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Troubled Midnight by John Gardner

Publisher:  Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Minotaur  ISBN:  0-312-33721-3

Reviewed by Susan Illis, New Mystery Reader

Fellow detectives and secret lovers Tommy Livermore and Suzie Mountford are called to 1940s Wantage to look into the torture and murder of Colonel Tim Weaving and his married lover, Emily Burrage.

Tommy is surprised to meet his old school chum, Curry Shepherd, whom he'd believed dead, at the crime scene.  Suzie is also surprised by Curry, both by her attraction to him, and his eagerness to hire her.  Overnight, she has a new job, but to her disappointment, not a new lover, though her relationship with Tommy is over. 

Suzie and Curry return to London to question the murdered man's seemingly endless supply of lovers and fiancées, and Suzie finds herself volunteering to act as courier, hoping to entrap the murderer.  Her ploy is successful, in that that murderer is identified, but less so when he kidnaps her and she nearly becomes another victim.

Veteran author John Gardner's fourth book in this series (he's written over 50 overall) is a throwback to mid-century thrillers.  The enemies are obvious, the women comely, the men oversexed.  Troubled Midnight is flawed by its underlying sexism and speedy resolution, but it is easily forgiven, considering the vintage of the author.

 

 

Pursuit by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza

Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.  ISBN: 0805074392

Reviewed by Dana King, New Mystery Reader

Mysteries come in more flavors than Baskin-Robbins. There are cozies and hard-boiled mean streets stories. Puzzle plots where the reader never knows what’s going to happen next, and open plots where the reader knows everything but how it will end. Who-done-its and How’d-he-do-its. Stories that end with an erudite comeuppance for the bad guy, and those that end with an orgy of violence.

A few features bind them all together. First and foremost, the story must make sense. While mysteries are plot-driven, the characters must be drawn in such a manner as to make their actions plausible. Demure maidens don’t brutally kill a room full of people to just return to being demure maidens unless something has been presented to allow the reader to believe it could happen. Some strain this suspension of disbelief more than others, but it is ignored at the author’s peril.

There is also an implied covenant between author and reader. It’s understood there will be a certain amount of misdirection, but within boundaries. It’s simplistic to say that a gun viewed in Act One must go off in Act Three, but the gun must be acknowledged, if only as a red herring. Setting up a situation in the reader’s mind requires some sort of resolution, even if it seems unsatisfying.

Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Pursuit is another in his series of Inspector Espinosa mysteries. Garcia-Roza has a unique way of drawing the reader in, describing actions that could be sinister, or paranoia, depending on whose head you’re in when they’re described. Very little actually happens for much of the first half of the book. Clinical psychologist Dr. Nesse approaches Espinosa for help finding Nesse’s kidnapped daughter; the catch is that no one is sure she actually has been kidnapped except for Nesse, and his attitudes toward the alleged kidnapper are suspect. Nesse has a patient who may be trying to drive Nesse over the edge. Nesse thinks he is, and the reader’s insights into Jonas’ mind strongly implies he is, but why is not for us to know. At least not yet.

Hitchcock was a master at this technique, where nothing definite has happened yet and whatever does happen will be more than you expect; Rear Window comes to mind. Garcia-Roza weaves several possibilities into the fabric of the story as he looks in on various characters’ thoughts, providing glimpses that may (or may not) be important down the road.

The catch is that Hitchcock delivered the payoff; Garcia-Roza uses two-thirds of the book spinning his web to ultimately leave you hanging there. A family is destroyed. Why it was destroyed, and even by who, is never answered. Early on the vagueness isn’t a deal breaker; it’s enough that we’re told Jonas has a plan for getting inside Dr. Nesse’s head when it’s supposed to be the other way around. The story moves along well enough that finding out what the plan is, or why Jonas even needs one, can wait.

The implied contract between author and reader states that if the reader sticks with the book to the end, the author will eventually expose the plan, and its motivations. I finished the book two days ago, and I’m still waiting. That’s too long. It wouldn’t be so bad if this was a sub-plot, but the whole story is driven by the Jonas-Dr. Nesse dynamic. To let it fall by the wayside without determining its importance to the events that follow becomes too much like digging a dry well to satisfy the reader. Other storylines have the same issues.

Garcia-Roza cheats the reader in other ways, too. A character may go into a room and search it, find all sorts of potential evidence (including a gun), and the reader receives a detailed report of everything the character does with everything in the room except for the gun. It’s the only thing in the room we really care about, and our knowledge of the character to that point gives no indication of what she’ll do with it. Far from building tension, the reader is distracted, thinking “tell us about the gun,” instead of “what’s she going to do with it?”

Garcia-Roza has had a distinguished academic career in philosophy and psychology. It shows, for better and for worse. His knowledge of psychology is comprehensive enough that he doesn’t feel the need to brag about it. It’s woven into the narrative as inextricably as the individual letters in a word. The writing itself can sometimes read like a textbook discussing a bizarre case history, consciously trying to avoid titillating the students. This could be partly due to Benjamin Moser’s translation from Portuguese, but Moser is Garcia-Roza’s regular translator, and has also worked for Elie Wiesel, so he must be given the benefit of the doubt.

The characters in Pursuit suffer from a bit of academic overdose themselves. They tend to make speeches rather than talk, and it’s hard work at times telling who’s talking. Conversations with more than two characters may go a page at a time without dialog attributions. Reading a book in order to review it requires more than casual attention to the writing, and I still had to go over several sections, pointing out each line and thinking, “This is Espinosa, this is Leticia, Espinosa, Leticia…”

A lot of this can be forgiven is the end result is satisfying. New Mystery Reader recently carried this reviewer’s thoughts on Robert Wilson’s The Vanished Hands, which also required some effort for which the reader was ultimately rewarded. Pursuit doesn’t pull it off. It’s one thing to carefully craft plot points with enormous potential. The potential still has to be realized.

Many will say Pursuit ends as many real cases end, with as many unproven suppositions as there are definite conclusions. The sad truth is that, whatever else we might draw from reading mysteries, they are ultimately escapist entertainment. That doesn’t mean they can’t be artfully written, or have a message more profound than “crime doesn’t pay.” It just means they should have some closure we don’t get in our everyday lives. Pursuit will leave you still chasing that long after you’ve finished.

 

 

Jacquot and the Waterman by Martin O'Brien

Publisher: St. Martin's Minotaur ISBN: 031234998X

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader 

Former rugby star and now a chief inspector in Marseilles, Daniel Jacquot is about to get assigned to a very interesting case, that of the Waterman, a killer who targets young women, leaving the bodies in areas of water.  But the clues are few, and the investigation will soon place Jacquot and his temporary partner, the irritating inspector of dubious talents Gastal, on the trail of several other criminals, criminals with some very dirty secrets.  And as this complicated case continues to bleed into others, the Waterman will rack up a few more murders, leaving Jacquot chasing false leads and criminals of the most dangerous nature as he attempts to put a stop to the terror that has gripped his beloved city.     

It's always invigorating to read the beginning of a new series, with this first outing featuring Inspector Jacquot being no exception.  Jacquot, a winning and thoughtful character, adds much to this gripping and multi-faceted plot, and though at times the numerous subplots can get a little daunting, they too add a heady dose of complexity and thrills to this highly energetic read.  Here's your chance to get in on the beginning of a new series, one that's sure to be a smashing success, and one that comes highly recommended.

 

 

 

A Minister's Ghost by Phillip DePoy

Publisher: St. Martin's Minotaur ISBN: 0312339348

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader 

Professor and folklorist Fever Devilin has only been back to his home of Blue Mountain in the Appalachians for a few short years, but it doesn't take him nearly that long to discover that the quiet and innocent ways of the hill people have taken on a worldlier and, sometimes, more sinister turn.  It all starts with the death of his beau's two teenage nieces, hit by a train while sitting in their car at the railroad crossing. 

Lucinda, the woman he's slowly growing to love, fears that there must be much more to the story as anyone could've heard the train coming for miles, and so as Fever begins his own private investigation, he'll soon run into some very dangerous roadblocks.  First there's the odd reluctance to share information coming from the sheriff, who also happens to be Fever's best friend, then there's the malicious drunken preacher whose sudden appearance in the town seems to be followed by an unsettling portent of evil, and finally, there's the odd little man named Orvid who seems to have some nasty secrets of his own.  And so as the autumn winds turn colder and wetter, Fever will have to face the shadowy danger that threatens the place he now once again calls home.

This third in the series, and a first for me, is sure to be a winner for those who like a tale full of unnerving malevolence, eerily evocative settings, and fascinating characters.  Bursting with ambiance and malice, Depoy does a masterful job of portraying the menace approaching this small idyllic place, filling each scene with such a vivid and chilling atmosphere that one can almost feel the cold and damp of the approaching winter, not to mention the danger following right on its heels.  Blue Mountain is a place where there's more than one story be told, and Devilin is a character who has more than enough wits about him to handle whatever evil may come its way next; and we look forward to seeing just what that might be.

 

 

 

Catch Me When I Fall by Nicci French

Publisher: Warner Books ISBN: 0446578487

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader 

Holly Krauss, a beautiful young woman who has recently married and started her own business in London with her best friend Meg, has always been a little crazy.  Impulsively daring, there are really very few things that she's not afraid to try at least once, but lately things seem to have a gone a bit too far -with her behavior causing some very frightening rips in the very fabric of her life.  And the people she's hurt, and the damage she's done, may just come back to haunt her in a very big way.

This is a very unsettling book, and at times difficult to get through as we watch Holly's life slowly disintegrating as she spirals ever further into madness.  The havoc she wreaks and the payback she gets in return provide plenty of suspense, and what lies behind it all is a terrifying pattern of behavior that most will recognize for what it is pretty quickly on in the story.  But with that being said, it's also a story of hope and friendship, and just enough redemption to make it all worthwhile.  French delivers yet again, a compelling and disturbing drama in which reality provides a more disquieting tale than your usual serial killer novel, and one that will resound long after its read.