Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Diabolist by Layton Green

Someone is killing the leaders of satanic cults, some by fire, others found dead in locked rooms. Viktor Radek, professor of religious phenomenology and expert on cults, is asked to investigate by Interpol. Each of the doomed cult leaders received a letter telling them to renounce their beliefs or die. The death's defy reason—a figure in a black robe with silver stars, the sign of a Magus, appears during a black mass, the High Priest goes up in flames, the Magus disappears. With other letters being delivered, Viktor and his assistant Dominic Grey split up conducting their investigations in the US, England, France, and Sicily. The investigation becomes personal for Viktor as a painful episode in his past surfaces to haunt him, sending him to his bottle of absinthe too often. The adversary is deadly and Radek and Grey are fighting not only for the lives of other cult leaders but their own as well.

This is the third Dominic Grey/Viktor Radek action thriller, the first two being The Summoner and The Egyptian. It isn't exactly a stand-alone but can be read first without confusion. The author works in events from the other books (particularly The Summoner) to give a new reader context.

The appeal these books have for me is that they provide both intellectual content as well as intense action. Grey is former Marine Recon and a martial arts experts who spent many years around the world fighting in underground, non-sanctioned, no-holds-barred bouts. this experience serves him well when he has to fight for his life in the sewers of Paris or dingy London back streets. I enjoy the way the author choreographs the fights, the reader can visualize what is happening.

Viktor Radek provides the intellectual component of the story. As a religious phenomenologist he isn't concerned about the truths of religious belief but what the believer believes. The subject of evil is a constant theme: what is it; is it subjective or objective; can you define it; can you recognize it? If you are like me and fascinated by cults, this is great stuff. Even if you aren't, the author gives you something to think about, maybe even challenge your own beliefs. Dominic represents the everyman skeptic and Viktor the intellectual (not that Dominic isn't extremely intelligent in his own right) and their discussions frame the discussions about the nature of evil.

Regardless of the topic, this isn't supernatural thriller. The author leaves it open as to that happens. Some things are explained, others, well...we may never know.

The Diabolist is a good read with its intelligent plotting and driving action. This is a series I intend to follow.

This review is base on an uncorrected proof.



Sunday, February 17, 2013

Detroit Breakdown by D.E. Johnson

Detroit, Michigan, 1912. A vibrant, active city, the trolleys are packed no matter the time. The automobile industry is booming with the electric vs internal combustion engine question still to be decided. The suffragette movement is going strong.

A late night anonymous call takes Elizabeth Hume and Will Anderson to Eloise, the insane asylum outside of Detroit. Her cousin, Robert Clarke, a long-time resident there, is accused of strangling another patient. But Robert says it was the Phantom. Francis Beckwith, son of the hospital administrator and himself a schizophrenic, agrees. Francis is obsessed with  The Phantom of the Opera, and says the murder was committed with a Punjab lasso, just as in the book. Furthermore, there have been three other murders committed in the same manner.

Elizabeth wants to clear her cousin but there is something fishy going on at Eloise. The Asylum is a small town with its own police force and gates have slammed shut against outsiders. Frantic for information —Elizabeth can't even find out where Robert is being held —Elizabeth agrees to let William get himself committed so that he can continue the investigation from the inside. For her part, Elizabeth forms a plan to become a volunteer at the hospital. With the plans in effect, Detroit Breakdown shifts into thriller mode with plenty of action to bring the story to a perilous and satisfying conclusion.

Detroit Breakdown was an unexpected treat. I don't often read historicals but I accepted Detroit Breakdown as a review copy and I was quite pleased with the reading experience.

This is the third in a series featuring Elizabeth Hume and Will Anderson. As such, there is a lot of backstory. The author doesn't do a data dump of everything that happened previously but integrates references to prior events into the story as the characters experience feelings of self-doubt or guilt. What is soon obvious is that the Elizabeth and Will are tortured souls— emotionally, psychologically, and, in Will's case physically. The story can be enjoyed without knowing the entire backstory but I'm going to follow up by reading the first two books: The Detroit Electric Scheme and Motor City Shakedown.

If you are looking for a book with a strong, independent female protagonist then this book should satisfy. Elizabeth comes across as the stronger, more adept of the two characters. She is an active suffragette, preparing for the vote to ratify the 19th amendment. She owns two guns and shows herself capable of using them. She has vulnerabilities and insecurities but is a determined, proactive woman. I quite like her. Both she and Will appear to be prone to drug abuse but have overcome that by the events here. Will's role is to take the physical brunt. Here and in the previous books, he suffers horrific physical trauma. Both Elizabeth and Will are complex characters with backgrounds they have to suppress to solve the mystery.

I visited Detroit several years ago and it is fascinating to read about a time when it was thriving. This being Detroit, the competing automobile industries are part of the story. Will's father owns Detroit Electric which began as Anderson Electric Car Company. I hadn't thought much about early electric cars before reading this book but it sent me off to Wikipedia where I learned that Detroit Electric was an actual company started by someone named Anderson. Elizabeth drives an electric which allows the author to work in the logistics of owning an electric automobile. Interesting stuff particularly with the battery powered car making a comeback with the hybrids and the Tesla.

The main focus of the story, Eloise, was an actual psychiatric hospital. As in the story, it was self sufficient in many ways with its own train stop, police force, fire station, pig farm. It even had the tunnel that figures into the story. The Tales of Eloise web site is an interesting read and it was fun to compare the map included in Detroit Breakdown with the map of the actual institution. Johnson  graphically illustrates the state of psychiatric care at the turn of the century. Have amnesia, don't speak English, the police found it convenient to warehouse problems by sending to the mental hospital. Psychiatric therapy was just emerging when the story is set so we see alternate approaches to treatment that we would consider horrific today.

Detroit Breakdown is a good read particularly if you enjoy a well written historical story. Johnson works the culture, fashion, lifestyle, and technology of the day into the story naturally without leaving readers feeling that they have happened upon entries from an encyclopedia. I like the characters, enough to want to read the first two books in the series. They're flawed human beings which makes them more interesting, even likable. You'd want them on your side in a fight.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Dare Me by Megan Abbott

Last year I was excited to see that Megan Abbott had a new book out. But cheerleaders! Nah, not for me. Jump ahead to January and I'm browsing bookshelves and see Dare Me. "Hold on", I think to myself, "this is Megan Abbott. She wrote the novel Queenpin (a Jim Thompson style noir that I love) and the non-fiction book, The Street was Mine: White Masculinity in Hardboiled Fiction and Film Noir (which I have on permanent loan from the library). She's hardboiled and knows her stuff" and picked up a copy. This was a lesson to me and Megan I'll never doubt you again. I loved the book from page one and consumed it in one sitting. I'm late to the game and won't be doing a full-on review but, for those readers who know nothing about Dare Me, these blogs wrote what I wish I had so check them out:
Full Stop
Three Guys One Book
Jen's Bookshelves
Spinetingler Magazine

Full Stop calls this a "suburban noir" and it's a good description. The teenagers in Dare Me are dark, hardboiled, and like a gangland mob with a rigid hierarchy and a vicious enforcement of discipline. Mean Girls. Hah! This cheerleading squad would eat them for breakfast.

The crime isn't the main focus of the story which is the power struggle between Beth, the head girl, her faithful lieutenant Addy, and the new coach, Colette French. The story is pretty self-contained in that the rest of the high school is more or less a shadow behind the actions of the squad.

Megan's prose is perfect and the lyrical flow of the first person narration pulled me into the story. The characters became scary real the more I read and I was both fascinated and repelled by them.

When you read Dare Me, I recommend you make a note of the cheerleader routines Megan describes. There are You Tube videos demonstrating all of them. Stop reading and take a look at what the girls are doing. Remarkable stuff.


Monday, December 24, 2012

Goodbye Maxine

I haven't been on FriendFeed for a while and logged on last night expecting links to Maxine Clarke's latest reviews and her insightful comments on other posts. Instead, I was stunned to learn that she has passed away. Like most of us in the crime fiction blogging community, I never met Maxine in person but I consider her as much a friend and colleague as if we had been neighbors.

I first encountered Maxine through her blog, Petrona, in early 2008. It didn't take me any time to recognize that this was a blogger I could learn from. I owe much to Maxine: she commented on my blog posts; she encouraged me when I decided to get more serious about reviewing crime fiction; she invited me to the friendfeed Crime and Mystery Fiction Room; she added my blogs to friendfeed. But, above all, she was a friend to book bloggers and readers.

She demonstrated that the amateur book reviewer can make a significant contribution to the book world. I know that she helped me to expand my interests in crime fiction and my library is larger because of her.

She is missed.

Here are some of the tributes to Maxine from other bloggers.

My Friend Maxine at Eurocrime
Memories of Maxine at The Rap Sheet
In Memoriam — Maxine Clark at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist
Vale Petrtona at Reactions to Reading
Maxine at Do You Write Under Your Own Name
Tribute to Maxine Clarke / Petrona at Mrs. Peabody Investigates
Petrona is Gone at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan
Maxine Clarke at Aly Monroe
In Memoriam, Maxine Clarke at Material Witness
Maxine Clarke (Petrona) at The Games Afoot
and there are many more

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Escape by Perihan Magden

Hard-edged crime fiction is what you will usually find me reading. Then a book like Escape comes along to remind me why I need to widen my interests.

An unnamed mother and daughter flee from an unspecified threat. For the daughter, living in hotel rooms around the world is the only life she has known. When the mother says danger is near, they escape, heading to the airport, taking only what will fit in backpacks. Whatever they accumulated during their stay they leave behind, baffling the hotel staff.

There is an underlying metaphor of the life of the mother and daughter in this book, Felix Salten's Bambi. The mother only calls her daughter Bambi or baby. Bambi is their Book of Prayer, their book of signs. The mother says "the dangers in Bambi are just like our own." If all you know of Bambi is the Disney film, get a copy of Salten's book. I did, and it is a brilliant framing device for the story.

Escape is narrated mainly by the daughter looking back at her life on the run. Interspersed with the daughter's narrative are first person observations from hotel staff and other outsiders. What they see and conclude are a dramatic contrast with the words of the daughter. Do we have a reliable or unreliable narrator?
Perihan Magden

With only 208 pages, I first thought that Escape was going to be a simple, straightforward story but I soon recognized that it is a deceptively complex,  "slow reveal" novel where the reader is engaged in putting pieces of a puzzle together. The daughter's reminiscences and those of the outsiders are not told linearly so that events in one chapter will link to actions in later or previous chapters.  This shifting interpretation of events contributes to an active and satisfying read.

There is crime and there is mystery in Escape but I wouldn't call it a crime or mystery novel. It is more   an exploration of a strange, perhaps (or not) abusive relationship, a love between a mother and daughter so isolated, so encapsulated that the outside world doesn't have a chance of breaking in.

I enjoyed Escape, so much so that I read it twice and skimmed it once. Questions remain, there isn't a tidy resolution, but it is a very satisfying read and a book that I recommend.

Escape was translated from the Turkish by Kenneth Daken. I'm not sure how you evaluate a translation if you haven't read a book in the original language but for me, the language in Escape was natural and flowed. It didn't come across as stilted or with unusual word choices.

I received Escape as a review copy and it is available from Amazon in print and Kindle.


Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning by Hallgrimur Helgason

Tomislov Bokšić, AKA Toxic, top hit man for the Croatian mob in NYC, is on the run. His latest target inconveniently turns out to be an undercover agent FBI agent. His spotless record ruined, Toxic has to leave his good life — prime apartment, large screen TV, voluptuous girlfriend — is directed by his boss to lay low with the LPP (lowest possible profile) in Zagreb. At the airport he finds the FBI watching his departure gate and he has to improvise. Unfortunately this is at the expense of the Rev. David Friendly who happens to be alone in the men's room with Toxic. With Friendly's clerical colar, passport, and ticket, Toxic is soon on the way to Reykjavik, Iceland.

I've been sitting on this review for a while but not because I didn't like it. On the contrary, I love it and look forward to reading more by this author. Rather I've been perplexed how to start, what tone to take, how to describe The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning.

Someone is likely to be offended by something in this book —religiously, socially, politically, sexually, nationally, and some -lys I haven't thought of — it has them all. It also has a dark, off-the-wall humor that had me snorting nearly every page and annoying my wife by insisting on reading passages.
Munita [his girlfriend] was living in Peru until her family got killed in a terrorist bombing. Then she moved to New York and found a job on Wall Street. It so happened that her first day of work was 9/11. On our first trip to Croatia together, she witnessed two killings. I have to admit that one of them was by my own hand, but the other was totally accidental. I thought it was quite a romantic scene, actually. We were having dinner in Mirko's restaurant when the guy sitting at the table next to us got a bullet through his brain. Some of his blood splattered into Munita's glass of wine. I didn't tell her. She was having red anyway.
I love the way those lean, crisp sentences lead to a punch line that is as disgusting as it is dark humor.

Toxic is an unlikely likable character: he thinks back with some fondness on his days as a soldier in the Serbo-Croatian war where he shot more people than are in his family tree; he take pride in his clean record of one bullet, one kill; he likes a nice post-killing nap. But with his  trains of thought that might take off at odd tangents, his wry comments and observations, the reader enjoys the ride as Toxic tries to understand the Icelandic people and culture and perhaps make a new life for himself. Helgason does indulge in good-natured fun at the expense of his fellow Icelanders: referring to Icelandic as the lunar language after seeing the stark landscape in the in flight magazine; mangling the pronunciation of names; shock at the low crime rate; the lack of guns. He made me want to visit Iceland.

This style of writing is difficult to do well. The dark humor can easily come across as forced and fall flat. It takes a deft hand to keep the humor fresh and edgy. This is the author's first book in English but he is able to take the venerable "stranger in a strange land" trope and give it a sharp, witty, and occasionally grotesque edge which is no mean feat since the first person narrative voice means that this is a character driven monologue of Toxic's musings.

The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning is a fun read. It is mostly on the light end of crime genre but with sharp edges that keep it interesting. Amongst the dark humor, the author includes passages that illustrate how desensitized we have become to violence. I suspect that some people will find this jarring and out of place but I like an author willing to go out of bounds if it gives insight into a character. Helgason is an author on my watch list and I wouldn't mind if he found a way to return to Toxic's world.


Sunday, August 12, 2012

Granny Smith Investigates by Gary Dobbs


It is a fact without dispute that the British village is one of the most dangerous places a person can live. Many dark secrets are harboured and murder is likely at any moment. If a village fete is in progress you can be certain someone's a goner.


Sometime during the Gilfach Village Fete (in Wales), Edith Sullivan is brutally murdered. Edith had been seen arguing with her husband Stanley so the police, led by Chief Inspector Miskin, consider Stan their prime suspect. Mary Alice Smith, AKA Granny Smith, is having none of it. Besides the fact that Stan was sinking pints with her husband Arthur all evening in the beer tent, she just knows —neighbors for 20 years after all— that Stan isn't capable of murder. When the police —"we know what we're doing"—don't take Granny's observations seriously, she has to prove Stan innocent and find the guilty party herself. What did Edith see at the fete that shocked her? What's the story with the engagement of Sheila and the much younger, semi-retired but "dishy, sex on legs" London solicitor Nigel Charlton.

Granny Smith Investigates answers the question, "how might Miss Marple turned out had she been born in the 1950s instead of the 1860s." She is referred to as "Miss Marple on steroids" several times in the course of the s generally disregard the proven crime solving record of the amateur sleuth. You can deduce that Granny isn't exactly like her fictional counterpart but how she differs I will leave to the reader to find out. More fun that way. Just keep in mind that she would have been an adolescent in the 1960s.

As in Gary's other writing, he puts great care in crafting his characters, gives them dimension, then puts them in a setting where their personalities fit the story. A second novel is due out later this year and Gary promises a more "densely plotted whodunit" but not at the expense of the characters. I'm particularly interested to see what he does with Gerald, Granny's son. I keep thinking about the character Daffyd in the BBC comedy Little Britain.

Dobbs says that he hadn't read much in the cosy genre before he wrote Granny Smith Investigates but he hits the tropes and his modernized approach to the genre is great fun. He adds "broad humour" which you don't find much of in the Miss Marple mysteries. He considers the genre in this post, What is a Cozy Crime? About his approach to the cozy Gary writes, "I'm reading more and more cozies now and so I'm starting to understand the genre boundaries - all the better to hop over them". I'm looking forward to seeing how Gary places his stamp on this venerable genre.

About the author:
There are some curious aspects to Gary Dobbs you have to account for when introducing him. He is, variously: a Welshman; he writes novels set in the American West (as Jack Martin); he is a bit of a Ripperologist (A Policeman's Lot/The Rhondda Ripper and on Amazon); he's an actor who has appeared in Doctor Who and Torchwood (swoon), and has a good role in the horror film The Reverend; and on Jan. 1, 2013, he will hang up his taxi license and become a full-time writer. I did a three part interview with Gary back in 2010 which is due for an updating. He blogs at The Tainted Archive.