Saturday, September 30, 2017

Wilful Behavior by Donna Leon

First Sentence: The explosion came at breakfast.
A student of Insp. Guido Brunetti’s wife, Paola, visits him inquiring whether someone who had been convicted of a crime and is now dead could be officially cleared if shown innocent. Brunetti is not given enough information initially, but the question peaks his interest. When the student, Claudia Leonardo, is murdered, the question goes from being a matter of curiosity to an investigation.
Leon is a wonderful writer. Her writing is intelligent, literary and thought provoking with cracking good dialogue. She is merciless toward the tempering of historical information, the corruption of the government and American tourists. She imbues her story with an underlying theme; in this case, honour.
Leon gives us such wonderful characters in Brunetti, about whose childhood we learn more, his wife, Paola, and the strength of their 20-year marriage, and the intriguing Signorina Elettra. One cares about her characters; not only the principals but, in this case, Claudia and her grandmother, because of the strength of her central, Brunetti. The city of Venice is almost another character in the story.
The sense of place is so strong as is the obvious love Brunetti has for his city, in spite of its faults. Yet, coming back to the theme of honour, Brunetti would have left his city because of a point of honour.  The descriptions of the family meals make one want to join them.
Under all this, is a well-plotted, fascinating, couldn’t-tell-where-it-was-going story. It is nice that the reader learns the information at the same time as Brunetti. When he is lead down the wrong path, so are we; when he begins to suspect, so do we.
Wilful Behavior” is another excellent book from of Ms. Leon.  The best part is there are many more books that follow.

WILFUL BEHAVIOUR (Pol. Prod.-Ins. Guido Brunetti-Venice, Italy-Cont) - Ex
      Leon, Donna – 11th in series
      Arrow Books, 2003

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Trace by Archer Mayor

First Sentence:  Jayla Robinson looked out across Albany’s Lancaster Street at the three matching brownstones opposite.
Joe Gunther, head of the Vermont Bureau of Investigation, needs to take his elderly mother to a hospital in the Midwest leaving his team with three very different cases; the medical examiner’s daughter’s roommate being murdered in their apartment, a closed double murder where it is now found isn’t as cut-and-dried as it originally appeared, and the discovery of three teeth and a burned-out battery found on a railroad track.
Mayor’s books contain a true ensemble cast of very individual characters.  By removing Gunther from center stage for most of the book, the other characters have a chance to shine.  Mayor’s descriptions tell us much more about each character than just their appearance or even background. 
That we also learn about their personalities plays a major role in the growth in the relationship of two characters. While one may not normally be a fan of a relationship focus in a mystery, it really does work here with growth and realization.  He doesn’t stint on the secondary characters, either.  The relationship Joe has with his brother Leo is very easy and realistic.
One thing about police procedurals is the fascinating things one learns.  In this case it is regarding planted fingerprints and about trains, as well as how the VBI—the Bureau of Criminal Investigations in the real world--interacts with other agencies. But Mayor is also very good about the small details.  Not only are they not boring, but often it’s the sort of thing where one things—“Oh, I’d forgotten about that.”  A lot of the methodologies and technologies employed are very clever.
Trace” contains three cases each of which is interesting and stands on its own with details and suspense building at a nice pace. It also ends with a nice homage to the vast majority of good, honest, hard-working police officers who really do work to protect and serve.

TRACE (Pol Proc-VBI Team-Vermont-Contemp) – G+
      Mayor, Archer – 28th in series
      Minotaur Books, Sept 2017

