Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Winter Preview 2014-2015: Part Three

After looking at lists of books arriving this winter, I'm adding "increase reading speed" to my New Year's resolutions. I figure I'll make the big, concerted effort beginning January 1, 2015. In the meantime, since I'll be reading so rapidly in the future, I need to get my hands on more books so I won't run out early next year. Yes, it's imperative I obtain many more books.

I love thrillers set in exotic places, and one of my favorite settings therefore is present-day China. Its fascinating history and status as both a US trading partner and competitor make it a natural fit for a thriller or espionage novel. Some recent books located there include Adam Brookes's Night Heron, in which an old British intelligence asset surprisingly resurfaces (see review here), and Kirk Kjeldsen's Tomorrow City, about an American whose criminal past catches up with him in Shanghai (reviewed here).

In addition to a China setting, I enjoy books that use a villain's underhanded dealings to drag in an innocent bystander and force him or her to play a high-stakes game without knowing the rules. You can often count on a virtuoso display of ingenuity as that person rises to the occasion and wiggles out of danger while saving the world.

We might have to worry about Luke Slade, though, because he's the bystander in what's described as a noirish political thriller, Last Days in Shanghai (Counterpoint, December 16), by Casey Walker. Noir isn't always kind to its characters. Luke is in his second day of a week-long business trip to China with his boss, U.S. Rep. Leonard Fillmore (R-Calif.) (AKA "Leo the Lyin' "), when his boss disappears on an alcoholic bender. Luke doesn't want to no-show at an already scheduled meeting about an important development deal, so he travels to the Chinese province alone. Somehow Luke walks out of the mayor's office with a bag full of American cash. When the mayor is murdered, Luke is the primary suspect. As he ricochets between Shanghai and Beijing with no idea of what's going on, his lost boss may be the least of Luke's worries.

Like Last Days in Shanghai's Casey Walker, M. O. Walsh is a first-time author. His My Sunshine Away (Putnam Adult, February 10) is southern literature, similar to Pat Conroy's The Prince of Tides, addressing themes of memory, family and coming of age.

Walsh's adult narrator looks back to the summer of 1989 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He is 14 and obsessed with Lindy Simpson, the beautiful 15-year-old girl who lives across the street. When Lindy is raped, he is one of four suspects. No one is ever charged and the crime changes Lindy, the suspects and the neighborhood forever. The book follows the suspects as they change from boys into young men. The narrator's memories of the 1980s and '90s (Jeffrey Dahmer, the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion) reportedly create such a clear picture of growing up in Baton Rouge, the city also becomes a main character.

After a day spent getting ready for the holidays, I'm ready to collapse into my own mini-holiday with a book like Marjorie Eccles's The Firebird's Feather (Severn, December 1), set in 1911 London. As England prepares to crown King George V, a suffrage movement brews and Russian refugees raise money for their own revolution. Kitty Challoner is 18 years old and preparing for her society debut when her Russian-born mother, Lydia, is shot off her horse in Hyde Park. Murder tends to uncover secrets and Lydia is revealed to be more complex than a wealthy society matron. Her relationships with the suffragettes, a handsome younger man and Russian underground give DCI Gaines and DS Inskip plenty to investigate. The amateur sleuth Kitty has the inside track, however, especially when her father's pistol is discovered missing from the safe.

A wealthy British family in an age of social transition, a touch of romance and a wide range of suspects make The Firebird's Feather look good for an evening by the fireplace.

With its gritty writing and a cast of oddball lowlifes, Tom Cooper's The Marauders (Crown, February 3) may be a lifeline for readers who miss Elmore Leonard and Donald E. Westlake. It's set in the Gulf Coast town of Jeannette right after the BP oil spill. The disaster opens the floodgates for cockeyed money-making schemes by local miscreants. Chief among them is Gus Lindquist, a pill-popping drunkard with one arm, who hopes to find the treasure of long-gone pirate Jean Lafitte. The locals' plots to rip each other off predict not everyone will come out alive.

To give you an idea of Cooper's writing style, here's an excerpt:
His arm was missing. Lindquist was positive he’d left it in his pickup two hours before. He wasn’t in the habit of misplacing his thirty-thousand-dollar myoelectric arm or of leaving his truck unlocked, catchwater bayou town where everybody knew everyone or not.

A few other pickups sat under the bug-flurried sodium vapors. Nothing else but cypress lisping in the night breeze, a bottlefly-green Buick bouncing on the blacktop past Sully’s bar. But Lindquist kept looking wild-eyed around the oyster-shell parking lot as if his arm had wandered off on its own volition. As if he might find it standing next to the blue-lit tavern sign, thumbing a ride.

Lindquist went back into Sully’s. Sully was wiping the bar with a hand towel and peered over the top of his wire-frame glasses. At one of the back tables three men were gathering cards and poker chips, and they looked up too.

Lindquist stood in the doorway, lips pressed in a thin pale line, some dark emotion building behind his face like a storm front. “Somebody took my arm,” he said.
When work or my relatives get on my nerves, The Marauders is the sort of book I need.

It's fate. I recently watched Phase IV, Saul Bass's 1974 sci-fi movie featuring ants that have undergone rapid evolution to form a hive mind and begin to take over the world, starting in the Arizona desert. On January 20, I can read Robert Repino's much wackier, complicated and violent vision of a postapocalyptic hive mind in Mort(e) (Soho), written from an animal's point of view. Sebastian, a house cat whose best friend is the neighbors' dog, changes his name to Mort(e) and joins the revolution against human oppressors after giant ants boil out of the ground under the direction of ferocious ant queen Hymenoptera. She's had it up to here with human self-centeredness and she releases a pheromone that gives all animals self-awareness, a high intelligence and the ability to walk on two legs. This is not a good thing for us humans.

It sounds like a very messianic and anthropomorphized mashup of The Matrix and Braveheart and a hoot to read. You might want to think about Mort(e) before shoving your dogs and cats off the bed or laughing at Fluffy the next time she chases a piece of string.

Before Patricia Highsmith wrote her Tom Ripley books, she wrote a great book of psychological suspense, Strangers on a Train. It begins on a train (d'oh!) with a chance encounter between architect Guy Haines and psychopath Charles Anthony Bruno. Guy wants to divorce his unfaithful wife, Miriam, and marry Anne. Bruno hates his father and suggests he and Guy "exchange" murders to avoid suspicion by the police. Guy doesn't take the creepy Bruno seriously––a mistake when Bruno kills Miriam and then demands Guy return the favor.

The Kind Worth Killing (Morrow, February 3) is Peter Swanson's re-imagining of Highsmith's classic. His strangers, rich businessman Ted Severson and gorgeous and mysterious Lily Kintner, meet in an airport bar. After a few martinis, Ted is joking he'd like to kill Miranda, the wife he suspects of unfaithfulness, and Lily tells him she'd be glad to help. Ted doesn't realize the kind of woman he's dealing with. Before long, a relentless detective, Lily, and Ted are engaged in what I imagine is an extremely tricky game of cat and mouse. (They're probably too busy playing their dangerous games to appreciate Mort(e) isn't also involved.)

By the way, Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, starring Farley Granger, Ruth Roman and Robert Walker, would make a nice winter evening's entertainment.

I didn't mean to make this a cat-and-mouse-themed post but, as serendipity would have it, the next book I want you to see is Daniel Pyne's Fifty Mice (Penguin/Blue Rider, December 30). Pyne, a noir author (Twentynine Palms) and notable Hollywood screenwriter (the 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate, with Denzel Washington), is interested in paranoia and the manipulation of memory.  

Fifty Mice is the story of Jay Johnson, a Los Angeles Joe Schmoe, troubled by some trauma he can't completely remember. When he's abducted off his Red Line Metro train, he's convinced his kidnappers have the wrong guy. He comes to in the hands of federal agents, who make it clear he's suspected of something. A fake identity, background and cover family are forced onto Jay and he's sent to Catalina Island, off the California coast. Among other protected witnesses under federal guard there, Jay tries to patch his memories together and arrive at the truth.

Have a happy Thanksgiving tomorrow. To take your mind off any overindulgence at the dinner table, you could watch a movie with an amnesia theme: Spellbound, Memento, Mulholland Drive, The Bourne trilogy, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Dark City, Total Recall. . . . Don't forget the popcorn.

On Friday, Sister Mary Murderous will tell you about some of her winter picks. I've peeked and you shouldn't miss them.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Winter Preview 2014-2015: Part Two

This season, we're expecting some wonderful books that will either chill you or thrill you. There is something for every reader. My choices tickled my fancy because they all have elements of humor in them. I am not sure where the phrase "the dead of winter" came from, but it might suggest that a good murder mystery is what is called for to lighten up the dark days.

Andrea Camilleri's sardonic sense of humor is always something to look forward to, and I tend to grab a translated copy hot off the presses. The most recent, The Brewer of Preston (translated from the Italian by Stephen Sartarelli; Penguin, December 30) is a departure from his usual Inspector Montalbano series, but it looks like it has Camilleri's custom blend of humor and misbehavior. It takes place in his favored location but in a different time. It is still Vigàta, Sicily, but the story takes place in 1874.

At this time, Vigàta is under the rule of the prefect of Montelusa, who has decided to build a new theater. The first production is to be an opera called The Brewer of Preston. You would think that the townspeople would be happy about this. Not necessarily so.

Apparently, the old cliché about not pleasing everybody holds true. The choice of this particular opera upsets several groups in the town. They cry that it's too obscure, it's too mediocre or it's not traditional.

Suddenly, cabals and gangs and cliques are formed, some having good intentions, others bent on mischief. The members of these brigades each want to put their own stamp on the opening of the theater. Plots, subplots, vendettas and conspiracies begin boiling throughout the town. The new theater becomes the target for variety of pranks and misdemeanors, including a fire that flashes through the building shortly after it opens.

Camilleri is a master of comic misadventure and this book should brighten any winter's day.

Sicily isn't the only place where rivalries and disputes are par for the course. In Norman Draper's Backyard (Kensington, November 25), which is set in the Midwestern suburban town of Livia, there are feuds and conflicts a-plenty to liven the days. This is a town where there's something in the water that has created more green thumbs than garden gnomes. This is also a town where gardening is the raison d’être and the competition for best garden is keen.

Nothing is more likely to upset the status quo than the announcement about a best yard contest run by a local nursery. It's not long before the gardening elite begin to engage in a not-very-subtle form of suburban warfare. Aside from the bragging rights, there's to be prize money. Many of the gardens reflect their obsessive owners' personalities and there are reputations and more at stake––like relationships and marriages.

It is a charged landscape as late-night surreptitious forays into competitors' gardens result in sabotage perpetrated on innocent flowers and imitation Edens. The story promises to be darkly hilarious, with descriptions of beautiful plants and flowers that will have you dreaming of spring.

I can think of a lot of reasons to avoid a Russian winter, but Elena Gorokhova has better ones and, in a memoir, she tells the story of why she left Mother Russia during the Cold War era of the 1980s to come to America.

In Russian Tattoo: A Memoir (Simon & Schuster, January 6), Elena recreates how, when she was in her twenties, she met and married an American teacher, Robert, who moved her to Austin, Texas. She was anxious to leave the privations and the day-to-day difficulties of living in a struggling country. It turned out to be a case of "marry in haste and repent at leisure," though, because Robert was basically cold and detached. Not that Elena missed her mother––she didn't––but in Texas she was a fish out of water, wearing her homespun dress and trying to overcome the negative images that the locals had of Russians.

Her mother-in-law, who lived in Princeton, New Jersey took her in and things began to look up. She found her feet, teaching English as a second language to Russian immigrants in New York City, and a new romance came into her life. I'm looking forward to this depiction of the immigrant's point of view, with a mix of rays of sunshine and some frost.

I always look forward to Alan Bradley's latest. This year it is As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust: A Flavia de Luce Novel (Delacorte, January 6).

When we last left Flavia, she had been informed that she was going to be sent to a boarding school in Canada once attended by her mother, Harriet. Being sent to Miss Bodycote's Female Academy seems to Flavia to be a punishment as well as banishment, but the budding chemist and sleuth is now 12 years old and her family feels the move will help her learn about things that she would never encounter at home.

After crossing the ocean and part of the North American continent, she begins to settle in her new digs when a charred and mummified body tumbles out of the bedroom chimney. This is like a gift to Flavia and she's raring to go on the hunt for the victim's identity at the same time as she tries to make new friends––maybe a few enemies.

Aside from rumors that the Academy is haunted and that the headmistress is an acquitted murderer, Flavia hears that several girls have disappeared from the school without a trace. Detecting is mother's milk to Flavia, and she is up to the task as she is still unaware about what her destiny has in store for her. Go Flavia!

If Robertson Davies's World of Wonders or Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants fired your imagination, you might be intrigued by Paddy O'Reilly's The Wonders (Washington Square/Pocket, February 10).

What do Leon, a young 20-year-old man with severe heart disease; Kathryn, an Irish woman with Huntington's disease; and Christos, a failing Greek performance artist, have in common? For one thing, their lives are close to over and, for another, they want to keep on going. Leon is given a mechanical heart, which is a thing of astonishing beauty created from brass and titanium, and its lub-dub can be seen through the door built into his chest. Kathryn gets gene manipulation that cures her disease but causes her to grow thick black wool over her body. Christos had removable ceramic wings implanted in his back.

They all come under the influence of Rhona Burke, the daughter of a well-known American circus impresario. She wants to turn Leon into a superstar. Already hounded by journalists, they are deluged with offers of fame, money and immortality. She promises that they will not be sideshow freaks. Then she whisks them away to a Vermont mansion surrounded by walls and barbed wire.

Under her expert guidance, the three become The Wonders. It isn't long before they become a global sensation. As they become celebrities, without having done anything to deserve it, the trio also quickly finds that fame is addicting and full of loneliness but, even worse, it is dangerous.

These are modern-day Frankensteins, monsters not exactly of their own making. Whether done willingly for the sake of art, unwittingly as a result of medical treatment or for the sake of staying alive, there are consequences to the actions that transformed them.

The story revolves mostly around Leon, who is shy, quiet and otherwise unremarkable. He struggles with anxiety and, at the same time, the treachery of fame. But the main actors of the tale are the public, who fawn over the Wonders and then hate them, abuse them, stalk them and adore them; that's the way of fame in our age.

We are going to get well acquainted with severe weather days in the next few months. This is a story that should transport you to a very different reality.

A slightly quicker read is Mystery of the Dinner Playhouse (Five Star, January 21), by Mike Befeler.

An unexpected side effect of retirement is that you end up either driving your spouse crazy with all the together time or your spouse begins to get on your own nerves. (Or both!)

Gabe Tremont has retired from the police department, and his wife's reaction to his being underfoot is to make a very long list of things he can do outside the house. The best thing on the list is an evening out at the Bearcrest Mystery Dinner Playhouse. Dave suspects that, as is the convention, the butler in the play would be the villain. Gabe gets a surprise after the play is over when the butler, actor Peter Ranchard, is found murdered offstage, poisoned with cyanide.

Gabe jumps back into the saddle, takes charge of the case and finds he enjoys the chase more than retirement.

Murder mysteries about theater folk are fun because the characters are usually eccentric, and larger than life. Befeler has been writing a humorous geezer series and now he brings that style to a new character and story.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Winter Preview 2014-2015: Part One

Thanksgiving is almost upon us, and that means it's time to look at upcoming winter books. There's a lot to be thankful for, with books ranging from H. G. Adler's The Wall (translated from the German by Peter Filkins; Random House, December 2), a 720-page novel set during the Holocaust, to Angelina Mirabella's The Sweetheart (Simon & Schuster, January 20), a coming-of-age story set in the 1950s world of women's professional wrestling. While the focus of our Read Me Deadly previews is crime fiction, over the next few weeks we'll be showing you some other books that look good to us, as well. There's a feast of books waiting, so let's dig in!

December 2nd can't come soon enough, because that's the date Mulholland is releasing a thriller early reviewers are raving about, Kazuaki Takano's Genocide of One (translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel). The one targeted for death in 2004 is a 3-year-old Kanga Pygmy named Akili living in the Congo, and the person ordering his elimination is U.S. President Gregory S. Burns (substituting for George W. Bush). Why does Burns think Akili needs to die? Burns has been informed a random mutation has made this kid so intellectually advanced, he's even now the smartest person on Earth. Akili threatens to make Homo sapiens extinct, much like we Homo sapiens wiped out the Neanderthals.

This is already the basis for an exciting plot à la Tom Clancy, but Takano complicates it with an examination of culture, psychology, and current social issues, and he educates his reader about microbiological research. Playing a deadly game of chess are those Machiavellian connivers in Washington, DC, the Congo-bound band of private US military contractors clueless about the truth of their mission, a pharmaceutical researcher in Tokyo, and the uber-brainiac Akili, who may be able to put a spoke in President Burns's wheel. Yeah, sounds like a whole lotta fun to me.

When I learned Jamie Mason has a new book due February 3rd, I scrambled to scribble the title on my list of books to read. Her first novel, last year's witty and macabre Three Graves Full (Gallery Books), was inspired by her love of Hitchcock and a headline, "Landscapers Find Skull in Mulch Bed." It features an accidental murderer named Jason Getty, whose nightmarish situation takes a decided turn for the worse when his landscaper unearths a corpse, and the police arrive and dig up another body, neither of whom is Jason's own personally buried victim.

Mason's upcoming Monday's Lie (Gallery Books) sounds very promising if you're a Coen brothers fan: Dee Aldrich begins to suspect her husband, Patrick, is not the man she thought he is and may be plotting a life without her. This is an unexpected worry, since Dee married her predictable college boyfriend after being raised by an unconventional mother, a CIA operative. Is Dee merely being paranoid? She turns to her late mother's advice and games of subterfuge they played in her childhood to get a handle on her unraveling marriage.

All of us have our passions, whether it's World War II history or a quest to find the perfect-fitting pair of jeans. I'm interested in the nature of identity and enjoy fiction and nonfiction about amnesia, impersonation, misidentification as in Capgras delusion, twins, doubles, and doppelgängers. So I was thrilled to spot Andrew Pyper's The Damned (Simon & Schuster, February 10), about a pair of Detroit twins, one good and one evil. Good twin Danny Orchard is brought back to life after dying in the fire that killed his sociopathic twin, Ashleigh, on their 16th birthday. Danny has written a best-selling book about his near-death experience and met a nice woman, Willa, with a son, Eddie. Life would be dandy, but Ashleigh won't leave Danny alone.

The Kirkus reviewer calls The Damned "memorable and, perhaps, nightmare-inducing." In other words, perfect when a fierce storm is wrestling with your house and you retreat to bed armed with a book, hot tea, and a shortbread cookie. Or two. Oh, heck, let's get real. Put the cookie tin on your nightstand. We can always add losing five pounds to our New Year's resolutions, and the awards-winning crime fiction of Canadian writer Pyper, a lawyer by training, is worth staying up until dawn to read. It's literary and sophisticated and often combines thrills with horror. His Lost Girls is a combo of mysterious disappearances and courtroom drama. In The Demonologist, scholar David Ullman, an authority on Milton's Paradise Lost, travels to Venice and encounters a demonic possession. The Trade Mission's pair of Canadian software developers and their party take a terrifying trip up Brazil's Rio Negro river.

Okay, where are we? We have books in which a 3-year-old is pitted against a US president and his band of mercenaries; a wife uses CIA tactics to figure out her husband, who may want to kill her; and an evil twin haunts her angelic brother. Now, we come to an Appalachian morality tale/coming-of-age novel getting a lot of buzz because its publisher's sales reps and booksellers have fallen in love with it: Christopher Scotton's first novel, The Secret Wisdom of the Earth (Grand Central, January 6).

In it, an adult narrator, Kevin, looks back to the summer of 1985, when he was 14. He and his mother, grieving the loss of his younger brother, go to stay with Kevin's grandfather, Pops, a widowed veterinarian, in the Kentucky coal town of Medgar. An energy company is devastating the land by utilizing "mountaintop removal" to mine coal; the environmentalist leader of its opposition is a popular gay hairstylist. Kevin tags around with Pops and becomes friends with Buzzy, who witnesses a murder. I predict fans of Ron Rash and Wiley Cash will want to read this one.

All right, you tell me, how does one resist this next book? Emma and Otto and Russell and James (Simon & Schuster, January 20) is Canadian writer Emma Hooper's first. Early reviewers cite the beauty of the prose and the rich complexity of the characters. It's described as "a near homage" to The Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan's masterpiece of English literature recounting souls redeeming themselves through struggle, which hasn't been out of print since its publication in 1678.

Hooper's strugglers were shaped by the Depression, and they survived World War II. Etta opens the book with a note to her beloved husband Otto: "Otto, I've gone. I've never seen the water, so I’ve gone there. Don't worry, I've left you the truck. I can walk. I will try to remember to come back. Yours (always), Etta"

Etta, now 82, is walking from Saskatchewan to Canada's east coast, because she's never seen the ocean. Along the way, she's joined by a talking coyote named James, courtesy of some magical realism. Writer Hooper travels back and forth through time as she weaves Etta's story together with those of Otto, who grew up on the Saskatchewan plains as one of 15 kids, and Russell, the boy who lived next door.

With all the winter holidays coming, I'm on the lookout for a thriller to read on the plane or train. Sebastian Rotella's The Convert's Song (Mulholland, December 9) looks promising. Rotella is an award-winning investigative journalist and foreign correspondent, and his Valentine Pescatore is a former San Diego Border Patrol agent (Triple Crossing), who now works as a private eye in Argentina. In Buenos Aires, he runs into an old friend from Chicago, Raymond Mercer, an unsuccessful singer who has converted to Islam. After a terrorist attack kills hundreds at a local mall, police suspect Valentine and Raymond. Valentine's investigation takes him to Europe; along the way he is joined by French counterterrorism agent Fatima Belhaj and his ex-boss/ex-girlfriend Isabel Puente from San Diego.

Word is that Rotella's book about geopolitical terror has a complex plot, colorful characters, and lashings of hard-boiled humor and musical references.

I've been waiting for the English translation of the Franck Thilliez thriller Gataca for two years. Bred to Kill (translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti, Viking Adult) will be published on January 8th. This sequel to Syndrome E (see review here) is the fourth Franck Sharko/Lucie Henebelle series book, but only the second to be translated into English. It looks like a doozy.

Reeling from the events at the end of Syndrome E, Paris homicide inspector Sharko and former Lille detective Henebelle investigate the murder of grad student Eva Louts, who was involved in human genome research that's tied to the theft of a Cro-Magnon mummy and the existence of a tribe in the Brazilian jungle. Her death is also linked to a tragedy dogging Henebelle.

Intriguing science (paleontology this time) and sleuths unique in their personal vulnerabilities combine to make these French thrillers exciting reads. One cares about Sharko and Henebelle. I'd like another Thilliez translation next Christmas.

I hope I've whetted your appetite for more winter books, because tomorrow Maltese Condor will bring in the second course.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Snowed In!

If I were living in the Buffalo, New York, area right now, the last thing I'd want to read is a mystery with a snow-bound theme. But I'm not living there, and when I look at those shots of houses and cars buried under several feet of the white stuff, my mind goes to stories of murder and mayhem among people trapped within walls of snow.

Considering that The Ref is one of my favorite Christmas movies, it's not surprising that Cyril Hare's not-at-all-in-the-Christmas-spirit An English Murder is my favorite mystery taking place at Christmas––and with a blizzard as a key character, of course. Old Lord Warbeck is dying, and he asks his relatives to come and spend his last Christmas with him at his large country house. You'll be asking yourself why, since they are a largely a nasty bunch, including a fascist––and this is 1951!

Another guest is not a member of the family. A war refugee, the historian Dr. Bottwink, is at the house to research the Warbeck papers. There are some uncomfortable interactions between the Jewish Bottwink and some Warbeck family members. Lord Warbeck's son and heir is soon murdered, and the old man dies as well. Cue the snowstorm, so that police cannot get to the scene to investigate. One of the Warbecks happens to be the Chancellor of the Exchequer, though, and he has a Scotland Yard minder, Roger, who investigates, with some very unofficial assistance from Dr. Bottwink.

Although the book appears, at first, to be a traditional British country house murder mystery, there are some important differences. Characters include the usual British class snobs and anti-Semites but, for once, the author isn't one of them. Hare uses the time and setting to include a eyes-open look at the unsettled state of the class system and politics in postwar England. He straightforwardly acknowledges the Holocaust, which is especially unusual considering it's only 1951. Bottwink is a visiting scholar, not a real guest, but he's the one who shows real class among this class-conscious group.

Another sardonic look at the Christmas season is Red Christmas, written by the late Reginald Hill under his Patrick Ruell pseudonym. What I like about this one (other than that Reginald Hill is just such a great writer) is that it's not just a country house mystery, it's also a bit of a spy thriller.

An ill-assorted group of weekend guests descends on Dingley Dell for what promises to be a Christmas Eve straight out of Dickens. They are French, English, German and American. The intrigue begins when one guest, Arabella Allen, finds that someone is spying on her, and it quickly ratchets up when she finds a dead body.

You know what comes next––the big storm that leaves the characters on their own to solve the murder mystery before the body count climbs higher. In this case, though, Arabella will also find that this gathering is a hotbed of international espionage.

Reginald Hill draws his characters quickly but surely, and his plotting combines humor and tension. This lesser-known book is an entertaining choice for the season.

Ngaio Marsh revisited the snowed-in theme in her 11th Inspector Alleyn mystery, Death and the Dancing Footman. Be warned, though, that this is not among her very best. Wealthy, bored, Jonathan Royal decides to entertain himself by inviting six enemies to be his house guests––timed to ensure that they will be snowed in by an approaching snowstorm. He also invites a dramatist to come and observe what Royal calls an experiment in psychology.

The extremely unlikeable characters can be annoying or amusing, depending on your mood. The amateur psychology is silly. The novel is two-thirds over before Alleyn is able to get there through the snow. Still, even a lesser Ngaio Marsh is good.

C. S. Challinor's Christmas Is Murder: A Rex Graves Mystery finds Challinor's protagonist, a Scottish barrister, down south in East Sussex, for a Christmas vacation at Swanmere Manor. A blizzard hits as he arrives, quickly snowing in all the Manor's guests and staff.

This is a modern-day spoof of your classic country house murder, with the denizens being picked off one by one, as the cordial atmosphere of cocktails, teatime and card-playing by the fire becomes increasingly fraught with suspicion. Graves is an entertaining amateur detective, we have the traditional drawing room confrontation, and it's a pleasant way to pass the time when you know that you, at least, can leave your house anytime you want.

Do you have any favorite snowed-in mysteries?

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

What's the Point? Crossbow Murders

Have you ever noticed that when something unusual comes to your attention, it suddenly seems to pop up everywhere? During a recent show on the 2500-year-old tomb of Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the narrator mentioned that the invention of the crossbow was likely an important factor in his bloody unification of China in the 5th century BCE. Apparently, crossbows provide a more stable aiming platform and a stronger pull with less effort than traditional bows. This enabled men of lesser skill and strength to become competent archers. Nearly a thousand clay bowmen are among the massive army of terracotta warriors protecting this first emperor of China for eternity.

To me, crossbows are particularly horrible weapons, much more terrifying than knives or even guns, and the thought of someone being killed with one makes my fingernails curl. Perhaps because I was nearly struck by one many years ago, on a fog-shrouded South Carolina beach. That peculiar thwock sound and the still-quivering bolt two feet in front of my face have featured in several Fellini-esque nightmares over the years since. The shooter couldn't possibly have even seen the target he was aiming at in the dense fog. My outraged yell earned a gruff "Sorry," and I dimly saw the backs of two teenage boys leaving the beach at a dead run.

A crossbow bolt fired from within a limousine into the neck of the driver marks the first of a bizarre string of murders in Indulgence in Death, the 31st entry in J. D. Robb's Eve Dallas series. The book opens with a heartwarming chapter of Eve and her mysterious billionaire husband, Roarke, visiting his extended family in the Irish countryside before getting down to the serious business of the serial murders back home in New York. Each murder is performed with a different exotic instrument, all requiring some skill to operate. It gradually becomes clear that the end target of this nasty game will be Eve herself.

Somehow, these police procedurals laced with mild erotica and some weak sci-fi elements always leave me faintly underwhelmed. The author has developed a formula that works well for her, but it varies very little from book to book. Still, she churns out two Eve Dallas books a year in addition to those she writes as Nora Roberts, so some shortcuts are obviously necessary. These books makes for quick light reading.

Moving from theater snacks to a five-course meal, the first mystery in Louise Penny's Chief Inspector Gamache series, Still Life, is still a delight after two previous readings. Her books are as much character studies as mysteries, most set in a charmingly improbable location. Jane Neal, retired teacher in the Canadian village of Three Pines, had witnessed three teenage boys in ski masks throwing dung at the bistro owned by Olivier and his partner Gabri and screaming "Fags, Queers." She scolded them by name, causing them to run away. Then Jane, who has never shown her work to anyone, finally offers one of her paintings for a local show. A few mornings later, she is found in the woods––killed by an arrow through the heart.

Gamache and his team are called to the remote village––not on any map––to investigate. The book offers an interesting, if slightly unsettling, discussion of arrowheads designed for competition versus those for hunting, and the wound patterns left by each. Penny's books are excellent to reread, because even absent the suspense of that first reading, there is a great deal of thought-provoking content to linger over and enjoy.

The murder of a police detective in a posh convalescent center for injured police officers opens Watching the Dark, the twentieth in Peter Robinson's Alan Banks series. DI Bill Quinn, strolling around the grounds, is shot through the heart with an arrow from a crossbow. DCI Alan Banks is called to investigate, and among the victim's effects he finds pictures of the victim in compromising positions with a girl who has been missing for six years. DI Quinn had handled the investigation, never solved, into her disappearance.

The Professional Standards Unit is alerted, and they assign DI Joanna Passero to Banks's team to investigate the possibility of corruption on the part of the late DI Quinn. When the case requires Banks to travel to Estonia, much to his disgust he is accompanied by the humorless Passero while Annie Cabot, Banks's usual partner, handles the UK end of the case. While far from the best in the series, this is still a very good mystery, if a little heavy on the travelogue. I enjoy DCI Banks more when he works closer to home, with his own team around him.

Am I alone in my horror of crossbows? Knives, guns, even pitchforks, all make very effective  and fatal weapons in mystery novels without my batting an eyelash. But a crossbow introduced into the story immediately sharpens my attention. What particular murder weapon or weapons makes your hair stand on end?

Monday, November 17, 2014

Let's Do the Time Warp Again

Doing the Time Warp in The Rocky Horror Picture Show
To do a mind flip and a time slip, you don't need to be a left-and-right jumping, pelvic-thrusting Transylvanian in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. You can stay in your comfy chair and pick up one of the unusual books below. None of them are for everybody. They zig-zag between past and present in an examination of identity and perception or betrayal and redemption.

For someone who wonders if a house can haunt people as well as be haunted by them: The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai (Viking, July 2014). Marxist academician Zee Devohr, of the wealthy "Devohrcing Devohrs," moves into the carriage house of her mother's family estate, Laurelfield, with her husband Doug, a struggling grad student who needs peace and quiet while writing his dissertation on poet Edwin Parfitt. He can't seem to get his ideas onto paper and then is further distracted when another couple also moves into the carriage house. Doug's thoughts turn larcenous when he discovers Laurelfield was once an artists' colony and that files pertaining to his dissertation may be in Laurelfield's locked attic.

This is one of those books you read as if you're opening a Russian nesting doll. It's full of twists and surprises, some of them so small or unexpected that an inattentive reader won't catch them all. When you register one, it feels as if you're in on a little joke between you and the writer that excludes some of the characters. How often do you have a chance to experience this when you read? The many characters are introduced and wander through chapters titled 1999, 1955, 1929 and 1900. After reading this clever book, you'll change the way you think about interpreting history, look at unidentifiable people in old photos and view objects that have been in your family for generations.

If you like putting together those gazillion-piece jigsaw puzzles of a herd of zebras or enjoy the process of not knowing what the hell is going on and getting clued in, bit by frustrating bit: Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy (FSG Originals, 2014). The Southern Reach is a secretive governmental agency that sends expeditions into the mysterious Area X, a pristine wilderness in Florida, maybe, created by something strange and contained by unusual borders. Annihilation (see review here) involves the all-women twelfth expedition: a biologist, a surveyor, an anthropologist and a psychologist. Authority details the attempts of Control, the Southern Reach's interim director, to take charge of his agency. Acceptance concludes this trilogy's look at human identity with a visit to Area X by Control and someone connected with the twelfth expedition.

These three books must be read in order and even then your imagination will have its hands full. When I read Acceptance, I wondered if I'd unknowingly taken something that was affecting my mental processing. Fun. These books are fascinating sci-fi/detective sleuthing/dystopian fiction for the right reader.

Like your British espionage to be more than a frantic boiling of nifty gadgets, cold-blooded spies and hot babes? Try Gerald Seymour's 464-page The Dealer and the Dead (Thomas Dunne, February 2014). In 1991, some men and boys in the Croatian village of Vukovar wait for an arms dealer's promised shipment. It never arrives and they are slaughtered by the Serbs. Almost two decades later, a Vukovar farmer's field is cleared of land mines. An unearthed body reveals the arms dealer's identity: Harvey Gillot, a wealthy Englishman famous for the reliability of his word. The surviving Croatian villagers have long memories and are now bent on revenge.

Seymour outdoes himself this time with his many, and I mean many, characters, few of whom approach likability. If you appreciate a slow-burning, multi-threaded story that ultimately kicks into high gear, give this book about redemption and the shadowy world of arms dealing a shot. Or, pick up Seymour's 2013 book, A Deniable Death (reviewed here).

And now, I'll do the time warp and pick up Zia Haider Rahman's In the Light of What We Know (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, April 2014). It slips time in its story about two friends, one of whom betrays the other. I'm enjoying Rahman's exploration of how well we can know the world and ourselves.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Berlin Wall

As I'm sure you already know, this week saw the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall––or, as those pranksters in the old German Democratic Republic called it, the "Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart." I'm reading a fascinating book about it, Mary Elise Sarotte's The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall.

If it were not for the tragic destruction of lives caused by the Wall, the story of its permanent breach in 1989 would be comic. One Politburo guy says the wrong thing at a press conference, suggesting the Wall is open, and the next thing you know, hordes of people from both sides swarm the area around the Brandenburg Gate and checkpoints throughout the city. On that cold night in November, there was almost a party atmosphere to the gatherings, especially once the guards, who had not been told in advance about any new rules, started letting people through.

Of course, there's a lot more to the story than one simple slip-up at a press conference. Sarotte zeroes in on a dozen people whose names you've likely never heard, and shows how their experiences illustrate the factors that came together to bring an end to the division between the two Berlins and, ultimately, the end of Communism in eastern Europe.

If you want to read more about the Wall than its collapse, the definitive history is Frederick Taylor's The Berlin Wall: A World Divided, 1961-1989. This is a masterful work of historical research and writing. One of the things Taylor reminds us is that, horrific as the Wall was for so many people, it served the political ends of both East and West. East Germany was losing all of its most productive citizens to West Germany, and this worked to ratchet up the tensions that threatened to turn the Cold War hot. The Wall stabilized the political situation and, in effect, those on the wrong side of it paid the price for a degree of peace and safety in the rest of the world.

About the only thing to regret about the end of the Cold War is that it nearly dried up the supply of Cold War espionage novels. To me, the very best spy stories are the Cold War stories, and you can't beat Berlin as the locale.

The lodestone is, of course, John le Carré's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, made into a movie featuring Richard Burton as the depressive MI-6 operative Alec Leamas. Le Carré is the king of moral ambiguity, and there's plenty of that in this novel about double agents. The climax takes place at the Wall, shortly after its erection.

Len Deighton's Bernard Samson series consists of three trilogies and a prequel. The first book, Berlin Game, has jaundiced MI-6 officer Samson traveling to Berlin to deal with the crisis of their valuable agent, Brahms Four, wanting to defect. Complicating things, Samson is also aware that there is a mole among his colleagues, and the presence of that mole may jeopardize Samson's mission––and much more.

Berlin Game, and the other two volumes in its trilogy, were adapted to a 12-part miniseries called Game, Set and Match. Though this was televised in the late 1980s, it looks like it's not available on DVD or streaming video.

I've written about John Lawton's Then We Take Berlin here. It takes place mainly in Berlin, both immediately after World War II, when the city was divided up into zones controlled by the four allied powers and it was relatively easy for people to pass from zone to zone, and then in 1963, after the Wall has been built. Our protagonist, a Cockney known as Joe Wilderness, had a wild time when he was stationed in Berlin after the war. In his spare time from sniffing out Nazis for the army, Joe was a wheeler-dealer in the black market. In 1963, he's persuaded to return to Berlin to smuggle an old woman out of East Berlin.

John Lawton is one of my very favorite novelists, with characterization being his strong suit. Then We Take Berlin not only introduces a new and striking protagonist, it also has a large supporting cast of vivid characters, some of whom you'll recognize from Lawton's Frederick Troy series. The Berlin setting is a big bonus.

This one's not a spy novel, but I think it's a must-read for anybody interested in what life was like on the eastern side of the Wall. Anna Funder's Stasiland tells stories of various people who lived in East Germany. Some were resisters, but some were informants for the East German Ministry for State Security, aka the Stasi.

The Stasi was by far the largest surveillance agency in history. Some estimate that there was a full-time secret police officer for every 180 people in East Germany. Almost worse than the official Stasi officers was the fact that so many civilians routinely informed on their co-workers, neighbors, friends, family and even loved ones. Since the reunification of Germany, Stasi files have been made available, and many people have requested to read their files, with traumatic results.

Of course, there are many, many other books about the Berlin Wall and East Germany, both fiction and non-fiction, but this short list of some of my favorite books will give you a start if you're interested in diving in.