Cold Shot to the Heart by Wallace Stroby

This is dudelit1. Criminals, check. Dialog and action driven, check. Lots of guns and testosterone laden posturing, check. Little in the way of characterization and motivation, check. It’s dudelit.

The fact that the protagonist is a woman who’s never fired a gun shouldn’t give aficionados of this type of book reason to pause, however. She’s a pretty tough cookie.

Crissa Stone is a career criminal, skillful and clever. She never does a job in the same place or with the same crew, and never anywhere near her home. These are all things the man who mentored her taught her well2. That mentor is about to come up for parole, though, which means she needs money, and a lot of it, to grease the wheels of the arguably professional people in the court system to ensure his release. A robbery, although it does come off smoothly, doesn’t supply the expected payoff, and Crissa must find another heist and soon. Her desperation causes her to work more swiftly and less cautiously than she would ordinarily, and mistakes were made; a business acquaintance, Stimmer, sets up a holdup of a card came in Florida–the money is as promised but one of the robbers shoots one of the victims. This brings down not only the police, but the crime boss father of the man who was shot. The latter hires Eddie the Saint, newly released from jail himself, and one of the best most skilled competitors in Crissa’s field, to hunt down the person or people who offed his child.

The story alternates between Crissa’s storyline and viewpoint and that of Eddie the Saint. Readers can see the two inexorably converging on one another towards the inevitable conflict. The two meet, in a battle of wits, guns, knives, broken bottles and wrenches; this isn’t as bloody as it might be, though definitely not for the squeamish: the two main protagonists do come out of it alive, more or less, but it’s clear that Crissa’s comfortable life has been shattered.

I will confess I haven’t read enough in this genre yet to come up with a good suggestion, based on personal experience, for what to read next. There are a number of decent thrillers that someone who liked this might also enjoy, such as books by John Hart, John Connolly and Michael Koryta, but their books are more complex, requiring readers to stop and consider plot twists and complications. Richard Stark’s Parker series was suggested elsewhere, though.

1yes, I know this isn’t a real term, but I think it should be, as a counterpart to chicklit
2though as he’s in prison, these might be taken with a grain of salt, I suppose

Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell

There’ve been a string of murders in Richmond, Virginia with all the hallmarks of a serial killer, and the police are under pressure to solve the series. The only real clues that the police have to go on are that the killer is a non-secreter, has a substance on his hands that sparkles and glitters when the victims’ bodies are run under laser light, and the aroma of maple syrup left behind at one of the “scenes of the crime”…though at first, not surprisingly, the investigators believe that to be residue of something the victim ate. Kay Scarpetta, as Chief Medical Examiner for Richmond, is deeply involved in the case.

Two issues are complicating investigations: there is no apparent connection between the victims, in terms of appearance, lifestyle or daily pattern of movement (the usual prompt for serial killers) and it is suspected that the killer hacked into the CME’s database of case files and tweaked one bit of information in one of them. Needless to say, the ensuing restrictions limiting the CME’s ability to travel and interact with various city agencies hampers Scarpetta considerably in her work. As yet another woman dies, in a manner fitting the pattern of the previous murders, public feeling increases. Frantically sorting through all the information available seeking a pattern, Scarpetta realizes that all the women called 911 shortly before they were murdered, and the fluorescing substance found on the victims is borax, an ingredient in the municipal soap dispensers in the city of Richmond at the time…such as the bathrooms used by the 911 dispatch operators. Putting two and two together, she guesses who the killer might be; unfortunately, he guesses she’s close enough to a solution to arrest him about an hour before she realizes same, and breaks into her house.

It’s a bit odd coming back to the first in a series that’s been running so long; at 22 years old the first in Cornwell’s Scarpetta series is showing its age, though that certainly wouldn’t have been the case when it first came out. The scientific background is a bit dated in terms of computer technology and scientific background underlying criminal forensic investigation. It’s easy to forget now that there was a time when computer users had to dial up another computer, complete with twangy electronic sound effects, if they wanted remote access to information on the other computer. The Internet as we know it today was still several years in the future, after all. DNA identification is so routine now (at least if you believe the CSI franchise) that it seems a bit ludicrous for the forensic examiner to stop and explain what the stuff is. Dredging up memories of 1990, however, reminds me that yes: Cornwell probably did have to backtrack and do all that explaining about DNA to her presumed lay audience. The idea of a computer hacker altering data to bolster zir own position would have been equally novel, and the ability to log into a computer at another facility as exciting to a readership that in all probability didn’t even own a computer.

As for the book itself, I’m glad to see a tough single female who’s struggled to achieve what she has in what is even today a man’s world. I appreciate the fact that Cornwell didn’t attempt to sugarcoat either police investigation procedure, autopsy technique or the sexism still inherent in law enforcement; Scarpetta has to be both far better at what she does than the men around her and exceedingly circumspect and diplomatic in her interactions with her peers and superiors, if she wants to last long in her job much less advance. The plotting was decent though characterization rather fell by the wayside. Unfortunately, I’m disappointed by Cornwell’s decision to have the main break in the case be the fact that the killer suffers from a comparatively rare metabolic disorder, Maple syrup urine disease, which provides a crucial clue: under stress, people with this disorder (conveniently for the police!) exude an aroma resembling stale maple syrup and even more conveniently, the spouse of one of the murder victims came home close enough to the departure of the killer that he caught that distinctive smell.

The Woodcutter by Reginald Hill

“Wolf” Hadda rose from his birth as the son of a woodcutter, or rather a groundskeeper for a wealthy English Lord, in the Cumbrian countryside, to business mogul married to the daughter of that wealthy landowner and back down below his original station to prisoner and parolee, reviled by the Cumbrian villagers who’d begrudged him a trifling respect as local boy made good when he was at the height of his business success. Fairy tale, perhaps, but this is the kind of story that continues beyond the traditional “and then they lived happily ever after”, in keeping with real life.

Wilfred Hadda is nicknamed “Wilf” to distinguish himself from his father Wilfred who is called “Fred”; ‘Wolf’ is a nickname given him by the local laird. The family moved to Cumbria when Wilf was in nappies to help care for Aunt Caroline, who was in the early stages of Alzheimers his father got a job working for the local laird as groundskeeper and woodcutter while his mother served as companion to the aunt. His mother died when Wilf was only six, and Wilf ran wild after that, his father being too busy to watch him as he was out of the house from early breakfast to “tea”1, leaving only the progressively more confused Aunt Caroline. Charming as a boy and more so as a man, Wilf endears himself to those around him effortlessly and without smarminess; children don’t mind getting punched in the nose, teachers let him slide by on the bare minimum of work, the laird lets Wilf marry his “princess” daughter and business ventures fall into his lap.

All his entrepreneurial empire comes crashing down around his ears one morning some years after his marriage, when the police arrive with a warrant to search his house for computer files pertaining to child pornography. Even this might have dissipated with a glimpse of the truth, but Wilf’s hot temper gets the better of him and he clocks the officer in charge not once but twice, then flees into traffic when he’s let out on bail…straight into the front of a bus. Wilf wakes up from his coma nine months later to find that all his wealth has evaporated, his wife is filing for divorce aided by Wilf’s lawyer (and later marries that same lawyer) and he has himself lost an eye, three fingers from one hand and the use of one of his legs. Not only has his life and career and love dissolved into mist, now that he’s awake, he can stand trial for the original child pornography charge.

Seven years into his prison term, he gets an avant garde prison psychologist, Alva Ozigbo, who is willing to work with him in greater depth than previous medical professionals. After several months, he breaks down and cries out to her for help in acknowledging what he has done and healing himself; her testimony gains him early release, though not soon enough to see his father or daughter again. He returns home to Cumbria, where only the young and idealistic vicar befriends him as part of his pastoral flock. Wolf sets about finding out for himself just what happened while he was in a coma, and just who doublecrossed whom–it will come as no surprise to those aware of the social dynamics in the U.K. that there’s a fair bit of class differential behind the plotting.

Overall, I liked the book well enough to devour it–all 528 pages–in an afternoon. I’m not entirely convinced by the plot, but that might be my own unfamiliarity with thriller tropes and devices rather than a real failing in the plot. The characterization is very good; Hill does enough back story, world building and delving into motivation that I can understand why the characters interact the way they do. Too bad the plot itself isn’t that well developed! I can believe someone would be just that charming, but Wolf seems curiously unaware of his own ability to influence others, despite utilizing a great deal of psychological manipulation of other characters, to be sure, including one who ought to know better.

I’m not sure I buy all the plot twists, although I appreciate Wolf would seek some sort of revenge against the people who landed him in jail, and attempt to clear his name. While a number of the secondary bad characters are a bit cardboardy or stereotyped, I appreciate the fact that Hill allows the vicar and psychologist to first judge Wolf based on the crime of which he’s accused, and assume his motivations are those of a criminal then gradually become more uncomfortable with that presumption of malice, and evil deeds/intent, and finally helping him redeem his good name despite recognizing how they’ve been used for his ends.

As an example, the vicar stumbles across a case of expensive liquor (having purchased a bottle of cheap plonk for Wolf as a Christmas present2) and a tin box full of packets of £50 notes. He mentions it to the psychiatrist–the only way either of them can conceive of Wolf acquiring this money is through some criminal action–and the psychiatrist drives up from London to pay a call on Wolf. He puts her in his bedroom3, complete with liquor and tin box, and returns downstairs to make tea/lay out a plate of cookies, knowing the first thing she’ll do is look for the suspicious items which the vicar has mentioned…and he’s already tucked a note into the tin box which reads “Your tea’s getting cold.” for her to find as soon as she opens it. The two converge on Wolf’s cottage, and he explains the thoroughly mundane origins of the money: in palmier days of yore, he sent his dad £1000 per month for a number of years, which his father promptly withdrew from the bank in cash and stuffed into that old tin box. That money was not considered part of Wolf’s estate when he was imprisoned, and his creditors were unable to lay hands on it as they didn’t know it existed (as indeed it didn’t belong to him at the time!)

For once, coming up with a suggestion of what authors to read next is easier than describing the book itself: John Hart, John Connolly’s Charlie Parker books, and Michael Koryta’s books; though the two I read had a supernatural plot twist, the overall tone seems similar to me. While the blurb on the cover describes the protagonist’s life as a fairy tale, I wouldn’t go so far as to describe it thus, rather that it has many of the tropes of fairy tales. Read it for the characters, and the setting; just don’t think too hard about the plotting.

1early supper, for Americans
2Wolf appears to be making do on his pension, being unemployable as both a convict and a cripple
3nothing unprofessional going on; Wolf’s planning to sleep in another room

11 Harrowhouse by Gerald A. Browne

This strikes me as a typical blowsily over the top spy movie wannabe novel1, in the vein of all those bad Ian Fleming ripoffs–entertaining, but hard to take seriously now forty years after its original publication. (Warning: spoilers below)

Chesser is a small time diamond wholesaler, affiliated with the international diamond cartel called simply The Consolidated Supply System, which is, not surprisingly given the title of the book, located at 11 Harrowhouse in London. Each month, the wholesalers associated with The System are given an appointment by The System, during which time they are given their monthly allotment of diamonds. Favored dealers get more and better quality diamonds, while those lower down the totem pole get fewer and poorer, or worst of all, the selection is reduced in value for those who’ve done something wrong, at least in the eyes of The System…and a great many things might cause The System to hold you in lower esteem. A network of spies keep tabs on everyone affiliated with The System, from the head of the syndicate down to the very lowest janitor, and keep detailed files of what they find.

