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

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

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

The New Orleans mob, a crooked film director, and a 40-year-old crucifixion

new orleans mobSunset Limited (Dave Robicheaux #10), by James Lee Burke

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Here’s what to expect from a novel in the Dave Robicheaux series by James Lee Burke: Dave will get himself into trouble by ignoring orders from the Sheriff, his boss, and by disregarding threats from supremely dangerous people. Dave’s former partner in the New Orleans Police Department, Clete Purcell, will make even more trouble for himself. Dave’s partner in his bait shop, Batist, his adopted teenage daughter, Alafair, and his wife, Bootsie, will all make cameo appearances. The New Orleans mob or the Dixie Mafia, and possibly both, will prove to be involved in some nefarious and deadly goings-on in New Iberia Parish, where Dave lives and works. At least one hitman will make multiple attempts to kill Dave or someone close to him. A diverse array of characters will wander in and out of the tale, including ex-convicts, both Black and white, New Orleans mobsters with colorful names, a wealthy and powerful white family, a lesbian deputy sheriff, and perhaps an FBI or DEA agent. And a tragic event many years in the past will be revealed to lie at the heart of a tangle of mysteries now bedeviling Dave.

Now, you might think a formulaic approach like this would quickly grow stale. But the Dave Robicheaux series is anything but stale and predictable. In fact, there’s little that’s predictable in these eminently readable thrillers. The mystery at the core of the plot is so complex that no reader is likely to untangle it before the story’s end. The books’ setting in rural southern Louisiana is lush and steamy, painted in Burke’s evocative, poetic language, and he portrays every character in three dimensions. The dialogue is lively and inventive. In short, James Lee Burke is one of the most accomplished English stylists I’ve encountered anywhere.

In Sunset Limited, the tenth novel in the Dave Robicheaux series, the long-ago event that centers the story is the crucifixion of Jack Flynn, a radical labor organizer, forty years in the past. Flynn’s son and daughter, Cisco and Megan, have just returned to New Iberia in the midst of successful careers elsewhere—Cisco as a film producer, Megan as an award-winning photographer sought all over the world. Cisco has come to produce a film on site in New Iberia with a famous director and a high-priced cast. Unfortunately, the director is nasty and thoroughly unscrupulous, and the Hong Kong Triads are financing the film. Meanwhile, an African-American ex-con named Cool Breeze Broussard has managed to bring in the FBI to investigate his charge of brutality in the local lockup and succeeds in gaining release into the agency’s custody. And there is a connection between Broussard and the film that will not be revealed until much later.

For Dave, the mystery that is causing him to lose sleep involves that forty-year-old crucifixion. Three men were responsible, and he wants to know who they are. As he pursues his investigation, he finds himself deeply ensnared in Cool Breeze’s life and fate, in the questionable activities of the Flynn siblings, and in confrontations with the New Orleans mob, the film director, a wealthy local landowner, and a pair of hitmen who show up in the parish. If you like untangling puzzles, you’ll love Sunset Limited.

James Lee Burke is one of my favorite writers—in any genre. I’ve reviewed many of his books, most recently The master of Louisiana noir and Neo-Nazis, the Jewish Defense League, and a sunken Nazi submarine.

 

last month

A Swedish thriller without crazed serial killers

Swedish thriller The Lost Boy (Fjällbacka #7), by Camilla Läckberg

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

If you read Scandinavian noir but have had your fill of deranged serial killers, pick up a copy of The Lost Boy by Camilla Läckberg. Like the preceding novels in her bestselling Fjällbacka series, The Lost Boy shines with in-depth characterization and complex plotting that offers surprises to the very end. If you’re insightful about psychology, you might pick up well in advance on a couple of the plot’s major twists and turns—but it’s very unlikely you’ll catch them all. Camilla Läckberg is good!

In a devastating car crash, Ericka Falck’s infant nephew died and she was forced to undergo a Caesarian to give birth to premature twin boys. To compound the terror, Ericka’s husband, Detective Patrik Hedström, immediately collapsed from what appeared to be a heart attack. But months have passed, and finally all’s well in the Falck/Hedström home. The twins are thriving, their two-year-old sister dotes on them, and both Ericka and Patrik are fully recovered: Patrik had collapsed from stress, not a heart attack. But Ericka’s younger sister, Anna, was in the car and suffered an abortion in the crash. Now she is despondent and unresponsive to her children, her husband, and Ericka.

Against this backdrop, six other stories begin unspooling. A former classmate of Ericka’s has hidden in her cottage on a nearby island with her five-year-old son; her husband has been murdered, and they hope to evade the same fate. In flashbacks to the 1870s, a young woman living on the same island has been virtually enslaved by her cruel husband. A brother-and-sister team of con artists, having swindled a fortune from the town of  Fjällbacka, is preparing to flee. The town’s treasurer has been murdered, too. A battered wife and her two children are holed up in Copenhagen, having fled Sweden. And Patrik’s incompetent boss, the chief of police, is getting on the nerves of the two younger lesbian women who live with him and his girlfriend. (One of them is her daughter.) Yes, a whole lot happens in a Camilla Läckberg novel!

If there is any overarching theme to The Lost Boy, it’s domestic violence. The investigation Patrik and his colleagues undertake into the murder of the town’s treasurer gives them (and the reader) a window on the issue and how it’s dealt with in Sweden.

About the author

Camilla Läckberg was born in Fjällbacka, Sweden, the setting for all her novels about Patrik Hedström and Ericka Falck. She has written ten novels to date in the Fjällbacka series. As best I can tell, all have been translated into English. The most recent, The Witch (2017), isn’t available in the United States at this writing. Of the other nine, six have appeared in Kindle editions. I’ve now read and reviewed all six.

a couple of months ago

Child soldiers, bank fraud, and eccentric police in a Danish thriller

Child soldiersThe Marco Effect (Department Q #5), by Jussi Adler-Olsen

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

In a region of Cameroon populated by people outsiders call pygmies, a Danish development project has gone off the rails. Then, shortly after a visitor from the Danish foreign ministry is glimpsed on a visit, the local liaison between the project and the Danes is brutally murdered. Back home in Denmark, one of the foreign ministry officials involved in the project goes missing. We’ve learned that a senior official in the ministry and top executives at a Copenhagen bank are involved in a massive fraud. Meanwhile, troubles mount for a 15-year-old boy who is enslaved as a thief and a beggar by a band who style themselves Gypsies. We know there are connections among all these circumstances. But Carl Mørck doesn’t.

Detective Inspector Carl Mørck and his unlikely sidekicks, Asaad and Rose, take on the official’s disappearance despite being warned off the case. All three have a long history of doing exactly what they want—and nothing more. Carl thinks of the two as unstoppable: “The two of them together were like a herd of stampeding gnu on the plains of Africa. Heads down and full steam ahead, and if he wasn’t going to join in, he’d better get out of the way.” Until now, they’ve been able to get away with acting only on their own because they close cases at an unusually high rate for the Copenhagen police force. But now their boss, the head of the homicide department, is retiring unexpectedly. And his boss, no friend of Carl’s, is moving temporarily into the job. To keep an eye on the three misfits of Department Q he assigns an awkward third-year law student as a spy, thus complicating the team’s efforts to uncover the truth behind the official’s disappearance and presumed death.

As Mørck, Asaad, and Rose dig into the circumstances of the official’s disappearance, more complications arise. That 15-year-old-boy, Marco, emerges as the central figure in the case. The boss’ spy frustrates the investigation with inappropriate and unauthorized questions directed at suspects. All the while, Marco is on the run from the head of the “Gypsy” clan, who wants him dead for defying him.

It’s all a fine mess—an investigation that’s far more complicated than it has any right to be. But, as the three hapless investigators in Department Q stumble toward a resolution, it’s a whole lot of fun.

 

a few months ago

Pedophiles, serial murder, and the Holocaust in a Swedish psychological thriller

pedophilesThe Crow Girl: A Novel, by Erik Axl Sund

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

If you favor mysteries and thrillers full of surprises, you’ll love The Crow Girl by the Swedish writing team that publishes under the name Erik Axl Sund. No matter how shrewd and analytical you might be, I predict that you won’t figure out who’s who and what’s what until at least close to the end of this staggeringly complex novel. And, unless you read at a blistering pace, this is not a book you’ll finish at one sitting: the hardcover edition runs to 784 pages.

To say that I enjoyed this novel would be misleading. At times it’s gruesome beyond belief. And I found the constant use of long Swedish place names distracting. Yet the writing is devilishly clever. It’s difficult to put the book down. In fact, I found it impossible.

It’s difficult to exaggerate just how complicated this story is. It’s a tale about pedophilia, serial murder, unhappy marriages, dissociative identity disorder, a fundamentalist Christian sect in Lapland, the Great Famine in the Ukraine, the Holocaust, and Swedish police procedures. Got that? No? I understand. I could never have imagined a single story linking all these themes.

The Crow Girl opens like so many other crime stories. The mutilated body of a young immigrant boy is discovered, and Detective Superintendent Jeanette Kihlberg from the Stockholm police is assigned to the case. But neither the police chief nor the prosecutor who both have authority over her will provide her with the necessary resources. Then the bodies of two other young boys are found nearby. Evidence links the three murders, so Kihlberg is faced with tracking down a serial killer, on her own time when necessary.

To gain insight into the psychopathology of serial murderers, the Superintendent enlists the help of a brilliant psychologist, Sofia Zetterlund. It soon develops that both women are stuck in unhappy marriages, so you’ll quickly begin to wonder where that will lead. And that’s only the first of a long list of complications and surprises that come to light again and again in this masterful tale.

The Crow Girl is the first book in the Victoria Bergman trilogy. The remaining two books in the trilogy are not yet available in English translation, nor is the authors’ fourth novel.

 

 

a few months ago

Biowarfare, white supremacists, and a Hollywood star in the new Sara Paretsky

biowarfareFallout (V. I. Warshawski #19), by Sara Paretsky

@@@ (3 out of 5)

In the course of 18 novels by the redoubtable mystery writer Sara Paretsky, courageous Chicago detective V.I. (Vic) Warshawski has come face to face with corruption both public and private in her quixotic crusade to clean up her hometown—and get a life in the process. Now, in the 19th, Vic travels to Lawrence, Kansas, to track down a missing African-American Hollywood star and the young filmmaker accompanying her. The novel represents a homecoming of sorts for Paretsky herself. Lawrence is her hometown. There, her father was a cell biologist at the University of Kansas for decades, and a man whose work is similar is one of the book’s central figures.

Most of the familiar characters surrounding Vic appear in the story at least in passing: her late cousin Boom-Boom Warshawski, a star with the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team; her 90-something neighbor, Mr. Contreras; Lotty Herschel, an eminent physician and a Holocaust survivor; Lotty’s boyfriend, Max Lowenthal; and Vic’s beloved golden retriever, Peppy.

The story opens as impetuous young Bernadine Fouchard, a rising hockey star, comes to Vic demanding that she track down a missing friend, a young African-American man named August Veriden. Someone has broken into the locker where drugs are stored at the gym where August trains. August has disappeared—and is widely blamed for the theft, even though both his home and the gym have been methodically torn apart. It soon becomes clear that the young man has left town with an aging movie star, Emerald Ferring, one of the first Black stars in Hollywood. For unknown reasons, they have headed off to Lawrence, Kansas.

When Vic arrives in Kansas, it doesn’t take her long at all to get into trouble. Outside a bar where she’s gone for information, she stumbles on two women passed out. One is a young college student, the other a woman in her 30s who is clearly the worse for wear from drink and drugs. Her name is Sonia Kiel. Eventually, Vic learns that Sonia is the daughter of a famous microbiologist at the University—but neither he nor his alcoholic wife is willing to lift a finger for their daughter. Then Vic finds the body of another woman lying on the floor of a farmhouse. Dead. The local Sheriff blames Vic for the murder.

Fallout is a complex story that involves not just the microbiologist, his allegedly crazy daughter, and the movie star but also an abandoned Minuteman missile silo, a shadowy agribusiness, the U.S. Army and Air Force, radioactive fallout, a white supremacist group, a missing film, and a young woman who is desperate to know whether her father is the graduate student who worked for Dr. Kiel and then died or went missing in 1983. It’s a little difficult to sort all this out along the way, but a careful read of the text will clear things up before the halfway point.

I’ve enjoyed all the many V. I. Warshawski detective novels I’ve read, but this one doesn’t quite measure up to the rest.

 

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