Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The First Rule by Robert Crais

Frank Meyer worked for Joe Pike as a military contractor until he fell in love and left the life of a mercenary for a steady job, a wife, kids, and a house in the suburbs. His wife insisted that he cut himself off entirely from his past life but that didn't stop Pike from caring about him. A home invasion, one of a string, leaves Frank and his entire family dead. The police think that Frank might have been operating his import business as a cover for illegal activities but Pike knows that he was a straight citizen and begins his own search for the people responsible.

Robert Crais is one of the writers that automatically go on my TBR list when a new title is announced. If you're a Crais fan-boy, you know that his main character is the wise-cracking, world's greatest detective, Elvis Cole. Carol Starkey, a member of the bomb squad until she got blown, up makes occasional appearances. And then there is Cole's partner, ex-marine, ex-mercenary, silent and deadly, Joe Pike. This is the second book where Joe Pike takes the lead with Elvis Cole providing backup. With Cole in the background, The First Rule is darker, without the humor you get with Elvis. But that's OK, Pike is very different from Cole and deserves to have his story told his way.

The story is good and I enjoyed the way the way Crais shifted the plot elements from a home evasion gone bad to something larger and more complicated. More than that, we get more of Pike's back-story and we see more of the people who were part of his life as a mercenary. There is one final element that I have to dance around because it is too good to spoil so I'll just say that it is an aspect of Pike's nature that surprised me and in a good way.

What does The First Rule refer to? Think Keyser Söze. That's all I'm willing to say.

Here are two reviews of The First Rule that I enjoyed.

Review of the First Rule at Bookgasm.
Review of The First Rule at The Drowning Machine.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Derailed - last of the original 7 episodes of Southland, Feb. 23

The principal cast of SOUTHLAND

Derailed, the last of the original seven episodes, airs tomorrow night, Tuesday, February 23 at 10/9c on TNT.

The first episode began with gunfire and the last ends with it in a cliffhanger that makes me glad that TNT picked up the series. The police work focuses on two story lines, Dewey's alcoholism and the efforts of Marta's Avenue Gang to get rid of Janilla,the young girl who can identify Marta's son as one of the shooters in a drive-by.

In an earlier episode we thought we had seen the last of Dewey when he retired. A divorce and money problems brought him back to plague his partner, Chickie, with his unreliability. Chickie decides that she has had enough and Dewey reacts violently.

Det. Sammy Bryant is still trying to find a safe place for Janilla to stay while waiting for the trial where she will have to testify. Det. Lydia Adams gives up her Memorial Day weekend to watch Janilla and proves that she is as tough as she is compassionate.

The police work is balanced with the personal lives of the detectives and officers. No one is in an uncomplicated relationship. Mostly it is how the civilian family and friends deal with being with people in law enforcement. We've has some clear indications about training officer John Cooper and it will be interesting to see how his character is handled when new episodes begin on March 2.

This is the second time I've watched this season of Southland and my initial impression still holds - it is a fine police drama with an excellent cast and good stories. Indications are that the focus is going to be on Det. Lydia Adams and officers John Cooper and Ben Sherman but they have a diverse and interesting cast backing them up. There aren't any about which I don't want to know more, even Dewey.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Ice Princess by Camilla Läckberg

Location: Sweden - mostly in Fjällbacka, a seaside village on the west coast of Sweden 150 km/93.2 miles north of Göteborg; Göteborg; and Tanumshede, a little north of Fjällbacka.

This is a European selection for Dorte's 2010 Global Reading Challenge

Below are my reactions to The Ice Princess but I recommend you also read Norman's outstanding review at Crime Scraps

Erica Falck has returned to her family home in Fjällbacka after the death of her parents. She is sorting through the effects and at the same time trying to work on a biography of Selma Lagerlöf, a Swedish author and the first female writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Out walking one day, an elderly man frantically asks her to come into a house where she finds the body of Alexandra (Alex) Carlgren, a childhood friend, dead in the bath, apparently a suicide. She has been dead for several days and, with heat has been off, the water has frozen.

Alex's family ask her to write a memorial article. They do not believe that she killed herself. In the course of interviewing Alex's husband and business partner, Erica becomes interested in what happened to her friend, why they grew apart. She forms the idea of writing a book about Alex and what led her to take her life.

The Forensic Pathologist rules the case a suicide. Erica's involvement gets deeper and more complicated when she finds that a detective assigned to the investigation is another childhood friend, one who had a crush on her.

The style of the Ice Princess appeals to me greatly. It is the same feeling I had reading Susan Hill's The Various Haunts of Men though I wouldn't compare the two books. It is more the way Läckberg creates a sense of place and a feeling for the characters. There are little details, not consequential to the plot, that left a mark as I read. When Erica is driving through Göteborg to meet Alex's husband, she is convinced that every road will take her to Hisingen and, indeed, she ends up there trying leave Göteborg. Having spend most of seven days lost driving through the U.K. last year, it made me smile. There is also the scene where Erica is greeting the town's leading lady and is concerned that she will get the sequence of cheek kissing wrong.

I found the story griping. Läckberg parceled out the revealments in a way that kept me guessing. She gave good clues along the way but I was still surprised at how the case concluded.

Plot, characters, and setting combined to make this one of my favorite reads. The translation by Steven T. Murray, who also translates Henning Mankell, feels natural

As soon as my TBR stack shrink a bit I'll be looking for more of her books.

Here is a web site that describes a bit of the real Fjällbacka: A bookworm's tour of murder in Sweden

Monday, February 15, 2010

the chemistry of Death by Simon Beckett

Location: Village of Manham in the Norfolk Broads, U.K. The Broads are Northeast of London, in the part of the coast that bulges out.

This is one of my European selections for Dorte's 2010 Global Reading Challenge. I read it in the Kindle edition.

Dr. David Hunter left London for the village of Manham after a personal tragedy left him with the need for quiet isolation. His 6 months temporary post to assist Dr. Henry Maitland, wheelchair bound from a car crash that killed his wife, turned into a partnership in the practice.

The dull routine of the village is shattered when the body of a resident, Sally Palmer is found. Since David was called to administer to the two boys who found the body and directed the constables to the location where the remains were found, he comes to the attention of Chief Inspector Mackenzie. Mackenzie learns that David has a past at odds with his role of village doctor. At one time, David was one of the leading forensic anthropologists in the U.K. Reluctantly, David is pulled back into a life he wanted to leave behind and his skills are in urgent demand as more bodies appear.

The Chemistry of Death describes what happens to the body when when death occurs. Beckett's descriptions are very graphic and very well written. If you are at all squeamish and put off by talk of maggots then you should give this a miss. If you enjoy reading about the techniques of forensics and forensic anthropology specifically then you won't want to miss this book. The first page reminded me of an opening scene from the TNT TV show, Bones.

Beckett works in several several interesting features into his story. First, is the forensics/police procedural aspects. This is very well done and his opening description pulled me into the story. The details he incorporates are fascinating.

He also gives us a look at sociology of a village. When it becomes obvious that the killer must be local, the calm cohesion of village life disintegrates into rumour, suspicion, and violence.

From a police procedural, the book finishes as a thriller. This part was a bit jarring but it had my up way past my bedtime clicking the next page button on the Kindle. I didn't see the ending coming but it wasn't a "where did that come from" cheat and that's a good thing. I could think back and see the trail that Beckett marked for the reader.

Beckett has two more David Hunter books, Written in Bone and Whispers of the Dead, and I will be reading them.

Some of you will know from previous posts that I'm interested in social media - blogs, twitter, Facebook, etc. Over the past year or so my reading and interests have been shaped by social media, particularly blogs. I frequently note how I found out about a book. With The Chemistry of Death, I owe my discovery to South African thriller writer Jassy Mackenzie. I subscribe to the South African blog Crime Beat where she wrote how she discovered Simon Beckett. I went to Amazon to look up Beckett and along the way found that Jassy's book, Random Violence, will be available April 1. I have it on pre-order.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Deep Blue Goodbye by John D. MacDonald

Location: Fort Lauderdale, Miami, and the Keys
This is one of my North American selections for Dorte's 2010 Global Reading Challenge.

Travis McGee lives on a houseboat named the Busted Flush and calls himself a salvage consultant. His friend Chookie McCall describes his job:
You said if X has something valuable and Y comes along and takes it away from him, and there is absolutely no way in the world X can ever get it back, then you come along and make a deal with X to get it back and keep half.
Chookie asks McGee to talk to one of her girls, Cathy Kerr, a dancer in a group she runs. Cathy came to fort Lauderdale after a man named Junior Allen worked his way into her life and stole something valuable hidden by her father before he was sent to prison. After Junior abused her, stole from her, and left her humiliated in the street, Cathy came to Fort Lauderdale to earn money for the family. One night after a few drinks she let her story slip to Chookie who thought of McGee's profession. McGee tries to resist but decides that he has to help Cathy and begins to check out Junior. Junior is always smiling but underneath McGee sees a sadistic psychopath who enjoys breaking women. Along the way Travis finds another of Junior's victims, Lois, a woman wrecked nearly beyond repair. He is determined to restore what was stolen from Cathy; help Lois find her self-respect and will to live; and bring down Junior.

The Deep Blue Goodbye was published in 1964 and is the first book in the Travis McGee series. In Cracking the Hard-Boiled Detective: A Critical History from the 1920s to the Present, Lewis D. Moore identifies Travis McGee as the first detective (he is a P.I. even if it isn't an official title)) in the Transitional Period (1964-1977) marking a shift in direction from the Early Period (1927-1955) that took us into the Modern Period (1979-present). Among the changes begun with Travis McGee is the theme of sexuality. Sexual relationships are an important part of the stories and McGee is deeply marked by his relationships.

Remember that the first Travis McGee story was published in 1964. McGee has a paternalistic attitude toward women that might make modern readers more than a little uncomfortable. Watch some episodes of Mad Men on AMC to see this attitude on screen. He doesn't have a problem with women who show wear as long as they have dignity. The physical imperfections of women he doesn't approve of are described in minute detail.

McGee is a white knight with the need to rescue and protect. He recognizes that part of himself and is ironic in that recognition. Once he decides to help Cathy he thinks to himself:
But now Cathy had created the restlessness, the indignation, the beginning of that shameful need to clamber aboard my spavined white steed, knock the rust off the armor, tilt the crooked old lance and shout huzzah.

Note the use of the word "indignation." McGee is morally offended by injustice and has to restore balance.

MacDonald also made McGee highly introspective. There are long passages where McGee considers the debased state of society and his place in it. Macdonald was concerned with environmentalism and he used McGee to vent. A lot of it might seem ponderous and pretentious today but MacDonald could really write. Look at the way he describes a house:
It was one of those Florida houses I find unsympathetic, all block tile, glass, terrazzo, aluminum. They have a surgical coldness. Each one seems to be merely some complex corridor arrangement, a going-through place, an entrance built that was never constructed. When you pause in these rooms, you have the feeling that you are waiting. You feel that a door will open and you will be summoned and horrid things will happen to you before they let you go. You cannot mark these houses with any homely flavor of living. When they are emptied after occupancy, they have the look of places where the blood has recently been washed away.

Later in the series, MacDonald gives McGee a friend/partner, Meyer, an economist who lives on a nearby boat. Meyer isn't a "Watson." Moore (see above) quotes Edgar W. Hirschberg who observes of Meyer:
But his most important function is as an additional brain. Sometimes he is a sounding board, off which Travis can bounce his ideas or hypotheses. Often he is the voice of reason and sense in instances when McGee may be carried away by his passions or resentments.

In twenty-one novels, MacDonald created one of the most enduring series characters in crime fiction and a model for many of our modern crime writers. The stories are still readable and I recommend them not only for the good writing and storyteling but also for their place in the history of crime fiction.

I read that Leonardo DiCaprio has signed on to play Travis McGee in a film adaptation of The Deep Blue Goodbye. Since I am able to accept Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes it would be hypocritical to squawk and I am curious to see how it works out.

Beating the Babushka by Tim Maleeny

Location: San Francisco, CA USA This is one of my North American selections for Dorte's 2010 Global Reading Challenge.

Private Detective Cape Weathers is hired by movie producer Grace Gold to investigate the death of another producer and former lover, Tom Abrahams. The police think his fall from the Golden Gate Bridge is a suicide. No way, says Grace. Cape takes the case and is soon dealing with the Russian mafia (hinted at in the title?), high grade heroin, a mob war between the Italians and the Chinese, the intricacies of producing a movie, and the eccentric owners of the movie studio. And people are trying to kill him.

This is the second Cape Weathers novel though it is set just before the the first, Stealing the Dragon. Cape was a newspaper reporter with a skill for finding people before he decided that he would rather directly affect events rather than passively report them. He falls into the wisecracking category of detective and there is some excellent black humor; early in the story he is at a murder scene in a butcher shop discussing what sausage would make the best blunt instrument with one of the detectives.

The Asian woman on the cover represents Sally, half American/half Japanese, and Cape's friend. She is a martial arts expert who was raised as an assassin by the Triads in China and one of the few people to quit that life. She is Cape's deadly backup when he needs it.

I've visited San Francisco several times and enjoy the way Maleeny works the city into the story, particularly North Beach and China Town. Given that the story involves a movie production, you might expect to see the city figure as a character and Maleeny doesn't disappoint but you'll need to read the book to see how.

In the FriendFeed Crime and Mystery Fiction room we recently discussed the "if you like X then you'll enjoy Y" type of recommendations, something I don't normally do. I'm going to give it a shot here and say that if you enjoy Robert Crais' Elvis Cole & Joe Pike stories then you should give Maleeny a try. On Maleeny's web site there is a blurb from Bookgasm comparing Cape Weathers to Travis McGee. That's a wee bit of a stretch to me but there are a few similarities: he gets personally involved in cases; has a code that doesn't let him give up; has a habit of taking on cases that involve attractive women. I'm reading a Travis McGee story now so I will be alert for similarities.

I've enjoyed the plotting, characters, writing, and humor of the two Cape Weathers novels and Tim Maleeny is on my "I'll read anything he writes" list

The third Cape Weathers novel is GREASING THE PIÑATA which won the 2009 Lefty for Best Humorous Mystery.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

A Carrion Death by Michael Stanley

I read this in the Kindle edition.

I needed another book set in Africa for the 2010 Global Reading Challenge and picked this one off of my Amazon African author's wish list. What a terrific choice that was. This is the first book by Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip writing as Michael Stanley. A Carrion Death is set in Botswana, a northern neighbor of South Africa.

David "Kubu" Bengu, Assistant Superintendent of the Criminal Investigation Department, is a large man with large appetites. He loves his wife Joy, opera, good food, good drink, and his job. His nickname, Kubu, is Setswana for hippopotamus and he wears it with good grace. He is based in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana.

Kubu is called to investigate the discovery of the remains of a person found near a watering hole. Hyenas and buzzards haven't left much to work with but forensics show that the person was murdered and dumped where the body would soon be consumed by the wildlife. With most of the victim inside the local wildlife, Kubu finds the task of identifying the body slow and frustrating.

Later, Kubu finds himself pulled into the affairs of the Botswana Cattle and Mining Company (BCMC), a major economic presence in the country, when one of their geologists goes missing from a diamond mine. Then there is an amateurish break-in at the office of the CEO of BCMC. Kubu has a personal connection to BCMC having been a childhood friend of Angus Hofmeyr who is about to inherit control of the company.

A Carrion Death is a good, solid procedural at its core. It is a pleasure to see that good police work is good police work no matter where you are and regardless of cultural differences. I enjoyed the way the authors built the story, showing an increasingly frustrated Kubu trying to make sense of contradictory clues. I also appreciated the way the authors avoided a plot cliche that annoys me - if you have a major company tied to the government and director of the Criminal Investigation Department is friends with the CEO then the director will order his lead detective to drop leads in the investigation. doesn't happen.

In between the investigative parts we get a respectful look at family relationships in Botswana as well as problems balancing economic needs with preserving the unique ecology of Botswana and the culture of the bushmen. The authors do not dwell on it but Zimbabwe borders Botswana and we see a bit of the plight of those people who need the cast off junk of Botswana to keep going a little longer.

I liked everything about this book: the story, the procedural details, the characters, and the background colour that makes it seem real. There is a sweet bit of analysis delivered by the Scottish pathologist toward the end that is worthy of Sherlock Holmes. I also appreciated the effort made by the authors to make the book accessible; it includes a foreward giving some background about Botswana, a cast of characters, a map, and a glossary. Highly recommended. It made me want to visit Botswana.

Kubu returns in The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu.

Interview with Michael Stanley at Once Upon a Crime Mystery Books
Interview with Michael Stanley author(s) of A Carrion Death at Sunnie's Book blog
A Carrion Death reviewed at Kittling Books

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Today in Virginia

This is for my British friend Norman whose family's chief memories of this part of Virginia are unbearable heat and humidity.

The photos are of the back and front yards and Oliver the Cat on the deck trying to come to terms with the cold white stuff and regretting his impulse to investigate.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

How I Came to Appreciate South African Crime Fiction

Roger Smith's second novel, Wake Up Dead, came out today. Amazon is still excluding Macmillan books from direct sales and is listing it as currently unavailable. Oddly, they shipped my pre-order. How about supporting this author by visiting visit an indie book store or ordering a copy from Powell's Books or The Book Depository or Barnes and Noble or any non-Amazon source. The Book Depository has free shipping world-wide.

The arrival of Roger's book reminded me how the Internet can build connections and create interests. Had Roger not started following me on Twitter almost exactly a year ago I wouldn't have read his first novel,Mixed Blood, and wouldn't have spend hours looking at Cape town on Google Earth and reading background material on South Africa. I'm sure part of my interest comes from having lived in South Africa between 1952 and 1956 (ages 6 to 10) but it hadn't occurred to me that it is a source of so much good crime fiction.

The problem with wanting to read crime fiction from South Africa is availability in the U.S. In addition to Roger, I have discovered Deon Myer and Michael Stanley (Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip). The excellent blog Crime Beat has given me other authors I hope to read someday though with several I might have to learn Afrikaans first.