Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Bourne Identity: Robert Ludlum

Most people reading this will have some familiarity with the character in this book, Jason Bourne, due to the 2002 movie starring Matt Damon, based on The Bourne Identity, and subsequent movies featuring Bourne.

As this book starts, a man has been fished out of the Mediterranean Sea. He is alive but just barely. The fishermen who saved his life bring him to a French island, where he is cared for by Dr. Geoffrey Washburn. Washburn discovers that the man he is tending has had surgery to change his appearance, and has a microchip surgically implanted in his hip. He pieces together enough information to help the man, who has amnesia from head trauma, start searching for who he is and why he ended up nearly dead in the sea. Washburn also helps him get to Zurich, the first step of his journey.

As the story progresses, Bourne conveniently can remember many of the facts from his past without remembering who he is or what has happened to him. He can use fighting skills, remember places (although only hazily) and recognize a person without knowing where the person fits into his life. I don't know if this happens in real-life amnesia or not.

As Bourne is forced to interact with those who want to capture him or kill him, his instinct and past knowledge of weapons and self-defense lead to some violent and cruel behavior on his part. Based on this behavior and flashes of returning memories, he makes the assumption that he was a pretty loathsome character, no matter what group it is in service of.

I prefer to provide as little about the plot as possible and in the case of this type of book, that is even more important. If you want more information in that area there are many sources online, including some excellent reviews and sites devoted to the series.

I had owned this book for years, and I don't know why I put off reading such a well-known book in the spy fiction genre. So, after waiting so long to read this book, what did I think of it? Overall, I enjoyed reading the book. It falls more in the action thriller area than most spy fiction I enjoy, and it did require me to suspend disbelief quite a bit. Yet, for the most part, the journey Bourne takes to learn his real identity makes sense. I don't have any complaints about this book other than the length and some repetitiveness. The same phrases repeated over and over by the main characters, the same interactions between the characters occurring a few too many times. Yet that isn't unrealistic, just irritating to read.

Ludlum keeps the story moving. Most chapters end with a cliff hanger and this ploy was very successful at keeping me in the story. It took me several days to read the book (it was 535 pages) but there were many times I read too late into the evening, each chapter pulling me into the next one.

I am not a fan of romances in mystery fiction, and this book does have that element. However, the woman that gets involved with Jason, Marie St. Claire, does serve a purpose in the plot and is not just there to add spice to the story. She is a strong female character and plays a significant role in his quest to find out who he is. With her background as a economist who works for the Canadian government, she can provide information on politics and finance that he does not have in his current circumstances. She is also not afraid to risk her life to help him out, and actively seeks to influence important people to come to his aid. This type of portrayal is admirable in any novel but  especially in spy fiction written in 1980.

After finishing the book, I learned that Bourne's nemesis in the book is a real person, Ilyich Ramírez Sánchez. The newspaper articles in the Preface to the book are actually published articles and press releases from 1975.

The Bourne Identity was the first of three Bourne novels written by Robert Ludlum. It was published in 1980 and the next two novels came out in 1986 and 1990. Starting in 2004 with The Bourne Legacy, Eric Lustbader continued the series. There are now a total of 13 books in the series.

I won't comment in detail on the 2002 movie here. I have watched the movie 2 or 3 times, and enjoyed it every time I watched it, but the movie is only loosely based on the book.

I like this assessment of some differences between the book and the movie at double o section:
Suffice it to say, the truth of Bourne’s identity in the book is far more interesting, more rewarding and more morally complex than in the movies, and it’s a shame that the films didn’t follow Ludlum’s template. And the secretive Treadstone program of Ludlum’s covert world is infinitely more fascinating (and possibly disturbing) than the mere super- soldier factory it's presented as in the films.

 -----------------------------

Publisher:   Bantam Books, 2002 (orig. publ. 1980)
Length:       535 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       Jason Bourne, #1
Setting:      Zurich, Paris, US
Genre:       Espionage fiction
Source:      I purchased this book.



Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Dancers in Mourning: Margery Allingham


Thus far in my rereading of the Albert Campion series (Death of a Ghost and Flowers for the Judge), I have found the books to have fantastical plots and weird characters. This story was less fantastical but the number of extremely unusual, self-absorbed characters made up for it. The story centers around the star of a musical review (Jimmy Sutane) who has been targeted by a malicious prankster. Campion has been brought in to help him out with this problem. Many of the cast have gone to his country house for the weekend and Campion is invited to join them on Sunday. By the end of that day a woman has died, run over by a car driven by Jimmy Sutane. Although there is no convincing evidence, Campion suspects it may be murder.

Campion hardly detects at all in this story. Early on, he falls for Jimmy Sutane's wife, Linda, and thus when the family is presented with a murder in its midst, he prefers to stay out of it, because his detecting may end up causing her pain. This seems a bit too melodramatic for me, but otherwise the story would have been over much sooner, so that device plays the role of extending the plot. Almost to the end, Campion is so stuck in the morass of his problems that he misses what really happened. I had no suspicions of who the culprit must be, although I think I might have had I paid more attention.

I did not like most of the characters because they were unforgivably selfish and thoughtless. The characters are either actors or so immersed in the theatrical production that they ignore everything else. The victim, Chloe Pye, was a nuisance and unpopular, and most of them as just as glad she is gone. Jimmy and Linda don't have much time to spend with their six-year-old daughter, Sarah, who leads a very lonely life.


That all sounds like I did not like this novel, but I did. I am under Allingham's spell, and even a lesser effort is fun for me. The plot dragged in spots, and went on too long, but there were bits of it that I loved. Uncle William, the author of the memoir that the musical review is based on, is an old friend of Campion's and one of the few likable characters. His presence injected some humor into the proceedings. When the Sutane's butler quits after a disastrous party, Campion's manservant Lugg is dragooned into acting as butler for as long as needed. He and the sweet Sarah Sutane become fast friends; he teaches her card tricks and how to pick locks.

I have a lovely hardback edition of Dancers in Mourning with map endpapers (no dust jacket though). Years ago I purchased the same edition but with the endpapers covers with stamps and writing, so I was happy to find a much better copy recently. My paperback edition is a TV series tie-in edition.


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

Publisher:  Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1937.
Length:      336 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Series:       Albert Campion
Setting:      UK
Genre:       Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copies.


Sunday, March 19, 2017

Fear Itself: Andrew Rosenheim


From the publisher's website:
Set in the tense and uncertain years before the Second World War, when America was still largely conflicted about entering the war on either side, Andrew Rosenheim’s thriller Fear Itself offers a rich depiction of history as it was—and as it might have been. Jimmy Nessheim, a young Special Agent in the fledgling FBI, is assigned to infiltrate a new German–American organization known as the Bund. Ardently pro-Nazi, the Bund is conspiring to sabotage American efforts against Adolf Hitler. But as Nessheim’s investigation takes him into the very heart of the Bund, it becomes increasingly clear that something far more sinister is at work, something that seems to lead directly to the White House. Drawn into the center of Washington’s high society, Nessheim finds himself caught up in a web of political intrigue and secret lives. But as he moves closer to the truth, an even more lethal plot emerges, one that could rewrite history.
My favorite character in this book is Jimmy's boss, Harry Guttman, a Special Agent who reports to Clyde Tolson, Associate Director of the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover. Guttman is 44 years old, and has an invalid wife who requires a lot of care; he has a caregiver who comes in during the day but he takes care of her needs the rest of the time. He has concerns about the German American Bund group and wants to send in an undercover agent, but the mission is not approved. Nessheim is not aware  that his undercover assignment is counter to Hoover's instructions.

The undercover assignment is only one part of a very complicated plot. This book begins in 1936 and covers the years up to the middle of 1940. It is set primarily in various locations in the US but occasionally in Germany or Austria. Unfortunately the complexity weighs the story down, and the pacing is uneven.


The author includes real-life figures in addition to Hoover and Tolson: Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lucy Mercer Rutherford. I have mixed feelings about that in any book; sometimes using prominent real-life characters is distracting to me. I focus too much on those characters and how they fit in. In this case it did not bother me and the author handled it well.

I enjoyed learning more about these years in the US. I was hardly aware of the existence of the German American Bund organization. The characters in the book allow the author to address the prejudices of both US citizens and Germans at this time. Nessheim's family background is German-American; Guttman is Jewish and a Polish-American. A German double agent is homosexual and has a relationship with a black man. All of this is handled well, matter-of-factly.

In summary, this was a good book but it could have been much better. I liked all the detail about the historical period. I haven't read many books with a World War II focus set in the United States. The book gives a picture of the lack of enthusiasm for entering a war that was happening so far away. The negative aspects were the inconsistent pacing and a lack of depth in most of the characters. I liked the main characters, Guttman and Nessheim, but even so I did not find their story compelling.

In an interview at Publisher's Weekly, the author explains his themes and goals in writing the book.
It came out of an interest in the under-recognized Germanness of so much of American society; also a “what if” interest about what would have happened had FDR not run for a third term.
Andrew Rosenheim grew up in the US. He went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar in 1977 and has lived there ever since. He continued this series for two more books: The Informant (2013), aka The Little Tokyo Informant, and The Accidental Agent (2016).


 -----------------------------

Publisher:   Overlook Press, 2012 (orig. publ. 2011)
Length:       420 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Series:       Jimmy Nessheim, #1
Setting:      US
Genre:       Historical Mystery
Source:      I purchased this book.


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Deal Breaker: Harlan Coben

In this first book in the Myron Bolitar series, sports agent Myron Bolitar is about to get a big break when his client Christian Steele, a rookie quarterback, is offered a deal to sign for the Titans football team. Unfortunately for both of them, a tragedy from Christian's past comes back to haunt him. Christian's girlfriend from college has been missing for 18 months; there have been rumors that he is responsible. Now Christian receives a magazine in the mail with a picture of Kathy in it. To complicate things further, the girlfriend, Kathy Culver, is the younger sister of Myron's ex-girlfried, Jessica. The Culver family has recently suffered an additional tragedy; Adam Culver, the girls' father, was killed in a robbery attempt. Myron tries to determine if Kathy is still alive or if this is some malicious hoax.

The book was very readable; it held my interest until the very end. Mainly what I want when I read a mystery novel is to be entertained and enjoy the story. This book provided that. I had expected the book to be closer to a cozy mystery than the fast-paced, suspense-filled novel that it is.

I liked the characters, even though some of them were over the top. Myron works with Esperanza, his business associate, and Windsor Horne Lockwood III (Win), his best friend, who also rents his office space to him. Myron is sort of normal; these other two characters are over the top. Esperanza was formerly a female wrestler. Win is often described as a sociopath. Win and Molitar met first in college, then worked for the FBI as undercover agents. Jessica, Myron's old girlfriend, is featured a lot. Much of the story is told through her viewpoint, as she looks for clues to what has happened to her sister.

I did have some quibbles. Myron has way too much personal involvement in this case. This sort of makes sense in a amateur sleuth novel, but is not my favorite story line. There is a lot of humor, and I think we are not supposed to take it all too seriously, yet the subject matter is serious.

Overall, however, this was a fun read. Will I return to this series? I am almost always interested in checking out more books in a series, if the subject matter or the characters interest me. In this case I do wonder what happens to all the continuing characters, and I imagine that the remaining books will be just compelling to read as the first one. On the other hand, I have plenty of other books on hand to read. So maybe yes, maybe no. I would love to hear if others have loved or hated this series, or even felt neutral about it.

Harlan Coben wrote seven Myron Bolitar novels, and then wrote a very successful standalone novel, Tell No One. At that point, he wrote four more standalone novels before returning to the Bolitar series in 2006. Since that time he has gone back and forth between the series and standalone novels. In 2011, he started a series for young adults starring Mickey Bolitar, Myron's nephew.

 -----------------------------

Publisher:   Delacorte Press, 2006 (orig. publ. 1995)
Length:       339 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Series:       Myron Bolitar, #1
Setting:      US
Genre:       Mystery
Source:      I purchased this book.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Last Rights: Barbara Nadel

Last Rights is the first book in a series featuring Francis Hancock, an undertaker living in the East End of London. Francis is mixed race, the child of a white man and an Indian mother. His grandfather and his father before him had been undertaker's, and Francis took over the business when his father died. He has horrible memories of fighting in the first World War, and has had psychological problems since that time.

The story is set in 1940, during the Blitz. During the air raids, Francis cannot bear to stay in shelters. During one of the raids, he runs into a man who complains of being stabbed by a woman, but there is no visible wound or blood. Later the body of the same man turns up on his undertaker's table, and Francis sees the evidence of a wound that is not the  result of the bombing. The police would just as soon brush it under the table, with all the problems they have at this time, but they end up looking into the death. As a result, a person is charged, but Francis believes that she is innocent. The majority of the story is about his quest to find out the truth.

It is the historical setting and the picture of how ordinary people's lives were affected by the Blitz that I enjoyed the most about this book. Barbara Nadel was born in the East End. In an interview at Crime Beat she states that her grandfather, a World War One veteran who suffered from shellshock,  experienced many of the problems that her protagonist did.

Nadel also notes in an interview at Matt Rees's blog:
My father experienced the Blitz when he was a child and although the Hancock books do tell of the heroism of that time, they also aim to tell it like it was too. Francis Hancock’s world is therefore one of privation, dirt, anxiety and sometimes madness.
As much as I liked the historical setting, I did have some problems with the book. I did not warm up to the characters in Last Rights. The story is told in first person by Francis. Although he is an interesting character, I did not get involved with his story. I think the characters portrayed were realistic and probably typical of people who lived at the time in that area of London; yet, I did not grow to care about them as the story progressed. I also found the mystery plot to be overly complex, drawn out, and not always believable.

As a summary I would say this is a very good depiction of London during the Blitz, and it also included insights into the issues in the poorer areas of London and the racial and ethnic prejudices which were common at that time. The setting and how well it was portrayed was the primary attraction for me; I am glad I read the book, regardless of my criticisms.

Reading this book prompted me to start reading The Blitz: The British Under Attack by Juliet Gardiner. I read Wartime Britain 1939-1945 by the same author (review here), and the three chapters on the Blitz were the hardest to read in that book.

Barbara Nadel's first series, which is still ongoing, is about Çetin İkmen, a chain-smoking and hard-drinking detective on the Istanbul police force. A third series began in 2012; the books are set in present day London, and feature a Private Investigator, Lee Arnold, and his assistant, Mumtaz Hakim.


 -----------------------------

Publisher:  Headline, 2006. Orig. pub. 2005.
Length:     333 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Francis Hancock, #1
Setting:     UK, London
Genre:       Mystery
Source:     I purchased my copy. 

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

A Lonely Place to Die: Wessel Ebersohn

A Lonely Place to Die by Wessel Ebersohn was the first book in a series featuring Yudel Gordon, a Jewish psychologist employed by the Department of Prisons in Pretoria, South Africa. Published in 1979, it provides a disturbing picture of the racial tensions in South Africa at that time.


Yudel loves his work, even though he is often at odds with his boss. Because he is interested in "the intricacies of the criminal mind," Yudel sometimes ends up exploring issues beyond the guidelines of his job, and actually seeking to solve the crime itself.

In this case, Freek Jordaan, a friend who works in Pretoria CID, asks Yudel to evaluate whether a prisoner is mentally fit to stand trial. Muskiet Lesoro, a black man, has been accused of poisoning the son of a wealthy man, a deputy minister of Pensions and Welfare. In Yudel's opinion, the prisoner is insane, not fit to be tried; Yudel is also sure that this prisoner could not have killed a man by poisoning him. He wants to find out more about the crime, so he persuades his friend to support his visit to the Middlespruit area to investigate further. That area has had several racially-motivated incidents recently, and Yudel is not exactly welcomed by the police there.

The content of the book is frightening; the ability of people to abuse others just because of race or religion is horrifying. The story is very well written, and the characters are realistically portrayed. Even secondary characters are fleshed out. Yudel is a fascinating man, brave and acting foolishly rash at times, but caring very much about people. He deals with everyone calmly and respectfully at all times.

Having written several novels that were anti-apartheid, Ebersohn "was repeatedly harassed by the police, his books were later banned, and for a time he was forced into hiding. " See more about this author at the Mystery Scene website.

Ebersohn has published seven novels that feature Yudel, written over a wide span of years:
1. A Lonely Place to Die (1979)
2. Divide the Night (1981)
3. Closed Circle (1990)
4. The October Killings (2011)
5. Those Who Love Night (2012)
6. The Top Prisoner of C-Max (2012)
7. A League of Geniuses (2016)
If you are looking for a mystery novel that deals with social issues, I highly recommend this book. Unfortunately it is not in print, so if you cannot locate a used copy, a library book may be the best bet.

 -----------------------------

Publisher:  Vintage Books, 1980. Orig. pub. 1979.
Length:     269 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Yudel Gordon
Setting:    South Aftica
Genre:      Mystery
Source:    I purchased my copy. 



Sunday, March 5, 2017

Reading in February 2017

February was an unusual reading month for me. I committed to read mostly short stories all month. I knew I would read a book for the Crimes of the Century meme at Past Offences and I did, and I finished a novel on February 1st that I had started in January. I also completed two books of short stories. In February I read nearly 60 stories. (My lists of stories are here and here.) Some were very short, most were average length. I enjoyed my month of reading short stories immensely.

One book of short stories read and completed in February was Miniatures by John Scalzi. As the title indicates, it is a book of very short stories, most of which are humorous science fiction. The book collects Scalzi's short fiction from 1998 to 2016. A few of the pieces are published for the first time in this book.  As with any book of short stories there are stories that appealed to me and others that did not. Some of the humor was clever; others just seemed to be trying too hard. I liked the earlier stories better than the more recent ones. Overall, my opinion is that Scalzi is much better at longer works of fiction.

If you are interested in a different opinion, see this review of the audio book at the Amazing Stories website.


Crime fiction books that I read in February:

Last Rights by Barbara Nadel
The protagonist is an undertaker who has psychological problems from his participation in World War II. The story is set in London during the Blitz, and the author does a splendid job of portraying that time. I was less taken with the characters and the plotting.
Laura by Vera Caspary
This was the novel I read for the Crimes of the Century meme; the year was 1943. Check out the other books (and films) of 1943 at this link
This is another book where the film is much better known than the book. There are differences between book and movie, but basically the story is the same. 
From my post: "Although I had never seen the movie based on the book, I thought I knew the story, and assumed the story was spoiled for me. That was a mistake; even if I did know one or two main points of the story, there was much there to surprise me and I loved the way the story was told. Laura is a wonderful read and not to be missed."
Game Without Rules by Michael Gilbert
This book of stories about two middle-aged spies was wonderful. I loved every story. The book was published in 1967; the stories had been published in Argosy between 1962 and 1967. 
The protagonists only show up in two books of short stories and I am now reading the second set of stories, titled Mr Calder & Mr Behrens.

Status of Challenges and Goals


This year I joined more challenges. This can be problematic in being able to read spontaneously, especially as I don't read a huge amount of books in a year. But I will see how it goes. All of the challenges I have joined are focused on the type of books I want to read. I also have some personal goals but I seem to move on those very slowly.

This month I will just list the challenges...




Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Flowers for the Judge: Margery Allingham


From the Felony & Mayhem website:
The Barnabas publishing dynasty is no stranger to mystery; after all, the founder’s nephew is legendary for having disappeared in broad daylight. Yet the discovery of one of the Barnabas cousins, dead for some days inside a locked basement, throws the entire clan in disarray. As police suspicions settle on a member of the family, the Barnabas cousins have no choice but to ask Albert Campion to step in and salvage their reputation.
After Christie, Margery Allingham is my favorite of the queens of Golden Age mystery writers. (In fact, I might even say that Christie and Allingham are equal in my estimation. It is hard to draw a comparison since their work is very different and Christie wrote so many more books.) The point is, in my recent rereading of Allingham's mysteries, I find myself enchanted with her writing.

Margery Allingham's plots are sometimes fantastical; there are weird, eccentric characters, who seem to be in the book for no reason. In this book, there were moments when the plot seemed to slow to a standstill, and I was wanting something to happen... or at least something I understood. But in the end all is explained, the weird people and occurrences make sense.

There is a romance, and usually I am allergic to romances in a book. But in this case, it is not an additional subplot, it is a major part of the plot. I also like the way that the romance is portrayed, telling us a lot about the time, that the two lovers cannot just go off and do what they want, but are constrained by the attitudes of the time.

I don't want to imply that I loved this book without reservation. There is a trial and the book does spend a lot of time at the trial. It was interesting, and important points were made, but I did find that part of the book tedious.

Overall, this book is very enjoyable and illustrates all that I love about Allingham. She has a beautiful way of telling a story and creating interesting characters. Albert Campion is a wonderful character, of course, but there is also Albert's manservant, Magersfontein Lugg, a former burglar who has done prison time and has criminal contacts. In this book, Ritchie, one of the cousins who is relegated to a small role in the company, really shines.

See the interesting insights in Moira's post at Clothes in Books.

 -----------------------------

Publisher:  Bantam, 1984. Orig. pub. 1936.
Length:     241 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Albert Campion
Setting:    UK, mostly London
Genre:      Mystery
Source:    I purchased my copy.