Monday, March 27, 2017

The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney

First Sentence:  In summer, the season of the Hollywood blockbuster, Bingham, got to work at eight in the morning and didn’t leave until long after midnight.
There were two unsolved crimes in the summer of 1986; six movie theater workers were murdered, and a teenaged girl vanished from the state fair.  Now, 25-years later, two people are trying to find answers to those two mysteries. But now there’s a third mystery. Wyatt, now a P.I. in Las Vegas, has been hired to return to the small Oklahoma town where he grew up in order to find out who is trying to destroy the owner's music club. Are the three cases linked?
Berney creates a very good sense of time and place, immediately drawing one into the story.  He then tops that off by also creating a palpable aura of fear, but without graphic detail.
All three primary characters—Wyatt, the PI; Candice, who is being harassed; and Julianne, whose sister disappeared—are well developed and interesting.  Yet it is Wyatt, in particular, who draws one in and makes one care.  He makes the reader want the answer to this question as much as he does—“One of the toughest things about being a detective, Wyatt supposed, was that you never really stopped detecting.”  Wyatt makes us contemplate.  Don’t we all, at times, wonder about those from our past?—“He tried to remember the line from Lear.  “That way madness lies.”"  
The plot keeps one turning page after page.  The threat against Candice is real and absolutely chilling.  What is more effective than a plot that has definite “Wow!” moments as does the mystery involving Julianne’s sister.
The Long and Faraway Gone” is not your average mystery.  Yes, there are mysteries, and there are resolutions; however, it is more about people who were once lost, but now are found.  It truly deserves every award it was given.
THE LONG AND FARAWAY GONE (Novel-Wyatt-Oklahoma City-Contemp) - Ex
      Berney, Lou - Standalone
      William Morrow Paperbacks-Feb 2015 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Kahn

First Sentence:  Esa Khattak turned his head to the right, offering the universal salaam at the conclusion of the evening prayer.
Esa Khattak and Det. Rachel Getty are members of the Canadian Community Policing Section which handles minority-sensitive investigation.  At first glance, it doesn’t seem that the death of Christopher Drayton, who is believed to have fallen from a cliff, fits their charter.  Or does it? And is that Drayton’s real name? Was he really Canadian, or did he have a much darker past?
During this time in which we live, learning about other cultures and religions is not only informative but vital.  The very humanizing aspect of Khattak’s rug being made by his ancestors, and that we learn of his wife’s death, are good indications of the man.  It is also an excellent introduction to the character’s history and that of the unit he heads up; the Community Policing Station.
How refreshing when an author with eschews chapter-ending cliff hangers, but with uses clues instead.  Good chapter headings; some mild, others disturbing, are also much appreciated and can add so much—“Father, take care of my children, look after my children.”  It is only much later one realizes the significance of these passages. There are many passages within the text that cause us to pause and consider—“Because friendship was more than a source of comfort, or a place of belonging.  It was a source of responsibility.”
Although this is the first book in the series, there are constant references to a past time where Rachel and Khattack worked together.  One may find this more annoying than informative.  However, learning of Rachel’s background and present concerns does bring her to life.  What is interesting is how Rachel actually becomes the lead character after Khattack becomes too personally invested in the events.  She is a wonderful character and one of whom one would like to see more.
Best of all, we are provided with so many examples of such fine writing—“She scorned those who genuflected at the temple of nonviolence, their voices ringing with praise of the defenseless victims of butchery while they sat on their hands when the gods of carnage came calling.”  So much of the book’s theme is relevant today—“It was a compelling history lesson:  how quickly the violent ideals of ultra-nationalism led to hate, how quickly hate to blood.”
 “An Unquiet Dead” is more a novel and a warning—“Everywhere the radical right was rising:  Sweden, France, Belgium, Denmark, Holland.  While a steady stream of vitriol drifted north of the US border.”--rather than a mystery.  Either way, it is disturbing and painful, and excellent.
THE UNQUIET DEAD (Crime Novel-Rachel Getty/Esa Khattak-Canada-Contemp-) – Ex
      Kahn, Ausma Zehanat – 1st in series
      Severn House – Feb 2017

Monday, March 20, 2017

Mr. Churchill's Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal

First Sentence:  Half an hour before Diana Snyder died, she tidied up her desk in the typists’ office of the Cabinet War Rooms.
The war in Europe has begun but hasn’t come to England…yet.  Churchill is the new Prime Minster, and everyone is just waiting.  Maggie Hope has a fine, logical mind but, after another typist is murdered, has been hired on to work at No. 10 Downing Street.  But spies are afoot, and not just from Germany. 
The inclusion of segments from Churchill’s actual speeches well establishes the time period and adds veracity to the story.  Early dialogue leaves no question as to the location—“Tea,” she stated in her deep, booming voice, deliberately changing the subject. “We all need tea.  There’ll be no blood, toil, tears, or sweat until I have some goddamned tea.”
We are reminded that this was a time before the US entered the War and when some American Industrialists and politicians were supported the German regime, and when Ireland declared itself neutral. Yet the character of Maggie has an interesting perspective.
It is always a benefit to learn things one hadn’t previously known.  Such is the skill of a good author.  MacNeal’s references to specific events of the time are also a very clever way of indicating the passage of time within the story.  Yet we are painfully reminded of the attitudes toward women which prevailed then…and still often do—“You’re a smart girl,” Snodgrass said to her,” and that’s good.  You’ll have intelligent children.  But isn’t it more important to worry about your appearance and not calculations?  Let the boys like John here take care of it.  Stick to typing, please.”—which can cause readers to indulge in a gnashing of teeth.  Still, there is a wonderful reference to Noel’Coward’s song “The Stately Homes of England.”  A slight aside, if you’ve never seen the movie “The Grass is Greener,” I do highly recommend it.
MacNeal provided us with an excellent and horrific description of the Germans’ bombing London, as well as a very moving poem about death.
One thing that would very much have helped would have been a cast of characters.  Although the characters are interesting and individual, there are a lot of them and one can find oneself confused as to who is whom, and the role they play. There were also some small historical inaccuracies, but nothing so significant so as to lessen one’s enjoyment.
 “Mr. Churchill’s Secretary” is full of surprises with intrigue, action, history; all of which is very well done.

MR. CHURCHILL’S SECRETARY (Ama Sleuth/Molly –London-WWII/1940) – G+
      MacNeal, Susan Elia – 1st in series
      William Morrow – March 2015

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Echoes in Death by J.D. Robb

First Sentence:  Was she dead?
Homicide Lieutenant Eve Dallas and her wealthy husband, Roark, are on their way home from a formal event, and a naked, bloody, dazed woman steps out in front of their car.  Although they are able to get her to the hospital in time, they find her husband, Dr. Anthony Strazza, murdered in their bedroom, his safes opened and the house ransacked.  Unfortunately, this is only one such incident.  Eve and her team race to find the man Daphne Strazza describes as ‘the devil.’
With overtones of Hamlet and philosophical question, we are inexorably drawn into this, the 44th book of the Eve Dallas series.  What is particularly remarkable is that in Eve time, the series has only progressed 3 years.  What homicide team wouldn’t love a clear rate of approximately 14-15 cases per year?
It is Robb’s skill that can take one from the victim of an exceedingly violent crime to a description of a sumptuous dinner.  Part of what makes Eve such an appealing character—aside from her husband—are her powers of observation and her lack of pretension.  How nice it is to have a character for whom the trappings of wealth are not only unimportant but can sometimes be an annoyance.
Robb is notable for her dialogue, which is extensive and very natural.  She doesn’t depend on the narrative to move the plot forward.  But when she does narrative, she does it well—“Eve found a street slot--small miracle—and decided it was worth a two and a half block hike in the snow.  She imagined some cheery optimist would call the wind bracing.  She hated cheery optimists.”  In fact, her books read more as screenplays with wry humor, and solid plots where the pieces are laid out one-by-one until the pattern emerges.
The character of Eve is so meticulously maintained one understands her focus on her job which justifies her lack of knowledge about popular culture, or that the Phantom in “Phantom of the Opera” being an actual person rather than an apparition.  Robb skillfully relates this case to the childhood experiences of both Eve and Roark, further explaining their personalities.
Robb knows just how and when to heighten the suspense and sense of dread, as well as providing a brow-raising twist.
Echoes in Death” may be set in the future with technology and references that can amuse, but it also points out the timelessness of people’s emotions and actions.  In the end, it is a very good read.   

ECHOES IN DEATH (Fut/Pol Proc-Lt. Eve Dallas/NYC-2061) – VG
      Robb, J.D. – 44th in series
      St. Martin’s Press – February 2017

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Racing the Devil by Charles Todd

First Sentence:  It was a way of daring Fate.
 Inspector Rutledge receives a call sending him to a village in Sussex where the local rector apparently lost control of the motor car he was driving and was killed.  There are more questions raised than answers found:  the rector wasn’t driving his car, nor had he asked the owner’s permission, and his death wasn’t a result of the accident itself.  The further Rutledge digs, the more he believes the rector’s death was a case of mistaken identity.  So who was supposed to die, and why?
The ability of Todd to place one immediately within a scene is such an admirable skill.  Beyond that, the very effectively conveys the effects of war on those who served—“There are those who came home to forget, hoping to outrun the past.  I’ve seen them, drinking too much, dancing all night, brittle, seeking oblivion.  The rest of us haven’t found our place yet.  It isn’t a world we recognize, and we don’t feel we’re a part of it.” 
Todd excels at providing small details of both events and characters without those details being overdone or intrusive.  Once gets to know even the minor characters of ever social strata and each is so distinct, that there’s never a sense of needing a cast of characters to prevent one from being confused.   There is a lovely connection between Rutledge’s friend Melinda Crawford and Bess Crawford of Todd’s other series.  Melinda is also a delightful character and provides a bit of lightness to the story. It’s nice to have a character who knows Rutledge personally and refers to him by his first name—“Do sit down, Ian.  It’s not your fault that you inherited your father’s height, but I’m getting a pain in my neck looking up at you.”
For those who follow the series, the voice of Hamish, the soldier Rutledge had to shoot for cowardice, is still here, but Todd gives us well-done new characters as well.  He provides plenty of background details that add dimension and explanations to Rutledge’s actions, such as his transition from a bicycle, to trains, to finally owning his own motor car, although one does wonder at his always being able to find petrol so easily. 
Racing the Devil” has a very effective escalation of suspense, and well-done plot twists with the case being solved by sheer dogged pursuit and a bit of luck.

 RACING THE DEVIL (Hist Mys-Insp. Ian Rudgledge-England-1920) – VG+
      Todd, Charles – 19th in series
      William Morrow – February 2017

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Death of Kings by Rennie Airth

First Sentence:  When she heard the stair creak beneath her foot, Portia stopped and stood frozen.

In 1938, at the estate of Sir Jack Jessup, a friend of the Prince of Wales, an actress is murdered.  An ex-convict is arrested, confesses, and is hanged.  But was he really the killer?  In 1949, the reappearance of a necklace raises questions.  Although the police aren’t interested in re-opening the case, former CI Angus Sinclair persuades his former Inspector, John Madden to pursue the investigation.
Although it’s been four years since Airth’s last book, he certainly hasn’t lost his touch.  He also does an admirable job of catching readers, new and old, up with the characters, particularly of Madden and his family, and of the post-war period—“No matter how many times he visited Rotterdam…the sight of the devastation wrought by the German bombers in 1940 never ceased to impress…”  A significant change brought about by the war was the introduction of the National Health Service.
Airth transports one to England by his descriptions of people and his dialogue.  It is nice to have a protagonist with a solid family life—“Recently [his wife] had taken to wearing spectacles for reading and it was a source of wonder to Madden to see how a pair of simple horn-rimmed glasses perched on the end of her nose somehow added a new dimension to a face that had never ceased to hold him in thrall.”
There are excellent revelations and twists through the story, but so well and subtly done as not to feel at all contrived.  An interesting shift, the explanation of an expression, and an evocative description all move the story forward nicely.
One can very much appreciate that all the police work well together.  It is particularly gratifying that Lily, the female police officer who is a fairly new addition to the force, is treated with respect.  That said, all the characters are fully developed and interesting.

When Airth does suspense, he does it well.  The pace picks up significantly in the last third of the book when situations become dangerous and dramatic with red herrings nicely done.  The reader is inclined to realize the guilty party just as Madden does.

The Death of Kings” is a very good police procedural from a very good author.

THE DEATH OF KINGS: A John Madden Mystery (Pol Proc-John Madden-England-1949) – VG+
      Airth, Rennie – 5th in series
      Viking – 2017

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Last Mile by David Baldacci

First Sentence:  Mars, Melvin.
Malvin Mars receives a last-minute reprieve from judicial execution.  Someone else confessed to the crime.  But why now?  That’s what FBI special task force member Amos Decker wants to know, especially when he realized Mars’ case is similar to his own was.  When one of Decker’s team disappears, and the FBI tries to kill the investigation, becomes even more determined to find the answers in spite of the danger Decker.
Baldacci creates a powerful sense of place through his descriptions.  Although one rather expects the initial twist, it is still very effective when it comes.
It is nice to have a story that is logically and meticulously plotted, but you felt as though you could see his index cards on his wall.  He did create a good cast of characters.      
Plot twists can be very effective unless they are overused as they were here.  The whole thing felt over-the-top, and I shan’t even talk about chapter-ending cliffhangers.  Can an author not just tell a good story without needing “read-my-book” tricks? It's unfortunate as the first book in this series was so much better.
The Last Mile” does keep you reading and has a very satisfactory ending.  In spite of its many flaws, it is a decent read-it-and-leave-it airplane book.

THE LAST MILE (Pol Proc-Amos Decker-US-1949) - Okay
      Baldacci, David – 2nd in series
      Grand Central Publishing – 2016

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Bryant & May: Strange Tide by Christopher Fowler

First Sentence:  Nothing gave Arthur Bryant greater satisfaction than making his first blotch on a fresh white page.
The body of a woman chained to a stone and left to drown by the Thames isn’t that unusual a crime.  But finding only one set of footprints which lead one direction does make it more unusual.  As more bodies are found, and Arthur Bryant’s mind becomes less stable leaving the team floundering, could this be the end of the Peculiar Crimes Unit? 
Not every contemporary mystery opens with Celtic Queen Boddica sitting on a wall eating a candy bar.  But then, this is Christopher Fowler who has taught readers to expect the unexpected.  His use of a staff memo to the PUC is a wonderful way to introduce readers to both the characters and their functions.
Switching gears to two men trying to escape Libya for England is a perfect example of Fowler’s ability to change from humor to the horror often experienced by refugees.  It is both terrible and compelling—“Many of the passengers had already been made frail by hunger and thirst, and the sea began to swallow them.  They slipped silently beneath the surface like players forfeiting a game.”  We are also given a lesson in how quickly and easily identity theft can take place. 
The history lessons one receives are fascinating and add to the story’s strong sense of place.  There are excellent observations on the wastefulness of Westerners where time and money are concerned.  But it’s the detailed information of London and the Thames that add to the delightful experience of the reader.
Fowler’s voice is such a delight to read—“Longbright and May seated themselves in the cavernous living room opposite Cooper, keeping a distant cordiality, a double act they had finessed over the years until it reached the level of a top-notch production of Waiting for Godot.”  He also really knows how to construct a plot.  One can never predict where he is going to take one next.
Counting this, over the past three books, Bryant’s physical and mental health have been a major plot point—“Bryant released himself back into the vibrancy of the city with relief, for he had come to understand that in the midst of winter there was within him an invincible summer.”  The realization of its cause is brilliant and a bit embarrassing once one realizes the clues have been there all along.
The book is not all cerebral, however.  It is filled with excellent plot twists, a very exciting chase scene, and lots of suspects of various crimes.
Bryant and May: Strange Tide” does not disappoint.  It has an excellent building of danger and suspense, a wonderful ending, and some of the best characters written today.

BRYANT and MAY: STRANGE TIDE (Pol Proc-Bryant/May-London-Contemp) – Ex
      Fowler, Christopher – 13th in series
      Bantum – Dec 2016

Monday, February 20, 2017

Hidden Graves by Jack Fredrickson

First Sentence:  Three minutes and twenty-three seconds before the skeleton came at him with an axe, the candidate for US Senate stood grim, trim and confident behind a mahogany lectern set on the freshly hacked weeks of an abandoned farm.
After the US Senate candidate publically embarrasses himself, he goes into complete hiding.  An anonymous, heavily disguised woman hires Dek to travel to three Western States looking for men who don’t seem to exist.  And someone is trying very hard to frame him for murder, or make him a victim himself.  Can Dek put the pieces together?
Starting out with a good hook is important, and boy; does this have a good hook! It also has Fredrickson’s voice and wry humor—“‘What’s the matter with your right hand?’ she asked.  ‘I pulled it out to show her the patchwork of Band-aids. ‘It got damaged.’ ‘Your Band-Aids have cartoon characters on them.’ There was nothing wrong with her eyesight.”—and his use of description—“Outside, the setting sun was beginning to gild the waves in the ocean.”
Dek is an interesting, well-drawn character about whose past history we learn as we go.  That he is surrounded by a unique assortment of supporting characters gives him dimension and balance to the drama; occasionally too much so.  Dek’s relationship with his ex-wife Amanda is an interesting one and one that changes/develops with each book.
Fredrickson’s imagery is very well done—“Curbside girls were wobbling home, a few bucks richer, a few hundred years older.”  However, one must, once again, criticize the overuse of chapter-end cliffhangers and portents which are so unnecessary that they become annoying for their predictable presence—“I told her that would be just about right, because at the time I believed it.”  Dropping the second half of that sentence would have been more suspenseful, and more effective.  This is true of every incident. 
Hidden Graves” is a very enjoyable read with an excellent twist.  It’s another good addition to a well-done series.

HIDDEN GRAVES (PI-Dek Elstrom-Illinois-Contemp) – G+
      Fredrickson, Jack – 6th in series
      Severn House – Feb 2017