Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Review of Robert Wilson's Capital Punishment: A Thriller

Capital Punishment by Robert Wilson

Kidnapping. That terrible word calls to mind a dizzying variety of true and fictional crimes. There's legendary Helen of Troy, whose beauty inspired her abduction and the Trojan War. Robert Louis Stevenson's David Balfour, young heir to the House of Shaws, kidnapped and cast away by his Uncle Ebenezer, in an effort to defraud him. Heiress Patty Hearst and former Italian prime minister Aldo Moro, snatched by left-wing extremists to trade for imprisoned comrades. Charles Lindbergh's baby, carried away to be ransomed for money. Elizabeth Smart, abducted by a pedophile. While the crime is kidnapping, the motive varies.

When the 25-year-old daughter of Mumbai billionaire Frank D'Cruz is kidnapped off a London street in Robert Wilson's Capital Punishment, wouldn't you think the motive is money? That may not be the case. A kidnapper's calm, distorted voice on Alyshia's mobile phone toys with Alyshia D'Cruz's mother, Isabel Marks. There's no ransom demand. Neither the police nor the press must become involved. Isabel is the only person allowed to communicate with the kidnapper. She is to tell ex-husband Frank that Alyshia's return will not involve "a bit of good old Asian haggling" and that he must take the kidnapping more seriously than if it were a mere money-making endeavor.

A Mumbai crowd
Though Frank loves his dazzlingly smart and beautiful daughter, it's hard to tell what he makes of Alyshia's abduction. He won't say why they became estranged during her stay in Mumbai or why she moved back to London nine months earlier. Frank was an Indian gangster and charismatic Bollywood actor before he became an industrial tycoon. He's paranoid, enigmatic and always acting. His ruthlessness has made many enemies and his gangster ties have plugged him into international networks of espionage, criminals and terrorists. Frank hires Charles Boxer, a "freelance kidnap consultant" working for a private security company, to advise him and Isabel.

Boxer served in the Gulf War, and afterward, normal life seemed monotonous and dull. He became a homicide detective, but that work was "historical." Boxer found he needed to be part of situations, like kidnappings, where "life really matters." Psychologically, this work helps fill the dark hole at his center, formed in childhood when his father disappeared. It's not all therapeutic, however. Boxer's professional code of ethics has already become morally flexible, and now he finds himself attracted to Isabel. It's ironic that while Boxer travels the globe freeing rich men's children, he and his Ghanaian ex-homicide partner, Mercy Danquah, are afraid that they're losing their own 17-year-old daughter, angry and rebellious Amy.

The complex relationship between Amy and her parents, who split up but remain good friends and professional colleagues, is an example of the complicated professional and personal relationships maintained on all sides of the kidnapping. This is one of the most complex and sophisticated thrillers in my recent memory. It deals with themes of corruption, counterterrorism, distribution of wealth, loyalty and morality. Over 400 pages, it zigzags between multiple settings in London, Pakistan and India and a huge cast of colorful characters. We bounce between the London kidnappers and Alyshia, those competing to muscle in on the kidnapping, others who want to take advantage of the kidnapping for their own purposes, and people poring over evidence to identify the kidnappers and bring Alyshia home.

Writer Wilson handles all this extremely well. In the beginning, I jotted down names and notes, but before long I learned I didn't need to do this. I simply paid attention. Characters became clear through repeated appearances or short IDs such as "Simon Deacon of MI6." The only problem I found with the many multidimensional characters is that my brain was often more engaged than my heart. I wasn't always emotionally connected to the good guys, some of whom are almost as bad as the bad guys.

No matter what my feelings, Wilson's witty descriptions and writing kept me entertained. One poor MI6 agent found himself captured in India and transported like a sack of potatoes in a rickshaw shortly after eating food that disagreed with him, "as his fear multiplied the horrors of his guts." Later, he was pressed down onto a sofa and "the hood came off with a flourish, as if he was the main dish at a restaurant with ideas above its station." I'm thrilled that this thought-provoking and diverting book, published in 2013 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, is the first of a new series.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Coincidence, Serendipity, Synchronicity or Voodoo?

Lately, it seems like there is a lot of coincidence going on in my reading and viewing life, from the ridiculous to, well, maybe not the sublime, but at least the not-at-all-ridiculous. But let's start with the ridiculous.

