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Swann’s Last Song by Charles Salzberg

Publisher: Five Star ISBN  978 1 59414 656 5

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader 

Henry Swann’s clientele is so poor that despite his office sign, they still offer to pay for his services with food stamps—and he still takes them.  Henry works as a skip tracer and repo man.  Much of his work is finding errant husbands for socially disadvantaged women.  It’s therefore a change and a challenge when the classy Sally Janus turns up with a wad of cash and a simple request: find her missing husband.

This proves to be fairly easy after Swann makes a few inquiries and discovers that a recently dead man in a flea bag hotel is the missing Harry.  He collects his fee and returns to the daily grind of repossessing cars from people who don’t understand the basic principles of capitalism.

Surprisingly, Sally Janus gets in touch again and says she wants Swann to find out who killed Harry.  She’s willing to pay, and pay well, and as Swan says of himself “Some people will do anything for money.  I am one of those people.”

Backtracking Harry Janus’s life to find out who wanted him dead proves to be filled with surprises and danger.  Harry wasn’t one man, he was several, and as Swann peels back the previous personalities one by one, he meets a variety of people, each more dangerous than the last.  As he’s running through the Mexican tropics with a killer on his heels he must be thinking how nice it would be to be back in his grubby office being paid in food stamps, or at the Paradise Bar, reciting poetry to drunks.

I was prepared not to like this book very much; it’s not my favourite genre by a long shot.  However, the plot twists and the character development pulled me in and I became fascinated by Swann’s dogged determination to find the real Harry Janus, despite the increasingly perilous situations in which he becomes involved.  Salzburg has Swan growing into something almost noble, in contrast to his sleazy first chapter persona.  This is another of those rare books that makes you wish Bogart were still around to play the lead.  Maybe George Clooney will buy the film rights and do something good with this.

 

 

Lost Girls by George D. Shuman

Publisher: Simon & Schuster  ISBN-10: 1416553010

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader
(For November's interview with George Sherman)

While the first two books in Shuman’s series featuring Sherry Moore, a blind woman who is able to touch dead people’s hands and envision the last 18 seconds of their life including their memories and thoughts, have more than their share of uniqueness, in this new outing Shuman manages to inject yet an additional dose of shocking bombshells for those seeking something new.

This time out when Moore is asked to touch the hand of a dead hiker found on a mountain and sees a startling image of woman locked in a cell in some sort of broken down and decrepit old castle, she finds herself unable to let go of the heartbreaking and horrifying brutality she sees in the dead man’s last thoughts.  And so shortly after asking her good friend, a retired Admiral, to keep a look-out for anything that might relate to her vision, she’s not so surprised when finally a connection is made between her visions and the discovery of a band of high-level South American criminals involved in human trafficking.  All of which sets her on a path with one of the victim’s mothers in a pairing that sends the two deep into the heart of a dangerous and lawless land to find the truth.

Shuman’s first two novels, as disturbing as they were with their fair share of horrifying serial killers full of rage, have nothing on this third novel that with its heart wrenching themes of greed, power and the utter debasement of human life ultimately has the impact of a knife through the gut.  And so yes, while his previous tales of seriously disturbed people are disquieting, most of us can read through that type of plot with the fear being so far-removed that it’s more entertaining than truly fearful.

But Shuman so convincingly and vividly shares this ugly and atrocious reality, that indeed, while not a personal fear that most of us might encounter first-hand, it’s one that is so utterly alarming and so immediately real, it’s impossible not to react without a bit of shame for actually being so far removed and blissfully ignorant of this truly appalling crime.

On a more optimistic note, Shuman also gives the reader a look at two very strong women whose courageous and heartfelt battle to fight this atrocity bring both spirit and hope to this enlightening and devastating novel.

It’s a challenge to read this book and remain unchanged.  And readers, you would be amazed at how little time and effort our lawmakers give to this horrific outrage, so please spend some time considering this crime and its devastating and lasting impact on the innocent.

To learn more about this crime, please visit http://www.humantrafficking.org

Or call The National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-3737-888

 

 

 

Murder on the Eiffel Tower  by Claude Izner

Publisher:  St. Martin Minotaur  ISBN:978-0-312-38374-9

Reviewed by Anne K. Edwards, New Mystery Reader

Visitors to the modern miracle called the Eiffel Tower would be horrified to know that signing the Golden Book could get them killed. That seems to bookseller Victor Legris to be the case.

The murder victims seem to have nothing in common, ranging from a rag and bone man to a wealthy Russian resident of Paris. The theory is that there is some deadly form of bee that is indiscriminately stinging people.

It seems too coincidental to Victor and because he fears his dear friend Kenji Mori might be in danger, he starts an investigation that has unexpected consequences and could cost him his own life.

Talented author Claude Izner sets the scene with vivid descriptions of the times, so well done one can feel they have ridden the lift to the heights of the Eiffel Tower and perhaps witnessed the death of a lady who escorted 3 children on the tour.  Imagine the crowd’s consternation when they realize someone has died and the newspapers’ happiness at having a new subject to focus on to sell papers.

Recommended as a fun read that will keep you reading and enjoying a visit to a great event on a hot Parisian summer day. A tale with plenty of red herrings and false clues to keep you guessing.  Enjoy.  I sure did.

 

 

 

The Borrowed and Blue Murders by Merry Jones

Publisher: St. Martin's Minotaur  ISBN-10: 0312356234

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader

Philadelphia art therapist Zoe Hayes has her hands full.  With not only a new baby, a 6 year old daughter, a house full of guests, a babysitter gone psycho, an ex-patient let out of the loony bin with an axe to grind and, perhaps most pressing of all, her upcoming wedding in just a matter of days, life is a bit complicated.  But when first a mutilated body turns up on her door-step, then next she witnesses the hit-and-run of a colleague, and then finally some bad guys come looking for an unknown object with the FBI hot on their heels, life goes from complicated to deadly.  It’s obvious that not only is someone out to get her, but that one of her guests is hiding a deadly secret that’s adding to the danger as well.  So the question is not if the wedding will ever come to be, it’s if anybody will live long enough to attend it.

Unfortunately, after an exceptional beginning with the first of this series, The Nanny Murders, it seems that with each successive title, the plotting in this once-promising series seems to have grown progressively more preposterous, with this latest being the worst of the group. Albeit, this is fiction, but really, how much is too much?  In this instance, not only is the reader supposed to be convinced that this one poor woman is besieged by this many dangers at once, but also be convinced that such ludicrous events might actually happen. 

Most preposterous of all would be the first danger that involves an ex-patient legally released from the loony bin as cured - a woman that has killed a number of pregnant women by removing their fetuses in order to COOK and EAT them.  The second danger, a babysitter who at first seems a bit merely eccentric but suddenly seems to have totally lost every cookie ever baked, is just as hard to swallow.  And finally, let’s not forget the third danger, one that may or may not involve gun-running terrorists who know nothing about organization and planning,  but even worse, might just be her betrothed's brothers.

With each chapter bringing nothing but an increased dose of absurdity that eventually leads to an impossibly even more outlandish ending, this is one read you might want to avoid.  

 

 

 

Die, Decorator, Die by Franklin H Levy

Publisher: Phoenix Books  ISBN 978 1 59777 591 5

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader

The title says it all: anyone who ever had to live with lavender-flock wallpaper in the dining room will instantly know at least one of the motivations for the attacks on interior decorators in this amusing and fast-moving story.

Set in Boston (which right away gives it an extra half a mark for ambience on my scale) “Die Decorator, Die” is just the right prescription for anyone feeling a bit down in the dumps.  This isn’t Spenser’s Boston, this is the Boston of “the right side of The Hill”, inhabited by corporate lawyers, high-priced decorators, people with PhD’s in obscure branches of knowledge—and murderers.

Buzz Levin, a lawyer with a conscience (this is a work of fiction, after all) and his wife Allwyn live busy lives, balancing their respective careers with the raising of a teenaged son and the managing of a Mexican au pair who hasn’t quite gotten the hang of housework or cooking. Ally is particularly busy this week setting up her room in the Show House, an annual event when the cream  of Boston decorators rises to the top of the high society espresso cup.

The two careers collide when a decorator is found dead in the Show House in Louisburg Square and one of Buzz’s clients is accused of killing him.  Things get more serious when Buzz is pursued and shot at by somebody in a black Firebird.    This provides extra motivation for Buzz not only to defend his client in court, but also to solve the murder before the murderer puts an early end to Buzz’s own career.  His investigations lead to a viable alternative suspect….and then another one………and then Ally ends up with a knife at her throat.  Buzz starts to wonder if there’s such a thing as too many suspects, but by that time he’s learning first-hand about Newton’s Second Law of Motion.

There’s a lot of snappy patter in the book; Buzz could probably get a cameo role on “Two and a Half Men” with no trouble.  Asked by his son why Ally is doing this show again after swearing off last year, Buzz says, “Decorators are a strange lot.  You know the old saying, ‘Can’t live with them; can’t buy a sofa without them’.”

This is such an enjoyable read that it would be churlish to question why Buzz doesn’t bother to ring the police when he sees the same black Firebird parked near the Show House shortly after his hair-raising near-death experience.

 

 

 

The Black Tower by Louis Bayard

Publisher: William Morrow  ISBN 978 0 06 117350 9

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader

Once again Louis Bayard steps into his time machine and transports the reader to an earlier age, and does it with his usual flair.  He resurrects one of the most colourful characters of early 19th century Paris, Eugene Francois Vidocq, a petty criminal and larger-than-life figure, who later turned to police work, often undertaken in unorthodox ways.  His masters tolerated him because he got results, and this fictional work shows how he might have solved the mystery of the boy in the Black Tower if he really had taken up the case.

Vidocq enlists the aid of a medical student, Hector Charpentier, a man living on the fringes of society.   Initially suspected of murdering a man carried a scrap of paper with his name on it, Hector is drawn into Vidocq’s world, a very different place to the genteel poverty and petty humiliations of his daily life.   It is only much later that Hector realises that it was his father the murdered man was seeking, and later still that he discovers why.

The re-established monarchy is still shaky, and one of the causes of instability is the question of what happened to the boy who would have become Louis XVII.  The official line is that he died a natural death in prison, but there are rumors that he was rescued and given a new identity.  Hector’s father would have known the truth, but he is dead, so Vidocq and Hector have to get to the truth another way, not always with polite methods. 

There is some evocative writing mixed into this adventure, phrases that convey a lot in few words: “…a calico face, cottony with years.”   A ‘half-nibbled peach,’ perfectly describes the color of a waning moon when it’s just rising over a city skyline.  Winter weather is described:  “ …a front of green-grey drizzle-ice settled in like a malevolent house-guest.”

There are echoes of Dickens and Dumas in this story, both of whom excelled in dramatic plots and descriptive writing.   Even if you think you don’t like historical novels, you should give this one a fair reading.  It is several steps up the literary ladder from many of the books that make it to the best seller list these days.

 

 

The Clinch Knot by John Galligan

Publisher: Bleak House Books  ISBN-10: 1606480030 (Also available in trade paperback)

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader

As a sorrowful soul with a tortured past, Ned Oglivie, aka Dog, has spent more than a year or two fly fishing America’s greatest rivers – the only way he knows how to try and escape the tragic memories from his past that continue to haunt him.  But despite his best intentions to avoid emotional entanglements, he once again finds himself cast in the role as a seeker of justice when his latest fishing buddy, a young black man, is found barely alive inside a car from what seems like a failed suicide attempt, with his white girlfriend a mere few feet away, dead by a gunshot wound to the head. 

And so charged for the crime is the young man, D’Ontey, who by all appearances shot and killed his girlfriend and then attempted but failed to kill himself.  But Dog refuses to believe this story, and so begins the search for the truth; a truth that will pit him against small-town sheriffs, hate groups, drug dealers, and his own tendency to now and again still believe in the best of people against all odds.

This is the third in the series, and my most driving need right now is to get my hands on the first two.  After reading a book like this, it’s sometimes difficult to express just how appreciative one can feel to read an author who knows how to put into words thoughts and feelings that seem just like something you might have said had you had the talent of knowing the right words to say. 

Galligan takes the art of fly fishing, the magical beauty of it, and puts it into a place and time so solidly and vibrantly that even those who have never stepped into a fresh-water, freezing cold river to cast a line will still easily appreciate the intimate and liberating joy of it all.  But hey, that’s just the fishing part.  The rest is just as good - the mystery itself, the friendships, the secrets, the possibilities for redemption, the incongruity of hatred mixed with beauty, the jealousies, the loyalties - all fluidly combine into one story that touches just as deeply as it mystifies and challenges.  Read this book, guaranteed, you’ll love it!   

 

 

 

Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Sanction by Eric van Lustbader

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing ISBN 978 0 446 53986 9

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader

Jason Bourne is back again.  He has returned to university life in his David Webb persona, and is trying to settle in to a very different milieu to the maelstrom of international intrigue that’s been his lot for years.  His children are being raised by their grandparents far away in what he hopes is safety, and he’s taking comfort in the quiet life of study and teaching. 

This can’t last, of course—if it did there wouldn’t be any story.  Moira Trevor, whom Jason last saw when they scattered their friend Martin Lindros’s ashes, turns up on campus with a job offer for Jason.  Her employers, NetGen Energy Solutions, want help to make their new natural gas terminal at Long Beach safe and secure from attack.  Jason turns down her offer, but later when his friend and mentor Professor Specter is attacked, Jason realises he will have to return to the violent dark world he thought he’d left forever.

Running parallel to the story of Jason’s recruitment is that of Arkadin, a master assassin who is trying to trace and recover a document, the delivery of which would have far-reaching consequences.  Arkadin is the darker side of Jason’s own dark side: a man without feelings or conscience.  He is not, however, a man without a past, and this manages to leak into his present mission and cause spots of weakness which could be fatal.  There are moments when one almost pities him, moments when it looks as if somewhere behind the cold eyes lurks a real human being.

There’s a third strand to this complicated story.  The new head of American Central Intelligence, Veronica Hart, is having to battle enemies from what’s supposed to be her own side, men who so hate her presence that they’d compromise national security to bring her career down in ruins.  Manipulating their hatred for his own purpose is a secret agent in so deep a cover that he’d never have been found but for the inside knowledge of one of the least powerful characters in the cast.  (Of all the threads in this colourful Turkish carpet of a story, this one is, sadly, the most believable)

Eventually all the plot threads and characters are drawn together in a final act which looks like being the destruction of Jason, Moira, and the old professor, not to mention a sizeable hunk of southern California.

As you’d expect if you have read any of Lustbader’s other books, or indeed, any of the original Robert Ludlum-authored Bourne books, there’s double and triple crosses, blood and gore, cruel people, treachery, secret organisations, lots of fast travel from here to there and back again, plots, counterplots and unexpected revelations galore.  It’s a monster of a book, 484 pages, and perhaps best saved for a long weekend when you can devour it in a couple of sittings.  Highly recommended.

 

 

 

 

The Big O by Declan Burke

ISBN-10: 0151014086  ISBN-13: 978-0151014088

Reviewed by Dana King, New Mystery Reader

Irish author Declan Burke is regularly compared to Elmore Leonard and Donald Westlake, even though The Big O is only his second novel. Anyone that new receiving that kind of praise has earned a skeptical eye, just as Leonard and Westlake have earned their legends. Burke and his cast of losers are up to it.

Karen King works days for a defrocked plastic surgeon named Frank Dolan; by night she pulls armed robberies for extra cash. Ray Brogan surprises her during a job and doesn’t flinch when she draws down on him with a .44. They’re a good match: Ray’s also a two-career man, alternating between painting murals in children’s bedrooms and his more lucrative gig as a kidnapper for insurance fraud scams. Karen’s boss, Frank, can’t operate anymore after several customers woke up looking like losing boxers. His ex-wife, Madge, is going through the female equivalent of mid-life crisis. Rossi Francis Assisi Callaghan just finished a five years jolt as a three-time loser. His idea of going straight is to open a co-op for cons, where they can fence their swag under the guise of a charity. His getaway driver, Sleeps, is narcoleptic. Detective Stephanie Doyle thinks she has a handle on an investigation, if only she could be sure what she’s investigating. Then there’s Anna, a true force of nature, Burke’s version of Chekhov’s gun over the mantel; once you get a full grasp of her, you know something has to happen.

The story launches—“starts” is too tame a word—with Frank’s plan to have Madge kidnapped so he can defraud his insurance of half a million pounds. He doesn’t want her hurt, though the half million would go a long way toward helping him get over it. He contacts Ray’s “agent,” to set the scheme in motion. Ray doesn’t know Karen works for Frank when she points her gun at him; Karen doesn’t know Ray’s also working for Frank, in a manner of speaking. Rossi manages to touch them all, usually inadvertently. Everyone has an angle, and no one is as smart as he or she thinks they are.

Burke has a deft touch for keeping the reader only far enough ahead of the characters to build anticipation while still keeping the results a surprise. The characters and their plotlines are incestuously intertwined. Everyone knows, or gets to know, everyone else, whether as friends, lovers, or victims; sometimes more than one. This could be a failing in a book that takes itself too seriously; no worries here. The Big O is virtually a satire of noir fiction, cynically disdainful of everyone’s plans. You know nothing will work out the way anyone wants it to.

It’s the anticipation of how badly fouled up things will get that keeps the story moving. At times it’s like reading a description of a Marx Brothers or Three Stooges short. People coming and going, no one sure what the others are up to, and not planning as if they’d care if they did know. Burke’s voice and writing style are indebted to Elmore Leonard, as are the characters, but Leonard never plotted so intricately. That’s where the Westlake influence comes out, as complicated and interconnected plot lines are kept moving with humor and improbability that never quite becomes implausible. Burke isn’t one of those writers for whom humor is an abstract concept that tickles a small part of the back of your mind, and you think, “Oh. That was clever.” The Big O is laugh out loud funny when he wants it to be, which is often.

A couple of things don’t work as well as they might. One can hardly be helped: bits of terminology don’t make their way across the Atlantic as seamlessly as others. There are times a Yank might fancy a glossary; it will pass as you get deeper into the book. Of a little more concern is the final scene, where the complications here are a little harder to follow, and the (appropriately) diminished humor can’t cover a couple of bumps, and one twist too many. Still, he treats the ending with the respect it deserves, and doesn’t the power of what’s happening by keeping the laugh machine running full speed.

I came to The Big O with high expectations and had them exceeded. From the coolest cover of any book published this year (with the possible exception of Christa Faust’s Money Shot),  through the twists and turns of its cast of not-always-lovable losers, The Big O is big fun. It’s just as well Harcourt couldn’t get it out in time for beach season; too many people would be staring, wondering what the hell you were laughing at.

For an interview with Declan Burke