Sunday, September 24, 2017

An Echo of Murder by Anne Perry

First Sentence:  “It’s A bad one, sir.”
Comm. William Monk is called to the gruesome murder scene of a Hungarian warehouse owner who has been impaled with a bayonet-fixed rifle, his body surrounded by blood-dipped candles.  To assist his work with the Hungarian émigrés, Monk turns to a local bi-lingual pharmacist.  Young Scuff, an orphan taken in by the Monk’s, is studying to be a doctor.  A patient, who is English but knows Hungarian, comes in who knew Hester during the Crimea War. With more bodies found, fear and accusations grow.
Perry always creates a strong sense of place—“…the Pool of London was already busy.  Huge cranes lifted loads of bales from ships’ holds and swung them ponderously over to the docks. The water was congested with boats at anchor, waiting their turn; barges loading; ferries going back and forth from one side of the river to the other.”
While it may seem shocking to us now, one must remember that our opioids of today were the morphine and laudanum of the period and were commonly used.  What is hard is to read about some of the medical procedures of the time.  On the other hand, it is nice to be reminded of the tremendous contribution Florence Nightingale made to medicine. 
Perry excels at taking current issues and reminding us that plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose (the more things change, the more they stay the same).  In this instance, the issue is bigotry and the fear of those who are different from ourselves—“Some animals will kick to death the ones that are different,” he said very quietly. “a different color, a slightly different shape. Slower, perhaps.  There is something primal in us that fears anything unlike. … I would like to think we are better than the animals, but perhaps some of us are not.”—and the tendency for those who’ve come from somewhere else to establish communities—“There was a natural closeness they felt to those who shared their roots and memories and, above all, who understood the complicated nature of a hope for a new life in a new country.” 
A secondary element to the story is PTSD, although it wasn’t known as that at the time.  Perry doesn’t deal with it in an abstract way but delves into what those who suffer are subjected to such as flashbacks and nightmares. 
With all the drama of the killings and the medical issues, there is a lovely balance of the relationships; Monk’s with his second, Hooper—“Monk had seen it in extraordinary loyalty.  When everyone else had considered Monk guilty of error, and worse, Hooper had risked his own life to save him, not to mention his career to defend him.”; the Monk’s with Scruff, and certainly Monk with Hester—“The only thing Monk could think about was hot, fresh tea.  Hester had no need to ask.  “Cold beef and bubble and squeak for dinner?” she asked. “And I’ve got apple pie.” It was exactly what he wanted, especially the pie.”
It is the strength of the characters that brings everything together, and there is a very strong cast.  Many of the characters are recurring and well known to those who follow the series.  However, it is also very nice that she brought two wonderful characters from a recent Christmas novella forward into this book.
An Echo of Murder” is a very well done story that addresses important issues, is filled with strong characters, fascinating details, and a good twist at the end.  

 AN ECHO OF MURDER (Hist Mys-Thomas/Hester Monk-London-Victorian) – VG+
      Perry, Anne – 23rd in series
      Ballantine Books-Sept 2017

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Even Dogs in the Wild by Ian Rankin

First Sentence:  Eventually the passenger ejected the tape and tossed it on to the back seat.

DI Siobhan (Shiv-awn) Clark and Malcolm Fox, formerly with the Complaints bureau, have been assigned to investigate the death of, David Minton, a man with friends in high places.  It was clearly not an interrupted robbery since nothing is missing, but something was left behind; a threatening note.  Retirement doesn’t suit John Rebus and is happy to help Clark and Fox.  What he didn’t expect is a call from “Big Ger” Cafferty, a man Rebus would dearly love to put in prison.  Someone shot at Cafferty and left him a note with the same message that Minton received.
Although prologues can be an extremely annoying element, in this case, it does provide a rather intriguing opening. 
Rebus, as with most series, is best read in order as it allows one to show how the relationships have developed over time, such as the friendship between Clarke and Fox, and the new twist in the highly adverbial relationship between Rebus and Cafferty. That said, it is a credit to Rankin that he provides sufficient backstory on his characters that the books can be read as standalones without new readers feeling lost.
It is the characters who draw us in.  There is a sense of a moral code driving Rebus, Malcolm, and Clarke that makes them so strong and compelling.  They provide a good balance, one to the another, as well.  Where Rebus might be willing to bend the rules, Malcolm will not.  The addition of something as mundane as—“…a cardboard cup of scalding tea and a cling-film-tuna sandwich…” adds an element of normalcy and veracity.
Rankin’s dialogue is wonderful, particularly with his inclusion of wry humor—“Now, is there any chance you can get Jackie Stewart here to put the foot down?” His voice, in general, makes his books a real pleasure to read—“No detective wanted a lawyer to think they were more stupid than most lawyers already considered them to be.”  His descriptions are both evocative and pause-worthy—“Edinburgh had always seemed to Rebus a city that liked to keep its counsel and its secrets.”
“Even Dogs in the Wild” is such a good book filled with excellent characters and very good twists.  Rankin is an author who never disappoints.
EVEN DOGS IN THE WILD (Pol Proc-Rebus/Clarke/Fox-Scotland-Contemp) – VG+
      Rankin, Ian – 20th in series
      Little, Brown and Company, Jan 2016     

