The wizard, the warrior (she cross-dresses to get the part), the thief and the Rogue (sorry no barbarian this time round) go into an inn. “Drinks all round!” calls out the Rogue and so the game begins. Yes we’re in the land of RPGs, specifically Quests and, to prove the point, The Barrow by Mark Smylie (Pyr, 2014) (see the Artesia graphic novels) starts us off in full tomb-robbing mode. When the label “sword & sorcery” was being coined back in the 1960s, the general practice was to have the heroes gather, set off quietly, and build to a big set-piece at the end when mayhem, usually both violent and magical, was allowed full rein. This book rather breaks with convention by showing a team in action as they approach an underground temple. Within just a few pages, they have boldly gone below and are soon fighting for their lives as the worshippers don’t take too kindly to their temple being violated (again). While the acolytes go hand-to-hand with the intruders, the priestess gets into the business of an invocation and, as the light fades, something this way comes and it’s not going to stop with just pricking thumbs. Fortunately, the main protagonist, Stjepan, aka Black-Heart, has found what he was looking for and, together with Erim (she’s undetectably doing the man’s job of hacking away at all-comers) and Harvald, they escape with The Map! Yes, the thieves were preparing to carry away treasure, but the enigmatic Stjepan, cartographer and other things to Kings, was only interested in finding the route to the ultimate treasure. Not surprisingly, he’s on the track of the legendary sword Gladringer which was reputedly buried along with a wizard called Azharad — not to be confused with Abdul Alhazred, the Mad Arab from Lovecraftian Mythos.
Having now demonstrated he can write exciting set-pieces in underground locations, our attention switches to the city and something rather sad happens. By way of introduction, I should confirm the story being told is actually quite interesting. The politics of this society and the subsequent travel across the landscape of this fantasy world are done well. Indeed, the problem comes from the attention to detail in the world-building. This is a six-hundred page book — intermediate in size since one or two books are now weighing in at more than one-thousand pages. Obviously, a lot happens in a book this long, but there’s also a vast amount of infodumping going on to introduce everyone, explain where they are, the history of the places, the religious significance of different practices, and so on. If you didn’t keep having to slow down to read it all, this would no doubt be considered an excellent adventure book. But it can’t seem to make up its mind what it wants to be. The opening section suggests it wanted to be rip-roaring, non-stop action, but once we get back above ground, it’s like the author wanted to show all us Doubting Thomases just how much effort he had invested in making up all this stuff. Shame really. If someone on the editorial staff had taken an axe to the book as submitted, there was a wonderful 400 page epic fantasy waiting to be told in crisp, elegant prose.
Instead, it gets rather boring. You can tell the author was also finding it heavy going because, from time to time, he tries to divert attention from the plodding nature of the prose by introducing some sex scenes. In a way, this book reminded me of the Gor novels by John Norman. When our professor got tired of expounding on the merits of the social Darwinism underpinning his fictional societies and their cultures, he would allow the dominant men to show their women a good time (remember Lange also wrote a more academic book — only joking — arguing that sexual fantasies, often of a BDSM variety, would help couples improve their sex lives). Well some of the sex in this book is slightly more graphic than even our good professor would have fantasised about on paper (or perhaps elsewhere for that matter).
Anyway, once back in town, Harvald assigns himself the task of decursing The Map, but things don’t go quite as planned and the physical document is destroyed. Depending on your point of view, this is not the end of matters. The Map does not go quietly up in smoke, but elects to reappear in another location — tickets to view are soon on private sale. With the security situation deteriorating, Stjepan and Erin join with Gilgwyr the brothel impresario and Leigh, the unreliable wizard, to find the Barrow where the sword is believed buried. About two-thirds of the way through the book, the team enter said barrow and discover there are difficulties to overcome — not a total surprise.
So The Barrow suffers from many of the problems common to first novels which set off down fairly well-travelled plot roads. Mark Smylie has attempted to compensate for the underlying lack of originality by adding in detail. This leaves me blaming the publisher whose editorial staff should have taken control of the book, cut out all the dead wood, and distilled the remainder of the plot down to a manageable length.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
As a general proposition let’s assume there’s no such thing as a set formula for each of the genre classifications dreamed up by the marketing departments. No matter what the label, the quality of the book comes down to the virtue of the storytelling. The protagonist has one or more problems which he or she tries to solve as the book progresses. Unfortunately, instead of things getting better, they get worse as tension emerges with other members of the cast and, when he or she is known, the antagonist ratchets up the pressure. As we approach the end, the tensions become more severe and lead to a resolution, often violent in mysteries, thrillers and adventure stories. The Cold Nowhere by Brian Freeman (Quercus, 2013) is the eighth book the marketers have decided is a thriller and the sixth to feature Lieutenant Jonathan Stride. The reality is rather more complex. In practical terms, it’s a police procedural set in Duluth, Minnesota. Because there’s considerable uncertainty as to whether there’s a threat to Catalina “Cat” Mateo, daughter of Michaela Mateo and Marty Gamble, the set-up might be considered the opening scenes of either a thriller or a mystery.
The problem is that sixteen-year-old Cat appears psychologically disturbed, afflicted by nightmares and displaying other symptoms of trauma. This is not surprising. When she was six, she hid under the house when her father stabbed her mother to death and then committed suicide. Given such a disturbing event, time is often not a healer. So it’s possible she’s delusional, or she’s playing a game to get close to our protagonist for some reason. So this is a mystery thriller, with psychological elements, set in a police procedural. But that’s not enough to satisfy the ambition of our author. Jonathan Stride himself was in a happy marriage but his wife died. His second marriage was a disaster but, until fairly recently, he’s had a good relationship with a female police officer called Serena Dial. Unfortunately, Stride is one of the “strong silent types” who bottles difficult emotional issues inside himself and never talks with anyone, including Serena. Although she’s not naive, Serena is equally not prepared to sit and wait for Stride to open up and deal with his problems. She leaves. In a moment of vulnerability, Stride then has a six week fling with Maggie Bei, the partner he works with. As everyone has secrets and no-one likes to be honest, that’s a recipe for considerable difficulty in a smallish city like Duluth — a city famous for low ambient temperatures, the lake and a certain coldness in relationships.
At this point, I might step back and appear to praise the book by saying the characterisation is rich and complex, or I could be disparaging and wonder why all series characters have to come from broken marriages and have an inability to talk about their problems. Now I’m not going to say this book is serious art, that it has a quality of tragedy about it that lifts it out of the ordinary. That would be pretentious. But I am going to note one rather pleasing use of a literary device. In some classic novels and films, there’s a conscious parallelism between the characters and their setting. It may be the inner turmoil of the protagonist is mirrored by the approaching storm and, when the thunder crashes and lightning bolts strike down from the leaden sky, there’s an emotional crisis in the gothic house on the blasted heath. Well here we have a city that has reached an accommodation with the cold. People have adjusted the pace of their lives to the wind chill and snow crunching under foot. Their houses are designed to stay warm — small castles to stand against the storms or small prisons where they can be kept apart from their neighbours. In theory, these people drive more carefully given the risk of black ice. When there are problems, there’s a sense of community. Some will rally round to help each other, banding together in the face of the weather as a common enemy. Others will see political opportunities to take credit when things go well or deflect blame on to the less wary. Yes, politics in Duluth can be cold and dirty, and it represents a serious problem to the progress of any investigation that might involve the city’s elite, e.g. hints of prostitution and corruption must always be handled sensitively.
Put all this together and The Cold Nowhere proves to be a completely engrossing read. There’s both strength and vulnerability from the key characters on display and although I think one aspect of the resolution unlikely, it does produce a socially interesting point at which to leave the characters at the end. Should there be another book in this series, it would be fascinating to see how it all works out. However, the primary appeal of the book lies in the strength of mystery to untangle. This is genuinely well-constructed and it’s beautifully paced through the book to produce an exciting climax. Thematically, even though it’s fairly obvious what the motive is, the precise way in which it’s embedded into the plot is particularly pleasing. Connecting all the dots is a real challenge to the reader but the effort is worth it, making this one of the best mystery-thriller-police-procedural-psychological drama books I’ve read in a long while. You should read it too.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Every now and then, I encounter the truth behind one of the traditional idioms. In this case, I’m thinking of, “curiosity killed the cat”. To explain: working for SFBRs is a real pleasure. Every two or three weeks, the crew sends me a list of books from which to choose what to read next. I pick out authors that I know and like, together with a liberal number of anything that looks vaguely interesting. For Dark Lycan by Christine Feehan (Berkley, 2013), the feature swinging the interestometer was the fact this is the twenty-fourth in her Carpathians series. Yes, I know. The ideal is to start with volume 1 and work through as many as you can tolerate. But if you are going to jump into a series, you might as well do it with something that’s apparently selling as strongly today as it was when the first book hit the shelves way back when.
So here I am with absolutely no idea what to expect reading the first page and my hackles are rising. It seems this is one of these romance-tinged vampire/werewolf series in which the good fight the bad specimens on each side of the species divide (or when things get confused, the species mix up and produce more powerful versions of the source creature). So the first sign of trouble comes with the sheer inexplicability of what’s happening. Our heroine is Tatijana Dragonseeker and she’s currently underground, buried somewhere near her sister Branislava. It turns out this is a good thing. They have been trapped in ice for centuries. Now released, they are sleeping this minor inconvenience off by soaking in the goodness of the soil. In this half-dreaming state, the sisters have a telepathic link. They have been keeping each other company (and sane) for all these years by exchanging thoughts. At this time in their recovery cycle, Tatijana is the more alert and she decides to go visit with the locals. This involves tunnelling. She comes out close to the kind of inn low-lifes like and, guess what, propping up the bar is Fenris Dalka. A few pages later, the pair have decided they are soul mates. Because a fight is looming with some renegade werewolves who just happen to be rampaging in the neighbourhood, they put off the moment of bonding to each other for life so they can kill a few of these importunate toothy ones. Fortunately, Fenris has a brother who flies in to help and a “man” from the inn also proves to be one of the “good guys” so they do pretty well in the slaying business. This is not to say they emerge unscathed but with Fenris patching up his brother and Tatijana working her magic on the helpful one, they are soon back up to strength.
At this point, I revised my original estimate that this is a romance-tinged story. That usually means the male and female circle round each other for the book or series, and never commit. This pair have full emotional contact at the first more intimate glance (with telepathic overtones) and never look back. It’s just a case of waiting for them to say the words and get started making new Cathpathians, Lycans or mixtures depending on what you think the attributes of this pair happen to be. Well, I got as far as Fenris being outed as one of the abomination mixtures, but her family saying, “Well, you know, that’s not so bad today as it used to be.” so they decide not to kill him. Which is kind of convenient because it means the lifemating can go ahead and let no man (or any other beastie) put asunder (or something). So that leaves them free to fight together against the evil pack and their bad mix leader. Except I decide life’s just too short to attempt reading something like this, so I carefully placed it in the “read” box and picked up the next. Yes Dark Lycan is the first unfinished book of the year.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Tell No Lies by Gregg Hurwitz (St Martin’s Press, 2013) demonstrates the old adage that the more you struggle, the faster you sink. So off we go with a mystery thriller that meticulously follows the formula, namely that in the first act of the book, we’re introduced to all the relevant characters including the suspects, that in the middle act, there’s considerable confusion as to which of the suspects may be to blame, and that in the final act, we get an answer, then a twist. If possible, there must be broad, easy-to-understand motives on display, namely, revenge for wrongs caused and a burden of guilt among those who understand what was done.
So at the outset, we’re given a ringside seat as Daniel Brasher, a counsellor, works a room of criminals in San Francisco. They have all chosen to go through a course of group therapy in which they learn to confront their inner demons and become better people. If they resist, their probation is revoked and they go back to jail. Not surprisingly, the attendees are deeply ambivalent to the reality of the course. It’s the price they must pay for early release but they would rather not be made to think about the crimes they have committed, let alone decide they would like to reform. For the book to succeed, we must believe in each of the six individuals who’ve signed up for the latest course. More importantly, we must find Brasher’s approach to counselling credible. The exercise in character creation is not unsuccessful. I’m prepared to believe such people would enroll in a course. But I’m not inclined to believe in the somewhat provocative, not to say, aggressive approach adopted by Brasher. We’re expected to believe this motley crew would submit to this form of intellectual and emotional bullying, that it would crack open their shells of feigned indifference, and enable new human beings to emerge from the chrysalises which wrap them while they decide whether to become butterflies. Except, of course, one of them may be a murderer which complicates the relationship our hero has with the group.
The set-up is not without interest. For reasons that need not concern us, Brasher picks up a pile of mail from the boxes of his place of work. Among them, he finds a letter addressed in crabbed hand to an unknown individual. When he Googles the addressee, he discovers the man has been murdered. At this point, he calls the police and our highly experienced female detective arrives. The note is considered interesting but unilluminating. Because this is a thriller, no-one thinks to go through the rest of the bundle of mail. Hence it’s only later he thinks to check. Needless to say, he finds two more notes and this pitches him into the middle of a serial killer’s game. The killer is warning people to admit their guilt or go to their doom. Because this is a mystery thriller, there’s nothing obviously linking these nominated victims and, when they finally do track one down, she has no idea what she might have done to deserve such a death threat. It’s only towards the end of the book that the “crime” is identified and the scope of those at risk realised. At first, there’s no obvious link between any of Brasher’s clients and this “crime”. This is only revealed as we come into the final therapy session for the group.
So “Ask Me No Questions, and I’ll” Tell No Lies has quite an interesting point to make about the phenomenon of guilt and the layers of hypocrisy which people erect to insulate themselves from understanding the harm they do to others. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest a potentially significant socio-political subtext is in play. Unfortunately, the potential is rather dissipated by crudely drawn caricatures and reaches a somewhat strange conclusion which, I suppose, we’re to take as a form of ironic form of delayed justice. I think there is actually a good book in this set of plot ideas, but not as written. Yes, the mystery plot has potential, and there are chases and fights as is required in a thriller, but the whole is not as coherent or credible as it might have been.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
This review discusses the plot so, if you have not already watched this episode, you may wish to delay reading this.
The pun in the title is almost excruciating and beneath contempt, but here we go with Elementary: Season 2, episode 17. Ears to You (2014). I suppose we should be grateful the producers didn’t go with “Ear Today, Gone Tomorrow”. Worse we’re pursuing the overdone metaphor of reformed cocks inhabiting the same house as Gareth Lestrade (Sean Pertwee) is still in the brownstone after nineteen days and incapable of going quietly into the night (or anywhere else for that matter). The only good thing about the presence of the cocks is that, in the end, they (or their feathers) are responsible for the satisfactory resolution of the difficulty between Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) and Lestrade. While we wait, you can see why Holmes might be working on the construction (and disarming) of bombs. Of course Lestrade is overflowing with job offers, but speaking only a curious version of British English, he’s disinclined to take off for Brazil or any other foreign parts.
Meanwhile, in another part of the city, a man called Gordon Cushing (Jeremy Davidson) opens a package and finds two severed ears which does rather recall The Adventure of the Cardboard Box. This man is somewhat notorious because, four years ago, he was suspected of doing away with Sarah Cushing (Cara Buono), his wife, but there was not enough evidence to go to trial. Along with the hearing aids there’s a ransom note offering whatever remains of his wife for a cash sum. This is allegedly the second time he’s been asked for money. One year after his wife disappeared, he left $1 million under a tree, but the good tooth fairy failed to leave any part of his wife under a convenient pillow. When Captain Tobias Gregson (Aidan Quinn) and the NYPD organises the transfer of the latest demand ($4 million for the best bits) it all goes wrong when the man jumps off the subway platform and walks down the tunnel. Gordon thinks this is a bad idea and, when the police track them down, Gordon is standing over the body of the man with an iron bar. This presents an interesting problem. DNA confirms the ears do belong to his wife so she was alive “yesterday”. Gordon has no real motive to stage any of this just to prove his wife is still alive — he’s pleading self-defence to killing to ransom collector.
Meanwhile, Lestrade is having an anxiety attack. For years he traded on Sherlock’s good name. Now he’s forced to look for work again, he’s aware he’s not really competent enough to do many of the jobs on offer. He advises Dr Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) to enjoy her life basking in the shadow of the great man because, once her mentor moves on, she’ll be yesterday’s news (again). This leads Watson to begin a course of therapy. Since Lestrade lacks self-confidence, she gets two files on recent muggings in the vicinity of the brownstone and tells him to find the guy responsible. She asks him to remember that Holmes identified him as competent when they worked together in London. She invites him to remember he’s a detective and stop wallowing in self-pity.
The analysis of the dead body with Detective Marcus Bell (Jon Michael Hill) allowed a moment of screen time is interesting as we discover this is a man of little education, possibly a recent immigrant, and not a man who, three years ago, collected a $1 million in ransom. He’s just a messenger boy but with Alcoholics Anonymous tattoos. This leads them to AA meetings in an area matching a keyring in his possession where, surprisingly, they meet Sarah. We then get into the fringes of science fiction. When it comes to tissue engineering, we’re approaching the time when it might be possible to grow human ears or a nose in a laboratory, but scientists are still some years away from being able to run clinical trials. For the pair which appeared in this version of the cardboard box to have been grown in this less than a clinically secure environment is literally impossible today. Although I’m not averse to scriptwriters getting creative when it comes to elements in a murder mystery, this seems to be going rather beyond acceptable limits. Just because it’s an ingenious solution to the initial problem does not make it appropriate.
As to the resolution of the Lestrade case, he shows why he’s a good detective and a terrible judge of character. Although he tracks down the mugger, his complete inability to understand how the feather came to be in the man’s apartment defies belief. But that’s the quality of the man and it’s a quite remarkable act of humility for Holmes to fall in with the delusion. Although it’s self-interested and does get the man out of the brownstone, it shows Holmes able to think quickly on his feet and make good decisions under pressure. Between them, Holmes and Watson have given the man enough self-confidence to leave America in search of a better future. No doubt they devoutly hope never to see him again. Although the plot element featuring Lestrade was quite interesting, the mystery portion was less so, leaving Elementary: Ears to You slightly below average.
For the reviews of other episodes, see:
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 1. Pilot (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 2. While You Were Sleeping (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 3. Child Predator (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 4. The Rat Race (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 5. Lesser Evils (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 6. Flight Risk (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 7. One Way to Get Off (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 8. The Long Fuse (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 9. You Do It To Yourself (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 10. The Leviathan (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 11. Dirty Laundry (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 12. M (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 13. The Red Team (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 14. The Deductionist (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 15. A Giant Gun, Filled With Drugs (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 16. Details (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 17. Possibility Two. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 18. Déjà Vu All Over Again. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 19. Snow Angel. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 20. Dead Man’s Switch. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 21. A Landmark Story. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 22. Risk Management. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episodes 23 & 24. The Woman and Heroine (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 1. Step Nine (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 2. Solve For X (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 3. We Are Everyone (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 4. Poison Pen (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 5. Ancient History (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 6. An Unnatural Arrangement (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 7. The Marchioness (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 8. Blood Is Thicker (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 9. On the Line (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 10. Tremors (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 11. Internal Audit (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 12. The Diabolical Kind (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 13. All in the Family (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 14. Dead Clade Walking (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 15. Corps de Ballet (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 16. One Percent Solution (2014).
To Sail a Darkling Sea by John Ringo (Baen, 2014) is the second in the Black Tide Rising series following on Under a Graveyard Sky and features survival after a zombie plague has overrun the land. In military terms that just leaves isolated bases in the US, Russia and China, and a reasonable number of people in submarines. Obviously, once the plague hit, the rich and more enterprising took off on small boats. Others were already at sea on cruise liners. What’s now called the Wolf Squadron is now slowly growing itself by finding boats, clearing the zombies and rescuing the few survivors who could shut themselves away with enough food and water to survive.
I’m obliged to start this review with the usual disclaimer that I know absolutely nothing about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the various types of guns and rifles discussed in the pages of this or any other military book. Those that have this interest will no doubt be fascinated by the detailed evaluation of stopping power and generally utility. I skipped through these passages as part of the price to be paid to get on with the story.
I should also note the rather odd view of gender displayed as the story unwinds. Faith and Sophia, the two Wolf daughters are both shown as ruthless killers of the zombies. Having set up two of the main point of view characters as female, it’s a little depressing to have another set of scenes which trap five men and one woman in a compartment, leaving her in the role of comfort woman. Alarmingly, she gets to enjoy the sex including threesomes. It’s a sad commentary of the five men that they have no self-control and believe the best way of passing the time while waiting for rescue is to persuade the only female that sex is wonderful (as often as they want it, of course).
There’s also an interesting discussion of the psychology of leadership and the necessity for ranks with a defined disciplinary code. This becomes a essential matter to settle because the only group functioning on the surface is the Wolf Squadron and it’s civilian. So we have the few military survivors hiding in bunkers on land and lots of submarines who don’t dare undog their hatches near anyone even vaguely human in case they contract the zombie-causing virus. The rump survivors of the military must therefore fit these “people” into a command hierarchy so that, as and when the scientists in the Wolf Squadron produce more of the vaccine and can protect the crews of the submarines, everyone will know how to relate to each other and co-ordinate their efforts to retake the land. Less successful is the discussion of whether the mechanism for the Wolf Squadron’s cohesion is a form of communism. Regrettably, when you measure the US in international terms, even its supposed left-wing liberals are woefully right wing when compared to almost all other countries. So when a US author of military SF, adapted in this case to cover a zombie apocalypse, starts talking about whether the organisational dynamic is communist, you know to suppress mirth.
