Book Review: Baby Blue by Pol Koutsakis

Baby Blue
Stratos Gazis Series, Book 1
Pol Koutsakis
Translated by Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife
Bitter Lemon Press, July 2018
ISBN 978-1-908524-91-1

Modern day Athens is rife with corruption. Stratos Gazis makes his living by dealing with that corruption. He doesn’t consider himself a hit-man, although plenty of other people do. He sees himself as more of a problem solver; often the problem requires removing a person from a given situation on a permanent basis. Stratos is OK with that; some people deserve their fate. Stratos does have a code: if a client lies to him, he keeps the deposit and doesn’t do the job. Many people don’t believe this. Stratos believes that when you’re the best, you can afford to make the rules for your job.

One evening a friend, Angelino, calls in a favor. Angelino has a protégé, Emma. Emma wants Stratos to find out who killed her adoptive father several years ago. Definitely a cold case. Emma is blind, and has an amazing talent for card tricks. Angelino, who normally deals in information in and around Athens, plans on making a bundle of money by promoting Emma. Concurrently, there is a group (or maybe just one person) who killed pedophiles; there is a definite signature to the killings and this resembles the way in which Emma’s father was killed. Was Themis Raptas, once a well-known and respected reporter, a pedophile?  Why is there virtually no trace of him on the Internet?  Why was his adoption of Emma expedited?  The more Stratos looks into this old case, the worse everything looks for practically anyone and everyone involved.

There is a sub-plot related to Stratos and his past. The woman he is living with, Maria,  is pregnant. Stratos is not sure he is the father; there is at least one other potential candidate, who happens to be Maria’s previous boyfriend and a man Stratos considers to be his best friend, Kostas Dragos. Drag is also a policeman, a detective. He is investigating the pedophile murders; there may be some overlap with Emma’s situation. Maria isn’t sure where her relationship with Stratos is going, considering his occupation. Life is complicated.

Koutsakis paints a very dark portrait of Athens. Corruption is the rule and there seem to be almost no exceptions to that rule. Good people are difficult to find in this city, and their lot is not generally a pleasant one. Stratos comes by his world view via American film noir; references to classic films are scattered throughout the novel. Like back alleys in some Greek neighborhoods, the plot twists and turns many, many times before the truth (if that what it actually is) is revealed. There are lots of dead bodies, most of them justifiably so. This is the second book in the Stratos Gazis crime series; if one is prone to dark reads, tracking down ATHENIAN BLUES (the first) would probably be time well spent. BABY BLUE can stand quite well on it’s own two feet.

Reviewed by P.J. Coldren, May 2019.

Book Review: The Distance by Helen Giltrow

the-distanceThe Distance
Helen Giltrow
Anchor Books, July 2015
ISBN: 978-0-345-80435-8
Trade Paperback

In an ambitious debut novel, a former bookseller has written a dark novel, one which mystified this reader.  Is it a crime novel?  A mystery? A Le Carre-type story involving the intelligence community?  Or a mixture of all these genres?

The Distance would seem to contain all the elements of the three characteristics, and therein lies the ambition of the author.  Some simplification would appear to be in order.  The plot is too complicated, the reading too slow and the story unwieldy.  Too bad.  Because it is an interesting tale, and deserves to be read.

The gist of the novel is a tale of a woman, alternatively identified as a London Socialite, Charlotte Alton, and Karla, the head of an enterprise that specializes in, among other things, erasing identities and covering a criminal’s tracks.  One such person is Simon Johanssen, who surfaces after being hidden for years, asking for her help on an assignment to murder a woman held in “The Program,” a prison-like compound where he eventually becomes involved with the victim while hiding from a criminal boss also incarcerated there.

It all comes together at the finale in a perfunctory short wrap-up.  There are few if any clues before the end to establish these conclusions as if they are included merely to end a laborious effort.  A good re-write might have helped, certainly better editing.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, September 2016.

Book Reviews: Blue Madonna by James R. Benn and The Fixer by Joseph Finder

blue-madonnaBlue Madonna
A Billy Boyle World War II Mystery #11
James R. Benn
Soho Crime, September 2016
ISBN: 978-1-61695-642-4
Hardcover

Billy Boyle has received all kinds of assignments in his capacity as a special investigator on Eisenhower’s staff. But few, if any, match the bizarre task before him in the Blue Madonna.  To begin with, he is arrested, tried on trumped up charges and stripped of his Captaincy and sentenced to time in the stockade for black market activities.  (This, of course, a subterfuge to provide a cover story as part of an investigation.)  Then he is sent behind enemy lines to rescue a downed airman who is needed to testify against a black market gang.

No sooner does Billy arrive in occupied France than he finds himself investigating two murders of airmen being hidden in a chateau.  And he even participates in partisan operations, blowing up railroad tracks and bridges.

