Thursday, December 31, 2015

Robert B. Parker's Lullaby by Ace Atkins

First Sentence:  I spotted the girl even before she knocked on my door.
Tough, street-wise Mattie Sullivan hires Spenser to find her mother’s killer.  Even though a man was convicted, Mattie doesn’t believe he’s the killer.  Agreeing on a fee of doughnuts, literally, Spenser is intrigued enough to look into it.  When the trail leads to old advisories, drugs, and the FBI, Spenser, with the help of Hawk, know they need to keep Mattie safe and to find the answers.
Atkins does a very good job of capturing Parker.  All the elements that should be there; are there.  In addition to the standard cast of characters—it is nice that Atkins as made Susan rather more likable—Spenser’s client makes a definite impression as she’s a girl who’s had to grow up way too fast and is handling it.  An entire discussion could be held about Mattie in terms of our view of children growing up today, as opposed to how they grew up in the past and their different levels of responsibility.
One can also count on Spenser to trigger your hunger response—“I had envisioned a filet, medium rare, with creamed spinach and mashed potatoes.”  He is also the single greatest representative for the Boston Tourist Board possible.  You are in the city with him; everyplace from the roughest neighborhoods, to the best.  But it’s his inclusion of dining spots that is particularly fun; Locke-Ober, Legal Seafood and, a particularly favorite, Union Oyster House; the oldest restaurant in Boston—“A big steaming bowl of clam chowder arrived with a thick wedge of cornbread.  The heavens opened up.  The angels reappeared.”—down to Dunkin’ Donuts.
Another retained element is Spenser’s sartorial descriptions—“Vinnie wore a navy cashmere topcoat with a glen plain suit underneath.  His dress shirt was a blue-and-white stripe, and his tie a light purple.”  Rather than interrupt the flow of the story, or simply seem to be fill, these descriptions serve to tell one a bit about the personality of the character:  clothes make the man.
      A nice segue in the story is a comparison of Mattie and two other troubled people Spenser helped in the past; Paul and Z.  New readers won’t feel lost by these references as sufficient backstory is provided.  However, this reference does help to cement Spenser’s image as a knight errant.  But he’s no Don Quiote with Sancho Panza, in the form of Hawk, by his side.   Spenser’s advisories are very real, and very dangerous.  But so can be Spenser, Hawks, and their colleagues. As we move into the recognition that it is territory and drugs that are behind things—“Territory,” she said.  “How are men different than dogs.”—and when things turn bad, the tension is palpable and there’s no putting the book down.
Robert B. Parker’s Lullaby” is very, very good.  It’s not an homage or an imitation in any form.  Atkins truly captures that which made Parker’s books so successful.  

ROBERT B. PARKER’S LULLABY (PI-Spenser-Boston-Contemp) – VG+
Atkins, Ace – 1st in Parker series
G.P. Putnam’s Sons – May 2012

Monday, December 14, 2015

Bryant & May and the Burning Man by Christopher Fowler

First Sentence: “Before I start, can I ask you to look around at this beautiful building?”

It’s the week before Guy Fawkes, and London’s banks are under siege. Although started by the scandal of a corrupt financier, the violence is growing and now includes murder by fire. But the death doesn’t look accidental to the Bryant and May of the PUC, especially not when a second fire also kills.

NOTE: If you read an e-version, please ensure you start with “Excerpt from a Speech…” rather than just at Chapter 1.

Fowler is one author from whom I look forward to reading his prologues as they are always a treat. In this case, with the “Excerpt from a Speech,” we learn a great deal about the history of London and the PUC, and a wonderful internal memo from Raymond Land, who actually think he runs the PUC.

The ensemble cast of characters, led by Arthur Bryant and John May, is one of the most unusual and intriguing one will find. Although we meet them in short order from the beginning, Fowler doesn’t weigh the reader down with background information all at once. Rather, we come to know the characters throughout the story. The interplay amongst them, as well as their physical descriptions, makes them very alive and real to us, causing the reader to truly care about what happens to each of them, including the more secondary characters. 

Dialogue makes such a difference, and Fowler knows how to write dialogue—“Even after all these years, your every action remains a mystery to me….And why you had to follow him into a theatre of all places—“ “He was a junkie doing some speed-acquisition of tourists’ wallets, John. I took one look at him and knew he would test positive for stupidity.” And later—“Look at the state of you…” “Do you always boil a saucepan of sprouts for at least two hours?” Bryant asked. “What?” said May, thrown. “No.” “Good, then you’re not my mother.”

At the same time, there are many passages that cause one to stop and consider—“In every decade and generation,…one thing united us: obstinacy. We’re a paradoxical mix of conformity and rebellion, privacy and bravado. We will not do as we are told. That’s how it always was.”

The historic details and information are fascinating and add wonderful depth to the story. One can’t help but respect an author who doesn’t write down to their readers. Rather, there are times when one finds oneself in search of a dictionary; and that’s a nice thing.

There are so many facets to this book: the history of Guy Fawkes, protests by “anonymous” against the 1 percent, a theory about Rembrandt’s painting “The Night Watch,” Jack the Ripper and the importance of honoring the victims, and so much more. Yet it all ties together with the base of a very human story.

Bryant & May and The Burning Man” includes excellent building of suspense, a dramatic climax, and well-executed twists right up to the resolution. In the end, though, it is a story of people, our present society, and relationships.

Fowler, Christopher – 12th in series
Bantam - December 2015

Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Thames River Murders by Ashley Gardner

First Sentence: The letter, neatly folded at my plate, looked innocuous enough, but I had a sense of disquiet about it.

Someone is threatening Captain Gabriel Lacey by claiming he’s not who he says. When that threat includes an attempt to harm Lacey’s wife’s son, Lacey takes It very seriously. Yet he also has the matter of a decade-dead woman to identify, and a killer to find, and his daughter, Gabriella, who is coming out.

One can greatly appreciate the use of Ms. Gardner’s expressions appropriate to the social class of the period to describe Lacey’s wife—“Donata had been quite a diamond of the first water in her Season.” However, it is interesting to learn of the laws of the period and the control men had over their wives. While women of wealth and position could act and go out independent of their husbands, where women of lower classes could not, for them all, unless a woman inherited directly from her father, it was men who controlled the money, property and the lives of their children. Even further, in this particular book, Gardner addresses the laws with regard to Jews in England at the time.

Followers of the series will be pleased to see how the relationship between Lacey, his wife, daughter and stepson is progressing. However, new readers will not feel the lack of their history and will quickly understand just how unusual is their relationship, even for the time. However, this is by no means a book where the marital relationship overwhelms the story. Far from it.

In many ways, the most intriguing relationships are between Lacey; James Dennis a dangerous and powerful criminal; Brewster, the man charged by Denis to keep track of Lacey; and Lacey’s friend Lord Granville, a man of extreme wealth and position whose friendship with Granville helps stave off his own boredom.

Lacey is a former front-line soldier and is not without his flaws, the worst being his temper and penchant to hurl himself into potentially dangerous situations—“Captain, you could find trouble inside St. James’s Palace.” But it’s Lacey’s empathy for others, and his determination for justice that makes him a compelling and dimensional character; one who would attract such diverse range of associates.

That the victim and her family are Jewish introduces a new and interesting element. The wonderful scene of Lacey visiting a synagogue leads to a particularly poignant observation—“Any man I’d met of the Hebrew religion had been no different than I was, I’d observed—in fact, many came from circumstances far better than mine, and blended into London life more seamlessly than I did. True, I was able to vote for stand for Parliament…but how did that make me a superior man?” Shades of Shylock from “The Merchant of Venice.”

The Thames River Murders” is an excellent read, filled with twists, suspense, action, balanced by a touch of relationships and two threads which peak our curiosity of the next book.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Theft of Life by Imogen Robertson

First Sentence:  The body was staked out in the north-east corner of the churchyard.
The murder of a former West Indies planter causes suspicion to fall on a runaway slave now working as a bookseller in London.  It also has an emotional impact on Harriet Westerman’s senior footman, William Geddings.  As Harriet and her friend, anatomist Gabriel Crowther, become more involved in the murder, they become more aware of how much of Britain’s wealth is built on the shameful trade of human lives.
It is an excellent touch that the book opens from the perspective of a character rarely the focus of historical mysteries.  We also know we are in for a story that is difference, and possibly uncomfortable as Robertson gives us a perspective and insight into the English involvement in the slave trade.
The quality of an author’s dialogue makes such a difference to a story.  Robertson writes excellent dialogue with enough sense of the period to make it realistic.  But it also tells us a lot about the characters. …”You were doing better when you were praising my talents, Crowther, rather than taking the chance to insult my husband and my intelligence.  I told you, as a friend, what William said about my husband.  Please do not use it to try and play on me like a cheap fiddle!”  The repartee between Harriet and Crowther is always a delight.
As for characters, they are fully-developed and very memorable.  Harriet and Crowther come to life and each holds their own.  Theirs is a relationship of friendship and respect.  Jane Austin would definitely have approved, although she might have been a bit intimidated by Harriet.  She is very much in the style of Mrs. Croft from “Persuasion,” which Crowther has slight shades of Colonel Brandon, as played by Alan Rickman, from “Sense and Sensibility.”  One knows characters, and a series, truly speak to readers when one imagines who would be cast in their roles.  There is also a very good introduction to those who surround Harriet and how they all fit together.
Robertson has a wonderful voice and ability to convey emotions.  Through them you not only get to know the character, but you feel the pique of Harriet, the sorrow of a young boy, and the apprehension of a free black man.  You truly feel what the characters feel.  Yet Robertson also paints visual descriptions…”The hedgerows were thick with the stars of Queen Anne’s Lace, and the hawthorn bushes heavy with blossom—and the quiet cut through him.”
Theft of Life” is wonderful in so many aspects; not the least of which is an excellent mystery with well-done twists and a suspenseful climax.  It is a remarkable book and one which should be read.

THEFT OF LIFE (Hist mys-Harriet Westerman/Gabriel Crother-England-1785/Georgian) – Ex
Robertson, Imogen – 5th in series
Headline – 2014

Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Zig-Zag Girl by Elly Griffiths

First Sentence: “Looks as if someone’s sliced her into three,” said Solomon Carter, the police surgeon, chattily.

Two thirds of a female body have been found; the head and the legs. Having been a member of “The Magic Men,” a Secret Service team of which he had been part during WWII, leads Edgar to reconnect with fellow member, Max Mephisto, especially after the shocking identify of the victim has been learned. A letter delivered to Edgar with the name of another magic trick, and another death, focuses him, with Max’s help, to find the rest of their old team…and the killer.

It is always interesting to learn the “how” behind magic tricks. And to consider the existence of a team of magicians, each with their own special skill, is particularly intriguing. In addition to Edgar, Griffith’s employs an effective segue to the past, informing us of the significant player, their skills and how they fit together. It is interesting that she chooses to insert this later in the story, but no less effective for so doing. 

Griffiths has truly captured the feeling of stagecraft and the world behind the theater curtain. Although it is universal of all cultures, books set in the UK seem often to utilize the theme of a suspicion of forgiveness and hope of the perpetrator of violent crime being a foreigner. This is quite understandable being this soon after the War, but it need also be remembered that this was a time when people doubted television would ever succeed, thus limiting the exposure to those beyond their shores.

On the other hand, the Brits seem to have an ongoing regard for the old beliefs, including an acceptance of ghosts.”Naturally, the police station had its resident ghosts. The site was once a medieval monastery…and it was said that sometimes a monk could be seen moving casually through the thick stone walls of the basement.” But fear not, although this is anything but a paranormal mystery. Such injections do add to the sense of theatrically.

One can appreciate Griffith’s wry humour—“Max had a sudden vision of the Titanic tilting into the sea while the orchestra (hopefully in better tune than this one) played on.”—and her very visual descriptions—“He strolled through the picnicking families like Moses crossing the Red Sea. Moses in Italian shoes.”
The Zig Zag Girl” very effectively and steadily builds the suspense and tension, throwing in an excellent twist, with another twist upon that, and another upon that. Well done, Ms. Griffiths on a very good start to a new series.

THE ZIG-ZAG GIRL (Pol Proc-Det. Edgar Stephens- England – early 1950s) – VG
Griffiths, Elly – 1st in series 
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt - Sept 2015