Friday, August 26, 2016

The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh

First Sentence:  That Cheri Stoddard was found at all was the thing that set people on edge, even more so than the condition of her body.
Lucy Dane’s friend has been found murdered and dismembered.  This is the second person Lucy has lost; the first being her mother who vanished years ago from Henbane, in the Ozark Mountains.  Her search for answers leads her to dark, family secrets and grave danger.
There's nothing better than an author with a real story-teller’s voice, and McHugh has that. She doesn't just describe, she makes you see--and feel, and make us consider things for ourselves.
The first chapter really draws the reader in.  The second chapter has one even more intrigued. Although it can be confusing to have a story told from multiple points of view; that is not the case here, as each chapter clearly indicates the narrator.  However, there is an initial confusion related to two of the characters which was quite cleverly done, and only makes the story more compelling.
McHugh perfectly conveys the atmosphere of a very small, Ozark community, or any small community, where everyone knows everyone else’s' business and superstitions are part of life. "If I didn't find out what had happened to her, she would always be drifting somewhere in the ether, a life that never quite materialized."
There is a very good, nasty twist and something is made clear that wasn't quite--or this reader completely missed it—and there is a very good build up of tension.  However, there are also a few too many TSTL (too stupid to live) moments, and a climax that was rather cliché.     
The Weight of Blood,” is not perfect, but it is definitely a book you don't want to stop reading once you've started.  

The Weight of Blood (Susp-Lucy/Lila Dane_Henbane, MO_Contemp) - Good
      McHugh, Laura – 1st book
      Random House, March 2014

Monday, August 22, 2016

Inspector Singh Investigates: A Calamitous Chinese Killing by Shamini Flint

First sentence: Justin Tan stood at the main junction of the old hutong, a neighborhood of old courtyards dating from Imperial times, and stared down narrow alleyways that disappeared quickly into Darkness.
Justin Chan the 23-year old son of the first secretary at the Singapore Embassy in China has been murdered. Chinese security believes it was a robbery gone wrong.  The young man’s mother isn’t satisfied.  Inspector Singh has been sent to solve the crime hopefully without causing an international incident. 
We open with fear, danger, and many questions. The contrast from that, to meeting Inspector Singh and his wife is very well executed.  Still another shift leaves one impressed by how effectively Flint changes both the scene and the tone of the story.
Finch has such a captivating voice one finds oneself wanting to read and share passages with someone else - "A murder investigation was not laser-like in its intensity, following a certain path to the truth. It was a bright white beam that lit up hidden corners and dark where the family skeletons where hidden." She also adds just the right touch of the metaphysical--"She flinched at his words and the hairs on Singh’s neck stood up along the base of his turban. Suddenly, it was as if was a presence in the room, erase come to demand did the policeman from Singapore do his duty and not be so keen to accept the official version of the events."
Injections of subtle humor, often as part of Singh's narrative, are a delightful offset to the story—“Singh's stomach growled its concurrence before he had a chance to speak... He decided that, remarkably, he was prepared to eat more Chinese food. What was happening to him? Next, have to call himself a food tourist and write a travel book." It is also interesting to learn some of the elements of being a Sikh even though inspector Singh is a very poor example of a practicing Sikh. Yet, for all his foibles, it's hard not to admire him-- "It might be the Chinese way to label a person - terrorist, communist capitalist, a government activist - and then forget about his essential humanity, his inalienable rights. He wouldn't fall into that trap."  The story is also a stark reminder of the system of oppression and injustice which exists in many countries today.
The suspense, danger, intrigue escalate at a nice pace. As it grows it's a pleasure to watch Singh put together the pieces of the puzzle one by one. The inclusion of a very good plot twist makes things more fascinating still. Yet we also feel Singh’s frustration at not being able to put all the pieces together in a way he could initially prove.
A Calamitous Chinese Killing” is yet another good read in an excellent series with an ending that is satisfactory and yet rather sad.

Inspector Singh Investigates:  A Calamitous Chinese Killing (Pol Proc-Insp. Singh-China-Cont) - G+
            Flint, Shamini – 6th in series
            Virago - 2013

