Book Review Roundup by Gloria Feit

Known to Evil
Walter Mosley
NAL, February 2011
ISBN: 978-0-451-23213-7
Trade Paperback

Leonid Trotter McGill is a 54-year-old African-American man, an amateur boxer known to have had his “finger in every dishonest business in the city” including being a fixer for the mob, who is trying to turn his life around, now working as a private detective. He describes his marriage as “twenty years of unfaithfulness on both sides of the bed;” he has fathered only one of the two sons he has raised with his wife, she of the “gorgeous Scandinavian face.”  At present both his wife and his girlfriend have taken on new boyfriends, and his two sons are involved in some kind of trouble.  And that’s only his personal life.

He is hired [although insisting it will be a ‘favor,’ with no money to change hands other than expenses] by a very powerful man to find a young woman who it seems is being stalked, with no information except for an address; when he goes to that address it quickly becomes apparent that it is a crime scene where two dead bodies have been found.  The ensuing investigation, by McGill and the police, is not a simple one; ‘convoluted’ would be an understatement, but one never loses interest for a minute.   The woman he was sent to find was “a mystery and missing, the object of attention of a man who was as dangerous as any terrorist or government-trained assassin.”

I must admit to only having read one of this author’s prior books, which took place in an LA of earlier times.  I found this novel, which takes place in contemporary New York City, more accessible, which probably says at least as much about me than about the author.  But his evocation of present-day Manhattan is a vibrant one, as are his characters.  His writing is enjoyable on so many levels:  The frequent irony; the depiction of his protagonist as a deeply flawed man but one with his own immutable moral code; the wonderful names he gives his characters:  e.g., a young man who I want to describe as a computer genius except that that wouldn’t do him justice, with the two nicknames of “Tiny” [because he isn’t] and “Bug,” [no idea]; his father was self-named “Tolstoy;” an ex-cop’s middle name is Proteus; an assassin friend is named Hush; his brother is Nikita; he himself has named his sons Twilliam and Dmitri.

The writing is wonderful. When something bothers McGill, he describes it as “a feeling at the back of my mind, something that was burgeoning into consciousness like a vibrating moth pressing out from its cocoon.”  When he turned 49, the man who was a surrogate father to him gives him this wisdom:  “When you hit your fifties life starts comin’ up on ya fast . . .  Before that time life is pretty much a straight climb.  Wife looks up to you and the young kids are small enough, and the older kids smart enough, not to weigh you down.  But then, just when you start puttin’ on the pounds an’ losin’ your wind, the kids’re expecting you to fulfill your promises and the wife all of a sudden sees every one of your flaws.  Your parents, if you still got any, are getting’ old and turnin’ back into kids themselves.  For the first time you realize that the sky does have a limit. You comin’ to a rise, but when you hit the top there’s another life up ahead of you and here you are – – just about spent.”

Mr. Mosley has been called a master of contemporary noir, and I cannot disagree with that assessment.   Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, May 2011.

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Misery Bay
Steve Hamilton
Minotaur, June 2011
ISBN: 978-0-312-38043-4
Hardcover

The first page of the newest book by Steve Hamilton, which brings the welcome return of Alex McKnight, describes a scene wherein the body of a young man is found hanging from a tree branch at the edge of a bay in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  For those new to the series, McKnight is a former Detroit cop and current holder of a p.i. license, although he protests that he ‘doesn’t do that anymore’:  He owns and rents out cabins to ‘the snowmobile people’ in season.

Three months after that first-page event takes place, McKnight is approached by Roy Maven, Chief of Police in “the Soo” [Sault St. Marie], who asks for his help.  This from a man whose relationship with McKnight could at best be described as ‘fraught’ – as the Chief says, ‘just call it a persistent lack of liking each other.”  The dead boy’s father had been Maven’s partner on the police force, and Maven wants McKnight to investigate the circumstances that could have led to what appears to have been a suicide.  Having suffered horrendous personal losses himself – his partner on the Detroit police force, the woman he loved – there is no way this particular man could refuse.  In what is perhaps the unlikeliest of alliances, McKnight agrees.

The place where the body was found is the eponymous Misery Bay, a fitting enough name for the site itself and for what happened there, and a five-hour drive away from McKnight’s home on Lake Superior, in a town called Paradise.  McKnight once again periodically turns to his friend Leon Prudell, the once and perhaps future p.i., for his unerring ability to point him in the right direction.  The investigation takes some unpredictable turns, as more lives are lost and more still endangered.

The writing is wonderful – no surprise here.  The long, long winter of Paradise is once again made palpable by the author:  “The sun went down.  The wind picked up and started howling and I knew the wind chill would be something like thirty below.  Another beautiful April night in Paradise. . . [where] springtime felt like a fairy tale.”  [And I loved that the author tips his hat to fellow mystery writers, both from NYC: Reed Coleman and Jim Fusilli, both police sergeants in this incarnation.]

As dark as the story line is, there is just enough humor injected into the writing and, as usual for this author, it is a sheer pleasure to read, and highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, July 2011.

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The Retribution
Val McDermid
Little, Brown, September 2011
ISBN: 978-1-4087-0319-9
Hardcover

[This review is based on the UK edition and the US edition is now available from Atlantic Monthly Press, ISBN 9780802120175]

In her twenty-fifth novel, Val McDermid brings back Jacko Vance, introduced to readers in The Wire in the Blood, and to television viewers in its wonderful series adaptation.  As the book opens, this truly malevolent serial killer, whose resume includes “killer of seventeen teenage girls, murderer of a serving police officer, and a man once voted the sexiest man on British TV” as well as an Olympic athlete and an outwardly charming and charismatic man, has served over 12 years in prison, owing mostly to the efforts of DCI Carol Jordan and psychological profiler Tony Hill.  Vance has spent most of that time meticulously planning his escape, as well as his future after its successful completion:  the revenge suggested by the books title, directed toward those who had caused his imprisonment, first among them Jordan and Hill, as well as his ex-wife whose betrayal he sees as making her equally culpable.  Of course, his plan for vengeance merely begins there.

Carol Jordan, as yet unaware of what is about to happen, is dealing with a shake-up at the Bradfield Metropolitan Police, where the powers that be are disbanding her Major Incident Team.  In an attempt to go out in a ‘blaze of glory,’ they are faced with finding a killer who has been killing street prostitutes in gruesome ways, and branding them with a distinctive tattoo on the wrist of each.   Suddenly, Jordan’s priorities change with Vance’s escape, and its implications.  Tony’s priorities as well must be divided between these investigations.

The relationship between Jordan and Hill has always been difficult to define, becoming more so all the time.  They are not quite lovers, although they share space, and different flats, in Tony’s house.  But their emotional entanglement has always been obvious to all, even if they themselves do not admit to one.  That relationship, both professionally and personally, is about to be threatened now as never before.

The author goes into more of Tony’s background, and the emotional and psychological paths that have shaped him, and caused him to work at “passing for human,” than I remembered having been done in the past.  He tells a colleague “I won’t deny that the people who do this kind of thing fascinate me.  The more disturbed they are, the more I want to figure out what makes them tick.”  It is his empathy and his oft-times brilliant insights that have made him so successful.  But this is a challenge unlike any he has ever faced.

The pace steadily accelerates along with a sense of dread as Vance begins to carry out his plans, and the resultant page-turner is as good as anything this acclaimed author has written.  Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, September 2011.

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Split Second
Catherine Coulter
Putnam, July 2011
ISBN: 978-0-399-15743-1
Hardcover

There are three story lines presented in the newest book by Catherine Coulter.  The first appears on page one, and isn’t resolved until nearly the final page in the book:  The owner of a small convenience store in Washington, D.C. is nearly killed late one night in an apparent robbery gone wrong, the latter not having counted on FBI Agent Dillon Savitch being the customer in the shop at the time.  When the same man is shot in another incident shortly thereafter, leaving him seriously wounded, it would seem there is more going on than a “simple” robbery.

The second, and main, story line deals with a series of crimes involving women in their 20’s and 30’s who are picked up in neighborhood bars, brought back to their own apartments, and strangled with a length of wire, no apparent connection among them, and the crimes occurring in various large cities including Cleveland, Ohio; San Francisco; and Chicago.  Autopsies show the women were drugged with Rohypnol and ketamine.   One of the victims had scratched her attacker before being killed, leaving a nice sample of DNA to be analyzed and run through databases, after which it is determined that the killer is the offspring of none other than Ted Bundy, the man who kidnapped dozens of young women, raped, tortured and then murdered them before he was caught and ultimately electrocuted in Florida in 1989.

The last of the plotlines is a very personal one, having to do with a horrifying family secret just discovered by Lucy Carlyle, another FBI agent in the Washington DC office, and her attempt to put it on the back burner while joining her boss, Savitch, and her partner, Cooper (“Coop”) McKnight, in the investigation of the serial killer, whose victims number five and counting.

I had several problems with the book, starting with the fact that one of the agents, whose name is, disconcertingly, Lacey Sherlock, is never referred to or called Lacey but, always, “Sherlock,” even by her husband.  As well, much of the writing felt stilted, the dialog often not what I felt one or another would be expected to utter or their actions not ringing true, e.g., a 27-year-old FBI agent “bouncing up and down” upon being given news of an important breakthrough in the case; a cup of coffee described as “dark as sin.”  And would a woman who had just been told her niece had lost control of her car and been badly injured, upon seeing that niece, really say to her “Oh, you’ve got a bandage on your head!”  Nor am I enamored with the supernatural in mysteries, as is the case here.

On the other hand, almost in spite of myself, I was caught up in the story, the pages turning quickly, and anxious to find out how each story line was resolved.  I am obviously in the minority with my reservations about the book, since the author consistently makes the bestseller lists.  This is her seventeenth book in what is termed “the FBI Thriller” series.  It made for good reading, on balance, and I’m sure most readers will find it very enjoyable.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, November 2011.

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Very Bad Men
Harry Dolan
Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, July 2011
ISBN: 978-0-399-15749-3
Hardcover

This new novel from the author of the acclaimed Bad Things Happen, his writing debut, has no ‘sophomore book’ problems.   Very Bad Men immediately engages the reader, and one is quickly drawn into this compelling tale of murder, specifically, the murder of two men who were part of a bank robbery seventeen years ago, and the attempted murder of a third.  All three men had been convicted, and served jail time of varying lengths.  But what could be the motive?  These three men had not seen nor contacted one another in all the intervening years.  And the killer – for his identity is quickly revealed – is not a cool, professional hit man; that is immediately made clear.

David Loogan, the editor-in-chief of a mystery magazine, receives, in a plain, unmarked envelope, what at first glance appears to be a manuscript, only several pages long, bearing no signature, the first line of which reads “I killed Henry Kormoran . . . “   Loogan, who lives with his ‘significant other,’ Elizabeth Waishkey, an Ann Arbor, Michigan, detective, and her precocious 16-year-old daughter, ultimately begins a kind of parallel and unofficial investigation.

Each character in the novel is wonderfully well-drawn.  These include the killer, who suffers from synesthesia, a rare affliction which results in a confusion of the senses, with words taking on dimensions far beyond their ‘normal’ printed appearance, according to his emotional reaction to them; Lucy Navarro, a young and rather endearing reporter, who comes up with a bizarre theory of the motive for the crimes; assorted politicians and their ‘handlers,’ among others.  The writer invokes some wildly disparate images: Occam and his razor, Aristotle, jazz musician Charlie Parker; mystery authors Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly; and a theme:  “We all want to be known.  To be seen for who we really are.” There are carefully placed, and easily missed clues, and startling and unexpected twists in this rather complex and engrossing novel, which is recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, December 2011.

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