Well, this is going to be a novelty. Today’s book is Yesterday’s Echo by Matt Coyle (Oceanview Publishing, 2013) and, for once, I’m going to write two shorter reviews. The first will be for younger readers. The second will be for geriatric curmudgeons like me. Why two reviews? Because this is a hardboiled novel somewhat in the style of Raymond Chandler. Some of you reading this will know the name but never have read any of his shorter stories or novels. The first review is for you.
Think of a man with a past in which something terrible happened. In this case, he was wrongly accused of murder. He manages to avoid prosecution but runs away and finds somewhere to hide. Think of this as entering a pupa state in which he will lie relatively dormant until the metamorphosis is complete and it’s time for him to emerge. As the years pass, the chrysalis hardens and much effort is required to break out. When the process is complete, what entered the papa state as a police officer will emerge as a fully adult PI. This is the key characteristic of a Chandler hero. That he is, first and foremost, a detective. Nothing changes that reality. That’s why he never has any private life. Although he has a place to sleep, it’s not really a place he will convert into a home by marrying. Indeed, apart from casual sex, he’s unlikely even to have a girlfriend. This book starts with a series of relatively minor incidents at the restaurant he manages. He encounters a girl. Later he has sex with her but this is almost immediately complicated. Two heavy hitters ask him about the girl. His refusal to answer results in pain. Then by one of the coincidence needed to get hardboiled stories like this underway, her ex-husband turns up dead in the room she had at a local motel. He may not be a PI (yet) but he has a client and she needs him to work out what’s happening. On the way, there’s some nice laconic wit and plenty of interesting plot developments. Put all this together and you have the beginning of what promises to be an exciting new series as our butterfly hangs out his shingle as a PI and looks for business.
The second review should start with the reminder that Chandler didn’t actually start writing professionally until he was fired from his job as an oil executive in 1932. For the record, The Big Sleep made it on to the shelves just before the outbreak of war in 1939. We’ve had PI Philip Marlowe embedded in our public consciousness ever since. I grew up in the 1950s devouring secondhand pulps like Black Mask, reading back through all the excitement of life in this violent but interesting country called America. For a kid growing up on the north bank of the Tyne with nothing more exciting than drunken brawling between the crews of the fishing fleet when the weather forced all the different nationalities to shelter in port, and occasional gang violence, the magazines offered a view of a radically different place where crime was endemic and the characters were not a little romantic. Chandler, Hammett and James M Cain ruled the roost in those days but there were a vast number of wannabes who crowded out the pages of pulps and novels, all hoping for the market to recognise them as the next big thing. In the end, I got bored by the repetitiveness of the plots. In the early 1960s I moved on from the detective/mystery genre into science fiction, fantasy and horror. Today, the only people I rate as having continued the Chandler style of PI novels are Robert B Parker and Walter Mosely even though both Spencer and Easy Rawlins break the mould and have fairly serious relationships. It’s the implicit attitude that counts.
So this is a book that does absolutely everything right. It has an excellent plot which carefully provides us with a choice of villains, the cops are unknown quantities (most assumed to be prejudiced and hostile), and Melody has that slightly arch, vampish quality that marks the transition of a “type” through time. Insofar as we can have a modern Bacall, this would be her. The only trouble is that this tough guy with an urge to be protective of anything wearing a skirt that muscles in on his life is too much in the classic mould. I didn’t feel he was truly a contemporary figure for all his backstory in the police and his current loyalties to those helping him rebuild after the”disaster”. He feels “old school”. The reason why I like Mosely and miss Parker is their heroes moved on. Even though Mosely set his novels in the past, they are still contemporary novels.
Frankly, I don’t think younger readers will notice or care. I think they will read this first-in-a-new-series and demand more. But for me, the senior who’s seen it all before, it lacks a contemporary spark. It’s an excellent example of a PI novel I would have hoped to read twenty years ago. So if you’ve never read Raymond Chandler or any of the other period hardboiled writers, you’re going to enjoy Yesterday’s Echo. Older guys like me will think it a good shot at a Chandleresque PI novel that just misses the bullseye. Hopefully the next in the series will have a more modern tone.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Wake of the Bloody Angel by Alex Bledsoe (Tor, 2012) is the fourth in the series featuring Eddie Lacrosse. He’s what the author calls a sword jockey, that’s fantasy-speak for a PI. He occupies space above Angelina’s Tavern in Neceda and, for twenty-five gold pieces a day plus expenses, you can hire him to do stuff for you. I need say no more to tell you what the formula is here. This is another of these genre-benders that mashes up hardboiled PI tropes in fantasy world of roughly late-mediaeval or early Renaissance level technology. The theory says this is a Sam Spade/Philip Marlowe figure with a sword and attitude. Sadly, the reality does not live up to the promise. I read the first in the series when it first came out. The Sword-Edged Blonde was his first published novel and it showed all the usual rough edges by not making up its mind what it wanted to be. It’s not a sword and sorcery with a mystery element. Although there are supernatural features like the dwarves and the horse goddess, it’s a very thin veneer. Our hero may be on a horse with a sword, but we’re expected to see through this fiction and accept it as a 1940s style PI novel. Hence the language is more modern and the social institutions are definitely not in period. This incongruity is intended to generate humour but, although the technique was polished. I was left less than impressed.