Monday, August 15, 2016

Another One Goes Tonight by Peter Lovesey

First sentence: Another one goes tonight.
A traffic accident involving two policemen, one fatally injured, results in Peter Diamond being assigned to investigate his fellow officers to find whether the policeman were at fault. At the site, Peter finds an elderly man seriously injured and saves his life.  However, the investigation raises more questions than answers and causes Peter to wonder whether the man whose life he saved is, in fact, a serial killer.
Lovesey provides us a wonderful description of giving someone CPR, not just from a technical standpoint, but the emotional connection that is created.
The information on Railway fanatics, as well as for Courtney dresses, adds interest to the story, as we watch Diamond build the case, clue by clue, but not always by himself; he brainstorms with his seconds, Ingeborg and Hallawell; and with his friend, and sometimes lover, Paloma.  Those things add veracity to the story, as well as watching Diamond have to change his perspective and beliefs in a person's innocence, while Halliwell raises the question as to whether what they believe has been murdered could, in fact, have been accidents or natural deaths.
Diamond does like to play outside the rules just a bit, but one has to admire his philosophy--"One thing Diamond had learned in life was not to feel sorry for himself. Rage against the gods by all means, but don't have anything to do with self-pity. It's toxic."  It is refreshing to have a detective admit his case isn't holding up "and you say there are problems with your original theory?" "Large holes."
For those who have not read the previous books about Peter's wife, it is nice to have a brief summary included. Details about the city of Bath provide a sense of history, local color, and a strong sense of place--"Bath has many amusing ironies. The best is the fact that thousands of tourists arrive because of the Jane Austen connection while the author herself could hardly wait to quit the place with "happy feelings of escape."
"Another One Goes Tonight" is a wonderfully complex mystery-- perhaps a bit too complex--with a killer one doesn't spot, and plenty of twists galore.  It's perhaps not the best of the Diamond series, but it's still a very enjoyable read.

Another One Goes Tonight (Pol Proc-CDI Peter Lovesey-Bath, England-Cont) – G+
            Lovesey, Peter – 16th in series
            Soho crime - July 2016 

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

A Maiden Weeping by Jeri Westerson

First Sentence: His head snapped up for the second time.
Well into drink, an unknown man sits next to former knight Crispin Guest, gives him a pouch of silver and the address of a woman he is to murder, and disappears.  Although drunk, Guest tries to warn the woman, Elizabeth le Porter, with whom he becomes intimate before passing out, and finds murdered upon awaking.  However, upon being attacked by the brothers Norey, one brother ends up dead, Guest is arrested, and it's now up to Chrispin’s apprentice, Jack, with the help of newly certified barrister Nigellus Cobmartin, to free Guest.  Can they prove Guest's innocence and find the true killer?
It's always nice when authors, particularly those who write historical mysteries, include a forward which provides background and information about the period in which the story is set, as well as how they may have diverted from historical fact to serve the needs of the story. Having a glossary of terms is also a welcome addition.
Westerson doesn't ease one into the story.  As with her characters, she throws the audience into mystery and danger from the outset, while also giving us a sense as to the nature of the protagonist--"It was time for the Tracker to do his moral duty.  Sometimes, he really hated that sense of honor."
The characters, fully dimensional, are brought to life.  The dialogue has the flavour of the period without being heavy-handed--"I am no saint, sir, and, hopefully, no martyr.  "Crispin" I am.  You may have my leave, Master Nigellus."
Westerson is very good at creating wonderful twists while adding layer upon layer to the plot. Beyond the suspense and excitement, it is also a very human story about honor, trust, and commitment that can touch the emotions. There are also plenty of really well-done plot twists.
 “A Maiden Weeping” is a wonderful read, filled with delightful characters, and a story this rather similar to a child's dancing button toy, but with many more threads that start out separate, become much more intertwined as you go, and resolve themselves nicely in the end.

A Maiden Weeping (Hist Mys-Crispen Guest/Jack Tucker- England-1389/Medieval) - VG
      Westerson, Jeri - 8th in publishing order (9th in series order)
      Severn House, August 2016

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

First Sentence:  Mrs. Ferras died on the night of the 16th-17th September--a Thursday.
When Mrs. Ferras has commits suicide, it is speculated as being due to her guilt over poisoning her first husband.  There are also rumors she was being blackmailed and that she had a secret liaison with Roger Ackroyd, a wealthy resident.  Dr. Sheppard, Ackroyd's friend and neighbor, receives a mysterious call telling him Ackroyd has been murdered, and murdered he he has been.  Can Sheppard's new neighbor identify the killer? 
It's always wonderful to start with a cast of characters.  Those of us readers who are getting slightly older do appreciate it.  Even with the initial cast of characters, Christie takes just the right approach to introducing each characters as they enter the story.  One cannot help but love Christie's descriptions of people-"I am sorry to say I detest Mrs. Ackroyd.  She is all chains and teeth and bones." 

The introduction of Poirot is delightfully done.  We are missing Colonel Hastings in this book, so our narrator is Doctor James Sheppard, one of the village residents and a main character, who first assumes Poirot to be a hairdresser, judging by the moustache.   It is also fun that although we meet Poirot fairly in the story, he doesn't truly become a focus of the story until later. One cannot help but smile at--"That, too, is my watchword.  Method, order, and the little gray cells."--and that we learn his eyes are green.
It is refreshing to have a police inspector who isn't completely set on one suspect, but still can't ignore the evidence leading a particular direction--"I'm trying to judge the thing fair and square..I'm not wanting him to be the guilty one-but it's bad whichever way you look at it." 
The plot is wonderfully complex.  What is remarkably clever is that one is given all the clues:  everything is there.  However, there are red herrings aplenty and it is only when all the clues are laid out on the board does the whole picture become clear.
"The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" is as impressive today as it was when first published. It is easy to see why Agatha Christie is the best-selling novelist of all time, with this being considered one of her very best works.

THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD (Trad Mys - Hercule Poirot - England -1920s) - Ex
            Christie, Agatha - 4th Poiriot
            William Morrow Paperbacks - March 2009

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Red Thumb Mark by Richard Austin Freeman

First Sentence:  "Conflagratam An 1677."
A valuable cache has been stolen from the safe of a diamond business owned by John Hornby and newly joined by his two nephews.  The safe appears untouched, except for a piece of paper in the bottom and two blood-smeared thumb prints which are identified as belonging to one of the nephews.  It is up to Dr. John Thorndyke, and his new assistant Dr. Jervis to prove the young man's innocence before he's found guilty and hanged.
Gratefully, the story has no prologue.  There is, however, an author's preface that is well worth reading.  Not only is it fascinating in its own right, but it also accustoms one to the style of language used; a much more elegant style than is used today.  It is interesting to see how our language has evolved.  In Edwardian times, the word "intimately" does not mean nearly what it does today.
From a casual meeting, we are introduced to Thorndyke, an M.D. and D.Sc. who had hoped to become a coroner but became a lecturer on medical jurisprudence, as well as Polton, Thorndykes' manservant and scientific assistant.  Our narrator is Jervis, a young general-practice physician without a practice who is hired by Thorndyke.  Mrs. John Hornsby, flighty-mannered wife of the business owner, and Juliet Gibson, strong-spirited, long-time companion to Mrs. Hornsby, are significant to the plot.  
There is a sense and influence of Sherlock Holmes, including interesting observations on the way in which people from different professions move.  However, what is nice about Thorndyke and Jervis is that their relationship is both more equal, but also one of master and apprentice, and certainly, of employer and employee.  Thorndyke appreciates and compliments Jervis' contributions, rather than just views him as a chronicler. 
One thing that is particularly nice is that Freeman really explains how Thorndyke reaches the conclusions he does.  The information on the various scientific experiments and analyses is fascinating.  Although there is one major coincidence, it is acknowledged by the characters as being such.  And who doesn't appreciate a good courtroom scene that ends with a good plot twist.
"The Red Thumb Mark" is a very good pre-"Golden Age" mystery with a very satisfactory ending.  If Freeman is an author unknown to you, it's well worth becoming acquainted with his books.

THE RED THUMB MARK (Hist Mys-Dr. John Thorndyke-England-Early 1900s/Edwardian) - VG
            Freeman, Richard Austin - 1st in series
            Skyhorse Publishing, July 2016

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Alexandria Affair by Ashley Gardner

First Sentence:  In late August, 1818, my wife had me abducted, trussed up, and taken down the Thames to be put on a tall ship bound for Egypt.
Rather than having him underfoot, Captain Gabriel Lacey's pregnant wife has packed him off to Egypt with his friend, the wealthy and admired Lord Granville, and staff.  It's not exclusively a pleasure trip as Lacey owes favours to crime lord James Denis and is constantly watched over by Brewster.  As part of his payment to Denis, Lacey has been asked to locate and procure an ancient papyrus, said to be in the hands of a treasurer hunter's widow.  Can Lacey fulfill the task without being killed by the mysterious man similar enough to be his twin, and who has tried to kill him twice before?
What a delightful opening.  Gardner very skillfully presents to us the cast of characters their backgrounds and relationships in a very easy manner, told in first person by the protagonist.  It is also nice that her dialogue has the feel of the period, without being heavy handed--"I'd been a pathetic wretch when I'd departed Lisbon four years ago."-and the first-person narrative is natural with just the right touch of humor--"I hadn't taken off my galabiya, being perfectly comfortable inside it.   Bartholomew, however had said that if I wanted to look as though I rushed about in a nightshirt, to please tell no one he dressed me."

