Friday, March 23, 2018

Review of "The Mysterious Affair at Styles" by Agatha Christie

I'm a long time Agatha Christie fan, and I recently decided to re-read some of her novels.


'The Mysterious Affair at Styles' is Agatha Christie's first published book, and it's less sophisticated than her later work. The story does, however, introduce three well-known Christie characters: Hercule Poirot, Captain Hastings, and Inspector Japp.

As the book opens Hastings has been injured in WWI and is recuperating at Styles Court, a manor house in the country. Styles Court belongs to the Cavendish family, and is currently occupied by a diverse assemblage of people, including: Emily Inglethorpe - the widow of the late Mr. Cavendish - who inherited a lifetime interest in the house AND a large sum of money; Emily's new - much younger - husband, Alfred Inglethorpe; Emily's adult stepson, John Cavendish; John's wife Mary; John's bachelor brother Lawrence; Evelyn Howard - Emily's longtime friend and companion; Cynthia Murdoch - the orphaned daughter of family friends; and Dorcas, the maid.

There's a tense atmosphere at Styles because of simmering resentments and secrets. For example:
John Cavendish - who'll inherit the manor house when his stepmother dies - thinks it should have been his all along; in addition, John is suspected of dallying with the pretty wife of a neighboring farmer.
John's wife Mary, in turn, spends a lot of time with Dr. Bauerstein - the local toxicologist who hails from Germany. To add to this 'quadrangle', Captain Hastings has a crush on beautiful Mary.
Evelyn Howard hates Alfred Inglethorpe, convinced he only married Emily for her money.
Alfred Inglethorpe's thick beard looks like a disguise, and he has long poorly explained absences.
Lawrence Cavendish resents Cynthia Murdoch, who's very aware of her status as an 'outsider'; Cynthia supports herself with a job in a pharmacy.....and she seems to be the only one of this bunch who's actually employed.  

As it happens, a group of Belgian refugees, including Hercule Poirot, are living in a house near Styles Court - an arrangement facilitated by Emily Inglethorpe. Hastings is thrilled to see Poirot and lauds the former policeman's detective skills - so it's clear they've met before.

In the midst of the testy atmosphere at Styles Court Emily Inglethorpe dies from strychnine poisoning - in a locked room. Hastings suspects foul play and prevails on Poirot to investigate, and the Belgian complies.....with Hastings as his partner. To round out the 'detective trio', Inspector Japp is assigned to the case.

During the investigation Poirot learns that Emily had a loud fight with an unknown male on the day before she died; Emily's latest will is missing; there have been shenanigans with Emily's locked document box; someone bought strychnine at the town's pharmacy; coffee and cocoa were consumed on the evening of the murder....and a cup has been smashed; there's something suspicious about Emily's medicine packets; etc.

As often happens in these stories, Poirot makes shrewd deductions about everything.....but doesn't share them; Hastings tries to demonstrate his investigative skills but misinterprets most of the clues; and Japp hares off after the wrong suspect(s).

The book is chock full of misdirection and red herrings, but - in the end - Poirot gathers the suspects and reveals the truth.

The book is just so-so. Though Christie's nascent writing skills are apparent, the plot is overly convoluted (to the point of unbelievability); Poirot talks too much (yak yak yak); and there's a whiff of anti-Semitism and classism (though this is common in Christie's books......a sign of her times.)

If you're a long time Agatha Christie fan, this book would make a fun re-read; and if you're new to the famous author's works, this is a good place to start.

Rating: 3 stars

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Review of "The Cyanide Canary: A True Story of Injustice" by Robert Dugoni and Joseph Hilldorfer

Since time immemorial there's been a tug-of-war between entrepreneurs - whose goal is to make money - and anything that might reduce profits. Thus employers/corporations have been known to sell harmful or flawed products; make employees work in unsafe conditions; despoil the environment; and so on.

In the United States, laws have been passed to curtail these injurious practices, but enforcement is often lax (or nonexistent) because businesses provide jobs; create new products; propel the economy; contribute to political campaigns; and so on. As stated in the book: "This was business, big business, with a lot of money at stake and a lot of money to spend. Politicians depended on big business and big business depended on politicians. It was the American way."

In this equivocal situation, lawyers for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have struggled against mighty odds to bring scofflaws to justice. 'The Cyanide Canary' details the case against Allen Elias, who ordered a young employee named Scott Dominguez to clean a cyanide-contaminated tank WITHOUT safety equipment. As a result, Scott suffered severe brain damage, lost his fiancé - who was unable to care for him, and became dependent on his family - who could ill afford his medical/rehab bills. At the time a newspaper noted, "Scott Dominguez once loved to ski, play hackysack, hunt and fish. No more. An accident at work severely damaged his brain and left him with little muscle control." It became difficult for Scott to walk or speak, and it was only with enormous effort that he was able to do anything at all.

Elias, for his part, tried every trick in the book to squirm out of taking responsibility for the tragedy.....because he didn't care to pay reparations; didn't want to go to prison; and wanted to continue making money.

At the time of the incident, on August 27, 1996, Elias owned Evergreen Resources - a fertilizer company near Soda Springs, Idaho. For production purposes, Elias planned to use an old 25,000 gallon storage tank (36' long and 11' high) to hold a large shipment of sulfuric acid. However, the tank had previously been used to store the byproducts of a cyanide leaching process, and was still contaminated with a ton or two of cyanide-laced sludge. Thus Elias ordered a few workers, including Scott, to clean the tank. The circular entrance to the tank, located on top, was only 22" wide.....and Scott was slim - so he was sent in first.

During the cleaning process Scott collapsed and passed out, and - because the entrance to the tank was so small - his co-workers were unable to get him out. Emergency services were called but it took a long time to rescue Scott, and he was permanently damaged.

As soon as the incident occurred, Elias went into cover-your-ass mode. He proceeded to lie repeatedly; blame everybody else; forge documents; fake the availability of emergency equipment; convince his other employees (who needed their jobs) to conceal the truth; line up attorneys; and so forth. Meanwhile, government lawyers worked day and night to make a case against the fertilizer maker, who had been flouting safety laws for years.

Elias was eventually tried for various crimes, including 'disposing of hazardous waste without a permit' and 'knowing that his actions placed others in imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury.' The trial, and the innumerable machinations leading up to it, are well documented in the narrative, and the book should be a must-read for up and coming environmental lawyers.

Elias's attorneys - as was their job - obfuscated the issues; made numerous motions and pleas; delayed the trial; tried to suppress evidence; attempted to discredit get the picture. And Elias, who seemed to think he was Teflon-coated, smirked and sneered and went on with his life - apparently convinced he'd never be convicted of anything. The prosecutorial team, in turn, made it's own maneuvers and counter-maneuvers, and I was frequently on tenterhooks to see who would prevail with each step and counter-step.

I won't tell what happened in the end.....but you can look it up if you're dying to know.

The book is compelling and detailed.....perhaps too much so. The story includes not only the backgrounds of the victim and the defendant, but of the lawyers, witnesses, and other interested parties. Moreover, the yarn is dramatized way beyond what the writers could possibly it's kind of a fictionalized true story. However, the basic premise - that the EPA tried to make Elias accountable for his actions - is correct.

Sadly, Elias's case is far from an isolated incident, and harmful business practices are still going on. An epilog to the book makes it clear that some industries continue to ignore safety legislation, and it's very difficult to catch and prosecute them. In addition, many legislators don't want to pass more stringent environmental and worker protection laws - and actually suggest that industry be allowed to police itself. Ha ha ha.......who could possibly take that idea seriously! 🤢

This is an engaging (if overlong) book about an important topic, and I'd recommend it to readers interested in industrial safety, the preservation of the environment, and the kinds of selfish business moguls who look out only for themselves.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Review of "The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine (No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency #16)" by Alexander McCall Smith

In this 16th book in the series, Mma Ramotswe, owner of the "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" in Botswana, is gently manipulated into taking a vacation by her assistant Mma Makutsi - who thinks Mma Ramotswe needs a little break. Though Mma Ramotswe is reluctant to leave the agency in the hands of Mma Makutsi - who tends to be stubborn, brash, and undiplomatic - she takes a couple of weeks off. During this time Mma Makutsi is thrilled to take over as 'Acting Director' of the agency.

Mma Ramotswe spends some time cleaning her cupboards; drinking tea at a hotel café while gossiping; and visiting a friend. The detective soon tires of being idle, however, and - in accordance with the old Botswana ways - slips back into helping people. When a spiteful young boy purposely scratches Mma Ramotswe's white van the detective learns that he's being abused by the woman he lives with and takes the matter in hand.

Soon afterwards Rra Polopetsi - a part-time chemistry teacher who temps at the detective agency - comes up with a case. A deceased politician was to have a road named for him, but following the revelation of a secret scandal the road naming was cancelled. The politician's sister wants the detective agency to disprove the (unknown) allegations, and Acting Director Mma Makutsi gives the job to Rra Polopetsi - who doesn't have a clue how to do it.

Mma Ramotswe worries that Mma Makutsi assigned Rra Polopetsi the political scandal case because she doesn't know how to handle it herself. Mma Ramotswe wants to help Rra Polopetsi but is fearful of offending Mma Makutski, so she secretly looks into the matter - which leads to a sticky situation.

In addition Mma Makutski's old nemesis, secretarial school classmate Violet Sepotho, is causing trouble again. The shallow, sarcastic (but beautiful and fashionable) woman has opened the "No. 1 Ladies' Secretarial School". This name-stealing is deeply distressing to Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi....but what can they do?

While dealing with these various situations Mma Ramotswe drinks a lot of bush tea; eats some fruit cake; and exhibits her usual intelligence, common sense, and sensitivity. In the end, everything turns out satisfactorily.

It's always a pleasure to visit with the series' recurring characters, including Mma Ramotswe's husband, garage owner Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni; his mechanic Charlie; Mma Makutsi's husband, furniture store owner Phuti Radiphuti; and Mma Potokwane, director of the Orphan Farm and baker of delicious cakes. All these folks add wisdom to the story. There are even some talking shoes that have their say.

Overall, a very enjoyable book, highly recommended to fans of the series.

Rating: 4 stars

Monday, March 19, 2018

Review of "Death of a Chef (Capucine Culinary Mysteries # 4)" by Alexander Campion

In this fourth 'Culinary Mystery', Commissaire Capucine Le Tellier investigates two murders and an abduction. The book can be read as a standalone.


Commissaire Capucine Le Tellier of the Paris police, married to a noted restaurant critic, often hobnobs with French high society. As the story opens Capucine's friend Cécile opens a fashionable trunk she purchased at a street market and finds the nude body of Chef Jean-Louis Brault, owner of La Mère Denis - a restaurant with the phenomenal rating of three Michelin stars. Chef Jean-Louis apparently had no enemies, with the possible exception of restaurant critic Lucien Folon. Folon frequently wrote unfair, scathing reviews of La Mère Denis, hoping it would lose one of its Michelin stars.

Soon afterwards, Fermin Roque, an activist who orchestrated the workers' takeover of a Faience pottery factory, is also found dead. Finally, a wealthy businessman who invested in both the restaurant and the Faience factory is kidnapped, raising the suspicion of a connection among the three crimes.

Capucine and her detective squad investigate, and discover intriguing clues that eventually lead them to the truth. During all this Capucine dines in fine restaurants and elegant homes, and the delicious meals and wines are described in great detail. This adds a fun element to the story.

There are a variety of engaging characters in the book, including Capucine's snooty (but good-natured) mother and erudite father, her randy cousin, an elegant woman who owns a Faience stall at the street market, French villagers who keep secrets, and more.

This is an enjoyable cozy mystery with an engaging plot that leads to a satisfactory conclusion. I'd recommend it to fans of cozies.

Rating: 3 stars

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Review of "The Fix (Amos Decker #3)" by David Baldacci

This is the third book in David Baldacci's 'Amos Decker' series, but it provides enough background information to be read as a standalone.


Amos Decker, 6'5" tall and over 300 pounds, was a professional football player until a massive hit ended his career and left him with hyperthymesia and synesthesia. The hyperthymesia gives Decker a permanent detailed memory of everything he's ever seen or experienced - like a combination photo album/video in his head. And the synesthesia makes Decker see things in false colors - like death scenes glowing blue. Unfortunately, Decker's hyperthymesia doesn't allow him to dim the memories of his dead wife and child, who were murdered a few years ago.

On the upside, Decker's phenomenal memory helped him in his career as a police detective, and he now works for the FBI.....on a team that investigates crimes. Decker's FBI partner is Alex Jamison, a woman who understands his problems and has his back.

Decker is on his way to a meeting in the FBI's Hoover Building in Washington DC when he sees a man shoot a woman in the head, then turn the gun on himself. The killer is identified as Walter Dabney, a former employee of the National Security Agency (NSA) who now consults with various government agencies, including the FBI. And the dead woman is identified as Anne Berkshire, a substitute teacher at a Catholic school and a volunteer for a local hospice.

At first, the crime seems inexplicable since Dabney is a successful, happily married man with four grown daughters. As Decker's team investigates, though, they learn that Dabney had an inoperable brain tumor and an aneurysm, which would have killed him within months. Moreover, Dabney recently paid 10 million dollars to cover a huge gambling debt.

As for Berkshire, she seems to be an enigma. Despite having a modest salary, the teacher owned a multimillion dollar condominium and a very expensive Mercedes. On top of that, Berkshire's searchable past ends ten years ago, beyond which there is no record of her.

Dabney's wife and daughters are unable to provide any information about the tragedy. They're grief stricken by Dabney's death and flummoxed by the gambling obligation. Or are they? Things are more complicated than they seem, and get even more obscure when another murder occurs.

Decker's team is in the midst of investigating the Dabney murder/suicide when Agent Harper Brown from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) waltzes in, says she's taking over the case for national security reasons, and demands all the FBI's files. Of course Decker isn't about to let his case get hijacked, and continues to make inquiries - raking his prodigious memory for relevant clues. The DIA and FBI end up working together, which works out well all around.

To reveal more about the mystery would give away spoilers, so I'll just say the story has lots of twists, Decker and Jamison run up against some extremely dangerous people, and the book has a dramatic climax.

A secondary thread of the story involves Decker and Jamison becoming apartment mates and building managers in a run-down edifice recently purchased by Melvin Mars - a man they helped in a previous book. Melvin plans to upgrade the tenement to provide nice apartments for low-income families.

As residents of the old building, Decker and Jamison become acquainted with a tenant named Tomas Amaya and his eleven-year-old son Danny. Amaya is on the outs with neighborhood gangbangers, and Decker's interference in the situation leads to grave danger for himself and Jamison. This secondary plot introduces a second set of 'bad guys', which led to some confusion (for me) about which criminals did what.

For romance fans, there's a budding love story in the novel, which leads to friction between the female characters.....but not for the reasons you might think. There's also an interesting theme about the damage caused by sports-enhancement drugs, which I found intriguing.

All in all, I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to fans of thrillers.

Rating: 3 stars

Friday, March 16, 2018

Review of "Exclusive" by Sandra Brown

After having coffee with First Lady Vanessa Merritt, whose baby recently died from SIDS, TV reporter Barrie Travis decides - with just about zero evidence - that the baby was murdered and sets out to prove it. This leads to big trouble because President David Merritt, who is as corrupt as they come and has his own hit squad, doesn't relish adverse publicity for his administration.

Looking for evidence Barrie tracks down Gray Bondurant, a former advisor to the President who allegedly had an affair with Vanessa. Barrie travels to Gray's ranch in Wyoming and falls into bed with the handsome hottie minutes after meeting him. He is the strong silent type though, and refuses to give out much info. Nevertheless, the reporter becomes more and more convinced that something is rotten in the Merritt administration and continues to snoop; Gray, apparently smitten after sex with Barrie, follows her back to Washington to watch her back.

As the President scrambles to hide his past actions, protect himself from bad publicity, and win a second term he plans to kill off anyone who might expose him, including his wife. This all plays out more or less as you might expect and leads to a conclusion that doesn't quite jive with all the characters' personalities.

To me the plot of this book was unbelievable, over the top, and full of clichés. There were also too many gratuitous, repetitive sex scenes. This might be an okay beach or plane read, but I wouldn't have missed anything by skipping it.

Rating: 2 stars

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Review of "Righteous: An IQ Novel" by Joe Ide

This is the second book in Joe Ide's "IQ" series, about Isaiah Quintabe (nicknamed IQ) - a brilliant twentysomething investigator who uses Sherlock Holmes-like insights to resolve his cases. IQ, who lives and works around Los Angeles, generally takes local jobs like getting a bully to stop bothering the science club kids and warning off an abusive spouse. Many of IQ's clients are financially strapped, so they pay in baked goods, produce, chickens, and the like.

Isaiah idolized his older brother Marcus, who was killed by a hit-and-run driver eight years ago. The incident devastated Isaiah and changed the trajectory of his life. Instead of heading off to Harvard as Marcus wanted, Isaiah dropped out of high school and became a thief. He then mended his ways and set himself up as the local detective.

Just recently, IQ was in a junkyard and spotted the vehicle that killed his brother. From clues in the car, Isaiah figured out that Marcus was deliberately murdered, and vowed to track down the perpetrator(s) and get revenge.

While IQ is looking into his brother's death he gets a call from Marcus's one-time girlfriend Sarita Van, who's now a lawyer. Sarita tells Isaiah that her younger sister Janine, who works as a DJ in Las Vegas, is in bad trouble. The DJ and her useless boyfriend Benny are gambling addicts and owe a lot of money to loan sharks. Thus the duo are in danger of getting beat up.....or even killed. Isaiah, who's had a crush on Sarita for years, says he'll go to Vegas to help out - hoping this gives him a shot with the beautiful lawyer.

IQ wants backup for the Vegas job, so he looks up his old partner in crime Juanell Dodson, who now owns a food truck and is an expectant father - looking forward to raising 'L'il Tupac' with his girlfriend Cerise. Dodson is always trying to prove that he's just as smart as Isaiah, and constantly attempts to get the jump on IQ's lightning-quick insights. This doesn't work and leads to friction between the pair.

The action in the book jumps back and forth between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and is interspersed with flashbacks to the backstories of some characters. This can be confusing so the reader needs to pay close attention.

In Los Angeles, IQ drops in on various gang members and criminals, thinking they might have information about his brother's death. This leads to run-ins with dangerous Mexican gangbangers like Frankie - who thinks Marcus robbed him; Ramona - who'd kill you as soon as look at you; and Manzo - a tough guy who's trying to take his gang into upscale enterprises like real estate. Isaiah also seeks out Seb - a dapper little real estate magnate/money launderer whose leg was chopped off by a Tutsi tribesman in East Africa; and Gahigi - Seb's enigmatic right-hand man, who looks a bear gouged grooves into his head. Step by step, Isaiah gains insight into his brother's death.

Meanwhile, in Las Vegas Janine and Benny decide to steal computer records from Ken Van (Janine and Sarita's father), who's the accountant for a Chinese gang of human traffickers. The DJ and her boyfriend figure they'll extort the gang for cash to pay their debts. After this idiotic maneuver, the duo are in the deadly sights of the Chinese mob AND Leo the loan shark, who runs around with a 7-foot-tall gargoyle called Balthazar who 'only needs bolts in the side of his head to look like Frankenstein's big brother' and whose 'backpack fit like a cupcake stuck on his spine.'

When IQ and Dodson try to help Janine and Benny, the gangbangers and thugs go after them as well. Thus there's plenty of action - with pain, injuries and near-death (or real death) experiences for everyone involved.

Isaiah, who was a colorful firecracker in the first book, is more subdued and less interesting in this second installment. He constantly daydreams about Sarita (this is too icky) and demonstrates very little of the sparkling repartee that made him so much fun the first time around. On the upside, Isaiah is solicitous of his new pitbull Ruffin, and meets an interesting girl in the junkyard....who provides good advice about training the pooch.

As Isaiah works to identify his brother's killer and to solve Janine's predicament, the two cases come together in an unforeseen - and rather inventive - fashion.

Though 'Righteous' isn't quite as good as 'IQ' (IMO) I enjoyed the book and recommend it to fans of thrillers. I look forward to the next IQ book, where I hope Isaiah will recapture his zing. :)

Rating: 3 stars