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City Of Shadows by Ariana Franklin

Publisher: William Morrow ISBN: 0060817267

Reviewed by Dana King, New Mystery Reader

Including famous people in historical fiction is a tricky proposition. Someone always says, “Napoleon liked blue better then green,” or “I knew Jack Kennedy, and you’re no Jack Kennedy.” (Maybe Dan Quayle’s qualifications to be vice-president weren’t completely fiction, but they were close enough.) This line has blurred in recent years, due to the unprecedented ability of Jayson Blair, Jack Kelley, and James Frey to pass complete fabrications (i.e. fiction) off as fact. Why shouldn’t fiction borrow as much fact as necessary to create a good story?

That’s what Ariana Franklin has done with City of Shadows. Mining the dormant vein of rumors about Grand Duchess Anastasia’s escape from Bolshevik assassins, Franklin has created a tale consistent with known facts and prevalent rumors to create a tapestry of fraud, duplicity, and murder in Berlin during the Nazi rise to power.

Nikolai Potrovskov re-creates himself as royalty in the post-Revolution upheaval in Eastern Europe; no one can prove he isn’t related to the Romanovs. Nick hears of an unnamed woman held in Dalldorf insane asylum who is proclaimed to be Anastasia and sets out to make a fortune by propping her up as the real deal. The fact that the person offering the woman as royalty is another inmate is unimportant; what matters is what Nick can get people to believe.

Nick’s plan is complicated by the mysterious man who appears every six weeks to haunt the asylum. He may be Cheka, he may be the figment of an overactive imagination. The alleged Anastasia is removed from Dalldorf and situated in a flat with Nick’s secretary, Esther, and Natalya, an exotic dancer from one of his clubs; the every third fortnight apparition follows. When Esther is assaulted and another woman killed by a person or persons unknown, happily married Inspector Siegfried Schmidt finds himself working with, and inexplicably drawn to, Esther.

The plot is intricate, with all the requisite twists to hold the interest. