A Detective Story with no Detective

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The Other Mrs Walker, published by Mary Paulson-Ellis in 2016, is subtitled “A detective story with no detective”.  That’s not accurate.  To the extent that it’s a detective story, it has a detective.  What struck me most about this novel is that it’s all about women. Hardly any space is given to male characters and except for one who is barely more than a shadow, none of them are nice.  Come to think of it, the women are no models of virtue either, but we can empathize with them to some extent because we get to know them better.

The main characters are three sisters who grow up in World War II era London.  The book skips back and forth between the harsh circumstances of their childhood and their present day lives (and one death) as old ladies.  The tragic elements of the girls’ early years, and in fact the unhappy circumstances of nearly all of the story’s women, are described in a pseudo magical – realistic style that conveys the basic facts without wallowing in depression.  I say “pseudo” because there isn’t any magic.  What Paulson-Ellis does is use beautiful similes for gruesome objects (and vice versa), which creates an atmosphere of strangeness, make repetitive use of a few old fashioned phrases like “over the hills and far away”, that could have come from a fairy tale, and provide several everyday artifacts (like a broken ceramic cherub) that appear and reappear in the course of many years, giving them a near magical significance.

The most powerful objects that appear over and over, associated with every major occurrence in the story, are oranges.  The simplest explanation of the importance of oranges in this story may be the best one.  Paulson-Ellis lives in Edinburgh.

 

 

Isolated: Reaction of a Picky Reader

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I just finished reading the Kindle book “Isolated: A Jason King Thriller”, by Matt Rogers.  It only cost 99 cents and was moderately enjoyable, so I’m not complaining, but several comments come to mind.

First of all, the English grammar is sketchy, to say the least.  Some of it might have been on purpose, with the idea that special-forces type Jason King would express his thoughts that way.  If that was the idea, I think it was a mistake and just made him sound dumb.  Probably it was  due to inadequate proof reading.

Another odd thing about Jason King – he often repeats, in his thoughts or to others, that his amazing talents and extensive experience make it impossible for an enemy to sneak up on him (then someone comes up behind him and bashes him on the head).  He also asserts that his instincts and experience enable him to know when his enemy is out of bullets (just before said enemy takes a shot that almost kills him).  I don’t think this was meant to be funny, but it was amusing because Rogers has King dwell on his experience and talent so much, apparently not trusting the reader to get it after one or two mentions.

I assume that Rogers knows all about various types of guns, cars, and planes, but unless he’s willing to do his homework he should stay away from microbiology.  His villain here has a stock of white powder that after a single glance, King can say is anthrax spores.  A little later he calls anthrax a virus.

The appeal of this book is the non-stop action, with King mowing down bad guys right and left, some of the time with a beautiful woman at his side.  But there was a jarring note here, too.  When he first met this woman and she didn’t answer his questions, he decided that he would just have to kidnap her.

The villain supposedly was after money.  Why did that make him want to decimate the population of an Australian city with anthrax?  And although he’s provided with a motive for being annoyed with Jason King, it’s hard to see why he wanted King around, sometimes trying to kill him and at other times keeping him alive?

Summary:  Jason King is a  (very) poor man’s Jack Reacher.

Note:  The Kindle version of  Murder with a French Accent, the second Alex Kértesz mystery  will be free on Amazon from April 19th through April 23rd.

University research laboratories commonly take on applied research projects to bring in grant money to support the lab.  In this case, Alex’s lab has created a genetically engineered bacterium that could save many tons of stored grain and be worth millions to agribusiness.  His university has sold the rights to a small French biotech company that hopes the investment will raise them to a new level, but only if production goes smoothly.  The university has agreed to send Alex to Toulouse to help get things started, but the problems he encounters at Agrogénie are far from technical.  Their advertisement of their great new product has attracted a lot of attention, and not all of it from prospective buyers.

Tana French

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The Washington Post called Tana French “One of the most talented  crime writers alive.”  I think they’re right.  Broken Harbour, published in 2012, is the second Tana French book I’ve read, and I also admired the first one.  In both books, French writes in the first person as a male police officer, and as far as I can tell, assumes the persona perfectly.  Maybe she manages this so successfully by steering clear of sex.  And maybe the reason she chooses to do this is that female detectives are still too uncommon in Dublin to be convenient protagonists of crime thrillers.

Another characteristic of the Tana French books I have read is the fraught psychological atmosphere that will deter me from choosing to read more of them.  I imagine that in life the circumstances surrounding murder are truly depressing, but too much realism defeats the whole purpose of reading escape literature.

In the context of realism, I wonder how realistic the psychology of the characters in Broken Harbour is.  We have a family of four, husband, wife, and two children, who are stranded in a shoddy housing estate when recession hits and both parents are left jobless.  It’s not hard to imagine one or both of them sinking into depression.  It’s entirely plausible that one or both of them would give up, and stop coping.  But in spite of French’s talent at creating a foreboding atmosphere, I had a problem with both parents going completely crazy.

Jeffery Deaver’s James Bond

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It’s been a long time since I read one of the original James Bond books, and decided that it was too poorly written to read any more of them.  Ian Flemming had a good idea for a hero, but his Bond came off more as a two-dimensional caricature than as a character you could empathize with.

Jeffery Deaver’s Bond in Carte Blanche, published in 2011, almost leans in the opposite direction.  This James Bond, while not losing his eye for beautiful women, is newly sensitive.  When an aging beauty laments that it’s too late to find someone to replace her creepy and criminal lover, Bond asks her, “Why do you need someone?”.  This is definitely not the old male chauvinist James Bond.

The most faithfully preserved aspect of the Bond series is the product placement, from brand names and details of fast cars, fancy watches and elegant clothes to vintage wines and exotic whiskeys.  The plot, which sends Bond to Dubai and South Africa, is also old style, with Bond risking life and limb to save thousand of lives (and British interests) from a colorful cast of evil-doers.

What you always wanted to know about hiring out as a killer and were (for good reason) afraid to ask

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John Connolly writes a lot about professional killers.  In The Reapers, published in 2008, he provides a virtual manual of the trade, including the etiquette required among the practitioners and between the killers and their victims.  For one thing, associates of victims are supposed to distinguish between the hired killer, who is merely a weapon, and the person who hired him and is therefore the one really responsible for the death.  Also, a paymaster who is actually under contract to the government should be recognized as not acting out of personal interest, and is out of bounds.  Not surprisingly, this system seems to work only slightly better than your average set of rules and regulations.

Connolly’s assassins tend to be soulful and philosophical.  In this book we learn something about the backgrounds of his characters Detective Charlie Parker and his friends Louis and Angel, and the tragic backgrounds that led them to adopt their present vocation.  I give Connolly the benefit of the doubt here.  I assume that unless he has been a soldier in combat he has never killed anyone, so he’s doing his best to imagine a presumably foreign personality.  On the other hand, Connolly’s killers aren’t much like the only actual hired killer I know anything about.  This was from an article in a Chicago newspaper about a former mafia hit man who wrote his memoirs.  Apparently this guy wasn’t any more introspective about his line of work than a milk man or a plumber.  He killed fellow gangsters under orders from his boss because that was his job.  Most memorably, he never actually had the urge to kill anyone until he had to deal with some of the people he met as a law abiding citizen.

Crisis

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Crisis, published by Frank Gardner in 2016, is “Fast, taut, tense, accurate.  A terrific read”, according to Frederick Forsyth.  It’s pretty fast and tense and it is a good read, but I have some quibbles about the “accurate” part of the quote.  I take Forsyth’s word for it that all the secret service and weapons related aspects are accurate, but there were some questionable bits of plotting.

A British former special forces soldier, now an intelligence operative, is sent to Columbia to investigate the murder of a local British agent.  The dead man, in the course of gathering information about drug smuggling, apparently discovered something of major importance.

Protagonist Luke Carlton is satisfactorily brave and strong and the drug baron and his cohorts are suitably evil.  Luke has a girlfriend who works in an art gallery.  She is beautiful, loving, – and an expert in martial arts?  At the risk of spoiling a bit of the suspense for possible readers of this book, I have to say that she represents the weakest element of the plot.  First of all, she’s kidnapped by emissaries of the Colombian drug baron.  Surely, even the most diabolical South American drug smuggler doesn’t bother tracking down and kidnapping family connections of government agents in London.  Then this young woman, after being held just long enough to generate some suspense and coming to no harm, is suddenly untied by the sadistic woman who is guarding her.  There seems to be no rationale for this action, other than to provide the kidnapped girl with a chance to employ her martial arts training and escape.  Phooey.

 

Slightly Supernatural

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Shelter, published by Harlan Coben in 2011 is touted as “The Number One Bestseller”, and described as a gripping story about fifteen-year-old Mickey Bolitar, nephew of regular Coben character Myron Bolitar.  It was indeed gripping, or at least attention holding, but it also felt like something intended for the young adult market.  The teenage hero, a perfect gentlemen, bravely rushes into encounters with the worst villains a thriller writer can imagine (which makes them extremely evil) in an attempt to rescue his girlfriend.  He also meets a strange old woman whose World War II era Nazi enemy is still after her.  But since he killed her father when she was a little girl, can it really be him?  Are his grandchildren or great grandchildren carrying on the mission?

John Connolly published “A Time of Torment” in 2016.  Here also the forces of evil are extremely evil, but in this case they are members of an isolated rural community in Virginia who worship a cult object called The Dead King.  They meet their nemesis in PI Charlie Parker, who seems to be invincible since his near death experience.  Parker has two formidable sidekicks and receives extra assistance from a daughter with strange powers.  Connolly’s villains don’t merely kill people, they like to cause them mental suffering before they die.  Of all the unlikely aspects of this mildly supernatural thriller, the existence of so many people with the determination and persistence to devote themselves to causing misery might be the most unlikely.  It would be more convincing, and interesting, for the misery to be caused by people who simply don’t care about the damage they do, or don’t even notice.

 

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