Thursday, March 29, 2018

Darkness Sing Me a Song by David Housewright

First Sentence:  She was tall, slender, impeccably tanned; strawberry hair fell in waves to her shoulders.
Wealthy and socially important Eleanor Barrington has been arrested for the murder of her son Joel’s fiancée, Emily Denys.  PI Holland Taylor has been hired to help the defense law firm by investigating Emily’s background, only to find she doesn’t have one.  That’s not the only mystery.  Bigger questions revolve around the relationship between the mother and son, and where, if at all, does Joel’s sister Devon fit into things, and whether a controversial business deal is involved.  This case is much more than Taylor, still recovering from the death of his wife and daughter, and the breakup of a recent relationship, expected.
The best story is one which starts on page one, although I was amused by the typo on page six in the hardcover copy, and dives right it.  It is a classic story for a reason.  What also works is the reader being set up with one expectation and then story taking a twist within the first two paragraphs.
Housewright weaves the backstory of the characters into the text and dialogue in a manner where it is intriguing rather than disruptive.   While some of the characters are quite disturbing, Ogilvy the rabbit, Mandy Wedermeyer, the 14-year-old neighbor, her mom Claire, and Taylor’s parents add balance and made Taylor more real. 
Taylor is a great character and one that is fully developed.  He has a past impacts which present.  He is a person one would want to know, and there are some nice moments of realization—“I don’t think she was interested in me so much as she craved human contact, which seemed to prove that it isn’t how many people you meet, it’s how many you connect with that matters.”
There is a very well-done inclusion of environmental issues related to fracking, water, and land usage which bring contemporary relevance to the story.  One minor criticism is that there are times when following a conversation can become confusing as to whom is speaking.
 “Darkness Sing me a Song” includes relationships which are uncomfortable, has very effective plot twists, and a powerful, rather sad, ending.

DARKNESS SING ME A SONG (PI-Holland Taylor-Twin Cities-Contemp) – G+
      Housewright, David – 4th in series
      Minotaur Books – January 2018 

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The Paris Librarian by Mark Pryor

First Sentence:  The note sat beside his coffeemaker, the elegant handwriting unmistakable.
Hugo Marston's friend asks him for a favour.  Her friend, a journalist, wants to write a book about a famous actress who was allegedly a spy during WWI.  Her collection of papers has been donated to the American Library in Paris.  When Hugo goes to meet his friend in charge of the collection, he finds the friend’s dead body inside a locked room in the basement.  Although ruled natural causes, Hugo is suspicious, and all the more so when another person dies.  Who is really behind these deaths and what is the motive?
Coming late into a series, one appreciates an author who quickly, and naturally, provides details about the protagonist, their job, and their relationships.  Pryor does that very well and in an economical fashion.  However, the best thing we discover about Marston is his passion for rare first editions.  Pryor captures perfectly the feeling book lovers have—“Hugo had often thought libraries were akin to places of worship, his version of church, where reverence and peace enveloped him like a blanket.”
The diversity of the characters is refreshing, as is the matter-of-fact way in which they are handled.  Hugo’s observations and deductions are fun and remind us how much is evident if we take the time to observe—“Hugo winked. “Elementary, my dear Tom.  Those pictures of him online, he’s wearing nice clothes, expensive ones.  And three different watches, all more than I can afford.  But for a journalist his work is sparse and not very high-profile, so he has disposable income but isn’t married and isn’t a big shot.”  “Hence, family.” 
There is an excellent insight about war—“In a real war, in that real war, the truth was more complicated.  People did what they had to do to survive.  People did things they were later ashamed of, but at the time maybe they had no choice.”  We are given several small truths such as—“A colleague of his at the FBI had once told Hugo that if all you had were questions and no answers, you were looking in the wrong direction, seeding the wrong thing.”--and—“Anytime an accident turns out to be murder, well, you wonder if you’ve discovered a moment of evil.”--which provide insight both to the character and to the author himself.  For those who have not read previous books in the series, there is a nice summary of Hugo’s history with the FBI that explains some of his skills.
There is also humor, delightfully wry humour and very good dialogue—“…when Hugo slipped into the front seat he was surprised to hear the man introduce himself in English. “Paul Jameson.  Nice to meet you, sir.”  Hugo shook his hand. “You’re English?” “God no,” Jameson said with a wink. “Scotsman.” “Hugo laughed. “Sorry for the offense.” “Just don’t let it happen again,” Jameson said.” 
Pryor incorporates French phrases with their English translations throughout the story.  Doing so, along with the mention of famous streets and landmarks, establishes the sense of place and adds veracity to the book.  The phrases also provide a bit of a French language lesson, n'est-ce pas?  Being in Paris, there is also food, tantalizing food such as puff pastry filled with fois gras.  There is a delightful inside joke which some may catch.  Authors published by Seventh Street often include references to fellow Seventh Street authors. In this case, it's Terry Shames and James Ziskin.  