Discussions of archaeological discoveries and newly advanced scientific theories solidify the sense of time, and the detailed description more than crate the sense of place. However, it is unfortunate that Gardner is prone to including completely unnecessary portents.
Removing the story from England and moving it to Egypt provides delightful opportunities to see the characters out of their comfortable element.  For Lacey, who spent time in the army and is fascinated by new places and cultures, it's an adventure.  For Granville, who travels in luxury, it's rather England transported.  For bodyguard Brewster, and staff Bartholomew and his twin brother, Mathias, they'd as soon be in England, thank you--"Not what we're used to," Bartholomew said apologetically. "They don't much understand an Englishman's breakfast, these servants.  And in the middle of preparing it, there's a man yelling, and the rush away to start bobbing on their carpets." However, Gardner does make note of this being a time when foreigners traveled to Egypt in order to find treasures and remove them to museums and private collections outside of Egypt. 
Lacey is a compelling character and one who is fully developed--"You're soft, Captain..Soft and yet more ruthless than any man I ever clapped eyes on."  The relationship between Lacey and Granville is so well conveyed.  In spite of their differences in rank and wealth, there is a true friendship filled with mutual respect.  Gardner's wonderful descriptions place you next to Lacey so that you see and feel what he does.  Yet Gardner doesn't allow one to become too comfortable as danger erupts suddenly and brutally. 
"The Alexandria Affair" is a wonderful balance of a foreign setting, good suspense and heart-pounding action.  

THE ALEXANDRIA AFFAIR (Hist Mys-Capt. Gabriel Lacey-Egypt - 1800s) - VG
Gardner, Ashley (aka Jennifer Ashley) - 11th in series
JA/AG Publishing - May 2016

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Stealing the Countess by David Housewright

First Sentence:  The Maestro insisted that it wasn't his fault.
"The Countess Borromeo," a four-million-dollar Strativarius, was stolen from Maestro Paul Duclos after playing a concert in his small hometown on Lake Superior.  The insurance company refuses to pay for its return unless they can arrest and convict the thief.  Duclos is willing to pay $250,000, no strings attached, for the violin's return and asks MacKenzie to help.  Not only is he up against the police, FBI, insurance company's rep, and his own lawyer's advice, but others are after the violin too.  Some are even willing to kill for it.
Housewright is one of those wonderful authors who takes you right into the story-no prologue, no extraneous pages of description-and captures your interest immediately.  In this case, we are taken into the world of classical music with personalities singular to it. As is often true of those who love the tool of their art, here we are introduced to "The Countess" and the relationship between her and her artist while learning about the tradition for-"A Stradivarious nearly always goes by the name of the owner."-and the plot becomes more intriguing with each page.        
Housewright creates very real characters.  You can easily visualize them and their surroundings.  It's entertaining having both MacKenzie's conversations with others, and his internal monologue-"Help you what?  Be specific."  "Take the money to Bayfield, find out who stole the Strad, and buy it back." Hell no, my inner voice shouted.  "Let me think about it," I said aloud."
For those who like suspense and action, Housewright really knows how to turn the dial up.  At the same time, he achieves the perfect balance of drama, excitement and wry humor-"Special Agenct in Charge Reid Beatty was not happy.  I knew because he kept telling everyone, "I am not happy, I am not happy, I am not goddamn happy.""
"Stealing the Countess"  is a very good read with excellent twists, did-not-see-that-coming moments, and a very good ending.

STEALING THE COUNTESS (Unl. Invest-Rushmore MacKenzie-Minnesota-Contemp) - VG+
            Housewright, David - 12th in series
            Minotaur Books - May 31, 2016


Friday, June 17, 2016

The Highwayman by Craig Johnson

First Sentence:  There is a canyon in the heart of Wyoming carved by a river called Wind and a narrow, opposing, two-land highway that follows its every curve like a lover.
Highway Patrolman Rosey Wayman has been instructed to have a psychiatric evaluation as she claims received several radio calls of "officer needs assistance," at exactly 12:34 a.m. from a long-dead Arapaho patrolman, Bobby Womack.  She has also found, under mysterious circumstances, rare silver dollar coins, a bag of which Bobby is thought to have stolen.  Is Bobby's ghost haunting the Wild River Canyon?  Or is something more corporal at work? 
Johnson does write wonderfully evocative descriptions which create a strong sense of place-"Traveling north through rolling flats, there is a windswept, rocky terrain that stands like a fortress next to the shores of the Boysen Reservoir with ice blue water that reflects the Owl Creek Mountains, looking as if they might run to the Arctic Circle." However, there is also the point at which description begins to feel as though it's merely filler, and it does seem excessive in this story. 

When we finally move on and into the story itself, it begins in a rather disjointed fashion.   Even the initial dialogue--although it's excellent dialogue--- suffers the problem of it being occasionally difficult to tell who is speaking.  All of this is such a shame because the plot is a very intriguing one and worth the effort.
Characters are one of Johnson's definite strengths.  Walt Longmire and Henry Standing Bear may be the primary characters, but each of the characters comes alive under Johnson's hand.
"The Highwayman" achieves the just the right balance of drama and humor, real and paranormal.  Although one could wish it were up to the standard of Johnson's earlier novella, "Spirit of Steamboat," it  is still filled with plot twists, action and danger, and ends up being a good way to spend a weekend afternoon. 

THE HIGHWAYMAN (Msyt-Sheriff Longmire/Henry Standing Bear-Wyoming-Contemp) - G+
      Johnson, Craig - Novella
      Viking - 2016