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NYPD Puzzle by Parnell Hall

February 20, 2014 Leave a comment

NYPD Puzzle by Parnell Hall

NYPD Puzzle by Parnell Hall (Minotaur Books, 2014) is the fifteenth Puzzle Lady Mysteries featuring Cora Felton. If you’ve read the previous fourteen, this is more of the same and you’ll no doubt pick this up, charge through it, and emerge satisfied at the end. For those of you coming to the series for the first time, the structure of the book is very accessible so there’s no difficulty in reading this cold. People who like cozy mysteries will no doubt love this. From this introduction, you’ll detect I have a certain degree of ambivalence about it.

Welcome to small town America, Bakerhaven to be precise, in which a cast of regular characters know each other and, in appropriate circumstances, help each other out. It all depends on Cora Felton. She’s of a certain age, is the face used to advertise breakfast fodder for kids, and consolidates her fame or notoriety by being known as the Puzzle Lady, i.e. she’s launched hundreds of crosswords, sudoku and other puzzles on to the unsuspecting world. Except, of course, she’s a fraud — but in the nicest sense of the word. Although she’s got a real head for numbers, and creates and solves sudoku in her sleep, she has no aptitude for crosswords. The reason for the deception is to provide a source of income for her niece Sherry. When she was on the run from her abusive husband, Cora gave her a place to stay. Sherry earns her living creating the crosswords which the Puzzle Lady markets to those who like puzzles. Indeed, this book has crosswords and sudoku puzzles embedded in the text. Solving them gives vital clues (for those of you with no skill or aptitude in puzzle-solving, the solutions are given on the next page).

Parnell Hall finding a good use for his left hand

Parnell Hall finding a good use for his left hand

This time around, someone has broken into the town hall, but there’s no sign anything is missing. Next Cora’s attorney friend is invited to nearby New York to meet with a client for the first time. Instead of going to this man’s office, she’s invited to his penthouse. Out of an abundance of caution. Cora goes along as bodyguard. Needless to say, they come out of the lift, push open the door and find a dead body with a crossword puzzle pinned to its chest. A noise alerts them to the presence of someone in another room so Cora takes out her gun (yes she packs heat) and seconds later is shooting at a safecracker as he jumps out of the window. This leaves her in a tricky situation because the bullet currently residing inside the dead man’s head is too badly damaged to produce reliable markings. Cora’s bullet followed the burglar out through the open window, so the NYPD is not a million miles from having one of these neat circumstantial cases to show Cora as the killer. Except why would a sudoku puzzle also appear? This question joins a growing list of the unanswerable? Why do people break into small-town town halls and take nothing? Why do people later kill the town clerk with a blunt instrument. How come someone can incorporate a car’s licence plate number in the first sudoku puzzle and then use a car with those plates to follow Cora? and so on.

The accumulation of questions without answers grows somewhat frustrating both for the characters and the readers. So much happens which obviously must have some explanation, but the who and the why of it remain stubbornly elusive. Now we add in the element you will either find endearing or somewhat annoying. Cora’s last relationship has ended somewhat abruptly and she’s feeling a little fragile. Even during the best of times, she’s prone to engage in what one might call “banter”. In earlier books this is moderately friendly and reasonably humorous. This time round, she’s more barbed and, at times, the characters talk at each other rather than with each other. After a while, I found this grew tiresome. You can forgive much when people are feeling vulnerable, but this got out of hand.

So NYPD Puzzle is not as successful as the last in the series. The mystery is not something Cora and her cohorts solve. Rather they have to wait until it’s explained to them at the end. So instead of producing a ta-da whodunnit moment at the end, it fizzles out as the killer(s) is/are taken into custody. Shame really. With hindsight, the plot is ingenious but it never quite engages as the characters go through the necessary gyrations to find out who’s doing what to whom and why.

For a review of the previous book in the series, see Arsenic and Old Puzzles.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Murder and Moonshine by Carol Miller

February 11, 2014 Leave a comment

Murder-and-Moonshine-A-Mystery-416948-3d2bd95f279b0f78a91e

Murder and Moonshine by Carol Miller (Minotaur, 2013) starts me off on a not-quite-rant about what I consider to be lazy plotting. Here we have a spunky young woman who got married but her husband done gone and run off for who knows what reason. This leaves our hero somewhat in an emotional and financial mess. To add to her woes, her daddy and daddy-in-law died — in the early stages of the book, no-one quite gets around to explaining how they died — and her mommy is not in the best physical and intellectual state. So as the book gets underway, we meet Daisy Hale McGovern who makes the best peach cobbler “between Charleston, West Virginia, and Charleston, South Carolina.” For the record, our cobbler-maker is a denizen of Glade Hill, which is a spot on the map of Southwestern Virginia rather than a real town with streets and folk who tip their hats to eat other as they pass all sociable-like on the sidewalks. No, this is a one-horse piece of countryside in which natives barely rising above the level of characters from Deliverance (1972) make moonshine and believe it’s better to shoot first and never ask questions about who or what they hit.

Daisy works in the diner established by her father and a partner. One day, she’s fending off Rick and Bobby Balsam when in staggers Fred Dickerson. He expires on the floor before he can do more than order a burger. This disrupts the smooth-running of this food emporium as ambulance and police (husband and wife team in this backwoods area) descend (not from the trees, you understand). EMT wife pronounces the death suspicious — usually people only die after eating the food in this diner — which brings in the forensic team from the nearest outpost of civilisation. As and when the autopsy report gets kicked upstairs, ATF Special Agent Ethan Kinney arrives looking for places he can’t find on his map.

Carol Miller

Carol Miller

So here comes my problem. In all the time since the double daddy death scenario, Daisy has never been back to the scene of their deaths. It’s all too painful. This hasn’t stopped the local gossip mill from deconstructing events and deciding who was to blame. Yet no-one seems to have shared this speculation with our hero before the book starts. She’s been living in a southern version of limbo waiting for a hunky AFT agent to arrive so she can do her “should I overcome my prejudices and admit I like the local darkly handsome Rick Balsam, or should I fall into the arms of this despicable version of humanity from the AFT (spits copiously on to the ground)?” How does this plot point come to the fore? Well the first thing AFT asks her to do is take him to the place where her daddies died, and who does she meet there but Rick drinking the deceased’s shine. There’s macho posturing and gun waving to prove they both have balls and not a lick of sense. And we still don’t know how our hero’s two daddies died and we’re halfway through the book. How can she have had absolutely no curiosity about this loss in her life? How come no-one took her to one side and told her what was happening? It’s completely ludicrous particularly because we’re now supposed to see her as an investigator cum sleuth who can crack all mysteries and solve all problems.

Grudgingly, I’ll admit the plot proves to have a slight surprise in the reason for all this mayhem. It’s amusingly cultural as “big business” meets hillbilly sensibilities in a region not properly serviced by cellphone towers or even properly mapped. However, the whole book is rather tiresome with the mandatory lurch into thriller territory with guns blazing and explosions going “bang” or something similar. There’s no mystery to solve. In true thriller style, the bad guy just waltzes into view and orders our hero’s death. You can’t get a more perfunctory whodunnit solution than that. So Murder and Moonshine proves pretty dire and not at all the kind of book you want to curl up with the next time you have a hankering for white lightning or one of the other more potent distilled products.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Séance Society by Michael Nethercott

January 21, 2014 Leave a comment

The Séance Society by Michael Nethercott

The Séance Society by Michael Nethercott (Minotaur, 2013) offers us a genuinely intriguing set-up but, somehow, the execution doesn’t quite carry the same level of excitement through the rest of the book. We’re in historical mystery land with a trip back to 1956. Actually, I should be somewhat offended the publishers now call the 1950s “historical” like William the Conqueror just got off the boat and shot Harold in the eye, but I suppose these publishing houses are now run by the equivalent of my grandchildren and should be forgiven for having no perspective. That said, it’s 1956 and we find ourselves in Thelmont, Connecticut with youngish, thirtysomething Lee Plunkett. This version of small town America does resonate with my experience on the other side of the Atlantic. The pace of the world was slower, horizons were limited to the immediate geographical area, and the culture was repressive — some things don’t change. The outstanding feature of the book is the backstory of young Plunkett, Buster his father, and the gang of cronies who surrounded Buster and were so dismissive of number 1 son.

Despite the significant differences in temperament, Lee joins his father in the PI business in 1954. Truth be told, the son has little talent but his father’s business is not breaking world records in profitability. They make enough to get by and the fact Lee gets his licence gives him legitimacy in the local community (if not among Buster’s cronies). When Buster dies of a heart attack in 1955, this leaves Lee floating aimlessly until he’s taken in hand by Irish expat Mr. O’Nelligan — he who came to the US in 1944 with his wife and never looked back. So there we have our Holmes and his not very bright Watson who boasts a “perpetual fiancée” called Audrey. No doubt later in the series, they will marry but, for now, they live separately and kiss chastely as was the custom for those who were then walking out.

Michael Nethercott CREDIT: Helen Schepartz

Michael Nethercott
CREDIT: Helen Schepartz

In due course, they are employed by a police detective who’s close to retirement. He’s very unhappy with the circumstances surrounding the death of Trexler Lloyd, a rich and somewhat eccentric inventor who had been bitten by the spiritualism bug. He had called a small gathering at his home in Braywick to demonstrate his new machine called the “Spectricator”, a device that would enable him to speak with the dead. Unfortunately, when he was attached to this machine, he seems to have been electrocuted — at least that was the diagnosis of the county coroner who happened to be one of the invited guests. Minutes after the body is seen by our police officer and his young partner, it was whisked off to the local crematorium. A few hours later, the urn of ash returned to the house. Some would say that was excessive efficiency. All the money passes under the will to his wife, Spanish beauty Constanza. The house goes to the Swiss groundsman, and there are smaller financial bequests to the flock of hangers on and servants. With the coroner present when death occurred and pronouncing it accidental, local police have no interest in pursuing the investigation. Hence our dynamic duo are to be employed to poke around and see what they can find out.

This book had the potential to be either very amusing or sharply satirical. We have the extraordinarily bad-tempered C.R. Kemple who has a reputation for communing with spirits from other dimensions and producing spectacular if somewhat obscure results. Then there’s Sassafras Miller who was a somewhat notorious woman, but is now redeemed and working for Trexler. Just taking these two characters could give us the opportunity for great fun, but the results are somewhat po-faced. Indeed, the whole book takes itself far too seriously with the elderly Mr. O’Nelligan speaking in a very mannered style with frequent verbal digressions and quotes from Yeats and other poets. As to our narrator: he’s one of these slightly downtrodden young men who find themselves on the receiving end of parental abuse and so fail to develop any strong personality of their own. There are vague signs of an ability to analyse and organise information, but he’s never going to be able to match the intellectual vigour of the older man.

I’m not denying the ingenuity of the puzzle the pair is given to solve, with the series of revelations nicely timed to give us the necessary twists and turns through the plot. Indeed, the fact one aspect of the murder is obvious does not detract from the one character feature I had not counted on to pinpoint exactly when things in Trexler’s world took a turn for the worse. That part of the customary gathering of all the suspects at the end for drinkies and revelations is amusingly apposite. But for all the elegant plotting the book fails to strike the right tone and so, sadly, The Séance Society ends up only average fare in the historical mystery stakes.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Taken by the Wind by Ellen Hart

January 17, 2014 Leave a comment

taken_by_the_wind- Ellen Hart

Taken by the Wind by Ellen Hart (Minotaur Books, 2013) is the twenty-first book in the Jane Lawless series. From this simple opening sentence, you’ll recognise that there’s a lot of backstory for the characters and that the development of this plot is as much about continuing their story as about presenting Lawless with another mystery to solve. This doesn’t mean you can’t read and enjoy this book as a standalone. It’s just that the story is more interesting if you know something of what has gone before. There’s another feature which should be mentioned at the outset for those of you who have not read any of these books. In genre terms, I suppose this is an example of cozy mystery. Our “amateur sleuth” is a restaurateur who has given into the pressure and acquired a PI licence in her home state of Minnesota. This gives her slightly more respectability in the crime-solving stakes. Nevertheless, the methodology is essentially the gentle accumulation of information from those involved and the local gossip. The only change is that our lady can now produce a formal business card to identify herself and so command slightly more respect when approaching strangers and asking questions.That said, this series is gay fiction. So if you prefer not to read a book in which all shades of sexuality are an integral part of what happens, walk away from this. Not only is Jane herself in a gay relationship, but the parents of one of the children who go missing in this book are also a gay couple.

So where are we in terms of the plot? Jane’s food and beverage business is going through restructuring. The shift in her interests requires more time is available for work as a PI. If she were to devote full-time effort to one of the two food outlets, she could probably turn it round. . . After much thought, she’s decided to sell it at a loss. There’s an element of sadness about seeing one of the her babies going, but this is the right decision for her. As a note of surprise, I note she never sets foot in the other outlet during this book. Although you can understand why the restaurant in not high on her list of priorities at this time, there’s a serious risk that business will go the same way as the other unless she keeps riding herd on the staff.

Ellen Hart keeping a close eye on things

Ellen Hart keeping a close eye on things

The source of events in this book is the potential kidnapping of two boys. Jane has two friends, Eric and Andrew. Their long-term relationship has broken up and they now live apart. This was distressing to their twelve-year-old son, Jack, who now spends more time with his best friend Gabriel — the son of Eric’s sister Suzanne Born who’s married to Branch Born. The local police are not too worried by the disappearance, but Jane finds certain features of their departure worrying. In due course a ransom demand arrives. Jane and her best friend, Cordelia Thorn, get into the business of an exchange. Unfortunately, even though the money is collected, the boys do not reappear. This seriously increases the stress of everyone involved, particularly when homophobic telephone calls and painted slogans appear suggesting this is punishment — men in a relationship should not be acting as parents — some of the local church are very conservative and so judgmental.

Because the small town in which all this takes place is under serious financial pressure, the local population finds itself less friendly. Many properties are underwater with the mortgage, there are foreclosure signs on some properties, and people have cut back on their spending so they can pay down their debts. In some ways, the community shows its resilience so, when there’s storm damage, neighbours rally round to clear fallen trees and repair each other’s homes. But unemployment is a reality for some residents or threatened for others. This would give some locals a motive to abduct the boys and demand money. It would help them pay down the mortgage. Rightly or wrongly, Eric and Andrew are thought well off. There’s also some resentment because they renovated properties for sale which were then overvalued for mortgage purposes. This was not their fault but it adds fuel to the resentment.

Given the way it all plays out, the kidnapping proves to open the proverbial can of worms and results in a pleasingly complicated solution. As a way of praising the author, aspects of the answer were a surprise which is how it should be in mysteries. On the personal front, the relationships between Jane, her current lover and her ex are growing impressively interwoven with a nice cliffhanger to take us into the next book. All of which leaves me with a satisfied smile on my face. Taken by the Wind creates real suspense as the boys disappear, the characters are all plausible (the disappearance of children causes distress to all regardless of the sexuality of those involved), and the mystery is a good puzzle to solve. You can’t ask for more than that.

