Sunday, January 31, 2010

Vienna Secrets, by Frank Tallis

First, my thanks to Random House, who sent me an ARC of this book.

This is book #4 (and the most recent) of the series entitled The Liebermann Papers, set in turn-of-the-century Vienna.  Although this one wasn't my favorite of the series -- that honor goes to Fatal Lies -- it was still a good read.

A series of grisly and seemingly impossible murders is keeping the police busy in Vienna.  People are being decapitated in a most gruesome fashion -- their heads seemed to have been literally ripped off.  But there are no suspects, no clues, and the method of death confounds the authorities.  Oskar Rheinhardt calls once again on Max Liebermann, the young psychiatrist who is a serious follower of Sigmund Freud, to help wrap their collective heads around these crimes and try to fathom who could be responsible.  But crime is not the only thing Liebermann has on his mind.

Once again, we are transported back to that time period through Frank Tallis' writing...the coffeehouses, architecture, music and culture of Vienna are vividly portrayed.  He also briefly introduces his readers to the beauty of Prague's culture of the time in a whirlwind tour to that city, and to a bit of Jewish mysticism.   But there's also a darker side rising up alongside all of  the gaiety, and that is the true focus of this novel (and also explains the UK title of this book, Darkness Rising -- which, imho, is the ultimate perfect title). At this time in Vienna, anti-Semitism is rearing its ugly head, beginning to grow in force (indeed, throughout the empire itself), and Max himself has become a target. There is a definite foreshadowing of what's to come for these citizens later, which gives this book (and indeed, the overall series) a bit of a darker tone. It's tough to just call this just a mystery novel because it's so much more.

Bluntly speaking, I was put off at first by the anti-Semitic musings being interwoven with the mystery part of it all, but eventually I came to see that the two components were necessary to each other. After I figured it out, what happened in the story made much more sense. I have only two criticisms of this book: I just wish the author would have decreased the amount of minutiae to sift through as far as period details,  and that he would have stayed closer to the two interwoven storylines without interjecting what Oskar was going to eat at the coffeehouse -- it's very distracting sometimes. As a mystery, the crimes were baffling enough and the solution was very different to anything from this author so far in the series.

I think that this book will do well for people who've already read the first three books, or for people who really enjoy historical fiction.  If you want a non-historical view of the forces leading up to the extreme anti-Semitism that follows this time period, this would also be a good place to start.  Overall, I liked it and would recommend it, and I would recommend that you begin with the first in the series Mortal Mischief, because the story is actually ongoing and you don't want to miss a thing.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Fatal Lies, by Frank Tallis

my edition

 After the last two books written by this author, which were rather lengthy, I was very happy to see a much lighter book here. Much more concise and taut than the previous two books in this series, Fatal Lies begins with the death of a student at a Viennese military academy. Police inspector Oskar Rheinhardt is called away from a ball to go to the scene; he enlists his friend Max Liebermann, a psychiatrist to go with him. Max has been helpful in the past with his experience in Freudian psychology,  and Rheinhardt is all for employing new methods in police procedure to better root out crime.  The two don't realize it yet, but they are stepping into a very troubled atmosphere in the academy, where odd things are occurring and everyone is doing their best to cover things up.

Tallis plies his readers once again with the culinary, musical and literary delights of early 20th-century Vienna, yet manages to interweave all of these with the darkness of international intrigue and the deep and brooding atmosphere of a group of troubled boys.  It is a good read, and one that's hard to put down once you get started.

I'd definitely recommend this one to readers of historical mysteries, as well as to those who have started this series and are considering moving through it.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Vienna Blood, by Frank Tallis

Vienna Blood is book two in the series known collectively as The Liebermann Papers, which are set in Vienna just after the turn of the nineteenth century into the twentieth.  The main character is Max Liebermann, who is a doctor and devout follower of Sigmund Freud. He is joined by Detective Oskar Rheinhardt, who tries to incorporate all of the newest crime-solving methods, including psychological analysis, when working a case.  In this volume, the two have their hands full: someone is killing random members of the public, leaving only the slimmest of clues behind.  Liebermann and Rheinhardt must figure out exactly what drives the killer, and if he or she is following a particular pattern that isn't readily apparent.

