also wealthy. His Swedish grandmother and Italian grandfather started a modest chocolate company, which is now a major chocolate company. And Rita sold her mother's house in America after the mother's death, so she has some lira, too. The wife of one of Cenni's colleagues is wealthy and connected. Does anyone not have rich connections?

Cenni's personal story is more interesting than the murder – and less convoluted. He is an atheist and has a twin brother who is a priest. It has been about fifteen years since the love of his life was kidnapped and never found, and he has never gotten over it. It is why he became a police officer, to find out what happened to her. His grandmother is more than the generic feisty oldster. Her few scenes in the book give the book a punch. He has a good, friendly relationship with his homicide team and his cat, Rachel. He's a character whose quirkiness covers a lot of bases.

Back to the murder. Rita irritated just about everyone, so there are a lot of suspects. But why was she found at the cemetery? Was she paying respects to her ancestors when she was murdered? Cenni and his team must interview the suspects, while tiptoeing around some of the haughtier ones. Every suspect is a character – as in eccentric – so it is a relief that a couple of the police officers seem relatively normal.

This debut novel held my interest despite having to juggle a multitude of plotlines, and I thought the resolution was clever. Bring on the next installment.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Midnight Fugue, by Reginald Hill (hardcover $25.99)

Get out your dictionary; Fat Andy AND Reginald Hill are back. No more if-Jane-Austen-could-email storylines. No more experimentation with first-person narrative for Andy Dalziel. Just good, solid writing, a plot with the requisite twists, characters with quirks and charm, and a lovely bit of Dalziel v. Pascoe alpha dogginess.

It has been six months since Andy was blown up by a terrorist bomb and put into a coma, and a couple of months since he tried to solve a mystery from his rehab facility (the aforementioned Jane Austen/first-person Andy book). Against doctor's orders, Andy has come back to work as a police inspector in Yorkshire just a wee bit too early. He tires easily and finds himself heading in to work on a Sunday because he's forgotten what day it is. Stubborn is as stubborn does, and Andy is as stubborn as they come. To prove that he still has what it takes, he endeavors to help the fiancée of an old police buddy by finding out if her seven-years-missing husband is still alive. Along the way he and his cohorts bump into a sly and violent criminal and his smooth politician son, a tenacious journalist, and a brother and sister who are killers for hire.

Pascoe has been getting along quite nicely without Andy, thank you very much, and Andy feels the conflict of being proud of Pascoe and irritated with him at the same time. Their relationship must reestablish itself in some form, and Hill takes us through the complexities of that.

This story arc with Dalziel injured, rehabilitated, and finally reinstated has been fascinating.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Havana Blue, by Leonardo Padura (Fuentes) (trade, $14.95) (c1991)

Leonardo Padura has provided a luscious look at an area of the world that has been cut off to most Americans since the late '50s: Cuba. Although the main character is a world-weary, disillusioned, heavy-drinking, angst-ridden, Hemingway-worshipping thwarted novelist and current police detective, Mario Conde, the novel is rich with odes to what we think of when we think of Cuba: cigars, rum, savory foods, earthy women.

The novel begins with a confusion of pronouns. "I" and "he," we eventually realize, refer to the same person, Mario Conde, nicknamed "Count." Why does the current story – set in 1989 Havana – have Mario's voice in the third person, and why is any reference to Mario's past voiced in the first? It is not for me to reveal, but it is part of the intricate texture the author weaves in his debut book in the Conde series.

In 1989, Mario is in his late 30s. It has been 17 years since he and his school friends were full of hopes and plans for the future. Among those former friends are Rafael, a current government economics minister, and Tamara, his wife and Conde's secret youthful desire. Rafael is reported missing by Tamara, and Conde is assigned the case.

At this point in his life, Conde is lonely, despairing of what the future holds for him. His de facto family is actually his high school friend Skinny and Skinny's mother, Josefina, a fine, fine cook. Padura describes in loving detail the meals Josefina cooks for Skinny. Want a taste? Listen to Josefina describe a meal Conde has to forego because of work:

…[M]alangas [a yam-like veggie] you bought in a sauce and added plenty of garlic and bitter orange; some pork fillets...marinated...; the black beans are getting nice and squashy, like you lot like them, they're getting real tasty, and now I'll add a spot of the Argentine olive oil I bought in the corner store; I've lowered the flame under the rice, and have added more garlic, as advised by that Nicaraguan pal of yours. And salad: lettuce, tomato and radishes. Oh, well, and coconut jam with grated cheese … You died on me, Condesito?


Listen to Conde's boss describe one of his treasured cigars:

I can't understand why you prefer to smoke two packets of cigarettes a day rather than one Havana. That transforms you. And I don't mean it has to be a Davidoff 5000 or another good Corona, a Romeo y Julieta Cedros No 2, for example, a Montecristo No 3 or a Rey del Mundo of whatever size but a good dark-skinned cigar that pulls gently and burns evenly: that's what one calls living, Mario, or the nearest one ever gets. Kipling said a woman is but a woman, but a good puro, as they call them in Europe, is much more. I can tell you the fellow was absolutely right, because I may not know much about women, but I know lots about Havanas. One is a fiesta for the senses, a riot of pleasure, my boy: it revives the sight, awakens taste, rekindles touch and creates the lovely taste that goes so well with an after-dinner cup of coffee.


Never mind the mystery!

But back to the mystery. After many years of not seeing her, Mario comes face to face with Tamara, whose ability to stun Mario has not lessened. Does Mario really want to find Rafael? There are many unresolved conflicts and emotions that Mario must finally face head on. Rafael was the golden boy in high school and is now the golden boy in the ministry, scheduled for bigger and better things. As Mario digs deeper, he uncovers potentially unsavory aspects of Rafael's life. Or has someone been intentionally maligning him, and later murdered him? Padura draws us along a crooked path to solve the mystery, but each twist examines some element of the nature of practical survival and government in Cuba.

Mario is too sensitive to be a genuine disillusioned, hard-boiled, noir anti-hero, but he does the requisite excessive drinking and has the requisite killer of a hangover. He is too tortured about things for which I have no empathy. He admits his lack of courage in situations that, had he stood tall, would have provided material for a different kind of book. I am glad Padura wrote the book he did. There are about five more in the series so far, but they have only recently begun to be translated into English.

