Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Blackhouse: Peter May

Description from the dust jacket of my edition:
When a grisly murder occurs on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland's Outer Hebrides that bears the hallmarks of the work of a similar killer on the Scottish mainland, Edinburgh detective and native  islander  Fin Macleod is dispatched to investigate, embarking at the same time on a voyage into his own troubled past.
At the beginning of the story, the reader learns two things about Fin Macleod. He has been taking some time away from his job as a police detective in Edinburgh because his son died a few weeks earlier and his relationship with his wife is not very good. His boss insists that he return to work and sends him off to the Isle of Lewis to investigate a murder there, since Fin was an investigating officer on the similar case that occurred in Edinburgh.

Fin is not exactly welcomed when he arrives in the village where he grew up. The DCI in charge, Tom Smith, doesn't want his help or his expertise. His old friends and acquaintances are wary, at best, since he hasn't been back to the island in 20 years.


The story consists primarily of flashbacks to Fin Macleod's childhood intermingled with Fin's experiences on the island as he renews old relationships. I usually like a mystery that is as much about the characters in the book as about the detection of the crime, but in this case it seemed like there was too much of the protagonist's backstory and not enough about the crime. That part of the book seems like an afterthought, although both stories come together at the end.

This was Peter May's goal when writing the book. From an interview at Visit Scotland, May says:
When someone becomes known as a crime writer, publishers and booksellers expect all future books to be in the same genre. The Blackhouse had a crime in it, but as far as I was concerned the crime was nothing more than a vehicle to tell the personal story of Fin Macleod, his life and his upbringing on the island.
The most effective part of this book is the setting and the atmosphere. It is the protagonist's memories of his childhood that provide us with a picture of life on the Isle of Lewis 20-30 years earlier. The story is powerful and well told.

May did not intend for this book to turn into a series, and had no desire to be tied to a lot of books about one character, but he was persuaded by his French publishers to write two more books featuring Fin. Even though I was not entirely satisfied with this book, I will read the next book in the series. I am very interested in how May continues it.

I am also very excited that the Enzo Files, an earlier series by Peter May, has been reissued in trade paperback editions. I have been looking for the first book in that series for years.

This series is hugely popular and if you haven't already read it, you should probably ignore my reservations and give it a try. See these other posts on The Blackhouse. Each of them have more information on the author, his other books, or the setting:



 -----------------------------

Publisher:   SilverOak, 2012 (orig. publ. 2009 in France)
Length:       357 pages
Format:       Hardcover
Series:        Fin Macleod, #1
Setting:       Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides, Scotland
Genre:        Mystery
Source:       I purchased my copy.


Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Burglars Can't Be Choosers: Lawrence Block

The following overview of Lawrence Block's writing was in Marcia Muller's review of After the First Death (1969), first published in 1001 Midnights (1986, ed. Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller).
Lawrence Block is a top-flight professional who has written numerous novels featuring extremely diverse characters and situations. His characterization ranges from the grim depths glimpsed in some of his non-series books and in his series about alcoholic ex-policeman Matthew Scudder, to the lightweight but amusing private eye/writer Chip Harrison, burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr, and spy Evan Tanner. Whether Block is chronicling a deadly search or a playful romp, he is a consummate master of suspense and manages to keep his reader fearing for the safety of — and solidly rooting for — his protagonist until the last page is turned.
The Bernie Rhodenbarr series by Lawrence Block now consists of 11 books. The series started in 1977, although the first book, Burglars Can't Be Choosers, was not intended to be the start of a series. The most recent book was published in 2013. I read some of these books many years ago; they would have been from the first five books which were published between 1977 and 1983.

This post on Burglars Can't Be Choosers is my submission for Past Offences' monthly Crimes of the Century feature, for the year chosen for April, 1977.

Bernie Rhodenbarr is a burglar. He is proud and confident of his ability at his craft. However he is a loner, and his acquaintances and neighbors have no idea how he supports himself. He usually scouts out his own heists, but this time he accepts an assignment from a stranger to break into an apartment and steal a blue leather box. The problem is he can't find the blue box, and while he is searching for it two policemen come into the apartment. But, worst of all, there is a dead man in the bedroom. Bernie successfully eludes the policemen but he then has the problem of not being able to return to his apartment. Not wanting to leave New York, he begins to try to clear his name.

This is another series that I find most appealing for the characters. Bernie tells his story in first person, and he is a very likable character. I don't condone burglary, but he makes you forget that his chosen profession is illegal and harmful. And, of course, he only robs the rich. He has been described as the Robin Hood type, but since his goal is to support himself, I don't see that as a fitting description.

Not only is Bernie charming, but he runs into many interesting people as he endeavors to prove that he is not a murderer. The setting is New York, and I enjoyed this picture of New York in the 1970's. The story is full of coincidences but none of them detracted from my enjoyment of the resolution of this mystery.

Of course, I have several more books in this series, and I look forward to finding out how Bernie's life as an unrepentant burglar progresses (as I remember very little about the books I read earlier).

The paperback reprint edition that I read includes a short essay about how Lawrence Block came to write this first book in the Burglar series. Lawrence Block has another popular series set in New York about Matt Scudder, an ex-cop who becomes an unlicensed private investigator. That one also started in the 1970s and continued for many years, the last book having been published in 2011. The author has also edited two anthologies of short stories set in New York, Manhattan Noir and Manhattan Noir 2: The Classics.


 -----------------------------

Publisher:  Onyx, 1995. Orig. pub. 1977.
Length:      283 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       Bernie Rhodenbarr, #1
Setting:      New York City
Genre:       Mystery
Source:     I purchased my copy. 

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Death on the Move: Bill Crider

Dan Rhodes is the Sheriff of Blacklin County, Texas. In this role, he is kept busy dealing with the smaller problems in his jurisdiction, and sometimes he even has to deal with more serious crimes like murder. In Death on the Move, jewelry is disappearing off bodies prepared for burial at the funeral home in Clearview. Rhodes is well-acquainted with the funeral director, Clyde Ballinger, whose hobby is collecting old paperback books, mostly westerns and mysteries. Then one of his deputies, Ruth Grady, calls his attention to a possible problem of thefts at some homes built around a lake. When they go to investigate, they find several homes that have been totally emptied of furniture and appliances. The homes are mostly lived in only on the weekends, leaving plenty of time for thieves to come in and empty them out. In the second home they look at, a more serious situation is discovered; a dead body is found stuffed in a closet.
"It wasn't really a mummy, of course, though Rhodes's first thought had been of Boris Karloff chasing after Zita Johann. This was even worse–a real human being, or what had once been a human being, completely wrapped up in silver duct tape."
Thus the sheriff must find out who is robbing the homes of their contents, and who killed the woman and wrapped her up like a mummy, and if the crimes are connected.


This series comes close to being in the cozy genre, the difference being that the protagonist is a sheriff and he is supposed to be looking into the crime and he can ask questions directly because it is his job. And he has access to other police departments and more tools that can actually help him find the criminals.

However, in Dan Rhodes' case, he is allergic to the idea of using computers, or possibly just afraid of them. Hack Jensen, the elderly dispatcher at the county jail, keeps hinting that access to a computer would make his work go better, but Rhodes is in no hurry to modernize their office. Rhodes' detection is based more on intuition and knowledge of people than the use of forensics or databases.

This is a quiet story. There is not a lots of action involved in the investigation, but the story moves along at a nice pace. Rhodes' relationship with Ivy, his fiancé, inches forward. I like Ivy; she is forthright without being pushy. She accepts Rhodes for what is he. And she helps out here and there in investigations, in a realistic way.

There are so many touches I love in this fourth book in the Sheriff Dan Rhodes series. Speedo, the dog, was orphaned in Shotgun Saturday Night, the second book, and Rhodes took him in. Rhodes loves old movies and watches the Million Dollar Movie at lunch time. This book is chock full of references to vintage paperback novels and old movies, even more than previous books in the series. Crider gives the reader an interesting picture of small-town life in Texas and the story is told with low-key humor.

This post was written for the Small-town Sheriffs / Cops theme at Patti Abbott's Friday's Forgotten Books meme for April 15th.

Below is a list of the three earlier books in the series with links to my reviews...

1. Too Late to Die (1986)
2. Shotgun Saturday Night (1987)
3. Cursed to Death (1988)

Please check out Curtis Evans' review of A Mammoth Murder, the thirteenth book in the series, which he calls "a southern country cozy." Curtis blogs at The Passing Tramp.


 -----------------------------

Publisher:   Ivy Books, 1990 (orig. pub. 1989)
Length:      184 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       Sheriff Dan Rhodes #4
Setting:      Texas
Genre:        Police Procedural
Source:      I purchased my copy.


Wednesday, April 5, 2017

All the Lonely People: Martin Edwards

All the Lonely People was Martin Edward's debut crime novel, set in Liverpool and published in 1991. All the titles in the series of eight books are taken from hit songs in the 1960s.

Harry Devlin is a lawyer whose estranged wife, Liz, returns to his apartment for a short stay. She needs a place to stay for a few days because she is afraid of the man she has been living with for two years. She hints at a new lover but won't name him. Later she is found dead in an alley and Harry is the obvious suspect.

Harry is still besotted with Liz. When she shows up in his apartment, he has brief fantasies of getting back with her.
He drank in the sight of her. The black hair—in the past never less than shoulder-length—was now cut fashionably short . Nothing else about her had changed:  not the lavish use of mascara, nor the mischief lurking in her dark green eyes. All she wore was a pair of Levis and a tee shirt of his that she must have found in the bedroom. She had tossed her jersey and boots on to the floor. On the table by her side stood a tumbler and a half-empty bottle of Johnnie Walker.
This book is a great introduction to Harry Devlin. The reader follows along as he searches for the truth behind his wife's death and discovers some unsavory facts about her. His investigations take him into the seedier neighborhoods in Liverpool. Harry may not be the best person to follow up on Liz's murder; he clearly wants to prove that the murderer is the man who Liz left him for, Mick Coghlan. Along the way he does come up with other suspects but is loath to let go of his suspicions of Coghlan.

The story has good pacing, with a straightforward plot. I loved getting to know Harry, who isn't perfect, but is a nice guy with no overwhelming flaws. Harry's partner Jim Crusoe is another well developed character, who cares for Harry and has never been susceptible to Liz's charms. I did not come close to guessing who the culprit was and the ending surprised me. I look forward to reading more books about this character.

