Sunday, March 31, 2019

The Vanishing Man by Charles Finch

First Sentence:  Once a month or so, just to keep his hand in the game, Charles Lennox liked to go shopping with his friend Lady Jane Grey. 

      Charles Lennox had success with his first outing as a Private Enquiry Agent and is now being called on by The Duke of Dorset to investigate the theft of a painting.  But it's not what was taken which is the mystery, but what was not; a painting much more valuable.  Lenox fear of the thief realizing the mistake and returning seems to be realized when a murder occurs.  But are the paintings the real objects of attention, or is there something more precious at stake?
Whether it is a series one has long read, or one to which someone is new, being introduced to the characters from their very start establishes a link to them and almost an intimacy of friendship. It is that which Finch has accomplished through the prequels, this being the second, he has written. Finch brings the characters to life, whether they are directly involved in the mystery, or are part of Lenox's personal life.  How can one not like a protagonist who carries with him a small book of Shakespeare's quotations? For those who love Shakespeare, this is a wonderful story, indeed.
Finch paints an excellent picture of the period.  From an explanation of noble titles down to a visit to Bedlam, we are provided a vivid sense of the time.  And what a sad commentary of the time it is that even the daughter of a Duke would be deemed unlikely to marry had she not so done by the age of 30.  The small details of life, custom, and society are fascinating.  Imagine mail being delivered seven times a day, seven days a week. 
The resolution of one mystery is well deduced, providing a nice twist and a loop back in the story to a very interesting character.  However, it is the larger mystery behind the original one which is most intriguing.  What a completely tantalizing resolution there is, and one of nearly divine retribution, albeit a rather sad ending for those involved.  Yet, once the criminal is identified, one discovers a motive that is as old as time.
"The Vanishing Man" is a wonderfully done trip back in time.  It is filled with excellent characters, fascinating information, and a resolution related to the cost of pride.

THE VANISHING MAN (HistMys-Charles Lenox-England-1853) – VG+
      Finch, Charles – 12th in series; 2nd Prequel
      Minotaur Books – February 2019

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Redemption Point by Candice Fox

First Sentence:  There were predators beyond the wire.
Former homicide detective Ted Conkaffey is barely able to leave his house after having been arrested yet released for lack of evidence.  Supposed to have raped a young girl Claire Bingley, he has lost his wife and daughter, and he is being threatened by Claire's father.  His partner, Amanda forces Ted out to investigate the murder of two young bartenders.  Originally thought to be a robbery, the pieces don't quite fit.   These are cases which could bring redemption to those involved, or just might kill them.
Characters; strong, compelling characters can make or break a book.  Once can often forgive massive plot holes if the characters are interesting and compelling.  Fox's characters are that in spades. 
Although this is the second book, Fox provides an excellent summary of everything one needs to know about the history of Ted by taking one straight into the thick of the story.  The portrayal of someone who is presumed to be a criminal, yet knows they are innocent, and the realization that he who one presumed to be a monster is, in fact, only a man, is very well done. 
Then one meets Amanda.  What a wonderful character she is; quirky, brilliant, observant, she lives by her own set of rules.  It is impossible not to be drawn to her.  Conveying tender emotion isn't always easy, yet Fox does it so beautifully. 
There are other major characters, and each is fully-dimensional and interesting.  None of Fox's characters are simple.  Each is complicated with a past, as is true in life.
As for the plot: one has nothing to fear.  There are no weaknesses or plot holes here. 
Fox creates a plot which draws one in and keeps one there from beginning to very end.  There are three threads to the story.  As two begin to join, the tension increases.  She presents simple ideas about which one never thinks in a way that makes them meaningful and important. She points out the damage lies can do.  The momentum grows as pieces fall into place. 
"Redemption Point" is an excellent book by a truly remarkable writer with a story which is compelling, tense, brutal, sad, and ultimately hopeful.   One may find Fox at the top of their favorite author's list. 

 REDEMPTION POINT (PI-Amanda Pharrel/Ted Conkaffey-Australia-Contemp) – EX
      Fox, Candice – 2nd I series
      FORGE – March 2019

Friday, March 22, 2019

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

First Sentence:  'If you'll permit me,' said the Stranger, 'I'd like to tell you a story.'
Clare Cassidy not only teaches a course on the late Gothic writer R.M. Holland, but has the keys to his study at Cambridge wherein she finds the body of a colleague with a note containing a line from Holland's work, "The Stranger."  Clare usually finds solace writing in her diary.  Finding an entry written by an unknown hand puts Clare in the middle of the investigation.
The beginning of a story within the story, a possibly haunted school, a death, and a diary.  These things set one off into a well-done, atmospheric and captivating book filled with literary references, quotations, and the occasional injection of wry humor—"I can't find St. Jude's and the sat-nav gives up, muttering 'turn around where possible' to itself."—along with lines which may make one smile—"It can be a dangerous thing, reading too much.'—and the occasional small truth—"Nothing in the world is hidden forever."
Well-drawn, dimensional characters make all the difference, as does conflict.  Griffiths creates a relationship which begins with the lesson--one should never make a promise one might not be able to keep and that one should never lie to the police--and allows it to develop in a natural, logical manner. 
Having multiple points of view can be awkward or effective.  Here, it is the latter with the story being told by Clare, her daughter Georgie, and DS Kaur (Harbinder), as well as excerpts from Clare's diary,  both written by Clare and the anonymous stranger.  The different voices permit us to know more about the characters than even each character knows about the others.  However, the interjections of Holland's story can be a bit confusing. 
What works particularly well is Griffiths' ability to make one feel the emotions of the characters, particularly Clare. And there are a lot of characters, many of whom become suspects.  While the plot can keep one guessing, some may identify the killer before the end reveal.
"The Stranger Diaries" has good Gothic overtones with well-done suspense and an excellent epilogue.  It is nice when an author steps out and does something new.

THE STRANGER DIARIES (Susp-Clare Cassidy/DS Harbinder Kaur-England-Contemp) - Good
      Griffiths, Elly (aka Domenica de Rosa) - Standalone
      Houghton Mifflin Harcourt – March 2019

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Unto Us a Son Is Given by Donna Leon

First Sentence:  "You know I don't like to meddle in things," Conte Falier told Brunetti.
Gonzalo Rodríguez de Tejada is a wealthy, titled man who has announced his intention to adopt a much younger man to be his son and heir.   Conte Falier, father-in-law to Comm. Guido Brunetti is concerned about his elderly friend and asks Guido if he could look into the situation.  With the aid of colleagues and contacts, Guido fears things may not be as straightforward they seem. 
The theme of family is central this Leon's latest book, as is love.  Brunetti's relationship with his family has become a hallmark of the series and that's very true here.  But it also looks at what constitutes a family—'It would be nice if we could choose the people we love, but love chooses them."  Having Brunetti question his feelings towards his preconceptions of gays is an interesting topic—"Was a preconceived notion the same thing as a prejudice?"
Although the majority of the book is crime-free, it is anything but slow and/or boring.  There are so many layers and elements to reading Leon, as there are to life including Brunetti's own family and even his musings over literature and the law.  Leon doesn't allow one to be lazy but asks that one take the time to think along the way. Leon's reference to a technique used by writers adds just the right touch of verisimilitude to the story.  
Death does come.  Even here, Leon's presentation of it is to be contemplated—"It is a terrible thing for us when a person dies here. … I don't mean here, this time, but always.  A hotel – any hotel – isn't the same for days, even longer.  It's strange because that's what the person is, a stranger to us, and yet we all feel their death.  Maybe it's the absence of any real involvement with the person that lets us feel the mystery of death." Leon's insightfulness into the nature of humans often gives on pause.  That is, perhaps, her greatest gift and truest strength.
"Unto Us a Son is Given" is a compelling story of relationships.  One might wish the mystery had come sooner, but the twist is startling and very effective, and the procedural and investigative elements grab one's interest to the end. 

 UNTO US A SON IS GIVEN (PolProc-Guido Brunetti-Venice-Contemp) - G+
      Leon, Donna – 29th in series
      Atlantic Monthly Press – April 2019

Friday, March 15, 2019

Court of Lies by Gerry Spence

First Sentence:  I've been around a long time.
Judge John Murphy is in a difficult position.  Lillian Adams, who has been like a daughter to the Judge and his wife, is on trial for the murder of her wealthy husband.  Under pressure to recuse himself, Judge Murphy knows prosecution attorney Haskins Sewell will do anything possible to bring about a guilty plea in order to further his own political career and remove Murphy from the bench.  Murphy is in a fight for justice for Lillian, and to save his own position.
Gerry Spence knows the law.  He has never lost a criminal case either as a prosecutor or a defense attorney, nor has he lost a civil case since 1969.  With his first book of fiction, set in 1954, he is starting off very well, indeed, and it is not often we find a legal mystery from the perspective of the judge. 
The author's voice can make such a difference in the telling of a story.  It is no surprise that Spence has a storyteller's voice—"I'm a judge, and in the end we judges are killers like all the rest of the killers.  Some poor devil waiting in a filthy concrete cell will start his march to the gas chamber when we sign the order.  It's our duty to kill killers." He knows how to create a strong sense of place—"Winters get long in Jackson Hole.  Too damn long.  The people burn their woodstoves twenty-four hours a day, and the smoke settles down on the valley in a dark gray ground-hugging blanket."
As opposed to most books which would go through the police investigation, Spence takes one directly to the trial and the behavior of the defense attorney and the prosecutor. The first interaction between them truly establishes their characters.  That's not to say that forensic evidence isn't involved in the story, but it becomes critical in the battle between the two attorneys.  What makes Judge Murphy such a strong, interesting character is his self-doubt and insecurities.   
From some authors, flashbacks can be irritating.  Here, they prove a fascinating look at the characters.  The judge's internal musings show a man who truly understands the weight of his office—"He tried not to see her [Lillian] as his child, but as just another defendant at the dock…".
One is accustomed to tension and suspense in a mystery.  Although it is of a very different type, both attributes are just as present and just as effective as a car chase might be. In fact, it is taken a step further with a nice win for the judge and a rousing closing argument by the defense attorney reminding one of the importance of reasonable doubt.  For anyone who has served on a jury, the scene in the jury room rings painfully true.  In fact, the scene was so well done, one might have liked to see it extended. 
"Court of Lies" is a very good, different legal mystery with a major twist, a surprising new character, and a powerful ending.  Here's hoping for more novels from this legendary attorney.    

COURT OF LIES (LegalMys- Judge John Murphy-Jackson Hole, Wyoming-Contemp/1954) – VG+
      Spence, Gerry – 1st book
      Forge – Feb 2019

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

The Ring by M.J. Trow

First Sentence:  It had been a long time since William Bisgrove had seen a woman.
Mrs. Rackstraw, the housekeeper to Private Enquiry Agents Matthew Grand and James Batchelor, has labeled their new client a lunatic.  Yet the two men agree to take on the case of timber merchant Selwyn Byng who received a ransom note demanding £5,000 for the return of his wife, heiress to a tea import business.  The next package Byng receives causes Batchelor and Grand to take the case more seriously.  Is their case linked to the naked torso found by the Thames River Police?  As more parts show up, it's clear there is more than one victim, and possibly, more than one killer.
In spite of the rather gruesome theme, Grand and Batchelor are just plain fun to read.  Trow has delightfully wry, humor—"She looked closely at Grand. 'Are you foreign?' She raised her voice slightly, as all nicely brought up maiden ladies do when speaking to foreigners, dogs, children, and the indigent."  That same humor makes even the grimmest scene enjoyable –'...Mother of God; what's that?' Crossland held the white thing in both hands, as though he was offering the inspector dessert. 'It's a body, sir…' 'Take it up top, man.  God knows what it'll do to my Stilton.'
Victorian England is such a perfect setting for a murder mystery and Trow uses the setting to full advantage.  He paints vivid pictures of everything from a prison cell, and the muddy banks of the Thames, to an overblown Victorian parlor.  London becomes as much a character to the story as do the actual characters and Trow creates wonderful characters.
Even though their time in the story may be short, we come to know each one; their names--and what fun he has with names--and a bit of their background.  They're not just anonymous figures.  Each is special, with Mrs. Rackstraw and the sweet between maid Maisie being particularly important.
The plot is nicely done with the detective work and forensic details being rather fascinating.  There are red herrings and twists aplenty.
"The Ring" has a very interesting conclusion and a lesson to be learned.  That the story is layered upon a series of actual, unsolved murders is very cleverly done.

THE RING: A Victorian Mystery (Hist-Grand/Batchelor-England-1873) – G+
      Trow, M.J. – 5th in series
      Severn House – Dec 2018

Friday, March 8, 2019

A Birthday Lunch by Martin Walker

First Sentence:  Bruno awoke when his cockerel saluted the first glow of the sun that was about to rise, and at once he remembered falling asleep to the sound of heavy rain.  

Bruno Courrèges, police chief in St. Denis, is surprised to find an ancient artifact while out for his morning ride.  It's a perfect gift to include in that day's birthday celebration for his friend Florence.  Joined by good friends, it's a lovely way to share memories and wonderful food.

Walker creates such a strong sense of place--"The air had never been clearer, the river never such a perfect silver, and the thin grass of the plateau had become a lush green overnight."--one feels as if one were there.  

With the tantalizing descriptions of food one dearly wishes one were, in fact, there.  However, I suspect a good cook could make the dishes presented from the instructions provided.  With good friends and good food, one learns a brief history of the region and the role of dogs to humanity.  Walker truly enables one to feel part of the conversation.  

"A Birthday Lunch" is not a mystery, but it is a delightful soupçon into Bruno's personal world and friendships.  Moreover, it's the perfect way to meet some of the recurring characters in Walker's excellent and highly recommended series of police procedurals.

A BIRTHDAY LUNCH (Novella-Bruno Courreges-St. Denis, France, Contemp) - Ex
Walker, Martin - A Bruno Novella (ebook)
A Vintage Short Original, 2019