I think this is a book that deserves a second reading for all the finer points to sink in. Woe is me that I don't have the time, but that is my advice to you. I am anxious to see what the other books in the series hold, in what direction Padura takes Mario.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

A Field of Darkness, by Cornelia Read (trade, $12.99) (c2006)

Cornelia Read chose to set her debut novel in 1988 Syracuse, New York, a time before cell phones, Googling, and widespread computerized databases. Had there been such things, half the story could not be told and perhaps the murderer would have been caught sooner. And we would have missed quite a tale.

Read's heroine, Madeline Dare, shares a great deal of the author's own history, including the impoverished but centuries-old blueblood line. In an extensive afterword, Read expands on what she's cribbed or distorted from her own past. She is careful to say that richer does not mean better. And you feel her sincerity when she says that.

Madeline is a reporter of green bean casseroles and household tips, not an intense investigative journalist, but that is what she finds herself becoming when her father-in-law shows her some military dog tags he plowed up on leased land. That long sentence should have set off a few dissonant bells. Plow? Green bean casseroles?

Although she is blueblood born and raised, without money Madeline must make her way in the world. She fell in love with Dean, the son of a upstate New York farmer, whose relatives include conservative, narrow-minded sons-of-a-gun with sobriquets like "Wimpy" and "Weasel." (Actually, not unlike Madeline's own conservative, narrow-minded sons-of-a-gun relatives with sobriquets that incorporate impolite four-letter words. But Madeline's relatives are richer and, relatively speaking (!), way more dysfunctional.) She followed love to Syracuse and acquired a job with the local newspaper, writing about green bean casseroles and the like.

The aforementioned dog tags that Madeline's father-in-law plowed up may or may not be related to the murders of two young women in that same field many years ago. Madeline was a young child and living far away in California at the time, but it is these unsolved murders she is compelled to follow. That is because the dog tags contain the name of Lapthorne Townsend. Madeline's favorite cousin. Her childhood crush. A blueblood living a privileged life in Manhattan and Oyster Bay, a world away from Syracuse.

Reluctant to believe that Lapthorne, named after a disgraceful ancestor who raped and pillaged the land, is guilty, she reluctantly plunges into investigating the murders. She enlists the help of Ellis, a former fellow debutante, and Kenny, a former cop-turned-bar/dive-owner. After another murder occurs, it is clear that Madeline has stirred up some dangerous waters. Her guilt over precipitating the murder drives her to travel from a down-home honkey-tonk, in which she interviews a scary "double vet" suspect, to the mansions of home with her eccentric relations.

One of the attractions of this book is the wild contrasts. Madeline is a former wild child and is still a sassy chick, but she (sort of) knows her silverware and (sort of) minds her manners. Kenny's bar/dive is contrasted with Oyster Bay's private bars and silver flasks, although everyone gets drunk just the same. Dean's brother, winner of the family farm by virtue of primogeniture, snipes at Dean, but it lacks the cutting edge of some of Madeline's relatives, for whom nastiness is a finely-honed art form.

A Field of Darkness is very entertaining, especially with the gossipy blueblood stuff, and smartly done.

Thereby Hangs a Tail, by Spencer Quinn (hardcover, $25) (due January, 2010)

This is the second tall "tail" by Spencer Quinn, a worthy follow-up to Dog On It. Told from Chet's point of view, Chet being a member of the nation within a nation – i.e., a dog – it's full of doggie fun and insight. Bernie Little, the putative owner of Chet, is a private investigator. He and Chet nose out crime, with Chet lending a helping paw.

When the first book came out, I fell for it hard. What was there not to love about Chet? Quinn was able to sustain a doggie tone without degenerating into cutesiness. He gave us a lightweight but credible mystery. And funny . . .

The mystery in Thereby Hangs a Tail is more serious and better developed than in the first book. The reader learns a little more about Bernie and his bona fides. But the centerpiece, as in the first, is hearing about Chet's doggie life. For instance:

…[T]he first thing I saw as we drove up to the Borgheses's ranch was a big white horse prancing in a corral with a white rail fence. Something about him made a bad impression on me right from the get-go. A ranch without horses – now that would be just about perf–

"Chet! Knock it off!"

Knock what off? The barking? That was me? I opened my mouth real wide, let my tongue flop out, tried to look innocent. My lip got caught on one of my teeth; it took some time to straighten all that out.


Chet's asides enhance rather than detract from the main story. Even when Chet's mind wanders, which is often, it's a nice side journey. And even if Chet could talk people talk, half the time he wouldn't remember what the salient points were. Which brings us to the point that Chet is very much a dog, not a human. In other animal tales, metaphorical or otherwise, animals are very human in their thoughts. Not Chet. (Yay, I say.)

Thereby Hangs a Tail involves the abductions of a showdog, Princess, and her owner, the Countess Adelina di Borghese (by way of Passaic, New Jersey). In the course of trying to find Princess, Chet meets some aging hippies in the desert, is sold to a ne'er-do-well heading to Alaska, and gets bombed while wandering on a military test field. While Bernie doesn't cover quite as much ground, we learn about his (Desert Storm?) wartime valor, get to see his fighting chops, and basically learn that he is no pussycat, excuse the expression. When Susie Sanchez, Bernie's loved-but-lost lady friend/reporter from the first book, disappears while covering the story of the abduction, it is extra incentive for Bernie to doggedly track down the clues.

I was caught by surprise by how good the doggie voice was in the first book. Although I knew what I was getting this time around and the novelty of hearing Chet talk had passed, I still appreciate that Quinn does a praiseworthy job of staying true to the tone all the way through his book. Even though I now expect many of Chet's sentences to go unfinished and I know his promises to finish some of his stories are buried like long-forgotten bones, I'm still hugely entertained and grateful for the respite – much as I love them – from dark Scandinavian tales, flashy film-ready action novels, and snappy, sassy women-in-love-with-vampire stories.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Maisie Dobbs, by Jacqueline Winspear (trade, $14) (c2003)

Maisie Dobbs is the first in Jacqueline Winspear's tender and insightful mystery series. The eponymous heroine is a female private investigator during the period after World War I.

It is a series about class: Maisie is born to a working class family, but manages to become educated and trained to be a zen-like observer of human nature. It is about the war and its aftermath: Maisie saw terrible things as a volunteer nurse virtually on the front lines in France. It is unexpectedly about hope: Winspear twists the traditional private eye formula in which the p.i. dusts off his hands after having solved the mystery; her heroine accepts a case only if she thinks her client will use the knowledge responsibly.

Winspear's characters – from Maisie's caring father to her unflappable mentor to her levelheaded nursing tent-mate – receive treatment as full-blown characters, no matter how brief their tenure. Maisie herself starts downstairs as a maid but, as a result of the war and increasing acknowledgment of class inequality, gains an opportunity to "better" herself. In the confusion of post-war Britain, Maisie must define herself in a society whose definitions are changing.

This is a highly recommended book for its thoughtful and unusual story.

Storm Front, by Jim Butcher ($7.99) (c2000)

This is the first in a tremendously innovative series by Jim Butcher. His hero is Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, wizard and private investigator.

I recently re-read it – despite almost never having the time to re-read anything – and enjoyed it just as much this time around. There is something so charming – despite rather graphic descriptions of the damage done to the murder victims – and compelling about a hard-boiled private eye in Chicago who is also a wizard. Butcher catches the hard-boiled tone, adds humor and wizardly mumbo-jumbo, and boils up a detective tale with an ending worthy of any action-adventure movie.

Things I have learned from reading Jim Butcher books: 1) magic is to be treated with respect, and 2) never conjure a demon.

There are about ten books in the series so far, so if this concept appeals to you, you've got a lot of treats in store.

The Finder, by Colin Harrison (trade, $14)

Colin Harrison already has a few outstanding thrillers to his name: Manhattan Nocturne and The Havana Room, to name two. The Finder is another thriller which begins with a breath-holding scene in which young women office cleaners are murdered in an organized hit – by being suffocated with sewage. A young Chinese woman who escapes the murder, Jin Li, suspects she was the real intended victim but cannot fathom why.

Her recently ex-ed boyfriend, Ray Grant, is "the finder" and is the real focus of the book. (The reader slowly learns what he finds and why, and it is a moving tale.) He is unceremoniously commissioned to find Jin Li, who has gone into hiding, by her brother, a Chinese tycoon. Ray is assisted by his dying father, a former police detective, from his death bed. Harrison mixes together the mob, international financial deals, industrial sabotage, graphically detailed violence, and 9/11. Sometimes it seems just too much, especially when it detracts from Ray's and his father's stories, the true heart of the novel.

Despite the distractions, The Finder is a definite page-turner crafted by a writer who can capture many different voices and regional nuances. It has received many accolades and award nominations.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Risk of Darkness, by Susan Hill (hardcover, $24.95)

This is the third in the Simon Serrailler series, despite the fact that Simon was more of a secondary character to the heroine, Freya Graffham, in the first book, The Various Haunts of Men. With each subsequent book, we have seen more clearly both the warm heart and cold façade of Simon Serrailler. The complexity of his character is the compelling and attractive feature of Susan Hill's books. In fact, Hill does a superb job of presenting not just Simon, but members of his semi-dysfunctional family as well: his doctor-sister Cat, his aristocratic father Richard, his peace-maker mother Meriel.

It is in Hill's detail, some eventually related to the story and some not, that draws the reader into seeing Lafferton as a real town with real people with real psychological and physical hurts. It is also Hill's signature style that she never over-explains her story. It may not be until a book or two later that the reader will find a hint about an unresolved story. It is not surprising for the author of the play and book The Woman in Black, famous for its ambiguity, to carry that ambiguity over to her other works. In many ways, her stories are strung out like a soap opera. For the most part, she gives the reader closure on the main story, but it is now obvious that she will be stringing out her secondary stories. Way to get people anxiously awaiting the next book!

The main story in The Risk of Darkness involves the disappearance of children from many different places in England. Unlike quite a few of today's thrillers, scenes of the victims' deaths are done off-stage and the descriptions are understated, making, quite conversely, the story more chilling. The killer is apprehended fairly early in the book, and the search for why makes the tale so absorbing. Secondary stories are about newly arrived C of E priest Jane Fitzroy, and the newly widowed and desperate Max Jameson.

Nothing is certain. All is about change and how her characters handle it. Hill is thoroughly capable of keeping her readers on their collective toes.

Note: Read her other books first.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman (hardcover, $26.95)

This book should be charming and worm its way into your consciousness. The main character, Quentin Coldwater, is an American Harry Potter who swears, has sex with his girlfriend, and gets drunk a lot. And that's why it's not so charming after all.

There are lots of things right with the book, including a fabulous magical world set in a Hogwarts-like institution. It also has an "Earthsea" (Ursula Le Guin's seminal work on using magic and its moral consequences) philosophical dilemma for its main characters. If the professors and students didn't swear so much and hide some odious human secrets, it would be perfect. And this is the problem: Lev Grossman (book critic for Time magazine) can't find quite the right tone to bring off his coming-of-age/wizard-in-training book. His readers are too well steeped in the more polite language and culture of J. K. Rowling's series to easily assimilate the R-rated private schoolboy rituals and angst. And it's hard to imagine The Dead Poets Society with magic bunnies and a "Cozy Pony."

I wish there were a do-over for this book. I know Grossman would get it right the next time around.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Lost Symbol, by Dan Brown (hardcover, $29.95)

Thirty dollars for a book? It must be gold-plated. Actually, it's Dan Brown who's probably gold-plated. Five million copies of The Lost Symbol have been printed. He sold 40 million copies of The Da Vinci Code, the second in his Robert Langdon trilogy. So, the big question is: Is The Lost Symbol worth it?

At 509 pages, that works out to approximately six cents a page. Quite a few of the pages are dense with information on symbols, rituals, and Mason history. Whether the information is accurate is another question, but for the purposes of Brown's storyline, it's good bang for the buck. Unbelievably, the whole story takes place over about a 12-hour period of time. That's 42 pages per hour, $2.52 per hour, in case you're curious. Again, pretty good bang for the buck. Parking your car in a downtown lot costs more than that. (And watching your car sit in its parking space isn't very entertaining.)

It would be hard to top the amusing and fantastic plot of The Da Vinci Code. In that book, Brown had his readers solving puzzles and invested in helping his hero, Harvard professor and symbologist Robert Langdon. It would be hard to top that, and Brown does not manage this feat in The Lost Symbol.

Langdon is again called to save the world from a plot to bring a mystical darkness down upon it. A tattooed man-monster has infiltrated the Masonic brotherhood in Washington, D.C., and tries to use its own secrets to transform himself into … what? A god, a devil, a politician? Peter Solomon, Langdon's friend, is the keeper of the Smithsonian's treasures and a Mason. Katherine, his sister, is a scientist who has been trying to quantify the soul. Together they trigger the events that result in Langdon's involvement.

