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Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Trinity Six

This the third book reviewed by Charles Cumming in the blog. The Trinity Six is a classic and updated WWII spy novel. Given that it’s a current day novel with many of the characters of interest having already died, the covert techniques described by Cummings covered both old time field craft and modern spy techniques.

There really was a “Cambridge Five,” the title for five men who were undergraduates at Cambridge in the 1930s who became an effective group of spies for Russia during WWII. (Trinity College is one of the colleges at Cambridge.) This book takes off from that reality with the notion that there was a sixth spy who had never been revealed even though many scholars had looked for evidence of such and suspected many men of being the sixth man. In this book, the protagonist is Dr. Sam Gaddis, a Russian History professor at Trinity College. The current Russian president is Sergie Platov, a very Putlin-like tsar-like figure, and Gaddis had just finished an academic tome called Tsars which was nothing less than a blistering attack on the Platov regime. Platov was a most important figure in trying to cover up any such research – but why would he do that? Shouldn’t the success of a Russian spy network look good for the Kremlin?

Because of his book, Gaddis was approached by a young woman, Holly Levette, who said she had been given some secret papers from her mother, Katya Levette. Katya had been working on a book about the alleged sixth Trinity Spy when she suffered a premature death, probably from alcoholism. Holly thought Gaddis might be interested in her mother’s research, and then as he began to delve into the material and talk with others about it, people started to die. Most notably murdered was his ex-girlfriend, a colleague who he consulted about the project. Then there were others.


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I need not lead you through the plot which was clever. There were significant twists and turns, but it was not too complex to follow (as I’ve found with some other intricate spy novels). Cummings did a good job with the supporting characters. More than with many authors, I could really picture his many locations that Cummings artfully portrayed. I thoroughly enjoyed this story and am very impressed with Cummings story telling skills. I’ll be reading more of his books.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Reservations by Gwen Florio

An opening that male readers of a certain age (like me) can identify:



"The day that would see Ben Yazzie transformed into shreds of flesh in too many evidence bags began with a rare strong and satisfying piss. Ben leaned back against the stream, a veritable Niagara, not his usual dribble and hitch that put youth farther in the rear-view mirror every day."


The peeing part, not the blown up part. But the entire passage sets a strong hook.

Lola Wicks is a former war correspondent in Afghanistan, soured on the process and accepted a position out in Montana at the Magpie Daily Express where she met and married Charlie Laurendeau, a Blackfeet cop and are raising their 7 yo daughter Margaret and the 3-legged border collie Bub.

Charlie is mostly estranged from his brother Edgar who lives in Arizona on the Navajo Reservation with his lawyer wife Naomi and daughter Juliana. Charlie, Lola and Margaret are taking a 'honeymoon' of sorts by visiting Arizona and hopefully get the brothers back in good graces with each other.

Ben Yazzie is/was a Navajo tribal elder who gave tours of dinosaur tracks. After said piss, he sat down in the shade of a billboard to wait for the tourist. Then the bomb shreds the billboard and Ben Yazzie. Most everyone believes that the billboard was the target, not old Ben. 

The billboard belonged to Conrad Coal. The huge multinational that operates a mine on Navajo land. To those who cherish the old ways, the mine is an offensive affront to their legacy and ancestors. To the newer generation, it represents jobs and a real world salary with benefits. So maybe it was just a statement . . . 

. . . until another bomb detonates destroying a truck full of raw coal and its Navajo driver.

Naomi is a Navajo prosecutor with no love for the mine. Edgar is also a lawyer who actually works for Conrad Coal. From where Conrad sits, Edgar is proof of the company's commitment to hiring locals for all levels of position. From where Naomi sits, Edgar is her link to what's going on inside the mine. 

The multiple bombings light Lola's journalistic fire and starts asking questions where she probably shouldn't. And as she digs deeper, the clues start to appear to have some basis in the family Charlie left behind. 

This is #4 in the Lola Wicks legacy. Regular readers (who pay attention) know I like mysteries based in the west with a Native American connections. Think Tony Hillerman and Craig Johnson among others. While Hillerman told his stories through the eyes of two Navajo Tribal policeman, and Johnson's vehicle is a white sheriff and his Cheyenne best friend, Florio presents Lola as a distinct outsider in her hometown and when vacationing in Arizona. Navajo mysticism is presented, but mostly as told by the Navajo. No matter how hard Lola tries and despite being married to a Blackfeet cop, she is still an outsider. And in large part, that is what drives Lola, her desire to be accepted by the extended family (which extends beyond blood connections) she so willingly joined. 

Flora comes by her presentation of Lola's journalistic thirst honestly. Per her cover bio, Florio has reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somolia. Stateside, she covered the Columbine shootings, the Oklahoma City bombing trials, and the Miss Navajo contest where contestants have to slaughter a sheep. Reservations is an excellent combination of an environmental mystery, investigative journalism all with a Navajo sensibility. 

Available March 8, 2017.


ECD

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Presidents' Day

Seth Margolis has written eight books, and his latest, Presidents’ Day will released next month, in February 2017. This is a story of political intrigue that is particularly timely. One of the world’s wealthiest men wants to rig the US election for President. Does that ring a bell? However, rather than run for office himself, Julian Mellow wanted to stay in the background where he had spent most of his life. Meanwhile, he had made millions on a deal five years earlier as the result of insider trading, and when that was discovered, Mellow managed to hang the blame on his longtime protégée, Zach Springer. Zach was terminated from Mellow’s finance firm, forced to cough up almost all of the money he had earned during his years in Mellow’s company, and been banned from working in the financial industry forever.

And Zach could not let it go. He was determined to catch Mellow in some illegal act, and he was obsessed with following Mellow’s every move. As the result of this obsession, his relationship with his fiancée was on the rocks. Only Zach’s maniacal focus led him to uncover Mellow’s plot to win the White House through his control of Senator Harry Lightstone. Lightstone didn’t want the job of President, but Mellow blackmailed him into running for the office by threatening to reveal his sexual proclivities. Still, Lightstone was a long shot and Mellow was known never to bet on a loser.

It was specifically the death of Mellow’s son Matthew some years earlier in the political backwater of the small African country of Kamalia for which Mellow was seeking revenge. A US President could bring an end to he regime that had murdered his son. Matthew, unlike Springer, had been one who wanted nothing to do with his father and had literally gone to the end of the earth to get away from his influence and control. Margolis skillfully surrounded his main characters with a solid cast, including Matthew’s fiancée, a native Kamalian, Sophie DuVal, a former French fashion model, and Mellow’s hatchet man, Billy Sandifer, the scariest of psychopaths.


Margolis did a great job of tying the plots together in a believable sequence. The plot is not too complex, but it kept me guessing. Do the good guys always win? Not necessarily, and you’ll have to read this one to get the answer. I’ve already downloaded Margolis’ prior book The Semper Sonnet. ECD already wrote a less than stellar review of that one, but I plan to get to that one soon.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Escape Clause by John Sanford

In John Sandford’s ninth mystery in his Virgil Flowers series, our protagonist is assigned to the case of the kidnapped Amur tigers from the Minnesota zoo.  This rare and endangered animal species is known in the Chinese culture for medicinal value of its body organs and bones.  Authorities are worried the tigers are being slaughtered for their body parts so anyone suspected of dealing in black market animals is on the list to be interrogated.
 
As usual in John Sanford novels, a parallel story line follows the antics of the criminals.  A disgraced doctor has mastered minded the caper and his accomplices are two brothers skilled in animal slaughter.  As Virgil closes in, those close to the crime begin to die, one by one, an apparent attempt to conceal the offense.

Virgil gets sidetracked by his latest girlfriend, Frankie and her family problems.  Virgil has become serious about a longer term relationship with Frankie and has moved into her ranch house.  Frankie’s mischievous sister, Sparkle has also moved in for the summer to complete her research on working conditions of migrant workers.  Not everyone welcomes her intrusion, including Frankie when Sparkle turns Virgil’s wandering eye.


Escape Clause is more less an airplane book… not much intrigue or mystery since the author keeps you clued into what the villains are doing.  But the likability of the easy going, Virgil Flowers who sports a vintage rock band T-shirt and dusty cowboy boots and frequently forgets his gun, keeps you engaged to the end… unpretentious, high quality entertainment.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

A private jet takes off from Martha’s Vineyard on a foggy summer night with eleven people on board.  The head of a major TV network has chartered the airplane for himself, his wife, and two small children to return to New York City from a holiday on the island.  Also on board are a soon to be indicted investment banker/ money launderer and his wife, a security guard with a sorted past, a down on his luck painter just hitching a ride, and the pilot, co-pilot, and stewardess.  Within minutes the plane crashes into the ocean without warning or obvious foul play.  The painter, Scott Burroughs, survives the crash, saves the boy, four-year-old J.J. and swims miles to the mainland shore… a seemingly impossible task.

Because of the high profile of the TV executive and the pending indictment of the banker, the incident quickly becomes a media frenzy and attracts a plethora of alphabet soup government agencies, including the FBI, FAA, DHS, and OFAC.  Scott Burroughs, having survived and appearing out of place in the company he was keeping, becomes a person of interest to all concerned.  He seeks out the authorities in charge and patiently recounts what he remembers.  Seemly satisfied with his testimony, the investigation team releases him.  After hours in the ocean, Scott has formed a bond with the boy and is reluctant to see him go with his aunt, his mother’s sister who is married to an underachieving opportunist.  Further, Scott can’t understand why the media is so interested in him and can’t make himself face them.  So begins the speculation of what actually happened and what caused the plane to go down.

The private life of each person on board is sifted through.  Burroughs in particular is suspect because he is poor and his relationship with a wealthy woman is surely intimate in nature.  The TV executive must have enemies to be so powerful and wealthy.  The shyster banker has had many unscrupulous dealings with foreign criminals who could have turned on him.  The security guard has a questionable military past that needs to be investigated.  Then there’s the crew… who are they and what possible motives could they have for terrorism?  Rumors and innuendo become assumed fact.

As the Feds investigate and the media distort the facts, Scott and JJ are left with the reality of the crash.  Why were they spared?  What do they do now?  Is there some greater purpose?  JJ seems more at ease with Scott than with his aunt and uncle and Scott feels a responsibility to the boy.  But the media can’t fathom that Scott’s actions are noble.


After the Fall is a mystery at its core but it also says something about us.  Why is it important for the media to feed their 24/7 news cycles with faux news and why do we watch it and buy into it?  Have we become unable to take the facts and draw our own conclusions?  Are we so cynical we can no longer believe in heroes?  Does everyone have to have an angle, some ulterior self-centered agenda?  Good questions… time to search out other works of Noah Hawley.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Gumshoe

Gumshoe by Rob Lininger, the first novel about private investigative trainee, Mortimer Angle, is the most ridiculous, absurd story that I’ve read, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Just the name of the protagonist should give you a clue to the tongue-in-cheek, wisecracking tone of this novel. After 14 years as an IRS agent, Mort finally decided he had enough, it was time for a career change to something with more adventure, a job that didn’t automatically kill a conversation at a cocktail party.

The story opens with the disappearance of Reno’s mayor and district attorney, who just happen to have been buddies since high school. Within hours of the time Mort has received his license as a PI-trainee, he discovered the decapitated head of Jonnie Sjorgen, the mayor, which he found it in the trunk of the car of his ex-wife, Dallas, who had been sleeping with Jonnie on and off for the last two years. That was just the first of three severed heads found by Mort. The second head was that of the DA, Dave Millliken, and the third was Mort’s nephew Gregory Rudd who ran the PI firm where Mort was working. It turned out that the men’s brains had been removed from their heads, and their genitals were inserted there. Wow, a novel about dickheads.

The author developed some good characters around Mort including a lineage of dark women figures starting with Jacoba, a retarded girl that Jonnie and Dave had some “fun” with during high school. Dallas was horrified by the beheadings, and of course she turned to Mort for comfort. Then there was the stunning and naked “K” who just suddenly appeared in Mort’s bed, and the PI that Mort hired to help him with the case, power lifter and marshal arts star Jeri DiFrazzia.


If you’re in the mood for a break from the usual crime novel genre, this should be a welcome read. The author brings an impossible story to a very satisfactory conclusion. I know I’ll find more time for Rob Leininger novels. Thanks to Matt Gage for the recommendation.