Too many coincidences


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.


French page-turner


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.

Pretty Girls


The quote by Lee Child on the cover of Pretty Girls, published by Karin Slaughter in 2015, says, “Stunning…Certain To Be A Book Of The Year.”  Karin Slaughter is talented, but this book is stunning for some of the wrong reasons.

The psychopathic serial killer is more sadistic than Hannibal Lector.  The entire law enforcement hierarchy of the area is not only untrustworthy, but addicted to snuff porn.  When the killer decides to fake his own death (we don’t learn exactly why), he is able to organize an extravaganza involving an attacker, doctors and ambulance attendants, police, morticians, and probably several other players I’m forgetting.  He’s also over-the top organized.  This was a jarring note – it’s hard for me to hate someone whose papers are always neatly filed and has maintenance details neatly taped to all his appliances.

The pretty girls of the title are three sisters who are targeted by the killer.  This is unfortunate from a literary standpoint because the plot brings to mind “A Kiss Before Dying”, Ira Levin’s 1953 classic that was twice made into a movie.  In that haunting story a fairly ordinary young man courts a pretty fellow student from a rich family, the family wealth being a large part of the attraction.  As I recall the plot, when premarital pregnancy threatens to cause the family to cut her off, the only solution he can think of is to push her off a roof before they can find out.  The  grieving fiance is brought close to the family, giving him the opportunity to meet the dead girl’s two sisters.

THAT book was truly stunning.


When She Was Bad


When She Was Bad, published by Tammy Cohen in 2016, could be called a psychological thriller, but has too little action to fit the definition of thriller.  It’s more of a psychological horror story, in which a fairly random group of not very interesting or attractive people, each with a set of problems, work together in an office at a big company and are subjected to the additional stress of getting a tough new boss.

In alternate chapters we learn about the fraught personal situation of each character.  There is also an additional character, a psychologist who decades earlier was involved in the disposition of two children, a boy and a girl, who had been traumatized by extreme parental abuse.  The suspense is provided by wondering which of the characters in the office is not just dumb or neurotic, but is actually unhinged as a result of his or her childhood experience.

It was well done, if a bit long (377 pages) for a story that had no compelling characters in it.  Maybe the most interesting aspect of it was the picture of workplace relationships, and the way people who wouldn’t be likely to socialize with each other are often forced to develop some sort of relationship because they have to work together.

Still Life


Joy Fielding’s “Still Life”, published in 2009, explores an intriguing variation on the theme of reality TV.  Of course, the trouble with actual reality TV is that it’s 100% TV and very little reality.  Working hard to suspend disbelief, it’s possible to imagine that you’re watching people who think that no one is watching, when actually you know that they know that they’re being watched at all times, and by the more people the better as far as they’re concerned.

But suppose that you were lying in a hospital bed, thought to be in a coma but actually able to hear everything that is said around you.  What sorts of things might you learn about the people who visit you as they talk to each other as if you weren’t there and as they talk to you, assuming that you can’t hear or understand them?  You might learn that the accident that nearly killed you wasn’t an accident, and you might even find out who arranged it to look like one.  But what’s the use of all this information if you can’t do anything about it?

That’s the predicament in which Casey Marshall finds herself.  The worst of it is that the person who wanted to kill her still wants her dead, and since she can neither move nor speak, finishing the job should be easy.

Critical Mass


Sara Paretsky is a bestselling author and Critical Mass, published in 2014, is another entertaining offering featuring feisty Chicago private eye Vic (short for Victoria) Warshawski.

The title refers to the historical element of the plot, which involves the research leading to the development of the atomic bomb during World War II.  Paretsky explains at the end of the book that the story was inspired by an article that she happened to see about an Austrian physicist named Marietta Blau, who did groundbreaking research in cosmic ray physics in the 1930s.   This woman, who was nominated for the Nobel prize several times by Erwin Shrödinger, was one of the women and Jews fired by the Institut für Radiumforshung in Vienna after the Anschluss.  She manged to leave Europe just before war broke out, when Albert Einstein finally succeeded in arranging a position for her at a high school in Mexico City.  So she survived, but her career as a front line researcher was over.

Paretsky was so haunted by this story that she wove it into her detective thriller by sending Warshawski to look for a missing young man, a computer genius who is the great grandson of an Austrian woman physicist whose career was ended by the Anschluss and the war.

Paretsky’s explanation of the background to her story struck a chord, because I have had the experience of being so impressed by something I read that I wanted to talk about it in my writing.  I’m not comparing myself to Sara Paretsky in any way, but I know exactly how she felt about the story she happened to come across.  In my case, it was the memoirs of a French aristocrat who lived in the eighteenth century.

This Frenchman, Louis-Joseph-Amour, Marquis de Bouillé, was a young officer at the time of the revolution.  He was one of the loyalist troops who were assigned to help king Louis and Marie Antoinette escape from Paris, but they were caught before they reached his station.  He fought against Napoleon, was involved in the diplomatic intrigues of the royalists, and lived for a while as an exile in England.  The amazing thing about his memoirs is that he wrote so naturally and honestly that the distant times and circumstances of his life become as accessible as the story of the guy next door. I tell part of his story in “Mystery Time”, in which a fictional character based on him appears as a past owner of a stolen antique watch with mysterious qualities.

Paretsky’s PI Warshawski has an appropriate circle of supporters, including an equally feisty old man who is her neighbor, two dogs, and a boyfriend who plays bass.  What stays with me to haunt me from Paretsky’s story is the bit about the bass player serenading Warshawski with a lullaby.  I periodically try, but fail, to imagine how that lullaby sounded.

The Sugar House


I enjoyed Laura Lippman’s “The Sugar House”, but I’m only moved to talk about it because it’s such a contrast to Thursday’s Child, the last book I mentioned.  Lippman brings her protagonist to life.  She’s a thirty-year old private eye in Baltimore who started out as a reporter on a local paper.  She’s pushy and amusing, a convincing personality type.  She has a believable one (1) man who is in love with her and there is an occasional attempt by other men to hit on her, totally plausible for any presentable young woman.

The story begins when she’s hired to determine the identity of an anonymous murdered girl, and becomes complicated when she succeeds, with the help of her socialite best friend and a cooperative police detective.  Along the way we explore some feminist themes, including the problem of negative self-image among teenage girls, and become maybe better acquainted than we would like with the sleazy nature of Baltimore politics.