Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Deadly Harvest, by Michael Stanley

Bourbon Street Books/Harper, 2013
496 pp

(ARC: thanks to the publisher and to TLC book tours!)

Deadly Harvest is book number four in a series of crime fiction/mystery novels to feature Detective David "Kubu" Bengu, who works for the Botswana police force. Normally I begin with the first installment of a series,  but I didn't realize that this book was so far ahead. As it turns out, its placement in the series wasn't an issue at all -- in fact, it can easily be read as a standalone, without any prior knowledge of the characters or the setting necessary.  So if you're considering it, and you haven't read the others, no problem.  The author, Michael Stanley, is actually a composite of two people: Stanley Trollip and Michael Sears, both born in Johannesburg, South Africa. 

Two little girls go missing in two different locations,  and when their loved ones turn to their local police forces, little to nothing happens.  Soon the cases go cold, at least officially, but one father named Witness can't stop thinking about his daughter. His grief leads him to the local bar where he spends a great deal of time drinking; and then to a local witch doctor who tells him that his daughter may have been taken for muti.  Normally extracted from plants or sometimes animals, the belief is that if a person ingests this traditional substance, he or she will take on some of the powers of the plant/animal being used (like a lion heart for bravery, etc.). However, there is also a market (illegal and definitely unsanctioned) for  muti derived from humans. Witness comes to believe that his daughter is a victim of this illegal muti trade, and he is told he should look for a man seeking power.  This advice makes Witness remember seeing candidate Marumo about the time of his daughter's disappearance,  a member of the opposition Freedom Party in an upcoming election.  Witness goes to Marumo's home in the dark of night, kills him and flees.  Don't worry -- not a spoiler -- this bit of information is right on the cover blurb. Kubu is assigned to the case, an investigation where he will have to tread extremely lightly due to political considerations. As it happens, a new detective, Samantha Khama is working on her first case which deals with  of one of the missing girls.  Their individual investigations merge together when a gourd filled with muti is found in Marumo's desk and ultimately reveal a unknown, deadly and "invisible" adversary who needs to be stopped.  Help, however, is not fast in coming -- their unidentified suspect is very powerful and no one will speak against him.

The mysteries within this police procedural  are engaging, but even more so are the social and political issues that are brought out here.  As I've noted previously in other posts,  crime fiction is becoming a medium for the airing of important issues, especially in countries with which most people are unfamiliar.   The discussion of prejudice against albinos, for example, and their value in Tanzania as a source of muti that breeds fear among that group of people goes way beyond the police procedural aspect, as does the line between traditional beliefs and modern viewpoints, a boundary which is often straddled by those on both sides.  It's also interesting that some things seem to be universal -- the politics involved in police work, the lack of enough police to adequately investigate crimes in smaller areas, the concern about AIDS and the plight of children born of mothers who've died from the disease, corruption etc. Of course, this isn't why most people tend to read crime fiction, but these authors have done a great job in introducing the issues important in this area.  

The main character, Detective David "Kubu" Bengu (known as Detective Kubu throughout) is described as having a great bulk. Even so, he speaks softly, has a rational mind, and never fails to direct respect where it is due even under trying situations. He is a family-oriented man as well as a good investigator. His new colleague, Samantha Khama, hasn't yet learned the fine art of tempering her very hot temper, becoming passionate about issues that are important to her not only as a cop, but as a woman and as a human being.  Both characters are drawn very well.

On the other hand,  there is a really large amount of space spent on Kubu's personal life -- with his father's declining mind, the decision whether or not to adopt a little girl whose mother died of AIDS, Sunday family traditions, games played with his little girls, etc., and while I'm sure this all adds to character development, it's often distracting in terms of the mystery and the action at the heart of the novel. I also have to say that despite all of the careful plotting and the focus on the investigation, I guessed who the "invisible" adversary was not too far into the story.   This is a personal thing, but when I read crime, I want that "aha" moment at the end when all is revealed.  Finally, I'm not feeling an overall entrenched sense of place in this novel which to me is important and especially so in a place I've never been.  On the flip side, however, this is a series I would like to read from its beginning, so I will definitely be revisiting Detective Kubu in the future. 

Overall, it's a fun read that is remarkable in terms of the authors' attention to pressing social and political issues and how the characters react in such situations.  As I noted, not everyone looks to a crime novel for what it can say about another country or another culture, so if you're in it just for the mystery aspect of it all, you probably won't be disappointed.  Deadly Harvest is a book I can recommend to other readers of crime fiction/mystery, despite my personal little niggles.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Sound of One Hand Killing, by Teresa Solana

Bitter Lemon Press, 2013
265 pp
originally published as L'hora zen, 2011
translated by Peter Bush

softcover; UK (available in the US May 2013)

A strange small statue, a dead neighbor, and a murder at an "exclusive, luxury alternative centre" where the wealthy go for Bach-flower and other homeopathic therapies are only part of the lineup in this third (and unfortunately for me, the last right now) installment of Solana's entertaining series set in Barcelona.  The brothers Borja and Eduard are back and once again find themselves in some pretty wild predicaments; the usual Solanaesque satirical punches are intact, this time aimed at alternative therapies, what people will do to stay forever youthful looking (especially plastic surgeries), and  there are also little hints of barb pointing at the world of writers and readers.  With more focus on the brothers and a better flow than in book two, A Shortcut to Paradise, here the author adds to the mix of brotherly craziness, murder and the vegetable sausage fare of the alternative therapy center by placing her characters into the realm of spy fiction and rare art as well.

As the novel opens, someone has broken into the brothers' office, and the place has been overturned. Going all postmodern on her readers,  Teresa Solana  injects herself as a character seeking the help of Borja and Eduard, and has an appointment that day.  Not wanting to give away the show that their office is a setup, Borja remembers that his upstairs neighbor had given him a set of keys to his apartment, so they decide to meet the author there.  While routing around the place before her arrival, the brothers stumble on to a dead body -- that of the neighbor -- who's obviously been there some time.  With Solana on her way, though, they take a bit of their non-existent secretary's perfume and spray it in the neighbor's flat for her visit, hoping to disguise the smell of decomposition.  The author's request is simple: she's writing a novel about "alternative therapies," and wants to set some of her chapters in the area north of the Diagonal, so she comes to the brothers to enlist their aid in gathering research for her.  They are only too happy to help -- the credit crunch and economic downturn leaves Eduard's wife Montse unable to procure a loan for her business, and money is tight all over; Borja has even agreed to be a middleman and hold on to a small statue until he is called to deliver it, an easy task for the reward he'll get of several thousand Euros.  After Solana's visit, they quickly clean up any traces of themselves and leave the door open for the smell to waft down and the body to be discovered.  They then make their way to the Zen Moments center, where they wangle their way into a weekend stay; after suffering through a few not-funny practical jokes, the brothers are on hand when the owner of the place is discovered dead.  Their friend, Inspector Badia, wants them to help catch the killer, which may be difficult, because Borja has become the focus of a group of thugs who want something he has; since Borja's involved, Eduard is along for the action. 

There's so much in this book -- antiquities trafficking, spies, the mafia, murder, and of course, the sardonic look at alternative therapies -- and as usual there are some very funny moments with the brothers, both while pursuing their line of work and at home.   The satire is great, as always, but at some point there has to be a limit -- as much as I love her tongue-in-cheek critiques, the murder investigation had little complexity, and offered way too easy of a solution, making the resolution to the murder rather unexciting, and frankly, rather flat. And really -- a character named Lord Ashtray is just silly and didn't appeal. As I'm writing this I'm sitting here wondering if maybe she's not writing her books for the crime element as much as the social -- if this is the case, then I suppose a rethink on approaching her novels is in order.  Anyway, the action in The Sound of One Hand Killing leaves no doubt but that the brothers will return in another installment, and that they will be dogged by business left unfinished in this one.

So, my final words on this book -- I liked it with only a few reservations,  and do recommend it for readers continuing with the series (if you haven't read the first two, definitely do not start with this one); it has some very entertaining moments and I absolutely love the brothers and can't wait to see what trouble they get into next.  While I'm a little less than overwhelmed with the murder solution, the entire series is worth reading because of the main characters -- their craziness will keep me coming back for more.

oh yes! Because I'm a moronica sometimes, I accidentally bought two copies of this book, so if you would like my extra copy and you live in the United States, I'm happy to just give it to you and I'll pay postage.  Don't be embarrassed to ask -- you'll be doing me a huge favor helping me to keep my library manageable! Not a contest -- first person who comments gets it.

Friday, April 12, 2013

A Shortcut to Paradise, by Teresa Solana

Bitter Lemon Press, 2011
originally published as Drecera al paradis, 2007
translated by Peter Bush
284 pp


In book number two of Solana's series to feature the twin brothers Borja and Eduard, for the most part I stayed highly entertained by this author's imagination and her writing. I say "for the most part" because while the brothers are fun, and while I looked forward to seeing how they'd  pull the murderer out of their respective hats,  the story is also  punctuated by a couple of rather ridiculous set pieces (one involving a near orgy due to overpowering canapes) and the narrative sort of meanders a bit before the brothers do their usual stuff in trying to bring the killer to justice. I did enjoy Solana's usual  pokes at Barcelona society, and here she adds another object of satire, centering around the literary world. While I had a good time reading it, I have to say that I liked the first book a little bit better -- it had much more of a crime-fiction feel to it than this one, the ending of which just left me just sort of flat.   

Ernest Fabia, translator and family man, has a serious problem.  His bank has just called and gives him two weeks to come up with the four months of payment he owes on his mortgage. He was one of the multitudes caught up in the dreaded real estate bubble, and after a car accident, a new baby and unforeseen expenses with his older child, Ernest is in a world of financial hurt.  The dreaded Final Notice that he's read x number of times  is all he can think about, and he decides to take matters into his own hands -- he decides he'll rob someone rich to make up for the money shortfall.  His randomly-picked victim turns out to be Amadeu Cabestany, an author who has left a party at the Ritz hotel after not winning a literary prize he'd been hoping for.  Ernest robs him, leaving him 10 euros for cabfare, and when Amadeu returns to the hotel, he is placed under arrest for the murder of Marina Dolç, his rival for and winner of the award.  It's obvious that Amadeu is not guilty but he had been overheard in a heated rant against Marina and to the police, that's motive enough. But convinced he is innocent,  Amadeu's agent hires Borja and Eduard to clear his name and get him out of jail.  In the meantime, Ernest, who is basically a good man, is afraid to read the papers, so has no idea that Amadeu's been arrested, and to take his mind off his troubles, heads off to a retreat where he can concentrate on his translation work.  He and the taxi driver who returned Amadeu to the hotel are the only alibi witnesses; the taxi driver's not talking because he's just out of prison himself and driving the cab with no license and Ernest is away trying not to think about what he's done.  The brothers take the case, along with a retired cop for help, but with very little to go by in the way of alibi, it's going to be tough for Amadeu to be exonerated.

This story kind of moves all over the place, with much less emphasis on the crime and its solution than in the previous series installment.  It's not as tight as it could have been, and the author spends way too much time  setting up one of the big gags in this book which I thought was kind of ridiculous anyway, the runaway rumor that Amadeu is not only a murderer, but a cannibal as well.  Borja and Eduard are gone from the story for a long time which was a bit frustrating while I waited for them to return to get down to business solving the crime.  And then there's the ending and the solution to the crime ... I can guess at what happened, but really, after leading me all the way to the end,  making me wait for the story to resume while  the silly, even farcical set pieces played out, I think I deserved more of a why.  I have to say that my feelings are mixed about this book -- it's a "meh" for me.

I wouldn't let my less than excited reaction put anyone off if considering the book or the series -- it's still fun, the brothers are perfectly paired, the satire is very well executed, and it has received some sterling ratings.   I'm just soooo picky! I'll be moving on to the next book, The Sound of One Hand Killing (which is supposed to hit the US May 13th but nah nah, I have a UK copy already), which should say something positive about this author and especially her quirky protagonists. I'd recommend it to those who've started the series and wonder about continuing  -- yes, by all means do!

crime fiction from Spain

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Missing File, by D.A. Mishani

Harper, 2013
304 pp

I was fortunate enough to receive an ARC of this recently-published book.  It came to me as part of the  TLC Book Tour now in progress, and I've posted my thoughts about the book here.   Feel free to go on over and take a look!