Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Dirty War, by Dominique Sylvain -- a definite yes.

MacLehose Press, 2015
originally published as Guerre Sale, 2011
290 pp
translated by Nick Caistor


Well, this just royally sucks. Not this book, which is quite good,  but the fact that the next book isn't out in translation until October of next year, according to the publisher's website.  I'm the world's most impatient person when it comes to series books -- I read so few of them any more that when I find one I like, I want to read more as soon as possible. And this series I really do enjoy, so waiting is going to be a pain.

The first novel I read by Dominique Sylvain was her The Dark Angel, which I just LOVED. The characters are what made this book work well: the dynamic between retired Commissaire and the blonde American stripper (Lola and Ingrid, in that order) had me in stitches and in awe of just how refreshing these quirky characters are to read.  When I picked up this book, I assumed it was book number two in this series but it's not. According to a few places I looked at, Dirty War is actually book number five; it seems the intervening three series installments are as yet untranslated: La fille du Samouraï, (#2), Manta Corridor (#3) and L'absence de L'ogre (#4). As I've said many times, I really don't understand why we can't have books in translation in their publication order -- it would be nice not to have to backtrack each time, especially in a series that is based on characters like the ones in this series.  Like here, we have to kind of ignore that three books have fallen in a hole with all of the ongoing character development; even more maddening is the fact that in Dirty War, the two main characters are not at front and center of the story, although they're still just as odd and are still working around the police. 

This book is much, much more serious in tone than The Dark Angel. It takes on the form of a political thriller that focuses more on Sacha Duguin, the very gorgeous police inspector who is in charge of discovering who killed a young attorney named Florian Vidal.  The case draws Lola's attention when it turns out that the same method of murder was used five years earlier in the death of  Lola's former colleague, Toussaint Kidjo. Instinctively she knows that such a strange way of killing cannot be entirely random -- so along with Ingrid and a dog named Sigmund, Lola begins her own investigation. Without giving away anything important, it turns out that both murders have ties to Africa.  Vidal's death, however, also captures the attention of a "newly formed national intelligence agency" (according to the cover blurb), whose top guys are reluctant to share information with the Paris police department, resulting in a power struggle.    Sacha is appointed to solve the case, but what he uncovers leads to the titular and resulting "Dirty War" played out among the powers that be.  The stakes are high here for Sacha, in terms of his career, but they're even higher for the opposition trying to prevent the exposure of long-hidden secrets.   

Sylvain could go well beyond just crime fiction if she wanted to; her play on the old fable "Death in Samarkand" that appears both at the beginning and ending of this novel reveals just how very good of a writer she is.  She is also very, very good at constructing a story that turns out to be so meticulously plotted and so ingeniously twisted that it's nearly impossible to put the book aside.  With such an intense storyline, though, she sort of leaves Lola and Ingrid behind, which is so sad for me, but what few scenes they are in are just gold.  It's a shame really, but I see why they have to sort of stay more in the background than they did in the earlier novel.  

I normally am not a fan of thrillers, political or otherwise, but this one never gets down to that level of incredulity that so I see in so many of them; this one is rather intelligent and easy to follow without having to wade through a huge number of intersecting (and often ridiculous, in my opinion) plot lines. What I didn't care so much for was that at the end of this book, things got a bit rushed -- and a lot of the expository bits came out sounding like details of an author's outline.   Sadly, I can't provide an example since doing so, of course, would blow the show. However, I was beyond entertained here, in a great way, and I'm really looking forward to the next one, which seems to pick up where this one ends. I certainly hope so, because waiting 10 months to see where the cliffhanger ending goes is just going to be pure torture!  aarrrggghhh!!!!

Definitely recommended -- but do read The Dark Angel First. 

Monday, December 28, 2015

sometimes reality is FAR more frightening than fiction

Over the last week or so,  Mr. Film Critic and I have been watching Making a Murderer on Netflix, a documentary series that is so disturbing that I

a) found myself wanting to throw things at the TV over how badly these cases were handled,
b) found myself yelling at said TV about the horrific  injustice of it all, and
c) found myself telling anyone who would listen that they need to see this documentary.

As noted by The Observer, here's the main thrust:

"First, the facts: Steven Avery of Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, was convicted of rape in 1985 and sent to prison, until DNA evidence exonerated him after 18 years served. Two years later Mr. Avery was arrested again, this time saddled with the murder of 25-year-old photographer Teresa Halbach. The problem? Well, everything. As the trial continued it seemed more and more likely Mr. Avery was, at the very least, on the wrong end of some shoddy police work. At the very worst, the murder of Teresa Halbach starts to look like a genuine frame job, a slippery slope that leads to a grand conspiracy by the Manitowoc sheriff’s department against Mr. Avery, one so sprawling and corrupt it would put True Detective first season to shame."

What you don't see in this brief summary is this: Avery was on the edge of potentially winning a lawsuit for the mishandling of his first imprisonment.  Here's the issue: things were looking very bad indeed for the sheriffs deputies involved in his first arrest and their depositions in the case were showing what idiots they actually were in terms of not even looking at other suspects, especially when another man, whose name was even passed on to the sheriff's department as probably having done the crime for which Avery was in prison, had been convicted of the same sort of crime earlier. The other guy was ignored because the cops had their eyes on Avery; ultimately DNA evidence cleared Avery after 18 years.  Sure enough, guess who was the true guilty party??? So -- here they are on the edge of a huge judgment and the insurers for the cops, the prosecutor and the judge involved were not going to cover if Avery won, so those involved were facing potential financial (and reputation) ruin.  How convenient it was, then, when Teresa Halbach turned up missing and lo and behold, her car was discovered on Avery's property, a family-run auto salvage yard.  From there things just slide from bad to worse as the same local cops (who were supposedly not even supposed to be anywhere near Avery's property because of potential bias and conflict of interest) "find" evidence that wasn't there (and since it wasn't there, it wasn't photographed)  in earlier searches performed by the neighboring sheriff's department.

I can't even begin to describe the horrors and "shoddy" doings of both the police and the DA's office  that were brought out in this series, but we were both appalled at what can happen when a person becomes a target of the local justice system and the police and prosecutors become proverbial pitbulls who won't let go, despite the lack of evidence.  It was absolutely frightening and the worse thing is that the people in the crosshairs were poor, not well educated, and probably had no clue that they had options.

I don't normally find myself wanting to scream during a television show, but this was just so gut wrenching and a real-life trainwreck of a case that I absolutely could not believe could happen in this country.  Or maybe it does all of the time and I'm just naive.


Friday, December 18, 2015

and thus we come to the end of a brilliant career ...Dark Corners, by Ruth Rendell

Scribner, 2015
228 pp


For years now Ruth Rendell and her alter ego Barbara Vine have been aiding me in my dark fiction addiction.  Her style is such that had I received this book with neither title nor author name, I could easily have picked it out as a Rendell novel.  In fact, in my opinion, even though it's entirely different,  this book has almost the same tone as her Adam and Eve and Pinch Me (which I absolutely LOVE and recommend to almost anyone who will listen).  And while I wouldn't say that this one is among the best of her books that I've read,  it is still incredibly good, still bears all of the hallmarks of a Rendell novel,  and I am beyond grateful that it was published. As usual, Rendell interweaves current social and political issues into this book in her own unmistakable way; and, as always, her characters are what drive this most disturbing psychological story.  

The dustjacket blurb (in part) is as follows:
"When his father dies, Carl Martin inherits a house in an increasingly rich and trendy London neighborhood. Cash poor, Carl rents the upstairs room and kitchen to the first person he interviews, Dermot McKinnon. That is mistake number one. Mistake number two is keeping the bizarre collection of homeopathic 'cures' that his father left in the medicine cabinet, including a stash of controversial diet pills. Mistake number three is selling fifty of those diet pills to a friend, who is then found dead."
Just briefly and spoiler free, Dark Corners follows the events that launch from this perfect storm of mistakes, beginning with Dermot who seizes the moment following the news coverage of the death of Carl's friend Stacey and the resulting outpouring of public outrage.  Carl, of course, meant no harm to Stacey, but it was an innocent mistake that ultimately leads to increasingly-unbearable psychological pressure that Carl gradually finds unendurable.   Dermot (a creepy, sleazy vet tech at a pet clinic) witnesses the transaction between his landlord and Carl's overweight, overwrought actress-friend Stacey, and has no qualms about blackmailing Carl, demanding to live rent free after Stacey's death under the threat of ruining Carl's newly-launched career. Dermot is not beyond gloating to himself about the power he holds over Carl, delighting in his ability to "keep Carl exactly where he wanted him." As the pressure ratchets, Carl, who has taken to following Dermot occasionally and sees him out walking with his girlfriend,  is reminded of a phrase from his high school performance of Measure for Measure: "the duke of dark corners," but ultimately it will be Carl who is eventually backed  into a dark corner of his own.

What I love about Rendell's work in general is that a) once you open one of her non-series novels,  you find yourself in a claustrophobic environment where you can't escape the building tension and b) she is able to unearth those "dark corners" that dwell within otherwise seemingly-normal people, and she excels at that here.  Dermot the blackmailer, for example, is a regular churchgoer, never misses a Sunday service. Sex outside of marriage is something untenable for him; he even chides Carl for living with his girlfriend Nicola, saying the situation is  "far from right."  He is also  person who discovers and enjoys power, which becomes even more obvious in his relationship with his new girlfriend.  And then there's Lizzie, a friend of Stacey, who has a job and her own apartment but isn't beyond taking advantage of Stacey's death for her own purposes for the small measure of power the situation affords her.    At the same time, though, one of the  ironies of this tale is that neither Dermot nor Lizzie have that moral guide of conscience running through their heads, while Carl ... well, I'll leave it there so as not to wreck things for the next reader.

If you think about this novel as another in which Rendell explores the darkness of which humans are capable, then it is just as good of a work as many of her other books; I personally felt a bit let down by how things played out at the end, a sort of haphazard coming together of coincidence. Then again, as I noted about another Rendell novel some time back, she often uses coincidence and is aware that she's doing it so it sort of just goes with the territory. Despite that wee niggle, though, Rendell readers do NOT want to miss this book.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

I'm sorry. I just don't get it any more.

Today is a day of frustration.  I've just finished a crime novel written by a previously-unread author  that I am not even going to post about because I thought it was just awful.  It was just poorly written, it read like the author (who is also a screenwriter) was hoping it was going to become another big blockbuster tv series, and it was so out there as to be well beyond where I go when I suspend disbelief.  I put the book down extremely frustrated wondering if this sort of stuff is on course to become the norm in this genre with authors trying to outdo each other with how gimmicky their serial killers can get, or with methods of killing that are just beyond outlandish.  If the point of these violence-soaked novels is that society is getting more violent, well, hello, duh -- it's all over the news; I got that memo already and  I certainly don't need to open a novel to discover that message.  What ever happened to the idea of a decent, intelligent story, or one that tells its readers something about human nature in the process? Does anyone besides me even want that sort of thing any more?  I don't know about anyone else, but the extreme violence in these books  to me is just unnecessary, but seems to be  getting worse, more on the edge -- and  even more frightening --  more popular  as time goes on.

Monday, December 14, 2015

a cracking-good yarn: Darkness at Pemberley, by T.H. White

Dover, 1978
originally published 1932, Victor Gollancz
286 pp


Not to be at all confused with P.D. James' Death Comes to Pemberley, White's novel takes place over a century later than Austen's original and opens with a sort of locked-room puzzle. I have to say that in this case, the words "cracking good yarn" came to mind after I'd finished it; it's definitely not perfect by any means, but it's definitely a good, old-fashioned tale that kept me turning pages.

Darkness at Pemberley is quite different than most novels of this time -- the book opens with two deaths at a college (a disclaimer for which White wrote in his original book, reprinted in this edition) behind locked doors.  It looks like a murder-suicide and Inspector Buller ("in many ways a strange man"), who is investigating the crime,  is told by his superior at Scotland Yard to ask for that verdict at the upcoming inquest. The evidence supports this judgment on the face of things, but Buller is deucedly unhappy -- he senses murder but can't quite piece together how things were done. However, the question of whodunit and how is ultimately revealed to Buller by the clever murderer himself, who lords it  over Buller since there's absolutely no way to prove a thing.  Buller quits the force and accepts an invitation from his old friend Charles Darcy to come to Pemberley for a visit.  End of part one.

Part two picks up with Buller at Pemberley, and we learn some interesting information here. This Lord Darcy had been in prison for a couple of years for cocaine smuggling, although he was tricked into getting involved.  His social downfall and the scandal had also caused all but the most faithful of servants to leave Pemberley. Buller has long been enamored of Miss Elizabeth Darcy, Charles' sister, but his ideas about social class leaves him afraid to act on his feelings.  Most importantly, though, Buller has related the story about the murderer to his friends.  Charles, who doesn't always think before he acts, takes it upon himself to seek out said killer and give him a warning that he'll kill him within a week.  Bad idea, since now Buller realizes that the murderer will be coming after Charles to try to kill him; he also knows that it will be yet another murder that will never come to justice.

Darkness at Pemberley is anything but a ripoff of Austen's original; it is also a most unusual story.  Justice is at its heart, as is the fact that readers are left thinking about exactly what kind of people we're dealing with here as the main players come up with their own plans as to how to set things right.  It is a really good study of character and social class of the time, number one; number two, as I mentioned at the beginning, it's also a cracking good yarn.

I've seen several negative reader reviews but I genuinely enjoyed this book -- it's anything but run of the mill or formulaic and while a lot of readers were left cold, I thought there was enough excitement in it to keep it from being anything but boring.  It's certainly one I'd recommend to readers of vintage British crime. If you're expecting a riff on  Pride and Prejudice, as some readers obviously were, the book might seem disappointing; otherwise, going into it with no expectations might just be the way to approach it. It was actually surprisingly good.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Josephine Tey: A Life, by Jennifer Morag Henderson. If you love Tey's work, you'll be fascinated with her life.

Sandstone Press, 2015
426 pp

First and foremost, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Keara at Sandstone Press for commenting on my post about Tey's The Franchise Affair, where she gave me a heads-up that this book had been published and even offered me an e-copy.  It is undoubtedly one of the best books I've read this year, and I am so very grateful that she brought it to my attention.  Thank you, Keara. 

Second, I originally posted about this book over at the nonfiction page of this online reading journal, but since is is quite possibly of potential interest to mystery readers, especially Tey fans like myself, I am also posting it here. 

so now, without further ado, Josephine Tey: A Life, by Jennifer Morag Henderson.  

Sterling, superb, and all manner of superlatives -- this book is a must-read for anyone even remotely interested in Josephine Tey.  She is one of my all-time favorite mystery novelists, but as the author very clearly illustrates in her book, Tey's career and her life go well beyond just that of a few books. 

As writer Val McDermid notes about Tey in her introduction to this book,

"Biographical information has always been scant, mostly because that's the way this most private of authors wanted it. The brief details on her book jackets reveal that Tey was born Elizabeth MacKintosh and that she also enjoyed success under another pseudonym -- Gordon Daviot, author of the West End hit Richard of Bordeaux, the springboard that launched John Gielgud to stardom.
Sometimes they mention that she was a native of Inverness who lived most of her life there. But until now, Josephine Tey was herself the greatest mystery at the heart of her fiction." (xviii)
Well, that's all changed now with the publication of Jennifer Morag Henderson's  Josephine Tey: A Life.  Henderson has done an invaluable service to Tey fans everywhere through her meticulous research:  as McDermid reveals, Henderson has been through Tey's family papers, as well as material that's never been published before to produce this simply amazing biography that
"gives us the chance to understand what shaped Beth MacKintosh into the writer she became." (xix)
 As the author explains, the book "aims to present the story of Beth's life -- of her many different lives.." and to set her "full body of work" in terms of Tey's life and within "the context of the literary canon."   It seems to me that Ms. Henderson has deftly and most thoroughly accomplished what she set out to do here. Tey was not just an amazing novelist (as most readers of her work like myself consider her), but a well-established, well-respected playwright whose performances featured such actors as John Gielgud, a screenwriter (which I did not know), a devoted daughter who helped take care of the family business and then her father and their home when he became very ill, and through it all, she continuously shunned the limelight, preferring her private life over her public one. The book is structured into three parts:
  1. 1896-1923: Elizabeth MacKintosh
  2. 1924-1945: Gordon Daviot
  3. 1946-1952: Josephine Tey
although as you read it, you come to realize that these divisions are not so cut-and-dried or as rigid  as they look here.  In fact,  there's so much here about this woman's life that frankly, if you're a Tey reader, you will not want to miss a single word. 

I'll leave the serious discussions about specific content, etc., to those far more wiser than myself who are skilled in analysis or to those who know much more about Tey than I ever will. Speaking strictly  from the vantage point of an avid Tey fan,  some time after I'd read this book I reread her A Shilling For Candles, and I wrote the following about the experience: 

"Having just recently finished Jennifer Morag Henderson's excellent biography of the author,  Josephine Tey: A Life ...  I find myself completely in agreement with her -- the more a Tey reader understands about her life, the easier it is to appreciate  and to understand her work.  I wish the biography had come out sooner; now I feel like I ought to go back and reread more of Tey's crime novels for better perspective."
I genuinely mean what I wrote there -- once I'd read this biography, it really opened my eyes as to just how much of MacKintosh, Daviot, and Tey went into her books.  Josephine Tey: A Life should be a must-read, cannot-miss part of any serious Tey reader's library; it's a book Tey fans will come back to over and over again.  It's a flat-out stunner of a biography, and Ms. Henderson deserves all of the praise that I'm sure will be coming her way because of it. 
Just a brief note: although it is available in e-format in the US, the hardcover edition is not. You can buy it through individual sellers on Amazon, or do what I did and buy it at Book Depository.  However you want to read it, it is well worth every penny you might spend.  

NPR: Best Mysteries and Thrillers of 2015

image from 

All righty then, here are NPR's choices for best Mystery and Thrillers of the year. Sorry, there are no descriptions offered here, just text, but the link for their choices (complete with description) is here.

