Book Review: A Common Evil by Billy Ray Chitwood

Not only do I write mysteries but I love reading them, too, especially the ones that take me to new places. This week’s book review is of A COMMON EVIL by Billy Ray Chitwood, a gem I discovered via Twitter. There aren’t many mysteries set in Mexico but Chitwood’s Bailey Crane series, of which A COMMON EVIL is the 6th and last, is a frequent and thoughtful visitor.

The novel takes us to a seaside resort along Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. Bailey is a retired Arizona cop who, with his wife Wendy, has settled into the condo resort in Mexico and is now the homeowner’s association head honcho. But along with sun and luxe, the Cranes also find danger and duplicity.

The cornerstone of the story is a scenario in which the largest cartel in Mexico, with a jefe who is not too objectionable, promises to clean up the violence and strike a deal with the Mexican government. Part of the clean-up action (read: getting rid of his rivals in order to run a drug monopoly with Mexico City’s approval) spills over onto Bailey’s turf. There’s a shootout on the resort property and Wendy is kidnapped because of a letter Bailey wrote protesting the dubious dealings of an American consorting with the cartels. Bailey’s survival instincts surge to the fore, although not always with the results he intends.

This isn’t the usual whodunit but a look at Mexico’s drug war through an expatriate’s eye. The charm of the novel—and the series–is Bailey’s unmissable musings on life and love. The tone feels autobiographical and authentic. His voice is a gutsier, spicier, and more raw version of Alexander McCall Smith’s point of view in the latter’s Isabel Dalhousie series but Bailey’s subject matter is both more intense and immediate. Even if you can’t quite wrap your head around the cartel-government bedfellows plot, A COMMON EVIL has plenty of twists, character surprises, and an alternately sunny and dangerous atmosphere that keep the pages turning.


Book Review: Something like A Dream by Robert Richter

Book Review: Something like A Dream by Robert Richter

SOMETHING LIKE A DREAM by Robert Richter is an unusual novel that crosses genres between international mystery and politically oriented literary fiction.

It’s the 1980s in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, but the shadow of the 60’s and 70’s still hovers over Cotton Waters, a liberal campus bomb-thrower from Colorado who fled to Mexico just one step ahead of US law enforcement. For the past 10 years he’s survived as a beach bum and “fixer” for unwary gringos visiting Mexico. He’s built a network of Mexican friends, ensuring a colorful cast of authentic characters from small kids who run errands, to a local herbal healer who lives in the jungle near Waters’s lonely beach cabin.

Waters is drawn into the struggle for the wealth of a Colorado-based foundation, whose director Bryant Springfield disappeared in Mexico on a quest to find a rare medicinal plant. Springfield’s wife hires Waters, based on his college reputation, to find her husband. Armed with two postcards with clues, Waters–whose nickname “Algo” is a riff on two words: the Spanish word for cotton, algodón, and algo, the Spanish word for something—Waters soon runs afoul of an array of enemies including Springfield’s father, a nosy reporter, corrupt federales, and a band of Huichol Indians who oppose outside influences. At the same time, Springfield’s wife and Waters are increasingly drawn to each other as they survive any number of efforts to keep them from finding the foundation director.

In the book, Puerto Vallarta is hardly the Love Boat stop from the beloved TV show, but is teeming with cheap beer, cantina hucksters, and layers of corruption. The plot is thick with double-crossing menace, allusions to liberal causes of the past (Tom Hayden, SDS, etc.) and smoky peyote-induced dreams and ceremonies. The story also moves beyond the beach, to the rural and dangerous Mexican hinterland, where Waters and friends take to burros to investigate secrets of the Huichol and rumors that Springfield is practicing the dark arts as a shaman.

