Tag Archives: Scotland Yard

A mystery writer can have a bad day, can’t she?


A review of The Sound of Broken Glass, by Deborah Crombie

@@@ (3 out of 5)

If you’ve ever contemplated writing a thriller, or even just a run-of-the-mill crime novel, you may have stopped in your tracks when you came to the point of coming up with a plot. It ain’t easy (at least for those of us who aren’t named James Patterson). Readers tend to demand stories that keep them puzzled right up to the end, surprise or shock them in the closing pages, and then leave them with a satisfied feeling that everything makes sense after all. All this requires that lots of loose ends need to be tied up tightly, shining a favorable light on the intrepid investigator who solves the case or the heroic action figure who forestalls disaster (usually something tantamount to destroying the planet we live on).

Sometimes coincidence plays a part in making all this work. And sometimes it plays much too big a part.

In her police procedurals set in England, Deborah Crombie has generally done an unusually good job of writing convincing and engaging mystery novels — despite the fact that she’s a native Texan and lives in a Texas town. On most of my previous excursions into the lives of Crombie’s protagonists, Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James, I’ve enjoyed myself immensely. (See my reviews of Now May You Weep, And Justice There Is None, and In a Dark House.) However, The Sound of Broken Glass is a disappointment, as was Crombie’s first effort, A Share in Death.

This time, the culprit is coincidence.

In Broken Glass, Kincaid and James are married and raising three children (one of hers, one of his, and one adopted), and in ways that are clearly less than satisfying or convenient for them, their lives now revolve around the kids. Kincaid, a Detective Superintendant, is playing house-husband while James, promoted to Detective Inspector, chases murderers through the streets of London. James’ sidekick, Detective Sergeant Melody Talbot, works closely with her on a case that seems to involve not just vicious murder but sexual perversion as well: a prominent barrister (a lawyer who argues cases in court) has been discovered in a cheap hotel, bound and gagged in bed in a way reminiscent of autoerotic play but strangled to death as well. As the investigation unfolds, much of the story revolves around Talbot, the upper-class daughter of one of London’s press lords. As time goes on, Talbot becomes romantically involved with a key witness in the case — and the slow, painful unraveling of his memory of a tragic childhood incident comes to figure as a central element in the resolution of the mystery. 

All this might have been a lot of fun for the reader — if only Crombie hadn’t built her plot around an excess of coincidences. As it turns out, everybody involved in the case — police officer, victim, murderer, and witness alike — seems to have known just about everyone else at some time in the past. It’s really too much. I hope for better again from Deborah Crombie.

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The best books I’ve read so far this year

You have to wait until December to see a list of “best books” in The New York Times Book Review, but right here in this space you can see my list for the first six months of 2012! Of course, it’s a short list, and quite specialized, since there are lots of categories of writing that hold no interest for me. And I don’t limit myself to books that were published after January 1, 2012 (though most were). After all, I’m not The New York Times. But, for what it is, here goes, in no particular order . . . with links to my reviews in this blog.


The Passage of Power, by Robert A. Caro. Volume 4 in The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Robert Caro’s masterful portrait of Lyndon Johnson’s early days as President.

Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power, by David E. Sanger. Barack Obama’s foreign and military policy viewed from the inside.

The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets That Change the World, by John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan. The power of unreasonable people, and how they’re changing the world.

The Self-Made Myth, and the Truth About How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed, by Brian Miller and Mike Lapham. A brilliant contribution to the public debate about politics and the economy.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander. One of the most important books published in English so far this century.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo. A searing look at poverty in India that reads like a novel.

The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World, by Daniel Yergin. Daniel Yergin’s superb new book: a brilliant survey of energy issues.

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann. Astonishing new evidence about the Americas before Columbus.

Trade Fiction

They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?, by Christopher Buckley. Washington and Beijing get what they deserve in this satirical novel of politics and diplomacy today.

The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi. One of the best science fiction novels I’ve ever read.

The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson. An unsparing tale of life in the living hell of North Korea.

Incendiary, by Chris Cleave. A wrenching portrait of the human cost of terrorism.

The Fear Index, by Robert Harris. A taut thriller about the world of multibillion-dollar hedge funds.

A Theory of Small Earthquakes, by Meredith Maran. A first novel from a brilliant nonfiction writer.

Mysteries and Thrillers

Mission to Paris, by Alan Furst. A truly superior novel of espionage at the dawn of World War II.

The Midnight House, by Alex Berenson. The Pentagon and the CIA take a lot of punishment in this novel of rendition and torture.

Harbor Nocturne, by Joseph Wambaugh. Joseph Wambaugh’s latest paints Los Angeles in many clashing colors.

The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, by Alexander McCall Smith. An exceptional tale of Botswana’s #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.

Buried Secrets, by Joseph Finder. A thriller that explores the intersection of high finance and high crime.

The Ghosts of Belfast, by Stuart Neville. A grim story of war and betrayal in Northern Ireland.

The Bridge of Sighs, by Olen Steinhauer. A fully satisfying murder mystery set in post-war Europe.

Breakdown, by Sara Paretsky. Sara Paretsky’s latest detective story hits home.

Believing the Lie, by Elizabeth George. Elizabeth George’s latest Inspector Lynley novel, unpredictable as always.

The Silent Oligarch, by Chris Morgan Jones. A refreshingly original new thriller that explores international intrigue with minimal violence.

Agent 6, by Tom Rob Smith. A superb suspense novel set in the USSR, Afghanistan, and the U.S.

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Elizabeth George’s latest Inspector Lynley novel, unpredictable as always

A review of Believing the Lie, by Elizabeth George

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

I’ve enjoyed most of Elizabeth George’s 16 previous novels about the life and career of Thomas Lynley, an hereditary earl from Cornwall who has risen to the post of Detective Inspector in Scotland Yard. Like all of George’s characters, Lynley is a finely drawn and three-dimensional — likeable, without being the sort of person you’d expect to pal around with. Her settings, usually picturesque corners of rural England, are engaging in their own right. George clearly does her homework — she’s American, after all — so that her books are popular in the UK, not just the U.S.

Maybe what I most enjoy about Elizabeth George’s writing is the utter unpredictability of her stories. She consciously avoids working in the old Agatha Christie mode of murder tales. For example, consider this passage from Believing the Lie:

“For an utterly mad moment Lynley thought the woman was actually confessing to murdering her husband’s nephew. The setting, after all, was perfect for it, in the best tradition of more than one hundred years of tea-in-the-vicarage and murder-in-the-library paperback novels sold in railway stations. He couldn’t imagine why she might be confessing, but he’d also never been able to understand why the characters in those novels sat quietyly in the drawing room or the sitting room or the library while a detective laid out all the clues leading to the guilt of one of them. No one ever demanded a solicitor in the midst of the detective’s maundering. He’d never been able to sort that one out.”

So, if you pick up a copy of Believing the Lie, prepare yourself for a rollercoaster of a story, resplendent with more than its share of surprises. When Inspector Lynley is despatched to Cumbria to look into the murder of the nephew of a rich and powerful man, you might expect a straightforward tale of crime and punishment. What you’ll get instead is a complex tale of intrigue, adultery, family secrets, betrayal, and a host of other themes involving a wealthy manufacturing family, a tabloid reporter, a stunning Argentine woman, Lynley’s friends Deborah and Simon, and, of course, Lynley’s interior dialogue about his murdered wife. You’ll also witness the untimely deaths of two people. But don’t expect anything to go the way you think it will.


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An early effort from a master of detective fiction

A review of A Share in Death, by Deborah Crombie

@@@ (3 out of 5)

As a fan of Deborah Crombie’s intricately woven mysteries featuring Scotland Yard detectives Duncan Kincaid and Gemma Jones, I seized on A Share in Death as an opportunity to read the backstory, much earlier in their careers than in the more recent novels. I was disappointed.

A Share in Death, set in an isolated timeshare hotel in Yorkshire, reads as little different from the old-school parlor tales of Agatha Christie and her imitators. By comparison, Crombie’s later novels are rich with suspense, historical detail, and characters that are hard to forget. With all the suspects holed up as virtual captives in one spot, A Share in Death becomes an elaborate guessing game. All that’s missing is the climax set in the living room, where the triumphant detective announces to looks of astonishment who the killer really is.

In the future, I’ll stick with Crombie’s more mature writing.

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Why read mystery stories?

A review of In a Dark House, by Deborah Crombie

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Why read mystery stories? What is it about the experience that compels me to return, time after time, to the novels of Deborah Crombie, Elmore Leonard, Elizabeth George, Ian Rankin, Michael Connolly, and a dozen others? After all, I read about as many novels about murder and mayhem as I do both nonfiction and “serious” fiction combined. Why?

This question comes to mind with special poignancy as I sit down to review one of Deborah Crombie’s finely wrought police procedurals, In a Dark House. Immediately beforehand, I read Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars, his skillful recounting of the months-long policy-making process that led to President Obama’s decision to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan in 2010—and start withdrawing them in July 2011. And just after finishing In a Dark House, I devoured William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer’s The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, the inspirational tale of a seventh-grade dropout in Malawi who taught himself physics from an outdated textbook and constructed an operating windmill from scrapyard junk to produce electricity for his father’s farm.

It’s clear to me what I got from reading Woodward and Kamkwamba. The former illuminating the day-to-day reality of decision-making in the White House that resulted in one of the most significant U.S. foreign policy decisions in recent years. The latter helped me understand the crushing weight of poverty, famine, and ignorance—and how an exceptional individual can overcome them with dogged persistence, supportive friends, and a touch of genius.

So, what moved me to read In a Dark House when I might otherwise have turned to one of the dozens of highly acclaimed novels and nonfiction books in my reading queue? I can think of four reasons:

1.       I’ve grown attracted to Crombie’s police duo, Inspector Gemma James and Superintendant Duncan Kincaid, both of Scotland Yard. Picking up another of Crombie’s novels is like reconnecting with old friends. I feel as though I’m getting to know them well. And I like them.

2.       As a writer, I admire Deborah Crombie’s skill in character development, plotting, and scene-setting. And I’m in awe of a woman who lives in a small North Texas town who manages to write—apparently with ease—English police procedurals, some of which even win prizes in England!

3.       The tension that builds within me as the plot unfolds in a skillful mystery story is pleasantly distracting. Reading one of these books is like losing myself in a great film, temporarily oblivious to the real world with its real problems and real annoyances.

4.       A well-written mystery novel takes place in a world that’s new to me. It piques my curiosity. In a Dark House explores the realm of fire and arson. The details revealed in the story reflect the author’s careful research, and—for a brief time, at least, before the knowledge slips between the cracks of my memory—I understand a little more about this fascinating topic.

There’s nothing truly extraordinary about In a Dark House. I’m sure I’ll remember little or nothing about it six months or a year from now. But it was a rewarding experience while it lasted. And that’s probably enough.

ISBN-10: 0060525258

ISBN-13: 978-0060525255


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Now May You Weep, by Deborah Crombie

A review of Now May You Weep, by Deborah Crombie

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Go figure: one of my favorite English mystery writers is  . . . a Texan? Yes, it’s true. The biographical blurbs in the back of Deborah Crombie’s English mystery novels insist that she was born and lives in Texas. As an American myself, I can’t claim to be the final authority on the Englishness of Crombie’s narrative prose and dialogue, but I’ve spent enough time in the UK and with British friends not to be too easily fooled, and I’ll be damned if I can find any cultural or linguistic flaws in her writing. And I appear to be in good company, as Deborah Crombie has twice won the British mystery writers’ top award for her novels.

Now May You Weep is the ninth in a series of 13 novels Crombie has written since 1993 about the Scotland Yard duo of Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James. The two are sleuths who live together with his son, her son, two personable dogs, and an indifferent cat in a fashionable London neighborhood.

Like every other novel in its series, I found Now May You Weep to be engrossing and difficult to set aside. The scene is not England this time but Scotland, where Gemma James, recently promoted to Inspector and still recovering from an especially traumatic miscarriage, has gone for a long weekend for a cooking course at a rural bed-and-breakfast with her best bud, Hazel Cavendish. Hazel, long a rock of stability in Gemma’s topsy-turvy life, comes apart at the seams in the course of a weekend of shocking surprises and tragic events.

Crombie’s work is especially strong in painting a picture of the local scene — here, the Scottish highlands in all its stark, windswept glory. A major setting for the novel is an ancient distillery, which serves as the occasion for Crombie to explain in explicit and colorful detail how single-malt Scottish whiskey is made.

Now May You Weep is a stellar crime novel by a writer at the height of her powers. It’s an exceptionally fine read.

ISBN-10: 0060525231

ISBN-13: 978-0060525231


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Rennie Airth’s John Madden Trilogy


@@@@ (4 out of 5)

In three suspenseful crime novels set in England between the two wars, South African writer Rennie Airth tells the story of Scotland Yard detective John Madden and his wife, nee Dr. Helen Blackwell. John is a veteran of the Great War, unhinged by his experiences in the bloodbath in France and by the deaths of his wife and daughter. Helen comes into his life just in time to help nurse him back to health.

They meet in the first book, River of Darkness, set in the years following World War I, when John is assigned to an exceptionally brutal murder case in the countryside that taxes his skills and his already questionable emotional stability to the limit.  Through an introduction from Helen, John enlists the help of a noted Viennese psychiatrist who assists him with an early version of what we now know as psychological profiling. The psychiatric insight eventually puts an end to a gruesome series of serial murders, leading John to the killer.

A decade later Germany is in the throes of a Nazi takeover, and England trembles. As we learn at the outset of The Blood-Dimmed Tide, the second book in Airth’s trilogy, John Madden is peacefully retired with Helen on a farm far from Scotland Yard. When he chances upon a brutally murdered corpse on a walk through the countryside, his yearning for action comes to life once again. The officer in charge of the investigation, an old friend in a senior post on the force, takes advantage of John’s eagerness to become involved again and seeks him out for advice. John circumvents his anxious wife’s efforts to keep him out of the investigation and eventually plays a key role in solving the perplexing case.

Set in 1944, a dozen years later, John is drawn into another murder case when a young Polish girl who helps out at his farm is mysteriously murdered as The Dead of Winter commences. The police assigned to the case are reluctant to see more than a chance act of violence, but John uncovers a complex back-story involving an aged German-Jewish neighbor, a French art dealer, Nazi atrocities, and a fortune in stolen diamonds.

Rennie Airth writes with consummate skill, unfolding his complex plots with ease and painting fully three-dimensional portraits of the characters in these three engaging novels. If you’re attracted to ably-written crime stories that bear no resemblance to the formulaic drawing-room who-dunits of years past, you’ll enjoy these three books. Read them in chronological order, though. The reading experience deepens as you observe the aging protagonists live out their lives.

ISBN-10: 0143035703

ISBN-13: 978-0143035701

ISBN-10: 0143171038

ISBN-13: 978-0143171034

ISBN-10: 0670020931

ASIN: B003A02R6C

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And Justice There is None, by Deborah Crombie

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Detective Inspector Gemma James and her former partner and current lover, Superintendent Duncan Kincaid, make the big move into a home together in Deborah Crombie’s excellent murder mystery series chronicling their rise through the ranks in the Metropolitan Police.

The plot of “And Justice There is None” is fully as complex as those of others I’ve read in the series, and the seemingly unrelated characters introduced early in the book become convincingly intertwined as the mystery unfolds. The backdrop for this story is the London antiques trade, which becomes more comprehensible in the telling.

Deborah Crombie divides her time between North Texas, where she lives, and the UK, where she travels to research the novels in this engrossing series. As in others of her thirteen novels, each chapter begins with a short excerpt from a history or travel guide to the neighborhood where the story is set. Clearly, this is a writer who does her research.

ISBN-10: 0330482459

ISBN-13: 978-0330482455

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