The ticking bombs…

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE KING’S JUSTICE. By Susan Elia MacNeal. Bantam Books. $17, paperback.

Over the course of eight previous novels, Maggie Hope has been an assistant to Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a code breaker, a spy, a prisoner…. She’s come way too close for comfort to a serial killer trying to emulate Jack the Ripper. She’s traveled from London to Paris and beyond, then to the White House in Washington after Pearl Harbor brings the Americans into World War II. In the process, she’s learned some difficult truths about her family, and she’s gained some insights into herself as well. Yet, as we see in The King’s Justice, she still has dangers to face and lessons to learn. That’s a good thing for all those who love this series.

As the book opens in London at the end of 1942, Maggie has sworn off spying for a while. She does her part for the war effort by working on a squad that defuses the many deadly bombs that remain across London since the Luftwaffe’s Blitz in 1940. Maggie loses herself at least briefly in this intense work that requires absolute concentration. At other times, she smokes, drinks and rides a motorbike dangerously fast through the streets of London to avoid thinking about all that she’s been through and the horrors she’s experienced.

Now, even as the brutal serial murderer she helped to catch and convict is about to be executed, a new serial killer begins an apparent campaign to claim even more victims – and notoriety. This time, people, including the mudlarkers who scavenge in the mud of the River Thames to find items they might be able to sell for a little cash, start finding suitcases filled with human bones. White feathers suggest the victims are men who are conscientious objectors avoiding serving in the military.

Maggie’s fledgling love interest, Detective Chief Inspector James Durgin, wants her to help him track down this new killer, but Maggie is adamant that she wants nothing more of spying or crime solving. Her resolve weakens, however, when Durgin asks her to help in the case of a rare Stradivarius that’s been stolen. And then the murderer who’s about to be executed suggests he has information about the new serial killer, information that he’ll give only to Maggie. Because some of the young men who work with her defusing bombs are conscientious objectors, she has a special interest in the case. Sometimes her personal feelings bring her into conflict with Durgin over the decisions he’s making about how to proceed with the case and how much information to reveal to the public.

Despite her resolve, Maggie gets drawn into these crimes, old and new. The more she learns, the more she suspects that the crimes are linked, and that there might be connections to her past as well.

Susan Elia MacNeal does a wonderful job with this mystery series, and as Maggie matures and experiences ever more, the novels are acquiring more depth. This time, we see more of the effects of war and violence on individuals, especially Maggie.

MacNeal’s attention to detail is a delight for people who like history. We get a real sense of what life was like for ordinary people, Londoners of Italian descent, government officials and even royals during those dark, interminable days of the war.

It’s not necessary to have read all the Maggie Hope mysteries that preceded this one to enjoy The King’s Justice. Those who haven’t had that pleasure, however, will probably want to go back and read more of the series. The rest of us will be eagerly anticipating No. 10.

 

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The most important client

Bob Moyer has a way of making we want to get a book and start reading right away! This one sounds particularly good.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE LAW OF INNOCENCE. By Michael Connelly. Little, Brown. 42 pages. $29.

Mickey Haller is the Lincoln lawyer. He does most of his business in the back of a chauffeured Lincoln, much of that business with people who are guilty. He is to defense lawyers what his half-brother Harry Bosch is to detectives—the best. Haller thinks of the prosecution as a solid, deep-rooted tree; he thinks of himself as “…the man with the axe. My job is to cut the tree down to the ground and burn its wood to ashes.” In this latest installment, he needs a very sharp axe to save the most important client he has ever had —himself.

A few pages into the book the police arrest Haller for murder, the victim a client who owed him money. It’s a frame, of course, but Haller comes up before a D.A. that he has beat like a drum and a judge whose case he overturned. Mickey Haller goes to jail.

And he stays there most of the book. He and his crack team, which includes Bosch, have to put their case together while navigating the limitations of the prison and court system. Michael Connelly’s skill makes that effort most interesting, as we follow the winding ins and outs of the case inside the courtroom and the investigation outside.

They know whodunit early on, but the danger for the case builds. Will they find him? Can they get him to court?  And can Haller himself stay alive inside the jail?  Connelly always builds edge-of-your-seat suspense, but he ups himself here by adding a danger the reader is well aware of, but the book’s cast isn’t for some time —the pandemic. In this early 2020 setting, hints appear—a rumor about a Chinese virus, an incident in a Washington nursing home, masks. It’s interesting that the addition of something we are so familiar with adds dread to the occasion for the reader, not the characters.

After a finely tuned orchestration of incidents, including surprise discoveries, lying witnesses and, of course, the FBI, Haller finally sees the case coming together, the moment he starts “…to get the visions I got before all my trials. Visions of witnesses on the stand, visions of me telling my story.” After the case plays out in court, the story comes to a trademark Connelly double ending. The book is actually longer than most Connelly books, because of The Law of Innocence—as Haller says, “the only way to prove I didn’t do it is to prove who did.” That takes a little time, and the reader gets to tag along on another Connelly triumph.

 

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Walter Mosley, the short version

Years ago, a review by Bob Moyer introduced me to the works of Walter Mosley. Since then, I have read many of Mosley’s outstanding  and evocative mysteries, including many  of the early ones I had missed.  Now I’ll have to add this book of stories to my reading list.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE AWKWARD BLACK MAN. By Walter Mosley. Grove Press. 336 pages. $26.

Men. Awkward Black men, plural, populate the pages of these 17 stories. Each one of them, mostly middle-aged, has a problem that complicates his life. The man with a “Pet Fly”  makes pathetic attempts at courting that get him charged with harassment. In therapy for 31 years, the writer in “Cut Cut Cut” just feels “stuck.”   “Leading From the Affair” his wife had, a husband finds himself ”on a flat plane of insurance claims” and searches for a way out.

These stories roll across the pages with the trademark Walter Mosley rhythms. The man knows how to turn a phrase, tap into the vernacular. The overweight young man who sits down next to the “The Black Woman in the Chinese Hat” has by the end of the day found “…the intimacy and the closeness I had always wanted but never suspected until that day.”  A fellow employee tells the same character in another story, “…man forget he’s black for you could say Jackie Robinson.” None of these phrases ask us to stop and appreciate them; they only serve to sharpen the details of each story’s mise en scene.

 And that’s where Mosley flaunts his mastery. In every story, a shift that surprises both the Black man and the reader emerges. Both of his psychiatrists dismiss the man who was “stuck,” he loses his job, but he ends up starting a magazine so successful that “The anxiety this notoriety produces is sublime, and at the same time, almost unbearable.”  The bank teller who has never made a mistake in thousands of transactions but never advanced, attracts the offer of a lifetime when he blows off the one job interview he tries. Every denouement ranges from satisfying to phenomenal. To reveal any more scenarios would detract from the pleasure of these pieces.

Mosley has frequently been called America’s best Black mystery writer. Indeed, every story here in some way throws light on the Black man’s plight in America. But being stuck, socially inept, trapped in a job — Mosley’s stories reflect the human condition. He is much more than a Black mystery writer.  He is flat out one of America’s best writers, and this book shows his hand at the short version of his art.

 

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Not for the faint hearted

There were the holidays, you know. Oh, and he recently moved to a new house. And other things intervened. But Bob Moyer is back in book-reviewing mode now, and the world rejoices.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

DEAD GIRL BLUES. By Lawrence Block. LB Productions. 218 pages. $24.99.

She’s dead. Her blues are over. The guy who kills her, however, in a bizarre, unsettling act that will stop some readers dead (pun intended of course), spends the rest of his life looking out for the police, as well as looking out for the dark impulse that he, in fact, enjoys. He even fantasizes about it, with little remorse. After drifting about California, he heads east. Armed with a new identity, he settles in small town Indiana, where he becomes a valued employee, a store owner, a husband, a father, member of Kiwanis, a  pillar of the community. His brutal act apparently recedes as does his impulse. Until three letters bring his fears to the fore—DNA.

Author Lawrence Block has been writing noir novels since 1958. He has his finger on the pulse of the pulp novel tradition and employs his skill here. No one writes a leaner, meaner prose. His villain/hero writes at a computer, summing up his life. As danger creeps closer, he muses about morality, mortality and what he should do to protect himself and his family. Or which to protect. Block threads a careful path here, at once maintaining the dark impulse of his protagonist, while producing empathy for him — the reader really doesn’t want him to get caught. In short, the author has written a horrible book that’s really hard to put down.

 

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In the swamps, Burke takes it up a notch

Bob Moyer has been busy, moving to a new home and doing all the other things Bob Moyer does. Including reading. Now, at last, he’s found time again to write some book reviews and share his literary finds with us. Thank goodness.

Reviewed by Robert P.  Moyer

A PRIVATE CATHEDRAL: A Dave Robicheaux Novel. By James Lee Burke. Simon and Schuster. $28.

The supernatural has always loomed large in the swamps of James Lee Burke’s Iberia Parish. Deputy Sheriff Dave Robicheaux has watched Confederate soldiers gesture at him to join them, he’s seen specters of his Vietnam journey appear before him, he has seen evil appear in a number of forms — life doesn’t pass through the swamps, it sinks in and is released from time to time.

In A PRIVATE CATHEDRAL, author Burke has taken the supernatural up a notch to science fiction. When Dave discovers that a mafia don has given his daughter to a local populist demagogue, he can’t leave it alone. He can’t leave the mafioso’s longtime mistress alone, either. The don doesn’t suffer Dave’s attention lightly. He brings in a green-scaled, hooded-eyed character who appears in a mist on a ship manned by unreleased souls, has hallucinatory powers — and moonlights as a hit man. He is the most formidable foe that Dave and his buddy Cletis, known as “the Bobbsey twins” when they were on the New Orleans police force, have ever faced.

Set in the past, just as Helen Soileau has been appointed sheriff, the book abounds with the violence that was de rigueur both at that time and in earlier books of this venerable series. Also extant is the elegant prose Burke produces, as evil manifests itself in the landscape. Dave has gone through “…the long night of the soul,” and feels as though he is “…the only occupant in a cathedral in which you can hear your heartbeat echoing off the walls.”  Time and again, Dave battles this sense of “…being in a black box for the duration, Jason.” He rants eloquently, and frequently, as he battles his own demons of alcoholism and violence.

In fact, those personal demons are more interesting than the green one Burke has conjured up to further complicate the lives of Dave and Cletis. The strengths of a Robicheaux novel are still here. The pleasure in the book, however, depends upon your threshold for science fiction mixed in with this familiar setting. It’s a literary gumbo not for all tastes.

 

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All aboard for Whistle Stop!

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE WONDER BOY OF WHISTLE STOP. By Fannie Flagg. Random House Audio. Read by the author. 8 hours; 7 compact discs. $40. Also available in hardback from Random House.

You are in for a treat. Need an antidote to COVID, the election and all the other things 2020 has thrown at us? Here it is. Read this book, or, better yet, let Fannie Flagg read her own words to you.

Don’t worry if you somehow haven’t read Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café. You can still love this latest Whistle Stop book. In her own sometimes rambling, conversational way, Flagg fills in the relevant background and history – and gives us some insights we didn’t get the first time. In any event, this delightful story can stand on its own. The characters and their joys and heartbreaks come wonderfully to life.

I read the first book some years ago and remembered its broad outlines. The more I listened to the new one, the more I wanted to revisit some of the details of the first. A few minutes online accomplished that.

If you never read Fried Green Tomatoes, reading Wonder Boy will surely make you want to do so, or at least watch the movie. Come to think of it, I might watch the movie again. Whistle Stop could be addictive.

But for now, just enjoy Wonder Boy. As you’d expect, this is a story liberally laced with humor and warm insights into the foibles of human nature. It’s also a classic Southern novel, told through sorts of the colorful anecdotes and memories that might be shared on a front porch on a warm, honeysuckle-scented summer night.

The wonder boy of the title is Bud Threadgoode, the one-armed boy (you’ll find out why) who grew up in the 1930s in the little Alabama railroad town called Whistle Stop. He was raised by his mother, Ruth, and his Aunt Idgie. Though they could hardly have been more different on the surface – Ruth was a church-going, convention-obeying proper lady, while Idgie, always a tomboy, was given to drinking, gambling and other sins – the two had a close relationship that went beyond the café they operated together.

Through Flagg’s delightful stories, we learn how Bud grew up, married and had a daughter and a career that took him away from Whistle Stop. Now he’s an elderly widower, living in a posh retirement home in Atlanta, near his only child, Ruthie, herself a widow. Ruthie married into old Atlanta money, but unfortunately, Martha Lee Caldwell, a domineering mother-in-law who lives in the mansion next door, was part of the deal. In Flagg’s skilled hands, Martha Lee becomes a rich source of humor.

After many enjoyable diversions and excursions back and forth over nearly a century, Flagg gets to the main action of the new novel. All sorts of developments are triggered when Bud, without telling anyone, runs away from the home on a quest to see what’s become of his beloved Whistle Stop. He eventually discovers that Whistle Stop essentially is no more; the railroad business changed, people moved away, and the town became a ghost town. What buildings are left – even the beloved old café – are in shambles.

But don’t worry. Things are about to get really interesting, in a good way.

Been needing a respite, a treat, a real escape? Here it is.

 

 

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Law, order, love and money, Stone Barrington style

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

SHAKEUP. By Stuart Woods. Penguin Audio. Read by Tony Roberts. 7 hours; 6 CDs. $35. Also available in print from G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

OK, here’s the book to take you from the craziness we are in to a fantasy world in which the United States has just inaugurated its second – in a row – female president, who also happens to be intelligent, principled, competent and in a relationship (of sorts) with our hero.

It’s a world where very wealthy and powerful men and women presumably grow older but never show signs of age, where they can consume all the finest food and drink they want with no ill effects, where men and women come together in a highly civilized way to enjoy the pleasures of each other’s flesh with friendliness and some affection, but no messy emotional entanglements… You get the idea.

This is book No. 55 in Stuart Woods’ series about Stone Barrington, the quintessential debonair widower enjoying the good life in this alternate world. I’ve read (listened to – these books are a good diversion when driving alone) quite a few of them over the years, but I have not gone back to the beginning to learn how a former New York City police detective became a fabulously wealthy lawyer, although I gather some of the riches came from his late wife. However it happened, Stone now leads a charmed life: He’s a senior member of a prestigious law firm but rarely seems to work and almost never goes in to the office. He owns mansions in several states and abroad. He has a luxurious yacht and a private jet with crews ready to go at a moment’s notice. And women – especially women in high places – find him completely irresistible from the moment they meet him. In fact, resisting isn’t considered; they usually make the first moves.

Shakeup is fantastic, indeed, and at times downright comic, as Stone works to keep his love life going now that Holly Barker, with whom he’s long had his style of open relationship, is the nation’s second woman president. They have to do something about all those secret service agents, not to mention the press. At one point, Stone has a burka made to order so Holly can travel incognito from her hotel room to his posh Manhattan home. Their time together will be more limited now, so he tries to make himself available if she comes to town, even if it means turning that up-and-coming young movie star or the new female head of the FBI or some other lovely and eager woman out of his boudoir. And of course, the women never mind and never exhibit jealousy.

But wait! I’m forgetting the crime/detective part of the story. (Sometimes, Stone Barrington novels seem to be primarily about his travel, mansions and sexual liaisons, but the better books include sufficient mystery and intrigue.) When Stone returns to his D.C. hotel suite after accompanying Holly to her inauguration, he stumbles over the recently deceased body of Patricia Clark, the soon-to-be-divorced wife of Holly’s nominee for secretary of Commerce, Dan Clark.

Thus starts an ever-widening web of dastardly deeds that threaten law and order in New York as well as the nation’s capital. Stone, of course, and his pal Dino Bachetti, the New York police commissioner, help solve the related murders and other crimes. The quest involves a quick trip to London, and puts even Stone in peril.

This is about as escapist as it gets. Ably read by Tony Roberts, a veteran of Stone Barrington sagas, Shakeup may have you rolling your eyes or shaking your head at times, but it will also, happily, take you right out of today’s reality.

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Hang on for the ride of your life

Looking for quality, entertaining escape reading? Bob Moyer has a new novel for you. Be prepared to hold on!

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

BLACKTOP WASTELAND. By S. A. Cosby. Flatiron. 304 pages. $26.99

There’s nary a ping or misfire as this high-octane heist novel roars through the BLACKTOP WASTELAND of rural eastern Virginia. Every successful heist needs a great driver behind the wheel, and Beauregard is the best east of the Mississippi. Every successful heist novel needs a steady hand at the helm, and  S.A. Cosby, in his first novel for a major publisher, knows his rpms from his nitro-boost.

Beauregard, or Bug as he is known, is a husband, father of three, lives in a double-wide and owns a garage. He used to be in the game, but has tried to go straight. Unfortunately, his mom is about to be kicked out of her retirement home, his daughter needs money for college, and all his bills are overdue because a new garage in town has taken his business. So when shaky, shady Ronnie shows up with a gig, Bug doesn’t turn him down. And it’s not just the money — driving is in his blood.

Author Cosby drops dollops of backstory about how Bug came to be the driver he is, with a Plymouth Duster that no one can beat off the line. It’s a delightful part of the book, and to tell any of the details would detract from the reader’s experience. Suffice it to say, when Bug says yes, the fun ensues. Fueled by a blend of a botched robbery, a crime boss, betrayal, car chases and even a truck chase, the book takes a twisty ride through almost nearly unique territory, executing plot turns both improbable and seemingly impossible — but delivering us still pumped up from the ride at the end.

Blacktop Wasteland is not just a good book — it’s a gas.

 

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Who we are, who we become

Bob Moyer is right on with his review of this well-written novel. Coincidentally (sorry, Bob, I couldn’t resist), I read it recently for the book club I participate in here in Currituck, North Carolina. The Vanishing Half inspired some lively discussions.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE VANISHING HALF. By Brit Bennett. Riverhead Books. 352 pages. $27.

Coincidence.

From the pen of a great, even a good writer, it can open new vistas, extend the narrative, bring storylines together, and wreak magic on the reader. If not handled skillfully, however, it can push the reader right off the page. People have asked me frequently why I rarely publish a negative review. I stop reading if it doesn’t appeal to me, or, in my most recent drop, I can’t believe the premise. In a book listed for the Man Booker prize, the author created such an outrageous coincidence central to the narrative that I couldn’t possibly continue.

Britt Bennett depends upon coincidence in her accomplished book, The Vanishing Half. It is the weakest link in an otherwise sterling novel about light-skinned black twins from Mallard, Louisiana. The social hierarchy of this small, black community depends upon the skin tone. Light-skinned as they are, Desiree and Stella still escape from town one night. Soon after, Stella escapes again — across the line from black to white, as we later learn.

Desiree does not. She marries an African-American man, and has a child “as black as tar.”  He turns abusive, and she takes her daughter back to Mallard. There, the child grows up subjected to the cruel caste system inside the black community. She finally escapes to college in Los Angeles.

That’s where the coincidence that stretches credulity comes in. By this time, however, Bennett has reeled us in with some skillful writing. She provides us a tangible connection between the twins, a palpable bond between mothers and daughters, a stark capture of the caste system, and a growing interest in what happened to The Vanishing Half, Stella. Bennett primes us with comments about statistics, ironically Stella’s strength. We accept the coincidence, as the two storylines come together when the “black as tar” daughter meets Stella’s blonde-haired, blue-eyed daughter.

Bennett makes painfully clear that Stella escaped only to a prison of her lies. She has committed so completely to her crossover that she cannot come forth to her daughter. With an eye for detail and an ear for dialogue, Bennett details the nuances of “passing,” and the price Stella and her daughter pay for it.

The playing out of the story is not a happy one for Stella or her daughter. Desiree and her daughter actually escape Mallard into a modicum of normalcy. No magic occurs to resolve the effects of racism here, however. The only magic in this book is the prestidigitation of Bennett’s prose.

 

 

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A different perspective

Paul O’Connor, a veteran journalist, offers a review of a book that he says isn’t easy to read – but worth the effort.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

CASTE: THE ORIGIN OF OUR DISCONTENTS. By Isabel Wilkerson. Random House. 388 pages. $32, hardcover.

Many weekday mornings, a friend calls to discuss the news and express his astonishment at the conservative political positions of the people he grew up with in Western North Carolina.

“Don’t they understand that they are voting against their own best interests?” he often asks.

Isabel Wilkerson, in Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, would disagree with his analysis. His rural white friends understand what they are doing, she would say. They vote for the one interest they find more important than good health care, a healthy environment and a fair tax system: the status that comes with being white in America.

“The precarity of their lives and the changing demographics of the country induced (during the Obama years) a greater need to maintain whatever advantages that they (non-affluent whites) had come to expect and to shore up the one immutable characteristic that has held the most weight in the American caste system,” she wrote.

That may sound like a fairly common assessment of white working-class voters – that they are duped into voting against their own best interests by race-baiting candidates. But it is different.

Wilkerson makes a clear distinction between two -isms that we often conflate: racism and casteism. The first entails malevolence and sometimes violence. Casteism often appears benign, sometimes committed by people who harbor no ill will toward people of color. It is the effort by people in one caste to maintain their advantage over those in the lower castes.

Before we reach the above quote on page 325, Wilkerson has made her case that America supports a caste system that is among the world’s most severe and entrenched, and that many white Americans, foreseeing the year 2042, when demographers predict that whites will no longer constitute a majority of the population, fear that they will lose control of their country and the privileges that being atop the caste system brings.

Caste and class differ, she writes. Many are the professional athletes and high-tech gurus who were born into working- or lower-class families who, by nature of their accomplishments, now occupy the highest of our financial classes. But, when it comes to caste, there is no escaping. Wilkerson, with all of her accomplishments, may live in a beautiful home in an exclusive neighborhood, but she still suffers the humiliations of casteism from white plumbers and airline stewards.

Caste has been inescapable, to date, in America; class has not.

Wilkerson, who won a Pulitzer Prize as a reporter for The New York Times and then wrote an astounding history of the African-American diaspora, The Warmth of Other Suns, stands as one of our most compelling chroniclers of contemporary America. As she showed in her previous book, she has mastered the art of telling the stories of ordinary people.

In Caste, she draws from the stories of people she has interviewed, and adds both her own stories and others from historical sources. In every case, the stories provide the examples for the characteristics of casteism that she will soon explain. For example, in telling her airline experience, she explains the inescapability of the caste system.

Caste also relies on sociological, anthropological and historical sources to explain castes.

Many Americans, including myself, probably never considered the American racial structure as a caste akin to that in India, nor of the Aryan social structure of Nazi Germany, but Wilkerson makes very strong historical arguments about their similarities. In one chapter, she relates the history of the Nazi racial purity laws.

To formulate a racial purity policy, the Nazis looked to other nations. They found what they wanted in the American South, focusing on how states made racial segregation, and the permanent African-American subordination, part of the legal structure. In the end, these Nazi policymakers left their conference in awe of how America could portray itself worldwide as the land of the free and equal opportunity when it legally relegated a major portion of its population to second-class citizenship. The Nazis also concluded that the American laws were too harsh for German consumption and diluted them, at least in the initial stages.

Wilkerson, in conclusion, agrees with my friend that his old pals are not acting in their own best interests by clinging to the caste system. It harms us all, pigeonholing all of us based on the color of our skin and other meaningless attributes, thus asking too little of some and too much of others.

This is not a pleasant book to read. To the contrary, it’s disheartening. But it is also transformative. It has the potential to provide us with a whole new way of seeing our social structure, a perspective we really need.

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