Book Review: Pen 33 by Anders Roslund and Borge Hellstrom

Pen 33
An Ewart Grens Thriller #1
Anders Roslund & Borge Hellstrom
Translated from the Swedish by Elizabeth Clark Wessel
Quercus, December 2017
ISBN: 978-1-6814-4013-2
Hardcover

The authors, a crime reporter and an ex-convict, concentrate their efforts on grim, noir fiction.  And Pen 33 does not stray from the mold.  Part of the Detective Superintendent Ewert Grens series, the theme of the novel is pedophilia.  It centers on Bernt Lund, who escapes from prison while serving time for the brutal rape and murder of two very young girls, and repeats the crime on the six-year-old daughter of Fredrik Steffansson while free.

What results from this act is questioned by the authors.  To begin with, the victim’s father shoots Lund. The prosecutor pleads for a life sentence for murder; the defense attorney pleads self-defense on the theory that it was not an act of revenge but prevented Lund from committing similar acts on other children (he was already staking out other girls at day care centers).  Hero or murderer?  That is a basic question asked by the authors, who go on to demonstrate other consequences when Steffansson is initially acquitted.

Unlike the United States, where double jeopardy would apply (this anomaly goes unexplained), the prosecution appeals the verdict and Steffansson is sentenced to ten years and is incarcerated in the very prison from which Lund escaped.  The events and consequences resulting from Steffansson’s shooting affect the entire country, resulting in riots, and raises basic questions regarding duty, the law, and what people are capable of. What is questionable is how the authors choose to end the book. While certainly dramatic, one could envision other solutions. Nonetheless, the novel is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, December 2017.

Book Reviews: The Irregular by H.B. Lyle and Earthly Remains by Donna Leon

The Irregular
A Different Class of Spy #1
H.B. Lyle
Quercus, November 2017
ISBN: 978-1-6814-4026-2
Hardcover

It’s not easy for an author to come up with an original idea for a novel, much less a plot involving Sherlock Holmes.  But that is just what H.B. Lyle has done, albeit the great detective here only playing a minor cameo role, offstage, as it was.  Instead, he has grasped an historical development, the forerunners of Britain’s MI5 and MI6 in 1909 and using the “best” of the Baker Street Irregulars,Wiggins, as a protagonist.  Not only Holmes, but no less a personage than Winston Churchill plays a minor role in the plot.

The story revolves around Vernon Kell, who apparently headed up the original efforts to establish a counter-intelligence operation in Great Britain, hindered by his inability to find good agents until his friend, Holmes, suggested Higgins.  A substantial portion of the novel recounts Higgins’ exploits and a good deal of background on how the Baker Street Irregulars came to be.  And, of course, we learn a great deal about the conspiracies pre-dating World War I and espionage efforts by Germany and others not only to obtain secrets but also to sow discontent and confusion in London.

The novel is exciting, interesting and fast-moving.  It is an historical mystery, the beginning of what is promised to be a new series, and a welcome one. The author captures the atmosphere of 1909 London with sharp observations and dialogue.  We look forward to its sequel with great anticipation.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2017.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Earthly Remains
A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery #26
Donna Leon
Atlantic Monthly Press, April 2017
ISBN: 978-0-8021-2647-4
Hardcover

Commissario Guido Brunetti, in the midst of interrogating a suspect, suddenly collapses (intentionally, to prevent a colleague from committing a foolish act) by faking a heart attack. He is taken to the hospital, where no evidence of an attack is found, but just high blood pressure.  While waiting for the results of tests, he concludes that he no longer enjoys his job, and after discussing it with his wife, and on the advice of the attending doctor, decides to go away from it all alone.

His wife sets him up with a villa owned by a relative on an island in the lagoon, where he intends to rest, row and read.  He rows with the caretaker, Davide Casati, whom he befriends.  Incidentally, Casati and Brunetti’s father won regatta years before.  All goes well until Casati is found drowned following a violent storm.

Brunetti then undertakes to investigate the circumstances of Casati’s death to determine whether it was an accident or suicide, despite his self-imposed sabbatical.  Along the way, the Commissario learns a lot about his friend, nature, and our failure to protect the environment, as well as the result of one’s actions during our lives.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, August 2017.

Book Review: Cast Iron by Peter May

Cast Iron
An Enzo Macleod Investigation #6
Peter May
Quercus, October 2017
ISBN: 978-1-6814-4161-0
Hardcover

This is the sixth and final book in the Enzo Files series, and it is a worthy addition indeed.