Monday, September 18, 2017

Secrets in Death by J.D. Robb

First Sentence:  It wouldn’t kill her.
Lt. Eve Dallas investigates homicides, but the victims don’t usually drop dead at her feet.  Larinda Mars is a “social information reporter”; i.e., a gossip columnist who clearly has an enemy since someone slashed one of Mars major arteries causing her to bleed out in the middle of an upscale bar.  Eve and her team are determined to find the killer.
Some readers have an issue with the bedroom scenes in this series.  “Outlander” author, Diana Gabaldon, provided an excellent perspective in her line reminding readers that sex is a normal part of an adult relationship and that “it is much more about emotion than the exchange of bodily fluids.”  That said, the scenes are easy to skip over without losing the thread of the plot.
The slightly futuristic world in which one finds oneself is just enough to provide for fun imaging, yet not so removed from our reality that it seems implausible.  As with much of science fiction, it is not impossible that some of the gadgets and technologies will ultimately be realized.

Robb creates excellent characters, not only in Eve, but the supporting characters of Roark, Galahad the cat, Mira, Peabody, and the rest of Eve's team.  However, it is about Summerset that we receive an interesting, and surprising, revelation.  
The primary attraction to the series is the characters, particularly Eve.  She is an interesting dichotomy between the tough, smart cop who is dedicated to standing in for the dead even when they may not have been good people themselves and the woman who is completely indifferent to her appearance and is unaware of many things outside her job. But she does know baseball.  
Secrets in Death” is an enjoyable read with a couple well-executed twists. It is more of a straight police procedural that some in the series.

NOTE:  If you read the hardcover edition, made certain to look at the back side of the paper dust cover.

 SECRETS IN DEATH (Pol Proc-Lt. Eve Dallas-NYC-Near Future) – G+
      Robb, J.D. – 45th in series
      St. Martin’s Press – Sept 2017

Friday, September 15, 2017

Another Man's Ground by Claire Booth

First Sentence:  The dispatch call said there was stripping going on in the woods, and the property owner was not happy about it.
Sheriff Hank Worth is in the midst of his re-election campaign when called out on a case of an unusual theft, but one of considerable value.  He is successful in keeping a certain aspect of the case quiet from the general populous until a body is found.
A very clever hook definitely captures one’s attention.  Booth then proceeds to provide some very interesting “who knew?” information.
Hank having to go through all the work of a political campaign provides an interesting look at what is involved and how manipulative they are.  There is a religious sensibility which runs through the story, but not in any way that is preachy or should cause anyone of any faith, or no faith, discomfort.
Booth’s depiction of a mother whose child has been missing is very effective and painful.  She conveys the eternal hope one would have even in the face of knowing the case is no longer a priority for law enforcement.
The team of officers is a true ensemble with Hank as its supportive lead, and one officer wanting to be involved—“But, man, was he in some kind of business, where getting handed two homicide cases improved an employee’s morale.”  Sheila, in particular, is a well-crafted character as a detective who is a good team member and one who truly cares about the victim.  All of the characters are very well developed. Hank’s relationships with his wife and with Lovinia, an older woman who shows up at every crime scene and is as wise as she is delightful, are very well presented.
“Another Man’s Ground” has murder, drugs, and politics in a wonderfully unpredictable plot.  This is a book once started won’t be put down until it’s finished.

ANOTHER MAN’S GROUND (Pol Proc-Sheriff Hank Worth-Branson Co., MO-Contemp) - Ex
      Booth, Claire – 2nd in series
      Minotaur Books, July 2017

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Quiet Child by John Burley

First Sentence:  Michael McCray squinted into the low-hanging sun as he swung the liberty blue Mercury four-door into the Century Grocery parking log off Gas Point Road.
Danny and Sen McCray are 6- and 10-years-old respectively when they go to the market with their father, Michael.  There have always been rumors about Danny, who doesn’t talk, being the cause of sickness in the town and to his own mother.  When a man steals McCray’s car, with the boys inside, Sheriff Jim Kent ignores those who say the town may be better off with Danny and sets off to help find the boys.
What a wonderfully deceptive story.  There is an oppressive spirit to both the characters and the setting—“Outside, the sun rose further in the sky, but despite the windows and open doorway, little of the light seemed to penetrate the dim interior.  To Jim’s eye, there was no architectural reason for why this should be so, only that this was what he’d come to recognize as a waiting house: a homestead turned inward, sheltering its occupants from crisis or illness, attempting to protect them until the worse of it passed.”    
One doesn’t realize how much technology has impacted even police work until faced with trying to trace a call in the1950s.  Burley makes even that information interesting. 
Jim Kent, the retired plumber turned town sheriff, is such a good character with his determination to find the missing children.  One wouldn’t mind seeing him again.

One doesn't want to say too much for fear of giving the story away.  It is a story of the actions to which superstition and desperation can lead.  Know, however, that one's astonishment? ...dismay? grows with each page.
“The Quiet Child” is completely engrossing.  It is a disturbing but very good read.

THE QUIET CHILD (Psy Thriller-Michael McCray-Cottonwood, CA-1954) – VG
      Burley, John – Standalone
      William Morrow, 2017

Sunday, September 10, 2017

By My Hand by Maurizio de Giovanni

First Sentence: The murderous hands work unhurriedly in the dim light.

Christmas is coming to Naples, a city now under a fascist regime and where people live in tremendous poverty in contrast to the luxurious apartment in which the bodies of a militia officer and his wife have been found. While searching out the killer, or killers, Commisaario Ricciardi is concerned for his elderly former nurse and torn between two women, while Brigadier Maione is dealing with a crisis of his own.

One does not enter gently into this story. Instead, one is nearly overwhelmed by the visual and narrative contrasts that attract and repel us. However, the one thing one does not do is stop reading.

The two principal characters of Ricciardi and Maione are such wonderful contrasts to one another, yet they balance each other perfectly. Maione provides a bit of light, whereas Ricciardi believes himself to be the dark due to his ability? curse? gift? of the Deed, which causes him to see the final seconds of those who’ve died by violence. What’s nice is that these final seconds don’t help Ricciardi solve the crimes, as the words only make sense in the end.

Supporting them is the always delightful Dr. Moto and his newly adopted dog; Bambinelle, Maione’s informant; Rosa, who has been with Ricciardi since his childhood; and Erica, the object of unrequited (so far) love on both parts. It is the balance between being a police procedural, and being a book about people and their relationships, that helps make this book so compelling.

The thoughts of the killer are chilling. While this is a device that can be intrusive, it works here and provides a frightening look at the dichotomy of the killer’s mind. In complete contrast Livia, the wealthy widow in love with Ricciardi, provide us a sense of place and a view of the people of Naples, “Waking up to the calls of the strolling vendors, the noise rising from the streets, the songs. And the smells, the thousands of pots bubbling busily away, the thousands of frying pans sizzling, the pastry shops competing to present their masterpieces. Everyone had dreamed up a calling, a profession; every one of them was trying to eke out a living.”

There are two principal grounding elements to the story; the crashing of the waves representing conflict, and Christmas with all the emotions surrounding it, which provides wonderful segues to increasingly more serious aspects of the story—“Christmas is an emotion. It’s a strong as a pounding heart, as light as a fluttering eyelash. But it can be swept away by a gust of wind and never come at all.” de Giovanni does a wonderful job of linking traditions of the present to those of the distant past, and of teaching us that about which we may not have known, such as the symbolism of, and meaning behind each figural element of the Nativity.

And, of course, being set in Italy, there is food—“boiling posts of the maccaronari, or macaroni vendors, and the posts of oil for the fried-pizza man, who also fried piping-hot panzarotti turnovers and potato croquettes…” Yet, there is also a wonderful definition of faith—“Our faith wasn’t made to erect barriers, walls, or iron bars between us and love; it was made to increase the presence of love in our lives so that we can give of ourselves and live in a state of communion…”

By My Hand” is a more serious book than its predecessors as it relates to the politics of the time: one senses the changes and coming threat with each book. It is also a very good murder mystery/police procedural. However, at its heart, it is a book about people and relationships, and motives. The motive here is a sad one, yet the resolutions of the conflicts related to the principle characters will warm your heart, and make you anxious to read the next book. It is Christmas, after all.

BY MY HAND (Hist Mys-Comm. Ricciardi/Brig. Maione-Naples-1931) – VG+
      de Giovanni, Maurizio – 5th in series
      Europa Editions, Aug 2014

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens

First Sentence:  I remember being pestered by a sense of dread as I walked to my car that day, pressed down by a wave of foreboding that swirled around my head and broke against the evening in small ripples.
 Joe Talbot’s college English course writing assignment to write a brief biography leads him to a local nursing home and Carl Iverson. Carl, dying of cancer, had been released from prison after being convicted of the rape and murder of a neighbor girl. Carl’s only condition is that both parties be honest.  As Joe digs into Carl’s conviction, the more he believes Carl.  He also finds there’s someone who doesn’t want that to happen.
Eskens as a wonderful voice which captures, and holds, one’s attention—“Oddly enough, my high-school guidance counsel never mentioned the word “college” in any of our meetings. …--maybe she knew who my mother was and figured that no one can change the sound of an echo.”  His descriptions make the ordinary come alive—“The archive room had the feel of a tabernacle, with millions of souls packed away on microfilm like the incense in tiny jars, waiting for someone to free their essence to be felt, tasted, inhaled again, if only for a moment.”—as does his strong sense of place—“The triplex apartment building I lived in had an ancient cellar that breathed dankness up through the floorboards, filling the structure with a pungency born of wet dirt mixed with the tang of rotting timber.
Eskens’ characters come to life.  They are fully developed and dimensional. As much as Eskens may tell us, one wants to know much more—“Are you talking about killing or murdering? “Is there a difference?” Mr. Iverson looked out the window as he pondered the question…”Yes,” he said. “There is a difference.  I’ve done both, I’ve killed…and I’ve murdered.” What’s the difference?” “It’s the difference between hoping that the sun rises and hoping that it doesn’t.” 
Joe is humanity and the defender.  He is the one who is always there for his autistic brother.  He is the one who doesn’t accept Carl at face value. He is the one willing to ask questions.  He is the one willing to dig into Carl’s case to find the truth.  Lila, Joe’s neighbor, starts out as the prosecutor, the common person who sees the label and judges.  It is to Eskens’ credit that her role changes as the story develops and as she looks beyond her preconceptions. 
There are elements of wisdom—“But we do have control of how much of our soul we leave behind in this mess.”  There is also a metaphorical ticking clock, and actions by Joe which fall into the too-stupid-to-live category, which is rather amusing from a male character, but both elements add tremendous tension.  Unfortunately, there are also a lot of coincidences.  The ending is a bit over the top, but it also makes one smile.
The Life We Bury” is a wonderful read with much to recommend it; the author’s voice, interesting characters, and excellent suspense. One will want to read more by this author.

THE LIFE WE BURY (Trad Mys-Joe Talbert-Minnesota-Contemp) – VG+
      Eskens, Alan -Standalone
       Seventh Street Books, Oct, 2014

Monday, September 4, 2017

Marathon by Brian Freeman

First Sentence:  The backpack is proudly made in the USA.
It is the annual running of the marathon in Duluth but what should be a joyous event becomes deadly when a bomb explodes.  The immediate assumption, promoted by a spectator who swears a Muslim man who bumped into him was the bomber, and an anti-Muslim extremist with a large public following, leads to more deaths.  But what is the truth?  That’s up to Jonathan Stride and his team to find out.
Freeman has given us a book that couldn’t be more relevant.  It is also a book that can be emotionally painful to read.
Each of the characters comes with baggage which often colors their view and informs their actions.  An interesting observation is made as to how young Muslim men can become dissatisfied and, therefore, radicalized—“Drive all day, pray, go to the mosque, share an apartment with four other ex-Pakistanis with similar lives.  Looking back on those days, he understood how young men could go wrong.  He wasn’t starving, but he had no clear purpose, and the purposeless life yearned for any kind of meaning.”  
This is an excellent look at the results of assumptions, ignorance, and prejudice—“A bomb explodes, and Muslims are guilty until proven innocent. …You accuse us of not sharing American values, but at the first sign of trouble, you jettison those values yourself.” As a result, innocent people die. There are lessons to be learned here, including that freedom of speech can be an action with consequences as deadly as a bomb.
Marathon” may be viewed as political but is, in fact, a highly suspenseful, with strong characters and some very good twists.  

MARATHON (Pol Proc-Stride/Dial/Bei-Duluth, MN-Contemp) – VG
      Freeman, Brian – 8th in series
      Quercus – May 2017

Friday, September 1, 2017

I Know a Secret by Tess Gerritsen

First Sentence:  When I was seven years old, I learned how important it is to cry at funerals.
Detective Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner Maura Isles have two murders to investigate.  Although they occurred in separate locations and no connection seems to exist between the two victims, there is a commonality in their wounds.  Maura Isles' biological mother, is an imprisoned serial killer who is dying of cancer.  What is the meaning of her cryptic message to Maura?
Such a well-done beginning.  It is one filled with very intriguing information and leaves one with many questions—“You’ll find another one soon.”-- to which one wants answers.
Third-person, anonymous narration is a writer’s element; i.e., trick, which can be annoying, and disruptive to the flow and tension of the story.  Bear with it, however, as it not only makes sense but leads one down an unexpected path.
Gerritsen really knows how to write natural dialogue.  It serves many purposes, even to indicate the difference in educational backgrounds between Isles and Rizzoli—“Bilateral globe enucleation,” said Mura softly. “Is that some kind of fancy medical talk for someone cut out her eyeballs?” “Yes.”
The dialogue is only one aspect of Gerritsen’s literary voice.  Excellent analogies is another—“Cops were like terrorists.  They tossed devastating bombs into the lives of victims’ friends and families, and then they stood around to watch the damage they’d done.
Learning about the families of the protagonists gives them dimension and life.  It makes them vulnerable and realistic.  If one has a character who is Italian, one can also be ensured of large meals with good food—“The leg of lamb was studded with garlic cloves and roasted to a perfect medium rare.  Surrounding it were bowls of crisp rosemary potatoes, green beans with almonds, three different salads, and homemade dinner rolls.”  Yet one is also reminded that cops don’t get Christmas off.
A fascinating benefit of Gerritsen’s novels, due to her background, is the medical and scientific information one learns.  It takes the investigative information just another step up. 
The plot is so skillfully developed.  The investigation is layers built on layers.  It is refreshing even when theories are developed that don’t prove out…or do they?  There are definitely “Wow!” moments, and the twists keep coming, one of which could not have been more unexpected. What is particularly enjoyable is that they don’t feel contrived, although you know Gerritsen labored long and hard on them, because the logic works.
I Know a Secret” is an excellent book.  It is skillfully plotted with twists that give definite “Wow!” moments.  Gerritsen is a “must read” author.

I KNOW A SECRET (Pol Proc-Rizzoli/Isles-Boston-Contemp) – Ex
      Gerritsen, Tess – 12th in series
      Ballentine Books, Aug 2017