Friday, December 23, 2016

The Killer Inside Me, by Jim Thompson

"All I can do is wait until I split. Right down the middle."
                                                                --- 119

The Killer Inside Me is one of those novels that needs no introduction at all -- it is and will always be a classic of American noir fiction, it's been made into two movies (1976 and 2010), and chances are that if you haven't read the novel you've at least seen the film. Or, if you're really fainthearted, you've experienced neither, since both book and movie are dark, disturbing, and well past the point of unsettling. It's also one of those books that has been studied left and right, inside and out, and has even been the subject of a number of dissertations.  So the question remains what is left to the bring to the table about this book.  The answer - not much.

Lou Ford, of course, is a psychopath -- and as in many existentialist crime novels the reader finds him/herself seeing things from inside the mind of a sadistic and brutal killer. He, like Nick Corey, his counterpart in Thompson's Pop. 1280, hides behind a badge to do his dirty work, has nothing but contempt for the locals, and manipulates things so that outwardly, no one would believe he'd be capable of  violence or any sort of abnormality.  His deceased dad knew what sort of person Lou really was, but to the the rest of the town, he's perfectly normal.  Ford knows he's not normal and doesn't mind sharing his insanity with the rest of us  -- for one thing, he's got his own psychopathology figured out through his reading of medical and psychological texts-- and he also realizes that his habit of barraging people with clichés until they squirm, that the zippy little phrases he throws out are his substitute for the violence associated with his "sickness" that he says he's been able to keep buried.  We follow him down a trail of manipulation, violence, and revenge  as he begins to unravel -- slowly at first, then in a very big way, starting with the day his boss tells him that he needs to go out to pay an official call on local prostitute Joyce Lakeland, which, he tells us, is the catalyst for the return of his "sickness."

While this book is extremely difficult to read because of the sadistic, misogynistic violence (yes, I know ... a thing I generally try to avoid but I had to read this book -- it's a classic); it's trying to untangle what's in Ford's mind that is really the draw for me.  He may be one of the most unreliable narrators ever -- if you read carefully, there is a lot here that simply doesn't gel, and the way that Thompson has set up this book,  you have to take into account that Lou knows he has an audience in us, the readers.  Think about this too: this novel is Lou's confession, if you will, his way of trying to make us understand the logic behind his actions, laying out his plans ahead of time for our perusal, and revealing just how he is able to fool people so easily -- until he can't any more. So the question is this: is he really a victim of his "sickness," or does he just plain enjoy killing in the most brutal, sadistic ways possible?   He is, in cliché speak, the ultimate wolf in sheep's clothing.

There's much, much  more in this novel of course, but going through everything I discovered in this book would take forever.  As I said earlier, this novel has been scrutinized, studied, written about academically and otherwise, so there are a number of places to dig out more about it.  It's up there among books that made me want to take a shower after reading it, but it's so damn good I just couldn't stop.  And that sort of scares me, actually.

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Strangers in the House, by Georges Simenon

NYRB Classics, 2006
originally published 1940 as Les inconnus dans la maison
translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury
194 pp


I'm somewhat reluctant to post about The Strangers in the House as a crime novel per se, because really, the crime that occurs and its aftermath is actually sort of the catalyst that sparks a man into action here.  It is another of Simenon's romans durs, and if anyone wants to know where the departure point between his commercial novels (think Maigret) and his "hard novels" lies, we can turn to Simenon himself for the answer. In 2012, Open Letters Monthly ran an article noting that
"the difference between the two ... was 'Exactly the same difference that exists between the painting of a painter and the sketch he will make for his pleasure or for his friends to study something.' " 
He  romans durs, he says, he didn't see as "commercial in nature," and he "felt no need to make concessions to morality or popular taste."  When he was writing one of his "commercial" novels, as he told the Paris Review in 1955, he "didn't think about that novel except in the hours of writing it," whereas with the romans durs, as he said,
"I don't see anybody, I don't speak to anybody, I don't take a phone call -- I just live like a monk. All the day I am one of my characters. I feel what he feels."
Most crime readers are very much into plot but in these novels, it's more the psychological/existentialist  aspects of the characters that takes center stage, and unless I'm at a point where I need fluff,  that, of course, is the draw for me as a reader no matter which genre I read.  The Strangers in the House highlights this distinction -- the story opens with a crime, there is an arrest, a trial and an aftermath, but it centers on lawyer Hector Loursat, 48, who for about 18 years after his wife had left him, has been living as a rather lethargic recluse in a small French town with his daughter Nicole, now 20.  And while a number of his acquaintances had over the years  invited him out for dinner or bridge, he remained alone, preferring his own company. His cousin told him that he couldn't possibly spend the rest of his life as a "hermit," but Loursat disagrees, and from then on
"He proceeded to prove that he could, and he had kept it up for eighteen years, eighteen years during which he had needed neither a wife, nor a mistress, nor a friend."
He and his daughter have been virtual strangers her entire life, with Nicole's upbringing having been put into the hands of one of the "domestics."  Lousart has during this time followed a regular routine -- several bottles of burgundy, followed by time spent reading in his study or his bedroom, and quiet dinners with his daughter where neither made any attempt at conversation.

Things begin to change one cold winter night when a sound like the crack of a whip wakes him up.  It seems to have come  from one of the rooms in his own home, and curious, he decides to have a look around. He runs into his daughter and tells her that there must be a burglar in the house, and notices that there's a light on somewhere on the third floor.  She tells him it must be the maid, but he doesn't think so -- and continuing upstairs, he realizes that this was
 "the first time in years he had departed from his own narrow and strictly prescribed orbit."
Further investigation yields the discovery of a man on a bed who's been shot and then dies "at the exact moment" Loursat walks in. He phones the prosecutor, telling him that the situation is "really tiresome," wanting him to come over and sort things out. He has no idea "who it is or how he got here," but he soon comes to realize that in this big rambling house, Nicole has been leading her own life, having her friends over for parties and dancing in the attic, and he never had a clue at any time that any of this was going on. It dawns on him that one of these people must have been the murderer, a fact that fascinates him, but he's more amazed by the fact that there's a world he's known nothing about going on under the roof of his own home and more importantly, right under his very nose. This is the earlier-mentioned catalyst that makes him aware that "he'd never tried to live -- not in the ordinary sense of the word," but more importantly, the fact that these people have actually been "living" makes him aware  that he hasn't been.

There's much, much more, of course, but I'll leave it all for anyone who may be interested in reading this novel.  While The Strangers in the House has a few minor flaws plotwise,  they're pretty irrelevant  -- this book is very much character driven and doesn't really revolve so much on plot details.  Simenon has again given us a book that oozes atmosphere, setting and above all, a look at what PD James in her intro (which I strongly advise avoiding until the end) calls "the secret underground of the human heart," and Simenon's understanding of  (as James also observes)
 "the salient facts which bring alive a character or a place, inducing the reader to contribute his own imagination to that of the writer so that more is conveyed than is written." 
While I enjoyed his The Engagement much more, I can most certainly recommend The Strangers in the House to people who, like me, are much more into a book to discover what he/she can about human nature.  This one definitely speaks volumes.

ps - there is also a film (1967) made from this book with James Mason, but I'm so pressed for time right now that it will have to wait (if I can even find it!).

Monday, December 12, 2016

an indie double feature: Cotton, and Courting Death, by Paul J. Heald

In my house, the appreciation of the legal thriller (for that matter, any thriller) falls squarely in the wheelhouse of my husband Larry, who loves this stuff. So when I was contacted by the author of these two books I wasn't sure, but I had to admit that at the time the premise of both novels sounded pretty good and if I didn't like them, well, I knew Larry would.  And despite the fact that I prefer crime fiction from the past,  from time to time, I like to check in on what's new in the modern world of small-press crime, so I said yes to the author's request for reading his books.   What surprised me the most is that these books turned out not to be legal thrillers per se, but more like mysteries involving people in the legal profession.  So maybe "legal thriller" isn't the best moniker to apply to these books after all.

