Tuesday, May 25, 2021

What the Devil Knows by C.S. Harris

First Sentence: Molly Maguire hated the fog.

Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, has been asked by a Bow Street magistrate to investigate the brutal murder of Sir Edwin Pym. Pym had been one of the lead investigators on the Ratcliffe Highway Murders of 1811 in which two families were slaughtered in their homes. A suspect was arrested but died in his cell prior to the trial, and the murders stopped. Now in 1814, Pym has been killed in a nearly identical way, raising the question: was the real murderer caught, or is this a copycat killing? St. Cyr must go back to the beginning to find the truth.

Harris presents a stark, brutal look at London from the time of Bloody Mary, through Elizabeth I, to the time when the book is set. Nothing here is romanticized –"The farther east they traveled, the older, narrower, and more decrepit the houses became, the more ragged the men, women, and wretched children on the streets, the more foul the air."

It is interesting how Harris weaves together the cases from the two time periods into one investigation when other authors might have been tempted to write in two alternating timelines. By using this method, the story has more impact when it becomes clear that St. Cyr is solving is both a cold case and a current one. Harris is an effective and affecting, writer. Her scenes simultaneously create a sense of anger and desolation.

Hero, St. Cyr's wife, is a wonderful character used wisely by Harris. She has a role that involves her but doesn't have her actively attempting to solve crimes. Hero is the conveyer of a bit of humor when interviewing a young prostitute. She is an activist, writing columns on the city's laboring poor—"In some ways the lives of the Foundling Hospital's children were pitiable. … But in truth, these were the lucky ones. They weren't dead." She is the generous heart who is distressed at seeing a caged parrot that can never be set free, and an orphan who'd rather sell herself than be subjected to abuse—"Why? Why would you want to help me?" Hero drew a painful breath. What should she say? Because my life has always been so comfortable and easy that a part of me can't help but feel guilty for it?...Because sometimes writing articles to stir the public conscience simply isn't enough? … So instead, she said, "I need someone to take care of my parrot." Lastly, she is St. Cyr's wife and partner in the truest sense of the word, which adds softness and humanity to an otherwise very dark and dangerous story.

There are a lot of characters. Some are ones series readers will remember. Certainly, St. Cyr holds center stage, and young Tom, who takes care of his coach and horses and is wonderful in his own right. However, one downside of the double investigation is the plethora of other, secondary characters, who can be confusing as they are not fully developed. There are also a lot of murders. However, there are also exciting scenes of suspense and danger.

A second plot line runs through the series in St. Cyr's search to learn about his true parentage. Some of the most poignant moments come from here, and this book is no exception.

"What the Devil Knows" is a compelling read with a complex plot that keeps you going. Sadly, in many ways, it demonstrates that nothing really changes over time. Do note the map at the beginning of the book and make certain to read the Author's Notes at the end as they differentiate history from fiction.

WHAT THE DEVIL KNOWS (HistMys-Sebastian St. Cyr-London-1814/Georgian – VG
Harris, C.S. – 16th in series
Berkeley, Apr 2021, 336 pp.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

The Art of Violence by S.J. Rozan

First Sentence: Shifting colors on a monster billboard bled through the April evening mist, showed me a shadow in the alley.

Chronic alcoholic Sam Tabor has mental health disorders and experiences blackouts, except when he paints. After being convicted of murdering a woman and serving five years in prison, art lovers arrange for Sam's release. Now, two new women have been murdered and, because of the means of their deaths, Sam fears he is the killer. As a former client of investigator Bill Smith, Sam wants either to be proven guilty of the murders or absolutely convinced of his innocence.

A first line, both evocative and threatening, immediately draws one into an unusual premise. Rozan is a joy to read. Her writing is thoughtful and literary with passages of text—"By now, it was half past eight. … All traces of last night's mist had burned away under the April Sun … This unsullied light, this bright vision, they're beautiful, but they're false … It's not until the day gets older, wearier, that it stops making the effort to lie."--that contrast to her natural, realistic dialogue with touches of wry humor—"'Can I pick the restaurant?' … 'I've heard of it. I don't think I'm cool enough.' 'No, but I am."

Characters drive the story, and Bill and Lydia are wonderful characters. Rozan's books alternate between which character takes the lead, and this is Bill's turn. Bill is interesting in that he's a combination of the Golden Age PI with his cigarettes, a bit of the 70's television PI Banacek with his love of classical music and knowledge of art, but with more contemporary sensibilities in his personal relationship with Lydia and consideration for her mother, as well as his respect for her skills. These elements add dimensions to Bill one might not expect. Lydia plays a secondary role in the story but is still significant to the plot.

Although his mental illness, beyond OCD, isn't defined, Sam is the most intriguing character of them all. The description of Sam's paintings conveys their impact and inspires curiosity but leaves one disquieted. Through him, one sees the absurdity and price of celebrity—"….it had made him famous. He belonged to it now … belonged to didn't mean 'fit in with.' It meant 'was owned by." and those who follow it.

While there is the usual "bad" cop, Rozen counters that with Detective Angela Grimaldi who is tough, thorough, and smart, provides an explanation of the types of serial killers, and who believes in working the evidence to find the killer. And there is Lydia's traditional Chinese mother who is always a delight.

One may suspect the killer quite early on. While this is somewhat disappointing, the quality of Rozan's writing compels one to keep going, and it's worth it. After all, with very clever twists, additional murders, and the age-old, never-resolved question as to what is art, one's suspicions may not be accurate.

"The Art of Violence" could be considered Rozan's pandemic in that it is a bit muddled and not always easy to keep the characters straight. Even so, it is a good story and keeps one well engaged to the end.

THE ART OF VIOLENCE (PI-Bill Smith/Lydia Chin-New York-Contemp) - Good
Rozan, S. J. – 13th in series
Pegasus Crime, Dec 2020, 352 pp.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Dark Sky by C.J. Box

First Sentence: Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett stood on the edge of the tarmac with his hands thrust into the pockets of his parka and his gray Stetson clamped on tight against the cold wind.

Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett has been ordered by the Governor to take Steven "Steve-2" Price, a Silicon billionaire, bow-hunting for elk. While Joe is helping Steve stalk a bull elk, Earl Thomas and his sons are stalking Price intent on killing him. Joe's daughter, Sheridan, works for Nate Romanowski. In checking falcon nests, she discovers someone has been stealing and killing the birds. Nate and Sheridan learn Joe is in trouble, and immediately go to help. When Soledad, a falcon thief destroys Nate's birds and threatens his family, all bets are off.

Box's descriptions bring the locations and characters to life—"the last rays of the sun lit up the face of the rock formation and threw dark shadows into its folds and cracks. A single raven hugged the rim of the wall and flew in lazy, ever-widening circles." Where he excels is in suspense; in knowing who, but not the why. Violence comes hard and fast in the story. Seeds of distrust and suspicion are cleverly planted, and things escalate quickly as Joe is left without any communications or weapons but must protect another.

This is a two-pronged story, with the effectiveness and intensity of each being equal to the other. "Steve-2" is clearly based on Steve Jobs; the character even cites him as an idol. He exemplifies the very worst of the 1%, who created a product that enables the narcissism and bullying sadly found today. This is contrasted by the innate morality of Joe. Through Nate and Sheridan, one learns more about falcons and the illegal bird trade. It is also a thread that leads directly to the next book.

The intensity of suspense and action tend to keep one reading into the night. Although completely different, one may make a small comparison between Box and Agatha Christie in their high body count. The coming together of the three segments; Joe and Price, Nate and Sheridan, and Thomas and his sons, is cataclysmic—"Gee," she said to Nate, "I think we have enough guns along." "Bite your tongue," Nate said. One never has enough guns."-- but provides an unexpected revelation that doesn't excuse but explains how actions can lead to devastating results. Joe may now be 51, but he hasn't lost those attributes that one admires and that make him who he is.

"Dark Sky" is a wild ride of non-stop tension. It is violent, but thought-provoking as it deals with many important issues of our times. This may be Box's best book yet.

DARK SKY (LicInv-Joe Pickett-Wyoming-Contemp) - Ex
Box, C.J. – 21st in series
G.P. Putnam's Sons, Mar 2021, 349 pp.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

One Last Lie by Paul Doiron

First Sentence: Before I left for Florida, my old friend and mentor Charley Stevens gave me a puzzling piece of advice.

Retired Game Warden Charley Stevens has been a mentor, friend, and father figure to Mike Bowditch since early in his career. Charlie disappearing from his wheelchair-bound wife Ora is enough to bring Mike back to his home state of Maine from Florida. When he finds Charley didn't take his seaplane and left a note for Mike instructing him not to search, it's an automatic dog-whistle for Mike to do everything he can to find Charley.

A book should open with a compelling hook: goal accomplished. The Florida sense of place is distinct—"Never had I encountered nature in such glorious, riotous abundance. An eye-popping, caterwauling carnival of life." This is followed by another good life lesson—"A small fish came up to snap at it. A bigger fish rose from the depths to swallow the smaller fish whole. There's always someone bigger, someone hungrier."

Having strong characters makes all the difference. Eleven books in, Mike is only 31 with that combination of hard experience, intelligence, and skills, yet offset with youthful arrogance, occasional overconfidence, and romantic cluelessness. The women in Mike's world are bright, tough, and intelligent. Not a lot of time is spent on backstory. Instead, the author lets the story fill in the blanks so one never has the sense of coming in at the middle of the series.

Maine is a state most people think they know from photos of the coastline. The author's Maine is one of vast, wooded areas, lakes, self-reliant, often dangerous people, and drugs. The action scenes happen fast and there are plenty of them. They are visual and heart-stopping, with barely a pause of relief before one crisis moves to the next. The plot follows Mike's investigation step-by-step, and from place to place, which avoids one becoming confused. The inclusion of an investigation report adds realism to the story. However, along with Mike, one must always question who can be trusted.

"One Last Lie" is a literary mystery with many different elements brought together through intelligent writing and a complex protagonist. Mike may be a game warden, but this is a case where the threats come from animals with two legs. Doiron and Mike are unique. One cannot help but want to read more of this exceptional series.

ONE LAST LIE (LicInv-Warden Mike Bowditch-Maine-Contemp) – VG
Doiron, Paul – 11th in series
Minotaur Books, Jun 2020, 320 pp.