Book Reviews: The Burning Soul by John Connolly, Trackers by Deon Meyer, What It Was by George Pelecanos, A Mortal Terror by James R. Benn, and A Bitter Truth by Charles Todd

The Burning Soul
John Connolly
Atria Books, September 2011
ISBN: 978-1-4391-6527-0
Hardcover

John Connolly’s Charlie Parker Thrillers usually combine an element of the supernatural with basic detective work.  In this, the tenth in the series, the eerie aspects are slight, while the hard work of solving a case winds its way through the pages with realism and power.  It is a twisted story that begins when an attorney asks Charlie to assist a client, and unfolds with a ferocity of dynamic proportions.

It appears that the client, Randall Haight, as a 14-year-old, and with a friend, murdered a young girl in an incident with sex-related overtones. Following long jail terms, both men were released with new identities to give them a chance at rehabilitation.  Randall is now an accountant leading a quiet life in a small town on the Maine coast. And then a 14-year-old girl goes missing and Randall starts receiving reminders in the mail of his past transgression from someone who apparently has discovered his true identity.  He asks the attorney and Charlie to protect his anonymity by finding the source.  And this leads Charlie into a labyrinth of complications.

It is a gripping story, one in which the author throws red herrings into the reader’s path before unveiling a completely unexpected conclusion. Tightly written and plotted, the novel is a most welcome addition to an outstanding series and is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2012.

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Trackers
Deon Meyer
Atlantic Monthly Press, September 2011
ISBN: 978-0-8021-1993-3
Hardcover

Bringing back two characters from previous novels, the South African author has written a complicated story with three separate plots which are related both in circumstances and the people involved.  One theme involves what appears to be a Muslim plot, which a government intelligence service suspects at first to be a tradeoff between the smuggling of diamonds in exchange for weapons.  A second, an offshoot of the smuggling operation by a man seeking to recover a large sum of money he claims was stolen from him by gangsters (who incidentally are involved in the smuggling operation).

Then there is free-lance bodyguard Lemmer, who makes his second appearance in a Deon Meyer novel  [the first being The Blood Safari], who becomes involved indirectly in the smuggling operation when he accompanies a truck bearing two black rhinos into South Africa from a neighboring country which the gangsters believe is the method for bringing in the diamonds.  And finally Mat Joubert, the enigmatic South African detective, now retired, on his first day working for a private detective agency, who manages to bring all the threads together.

This stand-alone thriller aims high, and largely achieves its ambitions.  Adding to the spice is not only the author’s ability to portray the social, economic and political background of South Africa in depth, but a chilling look at how it is also a place where terrorists can run rampant.  And, icing on the cake, a first-rate mystery to keep the reader enthralled.  Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2012.

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What it Was
George Pelecanos
Reagan Arthur Books/Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Company, January 2012
ISBN: 978-0-316-20954-0
Paperback, 246 pp., $9.99

The year was 1972.  Derek Strange was out of the Metropolitan Police Dept. for four years and struggling to build up his PI agency.  Nixon was in the White House, but not for long.  Watergate was just up ahead.  The riots that tore the nation’s Capitol apart were some years ago, but unrest and attitude still ran strong.

Against this background George Pelecanos has written about Strange’s early career as a 26-year-old and his relationship with Detective Frank Vaughn.  It all starts when Strange is retained by a good-looking babe to find a missing ring of little “value” but “great” sentimentality.  This takes him on a journey, which enables the author to describe the crime conditions – – including a one-man murder wave – – and population and living conditions of D.C., along with almost a catalogue of the music of the era.

Written with the usual vernacular and tight prose as displayed in the previous novels in the series, the graphic details of the characters are mesmerizing.  Highly recommended.

[It should perhaps be noted that the novel is available in three different forms: the paperback, as well as a limited hardcover edition and an eBook version.]

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2012.