Yucca Publishing/Skyhorse Publishing, 2016
356 pp
paperback, sent by the author (thanks!)

The author of both of these novels is a law professor and travels around the world giving lectures, so if anyone's qualified to write books with the legal profession as a backdrop, it's definitely him.  I accidentally read the two novels out of order so let me set the record straight here.  The correct order, chronologically, is Courting Death, followed by Cotton.  Both are set in the small town of Clarkeston, GA, and both share a main character, Melanie Wilkerson, who in the first book is a judge's law clerk and in the second a US attorney in Atlanta.  Since I read them out of order, I'll talk about them in the same way.  Cotton begins with a big surprise for James Murphy, an investigative reporter with the Clarkeston Chronicle, who doggedly followed the case of the missing Diana Cavendish, who had disappeared without a trace some five years earlier. The story is that she was "presumably abducted by her boyfriend Jacob Granville, from a prominent local family. She left behind a "blood-spattered apartment," but no one had any clue what had happened to either of them.  With no more evidence coming in, authorities had eventually just given up on the case, although James was told that the FBI had been alerted three days after Diana's disappearance.    So imagine James' surprise when while he's surfing through a website called "," up pops a photo of the missing woman dressed in a swimsuit on the "This Week's Babes" section of the website.  The photo inspires him to go back and take a look at the case again, but he knows he's going to need help. He takes his story and the website's URL to Melanie Wilkerson, and she's just curious enough to check it out.  Turns out that not only had the FBI not been called in, but curiously, on the FBI database she discovers that next to Granville's name is a phone number, to which any and all inquiries about the case should be directed. Melanie sends James on his way, but she realizes that there is something "whiffy" about the case and launches a private investigation, beginning with an attempt to track down the owner of the website where James had just seen Diana's photo. For this she calls in Stanley Hopkins, a sociology professor and professional consultant, whose initial discoveries will take the case in a direction that no one would have ever suspected.

While Cotton has lots of standard thriller elements -- international intrigue that moves into the highest levels of politics, cover ups, etc., what I really liked about it is that it runs out to be a good mystery that takes its time getting solved.  The people who join James and Melanie in helping to solve the case are perfect as a team, and for me, that combination of mystery and main characters are what make this book a good one.  The added bonus is that neither over the top violence nor graphic, unnecessary sex scenes find their way into this story, a fact I can definitely appreciate since these days that's pretty much unheard of.  So, bottom line -- this is a book worth reading and will appeal to people who are in it for story rather than the other baggage that seems to be part and parcel of modern crime these days. Well done.

Yucca Publishing/Skyhorse Publishing, 2016
321 pp
paperback, sent by the author (thanks!)

In Courting Death, although Melanie Wilkerson makes an appearance again, the action takes place earlier than Cotton.  Here she hasn't made it to the US Attorney's office, but rather is clerking for a prominent judge in the federal courts. Melanie becomes involved in following the trail of a death that happened some five years earlier, a case that catches her attention and piques her curiosity because it happened in the same place Melanie is currently working. Around Melanie this time are fellow clerks Phil Jenkins and Arthur Hughes, who are tasked with doing research in cases of habeas corpus -- death penalty cases to be more exact. Their work involves reading cases and writing memos that "get the law right, regardless of what the substantive result is."  In fact, Courting Death, outside of the mystery that Melanie goes out of her way to look into, is a novel that makes the reader look at issues surrounding capital punishment, based on cases that come Phil and Arthur's way.  In this sense, it's less mystery than Cotton, but rather a more philosophically-based novel when it comes to the capital court cases.  But when all is said and done, it's Arthur who takes center stage here -- his growing relationship with his young landlady, his doubts about the death-penalty cases, and other events that start to take a personal toll,  and to top it all of, he has ongoing concerns about the Judge for whom he works.

Putting the two together,  I liked Cotton much better although I did appreciate the way that the author  forces the reader to examine different facets of the legalities behind capital cases in Courting Death. There's so much more involved in these cases that most people don't realize goes on behind the scenes, and this book really is an eye opener in this arena. At the same time, there's too much personal stuff going on here for my taste -- I get how it works overall in terms of Arthur's character and where it all leads, but as an example, 20 pages going through Arthur's father dying, the funeral etc., are just a bit too much.  The mystery that Melanie is involved in is intriguing, but it sort of plays second fiddle to everything going on in Arthur's life.  Unlike Cotton, this one has much more romance and personal relationships throughout the story which I'm just not into as a crime reader.  But that's a me thing not necessarily shared by other readers, and I have to say that I was caught up in thinking about the issues surrounding death-penalty cases more than anything else in this book. So this one works more for me on a philosophical level; the mystery surrounding the dead court clerk is also a good one but I wish it had been developed a bit more and that less focus had been given to Arthur here.  If he could bring back the team from Cotton and put them together in another intriguing mystery, I'd totally buy it, because in spite of the thriller elements that I normally just don't care for, there's a solid mystery at its core that I couldn't wait to get to the bottom of.

Bottom line: both novels are quite good and I'd recommend the two to crime readers, but Cotton for me definitely has a slight edge because of its casting and because of the mystery at its heart.  If the author wrote another novel would I buy it? Definitely -- and trust me, for someone who is happiest reading crime fiction from the past, that's saying a lot.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

a downright delicious double dose of Dard, from Pushkin Vertigo: Crush and Bird in a Cage

Pushkin Vertigo, 2016
originally published as Les scélérates, 1959
translated by Daniel Seton
156 pp


"I sincerely believe you have pulled off the perfect crime." --  Bird in a Cage  

The good people at Pushkin Vertigo tell me in a short section at the back of this novel that this book is one of Frédéric Dard's " 'novels of the night', -- a run of stand-alone, dark psychological thrillers written by Dard in his prime, and considered by many to be his best work."  It's good, all right, as is his Bird in a Cage, both of them read over the course of one night while I was once again wide awake.

 What I find interesting about both books is that somewhere toward the beginning of each, the main characters say or think little things that sort of grate on the mental ear, cluing me into the notion that there may just be something very off with these people who are telling us their stories. It's nothing big, there's really nothing anyone can put his or her finger on at the moment,  but that little mental niggle picked up on by my inner radar has come back to me in both books at some later point, leading to the "aha - I knew it!" moment in my head.

Let's start with Crush, which has a bizarre but good ending that in hindsight I should have seen but actually never saw coming.  The "I" here is 17 year-old Louise Lacroix, living at home in Léopoldville, in a neighborhood that's "all stunted little houses, lined up any old how on a plain surrounded by chimney stacks spewing out great clouds of smoke..."  She lives with mom and her "mum's man" Arthur (having never known her dad)  in a rented "ramshackle, barely furnished house" that hasn't seen repairs in years,  even though the "walls are crumbling like nobody's business." She's also always hated the town, because she saw it as "artificial and sad."   Louise has a job in a local factory, but we soon discover that she needs a change, starting with her route home from work each evening. 

