Book Reviews: Blessed Are the Dead by Malla Nunn, Let the Devil Sleep by John Verdon, All I Did Was Shoot My Man by Walter Mosley, and Guilt by Jonathan Kellerman

Blessed Are the DeadBlessed Are the Dead
Malla Nunn
Emily Bestler Books/Washington Square Press, June 2012
ISBN: 978-1-4516-1692-7
Trade Paperback

The iconoclastic South African detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper returns in this excellent third installment in the series, replete with poignant observations on the effects of the rigid apartheid system in the country in 1953.  Cooper, who remains in the dog house for past transgressions, is plucked by his superior to solve a murder in an attempt to resurrect his status.

Accompanied by black Detective Constable Samuel Shabalala, he finds the body of a 17-year-old Zulu girl, daughter of a chief.  There are no clues at the scene, and the two have to scrounge for leads and face obstacles from the natives and landowners, each with their own agenda. The victim herself was involved in both the white and native African worlds, so that the detectives have to cope with the guarded secrets of both communities.

The characters drawn with deep accuracy to depict the characteristics of the South African society at the time are real and flawed.  The novel brings the reader into the corrupt atmosphere of the country with careful descriptions and sharp prose.  Another welcome addition to the adventures of a colorful detective, and it is most highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2012.

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Let the Devil SleepLet the Devil Sleep
John Verdon
Crown, July 2012
ISBN: 978-0-307-71792-4
Hardcover

In his third appearance, retired NYPD detective David Gurney probably wishes he never answered the telephone.  By doing so, he ends up in a most precarious situation when a journalist who had written a laudatory profile of him when he was a top homicide detective asks him to look over her daughter’s shoulder.  The daughter has a chance to have her thesis idea converted into a TV series: “Orphans of the Murder,” a series of interviews with the families of the victims of a killer known as The Good Shepherd.  The homicides had taken place a decade earlier.

Gurney reluctantly agrees, but then becomes more and more involved in the case, which he believes was mishandled in the original investigation.  Of course, as he continues to look into it and raise questions, he makes no friends in the establishment, especially the FBI which had assumed control of the case.  And complicating his efforts is the Good Shepherd’s attempts to forestall and kill the TV series.

The novel begins as Gurney is slowly recovering from three gunshot wounds, one to his head, as a result of his last exploit.  And, of course, no Gurney story would leave him uninjured as a result of his determination to solve a case.  While the plot is logical and straightforward, a lot of the writing is repetitive, especially Gurney’s relations with his second wife, Madeleine, and his son, Kyle. That said, the story moves forward at a swift pace and has an unforeseen conclusion, and it is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2012.

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All I Did Was Shoot My ManAll I Did Was Shoot My Man
Walter Mosley
NAL, February 2013
ISBN: 978-0-4512-3916-7
Trade Paperback

Leonid Trotter (“LT”) McGill is a 55-year-old African-American man, a former boxer, con man, fixer and over-all reprobate turned [relatively honest] PI is one of the more unusual characters in mystery fiction. Married, he has little if anything to do with his wife.  As far as his three children are concerned, he acknowledges that two are not his, but he loves and nurtures all.  His collection of friends and associates are as unconventional as he is.  And so are the books in the series, all somewhat bizarre but very enjoyable.

The plots of the series books, while intricate and complicated, tend to be odd.  And the present installment is no different.  In the past, LT framed a young woman who shot her boyfriend three times, when she came home to find him in bed with her best friend.  Since she was destined to go to jail anyway, he planted evidence in her locker of complicity in a $548 million heist from an insurance company.  Some years later, LT finds the “false” information that led to her conviction following which his lawyer gets her released from prison. As a result, a number of events take place, including an attempt on LT’s life, along with the murders of several others.  Of course, it’s up to him to solve the case.

Written in a style that sometimes defies belief, the complexity and insight of the novel and, especially, the LT character, are overwhelming.  With each book, development of LT as a person deepens, and the reader gains substantial knowledge of the man.

Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2013.

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GuiltGuilt
Jonathan Kellerman
Ballantine, February 2013
ISBN: 978-0-345-50573-6
Hardcover

The team of psychologist Alex Delaware and LAPD homicide detective Lt. Milo Sturgis has been solving cases for a long time.  But not like the crimes described in this latest installment.  It starts out with the discovery of a child’s bones, which appear to be old, perhaps dating to the 1950’s.  Soon, however, a fresh set of bones is found in a nearby park.  And on the other side of the park, a murdered young woman.  Are all these connected?

Following the familiar plot line, the detective follows procedure, and the psychologist thinks off the wall.  And together they find the path to solving the mysteries, a tough road.  Looking into the history of ownership of the first site provides little guidance.  And there isn’t much more to go on in the case of the new set of bones or of the murder victim.

The hallmark of the series is the interchange and quips between Alex and Milo, and Guilt is no exception.  The author has perfected the novels, plotting and characters to such a high degree as to make each new entry a joy to read.  And the newest book conforms to that ideal, and certainly is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, March 2013.

Book Review Roundup by Gloria Feit

Known to Evil
Walter Mosley
NAL, February 2011
ISBN: 978-0-451-23213-7
Trade Paperback

Leonid Trotter McGill is a 54-year-old African-American man, an amateur boxer known to have had his “finger in every dishonest business in the city” including being a fixer for the mob, who is trying to turn his life around, now working as a private detective. He describes his marriage as “twenty years of unfaithfulness on both sides of the bed;” he has fathered only one of the two sons he has raised with his wife, she of the “gorgeous Scandinavian face.”  At present both his wife and his girlfriend have taken on new boyfriends, and his two sons are involved in some kind of trouble.  And that’s only his personal life.

He is hired [although insisting it will be a ‘favor,’ with no money to change hands other than expenses] by a very powerful man to find a young woman who it seems is being stalked, with no information except for an address; when he goes to that address it quickly becomes apparent that it is a crime scene where two dead bodies have been found.  The ensuing investigation, by McGill and the police, is not a simple one; ‘convoluted’ would be an understatement, but one never loses interest for a minute.   The woman he was sent to find was “a mystery and missing, the object of attention of a man who was as dangerous as any terrorist or government-trained assassin.”

I must admit to only having read one of this author’s prior books, which took place in an LA of earlier times.  I found this novel, which takes place in contemporary New York City, more accessible, which probably says at least as much about me than about the author.  But his evocation of present-day Manhattan is a vibrant one, as are his characters.  His writing is enjoyable on so many levels:  The frequent irony; the depiction of his protagonist as a deeply flawed man but one with his own immutable moral code; the wonderful names he gives his characters:  e.g., a young man who I want to describe as a computer genius except that that wouldn’t do him justice, with the two nicknames of “Tiny” [because he isn’t] and “Bug,” [no idea]; his father was self-named “Tolstoy;” an ex-cop’s middle name is Proteus; an assassin friend is named Hush; his brother is Nikita; he himself has named his sons Twilliam and Dmitri.

The writing is wonderful. When something bothers McGill, he describes it as “a feeling at the back of my mind, something that was burgeoning into consciousness like a vibrating moth pressing out from its cocoon.”  When he turned 49, the man who was a surrogate father to him gives him this wisdom:  “When you hit your fifties life starts comin’ up on ya fast . . .  Before that time life is pretty much a straight climb.  Wife looks up to you and the young kids are small enough, and the older kids smart enough, not to weigh you down.  But then, just when you start puttin’ on the pounds an’ losin’ your wind, the kids’re expecting you to fulfill your promises and the wife all of a sudden sees every one of your flaws.  Your parents, if you still got any, are getting’ old and turnin’ back into kids themselves.  For the first time you realize that the sky does have a limit. You comin’ to a rise, but when you hit the top there’s another life up ahead of you and here you are – – just about spent.”

Mr. Mosley has been called a master of contemporary noir, and I cannot disagree with that assessment.   Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, May 2011.

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Misery Bay
Steve Hamilton
Minotaur, June 2011
ISBN: 978-0-312-38043-4
Hardcover

The first page of the newest book by Steve Hamilton, which brings the welcome return of Alex McKnight, describes a scene wherein the body of a young man is found hanging from a tree branch at the edge of a bay in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  For those new to the series, McKnight is a former Detroit cop and current holder of a p.i. license, although he protests that he ‘doesn’t do that anymore’:  He owns and rents out cabins to ‘the snowmobile people’ in season.

Three months after that first-page event takes place, McKnight is approached by Roy Maven, Chief of Police in “the Soo” [Sault St. Marie], who asks for his help.  This from a man whose relationship with McKnight could at best be described as ‘fraught’ – as the Chief says, ‘just call it a persistent lack of liking each other.”  The dead boy’s father had been Maven’s partner on the police force, and Maven wants McKnight to investigate the circumstances that could have led to what appears to have been a suicide.  Having suffered horrendous personal losses himself – his partner on the Detroit police force, the woman he loved – there is no way this particular man could refuse.  In what is perhaps the unlikeliest of alliances, McKnight agrees.

The place where the body was found is the eponymous Misery Bay, a fitting enough name for the site itself and for what happened there, and a five-hour drive away from McKnight’s home on Lake Superior, in a town called Paradise.  McKnight once again periodically turns to his friend Leon Prudell, the once and perhaps future p.i., for his unerring ability to point him in the right direction.  The investigation takes some unpredictable turns, as more lives are lost and more still endangered.

The writing is wonderful – no surprise here.  The long, long winter of Paradise is once again made palpable by the author:  “The sun went down.  The wind picked up and started howling and I knew the wind chill would be something like thirty below.  Another beautiful April night in Paradise. . . [where] springtime felt like a fairy tale.”  [And I loved that the author tips his hat to fellow mystery writers, both from NYC: Reed Coleman and Jim Fusilli, both police sergeants in this incarnation.]

As dark as the story line is, there is just enough humor injected into the writing and, as usual for this author, it is a sheer pleasure to read, and highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, July 2011.

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The Retribution
Val McDermid
Little, Brown, September 2011
ISBN: 978-1-4087-0319-9
Hardcover

[This review is based on the UK edition and the US edition is now available from Atlantic Monthly Press, ISBN 9780802120175]

In her twenty-fifth novel, Val McDermid brings back Jacko Vance, introduced to readers in The Wire in the Blood, and to television viewers in its wonderful series adaptation.  As the book opens, this truly malevolent serial killer, whose resume includes “killer of seventeen teenage girls, murderer of a serving police officer, and a man once voted the sexiest man on British TV” as well as an Olympic athlete and an outwardly charming and charismatic man, has served over 12 years in prison, owing mostly to the efforts of DCI Carol Jordan and psychological profiler Tony Hill.  Vance has spent most of that time meticulously planning his escape, as well as his future after its successful completion:  the revenge suggested by the books title, directed toward those who had caused his imprisonment, first among them Jordan and Hill, as well as his ex-wife whose betrayal he sees as making her equally culpable.  Of course, his plan for vengeance merely begins there.

Carol Jordan, as yet unaware of what is about to happen, is dealing with a shake-up at the Bradfield Metropolitan Police, where the powers that be are disbanding her Major Incident Team.  In an attempt to go out in a ‘blaze of glory,’ they are faced with finding a killer who has been killing street prostitutes in gruesome ways, and branding them with a distinctive tattoo on the wrist of each.   Suddenly, Jordan’s priorities change with Vance’s escape, and its implications.  Tony’s priorities as well must be divided between these investigations.

