Friday, June 29, 2012

Book Reviews of Christopher Fowler's Bryant & May and the Memory of Blood and Rebecca Cantrell's A City of Broken Glass

Bryant & May and the Memory of Blood (also published as The Memory of Blood: A Peculiar Crimes Unit Mystery) by Christopher Fowler

In Christopher Fowler's Peculiar Crimes Unit series, the PCU is the red-headed stepchild of London policing, despite the fact that its case clearance rate is stellar and its budget tiny. The PCU's unpopularity with the police and government establishment is largely due to its chief, Arthur Bryant. Bryant is an ancient, shambling man in shabby and soup-stained clothing who is fascinated by history, the occult and odd phenomena, but who lacks any people skills or ability to deal with the real world.

In Bryant's world, phones malfunction after being smothered by toffee melting in his pocket, important evidence is tainted or goes missing, and entire buildings may be accidentally destroyed. After losing track of his car countless times, his solution is to make a habit of parking it in places that make people really angry, since that means when he's searching for it, people will remember having seen it. His way of dealing with a potentially troublesome journalist is to pretend to show her an iron maiden torture device, lock her in it and stroll off, forgetting all about her.

Bryant's principal colleague and best friend is John May, who is as dapper as Bryant is disheveled, and spends much of his time smoothing over ruffled feathers after Bryant has unfortunately been allowed to speak to witnesses or superiors. Other members of the PCU staff register on the misfit scale, too, just at a much lower level than Bryant.

In the latest PCU book, Bryant & May and the Memory of Blood, the PCU is called in on a horrific case of the murder of a theater producer's infant son that is committed while the producer and his wife host a party to celebrate a new play with the production's cast and crew. What puts this crime within the PCU's remit is its bizarre and challenging circumstances. The boy was throttled and thrown out a sixth-floor window without anyone having witnessed any of the crime. The boy's nursery door was locked from the inside, and there is no evidence that will help identify the murderer. The crime scene is turned from puzzling to grotesque and eerie by the Punch puppet on the floor near the crib, and the fact that the impressions on the boy's neck match Punch's wooden hands.

While the rest of the PCU interview the party guests, construct timelines and analyze alibis, Arthur Bryant immerses himself in the arcana of puppetry, stage props and devices, and the history of the theater and of London buildings. He consults with carnies and Wiccans, and even a Victorian automaton of the seer Madame Blavatsky.

Bryant has a few other matters to distract him along the way. He and his housekeeper are being evicted from their longtime residence immediately––actually, it's only "immediately" because Bryant has spent months successfully avoiding paying any attention to the notices and his housekeeper's warnings. On another front, Bryant is dismayed when the appealing young woman who is helping him with his memoir is killed, and a CD of highly inflammatory and top-secret material culled from the memoir goes missing. To round off the distractions, hints begin to appear that someone in government is taking steps to discredit the PCU badly enough to force it to disband.

Bryant is convinced that a psychological drama is being played out by the staging of the murder and the use of the Punch puppet. The killer is trying to send a message. But what is the message, and for whom is it intended? Bryant's conviction grows as other guests at the party are murdered; their deaths also bizarre and apparently staged with reference to the Punch and Judy plays. As time goes by with no solution in sight, Bryant risks it all on one throw of the dice. He gathers the suspects and vows to his team that he will have his murderer by midnight or retire.

There is nobody like Christopher Fowler for combining dark, even horrifying, crime with comedy. Within seconds after wincing at a description of a crime scene, you may burst out laughing at one of Bryant's scathing observations.

Despite the contemporary setting and the (very occasional) use of modern forensic tools, PCU books harken back to classic mysteries, where a careful analysis of the clues and the suspects' movements––and the ability to spot red herrings and deceit––allow the reader to engage in the detection of the killer alongside the PCU team. Bryant & May and the Memory of Blood also provides the bonus of an entertaining education in the history of Grand Guignol plays and puppetry. I never had any particular interest in those subjects before, but I was fascinated. Now, that's the sign of a masterful writer.

This is the ninth book in the Peculiar Crimes Unit series, but if you haven't read the previous books, you'll be fine starting with this one. Bryant & May and the Invisible Code, the next book in the series, will be published in the UK by Doubleday in August. It's no mystery whether I'll buy it or wait for the US publication, which looks like it will be at least six months later.

*  *  *  *  *

A City of Broken Glass by Rebecca Cantrell

In Rebecca Cantrell's Hannah Vogel series, Hannah is a Berlin reporter in the 1930s who runs into trouble––a lot of trouble––with a variety of Nazi brownshirts and members of the regime, and ends up having to leave Germany for Switzerland and live under an alias. In this fourth book in the Hannah Vogel series, it's late 1938 and Hannah is on a reporting assignment to Poland from her Swiss newspaper. She's supposed to cover a local festival––not exactly hard-hitting stuff––and has brought her 13-year-old adopted son, Anton, along. Hannah drops her festival assignment when she learns that thousands of Jews of Polish heritage have been violently driven from Germany by the Nazis and are being held by Polish authorities in barns and factory buildings, with little food and no facilities.

Gestapo officer
A risky phone call back to Berlin on behalf of one of the victims leads to Hannah's arrest by the Gestapo and transport in a car trunk back over the border to Germany. Rescued by her old lover, Lars, she and Anton must hide out in Berlin until they can plan an escape from this country where they will be in grave danger if discovered. Despite the risk, Hannah can't resist investigating the case of a missing child, a murder, and the mystery of who betrayed her to the Gestapo.

It's a challenge to review this book in a way that will be helpful to potential readers, because this series has two very different potential audiences. One audience is readers who enjoy romantic mysteries, or at least mysteries with a strong focus on the protagonist's personal life and concerns. If you're in this category, it's likely you'll enjoy A City of Broken Glass. And, if you've enjoyed previous books in the Hannah Vogel series, this is the best since the first book, A Trace of Smoke.

The second potential audience is readers who seek out mysteries, thrillers and espionage books dealing with the Nazi and World War II eras. This group may well be less than enthusiastic about the book. I'll tell you why, but first a little background.

Herschel Grynszpan
The historical events that this story is built around begin with the mass deportation of Polish Jews from Germany in October, 1938. The "aktion" was sudden and violent, leaving 12,000 Jews stranded in the town of Zbaszyn, population about 6,000. One family, the Grysnzpans, had a son, Herschel, then living in Paris. When Herschel received a postcard from his sister describing the family's treatment, he was so frustrated and furious that he went to the German embassy in Paris and shot Ernst vom Rath, a member of the staff. (Reportedly, vom Rath was actually a bit of a Nazi critic and was under Gestapo investigation at the time of the shooting.) Two days later, vom Rath died. Nazi propaganda chief Josef Goebbels used the death as a pretext to invite attacks on Germany's Jews by announcing that "spontaneous demonstrations" against the Jewish community would not be interfered with. This set off the orgy of violence known as Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass.

Synagogue on fire on Kristallnacht
The book begins with Hannah interviewing deportees in Zbaszyn and ends with the dramatic resolution of her investigations as the horrifying violence of Kristallnacht begins. These bookends of the story are well done and historically accurate (except that, as author Cantrell is quick to point out, she leaves more time between the mass deportation and Kristallnacht than there was in actuality.) Though Cantrell is known for her thorough research and evocative period atmosphere, in this book the history is Wikipedia-level stuff. Anyone who regularly reads Nazi-era history or fiction will find no new facts or insights here.

The story between the two historical events that begin and end the book is the place where the two potential reader audiences may part ways. While Hannah investigates, she has plenty of time to devote to her troubled relationship with Lars, and learning what he has been doing in the two years since they parted. It's an interesting enough story, and their troubled romance is well presented. This will be satisfying to the first type of potential audience. For those who prefer a focus on the history, rather than the personal, though, the emphasis on the Hannah/Lars relationship may feel like unnecessary filler.

A City of Broken Glass will be published by Macmillan on July 17, 2012.

Note: I received a free review copy of A City of Broken Glass. Versions of these reviews appear on each book's Amazon product page under my Amazon user name.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Book Review of Ben H. Winters' The Last Policeman

The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

It's March 20, 2012. Next October 3, less than six months from now, the 6.5 km asteroid called Maia will collide with Earth. The stark announcement, made last year by shaken and tearful scientists, was watched on television by hundreds of millions worldwide. By early April, astronomers will be able to pinpoint its impact site. Over half of the world’s population will be killed in the event and its immediate aftermath. Those who survive the ensuing months of tsunamis, earthquakes, fires, riots, and disease will face decades or centuries of cold, dark night and slow starvation before the skies clear.

So far, humanity hasn't been handling it too badly. Church attendance, suicides, and drug use are spiking; the stock markets worldwide have crashed, and many people have walked away from jobs and homes to "go bucket list." Most, however, soldier on, trying to survive from day to day. There has been no gas for private vehicles since October, which solved so many intransigent national problems it's a pity we didn't try it sooner. Certain legal rights have been suspended or modified for the common weal; anyone arrested for a crime can be held for up to six months without a hearing––a life sentence, most likely.

One March morning, newly promoted Detective Henry Palace of the Concord, New Hampshire, police department is called to the site of an another suicide. Peter Anthony Zell, a 38-year-old insurance actuary, appears to have hanged himself with a belt in the restroom of a MacDonald’s restaurant. There have been so many suicides by hanging in Concord recently that it has been nicknamed "Hangertown." A couple of odd elements make Henry dissatisfied with this as suicide, so he investigates it as a murder, using the dwindling and increasingly unreliable resources available to him. Cell phones work only sometimes; so few people are bothering to pay their bills that companies have neither money nor staff to repair damaged infrastructure. The insurance company that employed the victim had gone back to paper because of the unreliability of the internet, and the records that Zell had been working on are inexplicably missing.

Any light at the end of this tunnel?
As another detective wearily asks, "What does it matter, Palace? We're all gonna die soon anyway." That is the defining question of the book, and Concord's newest detective, stubbornly slogging to solve a murder only he believes in, answers it for himself, at least indirectly. Other characters answer it differently. To what degree and to whom will morality and law matter when society as a whole is doomed? Responsibility and order, or hedonism and chaos; each person must make his own choice.

This procedural is the first in a projected trilogy. There were a number of societal elements not addressed here; survivalists, food looting and riots, and the wholesale murder and mayhem I would have expected in the circumstances. These issues may arise after the impact site is known; there's not much use planning for the long term if you know you won't survive the first 10 minutes. Despite the relative weakness of the mystery itself, I am definitely hooked on this eerily plausible pre-apocalyptic setting, and look forward to the next book in the series.

Note: I was given a free review copy of The Last Policeman, which will be released by Random House on July 10, 2012. A version of this review may appear on Amazon and GoodReads, under my user names there.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Neither Unbearably Nor Astonishingly Dull

This young man is obviously not riveted.
H. R. F. Keating died last year, but he left us with Inspector Ganesh Ghote of Bombay, India, and some wonderful books of crime-fiction criticism, including my last night's read, The Bedside Companion to Crime. While critic Julian Symons slights the "humdrums," Keating celebrates the "delightfully dull." They are comforting books because they're smoothly written, and you know they will end with justice done. Now, you may be thinking that the rest of my post is about good cozies or traditional mysteries. Nah. Recently, I've been reading too many books of twists and turns to be straightforward like that. Below is a variety of books, none of which is unbearably or astonishingly dull.

These folks could use a big antidote to boredom. Perhaps Andrew Gross's shocking EYES WIDE OPEN.

Michael Gruber: Valley of Bones (2005). The dapper Afro-Cuban Miami detective Iago Paz first appears in Gruber's fun debut, Tropic of Night. Now he's back on a case of defenestration (is that a stupendous word or what?). A loathsome Sudanese hoodlum goes out a hotel window (yep, that's what defenestration is), and inside the room is a praying Emmylou Dideroff, a member of the Society of Nursing Sisters of the Blood of Christ. Paz bundles her off to write what might be a long and heroic confession. Then he and psychologist Lorna Wise investigate Emmylou's colorful past and the crime. Happily, they also find time to trade quips and canoodle. Very entertaining.

Michael Innes: A Private View (1952, APA One Man Show). In this playful and witty book, a dead young painter's masterpiece is stolen from under the nose of Sir John Appleby, assistant commissioner of New Scotland Yard. The reader revisits the Duke of Horton's mansion, scene of Hamlet, Revenge!, and watches Sir John and his underling, Inspector Cadover, investigate. This lively story should be of particular interest to readers who enjoy art mysteries.

Fitting twin cities: the Perthshire, England village of Dull and the town of Boring in Oregon, USA

Jon Fasman: The Unpossessed City (2008). Fasman likes to jam-pack his books with detailed information and story lines. He did this in his debut thriller, The Geographer's Library, about a New England cub reporter who, when assigned to write the obituary of an academic, opens a Pandora's box of international intrigue instead. Now, Fasman sends Jim Vilatzer, a Washington, D. C. loser, to Russia, where his interviews about life in the gulags attract the attention of the authorities and the CIA. Who isn't interested in modern Russia?

Minette Walters: The Shape of Snakes (2001). Annie Butts suffers from Tourette's syndrome and at the hands of the cruel kids in her working-class London neighborhood. She dies in the street in what is ruled an accident. Twenty years later, her determined former neighbor, Mrs. Ranelagh, is back to finish her investigation into Annie's death. Man, what a read! Walters can give Ruth Rendell's darkest books a run for their money.

Peter Dickinson: The Glass-Sided Ants' Nest (1968, APA Skin Deep). The always-original Dickinson's debut features a New Guinea tribe called the Ku that has moved to London at the end of WWII. When an elderly chief is murdered, Supt. Pibble investigates. Humorous, interesting psychology and anthropology, and unique characters.

Reginald Hill: The Woodcutter (2011). Betrayal and revenge in a complex story about an English woodcutter's son, Sir Wilfred Hadda. Hill's last book is a twisted fairytale and a gorgeous stand-alone of psychological suspense. You'll savor each of the 500 pages.

Sally Spencer: Echoes of the Dead (2011). The self-confessed murderer of young Lilly Dawson is dying. He now confesses that his confession was a lie. DCI Monika Paniatowski must clear up a 22-year-old case from her beloved mentor Charlie Woodend, now retired.

Ross Macdonald: The Ivory Grin (1952). Private eye Lew Archer in a nicely convoluted plot about a corrupt California town. You've gotta read some classic American hardboiled crime fiction this summer: Ross Macdonald, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain.

Eliot Pattison: The Lord of Death (2009). A subtle and complicated thriller featuring an exiled investigator from Beijing, Shan Tao Yun. Shan is now in Tibet, where he runs into several deaths that arouse his curiosity.

Marcia Clark: Guilt by Association (2011). Yes, this is the O. J. Simpson prosecutor. Trust me, she does a far better job as a writer than she did in that trial. Her female prosecutor, Rachel Knight, is gutsy and smart, and this debut about a rape case is wonderful.

Michael Gilbert: The Black Seraphim (1984). A harried young barrister vacations in Melchester, the cathedral town of Gilbert's first book, Close Quarters. He doesn't have an easy time of it, due to his relationship with his beloved and the murderous antagonisms among the clergy. You can count on Gilbert for an intelligent English mystery. Gilbert was a lawyer, and many of his books feature lawyers. Does that sound dull? Not when a client is found dead in a deed box, as in Smallbone Deceased. A nice bit of trivia about Gilbert is that he once had Raymond Chandler as a client.

Tom Wolfe: The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) and Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970). Okay, not mysteries in the traditional sense, but if you haven't yet read these books, it's my duty to mention them. Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters on the road, and Leonard Bernstein and his friends raise funds for the Black Panthers. Perfect for a trip back to the 1960s via reading in the hammock.

We'd love to hear your ideas about un-dull reading designed to dispel the doldrums of summer.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Book Review of Ben MacIntyre's Double Cross

Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies by Ben Macintyre

A Serbian playboy, a melodramatic Pole, a bisexual Peruvian heiress to a guano fortune that was never enough to keep up with her gambling habit, a failed Spanish chicken farmer and a Frenchwoman of Russian heritage who would place her little white dog (inexplicably named Babs, even though he was male) above any other loyalty. What is this, an espionage team or a cast list for a Monty Python sketch? Ben Macintyre does it again; unearths the story of a highly improbable, but true, high-stakes World War II espionage caper, carried out by a team of supremely eccentric characters.

These five agents were the key players in Britain's Operation Double Cross. By March 1943, Britain had captured 126 spies and turned several into double agents. Some other German agents volunteered themselves to work for Britain. At first, the British used the double agents to give the Germans "chicken feed," true intelligence data the British could afford to give up, but once British intelligence became convinced that they controlled every German spy in the country, they decided the network could be used to mislead the Germans on a large scale and affect the outcome of the war.

The plan was to use the Double Cross agents as part of a massive and elaborate plan to persuade the Germans that the D-Day invasion would take place, not at Normandy, but at Pas de Calais and via Norway. The espionage operation was carried out over many months, and involved all kinds of fakery to persuade Germany that vast armies were massing at the best spots in England and Scotland to invade at the false invasion points. The Double Cross agents passed on thousands of messages to advance this fakery, and other tidbits of false intelligence to further the plot.

The Germans wholeheartedly believed in "their" agents, showering them with fulsome praise, money, and even an Iron Cross in one case. It seems that though the Germans had a good deal of success capturing spies and resistance operatives in occupied territories, they were terrible at spotting double agents. I had to wonder if it had something to do with key differences in their culture and national psyche versus those of the British.

British intelligence reveled in the gamesmanship and double-dealing required for Double Cross. The war was, of course, deadly serious, but the British intelligence services almost gleefully embraced the most elaborate and absurd trickery in pursuit of their strategic goals. They hatched wild ploys, like breaking up Germany's homing pigeon communication network by infiltrating it with British pigeons, and spending weeks training an actor to impersonate the colorful Field Marshall Montgomery and appear in Gibraltar as the D-Day invasion approached, so that the Germans would be lulled into complacency.

The British intelligence services were filled with old school chums who played cricket at Eton and Harrow, Oxford and Cambridge, and enjoyed the Times crossword puzzle. All that practice learning to disguise the curve of a googly pitch and understand a cryptic crossword seems to have come in a lot more handy than the Germans' tradition of giving each other dueling scars.

Kudos to Ben Macintyre, author of Agent Zigzag and Operation Mincemeat, for bringing us another unique and stranger-than-fiction tale of the sometimes farcical, but always riveting, intelligence agents and operations that helped win World War II.

For additional reading, consider J. C. Masterman's The Double-Cross System. Masterman was the head of the Twenty Committee, which devised and ran Operation Double Cross. ("Twenty" was chosen as the name for the committee because the roman numerals for the number 20 are XX, or a double cross.) Masterman was an author, an Oxford don and avid cricketer. He wrote two mysteries: An Oxford Tragedy and The Case of the Four Friends.

Note: I was given a free review copy of Double Cross, which will be published by Bloomsbury on July 31, 2012.  A version of this review appears on the Amazon product page, under my Amazon user name.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Going Dutch

A few weeks ago, I was tempted to try a mystery that was billed as humorous and took place in Holland. The title beckoned also. It was Dutch Me Deadly, by Maddy Hunter, part of the Passport to Peril series. I wouldn’t put it in into the category of geezer lit, because the seniors were all curmudgeons or ditzes and dimwits. The humor went under my head as if I were looking for Edam, and what I got was American cheese. Now, I know people who won’t eat anything else––members of my extended family no less––but if you are looking for some Gouda reading I do have a few favorite Dutch authors who have brought me hours of pleasure. The ones that get translated are certainly prolific and they are well worth your time.

A. C. Baantjer has written about 70 books, with only about two-thirds having been translated. DeKok and the Disillusioned Corpse is a good example of his work. On a windy, damp March day in Amsterdam, a body is fished out of a canal. There is no identification on the person and the only clue to his identity is the way he is dressed, in black turtleneck, black jeans and new Keds. Detective Inspector DeKok (Baantjer's de Cock is DeKok in U.S. publications) and his partner, Vledder, are quite surprised when, the next day, a beautiful young woman comes into the police station, claiming she knows the victim and they were, in fact, lovers. Unfortunately, the little she knows about him doesn't include his real name.

Amsterdam is a city of canals, in a system that is even more extensive than that of Venice, a little-known fact that the citizens of the city are proud of. They are also proud of the fact that murder is somewhat of a rare happening in this beautiful city. Death, on the other hand, is common because of widespread drug addiction and alcoholism. In fact, DeKok wants to consider an accidental death in the current matter at hand but the postmortem reveals the fatal wound on the young man's face. These two detectives have only one cryptic clue to start them on their search. The dead man was heard to ask "Can a dead person commit murder?" a day or so before his death.

The story is gripping and beautifully complex, with DeKok's character a subtle mix of psychology, history and intuition that make him a sleuth many compare to Maigret. I like him a bit more than Maigret, though. He is a maverick, a Luddite and, most of all, a compassionate man.

Nicolas Freeling has some 37 books to his credit, and my favorite is Gun Before Butter. This book won the Grand Prix du roman de l'Académie française and was shortlisted for the Gold Dagger from the British Crime Writers' Association. It is perhaps one of Freeling’s best known. The title paraphrases an old 1960s slogan "guns and butter" that echoes back to WWII and refers to the economy and governmental choices about which product to produce more of, especially during a time of war. Hermann Goering said that guns would make the Germans powerful, while butter would make them fat. (And who would know that better than the man often called Fat Hermann?)

Inspector Piet Van der Valk of the Amsterdam police would rather be in Amsterdam than anywhere else. He had just come back from the country and had his fill of fresh air. The first case he is told about is that of a young girl involved in a public fracas. Her name was Lucienne Englebert. It came to his attention because Van der Valk was known to be a character who was sometimes quite rude about Dutch provincialism and isolationism. He was a nonconformist, but because he was good at his job, he had license to be a maverick at times. In revenge, his co-workers treated him like a buffoon. He was given the odd jobs; anybody with a funny name or a funny business came to him to be straightened out.

The affair of “The Diamond Cutters," which was his private name for the case, was at its base a romance, because he fell for the beautiful Lucienne. Years later, as he pondered the mystery while he relaxed with a good meal, he remembered every time he saw Lucienne. He said the case was like a diamond, which while able to cut others into facets, could throw out light and sparks and strange fire.

Critics have also compared Van der Valk to Maigret, partially based on the fact that he liked to think and eat. Well, so do I.

One series that I have read in totality is Janwillem van de Wetering's. Outsider in Amsterdam, the first, is based on the characters of Adjutant-Detective Henk Grijpstra, and Detective-Sergeant Rinus de Gier. Grijpstra is heavy, middle-aged, and not happily married. He is the senior partner of the team. He is a Frisian who, in his youth, dreamed of being a jazz musician or a painter, and when a set of drums mysteriously appeared in police headquarters, he appropriated them.

Janwillem van de Wetering
De Gier is younger and attractive, with brown eyes and curly hair, mustache and always wearing his denim suit, which appears to be the height of fashion. He is single, handsome, and very successful with women. He is a deep thinker, frequently pondering the meaning of life. He is, like Grijpstra, an amateur musician. He often carries a small flute, and in odd moments he and Grijpstra improvise together in their office. Pictures of van de Wetering make me think he modeled de Gier after himself.

The third character present in all the books is the elderly Commissaris, almost incapacitated by arthritis. He supervises the investigations, providing key insights into the cases. He is never named, except by his wife, who calls him Jan. He is fond of jenever (gin) and small cigars.

The cases are all very intriguing and unusual, but they play second fiddle to the relationships that develop and the interaction of people. Often, an interrogation between the detectives and their suspects wanders into philosophical or ethical ruminations. Van de Wetering himself studied Zen. At one point in his life, his alcoholism interfered with his work and he stopped writing until he sobered up. After that, in the books de Gier also gave up alcohol.

Most of these books by Freeling, van de Wetering and Baantjer were written in the '60s and '70s and they may appear dated to the modern reader, but I never found them so. Another excellent writer from the Netherlands is Robert van Gulik, who writes about Judge Dee, who lived during the Tang Dynasty in China in the 600s. If these writers are an example of what comes out of the area, I hope some readers can suggest more for me to look into. Perhaps something written in the recent decades.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Book Review of Jan Wallentin's Strindberg's Star

Strindberg's Star by Jan Wallentin, translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles

What is it about Scandinavians that give their crime fiction that certain flavor? The cohesiveness of their communities? A willingness to examine ugly facets of human nature in a matter-of-fact way? Their stoic acceptance of the cold? Whatever it is, we're lucky to see more of their books translated into English. One of the newest translations is Strindberg's Star by Jan Wallentin, a best seller in Sweden, France, and Germany. It's a genre-straddler that combines components of a thriller, adventure, and historical fiction with elements of the occult.

The book begins near Falun, Sweden, when a cave diver named Erik Hall takes a solo dive into a long-abandoned and flooded copper mine. There he discovers a corpse. While the body is shockingly well preserved, there are reasons to believe it has been dead for many years. And that's not the only mystery surrounding it: the hands are clutching an ankh, and there is strange writing in the cave.

Cave diving is extremely dangerous, but doesn't it look fun?

Erik's discovery becomes a media sensation. Word leaks out about the ankh and other odd findings. Erik meets Don Titelman during the filming of a TV program, and afterward, he pelts Don with phone invitations to come see him. There may be something Erik hasn't shared with journalists. He wants Don's help in interpreting his discoveries.

Modern symbols
Don is Jewish, a one-time physician who became a Lund University professor of history with an expertise in the Nazis' use of mythology and symbolism. He was traumatized as a child by what he heard about concentration camps. Knowing thine enemy isn't enough for him, however, so he beefs up his mental defenses with a shoulder bag stuffed with an astonishing array of pills. The tiptoeing approach of an unpleasant emotion or difficult situation makes Don slip his hand into the bag.

An ankh
Don's acquaintance with Erik ends badly, and Don is wrongfully accused of a crime. He and an attorney sent to represent him, the attractive Eva Strand, are kidnapped and held by Germans. The two captives listen to a tale about an inconceivably strange device and its history, which includes real-life figures such as Nils Strindberg, a photographer who perished in an 1897 hot-air balloon expedition to the Arctic. Don is threatened with dire consequences if he doesn't give them what they want. Eva and Don manage to escape, and the story becomes their transcontinental quest to elude capture, while attempting to solve difficult clues that could lead them to some missing artifacts with unusual powers.

Wallentin was very ambitious with this debut novel. It's an information-packed and complex plot that involves the Nazis and figures from mythology, set in multiple locations over a century's time, and populated by both real and fictional characters. Let's take a look at the results.

Likable hero and dastardly villain
Problems first. The book's main problem is its lack of appealing fictional characters. Don, the protagonist, is only 43 years old; yet, he's a grey-faced physical and psychological wreck. If he's not actually unconscious, count on him to be upping or downing himself with fistfuls of drugs. It's a bit hard to root for Don and Eva, who's plucky enough, but whom we don't really know.

Another problem is the way in which the plot's requirements are met with coincidence and convenience. Don just so happens to pick up a certain object. Luckily, he has a reclusive sister who's a hacker. Eva does something she should have known better than to do.

Nils Strindberg was
only 25 when he died
At 464 pages, the book could use some trimming. Despite these flaws, I still liked the book.

Here's why:

Wallentin, a journalist, knows how to research and write, and Rachel Willson-Broyles provides a smooth translation. The settings are cinematic, and some of them are downright spooky: the flooded copper mine, the cemetery in Ypres, and the Arctic. The physical isolation is exacerbated by cold and darkness or wind and rain or snow. The intrinsic suspense is heightened by the characters' vulnerability. They're stubborn or unduly optimistic; inappropriately dressed, ill-equipped or exhausted.

Tyne Cot cemetery on the Ypres Salient, Belgium

While the amount of historical information keeps this plot from the quick pacing of a Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, this book is not meant to be a simple page-turner. Wallentin utilizes real characters and events in weaving his fictional plot, and he infuses it with the supernatural as do writers such as John Connolly and Dan Simmons. The mythology and literary clues are intriguing, and the properties of the artifacts, both physical and theoretical, are fascinating. Wallentin's book has similarities to Jules Verne's classic science fiction, but it's also similar to Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason's literary thriller, The Rule of Four, and books by Francis Clifford and Lionel Davidson because it poses moral questions. Strindberg's Star is an original book that stretches the imagination and exercises the brain.

Ultimately, this book is about the double-edged quality of scientific discoveries and the nature of responsibility and guilt. Science has been used to both benefit and purposefully harm humankind, often at the hands of the same people. Should researchers be held responsible for their discoveries, and CEOs for the use of the products based on this research? There are important questions about the morality and wisdom of certain scientific explorations. There's a reason Wallentin makes the source of scientific knowledge a particular symbolic place. The actions of some, who feel no guilt, can leave unbearable burdens of guilt for others who aren't remotely responsible. A moment's actions can lead to a life of feeling guilty. Just how responsible are these characters for their fate?

I'll be thinking about Strindberg's Star. Despite its flaws, it's a timely and worthwhile read. Take it to the beach. The plot's action slows at times so Wallentin can provide fascinating historical background, yet the imaginative plot will keep readers turning these pages. I'll look forward to what Wallentin comes up with next.

Note: I received a free digital galley of Strindberg's Star from Viking Press. The book was published last month. August Strindberg was on Viking's early list of authors, and I wonder what he'd say upon seeing himself, his acquaintance Sven Hedin, and his young relative Nils in this Viking publication.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Book Review of Gerald Jay's The Paris Directive

The Paris Directive by Gerald Jay

Like most longtime mystery readers, I feel an eager anticipation when I start the first book in a new series, wondering if it will be an introduction to a protagonist who will become like an old friend, revisited each year. In the case of The Paris Directive, just the listing of the first few chapters provided a frisson of excitement:

1. Berlin
2. Élysée Palace, Paris
3. Hotel Adlon, Berlin
4. L'Ermitage, Taziac
5. Frankfurt
6. Dordogne River
7. Café Valon, Taziac

Ah, looks like international intrigue; perhaps a political thriller. We begin by meeting Klaus Reiner, hired killer, whose cold efficiency, bland good looks and fluency in German, French and English have put him at the peak of his deadly profession, with the ability to choose the most lucrative contracts.

Reiner's newest assignment takes him to the fictional village of Taziac, in France's Dordogne region. The beautiful village in summer, with its cafés and restaurants, makes no impression on the all-business Reiner. He just wants to get the job done and move on, with the satisfaction of seeing an impressively large new deposit to his numbered account in Switzerland. But the hit goes wrong and Reiner has to take out four wealthy, middle-aged tourists, instead of just the one contracted for.

This is where our protagonist enters the scene. Paul Mazarelle, a former Paris police detective now living in Taziac, jumps on the case like a dog on a bone. Mazarelle had moved to Taziac, his young wife's home, when she became ill, and he is now a widower who doesn't know whether to make Taziac his permanent home or return to Paris. Mazarelle is a comfortably large, sympathetic and unassuming middle-aged man with a luxuriant mustache, who enjoys his pipe, good wine and food, and women. But, most of all, Mazarelle likes to sink his teeth into a meaty murder case.

Mazarelle's investigation quickly identifies a likely suspect, but he has some doubts about the neatness of the package presented to him, and digs deeper, mostly hampered rather than helped by his men, especially Dutoit, whose job qualifications include stupidity, laziness, insolence, racism and habitual abuse of suspects and witnesses. When a couple of the murder victims' daughter arrives from the U.S. to kibitz the investigation and further inflame the interest of the already-annoying journalists and gadflies who have descended on the town, Mazarelle's job becomes more complicated.

An intriguing cat-and-mouse game begins between Mazarelle and Reiner, which leads to a tense and dramatic climax. Readers who enjoy inverted mysteries (those in which the culprit is known; not a whodunnit) should enjoy this story––though it has some flaws, mostly in characterization. The reader doesn't get a good feel for what Mazarelle is really like. At first, he seems like a shrewd, avuncular investigator. But later actions belie that image and we don't read anything to reconcile the differences into a fuller understanding of a more complex character. Similarly, Reiner turns from a coldly calculating and controlled, intelligent hitman into something quite different, but with no convincing reasons given for the alteration.

Gerald Jay is a pseudonym. Whoever he is (one reader reviewer claims he is an attorney for JP Morgan Chase), despite these stumbles in characterization, his writing is assured and powerful, leading me to believe he must have some kind of writing experience. Jay is said to be at work on a new Mazarelle book. I'm hopeful that as we get to know Mazarelle better, he will become a friend we're pleased to welcome for an annual visit.

Note: I received a free advance copy of the book for review. It is scheduled for release by Knopf Doubleday on June 19. A version of this review appears on the Amazon product page, under my Amazon user name. The nature pictures in this post are from Gerald Jay's blogsite.