Book Review: The Violated by Bill Pronzini

The Violated
Bill Pronzini
Bloomsbury, March 2017
ISBN: 978-1-6328-6600-8
Hardcover

From the publisher:  The novel begins with the body of a dead man lying “face up on the grassy riverbank, legs together and ankles crossed, arms spread-eagled above his head with palms upturned and fingers curled, in a grotesque parody of the crucifixion.”  The victim, Martin Torrey, according to public opinion, is not a victim but instead the lead suspect in an on-going investigation of four brutal rapes and assaults against four women taken place in the span of four months, each more violent than the last.  Tasked with solving the rapes and finding the murderer of Martin Torrey, chief Griffin Kells and detective Robert Ortiz are placed under increasing pressure from the public at large and from an over-ambitious Mayor. As a result, everyone is a suspect. As the story unfolds, readers find themselves in a guessing game trying to deduce who done it?  Was it one of the rape victims or was it one of their friends or family member?  Told in multiple perspectives, everyone is a suspect.  Everyone had opportunity, and everyone had motive, even Martin’s widowed wife.

From the author of more than eighty novels, this most recent standalone from Mr. Pronzini is right up there with the best of them.  The p.o.v. changes from chapter to chapter, e.g., Chapter I of Part I is told in first person by Liane Torrey, the wife and now widow of the murdered man, the next chapter by the police chief Kells (only the 2nd homicide during his seven-year tenure as chief), the next by the politically ambitious Mayor Hugh Delahunt, the next by Ione Spivey, one of the rapist’s victims, and on and on – – I must say that each was  conspicuously in the believable voice of the speaker, not an easy task!

There had been four assaults in four months, “despite increased police patrols, stepped-up neighborhood watches, public warnings to women not to go out alone at night and to take security precautions when home by themselves.  And each one committed without leaving a single solid clue to his identity.”  The cops obviously have their work cut out for them, their job made that much harder with the firestorm of negative media coverage seeking to oust the chief.

A subplot concerns Robert Ortiz, who admittedly has “no difficulty commanding men, but no aptitude for administrative duties and little for public relations, and I do not suffer fools well,” whose Hispanic heritage does not help his “goal is to become a high-ranking detective with the state police or the police department of one of the larger cities.”

The multiple p.o.v. chapters include other victims and their spouses, each one entirely true to their characters (as I’ve already mentioned), and the case becomes dramatically more difficult with another attack, making it rather obvious that the dead man was surely not the man responsible for the first four.  The entire tale takes place in just over a week, the suspense rising as the hunt for the attacker/murderer goes on.  An excellent addition to this author’s oeuvre, it is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, March 2017.

Book Review: The Age of Orphans by Laleh Khadivi

The Age of Orphans
Laleh Khadivi
Bloomsbury, 2009
9781608190423
New trade paperback; won in “Caption This” contest from Roanoke Times columnist Dan Casey

See them sleep, these sons of mine.

See them, nestled like loved ones, row after row, barrack after barrack, heads awash in the last brine of boyhood.

See them sleep, my army of sons, each suckled off a different teat and their tongues still wet with prayers to me.

See them sleep, these sons of mine, and though I am now shah, most majestic and supreme, I too was once a boy, sleeping and divine. A boy like them, beaten and bruised by the thick angry hands of a brutish baba, forced to run and hide in the folds of Maman’s belly until found again.

[…]

Now I am the notorious Commander Reza Khan, boorish and proud, a buxom beast, a king over all I see, and I let loose my two forked hooves to prance over the hearts and heads of whomever I desire. Now I am a figure, face and father. All of it once hidden in the skin of a sleeping boy who was once woken and once loved, now cast out and forever cold.

Capsule summary: A Kurdish boy is taken and raised by the Iranian army after his family is massacred. Years later, when he returns to his homeland to enforce the shah’s rule, his true self begins to re-emerge.

Capsule review: Heartbreaking, disturbing, and yet enlightening. The boy’s namelessness until the shah’s soldiers have scrubbed away his Kurd identity personalizes the repeated attempts during the 20th century to eradicate the Kurds, and the gradual renaissance of the Kurd within him when he returns to the land of his childhood embodies that people’s determination and resilience. Khadivi’s writing is forceful and poetic. I recommend The Age of Orphans to anyone with even a cursory interest in the complex cultural nexus of central Asia.

Reviewed by Laura Taylor, December 2011, on Beyond the Blurb; reprinted here with permission.

Book Review: Persona Non Grata by Ruth Downie

Persona Non Grata (published in the UK & Australia as Ruso and the Root of All Evils)
Ruth Downie
Bloomsbury Publishing, August 2010
ISBN 9781608190478
Trade Paperback

“Is it true someone’s trying to bankrupt us?”