Changing her way home takes her through the center of town, where "you can feel the money round there," where she discovered the home of the Roolands, a couple known locally as "the Yanks"  existing "on a sort of desert island all its own... where the natives seemed to live bloody well..."  Returning home late one evening, she gets into it with Arthur, and runs to the Roolands' where she offers her services as a maid. Eventually Jess and Thelma agree and Louise convinces them that it would be better if she lived in.  While Thelma drinks away her day while listening to music, Jess works at NATO, and soon enough Louise is happy in her new situation.  One incident drives her home, but the American couple provides enough financial incentive to Louise's mother to bring Louise back. It isn't long though until tragedy strikes, and suddenly we're left wondering exactly what the truth is behind the events that follow.  Dard does such a good job here that as I said, I should have seen what was coming and absolutely did not.  Once I'd finished, though, I was in awe of just how well the author had set things up, and I didn't mind at all that I'd been so cleverly manipulated. Au contraire - I actually appreciated it.

Moving onto the next book, Bird in a Cage, another of Dard's romans nuits, I was a bit worried at first that I was reading something along the lines of Cornell Woolrich's Phantom Lady, because in many ways Bird in a Cage begins with just that sort of feel.  As things turned out though, I was entirely wrong.  

Pushkin Vertigo, 2016
originally published as Le Monte-Charge, 1961
translated by David Bellos
123 pp

It's Christmas Eve, and Albert has come back home to Paris and to his mother's apartment after being away for six years. Mom has died, and he has returned to an empty, but still unchanged place.  After laying back in his old bed for a while, thinking he'd give anything to see his mom "just for a second, standing behind the door," and to hear her asking him if he was awake, his sorrow takes over and he needs to get out.  Off into the night, into his old quartier he wanders, after having stopped in a shop to buy a Christmas decoration, a "silver cardboard birdcage sprinkled with glitter dust" with a blue and yellow velvet bird inside on a perch. Next stop is Chiclet's, a "big restaurant" where as a child he'd stop and look through its windows "at the opulent part of humanity holding court inside."

 It's there that he runs into a woman who reminds him of a woman from his past named Anna, but this woman has a small child with her, and Albert suddenly feels the tragedy of the "shared loneliness" of the two.  After a short stint at a movie theater, Albert walks the woman (still nameless at this point) home; she invites him up for a drink and some impulse drives him to hang the birdcage on the woman's Christmas tree.  The little girl is put to bed, after which the woman reveals that she would really like to go out for a while, and they talk about her marriage which is extremely unhappy.  Returning her to her home, Albert realizes that they're not alone -- there's now a coat hanging on a hook that belongs to the woman's husband, who is lying on the sofa dead as a doornail. Albert quickly tries to remove traces of himself from the apartment, cleaning up fingerprints, etc., but when he goes to get the birdcage, he discovers that it is no longer hanging on the tree.  It's at this juncture where the story really takes off, as Albert is forced to make a confession to this woman, who promptly throws him out after telling him she'd get in touch with the police about her husband's death.   But he just can't leave, so he waits, hiding outside and watching as things get weirder and weirder before he steps in once more and gets the surprise of his life. 

When I finished this novel, to say I was blown away is to very much understate how I felt about it.  Frankly, I thought it was just genius. I think my insomnia may have been caused by a) first the tension that kept ratcheting up throughout the story and b) just laying there thinking about the book and  about just how cleverly Dard  put things together here. It's like I was expecting one thing and then out of nowhere, it became an entirely different ball game altogether, where everything changed completely.   

Passing on this book because it was written in 1961 would be a shame -- it's absolutely perfect for vintage crime readers, for readers who enjoy French crime, and for readers who are looking for something different in their crime fiction. My advice is to run, do not walk,  and pick up a copy ASAP. This one I just loved.  Absolutely.    

Monday, November 14, 2016

*and back to the movies we go with In a Lonely Place, by Dorothy B. Hughes

Feminist Press, 2010
originally published 1947
250 pp


"Lost in a world of swirling fog and crashing wave, a world empty of all but these things and his grief and the keening of the fog horn at sea. Lost in a lonely place."  -- 171

First and foremost: anyone who's seen the movie and hasn't read the book and is planning to do so may not want to read the rest of this post, since  there's certainly no mystery in this novel about main character Dix Steele here, revealed very early on in this book.

Power, exhilaration, freedom -- three words from the mind of a man who stands on a cliff overlooking the ocean on a foggy evening, not exactly sure of why he's there that night.  His quiet reverie while enjoying his wartime memories,  the sea air, and the darkness is shattered, however,  when a bus stops to let out its passenger on the street behind him. As he turns to look, he sees a girl get off and starts to follow her,  "entirely without volition."  Luckily for her, she makes it home safe.

I say "luckily for her," because she could have become yet another victim of the strangler who is preying on women in Los Angeles.  The police are baffled, a point which becomes clear to Dixon Steele when he meets up with an old friend from the war who is now, to Dix's surprise, one of the detectives working on the case.  Afterwards, Dix realizes that there's something "amusing" about the situation, since it's Dix himself who is the killer.  His feeling stems from the fact that his friend, Detective Brub Nicolai, would be "able to lay hands on him whenever he wished;" something Dix views as
"Amusing and more exciting than anything that had happened in a long time. The hunter and hunted arm in arm. The hunt sweetened by danger." 
Amused though he may be, Dix is not a happy man.  He sees himself as "The lone wolf," from which he takes "a savage delight"  even though he believes that "it wasn't happiness," but "the reverse of the coin."  He is also a person who "hated women," especially Brub Nicolai's wife, Sylvia. He feels that she is "conscious of him," but fighting it; she had been "burrowing beneath his surface since the night he had come out of the fog into her existence." While he resents it, he plans to enjoy "the game" of breaking down her withdrawal, especially since she's his best friend's wife. As we're told, it "stimulated" him, as did the idea of heightening the game by teaming up with Nicolai, waiting to hear the latest developments in the strangler case.

While we hear that
"His life was good, a slick apartment, a solid car; income without working for it, not half enough but he could get by. Freedom, plenty of freedom. Nobody telling him what to do, nobody snooping,"
Dix soon finds himself in a relationship with Laurel Gray, the gorgeous redhead who lives in his apartment complex. With Laurel around,  Dix feels like he was "meshed in a womb he called happiness."  But when she's not there, doubt begins to creep into his mind, and things start to take a turn that no one could have foreseen, with an incredibly powerful ending that I wasn't at all expecting.

What we have here is a story about a man in whom the cracks begin to show pretty much from the outset, and  I see from looking at what some readers think about this novel that they are a bit frustrated that there is very little in the way of an actual mystery.  I don't think that was the point, actually, since it seems obvious that Hughes is much more about character here. After having read two of her books now, I'm inclined to agree with Christine Smallwood in a 2012 article she wrote for The New Yorker, where she says that Hughes is not after "whodunit, but who-ness itself..." and that for Hughes, it's not the crime that is her interest, but rather "evil," making "that evil a sickness in the mind a landscape to be surveyed." That is precisely what happens in this book, so reading solely for plot just sort of misses the point. Then again, surveying the "landscape" of the mind is the biggest raison d'être of my reading life. And then there's the ending, unexpected to be sure, but just brilliant.  There's much more to find while reading carefully, and Hughes is definitely a master of her craft in this novel.

and now to the film ... 

