Last Update 12/16/11     

Death Is in the Air by Kate Kingsbury, Berkley, 2001

Part of the Manor House series which is so much like the Pennyfoot Hotel books that I’m surprised the author bothered to switch to a new series. The protagonist owns a large manor during World War II and is hosting a number of American soldiers stationed in England. This one opens with a German pilot crashing nearby and escaping into the woods, after which a young woman is found murdered, the crime generally attributed to the fugitive. Our protagonist believes otherwise, and through a combination of detection and luck uncovers the truth.  The solution was pretty obvious even without the lucky coincidences that put her on the right trail.  The demented butler is the equivalent of Colonel Fortescu from the other series, but he comes across as even less plausible and more annoying than amusing. 12/16/11

Slay Bells by Kate Kingsbury, Berkley, 2006   

A Pennyfoot Hotel mystery. When a young employee falls from the roof, it is assumed to be an accidental death, although some suspect that the drunken man hired to portray Father Christmas might have been involved. But then the latter is found stabbed to death and both assumptions are proven invalid. Cecily Sinclair, now Baxter thanks to her marriage, is determined as always to find the killer and clear the hotel’s reputation before the local constabulary fouls things up. I think this is the longest book in the series and it’s one of the more involved and satisfying mysteries as well. 12/9/11

The Reapers by John Connolly, Atria, 2008  

Although Charlie Parker appears in this novel, he is a subsidiary character. It’s primarily about his two friends, Louis and Angel, who get involved in a large scale operation against a businessman with a grudge against Louis.  They lead a large strike team against an armored estate only to discover that they have been led into a trap. Although the second half of the book is fast moving, the first half is uncharacteristically slow. There are lengthy discussions of character development that would be too long even if they weren’t in part rehashes of things we already learned about the characters in earlier books in the series.  It is written entirely in the third person so it has a much different feel from the other Charlie Parker books and the occasional supernatural element is entirely absent this time.  Good, but below his usual standards. 12/7/11

The Unquiet by John Connolly, Pocket, 2007

I’m very much enjoying the Charlie Parker series.  The supernatural element is peripheral in this one, which is more a straightforward detective story. Parker is hired to discourage a stalker who is troubling a woman whose long missing father may have been involved in some child abuse cases. Parker connects this to other rumors about a group of men who have been so engaged for many years and continues his investigation even after the stalker, a retired professional killer, is discouraged from bothering his client. The identity of the head of the abusive ring is rather obvious from the outset, but one of the participants caught me completely by surprise and in any case it’s the journey rather than the destination that provides the appeal in this series. Comparatively low key but no less gripping than the others. 11/30/11

Dying Room Only by Kate Kingsbury, Berkley, 1998 4665 

One of the better entries in this series. A stage magician is perplexed when his assistant doesn’t reappear after a vanishing act. Hours later her body is found buried in the woods with no explanation of how she got there and no indication of the cause of death. Hotel owner Cecily Sinclair has to solve the crime in order to avoid a scandal and a delay in festivities that could affect her bottom line but she almost becomes victim number two this time.  Reasonable clues, only mild cheating, and the usual entertaining and less overwhelming back story.  There’s a nice red herring when one of the regulars disappears in the same fashion.  11/23/11

Maid to Murder by Kate Kingsbury, Berkley, 1999

The Pennyfoot Hotel series seems to be drawing to a close with this one, setting up the departure for various destinations of most of the recurring characters. It also has one of the best mystery plots in the series. Someone is murdering the new maids at the hotel. Three of them are found naked and with one shoe missing from their clothing. Is it the mad prophet? The too inquisitive businessman? The obviously false retired military officer? The sleazy car salesman?  Or is it someone else entirely? I had pretty much guessed this one’s solution, but I was never really sure until the final chapters. 11/23/11

Flash and Bones by Kathy Reichs, Scribner, 2011, $26.99, ISBN 978-1-4391-0241-1 

The latest Temperance Brennan thriller follows the usual pattern – two or more apparently unrelated crimes that end up converging, although in this case there are quite a few red herrings thrown into the mix.  The disappearance of a young couple years before is obviously linked to a more recent murder, but is the man buried in the landfill connected, and what about the missing man who worked with poisonous substances identical to those found in one of the dead bodies.  All of this is wrapped around the world of NASCAR racing, and embellished by Brennan’s potential new romance and the comedic antics of her soon to be ex-husband and his scatterbrained girlfriend.  Reiches wisely refrains from having all of her recurring characters show up in this one, which allows her to concentrate on the mystery and its resolution. Once again she takes an unnecessary risk, almost gets killed, and has to be rescued by a man – an artifice Reichs uses over and over again to my annoyance, but it’s only a small part of an otherwise pretty good book. 11/20/11

