Book Reviews: Line of Fire by Stephen White, Lehrter Station by David Downing, and Don’t Cry, Tai Lake by Qiu Xiaolong

Line of FireLine of Fire
Stephen White
Dutton, August 2012
ISBN: 978-0-525-95252-7
Hardcover

In a note the author informs the reader that this is the next-to-the-last novel in the long-running series featuring psychotherapist Alan Gregory.  He intends to complete the series on his own terms because of the changing nature of the book industry with number 20.  Not many authors reach such a conclusion.  Even Ian Rankin had to bring back his popular Rebus protagonist.

And this book definitely sets the stage for that scenario.  The novel introduces a new patient, giving Alan some insights not only into that patient, but himself.  She also complicates his life in unexpected ways, especially as to Diane, his friend and partner.  And as usual, Boulder, CO, plays an important part in the story with brush fires raging and destroying homes.  Lastly, his friend, Detective Sam Purdy and he are exposed to unwanted risk as an old secret surfaces.

The novel slowly builds up as the various characters are brought into focus.  It is an insightful look at Alan Gregory and provides plenty of factors to consider looking forward to how the series will end.  I can’t wait to find out.  (Just an aside: the author says this is the right time to conclude the Gregory story.  Some readers may disagree. But, after all, it’s his decision alone.)

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, February 2013.

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

Lehrter StationLehrter Station
David Downing
Soho Crime, March 2013
ISBN: 978-1-61695-220-4
Trade Paperback

Five months after the fall of Berlin, this chronicle of the adventures of John Russell, the Anglo-American journalist, and his paramour, Effi Koene, the actress, continues.  Four previous “Station” novels carried them through the pre-war years in Berlin to Russell’s escape to England.  Now, his former Russian spymaster sort of blackmails him into returning to Berlin as a spy for both the Reds and the Americans. To sugarcoat the request, Effi is offered a starring role in a soon-to-be-made motion picture.

The couple returns to a devastated city, where the only rate of exchange seems to be cigarettes and sex.  No food, housing or other essentials, but a thriving black market.  The story continues with the history of the immediate post-war, including the beginnings of the Cold War and the plight of surviving Jews, with the British reluctance to allow emigration to Palestine and the Zionists’ attempt to get around the roadblocks.

The series is more than just run-of-the-mill espionage stories, but a reflection of the time and people in an era of mass murder and terrible war and its aftermath.  The descriptions of the rubble that was Berlin after the Allied bombings and the Russian rape (it is said that there were as many as 80,000) is terrifying.   And the depiction of the duplicity of the U.S. and Soviet intelligence agencies is despicable, especially when they overlooked Nazi backgrounds when they served a purpose.  Presumably, there is room for a new effort in the series, and we look forward to it.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, March 2013.

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

Don't Cry, Tai LakeDon’t Cry, Tai Lake
An Inspector Chen Novel
Qiu Xiaolong
Minotaur Books, April 2013
ISBN: 978-1-250-02158-8
Trade Paperback

While ostensibly a murder mystery, this latest Inspector Chen novel is more a polemic concerning excessive pollution, economic growth at any cost and the political and social system in China today.  Still, it is so well-written, filled with poetic references as an integral part of the whole, that it is a worthy addition to the series.

Initially, Chen is invited to spend some vacation time at an exclusive resort for upper cadre (of which he isn’t one) by his mentor in Beijing who was scheduled to use a villa there.  So, right off the bat, the author offers observations on how the upper layers of officials benefit, while the rest of the population doesn’t have such luxuries.  Then Chen learns that the once pure waters of Tai Lake have become so polluted that fish are destroyed, the water can’t be drunk and even causes illness to inhabitants.  The pollution is caused by industrial waste, unimpeded in the interest of profits and “progress.”

No sooner does Chen arrive than the general manager of a large chemical company is found murdered and Chen becomes involved, without disclosing himself as a Chief Inspector, in an unofficial investigation.  He learns about the pollution from a young female engineer, and works behind the façade of a local policeman, observing, questioning and deducting in typical Chen fashion, including a long T.S. Elliot-type poem about the lake.  Other than the murder solution, the criticism of societal and economic conditions in China is anything but subtle.  [I wonder if the novel will ever be translated into Chinese.]  Here, it is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, April 2013.

Book Reviews: Start Shooting by Charlie Newton, Driven by James Sallis, Dead and Buried by Stephen Booth, and Die a Stranger by Steve Hamilton

Start ShootingStart Shooting
Charlie Newton
Doubleday, January 2012
ISBN: 978-0-385-53469-7
Hardcover

The one-page prologue of sorts, headed “Chicago,” opens with the words, “The girl was thirteen and Irish, and fashioned out of sunlight so bright she made you believe in angels,” and ends with these: “Nineteen years I’ve been a ghetto cop and thought I’d worked every heartbreaking, horror combination possible.  But I hadn’t.  I wasn’t marginally prepared for how bad six days could get.  And neither was anyone else.”  And then the author details those six days, the p.o.v. alternating between that of Arleen Brennan and Bobby Vargas, the cop. The writer’s style is such that there was a smile on my face at page 1 [following the single page containing that prologue], which describes the Four Corners neighborhood in the South Side of Chicago, and its multi-cultural inhabitants.

The tale begins in the winter of 1982, filling in a lot of the history of Chicago over the last 50+ years, even for those who think they remember all the stories of corruption and race riots.  Chicago is hopeful of hosting the 2016 Olympics and the “salvation” it would surely mean for the city, with the ensuing influx of revenue for a cash-strapped town.  All very entertaining, with just an undercurrent of danger – – until the shooting starts, that is.  At that point, things take a different turn, becoming dark and edgy, with a fair amount of violence.  The craziness gets a bit hard to follow at times, but that didn’t slow the turning of pages at all.

At its heart this is a novel about two pairs of siblings, Arleen and Coleen Brennan, beautiful blond twin sisters, the latter not surviving past the age of 13, when she was raped to death, Arleen escaping the city and not seen again for 29 years, when she appears in the book’s opening pages. Bobby and Reuben Vargas are brothers, Bobby 42 as the story starts, Reuben, a cop and “a street legend in Chicago,” the older brother who was Bobby’s hero for half his life, their parents born in Mexico but the boys having grown up in Four Corners. Ambition is just one thing Arleen and Bobby have in common, for a future, and fame, as an actress and a guitar-playing musician, respectively.  But Arleen is waiting tables, and Bobby is a cop who plays “in the band, weekends around town;” one other thing they have in common is a deep love for their siblings.

Start Shooting is one of the most original novels I’ve read in a while, and though I can’t say I held my breath as it headed towards its denouement, I was white-knuckled from gripping the book so tightly in my hands.  Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, June 2012.

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

DrivenDriven
James Sallis
Poisoned Pen Press, April 2012
ISBN: 978-1-4642-0010-6
Hardcover

He is called, simply, Driver, because that’s what he is, that’s what he does and, he feels, that’s what he will always do.  Once one of the best stunt drivers in film, his life has taken different turns, most of them illegal.  But he gave up that life over six years ago, became a successful businessman named Paul West, a man with a ‘normal’ life and a fiancée he dearly loved.  Until one day when his old life catches up to him, and he has to kill the two men who have suddenly appeared and attacked him, but not before his fiancée has been killed. So back he must go, to his old life in Phoenix.  But soon two other men find and attempt to kill him, and he has no choice but to kill again.

As his friend Manny succinctly puts it, “you have to decide what you want, else you just keep spinning around, circling the drain.  You want to get away from the guys?  Or you want to put them down?  Well, there it is, then.  We ponder and weigh and debate.  While in silence, somewhere back in the darkness behind words, our decisions are made.” Now 32 years old, he goes where life, and his attempts to track down whoever is behind the continuing attempts on his life, take him, theorizing that “you moved faster with the current than against.”

The author’s descriptions, in his typical [and typically wonderful] spare prose, conjure up immediate mental images:  Of a tattooist, he says, “His Rasta hair looked like something pulled down from attic storage, first thing you’d want to do is thwack out the dusts.”  Of a young crowd in a mall food court “wagging their iPods and cellphones behind them, fatally connected.”  The book is filled with the author’s – – and his protagonist’s – – philosophizing:  “We all struggle to leave markers behind, signs that we were here, that we passed through . . . urban equivalents of cave paintings.”

The sequel to the excellent Drive, published in 2005, I devoured the book in a single day.  This was a short but memorable visit into the world created by Mr. Sallis, and it is highly recommended.  [The book is also available in a trade paperback edition, ISBN #978-1-4642-0011-3.]

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, August 2012.

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

Dead and BuriedDead and Buried
Stephen Booth
Sphere, June 2012
ISBN: 978-1-84744-481-3
Hardcover

[This book is at present only available in/through the UK/Canada; it will be published in the US in April, 2013 by Little, Brown]

As this book opens, firefighters in the Peak District of England are fighting what seems to be a losing battle, trying to contain the flames engulfing this part of Derbyshire, with smoke covering acres and acres of the moors from the catastrophic wildfires that have been springing up, the worst seen in the area in decades, many undoubtedly the result of arson.  But to D.S. Ben Cooper, his more immediate problem are the buried items found by the crew working one of the sites, and which appear to be clothing and other items – including a wallet and credit cards – which had belonged to a young couple who had seemingly disappeared over two years ago, in the middle of a snowstorm.  They had last been seen in a local pub, with no trace found since, and the case, while no longer active, is as cold as it could be.

The Major Crime Unit is called in, and DS Diane Fry, Ben’s old nemesis, is put in charge.  [Diane had been his immediate supervisor before his promotion to detective sergeant.]  Diane, for her part, couldn’t be happier that she had, as she thought, put Derbyshire behind her, her career taking her on an upward path – – she has been with the East Midlands Special Operations Unit for six months, and is less than thrilled to be back again.  In a bit of one-upsmanship, she soon discovers a dead body in the old abandoned pub – – Ben’s office had received a call about a break-in there, but had yet to investigate.

With Ben’s upcoming marriage to Liz Petty, a civilian crime scene examiner, coming up in a few months, the distraction of the wedding plans in which his fiancée is immersed causes him not a little irritation.  Ben and the rest of his CID team at Derbyshire Constabulary E Division have their hands full, with the two investigations proceeding simultaneously, although Diane makes clear that the old case is her jurisdiction.  Behind everything, the raging fires continue, a constant backdrop underlying everything which follows.  The author’s meticulous descriptions of the landscape make for a visceral sense of place.

Mr. Booth has once again created a suspenseful scenario, with many a twist and turn.  This elegantly written novel is the 12th entry in the Cooper and Fry series, and at the end this reader reluctantly closed the book, fervently hoping it won’t be the last.  Recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, October 2012.

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

Die a StrangerDie a Stranger
Steve Hamilton
Minotaur Books, July 2012
ISBN: 978-0-312-64021-7
Hardcover

The newest novel in the wonderful Alex McKnight series by Steve Hamilton starts out, as do most of them, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The residents of the area, referred to as the “land of the Yoopers,” consist heavily of Native Americans, most of them living in the reservations in that part of the country.  As the book opens, Vinnie Red Sky LeBlanc, an Ojibwa Indian who is probably Alex’ best friend, is mourning the death of his mother, a legend on the “rez.”  Alex, a former cop from Detroit, has been living for years in the town of Paradise, where his father had built several cabins for rental to hunters and winter recreationers, lives in one of those cabins, just down the road from Vinnie, who had moved off the rez years before.  Much is made of the clannish nature of the folks on the rez, and how difficult it is for ‘outsiders’ to be trusted.  Vinnie has never been allowed to forget that he is now an outsider, just as he has never forgotten that his father had left thirty years before, the same father apparently still in prison for a vehicular manslaughter/drunk driving incident many years ago, the reason Vinnie himself never drinks.

At the same time, at a little airport three hundred miles away, an event occurs that will effect their lives and those of several others when a small plane holding large quantities of high-grade marijuana lands, precipitating a hijacking which ends with several dead bodies left on the field, only one man making it out alive.  Both Alex and Vinnie become deeply involved in the aftermath:  Vinnie disappears, and Alex is determined to find him and to discover how he what part, if any, he played in this.

The Upper Peninsula is again brought vividly to life by this author who, along with fellow Yooper William Kent Krueger, seems to completely “own” this part of the United States, just below the Canadian border, in their fictional endeavors.  Mr. Hamilton’s description, in part:  “It may be July, and it may feel like summer just got here, but the end is already on its way.  The cold, the snow, the ice, the natural basic state of this place, it is right around the corner. . . It was another goddamned beautiful useless day in Paradise.”  The book veers south to perhaps a lesser-known part of the State apparently called Michigan’s Gold Coast, with towns such as Petoskey and Charlevoix where one soon feels “like you’re in the middle of Times Square,” also beautifully evoked.

This is another terrific entry in the series, beautifully written, as usual, with a somewhat intricate, suspenseful plot and wonderfully drawn characters, and it is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, December 2012.