a day ago

From Timothy Hallinan, a very funny crime novel set in Hollywood

Timothy HallinanKing Maybe (Junior Bender #5), by Timothy Hallinan

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Junior Bender is the most ethical burglar you’ll ever meet (assuming you ever meet burglars). You’re just as likely to find him declining to steal something he knows the owner truly loves, because he really doesn’t want to hurt anybody. Mostly he steals from other criminals.

Junior operates in Los Angeles in a comic universe populated by such characters as Stinky Tetweiler, “the San Fernando Valley’s top premium-swag fence,” and Louie the Lost, an erstwhile getaway driver who once went the wrong direction following a heist and now makes his way through life as a source of sensitive information of special interest to crooks. Louie’s the guy who asserts that “Kings . . . are just crooks with better hats.”

King Maybe, a character at the center of the story in Hallinan’s novel of the same name, is “the most powerful man in Hollywood.” He’s a producer with options on every worthwhile project in sight, and he sits on them to keep everyone else in suspense. He’s also a thoroughly rotten SOB. Junior is forced to deal with King Maybe as a way to avoid being killed by several hitmen, most of whom appear to be pursuing him because he has stolen a postage stamp worth a quarter-million dollars from their boss, who is himself a hitman. (No, that doesn’t make sense to me, either.)

There’s no point summing up the plot of King Maybe. It’s a cockamamie story, of course. But it’s very, very funny.

Timothy Hallinan, author of the Junior Bender series, has an unsurpassed way with words. Here he is describing Junior’s one-night accommodations in flight from a hitman: “. . .the Dew Drop Inn was a dump, worthy of three stars in The Masochist’s Guide to Sleepless Nights. The carpet, which had apparently been shampooed with petroleum jelly, made an alarming little blown-kiss sound every time I lifted my shoe. The wallpaper was in the midst of a long and acrimonious divorce with the walls; it had developed big, unsettling blisters, as though something gelatinous, something straight out of H. P. Lovecraft, were trying to bloom its way through.” And here he is commenting on a neighborhood where the Dew Drop Inn would never have been built: “We were in a neighborhood where even the weeds were expensive.”

Timothy Hallinan has written nineteen novels to date. King Maybe is the fifth of the six novels in his Junior Bender series. In two other series, he features an L.A. private eye (Simeon Grist) and a travel writer living in Bangkok (Poke Rafferty), where Hallinan spends half of each year.

I reviewed Crashed, the first of the books in the Junior Bender series, here: A career criminal narrates this clever and funny mystery. For links to my reviews of other series of crime novels, see 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.


6 days ago

An engaging spy novel from former MI5 director Stella Rimington

Stella RimingtonIllegal Action (Liz Carlyle #3), by Stella Rimington

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

In Illegal Action, the third novel in the Liz Carlyle series by Dame Stella Rimington, Liz is transferred from her prestigious post in Counter-Terrorism to a new job in the Russian section of Counter-Espionage. The section is widely considered a backwater in MI5, but ts acting director feels differently. Brian Ackers is an old hand from the Cold War who sees little difference between the KGB of the 1980s and the SVR of the 2000s. He’s rigid and often unreasonable. However, as a more credible source makes clear to Liz, “There are more foreign intelligence officers in London now than before the fall of the Berlin Wall.”

Liz is unhappy working for Ackers. To make matters worse for her, the bureaucrat in the Foreign Office who has veto power over Counter-Espionage is if anything more rigid than Ackers and understands little of what the job requires. When intelligence reports indicate that the Russians have dispatched an “illegal” to Britain for what is undoubtedly to be a major operation, Liz is assigned to a potentially dangerous undercover role. She gets little help from Ackers and none from the Foreign Office. Surprisingly, though, her old nemesis, Geoffrey Fane of MI6, proves to be supportive.

Four months after Liz has moved to Counter-Espionage, intelligence gleaned by MI6 makes clear that the target of the illegal’s operation is one of the thirty-odd Russian oligarchs now living in London. Which one? That’s impossible to know. But there are tantalizing hints that it’s a former KGB officer, now a billionaire many times over, named Nikita Brunovsky. Though it seems unlikely, MI5 and MI6 suspect that the operation is to be a repeat of the Alexander Litvinenko assassination some years earlier, when a fugitive former KGB officer was murdered by polonium. Ackers has assigned Liz to infiltrate Brunovsky’s household, joining the retinue of shady and sycophantic characters who surround him. The plot that unfolds involves long-lost paintings by a 20th-century Russian artist named Pashko which Brunovsky is determined to acquire. His passion for the artist’s work gives Liz an entree into his household following a week-long cram course with an aging Russian emigre art historian at Cambridge. As an “art student” researching Pashko’s work, she is easily able to join the billionaire’s retinue. With difficulty, she seems able even to fool the art experts Brunovsky has retained.

The action shifts from Brunovsky’s palatial home to an art auction house and eventually to Ireland, while Liz lives undercover in an MI5 safe house, spending much of her time in the billionaire’s presence. A violent confrontation seems inevitable if in fact the intelligence is accurate and MI5 has identified the right target among the olhgarchs. However, Stella Rimington’s espionage tales aren’t blood-soaked shoot-em-ups like so many other novels in the genre. The circumstances and characters in Illegal Action are entirely credible, and the spycraft she describes is authoritative, as Dame Stella served as an officer in MI5 for three decades, finishing her career as the agency’s first female Director General.

Not long ago I posted a list of My 10 favorite espionage novels. At Risk, the first Liz Carlyle novel, made the list. And I reviewed Secret Asset, the second novel in the series, here: An engrossing novel about British counter-espionage.



last week

Michael Connelly introduces a tough new lead character in “The Late Show”

Late ShowThe Late Show, by Michael Connelly

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

After writing 29 other thrillers, including 20 in the venerable Harry Bosch series and five of the Lincoln Lawyer novels, Michael Connelly has introduced a new lead character. Is this the beginning of a new series? We’ll have to see. But Renee Ballard is certainly interesting enough.

Detective Renee Ballard is a fourteen-year veteran of the LAPD, ten of them as a detective. She works “the late show,” the midnight shift in Hollywood. Two years earlier, she had lodged a sexual harassment complaint against her boss, Lieutenant Robert Olivas. She’d lost the case when her ambitious partner, Ken Chastain, refused to back up her claim by testifying to what he’d seen with his own eyes. Olivas had then had Ballard assigned to the late show, which is regarded as punishment.

Ballard is a hothead, quick to anger and slow to forgive a slight. Ignored by her mother, she had grown up sleeping on beaches with her father as she followed him around the world to surfing competitions. As a child, she saw him disappear under a wave, never to resurface. When Ballard was a teenager, her grandmother rescued her from the rough life in Hawaii and brought her to live with her in Ventura, California. She acquired a degree in journalism and worked for a time as a reporter. As her dark skin and distinctive features show, Ballard is at least partially Hawaiian or Polynesian. To this day, she makes a practice of heading out to Venice Beach with her dog Lola for an hour of paddleboarding after her shift. Her only permanent address is her grandmother’s home in Ventura.

Ballard’s partner, Detective John Jenkins, is marking time until retirement. But he’s protective of her. When he sees her working a case she’s been repeatedly warned to avoid, he tells her, “There’s this saying they have about conformist society: The nail that sticks out gets pounded down.”

“Okay, so what are you saying?” Ballard asks.

“I’m saying there’s a lot of guys in this department with hammers. Watch yourself.”

“You don’t have to tell me that.”

“I don’t know—sometimes I think I do.”

Though Ballard’s ornery flouting of authority seems to be a prerequisite for a lead character in a detective novel—Connelly’s Harry Bosch is an obvious example—the formula works well here. Ballard is a complex and interesting person.

