Friday, December 10, 2010

2011 Reading Challenges

As if I didn't have enough to read, I've decided to join two reading challenges next year.

The first is the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge. I've been thinking about it for a year, as I follow my friend Kerrie's reading of Christie novels. I figure it will take me years to read all of Christie's novels, but I have to start somewhere, right? You can join the challenge, too, at Kerrie's site.

The second is the Ireland reading challenge. My family and I hope to make a visit next summer, so this is perfect. I'm going for the Kiss the Blarney Stone level (6 books). I'm thinking about Ian Sansom's Mobile Library series and Tana French's The Likeness, already on my TBR pile. Any ideas for me? Leave a comment, please. For more about that challenge, see here.

20 Favorite Fictional Detectives

Recently, someone asked me who my favorite fictional characters have been. Many of them were detectives, mysteries being my main source of entertainment. So below is my very subjective listing of favorite fictional detectives:

1 and 2. The Bobbsey Twins and Encyclopedia Brown. These were among the first books I remember reading, and they’ve influenced many a mystery lover.
3. Sherlock Holmes. Created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887, this detective is timeless. He still captures our imaginations, as can be seen by the current-day reincarnations (Robert Downey Jr. on the big screen and Benedict Cumberbatch in the current PBS series) and inspirations (the TV series House). There are many Holmes purists, but I like to see even the modern-day adaptations.
4. Inspector Morse. Colin Dexter wrote 13 novels, but mostly we know Morse through the TV series, and the late actor John Thaw. Even Colin Dexter admits that Thaw became, for him, Morse. Intellectually snobbish, pig-headed, often sharp with underling Lewis, and always unlucky in love, Morse was redeemed by his great intellect, humor and moments of vulnerability.
5. Inspector Robbie Lewis and DS James Hathaway. A spinoff from Morse, Insp. Lewis is more down-to-earth, working-class, but with a sharper edge in the new series, following the murder of his wife. Hathaway, tall and good-looking, is the intellectual here, but without the snobbery. It’s become one of my favorite PBS shows.
6. Insp. John Rebus. Ian Rankin’s creation is smart -- and smart-alecky. His demons are alcohol and women (divorced, and also often unlucky in love). Like Morse, he’s unorthodox and always battling his bosses. And like Morse, he’s also a loner and strangely vulnerable. Rankin retired him after 17 books in Exit Music. He’s been portrayed by John Hannah and Ken Stott on TV, but neither really seemed like Rebus to me. In this case, the books are definitely better.
7. Insp. Adam Dalgliesh. Ah, the poet-detective from New Scotland Yard, the silent but sensitive man. P.D. James created him in 1962 with Cover Her Face. In 2008, James, now 90, wrote what may be her last Dalgliesh novel, The Private Patient. The slowly-aging Dalgliesh is now facing retirement and married. Originally portrayed by Roy Marsden on TV, Martin Shaw took over the role later -- and, to my mind, is Dalgliesh.
8 and 9. Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Some may criticize Agatha Christie for weak characterization, but she did give us two of the most well-known and well-loved detectives: private investigator Poirot, a retired Belgian police officer living in London (first seen in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, 1920) , and amateur detective Jane Marple, the elderly spinster of St. Mary Mead (first seen in The Murder at the Vicarage, 1930). David Suchet has long portrayed Poirot on TV, and now it’s hard to picture anyone else. Miss Marple has been played by many actresses, most notably Joan Hickson, Geraldine McEwan and Julia McKenzie.
10. DCI Jane Tennison. This ITV production (Prime Suspect) featured Helen Mirren portraying a tough-as-nails detective who often put work before family, and who slid into alcoholism as the series progressed. So well acted by Mirren, Tennison almost doesn’t seem fictional. The series is said to have served as inspiration for The Closer in the U.S.
11. Adrian Monk. Portrayed by Tony Shalhoub on the USA Network, this obsessive-compulsive private eye was funny -- and also heart-breaking, as a lonely former San Francisco police detective who now worked on his own. His two aims in life: find out who killed his wife and return to the police force. A wonderful cast backed Shalhoub: assistants Sharona Fleming (Bitty Schram) and Natalie Teeger (Traylor Howard), Capt. Leland Stottlemeyer (Ted Levine) and Lt. Randy Disher (Jason Gray-Stanford). I still miss this show.
12. Spenser. The character created by Robert B. Parker in his books came to TV with Robert Urich. I liked the books, but I really loved the TV series. Spenser is the detective you would want to date: tough and good-looking, but a gourmet cook who can quote poetry. Alas, he already had a girlfriend.
13. V.I. Warshawski. This Chicago private detective, created by Sara Paretsky, is tough, independent and no-nonsense. A little grittier than some other female detectives, and maybe a little harder to love.
14. Kinsey Milhone. In some ways, a cousin to Warshawski, although not as tough. The California detective is smart, athletic, principled -- and only owns one good dress, a black number she can scrunch up in her purse and still wear. At least Kinsey (written by Sue Grafton) has stopped giving herself haircuts.
15. Kate Shugak. Another tough woman, she’s a native Alaskan (Aleut) created by Dana Stabenow. Shugak, once an investigator for the Anchorage District Attorney’s Office, now works alone and finds herself in all sorts of situations, going undercover on a fishing boat and posing as an old field worker.
16. Samantha Kinsey. Ok, this TV detective is really light-weight, but I was hooked on the show (Mystery Woman on Hallmark) nonetheless. I could see myself as Samantha (though she was probably better portrayed by Kellie Martin): a murder mystery buff who owns a bookstore and whose hobby is photography. And, of course, always happening upon a situation where she could sleuth. Nothing that good ever happens to me. Maybe if I owned a bookstore?
17. Lt. Columbo. There were no whodunits in these TV shows -- as viewers, we knew who the killer was -- but it was still great to see the seemingly-bumbling but really-brilliant Columbo (Peter Falk) solve the case.
18. Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. I saw the TV series (Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton) before every picking up one of Rex Stout’s books, and it was a case of a TV series influencing me to later read some of the books. Nero is an overweight gourmand who pays more attention to his orchids than to people, but can solve a case without even leaving his brownstone. He has his assistant, Archie, for all the legwork. The A&E series is said to have closely followed the books.
19. Aimée Leduc. Now here’s a female P.I. quite different from the others I’ve mentioned. For one thing, she lives in Paris and dresses in vintage Channel and Dior, even wearing high heels while chasing bad guys (or being chased). But she’s tough in her own right. Created by Cara Black, Leduc is half-American, half-French (there’s also a mystery surrounding her mother). She has a great sidekick in René Friant, a dwarf and computer expert.
20. Leroy Jethro Gibbs and the rest of the NCIS cast. One of the best TV shows today -- underrated, in my opinion. Great characters, great mystery story lines, a dark undercurrent, yet with lots of humor. This really is an ensemble cast, although Gibbs (Mark Harmon) is at the heart of it.

Who are your favorite fictional detectives?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Priceless: How I went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures by Robert K. Wittman

I love to read fictional mysteries, but everyone once in a while comes a true-story book that is as good as any fiction.

Former undercover FBI agent Robert K. Wittman, writing with Philadelphia journalist John Shiffman, takes us case by case through his real-life stories: recovering a headdress belonging to Geronimo, going after well-known TV appraisers who were conning people into turning over valuables for a pittance, and working to recover a Rembrandt and Vermeer stolen in 1990 from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston -- amid much turf squabbling and bureaucratic bungling within the FBI.

The stories are compelling, with equal doses of art history and suspense -- will he be able to fool the suspects, and pull a sting off? Is he going to be able to recover priceless paintings after missteps by a supervisor? Well, you'll have to read the book to find out.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Halloween's tricks and treats

Yes, little kids dressed up in costumes are cute. But Halloween's real thrills, those are reserved for those of us who love to read about things that go bump in the night.

To that end, I have some recent treats -- and one that was a real howler.

Two recent historical fiction mysteries delve into old legends. Unholy Awakening by Michael Gregorio takes us into Napoleonic Prussia in the early 1800s, when people truly believed in the undead. When a woman is found dead with bite marks on her neck, vampire fear sweeps through the town. See my full review here.

The Demon's Parchment by Jeri Westerson is another historical novel, based on a true story. It's 1384 in London, and someone has hired Crispin Guest to retrieve a stolen Hebrew parchment -- one they believe has the power to summon a golem -- a devil. Young street urchins are also being killed -- by this same monster or someone more human?
See the full review here. Westerson writes with such detail that I want to go back and read the earlier ones in the series now.