Chesser’s lover, Maren, is independently wealthy after the death of her first husband, with estates and houses throughout France and abroad…as long as she does not remarry. If she remarries, the husband’s law firm inherits the lot. The two have no qualms about their lack of formalization of their relationship, as quite frankly they’d rather she had access to the money2.

As the book’s action begins, The System has reduced Chesser’s diamond allotment for reasons he’s not entirely clear about, and he decides to take on a private assignment: an Incredibly Wealthy Businessman, Massey, asks him to find a truly world class diamond–the sort of thing which is given the name of the person first associated with it. Chesser does so, but on the way back from the stone’s cutting in Antwerp, he and his lover are robbed of the diamond. They return to Massey, and come clean. Massey, needless to say, is more than crestfallen at the loss of his diamond and questions Chesser about why he did not do such obvious industry standard precautions as insure the diamond. Chesser’s reaction to the robbery convinces Massey to hire him to rob The System of all their stockpiled diamonds…some twenty-two million carats worth of stones, of various sizes, held in reserve in order to provide better control of the world diamond market and the price at which diamonds sell.

He, Maren and Harridge Weaver, a (black) African, begin plotting. They bribe a System employee, whose doctors have told him he’s to die mere weeks before his generous pension from the System would kick in3, to diagram the access points to the System’s diamond vaults. There is one plausible route: the electrical conduit leading from the building’s roof to the basement vault. They jump the fence, complete with barbed wire coils, set up to protect thieves approaching from the roof, avoiding the electric eye alarms in true daredevil spy action flick style, and feed a miniature vacuum hose down the conduit, into which the bribed employee funnels all but the largest diamonds. Diamonds safely loaded into the waiting lorries, the conspirators drive off to a disused gravel pit where they temporarily dump what are, after all, no more than particularly glittery bits of gravel, and go their separate ways.

…unfortunately, Weaver double crosses Chesser, and makes off with all the diamonds while Chesser’s reporting back to Massey, in order to fund at least one African nation’s revolution to overthrow the melanin-challenged oppressors. Frankly, I can’t say that I blame Weaver, given how most diamonds are brought up into the world’s light, and the true cost to the locals who work in the mines. The novel does not end well for Chesser and Maren–desperate enough to consider marriage, thereby triggering that clause in Maren’s husband’s will and bringing the lawyers’ agents onto their trail in addition to The System’s goons. The System’s fate is at best mediocre: while the business is technically intact, the CEO who brought the company up to its current prestige has resigned, and the stockpiled diamonds are gone.

This is an industrial espionage thriller involving one of the most sought after substances on earth. Oil is a more recent entry in this cluster, and gold is less transportable for a similarly valued amount; diamonds are perhaps the most iconic of symbols of not only the glitter for which wars are fought but the depths, figurative and literal, to which those in power will go to get those pretty trinkets. There are layers upon layers of intrigue and betrayal. In short, to quote Mother Kapoor in ZBS Media‘s Ruby series, in reference to that series’ chief slimeball: “That wasn’t a double cross, that was a triple cross.”

1as indeed it was made into a film shortly after its publication
2Keep an eye on that qualification in the husband’s will…
3thereby depriving his family of not only his salary but his pension

Murder Against the Grain by Emma Lathen

Crime and espionage in the hallowed marbled halls of a major bank? Why not? Banking isn’t a field many people associate with crime, and yet there’s both opportunity and motive, not to mention a great deal of temptation, for financial crimes. Embezzlement certainly, and murder to conceal what you’ve done.

A major trade agreement has been settled between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., heralding an early thaw in the Cold War; part of this deal is that the U.S. is to ship 40 million bushels of wheat to the U.S.S.R. via a complicated agreement between grain brokers and banking institution, as this amount is too large for any one broker or bank. The Sloan Guaranty Trust is one of the financial institutions involved, and their temporary loan is to be for $985,0001…until things go wrong. The Sloan is presented with a plausibly well-forged packet of Soviet bills of lading purporting to be from the grain brokers with whom they’re dealing, Stringfellow & Son, in exchange for which they present the check. It isn’t until four days later when a representative from the real Stringfellow & Son notifies the Sloan that they’re sending over the bills of lading in exchange for which they’ll expect the check that the bank realizes what has happened.

The courier who swapped the forged documents for the real check is from a company with whom Sloan had dealt before, and is proved innocent. The company for which he works is proved innocent. The motive is presumably desire to set up a new life in another country–as the bank trenchantly points out, it would be difficult to explain that large a sum of money where there was no previous financial history to account for it–but who among the possible suspects wanted to leave everything behind in this manner? Presumably it is someone who had access both to the official blank documents from Stringfellow & Son, as those are legitimate. The language on the documents is insufficient to tell whether the writer was a native speaker of Russian.

I have to confess I’m not terribly surprised to find that this was a collaboration between two writers, Mary Jane Latsis and Martha Henissart…nor that Latsis was an economist and Henissart an economic analyst. It makes sense to me to write about what you know, and it makes sense that a bank and the bankers employed there would encounter crimes in the course of their work; as a concept for a mystery/investigative series, a bank at least makes more sense than many of the “amateur detective” series.

The basic plot of this sixth in the series is a bit dated forty years after the book’s publication in that there is no longer a Soviet Union in the sense of the governmental coalition described herein, not to mention the fact that the now-separate countries which were part of that once mighty country are as likely to be exporting grain as importing it. In forty years, writing style changes as greatly as political structures, so that difference is a bit jarring too. On the whole, though industrial international espionage sounds like it ought to be a complicated dire dour take on the thriller genre, I’d call this borderline cozy mystery; how can I take a book seriously which has a troupe of performing otters and the Leningrad Symphony rehearsing on a high school basketball court? (Yes, they are explained in the book.) Perhaps this could be considered a “dudelit” entry into a field dominated by chicklit mysteries, plotlines and heroines?

1keep in mind the effects of inflation here; forty years later, that amount would be the cost of a house in one of the more expensive markets, but adjusted for inflation we’re talking well over six million dollars.

Tomorrow’s Ghost by Anthony Price

Is it possible to have a tale which invokes death merely in the telling? Do people in the various intelligence (gathering) agencies ever lose track of their personae?

Frances Fitzgibbons is pulled from her current post as a temporary secretary in London to that of a post-graduate student visiting the University of North Yorkshire in order to assist Colonel Butler on a project to protect crucial political figures from one O’Leary, an Irish terrorist. In the course of discussing J.R.R. Tolkien’s comparative talents as a philologist versus as a fantasist and from there what precisely constitutes fairy tale from modern fantasy, Fitzgibbons tells her companions a fairy tale her grandmother told her years ago: a princess is transformed from mythic beauty of youth to abysmal ugliness of old age, and the prince whose kiss is based on pure love will return her to her original state. The first prince is motivated by hot greed and his kiss only results in his bursting into flame while the second prince is moved by cold pity, and is transformed into a block of ice. The third prince is motivated only by love and his kiss restores her to her original state…unfortunately, they’re interrupted in their literary discussion by Fitzgibbon’s being called upon to dispose of a briefcase bomb left in the gentlemen’s cloakroom.

It is not until she returns home after that assignment ends that she discovers her real task was to observe Colonel Butler himself, when one of the officers to whom she reports comes to find out what her impressions were. (Don’t laugh: she has a higher than usual psychic/intuitive ability than her fellow agents.) Butler is under consideration for a promotion, but there is suspicious activity in his past: his wife disappeared some nine years ago and is presumed dead under peculiar circumstances, and not surprisingly, Butler as the spouse is the most likely suspect. Her instinct is that Butler didn’t kill his wife, but the catch is to come up with some conclusive evidence: she and one of the agents with whom she worked on the briefcase misdirection research him and his family, and conclude that, as a WWI veteran, he would not have killed his wife on the date of her disappearance, November 11th.

Oh…and about that fairy tale told in the comfort of the university lounge? It is apparently a harbinger of death; its telling invokes Death, who will either take someone dear to the teller or to a person of the teller’s choice. Yes, the book ends with an unpleasant though somewhat ambiguous ending when our protagonist is embroiled in the ambush of two people she cares for; if she warns one, the other will die, though it’s not clear that the fairy tale had anything to do with the death, whether directly, or through her belief in it.

Tomorrow’s Ghost is part of Anthony Price’s “David Audley” series, and as such might be better enjoyed if you’ve read the previous (and subsequent) book. While all the novels involve Audley and/or Butler, they’re from the perspective of different primary characters, so keeping strictly to the publication order may matter less than with same-protagonist series, but for those unfamiliar with older espionage novel writing style, starting at the beginning might well be advisable. This is the first I’ve heard of Anthony Price, much less read any of his books; he quit writing over twenty years ago, so perhaps it’s not surprising he’s’ not much in the news/publisher’s crosshairs these days. Frankly, I’m not quite sure what to make of this book, and so am even less sure what else to suggest to fans of Price. John le CarrĂ© is the closest I can think of, in the sense of books about legitimate though undercover intelligence agencies, with connections (and opposite numbers) in other countries, whose activities are not entirely explained by the author. Perhaps not surprising, as Price mentions being influenced somewhat by le CarrĂ©.

Interview with author, part #1
Interview with author, #2

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

“Are you a gifted child looking for special opportunities?” This advertisement begins the action in The Mysterious Benedict Society.

Reynie Muldoon, an orphan clever enough to have learned all that’s in the schoolbooks available to the school associated with the orphanage in which he lives, answers this ad on the prompt of his tutor, Miss Perumal. Over the course of a perplexing day, he takes a series of perplexing tests–some are obvious, being identified as such whether written or physical, while others are only revealed to have been part of the test day after Reynie has passed them all. At the end of the day, only four children pass of the throngs who applied: Reynie Muldoon, Sticky Washington, Kate Weatherall and Constance Contraire. They’re gathered in the home of Mr. Benedict, who has been searching for a team of children to perform a very dangerous task: infiltrate the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened, a school on Nomansan Island, which Mr. Benedict believes is the source of the Emergency threatening the general society. To this end, he has assembled a team of kids who are (taken together) intelligent, clever, knowledgeable, resourceful, determined, honest, sympathetic and perhaps most importantly, able to work together as a team.

The Evil Plot revolves around television and radio broadcasts from the island which cause panic among the population on the mainland. The children must work undercover to discover what is causing these broadcasts of panic and report back to Mr. Benedict, Rhonda and “Number Two” via flashlight blinks at night. Given that there are now two sequels, it should come as no surprise to anyone reading this book that the kids do not only survive but unravel (most of) the mysterious radio/television broadcasts using their combined skills and individual talents.

Just a hint: the names mean something.

There are, as so often happens, some possible flaws depending on how you regard such things. Yes, it’s a completely implausible premise…but then most fantasies are. A sub-culture of magic practitioners living undetected amidst the non-magical majority1? Nah. Talking bugs, magical candy, cars that can fly, folding the universe as a method of space travel, humans giving birth to mice, dyslexic children of the Greek Gods1? Couldn’t possibly be popular enough to be published! On the whole, though, this is a delight for those of us who like over-the-top flamboyant works of fantasy for children and a disappointment for the many people who can’t muster a sufficient suspension of disbelief: how does a child not yet three speak so fluently? why are none of the kids challenged/taken into custody by adults prior to being discovered by Mr. Benedict?

What to read next? Roald Dahl’s fantasies for children would be a good start, but The Mysterious Benedict Society reminds me as being much closer to Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events on several points. There are differences. For one, the kids in the Benedict Society aren’t on their own, although they are orphans; Reynie has Miss Perumal, Sticky and Kate turn out to have living parents who want them by the end of the book and Constance is adopted by one of the other characters. The language is quite different: there’s no Mysterious Omniscient Narrator stopping the storyline at various junctures to explain crucial plot points.

1Yes, you do know all these books.