Friday, December 30, 2011


Rex Kusler's debut novel in the Las Vegas Mystery series is as quirky as the town it's set in. Characters often seem at loose ends -- perhaps that's why they are in Vegas, or maybe people are just more open about it there. There is a murder, and a mystery, and enough suspense to keep the story moving along, but the real pleasure is precisely in this slice of life in a unique place.

The protagonist, Jim Snow, quits the homicide department to play limited poker for a living and manages well enough until he hits a losing streak. When his sister's estranged husband is killed in an RV park after selling his trailer, Snow has to undertake the investigation because the sister, who has already collected life insurance on two other deceased husbands, is the prime suspect.

Along the way, Snow encounters a bar owner who came to Vegas to play pool but couldn't cut it, a young woman who came there to be a dancer but ended up as an apartment manager, and an enigmatic tramp who is not homeless because he breaks into the RV park and sleeps every night in a parked yacht. Let's face it, you don't find characters like this everywhere.

People are talky, but this seems to be part of the spirit of the place. They are ready to tell Snow and his little team -- Alice James, a furloughed police detective and nascent love interest who becomes a full-time partner in subsequent books of the series, and Willie, that tramp -- their life stories as soon as they introduce themselves. What else do they  have? It's like all those aspiring actors and screenwriters waiting table in L.A.

Tracking down the murderer proceeds apace, though Snow is unaccountably obtuse in following up on one clue leading to the identity of the potential killer. There is a twist at the end that will not come as a shocker to mystery readers.

If what you want is nonstop suspense and thrills, this may not be your book. But if you're happy to spend some time in Vegas and immerse yourself in a world of quirky characters, laid-back humor, and a philosophy of life that is vastly tolerant, you will enjoy Punctured.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Hedy's Folly

My review of Richard Rhodes' Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World appeared today in The Washington Independent Review of Books:

This fascinating little book (only 219 pages of text) is full of revelations. The biggest, of course, is that legendary Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr was also an inventor who helped develop the technology that is now the basis for using cell phones, wi-fi and other wonders of the digital age.
So why is this a revelation? Why didn’t the Austrian-born Hollywood star get proper recognition at the time and why have most of us remained blissfully unaware of her achievement in spite of a couple of biographies of the actress that discuss her inventions in detail?
Perhaps details of her inventions got lost in the glamour of her life in a general biography and we needed this book devoted exclusively to the topic to focus on it — and who better to undertake the task than Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of books on the atomic bomb? In this work, Rhodes explains lucidly how the synchronized frequency-hopping Lamarr developed with composer George Antheil for use in remote guidance of torpedoes in World War II was patented in 1942, became the property of the U.S. Navy and, for various reasons, was never implemented in the war.
In fact, the original patent was kept secret for four decades, and it was only in the 1990s that the actress and the musician received recognition for their invention, which came posthumously for Antheil and well past her prime for Lamarr, who was living modestly in Florida as a semi-recluse on a Screen Actors Guild pension. Because of the classified nature of the original invention, it is not possible to trace what role this patent played in the subsequent development of spread spectrum technology, which is what allows millions of cell phones to use the same radio spectrum without interfering with each other.
But getting the answer to this question hardly matters, as Rhodes masterfully unfolds his tale of a Paris as the cultural capital of the world in the 1920s, of a Vienna still in intellectual ferment in the 1930s, New York in the jazz age and Hollywood in the glamour years of Clark Gable, Carole Lombard — and Hedy Lamarr.
These were epic times, when a young Austrian actress, Hedwig Kiesler, could already earn the monicker of “the most beautiful woman in the world” for her stage performances as the beloved Sissy (Empress Elizabeth of Austria) before fleeing an oppressive husband and the Nazis to become a Hollywood icon, appearing as Hedy Lamarr. It was a time when an avant-garde composer like Antheil could perform his controversial music in the Théâtre des Champs Élysées before an audience that included Igor Stravinsky, James Joyce and Sylvia Beach, and then go on to compose movie soundtracks in Hollywood.
Rhodes takes us effortlessly through this array of personalities and events. His ability to provide context and make connections constantly leads to unexpected insights. For instance, because Antheil needed at one point to synchronize several player pianos for an ambitious composition, he was able to contribute the synchronization to the frequency-hopping needed in the torpedo guidance system to avoid jamming by the enemy. But, in these pre-specialization days, Antheil could also indulge his interest in the effect of glands on behavior and become an expert in glandular criminology who presented his theories to J. Edgar Hoover.
Likewise, when Lamarr and Antheil conducted their research on the torpedo guidance system under the auspices of the wartime National Inventors Council in Washington, one of the key decision-makers on the council was Thomas Midgley. Rhodes identifies Midgley as the inventor of leaded gasoline and Freon, a fact that prompted one historian to note that Midgley had more impact on the atmosphere than “any other single organism in Earth’s history.”
For the non-scientifically minded reader, however, it is more likely the glimpses of Vienna, Paris and Hollywood that will appeal. Antheil’s new Hungarian wife describes Paris when the young, ambitious couple arrives there in June 1923: “Paris was like a carnival. I will never forget its busy ebullience on the early morning of our arrival: shops opened, housewives wearing slippers marketing, carrying shopping baskets for bread and milk, carts full of vegetables, noise, bustling, cheerful, sunny … I suddenly knew that just simply living could be fun.”
At the center of the book, though, is Hedy Lamarr — a young Austrian girl devoted to her father. Having resolutely decided on an acting career, she created a scandal by appearing nude in a 1933 film, the famous “Ecstasy” of Gustav Machatý, which was quite racy for the time. Not long after, Hedy was forcefully wooed and virtually imprisoned by her much older husband, Friedrich Mandl, a leading Austrian arms dealer. But the resourceful young actress turned the painful situation to the good and took her revenge, for it was during dinners and parties at Mandl’s hunting lodges with visiting military officials that she played dumb and kept her ears open, picking up her knowledge of ships, submarines and torpedoes. It was this knowledge she put to use in an effort to aid the war effort of her adopted country after she escaped her husband for her Hollywood career.
Hedy Lamarr met George Antheil through a mutual friend, and they began work on a number of inventions, including the torpedo guidance system and proximity fuses, a device that would enable anti-aircraft shells to explode only when near their target. Rhodes patiently guides the lay reader through the process of invention and patenting, which requires not only an idea but a way of reducing it to practice — making it actually work. Lamarr and Antheil refined their torpedo system and finally won a patent in 1942.
But it was, as Rhodes drily notes, a “bad time” for the U.S. Navy, which was scrambling after the horrific attack on Pearl Harbor and U.S. entry into the war. Budget cuts on torpedo testing prior to the war meant that most American torpedoes did not work — they either missed their targets or failed to explode. As Rhodes explains, naval officials just wanted to solve these basic problems rather than invest time and energy in sophisticated guidance systems. So Lamarr joined other Hollywood stars raising millions of dollars for the war effort through sales of war bonds, went on making movies and retired from public life when her glamour faded. Her role as an inventor went largely unnoticed for decades.
Rhodes is clearly sympathetic to the actress — the book is dedicated to the two children from her marriage to John Loder, third of five husbands — but this is not really a biography. Lamarr is at the center of this intriguing tale of invention and technology but, in the end, not that much of her personality emerges. The author cites Robert Osborne’s glowing encomium of Lamarr young and old: “Few people were ever blessed with a merrier sense of humor, few sailed through the calamities of life with more of a blithe spirit, few apologized less frequently and seemed to be having more fun …” Yet we see little of that Hedy Lamarr in this book. In addition, Rhodes omits any mention of the bizarre shoplifting arrests in her later life that color the attitude of many born too late to appreciate her acting career.
It is perhaps a measure of Rhodes’s success, though, that you want to know more about Hedy Lamarr when you finish this book. Most important, it leaves you with a much greater appreciation for the diverse forms of creative talent and the many works of genius that have gone into creating the world of digital wonders in which we live.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Ali and Nino

This novel by Kurban Said is subtitled "A Love Story" and it has something of a cult following. It is a remarkable and unusual book. The love story of Ali Khan Shirvanshir and Nino Kipiani begins in their school days in Baku and survives ethnic animosity, kidnapping, exile and even revolution. This relatively short novel has all the epic sweep of a Doctor Zhivago, painting whole new worlds for the reader to explore.

Azerbaijan was the Saudi Arabia of the first half of the 20th century, supplying a good portion of the world's oil. Shiite Muslims predominated in the Turkic-speaking country, which bordered on Christian Georgia and on Iran. The capital, Baku, located on a windy peninsula on the Caspian Sea just south of the Caucasus Mountains had a mixed population living in relative harmony. Ali was Muslim with Persian roots and Nino was Christian with Georgian roots.

