Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Body in the Castle Well by Martin Walker

First Sentence:  Bruno was still glowing from his morning canter at Pamela's riding school as he sipped his first coffee of the day at Fauguet's café and scanned the headlines of Sud Ouest.

      The body of Claudia, an American art history student Claudia, is found at the bottom of a well.  Initially, drugs are suspected. Or is it related to Claudia's digging into the past of the art historian and scholar with whom she had been studying.  And what about the young falconer, recently released from jail, who had become friends with Claudia.  It's up to Bruno to find the answers.

      Walker creates characters one would want to know.  While Bruno is the central character, those around him are fully developed and interesting.  The victim's mother is a good example of that.  There does always seem to be someone floating around Bruno's romantic life. 

      Beginning the story with a search and discovery of a body determined to have been murdered is an interesting approach and provided some of the best suspense of the book.  There is good police work done, and a very nicely done plot twist. The actual mystery is very good. but one wishes there had been more focus on it.  Instead, the mystery becomes rather lost among all the information on the resistance, wine, art, falconry, jazz, and Josephine Baker.  It is interesting, but after a while, one begins to feel as though one were Clara from the old Wendy's commercials wondering "Where's the beef?".

      Bruno is such a strong character with an interesting background.  One hopes to see more of that in the next book.

      "The Body in the Castle Well" does have very good moments and a solid mystery at its heart, but the resolution was somewhat disappointing. This is not Walker's best book. Significant editing would have helped tighten the plot and made the story more effective.  

THE BODY IN THE CASTLE WELL (PolProc-Comm. Bruno Courregés-France-Contemp) - Good
      Walker, Martin – 14th in series
      Knopf – June 2019

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Traitor's Codes (A Crispin Guest Mystery) by Jeri Westerson

First Sentence:  Crispin Guest eyed the room.
      
Rather being hired to find a missing person or item as he usually is, Tracker of London, Crispin Guest, is given a package and told he'll know what to do with it. Inside is an ancient book written in a language he's never seen but learns is Coptic. It is an unpublished book of the Bible which could challenge the very doctrine of Christian faith.   The danger of possessing this book becomes real when people to whom Guest shows it are murdered. Someone very much wants the book, and all who know of it, destroyed.
      
It is always a pleasure to start a new Crispin novel.  Westerson excels at acquainting one with the characters, setting, the scene, and drawing one immediately into the story.  She creates a wonderful sense of place providing information and bits of history along the way, as well as establishing the mystery almost from the start. She creates a sense of normalcy and timelessness that supersedes the period.
      
Part of the joy of reading historical novels is in the things one learns, and there are numerous "who knew" moments included.  Special touches are the Glossary provided at the beginning and the Afterword at the end. One small criticism is that while the dialogue provides the feel of the period, there are times it seems to try too hard and ends up being awkward.
      
No matter what else, it's the characters which draw one into the book, and repeatedly back to the series.  Crispin is a character who has grown and, dare one say, mellowed over the years while still being someone on whom one can always depend.  The meetings with those Crispin loved and was loyal in the past, are real and touching, particularly that with King Richard II.  Jack, his "bagman" if one will, has undergone the most change; aging, growing and maturing while being ever loyal and dedicated.  The changes in his circumstances through the series have added dimension to all the characters and the stories.
      
Westerson makes one think—'You cannot stomp on an idea.  Excellency.  Once the idea is out in the world, it is like the bee that flits from flower to flower.  It cannot be stopped.  Ideas are what keep mankind from stagnating in a rotten pool.  It is not once nor twice but times without number that the same ideas make the appearance in the world.'  Some of those insights are particularly relevant today—'Character.  Character does not only belong to those with breeding, my lord. Good character is conferred on the lowliest of peasants.  God grants certain men and women this character and no trial of Job will see them change their minds on it.'
      
"Traitor's Codex" is a very good book.  There is much about the plot which can't be said without giving things away.  While there are several threads, each holds its own, and our attention without ever becoming confusing, yet coming together in a strong cloth.
       
TRAITOR'S CODEX (HistMys-Crispin Guest-England-1394) – VG+
      Westerson, Jeri
      Severn House – June 2019

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Under the Cold Bright Lights by Garry Disher

First Sentence:  On a mild October morning near Pearcedale, southeast of Melbourne, a snake slid over the edge of a veranda on a shortcut to somewhere.
      
Alan Auhl lives in a huge house with his daughter Bec, occasionally his ex-wife with benefits, various random borders, and a young wife named Neve and her daughter Pia. Although Auhl retired after 10 years in homicide, he is now back on the force working cold cases.  It's a juggling act, but Auhl's goal is to achieve justice.
      
Disher has achieved a nice balance between Auhl's professional and personal life.  It creates a very good sense of realism, as does the fact that he works several cases at the same time.  His relationship with his boss, Sr. Sergeant Helen Colfax—"A wise boss is a revered boss."--and with his frequent partner Clare Pascal, works nicely.  But it's Auhl who is the real draw; learning about how he came to own the house, his attitude toward it and the people who take up residence, are nicely done and are reflected in his work.  He is one who takes care of others, although his relationship with his ex- is complicated and rather sad.
      
The individual cases are interesting and varied.  Each is handled in separate ways using various methods of police work.  A very unexpected resolution to a couple of cases come as a real surprise.
      
"Under the Cold Brights Lights" is an excellent blend of characters, police work, suspense, and bits of humor.  Disher is an author whose work is always a treat to read.

UNDER THE COLD BRIGHT LIGHTS (PolProc-Alan Auhl-Australia-Contemp) – VG+
      Disher, Garry – Standalone
      SOHO Crime – July 2019

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Gone by Midnight by Candice Fox

First Sentence:    The real trouble came at midnight.

Four families, each with one son, are having dinner at the White Caps Hotel, checking about every hour on the four boys left in a hotel room upstairs.  At the midnight check, Sara Farrow finds her eight-year-old son, Richard, is missing in spite of the other three boys swearing no one left the room.  Police Chief Damien Clark is not pleased when the mother, Sara, insists on hiring PI Ted Conkaffey and his unusual partner, Amanda Pharrell. The investigation is complicated by Teds being granted a week-long visitation of his almost-two-year-old daughter, and a policewoman who obsessively blames Amanda for the death of her partner.
      
What a well-done, dramatic opening.  More than that is the fact that it actively involves the reader and then segues perfectly into the next chapter.
      
Fox knows how to convey emotion.  One feels the fear which transitions to worry.  We understand the attachment as we learn of the protagonist's history and his name. Amanda knows how to make an entrance and, once she does, she's one of the most memorable characters one will find.  For those who love quirky characters, one can't do much better than Amanda—"The next man who tells me what to do around here is going to get his nads kicked so hard he's going to taste them at the back of his throat."  She is not a woman to cross, but she attracts other interesting characters to her, such as a biker gang.
      
There is interesting information about judging the behavior of the missing boy's mother.  The interview between the father, Ted, and Amanda is so well done.  Fox writes in visual terms.  One can easily see why a television series is going to be made from these books.  Fox builds sympathy for a character and then shatters it while switching to something completely ordinary.  That's clever writing.
      
It is surprising that Ted, being a former cop, isn't better at reading people, but that's balanced by Amanda.  The feud between Amanda and Joanna Fisher escalates in dangerous turns--"…perhaps she shouldn't have fired on Fisher through her door.  That wasn't good.  … But she hadn't hit Joanna, so Amanda decided to ignore that little slip-up." and the added character of Superfish is wonderful.  The advantage of the two protagonists is being able to split them up, doubling the excitement and tension as things progress.
      
As to the plot, some of it is a bit predictable from obvious tells along the way.  There is no question that Fox's books focus more on character than on plot, but that's actually just fine.
      
"Gone by Midnight" is a terrific read with wonderful characters and a great ending.  Fox really does need to write them faster.

GONE BY MIDNIGHT (PI-Ted Conkaffey/Amanda Pharrell-North Queensland, Australia-Contemp) – VG+
      Fox, Candice – 3rd in series
      Century – January 2019

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Murder Theory by Andrew Mayne

First Sentence:  The helpless man in the wheelchair thrilled him.
      
Dr. Theo Cray is a computational biologist who has established a reputation with the FBI as a hunter of serial killers and has been called upon to fulfill that role again.  At the site of Cray's previous case, an agent with no history of violence has murdered two of his colleagues.  But this isn't the only incident of violence on the site. As Theo investigates, he recognizes that he's up against someone as talented as he is and finds himself crossing the line to stop a killer.
      
Prologues, even when not so named and no matter how suspenseful, are a device unnecessary to a good book. There is no reason why this book could not have started with the first chapter, which is interesting and makes one suspicious of Q-Tips.
      
One of the attributes of Mayne's writing is his observations about people and human nature—"In parts of Africa even today, "witch children,” boys and girls born with albinism or other uncommon features, are treated as outcasts and killed for their supposed magical powers. … To be sure, it's one thing to murder a child for having different genders and another to make a joke at the expense of someone who is dealing with a handicap, but they're both acts of cruelty and dehumanization.'  The comparison of the two killers in Mayne's previous two Cray books is fascinating and thought-provoking.  It also leads to the age-old question—"Do you believe in evil?".
      
There is quite a lot of geek-speak and scientific information.  One may either focus on it and learn some rather fascinating bits of information, or one may choose to skim through it and still pick up rather fascinating bits of information.  Either way, one must pay attention as these passages can lead to sudden realization and/or twists.
      
Reading Mayne is not for the weak of stomach or heart.  What offsets it, however, is understanding that his character is operating for the greater good and that he has a conscience when he crosses a line—"Um, God, uh, forgive me for not believing. And forgive me for what I'm about to do.  Uh, may they all rest in peace."  We do also get flashes of Mayne's humor—"I look up to the sky as if I'm expecting Morgan Freeman to look down at me and wink, giving me his approval."
      
When Mayne creates a plot twist, it's a serious twist.  Unfortunately, the climax is a bit too fantastical and Theo's co-rescuers are opportune and improbable.  Fortunately, there is a great deal of humor among the suspense.
      
"Murder Theory" is, sadly, not Mayne's best book.  But, between the unnecessary prologue and the nearly wall-banging last sentence, there are very good characters, plot twists, and breath-catching suspense.

MURDER THEORY (Suspense-Theo Cray-Georgia-Contemp) - Okay
      Mayne, Andrew – 3rd in series
      Thomas & Mercer – Feb 2019

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Hot Shot by Sheldon Siegel

First Sentence:  The twinkling Christmas lights strung along the pinewood bar reflected in the gregarious barkeep's eyes.
      
Jeff King is a billionaire, CEO, and founder of the soon-to-go-public high-tech company Y5K and is dead from a hot shot of heroin.  There's no question the shot was injected by Alexa Low.  She admits to administering the shot but claims the heroin had been purchased by King.  Now it's up to Mike to prove Alexa innocent of murder. 
      
It's nice to have a good introduction to each of the characters, in Mike's circle of family and friends.  Even better is the introduction of the suspect Alexa. We learn her background and the circumstances which caused her to be where she is in life.  Siegel makes her a real, three-dimensional person without judging her.  He also paints an ugly, and most likely very realistic, picture of the high-tech wealthy.
      
Although the frequent injections of Mike's thoughts may seem distracting, they also provide a realistic look at the difference between what one, especially an attorney, may say, and what one may think.  Mike is an interesting character; an ex-priest, divorced from Rosie, but with benefits, and a father.  Nady, an associate lawyer, is someone of whom one wants to see more.  She's smart, capable, and no-nonsense.
      
The balance between Mike's personal and professional life is well done.  It makes the characters relatable and provides realism to the story.
     
It's really fascinating to see, step-by-step, the legal process at work.  Siegel makes the process clear and understandable, while still managing to make it exciting.  There is  an interesting observation on our addiction to technology'—"You don't need Google or an iPhone."  "Or ninety-nine percent of the stuff that we buy, Mike.  But we think we do. Technology allows us to do things faster and cheaper, but it hasn't fundamentally changed what we want—things that make our lives easier, enhance our productivity, and entertain us."  And make you a ton of money. In other words, it delights us."
      
"Hot Shot" is a very good legal thriller.  One will appreciate its very satisfactory yet realistic ending.  

HOT SHOT (LegMys-Mike Daley/Rosie Fernandez-San Francisco-Contemp) - VG
      Siegel, Sheldon – 10th in series
      Sheldon M. Siegel, Inc. – May 2019

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Flowers Over the Inferno by Ilaria Tuti

First Sentence:  There was a legend that haunted that place, the kind that clings like a persistent odor.
     
Inspector Massimo Marini's arrival at the crime scene of his new posting in Northern Italy is less than auspicious, particularly when he mistakes a male officer for his new superior.  In her sixties, Superintendent Teresa Battaglia is overweight, diabetic, and has other health issues, but is known to be an excellent profiler. Teresa and her team have been called to a gruesome scene:  the body of a naked man whose eyes have been removed.  Marini is determined to win his superior's respect, but can Teresa's and Marini's very different styles find the perpetrator?
      
The story's evocative opening, set in 1978, has a very gothic feel to it. Tuti then does an interesting segue to a child in the present, and then to the crime scene and the introduction of Marini, Teresa and the first example of her analytic skills—"She wondered why he had requested a transfer from a big city to this small provincial precinct…We run away from what scares or hurts us—or from what holds us captive."  As opposed to the usual cooperative relationship between the lead and subordinate, this begins very differently but with intent.
      
The story is told from four perspectives: that of Teresa, Marini, members of the group of four young children, and the killer.  Plus, in the background, is the School with its rules of "Observe, record, forget."  Each voice is very clearly differentiated and important to the story.
      
Tuti has a remarkable voice.  It is one which compels one and yet tempts one to draw away from it as it can resonate too clearly at times—”Solitude was an unobtrusive housemate; it took up no room and never touched anything.  It has no smell or color.  It was an absence, an entity defined in contrast to its opposite.  Yet it existed; it was the force that made Teresa's cup of chamomile tea shake on its saucer on those nights when sleep refused to come to her rescue." It is fascinating watching Teresa build her profile while training Marini—"Criminology is an art. … It's not magic; it's interpretation.  Probability, statistics.  Never certainty."  Teresa is truly a complex, compelling character.
Beyond the story being a suspenseful mystery, the plot touches on relevant and important themes.  Among them is the importance of compassionate and empathetic touch along with the instinct to nurture which is contrasted with man's unfathomable ability for cruelty. Yet there are still nice touches of humor—"Ed Kemper would dissect the bodies of his victims to play around with their internal organs."  "Do you mind if I throw up?"  "Not all over my evidence, Inspector."  When one realizes the motive, it's someone one wouldn't expect.  After all, one never expects that learning about the killer can break one's heart.
      
"Flowers Over the Inferno" is an incredible book which will be on my "Best of 2019" list.  It is one which touches on every emotion and leaves a mark on one's soul.  It stays with one long after the final page and leaves one wanting more.  How wonderful to know this is the first of a trilogy.

FLOWERS OVER THE INFERNO (PolProc-Super. Teresa Battaglia-Italy-Contemp) – EX
      Tuti, Ilaria – 1st book
      SOHO – April 2019

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Who Slays the Wicked by C.S. Harris

First Sentence:  Bloodred and splayed wide as if in panic, the dried handprint stood out clearly against the white, freshly painted inside panel of the town house's front door.
            
Stephanie, the niece of Sebastian St. Cyr, is married to Lord Ashworth, a sexually profligate, violent man, whom St. Cyr had suspected of kidnapping and killing children several years ago.  After the birth of their twin sons, Stephanie no longer lives with Ashworth.  Still, she becomes a natural suspect when a small bloody handprint is found in the door to Ashworth's house, and he is found naked, tied to the bedposts, and brutally murdered.
            
Harris is very good at capturing the reader's attention on page one. She then keeps the tension going through the introduction of various suspects, and additional bodies, and a character gone missing.    
            
It's always interesting to see how similar, and yet different, was forensics over 200 years ago.  Harris makes very good use of such information.  The story's setting and the inclusion of historical events adds a nice layer and intrigue to the plot.  It also educates one about the period.
            
