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.

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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.

Book Reviews: Badlands by C.J. Box and Murder on the Quai by Cara Black

badlandsBadlands
C.J. Box
Minotaur Books, , August 2016
ISBN 978-1-3125-4690-8
Mass MarketPaperback

When the art of fracking created an oil boom in North Dakota, it also gave rise to all sorts of complications from housing shortages to drug crime.  What was before a sleepy little town, now arose a bustling area where the sheriff’s staff grew like topsy to keep pace.  The latest addition is Cassie Dewell, hired as chief investigator from her old job in Montana where she became obsessed with the so-called Lizard King, a trucker who preyed and killed prostitutes plying truck stops from coast to coast.

In fact, that’s how we are introduced to Cassie, as she travels to North Carolina to participate in an interrogation of a person suspected of being the perpetrator just before she assumes her new duties.  When she arrives in Bakken County, ND, the sheriff confides in Cassie his suspicion that all is not well in the department, and asks her to undertake an investigation by herself without telling her why.  Meanwhile, a shipment of a large quantity of drugs is delivered by car, which is forced off the road by a rival gang, and a  duffel bag is flung wide of the accident scene and recovered by a 12-year-old newspaper delivery boy.

As the plot unfolds, Cassie is in the middle of it all, making assumptions, detecting, analyzing, and finally guessing that the boy is the key to it all, except for the possible corruption that might exist in the law enforcement personnel (which of course is related to the drug gangs).  The author demonstrates his reputation for writing novels with excellent characterizations and providing detailed environmental descriptions.  When the outside temperature falls to 20 and 30 degrees below freezing, the reader almost feels compelled to turn up the heat.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, October 2016.

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murder-on-the-quaiMurder on the Quai
An Aimée Leduc Investigation #16
Cara Black
Soho Crime, June 2016
ISBN 978-1-616-95624-0
Hardcover

After 15 Aimée Leduc mysteries, Cara Black turned her attention backward in time to the start of Aimee’s career, providing a back story to her beginnings as a detective, and introducing some of the basics which inhabit subsequent novels, namely how she met Rene Friant, her partner in Leduc Detective, and acquired Miles Davis, her bichon frise.  At the time, Aimée was a first-year medical student, hating every moment.

Then one day while Aimée was in her father’s office, as he was about to leave for Berlin to obtain the Stasi file on his renegade wife, who had  disappeared years before, a distant relation asks him to find a young woman who perhaps was the last person to see her father before he was murdered.  Instead, Aimée takes the case on herself as her father had refused to do so before he left.

From that point on, all the attributes of an Aimée Leduc mystery flow:  Aimée getting into all kinds of danger; all the flavor and smells of Paris streets and neighborhoods; the give-and-take between Aimée and her godfather and high police official Morbier; Aimée’s passion for discounted fashion clothes; among other common features of the series.  Since it was her first case, the progress is not as smooth as future investigations, as she stumbles and learns, but unquestionably the book is recommended as an introduction to her subsequent adventures.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, July 2016.

Book Reviews: Blue Madonna by James R. Benn and The Fixer by Joseph Finder

blue-madonnaBlue Madonna
A Billy Boyle World War II Mystery #11
James R. Benn
Soho Crime, September 2016
ISBN: 978-1-61695-642-4
Hardcover

Billy Boyle has received all kinds of assignments in his capacity as a special investigator on Eisenhower’s staff. But few, if any, match the bizarre task before him in the Blue Madonna.  To begin with, he is arrested, tried on trumped up charges and stripped of his Captaincy and sentenced to time in the stockade for black market activities.  (This, of course, a subterfuge to provide a cover story as part of an investigation.)  Then he is sent behind enemy lines to rescue a downed airman who is needed to testify against a black market gang.

No sooner does Billy arrive in occupied France than he finds himself investigating two murders of airmen being hidden in a chateau.  And he even participates in partisan operations, blowing up railroad tracks and bridges.

The Billy Boyle series takes him through various phases of World War II.  This novel takes place as Allied troops sail for Normandy on D-Day, giving the author the opportunity to describe conditions in Occupied France, how the partisans operated, and what was done to return downed airmen through clandestine networks.  The Blue Madonna, a valuable piece of art, is an example of how many Jews and others attempted to prevent the Nazis from stealing their possessions by hiding them in such places as the chateau, which also secreted parachuted Allied fliers.

As were the first 10 books in the series, Blue Madonna is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, October 2016.

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the-fixerThe Fixer
Joseph Finder
Putnam, May 2016
ISBN 978-0-4514-7257-3
Mass Market Paperback

What would you do if by some off-chance you broke into a wall in your home and discovered $3.7 million in cash?  That is the good luck that befalls Rick Hoffman, erstwhile unemployed journalist.  And then the bad luck follows.  Rick begins to wonder where the money came from.  He can’t ask his father, whose house it was, because the latter was left speechless and partially paralyzed by a stroke about two decades before.  Rick was once an investigative journalist, and uses these talents to find answers.

He soon discovers that his attorney father was a fixer, paying off various persons to ward off claims against powerful Boston figures.   And for his efforts he is beaten severely, almost killing him, as was his father before him, to stop Rick from pursuing his investigation.  But he perseveres.

The story moves ahead in a straightforward manner, with each step along the way uncovering additional information, until Rick can prove where the money came from and why.  But more importantly, as Rick explains, he continues because he wants to know how the story ends.  And so will you.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, June 2016.