Tag Archives for " suspense "
After Atlas (Planetfall, A) by Emma Newman
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
In Planetfall, published in 2015, British science fiction author Emma Newman introduced us to the Earth-like planet where a massive starship had delivered 1,000 people many years earlier. The ship was called Atlas. The following year, Newman brought out a sequel, After Atlas, which portrayed life on Earth for the billions who remained behind. It’s a grim picture of society in what appears to be sometime in the 22nd century.
This is a world you or I wouldn’t want to live in. Only the wealthiest can afford to eat real food. Everyone else must eat what comes from printers (successors to our contemporary 3-D printers). Every nation is governed by a “gov-corp” that operates under the influence of a tiny elite of billionaires. Virtually everyone is “chipped” with implants in their brains that connect them to the world around them—and make them vulnerable to their bosses or public authorities. Many of the most talented people are enslaved in decades-long contracts resembling what was once called indentured servitude. One of those people is Carlos Moreno.
Carlos Moreno is a brilliant, top-level homicide investigator contracted to the Ministry of Justice of Norope (northern Europe) for fifty years; he has thirty years to go. But the contract is extended every time he overspends his allowance, because Carlos has a powerful hankering for real food. And every time he does something to displease his boss. As he reflects, “A black mark puts another year on my contract. Three black marks and they’ll send me in for ‘calibration.’ I shudder at the thought of it. Like all expensive property, I’m kept in good working order.”
Carlos, known as Carl to friends, is assigned by the ministry to investigate the death of one of the world’s most famous people, a man named Alejandro Casales, who heads a large and wealthy religious cult based in Texas. Alejandro has died in a hotel room in England, an apparent suicide. But the case is complicated by more than Alejandro’s celebrity status: his body was hacked to pieces with an axe following his death by hanging.
Further complicating the case is Carlos’ history with The Circle, the cult Alejandro led. Abandoned by his mother as a baby and neglected by his father, who suffered a nervous breakdown when his wife deserted the family to leave Earth on Atlas, Carlos spent eight years with the cult in Texas. He grew to hate Alejandro and his father as well.
Using the massive information resources available to him through his Artificial Personal Assistant, the avatar who personifies his chip, Carlos doggedly pursues his investigation at a pace that would astonish any 21st-century cop. Newman tells the tale with a wealth of intriguing detail—and she creates suspense like the best of them. The book also works well as a police procedural. After Atlas is an excellent piece of work.
I felt differently about Newman’s previous novel, Planetfall, which I reviewed at A promising but disappointing new science fiction novel. For links to my reviews of other books in this genre that I’ve loved, see My 27 favorite science fiction novels.
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
It’s the near future. Phoebe Bernhart is a psychiatric nurse at Atlanta’s largest hospital, struggling to keep her job. Plagued by headaches and a quick temper, she is prone to mouthing off to doctors and is one report away from being fired. One evening she meets Mila Bremer when their two cars collide and Mila gives her a ride to the hospital while her car is towed to the shop. Mila is a beautiful young woman who manifests the signs of the Asperger’s spectrum, and Phoebe is alternately intrigued and insulted by her lack of affect.
“Just because she doesn’t have her smartphone implanted in her head,” Phoebe thinks, “doesn’t mean she lives on a different planet.” (What this means will become clear.) Their chance meeting soon proves consequential—to Phoebe and to the world—when she encounters a baffling neurological pandemic that is flooding the city’s hospitals with “aggressive and paranoid people.” Together, Phoebe and Mila have a rare opportunity to investigate the source of the mysterious epidemic.
Phoebe and the younger brother she adores have left behind their parents in an ultraconservative Mennonite community in Ohio. Like nearly everyone else in this future society, both of them have had Navis installed in their brains to access instant messaging and news non-stop, hold subvocalized conversations, and command smartcars and smart appliances with their thoughts. “Normally, conversations are private, because they’re Navi-to-Navi,” but Phoebe is forced to speak out loud to communicate with Mila.
This is the set-up in the outstanding sci-fi technothriller Absence of Mind by H.C.H. (Hilary) Ritz, published in 2015. The Houston-based author has written two other novels, The Lightbringers (2012) and The Robin Hood Thief (2016). Ritz demonstrates great skill and originality in plotting, she builds suspense like the best of them, and her characters are fascinating. It seems likely that she will one day gain wide recognition in the science fiction field.
For other sci-fi novels I’ve loved, go to My 27 favorite science fiction novels.
@@@@ (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.
A German Requiem (Bernie Gunther #3), by Philip Kerr
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
It’s 1947. Berlin is a shambles. The meager amount of food available is rationed, leaving the surviving German population on the verge of starvation while the occupying forces eat their fill. The city is sharply divided between the eastern, Soviet-occupied zone and the rest governed by the three Western Allies. In the western zone, German women known as “chocoladies” sell sex for food, cigarettes, and alcohol. In the east, rape by Russian soldiers is nearly inescapable. As Bernie Gunther reflects, “These days, if you are a German you spend your time in Purgatory before you die, in earthly suffering for all your country’s unpunished and unrepented sins, until the day when, with the aid of the prayers of the Powers—or three of them, anyway—Germany is finally purified. For now we live in fear. Mostly it is fear of the Ivans, matched only by the almost universal dread of venereal disease, which has become something of an epidemic, although both afflictions are generally held to be synonymous.”
These are the conditions under which former Berlin homicide detective Bernie Gunther and his wife Kirsten stagger from day to day. Though she was a schoolteacher in the past, she now works as a waitress in an American bar open only to servicemen. Because she frequently arrives home late he suspects she is sleeping with an American officer to obtain the coffee, butter, and chocolate that’s obviously from the American PX. To flee the unpleasantness, Bernie accepts a strange and lucrative job offered by a colonel in the Soviet MVD (precursor to the KGB), he agrees to accept it even though it will require him to travel to far-off Vienna and probably spend a long time there.
On the surface, the job appears straightforward. A German black marketer, one of Bernie’s colleagues years earlier on the murder squad, has been imprisoned by the Americans on a charge of murdering one of their officers. But quickly the assignment proves to be anything but simple. As Bernie digs into the details of the case, he becomes convinced that the man is innocent of the crime he’s charged with, even though he has done a great many terrible things in his life. However, attempting to prove that leads Bernie into a tangled affair involving American counter-intelligence, the MVD, the recruitment of German intelligence officers by the USA, and an organized campaign to protect former SS war criminals from exposure. Two high-ranking, real-world Nazi war criminals— Heinrich “Gestapo” Müller and Arthur Nebe—play crucial roles in the tale. Like other novels in the Bernie Gunther series, Kerr skillfully builds suspense while digging deeply into Bernie’s complex personality.
Bernie has a great deal to answer for, having been dragooned from the Berlin homicide squad into the service of Josef Goebbels and later Heinrich Himmler and commissioned as an SS officer. He had refused to participate in the mass killing of Jews in Latvia, been reassigned to the Eastern Front, and was later imprisoned in a Soviet POW camp, never having stooped to the arrogance and cruelty of those he served with. But Bernie feels distinctly uneasy whenever he encounters cold, disdainful treatment at the hands of the Americans he encounters. Although “it is certain that a nation cannot feel collective guilt,” Bernie notes, “that each man must encounter it personally. Only now did I realize the nature of my own guilt—and perhaps it was really not much different from that of many others: it was that I had not said anything, that I had not lifted my hand against the Nazis.”
In 1989-91, Philip Kerr wrote the first three novels in the Bernie Gunther series. A German Requiem concluded the trilogy. Fifteen years later he resumed the series, adding an additional ten novels to date (the last of which, Greeks Bearing Gifts, is scheduled for publication in 2018).
Previously I’ve reviewed most of the other novels in the Bernie Gunther series. One review is at A hard-boiled detective in Nazi Germany. Another is here: An exciting chapter in the Bernie Gunther saga.
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
In The Secret War, his illuminating revisionist history of secret intelligence in World War II, the British journalist Max Hastings questions the value of what has come to be called “humint,” the product of spies working undercover. In Hastings’ view, spies had little effect on the outcome of the war. “Intelligence gathering is inherently wasteful,” Hastings writes. “Perhaps one-thousandth of 1 percent of material garnered from secret sources by all the belligerents in World War II contributed to changing battlefield outcomes.” Even code-breaking, including the deciphering of high-level Nazi and Japanese codes, played a relatively small role in the Allies’ victory, though one that was much greater than that of undercover operatives.
Even if Hastings doesn’t overstate his case—some argue he does—the romance of espionage has captured the public imagination. The exploits of spies have encouraged the growth of a veritable cottage industry in espionage fiction ever since the end of the Second World War. Graham Greene, John le Carré, Ian Fleming, Len Deighton, Alan Furst, Eric Ambler, and scores of others have generated thousands of stories about spies. Some, like most of Fleming’s, are fanciful and often laughable, pitting a superhero against supervillains, none of them bearing the slightest resemblance to real people. Others convey an impression of the true experience of undercover work, as many former intelligence agents have attested.
Alex Gerlis, a BBC researcher, has written three spy novels in recent years: The Best of Our Spies (2012), The Swiss Spy (2015), and Vienna Spies (2017). In his most recent book, Gerlis explores the contending forces of British intelligence, the NKVD, and the Gestapo in the closing years of World War II in Vienna.
Gerlis’ tale revolves six principal characters. Rolf Eder, who is Viennese, and Katharina Hoch, a German, are matched by British intelligence for a sensitive mission in Vienna, masquerading as a married couple. To assist them, they are to locate and meet with Sister Ursula, an Austrian nun who has been helping the British since the war started. Viktor Krasotkin, one of Moscow’s top spies, is dispatched to Vienna, in part to undermine their mission. His handler is Ilia Brodsky, a senior Soviet official who has “the ear of Stalin.” Above all, the spies from both nations must elude capture by the sadistic Kriminaldirektor Karl Strobel, the Gestapo’s top investigator of Communists and resistance fighters.
The British spies’ mission is two-fold: to find and eliminate Viktor and to rescue Austria’s most prominent anti-Nazi politician, Hubert Leitner, who has been hiding in the city for seven years. Meanwhile, Rolf has a private mission of his own: to learn the fate of the fiancee he left behind in Vienna when forced to flee to Switzerland several years earlier. And Viktor hopes to reunite with his lover, who is now married to a Nazi army officer. All these conflicting aims play out over the course of two years in Vienna, “a city that rivaled and possibly outdid Munich in its enthusiasm for the Nazis.”
Gerlis successfully captures the mood of wartime Vienna, with his detailed descriptions of life on the streets and the ever-present pall cast over the city by the Nazi occupation. On the surface, the leading characters might appear to be cartoonish. But Gerlis succeeds admirably in making them believable, with the possible exception of Karl Strobel (although other Gestapo officers appear more lifelike). In action that shifts rapidly from London to Zurich to Vienna to Moscow and back, the plot moves forward at a rapid clip. Vienna Spies is a satisfying read. My only complaint is that no one seems to have proofread the book. It’s full of missing prepositions, transposed words, and other glaringly obvious errors.
You might also enjoy my post, 17 good nonfiction books about espionage.
@@@@ (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 byis artful, easing the reader’s path along the way despite the slowly unfolding action.
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.
@@ (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.
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
A serial murderer dubbed The Wolfman by the press has killed and mutilated three women in London, one a month. The pressure is on the police to catch the killer before panic spreads further. Now, someone at New Scotland Yard has written to Edinburgh to request help from Inspector John Rebus, much to his surprise. Whoever it is has mistaken Rebus for an expert on serial murder, because the difficult case he had solved was very personal and held few lessons for other investigators. But orders are orders. And no sooner does he arrive in London than he learns from the radio that The Wolfman has killed a fourth woman.
Thus opens Tooth and Nail, the third novel in Ian Rankin’s venerable series of detective novels featuring Inspector Rebus. The trouble starts virtually as soon as Rebus makes contact with Inspector George Flight, who has been assigned as his partner: Flight can’t understand a word he says because of Rebus’ strong Scottish accent. Practically everyone else in the homicide department resents his having been called in—and they’re not the least bit shy about showing it. They can’t understand him, either.
No reader of the series will be surprised to learn that matters soon go further downhill. The disagreeable Scot manages to alienate all his new colleagues at Scotland Yard by ignoring established procedure and disappearing without explanation to investigate on his own. Since this is fiction, we’re confident that Inspector Rebus will eventually identify and catch the killer, and in short order. However, there’s a great deal of confusion and conflict before that happens, and Rebus is saved from arrest himself only because he manages to resolve the case.
In a sense, Tooth and Nail is a traditional whodunit, since many suspects surface in the course of the investigation and Rebus’ job, above all, is to sort through them to find the one who is guilty. But Rankin is a much more skillful writer than most. He manages to create a credible portrait of his difficult hero and to convey a sense that he fully understands police procedure. This is one detective novel that’s genuinely suspenseful to the end. The conclusion took me by surprise—and that doesn’t happen all that often. This is a very satisfying read.
@@@ (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.
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
A young man named Ted Macauley is stalking two undergraduate women at UC Berkeley. Someone, presumably the same man, has been calling the Elmwood District house they share with several other students and hanging up without speaking. And now the residents have returned to find all the flowers in the front yard of the house trashed and their lemon tree decapitated. One of the two women, Vicki Vernon, calls in Jeri Howard to look into the matter. Jeri is an Oakland private investigator who had been married to her father, an Oakland cop. Vicki has carefully avoided calling her dad, knowing he would go on a rampage against her stalker. Thus begins Janet Dawson’s A Credible Threat, the sixth novel in her Jeri Howard series.
Shortly after Jeri meets the residents of the house, the threat escalates. Stalking eventually turns to murder, involving both Jeri and her ex-husband in a dangerous investigation that harkens back to a murder case early in Jeri’s career as a P.I. The inquiry requires her to take several quick trips from Berkeley to Boulder and to Mendocino, as the case broadens.
A Credible Threat was published in 1996 and reflects the passage of the nation’s first anti-stalking law in California in 1990. The title refers to the central definition in that law: “a credible threat to place [a person] in reasonable fear for his or her safety, or the safety of his or her immediate family . . .”
Dawson writes serviceable prose and has mastered the art of plotting that brings suspense into the open. My only complaint is that she digresses into over-lengthy descriptions of the scenery on Jeri’s trips away from Berkeley.
Janet Dawson has written 12 novels in the Jeri Howard series and two in a newer one, an historical mystery series with a woman protagonist, as well as a standalone suspense novel. She was a U.S. Navy officer, a journalist, and an employee in legal affairs at UC Berkeley.