For the review of another book by Ellen Hart, see Rest for the Wicked.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

A Colourful Death by Carola Dunn

December 17, 2013 Leave a comment

A Colourful Death by Carola Dunn

Carola Dunn is attempting a difficult balancing act in her series titled A Cornish Mystery (this was the second in the series, now being reprinted in paperback). At one level, the series is historical mysteries. I say that in the broadest sense of the words because fifty years is not a long period of time in numerical terms. Having lived through the 1960s, I can confirm it might just as well have been more than a century ago. The culture then was radically different from the culture that envelopes us today. In that respect, Ms Dunn has got the time and place right. Although I’ve only visited Cornwall a couple of times, I recognise the village mentality of the time. As is somewhat appropriate for the time setting, we’re also playing with a Golden Age format of mystery to solve. Although there’s a minor role for forensic science in the relevant deaths, none of the evidence supplied by the scientists is used to solve the crimes. As a police procedural with an old lady in satellite mode to offer helpful insights, the crime is solved by the application of intelligence. Perhaps more importantly, we’re allowed a clear view of the facts as they emerge. There’s a limited pool of suspects. Hence, from quite early on, it’s fairly clear whodunnit even though the motive remains more challenging until quite near the end.

Thus, A Colourful Death (Minotaur Books, 2013) appeals as an exercise in nostalgia both in revisiting a time long lost and a format of writing now potentially considered old-fashioned. In modern police procedurals, we’ve grown used to seeing greater realism with more gritty plots and all the expertise of the different police departments brought to bear in analysing the evidence and identifying the criminals. Back in the 1960s, life in the south west of England was somnolent. Although lip service was paid to the forensic skills of the Met and better equipped urban police forces, local Cornish officers preferred to accept the superficial explanations as true so they could get back to their young wives to resume the sexual activity so rudely interrupted by the commission of crimes. It takes the dedication of one or two professions to get the real work done.

Carola Dunn

Carola Dunn

The hub of the plot is Eleanor Trewynn, a character slightly more robust than Miss Marple, but in the same basic mould. She’s travelled the world, observing human nature. With the death of her husband, she’s now settled in Cornwall and has tuned into the local gossip mill which knows everything unimportant about everyone, and a few important things about those who matter for stories like this. We start off with Eleanor meeting artist Nick Gresham from the London train. When he gets back to his small gallery which was under the care of Stella Weller, he discovers his paintings have been vandalised by Geoffrey Monmouth. After an hour to cool down, he goes over to confront the man. As you might predict, he discovers the vandal dead on his studio floor with a knife in his back. The easy explanation adopted by the first senior officer on the scene is that Nick is the murderer. Fortunately, Detective Inspector Scrumble, ably assisted by Eleanor’s niece, Detective Sergeant Megan Pencarrow, take up the case and quickly realise it’s not as easy as first thought. We then get twin track investigations as Eleanor and the vicar’s wife talk to a range of people, while the police formally interview possible suspects. Thus, by different routes, our sleuth and the police arrive at the same result. The formal reveal at the end is a team effort to the solicitor of one of the deceased.

Because it’s fairly obvious who must have done it despite the few red herrings that get dragged across the trail, the interest lies both in the recreation of the time and literally observing the process of detection. So this is more in the spirit of an inverted crime novel than a mystery novel. There’s nothing wrong with this except the book lacks a little of the suspense normally associated for more formal whodunnits. All this leaves me with the conclusion that A Colourful Death is better than The Valley of the Shadow but that’s not great praise.

For reviews of other books by Carola Dunn, see Heirs of the Body and The Valley of the Shadow.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Enigma of China by Qiu Xiaolong

November 29, 2013 Leave a comment

Enigma of China

As is often the case when starting off these reviews, here’s a question for you to chew over. Is it possible to write an apolitical piece of fiction? One view of the political process is that it’s the discourse used by those who seek to achieve power. Although some would no doubt wish to reserve the meaning to the electoral mechanisms for appointing people to government, the practical reality is that the way people communicate with each other can be used to influence decisions at a personal or small group level. I might get very political in discussing possible projects with friends and colleagues. This might be trading on the nature of existing relationships or offering outcomes which might be mutually beneficial. Hopefully, these exchanges will be benevolent but, inevitably, there are times when threats of unpleasantness are made. The process of negotiation is always about sticks and carrots.

When authors write about their own cultures for the readership of those who are a part of that society, much of the mechanisms of political interaction can be left unspoken. Among those who have been socialised in the culture from birth, there’s no need to state the obvious. Hence the moment an insider offers a commentary or critique, it’s always classified as humour or, more dangerously, as satire to warn people the content is not to be taken seriously. I cut my early teeth on Stephen Potter’s books defining and exploring gamesmanship among the English. The art of cheating without getting caught has always been close to my heart. If outsiders write similar books, the English are patronising or faintly contemptuous as if outsiders can never be trusted to see through to the truth about Englishness (whatever that is). In the end, it’s all about controlling the salience and importance attached to the book. If a book is saying something unpalatable, it has to be marginalised so it will not disturb the smooth flow of the discourse. Assuming its release can’t be prevented, of course.

Writing about China is always political. This is a nation whose culture depends on the concept of face. It’s not considered socially appropriate to write or say anything that might cause others to lose face. Equally, at a higher level, it’s not politically acceptable to say anything that might divert public opinion against the current orthodoxy as defined by the Party apparatus. So here comes a book written by a Chinese born man who now makes his home in America. In these internet-connected days, what one writes in one country is often picked up and commented on in others. This means the author must be careful what he writes. If he wishes to return to his home city of Shanghai, he must tread carefully when deciding what picture of China to present to his American or other readers in the West. Enigma of China by Qiu Xiaolong (Minotaur Books, 2013) is the eighth instalment of the Inspector Chen series (not to be confused with the Detective Inspector Wei Chen series by Liz Williams), which feature Chen Cao as Chief Inspector of the Shanghai Police Bureau, first deputy Party secretary of the bureau, member of the Shanghai Communist Party Committee and sometime poet.

Qiu Xiaolong

Qiu Xiaolong

So how is our politically aware police officer to interpret his appointment to oversee the apparent yet suspicious suicide of Zhou Keng, the director of the Shanghai Housing Development Committee? As a man with a reputation for honesty, is he supposed to rubberstamp the predetermined official finding of suicide, or is he to act as a kind of stalking horse to flush out prey? The “safe” line would simply be to assume endorsement of the party line is required. If there are doubts, they can be included in an appendix to the official report which his superiors in the party can forget to publish. But without being able to ask anyone for guidance, he must judge the factional landscape. For all the party might like to portray itself as monolithic, there are always political currents and eddies as different groups vie for influence and power. In this instance, there may be stresses in the relationship between Beijing and the local government in Shanghai. If this speculation is correct, Beijing might expect a very different report. So to whom does a police inspector who’s rising through the ranks owe his duty? Is it to his immediate political masters or to higher powers.

In answering this question, we should not forget the rise in the power of netizens as the internet enables challenges to the discourse published through state-controlled media. Indeed, it was a piece of crowd-sourced investigative journalism that triggered this particular crisis. Zhou Keng was exposed as probably corrupt through a photograph of him smoking a very expensive brand of cigarette. Other officials are also being photographed wearing expensive watches and driving luxury cars. Although action can be taken against individual bloggers after prejudicial information is published online, it’s very difficult for the party to deter future revelations. To appease the public, Zhou Keng had therefore been relieved of his post and placed in a form of extralegal detention. The Shanghai authorities naturally hope his suicide in custody will be interpreted as an admission of guilt and bring this particular matter to an end. Inspector Chen must decide whether to investigate and, if he does, what he must do with the results. It might suit Beijing to make an example of Shanghai if the corruption was widespread among the Shanghai government elite.

Enigma of China by Qiu Xiaolong is a rather pleasing meditation on the nature of duty and the role of a police officer. He might suggest it’s not his job to prejudge the facts or second-guess the judges (legal or political). All he need do is discover the “truth” and leave it to others to decide what to do with it. Except if he had a romantic view of justice, he might consider himself under a more universal imperative to act when it’s the right thing to do. The answers here are illuminating. China, as the title suggests, is an enigmatic culture so you should not expect easy, black-and-white assertions. In the final analysis, it’s somewhat melancholic to discover that this culture is not unlike our own. The decision to become a whistleblower is no less difficult in our society which is supposedly more open and accountable. Those in power never like to feel threatened by mere police officers.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Once Upon a Lie by Maggie Barbieri

November 25, 2013 Leave a comment

Once Upon a Lie by Maggie Barbieri

We’re back to this problem of definitions. In this instance, the marketers have headlined the book on the front cover as “A Thriller”. So what do I understand by this term? It differs from a mystery in which the protagonist is confronted by a puzzle and spends the book solving it. Rather the wrongdoer is revealed, usually through some level of melodramatic activity, and is then pursued by the protagonist or pursues the protagonist with the intention of injury of death. This grounds the book in the experience of the protagonist who has to endure danger and fight for survival against the odds. If the author is successful, we empathise with the protagonist and so vicariously feel his or her fear as we approach the climactic ending. Well, no matter how you look at Once Upon a Lie by Maggie Barbieri (Minotaur Books, 2013), using the word “thriller” is a compete misdescription. In fact, this is almost a conventional novel about a woman struggling through a life of challenges. It becomes a crime-related story because her cousin has been murdered. From the little information we glean, he seems to have been found in his car in a fairly dark car park with a bullet in his head. This may suggest he was engaged in some extramarital sexual activity at the time of his death.

