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We're Ken Hebenstreit and Sharlan Douglas, blogging here about the books we love: Mysteries, suspense, crime fiction. If you want to comment on one of our postings, click on its headline.

Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

We All Fall Down by Michael Harvey

This story about a biological weapon release in Chicago is suspenseful but a bit too economical. The protagonist, Michael Kelly, a former Chicago cop turned PI, too-neatly pulls together the solution to a gang drug deal, a municipal purchasing corruption scandal and the pathogen release. We never see him think or debate multiple options. There are no mistakes or red herrings and little color.

Harvey’s prose is terse to a fault. I frequently had to loop back a half a page to follow the back-and-forth to know who was speaking.

Perhaps the book will work better as the screenplay for which Harvey seems to be seeking options.

Quick reads before taking on George R.R. Martin

Next on my reading list is A Dance with Dragons, the fifth massive tome in Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series.  At almost 1,000 pages, I wasn’t quite ready to commit, so I slipped in a couple of books that I bought at sales recently.  Here are there reviews:

Death and Faxes by Leslie O’Kane

Okay, while I read a lot of different genres, this is not one that I usually venture into.  Cozies are usually just too cute and touchy feely for my tastes.  So why did I read this?  I don’t know, but I did and here is my review.

While her husband is out of the country on business, Molly Masters returns to house-sit her childhood home with her two young children.  Molly, a greeting card designer, has to deal with former high school teachers, friends, rivals, sinister threats over her fax machine and murder.  Much angst and humor ensues (I did mention former high school acquaintances, right?) as Molly tries to figure out who dunnit.  As usual, the humor is just a little too cute for me, but characters were well drawn and it was a pretty good mystery.  My one comment is my surprise at how fast technology has progressed.  Written in 1996, this book has the plot centered on the use of a fax machine.  Molly uses it as her primary communication method for her business and receives her threats appear there.

The Captain by Seymour Shubin

If you read my post last week, you know that I have processed almost 800 books in the last six weeks.  There are always titles that look interesting to read, but they get put on a shelf or in a box and I forget about them until I sell them and say “I meant to read that.”  So, when I finished several books on my reading list, but wasn’t quite ready to tackle the 1000 pages of A Dance with Dragons, I looked in my pile and pulled out The Captain.

Not so much a mystery, as a character study, this is the story of a longtime head of the detective bureau in the police department, now retired and living in a nursing home.  He is referred to as The Captain by residents and staff, but is not happy at all with how old people are treated.  This is a very interesting story of murder, investigation, how aging people are viewed in our society and nursing homes.  I thought it was well written and thoughtful, as well as suspenseful.

Pronto by Elmore Leonard

I have read a lot of Elmore Leonard novels over the years and always enjoyed them.  They are always well paced, with interesting characters, and Pronto is no exception.  I pulled this one off the shelf when I found out that Raylan Givens is a featured character in the book.  For those who don’t know, Raylan is the main character in the TV series Justified on the FX network.  I had heard that it was based on a Leonard short story and didn’t realize that Raylan had also appeared in books.  Indeed, he is in Pronto and its sequel, Riding the Rap.  According to articles, and verified when I spoke with Dutch at a Michael Connelly book signing last April (see my report below), while Leonard is an executive producer of the show, he does not work on the scripts.  Even so, viewers will recognize a scene toward the end of the book!

Triple Crossing by Sebastian Rotella

Every so often, Shar reads a review of a book that really gets her attention.  The next thing you know she’s off to the library and back home reading it in her favorite chair.  It didn’t take her long to finish this one and tell me I had to read it.  She is rarely wrong and certainly isn’t on this one!

This is a gritty, fast-paced thriller about the criminal underworld and corruption at work along both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.  At the center of the story is Valentine Pescatore, a rookie Border Patrol agent trying to survive the trenches of The Line in San Diego.  He gets in trouble and finds himself recruited as an informant.  Things spiral out of control and he finds himself deeply involved with the smugglers in Mexico and South America’s Triple Border area.

The writing is terrific, with great pacing and many well drawn, complex and ambiguous characters.   I felt completely immersed is this world and happy that I live in the midwest.

The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam by Chris Ewan

One of the perks of being a book dealer is discovering authors you’ve never heard of before.  This past Labor Day weekend, while of a trip to NYC, I’m looking for good stock at The Strand Bookstore and come across a couple of titles by this author.  Now, they weren’t in the best of shape, but they sounded interesting.  An hour later, when I decided to buy the paperback copy of his first book to give it a try, I couldn’t remember his name.  So, after getting home and doing a little research, I brought home a copy from our local library and I’m glad I did.

Our protagonist is Charlie Howard, a globe-trotting author who writes suspense novels about an intrepid burglar named Faulks.  Of course, Charlie has a side business stealing for a very discreet clientele on commission.  The humor seemed a bit forced at times, but was amusing most of the time.  The seemingly simple plot had enough twists and danger to keep this reader interested.  My favorite part of the book may have been Charlie’s conversations with his literary agent, Victoria, who picks at the flaws in his latest manuscript and serves as a sounding board for his problems.

For me, this kind of book is just the thing to read between bouts of suspense and thriller novels.  It kind of clears the palate.  I’ll be looking for The Good Thief’s Guide to Paris in a couple of weeks.

Vermilion Drift by William Kent Kruger

The federal government wants to store spent nuclear fuel in the vacant iron mines of northern Minnesota.  A gruesome discovery in a remote portion of the mine quickly shifts the focus of Vermilion Drift to private eye and former sheriff Corcoran O’Connor, who straddles the worlds of town and the Indian reservation.

Cork battles his own memories and demons while slowly discovering that something approaching pure evil walked the fields and roads a generation ago, and may still.

I rarely think that a book should be longer, but Kruger uses a lot of exposition at the beginning of the book to set up the characters and circumstances.  It’s a little too economical.  Some  flashbacks would have added color in a manner consistent with of the Indian mysticism we see later in the book.

The Information Officer by Mark Mills

It’s WWII, and the Nazis, needing a mid-Mediterranean air base to attack Africa, are bombing the daylights out of the tiny island of Malta, which is being defended by the Allies.

Meanwhile, at the officer’s club and in private parlors, stiff drinks and stiff upper lips prevail, affairs flourish and wane and siege humor colors the dialog.  It’s all too, too Graham Greene.

Max Chadwick is the British information officer (PR guy) trying to bolster the locals with cheery tales of incidental heroism while covering up news of a serial killer preying on young women: a killer who may well be one of the Brits’ own.

Mills effectively mixes history with some well-drawn fictional characters.  He’s less effective as a mystery writer.  The clues didn’t draw an inevitable net tighter and tighter around the killer.   The conclusion felt more like, “Oops, time to end this book.  Here’s who done it.”

The 47th Samuri by Stephen Hunter

OK, that is NOT Bob Lee Swagger in this book.   This imposter is flippant.  He’s chatty.  He knows who Kate Spade is, fer cryin’ out loud.  And, while maybe I can imagine him buying a designer handbag for his daughter,  his wife would have had him committed when he bought one for her.

Oh, sure, he really gets into the Samuri warrior mentality, that whole honor and duty thing.  To the manner born and all that.  And it only takes a short course with the Japanese equivalent of Yoda to turn him into a sword fighter who can go mano a mano with the best guy in the entire country.

Even Hunter acknowledges that keeping the story straight as he’s switched  back and forth between the stories of Bob Lee and his father, Earl, has occasionally forced him to rewrite their history.   I haven’t kept up on the Swagger series, so maybe he’s grown into this character.  If so, could we please rewrite his character to bring back the iconic, stoic sniper/tracker/woodsman from Point of Impact?

The Redbreast by Jo Nesbo

Our protagonist is yet another morose, obsessive, hard-drinking Scandinavian police detective. Kicked upstairs after a disastrous shooting accident, Harry Hole gets assigned to a busy-work case that turns into a complex mystery that started 55 years ago, among Norwegian soldiers fighting with the Germans on the eastern front of WW II.

Nesbo’s work is excellent and probably lives up to the jacket blurb calling this the best Norwegian crime fiction novel ever, but only the Norwegians know for sure.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

So THAT’s what they meant. All the accolades for this book, I mean. What an extraordinary mystery novel and all the more incredible that it was a first book. The plot is richly detailed, the characters deftly drawn, the suspense intense. Ken’s got two first editions but I had to wait to get it from the library: Didn’t want to worry about damaging a beautiful, collectible copy.