Book Reviews: The Dark Clouds Shining by David Downing and The Cutting Edge by Jeffery Deaver

The Dark Clouds Shining
Jack McColl Series #4
David Downing
Soho Crime, April 2018
ISBN: 978-1-61695-606-6
Hardcover

With this, the fourth Jack McColl spy story, David Downing concludes the series.  It takes place just as the civil war in Soviet Russia is ending and developments are dire with respect to the original high hopes that accompanied the Revolution, and the nation suffers from all kinds of shortages, especially food for a starving populace.  Jack is not faring any better, languishing in jail for assaulting a Bobby, when his Secret Service boss visits him and presents Jack with a way to get out if he accepts an unofficial assignment.  Jack is disillusioned by the slaughter of so many in the Great War and can’t abide spying for his country any more, but accepts the assignment to get out of jail.  So he goes to Russia to learn what other British spies are planning at the behest of MI5.  And unknown to him, he will again meet with the love of his life, Caitlin, who is now married to one of the men involved in the MI5 scheme which Jack was sent to investigate and possibly foil.

The author’s ability to recreate the environment of the historical period, along with descriptions of the economic and political atmosphere, is outstanding, as is the recounting of the action resulting from the hunt by both Jack and the Cheka, the Russian secret service and forerunner of the GPU, for the plotters.  Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, April 2018.

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The Cutting Edge
A Lincoln Rhyme Novel #14
Jeffery Deaver
Grand Central Publishing, April 2018
ISBN: 978-1-4555-3641-2
Hardcover

What starts off as a murder mystery turns into a multi-faceted conspiracy in the latest Lincoln Rhyme novel.  It begins with the murder of a prominent diamond cutter in the heart of New York’s jewelry district on 47th Street, although the murderer apparently left behind a small fortune in gems, so the motive remains obscure.  A young apprentice walks in during the murder and is shot at but is saved when the bullet hits a bag filled with rocks instead.

Subsequent murders take place, ostensibly by a psycho who is out to save diamonds from being defaced as engagement rings and who trails young couples in the act of making purchases and killing them.  Meanwhile Rhyme and Amelia Sachs are analyzing the few clues available and seeking to locate the apprentice, who is hiding from view.  Then a series of explosions take place, believed to be earthquakes in the heart of Brooklyn.

And as a sidelight, Rhyme agrees for the first time to assist a defendant, a murderous Mexican drug lord on trial in Federal court for illegal entry and murder, by reviewing the evidence in the hope of establishing an error.  This gives the author another chance to fool the reader with another twist.

Of course, the whole plot is premised on Mr. Deaver’s ability to surprise readers by leading them down a path only to divert them finally by revealing something else in the end.  The series is long- standing and always diverting, especially when forensics are analyzed and explained.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, May 2018.

Book Review: The Wolf Princess by Cathryn Constable

The Wolf PrincessThe Wolf Princess
Cathryn Constable
Chicken House, October 2013
ISBN 978-0-545-52839-9
Hardcover

Sophie will steal your heart and will, forevermore, own a tiny piece of it. You’ll be fine with that. Think Annie; although Miss Sophie is as far from the spunky, spiral-curled red-head as a lonely, little phantom Russian girl, could be.

Under the perpetually gray skies of London, tucked into her tiny room with Delphine and Marianne, wrapped in her raggedy sweater, life was just fine for Sophie. With the Class Trip quickly approaching, the inevitability of being ripped from her “home” and ushered to her guardian’s, banished to silently haunt the shadows of the empty rooms, had Sophie slipping back to the dreams that both saved, and shattered her.

With no memory of her mother, only vague, distant memories of her cherished father, surrounded by snow, rushing her along to something….or maybe away from someone…..that part wouldn’t come; Sophie subsisted on dreams, fantasies woven around this tiny fragment of recollection. Possessing and nurturing such a vivid imagination, Sophie had little trouble accepting the bizarre Class Trip turn of events that would take her, along with both roommates, to Russia!

Admittedly less than eager, Delphine and Marianne weren’t so accepting. Quickly noticing a strange, yet familiar, woman watching them, the girls began to feel a bit nervous, particularly as their class mates seemed to be scattering away in tight cheerful groups. Those butterflies paled in comparison to later being unceremoniously, and quite literally, dumped into a snow-bank, with the pitch blackness of the night pressing down.

From here to a grand, albeit derelict, palace with a beautiful, intense and often confused princess, was perfectly acceptable to Sophie, Delphine could be placated by the grandeur of the still sparkling chandeliers and vastness of the rooms, while dependable Marianne felt fine so long as her pals felt fine.

The sense of foreboding, howling wolves, deliberate solitude and mounting, unanswered questions was soon to come. Even with hackles justly raised, the trio could never have prepared themselves for an adventure with jewel thieves, stolen identities, unfathomable choices made in seconds, many years ago, a family living underground to care for a mythical pack of wolves, or the consequences and rewards ingeniously, resourcefully hidden.

Ms. Constable has crafted an enchanting tale, filled with complicated, compassionate characters, both human and animal, all looking to solve the same mystery, for vastly different reasons. In spite of the icy princess, blustery snow and biting cold, this book will melt your heart.

Reviewed by jv poore, June 2014.

Book Reviews: The Preacher by Camilla Lackberg, The Burning Lake by Brent Ghelfi, Buried Prey by John Sandford, and A Drop of the Hard Stuff by Lawrence Block

The Preacher
Camilla Lackberg
Translated by Steven T. Murray
Pegasus Books, May 2011
ISBN: 978-1-60598-173-4
Hardcover

This Swedish author has written seven novels, of which this is the second to be published in the United States.  The first, The Ice Princess, was widely accepted as on a par with the best of the recent Scandinavian noir novels.  As with that debut book, this novel also is set in the small fishing village of  Fjallbacka and is a police procedural that seems to drag until the miracle of science, rather than good old-fashioned footwork, brings it to a conclusion.

The plot is relatively simple:  A body is discovered, with the remains of two skeletons over 24 years old underneath.  It’s up to the local police, led by detective Patrik Hedstrom, to conduct the investigation.  Customarily, they usually look into bicycle thefts. Then two more women go missing, increasing the pressure.  Attention centers on one family, the offspring of a man known to all as the Preacher:  misfits, religious fanatics and criminals.

The length of the novel seems overly long, and probably could have used some judicious editing.  And the translation does not seem to be up to the level of The Ice Princess.  Nevertheless, the story is clever, and the plot twists, which in a sense were somewhat obvious, keep the reader moving ahead.  Despite these misgivings, the book is an enjoyable read, and one hopes for US editions of the author’s other five novels. Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, September 2011.

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The Burning Lake
Brent Ghelfi
Poisoned Pen Press, May 2011
ISBN: 978-1-59058-925-0
Hardcover

Unlike the previous three novels in the Volk series, this story is a little different.  It brings Volk into a sort of international plot involving the United States, France and Russia seeking to circumvent and hide the errors and dangers in atomic plants and spent fuel.  What brings Russian agent Alexei Volkovoy into the picture is the murder of a sometime girlfriend, a talented and courageous journalist, known professionally as Kato, who had uncovered two stories: one involving a wide area of radioactive contamination in Russia and an attempt to ship spent fuel from America to that location.

When Volk learns of Kato’s death, he remembers a notebook she had given him for safekeeping.  Upon reading her notes, Volk embarks on a trail to finish her work, and along the way, avenge her death by finding and killing her murderers.  The journey takes him to the radioactive village of Merlino and the burning lake, the dumping ground of spent fuel from a nearby facility, and then to Las Vegas and Mexico.

The author’s ability to capture contemporary Russia and its politicians, such as Putin, is impressive, as is his ability to cram into few pages the depths and insights of the subject of the dangers of atomic waste.  Written with tight prose, this fourth Volk novel is, perhaps, the most interesting and satisfying of the series, and is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, September 2011.


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Buried Prey
John Sanford
Putnam, May 2011
ISBN: 978-0-399-15738-7
Hardcover

Discovery of the bodies of two young girls, murdered 25 years earlier, sets the stage for a look at the popular protagonist, Lucas Davenport, both as a rookie patrolman and later as the seasoned investigator of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension a quarter of a century later. Soon after joining the Minneapolis police department, Lucas worked with the Intelligence Division on a couple of murder investigations, especially the case of the two young Jones Girls.

He became so involved in the work that he solved one of them, and came close to discovering the identity of the culprit in the girls’ slaying.  The facts continued to haunt him and 25 years later, when the bodies are found during the excavation at a construction site, he pursues finding the killer with an obsession, using all his training and intelligence (and a lot of luck) in the chase.