The crime investigation is interwoven with a glimpse into the minds of those who were advocates of German nationalism around this time -- and you can see how later some of the Anti-Semitic and pro-Aryan philosophies will become twisted into what evolved into National Socialism.  Tallis looks at this phenomenon in terms of art, music, philosophy and literature, and introduces the readers to one Guido von List, who spent most of his career studying ancient Germanic runes & mythologies, and using them as the basis of his prophecy, which stated that someday, a  "Strong One from Above" would purify the German people, bring Germany back to its ancient magnificence and would lead Germany to conquer the world. Scary stuff, especially because we all know what comes later -- the characters don't really yet understand what's in store for them. On the flip side, the story also brings out the loveliness of Viennese society -- the whirl of coffeehouses, pastries, music, theater, art, literature, and the amazing work being done by people like Freud to help cure people of their mental ills. There's also an ongoing side story, that of Max's crisis of conscience over his engagement to the lovely Clara.

Here's the thing: some readers may feel like this book is a bit too long, especially if they're rather impatient to get to the crime itself.  Tallis does tend to fill his pages with a lot of period details, from what everyone's eating at the coffehouses to what happens during a duel. But if you're interested in that sort of thing, then you'll like it. Overall, it's a fine sequel to his first excellent novel, Mortal Mischief (the US title).  I would recommend it to readers of historical fiction; it's not a cozy novel by any stretch, but a full-length, serious mystery.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Dupe, by Liza Cody

my edition
subtitled: a kind of vegetarian mystery, meaning, one without meat.

Dupe is the first book of a series featuring private investigator Anna Lee. Anna was a cop, then realized that she was going nowhere (this was in the 80s, mind you) with her career, and she got a job with the Brierly security company as an investigator.  Her boss reluctantly assigns her to the case of Deirdre Jackson, who was found dead in a car accident. There seemed to be no hint of foul play, but the parents a) don't believe it for a minute and b) want to know what their close-mouthed little darling had been up to in the months previous to her death. So off Anna goes, and her investigations take her inside the cinematic world, where at least one person wants her off the case, and others have many secrets they're not giving up.

Anna is a kind of gutsy girl, and considering this was written in 1980, was a strong character for the time. Of course now we are reading about the guts and glory of Lisbeth Salander (from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo fame) so to us, Anna is a bit tame, but still, within the context of the time, a pretty rare kind of heroine. The supporting characters all have their own idiosyncracies (especially her boss and his assistant), and for a first effort, not bad. What I didn't really like was that probably about the first three-fourths of the book were all about Anna asking questions...very little action to speak of.  That only happens toward the very end, when things finally heat up and we get a clue that maybe Anna's put her nose somewhere where it don't belongs and someone's trying to stop her from asking more questions.  But I'll chalk this up to the book being the first in the series -- normally they're never as good as what follows.

Kind of dated, but I'd recommend it to people who read UK Crime fiction and who have maybe missed this one. Not a cozy, by any stretch, but it's also not a police procedural.  Overall -- not bad, not great, just average.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Before the Frost, by Henning Mankell (moving along the tbr trail)

my edition

just taking a small break here, working on getting through my tbr pile, which really requires a lot of attention.

I'm a huge Henning Mankell fan, and I love Kurt Wallander.  All through the series, his daughter Linda has always been there, but here she plays a major role. The book is touted as "a Kurt and Linda Wallander novel," and from that I gather that he's planning to write more with the father-daughter duo as a unit.  After Wallander solo, it's going to be tough, because that particular series is so good that it's really difficult to top. And thus, we come to this particular novel, Before the Frost.

The novel opens with, of all things, an escapee from the horrible Jonestown Massacre that happened in Guyana in November of 1978. Fast forward a few years to an unknown figure setting swans on fire in Sweden. What the two have in common will be made obvious as the story progresses.

