Saturday, March 31, 2012

Capriati's Blood

Lawrence De Maria's crackling suspense yarn keeps the reader in thrall as first-person narrator Alton Rhode -- a cop turned soldier turned PI -- tries to hunt down a missing father whose daughter needs a bone marrow transplant to beat leukemia. Billy Capriati is the father and Rhode, just returned from combat and needing a client for his new PI business on Staten Island, takes on the case from the seductive Ellen James, a model and sometime actress devoted to her ailing 14-year-old daughter.

There's not much to go on, and as Rhode tries to track down the missing Capriati based on the few traces from his childhood and college days in Staten Island, he finds himself getting some unwanted attention from local Russian and Italian mobsters, who seem to have something to do with the sudden disappearance of Capriati shortly after the affair that left Ellen James with a daughter.

Both the narration and the dialogue are alive with wit and energy as De Maria, a longtime reporter for the New York Times, keeps the pace going through this relatively short (218 pages) thriller. Rhode is a sympathetic character possessed of a reckless integrity that makes him a soft touch for a part-time thug who is tailing him and a less sympathetic conspirator who dupes him. He takes romance where he can find it, falling not only for his client but for a swimming instructor/philosophy teacher at the college where he begins his search for Capriati.

De Maria renders the quirky charm of New York's forgotten borough with the affection of a native and also offers another convincing portrayal of Florida, the primary setting for his earlier Sound of Blood mystery, as Rhode closes in on his quarry. Telling details and vivid descriptions make both settings come alive.

There are numerous twists in the plot, some more convincing than others, but once you're along for the ride it's a simple matter to suspend disbelief as called upon. The plot needed perhaps one more layer or clever twist to qualify as a full-fledged novel, but in the age of e-books we no longer have to worry about length or complexity as long as the author, as he does in this case, serves up a completely satisfying read.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Open Season

Archer Mayor's police procedural featuring Joe Gunther has a lot going for it, so it took me a while to figure out why it was taking me so long to read it.

Here's what it has: A good, original plot, with some odd twists and turns; a wonderful sense of place in Brattleboro, Vermont; a sympathetic, well-drawn protagonist who narrates in first person with a distinctive voice; a great climax that really does, finally, keep you turning the pages.

After some reflection, I could put my finger on a couple of things that slow the book down. One is that the dialogue is at best prosaic and at worst wooden. There is no wit. The characters plod through their dull lines.

The other thing is that there are too many characters who don't contribute to the plot or add anything else meaningful to the reader. Gunther's love interest, Gail, is hardly even one-dimensional, intermittently there, and often inexplicably absent. The police chief, Brandt, is just plain annoying, fussing around with a pipe (who does that? why bother?) and in general contributing nothing to the novel except distracting the reader and slowing down the pace. A troubled colleague, Kunkle, likewise is really just a distraction, adding nothing of any significance to the plot and not really helping us understand Gunther.

Gunther's close friend and mentor, Frank, is a bit more interesting, but ultimately the reader understands too little of his motives and sees too little of him to feel anything like sympathy, let alone caring for him. Oddly, Gunther's nemesis as he is forced to reopen a three-year murder case -- known as Ski Mask because that's what he wears as he makes it clear to the police they jailed the wrong person -- emerges as a quirky character that in some way both Gunther and the reader actually do care about.

For me, the pluses outweigh the minuses and I can give the book 4 stars, keeping in mind the subjective nature of these ratings. I liked the book for the reasons listed and especially liked the climactic scenes in a driving New England snowstorm. However, having visited Vermont once with Joe Gunther, I couldn't say I'd hurry back for another adventure with him.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Lost History of 1914

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

With The Lost History of 1914: Reconsidering the Year the Great War Began, Jack Beatty has written not so much an alternative history of 1914 as an amplified history. There are things about the year leading up to and into World War I that we have forgotten or lost sight of in the accepted narrative that war was inevitable because of the ineluctable dynamic of Great Power politics. But Beatty contends that war was not inevitable.
Much like alternative history, the book offers many “What ifs … ?” In the author’s view, history is a game of inches and war could have been avoided if certain events had gone slightly differently. Beatty cites, in particular, not only the shot that killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, but also the bullet that killed the editor of Le Figaro in March, shot by the betrayed wife of peace-loving Joseph Caillaux, who might have become the premier of France only a few months later.
Beatty’s thesis is that the war resulted as much from domestic crises that propelled the various parties to war ― or crises averted that would have hindered war ― as from any international alliance or strategy. He describes what he sees as five paths that would have forestalled war. However, after reading the author’s account of possible revolution or coup in Germany, the fragmentation of the Austrian-Hungarian empire, the militarization of the United States in its Mexican intervention, the fragility of Tsarist rule in Russia and the festering sore of Ulster in Britain, along with that unruly domestic situation in France, the reader might be excused for thinking it was a miracle that war didn’t break out even sooner.
The fact is, for whatever reasons, the European powers were willing to countenance war because they had no idea just how terrible modern warfare would be. And, as Beatty so tellingly recounts, when its full horror became evident, the leaders of those countries lapsed into shocked denial and kept the details from the public, allowing the war to continue and take its terrible toll in lives and lost hopes.
The author saves his harshest criticism, though, for those leaders who have hardly been forgotten but who generally come across as callow and foolish in Beatty’s unflinching portraits. Not only Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas II, both of whom history has treated unkindly, but U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, French President Raymond Poincaré and British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. Austria-Hungary’s emperor Franz Josef is portrayed alternately as senile, silly and monstrously self-centered.
At this distance, it is perhaps easy to see their folly, but Beatty might have been better served ― since his goal was to take us back and immerse us in the confusion of issues that led to war ― by drawing somewhat more balanced portraits. After all, the contemporary perception of these leaders, especially those democratically elected, could hardly have been so one-sided. Who would understand the enthusiasm at the time for President John F. Kennedy, for instance, if one had to go on what intervening history has taught us?
For many Americans, in fact, much of this history will not be so much forgotten as simply overlooked in the skimpy education we get regarding the rest of the world. There is the delightful tale of the Captain from Köpenick, for instance, and what it tells us about German attitudes to Prussian militarism. And the ultimately sad story about Joseph Caillaux’s too-numerous dalliances and how that sent his wife to shoot a newspaper editor, preventing Caillaux from becoming premier and appointing his colleague Jean Jaurès as a foreign minister who would have avoided war at all costs.
Even the history of Pancho Villa and the Mexican Revolution, the Tampico Affair and the American occupation of Veracruz ordered by Woodrow Wilson is not likely to be familiar to casual students of American history, let alone how it predisposed the United States to enter the European war. Beatty also resurrects some of the early successes of Herbert Hoover ― notably his logistical achievements in providing food aid to Europe at war ― that most of us have forgotten in the wake of his hapless tenure as president.
Beatty is not an academic historian, but the extremely well-read news analyst for NPR’s “On Point” and a longtime senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly. He writes authoritatively about the complex domestic politics and international entanglements of the six major players in what was known as the Great War. It is not an easy task, and Beatty demands some engagement from his reader to follow the intricate details of people and events, many of which, as his title indicates, have been largely lost to history.
A war that was supposed to be over within weeks, World War I dragged on an agonizing four years. Beatty does not end his chronology with the beginning of the war in August 1914. Part of the lost history is indeed the failure of Europe’s ruling class to acknowledge their tragic mistake and to come clean with the public about what the war entailed once it became evident in those early months. Beatty leaves us with the dismal thought that it was Wilson’s belated entry into the war that prolonged it for an extra year ― giving us communism in Russia and a peace that led to fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany.
America’s much longer engagement in the two-front World War II has pushed this earlier conflict into the mists of time for us. Beatty’s book serves not only to recreate, in highly readable prose, some of the lesser known factors leading to World War I, but to recall vividly a tragedy whose lessons otherwise risk getting lost. Reading his account of the year the Great War began, we realize we cannot take peace for granted, we should not underestimate the costs of war and we must closely monitor our political leaders, for there is no guarantee they will do the right thing.
Darrell Delamaide,, is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist. A former Fulbright Scholar in Germany, he spent several years as a foreign correspondent in Paris and other European cities. His most recent book, The Grand Mirage, a historical thriller, was published in September 2011.

Monday, March 12, 2012


A small-town real estate agent might not be the obvious choice of hero for a mystery thriller, but Justin Scott makes it work. He endows Ben Abbott with a backstory as a financial wheeler-dealer who runs afoul of securities laws and spends prison time as a convicted felon. Then he returns home to northwest Connecticut to make a new life taking over his father's real estate business.

Abbott's past complicates his life. He feels like a liability to his sometime girlfriend, the politically ambitious "first selectman" of the fictional Newbury. He is looked upon with disdain by law enforcement officials, private detectives and eventually social connections. So the idyll of living in an inherited house on Main Street, running an inherited business in a town surrounded by friends and family is hardly perfect. Scott further complicates Abbott's story by making his mother come from the wrong side of the tacks, giving Abbott a whole raft of scurrilous cousins.

All this comes into play when Abbott is solicited to play private detective and videotape (the book first appeared in 1993, so there are videotapes, carphones, and junk bonds galore) a rich weekender's unfaithful wife. Abbott of course falls for the wife, destroys the tape and rushes to her aid when she is accused of murdering her lover. It is patently obvious who the murderer is, though Scott belabors the point in an entertaining fashion for another couple hundred pages. A subplot involving some of Abbott's disreputable cousins intersects at some points with the murder plot.

The strength of the book is the sympathetic hero and the Connecticut setting. Small-town New England life, with its cookouts, its simmering feuds, its stratified society, its quaint buildings and customs is all yours for a while. Abbott knows his flaws, but has inherited a "claptrap Puritan" nature that gives him some gritty integrity. He manages to string along three women -- that selectman, the adulteress, and even the female state trooper investigating the murder -- so we are to assume that our first-person protagonist has a magnetic charm.

This is another Poisoned Pen book, so a pattern is emerging. Competent prose with strong sense of place, quirky characters and plot, and an overall package hovering around four stars. Nothing startlingly original, but reliable.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Jackpot

David Kazzie has written a thoroughly entertaining thriller that shares many of the good qualities of Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen while introducing a wholly original voice. The story takes off from the first page and hardly lets you put it down.

As I posted recently in my writing blog, Kazzie succeeds at many levels. Part of what keeps you reading is the violence, the turns it takes and the suddenness of unexpected death. Part of it is the quirkiness of the characters; Kazzie takes the time to explore each character and endow them with surprising qualities. The concept -- what happens to the winner of a super-jackpot lottery -- is a great one, with lots of natural suspense. The writing, if not exactly scintillating, is much better than just competent.

But one of the main attributes is that from the first page you care about the characters. There is Julius, who is watching the lottery drawing with good-for-nothing cousin and realizes he actually has the winning number. There is Samantha Khouri, the ambitious associate who has just been passed over for partner at her law firm when Julius turns to her for legal advice about his ticket. You're on their side. But even the heavies, like Samantha's stressed-out boss at the firm, or the eccentric bounty hunter sent to find the ticket, draw more sympathy than antipathy from the reader.

The setting in Richmond, Va., is well-drawn without being intrusive. It is a place, a real place, but it is subordinate to the action. The riffs on the legal profession -- Kazzie has made something of a name for himself with his YouTube diatribe on the profession ("So you want to go to law school") -- are entertaining and just reined in enough.

As Samantha wrestles with her conscience to do the right thing by her client with this incredibly valuable lottery ticket, the story rockets to its conclusion with a twist that is a surprise even though Kazzie laid down a couple of clues on the way.

Kazzie is harsh in his description of ghetto life, but he is also harsh and unflinching in his portrayal of the hollowness of the 1 percent. There are attitudes and behavior that remind you this was the capital of the Confederacy, but the author does not club you over the head with it. It all comes across as being honest, and not offensive. It is a bit of a stretch to accept Samantha's naivete regarding her chances at the law firm given the particular history of her family, and this may be the weakest point of the plot. But there is so much else to like, the reader is more than willing to suspend disbelief on this point.