Book Reviews: A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré and The Trespasser by Tana French

A Legacy of Spies
John le Carré
Viking, September 2017
ISBN: 978-0-7352-2511-4
Hardcover

The Cold War may have ended many years ago in real life, but not for John le Carré, who has now written a fascinating book derived from two of his earlier George Smiley novels, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.  Smiley merely plays a background role in Legacy.  Instead, Peter Guillam, his disciple, who retired from the Circus (the British Secret Service) to the family farmstead in southern France, plays a central part in the story.

Peter receives a letter summoning him to London where he is instructed to review files and interrogated about an operation during the Cold War in which an operative and a source were killed.  It would appear that a potential parliamentary inquiry or even a civil action blaming Peter and others for the deaths and seeking monetary damages, brought by the offspring of the two unfortunate victims, is possible.

As Peter reviews the material, le Carré recreates the times and travails of the period, as we relive through the actions of the characters conditions in East Berlin and the spy craft during the Cold War.  It is history recreated with all the tensions of the period, excellently written with humor and panache.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2017.

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The Trespasser
Dublin Murder Squad #6
Tana French
Penguin, August 2017
ISBN: 978-0-1431-1038-5
Trade Paperback

Antoinette Conway and her partner, Stephen Moran (who she brought on board in the Dublin Murder Squad after working with him in a previous novel) are the newbies in the elite Irish police group, and as such, only receive humdrum domestic dispute assignments.  Until one day the gaffer hands them what turns out to be a murder case of a pretty young woman.  The case turns out to be anything but a simple lovers quarrel.

Antoinette, the only female on the squad, takes a lot of guff from other members (who want her anywhere else), and her resentment shows throughout the book.  While she enjoys her work, she contemplates leaving for an offer in the private sector.  Meanwhile, she has a murder to solve as her first lead detective case and goes about it diligently if somewhat misdirected by an experienced detective assigned to work with the partners for reasons not revealed until the end.

One criticism I made in the previous novel by Tana French was that it was tedious and slow reading.  The same is true of The Trespasser.  One has to plod through a couple of hundred pages of continual repetition before it all begins to make sense.  And then, and only then, does the reading become enjoyable and worthwhile and the plot begin to come together.  The novel would have been rated at a higher level had it not been for this criticism.  Certainly, Ms French writes well and creates clever plots.  One could wish she would now turn her attention to some judicious editing.  That said, the novel is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, August 2017.

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Book Review: Miss Julia Weathers the Storm by Ann B. Ross

Miss Julia Weathers the Storm
Miss Julia Series #19
Ann B. Ross
Viking, April 2017
ISBN 978-0-7352-2047-8
Hardcover

Miss Julia, a Southern gentlewoman of a certain age, is happily remarried to a loving and generous retired lawyer, Sam Murdoch. Her husband is certainly a contrast to her late husband Wesley Lloyd Springer, who was quick to criticize and tightfisted to boot. It wasn’t until after she buried him that a young woman turned up on her doorstep with a boy in hand—her late husband’s son, as it turned out.

But Miss Julia befriended Hazel Marie and young Lloyd, who is now part of her family. Hazel Marie  married a private detective, Mr. Pickens, who Miss Julia has never warmed to,  and now has twin toddlers.

When her husband suggests renting a beach house on an island and inviting Hazel Marie and her family along, Miss Julia balks. Not because of any dislike of Hazel Marie, but because Miss Julia really doesn’t care to travel. But her husband is so excited about the idea, she relents. Who else to invite? There’s their lawyer friend, Binkie, and her husband Coleman, a sergeant in the local sheriff’s department, and their young daughter Gracie. Then there’s the housekeeper Lillian, and her six year old great granddaughter Latisha. Rounding out the group is Miss Julia’s friend, LuAnne Conover, who suspects her husband is cheating on her, and Etta Mae Wiggins, a home health aid, who manages a mobile home park, and could use a vacation.

Latisha spends her time at the beach looking for sea shells, but on one of the days a lot more than sand dollars washes up on the shore. Hundred dollar bills, suspected to be dumped overboard by drug smugglers, have vacationers scrambling for the money. Three strangers  are overly interested in Latisha’s finds, and later show up in Abbotsville, after Miss Julia and her entourage have all returned home. Is the little girl in danger?

An entertaining addition to this long-running series. Fans of “Steel Magnolias” or Fannie Flagg’s novels will enjoy this slice of southern life, with characters that will keep you wanting more. It’s the nineteenth book in the series.

Reviewed by Susan Belsky, July 2017.

Book Review: Buffalo Jump Blues by Keith McCafferty

Buffalo Jump BluesBuffalo Jump Blues
A Sean Stranahan Mystery #5
Keith McCafferty
Viking, June 2016
ISBN 978-0-5254-2959-3
Hardcover

From the publisher:  In the wake of Fourth of July fireworks in Montana’s Madison Valley, Deputy Sheriff Harold Little Feather and Hyalite County Sheriff Martha Ettinger investigate a horrific scene at the Palisades cliffs, where a herd of bison [a/k/a buffalo] have fallen to their deaths.  Are they victims of blind panic caused by the pyrotechnics, or a ritualistic hunting practice dating back thousands of years?  The person who would know is beyond asking, an Indian man found dead among the bison, his leg pierced by an arrow.  Farther up the valley, fly fisherman, painter and sometime private detective Sean Stranahan has been hired by the beautiful Ida Evening Star – – a Chippewa Cree woman who moonlights as a mermaid at the Trout Tails Bar & Grill  – to find her old flame, John Running Boy.  The cases seem unrelated, until Sean’s search leads him right to the brink of the buffalo jump.

This is the fifth entry in the series, and to call it eclectic would be an understatement.  Both the fishing and wildlife aspects of it, which predominate in the early sections, are entirely foreign to this reader, whose usual preference is for character-driven novels.  But the header for Chapter 8, “A Mermaid, an Arrowhead, and True Love,” captures the elements of most of the rest of the book.  The aforementioned Ida is the first of these, the arrowhead a piece of evidence in the search for the murderer of the Indian Man, and true love is – well, as Sean says: “True love knows not logic nor lust, but the synchronized bearing of hearts.”

The bison was the “icon of the West” that only a century ago had stood at the brink of extinction.  When Harold comes upon the first body, he puts the dying animal out of its misery.  He muses, “The irony of what he had done, killing the first bison to have returned to these ancient hunting grounds in one hundred and fifty years, was not lost on him.”  But he had done what he had to do, and cannot second-guess himself.  Shanahan is a terrific protagonist, of whom Martha says “You’re what I call a Montana Renaissance man.  You have about five different jobs and still you have to stick a hose down a gas tank to siphon up enough fuel to get to the store.”  (He guides during the trout season, writes for fishing magazines and paints in the winter (or when he gets a commission).  He says of himself “I’m a better artist than I am a detective.  Or fishing guide.”  But he is selling himself short, as he demonstrates during the ensuing investigation, assisting Martha in the search for the man or men behind the events.  The geography of Montana is vividly presented.  The writing is terrific and filled with humor, e.g., “Fishermen are born honest, but they get over it.”  The beauty of Montana is vivid, and that and the wonderful writing have pointed me to the fourth novel in the series which I had somehow missed, Crazy Mountain Kiss, next up for this reader.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, June 2016.

Book Review: Aunt Dimity and the Summer King by Nancy Atherton

Aunt Dimity and the Summer KingAunt Dimity & the Summer King
Aunt Dimity #20
Nancy Atherton
Viking, April 2015
ISBN 978-0-670-02670-8
Hardcover

I thought it would be fun to begin my Aunt Dimity adventure with this twentieth book in the series. By now, the series is fully developed and later I could go back and work my way forward, if I liked what I read.What’s not to love in the premise of the series? Lori Shepherd from Chicago has relocated to Finch, a small cottage in England’s Cotswolds she inherited from her Aunt Dimity. And Aunt Dimity has even stuck around after her death, always available to communicate with Lori by mysteriously writing to her in a blue journal whenever Lori looks inside. Aunt Dimity is a guide/best friend for Lori, helping her to develop her thoughts about the current mystery taking place in Finch. That mystery is why the two empty cottages in Finch have not been sold.

Lori also has her newborn daughter in this book and is just as involved with her as she is with solving the current mystery. Unfortunately, this baby is a very normal baby and reading about the details of caring for a baby becomes rather tedious at times (breastfeeding, naps, diaper changes) – nothing really different here than a normal healthy baby. She is much loved and tended and there is barely a conversation which isn’t interrupted by the baby. It is a realistic portrayal of life with a newborn. This might be entertaining or even enlightening for a reader who doesn’t realize how much a baby can change your life and I would recommend it to those readers. For the rest of us, we may need to just skim those parts and not let ourselves get bogged down.

In solving the empty cottages mystery, Lori meets the Summer King who lives just over the town line, and seeks to understand the rivalry between the two towns. We are introduced to lots of colorful characters in the town. I would have liked more of the book to be about them and Aunt Dimity and the Summer King and his family. These sections of the book are delightful and the book is at its most charming when Lori gets to know him and his family and visits his home.

If you are already an Aunt Dimity fan, I think you will enjoy this book too. If you’re not yet a fan, you may want to start with an earlier volume.

Reviewed by Constance Reader, June 2015.

Book Review: Dry Bones by Craig Johnson

Dry BonesDry Bones
A Longmire Mystery #11
Craig Johnson
Viking, May 2015
ISBN 978-0-525-42693-6
Hardcover

Who doesn’t love a Wyoming dinosaur, although. . . turtles? Not so much. Especially after picking up Dry Bones, the latest in Craig Johnson’s Longmire mystery series.

The complete skeleton of a T. Rex, nicknamed “Jen” after the woman who, thanks to her dog, discovered it, is found on land owned by an elderly Cheyenne. Who knew dinosaur fossils were worth so much money? But just who owns the fossil, and has the right to sell it is questionable after Danny Lone Elk is found dead in a turtle pond. Murdered, as it turns out, and Walt has plenty of suspects. As usual in a Longmire story, some politics are involved, along with the FBI, local cops and tribal police. Messy.

Complications galore arise, including a death in the family, which includes Walt’s friends, his co-workers, and even the previous sheriff of Absaroka County, Wyoming.

We’re getting along in years with Walt Longmire, but Walt, Henry, Vic, and even Dog never age. They never become boring, either, which has as much to do with Craig Johnson’s voice and writing skill as Longmire’s actual investigations.

Some things I noticed:

Johnson’s writing has a warmth to it that always sucks you in. Reading a Longmire novel is like visiting with a group of friends or family. Only Walt lives a much more exciting life than I do.

The subject matter, as usual, will probably teach you a little something. That never hurts.

A lively bunch of suspects to choose from, and every one a three-dimensional character.

You’ll love the way this one turns out. I promise.

Stay tuned. I can’t wait for the next book.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, March 2015.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder.

Book Reviews: Sons of Sparta by Jeffrey Siger and The Likeness by Tana French

Sons of SpartaSons of Sparta
A Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis Mystery
Jeffrey Siger
Poisoned Pen Press, October 2014
ISBN: 978-1-4642-0314-5
Hardcover

Author Jeffrey Siger and Poisoned Pen Press continue their winning collaboration with this sixth entry in the excellent Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis series. Set in turbulent, often corrupt, politically chancy, modern Greece, the novel enticingly exploits a full range of Mediterranean attractions. The history of Greece from Athens to Corinth to Sparta, and beyond is filled with thrilling exploits, good wine, fine food, smuggling, piracy and fierce familial ties. So too, this novel. No mistake, the author is very sympathetic to the passions and cultural attitudes, but he observes with a keen and balanced eye.

Yiannis Kouros is a young special crimes division detective. He’s also a member of an old and still powerful family descendent from ancient Spartan warriors. A family with ties to the full range of past illegal activities. When the head of the family, his uncle, calls, he must appear, worrying that he will be compromised in his loyalty to his boss and mentor, Chief Inspector Kaldis. It is the beginning of a long and complicated case of murder, old wrongs and new chicanery.

Kouros, Kaldis and the other member of the successful police triad, Tassos Stamatos, an aging, exceedingly competent homicide investigator buddy of Kaldis, combine their experience to protect Kouros from family pressure and simultaneously help solve the murder of Kouros’s uncle. The case involves a range of interesting criminals, crimes and members of Kouros’s family. It explores Greek culture in illuminating ways but the author is careful to maintain the focus of this novel on the interesting police procedures and the deductive processes of the cops in a government environment as corrupt and dysfunctional as one might ever encounter.

The plot is complicated, intriguing and well-considered. Occasional excursions into sexual dalliances are appropriately included to add interest and rhythm to the fabric of the novel. Pace almost never lags and the conclusion is satisfying.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, December 2014.
Author of Red Sky, Devils Island, Hard Cheese, Reunion.

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The LikenessThe Likeness
Dublin Murder Squad Series #2
Tana French
Viking, July 2008
ISBN: 978-0-670-01886-4
Hardcover

First she wrote a best-seller, In The Woods. Now comes a second novel following the activities of a mythical Murder Squad in Ireland. The principal is again, Cassie Maddox, a fine detective, but one who seems doomed to tread the perilous paths of psychological involvement at very high levels.

After working murder and as an undercover operative, Cassie has moved on. Physically and still mentally damaged, she needs something with less stress. She finds it in what amounts to a desk job in the Domestic Violence unit. But her past will not let her alone.

When the novel opens, Cassie’s current boyfriend , Sam, a detective still on the murder squad, importunes her to visit a crime scene. A young woman has been found dead in an abandoned cottage in a small town outside Dublin. Cassie goes to the scene where she is mightily shocked to discover that the dead woman appears to be almost her twin. What is even more unsettling is that the dead woman is identified as Alexandra Madison, a name and persona used years ago by Detective Maddox in an undercover operation.

Unsettling as all that is, Cassie’s former boss of undercover operations sees the situation as ideal to help them solve the murder—by hiding the fact of Madison’s death for as long as possible and infiltrating Cassie into the dead woman’s life in order to solve her death. This situation is not without problems, several of which the author has left un-resolved. Moreover, the convoluted plot, including the question of who Alexandra Madison really is and who killed her does not lend itself to simple answers. Like her debut novel, which also leaves important questions in limbo, the narrative is handled in a stately and protracted manner. The novel is a good deal longer than it needs to be, but French’s style and high level of skill with language mitigates many of those problems.

In spite of my reservations, at least for traditional mystery fans who thrive on psychological tension, this is a mesmerizing novel with compelling characters, logical and precise progress, and an outstanding evocative sense of place. A real winner for serious fans of the psychological thriller.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, August 2014.
Author of Red Sky, Devils Island, Hard Cheese, Reunion.

Book Reviews: Treasure Hunt by Andrea Camilleri and Breaking Point by C. J. Box

Treasure HuntTreasure Hunt
An Inspector Montalbano Mystery #16
Andrea Camilleri
Translated by Stephen Sartarelli
Viking, October 2013
ISBN: 978-0-143-12262-3
Trade Paperback

This is the 16th Sicilian mystery featuring Inspector Salvo Montalbano. In the early going in the novel, the Inspector finds himself bored, with nary a crime worthy of his talents, much less a murder; the author calls him a “police inspector with a brilliant past, no matter dull his present.” But it becomes somewhat less boring as the book opens – – an elderly brother and sister, religious fanatics both, open fire on the main square of the village, determined to punish the people of Vigata for their sins. When Montalbano is caught on camera scaling the building, gun in hand, to put an end to the scene, he is hailed as a hero. His own reaction, after searching the apartment, is one of shock, when he discovers rooms filled with crucifixes and shrines and an apparently aged inflatable sex doll. To say that this opening scene has unexpected repercussions later in the novel is an understatement.

Montalbano, now fifty-seven, is a man who is always aware of when he ate his last meal and savors each one; who occasionally has his inner selves arguing, like an angel and a devil perched on each shoulder, and takes to cursing the saints when frustrated. And is an absolutely terrific protagonist. He has two more or less regular women in his life, Ingrid, a former race-car mechanic, described as his “Swedish friend, confidante, and sometimes accomplice,” and Livia, with whom he has a long-distance romance: She lives in Genoa.

Boredom soon is replaced with the worst kind of crime to be solved: The apparent kidnapping of a beautiful 18-year-old girl, with no clues as to the identity of the kidnapper. Montalbano finds himself up against “a criminal mind the likes of which he had never encountered before.”

Not long after the opening scenes, he becomes the recipient of envelopes marked to his personal attention, each containing crudely constructed poems, riddles setting him on the eponymous hunt, soon devolving into a duel between two very sharp minds. Until with the third and fourth missives the seemingly innocuous game becomes suddenly threatening or, as the Inspector puts it, takes a “curious turn.”

The plot is fascinating, the tale told, despite the darkness of the plot, with great good humor and fascinating characters, e.g., the Inspector’s switchboard operator, Catarella, from whose mouth come words like “nickpick” (picnic), and “Beckin’ yer partin” (for ‘begging your pardon,” but you figured that out already). This was a very entertaining novel, and is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, May 2014.

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Breaking PointBreaking Point
A Joe Pickett Novel #13
C.J. Box
Berkley, March 2014
ISBN: 978-0-425-26460-7
Mass Market Paperback

One thing you can always count on in a Joe Pickett novel: The environment and topography of Wyoming plays a vital part in the plot. This book is no exception. Breaking Point starts with an actual true story as its foundation: the Sackett Case, by which the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 9-0 ruling, declared that the EPA had overstepped in its dealings with the Idaho family.

Similarly, the regional director of the EPA in Denver, began an action against Butch and Pam Roberson, acquaintances of Joe and Marybeth Pickett, setting off a maelstrom in its wake, including four deaths, a forest fire of monumental proportions, and a variety of other results. When two agents serving a compliance order arrived at a plot on which Butch was starting to build a retirement home, they were shot and buried on the property, and Butch fled into the mountains. A massive effort led by the regional director to capture Butch was begun, with Joe forced to guide a posse of agents in his wake.

This reader could envision a much different conclusion than the one the author chose, but up until that point, I found the novel powerful, especially the forest fire scenes and Joe’s efforts to return from the mountain. It is a riveting description of the wilderness, and Joe’s return apparently sets the stage for his future efforts. Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, March 2014.