Author Archives: Mal Warwick
Author Archives: Mal Warwick
The House of Unexpected Sisters (No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency #18) by Alexander McCall Smith
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
For sheer charm, it’s hard to beat Alexander McCall Smith‘s delightful series of novels about the #1 Ladies Detective Agency in Gaborone, Botswana. (If you know where Botswana is, much less anything else about it, go to the head of the class.) The 18th entry in this ongoing series is a case in point. In The House of Unexpected Sisters, McCall Smith outdoes himself. The novel is a gem.
The House of Unexpected Sisters features the whole cast of characters that fans of the series have grown to love: the surpassingly wise Mma Precious Ramotswe, founder of the agency; her annoying assistant, Mma Grace Makutsi; her dutiful husband, Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni, owner of the Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors repair shop; the mousy Mr. Polopetsi; and the randy apprentice mechanic, Charlie. In the 18th novel in a series, a reader might expect these characters to come across as stale, trapped in stereotypes. But that’s not the case at all. Every one of them will surprise.
The #1 Ladies Detective Agency books are nominally detective novels. But only nominally. The cases Mma Ramotswe and her colleagues take on are rarely crimes in a traditional sense. Here, for example, is how Mma Ramotswe views the successful resolution of a case she has investigated: “that all those concerned had been persuaded to see reason. that, she felt, was the key to the solution of any problem: you did not look for a winner who would take everything; you found a way of allowing people to save face; you found a way of healing rather than imposing.”
In The House of Unexpected Sisters, the ladies investigate the allegedly unfair firing of a saleswoman at an office furniture warehouse. This case proves to be far more complicated than any reader might reasonably expect. Meanwhile, Mma Ramotswe is forced to grapple with the sudden, unexpected appearance of a woman who shares her surname and may be a sister she never knew she had.
The dialogue, especially that involving Mma Makutsi, is frequently priceless. Here she is discussing short skirts with Mma Ramotswe: “Men know that women have legs—that is one of the things that they learn at an early age. So why do you have to show them that you have legs when they are already well aware of that?”
McCall Smith’s series is a paean to Botswana, where he lived for at least a decade while teaching at the University of Botswana law school. Here is Mma Ramotswe musing about death: “the thought was always present that although we might be going, the things and places we loved would still be there. So it must be a consolation to know that there would still be Botswana; that there would still be a sun that would rise over the acacia trees like a great red ball and would set over the Kalahari in a sweep of copper and gold; that there would still be the smell of wood fires in the evening and the sound of the cattle making their slow way home, their gentle bells marking their return to the safety of their enclosure. All these things must make leaving this world less painful.”
McCall Smith discusses his writing career in a fascinating interview with the The National, published in the United Arab Emirates. The author claims he writes 1,000 words an hour in a “dissociated state” and rarely, if ever, has to edit his work. The proof that he truly does write so fast lies in his staggering productivity. The 18 novels of the Ladies Detective Agency series join several dozen more works of fiction for adults, an almost equally large number of books for young adults, and a slew of academic texts in medicine and the law. McCall Smith is a world-renowned expert on medical law and bioethics.
You might also enjoy my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series. This series is included.
To date (December 2017), a total of five novels have been published in the Millennium Series originated by Swedish author Stieg Larsson. Larsson wrote the first three in a projected series of ten before suddenly passing away at the age of fifty in 2004. The three books were published posthumously beginning in 2005. By March 2015, the series had sold an aggregate of eighty million copies worldwide.
Shortly afterward, by arrangement with Larsson’s publisher, another Swedish author, David Lagercrantz, picked up the baton. At this writing, he has added two books to the series. All five titles feature the unforgettable anti-heroine, Lisbeth Salander, “the girl,” investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist, and the staff of Millennium, the magazine where Blomkvist works.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2005)
Here’s Amazon’s take on this novel: “Harriet Vanger, a scion of one of Sweden’s wealthiest families, disappeared over forty years ago. All these years later, her aged uncle continues to seek the truth. He hires Mikael Blomkvist, a crusading journalist recently trapped by a libel conviction, to investigate. He is aided by the pierced and tattooed punk prodigy Lisbeth Salander. Together they tap into a vein of unfathomable iniquity and astonishing corruption.” My recollection of the book from more than a decade in the past is that it lived up to its over-the-top reviews. I loved the novel.
The Girl Who Played with Fire (2006) — Lisbeth Salander stars again in an engrossing murder mystery
You have never met anyone like Lisbeth Salander, the “girl” in the title — guaranteed. Lisbeth is a tattooed, waif-like young woman with a brain of gargantuan proportions, an eidetic memory, an unsurpassed mastery of the Internet, and a mysterious past. In this unlikely but engrossing story of murder and corruption in the dark corners of contemporary Sweden, Lisbeth’s past is revealed in an encounter reminiscent of the games played out in the bowling alley of the gods. Read the full review.
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2007) — The captivating third entry in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series
Salander, one of the most extraordinary characters ever to inhabit the printed page, is one of a large cast that includes the author’s fantasy doppelganger, the journalist Mikael Blomkvist; Mikael’s colleagues at Millennium magazine; Lisbeth’s employer and members of his staff; a hefty number of police officers; a crew of secret agents; assorted prosecutors, social workers, and attorneys; Swedish Cabinet members; and a large group of baddies, including the thugs who hang out in a motorcycle club and two members of Lisbeth’s own family. You might think that such a motley crew of characters could never fit within the confines of a single volume, much less come across as real people. Not so here. Well, maybe not real people. But the novel works. The suspense will raise your blood pressure. In a word, Hornet’s Nest is unputdownable. Read the full review.
The Girl in the Spider’s Web (2015) — More than 10 years after Stieg Larsson’s death, Lisbeth Salander returns!
Lisbeth Salander is Sweden’s answer to Wonder Woman, Stephen Hawking, Kevin Mitnick, and Mike Tyson all rolled into one five-foot, 98-pound package. She can debate the finer points of quantum mechanics and number theory with the world’s top physicists and mathematicians, hack her way into the most secure computer system on the planet, punch out a gang of the meanest, nastiest bikers you can imagine — and she has an evil twin. In other words, Lisbeth Salander is completely unbelievable. Yet this novel, and the three that preceded it, are crafted with such skill that you’ll probably get so caught up in the sheer complexity and suspense of the story that you won’t even think about how unlikely it all is. Read the full review.
The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye (2017) — Stieg Larsson’s “girl” is back: the Millennium series continues
Unfortunately, I was disappointed by The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye. All the earlier entries in the series rushed from action to action in an almost dizzying fashion. In Eye for an Eye, there are too many talky passages. At times, the story becomes tedious, and Stieg Larsson’s girl becomes hard to recognize. If I weren’t so bound to the Millennium series, I might well have put the book down before I reached the halfway point. Read the full review.
You might also enjoy my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series. This series is included.
A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes by Adam Rutherford
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
There is no gene for evil. Black people have no genetic predisposition to excel at sports. Tay-Sachs is not a Jewish disease. Native Americans are not genetically predisposed to alcoholism. And, of course, there is no such thing as a “race” in genetics. These are a few of the many axes Adam Rutherford grinds in his ambitious new book, A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes.
Rutherford’s book consists of two parts. Part One, “How We Came to Be,” lives up to the title for the most part. He outlines the emergence of Homo sapiens as the sole survivor of several human species. (All members of the genus Homo are human. This includes Neanderthals, Denisovans, Homo erectus, and an as yet unknown number of other species.) Using the latest findings from genetic research, the author traces the movements of various human populations over 200,000 years since the first anatomically modern human walked the Earth. Rutherford emphasizes that the patterns of migration were far more complex than earlier studies have led us to believe—and interbreeding among human species far more extensive.
