Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Smaller and Smaller Circles by F.H. Batacan

First Sentence: Some days I just can’t seem to focus.

The body of a young boy is found in Payatas, a massive dump where people, especially young boys, scavenge for their existence. The severely mutilated body has been brought to Father Gus Saenz, a Jesuit priest and respected forensic anthropologist. However, this isn’t a singular case and Father Gus, along with his friend, psychologist Father Jerome Lucero, is asked by the Director of the National Bureau of Investigation to help find the killer.

One should not bypass the initial page, or the subsequent transition pages, as these provide insight and a bit of humanity to the killer and, in fact, add to the story’s suspense. However, this is also one of those times when the prologue really works. In the midst of horror, there is note of tenderness and caring which establishes the tone of the story.

Batacan has created a strong cast of characters. Father Gus is frustrated by the Church turning a blind eye to a pedophile priest, Father Jerome who started as Saenz’ student and is now his friend; Director Lastimosa, the elderly head of the NBI, the very egotistic and ambitious Attorney Ben Arcinas, and reporter Joanna Bonifacio who was also a former student of Saenz. The combination works to bring the story truly to life, and the animosity between some of the characters is palpable; a sign of excellent writing.

It is interesting to learn about the culture and policing in the Philippines. One can’t help but notice the focus on bathing and snacks, but we also learn of the complete inadequacy of their record keeping, technology, and inability to deal with missing persons. Much of that goes to explaining why the Director of the NBI would turn to the Father Saenz for help.

The author’s descriptions are so well done yet often difficult to read…”the man’s left shoulder touches the woman’s right one, but the corresponding hips don’t touch, as though they’re used to leaving room there for a child…”, particularly when dealing the sights and smells of the dump as contrasted by the evening at the opera with the elite. The contrast is very well done. Batacan’s inclusion of the meeting with the mothers and families of the child victims lends a poignancy and humanity to the story.

There are three, equally important, threads to the story; the murders, political power-mongering, and the irresponsibility of the Church’s insufficient handling of internal corruption and criminality; particularly pedophilia. The forensic information is fascinating. It also provides a very small look into the dictatorship under which the Philippines had previously lived.

Batacan’s dialogue is so well done. The very natural…”You have to wonder what ones on in people’s heads.” “No, I don’t,” Saenz says, pouring Jerome a cup of coffee. “And I’m a much happier man for it. Come, sit, sit. No use complaining about the world’s free press-we fought for it, we got it, now we have to live with the nonsense that it spews out.”, and often humorous, exchanges between the two priests provides much-needed lightness to a very dark story, and solidifies the close friendship between the two men.

While many may guess the identity of the killer, and the events of the climax are rather unsurprising, it is very powerful, effective, moving and not without a good degree of suspense. The offshoot is sadly common everywhere, yet confirms that we must hope, always hope, for change.

Smaller and Smaller Circles” is a very good, well-written book, and one which is a very affecting read.

SMALLER AND SMALLER CIRCLES (Myst-FF Saenz and Lucero-Manila-Contemp) - VG+
Batacan, F.H. – 1st book
Soho Crime – Aug, 2015

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Plague Maiden by Kate Ellis

First Sentence: The intruder stood quite still and listened.

In 1991, a man was convicted of murdering the Reverend Shipbourne during the course of a robbery. Now, many years later, a letter appears at the police station addressed to the former Chief Inspector claiming there is evidence the man was innocent. The police already have one case on their hands of someone placing tampered, poisoned food on the shelves of the local supermarket, and another case where a quite recent body is found during the archaeological dig of a plague pit.

The story does open with a prologue—suspenseful, thrilling, and compelling without giving anything away or having been lifted from the middle of the story. Instead, it sets the stage and carries us willingly forward into the first chapter. At the same time, contrary as this seems, the book also could have done without it as the opening chapter also performs the same function.

Although the book is designated as a “Wesley Peterson murder mystery,” this really is an ensemble cast. What’s nice is that they are individuals, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, personal issues, and habits. In other words, they are very human. How can one not like a pathologist who insists on a cuppa and biscuit before discussing autopsy findings?

