Monday, July 28, 2014

reorganizing the eurocrime room

My husband thought this was very funny -- it's me cleaning out the room where the Eurocrime lives. He posted the photo on his facebook page, and the caption reads "would you call this a book problem?" I guess he doesn't understand that I have to make a mess to get things organized.

Herbie's Game, by Timothy Hallinan

Soho Crime, 2014
400 pp

arc from the publisher - thank you!

Junior Bender is back in a fourth episode, following Crashed, Little Elvises, and The Fame Thief but still going strong.  I've been binge watching every season of Game of Thrones lately trying to be ready for season five,  but I gave up several very late nights of watching to read this book -- and it was well worth it.  That actually says a lot, because Game of Thrones is deep in my blood right now.  

Moving right along, Herbie's Game begins as our burglar hero Junior Bender is asked by a "contractor" named Wattles to retrieve some property of his that had been stolen. Wattles, whose memory is "not what it used to be," would 
"arrange anything, from a cautionary faceful of knuckles or a modest supermarket fire all the way up to a whack, for the right fee." 
Someone hired Wattles to do a hit, and he'd written down the chain of "disconnects" that were to be involved.  He stashed the list of names in his safe and now it's been taken. Wattles wants it back. Signs point to Junior's old mentor and surrogate dad Herbie Mott as the thief, but when Junior goes to see him, Herbie is dead after being tortured in a not-so-very-nice way.  Junior is brought low by Herbie's death, and as he continues to track down the chain of disconnects, he not only reflects on Herbie's importance to him in his life, but finds out more about Herbie than he's ever known. He also runs up against someone who seems to be a step or two ahead of him each time, someone who leaves behind dead bodies but no clues.

If you've lived in Los Angeles for any length of time, then you're aware that Hallinan knows not only the area, but the people who live there.  I have seen pretty much all of his archetypes on the streets and on the beaches there, and his characters are spot on.  In Herbie's Game he's added a new one that just cracked me up -- Ting Ting the lovable Filipino houseboy who may have gotten the better of Junior, but who for some reason is very attractive to the criminal element of both sexes.  He also adds a couple of teenaged hacker girls who make much more than Junior ever will (one of whom is planning to use the money to go to MIT later),  an over-the-top attorney with mirrored shades, a killer who got religion and a clairvoyant who runs The All-Seeing Eye by the name of Handkerchief.    It is this ensemble of  characters, along with a host of others,  who make these books work and work well -- because despite the fact that they're all pretty much involved in some form of crime or another, they come off as realistic people you grow to care about. They all see their worlds through a very different perspective, and as all these lives unfold, with Junior at the center,  the result is that you might actually find yourselves rooting for their success.

Each and every one of these books has had their laugh-out-loud moments, and this one is no exception. At the same time, Herbie's Game has its somber moments as Junior works through his grief over the loss of Herbie, which brings his mind around once again to his feelings about his father, which makes him ponder the kind of father he is to his teenaged daughter Rina.  And in the midst of the comedy, Hallinan's characters will take a few moments to ponder social and economic injustices, a trait  which elevates this book, and indeed the entire series, to something well beyond being just  another "caper" novel.

I have to say that I get nothing but pure pleasure from reading  these books, and I highly recommend them. Do not, I repeat, do not start with Herbie's Game, but read them all from the start. Junior Bender is not your typical crook -- he's got a heart, a conscience, and frankly, he's a downright decent guy, but to get the most of his character and of Mr. Hallinan's  quirky, extremely cool writing style, you have to start from the very beginning.  I love this series and as long as the books continue to be written, I'll be reading them,  hot off the press.

and now, back to Game of Thrones. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Stone Boy, by Sophie Loubière

Grand Central Publishing, 2014
originally published as L'enfant aux cailloux, 2011
translated by Nora Mahony
254 pp

paperback - my copy from the publisher via LibraryThing, thanks!

"The touch of madness was irresistible." 

Early on in this book there came a point where I thought I'd had it all figured out, and so smug little me decided that now that I knew everything I'd just sail along with the rest of the story until it proved me right.   But I was wrong. Totally beyond wrong.   And that's a good thing.

