All posts by annie66

Interns Need Not Apply

Lest you think that I absolutely love every book that I read, I thought I’d let you know that isn’t true.  Case in point, The Intern’s Handbook by Shane Kuhn.  Now, to be sure, I typically only post about (or review) books that I like.  And as a sometimes writer myself, I am loathe to criticize any book in its entirety.  I mean, completing a book, getting it published (or even self-publishing it) is a BIG deal!  Kudos to all authors who slog through the writing process and put something out there for the universe to peruse.  On that score, and a number of others, Kuhn delivers and deserves great credit.   His is a tight, fast-paced thriller that makes for quick reading.

But, here’s what I had trouble with.


First, Kuhn is obviously not a lawyer but chooses to set his book in the context of a “high powered” NYC law firm.  I’m not opposed to non-lawyers writing about the legal scene — I’m sure most do a better job of it than we do.  But, get it mostly right.  Although it might seem to be the case that law firms should employ law school grads as unpaid interns, that just isn’t how things work; at least not at the “big” firms.  Twenty-five years ago, and still true today, big firms pluck law students for lucrative summer associate gigs, paying extremely high salaries, and wining and dining the students throughout the summer in an effort to convince these students (or very recent grads) that they should come work at the firm.  Now, sure, the legal market is much “tougher” these days than it was when I was in law school.  So, not as much wining and dining goes on, and not as many students get post-summer offers, and not as many get summer associate gigs to begin with.  But, law students get paid and paid big.  They are lawyers (or soon to be lawyers, after all) and know all about wage and hour laws, and labor conditions and word-of-mouth slamming that would kill a firm’s pipeline to the best and brightest coming out of school.

Second, at least as far as I have ever been aware, summer associates, associates, interns — whatever you want to call them — are NOT put through “boot camp” by a drill sergeant type manager, as in Kuhn’s imaginary firm.

Third, Kuhn writes that one of the oldest and most respected NYC firms is headed up by three alive-and-well “name” partners,  each with a somewhat nefarious past that would presumably set them up for the type of “hit” that HR, Inc’s interns would carry out.  The big, established  firms in NYC are “named” for men long since dead, and are “headed” by committees of men (and a few women) — not rogue men with only a couple of decades of practice.  To be sure, there are profitable firms of the type Kuhn describes, but they wouldn’t be in a position to have a huge “summer associate” program and they wouldn’t be the type that most of the top law school grads would be vying to work at.  To be sure, many of these profitable firms are likely run by corrupt partners, but the level at which Kuhn describes would just not exist at the big, established firm he wants us to believe Lago works at.

Fourth, after a little sucking up and delivering “billable hours” via no longer f’d up files (what??), Lago goes from being unpaid intern to full-on paid associate.  Don’t even get me started.  None of it makes sense and more importantly, none of these little things really matter to the plot.  I mean would it really matter if Lago had been a paid summer associate?  Would it really matter if Lago had been hired as an associate?  Would it really matter if Lago had been working as an intern at an ad agency (where Kuhn’s background lies, and where (apparently) college grads do work as unpaid interns at the big agencies?  No, it would not matter because whether paid or unpaid, the premise that senior people pay no attention to junior people would still hold true, and at least some tether to reality would exist.

So, from the get go, I am pissed off at John Lago (the intern-cum-assasin who is writing the “handbook” as a kind of how-to guide for others who may follow in his wake).  I am pissed off at Kuhn for setting the scene so inaccurately, and for no apparent reason.

But, I’m pretty sure Kuhn is not particularly interested in reality.  Rather, he paints a gimmicky tale of orphans who become trained assassins, and then are “planted” as interns in the firms and companies of those who their firm (HR, Inc.) has been hired to take out.   So, putting aside all of the above (which, I recognize, seems pretty nit-picky), I tried to settle down to the book and the “mystery” taking place.  But I was painfully aware that I was reading.  That might not make sense to you, but to me, the truly enjoyable books are ones that I get lost in reading.  I become a part of the world of the characters.  Not so here.  Kuhn’s snark oozes from every word and the whole thing is just too clever by half.

There are twists and turns in the book, to be sure.  Particularly at the end where Lago warns the reader that is “sick of my blathering” to simply stop reading.  I thought about doing that.  But, I kept reading and the ending was not at all what I expected.  So, maybe that is a good thing in a mystery — unpredictability.  The fight scenes are highly readable and I give props to Kuhn for his pacing.  The book is a page-turner for sure and the ending is truly fitting for the tone of the rest of the book.

Kuhn doesn’t play fair with his information though and, in fact, misleads the reader with his DOJ recordings of various conversations between Lago and other antagonists, including the embedded FBI agent, Alice, and Lago’s long-lost father, Marcus.  The technique was a clever way to present the dialogue without Lago narrating or recounting these conversations.  But, at the end of the book, the reader is left wondering WTF?!

If you like crazy action, adrenaline-inducing fight scenes, are not a lawyer and never hope to be one, and can suspend your disbelief, this book may be for you.  If not, then pass it by.  Either way, happy reading!

Mr. Mercedes . . . Bow Down to Mr. King

51D0welpt7L._AA160_Stephen King’s latest, Mr. Mercedes, just left my bedside table.  And it was a short stay.  Like most of King’s novels, this one was hard to put down.  King has a brilliant way of writing words that read like oxygen, and nitrogen and carbon dioxide enter the body.  In and out they go, without a flinch, without a pause.  It is, for me, the ease of his prose that has fueled the long-term affair I’ve had with King.  His latest, Mr. Mercedes, only ups the ante.

The subject matter, an evil serial killer, is hardly the comfort food for the soul that you might think might stoke a reader’s fire.  But, King’s ability to delve into the mind of the killer, and not make you scream and shiver and throw the book across the room is tribute to his gift.

As far as twist and turn, can’t figure out who did it mystery goes, there is really no “mystery” here.  By page forty (in a 400+ page book), we know who the crazy, maniacal killer is:  Brady Hartsfield.  Despite Hartsfield’s protestations, we know he will strike again, and often we know exactly how he intends to do it.    But, King manages, nevertheless,  to keep us on edge throughout, weaving the trajectories of his main characters, Hartsfield and Det. Ret. Bill Hodges, with nary  a wasted word or phrase.

We discover early on that Brady has carried out a sick and twisted attack on people waiting in line at an early morning job fair, using a stolen Mercedes.  The detectives on the case (including then Det. Hodges) easily trace that Mercedes to Olivia Trelawney, a rich, neurotic widow who is far more concerned about when her car will be returned to her than the countless victims mowed down by her 12-cylinder killing machine.  Describing the scene, King deftly gives a shout-out to himself, conjuring up visions of the murderous Plymouth from Christine (likewise, he later calls out Pennywise from It).  To be sure, the reader will benefit from having read King before, if nothing not for his ability to convey yet another a kick-ass story.  But if this is your first King book, fear not.  Read on, and then pick up more, starting maybe with Doctor Sleep, the sort-of sequel to The Shining.

Anyway, while investigating Mr. Mercedes, the detectives go hard at Mrs. Trelawney, suggesting that her negligence in leaving her car unlocked, with the keys in it, at the very least “enabled” Mr. Mercedes to perpetrate his heinous crime.  We later learn that Hartsfield has manipulated the vulnerable Trelawney into feeling very guilty about his crime, leading to her eventual suicide, a feat he attempts to repeat with the now retired, and very bored, Det. Ret. Hodges.  But Hodges doesn’t respond the way that Hartsfield thinks he will.  He goes full-on rogue, Rambo in an effort to take him down, and enlists some unlikely allies, Jerome, a brilliantly savvy and droll high school student, Janey Trelawney’s sexy, recently-divorced sister, and Holly, Trelawney’s  a painfully neurotic cousin who happens to be a computer savant.

King manages to build suspense even though we are pretty much privy to everything that Hartsfield intends to do.  King is more than willing to “off” major characters (much to my chagrin) but he never invents plot twists or payoffs.  His writing is unwavering in what feels true to what these characters would do or think.

I’ve never met a serial killer, but King makes me feel as if I had after reading this book and I’m not really sure whether that is good or bad.  But, it seems authentic, and is entirely addictive.

Pick up Mr. Mercedes, but not if you have a deadline or have “chos for hos” as Jerome would say.  You won’t get anything much done until you’ve followed Hartsfield, Hodges and crew to the bitter end.  Happy Reading!




Oh Montalbano!

51IDxojyNnLI will blame my friend Sue for my recent lag in posts.  Unfairly, but I will blame her nonetheless because she casually mentioned as our carts passed at the grocery store that I needed to try reading the “Inspector Montalbano” mystery books, set in Sicily (from which she had just returned).  Sixteen books and several weeks later, I am coming up for air, dreaming of chucking it all and moving to the southern Sicilian coast.

Set in Sicily, the books follow Chief Inspector Salvo Montalbano, a fifty-something detective who is disgusted with the rampant corruption that seems to permeate Sicilian (and, indeed, Italian) government and society, but nevertheless is more than willing to bend every rule he encounters in the course of his investigations (albeit, usually, with the admirable quest for “truth and justice” as his rationale).  Unknown

He is a glutton (mostly for seafood, but certainly for wine and whiskey as well), and  almost always follows his gorgefests with a constitutional walk down the pier to his favorite rock.  Apparently, this keeps away the pounds because he is described (or at least perceived) as fit, sexy and suave.  And, I admit that I envisioned Montalbano much the way TV producers must have —  see the above photo of Luca Zingaretti, the actor who plays Montalbano in the popular TV series.  Salvo believes, as does apparently every man in Sicily, that all young, sexy women want him, and maybe with good reason.   Despite having a long-time girlfriend, Livia (more on her later), he frequently “diverges” with these women, or they end up losing their heads over him, or he over them, or some combination of the above.

Salvo is surrounded by a team every bit as colorful and flawed.  His second-in-command, lothario Mimi Augello, often butts heads with Salvo.  Mimi is more of a rule-follower than Salvo (except when it comes to his wedding vows), and often is team’s tether to the “official” team in Montelusa (based on the actual city of Agrigento) who is usually at odds with our merry band.  Mimi’s exploits with women often lurk in the background, but in one of the more disturbing books, The Potter’s Field, Mimi’s relationship with the prime suspect drives Salvo and the others to act in strange ways.

Detective Fazio is Salvo’s most reliable lieutenant.  He has a “records-office” obsession with dates, names, relationships, a steady relationship with his wife, and more often-than-not, is Salvo’s reluctant conscience.  Catarella is Salvo’s naive, clumsy junior officer, who can’t say or spell a name correctly to save his life, but is also somewhat of a savant with computers.   Prosecutor Tommaseo is the sex-crazed judge, relied on by the team to issue warrants, approve investigations and interrogate attractive, female victims and witnesses.  Doctor Pasquano, the cranky criminal pathologist with a gambling habit, is a worthy foil for Salvo, trading barbs and insults, but every bit as focused as Salvo on nailing the “bad guys”.

For the most part, these books (as I imagine Sicilian society to be) are male-driven.  Salvo has women in his life, but they definitely play a backseat role – there largely for his convenience, both culinary and amorously.  His long-time girlfriend, Livia, lives on the mainland, near Naples in Boccadesso.  She is in her thirties, described as beautiful and hot-headed.  I’m not altogether sure how the two met, and I’m not altogether sure why they stay together.  They fight constantly, disagree about most major issues (morality, religion, government).  In fact, I find myself very often annoyed at Livia, but really, I should find myself annoyed at Salvo who has repeatedly cheated on her, both physically and emotionally, left her stranded at the airport, at his house, or forgotten about her entirely.  My biggest complaint with these books is the Salvo-Livia relationship, largely because I don’t understand what it does for either party.  But, in the end, the relationship is every bit as complicated as those we have in real life, and perhaps Camilleri deserves kudos for offering the reader a realistic picture of sloppy, messy love, as opposed to the saccharine version so often portrayed in books and film.  Perhaps.  I’m still pondering the whole thing.

Another woman in Salvo’s life is his housekeeper, Adelina.  She is a poorly educated but well-meaning woman who cleans and, most importantly, cooks for Salvo.  Her two sons are in and out of jail – described by Camilleri in sort of a “boys will be boys” kind of way that, irritatingly, seems to be the Sicilian reaction to “minor” crimes like robbery and fraud.   She dislikes Livia and disappears whenever Livia is in town.  In fact, when Livia is in town and Adelina is absent, Salvo’s conflict is most apparent — does he choose food or sex?   As I read the books, I was stunned that this conflict even existed for Salvo, but maybe Camilleri is dead right and the only two things worth worrying about for Salvo are his stomach and, well, you know.  Maybe everything else is just the small stuff.

A beautiful, Swedish woman, Ingrid, is also a recurring female character in these books.  Friends with Salvo (sometimes with friends with benefits) she often jumps in to help with an investigation — distracting a suspect with her beauty, identifying victims and suspects through her wide net of connections, or chauffeuring Salvo to and from crime scenes with her stellar driving skills.  Clearly written as an everyman type of fantasy — come on, what man wouldn’t want a gorgeous blond who was also a race-car mechanic? — I asked myself as I read these books why I even liked Ingrid.  In fact, as I re-read my summary of these characters above, particularly, Salvo, I am now asking myself why I like these somewhat misogynistic misfits.   But I really do.  Credit Camilleri for adding depth to what could be otherwise caricatures.  By not glossing over their faults, particularly in the case of Salvo, he endears these characters, and they have burrowed into my good graces like deer tics.


The final, and perhaps, most enjoyable aspect of all of the Montalbano books is the setting.  The fictional town of Vigata, where Montalbano’s team is located, is based on Porto Embedocle (see left).  Montalbano’s house sits on the beach, and its sand, tide and crystal water feature prominently in every book.  Salvo often goes for a swim to clear his head, and many of the books’ plots revolve around water, boats and fishing.  As noted above, Salvo loves food and throughout the books, his discourse on food whets the appetite, literally and figuratively.  He describes his favorite dishes as a loving parent would a child, and relishes them with the same fervor.  He drives for hours to sample a great antipasti, goes into depression when his favorite trattoria, Enzo’s, closes is shutters for good.

Camilleri’s books are more than simply a food lover’s guide to Sicily, they are a veritable travelogue, inviting the reader to learn about her history and landscapes.  Describing everything from Sicily’s weather, road construction (and deconstruction), deserted terrains, city planning, government and religion, Camilleri has truly made Sicily one of the most layered of characters in his series.

I cannot pick a favorite among the Montalbano series — there are sixteen to choose from, with a seventeenth (and, I think, final) on the way in March.  Potters Field and Treasure Hunt were both excellent in terms of mystery development, but also quite disturbing in terms of plot.  I also really enjoyed Voice of the Violin and The Terra Cotta Dog for their emphasis on Sicilian history and culture.

As you pick up these books, I wish you nothing more than to get lost in them as I did, to question and argue with the characters, and to fantasize at the end of it all, that you’ll wake up on a beach in Sicily, just down the way from Enzo’s as he prepares to open for his evening sitting.  Happy reading!


Big Book of Christmas Mysteries – Part 2

If you’ve finished the first part of the BBoCM, turn to the second part, featuring “A Pulpy Little Christmas”, “An Uncanny Little Christmas”, “A Modern Little Christmas”, “A Puzzling Little Christmas”, and “A Classic Little Christmas”.  If you haven’t, well, get busy.

A Pulpy Little Christmas is fun.  Nothing long or involved, short spurts of dialogue, mostly set in the 40′s and 50′s.  Dead on Christmas Street by John MacDonald features blackmail, a mob boss and a gal Friday – Jane Raymer – who is perhaps the most enjoyable character in the story.  Crime’s Christmas Carol by Norvell Page is a little depressing.  It features a hard-luck couple, each doing something a little foolish (if not illegal) to bring the other some Christmas joy.  Unlike the tone of the story, it ends with a pretty bow on top.  This one didn’t flow well, so if you are skimming, skip this one.  Serenade to a Killer by Joseph Commings was another story that I didn’t love.  It features an improbable “detective” — an overbearing, large Senator who swoops in to help constituents.  I didn’t find that I cared enough about the victim or the suspects to get particularly involved, although the psychological twist in the story is enjoyable.

The “uncanny” stories were not particularly shocking.  Perhaps because our 24-hour news/entertainment TV cycle has numbed us to both the real and unreal.  But I did enjoy the tone and writing by Peter Lovesey in The Haunted Crescent.  Our narrator is a skeptic — invited by friends to spend the night in their “haunted” mansion on Christmas Eve (they are away).  It is reported that every Christmas Eve, a young woman ghost haunts the house.  Our narrator tells us an interesting history story about a tragic love story that is at least as interesting as the “current” story he finds himself in.  Nice twist ending.

A Christmas in Camp by Edmund Cox is small part murder mystery, large part entertaining story set in Victorian era India.  Our narrator, William Trench, is recalling a Christmas camp trip he took with his new wife, his commanding officer (Mr. Carruthers) and another family.  It involves native superstition, a ghostly apparition and a sort of karma-like tale of redemption and gratitude.  A bit dated (and not at all “PC” in the description of native tradition and culture), but also light and still on point with its description of marriage.

A Wreath for Marley by Max Allan Collins is a mash-up of A Christmas Carol  and The Maltese Falcon, complete with a dead partner,  his ne’er-do-well bombshell of a wife, and the ghost of John Dillinger (which, apparently, is pronounced with a hard “g” as in “gun”; according to the ghost).  The story is quite a bit longer than the others in the book and it is (for me) the most enjoyable of the stories in this section — equal parts redemption and grit.

The “scary” section stories do have a harder edge to them.  They aren’t the cozy, off-stage murder in the country home type stories.  In the first, The Carol Singers by Josephine Bell, we are privy to the sad story of an elderly woman, left alone for the holidays.  She is visited by some children caroling, then the second set of “carolers” are really burglars who violently beat her, steal things and leave her for dead.  Her valuable jewels are not stolen but are lost (she hung them as ornaments on her little tree that was thrown in the trash after the police cleared the crime scene).  The mysteries of the murder and the lost jewels are eventually solved, but I was left with a great sadness after reading this story.

My favorite story in this section is The 74th Tale by Jonathan Santlofer.  Our narrator is pretty warped and ends up doing some horrible things, but the tone of writing (and reporting) is highly entertaining. — kind of how I would imagine Holden Caulfield would report to you if he had engaged in some horrible acts, instead of just going to some parties and generally be bored with phonies.  We are slowly brought in to the story, sparked by a book purchased in the Mysterious Bookshop:

I got it [the book] at this place called the Mysterious Bookshop.  Woo, woo, right?  Like it should have been Halloween, not Christmas.  What lured me in were the books in the window, all of those titles with death and murder and blood, which is not something I think about all the time, just on occasion like most people.

You get the idea.  It all starts with a book.  Our narrator often expresses thoughts (including the above) which you think – “Hey.  That could be me!”  But then, he goes a step further and (hopefully) you think – “Oh hell no.  That isn’t me.”

The “account” of the crime we get towards the end of the story is gripping.  Read this one!

The “surprising” section lags a bit.  Tales of island ship wrecks, a fall down the stairs.  Most of the stories are blurry and rambling in tone. I did enjoy the plot of The Chinese Apple by Joseph Shearing.  Truly a good one.  But, his protagonist, Isabelle Crosland, just came across as a whiny twit.  I couldn’t have cared a whit what happened to her and couldn’t figure out why she was so depressed at just having to leave her beloved Florence to set foot in England.  But, anyway, I did enjoy the story and you will as well.

The “modern” section isn’t that modern, but it isn’t trapped in Victorian England either, so perhaps the section deserves its name.  An Early Christmas by Doug Allyn is enjoyable.  We definitely have a mystery that was somewhat unpredictable.  Worth the effort to get through this longish offering.

Three Dot Po by Sara Paretsky is great.  Probably because it is set in Chicago and Peretsky’s description of a wintry, frozen Chicago lakefront was dead on, making me nostalgic and also very happy not to be facing those winters anymore.  The “mystery” isn’t too complex, but we get a nice intro into V.I. Warshawski, a female detective, former attorney, private eye, etc.  Even though one of her friends is killed at the beginning of the story, it doesn’t sink into despair and sadness.  Enjoyable, quick read.

In the “puzzling” section, I enjoyed That’s the Ticket by Mary Higgins Clark.  It was part cautionary tale, part get rich quick scheme, part Dynasty drama, part mystery.  How many parts is that?  It wasn’t really “puzzling” — pretty easy to solve the mystery — and the main character, Ernie, is kind of doofy.  But somehow, the reader is still rooting for him.  Light mystery, and a good one at that.

Ngaio Marsh makes an appearance in the book with Death on the Air, and her appearance is a little too late for me.  Marsh has an excellent ability to lay out the crime, the scene and the characters — unmatched, really.  We dislike Septimus Tonks from page one and we are kind of rooting for the mystery of his murder to go unsolved.  But, solved it is by Alleyn, albeit not in the most satisfying way.  I love her descriptions, particularly of the house and the rooms in it.  If you haven’t read her before, start with this!

The Christmas Kitten by Ed Gorman is also enjoyable.  It reads kind of like a weekly cop show — I was casting it in my head.  McCain is relatable in his crush on Pamela, his hassles with work and his somewhat labored efforts at solving the crime.  But he does and in a classic move, with a little twist.

Finally, we end with some “classics”.  I love, love, love Nero Wolfe stories, and we are treated to a pretty long one in Christmas Party by Rex Stout.  If you are a fan, this one won’t disappoint.  If you haven’t tried a Nero Wolfe story yet, please do.  Sidekick, Archie, tries to pull a prank on Nero (Archie tells Nero that he is getting married (?!!) and, thus, cannot drive him to Long Island to look at orchids) which leads to all manner of confusion.  We are treated to pouting, blackmail, poisoning, mistaken identify, false arrest and, finally, the final showdown among the cast of characters in Nero’s office.  This, alone, was worth the book!

So, there you have it.  The BBoCM is a must for mystery readers this time of year.  If you’re anything like me, you’ll be sorry to finish it.  Happy reading!





Holiday Mysteries

It’s the most wonderful time of the year . . . with the possible exception of back-to-school week after a long and full summer.   But, is it a time for murder most foul?  I say YES!!

As Otto Penzler, editor of The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, reminds us:

It is no great profundity to exclaim that Christmas is the happiest time of the year for all but the most churlish, those who claim they can’t wait for the season to be over because they hate the forced (to them) cheerfulness, the religious aspects of the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ (though, of course, there is no biblical or other evidence to suggest that Jesus was born on December 25), or the crass commercialism of the whole thing.

These curmudgeons will like this book.

photoWell, speaking as a non-curmudgeon of the cheerful, baking, shopping and decorating type, I liked it too.  The BBoCM has something for everyone.  Penzler divides the short stories into several categories:  A Traditional Little Christmas, featuring stories from Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen and Colin Dexter; A Funny Little Christmas, with pieces by John Mortimer and Damon Runyon among others; A Sherlockian Little Christmas, including a  story by Arthur Conan Doyle himself; A Pulpy Little Christmas; An Uncanny Little Christmas; A Scary Little Christmas; A Surprising Little Christmas; A Modern Little Christmas; A Puzzling Little Christmas; and A Classic Little Christmas.  Coming in at 650 pages, the BBoCM is fighting in the same weight class as the Russian fiction classics.  But Penzler’s groupings and story choices are brilliant and leave the reader breezing through the book.  Most pieces are around 10 pages (albeit 10 LARGE pages in double-column and somewhat small font type that challenges the notion that I do not yet need reading glasses).  Just the right length to polish off a story or two at night or in between meetings or events during this otherwise busy time of year.  The stories are so tight and classic that the BBoCM also challenges my general tenet that most books can be borrowed or bought via kindle.  Although my hard copy of the BBoCM is currently on loan from the library, I hope my own copy will find its way into my Christmas stocking.  

There is so much to highlight in the BBoCM that I’m going to take it in sections, starting with the classic, funny and Sherlockian stories in this post.  The classic section begins with a Hercule Poirot little ditty called The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding.  I remember reading this several years ago, and saw the David Suchet rendition of the story on Masterpiece Mystery a few years ago.  As Penzler says in his overview,

The great talent that Dame Agatha brought to her detective stories was the element of surprise, and what could be more surprising than killing someone at what is meant to be the most peaceful, love-filled time of the year?

This story doesn’t disappoint with surprise murders, impersonations, ingestion of priceless gems and cryptic warnings found in pudding.  I won’t give away the twists and turns, but the opening salvo of the BBoCM is fun and classic indeed.

Gold, Frankincense and Murder by Catherine Aird is a bit more cryptic.  Those who like their mysteries wrapped up in a neat little bow (more along the lines of Christie’s traditional “summing up”) may be a little disappointed.  But, it has a nice, traditional English feel, complete with a country house setting, a retired Foreign Office member and a somewhat flamboyant, young doctor’s wife that is more than just a little shocking to those assembled for Christmas Eve dinner.

The Adventure of the Dauphin’s Doll by Ellery Queen (two cousins collaborated to write under this pseudonym, and also named their detective Ellery Queen) is also worth a try in this section.  The “case” involves a doll collection and an elusive thief (Comus) who warns Queen that he plans to steel a valuable doll right from under Queen’s nose — on Christmas Eve.  The twist at the end isn’t all that unpredictable, but the banter between Queen and his father, and the basic plot points are entertaining.

For my money, Colin Dexter’s “Morse” stories are always worthy.  I’m a huge fan of the books, as well as the British television series Inspector Morse.  (FYI, if you like this character, don’t miss Masterpiece Mystery’s new prequel, Morse, set in the 1960′s, just after Endeavor Morse joins the Oxford police force.  In Morse’s Greatest Mystery we aren’t faced with solving a tough mystery, but instead treated to an inside look at Morse’s “soft-side”.  Short and sweet.

I also enjoyed Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Butler’s Christmas Eve.  She sets the scene very well, gives us some rich, feisty characters and adds just a touch of intrigue.  Won’t say more, because I don’t want to give anything away, but read this if you like your mysteries on the “spy side”!

In A Funny Little Christmas, I highly recommend John Mortimer’s Rumpole and the Spirit of Christmas.  Again, many of you may recognize the main character in this story from the PBS series, Rumpole of the Bailey.  Mortimer gives Rumpole edge, sarcasm and humor.  His wife, Hilda (aka She Who Must Be Obeyed) adds her own flavor to the story from entirely off-the-page, and other recurring characters including Prosecutor Basil Wigglesworth round out the story nicely. Not a grisly crime or really even a mystery, but entertaining nonetheless.  Based on this sole recommendation, you might guess that I am not a huge fan of “humorous” murders or mysteries, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying the other pieces in this section.

Finally, I loved the Sherlockian Little Christmas section.  Actually, there were some humorous parodies in this section, including one about Detective Herlock Sholmes (Peter Todd’s The Secret in the Pudding Bag & Herlock Sholmes’s Christmas Case) so maybe what I said about not enjoying humorous mysteries is a bit untrue.  If you have read and re-read Sherlock Holmes, you will find the inside jokes and asides in these stories very entertaining.

A Scandal in Winter, by Gillian Linscott isn’t a parody, but is a clear nod to Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia.  Holmes and Watson figure prominently as Silver Stick and Square Bear (nicknames given to them by an eleven year old girl, Jessica, who encounters the pair in Switzerland where she is vacationing with her family).  Silver Stick engages Jessica to help clear the name of another holiday guest.  It is tidy, descriptive and a worthy sequel for the Conan Doyle characters.

Edward Hoch’s The Christmas Client offers another enjoyable peek at  Holmes and Watson post-Doyle.  The story even features a cryptic mystery and Holmes’s nemesis, Moriarty.  Like many Holmes stories, it involves blackmail, somewhat scandalous behavior and another literary heavyweight, Lewis Carroll.  Truly clever and tight.

Finally, I really enjoyed re-reading The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle by Arthur Conan Doyle.  Penzler aptly puts this classic, original at the end of the section, as if to say, you might have enjoyed what came before this but, really, it doesn’t hold a candle to the masterwork.   Maybe that is a slight exaggeration but on re-reading Conan Doyle, I was impressed with how well this story holds up.  Classic Holmes, it involves a mystery within a mystery involving Christmas geese, a missing gemstone and a bit of a scavenger hunt throughout London.

So, for curmudgeons and mystery readers of all types, dive into the BBoCM and get your holiday twist on.  Happy Reading!


Period Mystery

Another question I am often asked, or ask myself, is whether I prefer “current” mysteries, set more or less in the here and now, or period mysteries, a la Conan Doyle or Christie.  And the answer is . . . it depends.  When I’m feeling frazzled or stressed – basically my life for the past several years — I tend to the more comfortable, period Christie-type piece.  When I was in college, I worked in the library, pre-cataloguing new Russian acquisitions.  But I also wandered the stacks when I was procrastinating and went down the shelves with Agatha Christie.  One look at my Kindle will show that I have returned to her, re-reading most of my favorites.  I enjoy the formula of these books.

51yZp4PjXTL._AA160_Recently, I’ve read a few new “period” mysteries, enjoying some more than others.  Alex Grecian’s, The Yard, is set in Victorian London, just after the Jack the Ripper cases.  It follows the creation of a Murder Squad, a group of twelve detectives who do nothing but investigate murder.  Grecian’s London has none of the quaint comforts of Christie’s English countryside.  But, it is worth the read nonetheless.  Grecian’s portrayal of London’s gritty underside is so seemingly accurate and compelling, you’d think he had been there.  Inspector Day and his feisty wife, Claire, are enjoyable, central characters and I will likely read future installments about the Murder Squad.

Happy reading.


To Kindle Or Not To Kindle

So this post isn’t really about mystery books per se, but about how I read them.  I am a book-aphile.  Is that a word?  Well, you get the idea.  I love books.  I love their smell, their feel, their look, their covers, their font, the feel of their paper.   The list goes on.  I visit bookstores when I travel and when I’m at home.  But, I also love my kindle.

61zt-C5umRL._AA160_When my husband recently published his first novel, Waking The Rider, he did so only in e-format.  So anyone wanting to read his book would have to download it from Amazon and either read on her kindle, or use the kindle app to read on a tablet or laptop.  More on Waking The Rider in a bit — it’s an awesome sci-fi with a bit of mystery that plays out over a trilogy of books (with the second, The Light of Gylffa and the third, The Keeper coming on-line soon)!  So, go on-line and download it.  :)  (It is only $4.99, not the exorbitantly high $12 or $15 of many e-books).

Anyway, a number of folks we know did not have a kindle and did not know how to download his e-book.  I was pretty shocked.

I am not always a first adopter.  In fact, I reluctantly began using my kindle only a few years ago when I was traveling more often.  I felt like a traitor to my beloved books.  I soon realized, however, that the kindle allows me to “carry” hundreds of books with me on a plane, train, tram, bus, etc. in a tiny and lightweight reader, with a backlight so I can read with the lights off as well.

Now with this blog, I have so many books on my “to read” list that I carry my kindle with me most times, picking it up when I have a few minutes to spare before a school pick-up or in a waiting room.  Though my biceps would probably benefit from me carrying an actual, heavy book, my brain does not.  Some days I feel like reading just one book, other days I might want to switch books after a few minutes.  The kindle allows that flexibility.  (I’m not really trying to be a kindle-pusher, it’s just the e-reader that I have.  I do note, though, that I’m not a huge fan of tablets trying to double as e-readers, like the iPad.  They are heavy, clunky and have a lot of screen glare.  It might seem tempting to get a device that can “do it all”, but I love having just an e-reader — it’s just for books, not games, not the Internet, not e-mail, just books.)

But, Amazon, I’m talking to you here, the price for e-books is ridiculously high in some cases.  I simply do not believe that it costs the publishers just as much to produce an e-book as a traditional print book.  There is a certain amount of formatting time involved, but that exists with print books as well (typesetting, galleys, proof sheets, etc.).  And, once that formatting is done, a click will allow for unlimited downloads – no print, paper costs exist.  So why do some of these e-books run upwards of $12-15??!!?

I encourage you to embrace your local library system that allows for e-book downloads (or pay to join a system as a non-resident if they have e-book checkout systems, such as in Lee County, Florida).  I joined their network as a non-resident guest (my mom lives there) and the annual fee that I pay is less than two e-book downloads on Amazon.  To be sure, I sometimes want to read a book when I want to read it – i.e., immediately - and have ponied up plenty of money in support of my on-demand book habit.  But, you can manage the cost by checking out library e-books as well.

I have not totally abandoned print books either.  If I can pick up a used print book (yay Powell’s), I will often grab a few.  And, if I really love a book or an author, I will buy the print book.  My overflowing bookshelves, however, require me to have a policy of buy-one/get- rid-of-one in order to keep my husband from going berserk.

So, many of the books I discuss and review in this blog are ones that I’ve read in e-form.  Most really.  If I have a print copy, or a book is only available in print, I’ll let you know.  If you haven’t yet embraced an e-reader, dip your toe in!  I think you’ll be glad that you did.

The Paying Guests

Sarah Waters’ latest offering, The Paying Guests, destroyed my sleep (and concentration) for several days.  And I mean this as a compliment.  For the most part, I couldn’t put it down, but at the same time was almost afraid to keep reading for fear of what would develop.

UnknownWaters is a great story teller, although her book isn’t a true “mystery”.  Much like my beloved Columbo series, we readers are privy to who and how the death (is it really even a murder?) occurs, and we then watch to see how fate is meted out for the protagonists.  Like many of Waters’ books, The Paying Guests, centers on the intimate lives of Victorian women, and perhaps even more prominently than some of her other books, features a lesbian romance between the two main characters, Frances and Lilian.

Set in post WWI London, the book opens with Frances and her mother in need of money to continue the upkeep on their Champion hill home.  Frances’ father has died, and both brothers as well, in the war.  In order to maintain their lifestyle, Frances arranges to rent out a suite of rooms to a young couple Mr. and Mrs. Barber (Leonard and Lilian).

Frances and her mother have a somewhat difficult time adjusting to their new lodgers, but Frances is extremely bored with her life of cleaning, cooking and looking after her mother and the too-large home.  She soon befriends Lilian, also a bored wife who occupies her time with decorating the new rooms, and making new clothes and accessories.  Slowly, eventually, Frances and Lilian become lovers, and Waters’ build-up to this relationship is both believable and sensitive.  While I wasn’t sure that the relationship was entirely genuine on the part of Lilian (I’m still not convinced that she didn’t manipulate Frances to act on her behalf by first becoming her lover), Frances was certainly in love with Lilian from almost their first meeting.

Waters describes Victorian London beautifully — the parks, the jarring experience of riding a tram, the intimacy of a get-together at Lilian’s sisters’ flat, the bohemian allure of Chelsea — and invites, almost drags, the reader into the drama of the courtroom scenes, both at the local level and at “The Old Bailey” court where the final drama plays out.

It would be a true shame to give away the ending, or the basis for the psychological drama that plays out in Part III of the book.  So, I won’t.  Be prepared for a roller-coaster ride as you enjoy (or sometimes maybe you even dread a little) this page-turning read.


Chinese Mystery

Among my favorite fall finds are a series of books by Chinese ex-patriate, Qiu Xiaolong — the Inspector Chen series.  Having visited China a few years ago, and having spent a fair chunk of time in Shanghai (the primary setting for this series), I have devoured these books.  Qiu does a great job of describing the “Chinese socialism” of the 1990s, on the brink of exploding into what could only be described as the Chinese capitalism of today.

qiusbooks$20049I stumbled onto Qiu’s first book, Death of a Red Heroine (2000), when I was browsing the mystery stacks at Powell’s Books.  I picked it up based on a solid staff recommendation and am so glad that I did, as you’ll note from my earlier “Fall Reads” post.

When Red is Black is the next book in the Inspector Chen series that I read (although I believe it is the third in order of publication so now I am going back to read Loyal Character Dancer, the second).  The book continues to develop the friendship between Yu and Chen, two polar opposites, and this relationship is a true highlight of Qiu’s books.   Yu’s wife, Peiqin, has a prominent role in the book, providing a sounding board for both Yu and Chen concerning the “book within a book”, Death of a Chinese Professor.  

When Red is Black juxtaposes life in a traditional shikumen-style house (shared in Communist China by twelve to sixteen families) with proposed life in the New World housing development project proposed by a “Big Bucks”, Mr. Gu (also to be developed in the style of a shikumen house).  Gu convinces Chen to work on a lucrative English translation of the New World business plan (via which Gu ultimately obtains funding by American investment bankers), all while Yu (with assistance from the vacationing Chen) investigates an actual murder that took place in a ramshackle shikumen-style building in one of Shanghai’s slums.  Qiu’s ability to jump from stark reality to the “New World” version of the future is effective and metaphorically allows the reader to feel the strain taking place in Shanghai and the rest of China.

The mystery itself, much like in Death of a Red Heroine, isn’t particularly complex or twisted.  It is a rather straightforward development based on Yu’s investigation, although the party (via Party Secretary Li of the Shanghai Police Bureau) certainly threw  at least one red herring in Yu’s path in an effort to encourage a quick resolution to the “politically sensitive” crime.

I enjoyed When Red is Black perhaps more than the first book of Qiu’s that I read, particularly because we see more how business is done (or was done) at the highest levels in China.  And we see Chen delicately strattle this “Big Bucks” world, as he calls it, with his relatively low-key existence as an Inspector in the Police Bureau.  Definitely a must-read in the series.

And, see the Book Reviews for my review of The Enigma of China, one of Qiu’s latest in the Inspector Chen installments and my favorite so far.


Fall Reads

Whew!   I have been busy reading this summer, but not too busy posting as you may have noticed.  So, here is a quick look at some of the great and not-so-great mysteries I’ve read this late summer.  I’ll post soon a list of books I plan to read this fall, and have a few longer reviews as well.

UnknownAs I wandered through the maze of stacks at Portland’s Powell’s Books, I noticed a staff suggestion for Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong.  I was able to pick up a used copy and devoured it on the flight back to Chicago.  Set in Shanghai in the early 1990s, the novel offers a hint of the changing face of China that we’ve become familiar with since — burgeoning capitalism, a crumbling party system, and a fascination with all things Western.  It follows Chief Inspector Chen Chao, an up-and-comer in the party, and the more experienced (but subordinate) police officer, Seargeant Yu, as they investigate the murder of a young woman who turns out to be a national model worker.  Qui’s description of everyday life, from the cramped apartments,  the rationed and somewhat unappetizing-sounding food, and an overwhelming lack of any privacy (space or otherwise), is compelling.  Having visited Shanghai in the past few years, I am amazed at how much the country has changed in just a couple of decades.  Qui also paints a vivid picture of the communist party machine and how it is woven into the personal and professional lives of his characters.  While the mystery itself is not particularly tricky or complicated, the character development and descriptions of Chinese life make the novel well worth reading.

Unknown-1I recently read Murder as a Fine Art, by David Morrell, based on the recommendation of a friend who said that Morrell was her absolute favorite professor at the University of Iowa.   I can imagine why.  Morrell offers up a juicy, rich mystery set in post-Ripper London.  He tracks actual events that surrounded the Ratcliffe Highway murders, and events recounted in Thomas DeQuincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater.  I promptly did a little research into both, and Morrell so tightly and adeptly merges fact with fiction, that it is hard to imagine that his characters were not real.  Actually, many were, but you get the idea.  The character of DeQuincey’s feisty, feminist daughter, Emily, was my favorite.  Well worth a read.  As an aside, I then turned to Morrell’s, Nightscape, hoping for another book along the same vein.  Nightscape is most decidedly not a classic mystery but, instead, is a series of short horror stories – some with a mysterious twist or two.  I found it more disturbing than enjoyable, but perhaps that was his point.

Unknown-2Jar City, by Arnaldur Indridason, was cold and crisp, both in style and setting.  The book is one in a series of Inspector Erlendur novels, set in Reykjavik, Iceland.  It is more thriller than mystery, and has a gritty almost nauseating undertone.  Now, that seems like I am not recommending it, but I am, just not quite whole-heartedly.  It just isn’t for the squeamish reader or one who cares more about an intricate mystery plot than crime-based thriller.  I didn’t instantly warm to Erlendur, but I’m quite sure that was Indridason’s intent.  He is estranged to the “nth degree” from his ex-wife (and pretty much from both of his mostly grown children).  We are left to wonder why, with a smattering of clues that will likely trickle out over several books.  I noticed that Jar City is being adapted into a movie and I’ll be sure to catch that.  The book didn’t make leap Reykjavik to the top of my vacation book, but it did make me want to read more of Indridason’s world.

Unknown-3I’m not sure I’ve talked much about the Richard Jury series, by Martha Grimes.  The books follow Inspector Richard Jury (of Scotland Yard) and are inhabited by plethora of supporting characters, including Melrose Plant (Jury’s friend, an Earl who was given up his title), Sergeant Wiggins (Jury’s hypochondriac assistant), Carole Anne (Jury’s gorgeous, slightly ding-batty upstairs neighbor) and a host of folks in Long Piddleton (Melrose Plant’s neck of the woods).  I have enjoyed many of the 43 Richard Jury novels, all of which (I believe) are titled after British pubs.  I admit to getting somewhat annoyed with some of Grime’s background characters, particularly Melrose Plant’s Aunt Agatha, and, in fact, with Richard Jury himself for his frustratingly open-ended relationships with women.  So, the Old Contemptibles was a refreshing change that saw Jury more ready to commit than previously (he bought an engagement ring) to a woman at the center of the plot.  The mystery takes us to an old British estate, a high-end retirement mansion, and through the “Lake Country” of Wordsworth and Coleridge.  I pick up these books when I am looking for something familiar, not too gritty, and entertaining, and this installment did not disappoint.

UnknownFinally, I found my way back to John le Carre.  I really wanted to see A Most Wanted Man, based on le Carre’s book of the same name, and starring the late, great Phillip Seymour Hoffman.  It was a classic le Carre, complete with intrigue, tension and a really crappy, depressing ending.  Nevertheless, what I would still call a good movie.  And, once I got over being pissed off at le Carre, I saw A Delicate Truth, near the check-out stand and decided to give it a go.  It follows a now-retired MI6 operator, “Kit” –not really a field operator, who gets swept into a government cover-up.  Years earlier, Kit had been recruited by an MP to be his eyes-and-ears on the ground of a highly covert terrorist extraction that goes horribly wrong.  Kit did not realize how horribly wrong until one of the soldiers who participated in the operation finds him and tries to tell him the truth before, well, you get the idea . . .  Together with a former assistant to the MP, Toby Bell, Kit does what he can to uncover what really happened.  le Carre makes no effort to hide his disdain for the morally corrupt Americans (both corporate and governmental types).  And true to form, le Carre doesn’t really come down on one side or the other as to whether spying is a necessary evil, or just evil.   For a change, he does offer a vague (and possibly optimistic) ending.  Somehow, I doubt it all ends well, but there is at least a shred of light that things could work out.  If you enjoy the classic spy thriller, this le Carre will be right up your alley.

Happy reading!