The depth of the plot and taut writing give the reader incentive to keep turning pages.  The dialogue is sharp and the pace well-measured. Character development is extremely effective.  Another welcome addition to the series, and recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, September 2011.

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A Drop of the Hard Stuff
Lawrence Block
Mulholland Books, May 2011
ISBN: 978-0-316-12733-2
Hardcover

The Alcoholics Anonymous program is designed to provide sustenance and guidance to those seeking to remain sober.  Its 12-Step program is meant to provide them with a moral roadmap to atone for past abuse, mistakes and sins.  In this early-days Matthew Scudder novel, it instead leads to a series of murders.

An alcoholic himself, Matthews enters AA in an effort to stay away from alcohol, which had basically ruined his life.  Soon he meets Jack Ellery, another AA member with whom he grew up in The Bronx.  While Matthew became a cop, Jack went the other way, living a life of crime. Now he is trying to take the seventh and eighth steps of the Program by making amends.  The effort gets him murdered, shot in the head and mouth, presumably by someone who is afraid Jack’s endeavors would expose the killer for an act done in the past.  Jack’s sponsor retains Matthew to look into some of the people Jack went to in his attempts to make amends, if only to eliminate the innocent.

The novel is a look into not only a murder investigation, but other things as well: Matthew’s development as a sober person; love; loss; nostalgia; and most importantly, human relationships.  Written with a fine eye for dialog and penetrating insight into the characters, the book is an excellent example of why the Matthew Scudder series is so highly regarded, and it is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, September 2011.

Book Review: The Burning Lake by Brent Ghelfi

The Burning Lake
Brent Ghelfi
Poisoned Pen Press, May 2011
ISBN No. 9781590589274
Trade Paperback (also available in Hardcover)

When Alexei Volkovoy, a Russian agent, learns of the death of Katarina Mironova, he is   horrified.  Katarina was a prominent journalist known as Kato and Volk has close ties to Kato.  The two had an intense personal relationship that they had managed to keep very private.  Kato had trusted Volk with information that she needed to pass on.  Volk immediately begins to plan how to avenge her death.

Volk manages to get his patron, The General, to give him an assignment that will allow him to move freely and conduct his own investigation into Kato’s death.  Kato was shot on the banks of Russia’s Techa River near the radioactive village of Metlino.  Kato had made friends in the area and as Volk makes inquiries, he is shocked at the condition of the people living in the area. Volk is convinced that Kato was killed in order to cover up a story.

Volk’s determination to find Kato’s killers and reveal the story she wanted to tell takes him from Russia to the United States where in the company of Grayson Stone he begins to uncover secrets that puts his life at risk and ends his personal relationship with Valya, his long-time lover.

The Burning Lake is a novel of suspense and intrigue and is very fast moving.  The book also gives some insight into the horrors of living in radioactive areas.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, May 2011.

Feit Book Reviews X 3

Queen of the Night
J.A. Jance
William Morrow & Company, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-06-123924-3
Hardcover

With a bow [by dedicating the book] to the late Tony Hillerman, who was a master at the genre of this novel (and the predecessors in the saga of the Walker family), J.A. Jance has written a murder mystery surrounded by the further development in the family’s history peppered with lots of Indian lore.

The eponymous Queen is a once-a-year blossoming cactus whose legendary beginnings, like many of the tales in the novel, are based on the culture and history of the Tohono O’odhap people of southern Arizona.  It plays a minor, but important, role in the story as the site of the contemporary murder of four people.  Meanwhile, former homicide
detective Brandon Walker inherits a 50-year-old open case from his Last Chance cold case mentor, one in which a popular coed was stabbed to death in San Diego while on a school break.

The broad sweep of the Walker saga provides interesting and deep personal observations about the characters and what motivates them.  The plot lines in the novel are fairly complex, but move forward in a logical pattern.  As usual, the writing is uncomplicated with beautiful descriptions of the Arizona terrain, and especially of the night-blooming cereus (the Queen of the Night) particularly appealing.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, October 2010.

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The Last Lie
Stephen White
Dutton, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-525-95177-3
Hardcover

In a follow-up to the excellent The Siege, author Stephen White not only brings back detective Sam Purdy [introduced in that standalone], but also Alan Gregory, psychiatrist and clinical psychologist and long-standing series protagonist, and his wife, DDA Lauren.