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A Mortal Terror
James R. Benn
Soho Crime, September 2011
ISBN: 978-1-56947-994-0
Hardcover

The Billy Boyle World War II Mysteries follow the progress of that conflict in this, the sixth installment, albeit it with a different twist.  It brings Billy his first murder case, either as a Boston detective (in his previous civilian life) or as “uncle” Ike’s special investigator.  But the horrors of the war in Italy, and especially the Anzio beachhead invasion, provide the backdrop for the tale.

When two officers are found murdered with clues left behind, one a ten of hearts on the body of a lieutenant and a jack of hearts on that of a Captain, the signs of a possible serial killer bent on revenge against the brass emerge, causing concern back at Eisenhower’s Supreme Headquarters.  So Billy is recalled from a three-day pass during which he met with his girlfriend in Switzerland and sent to Naples to begin an investigation into the crimes.  Then he has to face the fact that his younger brother is arriving as a replacement in the very platoon in which he suspects the killer is a member.

The author, a librarian, writes with accuracy of the difficulties and what would today be called PTSD endured by the GIs, as well as the physical hardships and psychological manifestations of infantry warfare.  His plotting is taut, descriptions graphic.  All in all, the series just keeps on getting better and better.  And the Second Front hasn’t yet been opened.  The series has a long way to go, and that’s a good thing.

Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, February 2012.

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A Bitter Truth
Charles Todd
William Morrow, September 2011
ISBN: 978-0-06-201570-9
Hardcover

This Bess Crawford mystery, set during World War I, finds her on a short leave from the front, intending to spend the Christmas holidays with her parents.  When she arrives at her apartment in London, she finds a young woman huddled on her doorstep, cold, hungry and distraught.  In sympathy, Bess takes her up to her room and learns that she has run away from her husband and home because he has abused her, and her disfigured face is proof.

From this improbable beginning, Bess becomes involved in a family’s secrets and along the way in a few murders, since she accompanies the young woman back to her home and family.  The novel rambles on, as the plot unfolds and the police fumble in an effort to solve one murder after another.  Bess returns to France, only to be recalled by the police for additional inquiries.

There are some excellent aspects to the novel, including insights into the lives of upper crust Britons of the period.  But it appeared to this reader that to bring the plot to a conclusion, the mother-son author duo reached out to contrive a solution that has little if any foundation. Nevertheless, the book is an enjoyable read and is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, February 2012.

Book Reviews: Fatal Error by J. A. Jance, Death Toll by Jim Kelly, Rag and Bone by James R. Benn, and Rogue by Frederick Ramsay

Fatal Error
J.A. Jance
Touchstone, February 2011
ISBN: 978-1-4165-6381-5
Hardcover

The Ali Reynolds series usually has the protagonist solving some kind of mystery, and this one is no exception.  However, the reader has to put up with a slow beginning, describing Ali’s experiences during her training at the Police Academy.  When she completes the course, she is furloughed for budgetary reasons, so does not become a cop.  Instead, it gives her time to help solve a kidnapping and murders.  So who needs a badge?

It all starts when her friend Brenda Riley, who, like Ali, was a TV anchorwoman also let go by her station, asks for help in obtaining information about a man to whom she is “engaged,” although they have never met except in cyberspace.  Ali enlists the aid of her boyfriend’s business associate, who gets damning information on the person, setting off a chain of events that gets Brenda kidnapped [not a spoiler] and Ali involved in assisting a homicide detective in solving a murder.

From the slow start, the pace of the plot picks up to a very exciting finish.  There really is never any doubt on where the story is headed, but the writing is so good one just keeps gobbling it up.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, May 2011.

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Death Toll
Jim Kelly
Minotaur Books, June 2011
ISBN: 978-0-312-57352-2
Hardcover

A protagonist like DI Peter Shaw gives the author license to throw more curve balls at the reader than a major league pitcher.  Shaw, a super-cerebral, over-intuitive detective who develops more and more theories as a case develops and he encounters more facts, certainly proves the point in this novel, which has two plot lines, both based in the distant past.

