Book Review: The Devil’s Triangle by Howard Owen

The Devil’s Triangle
Willie Black Series #6
Howard Owen
The Permanent Press, June 2017
ISBN: 978-1-57962-499-6
Hardcover

The eponymous area of Richmond, Virginia had had an unsavory reputation, although not so much in recent years. The opening lines of the book are quite attention-getting:  “In the flaming hell that used to be one of my watering holes, last call came about eight hours early.  You don’t really expect a twin-engine Beechcraft to crash through the plate-glass window during happy hour.”

The author doesn’t really lose that initial grab of the reader’s attention through the remainder of the book, with tight plotting and wonderful writing, complete with sympathetic main characters, especially the protagonist, one Willie Black, a newspaperman of mixed race in a dying profession, one of many in a “dystopian march to obsolescence marked by layoffs, furloughs, and shortened hours.”    We are told that more “staples of twenty-first century print journalism are on the way.”  We meet Mal “Wheelie” Wheelwright, the editor, and the “print journalists” of which Willie is one.  Willie says they “have to be like sharks. Keep moving or die. Either take a promotion or move to a bigger paper. . . At fifty-six, you want to be the SOB, not the person who works for SOBs. You aren’t likely to fire yourself.”  Especially so for those in the “Fatal Fifties – – too young to retire, too old to outwork or underbid the damn millennials and their younger siblings.”

There is initially the suspicion that the “tragic air disaster in Richmond” was the work of foreign terrorists.  The reporters on The Triangle go to the scene of the crime, where Willie finds Larry Doby Jones, the chief of police, standing “half a block from the carnage.”  Of course, TV reporters were there en masse, as were print journalists from every paper from the Washington Post on down.  We soon meet Willie’s family:  His mother Peggy, 74, whose significant other is referred to simply as “Awesome Dude;” his daughter Andi, and grandson, William, typically, it would seem, a young boy born out of wedlock, as is Willie himself.  Willie is renting a place from his third ex-wife, Kate, and lives there with his current romantic attachment, Cindy.

From the publisher:  The obvious answers, though, just don’t pan out.  All the shoot-from-the-hip purveyors of vigilante justice have to stand down when it becomes clear that the pilot of the suicide plane was a disaffected former Richmonder, David Biggio, with no known links to any terrorist organizations, foreign or domestic.  For Willie Black, the daily newspaper’s hard-charging, hard-drinking night cops reporter, the question still remains:  Why?

The story soon seems apparent:  “Crazy guy gets crazier when his wife leaves him and takes his only child.  He steals a plane and makes some kind of cataclysmic statement a few blocks from where his former family lives.”  The number of dead reaches 25.  The tale follows Willie’s investigation and its culmination, where every loose end is neatly tied up.   This is the author’s fifteenth novel, and the sixth in the Willie Black series.  It is really a page-turner, and I can’t wait for the next in the series. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, July 2017.

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Book Review: The Mask of Sanity by Jacob M. Appel

The Mask of Sanity
Jacob M. Appel
Permanent Press, March 2017
ISBN: 978-1-57962-495-8
Hardcover

From the publisher:  On the outside, Dr. Jeremy Balint is a pillar of the community: the youngest division chief at his hospital, a model son to his elderly parents, fiercely devoted to his wife and two young daughters.   On the inside, Dr. Jeremy Balint is a high-functioning sociopath – – a man who truly believes himself to stand above the ethical norms of society.  As long as life treats him well, Balint has no cause to harm others.  When life treats him poorly, he reveals the depths of his cold-blooded depravity.  At a cultural moment when the media bombards us with images of so-called “sociopaths” who strive for good and criminals redeemed by repentance, The Mask of Sanity offers an antidote to implausible tales of “evil gone right.”  In contrast to fictional predecessors like Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov and Camus’ Mersault, Dr. Balint is a man who already “has it all” – – and will do everything in his power, no matter how immoral, to keep what he has.

