Tag Archives for " detective fiction "

From Connie Willis satire that doesn’t make me laugh

satireBellwether, by Connie Willis

@@ (2 out of 5)

I’m a big fan of satire. For instance, I love Christopher Buckley‘s books. Some of them make me laugh almost nonstop. But there’s nothing worse than a satirical tale that. Just. Isn’t. Funny. Unfortunately, that’s what I found in Bellwether by Connie Willis. Apparently, Willis wrote the novel to satirize scientists and corporate bureaucracy. But the characters and their behavior are over the top. To call them outrageous might be a compliment. A little restraint would have gone a long way.

So, how did I get sucked into reading this book in the first place, much less read it all the way to the end? Connie Willis is an extraordinarily talented science fiction and fantasy author. She has won eleven Hugo Awards and seven Nebula Awards—more major awards than any other writer in the field. Years ago, I was greatly impressed by her 1992 Nebula Award-winner about time travel, Doomsday Book. And the cover of Bellwether characterizes her (justifiably) as “one of science fiction’s best writers.” Unaccountably, Bellwether, published five years after Doomsday Book, was itself nominated for a Nebula Award. Suffice it to say that if I had been voting—I’m a long-time member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, though no longer a voting member—I would have gone for something much more in line with my idea of science fiction. Bellwether doesn’t cut it.

The novel’s protagonist is one Sandra Foster. She calls herself a scientist and engages in lots of mathematical calculations to prove it. She is analyzing fads and fashions for the unimaginatively named HiTek Company, presumably in an effort to discover how fads start and “how scientific discoveries come about.” (The connection between these two lines of inquiry is not obvious to me.) Management (capital “M”)—a person, not a category—of HiTek is interested in her work, she believes, because he is eager to learn how to start fads himself. Sandy is plagued by the rudeness and incompetence of the “interdepartmental assistant” who misdelivers mail, starts ugly rumors, and refuses to take on routine assignments such as photocopying. Compounding problems for Sandy, Management is obsessed with impossibly long forms on paper, which are impossible to understand, and with the latest acronym-laden management theory, which changes every few days. As I said, the story is over the top. But the situation becomes even more intolerable when Management decides that the entire scientific staff must bear down in an effort to win the prestigious, million-dollar Niebnitz Grant.

Each chapter in Bellwether begins with a brief description of one or another fad that has captivated humanity through the ages, from the hula hoop to quality circles, miniature golf, hot pants, coonskin caps, chain letters, and many more. Some of this material is interesting. But there’s entirely too much of it.

Eventually, Sandy teams up with a researcher in chaos theory named Bennett O’Reilly. Absurdly, Ben is attempting to learn what sets chaotic conditions in motion, apparently believing there must be some logic in a complex system. Will Sandy and Ben fall in love? Will they win the Niebnitz Grant? You shouldn’t have to read this book to figure it out.

For a successful effort at satire, see Self-help gurus get their comeuppance from Christopher Buckley or Washington and Beijing get what they deserve in this satirical novel of politics and diplomacy today.

15 great suspenseful detective novels (plus 23 others)

suspenseful detective novels - A Stained White Radiance - James Lee BurkeThe 15 detective novels listed below 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 here. I gave every one of these books a rating of @@@@@ (5 out of 5). They’re listed alphabetically by the authors’ last names.

I’ve arbitrarily limited myself to one book per author, which is significant because three authors made my preliminary list multiple times. (I’d included six by James Lee Burke, four by Michael Connelly, and three by Philip Kerr, but chose only one of each.) Notably, four of the 15 authors are Scandinavian and four represent the British Isles. Six are American. (For the record: I’ve also read, or tried to read, detective novels from France, Italy, The Netherlands, Russia, China, and India. None of them warranted a 5-@ rating. In my opinion, of course.)

There was a total of 38 books on the preliminary list. You’ll find the 23 runners-up separately below, arranged in no particular order.

This wasn’t easy.

The top 15

A Conspiracy of Faith (Department Q #3), by Jussi Adler-Olsen

In the third novel in Adler-Olsen’s extraordinary Department Q series, the three misfits of the Copenhagen Police’s cold case department wrestle with fiendishly complex investigations involving a message in a bottle, religious fanaticism, kidnapping, serial murder, arson, and gang warfare. Carl Mørck heads the team. He is assisted by Hafez el-Asaad, a brilliant Syrian refugee with a mysterious past, and a schizophrenic “secretary” named Rose who rarely follows orders. It sounds foolishly complicated and more than a little silly, but it works beautifully.

Elegy for April (Quirke #3), by Benjamin Black (John Banville)

Dr. Quirke is Dublin’s alcoholic chief coroner. Together with his friend in the Garda, Detective Hackett, Quirke involves himself in a perilous investigation that exposes the tight grip of the Catholic Church on Irish society and the crimes committed in her name. This is the third novel in the Quirke series. The books are set in the 1950s. The pseudonymous author is the Booker Prize-winning Irish writer John Banville, who claims that he writes these mysteries solely for fun and profit.

A Stained White Radiance (Dave Robicheaux #5), by James Lee Burke

James Lee Burke is hands down the most accomplished literary stylist in the crime genre. His series of novels featuring Detective Dave Robicheaux of the New Iberia Parish (Louisiana) Sheriff’s Department evokes the rural South in all its lyrical beauty and suppressed violence. A Stained White Radiance, the fifth book in the series, involves Klansmen, Nazis, and Mafia wiseguys. Dave takes on the bad guys with the support of his loving family and of his former partner on the New Orleans Police Department, Cletus Purcell.

The Crossing (Harry Bosch #18), by Michael Connelly

In one of the most recent entries in Michael Connelly’s bestselling series featuring LAPD Detective Harry Bosch, the now-retired investigator teams up with his half-brother, Mickey Haller, the protagonist of another of Connelly’s long-running series of crime novels. In this hybrid work—a police procedural and a courtroom drama rolled into one—Harry has “crossed over” to the defense to work with Mickey on a fascinating capital murder case.

A Banquet of Consequences (Inspector Lynley #19), by Elizabeth George

The aristocratic Inspector Thomas Lynley and his brilliant but exasperating partner at New Scotland Yard, Detective Barbara Havers, become embroiled in a murder mystery involving a famous feminist author. Meanwhile, Lynley and Havers wrestle with their personal demons. On the surface, this is a simple whodunit, but the psychological depth of George’s character development lifts this (and other novels she’s written) far out of the realm of detective fiction.

IQ: A Novel, by Joe Ide

This is the only debut novel among the 15 books listed here. Japanese-American screenwriter Joe Ide writes about a brilliant, self-taught young man in East Long Beach, California, who puts to work his unique deductive skills to solve crimes involving poor people in African-American and Latino neighborhoods. IQ is Isaiah Quintabe. In what I hope is just the first book of a series, IQ shows up the police by solving a case forced on him by a wealthy rap star whose life has been threatened. All the while, he pursues the identity of the person who killed his older brother while IQ was in high school.

Death of a Nightingale (Nina Borg #3), by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis

The four novels in the series written by this Danish duo feature Red Cross nurse Nina Borg. Her life is a tangled mess. She suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder; her two children live with her ex-husband; and she has a disturbing tendency to become involved in cases that the Copenhagen police attempt to keep her out of. Every one of the Nina Borg novels shifts time and place from Denmark to another country, and from the present to the past. In Death of a Nightingale, the roots of the story lie in the Ukraine in 1934-35 during the depths of the famine brought on by Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture.

A Man Without Breath (Bernie Gunther #9), by Philip Kerr

Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels are all grounded in the history of Nazi Germany. They frequently feature historical figures, many of them famous. In the ninth book of the series, Bernie conducts a wartime investigation for the German military about the 1940 massacre of 22,000 Polish officers by Josef Stalin’s NKVD. The event entered into history as the Katyn Forest Massacre. The cast of characters includes Field Marshall Günther von Kluge, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, as well as Josef Goebbels and a host of lesser-known, real-world officials in World War II Germany appear on the scene. Even Adolf Hitler lurks behind the curtain, stage right, in a critical episode in the novel.

The Preacher (Fjällbacka #2), by Camilla Läckberg

Camilla Läckberg writes about the partnership between Detective Patrik Lindstrom and real-crime writer Ericka Falck in the Swedish seaside town of Fjällbacka. In The Preacher, Patrik is drawn into a seemingly unsolvable case involving the murder of three teenage girls decades apart. His efforts are frustrated by two older, incompetent police officers and a boss of limited intelligence who claims every success as his own. Meanwhile, Ericka is struggling through a difficult pregnancy. The preacher of the title is a Bible-thumping fundamentalist who plays a major role in the story. Läckberg is reported to be the most successful native author in Swedish history.

The Leopard (Harry Hole #8), by Jo Nesbø

Detective Harry Hole of the Oslo Police Department is the protagonist of a long and ongoing series of bestselling novels by Jo Nesbø. Harry is an alcoholic who frequently descends into deep depression, sometimes over his difficult personal life, sometimes over the mysteries he is investigating. The Leopard portrays the conflicted homicide cop in the depth of his complexity, pursuing a fiendish serial killer from Norway to the Congo.

Brush Back (V. I. Warshawski #17), by Sara Paretsky

Sara Paretsky excellent series of V.I. Warshawski detective novels revolves around the widespread political corruption in her hometown, Chicago. Though by no means a superhero, V.I. is sometimes referred to as “Chicago’s best investigator.” In Brush Back, she investigates an alleged murder committed by her much-revered cousin, the late Bernard “Boom-Boom” Warshawski, a legendary star on the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team. As V.I. pursues the case in the face of a painful media storm, she comes up against the powers-that-be in her old neighborhood—and their connections to much higher places in the firmament of Chicago politics.

Triptych (Will Trent #1), by Karin Slaughter

Karin Slaughter’s ongoing series features Agent Will Trent of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. A functional illiterate due to profound dyslexia, Will has nonetheless acquired both a college degree and a doctorate in criminology. He is regarded as one of the bureau’s finest investigators. Triptych is the first novel in a series that now includes ten novels with an eleventh on the way. In collaboration with his on-again, off-again lover, Angie Polaski, and two local cops, Will heads an investigation into serial rape and murder.

Victory Square (Yalta Boulevard #5), by Olen Steinhauer

Espionage novelist Olen Steinhauer earlier wrote a cycle of five detective novels set in a fictional Communist Central European country. The cycle spans the years from 1948, when the Soviet Empire consolidated its hold on the nations directly to its West, until 1990, when the USSR and the Warsaw Pact collapsed. Victory Square is the final novel in the cycle. The events in the book are based on the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu’s brutal dictatorial regime in Romania. An aging homicide cop, Emil Brod, now Chief of the Militia, is just days from retirement. A new case forces him to contend with an unraveling government, a series of shocking murders, and a best friend engaged at the very center of the revolutionary movement.

Briarpatch, by Ross Thomas

Award-winning author Ross Thomas wrote superb novels about espionage and political corruption from 1967 until his death in 1995. Briarpatch, published midway through this period, somewhat departs from Thomas’ pattern to tell the story of a murder investigation that brings police corruption to light in a major city in the American West. Some readers consider Briarpatch to be Thomas’ best book. I prefer his debut novel, The Cold War Swap, which is a spy story, but Briarpatch is brilliant as well.

Among the Mad (Maisie Dobbs #6), by Jacqueline Winspear

Jacqueline Winspear’s unusual detective novels feature the “psychologist and investigator” Maisie Dobbs, who operates as an “inquiry agent” in England during the 1930s. In Among the Mad, Maisie and her sidekick, Billy Beale, are pressed into service by New Scotland Yard’s secretive Special Branch, charged with finding a man who has threatened the Prime Minister himself. The action unfolds over the last week of 1931 and the first month of 1932, a time when Britain was experiencing the worst of the Great Depression. As its title suggests, one of the book’s overarching themes is the primitive care of mental illness in that era. The persistent impacts of World War I loom large, most immediately in the thousands of veterans suffering from what today we would call PTSD.

The runners-up

The Keeper of Lost Causes (Department Q #1), by Jussi Adler-Olsen

The Lady from Zagreb (Bernie Gunther #10), by Philip Kerr

Prague Fatale (Bernie Gunther #8), by Philip Kerr

The Wrong Side of Goodbye (Harry Bosch #19), by Michael Connelly

The Burning Room (Harry Bosch #17), by Michael Connelly

The Drop (Harry Bosch #15), by Michael Connelly

Burning Angel (Dave Robicheaux #8), by James Lee Burke

Dixie City Jam (Dave Robicheaux #7), by James Lee Burke

A Morning for Flamingos (Dave Robicheaux #4), by James Lee Burke

Heaven’s Prisoners (Dave Robicheaux #2), by James Lee Burke

The Neon Rain (Dave Robicheaux #1), by James Lee Burke

Invisible Murder (Nina Borg #2), by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis

Even the Dead (Quirke #7), by Benjamin Black (John Banville)

The Devil’s Star (Harry Hole #5), by Jo Nesbø

Murder on the Quai (Aimee Leduc #16), by Cara Black

The Darkening Field (Captain Alexei Dimitrevich Korolev #2), by William Ryan

Diamond Solitaire (Peter Diamond #2), by Peter Lovesey

Death in a Strange Country (Commissario Brunetti #2), by Donna Leon

Still Life (Inspector Armand Gamache #1), by Louise Penny

The Reckoning (John Madden #4), by Rennie Airth

Agent 6 (Leo Demidov #3), by Tom Rob Smith

Faithful Place (Dublin Murder Squad #3), by Tana French

And Justice There is None (Duncan Kincaid & Gemma James #8), by Deborah Crombie

Solving a cold case in post-war England

post-war EnglandThe Death of Kings (John Madden #5), by Rennie Airth

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

South African author Rennie Airth has written seven novels, five of which feature Detective Inspector John Madden. The Death of Kings is the fifth. Set largely in southern England in 1949, The Death of Kings brings John Madden’s story well into his retirement from Scotland Yard. He now makes his home in the countryside with his wife Helen and adult daughter Lucy.

Though retired, Madden has lost none of his taste for mystery. A request from his old friend and former boss, Angus Sinclair, reawakens his instincts as a detective and sends him out on an unauthorized investigation into an 11-year-old murder. A flashy young actress had been killed in the midst of a weekend-long party attended by “the Duke of Wales’ set.” Angus had closed the case in quick order. A wandering farmhand had confessed, been convicted, and later hanged. But Angus now fears that the wrong man had been punished for the crime. Since he’s immobilized with gout, he has asked Madden to take another look at the case.

The story’s setting, and the circumstances it describes, are worth the price of the book. Post-war England is a brilliant illustration of the folly of war. Four years after the end of World War II, London, Canterbury, and other cities still lie in ruins. The British Empire is breaking up. Severe rationing of meat, gasoline, and other goods is still in effect in England. Despite the democratizing effect of the war, and the efforts of the Labour Party, the traditional class distinctions are still very much in evidence. As a snapshot of post-war England, The Death of Kings works well.

The novel works reasonably well as detective fiction, too. For a time, the story appears to devolve into a simple whodunit. Guests at the posh party begin to come under suspicion. But then the tale becomes more complicated. Much more so. The suspense builds steadily. Even if you guess the culprit less than halfway through the book, as I did, you’re likely to enjoy the ride to the end.

Incidentally, the title, The Death of Kings, is from Shakespeare’s Richard II. But it’s difficult to see the connection with the story.

 

Another engrossing mystery from Camilla Läckberg

Camilla LäckbergThe Stranger (Fjällbacka #4), by Camilla Läckberg

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

It’s easy to see how Camilla Läckberg has become Sweden’s bestselling native author—and how her detective novels have proven so popular in translation. Her Fjällbacka series is peopled with complex and interesting people who grow from book to book, and each mystery is unique. A central cast of characters appears in each, but it changes in natural ways. Nothing stands still in these novels.

Camilla Läckberg has a well-developed understanding of the twists and turns in human development. If anything, however, her view of human nature is dark. The mood that prevails in the Fjällbacka series rarely reaches the levels of depression and despair found in Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander books, or in Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole novels. But these are not happy stories. Human folly frequently comes to the surface here. Somehow, it all seems natural for a Swedish writer.

In The Stranger, the fourth entry in the Fjällbacka series, detective Inspector Patrik Hedstrøm and true-crime writer Ericka Falck are raising their months-old daughter, Maya. Or, rather, Ericka is doing all the work. Patrik’s job regularly intrudes. To compound Ericka’s problem, her wedding is imminent, and she’s been unable to find the time to make any plans. To make matters even worse, her younger sister, Anna, and two young children have moved into the house. Anna is in a deep depression after killing her abusive husband in self-defense, leaving Ericka to raise all three children—and, presumably, to make all the arrangements for the wedding. Then Patrik’s sporadic help at home dries up almost completely as he is assigned a brutal and baffling case. A middle-aged woman stinking of alcohol has driven her car off the road and crashed into a tree, apparently either an accident or a suicide. Patrik isn’t so sure, though. And it soon becomes clear that his doubts are well placed.

Meanwhile, a tasteless reality TV show has set up shop in a small town bordering Fjällbacka. Goaded by the show’s producer, six young people are indulging in a toxic mix of alcohol, hard drugs, and sex on camera. Then one of the six, a 19-year-old woman, is murdered, too. Suddenly, Patrik and his colleagues on the police force are strained by investigations into two murders. And one of them is making front-page news all across Sweden because it involves the country’s top-rated reality show.

Every one of the Fjällbacka novels is eventful to a fault. A large cast of characters  requires both concentration and a good memory, as Läckberg constantly shifts perspective from one to another. In The Stranger, we become enmeshed in the lives of every one of Patrik’s colleagues, from the hapless and stupid chief of police to the new female detective who joins the force. Patrik’s mother, Ericka’s sister, and her ex-lover all emerge in three dimensions as well. And throughout the book, in a brief reflective passage at the beginning of each chapter, we enter the mind of a man who will clearly emerge with a key role in the story.

If your taste runs to intellectually challenging fare in detective fiction, you’ll love the Fjällbacka series.

 

 

An anti-hero ex-cop takes on drug traffickers

drug traffickersThe Second Girl: A Novel, by David Swinson

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Frankie Marr is not a good guy. After seventeen years on the Washington, DC, Metropolitan Police, he was forced to retire when the brass discovered he had been helping himself to the drugs recovered in narcotics busts. Now, he works as a private eye to supplement his meager police pension. To feed his habit, he breaks into drug dealers’ stash houses to steal cocaine, marijuana, and prescription painkillers. Frankie persuades himself that he has everything under control because he resists using crack cocaine. “Cocaine is a monster,” he says, “but crack is the devil. You can keep the monster in a closet, but not the f**ing devil.” Somehow, he has managed to hide all this not just from the drug dealers and the detectives he used to work with but also from the plaintiff’s attorney who hires him from time to time.

David Swinson’s engaging detective novel, The Second Girl, opens as Frankie has just crashed his way into another stash house. In a futile search for drugs, he tears the place apart. Then he discovers a padlocked door that seems promising. Breaking it down, he finds a naked teenage girl trussed up on the floor. She has several track marks in her arm and has clearly been drugged. He frees her but has no explanation for being in the house. So, instead of taking her to a hospital or turning her over to the police, he drops her at the office of the attorney he works with.

Eventually, the girl is returned to her grateful parents in suburban Virginia. Frankie comes across as a hero. When neighbors of the girl’s parents learn the story, they insist on hiring him to search for their own missing sixteen-year-old daughter. Miriam Gregory is the “second girl” of the title. Frankie’s investigation into her disappearance takes him to the heart of the drug and prostitution rackets in DC. The course of his investigation is violent — and not all the violence is the work of drug dealers and pimps. Frankie proves himself to be little better than they are.

This is an unorthodox work of detective fiction. It’s only the author’s second novel and shows promise of better to come.

 

Everybody’s favorite African-American detective

African-American detectiveCharcoal  Joe (Easy Rawlins #14), by Walter Mosley

@@@ (3 out of 5)

Walter Mosley’s hard-boiled detective Easy Rawlins roamed the streets of Watts from the 1940s through the 1960s. If there was someone of note in the region unknown to Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, he could turn to a wide range of friends and acquaintances, some in law enforcement, some not. There was always a way for Easy to find his man — or, just as often, his woman. And, more often than not, go to bed with her.

A simple case that’s not simple at all

In Charcoal Joe, the 14th installment in Mosley’s ongoing saga of the brilliant private eye, old friends bring Easy unwelcome new business. The assignment seems simple enough at first. A 21-year-old African-American prodigy with a Ph.D. in Physics from Stanford has been hauled into jail by the LAPD, charged with a murder he seems very unlikely to have committed. But there’s nothing simple about this case. All too quickly, Easy is caught up in an endlessly complicated four-way tussle over millions of dollars in cash and diamonds. Dead bodies fall all along the way.

Everybody’s favorite African-American detective

Easy Rawlins came up the hard way. He’s an orphan, raised in Texas and Louisiana, who made his way onto the crowded streets of Los Angeles in the years after he left the Army in World War II. In Charcoal Joe, the year is 1968, and Easy is now in his 40s. A recent windfall supplied him with the capital necessary to open a new agency, which he and his two partners have mysteriously called the WRENS-L Detective Agency. Go figure.

Easy encountered early in life some of the many challenges he faced as a Black man. “We came from dark skins, darker lives, and a slim chance of survival,” he muses. “Where we came from he’s dead was as common a phrase as he’s sick or he’s saved. People died in our world with appalling regularity.” He describes his best friend as “one of the most dangerous men alive. . . He was mostly evil and definitely a killer but black men in America had learned centuries ago that the devil not only offered the best deals — he was the only game in our part of town.”

A dizzying cast of characters

The central storyline in Charcoal Joe is clear enough. It’s a murder mystery. Easy’s job is to prove who really killed the two men that the young prodigy is accused of murdering. But the story is overlaid with numerous subplots and a cast of minor characters far too large to follow for a reader with failing memory such as mine. As a window into the diverse African-American community in L.A. in the year when Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy were both assassinated, Charcoal Joe is fascinating. But the novel would have been more successful if Mosley himself or an editor had culled or merged at least a few of the characters.

About the author

Walter Mosley has written 50 books, including 14 in the Easy Rawlins series of detective novels. He was the recipient of the 2016 Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Mosley’s work spans a wide range of genres, from detective fiction to erotica, plays, young adult fiction, and nonfiction.

A clever murder mystery revolving around amnesia

amnesiaUpon a Dark Night (Peter Diamond #5), by Peter Lovesey

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

A young woman turns up at a private hospital with total amnesia of the incident that left her in a coma — and of everything that came before. She remembers nothing of her life, not even her name. Social Services assigns her the name Rose and moves her into  temporary housing once the hospital releases her. There, she encounters a remarkably bright homeless woman named Ada who insists on helping her investigate how she came to be injured. Then a woman turns up who identifies herself as Rose’s sister-in-law and moves her into a vacant flat against Ada’s advice. Ada suspects the woman isn’t who she says she is, but Rose’s amnesia persists. She insists on going along. All very puzzling.

Meanwhile, Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond is worming his way into a rival detective’s investigation of a supposed suicide nearby. A crotchety and antisocial old farmer has supposedly blown his head off with a shotgun while sitting on a chair in his cottage. Peter suspects there is more to the story.

No veteran reader of detective fiction will be surprised to learn that the two cases are linked — or that additional mysteries turn up in the course of the several ensuing investigations, all of which are connected as well. Author Peter Lovesey is skilled at offering up complex plots in the novels of the Peter Diamond series, of which Upon a Dark Night is the fifth. However, unlike many other prominent British mystery writers, Lovesey doesn’t devolve his stories into insipid whodunits. (I’ve had enough of Colonel Mustard in the Parlor with the Knife.) The case confronting Detective Superintendent Diamond is legitimately complicated and is a great deal of fun to follow through to the end.

 

 

 

Sherlock in the hood: an inner-city crimesolver

crimesolverIQ: A Novel, by Joe Ide

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Most readers of detective fiction are well educated and live in comfortable circumstances. So it’s not surprising that most novels about people solving crimes involve well-educated investigators who live in at least middle-class homes. There are many exceptions, of course. George Pelecanos and James Lee Burke come immediately to mind. But it’s genuinely unusual to come across a detective novel that features a poorly educated investigator who solves crimes involving poor people in African-American and Latino neighborhoods. IQ by Joe Ide is such a book, and it’s very well done at that.

IQ is Isaiah Quintabe. He lives in East Long Beach, California, in a crime-ridden neighborhood where Latino and African-American gangs are often at war. Though he dropped out of high school, he is anything but ignorant. With “near-genius” intelligence, a voracious taste for reading, and an extraordinary ability to apply inductive reasoning to any problem facing him, IQ is a latter-day Sherlock Holmes. He’s “the low-key brother who was so smart people said he was scary.” An unlicensed inner-city crimesolver, he devotes himself almost exclusively to investigating crimes, usually for no payment more than a chicken or a plate of food. He supports himself through a series of menial and generally low-skill jobs. Because of an article in a local online hip-hop newsletter, his reputation has spread throughout the region. He receives numerous requests for help on a daily basis, but he takes only those he finds worthy and “where the police could not or would not get involved.”

The action in IQ takes place in 2005, explaining Isaiah’s backstory, and in 2013, when circumstances force him to take on a case for a wealthy rap star whose life has been threatened. Scenes from each of the two periods alternate throughout the book. Gradually, we learn how Isaiah, still in high school, lost the older brother who had raised him — and then devoted his life to finding the man who’d killed him. Much later, because he’s broke, IQ is drawn into investigating the curious circumstances surrounding the threat to the rap star’s life.

Both the circumstances portrayed in the story, and the methodical way in which Isaiah pursues his investigations, are fascinating. I can only hope that IQ will reappear in future novels as well.

The author, Joe Ide, is neither African-American nor Latino. He is, in fact, Japanese-American. As he explained in an interview with Publishers Weekly, “I was a burned-out screenwriter. I had to make a living and writing a book seemed like the logical thing to do. As a kid, my favorite books were the original Sherlock Holmes stories. I was fascinated with the character. Like me, he was an introvert who didn’t fit in, but unlike me, he defeated his enemies and controlled his world, and he did it with only the power of his intelligence. I was a small kid in a big neighborhood, and that idea affected me deeply. When contemplating the book, a Sherlockian character was the only thing that occurred to me. I grew up in South Central L.A., so the inner city was comfortable terrain and Sherlock in the hood was born.”

Shell shock, madness, and the Great Depression

madnessAmong the Mad (Maisie Dobbs #6), by Jacqueline Winspear

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

If your taste in crime fiction runs to blood, guts, and gore, you’re unlikely to enjoy reading Jacqueline Winspear‘s Maisie Dobbs series. If, instead, you favor a more cerebral approach focused on three-dimensional character development and psychological insight, you’ll find exactly what you’re looking for in Winspear’s outstanding work.

Maisie Dobbs is a brilliant young working-class woman who gained an elite education under the sponsorship of the aristocratic family that employed her as a maid. Cutting short her university studies, she volunteered as a nurse in World War I, where she witnessed the conflict’s senseless carnage first-hand and was wounded by the same artillery shell that eventually killed her fiance. Now, after years of apprenticeship with a physician who was involved in top-secret intelligence work, she is on her own. Maisie bills herself as a “psychologist and investigator,” and she quickly proves her skill in both arenas.

In Among the Mad, the sixth novel of twelve (so far) in the series, 33-year-old Maisie finds herself and her sidekick, Billy Beale, pressed into service by New Scotland Yard’s secretive Special Branch. Together with her on-again, off-again friend and collaborator, Inspector Stratton, and the head of Special Branch, she is charged with finding the man who has threatened the Prime Minister himself. The wide-ranging search takes her and her colleagues into the worlds of Britain’s emerging Fascist Party, the militant labor movement, the country’s growing chemical-warfare program, and the network of asylums where shell-shocked soldiers and others deemed “mad” are locked away.

The action in Among the Mad unfolds over the last week of 1931 and the first month of 1932, a time when Britain was experiencing the worst of the Great Depression. As its title suggests, one of the book’s overarching themes is the primitive care of mental illness in that era. As in previous novels in the series, the persistent impacts of World War I loom large, too. But equally important is the emphasis on the desperation of the millions of men now out of work, many of them veterans of the war. With cameo appearances by two prominent historical figures—Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald and future Fascist Party founder Sir Oswald MosleyAmong the Mad qualifies as a superior historical novel as well as first-class detective fiction.

 

A sophisticated thriller from Canada

sophisticated thrillerSeven Days Dead (Storm Murders Trilogy #2), by John Farrow

@@@ (3 out of 5)

Seven Days Dead is the second of three novels by the Canadian novelist John Farrow featuring retired Detective-Sergeant Emile Cinq-Mars of the Montreal city police. The common thread that ran through the first book, The Storm Murders, was that each in a series of murders took place after a natural disaster. Seven Days Dead is based in large part on the same device. It’s well written, the principal characters are drawn in three dimensions, and it’s suspenseful to the end. Like its predecessor, however, the resolution is overly complex and ultimately unsatisfying.

Now sixty-six years of age, Cinq-Mars and his much younger wife Sandra arrive at a picturesque village on the coast of New Brunswick to begin a long-awaited vacation. In short order, the village is buzzing with news of a savage murder. The village’s popular pastor has been tied to a tree, sliced open, and eviscerated on an isolated trail near the ocean. Meanwhile, the old man who has a virtual monopoly on the town’s leading businesses died the same stormy night in the enormous mansion where he lives high above the shore. The local Mounties have never been confronted with any murders, much less one that reeks of such savagery. They are desperate for help from the famous retired detective. Cinq-Mars stoutly resists their pleas. Predictably, however, Cinq-Mars is soon drawn into investigating not just the murder but the old man’s death as well. But that’s as far as the predictability goes. The case turns out to be inordinately complicated, and Cinq-Mars is challenged to his limits both mentally and physically before he can resolve matters.

One thing lifts Seven Days Dead out of the realm of mediocre murder mysteries: Cinq-Mars is a supremely intelligent and thoughtful man who is clearly far more sophisticated and philosophically inclined than anyone might think a Detective-Sergeant would be. His thinking is intellectually challenging and makes reading the book worthwhile despite its limitations as detective fiction.

 

 

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