Following the end of WWII, the Atlanta Police Force reluctantly added eight African American police officers. Their beats were restricted to Darktown, the part of Atlanta without streetlights, and it almost goes without saying, without white people. Two recently hired war veterans, Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith, stumble across an inebriated white man with a young black woman in his car. After they see her get punched and then escape from her driver they later find her body buried among trash in a vacant lot. Superficially, the novel is a 1940s murder mystery in the south, but the real story is the unflinching detail with which we observe Boggs and Smith endure Jim Crow. They are forbidden from arresting criminals, only white officers can, so they must subdue adversaries, run to a telephone, and call for a squad car whose white officers may or may not arrive. They may not question, nor even look into the eyes, of white officers, or for that matter, white men. They may not be seen alone with, nor speak to white women without fear of subsequent lynching. Boggs and Smith choose to uphold the law where they can while circumventing a white police force that alternately extorts, threatens, shoots, and convicts Atlanta’s blacks and despises its colored comrades. As with most elements of Jim Crow I don’t know whether I am more offended by the inhumane behavior of America’s white racists or the fact I was never taught anything about Jim Crow at any point in my education. The heat in this extremely well written mystery is as intense as a breezeless summer day in Atlanta. The audio version of this book is excellent.
Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith *** (of 4)
This is the third in the Cormoran Strike series of murder mysteries written by J.K. Rowling under the Galbraith pseudonym. In this case, a psychopath murders women, pulls apart their bodies, and as the book opens, he hand delivers a severed leg to Strike’s assistant, Robin Ellacott. Four potential suspects immediately come to the mind of private detective Strike. While Strike and Ellacott investigate four bad men have a motive for wanting to ruin Strike by accosting his assistant, the British police bumble about like Keystone cops. Meanwhile, what was obvious to us in book one, now dawns on Cormoran and Robin: they are in love with one another. Unfortunately, Robin prepares to get married to her long-time fiancee and Cormoran dallies with a sexy, but not very interesting girlfriend he has picked up on the rebound from his last relationship. Rowling’s strength lies in her observations. She lands her protagonists in a town, and I know now, after having been to some of the places described in this book, describes every important storefront and unusual curve in the road with delightful accuracy. She hears every dog bark, recalls what everyone she met along the way was wearing beneath their overcoat, and reproduces accent and dialogue with impeccability. For sense of place and character she is a fine read. This mystery was gruesome, the budding love affair formulaic, and her lengthy descriptions were sometimes tedious.
In the Woods by Tana French *** (of 4)
An Irish murder squad is called upon to investigate the cult-like death of a child in the village of Knocknaree. Bob Ryan and Cassie Maddox are the lead detectives and we, the readers, are taken to grapple with mysteries on several levels. The obvious question is whodunnit to the kid found atop an alter stone in the middle of an archaeological dig, but there are deeper layers. Bob Ryan was once a child himself in Knocknaree and the only survivor when two of his friends disappeared. That case was never solved and Ryan has no memory of the event during which his childhood mates were presumably murdered. Can Ryan investigate a murder and his own childhood, especially if the two cases are linked, without losing his sanity? Ryan and Maddox are best friends, so close they behave like long-term lovers, raising another mystery of why they are not. Uncovering the perpetrator is standard fare: difficult to figure out with suitable suspects and red herrings. Revealing the psyches of contemporary Dubliners is what moves the story from page to page.
Nemesis by Lindsay Davis *** (of 4)
The twentieth book in the series on detective Marcus Didius Falco, this one in Rome and Latium in the year 77 AD. In this mystery, Marcus, having just inherited an unexpected fortune from his father heads to the pestilential Pontine Marshes to hunt for a missing person and the reason one of his father’s payments was never collected. The marshes harbor malarial insects and the kind of marsh people, and their rabid dogs, you might expect in the remotest hollers of Kentucky. The mystery is typical of Davis’ previous Falco books. The emergence of Falco’s daughter, Flavius Alba, as a burgeoning detective in her own right is downright joyful. The real pleasure of the book, however, is the degree to which once again Davis brings to life ordinary Romans. Their family squabbles, frustrations with intransigent authorities and truculent neighbors, and the hassles of finding reliable childcare are concurrently hilarious, modern, and part of ancient Rome.
10 LB. Penalty by Dick Francis ** (of 4)
A young British jockey is pulled from his mount by his excessively wealthy father. His new job is to assist as his father runs for a local council seat in his first political election. Someone tries to kill dad while he is campaigning. Then tries again. And again. Benedict Juliard, an amateur jockey not yet 18 years old, has exceptional sleuthing skills and then the book wanders aimlessly and pointlessly. Francis probably wrote the book in a weekend. In just a few pages about a dozen years of history fly by. Dad moves up from his local council seat to become Prime Minister of England. Benedict gets into Oxford, or Cambridge, it hardly matters, gets a job in the best horse-related company in the country and within a couple of years, and a couple of pages, moves up to a position of exceptional responsibility. Finally, the only suspect in the story shows up in parliament and at last Francis gets on with a conclusion.
The Girl from Venice by Martin Cruz Smith *** (of 4)
In the closing days of WWII, as the Allies are conquering northward up the Italian peninsula, the Germans are beginning to retreat, and their Italian allies are bumbling. Venice, though under German occupation still, is spared American bombing runs. In the lagoons beyond the city, Cenzo, an insightful, witty fisherman, finds an 18-year-old Jewish girl, Giula Silber, floating face down, but still alive. Giula and Cenzo must outwit Nazis hunting for her, black marketeers willing to trade in everything from human cargo to peace initiatives, Italian Fascists, anti-Fascist partisans, Cenzo’s dubious older brother, and his indomitable mother. The writing is spare, occasionally too lean, so that some characters and a few of their actions are veiled in a Venetian mist, and yet, in sum, the disorder imposed of a World War on the daily lives of bartenders, fishermen, backwater diplomats, and indulgent Italian mothers emerges with the piquancy of fresh polenta.
Palace of Treason by Jason Matthews *** (of 4)
The second in the series involving a a love affair that really should never happen between an American CIA spy, Nathanial Nash and the mole he is running inside the KGB, Dominika Egorova. Egorova has risen high enough inside the Russian spy network she has become a confidante of Putin. The poor parts of the novel include flat portrayals of Russians — they are all venal, evil, and flatly portrayed destroyers of western values, equal and opposite descriptions of American spies whose patriotism is the only thing that might save the world, and love-making scenes between Nate and Dominika that sound like they were written by a spy who spent 33 years doing analysis for the CIA, which is what Matthews did before becoming a novelist. All the women in the book have breasts and nipples. Their love making skills are about as sexy as that last sentence. But, get over those superficialities, and the spycraft described in this book is so realistic, intriguing, suspenseful and informative you will readily plow up its pages and find yourself waiting impatiently for the next installment.
The Long Way Home by Louise Penny *** (of 4)
Maybe the tenth in the series of mysteries for Chief Detective of the Quebec Surete, Armand Gamache. Having recently retired to Three Pines, now former chief Gamache is asked to locate artist, Peter Morrow, wife of Clara, who has been missing for a year. Author Louise Penny is returning to her roots, too, as the first in this series was also about the power of art and psychology of artists. Penny is also experimenting. There is no murder to open the story. In fact, the whole novel revolves around a missing person, which is to say, nothing really happens, and while the first half feels patient and funny, the second half is plodding and so devoid of action that it gets a little boring. Still, the main characters are warm and inviting and after a bit, I’m sure I’ll go on to subsequent mysteries.
The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith *** (of 5)
Let’s first state the not-so-obvious: Robert Galbraith is the pseudonym used by J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame for her mystery series featuring detective Cormoran Strike and his assistant, the alluring Robin (no obvious relation to Batman’s loyal sidekick.) The Silkworm features Rowling’s marvelous ability to capture character, dialogue, and contemporary London’s ether. The Silkworm is Strike’s second major case in which the metro police have misapprehended a perpetrator. To catch a killer, Strike must infiltrate the self-important world of authors, editors, publishers, and agents, and more tedious still, analyze a piece of contemporary obscure prose. No doubt Strike is serving as Rowling’s mouthpiece for a world she only joined through great effort and for which she presumably maintains only marginal respect. The whodunnit is legit, the main characters suitably on the knife edge of credible and over-the-top, the book a little too long, and Rowling’s mastery of the written word on full display.
Don’t Ever Get Old by Daniel Friedman ** (of 4)
Buck Schatz, an 87-year-old former tough guy cop from Memphis has never dropped his crusty exterior nor belligerent attitude toward bad guys even though he’s been retired from the police force for thirty years. Come to think of it, he hasn’t given up being nasty to nice guys, his wife, nor anyone else nor does he appear to have a soft interior. So while he occasionally kvetches about his infirmities in Yiddish and hurls insults of his grandson, the law student, from time to time that are funny, it’s frankly hard to root for Schatz and his grandson while they hunt down a former Nazi prison guard, now suffering from dementia in an old age asylum in St. Louis, his stolen gold bricks, and a sicko murderer. Schatz just isn’t that likable. Moreover, if he can get away with it Buck wants to keep the gold for himself. So where’s the Jewish morality in that?