‘A friend to anarchy’

BIG SKY. By Kate Atkinson. Little Brown. 386 pages. $28.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

Most mystery novelists move their minor characters around the chessboard of their story like pawns, always highlighting the kings and queens of their plots.

Not Kate Atkinson. She delves deep into the lives of what seem minor characters far from the heinous crime at the heart of this story. A trophy wife, her nerdy stepson, a man who loses both his job and his wife, along with just one character connected to the crime itself — she carries us so deep into their lives, with such deceptive ease, that we lose our concern about where it’s all going. She leaves one person to bring all the elements of the story together: Jackson Brody.

He’s the ex-cop private eye who is haunted by a family tragedy. Last seen in Case Histories, Atkinson’s previous mystery and now a successful series streaming on TV, he resurfaces in real time with a teenage son. He’s not much in the “…real business of detecting” now; he’s dealing with “…Entrapping unfaithful boyfriends and husbands … just high-functioning morons.”  He is, however, what one character calls “…a friend to anarchy.” 

 “A coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen” is his operative mantra, and it serves both him and Atkinson well here. If he didn’t see that girl get into the car … If the trophy wife didn’t hire him … If he didn’t tackle that man about to throw himself off a cliff … The author gives him a grasp on the reins of each of the elements in the story, and lets his “grey cells” lead us to a gut-wrenching conclusion. It’s there where his sense of justice obtains:  “He wasn’t a vigilante, he really wasn’t, although his idea of right and wrong didn’t always conform to the accepted legal standard.” And it doesn’t here, most certainly, and most entertainingly. There are so many things to admire about Atkinson’s writing, but the best is the fact that the reader doesn’t notice any of them. 

Big Sky is a good book.

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Predators, human style

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

WOLF PACK: A Joe Pickett Novel. By C.J. Box. Putnam. 370 pages. $27.

After a bruising political battle in book 18 of this series, Joe Pickett gets a new truck and his job back as a Wyoming game warden. Now perhaps he can return to handing out tickets for illegal trapping and fishing, taking a break from solving murders in the beautiful setting of this series.

Fat chance. Trouble hovers over Pickett. Like the drone that is terrorizing animal herds, chasing them to their deaths. Pickett handles the drone with the help of a talented accomplice, but he doesn’t handle the owner of the drone quite as well. When confronted, the guy, a transplant from New Jersey, his father and his bodyguards openly mock Pickett. 

While Pickett tries to parse out why they are so dismissive, trouble shows up in a black SUV. Two FBI thugs try to intimidate Pickett into giving up his campaign against the guy. Unbeknownst to them all, even bigger trouble shows up in less conspicuous transportation — aWolf Pack.

Not the natural predator that locals claim kills their cattle. No, this pack is a crew of killers hired by the Sinaloa drug cartel to eliminate enemies. Unfortunately, they kill even when pointed at the wrong target. Before Pickett can figure out what’s going on (the reader has the information earlier, of course), bodies start piling up at an alarming rate — alarming to both Pickett and the reader.

Don’t get attached to any of the characters in the book; they might not survive to the grisly finale. This 19th book in the series is probably more graphic than any previous ones. Pickett survives, of course, but if you are bothered by bloody body count, you might want to think twice about following the Wolf Pack.

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The legacy continues

I could be angry. I loved Tony Hillerman’s mysteries, reviewed many of them for newspapers, and even had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing Hillerman once. When his daughter, Anne, took up the torch and tried continuing her late fathers series, I reviewed her first couple of efforts on this blog. So how did Bob Moyer beat me to this one, and how have a missed a couple in between?

Instead of being angry, I’ll thank Bob, post his review and start looking for the books I’ve missed in this fine series. Leaphorn would be proud of me.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE TALE TELLER. By Anne Hillerman. Harper. 322 pages. $26.99.

In this legacy series, Anne Hillerman has picked up the pen dropped upon her father Tony’s demise. Fans of the fierce Navajo duo Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee watched with apprehension as the daughter took on the challenge of keeping the well-loved series alive. Now in her fifth effort, Hillerman shows she has done her homework and also has developed skill at maintaining the body of work her father created.

Reading The Tale Teller is like attending a family reunion. You recognize everyone, they’ve changed either a lot or a little, and it’s enjoyable catching up with them. The “legendary lieutenant” Leaphorn, retired, had a stroke, and the words that come into his head don’t come out well in English (his Navajo is still fluent).  Chee, still a traditionalist, has mellowed a bit, and is happier. He’s a life partner with the biggest change the daughter has made — Bennie Manuelito. Introduced by Tony long ago, she was always a minor character, never allowed to make an arrest. Now, she is a full-fledged partner in the narrative, especially in this latest installment.

The book starts off with three story lines. Leaphorn takes on a private case, looking for a missing valuable artifact sent to the Navajo nation. Bennie literally runs into a dead body while out jogging, and Chee investigates a robbery. Before long, Joe has a possible murder on his hands, Chee’s robbery escalates into a shooting, and Bennie has to wrestle with the FBI over the identity of the corpse. As the book progresses, two of the cases merge, while the third threatens to spiral into disaster. Hillerman moves smoothly among plot lines, and she keeps us interested.

She also writes with eloquence comparable to her father’s about the Southwest and the Navajo cultural landscape that the three protagonists patrol during their investigation. She carries on the sense of wonder her father invested in the series. Not quite as good as her father at dialogue, she nevertheless has become skilled at drawing upon the treasure her father left behind.

We can look forward to another reunion with anticipation, not apprehension.

 

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The food! The romance! The murder….

Hungry for good books? How about good food? This review should have you drooling.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE BODY IN THE CASTLE WELL:  A Bruno, Chief of Police Novel. By Martin Walker. Knopf. 337 pages. $25.95.

Did you know Josephine Baker owned a house in the Perigord? The expatriate American chanteuse’s home is now a museum. Bruno, that self-described “country policeman,” now chief of police of the entire region, also books summer concerts for the area, and he books his colleague into the museum to impersonate La Baker. Amelie is going to —

What? The mystery? Oh, yes, the mystery – when will Bruno hold a dinner party at his farmhouse, and what will he cook? He decides on page 198 to hold a dinner party for Amelie. He then broods about and buys for the event while going about his daily business, until the guests arrive 62 pages later. No spoilers here; it will make you drool, mais certainement!

 Who will end up in Bruno’s bed is also a mystery. No spoilers here, either, just a mention of the sensual orgy — two paragraphs describing the preparation of the post-coital breakfast. Bruno whips up —

Oh, the MURDER. Well, that’s in the title. The Body In The Castle Well belongs to a rich American student. Her father is somebody who gives a lot of money to somebody in the White House. Subsequently, a lot of important people show up in St. Denis to eat, drink and get in Bruno’s way while he solves the murder. In order to do that, he has to travel into the past, all the way to Vichy France, to unearth the reason the girl has to die in the present. Once he puts together “motive, means, and opportunity,” he sets a trap for the villains. A twist at the end is just the icing on the cake — or should we say, the crème on the brulee. Once again, great reading, great food.

 

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Survivalist in a high-tech world

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE NEVER GAME. By Jeffery Deaver. Penguin Audio. 11 ½ hours; 9 CDs. Read by Kaled Griffith. $40. Also available in print from G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Jeffery Deaver gives us not only a gripping thriller but also a timely story in The Never Game, the first novel in his new Colter Shaw series.

Colter Shaw, raised in a survivalist family in the California wilderness, is a “reward seeker” by profession, using his considerable tracking, reasoning and survival skills to find people who have gone missing for one reason or another. He’s not a cop, and he’s also not a bounty hunter. He takes on cases that interest him, or that he considers worthy, and he doesn’t seem to worry a lot about the size of the reward.

We come to understand that he has other resources. He also has a complicated past, including some family mysteries he’s trying to solve.

Colter takes the case of a missing college student whose father has scraped together money for a reward.

That case leads him to another, and things grow more interesting and more dangerous from there.

Colter finds himself learning a lot about the darker sides of Silicon Valley and the high-tech world, especially the world of video games. The kidnapper he’s tracking seems to be playing out in real life a game that involves people being abandoned in a threatening situation with five random objects that might – or might not – help them escape before they are killed.

Soon Colter is helping the police, even though they are wary of him and question his motivations.

The tension mounts as he races to figure out what’s going on and save the kidnaping victims. Almost too late, he realizes he’s not the only one doing the hunting, and he’s someone else’s prey.

This is a well told tale, with plenty of twists, turns and surprises, but none that stretch credulity as things become clear. Deaver handles some complicated technological details in an understandable way.

The story is compelling, and if you listen to the audio book read expertly by Kaled Griffith, you’ll find yourself taking the long way to get to your destination – gripping the steering wheel tightly as you drive.

Deaver offers tantalizing hints about the real story of Colter Shaw, but there’s much to be discovered in what promises to be a popular series.

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A fitting farewell

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

I love it when Bob Moyer is in reading/reviewing mode. So many books to add to my list….

METROPOLIS. By Philip Kerr. Putnam. 381 pages. $28.

In 13 books, Philip Kerr established detective Bernie Gunther as a German noir  detective equivalent to Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe. He also established himself as not just a great mystery novelist but also one of the best novelists of his generation. Knowing that he was dying, he made a masterly stroke in a masterful career with his fourteenth book — he ended his career by taking us to the beginning of Bernie’s career as a cop in Berlin.

It’s 1928 Berlin, and the city teems with prostitutes, World War I veterans begging on the streets and dangerous crime organizations. It also swells with authoritarianism, anti-Semitism, nationalism and incipient Nazi violence, all elements that will surge through the 13 books that travel through the Nazi era and subside into the Cold War. Bernie begins his ride on that surge here, looking for someone who kills prostitutes, then scalps them. While he is working on that case, the killings stop, and someone starts shooting veterans begging on the street, with a bullet to the head. Bernie shows flashes of his skill, a skill that will haunt him in his future when he has to use it for the Nazis. He intuits that it’s the same person. Plunging into the netherworld of the streets, he goes looking for evidence. When one of his colleagues asks him what he’s looking for, Bernie answers he doesn’t know, “…but I’ll know it when I see it.”  It’s this ability that will make him indispensable to the Nazi hierarchy over the years. He will be of service to them while he tries to save his soul.

All the while, Bernie shows signs of struggle with booze and women — he can’t avoid either. Fortunately, he discovers here the equilibrium that keeps him level most of the time in years to come. In the midst of the demi world of disadvantaged, he stops feeling sorry for himself. His life is not that bad, and “You can’t put a price on good fortune.”

True to form, however, Bernie can’t keep a good woman. Brigitte is the first, but not the last, to tell him that she can’t stay with him. “…you can fake a smile, but you can’t fake what’s in those blue eyes.” She doesn’t like what she sees there, and she knows it will only get worse. We know it does.

When he finds the killer, someone gets to him before Bernie does. “Justice” is done, but for the first time, Bernie realizes that the rule of law means more. He makes the decision to stay on this side, and not join the evil to stop another evil. That dilemma occurs for him time and again, but this is the only time we hear him articulate the coda that carries him through the years:  “I have standards, and I try to live up to them.” It’s that struggle that informs Kerr’s well-wrought mysteries.

His mysteries are also well informed by the factual landscape into which he weaves his fictional crimes. Every Kerr book is a history lesson, as he crams in locale, local police, actual criminal cases and historical characters. We bump into the artist George Grosz, we listen to Lotte Lenya rehearse “The Threepenny Opera,” we visit the Sing Sing night club where the entertainment is an electric chair, we tour the morgue, which is open to the public for viewing. Kerr then identifies these people and places in a lengthy note at the end.

Metropolis stands as a capstone novel to the careers of Bernie Gunther and Philip Kerr. R.I.P., fellas.

 

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On the rough streets of D.C.

Bob Moyer is on a roll when it comes to book reviews. Here he takes a look at the latest installment in a crime series that’s worth a try.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

TRIGGER. By David Swinson. Mulholland Books. 352 pages. $27.

Frank Marr is a good detective with some bad habits – Laphroag 18, Jameson, rum, cocaine, marijuana and raiding drug houses. It’s a long list of things that can be a Trigger. He lost his job as a D.C. cop, and his girlfriend, because of drugs. He’s sworn off the hard stuff, depending on a diet of pills and alcohol to keep him from letting “…the weak back in.”  He’s surprised, then, when the former girlfriend calls him. She needs help, and he’s the best. She hires him to help clear a client of hers, a cop buddy of his named Tony Luna. Tony shot an unarmed guy, but he insists the kid had a gun. She wants Frank to find out if there was a gun. He takes the case, and sets off to prove his buddy wasn’t lying.

That’s the framework of the novel, but the real story here is the relationship between Frank and a guy named Calvin. It’s a “bromance” without much “mance” in it. Frank bumps into Calvin about a year after he left him for dead on a riverbank; Calvin, aka Playboy, was the driver in a shooting. In a series of unusual encounters, Frank ends up hiring Calvin as his assistant. He needs a front man to make contacts and get inside the “hood” where the shooting took place. As they head toward an unhappy resolution of Tony’s case, we watch their mutual distrust slowly evolve into a solid working relationship.

It’s all done with a sense of place second only to the work of George Pelecanos, with dialogue to match. Frankie Marr is the most likable anti-hero in current crime literature, and it’s a pleasure to know that he’ll have a new sidekick to banter with, in the next installment of this promising series.

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Putting those skills to work

It’s so nice to have Bob Moyer busy reviewing books again. Now, if we can just keep him from gallivanting around the world for a while….

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE BURGLAR. By Thomas Perry. Mysterious Press. 288 pages. $26.

Thomas Perry sure knows how to keep his readers turning the pages. He’s used the same formula to great success in his last three stand-alone mysteries — create an engaging character with an unusual skill set, put the person in peril, and make him or her use that skill set to get out of it. The Old Man, an ex-CIA agent, used his skills to infiltrate the country and the very house of his nemesis to stop the attempts on his life. The chief of the bomb squad not only had to defuse the bombs; he had to get inside The Bombmaker’s head. Now comes The Burglar, who can walk a beam, scale a wall, slip through a doggie door, climb through a transom and hide in a kitchen cupboard. Five-foot-two in jogging shoes, with a ponytail, The Burglar is a she.

The only thing she can’t do is shake the shadowy characters trailing her in big black SUV’s. They come at her relentlessly after she discovers three dead bodies in a house she was burgling. The killers picked up her trail when she returned a video she found at the murder scene. Whichever way she turns — and she has many ways to turn — they are on her. It is not until she stops, makes a stand and taps her skill sets, that her fortunes change.

Using her surveillance skills, and her ability to slip in about anywhere, she accumulates enough information to piece together the crime that induced the killings. While she uses her intelligence to put together a case against them, she also has to dodge them. Perry keeps the readers on the edge of their seats by keeping The Burglar in constant peril.

And that is Thomas Perry’s skill set.

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An American in Paris – surrounded by Nazis

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

MISTRESS OF THE RITZ. By Melanie Benjamin. Random House Audio. 12 hours; 10 CDs. Read by Barbara Rosenblat. $45. Also available in print from Delacorte Press.

Melanie Benjamin’s trademark gift is to take real historical people and events and carefully translate them into well-crafted fiction that comes alive with dialogue and day-to day action and emotion. She takes that rich blend to new heights in this fascinating, suspenseful historical novel about Blanche Auzello and her husband Claude, the mistress and master of the famed Ritz hotel in Paris during the terrible years of the Nazi occupation in World War II.

In such previous triumphs as Alice I Have Been, The Swans of Fifth Avenue, The Aviator’s Wife and The Girls in the Picture, Benjamin has been able to draw on a wealth of material about her subjects.

This time, as she explains in an author’s note, she had little to draw on beyond the bare facts. Thus, she says, this story if “inspired by” rather than “based on” actual history.

“Inspired” is a good word to describe Mistress of the Ritz. Benjamin has taken those bare facts, a great deal of research about occupied Paris, her fascination with the glamorous Ritz – which becomes a character in its own right — and informed imaginings about what might go on in an unconventional marriage in challenging circumstances and produced a compelling story. It’s immensely entertaining, even while raising important questions about such things as courage, loyalty, patriotism and morality.

Blanche was a pretty American girl whose aspirations to be an actress brought her to Paris in the early 1920s. She was about to be whisked away by an Egyptian prince, but Claude Auzello, a young veteran of the Great War who was working his way up in the hotel business, uncharacteristically fell in love with her and decided to rescue her. They hardly knew each other when they married after a heady, dramatic, romantic series of events.

And then they began to discover how ill suited the ambitious, devil-may-care American girl and the old-fashioned, proper Frenchman were.

But even if often stormy, their lives were also charmed, at least in the early years. Claude won the coveted job of manager of the Ritz, and the Auzellos soon moved into a suite there. The glamour and ease of life at the Ritz, where Blanche could hobnob in the bar with the likes of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Coco Chanel and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, insulated them from reality.

But when the German Army took Paris and the Nazis commandeered the Ritz as their headquarters, reality intruded in a harsh way.

Claude and Blanche struggle to deal with the Nazis while protecting themselves and Claude’s beloved Ritz. Secrets have long caused strains in their marriage, and now there are new and more dangerous secrets.

After D Day, as the American Army advances and the Nazis feel desperation, the Auzellos’ circumstances grow ever more dire. Will they survive the war, and if they do, will their marriage finally crumble — or somehow grow stronger?

Love, suspense, humor, history viewed from a fresh perspective and very personal questions about what to do when the forces of evil take over a beloved country – Mistress of the Ritz has much to offer.

Barbara Rosenblat is wonderful as the reader for the audio version. Her voice and tone are just right, especially for Blanche, the brash, impulsive American who finds herself in Paris during its darkest hours.

 

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A lot about a lot

Bob’s back! Actually, Bob Moyer wrote this review before he took off on his recent travels, but it got buried in my email. Check back soon for reviews Bob has written since his return.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

WORDS AND WORLDS. By Alison Lurie. Delphinium. 225 pages. $25.

Alison Lurie has written a lot about — a lot. In her long career, she has to her credit numerous articles, essays and novels, including Foreign Affairs, which won the Pulitzer Prize. She writes engagingly about interesting subjects; this book, subtitled From Autobiography To Zippers,  represents her skill, catholicity and longevity emphatically.

Longevity is key here. Lurie doesn’t hesitate to date herself in the service of a subject . She drags us back to “Their Harvard,” where she was a second-class student from the all-women’s college Radcliffe. She takes no position, but she pointedly cites the many raised female hands that were ignored, and the many professors who ignored them. In a section labeled “Clothing,” she regales us with the history of “Aprons,” and adds the personal touch of the aprons she wore as a ’50s’ housewife. With great abandon, she revels in “Life After Fashion” for her and other women of a certain age, who can wear what they darn well please.

Her writing, however, is not the least dated. A lengthy piece that outlines “What Happened in Hamlet” simply sparkles through the years. Her wide-eyed wonder and nose for detail bring a London production of Hamlet alive long after the ’70s’ production she covered. Her pieces about people she knew, even if we don’t, all have a marked poignancy, particularly the one about the book artist Edward Gorey. She knew him as Ted.

Particularly pertinent are her essays derived from her depth of knowledge about children’s literature. She brings “Rapunzel: The Girl In The Tower” into the #ME TOO era, and takes on Trumpian overtones in “Harry Potter Revisited. “

Not all of the subjects of these 21 essays may interest you, but what Lurie has to say about them will. Alison Lurie knows how to write, even though someone tells her in an essay “You Don’t Have To Write A Novel,” or anything else. Fortunately, she didn’t listen then, or now.

 

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