I sort of wish I hadn't read the novel before watching this movie (1950); within the first ten minutes I'm sitting on my sofa with my mouth hanging open thinking "wtf?"  I get that screenwriters always take some kind of liberties when moving from page to screen but I was expecting the movie to at least sort of mirror what happens in the novel.  If I consider the movie without trying to tie it to the book, it's a damn good film providing lots of tension, having its say about postwar Hollywood, and certainly keeping me on the edge of my seat until the end.  This is a movie where pretty much everyone involved asks the same question -- is Dix Steele actually capable of murder? This question becomes even more alarming for the new woman in his life, Laurel, who has in many ways become Dix's muse, prompting him to make a success of himself and work hard at writing a winning script which he hasn't had since before the war. Even as they grow closer together,  she  can't help but tap into the  undercurrent of suspicion that Dix may have killed a girl, even though she was the one to provide him with an alibi of sorts.  Everyone  knows he has a history of violent confrontations; Laurel sees him at his worst when he beats up a guy whose car he slams into one night. Heck, even I wasn't sure, wondering right up to the very last minute whether or not Dix Steele was actually a cold-blooded killer. And in my opinion,  it's this ambiguity that drives the film as the possibility of his guilt continues to mount, as the cops and others put pressure on him, and as the seeds of doubt start to take hold in Laurel's mind.

While there are a number of major differences from page to screen, in the novel, the major difference is that there is no ambiguity whatsoever; we know Dix is a killer almost from the very beginning. One of the best parts of the novel is the game that Dix plays with Detective Nicolai Brub, even going along to a crime scene with the cops, feeling superior and laughing smugly to himself inside.  He also eventually makes future plans, revealing to readers that he has no intention of being caught, and he's extremely clever in beating the cops at their own game.    Book Dix pretends that he's writing a detective novel, he lives in another man's apartment, and depends on an uncle for an allowance.  When he falls for Laurel, he goes crazy with thoughts of her with other men whenever she's not around.   Book Laurel, who eventually becomes doubt riddled for her own reasons,  is much more of hard-edged woman than movie Laurel, and the character of Sylvia is much more present and has much more of an active, crucial role in the novel than her on-screen counterpart.  

So here's how I see things:  book and movie are really two different entities, so I can understand how, if someone sees the film first and then reads the book, disappointment might set in.  The same is true vice versa -- I read the novel first and expected something much different than I got from the movie.  I ended being crazy about both of them, but for me it's definitely the book that has the edge.  Bottom line: you won't be sorry either way -- both book and movie are excellent. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Riddle of Monte Verita, by Jean-Paul Török

Locked Room International, 2012
originally published as L'Enigme du Monte Verita, 2007
translated by John Pugmire
193 pp


The Riddle of Monte Verita  is an obvious homage to the work of John Dickson Carr, who was a master of the craft of the locked-room mystery; it's also a product of the author's desire to
"write an impossible crime novel that obeys the rules of what is often called Golden Age fiction; to write it in a manner faithful to the French language usage of the time; and to end the story with the last sentence of La Chambre ardente, the French translation of Carr's The Burning Court..."
An admirable project, yes indeedy, but well, for reasons stated in the author's note section at the end of the book, things didn't come quite off as planned, but I admire the author's passion.  As it so happens, I'm a huge fan of locked-room mysteries; for me, first and foremost  it's all about the shock of the actual "impossible" crime that makes me wonder "how could that have possibly happened?," followed by scouring for real clues while trying to sort through the red herrings that find their way into the investigation. My experience has been that sometimes the solutions to these crimes have been pretty ingenious, while sometimes they're a bit on the silly side, which is a bit disappointing.  Here I enjoyed the central mystery;  there were enough red herrings to keep me highly satisfied, and enough places where I said to myself "this might be important" that I marked with page tabs. In the long run, though, while I enjoyed it for a while, I ended up feeling a bit let down. More on that soon.

Ascona, Switzerland, 1938.  Sorbonne professor Pierre Garnier has just arrived to attend a symposium on detective fiction that is being held at the Albergo Monte Verita. Accompanied by his wife Solange, he makes the acquaintance of another participant, Professor Lippi, on the way to the conference's inaugural cocktail hour.  Lippi gives him a rundown on the original "riddle" of Monte Verita, involving a turn-of-the-century colony of "gentle cranks" whose leader had "stuffed his head with esoteric theories" and went by the name of Rosenkreutz.  Not only did he call himself by that name, but insisted that he was the reincarnation of Christian Rosenkreutz, the imagined founder of the order of Rosicrucians.  It seems that the first Rosenkreutz is said to have entombed himself in a grotto, so his namesake at Monte Verita decided to seal himself in a "natural cave"-slash-grotto very close to the Albergo hotel to meditate and pray.   The legend is that his "flock" saw him go in, sealed him in with boulders, then stood guard for three days. On the fourth day, they opened the cave and their fearless leader had disappeared, never to be seen again.

Don't worry -- even though it sounds as if I'm leading you toward some sort of esoteric, Dan Brownish type novel -- the history of Monte Verita is definitely relevant to this tale.

Lippi's theory, as he presents in his symposium session, is that people who view the locked-room mystery as improbable are wrong, and that "it's not important that these kinds of situations cannot occur in real life." He is challenged by a certain Doctor Hoenig,  prompting remarks by Lippi that make the audience laugh and turn Hoenig purple with anger.  Then Lippi adds that no one would commit murder in real life in the manner of locked-room mysteries, since taking the time to set up such a crime is a "horribly complicated way to kill someone," drawing further ire from Hoenig who swears that he has evidence from "impossible crimes" he's investigated personally that he will present during his own lecture. But since Hoenig's "ingenuity of ... interpretation" won't enough to satisfy Lippi, he challenges Hoenig to "submit to a conclusive experiment" by shutting himself into the grotto and making himself disappear.  Well, these days the grotto is barred so no one can get in, but strange things begin happening that lead to murder and ultimately leave Garnier wondering just who he can trust.

Great premise, actually, and for a while there the story was on the plus side of atmospheric, pages were flipping at a fast rate, and my interest remained high for some time.  But what kind of soured me here was that when we get to the (for lack of a better word) alternative solutions, they've been done before, something I spotted well before the "spoiler" page where the author spells it all out.   It's one thing to write a book like this to pay tribute to an author, and indeed to an entire subset of mystery fiction, but to use scenarios that any major fan and serious reader of locked-room/impossible crime would recognize right away is not what I'd call original.   I won't discuss them here in case someone wants to read this book, but you've been warned.

I'd say don't shy away from it -- it was fun for a while -- but if you're looking for something new and original as far as a locked-room/impossible crime mystery story, well, this just might not be that book.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Under the Midnight Sun, by Keigo Higashino

Minotaur Books
originally published as 白夜行, Byakuyakō, 1998
560 pp

arc, my thanks to the publisher!

Under the Midnight Sun hasn't even been officially released yet (that's tomorrow, actually),  but it seems to be taking the crime-reading world by storm. A brief perusal of the usual places shows that readers are all over it, with reviews on a 5-star scale coming in just about at the 4.5 level.  I have a feeling it's going to be selling like hotcakes.

If there's anyone out there who doesn't know Keigo Higashino, he's the author of the popular Detective Galileo series that so far has three entries:  The Devotion of Suspect X, Salvation of a Saint, and A Midsummer's Equation.  (I've read and enjoyed the first two, and surprise of all surprises, my husband actually liked the first two books as well. I say surprise because we don't usually agree on crime novels.)  He's also the author of another series of nine novels featuring Tokyo detective Kyochiro Kaga, of which only Malice has been translated, and three standalones: Naoko, Under the Midnight Sun and coming soon, The Name of the Game is Kidnapping.  He's obviously a man devoted to his craft, and has been a finalist for two different crime-writing awards here in the US.  

