Monday, August 15, 2016

New! The Hanged Man: A Mystery in Fin-de-Siècle Paris, by Gary Inbinder

Pegasus Crime, 2016
235 pp

arc - my thanks to Katie at Pegasus and to the author

This one I liked. It moves along quickly, has an interesting plot where time is of the essence before something catastrophic happens, and it's historical crime fiction done very nicely.

The Hanged Man is the second installment in Gary Inbinder's historical crime series that began with The Devil in Montmartre, which introduced  Inspector Achille Lefebvre as the main character and a supporting cast that continues on into this book.   Here, our erstwhile detective discovers that what should be a straightforward investigation into a murder is anything but, and that he is going to need all the help he can muster.  And as Lefebvre gets closer to the answers to his questions, he realizes that time is of the essence in order to foil a sinister plot that could have serious repercussions that reach well beyond the city.  It's mystery with an edge of espionage and terrorism, all playing out on the streets of Paris that Lefebvre has sworn to protect.  While much lighter than what I normally read, there's still a lot of suspense and some good detective work going on here.

I am a major fan of historical crime fiction when it's done right (and trust me on this one, not all of it is),  and all of the research that the author has done comes through in a big way.  Lefebvre's  desire to move crime-solving techniques forward is one area of interest, but Inbinder's understanding of how things work historically is what makes this book more than just a standard crime novel.   He really gets that things don't just happen out of nowhere, and he's done a great job of linking a troubled past with the contemporary present (1890) here.  There are anarchists (split between "evolutionary" and "revolutionary")  and Russian émigrés who find themselves under covert or otherwise surveillance;  there are also people with "painful memories" of  the short-lived Paris Commune and the resulting Bloody Week of 1871,  "an old wound that had never completely healed." The author slides this background in without it being over lengthy in terms of exposition -- it fits nicely and naturally into the narrative.   And then there's the cultural side of Paris at this time which is also done well -- everyone knows about the can-can, the Moulin Rouge, the artists etc., but then there's also the darker and more decadent side -- as just one example,  the Cabaret de L'Enfer where absinthe is the drink of choice and doormen dress as Mephistopheles.

Cabernet de L'enfer, from Cool Stuff in Paris

As a matter of personal preference, when I'm reading crime I'm much more into an investigation or a case than I am in the more domestic aspects an author provides in fleshing out his/her character. Here, the same is true --  at one spot there was a block of five pages of conversation between Madame Lefebvre and her mother, which sort of threw me a bit off balance and kind of took me away mentally from the suspense going on up to that moment.  That whole scene,  I think,  might have been shortened a bit, but as I said, it's a me thing.

Aside from that one issue,  The Hanged Man is a good read that will most certainly appeal to historical crime fiction readers, historical fiction readers in general, and readers who are looking for a new crime series.   I'd advise starting with The Devil in Montmartre  before grabbing a copy of this one, just for continuity's sake.  The two together will make for some fun hours of reading, and when book number three comes out, I'll be there. Considering that I rarely read series novels any more, that's saying something.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

and another badass mommy hits the streets. Sigh. Woman of the Dead, by Bernhard Aichner

Scribner, 2015
279 pp


 The main character of this novel is truly one of a kind -- a young woman, happily married to a cop with two little daughters, who has a unique occupation: she's an undertaker, running the family business after the death of her parents some eight years prior to when this story begins.  But the fact that she's comfortable around dead people isn't what makes her stand out.

Blum is married to the love of her life, Mark and all is perfect in her world until one day her husband is killed in a hit-and-run accident. When she's finally able to start to pull herself together, she takes on the task of cleaning out Mark's stuff.  It's then that she runs across a series of conversations between Mark and a woman -- all professional, no hanky-panky -- but Blum's curiosity gets the better of her and she listens.  As the conversations get darker and more serious, she is convinced that the investigation  Mark was running had a major connection to his death.  She does what any normal person would do and runs to the police with her information, speaking with Mark's friend and trusted colleague, who assures her that the woman in the recordings is nothing but a liar. In short, he says there was nothing to any of this, and she should forget about it and go on with her life.  But Blum isn't convinced -- there's something about this mystery woman that catches her attention, and, of course, if this all has something to do with Mark's death, she wants to know. Eventually, she begins to realize that Mark was into something really ugly and really deep, and that his death was more likely a murder to keep him from getting too close to the truth.   So she decides to look into things herself, and ends up setting herself on a course of revenge.

When it comes down to it, this story has all of the elements of a typical badass heroine thriller, with a dark, actually psychotic twist involving her past that helps her do what she does once she has revenge in mind. But I do have to say that this book didn't set my heart racing as I think it was intended to do.    First of all, I figured out the BIG reveal quite early on so finishing this novel became a game of waiting to prove myself right.  Let's just say that guessing the who and the why has happened to me before, but when it happens so very early in the story, it actually wrecks things for me beyond repair.  And absolutely nothing after that point in this book made me question myself whatsoever.  Way too easy --  I think when someone is writing a crime novel, considering that his or her audience is probably full of seasoned crime-reading veterans, there should be the added bonus of an actual mystery going on.  Second, there is so much violence here that for me, at least, it was not at all a pleasure to read.  But those are minor issues compared to my third, which is that everything happens and falls into place so unrealistically easily that there was no challenge whatsoever in the reading.  I mean, seriously -- if you're going to write a thriller, shouldn't it be thrilling? Whoever wrote the dustjacket blurb saying this book is "Vivid, tense, and written with breakneck narration" probably needs to go back and read it again -- I didn't see any of this in here.

I feel absolutely awful when I don't like a book that I know someone has put so much effort into but I can't help it in this case.  On the other hand, a huge number of readers gave this book high marks and enthusiastic praise, so anyone considering this book should probably decide about it on his or her own. As for me, I'm just so done with badass mommies in a big way.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Monster's Daughter, by Michelle Pretorius

Melville House, 2016
455 pp

hardcover/arc (read earlier this month)

To put this very bluntly, and without naming names,  I've been a bit disappointed with the so-called summer blockbusters that have come out this year from the big publishing houses.  I've been waiting for someone to get beyond same-old, same-old, and well, here it is. I can honestly say that The Monster's Daughter is an original.  It begins in a normal enough way for a crime novel, with the discovery of a dead body, but trust me, there is nothing at all normal about this book. And that's a good thing.

 There are three different things going on here: first, one of the two main narrative threads has its roots in science/speculative fiction; second, the other thread follows a police investigation into murder, and third, when the two come together, the book serves as a vehicle for exploring a century of South Africa's troubled past and its repercussions in the present.  It's this third aspect, I think, that made this book so incredibly interesting to me -- what a great way to take on such a difficult topic.  So what you get in The Monster's Daughter is a sort of hybrid mix of sci-fi, crime and history, and if that's not original, I don't know what is.

As I said earlier, the novel begins with the discovery of a dead body in the small South African town of Unie. It's December, 2010, and the victim has been burned beyond recognition, so it's going to be a tough job just trying to figure out who the victim is. Plus, the method of death is one that the detectives haven't seen in this area, so it's definitely unusual and seems to be some sort of smokescreen, creating a puzzle for the detectives to solve.  As we're meeting the main characters from the present, the story then goes back in time to 1901, when the British were trying to get rid of the remaining Boers and were sending families to concentration camps. At one of these camps some bizarre experiments are taking place  (and here's where the sci-fi edge comes in); eventually all of this comes to an end, but a bit too late and at a terrible cost. This movement from present to past continues throughout the book until, of course, the two storylines merge.

As the crime story moves forward, Alet Berg, who is working on the crime, begins to uncover some pretty disturbing things that may not only jeopardize  her already faltering career, but may also have some bearing on her personal life.  She also discovers that the death of this victim may be one more in a long-running series of murders where the killer has never been caught.  As time moves forward from 1901, we get a serious look at South Africa's violent apartheid history through the story of Tessa, who finds herself constantly having to change identities and homes to ensure her own survival.

So -- I have to admit that when I first came across the parts about the experiments at the concentration camp, I did a major eyeroll since this is so normally not my thing,  but as things turned out, I just decided to suspend any disbelief, relax, and roll with it and The Monster's Daughter turned out to be pretty darned good.  I will say that it tends to get a bit boggy because there are so many things going on here -- for example, the author throws in some conspiratorial subplots that while important and germane to both present, past, and the novel's title,  received (imo) way too much attention and time when all I really wanted to do was to get back to Tessa, South African history,  and to the murder investigation. Then again, I'm not a big conspiracy fiction person, so that may just be a matter of personal taste. However, as I am so fond of saying, less is more, and this one could have been pared down some without any damage. Other than that, though, as I said, this book is definitely original, and would be well suited for historical fiction and crime readers who don't mind suspending disbelief (and let's get real here -- we do that in most cases anyway),  and I'd also say for readers who are interested in the human costs of racism.  Given the direction of today's politics, it might very well be worth taking a look at the past as so well presented in this novel.

I really need to thank TLC book tours and to Melville House (one of my favorite publishers!!) for my copy of this novel.  I'm just one of several readers of this book, so clicking on the link will take you to their thoughts as well. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

revisiting Miss Marple: Nemesis, by Agatha Christie

The cover photo above is probably my favorite for this book; mine is part of a set of  Bantam black leatherette hardcover editions and has a cover that is really dull.  However, it's all about what's inside, and there is nothing at all dull about Christie's Nemesis, where Miss Marple's cover as dotty old lady comes in more than handy.  I say her "cover," because as she discovers in this book, she has a propensity to be "ruthless" when she needs to and as it will turn out, she'll definitely need to call on that trait before all is said and done.  Personally, I think this is one of the best Marples in the bunch.

Originally published in 1951, Nemesis opens with our dear Miss Marple scanning the obituaries in the local newspaper, and running across a name she knows --  Mr. Jason Rafiel, whom she'd met while on holiday in the Caribbean, has passed away.  A week later, she receives a letter summoning her to London, where she is received by Rafiel's solicitors.  It seems that Mr. Rafiel has left her a bequest of twenty thousand pounds, but there's a catch:  Miss Marple must, within a year,  "investigate a certain crime," to "serve the cause of justice."  What that crime is though, is left unspecified, and the only clue she has comes in yet another letter inviting her to be part of Tour No. 37 of the Famous Houses and Gardens of Great Britain, a tour that will last two to three weeks.  She knows she must go, and taking stock once on the tour, notes that
"...What is involved in my problem is justice. Either to set right an injustice or to avenge evil by bringing it to justice." 
She understands that this must absolutely be the case because it is "in accord with the code word Nemesis given to me by Mr. Rafiel."   What she doesn't realize, however, is how very strange this case will turn out to be.

Some time ago somebody in an online group I belong to said something along the lines of Christie being  for old ladies (I do believe the phrase "blue hairs" was used), and it sort of got my dander up. My brown-haired self was actually offended that someone who'd probably never even read her work was saying this.  This book disproves his statement -- not only is Nemesis an engaging mystery, but here we see a different side of our old-lady sleuth, who has zero tolerance, no matter what the circumstances, for evil, and a Jane Marple who will face down a deadly foe to serve the cause of justice. There's more, of course -- for example, a look at an England changed after the war -- but really this one is all about Jane Marple herself.

If you haven't read it yet, do yourself a huge favor and pick up a copy.  You can skip the TV adaptation with Geraldine McEwan -- not even close to the novel and very disappointing. I knew I was in trouble when I saw a Nazi soldier parachuting out of the sky, and then, of course, there were the nuns -- seriously WTF?   I'm still digging through garage boxes to find my Nemesis dvd with Joan Hickson as Marple but I can't imagine it would be anywhere near as awful as the McEwan version -- I finished it last night wondering if the screenwriters had even read the book.  But here, it's the book that counts, and Christie has outdone herself with this one.

Friday, July 22, 2016

gritty doesn't even begin to cover it: Clinch, by Martin Holmén

Pushkin Vertigo, 2016
originally published 2015
translated by Henning Koch
316 pp


The direction of Scandinavian crime has just changed with Martin Holmén's Clinch, and that's a very good thing.  There are two more books to come from Martin Holmén, and that's a very good thing as well.  Like Harry Kvist, the former-boxing champ who is the star of this show, Clinch delivers a serious gut punch that will leave its readers reeling. I loved this book. Absolutely.

Let me say this right up front: this is not your standard Nordic crime novel.  Clinch would be right at home on a hardcore noir reader's shelf.  It's a very physical novel, a book where the term "gritty" doesn't even begin to cover how dark it is. It's also a story that takes its readers into the streets and alleyways of Stockholm in the early 1930s where people are just trying to survive however they can, be it by pimping, prostitution, thievery, whatever.  And even when the story moves into the better neighborhoods, even there things don't become any brighter.

Harry Kvist is just trying to make a living like everyone else.  A former boxing champ, with two stints in prison, he's now a debt collector.  As the story opens, he's at the home of Zetterberg, who had bought an old Opel but didn't make the full payment.  Harry's job is to convince Zetterberg that he needs to pony up with the cash -- if Zetterberg pays and Harry gets the money to his client within five days, Harry's share is fifteen per cent. In this case, the outstanding debt is 2,100 kronor so it's definitely a debt worth collecting.  When he finally makes contact with Zetterberg, it ain't pretty -- things get very physical and Harry gives him until the next day to pay up.  He's tempted to really give Mr. Z. a "proper working over," but as he notes,
"A dead bloke doesn't pay his debts, a badly injured one ends up in a hospital."
However, when he comes back the next day to collect, not only is Zetterberg dead, but someone's set his place on fire ... and the cops really like Harry as the culprit.  He's picked up and later released, but with a warning that he's not "been ruled out of the investigation."  Harry just laughs it off but decides that he's going to clear his name and that he'll find the one witness who can clear him. Easier said than done, but Harry's determined, and he's also eager to stay out of prison -- they can easily throw the book at him for being gay, which is a crime at the time. From there the story moves in some very strange, dark and twisty directions that had me quickly turning pages to see how things were going to come out, gut clinched in suspense all the way.

I offer major kudos to Mr. Holmén for bringing something new to the table and new to the genre. First of all, the 1930s setting is viable and leaps off every page; his descriptions of the Stockholm slums and social/political tensions are beyond outstanding.   Second,  Harry Kvist is not meant to be your average crime solver -- he is sensitive, loves animals, cares about other people, is generous when he has the money.  On the other hand, as I said earlier, this is a very physical novel, and Harry's sexuality both with men and women is writ large here, as is his propensity to violence.

When it comes down to it, Clinch is an explosive novel, best enjoyed by readers who are at home with  gritty noir that packs a major punch.  There is absolutely nothing cutesy here, no angsty detectives, no hints of the sort of Scandinavian crime fiction that is on bookstore shelves -- this is something very, very different and well, frankly, it's time for that to be happening.  Highly, highly recommended.  I will have to try to remain patient until the next book comes out but after reading and loving Clinch,  that's not going to be easy.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

another British Library Crime Classic, and it's a good one: Murder of a Lady: A Scottish Mystery, by Anthony Wynne

Poisoned Pen Press, 2016
originally published 1931
297 pp


"...there's something wrong with this house."

The thing I enjoy most about locked-room mysteries is, of course, waiting for the solution to materialize.  Up until that point,  I am mentally watching for anything that might be a clue as to how a locked-room murder was pulled off.  This time, there was nothing to give it away, and I had to wait until the last few pages for the answer.  Clever it was, indeed; I never would have guessed.  Yet not all action takes place within the confines of a single locked room -- two other equally puzzling murders happen right under everyone's noses with no suspect in sight. So here you've got a bonus:  a locked-room mystery and an impossible-crime story.

Set in Scotland, Murder of  a Lady was written by Anthony Wynne, the pseudonym of Robert McNair Wilson (1882-1963).  When he wasn't writing histories (12) or wasn't practicing medicine, he spent time writing crime novels --  with some 28 titles under his mystery-author's belt. This particular book is number twelve of his Dr. Eustace Hailey series; Hailey is not only an amateur detective but he specializes in mental diseases. I'm sure I'll cross paths with Dr. Hailey in the future -- it's sad that for some reason Poisoned Pen Press in association with the British Library didn't publish his first crime novel, The Mystery of the Evil Eye aka The Sign of Evil.  Seriously, why start with number twelve?  Pet peeve, and anyone who knows me  knows it drives me crazy.

The first victim in this story is an elderly woman, Miss Gregor, who according to everyone, doesn't have an enemy in the world; she is praised for having spent her life "in service."   Yet, this paragon has been found murdered in her locked bedroom (windows locked as well, of course) so at least one person seems to have wanted her out of the way.  But why? With a house full of suspects, trying to narrow down the who would seem to be a daunting task, especially since the only clue to be found is a herring scale.   As Dr. Hailey surveys the scene, he is met by Inspector Robert Dundas, who has been tasked with solving Miss Gregor's murder.  It's important to him: the case is the chance of his life, so he tells Dr. Hailey that he does not want his help, and that there "must be no independent lines of enquiry" going on. Hailey agrees to abide by Dundas' rules, and it isn't long before Dundas admits defeat and comes back 'round to Hailey. However,  circumstances lead to another police inspector being brought into the case -- and he's certain he has all of the answers. Dr. Hailey, though, isn't so sure.

While the locked-room/impossible-crime components will probably be enough to please any vintage-mystery reader,  I always go right to the human element in crime novels, and the dynamics at work in this household are perfect for examining what's in the minds of the people who live there. As the quotation with which I started this post states, "there's something wrong with this house," and Wynne gets to the dark heart of exactly what that something is.  It takes a while to get there, but it is definitely worth the read time.

Friday, July 15, 2016

perfect noir greatness: Black Wings Has My Angel, by Elliott Chaze

(read in June)

NYRB Classics, 2016
originally published 1953
209 pp


"...real life is not a series of nice interlocking ripples graded for size and fitting into a pattern that can be called off like your ABCs. It's a bunch of foolish tiny things that don't add one way or the other, except that they happened and passed the time." -- 62

As I am fond of saying, plot isn't always everything in a good crime novel, and Elliot Chaze's Black Wings Has My Angel is a great case in point.  It's also now the best crime novel I've read so far this year, and I do not say those words lightly.

After a sixteen-week gig working as a roughneck on a drilling rig in Louisiana, Tim Sunblade has his first bath in four months in his flea-bitten hotel in Krotz Springs.  A knock on the door later he meets prostitute Virginia; three days later they're on the road together, Virginia having warned him that "when the money's gone ... I'm gone too."  When Tim tells her in return that when that day comes, he'll probably be sick of her, she replies in what turns out to be prophetic words: "It'll be better if you're sick of me."   The two begin to make their way west where Tim has big plans that initially don't include Virginia, but as they make their way first to Colorado and later, to the Big Easy, their relationship takes on a strange, twisted life of its own, ultimately sealing both of their fates. That's the nutshell version which doesn't say much but in terms of what happens here, the story is best experienced on one's own.   Chaze has offered up a deadly match up in Tim and Virginia, both of whom have self-destructive tendencies, both of whom are flawed people with dark pasts.  Tim and Virginia are two of a kind: they have a healthy love of cash; both have a "horror of being broke," and each has the measure of each other.

 But as I said, it's not so much the plot here but the ongoing, deepening interplay between these two characters that makes this story, as well as  Chaze's excellent writing.  I already knew I was in love not too far into the novel, when Virginia gets the better of Tim at a cafe in the New Mexico desert, and Tim goes back to track her down. He's fuming, holding a Magnum .357 that he sticks into his waistband as he's coming into town, where he passes by some little shops with signs that read "COME IN AND SEE THE GIANT MAN-KILLING LIZARD," "SEE THE MAN-DESTROYING RATTLESNAKE," and "REAL LIVE COBRA -- COBRAS KILL A MAN EVERY HOUR IN INDIA."  If we haven't yet figured out that Virginia is a femme fatale, a predator, and a man eater, well, we definitely get the point now, in big, bold letters.   But more than anything else, the beauty of this book is in the way Chaze uses Virginia's sexuality to bedazzle Tim into making some pretty bad choices here, while at the same time revealing Tim's major weaknesses and his sheer desperation that allow readers to actually sympathize with him.

Black Wings Has My Angel is one of those books that kicks you directly in the gut and doesn't let up. Reading it, I knew that happy endings probably weren't in the cards for either Tim or Virginia; I knew something terrible was coming down the pike, and I once again had that feeling of watching an unavoidable, inevitable train wreck, unable to look away.  It's not pretty -- it's very dark, filled with an overarching sense of doom and gloom, and god help me, I absolutely loved it.  I'd say that someone needs to make a movie out of this book, but they'd probably mess it up, so no.  This is noir reading perfection and it seriously just does not get better than this.