A Question of Time

James Stejskal’s debut espionage thriller takes place in 1979 in a divided Berlin. Located in the heart of then-Communist East Germany, Berlin was notoriously fertile territory for spies. In East Berlin and the country surrounding the city were the Soviets and the Stasi, East Germany’s repressive secret police. In West Berlin, some 180 kilometers behind the Iron Curtain, sat the Allies, with sectors of the city allocated to Britain, France, and the United States. Cold War tensions only intensified in this island of Western influence with the construction of the wall between east and west in 1961.

By the time the novel begins, the written and unwritten rules governing the strange minuet between spies and diplomats have been largely formalized. One key practice is allowing “freedom of passage patrols” by the Western Allies and the Soviets to tour the other side’s occupied zones. By treaty, those patrols could not be stopped or searched.

But what are rules for, except to be broken or at least bent? Chief rule-breaker here is Master Sergeant Kim Becker, a Vietnam veteran and now a member of the US army’s elite Studies and Operations Group. He has a team of creative and not-by-the-book operatives around him, and they receive a special assignment: A CIA asset, an East German high up in the Communist state’s security apparatus, believes he’s come under suspicion. He wants out. It’s up to Becker and his team to develop and implement a plan to extract him.

Stejskal convincingly establishes the riskiness of the mission and its various ingenious stages, as well as the suspect-everyone mindset necessary for people living under such a difficult regime. He doesn’t spend a lot of time on literary flourishes and detailed description, but you will be turning pages too quickly to miss them. Despite the impressive number of contingencies Becker’s team is prepared for and their attention to espionage tradecraft, the unexpected still occurs. Even then, the rescuers aren’t victims of their plan, they have a powerful capacity to improvise.

Modern warrior-hero stories are often either too far-fetched or too poorly written to recommend. In this one, though, the action is described with just enough detail to make it believable and not so much to bog the story down. The writing is clear and compelling and doesn’t get in the way of the telling.

James Stejskal spent thirty-five years serving with the US Army Special Forces. After his military service, he was recruited by the CIA and served as a senior case officer in Africa, Europe, the Far East, and elsewhere. He is now a military historian who has written several nonfiction books. I’d definitely read another about Becker!

Order from Amazon here.

The Border

The Border, Don Winslow

By Don Winslow – Whew! Another 700+ page book in 2020! Thanks to covid for opening up more reading time, though this book requires multiple kinds of stamina. Having read Winslow’s previous book in this unforgettable trilogy, The Cartel, and the late Charles Bowden’s real-life story, Down by the River, I was prepared for the brutality of the drug trade south of the border. And for American hypocrisy. And my own frustration. What I didn’t expect was how much worse it has gotten.

Most U.S. drug deaths come from illegally manufactured opioids (fentanyl), cocaine that is often laced with heroin or illicit fentanyl, and methamphetamines. All these drugs are manufactured and distributed by the Mexican cartels. They have so much money, they are a giant tail wagging the dog of the Mexican economy and the drug lords must look elsewhere for places to stash and launder their loot. Elsewhere, like the United States, where the size of the prize is just too tempting for major banks, like HSBC and Wells Fargo, and others to turn away.

Though Winslow’s character Adán Berrera is a stand-in for drug lord Joaquín Guzmán, it’s around the disposition of the money that Winslow’s new book turns into a mind-bending roman à clef. His main character, Art Keller, is now head of the DEA in the late days of the Obama Administration. On the horizon are the acolytes of surprise Republican presidential candidate and Twitter addict John Dennison, whose son-in-law, Jason Lerner, is a Manhattan real estate investment tycoon. Sound familiar? Real estate, Keller knows, is a prime sinkhole for large amounts of cash, and a deal Lerner is trying to negotiate needs cash fast.

In a Sean Woods interview for Rolling Stone, Winslow said he has no information linking Trump or Kushner to drug money. However, he believes, the link doesn’t strain credibility: “We live in an extremely corrupt era.” He believed that creating another type of U.S. leader would have been much more disconcerting for readers.