The relationship between Jordan and Hill has always been difficult to define, becoming more so all the time.  They are not quite lovers, although they share space, and different flats, in Tony’s house.  But their emotional entanglement has always been obvious to all, even if they themselves do not admit to one.  That relationship, both professionally and personally, is about to be threatened now as never before.

The author goes into more of Tony’s background, and the emotional and psychological paths that have shaped him, and caused him to work at “passing for human,” than I remembered having been done in the past.  He tells a colleague “I won’t deny that the people who do this kind of thing fascinate me.  The more disturbed they are, the more I want to figure out what makes them tick.”  It is his empathy and his oft-times brilliant insights that have made him so successful.  But this is a challenge unlike any he has ever faced.

The pace steadily accelerates along with a sense of dread as Vance begins to carry out his plans, and the resultant page-turner is as good as anything this acclaimed author has written.  Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, September 2011.

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Split Second
Catherine Coulter
Putnam, July 2011
ISBN: 978-0-399-15743-1
Hardcover

There are three story lines presented in the newest book by Catherine Coulter.  The first appears on page one, and isn’t resolved until nearly the final page in the book:  The owner of a small convenience store in Washington, D.C. is nearly killed late one night in an apparent robbery gone wrong, the latter not having counted on FBI Agent Dillon Savitch being the customer in the shop at the time.  When the same man is shot in another incident shortly thereafter, leaving him seriously wounded, it would seem there is more going on than a “simple” robbery.

The second, and main, story line deals with a series of crimes involving women in their 20’s and 30’s who are picked up in neighborhood bars, brought back to their own apartments, and strangled with a length of wire, no apparent connection among them, and the crimes occurring in various large cities including Cleveland, Ohio; San Francisco; and Chicago.  Autopsies show the women were drugged with Rohypnol and ketamine.   One of the victims had scratched her attacker before being killed, leaving a nice sample of DNA to be analyzed and run through databases, after which it is determined that the killer is the offspring of none other than Ted Bundy, the man who kidnapped dozens of young women, raped, tortured and then murdered them before he was caught and ultimately electrocuted in Florida in 1989.

The last of the plotlines is a very personal one, having to do with a horrifying family secret just discovered by Lucy Carlyle, another FBI agent in the Washington DC office, and her attempt to put it on the back burner while joining her boss, Savitch, and her partner, Cooper (“Coop”) McKnight, in the investigation of the serial killer, whose victims number five and counting.

I had several problems with the book, starting with the fact that one of the agents, whose name is, disconcertingly, Lacey Sherlock, is never referred to or called Lacey but, always, “Sherlock,” even by her husband.  As well, much of the writing felt stilted, the dialog often not what I felt one or another would be expected to utter or their actions not ringing true, e.g., a 27-year-old FBI agent “bouncing up and down” upon being given news of an important breakthrough in the case; a cup of coffee described as “dark as sin.”  And would a woman who had just been told her niece had lost control of her car and been badly injured, upon seeing that niece, really say to her “Oh, you’ve got a bandage on your head!”  Nor am I enamored with the supernatural in mysteries, as is the case here.

On the other hand, almost in spite of myself, I was caught up in the story, the pages turning quickly, and anxious to find out how each story line was resolved.  I am obviously in the minority with my reservations about the book, since the author consistently makes the bestseller lists.  This is her seventeenth book in what is termed “the FBI Thriller” series.  It made for good reading, on balance, and I’m sure most readers will find it very enjoyable.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, November 2011.

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Very Bad Men
Harry Dolan
Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, July 2011
ISBN: 978-0-399-15749-3
Hardcover

This new novel from the author of the acclaimed Bad Things Happen, his writing debut, has no ‘sophomore book’ problems.   Very Bad Men immediately engages the reader, and one is quickly drawn into this compelling tale of murder, specifically, the murder of two men who were part of a bank robbery seventeen years ago, and the attempted murder of a third.  All three men had been convicted, and served jail time of varying lengths.  But what could be the motive?  These three men had not seen nor contacted one another in all the intervening years.  And the killer – for his identity is quickly revealed – is not a cool, professional hit man; that is immediately made clear.

