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!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

*The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes (repost)

Mulholland, 2013
368 pp


"It is a game. It's a destiny he's writing for them. Inevitably, they're waiting for him."

 note: When I picked up this book for my "books published this year" summer readfest,   I had zero clue as to what it was going to be, but as it turns out, it's focused on crimes against women, so I thought I'd post it here as well as on the main page of my online reading journal.

 The Shining Girls is a mix of time-travel scifi and serial-killer crime fiction,  but don't believe the blurb written by Matt Haig on the back cover that says it's a cross between The Time Traveler's Wife and The Silence of the Lambs.  Even if, in your wildest imagination, you could mix the two, you still don't come anywhere close to The Shining Girls.  Yes, there is time travel and yes there is a nasty serial killer out there, but this killer already knows who he's going to kill and visits his victims beforehand -- and even leaves them a little something to hold on to until he comes back.  Bought exclusively for its summer-read/beach potential, the book didn't let me down; it may not go on this year's list of favorite novels of the year, but it's still pretty good.

In this story, time runs along different chronologies.  The serial killer in this novel, Harper Curtis,  has his own time line -- he jumps in and out of time from the 1930s until 1993  -- and then there's the timeline of one his victims, Kirby, whom Harper mistakenly leaves alive after a brutal attack.  Third, there's the real, historical chronology, time and changing attitudes moving forward in history.   It may seem confusing at first, but it makes sense here. As the novel opens,  Harper Curtis is running from an angry mob in a Depression-era Hooverville.    He runs into a shack, takes a coat and leaves; in one of the pockets is a key.  He is drawn to a mysterious house in the city of Chicago, a jumping-off point into time; a place where his destiny, and those of a group of young women he doesn't even know, is literally written on the walls.  The women are the shining girls of the title, and he is compelled to track them through time and ultimately to snuff out their glowing potential in the world.   Harper  visits each one long before he kills them, leaving some token; years later when it's a woman's time to die, he leaves something else with each of them, something from one of the other victims.  One of them, Kirby Mazrachi, escapes from a savage attack and her destiny with death, but she is left with both physical and emotional scars. She becomes fixated on finding the person who did this to her, determined enough to the point where she becomes an intern on a newspaper that covered the case because of the access to the paper's archives.  She has caught on to the pattern of artifacts left behind, but trying to find someone who will listen to her is pretty much impossible, as is trying to pin down one specific person whom she knows is responsible for a number of other brutal attacks.

On a surface level I suppose you could read this book as another serial-killer novel with a time-travelling gimmick as a hook, but to me it goes well beyond that sort of simplified explanation.  Harper is figuratively plucking the wings off of  women, killing them just as they are starting to make a difference in their present;  cutting off their potential for making  a difference in  the futures of others.  Thinking about that, it seems to me that the author is not only talking about men who feel compelled to keep women down, but also about victims of violence -- where every life taken represents a loss of  future possibilities.  The crazy time loops in this novel help to point out that although time moves on, violence  against women has always been, is, and always will be part of our existence, with effects that ripple ever outward over time.

Overall, it's a good enough novel, one that kept me intrigued,  but there were parts that dragged and I had to read it twice to figure out the House. I'm also not big on graphic violence, which there is plenty of in this book; I get the point -- these were living people with personalities, lives, parents, loved ones -- but sometimes too much is just too much.  The ending, well, since I can't talk about that here, suffice it to say I think the action-packed  empowerment statement was a little too obvious,  but I know lots of people who'll disagree.  This book is getting some excellent reviews, but not everyone is loving it -- I'm somewhere in the middle of all of that.  I'll recommend it as a good summer read -- but read it slowly so you don't have to go through it a second time like I did.

 fiction from South Africa

Monday, July 22, 2013

On a Bender x3: Crashed, Little Elvises and The Fame Thief, by Timothy Hallinan

After spending a LOT of time on all of this dark crime, it's time to lighten up for a while with the added pleasure of discovering a previously-unread (by me) author.   Timothy Hallinan is a snarky writer who, among all of his other talents, has totally captured Los Angeles in his three novels Crashed, Little Elvises, and The Fame Thief.    I know -- I worked there for some time and lived pretty much next door to the Valley for what seems like eons, and he's nailed it.  You  meet all kinds of people, see all sorts of bizarro-world things that are perfectly normal there,  and well, he's somehow managed to capture that feel of LA that's pretty much indescribable to people who've never lived or spent major amounts of time there. 

Hallinan's antihero main character is Junior Bender, so-called because his father's name was Merle and, not wanting to saddle his son with the same name, his dad officially named him Junior.  His education consisted of reading through The Recognitions, by William Gaddis, a book that led him on to other books where he learned a host of other important things.  Junior is divorced from Kathy, and has a wise-beyond-her-years newly- teenaged daughter named Rina whom he absolutely adores.  Junior, however, is not like other dads -- he makes his living as a burglar, a career he started at the age of 15, and sometimes does favors for less savory people who have no other avenues and who know Junior will  get the job done. 

In the first installment of this series, Crashed,
Soho Crime, 2012
356 pp
career-burgler Junior Bender has picked up a gig from a  "facilitator," whose client wants Junior to steal a Paul Klee painting from some people who are currently on vacation.  She has provided the layout and other info Junior will need to know -- but what she doesn't know is that there's a video camera that is tracking Junior's every move.  Sadly, he discovers it too late...and the guy who monitors the stored recordings has him in a corner. He will either work for Trey Annunziato, "a third-generation hood," "heir to the Valley's most diversified crime family," and "Mount Rushmore with hair," and do the job right, or his face will be the one the painting's owners see on the recording when they come back from their vacation.  Trey is planning to go straight and has decided to make one last porno movie "to finance everybody's transition to the straight life," meaning all of those people involved in her criminal enterprises.  The star is going to be a former child actress, Thistle Downing  who captured everyone's hearts on her own television show some years earlier but now is a drug addict having trouble making it through the day.  While Trey's plan to exploit Thistle is already in progress, there are people who don't want to see the film made, and there have already been problems.  Junior's job is to make sure Thistle is ready to work, and to see that the film gets made at any cost.   As Junior soon finds out, this won't be easy -- and when one of his friends ends up dead, it becomes personal.

It sounds kind of like a cut-and-dried kind of mystery, but no. There are multiple laugh-out-loud moments and the author's totally nailed LA and the Valley here, along with the various personality types you find living there.  No one is safe from his snark here, most especially  the media vultures and the film industry.  Crashed is a book that is hard to dislike -- and I don't really have anything on the negatory side to say about it.  It's good for all crime readers, especially when you want something on the lighter as opposed to edgy side, although it does have its moments of blood, guts and wisecracks.  As an anti-hero, Junior's one of the best -- he has a conscience and a very clear sense of morality with lines he tries not to cross unless absolutely necessary.  In his own burglar sort of way, he's a wonderful dad, and has made a promise to himself to never lie to his daughter -- who has her own very cool personality as well.   Definitely a first-rate series starter, and after I finish this series, I'll be off to find others by this writer.   I LOVED this book, and I think my enthusiasm must have bubbled over, because now my husband is reading it. We never agree on crime novels, but I think this book may prove to be the exception.

Moving on to the second book in this series, Little Elvises

Soho Crime, 2012
347 pp
has one of those very cool storylines where the past returns to bite people in the butt in the present.  As in the previous book, Junior is once again being blackmailed into something he doesn't particularly want to do.  A Detective DiGaudio tells him that the cops can make him for a crime that could put him away for twenty years, even though he and Junior both know he didn't do it.  Even though he has an alibi, the people Junior was with at the time of the crime have been already intimidated by the cops so he can't hope for any help in that arena.  As it turns out, diGaudio's uncle Vinnie, who lives with an ex WWF wrestler named Hilda the Queen of the Gestapo and now goes by Popsie, is on the edge of being arrested for the murder of tabloid hack Derek Bigelow.  Vinnie's on the hook because people have heard him say he was planning on offing the guy, but actually, some unknown person beat him to it.  The detective wants Junior to get his uncle's name cleared ... or Junior goes down.

Back in the 1950s/60s, Vinnie, who has a long history with the music industry,  promoted "Little Elvises," who were all the rage on an American Bandstand-type program -- there for their handsome looks rather for any musical talent.   They filled a vacuum between the "raw" -- Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, for example, and the Pat Boone types.  These "handsome Italian kids with tight pants and big hair,"  as Junior's daughter told him in a report she did for school, were "churned up to the surface in the wake of Elvis Presley" in Philadelphia.  The "most pathetic" of the little Elvises was named Giorgio,  and one of the better ones, Bobby Angel, just disappeared one day.  Having no choice, Junior has to take this case seriously, but it isn't long until Junior realizes that someone's after him --  after his first visit to Uncle Vinnie,  someone's already shooting at him.   Hiding out at the North Pole Motel in the Blitzen room, he enlists the help of Louie the Lost, his friend who gained his name when as a getaway driver he got lost in a Compton neighborhood with a trunk full of diamonds.   With the help of his daughter Rina, Junior blazes his way through a very strange case; however, he's actually in for more than he bargained for when Bigelow's widow cozies up to him and when Marge, the North Pole's owner, asks him to find her missing daughter. 

You just have to appreciate Timothy Hallinan's whacked imagination in these books.   Once again, he's done an excellent job in evoking LA's craziness and its overall atmosphere, which really is like nowhere else if you really get to know it.   Junior's character has definitely become a bit more complex since Crashed, especially in his interactions with his daughter and his ambivalence about his ex-wife, especially now that she seems to have a new boyfriend.  Like the other book, his interactions with the other characters are often hysterical, but in this slice of the world Hallinan has created, make perfect sense.  And what characters they are -- crazy as loons some of them.    The author notes that he wanted to "play with the idea with the idea of media imitation" here, but there's also a theme that carries over from Crashed -- namely, the idea that fame can destroy someone who's not prepared for it. Once again, I'm floored by how good this book is -- while it may seem a bit complicated at first, as the few initial "aha" moments are reached, things begin to fall into place easily. Underneath the laughs, there is a sad and rather human human story here. Recommended.

Moving on to the third and newest book in this series, with grateful thanks to Soho,  Junior's back in The Fame Thief, another story that has its roots in the past and in the entertainment industry.

Soho Crime, 2013
324 pp
ARC from Soho Crime (thanks!)

The Fame Thief might be considered an ode to "all the beautiful and not so beautiful girls everywhere who lose their way in the world without stumbling over anyone kind."

We're back in Hollywood territory once again as Junior takes on a sixty-plus year old mystery.  This time he's not being blackmailed, but he's been summoned and hired by Irwin Dressler, a career mobster who pretty much controlled everything that went on in Hollywood for years.  Dressler is in his 90s, and is taken care of by two thugs named Tuffy and Babe, but he is still one of the most dangerous old men around and someone to whom no one says no.  Junior has been picked up by Dressler to find out who destroyed the career of Dolores La Marr, an actress who was once known as "the most beautiful woman in the world," and a Life Magazine cover girl way back when.  One night in Vegas, 1950, the cops raided a party and everyone was picked up and tossed into jail, but everyone was bailed out within a couple of hours.  Everyone, that is, except Dolores.  A picture taken through the bars of her cell --"no sleep, no shower, no hairbrush, " makeup everywhere from crying -- turned up "everywhere," followed by more stories leaking pictures of Dolores with known criminals.  As Dolores notes, 
"One day I was the wide-eyed innocent from Scranton who was hitting it big in the sticks, and a week later I was the Whore of Babylon, I was a gun moll, I was a paid companion, I was a prostitute...I was over."

Dressler wants to know who set her up back then, and Junior starts looking into Hollywood's past, which is more than connected with the mob. But when he starts digging, people start dying.

The Fame Thief is another fine entry in this series, and like the other two,  filled with that sarcastic, snarky humor that sets this series apart as well as that insider view of Los Angeles. There are a couple of diversions here not found in the others, though -- first, a step back in time to get the picture from Dolores' point of view, cool because I love when the past meets present in any novel;  second, well, let's just say it's an element that took me by surprise and one which I was not so keen on, but I won't spoil it.  I think all in all, this book may have been my favorite as far as storyline (without the final chapter), and I'll definitely look forward to the next installment. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

*Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery, by Robert Kolker

Harper, 2013
399 pp


I'm not the biggest fan of modern true crime -- my interests in this area really lie in older, historical true crime, but once in a while a book comes along that I just have to recommend.  Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery is one of them.  You won't find any grisly details or any sort of recounting of horrendous murders here, simply because the mystery behind the deaths of the five young women around which this book is focused has not yet been solved.  This is a book that from page one will draw you in and keep you there because it's that good. The author's writing and handling of the subject matter haunted me on a human level, and while the book is centered around a series of crimes, it's also a look at how each and every one of these "lost girls" and their families were failed by the system due to officials' indifference toward them, primarily based on what they did for a living.

If you've been on the fence about this one, or if you've been thinking you'd wait to see what other people have to say, wait no more. There is no sensationalism here, no lurid details, nothing you'd find in what I consider crappy true crime books -- on the contrary, it is a book that is intelligent, sophisticated, and one that you will be thinking about long after you've finished it.

You can read more of what I have to say here; as far as I'm concerned, it's one of the best true crime books that's come along in a very long time. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Death in Sardinia, by Marco Vichi

Hodder and Stoughton, 2012
originally published as Il Nuovo Venuto, 2004
translated by Stephen Sartarelli
454 pp

paper, UK
american edition: 2014, Pegasus books

"A policeman must do his duty to the best of his ability ... But above anything else, he must be ... fair ..." 

Just when I thought I'd had it with Inspector Bordelli and his long-winded war reveries, and flirtations with giving up smoking,  along comes Death in Sardinia to change my mind.  This book is much more on task than the previous two, enough so that I've already preordered Vichi's  Death in Florence, which I should get in November some time. 

It's 1965, Christmas is fast approaching, and Bordelli is called out to investigate the death of a notorious loan shark named Badalamenti,  who has ended up with a pair of scissors deep in his neck.  Bordelli had once tried to investigate Badalamenti, but was denied;  now that he's dead, the inspector has full access.  The coroner performing the autopsy pulls an engraved ring out of the dead man's stomach, and he lets Bordelli know a bit of information about the killer to help Bordelli narrow down his search.  Going through the loan shark's apartment, Bordelli stumbles upon a hidden space filled with promissory notes, compromising photos of a woman, and a collection of wedding rings. He also finds pictures of a young girl, with the name "Marisa" on the back.   Going through all of the names on the notes, and looking at the photos,  Bordelli decides that Badalamenti's murderer must be among them, and sets about returning the notes to Badalamenti's customers while sizing up each one as to whether or not he is the killer. In the meantime, his trusty sidekick Piras has gone home to Sardinia to recuperate after being shot while in the line of duty; while there, a family friend shoots himself, causing no end of grief for friends and family, but Piras realizes that something's not right -- and after the funeral it dawns on him: where was the shell from the shot?  Both men have their hands full trying to sort things out. 

Death in Sardinia tackles not only these crimes, but also gets more fully into Bordelli's character.  He realizes that he's not getting any younger, and waxes about aging; he also realizes that although the war that is always on his mind has been over now for two decades, it may be time for him to "stop looking at the world through its prism." Besides, in this day and age, the new generation of young people 

"could no longer bear hearing the older people's complaints about the war and having to queue up for bread.  The tears to be cried had already been shed. Now it was time to start living again, and having fun. Maybe they were right." 

More importantly, Bordelli comes to realize that the letter of the law doesn't cover every situation, and that he must apply principles of fairness and understanding while on the track of justice.

This book moved much more quickly than its two predecessors, and there was more of a clear path from crime to investigation to solution than in the earlier novels.  Although there was still the war reminiscing and memories to fill the pages, and although there was quite a bit that could have been taken out to move the book along and make it much tighter, it really is the best of the series so far. As in his other two novels, past and present meaningfully intersect in this story, here maybe more so, a quality I actually like in these books.  And while there's a good mystery here, it's not so edgy or gritty,  so it's perfect for those who enjoy lighter crime fare.

crime fiction from Italy

Monday, July 15, 2013

this year's international dagger (CWA)

The CWA has chosen -- this year's International Dagger award has been split between Fred Vargas for The Ghost Riders of Ordenbec and Pierre Lemaitre for his book Alex, which I haven't yet read but which is on tap here shortly. 

This year I really have to disagree -- The Collini Case, by Ferdinand von Schirach which is frankly stunning, and Roslund and Hellstrom's Two Soldiers , which also frankly, is amazing, were both so much better.   As much as I liked Vargas' book, it didn't measure up to either of these two books.  I'm actually stunned. 

Better luck next year and hopefully the judges will take into account that crime fiction goes well beyond entertainment value and into a medium for examining the world around us.

purge-o-rama continues -- someone take these books! (US only, please)

Today coming off the shelves and available to US readers at absolutely zero cost are the following -- take as many or as few as you'd like. Don't feel like you're being greedy if you want more than one.

Scandinavian crime:

1. Anger Mode, by Stefan Tegenfalk 
2. Last Rituals, by Yrsa Sigurdardottir
3. My Soul to Take, by Yrsa Sigurdardottir 
4. Ashes to Dust, by Yrsa Sigurdardottir
5. The Day is Dark, by Yrsa Sigurdardottir
6.The Boy in the Suitcase, by Lena Kaaberbol 

my shelves thank you, and I thank you as well!  I'll leave this up until Friday.

Death and the Olive Grove, by Marco Vichi

Hodder and Stoughton, 2012
248 pp
originally published as Una Brutta Faccenda, 2003
translated by Stephen Sartarelli


Considering the terrible nature of the crimes committed in this book, Death and the Olive Grove, the second installment of this series, actually reads on the lighter side of the genre.  Vichi's Inspector Bordelli novels are set in Florence in the 1960s. The main character  is a former member of a somewhat irregular army unit known as the San Marco, and his work in World War II is constantly on his mind. Throughout the novel Bordelli is overprone to thinking about the war, where he served with his current police sidekick's father.

One of Bordelli's acquaintances, a dwarf named Casimiro, comes to the inspector with a strange story. He was out one night walking through an olive grove near a villa, and came across someone he thought must be dead.  Bordelli accompanies him to the spot and there's no body anywhere.  The only clue that anyone had been there at some point is an empty bottle of cognac, one that turns out to be a rare brand.  Before Bordelli can muse on the bottle, he and Casimiro are attacked by a Doberman, and would have been seriously injured had Bordelli not shot the dog and killed it.  Inquiring at the villa about the dog, Bordelli gets no help, but he doesn't have long to consider this action before he is called to the scene of a little girl who had been sexually assaulted, killed, and bitten.  While he's investigating this case, Casimiro goes missing and if that isn't bad enough, soon more little murdered girls are discovered, all suffering the same fate as the first.

Death and the Olive Grove takes its time, and through it all, Bordelli relives a lot of his war experiences in his head.  The pace is very slow (at times painstakingly so to the point where I just wanted to get through it), and there's probably much more focus on Bordelli's personal and past life than crime solving.  While Bordelli does manage some clever police work, he is more or less pointed in the direction of his suspects by outside agencies rather than through his own deductions.  This is a novel where the present links back to the past, but when it comes down to the why of it all in the main case of the little girls,  I didn't get that "aha!" moment I'd hoped for, although I had an inkling of motive in the back of my head that was sort of correct. 

This book, like Death in August before it, was not at all as lively as I'd hoped.  This book is probably better suited for readers who like their crime on the lighter side, and who don't mind getting  into the personal life of the main protagonist  more than the investigation aspects.  It's perfect for people who want something more than a cozy and something less than an edgy, realistic, gritty crime read.  I'll be starting Death in Sardinia today; I'm hoping for a little more depth and less fluff.

crime fiction from Italy

Sunday, July 14, 2013

*Tomorrow City, by Kirk Kjeldsen

Signal 8 Press, 2013
200 pp

copy from publisher -- thank you!

My thanks to Pinky at Signal 8 Press for my copy, and apologies for waiting so long to get to it.  I've been trying to get through the books that are shortlisted for this year's  CWA International Dagger before tackling anything else, so a very heartfelt apology to you, Pinky (the same  to Ben Winters and to  the wonderful people at Soho -- I'll be reading all of your books before the month is out).

The past catches up to ex-con Brendan Lavin, who gets out of prison and tries to reinvent himself in order to avoid going back.  Brendan owns a bakery which isn't doing too well, but still he hangs in there. He's come to a low point --  there's enough money to pay one bill out of many, and he has no money for fun things.  While he's struggling, he receives a visit from his girlfriend's cousin,  one of his old partners in crime. Brendan went down for the last job they pulled, kept his mouth shut and in return they took care of him. Once free, Brendan had no desire to be around them -- but now his past is looking at him in the face.  The cousin, Tommy, offers him a job with his old crew, which Brendan turns down flat -- but when he can't pay the increased rent the landlord demands, he has second thoughts and goes back to the old life and his former cohorts in crime. The job gets botched pretty badly, with Tommy ending up dead and desperate, Brendan decides to make a clean getaway and start over somewhere else. China is about as remote as he can think of, so he steals a passport and makes his way to a new place and a new life.  Things go well for several years  -- he has started over with a new name, has a family and has built up a good business, but eventually, Brendan's past manages to catch up to him, threatening him and his new life.

Kjeldsen has written a good story with a main character you can't help but feel sorry for, even though he's done some pretty bad things in his time.  Brendan's mom was a heroin addict, his dad bailed, he hooked up with the wrong people and went to prison for his crimes, but at the same time, he is determined to make something of himself and turn his life around. You can actively sense the frustration and the feeling of utter hopelessness that pressures him into becoming a criminal again; later, his conscience and his pulled-apart self  often comes to him in the form of dead Tommy.  Yet there's also the Brendan who's later become an active dad, and who will do anything for his family, especially when the situation gets pretty dire. Kjeldsen, who lives there,  obviously loves Shanghai and has a great deal of insight into its character -- he evokes the city as a place of both past, present and future, a "disparate" city that all comes together "into one unified and dynamic system, inseparable, and complementary parts of a whole...".   Here Shanghai hits all ends of the spectrum -- between migrants with their wooden carts on one hand and "rich Westerners and locals in gleaming new Maseratis and Bentleys,"  on the other; with gated communities and "luxury penthouses" juxtaposed against the "corrugated metal shacks" and shelters made of old shipping containers.  There's also a lot of action in this book -- but here's the thing -- all of that action and emotional buildup throughout the novel comes to a really quick ending that reads more like a chronological account than a continuing story.  It's like there's a series of events that buzz by so quickly that it's almost a "then this happened, then this happened, then this happened," kind of thing, with very little to flesh out events, not really keeping in line with the way the rest of the book read.   Normally I get upset when authors use a lot of extraneous verbiage to pad out their stories; here I wanted more.  I think if the author had added more of Brendan's post-Shanghai experiences into the mix, keeping in tune with his storytelling skills up to that point, it would have been much better, finishing off with more of a bang.   One more thing -- the Chinese word "nai nai" (奶奶)  refers to the paternal grandmother, and when Brendan talks about his daughter's Chinese grandmother, he uses that term. Just a little thing, really, but it grated.

Considering it's a first effort, it's a really good one but in this case, less is definitely not more. Recommended.  I hope Mr. Kjeldsen does well and that he starts another book!  

Saturday, July 13, 2013

*Two Soldiers, by Roslund and Hellstrom

Quercus, 2013
603 pp
originally published as Två Soldater, 2012
translated by Kari Dickson

paper, UK

I've sort of been weaning myself away from Scandinavian crime, which at one point I would have said was the best crime written anywhere, but that just doesn't seem to be the case any more. Seriously, I've slowly been watching it lose that edge that used to elevate it over crime from other countries, slowly being replaced by top-notch writers from South America, Italy, Poland and elsewhere.  There are a few notable exceptions, including the books by the writing team of Roslund and Hellstrom, the authors of today's book, Two Soldiers.   These two writers have consistently put out some incredible books that throughout the entire series have remained edgy, gritty and contemporary.  Although this installment is a bit long and could have used some paring down, Two Soldiers remains true to form and is consistent with the fine writing and focus on important issues that these authors bring to the table. 

The "two soldiers" are two teens (18 to be exact), Gabriel Milton and his gang "brutha" Leon Jensen of what was formerly the Råby Warriors, now changed to Ghetto Soldiers. They see themselves as a family unit of brothers, and once you're in, you stay in until you're dead.  Leon is in prison, but still runs things from his cell; outside, Gabriel and the other members of the gang carry out their usual business with the help of even younger kids, one of whom in this novel is only 12 and longs to be a true gang member and will do what it takes to become full fledged.    The gang sets fires in their own area of Råby; when firefighters respond, they often find themselves forced by violence to just let things burn without being able to intervene.  They have zero respect for others outside of the gang,  demand protection money from local businesses without really providing protection, and have absolutely no fear of authority. As one character notes, "This is our everyday reality, a lawless country ruled by a mere few, and no one out there must fail to understand that."  All come from families where dad is non-existent and in some cases, where mom has been behind bars herself -- and they are not the only gangs that the stretched police force have to contend with.  In fact, Jose Pereira, who is the head of the Organized Crime and Gang Section, keeps his walls "decorated" with pictures of gangs, arranged in hierarchical order -- and Leon is seething at the fact that his group is not at the top of that wall.  To get to the top, he realizes that the gang has to step up its game and do something no one else has done -- but first he has to get out.  His escape from prison, carefully planned down to the last detail, brings Detective Superintendent Ewert Grens into the picture, after a young female guard (also 18) is kidnapped and later killed as part of the escape plan. He is brought in because of the kidnapping, and has a very difficult time with this case because of an intervention he was part of years earlier.  His guilt eats away at him, causing even greater angst than normal, and he takes this particular case very personally, willing to pull out all the stops  to get things under control, going up against the constraints of the law and authority:  As he notes in a heated debate with the prosecutor,
"There are no laws in Råby right now. Certainly not our laws, as they mean nothing here. So we have to find new ways ... ones you won't find in your law books, we have to do what they do."
Grens realizes that time is running out -- not only does Jensen have to be captured, but evidence pointing to the making of a bomb has been discovered in one of the Råby apartments.

The first part of the novel takes the reader through the lives of the gang members -- a no holds barred, graphic and grim look at various facets of gang life on the streets and also in prison.   There are the young children who are so disconnected from any reality except that powerful need to belong to something more like a family than they already have, and there are convicts in prison who want to be part of  the group as well. One of the most haunting scenes in this book that will stick with me long after I put the book away is a conversation between the "two soldiers," when one finds out his girlfriend is pregnant and the other reminds him about fatherhood:
"Your dad was burned alive...My dad disappeared...Alex's dad kicked the shit out of him and Reza's dad drank himself to death and Uros's dad sits on a bench on Raby Torg and shouts cock at anyone who passes and Marko's dad ... blew his brains out...And you...you say that you're going to be a dad?"

An omg moment if ever there was one, truly.  The second part of the book focuses on the police investigation into the prison break and the murder, and the race to find the location of the bomb before it's too late.

In reading over reviews of this novel, I came across one that noted the following:
"... I do wonder why so much modern literature coming out of Sweden has to portray, or consider, the darker side of life."
Yes, well...crime fiction may be a form of entertainment, but in the hands of these two authors and others,  crime fiction has definitely become another medium for examining what's wrong in society -- a huge factor behind why I read any book.  In this case, the problem is not localized to Sweden, but an issue that touches everyone pretty much everywhere.   So, why bother to read crime at all if you don't deep down inside want to "consider the darker side of life?" Should it be all happy endings and sweetness all around where you refuse to believe that your little corner of the world doesn't have the problems that are portrayed here?

Personally, I feel like this novel could have been pared down without losing its shock value and portrayal of the "darker side of life," but overall, it's an amazing read, one I'd recommend without hesitation.

crime fiction from Sweden

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

*The Killing of Emma Gross, by Damien Seaman

Five Leaves Crime, 2013
279 pp


As I've been known to say for some time, I like my crime fiction dark and edgy.  The Killing of Emma Gross is both of those things, and is based around the real-life case of Peter Kürten, the so-called "vampire of Düsseldorf" or "monster of Düsseldorf," a serial killer who plied his trade during the days of Germany's Weimar Republic (1919-1933).  The author is quick to point out that the "vampire" label didn't actually originate at the time, but Kürten's crimes were definitely beyond heinous, as he brutally preyed on women and young girls.  While those crimes and the "monster" who committed them are definitely a focus in this novel,  the book examines a detective's quest to solve another murder, that of a young prostitute named Emma Gross, also a real victim, but not one of Kürten's.  He claimed her as one of his, but it was a false confession.   There is absolutely, I repeat, absolutely no light in this novel, but it is definitely a story worth looking into.

Detective Thomas Klein of the Düsseldorf KRIPO (kriminalpolizei) has accomplished the impossible. He has arranged to meet Peter Kürten and put an end to the fear plaguing the streets of Düsseldorf.  Kürten is arrested and taken away, but not by Klein; that honor went to his rival, Detective Inspector Michael Ritter.  Ritter and Klein are at odds not only because Klein worked on his own to arrange Kürten's arrest and withheld important evidence,  but also because Klein had previously been sleeping with Ritter's wife Gisela. When Kürten is brought in, Klein is put away in a cell as well and worked over -- part of Ritter's revenge and anger toward him. When the police start to question Kürten, however, he won't speak to anyone about the case except for Klein, so Ritter is forced to release him and accept that Klein will be a part of the investigation.  Kürten is only too eager to talk -- he confesses to all the murders and as proof that he really did them, takes police to the body of a little girl they'd been looking for and others not previously known about.  But when he confesses to the murder of Emma Gross, something is off -- he gets the details wrong.  In the meantime, another man had supposedly confessed, was taken to trial and convicted of the murders of Emma Gross and two others; that man now lives in a mental hospital, too mentally ill to be put away in prison at the time.  Klein realizes that two of the murders confessed to by Kürten were ascribed to this other man, and if that's the case, perhaps the killing of Emma Gross was done by someone else entirely. Following only the slimmest of hints and leads, Klein sets about to find Emma's killer and help clear the name of the man falsely accused.

Peter Kürten, the later-named "Vampire of Düsseldorf", photo from Vampire-world.com

The Killing of Emma Gross is very straightforward, no unnecessary detours are taken throughout the novel, and the historical era is well conveyed, although perhaps not as fully as I'd expected.  It's nearing the end of the Weimar era (1929) and  the author captures ordinary citizens' frustration at inflation and unemployment, the Communists who took on "capitalist corruption" and printed their versions of the "truth" in their newspapers,  police brutality and corruption, and the darker, seedier side of the city during this time.  In one scene that I'll probably never forget because of the image it made in my head, Klein walks into a club where a bizarre cabaret is going on, performed by women dressed in nothing but a Kaiser Wilhelm mustache and a helmet.  The time and place are not conveyed as well as they are, say,  in Marek Krajewski's characterizations of this period in his Eberhard Mock novels, but there's enough here to transport the reader.  Aside from that issue, the author is a master of sleight-of-hand (I can't explain why, but just trust me here),  his central mystery is very well focused, as is Klein's investigation.  There's also bonus at the end of this book for anyone who may be remotely interested in the real-life Peter Kürten -- a timeline that takes the reader through his crimes up to his eventual execution in 1931.

I'd recommend this novel for readers of very dark crime -- this book is definitely not for the faint of heart, nor for anyone looking for a happy ending. It's edgy, gritty and I have to say, one of the better books I've read in the area of crime this year. It is a no-nonsense, cutesy-less novel and I hope he continues this trend in the next book he writes -- considering that this is his first novel, I'm amazed to discover that his way of writing crime fiction matches the type of work I look forward to finding and reading in this genre. Super.

historical crime fiction from the UK

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

*The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, by Fred Vargas

Penguin, 2013
360 pp
originally published as L’armée furieuse, 2011
translated by Siân Reynolds


To be very blunt, I was not at all fond of the last two Adamsberg novels because of their trend toward the supernatural.  I bought The Ghost Riders of Ordebec hoping that the author had left all that behind, and while the title may suggest otherwise, I can definitely say that human agency, rather than spectral, is the force at work  in this very fine seventh-in-series novel.  I feel like in this book, Vargas has circled back to the author whose work I first fell in love with (pardon the bad grammar) and that things (at least for me) are back on track in this series.  She's also upped her game here in terms of writing.  While Ghost Riders of Ordebec may not be perfect, it is a great blend of intriguing mystery, first-rate characterizations and humor.

As Adamsberg is pondering the strange case of a man who killed his wife with breadcrumbs, a woman from Ordebec, a small town in Normandy, comes to him with an even stranger tale, prefaced with the words "People are going to die."   He has to pry the story out of her, but eventually it comes down to the fact that a man in Ordebec had disappeared some three weeks earlier, on the night her daughter Lina saw The Furious Army, known also as the Ghost Riders.  She saw this "army of the dead, of the putrified dead, an army of ghostly riders, wild-eyed and screaming, unable to get to heaven," which "carry along some living men or women, who are heard shrieking and lamenting in suffering flames."   As his colleague, the walking encyclopedia Danglard explains,
"...whatever the efforts of the witness when he goes home after seeing this terrifying vision, and however many Masses are said, the living persons he's seen riding with the army die in the week following the vision. Or within three weeks at the outside...All those who are "seized" by the Riders are certainly bastards beneath contempt, real villains, exploiters, corrupt judges or murderers. But their crime is not generally known to their contemporaries. They've remained unpunished. That's why the army gets hold of them."
As it turns out, Lina had seen the missing Herbier with the Ghost Riders, and now he's gone. While unenthusiastic at first, Adamsberg eventually decides to go to Ordebec and see what's up with this ghostly army -- which encompasses the bulk of this very compelling mystery --  but in the meantime, he also has to deal with a local pyromaniac named Momo who is in the hot seat for allegedly setting fire to a car with someone inside.  When it's discovered that the dead man is the  head of a leading industrial group and evidence points toward Momo, the pressure is on from high for an arrest.  Adamsberg knows this is not Momo's work, and likely a frame, but he has to discover the identity of the real guilty party before Momo is sent to prison and enlists the help of his newly-discovered son.

"The Wild Hunt," by Peter Nikolai Arbo (from wikipedia )
 While the mystery of the ghostly army is compelling, what really makes this book is the characters. There's Adamsberg, of course, but when an author can breathe so much life into so many other people in his/her books, it's just amazing.  The police station where Adamsberg works is populated with a number of very unique people,
"...a hypersomniac who goes to sleep without warning, a zoologist whose specialty is fish, freshwater fish in particular, a woman with bulimia who keeps disappearing in search of food, an old heron who knows a lot of myths and legends, a walking encyclopedia who drinks white wine non-stop -- and the rest to match."
 including a cop who can come up with alexandrines suitable to each occasion.  But it's not just the police who are well drawn -- there is a family of "geniuses" Adamsberg meets in Ordebec who pop out at the reader.  One is prone to visions, one says words backwards, one thinks he's made of clay, another was born with six fingers on each hand and used to scare the crap out of bullies by putting devil curses on them, while another enjoys gathering and cooking insects.  The author's imagination must have been running on overdrive in dreaming up these people. And Adamsberg's newly-found son is also an interesting character as well.

While the mystery is fun, the solution is a wee bit rushed, but really, it's the getting there that will keep you reading and highly entertained.  As the story unfolds, the two main mysteries bring with them other surprises to be revealed along the way.  I'm so happy that Vargas is back on top of her game here -- and I'll definitely be looking forward to the next installment of the series.  Highly recommended, although maybe a bit on the lighter side for avid crime readers who enjoy more edgy mystery novels.

ps/don't let Ghost Riders of Ordebec be your intro to Adamsberg -- start with The Chalk Circle Man and work your way forward. You'll miss a LOT if you don't. 

crime fiction from France

Monday, July 1, 2013

does anyone (in the US only, sorry) want some absolutely free older Scandinavian crime novels or one Japanese one?

I have six Scandinavian crime novels I would like to find a new home for if possible:

Camilla Lackberg -- The Ice Princess
Camilla Lackberg -- The Preacher
Asa Larsson -- Sunstorm
Quentin Bates -- Frozen Assets
Hakan Ostlundh -- The Viper
Sissel-Jo Gazan -- The Dinosaur Feather
I also have an ARC of Fuminori Nakamura's Evil and the Mask, from Soho Press.

All are in very nice condition.Take as many as you want. My crime fiction shelves have just hit maximum overload and I'm seriously desperate for space.

  Unlike many other things in life, for you, the books are absolutely 100% totally free;  I'll even pay postage to get them to their new home.  All you need to do is to be the first to leave a comment here telling me which book(s) you want, and then email me at oakesn@gmail.com with contact info INCLUDING A HOME ADDRESS, PLEASE!!  I'll hold them for a week, and then they're gone.