Brown returns somewhat to the plodding and professorial tone of Angels and Demons, the first in the series. The Da Vinci Code had sparkle, the other two do not. Brown does have a few puzzles, but they demand that the reader come pre-loaded with esoteric knowledge in order to solve them. However, The Lost Symbol does not slip all the way back. Brown has learned the trick of pacing and interleaving back stories very well, and his book is a page-turner.

Whether the book is worth the money and the hype comes down to the resolution and how much the reader is willing to swallow. The über-villain is über-diabolical, and the CIA administrator who may or may not be trying to help Langdon is also über-diabolical. The purported Masonic secrets and rituals are revolting, although Brown does his best to periodically say that the Masons are really a great bunch of guys. One hand slaps and the other applies the balm. Maybe it's a guy thing.

I think what it boils down to is this: a book about a psychopath is a book about a psychopath. Is the hero valiant enough, is the villain villainous enough, and is the villain vanquished well enough? Yes, it was all enough, but it wasn't über-enough.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Outlander, by Gil Adamson (trade, $14.99)

There were parts of The Outlander that reminded me of Cormac McCarthy, not so much the writing as the spare and bleak picture it paints of the turn of the last century, and the spare and bleak emotions of the characters who populate it.

Mary Boulton is seldom referred to by her given name; rather she is given the sobriquet of "The Widow." We learn right off that she is a widow because she killed her husband and is now being chased by her husband's brothers: hulking, strikingly odd-looking, single-minded twin avengers.

In short bursts, we learn The Widow came from a fairly refined, if somewhat dysfunctional, background, and would be a "least likely to" nominee to commit a murder. Gil Adamson, a Canadian writer, skillfully draws out the suspense of why The Widow murdered her husband. In the meantime, we learn about her determination and wild flight to survive.

The Widow is nearly feral when we meet her: Her hair is matted, her clothes are fetid, horses shy away from her, and she has clawed her way through dense forests in high mountains of the Canadian wilderness. She does not survive on sheer will alone, however; she is discovered and taken in by a mountain man. She gains strength during this interlude, but soon is again on the run, this time to a mining camp that provides the background for the rest of Mary's story.

The strength of Adamson's story is in her writing, which can be both tense and lush at the same time. She tells the story of pioneer life that The Little House on the Prairie left out. Her detailed descriptions are never burdensome, and don't get in the way of her unwavering and measured march towards the end of The Widow's story.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Le Crime, by Peter Steiner (trade, $13.95) (apa A French Country Murder, c2003)

This is a magical book in which the main character, Louis Morgon, an American living in a small French village, circles and dances, both figuratively and physically, his way through the chaos of the universe toward the center of who he is.

If this sounds to you less like a mystery than a philosophical exploration, then you have it in one.

Louis has felt throughout most of his adult life that very little is within his control. In the 1960s, from the peak of an elite education, academic favor, and influential government posts, Louis is suddenly tossed aside, discredited, and alienated further from a family to which he's never felt connected.

As he bumbles around, trying to patch his life back together, he travels to France with the idea that he will make a pilgrimage from Paris to Spain. Walking directly from Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, through little villages, and across streams and stopping at churches, not to pray but to wonder, Louis re-creates himself. He heads home to the U.S., jettisons his job, his wife, and his children and returns to the village of Saint Leon sur Dême.
"In his mind, time and space had merged. He walked across the changing face of France, as if his walking were the motion of time, as if time would stop if he were to stop. He was spinning out a silken cord as he walked further and further from equipoise. In his mind, this point of balance, this his own personal version of magnetic north, slowly consolidated and came to be located exactly on the square in the village of Saint Leon sur Dême on the night of the Festival of Music."
In a moment of perfect, inexplicable alignment of events, Louis finds joy at the Festival of Music, a night when cities, towns, and villages all over France dance the night away. With regret but without doubt, Louis leaves his past beind. In passages reminiscent of a travelogue, Louis's new life embraces good food, beautiful scenery, and an embracing albeit eccentric, community. He is living la bonne vie.

Until the dead body appears on his doorstep thirty years later.

Although it has been about thirty-five years since Louis worked for the CIA and had any contact with his former colleagues at the State Department, Louis is certain the body has something to do with his former life. In a leap of intuition that intentionally leaves the reader scratching la tête, Louis tells Renard, the local police officer and his friend, that the U.S. Secretary of State is out to get him. Then Louis proceeds to track down the proof. Renard (and we) think he is fou-fou. It isn't until much later that Louis himself questions his quest:
"And mightn't he be just as wrong? From the sparse facts of the matter – that a body had been left on his doorstop – he had spun out what must certainly appear to most rational minds to be a preposterous scenario …"
Louis had begun his self-exile in France because order could not be restored to the chaos his life had become in the U.S. Betrayed by someone in government and cuckolded by his wife, Louis can make no sense of his life and abandons all his responsibilities. In France, he learns how to paint and cook. He watches the seasons change from his patio.

Although his own life was in chaos, he suspects he was the victim of cosmic order and knew he must wait for cosmic chaos to free him. But in the meantime, in France, Louis hardly suffers from his existential dilemma. After he learns of yet another death, which he intuits is another piece in the puzzle, he must quietly persevere in the face of absurdity. The more absurd the answer to the murders, the more sense he makes of his past.

This book is not for everyone. Even though it is billed as a "thriller," it is not. But if you approach it with the right frame of mind – open – it is thoughtful and strange and quite beautiful.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson (trade paperback, $14.95)

Surely … surely I can't be the only reader who had difficulty reading this book. I am? Rats.

The first time I tried to read the book was about a year ago, and I read almost three-fourths of it before I finally put it down. And promptly forgot about it. I swear I didn't remember a word of what I read … until I tried to read it yet again last month. Then I kept muttering as I read: I've read this part, I remember that. Remembrance came too late to save me re-reading it again … and bogging down again.

I'm going to announce a spoiler alert later on, because why I stopped deals with events pretty far (three-fourths of the way!) in the book. So, in the meantime, here's more of a traditional review.

I finally finished it and … it was okay. Not great, just okay. The plotting for the main story of Harriet Vanger's disappearance was good, but the characters were distant -- only one character was truly fabulous and fascinating -- and the pacing was uneven.

In contrast to The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly, for example, which rapidly advanced the plot (see prior review), Dragon Tattoo took about half the book to set up the premise, and with a total of about 500 pages, that's some set-up. Is it about financial shenanigans, or is it about a waif who is a street-rat genius, or is it about a teenage girl who has been missing for over thirty years? Since we finally find out it is about ALL those things, Larsson must create magic to relate them, and he succeeds pretty well with his plotting. And that is why the book is so large: it is three stories in one.