* = read
** = highly likely it will end up in my library

  • All the Old Knives, by Olen Steinhauer
  • Black Chalk, by Christopher J. Yates *
  • The Blondes, by Emily Shultz 
  • The Crossing, by Michael Connelly
  • Descent, by Tim Johnston
  • Freedom's Child, by Jax Miller
  • The Ghost Network, by Catie Disabato 
  • The Girl in the Spider's Web, by David Lagercrantz
  • The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins (aarggh! -- it REALLY is me!!) *
  • In a Dark, Dark Wood, by Ruth Ware
  • Innocence; Or, Murder on Steep Street, by Heda Margolius Kovaly (yay! I'm happy that somone FINALLY recognized this book!)*
  • The Last Taxi Ride: A Ranjit Singh Novel
  • Leaving Berlin, by Joseph Kanon
  • My Sunshine Away, by M.O. Walsh
  • Orient, by Christopher Bollen
  • Palace of Treason, by Jason Matthews **
  • Rogue Lawyer, by John Grisham
  • Secrets of State, by Matthew Palmer
  • The Water Knife, by Paolo Baciagalupi * (dystopia/sf)
  • Spy Games, by Adam Brookes
  • The Whites,by Richard Price, writing as Harry Brandt
  • The World Before Us, by Aislinn Hunter
more to come, I'm sure. 

Saturday, December 5, 2015

A Shilling for Candles, by Josephine Tey -- a reread

Scribner, 1998
originally published 1936
238 pp

Having just recently finished Jennifer Morag Henderson's excellent biography of the author,  Josephine Tey: A Life (which I'll be talking about here very shortly),  I find myself completely in agreement with her -- the more a Tey reader understands about her life, the easier it is to appreciate  and to understand her work.  I wish the biography had come out sooner; now I feel like I ought to go back and reread more of Tey's crime novels for better perspective.

A Shilling for Candles begins with the discovery of a body on the beach. At first the young woman's death is assumed to be suicide, but based on his observations and an important clue left behind, Inspector Grant from Scotland Yard thinks differently. This should be an easy mystery to solve, since Grant has a ready-made suspect, but that person ends up fleeing.  While the suspect is being hunted, Grant realizes that there are many odd things about the death and life of the dead woman that need to be investigated, but trying to keep things quiet turns out to be impossible since the deceased is popular film star Christine Clay, who had gone into hiding to get away from the world. To say that this is a complicated case is an understatement.  While the hunt is on for his main suspect, Grant finds himself having to examine different lines of inquiry that move him into the shallow world of celebrity, the dead woman's personal history, religious strangeness,  and they even take him into the realm of out-there astrology before the truth is at last revealed. And I have to say, I seriously didn't see that ending coming -- a complete surprise.

Getting back to why knowing something of Tey's life helps to put things into better perspective as a reader,  as I read A Shilling for Candles, I could easily see how much of Tey's experiences had an impact on her character creations.  As just one example (without giving anything away),  Tey had made lifelong friends among a group of women in the theater world, women she'd come to know in her work as  playwright Gordon Daviot.  One of these women was Marda Vanne, whose fictional counterpart Marta Hallard turns up in more than one Tey novel as an actress friend of Grant's.  As another example, when Christine Clay's will is read, it turns out that she's left money to the National Trust, "for the preservation of the beauty of England."  Tey did the same in her will.  Plus, there's the added focus of the pitfalls of fame and fortune in this novel that may play off of Tey's own reluctance to be in the public limelight.

[Sidebar: Tey also worked as a screenwriter and even had this book adapted as a Hitchcock release entitled "Young and Innocent," which I will be watching this evening.]

This is my second time with this book, and I got much more out of it this time around than the last, which is generally the case with me; I think the huge difference was that this time I also had more insight into the author herself.   I have to be honest -- so far my favorite of the rereads has been her The Franchise Affair -- in my very humble opinion, it's among the best of her mysteries and A Shilling for Candles doesn't rate as highly as that one.  That doesn't mean it's not good, just less enjoyable for me personally.

Recommended to people who enjoy vintage crime, but do be aware that many of Tey's ideas in this novel do not conform to modern PC sensitivities. Frankly, I don't really give a fig about whether or not a book written in the 1930s conforms to today's standards of "correctness", but I have read reader responses that include complaints about this issue, so you've been warned.  Overall -- a good read, not great, but it was fun getting to the end.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

one more: The Washington Post weighs in with its Best Mystery Books and Thrillers of the year:

Thank you, kindhearted soul who sent this to me!

Here is the best of 2015 titles from The Washington Post:

1. A Banquet of Consequences, by Elizabeth George -- continues the Inspector Lynley series.   Patrick Anderson says this book "shines with great psychological depth, finely drawn characters and gorgeous portraits of the English countryside."

2.  Brushback, by Sarah Paretsky -- another novel featuring  VI Warshawski, who, as Maureen Corrigan reminds us, "predates Lisbeth Salander and Stephanie Plum."

3.  Dark Corners, by Ruth Rendell -- Dennis Drabelle says she "writes with seasoned expertise." And who doesn't love Ruth Rendell?

4. Another Maureen Corrigan pick is Rogue Lawyer, by John Grisham -- introducing a new "street-lawyer" character in this one.

and finally,

5. Patrick Anderson gives us his choice, The Whites, by Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt.  Anderson calls it "a masterpiece..."

more to come. stay tuned.

continuing along the path of the year's best crime fiction, here are The Guardian's picks

Without further ado, author Mark Lawson notes  The Guardian's picks for best crime and thriller books of 2015:

1. (Once again) The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins.  -- sigh -- I'm really starting to think it's just me at this point.

2. Disclaimer, by Renee Knight  -- Lawson calls it an "inventive and troubling literary puzzle."

3. I Saw A Man, by Owen Sheers -- "Hitchockian premise..."

4. Dark Corners, by Ruth Rendell -- on the immediate TBR pile

5. Splinter the Silence, by Val McDermid

6. The Shut Eye, by Belinda Bauer

7.  The Girl in the Spider's Web, by David Lagercrantz

8.  The Dead Joker, by Anne Holt

9. Even Dogs in the Wild, by Ian Rankin

10. Make Me, by Lee Child

11. You Are Dead, by Peter James

12. Rogue Lawyer, by John Grisham

13. Hush Hush, by Laura Lippman

14. The Mulberry Bush, by Charles McCarry

15. Pleasantville, by Attica Locke

16. The Cartel, by Don Winslow

Nesbø's Midnight Sun was also mentioned, although since Lawson referred to it as as "minor exercise," I'm doubtful that it was part of the list.  Apologies if I am wrong. 

Oh, and do read the comments -- I just this minute discovered someone else didn't care for Girl on the Train!

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

according to BookPage, The "10 best mysteries and thrillers of 2015"

As the year winds down, we can all expect to see more of "best of" lists coming our way. Today I bring you the top 10 mysteries of 2015 as chosen by the people at BookPage. I get their updates in email now and then, and although it seems that this list was posted on November 24th, I only got the memo today so apologies.

On with the show.

1.  Dean Koontz's Ashley Bell -- which frankly, hasn't even been published yet, and according to Amazon, won't be for another week. The premise:
"When doctors inform 22-year-old Southern California surfer girl and budding novelist Bibi Blair that inoperable brain cancer will shorten her life to a matter of months, she replies, “We’ll see.”"
Amazon lists it as "dark psychological suspense" and notes that it's  "for readers of dark psychological suspense and modern classics of mystery and adventure."  I've read one book by Dean Koontz eons ago and never picked up another. Not about to start now.

2. Dragonfish, by Vu Tran -- thriller/suspense

3. Finders Keepers, by Stephen King -- continues what he started in Mr. Mercedes (which I wasn't all that fond of)

4. The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins -- thriller;  definitely no secret that I didn't like this book, but it did just win at Goodreads for best mystery novel.  Cough.

5. The Investigation, by J.M. Lee -- looks like historical crime fiction, and actually I'm impressed that it made it onto this list. 

 Here's the blurb:
the first-person tale of Watanabe Yuichi, who reluctantly served as a prison guard in Japan during WWII: “The war ended on 15 August 1945. The prisoners were freed, but I’m still here.” Incarcerated by the Allies for low-level war crimes, Watanabe now has time to reflect on his wartime investigation of the murder of a fellow guard."
 I have to confess that while I bought this book some time back,  I haven't yet read it. It's  now on the  immediate TBR pile. 

6. Jade Dragon Mountain, by Elsa Hart -- another historical crime novel, this time set in 18th century China. 

7. The Killing Lessons, by Saul Black (aka Glen Duncan)  -- serial killer thriller, but since it's Glen Duncan, I might actually give this one a go. 

8. Leaving Berlin, by Joseph Kanon -- historical espionage thriller

9.  The Nature of the Beast, by Louise Penny -- Canadian crime fiction, 11th in the series

and last but not least, 

10. World Gone By, by Dennis Lehane -- family crime saga, book #2 of the Coughlin family series. 

Well, that wraps up another best-of list -- I'm sure there are many more to come.

The Lake District Murder, by John Bude -- A British Library Crime Classic

The British Library, 2014
(originally published 1935)
286 pp


" -- that's always the way. It's so darned easy to be wise after the event!"

Feeling ever so guilty about straying from reading crime for so long, I'm finally getting myself back on track here, returning to my favorite genre.  Today's  book is The Lake District Murder (1935)  which is not Bude's first novel, but which is my introduction to his work.    His Inspector Meredith made his initial appearance in The Cornish Coast Murder, which I just bought because my resolve to not buy any new books until after the new year begins is definitely crumbling. Good thing I have stronger willpower when it comes to food, but I digress.

Poor Farmer Perryman is looking forward to "roasting his toes at a roaring fire, with a 'night-cap' at his elbow to round off a very convivial evening."  Unbeknownst to him, his plans are unexpectedly put on hold. First, his car "petered out" on the way home to the village of Braithwaite, then second, when he reaches the garage he knows is just down the road, he makes a gruesome discovery while looking for the absent proprietor. There, in a car parked inside a sealed shed, the beam of his flashlight makes contact with a man with no face, giving the farmer "the shock of his life." Investigating further, he realizes that the faceless man is actually "young Clayton," who runs the place.  A can of petrol later, he is winging his way to Keswick, where he finds Inspector Meredith there, finishing up his "arrears of routine work."  It definitely appears to be a suicide, but as Meredith starts looking into it, he's not at all satisfied -- there are a number of clues that just don't add up. As he begins asking questions, it isn't long before he comes to the conclusion that Clayton's death might just be the tip of the proverbial iceberg, and that something is not at all right in this part of the Lake District. However, as he sets about trying to uncover the truth, he finds himself more than once in a "cul-de-sac" of complications.

the village of Braithwaite

The little villages, with their local pubs and surrounding wooded countryside are so real in this book, and I looked for old and new photos of the area as I read.  The novel is also a really good read for armchair detectives such as myself -- there are clues upon clues here, unfolding little by little along with some pretty strange happenings, and the reader is right there along with him as Meredith searches for answers.   More than once I found myself thinking along the lines of "but what about..." or "how can that be?" or "wait ... didn't someone say..." -- in short, I got really involved in this story.  It's just that kind of book that made me really want to know how things were pulled off just as much as Meredith did; it's also the kind of story where I felt his frustrations every time he ended up in one of his cul-de-sacs. But above all else, I enjoy his (apologizing for the triteness) dogged determination -- even when he thinks he has things figured out, he knows he still has to prove his case and doesn't give up. As is noted,
"Whatever faults may be attributed to the British police force by the American or continental critics, a lack of thoroughness is not one of them."
Reading this book now -- in the age where pretty much every cop, PI, or crime solver has to have some sort of angst leaping off of the page or some kind of gimmick -- is rather like a breath of fresh air. In fact, I think that one reason I return to the past so often in my reading is to take a break from the lengths some contemporary writers go to in order to make his or her main characters stick out from all of the rest. But here it's just good old-fashioned police work that some readers have found dull and tiresome to follow, but hey --  even Meredith realizes that solving crime does have its boring moments . For example, while he's freezing outside on a surveillance assignment, we discover
"How he loathed this waiting job! And some people imagined that the detection of crime was an exciting and glamorous pastime! Little they knew about it! Glamourous? Brrr!" 
There's no lengthy, emotional backstory about his life or his marriage here -- his wife puts up with but  isn't too happy with Meredith's long hours, she doesn't want their son following in his father's policeman's footsteps, the son works part-time in a photography shop (but probably deep down wants to be a cop), wants a three-speed Raleigh bicycle,  and that's pretty much all we know about his family life.  Frankly, it's probably enough in a novel where the focus is on solving the crime and getting to the truth of things; Meredith is really quite good at his job and is also human enough to realize and admit that he's made mistakes.

