Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Dangerous Davies: The Last Detective by Leslie Thomas


This is a strange book about a strange policeman, but in the end I liked it very much. I was motivated to read the book because I was about to begin watching the TV series based on the Dangerous Davies books. Serendipitously,  I ran into the book at my local independent bookstore at just the right time.

This is the first chapter of the book:
This is the story of a man who became deeply concerned with the unsolved murder of a young girl, committed twenty-five years before. 
He was a drunk, lost, laughed at and frequently baffled; poor attributes for a detective. But he was patient too, and dogged. He was called Dangerous Davies (because he was said to be harmless) and was known in the London police as “The Last Detective” since he was never dispatched on any assignment unless it was very risky or there was no one else to send.

Dangerous Davies: The Last Detective was published in 1976 and set at that time. Davies is assigned the case of finding Cecil Ramscar, a criminal who had escaped the country, living in Australia and America at times, but is now back in his old stomping grounds. It isn't a big case, they just want to find Ramscar and keep an eye on him, so Davies does not take the assignment too seriously. But he discovers an unsolved case from twenty five years earlier that is mentioned in the file on Ramscar and he gets very serious about tracking down the truth behind the disappearance of a 17-year-old girl, Celia Norris

Davies is an alcoholic, and a real bumbling detective. He pursues the cold case doggedly, but a lot of what gets done happens accidentally. I was wary of reading a book about a detective who succeeds in spite of himself, but overall it worked for me. I think the key is that Davies is a genuinely kind and generous person. People may laugh at him, but he gains trust from people easily, which helps in gathering information. It is very believable in the end that with his determination, persistence, and decency, he does solve the case.

A description in the book:
Davies, a long man, thirty-three years old, inhabited his tall brown overcoat for the entire London winter and well into the spring. By the first frosts he was resident again. 
He was to be seen at the wheel of his 1937 Lagonda Tourer, forever open and exposed to the weather, the hood having been jammed like a fixed backward grin since 1940.
This is a humorous novel with some very colorful characters; Davies lives in a boarding house, where his best friend Mod also has a room. His wife also lives there but they are in different rooms. As far as I can remember this is never explained and there seems to be little affection between them. Davies' dog is large, old and cranky, and lives in the back seat of his car. But the best characterizations are those of Celia Norris's family and the various witnesses from the cold case who are interviewed by Davies.

After reading the book, I did watch the pilot for The Last Detective, the TV series starring Peter Davison as Dangerous Davies. The TV series was first run in 2003,  and it brings Dangerous Davies into the 21st century. The detective is still bumbling and not very competent as a policeman, but his flaws are not so evident as in the book. And the dog doesn't live in the car. The pilot episode is based on this book. The plot is very similar, although with some changes to the solution (which I approve of because it makes it more interesting to watch).  I plan to continue watching the series.

Please see Sergio's excellent post on both the book and the TV series at Tipping My Fedora.

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

Publisher:   Felony & Mayhem, 2011 (orig. pub. 1976)
Length:      272 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Series:       Dangerous Davies #1
Setting:      UK
Genre:       Police procedural (loosely)
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Janus Stone: Elly Griffiths

This is the second book in the series featuring forensics archaeologist Ruth Galloway. Ruth lives in Norfolk in an isolated cottage on the saltmarsh. She is called in as an expert when the bones of a young child are found on a building site where an old Victorian home is being torn down to be replaced by luxury apartments.

The two main characters in this series are Ruth and Harry Nelson. Harry is a policeman, a Detective Chief Inspector in the Norwich police force. They are thrown together working on cases when Ruth is called in to consult or give evidence when human bones are discovered. Harry and Ruth experience a connection almost immediately, but Harry is married with two teenage girls, and the relationship is awkward because of that. This is a major part of the stories (at least so far).


The archaeological background in this story is interesting; at first the age of the skeleton is not known. The building site was previously a children's home, run by the Catholic church. Prior to that it was a family home. The bones could be from either time period, or much earlier.

I have a few quibbles with this book, but none of them are serious. Ruth is a believable amateur sleuth, in my opinion, as her job puts her in situations where she will get involved with murder, but she ends up in threatening or dangerous situations too much (for me).

The other complaint is that the book is written in present tense, and that just isn't comfortable reading for me. In this book, the present tense style seems even more pervasive than in other books I have read that were written in that style. Because I wanted to read this book and I did not want to hate the experience, I tried a new approach. I decided to read it in a meditative way, reading each sentence slowly and paying attention. (This is not my usual style; I read fast and often miss details.) The meditative approach worked for me. I would find myself getting lost in the story and then whenever the present tense pulled me out again, I would move back to the slower, more attentive mode of reading.

On the positive side, the characters are interesting and funny at times. Ruth's parents and her co-workers are portrayed in very realistic ways and her relationships with all of them are very believable. The reader is privy to both Ruth and Harry's thoughts and opinions and that works really well for me. The unfolding story of their lives is told with humor and wit.

The series is very popular and I definitely recommend it, but I feel it is important to start with the first book. Because this book revolves so much around the personal lives of the main characters, I don't see getting much enjoyment from the books without knowing the backstory. I definitely want to know what is coming next in the lives of the characters and I will continue the series.

These are my husband's comments when he reviewed the book at Goodreads:
I enjoy mysteries that involve events in the past impacting the present and this compelling (and complicated) plot delivers. The personal issues of the main character are a bit too melodramatic this time though.
Margot at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist... has an excellent overview of The Crossing Places, the first book in the series. Also see my review of that book.

