Oops! Wrong Book!

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Deathlist, published by Chris Ryan in 2016, is mainly about disgusting people being killed in disgusting ways.  I did read it, skimming in parts, but I can’t say that I enjoyed it.  For those who aren’t attracted by the disgusting aspects there is a straightforward plot (at least until the very end) of soldiers taking revenge on terrorists who assassinated a bunch of special forces trainees at an exercise in England, including details of how the perpetrators were captured and all vehicles and weapons involved.  The book doesn’t have much else to recommend it, since the avenging soldiers are great at killing and torture but are worthless in the conversation department.

At first glance the personalities of the avengers might seem realistic, but I’m not sure that’s the case.  My counter example is a book I read years ago by a retired British mercenary whose name I can’t remember.  He had to leave his special forces unit ( I think he wasn’t great at following orders) and spent some years as a mercenary, during which time he trained soldiers in various Middle Eastern and African countries and also was hired by some governments for other purposes.  On one of his missions he was one of a group hired to capture or kill (I don’t remember which) a Basque terrorist the Spanish government was anxious to be rid of but wanted to distance itself from the ridding.  His memoir was fascinating and very well written and although he doesn’t come across as a “nice guy”, he’s a far cry from the thuggish bunch presented by Ryan.

 

Too many coincidences

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The Last Innocent Man was first published by bestselling author Phillip Margolin in 1981, but that’s not the problem.  Mystery/thrillers about criminal defense lawyers age well and there has been no change in either the law or the ethical dilemmas of prosecutors, defenders, and police.  But even a pro like Margolin can fall into the trap of creating too many coincidences for a satisfying plot.  I think that in this book he got lazy.

How’s this for an unbelievable plot twist:  Brilliant Portland defense attorney David Nash is hired to defend a fellow lawyer (whose wife he has fallen in love with) on a murder charge.  Husband and wife swear that they were at home together on the night of the crime and Nash assumes that they’re telling the truth until he’s accidentally reminded of the date of the crime – it’s the day he first met the wife at a big party given by a member of his firm, and she was definitely not at home with her husband!   For months brilliant attorney Nash has somehow not noticed that the date of the important party and the date of the important crime are the same, and his memory wasn’t even jogged by the fact that it was the same day on which he met the love of his life.  Phooy!

This elephant in the room left me with no patience for the statistically surprising coincidence that the suspect was similar in size and build to the actual killer, owned a patterned shirt identical to that worn by the killer and similar trousers, drove a car of the same make and color as the killers car, and had curly blond hair just like the wig the killer chose as a disguise.  A final complaint – no ingenious detective work or clever deduction was required to find the real killer – he turns out to be a psychopath who doesn’t mind confessing to his crimes.

Berlin Red

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Berlin Red, published by Sam Eastland in 2017, is the latest in the series featuring Russian detective Inspector Pekkala that began with Eye of the Red Tsar.  That was a highly entertaining book with an original setting (for detective stories), namely Russia at the transition between the tsarist and Stalinist eras.  I can’t remember offhand which of the subsequent Pekkala books I read, but it wasn’t quite as interesting as the first.

In Berlin Red we have arrived at 1945 and Pekkala has once again been drafted by Stalin, this time to help extract a British agent from Berlin. This book has the quantity and quality of background detail that made Eye of the Red Tsar so fascinating, and of course the same admirable though enigmatic star, Pekkala.  According to the publisher’s blurbs, Eastland is the grandson of a London police detective, so deserves much credit for the formidable amount of reading and research that must have gone into the writing of these stories.

I can’t help forming an opinion of a writer’s personality from the characters they create, and by this rule of thumb Eastland is a nice guy.  Pekkala’s mission is aided by a number of decent people and even some of the bad guys have their good moments.

French page-turner

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L’honorable société, published by Dominique Manotti and DOA (pen name of a novelist and screen writer) in 2010, preceded the recent elections in France but couldn’t have sounded more timely.  In this police thriller the mystery isn’t who did it (the murder of a member of the security services attached to the French nuclear energy authority), but why.  What was the murdered man investigating at the financial conglomerate that supports the conservative candidate for president?  What is the project they call “Gédéon” that’s so important to a trio of young environmental activists that they would rather be suspected of murder than endanger it?

The actions shifts rapidly from one set of characters to another as the plot advances.  The characters are a varied lot, from the detective originally assigned to investigate the murder (good guy), through the politicians (disgusting), and on to the young activists ( clueless computer nerd, pretty girl, stubborn, self-righteous leader who has made a big impression on the girl).  The father of the girl just happens to be a journalist who joins the side of the good guys in order to clear his daughter of suspicion.

