Book Review: FOOLS AND MORTALS by Bernard Cornwell

Book Review: FOOLS AND MORTALS by Bernard Cornwell

FOOLS AND MORTALS by Bernard Cornwell sets the standard for historical fiction with a touch of suspense and a healthy dose of Shakespeare.

But before I gush about how good the book is, let me say that Cornwell is one of my favorite authors. First, in 2014 when I wrote a blog series on bookstores vs ebooks, he took the time to answer my email. Second, he’s the author of the Richard Sharpe series. Apart from being some of the best historical fiction EVER, the Sharpe books were turned into a miniseries starring Sean Bean. We actually have the DVDs (still) and the board game.

The narrator of FOOLS AND MORTALS is Shakespeare, but not the one you’re thinking of. Richard Shakespeare is William’s younger brother, a crafty and likeable neer-do-well who wormed his way into Will’s acting troupe and steals when he can. He’s young and good looking. Typically cast as a woman, given that only men were allowed to be actors in Elizabethan time, he demands that Will cast him as a man and up his salary.

But Will has little time for the wild Richard. The Shakespeares and their royal patron are caught up in a bitter rivalry with another playhouse which similarly enjoys a royal patron. Good plays are the ammunition that fuel the war but they are few and far in between. There is no copyright protection, moreover; whoever has the manuscript puts on the play. Fresh material means big income and Will’s new play, written for a wedding the queen herself may attend, is A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Until the handwritten manuscript is stolen.

Cornwell masterfully uses the political upheaval caused by Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne and resulting purge of Catholicism in England to drive suspense. Not only does he offer the minute details of Elizabethan England such as dress, habit, and food, but London has never been so noisy, so gritty, so perfectly captured.

Maybe I’m partial to the book because A Midsummer Night’s Dream features in a nightmare sequence in my suspense novel AWAKENING MACBETH.

Also, I played Tatiana in a high school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But that’s only one more reason to enjoy the historical suspense of FOOLS AND MORTALS.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Book review: RED SPARROW by Jason Matthews

Book review: RED SPARROW by Jason Matthews

RED SPARROW by Jason Matthews is a gripping Cold War espionage thriller in the style of John le Carré’s thrillers. Except longer.

SPARROW starts with a heart-pounding and authentic scene of spy tradecraft in Moscow. Nathaniel “Nate” Nash is stalked by Russian security services as he meets with an important SVR agent—SVR being the successor to the Soviet KGB intelligence service—who hands him valuable intelligence files from the SVR vault. The agent isn’t identified and Nate hangs onto the goods, but his cover as an economic officer at the US Embassy in Moscow is tainted. He’s sent home, into CIA career limbo.

Next we meet Dominika Egorova and follow her road to becoming an SVR “sparrow,” an intelligence officer trained in the art of sexual seduction and recruitment. Her backstory is long and complicated as she goes from prima ballerina derailed by a rival to trained intelligence officer to “demotion” to sparrow. Her Uncle Vanya is a ruthless spymaster who manipulates Dominika and her career, holding family matters hostage so Dominika does his bidding.

Dominika is also rather unique in that she can see auras, so she knows when people are lying or have killed, etc.

Huh? Trust me, Matthews makes it work.

Given a second chance, Nate is assigned to the US Embassy in Finland. Dominika is sent there to get to know the American and find out who he met in Moscow.

Soon Nate and Dominika are stalking each other at a public swimming pool in Helsinki and the Great Game of spy versus spy begins. The reader is immersed in the uncertainty and duplicity.

Does Nate recruit Dominika or does she recruit him? Are either of them a double agent?

Do they really fall in love? Or are both using sex to advance their careers?

Former KGB puppetmaster and now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (this is before he was president) floats in and out of the narrative, perfectly described as a “blond scorpion with languid blue eyes.” Before the era of Facebook and online hacking, Putin’s intelligence services are up close and personal with their targets. They hunker down in Lada cars watching Americans walk the streets of Moscow and conduct psychological war through human proxies like Dominika.

Like le Carré’s THE LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL, the theme throughout RED SPARROW is who is real and who is false. Who is using and who is being used. There is so much meaty backstory that we are tempted to dig for buried clues. But there are many layers before we get to Russian bedrock.