 -----------------------------

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010
Length:    327 pages
Format:    Hardback
Series:     Ruth Galloway #2
Setting:    Norfolk, UK
Genre:     Mystery
Source:   Originally my husband's book; he passed it on to me.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Murder in Jerusalem: Batya Gur

This is the final book in the Michael Ohayon series by Batya Gur, and was published posthumously. There are six books in the series and each book takes place in a particular environment; in this book it is a TV station in Jerusalem, and a woman's body in found in the wardrobe and prop warehouse. The dead woman is a set-designer; she and many of the staff at Israel Television have worked together for years, and the relationships are complex. Chief Superintendent Ohayon works with his staff to determine who the murderer is, as more deaths occur.


The main attractions of this series of mysteries are the setting in Israel and Michael Ohayon's complex character. In this book we get a lot of information about various issues in Israel, but Ohayon is a less prominent and interesting character in this one. Some may enjoy this book for the setting in a television studio. There are a lot of characters, both at the TV station and working on the police investigation, which can get confusing.

This is definitely more of a psychological mystery than a fast-paced thriller, which is true with all of the books in the series. I enjoyed the first books in the series, but the latter books were less compelling, for varied reasons. Having said that, I am glad I had this last visit with Chief Superintendent Michael Ohayon and his coworkers as they solve the mystery.

I would recommend this book to those who like slowly-paced, thoughtful literary mysteries, and those who want to learn more about Israel (and in particular in this book, various views on Zionism) or those who are interested in the TV studio setting. But mainly, my goal here is to suggest that you try some of the other mysteries by Batya Gur first.

I loved the first three books in the series. Saturday Morning Murder: A Psychoanalytic Case (1992) begins with a death at the Jerusalem Psychoanalytic Institute. In Literary Murder: A Critical Case (1993), the background is the academic setting of Hebrew University and the victim is a professor of literature and a poet. Murder on a Kibbutz: A Communal Case (1994) is set on a kibbutz and it is a toss up between this one and Literary Murder as to which is my favorite. I still have a copy of Literary Murder and I plan to re-read it someday.

I have to share with you these thoughts from a review on Murder on a Kibbutz, at Eric Pallant's blog:
Great mysteries also teach you something about a time or location you otherwise couldn’t know about, and very few mystery writers are better than Israel’s Batya Gur. In Murder on a Kibbutz her detective Michael Ohayan is called upon to investigate the murder of a kibbutznik, which in Israel is exceptionally rare. Gur peels away the layers of the onion that make up a family-like group of 300 people who care about one another, share everything, and despise one another as only family members can. What I can say, having lived on an Israeli kibbutz, is that every page of description is microscopically accurate, the characters are almost too real to be fictional, and the mystery is hard to solve.
The only book in the series that I did not care for was Murder Duet: A Musical Case (1999). I am sure many readers would love the setting in the world of classical music, but I was bothered by the fact that Ohayon was personally involved in the case and continued to work on it. The fifth book, Bethlehem Road Murder (2004), concerns a murder in an insular neighborhood in Jerusalem, and explores sociological and political issues in Israel more than previous books in the series.

A review of this book at Mystery Tribune includes this biography of the author:
Batya Gur (January 1947 – May 2005) was an Israeli writer with the specialty in detective fiction, obviously set in Israel. She was born in Tel Aviv in 1947 to parents who survived the Holocaust. She earned a master’s degree in Hebrew literature from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Before writing her first detective novel at the age of 39, she taught literature in high school. Gur was also a literary critic for Haaretz newspaper. She died of cancer at the age of 57.

 -----------------------------

Publisher:   HarperCollins, 2006
Length:       388 pages
Format:       Hardcover
Series:        Michael Ohayon, #4
Translated by:  Evan Fallenberg
Setting:       Jerusalem
Genre:        Police Procedural
Source:       Purchased at Planned Parenthood book sale, 2009.




Saturday, June 17, 2017

Book Tag

A week ago I saw a Book Tag at two blogs I read, NancyElin and Brona's Books. I am not usually successful at answering these types of questions, but I gave it a shot this time. I started with the ten questions that Nancy and Brona had used.

I added one last question that was from the longer lists at On Bookes and Howling Frog Books.


1. What book has been on your shelf the longest?
I am guessing that would be one of my Nero Wolfe novels by Rex Stout. I have had copies of some of those since I was in college (or before?) although I am sure I originally read them in library editions. 
2. What is your current read, last read and the book you plan to read next?
Current Read: Black Ice by Michael Connelly 
Last Read: Track of the Cat by Nevada Barr 
Next Read: I don't usually decide in advance but this month I have been cycling between lighter mysteries and the more gritty, violent mysteries. So I might opt for one of the vintage mysteries in my list of 20 Books for Summer.

3. What book do you tell yourself you’ll read, but probably won't?
Two books by Connie Willis:  Black Out and All Clear. From what I read at TOR.com, they are essentially "one book, conveniently bound in two volumes." Together, in the editions my husband owns, the books total 1100 pages. Quite a commitment. But look at the covers, aren't they gorgeous?


4. What book are you saving for retirement?
My husband has a lot of non-fiction books that I would love to read but just don't have the time or the patience now. In a few years, I may actually read Austerity Britain by David Kynaston (692 pages).
5. Which book character would you switch places with?
This may show a lack of imagination, but I really don't want to trade places with anyone. 
But, I would love to visit the Nero Wolfe / Archie Goodwin household for a while, so maybe I would do a temporary swap with Lily Rowan (although I don't know that she ever visits the brownstone) or maybe Lon Cohen (a journalist working for the fictional New York Gazette) when he is invited over for dinner. Or try being Theodore for a week or so and take care of the orchids.

6. What book reminds you a specific place/time/person?
Any of the books in the Nameless Detective series by Bill Pronzini remind me of when I suggested this author to my husband. He bought several of the books and he did enjoy his writing. He now has copies of all of the books in the Nameless series. 
It was decades ago in a used book store in Santa Barbara, now long out of business. I cannot remember if we were visiting Santa Barbara before we moved here, or if it was early in our marriage. Whichever, it is a very fond memory. The bookstore and the owner were both very nice.





7. Which book has been with you most places?
Same answer as for #1. I started reading the Nero Wolfe series when I was in my teens. I remember when I bought my first hardback book by Rex Stout when I had my first job. (That dates me.)   
I have reread them over and over through the years. I have multiple copies (paperback of course) of many of the books in the series.
8. Which book have you reread the most?
Fer-de-Lance by Rex Stout. Do you see a theme here? 



9. What book outside your comfort zone did you end up loving?
Under the Dome by Stephen King. I have not read a book by Stephen King in 30 years, probably longer. Most of his writing is too horrific for me. For some reason I got interested in Under the Dome but was dismayed to see that it was over 1000 pages. But I read it and enjoyed it a lot. Very dark in the end though.

10. Three bookish confessions?
I will buy books only for the covers and sometimes not even read them. 
I have over 1000 books in my TBR piles, shelves, boxes, etc. (physical hard copy books, not including those on the Kindle).
And I keep buying books anyway. 

11. Have you ever seen a movie you liked more than the book?
This was a hard one to answer. Mostly, the answer is no. Often the book and the movie differ but still both have wonderful qualities. But I did come up with two. In both cases I had seen the movie before reading the book, which might have made a difference.
Vertigo, which was based on a book originally published in France in 1954 as D'entre les morts, by Boileau-Narcejac. The book was very, very good, but the film has been a favorite for a long time. The film is set in San Francisco, the book is set in France, but the stories are very similar. (My post is here.)
The Ice Harvest: The book, written by Scott Phillips, is the most noir story I have every read. It is unrelentingly bleak and grim. It is very good but I can't say I enjoyed reading it. The film follows the same story for the most part, but it is not quite so bleak, and I loved all the actors. John Cusack plays Charlie Arglist, Billy Bob Thornton is his partner in crime; Connie Nielsen plays the gorgeous femme fatale. Oliver Platt plays a friend who is now married to Charlie's ex-wife. (My post is here.)

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Badge of Evil: Whit Masterson

Rudy Linneker, a very rich man in a large border town in California (San Diego?), is blown up by sticks of dynamite thrown into his house. The immediate suspects are Linneker's daughter and her fiancé, since Linneker was dead set against their relationship. But Assistant DA Mitch Holt insists that the case does not feel right, and starts investigating in a different direction. Eventually he uncovers corruption in the police department, but loses the support of his superiors who doubt his findings.

This book is best known today as the basis for Orson Welles' film, Touch of Evil. Whit Masterson was one pseudonym used by Robert Wade and Bill Miller. They wrote many books together in the 1940s and 50s, many of them under the name Wade Miller.

Although I had not seen the film Touch of Evil before reading this book, I assumed the book would be gritty and violent and noirish. The book was actually more on the hard-boiled side. If this is a typical book by these two authors, I would love to read more of their books. I found it to be an entertaining hard-boiled story with a great protagonist. The hero could be considered too perfect, too much of a straight arrow, yet I really liked his perseverance at a time when many people turn against him. Most people would yield to majority opinion or be afraid to buck the system. Some reviewers considered this book bland and too tame, not hard-boiled enough.


The book was also an interesting look at life after the war in the US. ADA Holt's career was put on hold due to time served in the military both during World War II and the Korean War.

In the film, Orson Welles takes the basic story and turns it around. The plot becomes something entirely different, focusing more on Mexican gangs and drugs. The DA becomes a Mexican agent exposing a drug cartel and his wife is a US citizen; it explores issues of racism to a greater extent than in the book. I found it interesting that the film is much darker than the book. In my experience, it is usually the other way around.


There are three different versions of the film available on Blu Ray, the version as released in theaters, with much of Welles' footage cut, a reconstructed version based on notes from Welles, and a preview version. We watched the original release version, but plan on watching the other two versions also.

I enjoyed the film. There are wonderful small roles played by Dennis Weaver, Marlene Dietrich, Zsa Zsa Gabor, etc. It includes a famous opening tracking shot which was very impressive.

For more information about the authors, see the Thrilling Detective website. Sergio discusses the book and film at Tipping My Fedora.


 -----------------------------

Publisher:  Prologue Books, 2013 (orig. publ. 1956)
Length:     204 pages
Format:    Trade paperback
Setting:    Southern California, close to the Mexican border
Genre:      Mystery
Source:    I purchased my copy

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Cocaine Blues: Kerry Greenwood


This is the first book in Kerry Greenwood's long running series about Phryne Fisher, a rich young woman who was born in Australia but lives in London as the series begins in 1928.

Cocaine Blues opens with Phryne attending a social event at her parents' home in London. A diamond necklace is stolen and she quickly solves the crime before the guests have left. A friend of her father, Colonel Harper, is very impressed with Phryne's detecting, and asks her to go to Melbourne and check on his daughter. He and his wife fear that she is being poisoned by her husband. Phryne had already been considering returning to Australia, and is bored with society events in London so she agrees to take the trip and see what she can do.

This book exceeded my expectations. I knew the heroine was an adventuress, and the setting was in the 1920s, so my assumptions were that it would be cozyish and very unrealistic. The unrealistic part may be somewhat true; I am not familiar enough with history and women's roles at the time. But this book was such fun to read that I did not care. It was a very refreshing read.