The Billy Boyle series takes him through various phases of World War II.  This novel takes place as Allied troops sail for Normandy on D-Day, giving the author the opportunity to describe conditions in Occupied France, how the partisans operated, and what was done to return downed airmen through clandestine networks.  The Blue Madonna, a valuable piece of art, is an example of how many Jews and others attempted to prevent the Nazis from stealing their possessions by hiding them in such places as the chateau, which also secreted parachuted Allied fliers.

As were the first 10 books in the series, Blue Madonna is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, October 2016.

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the-fixerThe Fixer
Joseph Finder
Putnam, May 2016
ISBN 978-0-4514-7257-3
Mass Market Paperback

What would you do if by some off-chance you broke into a wall in your home and discovered $3.7 million in cash?  That is the good luck that befalls Rick Hoffman, erstwhile unemployed journalist.  And then the bad luck follows.  Rick begins to wonder where the money came from.  He can’t ask his father, whose house it was, because the latter was left speechless and partially paralyzed by a stroke about two decades before.  Rick was once an investigative journalist, and uses these talents to find answers.

He soon discovers that his attorney father was a fixer, paying off various persons to ward off claims against powerful Boston figures.   And for his efforts he is beaten severely, almost killing him, as was his father before him, to stop Rick from pursuing his investigation.  But he perseveres.

The story moves ahead in a straightforward manner, with each step along the way uncovering additional information, until Rick can prove where the money came from and why.  But more importantly, as Rick explains, he continues because he wants to know how the story ends.  And so will you.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, June 2016.

Book Review: Ghostman by Roger Hobbs

Ghost ManGhostman
Roger Hobbs
Alfred A. Knopf, February 2013
ISBN 978-0-307-95996-6
Hardcover

I do my best to keep reviews fresh without comparing one story to another. However, if I may be allowed this one indulgence I’d like to give you a one sentence overview which will hopefully persuade you to read Hobbs’ new book, Ghostman. Ready? Think Jack Reacher as a bad guy. I know, I know, I was hooked, too. This novel is a slick, action-packed, deductive thriller and if Hobbs doesn’t come out with another in the series, I will be disappointed.

A casino heist in Atlantic City goes bad. The organizer, Marcus Hayes, calls in a favor from a former associate named Jack. Jack owes him for screwing up an operation five years ago. Marcus tells Jack that there is a time limit to his assignment. He has to find the money before it, literally, explodes. He also is up against both the FBI and a vicious mobster.

I know that’s a simplistic plot on the surface but, of course, there are more angles and layers in this. I really like books where the bad guy, or a bad guy is the main character. Especially if he’s an intelligent bad guy. Bad guys know the score. They have the angles. Good guys are good guys and wear the white hats. Bad guys can take any chances, do anything and it doesn’t matter because they’re bad. This plot is fresh, at least to me. From the first few chapters, I knew this was going to be something worthwhile.

Reviewed by Stephen L. Brayton, November 2013.
Author of Night Shadows, Beta and Alpha.

Book Review: Little Elvises by Tim Hallinan

Little Elvises
Tim Hallinan
Hallinan Consulting, LLC, August 2011
E-Book

I became a fan when the first Junior Bender e-book Crashed, came up on Amazon. If you like your suspense tightly constructed, the dialogue and characters hilarious, then this is a must read new series.

Junior has once again caught the attention of the LAPD, but this time it’s someone who needs his help. It would be odd, except, if you’re a crook and you’ve lost a few gems to a competitor, or a family member to a serial killer you’d turn over a few rocks until you found Junior, too.  Junior may be a burglar, he may be a basket case paranoid, but he’s also a fixer, and LAPD Detective DiGuardio, with whom Junior has had occasion to meet, needs Junior’s special talents and he needs them now. An uncle, another DiGuardio, maybe mobbed up—or not, whose fortune was made in the music industry with his little Elvis lookalikes, may have threatened to kill a sleaze-rag reporter whose body was found early this morning. And as luck would have it, on the only Hollywood star of one of the uncle’s Little Elvises.

Junior is brought up to speed on the rise and fall of the Little Elvises in the music industry from his very smart teenaged daughter, Rina. Junior is a walking dictionary for regrets: his divorce and the fact that he can’t live in the same house as his daughter, that his latest domicile is a dumpy motel called The North Pole run by a chain-smoking, hard liquor drinking cop’s widow who complicates his life by asking him to find her missing daughter, who may or may not be alive at the end of this book.

There’re enough slimy characters in the book to make me want to clean my fingers when I turn the pages, the uncle’s surly helper who looks like an East German guard of indeterminate gender, but then there are characters who redeem my faith in crooks. Yeah, Junior’s a hunk, but I’m in love with Louie-the-Lost. Here’s a guy everyone should have on their team; he’s a crook who shows up when you’re about to be shot by a tranked-up hit-man. And, there’s Ronnie, the dead sleaze bag’s widow, whose natural street smarts and incredible beauty and quirky personality soon win over Junior.

All of the above make for another winner for Tim Hallinan and I personally can’t wait until the next one comes out. More please!

Reviewed by RP Dahlke, August 2011.
www.rpdahlke.com