Sunday, September 28, 2014

The White Van, by Patrick Hoffman

Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014
242 pp

hardcover - from the publisher, thank you!

Set on the streets of San Francisco, The White Van opens to something I've not yet seen in my crime-fiction reading history.  Sitting in a local bar in the city's Tenderloin district one night, a 31 year-old woman named Emily Rosario meets a Russian man who charms her with whiskey and the promise of crack. She allows him to take her to a South Side Ramada Inn, where after the crack pipe comes out, he tells her that he and his wife (who have another room in the same place) are in town to make some money.  With the promise of two hundred dollars a day, he adds that they'd like her help in their plans. Emily, who had been thinking about leaving her cheating bruiser of a boyfriend and needed the money to do so, agrees, and she's treated to more drugs, pills this time. In a drug-filled haze for several days, she finally is told what she needs to do -- nothing terrible, just a little case of "identity theft."   As it turns out though, still out of her head drugged out, she's put into a van with a few other Russian people, and they head to a bank.  She gets step-by-step instructions on what to do via an earpiece in her head, and told not to worry -- that someone on the inside is in on it.  But as in most sure things, something goes terribly wrong and it's not the Russians who get their hands on the money. 

Enter policeman Leo Elias, a member of the gang task force. His life is spiraling out of control due to gambling and some very poor financial choices he's made, and it's so bad that his house is being foreclosed on and he hasn't yet told his wife.  His idea is that since the bank hasn't yet recovered the stolen $800 thousand-plus dollars, maybe he can get his hands on it using good old-fashioned police work and solve his monetary problems that way; but again, things just don't go as planned, and things take a definite turn for the worse. In the meantime, he's not the only one looking for the money.

 What follows is pure action -- the stuff of thriller novels to be sure.  Sandwiched in between all of the drug sellers, drug addicts, crooked cops, mobsters, etc. are the backstories of the main players showing how they all came to be here and what's motivating them to do what they're doing.

If the point of this book is that sometimes the people who are supposed to protect you can be just as bad as the people they're supposed to protect you against, well, it came through loud and clear. Or maybe it's that people in desperate circumstances will do whatever it takes to get out of them.  Or maybe it's just a book about the turmoil of life on the streets of San Francisco.  I'm not exactly sure why, but I had zero connection to any of the characters in this book, where normally I can at least try to empathize with people drawn into circumstances beyond their control.

The White Van seems to be made for people who prefer plot-driven, nonstop action thrillers; I discovered after reading for a while that I'm just not the right audience for this book.  However, if you look at the reviews that have been posted about this novel, I seem to be in the minority of opinion  once again -- it's getting some good press and high marks from readers. I'd say if you're a big thriller reader, this might just be a book to look into.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

for TLC book tours: The Summer of Long Knives, by Jim Snowden

booktrope, 2013
319 pp

paperback, sent by the publisher, thanks!

Another book by an indie publisher and author (who just happened to get his degree at University of Washington and lives in Seattle, the best city in America).  The premise of The Summer of Long Knives is a good one. It's 1936, and police Kommisar Rolf Wundt of Munich is ready to walk away from the Nazis and from Germany, taking his wife Klara with him. Wundt had earlier solved the case of the serial killer known as the Dresden Vampire, and he's a good cop. There's just one more case left for him to solve before he flees, that of a murdered little German girl found at a farmhouse belonging to the family Epp. But, just like in the real world, things do not always go as planned.

Even though Wundt and his team at the police department are on to a strong lead from photographic evidence they'd culled together, the case suddenly comes to a halt when the decision is made by higher powers to make Heydrick and Himmler  "the new lords and masters at KRIPO," effectively putting the SS in charge of German police forces. Under their watch, Jewish scapegoats are brought in for "questioning" in the case, then executed for the murder of the little girl. Wundt knows that these boys didn't do it, but with the SS in control, he's beaten, and what can he do? As he's getting ready to pack up and leave, he's going through some old files and comes across one from some years earlier that is linked to the little girl's murder, a file he'd never seen before, put there just for him.   Suddenly, his plans for leaving are put on hold as he realizes that he must solve this crime, not just for justice but for his own personal redemption. With the SS breathing down his neck, it's going to be difficult, and his investigation just may mean the end of his plans for freedom.

The author is on his game when he is focused on the crime segments of this novel as well as during his depictions of Wundt's frustration at the SS takeover of the criminal investigation agency of the police. The book starts out very nicely with the discovery of the body, leading to Wundt's investigation, and police work  that leads Wundt in a positive direction toward the possible identity of the little girl's killer.  When he turns to psychiatrist-wife Klara, who helps with profiling the killer, it's an added plus.  But around the crime, I had a lot of issues with the writing. Sometimes the SS people, most especially in their "interrogation" with the Jewish suspect in the girl's murder,  came across as truly stereotypical Nazis you might see on television. Then there are Wundt's inner musings. For example, there's one scene where Wundt is musing about Marlene Dietrich and her "magical reversal of power," her "indifference to men," and holding her up as the standard of German womanhood. Huh? Another example: on seeing his boss's naked torso at his raquet club, there's this:
"Rolf had never known just how much hair covered Helmut's body. Tufts of it sprouted from his nipples and their environs, and from the ridges of his shoulder blades, like swamp ferns. He'd need to have them waxed if he wanted to join the SS. From what Rolf had seen in the films, they had a smooth skin fetish." 
Huh?  These sorts of things pop up all throughout the novel (including a brief discourse on Bentham's panopticon which seems out of place), and to say that they're jarring is an understatement. The author also, from time to time, uses expressions that seem more at home in our current world than in Nazi Germany, pulling me out of the time frame.

Overall,  the author can write crime scenes well, and he's good at, as the back cover blurb notes, "telling stories about people who find that the rules they've lived by are turning against them." That theme comes through loud and clear in Summer of Long Knives.  However, I didn't really enjoy the periodic lapsing into moments I've noted above  that left me wondering about their relevance.  I read literary fiction all of the time so I get what he's trying to do here, but less would have been so much more in this novel, which started out so promisingly well. But once again, I'm probably being nitpicky --  I'm looking at reader reviews and they almost all seem to love this book, 4 & 5 stars pretty much across the board, making me realize just how tough of an audience I really am.

Once again, my thanks to the good people at TLC book tours, and if you'd like to read what other readers thought about this novel, you can follow them here.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Peter Lovesey rides again with The Stone Wife

Soho Crime, 2014
355 pp

arc, from the publisher (thank you!)

I have an entire room devoted to crime from the UK, and several shelves right in the center of that room hold volumes of Peter Lovesey's work. I first discovered his books when I found an old Penguin edition of Wobble to Death at a used book store, and from there I made a point of collecting every mystery/crime novel he's ever written. The Stone Wife is the fourteenth Diamond entry, and while it may not be as lively as some of Lovesey's previous novels, it's still a good light read. 

The story begins in an auction house where there's a bidding war going on. The fact that a couple of the bids are coming by phone is somewhat surprising, because normally the auction sale consisted of the "disposal of old bits brought in to the Bath office for valuation, many of them bric-a-brac or tat."  Obviously, there's something of value that's being auctioned off in lot 129, and whatever it is must be worth quite valuable.  The bidding started at five hundred pounds, rising  to an amazing twenty-four thousand when suddenly,  three masked men with guns come in, determined to take lot 129 for themselves.  This draws the ire of the winner of the bid, who becomes irate when the masked men start to cart off his prize, and in the process of trying to take it back he gets shot and killed.  The would-be thieves flee, leaving very little in the way of clues behind.  When lot 129 is uncovered, it turns out to be a medieval carving of Geoffrey Chaucer's "Wife of Bath," one of the pilgrims in his Canterbury Tales.  The dead man is identified as John Gildersleeve, a professor of Medieval English Literature. As Diamond and his team start to delve into his past, questions begin to surface, but the biggest one is this: was the shooting of this man a random act perpetrated by thieves, or had someone set up  some "Byzantine" plot culminating in Gildersleeve's murder?  While Ingeborg goes undercover to see if she can track the source of the guns, the rest of the team get busy trying to figure out exactly what happened by focusing on Gildersleeve himself. 

As with many of the Diamond novels, The Stone Wife reaches into Bath's historical and archaeological past; since Chaucer figures prominently in this novel there is also some discussion about the author's life, history, and works as well. The plot is not at all complicated and very easy to read -- this is definitely crime light, in a good way that brings out some of Diamond's little trademark eccentricities while he and the team solve a most baffling case with a wide array of potential suspects.   There are also a few scenes that draw the reader to the plight of modern development  impinging on historical or natural landscapes, and the powerlessness of locals who try to stop it.  On the other hand, the liveliness that exists between Diamond and the other members of his crime-solving team just isn't there this time as it has been in the past and I missed it.  Another point: there was much more going on than I felt necessary in terms of Ingeborg's undercover work -- imho, that part took up more space and reader attention than it really needed to, and sort of drew away from the main thrust of the story.    

If you haven't read the Diamond novels before, you could still read The Stone Wife as a standalone, but you'll have a much better grasp of the intrepid Inspector if you start from the beginning of the series. This is a good novel for readers of crime light -- not that there's anything light about a murder, but there's no major character angst, no gratuitous violence or sex, and it really is a good old-fashioned murder mystery that you can just curl up and escape with for a few hours. While it's not my normal thing, I will always make time to catch up on what Peter Diamond and his crew are up to.  Recommended, especially for those who like their crime and crimesolvers on the the tame side. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

back to the north: Spring Tide, by Cilla & Rolf Börjlind

Hesperus/Nova, 2014
originally published as Springfloden, 2012
473 pp

paperback, copy for review - thank you, Shannon!

I have to offer kudos to the authors for their opening chapter -- I think they designed the first few pages totally for shock value and it worked.  There is one of the most god-awful crimes going on in that chapter, and seriously, I couldn't help but to be drawn in just to see who could have committed such a terrible deed. Eventually all is made clear, but in the meantime, a number of other things are going on that the reader must work through before getting to the big reveal.  On the whole, it's not a bad book -- there are a number of twists and turns throughout the story that keep things interesting and then there's that need to figure out who could have committed such an atrocious opening crime and why that kept me reading -- but on the flip side, there are definitely issues that keep it from being a much better book.

The story begins in 1987 on the west coast of Sweden, on a night of a spring tide.  While the tide is out, three people bury a woman in the exposed sand, leaving only her head exposed, knowing that within fifteen minutes, the waves would be rolling back in with the high tide that would raise the water level about 50 centimeters. They do the deed, not knowing that there is someone else on the beach watching them. As the tide starts to come back in, we are told that not only is this poor woman pregnant, but that her water has broken.  Nearly a quarter of a century later, in 2011, young Olivia Rönning, a police-college student, is just about to start her summer holidays.  One of her instructors has a file of cold cases in his hand, and offers them a "voluntary" summer project: they are to choose one case, make an analysis of the investigation, and see if they can find anything that have been done differently - "a little exercise in how cold cases can be tackled." Olivia chooses one that her father, now deceased, had worked on as a DCI in the national crime squad.  As it just so happens, it's the murder of the pregnant woman that occurred in 1987 in Hasslevikarna, on the island of Nordkoster. Olivia really gets into this murder study, mainly because the woman's identity had never been established  - and comes up with all kinds of ideas.  The first thing she does is to look for the original investigating officer, Tom Stilton, only to find out that no one seems to know where he is. Later she will discover his whereabouts and they will team up, but first, she decides to go to Hasslevikarna herself and find out what she can there.

While Olivia is off playing girl detective, the streets of Stockholm are in a bit of turmoil. Some very nasty people are attacking the homeless on the streets, beating them up,  filming the violence on their cell phones and then sending the video to a website called Trashkick.  The police haven't seemed very interested in getting to the bottom of things, but when a woman is killed, one roughsleeping man in particular decides he needs to find out who did this, only to find out that the problem is even worse than he'd imagined.  Then there's a storyline regarding a minerals magnate who maintains his interests through some pretty unsavory methods, but who will do anything to save himself and his fortune when someone from the past pops up, threatening to reveal a shared secret.  The book encompasses all of these plotlines, along with running social commentary,  mainly on the lack of a safety net for the not-so-fortunate in Stockholm.


So - while I enjoyed the basic whodunit solving of the story as well as  some surprising twists that kept cropping up that appealed to my need to play armchair detective,  I think the authors were a little overambitious here.  If the story had been reined in a little more, more tightly controlled with a lot of extraneous stuff edited out,  it would have made for much better reading.  Second, I just couldn't help noticing the number of  coincidences that play a huge role throughout the book, some of them just too fluky to be credible. Then there's main character Olivia -- while she becomes embroiled in this particular cold case for her own reasons, sometimes she comes across as a less-serious heroine than one would expect. It's almost as if the authors felt they needed a young-adult component to reach a wider reading audience.  Teaming her up with the inwardly-tormented Stilton was a great idea, but even there, he's definitely the one in control. And finally, while I think crime fiction is an excellent venue for exploring social issues, it has to be done in moderation and in the context of the story to come off in a very good way -- here, it's just a little overdone for my personal taste.

So far, from what I can tell, reader reviews have been positive, with a number of people eager for Spring Tide to branch out into a series.   If that happens, I would likely give a second book a read -- while the Börjlinds may be seasoned television scriptwriters, this is their first attempt at novel writing, and they wouldn't be the only newbie novelists who were a little overambitious initially but who came back stronger in their next attempt.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

for TLC book tours: Laura Lippman's After I'm Gone

William Morrow, 2014
331 pp

paperback, sent by the publisher  -- thanks!

After I'm Gone is the first book I've read by Laura Lippman, an author with eighteen published novels,  a collection of short stories, and one book scheduled to be published in February of 2015.  After I'm Gone is a standalone novel,  not part of her ongoing series, although  PI Tess Monaghan does make a very brief appearance in this book, albeit unconnected to the story at hand.  It is less a crime novel than a family saga, and when all is said and done, the novel reveals how a single moment of decision can have effects that continue to reverberate through time.

Felix Brewer has done pretty well for himself -- he's a successful bookie who has a few other shady side businesses as well as a legitimate enterprise, a small coffee shop.  He is  married to Bambi, with whom he has three daughters, but Felix also has a few women on the side. One of these women is Julie Saxony, a stripper who goes by the moniker Juliet Romeo who is in love with Felix and hopes that someday he'll leave Bambi for her, even though Felix has always been up front about no divorce. In 1976, after Felix is convicted for his criminal activities, rather than face prison, he just takes off, without a word to his family. Ten years to the day after he leaves, Julie Saxony disappears, and it's assumed that she's gone off to be with Felix. However, some years later, her body is discovered in a park. While the publicity surrounding Julie's death dredges up the whole Felix story again, the killer is never found and the case just sort of goes nowhere.   Now, in the present, a cold-case consultant and retired detective named Roberto "Sandy" Sanchez picks up the cold trail, determined to solve the case. 

If this were the long and short of the story, I'd classify it solely as crime fiction, but as I noted, it's more of a long-term family drama. After I'm Gone actually examines the effects of Felix's disappearance from the points of view of the women in his life -- his wife, his daughters, and Julie Saxony, his mistress.  Character, rather than plot, drives this novel that spans several decades, and Sandy, through his investigation,  is there to tie things all together. The Brewer women limp by over the years,  with Bambi, who has literally gone from riches to rags, shored up emotionally and financially by the daughters and supported by close family friends. In the meantime,  Julie Saxony, who is strangely concerned with keeping tabs on Felix's family,  is determined to make something of herself, up until the day that someone kills her.

Considering that the word "thriller" is used in the back-cover blurb,  I  expected much more crimewise. While I'll admit that it was difficult not to become interested in their lives, I found that  there are a number of chapters where I had to question the relevance to what is going on overall in the bigger picture of the crime. And then there's Sandy, who's trying to solve the case but  really only gets only bit parts in this book as compared  to everyone else. Even when we're in a Sandy chapter, there's more about his self-perceived failures in life than his police work. This gets old really fast.  I liked Sandy and wanted to see more of him professionally, but that just wasn't the case.   I also figured out the who way before the police did, which is kind of sad, considering the possible number of suspects in this book.  

When all is said and done, I was drawn into the story, even though it's not nearly as edgy as the crime I normally read.  I liked the multiple points of view approach and the long span of time that really lets the reader get to know the characters.   I'd recommend it to people who enjoy crime writing  on the lighter side, and to people who are happiest reading character-,  rather than plot-driven novels. 

My thanks to TLC book tours for offering me a look into this novel.  This is a tour, so many bloggers have offered their take on this book, and you can find them all here

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

and she's back ... with Thomas H. Cook's A Dancer in the Dust

The Mysterious Press/Grove Atlantic, 2014
308 pp

hardcover - sent to me by the publisher (thank you!)

"The trouble is that we always define 'forward' as moving in our direction...But not everyone can, and not everyone should." 

I've been reading Thomas H.Cook's novels for some time now, but it seems to me that his previous two books The Crime of Julian Wells and Sandrine's Case marked a serious departure from his earlier works.  Now he's back again, taking his writing in yet another direction with A Dancer in the Dust, which I seriously debated for a while as to whether or not it's truly crime fiction or something else entirely. In the long run, I decided to post here, since there is most definitely a crime that lies at the heart of this book, but in many ways it's much more of a timely novel set in a very risk-fraught part of the world that most of us will probably never experience.  It's a story of great loss and one man's chance at personal redemption, and it is very, very good.  

In New York City, risk-assessment consultant Ray Campbell picks up a phone call one day, and on the other end is someone from his past. The topic of the conversation is the murder of  someone Ray once knew "from the old days," when he was an idealistic younger man with no interest in politics hoping to make a difference in the world -- more specifically,  in the African country of Lubanda.  Campbell arranges to see the caller, Bill Hammond, who Ray also knew "from the old days," to talk about the murder of Seso Alaya. Alaya, it seems, had phoned Hammond earlier in the week, to tell him he had something to show him, but never told Hammond exactly what it was.  Before Hammond and he could get together, Seso was murdered.  When a certain clue is revealed to Campbell, he realizes that Seso, who had probably scraped together every penny he made at his job in Lubanda to come to New York, was there about another person Bill and Ray had known in Africa, Martine Aubert, a white woman who was also a native Lubandan and who stood firm against changes being forced upon her.   Hammond is now the head of the Mansfield Trust, an organization that is a "kind of a holding company for a large number of charitable institutions and NGOs," that makes recommendations on whether "billions in aid might or might not pour into any particularly country" (and whose decisions are closely followed by highly-placed politicians, and other important sources of funding).  The Trust is "poised to offer a great deal of aid to Lubanda," and, as Hammond notes, if they give the green light, then lots of other organizations will follow suit. He needs to know what Seso wanted him to see, so he tasks Ray with getting to the bottom of things.  Ray agrees, and in the process of helping Hammond, memories of Lubanda come flying back, especially those of his  "Dancer in the Dust," Martine.  His search will also bring him back there physically, not only on Hammond's behalf, but also to  face down his own demons about what happened there a long time ago. 

However, there is so much more to this book than a simple who/whydunit. In and around this New York murder, the author examines some tricky issues, especially in questioning the benefits of humanitarian and other forms of aid to what we consider underdeveloped nations. Even the very best of intentions may result in unforeseen consequences, as Martine, for example, points out when Ray wants to build a well.  In a scene that was a bit of an eye-opener for me, Ray has drawn an x on the map where he wants to build it, and asks Martine her opinion, but her response is not what Ray had expected. She draws a circle around the x and explains
" 'The nomads will come to this well...and because of the water, they will have bigger herds. But to and from the well, these larger herds will eat more of the grassland, and so the nomads will have to move farther and farther from the well to feed their animals.' She drew a second, wider circle around the x. 'The grasses will be eaten clean first here.' She drew a third, still larger circle. 'Then here.' Now a much larger circle. 'Then here.' She looked at Bill. 'All their cows will die within the first circle.' She handed Bill back the pencil, her gaze now fixed on him intently. 'When that happens the nomads will have nothing to trade for the grains and materials they need. No meat or milk. Nothing to sustain them...but your water...You are friends of Lubanda, but even so, it is important to know the consequences of what you do.' "
Aid also ends up in goods that are stockpiled and sold on the black market or in other venues, and when a country's leader gets rich off of that, there's always someone who's envious of the generated wealth and wants it for himself. And the cycle continues, often starting wars, or bringing to power tyrannical leaders who care nothing for the people of the country, but for how much profit there is to be made in receiving outside assistance.  While the author acknowledges that there are genuinely good people with honest intentions of making a difference, there is always a cost of some sort to be paid by those they are trying to help. Martine hopes to show Ray that everything is "more connected to other things."  Another big theme in this novel is the way in which foreigners with money push for change in these countries, "to buy what they sell and to make what they, these 'others,' want to buy," and that outside money that promotes change often leads to a form of slavery, begging, or at the very least, upsets the traditional order of things. As Martine notes in this book,  "Lubandans should be Lubandans;" if there are tribal rivalries, let them be just that.  Another theme that the author hits on in this book is the issue of racial justification; there are other powerful elements that come into play as well,  but sadly, space and time limitations do not fully allow me to do this book justice. 

Letting A Dancer in the Dust stand on its own without trying to draw comparisons to Mr. Cook's other books is probably a very good idea since it is so very different.   The story itself is told across different time periods, through flashbacks that are Ray's memories of the past, ultimately revealing the reason behind his need for personal redemption.  Ray starts out as a naive idealist, but years after all he's been through, he comes to realize a fundamental truth about how people become lost "in a wilderness of error." And, as he notes, 
"...there is none deeper, nor more fraught with peril, than to believe that your world, your values, your sense of comfort and achievement, should be someone else's too."
Actually, this is a concept I believe in wholeheartedly, so the book was quite powerful, resonating with me on a very personal level.

All in all, A Dancer in the Dust is a very serious, sad, and tragic story, with no warm fuzzies of any sort.  It should provide its readers with a great deal of food for thought based on the issues the author presents here. While there is a good mystery to be had here, the novel definitely does not fall within the typical mystery category,  and frankly,  that's okay by me. I love when authors use their writing  to take on big issues.

 I have only a very small niggle here. Ray's job as a risk-assessment consultant leads him to make certain platitudes throughout the novel about the lessons of risk. For a while, these little rules were okay, fit in well into what the author was trying to illustrate, and I really understand why the author allowed him to do this, but after a while, the continuing referrals to risk assessment started getting old. This, I realize, is a really nit-picky kind of thing that may not bother anyone else, but it did me. Otherwise, every time I had to put this book aside, I couldn't wait to get back to it.  It's like I knew something terrible was going to happen but couldn't stop reading until I discovered exactly what it was. And why.

So far, reader reviews of this novel have been generally positive, and I will add my vote to the accolades.  If you are at all interested in the topic, you should not miss this one. I promise it will keep you turning pages.