Archive for International

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.

Fred Vargas: A Climate of Fear

Fred Vargas is an interesting combination of very traditional and very – untraditional. Her set-up is traditional – Parisian Commissaire Adamsberg has a homicide squad that breaks down in traditional police novel form, with each character in the squad adding something to the story. But Adamsberg himself is extremely untraditional, with deductive methods that border on magical realism. In this novel, the story opens with an elderly woman struggling to the mailbox to mail a letter. Alas, she collapses before she can mail it, but a good Samaritan who helped her until an ambulance arrives later finds the letter in her pocket and mails it.

“Adamsberg put down his fork with care, acting cautiously as he did whenever a barely formed idea, the embryo of an idea, a tadpole of an idea, began slowly swimming up to the surface of his consciousness. At moments like this, he knew, you should not make a sound, because a tadpole will take fright and dive down to disappear forever.” A Climate of Fear, Fred Vargas

A few days later the good Samaritan reads in the paper that the elderly woman has died and she’s disturbed enough to go and tell the police that she’s mailed the letter. The police, especially Adamsberg, aren’t quite convinced that the woman’s death is the suicide it appears to be, especially as they find a curious symbol written near the body, so they seize on the clue offered them by the woman, who remembers the address on the letter. As more bodies begin to appear with the same symbol written nearby, the case of the apparent suicide turns into a full-fledged murder investigation.

There are two threads to the story – an expedition to Iceland several years back which went horribly wrong – and the discovery of a Society for Robespierre, where the hundreds of members dress in revolutionary garb and recreate the speeches of the time. Adamsberg’s investigation style is not linear. He’s guided by feelings, small signs and his reading of human nature as he attempts to untangle what he thinks of to himself as a giant piece of seaweed with many tangled threads.

His squad are frequently confused by his investigative style but go along with is it as he gets results. The case takes him to the French countryside (where he meets, among others, an old lady who smokes a pipe and lives with a wild boar), Iceland, and deep into the Robespierre group as the police interview many of the members who all assume the personalities of the particular historical figure they portray. As an interesting aside, the members of the society are made to change parties now and then so they don’t become entrenched in their viewpoints – not a bad idea, it seems to me.

While this meticulous plot requires a great deal of set-up, the pay-off is well worth it, with the complex threads tying together nicely at the end. While the writing is lovely, I think the main joy of this particular series is Commissaire Adamsberg – a quirky, original mind who works in mysterious ways.

Cara Black: Murder in Saint-Germain

“You’re a pest… A real nuisance in heels.”

Nancy Drew has grown up, and she wears Louboutin pumps and rides an unreliable pink scooter around town. Cara Black’s Aimée LeDuc is living her most feminist adventure ever, as she juggles maman duties with a full time (and fully dangerous) job, one that finds her jumping over rooftops, scrambling through sewers, and generally the object of the attention of many bad guys. While at home Aimée is happy with baby Chloe, she’s alienated from her baby’s father, as well as from the critically injured Morbier, her protector and stand in father who lies in the hospital, dying, asking for her.

In the world of work, she’s juggling a case at the École des Beaux-Arts and a request from her old friend, Suzanne, who is sure she’s seen one of the most terrible humans alive on the streets of Paris. Thing is, she’s sure this man, who tortured, raped and killed little girls in Bosnia, was killed in a bombing. Aimée isn’t sure whether to believe Suzanne or not but she agrees to look for him while running computer checks at the Ecole in her slightly less alarming job.

As everyone from Rene to Chloe’s father, Melac, warns her to stay away from Suzanne’s case, Aimée just can’t, especially when some of Suzanne’s other contacts start dropping like flies in ways that could almost be accidents. Aimée is sure they are not (even a mysterious death by bee stings) and plunges on.

As always one of the great pleasures of a Cara Black book is the true sensation of being in Paris, as Aimée scoots here, there, and everywhere. The plot is suitably complex and the reason this ghost must be caught more than chilling, lending an urgency to Aimée’s investigation. The bits of Aimée’s personal life that sneak in – her relationships with Melac and Morbier and less troublesomely, with Chloe, lend the book and the proceedings an emotional grounding. I found Aimée’s believable juggling of her baby and her job one of the more resonant aspects of the novel. This is another wonderful installment in a deservedly long lived series.

Jane Harper: The Dry

The DryTwo things to keep in mind when reading The Dry:

  1. It’s an awesome book to read in the cold, cold winter, as it’s set in the burning draught of Australia as meticulously delineated by Jane Harper.
  2. If you start reading it early in the evening, forget about getting any sleep. You won’t be able to put it down.

