It’s a Mystery: Surrender, New York, by Caleb Carr

Surrender, New York

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Disgraced criminologist Dr. Trajan Jones, formerly of the NYPD, has set up shop with his business partner/friend, Dr. Mike Li, in the village of Surrender in upstate New York, where the duo teaches online forensic science courses and takes on private cases for investigation. Trajan bases his methods on those of Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, protagonist of author Carr’s fine breakout novels, The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness. Having lost a leg to cancer in his youth, Jones has psychological issues of his own and must deal with constant pain and the possibility of relapse. As a character, he shares much in common with Sherlock Holmes, including the annoying traits of arrogance and irascibility. As the novel’s narrator, Trajan is also prone digressing into lengthy lectures about science, literature, and human foibles. Mike Li, on the other hand, is relatively free of heavy baggage, and is much more genuine colleague than Dr. Watson ever was, though he does offer a sense of humor and steady emotional support and when needed.

The complex plot is replete with other colorful characters, most notably the irrepressible, teenaged “consulting detective Lucas, and Marcianna, the beloved cheetah that Trajan rescued from an abusive petting zoo. Both provide relief from the intensity of Trajan and Mike’s current case, which involves the deaths of a series of “throwaway children”, homeless kids left behind when their parents simply deserted them. It soon becomes clear that the Empire State’s senior politicos understand the depth of this problem but simply don’t care, preferring to cover it up. Trajan and Mike determine to rectify this situation no matter whom they must take down and how much resistance they encounter.

Plot, setting, and characters blend well together, but at times not well enough to overcome the novel’s shortcomings. One is its heavy use of profanity, especially the f word, which peppers every chapter regardless of who is talking. Trajan is also overly fond of the word “indeed” and the use of convoluted sentences when simpler and shorter ones would do just as well. Finally, the book is just too long, and the many suspenseful and/or gruesome scenes are interspersed with passages overloaded with detail.

It’s a Mystery: X, by Sue Grafton

X (Kinsey Millhone, #24)X by Sue Grafton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

X is for _____? Sue Grafton is famous for her alphabet series, with each letter standing for the particular crime being investigated by intrepid PI Kinsey Milhone. It seems that Ms. Grafton’s failure to choose an x word has disgruntled many of her fans. Actually, trying to figure out what it might be is part of the fun of reading X. It could stand for Xenakis, XLNT, X wife, and various other possibilities.

In Kinsey’s 24th case, she tackles 3 separate issues. The book opens with a phone call from a woman wanting her to track her son, recently released from prison for bank robbery. Kinsey takes the job only to find that the woman is an imposter who stiffed her on her fee. The second part of the case revolves around Pete Wolinsky, a colleague who factored in several earlier novels but was recently shot to death. Pete’s widow requests Kinsey’s assistance in organizing his tax documents in preparation for an audit. Before his death, he had been working on gathering evidence against one of his clients, who had a propensity for abusing women. Being Kinsey, she is compelled to finish this work for him. The third situation involves some new neighbors who raise Kinsey’s ire, and who are not what they seem.

Anyone who has written 24 successful novels featuring the same character must be good a devising plots, and Ms. Grafton certainly has that talent, weaving unrelated people and events into one cohesive tale. But these books, which rely upon continuity, are never redundant. Unlike some others, Kinsey remains true to herself and loyal to friends while growing from her experiences and relationships, and she is one of the most deeply moral characters in the genre. Best of all, ancillary characters are nearly as well developed, particularly those who play recurring roles. Each book has its suspenseful scenes that never go over the top, and in X, Grafton has provided the best stream of consciousness example of the experience of being suffocated that I’ve ever read.

Looking forward to Y, and hoping that Sue Grafton doesn’t retire from writing when this series reaches Z.

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It’s a Mystery: The Janus Stone, by Elly Griffiths

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ruth Galloway is a skilled forensic archaeologist working in Norfolk, England, the site of many iron age and Roman settlements. Ruth is single, stubborn, and tough, and now, she’s pregnant. The father is Detective Harry Nelson, as stubborn and tough as Ruth, and married. As she’s struggling to decide if and when to tell him, Ruth is called to examine the skeleton of a child found buried under a doorway at a demolition site where Roman ruins have been uncovered. An ancient sacrifice to the god Janus, or the more recent burial of a murder victim? The case gets even more perplexing when a second child skeleton is unearthed, this one without its head, and when the skull is found in an old well, things become downright sinister.
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Elly Griffiths has turned out a complex plot rich with intriguing characters, some recurrent and others case-related. Her Norfolk is a watery, frequently misty county with just the right atmosphere for a murder mystery and she seamlessly works in lots of mythology and folklore. The tension ramps up incrementally for both Ruth and Harry, personally and professionally, and there is no shortage of possible perpetrators with viable motives. The final chase scene is masterful. The book has one major flaw, in that even after being on the receiving end of multiple threats, the usually intelligent and rational Ruth continues to return to the dig site alone at odd hours of the day. But it’s worth overlooking in favor of enjoying a gripping first rate mystery.

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Historical Fiction: The Light in the Ruins, by Chris Bohjalian

The Light in the Ruins

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

1943, Florence. The Nazis are losing their grip on Italy, and the invasion of the Allies is immanent. The aristocratic Rosati family, led by patriarch Antonio, have two sons in the Italian army, and are hoping that the winds of war will pass peacefully over their estate, the Villa Chimera. But as the Nazis gear up for the invasion, they commandeer the villa and surrounding property, and much to the chagrin of the Rosati sons, their father takes the path of least resistance. No one is pleased when 18 year old Christina falls hard for one of the German lieutenants.

1955, Florence. The brutal murder of Francesca Rosati, a war widow who also lost her children, takes place, during which her throat is cut and her heart torn from her body. Only a few days later, her mother in law becomes a victim, her heart left in a box for the tourists to find on the Ponte Vecchio. The case is assigned to Investigator Serafina Bettine, who served as a partisan in the war and nearly died from severe burns during the final stand at Villa Chimera. From this point forward, The Light in the Ruins alternates between the two time periods, as Serafina attempts to track down and identify the serial killer.

There is much to be admired in this novel, in its evocation of times past, of the idyllic Italian countryside, and in its depiction of the brutality and horrors of wartime. Its characters are finely drawn, especially those of Serafina, Christina, and the German commander, Decher. All of the characters struggle over painful moral dilemmas; should Antonio be accommodating the Nazi occupiers? Should Italian art treasures be shipped off the Germany without resistance? What role should civilians play, or pay, in wartime? It is in the plotting of what is essentially a murder mystery that the book fails to deliver. What ought to be a gripping serial killer investigation falls short in the suspense department, even though it’s difficult to guess who the perpetrator might be.

At its best, the work of Chris Bojalian is mesmerizing, and in sections, The Light in the Ruins lives up to that standard. As a mystery, however, it is far from compelling.

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It’s a Mystery: The Long Way Home, by Louise Penny

The Long Way Home (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #10)

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Long Way Home is Louise Penny’s tenth Chief Inspector Gamache novel. The pace has changed in more than one way, for Armand has retired from heading the homicide unit of Quebec’s Surete, moving with wife Reine-Marie (I always smile at her name; in some sections of the US, she’d probably be called “Queenie”.) from Montreal to Three Pines, the picture-book village in which much of this series is set. Armand is struggling to recover from PTSD, and wants nothing more than peace, good food, and the company of family and friends. But if that were to happen, there would be no tenth novel….

One of the prequels to The Long Way Home, A Trick of the Light, ended with the separation of village artists Clara and Peter Morrow, because of Peter’s intense jealousy of Clara’s professional success. The couple agree to live apart for a year, then reunite to decide whether they have a future together. On the appointed day, however, Peter fails to show up, and after weeks of worry, Clara asks for Gamache’s advice. The good-hearted Armand cannot refuse, and offers to help Clara track her husband’s whereabouts. Peter’s trail, faint at first, turns out to encompass four European and two Canadian cities, before it abruptly ends. The worst is feared. Through a combination of well honed investigative skills and keen intuition, Gamache’s and Jean-Guy Beauvoir (now son-in-law and former second in command), manage to piece together seemingly unrelated details and bring the search to a suspenseful conclusion. No spoilers here.

In what has now become a trend in this series, author Penny takes her readers to some of Quebec’s provincial wonders, in this case the immense Manicouagan Crater, caused eons ago by the impact of an asteroid. The famous art colonies at Baie St. Paul and the mighty St. Laurence River are also given parts to play. As always, her elegant prose, psychological insight, and memorable characters, who by now seem real to me, add a strong literary component which raises her books above mere genre. Who wouldn’t love to know Gamache? And the characters that are specific to each mystery are just as complex and intriguing as the regulars. I’m hoping that in the next entry, we learn whether thirteen year old Bean is a boy or a girl.

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It’s a Mystery: A Trick of the Light, by Louise Penny

A Trick of the Light (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #7)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the  seventh of twelve books in the Arnaud Gamache series (to date). In order to read any of them but the first, which could easily be billed as the Three Pines series, it’s necessary to accept the premise that a remote, off the map village, almost fairy tale-like in its charm, could truly be the site of so many vicious crimes. But this is no cozy mystery series; rather, each entry is a well crafted, elegantly written police procedural featuring complex characters, many of whom appear from book to book and some only in the specific title.

In Trick, the spotlight falls upon Clara and Peter Morrow, a married couple who are fairly prominent members of the Canadian art scene. The mystery originates with Clara’s celebratory party, held at her home in honor of the unmitigated success of her first private gallery show in Montreal. Her joy is destroyed the very next morning, with the discovery of the broken-necked corpse of Lillian Dyson, Clara’s college roommate who became a much reviled art critic. No one saw Lillian at the party. Is her murder, among the flowers in Clara’s garden, just a coincidence?

Gamache’s investigation leads him into the ugly underbelly of the art world, where both creating and dealing are a dog-eat-dog business. It also delves into the ugly secret that Peter Morrow has been keeping from his wife. No, he’s not the killer. But their marriage will be brought to the brink of failure. Finally, the internal struggles of Gamache and Beauvoir, as they try to come to terms with nearly losing their own lives in their last big case, affect the investigation, and their personal lives, as well.

As always, this book is a pleasure to read. If Gamache at times comes across as too perfect, he does have to compete with Three Pines, after all.

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It’s a Mystery: The Nature of the Beast, by Louise Penny

The Nature of the Beast (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #11)
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, reeling from the traumatic outcomes of his last few cases, has retired and moved to the insulated country village of Three Pines with his wife, Reine Marie. (It makes one wonder why he’d choose a spot where murder happens on a ongoing basis, but there you have it.) Their peace and joy are suddenly marred, however, when a young boy is found murdered in the woods. Gamache takes on a mystery of global proportions as the facts of the death come to light, in his unaccustomed role of consultant to his successor, Chief Inspector Isabelle LaCoste. What they find is a huge rocket launcher, buried in the underbrush, and etched with a horrific image of the Biblical Whore of Babylon. And it’s aimed at the United States.

How do an imaginative child, two secret service clerks, a retired physics professor, a Vietnam era draft dodger, and a serial killer figure into this story? As is usual in a Louise Penny novel, time will reveal all, with a lot of input from Gamache and company. There are some chilling scenes in this novel, as when he interviews the fiendish serial killer, as well as some additional murders. And as usual, the ending is satisfying, leaving no pesky loose ends, but it also leaves some disturbing moral ambiguities. Thought provoking as always and well worth reading, based upon a true situation.

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