Tuesday, April 20, 2021

The Drop by Dennis Lehane

First Sentence: Bob found the dog two days after Christmas, the neighborhood gone quiet in the cold, hungover and gas-bloated.

Bob Saginowsk's life revolves between the house in which he grew up, the Catholic Church he has always attended, and the bar in which he works which is now owned by Chechen mobsters, and managed by his cousin Marv. Things change when he rescues a small dog and meets Nadia. Bob's life is looking up until two gunmen walk into the bar.

Lehane has a way of writing that draws you into his world. It is a world of people few of us know but recognize they are real. Bob is a character who tugs at your heart, while Marv, his cousin, who once owned the bar and is desperately trying to succeed at something again--"a successful man could hide his past, but an unsuccessful man spent the rest of his life trying not to drown in his."

The best writers are those whose phrases make one stop and consider, perhaps even reread. One doesn't do this for clarity, but out of consideration for what was said. One wants to make note of them to share them with others. Yet Lehane's world is a harsh one filled with violence and cruelty—"Cruelty is older than the Bible. Savagery best its chest in the first human summer and has kept beating it every day since." Even so, it's not unrelenting. There are elements of self-realization and bright spots with Nadia, a puppy, and surprisingly, Detective Evandro Torres, the cop, who is still trying to solve a ten-year-old cold case.

How does one quantify Lehane's writing? It is brutal but somehow impersonal; detached so one doesn't feel shocked by it. He surprises one but makes one feel they should have seen it coming. He is dark and not for everyone, but those who do read him cannot help but feel slightly in awe.

"The Drop" began life as a short story, became a screenplay, and is now a short novel. One need not know any of that to appreciate the quality, the level of suspense, the twists, particularly at the end.

THE DROP (NoirCrime-Bob Saginowski-Boston-Contemp) Ex
Lehane, Dennis – Standalone
William Morrow, 2014, 208 pp.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Transient Desires by Donna Leon

First Sentence: Brunetti slept late.

Two young American women were found injured and abandoned on the emergency dock of the hospital. A surveillance camera finally identified the boat and the men who left them there. But why dump the women if the injuries were caused by a boating accident? An investigation by Brunetti and his colleague, Claudia Griffoni, lead to far darker activities involving one of the men's uncle. Although Brunetti is uncertain how much he can trust them, he needs the assistance of the Carabinieri and the Guardia di Costiera against an enemy much greater than he imagined.

One of the best things about Brunetti is how real and normal he is. No superhero he. He procrastinates and indulges in self-pity as he feels the passage of years. His empathy for others and the inclusion of his home life make him a fully developed character. Yet, one wonders whether Brunetti is suffering from ennui and thinking of retirement?

As usual, the magnificent Signorina Elettra saves the day by pointing him to a new case, but it's Leon's wry assessment of charity events, especially those for environmental issues where the attendees fly in on their private jets, that remind us how good Leon is at incorporating current issues into her stories including that while Brunetti is appreciative of the women with whom he is in contact, he is also very aware of what is appropriate. The addition of Claudia Griffoni as Brunetti's second, and a Neapolitan demonstrates that bigotry comes in many forms. Still, she makes the point; it is often those who are invisible to others who see the most. There is so much packed into this story. Brunetti is always willing to grow and learn which adds to his strength as a character.

Leon expands the story in a logical manner, often with well-placed, but not overused, plot twists. She also increases one's knowledge of Italy's different law enforcement branches by including the Carabinieri, or the military branch, and the Guardia Costiera, which is equivalent to our Coast Guard. Including these branches expands the story and increases its suspense. There is nothing more effective or suspenseful than a setup where one thinks one knows how things will go, yet desperately hopes to be wrong.

"Transient Desires" is timely, relevant, and suspenseful. This ranks high among Leon's books; perhaps as her very best, with implications and an ending that is emotionally impactful.

TRANSIENT DESIRES (PolPro-Comm. Guido Brunetti-Venice-Contemp) Ex
Leon, Donna – 30th in series
Atlantic Monthly Press, Mar 2021, 288 pp

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

To The Dark by Chris Nickson

First Sentence: She sensed him there, behind her in the fog.

Simon West, with his assistant Jane, and wife Rose, is a thief-taker. When petty thief Laurance Poole, who robbed Alderman Sir Matthew Fullbrook, is found dead, Simon is worried he may be arrested. Instead, he is surprised to be hired by Constable Williams to find the killer. After Simon finds a notebook written in code, he is drawn into the dangerous job of exposing those behind a rash of burglaries. It is up to Simon, Jane, and Rose to keep a priceless item safe, find a killer, and stay alive.

It is always a relief when an author draws new readers into a series yet makes them feel right at home, especially when there is suspense from almost the first page. Even better is when it is the third book in the series, and one feels no lack for not having read the previous two. Nickson sets the tone with his descriptions of Leeds, a city he calls home and whose history he knows extremely well. He depicts an industrial-age city chocked by smoke, dirt, and grime all in the name of progress—"I don't think Leeds will ever be clean again,…"

This is not a book set in genteel drawing rooms, but in the homes, streets, and alleys of the working, and non-working class, just trying to survive as best they can—"He had no one to look after his mother while he was gone. No money to pay for a companion for her. He had no choice but to tie her in the chair to stop her from wandering." Yet the author's voice conveys caring and compassion.

Nickson's characters are alive and fascinating. One learns their backgrounds, often through memories, fleshing them out but still leaving a shadow around them, especially the character of Martha. An unreliable character always heightens the suspense. Watching how the three main characters use their contacts to track the clues, one step at a time, adds a sense of constant tension. Nickson's female characters are anything but minor characters or ones waiting for a man to rescue them. Jane gives as good, if not better than she gets. She is somewhat feral and works on grit. Rose, Simon's wife, is his partner in life and in craft. She depends on guile, intellect, and having the right wardrobe.

As the story progresses, suspense builds at a heart-stopping pace, aided by excellent plot twists, and an unanswered question at the end. One really can't help but wonder why this very prolific author is not better known than he is.

"To the Dark" is an exciting book filled with twists and climax after climax, but still leaving questions unanswered at the end. With female characters as clever and capable as the men, the author created a tense, suspenseful tale in a city he so obviously loves.

TO THE DARK (HisMys-Simon West/Jane-Leeds, England-1822) – VG+
Nickson, Chris – 3rd in series
Severn House, Feb 2021, 238 pp.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Cruel as the Grave by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

First Sentence: Atherton was singing in his Dean Martin voice.

Personal fitness trainer Erik Lingoss is found murdered in his flat by a young woman who fancied herself in love with him. A box full of cash in his closet, 700 pounds under his pillow, and his missing mobile phone indicates things may not be as indicated. The more Slider and his team investigate, the more suspects emerge. Under pressure to clear the case, they work to find the who and why of the murder.

Beginning a new book by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles is akin to being given one's favorite dessert. First, there is no prologue, not even one masquerading as a first chapter. The story begins on page one and continues to the end. Second, wonderful dialogue filled with wry humor—"Let he who is without sin bore the pants off everybody else." Last, the sense of time and place. Her evocative descriptions employ all the senses.

The characters are alive--"…Atherton stretched, catlike. Tall, elegant, sartor's plaything, he was as out of place at a dreary crime scene as an orchid in a vegetable patch." The balance is Slider, not a Long-Ranger cop, but respected by a team where each has their role to play. The plot may initially present itself as straightforward, yet one knows it won't stay that way long—"Thirteen thousand pounds. …Normal people don't keep large amounts of cash in the wardrobe."

Including characters' families in the story adds humanity and dimension. Unlike the questionable stability of Atherton's relationship, Slider has an extended family of his wife, son and a child on the way, a daughter by his first marriage, a father and his partner. A wonderful hospital scene touches the heart.

The author's use of language, including the chapter headings, is a pleasure. One small caution, or treat, is that it is very British, meaning there are numerous British terms and idioms. It can be confusing, but the meaning is easy enough to glean from the context—"The bathos almost made him smile." The use of malaprops—"Putting the cat before the horse, aren't you?"—and literary references are fun to spot. The banter between Slider and Atherton realistically reflects that of friends/colleagues who know each other well.

The plot focuses on the real police work of identifying the many suspects, following leads, and looking for evidence. What drives Slider as much as finding the killer is discovering the motive which is poignant.

"Cruel as the Grave" is such a good read. Harrod-Eagles is a skilled writer who evokes empathy for the killer. It was truly the dessert's finishing touch.

CRUEL AS THE GRAVE (PolProd-D.S.I. Bill Slider-London-Contemp) – G+
Harrod-Eagles, Cynthia – 22nd in series
Severn House, Feb 2021, 256 pp

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Consolation by Garry Disher

First Sentence:  Did Hirsch own the town?

Hirsch's territory covers a large area of not much in Tiverton, South Australia.  It is up to him to keep the peace.  Someone is stealing women's underwear.  Although that seems a small thing, it is the sort of thing that can escalate. And so they do, exacerbated, exacerbated by a woman who has developed an obsession with Hirsch.

A concise introduction presents Constable Paul Hirschhausen "Hirsch" and the scope of his job, which is impressive in its scope and diversity.  Issues range from the seemingly innocuous to the potentially dangerous.  The jump from one incident to the next brings the residents into play.  Hirsch isn't a cop who sits behind a desk but spends his time walking the street, and driving the territory.

Disher is a wonderful wordsmith.  One understands the words and the meaning behind them.  "Hirsch the mediator.  He seemed to spend most of his time as father confessor, therapist, social worker, fixer, and go-between.  What he'd give for a plain old criminal and a plain old vanilla arrest." 

It is not all serious.  Hirsch's relationship with Wendy and her daughter provides normalcy, offset by his unwillingness to confront the woman who is stalking him as she becomes a threat.  We see the openness of Northern Australia and the bone-chilling cold of late winter.

As the story progresses Hirsch finds one should be careful for what one wishes when things turn violent and deadly.  "…his ABC of policing said:  assume nothing, believe nothing, challenge everything."

"Consolationis a story of lives intertwined; the domino effect begun by the actions of one crashing into the lives of others and the result.  This is an author well worth reading.

(PolProc-Const. Paul Hirschhausen-South Australia-Contemp) – VG 
Disher, Garry – 3rd in series
Text Publishing, Nov 2020, 399 pp 

Friday, March 26, 2021

From the Grave by David Housewright

First Sentence: The young woman who identified herself as a psychic medium moved with almost absentminded confidence among the fifty people who had paid forty dollars each for a seat in the community center lecture hall with the hope that she might help them connect with a dead mother or father, uncle or aunt, a dead child—by no promises.

From a friend who attended a psychic reading, former cop, Rushmore McKenzie, learns of a threat placed on his life by the spirit of Leland Hayes, a man McKenzie had killed. Now, more than 21 years later, a highly skeptical McKenzie becomes involved with two psychic mediums to find the money and, due to one of the mediums, to locate a missing woman.

Housewright creates a strong sense of place, even for something as basic as Nina's condo. The interplay between the two characters is easy and natural—"I like your outfit." "Really? Last night you couldn’t wait for me to take it off."—and a particular conversation between them provides good background and an explanation of their relationship. McKenzie's unpleasant neighbor provides a touch of normalcy. Mackenzie has an inner monologue that is used sparingly and effectively, often with a touch of humor. Housewright has also given him an excellent playlist.

It is always fun when an author references other authors. Because of the psychic aspect, he also references a number of popular paranormal investigation shows, but it is McKenzie's skepticism that keeps things grounded until his skepticism is tested. Learning what goes on in the making of such shows is both interesting and demystifying without taking away from the possibility of actuality.

This book is somewhat lighter and less suspenseful than some. In this time of COVID-19 when many are having trouble concentrating, that's not a bad thing. Even so, the story does not lack for twists or red herrings.

"From the Grave," at its foundation, is a solid mystery, well-constructed and enjoyable. One may, or may not, accept the paranormal aspect, but it does provide an extra layer of creativity. However, best of all, is the ending that makes one smile.

FROM THE GRAVE (Unl Invest/Para/ColdCase-Rushmore McKenzie-Minn/St. Paul, MN – Contemp) – VG
Housewright, David – 17th in series
Minotaur Books, May 2020, 312 pp

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Black Coral by Andrew Mayne

 First Sentence:  Everyone is looking at me funny.

      The Underwater Investigation Unit is called out to a submerged van at Pond 59.  The passenger has been recovered; but Detective Sloan McPherson, the team's top diver, needs to recover the driver. Rather than one, she finds three bodies in the van, and evidence of a fifth person having been involved.  The investigation puts McPherson and the UIU on the trail of the serial killer, while also trying to catch a thief stealing millions of electronic equipment off mega-yachts. 

      Mayne has a great voice layered with wry humor—"If you have any questions, please contact us through our website," George concludes." … "We have a website?" I ask in a whisper."  He is a true storyteller who creates wonderful characters that play into one another.  One wants to share passages of his writing with others.  Not every male author writes women well.  Mayne is one who truly does, and it is a pleasure to read. 

      Sloan is fully dimensional.   There is a nice injection of the character's personal life which adds balance to the story, injecting light into the dark. There is realism in admitting no one is a perfect parent.  one provides compelling She is introspective both about the case—"I see two different men in front of me.  One is the monster.  The other is the victim.  The victim didn't make the monster, but it sure did nurture him.", and her life as a cop—"…where do I go from here?  Catching the New River Bandits was a good thing, but in no way deeply fulfilling."

      Having Sloan as an archeologist, as well as a diver and cop, brings dimension to the character and opens interesting doors.  The plot is very well done and filled with surprises, yet none of them feel contrived.  The things one learns are unusual.  

      Periodic references to events from the first book, don't distract from the current story, nor does the crossover reference to Mayne's Theo Cray series.  This book stands nicely on its own merit.

      Of the two cases, one is fairly straightforward, but the second takes one down a surprising, twisty path with some definite "Oh, my" moments. Although the main plot is about a serial killer, the book is far more suspenseful than gory.

      BLACK CORAL is an excellent read full of humor, suspense, wicked good twists, and a very unexpected ending. 

BLACK CORAL (PolProc-Det. Sloan McPherson-Florida-Contemp) - Ex
Mayne, Andrew – 2nd in series
Thomas & Mercer, Feb 2021, 317 pp 

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Final Out by Sheldon Siegel

       First Sentence:  The Honorable Robert J. Stumpf, Jr. scanned the empty gallery in his airless courtroom on the second floor of San Francisco's crumbling Hall of Justice.

       Jaylen Jenkins is arrested for the murder of prominent San Francisco sports agent Robert Blum.   He is on video holding a baseball bat walking toward Blum, and then running away without the bat.  Jenkins claims he is innocent.  But is he?  Without contradictory evidence, can attorney Mike Daley and the team of the San Francisco Public Defender's Office use the "SODDI" defense to convince the jury that some other dude did it? 

       The story begins with a soft case to introduce the principal characters in a casual, conversational manner. In little time, one is taken into the meat of the story and a case that couldn't be more timely.  One of the benefits is learning something new.  Siegel walks readers through every aspect of the case allowing one to experience exactly what is involved.   He educates without lecturing or slowing down the plot.  After all, who else is familiar with the legal term "wobbler"?  It is impossible to conceive the feeling of knowing one is innocent while being told accepting a plea sentence of eight years is a "good deal," yet that happens to so many.

       Through the principal character, Mike, an ex-priest turned lawyer, Siegel created an excellent ensemble cast of Mike's family and friends. They are wonderfully drawn; brought to life mainly through his skill with dialogue.  Even Mike's internal monologues add dimension to the character and the story.   One appealing aspect of the character is his realism.  This isn't a strutting, overly-confident lawyer, this is one who recognizes he could lose his case.

       Set in the San Francisco Bay Area, captured in perfect detail, Siegel brings the region into focus.  It is always fun having a book set in one's hometown, being familiar with the places visited by the characters.  It is even more amusing when the author's description of a particular building echoes one's own thoughts—"The Salesforce Tower dominated the San Francisco skyline and dwarfed the Transamerica Pyramid.  It's impressive in its size and technology, but it looks like an enlarged phallic symbol to me."

       Siegel's style is one of short, tightly written chapters that read almost as vignettes.  Each chapter compels one to continue reading straight through to the end. 

       FINAL OUT is well written and completely involving.  The underlying theme is a sad, but important truth about our justice system. 

FINAL OUT (LegalMyst-Mike Daley-San Francisco-Contempt) – Ex
Siegel, Sheldon – 12th in series
Sheldon M. Siegel, Inc., Jan 2021, 303 pp 

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Huntress Moon by Alexandria Sokoloff

First Sentence:  FBI Special Agent Matthew Roarke is closing in on a bust of a major criminal organization in San Francisco when he witnesses an undercover member of his team killed right in front of him on a busy street, an accident Roarke can't believe is coincidental.

Waiting for his undercover agent to cross a busy street, Agent Matthew Roarke's attention is captured by a woman standing behind the agent.  Moments later, the agent is dead and the woman has disappeared.  As he tracks the woman, he discovers several deaths at which she was present. Is she that most rare of killers: a female serial killer? She is canny, and always one step ahead leaving bodies behind as Roake begins to piece together her motive and her objective.

What an intriguing book, and one where readers are kept off-guard from start to end. It's also a hard book to review without spoilers. Matthew Roarke is a driven character who we come to know in small bits. He is intuitive, yet logical; a perfect balance for someone in his job. But it's the female character who keeps us going. Initially, we don't know the identity of the killer until the "ah-ha" moment, and the tension builds from there.

Information on the main characters is provided in bits as the story progresses.  It is that information that then provides a motive for their actions.  Damien Epps, Roarke's second, is the breath of fresh air.

That the story is told in days heightens the suspense.  The story alternatives between Roarke and the woman, and it works.  The introduction of a man and his 14-year-old child raises the stakes even higher.  The author has an ability not only to set the scene, but to convey the underlying emotions of it—"He steps through the open doorway, past the carved wooden door, into the entry hall with its white painted brick walls and tiled floor. … The terror has turned every cell in his body to ice; his feet can barely move him forward."  

Just as Sokoloff has not given the investigators anything definite they can track, she leaves the reader directionless.  It is clear the moon has significance, but what is unknown.  However, evil, the sense of it, is a prevalent and effective theme.

As the story progresses, the killer takes on the identity first as "Huntress," and finally her name and background are revealed with a powerful twist.  The author's skill is clear in the killer's progression. I don't recall another author being able to transition one's attitude toward a killer in the way Sokoloff does.

This is not a perfect book. There are some plot holes and weaknesses such as the description of the Tenderloin, which is not nearly as grim as portrayed.  The primary thing which did not ring true is Roarke, an FBI Agent, seemingly surprised by the idea of a female serial killer. He just couldn't be that naïve. Another slight miss was the inference of a supernatural element that was not developed. 

HUNTRESS MOON, the first in the series, is rather the first chapter in one long book with an arching theme: Evil. It is a page-turner and truly a popcorn book in that no one will be able to read just one. If you like the first, chances are you will want to continue.

HUNTRESS MOON (PolProc-Agent Matthew Roarke-WestCoast-Contemp) – VG+
Sokoloff, Alexandria – 1st in series
Thomas & Mercer, Jan 2015, 386 pp