Thursday, June 21, 2018

Bum Deal by Paul Levine

First Sentence:  The surgeon laced his fingers and cracked his knuckles, a concert pianist preparing to tackle Tchaikovsky. 
 Defense Attorney Jack Lassiter is switching sides.  The state attorney, who has political ambitions, cannot serve as prosecutor on the case of a very high-profile cosmetic surgeon who is accused of murdering his wife.  Jake is taking on a huge challenge as the defense attorneys are his best friends, he quite possibly may be dying from CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) as a result of his NFL days and, oh yes, there's no body.
One always appreciates an author who uses humor well—"when my cell phone rang, I figured someone was dead.  Nah, I don't have EPS.  I have caller ID."—creates a strong sense of place—" easterly breeze kicked up sand from the beach and ruffled the palm trees a few feet from my table."—and make one stop and consider—"Who's to say why we choose our friends?  Just as with lovers, there's a certain mystery to the chemistry of friendship."—all within a very short space.  It also helps in creating an intriguing protagonist.  These things add up to a book of real promise and, if one has never before read Paul Levine, there is also the question of "why not?". 
All of Levine's characters are fully-developed and none are caricatures.  Dr. Melissa Gold, neuropathologist and Jake's lover and doctor, is the means by which we learn about CTE, the symptoms, indicators, and treatments including medications and eudaimonia, a philosophy of Aristotle's related to virtue ethics. 
Levin reminds one exactly how dirty and self-serving are politics and politicians.  He also makes a fair assessment about being a lawyer—"I just wanted to do good work defending the wrongfully accused.  Surprise! Turns out there were far more people rightfully accused."  There is also a reminder that legal cases take time—"This isn't an hour TV show where a clue falls into your lap after the third commercial."
Although there is an element that may have been predicted, there is a very good twist and a story which is well executed and occasionally makes one smile.  Right up until the final page.
"Bum Deal" is remarkable for the level of suspense that can be achieved by a well-done courtroom scene.  Levin definitely delivers.

BUM DEAL (Legal Thriller-Jake Lassiter-Florida-Contemp) – G+
      Levine, Paul – 13th in series
      Thomas & Mercer – June 2018

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The Pretty Little Box by Charles Todd

First Sentence:  She didn't know what had come over her.
A rare devotional in an exquisite box moves from person-to-person, affecting the life of each person by whom it is possessed.
What a thoroughly intriguing story.  It hits on so many levels.  One wonders from where the book came, what was its road to reach the beginning of this story?  Was its end as it was planned, or did it travel on?
Although not tied to either their Ian Rutledge or Bess Crawford series, this is a lovely way to try Charles Todd.  It is also an interesting twist when the protagonist isn't an individual, but an object.  Even better, just as we often do with a person, is that it is an object about which we get to know more as the story proceeds. 
For those of us who love and collect antiques, there is often the thought of wondering who had owned them before, and what was their life like.  For those of us without family, we wonder where they will go once we have passed.  Will they be enjoyed and appreciated, or end up in a rubbish dump?
"The Pretty Little Box" is fascinating and thought-provoking.  It leaves one with more questions than answers, but that's part of its appeal.

THE PRETTY LITTLE BOX (Novella-England) – Ex
Todd, Charles – Bibliomysteries Book 32, Penzler, Otto, Ed.
Mysterious Press – 2018 

