Category Archives: Reviews

‘A Private Investigation,’ by Peter Grainger

A Private Investigation

Bittersweet. The last of a good thing is always bittersweet, and Peter Grainger’s DC Smith books have become one of the small pleasures in my life. This one may be the last in the series (though the ending is ambiguous).

As A Private Investigation begins, Detective Sergeant D.C. Smith is rapidly approaching mandatory retirement, two weeks away (it was a little weird for me to start this book just as I was two weeks away from the end of my own job). Smith is keeping a low profile, tidying up the records on his last case. No one expects him to do any serious investigation; he’s just filling time. His old team has been broken up. His new superiors, one a former subordinate, the other a long-time rival, are keeping their distances.

And then a teenage girl disappears. It strikes Smith as odd that his career should end with the abduction of a young girl; that’s what his first major case was.

But then there’s a shock – a connection is discovered between that old first case and this present one. Which does not impel Smith into action – that would be against regulations. But he pays attention, and gives his friends on the case some useful pointers.

But that won’t be enough. Someone is preparing a final showdown. D.C. Smith’s career will not end quietly.

I very much enjoy this whole series of books. D.C. Smith is a fascinating, engaging character – reserved, ironic, quirky, but beneath it all a man who truly cares about victims and the justice due to them. Also, here and there, author Grainger throws in hints of a conservative world-view.

There may have been some bad language, but I don’t recall any. I really have no cautions for you. I enjoyed A Private Investigation, and recommend you read the whole series.

Who knows? There may even be another book.

‘Random Revenge,’ by William Michaels

Random Revenge

I’d classify this book as one that ultimately worked, but it had some weaknesses.

My main problem was that Random Revenge by William Michaels doesn’t roll out in optimal fashion. It’s sort of a Columbo story, where in the first half you see the crime committed, and in the second half you watch the detective solving the crime.

The problem here was that we spent that first half mostly with the criminal and victim, who were both unpleasant enough to make the going tedious. One of them (I won’t say whether they’re murderer or victim) is Melanie Upton, a ruthless, aspiring actress with very few sympathetic qualities. The other is Lenny Gruse, a ruthless, aspiring paparazzo with no sympathetic qualities at all. I got a few glimpses of our hero, Detective Robert Winter, within that section, and his appeal was all that kept me with the book. The second half, where he takes center stage, is much better.

Winter, a detective in a small Massachusetts town where a movie is being filmed, is another in a long list of fictional “loose cannon” cops, but he’s original enough to make him interesting. He’s impatient of regulations and protocol, but he has a very high clearance record. And he’s not above doling out a little street justice. His method is to follow his instincts, but also to think a lot. He has a genius for playing out a multitude of possible scenarios in his head, making connections other cops wouldn’t make. He’s not like Columbo in the genius department – Columbo usually knew who was guilty from square one. Winter tries out and rejects a thousand theories before finding one that works. It’s the genuine scientific method.

The ending of the book was surprising, but not out of the blue, in light of what we’ve learned about Winter. His idea of closing a case isn’t always precisely the same as what the law prescribes.

Random Revenge started slow, but worked well once it got going. Cautions for adult themes and language, and some moral ambiguity. There were moments of sloppy writing. But I’d like to read the next book in the series (I trust one is coming), because I think Detective Robert Winter might have a big future.

‘Murder of a Silent Man,’ by Phillip Strang

Murder of a Silent Man

Yet another in an apparently infinite supply of English police procedural mystery series. I tried Murder of a Silent Man (I suppose I identified with the title) by Phillip Strang. It had certain virtues which I won’t deny, but overall I wasn’t much impressed.

Gilbert Lawrence is the murder victim in this story. He’s an old, reclusive man who only went out once a week, to the liquor store. No one would have guessed he was one of the richest men in the country, unless they noticed the large house where he lived, holed up in a small locked area. But someone took the trouble to stab him to death in his front garden, and now DCI Isaac Cook and his team must unravel the mystery. It’s compounded by the discovery of a human skeleton in an upstairs bed.

There’s no lack of suspects. Lawrence had two estranged children, one a prosperous wife, the other a drug addict and con man. For years his affairs have been handled by his solicitor and his daughter, who have been profiting well from his business interests – perhaps too well.

The great virtue of this book was its realism. It followed police procedure in a believable way. No flashes of genius insight here, no car chases or terrorist situations. Just solid police work leading finally to a solid – and undramatic – conclusion. I don’t mind that at all. Some people might want more bells and whistles, but I liked this approach.

What I didn’t care for was the presentation of the story. The prose was sometimes weak. The characters weren’t very vivid – the suspects were more interesting than the cops, but they weren’t all that fascinating either. We weren’t even given descriptions of most of the cops – except for DCI Cook, who is Jamaican by heritage. Apparently author Strang assumed the reader would have read the earlier books in the series and would remember earlier descriptions.

So all in all, I wasn’t greatly impressed. I did appreciate the realism, though.

‘The Snowman,’ by Jo Nesbo

The Snowman

So I’d kicked the dust of John Verdon off my feet, and was looking for another mystery to read. “Hey,” I said to myself, “you’re gonna be unemployed soon. Why not check out the public library’s selection?” So I did that.

The public library site is kind of hard to browse, but eventually I hit on Jo Nesbø’s The Snowman, another in his long-running Harry Hole series. And I thought, “I don’t love the Hole books, but this’ll be free. Give him another chance.” So I did that.

Takeaway: A readable, exciting book. Also overcooked and kind of annoying.

Harry Hole (pronounced “hoo-leh”) is an Oslo police detective. His colleagues often joke that he’s a specialist in serial killers, even though Norway has never had a serial killer case (his expertise comes from visits abroad). But now they’ve got one. They just hadn’t realized it. Continue reading ‘The Snowman,’ by Jo Nesbo

‘White River Burning,’ by John Verdon

This isn’t a review. It’s more of an adieu (hmm, there’s a song there, somewhere). It’s my farewell to John Verdon’s Dave Gurney series.

I’ve enjoyed this series, but White River Burning brought about that moment when (as Job said) “the thing I greatly feared had come upon me.”

I’d been concerned about the increasing levels of political messaging in the books. Not that I think that’s a sin – I’m an ideological writer myself. But I know I’ve lost readers because of the opinions I’ve embedded in my books. In the same way, John Verdon has lost me.

I didn’t get far into White River Burning, which centers on the murder of a policeman in a city torn by riots similar to the Trayvon Martin unrest. It didn’t take many pages before we were treated to a scene where a “commentator” on the RAM News Channel (which seems to be a surrogate for FOX) engages in open white supremacist rhetoric.

I can understand how a leftist might think that FOX is a forum for neo-Nazis fresh out of their white sheets. FOX is often criticized as racist by the left, but this is because leftists generally believe that all conservative opinions are racist. It isn’t surprising that author Verdon might think you can turn on FOX on any given day and hear its commentators calling for, oh, a return to Jim Crow and revived miscegenation laws.

But it’s not reality. And at that point I couldn’t overlook the political passion of the author. I wish him well, but I’m confident he doesn’t want my business.

‘Wolf Lake,’ by John Verdon

Wolf Lake

I continue my trek through John Verdon’s Dave Gurney mysteries, continuing the adventures of the retired NYPD detective retired to the Catskill Mountains.

In Wolf Lake, Dave and his wife Madeleine are headed for a week of snowshoeing in Vermont, when he is asked to look into a mystery at Wolf Lake lodge, which is located more or less on the way. He almost begs off for Madeleine’s sake, but – uncharacteristically – she encourages him to make the detour.

There they meet Richard Hammond, a psychiatrist famed – and notorious – for his experiments with hypnotism. He had been living at the lodge at the invitation of its wealthy owner, but now that owner is dead by suicide. On top of that, three other men have committed suicide in various places around the country. Each one was treated for cigarette addiction by Hammond, and each reported having an identical nightmare, before killing himself – also in an identical manner.

The local district attorney is building a case against Hammond, for “murder by hypnosis.” The whole thing seems crazy to Dave, and he continues to look for reasonable explanations, even as inexplicable things happen around him, and Madeleine grows deeply troubled but refuses to leave the place.

I thought, frankly, that Wolf Lake was a little over the top. Portents in nature, a prophetic madman, a snowstorm orchestrated to raise the stakes in the climax – some of this gets explained, but overall it seemed melodramatic to me. And the solution seemed contrived. Also, author Verdon appears to have grown more comfortable expressing his politics in his books. The evils of homophobia underpin a lot of the narrative.

I’m reading the next book, but I’m not sure I’ll finish it. I’ve liked the Dave Gurney stories, but a little more politics will put me off them.

Cautions for language and adult themes.

‘Fahrenheit 451’ by Ray Bradbury

“I’m antisocial, they say. I don’t mix. It’s so strange. I’m very social indeed. It all depends on what you mean by social, doesn’t it? Social to me means talking to you about things like this.” She rattled some chestnuts that had fallen off the tree in the front yard. . . . “But I don’t think it’s social to get a bunch of people  together and then not let them talk, do you? An hour of TV class, an hour of basketball or baseball or running . . . but do you know, we never ask questions, or at least most don’t; they just run the answers at you, bing, bing, bing.”

The world of Fahrenheit 451 is one in which everyone has taken the easy route to learning, living, and contributing to society. We, the people, started it, neglecting books and thinking, choosing big screens and reality shows. After some years of that, state representatives began to outlaw these channels of deeper thought. They burned libraries,  and schools taught that books were filled with nonsense. You could call this censorship, but it’s the censorship the people want. They want a comfortable life spent in front of a wall-to-wall interactive screen (or three or four wall-to-wall screens, if they could afford them), their “families” yakking at them through broadcasts.

Books put crazy, false, and conflicting ideas in people’s heads. What’s on screen is real, current, and unified. There’s no mention of any churches, but why would there be? Only those that had morphed into social clubs would be left standing.

The houses in Fahrenheit 451 are complete fire-proof, so when a homeowner is found in possession of books and he won’t be taken into custody or removed to an asylum, he is torched within his offending home. They do it at dusk or after, so the neighborhood bonfire will make the most spectacle, a warning to anyone still harboring the printed word.

As you can tell from the quotation above, someone people won’t follow the crowd–probably homeschoolers. They have more curiosity than society wants them to have. They will suffer for it for a while, but after society has eaten itself they will rebuild, like they always do, taking life’s hard road because that’s the only one left.

‘Peter Pan Must Die,’ by John Verdon

Peter Pan Must Die

At times like this he always recalled, uneasily, that everyone on earth at a particular latitude sees the same stars in the sky. But no two cultures see the same constellations. He’d seen evidence of the phenomenon again and again: The patterns we perceive are determined by the stories we want to believe.

Another novel in John Verdon’s interesting – and somewhat disturbing – series of mystery-thrillers starring David Gurney, retired NYPD detective. Now living with his wife on a farm in the Catskills, he keeps getting diverted from the peaceful, pastoral pursuits she prefers to various murder mysteries that people bring to him.

At the beginning of Peter Pan Must Die, Dave gets a request for help from his friend Jack Hardwick. It’s really more than a request, and his relationship with Jack is more complex than ordinary friendship. A constitutional rebel, Jack has helped Dave in previous cases by passing him information civilians shouldn’t get access to. Now Jack is calling his favors in. He’s been fired from the state police and has set up as a private investigator. He’s got a big case on the line, and needs “famous” Dave’s participation to close the deal.

Jack’s client is the wife of Carl Spalter, a hard-driving real estate tycoon who was running for governor. Spalter was shot fatally by a sniper during his mother’s funeral, and the wife was convicted of hiring the assassin. She thinks – and Jack agrees – that the defense was incompetent and the prosecution corrupt. All they need to do is identify the holes in the prosecution case, inform her new attorney, and bank their payment check.

