Tuesday, December 17, 2013

traveling back through time: *The Dain Curse, by Dashiell Hammett

Vintage Crime/Random House, 1989
originally published 1929
231 pp


There's something very positive to be said about these old novels; this one was written in 1928 and still has a lot of power to entertain. According to one website I visited for background on this book, The Dain Curse first made its appearance in Black Mask magazine as a serial released between October 1928 and January 1929; it was his second Continental Op story after Red Harvest.  It may not be Hammett's best, but I still had a lot of fun with it. I mean, seriously -- you have a whacked-out bunch of people involved in a crazy cult, a wealthy drug-addicted, simpering heroine who just might be the victim of a curse, an old house by the sea, a man hiding a secret identity, and of course, a number of murders.

Set in San Francisco, Hammett's unnamed detective, known to readers only as "The Continental Op," is tasked by his company to investigate the reported theft of some diamonds. The diamonds were in the possession of Edgar Leggett when they were stolen; Leggett's daughter Gabrielle may have been a witness.  From the getgo, the detective believes it was an inside job, and the opening stages of the investigation lead him to the Temple of the Holy Grail, "the fashionable one just now" run by one of Leggett's friends and frequented by Gabrielle. It's a place where "the right sort of people" go, not a "Holy Roller or House of David sort of thing."  After a spending a night in the temple that he'll never forget, one that ends in death,  the case moves the Op  to a small seaside town where he immediately discovers another yet another body, eventually coming to the realization that he's been pitted against a madman.

an earlier cover of The Dain Curse

The Dain Curse is twisty, and lots of people die in this story before the killer is discovered,  making the crime portion of this book good reading. It isn't as hardboiled as I would have imagined, after reading some of his later novels,  but this work was written still quite early in Hammett's career.  If you read this novel slowly, you'll also discover that Hammett , via the character of Fitzstephan who writes cheesy novels, seems to be comparing and contrasting the work of a detective (Hammett's earlier, pre-writing occupation) and the work of a writer. If you think about that idea for a moment, it adds a reflective layer to this book that takes it beyond just another crime novel.  For example, the two (Fitzstephan and the Op) first meet when the detective was working on a case about phony mediums who had fleeced a woman for a hundred thousand dollars.  He was "digging dirt," and Fitzstephan was "plowing the same field for literary material."  When they meet up again in San Francisco, and Fitzstephan asks him about what a particular person has been up to, the Op notes that
"We don't do it that way...You're a storywriter. I can't trust you not to build up on what I tell you. I'll save mine till after you've spoken your piece, so yours won't be twisted to fit mine."
and then later, in a discussion about how Fitzstephan's business is "with souls and what goes on in them," they have the following exchange, beginning with Fitzstephan:
"Are you -- who make your living snooping -- sneering at my curiosity about people and my attempts to satisfy it?"

"We're different...I do mine with the object of putting people in jail, and I get paid for it, though not as much as I should."

"That's not different...I do mine with the object of putting people in books, and I get paid for it, though not as much as I should."
Yet while these scenes scattered here and there throughout the novel are interesting, the focus is really on the crimes and how the Continental Op arrives at the solution -- and it's a ride that is beyond crazy.

Another thing to point out is that this book is filled with racist remarks; not that I condone them but they are a product of the times in which this book was written so keep that in mind as you read.   Definitely recommended for those who enjoy vintage crime; cozy readers and strictly police-procedural fans probably wouldn't enjoy it as much.  Now I'm going to go back and read Red Harvest ... then make my way through the rest of Hammett's novels that I've missed. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Fire Dance, by Helene Tursten

Soho Crime, 2014 (January)
336 pp

arc -- tons of gratitude to Paul at Soho Crime for my copy.

I know I should probably wait until January to post my discussion about this book, but it's close enough now, and just maybe someone might be thinking of pre-ordering this book for a Christmas gift.  What the hey, right? I feel so lucky having received an advanced copy of this book! When the word came down that Soho was publishing this book, I was happy; when I got an email for the review copy, I was ecstatic.  Helene Tursten has long been one of my favorite Scandinavian crime writers, and Irene Huss one of my favorite Nordic police detectives.   To be honest, I've given up on a lot of Scandinavian crime writers but she's one of the few authors whose books I pick up as soon as they hit the shelves. 

The Fire Dance splits time periods -- the first, from 1989-1990, when Irene has been with the department only a month.  Her girls are very young, and  husband Krister is grateful for his 30-hour/wk part-time job. A difficult case found its way into her lap when after three months, a young girl named Sophie Malmborg, possible witness to a fire at her home that killed a man, has been unwilling to speak for three months. Despite the best efforts of professionals, Sophie will not talk.  Irene's boss, Sven Andersson, figures that since Irene is a woman with small children, she might have much more luck getting Sophie to say something.  She gets plenty from all of the other people in Sophie's life, but Sophie still isn't talking.  With no further clues, and with other cases coming up, the case goes cold, and life moves on.  Flash forward to 2004 -- fifteen years after the house fire, Sophie is dead, after having disappeared for three weeks.  Irene now has only very meager clues, but several suspects, and as was the case fifteen years earlier she's needed on another big case and time is growing short.    In the meantime, things are happening on the home front that will require her attention.

Helene Tursten is always able to provide her armchair-detective readers with a solid mystery to ponder, and that is certainly the case in The Fire Dance.  Irene must rely on the fifteen-year old unsolved case to make any headway in the present, and the way Tursten sets up this up case gives it kind of an eerie turn. She also does a fine job in conveying Irene's devotion both to the job and her family, and does so a way that never seems forced.  I could do with less of the dog (I think I say that about every Irene Huss novel) and the emphasis on the food choices made by the vegan daughter, but otherwise, I appreciate this aspect of Tursten's series.  While I didn't find it as edgy or as solid as her book The Torso, my favorite of the series, The Fire Dance still very much pleased my picky crime-fiction reader self.  All I would say in the negative zone is that I would have loved to have seen less cute and more edge. But that's a personal thing.

Regular followers of this series will not be disappointed; probably not a good read for hardboiled, noir or cozy  crime readers; more for those who enjoy solid police procedurals with a personal twist.  As my list of favorite Scandinavian crime writers is dwindling, I'm am so happy to have found this series, and I'm even happier that Soho continues to publish them for American readers. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

totally flummoxed!

Seriously, folks, today I got an email from goodreads telling me that the winning book of this year's best mystery and thriller category is none other than (drumroll please) Dan Brown's Inferno.  The votes were cast  by readers, and Inferno received 29,132 votes.  Now, contrast that with Jo Nesbø's Police, which got 6, 821 votes.  Frankly, I had a lot of trouble believing this news, considering that a) Police was probably Nesbø's best book so far and b) that (imho) Inferno was DaVinci Code all over again with a change of venue and cast.

I'm seriously not getting how this happened -- not just in the case of Police, but every other exquisite crime novel that's been published in 2013.  Claudia Piniero's A Crack in the Wall, for example, should have at least been nominated, and the same goes for a host of other truly wonderful crime/mystery books -- 21:37 by Mariusz Czubaj -- which was listed as European literature therefore not considered a crime fiction novel; Arnaldur Indridason's newest wasn't on the voting list; where the hell was Andrea Camilleri; Benjamin Black? I think not; Tim Hallinan's wonderful Fame Thief wasn't there; I could go on, but my point is made.  

I don't consider myself in any way shape or form a book snob or "highbrow" reader (I mean, seriously...I read Inferno when it came out)  but jeez! There has to be a point at which people recognize the excellent work being done by not only excellent home-grown crime writers but the international ones as well.  Is there some reason that people don't choose to expand their reading horizons or climb out of their reading ruts? I mean, to each his own for sure, but frankly, this year's choice was just a little more than not right.

okay. that's all. I have ranted and now I am finished. 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

another indie: Border Field Blues, by Corey Lynn Fayman

Create Space, 2012
316 pp

my copy from the author - -thanks!

