Archive for the ‘USA’ Category

cobenI picked up Harlan Coben’s The Stranger in our local supermarket simply because the main character was called Adam Price.

The book was a typical quick read airport novel with Adam’s American Dream life coming to an abrupt end as a stranger tells him something about Corinne, his wife, he does not want to hear. In typical Coben style Corinne mysteriously goes missing. This is the third Harlan Coben novel I have read and in Tell No One, Six Years and The Stranger the main protagonist is searching for his woman. It seems to be a winning formula? 

The setting is in one of those idyllic American small towns where everyone seems to have a plenty of money, but there is an undercurrent of trouble. The reader realises the suburban town is very wealthy, because Adam’s sons play lacrosse at high school. The plot features embezzlement, corporate greed, murder, blackmail and computer hacking. 

One of the book’s failings is that many of the characters lack any depth. They seem to have been selected from a box of standard stereotypes, but Coben sells millions of books simply because his novels are such easy reads.  

Too bad. Too bad his old man couldn’t see how his only son had become such a big man in this town. Bob no longer lived on the crummy side of town where the teachers and blue-collar guys tried to survive. No, he bought the big manor with the mansard roof in the ritzy “country club” section of town. He and Melanie drove his-and hers Mercedes. People respected them.

I have noticed reading Le Carre, and some Nordic authors, that “happy endings” are not in vogue, and Harlan Coben follows this trend. Does ending a novel with a tragedy make it great literature?   

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night managerFrom the back cover:

At the start of it all, Jonathan Pine is merely the night manager at a luxury hotel. But when a single attempt to pass on information to the British authorities – about an international businessman at the hotel with suspicious dealings – backfires terribly, and people close to Pine begin to die, he commits himself to a battle against powerful forces he cannot begin to imagine.

In a chilling tale of corrupt intelligence agencies, billion-dollar price tags and the truth of the brutal arms trade, John le Carré creates a claustrophobic world in which no one can be trusted.

The Night Manager was written in 1993, and tells of the efforts by a small section of British Intelligence lead by Leonard Burr to bring down a ruthless international arms dealer, Richard Onslow Roper. Jonathan is involved because the exotic Madame Sophie confides in him a document listing arms deals with her lover, Freddie Hamid, who with his brothers owns a large chunk of Cairo. Jonathan passes the information on to a “friend” at the British Embassy, and becomes very close to Sophie. She is murdered, and Jonathan leaves Egypt, becoming night manager of the Hotel Meister Palace in Zurich. It is there that he meets Roper, his young mistress Jeds, and his thoroughly unpleasant entourage.

‘Roper?’ Mama Low retorted incredulously. ‘You mean you don’t know?’

‘I mean I don’t know.’

‘ ‘Well sure as hell, Mass’ Lamont, I don’t. And I sure as hell don’t ask. He’s some big company from Nassau that’s losin’ all its money. Man’s as rich as that in recession time, he sure as hell some mighty big crook.’

Burr begins to construct a background for Jonathan that will allow him to infiltrate Roper’s organisation. The action moves from Cornwall, where Jonathan “murders” a man, to Canada, where he obtains a false passport, and on to the Caribbean where he stops a kidnapping and enters the Roper organisation.

The Night Manager is a very good book and hidden within my edition’s 472 pages is a probably a great 350 page story. John Le Carre is a very clever author, he gives his readers great descriptions, memorable characters, and wonderfully convoluted plots. But sometimes the machinations of the intelligence agencies, who seem to spend more time plotting against each other than planning to bring down Roper, just hold up the action.

After the Royal & Ancients came Burr’s pet hates, and probably Roper’s too, for he called them the Necessary evils, and these were the shiny-cheeked merchant bankers from London with eighties striped blue shirts and white collars and double-barrelled names and double chins and double breasted suits, who said ‘ears’ when they meant ‘yes’ and ‘hice’ when they meant ‘house’ and ‘school’ when they meant ‘Eton’;

Le Carre’s extremely clever suave dialogue, which he puts into the mouths of  public school educated Englishmen is almost timeless, as are the arrogant characters.

Richard Onslow Roper, Major “Corky” Corkoran, and Lord Langbourne could be regarded as modern versions of the bully Flashman  in Thomas Hughes novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays. We have another literary link when Roper’s entourage of upper class Englishmen finds itself in a Central American base reminiscent of the movie Apocalypse Now and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. 

But the maddest part of Faberge was not the walldaubings or the voodoo statues, not the magic words of Indian dialect sprinkled between Spanish slogans or the rush roofed Crazy Horse saloon with its bar-stools and juke boxand naked girls cavorting on walls. It was the living zoo.

It certainly seems that John Le Carre’s view of the world has become one where  duplicitous Englishmen and Americans from intelligence agencies and big business persue personal pride and self gratification at the expense of the downtrodden. This view is certainly emphasised in some of the later novels.

A fine wordy novel, and I suspect that if the television series is edited down and the novel’s extraneous padding is removed it will be a big success.

nate nashThanks for the good wishes I have received for a continued recovery.

Palace of Treason is the sequel to Red Sparrow and features the return of those memorable characters Domenika Egorova and Nate Nash. The book’s author Jason Matthews was for 33 years an operations officer for the CIA, and the story is packed with details of espionage trade craft. Various aspects of the work of the CIA are covered. Nate is running a “walk in” disaffected Russian General given the code name LYRIC. While Domenika, a Captain in the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service the SVR, is deep undercover attempting to turn an Iranian nuclear scientist, and sabotage their program to create a bomb. The story is incredibly complex with treachery from a passed over American official likely to expose Domenika as a double agent, despite her past successes and closeness to one of the major characters in the book, Vladimir Putin.

There are some very interesting features in this novel, some make it an easy interesting read, for instance the recipes at the end of the chapters that refer to food eaten or mentioned in the preceding section. Others become irritating and detract from the progress of the narrative.

Firstly there is too much descriptive violence and sex, which probably means I am not the target demographic for the novel.

Secondly there is an enormous amount of detail which results in the book coming in at 533 pages. It almost seems as if Jason Matthews has so much information and has done so much research he doesn’t want to waste it. Everything is described at great length, frequently when it refers to violence at too great a length. 

Thirdly the book does feel like soemthing from the past with a Cold War antagonism to the Russians going beyond that period back to the time of Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond novels, where racism and xenophobia were normal. In Sapper’s novels the bad guys began at the Channel, or sometimes even Goldaming, and the villains were always nasty looking foreigners. Matthews’s  Russian bad guys are uniformly ugly, the short vicious dwarf like Zyuganov, the hairy ape Yevgeny, and the repulsive brutal female assassin Eva Buchina, while Domenika, Nate and young agent Hannah are attractive and sexy. Perhaps it is this immature attitude that makes the story so readable? 

But more important than the ridiculous fictional uglies is the very unflattering use of a real life character Tsar Vladimir Putin. Legal Eagle Bill Selnes of that intelligent blog Mysteries  and More in Saskatchewan discusses the legal ramification of using real life characters here

In Palace of Treason the Tsar is venal, corrupt and only interested in his persoanl wealth and power. I suspect in real life all is not as black and white as in the novel. He and his crew do enrich themselves at the expense of the Russian people, but Putin does seem to care for Russia and her interests. British politicians might learn something about putting their own country first.

And of course some of our British politicians have allegedly greatly enriched themselves after leaving office, and others seem to conduct their affairs with one eye on future jobs in the United States. 

Despite my criticisms I did enjoy Palace of Treason especially the Russian humour, and the food. It may not be subtle and not reach the standards of maturity set by John Le Carre, or Joseph Kanon, but it is a fine espionage story.

The Cold War never ended. Rebuild Russia’s former power and majesty. Putin himself liked to tell the story:

It is discovered that Stalin is alive and living in a cabin in Siberia. A delegation is sent to convince him to return to Moscow, assume power and restore Russia to greatness. After some reluctance, Stalin agrees to come back. 

‘Okay, ‘ he says, ‘but no Mr Nice Guy this time.’

CoptownMagic DeborahI read two outstanding books from the USA in 2015. The heartrending The Secret of Magic by Deborah Johnson, which deservedly won the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction, and Cop Town by Karin Slaughter, which won the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger for Thrillers.

Both were set in the South and dealt with racism, in all  its ugly incarnations. And interestingly both had female leading protagonists, always a good start in societies, the Deep South 1946, and Atlanta police force 1974, where women were regarded with a degree of circumspection. An excellent reminder for devotees of Nordic translated crime fiction that there are still great books coming out of the USA.  

 

CoptownI read Cop Town because it won the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger as the best crime thriller of  2015. Cop Town is a worthy recipient of the award that last year was won by the superb An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris.

Set in Atlanta in late 1974 the story begins as a search for a serial cop killer known as The Shooter. Jimmy Lawson’s partner Don Wesley has been shot and Atlanta’s police force is on the warpath to find the killer. Jimmy’s violent uncle Terry leads a group of cops who are determined to dispense their own brand of justice. Two policewomen begin their own investigation as something is not quite right about Jimmy’s account of the details of the shooting. The female cops are Maggie Lawson, Jimmy’s sister, and rookie Kate Murphy, a young women widowed by the Vietnam war.

Maggie comes from a real blue collar police family, and Kate doesn’t. I won’t say any more because a large part of the interest in the story for this reader was the discovery of Kate’s background, and the gradual change in the storyline from a straightforward police procedural into a combative plea against homophobia, misogyny, and racism. 

Maybe there was a reason Atlanta was statistically one of the most violent, criminal cities in America. As far as Maggie could tell, the only thing black and white male officers could agree on was that none of them thought women should be allowed in uniform.

This is a brilliant book with great characters, plenty of social comment, and a plot that is just complex and convoluted enough to keep the reader’s interest.    

BoschRecently I did not finish a book sent to me for review, something that I have never done in the past. The book set in an unnamed Northern Italian city was violent and involved corrupt police and conflicts within the ‘Ndrangheta. After about 100 pages I decided that life was too short at my age to waste it on a book containing not one sympathetic character. A little sad and depressed with winter closing in, I turned to one of those authors who I know will provide me with a great crime fiction story, Michael Connelly. 

I have read the MickeyHaller stories but I prefer the police procedural investigations featuring Detective Harry Bosch.

The Burning Room is a great example of how to make the hard graft of real police work interesting for the reader. Harry now working cold cases is drawn into two investigations, because his new partner the young inexperienced Lucia Soto is trying to solve the deaths by arson of nine children in a day centre fire in which she was one of those children who were lucky to be saved.

The main case involves the shooting by a sniper of a Maraichi musician, Orlando Merced. Merced has lived paralysed with the bullet inside him for ten years. Now he has died and the bullet is recovered at an autopsy that states that Merced died as a result of the shooting, even ten years on from the actual shooting it is a murder case. Both investigations are complex with a lot of forensics, ballistics and travelling to interview characters about events in the almost forgotten past.

Latino gangs, white supremacists, police politics and political corruption as well as the private life of a great detective, Harry Bosch, in the twilight of his long career make this an excellent read. 

Bosch got out his notebook to write the name down. “You won’t be able to talk to him,” Walling said.

“He died twelve years ago. Killed himself after being indicted for tax evasion. He knew he was going to go away. That’s how we got most of these guys-they stopped paying taxes.”    

 

Magic DeborahAuthor Deborah Johnson in The Secret of Magic tells a story set just after the Second World War in 1946. 

M.P. Calhoun sends a letter to Thurgood Marshall, head of the NCAACP Legal Defense Fund [who was to become the first African American Supreme Court Justice] asking him to come down to Mississippi to investigate the death of Joe Howard Wilson, a decorated black Lieutenant and veteran of the Italian Campaign, who was returning to his home town of Revere. M.P.Calhoun is the reclusive author of  The Secret of Magic, which was a book that was banned after publication because it told a tale of childhood friendship across the races, a magical forest and an unsolved murder. 

The letter, containing various newspaper cuttings, is opened by one of Mr Marshall’s assistants Regina Robichard, who because of her family history is very keen to go down to Mississippi. Reggie loved the book The Secret of Magic as a child and is intrigued to discover that M.P.Calhoun is a woman, Miss Mary Pickett Calhoun. Thurgood Marshall gives her three weeks to delve into the case, and she travels south by segregated train and bus to a very different world from New York. 

I am not going to say any more about the plot because it is a story that brought tears to my eyes. The narrative is beautifully written, so hlpvery evocative of the South at that time, and for a long time after. The story brings to life a cast of  characters who leap off the page. Especially memorable is Willie Willie, Joe Howard’s father, with his stories of teaching all the children both black and white the secrets of the forest. In Revere there is almost a symbiotic relationship between black and white, for example between Miss Mary Pickett and Willie Willie, but also a distinct social divide between the old wealthy white families, and the descendants of poor white sharecroppers. 

The Secret of Magic is a book that will hopefully educate and perhaps even bring an improvement in race relations, because although the USA now has an African American President, Attorney General and Head of Homeland Security, recent events have shown there is still an enormous distance to travel. 

Not that she hated white men, not really. Still…..after what they’s done to her father….she couldn’t help herself.

But that had been in New York, and New York, she had to admit, was nothing like Revere- a place where black people and white people were all jumbled together, had built up a land, and still lived, in a sense right on top of each other, constantly traipsing in and out of one another’s lives. So close they couldn’t just be naturally separated,…………..

No, you needed Jim Crow laws for that, and Confederate flags waving over a courthouse, and separate drinking fountains, and separate schools, and poll taxes and literacy tests for voting, and substandard schools-and in the end a good man like Joe Howard Wilson dead.

Deborah Johnson was a worthy winner of the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction, and readers shouldn’t be put off by a narrative containing words commonly used in 1946 Mississippi to describe African Americans. Otherwise they will miss a book that is pure magic. 

gray mntnI was encouraged to keep up with John Grisham’s books again after reading posts about the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction on Bill Selnes impressive blog Mysteries and More. Bill is a lawyer in Saskatchewan and he seems to be the sort of legal representative we would all like to have on our side.

Gray Mountain is a novel that shouts out at the injustices in this world. The fact that these injustices are being perpetrated in one of the most advanced economies in the developed world, and a country with a constitution and legal system that should protect the poor from the tyranny of big business got me boiling. In the novel Big Coal aided by $900 an hour law firms crush poor miners affected by black lung, and destroy the beautiful forests of Appalachia.

Last night as I finished reading Gray Mountain I watched a television program about the poorest town in England, Jaywick on the Essex coast, where disadvantaged people many with health problems have seemingly been abandoned by central government. A once thriving holiday resort, Jaywick is now the nearest thing we have to a shanty town in England. 

thanks 2The very poor who live in Appalachia, and in Jaywick happen to be white, but they do have a lot in common with the African Americans of Mississippi, who feature in the brilliant book I began last night, The Secret of Magic by Deborah Johnson [more on that later].

In that they have no real political power or influence, and little money. You would have to have a heart of stone not to feel for these people.

Political rant suspended, on to the book. 

appalachiaSamantha Kofer, a New York lawyer, is a victim of the recession tossed into the street by Scully & Pershing, the biggest law firm in the world. Andy, a $2.8 million a year partner at the firm, explains the situation, a “furlough”.

” Here’s the deal. The firm keeps you under contract for the next twelve months, but you don’t get a paycheck.”

…..“You keep your health benefits , but only if you intern with a qualified non-profit.”

Samantha is competing with thousands of associates culled by their firms, rejection after rejection follows and then number nine on her list, Mountain Legal Aid Clinic in Brady, Virginia, run by Mattie Wyatt offers her an interview and then a position. Brady is a very different world from New York’s rat race.

“Well dear, here at the Mountain Legal Aid Clinic, we love our clients and they love us.”

Samantha meets up with Mattie’s nephew Donovan Gray, young handsome lawyer with a tragic past, and learns the harsh reality life of for the poor in Appalachia. Donovan is fighting the destruction of the mountains to get at the “black gold”, and battling mining companies to get meagre benefits for miners crippled by the debilitating black lung disease. It turns out to be dangerous work as Big Coal is quite prepared to use hired goons and well as ruthless lawyers to preserve their lucrative business. 

Gray Mountain another fine book from the master of legal fiction that is both an excellent holiday read, and a campaign on behalf of the beautiful mountains of Appalachia. 

I haven’t managed to save the world yet but I am making progress. My clients are poor people with no voice. They don’t expect me to work miracles and all efforts are greatly appreciated.   

childsI read Personal by CWA Diamond Dagger winner Lee Child as a bit of light relief after the dark Nordic angst of The Silence of the Sea. It would perhaps be impertinent of me to review a book by the author of so many best sellers, and this is only the second Jack Reacher I have read.

But here are a few comments……….

That first Reacher I read was not particularly memorable, and this one after a great start faded away and the ending was rather weak. 

I also found it amusing that Personal seemed to be written for an American readership who know next nothing about England. 

‘Don’t you think? MI5 could trace it.’

‘To a cash payment in Boots the Chemist. Doesn’t help.

‘ ‘What’s Boots the Chemist?’

‘Their pharmacy chain. Like CVS. John Boot set it up in the middle of the nineteenth century. He probably looked just like the guy who built the wall around Wallace Court. It started out as a herbal medicine store, in a place called Nottingham, which is way north of here.’

Do American CIA/state department agents operating in England not know where Nottingham is, and do they need a geography and history lesson every few pages?

….then I saw the arch of a big soccer stadium, which meant we had made it to a place called Wembley.

Jack Reacher, an American, actually seems to me to be descended from a long line of British thriller heroes such as Richard Hannay, Bulldog Drummond and James Bond. The style of the narrative, action packed reminded me a lot of Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond books although obviously without the xenophobia, that distinguished those novels. For Sapper anywhere west of Godalming was bandit country.

In Personal Reacher sets out to save the ministers of the G8 from a sniper. There are only a few men in the world who could hit a target from 1,400 yards, and Reacher knows one of them personally. He sent him to prison years before. The reader is taken from Arkansas and Paris to exotic Romford, with Reacher leaving bodies in his wake, and we learn the unfortunate truth.

The problem with Personal is that any book that starts with the attempted assassination of a French President is going to be compared, by readers of my age, with The Day of The Jackal by Frederick Forsyth. Perhaps not a fair comparison one is a great crime fiction thriller, the other a pleasant read for a couple of sunny afternoons.

Lee Child is great fun to read if you treat the books as enjoyable beach novels that don’t strain the intellect too much. 

 

galvestonwencelaskolymskyprovidenceI managed to read four books in March, three and two thirds actually but I will count it as four.

Galveston by Nic Pizzolatto [reviewed here]

The Night of Wenceslas by Lionel Davidson [1960]

Kolymsky Heights also by Lionel Davidson [1994]

Providence Rag by Bruce De Silva

It was  interesting to read Lionel Davidson’s first and last thrillers. He won the CWA Gold Dagger on three occasions, and the Cartier Diamond Dagger for lifetime achievement award in 2001. Both books were excellent exciting reads in very different styles.

The Night of Wenceslas was full of fun, despite the Cold War setting, as Nicolas Whistler tells the reader of the way he was “persuaded” to travel to Prague, in what was then Communist Czechoslovakia a country from which his parents had emigrated, to obtain a secret formula for an unbreakable glass.  Of course things aren’t as straightforward as they seem, and Nicolas has a very difficult time despite the amorous attentions of Vlasta Simenova, the girl with the bomb-shaped breasts. 

‘I haven’t any qualifications, Mr Cunliffe,’ I told him slowly and desperately.’Before you go any further, you’ve got to understand that. I am not qualified to do anything. I am also a coward. I don’t know what it is you want me to do, and I don’t want to know. I’d be less than useless to you.’

Kolymsky Heights  is a very different animal. This is a great adventure story, called by Philip Pullman in the introduction the best thriller he’s ever read, and compared by him and others to the The Lord of the Rings, Smiley’s People, Treasure Island and Casino Royale it is indeed a superb book. It is also a very complex story, packed full of detail some of which is inclined to slow the narrative slightly. But the quest by the Native Canadian Jean-Baptiste Porteur, a brilliant linguist among his other skills, to discover the purpose of a top secret establishment is full of excitement and action. The reader is taken from the dreaming spires of Oxford to British Columbia and Canada’s Far North, and then to Japan and Siberia, among the various peoples of that region. 

The house of Dr Komarov had stood a hundred years-a long time for a simple one of wood, but the wood was good. It had seen out Tsar Alexander III and Tsar Nicholas II, and also the entire communist regime.

Providence Rag by Edgar Award winning author Bruce DeSilva is a serial killer novel, but one that is very different and far superior to the usual run of the mill efforts. The book explores the vast gulf between the law and justice, and the chasm between the letter of the law and plain common sense.

In 1989 the police with the help of reporter Liam Mulligan arrest the serial killer, a fifteen year old, who has slaughtered five people including young children. When the cops and reporters are celebrating their success, state prosecutor Malcolm Roberts spoils things.

“There is something you all need to know,” he told the revelers. “Rhode Island’s criminal codes haven’t been updated in decades. When they were written , no one envisaged a child as twisted and dangerous as ****** ***** . The law says juvenile offenders no matter what their crimes, must be released and given a fresh start at age twenty-one. The attorney general is going to ask the legislature to rewrite the law so this won’t happen again. But they can’t change it retroactively. “In six years, the bastard will get out and start killing all over again.”

The narrative jumps forward to 2012 when the killer is being held illegally for crimes that he is supposed to have committed inside the prison. The authorities realise he is a psychopath and are desperate not to release him. Crimes have been fabricated with false evidence by prison officers, and when Mulligan’s reporter pal Mason decides that the Dispatch should campaign for the killer’s release, the failing newspaper is faced with a difficult ethical issue. 

An excellent read although the stupidity of the law is not such a shock to a British reader, where someone can kill five people be released after 16 years, and are then able to build up an arsenal of weapons.