Old mysteries and thrillers gathering dust and adding to your clutter? Donate them to the Burrito Boyz and they'll distribute to the homeless of San Diego.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Ultimatum by Simon Kernick

A London family (one of the many Muslims from SE Asia) is assaulted. The family is threatened unless the husband delivers a backpack to a coffee shop at exactly 8am and dropped near the table where a woman and a man are meeting. The weight of the pack and the ruthlessness of the assault on this family convince the husband that he is carrying a bomb. He drops the pack as required and bolts.

The bomb kills and mains dozens of customers. Two detectives are nearby when the bomb goes off. Tina Boyd spots the guy running away and takes up the chase. But the guy gets wasted by a bus. There goes a lead. An unknown Muslim group takes credit and threatens a huge strike in 12 hours unless demands are met. Secondary bombs go off as police close in on clues. The death toll amongst the cops rises as the day progresses.

Tina has a rep in the Met police force, and it ain't good. Seems like every time something goes south, like a perp gets beaten badly, or there is gun play, Tina is in the middle - a loose cannon is she. Just another day on the job for Tina Boyd.

In maximum security wing of the toughest prison sits The Fox, the only guy captured after a terrorist takeover of a London hotel about a year earlier. There is a mound of evidence of his role in the hotel job and he'll never see freedom again. But he notices similarities in the coffee shop bombing and methods his employer used on the hotel takeover . . . and he wants to deal. Names for more favorable treatment, but he'll only talk to Tina, cuz she gets things done.

The Fox gives Tina a name, which she and her partner, Mike Bolt, start to run down. When the tip turns up golden, The Fox offers more in exchange for even more prison benefits. Bolt is hesitant to trust The Fox and is using a disgraced former cop to work undercover who might have hit on something big.

And the clock is ticking, quickly. A robbery of a drug dealer's collection muscle, the murder of a quasi-small time Albanian arms dealer, a South African assassin, the undercover cop's ex-wife, and attempts on The Fox's life in prison are all connected in a web as convoluted as a web spun by a drunken spider. And evening approaches. What in planned to happen when the 8pm deadline approaches is massive. Not only will the major strike horrify residents of the UK and kill many, the actual motivations of those behind this bloody day are not as they seem, not by a long shot.

This is the first book by Kernick I've read (again, thanks to the good folks at Simon and Schuster for the advance copy). If I read Kernick's web site correctly, this is the 6th Tina Boyd novel (out of his list of 18 published thrillers). I recently reviewed a couple of books by L.T. Ryan that started fast and kept up the pressure throughout, but I really wasn't all that enthralled with the characters or the plotting. Not so for Kernick. While this, too starts out at 100mph and stays that way, the characters, plotting, and twists don't leave the reader any time to question what could potentially tear the UK apart - just keep turning the pages and hold on. Took this to a beach week with 18 family members and even amongst the hubbub of such a gathering, I managed to read this in just a couple days. Without distractions, I could've gone cover to cover in one sitting. Kernick? Oh, yeah. I'll be back. Put money on it and take it to the bank.

Ultimatum will be available in the US on September 9, 2014.


Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Spinoza Problem by Irvin D. Yalom

If you were involved in any form of psychotherapy training program since 1970, you probably know the name of this author, Irvin Yalom, M.D., a professor emeritus from Stanford. He wrote the definitive texts about group psychotherapy. I’ve read his books cover-to-cover and have used them as reference works since then. The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy is now in it’s 9th edition. I was aware that Yalom had written a number of fiction books, but I had never ventured there until now. I’m not sure if my favorite genre is crime/espionage or historical fiction. I love both, but this book tends to tip the scales towards the latter.

The Spinoza Problem presents a very clever juxtaposition of the 17th century Dutch philosopher Spinoza and the 20th century Third Reich anti-Semitic ideologue Alfred Rosenberg. In reality, Spinoza’s work led to the Enlightenment era in Europe in the 18th century, and Rosenberg authored some of the most important work that laid the foundation for the Holocaust. Rosenberg, from Estonia, held the 18th and 19th century German author and philosopher Goethe in highest esteem, but that led him to the “Spinoza problem.” Rosenberg could not understand why Goethe had so highly valued the work of Baruch Spinoza. Spinoza was Jewish, at least until his excommunication from the Amsterdam community at the age of 23. Surely, thought Rosenberg, any valued thought that came from Spinoza must have been stolen from an earlier Aryan work, or Spinoza himself was not truly a Jew.

This is a dialogue driven novel as Spinoza wrestled with the evolution of his own ideas, as well as his excommunication from his community as the result of challenging not only the superstitions of Judaism, but of all religious practices. John Lennon’s song Imagine (“and no religions too”) is surely a Spinoza derivative. Much of the current day thought as represented by comedian and political satirist Bill Maher started with Spinosa. I had little familiarity with Spinosa before reading Yalom’s book, and I was surprised to learn that much of my own philosophy clearly derives directly from him. In Yalom’s book, Rosenberg, who rose to being the editor in chief of Hitler’s most important daily newspaper, was shown having believable conversations with Hitler and others. In order to help us understand Spinosa, Yalom takes us briefly back to Plato, Aristotle, and Epicurus. The author brings remarkable richness to this work by fictionalizing an attempt at psychotherapy with the impenetrable Rosenberg. In a conversation with his psychiatrist, Rosenberg was told that Spinosa had been referred to as a “devious atheist, repeatedly using the term ‘God’ to encourage seventeenth-century readers to keep reading…. To Spinosa, Nature and God are synonyms; you might say he naturalizes God.”

At the Nuremburg Trials at the end of World War II, there were 24 defendants, and Rosenberg sat between the highest surviving SS officer and the governor-general of occupied Poland. Yalom wrote, “The chief American counsel, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert J. Jackson, wrote, ‘It was Rosenberg, the intellectual high priest of the “master race,” who provided the doctrine of hatred which gave the impetus for the annihilation of Jewry, and who put his infidel theories into practice against the Eastern Occupied Territories.” Ultimately, Rosenberg was the only member of the Third Reich at the Nuremburg trials who failed to repudiate his racist beliefs and dedication to the ideals of Hitler. Rosenberg was quoted at the trials as having said, “No matter how often I go over everything in my mind, I still cannot believe there was a single flaw in that man’s character.” Along with the 10 other defendants, Rosenberg was hanged on October 16, 1946.

This is a wonderful book, and if you’re ready for some high quality historical fiction and can tolerate an occasional fictional conversation with the Fuhrer, this book gets my highest recommendation.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Light of the World by James Lee Burke

Light of the World is the 20th Dave Robicheaux by James Lee Burke, and in this one, Burke brings in his usual cast including Dave’s old PI partner from New Orleans, Clete Purcel, Clete’s daughter Gretchen Horowitz (the recently retired Mafia hit woman), Dave’s adopted daughter Alafair, and Dave’s wife, Molly. The arch enemy is the remarkably vile Asa Surrette who commits the worst possible offenses against his victims. As always, Burke’s character development is incredible, moving at the right pace, providing the right amount of information. His plot is as suspenseful as any that we at MRB ever read. In this case, the ending scene is epic and so satisfying that it caused me to sit up and laugh aloud. But, make no mistake, the content of this story is very dark.

In addition to his good characters and good plot, the real reason to read Burke is for the quality of his prose and the bits of wisdom that he sprinkles throughout the book, usually spoken by Dave. Such as:

I believe that the account of the apple taken from the forbidden tree is a metaphorical warning about looking too deeply into the darker potential of the human soul.

Hitler, Nero, Ted Bundy, The bitch of Buchenwald? Their deeds are not ours. But if these individuals are not like us, if they do not descend from the same gene pool and have the same DNA, then who were they and what turned them into monsters?

The motivations of a psychopath are almost irrelevant to an investigation. Psychoanalytical speculation about a moral imbecile makes for great entertainment, but it doesn’t put a net over anyone, and you do yourself no favor by trying to place yourself inside his head. The methodology of the psychopath is a different issue, one that frequently proves to be his undoing. In all probability, the perpetrator’s pattern will repeat itself, primarily because he’s a narcissist and thinks his method, if it has worked once, is fail-safe; second, the psychopath is not interested in the hunt but, rather, in assaulting and murdering his pretty, unlike a professional thief, who is usually a pragmatist and considers theft an occupation and not a personal attack upon his victim.

I agree with George Bernard Shaw’s statement that we learn little or nothing from rational people, because rational people adapt themselves to the world and, consequently, are seldom visionary.

I read pretty quickly, but I slow down for Burke in order to savor the quality of his writing. I’ve already acquired his next book.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Zero Day by Mark Russinovich

When the most modern airliner suddenly starts to fall from the sky, when a nuclear power plant damn near exposes its core, and Manhattan firms see their computers go belly up, losing all a company’s history and ability to conduct business, something is afoot.

Jeff Aiken, a former CIA IT geek, is hired by one of the Manhattan firms hit hard by a virus that has the signature of a Russian hacker who goes by the name Superphreak. But the virus is too advanced, too cagey, too hidden, too tricky even for Aiken. Homeland Security is on it, too but they are also stumped. Once thing both Aiken and DHS have learned is that it is set to be triggered by a date 4 weeks in advance: September 11.

As both rush to track down this Superphreak, the people who dreamed up the plot that, if successful will bring down the economies of both the US and Europe sending each into an economic stone age, start eliminating anyone involved in developing the virus as well as anyone who just may have stumbled across a breadcrumb or two.

It’s kind of hard to imagine a story where the main activity is a bunch of hacker/geeks bent over keyboards as being ‘a thriller’ but let me tell you, Russinovich has done it. Sat down to read this at breakfast on Monday. Next thing I knew it was after normal lunchtime and I was halfway through the book. Make no bones about it. Had I not been in a beach house in the midst of 18 family members, I would’ve finished this in one day, one sitting.

And what is impressive is that this is written by a IT security insider. Russinovich is a Technical Fellow at Microsoft where it’s his job to dream up such scenarios and devise ways to stop them in their tracks. The level of techno-speak is high, but not so high as to confuse the reader, but you really get the sense that Russinovich knows of what he speaks. Looks like he has maybe 3 other Jeff Aiken books. First rate stuff for thriller readers, especially those with a bit of the geek in them.

Another Man’s Moccasins by Craig Johnson

Walt Longmire is sheriff of Absaroka County, Wyoming. Daughter Cady is recovering from something that happened in Philly (in an earlier book). Henry Standing Bear is his lifelong friend, full blood Cheyenne, Vietnam war buddy, current confidant, and owner of the Red Pony Bar and Grill. Vic (short for Victoria) is one of his deputies.

An Asian woman is found dead on the side of the interstate by brother farmers contracted by the state to cut the grass. A quick search of the area uncovers some of her belongings near a culvert under I-25. In the culvert is one of those Army vets who has slipped through the bureaucratic gaps the VA is notorious for – a monumentally huge Crow Indian named Virgil White Buffalo. A brief scuffle (4v1) lands Victor in Longmire’s holding cell so they can try and piece together his history.

A Vietnamese gentleman who represents Children of the Dust, a help group for Asian children dragged into human trafficking, identifies the body as the grand daughter he had been trying to track down.

As one might expect, even on the high plains of Wyoming, things are not as they seem. There’s the itinerant bartender-biker, the entire White Buffalo clan, and most important, ghosts that haunt Walt from his days as a Marine Investigator during the Vietnam war and the death of a local he had grown close to. Not to mention that the wallet of the dead girl contained an old photo of a Vietnamese woman and a young Marine who bears a striking resemblance to Longmire.

If you haven’t been paying attention, the AMC network just finished its 3rd season of shows based on the Longmire character and Craig Johnson’s books. And I am a fan of the TV show. So I decided after watching every second of each episode it was time for me to go to the source – and glad I did. Easy to read these books and see the actors in your mind’s eye.

First rate books. First rate TV. Won’t go wrong with either. Fans of CJ Box (which all of us here at MRB are signed, sealed, and delivered fans of Joe Pickett) will most likely like the Longmire series (11 books so far). Johnson (of Ucross, Wyoming; population=25) expertly weaves crime with Cheyenne culture, maybe not as well as Hillerman did with the Navaho, but better than most anything I’ve read recently. The TV show is between seasons now. Thank goodness, I have 10 more opportunities to get a Longmire fix.

East Coast Don

RATS by Joe Klingler

Three disconnected interruptions of raw material supply to the US (the military in particular) have occurred. One of those massive cargo ships sinks off the coast of California before it can belch out its cargo, the Alaska pipeline is disgorging oil (faulty pumps) and a third I can’t recall (and don’t want to page through my Kindle to find). General Billy Williams, a counter terrorism aide to the current president, and his aide/sniper, Corporeal Claire Ferreti other fly into Alaska to find out what really happened to the pipeline.

It wasn’t a pump failure. A few miles of the pipeline had been blown up by a series of land-based drone delivery vehicles – aka RATS or Rotating Axial Traction System.  One of the drones didn’t detonate as it should and a 12yo kid finds it and he is the subject of inquiry by Williams and Ferreti.

Each drone is a bomb made with essentially off the shelf motorcycle parts except for the trigger, a one of a kind cell phone component made only in China. Tracking down the part, Williams uncovers a clandestine meeting of military and money deep in the jungle of Vietnam. He sends Clair and 2 other black ops types to sneak up and put a slug into the man behind the Alaska attack.

The mission is a success. Extraction? Not a success. Their extraction point is targeted, killing the other 2 operatives and severely injuring Claire. But she is found by this cagey hermit living in the jungle and nursed back to health.

Damon (the cagey hermit) is a grown up Amerasian’s child left behind when the US pulled out of Vietnam. And he is quite the engineer, both mechanical and computer. What has irked him to the nth degree is the amount of ordinance left on and under the ground of Vietnam and the resulting number of walking casualties, children in particular.

While nursing Claire back to health, he uses his wits and his computers to learn that General Williams ordered the strike that was meant kill all 3 of the commandoes, Claire included. Now, Claire and Damon plot to take out the General and extort a ton of money to aid the clearing of land mines in SE Asia.

This may sound a bit trumped up and hard to believe . . . and it was, a bit. Well paced and a decent plot for a first time novelist. Just seemed a bit far fetched for a single person living in a jungle cave to have NSA quality computing as well as a number of oh-so convenient coincidences. People won’t be disappointed in reading this. It goes quite fast. Just don’t expect to be left with much when it’s done. It’s just on to the next book. 

East Coast Don

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Under Oath by Margaret Mclean

Charlestown is a small historic neighborhood in Boston with a problem.  Mob rule has intimidated its citizens into a code of silence- a fear of reporting any mob crimes to the authorities.  Finally gangster Billy Malone is indicted for the murder of Trevor Shea, a local artist, heavy drug user and suspected FBI informant.  Shea died of a heroin overdose purportedly at Malone’s design.

Annie Fitzgerald, prosecutor and native to Charlestown must break the code of silence and encourage witnesses terrified for their lives to testify against Malone.  Shea has also left clues of Malone’s reign of terror in his paintings.  But Malone even from prison manages to eliminate witnesses.  With few remaining credible witnesses, a clever defense attorney, and a vengeful detective, Annie struggles to overcome the reasonable doubt criteria required for the jury.

Mclean does an acceptable job of laying out the plot and leading us through the legal process.  However, as with so many aspects of the law, the details are a bit dull.  Further, her character development is unimpressive.  I just didn’t find the characters that likeable or even interesting.  I finished the book because I’m always hopeful but this time I ended up disappointed.  There’s just nothing special here.