There is also a short recipe at the end of every chapter in RED SPARROW, tempting us with delights like “Sparrow School Tokmach Soup.” At first I wondered if this was a joke, or a misguided effort to make an espionage thriller appeal to foodies. But in truth, it is just another way that Matthews lures us into his seductive world of spy versus spy. (If you are wondering about Soviet eats, check out the fabulous memoir MASTERING THE ART OF SOVIET COOKING by renowned food critic Anya Von Bremzen.)

The new RED SPARROW movie starring Jennifer Lawrence has gotten mixed reviews. I haven’t seen it, but if Hollywood followed the book faithfully, a lot has been crammed into two hours. For those who want to spend more time in the world of cloak and dagger, RED SPARROW is the start of an absorbing trilogy, which includes PALACE OF TREASON and THE KREMLIN’S CANDIDATE.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

The Postman Always Rings Twice

The Postman Always Rings Twice

THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE by James M. Cain is a noir classic from 1934. I stumbled on a copy in a used bookstore and realized I’d never read it. I didn’t know what I’d been missing all these years.

Frank Chambers is a drifter, roaming around the American Southwest with empty pockets and clenched fists. He’s been in and out of Mexico and in and out of jail, only to wind up at a dumpy truck stop in southern California run by Nick, a Greek immigrant, and wife Cora.

Soon Frank and Cora are steaming up the windows and plotting to run away together. But they have to get rid of Nick first.

And get away with it.

Frank narrates the book. He’s a restless type, always ready to hit the road and see where it takes him. We don’t like him but at least he’s honest about it.

Even as the lovers plot to kill Nick, and deal with the aftermath, neither Frank nor Cora fully trust the other. Will one double-cross or kill the other?

And then there’s the crooked lawyer, who in 1930’s slang, “flimflammed” them.

The writing is sparse and lacks dialogue tags, no “said” for Cain, which occasionally leads to confusion as to which character is speaking. Yet the swiftness and sparseness works for the noir genre; there’s nothing to weigh down the growing sense of unease or the final impact. The characters, especially Frank and Nick, are expertly drawn. Every scene is a visual filled with restless and scheming people under the hot California sun. No doubt this is why it has been made into a movie at least twice, the first in 1946 with heartthrob John Garfield and pinup girl Lana Tirner.

In the end, punishment is meted out to the guilty. Bottom line? This tautly written novel packs a hefty literary sucker punch.

Oh and if you are wondering about the title, I think “postman” is a euphemism for accountability. If you don’t pay the price of your crime the first time, the postman will come by again to make sure you do.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Sally Andrew’s deadly and delicious Tannie Maria mysteries

Sally Andrew’s deadly and delicious Tannie Maria mysteries

I’ve never been to South Africa and the only thing I know about the Afrikaans language is that it is derived from Dutch. But in the Tannie Maria mysteries, RECIPES FOR LOVE AND MURDER and THE SATANIC MECHANIC, author Sally Andrew weaves a spell to reveal both country and language.

Recipes for Love and MurderMaria van Harten is a widowed foodie living in South Africa’s Klein Karoo region. With an English father and an Afrikaans mother, she straddles two of the many ethnic groups that form South Africa’s history and culture. As with many women of a certain age, she’s referred to as Tannie Maria, or Aunty Maria.

Maria lives out of town, with chickens to keep her company as she sits on her stoep (porch). She drives a blue bakkie (truck), and is at peace with the kudu, springbok, and other wildlife that stray into the action. More importantly, she’s either cooking, planning to cook, or thinking up recipes. Tantalizing treats with Afrikaans names, like potjie, meat and vegetables baked in a fire—the South African version of a luau—or dessert dumplings called botterkluitjies, grace nearly every page.

We first meet her in RECIPES FOR LOVE AND MURDER, in which Maria becomes the advice columnist at the Klein Karoo Gazette in the town of Ladismith, answering letters and emails with wisdom and recipes suitable for the lovelorn and aggrieved. A correspondence with a women who seeks advice, then later ends up dead, sends Maria–as well as her boss Hattie and the paper’s single investigative reporter Jessie–into a maze that includes the dead woman’s female lover, a cruel husband, and strange doings at the local grocery store.

Maria ends up in perilous danger. Not to mention the risk of losing her heart to a dashing detective with a chestnut moustache who owns a lamb named Kosie.

THE SATANIC MECHANIC draws us even more deeply into both the South African bush and Tannie Maria’s backstory. Her late husband was abusive and his memory is getting in the way of Maria’s new romance with detective Henk Kennemayer of the chestnut moustache.