Lucius leaned back in their father’s chair and folded his arms. “If I were to say no,” he said, “and ask you to go straight back to Deva for the good of the family, would you do it?”

“I can’t,” Ruso pointed out. “I had to wangle months of leave to get here.”

“So you can’t go back to the Legion.” Lucius managed to look even more depressed.

“Arria says somebody’s applied for a seizure order.”

Lucius let out a long breath. “There’s a law somewhere,” he said, “that says you can’t take out a seizure order against someone who’s away from home on public service.”

Ruso began to grasp the nature of the problem. “Does that apply to an ordinary man in the army?”

“The last thing I would have done, brother, was to ask you to come home.”

“So it’s true then? We have a legal problem?”

“We do now,” said Lucius.

In Persona Non Grata, the third in Ruth Downie’s Medicus series set in second-century Roman Britannia, Gaius Petreius Ruso and his British companion Tilla (also known as Darlughdacha of the Corionotatae among the Brigantes) travel to southern Gaul, summoned by an ominous letter that says only, “Lucius to Gaius. Come home, brother.” As their father’s heir and effective (if not necessarily effectual) paterfamilias, Ruso has known for some time of his family’s precarious financial situation, legacy of the massive debts their father incurred during his second marriage. Fearing the worst, Ruso arranges leave from his duties as surgeon to the XX Legion and hurries home.

When he arrives on the family estate a few miles outside Nemausus (modern-day Nîmes), Ruso finds the situation is much worse than he imagined, and that they are facing imminent seizure of everything they own. According to Roman law, the seizure order couldn’t go into effect so long as Ruso remained in Britain. Thus his homecoming is greeted not with open arms but consternation.

The threat of foreclosure soon turns out to be the least of Ruso’s problems, however, when the man who had filed the claim—who also happens to be married to Ruso’s former wife—dies by poisoning shortly after arriving to discuss settlement terms with Ruso.

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Book Review: Then Came the Evening by Brian Hart

Then Came the Evening
Brian Hart
Bloomsbury Publishing, 2009
9781608190140
ARC from Goodreads‘ First Reads giveaway

Sleep would not come easy this time and he knew it as soon as he blinked and opened his eyes and there was no difference between the two. He began and suffered through an inventory of the reasons why he should leave and why he shouldn’t be allowed to be out at all. He wondered if regret would ever relax its hold on him. It doesn’t have to be that way, he told himself. Sleep and tomorrow you can be a new man, a free man.

Over the course of a single night, Bandy Dorner loses everything: his home, his pregnant wife, and, after gunning down a cop in a drunken rage, his freedom. Twenty years later, Bandy’s given the opportunity to start over from scratch.

I’ve put off writing this review because I’m still not sure what I think of Then Came the Evening. In general, I’d say it’s a good book; on Goodreads I gave it 3 stars, though I lean more towards 3.5. The descriptions of Idaho are well-done, the characters are mostly well-drawn, and the writing style did not fall victim to clichés and clutter, though I did have issues with sentence structure at times. While Then Came the Evening bears some of the hallmarks of a first novel, I also think it reveals genuine potential, and believe (and hope) that Brian Hart has a long and successful writing career ahead of him.

I cannot wholeheartedly recommend Then Came the Evening, however. More than anything, the passivity of the three main characters left me unsatisfied when I finished reading. Iona and Tracy at times show a hint of drive, but Bandy’s almost complete surrender to circumstance nearly overshadows everything. Things just happen to him, and his response speaks of futility more than any other emotion. Sometimes being a victim of circumstance or being swept along by the current of life can make for compelling fiction, but this is not one of those times. I pity Bandy, but I don’t care about him.

I also found Iona’s characterization weak in comparison to those of Bandy and Tracy. I never got a sense for what motivates her to make the choices she does; while I appreciate not being subjected to several hundred pages of navel-gazing, I was left with more questions than answers by the end.

I think the comparisons to Cormac McCarthy I’ve seen on Goodreads and Amazon misrepresent both McCarthy and Hart. While the bleakness of both the narrative and the landscape does bear some resemblance to McCarthy, what distinguishes McCarthy in my mind is his use of the monstrous and the grotesque in his writing. There’s nothing truly grotesque or monstrous about Then Came the Evening; it’s just bleak and empty and stripped almost completely bare of hope. In that respect, comparisons to Annie Proulx might be more appropriate.

Despite my reservations about Then Came the Evening, I believe that Brian Hart shows potential, and look forward to further works from him.

Reviewed by Laura Taylor, March 2010, on Beyond the Blurb; reprinted here with permission.