Linda Wallander has finished up at the police academy and is waiting for her first assignment in Ystad.  For the time being she's staying with her dad, Inspector Wallander, and decides to go catch up with some old friends.  One of these friends, Anna, tells Linda that she's just seen her long-lost father, then Anna disappears. Linda tries to get her father interested in finding Anna, but  Kurt Wallander and his team are looking into the disappearance and death of another woman, whose name mysteriously appears in Anna's journal, later found by Linda. The coincidence leads Wallander to believe that maybe Linda's got something here.   From here, the story takes several strange twists and turns, and the investigation leads them to a rather bizarre group who have set a deadline for something terrible to happen.

To be honest, this isn't my favorite book featuring Kurt Wallander. It tends to drag in places, is a bit melodramatic, and the core mystery is a bit over the top, as in the prior book featuring Wallander, Firewall. Considering that this is "Kurt and Linda" Wallander novel, Kurt tends to play less of a role than his daughter.  My guess is that Mankell wants the readers to become more familiar with Linda in her new role, especially if there will be more novels featuring this pair. Many of the other characters, especially the really bad guys, just didn't ring true to me, and it seemed like the addition of Linda in her new role toned down the edginess and suspense of Mankell's other Wallander novels.

Mankell is great at police procedurals as well as intense social criticism, and that's what keeps me reading his books. It will definitely be interesting (if he chooses to continue the series featuring father and daughter) to see if Linda Wallander and younger members of the police turn out to be as cynical about their society as is Kurt Wallander and his group, or if the generational aspect leads them to view things in a different light. I would still recommend it for Mankell and Wallander fans, and for fans of Swedish crime novels in general. I wouldn't make this one my first Wallander novel, but would definitely start with Faceless Killers and move through the series in order.

Overall...not my favorite, but it wasn't bad, either.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Missing, by Karin Alvtegen

my edition

  • Fact: I love Scandinavian crime fiction. 
  • Fact: I have an entire three walls of bookshelf dedicated to Scandinavian crime fiction.
  • Fact: I am rarely disappointed in Scandinavian crime fiction.
but this book is the exception.  And actually, I did something I rarely ever do after reading a book of Scandinavian crime fiction: I gave it away on Paperback Swap. So many people there had wishlisted it and I decided that perhaps someone else would like it much more than I. It leaves the house on Monday, after I return from California.  I share and recycle  a lot of books, but it's a rare moment when one is from the Scandinavian collection.  Anyway, getting on with this book, it seems to me that I really must have missed something, because I did not like this book.  It could very well be me, because I look at Amazon or other places where this book's been rated, and people are just in awe over this book.  It also got nominated for an Edgar award.

The story goes something like this:
The main character, Sibylla Forsenstrom,  is homeless, and when she gets desperate, scams wealthy-looking men into paying for dinner or buying her a room in a nice hotel somewhere.  For her, it's a tried and true method, and she's careful.  Her caution, however, does nothing for her when a man who paid for her room at a luxury hotel  is found not only dead but horribly mutilated.  She flees the scene, but accidentally leaves things behind.  When a second murder and mutilation occur, she finds herself on the front pages of every newspaper in Sweden, where she reads that she is wanted for both murders. Not only that, but her entire history (told in a backstory) of mental illness catches up to her and she is the most wanted person in the country.She decides that the only way out of this mess is to find the real killer and clear herself of suspicion.

Sounds like a great plot, and it is, but frankly, for me, it just didn't have that edge to it that would normally keep me in suspense enough to keep turning pages.  To be very fair, the author did a decent job developing Sybilla's childhood history and her journey into mental illness (which I thought were the best parts of this book), but the murder and crime-solving angle just failed to reach out and grab me.  I thought that the writing was a bit flat and that the solution to the crime was something so obvious that the police should have picked up on it right away, making the whole mystery aspect to the book rather...hmmm....what's a good word here...amateurish.

But, the evidence overall points to everyone absolutely loving this book, so don't just take my word for it. I just calls 'em as I sees 'em, and I didn't really like it that much. I'll try another by Alvtegen, in case my dislike of this book was a freak thing, but only if one of her other books drops into my lap.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Exile, by Denise Mina (the Garnethill Trilogy, Book 2)

my edition

Exile is the second installment of Denise Mina’s Garnethill trilogy, which begins with Garnethill and ends with Resolution (which I have not yet read).  If you do not read Garnethill prior to this book, you will be a bit lost, both in terms of characters, and in terms of the main character’s (Maureen O’Donnell) background. And this is critical. These are excellent books, and I most highly recommend them.

As the action begins, Maureen, who works at a battered women’s shelter, is drawn into the disappearance of Ann Harris, a resident of the place, who told everyone that her husband Jimmy constantly beat and abused her. Quickly she learns that the London police have discovered a disfigured body wearing a piece of Ann's jewelry, and that they are out to find her killer. Maureen meets up with Jimmy and realizes that he’s just a quiet man trying to take care of four small children and wasn’t involved in Ann’s disappearance.  However, if she doesn’t figure out what happened to Ann, more than likely it will be Jimmy that’s off to prison.  Her desire to help Jimmy sets her on a very dangerous path where she will meet up with some very rough characters who aren’t so happy that a foreigner has come asking questions.

But aside from the crime element, Maureen as a person is worth the reading time alone. She’s got a lot on her shoulders and struggles inwardly with her past as well as her extremely dysfunctional family. Now she’s got new worries that pick up where the first book (Garnethill) left off.  I really enjoy her character and I’m really sad there are only three books about her. I also enjoy Denise Mina’s writing…it is excellent, and not just in the sense that she’s a good writer of crime fiction. She can write, and after I finish this trilogy I will be reading anything I can of hers.

Highly recommended, but as noted above, please do start with the first in the series.  On to the third book, and very soon.  If you like UK crime fiction and strong women characters, you will really like this book. This is no ordinary “mystery” series by any stretch of the imagination.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Firewall, by Henning Mankell

sidebar: a few of the Wallander books have been dramatized on PBS Mystery, starring Kenneth Branagh, who makes an outstanding Wallander. If you haven't seen these, you must.  But do yourself a favor and read the books first. Check out the series here.

 If you haven't yet met Kurt Wallander, I highly suggest that you run, not walk, to your nearest bookstore and pick up his first book, Faceless Killers.  After that, you will want to run, not walk, to your nearest bookstore and pick up book #2. And so on and so on, until you've read all of the Wallander series. They are, in a nutshell, outstanding.  Okay...maybe Dogs of Riga wasn't so hot (every author is allowed one bad series novel), but you literally can't put down any of these books while you're reading them.

This continues to hold true for Firewall, number eight in the Wallander series (which, personally, I hope Mankell never stops writing),

It's a year after the events of the previous book (One Step Behind), and the story opens with the death of a computer consultant  just after making a withdrawal from his ATM.  As the team begins its investigation into his death,  two young girls in a taxi beat and stab the driver to death.  The girls are arrested, and claim they killed the driver for the money, which as it turns out, wasn't very much for their trouble. As Wallander tries to sort everything out,  events occur which lead him and his crack Ystad police team come to realize that these two events were not random occurrences at all, and that they are part of a much bigger and more threatening picture. And time is running out.

The action in Firewall never lets up. Mankell has delivered yet another excellent Wallander adventure here, although I must admit that while the storyline is plausible, it's a bit over the top. Barring that minor drawback, Firewall is excellent, and I'm amazed how well Mankell manages to continue to portray Wallander as a real person with real-world problems and personal issues.  He doesn't skimp on the supporting characters, either, and the core plotline is absolutely diabolical.

Mankell is one of my favorite authors, and as long as he keeps writing, I'll keep buying. Highly recommended for Scandinavian mystery fans, and to readers of more hard-edge mysteries as well.  Do not start with this book as your first Wallander experience, however, because Wallander is someone that you really want to take time to get to know as a character.

Overall -- it's a great read.  It's a bit over the top, but still a fast-paced and very edgy mystery novel that will keep you glued to the pages.