Adventures in Venice

I am a long term reader of Donna Leon’s excellent Commissario Brunetti series, set in Venice, but fell behind a bit. This was my binge reading effort to catch up. Glad I did it. These are (from left to right) numbers 27, 28, and 29 in the series. You can read them on their own, but if you are at all interested in intelligent crime fiction, I recommend starting with the first – Death at la Fenice.

  • The Temptation of Forgiveness: Brunetti is asked to do something about the son of a friend of his wife’s who may be using drugs. Some time later, the boy’s father is found unconscious at the foot of a bridge. The investigation goes in various directions and our daring detective discovers – again – that crime is sometimes driven by the purest of intentions.
  • Unto Us a Son is Given: Brunetti’s father-in-law tells him about a mutual friend who may be about to make a terrible mistake all for the sake of love. Cue one of Brunetti’s best tales, with several outstanding passages of writing delivering finely honed observations on love, life, and death. Outstanding in a field of high quality.
  • Trace Elements: Brunetti is called to the hospice to hear a dying woman talk about ‘bad money’ and her deceased husband. Once Brunetti checks and finds out the husband was a field worker for a company responsible for checking the cleanliness of the city’s water supply and that he died in a hit-and-run incident, his investigative juices are flowing freely. In this particular case, the apparent difference between justice and the operation of the Italian legal system are all too clearly on show.

Fun fact: the books in the series are worldwide bestsellers, translated into many foreign languages, but not Italian! Why?

From this interview:

Q: Have you been asked by the Italians to get them translated?

Leon: Yes, all of the Italian publishers would kill to have them. I don’t want to be famous. I am spotted on the street by German, Austrian, French, Danish, everything… at least 3 or 4 time a day, and it’s always very nice and always very respectful; but I don’t like it. And the people in my neighborhood know that I am the American who lives opposite Nando and above Angelo Costantini and it would just change the tenor of my life. The unfortunate thing is that it has somehow percolated into the Italian Press that I am afraid to have my books published because the Italians may be offended by what I say about Italy. But, I am not afraid, if people don’t like the books, read another book, don’t read it, don’t finish it, give it somebody, throw it away.

IQ – Joe Ide

The IQ of the title is Isaiah Quintabe, a young man who still lives in a gang-controlled part of Los Angeles, but lives a very different life style, operating as a private detective for hire. The price? Whatever people can pay. Many of the reviews highlight the connection to Sherlock Holmes as IQ has no backup and bugger all resources; just his wits, his phenomenal observational skills, and his repartee. The bad guys don’t stand a chance…

In this debut adventure, the realities of needing to earn a crust force IQ to think about taking on a job from an unsavory character: a rap star who thinks someone is out to kill him. From there on, the action heats up.

There are, however, two narratives: one dealing with the present and one filling us in as to IQ’s history. This helps us better understand his motivation and the angst behind some of his choices.

It’s an entertaining read, primarily driven by the superb character at the center. The plot is reasonable enough, and the tension is both well crafted and credible. Hopefully the author can maintain the quality because there is a lot of potential in the character and the setting.

A fine piece of writing and well worthy of your time.

 

Darkness for Light – Emma Viskic

Third in the series featuring Caleb Zelic, the deaf private investigator.  In short, this maintains the quality of the first two (do read them in order) and gives a roller coaster ride, full of tension with occasional flashes of humor.

The story revolves around one of the hero’s clients being murdered. In the inevitable escalation, Caleb and his somewhat tricky ex-partner, Frankie, see the body count rise while they are racing to find a kidnapped little girl.

The writing is sharp, the story and the action flow smoothly, and the characters are more than interesting enough to make you want to know how things turn out.

Highly recommended.

Storm Front – Jim Butcher

Harry Dresden is Chicago’s only resident private investigator who handles magical affairs. Think Sam Spade – complete with snappy dialog – combined with things that go bump in the night. Harry, ostensibly tracing a missing spouse, is caught up in a case involving a double murder. And, since he’s under suspicion from those in the higher echelons of the worlds of wizardry for doing nefarious deeds, some suspect him of being responsible. His relationship with the police is, er, complex.

Harry has to twist and turn, hoping to get the job done for his client, all the time managing with a one-liner that fairly puts him ahead in the smart-arse stakes.

