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.