Armchair Adventures

In case you wonder what the *** mean in my reviews, there’s a key on the book reviews page. They’re a good guide to how much I liked a book—since my reviews leave open the possibility a read I found meh might suit someone else perfectly.

****The Dead Don’t Sleep
By Steven Max Russo—It has taken five decades for the long arm of retribution to reach halfway around the world and tap the shoulder of Frank Thompson. Today, Frank is a recent widower living in rural Maine, and he doesn’t talk about Vietnam, but the buddies of the American he shot there so many years ago have found him.

The three men are full of plans for tracking him down, and for the massive, highly illegal firepower needed for this mission, one fueled with alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine. They’re all about Frank’s age, nearly 70, which is a stretch. I can imagine guys in their twenties and even thirties talking themselves into such a crazy plan. Yet the author makes clear the years haven’t added to these guys’ store of common sense or muted their violent tendencies.

From his home in New Jersey, Frank’s nephew Bill knows about the danger and wants to help. He has zero experience with the kinds of situations Frank has seen, and his indecision alone is enough to tell you he’d be a liability in any kind of showdown. “Stay home!” I kept telling Bill telepathically. He doesn’t listen.

This is Steven Max Russo’s second thriller. He’s an advertising executive and lives in New Jersey, which accounts for his solid descriptions of life here in the Garden State.

*****The Wild One
By Nick Petrie – This is Nick Petrie’s fifth thriller featuring PTSD-afflicted Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran Peter Ash, and it retains all the energy of his earlier works. Ash’s old war-buddy seeks his help in locating an eight-year-old boy, who disappeared a year earlier from his Washington, DC, home, after witnessing his mother’s murder. The kidnapper is most likely the boy’s own father, the presumed killer, and he’s most hiding out with his tight-knit family in remote northern Iceland.

The mother, Sarah, ran a computer security business. On a client’s servers, she discovered career-ending evidence of criminality among Washington’s political class. She sets up a mirror server with an unbreakably long encryption key preserved in only one form, in the photographic memory of her son Óskar. The bad guys want it.

Ash has plenty of antagonists, aside from his internal demons. There’s the mysterious crew following him: do they want him to find Eric and Óskar? Or not? There is Erik’s paranoid extended family, not averse to ensuring their privacy with violence. There is the head of the Icelandic Hjálmar, relentless in trying to bring Peter in. But perhaps his greatest adversary is Iceland’s brutal, dead-of-winter weather. A more apt metaphor would be difficult to find. So, throw on a couple of sweaters, make yourself a cup of something hot, and settle in for a wild ride.

If there’s anything to object to in Petrie’s work, it’s a tendency to reach a little too far in the closing pages. In this book, a final act of violence puzzled me, because it came out of the blue. But that wasn’t enough to negate everything solid that had gone before. Do note that Ash is now a wanted man and has no passport or I.D. It will be interesting to see how he gets back to Oregon. I’m hoping Petrie plans to tell me.

Photo: Sasint Tipchai for Pixabay

****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.

Yearning, Desire, and Fiction

In an interview with author Kevin Canty I recently ran across (Part 1 here), he made the point that story characters must want something worth writing about. While that might at first sound like a point that hardly needs to be made, Canty is talking about the need for fiction to include what Robert Olen Butler calls “yearning,” or “the phenomenon of desire.” This, Butler says, is the essential ingredient most often missing from beginning writers’ work. (And any number of New Yorker short stories I abandon half-read.) Unsatisfying, in the way a crime without a motive is.

Of course, Canty says, characters in fiction may not choose the most effective or direct or logical ways of getting what they want, but they have to want something. They may even take actions that are counterproductive to their goal. Othello wants Desdemona, yet he murders her. These characters are like the people whom we would describe as “their own worst enemies.”

Or, what characters end up getting can be vastly different than what they thought they wanted. The outcome can be just as emotionally satisfying but far from the original plan. Think Jane Austen. In such cases, the author leaves enough clues to the character’s true desire that the reader sees it, even if the character has a blind spot.

Doesn’t it make a story feel too pat when characters want a particular outcome, and that’s exactly what they get? It’s too easy. Real life’s more complicated, which is why writers struggle with plot. Characters—much less the reader—don’t learn much from easy wins.

Putting himself in the role of a fictional protagonist, Canty says, “There’s a constant incompleteness and irony and all the rest of it that keeps getting between what I want, what I think I want, and what I get.” It’s what makes characters interesting. It’s what keeps us reading.

Canty’s most recent book is The Underworld: A Novel, about the aftermath of a disastrous fire in a small Western mining town.

Photo: eluj for Pixabay

***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 Kennedy Moment

By Peter Adamson – In this political thriller by former UNICEF official Peter Adamson, the reunion of five college friends launches a do-good project that none of them could have anticipated, that has every potential of imminently and disastrously going off the rails, and that has almost incomparably high stakes.

In the early 1960s, a group of Oxford University students were best friends. As Stephen Walsh, a stubbornly Marxist professor writes to the others, “We’ve lost touch, the months drifting into years and the years into decades.” He proposes a reunion.

Michael Lowell, the only American, leads a World Health Organization team on childhood immunization; Seema Mir works on a biography of the African American Hemings family; Toby Jenks is the hard-drinking creative director of an advertising agency; and Canadian Hélène Hevré is a physician, exhausted from the demands of tending patients within the minimalist health care system of Côte d’Ivoire.

The relationships among these friends, especially the two almost-couples (Michael and Seema; Toby and Hélène), are believable and sometimes painful because the characters are so engaging.

At the reunion, Toby, with his flair for the outrageous, responds to the health professionals’ angst over vaccine-preventable illnesses saying, “Seems to me, possums, the obvious thing to do here is to get hold of a little test tube of cached smallpox virus and threaten to blow bubbles with it in Times Square unless the world gets off its butt and immunizes every last kiddie.”

A few months later, the friends reunite in New York. No one has forgotten Toby’s little joke, and before long they have a plan to use smallpox virus to blackmail the US government into fulfilling its immunization commitments. But it must be carried out in complete secrecy.

Predictably, the government focuses not on meeting these mysterious demands, but on finding out who is behind this little venture and stopping it. To them, it’s bioterrorism, and a nail-biting chase is on. Meanwhile, Toby crafts a powerful statement for the US President: “Twenty years ago, President John F. Kennedy committed the United States to the goal of putting a man on the moon within a decade. Today, the United States commits itself to another great goal: a goal for our times; a goal to be achieved here on earth; the goal of immunizing all of the world’s children against the major killer diseases of childhood.”

I loved this book and the daring team of characters that took on the crimes of neglect and half-measures. Hugely satisfying and out of the ordinary. Available here.

Photo: anjawbk for Pixabay.