So is there anything to like about this book? Well, for all the facile politics, the endless discussion of weaponry and overemphasis on military jargon, the underlying story is actually quite interesting even though it does get somewhat repetitive. The marines led by Shewolf are shown clearing boats and ships of varying size. They then move on to land in the Canary Islands. Knowing they will need to move to safer waters as the winter storm season approaches, they require more transport for the increasing number of people they have been rescuing. The Canaries are convenient because there are a number of cruise ships there, together with a significant number of motor yachts and zodiac-style power boats. The plan is to put together a flotilla capable of wintering successfully and then moving over to Guantanamo where they hope to find the facilities to resume manufacture of the vaccine. All this has virtue in thoughtful plotting terms. Overlook the extermination of zombies on an industrial scale when they can be confronted in relatively controlled situations, and the spirit of the book does maintain a reasonable momentum. I suppose the fans of military SF will think this wonderful. As it is, I rate To Sail a Darkling Sea as not too unbearable.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Ask Not by Max Allan Collins (Forge, 2013) (Nathan Heller Mystery 17) If you look back over the last fifty years, the most talked about event in conspiracy circles has been the JFK assassination. Over the years, everyone and his/her dog has had a theory about who might really have been behind the killing and why. So here we have a well-researched book with guest appearances from Bobby Kennedy, Jack Ruby, Jim Garrison and others. It begins with what most people take to be the agreed facts and then spins the author’s own interpretation on top. Frankly, I’m not really into the mythology of this sad incident. It comes of being born and raised on the other side of the Pond. I remember the British current events satire show called That Was the Week That Was, devoted all its running time to a commentary and tribute to JFK but, in 1963, it was just one more thing in a busy world to think about. To Americans, of course, it came as a shock that someone would be bold enough to kill the President in such a public way. Alongside the assassination of William McKinley, the combined shock effect was the equivalent of this century’s 9/11, scarring the psyche of America.
This is the final book in the JFK trilogy sequence of Heller novels and short story collections, and a direct sequel to Target Lancer. It starts in September 1964 immediately after a concert given by the Beatles. As Heller, the PI to the stars, and his sixteen-year-old son are crossing a Chicago street, a Cuban tries to run them down. The PI knows this man was involved in an attempt on JFK’s life in Chicago three weeks before Dallas and may also have been involved in “Operation Mongoose”, the failed attempt by the CIA, Cuban exiles and the mob to take down Fidel Castro. Since there are a number of reasons why interested parties would have a motive for killing him, Heller spends his money to place protection for his ex-wife and son, and begins to research who might be behind the attempted hit.
So what we have here is a PI novel which is playing the true crime game in a historical mystery format. I confess a lot of the history was completely new to be. Blame thousands of miles and a lack of motivation for my ignorance. I therefore have no idea how much of the content is rehashing what’s already in the common domain. All I can say is that, after a while, I thought the facts rather drowned out the action. If I’m going to sit down with a PI novel boasting potentially noir overtones, then that’s what I want. I felt this was trying too hard to fit into the straightjacket of history. Yes, there are no doubt some wildly speculative bits in there, but I neither know nor really care where the facts stop and the fiction begins. This has the assassination and the Warren Commission’s botched attempt to clarify matters as the backdrop. There are a surprising number of bodies. The majority are probably victims of a clean-up squad which is touring the country eliminating those who might be able to disturb the cover-story of a lone gunman. Assuming this to be a true recital of the number of deaths, it’s a sad indictment of the willingness of the powerful to sacrifice the innocent. Towards the end, there are other victims who more immediately surround our hero and may be killed because of his investigation. Heller joins forces with journalist Flo Kilgore, a fictionalized version of Dorothy Kilgallen (1913–1965). As the date shows, she also died in the real world while investigating the assassination.
I wanted to like this. The writing style is engaging and when we’re purely into fictional PI novel territory, the effect is very pleasing. But I felt submerged in factual information, much of which was not directly advancing the fictional PI story being told. Background which tends to suggest conspiracy and cover-up has a particular interest to those who want to consider whether the alleged conspiracy is real. PI novel readers want to see their hero fight his way through to the end and beat the bad guy. Because no-one actually knows the “truth”, there can’t be a convenient “Heller catches the bad guy” ending. The best he can do is survive. So Ask Not is less satisfying as fiction and too heavy on real-world history for a Brit like me.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.