See more reviews at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel and Chess, Comics, Crosswords, Books, Music, Cinema

Check out Patti Abbott's Friday's Forgotten Books post at Pattinase this Friday. Martin Edwards is definitely not a forgotten author, but he is better known for his latest series set in the Lake District. He has also  edited many anthologies of short stories, both by Golden Age authors and contemporary authors and written a notable mystery reference book, The Golden Age of Murder, which has won many awards.

 -----------------------------

Publisher:  Arcturus Publishing, 2012 (orig. publ. 1991)
Length:     255 pages
Format:    Trade paperback
Series:     Harry Devlin #1
Setting:    UK
Genre:     Mystery
Source:    I purchased my copy


Sunday, April 2, 2017

Crime Fiction Reading in March 2017

March was a good reading month and I stuck to crime fiction the entire month. So without further ado I will list the books I read...

Fear Itself by Andrew Rosenheim
This is the first in a series of historical mysteries set in the US just before and during World War II, starring Jimmy Nessheim, a German-American FBI agent. My review is here.
Over My Dead Body by Rex Stout
This is the 7th book in the Nero Wolfe series, published in 1939. I am rereading the series in order at least until I get to The Silent Speaker, book 11 in the series. And I will probably continue past there.  I like this book because it features Nero Wolfe's long-lost adopted daughter, who is visiting the US and needs his help. 

Dancers in Mourning by Margey Allingham
The Albert Campion books are another series I am rereading in order. In this case, I am aiming to get to Tiger in the Smoke (1942). Dancers in Mourning is the 8th book, published in 1937, and I read it for the Crimes of the Century meme at Past Offences. My review is here.
The Rainbird Pattern by Victor Canning
The Rainbird Pattern (1972) is the 2nd book in a loose series called the Birdcage books. They all revolve around a covert security group in the UK, a branch of the Ministry of Defense. In this case we have two plots, one about the search for an heir to a fortune and the other dealing with a kidnapping plot, which converge at the end. The book was adapted as a film, Family Plot, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The film treatment is very different from the book. My post on the first Birdcage book, Firecrest, is here.


The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum
The Bourne Identity, published in 1980, was the first of three novels about Jason Bourne written by Robert Ludlum. (The series was continued by Eric Lustbader, starting in 2004.) My review is here.

The Hunter by Richard Stark
Richard Stark is a pseudonym used by Donald E. Westlake for two of his series, the Parker series and the Alan Grofield series. This book is the first in the Parker series, and it is a revenge novel. Parker has been double-crossed and left for dead and now he is tracking down the people who betrayed him. 

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Alamut Ambush: Anthony Price

Summary at Goodreads:
A brilliant young electronics expert is killed by a car bomb seemingly meant for the head of the Foreign Office's Middle-Eastern Section. Intelligence officer Hugh Roskill is sent by David Audley on an investigation that takes him from London clubland to the Hampshire countryside, and deep into the complexities of Middle Eastern politics, to find the answer to two questions: who was the real target of the bomb? And what is Alamut? Against the backdrop of the Arab-Israeli conflict in the period before the Camp David Accords, Dr Audley and Colonel Butler are confronted with an assassin capable of turning the Middle Eastern conflict into Armageddon.

This series is perfect for me; all of the 19 books were written before the end of the cold war and are about an intelligence organization functioning at that time. This is the 2nd one that I have read, and I enjoyed it just as much as the first one. Although the two books are different, they have many of the same characteristics. These are quiet spy novels, interesting, but not much action. The plot unfolds gradually and the characters, their interactions and growth are the best part of the book.

These books are referred to as the Dr David Audley/Colonel Jack Butler series, and I presume that means that those two characters show up in all or most of the 19 novels. The stories all seem to center around Audley, but there are other secondary characters who feature prominently in the series.

In The Alamut Ambush, the point of view character is Hugh Roskill, a young RAF Squadron Leader that has been assigned to the intelligence group. Hugh is involved deeply in this case because he knew the young man who was killed and is close to his family. In order to find out why the electronics expert was killed Hugh visits the family. As in the first story, there is a romance, and I found it entirely acceptable.

More than one review says that this is not one of the best novels in the series. If that is so, I have a lot to look forward to, because I like this story a lot. It will be very interesting to see what book 3 brings.

I first read about Anthony Price and this series of espionage novels at Nick Jones' blog, Existential Ennui. See his review of The Alamut Ambush here

My review of the first book in the series, The Labyrinth Makers, is here.

 -----------------------------

Publisher:  Mysterious Press, 1986. Orig. pub. 1971.
Length:      219 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      David Audley / Jack Butler #2
Setting:     UK
Genre:      Spy fiction
Source:     I purchased my copy. 

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Bourne Identity: Robert Ludlum

Most people reading this will have some familiarity with the character in this book, Jason Bourne, due to the 2002 movie starring Matt Damon, based on The Bourne Identity, and subsequent movies featuring Bourne.

As this book starts, a man has been fished out of the Mediterranean Sea. He is alive but just barely. The fishermen who saved his life bring him to a French island, where he is cared for by Dr. Geoffrey Washburn. Washburn discovers that the man he is tending has had surgery to change his appearance, and has a microchip surgically implanted in his hip. He pieces together enough information to help the man, who has amnesia from head trauma, start searching for who he is and why he ended up nearly dead in the sea. Washburn also helps him get to Zurich, the first step of his journey.

As the story progresses, Bourne conveniently can remember many of the facts from his past without remembering who he is or what has happened to him. He can use fighting skills, remember places (although only hazily) and recognize a person without knowing where the person fits into his life. I don't know if this happens in real-life amnesia or not.

As Bourne is forced to interact with those who want to capture him or kill him, his instinct and past knowledge of weapons and self-defense lead to some violent and cruel behavior on his part. Based on this behavior and flashes of returning memories, he makes the assumption that he was a pretty loathsome character, no matter what group it is in service of.

I prefer to provide as little about the plot as possible and in the case of this type of book, that is even more important. If you want more information in that area there are many sources online, including some excellent reviews and sites devoted to the series.

I had owned this book for years, and I don't know why I put off reading such a well-known book in the spy fiction genre. So, after waiting so long to read this book, what did I think of it? Overall, I enjoyed reading the book. It falls more in the action thriller area than most spy fiction I enjoy, and it did require me to suspend disbelief quite a bit. Yet, for the most part, the journey Bourne takes to learn his real identity makes sense. I don't have any complaints about this book other than the length and some repetitiveness. The same phrases repeated over and over by the main characters, the same interactions between the characters occurring a few too many times. Yet that isn't unrealistic, just irritating to read.

Ludlum keeps the story moving. Most chapters end with a cliff hanger and this ploy was very successful at keeping me in the story. It took me several days to read the book (it was 535 pages) but there were many times I read too late into the evening, each chapter pulling me into the next one.

I am not a fan of romances in mystery fiction, and this book does have that element. However, the woman that gets involved with Jason, Marie St. Claire, does serve a purpose in the plot and is not just there to add spice to the story. She is a strong female character and plays a significant role in his quest to find out who he is. With her background as a economist who works for the Canadian government, she can provide information on politics and finance that he does not have in his current circumstances. She is also not afraid to risk her life to help him out, and actively seeks to influence important people to come to his aid. This type of portrayal is admirable in any novel but  especially in spy fiction written in 1980.

After finishing the book, I learned that Bourne's nemesis in the book is a real person, Ilyich Ramírez Sánchez. The newspaper articles in the Preface to the book are actually published articles and press releases from 1975.

The Bourne Identity was the first of three Bourne novels written by Robert Ludlum. It was published in 1980 and the next two novels came out in 1986 and 1990. Starting in 2004 with The Bourne Legacy, Eric Lustbader continued the series. There are now a total of 13 books in the series.

I won't comment in detail on the 2002 movie here. I have watched the movie 2 or 3 times, and enjoyed it every time I watched it, but the movie is only loosely based on the book.

I like this assessment of some differences between the book and the movie at double o section:
Suffice it to say, the truth of Bourne’s identity in the book is far more interesting, more rewarding and more morally complex than in the movies, and it’s a shame that the films didn’t follow Ludlum’s template. And the secretive Treadstone program of Ludlum’s covert world is infinitely more fascinating (and possibly disturbing) than the mere super- soldier factory it's presented as in the films.

 -----------------------------

Publisher:   Bantam Books, 2002 (orig. publ. 1980)
Length:       535 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       Jason Bourne, #1
Setting:      Zurich, Paris, US
Genre:       Espionage fiction
Source:      I purchased this book.



Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Dancers in Mourning: Margery Allingham


Thus far in my rereading of the Albert Campion series (Death of a Ghost and Flowers for the Judge), I have found the books to have fantastical plots and weird characters. This story was less fantastical but the number of extremely unusual, self-absorbed characters made up for it. The story centers around the star of a musical review (Jimmy Sutane) who has been targeted by a malicious prankster. Campion has been brought in to help him out with this problem. Many of the cast have gone to his country house for the weekend and Campion is invited to join them on Sunday. By the end of that day a woman has died, run over by a car driven by Jimmy Sutane. Although there is no convincing evidence, Campion suspects it may be murder.

Campion hardly detects at all in this story. Early on, he falls for Jimmy Sutane's wife, Linda, and thus when the family is presented with a murder in its midst, he prefers to stay out of it, because his detecting may end up causing her pain. This seems a bit too melodramatic for me, but otherwise the story would have been over much sooner, so that device plays the role of extending the plot. Almost to the end, Campion is so stuck in the morass of his problems that he misses what really happened. I had no suspicions of who the culprit must be, although I think I might have had I paid more attention.

I did not like most of the characters because they were unforgivably selfish and thoughtless. The characters are either actors or so immersed in the theatrical production that they ignore everything else. The victim, Chloe Pye, was a nuisance and unpopular, and most of them as just as glad she is gone. Jimmy and Linda don't have much time to spend with their six-year-old daughter, Sarah, who leads a very lonely life.


That all sounds like I did not like this novel, but I did. I am under Allingham's spell, and even a lesser effort is fun for me. The plot dragged in spots, and went on too long, but there were bits of it that I loved. Uncle William, the author of the memoir that the musical review is based on, is an old friend of Campion's and one of the few likable characters. His presence injected some humor into the proceedings. When the Sutane's butler quits after a disastrous party, Campion's manservant Lugg is dragooned into acting as butler for as long as needed. He and the sweet Sarah Sutane become fast friends; he teaches her card tricks and how to pick locks.

I have a lovely hardback edition of Dancers in Mourning with map endpapers (no dust jacket though). Years ago I purchased the same edition but with the endpapers covers with stamps and writing, so I was happy to find a much better copy recently. My paperback edition is a TV series tie-in edition.

This is my submission for the book of 1937 for the Crimes of the Century meme for this month, hosted by Rich at Past Offences. This post is also submitted for the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt in the "Hat" category.

-----------------------------

Publisher:  Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1937.
Length:      336 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Series:       Albert Campion
Setting:      UK
Genre:       Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copies.


Sunday, March 19, 2017

Fear Itself: Andrew Rosenheim


From the publisher's website:
Set in the tense and uncertain years before the Second World War, when America was still largely conflicted about entering the war on either side, Andrew Rosenheim’s thriller Fear Itself offers a rich depiction of history as it was—and as it might have been. Jimmy Nessheim, a young Special Agent in the fledgling FBI, is assigned to infiltrate a new German–American organization known as the Bund. Ardently pro-Nazi, the Bund is conspiring to sabotage American efforts against Adolf Hitler. But as Nessheim’s investigation takes him into the very heart of the Bund, it becomes increasingly clear that something far more sinister is at work, something that seems to lead directly to the White House. Drawn into the center of Washington’s high society, Nessheim finds himself caught up in a web of political intrigue and secret lives. But as he moves closer to the truth, an even more lethal plot emerges, one that could rewrite history.
My favorite character in this book is Jimmy's boss, Harry Guttman, a Special Agent who reports to Clyde Tolson, Associate Director of the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover. Guttman is 44 years old, and has an invalid wife who requires a lot of care; he has a caregiver who comes in during the day but he takes care of her needs the rest of the time. He has concerns about the German American Bund group and wants to send in an undercover agent, but the mission is not approved. Nessheim is not aware  that his undercover assignment is counter to Hoover's instructions.

The undercover assignment is only one part of a very complicated plot. This book begins in 1936 and covers the years up to the middle of 1940. It is set primarily in various locations in the US but occasionally in Germany or Austria. Unfortunately the complexity weighs the story down, and the pacing is uneven.


The author includes real-life figures in addition to Hoover and Tolson: Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lucy Mercer Rutherford. I have mixed feelings about that in any book; sometimes using prominent real-life characters is distracting to me. I focus too much on those characters and how they fit in. In this case it did not bother me and the author handled it well.

I enjoyed learning more about these years in the US. I was hardly aware of the existence of the German American Bund organization. The characters in the book allow the author to address the prejudices of both US citizens and Germans at this time. Nessheim's family background is German-American; Guttman is Jewish and a Polish-American. A German double agent is homosexual and has a relationship with a black man. All of this is handled well, matter-of-factly.

In summary, this was a good book but it could have been much better. I liked all the detail about the historical period. I haven't read many books with a World War II focus set in the United States. The book gives a picture of the lack of enthusiasm for entering a war that was happening so far away. The negative aspects were the inconsistent pacing and a lack of depth in most of the characters. I liked the main characters, Guttman and Nessheim, but even so I did not find their story compelling.

In an interview at Publisher's Weekly, the author explains his themes and goals in writing the book.
It came out of an interest in the under-recognized Germanness of so much of American society; also a “what if” interest about what would have happened had FDR not run for a third term.
Andrew Rosenheim grew up in the US. He went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar in 1977 and has lived there ever since. He continued this series for two more books: The Informant (2013), aka The Little Tokyo Informant, and The Accidental Agent (2016).


 -----------------------------

Publisher:   Overlook Press, 2012 (orig. publ. 2011)
Length:       420 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Series:       Jimmy Nessheim, #1
Setting:      US
Genre:       Historical Mystery
Source:      I purchased this book.


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Deal Breaker: Harlan Coben

In this first book in the Myron Bolitar series, sports agent Myron Bolitar is about to get a big break when his client Christian Steele, a rookie quarterback, is offered a deal to sign for the Titans football team. Unfortunately for both of them, a tragedy from Christian's past comes back to haunt him. Christian's girlfriend from college has been missing for 18 months; there have been rumors that he is responsible. Now Christian receives a magazine in the mail with a picture of Kathy in it. To complicate things further, the girlfriend, Kathy Culver, is the younger sister of Myron's ex-girlfried, Jessica. The Culver family has recently suffered an additional tragedy; Adam Culver, the girls' father, was killed in a robbery attempt. Myron tries to determine if Kathy is still alive or if this is some malicious hoax.

The book was very readable; it held my interest until the very end. Mainly what I want when I read a mystery novel is to be entertained and enjoy the story. This book provided that. I had expected the book to be closer to a cozy mystery than the fast-paced, suspense-filled novel that it is.

I liked the characters, even though some of them were over the top. Myron works with Esperanza, his business associate, and Windsor Horne Lockwood III (Win), his best friend, who also rents his office space to him. Myron is sort of normal; these other two characters are over the top. Esperanza was formerly a female wrestler. Win is often described as a sociopath. Win and Molitar met first in college, then worked for the FBI as undercover agents. Jessica, Myron's old girlfriend, is featured a lot. Much of the story is told through her viewpoint, as she looks for clues to what has happened to her sister.

I did have some quibbles. Myron has way too much personal involvement in this case. This sort of makes sense in a amateur sleuth novel, but is not my favorite story line. There is a lot of humor, and I think we are not supposed to take it all too seriously, yet the subject matter is serious.

Overall, however, this was a fun read. Will I return to this series? I am almost always interested in checking out more books in a series, if the subject matter or the characters interest me. In this case I do wonder what happens to all the continuing characters, and I imagine that the remaining books will be just compelling to read as the first one. On the other hand, I have plenty of other books on hand to read. So maybe yes, maybe no. I would love to hear if others have loved or hated this series, or even felt neutral about it.

Harlan Coben wrote seven Myron Bolitar novels, and then wrote a very successful standalone novel, Tell No One. At that point, he wrote four more standalone novels before returning to the Bolitar series in 2006. Since that time he has gone back and forth between the series and standalone novels. In 2011, he started a series for young adults starring Mickey Bolitar, Myron's nephew.

 -----------------------------

Publisher:   Delacorte Press, 2006 (orig. publ. 1995)
Length:       339 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Series:       Myron Bolitar, #1
Setting:      US
Genre:       Mystery
Source:      I purchased this book.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Last Rights: Barbara Nadel

Last Rights is the first book in a series featuring Francis Hancock, an undertaker living in the East End of London. Francis is mixed race, the child of a white man and an Indian mother. His grandfather and his father before him had been undertaker's, and Francis took over the business when his father died. He has horrible memories of fighting in the first World War, and has had psychological problems since that time.

The story is set in 1940, during the Blitz. During the air raids, Francis cannot bear to stay in shelters. During one of the raids, he runs into a man who complains of being stabbed by a woman, but there is no visible wound or blood. Later the body of the same man turns up on his undertaker's table, and Francis sees the evidence of a wound that is not the  result of the bombing. The police would just as soon brush it under the table, with all the problems they have at this time, but they end up looking into the death. As a result, a person is charged, but Francis believes that she is innocent. The majority of the story is about his quest to find out the truth.

It is the historical setting and the picture of how ordinary people's lives were affected by the Blitz that I enjoyed the most about this book. Barbara Nadel was born in the East End. In an interview at Crime Beat she states that her grandfather, a World War One veteran who suffered from shellshock,  experienced many of the problems that her protagonist did.

Nadel also notes in an interview at Matt Rees's blog:
My father experienced the Blitz when he was a child and although the Hancock books do tell of the heroism of that time, they also aim to tell it like it was too. Francis Hancock’s world is therefore one of privation, dirt, anxiety and sometimes madness.
As much as I liked the historical setting, I did have some problems with the book. I did not warm up to the characters in Last Rights. The story is told in first person by Francis. Although he is an interesting character, I did not get involved with his story. I think the characters portrayed were realistic and probably typical of people who lived at the time in that area of London; yet, I did not grow to care about them as the story progressed. I also found the mystery plot to be overly complex, drawn out, and not always believable.

As a summary I would say this is a very good depiction of London during the Blitz, and it also included insights into the issues in the poorer areas of London and the racial and ethnic prejudices which were common at that time. The setting and how well it was portrayed was the primary attraction for me; I am glad I read the book, regardless of my criticisms.

Reading this book prompted me to start reading The Blitz: The British Under Attack by Juliet Gardiner. I read Wartime Britain 1939-1945 by the same author (review here), and the three chapters on the Blitz were the hardest to read in that book.

Barbara Nadel's first series, which is still ongoing, is about Çetin İkmen, a chain-smoking and hard-drinking detective on the Istanbul police force. A third series began in 2012; the books are set in present day London, and feature a Private Investigator, Lee Arnold, and his assistant, Mumtaz Hakim.


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Publisher:  Headline, 2006. Orig. pub. 2005.
Length:     333 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Francis Hancock, #1
Setting:     UK, London
Genre:       Mystery
Source:     I purchased my copy. 

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

A Lonely Place to Die: Wessel Ebersohn

A Lonely Place to Die by Wessel Ebersohn was the first book in a series featuring Yudel Gordon, a Jewish psychologist employed by the Department of Prisons in Pretoria, South Africa. Published in 1979, it provides a disturbing picture of the racial tensions in South Africa at that time.


Yudel loves his work, even though he is often at odds with his boss. Because he is interested in "the intricacies of the criminal mind," Yudel sometimes ends up exploring issues beyond the guidelines of his job, and actually seeking to solve the crime itself.

In this case, Freek Jordaan, a friend who works in Pretoria CID, asks Yudel to evaluate whether a prisoner is mentally fit to stand trial. Muskiet Lesoro, a black man, has been accused of poisoning the son of a wealthy man, a deputy minister of Pensions and Welfare. In Yudel's opinion, the prisoner is insane, not fit to be tried; Yudel is also sure that this prisoner could not have killed a man by poisoning him. He wants to find out more about the crime, so he persuades his friend to support his visit to the Middlespruit area to investigate further. That area has had several racially-motivated incidents recently, and Yudel is not exactly welcomed by the police there.

The content of the book is frightening; the ability of people to abuse others just because of race or religion is horrifying. The story is very well written, and the characters are realistically portrayed. Even secondary characters are fleshed out. Yudel is a fascinating man, brave and acting foolishly rash at times, but caring very much about people. He deals with everyone calmly and respectfully at all times.

Having written several novels that were anti-apartheid, Ebersohn "was repeatedly harassed by the police, his books were later banned, and for a time he was forced into hiding. " See more about this author at the Mystery Scene website.

Ebersohn has published seven novels that feature Yudel, written over a wide span of years:
1. A Lonely Place to Die (1979)
2. Divide the Night (1981)
3. Closed Circle (1990)
4. The October Killings (2011)
5. Those Who Love Night (2012)
6. The Top Prisoner of C-Max (2012)
7. A League of Geniuses (2016)
If you are looking for a mystery novel that deals with social issues, I highly recommend this book. Unfortunately it is not in print, so if you cannot locate a used copy, a library book may be the best bet.

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Publisher:  Vintage Books, 1980. Orig. pub. 1979.
Length:     269 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Yudel Gordon
Setting:    South Aftica
Genre:      Mystery
Source:    I purchased my copy. 



Sunday, March 5, 2017

Reading in February 2017

February was an unusual reading month for me. I committed to read mostly short stories all month. I knew I would read a book for the Crimes of the Century meme at Past Offences and I did, and I finished a novel on February 1st that I had started in January. I also completed two books of short stories. In February I read nearly 60 stories. (My lists of stories are here and here.) Some were very short, most were average length. I enjoyed my month of reading short stories immensely.

One book of short stories read and completed in February was Miniatures by John Scalzi. As the title indicates, it is a book of very short stories, most of which are humorous science fiction. The book collects Scalzi's short fiction from 1998 to 2016. A few of the pieces are published for the first time in this book.  As with any book of short stories there are stories that appealed to me and others that did not. Some of the humor was clever; others just seemed to be trying too hard. I liked the earlier stories better than the more recent ones. Overall, my opinion is that Scalzi is much better at longer works of fiction.

If you are interested in a different opinion, see this review of the audio book at the Amazing Stories website.


Crime fiction books that I read in February:

Last Rights by Barbara Nadel
The protagonist is an undertaker who has psychological problems from his participation in World War II. The story is set in London during the Blitz, and the author does a splendid job of portraying that time. I was less taken with the characters and the plotting.
Laura by Vera Caspary
This was the novel I read for the Crimes of the Century meme; the year was 1943. Check out the other books (and films) of 1943 at this link
This is another book where the film is much better known than the book. There are differences between book and movie, but basically the story is the same. 
From my post: "Although I had never seen the movie based on the book, I thought I knew the story, and assumed the story was spoiled for me. That was a mistake; even if I did know one or two main points of the story, there was much there to surprise me and I loved the way the story was told. Laura is a wonderful read and not to be missed."
Game Without Rules by Michael Gilbert
This book of stories about two middle-aged spies was wonderful. I loved every story. The book was published in 1967; the stories had been published in Argosy between 1962 and 1967. 
The protagonists only show up in two books of short stories and I am now reading the second set of stories, titled Mr Calder & Mr Behrens.

Status of Challenges and Goals


This year I joined more challenges. This can be problematic in being able to read spontaneously, especially as I don't read a huge amount of books in a year. But I will see how it goes. All of the challenges I have joined are focused on the type of books I want to read. I also have some personal goals but I seem to move on those very slowly.

This month I will just list the challenges...




Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Flowers for the Judge: Margery Allingham


From the Felony & Mayhem website:
The Barnabas publishing dynasty is no stranger to mystery; after all, the founder’s nephew is legendary for having disappeared in broad daylight. Yet the discovery of one of the Barnabas cousins, dead for some days inside a locked basement, throws the entire clan in disarray. As police suspicions settle on a member of the family, the Barnabas cousins have no choice but to ask Albert Campion to step in and salvage their reputation.
After Christie, Margery Allingham is my favorite of the queens of Golden Age mystery writers. (In fact, I might even say that Christie and Allingham are equal in my estimation. It is hard to draw a comparison since their work is very different and Christie wrote so many more books.) The point is, in my recent rereading of Allingham's mysteries, I find myself enchanted with her writing.

Margery Allingham's plots are sometimes fantastical; there are weird, eccentric characters, who seem to be in the book for no reason. In this book, there were moments when the plot seemed to slow to a standstill, and I was wanting something to happen... or at least something I understood. But in the end all is explained, the weird people and occurrences make sense.

There is a romance, and usually I am allergic to romances in a book. But in this case, it is not an additional subplot, it is a major part of the plot. I also like the way that the romance is portrayed, telling us a lot about the time, that the two lovers cannot just go off and do what they want, but are constrained by the attitudes of the time.

I don't want to imply that I loved this book without reservation. There is a trial and the book does spend a lot of time at the trial. It was interesting, and important points were made, but I did find that part of the book tedious.

Overall, this book is very enjoyable and illustrates all that I love about Allingham. She has a beautiful way of telling a story and creating interesting characters. Albert Campion is a wonderful character, of course, but there is also Albert's manservant, Magersfontein Lugg, a former burglar who has done prison time and has criminal contacts. In this book, Ritchie, one of the cousins who is relegated to a small role in the company, really shines.

See the interesting insights in Moira's post at Clothes in Books.

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Publisher:  Bantam, 1984. Orig. pub. 1936.
Length:     241 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Albert Campion
Setting:    UK, mostly London
Genre:      Mystery
Source:    I purchased my copy. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

More Short Stories in February

Here is a summary to conclude my short story reading in February, inspired by a suggestion from Richard Robinson at Tip the Wink. Since my last update on February 18, my short story reading has slowed down but I still got quite a few read before the end of the month.

Almost as soon as I finished Michael Gilbert’s Game Without Rules, consisting of eleven stories about two middle-aged spies, I purchased the second book, titled simply Mr Calder and Mr Behrens. I thought I would finish that book before the end of the month too, but I decided to slow down and savor the stories, as there won’t be more when I finish this book. I will be rereading them later I am sure.

The stories I have read so far are:
  1. "The Twilight of the Gods"
  2. "Emergency Exit"
  3. "One-to-Ten"

I finished up all the stories in Miniatures by John Scalzi. The remaining stories were all very short and very silly. I mainly bought the book because it was illustrated. Some of the earlier stories in the book I enjoyed, these later ones not so much. But I am still a fan of John Scalzi, his novels are just fine.

The stories I read are:
  1. "To Sue the World"
  2. "How I Keep Myself Amused on Long Flights: A Twitter Tale"
  3. "How I Keep Myself Amused on Long Flights: Part II: The Gremlining"
  4. "Life on Earth: Human-Alien Relations"
  5. "Morning Announcements at the Lucas Interspecies School for Troubled Youth"
  6. "Your Smart Appliances Talk About You Behind Your Back"
  7. "The AI are Absolutely Positively Without A Doubt Not Here to End Humanity. Honest."
  8. "Important Holidays on Gronghu"
  9. "Cute Adorable Extortionists"
  10. "Penelope" (poem written in 1991)

Mattaponi Queen is a book of short stories by Belle Boggs, set in Virginia and about life on and around the Mattaponi Indian Reservation. The book is described as a collection of linked stories, but I have not gotten far enough along to notice that yet. I have read the first three stories and liked them all. And what a gorgeous cover!

I read:
  1. “Deer Season”
  2. “Good News for a Hard Time”
  3. “Imperial Chrysanthemum”
I had forgotten how much of Southern culture revolves around hunting (possibly because I grew up in a big city). "Deer Season" was an interesting look at that.


This month I got a copy of Mississippi Noir (ed. Tom Franklin) especially because Megan Abbott's Edgar-nominated short story is in that book, plus the added bonus that I grew up in Alabama, and I have cousins in Mississippi, and visited them and their parents in a small town in Mississippi (Batesville) during my childhood.

All these stories are from the section titled Wayward Youth:
  1. "Uphill" by Mary Miller
  2. "Boy and Girl Games Like Coupling" by Jamie Paige
  3. "Oxford Girl" by Megan Abbott
  4. "Digits" by Michael Kardos
The story by Megan Abbott was very, very good, about a pair of lovers in college, told from both of their points of view. And (another bonus), the setting of the story is set in Oxford, MS, but the female protagonist is from Batesville, which I did not know beforehand.



I also recently found a copy of New Orleans Noir: The Classics, edited by Julie Smith.

I read six stories from that book:
  1. "Rich" by Ellen Gilchrist
  2. "Spats" by Valerie Martin
  3. "The Man With Moon Hands" by O'Neil De Noux
  4. "Rose" by John Biguenet
  5. "Mussolini and the Axeman's Jazz" by Poppy Z. Brite
  6. "GDMFSOB" by Nevada Barr

All were good stories, and very, very noir. I have been curious about O'Neil De Noux, and I was very pleased with his story. "GDMFSOB" was the first thing I have every read by Nevada Barr and it was not at all what I expected.


Saturday, February 25, 2017

Five Years of Blogging

Today I am celebrating the fifth anniversary of my first blog post.

In the last year I have blogged less but enjoyed it just as much as ever. I am basing this mainly on numbers of posts; my average number of posts on the blog in 2016 was 8 a month. In 2015 I posted on the average 11 posts a month. I have noticed that my posts are longer now, more verbose, even though one of my goals is to cut down on the length of the posts. But I will continue blogging as long as I enjoy writing up my thoughts on the books, along with including some background on the authors.

What do I like best about blogging?

  • The community of book bloggers. It is wonderful to be able to learn from others who share my love for books and reading. 
  • The process of organizing and writing down my thoughts about the books I read. 
  • Reminders of authors I need to check out or get reacquainted with.
  • Discovering new authors. I thought I knew a lot about older mystery novels (pre-1960's) before I started blogging, but I am constantly amazed at how much more there is to learn.

Two vintage authors that I just read about recently were Christopher Bush (at Vintage Pop Fictions) and Roy Vickers, specifically The Department of Dead Ends (at Tip the Wink).

And I will end with some lovely books covers of books I hope to read this year.

                                      Reviewed at The Thrilling Detective.

                                                  Reviewed at Clothes in Books.


                                                 Reviewed at The Dusty Bookcase.


                                      In the Spotlight at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist...