Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The White Sea: Paul Johnston

From the summary at Goodreads:
    Wealthy ship-owner Kostas Gatsos has been missing for several weeks, having been snatched from his luxury villa on the idyllic island of Lesvos. Curiously, there has been no ransom demand. When the police investigation stalls, the desperate Gatsos family turn to private investigator Alex Mavros for help.
    Inherently suspicious of the super-rich and initially reluctant to take on the case, Mavros finds himself dealing with a highly dysfunctional family with more than a few skeletons in its closet, a family whose tentacles have a surprisingly wide reach.
This book is the seventh in a series of novels about Alex Mavros, who is a finder of missing people.   Taking an unusual step for me, I decided to read this book in the series when I had read none of the previous novels.  I was influenced by having read Sarah's positive review of The Black Life at her crimepieces blog. She mentioned that there were big changes at the end of book 6 and thought that the series and the protagonist could be taking a different direction in the next book. I thought I might be able to pick this book up and read it as a standalone book, without the other books for background. I did find that to be true for the most part.

I did not see much depth in the characterizations in this novel, and I am wondering whether this is because the author is relying on the reader's familiarity with some of the characters and not repeating back stories with each book. This is a good thing, but in some cases I felt like I was missing something. However, the basic story, which I would classify as an adventure, was interesting and moved very fast. I like good pacing in a book.

Mavros is an appealing character because he is loyal to his family and friends.  And they care about him. Few characters in this book are perfect, but each is unique and interesting, including the bad guys. This book takes up Alex's story five years after the end of the previous book, and he has been working for the family publishing business in the meantime. In order to pick up his previous occupation of looking for missing persons, he seeks out his old friend Yiorgos Pandazopoulos, who has aided in previous investigations.

There are several subplots that will all come together in some way in the end. The author keeps us guessing. I liked the way the ending was handled. It may have been too pat, too easy, but it also did not have an extended period where the protagonist and significant others are in danger. I have never liked that approach to ending thrillers.

The author has lived in Greece and put his experience there to good use when writing this book. He also "worked in shipping in London, Antwerp and Piraeus". See this page at his web site for an overview of the book. Having read a bit more about the earlier six books in the series, I think I would like to go back to them. I consider this a compliment to the author. At the author's website you will also find information about his two other series, both of which sound interesting to me.

Paul Johnston was born in Edinburgh, Scotland. Thus this book counts for the Read Scotland challenge at Peggy Ann's Post. He has lived in Greece and is married to Roula, a Greek civil servant. He still divides his time between Scotland and Greece.


Publisher:   Severn House, 2014
Length:       289 pages
Format:       ebook
Series:        Alex Mavros, #7
Setting:       Greece
Genre:        Mystery
Source:       Provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Planned Parenthood Book Sale, 2014

Every year I go to the Planned Parenthood Book Sale, and always make multiple visits. This year I found lots of books that I wanted, and even some I had not heard of before. I am ashamed to say how many books I bought. No more than usual, but still ... I have too many books to read. My husband and son both found some very nice books (more on some of those in a later post), but they are much more restrained than I am.

One of my favorite purchases was the first book in the Peter Corris series featuring Cliff Hardy. It was a pretty beat up paperback, but I have been wanting to read this series, which totals over 35 books, for a long time. I may not read them all or in order, but I did want to start at the beginning..

I found most of the books by John Grisham that I was looking for: The Client, Rainmaker, and A Time to Kill. I had been motivated to follow up on more of his books by reading posts at Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan and comments there by Kathy D.

I found several books by Canadian authors: Eric Wright, Gail Bowen, and Ian Hamilton.

As far as authors that are unknown to me, two were from Africa:

Wessel Ebersohn is South African. The book I found is The October Killings, published in 2010. He wrote a few novels in the 70's and 80's that featured Yudel Gordon, a prison psychologist. This book is the start of a new series starring Abigail Bukula, a young lawyer, but it also brings back Yudel Gordon.

Adimchinma Ibe is a Nigerian author, and the book I found was Treachery in the Yard, the first novel in the Detective Peterside police procedural series.

There were some disappointments. I always go to the booksale knowing it will be a crapshoot. One year there was a whole box of Agatha Christie mysteries, then for several years there were only a few copies of her books. This year there was a box, and I did find several that I needed and some with covers I wanted.

I had hoped to find some books by Phil Rickman (the Merrily Watkins series) and also some by Catriona McPherson (the Dandy Gilver series) because these are ones that are not easy for me to locate. There were none, so I came home and started looking for the second Dandy Gilver book. I will be getting a copy of that soon.

A postscript:

My son took me back for the last day of the book sale today. It lasts ten days and on the last day, everything is 50% off. I bought more books, mostly paperbacks, and many I was very happy to find. The second book in the Inspector Felse series by Ellis Peters that I have been looking for forever. Several books by William L. DeAndrea, three of them from the Matt Cobb series. Several copies of novels by Helen MacInnes.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Books of 1958: Coffin Scarcely Used by Colin Watson

My initial reaction to Coffin Scarcely Used was that it was very slow, with flashes of wonderful humor, and an interesting resolution. I think this is another series that will grow on me once I read a couple more of them.

Colin Watson wrote 12 novels in a series set in the fictional town of Flaxborough. Coffin Scarcely Used is the first of these. The main players in this series (at this point) are Inspector Purbright and Sergeant Love. Chief Constable Chubb is their boss. There is a series of deaths among the businessmen in the town, and Purbright is suspicious of foul play. The author slowly reveals why Purbright has these suspicions.

A brief sample of an exchange between Purbright and Chubb:
     "Well, you know best what lines to work along, Purbright," said Mr Chubb, "but do try and keep a charitable view of these people. Until you know the worst, of course. I don't believe in sentiment where criminals are concerned. But background counts for a lot with me. Chaps don't usually go off the rails overnight after years and years of being useful and respectable citizens."
      Purbright looked up from his papers and smiled. "No, sir," he said. "Some of them are off the rails all the time but manage to keep the fact to themselves."
Watson is also the author of a mystery reference book. At the Rue Morgue Press site, his book and Watson's fictional town are described.
In his entertaining and idiosyncratic study of English crime fiction, Snobbery with Violence, Colin Watson wrote that the English village and small town so popular during the Golden Age of detective fiction was really a mythical creation. He christened this idyllic village, where amateur lady sleuths competed with seasoned Scotland Yarders to nab the least likely suspect, “Mayhem Parva.” Describing it as a cross between a village and a commuters’ dormitory in the South of England, Watson wrote that Mayhem Parva was rural enough to be the picturesque locale so many English saw as the perfect place to retire, yet connected to the outside world by a reliable bus system. There would be a well-attended church, a chemist’s shop where one could purchase weed killer when the occasion required it, and “an inn with reasonable accommodation for itinerant detective inspectors.”
Such is not the case with Flaxborough, the fictional East Anglian city of 15,000 where Watson set eleven of his twelve highly original and extremely funny mysteries. If its citizenry was tight it was because they drank too much and about the only thing you could rely on them for was the persistent pursuit of sin. “It’s a high-spirited town,” commented one of its inhabitants, “like Gomorrah.” Assigned the unenviable task of policing its profligate populace is Inspector Purbright, a capable copper whose many virtues include politeness and a kind heart, and Sergeant Love, his able but innocent (in the ways of the world) assistant.
Even though this is the first book in the series, I don't know whether to recommend it or not. This one was too slow for my tastes, yet it gets a lot of praise. Maybe start with a later one and come back to this one. From my research into the author and his writings, I gather that other books in the series are more interesting. There is a character introduced in later books, Miss Lucilla Teatime, who is purported to be very entertaining.

Rich at Past Offences, who is sponsoring the books of 1958 challenge, reviewed this book in more detail here.

Some of the later books have intriguing titles, such as:

Broomsticks Over Flaxborough (1972), aka Kissing Covens
The Naked Nuns (1974), aka Six Nuns and a Shotgun

The only other book I have in the series is Hopjoy Was Here, and I have read good things about that novel, so that will probably be the next book in this series that I try.

This books counts as part of my skeleton cover collection because the missing puzzle piece on the back cover has a skull.


Publisher:  Dell, 1981 (orig. pub. 1958)
Length:      221 pages
Format:      paperback
Series:       Flaxborough Chronicles, #1
Setting:      UK
Genre:       Police Procedural
Source:      I purchased this book.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Death of a Hollow Man: Caroline Graham

I seldom re-read mysteries, not because I don't want to but because I have too many unread books to read.  But recently I decided I wanted to do a book to movie post on one of the episodes in the Midsomer Murders television series. Only five of the seven books in the Inspector Barnaby series by Caroline Graham were adapted for television. I picked the second book in the series, Death of a Hollow Man, because I knew how the first book ended. For this one, even though I had read the book, and watched the episode, I had forgotten the ending.

It takes over one hundred pages in this book of 268 pages before the murder takes place. The first 105 pages cover the preparation for the play and setting up the background on some of the participants. The actual crime takes place during the first performance of the play, which Inspector Barnaby of Causton CID is attending. Barnaby's wife is the wardrobe mistress and has a small part in the play. His daughter, Cully, attends the play with him and is an aspiring actor. Barnaby even painted some of the props for the play. So he is well acquainted with everyone associated with the play, which is, of course, a challenge.

It surprised me how much I liked this book the second time around. I know I liked the series a lot when I read the books years ago, because once I had read the first two I purchased all of them and read them very shortly thereafter. I had forgotten the biting humor and the wonderful characterizations in the book. The stories seem like cozies (although by the some strict definitions a police procedural is not a cozy), but they are not even close in my opinion. Very fun, not thrillerish, but not cozy either.

It helped that the story is centered on the Causton Amateur Dramatic Society, since I have participated in such a group and know that the actors, directors, and even techies take the whole thing very seriously. It also helped that the play is Amadeus, which I know enough about so that the many players and their roles were not confusing. I also enjoyed reading about the main characters after having watched so many Midsomer Murders episodes.

Inspector Barnaby is such a wonderful character; I never grow tired of him, in a book or on the screen. He leads a normal home life (when he is there); his only demon is that he doesn't like his wife's cooking. He is a smart, insightful investigator, and knows how to handle Sergeant Troy, who is homophobic and boorish.

I will report on a comparison between the book and the TV episode in a future post. I am currently rereading Death in Disguise, the third book in the series. I picked up a copy at the book sale yesterday... a paperback edition with a lovely picture of the grim reaper on the cover. And I wanted to read it immediately, before I re-watch the episode. So I will be reviewing that book in the future too.


Publisher:  William Morrow, 1990. Orig. pub. 1989.
Length:     268 pages
Format:     Hardback, book club edition
Series:      Chief Inspector Barnaby, #2
Setting:     UK
Genre:      Police Procedural
Source:     I purchased my copy.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Books of 1958: The Count of Nine by A. A. Fair

I have fond memories of reading books by Erle Stanley Gardner. I read many Perry Mason mysteries starting in my teens. I suspect I discovered the Bertha Cool and Donald Lam series later. Those books were written under the pseudonym of A. A. Fair. I have not read either of these series for years, so I am no expert on his books.

This month I read The Count of Nine for the 1958 Book challenge at Past Offences. I was somewhat disappointed with this book, and I am hoping this is just an example of a lesser Cool / Lam story. However, my copy is a Pocket Book paperback with a lovely cover, and that may be why I bought it in the first place.

This summary is from the section on Erle Stanley Gardner at the.Golden Age of Detection Wiki.
The Count of Nine (1958), a Bertha Cool and Donald Lam novel, opens with an impossible theft (Chapters 1-8). The theft recalls the criminal schemes found in Gardner's early pulp stories about Lester Leith and Paul Pry. The subsequent murder mystery in the novel is much less interesting. The tale includes the complex architecture sometimes found in Golden Age books.
It is true that the plot is almost divided into two parts. The first eight chapters described above is only 50 pages and covers the set up and solution of the "impossible" crime. The next 130 pages follow up on a second related section with more action and excitement. I found that section of the book more interesting.

Bertha and Donald have an unusual relationship. Bertha is the boss, but Donald goes his own way. They argue a lot but have an affectionate relationship underneath it all.  Donald gets beat up a lot and is not big on carrying a gun. Bertha, on the other hand, doesn't do much detecting. In this book she is hired to watch the entrance of a party and insure that some valuable art objects are not stolen. I am going to have to read more of these because I think I just need to get to know these characters.

I have copies of Fools Die on Friday (1947) and Top of the Heap (1952) and neither of these are very early in the series. I would like to read the first in the series, The Bigger They Come (1939), where Bertha and Donald start working together. Also, the 6th through the 9th books in the series, around World War II: Owls Don't Blink (1942) - Set in the French Quarter of New Orleans; Bats Fly at Dusk (1942) - Donald has joined the Navy; Cats Prowl at Night (1943) - Bertha works alone; and Give 'em the Ax (1944) - Donald returns.


Publisher:  Pocket Books, 1962, orig. pub. 1958.
Length:   182 pages
Format:   paperback
Series:    Bertha Cool and Donald Lam #18
Setting:   US
Genre:    Mystery, private detectives
Source:   I bought my copy.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Wine of Angels: Phil Rickman

I have been wanting to read this book for years. Don't ask me why, it really wasn't my kind of book. Descriptions of the series indicated that the main character is a female vicar who exorcises spirits. I have enjoyed series with either protagonists or secondary characters who are religious, but mixing the supernatural in was questionable. Still I was intrigued, and I kept it on my wishlist. Finally, the series was released in reprint editions in the US, and it was easier to find an affordable copy online. What I did not realize when I purchased it was the length. My copy is 589 pages. Still I was not  daunted. And then I realized it was the perfect book to read for the R.I.P. challenge this year.

The main character, Merrily Watkins, is a recently widowed single mother of a teenage daughter. Her first job as a vicar in the Church of England is in a small town in Herefordshire. At the beginning, there is a death (by shotgun) which could be the result of an accident or suicide.  Later a teenager (a friend of her daughter) goes missing. There are suggestions of supernatural elements involved, both in these incidents and in other strange happenings in the village, but they are subtle. Publisher's Weekly described it as "a first-rate thriller with supernatural overtones".

I loved this book, every page of it, and I only hope I can explain why. For a nearly 600 page book I got through it quickly, and I was eager to come back to it any opportunity I had. It met all my expectations.

The story centers around three characters: Merrily; Jane, her daughter; and Lol Robinson. The narrative moves back and forth between those three character's point of view. I like this kind of story, but it can be confusing or irritating to some readers. The setting seemed well done to me. I cannot speak to how accurate it is, but the book is definitely atmospheric. The series has gotten a lot of praise from readers for the effectiveness of the setting.

The characterization is wonderful. All of the main characters are well fleshed out but especially Merrily and Jane. Jane rejects her mother's religious beliefs, and like many teenagers, is embarrassed by her mother. Lol Robinson, a newcomer to the community, is another significant characterer . The author takes a while explain Lol's backstory and connections with other characters, and I liked the slow revelation of where he fits in. Also, the characters are all realistic; all have flaws. They are mostly likable but far from perfect.  The various townspeople are interesting and convincing, at least to someone who doesn't know a lot about various parts of the UK.

This book is also interesting because it highlights the difficulties of being a woman priest.
As if having a woman priest in the family wasn’t enough, her mother, from the safety of suburban Cheltenham, had been out of her mind when Merrily had gone as a curate to inner-city Liverpool, all concrete and drugs and domestic violence. Running youth clubs and refuges for prozzies and rent boys. Terrific, Jane had thought. Cathartic, Merrily had found.
While her mother was putting out feelers.
Good old Ted had come up with the goods inside a year. The vicar of Ledwardine was retiring. Beautiful Ledwardine, only an hour or so’s drive from Cheltenham. And Ted was not only senior church warden but used to be the bishop’s solicitor. No string-pulling, of course; she’d only get the job if she was considered up to it and the other candidates were weak… which, at less than fifteen grand a year, they almost certainly would be.
‘You’ve had a stressful time,’ Ted said. He’d never asked her why she’d abandoned the law for the Church. 
In those few paragraphs, we learn a lot about Merrily, why she is where she is, and the pressures she experiences.

If I was looking for a book with exorcisms I would have been disappointed. This book is really the set-up to future books with more of that element. The author says that the first book was not supposed to be the beginning of a series, and is different from the rest of the series.
It all started with The Wine of Angels, which is not really representative of the rest of the series.  It began as a standalone, and Merrily Watkins wasn't even going to be the main character. It was just that I had a story in need of a woman vicar.
I will be reading more of this series. The length and the supernatural elements will deter some readers. I hope to hear from others who have read this book or this series with their opinions. Although I found this book to be a fast read with good pacing, my experience differed from that of some reviewers, who complained that it dragged in spots.

See reviews at: read_warbler and Kittling Books.


Publisher: Corvus, 2011 (orig. pub, 1999)
Length:   589 pages
Format:   trade paperback
Series:    Merrily Watkins, #1
Setting:   small town in Herefordshire, UK
Genre:    Mystery
Source:   purchased my copy