Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Fox Evil, by Minette Walters

Fox Evil is the ninth book by this author, and it won the CWA Gold Dagger award in 2003.

At the root of this mystery is the question of who killed Ailsa Lockyer-Fox. Set in the small village of Shenstead in Dorset, Fox Evil attempts to sort it all out.  Ailsa was found by her husband James outside their home in the freezing cold weather, wearing only a nightgown. Obviously, she hadn't intended on staying outside for any length of time. To add to the mystery, bloodstains were also found, but Ailsa had no visible wounds which would have caused them. To further whet the reader's appetite for clues, the door going back into the house was locked, and her husband James, seemingly slept on while the murder and mayhem were occurring. The coroner's report cleared James of any wrongdoing. So who killed Ailsa?

Fox Evil is rather cluttered, suffering from too much going on all at the same time. First, James gets his solicitor to track down his long-lost and grown-up granddaughter, Lizzie's daughter from a fling she had some time back, having been adopted when she was a baby. Then there's a matter of a vicious campaign of anonymous callers, accusing James of horrible things. Not to mention the band of travellers who decide to make a certain stretch of woodland their home and their leader, who goes by the name of Fox.  Add into that a mix of neighbors with their own petty problems,  and pretty soon you need a scorecard to keep track of it all.

My preference in mystery novels is for a book in which there are enough suspects who all have really good motives to kill someone, a few really good red herrings that might lead me down the wrong path, and a wowser of a revelation at the end. And although I generally like Minette Walters' writing (The Ice House, The Scold's Bridle and The Breaker  were absolute gems), there was just way too much happening here.  Of course, this book got many 5-star reviews, so it might just be me. I'd recommend it to people who have already read books by this author, but it's definitely not one of my personal favorites.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Executor, by Jesse Kellerman


First, my thanks to Putnam publishers for sending me this book.

The Executor is very different, very slow paced right up until the end where the action kicks into gear, and more of a character-driven novel rather than plot. The main character, Joseph Geist is a career student who came from a dysfunctional family. He's taken too long to produce any results from his PhD research in Philosophy and the powers that be at Harvard have had enough. His girlfriend, whose family doesn't like Joseph anyway, kicks him out of their apartment. He's on the edge of broke, with nothing to show for his life. Looking for work, he comes across an ad that reads "Conversationalist Wanted," posted by an enigmatic and elderly woman named Alma, herself (many years ago) a philosophy student during her life in Austria. He takes the job, and Alma offers him part of her apartment as living space. The situation seems fine until Alma's bad-boy nephew Eric enters the scene. Eric is Alma's only relative, and on his visits she doles out money that never seems to last, as he is usually back for more within short spaces of time. Joseph takes an instant dislike to Eric; whether it's because he's jealous of him or because he sees through him right away is difficult to understand.  Joseph goes for a brief visit home to honor the anniversary of his brother's death, and returns to a nightmare.

Joseph is an interesting character. He's a man of extreme inaction for most of the story, so it's interesting watching the story progress to the point where he feels he must finally take an active role in his life. Growing up, he was passive, unable to do anything when his father was abusive to his brother, and he watched his mother fade as a person, standing by and letting his father control the entire family. The anniversary of his brother's death, and the realization that nothing had changed over the years he'd been away, seemed to spark some sort of latent anger that rose to the surface when his new situation came under threat. Yet, given all of that, Joseph remains a largely unsympathetic character, one for whom it's difficult to feel any pity at times.

I like the slow pace of Kellerman's writing here and I think his work shows a high level of intelligence. However, I had to actually go back to a point in the novel and reread it where it switched from the very slow, steady pace to where all of a sudden there's a rush of action and things move extremely fast, because the switch was distracting and seemed so out of character for Joseph that I was actually taken aback. It was a "huh" moment.  After the steady build up getting to know and understand Joseph, the end was really rushed. That's my only major complaint about this book.  A lot of times I think that authors pad way too much and probably could have deleted the fluff to stay with the heart of their stories, but for a change, it seems that this novel was too short. I'm sure Kellerman has his reasons for ending the book quickly, but it was a bit out of step with the rest of the story. 

If you are expecting a novel along the lines of something written by Jonathan or Faye Kellerman, this one doesn't even come close. I've read my fair share of both of their books and they're okay for a quick read. But Jesse Kellerman's style is very different, not a series book, not in the cozy realm, and there's no quick-witted detective or psychologists.  I'm not saying this as a negative, but it wouldn't be fair to lump parents and son in the same category of writing styles. This book is very intense, intelligent and it reminded me a little of Andrew Wilson's book The Lying Tongue in that you sense all the way through the story that something horrible is going to happen and you have no choice but to watch it play out. I probably would recommend it to readers who want something just a notch above ordinary suspense novels. It's not a mystery, but rather a suspenseful study into one man's mind.

ps/I'd love to share this ARC; if you want it, just be the first person to email me and I'll send it out when I return from Philadelphia next week. My only condition is that you must promise that you'll write a review before the book's release date.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Risk of Infidelity Index, by Christopher G. Moore

On to the third of my cruise reads. Actually, I picked this one up from the ship's library due to my constant fear of running out of books while on vacation. I have read about this series, but this is the first time I've picked up one of this author's novels. I liked it and first thing today I ordered my own copy, and scoped out the other books in the series.

The main character in this book, set in Bangkok, is Vincent Calvino, an ex-pat New Yorker who runs his private eye business out of an office in the same building as a massage parlor. He's just finished a huge surveillance gig, gathering evidence for an attorney who asked him to get the goods on a major drug piracy operation. Everything is looking up, except that Vincent broke one of his cardinal rules: get the money up front. His failure to do so causes him severe problems when the client dies of a heart attack in a toilet. To make matters even worse, he stumbles onto the body of one of the girls from the massage parlor at her place of business, attracting the attention of the local police who don't trust him anyway. As if this isn't bad enough, in order to make ends meet he does two things: first, he tries to put pressure on associates of the dead client (and the bad guys on whom he dug up the evidence)  in order to get paid, and he agrees to take a job for a group of women who put stock in a book called "The Risk of Infidelity Index." This book lists Bangkok as the number one spot in the world where husbands will be unfaithful, and his job is to find evidence that the husbands are cheating.  Neither one of these options, as it turns out, are ideal, and get our man Calvino into a world of trouble.

Moore has developed some great characters here, including Calvino himself, Calvino's good friend Colonel Pratt, a local high-ranking policeman who has a knack for spewing Shakespeare in appropriate moments, an Italian chef who gives cooking lessons to the cheated-on spouses but can't speak Italian, an associate of the dead attorney who has an eidetic memory and stands on principle, and even the bad guy, who is one nasty piece of work.  But it's not just the characters that make the book -- Bangkok itself becomes so real you can feel the steam from the humidity.  Moore is an awesome and talented writer, and it's a shame that not many more of his works are available here. This book is actually #9 in the series, so I do believe I've probably come into the series a bit too late, and I'm sure I've missed something. But that's okay. This book holds it own as far as I'm concerned.

I would recommend it to people who enjoy crime fiction, and to those who want something different from the norm in their reading. It's an engrossing story and it's well plotted, and should appeal to people who are more inclined toward noir with an exotic twist. Overall...a good find, considering I picked it totally out of thin air.

Woman With Birthmark, by Hakan Nesser

Hakan Nesser is another one of my all-time favorite writers of Scandinavian crime fiction. Woman With Birthmark is #4 in this series featuring Inspector Van Veeteren, a veteran detective in Maardam, whose location remains a mystery in itself. These books you can read as stand-alone novels, but there's always a plus to reading a series in order. 

A solitary mourner at a funeral is at the heart of a baffling series of crimes. A young woman made a death-bed promise to her mother and has cleared the way to begin her plan of revenge. Her first victim is a businessman who has recently been receiving some very odd phone calls. There is no voice, just a song that plays over and over again.  Shortly after a little fender-bender, his wife goes out one night leaving him home alone, and comes back to find him shot to death. Enter the police and Inspector Van Veeteren, who after their investigation, come up with very little to make a case, never mind an arrest. When another murder occurs in the same fashion, the members of the Inspector's team know that they must find some sort of a connection between the two dead men. Not only are they worried about a possible serial killer, but the press doesn't understand why the police are not doing their job and makes no bones about publishing how they feel. But the two victims lived very different lives, so the team has to begin the tedious and difficult task of linking each victim's pasts together, not only to identify the killer and the why, but to possibly warn anyone else connected with these two men.  

