Thursday, February 28, 2019

A Time to Scatter Stones by Lawrence Block

First Sentence:  The four of us—Kristin and Mick, Elaine and I—stood on the stoop of their brownstone for the ritual round of hugs.

Matt Scudder is now retired, 25-years sober, and still attending AA meetings.  His wife, Elaine, informs him of a group called TARTS that she helped start for sex workers who want to stay out of the life.  However, when one young woman informs Elaine of an abusive client who won't let her quit, Elaine suggests Scudder might help.
It is hard to describe how wonderful it is to read Lawrence Block—"You get old and things hurt and then they don't and then they do again."  He has an obvious love for New York City, and his characters are real, imperfect people with pasts. If you've not previously read Block, in this case his Matt Scudder series, he brings readers up to speed on the characters within a very short time.  There's no more backstory than one needs, yet just enough to know the characters.
Prostitution isn't something about which most people even think, unless it's in the news, let alone about the women involved, and not at all about a support group for those who want to leave the life. It is remarkable the way Block creates a sense of danger through a conversation.  It causes one to realize just how vulnerable and at risk any woman can be.
Block's dialogue is so natural.  It wanders, as real conversations do, from topic to topic within a single conversation—"God, I hate when that happens.  Something you said triggered a thought, and then the conversation whet on, and the thought got lost.  Where were we saying?"  There are wonderful kernels of truth sprinkled along the story's path.  "There three stages of a man's life," I said, "Youth, middle age, and 'You look wonderful?" 
"A Time to Scatter Stones" is perfectly written.  It does have violence and sex, but always offstage.  While this is a nostalgic read for those who have loved this series, it could also be an excellent impetus for new readers to go back and further explore this fine author.

A TIME TO SCATTER STONES (Novelette-Matt Scudder-NYC-Contemp) – Ex
      Block, Lawrence – A Matt Scudder Novelette
Subterranean; Deluxe Hardcover edition - Jan 2019

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Beware the Past by Joy Ellis

First Sentence:  'Do you like the dark, Matt?'
Twenty-five years ago, three boys were murdered, and the suspected killer died in a hit-and-run, but Michael Ballard wasn't convinced.  Now a DCI, Ballard receives an unmarked enveloped with a photo of the crime scene before the murders.  More photos, including of Michael's private life, and a murder raises questions of a copycat or did the original killer not die after all.
Confession:  This is one of those rare books in which one can become so absorbed, one forgets to take notes.  Ergo, one of the shortest reviews ever. 
Ellis is very good at creating red herrings, nerve-racking tension, and good action.  It is nice to have a protagonist who is fallible; no super cop here. 
 "Beware the Past" has writing that is very visual with exciting action sequences, and a surprising ending.  Ellis is an author to explore further.    

BEWARE THE PAST (Thriller/Pol Proc-DCI Ballard/Sgt.Morris-England-Contemp) – G+
      Ellis, Joy - Standalone
      Joffe Books, London - 2017

Thursday, February 21, 2019

The Crooked Street by Brian Freeman

First Sentence:  Denny Clark emerged through a cloud of steam into the cold darkness of Chinatown.
Detective Frost Easton hadn't expected his estranged friend Denny to show up on his doorstep, mortally wounded, uttering the word "Lombard."  What does San Francisco's famous street have to do with Denny's murder.  PI Dick Coyle claims the City has a serial killer about whom only he knows, who has killed 11 times before, marking each murder site with the image of a slithering snake.  Now Frost has to convince his boss to reopen the old cases in order to uncover who is behind the current murders and the super-secret killing organization.
Suspenseful and visual, the opening has a wonderful black-and-white classic golden-age detective movie feel about it.  One can almost hear the dramatic music rise at the end.
Every now and then, it is nice to see the protagonist get bested, especially in a relatively harmless way.  It shows they're not super-hero invincible.  Frost's brother, Duane, a food-truck chef, and his fiancée Tabby, to whom Frost is attracted, as well as Shack the cat and legal owner of the home in which Frost lives, add a very human touch to the character. Frost's complicated relationship with Tabby is interesting and a bit disquieting.  However, it is slightly quirky characters such as Herb, Frost's 70-year-old friend, who may well be the most interesting character.
The premise of the book is fascinating.  The idea that there have been a series of murders committed without them being identified as such by the police, in spite of there being a common factor, may be a bit far-fetched until a second common factor is revealed. Much of the story centers around relationships and the complications they bring. However, they do become vital to the plot so one must pay attention. 
There is nothing more effective than the unknown, unseen enemy who people know exists but can't identify and refuse even to acknowledge.  That both Frost and his friend Herb are targeted makes it particularly effective. There is a feeling of Frost being a bit sloppy; rather the male version of TSTL (too stupid to live), but Freeman throws in a very good twist and a connection is made.  It is clever when the pieces start coming together, and yet they don't quite.  One is still left as much in the dark as is Frost. 
Much of the plot feels so improbable; a shadow villain with limitless resources can't find a particular person but two cops can just by asking around?  However, one thing Freeman does very well is to create the sense of place—"Darkness caught up with Frost as he headed across the city toward Chinatown.  Traffic crawled from red light to red light.  Up and down the hills, the neighborhoods changed.  First there were painted ladies among the houses, and then there were painted ladies on the streets."  San Francisco is used very effectively, especially for those who know her well.
"The Crooked Street" is a good read; perfect for a weekend or airplane book with an ending which leaves one anxious for the next book.

