A step back in time

For 16 novels, Charles Todd has brought us the detective adventures of Ian Rutledge, who returned to police work at Scotland Yard while battling the lingering effects of his time as a British officer in World War I.

Now, the mother-son writing team that is Todd brings us a prequel: The newest novel steps back to the summer of 1914, when the storm clouds of war gathering over Europe were casting their shadows in England.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

A FINE SUMMER’S DAY. By Charles Todd. William Morrow. 358 pages. $26.99.

June 1914: Ian Rutledge, a young inspector at Scotland Yard is about to ask the woman he loves for her hand in marriage. He neither knows nor cares that an archduke has been assassinated in Sarajevo.

Events triggered by that shooting, however, will eventually have a profound effect on the world – and on Rutledge.

In one of the best Ian Rutledge novels yet, Todd has Rutledge doggedly trying to solve several murders or suicides in various locations around the British countryside. The more he digs into what appear at first to be separate incidents, the more he believes that something links the killings – something that might result in even more murders if he doesn’t act quickly enough.

Todd does a masterly job of balancing the immediate and the more distant problems that mar this fine English summer. Despite opposition from his boss at the Yard, Rutledge pursues the similarities he begins to detect in the unexplained deaths. His new motorcar enables him to travel from village to village, and some good detective work eventually leads him to the apparent link.

Meanwhile, there are undercurrents about his fiancé, Jean. The other women in Rutledge’s life are not as sure as he is that Jean will settle happily into the role of policeman’s wife. Her reactions when Rutledge must be away from London in his efforts to solve the murders suggest that the doubters might have a point. Despite having grown up the daughter of an officer, she also has an unrealistically romantic view of the military and war.

The situation in Europe becomes increasingly dire. When England is forced into the fray, Rutledge resists the excitement that propels many other young men to sign up for what they are sure will be a short but glorious war. He’s a policeman with important cases to solve, he insists. He’s already seen more bodies than he wants to. Let those who are trained to be military leaders do their job.

Knowing that Rutledge will not be able to stay out of the war, readers of the series will find his emotional struggles all the more poignant. Todd handles the stresses and conflicts deftly.

This is a strong book, taking us to England in the early days of the Great War that will wreak such profound changes on Rutledge and those around him.

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Flavia crosses the pond

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

AS CHIMNEY SWEEPERS COME TO DUST. By Alan Bradley. Read by Jayne Entwistle. Random House Audio. 11 hours; 9 CDs. $41.

Also available in print from Delacorte Press. 392 pages. $25.

What a relief! Or, as Flavia would shout, “Yaroo!”

When I reached the end last year of The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, the sixth book in Alan Bradley’s wonderful series about Flavia de Luce, I was worried.

Through five books, Bradley had delighted me with the adventures of Flavia, a precocious, lonely 11-year-old girl living in a crumbling mansion near an English village in 1950. Flavia’s mother had been missing in mysterious circumstances for 10 years, during which time Flavia’s father had been so overwhelmed by grief and financial problems that he paid little attention to Flavia and her two older sisters. And the sisters regularly tormented Flavia, making her feel that she was a changeling or somehow responsible for their mother’s disappearance.

Flavia, an endearing blend of brilliance and innocence, amused herself with experiments in the extensive chemistry laboratory left in a remote part of the mansion by a deceased uncle. She also solved murders, which seemed to happen with alarming frequency in the quiet English countryside.

Then in the sixth volume, change comes with a vengeance. The body of Harriet, Flavia’s missing mother, is found and shipped home for proper burial. As visitors – some distinguished, some mysterious – arrive for Harriet’s funeral, Flavia begins to learn secrets about her late mother’s activities, secrets that seem to involve Flavia herself. And then she turns 12 and is told that she’s being shipped off to Canada to attend the boarding school where her mother once studied.

I feared that Bradley was going to change Flavia and the series, that Flavia would grow up too fast. She apparently is the heir to her mother’s role in some secret society, and while spy novels or whatever Bradley was going to write now might be entertaining, they couldn’t be the delightfully eccentric mysteries Flavia’s fans had come to love. And how could a girls’ school in Toronto be half as interesting as Buckshaw, the deteriorating de Luce mansion, and Bishop’s Lacey, the nearby murder-prone but charming village?

Without giving too much away, I am pleased to report that in book No. 7, even though she’s reached the mature age of 12 and been “banished” (her word) to Canada, Flavia is still very much Flavia.

And, even though she’s been sent to a boarding school in Toronto, Flavia still finds mysteries and murders. In fact, hardly has she arrived at Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy when a charred, mummified body wrapped in a Union Jack tumbles out of the chimney into her bedroom.  Flavia, of course, is determined to solve that case, as well as other troubling rumors and events that haunt Miss Bodycote’s.

Flavia is, after all, only 12, and she still knows a lot more about chemistry than she does about life. Always irrepressible, she’s no more inclined to follow the rules of Miss Bodycote’s, or of the secret society about which she knows very little, than she was to obey the rules of the Girl Guides back in England.

The result of all this is a delightful story that has Flavia wandering the streets of Toronto as well as the halls of Miss Bodycote’s. Her knowledge of chemistry still comes in quite handy.

She solves some of the mysteries, but the one that affects her most – the truth about the legacy and responsibility she has inherited from Harriet – is still largely mystifying, presumably to be revealed bit by bit in subsequent adventures.

As I have before, I indulged in a double dose of this Flavia story. When the printed book arrived, I couldn’t wait to read it and discover what Flavia was up to. Then when the audio book arrived, I could not wait to listen to Jayne Entwistle make Flavia come alive, with her endearing, humorous voice that perfectly blends childish innocence and uncommon intelligence. The contrast of Flavia’s Englishness with the accents of the Canadians who surround her makes As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, if it’s possible, even more entertaining read aloud than its predecessors.

Yaroo, indeed!

 

 

 

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Flesh, blood and bones enough to go around

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

DUST. By Patricia Cornwell. Read by Kate Reading. Penguin Audio. 14 hours. $39.95.

FLESH AND BLOOD. By Patricia Cornwell. William Morrow. 369 pages. $28.99.

BONES NEVER LIE. By Kathy Reichs. Read by Katherine Borowitz. Random House Audio. 9 CDs, 11 hours. $40.

Patricia Cornwell deserves lots of credit for creating a whole new genre of crime fiction, one that inspired other books and even TV shows. When she drew on her years working in the office of the chief medical examiner for Virginia to write her first Kay Scarpetta novel, published in 1990, nobody was writing forensic thrillers. Now they’re a staple.

Because Cornwell grew up in North Carolina and graduated from Davidson College, I reviewed that first novel, Postmortem, for the Winston-Salem Journal and interviewed the author, who at the time was eager for the publicity. Like many readers, I loved the book and found its glimpses into the world of autopsies and crime labs fascinating.

Now having written 22 novels starring Kay Scarpetta, the (now) former chief medical examiner in Richmond, Cornwell has gotten the credit she deserves, over and over. She’s also earned instant best-seller status, millions upon millions of dollars, and fame and success as a popular woman writer that’s second perhaps only to that of J.K. Rowling.

None of that means, of course, that Cornwell can rest on her laurels. Fans can be demanding, and one way or another, an author must keep delivering. Fans will automatically buy the latest book out from a favorite author – but with limits. If they find one disappointing, they’ll usually give her the benefit of the doubt and try the next one. But at some point, many readers get fed up look elsewhere for their thrillers.

That’s what happened to me and quite a few other Cornwell fans several years into her Scarpetta saga. I can’t remember which book was the final straw for me, but I do recall that Cornwell went through a spell when she seemed to put her political rants and causes ahead of her stories. The novels just weren’t very entertaining anymore, and I stopped reading them.

That’s one of the reasons audio books can be so worthwhile. I wasn’t inclined to pick up a print copy of a recent Scarpetta novel, but when an audio version came my way a couple of years ago, I was willing to give it a try.

DUST

Since then, I’ve listened to a couple more, most recently Dust, the 21st Scarpetta novel. They’ve been, if not as good as her earliest efforts, better than much of what’s out there.

Dust provided some good listening. Scarpetta, for those who might not have followed all the twists and turns of her personal and professional life, is now the chief medical examiner for Massachusetts, living in Boston. Having just returned from helping with the autopsies at a terrible school shooting in nearby Connecticut, she’s feeling down. But she must rise to the occasion when Detective Pete Marino, her longtime friend and until recently her employee, calls to tell her about a mysterious murder.

The body of a woman has been discovered in what should be a safe area on the MIT campus. She’s oddly draped in a strange cloth and her body appears to have been posed. The woman is a computer engineer whose highly publicized $100 million lawsuit against her former financial advisers was about to go to trial.

The more Scarpetta learns about the apparent murder, the more troubled she is. There may be some connection between the victim and Scarpetta’s niece Lucy, the computer whiz, who also has moved to Boston and consults with Scarpetta’s office. And there may be a connection with the Capital Murderer cases that Scarpetta’s husband, FBI agent Benton Wesley, has been working on in Washington. Ominously, Benton suspects that some highly placed people don’t want the murderer caught.

Before the case is closed, there are high-tech forensics, a good bit of danger and surprising twists and turns, all the stuff of a satisfying thriller.

Cornwell seems to have worked through much of what prompted her to turn some of her novels into political diatribes. She’s gotten back to telling a good story, and she seems to be on top of the latest developments, whether drones, designer drugs or computer technology.