We meet members of the family at the wake and later when the ashes are thrown into the river. But the point of the story is the father of our “hero”. He was a police officer whose wife was killed in a hit-and-run. This left him with the burden of bringing up his daughter on his own. He did his duty by her, working extra shifts to generate the money to pay for good schooling and to provide all the basic necessities of life. This well-intentioned approach left his daughter lonely and somewhat vulnerable. In part, this may explain why she never really benefitted from all the material advantages she had. Except she married well and had two daughters of her own. This was giving her a “good life” until her lawyer husband’s eye strayed to a younger woman and ended the marriage. He’s still in her life and has a reasonably good relationship with the girls, but his absence changed her economic circumstances for the worse. She makes a living by running a bakery business — her cupcakes are famous — but it’s never going to make her rich.

Maggie Barbieri

Maggie Barbieri

All this would be bearable but for her father. His mental faculties are rapidly declining. He’s very forgetful and, although physically fit for a man of his age, cannot be trusted on his own. She’s done her best by finding residential accommodation for him but, of course, there’s a problem. On the night her cousin was shot, her father was missing from the home. No-one knows where he was nor what he was doing. As someone teetering on the edge of Alzheimer’s, he can’t remember or give any coherent account of where he was. Without an alibi, the local homicide detective has him down as a “person of interest”. As the book progresses, the detective becomes more active, questioning her father at the local police station and researching his background. With increasing desperation, our hero begins her own investigation. Where might he have gone? What might he have been doing? On the way, she encounters the detective who seems to be following the same leads. They both end up at the local train station where there are machines to issue tickets. There are no cameras to show he was there but, if he had taken the train, he had enough money to pay for a taxi at the other end and so get to the car park where the murder occurred. They agree it was physically possible for him to have committed the murder.

Spurred into action, our hero tries to devise a way to give her father an alibi. The problem is his lack of understanding. She can’t tell him what to say — he’s likely to blurt out that she’s been coaching him. This and other problems must be solved. In the midst of all this, her younger daughter is going through a rebellious phase with an unsuitable boyfriend and experimentation with soft drugs, and a customer at the cupcake business is obviously being abused by her husband. When our hero sees this woman’s daughter with a broken arm, she’s outraged and finds herself threatening the man with dire consequences if he injures either his wife or daughter again. The strain is really beginning to tell on her.

Putting all this together, Once Upon a Lie proves to be an engrossing read as we watch our hero struggle from one day to the next, dealing with each new crisis as it arises. Her ex-husband is less useful than he should be. Indeed, in some ways, he’s more a hindrance than a help and we wonder whether his new marriage can hope to survive. Her few friends do their best to help her but she’s essentially on her own. She pretends to be fierce. Her name does mean “warrior queen”. But if it were not for her immediate family, she would just give up. This makes the end touching and affecting, tinged with sadness but, perhaps, vestiges of hope still remaining.

For a review of another book by Maggie Barbieri, see Extra Credit.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Last Kind Word by David Housewright

November 6, 2013 Leave a comment

The Last Kind Word

The Last Kind Word by David Housewright (Minotaur Books, 2013) has provoked me into a reflective mood and I find myself thinking about a great friend of mine who died some years ago — we old folk have this problem of friends dying on us. Adrian was something of a legend in the place I used to live. From the earliest age, he demonstrated a remarkable flair for getting the best out of machines. Starting off in a local garage, he reached the point where Alpha Romeo were trying to induce him to join their international racing team to get the best performance out of their cars. He turned them down which, in a way, was the real start of the legend. He prospered locally, maintained in a comfortable lifestyle by a massively loyal customer base. He had the knack. It’s not an ability you can ever strictly define but, every now and again, you come across a person who quickly proves to have it in his or her chosen field of endeavour. I have now added David Housewright to my short list of people who have the writing knack. I only wish I had encountered him earlier, this being the tenth in the series featuring Rushmore McKenzie.

I’ve been reading for decades and have met almost every variation on themes it’s possible to devise. Yet this book produced such a perfect package that, even though it’s not the most original thriller dealing with an undercover operation, it’s the most entertaining I’ve read for a long time. It just has such a pleasing storytelling power. The plot develops with such an appropriate logic, you would want it all to work out like this every time this situation was replicated in the real world. Sadly, of course, such wish-fulfillment would never be realised. People have a tendency to be rather more unpredictable and brutal than we see here. But this offers a template for happy-ever-after outcomes from gun-running, kidnapping and armed robbery scenarios. . . You would always want to see this balancing of means and ends in actual government operations.

David Housewright holding one of his awards

David Housewright holding one of his awards

So what makes this all so magical? Well, without getting into any mockery, the ATF came up with a world-winning strategy, appropriately named Operation Fast and Furious (not the Vin Diesel film, OK). They were going to release a pile of weaponry and ordinance into the criminal underworld, track it, arrest everyone that touched it, and then recover all the weapons and explosives. Sadly, what works well on paper, rarely performs up to expectation when transferred to the real world. A lot of these weapons disappeared. This was politically embarrassing. The hook for this novel is that one of the missing AK47s has surfaced. It was used in a bank robbery. The youngish robber is refusing to name names. So, to get a lead on where the rest of the guns might be, McMenzie goes undercover as a notorious and rather violent career criminal. An escape from the police cruiser taking them to prison is staged. Pretend and actual criminals escape. Now it’s up to our hero to infiltrate the gang and find out where they bought their weapons. A piece of cake — that’s the idiom to bear in mind.