It made a good read, and hopefully, the deep rooted corruption described by the authors is exaggerated for the sake of the plot.

Everyone Loves a Good Vampire Epic

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Even if not everybody loves a good vampire epic I certainly do, and “The Strain”, published by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan in 2009, fills the bill.  The vampires are imagined as a form of retro-virus that instead of being a submicroscopic entity that acts to subvert individual cells, is big enough to see and subverts whole organs, very quickly transforming the whole human body.

The book begins when an old master vampire is shipped to New York in a large coffin stowed on a plane.  He manages to leave the cargo hold and dispatch approximately 200 passengers and crew members in the minutes immediately following the plane’s landing at JFK.  How?  No explanation was forthcoming by the end of the book.  The authors may get back to this initial problem in book two or three of this trilogy, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Another bothersome aspect of these vampires is that for unknown and probably not about to be explained reasons, they can’t cross moving water on their own.  Why-ever not?  Probably just to make it barely possible to stop the vampire plague from expanding beyond Manhattan.

On the positive side, there is an old Jewish pawnbroker who has chased the Master vampire ever since he saw him at work on concentration camp victims during World War II, a heroically stubborn epidemiologist who can’t be shaken off the trail of this new epidemic, and the immoral sickly billionaire who has apparently shipped the vampire in the hope of achieving a gruesome form of eternal life and is guaranteed to come to a bad end.

The battle of the good guys seems hopeless, since all the supposed corpses from the plane have spread out and begun to create more vampires.  But wait!  There are already equally old vampires in the New World, and they are about to take steps to counter the interloper.

Del Toro and Hogan deserve credit for producing an original back story for vampires, but their disgusting creatures will never replace quintessential Hungarian gentleman Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula in my heart.  This is the place to share a memorable experience that occurred when I entered a pitch black laboratory late one night.  I was unaware that a fellow student from Hungary was inside until a male voice out of the darkness said, “Good ee-ven-ing.”

 

The Butchers of Berlin

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The cover blurbs on Chris Petit’s “The Butchers of Berlin, published in 2016,  include “darkly atmospheric” and “A gripping police procedural – one so shrouded in guilt, suspense and outright dread it almost approaches horror”.  Maybe an air raid going on in the background makes people being flayed alive and eaten by pigs “darkly atmospheric”, but I think in order to approach horror it has to do a U-turn and backtrack.

As Petit writes it, there were some normal people in Berlin in the waning days of World War II, but not very many.  There is an elderly Jew who kills a police informer and commits suicide, a young Jewish woman who was a witness and ran away, a young German from the financial crimes division of the police who is drafted to look into the homicide, a Gestapo internal affairs investigator who becomes involved, the young policeman’s English mother, and a German woman who employed the young Jewish woman as a seamstress.  That’s almost everybody who isn’t a depraved sadist.  Considering the many characters who are depraved sadists, the young policeman and his Gestapo mentor, who are tasked with finding the person responsible for a series of flayed corpses, are spoiled for choice.

Bottom line – this is a surrealistic take on a police investigation with super-size helpings of blood and gore.

Great Writers are Great Psychologists

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Great writers are great psychologists.  Aside from command of language, imagination, etc., the best writers have the ability to submerge their own personalities completely and create consistent characters wholly unlike themselves.  In the second rank of talented writers who don’t pretend to be great are those with likable personalities that come through to readers and help to make their books enjoyable.

Dick Francis is an example of the latter, a good writer whose kind, brave, and gentlemanly personality shines through and makes the reader care about his heroes.  As shown by “Triple Crown”, published by Felix Francis in 2016, Felix, who was a co-writer on his father’s later books, doesn’t quite come up to the mark.  Of course he’s a generation younger, but his updating of the formula doesn’t add anything worthwhile.  He abandons his father’s old fashioned sensibilities regarding coarse language and bathroom humor, to no positive result. The one major female character has sex appeal but no personality, and protagonist Jeff Hinkley isn’t particularly admirable or likable.

One good quality of the Dick Francis books that Felix has adopted is doing his homework.  Dick Francis was able to speak knowledgeably about horse racing and training, newspaper writing, and running a charter air company, but often chose other lines of work for his protagonists, always learning enough about them to be convincing.  For Triple Crown, Felix Francis has learned a lot about the transmission and effects of equine viruses.

The plot takes British Horseracing Authority investigator Hinkley to the U.S. to hunt corruption in the competition for the Triple Crown, and is quite good.

Note:

Mystery Time will be offered as a free Kindle book on Amazon from June 26th to June 30th.  In this Alex Kertész mystery, a colleague dies in Alex’s arms at a biochemistry congress in Prague and an old watch may have mysterious powers.