When I woke up on Monday, March 4, I'd never heard of the Harlem Shake. Within a space of 45 minutes, I came across three separate features about it online and on TV. Breathless, top-line reports as if this is something earth-shattering. I decided to look at the bright side, though. The advent of the Harlem Shake probably means the end of days for Gangnam Style, right?

Enough silliness; on to the not-at-all-ridiculous, where coincidence has multiplied and intensified to the point that it feels like synchronicity, or some kind of voodoo.

FDR's Secret Train Platform

A few months ago, I read two books that each referred to a bit of historical trivia I'd never heard about: President Franklin D. Roosevelt's top-secret train stop under Grand Central terminal in New York City. As you probably know, FDR was a New Yorker and often visited the city during his presidency, for personal and political reasons. It was important to him that he not be seen in his wheelchair, so he used a secret train stop to allow him to arrive out of sight of the press and other passengers and visitors to Grand Central.

According to legend, FDR's private armored train would travel to Grand Central and stop at the underground Waldorf Astoria Hotel platform. Some claim that upon arrival, his Pierce Arrow automobile would simply drive out of the railcar and onto an elevator that would whisk the car to the hotel's garage and allow FDR to get into the hotel unobserved.

The first I heard about this was when I read Jack 1939 (Riverhead, 2012) by Francine Mathews, who is probably better known to mystery readers as Stephanie Barron, author of the Jane Austen "Jane and the . . . " series and the Merry Folger series set in Nantucket, Massachusetts. Unfortunately, Jack 1939 is dreadful, but that's neither here nor there at the moment. Mathews uses the secret train stop as the scene of a hush-hush meeting between FDR and new college graduate John Fitzgerald Kennedy, in 1939. JFK is about to go off on the traditional graduate's European tour, and FDR asks him to do some discreet spying to assess the political situation in various locales.

No sooner had I gratefully put down Jack 1939, than I read Robert H. Reid's Year Zero (Del Rey, 2012). This very silly but entertaining novel features Nick Carter, a New York City intellectual property lawyer teetering on a career precipice. Only his bringing in some fantastic new client can save him from his firm giving him the boot. That save doesn't seem likely, though, until a couple of aliens materialize in his office, bringing him the biggest copyright infringement case of all time.

Aliens Carly and Frampton tell Nick (who they incorrectly think is Nick Carter from The Backstreet Boys in a second career) that aliens discovered Earth music some years back, during the "Kotter Moment"; the instant when their monitoring of US airwaves allowed them to hear the Welcome Back Kotter sitcom's theme song. It threw them into such ecstasies that brains literally melted. They sent teams to secretly copy all of the Earth's music for the listening delight of the universe.

This turns out to be a problem––even aside from the brain melting. The universe is run by the Refined League, which insists that all local laws be obeyed. That means that the United States' draconian fines for unauthorized music copying will bankrupt the entire universe. Some think a better solution is to obliterate the Earth. Carly, Frampton and Nick race against the clock to find a solution before the Earth goes boom.

A recurring location in this delightful caper is––you guessed it––the secret Grand Central tunnel and, specifically, the platform under the Waldorf Astoria. Author Reid tells us the FDR story, as well as the platform's use in this story, which is to serve as live/work space for the alien drudge clericals whose job is to do the actual music copying and broadcasting into space.

L. Ron Hubbard

Lawrence Wright's recent best-seller, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief (Knopf, 2013) is a fascinating look inside the secretive movement, from its establishment by pulp sci-fi writer L. Ron Hubbard, to the present day. I was listening to it on audiobook when I picked up Jake Arnott's House of Rumour (Little A/New Harvest, 2013), a kaleidoscopic vision of the 20th century, mashing together the real and imagined, with a focus on World War II spycraft and a circle of West Coast science fiction writers.

When Arnott's (imagined) character, aspiring writer Larry Zagorski, is invited to a social meeting of Robert Heinlein's (real) Mañana Society, who should be there, across the room and hitting on girls, but L. Ron Hubbard. Not only that, but in the WW2 spycraft part of the story, we see double agent Tricycle, who is one of the eccentrics featured in Ben MacIntyre's Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, which I reviewed here. To make for a trifecta of coincidence, there is even a part of House of Rumour that takes place at the doomed Jonestown colony in Guyana, which I'd read about in detail a few months ago in Julia Scheeres's A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown.

House of Rumour is an ambitious and fascinating book, but, in my view, its fractured plot and disjointed narrative don't come together until too near the end of the book to make it successful. Still, this is an unusual novel of ideas that should appeal to many. A review in The Guardian says that the book "perhaps most resembles The Da Vinci Code, rewritten by an author with the gifts of characterization, wit and literacy."

Bletchley Park

Given my obsession with World War II espionage, it's not much of a surprise when multiples of the same war topics come up in my reading and viewing. Still, the codebreakers at England's Bletchley Park seem to be practically living at my place recently. Sinclair McKay's The Secret Life of Codebreakers: The Men and Women Who Cracked the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park, which I reviewed here, focuses on the daily life in Bletchley Park for the 10,000-plus men and women who worked there in utter secrecy to crack the codes used by the Axis powers during World War II.

Ben MacIntyre's Double Cross spotlights the oddball pack of double agents whom British intelligence used in the field––like Tricycle, mentioned above. These agents had no direct contact with Bletchley Park, but cryptographers there were involved in the agents' work, especially decrypting messages that the agents obtained for them or led them to.

Just last week, Bletchley Park popped up again, as PBS began airing the three-part British miniseries (from ITV), The Bletchley Circle. Set in London in the 1950s, four women who had worked at Bletchley Park are finding out, as Sinclair McKay details so well in The Secret Life of Codebreakers, that postwar life can't hold a candle to the sense of purpose and feeling of excitement they'd had during the war. Life is flat, gray and dull. That is, until they decide to use their various skills, honed during their war service, to catch a serial killer.

Even if you're not all that interested in codebreaking or Bletchley Park, you might want to try The Bletchley Circle for its depiction of how tough it was for these women to adjust to postwar life. Returning to the everyday was a letdown for any Bletchley Park veteran, but women had further to fall, as they went back to the humdrum of housework and clerical and service jobs, and husbands who may not have a clue about their talents or any respect for their war work. No wonder chasing down a serial killer seemed like a great idea.

* * *

I don't know exactly why there has been so much unintentional coincidence in my reading of late, but I'm finding that the depiction of people or events in one book tends to have a different slant or emphasis from the portrayal in another book, and these two views inform and enrich my reading of both books. It's a case of the whole being more than the sum of the parts.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Review of Erin Kelly's The Burning Air

The Burning Air by Erin Kelly

The mother-child relationship can generate a lot of heat. Think about how Psycho's Norma Bates emotionally crippled her son Norman (Anthony Perkins), and then she, Norman, and Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) pay the price. Recall the havoc caused by the relationship between Stephen King's monstrously abusive Margaret and her telekinetic daughter Carrie. But even the most loving and well-meaning of mothers can plant the seeds of their children's ruin. Take the Greek goddess Thetis, who loved her son Achilles and tried to give him immortality by dipping him in the river Styx, but left him vulnerable because she'd held him by his heel. There's no denying that the bond between mothers and their children can make the children stronger or destroy them.

In her third novel, The Burning Air, Erin Kelly enthralls us with the unintended, devastating consequences of mothers' relationships with their children. That combustible familial bond—as well as class, identity, obsession, psychosis, and vengeance—is portrayed with the intensity and aching sense of loss we expect from Ruth Rendell, Kate Atkinson, or Tana French. This book is as suspenseful as Kelly's previous fiction, The Poison Tree and The Dark Rose (also published as The Sick Rose), yet it tells a more complex story.

As The Burning Air begins in January 2013, Saxby matriarch and court magistrate Lydia MacBride has terminal cancer. She has obsessively kept a diary her whole life, and she now feels compelled to record her confession of an act that took place years ago. It's unthinkable, however, that any eyes other than her own would see it. As Lydia writes, "Reputation is one thing; family is quite another. Family matters." And it was love for her children, love for her son, that caused her to act wrongly as she did.

The book leaps to November 2013, nine months after Lydia's death. The plan is to gather for a MacBride family healing. Lydia's husband Rowan and their three adult children—Sophie, Tara, and Felix—will assemble at the MacBrides' country vacation home, Far Barn, in Devon; participate in the village celebration of Fire Night, as traditional; and scatter Lydia's ashes.

An omniscient narrator describes the arrival of Sophie, who gave birth to Edie on the day of her mother's death, her husband Will, and their four children. The writing is gorgeous and full of foreboding, as "the hedgerows themselves seemed to squeeze their oversized car along the road like a clot through a vein," and "branches jabbed witchy fingers through the windows" before they spot the barn, "a black mass on a cloud-blind night." Once inside, the rich reds of the barn's upholstered furniture, rugs, and tapestries give one "the impression of standing in the belly of a great beast." The acoustics of the barn are strange, and there is no nearby cell-phone reception.

The atmospherics of the family's arrival and the barn aren't the only evening's premonition of the trouble to come. Rowan, retired headmaster of Saxby's elite Cathedral School, is already there, inexplicably drunk. Tara soon confides that Jake, her 14-year-old mixed-race son from a teenage relationship, has been in serious trouble. Tara and her lover, Matt, notice tensions between Sophie and her husband Will. Twenty-nine year old Felix, a disfigured furniture-restorer who lives "entirely ironically," unsettles his family by arriving with his first-ever girlfriend, a ravishingly beautiful woman named Kerry, who barely speaks.

As the day of Fire Night unfolds, attention centers on baby Edie, the "beating heart of the family." Her family adores her; cousin Jake wants to feed her; Kerry is entranced by her. This creates sparks of friction, as Sophie is overwhelmed by feelings of jealousy and protectiveness toward Edie, but she's pulled in many directions. She discovers an old sweater of her mother Lydia's, and instinctively holds it to her nose and inhales. "The rush back through time, to their house in Cathedral terrace, was so swift that Sophie half expected to feel her hair flying." She must pay attention to her husband and sons, too.

Thus does Sophie unintentionally set the stage for Lydia's close-knit MacBrides—three generations of upper-class privilege—to harvest the seeds sown by Lydia and another well-meaning mother with her own secrets, whom we meet in an extended flashback through her child's narration. Author Kelly peers into that narrator's head and illuminates the symbiotic mother-child dynamic like a psychiatrist presenting an interesting case study, but with a twist that shocks the audience. Other characters and the multiple narrative voices are also well done. Even though the ending's structure somewhat deflects the arc of suspense, I liked its kaleidoscopic nature.

The Burning Air is entertaining and evocative, character-driven suspense, about the dangerous nature of mother love. Its flame can burn like hell.

Note: I received a free digital galley of Erin Kelly's The Burning Air, published earlier this year, by Viking/Penguin Group (USA).

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Alexander McCall Smith: Author, Musician, Lawyer, Innovator

I am always impressed by those adventuresome souls who are able to kick over their traces and start a new path in life. Famous among these is Grandma Moses, who took to painting in her seventies when she wanted to make something for her postman’s Christmas gift, and Colonel Harland Sanders, who began the Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise after a new expressway bypassed his restaurant and put him out of business when he was in his sixties. Both of these were individualists whose "get up and go" hadn't got up and went when they were ready for Social Security. And, even more important, they were people with a vision.

Another of these trailblazers is Alexander McCall Smith. Smith was born and grew up in Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe), then went off to Scotland to study law. At close to 50 years of age, he was teaching in Belfast, Ireland where he entered a literary competition and won in the children’s category. He returned to Southern Africa in 1981 to help co-found and teach law at the University of Botswana.

"Write what you know" (Mark Twain)

The rest is history, since McCall Smith  came out with his book The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. It was in an airport bookstore that I picked up this first mystery and I was instantly charmed. Mma Precious Ramotswe has had some reversals in her life, with the death of her father and the breakdown of a marriage that brought her more sorrow than joy. She has become a follower of the teachings of Clovis Anderson, author of a text on the principles of detection. She set up as a private detective on a main street in Gaborone, Botswana. Her main strengths are intelligence, courage and a basic understanding of human nature. Somewhat of a Miss Marple, except that this is a career for her. The first thing she does is hire a secretary, Grace Makutsi, who is intensely proud of her graduation at the head of her class at the local secretarial college with an astounding grade of 97%.

All of the characters are beautifully drawn, and the reader begins to appreciate the life and culture of Botswana even to the point of ordering Mma Ramotswe's favorite tipple, bush tea, from online sources. It can even be found in local grocery stores these days. The stories are usually simple, but it would be a mistake to consider the characters simple-minded. In The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, several of Mma Ramotswe's friends seem to be walking unwarily into different traps that had me calling out to them to watch their steps, but I underestimated their insight.

Bush Tea
One of the milestones of McCall Smith's life was when he became a respected expert in medical law and bioethics. He used this background as a pathway into his next series, featuring Isabel Dalhousie, who is a moral philosopher by training and inclination. She is the editor of a periodical titled the Review of Applied Ethics. Isabel is a woman of independent means, with a fulltime housekeeper, but she keeps quite busy. People are always coming to Isabel, asking her to solve their problems, and she has become an occasional detective. Her friends and family frequently admonish her about getting involved in problems that are, quite frankly, none of her business.

Actually, what she does best is to personalize the Socratic idea that an unexamined life is not worth living. There are handfuls of mysteries in Isobel's daily life as she ponders the ethics of everyday situations. In The Sunday Philosophy Club, Isabel unfortunately witnesses a man's fall from a balcony in a concert hall. She believes she has a moral obligation to find out what she can about the man, because she thought she exchanged glances with him as he fell. "That was part of the burden of being a philosopher: one knew what one had to do, but it was so often the opposite of what one really wanted to do."

The location of the stories is in Edinburgh, an eminently respectable town where the citizens believe there couldn't be any murderers here. But Isabel knows that Edinburgh is a place like anywhere else, and has the same range of people as any place else did: the good, the bad and the morally indifferent. But they had their quirks of course, but even their quirks were charming––as we find in The Charming Quirks of Others.

McCall Smith is also the former chairman of the British Medical Journal ethics committee and was a member of many other boards and commissions, all of which he gave up when he achieved success as a writer.

Still with some time on his hands, McCall Smith decided on a new venture, taking a leaf out of the pages of Dickens and the San Francisco novelist Armistead Maupin, both of whom wrote serialized novels. Thus 44 Scotland Street was released in installments every weekday in The Scotsman newspaper and was also later delivered on the BBC radio as 15-minute dramas. The stories surround the characters living in a particular Edinburgh apartment building.

Right away, the reader is caught up in the lives of Pat MacGregor, a 20-something who is on her second gap year, since the first didn’t work out; Bruce Anderson, her narcissistic flatmate; Matthew Duncan, the owner of an art gallery; Angus Lordie and his dog Cyril; and my personal favorite, little Bertie Pollock. Bertie is somewhat of a genius, but his life is constantly made miserable by his overbearing mother, who insists he play the saxophone, speak Italian and visit a psychiatrist regularly. I get every book right off the presses so I can see how Bertie is faring, as he tries to live a normal life and hold his head up in all the difficult and humorous situations he finds himself. These stories have grown into eight volumes so far; the most recent, Sunshine on Scotland Street, is very hard to get hold of.

“To boldly go where no man has gone before” (or to boldly go where no man has swept the floor) (Star Trek and others)

Much to the dismay of his publishers, McCall Smith's next literary experiment was an on-line novel. This was a serialized story published on the Internet exclusive to Telegraph.co.uk. and available to the readers at no cost.

These stories tell the stories of the inhabitants of a large housing unit named Corduroy Mansions, in London, England. Here, also, there is a large cast of characters, one of the most interesting of whom is a dog, Freddie de la Hay.

As Corduroy Mansions was released online, readers could interact via online discussion boards with each other and the author himself. The Daily Telegraph staff edited this. The author wrote a chapter a day, starting on 15 Sep 2008. The first series ran for 20 weeks. These daily chapters were also available as an audio download. Fortunately, there are hard copies for all those who prefer reading a book.

Sandwiched into these series are wonderful children's stories; several nonfiction books, such as The Forensic Aspects of Sleep; and a fifth series, about a Professor Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld, who finds himself in one humiliating situation after another.

Finally, McCall Smith has a few nonseries books of fiction. La's Orchestra Saves the World is set in England at the beginning of World War II. Lavender––La for short––goes to live in a country cottage. Music is her refuge, and she helps bring together all the local musicians who played music, and it was an antidote to the horrors of war. In this venture, Smith calls on his own musical background. Aside from his other talents, Smith is also a bassoonist and he co-founded a group, The Really Terrible Orchestra, whose mission it is "to encourage those who have been prevented from playing music, either through lack of talent or some other factor, to play music in the company of similarly afflicted players." Critics of their performances seem to agree that lousy is the best they can ever be.

Well, you can’t be good at everything.

Whatever plans Alexander McCall Smith has for his next venture, either book or series, I look forward to it. I would love to know how he manages his time.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Boston Strong––In Mysteries Too

We don't flatter ourselves that we can express anything new or particularly insightful about Monday's bombing at the Boston Marathon and its aftermath. Like everyone, though, we have Bostonians very much on our minds and believe in the sentiments of the city's new slogan: Boston Strong. Of course, our thoughts always eventually turn to crime fiction, so we thought we'd write about a small selection of Boston-related mysteries.

Among all the great crime fiction set in Boston, it's hard to pick one or two. I'll start with Robert B. Parker's Spenser, a tough private eye with a heart of gold in the mold of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. Spenser is as synonymous with Boston as baked beans and Harvard Square.

Mortal Stakes is the third book in this series. Spenser hasn't settled into the character he becomes over Parker's 35 years of writing; however, we see the personal code of ethics, the wisecracks, and the plotting that made Parker's early books so fresh and entertaining. Here, Spenser is hired to investigate Marty Rabb, the ace Red Sox pitcher who is married to a former call girl and is suspected of throwing games, but this book is more about loyalty and justice than it is about baseball. The action builds to a tremendous climax that has a lasting impact on Spenser.

We'll now leave the hardboiled Boston of Mortal Stakes for the bizarre Boston of Russell H. Greenan's 1968 book, It Happened in Boston? If you read my review of Greenan's The Secret Life of Algernon Pendleton, you already know that Greenan writes highly original suspense, featuring black comedy, eccentric characters, and very odd—albeit fascinating—philosophical ideas. He's a master at creating logically complex worlds, often set in Boston, where Greenan has lived since the 1950s. (At one time, he owned a Harvard Square bookstore named The Cat and Racquet, after the story by Honoré de Balzac, and he mines this experience and his knowledge of Boston for his books.) His poor characters don't deserve what's coming to them, but there's nothing a reader can do other than to watch, cringe, and laugh.

In this particular book, our narrator—an extremely talented and paranoid artist—wishes to meet God and hold Him accountable for the world's evil. Not for everyone; however, definitely for readers who enjoy dark humor coupled with wordplay and imaginative, complex murder mysteries.

Speaking of imaginative stories Georgette, right now I'm listening to Neal Stephenson's epic Baroque Cycle. Book One, Quicksilver, begins in Boston, as Enoch Root arrives from England to ask scientist (or, as then called, "natural philosopher") Daniel Waterhouse to return to England to try to make peace between his old friends, Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz.

The book leaves Boston for England in short order, but lingers long enough for us to take a ferry trip across the Charles and meet some scholars from Harvard, who don't have very complimentary things to say about their rivals from that upstart, the Massachusetts Bay Colony Institute of the Technologickal [sic] Arts. Stephenson impressively entertains, while pouring out huge beakers full of information about science and the history of science.

If you're in the mood for Neal Stephenson, but maybe something shorter than the Baroque Cycle (three volumes of eight books), and with a lot more Boston in it, try his second novel, Zodiac. Zodiac is a thriller about Sangamon Taylor's battle against companies polluting Boston Harbor.

"S.T.," as he's called, isn't above a few shenanigans in his battle, like stopping up pipes pouring effluent into the harbor, and the notoriety his antics gains him also makes him a target for a classic fit-up job. S.T. needs to scramble out of sight so that he can clear himself and get the goods on the bad guys. Zodiac is told in the first person, which gives us the full benefit of S.T.'s wisecracks and caustic sarcasm.

Boredom is impossible when you're reading a thriller featuring Boston Police Detective Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner Dr. Maura Isles. In Vanish, Tess Gerritsen's fifth series book, they tackle a case concerning the sex trafficking of young immigrant women. The subject matter brings to mind Stieg Larsson, but this book is much faster paced.

Vanish opens with the account of such a woman before we join Maura in the morgue, where we're startled to find an unidentified woman's corpse is still breathing. The woman is rushed to the hospital, and shortly thereafter, all hell breaks loose. Nine-months-pregnant Jane Rizzoli is taken hostage and her husband, FBI agent Gabriel Dean, becomes involved. It's a suspenseful and thought-provoking book with feisty female protagonists and it's perfect when you're too antsy to settle down with just anything to read.

Some summers ago, I was fortunate enough to be able to spend a few days in Boston. I brought along a book to read that was based in Boston. It was Matthew Simon's The Chosen Few, which introduced me to ex-policeman, now PI, Max Lovely, as well as to the flavor of several different Boston neighborhoods.

This week, it seemed appropriate to reacquaint my self with the area, and I turned to another Max Lovely case, as chronicled in That's What Little Boys Are Made Of. Max is called into an elite private high school in the Back Bay, after a member of the student body dies unexpectedly of an overdose at a party. The headmistress, Mrs. Penrose, is not convinced that this was an accident––despite the fact that Will "Stoner" Stoneham was known to all his friends as a habitual user of all kinds of drugs and alcohol, and was frequently to be found passed out at parties. Mrs. Penrose had seen Stoner in a furious and secretive confab with another boy, who was not a friend of his, just days before his death.

Beacon Hill
Max Lovely and his associate, Eliot, begin an investigation that leads them to all parts of the city. They pass through many of the well-known areas, such as Beacon Hill where Oliver Wendell Holmes had a domicile. Another place they visit is Mount Vernon Street, which the novelist Henry James named the "only respectable street in America." Lovely must find a trail that connects one kid to another in order to make any sense of the case, but days pass, and before he can make the critical connection, another boy is dead and Max is the one in the crosshairs.

John Quincy Adams Projects
Laced with dollops of Boston history, the story and the trail lead through Roxbury to the John Quincy Adams Projects, and the reader gets a vivid idea about the different facets of Boston society. I was fascinated to read that the Boston area's first European settler was the Reverend William Blackstone, who came with 2000 books and a Brahman bull. When the next group of colonists followed, he left the area––perched on his bull.

Don't jump to conclusion that the term "Boston Brahmin" arises from the tale of Blackstone's decampment. It was coined by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. (father of the Supreme Court Justice) to describe the region's upper crust. In India, a Brahmin is "a member of the highest or priestly caste among the Hindus," according to the Oxford English Dictionary. By applying the term to his native Boston, Holmes was describing a more secular, but equally powerful, group.

The story has a dark subject matter that might bother some readers. In the end, drugs, kids and death is an appalling triad, but for me, the trip through Boston made the read worthwhile.

Mount Vernon Street

The news this past week has been horrible. The bombings in Boston and ricin-laced letters sent to politicians, the intransigence of some of our elected representatives who vetoed the explicit wishes of the voters who elected them, the massive industrial explosion in Texas and even nature's springtime revels, a/ka/ the flooding and tornadoes in the Midwest; the hits just keep coming. With the rest of the country, we at Read Me Deadly grieve for these victims and their families.

My own usual response to disaster is cowardice. Heading for the hall closet to whimper in peace, stiff drink in hand, I was astonished find it already occupied. "Hi," I said uncertainly. "Who are you?"

"Get in," she hissed. "And shut the door!" As I hastily obeyed, I glanced up. A few dusty and forgotten novels of the late Boston author Charlotte MacLeod, whose farcical and convoluted mysteries are lovingly set in and around that city, lay on the shelf.

In the author's The Silver Ghost, Back-Bay Brahmin Bostonian Sarah Kelling and her art detective husband, Max Bittersohn, are attending Nehemiah ("Call me Bill") and Abigail Billingsgate's Renaissance Revel. While ostensibly just guests, they are actually working undercover to try to recover their host's antique Phantom Rolls Royce, stolen from his very secure climate-controlled garage.

Upper-crust guests at the annual event (costume required) quaff mead made from the homegrown honey produced by thousands of happy bees from Abigail's apiary. When a second antique vehicle goes missing and one of the servants is found slathered in honey and stung to death, Max steps out of character as Shylock and gets to work. As is usual in MacLeod's work, the characters are charming and the ludicrous situations they find themselves in irresistible. I will savor this welcome and affectionate taste of Boston very slowly this weekend.

This is not the first time the streets of Boston have been stained with the blood of the innocent––nor I fear, the last. But out of one such incident arose something entirely new under the sun: a nation ruled not by a king or military cabal, but by rule of law established of the people, by the people and for the people. Boston may be down right now (in fact, as I write this on Friday morning, the entire city in in lockdown) but it is not, now or ever, out. Its world-renowned Marathon will be run again, with more runners and spectators than ever. We are America, and that's how we respond to terrorism.

Boston's unofficial anthem, the Standells' "Dirty Water":