Friday, November 30, 2012

Book Review of David Mark's The Dark Winter

The Dark Winter by David Mark

In the economically depressed port city of Hull, in the East Riding of Yorkshire, England, Detective Sergeant Aector McAvoy enjoys some chocolate cake in a coffee shop with his four-year-old son. Despite the December cold, they sit outside, on the old square, to get a bit of the sun that is in such short supply so far north at this time of year. Aector's moment of domestic pleasure is cut short by screams from the church across the square. He runs to the church and is himself attacked by a hooded man rushing away. Inside, there is a horrific scene of carnage; Daphne Cotton, just 15 years old, has been hacked to death with a machete.

Aector, a member of the police department's serious crimes unit, is put on the team investigating Daphne's murder. Aector has a special status, since he was face-to-face with the killer, but it soon becomes obvious to the reader that's not all that sets him apart. In the past, he exposed an important cop's corruption, and now he's paying the price. He's looked at with suspicion by many, respect by a few, but given a wide berth by almost everyone. Though not by his boss, Trish Pharaoh. Pharaoh, a tough-talking, hard-drinking woman, calls Aector "natural police" and gives him free reign in the investigation.

Pharaoh's confidence is tested when Aector takes time out from the critical Daphne Cotton investigation to follow up on the apparent suicide of Fred Stein, a retired North Sea fisherman, at the same remote ocean location where Stein had been the sole survivor of a commercial trawler sinking 40 years before. Aector has an unaccountable feeling that there is a connection between Daphne's murder and Stein's death; a feeling that strengthens into conviction when another strange death occurs.

Author David Mark, a crime reporter, delivers a page-turner of a plot and a refreshing new protagonist in his debut novel. In retrospect, I suppose the story is pretty far-fetched, but that didn't prevent me from shutting myself away from all distractions and staying up way later than I'd intended so that I could finish the book.

UK book jacket says it's as good as
 Peter Robinson––or your money back!
Aector McAvoy is a big, powerful man, but quiet and self-effacing. Despite his past troubles, he hasn't turned to the dubious comforts of drink or drugs, the way so many modern fictional detectives do. His sanctuary is at home, with his wife, Roisin, and his son. Just don't get the idea he's nothing but a big softy, though. He'll wade into physical combat if necessary, and he won't back down from what he feels he has to do, no matter how staunch the opposition. Pharaoh warns him that there is always a price to pay for being a man who cares passionately about doing the right thing. Aector knows she's right, but "somebody has to give a damn," and that somebody has always been––and always will be––Aector.

According to Wikipedia, the city of Hull "is sunnier than most areas this far north in the British Isles, and also considerably drier, due to the rain shadowing effect of the Pennines." You'd never know from reading The Dark Winter that Hull enjoys such a congenial climate. I had to crank up the thermostat and turn on all the lights to combat the cold, wet gloom that rose off every page. This book can rival any Nordic mystery for chill and clouded atmosphere.

The Humber Bridge, opened in 1981, was the longest
single-span suspension bridge in the world for 16 years
Crime fiction readers have become familiar with Yorkshire through the late Reginald Hill's Dalziel and Pascoe, Stuart Pawson's Charlie Priest, Peter Robinson's Alan Banks and others, and now David Mark brings the county's Hull into the action. This port city, a former industrial and maritime powerhouse, in decline since the 1970s, but filled with rough beauty, makes an ideal setting for the gritty realism of Mark's storytelling. I hope we can expect to see Aector McAvoy, Trish Pharaoh––and Hull––again.

The Dark Winter was published in the US on October 25, 2012 by Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA).

Note: I received a free review copy of The Dark Winter from the publisher. A version of this review may also appear on Amazon and other sites under my user names there.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Book Review of Jenny Milchman's Cover of Snow

Cover of Snow by Jenny Milchman

When Nora Hamilton wakes muzzily one January morning in the charming old house that belongs to her husband Brendan's beloved Aunt Jean, she realizes she is alone––and late. Has Brendan left for work already without waking her? He knows she had an early appointment with a new client for her fledgling home renovation business! After wandering through the house calling for him, she impulsively opens the door to the back servants' stairwell that she has been painstakingly refinishing. Brendan is hanging from the light fixture at the top of the stairwell, his head at an odd angle and his face bright red. As Nora stares, stupified, the light fixture gives way and plaster, lathe, and her hours-dead husband fall on her hapless head.

Club Mitchell, Brendan's partner in the Wedeskyull, New York police force, is first to arrive, followed closely by Nora's parents and sister. The funeral is very well attended (Brendan was a native and second-generation town policeman), but even sympathetic Chief Vern Weathers seems disinclined to suspect that Brendan's death was anything but a suicide, despite Nora's certainty that he must have been murdered. Their life together was happy and full. How could he have made passionate love to her and then hanged himself after she fell asleep? And how could she not have heard him fumbling in the stairwell?

When her sister Teggie finds the glass Nora had drunk from on the fatal night with a powdery residue at the bottom and asks some hard questions, Nora begins to realize just how little she knows about Brendan's life in the old town before their marriage. His mother Eileen, who has never showed anything but dislike for her only son and contempt for Nora, is disinclined to discuss him. Aunt Jean, his only other living relative, is evasive when questioned about Brendan's childhood. As Nora tries to dig into her husband's life, the old town closes ranks against her, and she is stonewalled at every turn. Even the police chief and Brendan's partner, Club, strongly encourage her to go home to her family for awhile.

Dugger Mackenzie, a profoundly autistic local, is the only native willing to help, but he can speak only in frequently incomprehensible rhymes. While locals discount him as feeble-minded, Dugger is fascinated with the speech he can't quite master, so has been secretly taping residents' conversations for years.

Nora finds another, and unexpected, ally in Ned Kramer, a newspaper reporter who recently moved into the area. He is the client she missed an appointment with the morning after Brendan's death. Together, they peel away layer after layer of secrecy, only to find deeper ones ahead of them. And someone is willing to drive them out of town or kill, if necessary, to keep those secrets buried.

Cover of Snow is the author's debut novel. I had previously read one of her her short stories, "The Very Old Man," in an ebook called Lunch Reads Volume 1, and was so impressed with the mood of growing unease and uncertainty in the short story that I grabbed this novel when it was offered for review. Like the story, the novel is a low-key tale in which seemingly reasonable events and mishaps ratchet up subtly, but relentlessly, until the reader can't always be quite sure what is real threat and what is simply an interpretation of random events by the distressed Nora. It has elements of both mystery and horror. Not horror in any supernatural sense, but in the slow deadly tightening of events as Nora delves into––and blows wide open––the town's ugly secrets in her quest for answers. Nora's story is told in the first person, while the town's history is recounted in the third-person omniscient, which sometimes makes Nora appear a little slow to catch on. While the novel drags a bit in spots, it is overall a very satisfactory first effort, and I look forward to more from the author.

Note: I received a free review copy of Cover of Snow, which will be released by Ballantine Books on January 15, 2013. Versions of this review may appear on various review sites under my user names there.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Oh là là! Un thriller français roman

Syndrome E by Franck Thilliez,
translated by Mark Polizzotti

Quick. I say, "French," you say. . . . If the words "thriller" or "noir" don't readily come to mind, you've been sadly deprived. Let me tell you about a best-selling French thriller recently released in the United States by Viking, Syndrome E, by Franck Thilliez.

A supervisor once described 37-year-old Lucie Henebelle, a CID lieutenant in Lille, Belgium, as possessed––a good psychologist in the field, but sometimes out of control. And that's how her mother would describe her now. Lucie is supposed to be on vacation; however, one of her 8-year-old twin daughters is in the hospital, recovering from an illness. Instead of hanging around the sickroom, Lucie is investigating something frightening and bizarre: when her former lover, Ludovic Sénéchal, viewed a 1950s-era film purchased at an estate sale, he spontaneously became blind.

Now, we all know, no matter what the film's rating, this sort of thing doesn't happen with a Netflix rental. How could this occur? When Lucie watches Ludovic's mysterious 16 mm film, she's unsettled not only by its violent scenes, but its pleasant ones, too. Why would watching a little girl stroking a kitten disturb her? What's with the white circle in the frame's upper right-hand corner, the fog, and the large dark, flat areas on the sides and in the sky?

There are two ways to see a film: through its plot and screenplay or through the medium itself. The eyes only supply the image to the brain; it's the brain that actually "sees" the film. It's possible for an image to be flashed by so quickly that the eyes don't have time to notice it, even though the brain has "seen" it. In the 1950s, knowledge of the brain and the impact of images on the mind was fairly primitive, but there was tremendous interest in this research. An American publicist––wouldn't you just know it––was the first to officially use a subliminal image in 1957. (Since then, there have been many reports of subliminal messages conveyed through mainstream media images, from advertising to political campaigning to attempts by the police to communicate with a criminal. Use of subliminal images is even the subject of a Columbo plot on TV in 1973.)

While Lucie's attention is focused on analyzing the film and tracing its history, Chief Inspector Franck Sharko (or "Shark") has been pulled out of his vacation to a crime scene outside of Rouen. Shark is a behavioral analyst in the Bureau of Violent Crimes in Nanterre, France. Theoretically, his job involves investigating unsolved violent crimes without leaving his desk. He cross-references information and establishes a psychological profile, using the computer and other informational tools to determine a killer's motives. The Rouen crime scene is a construction site, where five men have been unearthed. Their bodies are missing their teeth, hands, eyes, and the tops of their heads. Their brains have been removed. These are interesting corpses for behavioral analysis, but Shark is miserable. It's hot and muddy, and he hates mosquitos. Despite recent transcranial magnetic stimulation for treatment of his schizophrenia, he's still troubled by hallucinations of Eugenie, a girl who taunts him about the deaths of his wife and daughter five years ago. Shark placates her with gifts of candied chestnuts and cocktail sauce and soothes himself with cold baths and the noise of a running model train engine.

Lucie's digging on behalf of her friend becomes a case for the police when Claude Poignet, the expert Lucie asked to "autopsy" the film, is found hanging by the neck; the noose is an old western film, Good Day for a Hanging. (I'll spare you the murderers' other creative uses of film at the scene.) As the Lille investigation proceeds, and more people are murdered, evidence links the film to the five men buried near Rouen. The Paris CID, the Lille team, and the Rouen cops combine their investigations. Lucie, whose loneliness hasn't been cured by her internet dating, is immediately attracted to Chief Inspector Sharko's competence. In one of the book's many references to film, she finds Shark shares the sadness of Léon, the contract killer in Luc Besson's The Professional, but also the same "incomprehensible sympathy that made you want to get to know him." Shark recognizes Lucie as driven as he is, and he warns her that "a cop's eyes should never shine, and hers gleamed way too much when she talked about her case." Such professional dedication takes a high personal toll.

Syndrome E is a suspenseful tale about heartbreaking inhumanity and early neuroresearch. It is a feast about and for our brains, featuring memorable settings (in France, Belgium, Egypt, and Canada) and the characters Lucie and Shark. It isn't a creepfest, in which terrible things happen simply to shock, but a worthwhile albeit upsetting look at a dark history involving governments, intelligence and military agencies, religious institutions, and scientific research. People should know about this history and understand its ramifications. In a few years, machines might allow the visualization of dreams. Scanners might project a defendant's memories in the courtroom. Where will neuroresearch go next? Thilliez's tale sent me on a binge of research, and his story's ending makes me wish for an English translation of the sequel, Gataca.

Note: There are disturbing images, particularly in the short Chapter 25. I don't often advocate skipping parts of a book, but for people who find cruelty to animals or children unbearable, really, it could be skimmed or skipped completely.


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Kindness of Strangers

After several months of arduous sea travel, the sailing ship Mayflower, filled with pilgrims looking for a new way of life, found its way into Plymouth harbor. This was in the cold November of 1620, and there was an even colder winter ahead. These hardy souls spent the next few months huddled in the holds of the ship, losing more than half of their members before the spring came. The few that were left made their way onto land and began making themselves a new colony. When they were at their most vulnerable, they met with strangers from the local people who aided them in putting down roots.

“Who ever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” said Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennessee Williams, when she was at a desperate point in her life.

Several of my favorite characters owe their current existence to the kindness of strangers. One of these I have been following for about 15 years. This is the unusual character Kathy Mallory, who debuted in Mallory’s Oracle by Carol O'Connell. Kathy was a waif of about 10 or 11, living on the streets with razor blades in her pockets for protection, keeping on the run from the victims she robbed to stay alive and finding safe places to sleep. She had the face of an angel and a heart that was growing harder by the day. Then a kindly cop, Lou Markowitz, and his loving wife, who gave her a home and unconditional love, rescued her.

Over the course of the series, Kathy morphs to Mallory and enters the police herself. The reader gets to see Mallory mostly through the eyes of all those who care for her, but she essentially is a mystery that is slowly revealed over all the books. There are her partner, Riker, her boss, Coffey, her friend, Charles, and several of Markowitz's poker buddies––whom she used to fleece regularly. They all have specific thoughts about what kind of person Mallory is, but the reader knows that they all have it a bit wrong.

In The Chalk Girl, O'Connell’s terrific book that was published by Putnam early this year, Mallory is back at the NYPD after a three-month hiatus, which she spent driving around the country. Her boss, Lt. Coffey, has kept her deskbound in her time-out corner until the day the rampaging rats ran in Central Park. There have always been rats in the park, and the animal and the human vermin types abound there, but on this day, due to unusual circumstances, they are moving en masse through a particular part of the park––the Ramble––and they are delighted to find several dead bodies to augment their frenzy.

Among all the frightened, running, screaming populace at the park, there is a small red-haired child who looks like a sprite, wandering around trying to find someone to help her. But she is filthy, smelly, maybe bloody, and even grown-up people back away from her. Finally, amid all the mayhem and murder, Mallory is released from her constraints to help find the girl, because if there is one thing she knows, it is being young, alone and frightened. There are a few other reports about this child coming in. She appears to be unusually affectionate and is running up to people with arms outstretched as if looking for a hug. When Mallory finds her, she is the first to open her arms and gather the rather disreputable child to her chest. This seems to be quite a departure for the usually pristine detective, but it was not the surprise to me that it was to Mallory's fellow police officers.

The little girl's name is Coco, and she has been looking for her uncle Ben. She says that he has turned into a tree and it turns out that he is indeed suspended by ropes to a tree––and he is not quite dead. Coco is a remarkable child with distinct qualities and Mallory knows that the little girl will be a good witness to help solve this incident and the cases of other similar hanging victims who had been left to die gruesomely. Mallory's friend, Charles Butler, who is a psychologist, is much more worried about the child's state of mind.

Ben is hospitalized in critical condition, his body shut down due to his ordeal, and while there the police guard him. It was a nice change of cliché when the astute policeman at the door of the hospital room is never caught napping or on break when unwanted and possibly dangerous visitors show up. But Ben was not long for this world and though the police are looking for what tied these victims together, Mallory looks for a money angle because she believes it's the motive for most murders.

The story moves along at an exciting pace, as pieces of the past intersect with bits of the present. The pictures of the crime change like the inside view of a kaleidoscope, with all the little facets falling into different patterns as the case moves along. The people involved are among the wealthy––and among the drug-ridden––as well as people in authority. The images become clear and the accounts are melded beautifully and then balanced.

Mallory's relationship with Coco is very revealing and I am sure that many have interpreted it in different ways as did the people who considered they knew her. My take is that it began as the kindness of a stranger who could be depended upon and then turned deeper than that.


Two other series come to mind that reflect this theme. One is Elizabeth Gunn's, about an aptly-named Jake Hines, a man of many bloodlines. Jake began his unpretentious life in a dumpster, found by a pot-smoking janitor, who took him to a motel clerk, who promptly wiped the coffee grounds out of his eyes and called Health and Human Services. He owed his childhood to the foster parents of Minnesota, and it wasn't until he was a little older that he was a little grateful because he knew that other places were a lot worse. Jake is now the newly appointed Chief of Detectives for the town of Rutherford, Minnesota.

These are fast-paced police procedurals with an excellent cast of characters, who work well as a team. This is somewhat reminiscent of Dell Shannon's Lt. Luis Mendoza, albeit in a scaled-down town. I am drawn to the dermatologist/coroner who learned English while he was on the run from a work camp in the Soviet Union. He is hard to surprise, because murderers supervised his adolescence.

In Nury Vittachi's series that begins with The Feng Shui Detective, we meet Mr. C. F. Wong, a Feng Shui master who takes on a world-weary cast-adrift 17-year-old Joyce McQuinnie. Wong, living in Singapore, speaks English, but he considers Joyce's to be speaking a bizarre and incomprehensible sub-dialect of the language. It had taken him a while to learn that her term for no was "As if" and it was another breakthrough to find that "What ever" meant yes.

The adventures of these two are always humorous and both parties benefit from the kindness of a stranger.


At Thanksgiving, many people donate their time collecting and delivering food to worthy families, and many take time from their own plans to serve in soup kitchens. My hat is off to all the strangers who can be depended on for acts of kindness at this time of year.

Note: I have reviewed or will post reviews of some of these books on Amazon, Goodreads and other sites under my user names there.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Book Review of Robert Littell's Young Philby

Young Philby by Robert Littell

Kim Philby, one of the most famous spies of all time, was a member of the so-called Cambridge Spy Ring. Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt and Philby all met while at Cambridge University and were recruited in the 1930s to become agents of the Soviets' NKVD security agency––which later became the KGB. As was common for Cambridge graduates, they gained important places in British government. Burges, Blunt and Philby joined the MI-5 and MI-6 intelligence agencies during World War II, and Maclean was in the Foreign Office.

Maclean and Burgess
Burgess and Maclean defected to the USSR suddenly in 1951, and Philby, who was then head of his agency's Soviet section and had been chief liaison with the CIA, was suspected of having tipped the pair off that they were about to be arrested. Though Philby was forced to resign, in large part because the CIA wouldn't collaborate with the British if Philby had stayed on, he wasn't arrested. He returned to his previous journalist career, where he stayed until 1963, when he disappeared from Beirut and reappeared as a defector in Moscow. There he stayed, until his death 25 years later.

Kim Philby
More than the other members of the Cambridge Spy Ring, Philby has always been a figure who captured the imagination; possibly because he was so highly placed in the British government and was the top person in British intelligence responsible for combating Soviet spies. Some still believe Philby may not have been a double agent, but a triple agent––in other words, ultimately still working for British intelligence, feeding disinformation to the Soviets, along with dispensable true information to make the disinformation easier to swallow. Characters based on Philby have appeared in many works of fiction, including John le Carré's classic, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

St. John Philby
Young Philby is a mix of fact and fiction, taking what is known of Philby's doings after Cambridge and filling in the gaps with what author Littell imagines of Philby's life and how he came to participate in the "great game" of espionage. Littell cleverly does this by having each chapter narrated by a different character in Philby's life, including his various NKVD handlers; his first wife Litzi Friedman, who met him in Vienna in 1934, where both worked with the communists fighting the troops of right-wing Chancellor Dollfuss; Guy Burgess; and Evelyn Sinclair, tart-tongued daughter of and secretary to the chief of British intelligence. Contributions are also made by Philby's "sainted father," Harry St. John ("St. John," or "Sinjin") Bridger Philby, one of those amazing characters from Britain's colonial period who was seduced by Arab life.

Each narrator presents his or her own perspective on Philby, in a way that is reminiscent of the fable about the blind men and the elephant. (Each blind man touches a different part of the elephant and then uses what he has perceived to describe what an elephant is. None of the men has discerned the entire truth and each one's conclusion is wildly different from the next.) What was Philby then? A romantic who fought for the proletariat and against fascism in the streets of Vienna in the 1930s? A man who, having had his youthful fling, settled down to the conservatism of his class and upbringing? A consummately skilled player in the multi-level chess game of espionage?

Soviet stamp commemorating Philby
Littell takes all his narrators' accounts of Philby and makes his own intriguing case for what Philby really was. Along the way, he leads us on a whirlwind tour of street fighting in Vienna, a journalist's beat during the Spanish Civil War, the gentlemen's-club atmosphere of British intelligence's Caxton House, and the depths of Moscow's Lubyanka Prison, where NKVD operatives were either interrogator or interrogated, depending on whether they had yet fallen victim to the deadly dialectic of Stalin's paranoid purges. Though I was riveted by the Philby story, every chapter made me want to know more about each narrator's life and times.

Though I'm an avid reader of Cold War espionage books––fiction and nonfiction––I haven't previously read any of Littell's books, which include The Company: A Novel of the CIA, The Sisters and The Once and Future Spy. After reading Young Philby, that now seems like a regrettable oversight––and one that I will remedy as soon as possible.

Young Philby was published on November 13, 2012 by Thomas Dunne Books, a division of St. Martin's Press.

Note: A version of this review may appear on Amazon and other sites under my user names there.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Book Review of Timothy Hallinan's Crashed

Crashed by Timothy Hallinan

Our November 6th elections sent me on a binge. It was a spree of playing hooky from work, dilly-dallying in the hot tub, and drinking wine with friends before it morphed into a why-the-Democrats-won-and-the-Republicans-didn't reading rampage. Most recently, it's been a bender of another sort, a Junior Bender mystery, Crashed, by Timothy Hallinan.

Junior Bender's dad simply named him Junior, kindly sparing him life as "Merle." Junior has been sparing himself in various ways ever since. He doesn't have a 9 to 5; work occupies only several days per month. He's whittled down his possessions until they fit into a single suitcase. The Snor-Mor hotel, his current residence, is pretty much what you'd expect from its name. Junior isn't. He has been a career criminal for 17 years, but that's not to say he doesn't have a working moral compass. The victims of his burglaries aren't poor little kids or tired factory workers, but someone who "could afford to lose it, who in the larger scheme of things was entirely unharmed."

Junior isn't a bungler/burglar in the mold of Donald E. Westlake's chronically unlucky John Dortmunder; nor is he a serious killer à la Thomas Perry's hitman. He's a guy who would run onto a freeway during rush hour for what he sees as the "one hundred percent potential" of an unopened wall safe, yet he pines for his ex-wife Kathy and adores their 13-year-old daughter, Rina. While his loyalty to Kathy prevents him from being a womanizer like Jonathan Gash's crook, Lovejoy, Junior shares Lovejoy's willingness to divvy out personal justice to enemies and to dispense criminal tips to the reader. (I really must find a need to rent storage space under a fictitious name, using fake ID.) Junior is more loyal to his friends than Lovejoy is, and there's an entertaining stream of them: the wheelman Louie the Lost; Junior's mentor, Herbie, who specializes in breaking into offices of psychiatrists and then blackmailing them (this is a guy with unconventional ideas about closure); an international fence named Stinky Tetweiler, who weighs "300 hard-earned pounds"; and an endearing young Chinese gangster who shares with Junior a love of James Dean.

Like Lawrence Block's burglar, Bernie Rhodenbarr, Junior loves books. In fact, since his divorce, other than sleeping in motels and eating in restaurants, Junior's life has consisted largely of reading for the book characters' company. His Big Three are William Gaddis's 1955 book, The Recognitions ("about forgery and faith, and between those things you can crowd most of life"), Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (a captain's obsession forces him to hunt a great white whale), and the not-to-be-missed 18th-century Chinese masterpiece by Cao Xueqin, The Dream of the Red Chamber.*

Okay, let's get our noses out of Junior's books, and turn them toward the jam he gets himself into in Crashed, the first book of the series.

It's time to pay child support, and as the book opens, our narrator, Junior, is beavering away in the uninhabited mansion of Rabbits and Bunny Stennet. Despite their cuddly names, they are murderous folks, and Junior shivers when he realizes he's been set up. He has no choice but to do a job for Trey Annunziato, the Stanford-educated heir to the San Fernando Valley's most diversified crime family. (Trey's dad, Deuce, named her Frederick G. Annunziato the Third; obviously he wasn't as sensitive as Junior's dad Merle, but at least Deuce called her Trey rather than Fred.) Trey has an ambitious plan, and it involves bankrolling a porn movie starring the troubled Thistle Downing, a former beloved child television star. Nothing––sabotage, Thistle's problems, whatever––must prevent the movie's completion. This is Junior's job, and it's one he really doesn't want to do. So how can he get out of it?

The San Fernando Valley is in the Los Angeles metropolitan area of southern California

Hallinan's Junior Bender is welcome company for times you wonder if you've lost not only the will, but the ability to concentrate. His reasonable ruthlessness and unreasonable refusal to retreat under the bed retain a reader's attention, when a more law-abiding protagonist might not. The book's chapters are short enough to provide breaks without being so short it's distracting. Don't worry about the porn angle; you're not Queen Victoria.

Complex female, as well as male, characters are par for Hallinan's books. Most of his women and children are both vulnerable and tough in their ability to overcome difficulties; men vary in their desire or capability to rise above self-interest. In this book, there is a contrast between two women who share miserable childhoods: Thistle Downing, a talented actress who grew up on television in front of millions before hitting the skids of drug addiction, and Trey Annunziato, a third-generation hood, who can't afford to show any sign of weakness, and who needs to take advantage of Thistle. These complicated women are neither entirely sympathetic nor unsympathetic; both are interesting. As for the other delinquents, while you wouldn't want some of them to babysit your kids, most have redeeming qualities. (I said "most.") Like those in the Poke Rafferty series, characters are so well-drawn, you'd swear they breathe. The witty descriptions are a Hallinan trademark. Here's one dude at first meeting:
The doorframe was entirely filled by a very wide gentleman of Hispanic ancestry wearing black from head to toe. The width was the product of years on the weight bench, years that had bulked his shoulders and chest and built muscles at the sides of his neck. It wasn't Gold's Gym bulk, either; it was California Prison System bulk. His shirt was one of those '60s-inspired mutants without a collar, and the gold chain around his neck was probably heavy enough to tow a car. His expression said he could eat me for breakfast without a knife and fork.
The writing is intelligent, relaxed, and fun to read. Crashed is a pleasurable outing, without the personal risk, to the criminal underbelly of Los Angeles, where moral ambiguity fills the air. It really hit the spot.
Note: I received a free advance review copy of Timothy Hallinan's Crashed, published by Soho Crime earlier this week; it's currently available in ebook, hardcover, and audio format. Lionsgate has purchased film/TV rights, so let's hope....

*Cao Xueqin's semi-autobiographical The Dream of the Red Chamber was translated from the Chinese into English by David Hawkes during the 1970s. This translation forms the first eighty chapters (Vols. I-III) of The Story of the Stone, published by Penguin Classics in a five-volume set. The remaining forty chapters (Vols. IV-V) are John Minford's English translation of the work done by Cheng Weiyuan and Gao E to complete the novel.

I enjoyed Junior's three touchstone books, and I highly recommend them. I haven't read the other books that these have inspired Junior to read, but I have definite plans to do that. Junior's reading is a wonderful perk of Crashed, and I hope his future law-breaking allows him time for more great books to share with Hallinan's readers.

American artist Kinuko Y. Craft's interpretation of Moby Dick

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Inexhaustible John Creasey

British author John Creasey must surely have been the most prolific writer ever of mysteries, spy stories, and police procedurals. Between 1930 and his death in 1973, he published almost 600 under at least 28 known pseudonyms. He admitted late in life that he himself had no idea of how many aliases he had used. And, unlike Patterson, Grisham and others, he wrote and revised them all himself––on paper, in longhand.

By the time of his death, over 80,000,000 copies of his novels had been sold around the world; yet most of his books are out of print and hard to find today, although a few are beginning to be released as ebooks. It's difficult to imagine how he also managed to marry four times, travel around the world twice, found a political movement, and establish the Crime Writers' Association, which still issues the Golden Dagger awards every year. Talk about over-achievers!

The Toff was his most prolific series. It featured amateur detective and gentleman the Honorable Richard Rollinson, "Terror of the East End" and his man Jolly. Sixty-eight stories were published over a 40-year period beginning in 1938, and the early ones have wonderful steamy late Victorian Limehouse settings to balance the glitter of the Golden Age ultra-rich to which Rollinson was born. My mother-in-law had a good representation of Creasey books (her basement was chock-full of old mysteries and thrillers; most lost, alas, to a flood before I had fairly begun to dig into them). In the first, Introducing the Toff, Richard is run off the road and shot at while returning from a family visit late at night. A little further on, he finds a car in the ditch with the driver shot dead. Nearby is a woman's dress shoe, but there is no sign of the woman. Rollinson suspects she was in the car that shot at him, either voluntarily or as a prisoner. He notifies Scotland Yard immediately, but for some reason does not tell them about the shoe that he has tucked into his pocket, keeping it as his "personal clue."

Another long-running series features the Baron, jewel thief turned antiques dealer John Mannering and his wife Lorna. Written under the Anthony Morton pseudonym, these books remind me a bit of Dashiel Hammett's Nick and Nora Charles stories in their witty stylized dialogue and unabashedly high-class lifestyle. Like Richard Rollinson, Mannering moves in exalted social circles, but unlike Rollinson, he turned to crime to support his comfortable lifestyle. While reformed and working undercover with Scotland Yard in the series, the Baron does not hesitate to use his carefully-honed housebreaking and safe-cracking skills in the pursuit of his personal sense of justice. Like the Toff, his sense of justice and what he does to obtain it does not always quite jibe with the views of his friends at Scotland Yard.

Legend has it that the Gideon of Scotland Yard series, published under Creasey's  J.J. Marric alias, was born when when a police-inspector neighbor asked: "Why don't you show us as we really are?" So Creasey obligingly wrote 20 police procedurals about Commander George Gideon and his staff. Another four were written by William Vivian Butler after his death.

While this is my favorite of Creasey's series, his protagonist would hardly be viable today. Commander George Gideon is both a competent and honest cop and a decent family man who lives in a tidy suburb with a homemaker wife and five children. He is not an alcoholic and never wakes up in the wrong bed; his occasional bouts of depression and guilt are centered entirely around his work and his inability to spend enough time with his family.

Nor would Gideon's London be recognizable to modern readers. It often feels more like an oversized village than the bustling, impersonal megapolis we know today. This award-winning series was written between the 1950s and 1970s, and strongly evokes that period in its settings and values better than almost anything else I have read. As in real police work, there are always several cases being worked simultaneously, and not all can be tidily closed by the end of the book.

In Gideon's Ride, published in 1963, an accelerating number and variety of crimes take place on London's buses and underground, while certain activists in the transit community are fomenting a strike by damaging property, and the bus conductor who witnessed a mugging-turned-deadly is strangled in her bedroom, despite police protection. To add to Gideon's difficulties, the cases are being worked by three different agencies: Scotland Yard, the Metropolitan Police, and the London Transit Police.

Superintendent (later Chief Superintendent)  Roger West was another of Creasey's popular protagonists whose adventures were aired as radio serials. Several of the BBC radio episodes can be streamed for free here. I don't remember reading any of these books, although they are well-rated by many who have.

Another series I have read a few of is his Department Z series, begun as Hitler was rising to power and continuing through the late 1950s. While they were decent stories for the time, the spy/thriller genre has moved a very long way since, so they seem quite naïve for readers of today.

Creasey was better at building complicated plots than at  characterization, so many of his characters are defined by exaggerated personalities and circumstances that change very little over the series. Gideon, a later series, is somewhat of an exception, as we can watch his children grow up. Creasey's stories and characters were all very much of their––and his––times. And considering that he published from the early 1930s through the mid 1970s, they cover a scope of social and political changes that few other writers can claim. Many of his books are quite dated now, but for me they are always quick, enjoyable, and nostalgic reads.  

Monday, November 12, 2012

Book Review of Dr. Heidi Squier Kraft's Rule Number Two

Rule Number Two by Dr. Heidi Squier Kraft

Although I am a Baby Boomer, born after WWII was over, there have been several wars during my life. My military experience was a brief sojourn as an intern at the US Public Health Hospital in Baltimore, where physicians on the staff were honored with a Naval rank. So, for one very arduous year, I carried the rank of Lieutenant. At this time of year, as we approach Veterans Day, I am mindful of those soldiers and sailors who put their lives on the line for their country. This is the story of one such individual. She recounts her service experience in Rule Number Two.

After spending many years in the Navy, clinical psychologist Dr. Heidi Squier Kraft was a clinical psychologist at the Naval Hospital in Jacksonville, Florida, spending some time off with her parents and her 14-month-old twins when she received a pulse-jolting page. She, along with several other medical personnel, was being sent to Iraq. The team was to depart from Camp Pendleton, and she had 11 days before she was to report there.

This was in 2003, in the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, during which many such teams had already been deployed and some had returned to a different world. Kraft was from a military family; her father had served in the Navy during both the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, about which he never spoke. She had joined the Navy during her internship at Duke Medical Center. Her husband was a Marine, as well, so she knew she had the support of her family.

Her greatest initial challenge was preparing herself for her separation from her children. In just a few weeks, she found herself entrenched in a MASH unit, deep in the combat zone of Iraq, that was being bombarded daily and receiving mass casualties. "In a world where rockets exploded randomly nearby, I decided I could not be a combat psychologist and a mother at the same time. I had to be one or the other. I had no choice. I put their pictures away."

And so she and her team began their grueling ordeal of tending to the mental and emotional problems of wounded Marines, shocked survivors of terrible traumas as well as being on hand for the difficulties of the medical teams themselves, who were experiencing events that were new to them all. Along with these trauma problems, the soldiers and MASH personnel were being dermabraded by sandstorms, sautéed in the 132° F heat and frightened by the local fauna, such as the dreaded camel spider, sneaky poisonous scorpions and millions of biting fleas, flies and flits of all kinds that carried diseases.

If she thought she was safe at the base hospital, she learned "the illusion of safety was just that––an illusion, and nothing more."

As at all theaters of mass carnage, there is the necessity for triage, separating out those individuals who have the best chance of surviving if helped, with the most serious cases moved to the front of the line. It follows, then, that there are those with no hope, and these unfortunates are placed in an "expectant" room where they could be made most comfortable. It was in this room that Heidi came across one Marine who began to symbolize her entire stay in the war zone. This young man, Corporal Dunham, like many young soldiers, had sacrificed his life by jumping on a grenade to save his platoon.

When Kraft came upon him, she found, to her surprise, that he was responsive. He was evacuated to Baghdad and, in a few days, to a US hospital. There, he succumbed to his wounds, but at least he died with his parents by his side. Dunham’s mother later wrote to Heidi, because she was grateful that her wounded son had not been alone in his time of fear and pain. He later received the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Kraft's book is filled with these stories that make you reflect. Another of these was the details about the military specialists who were on mortuary duty. This was an unlikely group of soldiers who were qualified jet-engine mechanics, truck drivers, supply clerks and more. None of them had experience as a mortician, but they did what they had to do. They all had difficulties with frequent nightmares, the inability to speak about it to their close friends or family. "No one wants to hear what we do over here. Even people who love us. They think they do, but they don’t."

The mental health professionals themselves needed some therapy and they got it––mostly from each other. Once, Hawkeye Pierce of the TV show M*A*S*H, was counseled by his Colonel about the rules of war. Rule number one is that young men die. Rule number two is that doctors can't change rule number one.

As Dr. Kraft was nearing the end of her deployment, she thought it important to clarify her mind regarding her stay. She wrote a list enumerating the good things about Iraq and then the bad things. Good things included the sunrises and sunsets, learning to appreciate things taken for granted in the past––like fresh fruit––but the absolute best things were the US Marines, both the patients and the uninjured. They were awe-inspiring under the worst of circumstances. Bad things included the treacherous insects, the insurmountable heat, the sounds of artillery and the roar of helicopters, not knowing if what they brought was bad or good. This microcosm of the war can be summed up in one phrase: "We did the best we could."

Kraft's drive and purpose now is to educate and inform people about how many of the soldiers feel and behave when they finish their tours of duty and to help them get reinserted back into their lives. Her main message is that it is okay not to be okay.

From my local area, veterans of many wars continue to be honored for their sacrifices. Anticipating Veterans Day, 13 veterans were recently presented the French Legion of Honor Award at the French Embassy in Washington D.C. for their heroic service in the Army. Two sisters were among those who received the prestigious recognition; honored as Knights of the Legion of Honor. Dorothy and Ellan Levitsky, veteran nurses in WWII, left for the battlefields of France when they were young women. They felt they had to go and support the troops. They are now 88 and 90 years old and still visit France on a regular basis for D-Day services in many small towns across the country.

Note: Ten percent of the profits of Rule Number Two goes to the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund, which provides financial assistance to Marines injured in combat and in training; to other service members injured while in direct support of Marine units; and their families.