Under the Midnight Sun I'd label as "epic psychological crime drama", since it takes us through nearly two decades of time before we're through here.  It begins in 1973 with the murder of a pawnbroker by the name of Yosuke Kirihara, who was found dead in an abandoned building, leaving behind a wife and young son Ryo.  Osaka detective Sasagaki is on the case and as he's beginning to get somewhere with the investigation, there are two more deaths: first, that of a wholesaler named Terasaki who is connected somehow to  Kirihara's death or at least knows something more than he's saying,  and second, somewhat later, the suicide of a woman whom the detective has been considering as his prime suspect in Kirihara's murder. She also leaves behind a child, Yukiho, who is later adopted by a relative.  Sasagaki fails to make any traction on the pawnbroker murder, a fact which, as we later discover,  has haunted him over the years.  However, after these three deaths, we say goodbye to our erstwhile detective for about nineteen years as the author moves the story forward around the lives of  Ryo and Yukiho. 

I think that's about all I'm going to give away as far as plot, because a)  a story that unfolds over nearly twenty years really can't be summarized very neatly, b) it's much more character driven rather than plot driven, and c) there are a number of twists and turns as the years roll by before our detective makes his way back into the picture.  And while a lot of nefarious things happen throughout this story that left twists in my gut, the main emphasis turns out not to be the actual 1973 case itself, but rather on the two kids left behind, with betrayal and obsession as two main themes that run throughout the book.  

The deaths at the beginning pave the way for what follows, and most of what happens over the next two decades is enough to keep anyone reading.  The situation is never pretty and there's no happy happy anywhere in this book, but that's all in keeping with the author's psychological focus here. Along that particular trajectory, the author is quite successful as he reveals the very warped and darker side of human nature.  At the same time, my personal preference is for more streamlined crime fiction, and this book piles subplot upon subplot upon subplot, goes into a lot more dialogue than I felt was necessary, and while I get where the author's going with all of this characterwise, in my opinion, it could have been a much tighter and stronger story had a lot been left out. One more thing: whoever wrote the back cover blurb (it's probably on the dustjacket of the finished copy) really does readers a major disservice by referring to the "obsessed detective" since really, he's there at the beginning and doesn't actually reappear for the next nineteen years. If he's that obsessed, he should have been worth at least a mention here and there but basically he's forgotten until close to the ending.  Still, the strength of this novel is much more in its psychological underpinnings, and that's actually done quite well.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Okay. October's over so it's back to the business of crime: The White Devil, by Dominic Stansberry

Molotov Editions, 2016
250 pp

paperback, courtesy of the author - thanks!

"There is no such thing as a secret life."

Domenic Stansberry, you are one clever man. The entire time I was reading this novel, I'm thinking that I'd read something along these lines before and was racking my brain trying to remember where.  Then when I got to the Author's Note at the back, I read this:
"...this novel borrows many elements from John Webster's older play (1612) of the same title..."

then Ah! The light bulb goes off over my head. It wasn't Webster, but Stendhal's Vittoria Accoramboni that I read, a bit different, but based on the same subject matter.  Now I need to look at the play, which was written by the author of Duchess of Malfi. There's nothing like a good Jacobean revenge story.

[One minor point and I'll be going on with this tale -- at Publishers Weekly, whoever reviewed this book  evidently didn't read it very carefully, calling the narrator "unnamed," when in fact she has a name which is mentioned more than a few times.   Hello. Wakey wakey.]

Relating her tale from a second-story flat off the Avenida in Rome, the narrator of this story takes us along with her on a tour of her life up to the present.  Vicky Wilson aka Vittoria, hailing from Texas, has married Frank Paris, a writer whose career has seen better days and whose uncle, Cardinal Whiting, is supporting him. Now in Rome, her brother Johnny introduces her to an Italian senator named Paolo Orsini, whose wife Isabella is a wealthy celebrity, adored by the paparazzi, the tabloids, and the people. It's an instant attraction, and after a few trysts between Vittoria and Orsini, Isabella, who has gone to New York for work, ends up dead. It obviously wasn't Paolo -- he had left New York prior to her death,  but later, after Vittoria's husband Frank meets an untimely end while out horseback riding, followed by the election of a new pope, the situation begins to take a major turn, leaving the fates of several people to spiral out of control as they find themselves stuck, as the author says at different points, "in a kind of limbo."

Aside from the links between corruption, money, power, the influence of the Catholic Church in more secular affairs, the political/legal system, and above all, the often-linked duo of murder and revenge,  what's really interesting here is that this story is told completely from Vicki/Vittoria's point of view, so when we look back at her past, which is very closely linked that of her brother's, things tend to get a bit hazy here and there. Aside from little bits and pieces of her past, we're never quite sure who we're dealing with here.  For example, in one hazy recollection during which she tells us that she'd been to a psychologist at school, she reveals that
"The shrink was concerned about certain blank spots, emptiness, memories I skittered around, dissociative tendencies typical of certain kinds of trauma," 
but aside from a few clues here and there, we don't necessarily have a complete picture of who this rather enigmatic woman really is.  There are a few times where we get the idea that she knows she could have done things differently (If I'd ... this, If I'd ... that), but didn't, because of "certain loyalties" she had. It's those "certain loyalties" that are at the heart of it all, and which drive our narrator,  but I'll leave exactly how for others to discover.   For  me, she is the real draw here, and I think the author does a really nice job detailing her inner turmoil throughout her entire ordeal, right up until the very last moment when she has to face a grave reality.

There's more of course -- the various sources of media -- bloggers, newspapers, and especially the tabloids whose lurid titles spark conspiracy theories -- which keep suspicion floating in the air and a desire for any sort of private life a joke; family ties also play a huge role here, and more.  It's a really good book, and beyond the story itself, I love Mr. Stansberry's  writing voice -- it's refreshingly subdued, never overplayed or overly dramatic but at the same time able to tell a very haunting story.  These days, that's difficult to do, so I don't mind saying that I'm highly impressed.

You can find more about this author (who is no stranger to the crime fiction game) here -- I have to say that I love when something different hits my mailbox and this book is definitely (and most gratefully)  not in the category of same old same old.  Human nature is so bizarre sometimes, and here, its dark side is writ very large.

Monday, September 26, 2016

another seriously good novel, this time from Russia: The Investigator, by Margarita Khemlin

Glagoslav Publications, 2015
originally published 2012
translated by Melanie Moore
336 pp


"Irredeemable guilt, you either forgive or forget without forgiveness. But living with it is impossible." 

This book is yet another example of why I'm a huge advocate for smaller presses, who tend to put out some of the best and sadly unknown work, making for some of the most intelligent writing and through them I've been introduced to authors whose writing I would read again and again.  Let's take this book, for example, The Investigator, by Margarita Khemlin.  I had never heard of either Khemlin or this particular title before Ksenia at Glagoslav got in touch (and I thank you very, very much for the books you sent) re Slavic books in translation.  I actually turned her down at first because of my majorly-sagging tbr shelves through November,  but she assured me that there are no time pressures so I agreed. Imagine my surprise when I looked at the back cover and discovered that it was shortlisted for the 2013 Russian Booker Prize.  I knew I had something special here and as it turns out, I was absolutely correct.  

What lies at the very heart of the story in The Investigator is something I never expected, remaining a mystery throughout the entire novel and I aim to keep it that way here, because any hint will wreck what lies beneath.   Set in the Ukrainian SSR in the 1950s, in the town of Chernigov, the story is narrated by police captain Mikhail (Misha) Ivanovich Tsupkoy, who was previously a military intelligence officer  until he was demobbed and became an police investigator.  The novel is, as he notes, his reminiscence of "a single incident from my long and extensive career," the death of one Lilia Vorobeichik in 1952.   A suspect in her murder comes to light very quickly, an actor named Roman Nikolayevich Moiseenko, who eventually confesses to the crime, and then saves himself a court trial by hanging himself in his cell.  Case closed? Well, we're only at page eight, so obviously not. As it happens, two events spark Mikhail to continue digging -- his best friend's suicide, and the interference of a certain neighbor of the dead woman who somehow manages to come up with the heretofore undiscovered murder weapon.  This woman, dressmaker Polina Lvovna (Laevskaya), turns out to be the proverbial thorn in Misha's side, sowing doubt on his integrity as an investigator to whoever might listen to her, which turns out to be troublesome for our investigator. Secrets acting as smokescreens abound in this book, making Misha's job all the more difficult as he tries to unravel them to get to truth. But as the reader moves closer and closer to the why of things, it seems that everyone involved here has something to hide and that they have their own reasons for holding their secrets and their stories close. 

Now, when a novel starts out with a murder, it's easy to understand why it might be labeled as crime fiction, but The Investigator turns out to move well beyond the standard crime tropes to become a serious piece of historical fiction taking the reader beyond the novel's present into its past and back again.   It can come across as murky or even a bit silly at times, as Tsupkoy travels hither and thither between Ukrainian towns interacting with a complex set of characters over and over again; however, among other things, what seems to come out of this (for me, anyway), is that the people who live here are very much connected to their past histories, to each other, and most especially to the very troubled history of this area, and that it is impossible to separate any one of these elements from the other.  I won't say why, but this point becomes very, very clear by the end of the book.  There is a LOT of ambiguity here to be examined, and the stories that are eventually revealed are beyond satisfying as far as my own interest as to what drives people to do the things they do.  I'll also say that there are some very big surprises to be had that I wasn't at all expecting.  Sorry to be so vague, but I don't want to give away a single thing. 

Looking at it solely from the perspective of a crime fiction reader, the story of the investigation itself  is a good one and as noted earlier, the surprising solution is kept at bay until close to the ending, as is the secret that underpins everything.   At the same time, also noted earlier, this book goes well beyond the realm of a simple crime novel, and becomes a lovely yet disturbing piece of historical writing done very, very well. If The Investigator is an example of what Glagoslav has to offer, they will be seeing their books talked about here a lot.  Highly, highly recommended for serious readers who are always looking for something new and different.  Frankly,  I've read some seriously excellent books this year, and this one just got added to that list.  

Thanks again, Ksenia. I loved it.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

I LOVE LOVE LOVE this book!!! His Bloody Project: Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrae, by Graeme Macrae Burnet

Contraband, 2015
280 pp


There is no doubt that when I go back to look over what I've read this year (hence this reading journal),  this book will probably be at the top of my favorite books of all categories for 2016.   I loved this book. Hear me? I said LOVED. I don't often express my LOVE for a book in all caps, but this one just blew me away.  His Bloody Project was nominated for this year's Man Booker Prize, and made it through to the shortlist, so evidently the judges thought it was great too.  It was so good, in fact,  that although I'd decided to read the entire longlist this year, after finishing this one I knew I'd found my winner.  How the official  judging plays out may be a completely different story, but this would be my hands-down choice for sure, so no point in reading further down the list for me. 

The time is 1869, and a young (17) Roddy Macrae of the small remote village of Culduie, Scotland has just killed three members of one family.   His family and the other villagers are crofters, ekeing out a harsh, miserable existence, and are always at the mercy of their benefactor "the factor," and his representative in the village, the Constable. Roddy confesses right away, and there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that he is guilty.  But the major question in this novel is "why?" and the story surrounding the murders  is revealed slowly via different sources in this book: Roddy's memoir, written "at the behest of  [his] advocate," witness statements, police statements, psychological assessments, and other voices that join in to tell the story.  However, there's a big catch: from page one on, it becomes very clear that truth and perception are in the eyes of the beholders, and that both may just be slippery and elusive.  

I'm really not going to say more than that little bit about the plot, because really, it's a book that should absolutely be experienced on one's own.  It's a stunningly superb novel, and aside from offering readers the challenge of  trying to piece together what may have actually happened and why,   the author has done an excellent job here in bringing us into life  in the small, rather claustrophic village of Culduie, mid 19-th century.   I'll just note that aside from the mystery of the why, the social, political, religious and class explorations in this novel elevate it to something well beyond anything else I've read this year.  

Reading this novel at a slower pace pays dividends, and it is definitely a book to be savored.  I cannot recommend it highly enough, and I will say that anyone thinking about it would be wise to avoid any reviews or reader posts that give away much more than what's on the back-cover blurb or what I've said here.   I'll also say that it is a story that demands active reader participation --  it's a thinking person's novel that really demands close attention, but also one that highly satisfies in the end.  Sheesh! It seriously just does not get better than this!!!!

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Off to Italy this time with The Disappearance of Signora Giulia, by Piero Chiara

Pushkin Vertigo, 2015
originally published as I giovedi della signora giulia, 1970
translated by Jill Foulston
122 pp


Set in 1955, The Disappearance of Signora Giulia is one of the most truly baffling mysteries I've read in quite some time.  By the time I finished this book, I was totally perplexed.  And trust me -- after having read thousands of mystery novels in my time,  "baffling" is not a term I throw about willy nilly, but I'm certainly not going to spill my guts as to why I found it so.  

 Commissario Corrado Sciancalepre returns from a conference with the Chief Constable in the "small town of M_____" in Northern Lombardy and gets a big surprise.  Waiting in his office is Esengrini, the area's "most agile and authoritative criminal lawyer" who is there with an "incredibly serious matter," which, as he puts it, will likely turn his entire life "upside down."  It seems that his wife, the titular "Signora Giulia," has left home, and Esengrini needs Sciancalepre's help in trying to find her.  La Signora was supposed to have caught a train that day for Milan, which she does every Thursday, to see their daughter Emilia at her boarding school, to make the rounds of various places in the city, and to do things for her friends while she's there, catching the two p.m. train and coming home by 7:30 in the evening.  On this particular Thursday though,  it seems that Signora Giulia never caught the train.  When Sciancalepre returns with Esengrini to his home, he discovers that perhaps she'd been planning to stay longer than her usual few hours this time -- her bedroom is "a complete mess," a lot of clothing has gone with her and so has her jewelry.  Her husband had also heard her "moving around continually, opening drawers, shifting chairs" the night before, and according to him, she was "agitated."  But wait. It's here that the first of a number of secrets pervading this novel comes tumbling out, as Esengrini confesses to the Commissario that he'd known for some time she'd been seeing other men on those Thursdays, using the visits to her daughter as a cover.  He'd even had her followed four months earlier because Giulia, 38, had started turning cold toward her 60 year-old spouse in the last year, and Esengrini had wanted to know why.  Sciancalepre offers to try to find her, but this is 1955, and he needs Esengrini to bring a charge against her so he can do so.  Esengrini decides it's going to be a case of "abandoning the marital home," which is enough for our Commissario to begin his search.  But this is definitely NOT going to be an easy or simple case of finding a runaway wife, and Sciancalepre doesn't realize at the time that this case is will be years in the solving, and even then ....

Despite some minor lulls here and there in the telling, The Disappearance of Signora Giulia is beyond compelling and it's certainly one of the most unconventional crime stories I've ever read. It is a true whodunit in every sense of the term, with a big, no make that huge,  twist I never saw coming.  When I finished it, the first words coming out of my mouth were "that's just brilliant," and if anyone reading this post decides to read it, you'll see why.  I pondered over that ending for some time and when a book makes me do that, well, I call it a good one.

Very much recommended, especially for readers of older crime novels, for readers of international crime, and for readers of crime fiction who enjoy something completely different.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

another winner from Pushkin Vertigo: I Was Jack Mortimer, by Alexander Lernet-Holenia

Pushkin Vertigo, 2015
originally published as Ich war Jack Mortimer, 1933
translated by Ignat Avsey
186 pp


"This man had messed up everything with his death." 

Ferdinand Sponer is a taxi driver in Vienna, "about thirty," whose only mistake was to pick up the wrong passenger.  Waiting in the taxi rank at the Westbahnhof, his turn comes up, and his passenger directs him to the Hotel Bristol.  After some time, he realizes that there are two Hotel Bristols, so he opens up the partition between front and back seat, and asks his passenger which one.  Receiving no answer, he asks again, and is met only with silence.  Sponer turns on the light inside the cab, looks at the man in the back seat, and realizes that "the man was dead." To his further surprise, since he hadn't heard anything at all, he discovers that the guy had been shot right there in his seat.  Sponer tries to tell the police, but panics -- after reporting a fake accident and unable to think straight,  he goes through what I can only describe as a serious lack of judgment, and then makes a fateful decision that will make his life a living hell over the course of the next couple of days.  Believing that if his passenger fails to show up at the hotel that the game would be up and he would be blamed, he decides Jack Mortimer will keep his reservation at the Hotel Bristol, just for one night.  Afterwards, Sponer figures, he can get on with his old life without anyone ever finding out what had happened. But, as we all know, the best laid plans and all that ...

I've seen this labeled as a thriller, and I suppose there are a number of thriller-type elements, but I got more of a noir sort of flavor from it -- the hapless Joe who's in the wrong place at the wrong time, looking for a way out of his predicament only to discover that he just may be trapped by his own choices.  The suspense picks up once Sponer decides that he will become Jack Mortimer, and as we discover exactly who Jack Mortimer actually was,  all manner of things happen that send Ferdinand's life spiraling out of control.  But, as we're told,
"One doesn't step into anyone's life, not even a dead man's, without having to live it to the end,"
and with our poor taxi driver, that just might be the case as he finds himself smack in the middle of a collision course between the past and the present.

from Quixotando
I watched the film (1935, German with English subtitles) this morning, and while not as suspenseful as the book, the movie itself is pretty good.  It starts pretty slowly, introducing the main players, and instead of letting the tension build in discovering the past history of Jack Mortimer we get that whole shebang near the beginning. It takes the actual discovery of the dead man in the back seat of the taxi to get things rolling, but from then on, it's one of those movies where you don't want to miss a second.  A few noticeably surreal scenes at times make it stand out, as does the main character spiraling into panic mode when he realizes that absolutely no one is going to believe that he has nothing to do with his passenger's death.

Both book and movie are definite yesses.  Alongside the main story in the novel, by virtue of Sponer's job as taxi driver, we are privy to the sights, sounds and smells of interwar Vienna as he travels through the city; class distinctions are also nicely detailed here.  As a character study, it also works quite nicely -- again, my focus in reading is on people, looking for what drives them to do what they do, and I was not at all disappointed.  Evidently, though, my high opinion of this novel isn't shared by a lot of readers, who in general give it an average overall rating mainly because of the plot.  Well, this book is a prime example of what you miss when plot and "story arc" are the only things you care about.  Trust me, there's nothing average about this book at all -- it's another fine example of an old book that has been largely forgotten, and thanks to Pushkin Vertigo, it's now widely available.  Once again I'll say that I do understand that crime from 1930s may not be everyone's cup of tea, but I seem to be encountering a lot of these old novels that are really, really good and which definitely ought to be part of every serious crime fiction reader's repertoire.

Recommended to all crime readers, but most especially to readers who love these old books as much as I do.

Monday, August 15, 2016

New! The Hanged Man: A Mystery in Fin-de-Siècle Paris, by Gary Inbinder

Pegasus Crime, 2016
235 pp

arc - my thanks to Katie at Pegasus and to the author

This one I liked. It moves along quickly, has an interesting plot where time is of the essence before something catastrophic happens, and it's historical crime fiction done very nicely.

The Hanged Man is the second installment in Gary Inbinder's historical crime series that began with The Devil in Montmartre, which introduced  Inspector Achille Lefebvre as the main character and a supporting cast that continues on into this book.   Here, our erstwhile detective discovers that what should be a straightforward investigation into a murder is anything but, and that he is going to need all the help he can muster.  And as Lefebvre gets closer to the answers to his questions, he realizes that time is of the essence in order to foil a sinister plot that could have serious repercussions that reach well beyond the city.  It's mystery with an edge of espionage and terrorism, all playing out on the streets of Paris that Lefebvre has sworn to protect.  While much lighter than what I normally read, there's still a lot of suspense and some good detective work going on here.

I am a major fan of historical crime fiction when it's done right (and trust me on this one, not all of it is),  and all of the research that the author has done comes through in a big way.  Lefebvre's  desire to move crime-solving techniques forward is one area of interest, but Inbinder's understanding of how things work historically is what makes this book more than just a standard crime novel.   He really gets that things don't just happen out of nowhere, and he's done a great job of linking a troubled past with the contemporary present (1890) here.  There are anarchists (split between "evolutionary" and "revolutionary")  and Russian émigrés who find themselves under covert or otherwise surveillance;  there are also people with "painful memories" of  the short-lived Paris Commune and the resulting Bloody Week of 1871,  "an old wound that had never completely healed." The author slides this background in without it being over lengthy in terms of exposition -- it fits nicely and naturally into the narrative.   And then there's the cultural side of Paris at this time which is also done well -- everyone knows about the can-can, the Moulin Rouge, the artists etc., but then there's also the darker and more decadent side -- as just one example,  the Cabaret de L'Enfer where absinthe is the drink of choice and doormen dress as Mephistopheles.

Cabernet de L'enfer, from Cool Stuff in Paris

As a matter of personal preference, when I'm reading crime I'm much more into an investigation or a case than I am in the more domestic aspects an author provides in fleshing out his/her character. Here, the same is true --  at one spot there was a block of five pages of conversation between Madame Lefebvre and her mother, which sort of threw me a bit off balance and kind of took me away mentally from the suspense going on up to that moment.  That whole scene,  I think,  might have been shortened a bit, but as I said, it's a me thing.

Aside from that one issue,  The Hanged Man is a good read that will most certainly appeal to historical crime fiction readers, historical fiction readers in general, and readers who are looking for a new crime series.   I'd advise starting with The Devil in Montmartre  before grabbing a copy of this one, just for continuity's sake.  The two together will make for some fun hours of reading, and when book number three comes out, I'll be there. Considering that I rarely read series novels any more, that's saying something.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

and another badass mommy hits the streets. Sigh. Woman of the Dead, by Bernhard Aichner

Scribner, 2015
279 pp


 The main character of this novel is truly one of a kind -- a young woman, happily married to a cop with two little daughters, who has a unique occupation: she's an undertaker, running the family business after the death of her parents some eight years prior to when this story begins.  But the fact that she's comfortable around dead people isn't what makes her stand out.

Blum is married to the love of her life, Mark and all is perfect in her world until one day her husband is killed in a hit-and-run accident. When she's finally able to start to pull herself together, she takes on the task of cleaning out Mark's stuff.  It's then that she runs across a series of conversations between Mark and a woman -- all professional, no hanky-panky -- but Blum's curiosity gets the better of her and she listens.  As the conversations get darker and more serious, she is convinced that the investigation  Mark was running had a major connection to his death.  She does what any normal person would do and runs to the police with her information, speaking with Mark's friend and trusted colleague, who assures her that the woman in the recordings is nothing but a liar. In short, he says there was nothing to any of this, and she should forget about it and go on with her life.  But Blum isn't convinced -- there's something about this mystery woman that catches her attention, and, of course, if this all has something to do with Mark's death, she wants to know. Eventually, she begins to realize that Mark was into something really ugly and really deep, and that his death was more likely a murder to keep him from getting too close to the truth.   So she decides to look into things herself, and ends up setting herself on a course of revenge.