Some things should not be resurrected. Unfortunately, that's what Dracula, The Un-dead tries to do. This sequel, written by Bram Stoker's great-grandnephew, Dacre Stoker, and screenwriter Ian Holt, is a huge disappointment. They bring back not only the characters from the classic, but also make the author, Bram Stoker, into a character as well. It's a mess. Pass on this one.

For more chilling reads, check out the special Halloween issue at Reviewing the Evidence, as well as Mystery Fanfare's list and LJ Robert's picks.

Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny

Protagonist: Armand Gamache
Setting: Quebec
Rating: 5.0

I love Autumn for several reasons: the beautiful, rich colors on trees, the smell of wood smoke in the air, and a new Armand Gamache novel. Reading one of Louise Penny's books has become a Fall ritual for me - and this one I've been eagerly awaiting for a year.

A year ago, The Brutal Telling ended in a bit of a cliffhanger. Could our heroic, intelligent, honorable Gamache gotten it wrong, sending an innocent man to jail? Well, Penny answers that question in this book. But that's only one of three story lines. And it is Gamache's second-in-command, Inspector Jean-Guy Beauvoir, who goes to Three Pines to unofficially ask questions.

Gamache, meanwhile, is in Quebec, visiting his mentor and recuperating, physically and emotionally, from a police operation that went horribly wrong, killing several agents and wounding Gamache. But when a man's body is found inside the city's Literary and Historical Society's library, where Gamache has been spending time, the Sûreté's chief inspector is pulled into the investigation.

The third story line, an emotionally wrenching look into the operation gone wrong, is revealed to us slowly. Gamache is haunted by the losses, and unable to forgive himself. Penny makes these characters seem so real that you want to be there by their side, consoling them. This is a powerful story, a bit unlike Penny's previous novels, and maybe her best to date.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Devices and Desires by P.D. James

Protagonist: Adam Dalgliesh
Setting: East Anglia
Rating: 4.4
Dalgliesh's aunt Jane has died, leaving him a windmill on the remote windswept headlands of Larksoken, also home to a nuclear plant. On a visit to the mill to settle her estate, he checks in with local police, who are hunting a serial killer named "The Whistler," a man preying on young women in Norfolk. When the nuclear plant's acting administrator, Hilary Robarts, is killed, in a murder made to look like the Whistler's, Dalgliesh finds himself pulled into the investigation. Robarts was reviled both within and outside the nuclear plant, so there are plenty of suspects.

This is, however, not entirely a Dalgliesh novel (although it is 8th in the series). Chief Insp. Terry Rickards of Norfolk CID is the main investigator, although he does rely on Dalgliesh, with whom he used to work, for advice. There's domestic drama going on in Rickard's life, as well, which makes him even more interesting -- but takes away from any storyline we might have had with Dalgliesh. And when the real killer is revealed, it is neither Rickards nor Dalgliesh who uncovers the truth. This is a well-written, well-plotted whodunnit -- but if you're looking for the usual Dalgliesh investigation, this one isn't it.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

A Nail Through the Heart by Timothy Hallinan

Protagonist: Poke Rafferty
Setting: Bangkok
Rating: 5.0

Poke Rafferty is not a private investigator. He's a travel writer who has written a "Looking for Trouble" series, mainly for men (on everything from how to bribe a cop to where the best bars are). So it's not surprising that trouble is what he finds when Rafferty takes on a P.I. job for an Australian woman, agreeing to search for her missing uncle. The man's live-in housekeeper is also gone, and this leads Rafferty to a rich, domineering woman. She, in turns, throws a lot of money at Rafferty so he can find someone else -- a man who has stolen from her.

What started as a simple investigation eventually leads Rafferty into the dark world of child pornography and a dark period in Cambodia's history, when the Khmer Rouge tortured thousands. This could have been a very bleak story, but it is just the opposite, balanced by Rafferty's personal life.

In this, the first book in the series, we meet Rafferty's girlfriend Rose, a former bar girl/prostitute who is trying to start her own cleaning business, and the street orphan Rafferty hopes to adopt, spunky 8-year-old Miaow. For a while, another street urchin, the troubled Superman, also makes an appearance in their lives.

While the different elements might not seem appealing -- child porn, a prostitute-turned girlfriend, street children with strange names -- it all works somehow. And it works wonderfully. Hallinan is a gifted writer, and his series is one I will definitely continue.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Interview with Joanna Challis

If you like cozies, especially those with a gothic twist, then Joanna Challis' new series is for you. With an appealing protagonist -- the author Daphne du Maurier as a young woman -- it's sure to gain a following. Here's an interview with Challis about why she likes gothics so much:

Q. In your new series, the protagonist is Daphne du Maurier, the author of Rebecca and other novels. How did you decide on her, and how much of what you’ve written is taken from her real life?

A. Because of my love for du Maurier, Victoria Holt, and the Brontes, my agent came up with the idea of using Daphne du Maurier as a heroine in a new mystery series. Daphne appealed to me instantly -- she came from an upper-class family with good connections - an ideal starting point to build plots upon and the era -- late 1920s -- I grew to love with Agatha Cristie's Hercule Poirot. Combining the two together was an exciting concept.

Q. How do you take an iconic novel like Rebecca, and work backward, in a way, crafting a story that could have been the inspiration for Rebecca?

A. I've read Rebecca so many times I feel I know it backwards. In MURDER ON THE CLIFFS I started with a murder and built the story form there. Often, the characters determine the direction of the story and it was easy to weave the REBECCA theme into MURDER ON THE CLIFFS. The location and the setting, a grand mansion by the sea, also helped!

Q. For me, Murder on the Cliffs led me to reading Rebecca, which I had never done (although I love gothics!). What has the reaction been from other readers to your use of this wonderful gothic novel?

A. I've heard from many readers who love the connection. REBECCA is an all-time favorite with many, however, like with every book, there are critics. As a reader, I adore the old gothics and here was a chance to re-create those classic elements into new mystery with a great heroine and a great setting - beautiful Cornwall.

Q. At least one of your other books has been described as a romance. How would you describe your books -- are they gothics, mysteries, historical fiction, all of the above?

A. Historical mystery with a touch of gothic.

Q. You obviously love gothic novels. What about them appeals to you?

A. Location, location. Setting an entire novel around a grand old house. An intriguing mystery. Interesting characters. A happy ending.

Q. Your website says you started writing at 15. When did you begin achieving success as a writer, and how has your work evolved over the years?

A. I was 20 when SILVERTHORN, my first book, was published. I wrote two others (they were all e-published). SILVERTHORN became a quick favorite and was short-listed for Romantic Book of the Year in Australia. EYE OF THE SERPENT came out next (Robert Hale, UK), my first hard-cover, and also was loved by readers. For an attempt to hit the commerical market, however, my agent and I worked on the Daphne series. We knew it was a great concept and St Martin's thought so too. I have a wonderful and supportive editor at SMP. Together I hope to continue the series.

Q. Your second Daphne du Maurier book is coming out soon. Can you tell us a little about this book, and will this series continue?

A. PERIL AT SOMNER HOUSE will hit bookstores from the 26th October. I'm very excited about it. I love any book set on an island -- this one is an island off the coast of Cornwall in England. It's also set in Winter -- a house party murder-mystery.

Q. And the question I ask everyone -- who are the authors you like to read?

A. Agatha Cristie. Victoria Holt. Jane Austen. The Brontes. Any mystery really. And, of course, Daphne du Maurier!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Murder on the Cliffs by Joanna Challis

Protagonist: Daphne du Maurier
Setting: Cornwall
Rating: 4.0

Sometimes you're in the mood for an old-fashioned mystery. This is it -- with a twist. The protagonist is a young Daphne du Maurier, the real-life gothic author. And the events in this novel form the inspiration for her masterpiece, Rebecca. Daphne -- or the fictional version, at least -- is 21 and not interested in finding a husband, despite the pleas of her parents. Instead, she wants to go to Cornwall and explore the old abbey, the manors and the medieval inns. Her family insists she stay with Ewe Sinclaire, her mother's old nanny. But even safely ensconced, murder finds Daphne as she walks the cliffs of Cornwall.

She hears screams, and comes across the body of a young woman, who turns out to be the fiancee of Lord Hartley of Padthaway, a gothic mansion full of secret passageways and closed rooms (think Manderlay). Is the killer Lord David Hartley himself, his strange sister Lianne or their icy-cold mother? And what about that creepy housekeeper? As the person who found the body (and a person of society), Daphne is welcomed to Padthaway, becoming friendly with Lianne and catching the eye of the brooding Lord Hartley. But what interests Daphne the most is solving the mystery. Rather than being afraid of the gothic mansion, she eagerly embraces the secrets of the old house -- and the family. She's fearless, outspoken and confident -- quite unlike the main character in Rebecca.

You don't need to have read Rebecca to enjoy Murder on the Cliffs, although there are a few lines that will resonate if you've read the classic. This is a modern gothic, with an engaging heroine. Challis' second book, Peril at Somner House, will be out in October. It's one I eagerly await.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Interview with Barbara Fister

Barbara Fister is the author of three crime fiction books: On Edge, In the Wind and the recently-released Through the Cracks. Below is what she has to say on writing:

Q. In addition to being an author, you’re a librarian at a liberal arts college. Why did you choose that field and have you always had ambitions to be a writer?

A. “Choose” implies actual planning was involved. In fact, I sort of fall into things. I went to library school after enjoying part-time work in the university library when I was an undergraduate and not particularly enjoying the other graduate program I was enrolled in. I applied for a job at a school that I’d never heard of and had to quiz everyone who interviewed me for the job on what is distinctive about liberal arts colleges, since my education had been at research universities. I didn’t really expect to become a professional writer, though I impressed myself in the fifth grade by writing a story about a horse that was a whole eight pages long; when I was an undergraduate I wrote a novel to see if I could do it (a whole 300 pages long!) but I was wise enough to know it wasn’t any good. I didn’t write fiction again for years, until I reached a point in my life when I needed a creative outlet to balance the rest of my life. Making up imaginary worlds is fulfilling in a way that other kinds of writing is not. I’m sure I was also influenced by my father, who was a journalist, and my mother, a self-taught polymath who read mysteries constantly.

Q. How did you come up with the character of Anni Koskinen? She seems far removed from a university librarian.

A. That’s why I like hanging out with her - though oddly enough I’ve had some librarian friends say “she’s such a librarian!” I think that’s because she has an orientation toward politics and civil liberties that maps more closely to the average librarian than the average cop. And she’s a bit of a geek. At one point in Through the Cracks, when she’s looking for connections among cases, she inputs data to create a relational tag cloud - total librarian geekery. She also has a background that provides her with street smarts from early years in the child welfare system, but with a foot in a world that looks more like mine, having been adopted by a college professor.

Q. Much of your first book in the Anni Koskinen series, In the Wind, concerns civil liberties, especially those of underrepresented groups. Why did you address those issues?

A. When I was writing In the Wind I was angry about the ways our government was responding to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, including the passage of a law that in many of its sections is an insult to the Constitution. I was struck by the way that law enforcement practices that were exposed by the Church Committee in the 1970s and repudiated by Congress were suddenly being made legal, or as legal as a law that is in conflict with the Constitution can be. And just as the civil rights movement became the target of illegal surveillance and suppression in the 1960s, even though “communism” was the supposed enemy, the fear of foreign “others” has been expanded to include immigrants of all kinds, both legal and undocumented.

Crime fiction deals with issues of justice, but often it’s justice in the abstract, a duel of wits between a clever hero and an evil antagonist, with victims scattered here and there to create tension. I’m more interested in the ways crime fiction can take a four-inch news story in the paper and imagine the world around it, and I’m fascinated by the ways anxiety (the engine for crime stories) shapes our priorities as a society.

Q. The American Indian Movement, which is a big part of that book, is a real-life group. Why focus on AIM, and were any of the events that occurred in the novel taken from real events?

A. The seed that grew into this story was planted when FBI agents arrested Sarah Jane Olsen, a completely ordinary middle-class woman in St. Paul, and charged her with being an accomplice in crimes committed by a bizarre radical group, the Symbionese Liberation Army, which she had joined decades ago. I wondered what it would have been like to lead a dual life like that, living quietly after being involved in violent radicalism. When I started mulling over a storyline, though, I didn’t want to focus on a group as peculiar as the Symbionese Liberation Army, which was stranger than fiction. Instead, I invented a radical offshoot of the American Indian Movement. AIM was formed close to where I now live and was targeted by the FBI, which made every effort to dismantle and discredit the movement.

I may also have been influenced by the fact that my house is on Dakota land taken from them in the treaty of Traverse des Sioux. Conditions got so desperately bad for the tribe a few years later, they rebelled and there was a terrible slaughter on both sides. On December 27, 1862, 38 Dakota men were hanged in the largest mass execution in the nation’s history just twelve miles from where I live.

Q. In addition to writing characters who are people of color, you have characters who are autistic and bipolar. What drives you to create these types of characters?

A. I’ve always wanted to write something about the experience families have with mental illness, partly to offer an alternative to the fairly common depiction of mental illness in crime fiction as a convenient label applied to monstrous villains who commit extravagantly nasty crimes. My brother Paul was bipolar and, like most people in his situation, was not violent but had frequent run-ins with the law. I know a lot of people with serious mental illnesses, and the problems they and their families have while dealing with any chronic illness are exacerbated by the social stigma involved. Bipolar disorder usually presents during late adolescence or early adulthood, just as people are forming their adult identities, and it can make it very difficult to get an education, develop a career, and form attachments. It’s also frustrating for families, because getting help during a crisis is often impossible. So I invented a heroine whose job in part involves dealing with such crises. Wish fulfillment? I’m not sure.

Anni’s brother is autistic, and I’m not sure where he came from. In the first draft of the book, I never used the word and didn’t really have a “diagnosis” for him. That very messy first draft had a lot of things that needed fixing, and one of the recommendations my agent made was to cut back on the number of characters. I tried to write him out of the story, but I couldn’t make sense of Anni’s character without her brother, so he stayed and I’m glad, because I like him. I think her ability to understand his perspective even though he’s mostly non-verbal has helped make her a good detective and a compassionate person.

Q. You also set your books in neighborhoods that aren’t usually seen by the tourist. What about these settings appeals to you as a writer?

A. Man, I love Chicago, and the city is all about its neighborhoods. As a quintessentially American city, it offers the kinds of contrasts that give you lots to work with, including vibrant African-American and Latino communities as well as the lingering imprint of waves of immigration, particularly from Eastern Europe. The busiest retail areas in Chicago apart from the better-known Magnificent Mile are 26th Street in Little Village, a Mexican neighborhood, and Devon Avenue on the far north side, which is primarily Indian/Pakistani but with smatterings of Russian, Georgian, and Hassidic Jewish businesses. How cool is that? And of course there’s enormous economic diversity. Many of the city blocks in parts of the South and West Sides would be right at home in the third world. Anni lives in a neighborhood that’s traditionally Puerto Rican, but also has lots of black and Mexican residents. It’s right in the path of gentrification but is also home to some pretty violent gang disputes. If fiction needs conflict, there’s plenty of it right at her front door.

Q. You now have two books in the Anni Koskinen series. Are you working on a third, and any ideas on where this series will head?

A. Yes, I am, but no, I have no idea where it might go, though at this point it involves two stories, those of a young schizophrenic client accused of murder and an outsider artist whose rather unsettling work may provide clues in a case Anni investigated years ago. I am one of those writers who works with a concept and sometimes an idea of how the crimes will be solved in the end, but otherwise no outline or plan. I’ve never been able to plot a story in advance of writing; I have to be writing to discover the story. Don’t try this at home.

Q. You’ve been active in the mystery reading community for years, especially as a moderator with the online group 4Mystery Addicts. Any surprises in going from being a reader to being a writer?

A. I think at heart I’m more a reader than a writer. When I’m making up a story, I’m thinking like a reader. What’s going to happen next? How will this character respond? I was completely ignorant of the book business, and while it has been a good education for me as a librarian to see the sausage factory up close, particularly at a time when so much is in flux, I have been surprised at how much time and energy the business angle of writing occupies writers and how much of the creative energies of writers gets sapped by anxieties surrounding publication, particularly when so little is under their control. While I enjoy the craft aspect of writing, I’m not as interested in the business end, especially sales and self-promotion. Fortunately, I like my day job.

Q. You’ve written both male (On Edge, your first book) and female protagonists. Which do you like writing the best?

A. I actually found it harder to write from a female perspective. Readers tolerate a certain intensity and edgy behavior in men that would seem obnoxious, unrealistic, or simply disturbing in women characters. Men can drink too much, but not women. Men can get obsessed and neglect relationships, but women who do that are selfish and overly ambitious. When you put a female character at risk, it’s easy to fall into that annoying “be very afraid” kind of suspense that I find oppressive. I had fun with Slovo in my first book, and I’d like to bring him back and see how he’s doing after all the high-tension drama and his slightly unhinged state of mind, but I also have enjoyed trying to develop a female character who can be the kind of hero Chandler wrote about – honorable, not afraid, fit for adventure while remaining solidly human and rooted in reality. I think with Anni I’m trying to figure out what a hero should be when the hero is a woman in the 21st century.

Q. Finally, the question I ask all authors -- which authors do you like to read?

A. My favorite question! I have been enjoying Scandinavian writers lately – Arnaldur Indridason, Johan Theorin, Jo Nesbo, Karin Fossum among them. I also love Denise Mina (Scotland), Timothy Hallinan (Thailand), John McFetridge (Canada), and Deon Meyer (South Africa). For great writing I can always turn to David Corbett, Jess Walter, and John Harvey. Oh, and Sam Reaves and Sean Doolittle and Don Winslow and Minette Walters and Alex Carr and Adrian Hyland and . . . it’s impossible to know where to stop. Whatever you think of the future of publishing, there is no shortage of great books.

In the Wind by Barbara Fister

Protagonist: Anni Koskinen
Setting: Chicago
Rating: 4.6
In this first book in a new series, we meet Anni Koskinen, a former Chicago cop who left the force after she testified against a fellow officer who beat a kid, leaving him brain-damaged. While she may have done the right thing, other officers made her life difficult, so Anni's gone the private investigator route. She's not been at it long when a neighborhood priest asks Anni for help. Within a matter of hours, she's involved in a high-profile case, helping defend a woman, Rosa Saenz, a grandmotherly church worker the FBI says killed a federal agent in 1977. Saenz is really Verna Basswood, a former radical with an offshoot of the American Indian Movement and a fugitive since she was accused of the crime. But her lawyer, Anni and most of the community -- with the exception of law enforcement -- believe Basswood is innocent. To complicate matters, the man she's accused of killing, Arne Tilquist, was the father of one of Anni's closest friends.

Fister has been compared to another Chicago author, Sara Paretsky (V.I. Warshawsky). This is not overblown hype. Both have tough female P.I. characters, gripping writing and use the city to great effect, exploring the neighborhoods of the working class. In the Wind also tackles the subject of civil liberties, especially those of underrepresented groups, deftly. And Fister deals with issues of autism and bipolar disorder with sensitivity -- Anni's brother is autistic and another main character is a teenager with bipolar disorder. There's a lot, in fact, packed into this novel, but it doesn't slow down the plot.

The second in the series, Through the Cracks, was released this year. Hopefully, Fister will become another Paretsky -- with a long-running series to her name.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

The Devil's Star by Jo Nesbo

Protagonist: Harry Hole
Setting: Oslo
Rating: 4.9

Following the events in The Redbreast and Nemesis (and I highly recommend you read at least The Redbreast first), police detective Harry Hole has slipped into alcoholism. He hardly appears at work and is about to be dismissed when the department is faced with a big case -- a serial killer who is leaving pentagrams and red diamonds at each scene.

Amid his alcoholic haze, Hole has also been trying to prove that colleague Tom Waaler is corrupt. Not surprisingly, no one will listen to him. The only reason they haven’t fired Hole yet is because he’s so good at solving complicated crimes. And this is one complicated crime – what is the killer trying to tell police with the clues he leaves behind? They don’t seem to be sex crimes and there’s no link between the victims, so what is the motive?

The more Hole investigates, the more suspects there seem to be. In the end, the pieces fall together rather well, although Nesbo has weaved a complicated plot. It’s a pleasure to read crime fiction like this – with well-developed characters, a not-always-likable but intriguing detective, and a plot filled with twists and turns. In fact, if I were to recommend a Scandinavian author, it wouldn't be the flavor of the month (The Girl Who books), but Jo Nesbo.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Blue Lightning by Ann Cleeves

Protagonist: Det. Jimmy Perez
Setting: Fair Isle
Rating: 5.0

Engaged now, Det. Jimmy Perez takes his fiancée, Fran Hunter, back home to Fair Isles to meet his parents, just as a fall storm starts brewing. Jimmy's parents have organized a party at North Light Field Centre, a bird observatory. The party is a success, but the next morning Jimmy is awoken early -- there's been a murder at the observatory. North Field's warden, Angela Moore, has been killed; the killer has woven white bird feathers though her dark long hair. With the storm now raging, it'll be days before other detectives and the forensics team can reach the island, so it's left to Jimmy to investigate.

Since the center was locked, it's obvious the killer is either a family member, one of the staff or one of the visitors, “twitchers” pursuing rare birds. Less obvious is who -- there are plenty of people who had reason to dislike Angela. In the midst of all this, one of the bird-watchers spots the first trumpeter swan seen in Britain. “I’d kill to find a bird like this,” one of the suspects proclaims. Yet another motive for murder!

This closed environment, with plenty of suspects, is a traditional mystery device. Cleeves even makes a nod to old-fashioned whodunits, with one of the characters contemplating, "There was an Agatha Christie book she'd read when she was a kid. A bunch of people on an island. Dying, one by one.”

But this is no Christie cozy. Amid the stark beauty of this isolated island, there’s a dark undercurrent. In fact, in the last of a quartet set in the Shetland Islands, Cleeves brings us a very dark book. (The quartet began with Raven Black, followed by White Nights and Red Bones, and I recommend reading them in order.) This atmospheric novel builds the tension slowly until its stunning denouement. I expected a good read, having liked the previous books. Blue Lightning delivers with a thunderous intensity.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Case of the Missing Servant by Tarquin Hall

Protagonist: Vish Puri
Setting: Delhi, India
Rating: 4.7
Vish Puri, a 51-year-old detective, owns Most Private Investigators, an agency that deals mostly with matrimonial issues. In this modern age, in which aunties no longer set up as many arranged marriages, parents seek out Most Private Investigators to screen prospective marriage partners. The work keeps Puri busy, along with his undercover operatives, who he's nicknamed: Tubelight, Flush, Hand Brake (his driver) and Facecream.

But his life is about to get even busier. A public litigator asks Puri for help -- he's been accused of murdering his maidservant. The servant has gone missing; a woman is found dead in town, but she may or may not be the servant (Puri only has a first name, Mary, as a clue to finding her). Also, Brigadier Kapoor, an important man, wants Puri to discredit the man engaged to his granddaughter, even though the groom seems squeaky-clean. Finally, someone is trying to kill Puri, shooting at him as he tends his rooftop chili plants. But he's so busy that he doesn't spend much time on his own murder attempt. Instead, to his utter frustration, his mother starts sleuthing, leading Puri to chastise her with: "It's not a mummy's role, actually."

This was a quirky book, filled with much humor. But it also had great detective stories and a great character in Puri, who, for all his faults, has a mind equal to Sherlock Holmes or Poirot.

Hall, who has lived in India, has a great ear for the Indian way of phrasing sentences, and wonderfully describes the sights and tastes (especially!) of India. Fortunately, the second book in the series, The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, has just been published. I think I'll be visiting India, via Puri, soon.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Mortal Causes by Ian Rankin

Protagonist: Det. Insp. John Rebus
Setting: Edinburgh
Rating: 4.5

In this, the sixth novel in the Rebus series, Rankin really gets things humming along. Rankin, who has said before that he’s tried to show the Jekyll and Hyde nature of Edinburgh, gives us the touristy Edinburgh Festival – and a murder right underneath the noses of festivalgoers. Literally. A young man’s body is found in the underground St. Mary’s King Close, tortured and shot six times.

When it seems that Scottish nationalists and extreme hardline Irish groups are involved, Rebus is seconded to the elite Scottish Crime Squad, since he’s had previous army experience in Belfast. This suits Rebus just fine – he can travel between the two offices without his superiors knowing what he’s really up to. In the meantime, Rebus, as a favor to a priest, has also ventured into the Gar-B, a notorious housing project in Edinburgh. These two threads tie eventually. Also making an appearance is Rebus’ nemesis, “Big Ger” Cafferty, an effective alter ego for Rebus.

Along the way, there are a few more murders and Rebus serves as a punching bag for almost everyone – the bad guys, the good guys (a fellow police officer) and a lawyer with whom he’s unwisely flirted, even though he’s living with Dr. Patience Aitken.

A very good entry in a great series.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

The Man From Beijing by Henning Mankell

Protagonist: Birgitta Roslin
Setting: Sweden and China
Rating: 4.0
A photographer is traveling through rural Sweden when he stops at a small scenic village. But something is off: no smoke is coming out of the chimneys even though it's a cold winter day. Soon enough, he starts to stumble on dead bodies. When police arrive, they find 18 dead, one of the biggest mass slayings in Sweden. But this is not the usual police procedural. In fact, it's not the police who solve the mystery -- they arrest the wrong man -- but a judge, Birgitta Roslin, who is connected to some of the victims.

I had mixed feelings about this book. I really, really wanted to like it. It is, after all, written by the great Henning Mankell, who writes the popular Kurt Wallander series.

And this is by no means a bad book. There's much I did like: the main characters are, for the most part, strong and intelligent women. I very much liked them. The story, up to a point, held my attention. However, about two-thirds of the way through, the action switches from Sweden to China. It jarred, taking me out of the Swedish story and into a more political story involving China and Africa.

Then there was the whole premise for the murders. The killer is avenging a family wrong committed 138 years ago, but taking his revenge out on innocents. And while we get to know the killer quiet well, it was still hard to believe he'd kill for that purpose. Lastly, the translation seemed clunky. I'm sure Mankell is a wonderful writing, but it read stilted in English.

Would I recommend this book? Yes, but warily, not enthusiastically.

Monday, May 17, 2010

At Risk by Stella Rimington

Protagonist: Liz Carlyle
Setting: London and East Anglia
Rating: 4.5

Going into this novel, all I knew was that author Stella Rimington was former director-general of Britain's MI5 Security Service, the first woman to head the agency. I didn't expect much in the way of writing. Fortunately, I was wrong.

In her first book (she's now written five) Rimington has crafted a taut, well-written spy thriller with a strong female protagonist, Liz Carlyle, a 34-year-old agent-runner for MI5. Liz is a no-nonsense type of person, who puts personal relationships second to her work.

In this first book, post-Sept. 11, Liz and her colleagues are on the hunt for an "invisible" -- "the ultimate intelligence nightmare: the terrorist who, because he or she is an ethnic native of the target country, can cross its borders unchecked, move around that country unquestioned, and infiltrate its institutions with ease." There are actually two terrorists who have teamed up. For what purposes, we don't know immediately. What helps elevate this beyond a typical spy thriller are the well-drawn characters, including the two terrorists. In alternating chapters, we get their viewpoint, and a glimpse into what drives them.

Most of the procedural aspects also ring true and, except for a slightly over-the-top denouement, the story seems a realistic one. If you're looking for a smart spy thriller, stop right here.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Mayhem in the Hamptons

For the second year in a row, the BookHampton stores in the Hamptons have sponsored some of the most notable mystery authors from New York City and Long Island at a series of talks at their three stores.

One of the most interesting of those this weekend was entitled, "What Did I Do: Choosing a Victim," with authors Nelson DeMille, S.J. Rozan (in photo), Alafair Burke, Linda Fairstein, Tasha Alexander and Andrew Gross speaking on how they pick their victims, as well as the villian. The authors acknowledged that, these days, their victims are often sympathetic people. Burke explained that, as a reader, she was tired of the victim just being "victim number 7 -- and they had no tie to the life that was lost. It was always important to me that the loss of life would be depicted."

Linda Fairstein, a former prosecutor, said she hated "flat stick characters."
"I want the flesh and blood of characters, and what that had to do with the killing," she said. "Juries don't like 'bad' victims," such as prostitutes, so as a lawyer, it was her job to "learn their life." In fiction, she does the same: "It's always important for me to create that character fully."

Even when the victim is not a good person, the authors agreed that character had to be fleshed out. Said Rozan: "You don't need to have great sympathy for the victim. You just need to understand who he is, you have to establish humanity."

In the British tradition, DeMille said, you had a murder in the library and "38 people wanted the victim dead....But if someone like a drug dealer is killed, no one else cares about him, but the detective does. That's his job."

Villians are just as important.

For Alexander, in writing the villian it's "more interesting to have a villain who's been pushed and pushed. You get a reader not to sympathize, but to understand."

Said Gross: "Good guys are static. They provide the moral lens you look through. Bad guys are the ones who create the energy of the book. That's the character the readers will be turning the page for."

And, the authors agreed, God help the writer who picks an animal as a victim. DeMille spoke about a novel in which his hero killed three dogs. "I had so much bad reaction," he said. "But all the murder and mayhem in the book -- no one noticed."

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Books set in the Hamptons

Lately, it seems the Hamptons has been attracting more than celebrities and Wall Street types. Crime fiction authors, too, find these East End towns of Long Island attractive. And so murder comes to the Hamptons.

Chris Knopf brings us wise-cracking, former boxer and former engineer Sam Acquillo in The Last Refuge (see review here), Two Time, Head Wounds and Hard Stop, with a spinoff series featuring Acquillo friend and lawyer Jackie Swaitkowski in Short Squeeze. Knopf, who has a home in Southampton, creates lovely images of Little Peconic Bay. But that natural beauty is in opposition to the thugs and killers who also populate the books. Knopf's Hamptons is not that of the rich and famous who crowd it during the summer, but of the blue-collar worker who lives there year-round.

In that vein, but much darker, are Daniel Judson's noir thrillers (not a series, but all set in the Hamptons): The Bone Orchard, The Poisoned Rose, The Darkest Place, The Water's Edge and The Violet Hour (see review here). His Hamptons are almost unrecognizable: deserted, dark streets late at night, haunted characters and bad guys galore -- the body count can get quite high in a Judson book.

Amagansett by Mark Mills, published in 2004, also focuses on the working-class, especially the fishermen of Long Island. This standalone is set in the summer of 1947, and much of it deals with fishing traditions and the hard life of these men, who must also battle those wanting to place restrictions on their livelihood. There is, of course, a mystery here. The book opens with two fishermen pulling in a net, only to find a beautiful -- and dead -- woman tangled in the net.

Each author writes in a very different style, but they all capture the Hamptons in a real-life way.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Dark Mirror by Barry Maitland

Protagonists: DCI David Brock and DI Kathy Kolla
Setting: London
Rating: 4.6

A beautiful graduate student, Marion Summers, suddenly suffers a seizure in the reading room of London Library, and dies. The cause: arsenic. While arsenic is no longer readily available, a few of the suspects do have access to it. Even stranger: Marion had been studying the pre-Raphaelite painters, who did use arsenic in their paints and for medicinal purposes.

Did Marion kill herself? Although it seems to be a suicide, Kathy Kolla thinks not, and she continues investigating the many suspects: Marion's research tutor, her stepfather, her lover and a strange stalker. This is a strong modern police procedural, but also a good British traditional story, with echoes of the Golden Age mysteries.

We also get strong characters in Brock, who has insecurities about his current relationship with Suzanne, who has a personal interest in the case, and in Kathy, as we watch her first tentative steps in a new relationship. This is the 10th book in the series, but the first I've read. There's enough backstory that I never felt lost.
I'm only wondering why it took me long to read a book in this series. If you like British traditional mysteries (and I love them), I highly recommend this book.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Black Book by Ian Rankin

Protagonist: John Rebus
Setting: Edinburgh
Rating: 4.6

How can you not like a book in which the first line of Chapter 1 is: "It all happened because John Rebus was in his favourite massage parlour reading the Bible."

Much happens to Rebus in this book, the least of which is a nice relaxing massage. He's thrown out by his live-in girlfriend, Dr. Patience Aitken, so he moves back into his own flat. But because he's been renting it to students, Rebus ends up on the couch. Even a small storage room is being used -- his brother, a former drug dealer, has just moved into the apartment, as well.

Professionally, one of his detectives, Brian Holmes, is beaten up badly while he's unofficially investigating a 5-year-old murder and fire at the Central Hotel. Rebus gets hold of Holmes' black book, filled with notes of the investigation, and starts to look into it himself, bringing more problems his way. Not only is Rebus dealing with the bad guys on the outside, but within his own department there are those who are out to discredit and thwart him.

This fifth book in the series also introduces Detective Constable Siobhan Clarke, an important character in the series. And Morris Gerald Cafferty, a major antagonist throughout the books, plays a big part in the book. I've liked the previous books, but with this one, the Rebus series seriously starts to ramp up.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

Protagonist: Andrew Marlow
Setting: Washington, D.C.
Rating: 3.5

While the story revolves around painter Robert Oliver, his voice is mute during much of the book, and the story is told through three narrators -- principally, Marlow, his psychiatrist; Kate, his ex-wife; and Mary, his former girlfriend. Marlow is a detective of sorts: Oliver has tried to destroy a painting of Leda and the Swan in the National Gallery. Shortly after, he was taken to a psychiatric hospital, where, after a few words, he doesn't speak to Marlow again. In trying to find out why Oliver attacked the painting, Marlow learns Oliver is obsessed with a female painter from the Impressionism era -- Beatrice de Clerval (we learn more about Beatrice in old letters written between her and a relative, interspersed between the narratives).

Kostova, who wrote the bestseller The Historian, gives us a more subtle, and unfortunately less interesting, story. For hundreds of pages, we get the story of Kate and Robert (how they met, how they married, how the marriage dissolved). Then we get hundreds of pages about Mary and Robert and their romance. While the author is establishing Robert's pattern of obsession, we unfortunately get very little of the mystery. The real story is suspended until the last hundred pages.

While The Historian captivated me, The Swan Thieves suffers from the curse of the second book -- it just doesn't live up to its promise.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Finer End by Deborah Crombie

Protagonists: Det. Supt. Duncan Kincaid and Sgt. Gemma James
Setting: Glastonbury
Rating: 4.0
This seventh book in the series is quite a departure for Crombie, as it includes a lot of woo-woo. It opens with a different type of mystery -- why is Duncan's cousin, Jack Montfort, going into trance-like states during which he writes in Latin? Is the spirit of a dead Glastonbury monk possessing him? Is it related to a lost monks' chant? Monfort enlists the help of a group of people to solve this puzzle. But when one of them is attacked, he calls in Duncan, who travels to Glastonbury with Gemma.
Glastonbury is one of those places that attracts those who believe in everything from New Age to the old gods. This is true, in real life, as well. Glastonbury Abbey is where legend has it King Arthur and Queen Guinevere are buried. And Glastonbury Tor, which plays a big part in the book, is known for being home to the King of the Fairies. Crombie does paint a very vivid picture of Glastonbury, and uses those beliefs to give us characters connected to the paranormal -- a teenaged pregnant girl whose baby may be special, and a painter who is taken over by some sort of spirit when painting.

As far as Duncan and Gemma's personal lives, there is much going on, and it's always a pleasure to see where Crombie takes this storyline. I enjoyed that part of the book, but deducted points for all the use of woo-woo, which just became a bit too beyond belief after awhile.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Interview with Steve Hamilton

Steve Hamilton's latest book, The Lock Artist, just blew me away. Below, he answers my questions on what it was like writing this book:

Although you've written crime fiction before, including a 7-book series, The Lock Artist seems to have gained you a whole new set of fans. Did you expect this, and what drove you to step away from a series to write this standalone?

Well, I’d actually already taken a break from the series (with Night Work in 2007), so any normal and sane person would have gone back to the series for the next book. But I just had this other idea in my head that wouldn’t go away. And for me the only way to get past that was to dive right in and find out where the story would lead. If I had known it would be two solid years of really being lost, I might have thought twice about it! (But it all worked out, I guess!)

I know why I loved The Lock Artist – it was Michael’s voice, and the fact I really came to root for him, even while he was breaking into homes and safes. How did you come up with this character, a criminal that people would love?

All I knew about him at the beginning was that he had a trauma in his past, that he couldn’t speak, and that he had this special talent for opening locks. As I got into the story, though, I realized that he was really a lot more like a young me than I could have ever imagined. I mean, not with the muteness or the locks, but just the general feeling of being an alien who doesn’t even know why he was put on this earth. When he’s digging that hole and he’s looking up at Amelia, he can’t communicate with her. In Michael’s case, he literally can’t say the words, but believe me, I couldn’t have said the words either. Not when I was that age. So I hope I was able to make him feel like somebody you should root for, because he was just a kid trying to fit in.

Do you always write in first person, and why?

For fiction, it just seems to work out that way. I like to sort of pretend to be the main character and tell the story like I’m sitting down with you over a drink. Whenever I’ve tried third person, I just feel disconnected from it. On the few screenplays I’ve worked on, however, it feels totally natural to be outside everything, looking down on the characters. So that’s how it seems to break down for me now. Prose fiction is first person, screenplays are third person.

In The Lock Artist, you alternate chapters, going back and forth between the past and the present. Why did you use this device?

I did more rework on this book than maybe all the others combined, so it’s hard to go back and remember exactly what I was thinking, but I believe it was originally a worry I had that after finally becoming a safecracker, Michael would spend the rest of the book just going from one heist to another – and that that would become sort of repetitive. That’s why I split the timeline, but as it turned out, the heists were more about the different crews he was working with, and those were so different I really didn’t have to worry about the repetition. But by then I was seeing how the split timeline was working in other ways I had never anticipated – going from becoming a safecracker at home to being a safecracker out on the road, then back again. That back and forth leading to both the middle and the end… And it’s all sounding kind of complicated now, I know. But it’s really not! I mean, I hope it’s not. I hope you just pick up the book and start reading, and it just goes.

The character Michael makes it look easy to pick locks. Is it really that easy? And how much research did you do into lock-picking and safecracking while writing this book?

Cheap locks are easy to pick, good locks are very hard. I got to learn so much from a great lock guy, and then eventually I got to work with one of the best safecrackers in the world. He’s not a criminal, mind you. He’s a totally legal safecracker and that’s all he does. He keeps flying off to new places around the world to open up safes. He was so generous and he really helped me understand what it feels like to open up a safe with nothing but your sense of touch. It’s an incredibly hard thing to do, and only a few people in the world can even come close.

For those of us who haven't read the McKnight series, can you tell us a bit about that series and those characters?

Alex McKnight is a retired Detroit police officer, living in a cabin in a town called Paradise, Michigan. It’s way up at the top of the Upper Peninsula, on the shores of Lake Superior, one of loneliest places I’ve ever seen. He’s a very solitary character, but he’s also a very loyal friend and total sucker for somebody in need, so he’s constantly finding himself right in the middle of other people’s troubles.

You’ve said that you plan to continue the McKnight series, but will you continue to write more standalones? And do you have a working idea right now for one?

I’m working on the next McKnight book now – I think I’ll always want to go back and see what he’s up to next. But at the same time I know I’ll want to keep trying new things, too. It’s all about that next thing that comes into your head. You’ve got to find out where it goes because it won’t leave you alone until you do.

Finally, what authors do you like to read?

I’ve always loved crime fiction and there are so many great authors in the field right now. I can name a few dozen of the usual suspects (Michael Connelly, Lee Child, Lawrence Block, Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, Laura Lippman, Harlan Coben, please stop me), but some other authors who don’t get the recognition they deserve would include Ken Bruen, Denise Mina, Steven Sidor, and Tom Piccirilli. It’s amazing to me how you can do work that’s so different and so original and still be on the same crime fiction shelf!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Shroud for a Nightingale by P.D. James

Protagonist: Chief Supt. Adam Dalgliesh
Setting: Heatheringfield, England
Rating: 4.1
Scotland Yard is called in after two nurses are horribly poisoned at Nightingale House, a nursing school. There are lots of motives and several suspects, although not much to connect the two deaths. Then Dalgliesh learns that one of their patients also recently died, and his instinct tells him that this death, too, is connected. In this fourth book in the series, we see James begin to flesh out her characters (including Dalgliesh, finally!) and we see a plotline that ties back to something in the past, a device we are to see James use over and over in subsequent novels.

This story also takes place in a hospital setting, something James knew very well as a hospital administrator for years. In fact, some of the hospital descriptions can get a bit tedious. But then there are other great descriptions like this that make you appreciate James so much: "On another wall was a smaller shelf holding an assortment of china cats of different sizes and breeds. There was one particularly repulsive specimen in spotted blue, bulging of eye and adorned with a bow of blue ribbon; and propped beside it was a greetings card. It showed a female robin, the sex donated by a frilly apron and flowered bonnet, perched on a twig. At her feet, a male robin was spelling out the words 'Good luck' in worms. Dalgliesh hastily averted his eyes from this abomination and continued his tactful examination of the room."

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton

Protagonist: Michael
Setting: Michigan, New York and Los Angeles
Rating: 5.0
Teenager Michael is a good kid basically, with a few quirks -- he hasn't talked since a childhood incident left him traumatized (and we don't find out what that is until the last 50 pages of the book) and he has two special skills. First, he's a very good artist. Second, he can pick any lock, a self-taught skill. This second skill lands him in trouble when he agrees to help high school buddies with a prank -- and that one bad decision leads him further and further into a life of crime, as he becomes an invaluable "boxman," someone who can open any safe. But even as his options narrow, Michael hopes for an escape from his life of crime. Although Michael doesn't speak, it's his voice that tells the story, in a compelling first-person narration. If you read this book, give yourself a few hours. You won't want to put it down.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Kissed a Sad Goodbye by Deborah Crombie

Protagonist: Gemma James and Duncaid Kincaid
Setting: Isle of Dogs, East End of London
Rating: 4.6
The body of Annabelle Hammond, director of an old family firm of tea merchants, is found on the Isle of Dogs in the Docklands area. Aggressive in business and in her personal life, she had, as one character says of her, "a talent for getting what she wanted, sometimes ruthlessly so." Engaged, Annabelle nevertheless had an intimate affair with street musician Gordon Finch, and she may also have had a relationship with his father, Lewis, a well-known developer. In turn, Lewis Finch and Annabelle's father, William, were once childhood friends, but no longer speak to each other.

Amid this web, Crombie also interweaves the history of the Docklands, and flashbacks to when William Hammond and Lewis Finch were evacuated during World War II as children. At the heart of these books is the continuing relationship between Gemma James and Duncan Kincaid. In this one, Gemma finds herself attracted to another man, as Duncan comes to terms with being a father to 11-year-old Kit. This is the sixth in the series, and my favorite so far (although I do have another seven in the series to read).

Magic City by James W. Hall

Protagonist: Thorn
Setting: Miami, Fla.
Rating: 4.0
The reclusive Thorn leaves his home in Key Largo to visit Miami for a few days in this novel. He's prepared to show his commitment to girlfriend Alexandra, taking care of her father Lawton, who has dementia, while she's in police training for a few days. But on the first day, two men try to break into Lawton's house, looking for a photo taken in 1964, during the Cassius Clay-Sonny Liston fight. The photo is important enough for several people to lose their lives, and Thorn is caught in the middle as he tries to find out why.

Hall can write evocatively, especially when depicting Miami, both 1960s and present-day. Every once in a while, he throws in a description of a neighborhood, and not the ubiquitous South Beach we get in every TV depiction of South Florida, but the real neighborhoods in which people live. Writing about the mostly Hispanic Hialeah, he says: "The farther north they traveled, the more congested the neighborhoods grew. Every store sign and billboard was in Spanish, tobacco shops and Latin supermarkets and cafeterias with serving windows that opened onto the sidewalks, drawing groups of leathery men in guayaberas with their paper cups of cafe cubano. Thorn recalled that Hialeah was a Seminole phrase meaning "high prairie." Though as far as he could see, the only spaces that might qualify as prairies were the vast asphalt parking lots."

But where Hall falls short is in his over-the-top plotting and even more over-the-top characters. In the end, these were drawbacks for me, especially when one of those OTT characters is the main protagonist. A shame, because I really liked spending time in Hall's South Florida.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Protagonists: Skeeter, Aibileen, Minny
Setting: Jackson, Miss., 1962
Rating: 5.0
During one of the most turbulent years in Mississippi during the Civil Rights struggle, 22-year-old Skeeter returns home and, wanting to be a writer, strikes on an idea: write about the lives of black maids, "the help." She does this with the aid of maids Aibileen and Minny. They have to do it furtively, though, since such a project could turn dangerous. Everyone who had read this book before me told me it was great -- and everyone was right. The dialogue, the story, the tension, the history -- all were done wonderfully.

I don't want to say much, so as not to spoil the book, but one note of caution -- if you listen to it on audiobook (as I did) be careful when driving. It's hard to see the road through the tears.

(Audiobook narrated by Jenna Lamia, Bahni Turpin, Octavia Spencer and Cassandra Campbell)

Unnatural Causes by P.D. James

Protagonist: Supt. Adam Dalgliesh
Setting: Monksmere, England
Rating: 4.0
No, this is not a new book. This is the third in a series (I'm reading those P.D. James books I haven't read yet). In this novel, there's no rest for Dalgliesh, even on vacation in Monksmere (Suffolk). While Dalgliesh is visiting his aunt Jane, writer Maurice Seton's body is found floating nearby in a dinghy, his hands cut off. Not only is this gruesome, but the death mimics what would have been the opening chapter of Seton's new book -- suggested by another writer who lives in the community. Then the postmortem shows that Seton's death was of natural causes, despite the chopped-off hands. Dalgliesh, of course, still suspects murder. James gives us a clever plot, but what's most interesting about this early book is that James begins to develop Dalgliesh. We see Dalgliesh, a widower, struggle as to whether he should give up the single life he enjoys for marriage to Deborah Riscoe (who we met in the first book), and we get a snatch of his poetry.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Keeping it Short

As part of a reading challenge for February, I tackled two books of short stories this month. Now, short stories are not my favorite -- I usually feel as if they leave something wanting, a sort of reading lite.

The challenge didn't entirely convert me, but I did read some wonderful short stories. The best of writers do know how to write short while also fleshing out plot, characterization and setting in just a few pages.

Mysterious Pleasures, edited by Martin Edwards
Rating: 4.4
In honor of the 50th anniversary of the Crime Writers' Association in 2003, the group put out this collection, including some original short stories written just for this anthology. While I didn't enjoy every single story (some just fell flat), I'm very glad to have read this book. It introduced me to some writers who I've now added to my TBR list. And there were some excellent short stories in this anthology. In "One Morning They'll Hang Us," Margery Allingham's Albert Campion solves a case before even visiting the crime scene. Reginald Hill, in "The Game of Dog," has Peter Pascoe and his dog joining a group of dog-walking men at the pub -- and wondering whether a pub game led to murder. Ruth Rendell's "When the Wedding Was Over" sees Michael Burden get married, while Chief Insp. Wexford solves a minor mystery. There's also an offering by the late Dick Francis, "The Gift," which revolves around an alcoholic sports writer who might have the story of his life. Editor Martin Edwards (himself a mystery writer) has assembled a collection that offers us some of the very best mystery writers. If, like me, you want a taste of short stories, this is a good place to start.

A Good Hanging by Ian Rankin
Protagonist: Det. Insp. John Rebus
Setting: Edinburgh
Rating: 4.8
I could read Rankin's short stories all day -- he's that good. What I also like about this collection is that they add to Rebus' characterization and that, taken together, they read as one story -- just a story of one Rebus case after another. The title story is about a student hanging during the Edinburgh Festival. In order to solve the crime, Rebus must attend a Shakespeare play which holds a vital clue. In "Not Provan," it seems a guilty man will go free at trial -- unless Rebus can break his alibi. And in "Sunday," we see Rebus on a free Sunday, a seemingly ordinary Sunday, as he does laundry, makes coffee, cooks a steak ... then we learn it's not just any other Sunday. If you've somehow skipped the Rebus short stories (and there's another collection of them in Rankin's The Complete Short Stories), I highly recommend them.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin

Protagonist: Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar
Setting: Cambridge, England, 12th century
Rating: 5.0
It’s hard to combine history with a mystery thriller – and, in fact, some people have taken issue with some of the historical details of this novel – but for my part, this was a gripping, entertaining read. It’s the year 1170, and the King of England has asked his cousin, the King of Sicily for help. Children are being murdered in Cambridge, and the populace has blamed the Jews, shutting them in a castle. But Henry Plantagenet is anxious to clear the Jews, for they are the money lenders, and therefore very valuable in raising tax revenue. The King of Sicily sends a team of three to help – Simon of Naples, a highly skilled investigator, Adelia Aguilar, a sort of coroner, or “mistress of the art of death,” and Mansur, a Saracen and eunuch sent to protect Adelia. When a young boy Adelia has befriended is kidnapped, the hunt becomes even more frantic.

Into this mix throw in a bit of romance (which could get dicey, but adds to the novel’s enjoyment here as Adelia debates with herself marriage versus her career as physician) and a substory involving the Crusades. There are also several plot twists, even after the killer is found out. All in all, a highly enjoyable Medieval mystery.

The Complaints by Ian Rankin

Protagonist: Malcolm Fox
Setting: Edinburgh
Rating: 4.7
Insp. John Rebus has retired, so from Rankin we now get a different type of cop: Malcolm Fox, who works for The Complaints and Conduct, the cops who investigate other cops. He and his team have just finished a case involving veteran officer Glen Heaton, meaning The Complaints has stirred up some more anger. Fox is also dealing with his sister, who is being physically abused by her live-in boyfriend, when he's asked to start investigating another cop who worked with Heaton, this time as part of an online child pornography group. Before Fox can even begin, he gets a call from that same officer, Jamie Breck, with news that his sister's boyfriend has been killed. Although Breck is one of the main investigators and this might appear a conflict of interest, Fox's boss tells him to continue investigating Breck. He does -- and finds Breck to be intelligent, charming, very likable. Can he really be a pedophile? And what about all the coincidences starting to build up?

The novel is all about rights and wrongs, as we try to figure out just which cop is bent -- and which is honest. As Fox mulls:

He wondered: did it bother him that the world wasn't entirely fair? That justice was seldom sufficient? There would always be people ready to pocket a wad of banknotes in exchange for a favour. There would always be people who played the system and wrung out every penny. Some people -- lots of people -- would keep getting away with it.

'But you're not one of them,' he told himself.

Rankin gives us a great story, a great protagonist and more than enough reason to believe there's life after Rebus.

There's a good interview with Rankin about this book and future plans at

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Red Bones by Ann Cleeves

Protagonist: Jimmy Perez
Setting: Shetland Islands
Rating: 5.0

This has one of the best opening scenes ever (but to tell you more would be to spoil it). Insp. Jimmy Perez is back. This time his sidekick is Sandy Wilson, a young detective and not the sharpest knife in the block. But Sandy is instrumental, as much of the story revolves around his family. An archaeological dig in Whalsay, on land owned by his family, becomes the site of two deaths -- maybe murder? -- after a set of bones is uncovered by the archaeological team.

Cleeves writes a well-plotted mystery, but I like her books as much for the setting -- the Shetland islands, remote and beautiful -- and characters that feel like real people. This is the third in a quartet, and like the other books, it deals with long-hidden secrets and the insularity of the islands. One of the young archaeologists captures it well when she says: "Once the fog rolls in you feel as if the world outside doesn't matter at all. People here lose any sense of proportion. Tiny incidents that happened years ago fester and take over their lives."

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

13 Steps Down by Ruth Rendell

Protagonist: Mix Cellini
Setting: Notting Hill, London
Rating: 4.8
In this psychological thriller, Rendell gives us Mix Cellini, a troubled young man who is obsessed with a beautiful model, Nerissa Nash, to the point of becoming a stalker. He's also obsessed with Reginald Christie, a serial killer from the 1940s and '50s. He reads all he can about the notorious doctor and, one late night, even believes he sees Christie's ghost outside his flat. Cellini is also deeply superstitious, especially when it comes to the number 13, which also happens to be the number of steps leading to his flat, the attic room of an old ramshackle Victorian. Cellini's landlady, Gwendolen Chawcer, is an elderly spinster who spends her days and nights immersed in books and who has her own obsession, a doctor she once had a "relationship" with -- even if it was 50 years ago and the relationship didn't extend beyond tea and cakes at her house. Then there is the beautiful Nerissa, who has fallen in love with her family's neighbor, a young man she doesn't even know that well and who doesn't seem to notice her. As the novel progresses, Cellini becomes even more and more unhinged. As a reader, you know it'll all end badly -- but we don't know how or why. It's a story that unwinds slowly, continuing to surprise us, even on the last page.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Devil's Trill by Gerald Elias

Protagonist: Daniel Jacobus
Setting: Berkshires and New York City
Rating: 3.7
At the Grimsley Competition for young violinists at Carnegie Hall, a rare and valuable Stradivarius violin is stolen, even though it had been in a locked room and guarded by two security guards. Daniel Jacobus, a blind, reclusive and crotchety former violinist who now teaches, is a suspect -- he dislikes the competition and the group that hosts it, the Musical Arts Project Group. As he tries to help solve the theft -- with Nathaniel Williams, the investigator for the company that had insured the violin, and Yumi Shinagawa, a 19-year-old student fresh from Japan -- a MAP member is murdered, and Jacobus is a suspect in the murder, as well. The story is written by someone who has been a violinist, composer, conductor and teacher -- so there's much insight into the world of music, and the fierce competition that is sometimes seen. And Jacobus, for unlikable as he can be, is a compelling protagonist. For a debut novel, Devil's Trill is good. But there are still some annoying quirks. For example, the author tries to be too cutesy with puns. It's not just one character who loves musical puns -- but just about every character. After awhile, it grates, and actually lowers the enjoyment of what otherwise is a good mystery.

Trivia: The Devil's Trill is indeed a real-life sonata, by Giuseppe Tartini. There are various versions on YouTube -- all the more enjoyable for having read the book. Here's one performed by Elias himself.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Talking About Detective Fiction by P.D. James

P.D. James, one of the greats of modern mystery novels, give a concise history of the detective genre (mostly British) in this slim volume, and you can tell she knows her stuff, from Wilkie Collin's "The Moonstone" to contemporary crime fiction such as Ian Rankin's Rebus series. While others have written histories of mysteries, with James we get her viewpoint -- and she's certainly not shy about expressing her own opinions.

Of Agatha Christie, she writes that "perhaps her greatest strength was that she never overstepped the limits of her talent" -- but she's also generous to Christie, saying she produced mysteries of "extraordinarily imaginative cunning" and writing that Christie brilliantly broke the rules, as in "The Mousetrap" and "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd." Describing Golden Age mysteries, James writes that readers like them because "Whatever our secret terrors, we are not the body on the library floor. And in the end, by the grace of Poirot's little grey cells, all will be well -- except of course with the murderer, but he deserves all that's coming to him. All the mysteries will be explained, all the problems solved and peace and order will return to that mythical village which, despite its above-average homicide rate, never really loses its tranquillity or its innocence."

This is a fast read -- a couple of hours. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in British mysteries and definitely for fans of P.D. James.

The Second Midnight by Andrew Taylor

Protagonists: Hugh Kendall and Michael Stanhope-Smith
Setting: London and Prague, WW II
Rating: 5.0

This is a spy, yet not a spy, story. In 1939, before the war, a minor spy is killed in Prague. Agent Michael Stanhope-Smith sends businessman Alfred Kendall as a courier, but the situation becomes more complicated, and Kendall ends up leaving his young son, Hugh, in Prague, as a promise that he'll return. But he never does, as Prague is taken over by the Nazis. Hugh does what he needs to survive, ending up, finally, as a gardener for a good-hearted German officer and his family. He lives above the stables where, every night, he experiences two midnights -- there are two clocks that chime the midnight hour, but one is slower than the other. Hugh falls in love with the German's daughter, Magda, but is hated by the son, Heinz. As the war ends, he must try to make his way back to England as the family flees. The books spans from 1939 to 1963, and in a way is an epic, the story of the Kendalls, as well as Stanhope-Smith, whose life becomes intertwined with the family.

This is very loosely part of the Blaines trilogy, but Blaines himself only has a very small part (a few pages) in this book. As Andrew Taylor says on his website: "This is a trilogy only in an informal and retrospective sense. The links between the books are unobtrusive and developed almost without my noticing. These are espionage novels, but with a difference - the private lives of the spies and their families are more important than their public actions. Indeed, the former tend to influence the latter, often in unexpected ways."

As always in Taylor's books, the characterization is excellent and the book is well worth reading.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross

Protagonist: Joan Anglicus
Setting: Ingelheim, Frankland, and Vatican City, Dark Ages
Rating: 4.4
The author takes the sketchiest of legends -- that for two years a woman disguised as a man sat on the papal throne -- and fleshes out a full novel of what it would have been like to have lived such a life. Born in A.D. 814 to an English canon and a Saxon woman, Joan grows up with a desire to study, fueled by an older brother. Although only her brothers are allowed to study, her father grudging consents to letting her brother's tutor also teach Joan. Impressed by her bright mind, the tutor arranges for her to continue at a palace school -- the only girl there. As Joan grows into womanhood, she falls in love with the knight Gerold. But she is soon parted from him after a Viking attack kills most of the villagers. She escapes, disguised as a man, and enters a monastery, where she learns the art of healing. Forced to flee there, as well, before her gender is uncovered, she ends up at the Vatican as the pope's personal physician. It's here that her life intersects again with Gerold -- at the moment that she's offered the papacy herself.

While Cross makes a good argument that a female pope could have existed, she also notes that the work is entirely fictional. In a conversation with our book club, Cross said she wrote Joan not as a woman of great faith, but as a woman who had only one option to fulfill her desire to learn -- to live her life as a man. The book has now been made into a movie, although it is still waiting for a U.S. distributor to pick it up. Whether one believes that a female pope existed or not, this book vividly portrays what life must have been like in the Dark Ages, especially for a woman like Joan.