February 26, 2018

John Sandford’s best Virgil Flowers novel?

Rough Country by John SandfordRough Country (Virgil Flowers #3) by John Sandford

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Virgil Flowers is one of the most interesting characters in detective fiction today. He’s the top investigator in the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. His boss, Lucas Davenport, gives him only the toughest cases. But he is in no way a stereotype. For one thing, he doesn’t like guns, and he hates shooting people.

Virgil, the son of a preacher, “held unconventional beliefs, not necessarily Christian, but not necessarily un-Christian, either, derived from his years of studying nature, and his earlier years, his childhood years, with the Bible.” He hold a degree in environmental science from the University of Minnesota, reflecting his passion for the outdoors, and especially for fishing. Virgil has parlayed this hobby into a successful sideline as a writer for outdoors magazines. And recently he wrote a two-part series for the New York Times Magazine about a complex case he’d just solved. (That case was the subject of Heat Lightning, the compelling second book in the Virgil Flowers series.) As a result, Davenport says he’s “the most famous cop in Minnesota.”

Virgil has long blond hair and is obviously good-looking. He typically wears jeans and a T-shirt advertising an obscure rock band, seemingly a different one every day. Women are drawn to him, and he manages to fall in love with a beautiful young woman on just about every case. He’s been married, and divorced, three times.

Rough Country opens with the murder of Erica McDill, a partner in a prominent Minneapolis advertising agency at a resort for women-only in the state’s lake country. Because the press and the politicians are all over the case, and because Virgil is on a fishing trip not far from the resort, Davenport assigns him to investigate the killing. It quickly emerges that McDill is a lesbian, as are many of the other women at the resort. Perhaps, then, some love affair gone bad explains the murder. But Virgil also learns that McDill was maneuvering to buy out her principal partner in the advertising agency—and planning to fire many of the staff once she gained control. Rumors about the firing were already making the rounds at the agency. To complicate matters further, McDill had tired of her partner, Ruth, who suspected she would be dumped. But there are also complicating factors involving the ownership of the resort, giving yet someone else a motive for the killing.

Naturally, we have faith in Virgil. We know he’s going to solve the case. But how he gets there is surprising at the least. And the conclusion is a shocker. I’ve enjoyed every one of the books I’ve read in this series. The dialogue is invariably clever and occasionally hilarious. But Rough Country may be John Sandford’s best Virgil Flowers novel.

Dark of the Moon, the first novel in the series, at In Virgil Flowers’ debut, arson, multiple murder, and a right-wing preacher. The second, Heat Lightning, is at “That f—ing Virgil Flowers,” Vietnam vets, the CIA, and a serial killer. You might also enjoy my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series. This series is included.

February 19, 2018

“That f—ing Virgil Flowers,” Vietnam vets, the CIA, and a serial killer

That f---ing Virgil Flowers: Heat Lightning by John SandfordHeat Lightning (Virgil Flowers #2) by John Sandford

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Virgil Flowers has the highest rate of closed cases of all the agents in the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA). But he’s no superhero. Virgil makes mistakes. He sometimes misreads suspects and jumps to conclusions. He misses clues. And it’s those mistakes that help propel the action forward at a fast clip in Heat Lightning. The novel is the second in what so far have been ten books in John Sandford’s outstanding Virgil Flowers series.

Sandford’s writing is addictive. His characters are unfailingly interesting. The plots in his novels are always complex, and sometimes devilishly so. The dialogue is crisp and sounds natural. And, at least in the Virgil Flowers series, it’s sometimes funny.

Here, for example, is Virgil speaking with a bored young Vietnamese woman he has just met in the course of his investigation into a series of murders.

“‘St. Paul would be a nice place to live if you had something to do. I don’t have anything to do,'” the young woman remarks.

“‘There’s always sex,’ Virgil said. ‘You’re away from home, where nobody knows you. You could indulge all your sexual fantasies and nobody would ever find out.’

“‘But who would I sleep with?’

“‘We could put a notice in the paper, ask for volunteers.'”

Virgil being Virgil, we can be confident that he will end up in bed with this young woman, who is, of course, extremely attractive. In fact, Virgil is likely to fall in love with her. He has a habit of doing that.

When others refer to Virgil, he is frequently called “that f—ing Virgil Flowers.” The man does stand out!

The case that has brought Virgil together with this young woman involves a series of murders connected in some way with an event in Vietnam in 1975, immediately following the departure of the last US troops. Two veterans of the war have been found dead of gunshots, propped up against Vietnam War monuments in small Minnesota towns. They both have lemons stuffed in their mouths. Virgil’s assignment is to track down the killers quickly enough to prevent any further killings.

As the action unfolds, a constellation of powerful forces and other seemingly unrelated players enter the stage. The CIA. The Vietnamese government. The Department of Homeland Security. The Red Lake Ojibwe. And the governor of Minnesota. Even a careful reader is likely to have difficulty predicting the course of events. As I said, John Sandford’s plots are sometimes devilishly clever.

I’ve also reviewed six other Virgil Flowers novels:

You might also enjoy my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series. This series is included.

February 12, 2018

Guilt, the allure of beauty, and murder in an excellent Australian thriller

An excellent Australian thriller: The Dark Lake by Susan BaileyThe Dark Lake by Sarah Bailey

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Susan Bailey’s new thriller, The Dark Lake, explores the power of guilt and the allure of beauty in a suspenseful tale of murder and long-suppressed secrets. “‘Everyone in this town has something to hide,'” as one character observes. The plot revolves around those festering secrets.

Smithson is a town of 30,000 in the Australian outback, “a good four-hour drive from Sydney.” There, a 28-year-old high school teacher named Rosalind (Rose) Ryan has been found murdered and possibly raped as well. She was discovered floating in Smithson Lake, red roses strewn across her body. An old school classmate of hers, Detective Sergeant Gemma Woodstock has been assigned to the investigation along with her partner and secret lover, Detective Sergeant Felix McKinnon. Gemma’s 10-year-old connections to Rose run deep. She manages to stay on the case only by downplaying them. Her boss is willing to allow Gemma to head the investigation because he regards her as his best detective—his protege, in a way.

Rose is an enigmatic figure, a woman of great beauty and hidden desires. She is the daughter of the town’s richest man, a developer, and sister to three older brothers. Unlike her brothers, Rose avoids the family’s palatial home. She lives alone in a small cottage in a run-down neighborhood. Rumors swirl about Rose—that she was having an affair with the high school principal, that she was sleeping with one of her students, that something terrible happened to her on a previous teaching job in Sydney.

Men find Gemma attractive, too, but she compares herself unfavorably to Rose. And a minor character observes that “Gemma looks like a bargain basement mannequin.” She has a boyish figure, and she’s careless about what she wears.

Guilt over some unspecified sin in her teen years has driven Gemma to join the police. “‘I didn’t really have another choice,’ she explains to Felix. ‘I needed so badly to work in a world that made binary sense of things. A place where there was good and bad, right and wrong, and where I was in charge of making sure there was more good than bad.'”

The Dark Lake unfolds in chapters that alternate between the present time with Gemma and Rose’s final year at Smithson High School ten years earlier. At first, the connections between the two lines of the plot appear to be incidental. Gradually, as Gemma digs more deeply into her memory, we find the fateful connections that lead to an explosive ending.

I recently reviewed another strong murder mystery from Australia, The Dry by Jane Harper. You’ll find its review at Multiple murder in the Australian outback. You might also enjoy my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

February 5, 2018

Maisie Dobbs in “a place seething with those dispossessed by war”

dispossessed by war: A Dangerous Place by Jacqueline WinspearA Dangerous Place (Maisie Dobbs #11) by Jacqueline Winspear

@@@ (3 out of 5)

Her legal name is now Margaret, Lady Compton, but she still calls herself Maisie Dobbs. Having grown up in the London working-class neighborhood of Lambeth, Maisie is uncomfortable with the title. Widowed shortly after her marriage to the wealthy Lord James Compton, she has been abroad. She is fearful of returning to England, where unnerving memories await her.

It’s now April 1937, and Maisie has alighted in Gibraltar. It’s “a place seething with those dispossessed by war across the border.” The Spanish Civil War is raging.

For years before leaving England in 1933, Maisie had operated as a “psychologist and investigator.” When she stumbles across a dead body shortly after arriving in Gibraltar, she’s unable to resist investigating the death. The police insist the victim, a local photographer who was a Sephardic Jew, had been murdered by a vagrant. Maisie is convinced otherwise. Her conviction, and her compulsion to act, lead her into a tangled mystery involving arms smugglers aiding the Republican forces in Spain’s civil war. The investigation takes her onto the front lines in Madrid, where the loyalist Republicans are valiantly resisting Francisco Franco’s Fascist legions. As the action unfolds, the German and Italian destruction of Guernica takes place.

I’ve read and enjoyed the ten previous novels in Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series. I found A Dangerous Place less enjoyable because I had difficulty understanding Maisie’s thinking and the motivation of several other characters in the story. Why did she insist on investigating that murder? Why is the British secret service following her so closely? (Her father-in-law’s interest is unconvincing.) Who was the mysterious blond man who appeared in one of the photographer’s photos? Winspear’s answers to these questions weren’t satisfying.

Previously, I’ve reviewed all the Maisie Dobbs novels. One of my reviews is at Maisie Dobbs: living the legacy of World War I. You’ll find another at Class resentment in Depression-era England. For the others, simply search for Maisie Dobbs or the author’s name. You might also enjoy my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series. This series is included.

January 8, 2018

From Iceland: folklore, the WWII occupation, and two murders

From Iceland: The Shadow District by Arnaldur IndridasonThe Shadow District by Arnaldur Indridason

@@@ (3 out of 5)

When Germany invaded Denmark, Norway, and the Low Countries in April 1940, the British quickly moved to occupy the Danish dependency of Iceland. By 1944, tens of thousands of American troops had joined them there. Their impact on the insular people of the island kingdom was immediate, boosting the underdeveloped economy of the country and offering thousands of young Icelandic women with glamorous new romantic possibilities. When a 19-year-old seamstress in Reykjavik turns up dead, it was natural for the police to suspect that a GI was responsible. That was the first line of inquiry followed by the local detective and the American military policeman assigned to work the case with him.

The 1944 murder of the young seamstress is one of two parallel investigations traced by Arnaldur Indridason in his novel, The Shadow District. Seven decades later, a retired Reykjavik police officer named Konrad volunteers to help the short-staffed police by looking into the death of a 90-year-old man in that same neighborhood of the city. Partly because Konrad has some indirect connection to the 1944 case, and partly because evidence keeps turning up as his inquiry proceeds, he becomes convinced there is a connection between the two cases. In alternating chapters, Indridason follows Konrad’s investigation and that of the two police officers in 1944, gradually revealing the complex ways in which the two cases are related.

Indridason is accomplished at plotting, his lead characters are believable, and his exploration of the Icelandic folklore that is a factor in the tale is fascinating. However, what is most striking about this novel is the consistently flat style of the writing. It appears that the translator is at least partly at fault. Awkward and ungrammatical passages crop up at frequent intervals:

  • “The manager of the nursing home was rushed off his feet . . . He was a big man and loud with it.”
  • “The man shook him by the hand.”
  • “she wasn’t especially good at her books.”

Perhaps these are obscure British figures of speech. I doubt it. (British spelling suggests the novel was first translated for publication in the UK.)

The Icelandic crime novelist Arnaldur Indridason has written 19 novels to date. Eleven of them constitute a series featuring the Reykjavik detective Erlendur; three more feature Young Erlendur. The Shadow District is one of five standalone novels. A former journalist, he published his first novel in 1997 at the age of 36. Arnaldur’s novels repeatedly top the bestseller lists in Iceland, and they frequently win awards.

Several years ago, I reviewed an earlier novel by this author, Hypothermia, an Erlendur novel published in 2007. My review is at From Arnaldur Indridason, a thriller that isn’t especially thrilling. You might find mysteries you would enjoy more at my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

January 2, 2018

A compelling tale of murder, race, and family secrets by Attica Locke

Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica LockeBluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Two bodies have turned up in quick succession in a small town in hardscrabble East Texas. The sheriff is inclined to treat them as unconnected. But not so Darren Matthews, a Texas Ranger who has come to town at the urging of a friend in the FBI who suspects larger forces at work there. An African-American, Darren fears a connection with the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas (ABT), a violent racist gang enriched by drug smuggling. However, Darren is on suspension from the Texas Rangers because he is suspected of involvement in the death of a known member of the ABT. Nonetheless, without authorization, he sets out to investigate the two deaths. Once in town, he encounters resistance from the sheriff and worrisome rumblings from the local people. No one, not the African-Americans who congregate at Geneva’s cafe nor the white men who hang out in a nearby bar, is willing to help Darren at first. He’s an outsider. He doesn’t belong.

This is the setup in Bluebird, Bluebird, the new novel from the widely acclaimed writer Attica Locke. Her title comes from a blues song of the same name sung by John Lee Hooker. (“Bluebird, bluebird, take this letter down South for me.”) Music, especially the blues, plays a large role in the background of this gripping murder mystery.

Bluebird, Bluebird highlights the uneasy relationships between black and white in a Texas town still in the vise of history. “Forty-some years after the death of Jim Crow, not much had changed,” writes Locke. Given the setup, it would be natural to expect the two deaths (which are in fact murders) to be racially motivated. Race is a central factor—but in ways that are too complicated to imagine as the story begins to unfold.

Attica Locke was born in Houston. She makes her home in the Los Angeles area, where she has accumulated numerous credits as a screenwriter. Bluebird, Bluebird is her third novel.

You might also enjoy my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

December 7, 2017

Ritual murder and Hungarian émigrés in 1870 London

An Echo of Murder by Anne PerryAn 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.

For your information, I’m also listing here all the mysteries and thrillers reviewed in 2017 on this blog.

November 16, 2017

Russian mobsters and crooked lawyers in the latest Harry Bosch

Two Kinds of Truth by Michael ConnellyTwo Kinds of Truth by Michael ConnellyTwo Kinds of Truth (Harry Bosch #20) by Michael Connelly

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Harry Bosch can’t catch a break. He was forced into retirement from the LAPD, where he served for more than forty years. His wife was murdered.  Now his integrity is being called into question when a three-decade-old case is reopened by the LAPD. Meanwhile, as a volunteer detective for the tiny San Fernando Police Department, he’s looking into a cold case and getting nowhere. Then an active double-homicide investigation sidetracks him from his other worries.

This is the setup in Two Kinds of Truth, the twentieth Harry Bosch thriller from Michael Connelly. Even well past retirement age, Harry hasn’t lost his touch. Nor has Connelly. The novel is tautly written, compulsively suspenseful, and timely to boot: one of the central lines of the plot concerns Russian mobsters running a huge opioid scam that the DEA hasn’t been able to crack. The details about how they operate are jaw-dropping—and no doubt based on fact, given Connelly’s consistently strong research.

Harry faces three investigations simultaneously. Fifteen years ago a young mother had disappeared, leaving her infant sleeping in a crib. The case haunts the San Fernando police chief, who has never turned up a clue—and nor has Harry. Two pharmacists, a father and son, have been brutally murdered at work in San Fernando. The two masked men who executed the pair have left no clues. And Preston Borders, a serial rapist-murderer Harry brought to justice twenty-nine years ago seems about to be freed from death row because DNA evidence has turned up implicating another man in the one rape and murder for which he was convicted.

Harry broods a lot. That’s always been his way. Now he reflects that “there were two kinds of truth in this world. The truth that was the unalterable bedrock of one’s life and mission. And the other, malleable truth of politicians, charlatans, corrupt lawyers, and their clients, bent and molded to serve whatever purpose was at hand.” The events that unfold illustrate this distinction to a T.

If you wonder where Harry Bosch started out, take a look at Michael Connelly’s first Harry Bosch novel: the backstory. You might also be interested in reading my post, “15 great suspenseful detective novels (plus 23 others).” You may also enjoy my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series. This series is included.

For your information, I’m also listing here all the mysteries and thrillers reviewed in 2017 on this blog.

November 14, 2017

A ghetto detective, a Las Vegas loan shark, and a Chinese triad

Righteous by Joe Ideghetto detective: Righteous by Joe IdeRighteous (IQ #2) by Joe Ide

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Isaiah Quintabe, known as IQ, was a brilliant 17-year-old high school student in East Long Beach on the path to Harvard when his beloved older brother, Marcus, was killed by a hit-and-run driver. Marcus’ death upended IQ’s life. At first, he turned to burglary, then gravitated toward using his extraordinary analytical powers to help friends and acquaintances in the ghetto solve the problems facing them. “He stopped the guy that was going to rape Néstor’s daughter, and he caught the guy that was setting the fires and he got the school’s computers back, and he busted the cops so they had to let Jorge go.” IQ’s string of successes caught the attention of the local news media. Thus he came to be the famous ghetto detective everyone turns to when problems come up.

Now, in Righteous, Joe Ide‘s second IQ novel, it’s eight years after Marcus’ death. The ghetto detective finally comes across a clue to the killing. In the auto wrecking yard where he worked in years past, the car that killed his brother turns up. The discovery triggers a frenzied investigation that brings IQ into dangerous confrontations with several leaders of a powerful local gang. Shortly afterward, Marcus’ old girlfriend, Sarita Van, calls to ask him to rescue her sister from a merciless loanshark in Las Vegas. Sarita’s younger sister is a gambling addict, and she and her idiotic boyfriend have gambled themselves into a debt they can never repay.

IQ’s twin investigations in Righteous bring him into conflict with the loan shark and his seven-foot-tall enforcer, the violent gang that terrorizes East Long Beach, and a Chinese triad‘s enormous human-trafficking operation. In the end, IQ solves the mystery of his brother’s death and, of course, saves the girl as well. All the fun lies in getting there. The tale is suspenseful, a successful thriller.

If you enjoy reading detective novels, check out my post, 15 great suspenseful detective novels (plus 23 others). You might also be interested in 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

For your information, I’m also listing here all the mysteries and thrillers reviewed in 2017 on this blog.

November 6, 2017

Maisie Dobbs confronts class dynamics in Depression-era England

Leaving Everything Most Loved by Jacqueline Winspearclass dynamics: Leaving Everything Most Loved by Jacqueline WinspearLeaving Everything Most Loved (Maisie Dobbs #10) by Jacqueline Winspear

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

London, July 1933. The Great Depression is underway in full force. Adolf Hitler has seized power in Germany, and Sir Oswald Mosley‘s British Union of Fascists is striking fear into the hearts of the Establishment. But Maisie Dobbs has problems of her own. Now 36, the successful “psychologist and investigator” is restless. Having grown up poor, she is uncomfortable with the great fortune willed to her by her late mentor, Dr. Maurice Blanche, and resisting the entreaties of her wealthy and aristocratic live-in lover, James Compton, to close her practice and become his wife. Maisie wants to leave it all behind and travel to India in Maurice’s footsteps. All that holds her back are her aging father, Frankie Dobbs, and the two employees who depend on her, Billy Beale and Sandra Tapley. Thus the scene is set in Leaving Everything Most Loved, the 10th volume in Jacqueline Winspear‘s engrossing Maisie Dobbs series.

Maisie Dobbs explores the world of Indian immigrants

While Maisie teeters on the edge of indecision, a call from Detective Inspector Caldwell at Scotland Yard draws her back into the grim reality of Depression-era London. A beautiful young Indian immigrant, Usha Pramal, has been brutally murdered, and Scotland Yard’s investigation has hit a wall. As Maisie sets out on the case, she finds the elusive truth about Usha’s death may lie somewhere in India in the time and circumstances before the young woman’s departure for England. And a separate case Maisie had assigned to Billy, her assistant, may somehow prove to be closely related to her murder investigation.

Class dynamics in Depression-era England

As in the nine novels that precede it in the series, Leaving Everything Most Loved is a gripping novel of suspense. Yet the greatest strength Jacqueline Winspear brings to her work is her fine-tuned understanding of class dynamics in England between the two world wars. For example, here is Maisie uncomfortably reflecting on how far she’s come in life:

“How different now was her life from that of the girl who left a small house in Lambeth to work at a grand mansion in Belgravia. Ebury Place. She was, to all intents and purposes, mistress of that same house now, yet at once she remembered the feelings that caused her to weep as she made her way towards the kitchen entrance on a blustery day so long ago. She had just turned thirteen, still grieving the loss of her mother, when she left her father’s house that morning.” Her years with Lord Compton and his family unexpectedly put her on the path to education and success, but she had never quite reconciled herself to leaping across the class gap that for millions of others was impassable.

Though there is violence in the Maisie Dobbs novels, it serves only to move the story forward. None of it is gratuitous or disturbing, as is the case in so many (often American) detective novels.

My review of Maisie Dobbs, the first novel in the series, is at A female detective like no other. The second, Birds of a Feather, is The cost of war hangs over the action like a shroud, and the third, Pardonable Lives, is Maisie Dobbs: living the legacy of World War I. I reviewed #4, Messenger of Truth, at Class resentment in Depression-era England, and #5, An Incomplete Revenge, is at The pleasures of reading Maisie Dobbs. My review of the sixth in the series, Among the Mad, is Shell shock, madness, the Great Depression. The seventh, The Mapping of Love and Death, is Another great detective novel from Jacqueline Winspear, and the eighth, A Lesson in Secrets, is Nazis, pacifists, and spies in 1930s Britain. I reviewed the previous novel, #9, Elegy for Eddieat An excellent Maisie Dobbs novel from Jacqueline Winspear. You might also be interested in my list of 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

For your information, I’m also listing here all the mysteries and thrillers reviewed in 2017 on this blog.

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