As her friend Jessie interviews Slimkat, a Bushman tribal leader celebrating a major lawsuit against a diamond company for the rights to traditional land, Maria joins a PTSD therapy group led by a mechanic who once dabbled in the satanic arts. When Slimkat is fatally poisoned in front of Maria, Henk investigates, but her therapy group becomes an additional focus of attention when a member is killed during an outdoor session.

Could the two murders be linked? Is the satanic mechanic a killer as well as a healer? What will Maria bake for the group when it’s her turn to bring dessert?

Andrew has a beautiful writing style that effortlessly draws us into this rough, yet exotic setting. South Africa’s troubled past and unsettled society play pivotal roles, but the poetry found in Maria’s Klein Karoo will captivate you.

Maria and Henk’s relationship is tender and authentic. Plants, birds, animals, and food become real experiences for us as much as for Maria. The books are peppered with Afrikaans terms, which are not italicized as is usual with a foreign language. The format suggests that English and Afrikaans are so entwined as to be impossible to separate.

I love unique mysteries in which the setting is integral to the plot to the extent the story simply could not take place anywhere else. The Tannie Maria novels are perfect examples and I can’t wait for the next. Highly recommended.

Note: carmenamato.net uses Amazon Affiliate links.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Book Review: 2 Tickets to Venice

Book Review: 2 Tickets to Venice

Venice is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Architecture, canals, and history make it a prime setting for a mystery. Two favorite authors, Donna Leon and Martin Cruz Smith have new books set in Venice that take you on two very different journeys to La Serenissima.

THE WATERS OF ETERNAL YOUTH by Donna Leon is as intricate, glorious, and absorbing as a trip to Venice can be. As Commissario Guido Brunetti, aided by fellow detective Claudia Griffoni—a relatively new character in this long-running series—and the stouthearted uniformed cop Vianello, you walk the riva on the side of the canals, you crowd with them into the vaporetto water taxis, and you share the unfamiliarity of riding in a car. But most of all, you are inside Brunetti’s questioning mind as he investigates an accident that occurred 15 years ago which left a young woman with the mind of a child. Her grandmother, an aging socialite who runs a foundation dedicated to preserving Venice’s sinking architecture, believes that her granddaughter did not fall into a canal by accident. With little to go on besides the woman’s intuition, Brunetti begins to poke into the past. In the process, he must enlist allies, manipulate his superior, and uncover a related murder. Much of the time he comes up empty-handed, but Leon leaves tiny clues like diamonds in a handful of sand. The writing is brilliant, the characters are fully-developed and endearingly familiar, while the meals never failed to make me reach for the nearest Italian cookbook.

Related: Book Review: The Golden Egg by Donna Leon

Unlike some of the other Brunetti mysteries, this one closes with all the loose threads woven into a cloth nice enough to be the pocket square in Brunetti’s suit jacket. Having read all the books in the series, THE WATERS OF ETERNAL YOUTH (a double entendre but I can’t say why) ranks in my personal Top 5.

I consider Martin Cruz Smith to be a role model as well as a favorite writer. Author of the ground-breaking Arkady Renko series set in Russia, he is also the author of several romantic thrillers. After a several-year break, he’s got a new website, new book covers, and THE GIRL FROM VENICE is his new romantic thriller.

It is the end of WWII. Venice is riven by suspicion and fear as Mussolini’s regime cracks apart. The action takes in the muddy lagoon and poor fishing communities that fringe the palazzos and piazzas of central Venice.

Cenzo Vianello is a barefoot fisherman barely scraping by and hoping to avoid the chaos of his collapsing country. The Germans continue to prop up Mussolini and Cenzo frequently runs into German patrols as he cruises shallow waters in his fishing boat. One night, he finds a dead woman floating in the lagoon.

But Guilia isn’t as dead as he thought. A strong swimmer, she faked her death to escape the Gestapo after her Jewish family’s hiding place was betrayed. Cenzo kills a German officer hunting for her, then hides the girl in his fishing shack on the outskirts of Venice.

Cenzo has enough problems without being arrested for murder or protecting a Jewish girl for whom the Germans are hunting. He was kicked out of the Italian Air Force when he refused to gas the populace in Ethiopia. His wife was stolen by his brother who is a famous actor and Mussolini insider. She died, leaving Cenzo and his brother with unfinished business.

