Book Review: Diary of a Dead Man on Leave by David Downing @soho_press

Diary of a Dead Man on Leave
David Downing
Soho Crime, April 2019
ISBN 978-1-61695-843-5
Hardcover

Josef Hoffman isn’t his real name. He’s a German who has recently returned to his native country, to the town of Hamm. It’s April, 1938. Adolf Hitler is in power.

Josef has a mission. He works for the International Liaison Section of the Communist International and with a list of members of the Comintern his orders are to locate the men on his list and confirm they are still members of the Party. The Soviet Union’s leaders, sure that another war in Europe is imminent, want to find out whether there are enough Communists in Germany to form an underground group willing to undermine and disrupt the Third Reich.

Josef manages to get a room in a boarding house near the railway yards, where he has landed a job. The boarding house is run by Frau Anna Gersdorff, her father Erich who is blind and bedridden, and Walter her eleven year old son. There are also three other lodgers staying at the boarding house, Askel Ruchay, Jakob Barufka and Rolf Gerritzen.

Josef knows he shouldn’t get too friendly with the people around him. He is there to observe and report, and track down the men on his list. But he finds himself drawn to Anna and her son Walter, especially when he discovers Walter, an intelligent boy, is being bullied at school and not just by other children. A teacher is determined Walter is too clever by far and makes it his mission to degrade and diminish him at every turn. Walter’s only friend is Marco a younger black boy, the son of Verena who works as the cook at the boarding house and this does not sit well with the current regime.

Every six weeks Josef is instructed to meet with a colleague to report his progress. He has decided to keep a journal detailing his day to day efforts to track down these men…and it is through his journaling he reveals the characters of the lodgers, as well as the men he works with at the Railway Yard. We also see his growing attachment to the Gersdorff family.

As the days unfold, Josef slowly becomes ever more entangled with the lives of the people in the boarding house. HIs progress in finding his Communist brothers is slow. His need to be careful approaching these men intensifies, fearful at any moment he will be reported to the authorities or arrested and questioned by the Gestapo. Tension is rising throughout the country as Hitler and his Third Reich grow more brutal and violent.

I found this book engrossing. Written in journal form makes for an easy read, but throughout, the author is adept at keeping the stakes high.
Check this one out…and find out what becomes of Josef and the people he has grown to love.

Respectfully submitted.

Reviewed by guest reviewer Moyra Tarling, September 2019.

Book Reviews: Every Last Promise by Kristin Halbrook and Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke by Anne Blankman

Every Last PromiseEvery Last Promise
Kristin Halbrook
HarperTeen, April 2015
ISBN 978-0-06-212128-8
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

Kayla saw something at the party that she wasn’t supposed to. But she hasn’t told anyone. No one knows the real story about what happened that night—about why Kayla was driving the car that ran into a ditch after the party, about what she saw in the hours leading up to the accident, and about the promise she made to her friend Bean before she left for the summer.

Now Kayla’s coming home for her senior year. If Kayla keeps quiet, she might be able to get her old life back. If she tells the truth, she risks losing everything—and everyone—she ever cared about.

On the surface, this is a story about the aftermath of rape—and so it is—but it’s also a story about how there can be more victims beyond the person who suffers the actual assault. Those peripheral victims need to cope in a different sort of way and the guilt they feel can be enormous, guilt that they could have done something more, guilt that they might do the wrong thing after the fact, guilt that they’ve kept secrets, maybe even guilt that someone else was the one attacked. These people are survivors in their own way, certainly not lessening the impact of the true victim’s pain and recovery, but survivors nonetheless.

Unfortunately, Kayla is not the heroic figure we would like her to be and it’s very easy to decide that she’s a coward, more interested in her own well-being than anyone else’s. That actually is true but I think it’s important to acknowledge that many of us, myself included, have looked the other way at least once in our lives. Can we honestly say that we’re “better” than Kayla is?

Ms. Halbrook‘s intent is laudable and I wish I could have connected with Kayla in a more positive way but her narcissism is just a bit too overwhelming. Yes, I understood her but I didn’t care much about her. Still, the author has an important message and I hope this book will end up encouraging others to stand forth when circumstances call for it. In the meantime, I believe this author is one worth watching and I’ll be reading more by her.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, April 2015.

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Conspiracy of Blood and SmokeConspiracy of Blood and Smoke
Anne Blankman
Balzer + Bray, April 2015
ISBN 978-0-06-227884-5
Hardcover

From the publisher—

The girl known as Gretchen Whitestone has a secret: She used to be part of Adolf Hitler’s inner circle. More than a year after she made an enemy of her old family friend and fled Munich, she lives in England, posing as an ordinary German immigrant, and is preparing to graduate from high school. Her love, Daniel, is a reporter in town. For the first time in her life, Gretchen is content.

But then Daniel gets a telegram that sends him back to Germany, and Gretchen’s world turns upside down. When she receives word that Daniel is wanted for murder, she has to face the danger she thought she’d escaped—and return to her homeland.

Gretchen must do everything she can to avoid capture, even though saving Daniel will mean consorting with her former friends, the Nazi elite. And as they work to clear Daniel’s name, Gretchen and Daniel discover a deadly conspiracy stretching from the slums of Berlin to the Reichstag itself. Can they dig up the explosive truth and get out in time—or will Hitler discover them first?

My appetite for young adult World War II-era fiction was sharpened when I was introduced to a wonderful book by Elizabeth Wein and I’ve been on the lookout for more ever since that one. The first book by Anne Blankman, Prisoner of Night and Fog, captured my attention in a very good way and I was really excited when  I heard about this sequel, Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke. While I don’t think it has quite the intensity of Prisoner, it still kept me engrossed till the very end.

The years leading up to war are uncomfortable everywhere but Gretchen and Daniel really do think they have found a haven of peace in England and so, in a fashion, they have. Away from Uncle Dolf, Gretchen has a chance at a happy life and Daniel is a large part of that. Chance, though, has an ugly way of wreaking havoc and Daniel soon finds that he has no choice but to return to Germany, having no idea, of course, that he is about to be in even graver damage than he expected.

Gretchen and Daniel are an interesting pair. At times, they seem oblivious to the dangers facing them at nearly every turn but, at the same time, they have a certain gravity about them. Most teens in earlier generations must have been less frivolous than we see so frequently today for a lot of reasons including shorter life expectancy, poorer health, more manual labor and so on. In 1933, we have to add in a growing awareness that bad things might be happening in Germany, fueled by the devastating effects of the Great Depression. Hitler rose to power in part because of the need Germans had to rise above their massive discontent and only a few were able to see past his charisma to the nascent evil behind the facade. That Ms. Blankman has given her characters the opportunity to understand what was happening is powerful but I’m glad she also lets these teens make mistakes and fail to grasp the horror that was coming in just a few years. Very few did so I would not have believed it if Gretchen and Daniel had too much foresight.

The murder and the race to exonerate Daniel work as good reasons to get the kids back in Germany but it’s the rise of the Nazi Party and all that entails that provides the real story here. It’s one we should never forget and authors like Ms. Blankman who create such entertaining tales that focus on historic truth help us hold on to that knowledge. Along with such weighty issues, though, I relish keeping company with Gretchen and Daniel and am looking forward to the next book.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, April 2015.

Book Review: A Fly Has a Hundred Eyes by Aileen Baron—and a Giveaway

A Fly Has a Hundred EyesA Fly Has a Hundred Eyes
A Lily Sampson Mystery
Aileen Baron
Aileen Baron, September 2013
ISBN 978-0-578-12887-0
Ebook

From the author—

In the summer of 1938, Jerusalem is in chaos and the atmosphere teems with intrigue. Terrorists roam the countryside. The British are losing control of Palestine as Europe nervously teeters on the brink of World War II.

Against this backdrop of international tensions, Lily Sampson, an American graduate student, is involved in a dig—an important excavation directed by the eminent British archaeologist, Geoffrey Eastbourne, who is murdered on his way to the opening of the Rockefeller Museum. Artifacts from the dig are also missing, one of which is a beautiful blue glass amphoriskos (a vial about three and a half inches long) which Lily herself had excavated. Upset by this loss, she searches for the vial—enlisting the help of the military attaché of the American consulate.

But when she contacts the British police, they seem evasive and offputting—unable or unwilling either to find the murderer or to look into the theft of the amphoriskos. Lily realizes that she will get no help from them and sets out on her own to find the vial. When she finds the victim’s journal in her tent, she assumes he had left it for her because he feared for his life.

Lily’s adventurous search for information about the murder and the theft of the amphoriskos lead into a labyrinth of danger and intrigue.

In today’s uneasy world, we’ve become so edgy about the threat of terrorism that we sometimes forget this is not a new thing. Terrorism has been going on as long as humans have been around and no place in the world is as subject to it as the Middle East. Prior to World War II, the trouble between Arabs, Jews and the British grew exponentially, even before the Partition, and the encroaching war helped feed the beast.

It is this environment that is the climate for A Fly Has a Hundred Eyes in which we meet Lily Sampson, a young American archaeologist working on a dig in 1938 Jerusalem. It’s not easy for a woman to work in this profession but Lily has found a place with Geoffrey Eastbourne, the well-known and not always liked head of the excavation. His murder, although shocking, doesn’t seem to attract much attention from the British police but others begin to show much interest in Lily. Some of this interest seems to be concern for her well-being but there are also hints of dark forces, of pressure to spy for the government—or is it for some other element?

Lily is in possession of documents that seem to imply that Eastbourne was involved in much more than an archaeological dig and the behavior and sly warnings of some of the locals, Avi and Jamal in particular, lead her to seek answers on her own. She wants to know what happened to her mentor but a missing artifact also means a great deal to her. Her efforts to get to the bottom of things may  endanger her far more than she expects, especially with the threat of Nazi involvement, but she is also in danger from the ever-increasing bombings and other terrorist acts stemming from the strife among the local populace.

If you think this may be sounding a little familiar, it’s possible you’ve read it before as this is a re-issue of a 2002 novel. Ms. Baron’s story is just as relevant today as it was then and her prose is set apart by her flowing descriptions of the land and its people as well as the time. We would do well to pay attention to what was happening in Jerusalem in 1938 because it surely has bearing on today’s events.

A Fly has a Hundred Eyes won first place in the historical mystery novel category at both the Pikes Peak and Southwest Writers Conferences in 2000 before it was published and those awards were well-deserved. I think I’ll go track down the next Lily Sampson mystery.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, February 2014.

An Excerpt

Later, Lily would remember the early morning quiet, the shuttered shops in the narrow lanes of the Old City. She would remember that few people were in the streets — bearded Hassidim in fur-trimmed hats and prayer shawls over long black cloaks returning from morning prayer at the Wailing Wall; an occasional shopkeeper sweeping worn cobbles still damp with dew.

She would remember the empty bazaar, remember that the peddler who usually sold round Greek bread from his cart near Jaffa Gate was gone.

She would remember the crowd of young Arabs, their heads covered with checkered black and white kefiyas, waiting in the shade of the Grand New Hotel, leaning against the façade, sitting on window ledges near the entrance; remember them crowded under Jaffa Gate in a space barely wide enough to drive through with a cart, standing beneath the medieval arches and crenellated ramparts, faces glum, arms crossed against their chests, rifles slung across their backs, revolvers jammed into their belts. One wore a Bedouin knife, its tin scabbard encrusted with bright bits of broken glass. Only their eyes moved as they watched her pass. Lily remembered holding her breath, pushing her way through, feeling their body heat, snaking this way and that to avoid touching the damp sweat on their clothing. No one stepped out of her way.

