Category Archives: Crime Novels

A novel of suspense set in Dublin that will keep you guessing until the end


A review of The Silver Swan, by Benjamin Black

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

The Booker Prize-winning Irish author John Banfield, aka Benjamin Black, writes a series of offbeat crime stories about a Dublin-based pathologist named Quirke. The Silver Swan is the second of the five novels he’s written to date. It’s also the first that I’ve read — and it won’t be the last.

Like many of the best crime writers, Black focuses on character, atmosphere, and language as much as on plot. The sure hand of a master stylist is very much in evidence in The Silver Swan. You’ll see it in the dialogue, where the individual speech patterns of his characters are distinctive, and in his lyrical descriptions of Dublin in the rain. If you read this book to the end, you might think you’ve gotten to know Quirke, and you may like him. You might also have a sense of Dublin, even if you’ve never been there.

In The Silver Swan, Quirke is approached by someone he knew (and disliked) at university with a strange request: presenting himself as an old friend, Billy Hunt asks Quirke not to do a postmortem on his young wife, Deirdre, who has apparently committed suicide by drowning herself in the ocean. Billy explains that he just couldn’t stand the thought that her beautiful body would be cut up by knives. For no particular reason — Quirke understands irrational impulses, his own among others — he has every intention of granting Billy’s wish until he discovers the puncture mark of a needle on the young woman’s arm. He’s forced to proceed — and learns, of course, that Deirdre was not a suicide.

In a more traditional crime novel, Quirke would probably join his colleagues in the police in a hunt for the killer, no doubt proving himself a far cleverer detective than the professionals. That’s not what transpires in The Silver Swan. Although he worked with a senior officer on another case (the subject of Black’s first crime novel, Quirke has no formal connection to the police, known as the Garda in Ireland. To prevent Billy Hunt from discovering what he has learned from the autopsy, Quirke lies to the Garda and lies on the stand in the coroner’s court, then undertakes his own, private investigation. This effort leads him into a troubling and complex set of interrelationships involving the murdered woman, her husband, her lover, and her lover’s husband, all the while he engages in a verbal minuet with the police inspector who understands perfectly well that Quirke had lied to him about the autopsy.

Oh, it’s a fine mess, in the best Irish tradition! This is a novel that’s likely to keep you guessing until the final pages.

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Unbearable suspense and extraordinary characters in a novel that grapples with today’s greatest ethical challenges


A review of So Much Pretty, by Cara Hoffman

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

I can’t get Alice Piper out of my head. Here she is, dashing off a 7th grade paper in English prose worthy of a graduate student. There she is again, fearlessly leaping from bar to bar on the high wire in her parents’ barn. Still again, she is deeply engrossed in a probing philosophical discussion with her parents at age 6. Alice is a bundle of special gifts, a phenomenon.

On its most fundamental level, So Much Pretty is the story of Alice Piper and her parents, from the time of her birth through her mid-teens. But this is no cookie-cutter coming-of-age novel. It’s an inquiry into ethical conduct in an age of moral ambiguity. It’s a study of rural America struggling for survival in a declining industrial economy. It’s a critique of industrial farming. And it’s a novel of suspense that relentlessly drags the reader with increasing urgency toward a conclusion that no one is likely to guess.

Alice and her parents, Gene and Claire Piper, both physicians, have moved from New York City to the upstate town of Haeden, population 2,000, driven by a compulsion to avoid the ethical complications of the city and find a simpler life on the land. Gene devotes himself to promoting organic farming and environmental awareness while Claire brings in a modest income from work at a nearby health clinic. Their “family,” close friends Michelle (“Mickey”) and Constant, both physicians too, are no longer close by. Mickey has enlisted in Doctors Without Borders and moved to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Constant (“Con”) has taken a job with a shady pharmaceutical giant to test new drugs for a salary of $300K, money he has used to buy the land where the Pipers are homesteading and to help out them and his wife from time to time.

The pivotal event in So Much Pretty takes place after Alice has entered high school. Wendy White, a likable young woman who works as a waitress in the local diner, has gone missing, and the whole town, the Pipers included, are swept up in the months-long search for her (or, as feared, her body). But the timeline in this beautifully crafted novel is twisted and turned on itself a dozen times like a cat’s cradle gone mad, so that the reader learns of the young woman’s disappearance very early in the book. Hoffman takes us on a roller-coaster ride through time, ricocheting from the early 1990s in New York City to the late 2000s in Haeden and back again, again and again, and from the perspective of one character after another. Along the way, she paints vivid pictures of many of the players in this morality play: Stacy Flynn, George Polk Award-winning big city journalist who has come to edit Haeden’s little newspaper and research the local consequences of environmental crime; Captain Alex Dino, the good-old-boy police chief who insists that only “drifters” can commit serious crime in Haeden; Wendy White, emerging from anonymity as her adolescent fat melts away and she finds her first real boyfriend.