Ellis does have a very good ear for dialogue, adding just the right touch of wryness…”Perhaps we should have a word with ex-DCI Norbert, then.” “That’d be difficult unless you’re thinking of holding a séance…”

There are three threads, from three periods of time but all woven together in the present. The historical and archaeological information is fascinating, including the chapter-opening diary excerpts. The plot twists are very well done and the conclusion effective. Ellis has a remarkable ability to establish a feeling of empathy in the reader, even toward those who killed. She doesn’t ask us to excuse their crimes, but to understand them. Yet she then turns that emotion around with an act of complete heartlessness that is like a punch to the gut.

The Plaque Maiden” is a very good, well plotted mystery of secrets, lies, human weaknesses and regrets.

THE PLAGUE MAIDEN (Pol Proc/Archeo-DI Wesley Peterson-England-Contemp) – VG
Ellis, Kate – 8th in series
Piatkus, 2004

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Angel Killer by Andrew Mayne

First Sentence: “You’re going to die.”

A hacker took down an FBI website leaving a mysterious code found to be GPS coordinates which take them to a cemetery in Michigan where it appears a dead girl crawled out of her own grave. Even more mysterious is that the pathologist declares the woman only died hours before, she is identified by the victim’s parents as someone who died years prior to that. The FBI brings in Agent Jessica Blackwood, formerly a highly-successful third generation magician and illusionist, to tell them how the crime could have been done. Thus begins an exciting, and dangerous, journey of tricks…and more deaths; possibly even Jessica’s.

Mayne has a very powerful, compelling voice that pulls you in and keeps you there, even when you’d rather turn away.

One is immediately drawn to the protagonist; her caring and warmth. Mayne skillfully relates her backstory as an integral part of the story; and her background is intriguing. The flashbacks to the Jessica’s stage career not only provide a look as to what formed her personality and the level of her skills. Jessica’s self-deprecation and resistance to being placed in the foreground is refreshing. She doesn’t want to be seen as heroic and is always questioning the validity of her ideas. Yet it is also nice for a protagonist to be supported, as she is, by her superiors and other team members. The secondary character of Damian Knight—her psychopathic sidekick, as it were—is one who is both compelling and very scary.

Also intriguing is that the story is told in first person so that readers aren’t given the protagonists first name—unless you read the back cover—until quite far into the story. It’s rather too bad the book jacket spoils the sense of mystery.

Mayne provides us with fascinating information on the behind-the scenes look at the practice and methodologies of magicians and illusionists. It’s done in such a way that it is a natural part of the story and serves to move the plot forward. He has a natural ear for dialogue, both internal and spoken, and his wry humor is often a perfect antidote to the tension of the situation…”Nobody needs to know how out of place I am. They’ll figure that out for themselves soon enough.”

The plot is not perfect, thrilling though it is. There is a “tell” that allows readers to see what is coming before the characters do, and there’s one major coincidence. The biggest question, as one supposes it is supposed to be, is Damian’s role. The use of him is a bit too convenient as a way to direct the investigation without the use of real procedural work being done.

Angel Killer” is engrossing, suspenseful, and very exciting with a wonderful protagonist and a promise of things to come.

ANGEL KILLER (Pol Proc-Agent Jessica Blackwood-US-Contemp) – VG+
Mayne, Andrew – 1st in series
Bourbon Street Books - 2012

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Property of a Lady by Sarah Rayne

First Sentence: Michael, Is there any possible chance you could sneak a day or two away from Oxford and take a look at a house for me?

Oxford Professor Michael Flint receives a letter from his American friends asking him to check out an old house in Shropshire that has been empty and derelict for years, but has been found to now belong to his friend’s wife. Charect House is in decidedly poor condition, but it’s more than that which causes Michael to be uncomfortable during his visit. Who is watching him? Why does he hear a clock ticking where there is none, and who is the woman captured at an attic window by his photograph? Things become even more puzzling when Michael meets antique dealer Nell West, a young widow with a daughter the same age as his friends', and both girls are having the same nightmare, an ocean apart.

