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Reviews from WILLIAM J. H. REED

JANUARY - FEBRUARY  REVIEWS


THE CHINAMAN
FRIEDRICH GLAUSER
Translated from the German by Mike Mitchell
Bitter Lemon Press  January, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-904738-21-3

The ChinamanTHE CHINAMAN, the fourth Sergeant Studer mystery to be published by Bitter Lemon Press, presents the reader with classic elements of crime writing turned on their heads to produce a rare treat for the fan of 1930’s mysteries. A corpse found on a new grave, shot through the heart without the bullet piercing his clothing, the handkerchiefs of Anna Hungerlott, recently dead from gastric influenza, which show traces of arsenic, and a locked room murder in a college greenhouse all combine to keep the reader guessing until the last pages are turned.

Friedrich Glauser gained fame throughout Europe for his mystery writing. Often called the Swiss Simenon, Glauser was a diagnosed schizophrenic, addicted to opium and morphine and a frequent resident of psychiatric wards, insane asylums and, when arrested for forging prescriptions, prisons. This did not prevent him from creating an enduring hero in Sergeant Studer. Burly, rough spoken but quietly intelligent, Studer had been a detective superintendent in Bern before being demoted for arresting the wrong politician. Now a lowly sergeant, he remains the man who is always called to investigate puzzling murders.

THE CHINAMAN of the title is no Chinaman but rather a Swiss expat, returned home after making his fortune in the Far East . He predicts his own death and asks Studer to investigate it when the time comes. He goes so far as to introduce a number of possible suspects to the sergeant. Four months later he is found murdered and the game is afoot.

THE CHINAMAN continues Studer’s crime-solving career and requires all of his talents and those of his friends: the lawyer, Münch, and the pathologist, Dr. Malapelle of the Institute for Forensic Medicine. Along the way he picks up a sidekick who has escaped from the poorhouse and lived in the woods to avoid jail. Part of the charm of the book is that it was originally serialized in the National-Zeitung, Basel in 1938. Because of this, each chapter has its excitement and the pace never lets up from beginning to end.

Another rare gem, THE CHINAMAN is further evidence of why Germany ’s most prestigious crime fiction award is called the Glauser prize.

 - W. J. H. Reed

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JACQUELINE WINSPEAR

AN INCOMPLETE REVENGE
JACQUELINE WINSPEAR
Henry Holt and Company  February, 2008

An Incomplete RevengeThe end of summer is a time of changes. In England , summer’s end brings an exodus of workers from London’s East End to the hop fields of Kent for a couple of weeks of agricultural work out of “the Smoke,” some extra income and an otherwise unaffordable family vacation in the country. For Maisie Dobbs, Jacqueline Winspear’s psychologist and private inquiry agent, hopping time brings a new investigation into a potential land sale in rural Kent. Winspear’s fifth Maisie Dobbs adventure has all of the ingredients we have come to expect: an oddly unremarkable case; a country and protagonist still trying to recover from the impact of the Great War; and a memorable cast of “ordinary” people.

Heronsdene is a picture-perfect Kentish village with medieval cottages, pub, and church complete with attached graveyard. Picture-perfect until you notice the wasteland next to the blacksmith’s barn. Once the site of the village bakery, the lot was destroyed the night a German Zeppelin thought the town was a good enough target to unload its cargo of incendiaries on it. The baker, his wife and daughter died as a result. Further inquiry shows that the baker’s son, along with a large number of other village boys, was killed in France . Further investigation reveals that a series of petty crimes, including a number of fires, have plagued the village for years and the locals don’t seem interested in solving them.

All of this seems only peripheral to Maisie Dobbs’ case, to complete a background study of the village and adjoining estate to assist in the sale and expansion of the local brickworks to a Canadian developer. Add to this situation a mix of Gypsies, Londoners and locals all quietly suspicious of each other, a drunken lout of an estate owner who is feared by everyone, a local reporter intent on breaking into the big time and we have Winspear at her best.

In each of her Maisie Dobbs novels, Winspear has advanced Maisie’s emotional recovery from her experiences in the War and AN INCOMPLETE REVENGE continues the process. This protagonist is psychologically damaged. So is her whole country and these novels are as much about learning to cope with terrible loss as they are about solving crimes. This fifth installment may well be the best yet for the fans of historical mysteries and psychological dramas.

 - W. J. H. Reed

THE BLACK DOVE
STEVE HOCKENSMITH
St. Martin ’s Minotaur  February, 2008

The Black Dove Stranded in San Francisco in 1893, cowboys Gustav “Old Red” Amlingmeyer and his brother Otto “Big Red” are down on their luck. Fired from their first paying detective job with the Southern Pacific Railroad (something about a train wreck and lost artifacts from the Chinese exhibit at the Chicago World’s Fair) the boys are at a loss as to what to do next. No horses, no guns, no cows, turned down by the Pinkertons and running out of money, they need a break. Soon.

Instead, they bump into an old friend in Chinatown , only to have him take a shot at them, ruining Otto’s new bowler hat and giving him a painful crease in his scalp. Once everyone has calmed down, the friend, Dr. Chan, explains that he’s in hot water with one of Chinatown ’s Tongs and fears he’ll be killed. The next day, he is, and the cowboy detectives are on the case. The only clue is “Hok Gup.” Black bird? Black duck? The boys’ lack of Chinese will be a serious problem in solving the mystery, not to mention corrupt cops, and hatchet wielding Tong warriors who want the meddling strangers out of Chinatown.

Steve Hockensmith created the Holmes on the Range series and was nominated for an Edgar and a Shamus for his trouble. Sherlock Holmes and deductive reasoning as seen through the eyes of two cowboys is both entertaining and engrossing. The series is true to the sensibilities of both genres and the third novel in the series, THE BLACK DOVE, continues the tradition. Rollercoaster paced and hilarious, with more than one homage to Hammett’s original Black Bird mystery, THE BLACK DOVE is another winner for Hockensmith.  HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

 - W. J. H. Reed

WINTER IN MADRID
C. J. SANSOM
Viking   January, 2008

Winter in MadridPicture an urban winter scene. Cold, gray and unhappy. Add a third of the city devastated by war and near starvation in the presence of conspicuous consumption. Add spies in every block, a fascist police force oppressing a large part of the city’s population and a new war about to break out. You now have a hint of what Madrid in the winter of 1940 must have been like. C.J. Sansom has chosen this as the setting for his third novel, WINTER IN MADRID .

1940 is a pivotal year for Spain and for Britain. Franco is actively courted by Hitler to join the triumphant Axis in the war against Britain. The prize: Gibraltar, stolen Spanish territory since the eighteenth century. But Franco knows that the British fleet still blockades Spain, allowing only enough food and fuel in to keep the country going but easily able to cripple Spain if Britain is annoyed.

Britain has won the air Battle of Britain but had its army booted from the continent at Dunkirk. The Nazis occupy its once powerful French ally. A new front for the war would be disastrous.

Into this jumble, Sansom sends his protagonist, Harry Brett. Brett was at Dunkirk and both physically and psychologically damaged because of it. He is recruited by the British Secret Service to spy on an old school friend who seems to be dealing with Fascist Spain, making money on shady schemes that might allow Franco to decide to attack the British. This must be prevented at all cost.

At the same time, Barbara Clare, former Red Cross nurse, is involved in a plot to liberate her ex-lover, an English Communist who fought Franco in the Civil War, from a Fascist concentration camp. Clare’s new lover is Brett’s school friend and Brett’s target. As complicated a mess as the fan of historical thrillers is likely to encounter.

The interaction of the two plots and the interplay of old loyalties with new realities create a nail-biting tension, the climax of which will keep the reader on the edge of his chair. Not a novel for the easily depressed or for those who think of the past in heroic terms, WINTER IN MADRID rewards the reader with genuine historical insight and a memorable thriller in the bargain.  RECOMMENDED.

 - W. J. H. Reed

BONE RATTLER
ELIOT PATTISON
Counterpoint Press  January, 2008
ISBN: 978-1593761851

Bone Rattler cover imageThe eighteenth century was a time where the quest for knowledge was the highest calling of any intelligent European. Whether with Captain Cook’s voyages of discovery, the compendium of all known facts in the French Encyclopedia, the search for precise longitude, or the massive discoveries in medicine, chemistry and technology, the era was fascinated and defined by what it knew. The problem with knowledge, though, is that it depends on your frame of reference, your cultural background, your life experiences and the context in which you try to apply what you already know to what you are seeing for the first time.

Eliot Pattison makes this problem of knowing the central theme in his newest mystery, BONE RATTLER. Set during the French and Indian War, the novel is first and foremost a mystery. Beginning with a series of unexplainable murders and apparent suicides on a prison ship bound for New York with a cargo of Scottish prisoners, Pattison confronts his protagonist, Duncan McCallum, with strangely ritualistic crime scenes, unknown symbols and unexplainable actions. To save the life of an innocent man, McCallum must understand and solve a series of crimes unlike anything his European medical background has prepared him for. Following the clues leads McCallum to early New York City and then out to the frontier.  New York Colony’s Hudson and Mohawk valleys were a battleground between the French and British and their Native American allies. Raid and counter-raid, terrible massacres and the abduction of captives to be sold as slaves make McCallum’s investigation both dangerous and unpredictable. As he discovers a new link in the chain of evidence, that person is scalped and killed. For McCallum, it becomes a race against time through the darkly threatening wilderness of the New World .

Pattison makes much of the similar cultures of the Highland Scots and the Native Americans, and understanding the synthesis of the two on the frontier becomes the real key to solving the mystery. I will confess that I had no solid idea of who the killer was until the end of the novel, but the cast of suspects was among the most exotic I’ve run into in a long time. Whether it turns out to be the Bible-quoting preacher, the sadistic British army officer, the landed nobleman, the Scots deserter, or the mysterious figure, Socrates Moon, who always seems to have been on the crime scene just before McCallum arrives and then to have melted away into the forest, the possible killers are all believable and, depending on the truth of what McCallum thinks he knows, all could be the one. Pattison keeps us guessing until the end and leaves us with the satisfying beginning of a new series of mysteries.

 - W. J. H. Reed

Look for these reviews from Bill on the PAPERBACK PAGE:
THE BLOOD SPILT by Åsa Larsson
THE SUSPECT by John Lescroart
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NOVEMBER - DECEMBER  REVIEWS

PRAYER OF THE DRAGON
ELIOT PATTISON
Soho Press  December, 2007
ISBN: 978-1-56947-479-2

Shan Tao Yun’s Tibet is not Shangri La. It’s not Sven Hedin’s “Kingdom at the Top of the World” and it’s not the high plains gulag of the People’s Republic of China. What Shan’s Tibet is, is a cultural mélange of all of these places, spiced with rising cut-throat capitalism and Buddhist mythology and the perfect setting for a series of mysteries involving the disgraced Beijing inspector and his colleagues, the unlicensed lamas Lokesh and Gendun.

In this fifth Shan mystery, Eliot Pattison poses an impossible puzzle. Shan, “the confessor of ghosts,” must save a comatose man from execution for two murders. The victims were found on the slopes of Dragon Mountain and their hands had been amputated and removed from the crime scene. Shan discovers that the suspect is not Tibetan but Navajo, speaking in the old tongues, incoherent and unable to explain what happened to his companions, and that the murders are just the latest in a series of unexplained deaths haunting the mountain.

Illegal gold miners, reclusive Chinese rocket scientists, Native Americans, East German entrepreneurs, brutal policemen and the sad survivors of a culture almost destroyed in pursuit of a workers’ paradise all add valuable clues to Shan’s investigation.  As he works his way through the maze of false leads and improbable solutions, Shan is increasingly convinced that the solution to his case will require him to solve the mystery of the mountain and its inhabitants.

A major stop on the 400-year-old pilgrims’ road through Tibet, Dragon Mountain is one of the tallest mountains in the region and the home of clear air lightning strikes capable of incinerating the unwary traveler without warning. Shan learns the mountain and deciphers the meaning of the mysterious pilgrim way stations, but may be unable to put the pieces together in time to save his client.

Pattison is a master of the exotic locale and at the same time an author whose characters are so normal that the reality of their plight is never doubted. PRAYER OF THE DRAGON is the latest and we hope not the last of the Shan mysteries, an unusual gem of a mystery and not to be missed.  HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

 - W. J. H. Reed

TRUTH DARE KILL
GORDON FERRIS
Crème de la Crime / Dufour Editions PBO 12/07
ISBN: 978-0-9551589-4-0

There are fights where winning feels almost as bad as losing. For Danny McRae, a recently demobilized SOE agent, and for the city of London, January, 1946, feels pretty bad. World War Two has been over for three months but the bombed-out buildings, fuel and food rationing and the physical injuries of war remain in full force. Things just aren’t getting better.

McRae was a prisoner of war, badly beaten and sent to a concentration camp after his capture by the Gestapo. He only knows this because his doctor told him so. All memory of his last mission to Occupied France is gone, except for weird, violent dreams and paralyzing headaches that haunt his days.  London, his post-war home, is in the grip of a new Ripper scare with Soho prostitutes brutally murdered and no solid leads in the case.

McRae’s dreams seem similar to the murders. As a former Glasgow cop and fledgling London private investigator, he is fascinated by the crimes, saving newspaper clippings and visiting the crime scenes. Unfortunately, this makes McRae an easy suspect and the police focus begins to concentrate on him. Proving his innocence and finding the real killer with only dreams and shattered pieces of his past for clues forces McRae to scour London without really knowing what he’s looking for.

Gordon Ferris uses the quest for memory and meaning as the unifying theme for TRUTH DARE KILL and the reader is led carefully through the diaries McRae keeps of his dreams, the soon-to-be-boxed-up wartime records of his spy organization and the half-formed deductions McRae makes regarding the murders and who he really is. Characters including Chinese brothel keepers and upper-class debutantes looking for lost lovers all add to the confusion of real and imagined links between past and present, and Ferris keeps the puzzle alive and gripping to the end of the novel.

Brutal, bloody and totally engaging, TRUTH DARE KILL is sure to be a favorite for the fan of noir and for the fan of well-researched period mysteries, too.  HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

- W. J. H. Reed

Michael Gilbert's THE DANGER WITHIN is reviewed 
by Bill in CLASSIC CORNER.
And Bill reviews CUT HER DEAD by Iain McDowall
in THE U. K. REPORT.

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Bill Reed and Louie exploring
the record snow in Oswego, New York
February, 2007

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