Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Janus Stone: Elly Griffiths

This is the second book in the series featuring forensics archaeologist Ruth Galloway. Ruth lives in Norfolk in an isolated cottage on the saltmarsh. She is called in as an expert when the bones of a young child are found on a building site where an old Victorian home is being torn down to be replaced by luxury apartments.

The two main characters in this series are Ruth and Harry Nelson. Harry is a policeman, a Detective Chief Inspector in the Norwich police force. They are thrown together working on cases when Ruth is called in to consult or give evidence when human bones are discovered. Harry and Ruth experience a connection almost immediately, but Harry is married with two teenage girls, and the relationship is awkward because of that. This is a major part of the stories (at least so far).


The archaeological background in this story is interesting; at first the age of the skeleton is not known. The building site was previously a children's home, run by the Catholic church. Prior to that it was a family home. The bones could be from either time period, or much earlier.

I have a few quibbles with this book, but none of them are serious. Ruth is a believable amateur sleuth, in my opinion, as her job puts her in situations where she will get involved with murder, but she ends up in threatening or dangerous situations too much (for me).

The other complaint is that the book is written in present tense, and that just isn't comfortable reading for me. In this book, the present tense style seems even more pervasive than in other books I have read that were written in that style. Because I wanted to read this book and I did not want to hate the experience, I tried a new approach. I decided to read it in a meditative way, reading each sentence slowly and paying attention. (This is not my usual style; I read fast and often miss details.) The meditative approach worked for me. I would find myself getting lost in the story and then whenever the present tense pulled me out again, I would move back to the slower, more attentive mode of reading.

On the positive side, the characters are interesting and funny at times. Ruth's parents and her co-workers are portrayed in very realistic ways and her relationships with all of them are very believable. The reader is privy to both Ruth and Harry's thoughts and opinions and that works really well for me. The unfolding story of their lives is told with humor and wit.

The series is very popular and I definitely recommend it, but I feel it is important to start with the first book. Because this book revolves so much around the personal lives of the main characters, I don't see getting much enjoyment from the books without knowing the backstory. I definitely want to know what is coming next in the lives of the characters and I will continue the series.

These are my husband's comments when he reviewed the book at Goodreads:
I enjoy mysteries that involve events in the past impacting the present and this compelling (and complicated) plot delivers. The personal issues of the main character are a bit too melodramatic this time though.
Margot at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist... has an excellent overview of The Crossing Places, the first book in the series. Also see my review of that book.

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Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010
Length:    327 pages
Format:    Hardback
Series:     Ruth Galloway #2
Setting:    Norfolk, UK
Genre:     Mystery
Source:   Originally my husband's book; he passed it on to me.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Murder in Jerusalem: Batya Gur

This is the final book in the Michael Ohayon series by Batya Gur, and was published posthumously. There are six books in the series and each book takes place in a particular environment; in this book it is a TV station in Jerusalem, and a woman's body in found in the wardrobe and prop warehouse. The dead woman is a set-designer; she and many of the staff at Israel Television have worked together for years, and the relationships are complex. Chief Superintendent Ohayon works with his staff to determine who the murderer is, as more deaths occur.


The main attractions of this series of mysteries are the setting in Israel and Michael Ohayon's complex character. In this book we get a lot of information about various issues in Israel, but Ohayon is a less prominent and interesting character in this one. Some may enjoy this book for the setting in a television studio. There are a lot of characters, both at the TV station and working on the police investigation, which can get confusing.

This is definitely more of a psychological mystery than a fast-paced thriller, which is true with all of the books in the series. I enjoyed the first books in the series, but the latter books were less compelling, for varied reasons. Having said that, I am glad I had this last visit with Chief Superintendent Michael Ohayon and his coworkers as they solve the mystery.

I would recommend this book to those who like slowly-paced, thoughtful literary mysteries, and those who want to learn more about Israel (and in particular in this book, various views on Zionism) or those who are interested in the TV studio setting. But mainly, my goal here is to suggest that you try some of the other mysteries by Batya Gur first.

I loved the first three books in the series. Saturday Morning Murder: A Psychoanalytic Case (1992) begins with a death at the Jerusalem Psychoanalytic Institute. In Literary Murder: A Critical Case (1993), the background is the academic setting of Hebrew University and the victim is a professor of literature and a poet. Murder on a Kibbutz: A Communal Case (1994) is set on a kibbutz and it is a toss up between this one and Literary Murder as to which is my favorite. I still have a copy of Literary Murder and I plan to re-read it someday.

I have to share with you these thoughts from a review on Murder on a Kibbutz, at Eric Pallant's blog:
Great mysteries also teach you something about a time or location you otherwise couldn’t know about, and very few mystery writers are better than Israel’s Batya Gur. In Murder on a Kibbutz her detective Michael Ohayan is called upon to investigate the murder of a kibbutznik, which in Israel is exceptionally rare. Gur peels away the layers of the onion that make up a family-like group of 300 people who care about one another, share everything, and despise one another as only family members can. What I can say, having lived on an Israeli kibbutz, is that every page of description is microscopically accurate, the characters are almost too real to be fictional, and the mystery is hard to solve.
The only book in the series that I did not care for was Murder Duet: A Musical Case (1999). I am sure many readers would love the setting in the world of classical music, but I was bothered by the fact that Ohayon was personally involved in the case and continued to work on it. The fifth book, Bethlehem Road Murder (2004), concerns a murder in an insular neighborhood in Jerusalem, and explores sociological and political issues in Israel more than previous books in the series.

A review of this book at Mystery Tribune includes this biography of the author:
Batya Gur (January 1947 – May 2005) was an Israeli writer with the specialty in detective fiction, obviously set in Israel. She was born in Tel Aviv in 1947 to parents who survived the Holocaust. She earned a master’s degree in Hebrew literature from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Before writing her first detective novel at the age of 39, she taught literature in high school. Gur was also a literary critic for Haaretz newspaper. She died of cancer at the age of 57.

 -----------------------------

Publisher:   HarperCollins, 2006
Length:       388 pages
Format:       Hardcover
Series:        Michael Ohayon, #4
Translated by:  Evan Fallenberg
Setting:       Jerusalem
Genre:        Police Procedural
Source:       Purchased at Planned Parenthood book sale, 2009.




Saturday, June 17, 2017

Book Tag

A week ago I saw a Book Tag at two blogs I read, NancyElin and Brona's Books. I am not usually successful at answering these types of questions, but I gave it a shot this time. I started with the ten questions that Nancy and Brona had used.

I added one last question that was from the longer lists at On Bookes and Howling Frog Books.


1. What book has been on your shelf the longest?
I am guessing that would be one of my Nero Wolfe novels by Rex Stout. I have had copies of some of those since I was in college (or before?) although I am sure I originally read them in library editions. 
2. What is your current read, last read and the book you plan to read next?
Current Read: Black Ice by Michael Connelly 
Last Read: Track of the Cat by Nevada Barr 
Next Read: I don't usually decide in advance but this month I have been cycling between lighter mysteries and the more gritty, violent mysteries. So I might opt for one of the vintage mysteries in my list of 20 Books for Summer.

3. What book do you tell yourself you’ll read, but probably won't?
Two books by Connie Willis:  Black Out and All Clear. From what I read at TOR.com, they are essentially "one book, conveniently bound in two volumes." Together, in the editions my husband owns, the books total 1100 pages. Quite a commitment. But look at the covers, aren't they gorgeous?


4. What book are you saving for retirement?
My husband has a lot of non-fiction books that I would love to read but just don't have the time or the patience now. In a few years, I may actually read Austerity Britain by David Kynaston (692 pages).
5. Which book character would you switch places with?
This may show a lack of imagination, but I really don't want to trade places with anyone. 
But, I would love to visit the Nero Wolfe / Archie Goodwin household for a while, so maybe I would do a temporary swap with Lily Rowan (although I don't know that she ever visits the brownstone) or maybe Lon Cohen (a journalist working for the fictional New York Gazette) when he is invited over for dinner. Or try being Theodore for a week or so and take care of the orchids.

6. What book reminds you a specific place/time/person?
Any of the books in the Nameless Detective series by Bill Pronzini remind me of when I suggested this author to my husband. He bought several of the books and he did enjoy his writing. He now has copies of all of the books in the Nameless series. 
It was decades ago in a used book store in Santa Barbara, now long out of business. I cannot remember if we were visiting Santa Barbara before we moved here, or if it was early in our marriage. Whichever, it is a very fond memory. The bookstore and the owner were both very nice.





7. Which book has been with you most places?
Same answer as for #1. I started reading the Nero Wolfe series when I was in my teens. I remember when I bought my first hardback book by Rex Stout when I had my first job. (That dates me.)   
I have reread them over and over through the years. I have multiple copies (paperback of course) of many of the books in the series.
8. Which book have you reread the most?
Fer-de-Lance by Rex Stout. Do you see a theme here? 



9. What book outside your comfort zone did you end up loving?
Under the Dome by Stephen King. I have not read a book by Stephen King in 30 years, probably longer. Most of his writing is too horrific for me. For some reason I got interested in Under the Dome but was dismayed to see that it was over 1000 pages. But I read it and enjoyed it a lot. Very dark in the end though.

10. Three bookish confessions?
I will buy books only for the covers and sometimes not even read them. 
I have over 1000 books in my TBR piles, shelves, boxes, etc. (physical hard copy books, not including those on the Kindle).
And I keep buying books anyway. 

11. Have you ever seen a movie you liked more than the book?
This was a hard one to answer. Mostly, the answer is no. Often the book and the movie differ but still both have wonderful qualities. But I did come up with two. In both cases I had seen the movie before reading the book, which might have made a difference.
Vertigo, which was based on a book originally published in France in 1954 as D'entre les morts, by Boileau-Narcejac. The book was very, very good, but the film has been a favorite for a long time. The film is set in San Francisco, the book is set in France, but the stories are very similar. (My post is here.)
The Ice Harvest: The book, written by Scott Phillips, is the most noir story I have every read. It is unrelentingly bleak and grim. It is very good but I can't say I enjoyed reading it. The film follows the same story for the most part, but it is not quite so bleak, and I loved all the actors. John Cusack plays Charlie Arglist, Billy Bob Thornton is his partner in crime; Connie Nielsen plays the gorgeous femme fatale. Oliver Platt plays a friend who is now married to Charlie's ex-wife. (My post is here.)

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Badge of Evil: Whit Masterson

Rudy Linneker, a very rich man in a large border town in California (San Diego?), is blown up by sticks of dynamite thrown into his house. The immediate suspects are Linneker's daughter and her fiancé, since Linneker was dead set against their relationship. But Assistant DA Mitch Holt insists that the case does not feel right, and starts investigating in a different direction. Eventually he uncovers corruption in the police department, but loses the support of his superiors who doubt his findings.

This book is best known today as the basis for Orson Welles' film, Touch of Evil. Whit Masterson was one pseudonym used by Robert Wade and Bill Miller. They wrote many books together in the 1940s and 50s, many of them under the name Wade Miller.

Although I had not seen the film Touch of Evil before reading this book, I assumed the book would be gritty and violent and noirish. The book was actually more on the hard-boiled side. If this is a typical book by these two authors, I would love to read more of their books. I found it to be an entertaining hard-boiled story with a great protagonist. The hero could be considered too perfect, too much of a straight arrow, yet I really liked his perseverance at a time when many people turn against him. Most people would yield to majority opinion or be afraid to buck the system. Some reviewers considered this book bland and too tame, not hard-boiled enough.


The book was also an interesting look at life after the war in the US. ADA Holt's career was put on hold due to time served in the military both during World War II and the Korean War.

In the film, Orson Welles takes the basic story and turns it around. The plot becomes something entirely different, focusing more on Mexican gangs and drugs. The DA becomes a Mexican agent exposing a drug cartel and his wife is a US citizen; it explores issues of racism to a greater extent than in the book. I found it interesting that the film is much darker than the book. In my experience, it is usually the other way around.


There are three different versions of the film available on Blu Ray, the version as released in theaters, with much of Welles' footage cut, a reconstructed version based on notes from Welles, and a preview version. We watched the original release version, but plan on watching the other two versions also.

I enjoyed the film. There are wonderful small roles played by Dennis Weaver, Marlene Dietrich, Zsa Zsa Gabor, etc. It includes a famous opening tracking shot which was very impressive.

For more information about the authors, see the Thrilling Detective website. Sergio discusses the book and film at Tipping My Fedora.


 -----------------------------

Publisher:  Prologue Books, 2013 (orig. publ. 1956)
Length:     204 pages
Format:    Trade paperback
Setting:    Southern California, close to the Mexican border
Genre:      Mystery
Source:    I purchased my copy

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Cocaine Blues: Kerry Greenwood


This is the first book in Kerry Greenwood's long running series about Phryne Fisher, a rich young woman who was born in Australia but lives in London as the series begins in 1928.

Cocaine Blues opens with Phryne attending a social event at her parents' home in London. A diamond necklace is stolen and she quickly solves the crime before the guests have left. A friend of her father, Colonel Harper, is very impressed with Phryne's detecting, and asks her to go to Melbourne and check on his daughter. He and his wife fear that she is being poisoned by her husband. Phryne had already been considering returning to Australia, and is bored with society events in London so she agrees to take the trip and see what she can do.

This book exceeded my expectations. I knew the heroine was an adventuress, and the setting was in the 1920s, so my assumptions were that it would be cozyish and very unrealistic. The unrealistic part may be somewhat true; I am not familiar enough with history and women's roles at the time. But this book was such fun to read that I did not care. It was a very refreshing read.

Phryne loves to dress well and she has the money to do it. When she flaunts her money, it is usually to make an impression on someone she wants information or cooperation from. She uses her charms and her status to gain information and cooperation more easily. Based on appearances, Phryne could be called shallow and frivolous, but much of her behavior is a means to an end. Sexy and independent, she is not worried about the opinions of others. The point is made that Phryne grew up in a poor family and only in her teen years did her father inherit money and a title, so she is comfortable with people from all levels of society, and they get along with her fine, too.

Speaking of clothes and dressing well, I read at least one complaint that there is too much focus on dress. There certainly is a lot of emphasis on clothing. Early on, there is a good amount of time devoted to Phryne supplying Dot, her new maid, with appropriate clothing. And shopping. And Dot mending clothes. But, as the adventures start, I noticed that less and less. I also read that the other book I have in this series (#7, Ruddy Gore) has little or no clothing descriptions. So I don't know if this continues in later books.

Phryne is a female James Bond, except that she is not a spy. She is a free spirit and gets involved with multiple men. She likes to drive nice cars and drive very fast, she can fly airplanes, and I am sure she has other undiscovered talents.  If there are faults in this book and this character, it is that Phryne is too perfect, too capable.

There are many things I look for in the mysteries I read, but topping the list is entertainment value. This book was delightful and charming and surprised me throughout, and that makes it a success in my book. There are several mysteries in the story, but I will admit that they were not my main focus when reading the book.

There are now twenty books in the series. I have read that there are a lot of similarities between the books, especially in the early books in the series. I wonder if this means I should put a good bit of time between reading each book, or if I should hop to later books. I would love to hear from anyone who has read this series.

Also see reviews by Bernadette at Fair Dinkum Crime and John Grant at Goodreads. Both reviews mention the TV series, Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, which is based on this series of books.

This is my first book read and reviewed for the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2017.

  ----------------------------------
Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press, 2006 (orig. pub. 1989)
Length:    175 pages
Format:    Hardback
Series:     Phryne Fisher #1
Setting:    Australia
Genre:     Historical Mystery
Source:    I purchased this book in 2006.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Crime Fiction Reading in May 2017

The most notable thing about the books I read this month is that they are all written by women. I did not get the idea for this theme until I had read a couple of books, and it was fun choosing my next book based on this criteria.

Books I read this month:

Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood (1989)
This is the first book in Kerry Greenwood's long running series about Phryne Fisher, a rich young woman who was born in Australia but lives in London as the series begins. A friend of her father, Colonel Harper, asks her to go to Melbourne, Australia and check on his daughter. He and his wife fear that she is being poisoned by her husband. Phryne would prefer traveling and detecting to the boring society events in London so she agrees to take the trip and see what she can do. Set in 1928, this is an interesting look at Melbourne at that time.
Murder in Jerusalem by Batya Gur (2004)
This is the final book in the Michael Ohayon series by Batya Gur. Each book takes place in a particular environment; in this book it is a TV station in Jerusalem, and a woman's body in found in the wardrobe and prop warehouse. The story is more of a psychological mystery than a fast-paced thriller. Murder in Jerusalem was not my favorite in the series, but I enjoyed this last visit with Chief Superintendent Michael Ohayon and his coworkers as they solve the mystery.

Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neely (1992)
This debut novel about Blanche White, an African-American housekeeper in North Carolina, won the Agatha Award and the Anthony Award for best first novel. My thoughts on the book are here.



Murder... Now and Then by Jill McGown (1993)
This is the 6th book in the police procedural series featuring DCI Lloyd and DI Judy Hill. Jill McGown is one of my favorite authors. See my thoughts here.

Indemnity Only by Sarah Paretsky (1982)
This description from Goodreads sums it up pretty well: 
The vice-president of a Chicago bank hires V.I. Warshawski to find his son. She's pleased. The head of the International Brotherhood of Knifegrinders hires her to find his daughter. She's not so pleased. Who's the boss in this dangerous game of insurance fraud, murder contracts and gunmen?


The Last Billable Hour by Susan Wolfe (1989)
Susan Wolfe is a lawyer, and in this book she writes about a Silicon Valley law firm filled with sleazy and / or ambitious lawyers. She writes well about this subject; I hope she hasn't ever had to work in such a corrupt  firm. Howard Rickover is an inexperienced lawyer and has only been at Tweedmore and Slyde for a few months when one of the founders, Leo Slyde, is killed. Homicide detective Sarah Nelson enlists his help in uncovering the murderer. I liked this book a lot, even though it is an amateur sleuth mystery, and it is shame that the author did not continue with more books about this pair.





The Janus Stone by Elly Griffiths (2010)
This is the second book in the series featuring forensics archaeologist Ruth Galloway. Ruth lives in Norfolk in an isolated cottage on the saltmarsh. She is called in as an expert when the bones of a young child are found on a building site. I enjoyed this book and will continue on the the next in the series, The House at Sea's End.