Their meeting with each other's families had more comedy than tragedy as the two young people were fully exposed to the divergent traditions of the more European Christians and the more Asiatic Muslims. It is the tension between these two cultures -- wine, beds, tables and silverware on the one side and tea, divans, carpets and fingers on the other side -- that surfaces in various forms in the novel.

Though young, Ali and Nino cannot escape their cultural heritage. While his love for Nino is unshakeable, Ali cannot shake his culture's attitude toward women or the role of men in society. Nino is horrified about the possibility of having to wear a veil or become part of a harem. In cosmopolitan Baku, they can juggle these differences. But the onset of World War I, disrupting the Czar's distant rule of Azerbaijan, also interrupts this comfortable state of affairs.

The first sign of real trouble is when a rich Armenian, who had won Ali's friendship by interceding with Nino's family to permit their marriage to go ahead, kidnaps Nino and flees with her in his motor-car. Hot-blooded Asian Ali pursues, catches up with them and kill his erstwhile Armenian friend, plunging a dagger into his chest just above the heart. Nino confesses that she was complicit in the abduction, at least in part, because of the Armenian's arguments about what would happen to her if the Ottomans took over Azerbaijan. Ali can forgive, but when his father asks him why he did not also slay the girl, all he would say is that he was too exhausted.

The couple enjoys an idyll in a mountaintop retreat where Ali is "hiding" from retribution for the murder, but after their return to Baku they are forced into a more serious exile to Teheran, where they live in princely comfort among their relatives but where Nino is forced to abide by Muslim strictures and not show herself in public. Ali feels the tug of his Muslim roots and, partly to settle his Muslim identity, takes part in a primitive ritual of self-flagellation that horrifies and repels Nino.

Even so, they return together to Baku when Azerbaijan celebrates its brief period of independence. That dream comes crashing to an end when the new Red Army arrives to seize Baku's oil after the overthrow of the czar.

It is a love story that goes beyond Romeo and Juliet because these are not feuding families in a settled culture, but two radically different cultures mixed together at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. It is enchanting, not only in it depiction of the tender love between the two protagonists, but because of its loving description of the complex world they live in.

The identity of the author, Kurban Said, has become a minor saga in its own right. Tom Reiss, first in an article for The New Yorker and then in his biography The Orientalist makes the case that Lev Nussimbaum, a Jewish emigre born in Baku in 1905, is the author behind the pseudonym, though this is disputed.

It is a fascinating story, but another story. You don't need to know anything about the author to enjoy Ali and Nino. It sweeps you into an exotic, at times terrifying new world that is as old as the sands of Central Asia. It is an historical saga that is totally satisfying as a novel, and it will enrich your understanding of the cultural rift between two worlds.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Eleven Days

Donald Harstad's police procedural set in small-town Iowa starts with a Satanic multiple murder and gets more complicated from there. His first-person narrator, Carl Houseman, deputy sheriff in Nation County, tells the story in a deadpan, occasionally stream of consciousness voice that is original, authentic and engaging.

Since Harstad was a longtime cop, the police procedure is painstakingly depicted and presumably 100% accurate, sometimes almost intrusively so. In the end, the unraveling of the crime, and its connection to previous crimes, hurtles along at such a pace -- all in eleven days, after all -- that no amount of 10-4s and 10-78s can slow it down.

Houseman is a good cop, with all the cynicism one would expect from a veteran in law enforcement, but an innate enthusiasm for his job that makes him excited getting up every afternoon and going to work. He is a good storyteller. He reminded me of my brother, who was a police officer for 30-some years.

You spend a lot of time in the squad room, which is really the kitchen of the small office, conferring and kibitzing, sorting through clues, manipulating the multi-layered bureaucracy of county and state law enforcement, with a New York specialist thrown in. And yet Harstad keeps this as taut as the action scenes that punctuate the grind of the investigation.

The author is particularly skillful in creating small-town characters, with their quirks, their petty jealousies, their surprising depravity. He is far less interested in setting the scene. There is virtually no sense of being in Iowa -- the plot could just as well have been set in Connecticut or Mayberry. One of the joys of reading these mysteries set in different states, of course, is to get that sense of place and that is almost totally missing from this novel.

But no one says he has to oblige readers doing a 50-state mystery challenge by having his state's scenery or geography play a major role. The decentralized but relatively small expanse of Iowa, with officers and evidence shuttling between Des Moines, the fictional Maitland and Dubuque gives a little bounce to the narrative.

The twists and turns in the plot are satisfying, the red herrings are not too red, and the identity of the killer is intimated enough towards the end that it is not a shock when it is finally revealed. There is (just) enough action and not an excessive amount of blood in the two-step climax.

The real winning quality, though, is the friendly, funny, solid as a brick narrator -- a character who does show what the heartland is all about. It's good to know that there's already a number of sequels with him around.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Winter in Madrid

C.J. Sansom is a master of the historical novel and like his Matthew Shardlake books this one succeeds in totally immersing you in a different time and place. He makes you feel like you've taken a time machine back to Madrid in 1940, when Franco had won Spain's Civil War and imposed a dictatorship on the country that was to last 35 years.

I spent six weeks in Madrid in 1972, when Franco was still in power and the odious Guardia Civil was still omnipresent. It was with a shock that I realized that the action of this novel, set in 1940, was closer to 1972 than my stay in Spain is to today! While Spain had largely recovered from the ravages of the Civil War by the time I was there, Sansom's descriptions nonetheless took me back to my own experience of the oppressiveness of his rule. Even the short scene in Burgos, where I had simply stopped on a weekend trip, brought memories rushing back.

Here is another hero named Harry, this one Harry Brett, who actually is similar in some respects to Goddard's Harry Barnett. Like an Eric Ambler character, Harry is an innocent caught up in an espionage plot that makes him confused and uncomfortable, but as a loyal, if naive, British subject, he dutifully goes along with his assignment to spy on an old chum from public school days who has landed in Madrid and appears to literally have found a gold mine there.

In fact, Harry and this old chum, Sandy Forsyth, who was expelled for a nasty prank against one of the teachers, and a third student at the school, Bernie Piper, seem linked by a strange karma. Piper joined the International Brigades to fight for the Spanish Republic and was missing in action, believed killed. His former lover, Barbara Clare, a Red Cross nurse, turns in her grief to Forsyth, whom she meets by an improbable but nonetheless believable coincidence. Harry knew Barbara from the time in 1937 when he came over to console her on the news of Bernie's death.

There is a love triangle, though not perhaps the one you expect, as the plot develops in a fashion that seems leisurely but actually moves at a good clip, considering the action is compressed into a period of just a few weeks. Harry's very naivete makes him somewhat successful as a spy, and he is able to win Forsyth's confidence and find out about the gold mine, which Sandy is trying to sell to the government as a way to pay for much-needed imports.

Against the backdrop of a Madrid in ruins from the war and on the brink of starvation from successive crop failures and a British blockade on many imports, Harry must deceive not only Sandy, but also Barbara, who has secret plans of her own. The deprivation and oppression are palpable as Sansom skillfully layers the compromises and betrayals each of these British characters, as well as their Spanish counterparts, must make.

There are a couple of flaws. For some inscrutable reason, Sansom seems obsessed with the idea of having everybody (except Harry) smoking all the time. Yes, it's fine to remind the reader that people in this period, in Spain as well as England, smoked all the time, but he carries it to a level of distraction. He could have made his point with a fraction of the references to characters lighting up and blowing out clouds of smoke. He once tells us twice within the space of two pages that Sandy "lit a cigar," though insufficient time has elapsed to have finished the first one and it is clearly an authorial and copy editing oversight.

Another flaw is that the action of the novel, despite all the frost and cold, takes place in the autumn. Harry, in fact, does not spend the winter in Madrid, but arrives in early autumn and actually leaves on the first day of winter. Even if Sansom also means the title to be metaphorical, it is technically "Autumn in Madrid" and much of the plot would not work if it was actually winter.

These only detract marginally from a book that gives you characters to care about, a meticulous recreation of a period and a place that are crucial to understanding the 20th century, and wonderful immersion in language and style.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Castle Cape

This suspense novel by C.L. Withers -- a cross between a mystery and a thriller -- is set in Alaska and is gripping virtually from beginning to end. There are murders and mysteries, action and thrills, all against the dramatic backdrop of Alaska's spectacular scenery and elemental wildness.

