There are several reasons to read murder mysteries. After all, the expectation upon opening the book is something really awful must happen before the story can really begin. To make a mystery worth reading, of course, the puzzle of figuring out who dunnit must be simultaneously complex and fair to the reader — no random murderer can suddenly appear in the final ten pages, for example. Great mysteries also teach you something about a time or location you otherwise couldn’t know about, and very few mystery writers are better than Israel’s Batya Gur. In Murder on a Kibbutz her detective Michael Ohayan is called upon to investigate the murder of a kibbutznik, which in Israel is exceptionally rare. Gur peels away the layers of the onion that make up a family-like group of 300 people who care about one another, share everything, and despise one another as only family members can. What I can say, having lived on an Israeli kibbutz, is that every page of description is microscopically accurate, the characters are almost too real to be fictional, and the mystery is hard to solve.
The fifth in the series for Royal Thai Police Detective, Sonchai Jitpleecheep. The crime this time takes place on the exclusively wealthy hilltop above Bangkok of the title’s name, Vulture Peak, where three bodies are discovered missing their salable organs. While the crime is being unraveled we learn about the global trade in kidneys, livers, corneas, and so forth, some of it legal, and much of it less so apparently driven by the amount of money people with failing organs are willing to pay for replacement parts. Unfortunately, the criminals in this book, a pair of psychopathic Hong Kong twins, a faceless (really, faceless) rapist, and a bipolar Hong Kong cop chasing them all are so over the top they strain credulity. Burdett is also trying to say something about the difference between Thai prostitutes that sell their whole bodies, but do so fully aware of the business they are in, and the poor and beleaguered of the world who sell parts of their bodies for cash out of true desperation.
Let’s begin with the fact that I picked up the book after the world discovered that Robert Galbraith was a pseudonym for J.K. Rowling. I can’t help but think it colored my reading. For starters, Robert Galbraith was supposed to be a former special ops and spy kind of guy. Cormoran Strike, the private detective that needs to find a killer drinks, smokes, and womanizes, but not nearly as much if he had been written by a male author, which is to say he drinks to excess only once, smokes outside his office, and is exceedingly gentle with his temporary assistant, Robin. Is it just chance that the young woman with a sharp mind for investigating has the same name as Batman’s sidekick? J.K. Rowling’s forte is capturing scenes and making you feel like you can see everyone in their homespace. This story revolves around a supermodel who falls, or was pushed, from a third floor balcony. The model’s brother hires Strike because he believes she’s been murdered. The remaining characters are all Londoners and by the end you feel like you have just read a contemporary account of 21st Century England. And the mystery is terrific.
In the 1890s, Theodore Roosevelt did not yet have presidential ambitions. As a young man he was trying to sweep corruption from the halls of New York City’s police department. To sidestep detectives he doesn’t trust, Roosevelt turns to a reporter from the New York Times, Moore, and a psychoanalyst called Kreizler to solve a series of gruesome murders of young male prostitutes. The descriptions of turn of the century New York are colorful, informative, and a loud reminder of the breadth of inequality suffered by immigrants living in hovels on the lower east side. The only problem is that after 200 pages the first clues are only beginning to be assembled. After 400 pages the killer has been identified and yet there are still a hundred pages to go. It’s not a good sign for what is supposed to be a suspense-filled mystery when the reader is keeping such careful track of the page numbers.
Sixteen monks live in an isolated Canadian monastery dedicated to Pure Gregorian Chant, God, and the obscure Saint Gilbert. Until there are fifteen monks because the Priar has his skull crushed. Inspector Gamache and his sidekick Jean-Guy Beauvoir are called to the northern waters and deep forests of Quebec to investigate their eighth mystery in this Louise Penny series. It is Penny’s best. Gamache and Beauvoir do waht they can to penetrate the silent, mysterious, centuries old abbey while the monks practice the same analysis on the inspectors of the Quebec Surete. The monks love chants, the chants mesmerize all who hear them, and questions arise: why are some men called to become solitary monks; others find solace in solving murderous crimes; a few succumb to their inner demons with murder; and some men turn away from music and can only find inner peace through drugs. This is a multi-layered novel that also performs what we so often want from a good mystery. Yes, we have suspense, but we also learn something. Here we are treated to the invention of music, the inner workings of a contemporary, if very remote monastery, and the simple beauty of Gregorian Chant.
The protagonist, he goes by several aliases, but Michel Khoury appears to be his given name, is a former Palestinian refugee from Lebanon. His parents were murdered during the Israeli-sponsored massacres in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps. Stateless and without family he is fathered by a friendly Palestinian who in time teaches Michel the tradecraft of undercover work, but with a twist. The goal of these Palestinians is to undercut the piecemeal Oslo peace negotiations of the 1990s with a truly comprehensive peace deal between Palestinians and Israelis. Michel couriers secret messages around the world until he makes the one mistake no spy should ever make. He falls in love with a British girl. Khoury’s slow awakening to the entanglement of high stakes espionage he has entered, and how he has unwittingly dragged in his first real love, provides terrific suspense without ever dropping into polemic. Remarkably, this book eschews diatribe about middle eastern politics while embedding in one of the great political feuds of our time.
OK, it’s a period piece Spy Novel. Think Ian Fleming. Sean Connery. In this caper, Paul Christopher works for the CIA and he speeds around the world piecing together the hidden culprits behind JFK’s assassination. Christopher’s hypothesis is Oswald was hired in retaliation for American attacks on prominent Vietnamese families. I’m not much into Kennedy conspiracies — there seem to be an bottomless well of them — but the book rings true mostly because its author was a spook himself in the CIA. The craft of 1960s Cold War spying appears realistic even if from our current vantage point it feels like it is being rendered in black and white with a cheesy saxaphone soundtrack. Vietnam, the Congo, Rome, and Paris are all atmospherically accurate — you can just about taste the Parisian drizzle and can hear the street calls in Saigon — and the characters are about as authentic as any on Mad Men. I’m not sure anyone who was born after 1980 would get this book, but if you can recall the 1960s, Tears of Autumn is a nice trot down memory lane. Tears of Autumn is the second novel in the Paul Christopher series.
Robert Harris makes his living fictionalizing famous historical events (see Pompeii). In this case, it is the end of the nineteenth century, and the French have unjustly stripped Albert Dreyfus of his rank in the French Army and disposed of him to die locked in a tin shed beneath the blazing tropical sun of Devil’s Island. It is a moment of overt anti-Semitism in France that results in a horrible miscarriage of justice that stains France ever after, and, I have to admit, an event about which I knew precious few details. Well, this book has the details, but the first half is just that, a drudge of notecards Harris must have used to construct his text. Harris presents the Dreyfus Affair through the eyes of Col. Georges Picquart, an officer who at first, following orders, assists in Dreyfus’s conviction. In the subsequent five years, however, Picquart is given the credit, in this account, for becoming a man of conscience who recognizes that Dreyfus has been framed and the Army is involved in a massive cover-up. The book does not come alive until its second half when at last it becomes a courtroom procedural. By the end, when Dreyfus is finally recalled to France, and Picquart has become France’s leading General, you are still left wondering about the larger picture. Why was France so anti-Semitic? On what evidence did Zola, Clemenceau, and their fellow Dreyfusards base their case against the government? And why do all of the main characters in Harris’ account speak with such identical, lifeless voices?
A despised editor of a very thinly disguised New York Times is found spread-eagled and more than dead in the basement of the paper’s headquarters. An editor’s spike is hammered into his chest with a taunting note appended. An investigative journalist from the paper’s staff is handed the story and an upstart female officer of the NYPD is assigned the case. More murders, lots of clues, red herrings, and way too many characters to keep track of populate the mystery. The author, a Times reporter, feels compelled to include every editor, publisher, writer, columnist, and assistant who works at a paper so you learn a lot about how the news is assembled. Moreover, the timing of the story in the late 2000s when print media was under deep threat from the Internet, bloggers, bundlers, and tweeters is an interesting reminder of how much has changed in the delivery of the news. It is a case of wrenching the Old Gray Lady into the new century. There are some very funny bits about stories that find their way into the news to sell papers — styles of the young and hipsterish, gossip, cooking videos — and neither gore, nor action prevail. Best if read as a period piece about the nature and value of traditional news reporting.
The ninth book in the Detective Armand Gamache series is a completely lovable installment. Gamache must locate a missing person with a false identity at the same time he has to survive the destruction of his stable of best assistants. Little by little Gamache’s superiors have transferred all the best detectives out of his unit and placed them in lackey jobs in the Montreal police department. More terrifying, still, is that Gamache’s right hand man and close confidante, Beauvoir has not only been taken away, but Beauvoir is addicted to painkillers and his mental health is deteriorating rapidly. A phone call arrives from one of Gamache’s friends in the tiny, off-the-grid community of Three Pines. An old woman who had planned to come for the Christmas holiday has failed to arrive. The combined mysteries of the missing person and the motive for who might be attempting to disable Gamache’s capacities to investigate are carefully and exquisitely plotted. Warm tea, comic relief, and old friends bustle about Three Pines and welcome you to get cozy while you, the reader, work with the Chief Inspector to solve his latest cases.