Wednesday, July 26, 2017

City of Dragons: Kelli Stanley

Summary from the publisher:
February, 1940. In San Francisco's Chinatown, fireworks explode as the city celebrates Chinese New Year with a Rice Bowl Party, a three day-and-night carnival designed to raise money and support for China war relief. Miranda Corbie is a 33-year-old private investigator who stumbles upon the fatally shot body of Eddie Takahashi. The Chamber of Commerce wants it covered up. The cops acquiesce. All Miranda wants is justice--whatever it costs. From Chinatown tenements, to a tattered tailor's shop in Little Osaka, to a high-class bordello draped in Southern Gothic, she shakes down the city–her city–seeking the truth.

Miranda Corbie chooses to investigate Eddie Takahashi's death. She does pick up a second, paying case investigating the suspicious death of Lester Winters, and the disappearance of his daughter, Phyllis.

The handling of the setting in time and place is fantastic. Kelli Stanley makes San Francisco of the 1940's come alive, and she describes the tensions within Chinatown due to the war in Asia and Europe very well. I learned much about Chinatown and the US attitude toward the war at that time. I always enjoy a story set in Chinatown (of any city) but I don't think I have ever read one that was set before World War II.

Due to the writing style we are privy to Miranda's thoughts at times, and get glimpses of her background as a nurse in the Spanish Civil War, and the loss of her boyfriend in that war. She is clearly still suffering from these experiences, and seems to take out her pain on friends and foes alike.

Although the story is told from Miranda's point of view it is not in first person. Sometimes her thinking and reactions read like a stream of consciousness, with short sentences and choppy delivery. At other times, the writing is very beautiful, lovely descriptions and straightforward prose.

I will not pretend that this was the perfect reading experience for me. We are reminded too often about the unhappiness and confusion that Miranda is experiencing. Many readers complained about the many, many references to smoking, which did not bother me. And I should warn readers that there is a lot of profanity, although I felt it fit the context.

Nevertheless, I was involved with the story and admired the heroine. I want to follow her in her story and I plan to read the next book in the series. My husband has read all three books in the series and will be purchasing book 4 when it comes out.

Publisher: Minotaur Books, 2010
Length:    335 pages
Format:    Hardback
Series:     Miranda Corbie #1
Setting:    Chinatown, San Francisco, 1940's
Genre:     Historical Mystery
Source:    I borrowed this book from my husband.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Man with the Getaway Face: Richard Stark

Under the pseudonym of Richard Stark, Donald E. Westlake wrote a 24-book series featuring Parker, a thief and hardened criminal. Almost all of the books center around a heist.

In the first Parker novel, The Hunter, the focus is on revenge. Parker's wife and his partner betrayed him; after a heist, he was shot and left for dead. Parker goes after them, trying to get his share of the money back. Thus the second novel, The Man with the Getaway Face, is the first real heist novel in the series.

This book gives the reader a picture of the mechanics of setting up a heist, in this case, an armored car robbery. There is a "finger" who finds the opportunity for the heist. There is a person who provides the bank roll, the money to carry out the heist. Obviously there is the planning.

This time Parker is partnered with a guy called Skimm. A quote from the book describes the differences between them:
Skimm, like most men on the bum, lived from job to job; he spent more in one year than most make in five and was always broke, dressing and looking like a bum. How he did it, where it all went, Parker didn’t know. 
He [Parker] worked it differently, spending the money and time between jobs living at the best resort hotels and dressing himself in the best clothes. There was no overlap between people he knew on and off the job. He owned a couple of parking lots and gas stations around the country to satisfy the curiosity of the Internal Revenue beagles, but never went near them. He let the managers siphon off the profits in return for not asking him to take an active part in the business.
One of the givens in a heist story is there will be hitches in the plan. In this one, there are two hitches (at least) and one of them Parker is expecting. The other is a surprise to Parker and to the reader. The entertaining part is seeing how the story plays out when Parker runs into the problems.

In this book, even though Parker sees the problems early on, he is committed to the heist because he needs money dearly. He just paid a small fortune to have his face restructured, because people in the Outfit (the organization that is his nemesis) know what he looks like. So now he needs to build up his capital.

My thoughts:

In my review of The Hunter, I described Parker as having no redeeming qualities, and I said that there was "nothing admirable or likable about him." That is not far from the truth, but if so, what does pique my interest in these books? I do find Parker fascinating as a character study and I am sure that is due to Westlake's writing, which is very plain and unadorned. Parker is a professional. He is pragmatic; he makes his decisions related to completing a job in an intelligent way. He does not kill unnecessarily although this is mostly because he realizes that this is not in his best interests.

This book is like "the anatomy of a crime" (or in this case, a robbery or heist). It does not glorify the crime or the criminal, but treats it more like a job. There is no back story for Parker, no discussion of how or why did he come to this point in his life. We learn that he did care for his wife and misses his relationship with her, but that seems to be the only thing in his life that he has any emotional thoughts about. And even that is only a one-paragraph digression. The book is a non-emotional, straightforward story about a crime and the fallout from the crime.

I also see comparisons here with some spy novels I read. It seems like espionage appeals to the type of person who is good at thieving and killing, but in that case they get to do it for a cause. Sometimes they enjoy it, sometimes they are conflicted. In Parker's case, he is never conflicted about his job. This isn't everyone's type of book, but I am continuing on through the series for a while.

Some other resources:


Publisher:  Univ. of Chicago Press, 2008 (orig. publ. 1963)
Length:     213 pages
Format:     Trade paperback
Series:      Parker #2
Setting:     New Jersey, mainly
Genre:      Hard-boiled
Source:     I purchased my copy

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Distant Echo: Val McDermid

In 1978, four young men, students at St. Andrews University, walk home from a party in the early morning hours. They are very drunk, loud and rambunctious. They happen upon a woman's body; it is clear she has been stabbed and is near death. One of them goes for help. By the time he has returned with a policeman, the woman has died, although one of the students tried to save her.

The victim, who was raped before she was stabbed, is Rosie Duff, a barmaid at a pub that the students frequented. Immediately they become the chief suspects in the crime. When no other viable suspects turn up, and the crime is not solved, they continue to be under a cloud of suspicion.

Twenty five years later, the case is reopened by a newly commissioned cold case squad. Assistant Chief Constable James Lawson, who was a police constable at the time of the crime, heads the squad, and DC Karen Pirie is investigating the Rosie Duff murder.

The first 160 pages (of 400) of The Distant Echo cover the discovery of the crime and the first few days of the investigation. The rest of the book is about the investigation of the crime 25 years later, and the impact that the unsolved crime has had on the four men over time.

The story focuses on the four young men throughout the first part of the book and they continue to feature prominently in the second half. Whether one or more of them is actually the murderer is left open for most of the book, and I got very involved with their stories. I guessed the resolution of the mystery early on but there was enough doubt to keep it interesting.

What else did I like about this book:

  • The use of the setting in Scotland is marvelous, especially in the first half of the book.
  • The perfect balance of / blending of the story about the four young men who find the body and and the police investigation.
  • The story in 1978 vs the story in 2003 is handled well. With the book split into two parts, there is less confusion than when the book goes back and forth.
  • Good character development. There are three main police officers, the four suspects, Rosie Duff's family and the families of the suspects. That is a lot of characters, but even with the jump to 25 years later in their lives, it did not get confusing and they were all well defined.

This is billed as the first book in the Karen Pirie series, but she only shows up after 200 pages into the story and even after that only plays a small role in the story. ACC Lawson plays a much more prominent role. This is not a problem for me, I just thought I should mention it. However, as far as the series go, I would read this one first because based on other reviews, this one is unavoidably spoiled if you read the second one first. This novel read much more like a standalone book, and it was a very enjoyable one.

See reviews at Goodreads by K. A. Laity and John Grant.

Publisher: St. Martin's Minotaur, 2003
Length:    404 pages
Format:    Hardback
Series:     Karen Pirie #1
Setting:    Scotland
Genre:     Mystery
Source:    I purchased this book in 2005.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Passing: Nella Larsen

Passing by Nella Larsen was published in 1929 and was one of only two books by this American author. It is the story of two childhood friends who meet up again by chance in Chicago. Both are light-skinned African-American women who can pass for white. Clare Kendry continues to live in Chicago and has married a white man who does not know that she has Negro blood. The couple have a daughter. Irene Redfield is married to a black doctor; they live in Harlem with their two young boys. Later, Clare wants to continue her friendship with Irene, and Irene resists.

The story is told primarily from Clare's point of view and focuses on her home life, her reactions to Clare, and how the continuation of their friendship affects both of their lives. For me it was an eye-opening picture of the black community in Harlem in the 1920's.

As Clare continues to force her way into Irene's life, it is strange how strongly Irene reacts. At first Irene's husband is disapproving of Clare, then he begins to accept her and enjoy her presence. Clare's husband is very antagonistic towards Negroes, so Clare's visits with the Redfields are in secret. Clare seems to be running away from her life in white society when she visits New York. She is risking her marriage and the loss of her child if her husband becomes aware of her background, but she seems to want that to happen. Irene finds her irritating but irresistible.

