Tag Archives for " crime novel "

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.)

If this book intrigues you, check out 75 readable and revealing historical novels. This novel is included.

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.

A crime novel full of surprises

crime novelHeadhunters, by Jo Nesbo

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Spoiler alert: this is not one of the detective novels in Jo Nesbo’s celebrated Harry Hole series. But don’t beat yourself up. I was fooled, too.

Inspector Hole is, of course, the intuitive alcoholic genius who routinely shows up all his colleagues in the Oslo Police Department, running insane risks that frequently result in beatings, shootings, or other mayhem, alienating everyone in authority, and breaking every rule (and many laws) in pursuit of his prey.

Headhunters is a crime novel of a different sort. The protagonist, Roger Brown, recruits senior executives for Norwegian companies and government agencies. He has gained a reputation for never having had any of his clients turn down one of his recommendations. As befitting his prestigious position in Oslo society, he is married to a breathtakingly beautiful woman. He is also an accomplished art thief who regularly works an ingenious angle, using the gains from his thievery to indulge his much-loved wife.

Enter Clas Greve, a Dutch executive introduced to him by his (Roger’s) wife at the art gallery that soaks up every kroner Roger can muster, and more. It quickly becomes apparent that Greve could be the answer to all Roger’s troubles: he’s the perfect candidate for a position Roger desperately wants to fill, and he offers an opportunity for the biggest score of his career as a thief, a long-missing painting by Peter Paul Rubens. However, Roger gets more than he bargains for. A lot more. And therein lies the tale.

Headhunters is peopled with fascinating characters caught up in an intricate game of cat and mouse — or, more properly, leopard and hyena — and, as usual, it’s full of surprises.

I’ve read and reviewed many other novels in this series. You’ll find some of my reviews at Is Jo Nesbo the world’s best crime novelist?Gypsies, bank robbers, and the Norwegian police: a gloriously suspenseful mashup, and Another brilliant tale from Jo Nesbo.

Niccolo Machiavelli, private eye

MachiavelliThe Malice of Fortune, by Michael Ennis

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

If you’ve read The Prince, you probably think you know the work of Niccolo Machiavelli. Chances are, you think of him — as I always did — as the Renaissance figure who lionized a lying, cheating, brutal scoundrel as the ideal political and military leader. Having read The Malice of Fortune, I know better now.

This historical novel, framed as a murder mystery in which Machiavelli plays the part of the detective, lays out the basis on which he wrote The Prince and illuminates his relationship with Cesare Borgia, known widely then as Duke Valentino, the subject of that famous book. The Malice of Fortune is based on historian and journalist Michael Ennis’ intensive research into primary sources, its characters and the events it portrays all solidly grounded in historical evidence. Machiavelli and Borgia did, indeed, have a relationship that verged on intimate.

The novel is set in Central Italy in 1502-3, with the action moving to and from Rome and through a succession of minor cities and towns where Duke Valentino and his troops were billeted. Machiavelli has been dispatched by the town fathers of Florence to follow Valentino and report his observations along the way, as their city feared a calamitous attack by the mercenary condottieri with whom Valentino was then negotiating a peace treaty. In the town of Imola, Machiavelli meets the bewitching courtesan known as Madonna Damiata, who has come in search of evidence that will point to the murder of Duke Gandia, her lover and father of her son. She quickly embroils Machiavelli in her search. They proceed on the assumption that one of the leaders of the condottieri is the murderer — but which one, and under what circumstances, is entirely unclear.

The Duke of Gandia, born Giovanni or Juan Borgia, is Duke Valentino’s (Cesare Borgia’s) younger brother. The two are sons of the then-reigning Pope, the notoriously corrupt Rodrigo Borgia, who ruled as Pope Alexander VI. (He was the same Pope who dictated the treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 that divided the New World between Spain and Portugal, which resulted in Brazilians speaking Portuguese today while the rest of region speaks Spanish.) The two men’s notorious sister, Lucrezia, also figures in the story but in the background, never appearing on-scene.

Together, Machiavelli and Damiata, now a couple in love, pursue the truth through a tangle of murky circumstances that grow more confounding by the day. The quartered remains of a woman’s headless body are found in the vicinity of Imola with an amulet that had belonged to Juan Borgia. The two amateur sleuths uncover a lead to a brothel in Imola inhabited by whores who are also witches, and through them they learn that a certain Zeja Caterina, a noted witch, may be the key to learning the truth of Juan’s murder. Their visit to her home in the countryside triggers a number of new murders (including Zeja Caterina’s) and thrusts them into such great danger that they must go into hiding. Yet more murders come to light — and it becomes apparent that a single man, a serial murderer, is responsible.

Ennis’ story is told in four parts, the first couched as a letter from Damiata to her young son, Giovanni, for him to read when he turns twenty. The remaining three parts are written from Machiavelli’s perspective. The language mimics the formality of Renaissance Italy and employs a generous number of Italian words. Interestingly, regional linguistic differences play a part in the tale as well: it was not until the nineteenth century that serious efforts got underway to establish a uniform national Italian tongue; during the Renaissance, such differences as those between Tuscan and Romagnola made the various dialects almost mutually unintelligible. Ennis, a more than competent historical scholar, appears to get it right.

Ennis’ introductory and closing remarks about (not in) the novel considerably enrich the reading experience. He first sets the historical context and lists the principal characters, then, at the end, clarifies Niccolo Machiavelli’s views on leadership and on Duke Valentino, his subject in The Prince. 

The Malice of Fortune is an amazing story, and it just might be true.


A murder mystery set in Communist Laos in the 1970s

Communist LaosThe Coroner’s Lunch (Dr. Siri Paiboun #1), by Colin Cotterill

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

You’ve never read a mystery novel anything like this.

It’s 1976 in Vientiane, Laos. The Pathet Lao Communist government is in power in an uneasy relationship with its patron, the Vietnam of Ho Chi Minh.

Dr. Siri Paiboun, a long-suffering, 72-year-0ld doctor who has spent much of his life in the jungle as a reluctant guerrilla has been unhappily appointed the national coroner and stationed at a dangerously understaffed and under-resourced hospital in Vientiane. Dr. Siri has a staff of two in the morgue, an impertinent young nurse and a very helpful young man with a mild case of Down’s Syndrome. He has no laboratory, no chemicals, few instruments, and no credentials or interest in pathology. He is also a critic of the regime he helped put in power and has little hope for Laos.

Finally, after ten months in his new job, a murder case arrives in the morgue, then another, and another still. There appear to be two unrelated cases — but are they? And why is someone trying so hard to kill Dr. Siri? In his quest to solve the mysteries, the coroner becomes engaged with his “older brother” (a friend, really) who is a Senior Comrade in the regime, an attractive lady who sells baguette sandwiches on the street, a Vietnamese coroner, a menacing army major, the elders in a Hmong village, and others whose mention would spoil the story. And a fascinating story it is.

The Coroner’s Lunch is well written by a British-born author who has lived in Southeast Asia for many years. His lively prose conveys a sense of the sad and constricted lives of those who lived under the authoritarian rule of the Pathet Lao in a country that had long been known for its cheerful, easy-going people.

This book is an easy read that I found enjoyable in all but one respect: the mysticism and dream-states that play a large role in the plot. This device comes across too much like the deus ex machina of ancient drama, explaining away with mumbo-jumbo what is otherwise difficult to understand.

For reviews of other series of crime novels, see 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

Harry Hole investigates child pornography and pedophilia in Bangkok

child pornographyCockroaches (Harry Hole #2), by Jo Nesbo

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Norway’s ambassador to Thailand is found lying dead with a knife in his back in a Bangkok brothel. To ensure that the investigation is fumbled and the episode covered up, the politicians who govern the Norwegian police arrange to dispatch an alcoholic detective to take charge of the case, fully expecting that he’ll rush to one of Bangkok’s thousands of bars and drink himself into oblivion for the duration of his stay.

Surprise! The detective, Harry Hole, arrives in Bangkok and immediately goes on the wagon. And, to Harry’s surprise, the Thai detectives in the homicide unit turn out to be honest and highly competent, defying every preconception about corruption and incompetence in the force.

As Harry digs into the case, he soon unearths unsavory evidence of child pornography and pedophilia in Thailand’s small Norwegian community — and the late ambassador appears to have been involved. As the investigation unfolds, the truth behind the ambassador’s murder becomes ever more elusive. Questionable new figures enter the scene, suspects multiply, and Harry soon finds himself on the wrong side of a local crime boss and his brutal enforcer. One week stretches to two and more, as the powers that be in the embassy and in Oslo become increasingly impatient. The suspense builds to a violent crescendo and yet one more big surprise, bringing to a close another excellent Harry Hole tale.

Cockroaches struck me as a big step up from Jo Nesbo‘s first outing in the Harry Hole series, The Bat. While this second book is better, Nesbo doesn’t hit the peak of his skill until later volumes such as The RedbreastNemesisand The Leopard, all of which I found to be brilliant. (Only The Redeemer didn’t seem quite up to their level.)

However, Cockroaches doesn’t rise to the level of Nesbo’s best, in part because his portrayal of Bangkok (other than its heat and its nonstop traffic jams) is less than compelling. Another writer, John Burdett, has done a superb job of rendering not just the oppressive heat and world-class traffic snarbles but also the sex trade, the mysticism and superstition of the people, and the corruption of officialdom of Bangkok. Burdett’s showcase is his cycle featuring the half-Thai, half-American detective, Sonchai Jitpleecheep. I’ve read all the books in the series and reviewed two (Vulture Peak and The Godfather of Kathmandu). I highly recommend them, too.

Inspector Lynley and Barbara Havers go to Tuscany

Inspector LynleyJust One Evil Act (Inspector Lynley #18), by Elizabeth George

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Picking up a new entry in the Inspector Thomas Lynley series is like revisiting an old friend — in fact, a whole coterie of old friends, with all their quirks and characteristics intact. In Just One Evil Act, the eighteenth novel in the series, Elizabeth George affords us a long yet none too leisurely visit with Lynley, but even more so with his long-lasting partner in crime investigation, Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers.

Havers is a piece of work. With a body shaped like a barrel, and a wardrobe that any self-respecting Salvation Army store would be likely to reject out of hand, Havers is anything but a typical police officer. She also swears freely and routinely disregards orders — not just those from Lynley, who has proven to be endlessly forgiving, but from Lynley’s boss, Detective Superintendent Isabelle Ardery, who is decidedly less so.

Havers’ life revolves around her job with Lynley and, in any time that’s left over from work, a bright and charming nine-year-old girl named Hadiyyah Azhar, who lives with her father in an adjoining house. Now Hadiyyah has been spirited off by her mother to a place unknown, and Barbara is as frantic as the little girl’s father. Disregard for procedure leads to insubordination and ultimately to outright rebellion as Barbara enters upon a search for the girl that takes Lynley and later her to Lucca, a picture-book medieval town in Tuscany in northern Italy. Along the way she finds herself figuratively in bed with an unscrupulous tabloid reporter (is there any other kind?), an English private detective with the morals of a fruit fly, and a brilliant Italian police inspector.

Elizabeth George, who is after all a Texan and not English, does a terrific job conveying the way of life at New Scotland Yard. She appears to put on an equally creditable performance in showing how the very quirky Italian justice system works. But she uses Italian rather more freely than an English-speaker with no knowledge of Romance languages might like. My Spanish helped me some, but I found a lot of the dialogue in Italy just as confusing as it was for Barbara Havers.

Just One Evil Act isn’t the very best of George’s Inspector Lynley novels, but it’s a worthy addition to the series. The characters behave in believable ways, lending depth to what we’ve previously known about them, and the suspense holds until the end. It’s a good, solid read.