Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Absence Explained

For those of you who might have noticed my lack of posting to my two blogs, commenting on other people's blogs, and Friend Feed, herewith is what I've been doing for the past week.

Book stuff is below the photos.

At O'dark thirty (as we used to say in the Army) on November 27 we took ourselves to the airport to begin the first leg of the trip that eventually landed us on Kauai, one of the Hawaiian islands. Our niece, her husband, and their six year old son were there on holiday and asked if we would like to share their favorite spot for R&R. And we did. I don't usually spend a lot of time taking photos but here are a few:

Kauai is known for the wild chickens found everywhere on the island. Here is a Red Dirt Road Warrior.

Fishing boat on the Hanapepe River. I liked the bicycle on the bank to which the boat appears to be tied.

Waimea Canyon. This place is amazing. Unfortunately, it was cloudy the day we went. Take a look here.

Views from Kilauea Lighthouse. I'm told that the white dots in the photo on the left are boobies. I included the photo on the right because I figured I needed to show surging waves. We also saw frigate birds soaring over the cliffs. These are awesome birds. Unfortunately my point-and-shoot camera wasn't up to capturing them.

And finally, one of the few clear shots I was able to get of mountains. This is from the Limahuli Gardens but it is pretty representative of the sort of view we saw everyday from the town of Hanalei where we stayed.

What I read on the trip:

  • Fifty-to-One, Charles Ardai

  • In a Lonely Place, Dorothy B. Hughes

  • Ride the Pink Horse, Dorothy B. Hughes

  • 1974, David Peace

  • 1977 (halfway through), David Peace

Given the duration of the journey from Virginia to Kauai you'd think I'd have read more but there you go.

On a drive around the western side of the island we found a used book store named Talk Story in Old Hanapepe Town. It has three book store cats. One stayed in the window watching the chickens (see above), one sat in a basket in the midst of a book display, and the third sprawled over a display of local books. I added Boney and the White Savage to my collection of the Arthur W. Upfield, Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte mysteries. Alas, I'm still missing 10 titles one of which is the first book in the series which keeps me from starting to read them.

Here is what was added to my TBR stack while I was gone:

  • The Reincarnationist, M.J. Rose

  • The Memorist, M.J. rose

These two books are courtesy of a drawing at Bloody Hell, It's a Book Barrage! - a really cool name for a blog - which is hosted by Chartroose, a readerly geek librarian/literature lover like myself.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Review: The Bone Yard, Michelle Gagnon

Mira, 2008, ISBN 978-0-7783-2539-0, 376 pages

I feel the need to start with a "how this came about" introduction.

I have a SecondLife account under the avatar name Max Batra. As one of the Second Life Librarians, I manage Mystery Manor on Info Island to promote mystery literature. I was in-world last August and received an IM inviting me to an author presentation. I couldn't make it but later went to the Athena Island Writers Club to see if there was any information about the event. I found a poster with the cover of Bone Yard advertising Michelle Gagnon's appearance. I went to Michelle's web site, read about her and her books, and decided to read Bone Yard. If you are curious how this sort of virtual event is handled, here is a transcript from Michelle's virtual appearance.

I almost didn't find the book in Barnes and Nobel. For some reason they put it in Fiction rather than Mysteries. Michelle told me that Borders does shelve it in the Crime/Thriller section.

On to the review.

The skeletal remains of five, possibly more, bodies have been found off the Appalachian Trail in the Berkshires on both sides of the border between Vermont and Massachusetts. FBI Agent Kelly Jones has her vacation canceled and is asked to form a task force and advise local law enforcement. Since there is no evidence that any bodies were transported across state lines, she doesn't have jurisdiction. She does carry the threat of Federal involvement. She brings along Dr. Howard Stuart, a forensic anthropologist from the Smithsonian.

From the locals, her task force includes Massachusetts Detective Lieutenant Bill Doyle and from Vermont, Lieutenant Monica Lauer of the State Bureau of Criminal Investigation. It's obvious that Monica and Doyle do not along - Monica needles Doyle constantly and Doyle is sullen and hostile. Kelly wonders if they can put aside their differences for the sake of the investigation. Monica, at least, accepts Kelly's role in the investigation. Doyle's opinion is that the investigation is a waste of time and manpower and would prefer to write the whole thing off to accidental hiker deaths and/or Native American burial sites. Anything but a dump site, a boneyard.

Dr. Stuart makes an observation about the remains of a recent victim that gives the task force something tangible to use to identify who he was. The investigation moves ahead with Kelly and Monica having to work around Doyle's lack of commitment.

There is no lack of books featuring serial killers available which can work for and against an author particularly a relatively new one like Gagnon. Serial killer stories continue to fascinate readers so there is a market. How does an author then make their work stand out? Really hitting the gruesome details is one way. I liked how Gagnon approached the subject. The forensic examinations and procedural appeal to me as a reader more than the killer's methods. You need enough detail establish the kind of criminal we have but not enough to make the reader feel like a voyeur. My opinion, my tastes.

The characters are interesting, nicely developed, and the reader feels a connection with Kelly and Monica. Doyle provides the friction and I liked the way Gagnon held off giving revealing motivations until well into the story. She also has the character of Dwight whose involvement adds an interesting dimension to the investigation. Sorry for sounding cryptic but I can't say much more about Dwight without giving away major plot points. He is oddly sympathetic at times.

The plot doesn't move along at thriller speed but is appropriately paced. I'm a procedural junkie and would much rather see a layered investigation.

Gagnon also handles an issue in a way that doesn't annoy me. The conflict between local law enforcement and the FBI is touched upon but not made a major focus. I asked a former homicide detective who had worked with the FBI and he said that they are a good bunch to work with and that their heavy-handed treatment of local law enforcement doesn't happen. It really grates on me when the locals refer to the FBI as the "feebies" in stories.

The author also works in a brief description of the ViCAP, the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, and the reluctance of local law enforcement to embrace it. From what I've read this is a realistic attitude. There is a lengthy form of several hundred questions to be filled out to add an incident to the database and local law enforcement agencies often don't feel that they have the time.

Bone Yard is the second of Gagnon's books to feature FBI Agent Kelly Jones. The first is The Tunnels and I like Gagnon's writing enough to add it to my "future read" list

Bone Yard
is recommended if you like serial killer stories with an emphasis on the investigation but enough gruesome detail to establish that this is one sick killer who has to be stopped.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Veterans Day Rememberance - Mack A. Lundy Jr.

My father passed away in a state veterans home in Florida last year.

At 19 he went to war, serving as a radio operator and waist gunner on a B-24 heavy bomber. On a bombing run over Vienna, Austria on 29 May 1944, his aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire. With much of the flight controls shot away, they tried to make it to the Adriatic Sea but had to bail out over Yugoslavia. The entire crew survived but were captured and spent the remainder of the war as POWs. My father was in Stalag Luft VIIa when it was liberated on 29 April 1945.

He never had much to say about that time but looking back I can see what a profound affect it had on him.

You can see more photographs from WWII here.

And more photographs from his life here.

The pilot of Dad's aircraft, Roy Daniels, is the last survivor of that mission. He wrote a book which I discussed here.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Review: The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins

Scholastic Press, 2008, ISBN 978-0-439-02348-1, 374 pages.

On occasion, I read something other than crime fiction and this is one of those times.

The Hunger Games is a young adult novel set in a dystopian vision of the U.S. The country is ruled from The Capital, located somewhere near the Rockies. Twelve districts supply The Capital with resources. There was a thirteenth distruct but it was obliterated during an uprising against the government.

Each of the districts takes care of a specific need - agriculture, luxury goods, coal, etc. Where The Capital is technologically advanced and the inhabitants live a life of ease, the districts are kept at a bare, grubby, miserable, substance level with starvation a real possibility.

Once a year the Hunger Games are held to commemorate the revolt that destroyed the thirteenth colony. The Capital plays it as a major celebration but it is a reminder to the districts of what can happen if they get out of line. Each year, a boy and girl, called tributes, between the ages of twelve and eighteen are chosen by lottery to represent their district in the games. The twenty-four young people are forced to fight to the death in an outdoor area that changes from year to year. The contest is televised to The Capital and the districts. The winner gets a house and freedom from work for life. He or she also has the responsibility of mentoring future tributes from the district.

Katniss Everdeen, sixteen years old, takes the place of her younger sister to represent district twelve, known as the Seam. District 12 supplies coal and Katniss' father was a miner who died in an explosion. Kitniss has supported her mother and sister by illegally hunting and knows that she might have a chance where her sister would have none. Joining Katniss is Peeta, the baker's son.

This theme has been done before in Battle Royale, a much more violent Japanese novel and manga series. The Hunger Games takes a different approach to a government's oppression of its people and is an interesting, compelling, thought provoking, and well written story.

The character of Katniss as the resourceful, rebel teenager who takes on adult responsibilities is well developed and realistic. I can see a teenager growing up in those circumstances acting the way she does. I thought of Heinlein's female characters as I read this novel. I can also see myself as a sixteen year old loving the book.

The Hunger Games works well as a story of adventure and survival but also puts the reader in the uncomfortable position of considering "how would I act in those circumstances." With dystopian stories you also look for parallels in our society, could this happen, are there similar examples of this sort of oppression in our history.

This is book one in a series and I look forward to seeing where Collins takes the story.

Collins is also the author of the Underland Chronicles, a series for juveniles that I also recommend.

Review: the Snake Stone

Picador, 2007, ISBN 978-0-312-42802-0, 290 pages.

Thanks to Crime Scraps for to opportunity to win this book in one of its devilishly convoluted contests.

The rich backdrop of Istanbul in the mid-1800s is again the setting for latest investigation by Yashim, the eunuch with connections to the Palace. This time, the case is more personal. His friend, Stanislaw Palewski the Polish ambassador, brings a French archaeologist, Maximilien Lefevre, to dinner at Yashim's apartment. Neither Palewski nor Yashim care much for Lefevre. He is a boor and unappreciative of the food that Yashim has prepared. He also appears to be looking for the snake heads from the Serpent Column currently hidden in Palewski's residency. He may have other treasures in his sights. Yashim learns from other sources that Lefevre is not considered an honest archaeologist and not above theft of antiquities.

Later, Lefevre comes to Yashim looking for a safe way out of Istanbul. His investigations have made him a target of unknown persons who do not approve of unknown things being uncovered. Yashim finds him passage on a ship leaving for Italy and thinks he has seen to last of him. However, after the ship has sailed, his body, partially eaten by dogs, is found near the French Embassy.

While Yashim is not seriously considered a suspect, he was the last person in Istanbul to have seen him alive. Yashim fears that being mentioned in the report prepared by the French Ambassador will damage his reputation, make people think of him as unlucky, make it impossible for him to work for the Palace. Yashim need to find the truth about the murder before the French Ambassador submits his report to the Palace.

At the same time, parallel events are occurring. Market place merchants have been severely beaten and killed. There is much fear amongst the other merchants and Yashim learns of a shadowy Greek organization called the Hetira that may be involved. Also, the wife of a wealthy shipping merchant hires Yashim to find out what business a Frenchman (Lefevre) had with her husband.

Istanbul itself is one of the main characters in the novel. It is treated as a living entity and Goodwin is excellent in showing us what makes it live. We again visit the markets that feed to people but also see how water is delivered and distributed throughout the city. Hint: if you saw the James Bond film, From Russia with Love, then you've seen one of the locations that plays a major part in this book.

I hate to use the expression "cultural melting pot" but that is the only way to describe Istanbul. It makes for rich descriptions of Armenians, Greeks, Jews, and Muslims contributing to the life of the city. This time we learn more of the history of the Greeks and how Constantinople became Istanbul.

Yashim's complete back story is still not revealed though we get another flash from when he was made a eunuch. Still not why or exactly by whom. It looks like Goodwin is going to parcel out this information.

I continue to enjoy the pacing this series. Yashim is a intuitive investigator. He observes, questions, and files away what he learns. Out of these bits and pieces the truth begins to manifest itself. There is one scene in particular that I enjoyed. Yashim is preparing a meal and an ingredient out of place leads him to important clue. It is a deft bit of writing that give us a look at Yashim's thought processes.

Yashim's next investigation takes him out of Istanbul to Venice, Italy in The Bellini Card. Look for it in March, 2009.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

From the files: History of women crime Writers, part 1

Maio, Kathleen L. "A Strange and Fierce Delight": The Early Days of Women's Mystery Fiction (full text)
Chrysalis: A Magazine of Women's Culture, No. 10. pp.93-105 (ceased publication)

If you had asked me to name early women writers of mysteries I would have answered Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. That's the point that Maio starts with, that most people can't name writers before the Golden Age. In fact, Maio shows that you can go back more than fifty years before the Golden Age and find women authors of mystery and crime fiction.

The movement started to gain influence with women sensation novelists evidenced by the writings of Mrs. Henry Wood who published East Lymne in 1861.
Mystery problems were a favorite plot device of Mrs. Wood. they concerned anything from missing wills to missing wives, and each problem was "fully and properly unravelled, in a workmanlike manner and without any loose ends."

The plots of stories by sensation novelists Mary Elizabeth Braddon (Lady Audley's Secret, 1862) and Catherine L. Pirkis (A Red Sister, 1891) are discussed in length. A common thread through the stories are strong, assertive, sometimes "unfeminine" women triumphing. In some case a woman is even the villain.

Mystery fiction was also pushed along by the dime novel. Maio points out that
The dime novel is generally associated with the male writers and readers, but in fact many women authors and editors worked for the dime houses as well.

Unfortunately, the dime novel was not printed to last which explains why the works of these women writers are not well known or even preserved.

One of he most prolific woman writer of detective stories was Anna Katherine Green who is identified by most histories of detective fiction as the first woman writer of pure detective fiction. This status for Green is disputed by Maio but Green was extremely popular and counted President Woodrow Wilson among her readers.

Maio goes on to profile many more writers and their works. Again, the common thread is that these stories fulfilled a need for escape literature much more important the mystery novel was to women! Mystery fiction was perfect as female escape fiction: a vision of women being strong, protecting themselves and each other; often, quite literally, women getting away with murder.

As the Golden Age of mystery fiction approached, this treatment of women in mystery fiction began to fade. Mystery writer and antifeminist Carolyn Wells wrote in 1913
the introduction of the feminine element in a Detective Story is subject to certain and definite rules. A victim she may be, a suspect she may be, but only in rare cases and when exceptionally well done, should she be the criminal...the experienced reader of detective stories feels fairly sure that an attractive feminine suspect is not the real criminal.

This article is written from a feminist perspective so Maio has no problem declaring that
The age of the mystery amazon, the strong sleuth the cunning criminal, the runaway wife-hero -the age of our literary "anarchism" - was over. And the evidence indicates that she was murdered by the patriarchy. The rigid Poe/Doyle formula killed her.

Fiery rhetoric aside, I can't argue her premise. This historical perspective makes the current role of women in mystery/crime fiction all the more interesting. We seem to come full circle. Strong, assertive, unconventional women characters are prominent these days: Zoe Sharp's Charlie Fox,Sara Paretsky's VI Warshawski, Chelsea Cain's scary serial killer Gretchen Lowell sprang to mind as I wrote this.

I don't think these early women writers of crime fiction would have any problem adapting their themes to the 21st century.

I have another article discussing early women mystery writers that I will feature in a later post. It is also from a journal that has ceased publication so I am comfortable providing the full text for it as well.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Review: The Janissary Tree, Jason Goodwin

Picador, 2006, 978-0-312-42613-2, 299 p.
2007 Edgar Award for Best Mystery

I haven't been drawn much to historical fiction but when I won a copy of The Snake Stone at Crime Scraps I thought I ought to read the series from the beginning and so picked up The Janissary Tree. It is quite a good read and I'm looking forward to starting The Snake Stone this weekend.

The story takes place in Istanbul, Turkey in 1836 and the Ottoman Empire is in danger of crumbling. Yashim Togaly is a free lance investigator who often works for the palace and the sultan. Yashim has a talent for languages, observation, and blending. He is also a eunuch which allows him special access to parts of the Palace, such as the harem, that would would mean death for other men.

Yashim is called upon by the seraskier, the commander of the army, to investigate the disappearance of four army officer cadets. The matter is pressing because the sultan is planning to announce major reforms during a military review and the Janissaries might be involved. The Janissaries were the sultan's mercenary guards who became corrupt and were crushed ten years before. Are they poised to reassert themselves? At the same time, one of the sultan's harem girls has been found strangled and, furthermore, the Napoleon jewels of the queen mother, the valide sultan, have been stolen. So Yashim has three cases to solve in a short time, one a threat to the empire and the other two a threat to his standing in the Palace.

I think that part of my reluctance to approach historical fiction is the suspicion that that the history will overwhelm the story. Zoe Sharp, in writing about the things she learns as background for her thrillers, says
The danger, of course, is that the research, instead of complementing the story, becomes the reason for it. It’s horribly easy to become so caught up in all this cool stuff you’ve discovered, that you try and squeeze it in at the expense of the storytelling craft. To forget that it’s there to service the story, not to take over from it.

But what immediately appealed to me about The Janissary Tree is that Goodwin is able to work in much information about the Ottoman Empire -- the culture, the politics -- without delivering lectures. For example, Yashim's best friend is the Polish Imperial ambassador Stanislaw Palewski. Within the action of the story we learn that Poland as a separate country has ceased to exist and his status, or lack of, contributes to the story. An of course Yashim's investigation requires that he look carefully into the Janissaries and what contributed to their fall ten years before.

Yashim is himself a fascinating character. We learn early that he is a eunuch and get a hint at how it came about but not why. Outwardly Yashim is a calm and thoughtful person but he has much inner anger and suffering at what is denied him. It is interesting that he can accept his friend Stanislaw's joke that together they make a whole man.

In the course of his investigation Yashim moves amongst the trade people and we learn about the guild structure. Goodwin is excellent at capturing the sights, sounds, smells, and street bustle of Istanbul but it blends into enhances the story.

Food and cooking have an important role in Yashim's life and we see him selecting, preparing, and cooking meals several times in the story and his skills are much appreciated by Stanislaw. For Westerners whose kitchens might have hundreds of implements, it is intriguing to see what Yashim can do with very little. Cooking is also a motif applied to other parts of the story but I will let the reader discover those themselves.

As as librarian myself, I enjoyed the several scenes that take place in the Palace Archives. There isn't a lot of detail on how things are stored and retrieved but we get a sense of the importance that ready access to information plays in the running of an empire.

I did find the conclusion to the main story - the disappearance of the four officers and a possible revolt against the sultan -- a little confusing and perhaps rushed but not enough to detract from my enjoyment of the book.

The Janissary Tree has sparked in me an interest in historical fiction and I give it high marks.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Review: Trigger City, Sean Chercover

William Morrow, 2008, 978-0-06-112869-1, 295 p.

I knew within the first dozen pages of Big City, Bad Blood that I liked the character of private detective Ray Dudgeon. That liking followed me to the end of the book and through short stories in Chicago Blues and Killer Year. I waited for the publication of Trigger City with high anticipation and wasn't disappointed.

Trigger City opens some ten months after the events in Big City, Bad Blood. Ray is still suffering physical and emotional injuries. He needs an operation on his shoulder and he misses Jill, the girlfriend and love of his life who couldn't accept his occupation.

He is hired by Isaac Richmond to find out why his daughter Joan died at the hands of an employee Steven Zhang. Zhang apparently manifested signs of schizophrenia prior to killing Joan and then himself, leaving a note claiming Joan was a threat to American democracy. Richmond doesn't doubt the police report but wants to know what caused Zhang to do what he did.

Ray discovers that Joan, an accountant, previously worked for Hawk River, a military contractor, as did Steven Zhang. Very soon the case goes from a fairly straight forward investigation that might take a couple of days to something a lot more complicated.

Chercover was himself a private investigator and I believe that must have influenced the way he wrote the character Ray Dudgeon. Ray makes mistakes but he isn't stupid. His actions are those you would expect a reasonable person to do within the context of the exaggerated action of a detective story. There is none of the "I know something but I won't tell anyone until I'm sure" or "I'll put this crucial piece of evidence in my desk and leave for the night" or "I should call someone before going into this building but I won't and gosh aren't I surprised that someone was waiting for me" silliness that has annoyed me in other books. Instead we have a solid investigation that moves the story along with any "what did he do that" moments.

Looking at the cover of Trigger City your impression is that it refers to gun play within the story. Very early in the book Chercover establishes that, for Ray, "Chicago was full of triggers. Chicago was Trigger City." These are triggers to memories that wake Ray up in a cold sweat and help explain his mental state and developing awareness of why he does what he does. This is handled very well, helps the reader appreciate Dudgeon as a person and why he couldn't continue his previous career as an investigative reporter.

The story is told in first person by Ray. I know the arguments against first person narrative in favor of the omniscient observer but it is one I enjoy. there is something about being in the head of the narrator and knowing only what he or she knows that appeals to me. Chercover also comes up with those good punchy sentences that you like in a hard-boiled detective such as
The wall was blue, a dark enough shade to keep the blood stains from showing through.


...left me sitting there with half a pint of stout and a knot in my gut.

There are other smaller details that make this book work for me, like music. Music is important to Ray and the references to the music he likes, listens to in the story, help round him out as a person.

Trigger City is a really good read, a solid, interesting story with a character you care about.

I recommend it highly but you need to read Big City, Bad Blood first.

Of Dental Work and Dragon Tattoos

I am pleased to report that it is possible to listen to the audio version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo with a mouth full of surgical steel and nitrile clad fingers.

I'm listening to the 16 hr, 19 min. unabridged version read by Simon Vance. Vance is a British actor and an excellent narrator. The Swedes in the story have British accents which he varies according to the education of the character, if they are working class, etc.

I'm only 1:11 into the story but already finding it interesting and engaging.

I won't be finishing it anytime soon since I plan to save it for a flight to Hawaii at Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Researching Mysteries

I am going to start a new feature on this blog where I will discuss the research I do in crime fiction. Research in this case means that I have been amassing a large number of journal articles, delicious book marks, Zotero database entries, blog posts, and library (mostly) books related to the study of crime fiction with the hope that I will one day read or at least organize them.

The recent discussions on rules for writing detective fiction and the need for critical review of crime fiction have inspired me to do something with the stuff I've collected. See Mysteries in Paradise, Overkill, Crime Always Pays.

If you look at my profile you will see that I work in an academic library where I'm the systems librarian. I'm responsible, among other things, for the care and feeding of the on-line catalog. So this is a personal interest and not a job-related, "I need to write something for my tenure portfolio" task. But librarians tend to be curious critters - which may partially explain the relationship between cats and librarians - and it has proven impossible for me not to be interested in the history and critical analysis of crime fiction.

My interest got a jump start when I was in our campus book store a while back and found a copy of Murder by the Book? Feminism and the Crime Novel by Sally R. Munt. I was staggered to see a critical examination of crime fiction shelved in with the popular stuff and picked it up before management decided it was a mistake and sent it back.

The book contains extensive chapter notes and a critical bibliography. I was curious if my library had any of the sources Munt cited and I found we have an excellent selection of materials related to our beloved crime fiction and its many sub- and sub-sub- genres.

So, when I feel my academic inclinations straining to surface, I am going to write a post on something I found in our stacks. I think I'll call these posts "From the Files:". The first should appear later this week.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

More Rules for Writing Detective Fiction

Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise recently posted S. S. Van Dines Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories.

The post reminded me that I have been collecting rules and essays on writing detective/mystery/crime fiction for a while and thought I would contribute these links:

Monsignor Ronald A. Knox (1888-1957) was a British clergyman who also wrote detective fiction. He included Father Knox's Decalogue: the Ten Rules (of Golden Age) Detective Fiction in Best Detective Stories of 1928-29. The author of the web site thinks he was mostly joking and they are amusing now.

1. The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.

2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.

3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.

4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.

5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.

6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.

7. The detective must not himself commit the crime.

8. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.

9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.

10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

A serious list of rules is Raymond Chandler's Ten Commandments for the Detective Novel. I think they hold up well. The rules of Van Dine and Chandler overlap in several places.

1. It must be credibly motivated, both as to the original situation and the dénouement.

2. It must be technically sound as to the methods of murder and detection.

3. It must be realistic in character, setting and atmosphere. It must be about real people in a real world.

4. It must have a sound story value apart from the mystery element: i.e., the investigation itself must be an adventure worth reading.

5. It must have enough essential simplicity to be explained easily when the time comes.

6. It must baffle a reasonably intelligent reader.

7. The solution must seem inevitable once revealed.

8. It must not try to do everything at once. If it is a puzzle story operating in a rather cool, reasonable atmosphere, it cannot also be a violent adventure or a passionate romance.

9. It must punish the criminal in one way or another, not necessarily by operation of the law....If the detective fails to resolve the consequences of the crime, the story is an unresolved chord and leaves irritation behind it.

10.It must be honest with the reader.

Chandler also wrote The Simple Art of Murder, a still interesting essay on writing detective fiction. In it Chandler refers to A. A. Milne's one mystery, The Red House Mystery which I discussed on my old blog. I provide a link to Milne's introduction where he discusses his criteria for mysteries.

I enjoy investigating the antecedents to our modern crime stories.

Seven Random Things, a meme

Kerrie over at Mysteries in Paradise was tagged to post seven random things about herself and invites others to do so as well.

1. I lived in Pretoria, South Africa for four years (1952 - 1956) and came back with an accent my Virginia grandmother had a difficult time following. This is me as a schoolboy.

2. I was in the U.S. Army for 4.5 years and and spent ten months in Vietnam. I was a flight operation clerk and made coffee and read a lot.

3. I once had Joe DiMaggio's autograph but I only got it because everyone around me was excited at seeing him. I didn't have a clue who he was.

4. I've always like books. I mean really always. My mother says that I would grab for Golden books in the grocery store as soon as I was able to reach the shelf where other children went for the candy.

5. I hate the texture of large chunks of cooked tomatoes.

6. I think that Guinness is good food.

7. I like ABBA.

Kerrie's suggestion is to post your own Seven random things, link to her post (Mysteries in Paradise/Seven Random Things, a meme), then go to her blog and add a comment about your post.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Audio Books, Crime Stories, and Dentistry

Earlier this week I learned that need several treatments of a periodontal procedure known as deep scaling which sounds like a spa treatment for snakes. I'm not so much dreading the procedure as the boredom of an hour and a half, reclined, without the likelihood of a nap.

The best solution seemed to be a book on my iPod so, with my remaining credit, I headed to Audible. The humor category was out given the circumstances so I went for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo which has been discussed in many blogs lately. It is long enough to take me through all the procedures and, since it is translated from Swedish, I figure I will have to concentrate.

If this doesn't work I have a fall-back with Charlie Huston's Already Dead featuring a vampire detective.

I will report back on whether an audio book is capable of transporting me beyond the dentist's chair.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Rusty Nail/J.A. Konrath

This is the third in the Jacqueline (Jack) Daniels crime series. All of the titles are names of drinks which figure into the story but not always as the drink.

This is the last book in the series that I will read for reasons described below.

As the book opens, Jack and her partner Herb are exchanging their customary gross-out humor when she receives an envelope containing a videocassette. When they play it they get a shock from the past. A murder that looks exactly like it was carried out by the serial killer Gingerbread Man (see Whiskey Sour) plays on the screen. But the Gingerbread Man is dead.

As they begin to assemble clues, it becomes clear that killer has a knowledge of the Gingerbread Man that wouldn't be available to a copy-cat. Jack has to look at the origins of the Gingerbread Man and what she finds horrible beyond belief.

As with the previous books, the story alternates between the first person narrative by Jack and third person present tense descriptions mostly from the view of the killer. The killer seems to be several steps ahead of the police and even playing with them.

Jack's personal life continues to be a mess. Her mother is still in a coma. Latham and Jack have split up. Mr. Friskers the cat is still psychotic.

Why am I giving up after the third in a series? I'm having a more difficult time articulating my reasons in print than I thought I would if you consider that I wouldn't have a hard time saying nice things -- Konrath writes well, the stories are imaginative, the action is fast paced, and provide good escapism.

I admit that I may be applying unreasonable standards to what is entertainment. I often overlook instances of the examples I give below in other books but when they accumulate they become a barrier to my enjoyment.

It comes down to my expectations for a type of book. The Jack Daniels series are police procedural thrillers and I apply a "reasonable person standard." It X situation, how would a big city detective with 20 years experience act. There are far too many "you got to be kidding, why would you do Y" moments. Several time I thought that, had I been Jack's boss, I would have fired her or busted her back to uniform.

Rusty Nail annoyed me from the start with Jack's partner, Herb, dreading his colonoscopy. He tells Jack that she should be happy she's not a man and doesn't have to deal with this stuff. Jack agrees. Umm, a colonoscopy is not a procedure limited to men and isn't related to the prostate which, I guess, is what they are supposed to be thinking. It is reasonable to assume that Jack and Herb would know that. Yea, it sounds picky, but remember, these are my expectations. Herb should have said something along the lines "Laugh now, but you'll get yours in the end" which would have been worth a chuckle.

I'm not shy about violence in books. Adrian McKinty's dead series is a favorite of mine. And very violent. And includes scenes of torture. With the Jack Daniels series, each book seems to be trying to outdo the previous ones in describing the depravity and cackling insanity of the killers. It's a bit much after a while.

So far, in each book, the killer has a personal interest and is specifically targeting Jack. It is not a problem for the detective investigating the case to be a target. But every time? Give someone else a chance.

I also realized that I don't like Jack. I don't mind sarcasm, enjoy it even. But Jack's vitriolic, condescending, sarcasm toward the two FBI agents is tiresome. I want to slap her upside the head and tell her to shut up and listen for a change. The only characters I do like are Mr. Friskers the the psycho cat and Phen (Pheneas), the ex-con, Jack's pool partner, and occasional informant.

There are other things such telegraphing events - if Jack does "this" you know that "that" is going to happen. Some readers like this, it gives then a delicious sense of anticipation. I don't mind it in small doses but too much and it become predictable.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Baby Shark's High Plains Redemption

Capital Crime Press, 2008, 978-0-9799960-2-3, 287 p.

Baby Shark's High Plains Redemption takes place in May, 1957, about eight months after the events in Baby Shark's Beaumont Blues. The previous Baby Shark novels are reviewed earlier.

Kristin Van Dijk (aka Baby Shark) and her partner, Otis Millett, are hired by Texas businessman Travis Horner to act as bagmen, exchanging a bag of money for his girlfriend Savannah who hasn't exactly been kidnapped but is held against her will in Oklahoma.

What should have been a straightforward exchange takes an unexpected turn when Kristin arrives late at the exchange point to find Otis being beaten by three men. Kristin rescues Otis in her usual direct fashion only to have someone else appear and take Savannah away from them.

On the way back to Texas, Kirsten sees the car Savannah and the stranger took off in, driven off the road and two other men trying to force Savannah into their car. The stranger has been shot to death. Violence ensues and Savannah is rescued again. Otis and Kristin learn that the man who took Savannah the first time is actually a relative, Lester.

Otis and Kristin still have no idea what is going on but feel that Horner must have been behind it. Instead of returning Savannah to Horner, they take her to her family headed by Oklahoma bootlegger Bull Smike. Alliances are formed and Otis and Kristen work at figuring out what is really at stake.

The story is told in first person by Kristin. She's young, in her twenties, living in Texas in the 1950s where she runs counter to the usual roles expected for women. A female private detective is not what people expect when they come to the Millet Agency. Kristin is from the same mold as Mike Hammer - she has a cold calculating courage, the ability to act quickly and violently and frequently fatally, and sees no problem delivering extra-legal justice. She isn't someone you want to cross. She is also extremely loyal to the few people she lets into her life.

The Baby Shark books fall into the hard-boiled genre of detective fiction. As such, you can expect tough characters, action, and violence. Within the framework of the hard-boiled genre, Fate has well developed, intriguing characters, good plots that pull the reader along, and excellent action. They are a great way to spend a couple of hours, lost in a story.

Fate is often asked why he set these book in the 1950s. He explains
My novel begins in the 1950s because I wanted my young female protagonist challenged by a world formed by late nineteenth and early twentieth century attitudes toward women that Rosie the Riveter had just knocked silly. Women of the Eisenhower era were much more restless than Ozzie & Harriet would have had people believe, and I wanted to tap into that with a strong, young female protagonist who could represent that unconventional spirit.

He succeeds in his portrayal of Kristin and Baby Shark, Baby Shark's Beaumont Blues, and Baby Shark's High Plains Redemption all get a hard-boiled thumbs up from me.

Baby Shark's Beaumont Blues

Capital Crime Press, 2007, 978-0-9776276-2-2, 269 pages.

The second book in a series is probably hard on an author. The first book establishes the characters and readers decide if they care enough to stick with the author. With subsequent books, the author has to develop the characters and find new plots without losing what attracted readers in the first place. I've stopped reading books that had interesting plots because I didn't care about the characters so it isn't a matter of character driven vs plot driven story, it take both. for me.

I loved Baby Shark. Baby Shark's Beaumont Blues sucked me in right away and the only reason I didn't finish it in one day is because I had to sleep.

Beaumont Blues takes place about two years after the events in Baby Shark. Kristin Van Dijk has become a licensed private investigator and Otis Millett's partner in the Millet Agency. Together they are a destructive and often lethal team. Though Kristin is not yet twenty-one, Otis doesn't treat her as anything less than a partner he trusts to watch his back. There is no "watch out for the girl" attitude on the part of Otis. He trusts Kristin to shoot when shooting is necessary.

This time they are trying to protect a Texas oil heiress and make sure she is available when her father's will is read. She has to be present or the bulk of the estate goes to a televangelist. What seems like a straight forward assignment gets complicated very quickly. Kristin and Otis are not sure who is doing what to whom all the way to the end of the book. I found the ending very satisfying. The very bad people are part of a near-by crime lord's crew and if you have read Baby Shark you can predict their fate.

Baby Shark gets a love interest in this story. Has she healed enough to be able to trust? Fate does a nice job showing that healing can take a long time.

If you like a strong female character - ready with a gun or knife - and plenty of hard-boiled action then you'll enjoy this book. If you are likely to be troubled by characters who don't see anything wrong with dispatching someone who needs to be dispatched without benefit of a trial then you might want to look for a cozy to read.

My only criticism is that Fate doesn't tell how the aftermath of the messy conclusion to Baby Shark was handled. Otis, Kristin, and Henry had a powerful lot of tracks to cover to keep from going to jail.

Baby Shark

Capital Crime Press, 2006, 978-0-9776276-9-1, 270 pages.

Baby Shark is a revenge and recovery story set in Texas in the 1950s and a terrific story in the hard-boiled school. I first read about it on The Gumshoe Review. When it didn't show up in local book stores I ordered it. I also ordered the sequel, Baby Shark's Beaumont Blues and glad I did since it saved me time getting it.

At seventeen, Kristin Van Dijk sees her father murdered in a Texas bar by a motor cycle gang and is then brutally beaten and raped. The owner of the bar, a Chinese-American named Henry Chin is shot and left for dead. He pulls Kristin from a fire set to cover-up the crime. Henry's son was also killed by the bikers. When Henry finds that someone with influence has managed to get the investigation closed, he and Kristen begin planning their private war against the bikers. Along the way they find help from: an ex-cop private eye named Otis who keeps his .45 handy and isn't adverse to taking preemptive action; a psychotic Korean War veteran and small arms expert; and a former military close-quarters combat instructor. You also get really nasty bad guys, a corrupt cop, and a waitress with a heart of gold.

The story and characters are well developed and the pacing pulls you along. I appreciated the care Fate took to set up the action. The narration is written in the first person from Kristin's point of view and has terrific hard-boiled dialog like

Bear took that stunned look of recognition directly to hell – along with two slugs in his heart.

If you like hard-boiled stories, you can't help but go "Yea!" when you read a line like that.

I recommend this book to anyone who doesn't mind a lethal teenager with a grudge and much (justifable) extra-legal bloodshed.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

A Hell of a Woman: An Anthology of Female Noir

I was in a independent bookstore looking for Megan Abbott's novels but they were sold out. I did find this gem edited by Megan and am glad I picked it up.

Val McDermid wrote the foreword and provides an interesting perspective on the role of women in hardboiled stories
I blame Raymond Chandler. I blame him for writing too well.
Here's the thing with Chandler. He had a problem with women. Vamps, victims, and vixens are the only roles provided for us. And his perennial popularity has guaranteed that his twisted view of women would remain the template whenever the hard-boiled boys hatched a new tale of the mean streets. For years we've been stuck in this gruesome girlie grove because of one man's screwed-up sexuality.

Megan has collected 24 stories terrific stories. What you won't find among the female characters are private detectives and police officers.
The stories in A hell of a Woman invite us into the world, and minds, of both kinds of female characters who do frequent noir--the girl-Friday secretary the moll--but are seldom given center stage, and the kinds of women who more commonly occupy only the fringes of noir or do not appear at all.

The stories are grouped under five categories with attention grabbing labels:

    Minxes, Shapeshifters and Hothouse Flowers
    Housewives, Madonnas and Girls Next door
    Gold-diggers, Hustlers and B Girls
    Working girls, Tomboys and Girls Friday
    Hellcats, Madwomen and Outlaws

Some of the authors I was familiar with: Zoe Sharp, Sandra Scoppettone, Ken Bruen, and Christa Faust. But one of the joys of an anthology like this is the discovery of new authors. There isn't a single author in this collection of whose works I wouldn't want to read more.

I don't want to highlight some authors because it means excluding others so I am going to mention the first and last stories. Annette Meyers leads off with It's Too Late, Baby. Susie Rae is a hustler, scanner, and thief looking for the ultimate meal ticket. From her high school summer job we follow her scheming and scamming to California. The final sentence should remind you of something that happened in 2002.

SJ Rozen's Undocumented has a very different character. It is a story of determination and sacrifice to preserve family. Wei An-Lin is an undocumented Chinese woman smuggled into California by one of the Tongs, working off her passage in a sweatshop. By the end of the slow-paced, non-violent, story the reader has to look at Wei An-Lei as a hell of a woman. I get goose-bumps.

If McDermid's foreword and the stories themselves were not enough, Abbott added an appendix, Women in the Dark, where an array of authors, booksellers, critics, and film aficionados pay homage to favorite noir writers, characters and performers. These 36 short sections are a terrific resource about women in noir. If you like this theme, you will be able to add to your Netflix and reading list. In particular I want to find Dorothy B. Hughes' Ride the Pink Horse described by James Agnew as "one of the most hardboiled books ever--charbroiled really ..." and In a Lonely Place.

Busted Flush Press has another anthology that I have to add to my noir library -- Damn Near Dead: An Anthology of Geezer Noir.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Cypress Grove

Cypress Grove has a murder to be solved but the crime is almost incidental. It is a story about character, acceptance, reconciling with the past, and perhaps redemption.

Turner (no first name) was on his way to a scholarly life when the Vietnam War intervened. When he returned from war he joined the Memphis, Tennessee police department rather than restarting his education. He quickly rises to detective, enjoys the success of a high clearance rate, but never fits in, an outsider. During a domestic disturbance call he makes a split second reaction to an event and shoots and kills his partner.

He is sent to prison for three years for the killing. There he resumes his education, earns a master's degree. Just before his release, he kills another inmate in self-defense, serves more time, and earns a master's in psychology.

Out of prison he becomes a psychotherapist, mostly seeing the acutely troubled ones -- those at the edge of violence. One day Turner looks into a mirror and
I saw something I'd not seen before. It didn't last, but for the moment it was there, I recognized it for what it was. Grace, of a sort. Wherever it was I had been heading all these years, I'd arrived. I had simply to off-load cargo now.

He moves to a cabin on a lake with his books and begins a quiet, contemplative life.

One day Sheriff Bates shows up with a bottle of Wild Turkey. How Lonnie and Turner begin their relationship is a wonderful piece of writing that captures the essence of small town South:
Folks around here don't move fast. They grow up respecting other folks' homes, their land and privacy, whatever lines have been drawn, some of them invisible. Respecting the history of the place, too. They sidle up, as they say; ease into things. Maybe that's why I was there.

A body has been found, ritualistically posed. The sheriff admits that he is out of his depth with this kind of case and asks Turner to help. Turner joins the sheriff and his deputy Don Lee as a consultant and two things happen: they begin the investigation and Turner begins to integrate himself back into society.

There is much to like about this book. There is Sallis' writing. Nearly every page has a phrase, sentence, paragraph that is a gem of concise writing. Crime Scene NI says this of Ken Bruen as well which accounts for Sallis and Bruen being two of my favorite authors.

Then there is what the book doesn't contain. There isn't the testosterone laden conflict and threats between the law and the ex-con; the resentment of the deputy; the reluctance of Turner to get involved. Turner is open about his life and, in turn, the sheriff and deputy and townspeople see the kind of man he is and accept him.

The case itself is interesting and the search for background on the victim and motive for his murder well developed and intriguing but it is the development of the characters that makes this one of my favorite reads.

Highly recommended.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Bloody Mary, J.A. Konrath

This is the second in Konrath's Jack Daniels series. The first is Whiskey Sour, reviewed in an earlier post.

Once again Chicago is menaced by a serial killer and once again the killer has a personal interest in Jack (Jacqueline) Daniels. This case begins when an extra set of arms appear in the morgue. That in itself is unusual but these are also attached to a set of Jack's handcuffs.

The story told from the point of view of Jack and the killer. This approach is appealing because we get to see the actions of the police from the outside. As with Whiskey Sour, the killer feels superior to the police and unstoppable. Jack's investigation has a logical flow and you feel that the killer could have been unmasked following the clues uncovered.

Midway, the story makes a turn that the reader might not expect but allows for new characters and story elements to be introduced. To say more would be to reveal spoilers.

Bloody Mary adds more detail to Jack's personal life which is, for the most part, chaotic and a complete mess. Mr Friskers, the cat of a victim from Whiskey Sour, now lives with Jack. Despite the friendly sounding name, Mr. Friskers hasn't mellowed, still has the personality of a feral, and seems to really dislike men. I like the cat.

Jack's aging mother shows up to move in with Jack. She has Jack's ex-husband Allen in tow, both hoping Jack will reconcile with Allen. This is awkward since Jack is still dating Latham whom she met in Whiskey Sour.

Experienced mystery readers may find procedural details in the second half of the book annoying. Jack and the assistant district attorney would benefit from a visit by the Law and Order characters.

Konrath has produced another fast-paced, often gruesome, violent, hardboiled detective. He uses Jack's family and her partner Herb Benedict to provide some humor to the story.

I listened to this book rather than read it. It is from Audible and is superbly narrated by Dick Hill and Susie Breck.

Whisky Sour, J.A. Konrath

This review was originally published on Mack Pitches Up. I will be posting a review of the next in the series shortly.

I listened to rather than read this book. This audio version from is an excellent production. Susie Breck and Dick Hill expertly provide the voices of multiple characters.

Whisky Sour is the first in JA Konrath's Jack Daniels series, now up to five and all using drinks as titles. Jacqueline (known to everyone as Jack) Daniels is a lieutenant in violent crimes in the Chicago Police Department. With her partner Herb Benedict, Jack is called to the scene of a homicide. The mutilated body of a woman was found in a trash can outside a convenience store. She had been tortured before dying. More bodies are found and the police find that they have a serial killer who calls himself The Gingerbread Man on their hands. The killer becomes fixated on Jack, leaving her letters and targeting her as one of his victims. Mixed in with the fast-paced search to catch a killer before another life is lost is Jack's personal life which is a shambles. Her live-in boyfriend left her for a personal trainer and Jack finds herself considering a dating service to achieve some semblance of a normal life.

The story moves along briskly with the appropriate sense of urgency. The search for the link between the victims is well done and interesting. Nothing suddenly appears to reveal all. The reader develops a feeling for Jack's character and the inclusion of her personal life makes her more human. The killer is seriously demented and creepy. Konrath has a flair for writing scenes of action, gore, and violence.

I started this book when it first came out. At the time I was so annoyed by what I considered inconsistencies in character and some other elements that I stopped reading after a couple of chapters. This time around the inconsistencies are less important and certainly not serious enough cast the book aside.

There is only one aspect of Whiskey Sour that still seriously annoys me, the treatment of the FBI. It is a common theme in crime fiction for local law enforcement to be hostile to FBI and call them the "feebs" or "feebies." That mostly isn't the case in real life I gather - I asked Lee Lofland, a retired detective who did work with the FBI on cases. What I didn't like in the story was making the FBI agents buffoons and using profiling and the VICAP system as a source of humor. The profiles go beyond unlikely, they are absurd. Still, this is a minor aspect of the story, used for comic relief, and I acknowledge this as a personal pet peeve that other readers might not share.

I did enjoy Whiskey Sour and recommend it to readers of police procedurals and serial killer stories. After listening to this book I downloaded the other four in the series from Audible.