Monday, December 26, 2011

The Singing Sands by Josephine Tey

Protagonist: Insp. Alan Grant
Setting: Scotland Highlands, Hebrides Islands and London
Rating: 4.7

Insp. Alan Grant is on sick leave from Scotland Yard and on a train to the Scottish Highlands when a man is found dead. No concern of his -- he is on vacation -- so Grant goes on his way. But he has unwittingly picked up and taken the man’s newspaper with him. He finds a scrawled verse --"the singing sands, that guard the way to paradise" -- on a newspaper page, and those mysterious words draw him into the man’s death. Police claim he is a Frenchman who died accidentally, but Grant can’t help but believe that he is an Englishman -- because of the scratched verse -- and that his death may not have been accidental, even though he has no proof of such a thing.

This is a very introspective novel with Grant at the center, and with the mystery not even taking hold until halfway through the book. But I love Tey, and I especially loved this novel, with its slow unrevealing of the mystery. In a little over 200 pages, Grant moves from the Scottish Highlands to the Hebrides Islands to London, and we get a greater sense of who he is. Sadly, Tey died young, in her early 50s, and this is the last of her mysteries.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Elizabeth Zelvin and her mantras

The Long Island chapter of Sisters in Crime recently hosted New York mystery author Elizabeth Zelvin (Death Will Get You Sober and Death Will Help You Leave Him). Zelvin, at left above, with LISINC president Marilyn Levinson, had great writing tips for other authors. Her mantras:

Just keep telling the story. Keep writing until you've finished the first draft, edit later.

Talent, Persistence and Luck help -- and sometimes you just have to do with persistence, persistence and persistence. You have to be persistent through every stage -- writing, revising, even networking.

Don't quit 5 minutes before the miracle. Zelvin said she wanted to quit many times, but she continued -- and eventually succeeded in getting her first novel published.

Nothing is wasted. Either the mistakes will teach you something or you'll be able to use the discarded material in another way.

I'm writing the best I can. Someone else may write better, or differently, but write to your ability.

More will be revealed. "I continue to see things that need fixing, that I didn't see three months ago," Zelvin said.

Zelvin has more on the writing process at Poe's Deadly Daughters, the blog she shares with five other authors.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Vices by Lawrence Douglas

Protagonist: Oliver Vice
Setting: New England
Rating: 4.0
On a trip aboard the Queen Mary 2 with his mother, Oliver Vice, 41, disappears. Did he jump overboard, was it an accident, or was it murder? An unnamed narrator who says he was Vice’s closest friend exams his life for clues. Outwardly, Vice, a philosophy professor at Harkness College in New England, was doing well, with a successful career and a string of girlfriends. Yet he had sent the narrator a two-word email from the ship: “Desperately depressed.”

The Vices is no conventional mystery, as the narrator unwinds Oliver’s life, and we are pulled deeper into his story and that of his eccentric, enigmatic family: Francizka Nagy, a former model who can be ruthless, who never quite tells the truth, and who wears her two sons’ Phi Beta Kappa keys on a necklace; Vice’s twin brother, Bartholomew, a gluttonous, slightly unhinged man; and his two fathers -- his “BF,” or biological father, and the Jewish stepfather who raised him. The Vices are well-off, a wealth that is tied to distant crimes, possibly having to do with stolen Nazi art.

Told through wry humor, The Vices is as much a philosophical look at identity. For the Vice family, not everything is as it seems. Oliver, inspired by the Austrian philosopher Wittgenstein, almost mimics parts of his life. Meanwhile, the narrator has an unhealthy obsession with the Vices, to the point of dressing like Oliver; his life, too, comes to be shaped by this family. Ultimately, he does reveal many of the Vices’ secrets. And while not all our questions are answered, it almost doesn’t matter -- we’ve come to know the Vices, and that is enough.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Faithful Place by Tana French

Protagonist: Det. Sgt. Frank Mackey
Setting: Dublin
Rating: 5.0
Estranged from most of his family, Frank Mackey returns to his old neighborhood of Faithful Place after a suitcase is found in an abandoned flat -- a suitcase that belonged to his first sweetheart, Rosie Daly. Twenty-two years earlier, Frank and Rosie had secretly plotted to run away to England, but Rosie never showed at the meeting spot. Now, Frank tries to find out what happened, with an underlying fear that his family may be at the root of it.

As much as a mystery novel, Faithful Place is a novel about family -- a very dysfunctional one. Or as Frank describes them: “the bubbling cauldron of crazy that is the Mackeys at their finest.”

His abusive father, an alcoholic, is battling illness, and his mother is as abrasive as ever. His four siblings have never strayed far from their parents -- only Frank, who hasn’t even wanted to introduce his daughter to his family. With an unerring eye, the book also describes Frank’s relationship with his ex-wife and his 9-year-old daughter.

This book was so perfect, so captivating, that my only disappointment is that we might not see Frank Mackey again, since French uses a new protagonist in each book, usually someone who was a secondary character in a previous book (as Frank was in “The Likeness”). I’ll miss Frank, but I look forward to what French will bring us in her next book.

To Love and Be Wise by Josephine Tey

Protagonist: Alan Grant
Setting: London
Rating: 4.0
Taken from a Francis Bacon quote -- It is impossible to love and to be wise -- Tey spins a story about love and its consequences. Scotland Yard’s Insp. Grant is called in when American photographer Leslie Searle goes missing and is presumed drowned.

Grant is asked to quietly question those with whom Searle had been spending time in the English countryside, among them radio commentator Walter Whitmore, who had been on a camping/boating trip with Searle when he went missing. Searle also had been spending quite a lot of time with Whitmore’s fiancee, and the two were seen arguing just before Searle’s disappearance. Grant doesn’t think Whitmore capable of killing Searle, but he also finds it difficult to call it an accidental drowning.

This is not the strongest Tey book, but it was still very enjoyable, with a twist ending I liked.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Blood Harvest by S.J. Bolton

Protagonists: Rev. Harry Laycock and psychiatrist Evi Oliver
Setting: Heptonclough, England
Rating: 4.7
Alice and Gareth Fletcher have moved into a new home on the crest of a moor with their children, Tom, 10, Joe, 6, and Millie, 2. The house is snuggled in between an old church and the even older, crumbling church, with a graveyard in their backyard. Bolton writes gothic thrillers like no one else, and from the beginning she ratchets up the tension, just by describing the moors surrounding the house: “Sometimes, when clouds were moving fast in the sky and their shadows were racing across the ground, it seemed to Tom that the moors were rippling, the way water does when there’s something beneath the surface; or stirring, like a sleeping monster about to wake up. And just occasionally, when the sun went down across the valley and the darkness was coming, Tom couldn’t help thinking that the moors around them had moved closer.”

The tension increases when we learn two girl toddlers have died in mysterious circumstances in recent years, and that Millie may now be in danger. There’s also what appears to be a female ghost (or monster?) haunting the graveyard. The Fletcher children aren’t the only one seeing and hearing things; Harry, the village’s new vicar, hears voices in the locked church -- and later, even worse occurs. Like the Fletchers, he’s having a hard time adjusting to the insular town, which still holds on to old traditions, such as the blood harvest, in which animals are slaughtered. He finds a friend, and possibly romance, in Dr. Evi Oliver, a psychiatrist with a disability. Together, they try to unravel what’s going on -- and try to prevent the Fletcher children from coming to harm.

As in previous books, Bolton starts with seriously creepy happenings -- but the story evolves and changes midstream, into more of a psychological thriller. This makes the book even more compelling. And with its short chapters, riveting plot and engaging (and sometimes sinister) characters, the story will keep you hooked. Bolton is one of my favorite thriller writers, and Blood Harvest is one of her best, so far.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Interview with Douglas Corleone

Douglas Corleone has written two successful legal thrillers (his debut book won the 2009 Minotaur Book/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Award). My review of his second book, Night on Fire, is at Reviewingtheevidence.

Below is my interview with Corleone:

Q. Your protagonist, Kevin Corvelli, is a former New York defense attorney now living in Hawaii – not unlike yourself. How much of your own experience did you use in forming him?

A. More than I’d like to admit, though not as much as readers might think. Fortunately, unlike Kevin, my legal career in New York didn’t end in disgrace. But Kevin and I both picked up and moved to Hawaii sight-unseen, so we each experienced the islands through fresh eyes, and I think I captured that experience fairly well in my debut novel, One Man’s Paradise. Kevin was imbued with many of my own flaws, including some of my insecurities, internal conflicts, and a taste for strong drink. But he’s also a talented lawyer, unafraid to use unconventional tactics and questionable courtroom techniques. Kevin practices law in a way many lawyers would if there were no consequences like ethics inquiries and contempt citations.

Q. At what point did you decide to stop practicing law and become a writer, and how difficult was it to leave behind a lucrative job for the unknown that is writing?

A. I began winding down my law practice in 2005, and first moved to Hawaii in September of that year. At the time it seemed like a fairly simple decision, but looking back I realize it was a life-changer in so many ways. I’ve since returned to the law in a different capacity; my current practice, the Corleone Law Firm, is limited to U.S. immigration law. It’s not quite as thrilling as criminal law, but on a personal level, it can be very rewarding.