The Stone Boy begins with a series of vignettes moving the story along between 1946 and 1997, introducing us to the story's main character Elsa Préau, starting in her childhood where sitting at dinner one day, out of nowhere she passes along a message from her dead mother to the rest of the family. In the 46-year interim, as she marries, has a son, divorces, gets a job as a teacher and then moves up to being a headmistress. All along, Elsa's idiosyncracies seem to grow stronger, culminating in a strange afternoon picnic with her little grandson Bastien.  Flashforward to the present, and Elsa, now in her 70s,  is moving back into the family home, very much changed from the last time she was there. Now much of the neighborhood is under construction, and in her  absence, much of the land around her home has been sold off. Her physician son, Martin, comes every so often to see her to make sure she's okay; otherwise her only company is her housekeeper, and Elsa has a lot of time on her hands. One Sunday afternoon, she is awakened from her nap by the sound of a swing squeaking and  the sounds of children at play.  Watching out her window, she notices a little girl and two boys outside playing in their back yard.  Watching the Desmoulins children becomes a pastime for Elsa, and she notices the same thing every week: the little girl playing with her younger brother, while the older boy sits still and quietly, "constructing totems with bundled twigs and flat stones" under a weeping birch tree. The more she watches, the more she notices that the older boy has very little interaction with the rest of the family:
"It no doubt stemmed from a solitary temperament and a tendency to be withdrawn on his part. Yet his unwillingness to speak to the point of submission was unique. He never held a toy in his hands; he was content with twigs and stones. And though Madame Préau did pass the younger brother and sister from time to time on the path as they were coming home from the bakery with their father, one on a bike, the other on a scooter, not once had the old woman seen the little boy behind them. And that was troubling."
After a while, she begins to try to get the boy's attention by playing piano pieces designed for children, leaving the windows open so the music can be heard over the wall.  She starts keeping a record of what she sees, along with other observations,  in a small moleskin notebook, writing about the dirty condition of the older boy's clothing, his grayish skin,  that he only went outside on Sundays, and that he never played with the other two.  She's drawn to him not only out of curiosity, but because he has an incredible resemblance to her grandson. In her notebook, she begins to refer to him as "the stone boy."

from garalalog
 Determined to get to the bottom of things, she starts asking around, only to find out that according to the local school, the social welfare office, and the little girl herself (who has started taking piano lessons from Elsa), that there are only two children living in the house behind Elsa's wall -- that the "stone boy" does not exist.  As Elsa's behavior grows more erratic and she becomes progressively more off kilter, she decides to take matters into her own hands.

I am of two minds about this book. First, I thought it was very well written, especially because the author has constructed a story that plays quite nicely on reader expectations and then proceeds to turn them all on their respective heads. Ms. Loubière also weaves some powerful contemporary issues into the story through Elsa's letters to the mayor and other officials as well as in her notebooks and in the last few pages where all is revealed.  I have to admit to being so wrapped up in this story that everything else just sort of fell by the wayside and I accomplished absolutely nothing at all during my day.  But after finishing it, I realized that this book could have had a much better ending.  So now comes the serious "spoiler ahead" alert - and I mean, if you read this without having already read The Stone Boy it will totally kill it for you, because I don't hold back. So think seriously before you click to highlight the rest of this paragraph. For me, the book would have had the ultimate spine-tingling, bone-chilling effect on the reader  if the story had ended right at the anonymous phone call from Auverre.  Think about it. All of this time we're so convinced that Elsa's just crazy and can't separate her dead grandson from her obsession with the boy next door, and everyone has proven to her that there is no third child there. Then the stuff at the Desmoulins home happens, and Elsa dies and as far as the police are concerned, case closed. Then you have this little girl calling Child Line (in chapter sixty)  about her father making her older brother go into the basement, then hanging up, an ending that would have been a lot more powerful than the unraveling of things that followed.   Perfect, finito, the end. In this case, I have to say, less could have been more.

A book that had me as wrapped up in it as this one did can't help but be good, and I'd definitely recommend it.  It's an amazing character study much more than it is a thriller, and the way the writer plays with our heads is simply topnotch, ultimately delivering a one-two punch that will hit you in the gut.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

from Austria by way of Melville House: Resurrection, by Wolf Haas

Melville House, 2014
180 pp
originally published as Auferstehung der Toten, 1996
translated by Annie Janusch


Wolf Haas has written seven novels in his Simon Brenner series; Resurrection is the first novel. Haas  has a different but cool, quirky sort of  writing style not often found in standard crime/mystery fare, with a story that has a number of  meandering but often humorous  digressions that hide a rather ingenious crime and the keys to its solution.  It is also the introduction to an ex-policeman turned PI who is  all too human but who sticks with his work until it's finished, despite his own personal shortcomings. And because it suits my need for trying to stay out of the mundane in my reading, I had a great time with this book.

Simon Brenner is a 44 year-old ex-detective inspector ("or whatever his rank was") who has recently left the police after a nineteen-year career.  He's on the same case he was working when he left, the strange affair of two elderly Americans found frozen to death in December on a chair lift in Zell am See, a popular ski area in the Austrian Alps. The Americans were factory owners in Detroit, and inlaws of Vergolder Antretter, the "richest man in Zell." As the reader learns in the first two chapters, Brenner solved the case only after three-quarters of the year had gone by, not for the police, but for Vienna's Meierling Detective Agency, contracted by the Americans' insurance company.  The police case had stalled in January; by March, as a PI for Meierling, Brenner was back.  Suffering from pounding migraines, he works his way through this case with no evidence or leads; all he has is a seemingly unshakable alibi of one of the suspects given by a man who's just been released from a mental hospital. Using the alibi as a first step, Brenner ends up being awed by a woman with thick bifocals who gives him a ride in a car despite the fact that she has no hands, is sent to and falls in lust with a gorgeous schoolteacher who may have some important information for him, butts heads with an ambitious but annoying local reporter,  and even comes up against his former boss again before the nine months go by and the case finally comes to a close.

Zell am See, courtesy of

So far, this may seem like a typical outing in the world of crime fiction, but it most definitely is not. If the author were to go straight from point A to point B with the case, the investigation and the solution,  a) there would certainly be less pages in this book and b) it wouldn't be nearly as interesting or fun.  The unique narration style strikes the reader immediately.  It's as if he/she is being addressed by a sardonic someone who's sitting around in a bar, looking back and telling the story, complete with comments to "you," and the normal digressions a storyteller might make in such a situation, complete with character observations.  As just one example of a meandering path in this book, in describing how Brenner took a taxi ride hoping for information from a talkative cabbie, the narrator turns that into a discourse on the sport of curling, rich tourists and poor tipping,  as well as the way Brenner eats a sausage on a bun.  Yet hidden among this often darkly humorous, tangential material are not only clues essential to solving the crime, but there is a lot of insight into Brenner's character, the issues faced by the permanent residents in this tourist mecca, and the ugly past of this otherwise outwardly postcard-perfect area.

Since I've already read the author's Brenner and God, it's pretty obvious that in this book he's just getting started on developing Brenner's character, but that's usually the case in a first series novel. The crime, once solved, proves to be cleverly plotted and I didn't guess the who or the why.  I also happened to enjoy the quirkiness of Haas' writing style, but I can see how it might not be everyone's cup of tea.  The story digresses and the meandering may be a little off-putting for a reader who's in this solely for the crime. However, for patient readers who are willing to take a chance on something very different in the crime-fiction zone, while it takes some initial bit of getting used to,  Resurrection turns out to be a very good and quite satisfying read, punctuated here and there with bits of dark humor keeping it lively.

crime fiction from Austria

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

from the "godfather of Australian crime" - Silent Kill, by Peter Corris

Allen and Unwin, 2014
255 pp

paperback - my copy from Shannon at IPG -- thanks!

"Problem simple, solution difficult." 

Not counting the short-story collections, author Peter Corris has written 33 series books  starring Cliff Hardy, eight of which ended up as finalists for the Ned Kelly award for best novel. It's a little embarrassing, but until I was asked to take a look at this book, I'd never heard of Peter Corris before. I also need to say that it is a bit daunting and a bit of a disadvantage to start with this latest book.  I have no clue, except for little peeks here and there, about Cliff Hardy's past or exactly who he is as a character. Normally I'd go back and read what I'd missed prior to writing about a later series novel, but this time, well, you know -- thirty-something freakin' books to catch up on is just a little much.

PI Cliff Hardy gets a visit from Jack Buchanan, "ex-commando, ex-stuntman, and actor." He's also someone Hardy hasn't seen in ten years.  He has an interesting proposition for Hardy, who as it turns out, needs the money -- business isn't so good, and Hardy needs something to occupy his time as his girlfriend has just left for Los Angeles and probably won't be coming back. Buchanan wants Hardy to serve as a bodyguard for a client of his named Rory O'Hara, who Hardy describes as a "firebrand."  O'Hara had worn a number of hats in his past, including student agitator,  "crusading journalist," an MP, and since inheriting a lot of money, he's become "self-funded righter of society's wrongs."  Lately he'd been a whistle blower on a big development backed by "shonky" financing, corrupt officials, and falsification of reports.  O'Hara had people on the inside gathering info for him, and he'd published his discoveries online. Now he's just coming out of the hospital after being the victim of a hit and run, and has a tour planned to talk about his plans to "clear up more" wrongdoing, and "reveal stuff about a big political shake-up."   Buchanan wants to make sure that his investment in O'Hara's tour remains sound -- and wants Cliff along to make sure nothing happens to O'Hara, since his whistle blowing has left  him with a lot of enemies.  Sounds simple, but things start to go wrong almost right away when a woman on the tour is found dead, putting Cliff out of a job. But wait. Her brother offers him a lot of money to find out who killed her and why. Starting with the group of people on the tour, Cliff soon begins to discover that there's much more here  than meets the eye - ultimately putting himself and a woman he's fallen for into a great deal of danger. As he moves across the country, he also realizes that someone is pulling a lot of strings -- but exactly who and why is what he has to find out.

Silent Kill  is not a difficult book to read, and Corris writes very simply.  I sort of felt sorry for the main character, because what I did manage to glean from the little bits of his past here is that he's not lucky in love, and he's just getting back to a good relationship with his daughter. He seems like a tough guy on the job, although  kind of woebegone in the personal zone.   The story takes a convoluted path but is easy to follow, plausible, and it becomes a hybrid mystery/thriller that kept me turning pages. Although the murderer is identified before the end of part one, and that piece of the mystery is over, there's still Hardy's "simple problem" to solve:  who was so worried about what O'Hara might do with his recent information  that they set a killer in his midst? Here things sort of move into thriller zone,  not my usual fare, but for those who enjoy them, there's plenty of high-powered action, conspiracies to sink your teeth into, and a solution that resonates with the times. All you have to do is pick up a newspaper to confirm what I'm saying.

Overall, it's always fun discovering a "new" author -- although Corris has been around a long time, he's a new blip on my international crime author radar that needs tracking.  I think I'd recommend Silent Kill to people who are intrigued with thrillers that lean toward the action-packed, political side - not my usual forte but I did enjoy the way the author writes and above all, I enjoyed meeting Cliff Hardy.

my many thanks again to Shannon at IPG, and I LOVE sharing the books I get with publishers, so if anyone in the US would like my copy, please let me know and it's yours.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

crime from the UK: Sorrow Bound, by David Mark

Blue Rider Press, 2014
336 pp

hardcover - sent to me by the publisher - thanks!!

Quite frankly, David Mark's third entry in this series featuring DS Aector McAvoy is the best he's written and most certainly the darkest of all three books.  For some people the dark tone of the novel may be a drawback, but for me, it's a definite plus.  Each book ratchets up both the tension and the darkness, and there's nothing at all formulaic to complain about in this series of police procedurals.

DS Aector McAvoy of Hull, West Yorkshire,  hasn't had an easy time of it as a cop ever since he exposed the crimes of a corrupt detective superintendent some years earlier. Up to that time, McAvoy had a reputation as a "rising star," but afterwards he became a virtual pariah among his colleagues.  He was moved to the Serious and Organized Crime Unit to get him out of the way, but he managed to prove himself to his new boss even if some of the people there still weren't sure about him. Currently the unit is working on investigating a "highly organized criminal outfit" that runs most of the drug trafficking on the East Coast, and the violent crime rate has increased accordingly ever since.   As Sorrow Bound opens, McAvoy is called to a murder scene where the victim has had her chest caved in, rib bones broken, and organs mangled. It might be gang related; his boss tells him that the murdered woman had recently spoken out publicly about street dealers wrecking the neighborhood.   When another woman is murdered,  the police make a startling discovery that throws the gang-related theory right out the window.  However, while Aector is busy with the police-mandated shrink, moving his family into a new home and trying to function in this investigation with very little sleep, a drug runner makes a serious error that will bring a cocky, self-styled "prince of the city" drug dealer with a lot of serious and well-placed protection behind him crashing into the life of one of McAvoy's colleagues and into the lives of McAvoy's family.

