Thursday, June 22, 2017

What the Dead Leave Behind

First Sentence:  The way he paced recklessly in front of me, bouncing off the furniture, tripping on the throw rug/ the way he looked at me with unblinking eyes—I decided the kid was messed up.
      
Former police detective, now unlicensed investigator, Rushmore McKenzie is asked for a special favour; find out her killed the father of a friend.  But nothing is simple and one case leads to another unsolved murder and a particular group of friends.
      
Housewright is very good at the concise; from the very beginning, we know who are the primary characters.  We also have background on McKenzie and, through his internal voice, how he thinks and who matters to him. Knowing these things is of particular advantage to those jumping into this series for the first time.  

In addition to MaKenzie's investigative talents; he cooks—“braised boneless pork ribs simmering in gravy laced with chili powder; mashed potatoes seasoned with onion salt, black pepper, butter, cream cheese, sour cream, and chives; plus green beans and pecans sautéed in chicken broth and maple syrup.”—cautions one to not read when hungry and reminds one a bit of Robert Parker’s Spencer.  
      
Housewright’s dialogue is easy, natural, and, at times, quite delightful—“Do you think that the killer might be at the party?” she asked. “That is so Agatha Christie.”

The plot is very well done.  There are plenty of twists to keep one off guard and surprised.  The unexpected is always a very good thing.
      
What the Dead Leave Behind” has an excellent protagonist and a very well done plot that goes unexpected places.  Learning where everyone ends up is very refreshing.

WHAT THE DEAD LEAVE BEHIND (Unl. PI-Rushmore McKenzie-St. Paul, MN–Contemp) - VG
      Housewright, David – 14th in series
      Minotaur Books – June 2017

Monday, June 19, 2017

Felony Murder Rule by Sheldon Siegel

First Sentence:  The waif-thin woman eyed me nervously from the swivel chair opposite my gunmetal gray desk.
     
As co-head of the Felony Division, DA’s Mike Daley rarely tries cases himself.  Melinda Nguyen’s son Thomas is on trial for murder even though he was not an active part of the actual crime that resulted in his friend being killed by a convenience-store owner.  But how can Mike turn his back on a woman who may have been married to his brother they thought died in Vietnam’s China Sea, and the boy who may be his son?
     
It is always interesting to learn about an obscure law that can have a major impact.  Although the information is interesting, it is the revelation related to those the laws will impact that truly captures one's attention.
     
Siegel does an excellent job of providing background on Daley, his ex-wife Rosie in a very concise manner without interrupting the flow of the story.  And what a good assembly of characters it is.  It is the relationships that bind the story together.
     
Daley’s internal narrative could be annoying but isn’t.  Instead, it again exemplifies Siegel’s writing style which is efficient and informative.  It provides more insight into the related events without being verbose. 
     
References to other authors are always enjoyable—“Her bookcases were jammed with legal treaties, Federal literature, and Donna Leon.”  For those who are local, the rundown of San Francisco’s famous/infamous characters can make one smile.
     
Dialogue is so important to the flow of a story and Siegel writes dialogue exceptionally well.  It’s quick, sharp, and very natural.  His wry humor provides a nice bit of light to the darkness of the case.
     
This is not a book to read when you’re hungry.  The food may not be fine dining, but there is a lot of it—“My brother always said the most important attributes for a P.O. were patience, perseverance, and a low-maintenance digestive system.
     
Felony Murder Rule” corrects any misconception one may have that a legal mystery isn’t suspenseful.  Not only is it, but it’s one with a very affecting and emotional ending.

FELONY MURDER RULE (Legal Thriller-Mike Daley/Rosie Fernandez-Bay Area, CA-Contemp) – Ex
     Siegel, Sheldon – 8th in series
     Sheldon M. Siegel, Inc. – February 2017

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Less Than a Treason by Dana Stabenow

First Sentence:  The body had been found early on by a raven, that inevitable first responder to carcasses in the wild.
     
Kate Shugak may have gone missing from all her friends and those who love her, but she knows where she is. Unfortunately, she is found by a woman who wants her to find her missing husband.  A geologist working for the Suulutaq Mine is known for going off on his own, but this time he has failed to keep a meeting with his wife.
     
Once past the first, relatively unnecessary chapter, the story begins with a dramatic and emotional opening which is an immediate pickup from the previous book.  It also leaves one with more questions than answers and an element of dread. 
     
However, we then settle into learning about the village and its residents. For series readers, all the favorite, and not so favorite, characters are here but one.  For new readers, this may not the place to start as there are a lot of characters.  Although some background on them is provided, it can become confusing.
      
Stabenow does provide wonderful descriptions—“A beautiful night, clear and cold, the Milky Way a smear of confectioner’s sugar, the moon and ethereal, almost translucent crescent.”
     
Kate is a character to be greatly admired.  She is smart, strong, independent and self-reliant; almost too much so.  Anyone in the medical field may do a major eye roll, however.  But she inspires loyalty and respect from all who know her.
     
There are a lot of plot threads to follow as well, but trust the author.  The threads do become whole cloth.  Even so, it is a bit frustrating that the two major reunions for which waits are late into the book, one not until the very end. 
    
 “Less Than a Treason” is not the best book in the series but the story builds well as the pieces fit together to a perfect ending.

LESS THAN A TREASON (Myst-Kate Shugak-Alaska-Contemp) – Good
     Stabenow, Dana – 21st in series
     Head of Zeus – May 2017

Monday, June 12, 2017

An Easy Thing by Paco Ignacio Taibo II

First Sentence:  “One more, Boss,” said Hector Belascoarán Shayne.
      
What’s a PI to do when he needs money?  He accepts three separate cases.  In the first, he is hired to search for Emiliano Zapata, the nation’s folk hero and leader of the Mexican Revolution thought to still be alive.  The second involves a killing in a corrupt factory.  The third is to find who is sending threats to the daughter of a former porn starlet. 
      
What seems to be a stereotypical beginning turns out to be anything but.  How can one not be compelled to read on?
      
Taibo’s use of language is such a pleasure to read.  His use of metaphors—“After hesitating for a moment, he got up from the bed and walked wearily, like a man with a pair of incompatible ideas crowding the space inside his head.”—and observations—“if there’s one thing this country won’t forgive you for, it’s that you take your life too seriously, that you can’t see the joke.”—both delight and give one pause to consider.  Even his use of chapter headings is perfectly done.
      
Hector is a character one recognizes but isn’t one of whom one is tired.  Taibo has a fascinating way of working in bits of Hector’s background as we good.  The more we learn, the more intrigued one becomes to know him better—“…it occurred to him that what he liked to call his professional demeanor was no more than a reflection of the confused state of his own life.”  Hector’s office mates, and the nighttime radio DJ, add further to the interesting dimensions of Hector’s character.
      
There is nothing like a climactic moment one probably should have seen coming but didn’t.  The events which follow are extremely gratifying. 
      
“An Easy Thing” is one of those wonderful books that make one wonder why you’ve not read this author sooner, but makes one determined to make up for that lapse.

AN EASY THING -(PI-Hector Belascoarán Shayne-Mexico-Contemp) – Ex
      Taibo II, Paco Ignacio – 1st in series
      Poisoned Pen Press – March 2002

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Templars' Last Secret by Martin Walker

First Sentence:  Bruno Courrèges, chief of police of the small French town of St. Denis, awoke a few seconds before six, just as the dawn was breaking.
      
A centuries-old religious artifact, thought to be hidden within the caves under the former Knights Templar stronghold Château de Commarque, brings murder and terrorism to the normally peaceful village of St. Denis. 
     
 A map!  There is a special place reserved or authors and publishers who provide a map.  Not only does a map provide clarification of the setting, but allows the readers to be part of the community and area in which the story is told.
     
 There are wonderful descriptions of the lovely bucolic setting which are then shattered.  The beginning deals with such a relevant and painful topic, but it also serves as a good introduction to Bruno and his life, including his past—“Anyone could take one glance at my wardrobe, he mused, and tell the story of my life:  the army and then the police, all the signs of a man more at home in uniform than in civilian dress.” 
      
Bruno is an excellent character; fully-dimensional and the type of leader for whom one would wish.  He knows his town and those who live there, and is well respected.  He is no light character, however, as his military background proves.  What is particularly well done is that he is surrounded by characters who are as interesting and well-developed as is he. 
      
Walker works the history of the area seamlessly into the plot.  There is fascinating information about French labour laws, the Paleolithic figures and the various theories related to them.  He joins the past to the present and makes both come alive in comparing the weekly market of today to how it might have been 700 years ago.  Add to that the technology which provides an identity for the murder victim and one is brought sharply into the present, including a discussion of fake news--“It doesn’t have to exist in reality as long as people give it a kind of reality by talking and writing and arguing about it.”
      
Set in France, one knows there will be food and wine—“He planned fish soup, followed by blanquette de veau with rice, salad with cheese and pears poached in spiced wine for dessert.”  There are even descriptions of how the dishes are prepared.
     
 “The Templars’ Last Secret” is definitely not a cozy.  It deals with terrorism and fanaticism.  It is a book that has it all; mystery, danger, history, and good food—all of it fascinating.

THE TEMPLARS’ LAST SECRET (Pol Proc-Bruno Courrèges-St. Denis, France-Contemp) – VG+
      Walker, Martin – 10th in series
      Knopf – June 2017         

Monday, May 29, 2017

Cold Earth by Ann Cleeves

First Sentence:  The land slipped while Jimmy Perez was standing beside the grave.
      
Due to heavy rains, a landslide destroys a house that was thought to be uninhabited.  The discovery of a woman’s body is sad enough, but no one knows her and their only clue is a letter to My dearest Alis.  Then it’s realized it wasn’t the slide that killed her.  She was murdered.
      
The opening is dramatic, sad, and slightly scary.  But it is also fascinating as well learn of traditions unfamiliar to most of us.  One does rather expect the first revelation when it comes, but it is still a bit of a jolt and very well done.
      
Cleeves characters are so real and are fully developed.  What is nice is that they even have normal insecurities.  It’s also nice to have an ensemble cast, with each character contributing to the investigation.  Enough backstory on Jimmy is provided so one understands him, and the budding, albeit slowly developing, relationship is a very nice touch. 
      
One would dearly wish for a map to be included at the beginning of the book as it would provide the reader a better sense of locations and proximities. The weather and atmosphere of the island itself become its own character.
      
There is something very refreshing about detectives who follow the clues and take us along with them even when its information gleaned from a newspaper interview. Cleeves isn’t a guns-and-car-chases author, but one who builds the story, and the case, piece-by-piece. 
      
Cold Earth” is a story into which one becomes immersed and involved with its very good characters and very satisfying ending.

COLD EARTH (Pol Proc-Jimmy Perez-Shetland Is. Scotland-Contemp) – VG+
      Cleeves, Ann – 7th in series
      Minotaur Books – April 2017

Friday, May 26, 2017

Dying on the Vine by Marla Cooper

First Sentence:  There was an air of excitement as brides-to-be and their entourages streamed through the front entrance of the Wine Country Wedding Faire.
      
The wedding event business is competitive, but so much so that one would murder a rival business owner?  After a young couple decided to switch vendors, Kelsey McKenna wants to ensure things are fine with the previous event organizer, Babs Norton.  What she doesn’t expect is to be the prime suspect after finding Babs murdered.
      
What a good opening where we are introduced to the characters and learn a bit of their backstory.  And the principal characters are delightful. Kelsey is supported by her best friend Brody, and her assistant Laurel. Brody is the friend for whom every woman wishes—“I returned with the cake and two forks and set them down on the table.  Brody just stared at me.  “What?”  Sighing, he got up and went to the kitchen, returning with two places and a knife.  “Let me show you how adult humans eat.”
      
The sense of place is very well done, especially for those who know this area, traveled those roads, and sampled at the wineries, even with their names being changed. For those who don't, it may make one think of planning a trip to the California wine country.  There are delightful injections of humor, but one of the best scenes is Kelsey’s very natural reaction to finding a dead body.
      
Kelsey’s awkwardness and ineptitude at trying to do her own investigation are completely believable and refreshing.  Even so, Kelsey comes across a bit less confident and/or capable than in the first book and does become involved in more than one TSTL (too stupid to live) situations.  There is a little romance which was fine and gave the book a Hallmark-movie feel. 
      
Dying on the Vine” is a light, airy cozy with a good plot twist.

DYING ON THE VINE (Cozy-Kelsey–Bay Area, CA- Contemp)-Good
      Cooper, Marla – 2nd in series
      Minotaur Books – April 2017

Monday, May 22, 2017

Ragdoll by Daniel Cole

First Sentence:  Samantha Boyd ducked under the wobbly police barrier and glanced up at the statue of Lady Justice perched atop London’s infamous Old Baily courtrooms.
      