The whole book is narrated by Waters, with a richly poetic and professorial “voice” somewhat at variance with the character’s persona. This voice, with its fulsome descriptions, heavy use of adjectives and adverbs, and dense phrasing, creates a pace that forces the reader to slow down and savor the imagery. The action scenes, however, would have benefited from fewer descriptive terms, more shorter sentences could have provided visual relief, and Waters’s peyote-fueled dreams were wrapped in page-long paragraphs that didn’t measurably advance the plot. The text contained many Spanish words and references to Mexican locations, which could be confusing to those without background knowledge.

These book review nits aside, Richter immerses the reader into the rarely seen wilds of Mexico. With less liberal baggage, Waters would be an interesting character to build a mystery series around. I’d be interested in seeing more from this author, if only to see what Mexican cultural issue he tackles next and if the prose lightens enough to gain traction with the mystery genre audience.


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© 2017 Carmen Amato.


I’m author Carmen Amato. I write romantic thrillers and the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series set in Acapulco. Expect risk, power, corruption. And relationships with heat.  More


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Book Review: Inferno by Dan Brown

Book Review: Inferno by Dan Brown

I wasn’t the first to buy much-hyped thriller INFERNO by THE DA VINCI CODE author Dan Brown but I’m glad I eventually did. But you’ll be surprised why.

The Kindle verson of the book was pricey these days when great books can be had for $2.99. So I waited to read some reviews before deciding.

The reviews for INFERNO were a mixed lot. Some raved, others were lukewarm. And one was entitled “Meh.”

That bugged me. Whether the book is good or bad, Mr. Brown is a master art historian and he has the best support network that traditional publishing can buy. Tom Hanks stars in the movies. This superpower combo only earned a “meh” as a measure of reader satisfaction?

I had to judge for myself.

INFERNO is equal parts art history and thriller. As in Brown’s 3 previous books, Harvard professor Robert Langdon finds himself in an improbable situation (this time in Italy) that his vast knowledge of art and religious/historic symbols give him the unique ability to decode.  He picks up a female sidekick; this time it is an American doctor who saves his life but guards her own secrets. And as in the previous books, Brown gives us a dramatic global issue with a big moral punch and leaves us wondering if it could be true. The antagonist, a mad scientist (depending on your political views) is sight unseen through 99% of the book although his horrible creation is seen by various characters and is the item Langdon eventually realizes he must find.

In one point in the book, maybe because the clues weren’t exactly coming together, there is a tiny logic leap. There’s also a nagging wonder why the mad scientist set up this bizarre trail for someone to follow–never really got a good explanation of the motivation, but the book is so engrossing those points are forgivable. Excellent twist at the end.

Far from being a “meh,” the book has great moments of action, characters who are shape-shifters in how they are perceived by both the reader and Langdon, and big doses of art and history. Readers who forget that Langdon is a Harvard professor might get impatient with the descriptions of the Italian masters, the history of buildings in Florence, and the architecture in Istanbul, but I really enjoyed the background information.

The only real knock I have is that the pre-launch book hype led me to believe that Langdon would be pursuing clues rendered by the poem by Dante of the same name. Instead, Langdon follows clues provided by artwork and music inspired by the poem. There’s a subtle difference and although Langdon needs a copy of the poem at one point to decipher a clue, the book is more of an art hunt than an immersion into the poem itself. THE DA VINCI code seemed to have more meat on it when it came to the source material Langdon had to work with.

No spoilers here, but I will say that INFERNO’s ending leaves us wondering if the events could be true, not nowhere to the extent of the end of the DA VINCI CODE. But I wonder if in a few years we won’t hear some techies talk about just such possibilities.

One other thing. As I said, Dan Brown is a big name in publishing and I would have thought that his book production team would be the best that money can buy. But the Kindle version of the book was poorly formatted and included lots of junk at the beginning that the reader had to click through. Probably the biggest ebook launch of the year and the publisher hadn’t a clue how to properly format an ebook!? This is why traditional publishing is putting itself out of business.

Dan Brown

Book Review: The Forgotten Affairs of Youth

Book Review: The Forgotten Affairs of Youth

The Forgotten Affairs of Youth is the eighth novel in the charming Isabel Dalhousie series by the prolific  Alexander McCall Smith. Better known for the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series set in Botswana, the Isabel Dalhousie series is set in Edinburgh and has a more contemporary feel.

I actually feel it is the better written series, as it takes on many moral issues, and am often surprised that people know of the No 1 Ladies series but not about Isabel.

The series centers around Isabel, an attractive woman in her early-40’s who has a surprising affair in the early books with her niece’s ex-boyfriend, a much younger professional musician named Jamie. The brief union produces a child. Jamie moves in with Isabel—who is independently wealthy and also edits a philosophy journal—and much of upper Edinburgh society is genteelly shocked. In this novel Isabel and Jamie are still planning their wedding.

Besides the personal story, the Isabel Dalhousie novels each are a mystery, usually having to do with art, music, or Edinburgh society. Isabel is always helping out folks who have big life questions. In The Forgotten Affairs of Youth, Jane is a visiting professor who is trying to find her biological father. He was a student in Edinburgh years ago and Jane seeks help from Isabel, a longtime resident of the city. As Isabel looks into the past, unpleasant secrets are revealed. Jamie doesn’t want her to pursue inquiries into other people’s lives and the reader cannot help but hope the friction doesn’t damage their careful relationship.

Alexander McCall Smith’s Edinburgh is a gentler, more beautiful and cozy city than say, Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh. The mystery and drama are revealed in Isabel’s philosophic musings and walks around the city. I love the descriptions such as: “They reached the bottom of Candlemaker Row and turned into the Cowgate itself. Directly under the high arches of George IV Bridge the street became tunnel-like. The passed the Magdalen Chapel, a sixteenth century almshouse, in shadow and darkness.”

The ending is a nice twist, like most of the books in the series. I actually wished it could have gone on a bit longer.

Each book in the Isabel Dalhousie series is a small gem, to be savored and re-read when life gets hectic.

alexander mccall smith

Book Review: Blood of the Wicked by Leighton Gage

Book Review: Blood of the Wicked by Leighton Gage

BLOOD OF THE WICKED is the first book in the Chief Inspector Mario Silva series by Leighton Gage. I’d never heard of the series before stumbling upon a reference to it in a Goodreads group. I was trying to see if I was the only one writing a mystery series set in the Americas and a fellow mystery lover had listed it in a thread. In addition to discovering the Mario Silva series, I also discovered that besides myself, Leighton Gage, and Jerry Last, there aren’t many writing mysteries set in the Americas for the English-speaking audience.

Related post: In Memorium: The Unsung Influence of Mystery Author Leighton Gage

Goodreads didn’t steer me wrong. Silva is an enigmatic protagonist with a disturbing but understandable backstory. I liked the way Gage wove in the backstory but didn’t try and force-fit it into the plot. The story starts as a whodunit murder mystery that Silva and his federal police team has to solve but they quickly find out that there are underlying problems in the smallish town where the murder occurred. Local civil authority is totally corrupt, however, and resent the intrusion by Silva and his small team of federales.

The prize in this book is the absolute authenticity. From the descriptions of the locations to the issues that create much of the drama to the characters who are so truly Brazilian, you’ll be surprised at the end that the book wasn’t in Portuguese.  Gage’s style comes right at you, nothing flowery or extraneous. Good plotting, pacing and characters. But there is violence and gore and the disregard for human life that hemisphere-watchers read about in the newspapers or see on Blog del Narco. I would have liked more of Silva’s personal life; he’s not as well-rounded as he might have been. But overall this is a book written with grit, talent and an insider’s view of Brazil. If you like mysteries, this is a series to investigate.

leighton gage

Book Review: The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch

Book Review: The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch

THE HANGMAN’s DAUGHTER by Oliver Pötzsch is a medieval murder mystery set in Germany. It is post-plague 1659, a few years after the end of the Thirty Years War, and children are being murdered in the small village of Schongau.

It’s the first in a series by the author, all dark, medieval mysteries with deep plots, authentic atmosphere, and touches of superstition.

The local hangman—responsible for carrying out civil punishments like executions and torture as well as trash pickup—is Jacob Kuisl. He’s a self-educated man shunned by the town’s respectable folk, all except the young doctor in town who is smart enough to realize that Kuisl knows more about the human body than the so-called educators at the university who are prevented by religion and superstition from knowing the true healing arts. The doctor is also in love with Kuisl’s daughter, who despite the title of the book is a secondary character.

This isn’t my usual reading fare but I was given the book by a friend and intrigued enough to finish reading to the end.  To the author’s credit, the descriptions of medieval Germany were excellent; you are really dropped into the setting and it is wholly believable. The townspeople think that the children are dying as the result of witchcraft and that the devil is walking about. The bad guys are stinking bad, an innocent   woman accused of witchcraft is caught in the middle, Kuisl is determined to avoid having to kill her as part of his job, and a couple of secondary characters are sufficiently painted gray to get you wondering if they aren’t somehow involved.

And then we have the end. There is a great climax which pits Kuisl against the worst bad guy. Then there’s a mopping up of small details that serve as a warning for authors not to get too caught up in the arcane. Supposedly a tapestry was a clue but it showed someone pooping gold? The bad guy’s mentor was a virtually invisible character? My apologies to the author if I didn’t understand all the nuances along the way but I might have gotten bogged down in the constant reminders that Kuisl is the hangman, that he’s shunned by other villagers, that the townspeople are simple and superstitious, and that everyone is afraid of the devil.  Every once in a while I was reminded of the scene in Young Frankenstein where the villagers come to the castle . . . Did you make a yummy noise?

For all that, it is a unique book and gives a great sense of life in medieval Germany. It is based on the author’s own family history, which gives it an added element of interest.

the hangman's daughter

Book Review: The Golden Egg by Donna Leon

Book Review: The Golden Egg by Donna Leon

If ever there was a mystery author who I consider a role model, Donna Leon is it. Her Commisario Guido Brunetti series set in Venice has all the elements of a great mystery series:

  • a perfect cast of characters starring Brunetti himself–the thinking man’s detective who reads the classics
  • his sharp-tongued wife Paola who teaches English literature at the university and is a great cook
  • the boss who swings according to the day’s political wind
  • stout-hearted but highly individual colleagues
  • the police department’s beautiful hacker/secretary.

Add to this cast the food and wine of Italy, the sights and sounds of Venice, twisty plots, and you have an intellectual series rooted in Italian culture.

THE GOLDEN EGG brings together all these elements as Brunetti probes into the death of a deaf man who seems to have lived totally outside of Italian officialdom, something almost impossible to do. Brunetti pulls gossamer threads, one after the other, to try and find out the basics about him, despite the fact that his death looks fairly accidental. The book is peppered with his queries of various people in Venice as he takes to the streets and canals in search of answers. Paola and his children form a bulwark against the sadness of the situation (Brunetti is one of the few international mystery characters who is neither an alcoholic nor divorced.)

Italy’s political mire and hopeless bureaucracy is on display in the book, mirroring the country’s real problems.  It seems to be as much of the culture as the water lapping at the riva of the canal or the tramezzini that Brunetti has for lunch.

The ending, as in so many of Leon’s novels, is a satisfying twist you don’t see coming. The “egg” of the title means “nest egg” but other than that I won’t give it away. Anyone who likes the international mystery genre or Italy will love this book, as well as the others in the series.

Donna Leon

Book Review: False Impressions by Sandra Nikolai

Book Review: False Impressions by Sandra Nikolai

FALSE IMPRESSIONS by Canadian author Sandra Nikolai was a real gem, a nicely composed whodunit that shies away from gore and violence in favor of a dialogue-driven narrative in which the characters’ brainstorming sessions take center stage. Am I mixing metaphors? Maybe. Go buy the book.

I always like reading mysteries that are set in different places and Nikolai puts the reader right in downtown Montreal, giving us a sense of the French influence as well as the shops, restaurants, subway system, etc. She uses snippets of the French language accurately and to solid effect. Her writing style is strong on description and dialogue and is easy to read.

The plot doesn’t have bizarre twists and turns—it goes straight at the central theme which is Megan Scott’s discovery that her husband–for whom the word “cad” was coined–has been cheating on her with friends and strangers alike and suddenly ends up dead far from where he said he was going to be. She is the most likely suspect and nicely introduced details that Megan didn’t realize meant anything suddenly do.  There is a love interest who is handled adroitly, Megan’s husband is recently dead after all, and a nicely wrapped up ending.

I wondered if I would categorize this as a “cozy” mystery, a category that for me usually involves a cat and something knitted. Nikolai gives us more of a clean thriller and one which many should enjoy.

Sandra Nikolai

3 Latino Reads with Universal Appeal

3 Latino Reads with Universal Appeal

Each of these 3 exceptional books has universal appeal that transcends its roots, but for different reasons.

The Gifted Gabaldón Sisters by Lorraine M. López

the gifted sisters coverIn all honesty, I picked up The Gifted Gabaldón Sisters because it has an eye-catching cover. Luckily, the story inside was just as mesmerizing.

It traces the lives of four sisters, who each seem endowed with a magical ability or “gift.” But it’s not fairy tale magic and it shapes their lives in unexpected ways. The story swings between the lives of the sisters, and the official account of government research into the Puebla tribe. At first I didn’t understand the connection but after a few chapters realized that the research was the background story of Fermina, the girls’ caretaker after the death of their mother. Fermina is the one who gives the girls their “gifts.”

The sisters are all named after Hollywood stars from the 40’s and 50’s, which not only made it easy to keep track of the different sisters and their gifts, but also gave a rich feeling of the family’s atmosphere and the legacy of their dead mother.  My favorite character was Bette Davis Gabaldón, who believes her “gift” is the ability to persuade people to do what she wants.  The gifts are both burdens and things to celebrate. This isn’t a pulse-pounder that races to a climax but a gentle story of women who believe themselves bound by their gifts. It is that belief that ultimately shapes their lives and draws the reader along on the journey.

This book is recommended for anyone who likes contemporary literature, stories with a bit of magic in them, as well as those who like fiction that draws on history.

Take Me With You by Carlos Frías

take_me_with_youMy basis of understanding Cuba comes from a grad school friend whose parents fled Castro’s revolution, leaving behind everything. The mother, who was pregnant at the time, never really got over what had happened and her later years were full of emotional pain. So it was with this family in mind that I picked up the book during a memoir phase and it turned out to be one of the best contemporary memoirs I have read.

A Miami-based journalist, Frías recounts his own 2006 trip to Cuba to cover the political scene, which allowed him to trace his father’s life there before the revolution. Frías writes simply and smoothly and his descriptions put the reader right into today’s Cuba, with its decayed buildings, endless scrabbling for the basics, and sense of waiting for it all to end. Although the book moves around between the author’s family in Miami, his father’s middle-class life in pre-revolution Cuba, and the author’s own experiences in today’s Cuba, the reader never gets confused.  Frías is able to show us real people and how their lives were damaged by Cuba’s revolution, including that of his father and the family members who stayed behind and are now trapped in Cuba’s poverty.

This book is recommended for anyone interested in Cuba, for those who like to read memoirs, or anyone contemplating writing a memoir. This is how it is done.

The Underdogs by Mariano Azuela

the underdogs coverA couple of years ago I walked through a display of Mexican Revolution photographs in a museum in Rome, Italy. Meant primarily to showcase the era’s photographers, the exhibit was a sepia-toned illustration of the brutality and confusion of the times. All of the images we association with early 20th century Mexico were there–horsemen with crossed bandoliers and wide palm sombreros, women in white dresses with ruffled bodices, ragged laborers in white cotton rags, soldiers in short jackets with brass buttons and pistols strapped to their legs. The captions told of indiscriminate killings, rapes of camp followers, the political double-crosses that made the presidency into an institution of corruption, coups, and murder for many years. I walked away sad and confused.

Written in 1915, literally on the front lines of the revolution, The Underdogs describes with a powerful narrative the images I carried away from that museum. Author Mariano Azuela was a doctor who traveled with several of the revolutionary armies. His main character is an illiterate farmer, Demetrio Macías, who becomes the leader of a small group of fighters aligned with Pancho Villa. He feeds his men by taking from the countryside, uses innocent citizens as human shields, collects women along the way, and hardly understands the political situation and the swings of allegiances. He just knows that fighting is better than scraping by as a farmer.

Through dialogue, the various characters shine through, rivalries are made immediate and the story moves quickly. Over and over, I marveled at the authenticity, at how Azuela was able to paint such a realistic picture in so few words, and how so much was packed into the story. Basically, anything I’d seen or heard about the Mexican Revolution was distilled into one short novel. The imagery and vignettes of brutality and rivalry truly resonated and were better than any history book.

Recommended for those interested in Mexican history, historical novels, and for students of literary construction.

Latino reads

Book Review:  Cold Service by Robert B. Parker

Book Review: Cold Service by Robert B. Parker

This review is dedicated to the people of Boston.

I’m still surprised when I run across someone who is a mystery novel fan but who has never read a book by Robert B. Parker, creator of the Spenser novels that have come to define the mystery genre. His tough-as-nail-with-heart-of-gold private detective, whose first name we never know, is as much a part of the Boston landscape for me as Copley Square or Harvard Yard. The hardback editions of the books–and there around 40 in the series–include a map on the flyleaf with all of Spenser’s haunts labelled on it. Locke-Ober’s Restaurant, Faneuil Hall, his apartment on Marlborough Street and the oft-mentioned swan boats in Boston’s Public Gardens.

But we don’t just read Spenser mysteries for the Boston scenery. We read them for great characters, perfect plots, the crisp sparse language.  And Spenser’s firmly rooted code of ethics. He may be a private eye and a self-admitted thug, but he’s got a clear and believable moral compass and expresses it in a way we don’t see very often any more. COLD SERVICE is the Spenser novel that best sets out that code which includes loyalty to friends, standing your ground, but never striking without provocation.

In COLD SERVICE (the title is derived from the saying that revenge is a dish best served cold) his friend Hawk is shot and left for dead. Hawk was protecting a Boston bookie from a Ukrainian mob trying to muscle into the area. Needless to say the bookie and family are dead. With Spenser’s help, Hawk recovers, infiltrates the mob, and stops it from gaining a foothold in Boston.

Not many of the Spenser books revolve so closely around Hawk, although the enigmatic thug/hitman/bodyguard/boxer who plays wingman in almost all the books. Dialogue between them is nearly a work of art:

  • “They tell me I ain’t gonna die.”
  • “That’s what I heard.”
  • There were hard things being discussed, and not all of them aloud.

Without giving away the plot twists, let’s just say this is one of the best of the Spenser series, which is one of the best mystery series out there. The Ukrainian mob is opaque and brutish. Help comes but cannot be trusted.  Strange alliances must be forged to get at the mob, but they are tenuous at best.

The mayor of a small town near Boston holds the key; his administration is synonymous with corruption. Hawk’s quest for vengeance distances him from the surgeon he’s dating and his refusal to adjust his own code eventually pushes her away. Spenser understands Hawk’s code but will not pursue revenge in the same brute force way.

The end is a terrific nail-biter.

robert b. parker

Book Review: A Sunless Sea by Anne Perry

Book Review: A Sunless Sea by Anne Perry

William Monk is back and better than ever in A SUNLESS SEAthe latest novel by Anne Perry about the amnesiac cop-turned private detective-turned head of law enforcement on the Thames River in 1860’s London. As always, Perry’s vivid descriptions put us right there–aboard the river police boats, turning up our collar as Monk shivers and water plays about his feet, or on the streets of old London with a wide variety of the city’s denizens from high society spoiled girls to the prostitutes who ply their pathetic trade along the city’s wharves.

Plot + Twist

The book starts with a bang as Monk is drawn to the edge of the river by screams and discovers the body of a woman who has literally been gutted. His investigation into her identity and murderer leads to a curious set of circumstances and a perfect plot twist along the way that made me read the discovery twice. Like so many Monk books, the ending weaves together careful clues and secondary characters whose motive makes you curl your lip in dismay.

Pitch-Perfect Characters

All of the series regular characters get a part to play as Monk tries to unravel the mystery, as usual racing against time to provide evidence at a trial. Oliver Rathbone, the lawyer who defends the accused has his moments in the book as he copes with a dissolving marriage, his still unresolved feelings for Monk’s wife Hester, and damning evidence from a previous case he has inherited. Hester, who had more prominence in earlier Monk books but who still stands tall here as the crusading nurse, helps Monk, further defining her role as an independent woman in contrast to London high society’s gawd-help-us types.

Monk himself has gentled a bit from when we first met him in MAN WITHOUT A FACE. Perry demonstrates his emotional journey quite brilliantly. Read the Monk books with Daniel Day-Lewis in mind; I’m quite sure if the author had a movie dreamcast he’d be her pick for the role.

Bottom Line

Like some of Perry’s books, there is some repetition in A SUNLESS SEA as characters spend time mentally rehashing known facts, as if the author wants to keep reminding us of the action so far. But like all the Monk books, it is full of great characters, a well-done historical setting, and an outcome that leaves you wondering when the next book is coming out. A great addition to the series.

Sunless Sea

Book Review: The Man Who Smiled by Henning Mankell

Book Review: The Man Who Smiled by Henning Mankell

Books starring the depressed Swedish police detective Kurt Wallander are growing on me, but not as fast as the portrayal of him by British actor Kenneth Branagh.  I like the book plotlines, the descriptions of rural Sweden, the nice balance of character introspection and action. His perpetual unhappiness, stilted dialogue, and self-searching angst are part of Henning Mankell’s moody style, and Branagh captures it perfectly.

In THE MAN WHO SMILED, Wallander can’t come to grips with the fact that he killed a man in the line of duty. He’s drinking himself into oblivion, emerging briefly for a sex-addict’s blurred holiday in Thailand. After an intervention by his grownup yet unseen daughter Linda, he takes his angst to the windswept beaches of Jutland and plans to retire from his job as senior police detective in Ystad, Sweden. But an old friend approaches him to investigate the death of his father, then later turns up murdered. Wallander pulls himself together and heads back into his police career.

He’s been gone for over a year. The squadroom has changed, notably with the addition of a young female detective. As I write a mystery series about a lone female detective in a squadroom full of hostile men, this character really resonated with me. Her attitudes, dialogue and action scenes were very well done.

The book showcased the way Wallander pieces together multiple murders. I enjoyed the pacing of the discovery of clues and the logic thread which made the mystery one of the best in the Wallander series.

But there was one epic fail and it surprised me, given that the rest of the book came together so well. The wrong part would have been very easy to leave out or adjust to make sense. Without giving it away, it involved a switch by the bad guys after the good guy was dead and they simply could have taken the clue when they left the scene of the crime. Or Mankell could have left the original item to be found as the clue. Either way the plot elements would have hardly been affected.

I often look for solid motive in a mystery. The bad guy’s motive was a bit thin, but Mankell sold it as an appalling disregard for human life. It worked—but barely.

Henning Mankell

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