Book Review: THE SEPTEMBER SOCIETY by Charles Finch

Book Review: THE SEPTEMBER SOCIETY by Charles Finch

THE SEPTEMBER SOCIETY by Charles Finch

THE SEPTEMBER SOCIETY is one of the early novels in the Charles Lenox historical mystery series, which is my new obsession. Imagine Victorian London through the eyes of an upper-class private detective, with great descriptions, 3-D characters and details out of a Dickens novel. As an added delight, there are sly references to iconic British authors like P.G. Wodehouse.

In short, the Charles Lenox mystery series is absorbing, authentic, and quite sophisticated.

The premise

Lenox is a bachelor in love with his London neighbor, Lady Jane, a wealthy widow whom he’s known since childhood. Asking for her hand in marriage requires courage, although Lenox is accustomed to not only solving gruesome crimes but the rigors of London society and the opinions of those who believe that an Oxford-educated man should do something more impressive with his talents. Be in Parliament, perhaps, like his older brother and many friends.

Independently wealthy, Lenox persists in his role as amateur detective. In THE SEPTEMBER SOCIETY, a woman needs his help to find her son, missing from college at Oxford. Pleased to revisit old haunts, Lenox finds a connection to a London club called the September Society.

Only a handful of men belong to the club, which is exclusive to the point of anonymity. All members have links to the Army and to an obscure battle that provides a lesson into British colonial history.

Note on style

The descriptions of both London and Oxford are brilliant. The architecture, traditions, and landscape of Oxford is particularly well done as we explore the alleys and greens. Weathered stone and damp grass are underfoot, while wavy windows and spires rise above. Student life ranges between tutors, taverns, and games.

The plot races along as Lenox chases clues. The climax is a very satisfying surprise.

Bottom line

At this point, I’ve read 7 out of 14 Charles Lenox mysteries, which are best read in order. Lenox’s evolving life—marriage, children, a stint in Parliament, his own detective agency—features prominently. The books are fairly long and immersive, reminding me in style and tone of Anne Perry’s early William Monk historical mysteries.

I’m off to find the next in the series!

Find THE SEPTEMBER SOCIETY on Amazon

Book Review: DEL RIO by Jane Rosenthal

Book Review: DEL RIO by Jane Rosenthal

DEL RIO by Jane Rosenthal

Jane Rosenthal joins the small but vital community of authors using fiction to reveal the complexity and heartbreak of the US-Mexico relationship. DEL RIO confronts the issues of human trafficking and migrant labor and delivers a compelling story rooted in empathy and authenticity.

The premise

Del Rio, California, has fallen on hard times, thanks to cartels on the other wide of the US-Mexico border. Hometown girl Callie McCall is now the local district attorney, a tough cookie aiming for higher political office.

A dismembered teen is found on the edge of a citrus grove. It’s on Callie’s watch and she shoulders the responsibility. The case sends Callie deep into Mexico, pursuing facts no one wants exposed, least of all her own landowning family and devious ex-husband.

She’ll get unexpected help from Nathan, a widower who has been tricked into working as a tour guide to provide cover for a cartel boss. Together, they survive a gruesome “warning” in the form of mangled bodies and begin to unravel a complex tangle of money and crime.

Note on style

The thriller moves between Callie’s first-person point of view and Nathan’s narrative, allowing the intricate plot to unfold without confusion. Callie’s family is a big part of the trouble and having her chapters tell it directly is a clever device.

I really liked the character development throughout the book. Both Callie and Nathan learn troubling but impactful lessons about themselves. Callie’s ambition and Nathan’s self-pity are cast off as they encounter drugs, murder, and human smuggling and we like them all the better for it. A supporting cast of secondary characters pop with authentic descriptions and plot-twisting tricks.

Bottom line

The scope of the story, breadth of character motives, and clever narrative style resonate long after the last page is turned. This is such a timely book.

Get DEL RIO on Amazon

Book review: ALL THE DEVILS ARE HERE by Louise Penny

Book review: ALL THE DEVILS ARE HERE by Louise Penny

ALL THE DEVILS ARE HERE by Louise Penny

An entry in the Gamache mystery series that doesn’t take place in Three Pines? What is the world coming to??

Paris.

The premise

Armand Gamache is once again head of Homicide for the Sureté de Quebec. He is on vacation in Paris to visit his grown children and await the birth of his newest grandchild. His billionaire godfather Stephen is there, too, making for a happy family reunion. That is, until Stephen is critically injured by a hit-and-run driver.

Witness to the accident, Gamache and his wife know this was no random accident but attempted murder.

Aided by his son-in-law Jean-Guy Beauvoir, until recently Gamache’s second-in-command and now working for a Paris-based multinational engineering firm, Gamache is determined to find out who wanted to kill his godfather. Together, they will uncover a string of mysteries, including a dead body in Stephen’s lux pied-a-terre and questionable links to the French Resistance during World War II, plus funny business at the engineering firm.

The action ranges across Paris, giving us an armchair tour through rainy arrondisements. We are swept across the city, from the legendary Georges V hotel to the wounded Notre Dame cathedral to the Luxembourg Gardens and dozens of points in between. Secrets and the unexplained nip at our heels.

Note on Style

The style is often staccato, with short, sharp sentences to heighten emotional impact.

She grabbed him to her again, and they held on to each other.

Weeping for Stephen.

For themselves.

A little of that goes a long way for me and I wish it was used more sparingly, but this technique keeps the drama high.

The plot of ALL THE DEVILS ARE HERE, the 16th Gamache mystery, is solid. The climax was wholly believable and connected all the dots, especially when it comes to character development.

Bottom line

I loved the way the ending became a happy turning point for the Gamache narrative. My guess is that subsequent books will enjoy the original atmosphere and framework which underpin the success of the series.

Highly recommended.

Get ALL THE DEVILS on Amazon

Book Review: THE THURSDAY MURDER CLUB by Richard Osman

Book Review: THE THURSDAY MURDER CLUB by Richard Osman

THE THURSDAY MURDER CLUB by Richard Osman

What happens when the residents of a bucolic senior living community in England get together to investigate a murder? For starters, one murder becomes . . . many.

I’d read so many positive reviews of this book that I was primed to love it. And I did.

The premise

A local developer wants to add on to the Coopers Chase Retirement Village, home to Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim, and Ron. They are the nucleus of the Thursday Murder Club, which gets together to review cold case files. The files belong to Penny, a retired police officer who has suffered a stroke and is incapacitated. The club is kept afloat by Elizabeth, Penny’s best friend and a wily former intelligence officer with contacts everywhere.

When the property developer dies under mysterious circumstances, throwing his plans to destroy the adjacent cemetery into disarray, the club decides to solve his murder. Elizabeth is the prime mover and uses the skills of each of the members to brilliant effect. Along the way, they’ll solve several other crimes that drift across the book like errant red herrings.

The style

The novelty of the book is not only the subject matter, but the format. Joyce’s first-person diary entries are interspersed with scenes written from other points of view. All the voices carefully pull each other along through the complex case as each goes on their own small “hero’s journey.”

The more we get to know them, the more we love shrewd and mysterious Elizabeth, Joyce the man-chaser, Ibrahim the methodical retired therapist and Ron, the still-famous union activist and his son, a prize fighter making the circuit of talent competitions for the formerly famous. Add to the mix the two police officers who end up helping the club, as well as each other.

Bottom line

These well-drawn characters are so relatable that by the end of the book you’re ready for a drive to Coopers Chase. Luckily, I hear there is going to be a sequel.

Find THE THURSDAY MURDER CLUB on Amazon

Book Review: True Fiction by Lee Goldberg

Book Review: True Fiction by Lee Goldberg

TRUE FICTION by Lee Goldberg

This outrageously campy thriller is pure escapism. Prepare to suspend disbelief, enjoy a zany premise, and get carried away.

The premise

Ian Ludlow, author of the he-man soldier of fortune Clint Straker thriller series, is a former TV writer from L.A. who is nothing like his heroic protagonist. But Ian is famous enough to be invited to a CIA-sponsored retreat with other action-adventure writers to dream up villainous scenarios so the Agency can prepare for the world’s emerging threats.

(Note: the CIA has lots of folks imaginative enough to write their own scenarios. See blog series above, thanks 🙂

Two years later, Ian is on a book tour in Seattle when the crazy scenario he developed for the CIA actually happens. Panicked, he reaches out to the other retreat writers, only to find out that they are all dead.

Suddenly, Ian’s recent rash of accidents don’t seem so random. When another attempt is made on his life, he goes on the run, dragging along a dog walker who works part-time for his publisher.

Ian doesn’t know the retreat wasn’t sponsored by the CIA but by a power-hungry corporation determined to use his scenario to take over US national security agencies. Ian is a loose end that needs to get tidied up.

The twist

Knowing that he’s being tracked, Ian needs help. Luckily the TV show he wrote starred the sort of help he needs. As the TV show comes into focus, it’s one of the funniest parts of the book.

Hollywood and the Vine. The tagline of the TV show is hysterical: Half man, half tree. All cop.

Sort of Starsky and Hutch meet The Ents.

Overall, the pace is slick, the writing is punchy, the situations are almost believable, and the campy fun never stops.

Bottom line

Although TRUE FICTION wraps neatly at the end, Ian’s saga continues. I can’t wait to grab the next book in this series.

Find TRUE FICTION on Amazon.

Department Q and The Keeper of Lost Causes

Department Q and The Keeper of Lost Causes

THE KEEPER OF LOST CAUSES, the first Department Q novel by Jussi Adler-Olsen, has toppled Jo Nesbo from the top of my Nordic Noir favorites list.

And I didn’t even know I wanted to go to Denmark.

Some series take a few books before all the pieces are properly in place but Department Q comes at us with all elements fully formed: everyman hero with a wry inner voice, an intriguing sidekick, and an investigative style that relies heavily on pulling threads, connecting dots, and spotting liars.

Detective Carl Mørck returns to work in the Copenhagen Police Department’s  homicide unit after being ambushed and shot while investigating a murder victim killed with a nail gun; a backstory that promises to spool out over the life of the series. One of Carl’s close colleagues died in the ambush and another was left a quadriplegic, who together with a silly ex-wife, hippie stepson, and the guy who rents part of Carl’s house, populates Carl’s appealing inner circle.

In short order, Carl is banished to the police station’s basement with a “promotion” to head up Department Q, a political stunt to sooth public concerns over cold cases. Carl plans to use his new lair to nap and play computer solitaire but real work is expected. Carl quickly realizes he’s a staff of one and corners his boss into giving him help. Enter Assad, a Syrian immigrant hired to mop floors.

Out of all the old files heaped on his desk, Carl picks the disappearance five years ago of an up-and-coming Danish politician, Merete Lynggard. The assumption is suicide, but the case was handled sloppily and there are still leads to run down. While hiding his own past, Assad proves to be uncannily observant and resilient, helping Carl piece together clues and get out of tight situations.

Carl’s point of view alternates with that of kidnapping victim Merete. Clues for Carl are deliberately out of sync with Merete’s experiences, creating a tempo that simply rocks throughout what is a fairly long book.

THE KEEPER OF LOST CAUSES is the start of an addictive series. Over the next few books, Carl’s tiny Department Q basement empire grows in fits and starts, his quadriplegic former colleague offers pivotal insights, and investigative techniques hinge on probing questions and seemingly innocuous details. Carl’s often humorous reflections are counterbalanced by the inner voices of both villains and victims. Assad remains an enigma.

Start with THE KEEPER OF LOST CAUSES and keep going. Department Q needs you.​​​​​​​

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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.

 

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