Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Hopscotch (book and film)

Hopscotch is an intelligent spy thriller, published in 1975, which won author Brian Garfield the Edgar Award for Best Novel from the Mystery Writer’s of America.

Description at MysteriousPress.com:
Bored with retirement, an ex-spy challenges his old agency to a game
Miles Kendig is one of the CIA’s top deep-cover agents, until an injury ruins him for active duty. Rather than take a desk job, he retires. But the tawdry thrills of civilian life—gambling, drinking, sex—offer none of the pleasures of the intelligence game. Even a Russian agent’s offer to go to work against his old employers seems dull. Without the thrill of unpredictable conflict, Kendig skulks through Paris like the walking dead.
To revive himself, he begins writing a tell-all memoir, divulging every secret he accumulated in his long career. Neither CIA nor KGB can afford to have it in print, and so he challenges them both: Until they catch him, a chapter will go to the publisher every week. Kendig’s life is fun again, with survival on the line.
Kendig sends the first chapter of his book to various publishers in many countries. Soon the hunt begins to find Miles Kendig and terminate him. Although most of the agents involved in the hunt are depicted as ruthless, self-serving, and unimaginative, there are some great characters in this book. The agent heading the hunt for Kendig is Cutter; Kendig was his mentor. He does not question the need to silence Kendig, but he does have a sympathetic role. Cutter brings in a younger agent (Leonard Ross) as his assistant in the chase; Ross learns a lot in the course of the book and has some scruples.

The book begins with these two quotes:
hopscotch, n. A children's game in which a player moves a small object into one compartment of a rectangular diagram chalked on the pavement, then hops on one foot from compartment to compartment without touching a chalk line, and picks up the object while standing on one foot in an adjacent compartment.
scotch (2), v.t.  to crush or stamp out, as something dangerous; to injure so as to render harmless.
I saw the film first and that was what inspired me to read the book. I did not do much research about the book before reading it, so I was surprised to find that the book was very dark. Kendig is very serious about his self-imposed mission. He is angry and outraged at the CIA's behavior.

I love this two-part cover but there isn't really much gunplay (if any) in the book. The story is more a cat-and-mouse game in an espionage setting.

Kendig reviews what he has written so far.
    The book was a brusque account of facts assembled in chains. It struck him now for the first time that what he was writing was essentially a moral outcry and that impressed him as a curious thing because he hadn’t had that in mind. Yet it was unquestionably an outraged narrative despite its matter-of-fact tone. When he made this discovery it caused him to realize that he must add something to the book that he had not intended including: there had to be a memoir, a self-history (however brief) to establish his bona-fides -- not his credentials or sources but his motives.
    The book had become more than a gambit; it had been born of him and now claimed its own existence. In no way did that negate the game itself; but he saw that in order to maintain the illusion of freedom he had to complete the book not as a means but as an end. Otherwise it was only a sham -- toy money, counters on a game board. It had earned for itself the right to be much more than that; and if he failed in this new responsibility it made the game meaningless.
There is a side trip to Birmingham, Alabama, which was fun for me.  I had left Alabama only a couple of years before the book was published.
     But he'd need certain things when he began his run and they weren't obtainable in the backwoods. The nearest cities were Atlanta and Birmingham and he decided on Birmingham because he knew its workings.
     It was September seventeenth, a Tuesday. The drive took nearly seven hours. At two in the afternoon he saw the industrial smudge on the sky and at half-past three he was parking the car against the curb on a hill as steep as anything in San Francisco. He spent the next hour buying articles of clothing, luggage, cosmetics, automobile spray-paint, a leather-workers sewing awl and a few other items. The city was acrid with coal fumes from the great steel furnaces. Its faces were predominantly black.

This is one of those books (and films) that I just want to gush about. I loved both but they were very different. The book has a dark and cynical tone;  the film is a comic thriller. I thought both worked equally well. When I was reading the book, I thought the book was better; when I was watching the film, I preferred that version.

The film is much lighter in tone, even including added romance that fits into the story perfectly because of the change in tone. Walter Matthau is perfect as Miles Kendig. Glenda Jackson has a wonderful role as a former agent that Kendig had worked with and been quite fond of. That character did not exist in the book. There are other minor changes from book to film, but the essence of the book and the plot are there. It is just that the tone is very different. Cutter is played by Sam Waterston and his CIA boss by Ned Beatty. Bryan Garfield  was one of the screenwriters for the film and was involved in filming.

There is a 21-minute introduction to the film included on the Criterion Collection disc that we have. It features Brian Garfield and the director, Ronald Neame, talking about the development and shooting of the film. The music in the film is very nice. Neame mentions that Mozart is a favorite of Matthau's; he suggested a piece for one of the scenes. Their stories of the making of the film are very interesting.

There is much more to read about the book and the film in this review of the book at Col's Criminal Library, and this review of the film at In So Many Words. Both of these posts have much more detail on what is so special about the book and the film.

 -----------------------------

Publisher:   Fawcett Crest, 1976 (first published 1975)
Length:       303 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Setting:      USA, UK, France
Genre:        Espionage Fiction
Source:       I purchased my copy.


Sunday, August 23, 2015

Don't Lose Her: Jonathon King


US district judge Diane Manchester is eight months pregnant and presiding over the extraditon trial of a Colombian drug lord. Before she calls recess for lunch, he taunts her, almost implying that she will suffer if the verdict doesn't go his way. When she takes a break for lunch, she is abducted, quickly and efficiently.

Unfortunately for her captors, Max Freeman, South Florida private investigator, is employed by her husband, Billy Manchester, a litigator with connections in law enforcement agencies and beyond. Max and Billy are very good friends, and Max is ready to do anything necessary to find her and her abductors.  They are not sure if members of the drug cartel are responsible. A judge can have many enemies.

Don't Lose Her is the 7th Max Freeman mystery, but the first I have read. I was surprised I liked it so much, given that it really isn't the type of mystery I would normally choose. It tends toward the thrillerish and has a bit more action than I go for.

The story was told from different viewpoints and that is well done. Max tells of his investigation in first person narrative, but we also get the perspective of one of the kidnapping crew and the victim herself. All three of these add an emotional component. Max is very concerned about Diane and knows how his friend Billy is suffering; Diane is primarily concerned about her unborn baby and how she will be treated.

Jonathon King's books are set in South Florida. This one starts out in West Palm Beach, Florida, and ends up in the Everglades. Fortunately Max knows the Everglades well. I liked that the ending was realistic, not over the top. Some events at the end were a tad predictable, but I enjoyed the journey. I intend to try more Max Freeman novels, and especially the first one, The Blue Edge of Midnight, which won the Edgar for best first novel. However, I had no problem getting into this seventh entry in the series without having read previous books. It can easily stand alone.

Some background on the author from his website:
Edgar-award winning author Jonathon King is the creator of the Max Freeman crime series set in the Everglades and on the hard streets of urban South Florida. In his previous career as a journalist, he was a police and court reporter for 24 years with the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale and the Philadelphia Daily News
 -----------------------------

Publisher:   Open Road Media, 2015
Length:       262 pages
Format:      e-book
Series:       Max Freeman, #7
Setting:      South Florida, Everglades
Genre:       Thriller
Source:      Provided by the publisher for review via NetGalley

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Charity: Len Deighton

This month I read Charity, the last book in the nine book series about Bernard Samson.  This was my overview of the series (so far) when I reviewed Spy Hook, the fourth book in the series:
[It is] the story of Bernard Samson, an intelligence officer in the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). Like most spy fiction I have read, there is a large cast of characters, some continuing from the earlier novels, some new. Samson has personal relationships with old friends from Berlin and business relationships with other intelligence officers, and has to balance his loyalties and determine who he can trust. Family relationships are a big theme, probably one of the reasons I like the series.
The backdrop of the series is the divided city of Berlin in the 1980s. Much of the story takes place in London, and for the majority of the books, London is Bernard's base. But Berlin and Germany are always part of the story. One of the overarching storylines in the series is the conflict between Bernard's love and affection for his wife, Fiona, and his sometimes lover, Gloria. Bernard and Fiona have two children, and the family dynamics are very important to the plot. The series of nine books is as much about Bernard's journey in that area as it is a spy story. The ambiguities and lies that are so much a part of espionage affect (and infect) Bernard's home life and love life.

From the back of my paperback edition:
A wonderful depiction both of covert operations and office politics, Charity is packed with action, incident and intrigue, bringing to a triumphant conclusion a series of ten novels that represents one of the great acheivements of modern English fiction.
I agree wholeheartedly with this description. This book did not give me the ending I wanted, but I can see that the ending is the right one, the one that fits with the characters and the story. So overall I was happy with it, and it was a great end to a great series.

The paragraph from the back cover mentions ten novels. The "extra" novel is Winter, a work of historical fiction, set in Germany from 1899 - 1949. That book is not espionage fiction but covers the history of a German family that lives through World War I and World War II. It is considered a part of the Bernard Samson series, because it provides background on Bernard's father and other members of the intelligence community that Bernard has worked with for years. My review of Winter is here.

This is a list of the books in the series, with a link to my reviews.

1. Berlin Game (1983)
2. Mexico Set (1984)
3. London Match (1985)
4. Spy Hook (1988)
5. Spy Line (1989)
6. Spy Sinker (1990)
7. Faith (1994)
8. Hope (1995)
9. Charity (1996)


I am closing with the Author's Note from my hardback edition of Charity:
The first three books of the Bernard Samson story, Game, Set, and Match, are set in the Cold War period from spring 1983 to spring 1984.
     Winter: A Berlin Family 1899-1845 was the next in order of writing. The same places and the same people are to be found in it.
     Hook and Line take up the story from the beginning of 1987 and through the summer of that same year. Sinker uses a third-person narrative focusing on Fiona Samson. It tells the story from her point of view and reveals things that Bernard Samson still does not know.
     Faith, Hope, and Charity continue the story. Faith starts in California as Bernard's terrible summer of 1987 turns cold. Hope follows it into the last week of 1987. Charity begins in the early days of 1988.
     Like all the other books, Charity is written to stand alone, and can be read without reference to the other stories.
     I thank my readers for their kindness, their generous encouragement, and their patience. Writing ten books about the same group of people has proven a demanding labor but certainly a labor of love.
—Len Deighton
Portugal, 1996
Deighton indicates that the books were written to stand alone. I don't disagree that this could work, for a certain type of reader. However, I recommend reading the series in order. Each book takes up where the last one left off and the enjoyment would be less without the background of the previous books. At the very least, read Berlin Game first; Game, Set, and Match are best read together.

I read all nine books, plus Winter, between January 2012 and August 2015. Based on the ratings I gave the books at Goodreads, I did not like all the books equally well, but overall I would give this series five stars. I am sorry it is over, but now I can reread the whole series.

-----------------------------

Publisher:  HarperCollins, 1996.
Length:      279 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Series:       Bernard Samson
Setting:      1988, London, Berlin
Genre:       Spy fiction
Source:      I purchased my copies.


Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Shotgun Saturday Night: Bill Crider


Shotgun Saturday Night has a great opening line:
Sheriff Dan Rhodes knew it was going to be a bad day when Bert Ramsey brought in the arm and laid it on the desk.  ...
“Got another one out in the truck,” Bert said around the wad of snuff he had tucked between his cheek and gum on the left side of his mouth. “Got a couple of legs, too, but they don’t match up with each other.”
Bert Ramsey was a short, wiry man with a sun- and wind-burned face. Rhodes had once seen a briefcase made of industrial belting leather. Ramsey’s face looked as if it were made of the same material.
It soon appears that the severed limbs are not related to a crime, or at least not to a murder. But then Bert Ramsey is shot dead with a shotgun on Saturday night while Sheriff Dan Rhodes is playing Buddy Holly records for his lady friend, Ivy Daniel. That is when the real investigation begins.


Published in 1987, this is the second in a series of twenty-two novels set in fictional Blacklin County, Texas. The twenty-second book was just released on August 11th. I reviewed the first book in the series, Too Late to Diehere.

Shotgun Saturday Night moves at a faster pace than the first book, with action throughout. But the book remains a picture of small communities full of interesting, quirky characters. There are the men who work with Rhodes: Hack Jensen, the dispatcher, and Lawton, the jailer. Both are older and set in their ways. Ruth Grady has just joined the group as the new deputy. She has to convince Hack and Lawton that a woman can do the job.

The main character is Rhodes, and we are let in on a lot of his musings about his life, his job, and his possible future with Ivy Daniel. The romance with Ivy might be irritating (at least to me) except for the fact that she gets involved in the investigation in a realistic way. The story has the perfect amount of humor, low-key, not the laugh out loud type.

There are so many touches I love in this book. A dog is orphaned and Rhodes takes him in. He doesn't have much experience with taking care of a dog, but he learns. He loves old movies and watches the Million Dollar Movie at lunch time. And since I love barbecue, and I understand the reverence for real barbecue in the southern US states, I loved the scene set in Lester's BBQ joint. I have never been to a place quite that rustic, but I would go if I have a chance.
Lester’s was just on the outskirts of Clearview. It was not fancy enough to be called a restaurant, or even a café. Lester’s was a barbecue joint, and it looked the part.
When Rhodes and Ivy drove up there were three cars and a pickup parked in front of what looked like an old house in poor repair. It had once been painted green, but that had been years ago. It had a slight list to the left, as if someone very large had given it a shove. In front was a piece of plywood on which someone had printed in black paint, with a very wide brush and an unsteady hand: LESTERS BBQ. As Hack had once told Rhodes, “Lester don’t believe in puttin’ up a front.”
The food is simple but good, and Rhodes always drinks a Dr. Pepper with it. My son and I are fans of Dr. Pepper too. I love barbecue but Alabama barbecue is the best.

I have talked so much about the little things that you may think there is no murder investigation going on here. There is and it is complex with twists and turns. Rhodes thinks he knows his county but he discovers crimes and criminals he had not been aware of. He gets involved with motorcycle gangs and FBI investigations. One Goodreads reviewer described this book as an "almost-cosy police procedural." I agree with that, but the ruthless motorcycle gang members do move it a good ways away from cozy.

I already have the latest books in the series, except for the most recent one, but I really think I want to read this series as much in order as I can. The series was published through the years when computers were coming into more and more common usage, so it will be interesting to see how Crider handles this.

 -----------------------------

Publisher:   Walker and Company, 1987
Length:      185 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Series:       Dan Rhodes #2
Setting:      Texas
Genre:        Police Procedural
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Motor City Blue: Loren D. Estleman

The protagonist of this book is a private eye in Detroit, The book was first published in 1980 and is set around that time. Sometimes I don't care for PI novels and I have tried to figure out why. The ones I have difficulties with seem too much a copy of the plots and style of the early authors of PI novels, specifically Raymond Chandler. Too much emphasis on metaphor and flip remarks, and all the characters seem to be seedy and / or sleazy. There is nothing wrong with that, what I object to when the stories don't feel original.

I think I have read that the PI novel, the hard-boiled novels of Chandler and Hammett were a turning away from the artificiality and unrealistic novels of the Golden Age authors. I won't argue that the hard-boiled novels of the 30s and 40s are realistic portrayals of someone's life somewhere, but I have had no experience with criminals and most of the people I know haven't had any connection with this sort of life.


Anyway, to get to this novel. Amos Walker currently works for an insurance agency, following up on claims to verify if they are legitimate. His assignment is to check out a man who was injured and now cannot walk without canes and braces on his legs. And to get evidence if he is trying to cheat the insurance company.

As often happens in this type of novel, the everyday work Amos does is interrupted by other more exciting cases. Two events happen on the same day. He sees an old acquaintance and is witness to him being taken away forcefully by some sleazy looking characters. And then, an old gangster who is semi-retired calls him in to find his missing ward, the daughter of his deceased partner. Ben Morningstar is someone you don't say no to, so he ends up working for him.

The plot gets very complicated. There are a couple of policemen who are decent, but beyond that almost the only likable character is our hero, Amos. He is a decent guy, but he lives and works in a sleazy world filled with crooked and sometimes very evil people.

You could say this is a little bit beyond my comfort level in a mystery novel, but I enjoyed  it regardless. The writing was beautiful and the author kept me engaged in the story. This was a book I couldn't put down once I got to the last 100 pages (out of about 250). There were the standard metaphors but not enough to take me out of the story. I did not find the story any more (or less) believable than the police procedurals or thrillers I read.  There were some very interesting characters portrayed without resorting to stereotypes.

One thing that makes this book special is that the author is obvious a lover of movies, especially old movies. Humphrey Bogart movies are mentioned a lot, and Amos has a conversation about movies with the gangster's black driver.

How did this book reflect life in 1980? Well, the setting is Detroit after the riots. The character never says, but I assume he is referring to the 1967 riots. He talks in passing about the effect of the riots and the changes in the city since then. There are connections to the music industry. Relationships between blacks and whites are portrayed. I don't know much about the history of this area, before or after 1980, so I cannot speak to the accuracy of the book. However, the author lives in Michigan near to Detroit, and has written another crime fiction series known as the Detroit Novels. So I am guessing he gets it right.

There are a lot of good quotes from the book, which is another way I can tell a good book.

The first lines...
Faces from the past are best left there. If, two hundred odd pages from now, you agree with me, this will all be worthwhile. 
Walker describes himself this way:
I'm thirty-two years old. I was raised in a little town you never heard of about forty miles west of here. I've a bachelor's degree in sociology; don't ask me why. I tried being a cop, but that wasn't for me, so I let myself get drafted. The army taught me how to kill things and sent me out to do it. I liked almost everything about it except for the uniform, so when I got out, I looked for a way to do the same thing without wearing one.
A reference to one of my favorite movie and TV stars, Roy Rogers:
I hurled myself sideways toward the mutilated mattress at my left, the idea being to land on my shoulder, twist and fire, maybe hitting something worthwhile, maybe not. I hadn't a hell of a lot to lose by trying.
It did not work, of course. Tricks like that never do, unless you wear spangled buckskins and own a horse named Trigger. 
Will I be reading more of the series? For sure. There are several other series to try, also. See this list of all of Estleman's works, which includes crime fiction, westerns, and non-fiction.

This book is my choice for 1980 for the Crimes of the Century meme at Past Offences.

 -----------------------------

Publisher:  Ballantine Books, 1986. Orig. pub. 1980.
Length:     248 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Amos Walker, #1
Setting:     Detroit, Michigan
Genre:      Mystery
Source:    My husband found this for me in San Jose, CA, Nov. 2005.


Monday, August 3, 2015

Under the Dome: Stephen King

Summary from the back of the edition I read:
On an entirely normal, beautiful fall day, a small town is suddenly and inexplicably sealed off from the rest of the world by an invisible force field. Planes crash into it and rain down flaming wreckage. A gardener's hand is severed as the dome descends. Cars explode on impact. Families are separated and panic mounts. No one can fathom what the barrier is, where it came from, and when—or if— it will go away. Now a few intrepid citizens, led by an Iraq vet turned short-order cook, face down a ruthless politician dead set on seizing the reins of power under the dome. but their main adversary is the dome itself. Because time isn't just running short, it's running out. 
Why I read the book:

We started watching the first season of the TV series Under the Dome on June 30th. Once we started the TV series, I could see that this is the type of novel that I would enjoy, if it followed the various people trapped under the mysterious and impenetrable dome, and let us in on what they were experiencing. I knew that the book was very long, and that alone would normally stop me cold. And it is not crime fiction, which is my usual reading. I think one attraction was that it was clear that there was crime and mystery involved, even if it is labeled a science fiction novel. And it definitely is science fiction, even if that isn't clear until much later in the story.

Within a day or two of starting the TV series, I had investigated the book and found out that it was divided into chunks of smaller chapters centered on a character or an event. Knowing that I could read it in chunks and move back and forth between other reading, I decided to try that approach. I went to the local independent bookstore, checked out their Stephen King section, and found a huge trade paperback copy for $19.99, and promptly bought it. Within three days I had gone from zero interest in the book to buying it and starting to read it. I was sucked in immediately, but I did dole it out over many days. I think it took me 23 days to read it, while finishing four other books in the meantime.


How I liked the book:

Reviewing Under the Dome is difficult for me because I am not a Stephen King fan and thus I cannot draw comparisons to his other work. I mention this because I read several reviews by readers who do know a lot about his other novels, and that did inform what they had to say about this one. I have read two Stephen King novels, and both of them were earlier ones (The Shining and The Stand). The Shining I remember fairly well because of the movie; I remember nothing about The Stand.

Under the Dome has a map of Chester's Mill, the small town that is surrounded by the dome.  I love maps in books, and I liked that it had a character list (including dogs). And I really liked the structure of multiple sections of roughly 50 pages each, divided into brief chapters.

I found Under the Dome very entertaining, very engrossing. It was never boring. I thought the characters interesting, but I will admit that a lot of them were not that well-developed. If I had known just how different the characters in the novel are from the characters in the TV show, I might have been put off reading the book. However, once I had read the first 100 pages or so, I was hooked and had no regrets.

There was a large criminal element in the small town of Chester's Mill prior to the descent of the Dome, but it had been fairly well hidden up to that point. The mastermind running the criminal activities in the area is Big Jim Rennie and he is one of the town's Selectmen. People trust him, and when disaster falls, they turn to him. Some are under his power due to various business deals. Once the Dome puts the town out of reach of any law enforcement from outside, he moves to cause unrest in the town, in order to bring the majority of the population to his side and convince them that martial law is the only answer. Obviously, since the novel is over 1000 pages long, this description is very superficial and there is a lot more going on. But the end result is that this science fiction novel has more murder and mayhem than most crime novels I read. However, there is no real mystery element, other than .... how did the Dome originate? and what can be done about it? And, will Big Jim Rennie succeed?

Through it all my favorite part was the examination of how different people react to this shocking and scary situation, with no one to provide answers. There is a very nice portrayal of a newspaperwoman who is determined to write the true story of what is happening at all costs. My least favorite part was the view of most of the town giving into their baser sides when given the opportunity. I would like to believe that people are basically good. However, here Stephen King provides us with a picture of a small town as a hotbed of evil and secrets.

Comparison to the TV series:

At this point, we have watched only nine episodes of the first season of Under the Dome, so I can only make comparisons to that portion of the show. Most of the core characters are the same in the book and the TV adaptation, but often the things that happen to them or their backstory is completely different. There are many characters in the books that are not in the TV series, and vice versa. The connections with the outside world differ in the two versions. The book is very much darker than the TV series.

 -----------------------------

Publisher:   Scribner, 2009.
Length:      1072 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Setting:      Chester's Mill, Maine
Genre:        Science Fiction
Source:      I purchased my copy.