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.
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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.

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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.
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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.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

BITTER CREEK by Peter Bowen






Peter Bowen’s Bitter Creek has a plot like shifting quicksand. About the time you think you have a handle on the backstory, things change.

Bitter Creek also has the usual wonderful characters--now-retired brand inspector Gabriel Du Pré, Madelene, the old Métis prophet Benetsee, Du Pré’s rich friend Bart, Booger Tom, Father Van Den Heuvel, Susan, and a large group of others.

The story takes place during the second Iraq war. Madelene’s son Chappie, a returned soldier, is a hopeless alcoholic fighting PTSD.

Du Pré takes Chappie to Benetsee’s sweat lodge. While there, they hear the voices of a group of long-unburied dead.

In 1910, the U.S. army drove a small remnant of Montana Métis into Canada, herding them like cattle. In the process, they killed all but one small child at a place named Bitter Creek.

 The Métis are a mix of French voyagers and Native Americans, aboriginal plains Indians. They came to Montana from Canada. Du Pré is a well-known Métis fiddler. He is one of those who preserves the songs of his people.

Du Pré, Chappie, and their group (including two army buddies) set out to find the bones, bury them with respect, and set the voices at rest.

They begin by trying to find the child (who reportedly is now well over 100).

Before the story is over, someone kills two Du Pré allies, and, as I said in the beginning, things take unexpected turns.

I found this to be one of the best of Peter Bowen’s Gabriel Du Pré stories. It is at least as good as the first book in the series, Coyote Wind.

Peter Bowen’s terse style makes the story better. Also, Bowen fills the book with humor.

Before Bitter Creek is over Du Pré learns a new song (“Bitter Creek”), and Chappie finds both pain and salvation.

One warning: Extremely conservative people may find the book offensive. Du Pré and his friends are patriots. Some of them are faithful, practicing Catholics. But these folks have strong opinions.

Two examples--

“This [funeral with fancy vestments] is the sort of thing the bishop should be doing,” said Father Van Den Heuvel.

“The bishop, the rest of them off molesting children,” said Madelaine.

And--

“It’s a good thing that bat-eared nitwit [GW Bush] wasn’t president when Pearl Harbor happened,” said Susan. “He’d have invaded China ...”


Peter Bowen’s Bitter Creek is a special book.


Thursday, April 30, 2015

WINGS ABOVE THE DIAMANTINA






Arthur Upfield’s Wings Above the Diamantina (1936) is the third in Upfield’s Australian Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte series.


Authorities call in Bony to investigate the strange case of a red airplane landed in the dry bottom of Emu Lake.

The only person in the airplane is in the passenger’s seat. She is in an unexplained coma.

Bony works hard to unravel what happened. All the time he is aware if he can’t quickly solve the case, the young woman will die.

And Bony does not work alone. A local policeman, several other friends and officials (including a drunken doctor), and an aboriginal chief help solve the case. Boney hopes the aboriginal chief can use his bush knowledge to save the woman.

For a while the story plods along as Bony struggles to get a handle on the case, but when it breaks open, it breaks open with a vengeance. We see an epic Australian sand storm, massive rainstorms, and the annual flooding of the Diamantina and other rivers.

Bony and his friends get caught in the floods.

By the end of the book, Bony has helped bring two couples together. He has helped the local policeman get a promotion, and he has kept intact his record of solving every one of his cases. (There will come a time when he doesn’t, but that’s another story.)

Those who know the Bony (pronounced Bone-y) books know that Bony is a half-breed, half Aborigine and half Caucasian. This mixture is what makes him the most successful detective in Australia. He can track and use his aboriginal skills, but he also understands the “civilized” world where he often works.

These are wonderful stories. They have been hard to find, but now they are available as e-books for the Kobo reader. In addition, I think the publishers have put them out as PDFs which work on many e-readers. Also, I understand readers can find Upfield’s books in libraries through inner-library loan.

I started this series with a few paperback Upfield books I found on a library discard table. Now I read the books on the Kobo reader. 

You can find my reviews of the other Bony books bookmarked in “Joe’s Reading Lists” at the right.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

THE RESISTANCE MAN by Martin Walker






Martin Walker’s The Resistance Man follows the pattern Walker set in the earlier novels.

The books involve historic intrigue and personal greed or vengeance. Bruno Courrrèges, chief of police of St. Denis, France, separates the threads and solves the murders.

Along the way, Bruno interacts with his boss the Mayor, with the townspeople of St. Denis, with the Gendarmes, with the Secret Service, and with his special friends.

His friends include at least two women he has bedded as he seeks a mate who wants to settle down and have children.

The books describe good French wines, and meals with the recipes given in the text’s descriptions. They have explicitly-described local settings, Bruno doing good things in simple ways, and personal violence with danger near the end.

One thing this book adds is that Bruno makes several potentially tragic errors.

In The Resistance Man, a local war hero, a resistance man, dies of old age. At the same time, thieves break into empty tourist houses, all of them filled with art and expensive antiques.

Add in a brutal murder where the man’s head is so beaten in he is unrecognizable, a terrible accident involving someone Bruno loves, and a tragic revelation for Bruno, and you have the story in The Resistance Man.

As often happens, Bruno faces personal danger.

The plot revolves around the July, 1944, Neuvic train robbery. In his “Acknowledgements,” Walker calls that robbery “by far the greatest train robbery of all time.” What happened to the money?

This excellently-written story has a little of everything.

I prefer the Bruno books with more personal detail. This one was more history. But still, no wonder these books are always excellently-reviewed and well thought of. I would recommend all the Bruno, Chief of Police, novels I have read so far.

Monday, April 13, 2015

PREY ON PATMOS by Jeffrey Siger






Jeffrey Siger’s Prey on Patmos (2011) is an excellent police procedural with engaging characters and a fascinating setting.

Three men brutally murder a pious monk on the Greek island of Patmos.

Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis and his crew investigate the murder.

They don’t know who ordered the investigation, nor do they know who engineered the murder.

The town square murder occurs during Easter week when pilgrims flock to Patmos where John of Patmos supposedly wrote the Book of Revelation.

Twenty monasteries survive on the Holy Mountain. Seventeen are Greek, one is Russian, one Serbian, and one Bulgarian. Several of them are locked in a struggle for control.

The monk’s murder is somehow tied to that struggle.

Meanwhile Andreas’ lover Lila is about to have their baby. Andreas is struggling with whether he should do what he wants to do, ask Lila to marry him. 
(He doesn't feel worthy.)

The last place Andreas wants to be is on the island of Patmos.

Andreas, his assistant Yianni, and Andreas’ secretary Maggie (the power behind the throne), work to solve the murder.

Maggie’s faith and her desire to protect the church play a large part in the story.

I admire Jeffrey Siger’s writing skill. He tells a complex, setting-heavy story in a readable way.

I look forward to reading the next Chief Inspector Kaldis Mystery.

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Prey on Patmos is the third book in what is now a six-book series. I think the seventh book is set to come out this year.