Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Reading in April and Mystery Pick of the Month

In the month of April I read eight books. I read two books that are not in the mystery genre. I read The Princess Bride by William Goldman. Also one non-fiction book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss.

I read six mysteries in April. Two vintage mysteries this month. Two mysteries written after 2005. And two mysteries written in between. A good balance. No historical mysteries this month, but some coming up soon.

The mysteries I read this month are:
  1. The Stately Home Murder by Catherine Aird
  2. The Ransom Game by Howard Engel
  3. The Chinese Parrot by Earl Derr Biggers
  4. Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie
  5. Chinatown Beat by Henry Chang 
  6. The Dark Winter by David Mark
The Crime Fiction Pick of the Month meme is hosted at Mysteries in Paradise. Bloggers link to summary posts for the month, and identify a crime fiction best read of the month. Check out the link here to see the other bloggers picks.

Once again I had trouble narrowing down my choice for Pick of the Month. I enjoyed all of the books, and it was hard to make comparisons because of the variety of mysteries I read. But this month I did pick one favorite.

My Pick of the Month is The Stately Home Murder by Catherine Aird. This is an unusual pick for me because it has a lot of humor, and I like my mysteries on the serious side.

The Stately Home Murder, published in 1969, is the third book in a twenty-two book series which is still being published. The author is definitely poking fun at many elements of country house mysteries in this book, but it is quite a good mystery in itself. As far as solving the crime, I did have some inklings along the way, at least regarding the why, but I am not sure I ever guessed who. I was entertained by the banter between various policemen and how some of them did not take all of the pomp of the stately home so seriously. The humor was dry and witty.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

D is for The Dark Winter by David Mark

Today I am featuring The Dark Winter (2012) by David Mark for my submission for the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme. Aector McAvoy is a Detective Sergeant in the Serious and Organised Crime Unit in the town of Hull. At the time of year this is set, Hull is cold, dreary and bleak. The area is depressed. Not a picturesque setting. McAvoy is happy to have his job but he is an outsider. He is known as...
...the copper who cost a detective superintendent his job and sparked an internal investigation that scattered a crooked team of CID officers to the four winds. Who managed to glide through the whole thing without a blemish on his written record. He’s the copper who did for Doug Roper, the copper who nearly died out at the woods beneath the Humber Bridge, at the hands of a man whose crimes will never be known by anybody other than a handful of senior officers who stitched his face up more expertly than the doctors at Hull Royal. He’s the copper who refused to take up the offer of an easy transfer to a cosy community station. Who now finds himself on a team that doesn’t trust him, working for a boss who doesn’t rate him, and trying to blend into the background while carrying a Samsonite satchel with adjustable straps and waterproof bloody pockets …
Two weeks before Christmas, McAvoy is sitting with his son outside a coffee shop, eating cake, and a violent death occurs across the square in a church. McAvoy rushes to the church, and collides with the murderer as he leaves the area. He is immediately involved with the crime, the death of a young girl that seems random and meaningless. He has seen the murderer, up close; although his face was covered with a balaclava, McAvoy has seen his eyes.

Coincidentally, McAvoy also gets involved in a case of man who has "fallen" off a ship while it was out at sea. His death may or may not be suicide. Eventually what he learns about that event leads to a connection to the first death. And others to come.

The crime solving in this book does stick pretty close to normal police procedures and the crime is solved through police work, although there is some element of luck and coincidence involved (as I am sure happens in most police work). McAvoy is just one of a large team of policemen working on this very visible crime. Because he has been relegated to a lot of thankless tasks since his whistle blowing incident, he also ends up doing a lot of phone call follow-up and grunt work on this case.  And some of this work does lead to clues to the killer.

McAvoy is a likeable character, honest, well-meaning, idealistic. He is humble, and doesn't believe in himself; worries a lot about whether he is making the right decision. He is a family man, a devoted father, worried that he is making his family suffer when he pays more attention to the job. But he is not perfect, does not get along with others easily.

My Take:
I liked this story and I want to see how the series continues. The setting, the characters, and the storytelling are all unique in some ways, but I think I like the way the author had the plot unfold best of all. I did find some of the occurrences to be unrealistic; the protagonist is in danger a bit too often.

I don't especially like stories told in present tense, but it was OK here. There were strong female characters, particularly Trish Pharaoh, the new head of the Serious and Organised Crime Unit and Helen Tremberg, the Detective Constable that McAvoy works with.

Overall, I found this to be a very good debut mystery, and I am hoping the author keeps up the good work, and offers us more interesting adventures.

The Crime Fiction Alphabet is sponsored by Mysteries in Paradise.  Please visit this post to check out other entries for this letter.

Other reviews here:
Mysteries in Paradise
In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Princess Bride: William Goldman

The Princess Bride, by William Goldman, is the second book I have read for the Once Upon a Time challenge. I think I must be the only person in the world who has not either watched the movie, The Princess Bride, or read the book. The book was published in 1973; the movie came out in 1987.

For the most part, The Princess Bride was a very enjoyable read. This is a story within a story, and it is very clever. The two stories are very different in tone. The story of the princess bride is a fairy tale with characters who are either very good or very bad, and frequent escapes from very difficult circumstances.On the title page of the edition I read, it is described as a "Tale of True Love and High Adventure." The framing story tells the reader how and why the author decided to abridge the very long and sometimes boring version of the The Princess Bride, as originally written by S. Morgenstern.

There were times when I found it difficult to believe that this was intended as a book for children. I don't know what Goldman's intentions were, but I know that many children do read it.  This story has a lot of violence, but that bothered me less than the elements of torture. Torture is something that bothers me in a novel, even a fantasy. Maybe as a child, I would have taken it less seriously. (Note that I am not in favor of limiting children's reading. My reading as a child was not monitored -- to my knowledge -- and I did not censor my son's reading.)

At Common Sense Media, in the section "What parents need to know", they describe the book in this way:
...this sharp-edged fairy tale is geared to tweens and older. The cliffhangers are more intense and some scenes are scarier than in the film version. You'll find truly evil villains, murder, swordfights, knives, blood, poisoning, kidnapping, torture, giant carnivorous rats and eels, and similar scary stuff.

I have read reviews and analyses that examine the post-modern elements of this book. I don't know enough about post-modern literature to comment on that with any intelligence. I enjoyed Goldman's framing story and his cynical and barbed comments more than the basic adventure story; yet at times he was too negative, and the comments took me out of the main story towards the end. I am sure that was intentional.

My overall opinion is that this is an interesting and entertaining story that can be enjoyed at many levels. And, yes, I am now going to watch the movie, sometime soon.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

C is for Chinatown Beat by Henry Chang

Today I am featuring Chinatown Beat (2006) by Henry Chang for my submission for the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme. My theme for the meme this year is mysteries that feature policemen as the main character.

Introduction from the book flap:
Detective Jack Yu grew up in Chinatown. Some of his friends are criminals now; some are dead. Jack has just been transferred to his old neighborhood, where 99 percent of the cops are white. Unlike the others, confused by the residents who speak another language even when they’re speaking English, Jack knows what’s going on.
The Setting and the Detective:

New York City, Chinatown, 1994. Jack's father has just died and he is relatively new to a posting in Chinatown. He is adjusting to his father's death as he investigates two crimes in Chinatown.

This is the story of an outsider. Quoting from the book:
Of the twenty-eight thousand, eight hundred and sixty-nine officers in the New York City Police Department, Jack Yu was the eighty-eighth cop of Chinese-American heritage. A lucky number, he once thought. At a sinewy five-foot-ten, he'd have failed the height requirement of a decade earlier. Now, four years into his career, he'd been transferred to Chinatown, back into his old neighborhood, a detective second grade. 
After four months here he realized that working in the 0-Five was like living in two worlds at the same time. In a precinct that was ninety-nine percent yellow, the Commanding Officer was named Salvatore Marino, and the beat cops were ninety-nine percent white. The white cops put in their shifts, then beat a quick retreat back to the welcome of white enclaves beyond the colored reaches of the inner city. Chinatown was like a foreign port to them, full of experiences confounding to the average Caucasian mind. Don't worry about it, Jake, its Chinatown. They were able to dismiss it as a troublesome nightmare, half-remembered and unfathomable. These Chinese were creatures unlike themselves, existing in a world where the English language and white culture carried little significance. Generations of sons and daughters of the Celestial Kingdom, they lived their lives by their own set of odd cultural rules. When a crime was committed, no one ever saw or heard anything. When the cops rousted them, it was a Chinese fire drill. 
But Jack had grown up in Chinatown, knew what it felt like to look and breathe Chinese, to savor foo yee, ga lei, pungent and spicy aromas that white precinct cops wrinkled up their noses at, to speak and decipher regional dialects that sounded to the others like a back-alley cockfight.
Even in the community, Detective Jack Yu doesn't fit in because he represents the law and a police force that no one trusts. In his personal life, he carries baggage from his poor relationship with his father. His father was disappointed when Jack became a cop, and when Jack moved out of Chinatown.

One of the crimes being investigated involves Uncle Four, a member of the Hong Kong-based Red Circle Triad, and his beautiful young mistress, Mona, imported from Hong Kong. This plotline is compelling and  overshadows the other elements of the book.

My take:

I wondered how true this picture of Chinatown in the 1990's was, because we are only seeing the underbelly of the community. The crime, the violence, the hopelessness that many experience. I could not help but compare this book to the series by S. J. Rozan, starring Lydia Chin, a resident of Chinatown, and her sometimes partner, Bill Smith. The picture of Chinatown in Rozan's books is not so dark. The first Lydia Chin book was published in 1994, the same year as Chinatown Beat takes place.

However, Henry Chang was born and raised in Chinatown, and he is speaking from personal experience, which would make this book a valid picture of the time and the place. See this interview with the author at the New York Times site.

As I read this book, I had mixed reactions. I was coming into it expecting a police procedural, and it was more of a character study and an examination of Chinatown culture. As a novel, I liked it a lot. As a mystery, it was lacking. Still, my overall reaction is a positive one.

My recommendation is dual. If you want a straight mystery and a definite resolution, this may not be for you. If you are open to a crime novel with a different approach, this is a very good one.

Please visit the post at Mysteries in Paradise to check out other entries for this letter.

Other reviews of this book are at: Petrona and January Magazine. The review at January Magazine is very detailed, so you might not want to read it until after you read the book.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Murder on the Links: Agatha Christie

My Agatha Christie read for this month was The Murder on the Links (1922), one of the early books in the Hercule Poirot series. 

In recent years, I have only read a few books by Agatha Christie and this is only the second one featuring Hercule Poirot. So far, I find the Poirot character to be smug and irritating, but he does get the job done in the end. I know he is a very popular character with most Christie readers, so I am prepared to have my mind changed as I read more books in the series.

Robert Barnard summarizes the plot in two sentences (in A Talent to Deceive):
Super-complicated early whodunit, set in the northerly fringes of France so beloved of the English bankrupt. Poirot pits his wits against a sneering sophisticate of a French policeman while Hastings lets his wander after an auburn-haired female acrobat.
My take:
  • I liked that this novel was told in first person by Captain Arthur Hastings. I do seem to favor first person narratives, where it makes sense.
  • I enjoyed the hints of romance between various characters. Christie often throws in some romance, but it does not overpower the story.
  • I suspected fairly early on how the murder had been committed (although not the why). However, the clues were strung out throughout the novel and held my interest.
Having enjoyed Hastings as the narrator of this book, I was disappointed to find that he only features in eight of the thirty-three Hercule Poirot novels, and mostly in the earlier ones. From what I have read, he is the narrator for most Hercule Poirot short stories.

The other Hercule Poirot novel that I have reviewed is Murder on the Orient Express (my review is here). That one is later in the series and Hastings is not involved.

I  read this book for the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge, hosted by  Mysteries In Paradise. If you are interested in joining in, here are instructions on how to do that. Links to other reviews for this month will be found here.

Also submitted for the Vintage Mystery Challenge (World Traveler). The novel begins with Hastings returning to London after a Paris business trip. He then travels to France with Poirot at the request of a client. The majority of the book takes place in Merlinville-sur-Mer, France.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

B is for Earl Derr Biggers

Today I am featuring The Chinese Parrot (1926) by Earl Derr Biggers for my submission for the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme. Please visit the post at Mysteries in Paradise to check out other entries for this letter.

Biggers wrote six Charlie Chan mysteries. The Chinese Parrot is the second book in the series. The first book in the series is set in Hawaii, where Charlie is a detective on the Honolulu Police Force.

I did not realize when I chose this book for a CFA post on police procedurals that Charlie was on holiday for this outing. My plans were to feature police procedural novels that fit a more standard definition of a police procedural novel.

It is difficult to settle on a definitive description but this one by Julian Symons in Bloody Murder (revised ed., 1985) comes close to what I am looking for.
The police novel, or the police-procedural as it is now called, concentrates upon the detailed investigation of a crime from the point of view of the police, and in the best examples of the kind does so with considerable realism.
However, it is not that unusual for an author of a police procedural series to take a break from the standard fare and send his detective on holiday, so I decided to go ahead and include this book. (Not to mention the fact that I thought about moving to the next in the series, but it has the same type of plot.)

In this book, Charlie has traveled to the mainland (San Francisco) to deliver a valuable string of pearls. He is doing this as a favor for his old friend and owner of the pearls, Sally Jordan, who needs to sell them because she has lost all of her considerable fortune. Alexander Eden, another old friend of Sally's, has negotiated the deal.

The opening paragraph:
Alexander Eden stepped from the misty street into the great, marble-pillared room where the firm of Meek and Eden offered its wares. Immediately, behind showcases gorgeous with precious stones or bright with silver, platinum and gold, forty resplendent clerks stood at attention. Their morning coats were impeccable, lacking the slightest suspicion of a wrinkle, and in the left lapel of each was a pink carnation, as fresh and perfect as though it had grown there.
The majority of the book is set in a small town in the California desert, where the buyer of the pearls has a ranch. Charlie and Bob Eden, Alexander's son, travel to the ranch. When they arrive, suspicious circumstances lead Charlie to convince the buyer that the pearls will be arriving at a later date, even though he has them with him. Shortly after that, Charlie and Bob discover evidence that points to a murder, but can find no body.

At this point, we are about one third of the way into the mystery. The story gets even more complex, and the book is a great read. There are many interesting supporting characters, including a local newspaperman and a young woman who scouts for movie locations.

Racism rears its ugly head, as is common in many books written at the time. Charlie and other Chinese characters in the book are treated with a lack of respect and outright hostility. However, the author depicts Charlie Chan as an intelligent and insightful detective, well-known and respected even outside of Hawaii.

I have only read one other mystery in this series, the first one. Charlie is more central in this novel. In the first novel, The House Without a Key, Charlie does not show up until half way through and the story of the Winterslip family is more prominent than the detecting. My review of the first novel is here.

This book is also submitted for the Vintage Mystery Challenge (Dangerous Beasts: a book with an animal in the title).

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Ransom Game: Howard Engel

Howard Engel set out to create a different type of private detective in his books, per an interview with Bill Gladstone:
"I had read a lot of mystery novels over the years, and I decided I would try to make a character who wasn’t like any of the others," he said. "Where one American detective was fast with his fists, Benny Cooperman was going to avoid confrontation. Where the others were American and Christian, Benny Cooperman was going to be Canadian and Jewish. And where most of the American and British detectives came from large cities like New York, London, San Francisco or Los Angeles, Benny Cooperman was going to come from a small town."
The Ransom Game (1981) is the second book in the series, following The Suicide Murders. Benny is hired to locate a paroled ex-con, by his girlfriend. He is missing and she fears he has come to harm. Her boyfriend, Johnny Rosa, was in prison for kidnapping a wealthy young woman, and the ransom money has never turned up. Obviously, there are lots of people interested in where the money is located. All of them assume that Johnny has it hidden somewhere.

The story takes us through several twists and turns, to both the less savory parts of town and the wealthy family of the girl who was kidnapped.

In most of the books in the series (based on reviews and articles), Benny's family is prominent, especially his parents. In The Ransom Game, they don't figure much in the story. His parents and his brother have all gone to Florida and left Benny in the cold of Grantham, in Canada. This is the third book that I have read recently that mentions that many Canadians go to Florida in the winter. I had no idea. The books were by three different Canadian authors, so it must be true.

A recent blog post by Margot at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist... noted that private eyes are often scraping by, with not much money to live on. This certainly seems to be the case for Benny. He lives in a hotel room, which he describes in the book:
Here the dusty curtains, the pile of books on the chair, the laundry balled up with promises in the cupboard, the faint chemical smell that came from the sheets, even when they had been changed, always got me thinking the things I didn't want to be thinking about.
My take:

Overall, I enjoyed the book. The main character is interesting; I liked a lot of the secondary characters, especially the policemen who help him out with the case. The author kept me guessing as to the solution of the mystery, and some red herrings played out realistically.

My only quibble with these books is that the two I have read so far seem formulaic, and follow a typical plot line of the hard-boiled private eye novels. Private eye is approached by beautiful young woman; private eye takes the case, of course. He falls for some beautiful female involved in the case. This one follows the standard story even though the detective is not so hard-boiled, not macho at all.

About a third of the way in, I forgot all about that, and just enjoyed the story for what it is. I will be trying more of the ten remaining books in this series. I recommend that you give this series a try if you like private eye novels.

I read this book for the Canadian Book Challenge 6. The book is set in a small city in Canada near Niagara Falls: Grantham, Ontario. This town is based on the real city of St. Catharines, Ontario, where the author was born.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Stately Home Murder: Catherine Aird

The Stately Home Murder by Catherine Aird is the third mystery in the series featuring Sloan and Crosby. It was originally published in 1969 in the UK as The Complete Steel. It is considered one of the best books in the series, and also the funniest. Since I have only read one other book by this author (within memory), I cannot speak to that. I can say that it is very entertaining.

The setting and the crime?
The thirteenth Earl of Ornum has reluctantly opened his home, Ornum House, to the public. His home is a 300-room estate with fine collections of china, art and antique weaponry. One young visitor has disappeared to the armory, which was not often visited because of poor access and lighting. He opens the visor on one of several suits of armor and finds a dead body.

The body is found to be that of Osborne Meredith, the Earl's archivist. Apparently he had recently made some disturbing discoveries and someone wanted to shut him up. Permanently.

Who is detecting?
Detective Inspector C. D. Sloan and his assistant, Detective Constable Crosby, are the policemen investigating the crime in this mystery.  The plot centers mostly on the progress of the police investigation, once the crime has occurred.

Crosby and Sloan are part of a small department in Berebury, headed by Superintendent Leeyes...
The information was not exactly welcomed at the nearest police station. In fact, the Superintendent of Police in Berebury was inclined to be petulant when he was told. He glared across his desk at the Head of his Criminal Investigation Department and said:
"You sure it isn't a false alarm, malicious intent?"
"A body in a suit of armour," repeated Detective Inspector C. D. Sloan, the bearer of the unhappy news.
"Perhaps it was a dummy," said Superintendent Leeyes hopefully. "False alarm, good intent."
"In Ornum House," went on Sloan.
"Ornum House?" The Superintendent sat up. He didn't like the sound of that at all. "You mean the place where they have all those day trippers?"
"Yes, sir." Sloan didn't suppose the people who paid their half crowns to go round Ornum House thought of themselves as day trippers, but there was no good going into that with the Superintendent now.
The series is often referred to as the Sloan and Crosby series, indicating that Crosby continues to help Sloan with his enquiries throughout the series. At the author's website, the series is called The Chronicles of Calleshire. Calleshire is a fictional location.

The other characters?
There are too many to list them all, but the primary players are the family and the Earl's employees. The Earl, of course, and his wife, Lady Millicent. The son and heir, Henry, and the daughter, Eleanor. Two nephews, one a black sheep in the family, the other the second in line in succession (and his wife). Two elderly, eccentric aunts. Gertrude, cousin to the earl, who tends to the china and porcelain. Not to forget the Earl's steward and the butler.

My take?
This book has a list of characters at the beginning. I often don't refer to such lists, but I like them anyway. And this time, I did find it useful a couple of times. I confess to getting the members of the household and their guests confused at times.

The book is definitely poking fun at many elements of country house mysteries, but is quite a good mystery in itself. I did have some inklings along the way, at least regarding the why, but I am not sure I ever guessed who. I was entertained by the banter between various policemen and how some of them did not take all of the pomp of the stately home so seriously. The humor was dry and witty.

I definitely plan to read more in this series. I previously read The Religious Body, which I remember as having an interesting mystery plot. I want to see how the series progresses from the late 1960's through each decade. There are currently twenty two books in the series, the last one published in 2010. There is a new book coming out in late April of this year, in the UK.

Other tidbits:
The title in the UK comes from a Hamlet quote:
"That thou, dead corse, again in complete steel
Revisit’st thus the glimpses of the moon..."
The explanation for the US title is fairly obvious.

Catherine Aird is the pen name of Kinn Hamilton McIntosh, born in 1930. There is a very detailed and interesting page about Catherine Aird at the Rue Morgue Press site, which has reprinted some of her mysteries.

This post is an entry for the Crime Fiction Alphabet for 2013.  Please visit the post at Mysteries in Paradise to check out other entries for this letter.

This year, I plan to stick to the theme of authors or books in the sub-genre of police procedurals. At Wikipedia, this is broadly defined as "a subgenre of detective fiction which attempts to convincingly depict the activities of a police force as they investigate crimes."

I was aware that I have a preference for mysteries where the detective is in the police force, but I was surprised to find how many mysteries I own that feature such detectives. This is a good opportunity to feature such stories I really like or read the ones I haven't gotten to yet.

Friday, April 5, 2013

A Stone of the Heart: John Brady

A Stone of the Heart by John Brady is a police procedural. Like some books of that sub-genre, it goes much deeper and examines the character of the policeman and how his family and his environment affect his ability to do his job. The setting is primarily Dublin, Ireland in the late 1980's. Thus the unrest and violence in Ireland at the time is a part of the story.

Matt Minogue is a Sergeant in the Garda Murder Squad in Dublin. He was seriously injured when a government official that he was protecting was killed by a bomb. Soon after he has returned to work, he is put on a case.

Jarlath Walsh, a student at Trinity College Dublin, is killed on the grounds of the college. Evidence points toward the death being linked to drugs, although people who knew Jarlath don't believe that. Minogue is not sure whether his superiors genuinely want him to handle the case or if this case is a test of his ability to work as a policeman again. Either way, he has no doubts about his abilities. He is, however, affected negatively when the case proves to be related to IRA violence in Ireland.

This is the first book in a series of ten, published in 1988. Brady was awarded the Arthur Ellis Award for this title for best first First Novel in 1989. The award is presented annually by the Crime Writers of Canada for the best Candian crime and mystery writing.

The author was born in Dublin and graduated from Trinity College. Per the author's website, he and his wife divide their time between Ireland and Canada, where their family lives.

Minogue's back story and his family relationships are revealed gradually throughout the book. I enjoy books that combine themes of family and relationships with a mystery. I am looking forward to more of this story.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

New (to me) Mystery Authors, January - March

Today I am joining in on the meme for the best new-to-me crime fiction authors at Mysteries in Paradise. This meme runs at the end of each quarter. Check out other posts for this quarter.

In the first quarter of 2013, I read ten books by authors I had never read  before. That is a lot of new authors. Twice as many as in the last quarter. So, even if I am not getting through series that I have started, I have read some new authors that have been in my TBR pile a long time.

This is my list of books by new (to me) authors:
  1. Publish or Perish by Margot Kinberg
  2. The Smoke by Tony Broadbent
  3. The Case of the Angry Actress by E. V. Cunningham
  4. Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley
  5. Amuse Bouche by Anthony Bidulka
  6. Detective by Parnell Hall 
  7. The Loyal Servant by Eva Hudson
  8. Forty Words for Sorrow by Giles Blunt
  9. Deadly Appearances by Gail Bowen
  10. A Stone of the Heart by John Brady

All of the books on this list were well-written and entertaining. I plan to read more books in each of the series.

Forty Words for Sorrow by Giles Blunt was a serial killer novel with too much graphic violence for my tastes. However, the characterization was so strong in that book, and the plotting and setting are so vivid, that I have to try the next in the series.

Margot Kinberg's Publish or Perish is an entertaining mystery that combines elements of amateur detective, police procedural and takes place in an academic setting. What more can you ask for?

It is hard to believe that it took me so long to read the first book in Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins series, Devil in a Blue Dress, which was published in 1990. It has an interesting setting:... 1948, post WWII, a black neighborhood in Los Angeles, California. Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins is a black man who moves to Los Angeles, California from Houston, Texas to look for a better life after serving in the military during World War II.

There were two books in this group that did not fit in my usual guidelines. Both were light, humorous private detective stories. Detective by Parnell Hall is set in New York City. Amuse Bouche by Anthony Bidulka is set in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.

Normally I shy away from humor in mysteries, but I am discovering that it really depends on the writer, and both of these writers won me over.

A Stone of the Heart by John Brady is another winner. I am really into police procedurals at the moment. This one is set in Dublin, Ireland during the 1980's. I know very little about Ireland or Northern Ireland during this time and I want to know more.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Nearest Exit: Olen Steinhauer

In The Tourist and The Nearest Exit, Olen Steinhauer tells the story of an organization within the CIA described as the Department of Tourism. These books are part of a trilogy, which ends with An American Spy.

The agents, or "Tourists," are operatives who travel from place to place with no home base and do whatever covert act is requested by their department, no questions asked. Clearly, such agents cannot have a family. They cannot have ties that will affect their ability to act as needed. Milo Weaver has been such an agent and has escaped the job and settled down to a desk job within the organization.

Milo was very good at his job as a Tourist, but he did not enjoy it. At the start of The Nearest Exit, Milo has returned to the job out of necessity.

I enjoy spy fiction in general for its themes of moral ambiguity in the spy's life and work and the inevitable issues of trust. Can a spy ever trust anyone, even those closest to him or her?

I enjoyed The Tourist specifically because of the battle Milo has within himself and with the organization to be able to spend time with his family and settle down to a relatively normal existence. As the second book began, I was disappointed at first because it seemed like the family element had been removed to make way for another thrilling adventure. There are no easy answers, but family, both his wife and child, and his parents, figure very prominently in this story, without impacting the pace of the main plot.

The story is complex and told very well. Milo feels like a very real person, and all the secondary players also have unique personalities that make the story the more convincing.

The trilogy is meant to be read in order, although it is possible you could enjoy this adventure without the background of the first book.

Although the stories are very different, there are some similarities between the Milo Weaver trilogy and the Bernard Samson series by Len Deighton. The Nearest Exit is more of a thriller, in my opinion, but both series have family as a major theme. In the Bernard Samson books, both Samson and his wife Fiona are intelligence officers for British Secret Intelligence Service, and they have two children. Samson's father was an intelligence officer. My review of the 5th and 6th books in the series is here. I have not yet read the final three books of the series.

See another review at Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan.