Book Review: The Rat Catchers’ Olympics by Colin Cotterill

The Rat Catchers’ Olympics
A Dr. Siri Paiboun Mystery #12
Colin Cotterill

Soho Crime, August 2017
ISBN 978-1-61695-825-1
Hardcover

First of all, I’ve got to admit I’m horribly musophobic, so the mere title of the book put me off. Then there is the cover. A lurid graphic of a black rat caught in a red fist. What the title had going for it was the word “Olympics” considering the opening ceremony to the winter Olympics in South Korea was, as I write this, only a couple days ago.

Okay, so the Olympics referred to in the book are the Moscow Summer Olympics of 1980, but . . .

Anyway, I delved into the book whose cover led me not to expect much. Boy, was I ever wrong. Only a few pages in I was already in love with the characters, a group of very political Laotians. Old folks, for the most part, including the ex-national coroner of Laos, Dr. Siri Paiboun and his wife Madame Daeng. What a couple, both still filled with youthful exuberance.

In a nutshell, Siri has been invited to head up the Laotian contingent of athletics invited to the 1980 Olympic games in Moscow, Russia, and, in between spurring on some national pride, investigate a nebulous plot to blow someone up. He, nor any of the Laotians, whether the support group or the athletes, give a hoot that the only reason they’ve been invited to Russia is because so many of the competitive countries are boycotting the games. None of them expect to win anything. Just participating is honor enough.

In what could’ve turned into either slapstick humor–the story is written with spot-on timing for the many humorous parts–or centered on the sad history of Laos, with its poverty and political upheaval, the plot is a perfect blend of both. Each is treated with respect for the diverse characters, every single one who is capable of surprising you.

A murder mystery? Well, yes, that’s in the plot, too, but sort of faded into the background on the strength of Cotterill’s characters. As for the rat catchers in the title? They do play their parts and amusing as it is, I’m still musophobic. Even a story this good isn’t going to change that.

Rat Catchers’ Olympics has been added to my Best Books read in 2018 list. I highly recommend it.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, February 2018.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder, Four Furlongs and Hometown Homicide.

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Book Review: Lucky by Henry Chang

Lucky
A Detective Jack Yu Investigation #5
Henry Chang
Soho Crime, March 2017
ISBN: 978-1-6169-5784-1
Hardcover

The protagonist in this series, Jack Yu, is a Chinese detective.  The action centers in New York’s Chinatown.  The novels offer a brutal look into the poverty and violence, the gangsters and crime of the society.  The “Lucky” of the title is Jack’s boyhood friend, a Chinatown gang leader name Louie who was shot in a Chinatown OTB establishment and lay in a coma for 88 days, finally awakening on Easter Sunday.

Jack believes his blood brother friend has run out of luck, and tries to get him to enter the witness protection program.  But Lucky eschews Jack’s advice, and upon his recovery after leaving the hospital puts together a small crew in an attempt to regain his position as the crime boss of Chinatown.  He masterminds several daring operations against other crime bosses’ gambling dens or massage parlors, stealing large sums of money.  It is a race with one of two results.

Meanwhile Jack is called upon to perform his duties as a New York City cop, giving the author the means to describe the culture and people of Chinatown (and the satellite areas in Queens) , portraying the streets, buildings and environment as only a native can.  Henry Chang writes simple, hard prose, tightly plotted.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2017.

Book Review: The Ville Rat by Martin Limon

the-ville-ratThe Ville Rat
A Sergeants Sueno and Bascom Mystery #10
Martin Limon
Soho Crime, June 2016
ISBN: 978-1-61695-391-1
Trade Paperback

When the body of a beautiful Korean woman washes up on the shore of a frozen river, it sets off an investigation that carries Ernie Vascom and George Sueno, two irreverent 8th Army CID agents, into areas far afield from just a murder inquiry.  The event takes place during 1974 in South Korea, not far from the DMZ.  Not only do they have to fight higher-ups in the chain of command, but must determine the motive for the killing.

Despite the fact that Pres. Harry S Truman “desegregated” the armed forces years before, the novel graphically portrays how black and white soldiers maintained their separate ways when off duty, convening in all Black or all-White bars for recreation. And in the midst of this enters the Ville Rat, the so-called nickname of a former GI who caters to the Black bars by supplying Colt 45 favored by the Blacks because of its higher alcohol content.  The Ville Rat holds a key clue to the investigation and Ernie and George desperately try to find the illusive person to solve the case.

As a police procedural, the novel is juxtaposed between a detailed investigation and the seamier side of Army politics and Korean night life.  The Ville Rat is the 10th novel in the series, each reflecting the author’s deep knowledge of the Korean people and culture, much less of the army and its officers.  This newest entry is no exception, and is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2016.

Book Review: Fields Where They Lay by Timothy Hallinan

fields-where-they-layFields Where They Lay
A Junior Bender Mystery #6
Timothy Hallinan
Soho Crime, October 2016
ISBN: 978-1-6169-5746-9
Hardcover

Junior Bender, burglar extraordinaire and sometime detective to the underworld, serves as the narrator of this unusual Christmas tale.  He is roped in to investigate, on behalf of a Russian mobster and owner of a dying shopping mall in Los Angeles, why there has been a spiking increase in shoplifting in recent months a few days before Christmas Day.  Junior, who hates the Xmas atmosphere, is immersed in the Holiday cheer of shopping, Santas, and piped-in popular songs, much to his chagrin.

While undertaking his task, he becomes involved in a few side ventures, including looking into the death of one of the shopkeepers, witnessing the death of another, and discovering the real problems at the mall, typical of similar establishments fading away all over the nation as shoppers turn to other outlets.  Another involves his burgeoning friendship with one of the two Santas on the premises, helping him to recover a favorite item apparently stolen from his home.  One side benefit, however:  he is able to get his own holiday shopping done despite his procrastination.

This novel probably is the most cerebral in the six-book Junior Bender series, with long passages on the business of shopping malls, their dying days, observations on the Holidays, people in general, and his own life and loves.  In fact, he faces a crisis with his own lover and her reticence to divulge anything of her past.  On the whole, Junior solves a unique problem in his typical fashion, with ingenuity.

This is an excellent series, and one that continues to be recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2016.

Book Reviews: Innocence by Heda Margolius Kovaly and Trap by Robert K. Tanenbaum

innocenceInnocence Or, Murder on Steep Street
Heda Margolius Kovaly
Translated from the Czech by Alex Zucker
Soho Crime, March 2016
ISBN 978-1-6169-5645-5
Trade Paperback

This murder mystery was written to disguise a political tract describing the author’s life in Communist Czechoslovakia during which her husband, an ardent party member and an assistant minister of trade, was falsely arrested, jailed and murdered.  Both had survived Nazi concentration camps.  The form the book takes was to somehow evade the censors and it surreptitiously tells his story as part of the plot, describing one of the characters.

Essentially, the plot revolves around the murder of a detective on a street on which a movie theater is located.  There are seven women who serve as ushers, each with a secret life, complicating the investigation into the death.  The stories of their lives unfold, together with the secrets they share with each other.

The promotional material recounts the author’s fame as a translator, and especially her love of Raymond Chandler.  It is doubtful that this work measures up to his standard of writing, and has to be judged on its own merits.  On that level, the reader has to cope with various obfuscations and, of course, the obscure Czech names and places which divert attention.  The conclusion is somewhat disappointing and really is somewhat ambiguous, whether by design or inadvertence.

The author really is known for her memoir, Under A Cruel Star, in which she describes her time in Auschwitz and the early years of Communism in her native land.  For its historical importance, the present novel deserves to be read.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, July 2016

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trapTrap
A Butch Karp – Marlene Ciampi Thriller #27
Robert K. Tanenbaum
Pocket Books, April 2016
ISBN 978-1-4767-9318-4
Mass Market Paperback

The customary courtroom drama in the Butch Karp series takes up about half of this novel, but it isn’t as dramatic as most of the prior episodes.  Although the legal description is proficient, it is highly technical in nature and less dramatic than many of the previous legal battles, which are always a highlight of a Robert K. Tanenbaum story.  This tale is a mixture of a Karp family saga, hate crimes, deranged arsonist and bomber, religious beliefs combined with Nazi sympathizers and events during the Holocaust and World War II, and the conflict between the public school system, the teachers union as led by corrupt officers and charter schools.  How’s that for a mouthful?

What leads up to the courtroom scene are a series of events and even a murder or two.  The Teacher’s Federation president is attempting to head off a bill in Albany which would result in an audit that would expose him and his cohorts for stealing funds from the union’s coffers.  The author certainly knows better than this premise.  Certainly unions are subject to regular audits.  But for the plot to work, this fact has to be ignored.

So the battle between proponents of the charter school legislation, who want a mandatory audit of the Teacher’s Federation, and the corrupt union and public officials, ultimately sets the stage for the dramatic trial.  As side issues, we have a scraggly group of Nazi sympathizers who conveniently serves as a red herring in the lead-up to murder charges, and Karp’s twin sons’ wishy-washy approach to their religious beliefs and late (by several years) Bar Mitzvah.

All in all, however, this was an enjoyable read, and is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2016.

Book Review: I Shot the Buddha by Colin Cotterill—and a Giveaway!

i-shot-the-buddhaI Shot the Buddha
A Dr. Siri Paiboun Mystery Set in Laos #11
Colin Cotterill
Soho Crime, August 2016
ISBN 978-1-61695-722-3
Hardcover

It’s 1979 in Laos. Retired coroner Siri Paiboun and his wife, Madame Daeng, have settled into a life running her noodle shop and living in the apartment above. Having no skill at making noodles, Siri is happy to involve himself in problems of the local citizens. They also have a small house that they’ve opened to an assortment of people in need of shelter and advice. One of these residents is Noo, a Buddhist monk, who bicycles off one day and doesn’t return. The only clue to his disappearance is a note in the refrigerator—a plea to help a fellow monk escape across the Mekhong River to Thailand.

It’s the fifth year of socialist rule in Laos. The farmers and villagers trust in the spirits of animism to help with their lives—they can’t count on the communist officials. So when three women are murdered in three different locations—one by sledgehammer, one by knife, and one by poison—the frightened peasants turn to Siri and his wife to investigate.

Siri and his wife embrace the spirits—Siri vanishes from time to time, and his wife has grown a tail, but perhaps they are growing old and these are flights of their imaginations. Siri soon runs afoul of Lao secret service officers and famous spiritualists.

Cotterill has a delightful way of playing with language, and breathing life into even minor characters. One he described in this way: “He walked as if he expected a wild boar to run between his legs.” This is the eleventh book in the series—readers who enjoy an exotic setting with entertaining characters and clever plotting will want to meet Siri Paibourn and Madame Daeng.

Reviewed by Susan Belsky, November 2016.

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The last giveaway of 2016!

To enter the drawing for a gently
used advance reading copy of
I Shot the Buddha by
Colin Cotterill,
just leave a comment below. The winning

name will be drawn on Saturday night,
December 31st. This drawing
is open
to residents of the US and Canada.

Book Review: The Singer from Memphis by Gary Corby

the-singer-from-memphisThe Singer From Memphis
An Athenian Mystery #6
Gary Corby
Soho Crime, May 2016
ISBN:978-1-61695-668-4
Hardcover

Nicolaos is an Athenian private investigator/spy who reports to Pericles. Yes, that Pericles. When Nico is approached by the historian/author Herodotus–yes, that Herodotus–who wants to hire him as a guide in Egypt as he does book research, Pericles instructs him to take the job. All sorts of complications occur. Assassins wish Nico dead. Or are they after Nico’s wife, Diotima? Or any other of the many blend of historical and fictional characters in this book? Apparently everyone is after the crook and flail, symbols of the Egyptian ruling pharohs, and the search is on for the last of the line. Wars have been fought for less, and there’s a power struggle going on now between Egypt and Persia.

The action takes place in 456 B.C., and while some of the action really happened to these characters, the author has chosen to write the story in a comedic manner. I must say he’s succeeded. History and fiction blends beautifully. The characters are well and colorfully depicted, the setting used seem very real, the dialogue is snappy and often funny. Corby does let us know the cross-bow had not yet been invented, although it figures in this story. I guess it needed to start somewhere, at some time.

The novel is enjoyable and well-worth a reader’s time. The Singer From Memphis is, I believe, the sixth entry in this series, which shows no signs of slowing down.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, July 2016.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder and Four Furlongs.