David Loogan, the editor-in-chief of a mystery magazine, receives, in a plain, unmarked envelope, what at first glance appears to be a manuscript, only several pages long, bearing no signature, the first line of which reads “I killed Henry Kormoran . . . “   Loogan, who lives with his ‘significant other,’ Elizabeth Waishkey, an Ann Arbor, Michigan, detective, and her precocious 16-year-old daughter, ultimately begins a kind of parallel and unofficial investigation.

Each character in the novel is wonderfully well-drawn.  These include the killer, who suffers from synesthesia, a rare affliction which results in a confusion of the senses, with words taking on dimensions far beyond their ‘normal’ printed appearance, according to his emotional reaction to them; Lucy Navarro, a young and rather endearing reporter, who comes up with a bizarre theory of the motive for the crimes; assorted politicians and their ‘handlers,’ among others.  The writer invokes some wildly disparate images: Occam and his razor, Aristotle, jazz musician Charlie Parker; mystery authors Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly; and a theme:  “We all want to be known.  To be seen for who we really are.” There are carefully placed, and easily missed clues, and startling and unexpected twists in this rather complex and engrossing novel, which is recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, December 2011.

Book Reviews Ted Feit-Style

Iron River
T. Jefferson Parker
NAL, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-451-23242-7
Trade Paperback,

A temporary assignment to an ATFE task force for Deputy sheriff Charlie Parker to stem the tide of illegal arms and money flowing across the U.S.-Mexican border gives rise to eerie insights into law enforcement from San Diego to Corpus Christie and, in addition, how cutthroat the drug lords can be, as well as how unscrupulous legal and illegal gun dealers are.

To begin with, a stakeout on a gun deal goes wrong, and in the shooting of a perpetrator which ensues, the son of the ruthless head of a cartel is killed, resulting in a vengeance kidnapping and torture of an AFTE operative, leading in turn to a rescue mission by Charlie and his new associates.  Then that operative is kidnapped a second time from the hospital by a rival organization, and Charlie again has to go to Mexico to ransom him and bring him back across the border, dodging the first drug lord’s minions.

The title is derived from the corridor running along the southern border, from California to Texas.  Up to 90 per cent of the guns in Mexico, where about 15,000 persons have been murdered, are said to come from the United States.  This is hardly the ideal for a Good Neighbor Policy. Mr. Parker has thoroughly researched the subject, which brings back Charlie Hood for a third and welcome appearance in a well-written and exciting novel.  Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2011.

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The Confession
John Grisham
Doubleday, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-385-52804-7
Hardcover

The author is on the Board of Directors of the Innocence Project in New York and is the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Mississippi Innocence Project at the U. of Miss.  A well-known attorney and best-selling novelist, the conviction and scheduled execution of an innocent man fall within his purview in these various activities.  It is too bad, however, that the resulting novel is not up to his usual standard.

The arrest, jailing and eventual execution of a young innocent Texan sets the stage for a long, dry story, filled with stereotypes: the less-than-ethical police detective, the corrupt DA and his lover, the judge, and the real murderer, among others, including the defense attorney. Unfortunately they do not add up to an accomplished novel. Nor do the long harangues and long-winded diatribes, which obviously belong more in a legal brief than a novel.

All this is not to take away from Mr. Grisham’s ability to tell a tale and write it well.  But, unfortunately, over-all, at least to this reader, he should have relied more on his ability as a novelist, than as an advocate for a cause.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2011.

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Red Herring
Archer Mayor
Minotaur Books, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-312-38193-6
Hardcover

This long-running series featuring Joe Gunther and his team at the Vermont Bureau of Investigation has been consistently excellent.  And this, the 21st entry, is of similar high quality with an inventive plot:  Three murders are committed, seemingly with no connection, except for a single drop of blood.  The victims are apparently unrelated and the evidence at each scene appears to be, at best, confusing, as if the crime scenes were deliberately arranged so that forensics would not be particularly useful in the investigation.

The Vermont forensics department, with limited resources and funds, is unable to process the few items of interest, but the suggestion that the Brookhaven National Laboratory on New York’s Long Island might have the ability to find clues is followed, resulting in a series of possibilities that, with  old-fashioned police work, lead to common threads.

Once again, the author’s love of the Green State, its environment and people, provides a human touch to an otherwise macabre tale. Descriptions of the countryside are adept.  And insights into antagonism between politicians, the public, the media and cops are vivid and insightful.  Written with a deft touch, the novel is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2011.

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Collusion
Stuart Neville
Soho Crime, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-56947-855-4
Hardcover

This follow-up to the highly praised The Ghosts of Belfast deserves the same reception.  It picks up where the earlier noir ended, carrying forth the characters and events, and, presumably, planting the seeds for a third novel which hopefully will develop into a full-blown series.

Jack Lennon, a Catholic detective in an otherwise Protestant police force in Northern Ireland, is warned off investigating the deaths of three persons associated with the massacre of numerous criminals and politicians at Bull O’Kane’s farm in Belfast.  But having knowledge of the event, at which his girlfriend, Marie McKenna, and their young daughter, Ellen were present, pressures him to continue pursuing knowledge of the murders and their relationship to the past.  Marie was whisked away from the massacre by the notorious killer, Fegan, and into hiding, promising to return whenever she needed protection.  He leaves for New York City for adventures of his own.

O’Kane has a grudge against Fegan and employs The Traveler, a killer of equal stature to Fegan, to kill the three victims as well as his nemesis, who was responsible for a gut wound which incapacitated the gangster.  When Marie comes out of hiding to visit her dying father, she and the child are abducted, serving as lures to draw Fegan out of hiding and resulting in an unlikely collaboration between Lennon and Fegan to rescue Marie and Ellen.

The novel develops the characters in more depth than was exhibited in “Belfast,” and the pace is steadier.  But the writing is the same tense hard-driven prose which made the first so highly readable.  It is a graphic tale of the corruption between the politicians, criminals, British authorities and others in the fraught Northern Ireland of the era.  It is powerful and tragic, with intense violence and deep insights into a country still affected by long-continued terror.  It is highly recommended, and we look forward to the hoped-for sequel.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2011.

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Skin
Mo Hayder
Grove Press, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-8021-4517-8
Trade Paperback

There are all kinds of protagonists, but the two featured in this novel (after first appearing in Ritual) are very different.   Jack Caffery and Phoebe (“Flea”) Marley carry pretty heavy baggage from their past, but they get the job done somehow in this thrilling police procedural, despite their individual quirks and iconoclastic attitudes.

DI Caffery is engaged in two separate investigations which somehow become intertwined with an escapade in which Flea is involved.  As a result, he has to weigh whether or not to expose Flea’s efforts or to keep silent.  One case involves a series of strange deaths, initially thought to be suicides, although Caffery believes them to be murders. Another has to do with a missing person, a woman who may or may not also be such a victim, but no body has been found.

Marley is a police diver and the descriptions of her efforts, especially in the opening scene, are especially gripping, as Flea is seeking the body of the MisPer in a flooded quarry, diving deeper and deeper beyond recommended depths and apparently seeing a supernatural sight.  Both she and Caffery think there is a “Tokoloshe” in the area, a creature out of African witchcraft.

This sequel is so tightly written and absorbing one can hope that the author can follow up with more such unusual efforts in the future. Recommended.  [It should perhaps be noted that the author’s newest book, Gone, was published simultaneously by Atlantic Monthly Press in hardcover.]

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2011.