It's not a mystery, per se; the reader knows the who (sort of) from the very start.  What drives the killer is what slowly unravels throughout the story, teased out a little at a time. As in all of his Van Veeteren books, Nesser's writing, his plotting genius and his characterizations all speak for themselves in this story. He doesn't pad the writing with a lot of great detail and gets right to the crime and the search for a solution.  Van Veeteren doesn't seem to suffer from the angst that many other Scandinavian detectives are full of and he has this very dry wit and sarcastic sense of humor.  I've seen this book reviewed as being too slow with little punch, but trust me -- this is far from the case. If you want bang-bang shoot 'em up, look elsewhere. This one is much more subdued and cerebral.

I have followed this author's works in order of translation and have NEVER been disappointed. I can definitely recommend this book to readers of Scandinavian crime fiction, and for those who want quality and intelligence in their crime.

The Devil's Star, by Jo Nesbø

First of the cruise reads, The Devil's Star is a definite winner. Jo Nesbø is one of the best writers of Scandinavian crime fiction out there today.

summary, no spoilers:
Set in Oslo, Devil's Star features Detective Harry Hole, whose life started zooming out of control when his friend and fellow detective, Ellen Gjelten was murdered while working a case. Harry has spent much of the time since in an alcoholic stupor, neglecting his work to try to catch Ellen's killer, and putting his personal life in the trash. He knows who murdered Ellen, but proving it is a whole different story. Suffice it to say that you must read (in order) Redbreast, and then Nemesis to understand this part of Harry's life. In this book, he is assigned to work on the case of a dead woman who is found with a) a finger cut off and b) a diamond cut in the shape of a star under her eyelid. As the investigation gets rolling, and there are more deaths, Harry begins to uncover a pattern, but with time winding down on his own career, he has to come to grips with his past, present and future as well.

Nesbø's writing, his ability to craft a clever and engrossing series of plotlines that weave together effortlessly, and his excellent characterizations are consistent throughout the entire series. Harry Hole is one of my favorite crime fiction characters, but Nesbø doesn't stop with him. Each one of the supporting characters has a distinct reality of his or her own.

Nesbø is one of the reasons I continue to be fascinated with Scandinavian crime fiction. He is a talented writer, so much so that he is my favorite author within this genre. His books are dark and often broody, but well worth every second of reading time. My advice: read Redbreast and Nemesis prior to this one because prior knowledge of what's happening will raise the suspense level for you. Very highly recommended.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A Great Deliverance, by Elizabeth George

Well, I hadn't actually intended to read anything not in the plan for this month, but this one literally "jumped out" at me. I was futzing around with my books in the British Reading Room, and this book fell to the floor. I picked it up and walked off with it, and I couldn't help myself. I've actually read this one before, but had totally spaced what went on here.

In London, Scotland Yard is searching desperately for a killer known as The Ripper, who seeks and takes victims at railway stations.   But in York, a crime of a different sort has occurred: a young girl, overweight and unattractive, has been found in the barn next to her house with a dead dog and her father’s decapitated body.   The girl, Roberta, has as much as admitted that she did it, but the local priest isn’t sure and contacts Scotland Yard.  Enter Inspector Lynley and his newly-appointed partner, Barbara Havers, and off to York they go.  The investigation isn’t easy: the only eyewitness, Roberta, is in a mental institution where she refuses to talk.  Havers and Lynley must piece together what might have happened — but it’s not going to be an easy task.

So much for the summary.  Now here’s what I think. The author did a good job with the crime per se, and the core mystery is good, handled well under the circumstances (which I cannot mention because it would wreck it for others).  Aside from that, though, there’s way too much personal angst among the main characters, so much so that you wonder how this mystery ever got solved.  Lynley is an aristocrat who started with the police to give something back to the community, was in love with another one of the characters, Deborah, who ultimately married his friend Simon.   So on top of solving this rather brutal crime, he has to stop and sort out his feelings for Deborah.  A bit out of place, but whatever.  Then there’s Havers. She is described as being from working-class stock, rather dumpy with a poor sense of how to dress, and she has it in for Lynley and his friends because they’re from the upper crust of society.    Her anger and resentment strikes at odd places in this story, which is a bit distracting.  Lady Helen, one of Lynley's friends,  I could actually take or leave.