From the publisher:  In 1989, a killer dumped the body of twenty-year-old Lucie Martin into a picturesque lake in the west of France.  Fourteen years later, during a summer heat wave, a drought exposed her remains – – bleached bones amid the scorching mud and slime.  No one was ever convicted of her murder.  But now, forensic expert Enzo Macleod is reviewing this stone-cold case – – the toughest of the seven he has been challenged to solve.  But when Enzo finds a flaw in the original evidence surrounding Lucie’s murder, he opens a Pandora’s Box that not only raises old ghosts but also endangers his entire family.  The challenge was from a Parisian journalist, Roger Raffin, who told Enzo that his skills would be insufficient to solve these very cold cases, including that of his [Raffin’s] wife.   Candor makes me admit that all of the nearly interchangeable relationships in the novel at times confused this reader, what with the various characters’ relationships with each other, both parental and marital.

Time frames range from the time of Lucie’s murder in 1989 in the book’s Prologue to the discovery of the bones of the victim in the summer of 2003 on the 1st page of Chapter 1,  to the concluding chapter in the Spring of 2012, with p.o.v. initially being that of Enzo but soon nearly alternating with that of Sophie, Enzo’s daughter, and Bertrand, her lover.  The question of the identity of Lucie’s murderer, as well as that of Pierre Lambert, a significant character in the tale, is not resolved until very nearly the end of the novel, as well as “the enigma that is Regis Blanc,” thought initially to have killed many (all?) of the many victims enumerated here. Macleod explores the possibility that Lucie was murdered by a man she met while doing social work with recently released felons, on one of whom Enzo focuses: But Enzo has so much personal baggage to wrap up – – the vindictive ex-wife, the uncertain paternities, the infidelities, his new girlfriend – – enough to negatively influence his investigation.  The frequently [and wonderfully] poetic writing, combined with the suspense wrought by the author, makes this a highly recommended read.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, October 2017.

Book Reviews: Murder on the Champ de Mars by Cara Black and Season of Fear by Brian Freeman

Murder on the Champ de MarsMurder on the Champ de Mars
An Aimée Leduc Investigation #15
Cara Black
Soho Crime, March 2015
ISBN: 978-1-616-95286-0
Hardcover

Returning to work after a maternity leave, Aimée Leduc becomes too busy to really care for her six-month-old daughter.  To begin with, she undertakes a surveillance job, occupying her evenings.  Then she becomes involved in a personal investigation involving gypsies in the belief she can discover the identity of the murderer of her father 10 years before.  And to top it off, she has to fend off her former lover who, with his new wife, is attempting to wrest possession of her baby from her.

As in all the novels in the series, this one takes place in one area of Paris, the seventh arrondissnent, home to the Parisian elite, the Eiffel Tower and Les Invalides.  Such a setting gives the author an opportunity to give the reader a glimpse into the seats of power in the ministries and embassies, the homes and gardens of the upper crust as she pursues her quest to uncover the facts surrounding her father’s death.

One criticism:  The reader is swamped with too much in the way of couture, lipstick applications and other frilly descriptions which slow down the progress in what is a first-rate mystery.  Also, the surveillance seems to be an afterthought, just to prove that the Leduc Detective Agency actually exists, and is never really developed.  That notwithstanding, the novel is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2015.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Season of FearSeason of Fear
A Cab Bolton Thriller #2
Brian Freeman
Quercus, March 2015
ISBN: 978-1-62366-5407-8
Hardcover

In the present political climate, a novel that reflects the types of misinformation and downright lies which proliferate would have been welcome.  This novel promised an insight into the machinations of political operatives, parties and candidates, but instead turns out to be a murder mystery with a somewhat questionable conclusion.

The book brings back for the second time Cab Bolton, sometime private detective whose mother is a well-known Hollywood star, and friend of Diane Birch, candidate for governor with a secret or two to hide.  Ten years earlier, at a political rally, her husband (then a gubernatorial candidate) and two others were murdered.  And now, a decade later, history is about to repeat itself.  In between, a few more people are killed.  The only element of mystery:  Is it a right-wing conspiracy or not?

There are some indications of how politicians think and political parties operate, but really these are superficial.  The conclusion appeared artificial to this reader, and unlikely.  One other criticism: I found the writing at times is too flowery and heavy, slowing this reader down.  But over-all, the story progresses well and is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, September 2015.

Book Review: The Murder Farm by Andrea Maria Schenkel

The Murder FarmThe Murder Farm
Andrea Maria Schenkel
Translated by Anthea Bell
Quercus, June 2014
ISBN 978-1-62365-167-1
Hardcover

From the publisher—

The Murder Farm begins with a shock: a whole family has been murdered with a pickaxe. They were old Danner the farmer, an overbearing patriarch; his put-upon devoutly religious wife; and their daughter Barbara Spangler, whose husband Vincenz left her after fathering her daughter little Marianne. She also had a son, two-year-old Josef, the result of her affair with local farmer Georg Hauer after his wife’s death from cancer. Hauer himself claimed paternity. Also murdered was the Danners’ maidservant, Marie.
 
An unconventional detective story, The Murder Farm is an exciting blend of eyewitness account, third-person narrative, pious diatribes, and incomplete case file that will keep readers guessing. When we leave the narrator, not even he knows the truth, and only the reader is able to reach the shattering conclusion.

If someone were to ask me for a list of depressing books, I’d be hardpressed not to put The Murder Farm at the top of that list. Rarely have I come across a story in which I universally disliked every single character, no matter how insignificant, and this fictional recreation of an unsolved mass murder that actually occurred serves only to demonstrate how uncaring people can be, simply because they can’t be bothered to get involved.

The author won first place in the German Crime Prize for The Murder Farm and the Friedrich-Glauser Prize as well as garnered plenty of admiring reviews and I have to say I have conflicting feelings about it getting so much praise. I’m not actually sure why Ms. Schenkel chose to write about this particular crime or why she elected to change it’s occurrence to the mid-fifties instead of the 20’s when it really happened. Both periods are post-war but does the author find more significance in the aftermath of World War II than than that of World War I? It doesn’t seem so as the characters spend very little time or energy reflecting on the war. I also don’t know why an unsolved crime meant more to the author than one that had been neatly tied up. Was it because she wanted to highlight the villagers’ behavior rather than the crime itself?

Constantly changing POV and tense—3rd person singular present and 1st person singular past tense—keep the narrative on edge as does the reader’s growing sense that something is wrong, something beyond the bare facts of the horrific crime. This “something” is the crux of what makes this tale so depressing, the notion that absolutely no one who knew the victims cared, not one little iota, not even when they sensed in earlier times that a different sort of horrific crime was already happening. All those who noticed chose to do precisely nothing about it.

In today’s world, we’re not terribly surprised when people see or hear a crime and don’t even bother to call 911 so similar behavior in this story is certainly not unheard of. The real shocker, to me, is that an entire village could be so callous for so many years all because no one wanted to upset the applecart, so to speak. Perhaps that’s because they were just too emotionally worn out by the war?

Whatever the case may be, I won’t read this again because I’ve been depressed enough by one reading but The Murder Farm by Andrea Maria Schenkel will undoubtedly stick in my mind for a long, long while. Perhaps anyone with the slightest interest in the human psyche would do well to take a hard look at this crime and all its underpinnings.

 

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, June 2014.

Book Reviews Galore by Ted Feit

The House at Sea’s End
Elly Griffiths
Quercus, January 2011
ISBN: 978-1-84916-367-5
Hardcover

[It should perhaps be noted that this review is based on the UK and Canada edition; the US edition is now available in the US from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt]

As the book opens Kate, the baby born to Ruth Galloway, the forensic expert, as a result of a one-night stand with Detective Inspector Harry Nelson in the prior entry in the series, is now four months old and the mother is still juggling her maternal and professional duties, sometimes to much criticism from friends.  But the baby seems to survive.

In any event, her motherly demands don’t seem to prevent Ruth from getting involved with more forensic investigations and police investigations.  Especially when six skeletons are discovered on a beach and her examination indicates that they are probably from Germany, perhaps dating back to an invasion during the early days of World War II on a lonely Norfolk beach.  Indications are that each was shot in the back of the head.  The question arises:  Did the various persons in the Home Guard play any role in their deaths?

As in the previous two novels featuring Ruth and D.I. Nelson, they combine to discover the facts surrounding the mystery of past and present.  The prose is lean and the plot moves apace with agility.  The characters remain immensely human and intriguing, and the novel lives up to the standards of the predecessor novels.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, April 2011.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Troubled Man
Henning Mankell
Translated by Laurie Thompson
Alfred A. Knopf, April 2011
ISBN: 978-0-307-59349-8
Hardcover

Nothing is as it seems, and all good things come to an end.  And so, the time has come to bid adieu to Kurt Wallander.  But not before he undertakes a deeply introspective journey at the behest of his daughter, Linda, who has just made him a grandfather (although she and the baby’s father have not yet decided to marry).  It appears that her putative father-in-law, a retired naval commander, has disappeared, and she and her significant other, the man’s son, ask Wallander to try to find out what happened.  Is he the victim of foul play?

Wallander has vacation time available and undertakes to investigate, but not before the missing man’s wife is found dead, perhaps murdered. Wallander muddles along, picking up all kinds of extraneous information, misleading clues, and, perhaps just as important, discerning more about himself as he more frequently suffers from lapses of memory.

The author is well-known for his ability to address significant political themes in his novels.  And this last Wallander novel is no exception, delving deeply into the Cold War, and Sweden’s “neutrality” policy.  I found the novel somewhat slow reading and difficult, and wonder if it is the writing or the translation.  Nevertheless, it is a touching look at “the great detective,” and is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, June 2011.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Hanging Hill
Mo Hayder
Bantam Press, April 2011
ISBN: 978-0-593-06384-2
Hardcover, 428 pp., 12.99 BPS

[It should be noted that this book is presently available only in the UK/Canada and will be available in the US in February 2012 from Atlantic Monthly Press]

The author is known for writing thrillers, sometimes with horrific plots and graphic details.  This novel pales by comparison, with merely an offstage rape scene to occasion a police procedural of somewhat questionable means, and a side story about two sisters who have had virtually no contact for 20 years but are in a sense joined at the hip by the rape victim, and then that thread develops into an evolving family relationship.

The story is more about the various characters—the two sisters, their lovers, their own background and history—and how each is affected, rather than the crime and ensuing investigation which seems to be an afterthought to contribute to the main plotline.

Written with verve, the novel seems to drag along except for some more “exciting” portions.  Much of the descriptions of one sister’s divorce and subsequent life seem labored, and the ending was to this reader quite unsatisfactory.  In fact the title of the book might be a fit description for its conclusion:  It seems to just hang without any wrapping up.  That notwithstanding, the novel still bears reading, and is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, August 2011.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Bad Boy
Peter Robinson
Harper Paperbacks, November 2011
ISBN: 978-0-0613-6296-5
Mass Market Paperback

Murphy’s Law seems to apply to the premise behind this novel.  After a well-earned vacation touring the U.S. Southwest and the wonders of LA and San Francisco, DI Banks finds, upon his return to Eastvale, that an old friend has died after police tasered him, Banks’ daughter is missing, and everything is in an uncontrolled mess.

It starts when a former neighbor of Banks discovers a gun which had been hidden by her daughter in her bedroom when visiting her parents.  The mother visits the police station hoping to discuss the situation with Banks who, unfortunately, is still away.  When the police raid the house, the woman’s husband dies of a heart attack after the aforementioned taser incident; Banks’ daughter, Tracy, infatuated with the man who owned the gun (the “bad boy” of the title) warns him of the police inquiries and hides him in her father’s cottage.  And from that point on, as Banks returns, everything goes downhill.

The chase begins with Tracy’s status changing from willing lover to hostage, and Banks and the rest of the police force struggling with the lack of clues as to where the fugitive and his captive are.  As usual, Banks doesn’t always play by the rules.  But then, neither does the bad boy.  Another well-written and off-beat story in the series, and highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, October 2011.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Raylan
Elmore Leonard
William Morrow, February 2012
ISBN: 978-0-06-211946-9
Hardcover

Resurrecting Raylan Givens, the U.S. Marshall from Kentucky given to wearing a Stetson cowboy hat and shooting instead of apprehending, Elmore Leonard once again uses his unusual talent for writing droll dialogue and creating amusing and unusual characters to entertain the reader.  This time, he begins in Harlan County, where marijuana is king instead of coal (100 pounds of weed can fetch $300,000) which apparently doesn’t satisfy two nincompoop sons of the dope-grower who turn their attention to reaping and selling body parts.

Then the author goes on to tell us about another cast of characters, with the slyness only he can muster.  It’s a world only people created by Leonard inhabit, and they talk as only he can make them speak.  Read it and laugh.  Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, December 2011.