So Much Pretty was Hoffman’s first novel to reach a wide audience. The New York Times Book Review termed it the Best Suspense Novel of 2011.

Hoffman appears to be as intriguing a character as her protagonist. Raised in upstate New York herself in a place much like Haeden, she dropped out of high school and moved to Europe, working for a time in a hotel in Athens. Back in upstate New York, where she was raised, she worked her way into a job, and ultimately a decade, as an investigative journalist for a series of newspapers; gave birth to a son; and became involved with a series of “alternative” — we used to call them “underground” — ventures,  including a “learning collective” and the long-running newspaper, Fifth Estate. Clearly, writing the story of Alice Piper came naturally to her.

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The trouble with thrillers


A review of Ghostman, by Roger Hobbs

@@@ (3 out of 5)

When you wander through your local bookstore, or a drugstore or Wal-Mart, you’ll probably pass by a rack of paperback books with lurid covers that are usually labeled as thrillers. Pick up one of these books, and what are you likely to find? A superhero cop, spy, or private investigator — one who combines the strength of an Olympic gold medalist with an IQ of 165 and the ability to outfight the biggest, baddest bad guy ever to come down the pike. Apparently, a former British naval intelligence officer named Ian Fleming started this unfortunate tradition half a century ago. Now, it seems, we can’t shake it.

Here, then, comes young Roger Hobbs with a new twist on the thriller. Hobbs’ protagonist — his hero, it would seem — is not a superhero cop, spy, or private investigator. He is, in fact, an unrepentant, lifelong armed robber and murderer who combines the strength of an Olympic gold medalist with an IQ of 165 and the ability to outfight the biggest, baddest bad guy ever to come down the pike. Oh, but this guy never murders anyone unless it’s absolutely necessary! And, in the course of Roger Hobbs’ debut novel, Ghostman, he only kills maybe six or eight guys. (He doesn’t like to murder women, we’re told. Unless it’s absolutely necessary.)

The title character is the guy on a team of bankrobbers who makes things disappear, including himself. He seamlessly shifts from one disguise to another, adopting a wide variety of names but never revealing his own. By applying makeup, coloring his hair, changing his voice and his gait, he manages to put on 20 years in an hour — and we’re expected to believe that he remains undetected even by someone sitting within two feet of him. The few people who really know him call him Ghostman. He’s rootless as well as ruthless, and he could turn up anywhere in the world there’s a huge bank job waiting.

Blood, guts, and impossibilities aside, there are a couple of things about Hobbs’ writing that are laudable. His prose flows smoothly, uninterrupted by lyrical turns of phrase to hint that he’s really a “serious” writer. And he’s clearly done a masterful job of research into the procedural niceties and the argot of bank robbery as well as the workings of Atlantic City casinos and other topics closely related to his story. And, by the way, when I say Hobbs is young, I mean young: having graduated in 2011 from Reed College, he appears to be in his early twenties.

What’s missing from Ghostman and other novels of the same ilk is soul. Though Hobbs appends an “autobiography” of his killer-hero to illustrate his motivation for doing what he does, there’s not so much as a shred of evidence that the man — or, for that matter, Roger Hobbs — ever considers the needs, the feelings, or the value of other people. As I said, no soul.

Why do these nihilistic books get written so often, let alone published? And why do we read them? (Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!) Is there some bloodthirsty streak in our national character that impels us to make heroes out of people who seem to kill for a living?

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Enough already! An open letter to Janet Evanovich


A review of Notorious Nineteen, by Janet Evanovich

@@@ (3 out of 5)

Dear Janet (if I may be so bold),

Maybe it’s me, but I doubt that. After you’ve written — what is it? 50? 51? — novels all told, I think you’re losing steam. Notorious Nineteen is, of course, the 19th in your Stephanie Plum series, and it shows. Here are a few of the most prominent signs:

  • Not one but two cars Stephanie is driving are blown up;
  • Lula consumes at least 8,000 calories of junk food in a single day;
  • Ranger rescues Stephanie from imminent death not once but twice;
  • A really bad guy gets blown up trying to kill Stephanie; and
  • Morelli and Stephanie still aren’t ready to get married after talking about it for 10 years.