The author’s Foreward lets us know immediately the source of the title phrase:  “I have come to know a number of individuals who wear . . . ‘The Mask of Sanity,’ yet at their cores proved incapable of feeling empathy or compassion for their fellow human beings. . . Only recently, especially as a result of the exposure of gross misdeeds in the financial services industry and of large-scale Ponzi schemes, has the public become aware that many amoral individuals lurk in the highest echelons of power, be it business, law, and even in medicine.  They are all around us, smiling and perpetrating evil.”  Himself an attorney, physician and bioethicist, the author obviously knows whereof he speaks.  And then he introduces us to Dr. Balint.

Married to his wife, Amanda, for 9 years, and with two daughters he adores, at 47 he has just been appointed chief of cardiology, the youngest in the hospital’s history to have that distinction.  He has known the man he now discovers to be his wife’s lover is a man with whom he attended Columbia and then medical school, and is now a transplant surgeon at the same hospital as he.  He becomes obsessed with killing the man.  And not getting caught.  “Inevitably, avoiding detection meant selecting additional targets.”

Not a page-turner in the usual sense of the word (i.e., taut suspense), the plot nonetheless pushes the reader to keep reading to see how it will unfold, and I rather unexpectedly found myself unable to put it down, consuming the novel in less than 36 hours.  The final page will leave you, as it did me, startled, if not shocked, and saying “WHAT??”

This is a novel that grabs the reader from the first page and doesn’t let go.  It is, obviously, highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, January 2017.

Book Review: Hard Latitudes by Baron R. Birtcher

Hard LatitudesHard Latitudes
Mike Tavis #4
Baron R. Birtcher
Permanent Press, May 2015
ISBN: 978-1-57962-390-6
Hardcover

The fourth entry on the Mike Travis series is just as good as the earlier books, and that is high praise indeed.  The novel begins with the protagonist looking back at incidents that began eleven years prior, and an intricate and fascinating tale it is.  It starts in Macau in 1994, with an act of violence whose repercussions are felt in different far-flung parts of the world and do not, initially, involve Mike in any way.

Mike, 6’2” and a retired LAPD homicide detective, since leaving LA has been living in Hawaii, where he runs a chartering service for private scuba and luxury cruises out of Kona, on his 72’ sailing yacht, the Kehau, after running a similar operation off the Southern California coast.  Mike is the son of a very wealthy man, which he tries to forget, mostly with success, nor make others aware of it.  When his brother, heavily involved in the family business, calls from LA and tells Mike that his “indiscretions” have come back to haunt him in a big – and very public – – way, Mike makes immediate arrangements to return to LA to help him out (making his relationship with his significant other, Lani, even more problematical).

Along the way the author reflects on the history of both South Central LA in late April 1992, during the time of the riots, when he was still on the police force, as well as descriptions of the natural beauty of Hawaii, about which he says, e.g., “Twilight is my favorite time of day to walk the Kona waterfront.  The flickering lights of the village begin to cycle on, piercing the encroaching darkness, the heat of the day leeching from the concrete and up through the soles of your sandals while cool wind drifts in off the water.”  He pays tribute to LA as well, describing the sunrise as presenting a sky that is “a purple so deep that it appeared to bruise the sky.”  At the same time, he also says “Every time I come back to this town, it slithers back inside me.  I had never intended to be a cynic, never imagined I would feel such contempt, and especially had never wanted to lose hope.  I wanted to believe in greater things, like grace, like justice, like integrity; I wanted to believe in heroes or a higher purpose.”

The narrative is interspersed from time to time with the events set into motion in Macau over a decade ago.

Mike’s efforts on behalf of his brother as a “reluctant pi” have repercussions that place both him and his brother in jeopardy, as well as Mike’s former partner on the LAPD, Hans Yamaguchi, who assists him in his efforts, which have unexpected and serious consequences.  In addition to this story line, this is a tale of sexual slavery and human trafficking, not for the faint of heart I might add, with fairly frequent violence (happily, for the most part not graphic.)  It is a gripping story, beautifully written, and highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, March 2016.

Book Review: Montana by Gwen Florio

MontanaMontana
Gwen Florio
Permanent Press, October 2013
ISBN: 978-1-57962-336-4
Hardcover

Foreign correspondent Lola Wicks has just returned from Afghanistan, a place where “filing the story and staying alive remained the only two things that mattered.” She is called back to the home office of her newspaper in Baltimore, where she finds that all the foreign bureaus were being shut due to the faltering US economy and the ensuing layoffs, and is faced with an assignment in the suburbs, told that she is lucky she still has a job.

She is directed by her editor to take some R&R, since she’d not taken a vacation in years. Still determined to return to the war zone (reasoning that “once he saw the stories she’d file when she got back to Kabul, he’d realize it was a mistake to close the bureau”), she decides to first visit her friend Mary Alice, who she hadn’t seen in five years after their career paths diverged, with Lola going to Afghanistan and Mary Alice to Montana to work at a small local paper. When Lola arrives at the cabin in Magpie, Montana, she is faced with a grotesque scene: Seeing dead bodies in Afghanistan was one thing, but finding her best friend shot to death was quite another. Despite her planned return to Kabul, she vows to herself that if the apparently incompetent sheriff could not find the killer, she would.

Finding any leads proves a difficult task, made harder when she is told she cannot leave Magpie, as she is a person of interest. Her reaction? “I’ve got a dead friend and a sheriff who won’t let me leave town until he figures out how she got that way.” Other deaths soon follow. Lola is told “Bodies [are] dropping like flies. How do you like Montana so far?” (A place, btw, that she finds can have snow in June.) After initially staying in a local hotel, she decides to stay in Mary Alice’s cabin, and there are wonderful passages about her friend’s dog and horse, neither of which is an animal with which she has had any experience. Her pursuit of the investigation leads to some unexpected twists and turns in a well-fashioned plot, and a whale of an ending.

A gripping and fast read, beautifully written, the novel is recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, May 2014.

Book Reviews: Death of a Policeman by M. C. Beaton and Cries of the Lost by Chris Knopf

Death of a PolicemanDeath of a Policeman
A Hamish Macbeth Mystery #30
M. C. Beaton
Grand Central Publishing, February 2014
ISBN: 978-1-4555-0473-2
Hardcover

Preserving his beloved small town Scottish Highland police station is a never-ending battle for Hamish Macbeth. And this time, he has to survive in the face of facilities being closed all over Scotland in the wake of cost-cutting. Meanwhile there’s plenty to do, including the investigation into the shotgun death of a policeman who was spying on Hamish at the behest of his arch-enemy, Chief Inspector Blair.

This novel, the 30th in a long-running series, is a little different, especially as it encompasses the love lives of the various characters, including Hamish’s assistant, Dick. And even Hamish begins to wonder whether he wants a companion other than his pets and Dick.

All the wonderful characteristics which have made the Hamish Macbeth mysteries popular abound in this latest entry: the local color, dialect and residents. And this time Macbeth exhibits a side of himself that is uncharacteristic in an effort to keep his beloved Lochdubh police station open.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, April 2014.

 

 

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Cries of the LostCries of the Lost
Chris Knopf
Permanent Press, November 2013
ISBN: 978-1-57962-332-6
Hardcover

This novel is a sequel to Dead Anyway, published by The Permanent Press in September of 2012, which I absolutely loved. The author has written ten previous mysteries, including two other series and one standalone. Despite my initial hesitation, I thought I’d repeat some of the content of the opening paragraph of my review of that first book in this new series to catch people up on the background. The protagonist is 43-year-old Arthur Cathcart [although he seldom uses that name after the events that kick off the first book]. And “kick” is an appropriate word here, inasmuch as its first chapter describes a scene wherein Arthur [self-described as a “math geek and social misfit”] and his “breathtakingly beautiful and successful” Chilean wife, Florencia, are held at gunpoint in their home in Stamford, Connecticut, by a man they have never seen before, who shortly shoots them both in the head. Florencia is killed instantly; Arthur is grievously wounded and left for dead. After falling in and out of a coma for months, he is almost literally brought back from the dead, and makes a decision not to let the world in on that fact, convincing his physician sister, who has been caring for him, to fake his death. The earlier book ended with Arthur deciding to use the skills of his profession – – he holds a Masters in Applied Mathematics, doing freelance market research (a field in which “we take a complete lack of results as a sign of encouragement” – – to find out who brutally murdered his adored wife and left him for dead.

Things immediately become more complicated when Cathcart discovers that his wife had a secret bank account in the Cayman Islands, and manages to move most of the millions therein contained, but accessing the safe deposit box requires that he and his significant other, beautiful and brilliant Natsumi Fitzgerald (a former blackjack dealer, “a small, slim person, barely a hundred pounds soaking wet)), to travel to the bank, from which they successfully retrieve the contents, leading only to more questions and more international travel: from the southern coast of France to London, Madrid, Italy, Switzerland, and ultimately Manhattan and Connecticut. As their search continues, Cathcart increasingly realizes just how little he knew Florencia.

Natsumi queries: “Was there ever a more curious person?” Which elicits the response: “Or paranoid?” Both necessary attributes, and there is much proof of both in these pages. Cathcart makes the observation: “It was rarely a failure of knowledge, but rather imagination. It was an affliction of the age – – too much information, not enough wisdom to make sense of it.” But he has the skills, and the imagination. Both Cathcart and Natsumi are equally proficient at disguises and subterfuge, despite which they find themselves “a pair of fugitives from forces known and unknown.” The title derives from this line in the book: “In the face of so much darkness, what else can a person do but bear witness, and pray he can sleep through all the cries of the lost?” Not wanting to give away any spoilers, suffice it to say that the book delivers on the promise of Dead Anyway, and this novel is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, June 2014.

Book Reviews: Resolve by J.J. Hensley, A Delicate Truth by John Le Carre, and Deadly Harvest by Michael Stanley

ResolveResolve
J.J. Hensley
Permanent Press, April 2013
ISBN: 978-1-57962-313-5
Hardcover

This debut novel probably tells the reader more than he/she wants to know about running a marathon and the various Pittsburgh neighborhoods in which it is run, but it ties together the plot of several murders. Dr. Cyprus Keller is the protagonist.  He is a professor at a relatively undistinguished Steel City university and is one of several academics forming a running group in addition to their teaching responsibilities.

When one of his students is found murdered, he becomes part of the police investigation.  And then several more murders occur, and he is a common denominator.  Deeply involved, he undertakes his own investigation into the crimes, and as a result is an active participant in the developments that arise.  Early on, he discloses that he will murder one person during the marathon, and as the race progresses, the reader awaits the act and how Keller proposes to get away with the deed.

Each chapter begins with a description of the various phases of the 22.2 mile race, sometimes dropping a clue, others just describing the neighborhood or the pain of running.  The summary is then followed by a narrative of events leading up to the novel’s denouement. It is an interesting technique.  While a reader can become bored by a lot of minutiae, the novel is cleverly written and for a first effort deserves praise.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, August 2013.

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A Delicate TruthA Delicate Truth
John le Carre
Viking, May 2013
ISBN: 978-0-670-01489-7
Hardcover

In the present atmosphere of clandestine operations, the result of which the public has been ill-informed and too often kept in the dark, John Le Carre has fashioned a novel built around a bungled black op covered up for three years.  The story begins with the hatching of “Operation Wildfire,” comprising British special force soldiers and American mercenaries employed by a private company.  The aim is to capture an arms dealer who, according to intelligence, is to visit the British colony of Gibraltar.

A Foreign Office functionary is selected to be the on-the-spot eyes-and-ears for a minister of Her Majesty, nominally in charge of the operation.  Like many such actions, it results in failure, but is declared a total success, despite the fact that two innocents are killed and the subject never captured.  Three years later, various persons, directly or tangentially, separately begin to question the silence and attempt to uncover the facts.  The promised “transparency” never seems to arrive.

After a somewhat muddled beginning, in which Mr. Le Carre jumps all around, a bit confusing to the reader, he begins to move the plot straightforwardly and with dispatch.  The author raises the basic question of right and wrong, also lambasting the use of private armies to wage “little wars” around the globe and old boy networks where mistakes are covered up and witnesses bought off.  A topic that is, unhappily, very timely.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, September 2013.

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Deadly HarvestDeadly Harvest
Michael Stanley
Bourbon Street Books/Harper Paperbacks, May 2013
ISBN: 978-0-06-222152-0
Trade Paperback

In this, the fourth Detective Kubu mystery, a new character, detective Samantha Khama, joins the Botswana CID, the only female on the police force.  And immediately shakes things up, insisting on an investigation into the disappearance of young girls.  After initial misgivings, Kubu takes her under his wing, and together they uncover what appears to be the harvesting of human parts for muti, a witch doctor’s potion customarily made with plants and herbs and possibly animal parts, which is supposed to enhance a person’s power or luck.

The plot follows one murder after another beginning with that of a leading opposition politician, followed by that of two young girls. Obviously a serial killer is at large, and Kubu and Samantha have their work cut out for them.

This is a grisly story, rich in detail.  Written by a team of two that is quite knowledgeable of southern Africa, they have created a memorable cast of characters, and it remains to be seen how they will develop this latest, terrific, addition to the Kubu series.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, October 2013.

Book Reviews: Fangs Out by David Freed, Lies at Six by Sarah Scott, and Dead Wrong by Connie Dial

Fangs OutFangs Out
David Freed
Permanent Press, April 2013
ISBN: 978-1-57962-333-3
Hardcover

From its title, I was largely ambivalent and didn’t know what to expect from this new book by David Freed.  So lest you have the same uncertainty, fear not, dear reader, and allow me to quote from its pages:  “There’s an expression among fighter jocks that described what I was feeling, the adrenaline-fueled determination to close with the enemy and destroy him.  They call it ‘Fangs out.’”  Let me also assure you that what awaits you in those pages is a delightful, very enjoyable novel, which along the way will enlighten you with some obscure facts such as why vultures are bald.

Cordell Logan (just “Logan” to one and all) is many things:  broke, a self-described “Buddhist work in progress . . . striving to become one with the universe,” adding “I had a long way to go before attaining true enlightenment . . . How does a man prone to violence by nature and training embrace a religion that preaches peace above all else?”). A recovering alcoholic, he now runs a flight school as an instructor in his beloved 1973 Cessna, the Ruptured Duck, which looks like “a homeless person with wings,” and is still in love with his ex-wife who years ago had left him for his best friend.  His past includes having played wide receiver for the Air Force Academy; later a National Security “go-to” guy (read “assassin”) whose job was “chasing bad people to the dark corners of the globe in the name of national security.”

Logan is hired by Hub Walker, Lt. Col. USAF Retired, a “living legend” and “one of less than 100 living recipients of America’s highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor,” whose daughter, a beautiful young woman who had been second in her class in Annapolis, had been murdered.  The man convicted of her murder had just been put to death by lethal injection.  The problem was that just before the sentence was carried out, he stated that the actual murderer was a close friend, whose integrity and reputation had suffered greatly as a result.  Hub’s job?   “Validating the innocence of a man falsely accused.”  No easy task.

Thoroughly entertaining, the book is recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, August 2013.

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Lies at SixLies at Six
Sarah Scott
Krill Press, May 30, 2013
ISBN:  978-0-615-82795-7
Trade Paperback

Sarah Scott, formerly a TV journalist in Memphis and Atlanta originally from east Tennessee, follows the maxim to write what you know, bringing us Joanna Leland (“Jolie”) Marston, on-air reporter for fourteen years, working in three newsrooms, ten years in Memphis at WTNW News [apparently now spoken of as the station Where Trash News Wins).  Jolie chafes at what she perceives as a mind-set determined in any way to hold onto their viewers in the desired demographic, “keeping this town more scared than it needs to be,” turning whatever news comes their way into something sensational enough to make their loyal viewers put down their forks and pay attention, thereby keeping the ratings growing.  She feels the effects of constantly having to deal with the content, or lack thereof, of the stories she’s told to cover and making them into something sensational.  Finally unable to deal with what she perceives to be their pattern of “Lies at Six,” she effectively blows up her career with an on-air rant, however justified it may have been.

Divorced at 23, Jolie is now 36.  Fast upon the heels of her firing, a truly sensational event takes place:  The murder of Ellis Standifer, respected former Mayor of Memphis, and a dear friend and mentor to Jolie Marston.  Despite the fact that she is no longer employed, she tries to find out whatever she can about the murder through her contacts at the police department and otherwise, to little avail.  But then some information comes her way, and she determines to try to find the story behind the murder of her friend, with no idea where or to whom it will lead.

Threats start to come her way as well to those who have been assisting her in her investigation.  Despite the fact that she had come to love her riverside city, she feels she must leave, returning to her home town of Singleton, in East Tennessee, where she had first met and come under the influence of her friend, Ellis Standifer (although “she usually described her hometown to people as the place where the fire station had been burned and the sheriff’s department had been busted for bootlegging.”).  Her family welcomes her back into the hearth; she even finds that her mother had become willing to “overlook her [ex-]boyfriend’s Jewishness.”  (The hostility toward inter-marriage raises its ugly head more than once.)   She soon learns more than she had bargained for, as some old secrets come to light, as well as hints at corruption at the highest level, with unexpected sources being a couple of women who were very close to the great man, and one enigmatic old-world gentleman keeping long-held secrets.

The tale initially proceeds at a pace befitting the deep South, but soon amps up that pace with the mounting suspense of trying to find a killer, taking unexpected twists and turns in the process.  A recurring theme seems to be that “there is no such thing as truth. Not when it comes to the past.  Just different versions of it.”  It is amazing how so many disparate situations reveal that to be true.

I was thoroughly intrigued by Jolie and her tale, and her depiction of the old (and new) South (including the old family recipe for mint juleps!), and look forward to where Ms. Scott will take her next.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, September 2013.

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Dead WrongDead Wrong
Connie Dial
Permanent Press, May 2013
ISBN: 978-1-57962-334-0
Hardcover

The author’s bona fides are evident from the first page of this, her fourth novel, and the second in the Josie Corsino series:  Connie Dial had 27 years of varied experience as a member of the LAPD, including undercover work, narcotics detective, Internal Affairs surveillance officer, watch commander and captain.  And her protagonist, Josie Corsino, is an LAPD captain, trying to juggle that demanding job with that of wife and mother, and not always succeeding.  After 20 years in the DA’s office, her husband, Jake, had just made partner in his new law firm, and the friction in their marriage is mounting.  The tension includes her relationship with her 23-year-old son, still dependent on his parents for support, now involved with a woman Josie’s age.

In the opening pages, Kyle Richards, a sergeant Josie had appointed to supervise a burglary task force in Hollywood division, is involved in a fatal shooting.  When it is discovered that the dead man was a fellow police officer, after over 20 years on the job, Kyle is faced with a hearing and a possible suspension until it can be proven that it was a justified shooting.  Added to the fact that the dead cop was a black man, and Richards white, the political implications make every aspect of the investigation more difficult.  With the help of her best friend, vice lieutenant Marge Bailey, and Detective “Red” Behan, Josie goes out on a limb to prove his innocence in the matter. Things only get more complex when another killing occurs, and Josie believes the two events are connected.  The novel elucidates the theme that “perception most of the time was more important than truth in the world of policing.  A good reputation was difficult to tarnish; a bad reputation whether it was deserved or not was indelible.”

This was a well-plotted tale.  I have to admit feeling that the writing could have been more polished, but the novel held my interest throughout, and I will look forward to reading the next chapter in Josie Corsino’s life.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, October 2013.