Phryne loves to dress well and she has the money to do it. When she flaunts her money, it is usually to make an impression on someone she wants information or cooperation from. She uses her charms and her status to gain information and cooperation more easily. Based on appearances, Phryne could be called shallow and frivolous, but much of her behavior is a means to an end. Sexy and independent, she is not worried about the opinions of others. The point is made that Phryne grew up in a poor family and only in her teen years did her father inherit money and a title, so she is comfortable with people from all levels of society, and they get along with her fine, too.

Speaking of clothes and dressing well, I read at least one complaint that there is too much focus on dress. There certainly is a lot of emphasis on clothing. Early on, there is a good amount of time devoted to Phryne supplying Dot, her new maid, with appropriate clothing. And shopping. And Dot mending clothes. But, as the adventures start, I noticed that less and less. I also read that the other book I have in this series (#7, Ruddy Gore) has little or no clothing descriptions. So I don't know if this continues in later books.

Phryne is a female James Bond, except that she is not a spy. She is a free spirit and gets involved with multiple men. She likes to drive nice cars and drive very fast, she can fly airplanes, and I am sure she has other undiscovered talents.  If there are faults in this book and this character, it is that Phryne is too perfect, too capable.

There are many things I look for in the mysteries I read, but topping the list is entertainment value. This book was delightful and charming and surprised me throughout, and that makes it a success in my book. There are several mysteries in the story, but I will admit that they were not my main focus when reading the book.

There are now twenty books in the series. I have read that there are a lot of similarities between the books, especially in the early books in the series. I wonder if this means I should put a good bit of time between reading each book, or if I should hop to later books. I would love to hear from anyone who has read this series.

Also see reviews by Bernadette at Fair Dinkum Crime and John Grant at Goodreads. Both reviews mention the TV series, Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, which is based on this series of books.

This is my first book read and reviewed for the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2017.

  ----------------------------------
Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press, 2006 (orig. pub. 1989)
Length:    175 pages
Format:    Hardback
Series:     Phryne Fisher #1
Setting:    Australia
Genre:     Historical Mystery
Source:    I purchased this book in 2006.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Crime Fiction Reading in May 2017

The most notable thing about the books I read this month is that they are all written by women. I did not get the idea for this theme until I had read a couple of books, and it was fun choosing my next book based on this criteria.

Books I read this month:

Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood (1989)
This is the first book in Kerry Greenwood's long running series about Phryne Fisher, a rich young woman who was born in Australia but lives in London as the series begins. A friend of her father, Colonel Harper, asks her to go to Melbourne, Australia and check on his daughter. He and his wife fear that she is being poisoned by her husband. Phryne would prefer traveling and detecting to the boring society events in London so she agrees to take the trip and see what she can do. Set in 1928, this is an interesting look at Melbourne at that time.
Murder in Jerusalem by Batya Gur (2004)
This is the final book in the Michael Ohayon series by Batya Gur. Each book takes place in a particular environment; in this book it is a TV station in Jerusalem, and a woman's body in found in the wardrobe and prop warehouse. The story is more of a psychological mystery than a fast-paced thriller. Murder in Jerusalem was not my favorite in the series, but I enjoyed this last visit with Chief Superintendent Michael Ohayon and his coworkers as they solve the mystery.

Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neely (1992)
This debut novel about Blanche White, an African-American housekeeper in North Carolina, won the Agatha Award and the Anthony Award for best first novel. My thoughts on the book are here.



Murder... Now and Then by Jill McGown (1993)
This is the 6th book in the police procedural series featuring DCI Lloyd and DI Judy Hill. Jill McGown is one of my favorite authors. See my thoughts here.

Indemnity Only by Sarah Paretsky (1982)
This description from Goodreads sums it up pretty well: 
The vice-president of a Chicago bank hires V.I. Warshawski to find his son. She's pleased. The head of the International Brotherhood of Knifegrinders hires her to find his daughter. She's not so pleased. Who's the boss in this dangerous game of insurance fraud, murder contracts and gunmen?


The Last Billable Hour by Susan Wolfe (1989)
Susan Wolfe is a lawyer, and in this book she writes about a Silicon Valley law firm filled with sleazy and / or ambitious lawyers. She writes well about this subject; I hope she hasn't ever had to work in such a corrupt  firm. Howard Rickover is an inexperienced lawyer and has only been at Tweedmore and Slyde for a few months when one of the founders, Leo Slyde, is killed. Homicide detective Sarah Nelson enlists his help in uncovering the murderer. I liked this book a lot, even though it is an amateur sleuth mystery, and it is shame that the author did not continue with more books about this pair.





The Janus Stone by Elly Griffiths (2010)
This is the second book in the series featuring forensics archaeologist Ruth Galloway. Ruth lives in Norfolk in an isolated cottage on the saltmarsh. She is called in as an expert when the bones of a young child are found on a building site. I enjoyed this book and will continue on the the next in the series, The House at Sea's End.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Hunter: Richard Stark


The Hunter is the first novel in a series by Richard Stark (one of Donald Westlake's pseudonyms). The series of 24 books features an amoral criminal, Parker,who specializes in payroll robberies. He is not a killer for hire, but he will kill if someone gets in his way. In other words, not a very nice guy. He has no redeeming qualities. He has no remorse for what he does; on the other hand, he is not sadistic. He does not think much about what he does at all. He just conducts his business and moves on. In this novel, Parker is seeking revenge on Mal, a man who double-crossed him, took his wife, and stole his share of the proceeds from a job.

