Tag Archives for " murder mystery "

An Elvis-themed restaurant, a five-year-old murder, and Inspector Rebus

Elvis-themed restaurantThe Black Book (Inspector Rebus #5) by Ian Rankin

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Read any one of the 21 novels published to date in the Inspector Rebus series, and you will have no doubt that Ian Rankin, is a native Scotsman, and proud of it. You’ll rush to the dictionary from time to time to look up strange words known only to the inhabitants of that cold and rainy land. And you’ll read about people actually eating haggis—willingly! (They even ask for it in restaurants!) This is all evident in The Black Book, the fifth entry in the series, a more mature effort than the four novels that precede it. John Rebus seems to have grown into his skin. His relationships with his colleagues in the Edinburgh police have fallen into a familiar pattern. And the underlying mystery is, characteristically, impenetrable until close to the end. Rankin is in fine form in this excellent example of detective fiction.

The standout elements of The Black Book are an Elvis-themed restaurant (in Edinburgh!), the complex and sometimes treacherous internal activity of the Edinburgh police, and our first extensive exposure to Morris Gerald “Big Ger” Cafferty, John Rebus’ white whale. (Yes, that restaurant is fictional.)

The story opens as a young man staggers into a butcher shop with a knife wound in his abdomen. He refuses to reveal anything about how he came to be stabbed, or by whom, and the butcher—his uncle, it later develops—professes to know nothing, or even to recognize the younger man. While Inspector Rebus and his two charges, Detective Sergeant Brian Holmes and Detective Constable Siobhan Clarke, labor to learn what happened, another attack takes place, much closer to home. As Holmes is leaving his favorite hangout, an Elvis-themed restaurant, he is savagely hit on the head in the parking lot and sent into a coma. Eventually, Rebus learns from Holmes’ girlfriend that he had been preoccupied lately because of something he had recorded in his notebook, the “black book.” Rebus soon decodes Holmes’ cryptic abbreviations, learning that Holmes had been on the trail of information about a five-year-old unsolved murder. This is the mystery that is central to the plot.

As Rebus and Clarke work in secret to unravel the mystery—they have been assigned to what they regard as a futile surveillance detail—it quickly becomes clear that the city’s rich and powerful are somehow involved. Apparently, both the owner of the prosperous local brewery and his son as well as Big Ger Cafferty seem to have been present in the building where the murder took place. Rebus’ dogged attempts to learn the truth about what happened there five years ago expose him and his brother to vicious attacks and result in getting him suspended from the police force. Of course, all will work out in the end. The Black Book is, after all, a murder mystery in a series. The hero must triumph in the end so the author may tell another tale.

I’ve reviewed a number of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels. One is at Devil worship and murder in this early Inspector Rebus novel. Another is here: Inspector Rebus goes to London to catch a serial murderer. These are among scores of detective novels I’ve reviewed over the years. You can find a list of my favorite series at 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

Multiple murder in the Australian outback

multiple murderThe Dry: A Novel, by Jane Harper

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

If you’ve ever been to the desert in central Australia, you’ll find it easier to envision the setting in Jane Harper‘s thriller, The Dry: the featureless landscape, the stifling heat, the desolation, the sheer loneliness that the landscape inflicts on you. The novel is set somewhere south of the desert, in drought-ridden farming and sheep-herding country, but it still conjured up memories of my brief visit to the Alice Springs area more than a decade ago. It’s difficult to understand how or why anyone would choose to live in such a place. It’s somewhat easier to picture a multiple murder in such a forbidding environment.

Aaron Falk has returned to Kiewarra twenty years after he and his father had fled the town, hounded by accusations that one or the other of them had murdered Aaron’s teenage friend, Ellie Deacon. He’d been living ever since in Melbourne, far to the south, lately working as a federal investigator specializing in financial fraud. He’d returned reluctantly to attend the funeral of his boyhood best friend, Luke Hadler, his wife, and five-year-old son. They’d all been brutally shotgunned to death in a gruesome multiple murder, and Luke himself was suspected both by the townspeople and the police who’d been called in to investigate. But Luke’s parents are certain their son didn’t kill his family and himself. They’ve pressed Aaron to find out what happened. Against his better judgment, Luke has consented to stay for a week to look into the case.