As a result of severe river flooding, graves along the bank in a cemetery are being exposed.  When one is opened, a skeleton is found atop the casket which contains the remains of the landlady of a local pub.  This sets off an investigation leading Shaw to discover a number of family secrets, with dire consequences to all concerned.  The inquiries move back and forth, uncovering events from a decade ago.

Meanwhile, Shaw, and his partner, DS Valentine, continue to try to prove one Bob Mosse a murderer.  It was Shaw’s father who arrested Mosse years before, only to see the charges thrown out of court because the judge declared a crucial peace of evidence had been contaminated by mishandling.  Consequently Shaw pere took early retirement under a cloud, and his partner, Valentine, was demoted and sent into limbo.

The story moves forward on both plot lines, more or less simultaneously, with Shaw, Valentine and the rest of the team uncovering a clue here, a fact there, until finally it all comes logically together, even if the conclusion requires a bit of manipulation by the author.  Well done, and recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, July 2011.

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Rag and Bone
James R. Benn
Soho Press, September 2011
ISBN: 978-1-56947-996-4
Trade Paperback

Last year, the Russian Parliament acknowledged that country’s responsibility for the slaughter of more than 20,000 Polish officers at the Katyn Forest early on during World War II over the protests of the Communist Party.  Katyn plays a prominent role in this novel, the fifth in the Billy Boyle World War II mysteries.  When a Soviet officer is found murdered on a London street, hands tied behind his back and shot in the back of the head as were those murdered at Katyn, Billy is sent ahead to London from Italy by his Uncle Ike to solve the murder just days before the General and his staff were to arrive to set up Supreme Headquarters for the invasion of France.

While the Poles in London, especially Billy’s friend Kaz, have proof of the Russian complicity in the massacre, it was not in the interests of the British or American governments to upset the delicate balance in the wartime alliance, which depended on the pressure of the eastern front to offset the German defenses of the west.  Now a First Lieutenant, Billy has to tread a fine line between all elements to find the killer and seek justice, while saving his friend, who is Scotland Yard’s number one suspect.

As usual, the author uses and depicts history to set the stage for an intriguing murder mystery, with cameo performances by Uncle Dwight D. Eisenhower, FDR and Winston Churchill, among others, carrying forth the series from North Africa to Sicily and Italy to blitzed Britain, just before the Normandy invasion.  Written with a blend of fact and fiction, the novel is a first-class crime novel, transcending the vivid scenes of Luftwaffe bombings, war-time shortages and deprivations, and is recommended.  [The author’s next book in the series, A Mortal Terror, was released in mid-September.]

Reviewed by Ted Feit, September 2011.

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Rogue
Frederick Ramsay
Poisoned Pen Press, July 2011
ISBN: 978-1-59058-902-1
Hardcover
Also available in trade paperback

A welcome addition to this enjoyable series, this sixth Sheriff Ike Schwartz novel starts out in a frightful manner.  Ruth Harris, Ike’s fiancée, is critically injured in a car collision in Washington, D.C. She’s in a hospital with multiple injuries and in a coma.  The local police dismiss the accident as an ordinary mishap, but Ike investigates the scene and determines that it was a deliberate act of violence, and undertakes to find the culprit.

Unfortunately, the local police are of no help, and Ike is facing a reelection contest in a week.  The mayor forbids him to use his office or staff in his efforts, so he takes vacation time.  Aided by his buddy, Charlie Garland, the mysterious CIA agent, and covertly by friends and staff members, he follows his instincts, first looking at State’s Rights group zealots (Ruth was chairing a Federal government committee reviewing textbook standards), and then dissident academics. Three murders take place in Picketsville, complicating the efforts.

The novel measures up to the standards of its predecessors: a well-written mystery with a well-drawn cast of characters.  Who can ask for anything more?  So it is a relatively simple task to recommend it, as with its forerunners.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2011.