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.
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, 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.
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.
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.