Unfortunately, though, some of the aspects that have made her novels less enjoyable over the years linger. It strains credulity that there’s always a grand, sinister conspiracy that involves not just Scarpetta but also her husband, usually her niece and often Marino. Beyond that, these characters have not become more lovable through 22 novels. Often, there seems to be no one to care about. The apparently amoral Lucy is especially offensive; Marino is downright obnoxious. It can be pretty hard to sympathize with Scarpetta.

And Cornwell’s writing seems to be sloppier than it once was. For one thing, she has an annoying penchant for writing long, compound sentences strung together with “and,” to the point that a high-school English teacher would tell her to vary sentence structure and break up some of those long sentences for better emphasis. Kate Reading does an overall fine job with the recording, but the prose gets a little singsong at times.

FLESH AND BLOOD

Which brings me to the most recent Scarpetta novel, which I read in print. Flesh and Blood has most of the same strengths and weaknesses as Dust. The mystery is interesting, and there’s plenty of danger. It all starts when Scarpetta is on the back patio of her Boston home when she notices a glint of copper – seven pennies lined up on the wall, all looking brand new, and all dated 1981.  Worry begins to could the good mood she’s been in, anticipating her birthday vacation in Miami with Benton.

Then Detective Marino calls with news of a murder just minutes from her house, a chillingly efficient sniper killing. Before long, Scarpetta is dealing with serial sniper attacks in what seem to be randomly unconnected locations. The case takes her to New Jersey and eventually underwater, scuba diving a shipwreck.

It’s a good enough page-turner, but the problems remain: There never seems to be a case that doesn’t involve Scarpetta’s family and “friends.” The friends don’t much like one another, and I find myself not much liking them, either. In print, the careless writing can be soporific, not what you want in a thriller.

BONES NEVER LIE

Fortunately, if you like forensic thrillers with strong women protagonists, there are alternatives. Patricia Cornwell did pioneer the genre, but it would be wrong to dismiss those who have followed as mere imitators.

Kathy Reichs, the best-selling author of 16 Temperance Brennan novels, is giving Cornwell a run for her money. Her books and her life have inspired the popular TV show Bones.

Cornwell blazed the way, but Reichs has impeccable credentials for a forensic novelist. Like her character, she is a forensic anthropologist, and advises the police in Canada in addition to her work in the U.S. Interestingly, she shares a connection with the Charlotte area of North Carolina with Cornwell.  Reichs teaches anthropology at UNC Charlotte.

She’s also a good writer, and she has a winning character in Tempe Brennan.

In Bones Never Lie, Brennan is called into the Charlotte Police Department’s Cold Case Unit. A homicide detective from Vermont has reason to believe the murder of a child in that state has links to North Carolina and to Brennan.

This development brings back unwelcome memories of a case in Canada in which a murderer who preyed on girls managed to slip away from Brennan and her sometime partner, Detective Andrew Ryan,

Like Cornwell – like most crime authors who follow their characters through many years and many novels – Reichs has Brennan deal with changes and challenges in her personal and professional life, among them her relationship with Ryan. Unlike Cornwell, she manages to make us care about those characters, even when they make mistakes.

The mystery is a good one, with enough danger to warrant the thriller classification. The forensics are interesting, And there are second chances – both to stop the killer, and in personal relationships. Redemption can be sweet.

I’ve not read all the Temperance Brennan series, but I’ve enjoyed all those I’ve come across. Each stands alone, and they are outstanding as audio books, gripping and easy to follow.

THE VERDICT

Readers owe Cornwell a big thank-you for blazing the trail for forensic thrillers. For now, at least, I find Kathy Reichs’ books more satisfying. But I’m quite willing to keep trying both series. Whose next book will be better? Happy the reader or listener who has the chance to decide

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Big coal, big problems

A few years ago, I flew as a passenger in a small private plane over a mountaintop-removal coal mine in West Virginia. The image of that huge, ugly wound on what had been a beautiful wilderness still haunts me. Most people will never see the ravages of modern strip-mining up close, but John Grisham’s new novel does a good job of bringing the harsh reality to life.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

GRAY MOUNTAIN. By John Grisham. Read by Catherine Taber. Random House Audio. 14 hours, 49 minutes. Also available in hardback from Doubleday, 368 pages, $28.95.

At 29, Samantha Kofer is right on track with her life plans. Having grown up the privileged only child of two Washington lawyers, she graduated from an Ivy League law school and is an associate in a huge Wall Street law firm. If all goes well, she’ll be a partner and wealthy before many more years go by.

But it’s 2008, and fate – in the form of the Wall Street meltdown and the subsequent recession – intervenes. She’s laid off, escorted unceremoniously out of the building. The only sop the firm throws her is the opportunity to keep her benefits and maybe get her job back eventually if she puts in a year as an unpaid intern at some worthy nonprofit.

Still in shock, Samantha finds herself starting work at a legal-aid clinic in Brady, Va., a remote coal-mining town in the state’s impoverished far southwest corner. Her boss is Matty Wyatt, who’s lived in the area all her life and knows its people and problems intimately.

In her more introspective moments, Samantha realizes that while her work in New York was prestigious and financially rewarding, it was also largely boring and unfulfilling, little more than proofreading intricate real-estate transactions. Matty promises her that whatever its problems, work at the legal-aid clinic will not be boring. Samantha, she assures her, will learn a great deal about real people with real problems.

That she does – all day, every day, the poor and oppressed find their way to the clinic: battered wives, homeless families, lonely widows. She learns about the problems associated with the scourge of meth manufacture and addiction.

And more than anything, she learns about the devastation caused by the big coal-mining companies that more or less own that part of Appalachia. She learns, for example, about the stalling tactics the coal companies use when it comes to compensating miners stricken by black-lung disease – tactics that often lead to the miner’s dying before he gets help. She sees that regulations are only as good as their enforcement, and that smart corporate lawyers make sure the rules can be skirted or even broken with impunity. She sees the strong-arm tactics that coal companies use to get the tracts they want, and marvels at the way many area residents support the coal companies against their own best interests, all because of the promise of a few jobs.

Don’t worry; this book is not a polemic or political tract. There’s plenty of story here. One major thread is Samantha’s coming-of-age as a lawyer; reluctantly, she learns about litigation, files her first lawsuit, argues in court for the first time. Gradually, she realizes the power of the law and the possibilities for its uses.

There’s romance, too, and Grisham does a commendable job of portraying the thoughts and emotions of a bright young woman.

There’s also plenty of mystery and danger, starting with a dramatic death that might not be the accident it at first seems.

I listened, fascinated, to Catherine Taber’s reading of this strong story. I’m happy to say she does not exaggerate the accents of Appalachia, which are far different from those of say, Mississippi. To my ear, she got the speech just right.

This is a strong and important book by a highly talented lawyer/author. His depiction of the growth of a young lawyer is powerful. Even more powerful is his scathing portrayal of the big coal industry whose abuses in a forgotten pocket of our country too often go unnoticed by most of us. Gray Mountain may not be as exciting and fast-paced as some of his Grisham’s earlier tales, but it’s compelling, true and haunting.

 

 

 

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Say it ain’t so, Bo

While I’m still more or less in holiday mode, Tom Dillon is back to business with a review of what threatens to be the last in one of his favorite mystery series. He’s right: It’s time to get things going for 2015. My New Year’s resolution is to be as industrious as Tom!

Reviewed by Tom Dillon

CIRCLES IN THE SNOW. By Patrick F. McManus. Skyhorse Publishing. 231 pages, $24.95, hardback

Well, darn it, I’ve apparently done it again. I’ve enjoyed Pat McManus’ Bo Tully mysteries ever since the first one appeared some 10 years ago, and now Bo Tully is planning to retire as sheriff of Blight County, Idaho.

The same thing happened to the last lawman I got interested in, a Scottish cop by the name of John Rebus. Get drawn in by a particular character, and then he retires. I seem to have a penchant for this.

It’s all better than what happened to Sherlock Holmes, of course – he fell off a waterfall fighting with his archenemy, Prof. Moriarty, you remember – but still I wonder. Am I a jinx? Should I even be reading mysteries at all?

It’s clear that Tully is getting a little long in the tooth, though he can still clobber a couple of bikers trying to have a knife fight in a Blight County drinking establishment. Tully is nearly 50, he’s a bit stout, and he’s long wanted to quit sheriffing and devote himself to his love for painting. But the demands of the job haven’t allowed it.

In this new mystery, Tully is confronted with the murder of an unpleasant character, a rancher known for shooting bald eagles. In this case, the rancher himself is done in by an archer using arrows fletched with eagle feathers. Bo and his father, former Sheriff Pap Tully, find the corpse beneath a new-fallen snow.

There are lots of suspects, starting with the rancher’s wife (an archer herself), his foreman (who’s in love with the wife), a budding ornithologist who chefs at a house of ill repute, and others. It will be Bo’s job to figure out who the culprit is.

Along the way, we get a trip to Mexico by Pap and Bo’s one-man CSI unit, Byron (Lurch) Proctor, some insight into how arrows are made and an introduction to August (Augie) Finn, editor and sole reporter for the Silver Tip Miner newspaper. Personally speaking, I wish we’d met Augie before.

We’re missing Dave of Dave’s House of Fry in this new mystery; he’s an expert tracker who claims Indian ancestry. But we’re introduced to Ed Stokes, who raises free-range chickens. And then there’s always Bo’s secretary and occasional romantic interest, Daisy Quinn.

There’s also the local FBI agent, a blonde knockout named Angie Phelps. She gets along OK with Bo, but she has some questions about Blight County, one of those places where the lawmen may shoot first and ask questions later, and where the sheriff can bend laws that need bending. The first in this series of books was called “The Blight Way,” and that phrase stands.

And then there’s the mystery of the circles in the snow, perfectly formed circles that show no footprints in and no footprints out. It’s as if someone formed them using a giant protractor – “kind of spooky,” in Pap’s opinion.

I tend to think that McManus could profit by reading more of Agatha Christie; some of these mysteries are all too fast-paced. But I’ve enjoyed all of them; I think it’s now six, dealing with everything from avalanches to trout fishing to 19th century mining. I hate to think the series is ending.

Toward the end, Bo starts talking about setting up his own private-detective business, a way, I guess, to keep his hand in law enforcement and maybe support his artistic efforts. But will he really need that? Early on here, he sells a painting for $12,000 and has his work featured in a big urban art gallery. He seems to have it made.

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. Sherlock Holmes came back from the dead after readers protested, and John Rebus is still working, retired or not. Is Bo Tully really gone from the scene? Thus far, Pat McManus isn’t saying.

  • Tom Dillon is a retired journalist who lives in Winston-Salem.

 

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Looking through Easy’s eyes

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

I’ve come late to the Easy Rawlins mysteries, mostly because my longtime reviewer friend Robert P. Moyer always snatched them up. Bob’s thoughtful praise for Walter Mosley’s books always made me want to read them, but the downside of running a book review page or site is that you feel pressure to read something that isn’t already being reviewed by someone else.

Now, with Bob off on his world travels or possibly petanquing or haikuing somewhere, I’ve had the pleasure of dealing with the latest in the series myself. I listened to the audio version, and I have no doubt that the book would be equally pleasurable and rewarding in print form. By rewarding, I mean this is a book that ought to be read in late 2014 America, especially by white people who want more insight into the controversy over police dealings with black Americans.

ROSE GOLD. By Walter Mosley. Read by J.D. Jackson. Random House Audio. 11 hours; 9 CDs. $40. Also available in print from Doubleday.

Walter Mosley started his acclaimed Easy Rawlins mystery series in 1990 with “Devil in a Blue Dress,” a story about a hard-boiled detective in Los Angeles who’s different from most others in popular fiction. The book was made into a popular movie starring Denzel Washington in 1995. Easy is a black World War II veteran, and in the early novels, he’s working without a PI license. He’s savvy about negotiating his way among the various communities in L.A. – white, black and Latino. He can go places where white people can’t go, and he deals with some, shall we say, highly interesting people.

The books are good, solid detective stories with well-developed plots and subplots, plus enough danger and suspense to keep the reader on edge. They stand out for several reasons, one of them being the character of Easy, a perceptive and thoughtful man who follows his own well-developed ideas of right and wrong. What’s right or just might not always coincide with what’s legal. Easy’s outlook on life gives the books another of their strengths: Through his wary eyes, we see how things look and feel, how society operates.

In 13 books now, Mosley has taken Easy through the late 1940s, the 1950s and almost through the sex- , drug- and protest-heavy 1960s. He even killed Easy off – or so everyone thought – a couple of books ago, but brought him back to life (he’d been in a coma, we learn) with a slightly more philosophical outlook six years later. This is the second book since Easy’s near-death experience.

Easy’s grown weary of the PI life, but his adopted daughter has been accepted to a pricey private school, and his rental houses need repairs.

When an armed delegation from the LAPD shows up at the house he’s moving into to ask for his help with a difficult case, he’s both reluctant and skeptical. In his experience, little good comes from dealings with white cops.  The offer of a hefty check plus help with his building-inspection problems helps persuade him to take a look. Apparently, Rosemary Goldsmith, the college-student daughter of a wealthy weapons manufacturer, has been kidnapped. The police believe a young black man, sometimes called Robert Mantle and sometimes Uhuru Nolica, is involved. They think Easy will have better luck than they will at tracking Mantle down.

As Easy begins to investigate, things become very complicated. His car is shot up, he’s ordered off the case by various federal agents, and he begins to wonder if Rose Gold, as he calls the girl in his mind, is really a victim. He wants to help save the girl , of course, but he’s also well aware that Robert Mantle’s life is in danger – in more ways than one. He suspects that Rose is not as innocent as she seems, and something smells decidedly wrong within the LAPD.

Various subplots make the story even more interesting and yield more glimpses of life in Southern California in the tumultuous ’60s.

This would be a good book at any time, and J.D. Jackson’s expert reading makes it a great listen.

What makes it an important book for this moment in the United States is one of the aspects that’s made Easy Rawlins books into cultural treasures. Without being strident, without pontificating, Easy makes it starkly clear what it’s like to be a black male in a society where power is in white hands, and most white people assume you’re trouble. Mostly, he fumes inwardly, forcing himself to do what he needs to do for self-preservation without sacrificing his dignity. Occasionally, he can’t completely contain his rage. What could be a good detective story becomes something more powerful as we see a good man trying to do what he believes is right in a world that often seems stacked against him.

Listen to Easy’s story, or read the print version. It won’t be the first time that good fiction teaches us more than the sound and fury in the “real” world can.

 

 

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Where angels watch

Here’s the latest in a long-running crime-novel series. Don’t worry if you missed out on the earlier books. You can always go back and enjoy them, too.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

DEATH ANGEL. By Linda Fairstein. Read by Barbara Rosenblat. Penguin Audio. 11 CDs, 12½ hours. Also available in hardcover from Dutton.

Alex Cooper, an assistant district attorney in Manhattan, is called in to help solve the mystery when the naked body of a teenage girl is found in Central Park, a heavily patrolled and beloved area that’s not often the scene of major crimes. As Alex and her police friends work to solve the case, they find possible connections to cold cases and long-buried secrets.

This is the 15th in Linda Fairstein’s popular series of mysteries starring Alex Cooper. There’s a continuing storyline involving Alex’s romances and personal life, plus that of her close friends, one of whom – Detective Mike Chapman – is often on the brink of becoming significantly more than just a friend. Each book does stand on its own as a complete mystery, however, and Fairstein works in enough references to the past so the first-time or occasional reader isn’t lost.

In real life, Fairstein was the chief of the Sex Crimes Unit of the DA’s office Manhattan for more than 20 years, so she knows her material when writing about domestic violence and sexual assault.

While each mystery is fresh and complicated, and the circumstances of Alex’s life change, the books do, understandably, have some constants. Some are small details, such as the way the friends vie to answer the Final Jeopardy! from the nightly show.

Others involve style. Fairstein has a penchant for using her characters for exposition, resulting in some dialogue that is wooden and unrealistic. Her characters at times come across as tiresome know-it-alls, though to be fair, Fairstein has established their competitive natures. Somehow, listening to Barbara Rosenblat’s skilled reading in the audio version makes the dialogue flow more smoothly than it does on the printed page.

A related Fairstein trademark, one that necessitates much of the expository dialogue, is her working extensive information about a place or landmark into the story. This time, it’s Central Park, which has a fascinating history and a lot going on behind the scenes. As a bonus, we have the Dakota, the venerable apartment home of many of New York’s rich and famous. Both are fascinating places, and in Fairstein’s skilled hands they came alive and were as interesting as the book’s human characters.

Just to complicate things, a scandal threatens the careers of Mike and Alex, and a lurking criminal has a grudge against Alex.

All in all, this is Fairstein at her best, a book well worth the listen.

 

 

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What do bison, prairie dogs, nuclear weapons and cable TV have in common?

As I’ve said before, it’s a pleasure to receive a review from Tom Dillon, because he writes well, thinks clearly and reads interesting books. He’s also willing to try something different.

Reviewed by Tom Dillon

LAST STAND: Ted Turner’s Quest to Save a Troubled Planet. By Todd Wilkinson. Lyons Press. 378 pages. $18.95, paperback.

Authorized biographies aren’t normally my cup of tea, and I went into this one with a bit of trepidation, which I’m happy to say turned out of be unfounded. I guess I should have known.

I read the book for several reasons. One is that Todd Wilkinson belongs to a writers’ group of which I am also a member, and while I don’t know him, I generally respect work that comes from the group’s members. A second reason is his earlier critically acclaimed book Science Under Siege: The Politicians’ War on Nature and Truth. It sounds like something up my alley.

In this case, Wilkinson says he was attempting neither a “hagiography” – the study of a saint – nor a tabloid tell-all. The book is instead about “a complicated man’s investigation of big ideas, the motivations behind them, and what action or inaction could mean” for the future.

He’s succeeded pretty well, producing a readable book that will teach you a fair amount about everything from bison and prairie dogs to nuclear disarmament and cable television – all, of course, wrapped around the outsize persona of Ted Turner.

We probably don’t need to talk much here about Turner’s history with the Atlanta Braves baseball team, Cable News Network, Turner Broadcasting, AOL Time Warner and so on; it’s pretty well known.

Less well known is his dysfunctional family upbringing, his friendship with people like Mikhail Gorbachev and Jacques Cousteau, and the reasons he became the largest bison (buffalo) rancher in the nation’s history, with something like 55,000 head on his 15 ranches. One of the few pictures provided of his grazing bison could as easily have come from the days of Lewis and Clark.

The stories are both fascinating and heartbreaking, like Turner’s strict father pulling the young student out of Brown University when Turner changed his major from business to classics; Turner responded by joining the Coast Guard.

Turner has also fought a family tendency toward depression that led to his father’s suicide and even lured Turner himself after the AOL Time Warner debacle in 2001. His detachment probably broke up several marriages, including the one with Jane Fonda.

He had an early fascination with the writing of Ayn Rand, but eventually rejected Rand’s “greed is good” motto. His feeling now: “Capitalism isn’t the problem. It’s how we practice capitalism that has created many of the challenges now facing humanity.” A good part of this book seems aimed at influencing other super-rich people into philanthropy like that of Turner’s.

Wilkinson first met Turner about 1992, conducting an interview for a magazine story, and the two men eventually hit it off to the point that, Turner says, “I started to trust him in ways that I seldom do with writers or even other people.” Turner agreed there would be no preconditions on the book.

Ironically, Wilkinson says, Turner carries no business cards. But he does have in his wallet a printed list of “eleven voluntary initiatives.” Together, the initiatives are a pretty good formula for living an environmentally sensitive life. They are:

*I promise to care about Planet Earth and all living things thereon, especially my fellow human beings.

*I promise to treat all persons everywhere with dignity, respect and friendliness.

*I promise to have no more than one or two children. (Turner broke this one, Wilkinson notes. He has five kids, who are being groomed to take over his foundation.)

*I promise to use my best efforts to help save what is left of our natural world in its undisturbed state, and to restore degraded areas.

*I promise to use as little of our nonrenewable resources as possible.

*I promise to minimize my use of toxic chemicals, pesticides and other poisons, and to encourage others to do the same.

*I promise to contribute to those less fortunate to help them become self-sufficient and enjoy the benefits of decent life, including clean air and water, adequate food, health care, housing, education and individual rights.

*I reject the use of force, in particular military force, and I support the United Nations’ arbitration of international disputes.

*I support the total elimination of all nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, and ultimately the elimination of all weapons of mass destruction.

*I support the United Nations and its efforts to improve the conditions of the planet.

*I support clean renewable energy and a rapid move to eliminate carbon emissions.

  • Tom Dillon is a journalist who lives in Winston-Salem, N.C.

 

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For sheer entertainment, listen to a Clive Cussler tale

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

When it comes to audiobooks, I’m a more eclectic reader than I am with the printed volumes. Sure, I love listening to books I’d probably read or have read anyway – I’ve listened to all the novels of Jane Austen, for example, and whenever I get a new installment in Alan Bradley’s delightful Flavia de Luce series, I enjoy reading it and then listening to it (I can’t do British accents in my head, so I like to hear the real thing). I’ve enjoyed listening to many a recent literary or mystery novel. But I’m also more likely to tackle a serious, weighty nonfiction book when I’ll be listening rather than turning pages, and when they are being read to me, I try novels that are out of my usual range of interests.

Then sometimes, I need a break. Sometimes, I just want pure entertainment in my audiobook. When that mood strikes, I reach for one of Clive Cussler’s many offerings, and I’m grateful that he and his associates are so prolific. Cussler has several adventure series going, and they’re all great listening. They’re fast paced but easy to follow, and they always incorporate fascinating information about archeology, history, national defense, exotic lands and/or the sea. Sure they follow a formula of sorts, and there’s little in the way of complex character development. But the ever-changing settings, plots and challenges keep the stories fresh, and listening to them is just plain fun. They are perfect books to pop into the CD player when traveling with family. Think of listening to Clive Cussler audiobooks as something like going to an Indiana Jones movie.

Here are quick looks at three I’ve enjoyed recently. All – as indeed every Clive Cussler book I’ve ever heard – are read by Scott Brick, who is perfect for the job.

THE EYE OF HEAVEN. By Clive Cussler and Russell Blake. Read by Scott Brick. Penguin Audio. 9CDs. $46.

This is the latest in the Fargo series, starring Sam and Remi Fargo, the fabulously wealthy husband and wife team who travel the globe hunting for treasure, which they turn over to local authorities for preservation, of course. They are fearless, skilled divers. They have the enviable ability to wine and dine lavishly and still stay in perfect shape, able to scale mountains, descend into snake-infested tombs, subdue gangsters and outwit nefarious enemies of all stripes. But I digress. These books are just plain entertainment, and it’s all part of the fun.

This time out, the Fargos’ quest for treasure and knowledge takes them from the Arctic to remote areas of Mexico – with a daring side trip to Castro’s Cuba. They are trying to learn more about an apparent connection between the Vikings and the ancient Toltec feathered-serpent god Quetzalcoatl. Not to mention trying to find the fabled gem known as the Eye of Heaven. The action is fast-paced (the Fargos have a private plane ready when needed), taking them and their colleagues to ancient temples, secret tombs and into the wilds of the jungle.

And, as always, there’s also a lot of fascinating information woven into the tale.

And, as always, there are multiple enemies out to thwart the Fargos, steal the treasure, wreak vengeance for perceived wrongs and otherwise do them harm. It’s not clear who can be trusted. Could this be the day when Sam and Remi meet their match? Nah. Probably not. Clive Cussler has too many more books to write. Thank goodness.

THE BOOTLEGGER.  By Clive Cussler and Justin Scott. Read by Scott Brick. Penguin Audio. 9 CDs; 11 ½ hours. $39.95.

I’m a fan of recent history, so I love Clive Cussler’s series starring Isaac Bell, a detective for the Van Dorn Agency in the early 20th century. Bell gets into all sorts of adventures, dangerous of course, but also yielding much fascinating information about those tumultuous times. Earlier books in the series have provided, for example, interesting tidbits about the cutthroat competition in the early motion picture industry, including Thomas Edison’s role, and intriguing stories about espionage surrounding World War I.

This one deals with Prohibition, specifically bootlegging and all the associated crime that misguided policy engendered. Joseph Van Dorn, Bell’s boss and longtime friend, is seriously wounded in a shooting when he’s helping to chase after a rum-running boat. Bell sets out to track down the shooter and, of course, finds himself involved in something much more complex than he ever imagined. Bootlegging means big money, and that money has drawn the interest of those who are hoping to bring down the United States of America. Communists, Russians operatives and homegrown mobsters all get into the action as Bell moves from New York to Detroit and on to Florida on the heels of his villains.

Bell also, of course, has a beautiful wife, who happens to be involved in the fledgling movie industry.

MIRAGE. By Clive Cussler and Jack Du Brul. Read by Scott Brick. Penguin Audio. 10 CDs; 12 hours. $39.95.

This Oregon Files series stars Juan Cabrillo, the captain of the Oregon and head of the Corporation, a group sponsored by the U.S. government that travels the world taking care of secret missions. The Oregon is a marvel of the latest technology, but to the casual onlooker it’s just a rusty old ship that’s seen better days.

This one involves Nikola Tesla, a U.S. destroyer that vanished in 1943, a rogue Russian admiral and all sorts of amazing secret weapons.

Needless to say, there’s a great deal of danger, including the possibility of what could be the third world war as well as physical threats to Cabrillo and crew. The action is fast, the technology is amazing, and the story – including the historical flashbacks – is gripping. Happy listening!

 

 

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When the smoke clears

A new novel from Deobrah Crombie is always a welcome arrival. She’s one of those much-to-be-envied American writers who have made a career of writing detective stories set in contemporary London. Too bad about all the time she has to spend traveling from her home in Texas to do research across the pond…

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

TO DWELL IN DARKNESS. By Deborah Crombie. William Morrow. 324 pages. $25.99.

As readers of this series know, Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James are both police detectives in London, who married a couple of novels ago and, despite their busy and sometimes conflicting schedules, are raising three children, plus the odd pet or two.

As this story opens, Kincaid is trying to get used to his new assignment, having recently been transferred, for reasons that elude him, from Scotland Yard headquarters to the London borough of Camden. He’s having to work with new people, some of whom don’t much like him. Sometimes, he still needs to call on those he’s come to trust over the years for help and support.

The life he knows collides with his new duties when there’s a deadly bombing at historic St. Pancras International train station. Melody Talbot, Gemma’s friend and fellow officer, witnesses the explosion, having come to St. Pancras because her boyfriend was playing in a concert there. One of the musicians in the band is hurt in the blast, which killed the young man who was setting off the bomb.

As Kincaid and his colleagues begin to investigate, a muddled story emerges. The apparent victim is part of a group of protesters who were planning to set off a smoke bomb at the scene of the concert in hopes that doing so would bring more media attention to their cause. But someone substituted something far deadlier for the smoke bomb.

The deeper the investigation goes, the more Kincaid finds that things are not what they seem. Much seems to depend upon a mysterious stranger who was at the scene of the blast.

Kincaid eventually unravels some of what has happened. But in so doing, he uncovers more troubling mysteries, things that make him question what he’s doing in his career and fear for the safety of his family.

Meanwhile, Gemma has a troubling case of her own to deal with, and the children rescue a mother cat with kittens.

Deborah Crombie does a fine job with this series. The mysteries are surprising yet satisfying. The stories are lively but never superficial, as we learn more about the lives and motivations of the victims and criminals they encounter. Themes of family and loyalty always run through the stories. And Crombie’s rich descriptions of contemporary London – plus the history of places such as St. Pancras International Station – are always a bonus.

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