Tuesday, July 21, 2015

GREEN HELL by Ken Bruen






Ken Bruen’s Green Hell has several psychopathic killers, and none of them is Jack Taylor.

Jack Taylor plans to kill a serial murderer, a well-known professor at the University of Galway.

The man lures young women students into his web. He rapes and kills them. Because the professor is influential, the Guards ignore the killings.

Jack takes a young American man, a Rhodes scholar Boru Kennedy, under his wing.

Kennedy writes the first half of Green Hell. Then Kennedy betrays Jack, becomes involved with a young woman, and ends up imprisoned for her murder.

The story goes from there. It involves Jack saving a puppy from a murderous beating, meeting a haunting young woman, and starting the process of avenging Boru Kennedy.

But Jack Taylor commits no avenging murders. They happen in another way.

I’ve been intentionally vague about the details. I leave those for you.

This story is the equal of the other Jack Taylor books. It is brutal, well-written, and deceptively well-plotted. Events seem random, but they come together.

Some of the Taylor books stand out, but they are all excellent.

And one other comment. Ken Bruen uses many literary, music, TV, and other cultural references. At one point, Jack explains:
-----
“I read an author during Christmas you know, the critics crap him off because they say. . .”

Pause

“. . . Get this. He uses too many cultural references, pop music, crime writers in his books. Now, see, you know what I think of them? I might hazard . . . not complimentary?”

Big grin, then,

“Yeah, bollix to them. Because for me, it grounds the story in stuff I know, that I can relate to. One fuck said he was for people who don’t read. How fucking insulting is that to readers?”

The pint was good. I sank a quarter, said,

“Thing is, Sean, critics are God’s excuse for why shite happens.”

Friday, July 17, 2015

THE BONE IS POINTED by Arthur W. Upfield






Arthur W. Upfield’s The Bone is Pointed (1938) is the best Bony book so far.

Someone kills a troublemaker at Karwir station in the Australian outback. Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte (Bony) travels there to solve the crime.

Early on, Bony knows what happened. His challenge is to survive to prove it.

The Kalchut tribe “bones” the detective, puts him under an aboriginal curse. Because Bony’s mother was aborigine, the curse takes hold, and Bony begins to waste away.

If Bony survives the curse and exposes the killer, he endangers the tribe, makes it so they will be forced into civilization and changed forever.

The tribe had cursed him, not for their own reasons, but to protect a settler who is helping them survive. All of this also involves the old man who owns Karwir station and his beautiful daughter.

What interested me about the book is Bony’s reaction to the curse. He knows it is happening. He knows it will kill him unless he gives up and leaves the area immediately. But he refuses to give up.

At one point, he explains himself to his ally Sergeant Blake--

“No, Sergeant, I couldn’t bear failure. Being what you are, you could never clearly understand what I am. You have no conception of what I am, what influences are ever at war within me. Once I failed to finish an investigation, I could no longer hold to the straw keeping me afloat on the sea of life, beneath the surface of which the sharks of my maternal ancestry are forever trying to destroy me...

“Don’t for one moment think that I despise my mother’s race. At a very early age I was offered a choice. I could choose to be an aboriginal or a white man. I chose to become the latter, and have become the latter with distinction in all but blood. To fail now would mean to lose everything for which I have worked, and the only thing which enables me to cling to what I have is my pride.

“You can’t know of the eternal battle I fight, to lose which means for me and mine what we should regard as degradation; my family and I should fall to that plane on which live the poor whites and the outcast aborigines. Failure! No. Surrender to the fear of death by boning! No. The white man might say, surrender. My wife, who understands, would say no. And so, Sergeant, I must go on. I must for the first time triumph over the absence of my greatest asset [his willingness to take however much time it takes to solve a case]. I must work against time as well as against the insidious mental poison now beginning to be administered.”

In other words, his record of never having failed in an investigation is important to his survival. It is more than an unbroken record. It is who he is and who he sees himself to be.

As always, Upfield’s descriptions are breathtaking (including a description of a massive rabbit migration).

The Bony books are almost impossible to describe. If you haven’t tried one, you might want to consider reading at least The Bone is Pointed.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

not a mystery--A THEOLOGY OF LIBERATION by Gustavo Gutiérrez






Pope Francis will visit the U.S. in September, 2015.

Many of us think of him as unique, presenting a radical vision for the Roman Catholic church and the world.

To remind myself this isn’t true, I decided to skim over Gustavo Gutiérrez’s A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation.

A warning to start: the book is so ponderously written it is almost unreadable. But it was the groundbreaking work in the most influential theology of the last half of the twentieth century, Liberation Theology.

Gustavo Gutiérrez is a Peruvian priest. He writes out of the context of the poverty of Latin America. It is no accident that his book came out after Vatican II.

Later Roman Catholic popes tried to tone down what Gutiérrez wrote seeing it as Communist or at least anti-capitalist.

This edition of A Theology of Liberation has two introductions in which Gutiérrez defends Liberation Theology from its critics.

Here are a few quotations from the book (most, but not all, from the introductions)--
------
Quotes from A Theology of Liberation

According to the Bible, faith is the total response to God, who saves us through love.
-----
The entire Bible, beginning with the story of Cain and Abel, mirrors God’s predilection for the weak and abused of human history. This preference brings out the gratuitous or unmerited character of God’s love. The same revelation is given in the evangelical Beatitudes, for they tell us with the utmost simplicity that God’s predilection for the poor, the hungry, and the suffering is based on God’s unmerited goodness to us.
-----
Poverty is not caused by fate; it is caused by the actions of those whom the prophet (Amos) condemns: “These are the words of the Lord: For crime after crime of Israel I will grant them no reprieve because they sell the innocent for silver and the destitute for a pair of shoes. They grind the heads of the poor into the earth and thurst the humble out of their way. (Amost 2:6-7).
-----
[The bishop’s council at Puebla said] “the poor merit preferential attention, whatever may be the moral or personal situation in which they find themselves (no. 1142)." In other words, the poor deserve preference not because they are morally or religiously better than others, but because God is God, in whose eyes “the last are first.” This statement clashes with our narrow understanding of justice; this very preference reminds us, therefore, that God’s ways are not our ways (see Isa. 55:8).
-----
To paraphrase a well-known text of Pascal, we can say that all the political theologies, the theologies of hope, of revolution, and of liberation, are not worth one act of genuine solidarity with exploited social classes. They are not worth one act of faith, love, and hope, committed--in one way or another--in active participation to liberate humankind from everything that dehumanizes it and prevents it from living according to the will of the Father.
-----
The commitment to the poor is not “optional” in the sense that a Christian is free to make or not make this option, or commitment, to the poor, just as the love we owe to all human beings without exception is not “optional.”
-----
...we will have an authentic theology of liberation only when the oppressed themselves can freely raise their voice and express themselves directly and creatively in society and in the heart of the People of God, when they themselves “account for the hope,” which they bear, when they are the protagonists of their own liberation.
-----
 [One more recent addition to the concept of Liberation Theology is] the new presence of women, whom Puebla described as “doubly oppressed and marginalized” (1134, note) among the poor of Latin America.
-----

If there is no friendship with them and no sharing of the life of the poor, then there is no authentic commitment to liberation, because love exists only among equals. Any talk of liberation necessarily refers to a comprehensive process, one that embraces everyone.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

INSPECTOR SINGH INVESTIGATES: A CALAMITOUS CHINESE KILLING by Shamini Flint






Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh Investigates: A Calamitous Chinese Killing portrays modern China as brutally corrupt.

Singapore officials send Sikh Inspector Singh to China to investigate the murder of the son of a Singaporean envoy there.

Singh is the same as always. He is bearded and turbaned. He is fat and somewhat slovenly. He wears white tennis shoes. And he is an oddly brilliant outsider, someone authorities will do anything possible to ship off to another country.

As it turns out, the book has three main murders, one of them as bone-chilling as any murder I’ve read about lately.

Singh finds himself immersed in Chinese governmental corruption and brutality.

Chinese authorities are taking over Beijing neighborhoods, moving out the neighbors to build western-style malls. (Does this sound familiar to what sometimes happens in our U.S. cities?)

But in China things are different. The government’s tactics involve murder and intrigue. They also involve the Singaporean envoy’s family.

Along the way, Singh hooks up with an interesting sidekick. But Singh makes mistakes and almost ends up being killed.

Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh books are traditional police procedurals set in unusual places.

I’ve only read a few of these books, but this was one of the best so far.

Thanks to the blog Kittling:Books for leading me to Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh Investigates: A Calamitous Chinese Killing.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

INNOCENCE or MURDER ON STEEP STREET by Heda Margolius






Heda Margolius' Innocence or Murder on Steep Street is a noir mystery set in an irrational world.

Innocence and guilt make little difference.

Set in 1950's Prague, Czechoslovakia, the story opens with a quickly solved murder. Someone abuses and kills a child in the projection room of the Horizon Cinema.

Among the women ushers at the theater is Helena Novakova. Her husband Karel was a Communist official unjustly accused of espionage and imprisoned. The deteriorating Communist government has set officials against one another.

Helena is under surveillance for no good reason because her husband is an accused spy. The other ushers all have something to hide.

Then Helena acts to try to help her husband. Her actions bring about a terrible tragedy. And someone murders the policeman investigating the first murder. He is stabbed to death in his car parked on Steep Street outside the theater.

One of the blurbs promoting the book quotes a critic who calls the book Kafkaesque.

The insanity grows. Virtually none of the actions bring about the expected reaction. The book's points of view veer wildly.

Innocence ends with the introduction of several characters we've not seen (or seen fleetingly).

The insanity of the structure of the book reflects the insanity of the world in which Heda Margolius had lived. She was a Holocaust survivor whose own husband was swallowed up in Czechoslovakia's deteriorating Communist chaos.

She remarried and became a translator. Among the books she translated were books by Raymond Chandler whom she admired. Innocence or Murder on Steep Street is her attempt to write a Chandleresque noir novel.

And she succeeds admirably. To me reading Incocence or Murder on Steep Street was like watching the play Waiting for Godot.

If these comments make this book seem like a hard read, that is what I intended. Even the foreign names expressed in several different ways, make the reading hard going.

But the reading is well worth it. Innocence reminded me that the world is not as rational, as cause-and-effect, as I like to think it is. Irrational terror rests behind much of what we do. Innocence or Murder on Steep Street is a scary book.

I highly recommend Incocence or Murder on Steep Street.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

WINDS OF EVIL by Arthur W. Upfield






In Arthur W. Upfield’s 1937 mystery Winds of Evil, the setting is part of the motive.

Australian Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte (Bony) sets out to solve two murders. Both murders occurred during massive sand storms at Wirragatta Station in the Australian outback.

While Bony investigates, the murderer attacks three more people including Bony. All the attacks occur during sandstorms.

At one point, Upfield writes, “To those having the eyes to see and the soul to feel, the great plains of inland Australia present countless facets of beauty: these same plains offer to the man with good eyesight, but a shrivelled soul, nothing other than arid desert.”

Upfield fills Winds of Evil with beautiful and terrifying descriptions. The sandstorms themselves help create a murderer. And Bony uncovers the heart-wrenching backstory of how that happened.

As always, Bony’s mixed race makes him a better detective. And again as always, Bony sees himself, not as a policeman, but as one of the greatest detectives ever to have lived.

When you couple the unique (probably now much-changed) setting and the not-so-humble Bony, you have wonderful stories.

Winds of Evil is the fifth in what (if I counted correctly) is a 28-book series.

Upfield’s Bony books are now readily available in electronic editions.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

SWEET, SAVAGE DEATH by Jane Haddam






Some books you read out of curiosity.

That’s the way it was with Orania Papazoglou’s Sweet, Savage Death (1984).

Mysterious Press has reprinted Sweet, Savage Death using Papazoglou’s more well known pen name Jane Haddam. I’m a fan of Haddam’s Gregor Demarkian series, so I decided to try to something else she wrote.

Sweet, Savage Death was humorous and confusing. Romance writer Patience McKenna and her newly found kitten attend the American Writers of Romance convention.

After three murders, a botched crowning of the year’s queen of romance writing, and the bare beginnings of a new love interest for Patience, Patience solves the crimes.

The book portrays publishing as cut throat and not totally honest. Egos abound at the convention. Not all the writers’ apparent successes are real. Intrigue and manipulation are part of the game.

I found it hard to keep the characters straight. 

Sweet, Savage Death seemed like an insider’s book to me, a book written by someone involved in publishing.

Back in the day, Sweet, Savage Death was a Mystery Writers of America Edgar award nominee.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

FIGHTING CHANCE by Jane Haddam






I had mixed feelings about Jane Haddam’s Fighting Chance.

The book had the usual characters in especially interesting situations. It also had Jane Haddam’s social conscience, her way of making social comments in her Gregor Demarkian mystery stories. But I thought Fighting Chance had a confusingly-written ending.

Philadelphia authorities arrest Father Tibor for murder. They have a cell phone video seeming to show him committing the murder. And to top it off, Father Tibor refuses to defend himself. All he will say is, “I have the right to remain silent.”

Tibor became involved because a bank is foreclosing on the home of one of his parishioners.

Never mind that the bank isn’t the one to hold the mortgage or that the man and his wife have paid every payment.

The mortgage market is in chaos. Banks have split up mortgages, bundled them, and muddied their ownership so that some paid-up homeowners have to fight foreclosure.

Things were that confused in the financial chaos of the early 2000s.

At the same time, two of Tibor’s Armenian immigrant parishioners are in danger of being jailed or deported. Authorities caught one of them in petty thievery.

Many people suspect the presiding juvenile judge of taking bribes. A for-profit prison corporation is bribing the judge to give the longest juvenile sentences possible. They want to keep their cells full. The government pays on the basis of occupied cells.

Someone clubs the judge to death. The video of Tibor seeming to commit the crime appears. And later someone commits another murder.

Surely this is one of the most confused cases retired FBI agent Armenian-American Gregor Demarkian ever faced. His love for Tibor complicates things.

Those who know the Gregor Demarkian books know Haddam writes them in sections. We learn a lot about the characters and their thoughts. And the books usually end with surprises.

This book ends with Gregor Demarkian making an almost fatal mistake.

Again, I love the characters, the social conscienceness, the ethnicity of the book. At first I thought it was one of the best in the series (which now numbers twenty-nine entries). But I found the ending, the way Haddam presented the dialogue, difficult to read.

So, as always, I enjoyed Jane Haddam. For me, the book overcame its flaws.

 And mine is not the only voice to be heard. My wife has read the whole series in order. She thought this was one of the best.

Friday, June 12, 2015

CONCRETE ANGEL by Patricia Abbott






Patricia Abbott’s Concrete Angel is excellent psychological noir.

I found the book painful to read. Eve Moran is one of the most chilling characters I’ve run across lately. But I also found myself rooting for her young, enmeshed daughter Christine.

Concrete Angel begins with a murder. Eve murders a man after a one-night stand. He caught her stealing from his billfold.

Then Eve uses her daughter to help concoct an alibi.

Eve steals compulsively using different schemes to do so. Along the way, she enmeshes her daughter, making Christine feel guilty and dependent. (The book is psychologically right on.)

After a divorce, much promiscuity, two affairs (both with increasingly slimy men), and a second child, Eve gets in too deep.

The issue in the book is whether Christine can break free. Anyone who knows about enmeshing mothers (or other enmeshing people) and their codependent victims knows how seldom that happens.

As I read this book, I thought of at least three things--

1. We need allies to break free. Those allies can be children, friends, relatives, lovers, or sometimes strangers. Isolation and guilt are the two things that make it most possible for evil people to rope us in.

2. Sometimes we need a greater purpose to break free. Evil people know how to make us feel small. Working toward a life-giving goal can sometimes set us free.

3. You can keep too many things. When my parents died, we found tax returns and financial records back to when they were first married in the 1930s. I hope my wife and I will be more prudent about what we keep and what we shred.

As I said earlier, I found this book painful to read but excellent.
-------
PS Patricia Abbott is a blogging friend. I was rooting for her to do well in her first novel. As you can tell, I thought she did.

Also, this book introduced me to Martina McBride’s “Concrete Angel,” a moving song about an abused child.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

ROCK WITH WINGS by Anne Hillerman






Anne Hillerman’s Rock with Wings had a wildly improbable plot, but I liked the book anyway.

Navajo tribal policewoman Bernadette Manuelito and her husband Sergeant Jim Chee go two different ways.

She makes a traffic stop near her home station in Shiprock, New Mexico. Chee investigates a grave in another jurisdiction, Monument Valley, where four states (Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah) come together.

Bernie’s sister complicates matters by failing to care for their mother and, at the same time, getting herself arrested for DWI.

Chee investigates cast members for a movie being made in Monument Valley. The Valley is famous as the site of several John Ford movies (i.e. “Stagecoach”) starring John Wayne. Someone has left a fresh grave in the Valley.

And Bernie tries to figure out why she suspects the man she stopped was up to some kind nefarious crime.

As always, the settings and the Navajo Way are integral to the story.

Two things interested me especially about Rock with Wings. One was Lieutenant Leaphorn who is now disabled because someone gunned him down on the job. He is unable to speak. But he helps to solve both cases, and his involvement in the investigation begins his psychological healing.

For me, Leaphorn’s part in the book made the book worth reading.

And the second interesting thing--the emphasis on Navajo arts and weaving. At one point, Hillerman mirrors Bernie’s thoughts,

“Traditional Navajo weavers like her mother held several ideas in their mind simultaneously, moving one to the forefront and then another, focusing on details while simultaneously remembering the big picture and making the process seamless.”

What a great description to apply to other arts. One reason I’m not an effective novel writer (though I dabble) is that I can’t do what I think great writers do--hold the vision while you write the details.

So, for me, Rock with Wings was a mixed bag. I enjoyed the characters, setting, descriptions of the Navajo culture, and much else about the book. But I found the plot hard to believe.

Would I read the book again? I would. I recommended it to my wife. We both love the Hillerman characters. I thought she would enjoy meeting them again.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

SIX AND A HALF DEADLY SINS by Colin Cotterill






Colin Cotterill’s Six and a Half Deadly Sins is a book for Siri Paiboun aficionados.

In 1979, Dr. Siri Paiboun, the over-seventy retired coroner of Laos, receives a Christmas gift. The lovely handwoven woman’s skirt has a severed finger sewn inside the hem.

The finger is the first of a series of clues sewn in the hems of beautiful skirts. 

Siri and his wife Madame Daeng set off across Laos on a macabre scavenger hurt. They seek weavers whose skirts contain more clues. 

Along the way, Siri and Madame Daeng suffer from a mysterious illness. They run into a Chinese invasion of Laos. They investigate the murder of two tribal leaders. They uncover a brutally terrible genocide. And they find a group of native people who are more resilient than the Laotian government.

At first, I wondered if I could finish this book. The beginning is slow. The Laotian government is non-existent, filled with crooked officials on the take. Everything goes wrong. One of Dr. Siri’s greatest allies ends up held prisoner in a latrine pit.

But as always, the books are humorous and brutal. They have the same tried and true characters including the ghost of the transvestite Auntie Bpoo.

Dr. Siri is an acquired taste. Many who have read the Dr. Siri books from the beginning love them. But someone who comes into this book cold might find Six and a Half Deadly Sins directionless and unplotted. (The “unplotted” part would be wrong. The book has a carefully thought out plot with a frighteningly brutal villain.)

There are no books quite like the Dr. Siri books. I’m glad I kept on reading.

-----
To find the complete list of Dr. Siri books, look to the Joe's reading list section in the right column of this blog.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Personal Comment--The Irish vote.

The Irish vote to legalize gay marriage didn't surprise me. I've read Ken Bruen. 

Monday, May 25, 2015

TARGET: TINOS by Jeffrey Siger






Jeffrey Siger’s Target: Tinos is another one of those Siger books where Greece itself, the island of Tinos, is a character.

Someone brutally murders two Gypsies. Greek authorities want to close the case, putting it down to clan warfare.

Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis and his crew know better. They uncover a plot to rob one of Greece’s premier shrines, Tinos’ Church of the Annunciation, the Panagia Evangelistria.

Along the way, they come up against The Shepherd, the current leader of an ancient group presently dedicated to protecting immigrants, especially Gypsies.

And they become involved with a historic family who gave much of their wealth to the Panagia Evangelistra.

Kaldis challenges the Albanian mob.

Kaldis and his bride face terror at their wedding.

If you want to make a mistake, threaten Andreas Kaldis’ family. In the face of danger to his own, he becomes single-minded, willing to face any enemy, and that leads to an exciting climax.

All in all, Target:Tinos is another excellent Jeffrey Siger Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis police procedural.

To best enjoy these books, read them from the first one forward. The series builds and the characters grow. But the settings vary, moving from Greek island to Greek island and to the mainland.

I think I’ve said this before. I don’t read any other books where the setting is more well handled. The Greek setting itself is a character in the book.

Target: Tinos is the fourth in what is now a six-book series. The seventh book, Devil of Delphi, is scheduled for publication later this year.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

BEAT NOT THE BONES by Charlotte Jay






“Don’t you know that most of the world’s biggest crimes are committed by men who sit behind desks, keep their hands clean and sleep at night without dreaming?” --from Beat Not the Bones by Charlotte Jay.
-----
It is hard to convey just how good Charlotte Jay’s Beat Not the Bones (1952) is.

The book involves personal greed and institutional evil.

Stella Warwick flies from Australia to Papua, New Guinea, planning to find her husband’s murderer. She is young, naive, and married only short while to the Australian colonial official who set out into bush to find a fortune.

The corrupt Australian bureaucracy in Marapi, New Guinea, tries to force Stella to abandon her plan. She wants to seek out the sorcery-ridden village she thinks holds the secret to her husband’s death.

Throughout the book, she becomes more determined, until finally, she goes into the bush to find the awful truth.

She finds the bush people more sane and oddly civilized than the bureaucratic city dwellers.

“[Our present evil is] no worse that the things we do every day,” one bureaucrat tells Stella. “It’s not so bad as giving [the natives] money they can’t spend, or stopping their festivals, or telling them they can’t dance. It’s not as bad as giving them shirts that get wet and give them pneumonia or teaching them to value valueless things. We do it all day, not only here but over the world. We teach them to gamble and drink. We give them tools and spoil their craftsmanship. We take away their capacity for happiness. We give them our diseases . . .”

He goes on from there. But what he doesn’t say is that he and the others have figured out how to become rich by destroying the native people. And they have used people like Stella’s anthropologist husband to carry out their evil.

Beat Not the Bones won the first Edgar award.

I had expected the book to be dated, but I was wrong. At least in regard to the relationship between setting and plot, the book is as modern as Jeffrey Siger’s books about Greece or Michael Stanley’s books about Africa.

Somehow the world doesn’t change.

Thanks to Soho Crime, Beat Not the Bones is widely available in hardback, paperback, and e-book editions.