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Archive for the ‘Crime fiction’ Category

glauserThe 1930s crime fiction of Friedrich Glauser seems to me to be the dark bedrock from which the immensely popular body of Scandinavian crime fiction springs. In four years, Glauser, a depressive, morphine-addicted writer, who was once committed to an insane asylum, and who died at the age of forty two, published five detective novels featuring the Swiss Sergeant Studer.

Now being published for the first time in English by Bitter Lemon Press, Glauser’s novels will appeal to a wide range of crime fiction readers. Glauser is often referred to as the “Swiss Simenon,” and like Simenon, his novels focus more on the psychology of both the detective and the criminal than on fast-paced action. There is a lot of talking here, and the Austrian-born Swiss Glauser seems to share an interest in psychology with his compatriots, Freud and Jung. It is through conversation that Sgt. Studer most frequently comes to the solution of the crime. Glauser’s novels explore the dark side of human nature as it is played out in families, schools, and in one case, an asylum.

Glauser also shares with Simenon an interest in food, and there is a lot of eating and drinking going on in these stories. Sgt. Studer is a fascinating character. Once a promising detective, Studer was somehow compromised in a bank investigation, and his career was derailed. He now finds himself a pariah to most of his colleagues and supervisors, and he is the man who is sent out on hopeless cases. While Studer is not always quick to see connections, his relentlessness and his commitment to the truth eventually lead him to the solution.

Fans of Simenon should find these novels interesting, but they will also appeal to readers who enjoy more contemporary Scandinavian crime fiction. Thumbprint is a good starting point for exploring this forgotten master of police fiction.

Check the WRL catalog for Thumbprint.

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LastHank Palace is a cop investigating a suicide that he believes to be a murder. That’s the whole plot; this could be any crime fiction novel you’ve ever read.

Only, the earth is going to be struck by an asteroid in six months, and everything in his investigation is colored by that fact, beginning with the question “why bother?” Does it matter if a guy hanged himself or was murdered, if everyone is likely to be dead before the year is out? Well, if you’re Hank Palace, of the Concord, N.H. Police Department: Yes. Palace does the job because that’s his job.

He’s only been a detective for 3 ½ months, promoted young because all the seasoned detectives are retiring early or disappearing without notice. Ever since the projected impact of asteroid Maia became a certainty, everyone on the planet is confronting mortality at the same time and in their own ways. The market has collapsed; some folks run pirate black-market restaurants out of abandoned McDonald’s. Workers everywhere are abandoning their jobs to pursue lifelong “bucket lists,” or just hanging themselves. (The public library, of course, responds with a display of books to read before you die.)

But while the infrastructure collapses around him, Hank Palace is pursuing leads, in coat and tie, taking notes in actual blue books like the kind you used for college exams. The only person who can distract him from his singleminded investigation is his somewhat loony younger sister, whose boyfriend has vanished while trying to expose a government coverup.

I love characters like Palace: Philip Marlowe. Sam Vimes. “You’re a policeman through and through…” says one of his interviewees. “You’ll be standing there when the asteroid comes down, with one hand out, yelling, Stop! Police!”

The Last Policeman won a 2013 Edgar award for best paperback original mystery. Although there isn’t time left to carry Palace’s story much farther, there are two more books coming in the trilogy, starting with the sequel, Countdown City.

Check the WRL catalog for The Last Policeman.

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City of SaintsFirst-hand knowledge of a novel’s setting can be a double-edged sword. If the author portrays the location ineptly, the reader that knows the place may find it impossible to enjoy other aspects of the book. On the other hand, if the author brings that setting to life, the local reader may be willing to forgive other flaws.

Such is the case for me with City of Saints, a mystery novel based on a once famous but now forgotten historical murder in 1930s Salt Lake City. I lived in Salt Lake for almost ten years myself, and although Hunt depicts a period long before my birth, I could picture my grandparents rubbing shoulders with Sheriff Art Oveson as he tried to solve the killing of an adulterous socialite.

At first, this Salt Lake City may surprise you. It’s grittier than one might expect, especially for the 1930s, but I always found the Utah capital to contain more cultural diversity and more big city problems than its squeaky clean Mormon image might imply. With mines and railroads in full flourish by 1930, and with the glitz and controversy of Southern California a day away, it makes sense that Salt Lake City has contained that diversity for a long time. That’s the tension that underlies Hunt’s story: Oveson is a practicing Mormon, but he comes from a law enforcement family. He knows there’s a darker side to his town. His partner is about as rough as men come and may have different allegiances than Oveson. Departmental politics and powerful men trying to protect clean public personae taint his case from the beginning.

As a mystery, Hunt’s tale is average, but because it captures an unusual place in a complicated time so well, I think you’ll enjoy it, even if Salt Lake City is new and exotic to you.

Check the WRL catalog for City of Saints

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Caught StealingCharlie Huston is an Elmore Leonard for a new generation. Or you might think of him as a writer like Carl Hiaasen or Tim Dorsey, but with occasional influences from other pulp genres. Like all of these great noir writers, he writes fast-moving, violent stories that make readers laugh at the dark comedy at the same time he makes them understand how regular folks with basically good intentions take a tumble down the moral staircase. I’ve written previously about his Joe Pitt series, in which a fixer works New York City’s streets in an alternate future overrun with vampires. Now let’s turn to his first series of books, the noir trilogy that begins with Caught Stealing.

