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.

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).”

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.

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.

October 16, 2017

The latest addition to Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Department Q series

Department Q: The Scarred Woman by Jussi Adler-OlsenThe Scarred Woman (Department Q #7) by Jussi Adler-Olsen

@@@ (3 out of 5)

The Scarred Woman is the seventh novel in Jussi Adler-Olsen‘s series about Danish detectives holed up in the basement of Copenhagen’s police headquarters, ostensibly to work on cold cases. Like the six books that preceded it, it tells the story of how the small team in Department Q takes on several homicide cases simultaneously and discovers—lo and behold!—that they’re all connected. In the process, all three of Detective Carl Mørck’s “assistants,” Asaad, Rose, and Gordon, manage to infuriate and astound him in new and sometimes highly creative ways. It’s just possible, we might guess, that all three of them are at least as smart as he is, if not more so. Meanwhile, Mørck infuriates his own boss, and practically everyone else in the police force. He’s always in trouble for insubordination, shaming his superiors, defying orders, stealing someone else’s cases, or simply showing up all his colleagues with his (or perhaps his team’s) brilliance. But somehow he always manages to evade being fired.

The Scarred Woman merges an in-depth exploration of Rose’s mental illness with a tale of the team’s investigation into three homicide cases and a night club heist. We’ve known for some time that Rose is not well. Now, we learn just how seriously ill she really is.

The titles of the six previous novels in Adler-Olsen’s series all relate closely to the contents. But I can’t figure out who “the scarred woman” is. I’m also put off by the author’s exaggerated portrayal of so many of his characters. More than in the previous novels in the Department Q series, several of the key figures in the story come across as cartoonish. One, Rose’s father, is particularly difficult to believe. Apparently, Adler-Olsen was off his game when he wrote this one.

Oh, and one more thing: the author’s writing displays a bonehead error that any competent editor or translator (or, for that matter, the author himself) should have caught: again and again, his characters address each other by name. Obviously, Adler-Olsen wants to be sure the reader understands who’s speaking to whom—or perhaps simply to remind himself. But there are far better ways to achieve that; more attentive novelists have found ways. It was this unfortunate error, as much as anything else, that caused me to stop reading Cara Black’s Aimee Leduc detective series set in Paris. I find the practice extremely annoying.

Previously, I’ve reviewed all six of the earlier novels in this series, and all of them more favorably. Go to Jussi-Adler Olsen’s Department Q thrillers for links to my reviews of the whole series. You might also want to take a look at 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

October 9, 2017

Michael Connelly’s first Harry Bosch novel: the backstory

Harry Bosch novel - the black echo - michael connellyThe Black Echo (Harry Bosch #1) by Michael Connelly

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Of the thirty-one novels Michael Connelly has written to date since 1992, twenty feature LAPD detective Harry Bosch. If you’ve only read one or more of the most recent entries in the series, you may be interested to know that from his first appearance in fiction, Bosch’s character, the rudiments of the formula Connelly employs throughout, and some of the characters who follow him throughout the series all are on display.

In The Black Echo, Harry is a twenty-year veteran of the force, “the famous Harry Bosch, detective superstar, a couple books written about his cases. TV movie. A spinoff series.” He is “an outsider in an insider’s job.” Harry has bought a house in the hills with money he received for the film made about his work, and he has already alienated most of the cops who work with him, especially the brass in LAPD headquarters at Parker Center. He is under investigation by Internal Affairs, not for the first time and certainly not for the last.

The Black Echo, the first Harry Bosch novel, tells the tale of a protracted and difficult investigation into a daring year-old bank heist. As the investigation unfolds, complications steadily arise. Harry is doggedly pursued by two thuggish detectives from Internal Affairs. Key characters are murdered. Harry becomes close to Eleanor Wish, the FBI special agent with whom he is paired in the investigation. (In later novels, she will become his wife and mother of his daughter.) And the case takes on implications that go far beyond Los Angeles. It’s an engrossing and suspenseful story.

More importantly, however, The Black Echo serves to provide the backstory about Harry’s combat experience in Vietnam early in the 1970s. The “black echo” of the title crops up again and again, reflecting Harry’s deployment as a “tunnel rat” pursuing Vietcong soldiers through the network of tunnels they have dug throughout much of the country. “Out of the blue and into the black is what they called going into a tunnel,” Connelly writes. “Each one was a black echo. Nothing but death in there. But, still, they went.”

Harry explains further in a conversation with Eleanor: “It was the darkness, the damp emptiness you’d feel when you were down there alone in those tunnels. It was like you were in a place where you felt dead and buried in the dark. But you were alive. And you were scared. Your own breath kind of echoed in the darkness, loud enough to give you away. Or so you thought. I don’t know. It’s hard to explain. Just . . . the black echo.”

You may also be interested in my review of a later book in the series. It’s at Michael Connelly’s best Harry Bosch novel? For reviews of other enjoyable novels in this genre, see 15 great suspenseful detective novels (plus 23 others).

September 26, 2017

In Philip Kerr’s latest, Bernie Gunther confronts top Nazis and the Stasi

top Nazis in Prussian Blue by Philip Kerr

Prussian Blue (Bernie Gunther #12), by Philip Kerr

@@@ (3 out of 5)

In a series of twelve novels to date, British author Philip Kerr has examined the boundless cruelty and corruption that reigned in Nazi Germany. Kerr has done his research. Top Nazis figure in every one of these novels, and his portraits of them are convincing. His protagonist, Berlin homicide detective Bernie Gunther, is in some ways a standard-issue tough cop like those who populated the crime fiction of the 1930s and 1940s. He’s a big guy who can usually take care of himself in a fight. He’s cynical—what used to be called a “wise guy”—who is prone to run his big mouth far more often than he should. And he repeatedly finds his way to the beds of beautiful women.

But Bernie serves a larger literary purpose. A social democrat who never consented to join the Nazi Party, he’s a foil for the never-ending parade of high-ranking Nazis he meets in the course of his investigations. Bernie isn’t just a non-Nazi; he’s openly anti-Nazi, and he doesn’t care who knows it. Somehow, improbably, he has managed to survive more than two decades in conflict with the Nazi leadership. His consummate skill as a detective saves him every time.

In Prussian Blue, the twelfth novel in the series, the scene shifts back and forth from 1956 to 1939. In ’56, Bernie has been working under a false name as the concierge at the most exclusive hotel on the Riviera. Invited to dinner at another expensive hotel, he finds himself confronting General Erich Mielke, the thoroughly unsavory character who ran the Stasi in Communist East Germany. Mielke threatens to kill Bernie’s estranged wife unless he consents to travel to England and assassinate a Stasi agent there (one of the many women he has bedded). Bernie has done a lot of things, but assassination is out of the question. When he soon afterwards escapes the handlers Mielke has assigned to him, Bernie sets out on a desperate flight by train, automobile, bicycle, and foot in hopes of hiding out in West Germany. The squad of handlers is run by Friedrich Korsch, a former Nazi who had served as Bernie’s assistant on a huge murder case in 1939. Korsch’s reappearance calls up memories of that case, which involved a daisy chain of top Nazi officials. In one flashback after another, we meet Reinhard Heydrich, Martin Bormann, Rudolf Hess, and other top Nazis, including Bormann’s younger brother, Albert. Other key officials, including Adolf Hitler himself, remain behind the curtain, stage right.

All the preceding entries in the Bernie Gunther series speed along at a fast clip, accelerated by surprising bouts of action and Bernie’s nonstop wise-guy banter. The suspense is palpable. The only recurring flaw is that the dialogue is sometimes simply too smooth, witty, and cynical. However, Prussian Blue disappoints for two reasons: Bernie’s flight from the Stasi seems endless and becomes tedious after awhile, and both his dialogue and his private thoughts run on far too long. On several occasions, I found myself getting impatient, wishing for an editor: this book could have been about one-third shorter. It’s still worth reading for the historical perspective on the Nazi leadership.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Bernie Gunther series and want to read one of the better entries, go to Bernie Gunther’s life in flashbacks or Mass murder in the Katyn Forest. If your taste runs to detective fiction, see My 15 favorite detective novels.

September 18, 2017

A school shooting, 60s radicals, and the Holocaust

Alex Delaware tackles a school shootingTime Bomb (Alex Delaware #5), by Jonathan Kellerman

@@@ (3 out of 5)

Child psychologist Jonathan Kellerman writes complex murder mysteries featuring his alter ego, Alex Delaware. There are 32 such novels to date. Time Bomb, published in 1990, was the fifth in the series—and the first I found disappointing.

The set-up in Time Bomb is much like that of the earlier entries: to help children after a school shooting, Alex finds himself drawn further and further into a murder mystery. That seemingly straightforward mystery quickly morphs into a complex case that heads off in several seemingly unrelated directions. Working with his friend, LAPD detective Milo Sturgis—though taking the lead himself—Alex weaves these disparate threads into a logical set of relationships that don’t become clear until the end of the book.

As in the preceding novels, the tension steadily mounts, the complexities become progressively more confusing, and both Alex and Milo’s lives are threatened, but all comes out well following a violent climax. That school shooting turns out to have been far more complicated than it seemed at first. Unfortunately, in a way that’s disturbingly reminiscent of the formulaic whodunits of Agatha Christie and her ilk, sorting it all out at the end requires far too much explanation. And one central character demonstrates technological capabilities that might well have been within the reach of the National Security Agency in 1988 but were surely out of reach of any individual.

Despite these disappointments, reading the novel brings rewards. Kellerman’s research into the Holocaust, though it reveals nothing new, is well done. His exploration of the history of neo-Nazi activities in the United States is engaging. The insight Kellerman offers about how children react to trauma is obviously on point. And it’s always a pleasure to learn more about the work of Alex Delaware, which surely reflects the author’s personal experience.

For a review of another Alex Delaware novel that I enjoyed a lot more, see This complex murder mystery hinges on the symptoms of schizophrenia. You might also be interested in my reviews of 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

September 14, 2017

Dr. Siri Paiboun and the rat catchers at the 1980 Moscow Olympics

Dr. Siri Paiboun at the 1980 OlympicsThe Rat Catchers’ Olympics (Dr. Siri Paiboun #12), by Colin Cotterill

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

A book’s title serves three functions: first, to catch a reader’s attention; second, to signal something about the book’s contents; and, third, at least in some cases, to convey a sense of the style or approach the author will take. Colin Cotterill‘s The Rat Catchers’ Olympics admirably accomplishes all three objectives. Thus, as you might guess, this is a comic novel, even though it’s the twelfth in a series of what are marketed as mystery novels. The book is actually, at least in part, about a fictional event at the 1980 Olympics in which rat catchers competed with one another—to catch rats. And, clearly, none of this is to be taken seriously.

Dr. Siri Paiboun, formerly the national coroner of Laos, is now in his seventies and retired. (Apparently, he was the country’s only coroner.) It’s 1980, and Jimmy Carter has just canceled US participation in the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics and persuaded sixty other countries to join the boycott. To help fill the holes in the Olympics roster, the Brezhnev regime has invited small countries that could never compete at the Olympic level to come to Moscow. Laos—formally the Laos Democratic People’s Republic—is among those countries. Laos has no hope of winning any medals. The members of the country’s small team will be happy if they can simply finish their events.

Dr. Paiboun’s best friend, former Politburo member Civilai, has been named the head of the Olympic delegation. Dr. Paiboun joins as the team physician, traveling with his formidable wife, a tough former intelligence officer. These three, together with a police officer back in Vientiane, collaborate on an investigation into a murder, a planned assassination, and other assorted misdeeds. It’s a lot of fun, and funny almost all the way. But the author has saved the most fun until close to the end, when three Olympians, all professional rat catchers in their countries, compete to catch the most rats.

The Rat Catchers’ Olympics is the most enjoyable by far of the novels in the series. I found some of the earlier entries to be tedious. They were heavily dominated by references to the supernatural, which I found annoying. Mystical and mysterious things happen in this book, too. But it’s easy enough to shrug them off as just more examples of the book’s humor.

My review of the first book in this series is at A murder mystery set in Communist Laos in the 1970s. You’ll find reviews of other series of crime novels at 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

 

 

September 11, 2017

From a bestselling Danish author, an intriguing detective novel

cover of The Hanging Girl by Jussi Adler-OlsenThe Hanging Girl (Department Q #6) by Jussi Adler-Olsen

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

In 1997, a beautiful 19-year-old schoolgirl is killed by a hit-and-run driver on a road near the school she’s attending. Somehow, her body is throw up fourteen feet into a tree, where it remains hanging until a local police officer discovers her days later. The officer plunges into an obsessive investigation into her murder that spans nearly two decades. In the process, he drives his wife and son away and alienates everyone else around him. Now, in 2014, he calls detective Carl Mørck of the famous Department Q in Copenhagen in hopes Carl will take up the case. Carl, predictably, rude as ever, hangs up on him.

Of course, we readers know well that Department Q will, in fact, take on the case. Carl is forced to do so the following day when his assistant, Rose, guilt-trips him with the accusation that his refusal to help the man led to his suicide. The team’s one-day exploratory visit to the distant Baltic Sea island of Bornholm devolves into an investigation that drags on for weeks. Painstakingly, Carl and his staff pursue one fruitless lead after another—until, at long last, their persistence begins to pay off.

Meanwhile, a religious cult led by a sex-crazed charismatic man is thriving, first in the Danish countryside and then in Sweden. “Atu Abanashamash Dumuzi”—obviously not his name at birth—leads a group of several dozen misfits pursuing the belief that all religions have a common origin in sun-worship. Their operations center is called the Nature Absorption Academy. The Academy is run in practice by a fiercely protective Finnish woman named Pirjo Abanashamash Dumuzi. Though the two aren’t married, Pirjo desperately wants to bear a child with Atu. And she is clearly prepared to murder any woman who threatens her primacy in the cult. “Pirjo became the last remaining disciple who’d followed Atu Abanashamash Dumuzi from the beginning, when he’d been in a completely different place in life and was called Frank.”

Unsurprisingly, these two threads of the plot will converge, but that’s a long time coming. Suspense builds all the way. And things do not turn out the way a reader will suspect.

The Hanging Girl is the sixth of the bestselling Danish author Jussi Adler-Olsen‘s Department Q novels, and the sixth I’ve read. Adler-Olsen does a brilliant job with plotting, and his books cast a spotlight on Danish society that I find intriguing. In the earlier Department Q novels, I was charmed by the three characters who comprise the department: Deputy Chief Inspector Carl Mørck and his two (now three) assistants, Assad, Rose, and Gordon. All four of these people are annoying, each in their own way. And I must admit that I’m tiring of their antics. The Hanging Girl works nonetheless because the novel is so cleverly plotted and the author’s research into religious cults has turned up so much fascinating information.

Go to Jussi-Adler Olsen’s Department Q thrillers for links to my reviews of the whole series. You might also be interested in 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

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