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 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.

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.

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.

My Friends Write!

Despite Covid, my friends who are writers are coming out with new books, but with fewer—or at least vastly different—strategies to let us know about them. I’ve joined any number of their ZOOM and Facebook book launches, followed their social media announcements, and read their marketing emails. By and large, these strategies are interesting and not totally satisfying. Better than nothing, I suppose, if frustrating for them.

Here are three recent books by writer friends not reviewed here before. Dick Belsky and Al Tucher I know from crime writing conferences and events sponsored by the New York chapter of Mystery Writers of America. I haven’t met PA De Voe in person, but we’ve bonded over a shared passion for Robert van Gulik’s Tang Dynasty magistrate, Judge Dee Goong An. I mentioned James McCrone’s new political thriller yesterday. Click on the book’s title for my Amazon affiliate link.

The Last Scoop

RG Belsky is a former New York City newsman who’s turned his intimate knowledge of the city and its characters into a number of engaging crime novels. In this story, harried Channel 10 news director Clare Carlson is in the middle of both a puzzling murder story and a potential exposé of city political shenanigans. In following clues left by her late mentor, she gradually uncovers what would have been his last scoops: a previously unrecognized serial killer on the loose and a pattern of mob payoffs. Clare is a bull in a china shop, but she has a powerful, self-deprecating sense of humor, and the demands of the daily news cycle keep her plowing forward at speed. Read my full review here.

Pele’s Domain

A novella set in Hawai`i is almost too appealing. This new story by Al Tucher brings the lore, the multicultural mix, the unique foods, and the island attitude front and center once again. Pele, the volcano goddess, is acting up, and the volcano that’s her home, Kilauea, is erupting spectacularly.

For residents of the raggedy communities in the path of the searing lava, the eruptions are more deadly hazard than spectacle. Trees, houses, cars—all incinerated. Perfect places to hide a couple of murders. The ironic contrast between tropical paradise and dirty dealing in Tucher’s novels is always fun and, here, Kilauea itself is added to the detectives’ adversaries. Read my full review here.

Judge Lu’s Case Files

If a Hawaiian escape isn’t quite distant enough, go back to Ming Dynasty China where PA De Voe channels what must be an earlier incarnation to write with such authenticity her novels and short stories set in that period.

The twelve short stories in this collection have straightforward plots, partly a result of their length and party the reality that cases in that era had to be wrapped up in a day or two. Plus, miscreants were expected to confess, and “encouraged” to do so by their jailers.

Although the stories take place more than 600 years ago, they provide timeless insights into human behavior. Read my full review here.

Thrills and Chills, Delivered Right to Your Ears

These are “OK-I’ll-take just-another-walk-around-the-block” audiobook listens. Award-nominated stories, great narrations! Click on the titles for my Amazon affiliate links. Enthralled by every one of these!

The End of October

Lawrence Wright, End of October

Lawrence Wright must have really polished up his crystal ball before writing this medical/political thriller about a brutal pandemic. A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, he has a knack for describing scientific complexities and capturing both the big political picture and the significant details. The hero of the book is Henry Parsons, an American physician from the Centers for Disease Control trying to control the uncontrollable as world leaders behave in all-too-familiar, self-serving, short-sighted ways. Near the end, the book strays into conventional thriller territory, but the rest is terrific.

Mark Bramhall read the audio version, and I could hear Dr. Anthony Fauci every time he delivered Parsons’s words. Read my full review here.

American Spy

In Lauren Wilkinson’s highly regarded debut novel, it’s 1986 and Marie Mitchell is an FBI intelligence officer. As a young Black woman, she feels passed over, and her boss is hostile. She’s approached by CIA operatives running a campaign to discredit Thomas Sankara, the charismatic, pro-Communist president of Burkina Faso, and Marie agrees to help. What Marie  doesn’t expect is to fall under Sankara’s magnetic spell. Long after leaving Africa, the long tail of retribution is still chasing her, with deadly intent. Marie’s strong relationships with her family give the book tremendous resonance. Narrated by Bahni Turpin, beautifully

Stranger Diaries, Elly Griffiths

The Stranger Diaries Elly Griffiths’ award-nominated story describes Clare Cassidy, a high school English teacher with an affinity for the long-dead gothic horror writer R.M. Holland and his most famous work, “The Stranger,” a short story about a macabre murderer. When colleagues at the school where she teaches—where Holland himself lived and worked—start being murdered, there are mysterious links to Holland and every reason to think Clare may be next. Narrated by Esther Wane, Sarah Feathers, Anjana Vasan and Andrew Wincott, who reads “The Stranger,” bit by bit.

Autumn Thrills

Three exciting reads from 2020. The only thing they have in common is how good they are! Click on the title for my Amazon affiliate link.

The Wicked Sister

In this all-new story and cast of characters, Karen Dionne reprises elements of her first quite fabulous book, The Marsh King’s Daughter. Again, the setting is the sparsely populated, heavily wooded Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and, again, the natural world plays an important role, underlining themes and supporting the action.

The main character, 26-year-old Rachel, even talks to animals. Dionne’s light touch makes these interactions more revealing of Rachel than weird. Rachel is fragile. She’s just spent 15 years in a mental institution believing she murdered her parents. With chapters narrated by both her mother (“then”) and Rachel (“now”), you learn what really happened and pray for Rachel’s escape. My full review here.

How to Be Nowhere

Fasten your seatbelt for a breakneck, bumpy ride. Tim MacGabhann’s new thriller takes place in the murky regions of Central America

Investigative reporter Andrew and his friend Maya have connected with some pretty dangerous characters over the years, and that past comes roaring back.

The bad guys want the reporters’ help finding their leader’s daughter, a much more difficult and dangerous task than you might imagine. Plenty of dark humor. If Hollywood ever makes a movie of this story, they’ll need a hefty budget line-item for expendable vehicles.

My full review here.

Seven Lies

Elizabeth Kay’s new domestic thriller is an immersive journey into a twenty-year friendship. Jane and Marnie have been inseparable since age eleven, though narrator Jane doesn’t hesitate to explain the many ways they differ.

They work in London post-college, and Marnie meets successful, wealthy, charming Charles. Jane loathes him. When Marnie asks Jane, “You think we’re right for each other, don’t you?” Jane swallows hard and tells lie number one: “Yes, I do.”

Kay strings you along, inviting your complicity, as the box Jane has constructed for herself becomes smaller and smaller and her lies increasingly consequential. My full review here.

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

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.