Last updated 12/31/07
 

Murder by Numbers by Kaye Morgan, Berkley, 2008, $6.99, ISBN 978-9-425-21903-4

I'm always suspicious when a book is copyright by the publisher rather than an author, as is the case with this one, that we're talking about a house pseudonym rather than a real person.  This is the second in the Sudoku puzzles series, although the puzzles have little to do with the mystery except for a cipher at the end.  The protagonist is a publicist working on a movie location in a small town when the big wig from the central office - not a nice man at all - is found buried up to his neck in the sand and dead on the beach one morning.  Not only is it a puzzle how he ended up that way, but there are so many people who hated him - actors, directors, the local mayor, a disgruntled town ne'er do well, that it's not easy to pick out the killer's motive, or motives.  Meanwhile our heroine has to deal with her husband, whom she still likes, though they are separated, her rambunctious boss, a hidden fortune, and a suspicious sheriff.  It's actually a fairly solid mystery, well set up and nicely written.  If I had any complaint at all, it might be that the story jumps from one scene to another rather abruptly at times, not really a big complaint.  If "Kaye Morgan" isn't real, I suspect she's someone with quite a few books under his or her belt under another name or names. Oh, and I didn't guess who murdered the movie exec, but there really weren't enough clues to tell me. 12/31/07

Orient Express by Graham Greene, 1932 

I donít remember if Iíve ever read this before, although Iíve had a copy since I was a teenager.  It might have been one of those books I meant to get around to one day and that day finally came.  A group of varied characters board the Orient Express en route to Istanbul including a professional dancer unhappy with her life, a Communist exiled from Yugoslavia who hopes to return and lead a revolution, a thief who has just committed his first murder, a lesbian journalist who wants to get the scoop of her career, a businessman en route to a crisis meeting, and a snobbish author gathering material for his next book.  Their paths cross several times before the climax, which involves an arrest by the Yugoslavian army, escapes, deaths, and a chase scene.  None of the characters are particularly admirable except the dancer.  The resolution doesnít tie up all the loose ends and left me with a vague feeling that Iíd missed something, although I enjoyed the story Ė and Greeneís prose Ė immensely. 12/24/07

Pushing Up Bluebonnets by Leann Sweeney, Obsidian, 2007, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-451-22283-1

I gather that this is the fifth in this series of murder mysteries, although I've not seen any of the others.  The primary protagonist is Abby Rose, a wealthy woman who works as a private investigator with a specialty in adoption cases. When she gets drawn into an attempted murder by the local sheriff, she finds hidden connections between the victim and some of the richest and most prominent people in Texas.  Needless to say, there are some people who don't want the details of that connection to see the light of day, and naturally our heroine is standing right in their path.  Fortunately, she's a stubborn woman, and high society, memory loss, attempted murder, and miscellaneous mayhem are not going to dissuade her from finding out the truth.  Quite well written.  I found the dialogue enjoyable and since I've only spent four days in Texas in my life, I'll just have to assume that her depiction of the culture there is authentic.  It certainly feels that way.  I'll remember the author's name. 12/21/07

The Sterling Inheritance by Michael Siverling, Leisure, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-8439-6002-0

I know it's a hopeless quest, but whenever I start a new private eye novel, I keep hoping for something like a new Philip Marlowe adventure.  Occasionally I get very close, although the last one was Philip Jose Farmer's Nothing Burns in Hell, and that was almost ten years ago.  So I kind of set myself up to be disappointed.  Michael Silverling doesn't break the long drought, but that's not to say he doesn't deliver a pretty good story.  His detective, Jason Wilder, has a problem not faced by most PIs.  His boss is actually his mother, who founded the agency.  Makes for some interesting employee/employer relations.  His latest case is to track down a missing businessman, which he does in short order, but his quarry pulls a gun and Jason finds himself under arrest.  There are various elements reminiscent of Chandler - professional criminals, a wealthy family, a mysterious woman and the result is rather good, particularly for a first effort.  The second in the series is also out and I'll be keeping an eye - not a private one - out for it.  12/18/07

Ming Yellow by John P. Marquand, 1936

 Although this is not one of the authorís Mr. Moto novels, it feels a lot like them.  An American newspaperman in China gets involved with an irascible businessman who is trying to collect rare Ming Yellow porcelain, despite the unsettled political conditions of that time.  Thereís an ongoing guerilla war being fought against the Japanese by Chinese nationalists in the countryside, and it doesnít take much foresight to guess that the quest for rare pottery and the efforts to oust the Japanese invaders are going to collide at some point..  There is a good deal of running around and delivering subtle threats, and sometimes not so subtle, mixed with a romance with the businessmanís daughter, and then everything is tied up in a satisfactory but not very exciting conclusion.  Itís better than a couple of the Moto novels, but not as good as the better ones. 12/14/07

The Last of Mr. Moto by John P. Marquand, 1957

 The final Mr. Moto adventure was written several years after the end of the war.  The new enemy is the communists, who are trying to sway Japan away from the free world.  Two American agents are sent to Japan where they meet Moto, whom they donít know is an agent, and subsequently uncover a plot to assassinate a prominent Japanese politician and create unrest there.  The two chief villains are a Russian spy and an American traitor.  The book is technically better written than the earlier ones, though the story isnít all that great, and the paranoia about communism is pretty thick.  I suspect Marquand wrote this to correct some problems with the earlier books in his characterization of the Japanese, as well as to indicate that Moto had to be a false name, because it wasnít a proper Japanese name at all.  12/12/07

Mr. Moto Is So Sorry by John P. Marquand, 1938

Last Laugh, Mr. Moto by John P. Marquand, 1942 

The fourth Moto novel is a considerable letdown from the previous ones.  Marquand was feeling less sympathetic toward Japanese expansion, so Moto remains offstage for most of the book, supplanted by more villainous Japanese.  An American fleeing a scandal and a female artist Ė both typical Marquand protagonists Ė are on their way to join an expedition in Manchuria when they get involved with a clandestine courier.  The interplay between the two main characters is considerably less entertaining than usual and there is comparatively little action despite the melodramatic plot.  Everything turns out right in the end, but there is very little emotion in the story and Marquand seemed just to be going through the motions.  The fifth was published just before Pearl Harbor, and is even less satisfying.  The protagonist is a rehash of old Marquand characters who charters his boat to rich tourists who actually arenít what they appear to be.  No surprises there, or anywhere else in this relatively humdrum thriller.  It would be the last Moto adventure until Marquand returned for one final installment in the 1950s.  12/9/07

Knitting Bones by Monica Ferris, Berkley, 2007, $23.95, ISBN 978-0-425-21752-8

 This is the first book Iíve read by Ferris, who also writes as Monica Pulver and as one half of Margaret Frazier, but Sheila tells me this isnít typical of this series of Needlecraft Mysteries.  Betsy Devonshire, the protagonist, has been temporarily confined to a wheelchair following a riding accident.  She hears about the theft of a check intended for a charity and the disappearance of the man who supposedly stole it.  It's not clear in the early going why this would be a significant news item since it would be a simple problem to stop payment and re-issue it.  Another man had planned to steal it - same problem - but he was in an automobile accident and missed his chance.  In any case, he's missing, and his wife was one of the bigwigs who organized the event, so she's concerned on a number of levels.  They do in fact stop payment but the police are still convinced he meant to steal it.  I'm not buying this, frankly.

Anyway, not only is he missing but there's reason to believe that an imposter accepted the check in the first place.  The resolution includes the inevitable confrontation and a captive crow is instrumental in defeating the bad guy.  I never was convinced that the theft was plausible and while the story is certainly well enough written, it just never drew me in.  12/7/07

Think Fast, Mr. Moto by John P. Marquand, 1937 

Continuing my way through the Moto books.  The story gets underway very quickly in this, the third Moto novel.  Wilson Hitchings is a young man learning the family business in Shanghai when he is asked to deal with a troublesome problem in Hawaii.  Eva, the daughter of a disowned member of the family, is running a casino which shares the family name.  Although he cannot understand why the matter is so important to his uncle, Wilson agrees to attempt to buy the woman out.  Before he can take his first step, he discovers that it is connected to a Manchurian criminal named Chang and a Japanese secret agent named Moto.  More complications come thick and fast, a murder attempt, gangsters secretly controlling things at the casino, a money smuggling operation.  Eva believes that Wilson is responsible for the attempt to kill Moto, but he suspects Maddock, a croupier who is clearly a thug.  The story moves well, although the protagonistís characterization is inconsistent and sometimes annoying. 12/4/07

Murder on K Street by Margaret Truman, Ballantine, 2007, $

I used to know who the real author of this ghost written series of Washington based murder mysteries was but I've managed to forget.  This is the first of them I've actually read, and it's quite good if a bit slow to develop.  The wife of a prominent senator is murdered in their home, after which we meet an almost bewildering number of characters, most of them more or less unlikable.  Phil Rotundi, the senator's one time roommate and possibly his only friend, comes to town to help out while the senator himself seems more concerned with keeping up his image than mourning his wife.  His lobbyist son isn't much better, and his estranged political activist daughter's grief is mingled with her own mildly obnoxious sense of the importance of her own opinions.  Rotundi was at one time in love with the deceased, which makes him more interested than ever in discovering the truth.  All of this is revealed within the context of some very unfavorable portrayals of the role and activities of lobbyists, a bit over simplified by necessity.

The plot begins to thicken.  A vagrant looks like a viable suspect, but we know that the truth is more likely connected to the illegal activities of a powerful lobbying group which has hired the senator's son as its figurehead president. Although it progresses logically from what went before, the revelations that follow aren't very surprising.  The mob is laundering money through the lobbyists, the head of the lobbying company and his security chief are not nice people, and the handwriting is on the wall predicting their exposure.  The ditzy daughter continues to be obnoxious and the equally ditzy son vacillates a lot.  Even the protagonist remains passive, not wanting to expose his friend but also wanting the killer identified.  The structure is more like a thriller than a detective story, and a pretty low key one.  The prose is smooth and unobtrusive and the characterization is quite good but while it is entertaining, it sometimes seemed emotionally flat.  12/3/07

Thank You, Mr. Moto by John P. Marquand, 1936 

The second Moto novel follows a pattern very similar to the first, a jaded American expatriate regains interest in life when he is innocently drawn into a web of international intrigue.  This time his life is in danger after he meets with a cashiered British officer who is promptly murdered.  Although he doesnít understand whatís going on, heís running for his life along with an American woman who apparently knows much more than he does.  The plot involves a plan by Chinese bandits, instigated by a radical Japanese group, to loot Peking.  All of the main characters, including Moto, are taken captive but at the last minute the lone female manages to shift the balance and they escape.  Not quite as good as the first one, but still exciting.  I was rather surprised at how small a part Moto played in the first two books.  11/31/07

Marathon Man by William Goldman, 1974 

William Goldman was my favorite author for several years, and if he hadnít stopped writing novels in the 1980s he probably still would be.  This was his second contemporary thriller after No Way to Treat a Lady, and is one of his very best.  The main protagonist is Babe Levy, a student of history who doesnít know that his older brother was as professional spy and assassin until he died in his arms.  Levy has problems of his own.  His girlfriend is one of the agents of a fugitive Nazi war criminal, the same man who later captures and tortures him, seeking information that Levy doesnít have.  Some of the individual scenes in this book are incredibly vivid.  Levy sitting in the bathtub listening to the sounds of the two thugs who have broken into his apartment, and his later torture are some of the most suspenseful Iíve ever read.  The secret identity of the brother isnít revealed until about half way through the book, even though we see some sequences from his point of view, and the revelation threw me for a loop the first time I read it.  Itís even impressive the second time through.  One of the best thrillers of all time.  11/29/07

Right You Are, Mr. Moto by John P. Marquand, 1935 

The first adventure of Mr. Moto, a Japanese intelligence operative who is the chief villain in this one, is told from the point of view of Casey Lee, an embittered American pilot who loudly denounces his home country while in Japan.  He is recruited to help spy on the American navy but almost immediately reneges.  There is a murder, a beautiful double agent, a clandestine message, and a few days later he is running for his life in mainland China.  The story is marvelously well written and rushes past so effortlessly that my original plan to read the first chapter before bed didnít end until I was halfway through.  Lee eventually finds himself caught in a struggle among Russian nationalists, Chinese criminals, and the intelligence services of the United States and Japan.  He eventually discovers the object of their quarry, a formula that makes the burning of fuel oil twice as efficient as normal, and sets out to retrieve it.  A bit unbelievable at times, but a lot of fun from beginning to end. 11/26/07

A Rose from the Dead by Kate Collins, Berkley, 2007, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-451-22241-1

Abby Knight is a florist who solves mysteries in her spare time in this series, which I believe includes six titles so far.  She's off trying to drum up a little business at a mortician's convention, which seems logical, but unfortunately the organizer of the get together winds up dead herself, and one of Abby's friends is nominated as chief suspect.  She and her friend, a bar owner who helps out with the lifting and carrying, have to ride to the rescue, identifying the real culprit, who seems to be drumming up some business of his own.  I started reading this one because the blurbs described it as being very funny, and there is a good deal of slapstick humor.  Given the potential of a morticians' convention, I expected a good deal more and better jokes though, and I was largely disappointed on that score.  The mystery itself was okay but not exceptional.  Collins has a nice grasp of characters and the plot certainly doesn't drag at all.  I think this one actually would have been better if the author hadn't tried to make it humorous.  It sort of hovers in between the two extremes and doesn't stand out as either suspenseful or funny, just a little bit of both.  11/25/07

Dark Aura by Diana O'Hehir, Berkley, 2007, $23.95, ISBN 978-0-425-21753-5

Although this is the third in a series, it's the first I've read by the author.  In some of these continuing mystery series, I'm put off by the amount of time that is spent catching us up on the back story.  This one has the opposite problem.  There is so much information - back story, main plot, and specific background to this particular case - that I had to go back and re-read on a couple of occasions, and I hadn't even reached page ten.  That wouldn't have been a big deal except that I was also struggling with the present tense narration, a device that I usually consider an affectation with no real function.  This one falls into that category.  There was no reason why the story should be told in an unusual manner.

Okay, pre-existing conditions out of the way.  The story itself involves a hoax, or maybe it's not a hoax, about certain children being born with purple auras, known therefore as indigo children, potentially having psychic powers. One of these, who is certainly precocious if nothing else, falls or is pushed off a promontory and seriously injured.  Our protagonist is Carla Day, a part-time deputy whose archaeologist father is in the early stages of Alzheimer's.  The case involves another murder, rumors of drugs, babies that may or may not have disappeared, and other minor plots that all get pulled together reasonably well.  The story held me until the end, but it was a chore to continue at times and I never had any real insight into any of the characters.  11/23/07

Skate Crime by Alina Adams, Berkley, 2007, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-425-21803-7

I haven't read any of the previous novels in this series of mysteries involving the world of professional figure skating, so some of the subtleties of the characters may have been lost on me.  The author does bring that world to life, and peoples it with interesting - if not always admirable - people.  The mystery in this case involves an elderly skating coach who dies in a fall on the ice, after which it is discovered that his skates were tampered with.  The amateur detective is a television producer working on a documentary.  There's quite a bit of back story including her romance, which is on the brink of becoming a serious commitment.  The writing is quite good and the mystery itself is fairly cleverly done. 

I did have a couple of problems with the book, however.  The motive for the murder isn't really revealed until the solution, which is cheating in a detective story.  It also struck me as totally inadequate given the personality of the murderer, whose identity I will obviously not reveal.  Even more troubling is the decision not to reveal the solution to the police, in part predicated on insufficient proof.  There have been cases where a story can be constructed so that withholding this information is valid, but in this particular case it strikes me as negligent and potentially making the protagonist an accomplice after the fact.  Given the speciousness of the motive, the murder suggests borderline insanity and I sure wouldn't be willing to take the responsibility of leaving that person at large.  This is what we employ police and courts for, and however imperfect they may be, they're a lot better than having individual citizens making these decisions.  11/21/07

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, 1860

The first detective novel written in the English language has supernatural overtones, but it's basically the story of a stolen diamond which, according to the Sherlock Holmes type detective, was "stolen" by the woman who owns it.  It's the cursed Indian jewel which supposedly carries a curse and which is followed by three Hindus who want to return it to the temple.  Although it's a bit talky at times, this is surprisingly modern in structure and tone, which is probably due to the fact that detective novelists imitated it for years.  There's the bumbling local detective, the skilled outsider, the interested amateurs, red herrings, and so forth.  It's also an epistolary novel, presented as a series of documents rather than using an omniscient narrator, a form I like although it has pretty much gone out of style in recent years.  There are also strong resemblances to parts of Beau Geste by P.C. Wren, and it was obviously an influence on The Doom Stone by Cornell Woolrich in the 1930s. It reads remarkably well considering how old it is.  11/19/07

Stalking Ivory by Suzanne Arruda, Obsidian, 2007, $14, ISBN 978-0-451-22168-1

The setting for this, the second adventure of Jade del Cameron, shares its unusual setting, 1920s Africa.  Jade is there with friends trying to photograph elephants, but there are distractions.  For one thing, there's a party of Germans hunting in the area, guided by a man she doesn't trust and with whom she had trouble in the first in the series.  More significantly, there is a gang of renegade ivory hunters, probably Abyssinians, and they've already murdered at least one man in the course of their depredations. A mysterious old man befriends her and an equally mysterious marksman appears to be accompanying or perhaps even leading the party of poachers.  Jade has a habit of sticking her nose in where it doesn't belong, and she's smart enough to know that the various incidents happening around her don't have the relatively insignificant implications that are assumed by her companions.

This is more of an adventure story than a mystery, but it's a rather good one and Jade is a refreshingly aggressive in a nice way protagonist.  The supporting case is also better than average.  One of the more amusing bits in the story is that the protagonist and one of the native children communicate using the imaginary language of the apes from the Tarzan novels, which both have read. I liked the setting and the characters, as well as the story, and that's a combination I don't run into very often. 11/18/07

Alias the Lone Wolf by Louis Joseph Vance, 1921

Encore the Lone Wolf by Louis Joseph Vance, 1932

The Lone Wolfís Last Prowl by Louis Joseph Vance, 1934 

Three adventures of the reformed jewel thief, Michael Lanyard, alias the Lone Wolf.  Because of his successful operations against the Russian communists, he has been asked to resign from the British Secret Service in Alias.  He runs into a woman with a fabulous collection of jewels, which are promptly stolen, and spends most of the book trying to retrieve them.  A slow opening but a good finish.  Encore is mostly about Lanyardís son, Maurice, who helps recover a cache of jewels stolen years in the past, foiling a variety of criminals in the process.  The Last Prowl, which was also Vanceís last book, is set primarily on a ship traveling to South America, with multiple jewel thefts and a little murder to spice up the trip.  Itís a pretty good one.  Vance is generally considered to have been a strong influence on Leslie Charterisí creation of the Saint and the resemblances are clear.  These arenít great mysteries, but theyíre pretty good ones and itís a shame that they have become so obscure and hard to find.  11/15/07

Preaching to the Corpse by Roberta Isleib, Berkley, 2007, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-425-21837-2

I believe this is the second in the Advice Column mystery series, whose detective is Rebecca Butterman, a psychologist who writes an advice column.  Reverend Sandifer is suspected of having murdered a member of his congregation, a woman who was overseeing the search for a new assistant minister.  Sandifer seems emotionally disturbed and insists that Butterman be present during his initial interrogation, which serves to introduce the protagonist into the mix.  When a suspicious, nearly fatal accident follows, it begins to look like someone in the church is a killer, and that the motive might have something to do with the selection process.  Butterman sticks her nose where it doesn't belong, more than once, and some of her errors of judgment struck me as a bit over the top.  The writing itself, however, is very good, everything from the little bits of internal politicking at the church group to the interactions between Butterman and Detective Meigs.  There's some back story as well involving Butterman's family, and occasional letters to the advice column, complete with her response, a bit gimmicky but not obtrusively.  On the whole, a quite respectable mystery.  11/14/07

A Bucket of Ashes by P.B. Ryan, Berkley, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-21873-0

The classic detective story doesn't have any significant running plot even if it does have a recurring detective.  You can read Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, or Nicholas Blake in any order you want.  Modern mysteries often indulge in what television calls the story arc, that is, there is a progression from one book to the next.  The difficulty is in keeping the story going while not making subsequent books opaque to readers coming new to the series.  This historical mystery, set on Cape Cod during the Presidency of Ulysses Grant, is a case in point.  The protagonist is Nell Sweeney, a governess, who has an awful lot of back story.  She was a pickpocket at some time in her life, she has a husband in prison for theft, her brother recently got out of prison, and she herself is pregnant out of wedlock.  Nell is also trying to secure a divorce.  The family she works for has similar problems.  One member is a drug addict and compulsive gambler.  Some people know bits and pieces and others know other bits and pieces.  Much of the first quarter of the novel is spent explaining all of this, and that's too long for a mystery novel.

The immediate mystery involves the criminal brother, who is accused of being one of two men who committed burglary and murder.  The brother's body shows up in the ruins of a burned building, but the partner is missing.  Nell soon suspects, as do we, that her brother did not die accidentally and that the accepted account of the earlier burglary and murder are not necessarily true.  But as you might suspect, there's a certain amount of danger involved in pursuing any further inquiries.  The mystery isn't badly done, but it seems almost an afterthought to what is essentially a mild, historical romance novel.  It probably would work slightly better if I'd read the previous ones in the series.  It is a standalone novel, but just barely.  11/12/07

The False Faces by Louis Joseph Vance, 1918 

The second adventure of the Lone Wolf is, if anything, better than the first.  Vance disposes of his wife and child by having them die in the war, at the hands of an arch villain from the first book whom we thought dead.  Surprise!  Heís back, head of German intelligence, currently launching a major program to keep America out of the war.  Under another assumed identity, Lanyard sets sail for the US, but the voyage is going to be anything but peaceful.  A submarine nearly sinks them and thereís a mysterious woman aboard.  Before long, there are skulkings in the night, people being knocked unconscious, mysterious secrets to be revealed, and a German spy to be caught.  Most of the characters are sketchily done, and the German submarine crew are particularly exaggerated.  There is also a pretty big coincidence when Lanyard is thrown off the ship just before it is torpedoed, and saved when the German submarine surfaces right under him.  Thereís some James Bondish antics afterwards when the dissolute Germans are so incompetent that Lanyard is able to singlehandedly sink their ship while making his escape.  The final chapters are a bit convoluted, but Lanyard defeats his old enemy, retrieves the missing document, and exposes a traitor within British intelligence.  Some rough spots, but still a good story.  11/7/07

The Lodger by Mrs. Belloc Lowndes, 1912 

Iíve always been a bit of a Jack the Ripper junkie, and since this is the story of a very similar killer, the Avenger, who claims victims in London, it was one I hunted up and read years before I discovered science fiction.  This is my first re-reading in over fifty years, so it was almost completely new to me.  The story is told from a very unusual viewpoint.   The Buntings are an older couple who have been unable to find lodgers for some time and who are on the verge of losing everything they own when the mysterious Mr. Sleuth comes to stay with them.  He has peculiar habits and it isnít long before Mrs. Bunting notices that his nocturnal excursions coincide with the murders.  She is determined not to believe there is a connection, since his rent is paying for their food, but the evidence mounts and she begins to feel physically ill as the tension rises as well.  Her husbandís young daughter by his first wife comes to stay with them, and he is being courted by a police officer, so the situation moves steadily toward a confrontation.  The inconclusive ending might not sit well with a modern audience, but it works fine for this classic.  11/6/07

The Lone Wolf by Louis Joseph Vance, 1914 

The Lone Wolf novels inspired more than a dozen movies and a television show, even though only nine books were written before Vance accidentally burned himself to death.  The Lone Wolf is Michael Lanyard, who becomes a successful jewel thief as the title character, while outwardly appearing to be an art dealer.  When a group of criminals led by an American poseur try to force him into their organization, he rebels and the fight is on.  Along the way, he meets a beautiful girl who turns out to be an agent infiltrating the gang, and repents his evil ways in order to court her.  The action is pretty linear and there arenít many surprises, but Vance could tell a great story and heís particularly skillful at bringing his settings to life.  This doesnít bear much resemblance to the movies supposedly based on the character, but itís one of the most underrated adventure stories of all time, as is its immediate sequel, The False Faces.  This one is definitely worth the effort to track down.  11/3/07

A Christmas Beginning by Anne Perry, Ballantine, 2007, $17.95, ISBN 978-0-345-48582-3

This is the first mystery I've ever read by Anne Perry, a fairly short one in which Inspector Runcorn, while vacationing on an island in Wales, stumbles onto the corpse of a dead woman.  Although he's out of his jurisdiction, he gets involved with the subsequent investigation.  The dead woman had turned down at least three suitors, and was also living off her not too well off brother and his wife.  None of the motives seemed particularly strong, and frankly when we find out who the killer is, I still didn't find the motivation convincing.  Much of the real conflict is internal.  Runcorn is from the lower classes, clashes with the locals, and feels inferior so often that I started to feel as though he was right.  There are the usual interviews with the suspects, but they seem very tentative and not very informative.  It wasn't badly written, but it never really seemed like much of a mystery, and for such a short book, it repeats points surprisingly often.  10/29/07

Journey into Fear by Eric Ambler, 1940

Eric Ambler has always been my favorite spy novelist.  This is one of his earliest and best books, and establishes his pattern of protagonists who are drawn into international conspiracies despite their best efforts to remain uninvolved.  Graham is a naval ordinance specialist working with the Turkish navy in this one, and when he is shot at on the eve of his departure for England, he wants to dismiss it as a botched burglary, although the secret police believe otherwise. He accepts their proposal, actually a demand, that he depart secretly on a second rate passenger ship rather than risk traveling by rail.  On board, he runs into the same dancer he had briefly met a few hours before the first attempt on his life.  She and some of the other passengers appear to be something other than what they claim.  Everything seems to be going well until another passenger comes aboard, a man Graham recognizes as the killer who shot at him back in Turkey.  He hovers on the edge of panic, feels some reassurance because this time he is armed, then nearly has a stroke when he discovers that someone has stolen his weapon.  His only recourse, it seems, is to steal the killer's revolver before it can be used against him.  Ambler is a master at describing the reactions of an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances.  Graham is no James Bond, and his efforts to save himself are fueled by desperation rather than resolve.  This is one of the classic spy novels, from one of the best at the business.  10/18/07

 

Hopscotch by Brian Garfield, 1975 

The movie version of this unconventional spy novel, also written by Garfield, is one of my all time favorites, but I had never read the book until now.  Miles Kendig is an old fashioned spy, frustrated by the conscienceless bureaucrats he worked for, now involuntarily retired because they consider him a dinosaur.  He decides to relieve his boredom by writing a book about all the nasty secrets in the spy business and sending sample chapters to publishers.  Before long, he has Soviet, American, British, French, and other intelligence agencies all trying to capture him, primarily to shut him up.  He leads everyone a merry chase across multiple continents, using ingenious devices to harass and evade them.  But the chase is turning deadly and he needs to find an endgame that wonít end with his death.  Excellent from beginning to end.  Quite different in parts from the movie.  Garfield/Kendigís prediction that electronics would make old style espionage obsolete has extended to the world of thrillers, which is now dominated by Tom Clancy and similar writers.  Poor old James Bond is obsolete.  This is one of the really great spy novels, make no mistake. 10/8/07

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan, 1915

Greenmantle by John Buchan, 1916 

It should be no surprise to learn that the first of these, a classic chase story, only slightly resembles the film versions.  These are the first two of four adventures of Richard Hannay, a South African who Ė in the first - returns to England just in time to get mixed up in an international conspiracy, be framed for murder, and hunted across Scotland by both the police and a very large and well organized group of villains.  He meets a variety of strange characters on his travels, escapes by luck, skill, and on at least two occasions there are strokes of coincidence that strain credulity.  The story is so crisply told and exciting that I granted Buchan a dispensation for the first one, but that in all of the British Isles, he should happen to seek refuge in the home of the leader of the opposition is just too fantastic.  Readers should also be cautioned that Buchan reflected the prejudices of his times, and some passages are offensive.  More coincidences cluster around the ending, in which the authorities quite unrealistically place Hannay in charge of a major counter espionage operation, even letting him decide where the police officers should be situation.  

Greenmantle takes place a year or two later.  Hannay has been an officer fighting in Europe but is back in England convalescing from a wound.  He is recruited as the head of a small team meant to infiltrate Germany and Turkey to discover the source of rumors that the Germans are about to stimulate a jihad against the British.  Once again, some astonishing coincidences grease the wheels, and thereís a protracted chase sequence reminiscent of the first book.  A lot of it is very exciting, but their various successes become increasingly implausible, leading up to the climax in which the figurehead who is supposed to incite the jihad dies, and one of the British spies is chosen as his replacement.  Mindless fun, but Buchanís terrible plotting spoils the effect of his well executed chase scenes. 9/27/07

A Coffin for Dimitrios by Eric Ambler, 1939 

Eric Ambler is my favorite spy novelist, although this particular title, one of his best, doesnít involve spies at all.  Latimer, a mystery novelist, becomes obsessed with the career of a petty criminal whose body has recently been identified in Turkey.  He travels around the Mediterranean, trying to retrace the manís footsteps, and belatedly discovers that he is not the only one engaged on the quest.  He encounters Mr. Peters, supposedly a random traveler but actually a man even more interested in the career of Dimitrios Makropoulos, and with better reason.  Eventually the two become uneasy partners.  Peters is an old associate who wants to blackmail Dimitrios, who betrayed him to the authorities.  Latimer wants to bring the man to justice, but canít figure out how to do it.  Amblerís disillusionment with politics and the slide of Europe toward war is evident and Dimitrios is in a sense representative of European civilization in general.  It is clearly significant that the confrontation between him and Peters results in their mutual destruction.  One of my favorite novels of all time.  9/16/07

Walla Walla Suite by Anne Argula, Ballantine, 2007, $12.95, ISBN 978-0-345-49842-7

Quinn is a middle aged, menopausal private detective who has recently relocated to Seattle, where she has developed a friendship with Vincent Ainge, a professional mitigator, that is, he conducts investigations to provide reasons why convicted murderers should not be executed.  Their offices are in the same building as that where a young girl works, who is missing as the book opens, found dead a short time later.  Her employer hires Quinn to find the person responsible, but before she can do so, the police announce that they've arrested a suspect.  He seems a perfect fit for the crime, even confesses, but there are surprises in store for the reader which I won't reveal here.

I should not have liked this book.  For one thing, I guessed the surprise ending almost immediately, in considerable detail, and the only suspense was wondering just how the author was going to get me there.  For another, Quinn doesn't do much detecting, at least not on camera.  It's more a novel about a private investigator than a mystery novel, concerned primarily with her relationship with Vincent, and his infatuation with the dead girl's mother.  But despite both factors, I enjoyed this immensely.  The interplay between the two primary characters is superb, the writing in general is of very high quality, and there is a kind of originality about the quasi-noir nature of the story that was quite refreshing.  It is perhaps most illustrative of my reaction that as soon as I finished reading it, I went on line and ordered the first book in the series.  9/6/07

Spanish Dagger by Susan Wittig Albert, Berkley, 2007, $23.95, ISBN 978-0-425-21394-0

 I started reading this series a couple of years ago, liked most of them, and have kept current ever since.  The detective is China Bayles, an ex-lawyer termed herb shop owner.  Over the years sheís accumulated a cast of supporting characters including a husband, adopted child, two pets, two business partners, a sexy chief of police, and friends and neighbors.  She has also gained a mother, a half brother, and rumors that her fatherís fatal accident sixteen years earlier was actually a murder.  Thereís plenty of back story here, in fact, thereís a bit too much.  In order to bring us current on everything Ė including her private investigator husbandís involvement in the case of her father, it takes a good long time to get to the heart of this particular story, and even then it gets interrupted once or twice afterwards. 

The mystery this time is the death of the man who formerly dated Chinaís friend and partner, Ruby.  China finds him stabbed to death and naturally she canít resist the temptation to look deeper into matters.  That leads her to arrive just as a second body is discovered, and gets her involved with a renegade drug cop.  Before the story ends, she is inadvertently guilty of transporting drugs, precipitates a major bust, and helps get the dirty cop in trouble, as well as solving the murders.  I wonít tell you who is responsible, but in mystery terms, this one is a major cheat as thereís no possible way to predict who the killer is.  I get the impression the author is so interested in writing about her characters that sheís no longer interested in constructing an engaging mystery. 8/16/07

What a Body! by Alan Green, Simon & Schuster, 1949

Merlin Broadstone is a very rich man, having made his fortune promoting his personal program of healthy eating and exercise.  Two days after he opens his combination resort and health spa, he is found dead in a locked room, shot through the back.  The police determine that he was shot from outside his room and below, but they canít account for the fact that his pajamas were apparently put on him AFTER the fatal wound was inflicted, nor can they explain how and why his slippers were tossed out the window directly thereafter.  His estate is divided among his family, none of whom seem particularly grief stricken. And then, almost before the body has cooled, the illegitimate son no one knew about shows up to press his case. 

This all sounds like a standard but pretty good locked room murder mystery, but itís also one of the funniest novels Iíve read in years.  Broadstoneís various relatives are as oddball a group as youíre likely to meet in fiction, and their interactions and adventures are unrelentingly amusing.  The passages about media coverage and politicians are particularly funny.  Despite the farcical elements, the jokes are wrapped around a genuinely puzzling murder mystery, although there's really no opportunity for the reader to figure out the means or the perpetrator except by chance. Green (whom I only heard of recently) writes in a spare, witty style that Ė alas! - probably wouldnít be considered marketable by todayís publishers, which makes this relatively unknown novel a really great find.  Definitely worth looking for, and Iíll be trying to track down his other novels. 8/7/07

The Lost Van Gogh by A.J. Zerries, Tor, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-765-33108-1 

First of all, this has to be one of the most non-descript book covers of all time.  It even looks dull.  But this first novel by a husband and wife writing team is anything but dull.  It opens with a burglary that ends in murder, the theft of two valuable paintings, followed by the introduction of the protagonist, Clay Ryder, a New York City policeman who is more or less the man on the spot when crimes involving art objects occur.  There is no immediate connection to a string of robberies of delivery men, but they're never far from our attention as Ryder manages to track down the true owner of a priceless painting that arrives from Argentina with a curious and possibly spurious story.  He becomes involved with the new owner, a young woman, but he also has concerns when he is approached by agents of the Israeli Mossad, who think it might be possible that the Nazi war criminal believed to have stolen the painting might still be alive.

What follows is a pretty good police procedural with international overtones, a few doses of action, some interesting background about the art world, and what is generally a suspenseful plot.  I had a couple of quibbles about it.  The first is minor, perhaps, but it bugs me.  I just don't understand why a New York City policeman would be in charge of tracking down the owner of stolen Nazi art, and why he would be the one to present the information to the lucky woman, rather than a lawyer or a representative of the museum where the painting is being held.  The second is more serious, and since I often complain that characters in thrillers rarely really come to life, it's going to sound like I'm talking out of both sides of my mouth.  The problem here is that we learn too much about Ryder, generally in the form of flashbacks, much of which really doesn't contribute that much to understanding our hero.  The difficulty is that these excursions into his history seem to come at inopportune times and interrupt the flow of the story.  Or maybe it was just a hot night and I was impatient.  Still an interesting book and I would certainly read their next.  6/27/07

The Fourth Order by Stephen Frey, Ballantine, 2007, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-343-48064-4 

Let me start out by admitting that I donít ordinarily like this kind of novel, high level intrigue involving corporations and the federal government, politics and economics mixing.  And I particularly donít care for revelations that there are super secret, counter libertarian government agencies in my thrillers.  Itís not that I donít believe theyíre possible; sadly, I believe theyíre probable.  But in literary terms, itís a device thatís been done to death and unless thereís a new twist, Iím generally not interested.  This is why I stopped watching the X-Files after a couple of seasons.  Finally, the prologue to this particular novel set my teeth on edge.  Prominent businessman Michael Rose and his wife are arrested at an airport, apparently on a trumped up charge, as they are about to board a flight to England.  There are multiple minor implausibilities in this one.  First of all, suspect or not, the airline employee and probably the TSA people would never have been as rude as they are in this case to a well dressed couple not causing trouble.  Second, if this is in fact a frame arranged in advance, it would have been the police or FBI making the arrest, not the TSA.  Third, if it was spontaneous, why did the ticket taker apparently know that it was going to happen in advance?  And finally, if it was arranged in advance, why were the detained couple allowed to remain unsupervised after their initial apprehension?  Obviously, the sequence did not work for me and made it harder for me to accept what follows. 

Some time later, the ambitious and apparently high competent Rose is spearheading a bid to lead a hostile takeover of a software company that is actually the front organization for the super secret government agency I alluded to.  The agency itself has problems.  They have been conducting pre-emptive assassinations of terrorists, and one of their top officers is troubled by the fact that so many of those eliminated turn out to have been completely innocent.  There is also a suggestion that they are involved in other irregularities that might come out if the merger proceeds.  They may or may not be aware of what follows, the murder of Roseís wife, returning from one of her extramarital flings. Rose himself is playing with the idea of having an affair with a woman he met casually.  More expert executions happen in short order, and the cast of characters balloons so quickly that I had to check back to see if Iíd already met the character and just forgotten his name. 

Rose is called to identify his wifeís body after the apparent accident.  Even though there is no evidence of foul play, the detectives ask probing, even impertinent questions.  This was the second time I was thrown out of the story.  Once again, and particularly since Rose had already been identified as a powerful executive, I find their actions unlikely to the point of improbability.  Even if there had been evidence, I doubt the police would have tipped their hand within a few seconds of meeting a suspect.  Then we begin meeting the agency's operatives, cruel monsters who murder tiny children in their beds, rape and torture suspects against which there is no shred of evidence.  They are such comic book, paranoid left style villains that they come across as caricatures, almost funny rather than menacing.  The fact that we never see the human side of their victims doesn't help either.

And then things start to get really unbelievable.  I confess that I put the book aside about half way through, intending not to read the rest.  I only finished it when enough time had passed that my initial revulsion had passed.  This is the intellectual left's version of a men's adventure vigilante novel.  The latter portrays the government as corrupt or ineffective, requiring individuals to take the law into their own hands.  The left is more prone to believe that the government is stealing our rights and advancing secret agendas.  The result is the same in both cases.  Bad fiction.  6/25/07

The Dark Frontier by Eric Ambler, Mysterious Press, 1990 (originally published in 1936).

I hadn't realized that I had somehow overlooked Eric Ambler's first novel until quite recently, so immediately tracked down a copy.  It's technically science fiction as well as a thriller, since it involves the development of hand grenade sized nuclear weapons by the fiction Balkan country of Ixania.  The opening chapter feels just the slightest bit corny and awkward, but it isn't long before Ambler's superb storytelling takes over.  The protagonist is a scientist named Barstow who, while on the verge of a nervous breakdown, rebuffs an attempt to recruit him into a plan to sabotage Ixania's plans and steal the technology.  He subsequently reads part of a spy thriller - which includes a very fine spoof of the form that is as true today as it was back in the 1930s - then has an automobile accident with head injury.  He awakens believing that he is the fictional character he was reading about, and decides to complete the mission "posing" as Barstow.  And the story is off to the races.

We have a change of viewpoint character halfway through that probably wasn't a good idea, although it was necessary to cover the transition when Barstow recovers his memory.  There are several fascinating supporting characters, plenty of intrigue, and a bit of melodrama, but the true charm of the novel is Barstow's rationalization for those events which conflict with his fictional persona and his ingenious methods of getting around obstacles.  It's not much more plausible than the antics of various inferior James Bond clones, but it's wittier and almost convincing. This provides further evidence that a good many worthwhile novels have fallen into an obscurity which they do not deserve.  6/21/07

Covet by Tara Moss, Leisure, 2007, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-8439-5848-5. Originally published in 2005.

The world of modeling does not intersect my range of interests, so it wasn't until I asked someone that I discovered this author was formerly a well known model.  Apparently she retired a few years back to write crime fiction.  This is part of a series about Makedde Vanderwall, set in Australia, and is apparently virtually a continuation of her previous adventure, Split.  In that book, she was captured and tortured by a psychotic killer who is now under arrest, pending trial at which she will be the star witness.  She is still having emotional problems generated by the experience, understandably, and they get even worse when the psychopath escapes, determined to finish what he started.  That's wrapped around some other crimes as well.

Although this is certainly competently written, has an interesting, out of the ordinary protagonist, and a reasonably nasty villain, I had considerable trouble staying interested.  For one thing, the first half seems unusually slow paced, and even when some pretty nasty stuff is happening, it takes too long to advance from scene to scene.  Perhaps more critically, I couldn't help compare Vanderwall and the killer to Agent Starling and Hannibal Lecter.  Although the story is very different, the relationship between the two has such strong similarities that the parallels are too powerful to ignore.  And the Stiletto murderer, no matter how fiendish, is a tyro next to Hannibal.  If you don't mind relatively leisurely suspense, this is well enough written that you won't feel cheated.  But you might doze off.  6/18/07

Guardian Angel by Warren Murphy and James Mullaney, Tor, 2007, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-765-35759-5 

This is the first in ďThe New DestroyerĒ series, apparently a rethinking of the whole set up.  Thereís a note indicating that the last several Destroyer novels are no longer canonical.  Not having read them, I donít know why.  In any case, Murphyís original co-author, Richard Sapir, died recently so itís not surprising.  The opening is ripped out of the current front pages, as they say, a band of volunteer border guards are wiped out by mysterious attackers.  Thereís a fairly predictable rehash of the political arguments against our open borders, with an effort to express sympathy for the illegals, although the viewpoint characterís concern that this is how terrorists would choose to enter the country is absurd.  The murders come to the attention of CURE, a top secret crime organization whose leader, Smith, is ďtotally free of political opinionĒ, which might qualify this as a fantasy novel. 

Next we meet Remo Williams, hero of the series, followed by a mild slap at Martin Sheenís political activities, though heís never named, in this case suggesting he sides with cop killers.  Obviously the authors donít share Smithís lack of political opinions.  Remo is a vigilante, incorporating all the worst traits of the genre, disdain for the law, a fondness for torturing his victims.  He spirits a convicted murderer out of prison, and after a few side trips in which his prisoner acts like the stereotyped badman, Remo kills him.   

Remo then goes to visit Chiun, the Korean martial arts master who has also taught him how to function pretty much like the old Shadow, entering prisons without setting off alarms, and such.  Smith (who isnít bothered when Remo admits to having committed murder) calls him about the killings at the border, Remo rants about the evils of free speech, and accepts the job.  He and Chiun go to visit a bigoted businessman, and kill his bodyguard offhandedly while waiting for him to return to his room.  This doesnít seem to bother anyone.  After they leave, we meet the businessmanís security expert, who apparently appeared in an earlier novel where, she thought, sheíd managed to kill Remo. 

The plot expands predictably from there.  A new General Santa Anna emerges as the figurehead leader calling for immigrants to rebel against the governments of the Southwestern states.  Before the end, just about everyone is shown to be villainous to some degree, including our businessman friend, elements of the Mexican government, and various activist groups.  Remo and Chiun kill a lot of people.  It really doesnít matter who or why because all of the characters are so repulsive. 

The authors go to considerable effort to assert that theyíre not racist, but they feel no such compunction about displaying chauvinism.  ďShe is female, and therefore needs no excuse to start an argumentÖĒ, etc. It is probably  impossible for an author to leave all political feelings out of a piece of fiction, but it is quite possible to present a position on an issue without overwhelming the story.  Poul Andersonís libertarianism and Kim Stanley Robinsonís ecological concerns are evident but generally unobtrusive in their fiction and Jerry  Pournelle and Joe Haldeman have both produced thoughtful, interesting military fiction despite very different philosophies on the subject.  Creating a bunch of paper tigers and subjecting them to ridicule and demonization is not only bad writing, but it alienates even some sympathetic readers.  On those occasions when I found myself agreeing with the stance of the author in this case, I often felt an irrational urge to change my point of view simply because I didnít want to be associated with the vile and small minded baggage that accompanied it.  The extremes of left and right are equally guilty of this sort of thing. A lot of the bad things that the novel criticizes are in fact very bad things.  What the authors apparently fail to recognize is that people who act like Remo Williams are even worse. 6/9/07

The Maras Affair by Eliot Reed, Perma Books, 1955 (originally published 1953)

Tender to Danger by Eliot Reed, Doubleday, 1951

I recently discovered that ďEliot ReedĒ is the collaborative pseudonym of Eric Ambler and Charles Rodda, under which name they wrote at least four suspense thrillers.  Since Iím a big fan of Ambler, I have been searching for them and found these two fairly quickly, although Passport to Panic and Charter to Danger have so far eluded me.  The first is set behind the Iron Curtain and like all of Amblerís spy stories, the hero is a reluctant and not entirely competent player in the games that ensue, decidedly not a James Bond.  Charles Burton is a western newspaperman with an office in one of the satellite countries who has become romantically interested in Anna Maras, a quiet local woman who works for him.  The country is never identified but is probably Romania. 

An occasional stringer who worked for Burton has apparently escaped to the West and another of his employees is suspected of complicity by Sesnik, head of the local secret police.  When Anna disappears under mysterious circumstances, Burton decides to track her down, but instead find Trovic, the man who supposedly already successfully fled the country.  Burtonís infatuation for Maras nudges him into action, and although he believes that he is in command of the situation, it is obvious to the reader that he is in over his head. When an office worker with questionable associates is murdered, the police call it a suicide, but Burton knows that isnít the case.  He decides to smuggle Maras out of the country, even if it means abduction to overcome her resistance to the idea.  Although his intentions are good, itís obvious that he may be making things worse rather than better.  And unbeknownst to him, the stakes in the current web of plot and counterplot are even higher than he imagined. 

The second title is set shortly after the end of World War II.  A doctor from the International Red Cross is on his way home to London when weather forces him to spend a night in Brussels, sharing a hotel room with an annoying Yugoslavian who carries a gun and obviously has secrets.  The odd little man disappears and is later found murdered, and the police initially discount our heroís story, and then minimize its seriousness.  Stung, he pursues a mysterious woman who was also on the plane, and whose name and address were written in a document the dead man left behind. 

Intrigue and mystery follow as he discovers the woman, learns about her strange inheritance, and eventually tracks down a mysterious boat (the tender of the title) to discover why his acquaintance was murdered and he himself is being followed.  Itís the same pattern, a man reluctantly dragged into a dangerous situation, but a bit more forced this time.  The obtuseness of the police, or at least the protagonistís perception of their obtuseness, isnít entirely convincing.   

Science fiction fans often lament the fact that much excellent early SF is now out of print, unavailable, and likely to remain so.  The same is true in every genre, unfortunately, and while it is likely that Amblerís fiction Ė which includes classics like A Coffin for Dimitrios and The Light of Day Ė will periodically resurface, his less well known books like these are probably condemned to permanent obscurity. 6/4/07

Sherlock Holmes and the Mysterious Friend of Oscar Wilde by Russell A. Brown, St Martins, 1988

 I picked up this slender little book on Ebay while I was looking for biographies of Oscar Wilde.  It is often said that the best Sherlock Holmes stories were not written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle but, if true, this isnít one of them.  The story is set shortly after Holmes reveals that he did not die at Reichenbach Falls.  Watsonís wife has died so the two take up residence under Mrs. Hudsonís oversight again.  But Brown has chosen to portray both men as fussy, intolerant, and rude in order to engage them in a losing debate with the more erudite and liberal Oscar Wilde, who seeks to engage Holmesí services on behalf of a friend who is being blackmailed.  The first thirty pages are so consist of their not particularly lively exchanges on the subject of homosexuality, which is a pretty hefty chunk of a book that only runs to 175 pages.  The arguments are predictable, repetitive, and obviously stage managed.  Most authors manage to convey some of their world view into their writing; itís almost impossible not to.  But writers who use fiction as simply a way to indulge their political ramblings without bothering to drape it over a strong plot are cheating their readers, regardless of whether they stand to the left or the right. 

Anyway, Wilde continually talks rings around Holmes and Watson after practically blackmailing the former into taking his friendís case.  There are more lectures about socialism, authoritarianism, and so forth. Holmes is portrayed with increasing negativity; he misquotes famous lines, spells poorly, and shows a complete lack of imagination in his dealings with the other characters.  Holmes and Watson squabble for a while, and Holmes in particular comes off looking a thoroughgoing cad.  We finally learn some of the details of the case Ė blackmailers threatening to reveal letters from a prominent man to his younger male lovers.  There are hints that Holmes and Watson are suppressed homosexuals themselves.  Watson never had physical relations with his wife and Holmes has never been interested in the opposite sex.  A secondary plot involving a nobleman who hates Holmes is introduced on the periphery. Eventually the story begins to move, Holmes is assaulted, and revelations are discussed.  Too late by far to save the book, however.  The author has made a strong effort to get the background details right, but perhaps some of that effort might have been better invested in strengthening the plot.  5/29/07

Three Bags Full by Leonie Swann, Flying Dolphin, 2007, $22.95, ISBN 978-0-385-52111-6

When I first heard the description of this novel, originally published in Germany, I thought it sounded like a nifty idea.  Somewhere in the British Isles, a reclusive shepherd is found murdered.  Although the authorities are investigating, there is an odd reluctance to solve the crime, but a band of amateur detectives fills the breach - his flock of sheep.  More or less led by Miss Maple, they clandestinely eavesdrop on the people in the area - they understand but cannot speak English - and begin to put the clues together, although it's difficult because they don't entirely understand humans ways or motivations, and their late shepherd was not a garrulous man, limiting their exposure to other people.  "Sheep are not talkative folk. That's because their mouths are often full of grass..."

The investigation proceeds, uncovering mysterious facts about the local butcher, suggesting that more than one murderer - acting independently - may have been involved, and possibly that the murder was meant as a warning for someone else rather than an act directed at the dead man.  There are bits of gothic atmosphere - the sheep named Melmoth is a Wanderer - and some nice bits about the way sheep see human endeavors and preoccupations.  Unfortunately, what is amusing and clever for the first hundred pages or so begins to get wearing after that.   It held my interest until the end but I can't say I was sorry to turn the last page.  5/18/07

Chasers by Lorenzo Carcaterra, Ballantine, 2007, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-41098-6

The author of this crime novel, sequel to an earlier one titled Apaches, which I have not read, has worked for television's Law and Order, which may explain why the early pages of this novel include so much plot development, a bit too much frankly.  Boomer is apparently an ex-cop and part of a vigilante group who arrives at the restaurant where his niece works only to find her dead as collateral damage in a gang murder and the police sifting through the evidence.  We are also introduced to Angel Cortez, an ex-priest turned drug lord and killer, who explains the rationale for the very public hit, as well as revealing a weak link in his own organization.  This all takes place within ten pages, including Cortez's back story, which is unconvincing in part because it is so sketchy.  His early commitment to protect the youth of his parish from drug lords is somehow transformed into a lust for power and wealth as head of a cartel.  One could probably create a convincing scenario in which he would become gradually corrupted during his quest for vengeance, but in practice here it's almost a throwaway line and I just didn't buy it.

The story advances reasonably well from that point, introducing the Russian Mafia, various members of Boomer's unofficial team, and a few minor plot complications, but there are so many characters that none of them really get developed enough to care about them, and the villains are pretty stereotyped. The unfolding plan by Boomer is reasonably ingenious, but of course the bad guys aren't stupid either so it takes some work to get the plan to generate the right results, sort of.

Although this held my interest, I wasn't sorry when it came to an end.  I also had a problem with the vigilante theme.  I can accept extraordinary circumstances in which unofficial retribution can be justified, but this should be the exception, not the rule.  The tone of this novel seems to imply that it's an acceptable alternative form of justice.  Even Dirty Harry, who was fond of breaking the rules, did not do so lightly, and in Magnum Force he tracks down and destroys an organization of rogue cops who believed that they were doing the right thing.  Although Harry's track record isn't pristine, in general he acts when the authorities fail to do so.  The vigilantes here are more inclined to act precipitously and without giving the system a chance to operate.  There are indications at the end that the author doesn't condone their activities, but it's rather late to make that point.  This one works if you want a violent crime story on a level with Dirty Harry, but I finished it feeling as though something tenuous but important had been left out - convincing emotions.  5/7/07

The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl, Random House, 2006, $24.95, ISBN 1-4000-6103-2

 I read a review of this that made it sound intriguing so I picked up a copy.  The protagonist is a young lawyer named Quentin Clark who corresponded with Edgar Allan Poe and who feels compelled to defend his interests even after his untimely death.  Almost as soon as he resolves to do something, he receives a mysterious warning to mind his own business.  Despite opposition from his adopted brother and others, he perseveres, eventually traveling to Paris to track down the man who inspired Poe to create Auguste Dupin, his detective.   At the same time, he rather backs into an engagement to the woman he loves, although his obsession with saving Poeís reputation is clearly interfering with his life. 

Clark spends a year in Paris cultivating the acquaintance of a man he believes is the one he is looking for, and indeed the man is capable of moments of brilliant induction and, after considerable resistance, he agrees to accompany Clark back to investigate Poeís death.  But a second candidate insists that he is the original Dupin, though Clark doubts that heís correct.  This second manís companions show up in Baltimore shortly after Clarkís return, at which point he also discovers that the long neglected Poe is now a popular figure.   Things rapidly get more complicated with secret agents, conspiracies, a beautiful assassin, and other goodies, but despite the rather busy plot, the story frequently drifts along slowly.  The protagonist is an ineffectual, fumbling, hopelessly naÔve man whose treatment of the woman he loves is disgraceful, and with whom I felt little sympathy.  Despite the concentration on Poe, I got little sense of the man or his career.  Although I enjoyed the detail designed to ensure the historical accuracy of the period in question, there are times when it is presented so self consciously that it feels awkward.  If you don't mind a leisurely, quirky, convoluted mystery in which little overt happens, this is the right book for you, but if you're impatient for something to be happening regularly to advance the plot, you'll want to look elsewhere.5/1/07

Innocent in Death by J.D. Robb (Nora Roberts), Putnam, 2007, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-399-15401-0 

I think this is the 25th novel in this series, which mixes SF and mystery, though itís mostly the latter.  The setting is New York City in 2060, but other than some window dressing and occasional side references, itís pretty much the contemporary world.  A few of the earlier volumes have had more overt speculative content, but most are ordinary mysteries.  The detective is Eve Dallas, a woman with a troubled past, currently married to Roarke, a very wealthy man who also has a difficult past, when he was an influential member of the criminal class.  Supporting characters include friends, Eveís partner Peabody, and a cartoonish but amusing butler.  Eve is overbearing, self effacing, crude and rude, but she gets the job done.  The novels are written to a formula, usually with two tumultuous sex scenes between Roarke and Dallas, one of them usually linked to a quarrel resulting from artificial plot devices sometimes reminiscent of Marvel Comics.  All that said, Iíve enjoyed all two dozen that Iíd read before and fully expected to enjoy this one. 

I wasnít disappointed.  The story starts with the murder, by poison, of an apparently innocuous young school teacher whom everyone liked.  His marriage was happy and there was no friction at work.  There seems to be no motive for his death, and no reason why anyone would benefit more than marginally, but the poison was not placed in his thermos by accident.  The problem facing Dallas is that all of the potential suspects appear to be innocent, likeable people with no reason to wish the dead man harm.  Like its predecessors, this is a coolly plotted police procedural and in due course a suspect emerges, even though Dallas still has reservations about his guilt, at least of this particular crime.  And when the suspect is himself murdered, an entirely new range of possibilities opens.  

This is one of the best in the series, with a really chilling villain.  It is also one with very little SF content.  There are a couple of references to droids and the year is stated as 2060, but thatís just about it.  Frankly, Iíve never understood why Roberts chose the futuristic setting for the series in the first place.  Whatever category you want to put it in, you should find it a very intense and compelling story and youíre not going to want to stop reading until you know the answers. 4/17/07 

Love Lies Bleeding by Steve Gerlach, Bloodletting Press, 2006, $45, ISBN 978-0-9768531-5-2 

In order to explain my reaction to this rather long thriller, I have to talk about Richard Laymon, which isnít surprising because the author is in fact a prominent fan of Laymonís work.  Laymon wrote mostly horror and suspense fiction and when he was good, he was very very good, but a lot of the time, he wasnít very good at all.  The problem wasnít his prose or his plotting but a distinct aspect of his characterization.  All of the people in his novels were constantly, for a lack of a better phrase, in heat.  They were obsessively, compulsively interested in sex; it was almost always a significant component of how they interacted.  Sexual attraction is a very important component of human intercourse (no pun intended) but in many of Laymonís novels, this single component was exaggerated so wildly out of proportion that it dominated everything else.  The result was that his characters had no depth, acted in unrealistic ways, and were frankly not particularly interesting as people.  If weíre not interested in the characters in a horror or suspense novel, itís hard to care what happens to them, and that drains the suspense out of the story. 

So, back to Love Lies Bleeding, which reads at times very much like a Richard Laymon story.  The novel opens with John returning to his house to find a stranger, Zoe, lying naked on his couch.  Zoe tells him that she is a friend of Johnís wife, Helen, who is mysteriously missing, and that Helen offered to let her stay with them temporarily.  John is so consumed with lust that he seems to have lost both his willpower and his ability to speak and think logically, and by page thirty the characters had already lost me.  People do not act this way.  Using a prolonged series of very clipped snatches of dialogue, Zoe explains that sheís in trouble, that she might have killed her boyfriend , and that she is hiding from retribution.  John hardly blinks when she admits to having committed murder, or maybe murder since sheís not sure he really died when she shot him, and then she admits having lied about where Helen really is Ė checking to see if the boyfriend, Ricky, is dead Ė even though thereís no reason for her to have told the lie in the first place.  And to make the contrived plot even more implausible, even though John mentions early on that she should have contacted the police, that he is harboring a felon, he apparently forgets about it at this point, even though he, his wife, and Zoe are all in danger now.  Instead they promptly have a little explicit, illicit, and not very convincing sex. 

The plausibility gets worse as the story unfolds.  Either the author has a completely loony version of life in the US (heís Australian) or he just doesnít care.  Zoe tells John that Helen called and they are to meet her at K-Mart at 5:30.  They park near the entrance, but she doesnít show up.  Instead a policeman orders them to leave because theyíre spooking the people working inside (which is nonsense since itís unlikely they could even see the parking lot), and even threatens to draw his weapon to make his point even though theyíve shown no sign of committing any crime and have a perfectly acceptable reason for being there.  The whole sequence is utterly divorced from the real world and from this point on I couldnít take anything the author said seriously.  I once attended a reading in which I heard a story involving a rape where the investigating officer (male) ordered the rape victim to strip and show him her bruises, unchaperoned, and this was all justified because it was supposedly correct legal procedure.  I understand that authors sometimes make errors and have in fact done so myself, but the errors in that story and in this novel are so egregious that they utterly destroy the authorís credibility. 

They go looking for Helen at her place of work, and discover she never came in that day.  Surprise.  I could have told them that a long time ago.  Zoe eventually tells him she received another call, from Ricky, and that he is holding Helen captive.  Gullible John believes everything she tells him, apparently thinking with his crotch.  While trying to figure out what to do next, they manage to fit in a variety of raunchy sexual conversations including the possibility of a threesome.  ďDoing this, saying thanks by forcing me to have sex with you will only cheapen the way I feel about you.Ē  Not to anyoneís surprise, Zoe turns out to be a lunatic.  What follows is supposed to be suspenseful but itís just tedious.  Itís also a psychosexual mind game without a hint of plausibility. On the chance that you might actually like this, I won't reveal the "surprises" or plot twists, but you should be able to anticipate most of them. I really hate being so negative about a book, but this one is probably not worth your time. 4/17/07

Bitter End by Christine Kling, Ballantine, 2007, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-345-47904-4 (hardcover edition in 2005.) 

The third of four books in the Seychelle Sullivan series, and as expected, another excellent one.  The story gets off to a quick start when Seychelle witnesses a murder - a yachtsman killed by a sniper while leaving harbor Ė and manages to save his yacht when it smashes into some rocks.  Sheís connected to the dead man as well, because he married her best friend from high school more than a decade earlier, a surprise arrangement that left Seychelle and Molly estranged.  Now, after years of no contact, she finds herself breaking the news to the widow Ė actually his ex-wife Ė and taking temporary charge of the dead manís son.  There is the usual gallery of suspects.  The dead man's new wife, Janet, appears to be an airhead but occasionally displays a darker personality, and she was probably involved in an extramarital affair with the obsequious and rather suspect business associate.  There is also the Russian Mafia, which was involved in a lengthy court battle over control of a string of gambling boats, aboard which there might be some unusual and illegal activity.  There's also Molly's uncle, a bitter and obsessed Seminole with a grudge against the dead man. And then there's Janet's brother, a dissolute would-be singer with delusions of competence.

The plot develops smoothly and logically.  A new will splits the estate between the son and the new wife.  Molly, who may be suffering from a nervous breakdown, is framed for the murder and arrested.  While asking questions about the gambling boats, Seychelle almost becomes the next victim, and her contact - one of the staff - is in fear for her own life.  There is also the subsidiary mystery of why Molly broke off her relationship with Seychelle's brother to marry a man she had previously despised, and a further complication when someone apparently tries to murder Molly's son as well. 

I only guessed part of the solution to this one, which has an exciting pair of climaxes. Kling's first four books include three excellent and one merely very good novels of suspense, a batting average to be envied.  My only regret is that I'll have to wait a while until she finishes the next before returning to the world of Seychelle Sullivan and her friends. 4/8/07

Cross Current by Christine Kling, Ballantine, 2004, $23.95, ISBN 0-345-44829-4 

Impressed as I was by Wreckerís Key and Surface Tension, I started reading this Ė the second in the Seychelle Sullivan series Ė the day after it arrived.  It only took a few pages to drag me fully into the world of tugboats and the Florida Keys once again.  This time Seychelle finds a ten year old Haitian girl floating in an open boat, suffering from exposure, accompanied only by the body of a dead woman who was probably murdered.  They may have some connection with a ship full of illegal immigrants which capsized and sank nearby, although there are some discrepancies that cast this into doubt.  The child, Solange, insists that her father is American and Seychelle decides to find him before the authorities can send Solange back to Haiti. 

Before long, she is involved with a group of voodoo worshippers, benevolent ones, but there are rumors of Baron Samedi as well, and someone is obviously trying to injure or harm Solange.  Seychelleís efforts are complicated by her discovery of evidence indicating that her dead father might have been involved in the drug trade at one time, a contention she refuses to accept.  One of his former friends seems to be taking a great deal of interest in her, but there are other suspicious characters as well, including a perhaps well meaning immigration officer and a broken down drug addict who may be hiding a dangerous secret.  Her need to get involved inevitably puts her in jeopardy for a series of exciting crises during the waning chapters. 

I probably shouldnít have liked this as much as I did.  The plot relies on coincidences a lot, the identity of the villain and most of the details of the mystery are obvious early on, and she only survives because of a series of deus ex machina escapes.  It is in fact the weakest of the three novels.  Nevertheless, Kling brings her world to such vivid life, and introduces us to such an interesting cast of characters, that I still enjoyed this more than most of the mysteries Iíve read in the last year.    I only regret that there is only one more to read.

Surface Tension by Christine Kling, Ballantine, 2002, $23.95, ISBN 0-345-44828-6

The fourth book in this series, Wreckerís Key, made a strong enough impression that I ordered the first three the day I read it.  Kling's recurring protagonist is Seychelle Sullivan,  a woman who supports herself running a commercial maritime towing service out of the Florida Keys, although she's no Tugboat Annie.  In this, her first adventure (which is available in paperback as well), she responds to a distress call from a yacht whose captain is her ex-lover.  She finds it drifting with a murdered woman aboard and no sign of Neal, the captain, except for a blood stain on the deck.  As if that wasnít bad enough in itself, the police suspect that she killed them both in a jealous rage and threw Neal's body overboard, her brother - who is co-owner of her boat - is insisting that she close the buisines and sell it so that she can pay him his share, she thinks she may have just ruined her friendship with B.J., a Samoan American surfer, someone has ransacked her house and stolen her secret cache of cash, the owner of the salvaged yacht is refusing to pay what he owes, and two thugs have assaulted and threatened her. 

Thatís when things really start to turn bad.  Seychelle decides that if the police aren't going to look at other suspects, she'll have to do it herself.  She compares notes with a young girl who knew the murdered woman when they lived at a home for runaways together, and hints that something is not right at the home.  When another of her friends ends up dead, Seychelle was the last person seen with her, making the police even more suspicious and eventually she's running from them as well as the bad guys.  Filled with fully drawn supporting characters and with several exciting sequences.  I was able to figure out most of what was happening well before Seychelle did, but the journey was a good one even if I anticipated the destination.  Kling is the best new mystery writer I've encountered in several years.

The Secret Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Gary Lovisi, Ramble House, 2007, $18 trade paper, $30 hardcover, no ISBN

Scores if not hundreds of writers have now added to the exploits of Sherlock Holmes, some of them transporting him to the distant future or altering the canon in some ways, other striving to write loyal pastiches, even imitating Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's narrative style.  Lovisi tends toward the latter in the three novelets collected here, although that doesn't stop him from employing some fantastic elements as well.  The first and longest is "The Loss of the British Bark Sophy Anderson".  Holmes and Watson are approached by Lady Susan, a brilliant young woman whose observational skills rival that of Holmes himself.  She fears for her life following a series of cryptic letters and two actual assassination attempts.  Holmes quickly ascertains that she is the daughter of the sole survivor of a shipwreck more than twenty years earlier, and that he was always suspected of murder and perhaps even cannibalism.  The plot takes a most unexpected twist when we find out what is really going on, followed by some low key melodramatics.  Part of the plot involves a valuable gem which apparently is extraterrestrial in origin and may have some mysterious properties.

Next up is the considerably better "Mycroft's Great Game", in which we discover that Moriarty was more than he seemed, that he was supported by certain elements within the British government.  Mycroft and his brother disagree strongly about this, which leads to Holmes' faking his death at Reichenbach Falls, only to return in time to save the day.  Third and best of the stories is "The Adventure of the Missing Detective", which opens with the fall from Reichenbach.  Holmes finds himself in an alternate version of our world, one in which his own body is buried.  Moriarty has been knighted, his henchmen are running Scotland Yard, Queen Victoria has been assassinated and replaced by her insane nephew Eddy.  The story, which was nominated for the Edgar Award, is a treat for mystery and science fiction fans alike.  This collection doesn't seem to be available from Amazon (although another book with the same title is) so you'll probably have to go to www.ramblehouse.com.  They have a number of other interesting titles.

Wrecker's Key by Christine Kling, Ballantine, 2007, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-345-47905-1

This is the fourth in a series that I've seen compared to John D. MacDonald, but that seems to be primarily because the setting is the Florida Keys and the protagonist, Seychelle Sullivan, operates a commercial towing vessel.  If I had to make a comparison, based on only a single book, I'd suggest Susan Wittig Albert.  The latter's stories are set in small town Texas but both authors have the same general approach to a sense of community, and the mysteries themselves are constructed quite similarly.  In this case, Seychelle has been hired to tow a disabled yacht whose captain, Nestor, is an old friend.  The friend suspects that the owner of the yacht may have tampered with the electronics to cause the damage, hoping to collect insurance for a total loss.  Seychelle is skeptical, even when Nestor turns up dead, apparently killed accidentally although his widow insists that it was murder.  If so, there seem to be two major candidates, his millionaire boss who may have had something to hide, and the head of a salvage firm, an unattractive character who had a loud quarrel with Nestor only a day earlier.

Seychelle has two separate encounters with people from her childhood - a bit of a stretch actually - both of whom may be concealing secrets of their own.  The widow's dialogue struck me as awkward because she never uses contractions, but I assume that is characteristic of some immigrants from the Dominican Republic.  Eventually she happens upon evidence that the millionaire, Berger, lied about where he was at the time that Nestor was killed, which arouses her suspicions.  Then the body is mysteriously cremated at his expense, bypassing his widow's intentions, and she herself is nearly run down by an automobile that races away without stopping.  You don't need to be a mystery fan to know that someone is trying to prevent her from asking any more questions about the death of her husband.  The story proceeds from there through some twists and turns and even though I guessed who was responsible well before Seychelle did, it didn't detract from my enjoyment at all.

Despite an over reliance on coincidence to advance the plot, Kling does a good job with this one, enough that I'll be looking for her earlier novels.  Her protagonist is three dimensional and appealing, and she does a very good job of painting her backgrounds and inserting believable supporting characters. The back story - Seychelle's extended family is rather diverse - adds to her characterization and provides an interesting context while contributing peripherally to the plot.  A definite addition to the small group of authors whom I actively follow.

The Hollow Needle by Maurice LeBlanc, Black Coat Press, 2004, $20.95, ISBN 0-9740711-9-6

Many years ago I read a couple short adventures of Arsene Lupin, the gentleman burglar whose career was chronicled by French writer Maurice LeBlanc, but I had no idea that he had ever crossed paths with Sherlock Holmes.  The reprint of a 1909 novel, freshly translated, does just that.  A daring burglary ends with discovery, a gunshot, and a wounded intruder whose seems to vanish into thin air.  The police are dumbfounded, and the case just gets more complex with each passing day.  The story expands from there, with Holmes called in to consult, although the emphasis is on the likable burglar, Lupin.  Included in this edition also are a short story by LeBlanc which similarly pairs the two, a new story detailing their last encounter, and some useful and entertaining background material.  This style of detective story has fallen out of fashion, but that's a shame because it's still a good formula.

The Colorado Kid by Stephen King, Leisure, 2005, $5.99, ISBN 0-8439-5584-8

Horror master Stephen King interrupted his retirement from writing to pen this short entry in Leisure's new hardcase crime series, although it really doesn't seem to fit under that label.  The story consists of a conversation among between two elderly residents of a small town on an island off the coast of Maine with their young employee, a woman reporter who finds life there surprisingly appealing.  They tell her of an incident more than twenty years previous in which a man was found dead under mysterious circumstances.  The reader is warned right up front that the story isn't complete and that there aren't going to be an real answers to the questions, but even with that warning, the  inconclusive ending is unsatisfying.  The mystery is actually a pretty good one, but without a solution, it remains an interesting but rather frustrating oddity.

Creepers by David Morrell, CDS, 2005, $24.95, ISBN 1-59315-237-X

Although David Morrell has written some excellent supernatural horror fiction, this new thriller only feels like it should fall into that category.  Actually, other than an incidentally involved mutant cat, it's completely mundane in that nothing fantastic happens at all.  But all fans of good suspense fiction, horror or otherwise, should find this right up their alley.  A group of people are engaged in an unusual hobby Ė the illegal entry and exploration of abandoned buildings.  They have strict rules Ė no vandalism, no stealing Ė and are well equipped in anticipation of dangerous conditions they might encounter.  In this case they have entered an abandoned hotel, secured by metal shutters, filled with secret passages constructed by its original owner.  A short time after they enter, the explorers discover that they are not alone, and that their unseen companions are deadlier than the failing infrastructure of the building. 

Adventure Classics: Graphic Classics Volume 12 edited by Tom Pomplun, Eureka, 2005, $11.95, ISBN 0-9746648-4-7

This is the latest in a series of very impressive collections of graphic interpretations of classic stories, each by a different artist and in a different style.  Previous titles have cast the spotlight on H.P. Lovecraft, H.G. Wells, Bram Stoker, Ambrose Bierce, and many others, but this one samples a variety of writers and plots, although all involve some form of adventure.  The authors samples include Sax Rohmer, Rafael Sabatini, Arthur Conan Doyle, Johnston McCulley Ė creator of Zorro, Rudyard Kipling, Zane Grey, and Alexander Dumas, plus a poem by Robert Service.   The genres range from western to historical to horror to mystery, and the artists include Chris Moore, Michael Manning, Kevin Atkinson, and many others.  The art is all black and white, but it's all of exceptional quality, and the disparate styles are well matched to the stories each has chosen.  I'd nominate this as the best in the series to date.

Dance of Death by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Warner, 2005, $25.95, ISBN 0-446-57697-2

The Agent Pendergast series, which started with Relic some years back, has gradually moved away from the fantastic, and the latest is a straight mundane thriller, although a very good one.  We've had hints in earlier volumes that Pendergast's brother Diogenes is a criminal mastermind on the order of Moriarty, and now we finally see him in action, fulfilling a plot to murder everyone close to the brother whom he has hated from childhood.  The action is frantic and often intricately complex, and in fact both parties are so clever that the reader will probably start guessing the outrageous twists ahead of time, simply because they're so outrageous.  Suspend your disbelief and let the authors take you on a glorious roller coaster ride.