THE CROOKED STREET (PolProc-Frost Easton-San Francisco-Contemp) – G+
      Freeman, Brian – 3rd in series
      Thomas & Mercer – Jan 2019

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Crimson Lake by Candice Fox

First Sentence:  I was having some seriously dark thoughts when I found Woman.

Ted Conkaffey was tried for the rape of a teenage girl but was released when not enough evidence could be found to convict him.  Now he lives every day with the fear of being re-arrested.  Amanda Pharrell served eight years for murder, was released and is now a PI in Crimson Lake, Australia.  When a wealthy woman hires Amanda to determine whether the woman's missing husband, author Jake Scully, is dead, Amanda insists that Ted help her with the case.  What did happen to the husband?  Is Ted really innocent?  Was Amanda really guilty?
One of the best types of openings is one which intrigues the reader, draws one in and insists one follow without having any idea where the path will lead.  It is also one which creates such a strong sense of place and character that one is immediately involved in the story.  Fox achieves both goals.
Fox creates excellent visual images—"Moss and vines grew on every surface they could manage.  Along the rivers, broken-down houses with yawning doorways squatted in the brush, peering out, not a brick or patch of wood that composed them showing through their cloaks of lush leaves."
It's the characters which compel one to keep reading.  Interesting, unusual, well-constructed characters are a reader's dream.  Fox makes that dream come true.  Learning of Ted's former profession is a nicely-done twist.  The more one gets to know about Amanda, with her set of rules, the more fascinating she becomes. Yet Fox doesn't ignore the secondary characters, especially forensic pathologist Valerie Gratteur.  Although there are a lot of different characters, Fox segments them into the story so that one never becomes confused as to who each is. 
While the characters are a strength, Fox doesn't ignore the plot.  Periodic inclusions of anonymous letters which had been sent to the victim are a bit of a cliché and not entirely unreminiscent of the story "Misery," but they do cause one to wonder down what path they will lead, and the more we learn about the victim, the more interesting even he becomes.  With the addition of the second thread—questioning whether Amanda really did murder her friend—and the third thread—Amanda not believing that Ted raped the girl--one is given a lot to consider while never losing track of each plot line.  Fox does a remarkable job of laying out the primary investigation step-by-step while making us understand the trauma Ted and Amanda suffered from their individual experiences.        

"Crimson Lake" has a very good escalation of suspense which may result in reading very late into the night.  Ted and Amanda are a team of which one wants to see more.  This is a wonderful read with a perfect epilogue and ending.

CRIMSON LAKE (LicInv- Ted Connor (Conkaffey)/Amanda Pharrell– Australia-Contemp) – VG+
      Fox, Candice – 1st in series
      Forge – Mar 2018

Thursday, February 14, 2019

The Lost Man by Jane Harper

First Sentence: From above, from a distance, the marks in the dust formed a tight circle.
Every family has its secrets.  Bub Bright was to have met up with this brother Cam at Lehmann's Hill.  When he didn't find Cam the next morning, an alarm when out and a helicopter pilot spotted his body lying at the stockman's grave, having died of heat and dehydration.  Nathan Bright and his son Xander join Bub at the sight, eventually finding Cam's car in perfect condition, gas tanks full, and fully stocked with food and water. It's up to Nathan to learn what brought Cam to this deserted and desperate place to die.
What a visual opening Harper has created on which she elaborates to impress upon one the desolation of the location—"The fence stretched a dozen kilometers east to a road and a few hundred west to the desert, where the horizon was so flat it seemed possible to detect the curvature of the earth."
The characters are ones with whom one can identify, two of the best being Cam's daughters.  They are real, have problems and conflicts; albeit it a few more than many families, and histories.  Harper uses words in a way which can touch one's memories and emotions—"…she reached up and put her arms around Nathan, too.  He hugged her back.  The movement had the rusty edge of underuse."
Harper does a very good job of weaving together the stories of each character with the others to form a tapestry showing the underlying currents.  This isn't an edge-of-the-seat action book, but it is one that is intense and compelling so that, end the end, the cloth can be unwoven to expose the weakness which caused the undoing of the family.
"The Lost Man" is a story of a family, its secrets and the price which can be exacted.  In the end, it's a story of coming to peace.

THE LOST MAN (Novel/Mys-Nathan Bright-Balmara, Australia-Contemp) - VG
      Harper, Jane - Standalone
      Flatiron Books, Feb 2019

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Headlong by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

First Sentence: Slider jumped into the car, and Atherton peeled away from the kerb and back in the traffic in a movement so sleek and smooth, a dolphin would have tried to mate with it.

The body of a famous literary critic is found in the cellar of the construction site next door to his home. Although DCI Bill Slider's Borough Commander would like a quick verdict of "accidental death" to close the case and gives strict orders that unknown Calliope Hunt is not to be questioned, Slider isn't convinced the death was an accident. A plethora of possible suspect means Slider and his team have their work cut out for them, while Bill is also concerned about his wife and truly dealing with being a father.

The very first sentence demonstrates why Cynthia Harrod-Eagles is such a pleasure to read. For having a way with words, she has no equal. Her metaphors are wonderful and perfect—'One hundred-and fifty-plus years represents a lot of history for a building, and in value and status these had gone up and down like a Harrods lift at sale time.' She slips in delightful bits of humor along the way—"'I expect you're wondering why you're here,' said Carpenter. Existentialism at this hour of the morning? Various facetious answers flitted through Slider's mind…"And then there's Porson, Slider's boss, and the king of a malaprop—'Too many thieves spoil the broth. It all gets … wafty.'

That CH-E has set the story amongst the world of publishing is fun. One does suspect that the characters represent people she has known, or that they are an amalgamation of them. She really does provide a fascinating look into that world. Harrod-Eagles is also very good with details and with setting the scene. She describes the location in which the characters find themselves placing one right alongside them. 

The "what's wrong with this picture" scenarios are so well done and can cause one to consider the details of one's own, everyday life. It's the forensic details that determine the path of the plot—it is a mystery, after all, and the devils-advocate banter between Slider and Atherton is clever and more realistic, in some ways than presenting the information as the internal musings of one character. One can also appreciate that although Slider and Atherton are the leads, there is a realism in the way Slider's team is an ensemble cast with each having their role in the investigation. 

The day-to-day aspects of the story are satisfying and understandable; possible problems at home, possible reassignment at work. These are things to which one can easily relate. CH-E also presents a very realistic view of a police investigation as often being a hard slog of minutia and focusing on the mundane. How well done is it that when the killer is exposed, one almost feels sympathy for them.

"Headlong" isn't a book of gunfire or car chases, but of great characters and solid police work with an ending to make one smile.

HEADLONG (PolProc-Bill Slider-England-Contemp) - VG
Harrod-Eagles, Cynthia – 11th in series
Severn House – 2018

Thursday, February 7, 2019

The Black Ascot by Charles Todd

First Sentence:  Ascot this year was very different from Ascots of the past.
Inspector Ian Rutledge saves the life of a man who is suffering from shell shock and threatening to commit suicide.  In turn, the man gives him a tip that Alan Barrington, a man who was suspected of committing murder during the Black Ascot horse race 10 years previous, is back in England.  When Rutledge's own sanity is called into question, after many years of hiding his suffering from shell shock, he realizes he must solve the Black Ascot murder case or lose everything important to him.
Todd balances the personal and professional sides of Rutledge very well, showing that his approach to the law is sympathetic, but not weak or naïve.  He also doesn't make assumptions or jump to conclusions.  The explanation of Hamish is succinct but sufficient enough to understand Ian's tendency for self-imposed reticence toward becoming close to others.  One finds it sympathy-inducing while being drawn to the character.
An encounter with a female journalist, and a suspenseful nighttime adventure, truly sets the story on its way, yet Todd is also very good at creating a vivid sense of place—"He stopped in front of a handsome three-story building that spoke of Empire, a baroque gem between two staid brick edifices that spoke of Understated Wealth. … The knocker on the door was heavy brass and made a satisfyingly substantial sound as it struck the plate beneath."
 No matter the war, the impact and damage to those who fought, visible or not, is always there, and Todd's offering something of an explanation is very well done and quite moving:  "He won't tell me about his war."  "None of us do.  It isn't something to share, you see."  "What we've seen, what we've done, ought to stay in France.  But it didn't, it came home in our memories.  They aren't memories we want you to know. You are the world we fought for.  Safe and sane and not ugly.  Better to keep it that way."
There is an unexpected and dramatic twist, with various scenarios and conjectures presented by Ian, that allows us to see his thought process.  With the help of Ian's friend Melinda Crawford, the pieces begin to fit and the circle closes. 
One may be somewhat conflicted about this book.  The relationships of the characters involved in the murder are a bit complicated and can become muddled.   There is a lot of to-ing and fro-ing which gets a bit tiresome, but we are taken along on every step of the investigation as it happens up until the end where some information is withheld from the reader.  Although perhaps not the strongest book in the series, it is several of the characters which make it particularly enjoyable.
"The Black Ascot" concludes very well and with an explanation which makes everything clear.  This is such a good series, and one to continue reading. 
The BLACK ASCOT (HistMys-Insp. Ian Rutledge-England-1910/1921) - VG
      Todd, Charles – 21st in series
      William Morrow – Feb 2019