An American microbiologist dies on stage as he is about to lecture at a scientific congress in Prague. He was apparently stabbed by local criminals in the course of a robbery, but Professor Hildegard Kraus from Heidelberg and her colleague Alex Kértesz from Jerusalem, who hear his last words, wonder whether one of the assembled scientists might be the real killer. Whoever it was has also taken the watch the victim had borrowed from Hildegard, a treasured keepsake with an extraordinary history and, perhaps, the ability to do more than tell time.
From Wednesday, June 20th through Sunday, June 24th, Mystery Time will be available as a free Kindle book on Amazon.
Booklist said, “…Hannah has hit upon an engaging premise; a mystery series starring a research scientist working at the University of Jerusalem. She has the makings of a good series: a sympathetic hero and an intriguing, nicely evoked setting.”
The Lying Game, published by Ruth Ware in 2017, has a lot to recommend it. It’s well written and has an intriguing plot and a nicely described setting in the rural English area around a girls boarding school. That said, I wouldn’t like to read any more of her books. The reason is, I just went through 446 pages of the heroine’s non-stop emotional torture.
Her story begins when she arrives at boarding school at the age of fifteen because her mother is terminally ill. She immediately hooks up with three other girls, and together they form about as obnoxious a clique of teenage girls as you could hope to find. One of their amusements is making up lies to make fools of outsiders. She begins to narrate the story seventeen years later, by which time she apparently regrets at least some of her early behavior.
She is now married and the mother of a six month old baby girl. In keeping with the fraught emotional level that seems to characterize her life, she loves all three of her school friends and her husband and her baby. She’s called back to the area of her old school when the question of what happened to the father of one of her friends while they were at school together seems to be answered with the finding of his body. Naturally, the friend lives in an old mill house that is gradually crumbling into the river.
It was a bit of a relief, toward the end, when it seemed that actually she might not love her husband all that much.
PS. A newly edited version of Death of a Gypsy is now available in the Amazon Kindle store.
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
This book, published by Jonathan Freedland in 2015, succeeds on several levels. It’s well written, but that’s only the basis. It’s set in the Los Angeles of an alternative reality in which the US is well on the way to becoming a colony of China. Years ago there was some concern that America was being bought up, bit by bit, by Saudi Arabia. That was probably never a real threat, since the Saudis never showed any interest in taking over the world. But it’s common knowledge that the US is deeply in debt to China and Freedland provides a possible answer to the question; what if America was forced to default? Freedland describes a scenario in which the US has allowed the Chinese to take over the ports of the California coast in order to collect the money owed them at the source. Of course they have stationed quite a large number of soldiers at these sites to protect their interests. Freedland does a convincing job of imagining a Southern California in which everyone has at least a smattering of Mandarin, Chinese tunes pop up on the hit parade, and there is an uneasy equilibrium between the American authorities and the Chinese over whom they have no jurisdiction.
The plot of the book is a murder mystery that reminded me of The Night of the Generals, the 1962 classic that deals with a murder in occupied Poland during World War II. In that book by Hans Helmut Kirst, a detective with the German military police has to face the possibility of accusing a general of murder. In The 3RD Woman, the role of the detective is taken by a young female reporter whose sister was one of the victims of an apparent serial killer and who fearlessly follows the clues that seem to lead to an officer of the Chinese garrison.
I try to avoid mysteries in which the main character is an alcoholic. I know, the formula requires that the protagonist have some vulnerability/personal problem to make him/her human, but I read mysteries for entertainment, and the detective story version of the problems of an alcoholic tends to be tedious, squalid and neither interesting nor entertaining. Freedland has taken an original tack and given his heroine the problem of insomnia. While drinking usually hampers the fictional detective in his work, not sleeping does the opposite. While lack of sleep doesn’t improve a detective’s abilities, it does mean that he/she has a lot of extra working hours.
Closed Casket, published by Sophie Hannah in 2017, is the second of Hannah’s attempts to continue Agatha Christie’s mystery series featuring eccentric and brilliant Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. She has devised a plot intricate enough to mimic Christie and hasn’t done a bad job of presenting Poirot. Scotland Yard Inspector Edward Catchpool, narrator of most of the story and Poirot’s foil, is also well done. The rest of my comments explain why I will avoid Hannah’s first outing of the reimagined Poirot and any third or following volumes.
One of Christie’s great strengths was her ability to create a great variety of plausible characters, some of whom turned out to be murderers but none of whom were obviously deranged or psychopathic (and if they were, it would turn out to be a red herring). The characters chosen by Hannah to populate a Christie-style 1920’s mansion, by contrast, are uniformly weird. They’re so peculiar, in fact, that I wonder if Hannah has made them so peculiar and unsympathetic as a kind of homage by exaggeration. Because none of them are at all believable, the entire plot collapses, depending as it does on unreal people behaving more and more strangely.
Too bad. It was a good idea.
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.