There’s just one problem. Well, actually, there’s more than one problem but, in the immediate aftermath, the most important is the gang proves almost completely dysfunctional. None of them are really capable of being “proper” criminals apart from one who was in the army. In effect, they are just a group of people who have the misfortune to live in a part of America sinking ever deeper into recession. Whereas the more prosperous parts of the country are recovering, the unemployment here is crippling. None of them can begin to make ends meet unless they steal. Small scale theft is not going to cut it, hence the resort to banks. The mystery is how they managed to avoid being taken off to jail after the first robbery. Now they even have a nickname. Better still, almost everyone in the local community knows what they are doing — it’s a small town with everyone living in every else’s pocket. This makes McKenzie’s arrival big news. Now everyone’s all agog to see what he’s going to do. Even the corrupt local law gets in on the act and demands a share in the proceeds from any new robbery he might plan. And then there are the local criminals who think they run serious crime in the area. They might be upset if they didn’t get their share too. And there might just be gunrunners and, if they supplied the firepower to take down a big target, they might want a cut too.

The way this all works out is literally delightful. The gang members are absolutely credible and described in a way guaranteed to encourage us to root for them. We want them to get away with it. Except, once McKenzie drops the boom and calls in the ATF and FBI, everyone must be taken down. Even if the federal authorities were to look the other way, the local law would want to arrest these individuals. They have, after all, been going round robbing people using the threat of firearms to reinforce their demands. The fact no-one has actually been shot is more luck than good judgement. They have been dangerous and have no doubt frightened if not psychologically damaged guards and customers in the places robbed.

So, appropriately enough, my last kind word is that The Last Kind Word is clearly one of the best thrillers of the year. David Housewright has won the Edgar Award before. He deserves to be in the running again with this book.

A copy of this book was sent to me to review.

The Good Thief’s Guide to Berlin by Chris Ewan

October 29, 2013 Leave a comment

Good Thief's Guide to Berlin

The Good Thief’s Guide to Berlin by Chris Ewan (Minotaur Books, 2013) is the fifth in the series featuring the burglar as author Charlie Howard. It’s always said an author should write about what he knows. Well, this fictional author writes thrillers loosely based on his own experiences as a thief. Because he needs to make ends meet while waiting for the next royalty cheque to arrive, he continues to delicately tease doors open, gracefully extract money from safes, and remove objects of value easily fenced through his network. After arriving in Germany, his writer’s block is being more blocky than usual so his nefarious activities have become more necessary. Not surprisingly, this rash of burglaries has not gone unnoticed by the Berlin police. Perhaps he would have been preparing to move on but he’s waiting for his agent to visit after attending the Frankfurt Book Fair. If they were the type of people to make a commitment, they would be a couple but, as is often the way in books like this, their romance remains on hold.

So it is that, on the day Victoria arrives, his fence brokers a meeting with a client who has an urgent problem to solve. It’s not something that should be a challenge to a thief with the skills of our hero. All he has to do is break into four addresses within the confines of Berlin to recover something that’s been stolen. To make it interesting, all four burglaries have to be committed on the same evening when it’s known the occupants will not be at home and the client won’t say what he’s looking for. The only helpful information the client will vouchsafe is that Charlie will know it when he sees it. So who’s the client? None other than the British embassy in Berlin. Why is potentially dangerous? Well there are these people called spies who have a tendency to violence when their wishes are ignored.

Chris Ewan

Chris Ewan

With Victoria as his agent to negotiate the fees for this task — a ladder fee for each burglary and a finder’s fee for the “object” — our hero reluctantly sets off to the first address. After thirty minutes of fruitless searching, he looks out of the window and, in the best traditions of Alfred Hitchcock, witnesses a murder through the window of the apartment opposite. Being a responsible citizen, he telephones the police and quickly exits his building. After hearing sirens arrive, he and Victoria walk past the target building, see the lights on in the right apartment, but find the police leaving, alleging a false alarm. This is surprising to our hero. He’s not used to have his anonymous word doubted. So, as he sets off to the next address, he begins to plan a return to the scene of the “murder” so he can unravel what must have happened in the few minutes between his call and the arrival of the police. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, he finds a file appropriately marked “Top Secret” hidden in the hotel room of his second target. Unfortunately, when he and Victoria return home, they find two Russian agents waiting for them. It only takes a little persuasion for Charlie to pass over the file. Fortunately, we have the rest of the book to see how it plays out.

I’m amazed that Simon & Schuster, who have been publishing this series in the UK, should have refused to pick this title up. It’s every bit as good as the last in the series. All I can say is more fool them and kudos to St Martin’s Press who have continued with the series in the US. This is a fast-paced plot with plenty of surprises and the usual smiles as we track our hero through a Berlin positively bursting at the seams with spies. The only person not clued into what’s happening is our hero, of course. The client not only failed to identify precisely what Charlie was supposed to be looking for, but also neglected to mention certain other facts which might have assisted in resolving the situation. As it is, Charlie is forced to take a couple of beatings, face intimidation and finally pick up a gun in self-defence. This is not something you would have expected of our hero who usually manages to talk his way out of trouble. These spy people are so terribly insistent when it comes to this missing “package”. So this is taking Charlie into uncharted territory where he’s going to have to make decisions about his relationship with Victoria and, perhaps more importantly, decide what kind of person he really is. Put all this together and you have a highly entertaining thriller. The Good Thief’s Guide to Berlin marks an interesting, if not cliffhanging, point to pause the series. New free-standing books have begun to appear from this talented author. The first on the shelves, Safe House, has been shortlisted for The Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award and is an Amazon UK bestseller. It’s on my list of books to read.

For a review of the last in the series, see The Good Thief’s Guide to Venice.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

When the Devil Doesn’t Show by Christine Barber

When the Devil Doesn't Show

One of the reasons I enjoy reading is the chance to see into different cultures and to gain insights into how “other” people live. Obviously in science fiction and fantasy, the settings are “fictional”, i.e. they may be extrapolations from what we have now or recreations of what we had in the past. Either way, the human characters should react credibly. If aliens or supernatural creatures play a role, we can expect them to be “different”, but we still hope they will conform to basic standards of rationality and credibility. If an alien can develop interstellar transport, we expect to find signs of intelligence even though it may not be applied in ways we expect. When I come to fiction supposedly rooted in contemporary cultures, I value the chance to learn about different places. That’s why I enjoy work translated from other languages. Such books offer a different pair of eyes through which to view the world. I suppose my first exposure to American fiction came as a shock or surprise. It really was different “over there”. Now after more than fifty years of books, film and television, I’ve become rather blasé, accepting the amorphous lump of America as just another bit of my cultural understanding.

Except, that is, when books like this appear on my pile to be read. When the Devil Doesn’t Show by Christine Barber, (Minotaur Books, 2013) is the third mystery novel featuring Detective Sergeant Gil Montoya of the Santa Fe Police Department and Lucy Newroe, who has only just kept her job at The Capital Tribune while continuing to volunteer as an emergency medical technician, which includes rushing into burning buildings to save people from the flames (or not if they are already dead). The relationship between this pair is complicated because he’s a self-righteous prick who doesn’t trust journalists, particularly those who have problems with alcohol. So at first sight, this looks like a routine police procedural thriller. But it’s set in Santa Fe and, to all intents and purposes, that’s not America. Detective Montoya’s partner, Joe is from the America I know a little about and he’s a literary device so the author can tell is about the Santa Fe area, its people, and customs as the investigation progresses. It’s completely fascinating. We start off with Las Posadas on the Santa Fe Plaza. This is the local equivalent of a British mystery play. It tells the story of the innkeepers turning away Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem leading up to the Nativity. And then get into the detail of how people introduce themselves, the different social structures and how they map on to the different gene pools and ethic groups. Membership of these different groups and maintaining the traditions they represent can lead to slight conflicts of interest, an issue explored through the eyes of police officer Kristen Valdez. The glimpse into the lives of the mountain men is also revealing. This makes the book one of the most culturally interesting I’ve read so far this year.

Christine Barber

Christine Barber

The plot is also better than competent. We’re presented with a series of home invasions which leave bodies behind. When the second occurs, there appears to be a link to the preproduction work being done to film in a local prison where a notorious riot took place. However, after the third invasion, Lucy Newroe comes up with the real connection. There’s just one problem. She’s been arrested for drink driving and Gil Montoya is refusing to talk with her. She promised to quit at the end of the last book and he feels betrayed. And this points to my problem with the book. I find the character of Gil Montoya difficult to accept. I’ve met men like him. They appear happy and reasonable in their home lives. Meet the family and this is the Dr Jekyll side of the personality. But meet this person outside, particularly in a job context involving the use of power, and they become Mr Hyde. I have no difficulty in relating to people who are focused and committed. These are the obsessional people who work their way through to the right answer by hard hard and some inspiration. Sadly, this is a self-righteous and judgmental man who moralises over the behaviour of others and reacts aggressively when criticised. Indeed, this idiot just will not be told when he’s wrong. If Joe did not literally force him to listen, he would be dead. Such men should never be in positions of power because, by definition, they are abusing that power every second. Were it not for Joe, Lucy Newroe and Kristen Valdez, he would blunder off into the wrong investigation and more people would die. As to Lucy, she’s an alcoholic who’s just emerging from the denial stage. I can understand and forgive her erratic behaviour because of her addiction.

So this completes my learning experience from the book. Culturally, there’s a higher level of machismo on display in Santa Fe and many men allow the power to go to their heads when they join the police force. Assuming the worst, i.e. Gil Montoya is a prevailing stereotype for this part of America, I make a vow never to visit. I would undoubtedly be killed within minutes of arriving. When the Devil Doesn’t Show works well as a police procedural even though the key breakthrough is made by a drunk journalist, and there’s some pleasing chasing about for the thriller bit. Overall, it’s an above average book.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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