Tuesday, November 22, 2022

The Killing Hills by Chris Offutt

First Sentence:  The old man walked the hill with a long stick, pushing aside mayapple and horseweed, seeking ginseng.

Combat veteran Mick Hardin is now with the Army Criminal Investigation, Division.  Currently home on leave, he needs to resolve issues with his pregnant wife, but his leave time is running out. His sister, Linda, is the newly appointed sheriff the town’s Mayor wants to be fired.  With a murder case on Linda’s hands, and an inexperienced deputy, she turns to Mick for help.

There’s nothing better than discovering an author one has not read previously and immediately get drawn in by the author’s voice and the characters.  Offutt starts off with a chapter of wonderful description and ends with an eyebrow-raising revelation.  Along the way, Hardin uses wonderful imagery—“The vulnerable always died early.  Death begat death…”

Each character is strong and important to the story.  One appreciates Hardin’s approach of ---“I don’t want nobody else to get killed, …I had enough of it overseas.  If I can stop it, I will.” Mick isn’t a character who goes in hard unless it’s warranted.  His scene with Mullin’s mule and the front porch is delightful.  Whereas the interaction between Mick and his wife, and his subsequent action, is raw, yet Hardin truly captures Mick’s emotions. 

Mick’s sister, Linda, holds her own in the story—“There never was a body in Eldridge County that most folks didn’t already know who did it.  Usually a neighbor, a family, or drugs. … This is different.” Deputy Johnny Boy Tolliver, who gets car sick and believes ghosts exist but only in certain environments, is a particular favorite.

There is an underlying theme of family and love, even if that love is misguided.  Offutt shows that even though a family may not have much, the strength of that love can determine certain choices, and not always in a positive way. 

It can become a bit confusing keeping track of some of the characters who have both proper names and nicknames, yet Offutt fleshes out each character making them real people.

Some may not care for the way Offutt portrays the people of Kentucky, but it’s important to remember he is depicting one region, and not even all the people of that region.  While set in Appalachia, the book could have been set in almost any state with a concentration of people who live in the backcountry.  Still, the author ensures that the dignity of the people is reflected in their wisdom and philosophy on life.  Mick shares—“…one of his grandfather’s lessons.  Searching interfered with the ability to find. … At night don’t look for an animal trail, just walk where the trees aren’t.  See shapes and colors, not the thing itself.”  

THE KILLING HILLS is a book that is unexpected in the very best way.  The characters, dialogue, and descriptions are excellent. That’s not to say there isn’t violence; there is. Even so, Offutt is an author one may wish to follow.

THE KILLING HILLS (Noir-Mick Hardin-Rocksalt, Kentucky-Contemp)
Chris Offutt – 1st in series
Grove Press, June 15, 2001, 240 pp.


Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Do No Harm by Robert Pobi

First Sentence:  Dr. Jennifer Delmonico was approaching the second tower, which translated to somewhere around seventeen minutes at her usual pace.

Lucas Page is a polymath, astrophysicist, professor, husband, father, and ex-FBI agent.  During a gala with his wife Erin, a surgeon, a video is played memorializing all the doctors who died by suicide or falls in the past year. Page begins to see a pattern in the deaths and contacts the FBI. Page, and Special Agent Alice Whitaker, with whom he’s worked before, are joined by NYPD Detective Russo in finding a link between the deaths.

It’s not uncommon to have a protagonist with scars or injuries, but Page surpasses them all. He has a wealth of scars, a prosthetic arm and leg, and a glass eye.  But his brain is very much intact and always working. 

The book is, initially, very enjoyable. There is an interesting protagonist, although a lot of characters, excellent dialogue, humor, and the author conveyed emotion very well.  However, one becomes tired of hearing about Page’s injuries and prosthetics. 

Pobi’s descriptions are great until one becomes annoyed with his use of 15 words where six would have sufficed, and it takes these brilliant people two-thirds of the book to finally realize the motive the reader may have figured out a long time past.  At that point, one starts to look to see how far they’ve read, and how much is left.  That’s when it becomes obvious that the author desperately needs an editor.  The book should have been 332, not 432 pages long.  More is not always better.

An interesting anomaly is when, in talking about a plastic ghost gun made with a 3-D printer, the characters note that the plastic is an “Ender product and they sold somewhere around three hundred thousand pounds last year.”  Considering the book is set in New York City, and all the characters are American, one wonders how that crept in.  There is also a scene with a gunshot wound where the Page’s actions make no sense at all and even the most inexperienced person would have known what to do.

The writing is repetitive at times and needed a stronger proofreader. This would have helped the book overall. There are a couple very good twists and red herrings, which are appreciated.  However, although it is an amusing trope, cars don’t really catch fire and blow up that easily.  On the other hand, one might envy Whitacre’s driving ability, as long as she’s not driving your car. 

DO NO HARM is a quick read; it’s fast-paced, it’s violent, it’s funny, has interesting characters, and great descriptions—although sometimes they go on far too long.  Overall, it’s a pretty good read; more than an airplane read certainly, but it really did need tightening up. 

DO NO HARM (NoirThriller-Lucas Page- NYC-Contemp)
Robert Pobi – 3rd in series
Minotaur Books, Aug 2022, 432 pp.
Rating: G+/B+

Monday, November 7, 2022

Cold Moon by Alexandra Sokoloff

First Sentence:  The moon is high, spilling icy light through the pine branches.

Cara Lindstrom has been caught and is awaiting trial.  When the prosecution’s witness goes missing, the case falls apart and Cara is released.  Agent Matthew Roarke is a man who is seriously conflicted and is obsessed by Cara.  He knows her history and her motive; she saved his life.  But he can’t ignore the fact that she has killed, no matter the reason.  Now there are more deaths.  The style is that of Cara, but could be copycat killings committed by Jade, a young prostitute.

There is no getting around how powerful is this book, and extremely hard to rate.  Should one be appalled by Cara, Jade and their actions?  Or does one support the fact that “justice” almost always fails women, especially these women?

Cara is a strong, unique character.  She is clever, yet ruthless. The more one learns of her past, the more one empathizes with her. Yet, one has a hard time justifying her actions.  Having Cara’s cousin, Erin, in the story adds a more sympathetic aspect to Cara.

 It raises the question of whether some people simply commit bad acts or whether some are truly Evil—" Whether It was a separate, independent force or just a word for the evil that human beings do, Roarke didn't know. He only knew that evil was real. It was evil.” 

Sokoloff’s anger at the justice system—“Other countries prohibited the overseeing of female prisoners by male guards, but US laws put its incarcerated women in constant physical jeopardy in the name of equal opportunity employment.”-- and how badly young victims of sexual exploitation are ignored leaps off every page, and rightfully so.  She addresses the hard issues of prostitution and human trafficking, as well as the challenges FBI agents have trying to fight those crimes. She raises a very hard question of legality versus morality.

Roarke is critically important.  When asked what he wants from Cara, he responds “I want to understand her. … She believes in some…supernatural force.  A living evil.” He represents “the system,” but one with a conscience that is destroying him.  How does one blindly support the law when the law doesn’t support the weak? Sokoloff does a wonderful job portraying his internal conflict.

COLD MOON is the third book in this unusual, and unforgettable six-book series that does need to be read in order.  It’s not a casual read, but one that grips the reader.  Sokoloff is very good at creating tension, but one should be warned:  There is graphic violence.

(PolProc-Agent Matthew Roarke-California-Contemp)
by Alexandra Sokoloff – 3rd in series
Thomas & Mercer, Jul 2015, 388 pp.

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Fires of Edo by Susan Spann

First Sentence:  FIRE!

Samurai Hiro and the Portuguese priest, Father Mateo, who Hiro has been assigned to protect, have arrived in Edo to warn their fellow spies to return to Kyoto since their lives are in danger. A fire sends them to assist the fire brigade, headed by Daisuke, a fellow member of Iga Ryu who bullied Hiro when they were children.  This is the third recent fire, yet this one reveals the partially dismembered body of yet another samurai. A bookshop owner and his apprentice are arrested and may die unless Hiro and Father Mateo can save them, the guild, and even their own lives which are now at risk.

What a wonderful look at 16th Century Japan, its villages, and its technique for fighting fires.  But this was no gentle time.  Spann makes clear how harsh feudal life, and law, could be.

Hiro and Father Mateo Ávila de Santos, along with their delightful housekeeper Ana, and her cat Gato, are characters one enjoys spending time with, as well as they do with one another.  As usual, it is best to start this series at the beginning to understand the character development.  Part of the intrigue is in following their travels to the Portuguese colony at Yokoseura where Father Mateo can be kept safe until Japan names a new shogun, a matter fraught with danger and spies from rival sides.  Yet it is in their travels that they find themselves embroiled in murder and great danger.

One can’t set a book set in Japan without talking about the food—“Paper-thin slices of fresh sashimi rested on delicate, palm-sized dishes glazed the color of autumn leaves.  Nearby, a pair of whole grilled fish sat side by side on a rectangular, black-glazed plate.  Coils of pale, fragrant steam rose from the covered soup bowl and the heaping of rice on the far lacquered tray.  Beside the rice, two tiny plates of bite-sized tsukemono rounded out the meal.”

But it’s the mystery, and the characters involved that keep the pages turning.  You have Daisuke, commander of the fire brigade, and Hiro’s long-time adversary Hanzō, a famous ninja commander and leader of the Iga ryu, and Hiyoshi who is politically ambitious and wants to be the new head of the fire brigade. One wishes the Cast of Characters was at the beginning of the book, rather than the end. 

FIRES OF EDO is suspenseful, with plenty of twists and a very dramatic climax. It is educational as Spann includes actual historical figures.  It’s a quick, engrossing read and a very good addition to the series. 

HistMys/Hiro Hattori/Fr.Mateo-Japan-1566
by Susan Spann – 8th in series
Seventh Street Books, Feb 2022, 265 pp.

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Death on a Galician Shore by Domingo Villar

First Sentence:  Inspector Leo Caldas got out of a taxi and, stepping over the large puddles on the pavement, entered the hospital.

DI Leo Caldas is called out to a small fishing village to sign off on the supposed suicide of Justo Castelo, a local sailor.  But something doesn’t add up; a suicide doesn’t have bound wrists.  The more Caldas and Rafael Estevez, his second, investigate, the more complex the case becomes as a decade-old shipwreck and two disappearances add to the mystery. 

There is nothing better than reading a book set in a location unfamiliar to the reader.  It’s nice when we’re taken to a small community of hard-working people yet can see commonalities with people everywhere.

Caldas, and his second Estevez, are fascinating protagonists.  Caldas is observant, logical, and gets terribly carsick. He is local to the area and hosts a radio program where people air their complaints, almost none of which he can resolve—“After the seventh call, he tallied the score:  City police seven, Leo nil.” It’s nice having his father and grandfather as part of the story. Even the absent wife contributes to who Caldas is.  Estevez is not local, much rougher around the edges, and just doesn’t understand Caldas or the people of the area. He’s continually having to be kept in check by Caldas.

Estevez can be a little hard to take, but Caldas manages him well. Between Caldas always being asked if he is the one on the radio, and Estevez always being told he's not from around there, there's just enough mild humor to take the edge off.

The description of the food, simple food, may leave one hungry—“Soup from the fridge, made with slab bacon, beef broth, turnip tops, broad beans, and potatoes.” 
The excellent descriptions of the book's settings create a strong sense of place as Caldas gets to know the people in this fishing village.

The plot is well constructed with well-drawn characters.  The more Caldas digs, the more he finds that secrets from the past have determined the present.

DEATH ON A GALICIAN SHORE is a very well-done detective story. There’s no use of technology here, just basic police work.  One thing keeps building on the other with plenty of red herrings and a very good twist toward the end. This is an author worth reading.

(PolProc-DI Leo Caldas-No. Spain-Contemp
by Domingo Villar - 2nd in series
Abacus Reprint Edition, May 2012, 384 pp.

Sunday, October 2, 2022

Even the Darkest Night by Javier Carces

First Sentence:  Melchor is still in his office, simmering on the low flame of his own impatience waiting for the night shift to end, when the phone rings.

Melchor, convicted of working for a Colombian drug cartel, when to prison as a teenager.  While there, he read “Les Misérables,” and it changed his life. After his mother was murdered, he decided to become a cop. Now the murder of a wealthy local man and his wife will change his life again.

Was Cercas trying to write a philosophical, literary novel, or a police procedural?  If the former, the effect was pretentious and overblown.  If the latter, the story was filled with every cliché one could imagine and those, too, felt exaggerated and overused.    I am normally not one to skim a book, but I did this one.  

EVEN THE DARKEST NIGHT contains too much personal history, unnecessary descriptions of people and their environment, and overall exposition.  Peel that away and there are about 100 pages of a good story.  Sadly, I found myself not really caring.  However, for a really good police procedural/mystery set in Spain, I recommend “Water Blue Eyes” by Domingo Villar. 

EVEN THE DARKEST NIGHT (PolProd-Melchor-Terra Alta, Catalonia, Spain-Contemp)
Javier Cercas – 1st in series
Knopf, Jun 2022, 353 pages
Rating: Okay/C

The Botanist by M.W. Craven

First Sentence:  There were bastard trees and there were wait-awhile trees and there was a building that didn’t exist. 

Pathologist Estelle Boyle’s father has been fatally shot, twice in the head.  Traces of gunpowder are on Estelle's hands and her footprints are the only ones leading into the house where her father is found. Estelle is arrested, and all she will say is “Tell Washington Poe.” In the meantime, someone the press has named “The Botanist” is sending poems and pressed flowers to celebrities prior to their deaths. Despite the security measures taken to protect them, the killer succeeds in his goal. It’s up to Washington Poe and the Serious Crimes Unit to stop the killer, as well as prove Estelle’s innocence.  

The first four books by Craven were a complete treat, making anticipation high at the beginning of “The Botanist.”  The promise of a locked room mystery, and the hope that Craven was moving away from another serial killer plot, created the expectation of something new and exciting.  Instead, he took what could have been a clever, intriguing story, placed the most interesting character in jail, and went back to his formula.  Very disappointing.

Washington Poe, a supposedly brilliant detective, now comes off as arrogant, insolent, and a bit of a bore.  Tilly Bradshaw, a fascinating character and true genius, was mainly off-stage with her talents underutilized.  The solution to the locked-room puzzle was both over-the-top and obvious.  It was something Tilly should have been able to solve in minutes. 

Should one decide to proceed with the serial killer theme, the best ones create empathy for the victims and even sometimes the killer.  But here, the author fails. Even with the threat that unknown innocents may die, one instinctively knows it won’t happen, so any sense of real danger is lost. Sadly, the one scene which was, one supposes, intended to be clever, mimics a scene from “The Thomas Crown Affair.” 

When starting a new book, one hopes for something original, creative, and compelling, not a rehash of things done before, whether by the same author or someone else. Calling the opening a prologue or chapter one doesn’t matter.  It is still an unnecessary, irrelevant device and information one quickly forgets. 

THE BOTANIST might have been interesting were the reader a science/biology nerd.  Instead, it was at least 100 pages too long, with an Agatha Christie pronouncement that jumped between two time periods--are we not done with the device of time jumping?--and little tension.  Every author has an off-book.  This was Craven’s. Here’s hoping his next book is shorter, tighter, and something original.

THE BOTANIST (Susp-Poe/Tilly-UK-Contemp)
M.W. Craven – 5th book in series
Constable, 2022, 433 pages
Rating:  Poor/D

Her Child's Cry by S.A. Dunphry

First Sentence:  ‘Between 2015 and 2019 a total of one hundred children were abducted in Ireland, one third of whom were taken within the Dublin Metropolitan Area.’

Ten days.  That is all the time the police have to rescue Rosie Blake.  Rosie is a child with cancer who was stolen from the hospital.  She can only survive ten days without her medication.  The police find the suspect quickly, except he is dead; murdered and Rosie still is missing. It is up to criminal behaviorist Jessie Boyle and her team to find Rosie in time before Jessie dies too.

Doesn't everyone love a good race-against-the-clock mystery? Dunphy creates a setup that is tense and effective and encourages the reader to keep going. To end the opening section with a single-sentence portent—“That would come later.”—is both unnecessary and lazy. There was no need to add an extra push.

Dunphy’s principal characters are interesting and fully developed.  You know who they are and how they fit together, giving you bits of their personalities. He knows how and when to interject humor, both in his dialogue and in the situations he describes.  

 It is unfortunate when the author begins with a plot for a compelling mystery but decides to veer off down a strange path.  The plot becomes overly complicated, filled with extraneous historical information, and unnecessary portents, of which there are many. The story gets lost due to a lack of focus. The folklore is interesting, but it overshadows the strength of the plot rather than adding to it. 

Dunphy has the talent to write a superb mystery, if that’s his goal, or to write a fascinating book of magic and folklore, or a history of Ireland. Unfortunately, combining the three became messy and convoluted.   

HER CHILD’S CRY is the third book in the Boyle/Keneally series.  One hopes an author learns and grows with each book.  Sadly, that is not the case here. 

HER CHILD'S CRY  (PolProc-Boyle/Keneally-Ireland-Contemp)
S.A. Dunphy– 3rd book in series
Bookouture, Apr 2022, 343 pp.
Rating:  Okay/C

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Lost Hills by Lee Goldberg

First Sentence:  The northern stretch of Mulholland Highway ended in a T intersection with Mulholland Drive.

Deputy Eve Ronin has experienced a meteoric rise in her career.  She is the youngest female homicide detective in the LA County Sheriff's Department history. With that comes the resentment of her colleagues, including her partner, Det. Duncan Pavone, who is about to retire. Now Eve is the team leader in a case with a missing mother, two children, and their dog from a house where there is plenty of blood evidence, but not a single body.

One can always depend on Lee Goldberg for quick, wry humor—"they could be mistaken for a father and daughter who liked to carry Glocks."—and the occasional bit of wisdom—"Let me give you some advice. …when ship happens to you, it isn't always personal."

Goldberg creates an interesting collection of characters.  Eve is perfectly portrayed as one who is young and ambitious, but a bit in over her head.  Her partner, Duncan, is the seen-it-call cop who is counting the days to retirement but is willing to mentor his young partner.  In some ways, he's the most interesting character of the lot.  Eve's mother is the classic Hollywood want-to-be-but-never-made it figure who just can't imagine anyone not wanting to be an actor. While she may have been intended as comic relief, she ends up being more annoying than anything.

It’s disappointing of an author when the investigator’s case is weak and based on assumptions.  Goldberg did just that. Ronin tries to make the case fit the suspect rather than looking further.  Rather than making the character seem fallible, it diminishes the reader’s ability to identify with the character.

It's easy to see Goldberg's background as a scriptwriter.  There are too many coincidences and an over-the-top plot, but the pacing and dialogue are well done, keep the story moving, and the reader involved.    

LOST HILLS is a good, quick read. It is a perfect airplane book.

PolProc-Deputy Eve Ronin-Los Angeles-Contemp)
Lee Goldberg – 1st in series
Thomas & Mercer, Jan 2020, 240 pp.
Rating:  G+/B+