Mal Warwick

Author Archives: Mal Warwick

The latest addition to Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Department Q series

Department Q: The Scarred Woman by Jussi Adler-OlsenThe Scarred Woman (Department Q #7) by Jussi Adler-Olsen

@@@ (3 out of 5)

The Scarred Woman is the seventh novel in Jussi Adler-Olsen‘s series about Danish detectives holed up in the basement of Copenhagen’s police headquarters, ostensibly to work on cold cases. Like the six books that preceded it, it tells the story of how the small team in Department Q takes on several homicide cases simultaneously and discovers—lo and behold!—that they’re all connected. In the process, all three of Detective Carl Mørck’s “assistants,” Asaad, Rose, and Gordon, manage to infuriate and astound him in new and sometimes highly creative ways. It’s just possible, we might guess, that all three of them are at least as smart as he is, if not more so. Meanwhile, Mørck infuriates his own boss, and practically everyone else in the police force. He’s always in trouble for insubordination, shaming his superiors, defying orders, stealing someone else’s cases, or simply showing up all his colleagues with his (or perhaps his team’s) brilliance. But somehow he always manages to evade being fired.

The Scarred Woman merges an in-depth exploration of Rose’s mental illness with a tale of the team’s investigation into three homicide cases and a night club heist. We’ve known for some time that Rose is not well. Now, we learn just how seriously ill she really is.

The titles of the six previous novels in Adler-Olsen’s series all relate closely to the contents. But I can’t figure out who “the scarred woman” is. I’m also put off by the author’s exaggerated portrayal of so many of his characters. More than in the previous novels in the Department Q series, several of the key figures in the story come across as cartoonish. One, Rose’s father, is particularly difficult to believe. Apparently, Adler-Olsen was off his game when he wrote this one.

Oh, and one more thing: the author’s writing displays a bonehead error that any competent editor or translator (or, for that matter, the author himself) should have caught: again and again, his characters address each other by name. Obviously, Adler-Olsen wants to be sure the reader understands who’s speaking to whom—or perhaps simply to remind himself. But there are far better ways to achieve that; more attentive novelists have found ways. It was this unfortunate error, as much as anything else, that caused me to stop reading Cara Black’s Aimee Leduc detective series set in Paris. I find the practice extremely annoying.

Previously, I’ve reviewed all six of the earlier novels in this series, and all of them more favorably. You can access all six of them here or by searching on this site for the author’s name. You might also want to take a look at 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

Liz Carlyle stars in an outstanding British espionage novel

Liz Carlyle stars in Dead Line by Stella RimingtonDead Line (Liz Carlyle #4) by Stella Rimington

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Dame Stella Rimington served as Director General of Britain’s Security Service, MI5, from 1992 to 1996. Eight years later, in retirement, her first spy novel was published, launching the Liz Carlyle series. Dead Line (2008) is the fourth in the series, now nine strong.

Clearly, Rimington has intimate knowledge of MI5 and its sister agency, MI6. So it’s no surprise that every entry in the Liz Carlyle series rings with authenticity. What is unexpected is Rimington’s proficiency with plotting, characterization, and scene-setting. Like its three predecessors in the series, Dead Line is a pleasure to read.

In this suspenseful spy thriller, a high-level Middle Eastern peace conference is scheduled to take place in Scotland. The presidents of Israel, Syria, and the United States are all scheduled to attend. The conference is just weeks away when MI6 picks up a credible agent’s report that a plan is afoot to sabotage the conference. Thirty-five-year-old MI5 officer Liz Carlyle is assigned to work with MI6 to determine whether the threat is real and, if so, find out who’s behind it—and thwart it at all costs.

Together with her able young aide, Peggy Kinsolving, and senior MI6 officer Geoffrey Fane, Liz sets out on an investigation that intensifies as the deadline approaches. Other agencies become involved, including the CIA, Special Branch, Revenue and Customs, and Israel’s Mossad. Suspense builds steadily as the story unfolds, and it’s not until the very end that Liz—or the reader—understands what’s really happening. The novel concludes on a high note, but loose ends remain to be wrapped up in future stories.

After four novels in the series, Liz Carlyle is coming into sharp focus. She is professional to a fault, highly intuitive, and capable of facing down even the most formidable sexist male. Liz is also secretly in love with her (married) boss, Charles Wetherby, and fearful that the man her aging mother has paired up with is a gold-digger. And she’s frustrated that her job hasn’t allowed her to date. In other words, exceptional though she is, Liz Carlyle is an entirely credible thirty-something Englishwoman.

My review of the first novel in the Liz Carlyle series, At Risk, is at High stakes in an excellent espionage thriller. You’ll find my review of the second one, Secret Asset, here: An engrossing novel about British counter-espionage. The third, Illegal Action, is at An engaging spy novel from former MI5 director Stella Rimington. I have also reviewed Breaking Cover, the ninth book in the Liz Carlyle series, at Russian agents under cover in the UK.


Recommended mysteries, science fiction, historical novels, nonfiction

recommended mysteries - All the Light We Cannot See - Anthony DoerrFrom time to time, I post lists of recommended mysteries and thrillers, science fiction, historical novels, biographies, or books about science or business. Here I’ll include the 15 best of these lists. Each of them contains a number of individual titles with links to the reviews I’ve posted on this blog.

Fiction lists

48 excellent mystery and thriller series

This list just scratches the surface of what’s available, but I’m confident that at least some of the very best mystery and thriller series can be found below. All these series have one or both of two things in common: the protagonist is the same from one book to the next, or (in just two cases) the series are rooted in a particular time and place, though the cast of characters varies. There are just two exceptions to this rule: the work of Ross Thomas and John Grisham. I’ve included both authors because many of their characters appear in each of several novels—and because they’re so good I can’t bring myself to ignore them.

My 27 favorite science fiction novels

In times past, science fiction was widely regarded as pulp literature suitable only for 14-year-old boys. Those days are long past. Now the field is often referred to as speculative fiction. Which is as it should be. In this list are the 27 science fiction novels that have lingered in my mind—in some cases, for fifty years or more. Some are dystopian novels, others alternate history, imagined futures, or time travel; some are set on Earth, others elsewhere around the galaxy.

75 readable and revealing historical novels

My favorite subjects are European history, including many historical spy novels; World War II; American history, especially political history; and Asian and African history. You’ll also find that several authors show up multiple times: Geraldine Brooks, Thomas Fallon, Olen Steinhauer, Alan Furst, and Joseph Kanon—in the last three cases, because of especially insightful series they’re writing.

24 compelling dystopian novels in series

Among the works included here are outstanding trilogies by Margaret Atwood, Octavia Butler, Blake Crouch, and Hugh Howey, and a connected series of three novels by Paolo Bacigalupi that has not been marketed as a trilogy. In my reviews, I’ve awarded almost all of these books ratings of 4 out of 5 or 5 out of 5 stars.

A brief look at 15 notable dystopian scenarios

In the companion post linked above, I listed two dozen dystopian novels that were published in series. Here I’ve listed 15 standalone works. These posts are a result of some of the research I’ve conducted in preparation for writing my newest book, Hell on Earth: What we can learn from dystopian fiction.

My 10 favorite espionage novels

Over the past seven years, I’ve read and reviewed more than 60 espionage novels. My ten favorites are listed below. Though my preliminary list included multiple titles by three authors (Alex Berenson, Charles Cumming, and Ross Thomas), I’ve limited myself to a single title from every writer. I gave every one of these ten titles a score of 5 out of 5 stars on its review.

15 great suspenseful detective novels (plus 23 others)

The 15 detective novels listed in this post may not be the 15 “best” detective novels, even by my uniquely idiosyncratic criteria. I’d read a lot of work in the genre even before I began writing these reviews in January 2010—and there are tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of detective novels I’ve never read. This list consists exclusively of those I’ve selected from among the 200 or so that I’ve read and reviewed in this blog. I gave every one of these books a rating of 5 out of 5 stars.

Nonfiction lists

34 great biographies I’ve reviewed

Roger Ailes. Catherine the Great. William Armstrong Custer. Steve Jobs. Malcolm X. These are among the men and women featured in the 34 biographies I’ve awarded four or five out of five stars in my reviews.

Science history and science explained in 33 excellent popular books

Astronomy. Epidemiology. Lexicography. Microbiology. These are among the thirty different scientific fields discussed and explained in the thirty-three excellent books about science that I’ve read and reviewed.

8 great books on Big History: New perspectives on world history

Three decades ago an American historian named David Christian who was teaching at an Australian university at the time launched a new approach to world history. His unique take on the subject took the discipline far beyond the limits of the written word. Calling it Big History, Christian started his new course at the beginning of time itself: the Big Bang. He enlisted guest lecturers from the fields of astrophysics, chemistry, geology, paleontology, biology, and other scientific fields, incorporating their specialized knowledge into his comprehensive survey of Big History. Many other scholars have since followed in Christian’s footsteps, bringing their own unique perspectives to bear on this fresh approach to understanding our lives and the world we live in. My list includes eight of the best books to emerge in this field.

17 nonfiction books that illuminate the World War II era

In addition to the many World War II novels I’ve read and reviewed in this blog, both mysteries and trade fiction, I’ve read a great many nonfiction books on the years leading up to and during the war. Here I’ve listed 17 of the best I’ve come across in recent years. They cover everything from economic policy in the Depression and the rise of Nazi Germany to the role of business and the conduct of the war itself.

17 good nonfiction books about espionage

For good or ill, a fair amount of what I’ve learned about espionage over the years has come from reading spy stories. A few authors are particularly diligent about research and accuracy, so most of what I’ve picked up is probably true. In fact, many of those authors are veterans of the intelligence game and should know what they write about. But, for assurance that what I read is less likely to be fictional, there’s nothing like an in-depth nonfiction treatment of the field by a credible author. Since January 2010, I’ve read seventeen such books. I recommend them highly.

35 biographies worth reading

The 35 books listed here cover a wide range of both historical and contemporary figures, every one of them prominent in a significant way, from Cleopatra and Catherine the Great to Clarence Darrow, Allen Dulles, and Steve Jobs. Most of the 35 fall into a few categories that describe some of the topics I’m most interested in: espionage, science, business, and American history.

35 excellent nonfiction books about politics

One way or another, I’ve been at least peripherally involved in electoral politics ever since I was in high school. Which is why I seek out books about politics. Fiction, nonfiction—it doesn’t matter. If it’s credible and at least reasonably well written, I’m game. So, ever since I launched this blog six years ago, I’ve read and reviewed a fair number of books about the topic. This list includes only the 35 nonfiction books that have appeared in this space.

14 of the best recent nonfiction books

Caveat emptor: I don’t pretend that the 14 books in this list are THE BEST nonfiction books ever published. They’re simply some of the best ones I read and reviewed during the first five years I posted to this blog, every one of them a source of enlightenment that deepened my understanding of the world we live in.

She’s missing, presumed dead, and now the mystery starts

presumed dead - watch-me-disappear-janelle-brownWatch Me Disappear by Janelle Brown

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Gone Girl and its many less successful imitators have crowded bookstore shelves in recent years, so my natural tendency is to yawn when I come across another novel that marketers or critics compare to it. However, Janelle Brown‘s new thriller, Watch Me Disappear, merits the comparison. A forty-something Berkeley housewife mysteriously disappears, and what we think about her steadily erodes as the story unfolds. In the end, we’re left shaking our heads, a little dizzy from all the surprises we’ve encountered as the tale reached its resolution.

Sybilla “Billie” Flanagan lives with her husband Jonathan and fifteen-year-old daughter Olive in Berkeley’s Elmwood District, in an old brown-shingle home just off College Avenue. They’re a seemingly typical upper-middle-class Bay Area family. Jonathan is a senior editor at a magazine that covers the tech industry. Olive is a junior at a private, all-girls preparatory school in Oakland. And Billie, though an artist in her younger years, has devoted herself to homemaking.

Now, however, Billie has been missing for nearly a year and is presumed dead. In the years immediately before her disappearance, she had left home from time to time for long weekends to hike the Pacific Coast Trail. But she hasn’t returned from her last backpacking trip in Desolation Wilderness. She has simply disappeared, and a protracted search has failed to turn up any clue as to what happened to her. In his grief, and his concern for Olive, Jonathan has left his job at the magazine to write a memoir about his life with Billie. He’s now in financial straits, struggling to pay the mortgage and dodging calls from Olive’s school about her tuition bill—and he can’t access the money from Billie’s $250,000 life insurance policy because there’s no death certificate. Billie is only presumed dead.

Then things get worse.

Gradually, Jonathan begins to learn unsettling facts about the life Billie led after running away from home at age sixteen. To make matters worse, Olive begins having conversations with her dead mother. She insists that Billie is alive and wants to be found. As Jonathan and Olive separately pursue investigations into their disappearing wife and mother, Billie’s past life comes back to haunt them.

Watch Me Disappear is suspenseful to a fault. Though a little slow on the uptake, the novel speeds up as the complications multiply—and most readers will be surprised by the ending.

Check out my review of Gone Girl here: A bestselling New York Times thriller that’s worth all the fuss. You may also be interested in reading my reviews of 15 great suspenseful detective novels (plus 23 others).


Michael Connelly’s first Harry Bosch novel: the backstory

Harry Bosch novel - the black echo - michael connellyThe Black Echo (Harry Bosch #1) by Michael Connelly

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Of the thirty-one novels Michael Connelly has written to date since 1992, twenty feature LAPD detective Harry Bosch. If you’ve only read one or more of the most recent entries in the series, you may be interested to know that from his first appearance in fiction, Bosch’s character, the rudiments of the formula Connelly employs throughout, and some of the characters who follow him throughout the series all are on display.

In The Black Echo, Harry is a twenty-year veteran of the force, “the famous Harry Bosch, detective superstar, a couple books written about his cases. TV movie. A spinoff series.” He is “an outsider in an insider’s job.” Harry has bought a house in the hills with money he received for the film made about his work, and he has already alienated most of the cops who work with him, especially the brass in LAPD headquarters at Parker Center. He is under investigation by Internal Affairs, not for the first time and certainly not for the last.

The Black Echo, the first Harry Bosch novel, tells the tale of a protracted and difficult investigation into a daring year-old bank heist. As the investigation unfolds, complications steadily arise. Harry is doggedly pursued by two thuggish detectives from Internal Affairs. Key characters are murdered. Harry becomes close to Eleanor Wish, the FBI special agent with whom he is paired in the investigation. (In later novels, she will become his wife and mother of his daughter.) And the case takes on implications that go far beyond Los Angeles. It’s an engrossing and suspenseful story.

More importantly, however, The Black Echo serves to provide the backstory about Harry’s combat experience in Vietnam early in the 1970s. The “black echo” of the title crops up again and again, reflecting Harry’s deployment as a “tunnel rat” pursuing Vietcong soldiers through the network of tunnels they have dug throughout much of the country. “Out of the blue and into the black is what they called going into a tunnel,” Connelly writes. “Each one was a black echo. Nothing but death in there. But, still, they went.”

Harry explains further in a conversation with Eleanor: “It was the darkness, the damp emptiness you’d feel when you were down there alone in those tunnels. It was like you were in a place where you felt dead and buried in the dark. But you were alive. And you were scared. Your own breath kind of echoed in the darkness, loud enough to give you away. Or so you thought. I don’t know. It’s hard to explain. Just . . . the black echo.”

You may also be interested in my review of a later book in the series. It’s at Michael Connelly’s best Harry Bosch novel? For reviews of other enjoyable novels in this genre, see 15 great suspenseful detective novels (plus 23 others).

From Sweden, a strange science fiction novel

strange science fiction - amatka-karin-tidbeckAmatka by Karin Tidbeck

@@@ (3 out of 5)

Historically, science fiction has mostly been identified with the United States and Great Britain. That’s not to say, however, that talented authors from many other countries, writing in languages other than English, haven’t made their mark in the genre. Science fiction novels, some of them outstanding, have come from Russia, China, and other countries as far-flung as Brazil, Czechoslovakia, and Iceland. Now Swedish writer Karin Tidbeck, previously known for her well-received collection of short stories, offers her first novel, Amatka.

From the outset, it’s clear that Amatka is a science fiction novel of a very different sort. Anyone who accepts a literal definition of science fiction—stories that are possible given what we know about science—will consider this novel fantasy, not science fiction. At best, it’s very strange science fiction. Its premise clearly rests somewhere outside the bounds of possibility.

On an unnamed world somewhere far away, four small colonies of humans struggle to survive. Their surroundings are inhospitable. Featureless tundra extends in all directions. Ostensibly in order to ensure their communities’ survival, the colonies are governed by rigid bureaucrats who have made rules for virtually every aspect of life. Most of the buildings and almost everything else, from pencils to suitcases to furniture, are constructed out of a viscous, mud-like substance mined from the surface of the planet. And everything made of this mysterious stuff will hold its shape only if those who use it continuously remind each object of its purpose. They paint labels on every item (“door,” “building,” “bed”) and chant the word on its label to assure the object’s stability. If they don’t do so frequently enough, seemingly solid and stable items simply liquefy into goo that spreads across every surface and destroys anything else within its reach. And the bureaucrats have layered over this reality with new requirements of their own. For instance, here’s what Vanja learns in the community’s library: “One couldn’t name a book anything other than BOOK, or start the title with anything other than ‘About . . .’ Naming an object something else, even accidentally, was forbidden.”

Not literally science fiction, is it? Or, as I’ve noted, at the very least strange science fiction.

Amatka is a short novel—a novella, really. In just 170 pages, Tidbeck tells the story of a woman named Brillars’ Vanja Essre Two, known as Vanja. Vanja is sent from her home colony of Essre by train (train???) to Amatka, where she is to investigate the potential for factories at home to produce hygiene products such as soap and shampoo that might be sold in Amatka. Her job is to interview prospective customers and report back to her boss in Essre. But Vanja soon begins to learn that all is not as it appears in Amatka. And she falls in love with the woman who is hosting her. Between the love affair and her increasing understanding of the truth about the colony, Vanja resigns from her job in Essre, committing herself to stay in Amatka. There, she plays a central role in the unfolding events that lead to the novel’s shattering conclusion.

In its strangeness, Amatka fits snugly into a new sub-genre that has emerged in science fiction in recent years. I’ve previously reviewed three such books by China Mieville (The City and the City), Jeff Vandermeer (Authority), and Ann Leckie (Ancillary Justice). I enjoyed none of them.  

If you’d like to know which sci-fi works I enjoyed a lot more, see My 27 favorite science fiction novels.

October 4, 2017

Conspiracy theories, fake news, and other delusions in American history

conspiracy theories - Fantasyland - Kurt AndersenFantasyland: How America Went Haywire by Kurt Andersen

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

You will be amazed. In Kurt Andersen‘s shocking 500-year survey of US history, Fantasyland, you’ll learn just how truly exceptional America is—and not in a good way.

Who is responsible for “fake news?”

If you think only Donald Trump, Fox News, anonymous online pundits, and Russian hackers have a monopoly on “fake news,” guess again. Andersen relates countless incidents of purportedly true accounts of satanic cults, multiple personality disorder, recovered memory, vaccines causing autism, and other once-pervasive delusions on ABC and NBC News and other mainstream media over the years. Even that paragon of accurate journalism, The New York Times, has fallen prey to such nonsense from time to time. Is it any wonder, then, that ludicrous conspiracy theories should multiply on the World Wide Web, where any nut can say anything anonymously without fear of contradiction?

Who spreads conspiracy theories?

Equating The New York Times with Breitbart and Russian hackers as purveyors of fake news would be highly misleading. Andersen doesn’t do that. As he notes in another context, “There are different degrees of egregious.” However, he is clear that “fake news” and conspiracy theories are by no means limited to the so-called “Trump voters” pilloried by professional journalists and commentators.

Huge numbers of other Americans have left the realm of rationalism for Fantasyland. Consider Scientology, the antivaccine movement, hysteria about GMO food, alien abductions, homeopathy, and the national missing-children panic of the early 1980s. None of these delusions and conspiracy theories are solely identified with any class, region, or race. And popular New Age gurus such as Marianne Williamson, Deepak Chopra, and Eckhart Tolle, all of whom sometimes spout nonsense, have not attracted notably large followings among the creationist set. Similarly, Oprah, Dr. Oz, Bill Maher, and other popular show business celebrities have promoted delusional beliefs. As the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously noted, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” Unfortunately, as Andersen makes abundantly clear, far too few Americans take that sentiment seriously—and, in that respect, the United States stands out clearly in comparison with all other developed nations.

The religious roots of America’s infatuation with fantasy

Andersen’s account begins early in the sixteenth century with the establishment of English colonies in present-day Virginia and Massachusetts. In both cases, conventional wisdom has it that the search for religious freedom drove early colonists to American shores. That’s only partly true, and only in the case of New England. Andersen explains that the primary motivations for all the earliest European expeditions were visions of gold and the Northwest Passage. And the Puritans—they only later called themselves Pilgrims—who landed south of Boston were in no way motivated by religious “freedom.” They had set out to establish a theocracy intolerant of any religious practices that departed even slightly from the rigid prescriptions of their faith.

However, in Protestantism, with its view that “every man [is] his own priest,” there lurked a fatal flaw in its commitment to conformity: if “every man” was “his own priest,” what was to stop them from inventing their own religions? In fact, as American history clearly shows, that is precisely what has happened over the five centuries since Jamestown and Plymouth Rock. Beginning not long after the landing at Plymouth Rock with Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, Americans have demonstrated unending creativity in devising variations, often radical variations, on Christianity, from Mormonism, Christian Science, Seventh Day Adventism, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses to the numberless evangelical Protestant denominations.

In every case, these new belief systems rested on fantasy. And there, Andersen argues, lies the rub. Most Americans seem willing to suspend disbelief to worship on the basis of precepts any self-respecting science fiction writer would reject as improbable. (If you think I’m exaggerating, read The Book of Mormon as written by Joseph Smith, or Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by by Lawrence Wright.) Interestingly, Andersen cites studies by scholars at Yale and the University of Chicago that found “the single strongest driver of conspiracy belief [is] belief in end-time prophecies.”

Andersen frequently cites findings from public opinion surveys to telling effect. “Nearly all American Christians believe that Heaven (85 percent) and Hell (70 percent) are actual places,” he writes. Focusing on “the solid majority of Protestants, he adds that “at least a quarter of Americans . . . are sure ‘the Bible is the actual word of God . . . to be taken literally, word for word.'” And “more than a third of all Americans . . . believe that God regularly grants them and their fellow charismatics magical powers—to speak in tongues, heal the sick, cast out demons, and so on.” Elsewhere, Andersen notes, “According to Pew, 58 percent of evangelicals believe that Jesus will return no later than the year 2050. (And only 17 percent of all Americans said they thought He definitely wasn’t coming back during the next thirty-three years.)” With such beliefs so widely held, fake news and “alternative facts” can be no surprise.

The problem is far broader than fanciful religious beliefs

Fantasyland is far from limited to the religious sources of Americans’ predisposition to fantasy. Andersen regards shopping malls, planned communities, Civil War reenactment and Renaissance Faires, fantasy sports, theme restaurants, People magazine, cosmetic surgery, pro wrestling, computer games, reality TV, and Disney theme parks as other signposts of our infatuation with the unreal and the impossible. It’s difficult to argue with this on a strictly logical basis. Andersen makes the case. Yet I find it a stretch too far to imply that such phenomena are in any way equivalent to fantasies such as widespread voter fraud, hysteria about vaccines, and the pernicious practices of Scientology, all of which have real-world consequences and sometimes lead to physical harm and even death. However, Andersen implies that, because of conditioning by these seemingly inconsequential realities, Americans are peculiarly susceptible to dangerous conspiracy theories.

Another author examined America’s religious history in an excellent recently published book. I reviewed One Nation, Under Gods by Peter Manseau at America’s surprising religious history in a highly readable book. Earlier, I had reviewed two other books with insight about American history: Corruption in America by Zephyr Teachout (Citizens United, bribery, and corruption in America) and Republican Gomorrah by Max Blumenthal (When religion dominated the views of American conservatives).


From Ross Thomas, another take on small-town skullduggery

skullduggery - The Fourth Durango by Ross ThomasThe Fourth Durango by Ross Thomas

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

The late Ross Thomas wrote twenty-five novels about crime, espionage, politics, and corruption between 1966 and his death at age sixty-nine in 1995. No two are alike, and every one of them is a gem. They brim over with wit, insight, brilliant characterization, and Thomas’ distinctively spare writing style. In recent years, St. Martin’s Griffin has brought out new paperback editions which are also available for the Kindle. Many of these titles include introductions by Thomas’ contemporaries and successors in the crime genre. Among them are such successful practitioners of the craft as Sara Paretsky, Lawrence Block, Joe Gores, and the late Donald E. Westlake. Every introduction is a paean to Thomas’ consummate writing skill.

The Fourth Durango, published in 1989, was one of Thomas’ last contributions to his many fans. As in nearly all his other novels, the characters are entirely new. Unlike most successful mystery writers, Ross Thomas didn’t make things easy on himself by adopting a formula and a fixed cast of characters in a series. (However, there are a few who appear in more than one novel, including Cyril “Mac” McCorkle and Michael Padillo, who own a pub together and become involved in nefarious activities involving spies and a mysterious government agency; con men Artie Wu and Quincy Durant, and Washington lawyer Howard Mott.)

In The Fourth Durango, disbarred attorney Kelly Vines reunites with his friend Jack Adair, formerly chief justice of the supreme court of an unnamed state who is leaving behind a stretch in the federal maximum-security penitentiary near Lompoc, California. Jack had been convicted on the bogus grounds of tax evasion because the feds couldn’t prove a bribery charge. Now, someone is trying to kill him for reasons unknown. Kelly spirits him off to the nearby town of Durango, California, “the city that God forgot.” (It’s the fourth Durango because it isn’t any of the ones in Mexico, Colorado, or Spain.) There, Kelly and Jack seek help from the beauteous Mayor B. D. Huckins and her boyfriend, Chief of Police Sid Fork. The two are delighted to hide the pair away indefinitely for a considerable cash consideration. Skullduggery of the highest order is afoot. In fact, hiding away fugitives is the town’s major industry and provides the revenue to keep open the schools and the VD clinic.

Once the two men begin settling in at Durango, we slowly begin to learn the backstory that explains Kelly’s disbarment and Jack’s conviction. Meanwhile, all hell breaks loose as first one, then other murders crop up, and numerous other complications ensue. It’s all a glorious clusterf**k. And it’s fun all the way.

Recently, I also reviewed Thomas’ Out on the Rim and Briarpatch. See From Ross Thomas: con men, a $5 million bribe, and a Philippine rebellion and It’s hard to beat this political thriller.


Even more fun facts: which authors have written the most books?


Classic authors, most of them bestsellers in their time.



You’re gonna love this.

Once upon a time, back in the distant reaches of the twentieth century—well, actually it was 1984—one of my clients assigned me to ghostwrite a fundraising letter that Isaac Asimov had agreed to sign. I approached the task with some trepidation, both because I knew Asimov’s reputation as a prolific author and because I had actually met the man once and knew how prickly he was (but that’s another story).

Eventually, I managed to draft the letter and, as directed, I sent it off to Asimov’s New York apartment via FedEx. I phoned two days later in hopes the famous man had actually had a chance to read my deathless prose. His wife answered. When I asked to speak with him, she said, “Oh, no, he’s much too busy to talk. He’s writing.” (Well, of course! What else would the man be doing?) She added that she was certain he’d get back in touch with me.

Sure enough, the following day I received a FedEx package from Asimov. Fearfully, I extracted the draft copy—and was flabbergasted to note a signed permission slip and, miraculously, what appeared to be absolutely no changes in the text. However, when I examined the text more carefully, I noted one alteration in tiny handwritten script.

I had written “As the author of more than 300 books . . .”

Asimov changed that to read “As the author of more than 310 books . . .”

Ultimately, the celebrated author of both popular science and science fiction books went on to write a total of more than 400 volumes. Is he the most prolific author, living or dead?

Not by a long shot.

A widely circulated post on Trivia-Library attributes that dubious honor to a certain South African writer named Mary Faulkner, who died in 1973 at the age of 70. The Guinness Book of World Records reportedly ranks her as “history’s most prolific novelist, [who] wrote under six pen names.” Faulkner wrote a total of 904 books.

Writers much better known than Faulkner (Georges Simenon, John Creasey, Barbara Cartland, Alexandre Dumas) as well as others much more obscure who are included on the Trivia-Library list of “20 Most Prolific Authors and Writers in Literary History” are each credited with writing between 258 and 850 books. And that doesn’t even include the two people I have known personally who have each written more than 400 books. (One writes science fiction, the other mostly porn.)

But wait. Even 904 novels won’t cut it.

Further investigation turns up a report that “In 2006, Guinness World Records declared L. Ron Hubbard the world’s most published and most translated author, having published 1,084 fiction and non-fiction works that have been translated into 71 languages.”

Don’t recognize the name of this illustrious wordsmith? He was the paranoid schizophrenic, pathological liar, and fugitive from justice who founded Scientology. He died in 1986 at the age of 75 with a fortune equivalent to nearly a billion dollars today. (Hubbard’s the man who famously said, “If you want to get really rich, start a new religion.” Ahem!)

But hold your horses. Isaac Asimov, Mary Faulkner, and L. Ron Hubbard combined don’t even register in the same octave as the prodigious Philip M. Parker. This superhuman individual, a 54-year-old professor of management science at INSEAD, a top-rated global business school based in France, claims to have authored more than one million books. (My source is This Is Improbable: Cheese String Theory, Magnetic Chickens, and Other WTF Research, by Marc Abrahams.)

You read that right. One million books—and he’s only been writing them since 2008. (However, Amazon lists only 133,501.)

Here are a few of Professor Parker’s deathless titles:

  • The 2007–2012 Outlook for Bathroom Toilet Brushes and Holders in the United States
  • The 2007–2012 World Outlook for Rotary Pumps with Designed Pressure of 100 P.s.i. or Less and Designed Capacity of 10 G.p.m. or Less
  • Avocados: A Medical Dictionary, Bibliography, and Annotated Research Guide
  • Webster’s English to Romanian Crossword Puzzles: Level 2
  • The 2007–2012 Outlook for Golf Bags in India
  • The 2007 Report on Wood Toilet Seats: World Market Segmentation by City
  • The 2007–2012 Outlook for Frozen Asparagus in India

Just makes you want to rush right out and snap up an armful of these gems, doesn’t it?

Well, maybe not. And especially when you learn that Professor Parker doesn’t actually write any of these books. This obviously clever man has instead written a slew of computer algorithms that do the writing for him, turning out, say, at least six books about the outlook for bathroom toilet brushes.

Bianca Bosker, writing for Huffington Post, reports that “Parker started by generating market reports sold to banks, consulting firms and government trade agencies interested in the sales outlook for, say, rubber or corrugated cardboard. Now, he hopes to use the algorithms to help with language learning and education in developing countries. Thanks to Parker’s automated radio broadcasts, people in parts of Malawi are hearing weather forecasts in the local language for the first time—and are already changing their farming patterns as a result.”

This is the fourth of recent posts here highlighting “fun facts” about books, authors, readers, and publishers. Previously, I posted Fun facts about books, authors, and readersMore fun facts: how many books are there, really? and  Yet more fun facts: who is the world’s bestselling author?


The Cold War reexamined in John le Carré’s terrific new novel

Cold War reexamined - A Legacy of Spies - John le CarreA Legacy of Spies by John le Carré

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

The consummate British spy George Smiley originally appeared in 1961 in John le Carré‘s Call for the Dead, his first novel. The last time he was a central character was 1979 in Smiley’s People, nearly forty years ago. (His most recent appearance, but only as a supporting character, was in The Secret Pilgrim, published in 1990.) Now, decades later, Smiley surfaces again in the background in le Carré’s twenty-fourth novel, A Legacy of Spies (2017). Given the author’s six-decade career as a novelist, the decade he had spent as an intelligence officer for both MI6 and MI5, and the worldwide popularity of his work, Smiley’s reappearance in 2017 is a major event in the publishing world. And, luckily, A Legacy of Spies is worth all the fuss.

The Cold War reexamined

Decades earlier, late in the 1950s and early in the 60s, Peter Guillam had served as a young MI6 officer under the legendary George Smiley, then serving one step below Control as “Head of Covert.” Smiley and Control had involved him in a spectacularly devious operation named Windfall that targeted East Germany’s Stasi. Now, many years later, Guillam is an old man, retired to the family farm in Brittany. An urgent summons calls him to London, where he learns that he and Smiley have been sued by the children of two people who fell victim to that old operation—and, worse, Members of Parliament are threatening an investigation that has the potential to cause great damage not just to them personally but to the Secret Intelligence Service as a whole. Peter is sequestered in a run-down safe house and interrogated by an unpleasant pair of officers who are convinced that he and Smiley were responsible for the two deaths and for causing Windfall to fail in a disastrous fashion.

Complex and believable characters, palpable suspense

The action rapidly shifts back and forth from Peter’s recollections of Windfall and the hostile questioning he faces years later, illuminated by official documents that come to light in the files of MI6 as well as the Stasi. At the age of 85, le Carré has lost none of his considerable writing skill. His characters leap off the page, fully fleshed. Suspense builds steadily as the case against Peter grows ever stronger. And, in dialogue as well as memory, the ambiguous morality of the espionage game comes across just as clearly as it did in the novels le Carré wrote during the Cold War. A Legacy of Spies is a worthy successor to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, the breakthrough bestseller that established the author as the premier spy novelist of the last half-century.

For my review of other recent le Carré spy novels, see John Carre’s latest, about anti-terrorism, is brilliant and John Le Carre on British espionage at the end of the Cold War.  You might also be interesed in 17 good nonfiction books about espionage.

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