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The 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.
The Fourth Durango by Ross Thomas
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
The late Ross Thomas wrote twenty-five novels about crime, espionage, politics, and corruption between 1966 and his death at age sixty-nine in 1995. No two are alike, and every one of them is a gem. They brim over with wit, insight, brilliant characterization, and Thomas’ distinctively spare writing style. In recent years, St. Martin’s Griffin has brought out new paperback editions which are also available for the Kindle. Many of these titles include introductions by Thomas’ contemporaries and successors in the crime genre. Among them are such successful practitioners of the craft as Sara Paretsky, Lawrence Block, Joe Gores, and the late Donald E. Westlake. Every introduction is a paean to Thomas’ consummate writing skill.
The Fourth Durango, published in 1989, was one of Thomas’ last contributions to his many fans. As in nearly all his other novels, the characters are entirely new. Unlike most successful mystery writers, Ross Thomas didn’t make things easy on himself by adopting a formula and a fixed cast of characters in a series. (However, there are a few who appear in more than one novel, including Cyril “Mac” McCorkle and Michael Padillo, who own a pub together and become involved in nefarious activities involving spies and a mysterious government agency; con men Artie Wu and Quincy Durant, and Washington lawyer Howard Mott.)
In The Fourth Durango, disbarred attorney Kelly Vines reunites with his friend Jack Adair, formerly chief justice of the supreme court of an unnamed state who is leaving behind a stretch in the federal maximum-security penitentiary near Lompoc, California. Jack had been convicted on the bogus grounds of tax evasion because the feds couldn’t prove a bribery charge. Now, someone is trying to kill him for reasons unknown. Kelly spirits him off to the nearby town of Durango, California, “the city that God forgot.” (It’s the fourth Durango because it isn’t any of the ones in Mexico, Colorado, or Spain.) There, Kelly and Jack seek help from the beauteous Mayor B. D. Huckins and her boyfriend, Chief of Police Sid Fork. The two are delighted to hide the pair away indefinitely for a considerable cash consideration. Skullduggery of the highest order is afoot. In fact, hiding away fugitives is the town’s major industry and provides the revenue to keep open the schools and the VD clinic.
Once the two men begin settling in at Durango, we slowly begin to learn the backstory that explains Kelly’s disbarment and Jack’s conviction. Meanwhile, all hell breaks loose as first one, then other murders crop up, and numerous other complications ensue. It’s all a glorious clusterf**k. And it’s fun all the way.
Recently, I also reviewed Thomas’ Out on the Rim and Briarpatch. See From Ross Thomas: con men, a $5 million bribe, and a Philippine rebellion and It’s hard to beat this political thriller.
@@@@ (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.
The Dime by Kathleen Kent
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
Elizabeth (“Betty”) Rhyzyk is a narcotics detective on the Dallas Police Force. She’s a ten-year veteran, transplanted from Brooklyn. Betty comes from a family of Polish-American cops and is proud of her heritage. She has bright red hair, is nearly six feet tall—and graduated at the top of her class in the police academy back in Brooklyn. Betty is a lesbian and lives with her girlfriend, Jackie, a pediatric radiologist in a large Dallas hospital. But the male cops who work with her have long since learned that she won’t take any crap from them. In truth, she can probably best almost any of them in a fight.
Betty and her partner, Seth, are on a long stakeout at the home of a major cocaine and meth distributor. They’re “waiting for the arrival of the biggest cocaine supplier to North Texas, one Tomás ‘El Gitano’ (Gypsy) Ruiz, a Mexican national” representing the second-largest cartel south of the border. But the situation quickly spins out of control when one of the distributor’s neighbors calls the cops because he’s locked his dog in the back of his car on a fiercely hot day. So, when El Gitano finally arrives, he sees the distributor talking to a patrolman on his front porch—and machine-guns the two men, the neighbor, and one of the surveillance vans. The result: three dead, and one wounded young narcotics officer in the van.
These circumstances set off a complex investigation involving not just the narcotics squad but the homicide bureau as well—and the body count mounts steadily as Betty and her colleagues slowly make progress toward tracking down Ruiz. Little do they know, however, that they are about to stumble into a truly nightmarish encounter with a drug supplier even more fearsome than the cartel.
So goes the tale in The Dime, a crime thriller by Dallas author Kathleen Kent. As she explains in an author’s note, she had previously written only historical fiction. But a friend talked her into contributing a story to an anthology he was editing of local crime stories. And that short story gave rise to The Dime. Readers of police dramas can be thankful it did. The Dime is powerfully written, beautifully plotted, and suspenseful to the end.
@@@@ (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.