While I get that these old books are not everyone's cup of tea, they definitely appeal to me, and I'm very pleased that this line of British Library Crime Classics has made some of them more readily accessible to modern readers.

Friday, November 20, 2015

for readers of intelligent true crime -- here's one right up your alley: Crooked Brooklyn, by Michael Vecchione and Jerry Schmetterer

Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, 2015
255 pp

hardcover (my copy from the publisher, thank you!)

(also posted at my nonfiction page)

The Rackets Division of the Brooklyn DA's office was where the author (Michael Vecchione) of this absorbing memoir "always wanted to be."  With co-author Jerry Schmetterer, Vecchione invites his readers to join him in a look back at his career.  Vecchione headed the division for over a decade, and was involved in several very high-profile cases that "struck Court Street like an earthquake."  I have to say that it took me longer than normal to read this book, not because of the book itself but because as I started to become more absorbed in his story, I grabbed my iPad and spent quite a bit of time finding more info on these big corruption cases as I read.

To whet potential reader appetites, here's just a very brief preview of a few cases that readers will find in here, most of which had repercussions that spread outward like a ripple in a pond:

  • the crooked ADA known as the Undertaker, "the nephew of a community political leader"  
  • a judge who held up the disbursement settlement in the case of a "permanently brain-damaged" baby by demanding $250,000 from the family's attorney before signing any papers
  • another judge who ruled on the side of whoever would pay him the most, took bribes and gifts from attorneys (this one just killed me -- a woman's custody of her children hung in the balance)
  • a huge case that brought down the "corrupt Democratic county leader and number three man in the New York State Assembly," which Vecchione notes would expose "the dirty political machine that ran Brooklyn politics" -- a huge eye opener for me as Vecchione reveals how things worked in Democratic party politics at the time (and face it, probably still works on some level in the same way even now) 
  • two "Mafia cops," NYPD detectives who were "carrying out hits for the Mafia" 
  • the case of the theft of bones from a funeral home used to build a doctor's fortune
and more.  Personally,  the corruption doesn't surprise me -- I'm sure that these sorts of things continue to happen on a daily basis in cities throughout the United States.  

Crooked Brooklyn makes for compelling reading.  Some of the cases in this book would also make for great movie material.  The downside is that I found it to be a little disorganized in the writing itself -- for example, Vecchione would be talking about a particular case and then in the middle of the story, would go back in time, most of the time talking about something in his personal life that would bring us right up to where he'd left off.  To be very honest, from a reader point of view, when he would do that it was a bit distracting when all I wanted to do was to get back to the cases that to me were the high point of this book.

I have to say that I disagree with the reviewer who wrote about this book in Kirkus Reviews, who stated
"However, the author’s focus on courtroom maneuvering and investigative procedures can become tedious without greater context regarding New York’s labyrinthine government and history of corruption."
I didn't find this to be the case -- a) he does briefly touch on the Tammany machine in this book, b) it is certainly not at all tedious; in fact, the opposite is true, and c) "New York's labyrinthine government and history of corruption" are not the focus of this book, so I don't think that the reviewer is playing fair here. The dustjacket blurb says that this book is "perfect for fans of television shows like Law & Order, readers of true crime, and those hungry for details about the system that keeps us safe." Having watched hundreds of hours of Law and Order  in my day (the original -- not the spinoffs), and cheering on Jack McCoy in his long-running (but not always successful)  crusade for justice, I'd say that the blurber gets it right.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

back to the past #17: Death in the Cards, by Ann T. Smith

Wildside books, 2010
originally published 1945, Phoenix Press
256 pp


I love these Wildside editions -- I have several in my shelves spreading across genres.  They're great facsimile editions which offer readers like myself the opportunity to rediscover old book without having to go into debt buying them.  Sadly, the author remains a mystery to me, since I could find absolutely nothing outside of this book to her credit; I couldn't find any personal information either.  I went through several sources I have at home, including Hubin's great reference work which would normally list a pseudonym as well as at least a birthdate, but got nothing. If I find more later, I'll make an addendum here, but for now, she remains a question mark. That's a shame -- I love unearthing people's histories; they're often very enlightening as well as interesting.  Oh well. I tried.

I did, however, discover two different covers of  Death in the Cards -- the original

and the reprint

both of which as you can see, offer a clue in the cat on the cover. While I won't say why the cat (whose name is Beauty) is important, let's just say that the poor kitty has a role to play, ultimately coming to a pretty sad end.  But the cat is the least of the worries at the old house on Brattle Street, where Paul and Lita Redfern have taken rooms so that Paul can be close to his new professorial job in Boston.

Death in the Cards is not the best book I've ever read from the 1940s, but it did keep me turning pages to find out who killed old Mrs. Carrie Seton, who owns the house and rents out rooms.  The tenants, aside from Paul and Lita, include an anthropologist (Dr. Oglesbie) whose rooms are filled with skulls, a handyman named George from South Dakota, a Navy man (Phillips) who's just finished a tour of duty on a submarine, two elderly, former Beacon Hill women (Miss Lovelace and Miss Brundage) whose fortunes have faded since the social heyday, and Mrs. Seton's granddaughter Caroline.  Within just a few weeks of moving into the place, old Mrs. Seton ends up dead and Paul, who comes across her body, finds evidence that his wife may have been the culprit.  So many things point to her guilt that he hides what he discovers and takes it upon himself to find the real murderer before the police hone in on his wife.  With so many people in the house though, that's not going to be easy -- and the police are eager to bring this case to a close.

