NOT Agatha Christie

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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.

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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.

The Guilty

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The Guilty, published by David Baldacci in 2015, is another in his long series of successful thrillers.  Will Robie, the hero of this story, is one of Baldacci’s stock characters, as is his partner Jessica Reel. The two are a pair of good looking, highly moral, conscientious, and dedicated – assassins, working for an agency that sounds like the CIA.

The Guilty isn’t the first time that Baldacci has turned to the back story of one of the assassins for plot material.  In this case, Robie’s estranged father is in jail in his home town in Mississippi, accused of murder, providing sufficient motive for Robie to go back there twenty years after leaving.  Although Robie and Reel aren’t detectives, their survival skills ensure that at least no one will succeed in killing them before they find out what’s going on.

The surprise ending depends on yet another example of a writer invoking a highly improbable, not to say impossible, change in appearance.  How can you bring in a character that should have been recognizable to people who knew him or her very well, without anyone having a clue who they really are?  How about plastic surgery, an adult growth spurt adding two inches of height, and changing eye color by laser treatment (is that even possible?).

 

Moskva and The Cinderella Murder

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Moskva, published by Jack Grimwood in 2016, deserves the hype on its cover.  It’s a very well done Cold War thriller about an English army intelligence officer who is asked to find the missing daughter of the British ambassador in Moscow.  Not only is it set in 1986; it also has lengthy flashbacks to the Battle of Stalingrad and World War II Berlin, and some bits about the English conflict in Ireland and the Russian’s fighting in Afghanistan.

The marvelous achievements of modern technology make it hard to set such a stirring tale in the here and now, when cell phones and surveillance cameras make it nearly impossible for a hard-working criminal or terrorist to have any privacy.  The writer has either to be very knowledgeable about computers in all their manifestations, or to set his thriller in a remote part of the world (remote from most of his readers, that is), which has its own challenges.

The Cinderella Murder, published in 2014 by May Higgins Clark and Alafair Burke, is a murder mystery that also deals with a crime that took place in the past.  The premise is that a television true crime documentary brings back the cast of characters involved in the twenty-year-old unsolved murder of a pretty young actress on her way to an audition.  There are plenty of possible motives for murder among the assembled company, including an actress competing with the murdered girl, the unscrupulous leader of a mega-church and his followers, and a couple of silicon valley types who own a lucrative company with murky origins.

Clark and Burke do a plausible job of describing the Silicon Valley company, without going into great detail.  Maybe one of them has enough expertise for this, and maybe the way to go for authors who aren’t very conversant with the latest in technology is to have a technical consultant on hand.

Summary:  Both books were good reads.

 

 

Daisy in Chains

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Sharon Bolton’s “Daisy in Chains”, published in 2015, is definitely a thriller, but the cover blurb is misleading.  It says, “Would you fall for a serial killer?  Three of his victims did…”  That’s not a true description of what happens in this story, which does, however, involve a serial killer.  The actual plot reaches extremes of unlikelihood, but is so well done and intriguing that I won’t spoil it for possible readers by revealing the true version of events.

The cast of characters includes a handsome doctor who has been convicted of a series of murders of overweight young women, the police detective who serendipitously found the evidence to put him away, and a lovely female lawyer who has succeeded in overturning the convictions of several convicted murderers.  She doesn’t believe that the men she freed were innocent, only that their convictions were improper due to shortcomings by the prosecution, so there’s no reason why she shouldn’t take on the case of the convicted doctor.

Bolton does a good job describing a variety of character types, from domineering parents to body-image-conscious young women, and from men who know they’re  handsome to the nutty groupies who are attracted to them even if they kill people.

Memory Man

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David Baldacci’s books always make for enjoyable reading, and Memory Man, published in 2015, is no exception.  Amos Decker, the protagonist of this story, is a Baldacci character I haven’t met before, a former football player whose severe head injury left him with an altered brain.  Following his brain trauma Decker’s memory is literally perfect – he can never forget anything he ever saw.  This is invaluable in his subsequent career as a police detective.  Fortunately he’s observant, because of course he can’t remember things he never noticed.

In Memory Man, Decker is pitted against a psychopathic killer who seems to have a very personal grudge against him.  But how can there be such a person if Decker has no memory of his supposed offense?

The plot reminded me of how humdrum actual homicide cases must be to force murder mystery authors to dream up such convoluted motives.  In real life husbands murder wives because of jealousy, wives murder husbands to run off with their lovers, and greedy people murder each other for money.  How boring.

Fear the Worst

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Fear the Worst, published by Linwood Barclay in 2009, is a well written mystery/thriller based on two popular themes.  One much-loved type of story features an every man who rises to the occasion when things get tough and performs as well as a professional detective.  Tim Blake is such an every man, someone who is perfectly suited to the life he used to have, namely making a modest living selling cars.  His comfortable life begins to unravel when his wife decides that if he’s good at selling cars, he can just as well run a dealership or several and make more money.

This reasonable sounding but unfortunately flawed idea eventually leads to failure and divorce, providing the introduction to the second popular theme explored in this book, namely, a series of relatively innocuous actions leading to catastrophe.  Only in this variation it’s not even anything that Tim or his now ex-wife do that puts their lives in danger, but mistakes made by two of their teenage daughter’s friends.  One of them is a nice boy who’s good with computers and is tempted to make some easy money to finance a new laptop.  The second is a girl who has been raised by a negligent, alcoholic mother and would really like to have a dad.

There is also a third theme, which I suspect is less a useful fictional device than an actual fact of life.  I’m talking about the almost obligatory part of any murder mystery where the police suspect the first person they see.  I find this plausible because of my belief in the law of averages, in the sense that just as naturally most people are average, members of any given profession tend toward the average.  In the case of police detectives, someone of average dedication and talent will find it easier to suggest some sort of motive to fit a person who’s at hand than to start from zero and discover motive, suspects, and opportunity.

If I ever stumble across a body, I’ll be seriously worried.

p.s.  From Wednesday, September 14 through Sunday, September 18, the Kindle version of The Wish to Kill, the first Alex Kértesz mystery will be free on Amazon.  This is the book that introduces the Hungarian-born Israeli scientist and presents his first challenge to solve a murder, if it is a murder.