Friday, April 22, 2016

STICK GAME by Peter Bowen






Peter Bowen's The Stick Game is not a mystery. It is a story about the rape of Native American sacred land.

Gabriel Du Pré's lover Madelain asks Du Pré to look for a missing person. Madelaine's cousin Jeanne's son Danny has run away. He has been suffering memory loss. His behavior has changed greatly.

Du Pré finds Danny's body down a well. He has committed suicide.

As Du Pré traces the story, he finds that a mining operation is poisoning Montana's Sweet Grass Hills. The miners do something which sounds similar to fracking. They insert cyanide-laced water into the ground to leach out the small otherwise-unminable bits of gold. Then the cyanide flows into the groundwater ending up in the drinking water of the poorest people in the area.

Du Pré gathers the experts he needs to try to fight the crime.

Along the way he plays his Metis music at several festivals, works with Bart to help Jeanne deal with her alcoholism, watches Jeanne play the gambling hide-and-seek stick game, and fights to put together the case which will help him save the land.

As always, Bowen writes in his terse style, all the expected characters are on board, and the story centers on the Metis culture.

For mystery lovers, this book might be a disappointment. But if you love these characters, and if you appreciate Bowen's style, then you should enjoy The Stick Game.

Friday, April 15, 2016






Harry Bingham's Talking to the Dead is a strange, powerful book, one of the best I've read this year.

At first glance, Talking to the Dead seems to be a routine police procedural. Cardiff, Wales, Detective Constable Fiona Griffiths works herself into the lower rung of a murder investigation.

Someone killed a part-time prostitute Janet Mancini and her six-year-old daughter April. At the scene, police find the credit card of a wealthy man who is missing in an airplane accident.

Police do all the right things. They interview fellow prostitutes, they search thousands of documents, and they work the forensics of the murder scene.

But only Fiona takes a personal interest in the victims. She locates a streetwise social worker. Using information the social worker provides, Fiona works herself to the heart of the case.

Along the way, someone kills another prostitute, Fiona begins to fall in love, a crooked ex-colleague assaults her, and Fiona retreats to her parents' loving home, one of the few places she feels safe.

But all this is the tip of the iceberg. Fiona has a special kinship with the six-year-old victim April. Fiona begins to disassociate, to fall into her long-term mental illness. She begins talking to the dead. (This doesn't happen as you might expect. It is much more powerful than that.)

Her special friend Lev prepares her for the terrifying ending to the story, and Fiona ends up learning something life-altering about herself.

I don't have the words to describe Fiona Griffiths. You must read about her to understand. But there's a warning too. This is a starkly real book. If you aren't comfortable with intimate descriptions of death, you might not be comfortable with Talking to the Dead.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

A MAN CALLED OVE by Fredrik Backman






A quotation from Fredrik Backman's A Man Called Ove--

"Loving someone is like moving into a house," Sonja used to say. "At first you fall in love with all the new things, amazed every morning that all this belongs to you, as if fearing that someone would suddenly come rushing through the door to explain that a terrible mistake had been made, you weren't actually supposed to live in a wonderful place like this. Then over the years the walls become weathered, the wood splinters here and there, and you start to love that house not so much because of all its perfection, but rather for its imperfections. You get to know all the nooks and crannies. How to avoid getting the key caught in the lock when it's cold outside. Which of the floorboards flex slightly when one steps on them or exactly how to open the wardrobe doors without them creaking. These are the little secrets that make it your home."

--------

Fredrik Backman's A Man Called Ove describes a man you come to love fully in gradual steps, the same way Ove's wife Sonja describes their marriage in the quote above.

The book opens with Ove's employers "retiring" him after a lifetime of work. Six months ago, Ove's wife Sonja had died. She was Ove's light and hope. So Ove decides to commit suicide.

Ove knows who he is and what he believes. Backman says about him--"Ove understood things he could see and touch. Wood and concrete. Glass and steel. Tools. Things one could figure out. He understood right angles and clear instruction manuals. Assembly models and drawings. Things one could draw on paper. He was a man of black and white. And she [Sonja] was color. All the color he had. The only thing he had ever loved until he saw her was numbers."

But Ove's neighbors won't let him commit suicide. They keep interfering with the process. Before the book is over, Ove ends up "bleeding" his neighbor's radiators so they work better, adopting a bedraggled cat, teaching a pregnant neighbor to drive, loaning a ladder to the pregnant woman's husband and then transporting him to the hospital when he falls, and befriending a gay teenager put out of the house by his father.

Ove works to reconcile the father and son. And all the time, he goes to the cemetery, clears the snow off the gravestone and talks to Sonja. Her love compels him. And her memory breaks his walls apart so that finally this reclusive man ends up with his house filled with people.

Backman sprinkles A Man Called Ove with common sense wisdom. A few (of many) examples--

-----

"A time like that comes for every man, when he chooses what sort of man he wants to be. And if you don't know the story, you don't know the man."

"They say the best men are born out of their faults and that they often improve later on, more than if they'd never done anything wrong."

"It is difficult to admit that one is wrong. Particularly when one has been wrong for a long time." [He says this after finally reconciling with his best friend. They had a running feud because Ove thought everyone should drive a Saab, and the neighbor drove a Volvo. There was more to it than that, but their argument became an almost lifelong alienation.]

"For the greatest fear of death is always that it will pass us by. And leave us there alone."

And . . .

"Something inside a man goes to pieces when he has to bury the only person who ever understood him. There is no time to heal that sort of wound."

----


A Man Called Ove was the April choice for our local book club.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

MULTIPLE EXPOSURE by Ellen Crosby






Ellen Crosby's Multiple Exposure should especially appeal to the visually oriented reader.

Crosby wraps her well-plotted story in detailed descriptions.

News photographer Sophie Medina comes home from a war zone. She finds her London apartment drenched in her missing husband's blood. She sets out to find out what happened to him, to learn if he is still alive.

Sophie's husband Nick is an undercover CIA agent who works for a now-defunct oil company. The company may have found sweet crude oil in Abadistan, a dangerous Russian protectorate. Authorities suspect Nick of staging his own murder, killing the president of the company, and stealing the geological surveys of the oil find.

Sophie moves back to Washington DC to search for Nick. She signs on to take pictures of the parties celebrating the discovery of two unknown Fabergé imperial eggs. Her job leads her to a series of dangerous connections that, in turn, help her find out what happed to her missing husband.

Crosby fills the story with suspense and action, but she also fills it with word pictures. Those word pictures intrigued me most.

Her description of one small part of DC's Meridian Hill Park is one of many examples--

"Its centerpiece was a dramatic waterfall of thirteen linked basins that cascaded down a steep slope. Symmetrical staircases of honey-colored stone flaked the waterfall and led to a grand terrace on the upper level. the lower level was dominated by an enormous reflecting pool whose waters caught the swirling greens of the oak trees that anchored each corner of the brilliant blue of the cloudless sky."

If you are looking for a story where the writer's style fits the subject, Ellen Crosby's Multiple Exposure might be the book for you.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

PIETR THE LATVIAN by Georges Simenon






In Georges Simenon's Pietr the Latvian, Inspector Maigret follows a con man who seems to be four different people.

Along the way, Maigret finds there is more to the story than there appears to be. It involves the international mob, family intrigue, and several murders.

Among those murdered is a major character. (At least as much of a major character as there often are in the Maigret novels.)

Pietr The Latvian (1930) was the first Maigret novel.

Back in the day when we were reading the later Maigret books as fast as we could get our hands on them, my wife and I used to laugh. Each book was shorter than the last. Simenon got more and more terse, left more and more for the reader to work out in his/her own mind.

That's the beauty of these stories. Simenon doesn't tell you too much. You have to think to read Maigret.

I was tempted to start this little comment by saying, "It is all Pattinase's fault." The pattinase blog  has links to other blogs in "Friday's Forgotten Books." Last week, in Mysteries in Paradise  Kerrie Smith wrote about one of the Maigret books now being republished (one a month in order) by Penguin. That review made me think of Maigret. I decided to start my reading with Pietr the Latvian, a book written before I was born.

I can't help but think of that Alka Seltzer commercial from several years ago. The slogan was, "I can't believe I ate the whole thing!"  I'll never be able to read through all the mystery series I want to read or reread. My goal is just to die trying.

If I have a bucket list, I guess the first thing on it would be to die with a book in my hand. And I wouldn't mind if that book were Simenon's Maigret.

------
This Penguin book is a new translation by David Bellos. I am always thankful for the excellent translators who make it possible for me to read books like this one.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE CIRCUS OF FEAR by Val Andrews






Val Andrews' Sherlock Holmes and the Circus of Fear (1997) is a fun Sherlock Holmes pastiche.

Holmes (now retired) and Watson take on another case.

Someone is attacking Lord George Sanger's famous circus. The culprit poisons a lion, sets fire to the tents, and does other dangerous things.

Sanger engages Holmes to find the person and to stop the threats. And Holmes does.

Then ten years later, the police accuse a loyal employee of murdering the now-retired Sanger. Holmes feels an obligation to Sanger to find out what really happened.

Holmes' solution ties the two parts of the story together.

As you would expect, the writing style mimics Conan Doyle's, the story frequently refers to other authentic Holmes adventures, and Watson is as much in the dark as ever.

This short book was quick reading. Only a couple of hours or so for me, and I am a slow reader. Reading it was a nice interlude, a break after some hard reading.

If you like Conan Doyle's writing and if you don't totally object to pastiches, you might enjoy Sherlock Holmes and the Circus of Fear. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

THIS THING OF DARKNESS by Harry Bingham






This Thing of Darkness by Harry Bingham

Welsh Detective Constable Fiona Griffiths is an interesting character. She suffers from Cotard's Syndrome, a form of mental illness. She often disassociates, feels as if she is in darkness, as if she is dead.

To top that off, Fiona is a brilliant detective who seldom follows the rules. Her superiors threaten to fire her, and they mean it. They are trying to make her fit into the Detective Constable mode.

To keep Fiona busy, they assign her to catalog evidence in an evidence-heavy case. They also ask her to look over several cold cases.

She fills one wall of her office with pictures of the murder victims in the crimes she investigates. She adds victims from past crimes she has investigated or solved.

Among the present cases are an apparent accident, a man fell from a high cliff; an apparent suicide; and a high climbing burglar who stole a huge Teddy bear. Fiona finds a connection between the three cases. Then she finds a financial conspiracy which would involve stealing hundreds of millions of dollars.

This Thing of Darkness ends with Fiona on a sinking ship in the high seas. Earlier in the story, she had been captured and tortured. Along the way, she has learned that what is happening ties in with earlier cases and with her father.

This book relates to the three earlier Fiona Griffiths books. Because this is the first Fiona Griffiths novel I have read, there were parts I didn't fully understand.

But I understood how important her job is to Fiona. I understood how she works to solve the cases no matter what she has to do. And I understood how her Cotard's affects her , how she sometimes looks at what is happening from above or from an almost death-like state.

This Thing of Darkness is an excellent police procedural.

I've bought the first three books. I plan to get to know more about Fiona Griffiths.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

LONG SON by Peter Bowen






Gabriel Du Pré's music is at the heart of Peter Bowen's Long Son.

Larry Messmer returns to take over his parent's Toussaint, Montana, cattle ranch.

Messmer is a psychopathic killer. His sister and his parents died in suspicious accidents. Messmer works for a drug cartel which also specializes in murder and sexual slavery.

When Messmer sells his parents' cattle at cut rates and moves in horses, all of Toussaint is suspicious. The cartel will use the ranch for the drug or the sex trade.

Except that someone shotguns Messmer at close range, cuts him in half.

The cartel thinks Du Pré did it. They set out to kill him.

Du Pré's lover Madelaine leaves town. Du Pré's rich friend Bart hires guards for Du Pré's relatives. And everyone hunkers down for a standoff.

Others are murdered. Someone is targeting cartel members.

Even Benetsee, the holy man who often helps Du Pré, has left for Canada leaving Dupree to solve the mystery on his own. (Benetsee does return briefly.)

It all comes down to the music. The music holds the key to the killing.

Du Pré enlists a retired alcoholic teacher, Miss Porterfield, to help solve the mystery. The section with Miss Porterfield is among the most moving in the book.

The Du Pré stories are intimately tied in to the Métis Nation, this one even more so than many.

Long Son's title is not explained until the last pages of the book.

Some people object to Bowen's terse way of telling a story, using sometimes hard-to-follow dialect. To me that is what makes these stories great. They are embedded in the culture. The settings are more than trappings. Bowen puts them at the heart of the stories.

I continue to love Peter Bowen's stories about Gabriel Du Pré.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

THE UNQUIET DEAD by Ausma Zehanat Khan






Genocide forms the backstory of Ausma Zehanat Khan's powerful and disturbing The Unquiet Dead.

Detective Rachel Getty's boss Esa Khattak asks her to investigate a seemingly-accidental death. Khattak is the commander of Canada's Community Policing Section (CPS). He knows something about the death he doesn't share.

A part of his secrecy seems to have to do with his Muslim faith.

Getty's stubbornly pursued investigation leads her back to the 1992 Siege of Sarajevo and the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.

Along the way, Getty tries to find her brother who is alienated from the family. Khattak falls in love with a suspect and almost destroys the case. Khattak reestablishes his relationship with his best friend. (They broke apart because of an argument about a woman.) And Getty connects to a brilliant man.

All this comes together in a heartbreaking story.

I've been intentionally sketchy. The story deserves your own reading, not my retelling.

The story of the murder of virtually all of Bosnia's male Muslims (along with the rape and murder of the women and children) shines a light on the present. We attack people of different races, religions, or sexual orientations at our own risk. Such grave sins have grave consequences.

Rachel Getty's investigation is at the center of the story. Her stubborn fight to find the answer leads to whatever resolution occurs.

If you read this story, I suggest you read the Author's Note at the end of the book first. It explains the history in a way that makes the book more understandable.

The Unquiet Dead is one of those books I feel unqualified to write about. It is such a good book about such terrible things. Only a great story could take this history in. The Unquiet Dead is a great story.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

I'M BACK AT IT

I've been off for a while. I'm back to reading. There will be a new book post soon. --Joe.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

THE UNEXPECTED INHERITANCE OF INSPECTOR CHOPRA by Vaseem Khan






Vaseem Khan's The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra is unbelievably humorous.

The unbelievable part is that Mumbai, India, retired Inspector Ashwin Chopra's sidekick is a baby elephant. Maybe twenty percent of the book is devoted to Chopra and his elephant tailing one of the bad guys. They even tail the criminal into a huge modern shopping mall.

And the humorous part is that Mumbai retired Inspector Ashwin Chopra's sidekick is a baby elephant. The elephant, a gift from an eccentric uncle, ends up in Chopra's high rise apartment.

In the course of the book, the elephant saves Chopra's life and helps Chopra catch a dangerous criminal.

The book is a mixture of the cozy and the horrifying. It involves one of the most terrible crimes in our world today. It reveals a corrupt society. (The Mumbai police and the political structures which support the police enable the criminals.) And it ends with Chopra being disillusioned.

Chopra has been an honest cop.

Along the way, Chopra's wife plans to pretend to be pregnant. She thinks he is cheating on her because she is unable to have a child. And she worries about her husband who retired because of a heart attack.

So this book is many things. Most of all it is unbelievable but fun to read.

For me, The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra was ironic too. Just a week or two ago I read The Elephant WhispererNaturalist Lawrence Anthony's point view is that the only content wild animal is uncaged, unhindered by humans. And now I'm reading a book where an elephant is a pet, a sidekick in a budding detective agency. Anthony would hate that.

If you are looking for a fun, sometimes silly and sometimes serious book, you might like The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

NOTCHES by Peter Bowen






     "Madelaine reached up and touched Du Pré on the cheek.
     "'Everybody is our people,' said Madelaine. 'We are Métis.'
     "Du Pré nodded. that was true. The Mixed Bloods. That is pretty much everybody."
-----
     "I ask for many things. I ask for strength and cunning. I ask for courage. I ask for a warrior's heart. The heart of a warrior is his humility, the strength of the tribe is the warrior's humility. We are very small on this earth but we have our place."
                                  Gabriel Du Pré's song in the sweat lodge.

-----
In Peter Bowen's Notches, Gabriel Du Pré hunts a serial killer.

Someone is leaving the murdered, mutilated bodies of young women in narrow wave-cut gorges, "notches," at the end of back roads off the highway.

The Métis see women as at the heart of their culture. To murder a woman is a crime against creation.

Du Pré works with two unusual FBI agents and a long haul truck driver to solve the murders. The long haul truck driver's sister was among the victims.

Also, among the victims is Du Pré's common-law wife Madelaine's niece.

Du Pré's problem is that Madelaine wants him to murder the ones killing "her babies."

In a humorous scene in a book with a lot of humor, Madelaine destroys her kitchen. She pelts Du Pré with pans and plates and cutlery (including sharp knives) because she believes he is going to work with the law instead of committing murder.

Du Pré is not a cold-blooded killer. So far he has only killed one man, and that man in self-defense. He still regrets the killing. But Madeline insists he kill. She says, "You make my babies safe. You make everybody safe again, Du Pré."

Peter Bowen steeps Notches in Métis culture. Bowen grounds the book in Montana's mountainous beauty. His story reaches back into the Canadian history of the Métis.

For me, nothing quite compares to Peter Bowen's Gabriel Du Pré books.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Some thoughts on THE ELEPHANT WHISPERER




The Elephant Whisperer
made me think about the nature of storytelling. 

I take the stories in the book to be true but told in a dramatic form. 

That's what story tellers do. They draft the story to make it the most interesting it can be. From mythological and Biblical stories to stories today, good storytellers have been, not exaggerating, but enhancing the stories they have to tell. 

Storytelling is a wonderful art. I think it is one of our most important ways of communicating the truth of feeling, a truth beyond the events themselves. I thank God for good storytellers. 

Sunday, February 14, 2016

not a mystery--THE ELEPHANT WHISPERER by Lawrence Anthony with Graham Spence






The Elephant Whisperer is both heartwarming and heartbreaking. 

Lawrence Anthony took on a herd of rouge elephants at his Thula Thula game reserve in the South African KwaZulu. Had he not adopted them, professional elephant killers would have had to kill them. 

As soon as Anthony got them in his preserve, they escaped and had to be corralled. That dangerous episode opens the book.

Then the excitement begins.

In the course of the book, poachers threaten the elephants and the other animals on the preserve. 

The elephants threaten Anthony's Land Rover, several of his rangers, and even the home compound. They come to know Anthony's dog and other members of the family, but only Anthony can relate to them. At one point Anthony writes--

"I had at last grasped that the essence of communicating with any animal, from a pet dog to a wild elephant, is not so much the reach as the acknowledgement. It's the acknowledgement that does it. In the animal kingdom communication is a two-way flow, just as it is everywhere else."

But they are wild animals. Anthony plans to communicate with them long enough to make it possible to keep them in the compound, to keep them from creating the kind of havoc which would cause him to have to kill them. Then he plans to pull away.

By the time the book ends, he has pulled away. He has faced a terrible tragedy caused by his own rightly-motivated wrong decision, and he still knows that the animals love him and are thankful that he saved them. 

There is a lot to learn from a book like this. Anthony writes about male elephants--

"An ageing elephant male is not something surplus to be dispatched by some meager trophy-gatherer. He is a breathing reference library; he's there for the health and well-being of future elephants. He teaches youngsters who they really are and imparts priceless bush skills to succeeding generations."

The matriarchs lead the herd, and the males pull away and teach the younger males. That is the way with elephants. 

Anthony and his co-writer Graham Spence provide a book full of excitement, humor, tragedy, and reality. No wonder the book was a bestseller. 

I researched this book to prepare to write these words. I am terrible with spelling names and remembering small details. I have to try to make sure I have things right. This time, I ran across another story, the story of how at Anthony's death the now-two herds of elephants came through the bush to his house and mourned. 

The Elephant Whisperer is a book well worth reading.