Monday, December 10, 2018

a thriller with serious bite: The Monsoon Ghost Image, by Tom Vater

Kindle Version,
October 2018
Crime Wave Press





I would like to thank Henry at Crime Wave Press for my copy of this book.    I didn't use it, because silly me, I failed to see the pdf file he'd included in the email he sent, so I bought a kindle version  But thanks all the same.   



http://crimewavepress.com/index.php
Aside from having a cool logo, Crime Wave Press 
"publishes a range of crime fiction -- from whodunits to Noir and Hardboiled, from historical mysteries to espionage thrillers, from literary crime to pulp fiction, from highly commercial page turners to marginal texts exploring the world's dark underbelly."
My first experience with this small indie press was, coincidentally, a book by the author of the book featured in today's post, Tom Vater.  The title was The Devil's Road to Kathmandu,  and it was a hell of a story that I remember not wanting to put down, so naturally I said yes when asked if I'd consider reading another one by the same writer.   This time around the action takes place in Thailand, and The Monsoon Ghost Image is the end of a trio of books featuring Detective Maier after The Cambodian Book of the Dead and The Man With the Golden Mind.   

Former war correspondent, after years in the field and the death of a friend from Cambodia, Maier no longer wants nothing at all to do with war.  He now (2002) works  in "Hamburg's most prestigious detective agency,"and as the story begins, his boss Sundermann hands him a strange case.  It seems that he has had a call from an Emilie Ritter, a woman whose famous photo journalist husband Martin Ritter is missing, presumed dead, with a funeral scheduled for the following Tuesday in Berlin.  Maier knows this already, but he gets a gut punch when Sundermann reveals that Ritter was seen in Bangkok just a couple of days earlier.  Emilie shows Maier and his partner Mikhail an email from someone with the enigmatic name of the "Wicked Witch of the East" confirming that Ritter is not only still alive, but is also "involved in the crime of the century."  Emilie needs to know whether Ritter is dead or alive, so Maier and Mikhail are off to Thailand to try and track him down.  They're there a month with no sign either way, the calm before the storm after which all hell breaks loose, centering around "the world's most wanted photograph, the 21st century's Zapruder document."

As with most thriller novels, while reading The Monsoon Ghost Image  on one level I'd advise a complete suspension of disbelief, as the story explodes into seriously crazy, over-the-top territory.  Our detective friends find themselves caught up in some of the most bizarre situations imaginable (and I'm not joking here).  The story outdarks dark  -- there are at least two psychopaths whose actions will likely keep readers on the edges of their chairs, and knowing who to trust becomes downright impossible through the many twists and turns taken by this story.   Having said that, let me also say that underneath this craziness runs an undeniable grain of truth -- in the war on terror, there are certain agencies that will go to any lengths to get results, all "authorized at the highest levels of the world's most open and egalitarian society."  In the process, sometimes the line between good guys and bad guys becomes unrecognizable, and things get worse as they attempt a cover up in an effort to ensure that  their dirty secrets will never be revealed. And then, of course, there are others who just want to exploit those secrets for their own gain -- in short, as someone notes in this book,  "it's about money."

I am not normally a reader of thrillers, and while this one is, as I said, way over the top, I actually got caught up in it because I had to know what happened next.  Each time I thought things couldn't get any worse, they did, and it was a hair-raising ride to the finish.  It is not at all for the squeamish (I found myself reading quickly through some of the many gruesome scenes, the equivalent of covering my eyes while watching the same on television), and it is not for people who freak out over the use of profanity or violence.  In the end though, what made this book work well for me was a) the focus on that underlying grain of truth mentioned above combined with the author's out-there imagination  in telling that story (!)   and b) the author's depiction of Maier as a man who through it all tries to retain his humanity while others lose theirs by the wayside.  Throw in the exotic locations throughout Thailand and well, it becomes the stuff of a tv miniseries I would definitely watch.

I'd read anything written by Tom Vater -- his mind works in strange and mysterious ways, a quality I genuinely appreciate in the crime fiction universe. 


Saturday, December 1, 2018

still catching up here: The Unlit Lamp and Selected Stories, by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

9781944520694
Stark House, 2018
305 pp

paperback (read earlier)

While The Unlit Lamp and Selected Stories is not at all connected with crime, I'm posting about it here because Elisabeth Sanxay Holding is one of my favorite mystery writers of yesteryear and people who know her work in that genre might just be interested in seeing another side of the author.   This book includes not only her novel, The Unlit Lamp (1922),  but also six other stories originally published in Munsey's from 1921 to 1923.  It's a wonderful collection of tales, and my thanks go to Stark House for sending me a copy and along with that, apologies for taking forever to post about it.

 The Unlit Lamp is only one of twenty-five novels this author wrote over her lifetime; the last one, Widow's Mite (1953, which I can highly recommend), was published only two years before her death.  My guess would be that her most popular novel was her The Blank Wall (1947) followed by her earlier The Innocent Mrs. Duff  (1946), both of which are outstanding. At the same time, that leaves twenty-three more novels and a large number of short stories by this author to rediscover and to celebrate.   And while The Unlit Lamp doesn't fall into the crime/mystery category, it's still very much worth reading.  As the blurb says, it is an
"emotionally charged social drama from 1922, filled with the issues that burned so bright during the Roaring 20s as changing morals began to break down the tradition family structures of the past." 
She does in this book what she does so well in her others, as Sarah Weinman notes in the introduction to Sanxay Holding's "The Stranger in the Car" in her Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense, painting
"psychologically nuanced portraits of women making sense of troubled marriages, conflicted relationships with children, or intrigue thrown up by the larger world." (195)
That, in a nutshell, could be the overall description of  The Unlit Lamp, which is one of the author's romantic novels.  It is the story of Claudine, who really wants to marry Gilbert Vincelle, and eventually does so even though her mother tells her that he will never make her happy and vice versa.  Gilbert has quite a high opinion of himself, and bases much of his worldview around that of mother's, with whom he still lives at home. As it turns out Claudine's mother was spot on in her judgment, as Gilbert takes Claudine to his mother's house immediately after their honeymoon.  It isn't at all the life Claudine imagines as a married woman, as her life becomes constricted by the expectations of her mother-in-law as to what a wife should be, as well as her husband's refusal to take her side.    By the end of three months she's ready to chuck it all but is advised not to when a family member considers (but leaves unspoken) the pariah she would become in society.  Everything that Claudine is becomes submerged, and she finds herself taking refuge in her children, in whom later she sees the cycle beginning to repeat. 

There are six "selected stories," many of which run on the same themes expressed in The Unlit Lamp: "Hanging's Too Good for Him," "A Hesitating Cinderella," "Like a Leopard," "The Aforementioned Infant," "Old Dog Tray," and "The Married Man."  The last two of these were my favorites in this group, with  "The Married Man" coming out on top of them all.  It is an excellent satire on a man's viewpoint of marriage, in which the husband decides that he can't "live any more" unless he has his freedom.  There's no one else, he  doesn't want a divorce, he doesn't want to lose his wife; he just wants to be free from marriage's "petty restrictions and obligations."  The fun begins when his wife decides to go visit her mother, sans children.   It was seriously hard not to laugh while reading this story, and I can't help but think that in many cases, this one is as just as relevant now as it was when it was written in the 1920s. Absolutely delightful.

In Sanxay Holding's crime novels, she builds her stories around the psychological; the same is true here in both The Unlit Lamp and the shorter tales, which makes this a must read for fans of this author.  Even though this book is not part of the crime/mystery genre, many of the ideas that will come out in Sanxay Holding's later novels are very much present here.  And don't miss the lovely, poignant, and insightful introduction to this book by Judith Rose Ardron, the author's granddaughter.

I just want to say that Elisabeth Sanxay Holding should hold a very special place in the history of women authors of crime, and that it is such a pity that she is not more widely read.  And once again, as I find myself doing every time I read one of her novels, I can honestly say that  I loved this book.