Other People’s Problems

Reading

Memoir is not my favorite genre, but lately I’ve read a couple of interesting ones—about a misbegotten woman and an idolized father—and two nonfiction stories about the trials of war, one with a happy ending, one not.

****Celibacy: A Love Story
By Mimi Bull – The book’s subtitle as the punchline, “Memoir of a Catholic Priest’s Daughter.” As a child in a world of secrets, she was adopted by an older woman and her twenty-something daughter. It doesn’t surprise that her “sister” turns out to be her mother. Only after the mother dies does Mimi learn who her father was. Despite the lack of suspense, the book is fascinating. The adult Mimi and her husband lived in Istanbul, in Sedona, in Vienna. A unique story, charmingly told.

**The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit
By Lucette Lagnado – I heard about this book while I was in Egypt, a country that once had a significant Jewish population, until Egyptian President Nasser forced them to leave. To the child Lucette, Cairo and her family’s apartment were paradise, and her father was king. When they are exiled, a Jewish aid agency finds them a disreputable lodging in Paris and an unsatisfactory apartment in New York. Lucette’s father’s business is murky; in New York, he sells fake Italian neckties. The family hates its new life. Lucette blindly adored her father, but I cannot tell you why.

****Escape from Paris
By Stephen Harding – This is the true story of a group of American airmen shot down over France and the complicated escape routes the French set up for them. Danger is on all sides. One of the safe houses is right under the nose of the Nazis, in the apartment of the caretaker of the Hôtel des Invalides, site of Napoleon’s tomb. Very exciting!

***The 21
By Martin Mosebach – As the cover proclaims, this is “a journey into the land of Coptic martyrs.” On February 15, 2015, twenty-one young Egyptian men, ISIS captives, were marched onto a beach in Libya and beheaded. The video recording of that event went around the world. What was most striking was the dignity and faith they maintained until the end. The author sets out trying to learn about them, their home villages, and the faith that supported them. A bit philosophical for me, but I read it to pay my respects.

Dust Off Your Library Card

chalk outline, body

You see so many reviews of brand new crime novels on this website because, as you may know, I read and review them for the fantastic UK website CrimeFictionLover.com. Occasionally, I dig into my book pile and find something not suitable for CFL. Possibly it’s a book that’s been out a while, a new book already reviewed by CFL or in one case below, great non-fiction. A post for another day is a list of not-crime books. There is such a thing!

***Identical
By Scott Turow (2013) – if you want a novel full of twists and turns, this one has it. If you want a novel that stretches the bonds of plausibility, you have that too. Twin brothers Cass and Paul (Castor and Pollux, get it?) couldn’t be more different. One is running for city mayor, the other about to be released from jail after 25 years. He pled guilty to the murder of his girlfriend Aphrodite Kronon. Confusions worthy of the ancient Greeks and arising from twinhood are here, fairly predictably.

****Statute of Limitations
By Steven F. Havill (2006) – This is one of Havill’s meticulous police procedurals set in small-town New Mexico. I’ve read three of them, and I love them! A retired police chief abandoned after collapsing from a heart attack, a body in an arroyo, a late-night attack—this Christmas season is certainly not filled with goodwill toward mankind. Under-sheriff Estelle Reyes-Guzman doesn’t miss a beat.

****The Aosawa Murders
By Riku Onda (2005), translated from the Japanese by Alison Watts – Newly published in English, the scenes in this prize-winning book are like a set of still lifes. Different points of view describe a crime in which 17 members of a single family were murdered, with only one survivor, a young blind woman. Gradually, the crime is pieced together. Lovely writing, stellar cover.

***False Light
By Claudia Riess (2019) – This is the second outing for amateur sleuths, art experts, and randy spouses Erika Shawn and Harrison Wheatley. Their challenge this time is to decipher a coded message from a famous art forger, now dead. Supposedly, it will identify some of his works masquerading in prestigious collections as the real thing. It’s a great set-up, and if you’re a fan of art world skullduggery, you may enjoy this, but I found the denouement implausible.

*****Breaking and Entering
By Jeremy N. Smith (2019) – Subtitled “the extraordinary story of a hacker called ‘alien,’” this is the nonfiction story of a woman’s career from her exploits as an MIT undergraduate through to her current role consulting with banks, government agencies, and others on security issues. Cybersecurity is their big concern, and she and her team are cyber experts, but they also routinely prove to clients that good old humanware can be their weakest link. Fascinating.

****Passport to Death

By Yigal Zur, translated from Hebrew by Sara Kitai. This thriller, recently translated into English, features former Israeli security operative Dotan Naor, whose firm has something of a specialty of rescuing Israelis who find themselves in tricky situations abroad. In his new case, a pretty young woman named Sigal Bardon, age 26, has gone missing in Bangkok, and her family wants her back.

Naor is a cynical narrator, intimately familiar with that southeast Asian city, having spent time there off and on for two decades. If he had to guess, he would chalk Sigal’s disappearance up to a drug overdose—heroin, Bangkok gold. There are a lot of bad ways that story can end, and he knows most of them.

Once in Bangkok, Naor takes a room in the heart of Patpong, a nexus of unsavory activity, and a district where information about Sigal, or the woman herself, is likely to be found, traded, or bought. On a sweltering day he takes a ride in an air-conditioned cab. The driver offers the usual drugs and girls, and he also has passports belonging to Sigal Bardon and someone named Micha Waxman. Naor buys both, plus the information that the driver drove them to the train station. This encounter is too much of a coincidence, and Naor wonders who’s trailing him, who recruited this driver, who’s anticipating his mission.

The complicated plot involving a diverse cast of Israeli expats, drug kingpins, and Thai Tourist Police moves along briskly. Sigal herself remains something of a cipher, but the colorful supporting characters—monks, fortune tellers, whore mistresses, and Naor’s old Shin Bet acquaintances, troublesome though they may be—are vivid.

Throughout the story, Naor hears echoes of his past and the scandal that ended his special forces career. Old companions lurk in Bangkok’s dark corners, but are they allies or adversaries? He takes the pessimistic view: “The past surged up and flooded over me like a sewer that had overflowed.”

Every clue that Naor tracks down solidifies his initial impression that drug dealing is at the center of Sigal’s disappearance. But is she still alive? Her sister thinks so, but says little. The drug lords she doublecrossed think so and want her themselves. Waxman thought so, but he’s dead.

Zur’s rich descriptions of Bangkok permeate every scene and engage all the senses. This isn’t a story that could take place anywhere else, and by the time you turn the last page, you may feel like you’ve been there. And you’ll be glad to have made the trip from the comfort of your reading chair, out of danger and chaos.

Zur’s previous thriller Death in Shangri-La was also fun!

Photo: cegoh for Pixabay

****Secret Service

By Tom Bradby – This new political thriller feels like it could be “ripped from today’s headlines.” Deception, betrayal, and the ethical vulnerability that compromise Western political leaders are here turned into a gripping, all-too-believable tale.

Bradby’s protagonist, Kate Henderson, head of MI6’s Russia Desk is an experienced operative, with a small team of trusted subordinates, a colleague perpetually trying to undermine her, and a boss whose private thoughts are kept behind a locked door. She has a loving and very patient spouse who covers for her when she suddenly must be on a plane somewhere, two teenagers who think they should be the center of her attention, and a mother full of resentments who lives in a care home near—too-near—the Hendersons’ London home, believable relationships all.

Kate also has a past. She spent time in Moscow as a student and met and fell in love with a man named Sergei. She didn’t act on those feelings, but she’s never forgotten them. That was twenty years ago, and when Sergei turns up in London, Kate finds those long-buried feelings still simmer.

Sergei feeds her some startling and actionable information about an impending meeting of top Russian intelligence operatives. Kate doesn’t reveal the suspicious source of her information, and, a bit skeptically, her superiors approve her plan to eavesdrop on this parley. The Russians discuss the shocking information that the UK Prime Minister will resign soon, and one of the top candidates to replace him is in the pay of Russian foreign intelligence. Is this a replay of the late 1960s IRL? Disinformation? If not, which candidate is it?

The changes in Western-Russian espionage over the years make this exciting reading. Bradby sums it up nicely when Kate says, “In the old days, it seemed like a fair match, didn’t it? . . . As long as we could spot their feints and sleights of hand, we could go home reasonably secure . . . It isn’t like that any more. They go behind us and around us and beyond us to the people and the country at large, whipping up hostility and division and dissent, their tentacles reaching down a thousand different alleyways.”

Bradby does a good job controlling his narrative and, without ever becoming tedious or heavy-handed, he subtly helps you remember who knows what, who trusts whom and with what information, and how much each person knows. No one tells all the truth, and the book’s title, Secret Service, has multiple meanings.

There’s plenty of action to keep the pages flying too, as some of those secrets prove deadly. Bradby doesn’t let you forget for a moment that the Russians will happily send a “wet team” to harm Kate or her family, in London or anywhere else in the world she may be.

All in all, it’s a story to immerse yourself in, and one that may make you raise an eyebrow when next you hear about some major Western politician’s unaccountable behavior. No naming names here.

Photo: Jackmac34 for Pixabay

Stories of Suspense: Romantic and Otherwise

Reading

Fiction River: Summer Sizzles

In her introduction to Fiction River‘s issue of romantic suspense stories, editor and romance writer Kristine Grayson (pen name of series editor Kristine Kathryn Rusch) says, “I love romantic suspense when it’s done right. When it’s done wrong, it’s seriously mind-numbing.” That must be the type I’d read previously. This issue has made a bit of a convert out of me—I just have to keep finding the good stuff, like these examples:

In Katie Pressa’s story “Night Moves,” a man hospitalized for a head injury that robbed him of his memory kicks into high gear when he’s attacked again. Where did those skills come from? He doesn’t know, but the detective sent to sort out the second attack and prevent another one believes she has a hero on her hands and wants to find out more.

The sparks of romance might be flying between a female helicopter pilot and a laconic Delta Force operator, but their mission in Afghanistan is too dangerous for distractions, in “Flying above the Hindu Kush” by ML Buchman. Super-exciting!

Sabrina Chase’s lighthearted “Need to Know” made me smile. If only real life served up such delicious surprises!

“Totality” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch takes place on the Oregon coast during 2018’s total eclipse and turns it into a tale about a woman whose mentally ill sister is trying to kill herself and the man who may save them both. Nice portrayal of coping with irrationality.

And many more . . .

Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine

Much to like in the March-April 2020 issue! Especially to my taste were:  

The clever police procedural “The Eleventh Commandment” by Paul Charles. So nice to have villains who puts a little thought into their crimes.

Peter Lovesey’s “Lady Luck” is just downright malicious, staring with the ironic first line. Ha!

I’m a fan of John Lantigua’s stories set in Miami’s Little Havana. Like previous ones, “In the War Zone of the Heart” is not only a good story, he spices it up with local culture.

You can read Karr and Wehner’s Passport to Crime story “Here in Tremonia a Crime Fiction Slam . . .” as a long poem, one with a few murders along the way and a happy ending.

In John F. Dobbyn’s entertaining “A Little Help from my Friend,” finally, at last, a story protagonist comes to the aid of his author!

Dave Zeltzerman’s entertaining stories about his modern-day Nero Wolfe/Archie stand-ins Julius Katz and a rectangular bit of hi-grade AI are always fun, especially in “Like a Lightning Bolt,” written from a would-be con-man’s pov. He doesn’t stand a chance.

The polyglot protagonist of Edith Maxwell’s tale, “One Too Many,” discovers she’s just too clever for her own good!

Photo: Carlos Martinez, creative commons license

****Naked Came the Florida Man

By Tim Dorsey – “ʻDon’t shoot guns into the hurricane.’ Elsewhere this would go without saying, but Floridians need to be told,” this antic crime novel begins, as Dorsey takes the familiar Florida man premise to absurd heights (or is it depths?). His hero, the aptly named Serge A. Storms, who has no discernible occupation, has plotted a picaresque adventure for himself and his dim friend, Coleman. Serge will drive them around Florida in his 50-year-old gold Plymouth Satellite, visiting the graves of past Florida luminaries.

Enlightening Coleman along their route, Dorsey/Serge painlessly and idiosyncratically covers Florida’s history, sociology, meteorology, and biology. Before long, you know quite a bit more about this quirky state than you did on page one. Florida with its extreme weather, its swarms of insects, its snakes and gators, its cultural hodgepodge, its tony suburbs and ramshackle sugar cane towns lend themselves perfectly to Serge’s non-stop snarky commentary

Several other plot threads, past and present, weave throughout. First is the story of the deadly 1928 hurricane that created a massive storm surge—not in the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico, where you’d expect, but in Lake Okeechobee—that killed some 2500 people. Pertinent to Dorsey’s tale, a rich sugar baron’s fortune in gold coins was lost in the calamity. The fate of the gold is one of the riches of this tall tale.

Most of the novel is devoted to Serge and Coleman’s adventures and clearly channels Serge’s manic psyche. His mind is like a rambunctious puppy, dashing here and there, nibbling this and that. At times the two men launch into a jag of childishness, racing and chasing each other, finger-painting murals for their motel walls, dressing as clowns, and generally acting up.

It’s hard to reconcile that light-hearted Serge with the man who plans (elaborately, of course) and carries out four diabolical murders. His victims aren’t blameless, but the gruesome methods by which they die almost put me off the book. But I hung in there, and I’m glad. Dorsey was a reporter and editor for the Tampa Tribune for twelve years and has twenty-two previous novels. The Boston Globe calls him “compulsively irreverent and shockingly funny.” A trip with his man Serge is most definitely a wild ride.

Order from Amazon here.

***Net Force: Dark Web

photo: openDemocracy, creative commons license

Jerome Priesler’s new techno-thriller, Net Force: Dark Web carries on a series created by the late Tom Clancy and Steve Pieczenik, but lacks the immersive, gotta-turn-the-page qualities of Clancy’s work. It’s certainly true that cybersecurity becomes more consequential by the day, but this book doesn’t make the case.

True to current thriller-writing style, it comprises short chapters of a few pages that skip around to cover the actions of a large number of players, among them: black hat hackers versus white hat hackers, corrupt African leaders, the President of the United States and her new cyber-initiative team, CIA and FBI operatives, parking garage attendants, and moms with kids. In other words, a lot. Too much, in fact. If an author expects to maintain your interest for around 700 pages, the length of the paperback version, at least some of those characters should be written in enough depth to make you care about them.

The story starts strong, with a prologue set in 2023 in Malta (why this was a “prologue” and not just Chapter 1, I don’t know, as it’s contemporaneous with the rest of the story and integral to it). A young woman who has something to do with software development flees through city streets, trailed not just by men in vehicles, but also by a drone following her every twist and turn.

Just as you’re rooting for her escape, in a nice reversal, she’s captured, and you learn her pursuers are CIA and she may not be one of the good guys after all. Then the action moves to Romania where black hat operators plan to use the woman’s clever software to take control of a wide array of computers. They probably can’t anticipate the full ramifications of their project, given the near-future pervasiveness of the Internet of Things. The CIA wants the woman’s help, but she’s resisting.

I won’t go into how all the other plot threads and descriptive elements merge with this set-up, except to say some of them don’t. The entire Africa plotline was extraneous to the story; deleting it would have reduced the page count. Likewise, Priesler describes every new character at length, whether they reappear or not. You may regret struggling to remember all those backstories.

What makes a techno-thriller work is confidence that the author has the technology down pat (good examples are Ghost Fleet or This is Gomorrah). Inevitably, a moment arrives when the author goes out on a limb, when you must suspend disbelief and just hang in, but I never reached that point of trust. As far as I can tell from his past works, Priesler has not written this type of book before, and it shows.

Photo: openDemocracy, creative commons license

Crime Short Fiction: EQMM and Rock and a Hard Place

magazines, reading

In the rambunctious arena from which mystery and crime short stories emerge, some publishers have played a long game, MVPs of that literary scene, some leave the game after a short run, and, though their retirement from the field is lamented, new players keep the game going. Here’s a take on one of those new pubs and recent offerings from a true stalwart.

***Rock and a Hard Place

The debut of another outlet for short crime fiction is something to celebrate. Editors Jay Butkowski, Jonathan Elliott, and Roger Nokes say they aim to capture the sense of desperation in our current moment. Though the 18 stories in their inaugural issue are about characters in desperate situations, at the bottom of the social heap, the editors believe these stories are compassionate and real. In going dark, they’re following the path of a good many other current crime magazine editors.

Stories I especially enjoyed included SJ Rozan’s funny “Sister of Mercy,” about a nun with an unusual and peculiarly useful side-job. Kathleen Kilpatrick’s “Ghost Tribe” about albino children in Tanzania raised interesting questions about identity and fitting in. For a clever jibe at Donald Trump’s Mexican wall, read Alex Skopic’s “Los Renacidos.”

In “Chlorine,” Al Tucher’s recurring character, the prostitute Diana, (wisely) decides against a replay of her teen years, and several memorable characters in SA Cosby’s “The Anchors That Tie Us Down” encounter a bit of the editors’ sought-after compassion. You’ll chuckle over the reversal of fortune faced by a pair of young grifters in Allan Leverone’s “A Town Full of Losers.” Finally, Jacqueline Seewald’s “Against the Odds” pits a gambler against his compulsions.

Not all of the stories appealed to me, and I abandoned one or two partway through. But that’s OK. The appetite for darkness isn’t the same for everyone or the same on every day. Independently published, Rock and a Hard Place is a notable first effort for a publication worth watching.

****Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine

I see I’m falling behind in my reading, as this refers to the January/February 2020 issue of EQMM, and March/April beckons from the bookshelf beside me. This long-standing publication of crime and mystery tales (almost 80 years!) may be thriving in part because of the diversity of story types it includes—something good for every reader. Among this issue’s many fine stories are the following:

>“The Wretched Strangers” by Matthew Wilson employs a novel protagonist, a woman who interviews asylum-seekers and must untangle their complex relationships with the truth.
>Satisfying (and deadly) comeuppance tales in “Now Hiring Nasty Girlz” by Toni LP Kelner, “Crow’s Nest” by John M Floyd, and “Stroke of Luck” by Bill Pronzini. Floyd talks about how he created “Crow’s Nest” in a 15 Feb SleuthSayers post (scroll down for it).
>“The Concrete Pillow” by Pat Black–a gritty police procedural set in Glasgow.
>Excellent depiction of a child’s flawed recollections in “The Summer Uncle Cat Came to Stay” by Leslie Elman.

You can subscribe to EQMM or its sister publication Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine or find single copies in the magazine section of your big box book store.

Photo: cegoh for Pixabay, creative commons license

****The Bells of Hell

cocktail

By Michael Kurland – If Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man series could be a refreshingly witty corrective for 21st century gloom-and-doom, then Michael Kurland’s The Bells of Hell may be just the book to prove it. There are dark deeds afoot by Nazis and Communists in the late 1930s, but the main characters in this historical thriller are plunging into these events with their equilibrium and senses of humor intact.

Lord Geoffrey Saboy is a British ‘cultural attaché’—that is, a spy in the British Secret Service—working in Washington, DC, along with his wife, Lady Patricia. Lord Geoffrey is gay, so though the couple is close, he doesn’t begrudge his wife her amorous dalliances, some of which are for pleasure and some in service to her own approach to sleuthing. An old friend of Lord Geoffrey’s, US counter-intelligence agent Jacob Welker, has the ear of President Roosevelt, which occasionally comes in very handy.

In March 1938, a Communist agent from Germany, arrives in New York, and in a matter of days, is found naked, tied to a chair in an empty warehouse, tortured to death. Unbeknownst to his Gestapo killers, there was a reluctant witness to this execution, unemployed printer Andrew Blake. Many arms of officialdom take notice when the salesman’s identity is revealed, as worries about the German-American volksbund (the “Bund”) are on the rise.

Welker talks a reluctant Blake into taking a job printing literature for the Bund. Blake is terrified by the murder he saw and almost paralyzed with fear his spying will be discovered. He laments every assignment and drags his feet in accepting each new task, proving once again that true courage is not going boldly into the unknown, but knowing the danger and going anyway. And when his German masters, in turn, ask him to spy on the Communists, he’s a pretzel of hesitation.

Kurland develops the plot in a number of interesting ways by giving Lord Geoffrey his own brush with the Nazis when he accompanies HRH Prince Edward, Duke of Windsor, on an official visit to Germany. HRH find Hitler impressive and forceful, and Saboy responds that one likely acquires the habit of being forceful when no one dares disagree. If you are familiar with the real-life affinity HRH had for Hitler, this plotline is especially intriguing.

Meanwhile, intelligence from multiple sources suggests the Gestapo is planning a major terror event in New York, which they plan to set up so that blame lands on the Communists. But what, where, and when is this to take place? These questions preoccupy the British couple and Welker, their American friend (and possible future amour of Lady Patricia).

The nicely plotted story moves along at a sprightly pace. Though the characters are dealing with deadly serious matters, they maintain their lighthearted, let’s-not-take-ourselves-too-seriously banter. Kurland captures the spirit of the times: the oppressive gloom in Germany, the uncertainties regarding impending war in Britain, and the fear of the extremists of right and left who threaten America. You may be as delighted as I am that The Bells of Hell is billed as ‘A Welker and Saboy Thriller,’ signaling the possibility of more about this engaging trio in future.

Photo: wikipedia

*****The Spy and the Traitor

By Ben Macintyre – A pal of John Le Carré, Ben Macintyre brings the novelist’s gift for writing compelling characters and page-turning narrative to the nonfiction realm. The Spy and the Traitor, subtitled “The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War,” is based on the defection to Britain of KGB operative Oleg Gordievsky, and it provides at least as many thrills as the best espionage novel.

Gordievsky, raised in a family where working for the KGB is the family business, becomes disenchanted with Soviet hypocrisy. Posted to Denmark, he has a tantalizing taste of what life is like when lived outside a surveillance society. A British MI6 agent, working in Copenhagen under classic diplomatic cover, notices him and several modest bits of outreach are made by the two of them, but nothing comes of it. Gordievsky, however, sees his future and when he returns to Moscow, works at becoming accepted into the KGB’s English-language training program. Finally, he succeeds. After a few years, he’s posted to London.

Then the connection is made, and over at least a dozen years, he secretly works for MI6.

The intelligence he provides and particularly his insights into the Soviet mindset are pivotal in the late Cold War era, and he provides significant background for Margaret Thatcher’s meetings with Soviet leaders. His advice helps her craft proposals they can accept. It’s vital and thrilling diplomacy, all accomplished well out of public view.

I especially enjoyed the intriguing nuggets of tradecraft Macintyre drops as he follows Gordievsky’s twisting path. That level of detail is just one feature inspiring confidence in the narration and investment in the protagonist’s fate.

Throughout his years spying for Britain, Gordievsky is, of course, acutely aware that Soviet paranoia is ever on the lookout for leaks and traitors. MI6 is so protective of him, they do not even reveal his identity to the Americans. Good thing, too, because the head of counterintelligence in the CIA at the time—Aldrich Ames—is himself a double agent. Ames ultimately betrays more than two dozen Western spies inside Soviet intelligence, effectively signing their death warrants. His motive? Money.

Every so often, Gordievsky and his family are required to return to the Soviet Union for a term of months or years. This is the normal rotation to prevent personnel from becoming too attached to their place of posting. In case he comes under suspicion while inside the Iron Curtain, MI6 prepares an elaborate escape plan. No one is truly confident this plan can work, least of all Gordievsky. A breakdown at any point will be disastrous. But once Ames fingers him, they must give it a try, and that whole episode is a real nail-biter.

Macintyre’s book won the 2019 Gold Dagger for nonfiction, an award sponsored by the UK Crime Writers’ Association. John Le Carré calls The Spy and the Traitor, “The best true spy story I have ever read.”

Photo: tiburi for Pixabay.