Having said all of this, you’d probably think I didn’t care for the book, but I did. I like a well-crafted and well-plotted mystery novel, and aside from the main characters having to sort through their spontaneous crises at times, it was a good story.  My experience with first novels in mystery series is that they are probably not the best that the author has to give.  I would recommend this book, certainly, for people who enjoy UK crime fiction.  Not a cozy at all, but rather dark and broody, it’s a good mystery read.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Beast, by Anders Roslund and Borge Hellstrom

This may be one of the most graphic crime novels I've ever read, and one of the most unsettling books as well. I read a lot, and this one really got me.

From the outset the reader is sucked directly into the mind of a psychopathic sex offender, Bernt Lund, a very sick pedophile who preys on young girls. And it's not pretty, not at all.  After he kidnaps and kills two girls he is caught & put into a sex offender unit in prison after being diagnosed with a "minor mental disorder", but manages to escape, even though chained, while in transit to the hospital. Ewert Grens and his partner are assigned to the case, and Grens knows, after having spent a lot of time studying Lund, that he's likely to do it again and soon.  But even after elaborate preparations and police watches on nursery schools, the police don't make it in time to prevent another kidnapping.  The father of this particular victim has a breakdown and decides that he doesn't want it to happen again -- and proceeds to take the law in his own hands, with some horrible consequences. There is also a simultaneous storyline taking place in the prison from which Lund escaped, and both stories eventually weave together in a most gut-wrenching way. 

This is the first book in a series by Roslund and Hellstrom, just prior to Box 21. Once you begin reading it, you'll discover that this book is not so much a mystery or crime novel, but that it is actually about the nature and meaning of justice.  Although it is very gritty and incredibly tough to read due to its subject matter, this is a book that will make you pause and think. It is not your average police procedural -- the authors have a definite message here. Although set in Sweden, trust me -- this could most definitely happen here.  I would definitely recommend it to readers of Scandinavian crime fiction. 

Saturday, March 6, 2010

A Conspiracy of Paper, by David Liss

 In 2001, this book won the Macavity and Barry Awards for best first novel.  It is also the opener in an historical mystery series featuring young Benjamin Weaver, followed by A Spectacle of Corruption in 2004, and the most current entry in the series, The Devil's Company in 2009.

Set in London in the early 1700s, Conspiracy of Paper begins when Weaver, who is Jewish and  left his family many years ago to be on his own, receives a visit from a young man who has a mystery for Weaver to solve. As it turns out, the man wants him to look into the death of his father, who supposedly committed suicide. But what piques Weaver's interest is that the visitor also suggests that the "accidental" death of Weaver's own father may have indeed been murder.  Weaver had been estranged from his father and family, but with the promise of needed cash, and some curiosity, Weaver agrees to take on the case, even though he realizes that he will have to return to his family at some point.  As he begins looking into both deaths, he becomes involved in a "conspiracy of paper," involving the stock market, the Bank of England and the South Seas Company. He has no idea who to trust in this murky world of deals and double dealing, coffeehouses, gaming clubs and back-alley pubs, and often finds himself at the wrong end of a knife as he realizes that it is not in anyone's interest for plots and conspiracies to be exposed.

The author has obviously done an immense amount of research both in terms of  1700s London and in the treacherous dealings of the early stock market. The book starts off a bit slow as the reader is introduced to the main character and the London environs, but soon picks up and moves very quickly. Liss does a fine job with characterizations but his real skill is in developing a plot which is like being in a labyrinth -- as Weaver starts down one path, assured that he's got it figured out, he comes to a point where he is either at a dead end or there's another branch to follow. Watching him work his way out of the maze of intrigue and murder is what makes this book. I do have to confess that I had part of it worked out early on, but the journey was fun.

I would recommend it to people who enjoy historical fiction or mysteries set in historical periods. Not a cozy by any stretch of the imagination, A Conspiracy of Paper is a book that requires your full attention, and rewards you for sticking with it.