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
It’s difficult to surpass the fiendishly complex plotting on offer in every one of the Harry Hole novels by Jo Nesbo. Other thriller writers may equal Nesbo’s skill in one or even several books, but few (if any) are better. In The Snowman, the seventh entry in the Harry Hole series, the surprises keep coming, one atop another, as the suspense builds steadily as Harry approaches the resolution to another case of serial murders. If you can unravel the mystery early in this book, your deductive powers are greater than mine. As a long-time reader of mysteries and thrillers, did I anticipate a couple of the revelations? Yes. But the adroitness with which Nesbo weaves the elements of his story together still kept me guessing until the end.
As The Snowman opens, Inspector Hole has just turned 40. He is unaccountably sober, for a change, and he’s exercising regularly. His long-time lover, Rakel Fauke, has kicked him out of her house because she forever finds herself in second place after his job. Now Rakel is on the verge of marrying a jovial, even-tempered physician who is Harry’s opposite in so many ways. For Rakel’s eleven-year-old son Oleg, however, the separation is a tragedy. He dislikes the doctor and thinks of Harry as “Dad.”
At the Crime Squad, Harry is now working with a sharp new detective recently transferred to Oslo from the Bergen police. Katrine Bratt may even be Harry’s equal as an investigator—and as a workaholic. Together they set out to explore a missing-persons case that is, in fact, probably a murder. A young woman has mysterious disappeared from her home, leaving behind a distraught husband and five-year-old son. Then a second woman disappears. Her decapitated head is found atop a snowman in the woods near her farm. Now Harry and Katrine are convinced they have a serial killer on their hands—and Harry is the only Norwegian police officer ever to have captured a serial killer or to have studied serial murders with the FBI. He quickly becomes convinced that the murders taking place in 2004 are somehow linked to a notorious murder in 1980 that was followed by the disappearance of the homicide detective who was investigating the case.
In recent years, I’ve read and reviewed most of the other Harry Hole novels. One of my reviews can be found at Harry Hole, the Salvation Army, and a gay Croatian hitman. Another is at Gypsies, bank robbers, and the Norwegian police.
If series like the Harry Hole novels interest you, take a look at a recent post of mine: 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.
Note: I first posted this review on August 3, 2017. Now that the novel has returned to the bestseller lists in anticipation of the upcoming Michael Fassbender film of the same name, I’m reposting.
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
If you read Scandinavian noir but have had your fill of deranged serial killers, pick up a copy of The Lost Boy by Camilla Läckberg. Like the preceding novels in her bestselling Fjällbacka series, The Lost Boy shines with in-depth characterization and complex plotting that offers surprises to the very end. If you’re insightful about psychology, you might pick up well in advance on a couple of the plot’s major twists and turns—but it’s very unlikely you’ll catch them all. Camilla Läckberg is good!
In a devastating car crash, Ericka Falck’s infant nephew died and she was forced to undergo a Caesarian to give birth to premature twin boys. To compound the terror, Ericka’s husband, Detective Patrik Hedström, immediately collapsed from what appeared to be a heart attack. But months have passed, and finally all’s well in the Falck/Hedström home. The twins are thriving, their two-year-old sister dotes on them, and both Ericka and Patrik are fully recovered: Patrik had collapsed from stress, not a heart attack. But Ericka’s younger sister, Anna, was in the car and suffered an abortion in the crash. Now she is despondent and unresponsive to her children, her husband, and Ericka.
Against this backdrop, six other stories begin unspooling. A former classmate of Ericka’s has hidden in her cottage on a nearby island with her five-year-old son; her husband has been murdered, and they hope to evade the same fate. In flashbacks to the 1870s, a young woman living on the same island has been virtually enslaved by her cruel husband. A brother-and-sister team of con artists, having swindled a fortune from the town of Fjällbacka, is preparing to flee. The town’s treasurer has been murdered, too. A battered wife and her two children are holed up in Copenhagen, having fled Sweden. And Patrik’s incompetent boss, the chief of police, is getting on the nerves of the two younger lesbian women who live with him and his girlfriend. (One of them is her daughter.) Yes, a whole lot happens in a Camilla Läckberg novel!
If there is any overarching theme to The Lost Boy, it’s domestic violence. The investigation Patrik and his colleagues undertake into the murder of the town’s treasurer gives them (and the reader) a window on the issue and how it’s dealt with in Sweden.
Camilla Läckberg was born in Fjällbacka, Sweden, the setting for all her novels about Patrik Hedström and Ericka Falck. She has written ten novels to date in the Fjällbacka series. As best I can tell, all have been translated into English. The most recent, The Witch (2017), isn’t available in the United States at this writing. Of the other nine, six have appeared in Kindle editions. I’ve now read and reviewed all six.
You might also enjoy my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series. This series is included.
@@@@ (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.”
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
In the literature of alternate history, Nazi Germany often wins World War II. Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Fatherland by Robert Harris, and Jo Walton’s Farthing Trilogy (Farthing, Ha’penny, and Half a Crown, all reviewed here) are prominent examples. There are many others, of which the one I’ve read most recently is SS-GB by the British thriller writer Len Deighton.
It’s November 1941. World War II ended in Europe on February 19 when Great Britain surrendered to Nazi Germany. A puppet Prime Minister has replaced Winston Churchill, who is imprisoned in Germany. King George VI is being held in the Tower of London. Jews have been rounded up and sent “to the notorious concentration camp at Wenlock Edge.” A curfew is in effect in London. Rationing is severe throughout the occupied zone. Thousands of British soldiers are being held in POW camps or in forced labor camps on the Continent. Everywhere, there are “signs of battle damage unrepaired from the street fighting of the previous winter. Shell craters, and heaped rubble, were marked only by yellow tapes, soiled and drooping between roughly made stakes.”
At Scotland Yard, Detective Superintendent Douglas Archer reports to SS General Fritz Kellerman, “whose police powers extended over the whole country.” The Superintendent is “Archer of the Yard,” “the Sherlock Holmes of the 1940s.” He’s the country’s most famous detective because of his success in closing several high-profile murder cases. Archer and “the other half of the murder team,” Sergeant Harry Woods, are investigating a mysterious murder when they receive word that an SS Colonel is coming from Germany under express orders from Reichsfürer Heinrich Himmler to take over the case. Archer will now report to the new man, Dr. Oskar Huth. Huth lives up to the reputation of the SS for arrogance and ruthlessness. As the story advances, the murder case becomes fraught with connections to high-level intrigue. Archer, Huth, and Kellerman warily circle around each other in a high-stakes game that puts all their careers—and their lives—at risk.
Meanwhile, Resistance to the German occupation is growing. As one woman remarks to Archer, “‘In the towns it’s just bombs and murdering German soldiers. In the country districts there are bigger groups, who ambush German motorized patrols . . . ‘” But Resistance is underway at a much higher level: senior British officials in the puppet government are plotting to release the King from the Tower and spirit him off to the United States, where he can lead an eventual effort to bring the Nazis to account. Archer discovers that his seemingly straightforward murder investigation is closely related to this plot—and he becomes deeply involved in the dangerous action that follows.
Not only did Deighton live through World War II as a teenager—he was born in 1929—he thoroughly researched this topic. SS-GB is alternate history of the first rank.
Len Deighton is often ranked with John le Carre and Ian Fleming in the pantheon of spy novelists. His most familiar books include The Ipcress File, Funeral in Berlin, and the Samson series (Berlin Game, Mexico Set, London Match, and subsequent novels). At this writing, he is 88 years old.
@@ (2 out of 5)
For some reason I cannot fathom, Marilyn Stasio raved about Earthly Remains. Stasio has been editing a column on crime fiction for the New York Times Book Review—forever, it seems. Her recommendations are often good. But this one wasn’t. She called this novel, the 26th in Donna Leon’s long-running Commissario Brunetti series, “one of her best.” I don’t agree.
Though there is a mystery underlying the action in Earthly Remains, it doesn’t even begin to surface until one-third of the way into the novel. And the investigation undertaken by Commissario Brunetti isn’t undertaken in earnest until more than two-thirds of the way.
Many of Leon’s signature themes are prominent in this curious book. She rhapsodizes about Venice, the surrounding communities, and the Laguna Veneta, the extension of the Adriatic Sea on which the islands of the city are located. In Earthly Remains, the romance of the Laguna comes in for special praise. Predictably, too, the corruption rampant in Italian society emerges clearly in the story. Brunetti’s boss, Vice-Questore Patta, is, as always, obsequious with authority and disdainful of those who report to him. If anyone in a position of power in Venice is under investigation by Brunetti or his colleagues, Patta will surely intervene in the suspect’s favor. And, once the plot of the novel finally becomes clear, Leon spotlights the illegal activity that has helped to poison the Laguna and surrounding territory. In Donna Leon’s Italy, corruption engulfs business as well as government, the police, and the Church.
One of Leon’s bad writing habits is to describe action in excruciating detail. I have no idea whether she picked up the habit writing for magazines that pay by the word, but Earthly Remains and many of her other novels read that way. Here’s a representative example from one of the first pages in the novel: “Brunetti had apologized for the heat in the room, explaining that the ongoing heatwave had forced the Questura to choose between using its reduced supply of energy for the computers or for air conditioning and had chosen the former. Ruggieri had been gracious and had said only that he’d remove his jacket if he might. Brunetti, who kept his jacket on, had begun by making it amply clear . . .” That was 68 words. How many words do you think Elmore Leonard might have used to convey the essential information in that passage? In fact, is there any essential information there?
If you are a die-hard Donna Leon fan, you might want to read Earthly Remains. If you’re not, be forewarned: not a lot happens in this novel. It’s very slow going.