Book review: Sherlock Holmes, twice as nice

Book review: Sherlock Holmes, twice as nice

A KNIFE IN THE FOG and DUST AND SHADOW are both sensational thrillers. The two books have a few things in common, including exceptional historical research, an investigative trio, and a satisfying conclusion, yet each offers an original take on Victorian London’s most heinous true crime.

Sherlock Holmes vs Jack the Ripper

A KNIFE IN THE FOG by Bradley Harper goes beyond the familiar Sherlock Holmes construct with a truly unique set-up: all of the main characters are real-life historical figures who influenced Victorian society. The book rings with authenticity and the historical elements are executed faultlessly.​​​​​

The narrator is Arthur Conan Doyle himself.

In the summer of 1888, Doyle is a practicing doctor in  Portsmouth and has published A Study in Scarlett, the story which introduced Sherlock Holmes. His wife is pregnant with their first child and his future looks to be that of a general practitioner and family man, writing stories on the side to augment his income and amuse himself.

Doyle receives a summons to London from the office of former prime minister William Gladstone, whose secretary has read Doyle’s story and wishes him to become a paid consultant to find the killer terrorizing London’s East End.  Doyle agrees on condition that his former mentor, Professor Joseph Bell, joins the effort.  Bell, a Scottish surgeon and lecturer at the medical school of the University of Edinburgh and widely regarded as the real-life inspiration for the character of Sherlock Holmes, soon joins Doyle in London.

A third real-life figure joins Doyle and Bell. Margaret Harkness is an investigative journalist and social commentator whose writings expose London’s poverty and social injustices. Often using the pen name John Law and disguising herself as a man, Margaret will be an invaluable guide and ally.

By giving Doyle a voice of his own, author Harper has created a character as appealing as Holmes. Doyle is considerate and charming, with the formalities and vocabulary of the British gentleman of 1888. Doyle draws the reader into his confidence as the three develop a working relationship, navigate Victorian social rules as well as London’s dark and dangerous passageways, and encounter Jack the Ripper’s missives and victims. Margaret is tireless and Doyle’s growing feelings for her provide a quiet complication.

With deductive reasoning worthy of Sherlock Holmes, the three encounter danger and deceit on the way to identifying Jack the Ripper. The end is a heart-stopper.

DUST AND SHADOW by Lyndsay Faye delivers a more familiar construct in which Dr. John Watson narrates an investigation conducted by the famous detective Sherlock Holmes. Watson, as in the Conan Doyle stories, is the perfect everyman foil to his brilliant friend. Faye amps up the legendary Holmes formula, however, immersing the reader in the details of life with Holmes: his moodiness, restlessness, investigative prowess, the many trials of Mrs. Hudson the housekeeper. Holmes’s dialogue crackles with acerbic personality and sharp wit. I swear I heard Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice in my head.

An investigative trio is also formed in DUST AND SHADOW when Holmes hires Mary Ann Monk, the friend of one of the Ripper’s victims. The investigation initially turns on the whereabouts of an Army man supposedly seen with an early Riper victim.

Warned by his Baker Street Irregulars—the group of street urchins that provide Holmes with intelligence—Holmes and Watson are able to arrive first on more than one murder scene. When Holmes is stabbed in pursuit of the Ripper, the gutter press begins to question if he is the killer.  With his credibility strained and vigilantes out to get him, Holmes goes undercover to ferret out the Ripper. Mary Ann and Watson carry on until the three reunite for a stunning and wholly believable climax.

If you are a Sherlock Holmes fan or a student of the Ripper’s crimes, both A KNIFE IN THE FOG and DUST AND SHADOW are unmissable treats. The only spoiler I’ll reveal is that the identity of the Ripper is different in each book. Both are highly recommended.

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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: Weapons of Mass Deception

Book Review: Weapons of Mass Deception

Like spy and military thrillers? Books based on current events? Polished prose? Great plots? WEAPONS OF MASS DECEPTION is for you.

WEAPONS is a high caliber thriller, using a very plausible Iraq War scenario as its core: Saddam’s sons move the country’s nuclear weapons to Iran for safekeeping as US forces begin to move against his regime. They use the same frenemy as welcomed Iraq’s fighter aircraft in the Gulf War, knowing the terrible gamble they are taking.

That frenemy turns out to be three half-brothers. One is a ayatollah, one a military intelligence officer, and one whom the other two are able to manipulate into joining a sleeper cell in South America.

Related post: Book Review: Smokescreen by Khaled Talib

The action moves from the Middle East to the US where the action follows main character Brendan McHugh as he graduates from the Naval Academy, becomes a SEAL, and fights in Iraq. By accident he runs into one of the Iranian brothers, beginning an odd connection that underpins the rest of the novel. McHugh’s career is stalled by a serious combat injury, taking him in an unforeseen direction during which he comes full circle back to the Iraq war and the hunt for nuclear weapons.

Some of the best parts of the novel are scenes in which the three Iranian brothers create their private nuclear arsenal with the appropriated Iraqi weapons. They are a team in some ways, but also three separate entities who have different motivations, backgrounds, and personal lives. The set up is plausible and wonderfully described with a great visual narrative.

After such a phenomenal story, the ending wasn’t the big deal I expected but upon reflection probably more in keeping with real life. I hope this writing team of Bruns and Olson has more to offer and the McHugh character is welcome to repeat his starring role. Highly recommended.

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Book Review: The Ragman Murders

Book Review: The Ragman Murders

Based on a true family story, THE RAGMAN MURDERS is clearly a labor of love. The novel tells the story of two immigrant families, the Amatos and the Tassones, and the circumstances that bring them into conflict within Hartford CT’s teeming immigrant neighborhoods in the early 1900’s. I read it at the same time that PBS brought out its documentary “The Italian-Americas,” and the descriptions in RAGMAN resonated deeply.

RAGMAN’s action moves between an interview with one of the grown daughters of Maria Carmella and Guiseppe Amato, and flashbacks of the Amatos’ immigration experience from Serra San Bruno, Italy. Other flashbacks show Guiseppe’s involvement with the Black Hand gangsters that preyed on newly arrived fellow Italians, and the story of the tragedy-prone Tassones. While the back-and-forth narrative is well explained, the construction would have been tighter if there had been more of the storytelling daughter in the flashback sequences, perhaps showing that she and the father had a special relationship. That would have also justified the plot twist (no spoilers!) at the end.

That point notwithstanding, RAGMAN is a piece of the Italian-American immigrant experience. It is based on true events and has so many characters because all of them actually took part in those events. News stories no doubt shaped some of the narrative, and lend a period writing style to the last fourth of the book. Highly recommended for those who are interested in the history of Italian-Americans and Italian immigration to the US.

Coming 17 July

AWAKENING MACBETH is a serialized novel of romantic suspense by Carmen Amato. Episodes are released on carmenamato.net, Pinterest, and Facebook on Tuesdays and Fridays. Carmen’s other novels are available on Amazon and include THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY as well as the Detective Emilia Cruz mysteries CLIFF DIVER, HAT DANCE, and DIABLO NIGHTS. Please use the link below to sign up for the Mystery Monthly mailing list for exclusive excerpts, book release news, and sales alerts.

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