Chivalry Is Dead by Kate Kingsbury, Berkley, 1996 

When a medieval joust is planned at the Pennyfoot Hotel, no one expects one of the staff to be found with a lance through his chest.  On top of that, the young daughter of a visiting aristocrat is missing and a belated ransom note suggests a very unorganized kidnapper. Once again Cecily must investigate to clear the hotel’s name, while the various supporting characters go through their varied crises.  There’s a bit of a peripheral mystery as well but it’s minor.  No cheat this time – Cecily solves the crime by analyzing the clues – but they’re a bit too obvious and I was way ahead of her. 11/14/11

Death with Reservations by Kate Kingsbury, Berkley, 1998

A disappointing entry in the Pennyfoot Hotel series. It starts well, setting up the murder victim as someone almost everyone would like to see dead. He succumbs to poisoning, believed at first to be food poisoning from the hotel kitchen, which justifies Cecily Sinclair’s investigation. We even have one of the recurring characters as the second victim. Unfortunately, the identity of the real killer is obvious from the outset and subsequent clues are awkwardly over obvious as well. There’s no mystery at all about how the crime was carried out, the motive, or anything else. Very minor. 11/14/11

Pay the Piper by Kate Kingsbury, Berkley, 1996  

One of the guests staying at the Pennyfoot Hotel is found dead and hanging in the storage locker of the local butcher shop. Since there was only one key, the butcher is assumed to be the killer despite contradictory evidence and he is arrested.  The solution is actually achieved through detection this time, without cheating.  But there is still a cheat in the book. The mystery I really couldn’t solve was the apparent appearance of the ghost of the murdered man in the hotel – which turns out to be a real ghost, which makes no sense given that he was killed elsewhere. The back story evolves slightly and is in danger of overwhelming the mystery again. 11/8/11

Grounds for Murder by Kate Kingsbury, Berkley, 1995  

The beheaded body of a gypsy woman is found in the woods not far from the Pennyfoot Hotel, but Cecily Sinclair has no intention of getting involved in another murder investigation. Then her new housemaid has a bizarre change of personality and a note turns up claiming the writer knows the identity of the killer, so she’s in the middle of it after all.  Then the hotel axe goes missing and there’s a second beheading. Although the back story is amusing, the mystery is terrible. Cecily guesses his identity through some insight we are never told about, despite a complete absence of evidence, and his motive isn’t revealed until his confession. The explanation for the shifting personality of the new maid is also completely implausible. 11/2/11

Eat, Drink, and Be Buried by Kate Kingsbury, Berkley, 1994 

This installment in the Pennyfoot Hotel series succumbs to one of the common problems of cosy series. The various back stories become so dominant that the murder mystery is almost an afterthought, and there’s very little detection going on.  There are three brothers and their wives staying at the hotel when one of the wives is strangled and left tied to a Maypole. It turns out that all six had something to hide, with flirtations in so many directions that it’s a bit bewildering since they’re all sprung on us without much detail. It’s not awful but it’s far the weakest in the series to date. 10/26/11

Do Not Disturb by Kate Kingsbury, Jove, 1994 

A Pennyfoot Hotel mystery. Two men working on a lighthouse construction project are murdered under mysterious circumstances. Suspicion falls on both a friend of Cecily Sinclair, hotel owner, and one of her off and on employees, so she decides to solve the case herself instead of relying on the not particularly competent or imaginative police. Although there’s a nice red herring in this one that had me guessing right up until the end, the actual solution is based on information that is withheld until almost the last minute, which is a major league cheat in detective stories. I’m growing rather fond of the supporting cast of characters, which partially redeems the plot. 10/15/11

Service for Two by Kate Kingsbury, Jove, 1994 

Another Pennyfoot Hotel mystery and a bit better than the last one. The local doctor dies but just as his coffin is about to be buried, the police find his body in a pond, leading to the discovery of a strange body in the coffin. Cecily Sinclair, manager of the hotel, discovers possible links between the death, a series of jewel thefts, and the staff of her hotel, so she undertakes another investigation to find out the truth before the police do.  She solves the crime through a combination of detection and by setting a clever trap to uncover the identity of the leader of the gang of thieves.  The backstory involving the staff proceeds as well with some amusing twists. Quite enjoyable. 10/15/11

Death of the Mantis by Michael Stanley, Harper, 2011, $14.99, ISBN 978-0-06-200037-8 

This is the third Detective Bengu mystery, set in Botswana.  An apparent accident in the desert is determined to be murder and three bushmen are the prime suspects.  Bengu yields to pressure from an old friend, also a bushman, to investigate and finds insufficient evidence to hold the men. Then two more murders are committed, connected to the search for a diamond field, an area which the bushmen consider sacred. Bengu’s theories go through several transformations and he actually doesn’t realize who is responsible until there is an open attempt on his own life. The story itself is quite good and Bengu and his family are always entertaining, but the mystery element this time is not so great. I knew who the killer was almost from the outset – there’s a giveaway in the prologue – in part because there just wasn’t anyone else who could fill the role. More importantly, Bengu doesn’t figure the puzzle out.  If the killer hadn’t tried to kill him as well, he would have gotten away with it. 10/5/11

The Killing Kind by John Connolly, Pocket, 2001 

The third Charlie Parker mystery. This time he’s hired to investigate the death of a young woman judged to be a suicide. There’s a religious cult linked in the background, and competing professional killers although this time the gangland connection is minimal.  The brief supernatural episode is genuine though, although it isn’t really significant in terms of the plot. There are at least three really nasty murderers this time, one of whom is very fond of spiders and their venom. The body count is lower than in the first two books and I actually had a pretty good idea about all of the eventual revelations well ahead of time, but it’s another compulsive page turner. 10/3/11

The Predator by Anthony John, Ballantine, 1983 

I remembered liking this when it first appeared so decided to give it another shot. It’s still pretty good.  A feral child is introduced to New York City where it goes on the hunt, killing a variety of people and hiding in the subways and elsewhere.  The search involves a priest who wants to save the boy, a warped genius who wants to exploit him, a tough police detective who wants to kill the killer, and an unscrupulous female reporter who wants to advance her career. This holds up well compared to current thrillers although I suspect the killer could not have escaped detection for this long given current surveillance technology. 10/1/11

Targets of Opportunity by Jeffrey S. Stephens, Gallery, 2011, $24, ISBN 978-1-4516-2432-8

This is an espionage thriller whose basic plot involves an alliance by Venezuela, North Korea, and Iran to orchestrate an elaborate plot that will embarrass the US and deprive it of oil resources.  There are some minor leaks, enough to alert the US intelligence community that something is in the works, so Jordan Sandor and associates are sent into North Korea to find out what's going on. There are separate storylines that converge and most of them are well developed and entertaining, but the mission to North Korea seemed rather implausible to me, not only in its conception, purpose, and execution, but because of the complete lack of discipline among the four supposed experts. The fact that I didn't like the protagonist particularly didn't help either.  Good enough that I kept reading until the end, not good enough that I'll go looking for the first in the series. 9/27/11

Room With a Clue by Kate Kingsbury, Jove, 1993 

I’ve read a couple of later novels in the Pennyfoot Hotel series, but this is the first one. The protagonist runs a struggling hotel in 1906 England, serving members of the aristocracy who desire privacy. When one of those aristocrats apparently falls to her death in an accident, Cecily suspects that something isn’t quite right.  The dead woman’s husband was cheating on her, she was about to reveal a secret and ruin the life of an acquaintance, and she had even accused one of the staff members of theft, to say nothing of the way she tyrannized her secretary. Could one of them have provided a little push? There’s also an escaped 18 foot python to complicate matters. I guessed the killer quite early but I was very pleased that the author took the time to construct a story where the protagonist actually analyzes clues – one of which is a bit too obvious – rather than simply stumbles upon the solution. 9/26/11

Murder Among Neighbors by Jonnie Jacobs, Kensington, 1994 

The first Kate Austen novel. Cozies have dominated mystery fiction for a long time and the vast majority of them are competently written novels, but pretty poor mysteries. This one is actually somewhat better than competently written, but the author’s knowledge of police procedure is pretty bad. Austen’s next door neighbor, Pepper Livingston, has apparently been murdered by an intruder who got in through a mysteriously open window while her husband was working late. I first blinked when the detective asks Austen to look over the murder scene thoroughly, in his absence, in case she sees something he missed. The crime scene is in fact available to anyone who wanders in on the day following discovery of the murder, which also made be blink.  And then physical evidence found near the body is given back to the family that same day, which made me blink with both eyes for several seconds. Austen is pregnant and has a young daughter, but her husband has abandoned them – supposedly temporarily – which leaves a clear field for her to flirt with the handsome detective.  Everything happens too fast, for which there is no excuse in a novel where time can be expanded effortlessly. The romance goes on like a light switch, and it’s pretty corny to boot. The police are also much too free with sensitive information. And to top it all off, I guessed the killer almost immediately thanks to some clumsy clues. The early promise in this one fizzles out quickly. 9/20/11

Dark Hollow by John Connolly, Pocket, 2000 

Second in the Charlie Parker and the third I’ve read. This one follows much of the same general path as the first. Parker is involved in two cases that overlap, one involving non-payment of child support and the other a missing woman and her boyfriend. Naturally the two merge eventually. There’s a major plot about some missing ransom money which is pursued by two separate gangs of thugs, and there’s a long dormant – apparently – serial killer who has become active again. Plot embellishments include the suicide of an elderly woman, Parker’s one time affair with the wife of the local sheriff, and a pair of renegade professional assassins, who  are being targeted by Parker’s friend Louis for elimination themselves.  Another high body count – well over fifty – although it doesn’t feel that violent when you’re reading it.  Not quite up to the first but only a whisper behind. 9/16/11

The Platinum Loop by Austin Williams, Upaya, 2011, $12.95, ISBN 978-1-936965-00-7 

The plot of this crime novel is fast moving and generally fun. A movie producer who wants to get out of the sleaze market teams up with a confidence man on what seems to be a safe money making scheme.  But if that was the case, there wouldn’t be much of a story. Things start to get unstuck very soon and violence, mayhem, and humor follow.  The writing isn’t at all bad, but this book really needed a line editor. It is “dire straits” not “dire straights”, just to mention one of the more obvious. The quirky dialogue spoken by the con man got on my nerves after a while but it certainly does establish the character's slyness. 9/11/11

Every Dead Thing by John Connolly, Pocket, 1999

After being impressed by The Whisperers, I bought all of the earlier books in the Charlie Parker series. Although this one has some genuine psychic stuff, it's really a mystery novel about the search for a whole handful of serial killers, some of whom specialize in children.  Parker's wife and child were among the victims so he has resigned from the police force and dedicated his life to tracking down their killer. His case gets tangled with another and both of them are caught up in the battle between two organized crime groups, so the body count gets pretty high - more than fifty violent deaths during the course of the book, although some of them are offstage. Impressively constructed and written and it reads much faster than the nearly five hundred pages.  Can't wait to read the next.  9/3/11

Creep by Jennifer Hillier, Gallery, 2011, $23, ISBN 978-1-4516-2584-4 

One of the creepiest situations in suspense fiction is the spurned lover or fan turned obsessive. That’s the premise of this first novel in which a professional woman decides to marry the man who loves her and politely disengage from the lover she’s been keeping on the side.  I was a bit tempted, I confess, to say it served her right.  Anyway, the lover doesn’t react well and begins seeking revenge in very public and threatening ways.  Then someone is murdered on campus, an event which we know has to be tied to the main plot, and the story rapidly escalates.  The prose is a trifle bare at points – I didn’t always have a clear picture of the setting – but the suspense builds nicely and is well maintained throughout. 9/1/11

The Vendettists by William Haggard, Walker, 1990 

Charles Russell sets to bashing the mentally deficient, traitorous Lefties again, but only offhandedly. This time he’s involved in two separate situations which are surprisingly related. The American Mafia is introducing drugs to Sicily, which annoys the Sicilian Mafia, and the head of the former is also involved in illegal dumping of toxic materials in England near Russell’s new seaside home. We also discover that Haggard believes it is honorable to murder political opponents and tells us that Russell arranged for the death of at least a couple of these when he was working for the government. The plot is that the Belgian government is knowing employing the Mafia to fill old ships with radioactive waste and sink them in the estuaries of the British Isles.  It apparently never occurred to Haggard that they could simply have sailed well out to sea and scuttled the ships there with much less chance of being detected, but then that would have inconvenienced him into actually thinking about his plot. Haggard doesn’t like Belgians either, or Nobel prizewinners, or the Irish, Nato, the United Nations, and he’s not too happy with the British. In fact I can’t think of anybody he does like.  Everything gets tidied up at the end, thanks to a string of coincidences and Russell’s elastic sense of ethics. 8/30/11

The Diplomatist by William Haggard, Walker, 1987 

Although this novel mentions recurring character Charles Russell, he does not make an appearance. Arab politics and terrorism lead to a plot to kidnap the Prime Minister’s wife – who like most Haggard females is unfaithful to her husband. There are a few mild action sequences but this one is mostly people sitting around talking and its not thrilling at all despite the blurbs.  Haggard gets his usual right wing rants in but this time he explicitly defends racism, calling it that, because it is “obvious” that whites are intellectually superior to other races. Even in 1987 I’m surprised his editors let him get away with that one. One of his most minor works and one of his last. 8/28/11

Cold Vengeance by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child, Grand Central, 2011, $26.99, ISBN 978-0-446-55498-5

The latest Pendergast novel arrives, which I'll tell you up front ends with a cliffhanger. Pendergast suspects that his late wife's brother was involved in her murder, but it turns out that she's not dead after all, despite compelling forensic evidence to the contrary. After narrowly escaping death on the Scottish moors, he sets out to track down the missing woman, falling afoul of an international criminal organization which has ties to Nazi Germany. This was a bit of a groaner for me. Nazi plots have been pretty much done to death.  But the story is intricate, fast moving, exciting, and generally plausible and if it wasn't for the fact that it's incomplete, I'd have called it one of their better efforts.  The battle on the yacht is particularly effective.  8/26/11

Silencing Sam by Julie Kramer, Pocket, 2011, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-4391-7800-3

I put off reading this for a while because the blurbs suggested, correctly, that it's a pretty standard light mystery. The protagonist is a television news reporter who has an altercation with a gossip columnist. When he turns up dead, she's a suspect, and when evidence mounts against her, she's the prime suspect. So she has to solve the crime herself to avoid gong to jail. The first few chapters were not entirely promising. There's a coded message whose code is so obvious that it leaped off the page at me, although it turns out to be irrelevant to the mystery. More importantly, I was certain I knew who the killer was almost from the moment they made their first appearance - and it turned out I was right and that I had even guessed most of the details. All of this notwithstanding, I read the book in a single sitting. Kramer's prose is smooth and sometimes clever, the subsidiary mysteries were more interesting than the main one, and the characters were better done than in most similar novels.  This is the third in an ongoing series.  8/23/11

The Martello Tower by William Haggard, Walker, 1986 

Haggard switches from Charles Russell to one of his protégés for this rather dull suspense novel, whose plot involves people making incredibly large and accurate leaps of deduction from minimal evidence and a string of over the top coincidences.  The plot involves arms smuggling and a possible terrorist plot, and it only works at all because people act irrationally and accept irrational acts by others.  One of his dullest stories, but oddly enough one of his least political. Maybe he wrote it in a hurry to make a buck. 8/20/11

The Mischief Makers by William Haggard, Walker, 1982 

Haggard reveals more of his prejudices in this short novel about an attempt to create an uprising by Blacks in England, funded by an Arab ruler.  The plot is, of course, nonsense. In addition to the absurdity of the conspiracy, the response by the government is nonsensical.  They don’t seize the cache of arms on time because it would not, for some reason never explained, be appropriate to do so during the daylight. And at night, they send one man to reconnoiter, without backup or any convenient means of conveying his intelligence to anyone else.  Charles Russell is called in to consult with the clearly inferior new head of intelligence but he isn’t much better. He suggests sending a Black agent to talk to the chief conspirator and perhaps talk him out of it rather than arresting him or even having him followed. In and around all of this we learn that Haggard believes that class differences are a good thing, that Blacks hate Indians but will follow an obviously superior white man, that women are almost universally unfaithful, and that the Left has pretty much destroyed civilization. As usual, there are entirely too many coincidences for the plot to be at all realistic. Haggard grew increasingly erratic late in his career and this is a good example. He expects us to believe that with one panel truck full of weapons, it would be possible to conduct a successful revolution in England. He also expects us to believe that the bad guys, upon discovering that a Black man works for security, decide that the most important issue to deal with is to kill him because he might infiltrate their network of cells. And he expects us to believe that the government, knowing the arms exist, would not do anything substantive to collect them. We’re also asked to accept that when a new lead to the arms cache shows up, a senior official decides to investigate on his own, even though the first such solo reconnaissance nearly ended in disaster. 8/16/11

Visa to Limbo by William Haggard, Walker, 1978 

Charles Russell’s retirement from the world of espionage actually puts him in more jeopardy than ever, since he is now physically involved with the various threats as opposed to directing events from afar.  This time the problem arises from Arab-Israeli tensions and predictably Haggard sides with Israel and a rather implausibly described Arab prince. This is unquestionably the weakest novel by Haggard I have read to date, not because of the usual racism and misogyny but because the plot makes no sense. It involves an Israeli admiral who plans to steal a shipload of oil from the Arabs because that will make it possible for Israel to wage a new war. The plot is absurd, the government’s inability to neutralize it is even more so, and the solution is so bad that it made my jaw drop. The admiral’s wife dies in childbirth and a woman he has never met impulsively offers to marry him and divert him from his stupid plan.  Horribly bad. 8/5/11

Poison People by William Haggard, Walker, 1977 

Charles Russell, retired spy chief, almost gets brained when a man he slightly knows is thrown out of a window to his death. He discovers that the man was employed by an aristocrat who has a personal vendetta against a drug ring operated by diplomats from India. When they assume that he is working with the vigilantes, they make an attempt at frightening him off, which has the opposite effect.  Haggard has expressed his disdain for both Indians and diplomats in general in the past, but he is foaming at the mouth in this one. He even has a British diplomat warning him off because even though they know about the drugs, they don’t want to embarrass the Indian government. Then a Chinese drug ring enters the fray, complicating matters further while Haggard tells us about all the things he hates in modern life, including architecture, Italian food, Americans, the Irish, welfare, government officials, rehabilitation programs, and so forth.  One oddity is that although Haggard worked in India for some time, the scenes set there have no flavor at all.  Then again, his version of Britain is pretty flat as well. 7/17/11

Yesterday’s Enemy by William Haggard, Walker, 1976 

Another Charles Russell spy thriller based on another nonsensical premise.  This time it’s an international terrorist who has hatched a plot to make it seem that Germany is building a nuclear weapon because this will inevitably cause the Russians to invade Europe and the US to respond setting off a nuclear war.  Except that none of that would happen based on the flimsy evidence provided by the plotters even if they had succeeded in their plans.  Russell, aided by a spy whom he recruited for the Russians because he didn’t have a job for her and is convinced that the communists are more likely to run the world correctly than the democracies, and also aided by a deposed South American fascist dictator, engage in gun battles, boat chases, and such but never bother to just tell the authorities what is actually going on.  Haggard seemed to grow further distanced from reality with every book he wrote from 1970 forward. 7/13/11

The Kinsmen by William Haggard, Walker, 1974 

This little thriller might not have been bad if it hadn’t been for the rabid racism and the fact that the author and all the characters believe that laws are only for the stupid and docile and that real men make the rules for themselves. Nearly every character is a criminal.  An elderly woman is dying and a plot is hatched to use a false will to disinherit one of the two male protagonists, who is currently in trouble because he lost money he doesn’t have to a crooked gambling hall owner. The latter employs a murderer to kill off witnesses to the new will because he wants to collect once the estate is settled. The second will is masterminded by the evil woman who runs the nursing home where the elderly one is confined and her daughter, who plots to marry the new inheritor, a wimpy cleric who knows that it’s all a fraud.  So does the lawyer who drew up the will and the witness who signed it, since the latter is being blackmailed by the lawyer. The original inheritor is vaguely related to the second protagonist, a lawyer who specializes in helping criminals launder money.  He conspires to divert some of the woman’s money illegally to thwart the other plotters.  The elderly woman herself, who was chronically unfaithful to her late husband, also conspires to cheat the government of the estate tax. It’s not so bad having all crooks as characters, but Haggard clearly sympathizes with the attitudes of several of them. Everything works out in the end after a really amazing string of coincidences. 7/3/11

The Illusion of Murder by Carol McCleary, Forge, 2011, $24.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2204-3   

This is the second in a series of mysteries featuring Nellie Bly, the prominent female reporter, who solves crimes while on the job. This case is based on the journey of the real historic character around the world to beat the record “set” by Phineas Fogg in the Jules Verne novel. During the trip she actually did meet Verne and she did beat the record, although it only stood for a few years.  Anyway, during the course of her travels she stumbles on a crime and solves it and the story itself is pretty good.  But I had a problem. Not to sound like a broken record, but I don’t care for present tense narration.  That’s a personal prejudice. But in this case, the book is not only written in present tense, but it’s supposed to be Bly’s journal.  Who writes a journal in present tense? The illusion is completely dispelled by this clumsy artifice, spoiling what would otherwise be a nifty little book. 6/29/11

The Scorpion’s Tail by William Haggard, Walker, 1974

Charles Russell is back again, this time stumbling into a plot by the Russians to place a secret submarine base on a Spanish Island, even though almost everyone knows what they’re up to. In Haggard’s distorted worldview, no one would bother to act until it was too late and their plot is in fact spoiled by a quirk of weather rather than the opposition. This is even more of a political diatribe than most of the author’s work. He declares détente a sham, insists the fall of the democracies is not only inevitable but probably an improvement.  The plot, besides being based on an untenable premise, does not hang together and characters jump from one course of action to another without explanation or justification, simply to advance the story.  The worst of Haggard’s novels I’ve read to date. 6/23/11

The Notch on the Knife by William Haggard, Walker, 1973 

Haggard makes a slight break with his pattern in this one – the wife of the “nice” fascist dictator is actually fiercely loyal to her husband for a change. But otherwise it’s a lot like its predecessor.  Charles Russell, now retired from Britain’s Security Executive, discovers that he likes the dictators and even many prominent communists better than his countrymen whom he considers decadent, stupid, short sighted, and even worse than their enemies.  The struggle is over what is ostensibly a new iron mine but there is actually gold in them there hills and for some reason Russia is willing to risk nuclear war to get control of it. The plot makes very little sense because even at its most appeasing the West would never allow the Soviets to get away with the things they plan here.  Minor, though there’s more overt action than usual in Haggard. And naturally there are swipes at the political left at every opportunity. 6/14/11

The Burning Season by Jeff Mariotte, Pocket Star, 2011, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-4391-6087-9  

The only CSI show I watched with any regularity was the Las Vegas original. This is a novelization based on those characters and it follows the format of most of the programs, that is, two separate cases handled by different subsets of the team, with the story alternating between the two.  One is pretty grisly. A dog shows up with a human hand, and it’s not the first time in recent weeks that a hand has turned up under similar circumstances. The second involves a major fire in which several firefighters were killed. If it is arson, the deaths are homicide.  Can the team determine the truth, and any clues about those potentially responsible? My only real complaint is that the story sometimes felt more like an outline or a screenplay than a finished novel. Some of the scenes went by too quickly. 6/13/11

Too Many Enemies by William Haggard, Walker, 1971

Haggard throws in his usual clichés very quickly in this story of international politics and the Mideast. Right off the bat we have the government official in financial difficulties, the unfaithful wife, the unmarried young woman who is therefore not yet a villain – although as soon as she gets engaged she is unfaithful, and a sinister foreign official who uses threats to get his way – all of this by page 4. A little later we have the falling out among the villains, also a familiar theme. Recurring character Charles Russell has retired, but he comes back to help anyway.  Haggard adds intellectuals, modern writers, and modern musicians to the long list of people he doesn’t like. The first tension is caused by the fact that the troubled politician acts very stupidly. When he receives a parcel of money – the bribe he refused – he doesn’t tell anyone about it to establish his innocence, but he refuses to do as he’s told, so the bad guys force him to pose with a prostitute and take pictures, and even then he doesn’t go to the police. The political history is pretty shaky here. Among other things Haggard appears to believe that the Arab nations attacked Israel first in the Six Day War rather than the other way around. The plot is a tempest in a teapot – repeated efforts to sway the publicly expressed opinion of a very minor Member of Parliament. And it only lasts as long as it does because the beleaguered politician doesn’t take simple and obvious steps to remedy his situation, and because various characters make incredible leaps of logic, not always to the right conclusion. Minor, even for Haggard. 6/3/11

Buried Prey by John Sandford, Putnam, 2011, $27.95, ISBN 978-0-399-15738-7

The 21st Lucas Davenport novel breaks the pattern slightly.  The first half of the book is a flashback to his very first case, which he never never solved, when he was in his twenties. The second half, as you might suspect, has the cold case getting hot again and him solving it at last. The crime involves the abduction and murder of two young girls by a mysterious man who uses anonymous tips and planted evidence to point the finger at someone else, whom the police eventually accept as the criminal after he is killed during an attempt to apprehend him. When the bodies turn up in the present, it is obvious that he was not responsible, so Davenport launches a vendetta that gets even more personal when a friend - and recurring character in the series - is killed by the same party.  It's a police procedural with a twist toward the end that I've seen a lot lately, but I won't spoil things by telling you what it is.  I've mentioned before that while I liked the books I disliked Davenport as a person - he's crass, a bully, blinks at the law, and self righteous.  Sandford's portrayal of his youth emphasizes these and other aspects of his personality, so don't expect to find yourself identifying with him. I found the climax a bit too understated after the big build up but otherwise this was as good as its predecessors.  5/30/11

Aunt Dimity and the Family Tree by Nancy Atherton, Viking, 2011, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-670-02243-4   

To be consistent I should probably list this in the fantasy section, but the fantastic is minimal and Atherton is primarily a mystery writer. Although this series has been around for almost twenty years and involves a real ghost, this is the first I’ve read. The ghost doesn’t make a physical appearance and is almost peripheral to the story, which primarily involves the theft of a painting which reveals a secret about an old family. There’s a wealthy American newcomer to the area, a crowd of female suitors, sly servants, and a conniving local businesswoman, all briskly stirred into the plot.  Although there is an element of mystery in this one, I read it as more of a mainstream novel with bits of detection and fantasy around the edges. The characters are fascinating, the prose is delightful, and I liked it a lot no matter what you want to call it. 5/22/11

Missing Persons by Clare O’Donohue, Plume, 2011, $15, ISBN 978-0-452-29706-7 

This appears to be the first in a new mystery series involving a television executive who solves crimes.  In the debut, her ex-husband turns up murdered, and our protagonist is naturally the prime suspect, which gives her a vested interest in ensuring that the real culprit is apprehended.  She is also involved in the investigation of a mysterious disappearance from a few years earlier, which she thinks might make an interesting news story.  Readers will be well ahead of her in guessing that the two cases are going to turn out to be connected, although the links are not immediately obvious. Despite the clichéd plot, this one is actually pretty good and moves along quite expeditiously and overall it's far superior to the previous book I'd read by this author. 5/22/11

A Cool Day for Killing by William Haggard, Walker, 1968  

The consistency with which the author insults various nationalities and groups – Jews, Chinese, and Moslems this time around – is astonishing even for the 1960s. Haggard remained popular for quite some time although I’ve noticed a certain sameness about his plots and his tendency to have his characters draw conclusions or take actions not justified by the situation or their personalities, simply to move the story along. This time the plot involves another tiny mythical country, this one half Chinese, half Malay, governed until his recent assassination by the last of a family of British immigrants turned Moslem. His daughter lives in England where she is caught up in legal and then more serious events, and Charles Russell, director of the Security Executive, is back to help her out. His usual devices are largely in evidence, the unfaithful wife who ruins her husband, the cookie cutter thugs who aren’t really all that threatening, the bewildered man trying to deal with events beyond his control, and the suave Communist agent terrified of his superiors. There is also rumor of a hidden treasure and some mysterious plots within plots, but nothing extraordinary. The ending is okay but a little overly contrived. 5/20/11

Gideon's Sword by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Grand Central, 2011, $26.99, ISBN 978-0-446-56432-8

I am a long time fan of these two writers, separately and together, and have never failed to enjoy one of their novels. Until now. This is the first in a series about Gideon Crew, a brilliant one time thief who in his debut gets revenge on the man responsible for his father's murder, and then recovers a technological secret smuggled into the US. The plot in general is much more like mainstream spy thrillers and less like the work the authors have done in the past, but that isn't the reason I didn't like the book. Frankly, the plot doesn't work  and relies on so many unbelievable devices that I never was able to credit what was happening. Gideon's chief trick, which he uses repeatedly, is to call someone who has confidential information, fake a crisis, and then just sit back as the other person provides passwords and other data over the phone to someone he or she never met. It might work once but it's overdone and in the case of the highly placed Pentagon general, completely implausible. He also benefits from a lot of coincidences. Then there's the opening plot. The bad guy realizes that he's in danger, so he finds one his co-workers whom we are told is intelligent and basically a good person, and tells him Crew is a saboteur. The co-worker naturally sets out to singlehandedly kill Crew, and naturally is convinced to change sides when Crew tells him the truth in the middle of a knife fight. The second and main plot is even less believable. He is hired by a shadowy government agency to recover evidence from the body of a Chinese tourist murdered by a Chinese operative in the US. If this was really a case of national security, the agents would just seize the body and avoid the risk and delay. We are later given an attempt at an explanation of why this came about that just points out the incongruousness of the entire situation. This reads like something they whipped out in a couple of weeks to pay a bill or two. It even needs editing.  In one place the word "illusion" is used when they obviously meant "allusion."  Immensely disappointing from beginning to end.  5/17/11

The Ice Princess by Camilla Lackberg, Free Press, 2011, $15, ISBN 978-1-4516-2174-7 

Mystery stories set in other countries – by residents of those countries – have a particular appeal because they usually involve a legal and police system different than that in the US and England. This one is set in Sweden and involves a young woman who returns to her home town after a long absence and her involvement in the investigation of the apparent suicide of her former best friend. She predictably gets romantically involved with a local policeman as they uncover layers in the dead woman’s life that stretch back to childhood. And naturally someone doesn’t want all of those layers opened to public view. The plot is unexceptional but the setting is interesting and the mystery unravels cleverly and convincingly. 5/16/11

The Power House by William Haggard, Pan, 1966

Another low key thriller from a man who probably couldn’t get published by a major company today because of his blatant misogyny and racism. This time there’s a two part problem facing Russell, head of the Security Executive. A left leaning Member of Parliament might be about to defect, perhaps not voluntarily, and something sinister is happening in the casino business in the London area. The author makes no bones about his belief that liberals are stupid and traitorous; Russell actually gets along better with rabid communists than with his own left leaning countrymen. Not that he has much good to say about democracy either. Haggard tells us that simply counting heads doesn’t make for good government. I suspect he would like an autocracy, and certainly Russell is an autocrat. The far right is “civilized” but the far left is “insane.”  Haggard also has a low opinion of women, or at least of wives. I’ve read enough of his novels now to see the trend. Lovers might be loyal, patriotic, and kind, but wives are invariably treacherous and destroy their husbands when given the opportunity. Makes one wonder about Haggard’s family life.  He also tells us that there is no such thing as a punctual Indian.  As with some of his other novels, Haggard uses a cheap writer’s trick. He tells us that certain things one character might do would force another character or characters to behave in such and such a way. But there’s no logical reason why the latter should follow the former. And characters sometimes make decisions that make no sense at all except that they advance the plot. 5/13/11

The Fund by H.T. Narea, Forge, 2011, $24.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2890-8  

Economics and finance have always bored me and a few thrillers I’ve read that focus on that part of human civilization have generally not satisfied me. This first novel by a man familiar with the intricacies of finance speculates about a new kind of terrorist, a sophisticated person who plans to manipulate international financial markets and bring about a crisis that will destroy the economies of much of the world. The protagonist is an investigator who begins to see a pattern in various diverse bits of information, which takes her on a tour of several parts of the world as she pulls things together and discovers who is responsible and what their ultimate goal is.  I can’t say that this made me suddenly fascinated with hedge funds and exchange rates, but I can say that it didn’t bore me. 5/10/11

The Hard Sell by William Haggard, Signet, 1965

More jingoistic espionage from a man whose work could not get published today because of its racist undertones, in this case directed toward the Italians.  A joint venture to develop a new cargo aircraft is in jeopardy because of sabotage, low key at first but escalating rapidly as an evil American businessman blackmails a local visitor into using bombs and arson and then coerces another into committing murder.  There’s more action in this than in most of Haggard’s novels and the professional communist agent is actually a good guy for a chance.  There are lots of problems with the novel though.  For one thing, any company that would build an entire assembly line before they had created a working prototype deserves to go out of business.  Then there’s the assertion that hundreds of prominent Britons, including many members of Parliament, are traitors, which gives you an idea of the political bias of the author. The book is inconsistent with the other Charles Russell novels.  We’ve been told repeatedly that he can’t leave England with the permission of the Prime Minister because of the information he possesses, but this time he jaunts off to Italy to get involved with Communists, prostitutes, and criminals and no one turns a hair. Finally, the resolution revolves around a complicated business device but the key point is that one of the parties values the continued status quo of the aircraft factory.  But we were told a few chapters earlier that he was perfectly willing to let it go out of business.  5/1/11

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