Tag Archives for " crime novel "

Joseph Finder’s latest crime novel

crime novelA review of The Fixer: A Novel, by Joseph Finder

@@@ (3 out of 5)

For years I’ve been a big fan of Joseph Finder’s work. He has written a slew of excellent crime novels over the years. (Buried Secrets and Paranoia were two of my favorites.) But The Fixer doesn’t measure up — it’s good, but far from great.

The story begins auspiciously when Rick Hoffman stumbles across a huge pile of cash behind a wall while renovating his father’s house. $3.4 million, in fact. The cash leads to questions about the old man’s work as a lawyer. Rick and his sister, Wendy, had always known Leonard as a defense attorney for small-time porn purveyors, drug dealers, and other assorted scumbags. Clearly, though, the pile of cash suggests Leonard was involved in something bigger. Rick, an investigative reporter who was fired from his last job, determines to find out for himself what nefarious business the old man was engaged in. By himself, of course!

Through ups and downs, Rick’s solo investigation brings him into contact with a rogue’s gallery of malefactors, from ex-soldiers for the Provisional IRA to crooked contractors and shady PR people. He uncovers a terrible crime committed in the construction of the Big Dig, the gargantuan subterranean highway project that transformed Boston a generation ago. He also reconnects with an old flame he dumped when he left high school.

There are flashes of the old Finder in this novel. For example, he writes, “Investigative journalism wasn’t like meeting Deep Throat in a parking garage. It was like mining for gold. You dug and dug, past the topsoil, down to the mineral layer, then you blasted the rock apart using explosives, then you trucked the rocks somewhere else to crush and process, and for every ton of rocks you went through, you’d get maybe five grams of gold. [Rick] was still digging into the topsoil.”

Unfortunately, the ending of The Fixer becomes obvious after a time, and Rick is an idiot who repeatedly gets himself beaten up unnecessarily. I found myself gritting my teeth every time I read that Rick was setting out to meet with another one of the heartless criminals who were responsible for the terrible crimes that came to light in his investigation.

If you’re hard up for something to read, and it must be a crime novel, then The Fixer might do the trick for you. But there are better options.



A terrific murder mystery set in Stalin’s Soviet Union

soviet unionA review of The Holy Thief: A Novel (Captain Alexei Dimitrevich Korolev, #1), by William Ryan

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

With The Holy Thief, William Ryan joins Martin Cruz Smith (the Arkady Renko Series) and Tom Rob Smith (the Child 44 Trilogy), whose compelling crime novels have illuminated the dark recesses of the Soviet Union (or, later, Russia).

However, Ryan’s new contribution is set not in the 1950s, the 80s, or more recently, as are those of the two Smiths, but in the 1930s during the peak of Stalin’s wide-ranging purges of the Communist Party and the military. It’s unusual for a novel to include a list of sources, but The Holy Thief ends with a long one, testament to the thoroughness with which Ryan approached his subject. The picture that emerges is much darker than those painted by the two Smiths — which is only natural, since untold millions died on Stalin’s orders in the 1930s.

What’s most distinctive, and most rewarding, about this engrossing novel is the adroit way Ryan conveys a sense of the pervasive paranoia fostered by Stalin’s reign of terror. The abject poverty of the USSR comes through clearly as well. Yet all of this is shrugged off by all but a handful of freethinkers. Virtually everyone else is convinced that the Soviet system will triumph under the brilliant leadership of Josef Stalin and all will be well in a future Communist state. Judging from the popularity of Vladimir Putin in today’s Russia, it’s not hard to believe the acceptance of Stalin’s lies. Putin doesn’t have on his hands the blood of millions, and his government falls short of totalitarianism, but the kleptocracy over which he presides matches the scale of Stalin’s regime.

The story is complex. It’s 1936. A young woman turns up the victim of a gruesome murder in one of the few churches left standing in Moscow. Detective Captain Alexei Dmitriyevich Korolev of the Moscow Militia’s Criminal Investigation Division is called to the scene. (The Militia, the Soviet counterpart to Scotland Yard, is the junior partner to the much-feared NKVD — predecessor to the KGB — within the state security apparatus.) Shortly after undertaking his investigation into the baffling crime, Korolev is approached by a Colonel Gregorin, one of the most senior officers in the NKVD. Gregorin volunteers the information that the murdered woman is of Russian birth but American citizenship. She is an Orthodox nun, Gregorin explains. It soon transpires that the nun was apparently part of a conspiracy to steal a highly prized icon and spirit it away to the US, safe from the predations of the Soviet government. Then a second murder victim, a Thief, surfaces at a soccer stadium, clearly butchered by the same person. (The Thieves are a tightly knit network of murderers, rapists, and other violent criminals who essentially run the prisons in the Gulag and lord it over lesser underworld figures in Russia’s cities.) Somehow, the two murders are connected — and Korolev must figure out how.