Aaron quickly finds he isn’t welcome back in Kiewarra. He’s still suspected of murdering Ellie Deacon two decades earlier. Unfortunately, Luke had no alibi for the period when Ellie was killed. He’d only avoided arrest because Luke had persuaded him to tell the police that the two of them were together at the time. It hadn’t then occurred to Aaron to suspect that Luke was only gaining an alibi for himself, but now he wonders because all evidence points to murder-suicide in the deaths of the Hadler family.

Are the two mysteries connected in some way? We suspect as much, but any explanation will clearly be a long time coming in this award-winning novel. With few allies other than Luke’s aging parents, Aaron struggles against fierce resistance from the townspeople and his own suspicions as the investigation unfolds. Jane Harper tells the tale through flashbacks to Aaron’s teenage years and narrative about the increasingly complex case that only slowly becomes clear as Aaron pursues the elusive truth.

To read my review of another, somewhat similar mystery, go to An engrossing small town thriller. For links to dozens of other mysteries and thrillers, see 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

A murder mystery set in the Holy Roman Empire

holy roman empireWolf on a String: A Novel by Benjamin Black

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Except for the title, which I found unfathomable, I enjoyed this novel immensely. The author, Irish writer and Booker-Prize-winner John Banville, writes murder mysteries under the pen name Benjamin BlackWolf on a String is indeed a mystery, and a puzzling one at that, though it’s more intriguing as historical fiction. It’s the first of his novels I’ve read in that genre, but by no means the first he’s written. In fact, the book’s 16th-Century setting in Prague is familiar territory for Banville. He wrote at least four previous novels grounded there, including the Revolutions Trilogy about scientists Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton.

The action in Wolf on a String unfolds during December 1599 and January 1600. The narrator, Christian Stern, relates the tale in old age, many years later. As a young man, Stern had traveled from his hometown in Bavaria after leaving his father’s funeral. He has come to Prague, capital of the Holy Roman Empire, in hopes of gaining a position as an adviser to the Emperor Rudolf II. Unfortunately, on the very day of his arrival in Prague, Stern stumbles (drunk) upon the corpse of a young woman in a narrow street under the shadow of the imperial castle.

As Black writes in opening the novel, “Few now recall that it was I who discovered the corpse of Dr. Kroll’s misfortunate daughter thrown upon the snow that night in Golden Lane. The fickle muse of history has all but erased the name of Christian Stern from her timeless pages, yet often I have had cause to think how much better it would have been for me had it never been written there in the first place. I was to soar high, on gorgeous plumage, but in the end fell back to earth, with wings ablaze.”

Black could hardly have picked a more interesting time and place to set his novel. Rudolf II was moody, unpredictable, indifferent to rule, and probably insane. He was surrounded by sycophants and cunning criminals who were at war with each other for the emperor’s favor. Many historians credit Rudolf’s misrule as having paved the way for the tragic Thirty Years War (1618-48) in which Protestants and Catholics murdered one another on battlefields and in towns all across the European continent. However, Rudolf’s obsession with alchemy and the occult arts led him to attract many men to his court who would later prove to play major roles in advancing the scientific revolution. Among them were the astronomers Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe, both of whom make cameo appearances in the novel.

Christian’s misfortune is to be drawn into the treacherous intrigue in the imperial court and forced to deal with the two most senior officials in the Holy Roman Empire as well as the empress and the court physician, Dr. Kroll. All four have interests that conflict with each other’s—and with the emperor’s. When Rudolf impulsively charges Christian with responsibility for discovering who murdered the young woman, he finds himself at the mercy of all four. This is not a game that Christian can win.

Now about that title. Despite Black’s explanation midway through the novel, I couldn’t figure it out. So I looked the phrase “wolf on a string” up on Wikipedia. Here’s what I found: “A wolf tone, or simply a ‘wolf,’ is produced when a played note matches the natural resonating frequency of the body of a musical instrument, producing a sustaining sympathetic artificial overtone that amplifies and expands the frequencies of the original note, frequently accompanied by an oscillating beating (due to the uneven frequencies between the natural note and artificial overtone) which may be likened to the howling of the animal. A similar phenomenon is the beating produced by a wolf interval, which is usually the interval between E and G of the various non-circulating temperaments.” Got it? Not I. I’m more confused than ever.

Banville writes general fiction under his own name and mysteries under the pseudonym Benjamin Black. Earlier, under that name, he wrote a series of seven novels set in 1950s Dublin that feature the curious coroner, Dr. Quirke, who finds himself embroiled in knotty investigations of crime along with his collaborator, Inspector Hackett. I’ve posted reviews of all seven books on this blog.

For reviews of all the novels in the Dr. Quirke series, check out The Quirke series of Dublin crime novels from Benjamin Black.

Pedophiles, serial murder, and the Holocaust in a Swedish psychological thriller

pedophilesThe Crow Girl: A Novel by Erik Axl Sund

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

If you favor mysteries and thrillers full of surprises, you’ll love The Crow Girl by the Swedish writing team that publishes under the name Erik Axl Sund. No matter how shrewd and analytical you might be, I predict that you won’t figure out who’s who and what’s what until at least close to the end of this staggeringly complex novel. And, unless you read at a blistering pace, this is not a book you’ll finish at one sitting: the hardcover edition runs to 784 pages.

To say that I enjoyed this novel would be misleading. At times it’s gruesome beyond belief. And I found the constant use of long Swedish place names distracting. Yet the writing is devilishly clever. It’s difficult to put the book down. In fact, I found it impossible.

It’s difficult to exaggerate just how complicated this story is. It’s a tale about pedophilia, serial murder, unhappy marriages, dissociative identity disorder, a fundamentalist Christian sect in Lapland, the Great Famine in the Ukraine, the Holocaust, and Swedish police procedures. Got that? No? I understand. I could never have imagined a single story linking all these themes.

The Crow Girl opens like so many other crime stories. The mutilated body of a young immigrant boy is discovered, and Detective Superintendent Jeanette Kihlberg from the Stockholm police is assigned to the case. But neither the police chief nor the prosecutor who both have authority over her will provide her with the necessary resources. Then the bodies of two other young boys are found nearby. Evidence links the three murders, so Kihlberg is faced with tracking down a serial killer, on her own time when necessary.

To gain insight into the psychopathology of serial murderers, the Superintendent enlists the help of a brilliant psychologist, Sofia Zetterlund. It soon develops that both women are stuck in unhappy marriages, so you’ll quickly begin to wonder where that will lead. And that’s only the first of a long list of complications and surprises that come to light again and again in this masterful tale.

The Crow Girl is the first book in the Victoria Bergman trilogy. The remaining two books in the trilogy are not yet available in English translation, nor is the authors’ fourth novel.

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


An Edinburgh brothel, an honest MP, and two murders in another great Inspector Rebus mystery

Inspector RebusStrip Jack (Inspector Rebus #4), by Ian Rankin

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

In Ian Rankin’s Strip Jack, the fourth novel in his long-running murder mystery series, the newly promoted Edinburgh police Inspector John Rebus is decidedly unenthusiastic about the latest assignment from his sanctimonious boss, Chief Superintendent “Farmer” Watson. Rebus is ordered to join a large task force assembled for a midnight raid on a high-end brothel, where he dreads the idea of unmasking members of the city’s elite. However, once the police have stormed the house, he is surprised to find Gregor Jack MP sitting on a bed with an unclothed young woman. Jack has a reputation as both a man of integrity and a diligent representative of his constituency’s interests in London. “Most MPs, Rebus wouldn’t have given the time of day. But Gregor Jack was . . . well, he was Gregor Jack . . . ‘Mild’ was an adjective often used about Jack. So were ‘honest,’ ‘legal’ and ‘decent.'” Though fully clothed himself in the brothel, Jack’s carefully cultivated image is in tatters after he is marched in front of the cameras on his way to the police van that will take him into the station for questioning.

For Rebus, there are three questions to be answered: who informed the Chief Superintendent about the existence of the brothel, why was the MP found there, and who tipped off the press? These three questions turn out to be the key to unraveling a complex mystery surrounding two presumably linked murders that bedevil the police and entertain the press for weeks on end. Another, much less urgent case—the theft of several rare first editions from the home of a divinity professor at the University of Edinburgh—also proves to be crucial to identifying the murderer.

In the course of the investigation, Rebus and his colleagues are forced to navigate through the byzantine relationships among the friends surrounding Jack and his wife, Elizabeth, who is one of the murder victims. Rebus is convinced that one of these family friends is Elizabeth’s murderer, but a homeless and seemingly deranged man has confessed to both murders—and then fled. The Chief Superintendent and the Chief Inspector who is Rebus’ immediate superior are focused on tracking down the man and imprisoning him for both crimes. They’re under pressure from the police, and from Elizabeth’s influential father, to close the case quickly. Rebus is convinced that the man’s confession is full of holes. But he must work around his bosses to follow his instinct on a parallel investigation.

Strip Jack was published in 1992 and reflects police procedures and the technology available at that time. For example, a telephone booth figures in the mystery in a major way.

In the John Rebus mysteries, Ian Rankin makes generous use of words known only to Scots. For instance, “Both men had zippered their jackets against the snell wind and the occasional smirr.” Because Rankin is himself Scottish and has lived in Edinburgh for most of his life, I don’t hold this against him. Certainly, it’s easier to excuse than the pretentious practice of some English-language writers to sprinkle words and phrases in French or Italian throughout their books.

The title of this novel comes from a card game called “Strip Jack Naked” that is also sometimes known (in Scotland, presumably) as “Beggar Thy Neighbour.”

The “best Norwegian crime novel” is set in Minnesota

Norwegian crime novelThe Land of Dreams (Minnesota Trilogy #1), by Vidar Sundstøl

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Some 4.6 million Norwegian-Americans live in the United States, about half of them in the Upper Midwest. Nearly 900,000 can be found in Minnesota alone. These numbers compare with the total of 5.3 million people who live in Norway proper. Oslo, the capital, is home to only some 650,000 people—far fewer than the number of Norwegian-Americans who live in Minnesota. So, maybe it’s understandable that a novel awarded the title “best Norwegian crime novel” should be set in Minnesota. In fact, the state is the setting for three novels, the Minnesota Trilogy by Vidar Sundstøl. The Land of Dreams, the first, was described by Dagbladet, the country’s second largest tabloid newspaper, as one of the top twenty-five Norwegian crime novels of all time. Imagine that!

The Land of Dreams introduces us to Lance Hansen, his family, coworkers, and neighbors in a small town on the shore of Lake Superior in northeastern Minnesota. Hansen thinks of himself as a “forest cop.” He’s a 46-year-old police officer whose beat is the sprawling Superior National Forest near which he lives. Hansen lives in the town of Tofte, which was “one of those places where people called to tell you to get better before you even knew you were under the weather.” Though he’s divorced from an Ojibwe woman who now lives on a nearby Indian reservation and is the father of their active seven-year-old son, his life is generally uneventful.

Then Hansen stumbles across the badly beaten body of a young Norwegian man in the forest. The FBI has jurisdiction, assisted by a Norwegian homicide detective flown in to assist them. Hansen himself is not officially involved in the investigation, but his curiosity moves him to press his friends in law enforcement for details and to look into the circumstances of the murder himself. To his horror, he discovers that his younger brother, Andy, must be considered a suspect. Out of love for his brother and fear that he might actually be guilty, Hansen conceals from the FBI the evidence of Andy’s possible guilt that only he knows about. Meanwhile, to discover whether the young man’s murder was the first ever to take place in the region, he digs deeply into the historical archives he maintains—and discovers that a distant relative may have been murdered locally more than a century earlier. Hansen suspects a connection of some sort between the two killings.

The action in The Land of Dreams advances at a slow pace. There is suspense, but it’s muted. The book is a murder mystery, but it’s better thought of as literature. Sundstøl dwells at length on the history of Norwegian immigration to the area and on his protagonist’s troubled inner dialogue. The translation by Tiina Nunnally is artful, easing the reader’s path along the way despite the slowly unfolding action.

About the author

Vidar Sundstøl wrote the Minnesota Trilogy “after he and his wife lived for two years on the shore of Lake Superior,” according to the note about the author at the back of the book. An interview in the blog Scandinavian Crime Fiction in English Translation explains the background and the circumstances to Sundstøl’s stay in the U.S. (For starters, he met and married an American woman.) He is the author of six novels to date.


A right-wing politician is murdered on the streets of Oslo

right-wing politicianChameleon People (K2 and Patricia #4), by Hans Olav Lahlum

@@@ (3 out of 5)

An Oslo police detective known as K2 is startled one Saturday evening when a boy of about 15 frantically rushes through his apartment door and surrenders himself just moments ahead of the police officers who are chasing him. It soon becomes clear that a prominent right-wing politician has been murdered, and the boy is carrying a bloody knife. But he refuses to say anything other than that he is innocent. He won’t even disclose his name, insisting that K2 will understand soon enough.

Thus opens bestselling Norwegian crime novelist Hans Olav Lahlum’s Chameleon People. As the story unfolds and the boy’s guilt seems increasingly unlikely to K2, a growing cast of characters emerge as suspects in the murder. And the politician’s murder becomes just the first of many intertwined mysteries that K2 confronts.

Detective Inspector Kolbjørn Kristiansen (“K2” to the news media) has gained a measure of fame in Oslo for having solved a number of difficult cases. In fact, he attributes much of his success to the extraordinary mind of his secret adviser, a wheelchair-bound young heiress named Patricia Borchmann. K2 is convinced he would be fired if his boss were ever to learn that he has divulged confidential police matters to Patricia. K2’s fiancée, Miriam, contemptuously refers to Patricia as “the Genius of Frogner,” the wealthy neighborhood where her mansion is located, but never calls her by name. The two are intensely jealous of each other. Notably, K2 is 37 as Chameleon People opens, Patricia has just turned 22, and Miriam is only 25. Clearly, K2 likes them young.

Lahlum’s fourth novel in the “K2 and Patricia” series of detective novels opens on Saturday, March 18, 1972, and wraps up eight days later. The book is structured in a strictly chronological manner, day by day, and is written in the first person from K2’s perspective. Lahlum skillfully weaves together three seemingly unconnected strands of this murder mystery, lifting it from the confines of the traditional whodunit and building suspense that is lacking when an author’s clear intent is simply to misdirect the reader by layering on unlikely suspects. (As you can see, I am not a fan of whodunits.) Lahlum’s plotting is better than that.

However, the writing style in Chameleon People is the flattest I’ve ever come across from anyone who has managed to publish more than one novel. Perhaps this is the work of a translator who is better suited to instruction manuals. Or maybe Lahlum’s prose is just that unexciting. For his sake, I hope the explanation lies with the translator.

Uncovering corruption at Scotland Yard

corruptionGarden of Lamentations (Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James #17), by Deborah Crombie

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Let me see if I’ve got this straight. There are lots of cops in Deborah Crombie’s latest detective novel, Garden of Lamentations. Six of them, for starters. Co-protagonists Detective Superintendent Duncan Kincaid and Detective Inspector Gemma James are married. They’ve been reassigned from New Scotland Yard to separate precincts elsewhere in London. The pair have an adopted teenage boy, a 3-year-old foster daughter, and an even younger boy of their own. In addition to Kincaid and James, there are two lower-ranked officers, Doug Cullen and Melody Talbot. Melody’s father is Ivan Talbot, a London press lord, but she’s keeping that a secret. Then there’s Kincaid’s “guvnor,” Detective Chief Superintendent Denis Childs, who has been mysteriously missing for several months. Oh, and Ryan Marsh, also a police officer, had died in some unstated way three months earlier after he and Talbot rushed into a fire started by a grenade tossed into a crowd. Oh, yes, and Kincaid and James’ friends, Hazel and Tim, also figure in the story. The pair had been involved in an earlier case in Scotland, where Hazel had moved to manage the family’s distillery. I think that’s the gist of it. It took me quite a while to figure all this out.

In other words, it would pay to have read the preceding novels in the Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James series. This is the 17th. I’d read many of the others, but too long ago to remember so many details.

If you understand all those things, you’re good to go. As Garden of Lamentations opens, a young nanny is murdered, Denis Childs is assaulted and left for dead after hinting at police corruption, and Kincaid and Talbot are still puzzling over the death of Ryan Marsh. The story that unfolds is engrossing and suspenseful. You’ll find yourself caught up in a tale that involves corruption at Scotland Yard, undercover police, a locked-garden murder mystery, and the travails of a complicated family with two parents holding professional jobs.



“The godmother of modern Norwegian crime fiction”

Norwegian crime fictionBlind Goddess (Hanne Wilhelmsen #1), by Anne Holt

@@ (2 out of 5)

Blind Goddess is the first of nine entries to date in Anne Holt’s series of detective novels featuring Oslo Detective Inspector Hanne Wilhelmsen. I don’t plan to read any of the rest of them.

When Jo Nesbø proclaimed Holt “the godmother of modern Norwegian crime fiction,” he was surely referring to the Norwegian editions. Apparently, they’ve lost a lot in translation. A lot. While Holt gets high marks for a gripping plot in this murder mystery, she falls down in almost every other respect.

A poor example of Norwegian crime fiction

First, the writing style is as flat as it could be. It’s hard to understand how she could be considered an accomplished professional writer, much less the godmother.

Second, Holt overuses coincidence and misdirection to confuse the reader and obscure the resolution of her plot until the very end of the book. When I read a story—yes, even a detective novel—I don’t want to stumble on every other page on the hidden identity of a character. She uses proper names rarely, and only about a few of her characters.

Third, the device used to resolve the mystery in Blind Goddess is hard to believe. I won’t reveal it here, just in case you may be planning to read the novel yourself. But you can be assured that I was shaking my head in disbelief when I arrived at the book’s conclusion. Clearly, I was mystified by the plot because the resolution was so unlikely.

About the author

All this is a pity. I would have expected a lot more from Anne Holt, not just because of Jo Nesbø’s endorsement but because of her own life story. Her background includes training and practice as a lawyer, two years with the Oslo Police Department, and service as Minister of Justice for two years. She must have learned a lot from all that experience. Too bad it wasn’t well reflected in her novel.



An entertaining mystery about a Mayan curse

mayan curseCurses! (Gideon Oliver #5), by Aaron Elkins

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Now 41 years of age and happily married for two years, Gideon Oliver is a tenured professor of physical anthropology at a university near Seattle. He is known far and wide as “the Skeleton Doctor” for his work in forensic anthropology with the FBI. As Curses! opens, Gideon is between terms and feeling restless. He has been imprisoned behind his desk for far too long, writing academic papers that practically nobody will ever read. Then he receives a call from his onetime professor and ongoing mentor, Abe Goldstein (nee Avram Yitzchak Goldstein of Minsk).

Together with his wife Julie, Gideon drops his latest scholarly article in mid-draft and flies to the Yucatan to help Abe with a problem that has arisen at a Mayan dig. The site, Tlaloc, had been closed in 1982 after a scandalous incident that Gideon and Abe themselves observed. At the time, the Mexican Institute of Anthropology declared the closure permanent. But now, five years later, Abe has persuaded them to allow him and his team to reopen the site. Still, the shadow of the scandal looms large. In 1982, shortly after the discovery there of only the fourth Mayan codex (book) anywhere, both the director of the project and the codex disappeared. Two years later a letter arrived from the director bragging about stealing the book. Now, Abe has asked Gideon for help because the team has unexpectedly turned up a skeleton.

Quickly, the plot thickens. The dig progresses and Gideon gradually moves closer toward identifying the remains. Soon the 16th-century Mayan curse that hangs over the site begins to come true. Gideon is nearly murdered, and later a freelance journalist hanging about the site is brutally killed. The Mexican police enter the scene. Suspicion falls on all the volunteers, and the story devolves into a whodunit, the least creative form of the murder mystery. Normally I find whodunits tedious. But Elkins displays an impressive knowledge of forensic anthropology and ancient Mexican history that rescued me from boredom. In the final analysis, Curses! is entertaining.

About the author

Gideon Oliver is a forensic anthropologist, but Aaron Elkins is not. He has held many jobs in his life but has been writing fiction since 1978. His first novel, the inaugural volume in the Gideon Oliver series, was published in 1982. Curses! is one of his 33 novels and the fifth in the Gideon Oliver series. An American, Elkins lives with his wife in Washington State.

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