Hank Thompson is a sympathetic narrator, a former baseball star who felt his whole life change when the weight of a third baseman came down on his ankle during an attempted steal. Now he’s tending bar on the Lower East Side and working on a second career as an alcoholic. Fate isn’t done with Hank though: with a few more bad decisions, he will find himself left with one working kidney, with himself and his loved ones in danger, and on the run from criminals and cops alike. Huston shows how with some small mistakes and some bad luck, a regular guy gets pulled into a life of minor crime, then even murder.

Caught Stealing is a clown car that opens to reveal one eccentric character after another: Tweedle-dum and -dee Russian mobsters, an extravagantly crooked cop, a pair of sadistic but self-improving bank robber brothers, a bevy of low life friends and other thugs, and a cat named Bud who uses up several of his lives during the course of the narrative. Everyone’s in search of a mysterious key, and New York City becomes a pinball machine where all of these crazy characters careen around, slamming into each other until only a few are left on the table.

Hank is both believable and entertaining because in the middle of all the disaster and violence, he can’t help but let normal thoughts intrude: What will his mother think? Will his beloved San Francisco Giants make the playoffs?  Just how cool is this cat?

If you don’t care for language or violence stay away, but if you read this series, I guarantee quick reading and an equal share of laughs and moments when you think about the potential consequences of life’s smallest bad choices. The series finishes with Six Bad Things and A Dangerous Man.

Check the WRL catalog for Caught Stealing

Or try Caught Stealing as an audiobook on CD

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mistressJimmy Hoffa.  Ambrose Bierce.  D.B. Cooper.  Amelia Earhart. Chances are anyone you ask can identify these famous missing persons. But have you heard of “the most missingest man in America?”  Once upon a time, Judge Joseph Crater’s 1930 disappearance captivated the country, and sporadic developments have still made news since.  Ariel Lawhon doesn’t know what happened to Judge Crater, but her new book sure takes what we know and extends it just a little into a plausible and entertaining solution to the mystery.

What we know: Judge Crater had barely started his new job as an Associate Justice of the New York Supreme Court and was at his summer cottage when he got a phone call. He returned to New York City, and did some work in his chambers.  On the evening of August 6, Crater had dinner with a friend and a showgirl, set off to see a Broadway play and >poof<.  It took a month for an investigation to start, because everyone thought he was somewhere else, but when he was officially reported missing on September 3 it became national news. Lots of tips, a grand jury investigation, and countless police hours trying to trace him turned up nothing.  Whispers of corruption in the judiciary, of Tammany Hall politics, and of gangland involvement came out of the rampant speculation, but nothing was ever proven.

As you can tell by the title, Lawhon’s story revolves around the women in Crater’s life. Stella Crater’s money financed the Judge’s rise in the world, but he expects that she will comport herself as the political wife, representing her husband in public and keeping her nose out of his business in private.  The Mistress is Sally Lou Ritz, a busty long-legged showgirl with a secret past and serious current problems. Despite the glamorous whirl of Broadway shows and speakeasies, Ritzi also learns to be where Crater wants her and to be gone when he doesn’t. Then there’s the Maid, Maria Simon. Maria works part-time for the Craters, and the Judge got Maria’s husband Jude his new job as a detective for New York City’s Finest.  She, too, learns that keeping Crater’s secrets is the price she will pay for her husband’s advancement.

The story develops along the web of visible and invisible relationships created by these people. All of them dance on the strings pulled by the infamous gangster Owney Madden.  Madden is Ritzi’s sponsor in the not-so-glamorous Broadway backstage world, where interchangeable showgirls often double as courtesans.  He holds the mortgage on Stella’s family cottage, which Crater sold him in exchange for the cash the judge needed to run his election. And he’s the guy who tells the NYPD how and when to conduct their investigations, and it’s no accident that Maria’s husband is one of the guys chosen to look into Crater’s death.

The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress is set in the quintessential New York City depicted in the black and white movies of the era. It’s 1930, and the worst of the Depression hasn’t really become visible to these characters, although they see men in bespoke shoes selling apples.  New Broadway shows are opening up all the time, speakeasies are thriving, the life and livelihood of the City is settled in the chophouses where the rich and powerful eat.  Underneath that lighthearted bustle is the worm of the Big Apple – the flow of money and patronage through the political clubs, bribery from the station house to the courthouse, and the muscle to silence anyone who stands in the way.

Lawhon uses a bookend plot to set the stage for those not familiar with Crater’s story. Stella Crater made an annual visit to a Greenwich Village bar on August 6, where she would buy two cocktails, raise one in a toast, drink it and leave the other untouched. In the book, she invites Jude Simon to meet her there for one last drink, and presents him with a sealed envelope, the final word that explains everything to the last detective remotely interested in the case.  The modern-day conversation makes an occasional reappearance in the story, as do flashbacks that establish Crater’s character or create a timely link between two characters.  Added together, the three plotlines make a deeply satisfying resolution to one of the 20th century’s greatest unsolved mysteries.

Check the WRL catalog for The Wife, The Maid, and the Mistress

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Thrillers rarely come along that are created with as much verve as Headhunters, a standalone novel by Norwegian author Jo Nesbø, who also writes the Harry Hole series. The crafty, intelligent plot has a bit of noir as well as some jaw-dropping comic moments; you won’t believe the literally sticky situations that come up amid Hitchcockian twists and turns. You’ll also find well-developed characters despite the book’s brevity (less than 300 pages), which I always appreciate.

Roger Brown is a corporate headhunter who moonlights as an art thief to maintain a lavish lifestyle for his wife. He is also clearly trying to compensate for his short height and his insecurity about having such a gorgeous wife, terrified that she’ll discover his true colors. In Roger’s misguided drive to supplement his already lucrative work and preserve his marriage, he suddenly finds himself caught in a web of unclear motives and loyalties, with no one to trust. He wonders just how long he’s been the target in someone’s larger scheme rather than solely the mastermind of his own crimes.

Clas Greve is not only a brilliant and devilishly handsome corporate icon, he’s also a tried and tested covert special forces operative skilled as another type of “head hunter.” His history with GPS tracking technology landed him the CEO position with a major corporation rumored to have lost him following a takeover. Roger Brown’s wife Diana, who meets Greve through her art gallery, tips Roger off to Greve’s availability as a potential CEO candidate, and Roger thinks he is perfect to head a competing GPS technology firm. Diana also tells the tale of a missing masterpiece by Rubens that was found in Clas Greve’s grandmother’s apartment in Oslo. Not only does Roger think he has found the perfect executive for his client, he plots to steal the work of art that might set him up in luxury for life.

Pampered, polished Roger, a sophisticated businessman and very classy thief, may be in over his head, but in the course of an adventurous and outrageous series of circumstances, he reveals his true grit. The reader will end up rooting for this undeserving hero. Fans of Stieg Larsson, Elmore Leonard, or Carl Hiaasen are likely to be enraptured.

“MPAA rating: R; for bloody violence including some grisly images, strong sexual content and nudity.” If you are over 17, and know that you could at least stomach Pulp Fiction or Fight Club, don’t let this intimidating film rating prevent you from viewing the riveting Norwegian film version of the novel. Despite the rating, I found it less disturbing than expected, not as violent or brutal as your average Tarantino flick—the murders in Headhunters come across as rather accidental, not cold-blooded or ultra-disturbingly violent. Yes, there are some graphic scenes, but you’ll be so caught up in the unexpected plot twists that I doubt you’ll find them too extreme—well, except for one scene reminiscent of the unforgettable outhouse scene in Slumdog Millionaire. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed suspense this much since Fargo. What you should know is that the details in some scenes are so much more graphic in the book that you’ll be glad that the director chose to leave them out!

The DVD has settings for viewing in Norwegian with subtitles or with English dubbing. I enjoyed it in Norwegian more because the English was dubbed with American accents. Roger Brown’s character is British and all the other characters are either Norwegian or Dutch, so it just made more sense to use the English subtitles.

Check the WRL catalog for the book 

Check the catalog for the ebook

Check the catalog for the DVD

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Shapiro uses a true crime event, the 1990 theft of priceless works of art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, as the backdrop for this engaging novel about a young artist with outstanding talent but a soiled reputation whose susceptibility gets her neck-deep into a forgery scheme. Cleverly, author Shapiro inserts a fictional masterpiece by Degas that, of course, was not among the 13 works stolen in real life. This way she is able to weave an entirely new provenance, history, and fate for her invented painting for the sake of this story, which includes a fictional alleged relationship between the museum’s founder Isabella and Edgar Degas.  Clues are slowly revealed to the reader through the inclusion of a mysterious collection of undiscovered letters composed by Isabella, telling all to her favorite niece.

Reluctant at first, but eventually coerced into accepting that her part in copying the painting is innocent—it’s apparently legal to copy art as long as one doesn’t try to pass off the forgery as the original—Clare Roth feels safely distanced from any related criminality. She convinces herself that it’s legal to create a fine copy of an original masterwork; after all, she legitimately copies masterpieces for a fine art reproduction business.  She’s in denial, however, that storing the stolen art in her studio home or developing a romantic attachment to the art dealer makes her an accessory to the crime. Feeling removed from the Gardner theft, and unconnected to any of the buyers or sellers interested in the proposed forgery, Clare still becomes increasingly enmeshed as the plot unravels, family secrets are uncovered shedding new light on the museum’s history and benefactor, and the authenticity of a valuable masterpiece is questioned.

Those who love true crimes and/or mysteries with a sprinkling of romance (that doesn’t dominate a story) are likely to enjoy this novel. It will also appeal to those who like contemporary novels based around true events.

Information on the real art theft in the wee hours following Saint Patrick’s Day reveling is described on the Gardner museum’s Website and also in The Gardner Heist, by Ulrich Boser. Art investigators are still trying to recover the stolen artworks, and a $5 million reward is offered for information leading to their safe recovery.