This is a wonderful first novel, featuring Melbourne financial detective Aaron Falk, who has returned to his tiny hometown of Kiewarra for the most tragic of reasons: his boyhood friend, Luke, has apparently killed his wife and toddler son in a murder-suicide. Aaron has gotten a note from Luke’s father demanding his attendance at the funeral. As he arrives, it’s like he’s walking into a terrible steam bath. Harper wraps the suffocating heat around him like a blanket and he’s plunged into the tiny church where the funeral is being held, surrounded by his long ago neighbors and frenemies.

Kind of like the frog in the water that’s boiling but doesn’t realize it until it’s too late, Aaron eases back into Kiewarra despite some terrible past memories and the fresh new grief of losing his old friend Luke. In a room over the pub he’s visited by the local cop in charge, who asks him to unofficially look into the case with him, as he feels something is off.

Unlike many contemporary detective novels, neither Aaron nor the local, Raco, are the tormented type. Yes, Aaron has some baggage that makes him a bit standoffish, but he and Raco are both are at heart good, decent men who want to discover the truth because that’s what’s right. This is almost a western, and they may as well be wearing the white hats of the good sheriff.

This novel is far from corny, however, and Harper uses the setting—the dry, hot landscape—to her advantage as she tells her story, winding it in as part of her plot. That’s a trick only some of the very best writers can pull off (Kent Krueger and Julia Keller both come to mind) and Harper is a very powerful writer. As she interweaves the past and present, creating an incredibly painful backstory, she’s also laid the groundwork for a true mystery with a solution that is a surprise in one way and in another way, it’s not, as she’s set it up so well.

I often feel mysteries can get away with a good story and decent characters. That’s a good read. When all the elements—prose, plot, setting and character are present—that’s a great read. The Dry is a great read. Don’t miss it.

Michael Stanley: A Death in the Family

deathinthefamilyThe fifth book in the Detective Kubu series set in Botswana is by far the most heartbreaking. While Stanley doesn’t shy away from his share of heartbreaking issues, this one hits home, as Kubu’s lovely, gentle father, Wilmon, is murdered. Kubu and his wife Joy are jangled awake by a terrible middle of the night phone call, and Kubu of course rushes to his mother’s side, refusing his boss’ offer of a ride. Stanley is able to beautifully portray the intrusion of grief into this family’s life and all the confusing and awful changes that grief brings with it. While sometimes younger “hipper” writers are the more celebrated, older authors bring life experience and knowledge to their writing which illuminates and deepens what they’re writing about, and that’s the case here.

As Kubu is told to back off from his father’s case he’s put on forced leave to help his mother plan the funeral, which in Botswana is a large, community wide affair. The description of nightly singing on the porch to celebrate and remember Wilmon’s life was especially moving and made me a little bit jealous that I don’t live in Botswana myself.

Of course Kubu eventually wants to return to work and while he’s having a very hard time (and not always a successful one) staying away from his father’s case, he’s called in when there’s a terrible mass stampede resulting in deaths at the meeting of a village council. As Kubu untangles the threads, they seem to be tied to a possible new uranium mine in the village in question; the elder chief was against it as he feared it would change village life for the worse; the younger members, including the chief’s son, are eager for the jobs the mine would bring.

Kubu makes a few missteps in terms of his father’s investigation and is finally sent in exasperation to New York by his boss to give a talk at the UN. The scenes of Kubu arriving in freezing, crowded, bustling New York City are completely priceless. He makes the most of his time there and interviews a suspect who had left Botswana, which gives him some new ideas.

Michael Stanley’s plots are always complex, and this one is no exception, but as always, the whole is held together by the delightful Detective Kubu. He’s by far one of my favorite contemporary detectives, with his smarts, his love of food and wine, his love of his family, and his relationship with his fellow policemen. This book is bound even more tightly together by the death of Wilmon, a thread that highlights the closeness of Kubu’s family and is helped by the development of the characters through all of the novels. Whether you read these novels for Kubu’s dreams of food or his deductive reasoning or the Botswana setting or for his family life (or all of the above) you’ll be relentlessly charmed by this wonderful sleuth.

Fuminori Nakamura: The Thief, Evil and the Mask, and Last Winter We Parted

thethiefAlthough The Thief was not the first novel Fuminori Nakamura published, it is the first to come out here, and it’s a good place to start, though not entirely representative of his work. Of course since only three of his fourteen books have been translated (a fourth, The Gun, which was, in fact, the first issued in his native Japan, comes out in October), it’s hard to say comfortably generalize about his work (but try and stop me!). The Thief is the tight, taut crime story of an expert pickpocket who’s gotten in a little over his head. Nakamura unfolds his story expertly, working in the slow revelation of the big job that still haunts him with his daily life of boosting wallets. Eventually the past comes back to get its due and things wrap up in a suitably fatalistic fashion. With its philosophic overtones and gritty noir realism it reads like a combination of David Goodis and Albert Camus, which is a pretty interesting combination, even if I found it a bit restrained and derivative, especially with the introduction of a little neglected kid who allows the protagonist to demonstrate that even if he is a criminal, he isn’t such a bad guy.

evilandthemaskEvil and the Mask, the next book released in the U.S., was apparently also the next book Nakamura wrote, which I never would have guessed because it so thoroughly exploded my notions about his oeuvre. It’s anything BUT restrained, a big, somewhat shaggy novel of ideas in the vein of Dostoevsky, a professed Nakamura favorite. Its protagonist is Fumihiro Kuki, the youngest son of a powerful Japanese family whose depraved patriarch has decided to continue a sinister tradition by raising him to be a “cancer,” an immoral individual whose only goal is to inflict as much suffering on society as possible. Fate is a pivotal theme in Nakamura’s work and gets full play here as Fumihiro both rejects and in some ways fulfils his putative destiny. In scenes switching from past to present we learn of the orphan girl, Kaori, adopted by his father for apparently sinister purpose who Fumihiro loves unreservedly, and, in loving and protecting, finds himself becoming exactly what he doesn’t want to be. It’s a compelling and intoxicating brew with powerful corporations, petty criminals, identity appropriation, and absurdist terrorists all playing a part. It’s more a novel with crime in it than a crime novel, and anyone seeking a traditional mystery will be frustrated, but a very enjoyable concoction if consumed without prejudice.

lastwinterwepartedTo me his third book released here, Last Winter We Parted, the story of a journalist trying to unravel a horrific crime, is the most successful in blending its mystery and literary elements. A famous photographer has been accused of burning alive two of his models simply to achieve a perfect image. On his very first jail visit the journalist is warned by the photographer that he’s on the road to madness by immersing himself in this story, and it is a dizzying vortex of weird secondary characters, lifelike dolls and haunting images. Along the way there’s plenty of room to naturally examine themes of art, identity and guilt. We’re in the territory of English speaking masters of intellectual suspense here, people like Thomas Cook, Patricia Highsmith or Ruth Rendell in Barbara Vine mode, especially since the plot is as ingenious as the characters, building to a brilliant twist at its conclusion, making the reader question everything that’s gone before. It’s one of those books so cunningly assembled that as soon as you finish it you want to read it again just to admire how the author pulled it off.

Obviously, I very much enjoyed my own immersion in the world of Nakamura. He’s a wonderful import, an entertaining, engaging and gifted writer who has the added dividend of providing a matter of fact portrait of contemporary Japan, a society so like our own and yet so different. Foreign mysteries are all the rage these days, and Nakamura’s publisher Soho Press does quite a service to readers by providing mysteries from all over the world. Most attention seems to go to the Scandinavians, but these novels made in Japan are definitely worth a look. (Jamie)

Malla Nunn: Present Darkness

presentdarknessI haven’t read Malla Nunn since her first book, A Beautiful Place to Die, a beautifully written novel.  In that book she establishes her three central characters: Emmanuel Cooper, a white policeman; Shabalala, a Zulu policeman; and a Jewish doctor, Zweigman.  The books are set in 1950’s South Africa, which makes all of these relationships loaded.  In the first book the heaviness of the connections almost overwhelm the story.  In this novel, Nunn’s fourth, the characters are established and comfortable and the story being told can run on its own steam.

Cooper, like Charles Todd’s Ian Rutledge, is a war veteran (in his case WWII) with the shade of a dead officer living inside his head, a gruff, take no prisoners Scot.  Zweigman is a survivor of Nazi concentration camps; and Shabalala bears the weight of living as a black man in a country controlled by white men.   Every connection, action and reaction in this novel is racially tinged, necessarily so.

Basically Nunn is writing about a world that is out of balance.  The white control of South Africa is so tight because the whites fear what will happen if they let up; the natural tendencies of human beings are not considered in the way the South African government tries to control race, boundaries, both geographical and otherwise, and behavior.  Cooper lives a secret life with a mixed race mistress who has borne his child, violating many white taboos.

The story Nunn tells in this book is a gripping one:  a white couple is discovered beaten to within an inch of their lives and their teenage daughter names Shabalala’s son as the culprit.  A remarkable amount of convenient evidence turns up making the case against the young man seemingly airtight; Cooper doesn’t buy it and he and Shabalala are on their own quest to prove the youth’s innocence.  The daughter has been whisked away and the son isn’t talking or providing himself with an alibi.

The connections of the story threads in this novel are deep and brutal; but so was the reality Nunn is writing about.  She describes the different parts of South Africa – Johannesburg, the shadow ghetto city and the countryside vividly and also makes clear that none of these parts interface.  They all operate more or less as their own country, a true world out of balance where none of the parts relate to the other parts and understanding of any “other” is non-existent.

It makes solving a crime doubly difficult and any evidence Cooper and his little gang of three uncover has to be ironclad to stand up as evidence and free Shabalala’s son.  In true mystery tradition Cooper operates as an absolute outsider; his special skills, apart from smarts and being able to take a beating, are his choice of friends and a natural gentleness that actually serves him surprisingly well.

This is also a terrific crime story, not just a portrait of a difficult and brutal time in history.  When all the threads of the story are at last woven together, the resolution seems a natural one.  When Shabalala tells Cooper they must “wash before going back to the world of ordinary things,” it seems Nunn has brought a bit of balance to this part of her story at least.  This is a wonderful, thoughtful, beautifully written book.

S.J. Gazan: The Dinosaur Feather

The Dinosaur FeatherThis is an original and captivating novel.  Set in Copenhagen on the campus of the University of Copenhagen, the politics swirling through academe are apparently brutal to the point of fatality.  The central character, Anna Bella Nor, would probably get along well with Lisbeth Salander in terms of both brains and anger.  Unlike Lisbeth, she’s more anchored to the world – she has parents, a toddler, an ex, friends, and she’s juggling the planned defense of her PhD thesis in biology while taking care of her daughter and, it turns out, helping to solve the murders of some colleagues.

The central academic question at the heart of the novel is whether birds are dinosaurs or if dinosaurs and birds are two distinct species.  Anna’s direct supervisor has conducted an almost lifelong fight to the death on the matter with a Canadian ornithologist, Clive Freeman, who insists the two are not related and has the bestseller to prove it.  Anna’s supervisor, Dr. Helland, convinces her to take apart Freeman’s thesis as her dissertation subject.

Gazan manages to make this academic infighting completely fascinating, and as Anna struggles with her thesis the lives of the two men are examined, as is Anna’s.  All of them are damaged souls in one way or another.  Complicating matters is the early in the story death of Dr. Helland; his manner of death is puzzling, gruesome, and entirely (I certainly hope) original.  That’s the kickoff point for a series of events that culminate in several other deaths.

The policeman in charge of the case is referred to mentally by Anna as the “world’s most irritating detective”, but in fact he seems good at his job.  As it turns out he has his own tormented backstory and he’s strangely drawn to Anna, who he needs to help explain the labyrinthine academic setting and politics.  While his partner thinks of Anna as “hard work,” Soren, the detective in charge, and Anna have a strange connection that helps to ultimately solve the case.

As Gazan tells her story, she weaves in the backstories of all the characters, all memorable, all heartbreaking to one degree or another.  In this she reminded me of Elizabeth George, though she gets more quickly to the point.  However, the keen psychological dissection is present in the writing of both women.

I loved the academic setting, which might be any university, I think; I loved all the characters, and while I was sometimes annoyed by Anna, I was captivated by her too.  I could see why so many people stood by her.  This is also a kick-ass story, no two ways about it.  The minute you pick this book up, you probably won’t be able to stop reading.  I have a weakness for The Big Bang Theory, but I even turned that off to read this book instead.  This is a big bang for your reading buck.

Kwei Quartey: Murder at Cape Three Points

The return of Ghanaian detective Darko Dawson is a very welcome one.  I enjoyed Quartey’s first two novels in the series very much and I’m grateful to Soho Press for giving him a new home.  Quartey, born in Ghana to an American and a Ghanian, has ended up in L.A. but his heart remains in Ghana and it’s on his sleeve as he relates the adventures of Detective Darko.

Murder-at-Cape-Three-PointsDarko is happily married and has a son with a heart condition – in the first two books his condition was worsening, and the Dawsons had no way to pay for surgery.  That problem has been overcome as the book opens with little Hosiah recovering well with his anxious parents looking on.  That’s a relief for all (including this reader) but Darko is called away from his son’s bedside before his leave is up to attend to a case in another city.

Darko is CID in Accra, the capital, and a citizen in nearby Takoradi has petitioned for the now months old murder of her beloved aunt and uncle to be re-examined by a higher up in the police department.  Darko is the man.  It’s a heartbreaking case: the Smith-Aidoos, by all accounts a well liked and respected couple, were found murdered in a canoe, Mr. Smith-Aidoo missing his head.  The petitioner, the Smith-Aidoos niece, is a physician and credits them with her upbringing and education.

The case is complex and seems to have several possible resolutions – one is connected to big oil in Cape Three Points, and one is a tangle of family hurts, resentments and long ago curses.  Darko and his able assistant pursue the oil course which gives Quartey a chance to illustrate a slice of Ghanian economics from the very top to almost the very bottom.  The key is where the Smith-Aidoos, a connected couple politically and every other way, fit into the social and economic strata.

There’s also an undercurrent of juju or witchcraft – something Darko can’t quite discount as the death of Mr. Smith-Aidoo in particular was so brutal.  Quartey’s ability to portray almost an entire culture is top notch, as is his hand with character and place.  He can really take a setting and place you into it.  One of the strongest scenes finds Darko taking a class on how to escape a helicopter that crash lands into the ocean.  You won’t forget it anytime soon.

Darko himself is a wonderful character.  He has some weaknesses – a fondness for weed and beautiful women – but he’s a good husband and father and he loves his family.  He also has a remarkable condition called Synesthesia, where he can hear a voice and if the person is lying, it causes an actual physical sensation in Darko (a useful attribute for a detective).  Darko is very much in the Holmes model as he uses deduction and careful reasoning to solve his cases, and not a clue is left out.  You yourself may miss Quartey’s sleight of hand as you read.  This was a favorite new series of mine when the earlier books were published, and I’m delighted to see the series return, as Quartey has an original and authentic voice, and his character of Darko Dawson is a real classic.  Check him out: you’ll be charmed.

Jo Nesbo: The Snowman

I had a bad reaction to the first Jo Nesbo title I tried, The Redbreast, and set him aside as unreadable, despite many enthusiastic customers’ responses to the contrary.  Finally a few women in my book club recommended that I give The Snowman a try.  I’m glad I did.

The SnowmanIt’s hard to mess up a serial killer book, which this one is, but there are so many variations, that it’s also hard to be original in the particular sub-genre.  Nesbo more than pulls it off, writing a complex, intelligent, twisty and emotionally penetrating thriller that’s very difficult to put down.  This is the seventh book in Nesbo’s Harry Hole series.  Harry is a Swedish police detective whose spiritual twins might be Ian Rankin’s John Rebus and Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander.  He’s a tad cranky, he used to drink, his relationships are problematic, and he’s obsessed with the job, as well as being a very good detective.  He needs all his smarts to catch the serial killer dubbed “The Snowman.”

Even though as a reader you know this is a serial killer novel, Nesbo has many threads and cases and moreover jumps about in time a bit, so that while you know intellectually that all the deaths are connected, it’s a puzzle trying to figure out exactly how they might be.  Starting as a straightforward investigation of the disappearance of an apparently responsible wife and mother – who has left her 10-year-old son home alone – the only tangible clue is a snowman built mysteriously in the woman’s front yard.  For some reason, it’s facing the house.

Hole has been assigned a new recruit, an eager and intense young woman named Katrina Bratt, and the two of them are soon hot on the trail of a number of mysterious disappearances of young mothers.  The serial killer idea is scoffed at by Harry’s superior officers, who think that he got ideas over in the USA when he was taking a criminology class at Quantico.  Bratt believes in him totally though he has some slight doubts about her, but she’s a good officer who is with him as they make some chilling and disturbing finds.

What makes this novel especially original apart from its structure is the really ominous sense of doom that Nesbo manages to inject into an innocent snowman.  I was reminded of the sequence in “Ghostbusters” when Dan Aykroyd imagines the least threatening thing possible, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.  And, like the Marshmallow man, who could be afraid of a snowman?  Nesbo pulls it off, as he does this complex, dark take on the serial killer trope.  I am now more than willing to revisit Harry Hole.