Larsson's characters are eccentric and hard to fathom. Is it a cultural thing? Is Sweden such an alien spot on our planet that there are few points of correlation between their culture and ours? I love Mankell and Sjowall/Wahloo, so I don't think it's because the book is Swedish. I think it's because Larsson's characters are written without much warmth. The only character for whom this works is Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo. She is not warm and fuzzy, and is missing the ability to provide social feedback and cues like other people. Her story is the most fascinating and could have easily been the only story told. Then I would have been happier.

The other main character, Mikael Blomqvist, is a journalist. He is found guilty of libel for being unable to substantiate a magazine article he wrote accusing a big financial mucky-muck of malfeasance. Mikael's reputation is muddied, his magazine is in jeopardy, and he is facing a prison sentence, when he is saved from going completely under by a rich old man with a mystery. Henrik Vanger's teenaged niece, Harriet, vanished more than thirty years ago. He desperately wants to find out what happened to her and wants Mikael to help. As Mikael explores the relationships in Vanger's dysfunctional family, he enlists the aid of Lisbeth, a private investigator and technology geek, to solve the puzzle.

Although Lisbeth has difficulty with simple human responses, the truly anti-social character turns out to be Mikael, whose flighty relationships with quite a few of the women he meets and Lothario mentality is disguised as an enlightened "no strings attached" attitude. He apparently pines for the unattainable Erika Berger, his married business partner and long-time paramour, but it is less pining than self-indulgence.

When Larsson sticks to Lisbeth's story or how Mikael finds fresh clues in a decades-old case, the book is a page-turner. I'm glad I read it. Now I know what the fuss is about, even if I wouldn't accord it quite the same veneration others do.

And, now, why I stopped reading it the first time around:

SPOILER ALERT
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Hero Mikael Blomqvist is a cold, philandering frat boy in a middle-aged man's body. When he is trapped in the torture room by the murderer, all I could think was "yuck"! Not "yuck" with sympathy, just "yuck." When Silence of the Lambs reached the same point, I was enraptured by the story and writing and characters and had to read on. The "yuck" factor was outweighed by the "and then what happened" factor in Thomas Harris's book. Maybe it's the translation, but the tension in Dragon Tattoo just wasn't adequate to sustain the emotional ties to the story of Blomqvist and his antagonist. Sad to say, I didn't care what happened to Mikael, and the killer certainly was no Hannibal Lecter.

Also, who uses the word "anon" in contemporary writing?
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Monday, August 31, 2009

The Way Home, by George Pelecanos (hardcover, $24.99)

It doesn't matter if you know that George Pelecanos will be writing about a good guy who is or was a little bad. His protagonists usually are men who were boys in one of the tough neighborhoods in Baltimore/D.C., got into trouble as boys or men, and now seek redemption or forgiveness. It doesn't matter if you know what the book is going to be about, because Pelecanos does it like no other and the story touches your heart each time.

A lot of Pelecanos's stories are about the Greek and African-American communities, and the reader can feel Pelecanos's connection to them. But this time he focuses on middle class, white Christopher Flynn. As a troubled and aimless teenager, Chris beat up another kid, and when the police came for him, he also got caught holding drugs. He was sent away to juvenile detention, where all of his fellow inmates were non-whites. Chris's nickname was "White Boy." Despite this, Chris survived and even befriended some of the other inmates.

After an introduction in which all this is explained -- in a riveting and thought-provoking way, of course -- and we meet the main characters, the story jumps about five years. A grown-up Chris and one of his prison friends are working for Chris's dad in his carpet-laying business. They discover something buried beneath the floorboards of a house they are working on. It is at this point that everything they have gone through and the future they see for themselves converge to provide a turning point in their lives.

Pelecanos is capable of imbuing his stories with poignancy and realism as few other authors are. You know the real-life counterparts for his characters are alive and breathing somewhere in this world. They may not be as lucky as Pelecanos's characters in finding a resolution, but their backgrounds, their life's choices are depicted with care by the author.

Pelecanos's work has become more commercial -- in a good way -- over the years, but that is not to say he has compromised his literary vision in any way; it's just easier for us folks who don't come from any Baltimore/D.C. 'hood to understand the story. Too, watching Pelecanos's work on HBO's The Wire may have taught us all a little more of the lingo. Aw-ight.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Dog On It, by Spencer Quinn (trade, $15, due out 9/29/09)

I loved Babe, Hank the Cowdog, the rabbits of Watership Down, and the animals in 1984. It didn't bother me that I was reading an insider's view of how animals think. I hesitated, however, when store manager Jean plopped this book in front of me, as she stifled a guffaw and said, "Here. Read." What's this? A book about a dog detective -- from the dog's point of view? An adult book about a dog detective from the dog's point of view. I thought maybe Jean was barking up the wrong tree.

As it turned out, this book combines the best of all possible mystery attributes: It has humor; a smart dog; a charming, if somewhat shambling, human; and a plausible mystery to solve. Chet, the dog, is a mongrel – and what's wrong with that? – with one black ear and one white one. He is loyal but easily distracted and, as far as doggie authors go, a heck of a good writer with an authentic doggie voice. To wit:

"Iggy had a high-pitched bark, an irritated-sounding yip-yip-yip. I barked back. There was a brief silence, and then he barked again. I barked back. He barked. I barked. He barked. I barked. He barked. We got a good rhythm going, faster and faster. I barked. He barked. I –

"A woman cried, 'Iggy, for God's sake, what the hell's wrong with you?' A door slammed. Iggy was silent…."


Now that's doggie writing at its best! I was rolling on the floor, laughing.

Bernie Little has a detective agency set in a nameless valley, but not unlike California's San Fernando Valley. He has an ex-wife he tolerates and a son he adores. He gained custody of Chet in the divorce, not a difficult accomplishment. As far as sidekicks go, Chet is head and shoulders over Sherlock Holmes's Watson. Could Watson sniff out the path to a bad guy's place? On the other hand, Watson wouldn't be distracted by a fire hydrant (presumably). Maybe we should call it a draw.

Bernie is called in to find a teenage girl who didn't return from school one day. Madison's frantic mother cannot get the police interested because her daughter has been missing for less than a day. Bernie reluctantly takes the case. Within a short time, Madison reappears, a lie on the tip of her tongue and very little remorse in her bearing. Case closed.

