Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Man with the Getaway Face: Richard Stark



Under the pseudonym of Richard Stark, Donald E. Westlake wrote a 24-book series featuring Parker, a thief and hardened criminal. Almost all of the books center around a heist.

In the first Parker novel, The Hunter, the focus is on revenge. Parker's wife and his partner betrayed him; after a heist, he was shot and left for dead. Parker goes after them, trying to get his share of the money back. Thus the second novel, The Man with the Getaway Face, is the first real heist novel in the series.

This book gives the reader a picture of the mechanics of setting up a heist, in this case, an armored car robbery. There is a "finger" who finds the opportunity for the heist. There is a person who provides the bank roll, the money to carry out the heist. Obviously there is the planning.




This time Parker is partnered with a guy called Skimm. A quote from the book describes the differences between them:
Skimm, like most men on the bum, lived from job to job; he spent more in one year than most make in five and was always broke, dressing and looking like a bum. How he did it, where it all went, Parker didn’t know. 
He [Parker] worked it differently, spending the money and time between jobs living at the best resort hotels and dressing himself in the best clothes. There was no overlap between people he knew on and off the job. He owned a couple of parking lots and gas stations around the country to satisfy the curiosity of the Internal Revenue beagles, but never went near them. He let the managers siphon off the profits in return for not asking him to take an active part in the business.
One of the givens in a heist story is there will be hitches in the plan. In this one, there are two hitches (at least) and one of them Parker is expecting. The other is a surprise to Parker and to the reader. The entertaining part is seeing how the story plays out when Parker runs into the problems.

In this book, even though Parker sees the problems early on, he is committed to the heist because he needs money dearly. He just paid a small fortune to have his face restructured, because people in the Outfit (the organization that is his nemesis) know what he looks like. So now he needs to build up his capital.

My thoughts:

In my review of The Hunter, I described Parker as having no redeeming qualities, and I said that there was "nothing admirable or likable about him." That is not far from the truth, but if so, what does pique my interest in these books? I do find Parker fascinating as a character study and I am sure that is due to Westlake's writing, which is very plain and unadorned. Parker is a professional. He is pragmatic; he makes his decisions related to completing a job in an intelligent way. He does not kill unnecessarily although this is mostly because he realizes that this is not in his best interests.

This book is like "the anatomy of a crime" (or in this case, a robbery or heist). It does not glorify the crime or the criminal, but treats it more like a job. There is no back story for Parker, no discussion of how or why did he come to this point in his life. We learn that he did care for his wife and misses his relationship with her, but that seems to be the only thing in his life that he has any emotional thoughts about. And even that is only a one-paragraph digression. The book is a non-emotional, straightforward story about a crime and the fallout from the crime.

I also see comparisons here with some spy novels I read. It seems like espionage appeals to the type of person who is good at thieving and killing, but in that case they get to do it for a cause. Sometimes they enjoy it, sometimes they are conflicted. In Parker's case, he is never conflicted about his job. This isn't everyone's type of book, but I am continuing on through the series for a while.

Some other resources:



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Publisher:  Univ. of Chicago Press, 2008 (orig. publ. 1963)
Length:     213 pages
Format:     Trade paperback
Series:      Parker #2
Setting:     New Jersey, mainly
Genre:      Hard-boiled
Source:     I purchased my copy




Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Distant Echo: Val McDermid

In 1978, four young men, students at St. Andrews University, walk home from a party in the early morning hours. They are very drunk, loud and rambunctious. They happen upon a woman's body; it is clear she has been stabbed and is near death. One of them goes for help. By the time he has returned with a policeman, the woman has died, although one of the students tried to save her.

The victim, who was raped before she was stabbed, is Rosie Duff, a barmaid at a pub that the students frequented. Immediately they become the chief suspects in the crime. When no other viable suspects turn up, and the crime is not solved, they continue to be under a cloud of suspicion.

Twenty five years later, the case is reopened by a newly commissioned cold case squad. Assistant Chief Constable James Lawson, who was a police constable at the time of the crime, heads the squad, and DC Karen Pirie is investigating the Rosie Duff murder.


The first 160 pages (of 400) of The Distant Echo cover the discovery of the crime and the first few days of the investigation. The rest of the book is about the investigation of the crime 25 years later, and the impact that the unsolved crime has had on the four men over time.

The story focuses on the four young men throughout the first part of the book and they continue to feature prominently in the second half. Whether one or more of them is actually the murderer is left open for most of the book, and I got very involved with their stories. I guessed the resolution of the mystery early on but there was enough doubt to keep it interesting.

What else did I like about this book:

  • The use of the setting in Scotland is marvelous, especially in the first half of the book.
  • The perfect balance of / blending of the story about the four young men who find the body and and the police investigation.
  • The story in 1978 vs the story in 2003 is handled well. With the book split into two parts, there is less confusion than when the book goes back and forth.
  • Good character development. There are three main police officers, the four suspects, Rosie Duff's family and the families of the suspects. That is a lot of characters, but even with the jump to 25 years later in their lives, it did not get confusing and they were all well defined.

This is billed as the first book in the Karen Pirie series, but she only shows up after 200 pages into the story and even after that only plays a small role in the story. ACC Lawson plays a much more prominent role. This is not a problem for me, I just thought I should mention it. However, as far as the series go, I would read this one first because based on other reviews, this one is unavoidably spoiled if you read the second one first. This novel read much more like a standalone book, and it was a very enjoyable one.

See reviews at Goodreads by K. A. Laity and John Grant.


  ----------------------------------
Publisher: St. Martin's Minotaur, 2003
Length:    404 pages
Format:    Hardback
Series:     Karen Pirie #1
Setting:    Scotland
Genre:     Mystery
Source:    I purchased this book in 2005.


Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Passing: Nella Larsen

Passing by Nella Larsen was published in 1929 and was one of only two books by this American author. It is the story of two childhood friends who meet up again by chance in Chicago. Both are light-skinned African-American women who can pass for white. Clare Kendry continues to live in Chicago and has married a white man who does not know that she has Negro blood. The couple have a daughter. Irene Redfield is married to a black doctor; they live in Harlem with their two young boys. Later, Clare wants to continue her friendship with Irene, and Irene resists.

The story is told primarily from Clare's point of view and focuses on her home life, her reactions to Clare, and how the continuation of their friendship affects both of their lives. For me it was an eye-opening picture of the black community in Harlem in the 1920's.

As Clare continues to force her way into Irene's life, it is strange how strongly Irene reacts. At first Irene's husband is disapproving of Clare, then he begins to accept her and enjoy her presence. Clare's husband is very antagonistic towards Negroes, so Clare's visits with the Redfields are in secret. Clare seems to be running away from her life in white society when she visits New York. She is risking her marriage and the loss of her child if her husband becomes aware of her background, but she seems to want that to happen. Irene finds her irritating but irresistible.

Irene meanwhile seems to ignore the fact that racism exists and doesn't want her children to have to deal with that. Her husband is unhappy with their life in New York and wants to move to Brazil where he hopes they would have a better life. Their relationship is very conflicted. Clare's entry into their life, even on an occasional basis, begins to bring Irene's marital problems to the forefront.

The reader can sympathize with Clare's desire to live a different life where she is treated as an equal, but we can also see that the subterfuge takes a great toll on her. It is also interesting that both of these women are married to well-to-do men and have servants. They have attained a dream of wealth and a family, but both are unhappy.

For such a short novel (in my copy less than a hundred pages), this is a very complex story. Some readers were dissatisfied with the ending. I found it surprising but felt that it fit in with the story, leaving some things up in the air. The themes in this book go beyond racism, to the role of women, identity, and the difficulty of relationships. In addition, it is extremely well written.

My first introduction to this book was at Clothes in Books in a post by guest blogger Colm Redmond. I urge you to check out his insights in that post.

-----------------------------

Publisher:  BN Publishing, 2012 (orig. publ. 1929).
Length:      94 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Setting:      Harlem, New York (mainly)
Genre:        Fiction
Source:      I purchased my copy.


Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Track of the Cat: Nevada Barr

Each book in the Anna Pigeon series by Nevada Barr is set in a different national park in the US. If this book is any indication, the reader is immersed in nature and the environment while reading each story.

Anna is a park ranger, and in this novel, she has a posting at the Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas. As the book starts, she is hiking a transect in the park looking for mountain lion scat. (A transect is a path along which one counts and records occurrences of the species of study.) As she nears the end of her trek, she finds the body of another park ranger. Apparently the ranger, Sheila Drury, was mauled by a mountain lion, but Anna questions whether this is true. Against the wishes of her superiors, she pursues an investigation to find out more about the death.


For some reason, I have never thought of National Park Rangers as law enforcement officers; this may not be the largest part of their jobs at most times, but they can be trained in law enforcement, and if so, they do carry guns. Although this book is a thriller, Anna's experiences were believable. Nevada Barr was a park ranger and worked in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, so she clearly is writing from experience and is invested in the theme of protecting animals in the park and the environment.

I found this a very good read, although to be honest, the portions where she is out on trails hiking were not my favorite parts. I suspect I am in the minority here, and I recommend this highly for readers interested in this immersion in the environment. Anna is a very interesting character, strong-willed, sometimes irritable and cranky, and for the most part a loner. The fact that Anna is not always likable makes her more interesting to me; she is not your usual type of heroine. The secondary characters were not so well developed, however.

Here is a quote from the first chapter of the book:
Anna sat down on a smooth boulder, the top hollowed into a natural seat. The red peeling arms of a Texas madrone held a veil of dusty shade over her eyes. This was the third day of this transect. By evening she would reach civilization: people. A contradiction in terms, she thought even as the words trickled through her mind. Electric lights, television, human companionship, held no allure. But she wanted a bath and she wanted a drink. Mostly she wanted a drink.
As mentioned before,  each book is set in a different National Park area and this is a bonus. I have several more books in the series: Endangered Species (1997) and Deep South (2000) and a couple of the later books. I would especially like to read Deep South because the area she is assigned to is the Natchez Trace Parkway. (My grandfather used to call me Natchez Trace.) It could be fun to read about that area.

See other reviews at Crimepieces and Petrona, and Margot's Spotlight at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist...

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Publisher:  Avon Books, 1994. Orig. pub. 1993.
Length:     311 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Anna Pigeon, #1
Setting:     Texas
Genre:      Mystery
Source:     I purchased my copy a long time ago.

Monday, July 3, 2017

A 4th of July Mystery: A Fountain Filled with Blood

This is the second mystery in the Reverend Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne series by Julia Spencer-Fleming. Clare Fergusson has left her job in the military as a helicopter pilot to become an Episcopal priest in the small town of Miller's Kill, New York. Russ Van Alstyne is the police chief and they seem to run into each other a lot.

As the citizens of Miller's Kill, New York head into the July 4th weekend, two gay men are severely beaten in separate incidents. Clare urges the police to notify the public; Russ feels like this could lead to copycat incidents. When another man, also homosexual, is killed, Russ must figure out if the crimes are connected. Mixed in with this are conflicts within the town over development of a luxury spa and environmental issues.


Having read the first book in this series, In the Bleak Midwinter, I wasn't sure if I was going to enjoy the 2nd book in the series as much. I was not entirely  comfortable with the attraction that develops between the two major characters in the book, Clare Fergusson and police chief Russ Van Alstyne. It seemed out of character for both of them and nowhere for it to go realistically. That does continue to be an underlying theme in the books from what I have read.

If I was being picky, I would have other complaints. Clare is an intelligent person with strength of character; in view of that, some of the situations she gets herself into don't make sense. Yet, even with my reservations in that area, I found this book so compelling and involving that I could hardly put it down. I started it one evening and finished it the next day. Granted, that was on a weekend but that rarely happens to me.

Although I do not participate in organized religious activities, I do enjoy reading mysteries with a clerical theme. I like to learn about other religions (I grew up in a Methodist church in Alabama). Although the plot in A Fountain Filled with Blood does not center around the church, Clare's behavior and choices are informed by the expectations inherent in her role in the church.  And I was surprised at what I learned about the Episcopal church, or at least the one in Miller's Kill, New York.

So, on many levels, I enjoyed this book and I will be reading the next one to see where Clare goes from here.

Other resources:


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Publisher:  St. Mattin's Paperbacks, 2004. Orig. pub. 2003.
Length:     371 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Clare Fergusson / Russ Van Alstyne, #2
Setting:     Upstate New York
Genre:       Mystery
Source:     I purchased my copy in 2006.


Saturday, July 1, 2017

Crime Fiction Reading in June 2017

In June I began reading from my 20 Books of  Summer list (my list is HERE). Only five of my seven books read this month were from that list. The Big Killing was a carryover from my reading in May, and I purchased Dangerous Davies: The Last Detective in June so that I could read it prior to watching the TV series. So I am a bit behind on the list, but still doing well. I read three books from the 1990s and only one vintage mystery, published in 1937.

These are the seven books I read in June:

The Big Killing (1989) by Annette Meyers
Xenia Smith and Leslie Wetzon are executive headhunters located on Wall Street. This is the first of the mysteries featuring this team. Wetzon meets Barry Stark, a potential client, at the Four Seasons for lunch. He excuses himself for a moment; shortly after that, Leslie Wetzon finds his dead body in a telephone booth at the restaurant. Both Smith and Wetzon are very interested in the homicide cop, Silvestri, who is assigned to the murder. The main protagonist, Wetzon, was formerly a dancer on Broadway, and that side story lends the most interest to the story for me. 
Vanishing Act (1995) by Thomas Perry
I have only read two books by Thomas Perry, and I feel like I have found a new favorite author. The first was The Butcher's Boy, about a man who murders for hire, and a brilliant young analyst, Elizabeth Waring, who notices a pattern related to his crimes. Vanishing Act is the first in a series about Jane Whitefield, a Native American guide, who helps people in trouble find new identities and disappear. I will be reading more books by Thomas Perry later in the year.
Dangerous Davies: The Last Detective (1976) by Leslie Thomas
Dangerous Davies is a hapless detective with serious flaws who through patience and determination manages to solve the cases that he takes an interest in. The book was published in 1976 and Davies takes up the cold case of a teenage girl who disappeared in 1951. My review is HERE. I will continue reading the series (only 4 books) and watching the TV series.
The Man with the Getaway Face (1963) by Richard Stark
This is the 2nd book in the Parker series by Richard Stark (aka Donald E. Westlake). Parker is an amoral crook; Westlake wrote 24 books about him between 1962 and 2008. I find it hard to describe these books, so I am borrowing a paragraph from The University of Chicago Press, the publisher of the reprint edition: 
"Parker goes under the knife in The Man with the Getaway Face, changing his face to escape the mob and a contract on his life. Along the way he scores his biggest heist yet: an armored car in New Jersey, stuffed with cash."
Track of the Cat (1993) by Nevada Barr
Track of the Cat by Nevada Barr is a fine debut novel, the first in a series about Park Ranger Anna Pigeon. In this novel, Anna has a posting in Texas (the Guadalupe Mountains National Park). The book is a nature lover's delight, and Nevada spends a lot of time hiking in the park. Nevada is a loner, cranky, not much for socializing; a different kind of heroine. 
The Black Ice (1993) by Michael Connelly
The second novel in the Harry Bosch series starts on Christmas day; Harry is eating his Christmas dinner alone and is on call. That same night, he ends up in a motel room where the dead body of Narcotics detective Calexico Moore has been discovered; or so they assume, since the body has been in the room for weeks and is in bad shape. The investigation into how Moore died takes Harry to Mexico.


Busman's Honeymoon (1937) by Dorothy Sayers
This is the last novel in Dorothy Sayers' series about Lord Peter Wimsey. After five years of being wooed by Peter, Harriet Vane has finally said yes, and we get a peek at the wedding planning, the nuptials, but most of all their first few days of marriage at Talboys, where a dead body is discovered.





Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Dangerous Davies: The Last Detective by Leslie Thomas


This is a strange book about a strange policeman, but in the end I liked it very much. I was motivated to read the book because I was about to begin watching the TV series based on the Dangerous Davies books. Serendipitously,  I ran into the book at my local independent bookstore at just the right time.

This is the first chapter of the book:
This is the story of a man who became deeply concerned with the unsolved murder of a young girl, committed twenty-five years before. 
He was a drunk, lost, laughed at and frequently baffled; poor attributes for a detective. But he was patient too, and dogged. He was called Dangerous Davies (because he was said to be harmless) and was known in the London police as “The Last Detective” since he was never dispatched on any assignment unless it was very risky or there was no one else to send.

Dangerous Davies: The Last Detective was published in 1976 and set at that time. Davies is assigned the case of finding Cecil Ramscar, a criminal who had escaped the country, living in Australia and America at times, but is now back in his old stomping grounds. It isn't a big case, they just want to find Ramscar and keep an eye on him, so Davies does not take the assignment too seriously. But he discovers an unsolved case from twenty five years earlier that is mentioned in the file on Ramscar and he gets very serious about tracking down the truth behind the disappearance of a 17-year-old girl, Celia Norris

Davies is an alcoholic, and a real bumbling detective. He pursues the cold case doggedly, but a lot of what gets done happens accidentally. I was wary of reading a book about a detective who succeeds in spite of himself, but overall it worked for me. I think the key is that Davies is a genuinely kind and generous person. People may laugh at him, but he gains trust from people easily, which helps in gathering information. It is very believable in the end that with his determination, persistence, and decency, he does solve the case.

A description in the book:
Davies, a long man, thirty-three years old, inhabited his tall brown overcoat for the entire London winter and well into the spring. By the first frosts he was resident again. 
He was to be seen at the wheel of his 1937 Lagonda Tourer, forever open and exposed to the weather, the hood having been jammed like a fixed backward grin since 1940.
This is a humorous novel with some very colorful characters; Davies lives in a boarding house, where his best friend Mod also has a room. His wife also lives there but they are in different rooms. As far as I can remember this is never explained and there seems to be little affection between them. Davies' dog is large, old and cranky, and lives in the back seat of his car. But the best characterizations are those of Celia Norris's family and the various witnesses from the cold case who are interviewed by Davies.

After reading the book, I did watch the pilot for The Last Detective, the TV series starring Peter Davison as Dangerous Davies. The TV series was first run in 2003,  and it brings Dangerous Davies into the 21st century. The detective is still bumbling and not very competent as a policeman, but his flaws are not so evident as in the book. And the dog doesn't live in the car. The pilot episode is based on this book. The plot is very similar, although with some changes to the solution (which I approve of because it makes it more interesting to watch).  I plan to continue watching the series.

Please see Sergio's excellent post on both the book and the TV series at Tipping My Fedora.

-----------------------------

Publisher:   Felony & Mayhem, 2011 (orig. pub. 1976)
Length:      272 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Series:       Dangerous Davies #1
Setting:      UK
Genre:       Police procedural (loosely)
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Janus Stone: Elly Griffiths

This is the second book in the series featuring forensics archaeologist Ruth Galloway. Ruth lives in Norfolk in an isolated cottage on the saltmarsh. She is called in as an expert when the bones of a young child are found on a building site where an old Victorian home is being torn down to be replaced by luxury apartments.

The two main characters in this series are Ruth and Harry Nelson. Harry is a policeman, a Detective Chief Inspector in the Norwich police force. They are thrown together working on cases when Ruth is called in to consult or give evidence when human bones are discovered. Harry and Ruth experience a connection almost immediately, but Harry is married with two teenage girls, and the relationship is awkward because of that. This is a major part of the stories (at least so far).


The archaeological background in this story is interesting; at first the age of the skeleton is not known. The building site was previously a children's home, run by the Catholic church. Prior to that it was a family home. The bones could be from either time period, or much earlier.

I have a few quibbles with this book, but none of them are serious. Ruth is a believable amateur sleuth, in my opinion, as her job puts her in situations where she will get involved with murder, but she ends up in threatening or dangerous situations too much (for me).

The other complaint is that the book is written in present tense, and that just isn't comfortable reading for me. In this book, the present tense style seems even more pervasive than in other books I have read that were written in that style. Because I wanted to read this book and I did not want to hate the experience, I tried a new approach. I decided to read it in a meditative way, reading each sentence slowly and paying attention. (This is not my usual style; I read fast and often miss details.) The meditative approach worked for me. I would find myself getting lost in the story and then whenever the present tense pulled me out again, I would move back to the slower, more attentive mode of reading.

On the positive side, the characters are interesting and funny at times. Ruth's parents and her co-workers are portrayed in very realistic ways and her relationships with all of them are very believable. The reader is privy to both Ruth and Harry's thoughts and opinions and that works really well for me. The unfolding story of their lives is told with humor and wit.

The series is very popular and I definitely recommend it, but I feel it is important to start with the first book. Because this book revolves so much around the personal lives of the main characters, I don't see getting much enjoyment from the books without knowing the backstory. I definitely want to know what is coming next in the lives of the characters and I will continue the series.

These are my husband's comments when he reviewed the book at Goodreads:
I enjoy mysteries that involve events in the past impacting the present and this compelling (and complicated) plot delivers. The personal issues of the main character are a bit too melodramatic this time though.
Margot at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist... has an excellent overview of The Crossing Places, the first book in the series. Also see my review of that book.

 -----------------------------

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010
Length:    327 pages
Format:    Hardback
Series:     Ruth Galloway #2
Setting:    Norfolk, UK
Genre:     Mystery
Source:   Originally my husband's book; he passed it on to me.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Murder in Jerusalem: Batya Gur

This is the final book in the Michael Ohayon series by Batya Gur, and was published posthumously. There are six books in the series and each book takes place in a particular environment; in this book it is a TV station in Jerusalem, and a woman's body in found in the wardrobe and prop warehouse. The dead woman is a set-designer; she and many of the staff at Israel Television have worked together for years, and the relationships are complex. Chief Superintendent Ohayon works with his staff to determine who the murderer is, as more deaths occur.


The main attractions of this series of mysteries are the setting in Israel and Michael Ohayon's complex character. In this book we get a lot of information about various issues in Israel, but Ohayon is a less prominent and interesting character in this one. Some may enjoy this book for the setting in a television studio. There are a lot of characters, both at the TV station and working on the police investigation, which can get confusing.

This is definitely more of a psychological mystery than a fast-paced thriller, which is true with all of the books in the series. I enjoyed the first books in the series, but the latter books were less compelling, for varied reasons. Having said that, I am glad I had this last visit with Chief Superintendent Michael Ohayon and his coworkers as they solve the mystery.

I would recommend this book to those who like slowly-paced, thoughtful literary mysteries, and those who want to learn more about Israel (and in particular in this book, various views on Zionism) or those who are interested in the TV studio setting. But mainly, my goal here is to suggest that you try some of the other mysteries by Batya Gur first.

I loved the first three books in the series. Saturday Morning Murder: A Psychoanalytic Case (1992) begins with a death at the Jerusalem Psychoanalytic Institute. In Literary Murder: A Critical Case (1993), the background is the academic setting of Hebrew University and the victim is a professor of literature and a poet. Murder on a Kibbutz: A Communal Case (1994) is set on a kibbutz and it is a toss up between this one and Literary Murder as to which is my favorite. I still have a copy of Literary Murder and I plan to re-read it someday.

I have to share with you these thoughts from a review on Murder on a Kibbutz, at Eric Pallant's blog:
Great mysteries also teach you something about a time or location you otherwise couldn’t know about, and very few mystery writers are better than Israel’s Batya Gur. In Murder on a Kibbutz her detective Michael Ohayan is called upon to investigate the murder of a kibbutznik, which in Israel is exceptionally rare. Gur peels away the layers of the onion that make up a family-like group of 300 people who care about one another, share everything, and despise one another as only family members can. What I can say, having lived on an Israeli kibbutz, is that every page of description is microscopically accurate, the characters are almost too real to be fictional, and the mystery is hard to solve.
The only book in the series that I did not care for was Murder Duet: A Musical Case (1999). I am sure many readers would love the setting in the world of classical music, but I was bothered by the fact that Ohayon was personally involved in the case and continued to work on it. The fifth book, Bethlehem Road Murder (2004), concerns a murder in an insular neighborhood in Jerusalem, and explores sociological and political issues in Israel more than previous books in the series.

A review of this book at Mystery Tribune includes this biography of the author:
Batya Gur (January 1947 – May 2005) was an Israeli writer with the specialty in detective fiction, obviously set in Israel. She was born in Tel Aviv in 1947 to parents who survived the Holocaust. She earned a master’s degree in Hebrew literature from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Before writing her first detective novel at the age of 39, she taught literature in high school. Gur was also a literary critic for Haaretz newspaper. She died of cancer at the age of 57.

 -----------------------------

Publisher:   HarperCollins, 2006
Length:       388 pages
Format:       Hardcover
Series:        Michael Ohayon, #4
Translated by:  Evan Fallenberg
Setting:       Jerusalem
Genre:        Police Procedural
Source:       Purchased at Planned Parenthood book sale, 2009.




Saturday, June 17, 2017

Book Tag

A week ago I saw a Book Tag at two blogs I read, NancyElin and Brona's Books. I am not usually successful at answering these types of questions, but I gave it a shot this time. I started with the ten questions that Nancy and Brona had used.

I added one last question that was from the longer lists at On Bookes and Howling Frog Books.


1. What book has been on your shelf the longest?
I am guessing that would be one of my Nero Wolfe novels by Rex Stout. I have had copies of some of those since I was in college (or before?) although I am sure I originally read them in library editions. 
2. What is your current read, last read and the book you plan to read next?
Current Read: Black Ice by Michael Connelly 
Last Read: Track of the Cat by Nevada Barr 
Next Read: I don't usually decide in advance but this month I have been cycling between lighter mysteries and the more gritty, violent mysteries. So I might opt for one of the vintage mysteries in my list of 20 Books for Summer.

3. What book do you tell yourself you’ll read, but probably won't?
Two books by Connie Willis:  Black Out and All Clear. From what I read at TOR.com, they are essentially "one book, conveniently bound in two volumes." Together, in the editions my husband owns, the books total 1100 pages. Quite a commitment. But look at the covers, aren't they gorgeous?


4. What book are you saving for retirement?
My husband has a lot of non-fiction books that I would love to read but just don't have the time or the patience now. In a few years, I may actually read Austerity Britain by David Kynaston (692 pages).
5. Which book character would you switch places with?
This may show a lack of imagination, but I really don't want to trade places with anyone. 
But, I would love to visit the Nero Wolfe / Archie Goodwin household for a while, so maybe I would do a temporary swap with Lily Rowan (although I don't know that she ever visits the brownstone) or maybe Lon Cohen (a journalist working for the fictional New York Gazette) when he is invited over for dinner. Or try being Theodore for a week or so and take care of the orchids.

6. What book reminds you a specific place/time/person?
Any of the books in the Nameless Detective series by Bill Pronzini remind me of when I suggested this author to my husband. He bought several of the books and he did enjoy his writing. He now has copies of all of the books in the Nameless series. 
It was decades ago in a used book store in Santa Barbara, now long out of business. I cannot remember if we were visiting Santa Barbara before we moved here, or if it was early in our marriage. Whichever, it is a very fond memory. The bookstore and the owner were both very nice.





7. Which book has been with you most places?
Same answer as for #1. I started reading the Nero Wolfe series when I was in my teens. I remember when I bought my first hardback book by Rex Stout when I had my first job. (That dates me.)   
I have reread them over and over through the years. I have multiple copies (paperback of course) of many of the books in the series.
8. Which book have you reread the most?
Fer-de-Lance by Rex Stout. Do you see a theme here? 



9. What book outside your comfort zone did you end up loving?
Under the Dome by Stephen King. I have not read a book by Stephen King in 30 years, probably longer. Most of his writing is too horrific for me. For some reason I got interested in Under the Dome but was dismayed to see that it was over 1000 pages. But I read it and enjoyed it a lot. Very dark in the end though.

10. Three bookish confessions?
I will buy books only for the covers and sometimes not even read them. 
I have over 1000 books in my TBR piles, shelves, boxes, etc. (physical hard copy books, not including those on the Kindle).
And I keep buying books anyway. 

11. Have you ever seen a movie you liked more than the book?
This was a hard one to answer. Mostly, the answer is no. Often the book and the movie differ but still both have wonderful qualities. But I did come up with two. In both cases I had seen the movie before reading the book, which might have made a difference.
Vertigo, which was based on a book originally published in France in 1954 as D'entre les morts, by Boileau-Narcejac. The book was very, very good, but the film has been a favorite for a long time. The film is set in San Francisco, the book is set in France, but the stories are very similar. (My post is here.)
The Ice Harvest: The book, written by Scott Phillips, is the most noir story I have every read. It is unrelentingly bleak and grim. It is very good but I can't say I enjoyed reading it. The film follows the same story for the most part, but it is not quite so bleak, and I loved all the actors. John Cusack plays Charlie Arglist, Billy Bob Thornton is his partner in crime; Connie Nielsen plays the gorgeous femme fatale. Oliver Platt plays a friend who is now married to Charlie's ex-wife. (My post is here.)

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Badge of Evil: Whit Masterson

Rudy Linneker, a very rich man in a large border town in California (San Diego?), is blown up by sticks of dynamite thrown into his house. The immediate suspects are Linneker's daughter and her fiancé, since Linneker was dead set against their relationship. But Assistant DA Mitch Holt insists that the case does not feel right, and starts investigating in a different direction. Eventually he uncovers corruption in the police department, but loses the support of his superiors who doubt his findings.

This book is best known today as the basis for Orson Welles' film, Touch of Evil. Whit Masterson was one pseudonym used by Robert Wade and Bill Miller. They wrote many books together in the 1940s and 50s, many of them under the name Wade Miller.

Although I had not seen the film Touch of Evil before reading this book, I assumed the book would be gritty and violent and noirish. The book was actually more on the hard-boiled side. If this is a typical book by these two authors, I would love to read more of their books. I found it to be an entertaining hard-boiled story with a great protagonist. The hero could be considered too perfect, too much of a straight arrow, yet I really liked his perseverance at a time when many people turn against him. Most people would yield to majority opinion or be afraid to buck the system. Some reviewers considered this book bland and too tame, not hard-boiled enough.


The book was also an interesting look at life after the war in the US. ADA Holt's career was put on hold due to time served in the military both during World War II and the Korean War.

In the film, Orson Welles takes the basic story and turns it around. The plot becomes something entirely different, focusing more on Mexican gangs and drugs. The DA becomes a Mexican agent exposing a drug cartel and his wife is a US citizen; it explores issues of racism to a greater extent than in the book. I found it interesting that the film is much darker than the book. In my experience, it is usually the other way around.


There are three different versions of the film available on Blu Ray, the version as released in theaters, with much of Welles' footage cut, a reconstructed version based on notes from Welles, and a preview version. We watched the original release version, but plan on watching the other two versions also.

I enjoyed the film. There are wonderful small roles played by Dennis Weaver, Marlene Dietrich, Zsa Zsa Gabor, etc. It includes a famous opening tracking shot which was very impressive.

For more information about the authors, see the Thrilling Detective website. Sergio discusses the book and film at Tipping My Fedora.


 -----------------------------

Publisher:  Prologue Books, 2013 (orig. publ. 1956)
Length:     204 pages
Format:    Trade paperback
Setting:    Southern California, close to the Mexican border
Genre:      Mystery
Source:    I purchased my copy

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Cocaine Blues: Kerry Greenwood


This is the first book in Kerry Greenwood's long running series about Phryne Fisher, a rich young woman who was born in Australia but lives in London as the series begins in 1928.

Cocaine Blues opens with Phryne attending a social event at her parents' home in London. A diamond necklace is stolen and she quickly solves the crime before the guests have left. A friend of her father, Colonel Harper, is very impressed with Phryne's detecting, and asks her to go to Melbourne and check on his daughter. He and his wife fear that she is being poisoned by her husband. Phryne had already been considering returning to Australia, and is bored with society events in London so she agrees to take the trip and see what she can do.

This book exceeded my expectations. I knew the heroine was an adventuress, and the setting was in the 1920s, so my assumptions were that it would be cozyish and very unrealistic. The unrealistic part may be somewhat true; I am not familiar enough with history and women's roles at the time. But this book was such fun to read that I did not care. It was a very refreshing read.

Phryne loves to dress well and she has the money to do it. When she flaunts her money, it is usually to make an impression on someone she wants information or cooperation from. She uses her charms and her status to gain information and cooperation more easily. Based on appearances, Phryne could be called shallow and frivolous, but much of her behavior is a means to an end. Sexy and independent, she is not worried about the opinions of others. The point is made that Phryne grew up in a poor family and only in her teen years did her father inherit money and a title, so she is comfortable with people from all levels of society, and they get along with her fine, too.

Speaking of clothes and dressing well, I read at least one complaint that there is too much focus on dress. There certainly is a lot of emphasis on clothing. Early on, there is a good amount of time devoted to Phryne supplying Dot, her new maid, with appropriate clothing. And shopping. And Dot mending clothes. But, as the adventures start, I noticed that less and less. I also read that the other book I have in this series (#7, Ruddy Gore) has little or no clothing descriptions. So I don't know if this continues in later books.

Phryne is a female James Bond, except that she is not a spy. She is a free spirit and gets involved with multiple men. She likes to drive nice cars and drive very fast, she can fly airplanes, and I am sure she has other undiscovered talents.  If there are faults in this book and this character, it is that Phryne is too perfect, too capable.

There are many things I look for in the mysteries I read, but topping the list is entertainment value. This book was delightful and charming and surprised me throughout, and that makes it a success in my book. There are several mysteries in the story, but I will admit that they were not my main focus when reading the book.

There are now twenty books in the series. I have read that there are a lot of similarities between the books, especially in the early books in the series. I wonder if this means I should put a good bit of time between reading each book, or if I should hop to later books. I would love to hear from anyone who has read this series.

Also see reviews by Bernadette at Fair Dinkum Crime and John Grant at Goodreads. Both reviews mention the TV series, Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, which is based on this series of books.

This is my first book read and reviewed for the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2017.

  ----------------------------------
Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press, 2006 (orig. pub. 1989)
Length:    175 pages
Format:    Hardback
Series:     Phryne Fisher #1
Setting:    Australia
Genre:     Historical Mystery
Source:    I purchased this book in 2006.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Crime Fiction Reading in May 2017

The most notable thing about the books I read this month is that they are all written by women. I did not get the idea for this theme until I had read a couple of books, and it was fun choosing my next book based on this criteria.

Books I read this month:

Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood (1989)
This is the first book in Kerry Greenwood's long running series about Phryne Fisher, a rich young woman who was born in Australia but lives in London as the series begins. A friend of her father, Colonel Harper, asks her to go to Melbourne, Australia and check on his daughter. He and his wife fear that she is being poisoned by her husband. Phryne would prefer traveling and detecting to the boring society events in London so she agrees to take the trip and see what she can do. Set in 1928, this is an interesting look at Melbourne at that time.
Murder in Jerusalem by Batya Gur (2004)
This is the final book in the Michael Ohayon series by Batya Gur. Each book takes place in a particular environment; in this book it is a TV station in Jerusalem, and a woman's body in found in the wardrobe and prop warehouse. The story is more of a psychological mystery than a fast-paced thriller. Murder in Jerusalem was not my favorite in the series, but I enjoyed this last visit with Chief Superintendent Michael Ohayon and his coworkers as they solve the mystery.

Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neely (1992)
This debut novel about Blanche White, an African-American housekeeper in North Carolina, won the Agatha Award and the Anthony Award for best first novel. My thoughts on the book are here.



Murder... Now and Then by Jill McGown (1993)
This is the 6th book in the police procedural series featuring DCI Lloyd and DI Judy Hill. Jill McGown is one of my favorite authors. See my thoughts here.

Indemnity Only by Sarah Paretsky (1982)
This description from Goodreads sums it up pretty well: 
The vice-president of a Chicago bank hires V.I. Warshawski to find his son. She's pleased. The head of the International Brotherhood of Knifegrinders hires her to find his daughter. She's not so pleased. Who's the boss in this dangerous game of insurance fraud, murder contracts and gunmen?


The Last Billable Hour by Susan Wolfe (1989)
Susan Wolfe is a lawyer, and in this book she writes about a Silicon Valley law firm filled with sleazy and / or ambitious lawyers. She writes well about this subject; I hope she hasn't ever had to work in such a corrupt  firm. Howard Rickover is an inexperienced lawyer and has only been at Tweedmore and Slyde for a few months when one of the founders, Leo Slyde, is killed. Homicide detective Sarah Nelson enlists his help in uncovering the murderer. I liked this book a lot, even though it is an amateur sleuth mystery, and it is shame that the author did not continue with more books about this pair.





The Janus Stone by Elly Griffiths (2010)
This is the second book in the series featuring forensics archaeologist Ruth Galloway. Ruth lives in Norfolk in an isolated cottage on the saltmarsh. She is called in as an expert when the bones of a young child are found on a building site. I enjoyed this book and will continue on the the next in the series, The House at Sea's End.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Hunter: Richard Stark


The Hunter is the first novel in a series by Richard Stark (one of Donald Westlake's pseudonyms). The series of 24 books features an amoral criminal, Parker,who specializes in payroll robberies. He is not a killer for hire, but he will kill if someone gets in his way. In other words, not a very nice guy. He has no redeeming qualities. He has no remorse for what he does; on the other hand, he is not sadistic. He does not think much about what he does at all. He just conducts his business and moves on. In this novel, Parker is seeking revenge on Mal, a man who double-crossed him, took his wife, and stole his share of the proceeds from a job.

This story felt kind of numbing in the first reading. As soon as I finished this book, I wondered if I want to continue reading books about a protagonist who is narcissistic and unsympathetic. I don't dislike the character but there is nothing admirable or likable about him, at least in this book. The writing is plain and unadorned, the story is hard-boiled, with lots of violence. There is little description or exposition. There is a lot of action and dialog and that is how you learn about the characters, most of which are very similar to Parker.

The real test, however, was that it was just as compelling when I was rereading portions of the book as I worked on this post. So, in the end, the answer is that I do want to continue reading this series. I will be reading the second book, The Man with the Getaway Face, in June, for a special theme on Heists / Bank Robberies at Friday's Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott's blog, pattinase. And I have ordered the third book in the series, The Outfit.

A review quote from the Christian Science Monitor, cited at the publisher's site:
If you’re looking for crime novels with a lot of punch, try the very, very tough novels featuring Parker. . . . The Hunter, The Outfit, The Mourner, and The Man with the Getaway Face are all beautifully paced, tautly composed, and originally published in the early 1960s.
A quote from an article at CriminalElement.com
The Hunter should be on everyone’s short list of must-read novels. Its historical significance to the crime genre is on par with The Big Sleep or The Maltese Falcon. In the same way those novels introduced hardboiled noir to the world, The Hunter jumpstarted the era of the antihero that we still see ripples of today. It is action-packed storytelling with an innovative structure and one of the most unique and most celebrated characters in all of crime fiction.
Other resources:


Film Adaptations

This first book in the series was the basis for at least two movies: Point Blank, starring Lee Marvin and Payback, with Mel Gibson. I watched both movies after finishing the book.  I had watched Payback years ago, but this was my first viewing of Point Blank. Both movies try to humanize Parker, but they do stick fairly close to the story in the book. I think Lee Marvin's  portrayal of Parker is closer to that in the book, but Mel Gibson depiction of the crazy drive that Parker must have to achieve his goal is also very well done.


 -----------------------------

Publisher:  Univ. of Chicago Press, 2008 (orig. publ. 1962)
Length:     198 pages
Format:     Trade paperback
Series:      Parker #1
Setting:     New York City
Genre:      Hard-boiled
Source:     I purchased my copy

Monday, May 29, 2017

20 Books of Summer 2017


This year I was reminded of 20 Books of Summer by Nancy at NancyElin, whose list is here. The originator of the challenge is Cathy at 746 Books. Check out Cathy's list for more information.

For the 20 Books of Summer challenge I am choosing twenty books to read between June 1st and September 3rd, 2017. There are options for 15 books or 10 books for those who don't want to commit to 20.

And this is my list:
  • The Fashion in Shrouds by Margery Allingham (1938)
  • Murder Begins at Home by Delano Ames (1949)
  • Track of the Cat by Nevada Barr (1993)
  • The Emperor's Snuff-Box by John Dickson Carr  (1942)
  • Red Bones by Ann Cleeves (2009)
  • The Black Ice by Michael Connelly (1993)
  • Evil at the Root by Bill Crider (1990)

  • Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans (2009)
  • City of Dragons by Kelli Stanley (2010)
  • Dr. No by Ian Fleming (1958)
  • Malicious Intent by Kathryn Fox (2004)
  • Dead Skip by Joe Gores (1972)
  • Bodies Are Where You Find Them by Brett Halliday (1941)
  • The Distant Echo by Val McDermid (2003)
  • Vanishing Act by Thomas Perry (1994)
  • Deep Water by Christine Poulson (2016)
  • Busman's Honeymoon by Dorothy Sayers (1937) 
  • New Orleans Mourning by Julie Smith (1990)
  • The Man with the Getaway Face by Richard Stark (1963)
  • Brothers, Keepers by Donald E. Westlake (1975)





Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Murder... Now and Then: Jill McGown

Victor Holyoak is a wealthy industrialist who got his start in criminal activities in London. When the police began to catch up with him in the early 80s he moved to Holland and aimed at becoming a legitimate businessman. Now he has returned to the UK to take over a firm in Stansfield. When he is murdered following an event to celebrate the change in ownership, DCI Lloyd and DI Judy Hill must find the murderer. The investigation involves his stepdaughter, her husband who is the new General Manager, Holyoak's PR manager who is also rumored to be his lover, and various residents of Stansfield.

One of the characteristics of the Lloyd and Hill series is that the books do not follow a formula; the ongoing relationship of the two protagonists is a constant, but each book has a unique structure. In this case, the story goes back and forth between the past (beginning 15 years earlier) and the present, showing the relationships building and key events leading up to Holyoak's death.

The relationship of Lloyd (whose first name is never specified) and Judy Hill is a large part of this series and is even more prominent in this book. In some books they are working together as partners, in others they are working on the same cases but not as partners. This is the sixth book in the series, and at this point their relationship is serious but they are not living together. Because this plot goes back and forth between the past and present, the author has a chance to fill in some of their backstory in more detail, and the reader can see the progression of their relationship. This makes it sound like that element is primary in the story but there is a good balance and the mystery plot always comes first.

I discovered the Lloyd and Hill mysteries in 2007, and read all 13 books in the series in that year. Thus this was a re-read for me. I remembered nothing about the plot as I was reading it. Although I did guess what was going on by the end, I never did remember who the culprit was.

The books in this series are all very strong in both characterization and plot. Many of the characters involved in the crime as possible suspects are not very pleasant people, but nevertheless McGown fleshes out their characters and the relationships. The plots are structured beautifully. This may sound like a cozyish police procedural but there is a good amount violence in the story, although not dwelled upon. So, not cozy at all.

Jill McGown (1947 - 2007) is one of my favorite authors. She was born in Campbeltown, Argyll, Scotland, but by the age of 10 had moved to a town in Britain, Corby, where she lived the rest of her life. She is best known for the Lloyd and Hill series, but she also wrote five stand-alone mysteries (which I have not sampled).

In my opinion, the series is best read in order, because the Lloyd / Hill relationship evolves over time, but the author has stated (in this post at Mystery*File which includes some excerpts from an interview) that each book is written to stand alone and contains enough backstory to explain the relationships where needed.

I have done previous posts on other books in this series: Plots and Errors and Murder at the Old Vicarage. Murder... Now and Then has been reviewed by Moira at Clothes in Books.
 -----------------------------

Publisher:  Fawcett, 1995. Orig. pub. 1993.
Length:     346 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Lloyd and Hill, #6
Setting:     UK
Genre:       Police Procedural
Source:     I purchased my copy.