Tag Archives: murder

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

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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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Christopher Buckley: Funny ha-ha, and funny strange


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A review of No Way To Treat a First Lady, by Christopher Buckley

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Humor is a funny  thing. Not long ago I introduced Christopher Buckley to an audience of about 100 people in Berkeley. (No, I didn’t go to Yale with him. This was solely on the strength of having given favorable reviews to several of his novels.) Buckley spoke off the cuff rather than read from his writing, and I found him hilarious. So did about half the audience. Some seemed to be on the verge of falling off their chairs from time to time. But the other half of the audience sat stone-faced, often with arms crossed and eyes darting right and left, apparently waiting for a chance to sneak out of the room.

All this is to say that I read No Way to Treat a First Lady, laughing all the way — and maybe you won’t. Whenever as a child I told my mother that something was funny, she would ask, “Funny ha-ha, or funny strange?” Well, this one is a little of both. No Way to Treat a First Lady tells the tale of a philandering President and a long-suffering wife who has, apparently, murdered him in his sleep. See what I mean?

Christopher Buckley’s humor is grounded in such situations, not too many steps removed from reality. Don’t get me wrong. The leading characters in this novel in no way resemble two recent residents of the White House. And the supporting cast would be a better fit in a Marx Brothers film than in today’s Washington, DC: the best criminal defense lawyer money can buy, who incidentally was the jilted law-school lover of the First Lady; a blonde Court TV superstar, who is the current, much-younger squeeze of the self-important defense lawyer; bumbling rival trial attorneys; and a motley assortment of FBI and Secret Service agents and White House hangers-on. Even so, you can practically see them behind today’s headlines.

I won’t spoil the story by summarizing the plot, which is deliciously complex and as full of surprises as a best-selling thriller. You deserve the chance to discover it on your own.

Forewarned, then, that I think Christopher Buckley is one of the funniest writers currently walking the planet, I commend you to my previous reviews of his books: Little Green Men, Florence of Arabia, The White House Mess, and They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? If you read (or have read) these reviews, you know that I don’t think they’re all equally good — Florence of Arabia, for example, was just a little too real for me.

Pretty soon I’m going to run out of Buckley’s books, and I’ll just have to start reading them all over again.

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John Sandford’s latest best-seller: Murder on the run in rural Minnesota

A review of Mad River, by John Sandford

@@@ (3 out of 5)

Virgil Flowers is not my kind of guy.

For starters, Virgil is a “pistol-packing, shit-kicking” type who drives a pickup and loves fishing, hunting, and arguing in bars about the best country singer of all time. The son of a conservative Lutheran pastor in rural Minnesota who still goes to church with his parents from time to time, he’s been divorced three times. He is also about six-one, blond, and thin, so if you know me you know I hate him. On the other hand, he’s an accomplished nonfiction writer who has been published in The New York Times Magazine and is now about to sign a contract for a major piece with Vanity Fair.

Oh, and by the way, Virgil is also an agent for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) who has piled up so impressive a record on high-profile cases that he has the governor on speed-dial – and he is the protagonist of a series of crime novels set in the upper Midwest by the pseudonymous John Sandford, who was an award-winning journalist in another life and under a different name.

In Mad River, Virgil has no sooner returned from a vacation in, of all places, the Bahamas when his boss, Lucas Davenport, assigns him to follow up on a brutal and seemingly senseless murder in a small rural town near Virgil’s home base in Mankato. One murder has turned into two by the time Virgil arrives in Bigham, the site of the first murder, and two more are discovered before Virgil and the disreputable local Sheriff can puzzle out what happened the first time around. Soon enough, however, it becomes clear that a couple of local young people, or maybe three of them, have gone on a killing spree. Mad River tells the unfolding tale of Virgil’s, and the Sheriff’s, rush to get to the killers first—Virgil, to take them in for prosecution, the Sheriff, to kill them on the spot.

This latest best-selling work from John Sandford – number six in the Virgil Flowers series – bears all the characteristics of the author’s trademark mastery of suspense. The story unfolds unpredictably, and, for a change, even ends in surprise. Nonetheless, I think Sandford (or his editor) may have been asleep at the wheel on this one. With only a few exceptions, every character in this novel, major or minor, is described as “thin” – not “skinny,” “slender,” “rail-thin,” “emaciated,” “skeletal,” “reedy,” or “light-weight,” but simply “thin.” To my mind, this seems an abuse of the writer’s spare, colloquial style, and as an editor by nature I find it offensive. Anyway, do Minnesotans really eat that little?

All told, Sandford has written 34 novels, including 22 in his “Prey” series, in which Lucas Davenport of the BCA is the central character and Virgil Flowers is usually in the supporting cast. In this blog I’ve previously reviewed Phantom Prey, Storm Prey, and Stolen Prey in the Davenport series and Shock Wave featuring Flowers.

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Surprises galore in this beautifully crafted novel of crime and punishment in Atlanta

A review of Criminal, by Karin Slaughter

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

In every one of Karin Slaughter’s previous novels of murder and mayhem in the Deep South, Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) officer Will Trent and his boss, Amanda Wagner, GBI’s deputy commander, were characters shrouded in mystery, their actions frequently difficult to understand. In Criminal, Slaughter rips off the shrouds. This is an unusually suspenseful, affecting, and, in the end, deeply satisfying story.

The action in Criminal shifts repeatedly from the present day to 1975 and back again, and the connections between the events in those two years become clear only well into the book. Amanda is a central figure in both strands of the story – beginning her career in the Atlanta Police Department in 1975 and nearing retirement amid the latter-day events. Will Trent takes center stage on the contemporary scene, his new romance with Dr. Sara Linton blossoming and then sorely tested as the action unfolds.

The novel opens in 1975 with the disappearance of Lucy Bennett, a rich girl gone bad, hooked on heroin and working the streets under the thumb of a pimp who goes by the name of Juice. Only in the final pages of the novel do we come to understand fully what happened to Lucy, and why.

Slaughter writes from an omniscient perspective, shifting the viewpoint from time to time as one character or another moves on-stage. Her prose is spare and pulls no punches. Although her characters harbor secrets that will only later be revealed, there is nothing manipulative about the author’s failure to disclose what they know any more quickly than they themselves would be likely to do so.

Slaughter’s research into the Atlanta Police Department of the mid-1970s was extensive, and what she reveals about its egregiously bad behavior in that era is deeply troubling. Amanda Wagner’s experience as a rookie officer, and that of her female friends, is shocking – though perhaps no more so than what female officers experienced at the time in other law enforcement departments where their presence was a novelty. Slaughter’s sensitive treatment of race relations during that era is no less revealing.

To date, Karin Slaughter has written a total of 12 novels featuring Will Trent and Sara Linton. I previously reviewed Broken and Blindsightedboth of which are set in the small Georgia town where Dr. Linton previously ran a children’s health clinic and served part-time as medical examiner. I’m sure I’ll be reading more of Slaughter’s novels.

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Romance, intrigue, and betrayal in post-World War II Istanbul

A review of Istanbul Passage, by Joseph Kanon

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Some books build slowly, and just as you begin to wonder whether you have the energy to finish them, you discover you’re a captive and no longer able to put them aside. Then they build and build, until you find yourself on the last page, out of breath from the frenzied rush to the end. Istanbul Passage is one of those books.

Kanon, born in 1946, writes spy stories about the period immediately following World War II and before the Korean War (1945-50). Istanbul Passage relates the tale of Leon Bauer, an American businessman whose poor eyesight had kept him out of the war. In compensation — seeking his own war, really — Leon has persuaded a friend of his in the U.S. consulate to hire him for special espionage assignments, helping smuggle Jews out of Romania and on to Palestine. Now, in 1945, Leon receives a different sort of assignment, which involves helping to smuggle a high-value Romanian intelligence target through Istanbul and on to safety in the U.S. But everything quickly goes wrong. Leon finds himself shooting a man to death in a firefight, and the Romanian turns out to be a war criminal at least partly responsible for one of the most notorious massacres of Jews outside the German camps.

Istanbul Passage is a complex and finely written tale. You can’t read the book without getting to know Leon Bauer — and Istanbul — as deeply as though you had experienced the story yourself. Joseph Kanon is one fine writer!

Kanon ran two major New York publishing houses before he began writing in 1995 when he was nearly 50. His five previous novels — Los Alamos (1997), The Prodigal Spy (1998), The Good German (2001), Alibi (2005), and Stardust (2009) — have won widespread acclaim, and deservedly so, as I’ve noted in my reviews. (To see those reviews, click on the titles of his last two previous books.)

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This Body of Death, by Elizabeth George

@@@ (3 out of 5)

Aristocratic Scotland Yard Inspector Thomas Lynley returns to the land of the living, and the mingled comforts and frustrations of his familiar collaborators, in This Body of Death, the 15th novel in Elizabeth George’s extended study of Lynley’s life. Still reeling from the senseless murder of his wife, Lady Helen Clyde, Lynley is grasping for meaning in a life gone empty when he enters the tale about one-third of the way into the book.

Meanwhile, two contrasting story-lines have begun to unfold. One is the tale of the notorious, real-life murder of a toddler by three abused and neglected 10- and 11-year-olds, told in the manner of an official inquiry, its sections interspersed among the chapters that relate the novel’s main plot. The latter begins with the sudden disappearance of a young woman from the isolated rural home of a strange man with whom she has been living for the past two years.

Like its 14 predecessors in the Inspector Lynley series, This Body of Death is a tale of murder and of the often halting and confused police investigation that follows it. However, it is also a sensitive, continuing character study of Lynley; of his stubborn and irreverent sidekick, Sergeant Barbara Havers; of his long-time friends, Simon and Deborah St. James; and of the new characters introduced in this book, notably Chief Inspector Isabelle Ardery, who has been brought in to replace Lynley as head of the unit. (Ardery seems destined to reappear in subsequent Inspector Lynley novels.)

In This Body of Death, George indulges again in detailed sociological speculation — as she did most notably in the book about Helen Clyde’s murder, What Came Before He Shot Her. I found that novel to be tough going and ultimately set it aside, unfinished, and I was tempted at times to do so with This Body of Death as well as I found my interest in the book’s main plot lagging because of continued interruptions with page after page of description of the toddler’s abduction and murder and the three boys’ subsequent trial.

For what it’s worth, this was the first book I read on my new iPad — and that part, at least, was sheer pleasure.

ISBN-10: 0061160881

ISBN-13: 978-0061160882

ASIN: B003F2QOEQ

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