Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Serpent's Tooth by Craig Johnson

First Sentence:  I stared at the black-and-orange corsage on Barbara Thomas lapel so that I wouldn’t have to look at anything else.
Sheriff Walt Longmire and his deputy encounter a bare-assed young man and the, supposedly, 200-year-old-man watching over him.  In looking for the young man’s mother, he finds himself tangling with a polygamous group buying up large areas of land in several states.  But where are the wives and children?   While they are stockpiling weapons, they are also buying things that are less expected.  Walt, and his team, becomes involved in a case that starts simple but ends up much bigger and more dangerous than he expected.
Although I’m less cranky about prologues than I used to be, it is delightful when an author takes you straight into the story from page one.  Not only does Mr. Johnson take you there, but he keeps you there until you’ve finished, having a complete disregard for your desire to sleep. 
There is no question that Johnson’s greatest strength is his characters.  He balances their personalities off beautifully.  Walt is well-read and has a strong belief in justice.  Vic, his deputy and occasional lover, has all the sass and impatience of an East-Coast Italian.  It’s always nice to be reacquainted with the other recurring characters surrounding Walt, too.  In this story young Cord and the older Orrin add both interest and humor and provide the bridge in the plot.  Johnson develops the characters and brings them to life through excellent internal narrative and spoken dialogue.  I did enjoy his nod to famous Wyoming defense attorney Gerry Spence
There is room for criticism with this book.  There seemed to be an assumption that readers had read the previous books.  Even being a faithful fan, some of the nicknames for the recurring characters became confusing and wanting a cast of characters.  There was a very minor story line that seemed superfluous and completely unnecessary as it was never developed. 
Still in all, I expect a lot from a Craig Johnson book.  I was not disappointed.  A Serpent’sTooth” is a wonderful read that takes you on a roller-coaster ride of emotions.  Don’t miss it.

A SERPENT'S TOOTH (Pol Proc-Walt Longmire-Wyoming-Contemp) - VG+
Johnson, Craig - 9th in series
Viking, 2013

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Rainaldi Quartet (aka Sleeper) by Paul Adam

First Sentence:  You expect the momentous moments in your life to provide some kind of warning.
 Luther (violin-maker) Giovanni "Gianni" Castiglioni and policeman, Guastafeste, never expect one of their monthly informal string quartet gatherings to turn into a hunt for a murderer. Yet Guastafeste and Gianni find their friend Rainaldi murdered in this studio. His widow tells them he was searching for The Messiah's Sister, the twin to a perfect, unplayed, priceless violin made by Stradivari. Their hunt takes them from the sleepy town of Cremona, to Venice, Milan and England, resulting in another murder, searching for another priceless violin and, possibly, widower Gianni finding a new love.
Paul Adam has such a wonderful voice.  It is so comfortable that, from the very beginning with a gathering of friends, you feel as though you are one of them.  This makes the events which follow all the more impactful.  Yet, his is a wonderfully wry, pragmatic voice.  Although the story is set in some glorious cities, he conveys the feeling of a native by not romanticizing them…”St. Mark’s [in Venice] is an architectural wonder, but with all those Byzantine domes and pinnacles, it looks gaudy and vulgar, like a Mafia capo’s wedding cake.”
 The characters are fully developed; you know their histories and their relationships to one another.  But it’s more than a surface acquaintance.  Particularly with Gianni, you know the pain of his past and understand his acceptance of the present and future.  A possible change to that is, then, all the more enticing.  You sense his morality and deep friendship with Guastafeste which makes Gianni’s struggle with an action from the past and his friend’s learning of it all the more poignant.  Even the secondary characters are vivid and brought to life.  Each character is memorable on their own and none more so than Mrs. Colquhoen with her myriad of cats all named “Timmy”. 
The theme of the book is music and, in particular, violins; the artistry involved in the making of them, their history, the obsession one can have for collecting them, and the greed for selling them.  All of this is integrated into the story in a way that is fascinating, rather than boring. 
 TheRainaldi Quartet” is a combination history and music lesson, but it is also a jigsaw puzzle and treasure hunt with an excellent resolution.  Most of all, it is one great read!  

THE RAINALDI QUARTET (AKA SLEEPER) (Mys- Castiglione/ Guastafeste-Italy-Contemp) – VG+
Adam, Paul – 1st in series
Time Warner Books, 2004

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran

First Sentence:  “It’s my uncle,” the man said on the phone.
 Claire DeWitt advertises herself as the world’s greatest private investigator.  As such, she accepts a case in recent post-Katrina New Orleans.  Her client is the nephew of Vic Willing.  The case is to find out what happened to this the city’s wealthy district attorney who disappeared during the flooding after the hurricane.
 Every now and then, an author comes along with a voice and style that it is almost impossible to describe, quantify, or explain.  That was my reaction to Ms. Gran’s first book, “Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead”.  At its heart, it’s a classic hard-boiled mystery, complete with drugs, guns, liquor and bad guys.  Than intermix with that a detective who was trained by a wealth New Orleans woman, Constance Darling, and the book “Détection” by Jacque Silette…”Clues are the most misunderstood part of detection. Novice detectives think it’s about “finding” clues.  But detective work is about “recognizing” clues”… plus a layer of dreams, intuition…”Never be afraid to learn from the ether. …That’s where knowledge lives before someone hunts it, kills it, and mounts it in a book.”, and the I-Ching, and you have something that is unique and wonderful.
 Claire is anything but your usual female detective.  She’s from Brooklyn, she knows death and drugs and liquor.  She’s not a comfortable protagonist.  We learn details of her past and life throughout the story.  What is interesting is that every character Gran creates is vivid and memorable, including those who don’t exist such as Constance and Silette.  It’s a story that doesn’t really have any minor players, only short scene.
Gran’s descriptions are powerful.  New Orleans is a city unlike any other yet, particularly in this time setting, she does not make any effort to romanticize it.  It is ugly, violent, sad, desperate and very real.  Remarkably, however, at the end we’re left with a sense of hope, both for the city and the characters.  You want to know what becomes of them, even if they break your heart.
 The true sign of a book that stands above the usual, is that it makes you stop and consider…”What will fill the void left by the missing person?...Who will now breathe his air, eat his food marry his wife?  Who will fill his seat at the university lecture, the foot ball game, in the old armchair at home?...”  Gran has a different perspective than I’ve ever found.
The story’s plot may not always be the easiest to follow, but it is so worth paying attention to every word and every clue and giving each page a bit of thought.  That’s easy to do as it is thoroughly and completely engrossing.  There are times it may seem trite or pretentious, but you then find yourself going back and reading sections again because something about them resonates.  Only because I needed to sleep at night, did I ever put it down. 
“Claire Dewitt and the City of the Dead” is a remarkable book.  I suspect you will either love it or wonder whether I was indulging in one of Claire’s vices.   

CLAIRE DEWITT AND THE CITY OF THE DEAD (PI-Claire Dewitt-New Orleans-Cont) – Ex
Gran, Sara – 1st in series
Mariner Books – 2011

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Blood Never Dies by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

First Sentence:  Exsanguination was the word Slider found wandering around his mind.
When is a suicide not a suicide?  When it’s a murder.  When the details are just slightly off.  When is a murder particularly hard to solve?  When you don’t know the identity of the victim.  It’s even harder when you find a name but realize it’s false.  For DI Bill Slider and his team, the more they dig, the more murders occur, and the more obscure becomes the motive behind it all. 
Cynthia Harrod-Eagles has a wonderfully descriptive style.  Her writing, and dialogue, is natural, sprinkled with wry humor, and occasional colloquialisms.  She is very British, so occasionally some of her references of phrases might not be understood by Americans.  It doesn’t matter; look them up and move on.  It is well worth it and you learn something along the way.         
 Her writing can make you stop and consider…”Death was so mysterious, Slider thought, not for the first time.  The difference between a human being and a dead body was so profound, it always amazed him that made the difference, the vital spark, could disappear so instantaneously and completely.”…”He looked at her. ‘Animals just follow instinct.  It’s only humans who perform calculated acts of vileness.’”
It is particularly appealing that, although Bill Slider is the protagonist, it is truly an ensemble case.  Everyone has an important role to play.  I also appreciate that Harrod-Eagles shows the harsh and plainly unfair reality of one’s career being limited by either not having the “right” look or manner.  “But scrawny frog-eyed Hollis, with his despairing hair and feather-duster moustache…made Peter Lorre look like a model from a knitwear catalogue. …He was a damn good policeman, which was all that counted to Slider—though not, of course, with the media-obsessed top bods in the Job, who would never promote Colin Hollis to any position that might get him on camera.”  Slider is misfit in his own way.  He doesn’t judge others but has a dogged determination to find the truth; he believes in fighting for right and justice.
What was missing was the some of the sparkle that makes this, for me, such a must-read series.  There wasn’t as much interaction between Slider and his wife, Joanna, his father and Atherton, to which one always looks forward.  Even the lovely and malaprop-plagued D.S. Porson—“A case of walking your chickens before they can run…” was little less apparent than in past stories.   
It’s the excellent plotting that makes this such a compelling read.  You feel the team’s frustration knowing the clues are leading somewhere, but having no idea where.  You become part of the team, looking for the answers, rather than stand outside the story. 
 “Blood Never Dies” is a solid police procedural, with a strong plot and characters you want to visit again and again.    

