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.