Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Review of "In This Grave Hour" by Jacqueline Winspear

On the day Britain enters World War II, private detective Maisie Dobbs gets a visit from her old colleague, Dr. Francesca Thomas. Francesca, a Belgian national, asks Maisie to investigate the death of Frederick Addens - a Belgian refugee who came to Britain as a teenager during World War I.....and never went home. Instead, Addens made a life in England and became a railway engineer.

Addens was shot in the head while kneeling, which seems like deliberate murder to Francesca. However, Detective Chief Inspector Caldwell of Scotland Yard contends that the railway man was killed during a robbery. Moreover, Scotland Yard is especially taxed during the gear up for war, and isn't making much progress catching Addens' killer. So Maisie takes Francesca's case and starts looking into Addens' death with the assistance of her employees, Billy and Sandra.

Shortly afterward another Belgian refugee from World War I - a banker named Albert Durant - is killed. Scotland Yard again connects the homicide with a robbery. However, Maisie learns that both Addens and Durant were shot with the same kind of gun, and concludes that the killings are linked.

Maisie interviews people who assist Belgian war refugees.....and some of them also turn up dead. The detective decides that the key to all these murders lies in Belgium, and makes her way there - a VERY diffcult undertaking during wartime. While on the continent, Maisie gleans information that helps her solve the crimes.

Though the murder mystery is at the heart of the story, the book provides fascinating glimpses into London during the early days of World War II. Everyone carries gas masks at all times, barrage balloons hover above the city, and blackouts are mandatory at night - when even a tiny chink of light will garner a visit from the 'light police.' In addtion, many children are evacuated to the country, and schools are re-purposed for wartime activities.

A secondary plotline involves the evacuation of a small girl named Anna, about five years old, to Chelstone Manor - the estate of Maisie's patron. At the manor, Maisie's father and stepmother help look after the child, whose family is unknown. Furthermore, Anna refuses to speak and clings tenaciously to a little suitcase she brought along. When Maisie visits Chelstone Manor she's very taken with the girl, and becomes determined to help her. Maisie's dad warns his daughter not to get too involved with Anna - who will have to leave at some point - but Maisie can't help herself. This part of the story is sweet and moving.

The war causes all kinds of concerns. Maisie's office assistant Sandra - who's pregnant - is worried about bringing a child into a conflicted world. Everyone thinks about the inevitable rationing of food and fuel. People are frightened of German bombs. And so on.

There are a great many ancillary characters in the story, and I had some trouble remembering who's who. All in all, however, I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to fans of historical mysteries.

This is the 13th book in the Maisie Dobbs series, but can be read as a standalone without missing much.

Rating: 3 stars

Monday, August 14, 2017

Review of "Anatomy of a Scandal" by Sarah Vaughan

James Whitehouse seems to have it all. He grew up privileged, went to school at Eton and Oxford, and is now a junior government minister with a promising future. James has a beautiful wife, Sophie, and two sweet children, Emily and Toby - whom he dotes on. For her part, Sophie adores her husband - a tall, handsome, charismatic man who still makes her heart flutter after twelve years of marriage.

Unfortunately, a costly mistake is about to shatter James' world.

James was a 'player' in his youth, and Oxford University was a particularly rich playground. James and Sophie became a couple at college, but James still hooked up with other co-eds all the time - thinking it was his natural right. James and Sophie broke up for other reasons, but met again seven years later - and got married. Once he wed, James made up his mind to be a faithful husband and good father - and he stuck to his pledge for a long time.....until five months ago.

At that time James started an affair with his parliamentary researcher, Olivia Lytton - a lithe, blonde, beautiful 28-year-old. The affair began almost accidentally, but escalated to the point where James and Olivia shared a hotel room at a Tory party conference. James broke off the liaison soon afterward, leaving Olivia bereft and heartbroken. Nevertheless, a week or so later James and Olivia had one last romp in an elevator in Parliament - an equivocal incident that Olivia now views as rape. The authorities agree with her, and James is put on trial.

The story is told from the rotating points of view of several of the main characters, including James, his wife Sophie, and QC Kate Woodcroft, who's prosecuting the case. The story also has flashbacks to the early 1990s, when James and other characters were students at Oxford.

In the present, Sophie is crushed by her husband's perfidy. But she's a political wife, and feels pressured to put the best face on things. Sophie talks about her raw emotions, her concerns about her children, her belief in James' innocence, and the terrible impact the trial has on her. She also remembers back when she was a co-ed in college, where she was a rower with high hopes for her future.