BLOOD NEVER DIES (Pol Prod-DI Bill Slider-England-Contemp) – G+
Harrod,Eagles, Cynthia – 15th in series
Severn House, 2012
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Monday, June 10, 2013

A Question of Honor by Charles Todd

First Sentence:  The letter came for Lieutenant and Mrs. Standish on an afternoon when the heat was at its height, and we had already retired indoors to rest until the evening.
 As a child, Bess Crawford lived with her family in India where her father served as a regimental colonel.  A sense of dishonor was borne by the regiment when one of his officers, Lieutenant Wade, was accused of murdering his parents and three others while on leave in England.  He escaped back to India, disappeared, and was believed dead, before he could be brought to trial.  Ten years later, Bess is serving as a nurse on the front lines, a dying Indian ambulance driver recognized her and said he had seen Lt. Wade.  Knowing how painful the incident had been for her father at the time, Bess starts doing a bit of investigation; first to see whether Wade really is alive, and then to find out what really happened as her findings about him conflict with the supposed events.
 Normally, prologues seem disconnected and a bit annoying.  Not the case here.  This prologue was interesting, well-written and critical to the subsequent story.  It not only presents the characters and establishes their history, but it is a wonderful contrast in setting to that which follows.
The Todds’ have a wonderful way of introducing their characters.  Bess is capable, smart, understanding and independent.  However, she is also true to her period as she knows her actions could reflect on her parents, who are well known within her circle.  Simon, a regimental sergeant-major and aide to Beth’s father, is someone she’s known all of her life.  He is there to help her and protect her; not because she is weak and needful, but because it is appropriate in her position.  He is an intriguing character, about whose history we learn a bit as the story progresses, as is the Aussie Sergeant Larrimar, introduced in a previous book but makes a cameo appearance here.  Larrimar is someone you’d definitely want as a best friend or big brother.  I also very much appreciate that when actual historical figures are included, it is done in a realistic way.
The level of research done by the Todds’ is very apparent.  To say they create a strong sense of time and place would be an understatement.  We experience the numerous trips Bess makes between the front lines, field hospitals, taking patients back to England, and having break time in London and at home.  You feel her exhaustion and wonder at the sense of contrast between being in the trenches and being in a lovely English village.  What is interesting in their writing style is that, perhaps due to the voice being first person, it is not florid or emotional, but realistic and informative.  They neither sugar coat nor make the scenes horrendously brutal, yet all the emotion is there.  “…I dealt every day with life and death.  I’d watched men die who would have given everything they owned to live one more week, one more month, one more year. … It was heartbreaking, it was real, it was impossible sometimes to forget.”
Odd as it sounds, the Todds’ have, in Bess, created a character I respect.  She doesn’t make assumptions or fly blindly off, but takes time, requests help when needed, and searches out answers carefully and intelligently.  Better yet, she, and they, take you along, step-by-step through the investigation.  It makes the journey very satisfying, but not at all without suspense along the way.
“A Question of Honor” is a very good book; possibly my favorite in the series, so far.  That’s saying a lot for a series I’ve liked better with each new book.

A QUESTION OF HONOR (Hist Mys-Bess Crawford-France/England-1918) – VG
Todd, Charles – 5th in series
Wm. Morrow, 2013