She would remember the bright Jerusalem air, fresh with the smell of pines and coffee and the faint tang of sheep from the fields near the city wall; the empty fruit market, usually crowded with loaded camels and donkey carts and turbaned fellahin unloading produce, deserted and silent. Vendor’s stalls, looking like boarded shops on a forlorn winter boardwalk, shut; cabs and carriages gone from the taxi stand.

She would remember the pool at the YMCA, warm as tea and green with algae, and the ladies gliding slowly through the water, wearing shower caps and corsets under their bathing suits, scooping water onto their ample bosoms, gathering to gossip at the shallow end. She would remember swimming around them with steady strokes, her legs kicking rhythmically, and the terrible tempered Mrs. Klein, blowing like a whale, ordering Lily to stop splashing. A tiny lady holding onto the side of the pool and dunking herself up and down like a tea bag nodded in agreement; Elsa Stern, the little round pediatrician with curly gray hair, gave Lily a conspiratorial wink and kept swimming laps.

She would remember it all. Everything about that day would haunt her.

About the Author

Aileen BaronAileen G. Baron has spent her life unearthing the treasures and secrets left behind by previous civilizations. Her pursuit of the ancient has taken her to distant countries—Israel, Turkey, Jordan, Greece, Britain, China and the Yucatan—and to some surprising California destinations, like Newport Beach, California and the Mojave Desert.

She taught for twenty years in the Department of Anthropology at California State University, Fullerton, and has conducted many years of fieldwork in the Middle East, including a year at the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem as an NEH scholar and director of the overseas campus of California State Universities at the Hebrew University. She holds degrees from several universities, including the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of California, Riverside.

The first book in the Lily Sampson series, A FLY HAS A HUNDRED EYES, about the murder of a British archaeologist in 1938 in British mandated Palestine, won first place in the mystery category at both the Pikes Peak Writers conference and the SouthWest Writers Conference. THE TORCH OF TANGIER, the second novel in the Lily Sampson series, takes place in Morocco during WW II, when Lily is recruited into the OSS to work on the preparations for the Allied invasion of North Africa, Operation Torch. In THE SCORPION’S BITE, Lily is doing an archaeological survey of Trans-Jordan for the OSS.

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To enter the drawing for an ebook copy of
A Fly has a Hundred Eyes by Aileen Baron,
leave a comment below. The winning name
will be drawn Friday evening, February 7th,
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Partners in Crime Book Tours

Book Reviews: The Age of Doubt by Andrea Camilleri, Elegy for Eddie by Jacqueline Winspear, Capitol Murder by Phillip Margolin, and The Riptide Ultra-Glide by Tim Dorsey

The Age of DoubtThe Age of Doubt
Andrea Camilleri
Translated by Stephen Sartarelli
Penguin, June 2012
ISBN 978-0-14-312092-6
Trade Paperback

The books in the Inspector Montalbano series usually are lighthearted stories about the Sicilian detective combined with a mystery for him to solve.  However, while in this novel he does have a mystery to solve, this entry reflects more of his introspection.  The contrasts are intriguing, to say the least.  It begins when the Inspector rescues a bespectacled, rather mousy woman whose car is about to be swallowed into a chasm, or sinkhole, created in a collapsed road.  She tells him she’s the niece of a rich widow whose yacht is about to enter port.

When the boat does enter the port, it brings with it a corpse and a dinghy retrieved at the mouth of the harbor. The victim’s face was smashed, and the fingerprints are not on file, making identification extremely difficult.  The yacht docks alongside a luxury craft, whose crew appears suspicious. This leads Montalbano on a convoluted investigation based on information – – or misinformation – – the woman has given him.

As usual, the Inspector’s lusty appetite is exhibited, with descriptions of lunches and dinners at his favorite restaurant, or dishes left for him to heat in the oven by his housekeeper.  Perhaps more poignant is a side story about the 58-year-old Inspector’s possible love interest, a beautiful young woman Coast Guard lieutenant he meets during the investigation.  It makes him even more human as a character, lightening what would otherwise be a heavy murder mystery.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, December 2012.

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Elegy for EddieElegy for Eddie
Jacqueline Winspear
Harper Perennial, October 2012
ISBN: 978-0-06-204958-2
Trade Paperback

The Maisie Dobbs series, now with nine entries, has taken her from World War I, where she served as a nurse, to the cusp of the Second World War.  In this novel, there are three themes which can tend to confuse the reader until the author brings them together and makes sense out of what at first appear to be separate subplots.

To start with, a delegation from Lambeth, scene of Maisie’s childhood, visits her to engage her services as an investigator to find out how a young man died in a paper factory.  The other two plot lines, one more personal to her than the other, has Maisie questioning her own motives and standards as well as her relationship with her lover; and the last involving the stealth campaign of Winston Churchill to prepare Great Britain for the possible war with Nazi Germany.

The book is equal to its predecessors in characterization and human interest.  Obviously, it is more political in tone than its forerunners, given the time in which it takes place: the depression era and rise of Adolf Hitler.  While Maisie’s introspections may be overdone, they certainly are in keeping with the character.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, October 2012.

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Capitol MurderCapitol Murder
Phillip Margolin
Harper, December 2012
ISBN 978-0-0620-6999-0
Premium Mass Market Paperback

The fact that the author long served as a defense attorney in 30 murder trials permeates this tale of terrorism, murder and treason. It is the third novel featuring Brad Miller, an attorney; his wife, Ginny, also an attorney; and Dana Cutler, a dogged private investigator and sometime reporter for a sleazy Washington supermarket scandal sheet.  In previous books, their investigation revealed the role of a President in a series of murders and saved the life of a Supreme Court Justice while preventing a CIA plot to fix a case before the Court.

Now Brad is serving as the legislative assistant to the U.S. Senator from Oregon and Ginny is working at the Department of Justice. Murders in Oregon and the District of Columbia seem to implicate an escaped serial murderer, one of whose previous convictions Brad helped to overturn.  But, of course, nothing is what it appears to be.  A terrorist plot surpassing the Twin Towers destruction completes the story, uniting all the elements.

The plot is pretty much humdrum, and the characterizations less than fully developed, but Mr. Margolin certainly knows how to spin a narrative.  In the end, he makes sense out of the diverse elements in an interesting manner.  It is, perhaps, a light read, but still one that is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, December 2012.

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The Riptide Ultra-GlideThe Riptide Ultra-Glide
Tim Dorsey
Morrow, February 2013
ISBN:  978-0-06-209278-6
Hardcover

There’s nothing sane about a novel featuring Serge A. Storms and his sidekick, Coleman.  There usually is a plot, but the real show is the madcap escapades and far-out situations described.  And no less so are the irreverent observations from Serge’s mouth. Too numerous to mention.

As in the former entries in the series, this novel takes place in Florida, giving Serge the opportunity to hold forth on the many locales and highlights of the State.  It begins with Serge and Coleman driving down to the Keys, filming what is to be a reality show on a camcorder.  And the rest of the book, of course, turns out to be surreal, when a couple of teachers from Wisconsin lose their job and decide to go to the Sunshine State on vacation.  Instead they become embroiled in the midst of two gangs fighting for control of drug traffic.  It remains for Serge to rescue them.

The novels in this series are not particularly easy reading because much of the time Serge’s observations and comments are so outlandish that the reader has to stop and regroup.  But, crazy as it sounds, most of the time they make sense.  Nevertheless, a Serge A. Storms novel is always enjoyable.  And recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2013.

Book Review: Bleeding Heart Square by Andrew Taylor

Bleeding Heart Square
Andrew Taylor
Hyperion Books, 2010
ISBN 1401310141
Trade Paperback

The story is set in London, pre-World War II. Each chapter of the book begins with a passage from the diary of Philippa May Penhow, former owner of Bleeding Heart Square. Philippa disappeared four years earlier.

Lydia Langstone, the protagonist, is physically abused by her husband, Marcus, and she makes the decision to pack a bag and leave. As the wife of Marcus, Lydia has servants, jewelry, a big house, albeit one she considers horrible, and all the comforts of the privileged. Packing was very difficult for Lydia, after all, she didn’t do it with any frequency. She sorted her jewelry, leaving behind anything that came from the Langstones. Nor did she take her checkbook and bank deposit book which were in the name of Mrs. L.M. Langstone. She did take a Post Office savings book which was still in her maiden name, Lydia Ingleby-Lewis. She hailed a taxi but didn’t know where to have the driver take her. She couldn’t go to a respectable hotel since she would arrive unannounced, unattached and with a bruised face from the latest abuse by Marcus. Ultimately, she told the driver to take her to Bleeding Heart Square.

Upon her arrival at the seedy boardinghouse, Bleeding Heart Square, Lydia asks to see Captain Ingleby-Lewis, her father whom she has not seen since very early childhood. Although Lydia plans to stay with her father in his flat, the captain is discouraging this plan. He is an alcoholic, down on his luck, but he agrees to let Lydia stay since she did bring some money and jewelry that can be sold.

Numerous other characters make their appearance, among them Joseph Serridge, landlord of Bleeding Heart Square and recipient of parcels containing rotting hearts, complete with maggots, and Rory Wentwood, an unemployed journalist who was engaged to Fenella Kensley, Philippa’s niece, but is now a private investigator. Other Bleeding Heart Square residents add interest and engage the reader.

As the novel progresses, the diary excerpts reveal a relationship between Philippa and Joseph and also of the deterioration of that relationship. This is the crux of the mystery. Rory with assistance from Lydia is investigating the disappearance of Philippa. Marcus appears back on the scene, wanting Lydia back and the inclusion of the Fascist Party, of which Marcus is a member, adds to the excitement. There is plenty of intrigue and plot twists to satisfy my love of an intricately woven historical mystery with complex characters.

This is the first time I’ve read an Andrew Taylor mystery but I am well into another one and I can say without reservation, Andrew Taylor is fast becoming one of my all time favorite authors.

Reviewed by Jean Tribull Harris, November 2010.

Book Review: Who Killed the Curate? by Joan Coggin

Who Killed the Curate?
Joan Coggin
The Rue Morgue Press, 2001
ISBN 0915230445
Trade Paperback

It’s Christmas 1937 and the small English village of Glanville is gearing up for the festivities. Central to the villages activities is Lady Lupin, the lovely scatterbrained wife of Andrew, vicar of St. Marks Parish. Lady Lupin, having come from a world of wealth and entitlement, is eager to fit in as the vicar’s wife but is totally bewildered by the Girl Guides, the Mothers’ Union, and all the other parish groups the ladies of the parish expect her to lead. Andrew, meanwhile, quietly smiles and assures Lady Lupin (known as Loops to her friends) she’s doing quite well, occasionally giving her a little nudge in the right direction.

When Andrew’s curate, Charles, is found dead, it quickly becomes apparent that he was poisoned. Who could have done such a thing and why? Was it in the fish served at Loops’ table the night before? Why was Charles wandering around in her house? Could his obsession with foreign missions have anything to do with his death? Surely, Loops thinks, the guilty party couldn’t be Diana, author of children’s stories and mysteries, even though her recent activities have been rather suspicious. Loops enlists her houseguests to help her solve the murder. Perhaps the biggest problem is that all the potential suspects seem so likable, much more so than the victim. Loops announces that she’ll help the murderer escape if he or she will only confess to the dastardly deed.

Lady Lupin is a complete delight, one of the best cozy characters I’ve ever encountered. Watching her navigate the pitfalls of being the vicar’s wife in a small village is hilarious, especially since she’s usually oblivious to what’s really going on. Like many such addlepated people, though, there is much more to Loops than meets the eye.

First published in 1944, this is the first of a series of four mysteries featuring Lady Lupin. I read the remaining three books with just as much enjoyment and only wish that Joan Coggin had written many more.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, 2001.  Slightly revised 2010.
Review first published on murderexpress.net in 2001.