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

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Close Your Eyes by Michael Robotham

First Sentence:  My mother died with her head in another man’s lap.

Psychologist Joseph O’Loughlin swore he would no longer work with the police, and is pleased to have been asked to spend the summer with his wife and daughters, from whom he is it separated but still loves.  A call from DCS Veronica (Ronnie) Cray changes the first part of those plans with a request for him to look at the crime scene where a mother and daughter were murdered.  Learning that another psychologist, who Joe knew slightly, is claiming to have learnt “everything he knows” from Joe, piques his interest and draws him into a life-changing series of events.

It’s an opening which certainly captures our attention, both the event and evocativeness of the writing—“It was a though she had taken hold of a loose thread and the further she drove away from me the more the thread unraveled like a cheap sweater….”.  It’s a hard balance, having the voice of the killer run through the book, creating suspense, drawing us closer to understanding the motive, and yet not exposing the killer’s identity or being too intrusive to the principle thread of the story.  It’s a device which has become commonly used; perhaps too much so, but it does work here.

Even down to his name, Joe is a character with whom one can identify; he has Parkinson’s, is separated from a wife and two daughters he loves, and hopes for reconciliation.  He takes pride in what he does, takes offense when someone uses his name to promote their own agenda, and has a determination to uncover the truth—“You’re not going to stop, are you?”  “I don’t’ know how.” Even beyond his family, the two main characters supporting him, DCS Cray, and Vincent Ruiz, a former cop who once arrested Joe and then became his friend, are strong, interesting characters.  Milo, who capitalized on Joe’s name and reputation, exemplifies today’s world of pop “experts” who are more interested in fame and money, giving the public easy and quick answers to complicated problems and issues.  
This is an author who makes one think—“And yet…yet…we are the sum total of our experiences.  We are who we are because of what happened…”  His analogies are always on target--“Death is supposed to be the final act, yet so much is left unfinished when someone dies suddenly or unexpectedly.  It’s as though they’ve walked offstage in the middle of the performance, hoping to come back later to explain the plot and tie up any loose ends."  His observations about people are fascinating and make one realize how much we must give away about ourselves without even realizing it.

The plot has a very good balance of the investigation, of which the procedural aspects are realistic, and Joe’s personal life.  The twists are well done, as is the escalation of suspense and sense of danger.  There are a plethora of suspects.  Even Joe feels overwhelmed at one point—“There are too many names, too many possibilities.”  Yet, he defies you to identify the killer.

Close Your Eyes” has excellent suspense, danger which builds frighteningly, and a conclusion that causes one to question where Robotham is going from here, but you definitely want to know the answer.

CLOSE YOUR EYES (Psy Susp-Joe O’Laughlin-England-Cont) – VG+
Michael Robotham – 8th in series
Mulholland Books, April 2016

Sunday, June 5, 2016

By My Hand by Maurizio de Giovanni

First Sentence:  The murderous hands work unhurriedly in the dim light.
Christmas is coming to Naples, a city now under a fascist regime and where people live in tremendous poverty in contrast to the luxurious apartment in which the bodies of a militia officer and his wife have been found.  While searching out the killer, or killers, Commisaario Ricciardi is concerned for his elderly former nurse and torn between two women, while Brigadier Maione is dealing with a crisis of his own.
One does not enter gently into this story.  Instead, one is nearly overwhelmed by the visual and narrative contrasts that attract and repel us.  However, the one thing one does not do is stop reading.
The two principal characters of Ricciardi and Maione are such wonderful contrasts to one another, yet they balance each other perfectly.  Maione provides a bit of light, whereas Ricciardi believes himself to be the dark due to his ability? curse? gift? of the Deed, which causes him to see the final seconds of those who’ve died by violence.  What’s nice is that these final seconds don’t help Ricciardi solve the crimes, as the words only make sense in the end. 
Supporting them is the always delightful Dr. Moto and his newly adopted dog; Bambinelle, Maione’s informant; Rosa, who has been with Ricciardi since his childhood; and Erica, the object of unrequited (so far) love on both parts.  It is the balance between being a police procedural, and being a book about people and their relationships, that help make this book so compelling.
The thoughts of the killer are chilling.  While this is a device that can be intrusive, it works here and provides a frightening look at the dichotomy of the killer’s mind.  In complete contrast Livia, the wealthy widow in love with Ricciardi, provide us a sense of place and a view of the people of Naples, “Waking up to the calls of the strolling vendors, the noise rising from the streets, the songs.  And the smells, the thousands of pots bubbling busily away, the thousands of frying pans sizzling, the pastry shops competing to present their masterpieces.  Everyone had dreamed up a calling, a profession; every one of them was trying to eke out a living.” 
There are two principal grounding elements to the story; the crashing of the waves representing conflict, and Christmas with all the emotions surrounding it, which provides wonderful segues to increasingly more serious aspects of the story—“Christmas is an emotion.  It’s a strong as a pounding heart, as light as a fluttering eyelash.  But it can be swept away by a gust of wind and never come at all.”  de Giovanni does a wonderful job of linking traditions of the present to those of the distant past, and of teaching us that about which we may not have known, such as the symbolism of, and meaning behind each figural element of the nativity.  
And, of course, being set in Italy, there is food—“boiling posts of the maccaronari, or macaroni vendors, and the posts of oil for the fried-pizza man, who also fried piping-hot panzarotti turnovers and potato croquettes…”  Yet, there is also a wonderful definition of faith—“Our faith wasn’t made to erect barriers, walls, or iron bars between us and love; it was made to increase the presence of love in our lives, so that we can give of ourselves and live in a state of communion…”
By My Hand” is a more serious book than its predecessors as it relates to the politics of the time: one senses the changes and coming threat with each book.  It is also a very good murder mystery/police procedural.  However, at its heart it is a book about people and relationships, and motives.  The motive here is a sad one, yet the resolutions of the conflicts related to the principle characters will warm your heart, and make you anxious to read the next book.  