In the apartment directly across from Det. “Wolf” Fawkes is found a hanged body made up from the body parts of six victims.  Wolf’s journalist ex-wife receives a list of names and the dates on which future victims will die.  The last name on the list is Wolf’s.  How many will die before the police can find and stop the killer?
      
Some of the most suspenseful scenes aren’t always in the dark of the night, but in a courtroom.  The opening of “Ragdoll” demonstrates this. Then we get to the crime, and things become very suspenseful, indeed.
      
Cole can write dialogue, sometimes tinged with a bit of dark humor—“Apparently he’s threatening to jump out of the window.”  “Constable Castagna or Ford?” “Ford.” “To escape or kill himself/” “Fourth Floor, so fifty-fifty.”  Some of his imagery is also well done…”After twenty solid minutes and alarms had ceased abruptly but survived as the ghosts of echoes reverberating endlessly around the Great Hall’s domed ceiling.”
      
There are some very good, interesting characters, particularly Edmunds.  Sadly, none are as developed as one might like, and one does get a rather tired of cops with “issues” such as drugs, drink, excessive violence, etc.
      
Although the timeline, according to the headings, indicates that the story is linear, there are flashes back to Wolf’s history which can make things very confusing.  Had one not known from the start that this is the first of a trilogy, and even if one does, the ending seems a bit of a cheat. 
     
Ragdoll” is a page turner.  There are numerous weaknesses, but it’s still a decent distraction read or airplane book.

RAGDOLL (Pol Proc-“Wolf” Fawkes/Baxter-London-Contemp) – Okay
      Cole, Daniel – 1st of trilogy
      Ecco – May 2017

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Earthly Remains by Donna Leon

First Sentence:  After an exchange of courtesies, the session had gone on for another half-hour, and Brunetti was beginning to feel the strain of it.
      
After acting rashly in order to save a young policeman, Brunetti takes some time off and goes away to an island villa owned by a wealthy relative. There he becomes reacquainted with Davide Casati with whom Brunetti spends his days rowing.  After a sudden, violent storm, Casati has gone missing.  A search is begun and Brunetti is there when Casati’s body is found.  But was it an accident?  It’s time for Brunetti to get back to work.
      
Even is one hasn’t read previous books in the series, one will acquire an immediate respect and affection for him, for his wife Paola, from the very opening.  It is lovely to have a protagonist with a solid home life who loves his wife—“ʿStay another weekʾ Paola said, laughing. …ʽWill I still recognize you?ʾ ʿIt would break my heart if you didn’t,’ he said, unaware until he said it how true it was.”
      
Leon is such an intelligent writer and one who assumes the same of her readers, which is lovely, or at least a desire by her readers to do research and learn.  Yet she also has a sense of humor—“He couldn’t jump up and pretend to be Lazarus…” …”He was just coming to the end of the fawning dedication to the Emperor Vespasian, embarrassed that a writer he so admired could be such a lickspittle…” 
      
A strong sense of place can so enhance a reader’s experience.  We see what Brunetti sees, hears, and smells.  And for anyone who has rowed a watercraft, one can almost feel the flow of water beneath the boat, and the rhythm of the oars.  One may also chuckle at the comparison—“Brunetti…untied the boat,…and bent again to his oar, wondering if this was what it was like to be a galley slave.  But slaves had no leather gloves and certainly did not stop for coffee in the afternoon.”
      
The story contains a very relevant and timely ecological focus on the condition of bees and the damage man hath wrought on our environment.  But there is also a small element of hope. Leon does make on think, and question, on several different levels and topics, including a sad commentary on the state of the economy in Venice.
      
Murders and their resolutions are often intended to be shocking.  So are the revelations here.  All the more so as it is based on the reality of what is happening in this country, and the world, today.
      
Earthly Remains” is a story of awareness and choices; guilt and conscience, and the awareness of cause and effect; the consequences of one’s behavior.  But still, in the end, it is a mystery and a fine one.

 EARTHLY REMAINS (Pol Proc-Comm. Guido Brunetti-Venice-Contemp) – VG+
      Leon, Donna – 26th in series
      Grove Atlantic – April 2017