When it comes down to it, this story has all of the elements of a typical badass heroine thriller, with a dark, actually psychotic twist involving her past that helps her do what she does once she has revenge in mind. But I do have to say that this book didn't set my heart racing as I think it was intended to do.    First of all, I figured out the BIG reveal quite early on so finishing this novel became a game of waiting to prove myself right.  Let's just say that guessing the who and the why has happened to me before, but when it happens so very early in the story, it actually wrecks things for me beyond repair.  And absolutely nothing after that point in this book made me question myself whatsoever.  Way too easy --  I think when someone is writing a crime novel, considering that his or her audience is probably full of seasoned crime-reading veterans, there should be the added bonus of an actual mystery going on.  Second, there is so much violence here that for me, at least, it was not at all a pleasure to read.  But those are minor issues compared to my third, which is that everything happens and falls into place so unrealistically easily that there was no challenge whatsoever in the reading.  I mean, seriously -- if you're going to write a thriller, shouldn't it be thrilling? Whoever wrote the dustjacket blurb saying this book is "Vivid, tense, and written with breakneck narration" probably needs to go back and read it again -- I didn't see any of this in here.

I feel absolutely awful when I don't like a book that I know someone has put so much effort into but I can't help it in this case.  On the other hand, a huge number of readers gave this book high marks and enthusiastic praise, so anyone considering this book should probably decide about it on his or her own. As for me, I'm just so done with badass mommies in a big way.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Monster's Daughter, by Michelle Pretorius

Melville House, 2016
455 pp

hardcover/arc (read earlier this month)

To put this very bluntly, and without naming names,  I've been a bit disappointed with the so-called summer blockbusters that have come out this year from the big publishing houses.  I've been waiting for someone to get beyond same-old, same-old, and well, here it is. I can honestly say that The Monster's Daughter is an original.  It begins in a normal enough way for a crime novel, with the discovery of a dead body, but trust me, there is nothing at all normal about this book. And that's a good thing.

 There are three different things going on here: first, one of the two main narrative threads has its roots in science/speculative fiction; second, the other thread follows a police investigation into murder, and third, when the two come together, the book serves as a vehicle for exploring a century of South Africa's troubled past and its repercussions in the present.  It's this third aspect, I think, that made this book so incredibly interesting to me -- what a great way to take on such a difficult topic.  So what you get in The Monster's Daughter is a sort of hybrid mix of sci-fi, crime and history, and if that's not original, I don't know what is.

As I said earlier, the novel begins with the discovery of a dead body in the small South African town of Unie. It's December, 2010, and the victim has been burned beyond recognition, so it's going to be a tough job just trying to figure out who the victim is. Plus, the method of death is one that the detectives haven't seen in this area, so it's definitely unusual and seems to be some sort of smokescreen, creating a puzzle for the detectives to solve.  As we're meeting the main characters from the present, the story then goes back in time to 1901, when the British were trying to get rid of the remaining Boers and were sending families to concentration camps. At one of these camps some bizarre experiments are taking place  (and here's where the sci-fi edge comes in); eventually all of this comes to an end, but a bit too late and at a terrible cost. This movement from present to past continues throughout the book until, of course, the two storylines merge.

As the crime story moves forward, Alet Berg, who is working on the crime, begins to uncover some pretty disturbing things that may not only jeopardize  her already faltering career, but may also have some bearing on her personal life.  She also discovers that the death of this victim may be one more in a long-running series of murders where the killer has never been caught.  As time moves forward from 1901, we get a serious look at South Africa's violent apartheid history through the story of Tessa, who finds herself constantly having to change identities and homes to ensure her own survival.

So -- I have to admit that when I first came across the parts about the experiments at the concentration camp, I did a major eyeroll since this is so normally not my thing,  but as things turned out, I just decided to suspend any disbelief, relax, and roll with it and The Monster's Daughter turned out to be pretty darned good.  I will say that it tends to get a bit boggy because there are so many things going on here -- for example, the author throws in some conspiratorial subplots that while important and germane to both present, past, and the novel's title,  received (imo) way too much attention and time when all I really wanted to do was to get back to Tessa, South African history,  and to the murder investigation. Then again, I'm not a big conspiracy fiction person, so that may just be a matter of personal taste. However, as I am so fond of saying, less is more, and this one could have been pared down some without any damage. Other than that, though, as I said, this book is definitely original, and would be well suited for historical fiction and crime readers who don't mind suspending disbelief (and let's get real here -- we do that in most cases anyway),  and I'd also say for readers who are interested in the human costs of racism.  Given the direction of today's politics, it might very well be worth taking a look at the past as so well presented in this novel.

I really need to thank TLC book tours and to Melville House (one of my favorite publishers!!) for my copy of this novel.  I'm just one of several readers of this book, so clicking on the link will take you to their thoughts as well. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

revisiting Miss Marple: Nemesis, by Agatha Christie

The cover photo above is probably my favorite for this book; mine is part of a set of  Bantam black leatherette hardcover editions and has a cover that is really dull.  However, it's all about what's inside, and there is nothing at all dull about Christie's Nemesis, where Miss Marple's cover as dotty old lady comes in more than handy.  I say her "cover," because as she discovers in this book, she has a propensity to be "ruthless" when she needs to and as it will turn out, she'll definitely need to call on that trait before all is said and done.  Personally, I think this is one of the best Marples in the bunch.

Originally published in 1951, Nemesis opens with our dear Miss Marple scanning the obituaries in the local newspaper, and running across a name she knows --  Mr. Jason Rafiel, whom she'd met while on holiday in the Caribbean, has passed away.  A week later, she receives a letter summoning her to London, where she is received by Rafiel's solicitors.  It seems that Mr. Rafiel has left her a bequest of twenty thousand pounds, but there's a catch:  Miss Marple must, within a year,  "investigate a certain crime," to "serve the cause of justice."  What that crime is though, is left unspecified, and the only clue she has comes in yet another letter inviting her to be part of Tour No. 37 of the Famous Houses and Gardens of Great Britain, a tour that will last two to three weeks.  She knows she must go, and taking stock once on the tour, notes that
"...What is involved in my problem is justice. Either to set right an injustice or to avenge evil by bringing it to justice." 
She understands that this must absolutely be the case because it is "in accord with the code word Nemesis given to me by Mr. Rafiel."   What she doesn't realize, however, is how very strange this case will turn out to be.

Some time ago somebody in an online group I belong to said something along the lines of Christie being  for old ladies (I do believe the phrase "blue hairs" was used), and it sort of got my dander up. My brown-haired self was actually offended that someone who'd probably never even read her work was saying this.  This book disproves his statement -- not only is Nemesis an engaging mystery, but here we see a different side of our old-lady sleuth, who has zero tolerance, no matter what the circumstances, for evil, and a Jane Marple who will face down a deadly foe to serve the cause of justice. There's more, of course -- for example, a look at an England changed after the war -- but really this one is all about Jane Marple herself.

If you haven't read it yet, do yourself a huge favor and pick up a copy.  You can skip the TV adaptation with Geraldine McEwan -- not even close to the novel and very disappointing. I knew I was in trouble when I saw a Nazi soldier parachuting out of the sky, and then, of course, there were the nuns -- seriously WTF?   I'm still digging through garage boxes to find my Nemesis dvd with Joan Hickson as Marple but I can't imagine it would be anywhere near as awful as the McEwan version -- I finished it last night wondering if the screenwriters had even read the book.  But here, it's the book that counts, and Christie has outdone herself with this one.