Thursday, August 30, 2012

Birds of a Feather: Jacqueline Winspear

From the description of the book at the author's website:
An eventful year has passed for Maisie Dobbs. Since starting a one-woman private investigation agency in 1929 London, she now has a professional office in Fitzroy Square and an assistant, the happy-go-lucky Billy Beale. She has proven herself as a psychologist and investigator, and has even won over Detective Inspector Stratton of Scotland Yard's Murder Squad—an admirable achievement for a woman who worked her way from servant to scholar to sleuth, and who also served as a battlefield nurse in the Great War.
It's now the early Spring of 1930. Stratton is investigating a murder case in Coulsden, while Maisie has been summoned to Dulwich to find a runaway heiress.
This is the second book in the Maisie Dobbs series. I was initially interested in this series because the first book in the series, titled Maisie Dobbs, was getting a lot of good publicity. When it came out it got a very good reception from most critics, and received the Agatha and Macavity awards for best first novel.

This book and the two others in the series that I have read so far are both mysteries and historical novels, The novels are set in Europe in the time period following World War I and revolve around life following the war and the effects it had on the people. Maisie's development from a servant in a rich household to an educated young woman with a career, and the relationships she has with friends and relatives are just as important as the mystery. Because I like the setting and I want to read about the time period and the events and social history of that time, this is an important element for me.

I read Birds of a Feather recently, and I did like the historical setting. The book is very successful at bringing alive the problems people are left to deal with after the Great War.  Most people have lost relatives and friends. Men have come home from war with injuries that plague them for the rest of their years. Times are hard for most people, and there is a lot of unemployment.

The mystery in this book starts with an investigation of a runaway daughter. The father who wants her found and returned is the owner of specialty grocery stores and is doing quite well financially. He and his employees have experienced many losses from the war, and he aids in the support of any families that lost loved ones in his employ. Maisie begins to suspect that the young woman's disappearance is related to at least one recent death, and investigates the relationship between these events.

I found the solution of the mystery to be less satisfying than the overall story. I did not like the emphasis on Maisie's feelings or intuition. I can buy that some people have that gift, and it really doesn't have to ruin the story, but it isn't my favorite approach in mystery novels. I also did not like that Maisie discovers clues early in the story but the crucial information is withheld from the reader.

Although Maisie is a fully realized character, and we know much of the joys, concerns, fears, and pains of her life, the supporting characters are two-dimensional. For example, I did not get any feeling of the relationship developing with the two young men who are romantically interested in her. To be fair, a lot of reviewers like the character development in these books, so it may depend on your taste in books and how information is imparted to the reader.

This has been a hard book for me to review because I really did enjoy it but I noticed a lot of flaws. To me, the big question when I review a book is whether I enjoyed the book and want to read more by the author. I did find the book enjoyable, but if the setting wasn't in a period I love, I would probably not continue the series. I guess the pluses outweigh the minuses for me. I gave the book 4 stars on Goodreads.

I suspect a lot of mystery readers are more forgiving than I and would like this book, so I recommend it to those readers who like this type of book. Whether non-mystery readers would enjoy it so much with the element of crime solving included, I am not so sure.

This counts as one of my books for the following challenges:
Mt. TBR Challenge
Read Your Own Books Challenge

Cruisin' Thru the Cozies Challenge

Historical Fiction Reading Challenge
Mystery & Suspense Reading Challenge
World War I Reading Challenge

Sunday, August 26, 2012

O is for Anthony Oliver

Today I am featuring the author, Anthony Oliver, for the Crime Fiction Alphabet for 2012 hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise. Oliver wrote four mysteries published in the 1980's: The Pew Group (1980), The Property of a Lady (1983), The Ehlberg Collection (1985), and Cover-Up (1987).

Janet A. Rudolph, editor of Mystery Readers Journal, described The Pew Group as a forgotten or under appreciated book in this post at the Rap Sheet:
This is a true British comedy/farce featuring the outrageous Lizzie Thomas and her companion in crime, John Webber. This is the first of four comedic mysteries by world-renown Staffordshire antiques dealer and critic Anthony Oliver.
Rudolph also listed The Pew Group as one of her top ten favorite mysteries (as of 2008) in this post at Jungle Red Writers. (I ran into interesting resources while researching this. They were not new to me, but I enjoyed visiting them again.)

I could not find much other information about the author. He is also the author of a collectors guide, The Victorian Staffordshire Figure.

A few years ago I visited a used book sale and happily found all four of the books in Anthony Oliver's series that features Lizzie Thomas and Inspector Webber in nice paperback editions. I had not been familiar with this author but they looked interesting and for the price I could not pass them up. I have now read two of the series and I found them to be very entertaining.

Inspector Webber is a retired policeman. In the first book in the series, he has recently moved back to the town of Flaxfield following a divorce and his retirement. Lizzie Thomas is also a new arrival in the town, and they get involved in solving some mysterious happenings.The second book is set a few years later and Lizzie and Webber are good friends. All of the books have plots related to antiques or art objects.

I read the first book in the series, The Pew Group, several years ago, and I don't remember much about the story. I do remember that I enjoyed the book and I liked the characters, especially the lead characters. My impression is that it was a comic romp of various characters from the village and visitors looking for a valuable antique object -- called the Pew Group. Lizzie and Webber are introduced in this book, and their relationship is developing, so there is a different dynamic.

This week I read The Property of a Lady. This is essentially the story of a woman who picks up a hitchhiker, and the consequences of that action. It does not go in the direction you expect.

I would describe it as a cozy with dark elements. The story is dominated by the psychological issues of several of the characters. The mystery seems to be more related to who will be killed, or maybe "who has been killed?".

In this book Lizzie and Webber are the stars and most of the other characters are not fleshed out as well. The character of Margaret (who picks up the hitchhiker) is an exception. She is a lonely young woman and her character is nicely developed. Some of her internal dialogues are shared and we share her hopes and fears.

My impression from reading reviews of all four books is that this series is enjoyed as much for the characters and the humor as for the mystery element. I found The Pew Group to be a traditional mystery, but certainly The Property of a Lady has no great surprises or twists. It has dark elements, and is more serious than the first book, but you can see where it is going most of the way.

The review of Cover-Up at Kirkus Reviews indicates a similar view of that novel:
The windup this time--involving the unmasking of a homicidal maniac--is less than satisfying. But inspector Webber and Mrs. T. make a fetchingly offbeat, lowkey pair of lover-sleuths; the supporting locals--including Mrs. T.'s effeminate son-in-law, antique dealer "Betsey" Trottwood--are scruffily charming in their faintly kinky way. And this is witty crime-comedy, never too farcical, for those who like their English villages wry, quirky, and occasionally earthy.
Bev at My Reader's Block has a review of The Ehlberg Collection.

Please visit the post at Mysteries in Paradise to check out other entries for the letter O.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Under World: Reginald Hill

I recently read Under World, the 10th novel in the Dalziel and Pascoe series written by Reginald Hill. I had not read any of the books in this series for a few years, although I was familiar with the main cast (Superintendant Dalziel, Detective Inspector Pascoe, and Pascoe's wife Ellie).

I have struggled to come up with a brief description that conveys the flavor of the book. I think this one at Felony & Mayhem does it best:
The small mining town of Burrthorpe is economically depressed and mistrustful of strangers—and cops. The return of handsome and volatile Colin Farr, whose dead father was once implicated in a child murder case, seems to dig up all the old troubles and bring on some new ones. Farr flirts dangerously with Ellie Pascoe and quickly becomes a suspect himself, in the murder of his nemesis. It is this latest event that brings out Andy Dalziel, just the man to help Pascoe out of the dark tunnels of the case.
The novel, published in 1989, is set in Yorkshire, and deals with turmoil in a mining community in the years after the 1984 miners’ strike. The strike caused changes in the lives of everyone who lived there. I know very little about mining here in the US or in the UK, and this was an eye opener for me.

Ellie Pascoe gets involved with the young Colin, who takes a class from her at the local university. Not involved romantically but in the troubles he and his family experience as a result of a crime that occurred a few years earlier. I will admit that I found Ellie's willingness, almost enthusiasm, to get involved in something that could be detrimental to her husband's job curious and irritating, and she is an abrasive personality. But I do understand that this is part of her character and provides a way to explore themes beyond straight detection of crimes. And it is very small criticism.

Hill's writing is superb, and every book I have read by him has entertained and educated me. I like the partnership of the rough and crude Dalziel with the more refined and sensitive Pascoe, and I appreciate the respect they find for each over time. In most cases, I don't care for out and out humor in a mystery novel. However, Hill writes with subtle humor, especially in the interactions of Ellie and Pascoe and Pascoe's reactions to both Ellie and Dalziel.

I would not say this is my favorite of the series so far, but it is still an excellent novel. The novels I like the best were An Advancement of Learning, set in academia, and the novel in which Pascoe meets Ellie; and Deadheads, which is not a traditional police procedural. In Deadheads, each chapter is the name of a rose. One of the main characters, Patrick Alderman, is a rose enthusiast. Deadheading is the process of clipping off dead flowers from a plant to encourage more flowering.

A Clubbable Woman was his first novel, and the first in the Dalziel and Pascoe series. The series has a total of 24 titles, so I have 14 more to read. And I have copies of them all.

Reginald Hill was born in 1936 at West Hartlepool, and died this year. He worked as a schoolmaster and a college lecturer until he began writing full time in 1980. He received the Gold Dagger for Bones and Silence (1990) and in 1995 he won the CWA’s Cartier Diamond Dagger for Lifetime Achievement.

Hill was a prolific writer, and wrote standalone novels, one other series, and some books under other names. From his obituary at the Guardian:
Hill was best known for his crime novels about Dalziel and Pascoe, which were adapted for BBC television from 1996 to 2007. It was not until 1980, when he became a full-time writer, that he realised that his books about the detective duo were his "banker", just as Ruth Rendell regarded her Inspector Wexford books as her "bread and butter". Even so, he refused to turn out one a year – the norm for crime writers with a series – preferring instead to alternate them with thrillers, historical novels, science fiction and, later, a smaller humorous series set in Luton, featuring the black private detective Joe Sixsmith.

This counts as one of my books for the following challenges:
Mt. TBR Challenge
Read Your Own Books Challenge

A-Z Challenge

Mystery & Suspense Reading Challenge  

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

N is for Night at the Vulcan

Back in 2003, I read the first 15 mysteries by Ngaio Marsh featuring Inspector Roderick Alleyn. I started in late September and finished up in late November. I don't know why I stopped there, but I must have enjoyed most of them to read them all in two months.

This week I finished the next book in the series, Night at the Vulcan. I was glad that I had returned to the series, rediscovering Alleyn, his colleagues, and the charming writing of Ngaio Marsh.

From the Goodreads page for Ngaio Marsh:
Of all the "Great Ladies" of the English mystery's golden age, including Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie, and Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh alone survived to publish in the 1980s. Over a fifty-year span, from 1932 to 1982, Marsh wrote thirty-two classic English detective novels, which gained international acclaim. She did not always see herself as a writer, but first planned a career as a painter.
Marsh was also very involved in the theater, and several of her novels center around art and artists or theatrical productions. Early the series, in Artists in Crime, Alleyn meets noted artist Agatha Troy, and they later marry. Besides Night at the Vulcan, these other books involve actors and acting: Enter a Murderer, Vintage Murder, Overture to Death, Death at the Dolphin, and Light Thickens. Ngaio Marsh was born in New Zealand. She lived both in England and New Zealand, and some of the novels are set in New Zealand or feature characters from New Zealand.

I am featuring this book as my selection for the Crime Fiction Alphabet for 2012 for the letter N.  Please visit the post at Mysteries in Paradise to check out other entries.

My thoughts on this book:

This was a very enjoyable vintage mystery novel. The story is pretty much equally divided between setting up the scene and arriving at the murder, followed by the detection and solution of the murder. The murder does not even occur until halfway through the story and this time, Alleyn and his team don’t show up until then also.

The story is set in the theater, and revolves around the arrival of a young, aspiring actress who is without funds and desperate for any job in the acting company. Martyn Tarne has recently arrived in England from New Zealand. The story of Martyn’s acceptance into the acting company was delightful and fun. A nice change from some of the more serious mysteries I read. I am a sucker for a romance in a story, whether it is believable or not. The descriptions and characterization of other participants in the company (actors, author of the play, director, costumers) were entertaining. There were snarky characters and loveable characters.

In this mystery, the story building up to the murder is better than the detection half of the book. In the first half of the book, the pacing is good; the story builds, the tension builds. The tensions between the characters are evident. The reader knows it is going to come to a head and someone will die. Who will it be? But when the police come on the scene the pacing slows; there are dead spots. I had picked out the murderer early on, but I had the motive entirely wrong, and by the time I was a good way into the book, I had decided I had to be wrong.

Here are a few other resources on the mysteries of Ngaio Marsh that I found entertaining and useful:

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Spy Line and Spy Sinker: Len Deighton

I just recently finished reading Spy Sinker, and in mid-July I read Spy Line. They are the fifth and sixth novels in a nine book series featuring Bernard Samson (or ten if you count Winter). Samson is an intelligence officer in the British Secret Intelligence Service; he was a field operative, now he has a desk job in the  London office.

This is a favorite series of mine, and I am trying to get through all nine books by the end of the year. The first five books are told in first person, with Samson as narrator. The sixth book is in third person narrative, focusing on Samson's wife, who is also an intelligence officer.

In all of my reviews of the books in the series, I have shied away from providing a synopsis or too many plot details. I think it is important to read all the books in order, starting with Berlin Game, and plot details from the later books could spoil the reader's enjoyment of that book. If you like spy fiction and haven't read this series, I urge you to try Berlin Game first.

That being said, a very brief summary and comments on the two books:

Spy Line finds Bernard Samson in hiding in Berlin after the results of an investigation into missing funds that he had started in the previous book (Spy Hook). He is soon found by his employers, and is invited to participate in a debriefing of an undercover agent; this leads to his involvement the investigation of drug smuggling into East Germany. In the end, this book ties up the loose ends of Samson's saga so far, while still leaving us with a lot of unanswered questions.

I enjoyed this one a lot; it had some exciting events and some tragic events.

Spy Sinker differs greatly from the preceding books because it is told in third person and it covers the entire time period of the first five books, plus some of the years leading up to the trilogy. Bernard's wife, Fiona, plays a much larger part and the reader is privy to the opinions and views of other ongoing characters in the series. Some of the motivations that have been puzzling in previous books are made (somewhat) clearer here.

Compared to the earlier books that centered on Bernard, this book was not as enjoyable a read for me. But I liked that it gave us the picture of the events of the years covered by the five books from the other side and clarified a lot of the story. The book does cover a lot of what happened in the previous books, in a condensed version, but from a different viewpoint.

It is one of those books that is essential to the series, even if it isn't the best one. Some reviewers also felt this one lacked the punch of the others. Another reviewer found this the best of the first six in the series.

This is a list of the books in the series, with a link to my review if there is one.

1. Berlin Game (1983)
2. Mexico Set (1984)
3. London Match (1985)
4. Spy Hook (1988)
5. Spy Line (1989)
6. Spy Sinker (1990)
7. Faith (1994)
8. Hope (1995)
9. Charity (1996)

I have noted my preference for reading the series in order. However, in the Author note for a recent mass market paperback edition of Spy Sinker, Len Deighton expresses a different opinion.
Author's Note:
Berlin Game, Mexico Set and London Match together cover the period from spring 1983 until spring 1984.
Winter covers 1900 until 1945.
Spy Hook picks up the Bernard Samson story at the beginning of 1987 and Spy Line continues it into the summer of that same year.
Spy Sinker starts in September 1977 and ends in summer 1987. Faith picks up the story and continues it. The stories can be read in any order and each one is complete in itself.
This may be true and I won't ever know because I read them in the order written. Spy Sinker could certainly be read as a standalone novel, but then the reader comes into every other book before that knowing a lot about the story. I do find Deighton's writing, especially in the books narrated by Bernard Samson, to be very entertaining and I feel like I am spending time with a friend, although a very difficult one.

In closing, here is a link to the page for Berlin Game on The Deighton Dossier site. This site is a wonderful resource with endless delights for a fan of Len Deighton.

Monday, August 13, 2012

M is for Charles McCarry

I discovered the spy novels by Charles McCarry three years ago and read them all in a few months (including the two political thrillers that are only peripherally related). Looking into them again for this post, I want to read them all again.

I am featuring Charles McCarry in the Crime Fiction Alphabet for 2012 for the letter M.  Please visit the post at Mysteries in Paradise to check out other entries for this letter.

Most of the novels written by Charles McCarry are about Paul Christopher, an intelligence agent for the CIA (called "the Outfit" in his books). Some of them go back and forth between events around the World War II years and the 1960's, exploring Christopher's youth and family history. The two books that do not include Paul Christopher are about other members of his family, the Hubbards. McCarry himself was a field agent for the CIA in the late 50's and into the 60's, thus he speaks with some knowledge about spy craft.

These are the books in the series plus the two related books.

With Paul Christopher as the main character:
1. The Miernik Dossier (1973)
2. The Tears of Autumn (1974)
3. The Secret Lovers (1977)
4. The Last Supper (1983)
5. Second Sight (1991)
6. The Old Boys (2004)
7. Christopher's Ghosts (2007)

The Better Angels
Shelley's Heart

I read The Better Angels and Shelley's Heart following Second Sight, before I read Old Boys. I enjoyed all of the books, and for me, it worked well to read the two political thrillers as a part of the series. One novel by McCarry, The Bride of the Wilderness, which I have not read, goes back to the early history of the US and tells about ancestors of Paul Christopher. As described at the Stop, You're Killing Me! site, the spy novels are about "Paul Christopher, an American secret agent and poet, and his family, in an overlapping series jumping backward and forward in time."  I refer you to the Charles McCarry page at that site for the time chronology of the books.

In order to prepare myself for writing this post, I started re-reading the first novel in the series (and the first novel written by McCarry), The Miernik Dossier. When it was published in 1973, it was praised by Eric Ambler ("The most intelligent and enthralling piece of work I have read for a very long time."), among others. It is not my favorite in the series, but it is certainly a unique and entertaining novel.

The story is told entirely through documents, including but not limited to transcripts of conversations and diary entries. With this story-telling device, McCarry tells the story through five different characters. In this novel, Paul Christopher is not as much the focus as in later books.

The Tears of Autumn, the second novel in the series, proposes one possible solution to the John F. Kennedy assassination question. Several other novels in the series cover a large period of time and go back to earlier times in the history of Paul Christopher's family.

McCarry is an author who generates a lot of discussion about genre fiction vs. literary novels and whether the novelist expands beyond the genre. Such discussions always irritate me, although I don't know why, since (almost) all I read is mystery novels anyway. When I do read and enjoy a non-mystery novel, I see (and enjoy) the mystery elements within the story it is telling. And most mysteries I enjoy offer delights beyond the solving of the mystery.   

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Suspect: L. R. Wright

From the description at Goodreads:
In this, L.R. Wright's first mystery novel, we are introduced to RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg; and so begins the highly-acclaimed series featuring Karl and librarian Cassandra Mitchell.
At eighty, George Wilcox hardly expected to crown his life by committing a murder. It had happened so quickly, so easily, so unexpectedly in the sleepy town on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia: a near-perfect crime that wraps Wilcox in a web of guilt, honor, and secrets of the past.
The Suspect won the 1986 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Novel of the year. It was the first Canadian novel to do so.

This book is unusual in that we know from the beginning who committed the murder. Since the reader knows whodunit, the reader is more concerned with how (or if?) the culprit is caught. And, in the case of this book, why did he do it? The novel is set in Sechelt, which is on the Sunshine Coast in British Columbia, Canada.

Some quotes from the book describing the area:
The tempo of life on the Sunshine Coast is markedly slower than that of Vancouver, and its people, for the most part strung out along the shoreline, have a more direct and personal interest in the sea.
The resident police force is  the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, with detachments in Gibsons and Sechelt. There are traffic incidents to deal with, and occasional vandalism, and petty theft, and some drunkenness now and then.
There is very seldom murder.
This review at Petrona provides a map to show where the Sunshine Coast is located.

I found this book to be a very enjoyable read. It is character-driven, and slowly develops the relationships of the main characters. Karl is middle-aged, divorced, and recently settled in a new town. Cassandra meets him through a personal ad in the newspaper. She knows George Wilcox through her work in the library. It gets complicated.

The book has a cozy feel, although I am not counting it as a cozy because it has a policeman as a main character. I have purchased the next two books in the series, and hope to find that they are as good as this one.

I joined the Canadian Book Challenge 6, which began in July of this year, and this was the perfect book to read as my first book for the challenge.

This book also counts as one of my books for the following challenges:
Mt. TBR Challenge,  
Read Your Own Books Challenge,  
Merely Mystery Reading Challenge
Mystery & Suspense Reading Challenge,  
New Author Challenge,  
First in a Series Challenge

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

L is for John Lawton

The Inspector Troy series by John Lawton is one of my favorite crime fiction series. The books are variable, and I enjoyed some much more than others. Overall, however, they provide a compelling picture of England before, during and after World War II. The series covers events in the life of Inspector Frederick Troy (of Russian descent) from roughly the early 1940's up through the early 1960's. The most recent book, A Lily of the Field, starts in Vienna in 1934, but Troy does not appear until the portion of the book that covers the year 1948.

I am featuring John Lawton and his book, A Lily of the Field, in the Crime Fiction Alphabet for 2012 for the letter L.  Please visit the post at Mysteries in Paradise to check out other entries for this letter.

His US publishers, Grove/Atlantic, characterize the Inspector Troy books as a "series of espionage thrillers."  I see them as more a combination of historical fiction, spy fiction, and police procedural. The only element common to all of the books in this series is that they are set around the time period of World War II. All feature Troy as a policeman, but police procedure doesn't alway feature prominently. And not all deal with espionage.

Lawton creates some wonderful secondary characters throughout the series. Some show up in nearly every book... the Polish pathologist, Kolankiewicz, Chief Inspector Jack Wildeve, Larissa Tosca. Some are featured strongly in one or two books: Troy's brother, Rod, who is active in politics; Walter Stilton of Special Branch at Scotland Yard, and his daughter Kitty, who also works for Scotland Yard.

This praise for A Lily of the Field (in a Mike Ripley column at Shotsmag) describes the entire series very well:
An immaculately researched thriller set in pre-war Europe and post-war London which takes in the Nazi Holocaust, Russian espionage and the development of the atomic bomb, but at heart it shows off what Lawton does best, which is to cast a worldly-wise, left-leaning, eye of the foibles of English society. This is a wonderful addition to the Detective Inspector Troy canon (Lawton’s Troy family novels have spanned the period 1930s-1960s though not necessarily in chronological order), and Troy, who has been on the scene for 16 years now, is one of the major characters of British crime fiction; and one of the most unsung.
I love this series because it covers a period in time that I enjoy reading about and want to know more about and the books are so beautifully written. Sometimes, the pacing is quick and I am engrossed in the story throughout, and sometimes the plotting seems chaotic and the pace drags, but the writing is always great. The progression of the books is not in a straight line chronologically. A Lily of the Field is set in the 1930's, and the early 1940's, then picks up with Inspector Troy in 1948. Some earlier books in the series took place in the 1960's. So at any point you may learn something that illuminates something that happened in an earlier book, but later chronologically. Even though the series hops around in time, I still think reading them in order published is the best way to go. Others disagree: See this review of A Lily of the Field at Murder by Type.

One criticism I noticed in several reviews of this series was the proliferation of coincidences, or unlikely relationships. That is probably true, but this aspect did not bother me. Another criticism, which I will admit bothers me, is the heavy use of sexual encounters, and the amorality of the main character. This doesn't happen in every book. The author has responded to such criticisms that his use of sex in the novels is not gratuitous, it is intended specifically to enhance the story, and that Troy is used by women. I can see his points. I think it is important to point out this aspect of these books to anyone interested in the series, although I think the excellent writing, stories, and characterization vastly outweigh any negative aspects.

I recently read the sixth book in the series, Flesh Wounds (US title), and finished the most recent book, A Lily of the Field, on Sunday.

Flesh Wounds, originally published as Blue Rondo in the UK, is set in London of 1959. Troy is older and is being encouraged to retire due to injuries received on the job. A former lover, Kitty Stilton, has returned to London. She is the wife of an American presidential hopeful. Thus private investigator Joey Rork is in town to insure that Kitty behaves while in England. The complex plot involves dismembered bodies and criminal gangs.

This was not one of my favorites in the series, and one of the reasons was the over-the-top sex. But it was a very good plot, and it kept me interested from beginning to end. And I was very interested in the continuing characters.

This review at Crime Scraps describes the book and the setting in much more detail and suggests some possible real-life persons as models for some of the characters.

Like some other books in this series, A Lily of the Field covers a span of years. It starts in 1934, leading up to World War II, covers some events during World War II, and picks up again after the war is over. The first portion of the book is called "Audacity" and features Méret Voytek, a talented young cellist living in Vienna, who is not Jewish but ends up in Auschwitz; her teacher and friend, Viktor Rosen, who ends up interned in England on the Isle of Man; and Dr. Karel Szabo, a Hungarian physicist, who is involved in the development of the atomic bomb.

The second part of the book, "Austerity," is set in 1948 London, and brings in Frederick Troy and his brother Rod, who was also interned on the Isle of Man due to issues with his citizenship. [Coincidentally, London was the host city for the Olympics in 1948. That does not figure much in the story, but it is mentioned.]

This is a longish book, and seems almost like two books, although there are definite links between the two stories. The crime in this book is the murder of a Polish painter, shot on an Underground platform with a very unusual gun.  It doesn't occur until towards the middle, in the second part. As in many of Lawton's books, the resolution of the crime is less important than the overall story and the picture of Britain during these years.

I really liked this book and the story it tells. My two favorite books in the series are A Lily of the Field and Bluffing Mr. Churchill (my review here). I also really enjoyed Second Violin, which I reviewed here.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Mysteries in July and Pick of the Month

My goal this year is to read 52 books ... one book a week. I usually go over that goal, but I have had years where I read less. At this point, I am way ahead of my far. Last month my reading total was down (4 mysteries), the month before I had read 8 mysteries. So I am glad to report that my total has shot back up this month. I read 10 mysteries in all (and one non-fiction book). Some of these books were relatively short (200 pages or less).
  1. Whiskey Sour by J. A. Konrath
  2. With a Bare Bodkin by Cyril Hare 
  3. An English Murder by Cyril Hare
  4. The Sleeping-Car Murders by Sebastien Japrisot 
  5. Flesh Wounds by John Lawton 
  6. Spy Line by Len Deighton
  7. Death of a Russian Priest by Stuart Kaminsky
  8. The Suspect by L. R. Wright 
  9. Under World by Reginald Hill 
  10.  Bullet for a Star by Stuart Kaminsky

The Crime Fiction Pick of the Month meme is hosted at Mysteries in Paradise. Kerrie encourages bloggers to link summary posts for the month, and identify a crime fiction best read of the month. This month picking a favorite is easier.

Two of the books were re-reads. I read all the Cyril Hare books a long time ago. Several were parts of continuing series I would like to complete in the next year or so. It will take me a while to finish the Dalziel and Pascoe series by Reginald Hill and the Inspector Rostnikov series by Stuart Kaminsky. After Flesh Wounds, I have only one more book in the John Lawton series about Inspector Troy, set in the period before, during, and after World War II. I am smack in the middle of the Bernard Samson series by Len Deighton. I definitely want to finish both of those series before the end of this year.

Even though I read several books by favorite authors this month, my favorite mystery this month was a book by an author that was new to me. That book is The Suspect by L. R. Wright.

This book is unusual in that we know from the beginning who committed the murder. Since the reader knows whodunit, the reader is more concerned with how (or if?) the culprit is caught. And, in the case of this book, why did he do it? Coincidentally, I had been looking for an "inverted mystery" for several months (for a challenge I am participating in) and I did not even know I had one in my TBR stacks.

I had this book for a while but it came on my radar recently after reading several very positive reviews, including one at Mysteries in Paradise. It is set in Sechelt, which is on the Sunshine Coast in British Columbia, Canada. I had just joined the Canadian Book Challenge, and this was the perfect book to read as my first book for the challenge. This review provides a map to show where the Sunshine Coast is located.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

K is for Stuart M. Kaminsky

It would be impossible to provide a complete profile of Stuart M. Kaminsky in one post, so I will limit myself and save other tidbits for later posts. I hope to read much more Kaminsky in the next year.

A brief biography that highlights his accomplishments related to mystery writing:  Stuart M. Kaminsky (September 29, 1934 – October 9, 2009) was an American mystery writer and film professor. He is known for several long-running series of mystery novels and other non-fiction titles and stand-alone novels. He received the 1989 Edgar Award for Best Novel for A Cold Red Sunrise, a novel in the Inspector Rostnikov series . He earned six other Edgar nominations, most recently for the 2005 non-fiction book Behind the Mystery: Top Mystery Writers Interviewed.  He was a past president of the Mystery Writers of America and in 2006 received the Grand Master Award from that organization.

Description of the four mystery series he was best known for at the Mysterious Press site:
In 1977, when a planned biography of Charlton Heston fell through, Kaminsky wrote Bullet For A Star, his first Toby Peters novel, beginning a fiction career that would last the rest of his life. Kaminsky penned twenty-four novels starring the detective, whom he described as “the anti-Philip Marlowe.” In 1981’s Death of a Dissident, Kaminsky debuted Moscow police detective Porfiry Rostnikov, whose stories were praised for their accurate depiction of Soviet life. His other two series starred Abe Lieberman, a hardened Chicago Cop, and Lew Fonseca, a process server.

In 2005, I re-introduced myself to Kaminsky's books by reading the first seven books in the Inspector Rostnikov series. I had read several books in the Toby Peters series earlier. Probably in the 1980s, since I do not remember a lot about the books, or which ones I read.

The Inspector Rostnikov series are police procedurals set in Moscow. The first novel in this series, Death of a Dissident, was published in 1981. Until Kaminsky was able to visit Russia in the 1990s, he based the novels entirely on research. I think this is my favorite series by Kaminsky, although I plan to read all of his books eventually. That will be quite an endeavor.

Death of a Russian Priest

In mid-July I read Death of a Russian Priest, the eighth book in the series, published in 1992. As this book opens, the Soviet Union has been dissolved and Inspector Rostnikov still has his job with the Moscow police. It is a time of uncertainty for everyone; Russians are adjusting to the changes, and lines are longer and scarcity of goods is worse. There are two crimes investigated in this book: the murder of a prominent priest in the town of Arkush, and the disappearance of the daughter of a foreign minister in Moscow.

Inspector Rostnikov has a leg injury suffered during military service, which causes him pain and inconvenience in his job. He reads Ed McBain novels. His wife is Jewish, which has caused problems with his job. He has a grown son who is fighting in Afghanistan when the series begins. There are several police colleagues on Rostnikov's team who have recurring roles. Their relationships play a part in each novel.

This series is intriguing because of the picture of life in Russia during this interesting period. The plotting and characterization are well done, although I personally get more involved in the people and how they deal with the problems in their lives (whether they are related to the crime or personal) than the crimes and solutions. 

Bullet for a Star

I just finished reading Bullet for a Star, the first book in the Toby Peters series, published in 1977. The only thing I remembered about the series was that the protagonist is a private investigator and each title is centered around a celebrity. And the books are funny. This particular book features Errol Flynn and is set in 1940 in Hollywood, California.

Toby Peters is a perpetually down-on-his-luck private eye who has previous connections to the Warner Brothers studio. In Bullet for a Star, Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre show up too. This is an intentionally humorous series, and there are often zany characters, many of them recurring.

I enjoyed this book more than I expected too. The book was fun, a good read, and the references to old movies and movie stars and other Hollywood characters were interesting. I do like old movies and, living in California, am familiar with the locations mentioned. Since Kaminsky was a professor of film, and wrote books on film theory and criticism, you can be pretty sure that his movie-related facts are accurate.

The Toby Peters series seems to be the best loved of Kaminsky's series. Here are several overviews that will illustrate the high points:
A review at January Magazine of Now You See It (the last in the series, published in 2004). This review provides a good overview of the series.
A wonderful story by Greg Rucka (at the Mysterious Press site) about his discovery of Kaminsky and the Toby Peters series at a young age. It mentions a long-gone mystery bookstore that I have visited.

Other interesting facts about this author and his books:

What I noticed when seeking information on this author was that each series is set in a very different geographical and cultural setting. As mentioned above, the Inspector Rostnikov series is set in Russia.

The Toby Peters series is a historical mystery series set primarily in Hollywood. Since the books in that series span the years of America's involvement in World War II (from 1940 to 1944) I am especially looking forward to reading them.

The Abe Lieberman series is set in Chicago, where Kaminsky grew up and lived until he moved to Sarasota, Florida. The Volume 15, No. 2, Summer 1999 issue of Mystery Readers Journal had an article written by Kaminsky about Chicago and using it as a setting in his mysteries (scroll down for the article). I have read only the first in this series; I liked it and am seeking more in the series.

The Lew Fonesca series is set in Sarasota, Florida. The Thrilling Detective site describes Fonesca as "unlicensed peeper, bargain basement dick and process server living out of his office overlooking the Dairy Queen." I have not read any of this series, but I have five out of six of the books, so you can see I am confident I will like them.

Kaminsky wrote or contributed to several screenplays, including the screenplay for the movie Once Upon a Time in America. In this interview at the Mystery One site, Kaminsky comments on his role in creating that screenplay. Also one screenplay for the Nero Wolfe Mystery TV series episode, "Immune to Murder" (described here).

This overview of Stuart M. Kaminsky is a part of the  Mysteries in Paradise - Crime Fiction Alphabet!