Rosh Hashanah Reflections

I spent the three day break (two days Rosh Hashanah plus one day of Shabbat) doing what I normally do on such occasions: a bit of shul, a bit of sleep, a bit too much eating, and quality family time. The first bonus was that I got some game playing in. The second bonus was finishing three books. My Rosh Hashanah reflections probably should have had more Jewish content, but I overdosed on that earlier in the month, and wanted to get away from it all. The following all helped.

THE FIFTH WITNESS by Michael Connelly

In previous reviews I have compared the experience of reading a book with expectation based on the cover and quotes. However, I rate Connelly so highly that I always ignore the blurb. However, after finishing the book, I concur with the front cover quote of Stephen King who said:

“One of the most bone-crunching courtroom dramas you’ll ever read.”

Lawyer Mickey Haller, thanks to the tanking economy, is dealing with foreclosure cases rather than crime. Until one of his mortgage challenged clients is on trial for murder. Then, it’s back to the circus, media and all. The Fifth Witness is an excellent courtroom drama. The plot has its turns and twists, but all kept well under control. The final surprise is delivered with brilliant timing and to stunning effect. The procedural aspects are easy to follow and slip into the background. The pacing is excellent and the whole structure of the novel seems flawless. Haller is the only character of any real depth, but in this type of story that’s not unusual. (There is this bizarre connection with Connelly’s other character, the detective Harry Bosch, which does not work for me and reeks too much of the author’s joke at the expense of his readership.) The book does manage to give some insight to the world the characters occupy, and there are fine moments of reflection.

In short, The Fifth Witness is a great story, well told. A wonderful start to a year of reading.

MERCY by Jussi Adler-Olsen

I bought this on the strength of seeing a review which highlighted it as one of the better class of Scandinavian crime books being pumped on to the market now, following the success of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It is a contemporary piece, set in Denmark, featuring Carl Morck as a detective, shot on duty, who returns to duty with a ton of baggage from that dreadful episode; one colleague dead, one a quadriplegic, and one hell of a screwed up personality. His superiors decide to promote him to where he can do no harm, and in time honored, fictional, fashion he ends up involved in an old, dead case which he brings to life.

Experience of other translated works have given me added respect for the translator, so a tip of the hat to Lisa Hartford for a great job. The book rattles along, with moments of drama and occasional comedy punctuating the race against time that Morck (unwittingly) is part of. That central character is another in a long line of defective detectives, but sufficiently well drawn and distinct as to be both believable and worthy of your sympathy and support. Morck’s sidekick, the former dictator of Syria (well, that’s who he is named after) is even more quirky. There may be a degree of stereotyping in the portrayal of the Arabian cleaner, but it only works because Adler-Olsen unwraps more layers of the character to supplement that starting point. Weird, but not too weerd.

Morck’s cold case is that of a former high flying politician who disappeared. The lady’s life and her connections are unraveled by Morck – sometimes clumsily – as he tries to find out what really happened. His colleagues have largely shunned him, and the gutter press is out to get him. A wonderful cocktail; one that the author stirs skilfully into a shocking, but entertaining read. There are some Chandleresque moments mixed in, to spice up the brew as well. It’s also worth stressing that the reader knows what happened to the politician, so the mystery from that perspective is ‘who’ and ‘why’. But the composite piece works on several levels; alongside Chandler, comedy and horror, there are observations about political life in Denmark that ring true even if they are not.

A fine piece of work.

WHAT THE NIGHT KNOWS by Dean Koontz

This is a ghost story. It’s well written, easy to read, and bumps along from fright to fright to fright. The prose is polished and unpretentious and the plot is neither too tortuous nor insignificant. However, a reader who could not predict the final showdown – in outline, if not in detail – would be part of a minority audience. Our hero John Calvino, now a fully grown (police)man with his own wife and kids, suffered the death of his family when he was only a child of fourteen. But he shot the bad man, stone, cold, dead. Now, umpteen years on, there’s been a similar family slaying and even although the killer has been caught, Calvino is on edge. Then there’s another killing, just as Calvino feared. What else does he fear?

Well, knowing the nature of the ending isn’t always fatal to a book, and so it proves here. But, while not fatal, there’s a distinct aftertaste of disappointment. To put it another way, this is a good read, but there is that little something special missing that would raise it above the level of ordinary. Worthy, but not notable.