Turning to a friend from his piloting days, Cenzo arranges for Guilia to be spirited out of Venice and sent to the partisans in the mountains. When the friend is killed, Cenzo goes looking for Guilia in an odyssey that sees him reunited with his brother and plunged into the strange court of Mussolini’s last days. While I was impatient for him to find Guilia, the book became an absolutely fascinating glimpse into this suspenseful snippet of WWII history, as seen through some superbly drawn characters: a would-be moviemaker, the wife of a Brazilian diplomat who is also an expert forger, and Cenzo’s matinee-idol brother who is also Mussolini’s radio spokesman.

Cenzo is a marvelous vehicle for this fishing trip through Italian history. He’s decent and unambitious; hardly fearless but willing to find his courage when he needs to. The attraction between him and Guilia, who is both younger and much better educated, develops slowly. You can see why it works—improbably—for each of them.

All of the pieces were in place for a big and stunning climax, but the ending wrapped without too much drama. There were also a few continuity errors; for example, Cenzo and Guilia have sex for the first time at least twice. But the prose is beautiful, the sense of history is remarkable, and THE GIRL FROM VENICE is worth a prime spot on your TBR list.

These books made me wonder if Venice is really sinking. Yes, it is. Read about the looming issue in this article from The Guardian.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Book Review: Claws of the Cat by Susan Spann

Book Review: Claws of the Cat by Susan Spann

CLAWS OF THE CAT is one of those books you wish you’d written, but grudgingly know you’d never come up with the premise.

Related: Author to Author with Susan Spann

Author Susan Spann takes us to imperial Japan in 1565. The Jesuits, in the form of Portuguese priest Father Mateo, have a toehold in Kyoto, from which he has the approval of the regional shogun, or warlord, to conduct missionary work. A shinobi, a covert agent trained in stealth—read ninja—has been assigned to protect him.

Hiro Hattori, from the distant city of Iga, is the shinobi. Hiro’s point of view, and whispered backstory, guides us through this exciting journey. The cracks in feudal Japan are beginning to show, yet society is still delicately balanced with rules and norms.

A teahouse “entertainer” girl, Sayuri, who has converted to Christianity, is found with a dead client. Father Mateo comes to see what he can do for this member of his nascent flock. Although Sayuri was found with blood on her kimono, she insists she woke to find the client’s throat slashed and the room bloody. The dead man’s enraged son, a local policeman, is entitled by law to execute his father’s killer. He gives Father Mateo two days to prove the girl is not the killer and find the real one; if the priest cannot the son will kill both the girl and the priest.

Hiro is bound to by oath to protect the priest. In only 48 hours, he must find a brutal killer, a task made even more difficult by his lack of authority, the uncooperative attitude of the teahouse owner, and the societal conventions which rule conversations, even those about murder.

All of Hiro’s training and resources are put to use. He and Father Mateo, both engaging characters who have achieved understanding and friendship in the two years they have been thrown together, play off each other as they question those who might have something to do with the murder. Clues lead in all directions. Why did the teahouse owner secretly burns her ledgers? Why did the dead man’s daughter, a female samurai, inherit everything instead of her brother, as would be normal? Why did the dead man seek to become Sayuri’s “patron” at the teahouse, i.e. take her as his mistress, when his brother wanted to buy her contract from the teahouse and marry her? What did the dead man’s death have to do with a rice trader who visited the teahouse yet also sought to buy guns from a Portuguese trader?

The misleading clues mount up, yet Hiro leads us through the maze as only a ninja can. He knows that “a shinobi’s first and greatest defense is misdirection” and that it works both ways. Spann effortlessly brings us into Hiro’s world of both violence and grace where katana swords and ritual burial armor coexist with the intricate art of flower arranging. The details reflect rigorous research, down to the measure of a room based on the number of tatami mats and the cadence of the characters’ speech. You can almost smell the cherry blossoms.

The ending is terrific. Hiro is able to pick out the anomalies and solve the case. Justice is meted out, Japanese-style. Just enough of Hiro’s backstory is there, too, like breadcrumbs along the path, to entice the reader on to more of this absorbing, authentic, and superbly written series.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Book Review: A Madras Miasma by Brian Stoddart

Book Review: A Madras Miasma by Brian Stoddart

In A MADRAS MIASMA, New Zealand author Brian Stoddart takes us to India in 1920 with an extraordinary sense of place and time. India is on the brink of explosion and the murder mystery is another lit fuse on the powder keg.

Related: Author to Author with Brian Stoddart

British colonial authorities have created a culture unto themselves, with few ties back to the sceptered isle and unique social norms. Indian society is stratified and divided over continued loyalty to Britain. Discontent and political unrest simmers below the surface.

Enter Superintendent Christian Le Fanu, Indian Police Service in Madras (today’s Chennai), who stands on both sides of the deepening divide. He’s British, yet has no ties back to England where his soon-to-be-ex-wife has fled. A combat veteran of WWI, he now has an aversion to blood. A long-time resident of India, he’s part of the British ruling class but not in it. He doesn’t live in the British enclave part of town, his familiarity with Indian ways got booted him out of the golf club, he gives his Muslim Indian sergeant real responsibility, and he is secretly sleeping with his Anglo-Indian housekeeper. Roisin is smart and attractive but her mixed ethnicity makes her a pariah.

Le Fanu and Sergeant Habi investigate the murder of a young British woman whose body is dumped in a polluted canal. She’s identified as one of the “fishing fleet,” young women who come to India from Britain “fishing” for a husband. She and another woman made the rounds of parties where they met diplomats, military officers, and the upper crust of colonial society. The autopsy reveals that the woman had sex and took morphine before death.

The investigation proceeds as a series of interviews conducted with excruciating British politeness. In between, Le Fanu has to placate the higher-ups, including the impeccably drawn martinet Arthur Jepson, who habitually cracks his riding crop against his shoe. The secondary characters are historical figures, accounting for all the surnames starting with “W.”

Le Fanu’s murder investigation implicates senior British figures in Madras. At the same time, an Indian demonstration prompts British troops to fire into the crowd, killing many. The political fallout from the massacre shakes the entire British ruling structure in India, making Le Fanu’s own position precarious. He’s an appealing man in a sea of political operators, but his enemies know there are chinks in his armor and they are ready to exploit them.

MIASMA is a meticulously researched historical mystery. In many ways, it reminded me of Ken Follett’s THE KEY TO REBECCA set in WWII Egypt; the crowded, noisy and politically precarious setting, the rigidity and stuffiness of British colonial rule, a British officer who has sympathy toward the local population and rides a motorcycle.

No Nazi spies in 1920, of course. Stoddart stays authentic to the world he’s pulled us into, with villains whose moral codes have been replaced by a sense of abiding privilege.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Book Review: The Trespasser by Tana French

Book Review: The Trespasser by Tana French

THE TRESPASSER by Tana French is the 6th novel in the chronicles of the fictional Dublin Murder Squad. Each is narrated by a different member of the squad, whose private life is somehow linked to—and tragically impacted by—the central crime. When in Dublin last year, I visited legendary bookstore Hodges Figgis and found a whole section devoted to Irish crime novels, in which French’s books held pride of place. THE TRESPASSER shows why.

Related: Book Review: In The Woods by Tana French

The narrator this time is Antoinette Conway, the sole female detective on the fabled Squad and I couldn’t help noticing the similarity to Detective Emilia Cruz in Acapulco. Both are tough, athletic, determined, and the target of their male colleagues. Neither have ever met their father. To round off the similarities, Conway is half Latino.

But unlike Emilia Cruz, Conway’s mood is sour and her temper is explosive. She’s fed up to here with garbage from fellow detectives. Her reports go missing, someone broke into her gym locker to pee on her stuff, and she and her partner Moran are permanently stuck on the graveyard shift.

Conway is ready to chuck it all for a lucrative bodyguard job when she and Moran are dispatched to investigate the murder of Aislinn Murray, an attractive secretary killed at home by a blow to the head.

A little scratching reveals that Aislinn was about to have dinner company. Guileless Rory Fallon owns a bookstore across town and has had a few dates with Aislinn. He claims that she never opened the door when he arrived but closed circuit cameras reveal he’d been stalking the victim for several weeks.

Enter the Murder Squad’s resident Mr. Cool, aka Detective Breslin. He’s got money, charm, flash suits, and a game show host smoothness that Conway sees as weapons he’ll use to discredit her and force her out of the Squad. Breslin is sure that poor Fallon is their killer, despite no witnesses or hard evidence. Thus begins a cat-and-mouse game of Conway and her partner trying to run down more angles, while he tries to circumvent their orders and nail Fallon. This makes for some great interrogation room dialogue. Every conversation reveals more competing agendas and French keeps the tension high.

In the background, Conway has her own Peeping Tom, Rory Fallon wasn’t the only one stalking Aislinn Murray, and there’s a subtle father-daughter relationship comparison happening. Aislinn Murray was obsessed with finding her long-lost father while Conway doesn’t even ask her father’s name when he finally turns up.

The plot is solid but the most engrossing thing about THE TRESPASSER is Conway’s deep point of view. It’s a mix of in-your-face Irish slang, slick cop jargon, and a harsh and headstrong irreverence for everything in her way. Conway is plowing through life with her fists up, looking for the fight; snarling and snapping and loaded with the local equivalent of Red Bull.

Get ‘em up, Rocky. THE TRESPASSER is a knockout.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

What Happened to the Jesse Stone Mystery Series?

What Happened to the Jesse Stone Mystery Series?

When mystery author Robert B. Parker passed away, I mourned the end of the Spenser and Jesse Stone mystery series, as well as his Westerns featuring the enigmatic Virgil Cole. Sunny Randall, not so much, as I never quite connected with the female PI and her annoying ex-husband issues.

Like many others, I was of two minds when it was announced that Parker’s novel franchises would continue but be written by other authors. Excitement that more books with favorite characters would be forthcoming, doubt that others could capture the style that made Parker’s books so successful.

Related: Book Review: Cold Service by Robert B. Parker

Ace Atkins took up the Spenser series and really delivered, even as he introduced a new character (Sixkill) who helped expand Spenser’s world. The dialogue still drives the narrative, the pace is still swift, Spenser’s code is still in tact, and Susan and Hawk are still at his side. For the most part, the transfer of authorship has been seamless.

The Jesse Stone series was always a distant second to Spenser in my reading affections and I didn’t keep up as the series grew under new authorship. Parker wrote 9 novels about the ex-minor league shortstop who washed out of the Los Angles Police Department because of his drinking and lands on his feet as the chief of police in Paradise, Massachusetts. After Parker’s death, the franchise was handed off to Michael Brandman who wrote 3 novels, and then to Reed Farrell Coleman who has also written 3.

Has Jesse Stone’s road been as smooth as Spenser’s?

To decide for myself, I read two early Jesse Stone novels, TROUBLE IN PARADISE and STONE COLD, then the last two in the series, THE DEVIL WINS and DEBT TO PAY, both by Coleman.

Here’s my verdict:

The new books dive even more deeply into Jesse’s character. We spend more time inside Jesse’s head as he remains absorbed by his relationships with alcohol, his ex-wife Jenn, and his missed chance to be the world’s greatest shortstop. Jesse is flawed, and Coleman is making the most of it but still in Parker’s nuanced way. Jesse still talks to his picture of baseball great Ozzie Smith. Dix the therapist is back, too, both in Jesse’s thoughts and in scenes in which the two men discuss Jesse’s problems.

In early books Jesse has a number of female friends with benefits; in the later books he’s faithful to a new character named Diana, a former FBI agent now a security consultant in Boston. But there’s a precipice beckoning to Jesse in the form of the new Paradise medical examiner. Tamara is an attractive woman with her own drinking problem. I sense an undercurrent of doubt that Jesse can continue to resist this doubly fatal mix of woman and drink. If you are not tired of alcoholic main characters in mystery novels, then the tension is grand.

Related: Character Sketches, The Detective Emilia Cruz Mystery Series

For those who remember Spenser’s run-ins across several books with the Gray Man, Coleman has introduced a similarly continuing bad guy named Mr. Peepers. I’m not sure why Mr. Peepers has spent the last 20 years carrying out his twisted agenda of murder and torture, which would help the believability angle, but he’s a worthy opponent for Jesse.

Two things stand out as significant differences between early and later Jesse Stone novels. First, Coleman has departed from Parker’s staccato pace, except in some dialogue scenes where Jesse does the man-of-few-words act that has always been a character trademark. The pacing is slower and the paragraphs much longer. Indeed, in THE DEVIL WINS, the normally laconic Jesse delivers a 1.5 page paragraph explanation of how he caught the bad guy. Despite the chunky paragraphs, the prose is smooth, although a few awkwardly phrased sentences stand out. The villain’s voice is heard at pivotal moments, the same as when Parker was writing.

Second, there is the assumption that the reader knows the entire series’ backstory. For example, in THE DEVIL WINS, references were made to a person named Crow. This villain appeared in the early STONE COLD, but he and Jesse did not meet. But some 10 books later, it is obvious that both Jesse and Paradise cop Molly Crane have had a previous interaction with Crow. Alas, we don’t know the context or who Crow is. I’ll have to read more of the post-Parker books to find out.

Bottom line is that Jesse Stone is one of mystery fiction’s most complex, irritating, and heroic characters. Coleman has both captured and expanded this persona, while creating villain-based plots that manipulate Jesse’s flaws to good effect.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Book Review: The Blackhouse by Peter May

Book Review: The Blackhouse by Peter May

In The Blackhouse by Peter May, the setting is the remote, windy, and rainswept Hebrides islands off Scotland’s western coast. The murder is gruesome and mimics a recent killing in Edinburgh being investigated by police detective Fin McLeod.

Fin’s young son has just been killed by a hit-and-run driver. His lukewarm marriage has fallen apart. So he heads to the Isle of Lewis, where he was born and raised, to vent his grief and see if the two murders are connected.

The Blackhouse is rich, dense, and real. More than just a typical whodunit, I got the feeling it was written to illustrate a unique place few have seen and fewer still have truly experienced. Life in the Hebrides is remote and difficult, squeezed between rock and ocean and constantly buffeted by winds which have scoured trees off the land.

The setting is another character, one both capricious and perverse. May often refers to the changing sky, the remorseless wind, and the rage of the ocean and never forgets their impact on a scene. Local customs are rooted in the simple need to survive. Religion is as severe and unforgiving as the wind. Both physical and emotional comforts are luxuries few can afford.

While the setting sets The Blackhouse apart from the majority of tartan noir novels, May also uses flashbacks unlike any mystery author I have read. The book is written in third person, with Fin as the central character. But Fin also narrates many flashbacks of his youth on the Isle of Lewis, which mostly deal with his childhood friend Artair, whose father tutored both of them, and Marsiali, the woman Fin alternately loved and discarded until she finally left him and married Artair.

Fin’s flashbacks don’t come at us in chronological order but are seemingly random (but highly relevant, as we will see) memories prompted by present-day encounters. Fin runs into the unhappily married couple Artair and Marsiali. Artair is now an abusive drunk and his son has gotten a girl pregnant. Donald, another friend, is a clergyman and father of the pregnant girl.

The big climax comes with a hefty dose of local Lewis custom: the annual 12-man trip to a tiny and remote rock in the Atlantic to kill guga sea birds, considered a local delicacy. The custom has been going on since time immemorial and to be included in the guga hunt brotherhood is a rare honor.

It is at this point, we realize what a master storyteller may truly is. He draws all the threads—both from the flashbacks and the present-day murder investigation—into whole cloth as thick and durable as the Harris tweed still woven on the island. The ending is huge and heart-pounding.

The Blackhouse is the first of May’s trilogy about Fin’s return to the Isle of Lewis. All use the flashback device to good effect, although in the second book, The Lewis Man, the flashbacks belong to a man suffering from dementia, which is handled brilliantly. In The Chessmen, we are back to Fin’s flashbacks, most of which deal with his high school days but lack the strength of The Blackhouse’s Artair-Marsiali tension.

May has also collaborated with photographer David Wilson on a small coffee table book of the Hebrides. The book beautifully captures the moody sky and ocean so close to the Arctic Circle and contains excerpts of some of the novels. My one complaint about Hebrides is that occasionally May’s description of the land was on the left facing page and a book excerpt (using a subtly different font) was on the right. The format broke up the continuity of both. But the Hebrides also tells the story of how May, a BBC producer, came to the Hebrides in the first place and their impact on his life.

Verdict: Read these books. Now.

Book Review: A Death in the Family by Michael Stanley

Book Review: A Death in the Family by Michael Stanley

A DEATH IN THE FAMILY by Michael Stanley is a deeply authentic visit to Botswana, hosted by Detective David “Kubu” Bengu of the country’s Criminal Investigation Division. The novel stands alone but if you like international culture wrapped up in a mystery, I recommend all the books in the Detective Kubu mystery series.

Kubu, which means “hippo” in Setswana, Botswana’s native language, is an apt nickname. Alexander McCall Smith, author of the Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, perhaps the best known books set in Botswana, would describe Kubu as “traditionally built.” The book even opens with Kubu’s dream of eating an enormous meal.

The murder of Kubu’s father, a traditional healer suffering from Alzheimer’s, shocks everyone. Kubu is shut out of the investigation to keep from prejudicing any future prosecution and is assigned to look into the suicide of a government official dealing with mining licenses. Botswana is a top producer of diamonds and uranium.

With a little help from an American consultant, Kubu realizes that the suicide is really murder. Murky connections lead to a village debate over expansion of a Chinese-run uranium mine. The tribal chief has the final say over the expansion but doesn’t know his son has made a deal with the Chinese. The son gets the young unemployed of the village on his side by plying them with cheap Shake Shake beer in shabeens—the local bars.

The chief announces his decision not to allow the expansion at a town hall event, which erupts in violence. The chief, council members, and police are killed. Election of a new chief is supposed to rotate between five tribes, but the late chief’s son takes advantage of the turmoil to claim the throne and make good on his promise to the Chinese mine mangers.

Meanwhile, to get Kubu out of the way of the investigation into his father’s death, he is sent to New York for an Interpol conference. His trip perfectly captures wintry New York City through the eyes of someone who lives without snow, skyscrapers, crowds, or constant urban abundance. He didn’t want to go to the conference, but it gives him insights needed to break open the mining drama at home. Kubu may be a product of Botswana, a small country, but he knows how to find the wider context.

At times the narrative is a bit slow, Kubu is admonished too many times for sticking his nose into his father’s murder investigation, and I guessed the connection between Kubu’s father and the Chinese mine far earlier than he did. These nits are forgiven because I really admire how the novel, and the entire mystery series, demonstrates the critical issues facing Africa today: unemployment, corruption, violence against women, tension between traditional authority and the laws of the state, and China’s growing investment and influence at the local level. The issues are handed deftly and naturally; they are simply part of Kubu’s landscape.

As a reader, you are caught up in the tension between old and new as you feel the bewilderment of the chief as he attempts to navigate the modern world by relying on tribal customs. You march into the Chinese compound with Kubu, and realize that a fiefdom has been carved out to take and never to give.

A DEATH IN THE FAMILY starts as a murder mystery. But it ends as a snapshot of contemporary Africa that should be mandatory reading by anyone travelling to or studying the continent. Highly recommended.

Book review of Detective Kubu mystery series novel

Book Review: Jihadi Apprentice by Bruns & Olson

Book Review: Jihadi Apprentice by Bruns & Olson

I write mysteries and thrillers and love to read them, too. In this book review, I look at JIHADI APPRENTICE by David Bruns and J.R. Olson, a very modern thriller with an insider’s ring of authenticity.

With a compelling scenario and characters at cross purposes, JIHADI APPRENTICE exposes the  motivations and manipulations of global terrorism as well as the Herculean burden carried by those hunting terrorism’s ringleaders. In the style of Ken Follett’s TRIPLE or Brad Thor’s latest offering, we watch the bad guys with mounting dread and pray for the good guys who must work in sync but are primed for mistrust.

Related: A Chat with Thriller Author David Bruns

The centerpiece of the story is the recruitment of Aya, a Muslim teen in Minneapolis, by Imaan, a Somali folk singer who uses her fame within the global Somali diaspora to recruit terror cells. Their interpersonal dynamics draw on the Somali community’s search to find its footing in American society in Minneapolis; Imaan is easily able to exploit the restless Aya and put words in her mouth. But Imaan is being manipulated as well, and we see up close and personal how terrorist leaders ruthlessly use others to advance their creed.

Related: Book Review: Weapons of Mass Deception by David Bruns and JR Olson

Ranged against Imaan and her shadowy puppetmaster are three US officials we met in the authors’ WEAPONS OF MASS DECEPTION; an workaholic FBI agent, a Navy officer with a covert operations background, and an intelligence officer with an unlikely working relationship with an Iranian counterpart. They each have a piece of the puzzle when it comes to hunting terrorists and stopping recruitment, but are operating blind for the most part, digging up fragmentary information, encountering red herrings, and coping with  competing agendas. The job takes its toll, notably on the romance between the FBI agent and the Navy officer. Even the secondary characters are well drawn and relateable. In particular, a female Mossad agent makes a powerful cameo that illustrates the risk of collecting intelligence in the terrorists’ territory.

Related: Book Review Cheatsheet: Learn How to Write a Review that Matters

The pacing is terrific, the situations are believable, and the action keeps up a truly unrelenting tempo. The last quarter of the book is like dominoes falling; you can’t help but keep reading. The only problem with JIHADI APPRENTICE is that the next book with this cast of characters won’t be here soon enough.

Get it here on Amazon

Verdict: An exciting and contemporary page-turner in which terrorism is a high-stakes game played with people’s lives on a global scale.

 

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