In “No Time For Goodbye”, published in 2007, Linwood Barclay introduces an intriguing puzzle; a teenage girl wakes up one morning to an empty house, her parents and older brother having apparently vanished into thin air. Twenty-five years later, now married and with a daughter of her own, Cynthia still has no idea what happened.
Barclay’s explanation of the inexplicable, although not presented until near the end of the book, is clever and even believable, if you’re willing to credit the existence of some extremely nasty people. Until that point you have to make do with a series of baffling clues, as the cold case suddenly takes on new life.
In addition to the puzzle, I enjoyed some of the characters, including a career criminal who’s not a bad guy when he’s not rubbing people out.
How did I miss Peter Lovesey? I just read a combined volume containing The Last Detective and Diamond Solitaire, mysteries featuring Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond first published by Lovesey in 1991 and 1992. Although I wasn’t immediately smitten with the fat, irascible detective, he grows on you. He sometimes lumbers off in the wrong direction, but he’s smart and he never gives up, and his long suffering wife is always there for moral support.
In The Last Detective, Diamond takes a long time to discover the identity of a naked murdered woman found in a lake because he ignores an important clue. Subsequently he resigns from his job in a fit of temper, but nothing prevents him from eventually solving the case.
Diamond Solitaire is the story of how Diamond, now reduced to doing odd jobs, becomes intrigued by the problem posed by an mute little Japanese girl who was left in Harrods where he’s working as a security guard (until he’s fired for apparently overlooking her). No one comes forward to claim her for several weeks, but after Diamond manages to present the mystery on television she’s snatched from the institution where she’s being cared for. The plot develops in some unlikely ways, but it did make a good read.
By the way, there’s something odd going on regarding this blog. I keep receiving notifications that people with the email address outlook.com have started to follow the blog, but they’re not listed as followers. Is it because not a single one of them has confirmed the intention to follow? Since I see only an email address and no profile, I have no idea who they are. ???
I started to read The Cauliflower, published by Nicola Barker in 2016, because it looked like something different. As a stream of consciousness riff on 19th Century Bengali holy man Sri Ramakrishna it’s in fact so different that I read nearly half of it only out of inertia before becoming interested in the story.
Barker explains that she has been interested in Sri Ramakrishna since a stranger gave her some material about his teachings when she was ten years old. She eventually went on to read everything she could find about him, and takes advantage of the unstructured format of the book to pass on facts and stories about his life peppered with sometimes skeptical asides. She says she’s interested in how faith works and how a legacy develops.
I didn’t learn how faith works from this book, but I’m convinced that Sri Ramakrishna was a true believer (and a bit of a lunatic), and I imagine that he became a widely respected guru because he was both convincingly sincere and charismatic. He religious goal was to achieve a trance state, by means which included extreme self-denial, which he and the people around him interpreted as being a communion with god (in whatever form, Hindu or other, he was worshiping at the time).
Barker brings in Mother Theresa, because she is also a saint who is associated with Calcutta. The contrast between the two interpretations of religion is striking: Mother Theresa felt called upon to serve mankind, while Sri Ramakrishna wanted firstly to enter a state of ecstasy himself and only secondarily to help others achieve the same state (although there is one story about his demanding a donation of food and clothing for poor villagers).
Then there is a third road to salvation not mentioned by Barker but popular in more than one religious group today, which requires neither self-denial nor service. To ensure one’s entry to heaven the person (generally a man) merely has to force all women out of public spaces and into encumbering clothing, so that he may go wherever he likes without ever having to see a female form or hear a female voice and thus perhaps be distracted from his spiritual thoughts. Judging by the popularity of this form of religion, oppression is much more fun than self-denial or service.
Rat Run, published by Gerald Seymour in 2005, is a British espionage thriller á la John le Carré. There is plenty of action in a plot that involves both drug dealers and Islamic terrorists, but maybe you have to be British to find the plot credible, depending as it does on a character who has lost all will to live because, for no very compelling reason, he has been labeled a coward.
The characters pontificate a lot, unlike most books of this genre written by Americans, where even the desk bound characters tend to be the strong and silent type. The British characters are also outspokenly nasty, which helps explain why the victim of their comments got tired of living.
Seymour has one great advantage over le Carré in that he hasn’t succumbed to America Derangement Syndrome. This is a syndrome analogous to the Trump Derangement Syndrome that has sprouted in the U.S. since the last presidential election. Of course it’s possible to dislike the president’s actions, policies, or personality, but rational dislike doesn’t explain the extreme and bizarre behavior collectively referred to as Trump Derangement Syndrome: Several fashion designers declared that as a matter of patriotism they would refuse to sell clothes to the First Lady; a comedian thought an appearance apparently brandishing the president’s severed head would amuse the television audience; a group of professional psychiatrists (none of whom had ever met the president) published a diagnosis that the president is certifiably insane. etc. etc.
Similarly, it’s possible to rationally dislike the United States in general and some things about it in particular, but going off on venomous rants about it, as le Carré did in the last book of his I read, isn’t the stuff of an entertaining thriller.
I have a new favorite thriller series. It’s Greg Hurwitz’s set of three (and counting) thrillers that began with Orphan X, continued with The Nowhere Man, and keeps sizzling along with Hellbent, published in 2018. The premise is that a secret US defense department program selected orphan children with outstanding talents to train as assassins. Their training included everything from hand-to-hand combat to sharpshooting, and from languages to computer hacking. They were set up with enough money for any possible contingency and sent out with only one contact to provide assignments. If ever caught no official source would acknowledge them, and since they had no families to start with, no one would miss them if they didn’t survive.
Orphan X is a special case – the man who trains him is a childless widower who begins to think of him as his son, and the orphan, who never knew a parent or caring adult, loves him in return. When the series begins, the Orphan program is already unraveling and the Ophans are being hunted down. Orphan X was the best of them and is thought to know too much to leave alive.
How’s that for a story idea?
Hurwitz divides his killers into two types. There are psychopaths who kill indiscriminately, not only their assigned target, but also anyone who gets in the way. And there are others who are willing to kill as soldiers for their country but take care to avoid collateral damage.
Orphan X is a moral assassin. The man in charge of killing him is not. An interesting secondary character is Orphan V, the only female and one of the group hunting X. (The Orphans do have names, by the way, but I won’t bother to list them here). When V first appears we learn that she carries a supply of hydrofluoric acid for dissolving bodies and doesn’t seem concerned that she and the remaining operatives are apparently being used to get rid of internal political opponents of the US government. But we find out that she does have a problem with collateral damage. At the end of Hellbent she seems to decide that she’s had enough. Will she and X become mates in the next book? I can hardly wait to find out.
The Girl Before, published by JP Delaney in 2017, is a well done, creepy murder mystery whose main characters seem to be an architect and two young women who follow each other as tenants in an unusual house he has built. But the real main character is the house. The premise is that an architect has designed an extreme version of a smart home, one that is entirely run by the built-in computer. It is also extreme in its minimalist design and comes with a long list of rules the tenant must agree to, including not changing any of the furnishings, not hanging art on the walls, and keeping the house clean and uncluttered at all times. At first glance it seems that no one would accept the conditions, but nothing nearly as nice can be found in London at a comparable price.
Homes are becoming smarter all the time, so this extreme version is based in reality and brings up the problem of the interaction between human and artificial intelligence. Supposedly the time is near when artificial intelligence will surpass the human kind, no doubt leading to some serious problems, for instance, a computer smarter than its owner deciding to do something other than follow instructions because it has a better idea. ( I’ve already reached this point, since my new, computerized washing machine has proved to be smarter than I am.)
Another obvious problem is, of course, that computers can be hacked. The more aspects of your life are controlled by computer, the more opportunities there are for anyone who wants to cause you harm.
Then there is the question of minimalism. The architect in the book believes that beautiful but minimalist surroundings can affect a person’s life for the better, inspiring him to live more thoughtfully and strive to bring himself into alignment with the quality of his surroundings. There may be something to that idea, but I can’t help imagining that the sheer inconvenience of an entire house that can’t stand the tiniest bit of clutter would probably just drive someone crazy.
There aren’t a lot of reviews of my books on Amazon, so it’s disappointing when a review disappears. The first time this happened I tried asking Amazon why. The reply was that a review was removed if the reviewer requested it. I doubted that someone went back a year or more later and asked to remove a review of my book, so I suspected that somewhere within Amazon’s operating system there lurks an algorithm that doesn’t like me.
The algorithm has struck again. Today I noticed that the number of reviews of “Murder with a French Accent” has gone down to one. This prompted me to look at the surviving review, a very good one that I didn’t remember seeing before. This reader appreciated exactly what I thought was successful about Murder with a French Accent, the second Alex Kertész mystery.
If this reader liked it so much, maybe there are some others out there who would enjoy reading about scientist Alex Kertész’s encounter with industrial espionage in France. They can find out for nothing from February 28th through March 4, when the book will be free in the Kindle store.
Go to: Murder with a French Accent