Thursday, June 14, 2018

A Taste for Vengeance by Martin Walker

First Sentence:  On this cool, damp Sunday afternoon in spring, with clouds and rain showers sweeping in from the Atlantic some sixty miles to the west, Bruno Courrèges had his day off.
With his promotion from being responsible only for St. Denis, to now covering the entire valley and two additional jurisdictions, Bruno is still most involved with the people of his town.  One of his star rugby players could be chosen for the French national squad, except that she is pregnant and unwilling to expose the father's name.   British tourist Monica Felder was coming to St. Denis for a cooking vacation but fails to show up. Her husband can't be reached, and she, along with an Irishman, is found dead.  More than a murder case, the investigation soon goes from murder to possible terrorism. 
The map of St. Denis not only orients one.  It makes one feel part of the village.  The description of the rugby match isn't so much about the game as it is the community and the excitement. 
It is such a pleasure to have Bruno be a policeman who is respected by the townspeople, his colleagues, and his superiors as witnessed by his promotion ceremony.  And being France, there is, of course, food—"They would be eating foie gras with a glass of sweet, golden Monbazillac wine, followed by fresh trout with toasted almonds, accompanied by a white wine from the town vineyards, then cheese and salad, tarte au citron and coffee." 
Walker does a very good job of introducing all the characters and providing background on them.  Bruno's modesty makes him is the type of person one would want to know.  He is one of the most well-developed and well-rounded characters one will find.  He has a military background and is an excellent cook, he fought in a war, but takes pleasure from acting as a crossing guard when the infant school lets out, he rides and hunts, and teaches tennis and rugby to the town's school children, and the list goes on.  Yet Bruno never seems too good to be true as he can make mistakes. 
Walker paints such a wonderful picture of St. Denis, both in terms of the physical description—"The day had dawned clear, still chill from the night with the sun not yet above the horizon. …the rays began to reach him slantwise through the trees, lighting up the first leaves, brilliant in the pure, fresh green of springtime and serenaded by the dawn chorus of the songbirds."—and the barter system between the town's residents—"His friend Stephané, the cheesemaker, kept Bruno in butter, cheese, milk, and yogurt in return for the ducks, chickens, and truffles that Bruno brought him…"  But don't mistake this for a cozy mystery. 
Details of the crime scene and forensics and the information on the victims is very thorough and quite interesting, even for those who are not 'on scene.'  As the story progresses and we learn there is more here than a domestic murder, we learn some history and are reminded both that--"terrorists had their own rules, and that hatred and bigotry are passed down from generation to generation—"…some of the old diehards don't give up and many of them try to raise their kids the same old ways, with the same old songs and legends."
"A Taste for Vengeance" meshed the threads of the story in a way that wasn't anticipated, with danger, suspense, and heroism.  This is a book to be read slowly so as not to miss the details.

A TASTE FOR VEGEANCE (Pol Proc-Chef de Police Bruno Courrèges-France-Contemp) - Ex
      Walker, Martin – 11th in series
      Alfred A. Knopf – June 2018

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

A Stone's Throw by James Ziskin

First Sentence:  The flames leapt into the last of the night's darkness, casting their dancing orange light against the weathered planks of the nearby outbuildings.
Newspaper reporter Ellie Stone is at the derelict Shaw Stables stud farm as the horse barn burns to the ground  Walking the site later, Elly uncovers two bodies burnt nearly beyond recognition except for a bit of racing colors on the male, and a trace of red hair, an earring, and a bit of fur on the female.  It wasn't the fire which killed them.  On the hunt for the story, it's up to Ellie to find out who the victims were, and who killed them.
Fire always captures one's attention.  A fire without an obvious cause in an abandoned structure raises the level of curiosity.  A fire with two bodies not killed by the fire means a mystery.
The story being set in 1963 provides wonderful opportunities for time-relevant references—"May I call you later for the results?" I asked.  "He turned and squinted up at me, still on his hands and knees in the muck.  "No later than seven.  I watch Perry Mason at seven thirty."  

There something rather fun about a book set in an age before the internet, and before cell phones, when research meant digging through physical files, going place-to-place to talk with people, and making a lot of phone calls.  It's nice that Ziskin doesn't ignore the details, even to the reference that—"As Saratoga hadn't yet entered the world of direct distance dialing, I had to call the operator to connect me to my parties."
One thing that was very true then, and is still sadly true now, was the amount of bigotry and, in particular, anti-Semitism which prevailed.  While Ziskin doesn't hammer the point, there are certainly enough references to make one aware of how prevalent it was and to make one uncomfortable, as it should. 
What one eats can say a lot about a person.  For fine cuisine, one might not want to look to Ellie—"For an hors d'oeuvre, I scrounged some gin-soaked olives that I kept in the icebox, washed them down with a glass of whiskey—not a combination made in heaven—then dined on deviled ham straight from the can.  I peeled and quartered an apple for dessert."  However, if one likes characters who are smart, determined, and capable, Ellie fits the bill.  oHowHowe
Ziskin has provided Ellie with a strong supporting cast from her friend Fadge, Zeke and Bill who sometimes work for Fadge, sheriff Frank Olney, the indefatigable Norma Geary who does considerable research, Ellie's boss, Charlie, and others.  They provide an excellent sense of realism as no one works, or lives, in a vacuum. 
Those who enjoy horses and horseracing will particularly enjoy this book.  The description of the Traver's Stakes race was very well done, conveying the excitement of that actual event and the winning jockey Bill ("Willie," although he didn't care for the nickname) Shoemaker.  One may as well appreciate the reference to Shylock.
 "A Stone's Throw" is a well-done book with an excellent twist, a startling reveal, and an ending horse-lovers will appreciate.