Truth to tell, some of this is funny as it happens, which is why I kept reading this series of comic novels so long. But the humor is fast fading, and so is the guilty pleasure I’ve taken so long in this series.

I don’t know about you, Janet, but I’m ready to put Stephanie out to pasture at last. Appearances notwithstanding, she’s really pushing 60 now, right? Isn’t it time to lay off the staff on that assembly-line writing factory of yours and see what you can do on your own again?

Think about it. You may not be able to write anything original, but you won’t know unless you try, no?

Your erstwhile fan,

Mal Warwick

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A roller-coaster ride through the depths of depravity in rural Kansas

A review of Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

She looks like a nice person, and I have no reason to believe that she isn’t. But she writes about some of the most twisted, miserable, good-for-nothing human beings imaginable.

Dark Places, the second of Gillian Flynn’s three novels to date and the second I’ve read (after her spectacular current best-seller, Gone Girl), takes a novel approach to unraveling the truth behind a 1985 mass murder in the American Heartland known as the Satanic Ritual Murders of Kinakee. Kinakee is a small, depressed farm town in Kansas, but we learn little about the town. The murders took place in the middle of the night on the small, failing farm of the Day family, where Patty Day and her four children — 15-year-old Ben, 10-year-old Michelle, and Debby and Libby, who are eight and seven respectively — have been living on the edge of starvation. Their father, Runner, has long since fled the farm, having driven it to the point of foreclosure with a series of extravagant and unnecessary equipment purchases.

Now, 24 years later, Ben is nearing 40, serving a life sentence for the murders of his mother and sisters. Libby, now 31, who survived the murders by hiding outside in the cold, has been living from the donations sent to support her and from the meager income from her book about the murders, but now the money is nearly gone. The story unfolds in chapters that alternate between Ben’s recollections of that day in January 1985, mixed with his mother’s alternate accounts, and Libby’s discoveries as the prospect of easy money that will help her avoid getting a job draws her more and more deeply into investigating the events of that day.

Flynn writes with a sure hand, and she does an outstanding job of building suspense in what seems an effortless manner. I found myself increasingly tense as the book neared its conclusion — suspecting I knew what had happened but doubting myself because it seemed so unlikely. Unfortunately, I was right, and that contrived ending is the book’s biggest flaw. But it’s a roller-coaster ride all the way to the end and well worthwhile for the thrill.

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John Grisham’s “The Racketeer” — a walk on the dark side, for a change

A review of The Racketeer, by John Grisham

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

When you’re reading somebody’s 25th novel — the 31st of all the books he’s written — you’d be right to expect that he’d gotten the hang of writing. Especially if the guy had already sold more than a quarter of a billion copies of his work. And so it is with John Grisham’s fiendishly clever new novel, The Racketeer. It’s another winner from a man who’s been turning them out for more than two decades.

One aspect of Grisham’s fiendishness is his capacity to surprise, not just with twists and turns of plot — he’s great at that — but also by switching gears emotionally. For example, his most recent crime story before The Racketeer was The Litigators. That was a very funny book. The Racketeer isn’t (unless you have a tendency to cackle whenever a crook outsmarts the FBI). Grisham’s spare, no-nonsense style varies little, but he has a rare gift to make the most improbable characters both credible and likable. But no matter how sly and underhanded, his   leading characters are almost always guys (or gals) in white hats.

Malcolm Bannister is Grisham’s protagonist here. Bannister is a hapless small-town attorney in Virginia who seems to have lost his white hat. He’s about halfway through an unjustified ten-year sentence in the Federal pen for violating the RICO act — yet another brilliant example of the FBI’s manipulation of that misbegotten law. He is 43, a former Marine, African-American, and wicked smart. Oh, and has he got a yen to get even with the FBI!

Suffice it to say that, at the outset, this book’s title is ironic. By the end it’s anything but ironic. And all the fun lies in how Bannister gets there. If you can guess how he does it before the plot fully unfolds, you’re a better person than me.

By the way, another of Grisham’s tendencies is to show off his liberal, reformist side, and The Racketeer is no different in that respect. Here, he takes on the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Prepare to be horrified.

I’ve previously reviewed The Litigators and The Confession


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A bestselling New York Times thriller that’s worth all the fuss

A review of Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

I think I may be in love with Gillian Flynn.

