Sunday, September 30, 2018

Solemn Graves by James R. Benn

First Sentence:  The first dead body I saw in Normandy was a cow, tangled in the branches of a shattered tree at a crossroads by the edge of a field, a good thirty feet off the ground.
D-Day has passed but France is still a very dangerous place to be as the war goes on.  A man wearing the uniform of an American Army Officer is found murdered in a manor house.  Captain Billy Boyle, Staff Sergeant Mike "Big Mike" Miecznikowski go to view the body and ultimately request that Lt. Piotr "Kaz" Kazimierz join them.  With spies and informants everywhere, the team must act carefully not to expose the nearby 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, aka, the Ghost Army as doing so could mean disaster for the Allies.
It's an effective opening that reminds one that the cost of war can be more than human lives.  However, it does get confusing as there are a lot of characters with different ranks from different areas of responsibility who come and go without our knowing quite how they fit within the plot.  Such, one supposes, is the confusion of war. 
Madam Janvier, the owner of the manor, presents a small picture of life during the Occupation and a realistic view—"The Germans killed many.  Took the Jews and Communists off to God knows where.  So many of the old people died last winter, with not enough to eat or fuel to stay warm. Forgive me if I make light of your American chocolate and coffee.  Otherwise, I should only weep."  Benn is very good at conveying both the realities of war—"Liberation wasn't always about the liberators.  Today, it had been about power."  At the same time, he is about to balance that with a touch of humor—"GIs worked at unloading a truck, carrying cases of grenades and Spam, each deadly enough in their own way."
One of the many things so interesting about reading Been is learning facts about the war few knew.  Here, we learn about the 603 Camouflage Engineers and the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops.  It is fascinating—"It's like Broadway invades Europe."—but this is no Bob Hope show for the troops.  This was about saving the Allied troops while defeating the Germans, and the Black Legion in Detroit.
Benn has created a wonderful, and interesting, set of characters.  For those new to the series, take heart.  About one-quarter of the way into the story, one does learn of Billy's background and his relationship with Kaz, an extremely wealthy Polish baron from a country to which he couldn't return.  Kaz has known devastating personal loss yet chooses to work with Allies.  For those who've read previous books, it is nice to have Diana Seaton, Billy's love, back on the scene, especially with the revelation which follows.  It is also nice the Benn recounts an accurate, non-Disney, account of "Sleeping Beauty.
In this time of division over immigration, it makes one wonder how many may be descended from the German and Italian POW soldiers who were sent to the U.S. to work the farms.  It's an interesting thought.  At the same time, there's nothing like a small truth to make one stop and consider—"'What was it you realized?"  "That hatred is incompatible with hope.'"  Big Mike, a former cop, knows how to get things done and how to put help others put things into perspective 
"Solemn Graves" is really well done for both mystery and history fans alike.  It has plenty of action, as well as suspense related to the murder.  The motive is very well done and is as old as time.  Do be certain to read the Author's Note at the end.

SOLEMN GRAVES (HistMys-Billy Boyle-France-1944) – VG+
      Benn, James R.
      Soho Crime – Sept 2018

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Wild Fire by Ann Cleeves

First Sentence:  Emma sat on the shingle bank and watched the kids on the beach below build a bonfire.
DI Jimmy Perez is approached by a Helena, a woman whose family are new residents on the island.  She has been receiving anonymous notes with images from the game "hangman," and asks for Jimmy's help.  When Emma, the nanny to the children of the Island's Doctor Moncrieff, is found hanged in Helena's barn, where the previous owner hanged himself, by her autistic son Christopher, Jimmy calls together his team, including Willow Reeves, the Chief Inspector of the Serious Crime Squad and Jimmy's occasional lover.  Complex relationships hide dark secrets.
Cleeves brings one into a community so small that everyone new is subject to speculation.  There is a good reminder of how interconnected are people in such communities—"There are only twenty-three thousand people in the islands, and most have some connection with each other."
There is a shift in Jimmy and Willow's relationship.  Willow is wonderfully done.  She is very much an example of who many women have become; self-supporting, self-reliant, strong, not opposed to having a partner, but willing and able to get on alone if needs must while still feeling the hurt and uncertainty.  Christopher and his autism is well handled.  It feels just right, without being overdone. 
What an interesting observation regarding the popularity and gentrification of what had been small communities—"Willow wondered if it caused resentment:  these confident, educated incoming, buying up the nice houses, subtly changing the character of the place. …Wouldn't it feel like an invasion?"  How also true is it that one never really knows what goes on within a family—"…the whole happy-family image seems to have been a bit of a sham."
Cleeves doesn't rely on twists, but when she does include one, it's very effective.  She also does a very good job of increasing the level of mystery and suspense, keeping the killer's identity from the reader until the last possible moment. 
"Wild Fire" is yet another excellent read from Ann Cleeves.  Almost as intriguing is the reference at the end to the young women on the ferry.  Those who know her history can't help but suspect the character is Ann herself in an homage to a place so special to her.  Most intriguing of all the is the subtle Easter egg at the end.  We shall just have to wait to see.
WILD FIRE (PolProc-Jimmy Perez-Shetland Islands, Scotland-Contemp) – Ex
      Cleeves, Ann – 8th in series
      Minotaur Books – Sept 2018 

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The Dry by Jane Harper

First Sentence:  It wasn't as though the farm hadn't seen death before, and the blowflies didn't discriminate.
Twenty years ago, Aaron Falk had been accused of murder.  He was released due to the alibi provided for him by his childhood friend Luke.  Still, Aaron and his father left their hometown.  Now a Federal Agent, Aaron has returned for Luke's funeral. Luke's mother doesn't believe Luke committed suicide and asks Aaron to investigate.  Together with Sergeant Raco, the cop new to the town, they work to learn what really happened, while Aaron wants to know who knew his alibi had been a lie.
Harper's use of language truly captures one's attention—"Luke Hadler may have had a light on waiting for him when he came home, but something else from the wretched, desperate community had seeped through that front door and into this home.  And it had been rotten and sick and black enough to extinguish that light forever."
Aaron is a character we come to know in pieces.  The story of what happened when Luck and Aaron were teens is interspersed within the main story. The alliance and trust he establishes with Raco is interesting and refreshing.  it's nice to have a small-town cop who came from a bigger city and so doesn't have a small-town attitude.  He's willing to question the alleged facts, to admit he doesn't know the area, and to work with someone else who does.  It is through Raco's wife, quite late in the story, that we finally learn his background.
Harper creates a very strong sense of place.  That Australia is suffering a terrible drought is illustrated in several ways, each effectively focusing on a different aspect; animals, vegetation, farmers, the children, --"The huge river was nothing more than a dusty scar in the land." A simple, but very accurate statement is why business and communities die rings true no matter the location—"That's the thing about money problems. They're contagious, Farmers have no cash to spend in shops, the shops go under, and then you've got yourself more people with no month to spend in shops."
The menace to Falk is turned up very effectively, as are the realities and drawbacks of living in a small, insular community—"'Christ, it's like Deliverance round here sometimes,' Whitlam said."  To learn an important piece of information about one character which is provided by another is such an effective device.  The assessment made is very true—"Death rarely changes how we feel about someone.  Heightens it, more often than not."

"The Dry" is filled with very effective twists that one doesn't see coming even though Harper plays completely fair with the readers.  Secrets; everyone has secrets, but secrets will out and Harper does an excellent job of exposing them all.  What an excellent debut.

 THE DRY (Pol Proc-Aaron Falk-Kuwarra, Australia-Contemp) – Ex
      Harper, Jane – 1st in series
      Flatiron Books – July 2017

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Sweet After Death by Valentina Giambanco

First Sentence:  The woods pressed into the town from all sides.
The tiny town of Ludlow, Washington, near the border with Canada, has never had a murder, until now. The police department of three--Sherriff Will Sangster, and Deputies Hockley and Kupitz—is out of its depth, so Sergeant Kevin Brown, CSI Amy Sorenson, and Detective Alice Madison fly in from Seattle.  Nothing about this case is straight-forward, especially when a second murder occurs with a completely different M.O. and was clearly the work of a professional.  And who left the scrawled note of "Help me" in the office of one of the victims.
Ignoring the prologue, whose information could have been incorporated later, one could read Chapter 1, which provides atmosphere, skip Chapter 2, which has no real relevance to the current story, and move on to Chapter 3, which is when one meets the characters and learns of their backgrounds.  Happily, things improve significantly from there on;  so much so that one comes to the view that if one hasn't read Giambanco before, one might wonder as to why not.
The author has a wonderful voice with just the right note of dry humor—"They had gone to school together, and their families had known each other for a long time; because of this Hockley could swear, hand on his heart, that Jay Kupitz had all the sense of a bag of jam nuts."
Giambanco creates a very good sense of underlying threat.  As with any town, there are secrets, and in a very small town, those secrets have an even greater significance.  Samuel, from the prologue, is pivotal to one of those secrets and becomes a very interesting character. 
Although one may not usually be a fan of backstory told through memories, Alice's is so well done and interesting one can't help but being interested and liking the character all the more. The information conveyed explains a lot about the person she has become.  However, the two pages of background information printed in italics could have been handled differently, but for that one should blame the publisher, not the author.
Each of the characters is strong and most are people one would want to know.  Not one of them is superfluous or flat.   One will particularly appreciate the epilogue, although it is not so named, and the end of Alice's story.
"Sweet After Death" takes one on an amazing ride, increasing the tension and danger, and surprising the readers with both the identity of the killer and the motive in a way which is very well done.  There are subtle twists and one can appreciate that the forensic information is as fascinating as is the logical progression of the physical investigation.        
SWEET AFTER DEATH (Pol Proc-Det. Alice Madison-Washington St.- Contemp. – VG+
      Giambanco, Valentina (aka V.M. Giambanco)
      Quercus – Aug 2018

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Bury the Lead by Archer Mayor

First Sentence: Joe entered the autopsy room unnoticed, stepped to one side of the broad door, and leaned against the wall to watch.
The body of a young woman is discovered and a confession quickly obtained, but it doesn't take much to determine the confession is false.  However, the man who confessed once worked at a large local warehousing company experiencing serious acts of vandalism, the latest of which resulted in a death.  Is there a connection?  Willie Kunkle, a key member of Joe Gunther's team on the Vermont Bureau of Investigation, is hospitalized as there is a suspicious possible outbreak of Ebola.  Are all these events linked?  That's up to Joe and the VBI to find out.
It is hard for many to image witnessing a real autopsy.  The opening achieves several things beyond taking one through the procedure; one is introduced to Joe, learns about his department and his past, and demonstrates Joe's humanity—"This was always an autopsy's watershed moment for Joe, making the divide between seeing a fellow human as someone's recently lost companion or child and simply discovering—piece by piece—what had one made it function." One also meets Beverly, the pathologist and Joe's lover.  This is nicely done both for new readers, and as a reminder for those who have followed the series.  However, it also provides initial information on the victim and the crime. 
Although Joe is the protagonist, his team is an ensemble about whom series readers have come to care, and that's certainly true of Willie and Sammy.  Each character is fully developed and plays a vital role.  That this extends beyond Joe's team to their families creates a sense of reality, including talking about murder in front of the fridge as do Lester and his wife Sue.  It is through his style that Mayor makes the reader feel invested in, and even part of, the team.  What is especially nice is that the characters change and evolve over time.
One of the many things to be appreciated about Mayor is that he provides explanations, such as what is a Spellman entry, as he goes along.  Even better that is the explanations never slow down the pace of the story.  Something about policing which one rarely considers, is well stated—"Joe found himself in the dreariest corner of human behavior in which his job so routinely deposited him, surrounded by the loss, waste, and malice of others."
It's nice to have a police procedural where the police actually follow procedure.  No cutting corners, no bending the law, no working without notice in other jurisdictions.  It is a credit to Mayor's character of Joe that one really starts to believe there are people such as him in law enforcement.  If only they were much more visible.
As connections are made and a threat is issued, tension increases. Again, it's the details where Mayor shines; the explanations of what happened and what will happen.  The plot is really well done, with enough twists and surprises to keep one thoroughly engaged.  There is an excellent ending and an explanation which sums things up perfectly.
"Bury the Lead" is a very good police procedural with an ensemble cast of characters, a delightfully complicated crime. This is another well-done installment in a terrific series.

BURY THE LEAD (PolProc-Joe Gunther-Vermont-Contemp) – VG
      Mayor, Archer – 29th in series
      Minotaur Books – Sept 2018

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Last Call by Paula Matter

First Sentence:  Refusing a ride back to the VFW was maybe the stupidest thing I'd done that morning.
Maggie Lews is trying to make ends meet by taking in a renter and serving as a bartender at the local VFW hall.  Instead, she finds herself suspended from her job and suspected of murdering Korean war veteran Jack Hoffman.   Not trusting the same police who still haven't solved the murder of her husband from a year ago, Maggie decides the only answer is to find the killer herself.
Not only does Matter introduce each of the characters, but we are told something which makes each one memorable.  Matter has a wonderful voice.  Her internal narrative for Maggie really works and makes the character someone to whom we can easily relate—"I could sometimes kick myself for being so stubborn.  And mouthy.  And grouchy.  But I was working on it."  Her issues are similar to those real women face, although possibly under different circumstances—"What did one wear to a strip club?  Particularly a short, middle-aged, slightly chunky woman."  The reference to reading Dennis Lehane adds a nice touch of realism. 
All of the characters are fully developed.  Yes, her neighbor Michael's background may seem a bit convenient, but that diminishes as we learn more about his background. His advice to Maggie adds a nice touch of seriousness—"Okay, don't ever forget that there's a real killer out there.  This isn't a game."  Gussie, a former teacher with a good eye and a sharp mind, is the type of character one always appreciates.  The information about the murder of Maggie's husband and the rumor of treasure hidden in her house is well, and naturally, presented.
It is interesting to learn about VFW halls, their structure and customs.  The tradition of the POW/MIA table is particularly moving.
Some books are filled with descriptions of delectable French or Italian fare.  Matter gives one good ole', stick-to-the-ribs basic meals—"In a matter of minutes, Sally set two plates heaping with fried eggs, bacon, home fries, buttered toast, and unasked-for grits before each of us. … I scraped the last remaining egg off of my plate with a last bite of toast.  Sally whizzed by, grabbed my plate, and plopped down a piece of banana cream pie. "Now, you can have some of my pie.  You earned it.""  Now doesn't that sound good?
Suspense is even more suspenseful when it escalates in increments.  Matter does just that, and does it very well giving us nice plot twists along the way.  It is not often an author provides as much background on the victim as Matter does.  It's a refreshing change which humanizes the one who died.  And it's nice when the killer is someone one should have guessed but didn't.
"Last Call" is a delightful debut.  It's a traditional mystery with great characters that leaves one looking forward to the next book.

LAST CALL (Ama Sleuth-Maggie Lewis-Florida-Contemp) – G+
      Matter, Paula – 1st book
      Midnight Ink – July 2018

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Dark Tide Rising by Anne Perry

First Sentence:  Monk sat beside the fire and felt the heat seep through him.
Kate, the wife of property developer Henry Exeter, is kidnapped during an outing with her cousin, Celia.  Exeter is told his wife will be killed if he doesn't deliver a large ransom to Jacob's Island, one of the worst slums in London.  William Monk, Head of the Thames River Police, and three of his best men go along to deliver the ransom. When Monk and his men are attacked, it's clear they were expected.  Not only do the kidnappers escape, but Kate is found brutally slaughtered.  How well does Monk really know his men? Did one of Monk's men betray their plans to the kidnapper? 
Perry creates a palpable sense of urgency.  She overlays that by establishing the dangers involved and providing a strong suspicion to taunt the reader with the question as to who can be trusted.   One can almost sense Perry smiling as she takes readers along with her.
There is wisdom in Perry's writing which can see as being appropriate to today—"The raving madman is perfectly easy to recognize.  It's the one who believes he's good, that all he does is justified, who is hard to see.  The one who is in the center of his own universe is the real danger."
Perry doesn't simply introduce one to the characters.  She enables one to see inside them, helps one understand and often like them, as with Hooper and Celia.   Those who follow the series will appreciate seeing how Will, aka Scruff, has developed.  The relationship Monk has with others; his wife Hester, his men, and particularly with his former boss Rathbone, says so much about the character.  Because of that, one can sense his pain at thinking one of his men may have betrayed him and the other men. 
Redemption, in ways both large and small, is an important theme in Perry's writing.  Her thoughts on grief are something with which many can identify and empathize, as are Monk's self-doubts.  It is things such as this which make the characters both interesting and real.  She brings characters in from earlier books, but always in such a way that new readers are not confused.
It is lovely, and a nice distraction, watching as a relationship develops.  The conversations between the two characters are delightfully done.
Perry's descriptions create wonderful visual images—"He thought about broad estuary skies and birds on the wild winds, white gulls, skeins of geese with their wings creaking.  There was no other sound like it."  She is a lyrical writer—"I love numbers, Mr. Monk."  She was looking at him again. "That may seem to be a strange thing in a woman, but they have a beauty, when you understand them.  They are utterly without emotion, yet they have music in them, and reason, and occasionally humor."
"Dark Tide Rising" is not a light, comfortable read, but it is a very good one.  There is violence, danger, anger, and an increasing body count.  Perry even captivates readers with an excellent Victorian version of "Law and Order" as truth will out and justice have her day.      

DARK TIDE RISING (HistMys-William Monk-England-Victorian) - VG
      Perry, Anne
      Ballentine Books - Sept 2018 

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The Other Wife by Michael Robotham

First Sentence:  From the top of Primrose Hill, silhouetted against the arriving day, the spires and domes of London look like the painted backdrop of a Pinewood sound stage waiting for actors to take their places and an unseen director to yell 'Action'.
Psychologist Joe O'Laughlin is coping with Parkinson's, recent widowhood, and raising his two daughters.  Receiving a call that his father has been attacked and in a coma introduces yet another challenge.  Who is the woman, covered in his father's blood, sitting at the bedside claiming to be his father's wife?  Investigating the attack, and the people surrounding his father, completely alters Joe's views and knowledge of his parent's lives.
We begin at the beginning, which is very nice, and with a concise introduction to Joe,  what has led to his present stage of life, and to those around him.  In describing Joe's relationship with his father, we gain an even greater empathy for him.
Robotham's dialogue is excellent; quick, natural, and realistic such as that between Joe and his youngest daughter, Emma.  There is also a very real understanding of what can be the impact on a child of losing a parent—"Emma worries about me because I am the last parent standing.  When we cross the street, she insists on holding my hand—not to protect herself, but to protect me." The portrayal of their relationship is touching without being saccharine or contrived.
The observation about secrets is something which causes one to pause and consider—"Secrets are valuable.  We lie to protect a relationship, or get a job. Or keep the peace, or win the girl, or protect a child.  In a deep psychological sense, we have no self unless we have a secret."  How true and universal, as is the statement—"I began to understand that day that Dad was a product of his own upbringing, just as I am."  And isn't that something with which we all struggle?
In addition to the characters we meet at the beginning, one learns, or is reminded, that Joe can't stand the sight of blood, which makes him wonderfully human.  Robotham skillfully conveys the challenges faced by Joe in living with Parkinson's; his frustration and occasional rage of being subject to its limitations. Then there's Vincent Ruiz, a former cop and Joe's best friend.  What a wonderful character he is.  He's a character who both makes one smile, and one wish for such a person in their own life…maybe.  DI Macdermid is a true copper, neither friend nor enemy but realistically drawn in his pragmatism—"I wish we could swap jobs for a day, Professor. … I have…two sons—one who hears voices from God and the other who thinks he's God's gift." 
This is a story about families, and secrets, and the lengths to which one is willing to go for one's family.  It's about the fact that—"Life isn't fair or unfair.  It is what it is."--and that "Our fates are gloriously uncertain and the arrogance of believing that human tragedy is justified because it's part of some holy blueprint is intolerable."  It also contains very good suspense, well-executed twists, and embroidery-worthy lessons—"Remember, Joseph, the worst hour of your life only last for sixty minutes."  There is an ending one doesn't foresee and a final chapter which may set the tears flowing.  While in general not a fan of the current trend for 400-page mysteries, this was 400 pages which flew by.
"The Other Wife" is a rollercoaster of twists and surprises, filled with excellent characters, thought-provoking truths, and an ending of hope.

THE OTHER WIFE (Myst-Joe O'Laughlin-England-Contemp) - Ex
      Robotham, Michael
      Sphere – Oct 2018

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

A Forgotten Place by Charles Todd

First Sentence:  The war had ended, but not the suffering.
The war is officially over, and WWI field nurse Bess Crawford has been reassigned to a clinic in England for amputee soldiers.  After the suicide of one of her patients, Bess takes advantage of her 10-day leave, traveling to Wales to check on several of her Welsh patients, one about whom she is particularly concerned.  Deserted by her driver in a very small hamlet, Bess finds herself trapped in a place where she's not wanted but has no way to leave. What is the secret the inhabitants are hiding?  Are they willing to kill to keep that secret?
One realizes how important is an author's voice with from very start.  Todd touches one's emotions and gives the sense of reading a very personal letter.  There is an intimacy to the tone which immediately creates a bond between the author, the reader, and the character of Bess.
The long-lasting impact of war, particularly for the physically maimed, is effectively conveyed—"No conquering heroes, these men.  No victory parades for them.  Our patients were the ultimate reality of war."  It is nice to realize how far we've come from that.  Todd, however, shows that not only did the patients suffer, but so did the families, and the communities from which they came. That has not changed. 
Todd perfectly conveys the insular nature of a tiny community.  The secretiveness, closemindedness, and suspicion of anyone from somewhere else are well captured.  The portrayal of Bess' anger and frustration are extremely well done.  Conversely, we see her wisdom and experience when talking about grief—"To stop living in the present, clinging to the past, is part of mourning for a while, but you have to make a future for yourself.'
Since the story is told from Bess' point of view, much of it is internal narrative, yet the plot does hold one's interest all the way to the end.  A slight criticism would be that the end does feel a bit abrupt. 
"A Forgotten Place" includes well-done suspense, a palpable sense of danger, and a very good twist.   Do be sure to read the author notes.

A FORGOTTEN PLACE (HistMys-Bess Crawford-Wales-1919) – G+
      Todd, Charles – 10th in series
      William Morrow – Sept 2018