Posts Tagged ‘Poisoned Pen Press’

Death in the Dolomites by David P Wagner

November 19, 2014 6 comments

Death in the Dolomites vt David P Wagner

I’m toying with the idea of describing Death in the Dolomites by David P Wagner (Poisoned Pen Press, 2014) as “efficient”, but I’m not sure this is quite the right word. This is the second book to feature Rick Montoya, a bilingual Italian/American who lives in Italy and makes his living as a translator. As such, the book has to confront a number of different problems and to meet a number of expected goals. Let’s start with the question of language. As we read it, we’re supposed to believe that, except where expressly stated, all the relevant parties are speaking colloquial Italian. Obviously, apart from the occasional buon giorno to signal the start of a morning conversation, the vocabulary and syntax are that of contemporary American. Since this is a book aimed at native English speakers, the book cannot be written in a foreign language. However, I do sometimes wonder whether more of an effort might be made to reflect some of the “local” rhythms of speech.

Then there’s the question of culture. Italy is not just about the language, it’s also about the social dynamics. People born and bred in different parts of Italy have quite different attitudes when it comes to how they react in different situations. So, for example, the relationship between the sexes, the reaction to people visiting from different parts of Italy, or dealing with foreigners, will vary quite significantly depending on where you are. Because this is also difficult to show, this author tends to define the local culture in terms of its food and wines. There are several quite detailed descriptions of the meals the characters eat and the alcohol they drink. Hence, this description of an Italian resort town is efficient. It does enough through the odd word or short phrase in Italian to remind people where they are supposed to be, and the culinary arts are firmly Italian. As to the rest, apart from a description of the cemetery and one rather nice story about why relationships can change, this could be Jackson Hole Mountain Resort or Squaw Valley.

David P Wagner

David P Wagner

In fact, the setting is the Dolomites which is used to “welcoming” holidaymakers who come to ski during the season, so this particular group of people should be sufficiently open to maximise the amount of euros they can absorb during the visiting season. Hotels, restaurants, cafes and all the usual run of artisanal tourist-oriented shops are lined up ready to supply what their visitors expect to find at a price that’s not a deterrent. This shapes the local politics with the two candidates for mayor being a woodcarver and a baker, both determined to keep their town popular with skiers.

The death of an American is therefore potentially bad for business, and the current mayor is determined the whole matter must be investigated and forgotten as quickly and quietly as possible. An experienced detective arrives from the nearest city and needs a translator to be able to interview the sister who reported him missing. Our hero is the ideal candidate because his uncle is a senior police officer in Rome and has used his influence to have his nephew accepted as an informal consultant. This pitches our hero in the forefront of the investigation and it’s interesting to watch how both the experienced officer and translator arrive at the same answer at the end, but by travelling slightly different routes. In practical terms, the mystery element is high quality. We have a limited pool of suspects which fairly quickly comes down to a choice between two. There’s a minor twist towards the end. The mechanics of the murder and the aftermath are well worked out. The result is satisfyingly logical. I was also reminded of an early episode in the Inspector Morse television series in which our detective was engaging in some gossip at a college function and it was only at the end that he realised how he had been misled. This uses the same device to steer us in completely the wrong direction until evidence to the contrary emerges at the end. Put all this together and you have a book that very efficiently places us in Italy and expertly gives us armchair detectives a rather pleasing puzzle to chew on. Although the thriller elements are somewhat unsatisfying, Death in the Dolomites shows an author developing the craft and delivering a highly satisfying mystery read.

For a review of the first in the series, see Cold Tuscan Stone.

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

Hell With the Lid Blown Off by Donis Casey

November 18, 2014 1 comment


As I was thinking about this review, I began to wonder whether “folksy” had pejorative connotations. At a literal level, I suppose the word means that something is characteristic of the life of common folk. The problem is that “common folk” are often the victims of class prejudice. Their interests and lifestyles are thought simple in the less flattering sense of the word. They are considered one of the downtrodden masses, often unimaginative, less well educated, and suffering a life deprived of many features of life we might take for granted. They will be patronised or treated with some degree of contempt. In America, they might be thought scroungers and ne’er-do-wells. In Britain, we might have tried to redeem them by calling them the “salt of the earth”, but that’s hardly the most flattering way of describing their life on the land. Perhaps it would be safer to talk about folk or oral histories which take the stories of the common or ordinary people as the point of view. History is too often presented to us as a top-down phenomenon which tends to marginalise or ignore the situation of the majority of people at the bottom of the social heap. Many prefer to talk of prime ministers and presidents as the exemplars of success rather than individuals who are poor and disadvantaged. Indeed, if too much attention was to be focused on these people, there might be stirrings of sympathy and some pressure to ameliorate their situation, and that would never do. Redistribution is the enemy of the 1% who control most of the wealth in all societies.