Anchorage detective Dan McKenna is tormented by the death of his young son in a shooting accident and has given himself over to drink when the action begins with a shoot-out involving mysterious Russian-speaking hoodlums who may well be terrorists. McKenna, accompanied by his faithful German shepherd, Nero, sets out to unravel the mystery, working with or against the FBI and another shadowy federal agency following the leads first to Kodiak Island, and then into the treacherous waters of the Alaskan peninsula.

You may not be able to see Russia from everywhere in Alaska, but it's not far, and McKenna's case involves him with Russia now, with Chechnya, and even with the Soviet Union of World War II, when it was an ally of the U.S. He has to deal with an FBI Special Agent in Charge who despises him, an attractive FBI emissary from Washington who is more ambivalent, and a shadowy gentleman, also from Washington, who is the closest thing to an ally McKenna will have.

Pursuing his leads in Kodiak, McKenna makes common cause with a Russian-American family and embarks with their green-eyed daughter in pursuit of his hoodlum-terrorists. They encounter a storm more perfect than Sebastian Junger could ever dream of as the plot barrels into non-stop action toward the climactic encounter in Castle Cape, a formidable, inaccessible promontory.

McKenna is a sympathetic, complex character to whom conflict comes easy. His challenging mission brings out the best in him. His police instincts serve him well in seeing through various ruses of his quarry, and his canine partner proves a ferocious backup on several occasions. There is romance, treachery, and hair's-breadth escapes along the way. A great read and highly recommended.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The e-reader dilemma

Push comes to shove I probably still enjoy reading a print book more than an e-reader, but I've jumped into the e-book revolution with both feet. I've published my own e-book and enjoy reading those books that are only available in this format.

I was uncharacteristically an early adopter of the Kindle, paying more for that first generation than you now pay for two Kindle Fires. I also got an iPad last spring because I was involved in the launch of an iPad publication (though unfortunately that quickly folded because of an unsustainable business plan). I had let my Kindle languish for a couple of years but have now revived it and also read e-books on my iPad.

What I like about the Kindle: It's small and has no backlighting.

What I don't like about the Kindle: It's small and has no backlighting.

What I like about the iPad: It's bigger and has backlighting.

What I don't like about the iPad: It's bigger and has backlighting.

I don't think I'm hard to please. What I appreciate about the Kindle is that it is small and light and easy to carry around. The e-Ink reading experience is easier on the eyes than backlighting, and it is much easier to read with glare. But the text display is small and you're constantly turning pages. At night, the dark background requires a fair amount of light to make it easily readable.

What I appreciate about the iPad is that the display is bigger and you have more text to read before you turn the page. The backlighting is handy when you're reading in bed and don't want much light. But the iPad is relatively heavy and clunky and inconvenient to carry around, plus you're constantly afraid of dropping it and cracking it.

Amazon, Apple, here's what I want. I want an e-reader that can switch back and forth from e-Ink to LCD and I want it in the size not of a mass paperback (Kindle) or hardback (iPad) but in the size of a trade paperback. Is that so hard?

Monday, November 14, 2011


I love geography and this compelling mystery by Michael McGarrity is full of geography. The plot  hinges on secrets held within the White Sands missile range and Tularosa Basin, which the redoubtable hero, Kevin Kerney, explores on horseback with his love interest, Army investigator Sara Bannon.

There are mountains, crevices, escarpments, gullies, petroglyphs, and caves with hidden treasure. There is heat and cold, and sunsets and sunrises. You are very close to nature in New Mexico and McGarrity doesn't let you forget it for a minute.

And then there is the Rio Grande, that fateful river, and the divided city of El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico, which also plays a role in this tale of murder, smuggling, and lost artifacts. McGarrity, a former policeman, moves easily in and out of the law enforcement community (not surprisingly his police officers are largely sympathetic). Added to the mix in this story is the U.S. Army, with its own hierarchy and its own set of priorities. The friction between civilian and military authority, the permeability of a secret, secure location that comprises thousands of square miles, and the added frisson of gold coins and precious artifacts from another century all make this an engaging story.

Kevin Kerney (KK to McGarity's MM, Irish of course) is the classic loner ex-cop. Not only is he divorced he is bitterly estranged from his former partner, whose malfeasance left him disabled with a trick knee and a nasty car in his belly. And yet, when that former partner's son, Kerney's godson, goes missing from the Army base is classified AWOL, all is forgiven and Kerney pledges to track him down.

The narrative never flags though it is not always fast-paced. The beautiful descriptions of New Mexico punctuate the story and give it a terrific sense of place. But the plot itself involves people that are part of the geography, too. Sammy Yazzi, the native American soldier who goes missing; Eddie Tiapa, the Army investigator who has unsuspected talents as an undercover agent in Juarez; and other assorted archaeologists, gamekeepers and Army personnel. One blurb cites Dick Francis as a reference, and Kerney indeed undergoes the masochistic pummeling that characterizes Francis's jockey heroes.

McGarrity seems equally at home in Kerney's pickup truck, on horseback dodging flash floods and ambushes, and in the seedy drug and smuggling underworld of Juarez. The love story is adult and anything but maudlin. The supporting cast, both friends and foes, is engaging. It's just a really good book.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War

My review of this book appeared today in the Washington Independent Review of Books:

This fabulous book is haunting and at times almost unbearably sad. There may be beauty here in the resilience of the human spirit but the sorrow of this war is all but overwhelming.
Most of us may know from our school history that World War I was terrible, but the horror of that conflict tends to be overshadowed by the conflagration of World War II and the Holocaust. The toll of human misery exacted by the First World War should not be forgotten, however, and Peter Englund’s brilliant book will do much to keep its memory alive.
Englund is a Swedish historian and now permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel Prize for Literature. He collected the personal journals and private letters of 20 individuals who experienced World War I, and has culled these documents for a contemporary eyewitness chronicle of this war. It is not, the author makes clear, a history. It doesn’t tell you what World War I was, but “what it was like.”
And it was truly horrible. This is not a book for the squeamish. There is the misery ― the deprivation, the hunger, the separation from loved ones ― told in agonizing, day-by-day detail. There is the despair and the desperation, not only on the fronts (Englund’s 20 participants are in several different military theaters), but also among the civilian population. Despair that events have spun so terribly out of control, and desperation to salvage some remnant of hope.
Englund does not merely string together a series of excerpts. For the most part, he summarizes individual accounts in a flat, lucid prose, lending the book a narrative coherence while preserving the essence of the source documents. He tells the story in the present tense because these documents were written in the present tense. In this context, the excerpts themselves are amazingly articulate and touching.
Who are these eyewitnesses? The soldiers include, on the side of the Central Powers, a Dane in the German army, a Hungarian cavalryman in the Austro-Hungarian army and a Venezuelan adventurer fighting with the Ottoman forces. On the Allied side: an Australian army engineer, a British army infantryman and an Italian-American volunteer in the Italian army. Civilians include the American wife of a Polish aristocrat, a Scottish aid worker and an English nurse in the Russian army.
They recount events not only on the familiar Western Front but also in East Africa, Mesopotamia, the Alps and the Eastern Front. Three of the 20 do not survive the war, though their deaths, while related to the deprivations of the war, don’t always come in a battle.
The accounts provide insight into life and death in the trenches, and into the often hopeless task of caring for the wounded in hospitals, the monotonous waiting for action that seems to never come, the casual indifference of the politicians and generals and even the population on the home front. Those who experience the war most directly, soldiers and civilians alike, grow so inured to death and hardship that they simply become indifferent to whether they live or die.
One of the British soldiers comes upon some of his countrymen held as prisoners of war in such a famished state that one man he mistakes for dead is actually still alive even though a mass of flies has already invaded his mouth (“the beehive phenomenon”). The desperation to avoid the conflict reached such levels that there was a black market for gonococcal pus that men smeared on their genitals in the hopes of acquiring disease, or in their eyes though it could mean permanent blindness.
Even the humor is dark. The overwhelming sense of despair and the absence of husbands in civilian life led to a general breakdown in morality, Englund relates, so that soldiers on leave in cities entered casual liaisons with abandoned wives. One cinema owner announced at intermission that a soldier returning home unexpectedly had just entered the theater to catch his wife and her lover who he knew were there, but that the guilty pair could leave discreetly by the side entrance. Some 320 couples, the story goes, availed themselves of the opportunity.
In addition to the context he provides for his witnesses in the text, Englund includes a wealth of supporting information, explanations and anecdotes in the footnotes (these are real notes at the foot of the page, not buried in the back of the book). Only the reader in a real hurry should neglect these notes because they add to the richness of the narrative.
Sometimes it is difficult to know when Englund is summarizing the views or perceptions of these eyewitnesses or bringing his own historical knowledge to bear. The plentiful excerpts from the documents themselves, however, quickly put the reader back in touch with these individuals.
The book includes 32 pages of photographs, an enormous help in bringing the events to life. By the same token, reading these genuinely intimate accounts imbues the contemporary black-and-white photos with unexpected poignancy. The portraits of the 20 individuals telling their story make it all that much more personal.
The photos of the fronts, particularly in theaters unfamiliar to most American readers, also make the accounts more concrete. There is no map, however, which will be missed by any reader not that familiar with West European geography, let alone East African, Mesopotamian and Galician. While the Dramatis Personae at the front helps keep track of the 20 individuals, a map showing their locations in the conflict would also have been useful.
The real tragedy of World War I is that normal people with their modest ambitions of living a happy, fulfilling life are the inevitable victims of conflicts dreamed up by politicians and generals often following their own ambitions. Even those of Englund’s witnesses who initially welcomed the war quickly realized that it was a terrible mistake. Englund writes a cautionary tale for all of us. We cannot afford to ignore what is going on in distant capitals, in our own country or others, because flawed individuals running governments can wreak inestimable havoc in our lives. We cannot count on them doing the right thing.
Darrell Delamaide is a writer and journalist in Washington, D.C. His new novel, The Grand Mirage, takes place in the Ottoman Empire just before World War I.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

In Pale Battalions

It is difficult to be so subtle and so dazzling at the same time, but Robert Goddard pulls it off in this mesmerizing novel. Once again, Goddard's mastery of the language alone makes the book a joy to read, and confirms my feeling that British writers -- Simon Mawer and Rennie Airth are other examples -- have an edge over us Americans when it comes to language. Chaucer and Shakespeare are lurking in their descriptions, their dialogue.

In Pale Battalions also has a finely crafted plot. It is part murder mystery, but so much more than that. It deals with World War I and the hopelessness and futility of that conflict. (I had just read Peter Englund's The Beauty and the Sorrow which so graphically portrays the war from the journals and letters of eyewitnesses; I will post my review here once it is published in the Washington Independent Review of Books.)

But the war itself is just a backdrop for a study in how challenging trust and integrity can be, how easily we are susceptible to corruption, and how difficult it is to be tolerant of our own failings and the flaws of others. Although the tribulations of the family of Lord Powerstock are particularly dramatic, the impact on the family members is not so different from the more mundane trials that all of us have experienced in family life. The secrets and the lies that follow through the generations are told here, whereas most of us may never be aware of the hidden events in our family trees.

When he is given leave to convalesce for a wound sustained in the Somme, Tom Franklin goes to stay with the family of his friend and commander, John Hallows, who was reported killed in action earlier. He falls in love with Hallows' wife, Leonora, who seems caught up in a web of blackmail and who surprisingly has become pregnant shortly after her husband's death. The conniving of Leonora's step-mother-in-law and an American adventurer intent on gaining control of the estate set Franklin and Leonora both fateful journeys that do not have happy endings.

Their are further twists and turns as the anonymity imposed by the war leads to a succession of mistaken identities and past failings of family members have consequences in succeeding generations. Goddard contrives to have a number of first person narrators tell the story, and not all of them are reliable. He slowly draws back the veils revealing a new dimension of truth to a picture we thought we had figured out, right down to the last pages with a final, surprising twist.

Reading this often tragic tale, you cannot keep your same certitudes about what constitutes courage or cowardice, or even right or wrong. Can you combat evil only with good, or must it be fought in kind?

The story stretches over four generations so many of the main characters are dead by the end. This lends their story a fatalistic perspective -- in the end, what really mattered in their lives? There is the hope that Leonora's daughter, another Leonora, and her daughter, Penelope, have grown in character from the revelations about their family history. The same may be true for us as readers.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Sound of Blood

This richly satisfying thriller by Lawrence De Maria is not for the reader in a hurry for a quick crime fix. De Maria, a former New York Times journalist who now lives in Florida, wants you to savor New York and Florida in their full glory and seediness as he tells his tale.

There is a murder, a fiendishly clever one, at the outset, and there is suspense as private investigator Jake Scarne tries to unravel the financial and criminal skulduggery behind it. His nemesis is Victor Ballantrae, who shares traits of financier Allen Stanford and Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch, though not even the entire family of his client, the father of the murder victim, is on his side. Scarne's biggest problem is Alana Loeb, Ballantrae's second in command and an alluring woman with a mysterious past.

These are not cardboard characters. De Maria fleshes them out with quirks and flaws and endearing characteristics -- even the two psychopathic hit men employed by Ballantrae. The action flows easily from Manhattan to Miami to Antigua as the author glides smoothly from billionaire magnates to homicide detectives to slick financial manipulators and to bona fide mobsters.

De Maria takes us to a Florida we know from John D. MacDonald and Elmore Leonard, but his Jake Scarne has as much of the hard-bitten Bogie of "The Maltese Falcon" and "The Big Sleep" as he does of the easygoing Travis McGee. Scarne doesn't want to play the sap, either, but the flesh is weak and Alana's allures are often overpowering.

Sound of Blood has many fresh ingredients as well. The author masterfully weaves in financial fraud ripped from the headlines of the past two years. Ballantrae's jack-of-all-trades assassins are a gay couple. There is little room for a happy Hollywood ending as the plot moves with the inexorability of a tragedy toward its climax.

The author savors some things too much. A key golf match between Scarne and Ballantrae skillfully captures the conflict between the two but runs a bit too long for the non-golf aficionado. There are a few too many random characters running in and out of the plot.

But none of this really slows the reader down. With compelling plot and characters and an authority in depicting worlds at once exotic and familiar, De Maria carries us along on a ride that is thrilling and even cathartic as Jake Scarne battles evil that is not found only in fiction.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

A Cold Day in Paradise

Steve Hamilton's debut novel won both the Edgar and Shamus awards for first novel, and it is indeed very good. The writing is crisp, the voice fresh, the first-person main character, Alex McKnight, is well-drawn, able but flawed and mostly sympathetic.

And it is certainly a page-turner. After about the first third, you will want to finish the book at a single sitting because the author paces the suspense well.

But it is a first novel and not perfect. There are some big holes in the plot. The most gaping in my eyes, without giving too much away, is that when one of the characters who is a possible target of a serial killer goes missing, our able hero searches for him instead of immediately calling the police, who are already aware of the danger and taking precautions.

It is virtually impossible, given all the mystery and detective stories out there, to come up with an original back story for a new hero. Alex McKnight, however, checks a few too many of the usual boxes -- ex-cop turned PI, wounded in action, partner killed, retreats to rural setting, etc. It's not a bad formula, but it is a formula.

The other characters are not fleshed out that well, with the exception of Chief Maven of the local police department, who is an intriguing character though perhaps a bit too much like Rod Steiger in "In the Heat of the Night." Some characters seem to be belabored -- like Alex's love interest, Sylvia -- while others come up short, such as Alex's friend Edwin or his lawyer employer, Lane Uttley.

This is my first book in the 50-state mystery challenge. Its setting in Michigan's Upper Peninsula is very appealing to me, and shares a lot with the bleak landscapes of the Nordic mysteries. Particularly the brooding presence of Lake Superior adds a dimension to the novel. The wind whipping around, the biting rain, the whitecaps on a stormy lake -- great atmosphere!

Funny that Hamilton would set his mystery in a Michigan town named Paradise in the same way Robert S. Parker picks Paradise, Massachusetts for Jesse Stone's refuge. The difference is that there really is a town of that name in the Upper Peninsula, whereas Parker's fictional Paradise is reportedly based on a town called Marblehead. In both cases, though, the authors certainly enjoy getting Paradise into the title.

Friday, October 21, 2011


Here's the start of my list for the 50 States Mystery challenge (see my post on Goodreads challenges):
California (CA) Done for a Dime
Colorado (CO) The Bookman's Wake
District of Columbia (DC) Hell to Pay 

Florida (FL) Gumbo Limbo
Maryland (MD) Baltimore Blues 

Michigan (MI) Cold Day in Paradise
New Jersey (NJ) Bury the Bishop
New Mexico (NM) Tularosa
New York (NY) The First Deadly Sin
Oregon (OR) The Defense
Pennsylvania (PA) Moment of Truth 


Here's the list for the Around the World in 52 Books challenge (see my post on Goodreads challenges):
Afghanistan: Bookseller of Kabul
Angola: Book of Chameleons
Arctic: Voyage of the Narwhal
Austria: Death in Vienna
Azerbaijan: Ali and Nino
Bosnia: Bridge on the Drina
Botswana: Tears of the Giraffe
Bulgaria: Night Soldiers
Chile: Easter Island
China: A Floating Life
Dominican Republic: Farming the Bones
Egypt: Serpent and Scorpion
England: Mistress of the Art of Death
France: The Forger
Germany: Effi Briest
India: Between Assassinations
Indonesia: The Earth of Mankind
Israel: The Attack
Italy: Stone Virgin
Jamaica: Wide Sargasso Sea
Kenya: Weep Not
Japan: Kafka on the Shore
Mexico: Savage Detectives
Morocco: Tenth Gift
New Zealand: Bone People
Nigeria: Arrows of the Rain
North Korea: Corpse in the Koryo
Persian Gulf: Cities of Salt
Portugal: Last Kabbalist of Lisbon
Romania: The Passport
Russia: The White Russian
Rwanda: A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali
Saudi Arabia: Eight Months on Ghazzah Street
South Africa: Bitter Fruit
South America: Bel Canto
Spain: Winter in Madrid
Sudan: Act of Faith
Sweden: Frozen Tracks
Trinidad: Bruised Hibiscus
Turkey: Black Book
Vietnam: Paradise of the Blind
Zimbabwe: Butterfly Burning

Goodreads challenges

A while ago I asked rhetorically whether or when somebody would set up a virtual book club online. And of course there are several and Goodreads seems to be one of the most robust. I've joined a couple of groups, Historical Fictionistas and Mysteries, Crime & Thrillers, which coincidentally happen to be the main categories of my own book, but I've refrained from any blatant self-promotion so far.

It is kind of fun to see so many people totally engaged with books and reading. There seems to be a tolerance for various speeds. Some people read all the time and have scads of books, but others seem to be more normal people who read as much as they can along with work and other life things.

One of the more interesting features are the "challenges," designed to set goals and so provide incentives to read certain kinds of books. I've never stayed in a book club too long because I didn't like the idea of reading a book someone else picked when there were so many unread books on my own shelf that I picked at one point because I was interested in them. In a challenge, however, you pick the books, as long as they fit the parameter of the challenge, and the discussion is more of an exchange of views about different books.

One challenge for instance is Around the World in 52 Books -- i.e. one book a week during 2012, each from or set in a different country. Just for the heck of it, I went through my shelves and listed unread books set in different countries, then went to Andrea's shelf and listed some more of hers. Embarrassingly, I came up with 42 books, each set in a different country, that I have on my shelf and haven't read. I'm sure I could get to 52 without any trouble. Now I don't think I can read a book a week from this list. Some of them are long, and I'll want to read other things, too. But I can start now, and no one says I have to stop at the end of 2012. I can just keep checking off this list until I'm done.

Another challenge, in Mysteries, Crime & Thrillers, is the 50-state mystery challenge, which is to read a mystery set in each one of the 50 states (51, since obviously I will add DC). I actually embarked on a similar project some years ago when Darras and I first contemplated collaborating on a police procedural set in Kansas. I even picked up several books at the time set in various states. It turns out there's a great site, Stop, You're Killing Me, that indexes mysteries according to location, so you can see any number of books set in each state. So I put up a list of dozen books in that challenge to get started. Since Darras and I now want to get back to this idea, this is kind of like research for that project.

The links above are to my first posting of each list on Goodreads. I'll keep the updated lists on this blog under the Lists label, and will review each book as I read it and label it according to the challenge, 52World or 50Mystery. Not sure how long I can keep up either one, but it should help me to spend more time reading and less time in front of the TV.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Devil's Lair

David Wisehart's epic fantasy is a stunning tour de force -- David Mitchell meets Umberto Eco. The author tells his story of a group of pilgrims in the 14th century who retrace Dante's descent into the Inferno with verve and a truly astonishing command of language.

It's not only that he explores the vast reaches of the English vocabulary but that every description or action is conveyed in a highly disciplined prose and laser-precise diction. Wisehart loves words and the reader revels in the language that compels one to follow William of Ockham, Giovanni Boccaccio, Nadja and Marco da Roma, the last Knight Templar into the bowels of Hell and the fate that awaits them there. The history -- Ockham, Boccaccio, Petrarch are all real historical figures along with assorted churchmen who appear -- and the fantasy are rendered with equal authority.

Wisehart finds words you had no idea existed. His writing is well-suited to e-books because you can highlight a word and find its definition if you so desire (a word of warning, the dictionary function does not have many of the words in this book and you need to use the Google or Wikipedia functions to track them down). Or you can save yourself the trouble and simply enjoy the novelty. You may never have encountered the word "costrel" before but when the character unplugs its stopper and takes a drink from it, you can easily conclude it is a pouch for carrying liquids.

In the first half of the book, as the pilgrims set out on their quest, the surreal horror of the Black Death becomes nauseatingly real, as the bubonic plague drives whole towns to despair and sends Ockham and his band into Hell to recover the Holy Grail and thus rescue the world from this calamity. The plague is almost by definition allegorical, and these early chapters resemble Andrzej Szczypiorski's Mass for Arras in their portrayal of a world gone mad.

Then in the second half, the fantastical visions of Dante's nine circles of the Inferno are recreated in compressed prose. The creatures, the damned, the devil himself parade by in dizzying succession as the pilgrims make their way to their goal. They see the famous, including some surprising residents of Hell thought to be in heaven, and friends and relatives from their own pasts. They cope with dangers and vicissitudes as they pursue their goal. Here Wisehart matches Tolkien and the darker Rowling in the boldness of his images.

If anything, you find yourself wishing the prose was a little less compressed and intense, that the suspense and sense of menace were somewhat more drawn out. But the quick succession of events and phantasmagorical images immerse you in what truly becomes an epic.

In the midst of all this, Wisehart's little band of characters keeps the reader's sympathy as much as Frodo or Harry Potter. Ockham is the excommunicated logician who can attain salvation through faith. Boccaccio is the worldly poet who gives up everything to follow his friends. Nadja is prone to epileptic seizures that bring on heavenly visions -- or are they demonic temptations, or just delusions? And Marco finds qualities of heroism he had no idea he possessed.

Wisehart has written verse plays -- something of a lost art -- and it's not by accident that poets are major figures in this epic. There is some verse, but much of the prose, too, is darkly lyrical. This is an accomplished work that demonstrates conclusively, if anyone still doubted it, that independent authors can produce literature on a par with the best that mainstream publishers put out and propel to bestsellerdom.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Thrillers set in prewar period

I've tried setting up versions of this list on Amazon and Goodreads and not gotten much traction with it. But I don't think it's because there's no interest in this sub-genre.

For me, the 20th century prior to the outbreak of World War II is already an exotic period. It is recognizably our modern world, but in some ways a more civilized version of it. It is in any case a time when real adventure -- not our leisure-time adventure excursions -- was still possible. The world was knit together but still had lots of open spaces. These are thrillers set in that period. They are not in any rank order. I'm just including one work per author, though generally many of their other works also fit into this category.

Obviously I want to include my own historical thriller in this list. I think it helps to provide a context for potential readers. If you like any of the books on this list, you will like The Grand Mirage.

I'll update with further additions. Please comment if you have a title to add, or any other comment.

1. Stamboul Train by Graham Greene
The master's take on the Orient Express.

2. The Grand Mirage by Darrell Delamaide
Adventure and intrigue on a caravan to Baghdad.

3. A Coffin for Dimitrios by Eric Ambler
A pioneer in the political thriller.

4. Night Soldiers by Alan Furst
Period atmosphere at its best.

5. Zoo Station by David Downing
Berlin between the wars.

6. Berlin Noir by Philip Kerr
Even grittier Berlin between the wars.

7. River of Darkness by Rennie Airth
A damaged World War I veteran investigates a gruesome murder.

8. Greenmantle by John Buchan
Date classic in the genre.

9. Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers
Still spellbinding tale of espionage in the North Sea tidal basin.

