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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 ‘Books’ 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.

Alafair Burke – Denise Mina smackdown

I recently read Alafair Burke’s Long Gone and Denise Mina’s The End of the Wasp Season.  Both authors demonstrated their skill at plotting, laying out complex story lines and clearly guiding us along them to satisfying conclusions. The Burke was a pretty straightforward mystery while I’d call Mina’s (a standalone outside her other series) more of police procedural.

At the end of the day, I have to declare Mina the winner in this duel I’ve invented. Her characters are complex, she understands the nuances of their relationships and observes how those nuances are expressed.

“As Gobby poured three plastic cups of water out, Bannerman turned back and smiled at the camera. It was too flippant for McKechnie–he shifted reproachfully in his seat,” and “It wasn’t the floor wipe McKechnie had been expecting. He had stopped looking at the screen and was checking the crease in his trousers.”

 

 

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!

Trade secrets…

“Where do you find all of these great books?”  I almost always hear this question when we have a booth at a book fair or when some customer finds their way to our home, which houses our inventory of first editions, rapidly approaching 11,000.  It’s really not a big secret, so I won’t have to kill you if I tell you.  In fact, it’s all very public and I’m always jostling other dealers, collectors and readers to find treasures.

 

There are two busy times of the year for book buying for me, spring and fall.  This is when all of the Friends of the Library and AAUW groups have their fund-raising book sales.  Also, throughout the year, I buy books from various internet sites, used book stores, dealer catalogs, estate sales, customers looking to thin their collections and library shops.  Here are my statistics for the last six weeks:

25 library and AAUW sales

2 used book stores

2 dealer catalogs

3 old boxes purchased in some previous year, but never processed

1009 miles on the van

794 books processed into inventory

 

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.

Snow Angels by James Thompson

What is it about Scandinavia that makes its mystery novels so dark and melancholy and turns their protagonists into gloomy alcoholics?   I see it in the works of Henning Mankel, Jo Nesbo and now James Thompson.  Only Stieg Larson seems immune.  His characters eat sandwiches and drinks lots of coffee.

Kari Vaara is a brooding Lapland police chief (did I mention he drinks too much?) investigating the  gruesome murder of a Somolian pop star during the sunless, bitterly cold winter.  The sources and suspects include Vaara’s ex wife and her boyfriend, a dissolute playboy and the simple folk in his district.  The solution comes a bit too conveniently, but the overall story and atmosphere are compelling.

Rogue Island by Bruce DeSilva

You saw it here first:  Keep your eye out for this new author.  He’s one to watch.

A book about a traditional, hard-boiled, big city reporter will always tug at the heartstrings of this journalism school graduate but it better keep pulling me in after that initial tug.  Rogue Island delivers.

Reporter Liam Mulligan grew up in the working class neighborhood of Provincetown, RI which is now beset with a series of deadly arsons. He drives a beat-up car with a name, smokes Cuban cigars and loves the Red Sox beyond all reason.   DeSilva’s other characters are right out of noir’s central casting — a bookie who is the neighborhood philanthropist, mobsters in shiny suits, the beautiful, young ambitious girl reporter and the eager beaver copy  boy.

The plot is tight, the prose is spare but sufficient.

The fact that the book refers gratuitously to Loren Estleman early on gave it a leg up.  And what could be more Estleman-esque than the following?

“Polecki lit a cheap black stogie with a disposable lighter, leaned back in his oak office chair, and thunked his weary wingtips on a green blotter scarred with tobacco burns.  The chair groaned under the weight he’d packed on since the wife left and Kentucky Fried wasn’t just for breakfast anymore.  His assistant, a bum named Roselli, who got the job because he was first cousin to the mayor,  sat stiffly on a gray metal chair under a cracked window skimmed over with ice on the inside.”

Dead Letter Hell or Going Postal

It all started the day before Thanksgiving, 2010 when I took a package to the Royal Oak post office to ship 11 books to a new customer, who lives less than a two hour drive north of me.  Let’s call him John.  Two days later, the USPS website showed that the box had made it to the right post office, but was deemed undeliverable as addressed.  Then the fun really began.

Imagine my surprise when, instead of being returned to me, the box showed up in Atlanta, then Memphis, then Allen Park, MI, then Warrendale, PA, then Atlanta, then Memphis, then Allen Park, then Atlanta.  I must admit that I have had no experience with this.  I’ve been packaging and shipping books for over fifteen years and have never had a problem.

Of course, during this period, I had several conversations with John (my customer) and with post office personnel.  None of us were worried, it being the holiday shipping season, so it wasn’t until after the holidays that things escalated.  John, his local postmaster and I had a conference call and some form got filled out to try to find the package.  No success.

The local clerk gave me a phone number for a group that resolves issues.  When my call was never returned, I asked about it one day while shipping packages.  The clerk next to us asked what number I was calling and, when I showed it to her, said that was her old number and she had not been replaced, so no one was answering that phone!  She made copies of my receipt and delivery confirmation slip and said she would call Atlanta.  Several days later someone finally answered her call and the package was found.  More than several days after that, the package finally was delivered to John.  I’m not sure why it wasn’t forwarded from Atlanta using overnight shipping and at least priority mail, but after 10 weeks on the road its journey was over.  John was a great sport during all these shenanigans.  He said the box was battered (see photo) but the books were intact.