QC Kate is thrilled to have such a high profile case to prosecute. The lawyer is divorced with no children, and devotes most of her time to work. Socially, Kate likes to visit with her best friend Ali, and has the occasional tryst with Richard, her married former pupil-master.

Kate believes that Olivia was raped, and badly wants James to be found guilty. She's aware, though, that a jury will be reluctant to convict a respected government official - especially one as good-looking and charming as James. Thus, Kate's quite anxious about the trial.

For his part, James feels guilty about the affair with Olivia, and wants to make things right with his wife. Assuming he gets exonerated of the rape charge, James thinks he can survive the scandal and rehabilitate his career. That's because James is best friends with the current Prime Minister, Tom Southern.

James and Tom met at Eton, and attended Oxford together. There they belonged to an elite dining club called The Libertines, who were renowned for their bad behavior.....generally smoothed over with large handfuls of cash. In 1993, an unfortunate incident at Oxford left Tom in James' debt. In fact, Tom owes James big time!

The book is largely a character study, showing how people are molded by their life experiences - and how they react to a humiliating public scandal. James' trial and its aftermath are compelling, and I was curious to see the ramifications for everyone involved. I'm not a proponent of 'stand by your man no matter what', so I especially wanted to find out what Sophie does. I won't say any more because of spoilers.

The storyline seems quite realistic, since sexual peccadillos among prominent men are a dime a dozen. Just off the top of my head: Bill Clinton, David Petraeus, Eliot Spitzer, Gary Condit, John Edwards, Mark Sanford, Anthony Weiner.....and fictional Peter Florrick (The Good Wife) and Fitzgerald Grant (Scandal). On that note - except for the addition of the alleged rape - the story in 'Anatomy of a Scandal' isn't that original.

It might be an intriguing change to see a book about an unfaithful woman Prime Minister (or whatever) whose husband has to 'stand by his gal.' (LOL) Still, this type of gossipy tale is always engaging and - for the most part - I enjoyed the book.

On the downside the characters inner musings are excessive, and there's too much minutiae in each of their narratives....too much description of every little thing they say and do. This slowed down the story and made me impatient to get on with the action.

All in all, this is a good suspense novel, and I'd recommend it to fans of that genre.

Thanks to Netgalley, the author (Sarah Vaughan), and the publisher (Atria/Emily Bestler Books) for a copy of the book.

Rating: 3 stars

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Review of "Curse of the Spellmans" by Lisa Lutz

Thirty-year-old Isabel (Izzy) Spellman - as well as her mom, dad, and teenage sister Rae - all work for the family private detective business. Spying seems to be ingrained in the Spellman DNA because, besides taking on cases, they constantly snoop on each other and anyone else who comes into their orbit.

Izzy is always on the alert for a new boyfriend (or as she puts it, a new future ex-boyfriend), so an attractive fellow who moves in next door to the Spellmans quickly catches her eye. Izzy immediately becomes suspicious, though, because the guy's name is John Brown (sounds phony) and he's a landscaper (seems fishy). John Brown soon becomes "The Subject" of Izzy's inquiries and she engages in various ruses to try to discover his place and date of birth and his SS number - so she can pry into his life. The subject is pretty cagey though and Izzy is stymied. Then, when nosey Izzy discovers that the subject keeps a door in his apartment locked, she becomes obsessed with getting into the closed room. Izzy's increasingly desperate (and funny) attempts to break in eventually lead to a restraining order and four arrests....a serious matter, because she could lose her P.I. licence.

All this is quite entertaining and leads Izzy to other humorous situations including: meetings with a wise octogenarian lawyer who can't get the temperature of his coffee quite right; staying with a staid police inspector who has a lot of house rules; watching a bunch of episodes of "Dr. Who"; paying her teen sister Rae (a very tough negotiator) for services rendered; and more.

Meanwhile, Izzy is trying to find out who's committing vandalism on a retired teacher's yard displays....a crime that eerily resembles some of Izzy's youthful misbehavior. To top it off, EVERY member of the Spellman family seems to have a secret. Dad is working out on the sly and eating healthy; mom is creeping out at night; Rae has mysterious new friends; and attorney brother David is (uncharacteristically) dirty and drunk. Of course Izzy feels compelled to find out what's going on with everyone.

The book is entertaining but I found Izzy to be irritating. She has no boundaries, is intrusive, never asks permission, and seems oblivious of other people's feelings. In real life a person who met Izzy would probably want to move to the other side of the country.....or world. Still, the story is fun and would probably appeal to fans of comical cozy mysteries.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Review of "Remains of Innocence" by J.A. Jance

Massachusetts resident Selma Matchett, a cantakerous, mean-sprited hoarder, is estranged from both her children, Liza and Guy. When Selma enters hospice care, Liza cleans out her mom's house and finds nearly $150,000 hidden in books and magazines. Liza proceeds to spend some of the cash to renovate her mother's decrepit house for sale. Then, at Selma's funeral, an old man approaches Liza and tells her that be once knew her long-absent father and that Liza needs to be careful because some people 'don't forget'. Murder and mayhem soon begin and Liza takes off across the country on the 'underground railroad' operated by long-haul truckers, which is meant for abused women. Liza's plan is to get to her older brother Matthew in Bisbee, Arizona to see if he can explain what's going on.

Meanshile, across the country in Bisbee, Sheriff Joanna Brady has a lot to deal with. Junior, a handicapped man beloved by his adoptive parents and the community, is found murdered - his body lying in a cave with the remains of several abused animals and a live but tortured kitten. Joanna fears a budding serial killer might be responsible. The medical examiner, Dr. Guy Matchett (Liza's brother), is scheduled to do Junior's autopsy but he is soon found brutally murdered himself, his body showing evidence of torture. Joanna thinks the Junior and Guy deaths are unrelated and - when she's contacted by authorities in Massachusetts looking for Liza - concludes there's a connection between the crimes in Massachusetts and what happened to Guy Matchett.

The story skips back and forth between Liza's trek across the U.S. and Joanna's investigations in Arizona. Liza is handed off from one long haul rig to another and meets a series of interesting personalities along the way. In the Arizona sections, Joanna has a competent team of deputies and crime scene analysts and their work is well-described and informative. Joanna's family also plays a part in the story, including her supportive husband Butch, rodeo-loving daughter Jenny, and the family dogs and horses. This adds a homey touch to the book.

Joanna solves Junior's murder with the help of forensic evidence and the Matchett case with the help of federal authorities. The Machett solution, however, didn't quite ring true for me. This book is a fine addition to the Joanna Brady series and recommended for mystery fans.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Review of "Bad Blood" by Arne Dahl

Stockholm's Intercrime Unit A squad deals with serious crimes that extend beyond Sweden's borders. As this second book in the Nordic crime series opens, the team hasn't had a case in quite some time and is concerned about being split up.

Before that happens though, the FBI calls Unit A leader, Detective Superintendent Jan-Olov Hultin, to report that a Swedish literary critic named Lars-Erik Hassel has been murdered at Newark International Airport.....and the killer is on a plane headed for Stockholm.

The FBI tells DS Hultin that - before he was killed - critic Hassel was rendered mute by a diabolical device inserted into his neck.....and mercilessly tortured. This is the modus operandi of a serial murderer called the Kentucky Killer, who first used this torture method during the Vietnam War - to squeeze information out of the enemy. Afterwards, the Kentucky Killer employed this technique for his own deadly purposes. However, the Kentucky Killer died in a fiery car crash many years ago. So it looks like a copycat killer is on his way to Sweden.

Detectives from Unit A are deployed to Stockholm Airport to try to apprehend the copycat when he deplanes. However, there are too many passengers and too much confusion, and the murderer gets away. As the intercrime unit waits for the killer to make his next move they investigate Lars-Erik Hassel, to see who might have wanted the literary critic dead. Turns out Hassel was a self-important snob who mistreated his former wives and skewered many writers, ruining their careers. Almost everyone disliked Hassel, including his son. Was Hassel's murder random? A hit? Something else?

Meanwhile, the copycat killer gets busy in Sweden, and dead bodies turn up here and there. The police try to see connections among the victims, but make slow progress. Thus two members of Unit A, Detective Paul Hjelm and Detective Kerstin Holm, fly to the U.S. to consult FBI Special Agent Ray Larner - who spent years pursuing the Kentucky Killer. Hjelm and Holm makes important discoveries in America.....and their colleagues back home also obtain new evidence. This leads to some startling discoveries and a dramatic denouement.

The detectives in Unit A are an interesting bunch who navigate diverse private and professional lives. Paul Hjelm and Kirstin Holm deal with the aftermath of their illicit affair; Gunnar Nyberg - a former Mr. Sweden - is torn with guilt about his previous bad behavior; computer whiz Jorge Chavez adds a light, exotic touch to the team; and so on. The ongoing characters add engaging elements to the novel.

Although this is the second book in the series, it can be read as a standalone. I enjoyed the story and recommend it to fans of Scandinavian thrillers.

Rating: 3 stars

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Review of "The Handsome Man's Deluxe Café" by Alexander McCall Smith

As the story opens Mma Precious Ramotswe has made her assistant, Mma Grace Makutsi - now happily married with a new baby - a partner in the "No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency." This makes little difference to Grace's job duties, however, since business is sparse. Economic problems also make it necessary for Mma Ramotswe's husband, Mr. J.L.B. Mateconi - who owns a garage - to fire his lackadaisical apprentice Charlie. Feeling bad for Charlie, Mma Ramotswe offers him a position in her detective agency - a chancy proposition since Charlie would rather put on flashy outfits and chase ladies than do his work.

Meanwhile Mma Ramotswe is looking into the case of an Indian woman, called "Mrs." who apparently has lost her memory. Mrs. has been taken in by a kindly Indian brother and sister who hire Mma Ratowswe to find out who Mrs. is before the authorities deport her to South Africa.

Also on Mma Ramotswe's mind is a new project of Mma Makutski, who has decided to open a café and call it "The Handsome Man's Deluxe Café." Unfortunately Mma Makutski has little knowledge of the restaurant industry and makes some unfortunate hiring and menu decisions.

As always in this series the story meanders along, with many cups of tea and homey chit-chat among the characters. Mma Makutski, a strong-minded lady with definite opinions, is her usual abrasive - though amusing - self and Mma Ramotswe does her best to smooth things over as always.

As a heads up to mystery lovers I'll say there's little mystery or detective work in this book. It's more of an update about what the familiar, well-liked characters are up to. The author's relaxed method of story-telling is what makes these books charming and enjoyable and fans of the series will probably like this book.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Review of "Deal Breaker" by Harlan Coben

Myron Bolitar was a basketball phenomenon in high school and college and an early draft pick for the NBA. Unfortunately he was severely injured in his first exhibition game and had to quit basketball. Instead Myron got a law degree and became a sports representative. Now in his early thirties Myron represents a small stable of players, including football player Christian Steele - a star college quarterback who's just been drafted by the Titans.

Myron is a master of wisecracks and sarcastic remarks and is endlessly amusing to himself (and probably many readers). He reminds me of Robert B. Parker's 'Spenser' and Rex Stout's 'Archie' in the Nero Wolfe books.

In any case, Myron is having trouble negotiating Christian's contract because the thuggish owner of the Titans, wanting to knock down the pay package, says Christian has a public relations problem. His beautiful girlfriend Kathy Culver disappeared 18 months ago and Christian was suspected of being involved. And Kathy (or her body) has never been found.

Just before training camp begins Christian, in a highly agitated state, calls Myron. Someone has sent him the latest edition of 'Nips' Magazine, a soft-porn rag that contains ads for phone sex. Shockingly, one of the ads features a nude picture of Kathy. Moreover Christian received a phone call from someone who sounds like his missing girlfriend.

At about the same time Myron's drop-dead gorgeous ex-girlfriend Jessica Culver (Kathy's older sister) shows up. Dr. Culver, her pathologist father, was just killed by a mugger and Jessica thinks this might be connected to Kathy's vanishing. Since Myron has known investigative skills, Jessica asks him to look into it.

So Myron investigates, with the help of his old college roommate Windsor Horne Lockwood III. Win is a rich, blonde, handsome, American aristocrat - but his dapper, dandyish appearance is misleading. Win is a sixth degree black belt in Tae Kwan Do, handy with guns, and perfectly happy to maim and kill his (or Myron's) enemies if necessary. In fact, Win is a sociopath (but a lovable one if he's on your side).

As Myron does the dual jobs of working out Christian's contract and looking into the 'Nips' and Kathy situation he comes across various thugs and shady characters as well as a college dean, a seductive married woman, a detective, Dr. Culver's best friend, a porn magazine publisher, a porn photographer, Kathy's mother, former college football players, and more. Most of the male characters are flat and blur together, so I had a problem remembering who was who. We do get to meet a regular in the series, Myron's assistant Esperanza - a Latin fireball who used to wrestle under the moniker 'Little Pocahontas'. Esperanza is always an entertaining senorita.

The first two-thirds or so of the book moves along pretty smoothly. Then, when Myron starts to figure out the truth about Kathy's disapperance, the story gets convoluted, confusing, and (frankly) not believable. Another irritant in the book is Myron's constant gushing about how beautiful his ex-girlfriend Jessica is. He mentions this on about every third or fourth page. At one point Jessica walks past an elegant society party and the jaws of ALL the men in the room drop as they turn to stare at her. (Come on!!! Really???)

It feels like, in this first book, Harlen Coben hasn't found his 'Myron Bolitar' legs yet. The book reminds me of the pilot episode of a TV series that starts out shaky but gets better later on. Overall I'd mildly recommend this book to mystery fans - not for the story but for a first meeting with characters that might just become favorites over time.

Rating: 3 stars