Every once in a while, Art Keller climbs up on his soapbox. He rails against the drug-prison industrial complex or the failure of U.S. immigration policy or the shortsightedness of attacking the supply side of the drug equation rather than the demand side or the incarceration of some 300,000 Americans, mostly for petty drug crimes and the relative impunity of those, like the bankers and investors who facilitate the trade from the top.

But The Border isn’t just a polemic. It’s a multi-layered thriller packed with adventure and compelling characters whose fates you’ll care about. If this review concentrates on the issues rather than the literary devices of plot, characterization, setting, and the like, it’s because those resonances with reality will really stay with you. They’re what make this such an important book.

We Americans turn a blind eye to the drug trade and the corrosive power of its financing at our peril. “You know,” Winslow said, “the problem with writing these books is virtually everything in them really happened.”

Order The Border from Amazon here.

The Huntress

The Huntress, Kate Quinn

Kate Quinn’s 2019 thriller is a real page-turner—good thing too because there are a lot of pages. Soon after World War II, widowed Boston antiques dealer Daniel McBride meets Austrian refugee Annaliese Weber and falls for her. She has a four-year-old daughter and a bit of a murky past whose pieces don’t quite fit. Daniel is in love and oblivious, but his teenage daughter Jordan is not. In the chapters where she’s the center, you feel her love for her father, as she tries to reconcile her stepmother’s affectionate behavior and her doubts about the woman.

Over in Europe, two Nazi-hunters—a sophisticated Englishman and a Polish-Hungarian former GI—have teamed up to track down war criminals overlooked by the Nuremberg trials. Ian, the erudite Englishman, received a solid education, but it’s Tony, from polyglot Queens, who “could talk to anyone, usually in their native language.”

By 1950, they have a good track record, despite the shoestring nature of their operation. A woman they would really like to find is die Jägerin, The Huntress. She had been the mistress of a high-ranking SS officer, now dead. During the war, she murdered numerous people, including six refugee children, and one of her victims was Ian’s brother Sebastian.

Ian first heard about Seb’s death from a young woman, “all starved eyes and grief,” whom he encountered in a Polish hospital. Nina Borisovna Markova is the third leg of this sturdy triangle of point-of-view characters—Jordan, Ian, and Nina.

Nina grew up in a tiny village in Siberia—the youngest of several children, with no mother, siblings who fled, and a violent alcoholic father—dreaming of escape, but where and to what? The answer comes the day she sees her first airplane. She heads west to a city where she learns to fly, becoming a member of the first Soviet women’s flying squad, and active in bombing the German invaders. It’s a perfect life for her until her father’s drunken denunciations of Stalin reach the wrong ears. Unless she escapes the Soviet Union, she’s likely to be rounded up and imprisoned too. The Siberian legends and superstitions of Nina’s childhood are woven into all these experiences, and the result is a complex, prickly, utterly unique personality.

Quinn’s characters are passionate about their concerns, though Nina’s passions are at best only half-tamed. Because die Jägerin tried to kill Nina, she wants to find the woman just as much as Ian does. And, she knows what die Jägerin looks like. When Tony stumbles on a faint clue that leads them to Boston, they hope to pick up the murderer’s scent. They have no idea she’s living as a respectable housewife right under their noses.

To sum up this story in a single word, it would be “satisfying.” All Quinn’s characters and their concerns are compelling, and their rich experiences support the plot. There’s more than a touch of romance, and the good-humored banter provided by Tony is an effective counterpoint to the seriousness of the hunters’ quest. In short, I really enjoyed this book and recommend it highly.

What a Gem!

In case I ever write the fine jewelry thriller (that is, a thriller about fine jewelry) that I have in mind, I signed up for a Zoom class on “gems,” taught by a registered gemologist. Now I really have to write that story! Our instructor, Hillary Spector, was fantastic, and here are some of the pearls I gleaned.

Diamonds

Diamonds form in the earth’s mantle, in the presence of intense heat and pressure, plus their constituent element, carbon. They were formed up to 3.3 billion years ago and carried up closer to earth’s surface through volcanic action as “recently” as 20 million years ago. They may be a girl’s best friend, but they are an old friend.