In The Late Show, Ballard takes on three separate cases simultaneously, demonstrating her shrewdness as an investigator and her refusal to give up even when ordered to do so by her superiors. First is a case of credit card fraud. Though the effort was unsuccessful, Ballard insists on tracking down the perpetrator by working the phone. In the second, far more serious case, a cross-dressing male prostitute is found brutally beaten with brass knuckles and left for dead. Ballard sets out to find the man responsible. But the biggest case is the third. Five people have been shot and killed at close range in a Hollywood nightclub. Three of the victims were anything but innocent: all were career criminals. Ballard seizes an opportunity to look for the killer of a young waitress who was one of the other victims.

Every one of these three cases is fascinating in its own right. In Michael Connelly’s hands, the three are seamlessly woven together in an increasingly tense and suspenseful story that is likely to satisfy any fan of police procedurals. Having written for decades about crime in Los Angeles, Connelly is intimately familiar with the ways of the LAPD. The result is a thoroughly engrossing and convincing tale of crime and punishment through the eyes of an intelligent and caring police officer.

For my review of one of the Harry Bosch novels, go to Michael Connelly’s best Harry Bosch novel? For another prominent writer’s perspective on policing in Los Angeles, see Joseph Wambaugh’s Hollywood Police Saga. For reviews of dozens of other excellent novels in this genre, go to 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.



a couple of weeks ago

An Elvis-themed restaurant, a five-year-old murder, and Inspector Rebus

Elvis-themed restaurantThe Black Book (Inspector Rebus #5), by Ian Rankin

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Read any one of the 21 novels published to date in the Inspector Rebus series, and you will have no doubt that Ian Rankin, is a native Scotsman, and proud of it. You’ll rush to the dictionary from time to time to look up strange words known only to the inhabitants of that cold and rainy land. And you’ll read about people actually eating haggis—willingly! (They even ask for it in restaurants!) This is all evident in The Black Book, the fifth entry in the series, a more mature effort than the four novels that precede it. John Rebus seems to have grown into his skin. His relationships with his colleagues in the Edinburgh police have fallen into a familiar pattern. And the underlying mystery is, characteristically, impenetrable until close to the end. Rankin is in fine form in this excellent example of detective fiction.

The standout elements of The Black Book are an Elvis-themed restaurant (in Edinburgh!), the complex and sometimes treacherous internal activity of the Edinburgh police, and our first extensive exposure to Morris Gerald “Big Ger” Cafferty, John Rebus’ white whale. (Yes, that restaurant is fictional.)

The story opens as a young man staggers into a butcher shop with a knife wound in his abdomen. He refuses to reveal anything about how he came to be stabbed, or by whom, and the butcher—his uncle, it later develops—professes to know nothing, or even to recognize the younger man. While Inspector Rebus and his two charges, Detective Sergeant Brian Holmes and Detective Constable Siobhan Clarke, labor to learn what happened, another attack takes place, much closer to home. As Holmes is leaving his favorite hangout, an Elvis-themed restaurant, he is savagely hit on the head in the parking lot and sent into a coma. Eventually, Rebus learns from Holmes’ girlfriend that he had been preoccupied lately because of something he had recorded in his notebook, the “black book.” Rebus soon decodes Holmes’ cryptic abbreviations, learning that Holmes had been on the trail of information about a five-year-old unsolved murder. This is the mystery that is central to the plot.

As Rebus and Clarke work in secret to unravel the mystery—they have been assigned to what they regard as a futile surveillance detail—it quickly becomes clear that the city’s rich and powerful are somehow involved. Apparently, both the owner of the prosperous local brewery and his son as well as Big Ger Cafferty seem to have been present in the building where the murder took place. Rebus’ dogged attempts to learn the truth about what happened there five years ago expose him and his brother to vicious attacks and result in getting him suspended from the police force. Of course, all will work out in the end. The Black Book is, after all, a murder mystery in a series. The hero must triumph in the end so the author may tell another tale.

I’ve reviewed a number of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels. One is at Devil worship and murder in this early Inspector Rebus novel. Another is here: Inspector Rebus goes to London to catch a serial murderer. These are among scores of detective novels I’ve reviewed over the years. You can find a list of my favorite series at 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

a couple of weeks ago

Multiple murder in the Australian outback

multiple murderThe Dry: A Novel, by Jane Harper

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

If you’ve ever been to the desert in central Australia, you’ll find it easier to envision the setting in Jane Harper‘s thriller, The Dry: the featureless landscape, the stifling heat, the desolation, the sheer loneliness that the landscape inflicts on you. The novel is set somewhere south of the desert, in drought-ridden farming and sheep-herding country, but it still conjured up memories of my brief visit to the Alice Springs area more than a decade ago. It’s difficult to understand how or why anyone would choose to live in such a place. It’s somewhat easier to picture a multiple murder in such a forbidding environment.

Aaron Falk has returned to Kiewarra twenty years after he and his father had fled the town, hounded by accusations that one or the other of them had murdered Aaron’s teenage friend, Ellie Deacon. He’d been living ever since in Melbourne, far to the south, lately working as a federal investigator specializing in financial fraud. He’d returned reluctantly to attend the funeral of his boyhood best friend, Luke Hadler, his wife, and five-year-old son. They’d all been brutally shotgunned to death in a gruesome multiple murder, and Luke himself was suspected both by the townspeople and the police who’d been called in to investigate. But Luke’s parents are certain their son didn’t kill his family and himself. They’ve pressed Aaron to find out what happened. Against his better judgment, Luke has consented to stay for a week to look into the case.

Aaron quickly finds he isn’t welcome back in Kiewarra. He’s still suspected of murdering Ellie Deacon two decades earlier. Unfortunately, Luke had no alibi for the period when Ellie was killed. He’d only avoided arrest because Luke had persuaded him to tell the police that the two of them were together at the time. It hadn’t then occurred to Aaron to suspect that Luke was only gaining an alibi for himself, but now he wonders because all evidence points to murder-suicide in the deaths of the Hadler family.

Are the two mysteries connected in some way? We suspect as much, but any explanation will clearly be a long time coming in this award-winning novel. With few allies other than Luke’s aging parents, Aaron struggles against fierce resistance from the townspeople and his own suspicions as the investigation unfolds. Jane Harper tells the tale through flashbacks to Aaron’s teenage years and narrative about the increasingly complex case that only slowly becomes clear as Aaron pursues the elusive truth.

To read my review of another, somewhat similar mystery, go to An engrossing small town thriller. For links to dozens of other mysteries and thrillers, see 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.


a couple of weeks ago

Harry Hole investigates a two-decade-long string of serial murders

serial murdersThe Snowman (Harry Hole #7), by Jo Nesbo

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

It’s difficult to surpass the fiendishly complex plotting on offer in every one of the Harry Hole novels by Jo Nesbo. Other thriller writers may equal Nesbo’s skill in one or even several books, but few (if any) are better. In The Snowman, the seventh entry in the Harry Hole series, the surprises keep coming, one atop another, as the suspense builds steadily as Harry approaches the resolution to another case of serial murders. If you can unravel the mystery early in this book, your deductive powers are greater than mine. As a long-time reader of mysteries and thrillers, did I anticipate a couple of the revelations? Yes. But the adroitness with which Nesbo weaves the elements of his story together still kept me guessing until the end.

As The Snowman opens, Inspector Hole has just turned 40. He is unaccountably sober, for a change, and he’s exercising regularly. His long-time lover, Rakel Fauke, has kicked him out of her house because she forever finds herself in second place after his job. Now Rakel is on the verge of marrying a jovial, even-tempered physician who is Harry’s opposite in so many ways. For Rakel’s eleven-year-old son Oleg, however, the separation is a tragedy. He dislikes the doctor and thinks of Harry as “Dad.”

At the Crime Squad, Harry is now working with a sharp new detective recently transferred to Oslo from the Bergen police. Katrine Bratt may even be Harry’s equal as an investigator—and as a workaholic. Together they set out to explore a missing-persons case that is, in fact, probably a murder. A young woman has mysterious disappeared from her home, leaving behind a distraught husband and five-year-old son. Then a second woman disappears. Her decapitated head is found atop a snowman in the woods near her farm. Now Harry and Katrine are convinced they have a serial killer on their hands—and Harry is the only Norwegian police officer ever to have captured a serial killer or to have studied serial murders with the FBI. He quickly becomes convinced that the murders taking place in 2004 are somehow linked to a notorious murder in 1980 that was followed by the disappearance of the homicide detective who was investigating the case.

In recent years, I’ve read and reviewed most of the other Harry Hole novels. One of my reviews can be found at Harry Hole, the Salvation Army, and a gay Croatian hitman. Another is at Gypsies, bank robbers, and the Norwegian police.

If series like the Harry Hole novels interest you, take a look at a recent post of mine: 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.


3 weeks ago

An excellent Maisie Dobbs novel from Jacqueline Winspear

Maisie DobbsElegy for Eddie (Maisie Dobbs #9), by Jacqueline Winspear

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Throughout his life, Eddie Pettit was considered “slow.” Naive and trusting to a fault, he was indeed slow to understand much of what was said to him. But Eddie had two great gifts. He possessed a prodigious memory, not just for numbers and circumstances but for images (eidetic memory) as well. Today, he might be diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. But Eddie’s second gift made him truly exceptional. Literally born in a stable, he had a lifelong affinity for horses, and they for him. Eddie Pettit could calm even the most excitable horse and was widely known for his talent.

But now Eddie Pettit is dead, victim of what was purportedly an accident at a paper factory where he was visiting friends. Five of his mates from the old neighborhood in Lambeth have come to visit Maisie Dobbs in hopes she will uncover the truth about Eddie’s death. Like all of them, Maisie had been born into poverty in Lambeth. Now, however, she is Cambridge-educated, well-established as an “investigator and psychologist,” and a wealthy woman as the heir of her late mentor. Without hesitation, Maisie takes on the assignment, declines payment, and launches an investigation with the help of her two assistants, Billy and Sandra.

The search for the truth about Eddie’s death brings Maisie and her small staff face to face with anti-union organizing, a string of mysterious murders, a police cover-up, and a conspiracy to prepare Britain for war with Nazi Germany. It’s 1933, and Adolf Hitler has just seized power as German Chancellor. Winston Churchill is agitating for the country to rearm, but few are listening. This is a story set in a particular time and place, and it all fits.

All the novels in this series portray Maisie as contemplative, but none more than Elegy for Eddie. All the while the investigation unfolds, Maisie struggles with her relationship with the aristocratic James Compton. They live together on and off as husband and wife and attend social events together. Increasingly, though, Maisie doubts whether she can marry James. (“They had ventured out with their hearts towards honesty, but had scurried back to protect their feelings.”) She is also struggling with what today we might call liberal guilt. The large fortune she inherited from her mentor, Dr. Maurice Blanche, weighs heavily on her—and it provides her with the means to solve other people’s problems, which she does all too frequently. She resists criticism from friends who point out that intervening in other people’s lives can lead to resentment. Overall, Maisie puzzles who she is and where her life is going: “What did she want her life to be considered well-lived? How could she honor both her past and at the same time take on a future that offered so many more opportunities than she might ever have imagined?”

Elegy for Eddie is the ninth book in the growing Maisie Hobbs series, now thirteen in number. Author Jacqueline Winspear, born and educated in Great Britain, emigrated to the United States in 1990. She now lives in Marin County, California. Previously, I’ve posted reviews of all eight earlier novels in the series. One of those reviews can be found at The pleasures of reading Maisie Dobbs. Another is here: Another great detective novel from Jacqueline Winspear.

last month

A daring heist, a frustrated novelist, and the ghost of F. Scott Fitzgerald

daring heistCamino Island: A Novel, by John Grisham

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

A gang of five thieves pulls off a spectacular heist, making away with five priceless manuscripts handwritten by F. Scott Fitzgerald from the Firestone Library at Princeton University. They leave behind only one shred of evidence: a drop of blood. This alone enables the FBI to identify one of the thieves, and in short order they succeed in arresting him and one of his accomplices. But the other three have gone free, the leader of the gang among them.

As months go by with no further evidence coming to light and no sign surfacing of the manuscripts, the FBI’s case goes cold. But a private agency specializing in the recovery of stolen artwork has been hired by the manuscripts’ insurer. Facing fewer inhibitions than the FBI, they’ve managed to turn up a lead to a prominent independent bookseller located on Camino Island off the coast of Florida. And they have a perfect way in to investigate the man: an attractive young female novelist with close ties to the island, a burdensome student debt, a teaching job that’s about to end—and writer’s block.

This is the setup in John Grisham‘s latest novel, Camino Island. The book is vintage Grisham: diabolically clever plotting, a constellation of conflicting personalities, a shifting point of view, and an unadorned, no-nonsense writing style.

At 31, Mercer Mann is winding up a teaching gig at the University of North Carolina. She has one critically acclaimed novel and a book of short stories under her belt but is three years late to deliver the manuscript for a second novel. When Elaine Shelby shows up in her life with the offer of a great deal of money to undertake a simple assignment, she turns down the money. Then she is contacted again by the collection agency that’s pursuing her about the $61,000 in student loans she still owes, and when Elaine offers to retire the loans in addition to paying her $100,000 in cash, Mercer relents. Her assignment: move back to Camino Island, where she had spent idyllic summers as a teenager with her grandmother, hole up in the cottage in which she still has a financial interest, and simply befriend the local bookseller. Bruce Cable, the bookseller, is well known to socialize with authors and has a pronounced taste for attractive young women. It seems Elaine has chosen her agent well.

Meanwhile, Denny, the leader of the thieves, is following the trail of the manuscripts, which he had sold cheaply in a panic after his two accomplices were arrested. Clearly, he, too, will be making his way to Camino Island. The suspense builds steadily. Predictably, all these players—Bruce, Elaine, Mercer, the FBI, and Denny—eventually collide in a surprising and typically ironic Grisham-like conclusion.

Previously, I reviewed seven of John Grisham’s novels: Another fiendishly clever John Grisham novelThe belated sequel to John Grisham’s breakthrough first novel, John Grisham vs. Big Coal, The police come off badly in John Grisham’s latest novelWhy do so many people buy John Grisham’s books?,  Get this: John Grisham’s latest novel is funny, and John Grisham takes on judicial corruption.

last month

Another excellent novel in the Bernie Gunther series by Philip Kerr

philip kerr

A German Requiem (Bernie Gunther #3), by Philip Kerr

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

It’s 1947. Berlin is a shambles. The meager amount of food available is rationed, leaving the surviving German population on the verge of starvation while the occupying forces eat their fill. The city is sharply divided between the eastern, Soviet-occupied zone and the rest governed by the three Western Allies. In the western zone, German women known as “chocoladies” sell sex for food, cigarettes, and alcohol. In the east, rape by Russian soldiers is nearly inescapable. As Bernie Gunther reflects, “These days, if you are a German you spend your time in Purgatory before you die, in earthly suffering for all your country’s unpunished and unrepented sins, until the day when, with the aid of the prayers of the Powers—or three of them, anyway—Germany is finally purified. For now we live in fear. Mostly it is fear of the Ivans, matched only by the almost universal dread of venereal disease, which has become something of an epidemic, although both afflictions are generally held to be synonymous.”

Berlin in the wake of World War II

These are the conditions under which former Berlin homicide detective Bernie Gunther and his wife Kirsten stagger from day to day. Though she was a schoolteacher in the past, she now works as a waitress in an American bar open only to servicemen. Because she frequently arrives home late he suspects she is sleeping with an American officer to obtain the coffee, butter, and chocolate that’s obviously from the American PX. To flee the unpleasantness, Bernie accepts a strange and lucrative job offered by a colonel in the Soviet MVD (precursor to the KGB), he agrees to accept it even though it will require him to travel to far-off Vienna and probably spend a long time there.

A treacherous assignment in post-War Vienna

On the surface, the job appears straightforward. A German black marketer, one of Bernie’s colleagues years earlier on the murder squad, has been imprisoned by the Americans on a charge of murdering one of their officers. But quickly the assignment proves to be anything but simple. As Bernie digs into the details of the case, he becomes convinced that the man is innocent of the crime he’s charged with, even though he has done a great many terrible things in his life. However, attempting to prove that leads Bernie into a tangled affair involving American counter-intelligence, the MVD, the recruitment of German intelligence officers by the USA, and an organized campaign to protect former SS war criminals from exposure. Two high-ranking, real-world Nazi war criminals— Heinrich “Gestapo” Müller and Arthur Nebe—play crucial roles in the tale. Like other novels in the Bernie Gunther series, Kerr skillfully builds suspense while digging deeply into Bernie’s complex personality.

Philip Kerr on “collective guilt”

Bernie has a great deal to answer for, having been dragooned from the Berlin homicide squad into the service of Josef Goebbels and later Heinrich Himmler and commissioned as an SS officer. He had refused to participate in the mass killing of Jews in Latvia, been reassigned to the Eastern Front, and was later imprisoned in a Soviet POW camp, never having stooped to the arrogance and cruelty of those he served with. But Bernie feels distinctly uneasy whenever he encounters cold, disdainful treatment at the hands of the Americans he encounters. Although “it is certain that a nation cannot feel collective guilt,” Bernie notes, “that each man must encounter it personally. Only now did I realize the nature of my own guilt—and perhaps it was really not much different from that of many others: it was that I had not said anything, that I had not lifted my hand against the Nazis.”

About Philip Kerr

In 1989-91, Philip Kerr wrote the first three novels in the Bernie Gunther series. A German Requiem concluded the trilogy. Fifteen years later he resumed the series, adding an additional ten novels to date (the last of which, Greeks Bearing Gifts, is scheduled for publication in 2018).

Previously I’ve reviewed most of the other novels in the Bernie Gunther series. One review is at A hard-boiled detective in Nazi Germany. Another is here: An exciting chapter in the Bernie Gunther saga.


last month

Bumbling spies again in Mick Herron’s Slough House series

Slough HouseThe List: A Novella (Slough House #3), by Mick Herron

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

MI5 officer John Bachelor has already been put out to pasture, in a manner of speaking. For some time now, it’s been his job to track several former foreign assets who have retired to England. Then one of them, Dieter Hess, suddenly dies—and John has a problem. A big problem. Diana Taverner, a Deputy Director at MI5, corners him at Hess’ wake and explains why he can’t just forget about poor Dieter, even though the old man has clearly died of natural causes. As she lays down John’s new assignment, he starts “to get an inkling of how mice felt, and other little jungle residents. The kind preyed on by snakes.”

Here’s John’s problem: Taverner, known as “Lady Di,” explains that “assets, even retired assets, even dead assets, fall on my desk. Which means I do not want the Dogs sniffing around this [in an internal investigation], because it makes me look bad.” John now fears being relegated to Slough House, where the agency’s misfits and royal screw-ups are sequestered with make-work assignments. But Lady Di makes it clear that John’s fate could be worse.

Luckily for John, when he tears up Dieter’s apartment in search of evidence that might point to something problematic, he comes across a list of names. Alone, he can’t track down the people on the list. But, commandeering a newly trained officer and others inside MI5, he learns that everyone on the list is well past their sell-by dates (as my British friends might say). Most are in nursing homes, and several living in various stages of dementia—except for one young woman. Dieter had been presenting them all as his assets and collecting subsidies in their names from the German intelligence Service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst. Following direction from Jackson Lamb, the notorious director of Slough House, John can now proceed with a clever plan: to “turn” the young woman into a double agent to pass along disinformation to the Germans.

Will all this go well? Since this little novella was written by Mick Herron, we shouldn’t expect anything of the sort. Like Slough Horses and Dead Lions, two novels that preceded The List in Herron’s Slough House series, we know the story will twist and turn—and keep us laughing all the way.


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