City of Endless Night

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I enjoyed reading City of Endless Night, the latest Preston and Child mystery featuring FBI agent Aloysius Pendergast, but I’m not sure it lived up to the claim by one reviewer that it’s the best of the series, which now numbers seventeen books.

The authors have a winning formula that continues to entertain.  They have an attractive and interesting protagonist in agent Pendergast.  The characters in the supporting cast are well developed, from police detective Vincent D’Agosta, who works with Pendergast, to annoying reporter Bryce Harriman.  They provide detailed settings, in this case locations in and around New York City.  There is plenty of extreme action and suspense.

But there are pitfalls to writing so many books with the same framework, and one of them is the strain on originality.  There is a religious fanatic in this book who provides a similar subplot to one previously used, and is even neutralized by the same policewoman.  The tendency for anyone who is connected to Pendergast to die a gruesome death has reached an appalling level.   And although the agent is an almost-super hero, the ploy that saves him in his final confrontation with the villain is too far fetched even for him.

There is clearly going to be another book in the series, and I look forward to finding out if there are any strange plot permutations left in Preston and Child’s bag of tricks.

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I’m worried about Pendergast

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I read one of the Preston and Child thrillers featuring FBI agent Aloysius Pendergast some time ago, but after picking up another one recently I found myself with a minor addiction to the strange but fascinating detective and went on to read most of the series, which after the latest release two days ago numbers seventeen books.

Preston and Child have done amazingly well with this character, who is extreme in appearance (very tall and very fair), intellect, and personality (the manner of a very old fashioned southern gentleman).  They clearly feel at home with him by now, and as the series advances they put him through his paces with increasing confidence.

I’m sure I’ll order the latest book, but I’m afraid that Pendergast might be slipping over the edge from being just unbelievable enough to be impressive to becoming a caricature.  In the preview to the new book, the detective called to a murder site at night spots an intruder crouching near the back fence of the property.  This turns out to be his old friend Pendergast, officially sent by the FBI to join the investigation.  Why didn’t he come in at the front and present himself in the normal way?  The reply is that since he has to take part in what he expects to be an uninteresting case, he may as well make an entrance.  What??  A forty-something year old (at least) man just feels like scaling a fence in the dark and perhaps being shot by the police?  This isn’t an eccentric character, this is a ridiculous weirdo.

I’m hoping for the best, but I’m worried.  It must be hard to stay within the lines and not let an unusual character go spiraling off into the wild blue yonder.

Shame on You, Preston and Child!

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Preston and Child write terrific thrillers.  Special agent Aloysius Pendergast is a fascinating hero who has appropriately been  compared to Sherlock Holmes.  But no writer, and especially writers talented enough to manage without sleazy tricks, should corrupt the biography of real people to further a plot.

In Fever Dream they piggy-back on the fame of painter and ornithologist John James Audubon in the service of a plot about a creativity-enhancing form of bird flu.  Now many thousands of readers, even if they realize that the real Audubon was naturally a supremely talented and accomplished artist and naturalist, wont be able to help associating him with a strange story of illness and insanity.  Shame on you, Preston and Child!

I never quite understood why fiction writers employ researchers, since it seemed to me that tracking down and learning about places, history, etc. as background to a story is fun.  I caught a glimmer of the place of research assistance through the Pendergast series.  The agent knows everything there is to know about fine wines, clothes, art, and furnishings, not to mention literature, music, and ancient languages.  Either Preston and Child are two of the world’s most amazing Renaissance men or they employ a whole team of researchers.

The Spy House

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The Spy House, published by Matthew Dunn in 2015, is a competently written thriller and one of the most annoying books I’ve ever read.  I’m sure I’ve read some other Dunn thrillers featuring joint MI6 and CIA agent Will Cochrane, but this one made more of an impression because the plot is over-the-top ridiculous and Dunn, according to the book’s cover, is a former MI6 officer who must know better.

The plot was obviously taking an odd direction when the assembled personnel at a White House meeting agree that Israel is a “rabid dog”.  This seems a bit extreme as a consensus about a democratic ally, although certainly possible.  But it turns out that Israel is literally crazy.  The Israeli ambassador to France has been assassinated and Israel believes that this was done by Hamas and intends to wipe out Hamas in Gaza in retaliation.

Let’s ignore, for the moment, that when hundreds of rockets were launched into Israel from Gaza, this being not probably but indubitably the responsibility of Hamas, Israel, for it’s own sake, was determined not to wipe out Hamas and saddle itself with Gaza.

According to Dunn’s scenario Israel intends, at the same time as it attacks Hamas in the south, to attack both Hizballah, in Lebanon to the north (an entirely separate entity to Hamas) and the Palestinian Authority to the East.  In other words, Israel plans to start wars simultaneously on three fronts.  And it announces these plans two weeks in advance to the assembled bureaucrats of the U.S., Britain, and France (i.e. to the whole world).  This would really require Israelis to be mad dogs, just as likely as pit bulls to chase you down the street and sink their teeth into your ankle.

The United States, Britain and France are worried that if Israel goes to war it will cause havoc in the Middle East, because Sunnis will start fighting Shiites.  The reader is not supposed to have noticed that at the time of the book’s publication there was already havoc in the Middle East, and that Sunnis and Shiites started fighting without waiting for Israel to attack them both (and wouldn’t this be more likely to make them stop fighting each other and cooperate against their common enemy?)

Dunn’s plot clearly isn’t meant to be entirely realistic.  His protagonist is almost a super-hero, and he inhabits a fictionalized spy world in which a master spy might have all of his antagonist’s friends and family killed just to make him feel bad.  Dunn may have thought that there was no point thinking up a realistic plot for this kind of book.  I disagree with that.  Realistic would be good, and even barely plausible would be better than completely ridiculous.

Another possibility is that Dunn simply assumed that his readers either wouldn’t notice or wouldn’t care.

My best guess – Dunn entrusted the plot to an early version of a computer program, something like “Plot-a-Thriller 1.0”, gave it as key words Israel, Hamas, Hizballah, and Gaza, and pressed “enter”.

 

 

Great Writers are Great Psychologists

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Great writers are great psychologists.  Aside from command of language, imagination, etc., the best writers have the ability to submerge their own personalities completely and create consistent characters wholly unlike themselves.  In the second rank of talented writers who don’t pretend to be great are those with likable personalities that come through to readers and help to make their books enjoyable.

Dick Francis is an example of the latter, a good writer whose kind, brave, and gentlemanly personality shines through and makes the reader care about his heroes.  As shown by “Triple Crown”, published by Felix Francis in 2016, Felix, who was a co-writer on his father’s later books, doesn’t quite come up to the mark.  Of course he’s a generation younger, but his updating of the formula doesn’t add anything worthwhile.  He abandons his father’s old fashioned sensibilities regarding coarse language and bathroom humor, to no positive result. The one major female character has sex appeal but no personality, and protagonist Jeff Hinkley isn’t particularly admirable or likable.

One good quality of the Dick Francis books that Felix has adopted is doing his homework.  Dick Francis was able to speak knowledgeably about horse racing and training, newspaper writing, and running a charter air company, but often chose other lines of work for his protagonists, always learning enough about them to be convincing.  For Triple Crown, Felix Francis has learned a lot about the transmission and effects of equine viruses.

The plot takes British Horseracing Authority investigator Hinkley to the U.S. to hunt corruption in the competition for the Triple Crown, and is quite good.

Note:

Mystery Time will be offered as a free Kindle book on Amazon from June 26th to June 30th.  In this Alex Kertész mystery, a colleague dies in Alex’s arms at a biochemistry congress in Prague and an old watch may have mysterious powers.

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.