A STONE'S THROW (Journ-Ellie Stone-Upstate NY- 1963) – G+
      Ziskin, James W. – 4th in series
      Seventh Street Books – May 2018

Thursday, June 7, 2018

The Deepest Grave by Jeri Westerson

First Sentence:  A hand tapped Crispin's shoulder from behind as he was finishing his business against an alley walk? 
Do the dead indeed walk?  Father Bulthius of St. Modwen's Church asks for "Tracker" Chrispin Guest's help as he claims he has seen the dead rise from their graves, dragging their coffins, and finds the bodies in the morning, back in their graves with blood on their mouths.  In the meantime, Philippa Walcote, the woman Crispin truly loved but lost, needs his help proving the innocence of her son against a charge of murder and the theft of a family relic. Time is short, as the boy is about to be arrested; a boy who may mean more to Crispin than simply Philippa's son.
It is the sign of a good series when the author develops the characters, allowing them to grow and change with each book.  That is certainly true here, particularly with Jack Turner.  However, Westerson is very careful to ensure that those who have not read previous books don't feel lost or confused, or as though they've missed something. 
With a story set in the 1300s, having a glossary at the beginning of the book is an excellent touch and very helpful.  The author doesn't try to make one feel as though she's using the language of the time, which would be unintelligible to almost all of us.  Instead, she uses particular words from the period and a cadence to the speech which gives a feel for the time.    
Westerson captures the importance of rank and how each person fits into that hierarchy.  It is interesting seeing Crispin's discomfort at his current living situation due to his loss of rank, yet the pleasure he has come to take from it—"His insistence had made of them a strange family: servants and master, all together, as it had been with Jack alone.  Sometimes the arrangement caused a twinge of discomfort, but sometimes—as it did now—he welcomed the feeling that seemed to fill that empty place in his soul that had stood by itself for so long."
In addition to the primary characters of Crispin and Jack, Westerson creates fully-developed and very interesting secondary characters.  Abbott William is the cleric all clerics should be.  He doesn't consider himself above anyone else and has an enviable logic—"But our history is what makes us, wouldn't you agree, Crispin? For instance, if you had not had the temerity to commit treason, then perhaps you wouldn't be quite as interesting or noble a personal as you turned out to be."
Henry Vaunere and John Shadworth, sheriffs of London, are a wonderful contrast to another.  Shadworth is fascinated by Crispin, while Vaunere is much more skeptical and pragmatic—"Shadworth raised his face.  He wore a beatific expression. 'You don't mean to say that I gave you an idea, Master Guest?' 'John, for God's sake!' chaffed Vaunere, 'Quit fawning over the man.'
There are small truths; little gems presented to us by the author—"Justice was justice.  It wasn't a pretty thing.  It was often messy and unpleasant.  But it had to be so.'
"The Deepest Grave" has very well-done solutions to the mysteries and a wonderfully, heart-warming ending to the story.  Do take the time to read the afterword.

THE DEEPEST GRAVE (Hist Mys-Chrispin/Jack Taylor-England-1392) – VG+
      Westerson, Jeri – 10th in series
      Severn House – August 2018

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Glass Room by Ann Cleeves

First Sentence:  Vera Stanhope climbed out of Hector’s ancient Land Rover and felt the inevitable strain on her knees.
What is an Inspector to do when one’s neighbor goes to a writer’s retreat and another of the attendees turns up dead?  In Vera’s case, and with the approval of her Superintendent, she, and her team, investigate it.  But is her neighbor truly as innocent as Vera thought?   
Ann Cleeves has the most wonderful voice and creates such a strong sense of place—“It was October and the light was going.  A smell of wood-smoke and ice.  Most of the trees were already bare and the whooper swans had come back to lough.”
Vera is definitely not a cozy Miss Marple—“Let folk into your life and they started making demands.  She hated people making demands.”—yet her internal monologue, which is delightful, tells so much more about her—“And why had she agreed to do as Jack asked…Because I’m soft as clarts.  Because I enjoy happy endings and want to bring the couple together again, like I’m some great fat Cupid in wellies.”
Cleeves explains perfectly why—“…everyone loved a murder… They loved the drama of it, the frisson of fear, the exhilaration of still being alive.  People had been putting together stories of death and the motives for killing since the beginning of time, to thrill and to entertain.”   Such a perfect statement and small truth. 
It’s nice that we have Joe’s internal thoughts as well.  They reveal information about the character, his relationship with Vera—“You’re my eyes and my ears, Joe.  I’m a simple soul; I can’t talk and observe at the same time.”--and about Vera herself as she is perceived by others.  In fact, the way in which we are introduced to the supporting characters is very well done.  Rather than the author introducing them to us, many of them introduce themselves to another character. 
      Vera’s relationships with people, particularly Joe, are fascinating.  She reads them well and knows just how to manipulate them, but never in a malicious way.  With her team, she knows how to get the best out of them.  The way in which she conjectures about other people’s lives makes one realize that many may do the same.
There’s nothing better than a good plot twist.  One dealing with the forensics of the murder is even more clever.  There is, however, one significant problem; the author/editor couldn’t seem to decide on the manner by which the first victim died.  This could rather throw one out of the flow of the story.  Still, the plot twists are well spaced and very well done.  As should be, one doesn’t see them coming, but they are very effective when they do.  In the end, all the questions are answered.
The Glass Room” has a wonderful theme and a setting to be appreciated by readers and hopeful writers.  Very good drama and suspense, combined with the several well-placed twists, makes this a very good read.

THE GLASS ROOM (Pol Proc-Insp. Vera Stanhope-England-Contemp) – VG+
      Cleeves, Ann – 5th in series
      Minotaur Books – April 2018

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Fall of Angles by Barbara Cleverly

First Sentence: “Hello?  Detective John Redfyre, Cambridge CID here.”
It’s 1923, the age of the women’s suffrage movement, and DI John Redfyre has been invited by his aunt to a Christmas concert.  It is a bit scandalous in that the featured trumpeter is a lovely young woman, Juno Proudfoot.  Is someone so upset they would try to kill her through a triggered fall down stone steps?  When the next attempt on another woman succeeds it’s up to Redfrye to uncover both the motive and the killer.
Cleverly’s voice perfectly reflects that of the 1920s and the Golden Age of mystery writers—“A threepenny bus-ride or a two-bob taxi fare and she could have been with him in person, pouring out her problems while he poured out a London Gin and added a slug of Rose’s Lime Juice.”
Redfrye and his Aunt Henrietta, through whom we learn about his background, boyhood, and the incident which gave him his resolve, are delightful characters.  The introduction of Eadwig Stretton, creates a nice plot twist.  Sargent Thoday is interesting and a character of whom one should like to see more. 
Cleverly’s descriptions are a delight to read—“They looked up silently at the roof-tops of the colleges.  Elegantly frosted by a slight fall of snow, a Gustave Doré landscape of pinnacles, turrets, domes, and cornices unfolded above them, outlined against the dark sky by a three-parts-rounded, hunchbacked moon.”  She uses the story of Jezebel to illustrate the subjection of women through time and as a way of making the point of women fighting against the total control of men over the lives of women such as that it took only the signatures of two men to commit a woman to an asylum.  
There are very good red herrings.  Suspects are presented and dismissed.  Or are they?  With one murder, we have an association, but no apparent motive. It is interesting reading a book set during a time when forensics existed but were still rather rudimentary.
Unfortunately, the story does get a bit lost in the details of the time period and the ending felt rushed.  This is not Cleverly’s best book, but one hopes for better in the future.
The Fall of Angels” is a delightful homage to the Golden Age, with a very relevant theme.

THE FALL OF ANGELS (Hist Mys-DI John Redfyre-Cambridge, England-1923) - Good
      Cleverly, Barbara – 1st of series
      Soho Crime, May 2018

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

A Howl of Wolves by Judith Flanders

First Sentence:  “There are thirteen dead people here.”  Jake was accusing.
Book editor Sam Clair takes her Scotland Yard detective partner, Jake, to a West End play in which her neighbor. Kay, and her son, Bim, have small parts, along with the play’s director, Campbell Davison.  The play is chock full of faux murders, until one is not faux at all.  As Sam learns about Davison, the list of suspects grows.  With another death, the need to find the killer becomes imperative.
This is an opening that will get your attention.  After the first sentence, it’s the author’s voice which draws one in—“’I don’t make up dead people.’  I replayed the sentence in my head.  It sounded worse the second time around.’”—and her protagonist, Sam, is a character with whom many of us can identify—“I spend so much time inside my own head that imperiled animals would have to claw their way up my leg, sit on my shoulder and bat at my nose before I looked up from my book long enough to notice them.”
It is nice to have Sam’s partner be with Scotland Yard as it gives veracity to her being involved in the investigation.  It’s also nice that they clearly have such a good relationship—“He looked me over.  ‘You should be fine.  You’re clean.’ That cut through my exhaustion.  ‘I’m always clean.’  He held up a palm against my outrage. ‘Sorry, I had a man moment. …I like the way you look, and you look the way you always look.  Which I like.’”   
Another wonderful character is Mr. Rudiger, the resident of the top-floor flat in Sam’s building. He’s a former architect who is agoraphobic, but smart, and resourceful.  Sam’s mother isn’t necessarily someone one would want for a mother, but she is an excellent character.
Flanders thoroughly dissuades any thought one might have of a book editor’s job being a glamorous one.  However, she also does a very good job of defining the role of an editor, while providing a clear picture of the misogamy women face every day—“Bruce and I were roughly the same age, in our mid-forties.  When he was angry, he shouted, and people were obliged to listen.  When I raised my voice, however, it was called “being upset,” and people could refuse to listen.  In my twenties, if I’d been angry charmingly enough, I might have got away with being called feisty.  Now I was just a bitch.” 
Her writing is wonderfully visual—“The rain the previous night had diminished to the odd shower, and it was clear now, but still wet enough that Bim could hopscotch his way across the pavement, aiming for the centre of each puddle as we went.”  Her dialogue is a treat—“I snarled, but, being Miranda, she ignored it, concentrating on essentials:  “’Maybe we could set up a pool, have a sweepstake about who you’re going to blast next.’  There was only so much a person could take.  ‘For goodness sake,’ I snapped. ‘Whom. Whom you’re going to blast next.’”
The plot is very well done with plenty of effective twists.  Flanders does an excellent job of taking the story from suspense and dread to lightness and humor, without its ever being forced, but feeling realistic.
A Howl of Wolves” is a wonderfully-written mystery with humor, suspense, twists--including the motive--and an inside look at the world of publishing.

A HOWL OF WOLVES (Trad Mys- Sam Clair-London-Contemp) - Ex
      Flanders, Judith - 4th in series
      Minotaur Books – May 2018

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Tagged for Murder by Jack Fredrickson

First Sentence:  Only Keller, of the gamy Argus-Observer, thought to write that the man found dead on top of the railcar, the end of that February, had died in a leap year.
The body of a man in an expensive suit but whose teeth and body indicate someone who has been living on the street is found in a railroad siding on top of a boxcar.  PI Dek Elstrom is hired by a realtor to take photos, ones that the police have already taken, and paid twice as much as they originally agreed.  As people disappear, including the realtor, a tagger becomes important, a building destroyed, and Dek ends up needing the resources of his friend Leo’s large freezer.  Dek also has to stay alive and out of jail.
What an effective description of the problems of violence in Chicago, and in most large cities—“Chicago’s once-mighty gangs crumbled, devolving into smaller and smaller groups, until at last they fragmented into block-based, murderous little boys’ clubs, having nothing much to do except shoot at each other.”
In contrast to that is Dek’s relationship with Amanda, his wealthy ex-wife with benefits. She’s not there just for romance.  She is a character with a purpose who contributes to the plot.  Leo Brumsky, his girlfriend, and his mother with her septuagenarian friends do provide a note of lightness, but Leo is not a character to be underestimated.  

Additionally, Fredrickson has created for Dek an interesting, and unusual assortment of additional supporting characters.  It is so important to have characters who grow and develop, and Fredrickson has done that with his characters.  All the characters series readers have come to know are here, along with their eccentricities.  Some are not the type one necessarily brings home for holiday dinners, although they might make those occasions much more interesting, but they are certainly useful and add colour to the plot.   
That there is the introduction of suspense and danger which comes seemingly out of nowhere is highly effective for that very reason.  Even though the body count rises, the violence is done off page and, therefore, not graphic to the reader.  Fredrickson builds the story well.  The question of who Dek can trust is effective and leaves one guessing along with Dek.  One doesn’t know where the plot is going, but one is definitely going along for the ride.
Fredrickson writes dialogue well, and it’s often tinged with humor—“’I’m at the eastern edge of your marvelous little town, at a place called The Hamburger.  They don’t have hamburgers on the menu.  It’s a fried fish place.’  The place changes hands rapidly, but every new owner keeps the sigh to save costs.  There’s little enthusiasm for fine dining in Rivertown.’  ‘Come by.  I’ll buy you a fish’ he said.  ‘Don’t order until I get there.’  ‘Fish sounds good,’ he said.  ‘There’s concern they snag the slowest of them from the Willahock.’  ‘How slow?’  Some just floating on their sides.’”
Tagged for Murder” has suspense, misdirection, twists, humor, and a plot to which one must pay attention.  This is a more serious book than those which precede it. It is, perhaps, the best in the series so far.

TAGGED FOR MURDER (PI-Dek Elstrom-Chicago Area, IL-Contemp) – VG+
      Fredrickson, Jack – 9th in series
      Severn House – May 2018