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.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

A Trick of the Light by Louise Penny

The murder took place on Clara Morrow’s big night. An artist in her 50s who was finally getting a solo show at the Musee d’Art Contemporain in Montreal, the place for anyone in Quebec to become known in the art world. The genius of her work was finally going to be recognized after her years of painful insecurity and hiding in the shadow of her better known artist husband. The author has been nurturing Clara’s development throughout her books. But then the body of Lillian Dyson was found lying in the bushes of Morrow’s garden, the discovery putting a major damper on Clara’s joy. Why Dyson? Why in Clara’s garden? Why on Clara’s big night?

The first clue to the murder was the discovery of an AA token lying near the body. Could it have been Lillian’s chip or did it belong to her murderer? Penny must have some knowledge about the sobriety community because she took this crime story through the heart of the 12-step program, borrowing heavily from the details of the steps, the nature of alcoholism recovery, the types of relationships that are formed among AA members, and she did it with style.

This is the 8th book I’ve read by Louise Penny, the seventh in a 10-novel series. There are many reasons that I keep coming back to her. Penny’s characters are real, three-dimensional people. No one is all good and all bad, and each has his/her own struggles with life, even Armand Gamache, the awkwardly named protagonist who is the head of homicide for the famed Surete du Quebec. The plots are elegant but not overly convoluted. These are not books that you can easily set down, and the quality of writing is better than what we usually see in his genre. While I would normally suggest that you start at the beginning of this series of novels, Still Life, and work your way through them, so you can enjoy the character development along the way, I can also tell you that this is a stand-alone book. I think it’s Penny’s best yet, so jump in here and you can go back and read the others later.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

The Silkworm is the second murder mystery in J.K. Rowling’s (I mean- Robert Galbraith’s) series featuring protagonists Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott.  Cormoran, named for the giant in the old English fairy tale, Jack the Giant Killer, is indeed a large man with a challenged life.  His rock star father ignored him and his groupie mother throughout his childhood and now Cormoran despises when people associate him with his famous patriarch.  After an unstable upbringing, Strike blossoms into a competent MP in the British army while stationed in Afghanistan.  It is here an explosion severs his right leg below the knee thus ending his military career and leaving him dependent on a prosthetic leg.  He returns to London and opens a private detective agency handling mostly infidelity cases until his big break occurs… he solves the murder of a famous model previously ruled a suicide by the police.  The notoriety brings him business but mostly more insufferable infidelity cases.  Meanwhile, his secretary Robin shows promising investigation skills of her own and settles in as a worthy business partner… much to the chagrin of her fiancé.

Then the wife of novelist Owen Quine hires Strike to find her missing husband.  Seems he has disappeared before to cocoon in a nearby hotel to complete his latest novel.  But this time his sabbatical has lasted too long and Mrs. Quine is worried.  As Strike investigates he finds Quine’s disappearance is indeed more serious this time.  Just before his exit, he had delivered to his editor his latest manuscript trashing nearly every known associate based on true but confidential information.  Publishing his novel would ruin lives which means many have motive to silence the aging author.

Upon further investigation Strike discovers Quine’s body brutally and sadistically murdered.  Strikes client, Quine’s wife becomes the primary suspect by the police. Strike is convinced she is not the killer so takes it on himself to find the real offender.  All of Quine’s associates with petty conflicts, grudges, jealousies, and hidden transgressions must be interviewed and analyzed to find who is capable of such a hideous feat.  But culpability alone does not prove responsibility for the murder.  Strike must provoke the killer into action that will reveal his identity … and consequently place Strike and Robin directly in his getaway path.

The Silkworm validates J.K. Rowling’s versatility as a multiple genre writer.  In this mystery she presents many possible villains with enough suspicion to pinpoint any one of them as the perpetrator.  Meanwhile, she reveals more intimate details about the lead characters, Strike and Robin… endearing them to the reader… making them worthy protagonists for future novels.  

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Oedipus Rex by Sophocles

Perhaps the oldest and most famous murder mystery of all times? Oedipus Rex by Sophocles. Recently, I had been drawn back to some ancient Greek literature (which I originally studied in college as a dodge from taking more foreign language courses), and that led me back to Sophocles whose story was an inspiration to Freud whose theories continue to impact our society. Oedipus Rex is a short and powerful read.

The King and Queen of Thebes received a horrible prophesy about their newly born son, Oedipus, that he would kill his father and marry his mother. King Lauis and Queen Jocasta  sent their baby boy at three days of age into the hills with a shepherd where he should have died. But, the shepherd who knew nothing of the prophesy passed him on to another, who took Oedipus to another kingdom where he was raised as the son of Polybus, the king of Corinth. Polybus never told Oedipus that he was an orphan, but Oedipus also received the prophesy that he would kill his father and marry his mother. In order to avoid his fate, he fled Corinth, and in the course of his travels, he encountered a group of men who were traveling. A dispute arose among them, and the powerful Oedipus killed four of the five men, one of them escaping to carry the news of Lauis’ death back to the Royal Palace of Thebes. Soon, Oedipus arrived there and in fact became the new king and wedded the former Queen, not knowing he had fulfilled the prophesy.

It was only many years later when Polybus died and Corinth sent a messenger to Thebes to retrieve Oedipus that the real fate of Oedipus, Laius and Jocasta came to light. Oedipus and Jocasta put the facts together and realized that it was Oedipus who had killed Lauis, his biological father, and then wedded his biological mother. Unable to live with this news, Jocasta hung herself. Guilt stricken to have fallen into the horrible ending he had sought to avoid, Oedipus blinded himself and was sent into exile to live out his days.

This play ends with the Chorus:

Dwellers in Thebes, behold this Oedipus,
The man who solved the riddle marvelous,
A prince of men,
Whose lot what citizen
Did not with envy see,
How deep the billows of calamity
Above him role.
Watch therefore and regard that supreme day;
And of no mortal say
“That man is happy,’ till
Vexed by no grievous ill
He pass Life’s goal.

Maybe you’re not ready to dive into ancient Greek literature, but it is the beginning of so much that we read today.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Kennedy Connection by R. G. Belsky

This is a very clever murder mystery, a most interesting intersection of plot lines. Gil Malloy was a very successful and high profile journalist for the New York Daily News, but in writing a story about a legendary prostitute, he overstepped acceptable boundaries by making up conversations with the woman who he was never able to find. When he was found out, he was humiliated and knew he would never be trusted again by others in the industry. His newspaper kept him on, but relegated him to tertiary stories, not the front page stuff where his writing had lived for years. Malloy was dying for a break on a new story which would take him back to the front page – it’s how he measured the value of his life. His editor let him know no such stories would come his way.

An old police acquaintance, Roberto Santiago, a homicide detective, had asked him some years before to look into the shooting of Victor Reyes, but at the time, Malloy was riding high with more interesting stories, so he never did. The nonfatal shooting of another Hispanic gang member was just not interesting enough. Reyes lived 15 years after the shooting, but then he died. Santiago let Malloy know he was disappointed he had never pursued the matter, and two weeks later, Santiago was killed. Malloy was ready to pay a debt to his friend and look into the death of Reyes, but then he got distracted by the big story he had been waiting for.

How do three seemingly unrelated murders in New York connect to each other? Shawn Kennedy had been shot in Union Square, a rich and beautiful woman, and no one took her valuables. A homeless guy in the Bowery was stabbed to death. A 79-year-old woman was bludgeoned to death, and she was robbed. Each of the victims was found with a Kennedy half dollar, these murders happening on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK. Was is just a coincidence that the first victim’s name was Kennedy? As I write this review, the plot seems contrived, but Belsky pulled it off so it did not seem contrived at all. The story was riveting and I read this over the course of one day – could not put it down.

The idea of writing about the greatest crime of the century pulled Malloy in like a moth to a flame, but his history of having lied in a previous big story was a constant hurdle with his editor. The character development was solid and the characters with whom Malloy interacted were all believable and well fleshed out. As has been the case with so many novels, I was not happy with the portrayal of the psychiatrist and the psychotherapy process. But, I enjoyed Malloy’s look into the Kennedy assassination and some new details he unearthed. This is a good book and it gets my strong recommendation.

From East Coast Don: wanted to add my 2 cents. Just finished this book (thanks again to the good folks at Simon & Schuster). Unfortunately, I didn't have West Coast Don's free time. If I did, I too could've read this in one sitting. Belsky's history in journalism is evident in his crisp writing style that draws the reader in quickly and doesn't let go. He expertly connects seemingly distinct crimes into a cohesive plot with enough twists to keep you from putting it down. First rate stuff. Belsky has two other reporter-based books that I'm going to have to try and track down. 

The Kennedy Connection is now available in print and electronic versions.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Wrongful Death by Robert Dugoni

Robert Dugoni has written a murder mystery based on the Feres Doctrine, which (as written in Wikipedia) effectively bars service members from collecting damages from the United States Government for personal injuries experienced in the performance of their duties. It also bars families of service members from filing wrongful death or loss of consortium actions when a service member is killed or injured. David Sloane is the protagonist, a can’t-lose attorney in San Francisco. But, he gave up his practice there to follow his love to her new job in Seattle, and he picked up with his continued string of courtroom victories there. Then, the widow of James Ford who was killed in Iraq, came to Sloane for some help. She wanted to know what had really happened to her husband on the night he was killed. How could anyone killed in Iraq have died without it being “incident to service?”
When Sloane began to dig into the matter, powerful forces both inside and outside the government put the squeeze on him. They even threatened the lives of his now wife and stepson.

If you like military drama, you’ll like this story as people within the government, military, and private contractors struggle with their knowledge of and motives about the events in Iraq. This was my second Dugoni book, also about his guy David Sloane, and we do learn more about Sloane’s very interesting background. This was a worthwhile read, but Dugoni does not appear to be a threat to the authors in my power rotation.

A Deadly Distance by L.T. Ryan

Part 2 in the Jack Noble saga.

Jack now works for a super secret agency buried in the governmental bureaucracy. He and his partner Frank Skinner are watching this almost Hispanic-looking guy waiting at a bus stop when the guy bolts. Jack and Frank run him to ground in an old warehouse and really don't like what they hear (they aren't bound to such idiocy as torture guidelines, so the bad guy ALWAYS talks).

Upon arrival to a non-descript house in the Virginia mass surrounding DC, a child trafficking ring is discovered. Our heros ain't happy either, especially Frank who has kids this age. The scum behind the scheme is pretty bright himself and calls Jack on his ultra-classified cell number giving him a 37 hour window to solve or even worse things will happen. 

If you like slam bang non-stop action, the Jack Noble series is right up your alley. Don't look for character development or inter-relationships. Action you want? Action you'll get.

East Coast Don

Departed by Nick Stephenson

Murder in the UK. A serial killer is stalking London leaving behind a series of victims that suggests the killer is mimicking the infamous Jack The Ripper. When the London cops hit a dead end, they contract with a NYC cop with special expertise is serial killers to help them see what they might be missing.

Leopold Blake brings his partner (Sgt. Mary Jordan) and body guard (Jerome) with him to try and help Scotland Yard and MI6, who really aren’t all that thrilled with Leopold’s presence.  After reviewing old clues and evidence from the most recent murder, Blake hones in on a suspect. When they and the local police go to the perp’s house to make an arrest, they quickly learn their error when they find the guy dead and sealed up within the wall of his house.

Back to square one and with another body due to be found quickly, Leopold’s team starts looking elsewhere, now focusing on whether there might be police involvement.

This was a pretty basic murder mystery. Because of the way the story was presented and the somewhere blustery superior-yet-flawed personality of Leopold, I had a bit of a hard time picturing the story in my head while I read. Then I started envisioning the Holmes/Watson characters of the current TV series “Elementary” played by Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu. Once I started reading Leopold in the way Miller plays Holmes on that TV show, the book started to click. But I’m not sure it clicked so well that I’ll be making any concerted effort at running down any more right now. Just OK. Hey, I did finish it. 

East Coast Don