First -- epic-proportion sized apologies to the author & to his publicist for taking nearly a month to get this done,  but sadly, I haven't had a whole lot of time because we remodeled our upstairs & I swear, it was just like moving in from scratch.  But now we're all put together in time for the holidays, and it's back to reading business as usual. Finally! Word to the wise: if you're going to completely redo your home, think twice.

First, let me say this: I have no idea why this book hasn't been picked up by a regular  publisher -- it's certainly good enough.  This author can put together a good mystery that keeps you intrigued to the last page.  The novel has a good noir tone to it, along with some funny moments, quirky characters and a twisty story. Border Field Blues is the second book in a series starting with Black's Beach Shuffle, which I thought I would read before this one but didn't get to. But I'll definitely pick up a copy now, and my understanding is that there is a third novel in the works.

Rolly Waters, guitarist, former band member, and now PI living in San Diego (my favorite city in CA),  has been asked by his friend Max to look into who might be behind an act of destruction that left a Least Tern preserve near the border  in shambles. Rolly is just a good guy whose circumstances haven't always been so great -- not a hardboiled kind of PI at all.  As a cast of strange characters starts to become interested in what he's doing, he soon realizes that he's probably in way over his head as the case leads to not one, but possibly several murders.  A CD left behind at the scene is one of the few clues he has, leading him to a bizarre woman who encourages voyeurs, a young guy who drives a hearse and has a skeleton pin pierced through his septum, a crazy guy in scrubs who has a thing about scalpels and some overly gung-ho members of the AFA, a sort of vigilante group that patrols the border with paint guns.   The further he goes, the more he is warned off -- but he owes it to Max to find out what happened at the bird preserve so for him, quitting is not an option.  Border Field Blues starts in the past, and it is to the past that Rolly will have to turn to figure out exactly what's going on here.

Aside from the few distracting typos, the only niggle I have is that sometimes the characters, although meant to be quirky, come off as a little too larger than life.  The border guy, Nuge, for example, sounds like he was pulled right out of a movie.  Otherwise, I really liked this one -- very unpredictable and twisty, number one; number two, the main character is very credible and realistic -- the hapless good guy who is just doing his job and gets sucked into something well beyond what he's been hired to do, and number three -- the setting is done so well --  I used to hike there, up past Monument Mesa, and the author's description of the whole area is spot on.  If you forget the typos, this book is also much more polished in tone than the work of a lot of  indie crime authors I've read, which made me wonder after finishing it why he hasn't been picked up by a more mainstream publisher. It's also funny at times, enough to break the tension here and there.

I want to address a point made by some other reviewers about this book re the video game.  Some people have said it was murky, or left unexplained -- but I don't think these people read the story closely enough to get why the author included it.  It fits, and fits well considering the character involved. I didn't find any loose ends in this book.

At the end of the day, the book 1) kept me reading to get to the root of what was going on, 2) had a good and twisty mystery with a satisfying conclusion, and 3) had a more polished  tone than many crime novels I've read that have come from the big-name publishers.   Cozy readers -- probably not for you. Hardboiled or really dark noir fans -- probably a bit on the lighter side of what you normally read.  For me it had enough edginess, grit and crime to make it intriguing, mixed with odd characters that certainly kept things very lively.

again...my apologies for taking forever!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

giveaways to US readers

For American readers, I have two books to give away. I accidentally forgot to decline my featured selection at the Mystery Guild book club, so these are book-club sized novels that I'm probably not going to read.  They're not abridged, but just smaller in size.

#1 : Linda Fairstein's Death Angel, published earlier this year -- hardcover, never read.

#2 James Lee Burke's Light of the World, also published earlier this year ... again, a hardcover in its jacket, never read.

Seriously, all you have to do is to be the first to leave a comment that you want one or both of these, and they're yours. I will even pay postage!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Reckless Engineer, by Jac Wright

Soul Mate Publishing, 2013
334 pp

e-copy, provided by the author

On the scale of rare to hardly ever, once in a while  I'll say yes to a previously-unknown (to me) author asking if I might read his or her work and  post a review here, largely because I'm interested in seeing what he or she is offering that may be potentially new to the crime-fiction world.  I'm not a writer, but I think I can understand how difficult it is for people who are and who are not in what I'd call "the big leagues" of crime-fiction writing to get their names out there. The Reckless Engineer is by Jac Wright, an author whose work I've never read before, and I was tempted to say yes  because he's a UK writer.  The book is a murder mystery that takes place in Portsmouth, offering a wide range of suspects in the death of a bitchy and witchy engineer's mistress.  The main suspect is her lover Jack, who may be a total jerk who doesn't seem the type to have a propensity for murder in his blood.  There is a lot of action in this novel as his friend Jeremy tries to prove that Jack didn't do it, there's a fair amount of subterfuge and untrustworthy characters, and well, as one reviewer put it, it has "everything-but-the-kitchen-sink." 

When Jack Connor's current lover is killed (and I say current because Jack has a habit of sleeping around despite the fact that he's married), all signs point to Jack as her murderer.  He has a lot to lose besides his reputation: he's married to Caitlin, the daughter of a rich and powerful industrialist whose money makes it possible for Jack to live a good life.  Jack immediately calls best friend Jeremy, who gets his attorney Harry to take Jack's case.  As the legal process swings into high gear, Jeremy overhears a phone conversation between Caitlin and an unknown person named K.C., and starts to wonder if it's possible that Caitlin may have had something to do with Michelle's death.  After all, both she and her father knew about Jack's little bit on the side, and Caitlin is a perfect suspect.  The conversation sparks Jeremy to do an investigation on his own while Jack's fate hangs in the balance, but soon he realizes that there were a lot more  people who may have wanted to get rid of the dead woman. He certainly has his work cut out for him. 

It's a plot directly up my alley, and the choice of murder weapon (a box of poisoned chocolates) is intriguing, since really, anyone could have left it for the dead woman at any time, opening up the possibilities of more than a single suspect. This approach is always a plus in my mind, probably hearkening back to my love affair with Agatha Christie and the way she set up her novels so that you have to wait until the end to find out the who.   The action starts quickly, getting the reader involved at the outset as the author doesn't wait long at all to start planting seeds of doubt about Jack's involvement.  At the same time, I had a number of issues with this novel that made it a sloggy go in some parts.  First is the author's use of language. As a single example, there are a number of times that he uses the word "shall" in dialogue between characters that comes across as stilted and unrealistic in context.  Second, there's so much exposition in this story that could have been better applied, woven into normal conversation so that the background info comes out more naturally. But my biggest objection is as follows: while I won't reveal the ending, I thought that Mr. Wright made a very crucial error here, waiting until the last few chapters to provide background and detail on the murderer.  I mean, the information about the killer should have been established more evenly throughout the book rather than piling it all on at the end, because then, duh, you know who the killer is before you get to the big reveal.  I was so disappointed! To his credit, the author does keep you guessing up until that point, but I've never ever seen this kind of thing done before, and I've been reading crime fiction since before I was a teen.  He might as well have put up a neon arrow pointing to the killer at that point. 

 The plot's introduction was quite well done (other than the use of the word "shall" so many times), the middle was very tough going due to the introduction of so many new characters and plot points, and then it picks up again toward the end.  But once I got back into the groove of the read after the sloggy center and wanted to know the identity of the killer, with the above-mentioned error, things were kind of wrecked for me, although  I will say that the actual "how" the murder was done was pretty ingenious. Finally, in my opinion, and really, I don't suppose that means much to anyone but myself, if someone is going to write crime fiction, it needs to be very tight in terms of plot, and especially in how the author controls the scene, the characters, and the denouement.  I didn't find that here -- there were always some new angles thrown in, which is okay, but there should be some sort of subtle clue at the beginning as to where the author is going to take his readers.  There is just way too much going on here to make the novel really pop, which is a shame, since the story itself has a lot of potential. 

Personally speaking,  I'd certainly give this author another try, especially if he takes tighter control over his work in the future.  The book could have frankly benefited from more judicious editing, but he can weave a good yarn that is interesting enough at its core to keep you reading.  Then again, I'm super picky when it comes to crime, since I've spent so much of my reading life glued to murder mysteries, and I consider myself a tough audience. 

My many thanks to the author for the opportunity to read his work. 

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Police, by Jo Nesbø

Knopf, 2013
436 pp
originally published as Politi, 2013
translated by Don Bartlett


Police is #10 in Nesbø's wonderful Harry Hole series, and by golly, it's a winner. I have read all but The Bat and Cockroaches from this series, but I don't know whether or not my guts have ever been so twisted  while reading any Nesbø novel prior to this one.  The suspense tempted me so many times to turn to the end, but to my credit, I didn't cheat.

From the very outset, the author delights in playing with your head.  In a guarded hospital room, a man is laying in a coma.  While he's hovering between life and death, someone is luring members of the Oslo police force to their deaths.  The victims seem to be connected to old, unsolved cases, and they die in extremely terrible ways on or near the anniversaries of the crimes.  Harry's old friends on the Oslo police force are stymied ... there is very little in the way of clues or forensics left behind, and the police are under a great deal of pressure to do something about these murders before any more policemen get killed. They're also under pressure from Harry's nemesis Mikael Bellman, the current police chief, to get the cases solved because he has ambitions, and taking credit for solving these murders will help him move up the political ladder.  The team goes behind Bellman's back to try to stop the killer from striking again, but things get really ugly when when a particularly brutal murder hits very close to home.

Around this central plot, which ultimately focuses on the search for justice, there's much more going on.  A particularly nasty suspect gives the police a run for its money; police burner Truls Berntsen and his crony Mikael Bellman are up to their old dirty tricks once more and through it all, things get really twisty as the book comes to a startling conclusion.  I swear -- for once it was me, rather than the characters, who became angst ridden over how this was all going to play out -- my insides were churning waiting to see a) who the killer was and why he/she did what he/she did and b) how much nastier Bellman and Berntsen could possibly get while continuing to manipulate things behind the scenes.  And through it all, you will be kept wondering and guessing.

I don't care what anyone says, I LOVED this book! I know I say this a lot about Nesbø's books,  but this just might be my favorite of the entire series. It is  twisty and turny, frightening and unrelenting in the tension it managed to produce in my insides, and it is truly Nesbø at his writing best.  If you're new to the most excellent work of Jo Nesbø  you may wish to start at the very beginning and make your way forward through the series, as each book builds on what comes before;  if you don't want to take that much time, at least read the novel prior to this one, Phantom.  Highly, highly recommended!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Erlendur returns! Strange Shores, by Arnaldur Indridason

Harvill Secker, 2013
originally published as Furðustrandir, 2010
translated by Victoria Cribb

296 pp


"...part of him would forever belong to this place, a witness to the helplessness of the individual when confronted by the pitiless forces of nature."

Each time a new novel by Arnaldur Indridason is published, I refuse to wait until it's been published in the US and so I go straight to Amazon UK to get my copy. Expensive? Yes. Do I care? No.  Arnaldur Indridason is among the few Scandinavian crime fiction writers I still read since a lot (not all) of what's been coming out lately in that area seems to be a mix of crime, romance and badass chick-lit; he's also up there on my list of favorite all-time crime writers as well.  I've been following the series since it started, well, at least since book three, Jar City, which was the first of the Erlendur series novels to be translated into English.  There are two before Jar City, and according to stopyourekillingme.com, there are two more to come after Strange Shores: one, The Match, listed as a prequel, set in 1972, the other with the title Reykjavik Nights.  Strange Shores is easily one of Indridason's best books in the series, and at the same time, perhaps one of the saddest of them all.

If you've followed the entire Erlendur saga, the last time anyone in Reykjavik saw him was during the events of Hypothermia, a case that had stirred up Erlendur's memories of his brother's death in the mountains of Eskifjördur, near to where they'd grown up.  The end of that novel reveals that Erlendur had returned to the "derelict farm that had once been his home;" as Strange Shores begins, he's still there, camped out comfortably in the old croft at Bakkasel.  It's a place he's returned to now and then, "when he felt the urge."  It's a place where he can relive his memories about the day he lost his brother and the reason for the guilt he's carried with him ever since.  As the novel opens, Erlendur is out  walking one day and  runs into a farmer who's an expert on foxes. While they're talking, the farmer tells Erlendur that he had been part of the search party who'd gone to search for Erlandur's brother,  who had gone missing in a blizzard after becoming separated from Erlendur.   He also happens to mention that during the war, a group of sixty British soldiers had also become caught in a storm on the moors, an event that people still remember. What people don't seem to talk about any longer, however, is the disappearance in the same storm of Matthildur, a young woman who had supposedly gone off on foot across the moors to visit her mother in a neighboring town, and caught in the storm,  was never seen nor heard from again.  Talking to her sister  Hrund, Erlendur notes that he has a personal interest in "stories about ordeals in the wilderness,"  and wants to know more about what had happened. As he gets wrapped up in  Matthildur's story,  as his curiosity morphs into a private investigation, and as he continues on his quest, he begins to realize that perhaps there are some people who would rather that he stop dredging up the past. Even as he questions his decisions to move forward, wondering why he should "rake up what was better left undisturbed," he knows he's not going to stop:

  "his sole intention was to uncover the truth in every case, to track down what was lost and forgotten."

As in many of Indridason's Erlendur novels,  Strange Shores dwells largely on the past, and in this book, the Inspector's quest to "track down what was lost" leads him not only to uncover information about Matthildur, but about his brother and himself in the process.  And while regular fans may not like the ending of this novel at all, imho,  it is quite fitting in terms of Erlendur's character -- and offers a sense of completeness to what he's been looking for throughout most of his life.  

Even considering the feelings I have about the ending of this book, it is truly one of Indridason's best, a book no crime fiction reader following this series should miss.  It is the most poignant of the entire series, the most beautifully written, and trust me, one you will not soon forget. Regular readers of Indridason's series know that Erlendur has always been more comfortable with tradition, and that as things have changed around him he's been less than willing to embrace the new and frankly, in some cases, really doesn't understand it. Here, he's in his element, as he is enveloped by the past. At the same time,  Indridason continues his critique of social and other changes, this time regarding the advent of new industry, the building of a new and controversial hydroelectric dam, and work going to lower-paid immigrants, giving voice to his concerns through Erlendur:
"He couldn't understand how on earth an unaccountable multinational, based far away in America, had been permitted to put its heavy industrial stamp on a tranquil ford and tract of untouched wilderness here in the remote east of Iceland."
Do not, under any circumstances, let this be your introduction to Erlendur.  Start with Jar City, and make your way through the series slowly, savoring every second. This isn't a series even remotely close to thriller-ville like a lot of crime writing, nor is it filled with fast-paced action or badass women.  If that's what you want in your Scandinavian crime, go for it, but you won't get that here.  This series is highly intelligent, sophisticated, and is one to be savored.

crime fiction from Iceland

Friday, September 27, 2013

Ruin Value, by J. Sydney Jones

Mysterious Press/Open Road, 2013
302 pp

available October 1

advanced reader copy/Kindle, offered through Netgalley  (thanks!)

"...faced with certain unbearable facts, one tends to take refuge in the absurd." 

J. Sydney Jones is a new author for me, but he's already written two historical crime novels set in Vienna just after the turn of the century.   Ruin Value is a novel of historical crime fiction/thriller/suspense, set in Nuremberg on the eve of the trials.  It's a good read, and it's obvious that the author has devoted a good amount of time to research that he has woven into his story to create a realistic sense of both time and place.

The story begins in November, 1945, as journalists are flocking to Nuremberg to cover the trials.  On the ruined streets of the city, someone has murdered a Russian corporal, and the murderer has left behind a strange calling card -- a page from a novel with certain words underlined.  The corporal had a pocket filled with drugs, possibly destined for the black market. The murder is handed over to the Kripo (criminal investigation division of the German Police) run by Chief Inspector Reinhard Manhof, who got his job when former Chief Inspector Werner Beck, a political prisoner during the war, returned to discover he'd been denounced for collaboration with the Gestapo and was imprisoned again.   When a second murder occurs, same m.o., this time an American soldier, the American powers that be decide that they need to bring in someone of their own and choose Nate Morgan, an intelligence agent and former New York detective.  If he doesn't solve the case, well, at least his failure would have fingers pointing squarely at him, and he is Jewish -- the "perfect flak jacket."   Manhof and Morgan do not get along, but Nate is too good a cop to let their mutual dislike get in the way.   After a third murder, Morgan realizes he's going to need some help with this case, so he turns to the imprisoned Beck, who agrees to help.  Beck helps Nate round up several people who could be helpful with the case, which seems to be leading the investigation in the direction of  either black market connections or a German resistance group called Werwolves.   Beck suspects that perhaps the murders are tied to the trial somehow, but as more bodies pile up,  the people in charge make it known to Morgan that nothing can get in the way of this historic event.  Morgan has orders to keep the murders out of the paper, but there's a journalist who seems to be very interested in the story -- and also in Morgan. With very little to go on, Morgan and Beck do their best, but discover that every time they seem to make progress, someone is one step ahead of them, thwarting them at every turn.

Ruin Value is a good book, and if this is going to be the start of another series, I'd definitely read the next one.  As I noted, it's rich in setting and the crime is well plotted. The importance of the Nuremberg Trials is spelled out in several places so the reader gets a sense of history in the making, even before it gets underway.   The suspense kept me turning pages, but here's the issue -- the suspense didn't come from trying to figure out who the killer was because well, frankly, it was really obvious early on in the story.  Now that I've got that out of the way, what kept me turning pages was whether or not Beck and Morgan were going to figure out who was actually running the show, and as things unfolded, the author did a good job of keeping that under wraps so that I was actually surprised when all was revealed -- I never suspected a thing. Morgan and Beck, their informants and the people they enlisted to help them were well drawn and believable, while the villain whose identity I guessed not to far into the story less so -- coming off as a kind of stereotype of total gung-ho Teutonic naziness in human form. On the other hand, this person is one who totally fits the opening quote of this review:

"...faced with certain unbearable facts, one tends to take refuge in the absurd" 

so I suppose the character portrayal just might be appropriate after all.  However,  the motivation for this person's final deed just didn't fit with the rest of the story so I was a bit taken aback here.

All in all, however, I think this book will probably do well -- it's perfect for  readers of  historical crime fiction who like mysteries set in immediate postwar Europe and for readers who might be looking for a new crime writer who can whip up a good plot and keep it going consistently throughout the book. My thanks to Emma at Open Road for offering to let me read this one ahead of time.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Treasure Hunt, by Andrea Camilleri

Penguin, 2013
originally published as La caccia al tesoro,  2010
translated by (who else!) Stephen Sartarelli

278 pp

"... it wasn't a fiction, but a reality, though a reality so absurd as to be very nearly a fiction."

When I opened this book yesterday afternoon, I knew that everything else on the planet would just have to wait because it was going to be my best friend for the next few hours. I even got up at 4:30 this morning to finish it because I wanted absolutely no noise, no interruptions, no nothing to come between me and the latest exploits of Inspector Salvo Montalbano.  For me mystery series come and they go; sometimes I might try one or two before I beg off and move on looking for something better than the last -- but Camilleri's Montalbano novels are among my favorite books in my crime fiction library, not so much for their "whodunit" quality or for the crimes contained between their covers, but because of the people in these books.  I've been with Montalbano and his crew since the beginning, so by now, in my head,  they've become sort of like old friends.  Treasure Hunt marks the 16th installment of this fantastic series, and it made me laugh out loud through much of the first half.  While the actual crime solving feels like laziness on Camilleri's part (or so it seems to me), the novel is filled with all of the familiar components that make these novels consistently unique and a pleasure to read. 

One day in the midst of a calm season for crime, criminals, and the cops,  there's something new in Vigàta for all and sundry to see -- a banner hanging off of an apartment balcony belonging to Gregorio and Caterina Pamisano, "a couple of senile old dotards who happen to be religious fanatics,"  telling sinners to repent.  A week later, another banner appears warning sinners that these "dotards" will punish them.  As the third week rolls around, the cops take notice, or at least Montalbano, when a third banner warns


Salvo takes it seriously enough to order a municipal policeman to remove the banners.  Not a good idea -- the residents, indeed two elderly siblings who are extremely religious -- start shooting at the cop.  Down below, people are getting out of the way, as the shooters start to rain gunfire on the crowd.  The arrival of a fire truck  equipped with a long ladder allows Salvo to gain entry, and soon the situation is under control. The siblings are taken into custody, the elderly sister looking "as if she'd just stepped out of a horror novel," but there are more disturbing things found in the apartment, among them a "decrepit"  inflatable doll laying in the brother's bed. It had lost some hair, "was missing an eye, had one deflated tit and little circles and rectangles of gray rubber scattered all over its body."  As the author notes, "For a horror film, it wasn't a bad beginning."  After everything's taken care of there, things slide back into crimeless tedium until later the police receive a call about a body in a dumpster which turns out to be another inflatable doll, identical to the one found earlier in the shooters' creepy apartment, down to the the little patches all over its body.  While Salvo's busy trying to figure out what's going on, he remembers a letter he'd received and stuffed in a pocket, marked "Treasure Hunt" on the outside of the envelope.  At first, it seems like a good diversion from the sheer ennui of waiting for something to happen,  but soon things begin to go from "curious" to deadly serious, leading Salvo to realize that the treasure hunt may not be such a big joke after all.

Let me just get on with the negative bit first.  Actually, there's only one, having to do with the real crime in this book, but sadly, if I say why this part is a disappointment,  I'll give away the show so I really can't discuss it.  Okay, I'm being purposely vague, but someone may thank me later. Or maybe not. If you're a serious crime fiction reader, you'll hit on the problem in no time.

The opening of the novel sets the tone for the rest of the book --  here not so much with the action scenes, but via the whole play on horror film/novel scenarios, beginning with the inside of the Palmisano's apartment.  The crosses, the other rooms of bizarre things including a piano-playing rat in the darkness, the appearances of the brother and sister, the inflatable doll and Gregorio's reaction to Montalbano's examination of the doll on his bed all conjure up creepy images one would expect to find in a movie or book destined to be the stuff of nightmare, perfect for a dark and stormy night.   Yet as Montalbano tries to come to terms with the fact that he seems to be the only one of his men unnerved by the experience, he also understands that what he saw "wasn't a fiction, but a reality, though a reality so absurd as to be very nearly a fiction."  As events progress throughout the story, the reader will realize exactly how appropriate his thought turns out to be.

Even though the crime's solution may be nothing to write home about, as I'm so fond of saying, the crime solving and the actual police work is not really why I love and continue to read these novels -- it's all about the people, the places, and the writing, and above all, Inspector Montalbano, who manages to find himself in the strangest situations.  The first part of the book  is filled with laugh-out-loud funny scenes involving Salvo's handling of the two inflatable dolls, as well as a running gag about them being discovered by different people.  There are the usual snarky references to ongoing social and political issues in Italy, even down to why the criminals seem to be taking time off.  Livia and Salvo have words, the crew at the police station are once again in fine form, and Salvo's age is once again the focal point of ongoing worries that spark conversations between Montalbano One and Montalbano Two.  Ever present through each and every novel -- and Treasure Hunt is no exception --  is  Salvo's ongoing love affair with mouth-watering local cuisine, and Camilleri's seemingly effortless ability to drop the reader right into the Sicilian landscape.

Treasure Hunt is just one more book in an already excellent series of sixteen (there are more, but they haven't yet been translated); if you're reading this book for the crime plot it may feel a bit disappointing, but true fans will still find a lot to love here. As usual, my advice is to not start with book sixteen -- each book builds on the other so go back and start at the beginning. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

A Crack in the Wall, by Claudia Pineiro

Bitter Lemon Press, 2013
originally published as Las grietas de Jara, 2009
translated by Miranda France
 218 pp


"The lack of underpinning caused structural collapse, which then set off a series of movements causing the ground to shift..."

I absolutely love Claudia Piñeiro's writing and this time she's outdone herself. A Crack in the Wall is absolutely superb.  The only bad thing about Piñeiro's books is that there aren't more coming out in rapid succession.   Let me just say up front that while this isn't simply a novel of crime fiction per se, the crime that does occur has a great deal to do with the rest of the story.  Metaphorically, this is a story about a man whose personal and moral ground undergoes a seismic shift, leading him to decide to  "rediscover something that, until recently, he didn’t even realize he had lost."

Set in Buenos Aires in 2007,  this very character-driven novel focuses on architect Pablo Simó, who works in a dead-end job.  He's been there for more than twenty years, and has never made it to a higher level in his career the entire time. At the office, when he's not working, he spends time drawing the same eleven-story tower over and over again -- a building he would make real if he could, and not "on the rubble of something else,"  the modern reality in Buenos Aires, where land is simply not available, and old buildings have to come down for the new ones to go up.  It is also an old city that is being transformed as profit margin starts edging out the old for the new.   As an example, Pablo loves to go to a particular café where
"the same waiters have been toiling for years, shouting their orders over to the bar with enviable brio, and where there are white cloths over the wooden tables and old-fashioned glass sugar-shakers with metal spoons,"
and hates the chain that's been "scattering identikit cafés throughout the city."

Pablo's firm specializes in cheap housing;  the owner is Borla, and there is also Marta, who has a thing going with her married boss. Pablo is married to Laura, has a teenaged daughter Francisca, and his life is very routine.  He also spends a lot of time conversing with an old friend Tano, whom he hasn't seen for a while, in his head -- Tano is also an architect, and their "conversations" are like a dialogue where Pablo engages with his conscience.  Into the office one day,  one that Pablo "had always feared might one day come to pass," comes a young, 20-something woman named Leonor asking for Nelson Jara.  Her visit shakes them all up, because they know where Nelson Jara is, and they don't want to think about it. In fact, they've spent the last three years trying not to think about Nelson Jara, a man who'd come into the office to complain about a crack in the wall of his apartment.  He claims that construction of a building that Borla's company is working on is causing the crack, and he shows Pablo some photos that prove how the crack has progressed.   Pablo does his best to convince Jara otherwise, but he's not listening.  Eventually Jara gets down to the nitty gritty:
"...there may be a structural problem here that ends up affecting other apartments too, and my silence has got to be worth something, don't you think?"
Jara starts to get under Pablo's skin, but not just because of the money or the extortion attempt --  Pablo recognizes he too has a crack, one that, like the one on Jara's wall, has been widening for some time.  This notion hits him most especially before a trip around the city with Leonor, who has asked him to pick "the city's five most beautiful buildings, according to the architect Pablo Simó" for a photography course assignment. An imagined conversation with Tano reminds him that he used to be a person with ideals, making him wonder where that other person is now.  His growing awareness of the crack in the wall dividing who he is and who he knows he can be spreads out to other areas of his life as well, encompassing the realization that his life over the last twenty years has been one consisting largely of compromise -- moral and otherwise.

A Crack in the Wall is an excellent novel, one that will satisfy readers of  more literary-styled crime fiction, but it rises well above the usual fare, as do all of her books. There's so much going on in this book that's beyond great in terms of the writing, and kudos to the translator as well.   In all of her novels, Claudia Piñeiro has this way of getting into private lives and exposing the cracks that exist there, personally and within various types of relationships, bringing her characters to a point where they're forced to examine themselves. If that sort of thing appeals, you can't ask for a better book.  Very highly recommended.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Another stunning work featuring a historical crime -- Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent

(reposted from the literary side of my online reading journal)

While this book definitely falls on the literary side of things, it's also a book about a crime that really happened in Iceland in the late 1820s.  If you are so inclined, it's a wonderful novel that focuses on a murder that led to the last execution in Iceland in 1830.

*Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent -- a definite yes!

Little, Brown and Company, 2013
314 pp

pre-release edition from Little, Brown/Hachette, thank you!

Funny thing about this incredible novel -- I preordered it eons ago, and was eagerly awaiting its arrival, and then out of the total blue, the mailman who hates me for getting so many books every day drops this one on my front porch  just last week.  Then, I wander over to Book Passage to see what the Signed First Editions Book Club entry is for this month, and it's (ta-da!) Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent.

The dustjacket description of this lovely novel of historical fiction doesn't quite do it justice. Burial Rites is based on true events that happened in Iceland in 1828, when  Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jónsson were both murdered at Ketilsson's farm in North Iceland.  Agnes Magnúsdóttir and Friðrik Sigurðsson were charged with the crimes and sentenced to be executed by Ketilsson's brother.  There was a third person involved, Sigríður Guðmundsdóttir, who was also arrested, sentenced to death but then had her sentence commuted to life in prison. Agnes was first held at Stóra-Borg, and then the authorities moved her to Kornsá, where she stayed with a family until she was taken to be executed in January of 1830.   According to the author's note, some of the historical accounts of Agnes Magnúsdóttir view her as "an inhumane witch, stirring up murder," but in Burial Rites, Kent sets out to provide Agnes with a more "ambiguous portrayal."  While the blurb inside the cover gives you a taste of the story to come, it doesn't begin to cover just how good a writer Hannah Kent really is.  She has filled this book with so much more than the story of a murder.  Through her excellent use of language,  she brings out  how nature, the seasons, and the Icelandic landscape not only defined the way that people lived and survived in this time and in this place,  but also how people were often left helpless, stranded and in the dark when nature was less than cooperative.  Above all, her writing brings out the psychological damage caused by isolation, loneliness and abandonment in an unforgiving environment.  If I had to describe this book in one word it would be this one:  haunting.

Agnes Magnúsdóttir, abandoned at an early age,  spent most of her life moving farm to farm, working as a servant. As the novel opens, she has been sentenced to die along with two others for her part in  killing two men at a farm along the sea in Northern Iceland. She'd been kept in irons and chains at the first place after her trial, but then the District Commissioner decided she should be moved to the farm of Kornsá to spend her last days, and the family will be compensated for taking her in.   The family at Kornsá is shaken by the news; Margrét, the farmer's wife, protests that she does not want to share her home with "the Devil's children."  As Agnes comes to her final home, it upsets the family dynamic, but Margrét puts her foot down, telling Agnes that she will be put to work, and if there is any "violence, lazing, cheek, idleness" or theft, Agnes is gone. A young assistant reverend, Thorvardur Jónsson  nicknamed Tóti, also receives official word --  he will be Agnes' spiritual advisor during her final days of life, and is urged to get Agnes to repent and confess before she dies.Tóti, who is inexperienced and counseled by his father not to take Agnes on, becomes the vehicle through which Agnes first starts to unspool her tale, and the rest of the book takes the reader through Agnes' story  from her childhood through the fateful day at the farm of Illugastadir, and on to Agnes' last day of life.  Each chapter begins with some form of real official document, or a poem, or in one case, an Icelandic saga, all of which have relevance to what's happening in that particular section.

Alternating voices, dreams and portents, superstitions, haunting imagery, and seasonal routines also help to shape this story.  It is filled with descriptions of the rhythms of farm life, from communal harvesting and slaughter to living in cramped quarters in a turf-walled croft.  But standing above everything that the author writes about is the way she writes it.  It's a book that didn't let go of  me until the very end, and even then I wasn't finished thinking about what I'd just read. You may be tempted to zip through it for the murder story, but don't.  Definitely recommendedConsidering that Burial Rites is the author's first novel, it is highly intelligent, sophisticated, and a novel that readers across the spectrum will enjoy.
 fiction from Australia

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Sandrine's Case, by Thomas H. Cook

Mysterious Press, 2013
341 pp


"...scar tissue does not feel." 

