Monday, April 30, 2012

Going Pro: Owen Laukkanen's The Professionals

The Northern Lights
My love of Canada dates back to one winter night when I was a kid growing up in Washington state, and my dad pointed out the northern lights. A country north of us, closer to that beautiful sky, had to be pretty darn wonderful, I thought.

Canada is home to some great crime fiction writers: Louise Penny, Giles Blunt, Peter Robinson, Alan Bradley, William Deverell, Robert Rotenberg, Gail Bowen, Howard Engel, Inger Ash Wolfe (pseudonym of Michael Redhill), Eric Wright, Jon Redfern, Linwood Barclay. Yesterday I was pleased to meet another Canadian, Owen Laukkanen, who was neighborly enough to introduce me to four fresh University of Washington graduates in his 2012 thriller, The Professionals, published by Putnam.

If Marie, Pender, Mouse and Sawyer had graduated with a UW degree in engineering or a science, their lives would have taken a different tack. But maybe not. Mouse scored an internship at Microsoft, but he is a hacker at heart and too much of an anarchist to settle down in an office. The four friends all needed money, but they couldn't see themselves waiting tables or selling insurance. What started off as a joke about robbing banks became a conversation about the Pender method of crime. Forget the Hail Mary approach, he argued. Big crimes attract big crowds. Police, feds, and TV cameras. Ultimately, jail or death for the criminals. It was better to go for lower numbers, but higher volume. How about kidnapping mid-level executives with enough cash and the families to pay a "reasonable" ransom? It's an inconvenience at those stakes, not a crime, he said. Those victims would just want to see things return to normal. Pender's five-year plan involves staying professional and avoiding greed. Moving their kidnappings around. In five years, if they stick to "low-risk, no-violence" kidnappings, they can retire to the Maldives for a life of sipping drinks on the sand.

The five-year plan has three years to go when The Professionals begins. These kids have their kidnapping routine down cold. The $60,000 ransom still presents sticker shock to their victims; they cannot believe it is so low. All is going well until one victim, back home in Minnesota, decides to call the cops, and veteran Kirk Stevens of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is assigned to the case. When his investigation crosses state lines, Stevens calls the FBI and becomes temporarily attached to the Bureau. The kidnappers aren't aware that Stevens and FBI Agent Carla Windermere are fishing for them. Pender and his friends have a more immediate problem: they've kidnapped the wrong guy. As he's told them, they've just made the biggest motherfucking mistake of their lives. There are bigger pros than the kidnappers in the criminal pond. The Mob is now after them, too.

It's difficult to believe that this book is Laukkanen's debut. His voice is very assured, and his pacing is immaculate. From the moment the book begins––a Chicago victim-to-be checks his watch on the train and dreams of hot lasagna and cold beer, the Bulls game, and a little fun in the master bedroom later––until the end, it's a corkscrewing ride of look ma, no-hands thrills. This book is chock full of surprises. A very clever plot. Great plot twists. Sensational characters.

Owen Laukkanen (photo by Colin O'Connor)
Stevens and Windermere are appealing protagonists. He is happily married to an attorney and has a couple of kids; she has a boyfriend unhappily living in Minnesota who may not last far into this proposed series. That would make plenty of Minnesotans happy because Windermere is exceedingly attractive as well as a terrific investigator. She and Stevens have such a good time on the trail chasing these kidnappers and such an easy chemistry that despite Stevens' fear of flying and homesickness for his family, he wishes the case would never end. I felt the same way. I wanted Pender and his friends to succeed, but I didn't want Stevens and Windermere to fail. How did Laukkanen pull this off? I cannot wait for his next, although The Professionals will be a very tough act to follow.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Happy Hour

Some detectives are devotés of ale and beer, like Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse, Reginald Hill's Andy Dalziel and Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe. Others, like Lord Peter Wimsey, are wine experts. The whisky-drinking PI is a cliché of the hardboiled subgenre. The troubled alcoholic detective, like Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder, Ian Rankin's John Rebus and Jo Nesbø's Harry Hole, has become commonplace.

But what about a detective who just enjoys a good cocktail––and who might give us some tips?

Nick and Nora Charles

I have to start my quest with Dashiell Hammett's Nick and Nora Charles. No characters in detective fiction are better known for drinking cocktails. In the film of The Thin Man, Martinis and Rye Highballs seem to be their tipples of choice. The Charleses have a glass in hand even more in the book than in the movie, but Hammett has the frustrating habit of referring to "a drink" or "a cocktail" rather than enlightening us, mixology-wise.

We do get the occasional tantalizing references to Scotch and a soda siphon and, elsewhere, to a cocktail shaker, but that's about it. It appears we'll have to look for inspiration elsewhere.

James Bond

On screen, James Bond is legendary for his shaken-not-stirred Martinis. In Ian Fleming's books, he does drink a lot of Martinis; oddly, sometimes with gin, sometimes with vodka. I don't know anybody in real life who goes from one kind to the other. You're either a real Martini drinker––in which case you make it with gin (80-proof, not 90-proof jet fuel)––or you have a fear of flavor, in which case you make it with vodka.

But here's where it gets truly strange. One drink that Agent 007 orders in Casino Royale is a complete invention, made with gin and vodka. Today, we call it the Vesper:

Vesper Martini

3 ounces Gordon's Gin
1 ounce vodka
1/2 ounce Kina Lillet

Shake well with ice, strain into a deep champagne goblet and garnish with lemon peel.

Don't get the idea that Ian Fleming's James Bond is just a Martini man, though. He knows his way around every shelf behind the cocktail bar. Bond enjoys his Bourbon and Scotch, and even indulges in mixed drinks that verge on the girly side, like the Old Fashioned and the Stinger. I like to indulge in classic cocktails like the Old Fashioned myself, and a Stinger hits the spot every now and then. Maybe you'd enjoy one.


1-3/4 ounces brandy
3/4 ounce white creme de menthe

Pour ingredients into an Old Fashioned glass with crushed ice and stir, or shake ingredients with ice and strain into a cocktail glass.

Phryne Fisher

Kerry Greenwood's Phryne Fisher is a 1920s femme fatale and a private investigator in Melbourne, Australia. It wouldn't be quite proper for even a convention-breaker like Phryne to hang around cocktail bars. Fortunately, she doesn't have to. She has a liquor cabinet at home that would rival any cocktail bar's and, more important, she has that supreme mixologist, Mr. Butler, on hand 24 hours a day.

Like most modern authors, Kerry Greenwood is media savvy and has created a website for Phryne. She also knows what's important in life and has an entire section of the site devoted to Mr. Butler's concoctions. Some of these are classics, like the Old Fashioned, the Sidecar and the Martini. For parties, Mr. Butler likes to serve Champagne Punch or Sherry Cobbler.

When mixing cocktails for empty-headed blondes, he prescribes a Fallen Angel, made with gin, lemon juice, creme de menthe and a dash of bitters; or a Maiden's Prayer, made with gin, Cointreau and orange juice. For the more discerning drinker, Mr. Butler suggests the Negroni.


1 ounce gin
1 ounce sweet vermouth
1 ounce Campari

Pour ingredients into a tumbler filled with ice, add sparkling water and stir gently.

Despite his expertise with a cocktail shaker, Mr. Butler never touches mixed drinks. He prefers a good aged port.

Philip Marlowe

The Gimlet, a shimmering, mesmerizingly pale-green libation, is said––according to one dubious-sounding legend––to have been created by a surgeon in the British Navy named Gimlette. The drink is a mixture of gin and lime juice, which would presumably have been handy for battling scurvy. It probably didn't help so much for scrambling up the rigging, though. Anyway, skip forward in time and head west to the U.S., where Raymond Chandler made the Gimlet a favorite of his detective, Philip Marlowe.

In The Long Goodbye, Marlowe declared that a real Gimlet is half gin and half Rose's Lime Juice. I'm shaking my head at that one. I can't figure out how a tough guy like Marlowe could drink something as godawful sweet as that. Maybe he needed that much sweetened lime juice to overpower the taste of bathtub gin?

We are lucky enough these days to have excellent gin available to us, with flavorful botanicals. I like to let the gin shine by using this recipe:


3 ounces gin (Back River Gin if it's available to you)
1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
1/2 ounce Rose's Lime Juice

Shake with ice and strain into a chilled Martini glass. Garnish with a lime wedge.


I'll leave you with a recipe for my husband's favorite Martini, a smooth and golden beauty, and a reminder that no matter what time it is as you read this, it's five o'clock somewhere!

The Perfect Cocktail

1-1/2 ounces gin
1-1/2 teaspoon sweet vermouth
1-1/2 teaspoon dry vermouth
dash of bitters

Shake with ice and strain into a chilled Martini glass.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Edgar Award Winners 2012

The 2012 Edgar Awards "for distinguished work in the mystery genre" were presented tonight by the Mystery Writers of America. Nominees and winners for some of the categories are listed below. For a complete list, see here.


--> Gone by Mo Hayder
The Ranger by Ace Atkins
The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino
1222 by Anne Holt
Field Gray by Philip Kerr


--> Bent Road by Lori Roy
Red on Red by Edward Conlon
Last to Fold by David Duffy
All Cry Chaos by Leonard Rosen
Purgatory Chasm by Steve Ulfelder


--> The Company Man by Robert Jackson Bennett
The Faces of Angels by Lucretia Grindle
The Dog Sox by Russell Hill
Death of the Mantis by Michael Stanley
Vienna Twilight by Frank Tallis


--> Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard
The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars by Paul Collins
The Savage City: Race, Murder, and a Generation on the Edge by T.J. English
Girl, Wanted: The Chase for Sarah Pender by Steve Miller
The Man in the Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Imposter by Mark Seal

From Stephen King's blog


--> On Conan Doyle: Or, the Whole Art of Storytelling by Michael Dirda
The Tattooed Girl: The Enigma of Stieg Larsson and the Secrets Behind the Most Compelling Thrillers of our Time by Dan Burstein, Arne de Keijzer & John-Henri Holmberg
Agatha Christie: Murder in the Making by John Curran
Detecting Women: Gender and the Hollywood Detective Film by Philippa Gates
Scripting Hitchcock: Psycho, The Birds and Marnie by Walter Raubicheck and Walter Srebnick

On Poe's birthday, it's tradition
for a bottle of cognac and three
roses to be left at his gravesite 

--> "The Man Who Took His Hat Off to the Driver of the Train" - Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine by Peter Turnbull
"Marley's Revolution" - Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine by John C. Boland
"Tomorrow's Dead" - Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine by David Dean
"The Adakian Eagle" - Down These Strange Streets by Bradley Denton
"Lord John and the Plague of Zombies" - Down These Strange Streets by Diana Gabaldon
"The Case of Death and Honey" - A Study in Sherlock by Neil Gaiman


--> Learning to Swim by Sara J. Henry
Now You See Me by S.J. Bolton
Come and Find Me by Hallie Ephron
Death on Tour by Janice Hamrick
Murder Most Persuasive by Tracy Kiely


Martha Grimes


M is for Mystery Bookstore, San Mateo, California
Molly Weston, Meritorious Mysteries

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

One Is Not Enough

It’s not been published in a medical journal as far as I know, but I have been given to understand that one way of predicting whether one has a potential for addiction is by the Oreo test. You are safe enough if you can stop after eating one. This is one test I am sorry to say I have failed gloriously many times. Call me an Oreo addict. It doesn’t matter if they are the classic, the double stuff, the berry flavored or even the football shaped; they are welcome on my plate. I am confident that I am one of many, because the Oreo is celebrating its 100th birthday this year.

One other thing that I am addicted to is the murder mystery. Stories told about exotic locations, intrepid protagonists, are all tasty to me, but I do still appreciate home-grown classics as well. These days, I read a great many series and of these, there are a few that once begun trigger my addictive personality and I can't stop until I have finished them all.

Two that I will discuss are like the fine, chocolatey, crispy, but firm Oreo cookie outsides and one that I consider the sweet creamy center. When I first read The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson I was hooked by the first bite:
"There's nothing like a dead body to make you feel, well, removed. I guess the big city boys, cataloguing forty or fifty homicides a year get used to it but I never have. There is a religion worthy of this rite of passage, of taking that final step of being a vertical creature instead of a horizontal one. Yesterday you were just some nobody; today you're the honored dead with bread bags rubber banded over your hands. I secure what’s left of my dwindling confidence with the false confidence of the living, the deceitful wit of the eight-foot tall and bulletproof. Yea verily though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will live forever. If I don't, I sure won't become an unattended dead in the state of Wyoming with sheep sh*t all over me."
Sheriff Walt Longmire has been on the job for many years, and when he is first called to the scene of the crime he is positive that he is on the way to the great sheepicide he has been long awaiting. Instead, he finds the body of a young man who had been killed with a single shot through the back. Weapons experts determine that the weapon was most likely a very special rifle known as a Sharps rifle.

The history of the dead young man––one Cody Pritchard who, as Longmire puts it, departed for the far country from which no traveler ever born returns––is that he was no angel. Among other things, three years prior to his murder he was involved in a brutal gang rape of a young Cheyenne maiden who was afflicted with fetal alcohol syndrome.

The history of the Sharps rifle is that it was designed by Christian Sharps and adopted by the military in 1874 because it could kill a horse stone dead at 600 yards. It was used at Harpers Ferry, and by the Indians as well, as a buffalo rifle. Sharps shooter = sharpshooter.  It was the Sharps rifles that put the icing on the cake at Little Big Horn. There were few of these rifles around, and you needed to be a marksman to shoot this rifle cleanly. The list of people who owned one was short.

Within days, two of the other young men out of the three remaining involved in the rape case were found dead, killed by Sharps. Walt Longmire and his Deputy, Victoria Moretti, a Philadelphia transplant with a mouth worse than a sailor, are fighting the weather of the high plains of Wyoming, as well as fears that more deaths will happen before the killer is caught.

And that was a great and enticing beginning to the rest of the Craig Johnson series, which goes from strength to strength. There are now eight books in this award-winning series, the latest of which is As the Crow Flies, due out in May.

Slightly darker, but oh, so satisfying, is Martin Limón's series revolving around the exploits of a military duo in South Korea. After their introduction in Jade Lady Burning, I was anxious to read Slicky Boys.

George Sueño and his partner, Ernie Bascom, are both grateful to the army. What for? For George it is because he has a real life, money coming in, and has a job to do. He and Ernie are CID investigators for the 8th United States Army in Seoul, South Korea. They wear suits and do important work, something George never thought he would do growing up in East Los Angeles. Ernie's Chicago youth also left much to be desired.

After work, these two friends and partners spend their free time in Itaewon, a seedy part of town filled with bars and businesswomen. On this occasion, they do a favor for one of the girls they met and it results in the death of a British soldier. It turned out that he was a little shady, and as the CID investigators they need to find his murderer before they themselves are in hot water for perhaps leading him to his death.

Part of the investigation reveals connections to a widespread systematic thievery of the American enclaves. After the devastation of the Korean War 20 years before, people were desperate and starving. In the middle of these wastelands were American military settlements surrounded by barbed wire, and these were the only places with food, clothing and shelter. The people would barter with the GIs for the wealth they held, be it so small as a used bar of soap. Others were more aggressive, using thievery. "Slick boys" is what the GIs called them, and the South Koreans softened it to "slicky boys." Many were exactly that, boys of six to 10 years old. They would slip through the wire and take anything that could fit in their pockets.

8th Army PX
In George Sueño's time, they were very organized and he was going to find out just how much. What he found impressed him, because there was a certain honor to the way the losses to the American compounds were always kept just below what the US Government allotted for. No greed was permitted. In this way, they also hid from investigations.

As Sueño's investigation proceeds, he feels that he is becoming wrapped in the tentacles of a giant squid. There are more brutal murders and the partners find far-reaching fingers in the pie, such as the North Koreans, the South Korean police, the South Korean and the US Navies. The case is dragging them down to the depths of evil.  On the surface, at least part of the problem is the loss of military secrets.

Sueño has to lower himself to abide by the dictates of common thieves, but this did not really bother him. He was from East LA and he had been fighting his way up from the bottom all his life. His strength in his relations with the South Koreans is that he is one of the few who bothered to learn the language, to learn about the culture and to understand the desperate circumstances that force people into certain ways of life.

Martin Limón takes us to a South Korea that is fascinating, exciting and complex. He uses a bit of the history of the people he writes about to make us appreciate an Asian culture that has suffered for the last centuries. The seventh and, so far, the last in this series is Mr. Kill, published in 2011.

Some of us take off the outsides of the Oreo, lick them and put them aside for later. Then spend a sweet time with the creamy middle. My grandson is one of these. It is such fun to watch his ritual. My appreciation of this sugar jolt can be compared to the sensation I have when reading the Chris Grabenstein series that takes place on the Jersey shore where people go to escape.

In Tilt–A-Whirl, we are introduced to appealing partners John Ceepak, an Iraq war veteran and his sidekick, young Danny Boyle, who narrates the story.

“Some guys have a code they live by, some guys don't.
John Ceepak? He has a code.
Me? No code. Not unless you count my zip code or something."

So says Danny Boyle, a Sea Haven 2.5. That is to say a part-time summer cop in a tourist town on the Jersey shore called Sea Haven. He is a hometown boy who likes the job because of the cop cap, which he believes attracts the babes.

Ceepak, on the other hand, just finished a 13-year stint with the army, where he was in the military police. Before the army, he studied criminology. Before that, he was an Eagle Scout. Before that, Boyle figures he was one helluva hall monitor in kindergarten. He is a cop 24/7. One thing they have in common is The Boss, Bruce Springsteen.

Every morning, they meet at 7:30 at the Pancake Palace to discuss the plans for the day. It begins as a girl runs down the boardwalk covered with blood. The murder victim found on the Tilt-A-Whirl ride is Reginald Hart, a wealthy real estate tycoon also known as Reginald Hartless because of the lowdown tactics he has used in the past to drive tenants out of buildings.

Ceepak's code is simple. He will not tell a lie, or steal, or cheat, or tolerate those who do. It is an honor code. It is something Danny Boyle is learning to live by as well. He is having to grow up this summer and it is about time. As the story unfolds, we learn a little about what makes John Ceepak the man he is, and the Tilt-A-Whirl murder stretches his sense of honor to the limits.

Chris Grabenstein has a wonderful way with words. From the moment the story begins, you are on a wild, exhilarating ride, with the wind in your face, the tang of salt air mingling with the smell of popcorn and the sound of laughter in the background. Grabenstein paints distinct visuals that remain with you long after the book is finished. There is one description of a chase of a wild-haired man through a working car wash that made me laugh like a hyena. So many of his descriptions keep such a big smile on your face that this dead seriousness of the crime and the criminality of what goes on in Sea Haven and elsewhere is lightened a bit.

In this series, which is followed by Mad Mouse––also the name of a ride at an amusement park––there is a lot of amusement. But there is plenty of seriousness as well, always lightened by Bruce Springsteen quotes chosen appropriately for the moment. At the end of Tilt-A-Whirl, when John and Danny have to pick their spirits up, Danny is reminded of the song Springsteen wrote for the New York City firefighters after 9/11, the ones who went into the fire because they knew it was the right thing to do.

May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love give us love

Danny decides to work on his code as well.

The seventh and latest of the group is Fun House, due out in May. Meanwhile, I have to dip into my spring yellow-centered Oreos, because I am salivating already.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Water, Blood, Thieves

Robin Hood. Liberal Democrats. Donald Westlake's Dortmunder. These folks aren't related. What do they have in common? They all want to take money from the super rich. Granted, Dortmunder doesn't want that money for the poor. He only wants to redistribute it to his own pockets. But Dortmunder's targets are institutions, bad guys or people who won't starve without the money and no one can be blamed for cheering him on.

Likewise, it's easy to root for Carr and his gang in Peter Spiegelman's Thick as Thieves because the filthy rich in Carr's crosshairs are so disgustingly filthy. They are mean and despicable people. Their money comes from human trafficking, illegal money operations and the drug trade.

It was relatively simple to steal money from fictional rich people like these 50 years ago. Using dynamite on their personal safes or somehow finagling their Swiss bank account information did the trick. Now, fancy-pants computer theft allows accounts to be stripped of millions without even changing out of PJs. A writer's goal is to make it both plausible and exciting.

It's all I can do to figure out email and to make hotel reservations online, but you don't need to take my word for it that Spiegelman knows what he's doing. He worked in financial services and software industries for decades. Nice for us he didn't use this time to become a crushing bore before turning novelist. Spiegelman has written a series about John March, a private detective who comes from a family of merchant bankers. In his first standalone, the suspenseful Thick as Thieves, Carr and his fellow crooks want to pull one last heist so large it will allow them to retire. If they fail, the dead don't need money for retirement.

Carr isn't the type one would expect on the law's wrong side. At one time he worked for the CIA. The CIA fired him because they didn't entirely trust him. Then Carr was fired from his private security job for hitting a client, and the charismatic Declan recruited him for a life of crime. The group's dynamics worked well. Carr, detail oriented, ran operations. Dennis, the string-bean, was the computer expert. Bobby and the short-tempered Latin Mike were experienced at physical break-ins. Valerie, a beautiful chameleon-like woman, played a Mata Hari type of role. The group's camaraderie was shattered before Thick as Thieves begins when a night in Mexico went catastrophically wrong and they lost two members of the gang, including Declan.

As the new leader, Carr has few of Declan's people skills. The group members are barely getting along and it doesn't help morale that Carr ruminates about that night in Mexico. Valerie has moved into his bed and, after seeing her ply her charms, he questions whether she is playing him too. Carr doesn't know whether he can trust the others. The skills he applies to analyzing crime schemes don't translate as well to analyses of himself or his colleagues, but he doesn't have much time for that. The big scheme needs everyone's attention. It involves a series of crimes, extorted cooperation and split-second timing. Carr's paranoia makes him worry about whether everyone will not only live through the heist itself, but its successful aftermath.

None of the crooks in Thick as Thieves are related by blood but this elegantly written book looks at the ties between them. It's much more than just a thriller involving computer theft and money, although the crime is an agreeably intricate and dangerous one. This is an outta sight read.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Book Review of Philip Kerr's Prague Fatale

Prague Fatale by Philip Kerr

Do you know Bernie Gunther, Philip Kerr's Nazi-era Berlin detective? Berliners are known for their cynicism and mordant humor, but even among Berliners, Bernie Gunther stands out. Like a Teutonic Sam Spade, Bernie is a wisecracking, tough-talking hardhead who stubbornly refuses to kowtow to anybody, even when he knows it would be a lot better for his health and well-being.

In Prague Fatale, number eight in Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther series, it's 1941 and Bernie has returned to Berlin from the Eastern Front. He's relieved to have left the East, but he's not happy and is unlikely ever to be happy again. He's seen too much, done too much. As a member of the SD, the intelligence arm of the SS, he witnessed "special actions," in which Jews––men, women and children––were murdered en masse, and Bernie himself executed Russian POWs suspected of being agents for the Soviet NKVD intelligence service.

Now back as a detective with Berlin's Kriminalpolizei ("Kripo"), Bernie is investigating the suspicious death of a railway worker who'd come to Berlin from the Netherlands. That's the investigation Bernie's officially assigned to. Off the books, though, he's investigating the story behind a mysterious package a bar girl was asked to deliver. Bernie's unofficial investigation began when he rescued the bar girl from an attack on the menacing, blacked-out streets of the capital. If there's one thing Bernie can't resist, it's a beautiful damsel in distress, and this bar girl has landed herself in some real trouble.

Reinhard Heydrich
A man with no sympathy for the Nazi cause of the Nazis he's met, Bernie has always tried to keep away from the powers that be in the Third Reich. But, not for the first time, he is collared for a special assignment by Reinhard Heydrich, head of both the Gestapo and the Kripo, and newly-appointed Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia (the current Czech Republic). Heydrich is not only Bernie's ultimate boss, he is also known as "Hitler's Hangman" and "the man with the iron heart." Heydrich tells Bernie that there is a conspiracy to murder him and he wants Bernie to become part of Heydrich's detail and flush out the would-be killer.

In the countryside near Prague, at Heydrich's palatial home (stolen from a Jewish family), Bernie has to rub shoulders with a large collection of Nazi bigwigs, there to celebrate Heydrich's appointment as Reichsprotektor. They are every bit as unsavory as Bernie knew they would be, and he hopes to finish his assignment and get out of Prague pronto. His hopes are dashed when, one morning, the body of Heydrich's newest adjutant is found shot twice in the victim's locked bedroom.

Heydrich puts Bernie in charge of the investigation. It's a puzzler. How was the man killed in a locked room? Is there something in this new adjutant's past that led to his murder? Is there a thread that connects the adjutant's murder, the attempts to murder Heydrich, Heydrich's search for a Czech spy within Germany's upper echelons and maybe even Bernie's investigations back in Berlin? On a more personal note, what price will Bernie have to pay for subjecting Heydrich's high-powered Nazi thugs to questioning, Gunther-smartmouth-style?

Author Philip Kerr walks a fine line with the Bernie Gunther series. The books are written in a wisecracking style, and we laugh at Bernie's observations about the absurdities of life in the Third Reich. But, over the years of his experience with the Nazis, he never kids himself about what he learns of the depths of their depravity, or makes excuses about the complicity of all Germans, himself included, in the regime's crimes.

This novel and its predecessor (Field Gray) are the first in the Bernie Gunther series to go into detail about Bernie's World War II experiences, including his service in the SS. Kerr manages to keep Bernie a deeply flawed but sympathetic character despite that. In Bernie, we see a man in a country gone mad, where conventional morality has been subverted to a genocidally racist philosophy. He is faced with horrible choices and his moral dilemmas force us to ask ourselves what we would do in Bernie's situation.

Kerr is clearly well-versed in the history of Nazi Germany. He  places Bernie in the midst of real characters and events, and weaves together fact and fiction to make an entirely believable story. Kerr doesn't use his depth of knowledge in a show-offish way but, instead, he subtly imbues every scene with the language, sights, sounds, tastes and smells of the time and place, so that the overall effect is that we live in that world with Bernie.

Although this is the eighth book in the Bernie Gunter series, it can easily be read on its own, without having read other books in the series. In some ways, it's a bit of a departure from the other books in the series, because of the country-house, locked-room aspect that is reminiscent of a Golden-Age  mystery. (Agatha Christie is even referenced.) It's also a much more straightforward narrative than some of the recent books, which have tended to tell stories set in two or more time periods and places. But what hasn't changed is what has always made this series so compelling: powerful characterization and storytelling, and a masterful blend of fact and fiction.

Note: A version of this review appears on the Amazon product product page under my Amazon user name. I received a free review copy of this book.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Play's the Thing: Book Review of Vincent O'Neil's Death Troupe

Death Troupe by Vincent H. O'Neil

Despite Hamlet's assertion, most stories about plays and actors bore me silly. The often over-the-top histrionics, outsized egos and edgy nerves of the characters wear out my patience long before the mystery is solved. Do performers actually behave that dramatically in real life? Never mind, forget I asked. So I was surprised to find myself buying Vincent H. O'Neil's Death Troupe late one night immediately after reading the sample.

In this book, the play's the thing indeed, and impresario and director Jerome Barron of Jerome Barron Players has developed an unusual twist on community-based theatre. He contracts with communities to write and perform a unique mystery play set locally and using local legends and stories in the plot. His writers arrive months before the performance and live openly in the community, absorbing the local atmosphere and soliciting stories and suggestions from residents as they write the play. Other staff arrive on irregular schedules, surreptitiously planting clues to the mystery that are hotly debated on the website forum the troupe maintains. The actors rehearse several different endings, and no one but the director knows which one will finally be used. This secrecy has been so successful that Barron has never had to honor his standing pledge to refund the price of the tickets to every patron if a majority can guess whodunnit before the last act of the single performance.

Jack Glynn had been the first writer for the troupe, leaving only when fellow writer Ryan Berencourt stole his lover, actress Allison Green. He returned home to Arizona and managed to sell a script to Hollywood for a hefty amount of money. Two years later, Ryan apparently commits suicide following a performance in California that resulted in the suicide of a real descendant of the murderer Ryan wrote into his play. Jack returns for Ryan's funeral and is persuaded by Barron to finish writing the new play in progress despite the misgivings of private investigator Wade Parker, the troupe's front man, who is suspicious of Ryan's "suicide."

February in the town of Schuyler Mills, New York, is quite a shock for an Arizona boy. Unable to run for exercise, Jack takes lessons in cross-country skiing from Kelly Sykes, the township's public relations agent, who is assigned to introduce him around and show him the ropes. Setting off one afternoon on a brief solo trek, Jack gets lost following a trail sign that points the wrong way. When a fastener on one of his new skis inexplicably breaks, he nearly freezes to death floundering for miles through two feet of virgin snow. PI Wade believes that the ski was deliberately damaged and the trail signs turned. But who would want to kill Jack, and why?

The first "clue" to appear for the performance is the realistic severed head of a dummy floating in an ice fishing hole. Jack is astonished; Barron hadn't informed him beforehand and doesn't normally plant grisly clues. The troupe's website denies responsibility, but the residents love it, and pass the gruesome trophy around for weeks. As other creative and relevant clues appear, only some of which the troupe has planted, Jack worries that someone may have hacked the play on his computer. To confuse the issue, he secretly commissions a pair of ice sculpture clues that magically appear in the center of town overnight. Again, the residents wholeheartedly embrace and expand on the clues, creating a veritable ice sculpture garden.

Characterization was a little generic and the motive for the crimes seemed farfetched and weak, but the complexity of implementing the unique performance of this traveling magic mystery show and the town's good-humored participation more than made up for these flaws. The setting and minor characters were well-developed and Jack is an engaging, quick-thinking protagonist who I hope will become more three-dimensional in subsequent books. The clues, both real and false, were wonders of imaginative showmanship. For the impresario, "all the world's a stage," and Barron's particular genius is to capitalize and improvise on that. I heartily wish his troupe were coming to my town, and look forward to the next adventures in this engaging new series.