Q. Were there other legal thriller or crime fiction writers who inspired you?

A. I began reading legal thrillers in high school. Some of my favorite authors were John Lescroart, Steve Martini, John Grisham, William Lashner, and Scott Turow. These writers inspired me not only to write but to go to law school. Later, I discovered the works of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet, and I knew how I wanted to distinguish myself from other legal thriller authors – by making my novels darker and creating a lawyer-protagonist who had the capacity to become a hard-boiled investigator.

Q. And would you describe your books just as legal thrillers? I see a bit of noir or hard-boiled in them, with endings that are not all tied up happily-ever-after.

A. I think of my books as crime novels, which covers the spectrum. I was somewhat surprised - though not disappointed - when I first saw that the cover for Night on Fire read “A Kevin Corvelli mystery.” Not because my books aren’t mysteries; they are. But they’re not your typical whodunits. I’d like to think my stories are driven more by character than by plot, and that the twists and turns in Act III are simply the olives at the bottom of a dirty martini. It’s difficult to escape the label “legal thriller” when your protagonist is a criminal defense attorney and your books culminate with a trial, but again, I think of the courtroom scenes as a way to showcase the talents and flaws of Kevin Corvelli, not as a way to dig for the truth and expose a killer.

Q. Your first novel, One Man’s Paradise, won the MWA/Minotaur Books First Crime Novel Award. How did that impact your writing? Did it make it easier to continue writing?

A. I found that it’s definitely easier (and much more fun) to write when you have a contract in place. Shortly before the release of One Man’s Paradise, I signed a contract with St. Martin’s Press for the next two Kevin Corvelli novels, and knowing that they’d be read by at least a few thousand people pushed me in ways writing on spec never could.

Q. Hawaii, to anyone who’s visited, is paradise. But you show a different side – even when he’s at a tourist resort, Corvelli is getting his head bashed in. What has the reaction been by locals to your books?

A. The reaction here in Hawaii has been very favorable. My latest novel received a glowing review from Hawaii’s only major newspaper, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, and both books received acclaim from Honolulu Weekly and Hawaii Book Blog. Last year, Midweek featured me and my family in an article titled “Ex-Lawyer Writes Own ‘Paradise’ After Move to Kapolei.” More recently I appeared on ABC affiliate KITV’s morning news show and KZOO’s “Thinking Out Loud” radio program, sponsored by the University of Hawaii and the Japanese Cultural Center. For the past two years I’ve given hour-long presentations at the annual Hawaii Book & Music Festival, and I’ve spoken to local book clubs and given readings at local libraries. The response at all these events has been overwhelmingly positive, and my works received favorable comparisons to the new Hawaii Five-O, which also takes a look at the seedier side of paradise.

Q. Are you working on a third Corvelli book? If so, what is it about?

A. The third Kevin Corvelli manuscript is currently with my extraordinary editor, Kelley Ragland. In the third novel, the governor of Hawaii is suspected by the FBI of hiring an international assassin known as The Pharmacist to murder his pregnant mistress. Kevin is retained not only to conduct an independent investigation, but to handle the national news media and ensure that the FBI’s suspicions do not interfere with the governor’s bid for reelection. Meanwhile, Kevin’s most loyal client, Turi Ahina, is accused of gunning down an off-duty cop on a dark street in Pearl City days after he agrees to provide the DEA information on a ruthless drug kingpin known as Orlando Masonet. The question becomes not whether Turi shot and killed the off-duty cop, but whether he did so in self-defense. In order to discover the truth, Kevin is forced to plumb the depths of police corruption and ultimately unearth some of the city’s deepest, darkest, and dirtiest secrets.

Q. Finally, what authors do you like to read?

A. I’m currently reading (and loving) Lawrence Block’s A Drop of the Hard Stuff. My taste in novels varies; in addition to the authors I mentioned above, I read everything written by Bret Easton Ellis, Irvine Welsh, Joe Hill, David Ellis, David Rosenfelt, Stefanie Pintoff, and Todd Ritter. I also love the works of Charles Bukowski and Hunter S. Thompson. Bukowski’s alter ego, Henry Chinaski, is probably my favorite character in all of fiction.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

One Was a Soldier by Julia Spencer-Fleming

Protagonists: Rev. Clare Fergusson and Chief Russ Van Alstyne
Setting: Millers Kill, New York
Rating: 4.8

In what may be her best book to date, Spencer-Fleming writes about the soldiers who return from war, and the scars they carry, emotional as well as physical. Clare Fergusson is among those -- she has returned from an 18-month tour in Iraq and is suffering from flashbacks; she can't function without taking uppers, downers and painkillers, mixed with alcohol, a secret she hides from everyone. She join a veteran's support group where she finds four others in similar situations: police officer Eric McCrea, who was an MP and who is unable to control violent tendencies; Will Ellis, a young man who returned as a double amputee; doctor Trip Stillman, who has suffered a brain injury and is hiding his memory issues from patients and family; and bookkeeper Tally McNabb, who had an affair with a fellow soldier. One of these people will die.

When Russ rules the death a suicide, Clare and her fellow vets disagree, and begin an investigation of their own. While there's some friction between Clare and Russ, most of the will-they or won't-they aspect of previous books is missing -- which is a good thing. Spencer-Fleming concentrates more on the mystery plot and presents us with a gripping character study of returning vets. There's still some romance, of course, and series readers will appreciate this book, too.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Talking With the Tough Guys

When it comes to noir, a long-practiced form of fiction, both in book and film, how do modern-day authors put their stamp on it? That was part of a panel today at Mayhem at Bookhampton, an event at several of the bookseller's Hamptons stores. On the panel (and in photo above), from left: Reed Farrel Coleman, Justin Evans, Wallace Stroby, Ken Wishnia and Michael Atkinson (not pictured).

Coleman, who writes the popular Moe Prager series, said noir was fresh when Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett were writing, and that today's writers "work with the same themes, but we can't get away with writing those books...The themes remain the same, how they play out is different."

Atkinson, who has written two books starring author Ernest Hemingway, said the way to keep these books fresh is to focus on the characters. His Hemingway is not only the larger-than-life author, but a more nuanced character.

The authors themselves don't think of themselves as tough guys. Said Evans, who second book has just been released: "I am ever so not tough. My characters can't even change a tire." For most, being tough meant "getting through the day ... it's more like emotional toughness," said Wishnia, author of four books. For Coleman, who used to be a heating oil delivery man, "tough is when you have to go out in the freezing rain."

And tough is writing, they all agreed. There's no magic bullet, said Coleman. "This is our job. You can't just sit there," he said, making the gesture for twiddling your thumbs.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey

Protagonist: Insp. Alan Grant
Setting: London
Rating: 4.6
When actress Christine Clay is found dead on the beach, suspicion immediately falls on the young man whom she had been hosting at her house in the English countryside -- Robin Tisdall. Insp. Grant and the police force have enough evidence, and even a motive -- the actress had recently written a codicil to her will, leaving her California house to Tisdall, whom she had just met. But no investigation -- at least, fictional investigation -- is ever that easy. And just what did Clay mean by leaving “a shilling for candles” to her brother?

Tey’s novels have a lot of wit and charm in them. In one passage, a police sergeant assesses Tisdall, emotional one moment, composed the next: “Light-weights, these moderns. No real emotion about anything. Just hysteria. What they called love was just a barn-yard exercise; they thought anything else “sentimental.” No discipline. No putting up with things. Every time something got difficult, they ran away. Not slapped enough in their youth. All this modern idea about giving children their own way. Look what it led to. Howling on the beach one minute and then cool as cucumber the next.”

Tey doesn't exactly play fair with the reader -- we can't figure out the killer because a vital clue is withheld from us -- but I'm OK with that. When reading Tey, it's more about the journey than the arrival.

Bruno, Chief of Police by Martin Walker

Protagonist: Bruno Courrèges
Setting: St. Denis, Dordogne region, France
Rating: 4.4
An old man, who is a war hero and an Algerian immigrant, is killed, a swastika cut into this chest. His war medal is missing and, inexplicably, a photo from his youth, when he was on a soccer team. The death sparks racial tensions in the quiet French village of St. Denis, where Bruno Courrèges is police chief. The national police are called in to investigate, but Bruno plays a large part in the investigation.

Walker, who has lived in France, draws an idyllic French setting -- with its farmers market, its famous caves with centuries-old drawings, and patriotic parades. Bruno whips up wonderful meals, whether for a picnic or a dinner at home. But there's also a dark underside in St. Denis, and Walker brings this to life. The resolution bothered me a bit, but this was still an enjoyable book.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld

Protagonist: Dr. Stratham Younger
Setting: New York City, 1909
Rating: 4.6
In the book’s beginning, the author tells us the story is loosely based on Sigmund Freud’s real-life visit to the United States, where he was invited to speak at Clark University. The author says something traumatic happened to Freud during his visit; afterward, he referred to Americans as savages and blamed them for his lifelong ailments, many of which he had before his trip. Using that, the author spins a fictional murder case.

A young heiress is found bound and strangled in a New York City penthouse; the next day, a 17-year-old girl from another well-to-do family survives a similar attempt on her life. The girl, Nora Acton, has lost her ability to speak and doesn’t remember what happened to her. Dr. Younger, a fictional psychoanalyst, is asked to work with Nora to retrieve her memories. He’s also been shepherding Freud around New York City, and seeks advice from the famed psychoanalyst. Younger’s involvement deepens from the initial therapy sessions, and he joins Detective Jimmy Littlemore in unraveling the many threads of this complicated case.

Overall, I liked this book, especially the vibrant scenes portraying New York City in the early 1900s, and the historical detail. But the book had some major flaws: the story switches from third person to first person, sometimes abruptly. It was so jarring that it cut into my enjoyment of the book. Also, we’re given to believe in the beginning that Freud is a major character in the book. But as the story progresses, he’s seen less and less often. Lastly, the early parts of the book read at times like a thesis on Freud and Jung; there’s so much detail on the psychoanalysts (some of it interesting, granted) that it bogs down the main mystery.

And yet, I did like this book. And I will probably pick up Rubenfeld’s second book, the recently released The Death Instinct, which has some characters returning. I’m interested in seeing where the author takes them.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Frozen Sun by Stan Jones

Protagonist: Nathan Active
Setting: Anchorage and Chukchi, Alaska
Rating: 4.5
Alaska State Trooper Nathan Jones is asked by the Chukchi high school principal, Jason Palmer, to find his missing daughter, Grace, who left home 10 years ago and was last seen on The Junction, a seedy strip of bars in Anchorage. A former Miss North World, the photos of Grace show a stunning teenager. So Nathan, although not officially on the case, begins to do some digging when he's sent to Anchorage for a computer class. This causes a rift between Nathan and his girlfriend Lucy, who is jealous of Grace. But can there be something behind Lucy's jealousy? Is there another reason Nathan is going beyond the obligations of his job? In this, the third book, Jones has hit his stride. His descriptions of Alaska and the culture made books one and two very readable, but here he complements that with a strong, compelling storyline and well-drawn characters. If you like Dana Stabenow's books, I'd recommend Stan Jones.

Below are descriptions of books one and two:

White Sky, Black Ice
Nathan Active has been posted to Chukchi, not Anchorage, where he’d like to be, but he makes the best of it. In this small town, with its persistent harsh west wind, despair sometimes takes hold; suicides are not uncommon. But when two men, George Clinton and Aaron Stone, who both worked at the Gray Wolf Mine, commit what seems like suicide, Active believes that they were killed -- even though one of them, Clinton, is under a family curse, city residents say. Two other Clinton sons have committed suicide. This, the first in a series, is a nice study of small-town Alaska.

Shaman Pass
First, “Uncle Frosty” -- a native mummy that the Smithsonian has returned to the Inupiat museum in Chukchi -- is stolen, along with a harpoon and an owl amulet that had been with the body. Then a tribal elder is found dead, the harpoon impaled in his chest and the amulet in his mouth. As Nathan investigates, he finds that the death, as well as the theft, has roots in events that occurred generations ago. More than the plot, I loved this book, the second in the series, for its descriptions of the Inupiat and of Alaska, especially the isolated hunting and whaling camps and a remote mountain pass (where Jones writes a seat-gripping plane scene).

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Man in the Queue by Josephine Tey

Protagonist: Insp. Alan Grant
Setting: London
Rating: 4.1

When a friend sent me a box full of books late last year, I knew what my series read would be this year: Josephine Tey, who many consider one of the best crime novelists, although her books are not as popular as others Golden Age writers, such as Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers.

To that end, I started with The Man in the Queue, her first, published in 1929. In the novel, a man is stabbed and killed in a line of people waiting to get into a popular show. No one saw him stabbed and, at first, no one claims to have even noticed the man waiting in line. Scotland Yard's Alan Grant painstakingly puts together a case, going from London to Scotland in pursuit of his suspect. But this not the usual whodunnit, or even a police procedural (although it reads like one). In fact, Tey disregarded the mystery conventions, according to mystery novelist Robert Barnard. "They all have crime at their heart," he notes, "but they are as far as possible from the 'body in the library' formula." That's so with this book, which gives us a nice surprise at the end.

This is Tey's first book, but the writing is already magnificent, such as this description of late-night London: “The midnight streets of London -- always so much more beautiful than the choppy crowded ones of the daytime -- fascinated him. At noon London made you a present of an entertainment, rich and varied and amusing. But at midnight she made you a present of herself; at midnight you could hear her breathe.” Or there's this phrase describing a waiter: “A new arrival took the table opposite, and Marcel, the geniality gone from his face like snowflakes on a wet pavement, went to listen to his needs with that mixture of tolerant superciliousness and godlike abstraction which he used to all but his five favourites.”

With writing like this, I can't wait to dip back into my Tey stash!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

Protagonist:: Eilis Lacey
Setting: Enniscorthy, Ireland, and Brooklyn, N.Y.
Rating: 4.0
This is one of those novels that sneak up on you. Eilis Lacey, a young girl from Ireland, is sent to the United States by her mom and older sister. After suffering a long, hard ship journey, and homesickness in Brooklyn, she begins to adapt and finds some happiness, working at a department store, going to night classes for accounting and finding a beau. But when a relative dies and she’s called back to Ireland, she has a choice to make: does she stay in her hometown, or return to Brooklyn. The novel is slow at first, but by the end, you are struggling along with Eilis as she tries to make a decision.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Under the Dome by Stephen King (audio)

Protagonist: Dale Barbara (and others)
Setting: Chester’s Mill, Maine
Rating: 4.3
At 11:44 a.m. on a beautiful Autumn day, an invisible dome clamps down over the town of Chester’s Mill, cutting it off from the rest of the country. Law and order in the small town rapidly deteriorates, with police and town officials being the first lawbreakers. And we know something -- just not what -- is going to happen on or near Halloween. Diner chef Dale Barbara, who has a shadowy past with the military, is put in charge by the “outside” -- the president and military officials. But town officials aren’t going to give up control that easily, and Dale’s very life is in danger.

This is vintage King, with great characters, including the out-of-his-mind killer and children with premonitions. In essence, it's a novel about good versus evil. And the things that spring from King’s mind -- well, no one else can write like him. It is a massive piece of work (30 audio CDs), and I do think this could have been cut down -- very much so. But King keeps us hooked, as we wonder who will survive and who won’t. On audiobook, Raul Esparza narrates wonderfully, really creeping us out at times. A tip for audiobook users: there’s a map in the print book; you can get it online at

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

Protagonist: Poirot
Setting: Village of Styles St. Mary, Essex, England
Rating: 4.5

This is the first book written by Agatha Christie (published 1920). Hastings is visiting an old friend, John Inglethorpe, at their home in Styles when his stepmother, who has recently remarried a man 20 years younger than herself, is found murdered, in her locked bedroom. While suspicion immediately falls on the new husband, Poirot believes otherwise.

I was surprised by several things: first, how Poirot is already so well-developed in this first book, as is Hastings (our narrator) and Insp. Japp. Second, although published 90 years ago, this book was written in a way that is still accessible to today’s readers. Let’s be truthful: some of the classics are not exactly pleasure reads. But Christie’s books still are. While critics might put her down for her simple characterization, these are still popular, well-loved books with enduring characters. And The Mysterious Affair at Styles was filled with enough red herrings and plot twists to leave us unsure of the killer. A good start to the challenge.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Baker Street Letters by Michael Robertson

Protagonist: Reggie and Nigel Heath
Setting: London and Los Angeles
Rating: 4.6
Reggie Heath and his law firm have moved into a building on Baker Street. In the lease comes a stipulation that they answer all letters written to 221b Baker Street -- the fictional address of the fictional Sherlock Holmes. His brother Nigel, suspended from practicing law, is supposed to answer the letters, sending a form reply. But Nigel becomes too caught up in a set of letters -- the first one dating back 20 years, when an 8-year-old girl from Los Angeles wrote to Sherlock, asking for help in finding her missing father.

Soon, Nigel is on a plane to Los Angeles. Reggie follows him, but seems to always be two steps behind Nigel. Death also seems to follow Nigel -- he’s accused of a murder in London and then another in L.A. Can Reggie find him before he gets in even deeper?

It's always tricky writing a book about Sherlock, but Robertson gives it a neat twist. This is an engaging debut about two brothers, often at odds, who come together to solve a crime (or two, or three). The book has already been optioned by Warner Bros. for a television series, and the second in the series, The Brothers of Baker Street, is due to be released soon.

Crossing by Andrew Xia Fukuda

Protagonist: Xing Xu
Setting: Ashland, New York
Rating: 4.0
Xing Xu is a loner in his high school, Chinese-born and shy. His only friend is Naomi Lee, beautiful and more popular. When high school kids start disappearing, Xing first tries to investigate, then becomes a suspect. Usually invisible or bullied among the mostly-white school, Xing starts coming out of his shell when a teacher notices his singing voice. Later, he's tapped to star in a school play when the lead becomes one of the disappeared students. More than a murder mystery, this is also the story of an immigrant.

The writing is spare and haunting, and the narrator -- Xing -- tugs at your heartstrings. After fleeing from China, his family settles in upstate New York, but his father dies in an accident. This is how Xing describes his life: "I went to a school where students were well bred, immaculately groomed, suave, and hip; whose parents were CEOs and doctors and partners of law firms. Not Chinatown hawkers. Not Charlie Chan kow-tow specialists who spoke in choppy, sloppy Chinglish, who took in with grubby hands crumpled dollar bills, who were told to keep the change and invariably did."

Crossing is billed as a young adult/crossover-into-adult book. It does have an unresolved ending that might leave you unsatisfied -- although, in keeping with the book, it makes a strong statement. I'd recommend this for YA readers over 13.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Review: The Vows of Silence by Susan Hill

Protagonist: Simon Serrailler
Setting: Lafferton, England
Rating: 5.0
A serial killer is shooting and killing young women, most of them newly married. We know the why -- chapters from the killer’s point of view show us he was spurned once by his fiancee for another man -- but not the who. In the meantime, Lafferton plans for a big fair and a bigger wedding (the royals Charles and Camilla are supposed to show). Will the serial killer strike then?

In previous books (and this series must be read in order; Vow is the fourth), Hill has been light on the crime aspect. But in this novel, she delivers a solid police procedural.

As always, there’s also a lot going on with the Serrailler family: their newly widowed father, Richard, is seeing a new woman. And Cat, back from Australia, is dealing with a serious illness in her family. There’s a new character, Helen, a widow who has begun dating a man; her fundamentalist son doesn’t approve of him. A couple of characters from previous books make an appearance, Karin McCafferty, a friend of Cat’s, and Jane Fitzroy, much more than a friend to Simon.

Hill's themes are about death, but not always the death that comes with serial killers or other crimes. She writes gracefully about families, love and life, and that makes her series, for me, a standout.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Likeness by Tana French

Protagonist: Cassie Maddox
Setting: Glenskehy, a village on the outskirts of Dublin
Rating: 5.0

From the opening line (“Some nights, if I’m sleeping on my own, I still dream about Whitethorn House”) reminiscent of du Maurier’s Rebecca ("Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again"), I was enthralled with this book, part gothic, part psychological thriller and part police procedural.

Four years after Det. Cassie Maddox has left undercover work -- and her role as college student Lexie Madison -- a woman is murdered. Not only is she Cassie's exact double, but her I.D. says she is Lexie Madison. And so easily is Cassie swept into a twisted, deadly mystery -- who killed the new Lexie? Was it someone tied to an old undercover case? Or someone in the new Lexie's life? Cassie's old boss in undercover, Frank Mackey, talks her into becoming Lexie one more time -- going into Whitethorn House, a crumbling old manor where Lexie lived with four other college students.

Cassie knows it won't be easy, and it may even irreparably harm her relationship with boyfriend Sam. But the pull is strong. As Cassie says: “I don’t tell people this, it’s nobody’s business, but the job is the nearest thing I’ve got to a religion. The detective’s god is the truth, and you don’t get much higher or much more ruthless than that. The sacrifice, at least in Murder and Undercover -- and those were always the ones I wanted, why go chasing diluted versions when you could have the breathtaking full-on thing? -- is anything or everything you’ve got, your time, your dreams, your marriage, your sanity, your life. Those are the coldest and most capricious gods of the lot, and if they accept you into their service they take not what you want to offer but what they choose.”

Once entrenched as Lexie, Cassie finds that the villagers of Glenskehy have a longstanding dislike, even hatred, of Whitethorn House and its inhabitants. The house has been inherited by one of the students, and their outsider status doesn't endear them to the village. French interweaves the history of Ireland's landlord and tenant system into the plot.

French has hit all the right notes in this book: taut pacing, complicated characters and wonderful writing. Her debut novel, In the Woods, won the 2007 Edgar award for first best novel (although it had a controversial ending that I, for one, didn't like). The Likeness is far better.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Detective Fiction: From Victorian Sleuths to the Present

Narrated by Prof. M. Lee Alexander of the College of William and Mary
Produced by The Modern Scholar (2010)
Rating: 4.5

In a series of lectures, Alexander presents a history of detective fiction, covering all the subgenres, from amateur (Simon Brett, Diane Mott Davidson) to hard-boiled (Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler), and from espionage (Eric Ambler, John LeCarre, Tom Clancy) and legal (John Mortimer, John Grisham) to medical and forensic (Robin Cook, Patricia Cornwell, Kathy Reichs). She also talks about historical detective fiction (Josephine Tey, Bruce Alexander), women detectives (P.D. James, Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky), police procedurals (Ed McBain, Elizabeth George), as well as international and ethnic detectives.

In addition to all these and more authors, Alexander discusses the role detective fiction plays, as it provides commentary and criticism on the society, times and culture it reflects. A scholar who has talked about this subject before, she makes the connections between Sherlock Holmes and one of her favorite programs, House, M.D. We also get a look at current trends: detectives with disabilities (such as TV’s Monk), ecomysteries and irresolution (not only is the resolution unclear, but there’s confusion as to what justice might be in the case).

In short, Alexander covers a lot of territory. If you want an in-depth look at one genre, this is not it -- this is an overall, somewhat quick, look at detective fiction. But for an overview, it is very good, both entertaining and instructional.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Red Star Rising by Brian Freemantle

Protagonist: Charlie Muffin
Setting: Russia
Rating: 4.0
Charlie Muffin, an MI5 agent, is sent to the British embassy in Russia when a dead Russian is found murdered on the grounds. The dead man’s fingertips have been scorched with acid, so there’s no easy way of learning his identity. And the Russian government is insisting they retain control of the investigation. Once there, Muffin finds the British investigation has been slipshod, with the Russians taking away the body before much forensic work could be done. He also discovers that the embassy has been bugged. To complicate matters, the last time Charlie was in Russia (this is the 14th book in a series) he secretly married a KGB agent, Natalia. Together, they had a daughter, Sasha. Now, years later, Charlie tries to salvage that relationship and convince Natalia to return with him to England.

Although billed on the cover as a thriller, this is not the usual spy novel filled with car chases and dangerous undercover missions. Much of the spycraft involves a war of words and subtle techniques such as press conferences (and who attends). While the Cold War has ended, there is still much mistrust and dissembling among the Brits, Americans and Russians. Freeman has been compared to John le Carré, and this novel is very much like le Carré’s classic works, more intellectual intrigue than action -- and that’s just fine with me.

Damnation Falls by Edward Wright

Protagonist: Randall Wilkes
Setting: Pilgrim’s Rest, Tennessee
Rating: 4.5

Randall Wilkes has returned to his small hometown of Pilgrim's Rest after journalistic disgrace in Chicago. With no job, he agrees to write a biography for his friend, the former Gov. Sonny McMahan. But those plans soon go awry after Sonny's mother, Faye, and her caretaker are found dead by Randall -- Faye at Damnation Falls.

Before her death, Faye, who had dementia, had uttered what seemed gibberish to Sonny about her husband, Blue, who disappeared years ago, and the bones of Civil War soldiers recently found nearby. But when the gibberish starts to make some sense, Randall abandons the book project for his own investigation.

Wright's novel falls into the "Southern gothic" heading, with plenty of family secrets, damaged father-son relationships and a small town with a local legend that may or may not be true. It's a well-told tale about the nature of truth, trust and redemption. As my first read of 2011, it's set a high standard. I hope all my other books this year are as compelling.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The Private Patient by P.D James

Protagonist: Cmdr. Adam Dalgliesh
Setting: London and Dorset
Rating: 4.5
The first line says it all: "On November the twenty-first, the day of her forty-seventh birthday, and three weeks and two days before she was murdered, Rhoda Gradwyn went to Harley Street to keep a first appointment with her plastic surgeon, and there in a consulting room designed, so it appeared, to inspire confidence and allay apprehension, made the decision which would lead inexorably to her death."

With that beautifully-crafted sentence, P.D. James takes us to Cheverell Manor, a private clinic in Dorset where Gradwyn, a well-known investigative journalist, checks in to have a lifelong facial scar removed. As we know, she's murdered. In typical Jamesian manner, that's followed by another murder at the clinic.

I could never be totally dissatisfied with a James novel -- she is one of my favorite novelists, after all -- but I expected more of a wrap-up in this final novel, the 14th in the series. James, now 90, has said this will likely be her last Dalgliesh novel. And while Dalgliesh, of New Scotland Yard, does finally marry Emma Lavenham, it comes at the very end of the novel and is dealt with almost as an afterthought (three pages). James always kept Dalgliesh an enigma, and he remains so at the end of this series. While James fleshed out some of his underlings -- Det. Insp. Kate Miskin especially -- Dalgliesh always remained somewhat at a distance. And maybe that's for the best -- it's always good for some mystery to remain.