Thursday, August 9, 2018

A Bed of Scorpions by Judith Flanders

First Sentence:  The summer was rumbling on the way summer usually does in publishing, and I was ready to murder someone.
Book editor Samantha (Sam) Clair learns that the partner of her friend and ex-boyfriend, art dealer Art Merriam, has just been found dead in his office with a gun in his hand.  Leading the investigation is Sam's new boyfriend, Insp. Jake Field.   After other deaths, Sam's knowledge of publishing leads to her become a target.  Can they find the killer before the killer finds Sam?
If one has ever wondered about the "glamorous" world of publishing, Flanders will burst that bubble almost immediately.  At least she does so with humor—"And so, come summer, when Frankfurt still feels far enough away that we don't have to harass our poor authors, slaving away in their salt mines (yes, I know I said they were cows a minute ago, but bear with me, I'm an editor, not a writer)… ," and her often-wry humor, in spite of dangling participles, is delightful—"Dating a detective, I discovered, could be a royal pain.  All the stuff that most people remain serenely unaware of, he picked up on right away."   Yes, better editing would have been helpful. 
Flanders also presents a very interesting look at the different perspectives on cash flow between the world of publishing and art. In addition to learning about the publishing industry, it is quite interesting learning how galleries work. 
Flanders' characters are nicely done and quite relatable.  Between Sam, Jake, Sam's indomitable lawyer-mother, her assistant Miranda, and her upstairs neighbor Mr. Rudiger, she has created a cast that is interesting and real; people one would like to know.  One of the best things about San is her normalcy.  The scene of her being in danger is very well done and the way in which she reacts is the way in which most of us would have.
Some authors' plots are constructed of threads.  Flanders writes in a Venn diagram of overlapping circles with the answer and the killer are found in the overlap. Along the way, there are some very good red herrings and a climax which is nicely done.  If one were to have a criticism it is that there is too much tell, and not enough show; i.e., too much exposition.
"A Bed of Scorpions" is a light read, and an enjoyable one. It's truly the author's voice which really keeps one reading.  Whilst the mystery may not be as strong as the writing, one may be assured that later books are much improved. 

A BED OF SCORPIONS  (Pol Proc/Ama Sleu-Sam Clair/Jake Wright-London-Cont) - Good
      Flanders, Judith – 2nd in series
      Minotaur Books – Mar 2016

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Glass Souls by Maurizio de Giovanni

First Sentence:  The young man narrows his eyes in order to accustom them to the room's dim light.
Still trying to cope with the death of Rosa, his childhood nurse then housekeeper, Commissario Riccardi agrees to unofficially look into a case that has been closed.  The husband of Bianca Palmieri, countess of Roccaspina, confessed to a murder she is certain he couldn't have done.  In spite of the risk to his own career, Riccardi, with the help of his second, Brigadier Raffaele Maione, agrees to look into the case.
Some series are such that one can start anywhere.  This is not such as that.  De Giovanni's series, although each book deals with separate crimes, is a part of the whole.  Although meant to describe just this entry, La Reppublica describes the series best "It's like a very sophisticated mosaic in which each protagonist occupies precisely the right amount of space. The powerful rhythm with which the plot develops will surprise readers at every turn."
The opening in "Glass Souls" is quite different from previous books yet de Giovanni creates such an evocative scene which perfectly conveys melancholy and sorrow, as well as deep loss.  In complete contrast, we then move to elation.
It takes a bit to become used to there being multiple threads, yet each is distinct and holds its own weight.  What is remarkable is that one never feels a preference for one over another.  The thru thread is the investigation into the murder and trying to prove the innocence of Bianca's husband, in spite of his insistence that he is guilty.  Those threads which deal with Riccardi's personal life tug at our heart.  While one may prefer one woman, Enrica or Livia, over another, we feel sympathy for, and can identify with, the pain each of the three characters is experiencing…actually four characters, including Enrica Colombo's father. 
The inclusion of Enrica's German suitor, Manfred, reminds one of the time in which this is set and the impending danger to all the characters.
De Giovanni's descriptions are wonderfully evocative.  Yes, the language is flowery, but it is also beautiful—"Now it is September, and the perfumes win out over tomorrow and any terror.  It is September, and it seems that the tenderness of this city on the sea, this city of the sky and the leafy branches that toss in the fragile air, will never end.  It seems that the souls can remain glass, and display everything within them, and have no need of fear.  So it seems.  … Because you'll dream nothing of what you expect, while your hands reach out in your sleep to grab a blanket that can protect you from the sudden chill that will enter the room, treacherously, through the window you left open just a crack, exposing your soul.  Your soul of glass." 

The one thing which is awkward at times, is the dialogue, especially in cases of anger or anxiety.  However, one must assume it is attributable to the translation rather than the original writing as otherwise, the dialogue works very well.
For those new to the series, the explanation of the Deed, the curse or ability with which Riccardi must live, comes rather later in the story.  When one considers it, it is understandable that he feels about relationships as he does and it's heartbreaking.  We also learn a bit more of Riccardi's personal family history.
Two characters who bring a bit of light to the story are Riccardi's very loyal second, Maione, and the pathologist, Dr. Bruno Modo who asks about—"Your theory, Riccardi.  The one you explained to me a long time ago.  People kill for hunger or love.  By hunger, of course, we mean material need, and by love, all emotions.  Whose child is this murder?  Hunger's or love's?".  Maione's driving provides a true moment of humor—"When the self-taught driver triumphally screeched to a halt with a terrible shriek of metal against metal in the convent's courtyard, the commissario catapulted himself out of the car, resisting the temptation to kiss the ground like a sixteenth-century navigator."
"Glass Souls" has a resolution which makes perfect sense, yet not one which is obvious.  Even so, we are sent into great danger, rescued by kindness, and given great hope.  This book is yet another very good entry in a series which should be read from the beginning, and in which one may be completely captivated.
GLASS SOULS (Hist/Pol Proc-Comm. Riccardi-Italy-1930s) - VG
      de Giovanni, Maurizio – 8th in series
      World Noir – July 2017

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Three Shot Burst by Phillip DePoy

First Sentence:  David Waters ordered a gin martini, no olives, at Mary's Shallow Grave, just after six in the evening.
Foggy Moskowitz is Child Protective Services in Fry's Bay, Florida.  Lena is a highly intelligent 14-year-old girl with no known parents or address.  Having shot David Waters, son of a wealthy Seminole Ironstone Waters, three times at point-blank range, Foggy is called to help.  Besides the girl's age, something seems very off about the situation to Foggy.  Can he, with the help of John Horse, keep her safe from the police, Ironstone's men, and the Columbian drug cartel until Foggy has all the answers?
There's nothing better than a book which captures one's attention from the very start.  DePoy certainly does that, not just the opening events, but with his voice—"We doubtless made something of an odd pair in Fry's Bay, Florida, home of the slowest moving cultural evolution in the Western Hemisphere."—and his dialogue—"'He was drunk out of his mind, and I was scared.'  'You don't look scared to me,' I assessed.  She glanced over at the dead body. 'I'm not now.'  ''Yeah, well – right.  Now he's dead.'
DePoy really has created the most wonderful characters.  Lena truly is a 14-year-old going on 30.  She can definitely handle herself.  For Alan Bradley fans, Lena reminds on a bit of Flavia de Luce but on steroids, and with guns.  Foggy is a Brooklyn Jew who once ran numbers and boosted cars, but now is a CPS officer who keeps kosher.  John Horse is a Seminole shaman with power in his voice. There is a bit of O'Henry about these characters.
This is an example of a plot starting off in one direction, then veering off in another.  There are a lot of well-done twists and turns along the way accompanied by a fair amount of shooting.  One certainly never gets bored.  When things really start, they happen fast but never so much that one can't keep up.
"Three Shot Burst" is a really good read.  The final solution is wonderful with seeming nods along the way to Robert Frost and Hemmingway.  It's hard to beat that.

THREE SHOT BURST (CPS-Foggy Moskowitz-Florida-Contemp) – G+
      DePoy, Phillip – 2nd in series
      Severn House – March 2018

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Splinter in the Blood by Ashley Dyer

First Sentence:  A woman stands in the middle of Detective Chief Inspector Greg Carver's sitting room.
Detective Greg Carter has been shot and critically wounded in his own home leaving him hospitalized and with amnesia.  Fearing it may have been a suicide attempt, his friend and colleague, rearranges the scene and wipes it of fingerprints.  But was it? Or was Carver shot by the target of months of investigation; the Thorn Killer, who kidnaps and tattoos women with a poisonous ink causing them to die slowly and in great pain.  While Carver is fighting to recover, Ruth violates every rule while searching for the killer.
What an interesting approach.  One may believe the shooter is obvious, but are they right?  Then there is the aspect of our knowing the thoughts of the Thorn Killer.  Dyer, the pen name for the writing team of Margaret Murphy and Helen Pepper, provides an excellent way of presenting a lot of questions and compels one to continue reading in order to know the answers.
There are wonderful lines which can make one smile. It's hard not to enjoy the reference to "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" and Ruth's remembering "Singularity is almost invariably a clue."  Dyer leaves one wondering when she takes one down a new path.  The introduction of a third internal voice is neatly done.
The author covers the forensic information well.  She explains it in terms that are easily understood but not patronizing.  The consideration given to the toxicologist is a very nice touch.  It is also a good reminder as to which garden plants are best avoided.
In a way, one can't help but be relieved when a truth is revealed.  Still, it adds a new set of questions. Dyer is very good at keeping the reader off balance.  However, that she has given each of the protagonists a special ability is a bit contrived, but both abilities do exist and are real.
Dyer addresses the issue faced by women today—”Maybe she should have been more conciliatory, but sleepless nights and the daily graft involved in presenting an armor-plated front to the alpha males who would have her job given the chance wearied her beyond exhaustion."  At the same time, Dyer doesn't dwell on it or beat the issue of sexism to death.
As an American, it is very interesting reading the details of the 1997 UK amendment to the Firearms Act which banned all automatic weapons as well as handguns smaller than 60 centimeters.  Dyer also goes into detail about cognitive interviewing.  The information provides reference and insight fascinating and is done in such a way that it doesn't bog down the plot.
When the suspense kicks in, it comes on fast.  It is gripping and moves one to the edge of one's seat.  There is not stopping now, and it all builds to a very well-done climax. 
"Splinter in the Blood" is an extremely good debut with well-done details and a cracking ending.
SPLINTER IN THE BLOOD (Pol Proc-DS Ruth Lake/Det. Greg Carver-England-Contemp) – G+
      Dyer, Ashley – 1st book
      Wm. Morrow – July 2018

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

The Case of the Running Bag by Gene Poschmann

First Sentence:  I was just waking up.
Jonas Watcher's day isn't starting off well.  He's coming off the DTs, decides to give up drinking, wakes up on a dock in San Francisco, is immediately attacked and ends up in the water.  Tangled in a net along with him is a large bag whose contents include a business card, keys, money…and an old Navy Colt forty-four.  In a story of kidnapping, extortion, and murder, Watcher is reminiscent of the 1930's noir PIs of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.  
The opening is a bit awkward and contains redundancies, but the story picks up very quickly from there. 
Although Poschmann does not provide much initial backstory, Watcher and his history are developed as the story progresses and it soon becomes very clear as to why he is perfectly suited to the role into which he has stepped.  Although set in the 1930's, Watcher refreshingly has more of a contemporary sensibility in that the character has laid off liquor, prefers capability to looks in his receptionist, and develops a good relationship with the police lieutenant. 
It is interesting seeing how Watcher builds his team of informers.  Coining the term "the invisibles" is sadly true as it is the perfect description of how most people never really notice the cab driver, the hotel maid, or the many providing shoeshines. 
The San Francisco setting creates a strong sense of place and time.  However, one does tire of the various references to the "sisters of fate."   It would have been nice to have and Afterword or Author's Notes at the end providing a bit more information on some of the historical details such as the ability to do ballistic testing during this time, and the existence of military MPs in the 1930s.  

Despite there being a lot of coincidences; understandable in a book of fewer than 200 pages, the plot is well done, and the story holds one's attention.
"The Case of the Running Bag" is a quick read and an enjoyable first effort.  One may even consider reading more of the series.

THE CASE OF THE RUNNING BAG (Hist/PI-James Watcher-San Francisco-1930s) - Good
      Poschman, Gene – 1st of series
      Gene Poschman – 2016

Friday, July 20, 2018

Dancing on the Grave by Zoë Sharp

First Sentence:  It was a bad day to die…a perfect one to kill.
Newly-qualified crime scene investigator Grace McColl is trying to prove herself after making a disastrous mistake on a previous case.  Detective Constable Nick Weston has just been transferred to the Lake District after nearly dying during an investigation in London.  Neither of them can understand why they've been called out on a dog having been shot, except for the presence of the wife of a local MEP (Member of the European Parliment).  Upon examining the dog, it's clear the shooter wasn't the local farmer.  But why is there a trained sniper in the area, and who was the real target?
It is difficult to say much about this book without giving away spoilers.  My best recommendation is to read it cold without having looked at any information about the plot, impossible as that may be.  And so…
An excellent opening is one which compels one to continue reading.  Zoe Sharp has accomplished that goal in spades with her new standalone which is a remarkable combination of police procedural and psychological thriller. 
The initial crime is unexpected, but through it we meet a number of important characters.  The introductions to CSI Grace McColl, DC Nick Weston, Special Constable Jim Airey and his daughter Edith are very well done. 
The dialogue is realistic.  One can hear the characters voices—"'Do you honestly think I have so little to occupy my time that I would have called for a second opinion if I didn't think it was necessary?"  'What do you need me for.'  'Well, not for your sparkling wit and winning personality,' she murmured…".  The imagery is equally good—"He nodded to the young bullocks occupying the neighboring field. Large chestnut-coloured animals who had gathered about fifteen yards away to watch the interlopers, blowing out noisy breaths as they shuffled their feet and nudged each other like big stupid kids on a dare." 
Having one mystery solved early in the story is unusual, but really well done.  The"who" is clear, but not the "why."  Learning the "why" is what takes the plot down many a twisted road with more deaths and characters different from those one has previously seen.  Getting to know Grace by seeing her through Nick's eyes is nicely done.  At the same time, one also learns about Nick and his situation. Sharp's characters are very real in that they all, some more than others, have baggage.  Many are characters which will make one very uncomfortable, yet they make one continually curious as to how events will all fit together.  
The detailed description of what literally happens when one fires a weapon becomes almost visual.  It is certainly not something thought about by most people, and it's fascinating.  Sharp not only places her characters in dicey situations but takes one along with them—"So here he was, trudging up a rough field in the dark, dressed head to foot in black from his watch-cap to his boots.  Tucked inside his jacket were a slim jemmy and a lock-pick set, either of which would have earned him a trip to the cells if he was caught with them.  Hell, he would have arrested himself."
This is the type of book where, if one must put it down, it stays in one's mind until it can be picked up again.  However, it's really a book one wants to read uninterrupted.  There are several different themes at play, beyond the murders, which are extremely well done.  Sharp does a wonderful job of escalating the tension and suspense.  Moreover, she creates within the reader emotions of both outrage and sympathy toward a single character and has created an ending filled with possibilities.  Although written as a standalone, one really does want to know where these characters go next.
"Dancing on the Grave" is an excellent read which deals with the psychology of the characters as well as the forensics of the crimes.  It is both suspenseful and disquieting, clearly demonstrating Sharp's true skill as a writer.

DANCING ON THE GRAVE (Pol Proc-CSI Grace McColl/DC Nick Weston-England-Contemp) - Ex
      Sharp, Zoë – Standalone
      ZACE, Ltd. – June 2018

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The King's Justice by E.M. Powell

First Sentence:  Pit or Punishment: Hugo Stanton couldn't tell which excited the folk of these hot, crammed streets more.
With traveling courts established by Henry II having more than enough to handle, the justices send court clerk Aelred Barling, and his young assistant Hugo Stanton, to a village outside York.  Although there were no witnesses, Nicholas Lindley has been imprisoned for the murder of the village smith.  The case seems certain, yet Stanton has his doubts.  The prisoner escapes, more deaths occur, and the two men are tasked with quelling the villagers, dealing with the lord of the manor, and finding the killer.
To Powell's credit, no attempt to pretty-up the period has been made.  Justice is anything but just and the streets are beyond foul.  However, it is interesting to see the early stages of the justice system. 
All the characters have dimension and distinct personalities, pleasant and unpleasant.  Barling is the type of character one likes more as the story progresses.  He is pragmatic—"To dwell on an error is never of benefit."—focused on the details and dedicated to his role and responsibility.  Stanton is observant and deductive.  There is very nice, subtle humor—"And well done, Stanton:  a good evening's work.' But he could believe the next. 'Good,' continued Barling, 'for one who is so new to learning how to exercise their wits.' The clerk carried on to his solar. Stanton mouthed a favourite word at Barling's retreating back.  And for one who was supposedly limited in his wits, it was a fine, fine choice."  Powell does a good job of building the respect and the relationship which develops between the two men.  It's nice to know there will be more books in this series as watching the partnership grow will be interesting.       
There is a very good twist and the introduction of danger to the protagonists, as well as a sad event.  The story has something of "Midsomer Murders" feel about it, except the number of murders surpasses that series usual three.  One does start to wonder whether anyone will be left alive in the village, although it does raise the stakes as to who the murderer could be.  Although revelation by exposition may not be a preferred style, it works in this instance and the killer is unexpected.
One criticism is that the Cast of Characters is at the end of the book rather than the beginning where it would have been more useful.  However, the Historical Note is fascinating and well worth taking the time to read.
"The King's Justice" is much more than it appears when one first starts.  Besides being a very good mystery, this is definitely a book for those who enjoy historicals.