We now fast forward to this fourth outing and, if the formula was reasonably fresh when Eddie Lacrosse first appeared, it’s grown distinctly tired in the intervening years. This time, the supposed excuse for our hero to go traipsing round the landscape is the need to find out what happened to Angelina’s first and only love. As the name of the book suggests, this man was a notorious pirate: one Black Edward Tew. Twenty years ago, he was reputed to have captured an enormous treasure but then the titular ship was lost at sea with all hands. There’s been no sign of the treasure since which tends to confirm the reality of its loss. Thieves tend to be greedy and rather stupid. Put them next to gold, jewels and other expensive stuff and, ten minutes later. they are down at the nearest brothel spending like money is going out of fashion. So to help Eddie track down the bones of Black Edward, he recruits Jane Argo — a female counterpart who knows the pirate world and is deadly with the sword if called on to fight.
At this point, I release a pent-up deep sigh. This is a book which spends quite a lot of time at sea or on islands, doing piratical things. I’m not against people writing pirate books. I actually read one or two very good efforts fifty and more years ago. But modern authors tend to be reinventing the wheel. Indeed, truth be told, there’s very little to be done to make pirates interesting. Even space pirates capturing and plundering fails to inspire although I do admit to a sneaking admiration for One Piece which does have the right attitude, i.e. it can be magnificently silly. So Wake of the Bloody Angel is formulaic in the somewhat pejorative sense of the word. Our hero and sidekick go off, find out what happened and, in the best traditions of PI novels, report back to the client. Naturally, on the way, they discover their client has been somewhat economical with the truth. Since Angelina has been a major series character, the book is really filling in her back story and it does leave our hero with a slight dilemma of how much to tell her. All I can say is that I read it to the end. I have this misplaced sense of duty that, if an author has invested the time in writing the book, the least I can do is show respect and get to the end. Sadly, it lacks whatever spark was present in the first novel. This is more slick and professionally put together, but it has the feel of going through the motions. What little humour enlivened his first appearance at novel length has evaporated so, unless you are a die-hard fan of this author and his work, I cannot recommend this book.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
This book inspires me to culinary metaphors. It starts off as one of those bland meals. The kind of thing you only eat because it’s food and you’re hungry. Indeed, as you make steady progress through it, your tolerance for what little flavour it started with grows stronger. The tastelessness becomes more dominant. You wonder whether you can finish it. At this moment, you make a policy decision. Stop forcing yourself. Make a sandwich to complete the feeding process and the remnants of the meal go into the fridge. Yes, I know all this housekeeping content is a little tedious, but it’s what you discover the following day that make all this relevant. You come back to the meal, throw it into the microwave and stick in the fork. There’s a delightful revelation. The overnight resting has worked a miracle. What was an effort to eat becomes a quick wolfing down and a transitory sadness it’s gone all too quickly. Now you look speculatively at the recipe and wonder whether you should make it again and this time leave it overnight before trying to eat it. Or perhaps it was just a psychological problem. The mind was somehow distracted and a rest brought reinvigorated interest.
Swift Run by Laura DiSilverio (Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books, 2012) is the third in the series featuring Charlie Swift and Gigi Goldman. The brief version of the backstory is that Charlie was running a PI business and Gigi’s husband, Les, invested in it. When Les ran off with a younger woman, taking large amount of embezzled cash with him, Gigi drifted into working with Charlie. This is not the usual meeting of two like minds. Charlie is ex-military and tough, while Gigi is rather more scatterbrained and into retail therapy as the way of coping with her unhappiness. Shopping worked well as a distraction when her husband was paying the bills but, after he left with all their money, she struggles to find enough to cover the basic essentials. Anyway, after two adventures, Charlie is walking wounded after being shot — fortunately not by Gigi which is why this unusual friendship persists. This leaves Gigi holding the fort.
She’s not best pleased when the first potential client through the office door is the jezebel who seduced Les and destroyed her happiness. Unfortunately, the strumpet comes bearing a wad of cash and a sad story of Les running out on her. Against her better judgement, Gigi agrees to find her ex. Playing cupid to reunite the love birds is not exactly what she was looking forward to, but the cash will help with the bills. With this inauspicious beginning, Gigi tracks down her husband and commits the unforgivable sin of sleeping with him. Now thoroughly confused about what she wants, Gigi must try to find a calm centre in her inner turmoil. A task made more difficult by the discovery of the floozy’s body. Fortunately the police don’t think Gigi has it in her to be a murderer, but when the surveillance records from the hotel show her seventeen-year-old son going into the trollop’s room, there’s just a chance he might have seen the killer. Except he’s not around to ask.
Let’s pause here. This is a PI story growing out of the mundane details of people’s lives. In theory, this is how I prefer plots to develop. A messy divorce, the wife struggling financially, the missing husband wanted by the police on multiple charges of theft and embezzlement, and the surly teen son and daughter, are the raw materials out of which real dramas can be made except, for some reason, I sailed through the opening half completely unmoved. I concede there’s a vague sense of humour about the situation as it unfolds. But a ditzy woman who’s more interested in what to wear and her latest pair of shoes than in dealing with life is not really a character that resonates with me. I’m more interested in Charlie who’s altogether more sensible albeit potentially caught between two men, a detective and an Episcopalian priest. Indeed, had it not been for her and the eminently sensible Albertine who runs the comfort-food restaurant in the same block as the PI office, I would have put the book down permanently. But there was just enough. . . Very slowly, the investigation begins to turn up some interesting hints about the murder victim’s past and, with Charlie and the Episcopalian going above and beyond in heavy snow, a pattern begins to emerge. In the end, I was quite interested in the mystery. Although I thought it was fairly obvious who must have killed our seductress, I had absolutely no idea why nor how it was all tied into Les. That actually proves rather ingenious. Anyway, thanks to Charlie, Gigi does not go to jail for various quite serious offences including assault and kidnapping, and all seems to be resolved not unsatisfactorily for our investigative duo. I suppose I look on Swift Run as a slow burner that comes good at the end (including a quite amusing climax as two waves of armed officers swing into action only to find a gift-wrapped surprise). So there you have it. With a little patience, you actually come to a very good mystery to solve. Swift Run is a slightly above average mystery.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
In the distant past, Anon and Trad were able to take their time, honing phrases until they were elevated to idioms by popular acclamation. The idiom most relevant to this book depends on a pun. Yes, even in the 18th century, people liked to play with the meanings of words. For our purposes, the magic word is “dull”. In physical terms, this refers to a surface we would expect to be polished, but it has lost its shine, or it’s a reference to the fact a liquid is opaque. In metaphorical terms, it’s anything that’s boring or unexciting. As you will by now realise, the idiom is “dull as ditchwater” and it applies with full force to The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad Williams (DAW, 2012). For those of you who care about such things, this is the first in an intended series featuring the lead character who goes by the name of Bobby Dollar, an Angel actually named Doloriel. So, yes, we’re back in the land of the Christians and I’m obliged to remind readers that I’m a committed atheist so you can judge the extent to which my review is biased.
Now we’ve cleared the decks, here we go with the set-up. Bobby is one of the advocates. For those of you not up on the processing of the recently deceased, all the souls have to go through a judicial process to decide where they end up. That means both Heaven and Hell assign lawyer/advocates to argue the toss over whether you should get the fields of gold with optional manna or delicate flame-crisping around the edges for eternity. Not unnaturally, these partisan advocates need the inside dope pretty quickly, so every soul has a permanent guardian angel and devil who oversee the life and then give a quick precis to the advocates on death. That’s billions of postmortal workers kept in gainful employment by the big governments of Heaven and Hell, two for each soul while alive and two for the trial process. Then there are all the civil servants who have to allocate cases to the advocates and generally administer the system. And that’s before you get to all the celestial and hellish beings needed to run Heaven and Hell as laid down in the original design specifications and make sure that all the expected amenities are up to snuff.
Now we have all that clear, this is a Christian meets a PI theme as Bobby Dollar gets embroiled in an investigation to find out why he’s suddenly on a hit list. I pause at this point to smile indulgently. Since angels are already dead, you might wonder why anyone should want to “kill” him. Well, to walk around on Earth, all postmortals have to occupy human bodies and these can be killed, a termination which sends the souls straight to their relevant HQs without passing Go and collecting the two-hundred dollars. It’s also relevant to mention that this killing of the host body is potentially painful and, if a little torture was to be involved, it could make the return to HQ long and excruciating, no matter which direction the soul was heading. It turns out there’s been a conspiracy between high-up members of Heaven and Hell and our hero gets caught up in the backwash. So, to get himself off the hook and avoid the death of his human host, Bobby has to crack the case, walking the mean streets until he gets the answers and sees justice done.
I suppose all this could have been quite interesting — the idea of corruption in Heaven is by no means original since angels have been falling from grace over the centuries with some degree of regularity — but the execution of this book is terminally dull. It’s rare for me to struggle to finish a book but, to be honest, I almost didn’t bother to finish this. The only thing that persuaded me to plough through the turgid prose was mild curiosity to see why the particular high-up angel had been tempted into this particular deal and just how far he/she/it would go to cover it up. Oh dear. My brain was only working with the same enthusiasm as a 5 watt light bulb. This is the first in a series. Of course we’re not going to find out who the senior conspirators are until the final book. Perhaps it may even turn out it’s actually God who’s upset by the current black-and-white system and wants to change it. I mean just look at how unfair it is. You can lead a life of average quality and then, through the luck of the draw on which advocates you’re allocated and the judge you get to hear your case, you could end up in purgatory for eternity. It would be much better if there was a via media, a middle way in which ordinary people could be sent to a quiet place to retire. Although it might lack the amenities of Heaven, it would not punish disproportionately for mild sins — an altogether fairer outcome on dying.
So The Dirty Streets of Heaven has a vaguely interesting premise and the way in which our hero disposes of the nasty beast sent to kill him is quite pleasing. Otherwise, don’t bother. I suspect even the most dedicated of Christians will be bored to tears by it all — assuming they don’t find it blasphemous, of course.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
In the publishing game, one of the great imponderables for an author is how to preserve the cash flow when the major publishing houses are reluctant to depart from their usual production schedule, i.e. one hardback original every year with mass market paperbacks filling in the gaps as and when the publishers have maximised their take from the higher units costs of the hardback. The answer as demonstrated by Bill Pronzini is to keep switching genres, write with other authors as a team, and adopt pseudonyms. That way, you can keep the flow of books coming thick and fast. For those of you who like numbers, this is the thirty-ninth novel in the series featuring Bill, the Nameless Detective. Not bad really since we’re not also counting the multiple short stories.
Hellbox (Tor-Forge, 2012), the latest contribution, sees the hero’s desire to migrate slowly from activity to the inactivity of retirement interrupted. Nameless and Kerry are looking for a second home. This is not a retirement home as such, but one that’s far enough away from the office Bill might actually start giving up his desire to work. They settle on a cabin just outside Six Pines: one of these small towns up in the Sierra foothills. To get a feel for the location and the people of the area, they rent the cabin for a few days. Unfortunately, this puts Kerry in the wrong place at the wrong time as she goes walking around the forest to get her bearings. This takes us into a kidnapping situation. A killer on a revenge mission keeps the witness on ice until he can complete the job. This gives Nameless and Jake Runyon time to start running a search on the ground. Tamara works from the office, digging out information from computer records and our seasoned pros get on the trail.
With the point of view shifting between the killer, Kerry, Nameless and Jake, we get to see all sides of this problem and how it may be solved. The result is a solid, entertaining read. It has no pretensions. The prose is slick and highly readable. The narrative is stripped down to its essentials so we positively charge through the plot as our killer’s ambition for revenge escalates. It all comes down to Jake asking the right questions. Bill’s emotions are getting in the way and he’s not at his best. The result is a highly professional PI novel with the detective having a very personal stake in the outcome. I find it slightly unoriginal and a little flat, but Hellbox is a good way of continuing the story of the Nameless Detective, his wife and the other characters.
For a review of another novel by Bill Pronzini, see Camouflage.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
In the dim and distant past, I had some passing acquaintance with the practice of law and, cursed with some understanding of how legal affairs are actually conducted, I always approach books about legal eagles with some degree of scepticism. In a recent posting on the excellent Locus site, Cory Doctorow enlarged on his consistent frustration when science fiction movies fail to represent the “reality” of science. The main question when you read a book or see a film, is whether you want the content to have the characteristics of a documentary, i.e. to communicate a real understanding of the world or the people in it, or is fiction inherently unrealistic, peddling dreams, showing us the world as authors think we want to believe in? So, just as our stereotype of laboratories is one of these chromium-steel plated, Swedish minimalist spaces where product placement experiments are performed, courtrooms are full of drama with lawyers jumping up and down shouting, “Objection”, witnesses cowering under cross-examination, juries looking attentive and judges pounding their gavels for the Hell of it. As if!
This makes Ice Cap by Chris Knopf (Minotaur, 2012) such a joy. It has a lawyer essentially acting like a PI, working out of a converted bedroom as an office, and never actually setting foot in anything approximating a courtroom. This is a major breakthrough and should be copied by all authors who currently choose to believe lawyers lead exciting lives in their offices and feel an adrenaline rush every time they breathe the same air as a judge and jury. Chris Knopf has the right idea. You abandon pretence and write a thriller PI novel where a person who can actually think investigates a murder. For the record, this is the third outing for this lawyer cum investigator, the first two being Short Squeeze and Bad Bird.
As a headline, this is a great book. It’s written in a highly engaging style, full of sly wit and telling phrases. So, even before you get to think about the substance of the content as a legal thriller-style murder investigation, you have the simple pleasure of reading some excellent prose. As to the mystery itself, it starts out with the advent of winter in the sub-Armageddon style — full Armageddon would never dare fall on the rich folk who live in the Hamptons. As you will understand, this is not a minor dusting of snow. This is major and prolonged precipitation. As is always the case, the telephone rings with the desperate voice of a client, Franco Raffinni, asking for urgent hand-holding. This takes our heroine out on to the road.
At this point, we need to break the rhythm of the review by briefly talking about a man writing a first-person narrative with a female protagonist. Meet Jackie Swaitkowski, a person who likes stimulants, mostly in the form of alcohol but with the occasional reference to pot when, for professional purposes, she needs to remind herself of the smell — just think of the embarrassment should she be with a client smoking something without a prescription when there’s a drug raid. Anyway, apart from worrying about her clothes, this is the usual PI who’s a bit of a slob, shoots back when guns are fired and is not averse to a little sexual activity when the opportunity arises. She’s a bit like V I Warshawski including the odd trip to the opera and, to my male eye, I saw no problems with the gender shift in the writing.
As to the plot, this is a classic case where all the evidence seems to point to our heroine’s client but, if that’s the case, why are there two different sets of muscle threatening her? Why is she supposed to allow her client to go down for a murder he so obviously committed and not investigate? The answers (note the plural) are ingenious with a whole can of worms emerging from the various snow drifts when swept aside by a sufficiently powerful plough (driven with élan by another woman who appears on the scene called Dayna Red). I thought the way in which justice was seen to be done was particularly pleasing — particularly since we never actually had to test any of the evidence in court (some of that evidence would clearly not be admissible).
Overall, Ice Cap is an unpretentious fun read with a first class mystery to solve. If you enjoy attorneys literally fighting for their clients as told by an author who’s obviously enjoying himself in the writing, this is a book for you to treasure.
For a review of another book by Chris Knopf, see Dead Anyway.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Hot Stuff by Don Bruns (Oceanview Publishing, 2012) is the sixth in the Stuff series featuring Skip Moore and James Lessor who’ve managed to aspire from being deadbeat losers with a used box truck into officially licensed private investigators with a used box truck. Except, because they find it hard to do anything properly unless you count finding body parts when they haul stuff in their truck, they still work for a travelling carnival show or go treasure hunting when stuck for something to do by way of earning a living. This time, Skip has found his true vocation, scraping the food off plates and feeding the dishwasher in a high-end French restaurant while James actually gets the chance to prove that not every minute of his four years at university was wasted. He’s earning biggish bucks as a sous-chef. They’re working undercover to find out who murdered the sous-chef James is replacing. And, within minutes, they remind themselves how hard it is to ask co-workers questions without exciting suspicion. And by the end of the first day, there’s what may have been a death threat to James — for once not a response to his laid-back charm.
The fun thing about this pair is the balance between competence and incompetence. Neither is really interested in the material side of life although, in his more mellow moments, James does admit it would be good to become rich. It’s just the lack of work ethic that holds him back. Skip finds his mind engaged and, with a bet involving a large quantity of beer riding on the outcome of their investigation, he’s really getting into the dishwashing gig like his life depended on it — well, perhaps his life does depend on it if the murderer realises he’s not a real dishwasher but a PI working undercover. Of course, work of this kind always involves perks. In this case, free swimming lessons have been included together with instruction videos on the uses and abuses of paperclips.
From this, you’ll understand Hot Stuff does something simple rather well. It entertains. Any author will tell you writing anything intended to be even vaguely humorous is a minefield. Fortunately, Don Bruns is not trying to write a comic novel as such, but the intention is to generate a smile or two on the way. This flows naturally from the set-up. Neither Skip nor James matches the conventional expectations we readers have about PIs. Instead of tough guys who can duke it out with the villains and generate those laconic one-liners we always wish we’d thought off, this pair is rather wimpy and prone to foot-in-mouthisms of rare quality. Indeed, if there’s any explanation for their success, it’s that no-one meeting them would ever take them for investigators and would most likely underestimate them. The only element that, perhaps, does emerge from this book to their credit is that James is not only a lot more conscientious than you might expect as a sous-chef, he’s also quite good at it. While, for reasons you’ll understand when you read the book, he can’t go back to work at the restaurant where the murder is committed, this experience should encourage him to look for a better position in a good kitchen. That’s assuming, of course, that they don’t get some decent paying work as PIs. Well, perhaps that’s not so much an assumption as a strong probability. I mean, who in their right minds would willingly employ this pair as private investigators?
So putting all this together, Hot Stuff is a good puzzle and our battered truck owners do get to the right answer, albeit by a somewhat circuitous route. I’m not wholly convinced by the way the book ends. It’s a bit too melodramatic for my taste. But it does have the virtue of neatness and leaves everything set for the series to continue. Something I’ll look forward to reading.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
In a perfect world, everyone would be equal but this is never going to be possible in the real world. A combination of genetics and the choices we make condemn some to a less equal status. Some will be more intelligent, more persuasive, more physically powerful, more accommodating. . . There are as many different ways to distinguish between people as there are people with opinions. It’s not fair but that’s the way most societies work even though there are legal structures intended to provide a safety net for those who, through no fault of their own, deserve help. Laws can offer redress if people with ability are denied work, or financial support if an accident leaves them unable to work. But laws can be paper tigers if those with an enforcement role or the judges themselves are prejudiced. In cases of sexual orientation, protection can be hard to find. There’s a pervasive puritanism that reacts with hostility to the increasing social acceptance of homosexuality. The inherent anger that drives the opposition of the Christian community to the liberalisation of marriage to include same-sex couples is a public demonstration of this.
Rest for the Wicked by Ellen Hart (Minotaur, 2012) is the twentieth Jane Lawless novel written by a five-time winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Mystery. This is a fascinating award. In a perfect society, you would expect mystery books to be judged on their quality as prose describing and then solving a puzzle. So the fact there’s a need to establish a separate prize for those writing a gay version of this fiction is an implicit admission that not all mystery books will be referred for judging or actually judged equally. In 2012, I note the eleventh failure of the board to award a Pulitzer for fiction. If there are fixed criteria for determining the quality of books, it’s perfectly proper for judges to say none of the books submitted are good enough. The fact readers may think books are outstanding is not relevant in the eyes of some judges. So perhaps the writers of gay fiction do need separate Awards to recognise their success in writing books for their market. Who’s to say whether any of the judges for all Awards are prejudiced? Perhaps the failure of explicitly gay books to secure national awards does require a counterbalance, assuming we think awards have any real importance, of course.
The series character, Jane Lawless, is the owner of two restaurants and has just secured her PI licence. She has also just broken up her relationship and, with ice and snow on the ground, finds her senior partner in the PI business in hospital. A fall has encouraged a bullet fragment in his spine to move position and he needs surgery to remove it. With one of her two restaurants also underperforming, this is not the best time to find herself with a murder mystery to solve. As the book develops, a good surgeon works on her partner’s back, a new girlfriend hoves into view, but the one restaurant remains in a distinctly dodgy state. As to the murder? Well, it turns out there are several bodies littering the landscape and our Jane is just the right person to begin putting it all together in a gift-wrapped package for the police.
It’s a refreshing change to read a contemporary book that presents gay characters as part of life’s rich tapestry. In straight books, when they are mentioned, they tend to be portrayed as creatures keeping a low profile and inhabiting a world of their own. Rest for the Wicked is a happy mix of gay and straight characters in a distinctly amicable relationship. There’s nothing particularly surprising that the local police are not interested in dealing with a PI. It has nothing to do with her sexuality. It’s the natural antipathy fictional police officers have for PIs. Her restaurants serve excellent value-for-money food. She has made a good life for herself. Not being resident in the US, I can’t say to what extent, if at all, this is an idealised version of reality. This small but socially active gay group seems to operate openly and without any fear in their lives. I don’t believe this has anything to do with the setting in Minneapolis. The implicit assumption seems to be that it’s entirely safe to be out. Yet there’s news of anti-gay hate crimes. In Britain there are circumstances in which gays might be circumspect. I’m also slightly disconcerted she’s not more proactive in dealing with the underperforming restaurant. Word-of-mouth can kill an eating place’s good name in double-quick time. Perhaps that will be addressed in the next book.
Finally, there’s one central element that I find faintly surprising. I’m aware of this happening in well-documented historical cases and I can understand why it appears in this book. Indeed, it produces one of the most tragic reasons for a murder that I can recall for many years. But as a general state of affairs persisting over a reasonably significant amount of time, I doubt it’s possible to carry off. That said, there’s a pleasing thematic consistency about the book and the motives people have for what they do. I was impressed by the quality of the puzzle and the manner of its solution, making this a mystery well worth reading no matter what your own sexual preferences.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
December Dread by Jess Lourey (Midnight Ink, 2012) book 8 in the Murder-By-Month series and we’re back in Battle Lake, Minnesota as Mira James, our heroine, continues the demanding task of trailer-sitting, freelancing for the local newspaper, keeping the library shelves in order, and solving enough murders to justify the nickname Mortuary Mira. With only ten killing days to go before Christmas, she’s watching the elves carefully to see when they will deliver the next body. Except all she gets is what may be an invitation from the Candy Cane Killer — he’s the one who only kills brown-haired women about the same height and weight as our heroine during the month of December. Ah, so she could be the body. That would be a good switch — a kind of Ghost where she and Patrick Swayze get to make out while solving her murder. As a foretaste of the killing spree, two bodies are discovered over in White Plains — the woman and her dog — about an hour’s drive away. Unfortunately, that’s not a safe distance when it comes to dedicated serial killers. So she goes to show her invitation to Police Chief Gary Wohnt but discovers the card she received is part of a genuine marketing campaign. This doesn’t stop her from hitting the library’s computer. Before you can say Dagnabit or whatever her password is, she’s knee-deep in news about the killer. So because she fits the physical profile, Battle Lake conspires to send her home to her mother in Paynesville where she’s supposed to feel safer. Shame there’s Kevin Bacon and not Patrick Swayze on her old bedroom wall. The other advantage is the chance for her to go through the certification course for qualifying as a PI. If she gets a licence, she can legitimately earn a little money as an investigator rather than having to solve all these murders for free.
Then the next body appears. Santa’s really speeding up his deliveries this December, and he’s always thoughtful. This victim is the homecoming queen. Mira knew her at high school. It kinda keeps the death in the family. So, after some initial reluctance — the consensus seems to be you leave serial killers to the FBI — she and the indefatigable Mrs Berns decide to set a trap. Why leave it to the professionals to have all the fun. Yet there’s also the question of the orange begonias tugging at the back of her mind. Candy’s a bit crude in messaging terms. In Victorian times, flowers and their colours had specific meanings so, when people sent each other a bunch, they were actually sending each other coded messages. For the record, begonias were symbols of warning and orange is a reference to passion or desire. Not that this captures the meaning of Mira at all. She’s been practicing abstinence. In fact, it says something about the sender’s view of the women who received them. For those who can read the symbolism, they are being warned they are acting in a sexually inappropriate way.
I confess to becoming something of a fan of Mira James and so, by extension, Jess Lourey. As Mira demonstrates during both the PI course she goes through and in the real-world investigation, she has a flair for quick assessments of people and situations. Give her more time to think and she works through the available information and usually arrives at the right answer. As to Jess Lourey, she has a flair for creating an entirely credible cast of characters. Too often, you read a book and only encounter cardboard cutouts and stereotypes. December Dread is full of people you could meet in any small town anywhere in the world. As a final thought, I should explain the title. You can see it at two levels. If a serial killer with a known profile for selecting victims sends out candy calling cards, there’s bound to be dread in the community. But, in this instance, it’s also a reference to Mira’s need to overcome her fears about who she is and what she wants out of life. This is not simply a case of the girl coming back to her home town and facing those she knew as she was growing up. She should also make sober decisions about what to do about her love life. Sometimes, fear holds you back and stops you realising the potential in your life for happiness. December Dread is great fun with a nice puzzle for our heroine to solve. It’s definitely worth picking up! As a final thought: if you have a wooden leg, always hide it in plain sight.
For a review of another book by Jess Lourey, see November Hunt.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
When you set any book in an environment unfamiliar to readers, authors can panic and insert large descriptive passages and infodumps, hoping to give all-comers a reasonable insight into the context for the action. For these purposes, there’s no difference between genres. A romance can be set in any country, a historical novel in any century, a science fiction novel on any planet, and so on. The question is how to strike a balance between the need to move the story forward and the need for readers to understand the difference between the world they are familiar with and the world in which the book is set. Most readers in the West might find the setting in, say, Kolkata (Calcutta) or Bangkok as alien as one set on a hypothetical Mars. Equally, in these days of globalised markets, a book written by an American for the American market can turn up on the shelves of bookshops in Huddersfield and Kuala Lumpur. The experience for a British or Malaysian reader is to be plunged into an alien world where the culture is radically different and not explained. Not unnaturally, the American author expects the American readers to know and understand how life works in their home country. Yet, American authors also realise a significant portion of their readers are somewhat parochial and have little or no knowledge of life outside America. So, when American authors write about life in Paris, they tend to oversupply details of the physical and cultural environment. British readers have been jaunting across the Channel for centuries and have a more detailed understanding of the French and their capital city. Malaysians would still be lost.
From all this, you will deduce that Murder at the Lanterne Rouge by Cara Black (Soho Press, 2012) starts slowly as the author tries valiantly to bring American readers up-to-speed on all things Gallic. I was fascinated to see what an American author believes, (a) it’s important for her readers to know about life in Paris, and (b) by implication, how little she believes they actually know. This is the kind of book people will call atmospheric because it spends a considerable amount of time describing the air the characters breathe. This is not to unfairly criticise any of those involved. Sometimes the best way to educate people is through entertainment. Americans taking the time to absorb the detail contained in this book will emerge more knowledgeable. All praise to President Obama who’s obviously recruiting authors into a revamped Head Start plan to enhance adult education levels — note to publisher: perhaps a world map showing where France is would complete the package.
So here I make an apology. There have been rather a lot of books featuring Aimée Leduc and her business partner René Friant, but this is my first. As a stand-alone, it works well although, from many of the events, it’s obvious I would have enjoyed it more if I had understood how everyone fits together. As a series character, Aimée Leduc is both a throw-back and a modern woman. In the period just before World War II, there were number of French heroines like Simone Darthel who enjoyed the life of the rich while solving crimes and fighting for justice. Two features are relevant. All the details of their wardrobes were offered up as advice to their female readers. Second, they were aspirational figures showing that modern women could have better lives as independent individuals, holding down exciting jobs and proving they were equal, if not superior to, the men who desired them as they moved casually through the cafés and restaurants in their designer clothes (in search of criminals, of course). In more modern times, we have figures like Nikita as initially developed by Luc Besson and then transformed into a television character where, in a noirish way, our female secret agent/assassin fights terrorism and confronts a brutal world while trying to retain some sense of her own morality.
I mention this because although Aimée Leduc works as a private investigator specialising in IT security, she’s very much wrapped up in the word of spies and their handlers. That forces her to deal with both the local Parisienne police (courtesy of her French father) and the acronym-infested world of espionage (thanks to her American mother). Although she doesn’t quite have Nikita-level physical combat skills, she’s more than able to look after herself and, even though she picks up damage, is tough enough to keep going until she’s seen off the threat. As to the story itself, we’re quickly into the scandal-ridden world of the illegal immigrants from China and the sweatshops that provide stock to both legitimate and counterfeit fashion outlets in Europe. For such a subculture to survive, there has to be corruption both in the police and the relevant government departments charged with tax collection and the enforcement of labour laws. Cara Black gives us a whistle-stop tour and then dives into the more rarified world of the Guild system, life in the grandes écoles, life as it was in the 14th Century, life in the world of high technology. In other words, when it comes to research, she’s in part rerunning the Dan Brown trope of great truth buried in history — all it takes is a skilled detective with academic skills to dig it out.
So there we have it. I thought the opening third was overburdened with facts about life in Paris but, once the plot really gets started, Murder at the Lanterne Rouge becomes one of the best of the thrillerish PI novels of the year so far. There’s genuine interest and excitement as the focus slowly shifts away from the somewhat clichéd Chinatown subculture thread and becomes a more intense race to unravel the high technology conspiracy. Those of you who are unfamiliar with life in Paris may well find all the facts offer plenty of local colour and enhance your general understanding of life outside your city. This would make the book double-plus good for you. Coming new to Cara Black, there’s sufficient here for me to want to read more. As and when I have the time, I’ll start browsing through one or two of the eleven previous Aimée Leduc titles to see if they are as good.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.