10. Pascali's Island by Barry Unsworth
Searing tale of one of the sultan's spies.

11. Imperial 109 by Richard Doyle
A whole book on the Pan Am clipper.

12. Ashenden, or The British Agent by W. Somerset Maugham
Spy story based on writer's own experience.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


The New York Times had a story last week about how Julia Child's pathbreaking Mastering the Art of French Cooking was now available, finally, as an e-book. The article discussed the particular challenges of putting a cookbook onto an e-reader, from the often complicated layout and color photos to the concern about splattering grease onto your Kindle or iPad.

Now apparently technology has advanced enough to have column formats in e-books, and new readers like iPad and Kindle Fire have all sorts of color. As for the grease, I have experimented with downloading a Kindle single by Mark Bittman on grilling and using it. I usually keep the recipe across the kitchen on the table anyway, so the real danger, especially with a touch screen, is having dirty or greasy fingers when I want to consult it.

What would really be cool and would get me to take the plunge immediately is if somehow your entire cookbook collection would be searchable (or even your entire Kindle library because the search terms would be specific enough). The big plus of Epicurious, of course, is that you can search by ingredient or technique. This is virtually impossible to do with the hard copies, because you pick a likely book, check the index, are invariably disappointed, check another index, and so on, and usually end up at Epicurious anyway.

The only way I can navigate my print cookbooks is to pick one arbitrarily at random and leaf through it looking for likely prospects that use seasonal agreements. It would be more satisfying to go to the store or market and simply pick what looks good, then come home and easily find the right recipe.

Nonetheless, I may experiment. Paula Wolfert has a new cookbook out, The Food of Morocco, and it will be available in a Kindle edition on Nov. 15. I love Paula Wolfert's books and we have been on a real Morocco kick, so I will get one edition or the other. The hardcover print edition is just $27 on Amazon, and the Kindle edition, at the insistence of the publisher, will be $20, so it's hardly competitive given the uncertain performance of a cookbook on an e-reader. We'll see what people say.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Illumination

This thriller by Jill Gregory and Karen Tintori has two Americans attempting to safeguard a relic of the primordial light of creation, keeping it out of the hands of various malefactors and delivering it to the Israeli Antiquities Authority. The authors keep a fast pace as diverse villains -- an Iranian fanatic with the evil eye, a Florida cult leader with ambitions to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, a super-secret government agency, and an arch-conservative Jewish terrorist organization -- all seek to get the powerful relic for their own ends.

Museum curator Natalie Landau, aided by a new-found ally in the person of a former television journalist and occasional CIA asset, is the one trying to keep the object out of their hands. After some narrow escapes in New York, she and her ally, D'Amato, experience some more narrow escapes in Rome and jet to Jerusalem for the climactic action.

Natalie is a sympathetic and self-reliant protagonist, displaying a phenomenal ability to fend off brutish male attackers through her mastery of martial arts. In fairness, though, accepting Natalie's feats requires no more suspension of disbelief than for your typical male protagonist in action thrillers.

The authors are quite good at unveiling and developing the esoteric secret of the Eye of Dawn and linking it to the widespread belief in the evil eye. In fact, you have a much better idea of the prevalence of this belief in the Middle East after reading this than you do after finishing Jason Goodwin's most recent thriller, An Evil Eye.

Most of the other characters lack any real dimension and at times seem derivative from The Da Vinci Code and other thrillers in this genre. But the pace is good, the writing is crisp and the sense of urgency is maintained through the end.

My road to self-publishing

When I sold my first novel to E.P. Dutton in 1988 for a substantial advance, I thought I had it made as a writer. Richard Marek, the editor who bought it and also the chief executive of Dutton, had been Robert Ludlum’s first editor and the one question he had for me before he made the offer was whether I’d be willing to write other similar novels.

Uh, sure. It had been my ambition from age 10 to be a writer and I went into journalism to further that goal. When I first signed up with my agent, June Hall, in London, she suggested pitching a nonfiction book first, since they are so much easier to sell, even though my goal all along had been to write fiction.

So in 1982 she got me in to see Lord Weidenfeld in his home on the Embankment and he bought UK rights (he wanted global but June wanted to make separate sales) to my nonfiction book on the debt crisis on the basis of a 10-minute pitch, without a word being written and not even an outline. We subsequently sold U.S. rights to Doubleday (Phil Pochoda) and Canadian rights to Lester & Orpen, Dennys (Louise Dennys).
The dream continued and Debt Shock, as it became, got a full-page review in the New York Times Book Review when it was published in 1984.

Those were the days. Dick Marek bought my novel, a financial thriller entitled Gold, on the basis of five chapters and a synopsis. He worked on it himself and had a number of very helpful suggestions on plot, characters, writing – a great editor. However, virtually the day in 1989 my novel was published, Penguin shut down Dutton, firing all the editors, including Marek, and keeping it only as an imprint. My book was orphaned without any support.

Working full time as a journalist, it turned out, was not necessarily conducive to writing books, so my next proposal came in 1992 for an ambitious labor of love – a book about post-Communist Europe based on Joel Garreau’s Nine Nations of North America. This book became The New Superregions of Europe and Dutton, which had the option to buy my next book, exercised the option and published it in 1994.

A number of things kept me from writing another book for a while – changing jobs, a move back to the U.S. after 20 years in Europe, divorce, parents’ illness and death. Then came 9/11, which prompted me to abandon a political thriller I had been working that included a terrorist attack on Washington. Just didn’t have the stomach for it (though Vince Flynn and a number of other thriller writers have had great success with that plot).

I returned to an idea then that had caught my attention in the years I spent covering Deutsche Bank – the building of the Baghdad Railway in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Deutsche Bank played a major role in financing the railroad from Constantinople to Baghdad because the Kaiser was very interested in completing a land link to the Indian Ocean (in Germany the project was generally referred to as the Berlin-Baghdad Railway). The British, concerned about a threat to their overseas empire in the subcontinent, were not keen on the project and it became a pawn in the Great Power maneuvering over the ailing Ottoman Empire.

Great stuff for an historical thriller, I thought, and I worked on it for years, making a British peer who was an accomplished Orientalist and a sometime agent for the British Foreign Office the protagonist of what I hoped would become a series set in the Middle East just prior to and during World War I.

I thought it would be a great field for adventure, intrigue and a chance to revisit a Middle East that has vanished but is the stuff of legend that lies deeply embedded in the subconscious of us Westerners. When I finished the novel, I found an agent, Mel Parker, who was equally enthusiastic about it. Mel had been a longtime editor in chief of the Book of the Month Club and was used to having his finger on the pulse of what people would buy. He was confident he could sell the book.

Alas, it was not to be. A publishing market rocked by evolving technologies and then the financial crisis was floundering and making it particularly difficult to sell fiction. The consolidation of the industry, the focus on the bottom line, the disappearance of midlist authors had transformed a cottage industry into a manufacturer and franchiser of bestsellers. Editors no longer edited, they acquired, and they acquired books that were similar to books that had just been successful, until by some fluke a Da Vinci Code comes along and changes the paradigm for what is considered successful.

Mel worked hard at it but we eventually had to accept there was not a market for the book in the New York publishing world.

In the meantime, technology continued to evolve. The Internet, social networking, smart phones destroyed the role of gatekeepers in media, hitting newspapers, magazines and eventually book publishing. For books, print on demand became an initial liberator, transforming the tainted world of vanity publishing into something more credible. POD became possible because Amazon brought the corner bookstore into everybody’s home.

It is, however, the ascendancy of the e-book in the past couple of years that is truly transforming the world of books. Amazon’s Kindle was revolutionary, and then the iPad definitively tipped the balance, not only because of its own massive sales but because it increased the acceptability of other e-readers. Now, it is said, sales of e-books exceed sales of print books.

Friends and colleagues of mine were reporting new success in finding an audience for their unpublished books. Whereas even a few years ago, the paradigm for self-publishing was to order up a hundred POD copies of your book and pack them in your trunk to make the rounds of bookstores for signings, the new paradigm now is to sell your book in digital format for $3 and promote it through Facebook, Amazon and other powerful social networking tools.

Publishing houses may continue to have a role in manufacturing bestsellers. Increasingly, they will seek their new acquisitions among the growing stream of self-published books.

It has taken me some time to accept all this. I was spoiled by earlier successes into thinking that my road was what I continued to think of as the “high road.” But traditional publishing is about to be blown away. There is no high road or low road, just a broad digital highway that allows readers to find the books they are interested in and writers to find their audience. I found a great packager to design my POD and e-book and my historical thriller about the building of the Baghdad Railway, The Grand Mirage, has just been published, under my imprint of Barnaby Woods Books.

Friday, September 30, 2011

The Grand Mirage

I haven't made too much headway in my reading lately because I've been busy proofing my own book, The Grand Mirage, which was published as an ebook last week and will become available in paperback sometime next week.

It's been a whirlwind since I decided at the end of August to self-publish this historical thriller. I'd worked on it for literally years and just couldn't find a publisher to buy it, despite the yeoman efforts of my agent, Mel Parker. But I feel like it is a good book and there are people out there who will enjoy reading it. So I enlisted the help of Jose Ramirez, signing up for his "expedited" program at Pedernales Publishing. He's really serious when he says expedite and four weeks after signing the contract, the ebook was available for purchase.

Reading the book through twice in two weekends (and embarrassingly finding new mistakes each time) eased any qualms I might have about taking this step. In all modesty, I think it's just a very good read, with adventure, romance and intrigue, an exotic setting, sympathetic characters, the whole shebang. I'm not saying it's destined to become a classic or a bestseller, but it deserves an audience.

Buy it, read it, enjoy it!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Start and stop

It happens. You pick up a book you think you'll like -- usually one you bought some time ago thinking you'll like it -- and for whatever reason you just can't get into it. It doesn't necessarily reflect on the book. I've started books, such as The Gospel of Judas, that I abandoned, only to come back to it after my eyes were opened to Simon Mawer's talent in The Glass Room and read it with relish.

So I've had a couple of false starts lately. One was John Lescroart's Son of Holmes. This was an early book of his, before his breakthrough into bestsellerdom with the Dismas Hardy series. I saw Lescroart on a panel once and he is an engaging speaker. I read one of the Dismas Hardy books and I suppose I liked it well enough, but I didn't rush back to read another.

What attracted me to this book, which gets fairly mixed reviews on Amazon, is that Lescroart in 1987 did what I always dreamed of doing -- wrote a novel about Nero Wolfe's early days. But he did it in a way completely different from what I would do. He beat me to it in any case, because I was thinking about in the late 1980s, early 1990s. Dick Marek, who bought my financial thriller, pooh-poohed the idea because he thought the audience would be too narrow. I was worried about copyright problems, though you never had to say it was Nero Wolfe, just make it plain to fans that it was indeed he.

This is evidently what Lescroart did. His Auguste Lupa (a pseudonym because this Montenegrin always took a Caesar for his first name -- get it, Nero -- and Lupa of course is Latin for wolf) was that youthful secret agent that the sedentary detective in New York hints at through the 70-some Nero Wolfe stories. Whereas I would have just explored the adventure behind his references to being a spy for the Austro-Hungarian empire, having a house in Cairo, etc., and produce an historical thriller, Lescroart crafts a cozy murder mystery in southern France with a protagonist who already has all the traits of the mature Wolfe -- fat, beer-swilling, lip-pursing, yellow shirts and all.

So what's not to like? It comes across as warmed-over Rex Stout, prequel or not. It is, well, dull. Stout was clever to have Archie Goodwin tell the story, whereas Lescroart's narrator has virtually no personality. Who knows, maybe I'll finish it one day, but after getting halfway through, I don't really see the point.

For the other lapsed book, The Collaborator of Bethlehem by Matt Beynon Rees, I will suspend judgment. I bought this the other day at Politics & Prose and realized too late that it had appealed to me a couple of years ago as well, when I bought it the first time, started it, and stopped it. The writing is unquestionably good, and the setting in Bethlehem is great. I bought it this second time after reading The Essene Conspiracy because I liked the scenes set in Israel. However, Omar Yussef was not grabbing me as a protagonist. I get a little tired of recovering alcoholics as detective heroes, anyway, but when he is also a Muslim, it's particularly tiresome. A Christian friend of his is falsely accused of murder, but who cares? It's a little bit too much paint by the number murder mystery (didn't suspend my judgment that much apparently), but maybe I'll change my tune if I pick it up another time.

Update. Looks like I'm going to have to add David Downing's Silesian Station to the current list of starts and stops. It's probably not fair to the book, since I've been distracted by the need to repeatedly proof my own book, The Grand Mirage, and I'm also spending some time exploring the world of self-published ebooks. Hopefully, I will actually finish one of those and be able to review it for the blog.

I do think nonetheless that Downing has fallen a bit into the franchise writer trap. Since the initial success of Zoo Station, the start of a series featuring British journalist John Russell in Hitler's Germany just before the outbreak of World War II, Downing has kept to the tried and true formula, even to the point of titling each new book after one Berlin's train stations (like Paris, Vienna and other great European capitals, Berlin had a "head" station pointing in each direction of the compass). Subsequent books in the series feature the Stettin, Potsdam and Lehrter stations.

Even at this best in in the initial book of the series, Downing fell short of the drama and atmosphere of Philip Kerr's Berlin Noir, let alone the Alan Furst books. Having lived in Berlin for two and a half years, I enjoy the recreation of the local geography, but I felt like this book was just plodding along and I found myself reading it because it was the book I'm reading right now, and then not reading it.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Black Diamond

My review of this book by Martin Walker appeared today in Washington Independent Review of Books:

Martin Walker’s series chronicling the adventures of a village policeman in Périgord is Kool-Aid for Francophiles and a potion to convert remaining skeptics to the joie de vivre that infuses French life.

Black Diamond is the third murder mystery featuring Bruno Courrèges. Fortunately, the series managed to survive the odd-duck title of the debut novel, Bruno, Chief of Police. This new installment has all the elements that have attracted a large and growing following to the novels — an endearing hero who is not only a jack of all trades but also master of them, an idyllic village in southern France steeped in culinary tradition, and a host of quirky but lovable local characters.

Walker, a former journalist who now heads a think tank in Washington, D.C., does not spare the darker side of life in the French countryside — the erosion in lifestyle from drugs, immigration and other social problems that intrude on the idyll, as well as the darker undercurrents in France’s past, from collaboration with the Nazis to colonial warfare in Algeria and Indochina.

It is the colonial past that looms in the background of this plot. A former member of the French secret services who has retired to the fictional village of St. Denis is brutally tortured and murdered as he waits to join a hunting party with Bruno and other local dignitaries. Was the murder related to the victim’s past service in Algeria and Indochina, or was it rather a result of his involvement in exposing potential fraud in the local truffle market? (The “black diamond” of the title refers to the black truffles that Périgord is justly famous for.)

The plot is further thickened by apparently unprovoked attacks on Vietnamese vendors in the local market, which may be related to fire-bombings of Chinese restaurants elsewhere in France and herald an outbreak of gang warfare between these two sets of immigrants. Then there is the appearance of a golden-boy politician in the local chapter of the environmental party, the Green Party, who, coincidentally it seems, has his own opaque past in East Asia.

This environmental zealot, who becomes Bruno’s rival for the affections of an English expatriate with whom the police chief has an on-again, off-again affair, is estranged from his father, a local businessman who must close down his sawmill because it runs afoul of new environmental restrictions.

So there’s plenty to keep Bruno busy. Not that he has to solve these crimes alone. Walker is a master at portraying the overlay of jurisdictions in a France that some people might confuse with a police state. In addition to Bruno, the local constable in the employ of the mayor, there are the gendarmerie, the national force implanted throughout France, and the Police Nationale, France’s version of Scotland Yard, which directs important cases from Paris.

But Bruno must also find time to do some slow cooking the French way, scrimmage on the local rugby team, play Father Christmas at the children’s party, balance the appeals to his tender side as the town’s leading bachelor among the aforementioned English expatriate, an attractive martial arts expert from the Police Nationale and a single mother who is being sexually harassed at that suspicious truffle market where she works part time.

Nothing’s too much for Bruno, however, who manages to ruin two sets of clothes, getting soaked with blood from the murder victim and covered in slime when he rescues a child from a showcase manure pit in an environmental facility.

But Bruno, an orphan who fought with French troops in Bosnia, is a man on a mission. He must singlehandedly preserve the rural life that he cherishes. Walker describes Bruno’s musings about the various threads of his murder case as he looks upon one bucolic scene in St. Denis: “It was a peaceful, happy landscape. But there was a menace lurking on Bruno’s turf, a threat of violence and subtle terror against hardworking and law-abiding people that Bruno knew and liked. … Bruno knew it was his duty to defend the victims, to allay their fears and to bring the intimidators to justice.”

The reader wants that, too, as Walker skillfully immerses us in the conservative values of the French countryside that he appears to know so well. Bruno, we have learned in his earlier adventures and again in this novel, is far too good a lawman to be buried in this country village. His ambitious girlfriend, the Police Nationale agent he has worked with before, and her boss, want Bruno to join their team in Paris. But he’s fond of his quiet life in the country. His truffles are beginning to grow, his shepherd’s cottage becomes more comfortable each year and the hunting is good.

