loulamac’s #CBRV review #80: Call for the Dead by John Le Carré

smiley

This is an interesting, charming little book. While no classic, it is noteworthy as it is the first outing of David Cornwell as John Le Carré and provides the introduction of George Smiley.

The plot hinges upon a murder mystery, is set against the backdrop of the cold war and features characters we’ll get to know better in the Karla Trilogy. Unlike the later Smiley novels however Call for the Dead is more focused on the solving of a crime than it is international espionage, and reveals much more about Smiley’s emotional life. Fascinatingly this includes his courtship of, marriage to and first estrangement from ‘the demon Ann’, a character who is so absent but so crucial to Smiley’s battle with Karla.

The crime in question is the apparent suicide of a civil servant from the Foreign Office, who kills himself in his Surrey home a matter of hours after meeting with Smiley. Smarting as his boss points the finger, Smiley’s spidey-sense is set a-tingling when his initial interview with the widow throws up more questions than it answers. Working with a policeman who is on the eve of retirement, and the reliably glib Peter Guillam, Smiley  digs deeper and uncovers a conspiracy that goes back to his years as a recruiter in pre-war Germany.

As I said, this is no classic. The writing and plot do show glimmers of the glory that was to come in Smiley’s People (read my review of that here), but the chapter headings, massive chunks of dialogue, and explanatory epistle from Smiley at the end are pretty clunky. It is worth a read though, if only to satisfy any curiosity you may have about Smiley himself.

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Ashlie’s #CBR5 Review 27: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

My parents bought me a copy of this book on a trip to Savannah because I’m pretty sure they won’t let you out of the city without purchasing a copy. I had read it back in high school, but really couldn’t recall anything about it, so I stuck it on the shelf. I decided on taking another gander at it after I saw that they were reading it on my favorite podcast Literary Disco. (Rider Stong a la Shawn Hunter and two friends talk about books and give each other a hard time. It. Is. Bliss. I like to pretend that Shawn finally overcame his brooding wrong-side-of-the-tracks upbringing and made something of himself. But I digress.)

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is considered in some circles to be a non-fiction novel. That may seem a little oxymoronic, but it reads as if it is fiction. Embarrassing confession: I honestly didn’t realize it was non-fiction until I looked at the back of the book after reading the whole dang thing! The way that the story is woven together, along with the riveting details and unbelievable characters, just seem too fantastic to be true. As a southerner I guess I should have known better but Berendt had me along for the ride.

John Berendt is a character in his own tale, a New Yorker who comes to the south for a respite in the late 70s, and is pulled in to this jewel of the south. Though at first an observer and an outsider, he is able to move through the different social circles with ease and relates the history of the city, and its current inhabitants, with colorful detail. Though he has admitted that some characters are amalgamations of a few real life folks, a brief googling will confirm that some of the most shocking and bizarre characters existed just as described. For example, Lady Chablis, a drag queen who claims Berendt as her driver, not only is real, but even played herself in the film adaptation. It is a case of life imitating art, imitating life. Or something.

If all this wasn’t enough, one of the main and most compelling characters is pulled into a murder trial, which has rippling effects for the entire city and its populace. Jim Williams is a nouveau rich antiques dealer, and is famous for throwing an annual Christmas party as sort of a modern day Gatsby. Berendt is obviously not an impartial witness, but he does his best to relate the facts as they unfold so that the reader really is left with having to draw their own conclusions.

I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did, but it was fun and manages to revere the south without lampooning it, which I really appreciate. If you like small town gossip and want to know what the south can be like, I recommend this read.

Captain Tuttle’s #CBR5 Review #51 – A Dream of Death by Harrison Drake

There’s nothing wrong with a good serial killer murder mystery. There are many, many things wrong with a less-than-good serial killer murder mystery. Unfortunately, A Dream of Death is the latter. I actually got it from the library (website, that is) because it takes place in Canada, and I was curious to see how things were handled up there (aside from sticking the letter “u” in words like colo(u)r and odo(u)r).

So, anyway, someone is killing women in Ontario. They’re all home alone at night, but they don’t live alone. The killer wants someone to find the victim, so he’s only killing women who live with someone who works at night. Our hero is Lincoln Munroe, a mixed-race veteran detective with a happy family (of course). His partner is a beautiful, young, brilliant (did I mention beautiful) woman (also of course). He respects her, and does not see her as a sexual object in any way. Until he does. When’s that? When her boyfriend works the night shift (of course).

Anyway, his inability to figure out the crime is a problem for Lincoln. He’s pulling away from his family (even before he boinks his partner), and he’s been having bad dreams. Very real dreams where he sees a knife hanging from a tree, feels intense pain, and finds a body. Are they dreams, or flashbacks? And if they’re flashbacks, what are they all about? And when a skeleton is found in the woods in pretty much the same place Lincoln’s dreaming about, what’s up with that?

This being a murder mystery, of course it all gets solved, but in the most trite way possible. There may have been twists, but they were all so obvious that they really can’t be considered twists. Not that anyone out there is planning on reading this, but if you run across it, head for an old Agatha Christie instead.

Owlcat’s CBR V review #22 of The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling)

I know there are some who dislike JK Rowling’s decision to discontinue writing Harry Potter books and/or not write other children’s books and, instead, turn her attention to writing the books that these aforementioned books are giving her the opportunity, i.e., in terms of money, to write.  I suspect, after reading this newest novel of hers, these adult books were the ones she was “meant” to write, but then again, I am not a fan of the Harry Potter books, having read only the first one.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is a detective mystery set in London.  There are actually two primary characters, a military veteran, Cormoran Strike, who wears a prosthetic leg, who has begun his own detective agency, and a temporary secretary, who has moved to London with her fiance and is in search of a well-paying job but forced to be a temp in the meantime.  The story is frequently told from each of these two characters’ perspectives, although the quirky detective is the prominent character, and they play off one another’s personality well.

Strike is hired by the adoptive brother of Lula Landry, a famous, young model, to disprove her suicide that he is convinced was a murder.  The questions for the detective are whether Lula Landry jumped from her apartment or was pushed and if the latter, who pushed her.  There is a long list of possible perpetrators, although through the story, some become victims themselves and thus are eliminated from his (and our) consideration.  He occasionally takes his secretary with him or has her doing errands once he realizes she is by far the smartest and able temporary secretary he has had and begins to pay her “under the table” to retain her services rather than have her return to the temp agency.  Their relationship never strays from employer/employee until one night when she helps him through a particularly inebriated episode, but even then, it develops into a respectful friendship and doesn’t dissolve into any sexual encounter that a less skillful author may have thought was necessary.

In fact, it’s Rowling’s skill developing her characters that is most impressive.  I like that they are normal people we might meet or see on the street without ever guessing what is beyond their exterior appearance.  She peels away their external protection and we meet complex people among all the characters, not just the primary ones, with all their insecurities and confidence and histories. This goes along with her great descriptions of locations and we see the worlds they are living in and investigating clearly and how they might compare.  There is some humor in the characters, particularly Cormoran, and particularly in his relationship with his ex-girlfriend and with his secretary, but the humor wasn’t contrived and felt very natural, the kind of humor people exhibit around each other.

Although I read this novel knowing who the author was (I’d heard it referred to after someone had disclosed she’d written it using a pseudonym), I quickly forgot it was written by Rowling and instead, was immersed in the stories and characters as presented.  Had I read it thinking the author was one Robert Galbraith, I’d have felt the same way I felt knowing otherwise. So for me, this book clearly had a life of its own and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys detective stories.

 

Owlcat’s #CBRV Review #9: Standing in Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin

Ian Rankin is a prolific detective mystery author from Scotland, to whom I was introduced several years ago by a friend in Finland.  I have read perhaps 10 of his novels and this is his most recent one, which over the course of time has followed a DI (detective), Rebus, in the Edinburgh police department.  Having aged along with the numerous novels, he has gradually worked his way through the ranks, and in this particular novel, he is semi-retired, having joined the cold case unit as a way of maintaining a semblance of usefulness.  He is not the sort of man who retires, moves to a cottage on the coast, and fishes or bird watches.  He needs to be in “the thick of things.”

In Standing in Another Man’s Grave, Rankin has Rebus behaving as his usual self, a man who is complicated, irascible, very much a maverick within the department throughout his life, “old school,” intuitive, and in frequent trouble with his superiors, sometimes to the point where The Complaints (which is their version of internal department investigators) have occasionally investigated his techniques and behaviors, never, however, finding enough evidence to do anything about him other than to annoy him and put him on notice.  He doesn’t care, as he is more determined to resolve cases and find perpetrators than worry about his own situation within the department, particularly in this newest novel, since he knows that once the case he resurrects is done, he’ll again be considered “redundant,” the British Isles term for “retired.” His drinking, which he has tempered somewhat since other appearances in other novels, and his cigarette habit are also a source of personality flaws that, along with his stubbornness and other above traits that are both good and bad, but all of which make him very believable and very human.  Despite my own adverse reactions to strong personalities, drinking and cigarette smoking, I always come away from these novels liking Rebus.

In this novel, the plot is as complicated as the man trying to solve it and at times, just a little difficult to follow, but that could also have been the result of my frequently trying to read it when I was a bit too tired.  All the characters are well developed and connect either directly or indirectly with Rebus and frequently with each other, sometimes resulting in their diverting the reader from the truth that at times is hinted at but easy to not see.  We leave that up to Rebus!

The story begins with his wanting to discover what happened to one particular girl who went missing many years ago and whose mother decides it is Rebus who can discover the truth.  In the course of investigating her case, he begins to see a pattern that had heretofore not been noticed and connects the dots, realizing they may well be indicating a serial killers’ presence in area of Inverness.  His methods to determine who this is involves his using his maverick and old school methods, while others at first dismiss his accusations until more technological evidence (i.e., computers) begin to suggest he may well be correct.  Even then, his unsubtle and tenacious willingness to step on toes, particularly those in authority, and his disregard for protocol when they and it get in the way of investigating, leads him to be thrown off the case, although Rebus being Rebus isn’t about to let that stop him.  In the midst of all this, however, is his care and concern for his former partner, DI Siobhan Clarke, and her therefore willing attempts to help him as best she can, even when he cautions her that he could be a bad influence on her, leads the two of them to a climactic ending that is satisfying and believable.

I highly recommend this book, along with all the other Ian Rankin novels, because none that I’ve read are boring and all are interesting, the characters, Rebus, John Fox in The Complaints series, Scotland itself, and the minor and major characters.  The books also can be read out of sequence, which is how I began reading them, though now I try to read them in sequence more for continuity than anything. This book in particular is exceptionally good. Maybe I relate more to the Rebus character now that I’m also retired and better understand all of the questions and insecurities he has internally, and the need to reconnect the present with the past. Even though he is an older character, however, I think anyone who enjoys a good detective story is going to enjoy this book.

Kash’s #CBR5 Review #13: Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

As I make my way through the Gillian Flynn catalogue, I can concede this piece is not nearly as disturbing as her first foray, Sharp Objects. Although immeasurably dark, this one doesn’t leave you with a sickening feeling in the pit of your stomach.

Libby Day, the disturbed semi-adult leading lady fumbles along through her life. With no job or sense of purpose, she lives off of a fund compiled by charitable donations after three members of her family were murdered when she was seven years old. Her remaining brother in prison, after her testimony helped convict him, and her deadbeat dad living in the wind.

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Owlcat’s CBRV #7 review of Guilt by Jonathan Kellerman

First, I need to admit that I believe I have read all of Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware series and usually read them quickly and enjoy them, even those that are less than equal to his usual standards.  In some ways, his novels are my “fluff” reading, a ready escape into a world that is interesting with characters I’ve come to know well and who seldom deviate from my expectations.  Mysteries fascinate me, as does psychology, so these two being intermingled in all of the Alex Delaware series makes these books a good match for me.

Alex Delaware is a retired child psychologist who works as an occasional consultant with the LAPD, teaming up with a gay detective, Milo Sturgis, who has one of the highest case solves within the department and is therefore grudgingly given leeway within the department to approach difficult, and in particular, high profile crimes in a manner he deems necessary, which inevitably involves his calling in Alex Delaware.  In this novel, there are some added aspects to their relationship and to the overall story.

The banter between the two is low-keyed as usual but fun to read.  Alex’s comments to the reader about Milo add to the enjoyment of their relationship, which has nothing to do with Milo’s sexual preference, since Alex is married to a woman and Milo is partnered with an emergency room physician. What was interesting in this book’s relationship between the two was the fact that in the previous book, Alex had saved Milo’s life and they had yet to discuss the ramifications of that event, although Alex is clearly aware that it’s changed Milo’s attitude somewhat toward him and is hoping they can get the emotions and attitudes out into the open.  This does eventually happen, mostly on Milo’s terms, which means a terse appreciation and acceptance, and they’re able to move on, back into their usual realm of a Holmes-Watson-type relationship, more reminiscent these days of the camaraderie we see on TV shows like “Law & Order” or “CSI.”

The story begins with a 60-year old skeleton of an infant being discovered in a backyard of a home in LA.  This sets off a search for the why and how and who that were involved in burying this child there.  As an apparent result of the news around this, there suddenly is another infant skeleton, much more recent, as well as a missing nanny and a dead nanny and a dead male estate manager, all centered around the questionable lifestyle of a mega-star family who may or may not be the perpetrators. This story has a lot of characters who complicate the plot and slow it down a bit in the middle, all of whom are connected and whose relationships make sense at the end.  This story also reveals our presuppositions and biases about super stars and others, as Alex begins to make his own realizations in this area.  His characters, even the more eccentric ones, are interesting and believable, probably because they’re in LA and either directly or indirectly connected with “the industry” there.  There were a few characters earlier in the book who maybe could either have been eliminated from the story line or at least developed in less detail, as they, too, slowed down the plot and began to make it harder to remember who was who doing what.  By the same token, however, they also added more suspects into the mix and a good mystery should do that. Given that, there may have been too many suspects and stories within the story seemed to get a little muddled.

Overall, I was pleased with the book and enjoyed it for the reason I read it, rather like reading a favorite TV show.  I knew what to expect in terms of the characters, and I particularly enjoyed the heavier emphasis on his psychological approach to several of the characters, especially when he realized he had made presumptions before meeting the main suspect that were rapidly dismissed.  I also enjoyed his revelations around his own upbringing that had been alluded to in other books but which had more of an impact on the Alex character in this book because of the similarities he was assuming were there and the ones that actually were.

If you already like Jonathan Kellerman as an author, you will enjoy this book, I think.  If you haven’t read him before, you don’t need to have read the series but it might help if you do, just to clarify the development in his and Milo’s relationship: however, you can enjoy the “whodunit” aspect and the twists and turns of the plot, as well as the characters, both major and minor.