This is the story of Amy Elliott Dunne and Nick Dunne, the perfect couple in the ideal marriage. It’s a storybook tale . . . or maybe it isn’t. One day Amy goes missing, and it slowly begins to dawn on you that one (or both) of the two is a sociopath. Gone Girl is plotted almost as diabolically as Catch 22. It’s near-perfect, with jaw-dropping shocks and shivers all the way to the very last page.

Amy is the Golden Girl, raised in wealth and privilege in New York’s intellectual society, brilliant and drop-dead gorgeous. She is Amazing Amy, the subject of her loving parents’ eponymous series of children’s books that instilled in a generation a powerful sense of right and wrong. Amazing Amy is everyone’s ideal.

Nick is a son of Missouri, a Tom Sawyer-like figure who grew up near Hannibal and literally once held a job impersonating Huck Finn for tourists. Himself drop-dead gorgeous and a brilliant writer, Nick is the perfect husband for the perfect woman.

As this story unfolds in Flynn’s expert hands, we learn more and more about these extraordinary people. At length, we figure out that things can’t possibly turn out well. But we can’t possibly guess how.

The style with which this thrilling tale is told is simply intoxicating. Gone Girl is one of the very best novels of of suspense I’ve ever read. For once, a novel is topping the New York Times bestseller list that isn’t (a) written on James Patterson’s assembly-line, (b) a potboiler about the rich, powerful, and famous, or (c) female S&M porn. If you have even remote interest in thrillers, read this book.


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Looking for an unconventional thriller? Read this book

A review of The Prophet, by Michael Koryta

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

I grew up in a gritty Ohio industrial town before industry fled and the rust set in. But Lima, Ohio, in the 1950s seemed a lot more like Buzz Bissinger’s Odessa, Texas, in Friday Night Lights than nearby Chambers, Ohio, of The Prophet by Michael Koryta. Even nearly 60 years ago, the racial tensions, the gangs, and the class conflicts were clearly in evidence in my home town, just as they were in Odessa decades later. Those overarching facts of life in the Rust Belt were hard to find in Chambers.

Instead, the story Koryta tells is a tale of two brothers whose lives are dominated by football and by the senseless murder of their sister 22 years ago. Adam Austin, the elder brother, now 40 and a bail bondsman, led Chambers High School to the team’s last state championship as a bruising running back who cleared the field for one touchdown after another. His younger brother, Keith, is the winning football coach with an unbeaten team that could go all the way again this year. Keith, a devoutly religious man who is as much minister to the team as coach, is married and has two young children. Adam lives with the the love of his life, his high school sweetheart, now married to a man in state prison. With the murder of his sister still vivid in his mind on a daily basis, he spends most of his time either chasing criminals or bailing them out.

Adam and Keith are suddenly shocked out of their routines when a 17-year-old woman, the girlfriend of Keith’s all-state running back, is brutally murdered the night the Chambers football team wins a place in the state finals. Rachel Bond’s death so clearly parallels their sister’s so many years ago that both brothers are drawn deeply into the unfolding investigation and the violence that follows.

The fictional town of Chambers figures in this story in its obsession with football, its economic troubles, and its location in Northeastern Ohio on the shores of Lake Erie, where rain and snow and cold penetrate every nook and cranny of life. Had Koryta delved more deeply into the underlying fissures of the town’s society, The Prophet might have achieved literary distinction. However, as a novel of suspense that holds the reader’s attention until the last mystery is solved, this book is superb.

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About that Mormon candidate on his way to the White House (no, not that one)

A review of The Mormon Candidate, by Avraham Azrieli

@@@ (3 out of 5)

Somebody had to do it, and Avraham Azrieli couldn’t resist. An author of several previous novels of intrigue and suspense, Azrieli decided to write a thriller in 2012 about — you guessed it! — a Mormon candidate for President of the U.S. One who, by the way, had a long and successful career in business as the head of an investment banking firm and served as governor of a state beginning with the letter M (Maryland, of course; what did you think?).

Naturally, this being a thriller, something awful happens to set the plot in motion: an ex-Marine loses control of his motorcycle on a treacherous mountain path above Camp David and is tossed to his death on the rocks below. Conveniently, Azrieli’s protagonist, a freelance journalist named Ben Teller, witnesses the tragedy, and he alone seems to know that the veteran’s death was no accident. Teller’s search for the killer — a mysterious white-clad biker on a white Ducati, whom everyone calls a “ghost” — soon leads him into conflict with the Mormon Church and (you guessed it again) the Mormon candidate himself, Joe Morgan.

Azrieli’s writing style is workmanlike though unexciting. Unfortunately, his skill at plotting isn’t even up to that modest level: the incident on which the plot turns — an incident that threatens Joe Morgan’s candidacy — is hard to take seriously because it seems so trivial, and the climactic plot twist that’s supposed to surprise the reader is obvious less than halfway through the book. As a thriller, then, The Mormon Candidate is not up to snuff.

However, it seems that Azrieli is far less concerned about the integrity of his fiction than he is about the accuracy of his research and reporting. That’s what makes The Mormon Candidate worth reading. For a reader (in this case, myself) who knows next to nothing about the Church of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) and its beliefs, the book is a (pardon the pun) revelation. I always wondered what went on inside those gleaming white temples! I think I have a fair idea now.

Through much of the book, Azrieli appears to be building up to a broad denunciation of the LDS church. For example, Ben Teller is finding it difficult to understand why people make such a fuss about Mormonism. From his perspective, that of a non-observant Jew, one religion is about the same as any other. An ex-Mormon tries to explain: “‘Look around you! Mormons control huge corporations, banks, the media, even Congress.'”

“‘That’s the same ugly stuff bigots say about Jews,’ Teller says.

“‘Jews are nothing compared to us. Jews have no central authority, no hierarchical structure, no single strategy they must follow. Jews are individual entrepreneurs. Jews go after personal goals, their own ideas and opinions. Latter-Day Saints can’t do that. We’re told to obey our bishop. The Mormon Church is like an army with a clear chain of command and an army of loyal soldiers.'”

Despite the build-up, however, The Mormon Candidate presents a surprisingly well-balanced view of a minority religion that has assumed far greater importance — politically, economically, and socially — than its limited numbers would suggest.


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Alligators, pythons, vampires, and gun-wielding drunks run amok in the Everglades

A review of Chomp, by Carl Hiaasen

@@@ (3 out of 5)

They’re maybe 14 years old. His name is Wahoo; he was named after the wrestler, not the fish. Hers is Tuna. Yes, the fish. So, they decide to call each other Lance and Lucille.

They live in the Everglades.

His father is an animal wrangler who supplies docile animals to TV survivalist shows that purport to show men wrestling with alligators or snakes. Hers is a drunken bum who drove her mother away to Chicago and now beats her instead of her mother.

They spend a lot of time together, but they are NOT boyfriend and girlfriend.

Now, are you getting the impression that this cockamamie story is a book for young readers?

Welcome to the world of Carl Hiaasen, a long-time columnist for the Miami Herald who has written some of the funniest novels ever on environmental themes. His adult books — there are 16 of them — are all set in Florida. As Wikipedia notes, “Hiaasen’s Florida is a hive of greedy businessmen, corrupt politicians, dumb blondes, apathetic retirees, intellectually challenged tourists, hard-luck redneck cooters, and militant ecoteurs.” That “militant ecoteur,” by the way, is a deranged ex-Governor who walked out of the capital one day long ago and went feral. He now holes up in the Everglades, eating what he can scavenge or kill and ever vigilant to threats to its flora and fauna.

Chomp is one of Hiaasen’s four novels for young adults. Like his grown-up books, Chomp is chiefly a satire, with the environment as the beneficiary. Here, the brunt of Hiaasen’s wit is Derek Badger (“NOT Beaver”), the star of a wildly popular TV show featuring him in constant danger in the wilderness from man-eating beasts. However, as Wahoo and Tuna soon learn once Badger hires Wahoo’s father for a show in the Everglades, Badger is nothing of the sort, since every encounter on his show is carefully scripted and contrived, with little or no danger to the star. The REAL danger comes from Tuna’s gun-wielding father.

As a long-time fan of Hiaasen’s adult novels, I unknowingly picked up Chomp expecting more of the same. From the outset, though, the book seemed a little simple-minded, and the humor even broader and more obvious than I’d expected. I wasn’t aware that I failed to qualify as an intended reader. Still, the book was amusing, the characters rooted in a true if cockeyed version of reality, and the plot was rich. No reader should be surprised to learn that alligators, pythons, would-be vampires, and gun-wielding drunks turn up in this story, not to mention a hedonistic Hollywood producer.

Unfortunately, the feral ex-Governor is nowhere to be found in Chomp. I missed him.

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