This third Bruno novel is a splendid introduction to the French country cozy that Walker has carved out as a new subset of the genre. It is on a par with the debut novel both in its depiction of French country life and its slow-paced suspense as a mystery. The intervening novel, Dark Vineyards, suffered from a plot that lacked any really evil villains and where the deaths were more accidental than dastardly murders.

Here the murders are plenty dastardly and the villains are not only evil, but downright nasty. There’s ambiguity, too, and it’s not always easy to figure out who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.

One thing for sure, though — Bruno is a good guy. Everyone needs a friend in southern France to go spend some time with, and Martin Walker has opened Bruno’s door to anyone who has a few hours to join him in the simple joys of la vie en rose.

Darrell Delamaide, author of the financial thriller Gold, lived in France for 11 years and returned to southern France this summer to read the advance copy of Black Diamond near the scene of the crime.

Monday, September 12, 2011


I’m always a sucker for disaster movies on TV – asteroids, global warming, earthquakes, you name it – so in my new exploration of e-books I readily took up Amy Rogers’ techno-thriller about bacteria that start eating up the world’s oil supply.

This plot device, based on extrapolation of the bacteria that are used to help clean up oil spills, is not completely original, I learn from Amazon, because a 2007 book – Ill Wind by Kevin J. Anderson and Doug Beason – has a similar premise for its point of departure.

But it all depends on execution, and Rogers does a pretty good job of focusing this potentially global disaster in a dramatic action starring a Latina graduate student at UCLA and restricting the initial disaster to Los Angeles. Motor-driven LA is, of course, the perfect place to feature a gasoline-eating bug and the picture of a city paralyzed and quarantined by the disappearance of all petroleum products is captivating.

Los Angeles is also an excellent choice because of its geographic isolation – a fact few of us non-West Coasters are even aware of. The author uses the mountains ringing LA to great effect as a way of trying to contain the disaster and as a challenge for the heroes trying to provide the silver bullet to end the disaster scenario.

Christina Gonzalez is the grad student who is working with the “mad” scientist character Dr. Chen to tinker with these bacteria so they can be used to convert the hydrocarbons in hard-to-get oil sands into methane – natural gas – that is much easier to recover and kinder to the environment. It is a two-step process, and unfortunately for the planet’s outlook, only the bugs performing the first step – converting petroleum to hydrogen and acetic acid – are the ones who get loose.

Rogers draws Christina as a full and sympathetic character. And her two sidekicks, cousin River and her boyfriend Mickey, also grow into reasonably well-developed characters, with flaws and virtues in equal measure. A good editor would have trimmed the early interaction of these characters, which take on an amateurish quality, to get to the faster-paced action more quickly.

There is also a certain amount of wit in the writing, which, along with the generally good quality of the narrative, keeps the reader turning the pages. The evil corporate guy is a thin villain, and the LA mayor, a Latino who conveniently for the plot served as a helicopter pilot in Iraq, also needed some more fleshing out for the role the author had in mind for him.

Judging by the editorial and reader reviews of Ill Wind, Rogers’ treatment of this disaster scenario, in what is essentially a self-published book, compares favorably to the earlier book, which has the benefit of being “curated” by the very hot editors at Tor.

Techno-thrillers, as Michael Crichton demonstrated so well, are a great niche, so I’m sure Amy Rogers will be out soon with another book. And, who knows, maybe late some night Petroplague will appear as a disaster movie on TV.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Gospel of Judas

I came back to this Simon Mawer novel now because I liked The Glass Room so much and because it seemed like a good segue from The Essene Conspiracy. Aside from the quantum leap in quality of the writing, this is a completely different kind of book. While it has a papyrus from a Qmran type source that offers a radically different version of Christ's life and the founding of the church, like Wachtel's book, like Da Vinci Code and its numerous imitators, this is not a thriller.

It is a novel about a priest's loss of faith, a complex drama in which the discovery of a putative "Gospel of Judas" plays a decidedly minor role and only really in the last third of the book. The story of Father Leo Newman, a British papyrologist who lives in Rome, has as much in common with Bernanos' Diary of a Country Priest and J.F. Powers' Morte d'Urban as it does with the garden variety biblical thriller.

Mawer in fact has such an understanding of the celibate's mind, the emotional stunting that accompanies the vow of chastity, the fragile foundation in faith for this type of dedication, that I checked his biography to see if he actually was in the seminary. If he was, his bio gives no indication of it, so perhaps he has simply gotten to know a number of priests well in his 30 years of living in Rome. In any case, I know from my own experience as a Jesuit novice and seminarian that he describes those feelings with agonizing accuracy.

Less surprising is how Mawer can make Rome palpable with a few deft strokes. These are not elaborate descriptions but telling details that betray an intimacy with the sights, sounds and smells of the Eternal City. I've only spent a smattering of weeks in Rome, but the city came rushing back into my memory in Mawer's narrative.

There is more to say about the plot but it is again the language that for me is in the forefront. It is a muscular prose, as vivid in its description of the tangible as the intangible. It is a sophisticated, sinuous narrative that has room for Latin, Italian, Greek, German seamlessly embedded in the text. In my research about the author, I came across this statement from an interview he gave:

"To write decent novels you have to be in love with the language. You have to feel the texture of it between your fingers, mould it like clay, carve it like marble. Despite all the creative writing programs in the world, I am sure this ability cannot be taught. So I try to use the meanings of words, of place names, of personal names, to inform the narrative."

This is exactly what comes across. In this book, just for instance, Mawer uses the redolent names of Rome's churches to convey the grandeur, the historicity, the plasticity, even, of these monuments -- Santa Maria Maggiore, San Crisogono, Santa Maria dell'Anima, San Lorenzo fuori le mura. His descriptions of the picnics and outings that his mother, the wife of the German ambassador to Italy, made in wartime Rome evoke the splendid ruin of Italy's past. Such pursuit of civilized leisure even as the Axis war machine rains terror on the rest of Europe is reminiscent of Visconti's "The Damned."

Mawer the writer does not seem to have much use for fidelity in marriage. Perhaps there's too little drama in that and it's only the adulterous affair that merits a novel. Leo's mother, the wife of the German ambassador, and Leo's lover, the wife of the British ambassador (no subalterns here) conduct curiously parallel affairs in Rome. Their husbands are similarly cold and detached, the implication being that this is the type of personality that becomes a successful diplomat. The women characters are so much more vibrant, despite their frailty or instability or moral flaws.

Judas Iscariot, the apostle, is the author of the gospel that Leo comes to believe is genuine. But the novel is full of other Judases. Leo's mother betrays her lover in a way that can know no forgiveness (except from the betrayed), and Leo himself earns the title of Judas for turning his back on his priesthood and the 2,000-year history of Christianity.

The details of the gospel are interesting, how it transforms the narrative of Jesus' life simply by shifting a couple of small facts. Whether genuine or forgery, whether a truthful account or deliberate misinformation, the gospel of Judas has little chance of challenging the centuries-old Christian faith. History has too much invested in the received tradition to accept any other truth, even if factual. Yes, the gospel has information that could shake Christianity to its foundations, but it can never earn the credence that would allow this to happen.

Just where the author stands in all this become clear in his account of Leo's "pilgrimage" at the end of the book, which explains why the church will remain triumphant and why it's futile to seek the truth.

Faith has no object to begin with, so it cannot be exposed. As Leo's lover Madeleine tells him when he finally accepts the inevitable about their relationship: "Poor poor Leo, learning at last the only lesson life has to give." "What's that?" [Leo asks]. "That there is nothing else. that there is only you and me, now, at this moment and this place. All else is no more than empty hope."

Just a few pages later, when Madeleine asks Leo if he still believes after the discovery of the gospel, Leo tries to say that belief doesn't just "evaporate."

Madeleine responds: "Doesn't it? That's exactly what it seems to do in my experience. Evaporate, like a lake or something drying up, leaving nothing behind but mudflats and a few dirty puddles and a musty smell of superstition."

Mawer clearly doesn't set out to write bestsellers. This is anything but a potboiler, though it is a compelling read and has its own suspense. Nor will his willingness to mock Christianity and make an apostate priest his hero endear him to legions of believers. But the reader doesn't have to identify with Leo. The reader can see him as a flawed, in some ways tragic individual. The Gospel of Judas is a question, not an answer, and the reader can decide where the truth lies.