The Holy Thief is suspenseful and full of surprises. Any fan of crime novels, detective fiction, or thrillers — or, for that matter, historical fiction — will likely find this book rewarding.


A short crime novel about Boston’s lowlife by a master of the genre

lowlifeA review of The Drop, by Dennis Lehane

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

The Drop is peopled with the lowlife who used to be called “the criminal element” in Boston, Dennis Lehane’s favorite stomping ground. Bob, a bartender; his boss “Cousin Marv”; Eric, a brutal ex-con; Nadia, a woman with a suspicious scar on her neck; a long-dead scumbag named Richie; a Chechen mob boss called Chovka; and a pit bull puppy all figure prominently in this beautifully crafted little crime novel from a master of the genre. The pall of Catholic guilt lies over this collection of sad sacks and repeatedly figures in the action.

“The drop” of the title is the bar where Bob works under Cousin Marv’s supervision — shorthand for a “drop bar,” one of numerous taverns throughout Boston where the allied crime families (Chechen, Irish, Italian, Black) drop the proceeds of their gambling rackets in an unpredictable sequence. Predictably, Cousin Marv’s bar will be the location of the drop one night soon. What isn’t predictable is what transpires before, during, and after all those millions are eased into a container behind the bar. The suspense is palpable.

If there’s any message in this novel, it might be this: “Cruelty is older than the Bible. Savagery beat its chest in the first human summer and has kept beating it every day since. The worst in men is commonplace. The best is a far rarer thing.” If this suggests to you that The Drop is not a fun read, you would be right.

Dennis Lehane, formerly of Boston, is one of America’s best-known writers, largely on the strength of the high-profile films made of his novels Mystic River (directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Sean Penn), Shutter Island (directed by Martin Scorsese), and Gone, Baby, Gone (directed by Ben Affleck). The Drop has been adapted to film, too, featuring the final feature film appearance of James Gandolfini (The Sopranos). Lehane has also won awards for his outstanding scripts for the seminal TV series, The Wire.

Hard-boiled crime fiction set in contemporary Chicago

crime fictionA review of The Governor’s Wife (Michael Kelly Series #5), by Michael Harvey

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

You yearn for hard-boiled crime fiction that’s set in today’s reality? Read on.

Marilyn Stasio covers books on crime for the New York Times Book Review. Though I sometimes disagree with her judgment, I’ve found interesting leads in her column from time to time. The most recent of these was The Governor’s Wife by Michael Harvey, the fifth of his novels featuring Chicago private eye Mike Kelly.

To describe Harvey’s writing, I can’t possibly do anything better than Jon Foro did in his mini-review for Amazon.com of Harvey’s first novel: “Michael Harvey’s gritty debut, The Chicago Way, rips the classic crime novels of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett from their 30s origins and slams them like a brass fist into the teeth of modern-day Chicago.”

Kelly, a former cop, is a lone wolf P.I. with a network of specialists on tap to lend a hand in his investigations, including, of course, a detective still active on the Chicago P.D. Kelly is used to scrounging for cases to pay the bills, so he is, to put it mildly, surprised when he receives an anonymous email asking him to locate a missing person — and receive $100,000 up front and another $100,000 after he finds the man.

The missing person is Ray Perry, the latest in a long line of Illinois Governors who have run afoul of the justice system. Two years ago, Perry was convicted and sentenced to thirty years in the pen for outdoing himself in extorting money from the system. (At least some judges, even in Chicago, take a dim view of flagrant corruption.) The problem — and the reason Kelly has been hired to locate him — is that Perry disappeared from the courthouse immediately after being sentenced and hasn’t been seen in the two years since.

Interesting set-up, no? One of the strengths of this novel is that Harvey is adept at surprising the reader. If you’re a veteran reader of detective fiction, you may anticipate some of the twists and turns of the plot, but it’s extraordinarily unlikely that you’ll figure them all out. Of course, what’s clear from the start is that this novel is all about corruption in Chicago. I’ll leave it at that, since I don’t want to spoil the story for you.

An unusual psychological thriller from Britain

psychological thrillerA review of Disclaimer: A Novel, by Renee Knight

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Mystery and thriller writers employ a wide variety of recognizable devices to create suspense and make their novels hard to put down. The most annoying of these are the clumsy clues sprinkled throughout whodunits and the deliberately misleading omission of facts known to a central character. None of that hits the reader in the face in Disclaimer, a recent novel by the British novelist Renee Knight.

Disclaimer is straightforwardly constructed in alternating chapters and shifting time periods from the point of view of its two principal characters, Catherine Ravenscroft and Stephen Brigstocke. The story is set in 2013, with flashbacks to 1993 and other times in the past. Catherine, the mother of a five-year-old who died twenty years earlier, is married to a successful lawyer, Robert Ravenscroft. They live comfortably in a toney London neighborhood. Stephen is a retired teacher whose beloved wife, Nancy, died seven years earlier; their only child, a son named Jonathan, had died at the age of 19, many years earlier. Stephen scrapes by on a pension.

The story opens when Catherine discovers that an unfamiliar book has mysteriously turned up in her house — and “stumble[s] across herself tucked into” its pages. “Names may have been changed but the details are unmistakable, even down to what she was wearing that afternoon. A chunk of her life she has kept hidden.” As the tale unfolds, we learn more and more about what happened that afternoon and how Stephen is connected to the mysterious book.

Disclaimer is billed as a psychological thriller, and it lives up to that billing. The book is indeed suspenseful, the underlying mystery deeply puzzling. The Telegraph termed Disclaimer “suburban noir,” comparing it to the runaway bestseller Gone Girl, and the Guardian included it among its list of best recent crime novels. Though I think the book is a noble effort, I wouldn’t go that far: in the concluding chapters I found it progressively more difficult to continue reading, as the actions of all the characters seemed to me to be irrationally exaggerated. Unfortunately, the story wouldn’t have worked had that not been the case. It’s always something, right?

A thrilling police procedural

police proceduralA review of Crash and Burn, by Lisa Gardner

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Crash and Burn opens straightforwardly enough with an automobile tumbling down a hillside in northern New Hampshire, nearly killing Nicole Frank, the intoxicated woman driver. But as the story unfolds, it turns out to be anything but straightforward. Frank sets police off on an intensive, wide-ranging search for her daughter, who is nowhere to be found — and the story becomes steadily more puzzling as the days go by. Frank, it turns out, had suffered three concussions in recent months, raising suspicions about her relationship with her husband, Thomas.

Above all, Crash and Burn is an able police procedural, following Sergeant Wyatt Foster of the North County Sheriff’s Criminal Investigations Division and his remarkable young sidekick, Detective Kevin Santos, as they pick their way forward to an understanding of what happened in that crash. “An accident like this wasn’t reconstructed in a matter of hours,” author Lisa Gardner explains, “but in a matter of days, if not weeks. But they would do it. Thoroughly. Meticulously.” As she then proceeds to reveal.

As his investigation unfolds, Sergeant Foster must also confront a more personal mystery: his girlfriend, a cop herself, was suspected of murdering her ex-husband, and evidence may now be emerging that she was, indeed, responsible. Gardner skillfully weaves this subplot together with Foster’s pursuit of the truth about Nicole and Thomas Frank.

Recently two crime thrillers by women authors have virtually dominated the bestseller lists: first, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, and, more recently, The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins. (I reviewed Gone Girl here and The Girl on the Train here.) Until Crash and Burn began getting a little ragged as its conclusion approached, I was tempted to think it approached the brilliance of Gone Girl. It falls short of that exalted standard but, in my not-so-humble opinion, Crash and Burn is more satisfying in the end than the highly contrived, coincidence-riddled The Girl on the Train.

Beware, though: Gardner needs a better editor. There are few phrases in literature more notorious than “a dark and stormy night,” which appears in the lead sentence for Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s atrocious 1830 novel, Paul Clifford, often held up as the worst opening ever written. As I recall, that phrase appears four times in Crash and Burn. 

Lisa Gardner is the author of eighteen crime novels and, writing under the name Alicia Scott, thirteen romance novels. Her books frequently appear on the New York Times bestseller list.

Revisiting black humor (not Black humor)

black humorSneaky People, by Thomas Berger

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Back in the 1960s, when I began reading in earnest beyond the boundaries of textbooks and science fiction, novels characterized by critics as “black humor” were popular, and I ate them up. (That’s black as in dark or cynical, gallows humor, not African-American.) This was the heyday of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Bruce Jay Friedman, Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, John Barth, and, sometimes, Philip Roth. Thomas Berger, the late author of Little Big Man, graduated into this school of writing, too. Sneaky People was one of his efforts at black humor.

Sneaky People, published in 1975, is a good novel because it was written by a consummate pro with an admirable command of the English language and because it so faithfully evokes life in America in the closing years of the Depression — not because it’s funny. I’m sure some readers found it so, but I was taken much more with the descriptions of Depression-era lifestyles: the rampant racism and anti-Semitism, the sexual repression, and especially the frequent references to the cost of everyday purchases (a hamburger for fifteen cents, fifty cents to pay the teenager down the block to cut your lawn, a good pair of shoes for twelve dollars, eighty-five cents for a carton of cigarettes, and, I’m sure, a good five-cent cigar). Sneaky People is a historical novel, and a good one.

Here’s the setup: Buddy Sandifer, who has both the ethics of a used-car salesman and owns a lot full of them to prove it, is a flashy dresser with a wife he has decided to kill, a busty mistress (a prostitute) he plans to marry, and a fifteen-year-old son named Ralph. Buddy can’t keep his pecker in its place, and Ralph has inherited his preoccupation with sex. When Buddy offers the “colored” handyman at his used-car lot two hundred dollars to murder his wife, his troubles really begin. Meanwhile, Ralph is getting himself mixed up in trouble of his own, dragged into law-breaking by his brutish friend, “Horse” (Horace). As both tales creep forward in alternating chapters, they gradually move closer to each other and ultimately intertwine in a multi-part conclusion that’s full of surprises.

To stretch a point, you could call Sneaky People a crime novel, but it most certainly doesn’t make the grade as a mystery or thriller. I picked it up because some self-important and probably delusional book critic listed it among the 100 best mysteries and thrillers of all time: if this book fits his definition of that genre, I can only imagine what else he might have included on the list. (I can’t remember: maybe I’ve repressed it.)


Dave Robicheaux tackles the mob

dave robicheauxA review of Black Cherry Blues, by James Lee Burke

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

“What time it is?” “For how come you burn them leafs under my window, you?” “While I was driving your truck, me, somebody pass a nail under the wheel and give it a big flat.”

This is Cajun English, in all its glory, and James Lee Burke plays it for all the brilliant local color it can add to Black Cherry Blues. For any lover of language, this alone is sufficient reward for reading this third novel in his outstanding Dave Robicheaux series focusing on crime on the margins of Louisiana society. And it’s not just Burke’s rendering of the local dialect. His narrative writing style commands attention, too. For example, “I’ll never forget that summer, though. It’s the cathedral I sometimes visit when everything else fails, when the heart seems poisoned, the earth stricken, and dead leaves blow across the soul’s window like bits of dried parchment.” In other words, this is no run-of-the-mill example of writing about crime. Burke’s prose often sings.

Dave Robicheaux, a twice-wounded junior officer who led a platoon in Vietnam, has left the New Orleans Police Department after an unhappy career as a detective. Now, he owns a bait-, boat-rental, and sandwich-shop on the bayou, where he lives with the six-year-old girl he calls his daughter — the explanation lies in a previous novel — and works as a private detective on the side. His wife, Annie, was brutally murdered in bed by two thugs who’d hoped to kill him instead. Her death constantly haunts him. She appears nightly in his dreams, robbing him of sleep.

Enter Dixie Lee Pugh, his freshman roommate in college, once a high-flying country music star, now washed-up after five ruined marriages and a stretch in prison for murder. His chance meeting with Robicheaux in a local bar sets in motion a series of increasingly violent events that involve his former partner in the police, the Las Vegas and Reno mob, and threaten both their lives. The action swings from Louisiana to the oil-fields of Montana, with suspense steadily mounting to a crashing conclusion.

For crime and mystery fans who can tolerate over-the-top violence, Black Cherry Blues is a terrific read. James Lee Burke knows how to write a thriller!

The 18 best books of 2014

best books of 2014OK, I admit it. I haven’t read enough of the three million books published in English this year to claim that these are the year’s very best books. But neither has the staff of the New York Times Book Review, for that matter! All I can say is that I choose books to read very carefully within certain categories — nonfiction, trade fiction, mysteries & thrillers — and I review only those books I actually read from beginning to end. (Yes, new books sometimes go on the discard pile when I find them boring.) The upshot is that these eighteen books are the ones I’ve read during the past twelve months that I found most memorable. Oh, and don’t be surprised if you find that a few of these books were actually published before 2014. Sometimes it takes me awhile to catch up on my reading!

Here, then, are my eighteen picks for the year, six in each of my three categories. They’re listed in no particular order.


The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us and What We Can Do About It, by Joshua Cooper Ramo

A brilliant analysis of the complex dilemmas facing policy-makers today by a protege of Henry Kissinger.

The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide, by Gary J. Bass

Forty years ago, millions died in Bangladesh’s war of independence from West Pakistan. The American government was complicit.

The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War, by Stephen Kinzer

Eisenhower’s Secretary of State and his brother called the shots in American foreign policy for more than a decade, waging secret wars and bullying adversaries to combat Communism and promote Big Business.

Engineers of Victory: The Problem-Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War, by Paul Kennedy

Churchill, Roosevelt, Marshall, Eisenhower, Nimitz, and MacArthur played crucial roles in winning World War II, but so did dozens of little-known scientists and junior officers who solved practical problems on the front lines.

The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor,  by William Easterly

Billions still languish in poverty because the “experts” in charge of development have completely overlooked the insight and resourcefulness the poor themselves can bring to the table.

The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News — and Divided a Country, by Gabriel Sherman

The former Republican National Chairman becomes the patron saint of the Right by building the most effective propaganda machine since Joseph Goebbels.

best books of 2014Trade Fiction

The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver

A fascinating historical novel of Revolutionary Mexico and the US from the 1920s to the McCarthy years, with close-up portraits of Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Leon Trotsky.

The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride

An unlikely and hilarious take on the anti-slavery struggle in the years leading up to the Civil War, from Bleeding Kansas to John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.

Fever: A Novel of Typhoid Mary, by Mary Beth Keane

For turn-of-the-century Americans, Typhoid Mary was the most reviled woman on the planet. This is her story, sympathetically told in the form of a novel.

Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimananda Ngozi Adichie

In the closing years of the 1960s, while the US was roiled by protests against the war in Vietnam, more than a million people died in the recently independent nation of Nigeria in a costly civil war rooted in long-standing ethnic conflict.

Running the Rift, by Naomi Benaron

A gifted American poet spins an unforgettable tale of life in Rwanda before and during the tragic genocide of 1994.

The List, by Martin Fletcher

A tale of the Holocaust told by indirection through the lives of Jewish refugees in suburban England immediately following the end of the Second World War.

best books of 2014Mysteries and Thrillers

The Neon Rain, by James Lee Burke

An intricately plotted novel of murder and government overreach set in 1980s New Orleans.

How the Light Gets In: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel, by Louise Penny

The masterful Quebecois detective confronts all his enemies in this brilliant story of police corruption.

Midnight in Europe, by Alan Furst

A tale of the Spanish Civil War in one of Alan Furst’s many insightful landscapes of Europe in the 1930s and during World War II.

Phantom, by Jo Nesbo

Set in Oslo, a maddeningly suspenseful novel featuring the Norwegian detective Harry Hole.

The Ophelia Cut, by John Lescroart

Violence and courtroom drama in San Francisco in a tale that lays bare the seamy underside of the city’s diverse population.

The Burning Room, by Michael Connelly

Harry Bosch and his new partner, Lucia (“Lucky Lucy”) Soto, tackle a pair of “open-unsolved” murders in a gritty police procedural set in today’s Los Angeles.

Funny crime fiction, and from John Sandford!

Funny crime fiction written by John Sandford: DeadlineDeadline, by John Sandford

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

It’s rare in my experience to come across funny crime fiction. Donald E. Westlake‘s series about the master criminal John Dortmunder was a glaring exception and never failed to please. Carl Hiaasen‘s novels about environmental crimes fit the bill, too. I’m sure there are others. The dialogue in Elmore Leonard‘s books sometimes made the grade as humor. But if there is a crime writer working today whose dialogue is consistently as funny as John Sandford’s in his novels featuring the Minnesota crime investigator Virgil Flowers, I don’t know who that is.

In Deadline, Sandford’s newest excursion into the backwoods life of Virgil Flowers, a case of dognapping becomes entangled with small-town school board corruption and the murder of an alcoholic investigative journalist. Flowers’ life is threatened, and so are his friends’. Naturally, it all comes out right in the end, but the tale is a twisted one, with lots of laughs along the way despite the utter seriousness of the crimes. (Yes, you’ll come away understanding that even dognapping is serious, whatever you might think about our canine friends.)

Vengeance is the third of Sandford’s eight Virgil Flowers novels that I’ve read and reviewed. Previously reviewed: Mad River and Shock Wave. I’ve also reviewed five of his 25 Prey novels featuring Flowers’ boss, Lucas Davenport: Stolen Prey, Field of Prey, Silken Prey, Storm Prey, and Phantom Prey