Two Good Books

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It’s a pleasure to read books by experienced, masterful story tellers.  Here are two.

Daniel Silva published “The Black Widow” in 2016.  It’s so up to date that he feels the need to explain that the linking of Islamic terrorists to the Brussels district of Molenbeek in the book was coincidental.  The attacks in Paris and Brussels that were indeed carried out by residents of Molenbeek occurred after the book was written.  It’s the type of coincidence that results from a thorough study of the relevant places and political situations and makes for a convincing plot.

The black widow of the title is a young woman who seeks revenge against the Western powers after her fiance is killed fighting in Syria.  There are such young women, but in this case she’s an Arabic-speaking Israeli who is sent undercover to identify a terrorist mastermind known only as Saladin.

 

The Dying Detective, published by Leif G.W. Persson, also in 2016, shows that my decision to avoid Scandinavian authors was too hasty.  As the title indicates, the  story isn’t especially cheerful, but it isn’t permeated by gloom as are some other books I’ve read by Scandinavian writers.  Perhaps because Persson is a criminologist, his plot is long on following trails of evidence and police work, and short on creating a depressing atmosphere.  He has considerately set the action in the months June to September, so we aren’t forced to accompany the characters on interminable slogs through snow.

The  eponymous Stockholm detective is a sixty-seven year old retiree who is given a clue to the solution of a cold case while in the hospital recovering from a mild stroke.  Although the criminal raped and murdered a child, the case is subject to a statute of limitations that wasn’t modified in time for this murderer to be prosecuted, even if he’s identified.  But since Johansson’s time is now his own, he can delve into whatever interests him, and his old friends and colleagues are willing and able to help him.

Johansson hails from the north, but instead of taking advantage of this connection to immerse the reader in the usual horrors of a northern climate, Persson merely reminds us that it’s important for Johansson to have full use of his right arm in time for elk hunting season.

Isolated: Reaction of a Picky Reader

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I just finished reading the Kindle book “Isolated: A Jason King Thriller”, by Matt Rogers.  It only cost 99 cents and was moderately enjoyable, so I’m not complaining, but several comments come to mind.

First of all, the English grammar is sketchy, to say the least.  Some of it might have been on purpose, with the idea that special-forces type Jason King would express his thoughts that way.  If that was the idea, I think it was a mistake and just made him sound dumb.  Probably it was  due to inadequate proof reading.

Another odd thing about Jason King – he often repeats, in his thoughts or to others, that his amazing talents and extensive experience make it impossible for an enemy to sneak up on him (then someone comes up behind him and bashes him on the head).  He also asserts that his instincts and experience enable him to know when his enemy is out of bullets (just before said enemy takes a shot that almost kills him).  I don’t think this was meant to be funny, but it was amusing because Rogers has King dwell on his experience and talent so much, apparently not trusting the reader to get it after one or two mentions.

I assume that Rogers knows all about various types of guns, cars, and planes, but unless he’s willing to do his homework he should stay away from microbiology.  His villain here has a stock of white powder that after a single glance, King can say is anthrax spores.  A little later he calls anthrax a virus.

The appeal of this book is the non-stop action, with King mowing down bad guys right and left, some of the time with a beautiful woman at his side.  But there was a jarring note here, too.  When he first met this woman and she didn’t answer his questions, he decided that he would just have to kidnap her.

The villain supposedly was after money.  Why did that make him want to decimate the population of an Australian city with anthrax?  And although he’s provided with a motive for being annoyed with Jason King, it’s hard to see why he wanted King around, sometimes trying to kill him and at other times keeping him alive?

Summary:  Jason King is a  (very) poor man’s Jack Reacher.

Note:  The Kindle version of  Murder with a French Accent, the second Alex Kértesz mystery  will be free on Amazon from April 19th through April 23rd.

University research laboratories commonly take on applied research projects to bring in grant money to support the lab.  In this case, Alex’s lab has created a genetically engineered bacterium that could save many tons of stored grain and be worth millions to agribusiness.  His university has sold the rights to a small French biotech company that hopes the investment will raise them to a new level, but only if production goes smoothly.  The university has agreed to send Alex to Toulouse to help get things started, but the problems he encounters at Agrogénie are far from technical.  Their advertisement of their great new product has attracted a lot of attention, and not all of it from prospective buyers.

Jeffery Deaver’s James Bond

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It’s been a long time since I read one of the original James Bond books, and decided that it was too poorly written to read any more of them.  Ian Flemming had a good idea for a hero, but his Bond came off more as a two-dimensional caricature than as a character you could empathize with.

Jeffery Deaver’s Bond in Carte Blanche, published in 2011, almost leans in the opposite direction.  This James Bond, while not losing his eye for beautiful women, is newly sensitive.  When an aging beauty laments that it’s too late to find someone to replace her creepy and criminal lover, Bond asks her, “Why do you need someone?”.  This is definitely not the old male chauvinist James Bond.

The most faithfully preserved aspect of the Bond series is the product placement, from brand names and details of fast cars, fancy watches and elegant clothes to vintage wines and exotic whiskeys.  The plot, which sends Bond to Dubai and South Africa, is also old style, with Bond risking life and limb to save thousand of lives (and British interests) from a colorful cast of evil-doers.

What you always wanted to know about hiring out as a killer and were (for good reason) afraid to ask

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John Connolly writes a lot about professional killers.  In The Reapers, published in 2008, he provides a virtual manual of the trade, including the etiquette required among the practitioners and between the killers and their victims.  For one thing, associates of victims are supposed to distinguish between the hired killer, who is merely a weapon, and the person who hired him and is therefore the one really responsible for the death.  Also, a paymaster who is actually under contract to the government should be recognized as not acting out of personal interest, and is out of bounds.  Not surprisingly, this system seems to work only slightly better than your average set of rules and regulations.

Connolly’s assassins tend to be soulful and philosophical.  In this book we learn something about the backgrounds of his characters Detective Charlie Parker and his friends Louis and Angel, and the tragic backgrounds that led them to adopt their present vocation.  I give Connolly the benefit of the doubt here.  I assume that unless he has been a soldier in combat he has never killed anyone, so he’s doing his best to imagine a presumably foreign personality.  On the other hand, Connolly’s killers aren’t much like the only actual hired killer I know anything about.  This was from an article in a Chicago newspaper about a former mafia hit man who wrote his memoirs.  Apparently this guy wasn’t any more introspective about his line of work than a milk man or a plumber.  He killed fellow gangsters under orders from his boss because that was his job.  Most memorably, he never actually had the urge to kill anyone until he had to deal with some of the people he met as a law abiding citizen.

Black Friday

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Black Friday, published by William W. Johnstone (with J.A. Johnstone) in 2016, Is an unapologetically retro  thriller, and I enjoyed it.  The Johnstones don’t bother explaining the obvious, namely that most Moslems aren’t terrorists.  They just create a suspenseful scenario in which a group of Moslems who ARE terrorists take over a giant shopping mall on the most crowded shopping day of the year.

The structure of the plot involves first presenting the individual characters who are planning to be at the mall on the fateful day, ranging from a young punk taking a rare outing with his little sister, to the wheel-chair bound old man he tried to burgle only a few days earlier.  After presenting the personal stories that will make us care about the characters who will be trapped by the terrorists, the authors jump into the action.  The terrorists are bloodthirsty, the crowds  panic, and since such a large crowd will certainly include some people with military or law-enforcement experience, there is also some resistance.  It’s well done, and also makes some points about the conflict between the demands of political correctness and the need to protect the public.

 

And Now – Young Co-Authors

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The Rule of Four, published by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason in 2004, is a book co-authored by two young men who adopt a serious, rather old fashioned style that makes them sound older than their years.  I liked the correct grammar and elegant sentences, although the style goes strangely with some of the subject matter, specifically the chronicle of undergraduate hi jinks like hanging pants from a tower and the Princeton Nude Olympics.  Middle-aged writers striving for the voice of a young character take note – it’s possible for an intelligent and educated young man to sound like an elderly philosopher.  What’s really jarring is for him to sound like a backward teenager.

The Rule of Four deals with Princeton students who take on a Medieval book entitled Hypnerotomachia Poliphili as a thesis subject.  When the project was introduced I noted that in contrast to most fictional topics of this type, the book wasn’t billed as containing secrets that would save/doom the human race, overturn the entire history of the world, or any of the other ridiculous and impossible things that are so hard to live up to.  At first this was refreshing.  The book was just a book.  But then I realized why thriller writers invoke all those doomsday scenarios.  If the old book is just an old book, intriguing as it might be to try to understand it, it hardly seems worthy of life-long dedication and the sacrifice of career and family.  Scientific research can always be justified as curing disease and bettering our lives, but the poor humanist who devotes his life to understanding a random piece of history just sounds like a nut.

In the story, the book turns out to have great significance after all, redeeming all the trouble it caused.  According to the authors’ note, in reality the identity of the Medieval writer (the book actually exists), let alone the meaning, if any, of his ramblings, aren’t known.  I hope that in fact the book did no more than stymie a few undergraduates, and the life-long dedication of several of the characters to its mysteries was fictional.

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?).