Diamonds are at the top of the scale in terms of hardness, but they can break or chip. The toughest stone used in jewelry is jade. Hardness and toughness aren’t the same.

Look for the four C’s when assessing a diamond: cut (the sparkle), color, clarity, and carat (how much it weighs, not how big it looks); these are all measurable attributes. If my fictional jewelry seller is pushing a stone’s beauty, that’s irrelevant to value and, therefore, the asking price, which depends on rarity.

Lab-grown “synthetic” diamonds are chemically and anatomically the same as a mined diamond. Sellers are required to make it clear to purchasers that the diamond was not mined (opportunities for fraud?).

Pearls

Pearl jewelry is having a renaissance, and pearls are even appearing in engagement rings (not a good idea; they are neither hard nor tough enough for daily wear). In London, I saw the unfortunately termed pearl choker of Mary Queen of Scots, which was so small it looked the size of a bracelet.

Forget the old distinction between “natural” and “cultured” pearls. All pearls on the market today are cultured. The commercial prospects for natural pearls have been lost to ocean pollution and global warming (increasing the temptation to steal vintage natural pearls?).

Once one or more mother-of-pearl beads is inserted into a pearl oyster, growers give the pearl at least ten months to form, but 24 months is optimal. All Akoya pearls are bleached and may be further colored with dye or irradiation. By law, this must be disclosed to the buyer, which opens up possibilities for scamming!

Freshwater pears form in freshwater mussels, primarily cultivated in China (international intrigue)!

The value of a pearl is always related to rarity. Like the four C’s of evaluating diamonds, the actors that rate pearls are measurable, independent, and must all be present: size, shape, color, luster (shine), surface quality, enough layers of nacre, and, if they are supposed to be “matching,” must match on all those characteristics. (“Their beauty justifies the ‘investment,’” says the deceptive salesperson.)

Must Re-watch!
Diamonds are Forever
The Hot Rock
Return of the Pink Panther
Girl with a Pearl Earring

Foreign Object(ive)s

origami, frog

Three short novels from international authors, all under 175 pages, showing you can do a lot to tell a great story, evoke reader emotion, and, by the way, garner significant critical praise in about half the length of the average American novel.

Ramifications by Daniel Saldaña Paris, translated by Christina MacSweeney – A young boy in Mexico City is obsessed with folding and refolding origami frogs. This is one of the rituals he developed to fill his mind and his time after his mother walked out on him, his older sister, and their rigid father. She couldn’t take their stifling middle-class life and vowed to join the revolutionaries in Chiapas. But did she? After a time of youthful doldrums, he takes dramatic action to find her and doesn’t. Then word comes she died in an auto accident. But did she? Now an adult, her son appears irredeemably “lost in the woods of machismo and social revolts ” says reviewer Alejandro Zambra.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori – Thirty-six-year-old Keiko Furukura found work at a convenience store when she was in her late teens and, despite her likely abilities, has never left that job. The daily rituals and predictable rhythms of the convenience store soothe her, and she has a talent for the needs of the job—customer support, upselling, store display. Her family wants her to aspire to more, to return to the university, to find a husband, but life at the Smile Mart is what satisfies this “defiantly oddball” woman. Named a “best book” by numerous publications.

A Hundred Million Years and a Day by Jean-Baptiste Andrea, translated by Sam Taylor – You can brace yourself for winter by reading this highly praised adventure involving the hunt for an intact dinosaur skeleton high in a remote Alpine wilderness. It’s the late summer of 1954, and three palaeontologists and their taciturn mountain guide have only a limited time to search before winter closes in, and close in it does. The guide insists they leave, but Stan, the organizer of the group, won’t go. Eventually, they leave him and he braves the elements so as to get an early start on the search the next spring. All alone, in the cold and dark, the boundaries between waking and dreaming, the now and the past blur. “Spare, elegant and poetic, this slender novel is quietly devastating” said the Daily Mail.

Photo of frog origami by Hanne Hasu for Pixabay.

Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine – Nov/Dec 2020

Santa Claus, reading

What fun to review this issue of “the world’s leading mystery magazine” and have the chance to reexamine its amazingly diverse stories, in numerous sub- and maybe even sub- sub- genres. In this issue there’s a nice mix of brand new and newish authors, as well as some of today’s best writers of crime and mystery fiction.

Picking favorites is hard, but these stories particularly struck me.

“Killer Instinct” by Doug Allyn—a perennial reader favorite. Not only is his story set in my home town, Detroit, his first sentence made me laugh out loud. It’s perfect for EQMM: “The traffic was murder.”

“My People” by Liza Cody – Her protagonist, an undercover London cop, is participating in a huge protest about climate change, sussing out the demonstrators’ intentions. They welcome her; her fellow police are dismissive. As a result, she engages in an entertaining mental back-and-forth about which group is “her people.”

“The Man from Scotland Yard Dances Salsa” by John Lantigua. His Miami-based Cuban private eye is always interesting. Once again, he cleverly negotiates that tropical world of people with lots of dough and the bad guys who want to grab some of it.

“The Cards You’re Dealt” by Michael Z. Lewin – satisfying comeuppance of a full-of-himself police lieutenant, aided by some smart detective work and a sharp boy and his bike.

“The Man at the Window” by Pat Black—an intriguing police procedural about a dead mom, suspiciously swinging neighbors, and a tidy three-year-old.

Photo: Creative Commons License

The Lost City of the Monkey God

Deep in the Mosquitia region of Honduras—an area of steep mountains and impenetrable jungle—is some of earth’s most remote and still-unexplored mysteries. Yet within this forbidding area, according to legend, lay the abandoned White City, The Lost City of the Monkey God.

Act 1

Over decades, various expeditions had tried to find the city, mostly using the rivers and their many tributaries, without notable success. In 2012, aircraft equipped with laser-guided Light Detection and Ranging technology (LIDAR) become available. LIDAR could penetrate the jungle canopy for the first time and its images revealed a city’s-worth of  plazas and structures. At ground level, these were invisible, fully camouflaged by dense overgrowth. Finally, an expedition could be mounted whose destination was more than guesswork.

Thriller writers will recognize the author of this true-life adventure, Douglas Preston, as the author with Lincoln Child of the Prendergast and Gideon series of suspense novels, as well as a number of stand-alones. His first love was science, and as a journalist, he’s covered archaeology, paleontology, and other -ologies. The first work of his I read was The Monster of Florence, the true crime story of a serial killer and the case’s botched prosecution. Its invaluable insights about the Italian legal system informed my thriller set in Rome.

A long-time acquaintance, the filmmaker and adventurer Steve Elkins, invited Preston to participate in the Honduran exploration team. Due to limits on the availability of helicopters to transport the team and their supplies in and out, they had only a very few days on site. Although they managed to clear away no more than a small portion of the dense jungle, the LIDAR findings were validated.

With the full backing of and (one hopes) ongoing site security from the Honduran government, discoveries are still there to be made. The book conveys the team’s profound thrill of discovery as they faced drenching rains, freeze-dried meals, jaguars prowling outside their tents at night, and an encounter with a six-foot fer-de-lance, the most deadly snake in the Americas.

Act 2

Unbeknownst to several members of the team, once they scattered to their home communities, they were on the cusp of a new and undesirable adventure. One by one, they began to suffer mysterious physical symptoms. In Preston’s case, it was a bug bite that wouldn’t heal. It was painless, so he ignored it until he learned others were having problems too. U.S. doctors rarely see tropical diseases, so it took some time for diagnoses to coalesce around leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease acquired from the bite of an infected sandfly. The way the disease manifests in different individuals—and their responses to the available treatments, such as they are—vary widely. They may never be free of it.

This part of the experience allowed Preston to explore the significance of infectious diseases in human society and the inevitability (this was written in 2017) of pandemics, past and future. It wasn’t a prediction about our present situation, but a useful reminder. Because of global warming, the natural range of vectors like sandflies is expanding steadily northward. Scattered cases of leishmaniasis are now being found in Texas and Oklahoma, and these are not associated with travel to endemic areas.

The Lost City of the Monkey God is about exciting discoveries in a region whose perils were more numerous than expected. An engrossing and worthwhile read, it was widely regarded as one of the best books of 2017.

Photo: StanVPeterson for Pixabay

Murder on the Iditarod Trail

Iditarod

By Sue Henry — To gear up for cold weather, you couldn’t do better than reading Sue Henry’s first Alaska mystery, Murder on the Iditarod Trail. Whatever winter throws at us in the lower 48, compared to the people who race the Iditarod, our situation is positively toasty. First published in 1991, the story won Macavity and Anthony awards. It has aged well and is worth a fresh look.

Pretty much all I knew about the race when I turned the book’s first page is that it is a thousand-mile dog sled race from Anchorage to Nome that you’d have to be near crazy to undertake. For from eight to fifteen days or more, mushers compete through blizzards, white-out conditions, below zero (F) temperatures, and brutal wind-chill. They traverse sea ice, travel through tricky areas that look frozen solid but may not be, and drive on in gale-force winds. There’s little (but mandatory) time to rest for dogs or humans. The fact that many mushers continue to compete year after year means . . . Brrr-r-rrr.

The story begins when the centrifugal force of a sharp turn sends a sleeping musher flyikng from his sled and crashing into a tree. The stub of a broken branch enters his skull. Accidents on the trail are inevitable, but death is not. This was a first, and Sergeant Alex Jensen, an Alaska State Trooper, is called in to investigate. An autopsy reveals the dead man’s coffee had been laced with a powerful barbiturate.

Because Jensen is new to Alaska, he doesn’t know a lot about how the race is run or the single-mindedness of the competitors. Over the next week, he finds out. He begins his inquiries at the Finger Lake Checkpoint, where the high temperature for the day will be a balmy 5˚ F and the low -3˚. There he meets many of the leading mushers and several race officials, people he will encounter repeatedly over the next nine days, as he and his colleagues leapfrog ahead to farther checkpoints.

If that first death unnerved people, a few hours later a sled careens off the trail north of Finger Lake and musher Virginia Kline plunges to her death. The gang-line on her sled snapped, and when Jensen arrives, he observes that the line had been cut nearly through. These apparent murders have occurred near the beginning of the race, when the sled teams are relatively close together, but as the race continues, the teams spread out, the number of people with the opportunity for sabotage shrinks, and the dangers mount.

Henry steers the novel’s tension as deftly as an experienced musher traversing Rainy Pass. On the one hand is the tension of the fiercely competitive race, with mushers determined to win despite the hazards of weather and terrain and exhaustion. On the other hand is the pressure on the investigators to identify the culprit or culprits before more deaths and injuries can take place.

A budding romance between Jensen and musher Jessie Arnold gives her the chance to explain what the race means to participants. This aspect of the story is a bit dated, with Jensen’s patronizing advice she should quit, but Arnold doesn’t let him get away with it. All told, it’s a thrilling adventure.

The Iditarod (the Athabascan name of one of the small villages the race passes through) was never more than of transient interest to me, but Sue Henry brings it to life. In recent years, animal rights groups have objected to the treatment of the dogs, which has resulted in some rules changes. By telling the race’s story so fully, she provides perspective on that issue, as well.

Photo: skeeze for Pixabay.

The Mathematical Murder of Innocence

By Michael Carter — For every mystery/crime fiction lover, there are books that hit the sweet spot of their special interests. There are the cozies with the knitting patterns and recipes. There are election fraud novels for political junkies. There are the gritty, down and dirty books for people who don’t get enough of that in the daily news. Books featuring computer nerds, financial advisers, art appraisers, cat sitters, on and on.

The Mathematical Murder of Innocence, not the first book I’ve read about a math whiz, is an eye-opener. It was inspired by real-life cases in Britain, in which women were convicted of killing their infants based on a really faulty understanding of statistics. Most people—and that apparently includes lawyers and judges and juries—don’t have a good grasp of how statistics work. You might think calculating odds (except, perhaps in horse-racing) is a rather straightforward exercise. Yet, how you calculate them makes all the difference, and the results can fly in the face of “common sense.”

For example, if you toss a coin that comes up heads ten times in a row, you might be inclined to take the bet that you’ll get tails on the next toss. Don’t do it! Unless the coin is faulty, each toss is an independent event and the odds of heads or tails is 50-50 every time. Likewise, you might estimate you’d need a group of at least 100 or even 200 people to make it likely two of them would have the same birthday. You’d be wrong. You only need 23 people to have a 50-50 chance of matching birthdates.

Luckily for the fictional Sarah Richardson, the woman standing trial in Michael Carter’s novel, on her jury is engineer Martin Fielding. Richardson’s two infant sons have died of cot death (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome in the US). Dr. Michael Goodwin, the prosecution’s expert witness, says that, given the relative rarity of cot death (one in every 8,500 births), the odds of losing two children that way are one in 72 million (8,500 x 8,500). “One death is a tragedy; two deaths are murder,” he says. But juror Fielding believes the correct number is more like one in 18 and sets out to prove it.

Set aside for a moment any skepticism that a juror would repeatedly burst out his objections to a witness’s testimony. Then set aside your doubts (perhaps they could be expressed as odds, like one in a thousand) that Fielding would be invited to take over the questioning of Dr. Goodwin. Once you accept those long odds—the outbursts, the cross-examination—the story becomes a delightful takedown of a pompous and dangerous man. A bit of a deep dive into statistics, but . . . it might save someone’s life.

The photo is from a 1990s British courtroom drama series, Kavanagh, QC, starring John Thaw. Excellent entertainment!

The Mirror and the Light

In 2009, British author Hilary Mantel published Wolf Hall, the first book in her trilogy about Henry VIII’s powerful counselor, Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540). I wasn’t surprised that year when it won the Booker Prize, Britain’s top literary award. Three years later, part two of the trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies, won the Booker again—making Mantel the first British writer to win more than once. Eagerly, I’ve waited and waited for part three.

The Mirror and the Light was published earlier this year and, though it made the Booker longlist, it’s not on the shortlist. That seems more in the spirit of giving another author a chance than a critique of this new volume. It follows Cromwell in his final years, and, because I knew how it would end, I read its 750-plus pages in spread-out batches, extended my association with the protagonist and delaying the inevitable. I like to think Mantel felt the same reluctance for the story to end, accounting for the long wait.

Thomas Cromwell was the son of a violent, ill-educated blacksmith from the London suburb (then) of Putney, who rose to have extraordinary power in King Henry’s court. He had no army of his own, no particular following. Other than a few close allies, mostly among his family, the nobility, in fact, hated him and his influence. What he had in abundance was political acumen.

He made Henry a rich man and extended the king’s power and authority. He engineered the annulment of his marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and his marriage to his second, Anne Boleyn. When Anne declined in royal favor, Cromwell again aided the king in ridding himself of an unwanted wife and placed Jane Seymour (probably the one of Henry’s six wives he loved best) in Henry’s path. After Jane’s untimely death, he negotiated with the German princes for a marriage to Anne of Cleves.

But there was so much more to Cromwell than bedroom politics. He oversaw the dismantling of Church properties, as he and Henry established the king as the head of the Church of England, not the Pope in Rome. He maneuvered against the Spanish, the French, and the Holy Roman Empire to protect his king and further his interests. In a nutshell, he saw the future and England’s role in it, laying the groundwork for a modern nation led by skill and intellect, not birthright.

Mantel’s trilogy benefits from the tumultuous times in which Cromwell lived. But beyond the inherent drama of the story, her books are an astonishing feat of imagination. In no aspect of his life is Cromwell dealt with superficially. He is a wholly imagined person, with a chess-player’s ability to think many moves ahead.

Over the centuries, other chroniclers have portrayed him as ruthless and ambitious—a characterization his enemies among the nobility would have spread about—Mantel’s books employ the skills of a mind-reader, making him a person of much greater depth. His enemies claimed he wanted to be king, but in her telling, he wanted only to serve his king.

Bottom line? Any author who can help you know so intimately and care so deeply about a person who died almost 500 years ago has accomplished something indeed.