Irene meanwhile seems to ignore the fact that racism exists and doesn't want her children to have to deal with that. Her husband is unhappy with their life in New York and wants to move to Brazil where he hopes they would have a better life. Their relationship is very conflicted. Clare's entry into their life, even on an occasional basis, begins to bring Irene's marital problems to the forefront.

The reader can sympathize with Clare's desire to live a different life where she is treated as an equal, but we can also see that the subterfuge takes a great toll on her. It is also interesting that both of these women are married to well-to-do men and have servants. They have attained a dream of wealth and a family, but both are unhappy.

For such a short novel (in my copy less than a hundred pages), this is a very complex story. Some readers were dissatisfied with the ending. I found it surprising but felt that it fit in with the story, leaving some things up in the air. The themes in this book go beyond racism, to the role of women, identity, and the difficulty of relationships. In addition, it is extremely well written.

My first introduction to this book was at Clothes in Books in a post by guest blogger Colm Redmond. I urge you to check out his insights in that post.


Publisher:  BN Publishing, 2012 (orig. publ. 1929).
Length:      94 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Setting:      Harlem, New York (mainly)
Genre:        Fiction
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Track of the Cat: Nevada Barr

Each book in the Anna Pigeon series by Nevada Barr is set in a different national park in the US. If this book is any indication, the reader is immersed in nature and the environment while reading each story.

Anna is a park ranger, and in this novel, she has a posting at the Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas. As the book starts, she is hiking a transect in the park looking for mountain lion scat. (A transect is a path along which one counts and records occurrences of the species of study.) As she nears the end of her trek, she finds the body of another park ranger. Apparently the ranger, Sheila Drury, was mauled by a mountain lion, but Anna questions whether this is true. Against the wishes of her superiors, she pursues an investigation to find out more about the death.

For some reason, I have never thought of National Park Rangers as law enforcement officers; this may not be the largest part of their jobs at most times, but they can be trained in law enforcement, and if so, they do carry guns. Although this book is a thriller, Anna's experiences were believable. Nevada Barr was a park ranger and worked in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, so she clearly is writing from experience and is invested in the theme of protecting animals in the park and the environment.

I found this a very good read, although to be honest, the portions where she is out on trails hiking were not my favorite parts. I suspect I am in the minority here, and I recommend this highly for readers interested in this immersion in the environment. Anna is a very interesting character, strong-willed, sometimes irritable and cranky, and for the most part a loner. The fact that Anna is not always likable makes her more interesting to me; she is not your usual type of heroine. The secondary characters were not so well developed, however.

Here is a quote from the first chapter of the book:
Anna sat down on a smooth boulder, the top hollowed into a natural seat. The red peeling arms of a Texas madrone held a veil of dusty shade over her eyes. This was the third day of this transect. By evening she would reach civilization: people. A contradiction in terms, she thought even as the words trickled through her mind. Electric lights, television, human companionship, held no allure. But she wanted a bath and she wanted a drink. Mostly she wanted a drink.
As mentioned before,  each book is set in a different National Park area and this is a bonus. I have several more books in the series: Endangered Species (1997) and Deep South (2000) and a couple of the later books. I would especially like to read Deep South because the area she is assigned to is the Natchez Trace Parkway. (My grandfather used to call me Natchez Trace.) It could be fun to read about that area.

See other reviews at Crimepieces and Petrona, and Margot's Spotlight at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist...


Publisher:  Avon Books, 1994. Orig. pub. 1993.
Length:     311 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Anna Pigeon, #1
Setting:     Texas
Genre:      Mystery
Source:     I purchased my copy a long time ago.

Monday, July 3, 2017

A 4th of July Mystery: A Fountain Filled with Blood

This is the second mystery in the Reverend Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne series by Julia Spencer-Fleming. Clare Fergusson has left her job in the military as a helicopter pilot to become an Episcopal priest in the small town of Miller's Kill, New York. Russ Van Alstyne is the police chief and they seem to run into each other a lot.

As the citizens of Miller's Kill, New York head into the July 4th weekend, two gay men are severely beaten in separate incidents. Clare urges the police to notify the public; Russ feels like this could lead to copycat incidents. When another man, also homosexual, is killed, Russ must figure out if the crimes are connected. Mixed in with this are conflicts within the town over development of a luxury spa and environmental issues.

Having read the first book in this series, In the Bleak Midwinter, I wasn't sure if I was going to enjoy the 2nd book in the series as much. I was not entirely  comfortable with the attraction that develops between the two major characters in the book, Clare Fergusson and police chief Russ Van Alstyne. It seemed out of character for both of them and nowhere for it to go realistically. That does continue to be an underlying theme in the books from what I have read.

If I was being picky, I would have other complaints. Clare is an intelligent person with strength of character; in view of that, some of the situations she gets herself into don't make sense. Yet, even with my reservations in that area, I found this book so compelling and involving that I could hardly put it down. I started it one evening and finished it the next day. Granted, that was on a weekend but that rarely happens to me.

Although I do not participate in organized religious activities, I do enjoy reading mysteries with a clerical theme. I like to learn about other religions (I grew up in a Methodist church in Alabama). Although the plot in A Fountain Filled with Blood does not center around the church, Clare's behavior and choices are informed by the expectations inherent in her role in the church.  And I was surprised at what I learned about the Episcopal church, or at least the one in Miller's Kill, New York.

So, on many levels, I enjoyed this book and I will be reading the next one to see where Clare goes from here.

Other resources:


Publisher:  St. Mattin's Paperbacks, 2004. Orig. pub. 2003.
Length:     371 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Clare Fergusson / Russ Van Alstyne, #2
Setting:     Upstate New York
Genre:       Mystery
Source:     I purchased my copy in 2006.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Crime Fiction Reading in June 2017

In June I began reading from my 20 Books of  Summer list (my list is HERE). Only five of my seven books read this month were from that list. The Big Killing was a carryover from my reading in May, and I purchased Dangerous Davies: The Last Detective in June so that I could read it prior to watching the TV series. So I am a bit behind on the list, but still doing well. I read three books from the 1990s and only one vintage mystery, published in 1937.

These are the seven books I read in June:

The Big Killing (1989) by Annette Meyers
Xenia Smith and Leslie Wetzon are executive headhunters located on Wall Street. This is the first of the mysteries featuring this team. Wetzon meets Barry Stark, a potential client, at the Four Seasons for lunch. He excuses himself for a moment; shortly after that, Leslie Wetzon finds his dead body in a telephone booth at the restaurant. Both Smith and Wetzon are very interested in the homicide cop, Silvestri, who is assigned to the murder. The main protagonist, Wetzon, was formerly a dancer on Broadway, and that side story lends the most interest to the story for me. 
Vanishing Act (1995) by Thomas Perry
I have only read two books by Thomas Perry, and I feel like I have found a new favorite author. The first was The Butcher's Boy, about a man who murders for hire, and a brilliant young analyst, Elizabeth Waring, who notices a pattern related to his crimes. Vanishing Act is the first in a series about Jane Whitefield, a Native American guide, who helps people in trouble find new identities and disappear. I will be reading more books by Thomas Perry later in the year.
Dangerous Davies: The Last Detective (1976) by Leslie Thomas
Dangerous Davies is a hapless detective with serious flaws who through patience and determination manages to solve the cases that he takes an interest in. The book was published in 1976 and Davies takes up the cold case of a teenage girl who disappeared in 1951. My review is HERE. I will continue reading the series (only 4 books) and watching the TV series.
The Man with the Getaway Face (1963) by Richard Stark
This is the 2nd book in the Parker series by Richard Stark (aka Donald E. Westlake). Parker is an amoral crook; Westlake wrote 24 books about him between 1962 and 2008. I find it hard to describe these books, so I am borrowing a paragraph from The University of Chicago Press, the publisher of the reprint edition: 
"Parker goes under the knife in The Man with the Getaway Face, changing his face to escape the mob and a contract on his life. Along the way he scores his biggest heist yet: an armored car in New Jersey, stuffed with cash."
Track of the Cat (1993) by Nevada Barr
Track of the Cat by Nevada Barr is a fine debut novel, the first in a series about Park Ranger Anna Pigeon. In this novel, Anna has a posting in Texas (the Guadalupe Mountains National Park). The book is a nature lover's delight, and Nevada spends a lot of time hiking in the park. Nevada is a loner, cranky, not much for socializing; a different kind of heroine. 
The Black Ice (1993) by Michael Connelly
The second novel in the Harry Bosch series starts on Christmas day; Harry is eating his Christmas dinner alone and is on call. That same night, he ends up in a motel room where the dead body of Narcotics detective Calexico Moore has been discovered; or so they assume, since the body has been in the room for weeks and is in bad shape. The investigation into how Moore died takes Harry to Mexico.

Busman's Honeymoon (1937) by Dorothy Sayers
This is the last novel in Dorothy Sayers' series about Lord Peter Wimsey. After five years of being wooed by Peter, Harriet Vane has finally said yes, and we get a peek at the wedding planning, the nuptials, but most of all their first few days of marriage at Talboys, where a dead body is discovered.