Book Reviews: A Lesson in Secrets by Jacqueline Winspear, Cold Wind by C.J. Box, The Informationist by Taylor Stevens, Past Tense by Catherine Aird, and Bank of the Black Sheep by Robert Lewis

A Lesson in Secrets
Jacqueline Winspear
Harper, March 2011
ISBN: 978-0-06-172767-2
Hardcover

The common characteristics of the Maisie Dobbs series are the growth in the character, developments over time and, of course, current events. In the present novel Maisie, who served as a nurse in France during World War I (after having been a servant girl before), has grown over the years, mentored by Dr. Maurice Blanche.  Now, in 1932, she has been made independently wealthy as Blanche’s heir, profitably operating her investigation business, and is ripe for a new adventure.

Before he died, Blanche predicted that intelligence work for the crown was in Maisie’s future.  And so, it comes to pass that she is recruited to participate in an investigation being conducted by the joint efforts of Scotland Yard’s Special Branch and the Secret Service.  She is to pose as a junior lecturer in philosophy (another of her talents, apparently) at a college in Cambridge founded by Greville Liddicote, a pacifist who has published a number of children’s books, including an anti-war novel that was banned during the Great War.  Maisie is to monitor activities at the school.

However, where Maisie is concerned, can various other sub-plots not arise?  To begin with, she’s trying to get her father to move from his cottage to the manor she inherited (to no avail), induce her assistant, Billy Beale, to accept a house in which to move his growing family, help a woman whose husband is killed in a questionable accident at work, and, last but not least, help solve the murder of Liddicote (while told specifically her brief is her intelligence assignment and not getting involved in the murder inquiry).

The story progresses in a persuasive manner, smoothly written.  It emerges just as Adolph Hitler is rising to lead Germany, giving a hint to the coming of World War II, as Maisie detects Nazi sympathizers in the college, and, indeed in unsuspecting Britain.  A welcome addition to the series, this newest entry is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, June 2011.

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Cold Wind
C.J. Box
Putnam, March 2011
ISBN: 978-0-399-15735-6
Hardcover

It’s not easy being a game warden, especially if your name is Joe Pickett and you keep getting sidetracked with all kinds of side issues, murders, assignments from the governor and so on.  In this, the 11th in the series, there are a few twists, including a look at the issue of wind energy.

But first for the main plot:  Joe’s less-than-beloved mother-in-law is indicted for the murder of her wealthy fifth husband, “The Earl,” who had begun the largest wind farm in Wyoming at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.  Joe’s beloved wife, Marybeth, implores Joe to find the real killer.  Meanwhile, his mysterious buddy, Nate, suffers the loss of his lover in an attempt on his life, setting up a subplot in which the two men reconcile after a falling out in a previous book.

As the story progresses, smoothly and interestingly, all is not as it seems. As usual, the author provides sweeping and beautiful vistas of the countryside, and in-depth insights into the characters.

Heartily recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, June 2011.

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The Informationist
Taylor Stevens
Crown, March 2011
ISBN: 978-0-307-71709-2
Hardcover

A new protagonist, Vanessa (Ness) “Michael” Munroe makes her first appearance in this debut thriller, apparently destined to be a series with the author hard at work on the next two books.  Sort of a bionic woman, Munroe is capable of most anything from finding information for corporate clients to murder.

What she has not done so far is find missing persons, at least until she is retained to accomplish what others over a four-year period have failed to do:  Find a young girl named Emily in Africa, or prove that she has met her death while she was traveling there with two male companions.  The quest brings Munroe back to Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon where she grew up.  It is a trip filled with danger and betrayal, as she seeks the missing girl with the help of Francisco Beyard, whom she met as a 14-year-old when she served in his mercenary band.

It is unusual for a first effort to be as absorbing as is this novel, with a fast pace and intricate plot.  Certainly the denouement is worthy of a more seasoned author.  Ordinarily, this reader reacts with apprehension when the protagonist seems super-human, but was not disturbed by Munroe’s antics.  So it is with no hesitation that the novel is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, July 2011.

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Past Tense
Catherine Aird
Minotaur Books, March 2011
ISBN: 978-0-312-67291-1
Hardcover

This is the newest in the Sloan and Crosby mystery series, DCI Sloan and Constable Crosby, that is, the quaint English combination resembling Abbott and Costello with an accent.  A couple of seemingly unrelated deaths, one of natural causes, the other perhaps murder, set off a police procedural in which a series of unconnected events and circumstances seem to make no sense.

Written in a style that befits the English countryside, the dialog is of a unique tone.  The plot moves forward without a hint to the reader as to the conclusion, which, may or may not be a good thing.  But it is a light and enjoyable read, and it is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, July 2011.

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Bank of the Black Sheep
Robert Lewis
Serpent’s Tail, March 2011
ISBN: 978-1-84668-745-7
Trade Paperback

Robin Llywelyn, ostensibly a private detective, wakes up in a hospice with amnesia, handcuffed to a bed after a week-long infusion of morphine. Such a state gives him a real slow start, along with the reader.  Additionally, he is told he has lung cancer with just a couple of months to live. Actually, it seems from what follows that he can go on forever.

It turns out that Llywelyn was involved in some kind of scam, but of course he can’t remember what it was.  And so, he sets out inadvertently to find out about his past, bumbling his way to make a final score and to atone for his past transgressions before his end. For much of the novel, to this reader, it dragged on with a lot of wearying prose and observations.  It is not until near the conclusion that the novel really becomes interesting, and then we are drawn into the real story.

Bank apparently is the last in a trilogy of Llywelyn detective stories and, given the medical prognosis, it would seem to be just that.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, July 2011.

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