Do you like “Ghost Hunters,” a show which tries first to debunk claims, or find a rational explanation for them and if they can’t, then it “might” be paranormal. That is the type of paranormal mystery you’ll find here? There is plenty to raise the hair on your arms and has a sufficient creepy factor, but it is not bloody or gory. From the very beginning, and the definition of the house’s name, you know there will be suspense and things that go bump and in the night…and in the day.

Rayne has such a natural voice. By opening with the exchange of letters, we learn quite a bit about Dr. Michael Flint. He is well educated, something of a luddite, and has a cat, Wilberforce, about whom he creates wonderful adventures. It is that sort of detail with adds humor and light to an otherwise eerie situation. With Nell West and her daughter, we are provided their history, the tragedy that befell them, and how Nell rebuilt her life for the two of them.

It is wonderful that the two characters are normal people; neither overly brave, but neither is foolhardy. It is curiosity—a desire for answers—that drives them on and wanting to ensure there will be safety for themselves, Michael's friends, and most of all, the two girls. That there is a bit of a romance doesn’t hurt at all. Rayne is a very literary writer occasionally driving one to a dictionary…”welter of jingoism…” or the internet to do research of one’s own.

There is a very strong sense of place and atmosphere…”The scent of age met Michael at once, and it was so strong that for a moment he felt his senses blur. But this was not the musty dankness of damp or rot; this was age at its best and most evocative; a potpourri of old seasons timbers and long-ago fires, and a lingering scent of dried lavender.”

This is a first book and it is not perfect. Although always interesting, there is too much “telling” through letters and diaries, than showing the reader the events. Even so, without the book being set in multiple time periods, I’m not certain that could have been avoided.

Property of a Lady” is a wonderful paranormal mystery with just the right balance of light and dark that leaves you with a “bump in the night” moment at the very end.

PROPERTY OF A LADY (Par Mys-Michael Flint/Nell West-England-Contemp) – VG
Rayne, Sarah – 1st in series
Severn House, 2011

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Memory Man by David Baldacci

First Sentence: Amos Decker would forever remember all three of their violent deaths in the most paralyzing shade of blue.

Amos Decker made it to the NFL, but suffered a hit in his first game that killed him; twice. He was revived and forever changed. His second career was as a police detected. That career nearly destroyed his life when his family was murdered, and Amos ended up in the bottle and on the street. Just starting to put himself back together and working as a freelance PI, Decker is called back to help the Police after a man confesses to the murder of his family. Is it a lie, or can Decker finally learn the truth?

The opening chapter is wonderfully written yet excruciatingly difficult to read. Baldacci perfectly balances both the horror and the pain of protagonist, Amos Decker. He draws a painfully accurate picture of a person hitting rock bottom, and then working to survive and rebuild.

Decker is a strong protagonist and a memorable one, both for his perspective…”How can killing so many people ever make sense?” she said hotly. “It doesn’t have to make sense to us. Just to the ones who did it.”…and for the conditions of synesthesia (seeing people as colors) and hyperthymesia (being able to recall almost every day of their lives in near perfect detail, as well as public events that hold some personal significance to them) with which he now must live. Although they help him in solving crimes, it’s hard to imagine trying to live with them.

It is fascinating watching the way Decker tracks the motive of the case back into the past. Baldacci likes plot twists. One finds oneself thinking you know where he’s going, and he may go partway where you expect, but it’s a tease as he doesn’t quite go there. The result of the twist at the end is definitely not expected.

No matter what else, the climax is brutal, yet unexpected and very well done. The final chapter is touching the very gratifying.

Memory Man” has great characters, well done suspense, excellent plot twists and leaves one anxious for the next book.

MEMORY MAN (PI-Amos Decker-Burlington-Contemp) – VG+
Baldacci, David – 1st in series
Grand Central Publishing – April 2015