In The Art Forger, the device of using a bolder and smaller font to distinguish sections in the novel that describe events that occurred years earlier helps to keep time and details straight. Unfortunately, this technique was lost on me as I was reading the e-book version; it’s there but I just didn’t notice it easily on my particular device—just thought I’d mention that for those of you with e-readers.

Check the WRL Catalog for The Art Forger, available in print, large print, on CD, and e-book.

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cuckooLula Landry, a beautiful mixed-race supermodel, has fallen to her death from her third-floor flat onto the snow-covered walk in a posh section of London. The paparazzi and press go wild; everyone in the world is shocked. A woman who lives in the same building swears she heard a male voice arguing with Lula right before the fall, but the police investigate and determine Lula’s death a suicide. The witness, they conclude after lengthy investigation, is either a delusional coke-head or is in it for the publicity; she could not have heard anything through the triple-glazed windows of the high-end flats.

Three months later, young Robin Ellacott, newly engaged and newly arrived in London, is working for a temp agency as a secretary and is thrilled to find that her new assignment is for a private investigator, as she has always secretly wanted to be a private eye. Her first encounter with her new boss, the large, hairy, one-legged veteran of the war in Afghanistan, Cormoran Strike, however, is not a pleasant one, and she learns on the first day of her week-long assignment that Strike is in a great deal of debt, is getting death threats from a former client, has only one current client, and is apparently living in his office.

It is fortunate, then, that a new client shows up at Strike’s meager office. The brother of Lula Landry, John Bristow, is convinced that Lula’s fall was not suicide, and has come to hire Strike to investigate. Strike at first says no; his conscience tells him he cannot take the money to investigate something that he is confident has been so thoroughly looked into that any investigation on his part will change the outcome. Bristow, fuming, says he had been willing to pay double Strike’s fee. Strike relents, his debts and living conditions weighing into the decision.

J.K. Rowling can create wonderful characters, and many populate this mystery novel. Almost anyone Strike and Robin look into in the course of their investigation could be a suspect: Lula’s rock star ex-boyfriend Evan Duffield; film-producer and neighbor Freddy Bestigui; Rochelle, a down-and-out friend Lula met in rehab; Guy Somé, a designer for whom Lula modeled; American rapper Deeby Macc who was supposed to stay in the flat below Lula’s the night she died; relatives, drivers, doormen, fellow models, and even strangers could have had a motive. As I listened to this audiobook, I was constantly changing who I believed the killer was, or even if there was a killer.

The reader for the audiobook, British actor Robert Glenister, is excellent. Though I am no expert on British accents, from my point of view, he nailed the various accents. I could easily tell who was speaking, and his inflections added so much to the story that I would recommend listening to the audiobook over reading the book for the immersive pleasure of Glenister’s outstanding storytelling.

According to news reports, a sequel is planned for publication in 2014. I am hoping Rowling, either using her own name or that of her pseudonym, Robert Galbraith, will continue what promises to be an excellent mystery series where the complex, very likable, and extraordinarily adept Cormoran Strike and his proficient and enthusiastic assistant Robin Ellacott investigate many more cases.

Check the WRL catalog for the print version of The Cuckoo’s Calling.

Check the WRL catalog for the compact disc audiobook version of The Cuckoo’s Calling.

Check the OneClickDigital catalog for the downloadable audiobook version of The Cuckoo’s Calling

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YardLondon, 1889. The city’s residents are frightened and demoralized by the crimes of Jack the Ripper, and Scotland Yard’s reputation has suffered as a result of its inability to capture the killer. The story opens on the scene of newly recruited Detective Inspector Walter Day and forensic pathologist Bernard Kingsley examining a corpse on a train station platform.   The corpse turns out to be a fellow policeman, shockingly mutilated.

Day soon finds himself heading up the investigation, supervising Scotland Yard’s recently formed “Murder Squad.”  The reader is taken into the world of policing in class-conscious Victorian London and its overworked detectives, disrespected constables, and the nascent science of forensic pathology.  The thoughtful and perceptive Day, and the detectives on his murder squad, examine the cases of the murdered Detective Little, trying to find some thread of a lead to grasp.

As the murder squad pursues leads in the murder of their colleague, an ambitious and dedicated constable pursues the seeming accidental suffocation of a young boy in a chimney. The tragedy is a predictable outcome of the boy’s work as a chimney sweeper’s boy, yet Constable Hammersmith finds himself moved by pity and anger to pursue the facilitator of the child’s fate– against the orders of his superiors. He finds himself opening a very dangerous can of worms, which may or may not be related to Day’s homicide investigation. Jack the Ripper himself figures into this story, but not in the way you might think!

You should check out this series if you enjoy the Victorian-era mysteries of Anne Perry. Grecian’s protagonists share their sense of justice with those of Perry’s detectives Thomas Pitt and William Monk.