Perhaps I shouldn't just automatically go lumping Sandrine's Case into the category of crime fiction. I suppose it could be labeled as "courtroom drama," as noted on a back-cover blurb, but in my head that brings to mind something à la John Grisham, which this book is most definitely not. No, this one is tough to pigeonhole, so I won't even try.  In this novel,  by one of my favorite writers, the reader doesn't even know if there has even been a crime, although the majority of the action takes place in a courtroom where the central character is on trial for his wife's murder.  It's a bit of a teaser -- throughout the story, it's impossible to come to any sort of conclusion about whether or not the main character is guilty; if you think, "yes, he did it," then there's something to lead you in the other direction; the same is true if you make up your mind that he's not guilty.  While this is a very clever strategy to keep the reader turning pages, it's really all about what the defendant in this case learns about himself along the way that is the big payoff -- and it's not pretty.  Not at all. 

Samuel Madison is a professor at Coburn, a small college in a town by the same name. He is a most odious person, filled with contempt for his job, the town, the "eternally mediocre students," and the people who live there.  He feels like he's in a vise, "tightening every day."  He's been writing the same book for years.  When he is arrested for the murder of his wife Sandrine, it becomes pretty obvious to him that the people of Coburn don't much like him either. While sitting in court surveying his jury, it also seems that these twelve people had a sense of hostility toward him, and that they despised him, because after all, wasn't it
"... windy professors as myself who'd poisoned their children with atheism or socialism or worse, who'd infused their previously unsullied minds with dreamy fantasies of changing the world or writing a great novel, while at the same time teaching them not one skill by which they might later find employment and thus avoid returning to their parents' homes to sit sullenly in front of the television, boiling with unrealizable hopes?"
He'd noticed "hostility" toward him by the people of Coburn  before Sandrine's death, but after the media frenzy surrounding the case and most especially Sandrine herself, he felt even more resented, to the point where he saw in the jurors' faces that along with the murder charge, the real reason he was on trial was for being "me."  He'd had an affair.  He'd picked up Sandrine's prescriptions for the Demerol that had caused her death. He'd been callous to the neighbors.  He'd argued with his wife.  His attitude doesn't help -- his attorney has to remind him to keep his snide comments to himself ("that's just the kind of smart-ass remark that can put a rope around your neck..." ) and to try to work on his cold-fish demeanor in front of the jury.  On their last night together, Sandrine had called him a sociopath; even his daughter has her doubts and is often surprised at the things he says over the course of the trial.  Slowly the testimony begins to reveal more about Sam than anyone knew -- except for Sandrine.

Sandrine's Case is very well written; even the title was well chosen.  The continuous "he's guilty"/"he's not guilty" dialogue running through my head kept the reading lively; when Mr. Cook throws in a new angle that causes Sam to be paranoid, it's so plausible that it adds another level to the ongoing question of his guilt or innocence, and another level of reader interest.  The novel is very much character driven, and the author has created a believable main character in Sam, a very unlikeable and "hollow" man who sneers at everyone and everything he feels worthy of his contempt. Structurally, the story is revealed day-by-day in court, through witness testimony and Sam's own thoughts while he is in his own head. The most viable person, however, is actually the deceased Sandrine -- the author reveals her personality most clearly throughout the novel, and the reader can't help but to be drawn to her.   There's very little not to like about this book, with the exception of the sort of sappy-toned page of an ending that I never expected.  I can see why Mr. Cook put this in, but my personal feeling is that it didn't belong and that the book might have been better without it. 

I loved the author's The Crime of Julian Wells, and while Sandrine's Case didn't have the same level of edginess as that one, Sandrine's Case is also a very good, intense read -- maybe  a bit light for fans of noir, a bit slow for readers who like a lot of action, and a bit on the heavy side for cozy readers. However, if you are at all into the literary side of crime writing, or if you're a reader who cares more for good writing than plot,  Sandrine's Case will most definitely not let you down. 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Black is back -- with Holy Orders, the latest Quirke novel

 Henry Holt, 2013
304 pp

Thanks to Librarything's early reviewers' program, I received a copy of this book from the publisher -- my many thanks!

Black (the pseudonym of John Banville) is back with installment number six in his Quirke series, and before I launch into what I think about this novel, just a quick announcement: Gabriel Byrne is the BBC's Quirke in a new television series, which I'll be eagerly awaiting here in the US when it decides to come our way.  Click here to get a  sneak peek, thanks to byrneholics.com. Now back to his latest book, Holy Orders, which has just been released here.  In this book, along with the five others in the series (Vengeance being the one just prior to Holy Orders),  the crime and its solution are not really the novel's central focus -- it's really  Benjamin Black's high-caliber writing and especially his characterizations that keep me reading and waiting for the next series installment.  Black is truly one of the most literary crime-fiction writers out there with a knack for establishing an atmosphere of time and place; he is also able to get his readers into the heads of his characters from the very outset and keep them there throughout the story.  In terms of literary crime writing, the Quirke series is my ultimate favorite.

A trysting couple take a walk along the towpath by a canal and see a body wedged in between the canal wall and a barge.  The Guards are sent for, and it isn't long until the body winds up in Quirke's morgue at Holy Family Hospital.  Quirke doesn't see it until the next morning, and when he pulls back the sheet, he is surprised to find the body is that of Jimmy Minor, a reporter for the Clarion and friend of Quirke's daughter Phoebe.  Minor had suffered severe beatings before being dumped into the water.  The case is inspected by Inspector Hackett, who enlists Quirke's help.  This setup is nothing new;  Hackett and Quirke have teamed up before.  A clue surfaces early during a search of Minor's apartment, a letter from the Fathers of the Holy Trinity in Rathfarnham, but just why Jimmy wanted to talk to one of their priests is a complete mystery.   At the Clarion, Jimmy's editor remembers that Jimmy had recently been to Tallaght on a trip in connection with a local group of Tinkers (Irish Travellers).   In the meantime, Phoebe, who thinks she's being followed, gets a surprise of her own from Jimmy's past.  As Quirke investigates, he has to deal with his own issues, most importantly, his health, both mental and physical.

The action takes place in 1950s Dublin, where it's always raining and where the Catholic church controls pretty much everything. The press is no exception; here, for example, the Church resorts to a "belt of the crozier," a form of financial blackmail, to keep unwanted stories out of a newspaper.  It's an Ireland
"hidebound by rules and regulations formulated in the corridors and inner chambers of the Vatican and handed down...as if graven on tablets of stone."
As Quirke tells Phoebe, it's a place of two worlds, the one that he and Phoebe and "all the other poor idiots think we live in, and the real one, behind the illusion," where people behind the scenes run and control things, "keeping the meat grinder going." Quirke realizes he has a foot in each world -- in fact, throughout this novel there is a lot of duality -- twins, reality and hallucination, city people and country people, clergy and everyone else, heart and soul, past and present.

All Hallows' College, 1950s Dublin, courtesy of historyireland.com
 As always, Black's characterizations are intense, especially with Quirke. He's always dealing with people telling him how uncaring, cruel and cold he is, but for one thing, he can't shake his past, "where he had been most unhappy."  As the investigation progresses, and Quirke finds himself at the home of the Fathers of the Holy Trinity, he realizes that the past abuses he'd suffered, "body and soul," do not allow him to think "calmly or clearly" when it comes to the clergy.  For another thing, he's worked with the dead long enough, having "sectioned them out and delved into their innards," wondering now if he'd chosen his profession to get nearer to "the heart of the mystery," a secret which ultimately the dead do not yield.  While Quirke waxes existential about being and not being, daughter Phoebe is also struggling with her own emotions and comes into her own as a real person.  

What I really love about this entire series of novels, and what is made very much apparent in Holy Orders, is that the crimes take a back seat to how they affect everyone left behind in their wake.  Black wanders through everyone in Jimmy Minor's orbit, exploring the newspaper where he worked, the people investigating his death,  his friends, his family, etc., all converging into a photo of sorts of a specific time and place that Benjamin Black portrays so very well with his writing. I love his use of natural imagery & symbolism  (plants, birds, water) throughout the story, and the atmosphere he creates is sustained until the very end.  The issues he writes about that take place in the 1950s are also relevant in our modern world -- but I'll leave you to discover what I mean.

The Quirke series as a whole is excellent; Holy Orders continues that trend.  It takes the normal flow of the series and adds something different to it.  I can't say what goes on here in too much detail, but once you read it, you'll understand why.  I will say that this book is definitely not a  mainstream novel of crime fiction for a number of reasons -- most especially the characters, who, for the most part, are complicated and if you haven't read the earlier books in this series, starting here is not a good idea. It also trends more to the literary side rather than to straight-up crime writing, a style that may not be to other crime readers' tastes.  However, I can definitely say that if you want something way out of the ordinary, you will certainly get that in the books by Benjamin Black.

crime fiction from Ireland

afterthought: I bought a real copy for my home library, so if you live in the US and would like this ARC, it needs a home! I'll pay to get it to you.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

traveling back through time -- the 1930s and an homage to the original Black Mask magazine: Jerry Tracy, Celebrity Reporter, by Theodore Tinsley

my e-copy from netgalley, at the invitation of the publishers.  Thank you so much!

In just a few days  from now (8/27),  Open Road Media plans to release an ebook  collection of stories called Jerry Tracy, Celebrity Reporter: Smashing Detective Stories by Thedore A. Tinsley.  This particular ebook is just the beginning of a series planned by Open Road Media/Mysterious Press,  an homage of sorts to the old Black Mask crime magazine.  Along with Tinsley, upcoming authors in the series are Paul Cain, Norbert Davis, and Steve Fisher.  Now that my appetite has been whetted by Jerry Tracy,  I foresee much more Black Mask noir in my near future.

I'd never heard of either  Theodore (Ted) Tinsley or Jerry Tracy before I was invited to request this book from netgalley, but it didn't take long after starting this book of 25 stories (the last few reaching novella length) before I realized that I was in my crime fiction happy zone.  Reading these little gems is about as inwardly satisfying as stretching out on my sofa and watching  old black and white noir films late at night, one of my all-time favorite pastimes.  Not only are the stories good, but behind all of the crime, Tinsley introduces his modern-day readers to a Depression-era New York.  He sends his hero all over the city -- into the seedy tenements of the poor and the high-rise penthouse apartments of the wealthy (or their "luscious" mistresses),  into gimmicky night clubs and streets run by the kingpins of the criminal world,
"...past the black carcasses of department stores and furniture warehouses. Over towards the Hudson, towards the strings of rickety and condemned tenements that only a cycle of depression years had saved from the pick axes and rubbish chutes of the house wreckers."
 It's also a New York  where a wrong word in a newspaper gossip column can ruin careers or individuals  and can serve as a motive for murder -- or at least payback. 

Jerry Tracy works as a columnist at New York's Daily Planet.  In the book's introduction, Boris Dralyuk notes that Tracy is a fictional counterpart to Walter Winchell. Tracy  "packs a mean punch and can handle a Remington pistol as skillfully as he can a Remington typewriter. "  He writes out of an office overlooking "the helter and skelter of Times Square," and although the country is in the thick of the Depression, he earns a "princely salary" to keep the dirt flowing for the million Planet customers who would stop buying without his column.  He lives in a penthouse with a Chinese servant named McNulty, his  "butler, major-domo, conscience and guide," and  has a big-lug sidekick named Butch.  Tracy wears other hats as well -- over the years, the police have profited from his keen detective skills, as he often passed along info good enough to give him an in with Inspector Fitzgerald, the "Gruff Guy in Centre Street."  He is tough on crime and feels that parole is too easy, the product of "an easy-going system that got sentimental and forgiving as the years rolled by. "   Tracy is tough as nails on the outside and can deal with the worst crooks and the toughest dames on the New York streets, but inside he can be as soft as a marshmallow when his sense of injustice is piqued -- especially when it comes to old friends or women in distress.  He knows everyone from hotel desk clerks to elevator operators, from taxi drivers to the owners of swank clubs with names like "The Pom-Pom," "Club Espaňol," or "Club Humpty Dumpty", many of whom are his friends and help him out with information from time to time.

 There are way too many cases in this book to discuss separately, and while they're all good, my favorites involve:

1)   an old man from the South looking for his missing granddaughter
2)   an invitation for Jerry to attend a dinner party at the home of strangers that no one remembers sending to our illustrious hero
3)    a mysterious theater ticket for a particular seat that a lot of people seem interested in
4)    a five-dollar bill that some people would kill for
5)    the World's Fair and a  "fake scandal photo" taken by a rival columnist that just might put our hero out of business

Something bound to pop up in readers' minds while reading is the author's use of racial slurs or, as in the case of Tracy's manservant McNulty, ridiculous pidgin' English and stereotypical Charlie-Chan type "me-likee" kind of language.   Let me just say that while modern readers may be offended, or as in my case very much  taken aback,  these stories were written a very long time ago and this sort of stuff was part of the everyday vernacular.  Try not to judge these parts too harshly -- things were very different 80 years ago. 

Overall, though, Tinsley's story telling,  the New York setting and Jerry Tracy himself make for hours of excellent reading -- this is probably a book where you want to read a few stories at a time, put down your reader and come back to the stories later in small bits so you can savor every second.  Highly, highly recommended for people who enjoy classic crime fiction and want to discover a new author -- or for people starting to cut their teeth on pulp or noir crime.  Super duper good and a real treasure.

You can watch a short little video with Otto Penzler speaking about  Black Mask Magazine below:

I did a bit of digging, and found an old (black-and-white of course!) movie based on Tinsley's hero: "Murder is News." I'll definitely be watching!

Friday, August 16, 2013

PBS Mystery coming up this weekend: The Lady Vanishes, by Ethel Lina White

The Lady Vanishes is one of my very favorite books, one I read eons ago and have just pulled out for a reread. It's not going to happen before Sunday -- I'm working really hard right now on a VERY long collection of Depression-era pulp stories for netgalley and Open Road Media (review to come shortly).  Anyway, I just got my usual "here's what's coming up" email from PBS and there's a very cool trailer that was part of the email.  Oh my gosh -- this looks so good! 

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

traveling back through time -- the 1920s and The Red House Mystery, by A. A. Milne

Methuen, Fourteenth edition,
originally published 1922

"Whatever else this case was, it was not ordinary.  There was something uncanny about it."

The Goodreads Mystery, Crime and Thriller group  announced The Red House House Mystery as one of its group reads for July, so remembering that I had a copy in the British Reading Room, I dug it out and joined the discussion.  It's not a very active or lively one, but at least a few people are enjoying it.  My copy is super old, from the 30s, one I found perusing the local books/antique store near my house and bought for a dollar.   It's not a bad read -- a country-house, locked-room sort of thing,  lots of red herrings, two amateurs playing at Holmes and Watson and an ending that I sort of guessed but not really.  It's also one of those books where you have to make yourself get through the first few chapters, but after that you'll encounter pretty smooth sailing.  

Antony (Tony) Gillingham, the less important son of a privileged family,  came into an inheritance at 21, and decided to see the world -- through its people. Now at age 30, he has decided to go and visit a friend,  Bill Beverley, whom he met earlier while working at a tobacconist's shop.  Bill, it seems, is a guest at a house party at Mark Ablett's Red House, and Antony decides to go and see him. As it turns out, he arrives just in time for a murder -- that of Robert Ablett, Mark's "wastrel" brother from Australia who had just recently arrived.  Everyone else is asked to leave; Bill and Antony stay on at the house until the inquest with Mark's cousin and protégé Matthew Cayley.  Having time on his hands, and "wanting a new profession," Antony decides that becoming a "private sleuthhound," and "being Sherlocky" are just the ticket, and tags Bill as his ever-faithful Watson. Anthony's already got the murderer pegged, but how he/she did it is another question altogether. While Bill sees it as a Sherlockian lark, Tony sometimes finds the going tough:
"Of course, it's very hampering being a detective, when you don't know anything about detecting, and when nobody knows that you're doing detection, and you can't have people up to cross-examine them, and you have neither the energy nor the means to make proper inquiries; and, in short, when you're doing the whole thing in a thoroughly amateur, haphazard way."
Now here, refreshingly, is a character who understands his limitations -- and  the possibility that he could be wrong about some things actually occurs to him from time to time.  Nevertheless, the two do a proper bit of sleuthing here, even if at times it seems as though they're playing at silly buggers. 

The amateur approach to crime solving here is interesting and I'm sure the author meant well, given his "passion for detective stories," but when it comes right down to it,  there are several PPIs (problematic plot issues)  that are really noticeable, especially for avid crime-reading junkies.   Still, it's a fun little mystery novel, and I have a secret fondness for stately English-manor mysteries, so I found it quite enjoyable -- more so for the two main characters and how they go about pretending to partake in a Sherlockian adventure than for the plot itself.  I also loved the introduction to this book, where Milne (yes, the Winnie-the-Pooh guy)

 talks about his "passion for detective stories," and his ideas about the elements of the perfect detective story.  I have to agree with him on most points.  Some readers may find the language a little stilted, but fans of crime writing during this era are used to it so it's not really that big of a deal.  If you're looking beyond Agatha Christie for a 1920s-period novel, you might enjoy this one.

classic mystery fiction from England

Thursday, July 25, 2013

an apocalypse is not a tea party: The Last Policeman and *Countdown City, by Ben Winters

"You're like a monster, dude...From a monster movie. The man who would not fucking quit."
---Countdown City

My mega apologies to author Ben Winters for waiting so  long to get to these books. I felt so guilty that even though the author sent me an ecopy of Countdown City,  I paid for a real-book copy to ease my conscience.  They have a unique premise -- a huge asteroid is about to fall out of the sky and life as we know it has changed for the worse, and a policeman steadfastly remains to do his duty, on and off the job.    As the time gets closer, civilization starts to slide toward chaos.  With the news of impending doom, a lot of people, including much of the police department in Concord, NH where this book is set,  have gone bucket list -- meaning that now that they know when it's all going to end, they'll spend their last days doing things they've always dreamed of  doing before they died.    Someone's got to care -- and that someone is Hank Palace, a relative newbie to the police force who has been promoted to detective, a move that ordinarily wouldn't have been possible in that short of a time.  Hank, nice guy that he is, has become "the last policeman."  In both books, the author asks his readers to consider "what it means to be civilized when civilization is collapsing all around you," a key point in trying to understand the main character of this series.

 In The Last Policeman, the first in a three-part series, the number of suicides around the world has skyrocketed since the upcoming asteroid crash was confirmed. In Concord,  many of them are by hanging.  So when a guy has been found dead with a belt

Quirk Books, 2012
316 pp

paper (my copy from the author -- thank you!)

around his neck in the men's room of a McDonald's, it seems like it's just another "hanger," but Hank doesn't think so. He thinks it's murder and wants to do a full investigation, even though his colleagues think he's wasting his time.  He plows ahead, but the resources formerly available to him as a detective are limited because of the impending doom, so he'll have to rely mainly on good old-fashioned detective work.  He's also got a sister to deal with, who comes to him because her husband has gone missing.   The question here is what spurs him on when the apocalypse is just around the corner -- what is it about this guy that compels him to do what he does? And how the heck does he stay so good when the rest of the world's starting to come unglued?

The investigation in this book is not so different than in any crime novel -- it's what's going on around the police work that makes for the best reading.  While global society is starting to unravel at its edges, in Concord, it's getting harder to find gas, cell phone signals and internet connections, but people are really clever.  They're also pretty afraid of getting arrested --  with new federal government laws in place that put people away for even minor offenses, no one wants to live out their last days in a jail cell. On top of that, inflation is hitting hard and businesses are closing left and right, sometimes to give employees more time with their families before the end.  For the people who still have jobs, keeping them is a financial must in preparing for the future.  Even the current entertainment defines the times: the ongoing top-rated show, Distant Glimmers, as Hank relates, adds a subtext filled with hope for survival.   And, as you might have guessed, conspiracy theories are rampant and organizations have sprung up,  filled with people who believe there's still hope if they act -- Hank's sister Nico among them.

Considering it's the first novel in a series, it's pretty darn good.  I like Hank, but I spent a lot of time wondering  how he keeps it all together while things are starting to fall apart. He's overly nice, an all-around good guy, less cynical than I'd expect, but whatever. The supporting characters are not as well developed as they probably could be, but that's pretty normal for a first-in-series novel.   I also found the predoom setting to be a really interesting backdrop for a police novel, but the book was overall less "apocalyptic noir" in tone than I'd hoped it was going to be.  The one thing I really didn't like (but understand the logic behind)  was the whole Nico plot --  where she gets involved in some "nonsense" regarding secretly-constructed bases on the dark side of the moon -- that gives these parts of the book more political conspiracy thriller-weighted moments that to me seemed unnecessary. 

If you are a fan of crossover novels, you'll have a sporting good time with this one, so I'd say give it a try, and definitely read this one before the second novel, Countdown City, which picks up with the asteroid

Quirk Books, 2013
316 pp


just 77 days away from its collision with our planet. As people try to prepare for the inevitable, the government has put Hank out of a job, as it has federalized the Concord Police Force. Investigative units are out -- "relatively unnecessary, given the current environment." The patrol units are amped up, but now everyone reports to the Justice Department. Hank takes early retirement after being on the job only a short time, but his unemployed status doesn't curb his desire to help others.  Countdown City is much more action packed than its predecessor, and I have a feeling that this volume might be the lynchpin between the first and the last novel in this series, getting everyone in place for what's to come.  

The situation is rapidly becoming hopeless as the world waits for the big crash.  The scientists have predicted that the asteroid will hit Indonesia or at least somewhere close, and American shores have been flooded with boats filled with people trying to escape "boomsday."  Electricity in Hank's neck of the woods is no more; people are getting "aftermath ready," hoarding food and water and "whole new forms of abrupt departure, new species of madness" are popping up everywhere. Scam artists are taking what money people have left.  Hank's sister is still involved in an "anti-asteroid conspiracy" group, one of several which have popped up, taking their theories very seriously.  In the midst of all of the craziness, Hank's childhood babysitter Martha is missing her husband, and calls on Hank for help.  Nice guy that he is, of course he can't turn her down, and despite the fact that his usual resources no longer exist, he forges ahead. 

from http://rt.com/news/paint-asteroid-earth-nasa-767/

 There are two main avenues being explored here -- first, the search for Martha's husband, which leads Hank down other investigative avenues, and the author's exploration of people's responses to downright dire  circumstances.  On one side, the litany of  people and their uncivilized behavior begins to get depressing, although it's fit into Hank's investigation well so that there's no in your faceness about it.  It's so realistic that after I finished this book one of my first thoughts was about all these weirdo people in real life who think a coming apocalypse could be a good thing -- and how they don't have a clue.  Both avenues tie very neatly together in this novel, to produce a heck of a setup for the final volume.  Some events were a little too neat, too pat, too deus ex machina,  though, sadly I can't say what those are so as not to spoil the show. So, yes, I recommend both novels -- especially to people of a dystopian bent where crime solving  is a big factor in the story.  These books are really out of the box -- a good thing.

so...when's volume three coming? I have to know what happens now -- you left me hanging!