Archive for Reviews

Andrew Gross: The Saboteur

While not as emotionally engrossing a novel as last year’s The One Man, and not even really a crime novel, this story really can’t be beat. As most of it is true, unbelievably enough, what Gross has done is to tell the story of some incredible WWII heroes while giving it an emotional center in his main character, Kurt Nordstrum, apparently based on the actual historical figure of Kurt Haukelid. Gross adds some romantic and personal elements to give depth to the character, and the story turns on his actions, but this story is so rocket powered it’s hard to stop reading, and just as hard to believe it’s true.

Set in 1943 Norway, a country occupied by the Nazis and helped by Norwegians known as Quislings (still a term for a traitor), all Kurt has to do to prove his bona fides to the like minded is to say he’s fighting for the King. When he’s asked to get a certain microfilm to the proper channels in the UK, he figures the only way to do it is to actually go to the UK (a near impossibility in wartime), so he and his friends hijack a Swedish freighter and force it across the ocean. That is unbelievable yet true incident #1 (look up the Galtesund). This spawns the central portion of the book, as the evidence smuggled across proves the Germans have an almost impregnable facility in Norway producing enough heavy water to make an atomic bomb.

Kurt and a team train for months to be airdropped into the Norwegian countryside, tasked with destroying the heavy water tanks. This mission, and their training, described in detail, form the central portion of the book. Gross has fictionalized it but again, this is an incredible slice of history, and if you aren’t rooting for this little band of brothers and maybe wiping a tear from your eye, there’s something the matter. Read the afterword as there are even certain small details that are true.

The last section concerns the bombing of a ferry carrying the store of heavy water to Germany. If you aren’t familiar with the history – I wasn’t – I won’t ruin it for you. Settle in and be amazed. Gross is also excellent in portraying the heartbreaking costs of war as well as the sheer heroism of the far from ordinary patriots fighting it. Seems like a lesson to savor for us all.

Carrie Smith: Unholy City

With her clear prose and careful gaze, Carrie Smith has quickly become one of my favorite authors. British or American, I love a police procedural, and some of my favorite authors of all time include Lillian O’Donnell, Leslie Glass, Barbara D’Amato, Lynn Hightower and Lee Martin, all authors of the American police procedural. These writers feature a female cop as the central protagonist and from O’Donnell on forward, all have encountered, in their different ways, varieties of sexism and discrimination. Unfortunately, the history line beginning with O’Donnell’s The Phone Calls in 1972 to Carrie Smith’s 2017 Unholy City hasn’t changed all that radically.

Claire Codella, Smith’s main character, is a cancer survivor who is given crap assignments by her boss through a combination of jealousy (she made a name for herself with her first big case) and a tendency to think she’s too “weak” to do her job, thanks to her illness. While the details of Codella’s work environment and relationships give the books a welcome heft, they are not the main attraction. As with all the other writers mentioned, the story is the thing, and Smith is a top-notch storyteller.

With each novel she’s taken a look inside different pockets of Manhattan – schools, the theater, ritzy old age homes – in this novel she tackles the church, in the form of a venerable old Episcopalian outpost, St. Paul’s, complete with its own crematorium, graveyard and back garden. Into every garden, unfortunately, a little rain must fall and in this novel it takes the form of the corpse of one of the parishioners. The body of one of the more outspoken vestry members is found by another parishioner after a vestry meeting, and all hell breaks loose, in the most Episcopalian sense of the word.

Good Episcopalians all, the members of the vestry and even the rector herself are hiding or holding things inside, which unfortunately, results in a spate of deaths. Because of the set-up Smith has created more or less a locked room murder, as the only people who could have done it were all at the vestry meeting or connected to the church in some way. A group of homeless men sleeping at the church for the night are quickly ruled out, and it’s up to Codella and her boyfriend Heggerty (the lead on the case) to sort things out. Smith is a brisk and clear storyteller but she also has a good grasp of character and a deft hand at portraying it. This is a very enjoyable read, both as a police novel and as a detective novel. I continue to look forward to whatever Smith comes up with next.

Jane A. Adams: The Murder Book

This book hits the ground running and invites you, as a reader, to keep up, plunge in, and take off along with it. Set in the British countryside in 1928, the setting is one I’ve rarely read about, and the characters, gypsies and the hard-working poor, ones rarely focused on. There are two threads to the story, and it took me awhile to figure out where the author was heading and what she had in mind.

The book opens with the murder of little Ruby Fields, whose mother is a prostitute. When she hears sounds that don’t seem right she breaks into her mother’s room and is killed as more or less collateral damage. Ruby’s mother is killed too, as is a third man whose identity is not disclosed until about halfway through the book. The local police, sure there’s a mess afoot as some of Mrs. Fields’ customers were of the propertied class, call in the “murder detectives” from Scotland Yard.

The two Scotland Yard men, Henry Johnstone and his assistant Mickey, arrive and take control of the investigation, starting with the bodies, who have been found in a shallow grave in the back yard of the building where Ruby and her mother lived. As I read, I kept forgetting it was set in 1928 – it seems at times to have been set in 1828 – but then the detectives gather evidence like hairs, bloodstains, and fingerprints, and pass a woman in a cloche hat on the street, and I remembered.

The other thread concerns the community of gypsies, specifically Ethan, Helen and Frank. Frank and Helen have long been promised to one another by their families; but love finds Ethan and Helen and as the two men work on the same farm, and the community is tiny, feelings run high. When a tragedy occurs on the farm the murder detectives are called in to that case as well, though the farmer and landowner doesn’t exactly hold with out-of-towners stepping in to resolve matters best handled by themselves.

There are two halves of the book. The first part mostly concerns the investigation into Ruby’s and her mother’s deaths, and this half showcases the careful and intelligent detective work of Henry and Mickey. Henry seems careful, methodical, and responsible. When they are working, Mickey has to remind Henry to eat, and that serves to make him more human. Throughout, we get a look at Henry’s own “murder book,” notes he keeps during each case. They help the reader to know how his mind works.

The second half of the novel, concerning the crime at the farm and detailing the lives of the incredibly hard working poor who made things work, showcases Henry as arrogant, thorough, and only out for a solution, little caring about the people involved. He gets his man in the case of Ruby and her mother; the ending of the other thread, while in no way ambiguous, is incredibly heartbreaking.

The uncomfortable meeting of the present and the ways of the past – in place for generations – is beautifully described toward the end of the novel: “He was an outsider here in an even deeper sense that in the market town. He had come to realize that Elijah Hanson had called him in only for the look of things… had there been a way of taking care of this business themselves, the community would have done so. He found it unsettling – not their suspicion, which was really commonplace enough – but the sense that he was not really needed, that his version of the law was a mere veneer. Civilization applied as a thin whitewash to the village walls.”

That’s the essence of this book. The law, in the form of London murder detectives, had come to the countryside, but the country dwellers are resisting change and the ways of the past have such a strong pull. I’ve seldom read a novel that was more unsentimentally heartbreaking, and the illumination of the British countryside in 1928 was totally fascinating. This is a lovely little murder book.

Peter Robinson: Sleeping in the Ground

It’s been awhile since I checked in with Inspector Banks, but he’s still the mellow, food, wine and music loving guy he’s always been, if a bit more consumed by melancholy and examining the past. As the book opens he’s just attended the funeral of a long-ago girlfriend, and he’s called in when a sniper shoots up a wedding party, killing the bridal couple and several others. The shooting is realistic enough and ripped from the headlines enough to be disturbing, though the British cops in this book mention that shootings of this type are practically an American epidemic.

While this isn’t a book about gun laws or gun control (that would be an earlier novel, Bad Boy), reading between the lines doesn’t take much. The shooting is horrific enough and speaks for itself.

The crime itself is spectacular, and early on, Banks and crew appear to find their man, an apparent suicide. To Banks, though, something seems like it’s not quite right and he’s sure the man had at the very least an accomplice. As he goes delving into the past lives of the wedding party looking for clues, he’s also looking at his own past life and meeting a new possible love interest, Jenny Fuller, back from the past. Longtime readers of this series will certainly remember this attractive profiler who left early on. Her return (for me) is a welcome one, and it seems it is for Banks as well.

These novels are the very definition of British Police procedural, and if that’s your taste (it happens to be mine) there really can never be enough Inspector Banks novels to suit me. The police work winds its way to a conclusion with a pleasantly surprising windup. While the story is pleasantly surprising, the aftermath for the characters in the drama is not, and Robinson leaves you thinking, as he does in all his novels, about the aftermath of crime. As I feel aftermath is the main topic of the modern detective novel, these books couldn’t be more on point. This is a series and a detective not to be missed.

Victoria Thompson: Murder on Morningside Heights

It’s been awhile since I checked in with Thompson’s midwife character, Sarah, and I was a bit surprised to find her married, wealthy, and an unwilling lady of leisure. Like her sister character Molly Murphy, the leisured life is not going to suit her for too long, and she’s in on Frank Malloy’s first case as a private detective. This series is set in turn of the century New York. Malloy had been a policeman; at the time, the police were far more likely to investigate a case involving a reward. Malloy, knowing the ins and outs of the police department, is almost a step ahead as he works on his own.

As the book opens, he meets the grieving parents of a young woman killed at the Normal College in Manhattan, where she had been a teacher. There is no apparent motive for the crime – the young woman had been stabbed to death in a gazebo on the peaceful campus – and everyone is agreed that the dead Abigail was exceptional in every way. Undeterred, Malloy heads to the school determined to interview Abigail’s students, colleagues and the two lady professors she shared a house with. Helping him to unwind things is Sarah, who some of the ladies are more willing to talk to than they are to the gruff Malloy. The two ladies Abigail had lived with – Miss Winters and Miss Billingsly – seem to be divided on their view of Abigail: one liked her (Miss Winters) and one disliked her (Miss Billingsly). Helping to clarify matters is the maid Bathsheba, successfully approached by Malloy on a wash day.

One of the things highlighted by a novel set in the past is the different way people were treated at different times – at the time, it was puzzling to many of Abigail’s friends that she preferred to work and study rather than marry (married teachers could not get jobs).

It was also considered odd and slightly scandalous for single women to room together. The attitude toward pay is also different: women were paid far less than men because it was felt they did not need to support a family (sadly, still an attitude in The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the 70’s). Somehow Thompson never makes the discovery and description of these differences tedious, she instead makes them interesting.

Thompson is a vivid and brisk storyteller; I had forgotten how quickly I breezed through her books and found reading this one to be every bit as satisfying as the first several I devoured. I did miss Sarah’s job as a midwife, but it looks like that skill may be making a return. The mystery part is tricky and I didn’t figure out the motive – there’s a giant red herring used to great effect. Thompson remains one of the more enjoyable reads in mystery fiction.

E.J. Copperman: Dog Dish of Doom

E.J. Copperman – I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again – is one of the best cozy writers working at the moment. This is the introduction of yet another series from this talented writer, this one about an “Agent to the Paws,” i.e. a showbiz agent who works with animals. Kay Powell lives in New Jersey, sometimes with her aging vaudevillian parents (who are, happily for this reader, en residence in this novel). As the book opens she’s trying to snare a gig for agreeable shaggy dog Bruno to play Sandy in an Annie revival on Broadway. She thinks the audition might be a disaster, thanks to loud remarks made by Bruno’s owner about the ineptness of the director casting the part.

So there’s a good and bad outcome: Bruno gets the part, but unfortunately, his owner is not so lucky. He’s found dead with his face planted in Bruno’s water bowl the day after the audition. Kay makes no pretense to being a detective but she is naturally nosy and loves to gossip, and she’s smitten with Bruno, who, she feels, is not being properly looked after by his owner’s grieving widow. Asked by the police to use her showbiz “in” and report back to her, Kay reluctantly goes undercover.

Thanks to a series of miscommunications, Kay ends up with Bruno sharing her home and taking him to auditions, with his loopy remaining owner alternatively insisting Kay has kidnapped him and agreeing that she can take care of him for the moment. Copperman is expert at creating an entire universe – here, the one of backstage showbiz, infighting, and happy dog ownership. Kay’s parents are really icing on the cupcake – their gigs on cruise ships are starting to dry up and they’re trying to figure out what’s next for them while also being very inappropriately involved in Kay’s life. They’re pretty hilarious and also seem pretty realistically parental.

I think Copperman’s special talent is balancing this kind of normal life with a look at a more specialized environment (here it’s working animals). While there’s a fair amount of caper-ish goings on and of course the death that launches the story, none of it is too upsetting and Bruno is such a sweetie you’ll want to find out his ultimate fate. Great first in a series, and I’m looking forward to more.

Barbara Fradkin: The Trickster’s Lullaby

This is a terrifically exciting novel by the always interesting Barbara Fradkin. The second in a series featuring traumatized international aid worker Amanda Doucette, the book opens as Amanda is planning a trek into the Canadian wilderness in the dead of winter, taking along “marginalized” students struggling to acclimate to Canadian culture after fleeing violent situations in their homelands. While the requirement is not that the students be foreign, merely struggling, most of them are from other countries with many Muslims being represented. Amanda’s idea is to build bridges one at a time while sharing a common experience.

As the book opens, she’s unexpectedly cornered by the mother of a student who had applied but was rejected by Amanda’s “gatekeeper” – and Amanda is so moved by the mother’s story about a boy both struggling with addiction and struggling to recover (bringing this to five mystery novels I’ve read so far this year concerning drug abuse), that she goes to her gatekeeper to make his case. Despite being told that he’s trouble, Amanda is willing to give the boy a chance and the group sets off into the wilderness.

She’s delighted to find that the boy, Luc, is a good sport, willing to help out with chores as they make camp. All this changes when Luc disappears a couple days into the trip and Amanda and the guides are afraid of where he’s gone and what might have happened to him. This is like getting two novels in one: the first section is a bravura Nevada Barr style slice of nature writing (and no matter how beautiful the writing, a winter camping trip sounds pretty uncomfortable) and the second, a look at what makes a comfortable Canadian born citizen turn to outside influences for validation. In this case, ISIS.

Fradkin is a great pure mystery writer so she proceeds to set up a pretty complicated scenario, and then brings to it the element of the suspenseful chase. Amanda and her dog Kaylee make good tent poles for this active, involving story, and I was hard pressed to stop reading as I got toward the end. When asked her favorite thing about this book, author Fradkin said “the ending”, and it is a dandy. The sting is in the tail, as they say, and this novel has a terrific beginning, middle and end.

Tasha Alexander: Death in St. Petersburg

I love Tasha Alexander – her books are all so delicious in every way, but this one may be my absolute favorite. Lady Emily accompanies her husband (who is on an espionage mission) to Russia, where she is just supposed to be enjoying herself and having a little vacation. Ha! The book opens with a dead ballerina in the snow. Lady Emily is present at the discovery of the body, and of course, she’s drawn into the investigation.

I’ll say up front I’m a freak for Nicholas and Alexandra, ballet, Swan Lake and Faberge eggs – all converge in chapter one and I couldn’t have been more happily sucked in to this story. It follows the rise of the dead dancer, Nemesteva, and her best friend, Katenka, as they begin ballet school at the Imperial Theatre school as young girls.

For Nemesteva everything comes more easily; for shy Katenka – a technical expert who has a hard time expressing her emotion on the stage – not so much, but the two girls are the stars of their group. Threaded into the story (at a far remove) are real life figures like Carl Faberge and choreographers Petipa and Ceccheti. They make the whole more believable in a way they would not have if they had been up front, involved in the plot, characters.

Emily is asked to look into the dancer’s death by a clearly grieving Prince who was obviously having an affair with Nemesteva and wants her killer avenged. Emily agrees somewhat reluctantly – she has few Russian contacts – but in her typical fashion she tracks down Nemesteva’s friends and colleagues and begins to piece her life together.

The two strands of the story draw slowly together – the story of the ballerinas begins slightly in the past (the main story is happening in 1900) and as they converge and the strands of the mystery become clearer, the suspense amps up as well.

Complicating matters is a “ghost ballerina” who appears in different locations and then instantly disappears, causing everyone in St. Petersburg to assume that it’s Nemesteva’s ghost, seeking revenge. I mean, swoon! A ghost ballerina! I could not have loved this book more and was so sorry when I finished it. Lady Emily of course saves the day in her inimitable way, and I am already eagerly anticipating her next adventure.

Michael Stanley: Dying to Live

This wonderful series only continues to get better. Weirdly, I also think it may be one of the more realistic police procedural series around, as the careful, detail oriented work carried out by Detective Kubu and his fellow officers seems like what painstaking police work may actually resemble. Detective Kubu is also immensely appealing – his happy family life, his love of food and wine, and his leaps of deduction that come while napping (very Nero Wolfe of him) make him one of my favorite characters in mystery fiction at the moment.

Set in Bostwana, Kubu’s work often involves customs that to Western eyes may seem very strange and the connections between traditional western perception and the African culture is one beautifully bridged by Stan Trollip and Michael Sears, who write together as Michael Stanley. The book opens with the death of a bushman, who, when autopsied, appears to have the organs of a much younger man. The man himself appears from the outside to be quite elderly. He even has white hair, which is apparently unusual for bushmen.

The death of the bushman and the subsequent disappearance of his corpse leads Kubu on a complex investigation that involves the search for plants in the Kalahari that promise a longer life. The trade that goes on for muti, as the potions prescribed by African witch doctors are called, seems to involve secrecy, conspiracy and a good amount of danger. The malls described in the book have storefronts operated by the witch doctors, who have higher up clients that use their services discretely.

While Kubu is himself skeptical, his own wife pleads with him at one point to obtain muti for their adopted daughter who is HIV positive and suffering from possible AIDS symptoms as the story progresses. At one point, Kubu thinks to himself: “Was Mabuku suggesting there might be something in the black magic of these abominable witch doctors? But then he realized Mabuku was thinking about belief. No one knew what people carry in their heads from childhood.” This thought is a guide and compass for Kubu as he negotiates this case which has far reaching tendrils. As always this is a thoughtful, entertaining read that had me thinking long after I finished the book.

David Bell: Bring Her Home

Bring Her HomeIn suspense fiction the setup is crucial, and, as one of its finest practitioners, David Bell knows how to start his tale with a bang big enough to energize the compelling universe that follows. His latest superior work, Bring Her Home, begins with a man rushing into a hospital trying to find his daughter, frantic but at the same time desperately trying to keep himself together in midst of the bureaucratic chaos. While many other suspense writers feature impossibly virtuous supermen or bland mannequins whose features are obscured by a blinding fog of plot, Bell brings a regular but not quotidian protagonist to his tale, a guy thrust into the middle of life and death events way over his head, but who is determined to find justice for those closest to him in the best way he can.

He felt control slipping away as the angry part of him asserted itself, almost like another man who lived inside of him and jumped out in situations like this.

Bell’s central character, Bill Price, had been having a rough time of it even before he hit the hospital. A year and a half ago his wife died in a seemingly random accident, and since then his fifteen-year-old daughter has retreated into the unknown, close-mouthed world of adolescence. When she and best friend Haley disappear and then are found in a city park, one badly beaten and the other dead, he is almost completely consumed by his effort to unravel what happened.

But like so much of modern life, the real question is one of identity, spiraling into smaller and smaller circles—how well do you know your neighbors, your loved ones and ultimately yourself? Are you really aware of who they are, what they do when you’re not with them, what they will they do in the future, and, more, importantly, how you will react when they defy your expectations?

It’s Bell’s sensitivity to character and exploration of the most profound themes of family and personality that give his masterfully intricate plot its heft. It takes real skill to craft the kind of twists and jaw-dropping yet credible turns and reversals that he pulls off, but to make the people propelled through the maelstrom living creations rather than game pieces designed to trick the reader demonstrates a truly rare talent.

Non-series suspense novels are very popular right now, and their advantages are many in that they feature characters that, like most readers, are not at home in the crime-ridden universe they suddenly encounter. Because no character has to survive the book, any one of them can be killed, or indeed, be the killer. It’s not as easy to trick crime fiction aficionados, however, and many of the most popular practitioners resort to highly improbable coincidences, implausible psychology, or even that most overused of devices, the unreliable narrator. But there’s no cheating in David Bell and that’s what makes Bring Her Home and all his other books such satisfyingly compulsive reads. (Jamie)