There are nicely done snippets of humor—"Why exactly are we here?" "To watch.  And listen.  And leap to wild and probably faulty assumptions." Harris knows how to create atmosphere—"The entire area reeked of overflowing bog houses, rot, disease, and despair." She effectively destroys any illusions one may have about the tranquil, genteel life of the entitled and wealthy, especially as it pertains to a woman.  As she describes the rise and fall of prosperity in various neighborhoods, one does wish for a detailed map.
            
The question as to why one murders has long been given the answer of five human emotions.  To that, Harris adds a sixth, rather frightening motive.  She also reflects on the hypocrisy of those who call themselves Christians and reveals things about which one might not know except for reading historicals. While the story contains a plethora of bodies and suspects, many are ones who seem incidental and don't add significantly to the story, the perpetrator is a well-done surprise.
      
"Who Slays the Wicked" does hold one's interest and effectively demonstrates that it truly is the poor who pay the price while the elite are never brought to justice.     

WHO SLAYS THE WICKED (HistMys-Sebastian St. Cyr-1814- London) - Good
      Harris, C.S. – 14th in series
      Berkeley, April 2019

Thursday, May 2, 2019

A Bouquet of Rue by Wendy Hornsby

First Sentence:  From the butcher to the baker to the café tabac, word spread through the village of Vaucreson that Monsieur John-Paul Bernard had moved a woman into the house he had ever so recently shared with his wife, Marian.
            
Documentary filmmaker Maggie McGowen is settling into her new life in France and her new live-in relationship with Jean-Paul Bernard and his son Dom, and houseman, Syrian refugee Ari.  Trouble arises when Ophelia, the daughter of Jean-Paul's neighbor, disappears, especially as she was last seen in the company of Ahmad Nabi, a fellow refugee being tutored by Ari. Nabi is also missing.  It is important that the teens be found before anti-refugee sentiments get out of control.
            
Isn't one always curious as to what others say about one?  The beginning is a perfect setup for the protagonist to introduce herself and the community in which she now lives, as well as the home in which she now abides.  A very well-done summary brings new readers up to date on Maggie, her life, and career.
            
Set in France, the dialogue includes common French words and phrases.  One needn't be bilingual; however, their meaning is either easily inferred, or they are immediately translated, often for Maggie.
            
Food; one cannot have a story set in France without wonderful food. Ari's fish soup of tomatoes, grilled haddock, onion, garlic, peppers, and fresh oregano sets the juices flowing.  However, meals also serve as a way to learn more about the characters, and Syrian refugees—"Afghans don't have surnames unless they decide to adopt one." …"I had learned that the current wave of refugees pouring out of mid-eastern war zones were, like Ari, more likely to represent their nation's educated urban elite than any other group."
            
The underlying theme of the story couldn't be more relevant; prejudice, fear, and distrust of those who are different while those who are afraid never make the effort to reach out. It is an irrational fear of the "other" based only on the fact that they are different from "us."  This transitions nicely into the equally timely issue of bullying.  Hornsby manages this in a way which is easy and natural to the scene.
            
It is nice to see the character of the police, in this case, a policewoman, go from being an adversary to an ally.  The detective's reference to Maggie as the fictional Inspector Maigret is delightful.
            
Maggie is a wonderful character.  One can't help but admire her for the way she can handle a difficult situation. All of Hornsby's characters are very human and relatable.  This is never truer than when she turns an antagonist into someone for whom we feel true sympathy.  Lest one think everything is dark and grim, rest assured there are interjections of humor-- "Detective Delisle has her eye on you."  … "Tread gently, my friend, … She packs heat."  Those who love Shakespeare may chuckle at the summary of "Hamlet."  Such bits as these add both veracity and a soupçon of relief to the seriousness of the story.
            
"A Bouquet of Rue" is as much a commentary on today's social issues as it is a mystery and it is highly effective in both aspects. It reminds us that schadenfreude—pleasure derived by one at the misfortune of another--and the "domino effect of revenge" is a fascinating, and rather dangerous, principle worth contemplating.  Yet the story also reminds one that life goes on.
           
A BOUQUET OF RUE (Mys-Maggie McGowen-France-Contemp) – VG+
      Hornsby, Wendy – 12th in series
      Perseverance Press/John Daniel & Co. – April 2019