Way more interesting to me than the mystery (which quite frankly gets a bit convoluted and even  brings in a Nazi spy as a sort of patsy -- remember, it's still wartime) is that the author takes her readers into the world of Boston's Beacon Hill society in its heyday (and later as fortunes decline) as she recalls Mrs. Seton's life.  As it turns out, the dead woman was not of their ilk -- au contraire, she was a young woman nee O'Toole from Irish stock and from the wrong part of town. She had caught the attention of her future husband who fell for her and was bound and determined to introduce her to his Boston Brahmin world, which did not go over so well and required the help of her old Miss Lovelace, who remained her very best friend and stayed with her long after Mr.Seton had passed on.

It's a good find, probably not of interest to most people unless you're into obscure vintage fiction, and aside from the meandering nature of the story, not a bad read.

Just as an aside, I have pretty much finished my obscure women writers project for this year, but I have been stacking my shelves with many, many more titles and I'll be reading and posting about them as I come to them.  I'll also be inaugurating my page "Forgotten Women Found" here shortly -- so stay tuned. Thanks to all who have commented.

diving back into Highsmith's brain with This Sweet Sickness

W.W. Norton, 2002
originally published 1960
282 pp


"The Situation. It was all part of the one Situation, after all."

The more Highsmith I read, the more reluctant I become to label her work as crime fiction. The problem in trying to categorize her work is that she's a writer who doesn't pigeonhole easily, so I have just quit trying.  But since there's murder involved here, as in most of the books I've read (with the exception of her The Price of Salt), this seems like the appropriate place to talk about her work.

This Sweet Sickness is Highsmith's seventh book and somewhere around page 90 I had to put it down for a day because of the knots forming in my gut. Somehow I just knew that this story was going to end very badly and well, I wasn't wrong.  This book unnerved me to the max and reaffirmed my belief that it is dangerous indeed to stay in this woman's brain (or that of her main character here) for any length of time.

David Kelsey is an intelligent, successful chemist who lives in a small town in New York.  He has a room in a boardinghouse there during the week; over his weekends he goes to a lovely home he owns, which he'd bought under the name of William Neumeister, "who had never failed at anything, at least nothing important... "  His fellow residents at Mrs. McCartney's boardinghouse know nothing about either Neumeister nor Kelsey's home -- when asked where he goes every weekend, he tells them he is visiting his mother at a nursing home. What no one knows is that David's mother is dead and has been for a while.  It seems that David goes home each weekend looking for letters from the only woman he's ever loved, Annabelle.  He's also fixed the place up in a style he knows Annabelle will love. But David absolutely refuses to accept or to deal with "The Situation," which
 "was the way it was and had been for nearly two a rock, say a five-pound rock, that he carried around in his chest day and night."
David's "situation" is that two years earlier, Annabelle had married Gerald Delaney.  That doesn't seem to bother David, though -- in his mind, he had "won Annabelle," who, in Neumeister's house, "lived with him here, he imagined," "her presence in every room."  Everything he does is for Annabelle, and his obsession with her grows as he pursues his dream of having her as his wife.

first US edition cover from Wikipedia
The US first edition cover speaks volumes about what's inside this novel, but once again I turn to
Andrew Wilson, Highsmith's biographer who reveals that Kelsey is a sort of "Nietzschean hero," which should come as absolutely no surprise to anyone who's read Highsmith. He also reveals that Highsmith herself "conducted an imaginary love affair," and notes Highsmith's diary as recording that "without her" (the woman about whom she fantasized), "it would have been a different book."

Quite frankly, This Sweet Sickness is one of the most disturbing novels in Highsmith's lineup to this point, and reader beware -- there is absolutely nothing uplifting or redeeming to be found here, which normally doesn't bother me, but with Highsmith I've found that reading her work has to be done in small doses.  I'm totally not surprised that Hitchcock bought the television rights to this book, which eventually became an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour called "Annabel"   (season one) starring Dean Stockwell.  Maddeningly, I can't find a copy to buy anywhere, nor can I find anything but a VHS copy of the movie based on this book (1977) starring Gérard Depardieu, "Dites-lui que je l'aime."

Enter at your own risk, but then again, that's true of every Highsmith novel. Her books definitely get an NFE (not for everyone) rating from me -- but I can't help myself.  I love her. 

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Franchise Affair again...this time the movie

Through the miracle of my region-free dvd player, I watched the screen adaptation of Tey's The Franchise Affair over the weekend.  After its release, the 1952 New York Times reviewer called it "an hour and a half of sheer boredom," which was pretty much Mr. Film Critic's take on it.  (Mr. Film Critic is my husband, who is a good enough sport to sit with me through a lot of these old films, although he prefers comedy films and isn't really an old movie fan, although to his credit, he loved Double Indemnity when we went to a special TCM special screening a few months ago.)  My complaint is that a LOT of what makes Tey's  novel so great gets lost in translation when it hit the big screen.

I get that screenwriters can't possibly get every single nuance of an original story, but in this case, Robert Hall and Lawrence Huntington really missed the boat.  As one example, the big reveal of the case, the part where we discover just what sort of girl our young Betty Kane is, just falls flat, sort of defeating the purpose of the novel; it's also completely rewritten.    Another thing -- the tension that builds throughout the book as readers start to think that attorney Robert Blair is doomed to failure and that these poor women are going to land in prison just isn't there. In the novel you get to a point where you're just praying for some sort of miracle that will save the genteel Sharpes from life of hard time; not so in the movie version.  And one of the biggest scenes in the book is so completely lost in translation so much so that it's not even there.

from The Guardian
While it was over all very cool to watch this book come to life, as in most cases, the original novel was better.  If you get the chance to watch the movie, take it ... it's still pretty good, despite my complaints.

just in time for Black Friday shopping, Kirkus presents the best mysteries and thrillers of 2015. Hmmmm.....

I don't set foot outside of my house the day after Thanksgiving, aka Black Friday.  I do the bulk of my holiday shopping online -- it's quick, clean and no one's beating me up over the last set of Legos I'm buying for the little ones in my family. Nope. It's e-tail for this woman.   So just in time for the holiday shopping countdown when people are wondering what to buy for their loved ones this season, Kirkus has released what they say are the best mysteries and thrillers of 2015, and the best news is that you don't have to partake in that god-awful stampede and swarm of humanity to pick them up.

Here's the list:

1. A Different Lie, by Derek Haas /  thriller

2. Spy Games, by Adam Brookes /   thriller

3.  The Stranger, by Harlan Coben /  thriller

4.  A Song of Shadows, by John Connolly / thriller

5.  X, by Sue Grafton /PI novel

6. Recipes for Love and Murder, by Sally Andrew / part cozy, part mystery, complete with recipes

7. The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins / mystery, thriller, and if you ask me, a terrible book so how did it get on this list? Here's another one where I suffer from fish-swimming-upstream syndrome

8.  Last Ragged Breath, by Julia Keller / legal thriller

9.  Hush Hush, by Laura Lippman / mystery, thriller

10. Crucifixion Creek, by Barry Maitland /police procedural, Australia

11. Taking Pity, by David Mark /police procedural, thriller (part four in an ongoing, good series with angsty cop)

12. Where they Found Her, by Kimberly McCreight  / newspaper reporter main character mystery

13. The Nature of the Beast, by Louise Penny / police procedural

14. The Do-Right, by Lisa Sandlin / thriller, parolee and ex-oil man detective team up.

15. The Blondes, by Emily Schultz.  Okay -- you have to read this premise to believe it, and I quote:
"A Canadian grad student, newly pregnant with her married professor’s baby, must navigate a world altered by a pandemic in which blonde women attack the people around them."
The author says it's satire, but still. Major pass.  Seriously? And you wonder why I prefer foreign and vintage crime. good grief.

16. A Kind of Grief, by A.D. Scott / historical mystery set in Scotland

17. Pretty Girls, by Karin Slaughter / thriller

18. Crush, by Phoef Sutton / thriller, bartender who's "hurt lots of martial arts teachers" hired to protect rich daughter from Russian Mafia.

I'll be posting more of these "best of" crime fiction/mystery lists as they appear.  Stay tuned.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

now here's a book I really love -- The Franchise Affair, by Josephine Tey

Scribner/Simon and Schuster, 1998
originally published 1949
299 pp


I read this book a very long time ago, but recently it came back to my attention after reading that Sarah Waters had read it, calling it "the first dark germ of The Little Stranger" (one of my favorite books of all time) and a source of research for her The Night Watch.  I've recently been running a series of readings of work by women writers of the Golden Age on goodreads, and I've included The Franchise Affair in the list of five novels after books by Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy Sayers.  There's still time if you want to get in on the discussion (let me know) -- because of my vacation we don't actually start until November 15th.

The Franchise Affair is just a perfect gem of a novel, based on the real-life case of Elizabeth Canning in 1753 which you can read about at the Guildhall Library Blog.  Moving the case into contemporary times, Tey also updated this story to reflect various postwar concerns, as Sarah Waters calls them, "moral panics - about 'problem' children and juvenile delinquency, for example - of postwar life."

The main focus here is on the young  Elisabeth Kane (Betty - 15), who  had gone off to a suburb of Larborough to visit an aunt over a school vacation.  She'd  kept in touch with her guardians via postcard for a while, reporting that all was well enough to merit her staying on with her aunt for a while. Her guardians figured that with the school holiday ending in three weeks this shouldn't be a problem, but when she doesn't turn up again at the end of the three weeks, they start to wonder what's going on and write to the aunt to make her come home.   The aunt writes back (rather than phoning or sending a telegraph) that Betty had left for home some two weeks earlier; by communicating via the post, a lot of time was lost and by the time the guardians went to the police, Betty had been missing for four weeks.  Then out of nowhere, the girl returns home, in a "state of complete exhaustion."  Her story was that she'd been "kidnapped in a car" and then two days later she reveals that she'd actually been kidnapped and held by two women who tried to force her into domestic service.  Inspector Grant is sent to interview the two women in question, Marion Sharpe and her mother, who claim to know nothing about Betty and fervently deny any involvement. But things don't look good for the Sharpes who live at a house called The Franchise, since Betty can clearly identify items in the house, the room she was supposedly held in prior to making an escape and even the different-colored tire on the car that supposedly used in her abduction.  Marion Sharpe calls on lawyer Robert Blair, who wants to fob her off on a more criminally-experienced solicitor but changes his mind on meeting the Sharpes and hearing what he considers to be an absurd story.  He makes it his mission to prove Betty Kane is lying, but gets nowhere before the local tabloid drags the Sharpes through the mud, making Betty out to be a pathetic, innocent victim, garnering sympathy from all of the country.  He has an uphill fight on his hands, one that is made worse little by little as the novel progresses.

To say that The Franchise Affair is a good book does it absolutely no justice.  To me, it is one of her very best works, and I've read them all.  Not only does it shine in terms of plot and plot turns, but Tey is also examining postwar British society here.  I can't really divulge much about Betty Kane without ruining things, although what Tey has to say about her in a cumulative way reflects the dangers someone of her sort represented to the social order of the time. The English public is also looked at here --  the tendency for tabloid readers to believe what they read and make judgments based on their impressions with no real facts strikes a chord with our own times of sleazy tabloids in print and online, as well as the non-questioning sheep who believe everything that comes out via social media. Tey's novel also reflects the tendencies of those same judgmental people to make trouble for those under media scrutiny.   And then there's Robert Blair, the attorney who is  "usually so placid, so lazily good-natured," but discovers that with the Sharpe case, he has a "focus of interest," changing "the pattern of his life." Used to a somewhat prescribed lifestyle "without hurry and without emotion," he finds himself actually feeling alive with this case, quite possibly for the first time.   The Sharpes live in a big house that once upon a time had seen better days; now they barely scrape by without servants or money but there are still certain forms that need to be maintained for eyes outside of their gates.   There's so much more to talk about with this novel, but well time and all of that.

The Franchise Affair can be read by mystery/crime fiction readers across the board, except for those people who trend toward kickass thriller stuff  ... it is so well done that it will appeal to pretty much everyone. Tey was a gifted writer, but in this book, she's gone beyond her norm and given readers a book that should, in my opinion, be considered a classic. It is an incredibly superb book that all aficionados of British crime fiction/mysteries should read.