In Part Two, “Who We Are Now,” Rutherford departs from the promise of the title to survey the findings of genetic research about some of the many popular misconceptions about race and genetics. Here are a few highlights:
What about race? The visible differences between, say, East Asians and Africans suggest that races are real, don’t they? Well, no. Not at all. As Rutherford makes clear, “certain genetic groupings do roughly correspond to geography. But not exclusively, and not essentially.” There is, in fact, no such thing as “race” in genetics. “Eighty-five percent of human variation, according to the genetic differences in blood groups,” Rutherford writes, “was seen in the same racial groups. Of the remaining 15 percent, only 8 percent accounted for differences between one racial group and another.” In other words, those visible differences among the races are trivial from a genetic perspective. The genetic differences among any two Africans from different parts of the continent are almost certainly greater than the differences between either of them and a pale, blond, blue-eyed Scandinavian. This should be obvious to anyone with even a rudimentary grasp of genetics, Rutherford suggests. When Homo sapiens began migrating out of Africa and radiating around the world, only small groups left the motherland. The genetic diversity among them was immeasurably smaller than that of the much larger numbers they left behind.
The author explains at length that the Human Genome Project did not decode the whole genome. In fact, more than 98 percent of the three billion letters on the genome do not encode for proteins, which is the primary function of genes. These non-coding letters have been given the unfortunate and misleading name of “junk DNA.” Many do have discernible and important functions. But the function of most junk DNA is not understood.
Scientists are in the very earliest stages of tapping the power of genetics to address disease. As of now, “the number of diseases that have been eradicated as a result of our knowing the genome? Zero. The number of diseases that have been cured as a result of gene therapy? Zero.” The Human Genome Project was a beginning, not an end. Today, “DNA is used routinely in the diagnosis of dozens of cancers, of heart arrhythmias, in identifying the causes of thousands of diseases too rare to have historically warranted major research projects.” But science today is merely scratching the surface of this potential.
Rutherford clearly knows his stuff. But he’s far from infallible. He’s dismissive of linguistic studies that inform our understanding of prehistorical migration patterns. Why? He doesn’t explain. He’s inconsistent about the number of years when Homo sapiens first entered the Americas, citing numbers all the way from 12,000 years to more than 24,000. He refers on numerous occasions to findings from the for-profit companies 23andme and BritainsDNA, both of which provide genetic profiles to individuals for a price. But he fails to mention the National Geographic Genographic Project, which predates them both and now encompasses genetic records from more than 800,000 people. And he first states that individuals from different species can’t mate and produce fertile offspring, then fails to explain how Homo sapiens and Neanderthals together produced so many of the rest of us.
British geneticist and broadcaster Adam Rutherford is a former editor of the journal Nature. He hosts the BBC Radio 4 program Inside Science.
If books like this are of interest to you, please check out my post, Science history and science explained in 33 excellent popular books.
Blood of Victory (Night Soldiers #7) by Alan Furst
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
Blood of Victory is the seventh of the fourteen historical novels to date in the celebrated Night Soldiers series by Alan Furst. Written in the tradition of Eric Ambler and Graham Greene, the Night Soldiers stories are set in Europe during the period 1933-44. The action ranges all across Continent, from Warsaw to Istanbul to Paris and numerous points in-between. Most of the novels involve espionage in the long, often futile resistance to Nazi domination.
In Blood of Victory, a Russian émigré writer named I. A. (Ilya) Serebin is drawn into an ambitious British plot to deny Nazi Germany the oil (“the blood of victory”) that flows from the Rumanian oilfields at Ploesti. “Half Russian aristocrat, half Boshevik Jew, . . . Serebin was forty-two, this was his fifth war, he considered himself expert in the matter of running, hiding, or not caring . . . He was, after all, I. A. Serebin, formerly a decorated Hero of the Soviet Union, Second Class, currently the executive secretary of the International Russian Union, a Paris-based organization for émigrés.” Like so many Europeans in the early years of World War II, Serebin no longer has a permanent home. He is living in Paris as the story opens in 1940, shortly after the Nazi invasion of France. But work and a desire to check in on a former lover taken him to the Balkans and to Istanbul. There, he is recruited by Janos Polyani, formerly Count Polyani, a shadowy Hungarian intelligence operative in the service of the British (and a recurring character in the Night Soldiers series).
In 1940, the Balkans are in turmoil—“as always,” some might say. Serbia is about to explode—again—with pro-Nazi and Communist forces fighting for dominance in a bitter political struggle. Mussolini’s legions have made the mistake of invading Greece and are steadily in retreat. Rumania has just joined the Tripartite Pact with Germany as civil war rages on; the Soviet Union has seized two eastern provinces, the fascist Iron Guard roams the streets like Hitler’s brownshirts, loyalists to the old regime are fighting back, and grim young Nazi “tourists” are moving into the country in large numbers. Turkey attempts to stay neutral but is in a steadily more delicate position as pressure mounts on all sides, from the Germans, the British, and the Russians.
Control of Rumania is a key to Hitler’s strategy. The oil at Ploesti fuels the German war machine because I.G. Farben cannot produce synthetic gasoline fast enough. Rumanian land is on the path to the upcoming Nazi invasion of the USSR, and Rumanian divisions are needed to flesh out Germany’s southernmost army group. To hamper Hitler’s invasion plans, slow down the Panzer divisions wreaking havoc in the West and Northern Africa, and possibly delay the invasion of the Soviet Union, Britain has identified the Ploesti oilfields as one of its highest priority targets on the continent. And Winston Churchill has established the top-secret Special Operations Executive (SOE) to conduct sabotage behind enemy lines. Ploesti is one of its first targets. Serebin is drawn into an ambitious and high-risk plan by SOE to disrupt the shipment of oil from the region up the Danube to Germany. The action that unfolds is compelling.
Like so many of Furst’s protagonists, Serebin is a man in early middle age, successful in his field, and what in that era was called a “ladies’ man.” He is rarely without the warming presence of a beautiful woman. Furst writes in an arresting style. His work conjures up the dark mood that had fallen over Europe in the late 1930s.
So Damn Lucky (Lucky O’Toole #3) by Deborah Coonts
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
So Damn Lucky is the third entry in Deborah Coonts‘ Lucky O’Toole series about the beautiful young Las Vegas hotel executive who solves problems, some of them invariably including murder. It’s also the third novel I’ve read in the series. I reviewed the first book, Wanna Get Lucky?, as A funny, sexy, well-written novel about misdeeds and passion in Las Vegas. The second, Lucky Stiff, is at Deborah Coonts on murder and mayhem in Las Vegas (it’s all fun). Though I enjoyed all three, I doubt I’ll be reading any more in the series. As I made my way through So Damn Lucky, I found myself getting tired of all the “delicious” men and their attractive backsides. (Yes, I also tire of books by male writers who only include gorgeous female characters with “ample bosoms.”)
Lucky O’Toole has only one problem she can’t handle. She hasn’t been laid in six weeks. She can manage to untangle the knottiest challenges a huge Las Vegas “megaresort” can present. Impossibly demanding guests . . . a French chef who throws tantrums . . . the Big Boss nobody can say no to . . . nothing fazes Lucky. But when a hunky male presents himself within her line of vision, she melts. And this tends to happen a lot, since Lucky is six feet tall and extremely attractive. Practically nobody who is male ignores Lucky O’Toole.
This weakness proves to be a problem when the aforementioned French chef turns out to be “delicious” and attentive beyond the bounds of politeness. The same goes for the officer from the Nevada Gaming Commission who has turned in his notice, in part because he wants to have a go at Lucky. And these are only two of the problematic characters in So Damn Lucky. The cast also includes Lucky’s mom, the owner of “Mona’s Place, the self-styled ‘Best Whorehouse in Pahrump”; Big Boss Albert Rothstein, the imperious billionaire who has only recently revealed himself to be Lucky’s father; Detective Romeo of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police, who is (fortunately) too young for Lucky; a gaggle of professional magicians; and an astronaut who recently experienced an alien abduction. There are more. Coonts creates characters who are interesting even if they strain the bounds of credibility.
The world starts spinning faster when a magician performing a seemingly impossible stunt at Lucky’s hotel dies on-stage, or at least appears to do so. Soon, top-secret experiments in extrasensory perception at Area 51 enter the mix. It’s all a glorious mess. So Damn Lucky is fun to read, if your humor tends to the sophomoric (as does mine).
If you’re looking for less outrageous reading in the mystery genre, you might enjoy my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.
An Echo of Murder (William Monk #23) by Anne Perry
@@@ (3 out of 5)
English novelist Anne Perry writes historical crime fiction. In abundance. Thirty-two books to date in the Thomas Pitt series, set in England in the period beginning in 1881. Five in a World War I series. And twenty-three in a series of novels featuring William Monk, who serves as Commander of the Thames River Police in London in the years following the American Civil War. An Echo of Murder is the latest entry in that series.
It’s 1870 now. As the novel opens, we find Commander Monk and his wife, Hester, living in comfortable surroundings on Paradise Street south of the Thames. A young man of about eighteen known as Scuff lives with them. Hester, who served as a nurse with Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War (1853-56), has founded a medical clinic across the river. Her experiences in the war figure in a major way in the story that unfolds.
An Echo of Murder begins with the savage killing of a Hungarian émigré in what appears to be a ritual murder. Investigating the crime, and others that follow, leads Monk, his sidekick, Hooper, Scuff, and eventually his wife Hester into a deep dive into the Hungarian immigrant community. But Monk’s investigation turns up virtually no clues until close to the very end of the book, and the story veers off into detailed accounts of Hester’s experience in the Crimea and Scuff’s training as a doctor in a clinic that caters to the Hungarian community. Taking center stage well into the story is Heather’s friend Fitz, who served with her as an army surgeon in the war; we learn far too much about his experiences there, too. Perry can’t sustain the suspense amid all those digressions. And, unfortunately, she seems never to have met a point she can’t belabor. I found the book slow going, not to mention often tedious.
Anne Perry, born Juliet Marion Hulme, served five years for the murder of her best friend’s mother at the age of fifteen. She later changed her name.
You might enjoy my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series. I don’t expect to add the William Monk series to that list.
Here are my choices for the 15 best books of 2017. All were published in English in the United States from November 2016 through November 2017. They’re arranged within each section below in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names. Every title is linked to my review.
At the bottom of this post, I’ve listed 34 books I feel merit honorable mention.
A searing account of the 2016 election that centers most of the blame for Hillary Clinton’s loss on the candidate herself and the people surrounding her.
The astonishing story of a woman whose seminal work in developing the science of cryptology and identifying Nazi spies in World War II has only recently been recognized.
Then the richest people in America, the Osage of Oklahoma became the victims of a series of brutal murders in the 1920s by neighbors bent on stealing the oil wealth under their land.
To an extent that is only dimly understood, the histories of the US and China have been deeply intertwined ever since the founding of the republic.
A lexicographer with a wicked sense of humor gives an inside look at the making of the most popular dictionary in America.
A Soviet agent sent undercover in Nazi Germany proves that “a single spy in the right place and at the right moment may change the course of history.”
The author of the long-running series of bestselling detective novels featuring Harry Bosch introduces a new leading lady, destined to have her own series.
A retired MI6 officer plots to avenge the murder of his lover by the KGB colonel who had undermined his work over the years.
The iconic British spy, George Smiley, hovers in the background as a younger MI6 officer who had worked with him during the Cold War confronts a lawsuit about their work together.
The Georgia-based novelist who writes the Grant County and Will Trent series of crime thrillers probes the depths of depravity that touch a family of lawyers in rural Georgia.
This debut novel tells the haunting, dystopian tale of a second American civil war set late in the twenty-first century.
An American book publisher visits Moscow to edit the memoirs of his brother, who had defected to the Soviet Union decades earlier and joined the KGB.
In a future dominated by artificial intelligence and biotechnology, a military robot seeks to gain autonomy while on the hunt for a “patent pirate” who illegally manufactures medicine.
A police officer in the 22nd century investigates the death of a religious cult figure under the tight control of the company who has enslaved him.
The author of the bestselling Kindle County courtroom dramas shifts his attention to the Hague and the war-crimes trial of a notorious Bosnian military leader.
Okay, now let’s get real. Nobody, and I mean nobody, including the army of reviewers who contribute to the New York Times Book Review, can possibly identify the “best” books published in any year. Believe it or not, more than one million titles were published in the United States alone in the most recent year for which statistics are available (2013). Some 304,000 titles were issued by “traditional” publishers in the US, and another 184,000 in the UK. In other words, in a single year, publishing companies brought out nearly half a million titles in just two of the biggest English-language publishing markets. (The numbers for India were substantially smaller.) And that’s only the data for traditional publishers. Self-published titles (in the US alone) numbered more than 700,000. So, don’t believe anyone who claims they’ve identified the “best” books of the year.
One other thing: reviewers are selective. I’m especially so. I don’t read cookbooks, poetry, romance novels, collections of short stories, self-help guides, or books about sports, art, philosophy, vampires, zombies, ghosts, or a dozen other topics that don’t come readily to mind. I do read mysteries and thrillers, science fiction, popular “serious” fiction, humor, and nonfiction about history, world affairs, biography, politics, science, and business. Broadly speaking, my reading falls into three categories: mysteries and thrillers, trade fiction, and nonfiction. Those are the three categories I’ve used above.
In a given year, I read about 200 books. Now, I recognize that speedreaders may consume far more than that. But I’ve tried speedreading, and I don’t like it. It’s not really reading: it’s mining for information. That may work for lawyers, scholars, or others reading with specific ends in mind. But it’s not fun, at least not for me. And I only review books that I’ve read from beginning to end.
Now you know.
Here, then, are the 34 books I thought were also excellent but warrant only honorable mention. As above, they’re all linked to my reviews.
I’ve reviewed 21 recently published nonfiction books in the last year, all of which are good but not quite good enough to make the list of five top reads above.
During the past year I’ve read and enjoyed the following nine mysteries and thrillers in addition to the five top reads listed above.
Here are four books I classify as trade fiction (including science fiction) that I found worthy of mention, in addition to the five top reads in this category above.
Paranoia by Joseph Finder
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
In Paranoia by Joseph Finder, young Adam Cassidy works in a low-level job at the huge high-tech firm Wyatt Technologies. When he decides to game the system and transfer company funds to pay for a retirement party for a man in the shipping department, his troubles begin. Big troubles. Threatening to send him to prison for years for embezzlement unless Adam cooperates, the company’s nasty, paranoid owner Nicholas Wyatt forces him to become an industrial spy. Nick Wyatt is “a guy so crooked he’d cheat on a prostate exam.” Nobody says no to Nick. Nobody. Ever.
“Nick Wyatt slept three hours a nigh, seemed to eat nothing but PowerBars for breakfast and lunch, was a nuclear reactor of nervous energy, perspired heavily. People called him ‘The Exterminator.'”
“‘Of course I’m paranoid,’ Nick says. ‘I want everyone who works for me to be paranoid. Success demands paranoia.'”
Adam’s assignment is to secure a job at Trion Systems, Wyatt’s biggest competitor. There, after intensive training in industrial espionage by Wyatt’s chief of security, Adam is to ferret out information about a huge top-secret project at Trion that is rumored to be a game-changer. Adam is a slacker and has never applied himself, but it quickly becomes clear that he is highly intelligent, socially adept, and a slick talker. It doesn’t take long for him to get himself hired, luck into a relationship with a gorgeous coworker, and eventually gain the attention of Trion’s celebrated founder, Jock Goddard. The contrast between Goddard and Wyatt couldn’t be greater. Complications quickly ensue.
Paranoia is fast-paced and devilishly clever. Even if, like me, you get an inkling of what’s going on as Adam’s spying progresses, you’re unlikely to be prepared for the explosive ending.
Joseph Finder has been writing thrillers since 1983. Many of his books concern industrial espionage. Paranoia, which is set within the tech industry, displays considerable knowledge of technology and of the industry.
You might also enjoy my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.
Cetaganda (Vorkosigan Saga #6) by Lois McMaster Bujold
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
Much of classic science fiction consisted of what came to be called “space opera”—and most of it was junk. With some notable exceptions, the format is rarely used today. However, the multiple-award-winner Lois McMaster Bujold has updated the space opera with a long (and ongoing) series of novels, novellas, and short stories about a brilliant military officer who happens to be a dwarf. His name is Miles Vorkosigan. He’s the son of the (now) former regent of the Empire of Barrayar, a backward planet on the fringes of galactic civilization about one thousand years in the future; the emperor is his cousin. The Vorkosigan Saga continues with book #6, Cetaganda.
In Cetaganda, Miles and his (much taller) cousin Ivan are dispatched to represent the Barrayaran Empire at the funeral of the Dowager Empress of their bitterest and longest-standing enemy, the Cetagandan Empire. However, to call both entities “empires” gives the lie to the vast difference between them. Barrayar, a single planet located off the main trade routes of the galaxy, has only recently become integrated into galactic civilization. Barrayarans, even the most noble, are considered barbarians elsewhere. The Cetagandan Empire is vast and wealthy beyond compare. Barrayar managed to survive an invasion by the Cetagandan military only through the brilliant soldiering of Miles’ father, then Admiral Count Aral Vorkosigan. Thus, when Miles and Ivan arrive on Eta Ceta IV, “the heart and homeworld of the sprawling Cetagandan Empire,” they feel like country yokels visiting the big city for the first time.
The author paints a fascinating picture of Cetagandan society. Though an emperor rules, the empress (who is not necessarily his wife) wields what might be considered even greater power. She commands the Star Creche, where bioengineers have been tinkering for centuries with the genome of the ruling caste, the haut. (Think haute cuisine or haute couture.) Though the emperor reigns over the men who serve as governors of the eight satrap planets, their freedom of action is circumscribed by the haut women who are assigned to be their wives. The haut are effectively a super-race and possibly no longer truly human. The governors, by contrast, are members of a decidedly human and subordinate military caste called the ghem.
Miles, now 22 and a lieutenant in Barrayaran Imperial Security, has been cautioned to avoid drawing attention to himself on his mission to Cetaganda. However, this is a difficult, if not impossible, assignment, since Miles is 4’9″ tall, hunchbacked, and wears braces to prevent the brittle bones in his legs from breaking. In any case, it’s not in his nature to play by the rules. It’s a sure thing that Miles will get into trouble—and drag Ivan along with him.
As is the case with all the previous novels in the Vorkosigan Saga, the action comes thick and fast from the very beginning of Cetaganda. As Miles and Ivan are docking in orbit around Eta Ceta IV, a mysterious local man bursts into their shuttle, apparently intent on assassinating them. They tackle the man and seize his weapon as well as a mysterious tubular object they’d thought was also a weapon. As they puzzle over the object, the Cetagandan escapes. Any discerning reader will be aware that this strange object will play a central role in the tale that follows. (It’s pictured on the cover of the edition I read.) Not long after arriving on the planet’s surface, Miles realizes that he and Ivan will be accused of stealing the object, whatever it is, presumably as a pretext for the Cetagandan Empire to go to war again with Barrayar.
In the complex series of events that follow, Miles becomes embroiled in a desperate search to understand why he and Ivan have been targeted, and who was behind the attack. The two cousins soon find themselves socializing with Cetagandans of the ghem caste. Although barbarians like them aren’t supposed to come into contact with the exalted haut, it doesn’t take long for that to happen, too. The story that unfolds involves a murder investigation and political intrigue of the highest order within the Cetagandan Empire. Bujold writes with a light touch. The dialogue is clever and sometimes very funny. The book is a great deal of fun.
For example, consider this exchange between Miles and Ivan:
Miles: “you have to stay absolutely cool. I may be completely off-base, and panicking prematurely.”
Ivan: “I don’t think so. I think you’re panicking post-maturely. In fact, if you were panicking any later it would be practically posthumously. I’ve been panicking for days.”
For some reason, when I read dialogue like this, I think of Redford and Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
If you’re a sci-fi fan, you’ll enjoy my post, My 27 favorite science fiction novels. And if you want to access my reviews of the five preceding books in the Vorkosigan Saga, you can find them by searching for that name on this site.
Benjamin Black is the pen name of Irish author John Banville, who is widely regarded as a consummate stylist of the English language. He won the Man Booker Prize in 2005 for his fourteenth novel, The Sea. Banville insists that he writes the Quirke series of Dublin crime novels for the money, but it’s difficult to detect any evidence that he doesn’t give those books the same care he lends to his “serious” fiction.
Christine Falls (2006)—Corruption and mayhem in Dublin and Boston in a superior mystery novel
The woman whose name is on the cover of this engrossing tale of murder, betrayal, and corruption on high has arrived in Quirke’s morgue, deemed a suicide by the police. When Quirke comes across his brother-in-law, Malachy Griffin, doctoring the records of the young woman’s death, he develops an irresistible urge to examine the case more closely. Naturally, he finds that the reason for the woman’s death was anything but suicide . . . Read the full review.
The Silver Swan (2007)—A suspenseful novel that will keep you guessing until the end
Like many of the best crime writers, Black focuses on character, atmosphere, and language as much as on plot. The sure hand of a master stylist is very much in evidence in The Silver Swan. You’ll see it in the dialogue, where the individual speech patterns of his characters are distinctive, and in his lyrical descriptions of Dublin in the rain. If you read this book to the end, you might think you’ve gotten to know Quirke, and you may like him. You might also have a sense of Dublin, even if you’ve never been there . . . Read the full review.
Elegy for April (2010)—1950s Dublin: murder and the Church
Elegy for April is the third of Black’s seven novels about the alcoholic pathologist in 1950s Dublin whom we know only as Quirke. These novels explore the tight grip of the Catholic Church on Irish society and the crimes so often committed in her name. Quirke, though he has no official role as an investigator, is drawn into what usually prove to be murder cases by virtue of his family’s involvement . . . Read the full review.
A Death in Summer (2011)—Murder in Dublin, and an unconventional sleuth who solves the case
The “death in summer” that gives this tale its title is the shotgun beheading of a ruthless Dublin businessman who leaves behind a French widow, a sister, and enough enemies to populate an Agatha Christie whodunit. However, despite a plethora of suspects, Quirke and Hackett, his collaborator in the Garda (the Dublin police), focus on those closest to the deceased. As the investigation unfolds, Quirke dives deeply into the complex relations within the victim’s family and becomes romantically involved with the widow . . . Read the full review.
Vengeance (2012)—Benjamin Black’s Quirke series: Is it “serious literature?”
In the Quirke novels, Banville comes to grip with the Irish elite, the underlying tension between Catholic and Protestant, the dead weight of the Church, and the veil of history. Quirke and his police collaborator, Inspector Hackett of the Garda, invariably find themselves caught up in the often violent conflicts roiling Dublin’s elite society. In Vengeance, two families are locked in combat for three generations, one Protestant, one Catholic, as partners in one of the country’s biggest businesses. The mysterious death at sea of one of the partners triggers an investigation by Quirke and Hackett that leads them to uncover long-hidden family secrets . . . Read the full review.
Holy Orders (2013)—From Benjamin Black, a mystery to savor for its gorgeous prose
The sixth of Banville’s novels (writing as Black) about the tortured Dublin pathologist who appears to be named only Quirke is a textbook example of dazzling prose. Any reader looking for nonstop action and sheer excitement won’t find them in Holy Orders. Black is concerned more with character development and scene-setting than with the usual conventions of the mystery genre. The story involves Quirke, his daughter Phebe, and his pal Inspector Hackett of the Garda in a complex plot with Irish “travelers” (called “tinkers” in Ireland) and a passel of very unpleasant priests and their enforcers . . . Read the full review.
Even the Dead (2015)—Dublin’s answer to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson?
Quirke and Detective Inspector Hackett bear not the slightest resemblance to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. But they have come together once again because a young man thought to have been a suicide has instead, apparently, been murdered. In the 1950s, Ireland is the same poor country it had been for centuries, long before the recent boom that first lifted its economy into the heights of prosperity and then sent it crashing below. In “this mean and mendacious little city,” as Quirke thinks of it, alcohol almost invariably fuels social interactions, and alcoholism is rampant. In this setting, the Catholic Church reigns supreme and untouchable—and yet when Quirke and Hackett deduce that the Church is somewhere in the background of this latest murder, they don’t hesitate to take it on, all-powerful or not . . . Read the full review.
I have also reviewed two other John Banville books published under his pseudonym, Benjamin Black: