Monday, July 30, 2012

Book Review of Alan Glynn's Bloodland

Bloodland by Alan Glynn

You know that feeling when you wake up and don't know where you are? You look around, and s-l-o-w-l-y the world comes into focus. It's a little like assembling a difficult jigsaw puzzle and watching a picture emerge. Or reading certain thrillers that dump you, not at the beginning of a story, but in the middle. Your mind tries to grasp the plot line, but it's like glimpsing running figures in a fog. It takes awhile before a coherent account takes shape.

Alan Glynn's intricate conspiracy thriller, Bloodland, evokes that lovely, not-bound-by-ordinary-rules-of-physics sensation as the author unveils the characters and their shared history. When we meet Dublin journalist Jimmy Gilroy, it's been two years since he was laid off from his newspaper job. Instead of doing serious research into ministerial expenses, he's just started research for an unauthorized biography of beauteous Susie Monaghan, a reality TV star and tabloid celebrity who died three years earlier with five other people in a helicopter crash off the Donegal Coast. The whole country, already mourning the end of the economic boom, became fixated on Susie, a symbol of outlandish good times. Jimmy's publisher hopes to cash in on this nostalgia and has already paid him an advance.

The half-spent advance is one reason why Jimmy doesn't take kindly to Phil Sweeney's request to drop this project, even though Jimmy owes him many favors. Sweeney is Jimmy's dad's former business partner. Dec Gilroy and Sweeney ran a media communications company, but Dec's real love was politics; specifically, he liked analyzing what makes public figures tick. Dec was thrilled when the teenaged Jimmy showed an interest in journalism. He quickly handed Jimmy his dog-eared Picador and Penguin classics by writers such as Mencken, Seymour Hersch, and Hunter S. Thompson. It was more than a crash course in reporting; it was a statement of Dec's values and a mission by proxy. Jimmy is committed to the ethics of journalism, and allowing Sweeney to steer him away from a story isn't Jimmy's idea of how a reporter should behave. There's another consideration--Susie's beautiful sister, who has opened up to Jimmy. Jimmy refuses Sweeney's request.

Ireland's Donegal Coast

The pressure on Jimmy only increases. If he backs off the Monaghan book, he can co-write a book with former Irish Prime Minister Larry Bolger. Because he's currently unemployed, Bolger has plenty of time to hit the likker cabinet and act as a loose cannon. Jimmy reluctantly agrees; however, one of Bolger's verbal cannon balls hits Jimmy squarely between the eyes. Susie's death may not be what it seems. Despite tremendous personal danger, Jimmy is determined to uncover an ugly stew created by unbridled political and business ambitions.

A thriller whose reader is kept a few steps ahead of the protagonist is an iffy proposition. It can be boring, waiting for a book character to catch up, and the character can appear annoyingly oblivious or stupid as a result. Glynn deals with this problem very well. During most of the book, Jimmy doesn't know as much as I did, but I didn't know everything, either. Glynn parcels out information in a very controlled way, whetting the appetite for more. When I was caught up on the back story, I enjoyed watching Jimmy dig in the past of his co-characters, while they scheme in the present. Eventually, we were all up to speed.

The characters are very interesting folks. Glynn peels off their skin, and you can see into their brains and hearts and understand what motivates their behavior. Jimmy reminds me of metro reporter Jude Hurley in John Darnton's Black and White and Dead All Over. While Darnton's book is set in the offices of The New York Globe, and Glynn's book never enters the newsroom, both Hurley and Jimmy share a good reporter's nose for a story and the doggedness that delivers it to an audience. Both also share a love of investigative journalism's traditions and a despair of its current state. I want you to have the fun that I did in figuring out who's who and the roles they play in the story Jimmy pursues, so I won't say anything more. Be patient; the characters will drop their masks and you'll see what they've done in four story lines that shift locations until they meet near the end. I didn't gain much of a sense of Dublin, but I did get a disturbing look at life in the Congo. Unfortunately, the plot is believable, unless your name is Pollyanna or you still believe Santa Claus squirms down your chimney to deliver a bag of toys. I'll tell you the truth: there's no Santa Claus, but Alan Glynn's Bloodland is riveting entertainment. I swear.

Note:  I received a free review copy of Bloodland, which was published in January by Picador.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Book Review of Chris Cleave's Gold: A Novel

Gold by Chris Cleave

Over a week after finishing Chris Cleave's Gold I'm still not quite sure what I thought of it. But with the Olympics starting this weekend, it's still very much in my mind. With only five characters, the story is as intensely focused as the competitions themselves. In fact, had it not moved with the breathtaking speed of an Olympic race, it might have been stiflingly claustrophobic.

Zoe Castle, Jane Meadows and Jack Argall became friends in their teens, when they all qualified for the national training program in track cycling. Zoe was a fierce and single-minded competitor, riding roughshod over any serious challenger. Jane, while more naturally gifted in the opinion of their coach, was less competitive and driven. Jane and Jack fell in love and married. While her husband and best friend were winning medals in Athens and Beijing, Kate withdrew contentedly from the program to raise her daughter Sophie and support Jack in his efforts.

Now, with Sophie eight years old, Kate has resumed her training. Over 30 now, she knows these London Olympics will be her last chance to compete for gold on the world stage. Coach Tom Voss, who missed a gold medal in the Australian Olympics by a hundredth of a second, is looking forward to having both Zoe and Kate medal this summer. The only major concern is Sophie's leukemia, which had been in remission until quite recently. With the Olympic eliminations approaching, the young family finds itself struggling to balance the demanding requirements of two athletes in intensive training with Sophie's even more urgent chemotherapy treatments.

Sophie has decided that in order to beat her cancer, she must become a Jedi knight. She watches the Star Wars movies obsessively, studying techniques so that she can zap each of the cancer cells that the dark side has planted in her rebellious body. Like many sick children, she is preternaturally sensitive to her parents' emotions and tries to hide the physical distress caused by her illness and the treatments from them. Some of the most harrowing––and humorous––passages in the book are hers. Sick from a chemo treatment, she needs to throw up. But Daddy Jack is in the upstairs bathroom warbling "Bluebird of Happiness" in the shower, Kate and Zoe are downstairs near the powder room, and Sophie doesn't want Mom to feel sad before she has to train. What to do?
"The vomit tried to come up again. Her concentration was gone... She was just Sophie again, suddenly spent, in her upstairs bedroom on Earth... She stepped off the bed, knelt on the floor, and threw up into her model of The Millennium Falcon. The action figures inside said nothing, just stared up at her in disgust."
Zoe and Sophie are the strongest characters in this story, and they are very different. Zoe is the complete competitor; no price is too high to pay for victory. While we learn her dismal history through flashbacks and conversations, her almost total self-absorption makes her a very unsympathetic character. Considering the number and variety of dirty tricks she has played on Kate, her only serious challenger, the continuing friendship of the women is astonishing.

Envisioning Kate as a serious competitor on the world stage was difficult for me; she's just too nice. I wonder how many Olympic athletes can compete only against their own previous personal best without obsessing on demolishing the competition? Zoe is baffled early in their acquaintance that Kate seemed to walk "with a space beside her, leaving room for someone to fill it if they wish." Zoe, touchy as a cat, walks alone and hisses and spits at those who attempt to befriend her.

All of the characters in this very emotional novel pay for their ambitions in pain. The author vividly describes the push of the women in training far beyond the point of exhaustion. Jack has learned that each single instant of agony can be survived if it can be perceived as unique, dissociated from every other instant. This response, learned through years of surviving painful training, enables him to deal with his daughter's agony and uncertain future one instant at a time. Even Coach Voss has destroyed his knees so badly that he has to phone for help to get out of the bathtub.

The "grand reveal" near the end of the book, while it helped to explain the ongoing friendship between Kate and Zoe, left me groaning. What a bathetic soap opera trick! But the ride left me breathless as the author cleverly ratcheted up the pace throughout the book. I will watch the upcoming competitions in London with a more informed eye, wondering a bit about the back stories and the prices paid by these young competitors and their families for this all-consuming chance at one brief moment of glory on the world stage.

Note: I received a free review copy of Gold, which was published by Simon & Schuster earlier this month. Similar reviews may appear on Amazon and GoodReads, under my user names there.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Book Review of Daniel Friedman's Don't Ever Get Old

Don't Ever Get Old by Daniel Friedman

"In retrospect, it would have been better if my wife had let me stay home to see Meet the Press instead of making me schlep across town to watch Jim Wallace die." [Buck Schatz, narrator of Don't Ever Get Old.]

Yep. But Jim was afraid of dying and going to hell for the bad things he'd done. He wanted to confess and gain Buck's forgiveness. Jim was an MP, manning a road block between East and West after WWII, when up drove a disguised Heinrich Ziegler, the SS officer in charge of the POW camp where Jim and Buck were stuck in 1944. Ziegler was assumed to be dead. The trunk of his Mercedes was full of gold bars; in exchange for one, Jim let Ziegler go.

Buck is outraged, but he has no desire to hunt down Ziegler. Even if he had, Ziegler could be on any continent. When Buck retired from the Memphis Police Department in 1973, his detecting skills were state-of-the-art. That was 35 years ago, and Buck is now 87. He's never used a computer and doesn't know how to begin searching for a Nazi fugitive. He may not even be capable physically or mentally. His strength is diminishing, he's on a blood thinner, and his memory isn't what it was. Buck's grandson Tequila (William Tecumseh Friedman joined a fraternity and gained a nickname) argues that if he doesn't look for Ziegler, he's as guilty as Jim. Plus, there's that trunkload of Nazi gold to discover.  When Buck gets no help from Det. Randall Jennings, Tequila announces he will use his break from law school at NYU to help Buck look.

Despite Tequila's deficiencies in dress and physical fitness, Buck "disliked him less than most other people," maybe because he's family. Anyway, Buck has time to kill before Fox News Sunday, so he agrees to Tequila's plan. Unfortunately, as Buck and Tequila soon find out, Jim told other people about Ziegler and his missing gold bars. These folks expect Buck to take up the search, and they're scrambling to form advantageous alliances while thwarting the competition. The colorful competitors include Jim's daughter Emily and her unappetizing husband Norris; Jim's troubled minister, Dr. William Kind; T. Addleford Pratt, a debt collector from the Silver Gulch Saloon; and Yitzchak Steinblatt, who arrives in Memphis claiming to be from the Israeli Ministry for Diaspora Affairs, but who looks like an ex-KGB assassin. Speaking of assassins, someone doesn't like the idea of divvying up the treasure among so many claimants. Homicide Detective Jennings stays very busy as the search continues.

Memphis, Tennessee, is on the Mississippi River, and it's the author's hometown

Buck is the perfect protagonist for a read in the shade. He's a cantankerous and smart man, with a sardonic sense of humor. Buck was a legendary lawman; people used to say he was the leading cause of death among Memphis scumbags from 1957 to 1962, but Buck claims he was only fourth (tied with car accidents, but behind other scumbags, drug overdoses, and other cops). For 30 years on the job, Buck thought that he was a bulwark against social breakdown and that he made a difference. Now, Det. Jennings claims the city is setting new records in violent crime. Cops keep arresting criminals, and a Guatemalan cuts Buck's grass. Life goes on without him.

Currently, Buck copes with a shrinking world. He can't drive too far without getting lost. Buck says he leads the life of an old person: "going to the same places all the time, over and over, and attending a lot of funerals." He and his wife, Rose, must be careful; a simple fall could mean disaster. At the suggestion of his physician, Buck is keeping a notebook of things he doesn't want to forget, and he shares it with the reader. One thing he wants to remember is how a professor explained the dearth of elderly movie characters. There isn't much drama to their lives. They live lives of routine. But their stories can involve powerful themes about continuity, passing along knowledge to someone younger, and death. This applies to a book's characters, as well.

Daniel Friedman
Hercule Poirot grows old and dies. Miss Marple, Maud Silver, and Mrs. Bradley are grey-haired. Today's crime fiction could use more elderly protagonists. Colin Cotterill's Siri Paiboun, Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder, and James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux are in their 70s. Burke's Texas sheriff Hackberry Holland is around 80. I can't think of a series protagonist older than Buck, and I hope he sticks around. He has a unique voice. Buck and Tequila's quest to find Ziegler and his gold is an arduous task that leaves them scarred, but they gain a better understanding of themselves and each other. They also thoroughly entertained me. Don't Ever Get Old is a terrific debut. More please, Daniel Friedman.

Note: I received a free review copy of Don't Ever Get Old. It was published by Minotaur Books in May 2012. In his acknowledgments, author Friedman thanks his two sets of grandparents and his great-aunt Rose for their stories that inspired Buck and the other characters. I thank them, too.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Missing Persons

. . . brrrringgg, brrrringgg . . .

"Police Department, Sergeant O'Hara speaking."

"Sergeant, I'd like to report a missing person; actually, several missing persons."

"Tell me what happened, ma'am."

"I was at the library, looking for some of my old friends. I went to the stacks where they always are, but they were gone and nobody seems to know where or when they were last seen."

"Before we go any further, just let me take down their names."

Edmund Crispin
"Let's see . . . . The two Mikes; that would be Michael Gilbert and Michael Innes, then Robert Barnard, Edmund Crispin, Leo Bruce, Georges Simenon, Delano Ames, Raymond Chandler, John Creasey, Dashiell Hammett, Rex Stout, E. X. Ferrars . . . ."

"All men, then?"

"Oh, no. Dorothy was gone, too. That's Dorothy L. Sayers. Also Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey and Margaret Yorke."

After I gave the Sergeant my complete statement, he promised to get right on the case and let me know as soon as he had any leads. A couple of days later, he called me.

"Ma'am, one of our officers just called in to say she's found your friends. She's at the library's annual book sale and everybody on your list is there too."

"Oh, Sergeant, what a relief! I was so worried about them. They're quite old, you know, and I wanted to be sure they're safe. But now you've found them, they can go back home to the library."

"Er, I'm afraid not, ma'am. The library doesn't want them back. All your friends have been, um, de-accessioned."

"De-accessioned? What does that mean?"

"They're all discards. I'm sorry to be the one to tell you, but they're homeless now."

"Oh no, they're not! I'm getting in my car right now to pick them up!"

And this is how I ended up buying these books at last week's annual book sale:

Michael Gilbert: The Family Tomb, Operation Pax, Trouble

Michael Innes: Lord Mullion's Secret, Death by Water, The Open House

Georges Simenon: Maigret at the Coroner's, Maigret and the Wine Merchant, Maigret Afraid, Maigret Sets a Trap, Maigret's Revolver

Delano Ames: Murder, Maestro, Please

Robert Barnard: A Scandal in Belgravia, Death of a Mystery Writer

Leo Bruce: Case with No Conclusion

E. X. Ferrars: Smoke Without Fire, Beware of the Dog

Dorothy L. Sayers: Murder Must Advertise, The Omnibus of Crime (ed.)

J. J. Marric: Gideon's Ride

Margaret Yorke: Serious Intent

Anthony Price: The Alamut Ambush

Edmund Crispin: Glimpses of the Moon

Last year was a similar experience (lots of Inneses, a Marsh, a Tey, a couple of Simenons and a couple of Sayerses) and I assume next year there will be even more classics for me to rescue. Can you believe it? Libraries are discarding classic crime fiction volumes in droves. Not a one of these books was in bad shape. Almost every one was a hardcover, and they were printed on good, heavy, acid-free paper. And not a cracked spine in the lot of them.

What's going to happen now when an old crime fiction reader––or a reader just becoming acquainted with crime fiction––wants to read the classics or is looking for a good, old-style story? No more wandering the stacks at the library and finding a wall of treasures in the mystery section. If readers know what they're looking for and they're lucky, maybe interlibrary loan will be able to find the books in some other library, probably in storage.

It looks like I'm now starting my own classic mystery bookstore. At this rate, I'm going to need a storefront soon.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Texas Twosome

One way of passing the time on road trips when we were kids was to have games naming the capitals of the states. A little bit of trivia was always helpful in remembering these names or even some little memory trick––don't "ju know"––might help with the capital of Alaska. Knowing a bit about Stephen Austin, who wasn't Jane's transatlantic cousin, but was the father of Texas, always helped me when it came to the Lone Star state. Reading a mystery that takes place in Austin brought back some memories for me.

Janice Hamrick's Death Makes the Cut begins on the last day of summer vacation, when history teacher Jocelyn Shore is busy getting her classroom in order awaiting the onslaught of the more than 2000 Texas teenagers who will be saying goodbye to a hot steamy summer and beginning a new school year. Jocelyn hears the loud voices of what appears to be an abusive confrontation between Fred Argus, fellow teacher as well as the tennis coach, and a typical unrealistic parent who thinks his freshman son should be team captain (really?), and she rushes in where others fear to tread, confronting this angry, blustering man as if he might be an errant schoolboy himself. This approach is effective, and the situation is resolved, but aptly-named Fred Argus is not behaving in his usual manner, and he leaves for home.

The next time Jocelyn sees Fred is on the floor of the tennis shed, surrounded by tennis balls and lying with his milky white eyes blankly open. Fred was on older man in his sixties, who was a teacher as a second career. Despite being a coach, he was known for his spindly white legs and his two-pack-a-day smoking habit. Jocelyn knew him to be an excellent teacher, and she credited him with teaching her more than she learned in all her formal years of education about how to impart knowledge to the teenage mind.

Despite the fact that the police are called, it is appropriate to assume that this death was a natural one and, although Jocelyn is deeply saddened, the pressing issues of the first day of school is upon them. Aside from her own classes, she is expected to help her look-alike cousin Kyla teach a course to girls about technology as part of a community service program. It doesn’t take long for it to become clear that this death is really a murder. Before the day is out, Jocelyn finds that she is also the new interim tennis coach.

But Jocelyn is not too busy to realize that Fred had been on the trail of some wrongdoing and, as she begins to investigate, she puts herself in danger. The clues are there for the reader to join in the hunt for the murderer. He will murder again before he is through.

This is a lively, fast-paced story with an excellent cast of characters. The setting is a bit unlike high school as I knew it, but hey, the times they do change. It may help that I read it at this time of year, but I felt the sweltering Texas ambience like I was there. The characters have developing nice backgrounds which were introduced in the first of the series, Death on Tour.

Note: I received a free review copy of Death Makes the Cut, published by St. Martin's Press on July 17, 2012.

I would like to mention another book that recently caught my eye because it was billed as a Sugar Land mystery. I visited there not too long ago and was fascinated by the name. Sugar Land began as a sugar plantation and is the home of the large Imperial Sugar refinery. Sugar Land is a rapidly growing city just outside Houston. It is listed frequently as one of the safest and best cities in the USA to live in. Of course, there is always trouble in paradise.

The mystery is Faithful Unto Death, by Stephanie Jaye Evans.

The story revolves around Walker Wells, better known as Bear, because he once played college football, and perhaps because of his physique. Bear is a minister at a church in Sugar Land. Bear is a man of God, but he is very much a man of family and a Texan.

The smooth path of his days is disturbed when lawyer Graham Garcia is found Big Berthaed to death by a blow to the head at a local golf course. The problem for the police is that it happened in the dead of night, so it was not an accident, and the problem for Bear is that it involves members of his church. The more Bear finds out about the case, the more he realizes that his family members are mixed up in the ragout in some way as well.

Bear may resort to prayer before he loses his control, but he still is quite human in his emotions as he tries to do his best as a husband and father. That he has complete blinkers on when it comes to seeing his family as they really are, is a surprise. He needs a little self-examination at times, but don't we all. He has insight where others are concerned, though, as well as all the compassion and empathy needed for his flock. His slightly snarky, sarcastic sense of humor which is kept to himself for the most part, makes him an endearing character.

The character I found most intriguing, though, was the detective assigned to the case, James Wanderly. Author Evans kept an interesting dynamic going between this young man and the minister, and his future relationship with Bear ought to be interesting. I hope there is one.

Faithful Unto Death was published by Berkley Trade on June 5, 2012.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Book Review of John Verdon's Let the Devil Sleep

Let the Devil Sleep by John Verdon

Dave Gurney is an unhappy man. It's been six months since the retired NYPD homicide detective stopped three bullets, but he still has nagging physical symptoms. He has claustrophobic dreams and feels insecure without his gun. Luck, which Dave calls a fool's substitute for competence, saved his life. He finds this unsettling.

His wife, Madeleine, was annoyed when Dave was dragged out of retirement in Think of a Number and Shut Your Eyes Tight, the first two series books. In John Verdon's third book, Let the Devil Sleep, Madeleine is tired of Dave sitting and staring at the walls of their Catskills home. She doesn't object when journalist Connie Clarke, who made Dave famous by featuring him as the NYPD's Supercop, asks him to help her 23-year-old daughter Kim Corazon with a couple of things.

Kim began studying the impact of murder on a victim's family for a journalism thesis in grad school. RAM-TV is interested in making her interviews into a reality miniseries called The Orphans of Murder. The "orphans" are related to one serial killer's victims. In 2000, the Good Shepherd shot six people as they drove their black Mercedes sedans in upstate New York. The FBI joined the investigation when one victim was shot across the state line in Massachusetts.

The killer's public manifesto contains biblical references and remarks about culling greedy people. An FBI profiler had a field day, citing the Freudian meaning behind the big guns he used and the class warfare he advocated, but her psychological profile didn't help identify the killer. The killings stopped, but the case was never solved. The New York State Police, especially Senior Investigator Jack Hardwick and Max Clinter, who retired with PTSD after he accidentally let the Good Shepherd escape, still resent the bullying jerks of the FBI.

The Catskill Mountains in Upstate New York

Connie is thrilled that Kim has this opportunity to break into prime-time TV. She wants Dave, who had the NYPD's best homicide clearance rate in his 25 years there, to talk to Kim about murder and about her ex-boyfriend Robert Meese. He is apparently stalking her. Although Meese denies it, someone is breaking into Kim's apartment and doing creepy things like leaving a trail of blood drops. The local police aren't interested.

Dave agrees to spend one day accompanying Kim as she meets with a RAM-TV production executive and several Good Shepherd victims' adult children. Events make Dave wonder whether the FBI was too quick to settle on a narrative for the crimes and he begins to dig further. He calls Hardwick and Clinter and riles FBI agent Matthew Trout. The case has become enshrined in the annals of contemporary psychology and its truth is no longer open to question. Someone else doesn't like the renewed attention to the Good Shepherd's crimes. Someone thinks Kim and Dave should stop and let the devil sleep.

I'm guilty of a major thriller-reading sin
I had the devil of a time sleeping before finishing this book. Its cover should illustrate the word suspenseful in the dictionary. The unfolding revelations of the cold case, escalating threats against Dave and Kim, more crimes and Dave's maneuvering fed my anxiety until I couldn't stand it any longer. With 25 pages to go, I confess I did something I never do. I cheated by skimming quickly to the end. Then I went back and read every word. After I finished, I read Think of a Number (Dave investigates threatening letters sent to a former college classmate, and an impossible crime) and Shut Your Eyes Tight (Dave looks into the beheading of a bride on her wedding day). I recommend you read these outstanding books first, although Let the Devil Sleep can be read on its own with enjoyment.

The characters are all three-dimensional. Dave has an inner life without being neurotic. State cop Hardwick loves thumbing his nose at the FBI, and his interactions with Dave are fun to read. The RAM-TV exec is sleazy and the trashy TV network becomes a character deserving of Dave's scorn. How often does one find secondary female characters as well done as the men? It's good to see a competent female cop and a female FBI profiler who's respected and aggressive, even if Dave thinks Rebecca Holdenfield's analysis of the Good Shepherd is a bunch of bull. Kim's upbringing makes her interest in these interviews natural.

The characters' relationships are nuanced and realistic. The relationships Dave has with his family make him an unusual character in the crowded field of troubled cops. The Gurneys have a marriage in which glances are as meaningful as words. While their relationship is close, it's temporarily strained by Dave's unsatisfying retirement and current funk. Dave's son Kyle was raised mostly by his mother while Dave worked for the NYPD. Kyle arrives for a visit and it's a chance for Dave to realize how little attention he gave his son but how much it affected the man Kyle has become. As Dave reassures himself about his professional skills, he's also reminded of the support he both gives and receives from his family.

The setting is as well done as the characters. Author Verdon was a Manhattan ad executive before he retired and moved with his wife to upstate New York. It's obvious he's familiar with Syracuse and life in the Catskills. Its sights, sounds, smells and textures are used with good effect in the plot. The dark is a menacing place in the country.

The writing is clear and straightforward. It would make a good choice for an audiobook. Let the Devil Sleep will be published by Crown on July 24, 2012. Get going on the first two books in the Dave Gurney series, because you'll want to read this one too. Don't let the book's suspense get to you like it got to me. Fight off the temptation to skip ahead to the end. Take the time to enjoy your heart skidding as you read this clever thriller.

Note: I received a free review copy of Let the Devil Sleep.

Friday, July 13, 2012


Friday the 13th

For the past couple of centuries, there has been a superstition that when the 13th of the month falls on a Friday, it is a day of misfortune. The origins of this notion are obscure, but in the 14th century, in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Friday was considered an unlucky day to undertake journeys.

The fear of Friday the 13th has been called friggatriskaidekaphobia because the Norse goddess for whom Friday is named is Frigga, and triskaidekaphobia is Greek for the number 13 and the word fear. There are enough people in the world who are so paralyzed by fear when the 13th falls on a Friday that they avoid their normal routines in doing business, taking flights or even getting out of bed. That makes this superstition significant.

Statistically, fewer accidents and reports of fire and theft occur when the 13th of the month falls on a Friday than on other Fridays, because people are preventatively more careful or just stay home. But in the world of fiction, misfortune comes on any day of the week and being murdered is definitely a sign of bad luck. I have a few characters who personify hard luck.

In Devil's Trill, by Gerald Elias, prodigy violinist Daniel Jacobus was on the pathway to a great career as a performer. He had been an extremely talented youngster who, on the eve of his audition for the concertmaster position of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, developed a leakage of blood and fluid into his eye. By some twist of fate, he was carrying the gene for foveomacular dystrophy, which can cause blindness in 24 hours if not treated immediately. Blinded by ambition, as well, he played his audition from memory since he couldn't see the music. He won the position, but despite extensive medical treatments his eyesight failed to return, and the runner-up took his place.

Carnegie Hall
Jacobus, after a lengthy period of isolation and withdrawal, declared his intention to be a teacher. In a way, he was given lemons and from them he decided to make music. Unfortunately, he himself remained a lemon. He was sour, tart and bitter. His aim with his students was to create musicians, not just technician performers. His main thrust was to have his pupils perform for a great part of their life, and not burn out as a youth. For this reason, he wanted to put a spoke in the wheels of a certain group of people in the music industry who were most concerned with promoting phenoms, to the young musicians' eventual detriment.

One such event, showcasing 'tween violinists, was the prestigious Grimsley competition, the winner of which would give a concert at Carnegie Hall, using the famed three-quarter-size Stradivarius known as il piccolino. This was an instrument given to another very unlucky man, Piccolino, by his lover, the Duchess. He owned it for about a minute before he was sliced and diced by the angry, cuckolded Duke. The instrument has, since that time, been felt to be cursed.

After the competition and before the concert, the lovely violin was stolen. Jacobus was present at the time, and he came under suspicion. He always appeared to be a destitute vagabond, so most people avoided him. He did not spend much time on personal hygiene and was treated often as invisible. When it suited him, he would do his "blind man's shuffle," which was useful to garner himself some sympathy. It didn't do to underestimate Jacobus, though, for despite his blindness, his others senses were very keen and his mind was sharp. Jacobus teamed up with his friend Nathaniel Williams to find the Strad. Somewhat fortuitously, he had just accepted a new pupil, Yumi Shinagawa from Japan. The first piece of music she played for him was Giuseppi Tartini's Devil's Trill. Jacobus felt she had potential, both as a student and a helper in his quest to recover the special violin.

The Devil's Trill is a piece of music that has a back-story. The composer said he dreamed that the devil was sitting at the foot of his bed and he handed Satan the violin to see if he could play it. The notes he heard became part of legend.

Daniel Jacobus develops a theory about the theft. He felt the scheme had similarities to a symphony, with its structure, composition, and attention to detail. Jacobus was the perfect person to help in the solving of this crime. This is also a story of how Jacobus begins to shed his cocoon and get involved with life once again. There are mysteries in his past that have troubled him for decades and now must be revealed and put to rest. The next in the series is Danse Macabre.

Unlucky events also set the tone in A Dangerous Talent, by Charlotte and Aaron Elkins, and published in March 2012 by Thomas & Mercer.

First, octogenarian Henry Merriam hears from an old friend who is happy to find that the reports of Merriam's death have been greatly exaggerated. Merriam decides to drive to drive to Santa Fe, New Mexico to prove that he is part of the quick, not the dead. He has the misfortune to be killed on the way, and the reason why this bad luck should be his final fate subsides into the dust of a canyon.

Alix London, an art restorer in Seattle, is trying desperately to overcome her own misfortune. She had a promising future in the art world, with a growing reputation as a restorer and "connoisseur." This means she was getting recognition for having a true sense of which art was the real thing. This was destroyed when her father, a prominent New York art conservator, was sent to jail for art forgery. The same brush in many eyes has tarred her, and it has been a struggle to keep a job.

O'Keefe Painting of Ghost Ranch
She is now working for a new collector named Chris LeMay, who wants her to go to Santa Fe to authenticate a recently-available Georgia O'Keefe painting from her Ghost Ranch period. Shortly after her arrival in Santa Fe, even before she can use her art "nose," there is a murder. Alix's name pops up because of her father's notoriety, and it is possible that more bad luck is coming her way. But, in this case, good things do happen to good people and, if she can help the FBI agent on the case, all her luck won't be bad.

Ghost Ranch
I really enjoyed the ambience and the characters in this story and it will be a nice bit of good fortune if there are more in this series.

For the rest of us, it is a good thing to know that while there are usually three Friday the 13ths in a leap year, today is the last one for 2012. So relax, stay in, read and then the rest of the year will be nothing but good luck.