The Madman’s Tale

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The Madman’s Tale, published by John Katzenbach in 2004, is a very well written mystery/suspense story told mostly from the point a view of a certified schizophrenic.  The challenge here is to see things as the schizophrenic does, which is a little like trying to write from the point of view of a psychopath or homicidal maniac, made slightly easier by the possibility of talking to an actual schizophrenic without requiring armed guards.

In this story Francis Petrel, a young man who hears voices, is committed to a mental hospital where a young nurse is brutally murdered.  The female prosecutor who arrives to investigate has the cooperation of the two men who found the body, a fireman who has committed a crime of conscience and been sent for observation and Francis, who is saner than most of the other inmates and whom the fireman has befriended. Actually, the voices Francis hears in his head are the sorts of thoughts and responses that go through everybody’s head, such as, Run!  Hide!  This is a bad idea!  Francis is certifiably insane because he hears these things rather than just thinking them, and the voices all talk at the same time.  This may be a description of a rather benign form of schizophrenia, but I can see that it would still cause a mental mess.

The hospital is described as a depressing place but one where people are mostly trying to do their jobs, and if the two doctors in charge aren’t concerned about justice for the probably innocent inmate who’s been arrested, it’s mainly because their overriding interest is to avoid problems for themselves.

The murderer must be either a patient or an employee of the hospital, but there is no easy way to figure out who it is.  An annoying aspect of the writing was young Francis periodically thinking that as a bona fide lunatic himself, he’s achieved some profound insight into the thinking of their murderer, followed by a comment like, “he must be smart”, or “we can tell that he isn’t afraid,” pronouncements that the prosecutor and the fireman seem to appreciate.  It reminded me of an old joke from the time when PC users were frustrated by attempts to get assistance from Microsoft Help:

A small plane approaches Seattle in a thick fog.  The pilot has no idea where he is until he spots an office building poking out of the mist.  As he flies past a lighted window, he shouts to the man at the desk inside, “Where is this?”

“It’s the accounting department!” the office worker shouts back.

Now the pilot can find the airport, because the reply told him immediately that he was at the Microsoft building.  That’s because the reply was perfectly accurate and completely useless.

 

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Oops! Wrong Book!

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Deathlist, published by Chris Ryan in 2016, is mainly about disgusting people being killed in disgusting ways.  I did read it, skimming in parts, but I can’t say that I enjoyed it.  For those who aren’t attracted by the disgusting aspects there is a straightforward plot (at least until the very end) of soldiers taking revenge on terrorists who assassinated a bunch of special forces trainees at an exercise in England, including details of how the perpetrators were captured and all vehicles and weapons involved.  The book doesn’t have much else to recommend it, since the avenging soldiers are great at killing and torture but are worthless in the conversation department.

At first glance the personalities of the avengers might seem realistic, but I’m not sure that’s the case.  My counter example is a book I read years ago by a retired British mercenary whose name I can’t remember.  He had to leave his special forces unit ( I think he wasn’t great at following orders) and spent some years as a mercenary, during which time he trained soldiers in various Middle Eastern and African countries and also was hired by some governments for other purposes.  On one of his missions he was one of a group hired to capture or kill (I don’t remember which) a Basque terrorist the Spanish government was anxious to be rid of but wanted to distance itself from the ridding.  His memoir was fascinating and very well written and although he doesn’t come across as a “nice guy”, he’s a far cry from the thuggish bunch presented by Ryan.

 

Gone Tomorrow

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I was lucky enough to come across a Jack Reacher thriller from 2009 that I hadn’t read.  Lee Child’s “Gone Tomorrow” has plenty of all the elements that have made this series so successful, including an intriguing plot, well-drawn characters, and especially, the almost stream of consciousness reports of Reacher’s observations of every detail of his surroundings, the habit that is one of the bases of his consistent victories over bad guys.  The other important reason that he always come out on top is, of course, his great size combined with superior fighting skills.

In this book, Reacher notices that a fellow passenger on a late night New York subway train displays all of the characteristic signs of a suicide bomber, from the inappropriate bulky clothing to the apparently heavy bag and traumatized look.  He becomes inextricably involved in the plot when he tries to intervene.

Another common element in Reacher’s adventures is the bad behavior of law enforcement agencies.  Do police and various government agencies really run rough shod over the rights of citizens?  Unfortunately, this premise is quite believable.

This is the only occasion I’ll have to voice my complaint about Hollywood’s version of Reacher, so here it is.  Why did they have to chose Tom Cruise for the title role?  Yes, he’s charismatic.  Yes, he’s a good actor.  But he’s a relatively small man who is completely wrong, physically, for the part.  Aren’t there any bankable large male actors?

The Fire Child

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The Fire Child, published by S.K. Tremayne in 2016, is an odd book that I bought by mistake.  A mistake, because it was billed as a thriller, but turned out to be more of a Gothic romance.  Poor girl marries dark, handsome, and rich widower and moves into his crumbling and isolated ancestral mansion with his fragile young son and slightly dotty old mother.  Unfortunately, the Bronte sisters and Daphne du Maurier did it first and better, and managed without the information overload about the couple’s sex life.

The new young wife waxes poetic about just about everything and at great length, in true Gothic style, but continually strikes a jarring note by the grammatical error of using “like” in place of “as if”.  For example, “I am totally alone.  It’s like no else exists.”  Does she do this on purpose?  Is it supposed to be a sign of the woman’s youth or of her low class background?  But she’s supposed to be thirty, not thirteen and to have done well at school. Whatever the reason, it’s like, totally, out of keeping with the Gothic atmospherics.

The best part of the book is the setting on the coast of Cornwall.  I probably had come across some facts about Cornwall, but I certainly didn’t remember, if I ever knew it, that it was so rich in minerals, especially tin and copper.  I also didn’t know that there was a Cornish language, hints of which are given by the exotic and intriguing place names.  A number of old photographs are included in the book.  Maybe if they were larger they would do more justice to what must be spectacular scenery.

 

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.

 

 

The Last Lie

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The Last Lie, published by Stephen White in 2010, isn’t really either a thriller or a murder mystery.  It’s actually a rape mystery.  What makes it unique for me, though, is that the protagonist is a clinical psychologist, like the author, and writes from a personal point of view.  Every encounter entails detailed analysis of everybody’s facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice.  Most people probably register such things, but much of it is unconscious and not so thorough.  You might think, “I get the impression that she doesn’t believe me,” or “something seems to be bothering him this morning.”  Of course if you want to explain your conclusions to a reader you might want to describe every little sign that you took into account.

The continual in depth analysis of almost every remark anyone makes has a definite effect on the style of writing.  In particular, it’s impossible to give the impression of a fast-paced plot and provide on-going analysis of each character’s psychological state at the same time.

I was once given a tip about writing that seems so obvious, once you think about it, that I immediately took it to heart.  The tip I now pass on is that if you’re trying to give the impression that an incident happened quickly, don’t describe it in a long-winded way.  Writing about a mugging, for example, you might say, “She barely had time to register movement behind her before a violent shove knocked her to the sidewalk.  Her purse was snatched out of her hand as she fell and a pair of legs in jeans and sneakers flashed by as she hit the sidewalk.”

Alternatively, you could write, “She barely had time to register a change in the shadows formed by the moonlight shining through the leafy trees that lined the road before a hand in the exact center of her back shoved her with enough force to push her off her feet.  She fell to the sidewalk of the quiet residential street, only a few yards from the path leading to the door of a brick house whose dark windows indicated that no one was home.  As she fell she thought, ‘Oh no!  He’s going to take my purse, and I just took my shopping money out of the ATM!’  Sure enough, her purse was snatched out of her hand in spite of her attempt to resist, and whatever else the mugger was wearing as protection against  the evening chill, all she could see as he ran by her was a pair of legs in jeans that looked dark blue in the poor light and a pair of sneakers that also looked dark blue, but might have been black.”

I’m exaggerating to make the point, but doesn’t the second version seem to happen in slow motion?

P.S.  The book has what I assume is supposed to be a happy ending – everybody’s in therapy.

 

 

The Hostage

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W.E.B. Griffin’s  “The Hostage”, published in 2006, is another thriller that’s probably especially attractive to men, in this case because of all the technical specifics of aircraft and military hardware provided by someone who obviously knows what he’s talking about. The intricate plot ranges from money laundering in South America to profiteering in the oil-for-food program following the Iraq war and was entertaining enough to make the book number 1 on the New York Times bestseller list.

The hero of the story is a character who was apparently introduced in previous books, Major Carlos G. Castillo, a.k.a. Karl W. Gossinger.  And here’s where I have a small problem with the book, bestseller or not.  Never mind the wildly improbable conjunction of circumstances that led to the dual identity of Castillo as a descendant of both Austrian landed gentry and Hispanic Texas oil barons;  I’m a firm believer in creating interesting characters by hook or by crook.  But once the writer has imagined a character with such intriguing possibilities, he has to make him convincing.  Castillo is able to enlighten his comrades about some aspects of European history (that anyone who payed attention in high school should have known) and demonstrates knowledge of German and Spanish.  He even knows Hungarian, taught to him by an aunt who seems to have popped up for that purpose.  But nothing about his manner of speaking or thinking fits the exotic background.

The story is told largely from Castillo’s point of view, and everything about his personality and the way he expresses himself is thoroughly American.  Yes, he moved to Texas at the age of twelve (the elderly aunt must have strapped the rambunctious boy into a chair to make him sit still long enough to learn Hungarian, a language unrelated to any other he might have known), but without any distinction in personality between Castillo and any other larger-than-life American thriller hero, the bits of knowledge and family connections don’t become an integral part of the story.  Ideally, I would have hoped for a more unique personality to go along with the unique history.