Sunday, November 19, 2017

Mark Pryor, The Crypt Thief

Mark Pryor, The Crypt Thief
Seventh Street Books © 2013 Mark Pryor
ISBN 978-1-61614-785-5

As a general rule, I’m not a fan of nutcase serial killer books; on the other hand, I have truly enjoyed the Hugo Marston series by Mark Pryor (of which this is the third I have read).  So which of these attitudes won out?

Well, Pryor clearly loves Paris and he does an excellent job of making you feel you are in Paris.  (I have included a photo of one of the riverboats on the Seine,; such a houseboat plays a role in the story.  The continuing characters, starting with Marston, are well-conceived and people I, for one, want to spend time with. 

In this entry in the series, two young tourists are found murdered ((one of the dead is the son of a US Senator who was about to start a job in the US Embassy, where Marston is head of security near Jim Morrison’s tomb in the Pere Lachaise cemetery), and there are indications that the killer was in the cemetery for a purpose that he was unable to complete.  So the police, with Marston’s cooperation and assistance arrange in-depth surveillance of the cemetery, and, as it turns out, he returns.  And somehow escapes.  (The intelligent reader is likely to get to the how of the escape pretty quickly.)

The situation is exacerbated by the Senator’s insistence that the perpetrator is a Muslim terrorist, so the effort to catch the murderer is potentially being disrupted by a search for the terrorist.  Marston hasn’t bought the terrorist angle, so he continues to pursue the crazed serial path while his friend and ex-CIA agent (still doing some jobs for them) Tom Green is involved in the search for the terrorist.

The book is quite readable (I read it in about 6 hours of one day), and the narrative is compelling.  The risks to everyone involved are clear, and Pryor does an excellent job of making us aware (often uncomfortably) or our surroundings.  So I am, in a way, glad to have read it.  But the crazed serial killer aspect (and, believe me, this killer is crazed) made it a difficult read for me.  There are at least 4 more books in the series, and I sincerely hope that we do not run into another nutcase serial killer.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Steve Hockensmith (with Lisa Falco), Give the Devil His Due

Steve Hockensmith (with Lisa Falco), Give the Devil His Due
Midnight Ink; First Edition, © 2017
ISBN-13: 978-0738742243

In the first book in this series (The White Magic Five and Dime, 2015), Alanis McLachlan has moved to Berdache, Arizona upon inheriting her mother’s new age store, The White Magic Five and Dime.  (Along with the shop, she inherits her half-sister Clarice.)  Unfortunately, her mother was a con artist, and Alanis was—before she broke away—an apprentice con artist.  Her mother has been murdered, and now the store (along with a fair amount of undeclared cash) is hers.  She decides to take on the store and try to make amends for the years of deception.  And in the process learns enough about Tarot to help keep the store afloat without fleecing the customers.

Berdache is, according to Alanis, a “Sedona light,” new-agey, but not thriving.  And in the first book, and in the second (Fool Me Once), Alanis has to think fast and work hard to solve some mysteries.

And, in Give the Devil His Due, the devil—her mother’s partner in con, Biddle (no first name that I can remember) shows up; Alanis had thought him long since dead.  (I’m pretty sure “Biddle” is the Devil referred to in the title.)  Things rapidly get weird.  An older man enters the store and asks to use the john…and disappears.  Another man, whom Alanis immediately pegs as some king of cop wanders into the store.  So she uses a ruse to get Clarice (and her girlfriend CeeCee) out of the store so she can give the guy a Tarot reading.

The weirdness expands to involve a German billionaire, a reporter, a couple of older former mob guys, a senior-citizen female professional killer, a local crook (GW) who would like to get closer to Alanis, and a stolen (in 1991) Van Gogh.

Large chunks of the plot are fairly far-fetched, but the characters are intriguing, the dialogue is smart, and the story moves quite quickly along.  And the resolution, if somewhat far-fetched, is handled very well.

I do have one reservation about the plot hook here—the stolen Van Gogh—a reservation I have in a lot of mysteries in which a valuable and important painting is at the core of the plot.  The people involves, both the bad guys and the good guys, too often seem to treat the multi-million work of art in ways that seem highly likely to cause serious damage to it.  And, in my opinion, it happens here.  (Also, the value of the painting is given as $2.5 million, which might have been plausible several decades ago, but now?  Eh, not so much.)

It’s not clear whether Biddle will return in the next outing (but we can hope).  I enjoyed the book quite a lot, reading it in one big gulp (of about 4 hours).  And I hope the series continues.

Friday, November 10, 2017

And now, a movie review: Murder on the Orient Express

We (finally) got to the theater to see Murder on the Orient Express today (we've both seen the 1974 Albert Finney version and the more recent David Suchet version, and we've both read the book). Since I first read the book--a long time ago--I've been somewhat prejudiced against it, because I think the ending is something of a cheat. But it has worked well as a movie.

Both the 1974 version and the 2017 one have things in common--chiefly that they are both "star" vehicles, especially in the non-lead roles. The 1974 version, for example, has these folks in it:
Albert Finney
Lauren Bacall
Ingrid Bergman (who, for me, was reason enough to see it)
Jacqueline Bisset
Sean Connery
John Gielgud
Wendy Hiller
Anthony Perkins
Vanessa Redgrave
Rachel Roberts

If anything, that's more star power than the remake (but not by much):
Kenneth Bramagh
Daisy Ridley
Penelope Cruz
Johnny Depp
Derek Jacobi
Michelle Pfeiffer
Judi Dench
Willem Dafoe

And, in fact, one of my problems with both feature film productions is that most of those stars are mostly wasted.

As it happens, we both mostly enjoyed the current version (although the sound, in the theater in which we saw it, was muddy), at least while we were watching it. But, as I have thought about it afterwards, it was not a particularly well-made movie. Much of the "location" footage was at best adequate (and the opening scenes were pretty much unnecessary). The use of camera movement once we got on the train was distracting (and did not add anything). And the set d├ęcor and lighting were at best adequate.

But, again, for me, the waste of talent was appalling. Johnny Depp, as Edward Ratchett, seemed bored. He had a right to be--he didn't have much to do. Judy Dench had, I think, about 8 words of dialogue, and, while she sat nicely in her train seat, that's about all she did. Willem Dafoe didn't have much to do, either. I thought Daisy Ridley was about as engaging as anyone, and that Michelle Pfeiffer was excellent. Bramagh (I know a lot of people didn't like his 'stache, but it didn't bother me all that much) just seemed wrong as Poirot--not dedicated enough to the use of the little grey cells (and what was the deal with the picture he was carrying with him), and seeming to jump from suspect to suspect almost at random. Maybe he was too concerned with directing the thing than with his performance.

Fortunately, we get the senior citizen discount and we both had a really nice lunch before the movie. I think we'll watch the David Suchet version again, just to see how it holds up

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Elizabeth Edmondson, A Question of Inheritance

Elizabeth Edmondson, A Question of Inheritance
Thomas & Mercer © 2015
ISBN-13: 978-1503947856
Also available as an ebook

The second in the series featuring Hugo Hawkesworth, who is still working for British Intelligence despite a severe leg injury.  We first encountered him in A Man of Some Repute, in which Hawkesworth unravels a 7-year-old mystery.  A consequence of that discovery is that an unexpected claimant to the Earldom of Selchester has been discovered—a 40-ish American  history professor, Augustine (Gus) Fitzwarin, and he and his two daughters (Babs and Polly) have arrived shortly before Christmas in 1953.  The old Earl’s daughter Sonya is very disturbed by this, as she had expected to inherit the property (if not the title) and had expected to sell it for at the very least a small fortune.

As a part of that, she has plans to sell a stash of paintings, the provenance of which is doubtful in the extreme, and she has brought Oliver Seynton, a somewhat ethically flexible art expert from a somewhat ethically flexible auction house, to Selchester Castle to examine a cache of paintings she has hidden in the castle.  She hopes to make up a part of what she had expected to be her inheritance by selling them quietly.

And a severe snowstorm strikes England, disrupting rail and road traffic, so, at least for a day or so, no one is going anywhere—except to the village.  And, of course, murder ensues.

Hawkesworth’s connection with the intelligence community and his wartime experience give him son insight and some standing as the local police begin their investigation.  And the past is very much a part of the present events.

The characters are well-conceived and (at least as far as I’m concerned) seem to be “real” people, not just characters slotted into their roles in a story.  The pace is leisurely, and we spend at least as much time and attention on the people as we do on the murder, which, in this case at least, works well enough.  I was not particularly thrilled by the first book in the series, but this one is a significant advance.  I’m now looking forward to the third (A Matter of Loyalty).

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

E.J Copperman and Jeff Cohen, The Question of the Absentee Father

E.J Copperman and Jeff Cohen, The Question of the Absentee Father
Midnight Ink © 2017 E.J Copperman and Jeff Cohen
ISBN 978-0-7387-5079-8

The fourth in the series featuring Samuel Hoenig and Janet Washburn, and the series continues to grow in complexity.  Samuel is the proprietor of a business called Questions Answered—you have a question (within some limit), he will find the answer—for a fee.  In this installment, the question comes from an unexpected source—Samuel’s mother.  She has received an upsetting letter, which has led her to ask Samuel to find the answer to this question:  
Where is your father living now?

His father left 27 years ago, and Samuel has only limited memories of him; his mother has rarely spoken of him.  He really does not want to find the answer to this question. But, how can he refuse?
He (and Janet, to whom Samuel refers to as Ms. Washburn) fairly quickly trace his father, Reuben, to California and to an apparent alias.  And to a rather strange business.  But to make additional progress, it appears that Samuel and Janet will have to travel to L.A., and the prospect of this is truly upsetting to Samuel.
Things become even stranger in L.A., as they encounter a man names—or using—the alias Samuel and Janet had uncovered.  And they are given a package containing about $40,000 in $50s, with almost no questions asked.  Something is very wrong, but what, exactly?
One of the pleasures of the book is seeing the continued development of the relationship between Samuel and Janet.  And the expanded role of a minor character in earlier books works very nicely as well.  
For me, the denouement was really quite moving, partly because Samuel was able to answer his mother’s question, but mostly for a consequence of his being able to answer the question.  And, as a whole, the growth of Samuel—his willingness to take risks, his ability to deal with situations (including driving in L.A.)—make this, for me, an extremely satisfying and fulfilling book.  I’m already looking forward to the next chapter in Samuel’s story.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Mary Challis (Sara Woods), Crimes Past

Mary Challis (Sara Woods), Crimes Past
Raven House (paperback) reprint, 1982.
Available from used book sellers.

14 years before, Derek Locke and Eddie Guard conspired to embezzle a fair amount of money from the bank a were employed.  Guard, on his vacation, began so set up the Swiss account into which they would move the proceeds; Locke, whose vacation followed Guard's, met him on the intervening weekend to finish that up.  Before Derek could return to England Eddie was arrested (the theft had been discovered), and Derek took off for parts unknown. 

Flash forward.  Derek's (14-yearyounger) brother Jeremy is now a solicitor...and Derek has returned to England, planning to meet up with Eddie and get his share of the loot.  And Eddie gets himself murdered; Derek, of course, is the chief suspect--but Derek also says Eddie has told him that a third man as involved..  Jeremy, for reasons that aren't all that clear to me, tries to help him--by finding an alternative suspect and getting Derek out of the country again. 

It's not a bad setup, but there are problems (or omissions).  First, the embezzlement scheme is not really explained very well.  And, more important, there are only two real candidates for party #3.  The story moves well and does nothing to make me revise my opinion of Woods as a writer.  But it's hardly much more than a little above average for a mystery novel.

Friday, September 8, 2017

John Le Carre, A Legacy of Spies

John Le Carre, A Legacy of Spies
Viking Press © 2017 David Cornwell
ISBN 978-0-7352-2511-4
Also available as an ebook.

What follows is a truthful account, as best as I am able to provide it, of my role in the British deception operation, codenamed Windfall, that was mounted against the East German Intelligence Service (STASI) in the late nineteen fifties and early sixties, and resulted in the death of the best British secret agent I ever worked with, and of the innocent women for whom he gave his life.

The is the opening paragraph, and it draws us—it drew me—into a (fictional) past, but one that has always carried with it the aura of truth.  That past is the story told, in 1963, in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, of Alec Leamas and Elizabeth Gold.  Leamas, because he was chosen (and accepted) the task of acting as a traitor to England, of gaining the confidence of STASI, of casting guilt on a STASI officer, in pursuit of the goal of maintaining a double agent and the information flow that agent provides.  Gold, because she fell in love with Leamas (and he with her).

Now, decades later, in a very different world, all of that comes back to life, in the form of lawsuits filed by children of some of the people directly involved.  And a British government that would like to make it all go away…or at least not become public.

One of the few survivors who were participants in those events, Peter Guillam, who was in his early thirties then and is much older now (depending on when this book is actually set, somewhere between his late seventies and mid-to-late eighties), is required, under the terms of his retirement, to return to London, to be interrogated about those events.  In the course of his interrogation, he reads (or re-reads) the reports generated during the events of that distant past.  He recalls those events, sometimes in ways that differ from the reports.  And he answers questions. 

In what is, I think, a first for Le Carre, this book is written in the first person—Guillam narrates this part of the story, from his point of view, in the present.  So we are, to the extent he allows us, privy to his thoughts, to his efforts to corroborate or modify (or conceal) the history contained in those ancient reports.  And, of course, one issue is whether his memories of the past, and his understanding of who did what, and why, are shaped by his past and his distance from it now.  And throughout we have to deal with one figure—Control, whose name we never learn—who headed this branch of the British intelligence services (called, informally, the Circus) and another figure—George Smiley, then head of Covert Operations—whose decisions and actions shaped, to some degree, the events in that distant past.

Control is long dead; Smiley is long retired, but still, apparently, alive (making him easily into his nineties).  Of the others, well, at least mostly dead.

Guillam has to navigate his interrogation, which means remembering things he’d rather not, and dealing with loyalties (and betrayals) he’d also rather not.  And he has to remember, and deal with his own part.  And that is neither easy nor without its own evasions.

This is, let me say, a magnificent book.  While it may be useful to have read The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, you can get along nicely without.  It raises, and carefully does not resolve, a number of difficult moral issues.  Were the actions taken in the past were, then or now, justifiable?  Well, it depends.  Is the current investigation designed to get at “the truth,” or to make it easier to blame anything that looks difficult on those long dead or long out of power?  I think we’re given a number of hints there.  But remember, our narrator was involved, and his take on the current investigation may well be biased.  Is biased.  How can we be sure of, recall, describe, the motivations that led to people’s decisions and actions 50 years ago? 

How can we be sure, I think Le Carre is asking,of our own motives (or our efforts to deceive ourselves and others), of the morality or necessity or utility of our decisions, decisions that might maintain whatever tenuous peace now exists or might lead to needless deaths, and war—now?