From a rather curious opening dealing with his ‘supervisory’ duties involving sessions with younger clinicians, the scene is juxtaposed with that of a party [or, as Alan will later frequently refer to it, a “damn housewarming”] at the home of Alan and Lauren’s new neighbors in the Spanish Hills section, their “quiet corner of Colorado paradise.”  The fact that new people have moved into the neighboring property is fraught with emotional landmines for the Gregory family, as the former owners were close friends, husband and wife having each been killed in separate, horrific incidents [each the subject of prior novels].

One might think of Alan Gregory as, among other things, a kind of male Jessica Fletcher, whose friends and neighbors frequently die a tragic death.  This time, however, it is not a death, but a possible rape, that occurs at his new neighbors’ house.  I say ‘possible’ because the victim isn’t sure what happened to her, only that she’d been the victim of . . . something.  The book starts off more slowly than I recall Mr. White’s novels usually do; unsurprisingly, the payoff is
worth the relatively slow build-up.

I particularly liked the descriptions of area natives:  “Colorado is home, almost exclusively, to weather optimists . . . some people wear their Boulder-ness so visibly that it is as obvious as a brightly colored outer garment.”  Alan’s personal life is again a major story line, i.e., marital issues that are being “worked through;” Lauren’s ever-worsening MS; their daughter Gracie, approaching adolescence; and Jonas, the son of their murdered neighbors, who Lauren and Alan are now raising.  Conflict-of-interest questions abound.  The usual quotient of suspense that Mr. White’s readers expect is present in ample measure.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, October 2010.

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Moscow Sting
Alex Dryden
Harper Ecco, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-06-196684-2
Hardcover

There is a lot to like about this book, and much to dislike.  To begin with, it is an interesting and diverting plot, reminiscent of all the Cold War novels of the past, albeit set in present-day circumstances.  However, the characters seem wooden, caricatures filling in the blanks.  Moscow Sting is the sequel to Red to Black, with Anna Resnikov, the KGB Colonel who defected to the West to marry the assassinated former MI6 agent Finn, again playing a major role.

It seems everyone wants to find Anna who was hidden in the south of France with her two-year-old son by the French security arm, and is discovered accidentally by an ex-CIA agent who tries to sell her whereabouts for half a million dollars to the Russians, English and Americans.  She and her son are “rescued” by a private United States intelligence company headed by a larger-than-life personage, who takes them to the U.S. to “debrief” her.  The reason she is so important is the relationship Finn had with Mikhail, an informant extremely close to Vladimir Putin, and who she presumably knows.

George Washington warned against “foreign entanglements” and Dwight Eisenhower against the military-industrial establishment.  However, this novel provides strong reason to distrust the intelligence community, whether public like the CIA or MI6, or private.  Each has its shortcomings, with the latter only driven by self-interest which can be as disastrous as, perhaps, the demonstrated ineptness of employees of the official agencies.  Written at a fast pace, the tale
more often than not is exciting and enlightening, despite its shortcomings.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, October 2010.

Book Review: Three Stations by Martin Cruz Smith

Three Stations
Martin Cruz Smith
Simon & Schuster, August 2010
ISBN: 978-0-7432-7674-0
Hardcover

Russia, and more specifically Moscow, is Arkady Renko’s home turf where, as a sometime senior investigator for important cases in the prosecutor’s office [when he isn’t suspended or dismissed], he somehow manages to solve cases nobody above him wants solved.  On the brink of quitting out of disgust at the beginning of the novel, Renko refuses to submit his letter of resignation out of spite in light of his hatred for his immediate superior.

There is a matter of a dead woman found in a trailer in the Three Stations train depot area, which Renko believes to be murder, while other officials dismiss it as a case of a prostitute who overdosed.  Meanwhile, another young prostitute runs away from her faraway brothel with her infant daughter, only to discover, as the train arrives at Three Stations, that the baby has been kidnapped from her arms as she slept, giving rise to two inter-related plots: the mother’s quest for the baby, and Renko’s search for a killer, maybe even one of a serial nature.

The emerging capitalist society gives the author an opportunity to reflect on the goings on in present-day Russia, while two other elements of the plot are told as twisted tales.  In contrast with the excesses of the billionaire oligarchs, the author portrays the squalid existence of hosts of kids who live and steal in and around the Three Stations.

This type of complex story is typical of the Renko series, beginning with Gorky Park and continuing with Stalin’s Ghost and other novels, casting light on the all-too-often harshness and ugliness of Russian life, official corruption, and hopelessness of the average person.  Smith writes with fervor and the eye of a cynic.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Theodore Feit, September 2010.