Hugo is a very interesting and appealing character.  However, it's his girlfriend, Camille, one may wish had been more present.  She is a wonderful character.
 “The Paris Librarian” is a very well-done mystery with skillful red herrings and one of the best rescue scenes ever.

      Pryor, Mark – 6th in series
      Seventh Street Books – Aug 2016

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Fade to Black by David Rosenfelt

First Sentence:  Social workers asked him for his name when they gave him a meal, or if he checked in for a cot on a particularly cold night, but they wrote it down without paying much attention.
Officer Doug Brock suffered retrograde amnesia after being shot in the line of duty.  He’s back at work, even with gaps in his memory, but has the help of his partner, Nate Alvarez, and girlfriend Jessie, a state police lieutenant with the cyber division.  To aid in his recovery, he attends an amnesia support group.  Fellow member Sean Connor approaches Doug asking him to look at what seems to be the scrapbook of a murder victim he’d found in his attic.  Doug receives permission to reopen a cold case, discovering a connection to his own past.
It’s interesting when an author makes you take not and consider from the very beginning.  In this case, it’s about people who work in any type of social services.  The shock of that which follows fully captivates one’s attention.
Rosenfelt’s uses language well—“Even though I’ve been spending so much time here, I still enter warily.  That’s because Jessie’s dog, Bobo, doesn’t seem thrilled by my being around.  “He’s never been aggressive toward me; he just stares at me with a barely concealed disdain.” 
He writes in short, quick chapters that flow well from one to the next.  The premise of the story is fascinating.  One keeps running into twists and small “wow” moments, although the direction the plot takes seems a bit cliché.  Still, it is very well done.
The characters are real and relatable.  It’s nice to have a team of people who all work together, both internally, cross-departmentally, and even across state lines.  Some of the details are a bit questionable, but it all works, even though the actual climax seems a bit anti-climatic.  
Fade to Black” has a very good escalation of suspense.  One is caught off guard when the link is made between the two segments of the plot.

FADE TO BLACK (Pol Proc-Officer Doug Brock-New Jersey-Contemp) – Good
      Rosenfelt, David – 2nd in series
      Minotaur Books – March 2018

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Grave's a Fine and Private Place by Alan Bradley

First Sentence:  I am on my deathbed.
Flavia de Luce, her two sisters and Dogger, their loyal family servant, go on holiday to the hamlet of Volesthorpe.  Drifting in a boat on the river, hand in the water, Flavia becomes snagged on what she imagines is Hemingway’s great marlin from “The Old Man and the Sea.” True to it being Flavia is the discovery that her hand is caught in the mouth of a corpse.  The dead man was the son of the local church’s Canon, who was hanged for poisoning three of his parishioners; the church ladies. But was the Canon really guilty?  And who killed his son? What better than a murder investigation to take Flavia’s mind off her troubles?
The first thing one should remember about Flavia is that she is 12 years’ old, brilliant and highly dramatic.  She is also wonderfully written by Bradley who has created the perfect voice for her, and the perfect opening.  As with most series, one does best to read the books in order.  However, Bradley ensured first-time readers are fully introduced to the characters, their roles, and are brought quickly up to date.
Some may find Flavia’s viewpoint a bit uncomfortable—“Most people probably never stop to think about why our burial places are so green.  But if they ever did, their faces might turn the very shade of that graveyard grass… For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return,” the Bible tells us. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” says The Book of Common Prayer. But both of these books, having been written mostly in good taste, fail to mention either the stinking jelly or the oozing liquids and the gaseous phases through which each of us must pass on our way to the Great Beyond.” Yet for others of us, it is that perspective which makes her unique and delightful, and the way in which Flavia comes across the first body is very bit Flavia.
Bradley’s use of humor shows through in most situation, including his metaphors—“But, believe it or not, at that very instant, an idea came flying out of nowhere and landed on my head, like a pigeon on a statue of Lord Nelson.”  The inclusion of rare and unusual bits of information, such as how one can cause oneself to blush, add to that which makes Bradley’s writing so delightful.
We do see changes and growth in the characters.  It is nice that we see a new side of Flavia’s sister, Feeley, at the same time as does she.  We realize that Dogger is, in some ways, an older and more experienced version of Flavia.  Although set in the 1950s, we are made aware of how recent was WWII, and of the war's impact through Dogger’s incident with PTSD.  It’s nice to see him develop as a character who is coming into his own.  He is observant, rather wise; a father-figure, friend, and advisor to Flavia—“I love it when Dogger talked like this.  It made me feel that we were partners.”  Flavia is gaining some self-awareness and is maturing, yet Flavia is a character one either loves, or finds rather terrifying or both.
In spite of the title and the humor, this is no cozy.  The mystery, and the investigation, is well-plotted and executed, with red herrings and well-done suspense.  Bradley always plays fair with the readers, laying out the clues as we read. 
The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place” is a captivating and delightful read, with a maturing Flavia, and a wonderful ending that leaves one very anxious for the next book.

THE GRAVE’S A FINE AND PRIVATE PLACE (Hist Mys-Flavia de Luce- England-1952) – VG+
      Bradley, Alan – 9th in series
      Delacorte Press, Jan 2018

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Shadow Play by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

First Sentence:  Where roads and railways cross old established ground, there are bound to be odd triangles left over, too small or too ill-favoured for development.
A well-dressed corpse with no identification turns up in the yard of an auto repair shop.  The owner can’t identify him, nor does the flash-drive the police find in the victim’s pocket although it suggests he was blackmailing an MP associated with an important government project.  The autopsy exposes a man whose injuries are at odds with his appearance.  Was he working for someone else?  It’s up to Inspector Bill Slider and his team to find the answers.
There is nothing better than a clean opening; no prologue, just straight into the story and, in this case, the crime.  An observations point for those who are Anglophiles is how nice it is to have a British mystery which hasn’t been Americanized either in spelling or in vocabulary—“Lots of tyre tracks,”—although do have a sweater, rather than a jumper.  Or do Brits use the term "sweater"?  Someone will tell me.
The author’s wry humor is always in evidence, as well as her use of dialect to establish a character’s geographic, education, and economic background—“Ooh, look who it is.  I ‘ope we’re no in dutch,’ Mrs. Sid said jocularly.  …’We ha’n’t got any tofu, darlin’.’—but never so that it is cumbersome to read.  Her descriptions of people are a treat—”in the entrance foyer was a very large bald bouncer.  His shoulders and chest were big enough to warrant their own postcode, and made the rest of this body appear unnaturally tapered.  He looked like what you’d get if you shaved a buffalo.” CH-E is very good at bringing all her characters to life.
One of the great appeals of Harrod-Eagles books is the characters and that she has created a true ensemble cast.  We come to know each member of Slider’s team, and appreciate how each has their individual role within the team, but that they work as a unit.  Yet the cast also extends to their personal relationships; their families.  The characters are truly well-developed, each with their own personalities, such as Porson, Slider’s boss, with the way in which he mangles clichés—“You ought to be seeing the light for the trees by now.’  But in the end, it is still Slider who leads the team and demonstrates the reason why he is in charge, such as his deduction of how to find what the killer sought. 
The balance between working the case and the teams’ personal lives, particularly Slider’s is nicely done.  Even though it plays a smaller role in this book than previous ones, it always adds a realism to brightness to the story.
CH-E’s insights are another of the many attractions to her writing—“Slider drifted a little, thinking about mankind’s propensity to turn any investigation to harmful purpose. … Oh, Mankind! Would you ever get your act together?”.  She thinks about the small things:  not only in the crime and it’s detection, but about society in general—“...the catch-up meeting was held over lunch in the CID room. …All human life is here, Slider thought.  "You could write a treatise about how the lunchtime sarnie is a window on the soul.”  A line toward the end really does say it all—“The absurdity of human ambition and human endeavor never failed to strike Slider.”
 “Shadow Play” is a very well-written, solid police procedural with excellent characters, humor, and things about which to think.

SHADOW PLAY (Police Proc-Bill Slider-England-Contemp) – VG
      Harrod-Eagles, Cynthia – 20th in series
      Severn House – Feb 2018

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Woman in the Water by Charles Finch

First Sentence:  For a little more than an hour on the May morning in 1850, the only sound in the flat in St. James’ Square was the rustling of newspapers, punctuated occasionally by the crisp shear of a pair of sharpened scissors through newsprint.
Twenty-three-year-old Charles Lenox, with the assistance of his valet Graham, is working to establish himself as a detective but is having little success until an anonymous writer’s letter appears in the newspaper.  The author claims to have committed the perfect murder, and that he will kill again.  After insinuating himself into the Yard’s investigation, and with locating a second victim, the killer threatens directly threatens Lenox and those he holds dear.
Establishing a sense of time from the start moves one from being a reader to feeling part of the story—“There were two men at the highly polished breakfast table by the window… Both were too intent upon their work to glance out…at the panoramic view of the soft spring day; the shy sunlight; the irregular outlines of the two nearby parks, lying serene within the smoke and stone of the city; the new leaves upon the trees, making their innocent green way into life, on branches still so skinny that they quivered like the legs of foal.”  

The introduction of Lenox and Graham defines their relationship and expands on the feeling of being a participant.  One is also introduced to Elizabeth, Lenox’ friend, and to Finch’s wonderful voice and wry humor.
It is nice getting to know the young Lenox and his family.  The banter with his mother and housekeeper allow for lightness against the darkness of the plot.  It is also nice to see how he developed as a detective.
The information on the distinction of the classes is worked in very cleverly through a tactful conversation with Graham—“We were smacked on the hand if we wrote crookedly, at Harrow, with the chalk.  In its chalk-holder, a great long wooden rod.”  “Sir?”  Lenox elaborated.  “Well, it’s only at the free schools that one is taught to write line upon line.”  Learning how the name of Scotland Yard came to be is an interesting bit of history.  Still, one has to be amused at Lenox’ irritation at the ungrammatical headline—“Nevertheless, the headline had managed an error in its scant seven words.  On the Thames River – doubtful, Lenox thought, that anyone had been murdered on the Thames River.”      
The case itself is intriguing, particularly with the second victim.  There is an interesting twist related to the killer and the victims.  The climax is exciting and very clever. 
The Woman in the Water” is a delightful look into how it all began.  Finch plays fair with the reader, but the clues are subtle and easy to miss, particularly with the emotional aspect of the story demanding our attention. 

THE WOMAN IN THE WATER (Hist Mys-Charles Lenox-London-1850) - VG
      Finch, Charles – Series Prequel
      Minotaur Books – Feb 2018

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart

First Sentence:  Our troubles began in the summer of 1914, the year I turned thirty-five.
Constance Kopp and her two sisters live on a farm in New Jersey.  While in town, their buggy is rammed by an automobile driven by Henry Kaufman head of the Kaufman Silk Dying Company.  The harder Constance tries to collect the money due them for damages, the more intense and violent become the threats and attacks on the sisters, causing Constance to seek help from the police and Sheriff Heath.  But refusing to pay damages is not only crime of which Kaufman and his gang are guilty.
It’s always a pleasure to come across a book based on real people and cases, and Constance Kopp someone one can’t help but like from the outset.  She is capable and doesn’t allow herself to be intimidated.  In fact, all the characters are intriguing.  How can one not enjoy Fleurette’s sass or Norm’s ingenuity? 
Stewart paints a painfully accurate picture of life for unmarried women of this time, and of life for workers in mill towns.  However, it is also important to remember that Constance’s experience is not atypical for women today as well.
The plot is very well done.  Constance’s past is very skillfully woven in revealing layers and details of her life as the story evolves.  The way in which Constance receives her training from everyone, at every step along the way is fascinating.  There is also a thought-provoking lesson on people’s sense of duty—“I couldn’t understand how anyone would take hold of a stranger and pout out their troubles.  But now I realized that people did it all the time.  They called for help.  And some people would answer, out of a sense of duty, and a sense of belonging to the world around them.”
The newspaper articles interspersed within the story are an excellent insight into journalism of the time.  The fact that they are real, as were the letters included, makes them even better.
 “Girl Waits with Gun” is a well-done and fascinating story.  It’s a perfect example of fact as a basis for fiction.

GIRL WAITS WITH GUN (Hist Mys-Constance Kopp-New Jersey-1914) - VG+
      Stewart, Amy – 1st of series
      Houghton Mifflin Harcourt – Sept 2015

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

The Gate Keeper by Charles Todd

First Sentence:  Ian Rutledge drove through the night, his mind only partly on the road unwinding before him.
After leaving his sister’s wedding, restlessness sends Inspector Ian Rutledge driving on deserted roads in the middle of the night.  He doesn’t expect to come across a stopped motorcar, a dead man, and a woman with blood on her hands who claims an unknown man suddenly appeared in front of their car and shot her companion, Stephen Wentworth.  Rutledge takes on the investigation for Scotland Yard and learns of a man liked by most but labeled a murderer by his own family.  And how does a second death tie in?
What an excellent beginning.  While the essentials of setting, situation, and characters are there, one also feels vulnerability and loneliness.  Those who have followed the series, there have been glimpses, but here we truly see the man behind the policemen, and the dead he carries in his mind as he comes upon someone who is truly dead.
Todd is very good at creating an environment—“The next morning was dismally wet.  It had warmed in the night enough to bring an early fog with it.  Nothing like the London fogs,… Still, this one was enough to keep anyone by his hearth who had no particularly pressing business elsewhere.” Part of what makes Rutledge such an interesting character is his introspection and insightfulness—“The bereaved often saw their dead a someone more than human, above reproach, possessor of all the virtues.”  We are also reminded of how cruel parents can be to their children, even without physical violence.
Although set after WWI, Todd uses the theme of the war to exemplify the idiocy of those “senior officers, who make plans” and the cost on human lives, both of those who were killed, and often of those who survive.  The issue of shell shock (PTSD) plays a significant role through the story and the series and in the makeup of Rutledge.
With mysteries, one tends to think of the classic motives; money, jealousy, revenge, etc.  Todd has added to that list with one we are very much in evidence today—“Anger. …A fury so deep he’s already lived with it long enough that it has burned cold.”
The Gatekeeper” is so well done.  Its multifaceted plot is equaled only by the excellent, multifaceted protagonist, and the quality of the writing.  This may well be the best book in the series to date.

THE GATE KEEPER (Hist Pol Proc-Insp. Ian Rutledge-England-1920s) - Ex
      Todd, Charles – 20th in series
      William Morrow – Feb 2018

Friday, March 2, 2018

The Island by M.J. Trow

First Sentence:  The quarter-moon did little to light Summer Street that night in Boston.

Investigators Matthew Grand and James Batchelor have travelled from England to Grand’s extensive family home on the coast of Maine for the wedding Grand’s sister, Martha.  Friends and family gather, including the surprise appearance of a cousin who hasn’t been seen for 14 years.  A greater surprise is the dead body found in an upstairs bedroom which leads to the question of what the tie is into the family.

An interesting beginning informs one as to where the story is going; or does it?  What it does, however, is provide introductions to the protagonists and their profession.  One thing which is a bit rare, but is refreshing, is to show the vulnerable side of one of the men.  The transition from Batchelor and Grand to their housekeeper, Mrs. Rackstraw, is nicely done.  She is such a delightful character.

Trow’s style is subtle and often humorous.  He slides in information, from location descriptions—“The docks at Southampton had not been conducive to chatting and Batchelor didn’t get a chance to share something the Grand until they were in their laughingly called stateroom, in which a cat would be totally safe from being swung.”—to family structures—“My mother comes from a family of eight girls, though I doubt they’ll all come to the wedding.  Four of them are dead anyway, and one is in Wisconsin, so as good as.  Auntie Mimi is as mad as a rattler and doesn’t travel.”  The inclusion of Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) as a character is a wonderful touch.

It’s also a nice touch that, despite having been introduced to a myriad of characters, the murder victim is unexpected.  Which also means the motive is as much a mystery as is the killer

The truest sign of an author with an exceptional voice is that one has a desire to quote nearly every page.  Trow is one of the few authors who can write parallel conversations—conversation held by two sets of characters at the same time in different places, without any confusion as to the speakers—and get away with it. He has a wonderful way of evoking the senses—“He had never known it before, not in London, but it really was possible, he realized to smell the spring.  There was a green smell in the air, the smell of sap on the rise, along side the sound of buds creaking with the effort of bursting.  He felt he could almost smell the warmth of the sun…”

The Island” is filled with humor, and excellent characters, plus there are murders; violent ones.  This is the rare instance when one can call a mystery a delightful read.

THE ISLAND (Hist Mys-Grand and Batchelor-Maine-1873) – VG
Trow, M.J. – 4th in series
        Crème de la Crime – Jan 2018