BY MY HAND (Hist Mys-Comm. Ricciardi/Brig. Maione-Naples-1931) – VG+
      De Giovanni, Maurizio – 5th in series
      Europa Editions, Aug 2014 

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Final Bet by Abdelilah Hamdouchi

First Sentence:  Among the dozens of restaurants spread out on the Ain Diab coast, Sofia’s was the only one with an air of simple elegance, as if it reflected the personality of its namesake.
Othman, a handsome Moroccan man in his 20s, returns from walking the dog and meeting with the woman he loves, to find his 73-year-old-wife brutally stabbed, but not quite dead.  Without thinking, he removes the knife from her stomach, leaving his fingerprints and making him the prime suspect.  Times have changed since the brutal 70’s and 80’s in Morocco, resulting in Detective Alwaar having to question witnesses without torturing them, but bullying and pushing are occasionally used.  Only when Othman contacts a former classmate, now attorney, Hulumi, does he have a chance.
Morocco is a country about which most of us know very little, and most of what we do know is probably wrong.  It is wonderful, therefore, to have Hamdouchi—one of the first writers of Arabic-language detective fiction—introduce us to his home.  Still, one wishes for a much stronger, more evocative sense of place. 
Stronger character development would also have been appreciated.  One finds oneself wanting to know much more about the detective, Alwaar, and his referenced but never met wife.  Othman and Naema grew as characters through the story leaving us with a nice questioning of their innocence.  However, it is with the introduction of Hulumi the attorney, where the story really takes off and becomes a real investigative mystery.  His character is also the one who teaches us about Moroccan law and how it needed to change, which was fascinating-- "I want to investigate this case like a cop," continued Hulumi. "If I can prove Othman's innocent, I'll have enough evidence to show the law has to be changed so a lawyer can be present when the judicial police question a suspect. I can do that by writing a series of articles about this in the press. Democracy in Morocco has to begin from the police stations.” 
In contrast, Alwaar is a cop of the past who is finding it hard to deal with the changes in investigation—“His work became confusing; it was hard for him to get confessions without slapping or kicking a suspect, or sending him down to the torture room in the basement of the police station before interrogation. Alwaar didn't know how to do his job without brutality. He just couldn't get used to sitting in front of a suspect without being aggressive or insulting.”
The translation is a bit clunky at times, and the final confession too staged, but those were relative small issues. 
The Final Bet” is quite a good procedural and an engrossing read, partly due to its Moroccan setting.  It is also one of those books were the afterword, written by the translator Jonathan Smolin, should not be overlooked.
 THE FINAL BET (Myst-Othman-Morocco-Contemp) – G+
      Hamdouchi, Abdelilah – 1st book
      The American University in Cairo Press – May 2008

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Disturbing the Dark by Wendy Hornsby

First Sentence:  For the fourth night in a row, Élodie watched Allied bombers stitch through the clouds, far out above the Channel as they headed home to their bases in England after blasting targets in Germany.
Film journalist Maggie MacGowen has returned to her relatives, particularly her grandmother’s, home in France with her long-time film partner, Guido, to film the four agricultural seasons of the family’s farm.  An unearthed skull takes them down an unexpected path of German Occupation, the survivors of a Nazi soldier, and Nazi war memorabilia.  Events from the past become overshadowed by a present-day murder, and Maggie must also worry about getting Guido out of jail.
One cannot set a book in France and without mouthwatering descriptions of food and meals.  How wonderful to enjoy a lunch such as this—“Large platters of chilled rice and seafood salad, roast chicken with green beans and fried potatoes and of course baskets of bread, were placed on the table, along with carafes of water, cold apple cider and red vin ordinaire.”  These descriptions are not just there for their appeal, but because they represent the life of Maggie’s family who are farmers, makers of cheese, and Calvados, the local apple brandy. 
The property of Maggie's family is as integral to the story as are the characters.  Hornsby provides a concise, yet well-done explanation of Maggie’s family and past.  This allows new readers, in particular, to understand the interrelationships. 
Told in first person by Maggie, you have a sense of her film-maker’s sensibility in viewing the other characters, but not at all making you feel separate from them.  One can’t help loving her grandmother Élodie, as well as the other two grand-mères: just don’t mistake them for soft, gentle souls.  These are women of strength and courage who have survived. 

The characters can become a bit confusing at times, so it is lovely that Hornsby included a list of the extended family members at the beginning.  Maggie’s lover, Jean-Paul is not only well-connected, but resourceful, thanks to his professional connections—“When did you find that out?” I wanted to know.  “During mass,” Jean-Paul said.  “A text came through during the Our Father.  I bowed my head and sneaked a look.”  And who doesn’t appreciate a good literary reference--"It's Miss Havisham's dining room," I said.  "All we need is the wedding cake."  "someone you know, dear?"  "From Dickens.  Great Expectations."  "Whoever she was," Antoine said..."If her dining room reminds you of this place, she needed a housekeeper..."  
Hornsby not only captures the power and speed by which news travels via the internet, but also the resulting ramifications about which we never stop to consider.
As difficult as it is, Hornsby presents a painful look at the “truth” taught to the child of an enemy from the war.  It is something we almost never consider, because of our own views of that time.  Yet it does bear considering. 
Disturbing the Dark” is very much a character-driven story about people with whom you become involved and care.  It’s a story of the sins of the past, and the ambitions of the present, and causes you to stop and consider both.

DISTURBING THE DARK (Trad Mys-Maggie MacGowen-France-Contemp) – Good
      Hornsby, Wendy – 10th in series
      Perseverance Press, 2016