Welcome to our blog
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 ‘Mystery’ Category

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!

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.

Lunch with Michael Connelly

April 13, 2011 was a beautiful spring day in metro Detroit.  I loaded up the van with two bags of first editions and headed for Birmingham to meet and lunch with one of our favorite authors, one of the few that we actually collect.  The luncheon was a benefit for The Community House and the Baldwin Public Library.  Connelly had a full day with this meet-and-greet luncheon followed by an afternoon event where he discussed The Lincoln Lawyer and an evening event at the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield which would up with an overflow crowd of more than 300.

“I might not be here today if it wasn’t for the library,” Connelly said in his brief opening remarks.  Connelly credits the local public library for the many hours he clocked reading as a child in Florida. Connelly’s mother was a bank teller, he said, and in the summer she would drop him off at the library in the morning and pick him up after work.  He said he was “happy to take part in anything that supports the library.”

After his remarks, people quickly lined up to meet Connelly and have him sign books.  Book Beat, a fine local independent book store, had a table of the author’s books available for purchase, including his latest novel, The Fifth Witness.  I think I took the prize for bringing the most books, and I waited until the line diminished before approaching the author.  He very generously inscribed copies for our collection and signed copies that will be for sale shortly.

The bonus round was the appearance of local author Elmore Leonard and his son (and author) Peter Leonard.  I had the opportunity to chat briefly with Dutch about the FX series Justified, which is based on his short story, Fire in the Hole.  Even though he is an executive producer for the show, he has nothing to do with the story line.  However, he is in the middle of writing a novel featuring Raylan Givens and, as he completes sections, has been sending them to the shows writers.  There are times when Shar an I are watching the show, hear some dialog and simultaneous laugh out loud because we know we just heard Leonard’s words.


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.

City of Dragons by Kelli Stanley

Miranda Corbie is a the noirest of noir private eyes in San Francisco, 1940.  She smokes Chesterfields and is tortured by the memory of her dead lover.

When a minor-league Japanese crook falls dead at her feet during a Chinatown festival, Miranda takes the case, sans even a pro bono client. Despite being at the wrong end of a hit-and-run, no sleep, no food, quarts of brown liquor and — did I mention the  Chesterfields? — she outsmarts the cops and an assortment of ethnic gangsters to solve that case and the four or five other cases to which it connects.

Author Kelli Stanley does a great job putting us in that time and place.  Her period details are spot-on.  I felt the fog, the pain in my calves from climbing those hills, the fear in a dark Chinatown drug den.  But the plot twists and relationships felt contrived.

Thomas Perry’s “Death Benefits”

I’ve long admired Thomas Perry.  He gives us fast-moving, compelling plots, peppered with smart, pithy dialog.  Jane Whitefield is one of the most interesting characters I’ve encountered in fiction.  Ken just read the first in that series, Vanishing Act, and, like me, was enthralled by the chase scene at the end.

But even top authors stumble once in a while, and Perry tripped in 2001’s Death Benefits.  It feels like two books stitched together into one.  In the first half, San Francisco insurance analyst John Walker gets recruited by a private eye to track down an incident of fraud.  In the second, Walker gets sent to Florida to process post-hurricane claims and stumbles on similar cases of fraud.  He and the PI follow the trail to a New Hampshire village, where they blunder about, missing clues the size of billboards.  The geography of the village alone is so contrived as to defy credulity.

In other books, Perry has built suspense by using parallel plot lines as a device, with alternating chapters telling the stories of the hunters and the hunted.  He couldn’t get away with that here, because the bad guys would have had our two heroes tied up 30 minutes after they hit town.

My personal suspicion is that Perry just wanted to vacation in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami and New England and write off the trips as location research.

Recent reads

Gabriel Cohen – Red Hook

From 2001, this is the author’s first book and was an Edgar Award nominee.  One review called this “a police procedural with heart” and I completely agree.  I liked the protagonist, Detective Jack Leightner of NYPD’s Brooklyn South Homicide Task Force, with all of his family problems, past and present.  The plot plods along (did I mention that it’s a police procedural?) as Jack and his partner try to piece things together, but the personal touches, the history of the setting and the prose keep the reading interesting.  Here is a sample from chapter 26:

“Silence was at the heart of the job.  On TV detectives ran around waving guns, cars screeched and flipped over, bad guys shouted and jumped fences.  In real life there was violence and noise during the crime, and there would be crying and confusion after, but in these first moments of discovery, the scene was still as a painting.”

Cohen has written four more books, including two more featuring Jack Leightner, which I will be adding to my reading list.

C.J. Box – Savage Run

This is the author’s, and his protagonist’s, second outing.  I mostly enjoyed his first book, Open Season, although I thought there were too many red herrings and it was just tried too hard.  Savage Run, however, is much more assured and satisfying.  A solid plot, interesting characters and terrific Wyoming settings make this one a winner and it’s easy to see why Box is such a popular author now.  I’ll be working my way through his subsequent novels!

David Hosp – Dark Harbor

Author’s debut novel, featuring rising star attorney Scott Finn, a friend from the past, two memorable Boston cops and a serial killer.  A pretty good read, without much to complain about.  It’s not giving anything away to say that Finn reappears in subsequent titles and I want to find out what happens next.

Fear the Worst by Linwood Barclay

I kept turning the pages in this book, even while rolling my eyes as coincidence piled up on exaggeration which piled up on improbability.  I do like stories in which a hapless schlump discovers new depths in himself as he outwits and beats up the bad guys, but Barclay’s protagonist never really grows.