When Madison disappears for real a few days later, it's a bigger deal. Bernie and Chet again are called upon to research and sniff out what happened to her. Strangely, Madison's father seems less forthcoming with his help in locating the daughter he says he loves. And what's this phone call by Madison to her mom saying she just needs time to think; don't look for her anymore. Bernie and Chet both smell something rotten.

Then Chet is dognapped. Then Bernie is man-napped. And is Madison really kidnapped? How can a dog, even a really smart one like Chet, keep this all straight. Chet has to struggle to focus, especially with such exciting distractions as a female dog barking in the distance, a first-ever glimpse of a road runner, and a squawking bird who says, "Light my fire."

Spencer Quinn impressively maintains his doggie narrator's voice throughout the book but still manages to intelligibly describe the humans and their stories.

It's good enough. It's smart enough. And, doggone it, I liked it.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Renegades, by T. Jefferson Parker (hardcover, $26.95)

Warning: Do yourself a favor and don't read this review if you haven't read L.A. Outlaws.

Note to self: Never read a T. Jefferson Parker book set in Southern California after reading a Michael Connelly book set in Southern California. (It's hard not to make comparisons, but it would be like comparing apples and oranges. There are certain similarities, but the taste is very different.)

T. Jefferson Parker brings back Charlie Hood of L.A. Outlaws. I really liked L.A. Outlaws and the vigilante character of Allison Murietta, but she is dead and gone by The Renegades, and more's the pity. Charlie was definitely the less interesting of the two characters, but he is the only one left standing at the end of L.A. Outlaws.

Charlie is a sheriff's deputy in Los Angeles County and has exiled himself to the desolate Antelope Valley, east of the city of Los Angeles. But however much he tries to turn from his past, there are still connections that won't let go. For instance, he is set to testify in L.A. against a fellow officer because of events related in L.A. Outlaws.

He also still wants to be a homicide detective with the sheriff's department in the city of Los Angeles, but not in the style of the old-time cops who bonded into groups complete with team identities, like "The Renegades," groups that eventually self-destructed through corruption and misuse of power. If Charlie stands against anything, it is against misuse of power. So Charlie is caught in limbo. He is still vilified by other officers because he turned against "one of his own," regardless of how corrupt the officer was. The homicide door is still shut to him.

When Charlie witnesses Terry Laws, his new partner, murdered while on duty, Charlie joins Internal Affairs to find out who killed Terry and why. It is not as simple as it appears, of course. The killer resembles a small-time gangsta Charlie has run across before. Was this a revenge killing because Laws lost the gangsta's dog during a bust when a good deed went wrong? As Charlie digs deeper into Laws's past, he discovers a possible connection to a Mexican cartel and money smuggling. Once again, Charlie is embroiled in another potential bad cop case.

Parker allows us to see both the inner turmoil and the inner quiet that Charlie juggles. He is at peace in the remote Antelope Valley, but he feels a responsibility to people from his past, including one of Allison's teenage sons, so a large part of his life is spent in the frenetic world of Southern California. When his current case also draws him back into the same world, he must decide if his search for justice is worth the risk to his career and his peace of mind.

The story had good pacing and interesting plotting, but sometimes Parker's poetic dialogue was a little jerky and the storyline suffered from the artificial juxtaposition of the first-person narrative of Coleman Draper, a reserve deputy and another of Terry Laws's partners, and the third-person story of Charlie Hood. (And personally, I think Draper's female companions were from outer space.) But, in the final analysis, it's a good story with a shocking insight into the uncontrollable world of drug and money smuggling between California and Mexico.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Scarecrow, by Michael Connelly (hardcover, $27.99)

Michael Connelly is a master storyteller. No, he is a Ph.D. storyteller. His pacing and plotting skills are still excellent in this, his twentieth novel -- alas, a too-rare accomplishment for a series writer.

In The Scarecrow, Jack McEvoy (of The Poet) reunites with Rachel Walling (also of The Poet, but who also has made a guest appearance in Connelly's Harry Bosch series). It has been about a dozen years since they last saw each other. Their personal relationship blew up FBI agent Walling's career, thus bringing to an end their personal relationship. McEvoy, on the other hand, has enjoyed success as an author – of a book on The Poet – and is currently a Los Angeles Times crime reporter. Hmmm, Michael Connelly was a Los Angeles Times crime reporter, and he wrote a book called The Poet. We can assume that Connelly's interest in portraying the deterioration of a great metropolitan newspaper has a more than passing interest for him.

When the story begins, Jack has just been fired. He is one of the highest paid journalists at The Times, and so his departure will save the latest corporation to own The Times beaucoup bucks. Bye, bye, Jack. Wait, would he train his replacement? She is Angela Cook: young, fresh-faced, and cheap – in a corporate-expenditure-kind-of-way, of course. Jack rises above his basest instinct for revenge and agrees.

As he forages for a last great story to allow him to leave on a note of triumph, Jack is assigned the murder of a young woman. She has been bound, raped, and suffocated. Because of some of the unusual features of the murder, Jack begins to dig a little further into the story. Soon Angela, without Jack's permission, begins to poke around as well. Just as he is accepting, based on Angela's research, that the story involves a serial killer, Angela disappears.

This is where Connelly 's story zooms off. There isn't a lengthy set-up, but what there is of it is very well done. He establishes characters and plotlines quickly. He gets to the action and we meet the killer very early on, but Connelly sets the tension at just the right level to string his readers along. It is hard for the reader to juggle savoring each page and rapidly turning it to see what happens next.

Each of Connelly's stories stand alone in the telling, but he rewards faithful readers by dropping names and bits of storyline relating to his other books. Harry Bosch, unnamed but recognizable in Walling's description, contributes a philosophical musing that threads itself throughout the book. It doesn't matter if you haven't read The Poet – but why haven't you? – because Connelly tells you what you need to know.

Connelly brings Rachel Walling back into Jack McEvoy's life, and Connelly writes about this relationship with tenderness and care. Jack may have a sorry excuse for a life at the point the story begins, but his heart is still capable of beating rapidly for the right reasons. This is yet another example of how well Connelly delineates his characters; even though we could never know a Walling or a McEvoy, we know they could exist somewhere.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Private Patient, by P. D. James (hardcover, $25.95, released 11/08)

It took me awhile to get around to reading this. I've lately come back to James's books, having taken a goodly time off from reading her. Beginning with The Lighthouse, I've come to re-appreciate her meticulous crafting and psychological depth more. What drove me away in the first place was her lack of humor and the bleakness of the human psyche as seen through her eyes. Even when a character rises in sacrifice, there is a stolidity that dampens the gesture.

James entertains us by presenting a story whose layers are slowly revealed. There is not much action (sacrificial burning notwithstanding), and this is very much an intellectual puzzle. However, the cool, calculating Commander Dalgleish exhorts his team – and the readers – not to forget the humanity behind the crime. Whether or not the victim deserved death, "'Every victim deserves the same commitment.'"

The victim in this case is a freelance investigative journalist who finally is having a childhood scar removed from her face. She enters a private clinic based in a renovated country manor house. Playing on the term "private," it appears little is known about Rhoda Gradwyn, in contrast to the exposure she gives the subjects of her articles. Private, too, are the lives of the individuals who reside at the manor house. Although eventually coincidences and serendipitous information is unearthed, allowing the solution of the crime, it seems hardly likely that the murderer will escape detection anyway. It is, in essence, a locked room mystery. There is an economy of words and plotting, but there also are red herrings that serve to give us insight into some of the characters, and these are well-crafted by Baroness James.

At 80 years of age, she still has "it."

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Tehran Conviction, by Tom Gabbay (hardcover, $24.99)

You can poke and prod at things at random and suddenly find that the pieces fall together to form a whole. It's scary and humbling. Three of the most thought-provoking books I've read recently have turned out to be related in theme. Perhaps I didn't pick them at random from a pile of teetering books after all. Perhaps a word or phrase in the summary squirmed subconsciously to pull my interest towards this book or away from that book. All I know is, I picked these books with inattention rather than intention, but this is what I found.

The Secret Speech
, by Tom Robb Smith, is about the Soviet Union after Stalin's death. There is turmoil as Krushchev and his cohorts manipulate history to denounce Stalin's reign and begin another type of imperialistic advance for the Soviet Union.

The Dead of Winter
, the third book in Rennie Airth's trilogy stretching from World War I to World War II, deals with the waning days of World War II in England. A new Europe is on the verge of being born. The second book in Airth's trilogy is titled, The Blood-Dimmed Tide, and refers to Yeats' famous poem, "The Second Coming," written after World War I:

Turning and turning in a widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely, some revelation is at hand . . .

The Tehran Conviction is one of the best novels I've read this year. It is a fictional spy story set in a palpably real Tehran of 1953 and 1979. At the end of the novel, Tom Gabbay, too, quotes this poem.

This is what brings all these books together.

• In 1953 the world was on the verge of the Cold War between two former allies of World War II.

• Krushchev's Soviet Union and Eisenhower's United States sought influence in the same critical spots around the world.

• The U.S. avidly developed the CIA as a Wizard of Oz, a behind-the-scenes manipulator of global events.

• The old world order had begun to change, as the sun finally set on the far-flung British Empire.

• Iran's prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, and his backers had thrown out the British representatives who were controlling the large and lucrative petroleum business in Iran, hoping to return control of the enormous profits to the Iranians.

• In 1953, Operation Ajax was a real CIA-backed program to overthrow the democratically elected government of Mossadegh. The Americans were seeking to reinstate the West's interests in Iran's oil fields and supported the Iranian military in deposing Mossadegh.

• In 1979, the American Embassy in Tehran was taken over by protesting students, leading to a hostage crisis that eventually involved unfriendly Iranian religious forces.

This is the background that brings us to The Tehran Conviction.

The fictional Jack Teller is a tough, legendary participant of prior covert government operations, but he is working as a bartender in New York when the story begins. He is enticed to travel to Tehran as a CIA agent to help run Operation Ajax. Gabbay's description of the 1953 Tehran is compelling. East and West cultures and ideologies collide, but the U.S. has not yet significantly added to the volatility of the country. The majority of the people of Iran sees Mossadegh as a progressive and enlightened leader. However, he tolerates the Soviets in Iran, and this provides the wedge the CIA will use to drive public opinion away from him. We see the country and its people through Jack's sympathetic eyes. He befriends Yari Fatemi, a powerful man in Mossadegh's cabinet, and must grapple with his conscience to use this friendship to dethrone Mossadegh.

In 1979, Yari's sister confronts Jack in New York to rescue her brother from an infamous Iranian prison. To rectify a wrong that the 1953 story slowly unfolds throughout the book, Jack agrees. Gabbay does a wonderful job of alternating these two stories, and history comes to life for his readers.

Gabbay's CIA characters describe American arrogance, idealism, and patriotism. His Iranian characters describe cultural confusion, religious conflict, and the difficulty of maintaining integrity in the face of chaos and terror. In many ways, The Tehran Conviction is the political child of Aird's and Smith's books.

And as for Yeats' apocalyptic vision: our involvement in the Soviet Union's incursion into Afghanistan, Western imperialism that left its mark on every continent of the world, and the Iranian deposition were part of the widening gyre of U.S. involvement in the Middle East, and surely we can recognize that what the U.S. created in its innocence and naiveté did not hold.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Dead of Winter, by Rennie Airth (hardcover, $25.95)

Rennie Airth has brought us a deep and moving picture of England at war, first in World War I and now, in this third book in the series, in World War II. The first, River of Darkness, was a dark and superb portrait of a man wounded psychologically by the horrors of war and the vicissitudes of life. As a Scotland Yard inspector, he struggled to continue to put one foot in front of the other, to find some measure of healing in solving crimes.

Not quite meeting the standard of the intense first book, this slow-moving novel is a depiction of England at war first and a mystery second. John Madden, the agonized hero of River of Darkness, retired from police work in the second book, The Blood-Dimmed Tide, and went to live the life of a country farmer. Twenty years after the first book and eight years after the second, another murder brings Madden back into the fray. Angus Sinclair and Billy Styles of Scotland Yard, holdovers from the previous books, are the primary movers, and they pay obsequious homage to Madden's legendary crime-solving abilities.

It is 1944 and World War II is still raging. A young Polish woman, on the way to visit an elderly aunt, is murdered in London. When it is revealed that she worked on Madden's farm in the country, Sinclair and Styles don't hesitate to involve him. The murder appears to be the work of a professional. How does a nice young woman, a refugee, a hard worker by all accounts, warrant the notice of such a killer? Then the next person killed is the only person who could identify the man seen following the woman. Madden and the police painstakingly learn the woman's history and follow the killer's tracks to find out what the killer's motivation could be.

Airth does a fine job of helping the reader visualize a London at war. Its citizens listen uneasily at night for the stuttering engine sounds of approaching drone missiles. Bombs land in department stores, warehouses, and streets killing civilians. The war has gone on for a long time, and everyone is weary and worried. Loved ones are fighting abroad, and those who are left behind must continue to shoulder the burden and a half of work at home.

The weakness of this third book lies in the fact that Madden is a peripheral character who dispenses intuitive and preternaturally wise advice to the police. He's simply not present enough in the storyline until the second half of the book tumbles towards a cinematic ending. The crime story is solid and interesting, but it just doesn't have the pacing it needs in the first half of the book. Despite this, I can still say that Airth is magic at showing how man's inhumanity to man continues unabated, whether it is the "blood-dimmed tide" in the trenches or the avaricious desires of an individual at home.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Secret of the Seventh Son, by Glenn Cooper ($7.99)

I am a sucker for a good doomsday book. I admit it. There have been a runaway number of doomsday books lately. Blame the success of The Da Vinci Code. So, let me emphasize that I am a sucker for a GOOD doomsday book.

For instance, I love John Case's (aka Carolyn and Jim Hougan, great authors in their own right) thrillers about worldwide threats that a normal Joe (or Jane) is able to thwart. I am hooked on Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child's Pendergast (who is anything but an ordinary Joe) series. Glenn Cooper's book lies somewhere in between, and it is a winner.

FBI agent Will Piper is marking time until his retirement. He is an alcoholic womanizer, a brilliant profiler, and a distant, bumbling parent. After he has been demoted from a manager to an ordinary agent, he is saddled with apprehending a serial killer. And rookie agent Nancy Lipinski is saddled with him. Together they find that the case is a swirling confusion of clues, methods, and suspects. There doesn't appear to be any characteristic linking all the deaths.

Will must fight his way out of his torpor, engage himself long enough not to get himself or his new partner killed, and somehow also manage to reestablish his relationship with his adult daughter.

Ah, you say, what does this have to do with the seventh son? Willie Dixon's famous song talks about a seventh son who can "look in the sky, predict the rain, tell when a woman's got another man." In Cooper's book, the story of the seventh son, born on the seventh day of the seventh month in the year 777, is interleaved with Piper's story, and he bears no resemblance to Dixon's fey and roguish seventh son. Eventually the modern-day story and the medieval one intersect in an unpredictable and clever way.

What can I say? The modern and ancient characters were interesting and the story was well paced, and the combination kept me turning those pages.

Dead Men's Boots, by Mike Carey (hardcover, $25.99)

This is the third in the Fix Castor series. Fix is an exorcist, but not in a William Blatty kind of way. No long priestly skirts for Fix. No holy water or twisting heads, either. Well, maybe one or two twisty heads.

Set in a version of London in which the dead have risen – as ghosts, as loup-garous, and as zombies – Mike Carey plays with the concept of human rights and entitlements applied to the undead. Demons, however, are another story. One of Fix’s best “friends” is Juliet, a succubus, but he trusts her only as far as he can throw her … or she can throw him. Fix gets beaten up a lot in this episode, not just by Juliet but by practically everyone else as well.

Jim Butcher, creater of the fabulous Harry Dresden series, has a similar “take.” He has a world in which regular folk co-exist with supernatural beings. Butcher is the master of the hard-boiled demon hunter genre. (Of course, there are very few others who could contend in this category!) Mike Carey’s books are a little raunchier and more visual. Quite a few more people (human) violently bite the bullet in his books than in Butcher’s.

In the latest book, Fix has what appear to be two problems: a fellow exorcist whose ghost will not rest easy, and an ordinary guy who suddenly beats another man to death. On behalf of their spouses, Fix must help the ghost to rest and find out why the ordinary guy would suddenly turn violent.

The talk is still snappy, albeit a little rough sometimes, and Fix is still beguiling. Read it for fun and to see Fix take a lickin’ and keep on tickin’.

Waterloo Sunset, by Martin Edwards (hardcover, $22.95)

Although we have the privilege of being able to read Martin Edwards' Lake District mysteries, his Harry Devlin books, of which there are eight, are largely unavailable in the United States. I know I can't be the first to say how unfortunate we are. Poisoned Pen Press has this ninth Harry Devlin available in hardcover and large print paperback. And that's it.

Harry is a magnet for lost causes. He does criminal defense and divorce work as a solicitor in Liverpool. His clients are sometimes unhappy with the result of his work, so it's no surprise when Harry receives the cryptic message, "In Memory, Harry Devlin, Died suddenly, Liverpool, Midsummer's Eve." Midsummer's Eve is only a few days away, and even though Harry pooh-poohs the note as a prank, the author of the note isn't done with him.

Not that it takes Harry's mind off the upcoming deadline, but a serial killer is attacking women in Liverpool. Through his many connections, Harry learns more than he wants to about the cases. When one of the women is someone Harry knows and likes, someone whom he is trying to help when she is murdered, and when Harry's law partner is attacked and lies on the brink of death, Harry's involvement becomes personal. With the help of a female coroner, whom he hopes will become more than a friend, and a former lover, the ex-wife of a powerful criminal lord, Harry seeks unconventional ways to find both the killer and the person who is taunting him.

Martin Edwards is himself a solicitor in Liverpool, but his book is not about the legal system. It is very much about human frailty and about a man who is seeking to re-anchor himself in life. While I was entertained by Waterloo Sunset, I admit that I enjoy the Lake District series more. Edwards writes it with a kinder touch. Liverpool is a big city and life there is nastier. Edwards' language and plot reflect that.

Stalking Susan, by Julie Kramer ($7.99)

Julie Kramer stopped by the store the other day and regaled us with stories about TV reporting. That is what makes her novel so engaging: Kramer knows her business. As a busy freelance journalist/producer for local and national newscasts, she has seen a lot of interesting stories pass across the landscape. Naturally, her main character, Riley Spartz, is a TV journalist. Kramer lives in Minnesota, and Riley lives in Minnesota. We have to hope the parallels end there, because Riley Spartz gets herself into a whole lot of trouble, first by determining that a serial killer has been targeting women named Susan, then by trapping an unsavory veterinarian for another story.

Kramer's plot is interesting and she's not afraid of using humor. Riley has hidden depths and Kramer depicts her with a sympathetic touch. This equals an unequivocal recommendation for this award-nominated debut novel.