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Monday, September 29, 2014

The Secret Place by Tana French

The Secret Place is Tana French’s 5th novel, and she has already won multiple awards including the Edgar, AnthonyMacavity, and Barry awards. I previously reviewed her third novel, but that was nearly four years ago and it is my loss that I did not find my way back to her work sooner.

This story is a murder mystery which takes place on the grounds of a girls’ boarding school, Kilda, in Dublin, Ireland. What is special about this is the dialogue amongst the girls which emphasizes their cliques and their incredibly cruelty towards and dependence on one another. French’s dialogue carries the story. She poses four girls in one clique against four in another, one clique being stereotypical teen girls who are openly boy crazy and shallowly intrigued by the latest fashions. The second clique is a group who is trying to be everything the other is not. But the murder victim is a boy from the neighboring boys’ boarding school who had his designs on girls from both cliques, giving them plenty to fight about, to hate each other for.

French bounces back and forth between the development of the girls’ relationship with one another which leads to the murder of Chris Harper, and the investigation of the murder. The girls’ story extends over a couple years while the investigation, really the second investigation since the first one ended with no arrest, takes only a day. The juxtaposition of those stories serves the main plot perfectly. There is a rich interplay between the lead investigator Antoinette Conway and Detective Stephen Moran. Both Conway and Moran have something to prove to their own department and, for different reasons, both are seen as untrustworthy and damaged goods.

This novel is well written, and French kept me guessing until the end, an end that was totally satisfying. This book gets my strong recommendation, and I’ve already purchased French’s first novel, In the Woods.

In Pursuit of Spenser by Otto Penzler

Otto Penzler is the owner of The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City and is thought to be the world's foremost authority on crime, mystery and suspense fiction, the most popular genre reviewed on Men Reading Books.  In Pursuit of Spenser is Penzler’s tribute to the late Robert B. Parker (RBP).  In this book, Penzler has gathered together essays about the fictional character, Spenser and RBP, his creator.  These essays are written by a collage of crime fiction writers, including Lawrence Block, Ed Groman, Ace Atkins, Dennis Lehane, Loren Estleman and several others.  They not only deal with RBP and his characters, they also address RBP’s place in the evolution of the genre.

I’m a longtime fan of RBP but have mostly kept in the closet about it.  His writing style seems elementary with the short chapters and brief but clever exchanges between characters that frame simple linear plots… not much to stimulate the intellect. But I am always intrigued by the lead characters… strong personalities with high integrity… righteous tough guys.  Whether it’s Spenser, Jesse Stone, or Sunny Randall, Parker’s protagonists each have that individual idealistic code of honor from which they never stray.  It’s Parker’s characters that win him the most accolades from his peers.
But Penzler elevates Parker’s status amongst mystery writers.  He states that in the realm of the hardboiled private detective story, the trajectory of its greatest proponents is a straight line from Dashiell Hammett to Raymond Chandler to Ross Macdonald to Robert B. Parker.  Interestingly, Chandler and Macdonald were the subjects of Parker’s doctoral thesis in 1971.

So, if you are a nerd of the mystery and suspense genre, this book deserves a look.  Of course Robert B. Parker is showcased but much is touted about the history and development of the genre that we love to exploit at MRB.  Parker was an inspiration to many of our favorite authors.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Death Without Company by Craig Johnson

Back to the fictitious Absaroka County in Wyoming and its old school sheriff Walt Longmire. He’s been the county sheriff for 25y having replaced another long timer and confirmed bachelor (everyone thought), Lucien Connelly. Lucien lives in an assisted living facility and works as Longmire’s weekend dispatcher. A woman at the facility’s nursing home has died. Lucien is convinced she was murdered. Yes, Mari Baroja was very ill, but Lucien knew her and thinks there was reason to expect a motive.

Mari was Basque, daughter of one of four Basque brothers who owned a large sheep ranch and the sole surviving heir to that property, and the abused wife of one Charlie Nurburn whom no one seems to know if he’s dead or just ran off back around 1950. She lived her life in Absaroka County, but Longmire didn’t know her. That doesn’t matter. She lived in the county and that made her Longmire’s responsibility.

She was also Lucien’s wife . . .

 . . . for about 3 hours when they were in their late teens until her father and uncles found out and had the marriage annulled. As adults, Lucien and Mari met every Thursday. Most of their contemporaries knew of the affair, but not Longmire. That was news to him.

While Mari lived a life no one should've had to endure at the hands of Nurburn, after he disappeared the four brothers started buying up property surrounding their ranch. Now this left Mari with substantial land holdings in the Powder River basin, but she still lived simply. In recent years, natural gas exploration showed that the ranch sat above extensive gas deposits that were leased by an energy cooperative. Result? Mari is filthy rich and that brings out her money grubbing children and the outside chance that Charlie may have fathered a child with a Cheyenne woman.

This is #2 in the Longmire series and I see many, many more in my future; already have another reserved at the library. Johnson’s Longmire is a bit more talkative than TV's portrayal, being quicker with a joke or a quip. And in this book, Johnson gives us a really good idea of life in Wyoming before, during, and after a snowstorm. As the layers of the onion are peeled during the investigation, Longmire has to deal with Mari’s family, Lucien’s reticence to reveal more about his past, his trash-mouth deputy Victoria (aka Vic), the assisted living facility, a new deputy whose interview becomes more of an OJT trial, gas company roughnecks, the intricacies of the Wyoming laws about parentage and inheritance, and various levels of the Cheyenne nation. Needless to say, the investigation takes more turns than a Bighorn Mountain logging road. And as most readers of good mysteries will tell you, the back twisting back roads are far more interesting than an interstate. Can’t wait to get back to the county roads of Absaroka County.

East Coast Don

Monday, September 22, 2014

Forest of Assassins by David Forsmark & Timothy Imholt

It’s 1964. The US involvement in Vietnam is limited to advisors to the South Vietnamese armed forces. Lt. Hank Dillon is one of those ‘advisors’ who leads a unit of similarly trained members of the US Navy. Odd that they are stationed on land. Their moniker is also new, unusual, and mostly secret to everyone they deal with. They are the first wave of a new and controversial unit of the Navy. They are SEALs. They live in an almost cloistered environment while on base. Get very hush-hush orders, and then they are gone for a few days. Upon return, they clean up, rest, and train to be ready for the next task. Their barracks resembles an arsenal, which no other unit is allowed.

Most of their assignments are supposed to be ‘snatch-grab’ where they find someone of interest to the spooks and bring them back to the ARVN or US Army to interrogate. But these SEALs are armed to the teeth when they go out and frequently come back empty handed. Until they come back with 2 of their own over their shoulders. Their operations are so secretive, the only way they could have been ambushed is if there was a leak. Dillon has his own personal bodyguard, a Montangard named Y Fli, who has his back, always. Loyalty is a defining trait. Not so for the ARVN or other Vietnamese tribal cultures.

Drugs are also a huge problem and when one of those who support the SEALs dies in his bed, Dillon and a Army cop (a civilian) come to blows because the cop thinks this shadow unit is a bunch of cowboys operating outside the uniformed code of military justice as well as outside of decent humanity. Then there are the black market dealers in weapons, out strictly for profit, taking cases of weapons right off the trucks using forklifts to transport to other trucks waiting to send them who knows where. 

This new unit is under very close watch. The SEALs are very new and Dillon’s unit is very much a test case to see if the program can be successful. The numerous missions are conducted in South Vietnam, but also in the North above the DMZ. No one's Rules of Engagement allow them cross the DMZ, except for these guys. The locals refer to these ghost-like soldiers as the ‘green faces’ from all the camouflage paint they wear. No one sees them, but a bad guy is gone, and depending on how bad, he might not make it to interrogation.

This is a novelization of some true events (details of which, according to the book description, are still classified) that occurred early in the Vietnam war. The authors say that about half of what is presented is true and the half that the reader might think is fiction probably isn’t.

A while back I read Matterhorn, a epic-style story of a year in Vietnam. This doesn’t match that one, but it’s pretty darn close. The portrayals of Dillon, Y Fli, and others in this experimental unit make you hold you breath as each assignment becomes more and more risky and deadly. The camaraderie amongst the unit is palpable.

The only issue with the book is that it was a straight to Kindle product via Amazon. As such, it lacks much of the grammatical polish that is normally found in a book from a mainstream print publisher. There were so many grammatical, wording, and sentence structure errors that at times, the errors distracted from the story (being a medical editor, I tend to notice such errors, so maybe the grammatical observations might just be me). It’d be a shame if the word of mouth about the editing scared readers away. This really is a terrific story because it’s partially true and because it’s about the SEALs.

East Coast Don

Available at Amazon

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Kill Artist by Daniel Silva

The Kill Artist is Daniel Silva’s first work featuring Gabriel Allon, one of Israel’s most formidable agents.  Gabriel is now retired and lives as a reclusive art restorer in a small English village. He carries tremendous regrets about his former activities and blames himself for losing his wife and young child in a government operation gone wrong.  Gabriel’s nemesis, Tariq is the Islamic terrorist responsible for a car bomb that destroyed his family.

Now years later Tariq has resurfaced.  He has killed the Israeli ambassador in the Netherlands and has plans to stop the most recent Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Shamron, the head of the Israeli intelligence network invites Gabriel to come out of retirement to hunt down and kill the terrorist.  Reluctantly, Gabriel acquiesces no longer wanting to be an assassin but compelled to avenge his family and save his homeland.

To find and destroy Tariq, Israeli intelligence needs to infiltrate his inner circle.  They call upon Jacqueline Delacroix, a beautiful French model and occasional Israeli operative.  Gabriel has a tormented history with this woman.  He was having an affair with her years eariler when his family was attacked.  Now with a professional but complex relationship, they are asked to work together once again.  As Gabriel keeps her under surveillance, Jacqueline casually initiates a physical relationship with one of Tariq’s known associates hoping he will lead them to his boss. But Tariq is wise to the tactic and sets a trap of his own.

Daniel Silva is one of the most read authors on the MRB blog and WCD’s personal favorite.  At his recommendation I have ventured to where it all began for Silva’s Gabriel Allon… The Kill Artist.  Gabriel is the perfect protagonist... a code of honor that compels him to fight evil and the skill set that allows him to come out the victor against all odds.  Plus he feels enough guilt for his transgressions to deem him human.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Wayfaring Stranger by James Lee Burke

Wayfaring Stranger is James Lee Burke’s 33rd novel, all of which have been written between 1965 and 2014, and we at MRB have reviewed most of them. This one is not from the Dave Robicheaux series, nor one of his other series. It’s a freestanding novel, and at 77 years old, Burke says it is the most autobiographical novel that he has written. He also writes that it is his best book ever, which is one hell of a claim considering the quality of his work. I’ve loved so many of his other works, but maybe he’s right about that.

The books begins in 1934 when Weldon Holland, as a child, has an encounter with Bonnie and Clyde. The story follows Weldon through grisly battles in World War II and into the death camps as the Germans were fleeing, and it was there that he discovered the woman who would become his wife. Burke follows these two heroic characters through their lives back in Texas where Weldon and his Army buddy get into the pipeline business. This is a crime novel, but not the sort that Burke has usually written. He writes of anti-Semitic Texas oil barons and the characters that surround them. It’s a love story and a family story. It is historical fiction. Burke’s writing style, character development, subplots, and dialogue is as good as anyone. This is the masterwork of a master storyteller. My advice, buy this one.

Click here to buy Wayfaring Stranger on Amazon

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Purgatory by Ken Bruen

Purgatory is Ken Bruen’s 10th Jack Taylor novel, and I am a great fan of his writing and this main character. I’ve read them all. As usual, Taylor operates out of Galway, Ireland, and it becomes his task to solve a serial murderer’s killing spree. However, as much as plot, Bruen's books are about life. Bruen’s descriptions of the town and culture are priceless. As well as any author that I’ve read, Bruen captures the struggle with addiction as Taylor wrestles with those demons. Bruen’s writing style is unique in terms of his sentence and paragraph structure, as well as where he locates words on the page for emphasis. Bruen provides an experience that engages the reader in ways that most authors cannot. This one gets my highest recommendation.

Click here to buy this book on Amazon