Book Reviews: A Serpent’s Tooth by Craig Johnson, Once We Were Brothers by Ronald H. Balson, and The Wild Beasts of Wuhan by Ian Hamilton

A Serpent's ToothA Serpent’s Tooth
Craig Johnson
Viking, April  2013
ISBN: 978-0-670-02645-6
Trade Paperback

Now in his ninth appearance, Walt Longmire is confronted by dual adversaries when a homeless boy shows up on his doorstep.  The youth, Cord Lynear, has been cast out of a Mormon cult enclave searching for his mother.  Walt discovers that his mother approached the sheriff of an adjoining county, looking for her son.  In attempting to reunite the two, Walt is unable to find the mother, leading him into investigating an interstate polygamy group, well-armed and with something to hide.

It is an intricate plot, one fraught with danger for Walt, his pal Standing Bear (also known as “Cheyenne Nation”) and his deputy (and lover), Victoria Moretti.  I felt Walt’s overdone bravado, and the resulting violent confrontations, were a bit overdone.  But that is Walt.  And TV.

This entry in the Walt Longmire series, now also in a popular TV dramatic form about to enter its second season, appears to be expressly written to provide another episode.  That is not to say it isn’t another well-written novel with all the elements of the Wyoming sheriff’s customary literary observations and acts of derring-do.  It just seems to me that it’s a bit too much of a manufactured plot with an overtone of a popular protagonist and his sidekicks.  That said, the novel is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, September 2013.

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Once We Were BrothersOnce We Were Brothers
Ronald H. Balson
St. Martin’s Griffin, October 2013
ISBN: 978-1-250-04639-0
Trade Paperback

There have been many books about the holocaust and the travails of people under Nazi occupation during World War II, but this novel touches the heart of the reader because essentially it is a love story surrounded by the atrocities and miseries inflicted on the populations of the occupied territories.  It is essentially the story of Ben Solomon and his wife and family.  But, more important, it is the telling of the horrors endured by the Jews in Poland and the beasts that perpetrated them.

The plot begins when Ben, now 82 years old, sees a TV broadcast of a Chicago event and recognizes the person receiving a civic honor, apparently a pillar of society who is well-known as a philanthropist, as a former Nazi SS officer, Otto Piatek.  The reason Ben recognizes him is because the Solomon family gave Otto a home and Ben grew up with him until Otto’s parents took him away and he embraced his new-found status in the National Socialist Party.  Ben is introduced to Catherine Lockhart, an attorney, who comes to embrace Ben’s desire to uncover Otto, now going by the name of Elliot Rosenzweig, a billionaire Chicago insurance magnate, for what he really is, while listening to his story in relation to a lawsuit she is preparing to bring to reclaim jewelry and cash Otto stole from Ben’s family.

Written simply, the book, a first effort by a Chicago lawyer, moves forward steadily, as Catherine attempts to formulate a lawsuit for replevin, while Ben insists on telling her in great detail the trials and tribulations of life under the Nazis.  And it all comes together at the end.  (Parenthetically, I believe the novel would make a great screenplay.)

Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2013.

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The Wild Beasts of WuhanThe Wild Beasts of Wuhan
An Ava Lee Novel
Ian Hamilton
Picador, June 2013
ISBN: 978-1-250-03229-4
Trade Paperback

Ava Lee undertakes a most formidable task in this, the second in the series about the forensic accountant who specializes in recovering money for a sizable commission in partnership with her mentor, referred to simply as “Uncle,” a rather mysterious man apparently with triad connections, headquartered in Hong Kong and with deep roots in China.  It seems that Uncle’s boyhood friend, Wong Changxing, a powerful and impressive industrialist, bought about $100 million worth of paintings, 15 out of the 20 being elaborate forgeries, and upon discovering the fact seeks Uncle’s and Ava’s assistance in recovering the money and saving him from embarrassment should the facts become known.

The problem is that the Hong Kong dealer from whom the paintings were purchased ten years before is dead and there are no clues or paperwork to guide Ava in her efforts.  But that hardly is a problem for her, as she pursues tracing the transactions, traveling to Denmark, London, Dublin, the Faroe Islands and New York City and learning a lot about the art world in the process.

Ava Lee is on a par with the best of the female protagonists like Kinsey Milhone and others, while an accountant, but exhibiting all the talents and attributes of a private eye.   She is tough and bold and confident, as she shows us in this latest caper.  We are told that the next novel in the series, expected in January 2014, has her pulling her half-brother’s chestnuts out of the fire.  Looking forward to reading it!

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, December 2013.

Book Reviews: The Last Six Million Seconds by John Burdett, A Pimp’s Notes by Giorgio Faletti, and Death Comes Silently by Carolyn Hart

The Last Six Million SecondsThe Last Six Million Seconds
John Burdett
Vintage Books, June 2012
ISBN: 978-0-307-74529-3
Trade Paperback

This book is advertised as being in print for the first time in 15 years – a significant time frame, for fifteen years ago Hong Kong was getting ready for the handover of rule of the country from England to China, a momentous occasion after one hundred years of British rule. This is a fascinating book, with writing that is by turn wonderful, delightful and enchanting.  The protagonist, “Charlie” Chan Siu-kai, Chief Inspector, Homicide, Eurasian – half Irish, half Chinese, 36 years old, and divorced from an Englishwoman.  He loves his city:  We are told that “Chan would have turned down the governorship of Hong Kong so long as he could always be Chinese in an Asian street market;” he “liked the smell of Chinese books, subtly different from Western books.  There were no pictures on the heavy paper covers, no commercialism at all; the print was everything.  It was the way books should always smell: paper, binding and words, no frills.”

As the book begins, eight weeks before the handover, a public clock, large and digital, reads six million seconds.  As one bystander says, “one second for each of us – and disappearing.”  As the book ends, the display shows less than two and a half million seconds left to run: 28 days to go.  The time in between shines a light – not the most flattering, to be sure – on the country and the people.  That unflattering portrait is not limited to the Far East, it should be noted.  The book provides an insight into that world that few non-inhabitants get to see [other than events such as the very public murder of students in Tiananmen Square in June of 1989].

The cast of characters includes the Commissioner of Police, the Right Honorable Ronald “Ronny” Tsui, JP; Chief Supt. John Riley; Inspector Richard Aston, 24-year-old blond Brit; a 49-year-old alcoholic shoplifter from the Bronx; also “an aging psychopath, a sex-hungry billionairess and a scheming diplomat,” of whom Charlie says his “penthouse flat was to light, air and space what Chan’s was to darkness, asphyxiation and cramp“ and notes that he owns “the best collection of opium pipes Chan had seen outside an antiques dealer’s showroom.”

It is noted that “the Chinese Navy, always sensitive to foreign incursions, had never forgiven the theft of Hong Kong by bullies in British uniforms more than a hundred years before” and that “it was true what they told you when you first came out:  The longer you remained in the Far East, the less you understood.”  When he is working on a particularly gruesome triple murder at the outset of the novel, Chan believes he’s being sabotaged, but doesn’t know the source. The answers don’t come till the end, in one of many surprising turns of events.  This is a dense book, but well worth the submersion. It is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, November 2012.

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A Pimp's NotesA Pimp’s Notes
Giorgio Faletti
Translated by Antony Shugaar
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, August 2012
ISBN: 978-0-374-23140-8
Hardcover

This new novel by Giorgio Faletti takes place, naturally, in Italy,Milan to be precise. The era is the late ‘70’s, made evident by asides dealing with rotary telephones and cigarettes being smoked on airplanes.  The period is made clear as well, e.g.:  “A politician of Aldo Moro’s stature, held captive by the Red Brigades; another one of equal prominence lying dead on a slab in the morgue, slain by persons unknown.  Add to that the strain of ongoing terrorism trials and the chilly veil of fear that touches everyone and everything.”

The eponymous protagonist, nicknamed “Bravo,” is a 35-year-old man whose profession is accurately described: he is a procurer.  And one with a quite startling physical handicap.  He is a fascinating individual – not the sleazy person one might expect, any more than a high-class call girl, or ‘escort,’ is the same as the streetwalker. He procures discreet women of intelligence and beauty, whose clientele count among their number some of the wealthiest and most prominent men in the country.  One night he encounters Carla, a woman unlike any he’s known before, and his life will never be the same.  When he arranges a very special evening with one of his very special clients, things go horribly wrong.  Lives are lost, and Bravo becomes hunted by those enforcing the law and those on the other side of it, and is the target of both.

Bravo has a philosophical nature, e.g., “happiness comes to him who settles for less,” and “Optimists believe that reading books helps them fight their ignorance, while realists are certain of only one thing, that books give them proof of their ignorance.”  As to dining in Milan, he says:  “As in all fashionable restaurants, the food is no good at all and the prices are astronomical.  This is the magic of Milan by night, mysterious alchemies that transform lousy food into solid gold.”  When hearing of Moro’s kidnapping, he is greatly saddened.  “The photographs of his detention, his forlorn face, his death sentence, all make me think that, when you live with the suspicion that you’re surrounded by nothingness, there’s almost always something or someone ready and willing to convert that suspicion to certainty.  I wonder if he thought the same thing while the vast world that he once had at his fingertips shrank to the few dozen square feet of a tiny cubicle.”

Bravo is given to tackling, and solving, cryptic puzzles, “even though apparently easy challenges often conceal tangled welters of complication . . . I have the feeling that this is a final, terminal enigma, a puzzle whose solution might be worse than the puzzle itself.”  The writing is quite wonderful, and the novel compulsively readable.  This is a book quite unlike anything I’ve read recently, and is recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, January 2013.

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Death Comes SilentlyDeath Comes Silently
A Death on Demand Mystery
Carolyn Hart
Berkley Prime Crime, May 2013
ISBN: 978-0-425-25209-3
Mass Market Paperback

This marks the twenty-first novel in the Death on Demand series featuring the mystery bookstore owner, Annie Darling, and her husband, Max, who runs Confidential Commissions, through which he offers “counsel to people in trouble.”  There is, of course, a death early on, a seemingly accidental drowning of Everett Hathaway, who was, strangely [it being early January], kayaking before somehow tipping out into the water and suffering hypothermia before drowning.  Very soon thereafter there is another death, one that shakes Annie to the core:  The victim was Gretchen Burkholt, who had taken Annie’s place at the charity shop at which they both volunteered so that Annie could attend a booksigning at Death on Demand.  When Annie returns to the shop after a series of calls from Gretchen, she discovers her body on the floor, a blood-covered ax nearby.

Annie is guilt-ridden at the fact that Annie herself should have been there, not Gretchen, and is determined to find the killer.  When it becomes known that Gretchen had discovered something in the clothing that the dead man was wearing the night he died, with shocking implications, Annie is not persuaded that his death was an accident, and believes that that discovery might have led to Gretchen’s death.  Annie is aided in this by the usual cast of characters: husband Max, and his mother, Laurel; local crime writer Emma Clyde, whose booksigning took place on the night Gretchen was murdered, and Annie’s long-time friend Henny Brawley.  The reader is introduced to a whole cast of characters, any one of whom had a motive to kill.

The action takes place in Broward’s Rock, a barrier island 40 minutes from the South Carolina mainland described by the author as “undoubtedly the most glorious place in the universe to live.”  Fans of this delightful series will smile in recognition, as I did, at Agatha, the store’s resident feline [the one who shares Annie and Max’ home is named Dorothy L].  The story shifts from one to the other of these amateur sleuths, as they pursue different aspects of the investigation while the police continue to believe that Hathaway’s death was an accidental drowning.

There are of course references to many much-loved mystery authors scattered along the way, along with the observation that “that was the comfort of mysteries.  Bad things happened, but good people tried to make things better.”  A sentiment with which readers of this wonderful series can agree.  A charming read, and recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, April 2013.