The action goes along quite well and there’s plenty to admire in the writing. The plot, albeit a bit wobbly in places, holds where it needs to and just about makes sense. The characterization outside of Harry is not that great. However, some of the interactions are notable, not least Harry’s struggles with technology.

This is at least the second time I’ve read this book. The first time I was reasonably happy with it, but didn’t think the backdrop would hold my interest. This time – years later – I wanted to check it out as the series still gets favorable reviews. In short, it was cool going over the same ground, but neither the main character nor the book setting are enough to make me want to read more.

Worth looking at if you fancy something different. It’s just not my cup of tea.

Then We Take Berlin – John Lawton

Look at the cover quote from the New York Times:

“A stylish spy thriller”

Look at the cover quote from the Sun:

“Lawton’s up there with Philip Kerr and Alan Furst. Yes, he’s that good.”

That suggests a certain quality which, regrettably, the book fails to deliver. (Who wrote those reviews?) My short review: a spy thriller that doesn’t quite match the leaders in the field.

Let’s see. What do we have?

The anti-hero and central figure is John Holderness, commonly known as Wilderness. We see Wilderness as a young man, living with his grandfather and joining in the older man’s house breaking activities. Without giving too much away, this apprenticeship leads to Wilderness’ elevation – from within the armed forces – to a sort of spook. The irrepressible fellow that he is, shortly after he gets to post war Berlin, he is knee deep in spies and smuggling. He eventually returns to Britain, but is then recruited for another mission: to smuggle someone across from East Germany. It means a return to Berlin and some old familiar places and faces.

On the plus side, the Wilderness character has a ton of potential. Unfortunately, I did not find the portrayal engrossing or interesting. Something was missing.

The background – from wartime Britain to post war Berlin – is rendered with detail upon detail. My impression is that the research behind the novel was extensive and the author felt the need to cram in as much of it as possible. Possibly too much, because at times the story flags under the weight of too much description.

The plot is not bad at all. It operates within reasonable boundaries and drives the tension up. To balance the complaint about the descriptions sometimes being over long, there were times when this book did become a true page turner.

So, in short, a bit of a mixed bag. It doesn’t live up to the cover quote – in my opinion, it needed a heavy edit to make it much better – but it was enjoyable enough.

 

Fiction – April 2020

Despite the cover quotes, I didn’t like this. The central character did not interest me. Neither did the overlong passages of text where nothing happened other than the word count going up. In my opinion, over hyped and under-edited. First miss from this author.

Novella in the typical K. J. Parker style: a first person dialog from someone whose narrative – telling of his experiences as an exorcist – may not be the whole truth, in a fantasy world that reflects all of humanity’s failings. Easy to read, entertaining, and fun.

A youngster is kidnapped but escapes. The police are sure the victim knows who committed the crime, but the youngster is refusing to name anyone. Why? Though the writing is often a bit clunky, this is a great story, breathlessly told, and highly enjoyable.

Who is it who slaughtered the young man in the forest? And why? D.I. Helen Grace to the rescue! This is decent enough crime novel that doesn’t ever rise above that level. Not bad, but not the best.

Now you’re talking! Caleb Zelic, profoundly deaf, is an investigator who gets himself too deeply involved in a case involving the brutal murder of a friend. Circumstances force Caleb back to his home town of Resurrection Bay, meeting up with his ex-wife and her extended family. But this is no refuge. A taut tale that sharply exposes the racism the aboriginal community in Australia endures, as well as the outright injustices. Caleb is a great character, a detective with more than one challenge in his life. way. You do not want to miss this, the first in a well received series.

I’ll be brief: number two in the Caleb Zelic series. You want to read this.

Yes, that True Grit, the one that was made into a John Wayne film. It’s the tale of Mattie Ross, a fourteen year old girl of unusual maturity and focus, seeking justice for the slaying of her father. Rooster Coburn, ex-Confederate cavalryman, is no one dimensional hero or baddie, but he is the one recruited to do the job. The book is wider in its range than the film, and has many more comical moments. I get the impression reading this wonderful story that Charles Portis would have made an excellent dinner guest.

Whatever this was trying to be – psychological drama, horror, or fantasy – it didn’t work. It bored me to bits. Avoid.

This is the first Nils Shapiro story which I read out of sync, having already finished Broken Ice back in August 2019. Shapiro is a private detective, in this case investigating the death of a divorcee at the suggestion of a former police colleague. In addition to the challenges faced there, such as the involvement of the FBI (who want Shapiro well away) our hero is trying to get over his ex-wife and facing struggles in his private life. While a bit raw in places, overall this was pretty good. The character and backdrop are well done, and the dialog has its moments.

This is a Cold War spy novel, featuring grizzled espionage expert Harry Mackintosh in an operation that goes badly wrong. Seeking his revenge, Mackintosh recruits safe cracker Jimmy Walker. You can see where this is going. On the plus side, the story races along and the tension is well maintained. There are twists and turns and some veritable stretching of plausibility in some corners of the plot. On the down side, the writing is workmanlike rather than elegant. And there are chunks of cliche punctuating the portrayal of the characters. Overall, OK, but nothing more.

Fiction – March 2020

For some unknown reason, the switch to home working and being in lockdown mode has also resulted in me reading less fiction. My non-fiction reading has increased though I have resisted the urge to bone up on things related to coronavirus.

Second in the (excellent) Challis & Destry police procedural series set, largely, in the Mornington Peninsula area in Australia,

This outing for the police has them dealing with several weird incidents: there’s the dead body fished out of the ocean, sprees of stolen cars and burned letter boxes, someone attacking courting couples in their car, and the attempted ramming of  a plane by a car. Quite a handful.

The author does a great job of tying the strands together to bring the reader a believable picture of life in that part of the world, with interesting characters and their various brushes with danger.

Highly recommended.

 

This is a terrific crime caper with twist after twist featuring intrepid investigative journalist Jack Parlabane. He is asked by a dead man’s sister to look into his death in a car crash on a deserted road that occurred within months of his whirlwind romance with Diana Jager, a surgeon and blogger whose anonymity was ripped away from her, sending her in to medical Coventry.  Parlabane’s inquiries inevitably start a chain of events that will keep you on your toes and guessing till the very end.

Terrific.

 

Number three in the Challis and Destry series. Janine McQuarrie, a young wife and mother, is shot to death. and killed. Did the murder have anything to do with the wife swapping party she recently attended at the behest of her husband? And why does her father-in-law, Superintendent McQuarrie, seem to be so obstructive in Challis’s investigation? Again, the author delivers a well drawn scene and populates with interesting characters and intriguing interaction. This is in the top rank of police procedural novels.

 

Number four in the Challis and Destry series. Inspector Hal Challis returns to his hometown in the Australian Outback. His father is dying and his sister, whose husband disappeared years before, is doing her best to care for the man. Challis splits his time between helping with his father and looking into his brother-in-law’s disappearance. In the course of his investigation, he duly stirs up a hornet’s nest.

Meantime, Sergeant Ellen Destry, his potential love interest, is trying to prove she is good enough to run the Crime Investigation Unit on her own. Unfortunately, in a less than friendly environment, she also has the horrendous task of trying to find a little girl who has disappeared amidst all the consequent media attention and pressure.

The two strands mean there’s a bit of to and fro for the reader to cope with, but the inconvenience is modest and the payoff is another good read.

 

Fiction – February 2020

A month of solid good quality reading. Plenty to enjoy here.

The first in Garry Disher’s series featuring DI Hal Challis working at the Peninsula, south-east of Melbourne, Australia. Fortunately for us readers, while Challis is a well drawn and interesting character, the supporting cast is more robust and also worthy of attention. The backdrop is superbly drawn, with nuggets of observational beauty peppering the descriptions of life and death in this part of the world. The main plot here is about a serial killer targeting young women. While the plot is not as complex as some of the genre, it has enough twists to satisfy and is credible. In short, a good police procedural novel. Continue reading

Fiction – January 2020

You can tell I’ve been on holiday. There’s a lot of reading here. (Probably some of these belong with December’s reading, but at least I remembered to review them.)

Part of my Connelly reread. This one involves a dead body found in the trunk of a car. Bosch sorts it out, but not without some more danger, some twists, and the usual inter office politics. Great stuff.

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Fiction – December 2019

Number 22 of the Spenser series, this was one of the better ones. Spenser is searching for a policeman’s missing wife. It quickly transpires that things (as usual) are not what they seem. The reader gets snappy dialog, a touch of sex and violence, and a story worth following. Recommended. But start at the beginning.

Fantasy romp that fell flat with me. Nothing was convincing: jerky dialog, uneven characterization, and unlikely motivations. The fantasy backdrop didn’t work. The story might have been worth telling, but not like this. Avoid.

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