I can't say why, really, so as not to spoil anything, but I was really struck by  the title of this book. It's  incredibly appropriate in a double-edged sort of way;   I was also impressed by how perfectly Mr. Mark bookended the prologue and the epilogue around the main action of the story, giving a nice balance to the book as a whole. It's not always the case that a prologue/epilogue combination is as effective as it turns out to be here. And as always with this author, the sense of place is well evoked,  as are his characters.   He can definitely tell a story that draws the reader in immediately -- I first picked this book up and then couldn't set it down again for hours. So here's the only niggle (which is really hard to scoot around since I don't really want to give anything away):  he has one of the main recurring characters do something that is so totally out of character and so completely unexpected that it absolutely threw me and sent me into  "WTF?" mode  trying to digest what had just happened. Then not long afterward, the same person does something so foolishly stupid as to be just plain dumb,  also very much out of character.  On the other hand, if what I suspect is going to happen actually materializes in the next book, well, let's just say that it's a major game changer for the series -- an even bigger angst-fest than I've seen in any of the McAvoy novels so far. And since I'm a big fan of  both McAvoy  and of David Mark,   I will be waiting right here to see it all unfold. 

I am  a true series purist so my advice is to start with The Dark Winter and continue with  Original Skin before reading Sorrow Bound, because a) by now I have a better feel for DS McAvoy and what drives the man and b) David Mark's writing has really matured with Sorrow Bound. In reality, though, it's quite readable as a standalone.  Readers who enjoy their crime on the lighter side may not enjoy this one so much, but readers who tend toward darker fare should find plenty to keep them glued here.

My thanks once again to the good people at Blue Rider Press who sent me a lovely, finished copy to review. I'll be waiting patiently for the next McAvoy installment.

 crime fiction from the UK

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

(read earlier in June): The After House, by Mary Roberts Rinehart -- a novel with a real-life purpose

Kensington Publishing, 2001
originally published in 1914
219 pp


When I'm not reading about crime and criminals in other countries, I love to go through the vintage mysteries and crime fiction novels I've been stockpiling for years, much of it booty from yard sales, library sales, used book stores, etc. Recently I picked up The After House, by Mary Roberts Rinehart, an author who has a long list of titles under her name. I've read a lot of books by this author, and sadly, The After House just isn't all that good. A word of warning at the outset: this book was published in 1914 and there are a few racial/religious epithets in the story that most people wouldn't use today, so please keep in mind that their usage reflects their common acceptance of the time.

Ralph Leslie has simultaneously just finished medical school and developed a case of typhoid that lands him in the hospital. He's broke and a friend of his feels sorry for him, wangling him a space aboard the Ella, a luxury yacht that is about to set sail on a cruise. Still weak from his illness, he comes on as an "extra man," working with the crew, and in case the butler becomes ill (since he's a 'poor sailor,') Ralph is told that he should be ready to take his place. On sailing day, nineteen people leave port. By the time they return, four of the nineteen are dead at the hands of a murderer with a penchant for axe wielding, a suspect is being held on board, and everyone is frightened out of their wits. Ralph decides to do a little sleuthing when he's not helping to sail the ship back to port, but more than a few people are hiding things that make his job a little difficult. His biggest job, however, is trying to prevent anyone else from being killed.

Once you get past the initial (and somewhat tedious) introduction of the players on the Ella, as well as the ongoing romance element (ick), there's a decent mystery here, although personally when I got to the solution, I had to cry foul. Although the author peppered her book with lots of little details and clues for the reader to sock away until guessing time comes, she didn't give the right clues to allow for any armchair detective to even come close to her solution. Unfair!

However, this book has an interesting history behind it. It was Mary Roberts Rinehart's own take on a similar, true murder case where a man had been found guilty and had been protesting his innocence for seventeen years; The After House was her version of the case where she offered a plausible, alternative suspect in an effort to get the case reopened.

I won't be adding The After House to my list of favorites written by Rinehart, but two of her novels, The Album and The Man in Lower Ten, are very much worth trying out if you're a vintage crime reader. I should really go dig those out and reread them.