This story felt kind of numbing in the first reading. As soon as I finished this book, I wondered if I want to continue reading books about a protagonist who is narcissistic and unsympathetic. I don't dislike the character but there is nothing admirable or likable about him, at least in this book. The writing is plain and unadorned, the story is hard-boiled, with lots of violence. There is little description or exposition. There is a lot of action and dialog and that is how you learn about the characters, most of which are very similar to Parker.

The real test, however, was that it was just as compelling when I was rereading portions of the book as I worked on this post. So, in the end, the answer is that I do want to continue reading this series. I will be reading the second book, The Man with the Getaway Face, in June, for a special theme on Heists / Bank Robberies at Friday's Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott's blog, pattinase. And I have ordered the third book in the series, The Outfit.

A review quote from the Christian Science Monitor, cited at the publisher's site:
If you’re looking for crime novels with a lot of punch, try the very, very tough novels featuring Parker. . . . The Hunter, The Outfit, The Mourner, and The Man with the Getaway Face are all beautifully paced, tautly composed, and originally published in the early 1960s.
A quote from an article at CriminalElement.com
The Hunter should be on everyone’s short list of must-read novels. Its historical significance to the crime genre is on par with The Big Sleep or The Maltese Falcon. In the same way those novels introduced hardboiled noir to the world, The Hunter jumpstarted the era of the antihero that we still see ripples of today. It is action-packed storytelling with an innovative structure and one of the most unique and most celebrated characters in all of crime fiction.
Other resources:


Film Adaptations

This first book in the series was the basis for at least two movies: Point Blank, starring Lee Marvin and Payback, with Mel Gibson. I watched both movies after finishing the book.  I had watched Payback years ago, but this was my first viewing of Point Blank. Both movies try to humanize Parker, but they do stick fairly close to the story in the book. I think Lee Marvin's  portrayal of Parker is closer to that in the book, but Mel Gibson depiction of the crazy drive that Parker must have to achieve his goal is also very well done.


 -----------------------------

Publisher:  Univ. of Chicago Press, 2008 (orig. publ. 1962)
Length:     198 pages
Format:     Trade paperback
Series:      Parker #1
Setting:     New York City
Genre:      Hard-boiled
Source:     I purchased my copy

Monday, May 29, 2017

20 Books of Summer 2017


This year I was reminded of 20 Books of Summer by Nancy at NancyElin, whose list is here. The originator of the challenge is Cathy at 746 Books. Check out Cathy's list for more information.

For the 20 Books of Summer challenge I am choosing twenty books to read between June 1st and September 3rd, 2017. There are options for 15 books or 10 books for those who don't want to commit to 20.

And this is my list:
  • The Fashion in Shrouds by Margery Allingham (1938)
  • Murder Begins at Home by Delano Ames (1949)
  • Track of the Cat by Nevada Barr (1993)
  • The Emperor's Snuff-Box by John Dickson Carr  (1942)
  • Red Bones by Ann Cleeves (2009)
  • The Black Ice by Michael Connelly (1993)
  • Evil at the Root by Bill Crider (1990)

  • Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans (2009)
  • City of Dragons by Kelli Stanley (2010)
  • Dr. No by Ian Fleming (1958)
  • Malicious Intent by Kathryn Fox (2004)
  • Dead Skip by Joe Gores (1972)
  • Bodies Are Where You Find Them by Brett Halliday (1941)
  • The Distant Echo by Val McDermid (2003)
  • Vanishing Act by Thomas Perry (1994)
  • Deep Water by Christine Poulson (2016)
  • Busman's Honeymoon by Dorothy Sayers (1937) 
  • New Orleans Mourning by Julie Smith (1990)
  • The Man with the Getaway Face by Richard Stark (1963)
  • Brothers, Keepers by Donald E. Westlake (1975)





Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Murder... Now and Then: Jill McGown

Victor Holyoak is a wealthy industrialist who got his start in criminal activities in London. When the police began to catch up with him in the early 80s he moved to Holland and aimed at becoming a legitimate businessman. Now he has returned to the UK to take over a firm in Stansfield. When he is murdered following an event to celebrate the change in ownership, DCI Lloyd and DI Judy Hill must find the murderer. The investigation involves his stepdaughter, her husband who is the new General Manager, Holyoak's PR manager who is also rumored to be his lover, and various residents of Stansfield.

One of the characteristics of the Lloyd and Hill series is that the books do not follow a formula; the ongoing relationship of the two protagonists is a constant, but each book has a unique structure. In this case, the story goes back and forth between the past (beginning 15 years earlier) and the present, showing the relationships building and key events leading up to Holyoak's death.

The relationship of Lloyd (whose first name is never specified) and Judy Hill is a large part of this series and is even more prominent in this book. In some books they are working together as partners, in others they are working on the same cases but not as partners. This is the sixth book in the series, and at this point their relationship is serious but they are not living together. Because this plot goes back and forth between the past and present, the author has a chance to fill in some of their backstory in more detail, and the reader can see the progression of their relationship. This makes it sound like that element is primary in the story but there is a good balance and the mystery plot always comes first.

I discovered the Lloyd and Hill mysteries in 2007, and read all 13 books in the series in that year. Thus this was a re-read for me. I remembered nothing about the plot as I was reading it. Although I did guess what was going on by the end, I never did remember who the culprit was.

The books in this series are all very strong in both characterization and plot. Many of the characters involved in the crime as possible suspects are not very pleasant people, but nevertheless McGown fleshes out their characters and the relationships. The plots are structured beautifully. This may sound like a cozyish police procedural but there is a good amount violence in the story, although not dwelled upon. So, not cozy at all.

Jill McGown (1947 - 2007) is one of my favorite authors. She was born in Campbeltown, Argyll, Scotland, but by the age of 10 had moved to a town in Britain, Corby, where she lived the rest of her life. She is best known for the Lloyd and Hill series, but she also wrote five stand-alone mysteries (which I have not sampled).

In my opinion, the series is best read in order, because the Lloyd / Hill relationship evolves over time, but the author has stated (in this post at Mystery*File which includes some excerpts from an interview) that each book is written to stand alone and contains enough backstory to explain the relationships where needed.

I have done previous posts on other books in this series: Plots and Errors and Murder at the Old Vicarage. Murder... Now and Then has been reviewed by Moira at Clothes in Books.
 -----------------------------

Publisher:  Fawcett, 1995. Orig. pub. 1993.
Length:     346 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Lloyd and Hill, #6
Setting:     UK
Genre:       Police Procedural
Source:     I purchased my copy.


Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Blanche on the Lam: Barbara Neely

Blanche White is an African-American woman in North Carolina working as a housekeeper. This puts many restraints on her behavior. She cannot speak out and share her opinions, at the risk of offending her employers and losing her job. She has little recourse if she is not paid on time or at all. But in this story, Blanche is hampered even more. She is literally "on the lam." She has run away from a one-month jail sentence for bouncing checks, and is working for a family vacationing in a coastal area near the town she lives in. If she leaves that position she is likely to be found and sent to jail. So, when she finds she is trapped in a situation with some very strange and nefarious people, Blanche cannot just leave.


Blanche has both strengths and weaknesses, like anyone else. She takes pride in her job and knows she does it well. She has taken on the role of parent to her niece and nephew following the death of her sister. On the other hand, she is too self-sufficient sometimes, doesn't like to ask for help, which leads to the mess with the bounced checks. She has some quirks. She personifies houses, sensing their personalities and feelings. She has the ability to sense when some people, who are on her "wavelength," are approaching. She makes sense of a person's behavior by comparing them to a friend or relative who has the same traits (similar to Miss Marple?).

Blanche on the Lam is first and foremost a story about relations between blacks and whites, and secondarily a murder mystery. As the author noted in an article in Ms. Magazine:

"I thought I was writing a novel that happened to have murder in it. Blanche was an amusement," Neely says. "But when the book did so well, I realized the mystery genre was perfect to talk about serious subjects, and it could carry the political fiction I wanted to write. In a way, I feel the genre chose me."

I found this to be a very enlightening and enjoyable novel, but only so-so as a mystery. The story is told from Blanche's point of view in first person. It took me a while (50 pages) to get used to the writing style and Blanche's character, then I enjoyed the rest of the book. I think the real pleasure of reading this book is getting Blanche's view on white people and how they mistreat, misjudge, or just look through black people.

This novel was full of great quotes. My favorite quote:
Nowadays, people wanted to tell you class didn't exist and color didn't matter anymore. Look at Miss America and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But Miss America and the chairman were no more black people than Mother Teresa was white people. Men like Nate [the gardener] and women like her were the people, the folks, the mud from which the rest were made. It was their hands and blood and sweat that built everything.
I had some reservations about this book, but not serious ones. Although I understood the panic that Blanche felt at facing even a few weeks in jail, running away seemed unlikely. On the other hand, we often need to suspend disbelief when reading mystery novels, and I was willing to do that with this story. Blanche is a fully developed character, but the people she interacts with are more one-dimensional. Amateur sleuths are not my favorite protagonists in crime fiction, and in this case we are over halfway through the book before we get to the first murder.

Barbara Neely is an African-American writer. Prior to writing full-time, she was an activist and at one time worked for Pennsylvania's Department of Corrections and developed the state's first community based correctional center for women.

Blanche on the Lam won three mystery awards for best first novel of 1992: The Agatha, the Anthony and the Macavity. Neely published three more books in the Blanche White series between 1994 and 2000.

Other resources:
Moira's review at Clothes in Books, Margot's Spotlight at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist..., and Naomi Hirahara's post at the Rap Sheet.


 -----------------------------

Publisher:  Penguin Books, 1993. Orig. pub. 1992.
Length:     215 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Blanche White, #1
Setting:     North Carolina
Genre:       Mystery
Source:     I purchased my copy in 2006.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Reading Summary for April 2017

April was an incredible reading month for me. I read ten crime fiction novels. I also read a non-fiction book, but the author of that book was a crime fiction author.


The Getaway Car: A Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany is a collection by Donald E. Westlake. Foreword by Lawrence Block. Cover illustration and design by Darwyn Cooke, who adapted some of the “Parker” crime novels as a series of graphic novels.

The pieces were written at various times in his career. They include appreciations of other crime fiction authors, interviews (of Westlake, by others), and letters. There is a wonderful essay by his wife, Abby Adams Westlake, about "Living with a Mystery Writer." I enjoyed reading about his experiences with having his books translated into film, and his experiences as a screenwriter. No matter what he is writing about, Westlake is entertaining. I loved reading this book.



Following are the crime fiction books I read in April:

The Blackhouse (2009) by Peter May
A murder investigation set on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland's Outer Hebrides. In Part 1 of a trilogy, Fin Macleod, a detective from Edinburgh is sent to the Isle of Lewis because of previous connections to a similar crime. The story is powerful and well told. My review here.
Death on the Move (1989) by Bill Crider
Dan Rhodes is the Sheriff of Blacklin County, Texas. In this fourth book in the series, jewelry is disappearing off bodies prepared for burial at the funeral home in Clearview. There is also the problem of a rash of thefts at some homes built around a nearby lake. This is one of my favorite contemporary series. Full review here.
Cold Comfort (2012) by Quentin Bates
This is the second book in a police procedural series set in Iceland. Sergeant Gunnhildur has been promoted from her rural post to the Serious Crime Unit in Reykjavík. She is working on two cases, locating an escaped convict, Long Ommi, and investigating the murder of a fitness guru. I have found this to be a very enjoyable series, with a great main character, who has a realistic life, a single parent raising a teenage daughter.
Burglars Can't Be Choosers (1977) by Lawrence Block
Bernie Rhodenbarr is a burglar; when he attempts to steal a blue leather box from an apartment, the police walk in on him and a dead man is discovered in the bedroom. Bernie successfully eludes the policemen but they think he killed the man in the bedroom; he then has to prove his innocence. This is the first in a series about Bernie Rhodenbarr. A humorous mystery that was a lot of fun. My review is here.
Badge of Evil (1956) by Whit Masterson
Rudy Linneker, a very rich man in a large border town in California (San Diego?), is blown up by sticks of dynamite thrown into his house. The immediate suspects are Linneker's daughter and her fiance, since Linneker was dead set against their relationship. But Assistant DA Mitch Holt insists that the case does not feel right, and starts investigating in a different direction. This is the book that Orson Welles' 1958 film Touch of Evil was based on. 
Wall of Glass (1987) by Walter Satterthwait
Joshua Croft is a Santa Fe private investigator working for the Mondragón Agency, owned by Rita Mondragón. The case in Wall of Glass centers on a valuable piece of jewelry which was stolen from the house of a wealthy Santa Fe family. The setting was lovely and the story was entertaining. See review here
A Fountain Filled with Blood (2003) by Julia Spencer-Fleming
This is the second mystery in the Reverend Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne series. As the small town of Millers Kill, New York heads into the July 4th weekend, two gay men are severely beaten in separate incidents. Clare urges the police to notify the public; Russ feels like this could lead to copycat incidents. When another man, also homosexual, is killed, Russ must figure out if the crimes are connected. Mixed in with this are conflicts within the town over development of a luxury spa and environmental issues. Although I have some reservations about this series, I finished this book in a 24 hour period and could hardly put it down, which puts it high in my ratings.
Something from the Nightside (2003) by Simon R. Green
This is a cross-genre novel, blending fantasy and mystery. John Taylor is a private eye in London and his specialty is finding things. He originally came from the Nightside, a hidden part of London where monsters and demons reign. A woman comes to him as a last resort to find her daughter. The only clue she has is that she could be found "in the Nightside." John agrees to help her. This book was light and entertaining, a good read.
The Butcher's Boy (1982) by Thomas Perry
This was Thomas Perry's debut novel; it won the Edgar for Best First Novel of 1982. The two main characters are a professional killer with no name and Elizabeth Waring, an analyst for the Department of Justice. They are both very good at what they do. Full review here.
The Likeness (2008) by Tana French
This book is the sequel to Tana French’s debut, In the Woods. That book featured two detectives in the Murder Squad in Dublin, Ireland, Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox. The Likeness continues Cassie's story. Cassie is now working in Domestic Violence at police headquarters, but a unique opportunity arises for her to go undercover, taking up an identity she used previously when she worked in the Undercover division. This is not a perfect book but very close. Also a Chunkster (466 pages).
In April, I read more contemporary novels than usual. I only read one novel written before 1960. There was one written in the 1970s and three from the 1980s. The remaining five books were published after 2001. Regarding authors, only two of the authors were female. In May I am endeavoring to remedy that and focus on female authors.


Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Butcher's Boy: Thomas Perry

The Butcher's Boy (otherwise nameless) is a professional killer for hire, and apparently does most of his work for the Mafia. This time his jobs center around a corporation that handles pension funds, Fieldston Growth Enterprises. After the killer has done two jobs he heads to Las Vegas for a rest, only to find that he is being targeted by his former bosses. A second story line follows Elizabeth Waring, an analyst for the Department of Justice. She initially notices that a death in Ventura, California is suspicious. She and an FBI agent are sent to Ventura to look into that incident, but are soon taken off that investigation and sent to Colorado where a Senator has been murdered. The cases don't seem to be related, but Elizabeth insists that there is a connection.


I liked the way the story develops, with two main story lines, one following the killer and one following Elizabeth Waring. Although the killer is not likable, and has little personality, it is interesting to watch him work and follow his thought processes when he runs into problems. Elizabeth is highly intelligent and a talented analyst, but she has to watch how she behaves with her superiors, because she is a woman. However she is very competent in her job and not afraid to speak up, and those who work with her realize her value.

The book was written in 1982, and of course all the electronic developments in the last couple of decades were not available. For that reason this book may feel dated to some. That did not bother me; I read a lot of books from the 1970s and 80s for that reason. The story moved along and I was never bored. It was occasionally confusing, because the author does not add a lot of explanation; he lets the reader figure it out. And the characterization was very good.

Thomas Perry is a new author for me. I have a few of his other books on my TBR piles. This was Perry's debut novel and it won the Edgar for Best First Novel of 1982. Perry wrote two books about the Butcher's Boy. The second book, Sleeping Dogs, was published 10 years later, in 1992. In 2011, he published The Informant.  I want to read both of the sequels, of course. The edition of The Butcher's Boy that I read has an introduction by Michael Connelly, which was also entertaining.


 -----------------------------

Publisher:  Random House, 2003 (orig. publ. 1982)
Length:     313 pages
Format:    Trade paperback
Series:     Butcher's Boy #1
Setting:    US (Las Vegas, Nevada; Ventura, California; Colorado)
Genre:     Mystery
Source:    I purchased my copy

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Over My Dead Body: Rex Stout

Over My Dead Body is the 7th book in the Nero Wolfe series, published in 1940 in book format. Nero Wolfe is a genius, a lover of orchids and fine food, who supports himself (and his household) as a private detective. Archie Goodwin, the narrator of the stories, is both his assistant and a private investigator, and he does most of the legwork. They live in a New York brownstone and share the house with Theodore, the plant expert, and Felix, Wolfe's cook.

Many (but not all) of the Nero Wolfe mysteries follow a formula, although the outcome is never predictable. The formula is this (in very simple terms): there is a new case which often starts with a lesser crime or problem: theft, or a missing person, or just a search for some information. A murder occurs. The case gets more complicated, Archie detects under the direction of Wolfe. Often the police get involved and resent Wolfe's interference. In the end, they are all called together in Wolfe's office and the culprit is revealed.

Over My Dead Body is unusual in the Nero Wolfe series because it centers on a woman who claims to be Nero Wolfe's long-lost adopted daughter. The story was published after the war in Europe had started but the U.S. was not yet involved and it involves international intrigue. And in this book we get a peek at some of Wolfe's background and his activities in Montenegro when he was a young man.

A young woman from Montenegro, Carla Lovchen, comes to Wolfe's house asking for his help. She and a friend are living in the US and work in a studio teaching fencing and dancing. Recently the friend has been accused of stealing diamonds from one of the clients. Wolfe refuses to take the case and Carla leaves, but Archie and Wolfe get another visit later that morning from an FBI agent, who asks if Wolfe is an agent for foreign nationals. Carla returns in the afternoon, announces that the friend accused of theft, Neya Tormic, is Wolfe's adopted daughter, and insists that Wolfe represent her in the matter of the theft. Wolfe sends Archie to the dance / fencing studio to check the situation out. There is a murder at the studio while he is there and it is possible that Neya could have committed the crime.

Wolfe is not convinced that the young woman is actually his adopted daughter. Yet he feels a responsibility to come to her aid until he can resolve the truth of her claims.

This is just the basis for the story, and it gets more complex as it goes along. It is most interesting for the puzzle of whether Wolfe's adopted daughter is still alive and if this woman is actually who she claims to be. What is the international intrigue that is actually going on?

When I come back to each Nero Wolfe story for a re-read, it is not the overall story that I remember but special set pieces in the book that stood out for me. In this case, there are at least two scenes that I remember very fondly.  One is a very brief scene where Archie escapes from the dance studio by going through a couple of courtyards, over a tall fence, and through a restaurant, ostensibly looking for his missing cat. Later, there is a clever ploy where Archie has Carla masquerade as a bellboy to escape the police who are looking for her... so that his boss can talk with her first.

This is not one of the top mysteries in the Nero Wolfe series, in my opinion, but I found many things to like about it. As usual.

I love the Avon paperback cover with the lovely unclothed lady, but I don't know exactly how the illustration fits into the story. And I am glad I had another edition to read, because the print was tiny and faded.


 -----------------------------

Publisher:  Pyramid Books, 1964. Orig. pub. 1940.
Length:     191 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Nero Wolfe, #7
Setting:     New York City
Genre:       Mystery
Source:     I purchased my copies.


Sunday, April 30, 2017

This is a Bust: Ed Lin

Published in 2007, this book is the first of three books about Robert Chow, a Chinese-American policeman in New York's Chinatown in 1976.


The description at Kaya Press is very apt:
This Is a Bust, the second novel by award-winning author Ed Lin, turns the conventions of hard-boiled pulp stories on their head by exploring the unexotic and very real complexities of New York City’s Chinatown, circa 1976, through the eyes of a Chinese-American cop. A Vietnam vet and an alcoholic, Robert Chow’s troubles are compounded by the fact that he’s basically community-relations window-dressing for the NYPD: he’s the only Chinese American on the Chinatown beat, and the only police officer who can speak Cantonese, but he’s never assigned anything more challenging than appearances at store openings or community events.
Robert Chow is a Vietnam vet and that experience changed his view of the world.
Then in 1969 the draft came to Chinatown. I didn't care about getting out of it. I had finished high school and was drifting. But I knew how bad it was in China and how we should be grateful for the better life we had in the U.S. I knew that serving was the best way to prove how much I loved America. We had to stop Communism.
....
I was real stupid and innocent back then. That was before we were in basic training and the instructor pulled me out of line, faced me to the company, and said: "This is what a gook looks like. He's the complete opposite of you, and he's out to kill you. What are you going to do about it?"
Robert is not happy in his job as a policeman, where the powers that be have chosen him to be the Chinese cop poster boy for the Chinatown precinct.  He makes a effort to get on the detective track and gets pushed back every time he tries. Somewhere along the way he has become an alcoholic.

This is a very unusual book, and I mean that in a good way. Even though the story is generally a downer, it has something of an upbeat ending, which I did not expect at all. A large part of the story is dialogue, which I don't usually care for, but it worked here. There are great characters that you meet and get to know along the way. I don't know that This is a Bust will appeal to everyone, but I found it memorable and enlightening, and compelling.

There are two more books in this series, Snakes Can't Run (2010) and One Red Bastard (2012). Ed Lin's second series, the Taipei Night Market series, is set in Taiwan.


 -----------------------------

Publisher:   Kaya Press, 2007 
Length:       345 pages
Format:       Trade paperback
Series:        Robert Chow, #1
Setting:       Chinatown in New York City
Genre:        Police Procedural
Source:       I purchased my copy.