Donis Casey

Donis Casey

Hell With the Lid Blown Off by Donis Casey (Poisoned Pen Press, 2014) brings us another in the series featuring the Tucker family in rural Oklahoma. The time is 1916 and the community of Boynton is about to be hit by a major storm and big twister. While we wait for The Big Blow (the best of the descriptions of a major hurricane by Joe R Lansdale), we get a slice of life on both sides of metaphorical tracks. On the majority side, the God-fearing, self-satisfied majority do their best to maintain their values against the hardship of their lives. On the other side are the Beldons, a family whose existence is a blight on the lives of the majority. The worst “offender” is Jubal, the eldest son and not only a physical bully, but also a blackmailer when he identifies facts those at risk would prefer untold. However, when the facts are missing, he’s not averse to rumour-seeding falsehoods which the self-righteous majority often pick up and treat as true. Either way, Jubal is actively disliked and avoided whenever possible. So few are unhappy when his body turns up in a field after the twister has barrelled its way though the outskirts of this tiny township. There’s just one problem. He may actually have been dead before the wind picked him up and dropped him again.

A combination of individuals then investigates this death and there’s something of a conclusion about which of the better citizens might have done it. However, because this is a period piece, the judge who travels to the township and holds a form of inquiry is unable to say with any degree of certainty whether this was a murder and, if it was a suspicious death which might give rise to the possibility of criminal charges, who might actually be charged. As one might therefore expect, none of the God-fearing are charged and the remaining Beldons end up moving away. Hence, this is not exactly a conventional historical mystery. Although some of what occurs in the first two-thirds of the book is relevant to investigating the death, what we really have is a slice of Oklahoma life circa 1916 with recipes for the best dishes included in the appendix. So as I began by saying, this is somewhat folksy in the more literal sense of the word. Had there been hills, we might have met Billies. As it is, this is hardscrabble with the storm elevating the usual struggle to moderately epic proportions. The first third of the book was not so interesting to me—if you wish, you can put this down to my being British and therefore less caught up in the struggles of the rural poor of South Central America. It rehashes many of the conventions of life at that time with the bad apple family and their appalling sons terrorising the younger women and many of the men in their neighbourhood. I’ve read better descriptions of storms and tornadoes, so this section of the book was merely adequate. However, it does come to life when the multiple points of view begin piecing together what happened before the storm hit. So taken overall, Hell With the Lid Blown Off will appeal to the readers of folk history with a mystery thrown in at the end to keep people like me happy. The result is marginally better than average.

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

Phantom Limb by Dennis Palumbo

November 16, 2014 3 comments


In the medical world, one of the more unusual psychosomatic conditions is phantom limb pain. This is where an amputee continues to “feel” the presence of the missing limb and experiences a range of sensations from a mild itch that can’t be scratched to quite severe pain. This fourth book in the series featuring Daniel Rinaldi is called Phantom Limb by Dennis Palumbo (Poisoned Pen Press, 2014) deals with both the physical and its mirror image psychological condition. One of the characters we meet reenlisted and lost a major part of his leg in Afghanistan. It should not surprise us that one of the many problems he has to confront is pain from the missing limb. However Rinaldi, our protagonist with the hero syndrome, has a comparable problem that just happens to manifest in potentially self-destructive behaviour.

As I write this, I confess to watching the fifth episode of the television series The Flash. Barry Allen is the type of man who runs into burning buildings (or up them) to save people because, (a) he can do so without exposing himself to too much risk, and (b) he wants to help people. Daniel Rinaldi has the latter motivation, but lacks the superpowers to be able to act in this way with impunity. Indeed, in this series, he finds himself attacked in a variety of different ways and nearly always ends up injured to some degree. The question is therefore why he’s driven to embrace danger. The answer is probably that he has, to some extent, given up on life. This loosens his inhibitions and enables him to confront danger to save others, not caring as much as he should whether he survives. This is not bravery and, so far as those around him are concerned, is not something that earns him real praise and recognition. It’s also distinguishable from the acts of a parent or lover who sacrifices him or herself to save a child or partner. That’s a much more immediately emotional reaction when a loved one is threatened. So the ending of this book suggests the basic cause of this behaviour and, more importantly, gives him a way in which he might scratch the itch on his metaphorical phantom limb.

Dennis Palumbo deciding how not to kill off his hero

Dennis Palumbo deciding how not to kill off his hero

As to the plot of this book, it could not be more simple. A woman comes for an appointment with our therapist and confesses her desire to commit suicide as soon as she returns home. Unsure whether he’s talked her out of it, he ushers her to the door at the end of their session. When he opens it, a large man man applies a sap to his head. Some hours later, he surfaces to discover his office overrun by police officers. His celebrity client who’s married to a financially very powerful older man, has called in all the troops. The woman has been kidnapped. This starts us off on a no-holds-barred first third of the book. When we have a chance to draw breath, it looks as though our hero may be out of the firing-line. But, as is required in books like this, the kidnappers have different ideas. It seems they are intent on asking him a few questions.

Once it becomes apparent this has somehow become personal, Rinaldi has to both survive and begin to put together a working hypothesis as to what exactly is going on in this very expensive household that can find five-million dollars in bearer bonds just by picking up a telephone. Has the missing wife really been kidnapped? Why has the nurse looking after the older husband disappeared? What happened to so sour the relationship between the father and his son? The answer to these proves highly entertaining as the plot resolves itself into a fascinating explanation of who’s doing what to whom and why. In the midst of it all comes the one-legged veteran who may have a larger role in all this. Frankly, you can’t ask for more entertainment than this in thriller book form. Phantom Limb is great fun and highly recommended for everyone who enjoys white-knuckle rides with real brainwork involved in the solution of the underlying mystery.

For reviews of other books in this series, see:
Fever Dream
Night Terrors.

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

The Edison Effect by Bernadette Pajer

August 9, 2014 3 comments


The Edison Effect by Bernadette Pajer (Poisoned Pen Press, 2014) is the fourth Professor Bradshaw mystery and follows on in September 1903, just a few days after the end of the excitement in the last episode. His courage has firmed and he’s about to propose to Missouri Fremont when Edison arrives to quiz him about the electrical device Oscar Daulton had created to kill President McKinley. Partly out of an excess of moral scruples, Bradshaw refuses to disclose his thoughts on how the machine might have worked. He contents himself by confirming it lost at sea. Unable to get anything useful, Edison leaves and we quickly skip forward to December 9, 1903 with Bradshaw agonising over what to do about Missouri. After loving her from afar for two years, he’s made the right noises about marriage (his first wife having committed suicide). In return, she’s tasked him with coming up with a plan to reconcile his desire for marriage with her wish to qualify as a homeopathic physician. She’s due back in a week and he’s done little to clarify his thoughts. Adding to the problem is his Catholicism. This will be a second marriage — he has a ten-year-old son — and he feels obliged to seek guidance on the Church’s rules about “mixed marriages”. For better or worse, his deliberations are interrupted by the arrival of Henry Pratt. It seems the electrician at the Bon Marché store has been electrocuted by some of Edison’s new Christmas Lights.

Bernadette Pajer finding it fun to hold a book

Bernadette Pajer finding it fun to hold a book

Thematically, we therefore have the opportunity to explore the social issues of the day from courtship rituals to the question of female emancipation, from the control exercised by religion over peoples’ lives to the predatory nature of some rich men who seek to further enrich themselves, from honest toil with proper rewards to exploited salaried employees expected to work eighteen hours a day, child labour, and so on. As in previous books, the historical detail is fascinating. Then we have the meticulous set-up of the death by electricity and the scorching of the handkerchief in the shop window lights, and prepare ourselves for deep sea diving. This is all done with great skill as the detail including cutting-edge technology from one-hundred years ago is gently introduced and explained. It’s surprising to find some of the innovations, e.g. timer switches and alarm systems, in operation. I’d tended to think such developments came later. After all, when I began taking an intelligent interest in the world, the 1950s were still using mechanical and pneumatic systems for moving cash around stores with the applications for electricity still somewhat limited. This nicely researched history of technology is a genuine eye-opener on just how advanced we were at the turn of the last century (even showing how to make a toasted cheese sandwich).

In earlier reviews I’ve been impressed by the quality of the mysteries, but slightly less satisfied by the quality of the prose. This time around, the author has significantly improved, fleshing out the more minimalist style into a more richly descriptive style. This helps give the relationship between Bradshaw and his son a great deal more emotional substance, particularly when they discuss his wife’s suicide. The mystery itself also proves to be a nice piece of misdirection with the waters in the store muddied and distracting us from the “big picture”. Although mostly unseen, the presence of both Edison and Tesla looms large and provides a context for some ingenious manoeuvres as the interested parties try to maximise their opportunity to profit from Oscar Daulton’s work. Watching Bradshaw resist the temptation to exploit his knowledge of matters electrical and solve the puzzle of this “murder weapon” is pleasing. No matter how weak or strong his Catholicism, the Professor remains a moral man who struggles to maintain his values in a world partly corrupted by greed and the desire for profit at any cost. This leaves me thinking The Edison Effect significantly better than the last in the series and hopefully evidence this is an author who will continue to develop her craft and go on to great things. The only other mystery left to solve is now how to fly, but that’s for another history book.

For a review of the last two books in the series, see:
Capacity for Murder
Fatal Induction.

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

Leave Tomorrow Behind by Judy Clemens

March 1, 2014 2 comments

Leave Tomorrow Behind

Leave Tomorrow Behind by Judy Clemens (Poisoned Pen Press, 2013) is the sixth in the Stella Crown mystery series and something of a novelty for me. I’ve been dipping an experimental toe into the so-called cozy mystery market scene. So far, the temperature has been very variable from the tepid to just right on the Goldilock’s scale of readability. I’ve yet to find anything outstanding. I think it would be fair to brand this novel as my first truly bucolic mystery. This refers both to the subject matter which revolves around dairy farming, and to the pace of the book which is at a shucks y’all meander while the reader meditatively chews on a random straw plucked from behind an ear. At this point, I need to declare a special interest because I spent years living in an isolated house completely surrounded by dairy farms with cattle in all the fields during the summer months, and sheep taking over for grazing during the winter. I’m therefore used to dealing with cows which are prone to wander when given the chance. Let’s just say, cows and I get on whereas sheep are the most intensely stupid animals I’ve ever had to deal with. I’ve also spent weeks of each year in agricultural shows and have watched the judging of animals and other competitive aspects of country life — at least with the cooking by farmers’ wives, you could enjoy the fruits of their labour once the judging was over.

Judy Clemens

Judy Clemens

Now we’ve got my prejudices out into the open, I can talk about the book and you can judge whether I’m being fair. The bulk of this book is set in a county fair and revolves around two aspects of local life. The first is a program specifically designed to encourage the next generation to put down their smartphones every now and then to care for calves. This is a canny strategy to help preserve some continuity in the farming community, giving the young a chance to feel pride in their accomplishments when animals they have cared for are shown in a ring for judging. In this case, her young protégé and employee Zach is showing a calf and his rising hormone levels as various degrees of feminine pulchritude parade about the fair. The second is the polar opposite — the Lovely Miss Pennsylvania Pageant. I share the same prejudices as the author against beauty pageants and the appalling competitiveness of mothers who primp and preen their daughters so they become caricatures of femininity who know nothing more than how to twirl a baton and embrace world peace as their passion in life.

All this would be just a part of life’s rich pattern but for the arrival of handsome Nick in her life. Unfortunately with great male beauty comes the heavy responsibility of dealing with Miranda, her future sister-in-law. This monomaniacal woman is fixated by the competing ideas that Stella is only after Nick’s money, and that if she can’t talk them out of marrying, they will at least go through a marriage designed by her. As a biker chick when younger, Stella’s idea of a wedding is turning up in front of a local judge still wearing her boots and jeans, saying the words in the right order, and then getting back to the farm in time to do the milking. The battle lines are therefore drawn as they descend upon the fair only to find distractions, first with the Gregg family who cheat to win the cattle judging competitions, and the impressive Rikki Raines, a new country singer being groomed for success by Mr Gregg. When the songstress ends up dead after her concert, Stella finds herself in the limelight thanks to an abrasive young homicide detective and a YouTube video. To get people to leave her alone, she therefore sets out to solve the case.

The structure of the book is slightly unusual in mystery terms because the murder itself is almost peripheral to everything else going on in Stella’s life. This would not be a problem if the character of Stella was completely engaging, but while she’s very knowledgeable about farming in general and understands how other people relate to each other, her interpersonal skills are less than endearing. She’s obviously lovable because she has a solid relationship with Nick and one or two others in the local community. But she’s immensely prickly and not a little quirky making it difficult to like her. In particular, the running battle with Miranda, while no doubt not unrealistic when two families are coming together, dominates and distracts from the more interesting events at the fair. Even though Miranda does prove useful in engineering a number of meetings at the end of the book which help finally resolve the mystery, I suspect many readers will feel profoundly grateful when she’s abandoned at the end.

This leaves me thinking Leave Tomorrow Behind is interesting as a mystery with the strands of motive nicely interwoven into the broader narrative, and some of the observational content on the young of this rural area is just right, but you need a little patience to get through all the “cow” stuff and Stella herself is not always as likeable as you might expect from the protagonist of a bucolic mystery.

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

Whispers of Vivaldi by Beverle Graves Myers

February 28, 2014 Leave a comment

Whispers of Vivaldi by Beverle Graves Myers

Whispers of Vivaldi by Beverle Graves Myers (Poisoned Pen Press, 2014) is a delightful historical mystery, the sixth and final in the series featuring the castrato Tito Amato — I seem to specialise in finding good things just as they are ending. This is playing in the same sandpit as Dave Duncan whose trilogy features a fictionalised nephew of Nostradamus and his savvy apprentice (it starts with The Alchemist’s Apprentice) and is also set in Venice, albeit about one-hundred-and-fifty years before this novel. It also matches the alternate history fantasy novel, The Black Opera by Mary Gentle, by focusing on the problems of getting the production of an opera underway.

The political situation in Venice has always been fascinating and is nicely explored here. Given that the local theatres depend on patronage to be able to mount their extravagant stage productions, there’s an important intersection between the arts and the powerful nobility. By subsidizing these productions, the wealthy buy the support of the pit audience who live for opera. Equally, they give themselves a platform from which to be seen and acknowledged by the people, all having private boxes at the theatres from which they can bow and accept the applause of the common man. It’s also worth commenting on the longevity of the Italian rules preventing women from appearing on stage. To get the right vocal range for singing purposes, this not only requires men to dress as women but also be castrated. In Rome, priests act as enforcement officers who inspect singers to ensure they began life as males. In the provinces, there’s no tradition of physical inspection which can lead to speculation if a singer bulges in the wrong places.

Beverle Graves Myers

Beverle Graves Myers

Our sleuth showed vocal talent as a boy so went through the process of castration and training to become a star of the opera. However, he loses his voice in an earlier episode and now spends his time assisting Maestro Torani, the director of Teatro San Marco in Venice. Their relationship is as close to father and son as it’s possible to get and, all other things being equal., the old man would like to see his protégé take over the running of the opera house. This is largely accepted by most who work in the Teatro although, for different reasons, there’s some animosity and not a little jealousy. Opera prima donnas are, by definition, emotional and aggressive in pursuit of their ambitions. At the beginning of this book, Amato is approached by Niccolo Rocatti with a politically controversial opera score called The False Duke. Deciding the beauty of the music will seduce the audience into overlooking the problematic libretto, Amato first sells the idea of the score to the Maestro and then to Signor Arcangelo Passoni who’s the Teatro’s primary patron. Approval is given, but conditional on two inconvenient factors. A spectacular stage effect is to be introduced into this pastoral setting, and the lead is to be sung by the young castrato, Angeletto. Because he’s convinced the opera will be a financial success, Amato manages to talk the stage designer into creating a shipwreck, and he recruits Angeletto even though being forced to pay more than the usual rate for someone relatively untested.

This sets us off on the initial preparations, rehearsing the cast and getting the musicians familiar with the score. Unfortunately, when a reception is held at the Passoni residence to introduce Angeletto to Venetian society, Amato finds himself required to defend the honour of a lady and, some fifteen minutes later, to receive the news the Maestro has been murdered. He’s immediately suspected by many of the influential people present who assume he would kill the Maestro to replace him. Fortunately, the senior law enforcement officer is soon able to confirm Amato’s account of events and, within the circles that matter, he’s no longer a suspect. This leaves him free to pursue his own investigation to identify the one responsible for the death of his “father”.

There are one or two mechanical problems with the plot which enable the murderer to be in the right place at the right time but, if we look past these details, the core of the mystery is multilayered with three major strands all bound together in a pretty package for us to consider. First, there’s a problem with the provenance of The False Duke. Then we have the question of whether Angeletto is a castrato or a woman breaking all the rules. And finally there’s the rivalry between the opera companies which may have gone beyond the usual skullduggery into murder. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to tie either of the first two strands to a likely motive. Even the third is problematic because, if Amato is not guilty, he’s likely to be a more formidable competitor if he takes over the running of Teatro San Marco. Killing the old man would therefore seem counterproductive. So perhaps there’s another motive involved. The answers are rather pleasing. Overall, this leaves me recommending Whispers of Vivaldi. It has a good sense of this period of Venetian history and the mystery is very satisfying.

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

Cold Tuscan Stone by David P Wagner

November 18, 2013 1 comment


It’s in the nature of storytelling that every action should have a setting. Indeed, the where and when are essential building blocks to offering a credible context for the action and adding essential colour to the atmosphere. A steampunk story would be located in a Victorian version of London in the 1880s or 90s, a space opera would be set on a massive vessel, bristling with weapons of unimaginable power, the farmhouse might be on a blasted heath as lightning crackles around the night sky, and so on. Indeed, many authors trade on the exotic when it comes to locating the action. That way, even if the readers are finding the plot a little heavy going, they can at least be soaking up the detail of the culture (particularly the food) in colonial Tangier of the 1930s as an Islamically pious place infested by infidels, or in remote Tibet where people divide their time between tent and temple, or as in Cold Tuscan Stone by David P Wagner (Poisoned Pen Press, 2013) where cosmopolitan northern Italians may be looting their history for illegal antiquities to export while eating robustly elegant food and sipping delicately flavoured wines.

Indeed, there’s a steady trade in mystery, adventure, thriller and romantic fiction that lets us wander round places we’ve heard of but never had the chance of visiting. It’s so much more convenient to open a book than get on an aeroplane or ship to journey off to sun and sand in some distant holiday location. And with an author at our side who’s positively bursting at the seams with interesting factoids about how these people live their lives, what social and political preoccupations they have, what style of clothing they affect, what types of food they eat, and so on, it’s all one long learning opportunity — sometimes with the chance to glean a few phrases of foreign languages should we ever encounter a visitor from Acapulco or Zanzibar (Mexican spanish and kiswahili respectively).

Anyway, this time we’re off to a slightly wintery Volterra in Tuscany with Rick Montoya, an American who makes his living as a translator and interpreter. He has the misfortune to have been to university with an Italian who now works for the Italian Art Squad, and his uncle is a rather famous police officer. It seems this makes him a suitable candidate to be recruited as an unofficial undercover agent. There are original Etruscan urns being spirited out of Italy. This pillaging of Roman history must be stopped. So our hero is sent into the suspected hotbed of export activity to shake the trees and beat the grass to see what emerges into the light. Being old and cantankerous, I don’t find this plot premise even remotely credible. A man with no training or previous background in police work would not be asked to walk into a potentially dangerous situation without detailed briefing or training in the use of “spycraft” or self-defensive techniques. He’s simply given a list of people to interview, the name of the local police chief with whom he’s to liaise, a credit card to cover his expenses, and off he goes. It’s simply extraordinary that he should be told to walk into the local police station as if no-one local would notice, or walk about the town with a mobile clamped to his ear, talking with a national policing agency as if no-one could overhear what was being said. He’s not even advised to conceal the list of people to interview or hide their background files. It’s as if the powers-that-be want him to stand out like an amateur so people will either ignore him or try to kill him, i.e. he could be the tethered goat to attract the tiger.

David P Wagner

David P Wagner

As is often the case, the same day he arrives, he talks with a man who works for one of the suspects. Minutes later, this man is killed. You can’t get a bigger contrivance than that. You would think the powers-that-be would be in full panic mode and call their amateur out of the firing line at the earliest opportunity. But, no, he’s allowed to soldier on, touring round, talking to everyone who will listen and pretending to be a buyer for looted antiquities. Yet, miraculously, someone does contact him and, as Sherlock would say, the game’s afoot. I would go so far as to say the plot is absurd. It’s clearly written by someone who has no real understanding of what it takes to be both original and credible. No professional criminal is going to make illegal deals with a man who walks in off the street without some form of authenticated introduction. Just handing over a business card would not impress anyone. Having no knowledge of Etruscan antiquities is going to raise red flags. How can someone so obviously ignorant be in the market for artifacts, fake or original? He’s not in a position to make any kind of informed judgement about what he’s shown. No-one even halfway competent would begin to trust him. Yet we’re asked to watch him talk to people. We also have moments of insight into the activities of the local police. After a while, they converge, shots are fired, there are arrests (sadly, there are no explosions so it’s not a thriller). And everyone who was on the side of the angels walks away wiser from the experience. Queue suitable music for closing credits and prepare yourself for the inevitable sequel as the uncle who’s an established police officer is obviously lining him up for another exciting adventure.

The descriptions of Rome and Volterra ring true, the menus reflect an informed palate, and there’s enough to convince us that this author knows Italy. But as to the rest of the book. . . Cold Tuscan Stone is an almost complete failure no matter whether you try to label it as mystery, thriller or adventure.

For a review of the sequel, see Death in the Dolomites.

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

The Right Side of Wrong by Reavis Z Wortham

November 5, 2013 Leave a comment


The Right Side of Wrong by Reavis Z Wortham (Poisoned Pen Press, 2013) is the third of the Red River Mysteries and continues the story of the Parker family in Center Springs, Texas. If you approach this as a routine Texas police procedural or thriller set in 1965/6, you are in for something of a surprise. This book has several different agendas and trying to make a coherent whole has been a challenge for the author. We start off like a house on fire with Constable Cody Parker called out in unexpected snow and ambushed. He’s almost killed in the crash, but saved by the arrival of a newcomer to the area who shoots some of the wild and starving dogs that are lining up to eat the paralysed Cody. Just looking at that sentence captures the flavour of casual horror in the man lying in his car as the dogs fight over him. You couldn’t hope for a stronger opening but, of necessity, you can’t look for this level of intensity throughout the text. Indeed, having put Cody into hospital, Judge O C Rains orders Ned Parker to come out of retirement and keep the area running smoothly until the family law enforcement business can get back into the game. We then switch into historical fiction, changing the points of view, even including two young adults whose enthusiasm gets them into trouble towards the end. This is a fascinating analysis of life when there was still paranoia about the Russians, the Beatles were the one who had actually invaded, and racial prejudice was alive and well in the Texan boondocks. This is not simple a hangover from the old slave-owning days. It also draws its force from the prejudice against the local tribes and their integration into some of the local white families.

Reavis Z Wortham

Reavis Z Wortham

This is a culture on the cusp of modernity. Electricity is only just beginning to make its way into this slightly remote part of Texas. Although the townships have been hooked up for some years, the country farms are only just getting the opportunity to give up some of the drudgery of manual labour and to replace backbreaking hardship with the convenience of more modern equipment. Even the first transistor radios are popping up. Yet as these people race into an uncertain future, the past weighs them down. Moonshiners are still running their stills out in the woods, newcomers are beginning to establish marijuana production both in Texas and Mexico, and the usual law-breaking and corruption is met by local communities armed to the teeth and prepared to shoot first and ask questions afterwards. It would be a tinderbox likely to explode where it not for a paternal outlook on the part of the law enforcement establishment. There may be bad applies in their ranks but, for the most part, they keep the peace without too many dying unnecessarily.

Indeed, if you were to add up the pages, you would find the majority contain a more bucolic aspect until we get to the end sequence. Ignoring a couple of bodies and the threat of a bar fight, life is relatively amiable. But then the now recovered Cody decides to go on an absurd freelance surveillance expedition. Now let’s be clear about this. I consistently have problems accepting plots that have characters do immensely silly things. Some times, the author recovers the situation, the plot comes back on track, and plausibility reasserts itself. But this does stop getting silly. In fact, as you turn the pages, the silliness just keeps worsening. Frankly, I despair that all the good work of a red-hot opening and then the gentle meander through the lives of the people living in Center Springs, is completely thrown away. Instead of country justice bringing down the bad guys, we had ourselves a minor war. Well no matter how good the historical element and appealing the YA bits as our youngsters make new friends and embark on a little adventure, the thriller bits have to be vaguely credible. This ending is manifestly not credible. So it is with a heavy heart that I declare the plot of The Right Side of Wrong to be tragically misconceived. It’s a shame that a highly professional piece of writing should end up on such a bum note.

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

NightZone by Steven F Havill

September 29, 2013 Leave a comment


NightZone by Steven F Havill (Poisoned Pen Press, 2013) is the nineteenth in the Posadas County Mystery series. To say that I’ve come to the party late is one of the all-time understatements. Sill, having missed the first eighteen, I can at least finally arrive with my apologies to the host for being so late. As a senior citizen, books like this are good for my morale. Too often, modern books show those of an older age profile as being close-to-death and therefore on-the-scrap-heap of life until we have the decency to go off to wherever we’re going (and not before time). Here we’ve got former Posadas Sheriff William K Gastner. He’s a sprightly seventy-four years young, and has more knowledge and experience in his little finger than the cohort of younger law enforcers who’ve replaced him in this area of New Mexico. Other books by the author set in the same location feature Undersheriff Estella Reyes-Guzman who replaced Gastner when he retired, cumulatively giving us an ever more detailed view of life in this part of the American West.

This time, our insomniac retiree is up on a mesa, enjoying the peace and solitude of the night sky when he sees as flash of light some twenty miles away. Minutes later, he’s calling in both a fire and a vehicle running across the prairie below him. When he sees the power has gone out in the nearby township, he realises this is all probably connected. This brings tragedy because a police officer stopping a suspect vehicle some miles away is shot dead. When the authorities arrive to put out the fire, they discover someone has chainsawed the utility poles, bringing down the power lines. A body has also been left behind, not quite decapitated by one of the falling poles. Just taking this opening fifth of the book illustrates the beauty of the author’s approach. There’s wonderful pace in the narrative, moving us rapidly through the set-up, but our prudent driver moves safely across the nighttime landscape as the youngsters go barrelling past him at 100 mph. Younger officers may offer him a steadying hand on difficult ground as he walks the ground, but speed of physical travel does match acuity of mind and calmness in the face of difficulty.

Steven F Havill

Steven F Havill

The apparent trigger for this excitement is the proposed development of a major astronomical radio telescope and tourist centre by wealthy Miles Waddell on the mesa at his ranch. The power lines cut supplied the site which, if and when it’s complete, will be called NightZone. And with all the crazies likely to be hostile to developments out on the prairies that might enable “them” to listen in to what they are saying or doing, Miles offers the job of security supremo to our candidate for an early grave. Fortunately for him, there’s a professional organisation bidding for the work. At least he can talk with the lady who’s making the pitch and offer an opinion. And, in the midst of all home-grown terrorist threats, there’s another shooting which happens as the town is building up for the return of its prodigy son — a brilliant pianist who’s required to go through a baptism of public performances as part of his education and training regime.

Not having read any of the previous books, I wasn’t quite sure which way the plot would develop. After the initial excitement, it seemed to be shaping up for a mystery approach with the old guy helping the youngsters out in a police procedural. But it fairly soon becomes apparent who they are looking for and it becomes an almost straight thriller for the key sections at the end. On the way, we continue the metanarrative of the lives of the local citizens and learn more about our hero’s interest in the history of the old West. At this point, I raise a vaguely questioning hand to signal a pause. Like this protagonist, I’m retired but pride myself on being fit for my age. I was on board for all the early activity. What was attempted and achieved seemed perfectly credible. But towards the end, I felt he was not only irresponsible but also physically more durable than is strictly credible. Don’t get me wrong. What happens is all standard fare for the heroes of thrillers. Indeed, if I had not known this was about someone who’s seventy-four years old, I would have been calmly congratulating the author on a job well done. But I’m afraid I end up feeling faintly dissatisfied. With his physical limitations and at his age, I think he might have been a little more circumspect. Or perhaps this is just me being a killjoy. If he was more circumspect, there would be less thrilling stuff going on and the excitement quotient would drop. And that would never do if you were in the business of writing thrillers. So NightZone should be counted a success. Not only does it advance the broader narrative arcs about the local citizenry as we look forward to the twentieth book in the series, it also gives our old guy a case he can really get his teeth into.

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

Downtown Strut by Ed Ifkovic

Downtown Strut by Ed Ifkovic

Downtown Strut by Ed Ifkovic (Poisoned Pen Press, 2013) is the fourth mystery featuring Edna Ferber and is set in 1927 as our heroic wordsmith prepares for the dual launch of Show Boat and The Royal Family on Broadway. This book is interesting on two counts. The first is that we have a man writing a first-person narrative as a woman. The second is that the subject matter of the book is essentially an exploration of the racism in the Flapper Years before the Great Depression hit. The title of the book is, of course, a reference to “Darktown Strutter’s Ball” and sets the tone rather appropriately. This was recorded by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1917 and it’s gone on to become what we politely call a “jazz standard”, but it’s perhaps rather better known today with the title sanitised to “Downtown” rather than Darktown. In other words, we no longer feel comfortable referring to Harlem as Darktown. This area of New York is something of an anomaly. In the forty-year period between what’s still fondly called the Gay Nineties and the Great Depression, Harlem changed from being predominantly Jewish to African American. A symptom of this transition was the “Darktown Follies”, a review produced in 1913 at the Lafayette Theatre on 7th and 132nd Street — a review that, thanks to Florenz Ziegfeld, moved to Broadway within a year of its opening. As you might imagine, there was real co-operation between African American musicians and Jewish impresarios when there was money to be made. The rest of the time, the relationship between the races was not so good.

Our real-world narrator and other historically significant people of that period portrayed in this novel occupied an awkward gatekeeper role. The problem when one group of immensely talented people are the victims of discrimination, is where you draw the line between a patron, a benefactor and an exploiter. By definition, patrons control access to different levels of social acceptability and confer certain rights to what we might term privileges. In some cases, this can be the power to give people work and thereby some dignity in the world. In other cases, it’s the power to use the casting couch for sexual exploitation, giving people hope and ultimately denying them respect. Nominally, America might have abolished slavery but, in 1927, the practical experience of African Americans had only marginally improved. Even in the North which had been the driver of social change, the status of African Americans remained equivocal.

Ed Ifkovic

Ed Ifkovic

It’s against this background that our narrator returns home unexpectedly and discovers a group of writers and artists meeting in her living room. This is the “fault” of Waters Turpin, her housekeeper’s son, who had decided to host Bella Davenport and her boyfriend Lawson Hicks, Ellie Payne, Roddy Parsons, Harriet Porter and Freddie Holder. Once our heroine has overcome her surprise, she recognises some from a previous meeting, and is sufficiently interested to get to know them all better. This immediately feels fake — a necessary plot device to get the story going, particularly when Jed Harris walks in on the group. Although it gives our amateur sleuth a chance to assess each individual, make a rough assessment of their relationships, and then study their reaction to the “powerful” Broadway producer, it’s one of these horrible coincidences. She just happens to return home and then, not expecting her to be there, Jed Harris walks in. There are many less contrived ways to get the show on the road. As if that’s not enough of a coincidence, a few pages later, our heroine is discovering the body of Roddy Parsons in his Harlem apartment. Yes, the overt racism of the detective who comes along to investigate and the innuendos in the press as to what Edna Ferber was doing in Harlem to find a young African American dead in his bed are credible. But the whole set-up is unsatisfactory.

As we might expect, the white detective rounds up the local older black guy with a record and mental health problems, and pins the murder on him as a burglary gone wrong. This offends the sensibilities of our heroine who’s convinced there’s a lot more at play. We then get a densely written set of meetings between our heroine and the group members during which it becomes obvious they all have doubtful alibis as to where they were at the relevant time. More intriguingly, it’s also obvious that Jed Harris is lying about his connections to members of this group and that they all had reason to resent both Harris and the dead guy. Sadly I stopped reading about two-thirds of the way through and skipped to the end to see whodunnit and why. It’s not that it’s badly written. In fact, the prose is, at times, quite powerful and reasonably convincing using a female protagonist. It’s the feeling the tone of the book is wrong. Whenever anyone sets out to write an historical novel, there’s an immediate question of how much history to include.

In this instance, the technical challenge is how to make the text informative using a first-person narrator. By definition, this woman has no need to think critically about her own life and her reactions to everyday events. She is what she is — a Pulitzer prize-winning author and informal member of the Algonquin Round Table (a fact not mentioned in the parts of this book I read carefully). With an omniscient author, it’s easier to make judgements of the various characters involved. If someone is acting in an overtly racist manner, the author can use appropriate signifiers to communicate an emotional response. Even in a book intended to be an accurate historical portrayal of racist attitudes, the author can communicate the awfulness of the behaviour on display. What might have been considered entirely normal then, can seem outrageous today. But this author carefully avoids being judgmental. He does not condemn his female protagonist for being a creature of her time. Whereas he could have shown her debating whether to confront the racism of the day, he chooses not to because that would focus on her moral cowardice in not, for example, going into a convenient eating establishment with a young African American in tow and demanding service. She never gives a second thought to having a live-in African American servant. Slavery by dependency is just as much slavery. The result is all rather mealy-mouthed and unsatisfactory.

I was seriously disappointed that a modern white man could not write a better book about the racism in the early part of the twentieth century. What the book needs is a moral centre from which the author can comment on and, if appropriate, disapprove the events and attitudes described. In my opinion, the failure to produce a coherent subtext of disapproval leaves it to the readers to approve the racism on display. There’s a simple rule of interpretation at play here. If an author intentionally writes about racist behaviour and does not condemn it, it must be within the scope of the author’s intention that readers approve what they read. Put another way, the author is, at the very least, reckless whether readers will approve. Indeed, it must be foreseeable to the author that some who read this book will be racially prejudiced. Silence from an author can therefore be seen by such readers as passive approval or encouragement to those readers to approve racist behaviour. Downtown Strut is a book that communicates information in a moral vacuum. It offended my sensibilities to read it.

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

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