But that’s not enough for Dave. What obsesses him is the solution, what really happened. As he examines the evidence, he discovers that the murder shot could not possibly have been fired from the spot which ample evidence shows the killer must have used. That’s only the first of the conundrums that will fuel his obsession and ultimately put him in conflict with – very possibly – the most dangerous human being he has ever encountered.

Like all the books in the Dave Gurney series, Peter Pan Must Die was fascinating and engrossing. But there’s something more – an unease, the constant dissonance in Dave’s marriage and the underlying knowledge that something is seriously wrong with Dave. He analyses everything except his own heart, and is blind to the subconscious urges that force him to put himself – and often the people he loves – in danger again and again.

Cautions for language, adult themes, and intense situations. Highly recommended if this is your sort of thing. The final twist is pretty good too.

‘Let the Devil Sleep,’ by John Verdon

Let the Devil Sleep

He’d long ago discovered that one way to get to a solution was to step away from the problem and go on to something else. The brain, relieved of the pressure to move in a particular channel, often finds its own way. As one of his born-and-bred Delaware County neighbors had once said, “The beagle can’t catch the rabbit till you let him off the leash.”

I continue to work my way through John Verdon’s very satisfying (to me at least) series of Dave Gurney mysteries. Dave, as you may recall, is a decorated New York police detective, retired. Now he lives on a farm in the Catskill Mountains with his wife Madeleine, in a relationship both loving and full of tension. She loves nature and growing things, and “lives in the moment.” He never feels alive unless he’s solving a complex murder mystery – which is why his retirement has involved one unofficial investigation after another, often stepping on the toes of the real authorities.

In Let the Devil Sleep, Dave is recovering from a fight to the death in the previous book which left him with both emotional and physical trauma. Then he hears from an old acquaintance, a female journalist. She asks him for a favor – to “look over the shoulder” of her college-age daughter, who is working on a journalism project. Would he give her some pointers? He soon understands that the real, underlying request is for him to help the girl investigate the unsolved case of “the Good Shepherd,” a killer who shot six people to death in their cars on lonely roads. They were all driving the same expensive model automobile. The killer released a “manifesto,” a fanatical screed against greed, vowing to wipe out all the greedy people on earth. Dave immediately suspects the manifesto is a smokescreen, which means that the working theory of all the investigators, including the FBI, has been wrongheaded all these years. Continue reading ‘Let the Devil Sleep,’ by John Verdon

‘Shut Your Eyes Tight,’ by John Verdon

Shut Your Eyes Tight

To begin with, they occupied radically different boxes on the Myers-Briggs personality grid. His instinctive route to understanding was primarily through thinking, hers was through feeling. He was fascinated by connecting the dots, she by the dots themselves. He was energized by solitude, drained by social engagement, and for her the reverse was true. For him, observing was just one tool to enable clearer judging; for her, judging was just one tool to enable clearer observing.

I’m truly enjoying John Verdon’s series of mystery thrillers starring David Gurney, retired New York police detective now living in the Catskills. Shut Your Eyes Tight is as good as Think of a Number, which was very good indeed.

In this adventure, David is contacted by a very rich and beautiful – and dangerously crazy – woman, whose daughter has been murdered. The young woman was beheaded in her wedding dress, on her wedding day. All clues point to an enigmatic “Mexican gardener” who worked for her fiancé (a prominent expert on child abuse) and who has disappeared. But the clues at the scene are confusing, and the police are making no progress. Find my daughter’s killer, the woman tells him. I’ll pay you anything you ask.

Despite his wife Madeleine’s misgivings, Dave throws himself into the case. In so doing he will run the risk of losing both his reputation and his life, and put Madeleine in danger as well. In order to solve the case he’ll need to reexamine all his presumptions, to overcome a master of two skills of which he thinks himself the master – misdirection and deception.

The ongoing tension between David and Madeleine lays a foundation of unease that permeates the story and makes it irresistible. It would have been easy for author Verdon to make Madeleine simply a wife who “doesn’t understand,” trying to turn David into something he’s not. But she’s wiser than that. She’s trying to save his soul. She knows that in his obsessive pursuit of solutions to crimes, he’s staring into Nietzsche’s abyss. David has deep unresolved issues, and his detective work is a way of running away from them. On the other hand, he performs a social good, taking monsters off the streets. It’s complicated. And fascinating.

Cautions for troubling sexual themes and a good amount of obscene language. But if you can handle that, Close Your Eyes Tight is a very rewarding read.

‘Think of a Number,’ by John Verdon

Think of a Number

It was a curious thing about the past – how it lay in wait for you, quietly, invisibly, almost as though it weren’t there. You might be tempted to think it was gone, no longer existed. Then, like a pheasant flushed from cover, it would roar up in an explosion of sound, color, motion – shockingly alive.

And we have a winner. I have the pleasure of recommending to you an author and a novel that I can heartily recommend. Think of a Number by John Verdon is a remarkable book, not only a superior mystery-thriller, but also a story told in a fresh and interesting way.

David Gurney is a retired New York City police detective, a decorated hero. He had a reputation for finding and stopping serial killers. But he took early retirement to move to a farm in the Catskills with his wife. It’s her turn, so to speak – she put up with New York life, which she hated, for his sake. Now they’re living in the country, where there is scenery and trees and flowers and animals, a place where she thrives. But David is unhappy there. He has an intense, analytical mind, a need to solve puzzles and bring order out of chaos, that rural life doesn’t satisfy. Although they love each other, it’s not certain their marriage will survive.

One day David gets a call from an old college acquaintance, Mark Mellery, who has grown rich running a religious-self-help retreat center. Mellery is desperate. He tells David that he got a letter containing a small sealed envelope. The letter, hand-written, told him to think of a number between one and 1,000, and then open the envelope. He found the random number he’d chosen written on the note inside. After that he got more letters, hand-written in verse, threatening him with death in vengeance for some unstated crime in the past. Continue reading ‘Think of a Number,’ by John Verdon

‘Perdition,’ by Pete Brassett

Perdition

I was happy to find a new release in Pete Brassett’s DI Munro series. I found Perdition amusing and entertaining, as its predecessors have been.

Detective Inspector Munro, a rural Scottish policeman, is slightly hampered this time out by the fact that his long-impending retirement has finally come to pass. However, he finds retirement boring in the extreme, and soon begins meddling – unofficially – in a current investigation by his team. An investment bank employee is found dead in his car, killed by a powerful painkiller. Eventually they learn that the man was involved in loan sharking, but not before another man is found dead from the same cause, and one more nearly beaten to death.

Also, someone kills a goat with a crossbow.

The whole thing is fairly complex, with intertwining and backtracking trails and plenty of red herrings. Throughout the investigation DI Munro, as unobtrusively as possible, attempts to guide his successor, “Charlie” West, a female detective he’s been mentoring for some years now. Munro is a charming character, self-possessed, opinionated, and mildly curmudgeonly.

Lots of fun. There’s a minimum of violence and bad language. Some opinions were expressed that I don’t agree with, but I really have no serious cautions to deliver about Perdition.

‘Mirror Mirror,’ by Nick Louth

Mirror Mirror

I’m enjoying reading Nick Louth’s novels. I enjoyed reading Mirror Mirror too, but found it a tad disappointing in the end.

Mira Roskova (who, in spite of her name, is English), is currently acclaimed as the most beautiful model in the world. She appears on countless magazine covers and in dozens of ads, she has hordes of fanatical fans, and she’s dating England’s most popular “footballer.”

Unfortunately, the footballer is jealous and possessive and prone to violent rages. So her management company hires Virgil Bliss, a veteran of the Afghanistan war, as her personal bodyguard. As Virgil accustoms himself to the profoundly shallow world of international modeling, he begins to understand that Mira faces dangers far more serious than having an abusive boyfriend. The most dangerous criminal in the country has claimed her as his own – and merely being confined to a high security mental hospital will not stop him from taking her.

As usual with Louth, the dramatic tension was satisfying and the characters interesting. But he does have a weakness for over-relying on coincidence in his plots, and that’s especially true in Mirror Mirror. The ending featured a surprise twist, which didn’t entirely surprise me (I’d noticed the clues with my writer’s eye), and I found the ending a disappointment.

On the other hand, some bleeding heart liberals in the book are made to look like complete idiots, which is always fun.

Cautions for language, violence, and fairly explicit sex. Not Louth’s best.

‘Heartbreaker,’ by Nick Louth

Heartbreaker

I’m working my way through the novels of the English writer Nick Louth. The writing is professional, and I like the way he handles his characters. I especially like the fact that, although it seems apparent his politics are pretty leftish, he hits pretty lightly on that element.

The hero of Heartbreaker is Chris Wyrecliffe, a BBC celebrity journalist. Today he works mostly from a studio in London, but about 20 years ago he was a front-line reporter in Lebanon. There he went through a traumatic, guilt-inducing experience that caused him to set up a foundation for the aid of Palestinian refugees. Around the same time he also fell in love with an elegant Arabian woman, a westernized relation of the Saudi royal family.

Those two circumstances have won him, unbeknownst to him, an implacable mortal enemy. This enemy is implementing a masterful plan, not only to kill Chris, but to make him an instrument in a world-shaking terror plot.

In the tradition of thrillers, Heartbreaker surpasses credibility now and then. But my main problem with it was its length. The book grabbed me, and I read it in big chunks, but I thought it would have benefited from a faster pace. The lesson of the book would seem to be a cautionary one – westerners should just not meddle in the Middle East – their noblest intentions are inevitably brought down by invincible cultural barriers.

However, the conclusion of the book seemed to belie that interpretation, at least to some extent. The picture of the Muslim world here seemed to be balanced – both appreciative and appalled, depending on the particular Muslims.

I enjoyed Heartbreaker, but it was long. Serious cautions are in order for explicit sex scenes and rough language. Not Louth’s best (in my opinion), but enjoyable if you’re prepared for the ride.

‘Bite,’ by Nick Louth

Bite

I realized his sculptures describe the character of the physical world more eloquently than any chemist or physicist. He said it best: ‘You torture the metal to get it to show you its soul.’

Having enjoyed Nick Louth’s The Body in the Marsh so much, I immediately bought his first novel, Bite. As a thriller, Bite is different from The Body…, but it’s extremely successful in its own way.

On a transatlantic flight, a mysterious man sets some mosquitoes loose in the First Class section, which is filled with officers of a large, ruthless pharmaceutical company. Shortly after the plane unloads in Amsterdam, where the pharma people are planning to attend an international conference, people start coming down with a never-before-seen strain of malaria. This strain doesn’t respond to available treatments, and seems to thrive in a northern climate.

Meanwhile, Max Carver, an American sculptor with military experience, arrives in Amsterdam on the same plane, along with his girlfriend, Dr. Erica Stroud-Jones. He will be having a big gallery show in the city, while she will be delivering a paper at the pharma conference – explaining her discovery, a revolutionary approach to treating malaria.

But on the day she’s supposed to address the conference, Erica disappears. The police immediately suspect Max of murdering her, and it’s only with the help of a shadowy group of American agents that he gets out on bail. He sets out to find her, and enters a dangerous world of criminals, spies, and professional killers. He will test the very limits of his courage and endurance in the process.

Meanwhile, extracts from an old journal of Erica’s tell the story of a time in her earlier life when she was a hostage in Africa, and plumbed the depths of suffering and despair.

As I read, I compared Bite to a summer action movie. It has the same quality of being exciting to follow, but being fairly implausible when objectively considered. But it was as exciting as advertised, and I could hardly put it down. The characters were fascinating, too.

Cautions for language and mature situations, including rape and torture. There were some references to the Bible and Christianity, and they were fairly positive. Opportunities for leftist propagandizing were generally avoided. Recommended, for adults.