THE KING'S JUSTICE (Hist Mys-Stanton/Barling-England-1176) - VG

      Powell, E.M. – 1st in series
      Thomas & Mercer – June 2018 

Monday, July 16, 2018

Rescued by David Rosenfelt

First Sentence:  It wasn't the presence of the tractor trailer that caused John Paxos to take notice.
Attorney Andy Carpenter keeps trying to retire but when his wife's ex-boyfriend, ex-cop and ex-private investigator Dave Kramer, is accused of murder, he has no choice but to agree to defend him.  It won't be easy since Kramer admits to having killed the victim.  But with no witnesses, other than a truck trailer full of dogs, and no second weapon, how you do prove it was self-defense.
Don't be fooled by the puppies on the cover.  Although the book may appear "light," the bad guys are truly nasty, which is accentuated by not knowing who they are, other than their names, or how they fit into the story until things begin to fall into place.  And if one is looking for a scene which is incredibly chilling, Rosenfelt delivers.  The fact that it is only one page long makes it even more so.
The story is set up very well.  One certainly knows who, what and when.  He then goes on and introduces most of the characters, who are fully-developed and interesting each in their own right, in a very straight-forward, uncomplicated way which immediately draws one in.  It is very nice having a protagonist who is not super-macho—"Laurie believes I would have trouble defending myself in a contentious Girl Scout gather, and while I pretend otherwise, he happens to be right."  The author has a very readable voice and uses humor well—"I hate visiting clients in jail.  Maybe I should have thought of that before I became a criminal attorney, because jail is where most of my clients hang out."
The plot links that are made are clever.  It's a twisty road down which we are led.  Although one hopes elements of the plot are improbable, the author creates well-crafted puzzle pieces, joining them together, one-by-one, so they make sense while still hiding the complete picture from the reader.  His explanation related to the stock market is nicely done and simplifies that which some may not understand.
There are coincidences and connections to conveniently-talented people.  Sometimes the plot does stretch credulity a bit but, it is fiction and it's enjoyable.  And there are dogs.
"Rescued" includes courtroom scenes which are as exciting as are scenes of physical danger.  Although the outcomes of the story's threads were slightly anticlimactic, they were still very satisfactory.

RESCUED (Legal Thriller-Andy Carpenter-New Jersey-Contemp) – Good
      Rosenfelt, David – 17th in series
      Minotaur Books – July 2018

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Trial on Mount Koya by Susan Spann

First Sentence:  "I question your judgment, Hiro."

Portuguese Jesuit Father Mateo and his protector, and friend, master ninja Hiro Hattori travel to a Buddhist temple at the summit of Mount Koya.  Hiro is carrying a secret message for an Iga spy who is at the temple posing as a priest.  A blizzard moves in preventing anyone from leaving, including a killer who is murdering the priests and posing their bodies.  It is up to the two men to identify the killer and quickly as they come to realize that Father Mateo is slated to be a victim.
Although this book begins immediately where "Betrayal at Iga" ended, it stands on its own with new readers being brought quickly up to date.  And besides, there's a cat. 
Spann's ability to create a mental picture provides a clear sense of place—"Stone lamps positioned around the yard illuminated the space, their flickering light unusually pale and weak beneath the sickly sky."  The simple explanation of the "Manifestations of Buddha" is interesting, as are the explanations of the jusanbutsu and the bodhisattvas.  One of the great gifts of reading is learning about other cultures and beliefs.  Spann does a fine job of both, as well as providing translations for the Japanese used in the story.  
There are wonderful characters including Ana, Hero's housekeeper. She is a beam of light who pushes back the dark—"Ana looked down her nose at Hiro—a significant feat, given her diminutive size."  It's hard to resist a protagonist who has his priorities in order—"…the story was wasting time he could use to find his cat and stop the killer."  There are also basic truths to be found—"I did not choose this life, but I could choose the way I live it."  Hiro and Father Mateo balance one another.  It is a relationship which has developed over time and into one of trust and respect.  Hatsuko, the female samurai, is a very interesting character.  She is someone of whom one would like to see more.
Spann creates a very good sense of urgency and danger which builds to an unexpected revelation. She shows the idiocy of hatred brought about by policies—"If it makes you feel better, I promise to hate you again as soon as safety grants me the luxury of unfounded prejudices."
One very small criticism, which may be more on the publisher than the author.  The book includes a cast of characters and a glossary.  Unfortunately, these have been placed at the end of the book, rather than the beginning where they would have been much more useful.  However, the plot is very well done and gives a nod back to Agatha Christie's "And Then There Were None."
"Trial on Mount Koya" is atmospheric and suspenseful with a highly dramatic ending and an important self-realization for Hiro.

TRIAL ON MOUNT KOYA (Hist Mys-Hiro Hattori/Father Mateo-Japan-1565) – Good
      Spann, Susan – 6th in series
      Seventh Street Books – July 2018