Wednesday, April 28, 2021

The Custom House Murders by Ashley Gardner

First Sentence: I pondered the package that reposed on the dining-room table for a long time.

Retired Army Captain Gabriel Lacey has a complicated tit-for-tat relationship with James Denis, ruler of London's underworld. Instructed by Denis to deliver a package containing a White Queen chess piece to his competitor and nemesis Harlow Creasy, Lacey must comply. Waylaid by an old Army friend, Major Miles Eden, newly arrived from Antigua, they, along with bodyguard Brewster, confront Creasy landing Lacey in the middle of a dangerous turf war. Afterward, Eden asks for Lacey's help clearing him of a murder charge.

The first thing one notices is Gardner's voice. She has captured the formality and speech of the period without it being ponderous or disruptive—"Barnstable, who would never profess interest in a gentleman's correspondence, had discreetly departed."—while also differentiating the speech of the classes—"Then it could mean anything, guv."

It is the relationships that hold one to the story. With Lacey at the nucleus, he respects and is respected by those at all levels. He believes in helping if he can but is not gullible. With a leg lamed during the war, he knows his physical limitations and resents them as anyone would. The relationship with his family is lovely, with scenes of intimacy done behind closed doors. When disaster comes, introduced with a wicked twist, you feel his anguish and fear, offset by a determination to make things right. The inclusion of chess is wonderfully done.

Gardner knows how to keep a story moving and the reader involved. The pacing is brilliantly done, alternating between peaceful family scenes, and those of investigation followed by extreme risk. The addition of Eden allowed a perspective of slavery that was realistic and thought-provoking without overshadowing the overall plot while Eden's case is one of no one being who they seem.

At the core, Gardner writes about relationships, even eliciting some sympathy for Denis—"I did not consider him a friend. Until this moment, when I realized that if Denis were killed, I'd be sorry." In turn, Lacey is flummoxed by those who consider him their friend—"I'm damned if I know why. I have a foul temper." Eden studied me in amusement. 'You intrigue people with your honesty. They never know what to make of it.'" Ashley Gardner, whose real name is Jennifer Ashley, writes under other pseudonyms as well and is an incredibly prolific author. In an interesting way, her writing reminds me of Louise Penny.

"The Custom House Murders" is a terrific entry to a series that only gets better with each book. It is atmospheric, emotional, exciting, catches your breath, and warms your heart. One appreciates not having an abrupt ending, but one where the ends are neatly tied up and the door opened to the next book.

THE CUSTOM HOUSE MURDERS (HisMys-Gabriel Lacey-London-1819) - Ex
Gardner, Ashley – 15th in series
JA/AG Publishing, Nov 2020, 309 pp.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

The Postscript Murders by Elly Griffiths

First Sentence: The two men have been standing there for eighteen minutes.

Peggy Smith is 90-years-old so her death isn't startling, except to her caregiver Natalka Kolisnyk. It is not the number of crime novels in Peggy's room that was surprising, but that almost all of them were dedicated to Peggy. When a masked gunman breaks in and steals a book Natalka and café owner Benedict were packing up, it's determined Peggy's death wasn't so natural, and DS Harbinder Kaur is assigned to the case. Joined by Peggy's elderly neighbor, Edwin Fitzgerald, Natalka, Benedict, and Harbinder join forces to undercover Peggy's killer.

Griffiths has a huge following of loyal fans. That makes it hard to be an outlier, but there was too much about this book that just did not work.

Setting aside the alternating voices; a device some don't mind while others find irritating, the plot was improbable, the coincidences were overwhelming and unrealistic. To have a police officer put his partner's life in jeopardy resulting in extreme harm to her, and then she is blamed stretched credulity. The portents were clumsy and obvious, thus removing any opportunity for surprise or suspense.

Griffiths does do a good job introducing the characters, and one learns of their background, as each appears. They are interesting and nicely developed, even those who are not particularly likable. One appreciates the friendships and camaraderie which develops. The team of four amateurs is the only thing that works in this book. Harbinder much less so and her partner is unpleasant to the point of being a caricature of male chauvinism.

Setting part of the book at a mystery conference provides a nice look into the world of publishing. However, there were too many threads, red herrings, and twists—yes, there can be too many intentionally timed twists—portents with predictable outcomes, and an ending that came from nowhere. Each death is projected, which removes any sense of surprise.

By far, the strength of this book lies in the characters, particularly the four who become friends. Their diversity adds dimension to the story, and one appreciates there being an epilogue for each character at the end. A cozy at its heart, this is a story of how the most unlikely of people can become friends.

"The Postscript Murders" is much different from Griffith's other books. The plot is overly complicated, filled with coincidences, and becomes boring at times. It feels, and perhaps was meant to be, as though this is a send-up of detective fiction. Yet it seemed rather demeaning to the genre.

THE POSTSCRIPT MURDERS (TradMys/Cozy-D.S. Harbinder Kaur-Leeds, England-Contemp) - Okay
Griffith, Elly – 2nd in series
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Mar 2021, 336 pp.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

The Drop by Dennis Lehane

First Sentence: Bob found the dog two days after Christmas, the neighborhood gone quiet in the cold, hungover and gas-bloated.

Bob Saginowsk's life revolves between the house in which he grew up, the Catholic Church he has always attended, and the bar in which he works which is now owned by Chechen mobsters, and managed by his cousin Marv. Things change when he rescues a small dog and meets Nadia. Bob's life is looking up until two gunmen walk into the bar.

Lehane has a way of writing that draws you into his world. It is a world of people few of us know but recognize they are real. Bob is a character who tugs at your heart, while Marv, his cousin, who once owned the bar and is desperately trying to succeed at something again--"a successful man could hide his past, but an unsuccessful man spent the rest of his life trying not to drown in his."

The best writers are those whose phrases make one stop and consider, perhaps even reread. One doesn't do this for clarity, but out of consideration for what was said. One wants to make note of them to share them with others. Yet Lehane's world is a harsh one filled with violence and cruelty—"Cruelty is older than the Bible. Savagery best its chest in the first human summer and has kept beating it every day since." Even so, it's not unrelenting. There are elements of self-realization and bright spots with Nadia, a puppy, and surprisingly, Detective Evandro Torres, the cop, who is still trying to solve a ten-year-old cold case.

How does one quantify Lehane's writing? It is brutal but somehow impersonal; detached so one doesn't feel shocked by it. He surprises one but makes one feel they should have seen it coming. He is dark and not for everyone, but those who do read him cannot help but feel slightly in awe.

"The Drop" began life as a short story, became a screenplay, and is now a short novel. One need not know any of that to appreciate the quality, the level of suspense, the twists, particularly at the end.

THE DROP (NoirCrime-Bob Saginowski-Boston-Contemp) Ex
Lehane, Dennis – Standalone
William Morrow, 2014, 208 pp.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Transient Desires by Donna Leon

First Sentence: Brunetti slept late.

Two young American women were found injured and abandoned on the emergency dock of the hospital. A surveillance camera finally identified the boat and the men who left them there. But why dump the women if the injuries were caused by a boating accident? An investigation by Brunetti and his colleague, Claudia Griffoni, lead to far darker activities involving one of the men's uncle. Although Brunetti is uncertain how much he can trust them, he needs the assistance of the Carabinieri and the Guardia di Costiera against an enemy much greater than he imagined.

One of the best things about Brunetti is how real and normal he is. No superhero he. He procrastinates and indulges in self-pity as he feels the passage of years. His empathy for others and the inclusion of his home life make him a fully developed character. Yet, one wonders whether Brunetti is suffering from ennui and thinking of retirement?

As usual, the magnificent Signorina Elettra saves the day by pointing him to a new case, but it's Leon's wry assessment of charity events, especially those for environmental issues where the attendees fly in on their private jets, that remind us how good Leon is at incorporating current issues into her stories including that while Brunetti is appreciative of the women with whom he is in contact, he is also very aware of what is appropriate. The addition of Claudia Griffoni as Brunetti's second, and a Neapolitan demonstrates that bigotry comes in many forms. Still, she makes the point; it is often those who are invisible to others who see the most. There is so much packed into this story. Brunetti is always willing to grow and learn which adds to his strength as a character.

Leon expands the story in a logical manner, often with well-placed, but not overused, plot twists. She also increases one's knowledge of Italy's different law enforcement branches by including the Carabinieri, or the military branch, and the Guardia Costiera, which is equivalent to our Coast Guard. Including these branches expands the story and increases its suspense. There is nothing more effective or suspenseful than a setup where one thinks one knows how things will go, yet desperately hopes to be wrong.

"Transient Desires" is timely, relevant, and suspenseful. This ranks high among Leon's books; perhaps as her very best, with implications and an ending that is emotionally impactful.

TRANSIENT DESIRES (PolPro-Comm. Guido Brunetti-Venice-Contemp) Ex
Leon, Donna – 30th in series
Atlantic Monthly Press, Mar 2021, 288 pp

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

To The Dark by Chris Nickson

First Sentence: She sensed him there, behind her in the fog.

Simon West, with his assistant Jane, and wife Rose, is a thief-taker. When petty thief Laurance Poole, who robbed Alderman Sir Matthew Fullbrook, is found dead, Simon is worried he may be arrested. Instead, he is surprised to be hired by Constable Williams to find the killer. After Simon finds a notebook written in code, he is drawn into the dangerous job of exposing those behind a rash of burglaries. It is up to Simon, Jane, and Rose to keep a priceless item safe, find a killer, and stay alive.

It is always a relief when an author draws new readers into a series yet makes them feel right at home, especially when there is suspense from almost the first page. Even better is when it is the third book in the series, and one feels no lack for not having read the previous two. Nickson sets the tone with his descriptions of Leeds, a city he calls home and whose history he knows extremely well. He depicts an industrial-age city chocked by smoke, dirt, and grime all in the name of progress—"I don't think Leeds will ever be clean again,…"

This is not a book set in genteel drawing rooms, but in the homes, streets, and alleys of the working, and non-working class, just trying to survive as best they can—"He had no one to look after his mother while he was gone. No money to pay for a companion for her. He had no choice but to tie her in the chair to stop her from wandering." Yet the author's voice conveys caring and compassion.

Nickson's characters are alive and fascinating. One learns their backgrounds, often through memories, fleshing them out but still leaving a shadow around them, especially the character of Martha. An unreliable character always heightens the suspense. Watching how the three main characters use their contacts to track the clues, one step at a time, adds a sense of constant tension. Nickson's female characters are anything but minor characters or ones waiting for a man to rescue them. Jane gives as good, if not better than she gets. She is somewhat feral and works on grit. Rose, Simon's wife, is his partner in life and in craft. She depends on guile, intellect, and having the right wardrobe.

As the story progresses, suspense builds at a heart-stopping pace, aided by excellent plot twists, and an unanswered question at the end. One really can't help but wonder why this very prolific author is not better known than he is.

"To the Dark" is an exciting book filled with twists and climax after climax, but still leaving questions unanswered at the end. With female characters as clever and capable as the men, the author created a tense, suspenseful tale in a city he so obviously loves.

TO THE DARK (HisMys-Simon West/Jane-Leeds, England-1822) – VG+
Nickson, Chris – 3rd in series
Severn House, Feb 2021, 238 pp.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Cruel as the Grave by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

First Sentence: Atherton was singing in his Dean Martin voice.

Personal fitness trainer Erik Lingoss is found murdered in his flat by a young woman who fancied herself in love with him. A box full of cash in his closet, 700 pounds under his pillow, and his missing mobile phone indicates things may not be as indicated. The more Slider and his team investigate, the more suspects emerge. Under pressure to clear the case, they work to find the who and why of the murder.

Beginning a new book by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles is akin to being given one's favorite dessert. First, there is no prologue, not even one masquerading as a first chapter. The story begins on page one and continues to the end. Second, wonderful dialogue filled with wry humor—"Let he who is without sin bore the pants off everybody else." Last, the sense of time and place. Her evocative descriptions employ all the senses.

The characters are alive--"…Atherton stretched, catlike. Tall, elegant, sartor's plaything, he was as out of place at a dreary crime scene as an orchid in a vegetable patch." The balance is Slider, not a Long-Ranger cop, but respected by a team where each has their role to play. The plot may initially present itself as straightforward, yet one knows it won't stay that way long—"Thirteen thousand pounds. …Normal people don't keep large amounts of cash in the wardrobe."

Including characters' families in the story adds humanity and dimension. Unlike the questionable stability of Atherton's relationship, Slider has an extended family of his wife, son and a child on the way, a daughter by his first marriage, a father and his partner. A wonderful hospital scene touches the heart.

The author's use of language, including the chapter headings, is a pleasure. One small caution, or treat, is that it is very British, meaning there are numerous British terms and idioms. It can be confusing, but the meaning is easy enough to glean from the context—"The bathos almost made him smile." The use of malaprops—"Putting the cat before the horse, aren't you?"—and literary references are fun to spot. The banter between Slider and Atherton realistically reflects that of friends/colleagues who know each other well.

The plot focuses on the real police work of identifying the many suspects, following leads, and looking for evidence. What drives Slider as much as finding the killer is discovering the motive which is poignant.

"Cruel as the Grave" is such a good read. Harrod-Eagles is a skilled writer who evokes empathy for the killer. It was truly the dessert's finishing touch.

CRUEL AS THE GRAVE (PolProd-D.S.I. Bill Slider-London-Contemp) – G+
Harrod-Eagles, Cynthia – 22nd in series
Severn House, Feb 2021, 256 pp