Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Review of Tony Parsons's The Hanging Club

The Hanging Club, by Tony Parsons (International Edition, Century, June 28, 2016.  To come from Minotaur on November 1, 2016))

As with the previous two books in this series, Parsons begins with a prologue describing a gut-churning scene of violence, setting off the police investigation that plays out over the pages. For those police procedural readers who are concerned about graphic descriptions of violence (and I’m one of them), I will say that these prologues are always short, don’t feel exploitative, and are more detailed and graphic than descriptions of violence in the rest of the book.

The Hanging Club is a group of four disguised killers who kidnap men and hang them, live-streaming the killings on the internet. These killings are not the neck-snapping hangings that professional hangmen used in the later years of the practice, though. These are slow, agonizing strangulations.

The Club members depict themselves as executioners in the style of Albert Pierrepoint, Britain’s last official hangman. Their execution targets are men who got off lightly after committing crimes against helpless victims. The internet broadcasts spark a media and online frenzy, with the majority supporting the Hanging Club, seeing them as doing the job that the police and courts are unable or unwilling to do.

Max Wolfe is a Detective Constable at West End Central station, and it’s his team that catches the Hanging Club cases. It’s West End Central’s usual good team of men and women, with a couple of new members joining this time around: a female sound expert whom Max finds himself attracted to, and a nebbishy historian.

As always, Parsons cranks up the tension with a gritty, straight-ahead police procedural story and then releases it by shifting to Max’s after-work life with his sweet 5-year-old daughter, Scout, and a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Stan. Max and his family are right on the edge of impossibly cute. But it’s a nice change of pace to have a police detective protagonist who isn’t an own-worst-enemy substance abuser and emotional cripple.

I loved the first book in this series (The Murder Man, published originally in the UK as The Murder Bag), but I found the second (The Slaughter Man) to be have several disappointing plotting problems. I was relieved that Parsons is back to form this time. The plotting is clean and propulsive, with just enough clues dropped along the way for a reader to solve the crime along with Max, and maybe even just ahead of him.

While I enjoyed this book very much, I can’t give Parsons full marks on it. He sets up a thought-provoking debate on vigilantism, but he gives short shrift to one side. He continues to have Max make stupid decisions that needlessly put him in danger––though at least as not as many as in The Slaughter Man. I was also disappointed that Parsons didn’t do as much with issues involving the media as he seemed to promise in the early stages of the book.

And now that I’ve read three books in the series, I can also see a character choice that Parsons makes with Max Wolfe that I’m not crazy about. When Max takes a physical or verbal beating, he is almost ostentatiously stalwart and uncomplaining. It’s clearly a play to gain sympathy for Max’s noble suffering character, but it's not an attractive trait.

I should also mention that I listened to the audiobook and recommend it. The narrator, Colin Mace, perfectly captures the Max Wolfe character.

Image sources: amazon.com, mirror.co.uk, dogsinpubs.com, buzzfeed.com.

Monday, July 4, 2016

July 4, 2016

Happy Independence Day from all of us at Read Me Deadly

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Review of Susie Steiner's Missing, Presumed

Missing, Presumed, by Susie Steiner (Random House, June 28, 2016)

If you're a regular crime fiction reader, you know all about how the main genre breaks down into many sub-genres, one of which is the police procedural. I'm a big fan of the English PP, but I've enjoyed the more character-driven variations that we've been seeing recently in the sub-genre; for example, the quirky DC Fiona Griffiths in Harry Bingham's series.

Author Susie Steiner's variation on the traditional PP form is to broaden the focus of the character set. Instead of having a small team of detectives being the focus, with the victim, his/her circle and the suspects being seen only through the eyes of the investigative team, Steiner gives short first-person chapters to characters on both sides, the detectives and the victim's circle.

This way, the same events are seen through different eyes, bringing various shades and dimensions to the story. Better yet, this device allows Steiner to delve much more deeply into the effect of a crime and criminal investigation on the investigators, the investigated, and those associated with the victim.

The book tells the story of the investigation into the disappearance of the 20-something Edith, who is a Cambridge University student. Three characters dominate the first-person narratives: police investigator Manon Bradshaw and her detective partner, Davy, and Edith's mother, Miriam.

Manon Bradshaw is the most-featured character. Her chapters are about both the investigation and her messy personal life. Manon is single, in her late 30s, and wading through the muck of online dating to try to find a partner before her biological clock strikes midnight. Her search is complicated (to say the least) by her clumsy interpersonal skills and deep ambivalence about developing close relationships.

As seems to be common with protagonists in crime fiction these days, Manon has strong tendencies toward being her own worst enemy, both personally and professionally. That particular device often irritates me, but in this case, it only made me roll an eye occasionally. If Steiner develops this into a Manon series, we'll see, though.

Through Manon and her work partner, Davy, we also learn about the rest of the members of the investigative team. Davy's chapters also include the story of his relationship with his girlfriend, Chloe.

Miriam, Edith's mother, is second to Manon in the book's focus. Miriam and her husband, Sir Ian, are privileged Londoners, whose whole world is suddenly ripped apart. Sadly, we all have read news stories or seen television depictions of the effect on a couple and their family when a child goes missing. One of the strengths of the book is Steiner's depiction of Miriam's thoughts and emotions––which are not always what the news and TV dramas glibly feed us.

There are several lesser-featured characters, including Edith's boyfriend, father and her best friend. Although we learn about them mostly through the eyes of the three key characters, these secondary characters are vividly drawn and add richness to the story.

This is a rewarding read, both as a police procedural and a study of the flawed and very human people who orbit a crime. I will keep Susie Steiner on my radar screen.

Note: I requested and received a free advance reading copy of the book from the publisher, through NetGalley.

Image sources: susiesteiner.co.uk, dailymail.co.uk, theguardian.com, quotesgram.com, legacy.com

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Review of Ferdinand von Schirach's The Girl Who Wasn't There

The Girl Who Wasn't There, by Ferdinand von Schirach (Abacus, June 7, 2016)

The thing about Ferdinand von Schirach is that nobody writes the way he does. His style is cool, distant and spare, but it creeps up on you, and suddenly it's immediate and searing.

I really didn't know where I was with this book when I started it. For nearly half the pages, it's the story of Sebastian von Eschbach, from boyhood to about age 50. He grows up on an estate, with his distant parents. He is deeply affected by a hunting experience with his father. He seems to have senses not shared by other people, including a perception of color so overwhelming he finds it almost unbearable. He becomes a celebrated photographic artist, exclusively sepia and black-and-white, then branching out into inventive multi-dimensional and video art exhibitions.

Though I didn't know where that first half of the book was going, I was still engrossed. Sebastian is an emotionally distant enigma, but one I wanted to solve.

German television dramatization of a story from
von Schirach's Crime
Then the book suddenly changes pace and direction when Sebastian is accused of murdering a young woman. Now the novel becomes the story of his defense attorney, Biegler, and Sebastian's trial. As with von Schirach's last novel, The Collini Case (see review here), the defense attorney must do his own investigation, because his client is largely uncooperative and seems indifferent to his fate.

Biegler's investigation and the trial make for a gripping exploration of the difference between perception and reality, the fallacies of what we believe and why. It makes some hard-hitting points about this in the context of modern-day geopolitics as well. It won't be a book for everyone, but if you think it might be for you, be prepared for the compulsion to read it all in one sitting.

Image sources: Amazon.com, Hörzu.de, nolimitformind.com.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Patricia Wentworth: More Than Miss Silver

I don't read all that many cozy mysteries, but I have a soft spot for Patricia Wentworth's Miss Silver series. Miss Silver is a retired teacher who may be sitting in a corner, knitting, when visitors come to call on a country house.

The visitors are told Miss Silver is an old family friend or relative, and they assume that the family is providing a little bit of comfort and company for an old lady living in genteel poverty. Little do they suspect that Miss Silver is unobtrusively gathering information that will reveal a blackmailer or even a killer.

I read the whole Miss Silver series (32 books!) back in the 1970s, when they
were already decades old and Patricia Wentworth had been dead for well over a decade. In the last couple of years, I've enjoyed revisiting some of them in audiobook versions, perfectly performed by Diana Bishop.

What I didn't realize is that Patricia Wentworth wrote many other mystery books outside the Miss Silver series; a couple of dozen standalones and three short series. Luckily for us, in addition to the Miss Silvers, Open Road Integrated Media is reissuing the other books in ePub and Kindle ebook formats. Here are the series titles:

The Ernest Lamb series

The Blind Side

When the handsome but evil Ross Craddock is found killed with his own gun, there is a wealth of suspects who had the motive to kill.  The London Metropolitan Police department's Inspector Ernest Lamb, and young Detective Frank Abbott have their work cut out for them.

Who Pays the Piper

Lucas Dale is determined to break up the engagement of Susan Lenox and Bill Carrick, so that he can have Susan for himself. A spot of blackmail seems to have done the trick, until Dale is found murdered. Lamb and Abbott suspect Carrick, but soon find that there are quite a few others who wished Dale dead.

Pursuit of a Parcel

Lamb and Abbott become enmeshed in a deadly game of World War II espionage, with agents and double agents, mysterious parcels and a beautiful young woman in danger.

The Benbow Smith series

Fool Errant

A mysterious woman warns Hugo Ross not to take a job with an eccentric inventor, but Hugo needs the money. Soon he finds himself embroiled in a world of espionage and danger, and calls on Benbow Smith of the Foreign Office for help.

Danger Calling

Benbow Smith recruits Lindsay Trevor, a former British intelligence agent, to rejoin the clandestine services to help catch a master criminal.

Walk With Care

Benbow Smith becomes involved in an investigation to uncover the forces working to eliminate voices in favor of disarmament.

Down Under

When bride-to-be Anne Carew disappears, her desperate fiancé, Captain Oliver Loddon, contacts Benbow Smith. Smith believes this is just the latest of a series of abductions over the past few years by one man, but the police disagree. Loddon will risk his own life to save Anne.

Frank Garrett series

Dead or Alive

On the very day Meg O'Hara asks her Irish spy husband, Robin, for a divorce, he disappears. Time passes and he's presumed dead, but then Meg receives a message suggesting otherwise. Frank Garrett of the British Foreign Office investigates, along with Bill Coverdale, who has been in love with Meg for years.

Rolling Stone

While Frank Garrett investigates a series of thefts of valuable artworks, his nephew goes undercover to penetrate an international gang of dangerous thieves.

There are too many other Wentworth mysteries to list here, even when you exclude the Miss Silvers. But if you want to see which ones are now available from Open Road, just head here.

If you enjoy romance novels, Wentworth started out as a romance writer and Open Road has a couple of those as well: A Marriage Under the Terror, set during the French Revolution, and A Fire Within, which hints at the Miss Silver to come.

Note: Open Road Integrated Media provided me with review e-copies of Fool Errant, Dead or Alive and The Blind Side.

Images source: openroadmedia.com

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Review of Judith Flanders's A Bed of Scorpions

A Bed of Scorpions, by Judith Flanders (Minotaur Books, March 1, 2016)

Samantha “Sam” Clair is an editor at a small London book publisher. The constants in Sam’s life are her colleagues, her powerful solicitor mother, Helen, her fatherly upstairs neighbor, Mr. Rudiger, and now her boyfriend, Jake, a homicide detective with London’s Metropolitan Police. If you want to know how Sam came to be in a romance with a police detective, read the first book in the series, A Murder of Magpies.

All seems well in Sam’s life this London summer. The weather is fine, her relationship with Jake has reached the almost-living-together stage, and the only fly in the ointment is the concern at the office that their company might be sold. That is, until Sam has lunch with an old friend, Aidan. Aidan, an art gallery owner, is distraught over his business partner’s having just been found shot.

Is it suicide, murder? No surprise, Jake is assigned to investigate and, of course, questions arise about whether this could have something to do with the gallery and Aidan. Since Aidan isn’t just an old friend of Sam's, he’s a former boyfriend, things quickly become awkward with Jake. Is it her desire to help Aidan that makes Sam start asking questions, or is it her crime fiction addiction that compels her? For whatever reason, she’s soon knee-deep in her own investigation.

Sam is an entertaining character. She’s the opposite of her super-confident, supremely groomed, socially connected powerhouse of a mother. Sam is a klutz, her wardrobe is marginal, she likes to lounge around at home, reading and going to bed early. She’s an amusingly snarky observer of her own foibles and everyone else’s.

Read the book
Though this is a cozy mystery, that doesn’t mean it’s just a bit of fluff. The plot is engrossing, with clever twists and turns, and details about the inside workings of art dealerships and publishers that are informative and add unique features to the story. And I can’t tell you anything about the climax except that it’s both inventive and hair-raising.

It’s not absolutely necessary to read the first book in the series before this one, but it’s a good idea if you can.

Image sources: Amazon.com, bbc.co.uk, Wikipedia.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Review of Philip Kerr's The Other Side of Silence

I should start by saying that Philip Kerr's The Other Side of Silence (Marian Wood Books/Putnam, March 29, 2016) is the 11th book in the standout Bernie Gunther series and, if you’re not familiar with the series, you should start with March Violets, the book that introduces us to Bernie as a private investigator in 1936 Berlin. Philip Kerr hasn’t written the series in chronological order––in fact, some of the later books in the series are set several years before that first one––but your reading experience will be so much richer if you start with the first books. For the rest of this review, I’ll assume the reader is familiar with the series.

This is another one of Kerr’s dual-narrative novels, which he’s done a few times with Bernie. It starts in 1956, with Bernie working as a hotel concierge on the French Riviera. Because of his World War II misadventures as a reluctant aide to some big-time Nazi war criminals, he’s living under the false name Walter Wolf. The other narrative, which takes up only a couple of chapters, flashes back to 1945 Königsberg, East Prussia, when Bernie was in the German army, falling in love with a young radio operator while the Russian army encircled the city.

In 1956, Bernie’s life is uneventful, taken up with his job, playing bridge, and drinking away the time. That is, until he is invited to play bridge with the famous author Somerset Maugham, who lives in an opulent villa on the coast. Maugham, who had been a longtime agent for the British secret service (I didn’t know that, did you?), asks Bernie to help him deal with a blackmailer named Heinz Hebel. Bernie recognizes Hebel as Henning, a particularly despicable character whom Bernie had the displeasure of dealing with more than once, including in 1945 Königsberg.

Maugham called the French Riviera
"A sunny place for shady people"
Once this blackmail plot gets going, and you don’t have long to wait, it becomes a dizzyingly complex but thrilling game of Cold War espionage, betrayal, vengeance and revenge. And, as Bernie explains, there is a critical difference between vengeance and revenge.

The last Bernie book, The Lady From Zagreb, also has a plot that has one storyline about Bernie’s war experiences and another that is more espionage oriented. I liked that book, but I thought the espionage element was the much stronger storyline in that book. In this new book, the espionage plot is a far bigger part of the story. The flashback story is excellent, but it informs the bigger plot and blends well, which was not so much the case with The Lady From Zagreb. For me, this was a more successfully coordinated story, and it’s a particularly entertaining one if you know your Cold War espionage history.

Hey, Mr. Kerr, quit gazing soulfully
at the camera andvwrite faster!
My one criticism of this book concerns the romance element. As usual, Bernie has a romantic entanglement. This time around, it didn’t feel emotionally convincing. In fact, at the start, Kerr doesn't make it seem like Bernie even finds this woman attractive. But that’s a relatively minor problem, not enough to be of real concern. And that minor failing is more than made up for by the intricate plot and its clever denouement. I’m already impatient for Kerr’s promised 12th Bernie Gunther novel, Prussian Blue, coming in 2017.

Note: I received a free advance reviewing copy of the book from the publisher, via Amazon's Vine program. Versions of this review may appear on Amazon, Goodreads, BookLikes and other reviewing sites under my usernames there.

Image sources: Amazon.com, bbc.co.uk, hollywoodreporter.com.