I was intrigued by the characters and their relationships. The character Bernard Kingsley is based on real-life forensic pathology pioneer Bernard Spilsbury (most famous perhaps for his work on the Crippen poisoning case).  The forensics are one of the most intriguing aspects of the story. It is fascinating, for example, to see the general incredulity which greets Kingsley’s introduction of fingerprint technology into the case, something which today is taken for granted in criminal investigations. I was surprised to find out that the powerful character of Commissioner of Police Colonel Sir Edward Bradford is a real historical figure and portrayed very true to life.

The relationship between Inspector Day, Constable Hammersmith, and Dr. Kingsley are developed in the second book in the series, Black Country, which I think I enjoyed even more than the first one. I’m greatly looking forward to the next entry in this series.

Check the WRL catalog for The Yard as a book.

Listen to The Yard  on audio CD.

We also have The Yard as an eaudiobook.

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spencerSometimes, you just need a good book. Not a great one or one that will move your soul, but just a well-plotted, interestingly written story with characters who will keep your attention. I found myself in that state the other night, and rather than browsing my shelves for something to re-read, I got out my iPad and took a look at the mysteries in the library’s ebook collection. There were lots of titles there to choose from, and I decided to take a chance on Sally Spencer. I had never heard of her books before, but a British police procedural set in the post-WWII period sounded interesting. I was delighted with the choice.

Spencer’s main character, Inspector “Cloggin’ It” Charlie Woodend, is a great addition to the fictional police forces. Like some of my favorite other police inspectors, Adamsberg, Colbeck, and Dalziel, Woodend is often a thorn in the side of his superiors, and his sometimes unorthodox investigating style does not always endear him to his colleagues.

These are slow-paced stories, with more thinking, walking, and talking than cinematic thrills and chases. Like Simenon’s Maigret, Charlie Woodend lets the “why” lead to the “how” of the crime rather than vice versa. This first story in the series also introduces Sergeant Bob Rutter, who is assigned to Woodend to investigate a series of killings in a small town in Cheshire. Woodend has a reputation for running through sergeants pretty quickly, but Rutter turns out to be a match, and the interplay between the two builds as the series progresses.

Spencer does an excellent job of bringing in details of the personal lives of the policemen as well as cultural events of the period in which the books are set (moving forward from the 1950s). In particular, Spencer captures the disruption caused by the war and its aftermath to small town life. In the later stories, Spencer explores the difficult entry of women on to the force, and eventually develops a new series around one of her female detectives.

So while these books may not be the be all and end all of crime writing, they are solid examples of some of the best crime fiction I have read lately, and a welcome addition to my growing list of police procedurals.

Check the WRL catalog for The Salton Killings.

Also available as an ebook.

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NowYouSeeMeAnn Marie of the library’s Outreach Services Division provides today’s review:

Not being a “Ripperologist” (someone obsessed with all things related to Jack the Ripper), I have to admit that I almost didn’t check out this book due to the words “Jack the Ripper” included in the description. Mysteries, though, that have interesting protagonists with an intriguing continuing story-line, are the types of mysteries that I enjoy reading the most. Detective Constable Lacey Flint of Now You See Me fits very ably into this category. She is a character that I don’t think you will soon forget.

Now You See Me begins with Lacey covered in blood—fortunately it’s someone else’s blood. When she returns to her car after interviewing a witness, she finds a woman leaning against her car. When Lacey approaches the stranger, she finds the woman’s throat has been slashed only minutes before. Lacey rushes to the woman to try to help her and watches as the woman dies on the street. Even though Lacey is a witness to the crime and a junior officer, she finds herself re-assigned to the murder investigation. Then the case takes an ominous turn when an anonymous letter is sent to a reporter. The letter mentions Lacey by name and also makes references to London’s most famous serial killer, Jack the Ripper. Does the Metropolitan Police have a modern Jack the Ripper on the loose? Will this murder be the first in a series of Ripper-like crimes?

As the investigating officers grapple with the seemingly random killings, they struggle to uncover anything that might link the victims as well as try to figure out where in modern London the new Ripper will strike next. Lacey also finds herself under scrutiny by fellow officer Mark Joesbury. Detective Inspector Joesbury is suspicious of Lacey’s involvement with the murders and wonders why the killer is fixated on Lacey. Lacey finds that her tightly-controlled and carefully ordered world is starting to unravel as the killer taunts her with secrets from Lacey’s past. As Lacey and the rest of the investigating team try to solve the increasingly horrific murders, the plot takes a few twists and there are a couple of surprises which I don’t want to give away.

Now You See Me is a faced-paced read that I couldn’t put down. For me, the Jack the Ripper plot-line isn’t as compelling as Lacey’s own story. The mystery does contain a lot of information on Jack the Ripper’s murders as well as the various theories of who committed the murders in 1888. A warning, though, the book has graphic descriptions of both the historical and modern murder scenes. While S.J. Bolton has written two more books featuring Lacey Flint, Dead Scared and Lost, I would start with Now You See Me so you’ll have a better understanding of Lacey Flint’s story.

Check the WRL catalog for Now You See Me

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nightfilm Night Film is a complex and engrossing mystery that’s perfect for crisp fall evenings.

Fictional Academy Award-winning director Stanislas Cordova’s oeuvre consists of 15 films released from 1964 to 1996.  As controversial as he is revered, his last five films were released independently and are collectively known as the “black tapes.”  His fans, known as Cordovites, regularly stage secret showings of these films called red-band screenings. Enigmatic and reclusive, Cordova hasn’t been seen in public or granted an interview in years, but stories about Cordova’s family and lifestyle at his private estate, “The Peak,” are the stuff of urban legend.  Stanislas Cordova is also the elusive focus of journalist Scott McGrath’s personal journey into the heart of darkness in Marisha Pessl’s second novel, Night Film.

 Night Film opens with the apparent suicide of Cordova’s beautiful and talented 24-year-old daughter, Ashley.  Her death piques the curiosity of Scott McGrath, an investigative journalist whose remarks about Cordova on a national television program resulted in a libel suit.  Despite paying a substantial settlement to Cordova, McGrath still believes he is a dangerous man and he starts an investigation into Ashley’s suicide, intent on proving Cordova was somehow responsible for what happened to his daughter.

Joining McGrath in his quest are two strangers who have a connection to Ashley: Nora Halliday, a coat check girl who encountered Ashley shortly before her death, and Hopper Cole, who met Ashley when they were teenagers.  As McGrath, Cole, and Halliday trace Ashley’s movements in her final weeks and unpack the mysterious nature of Cordova and his films, they learn the unsettling truth about a genius filmmaker and his family.

 As a movie fan, I was interested in reading Night Film because the book’s plot and the character of Stanislas Cordova sounded intriguing.  Pessl did not disappoint.  Her characterization of Cordova and the descriptions of his films are so vibrant and detailed that I finished the book regretting that Cordova’s films do not exist in real life.

I’ll admit I had a rather mixed reaction to Night Film’s protagonist, Scott McGrath.  On the surface the character seems awfully similar to Mikael Blomkvist from Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (both are divorced investigative journalists whose reputations are tarnished by high-profile libel suits).  Scott’s investigation is compelling and the friendships he forms with Hopper and Nora are sincere and poignant.  Ashley Cordova may be dead at the beginning of the book, but Pessl does a nice job bringing the character to life, so to speak, through newspaper and magazine articles, interviews with film actors and acquaintances, and, especially, through her relationship with Hopper.

 Another effective aspect of Night Film is Pessl’s use of multimedia elements. These elements are extensive and include copies of internet slideshows, news articles, and web pages from the Blackboards, a secret web site dedicated to all things Cordova. The narrative is fast-paced and engaging, but these multimedia elements truly immersed me in Cordova’s life and work.  This experience doesn’t end once the last page is turned.  There’s even a free app for smartphones called the Night Film Decoder that readers can use to scan select pages of the book and access videos, audio clips, and slideshow presentations. The additional content is a lot of fun and complements Pessl’s vision of Cordova, his family, and his films.

“Mortal fear is as crucial a thing to our lives as love. It cuts to the core of our being and shows us what we are.”

-          Stanislas Cordova (Rolling Stone, December 1977)

Check the WRL catalog for Night Film

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amsterdamIt’s a wonder anyone lives in England, given the high murder rate and what must be a tough housing market for both amateur and professional detectives.  And with all those historical figures taking on investigations in the US and UK, it’s a wonder they had time to write, make movies, or run their political careers.  So when I was looking for a good mystery, I decided I’d steer clear of the usual place and time settings and give another location a shot. Outsider in Amsterdam happened to come to the fore.  And what a unique tone and feel the city brings to this mystery.

Amsterdam in 1975 is a unique mix. The Dutch are still fully aware of the cost of the breakup of their empire, but not tolerant of the still-loyal castoffs of their former colonies. They are almost uniformly conformist to the laws that keep the city orderly, but don’t hesitate to cheat on their taxes or hire illegal immigrants. Hard drugs are anathema, but heroin addicts get treatment, including small doses of the real thing.  Cops like Henk Grijpstra and Rinus DeGier spend most of their time handling petty crimes while waiting for more serious crimes to come up.

When Piet Verboom, master of a hybrid Eastern religious movement, is reported dangling from a noose in his office, Grijpstra and DeGier are assigned to investigate. The case appears open-and-shut, but of course small inconsistencies catch their interest–where is the money from the members-only restaurant and bar? Why did Verboom’s wife leave him? Why are all his employees happy to see him gone?  And why is a former high-ranking constable in the Dutch colonial police, a Papuan, living practically rent-free in the building?

The investigation is driven more by their intuition and unwillingness to let even small details go than by strict procedure. When that intuition pays off, they must chase a dangerously clever criminal through Amsterdam’s narrow streets and over canals, and out onto Holland’s Inland Lake, but they net more than they initially bargained for.

As solid as the mystery portion of the story is, van de Wetering introduces solid characters for this first entry in a series. Grijpstra is a rumpled middle-aged family man willing to do almost anything to get away from his wife and (hinted at) children. DeGier is well-dressed, handsome, and a bachelor content with his surly cat, a houseplant on the balcony, and occasional female companionship. In many ways they are fairly innocent–they don’t have the innate wariness that marks most urban cops, and they don’t have so many difficult crimes to investigate that they are jaded.

There’s also some humor in the story, especially surrounding the running of the police budget. What do they do when the last VW is checked out of the police lot? Is it easier to walk to the crime scene or to catch a streetcar and submit for reimbursement? Can DeGier get expenses for a date with a potential witness if he sleeps with her?

Although WRL only has seven of the fourteen books, I’m looking forward to venturing through Amsterdam with van de Wetering as my guide.

Check the WRL catalog for Outsider in Amsterdam

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vargasI have been enjoying crime fiction in translation a great deal over the past few years. Not only do the stories open up a new window on the world, but they often are very literary in style with a strong sense of character appeal.  In Fred Vargas’s quirky Commissaire Adamsberg series, translated from the French, the focus is definitely on the characters.

Primarily set in Paris, with occasional jaunts to the countryside, and in one book to Canada, the stories feature the Paris murder squad headed by the slow-moving, slow-talking Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg. Readers looking for a lot of action will find Adamsberg’s more meditative approach to detecting somewhat infuriating, as do Adamsberg’s superiors, and occasionally his officers. These are stories about the psychology of crime and criminals as much as about the plot. That is not to say that Vargas is at all weak on plotting; in fact, one of the appeals of the stories is the unique, not to say outlandish, plots, that often center around old French customs and traditions.

The interplay between Adamsberg and his officers is also another appealing feature of the series. Adamsberg truly cares for his squad, despite their unquestionable oddness, and the reader comes to care about them as well.  As in real policing, there is a lot of thinking and talking that goes on, punctuated by occasional bursts of violence.

Readers who enjoy Donna Leon, George Simenon, or Andrea Camilleri will find Fred Vargas a more than acceptable readalike. Start the series with The Chalk Circle Man.

Check the WRL catalog for The Chalk Circle Man

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tomatoHow do some writers create compelling, even heroic, main characters that you wouldn’t want to spend ten minutes with in real life?  It’s a problem for some readers, but I admire the ability, and find that skill translates into forceful storylines.

Tomato Red is the story of four such characters.  Sammy Barlach tells the tale in an uncompromising voice; he does not hide anything from his audience, including his understanding that his whole life he’s been headed for prison or an early grave.  We first meet Sammy when he’s under the influence of crank and breaking into a McMansion to impress a girl. But the high runs out and he wakes to find himself in the company of two seemingly-sophisticated young people who want Sammy to help them with a project.

Turns out Sammy has come into the orbit of Jamalee and Jason Merridew, two of the inhabitants of the lowest life across-the-track neighborhood in West Table, Missouri.  West Table’s chief employer is a dog food factory, and Sammy can’t even keep a job there; Jamalee and Jason have bigger plans to escape West Table and go somewhere where people don’t treat them like the garbage on the bottom of their shoes.  That’s where Sammy comes in.

But there’s trouble with their plan, the kind that can’t be overcome no way nohow.  It seems their only choice is to put themselves into their own places – Jason at the local hair salon, Jamalee waiting tables at the country club, and Sammy doing whatever is left when the dog food factory doesn’t work out.  Even those efforts go awry, and the trio embarks on a cycle of revenge and retribution that destroys their plans once and for all.

The fourth person in the story is Bev Merridew, Jamalee and Jason’s mother.  She’s the kind of woman who learned long ago that for a pretty girl from across the tracks the best solution to life’s steamroller is to lay down.  So she lays down, either with a joint or with a guy who can put some money in her pocket, and lets the rest wash over her.  She even smokes, drinks, and sleeps with Sammy, which throws another sour note into his relationship with Jamalee.  When trouble hits too close to home, though, for once she decides to take action but finds what few assets she has are worth nothing to the important people of the town.

Woodrell’s characters are the very best thing about this book.  Sammy speaks in the cadence and language of a mostly unlettered culture that hasn’t yet succumbed to the uniformity of TV-speak.  Like the forebears who settled in the isolated Ozarks, he has a fierce independence, a fierce loyalty to the people he adopts as his, a fierce temper when crossed.  Jamalee barely contains her rage, knowing deep down that she doesn’t have the wherewithal to leave West Table.  Jason is learning about his sexuality, and it doesn’t look good for him among these rural alpha males.  Bev is earthy, practical, willing, which makes her a favorite among those same men.

I don’t know what it is about this setting, or the people who inhabit it, but it seems that I keep coming back to it, and with Tomato Red, I know I’m in good hands.  The author of the terrific Winter’s Bone (also made into a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence, who was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Ree),  Woodrell’s writing is a reminder that an air of fatalism and a talent for stark storytelling seems to characterize the people of the Ozarks; maybe that’s what brings me back.

Check the WRL catalog for Tomato Red

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incognegroThe best fiction is often that which is built on a foundation of truth. In the early 20th century, Walter White, a former head of the NAACP, went undercover as a white man in the Deep South in order to do investigative reporting on lynchings that were not being reported by the local newspapers. That journey served as an inspiration for writer Mat Johnson, who grew up as a light-skinned African American when you could be white or black, but not both.

The story follows Zane Pitchback, a Harlem-based reporter for the New Holland Herald. The light-skinned Zane, writing under the pseudonym “Incognegro,” has gained anonymous infamy for his blistering exposés on racial violence in the South. Frustrated that he’s not getting appropriate acknowledgement of his work, Zane seeks to shelve his investigative reporting and get recognition under his own byline. But when his own brother gets wrongly arrested for killing a white woman, Zane once again travels south for a story. Desperate to save his brother, and disguised as a member of the Ku Klux Klan, Zane tries to find the real killer before his brother gets lynched.

Zane is accompanied by his similarly light-skinned friend named Carl, who is experiencing the injustices of the South for the first time. Zane finds his brother alive but under constant threat from the local population. Even if Zane can discover the truth of what happened, he’s not sure he can get his brother free and safely back to New York. Meanwhile, Carl has taken on a British accent and is playing poker and drinking with the locals, but keeping from being discovered is a tricky and dangerous game.

An absorbing and compelling tale, this story brings to life the blurred and impermanent lines that are used by society to separate one group of people from another. Recommended for readers of historical fiction, especially those who are interested in social justice.

Check the WRL catalog for Incognegro.

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marchOne pleasure derived from characters and settings in the universe of noir mysteries is the sense that the protagonist sinks farther into his darkness than most people are ever forced to descend. Even if not of his own volition, being pressed reluctantly into his id makes returning to the proximity of the light possible, and hints that some will never resort to their darkness, and can live comfortably in their happy places.

Meet Bernie Gunther; an old-school private eye in 1936′s Berlin, he’s surrounded by people wholeheartedly, even joyously, wallowing in the darkest places of their souls. How’s a fedora-wearing gumshoe supposed to knock off bad guys, bed and discard dames, and squint through cigarette smoke at “good guys” who are worse than himself?

Kerr’s first Bernie Gunther mystery, March Violets, contains the ugliness of anti-Semitism, Nazi Party infighting, and concentration camps (KZ’s in the parlance). Much of his business is searching for ‘U-boats’–people who have disappeared, possibly into a KZ, or into canals as unidentifiable corpses. The so-called ‘German desire for order’ is in full flower, and the black Mercedes are waiting for any who question, challenge, or stand up to it. As a former policeman with a high-profile career and a veteran of World War I, Gunther can get away with it to some degree, but even he feels constrained to salute Hitler when parades pass.

Gunther has a reputation for discretion, so when the daughter and son-in-law of a millionaire industrialist are murdered, their safe burgled, and house destroyed by arson, he’s a natural choice to take on the investigation. Since it’s a PI mystery, he’s blocked at every turn, his motives are questioned, and he’s threatened by mugs and thugs of every stripe. He’s brought before the highest Nazi officials (including Goering, who envies Gunther’s supposed cinema noir lifestyle) as his search gets close to sensitive areas with implications for the Party. The end stage of the investigation puts him in the worst circumstance I’ve ever read in a mystery novel, one so unexpected that both Bernie’s body and soul are put into peril.

Kerr captures the look and feel of Berlin–the shops and restaurants on the streets, the trams and cars, the vibrant clubs where decadent jazz hasn’t been completely eliminated. Add the background of ubiquitous swastikas and street-corner boxes selling newspapers with vile caricatures of Jews and you’ve got a fair glimpse at the “garden of beasts,” keying in on “March Violets” who joined the Nazi Party after it came to power in 1933 and used it both to promote themselves and to wield the power of the State against their enemies.

Kerr’s writing has been favorably compared to Raymond Chandler’s, and I mostly agree. The way I read it, Sam Spade could probably look around and see some decent people trying to live ordinary lives. Bernie Gunther has no such consolation.

Check the WRL catalog for March Violets

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nadelI am a great fan of crime fiction set in other countries. In addition to a good mystery, these stories also provide a window into new parts of the world. You learn about customs, traditions, food and arts, and more in the context of a crime investigation. Barbara Nadel is my latest find in this genre (thanks, Penelope), and she ranks up there with Donna Leon, Magdalene Nabb, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö,  and George Simenon in my pantheon of international crime fiction authors.

Nadel’s stories are set in contemporary Istanbul, and feature Turkish Police Inspector Çetin Ikmen and his assistant Mehmet Suleyman. Ikmen is a wonderful creation, with his wife and eight children (and one on the way), his ever-present bottle of brandy, and his thoughtful approach to crime solving. Nadel has also created a host of other appealing characters, including Ikmen’s long-suffering wife Fatma, the other members of the police squad, and of course those people caught up in the criminal investigation.

The story begins with the discovery, by an unknown character, of the body of an old Jewish man in the seedy Balat section of Istanbul. Far from the tourist attractions Balat houses what remains of Istanbul’s Jewish population, as well as those down on their luck. Ikmen’s investigation into the crime takes him deep into the past, as long-buried violence resurfaces, and Ikmen and his team try to unravel a complicated and tangled set of threads.

Nadel has an obvious affection for and a clear understanding of Istanbul and its people, and she captures the city’s bright light and its dark shadows in this complex and twisting story. Belshazzar’s Daughter is a fine start to an excellent series that should appeal to fans of international crime novels.

Check the WRL catalog for Belshazzar’s Daughter

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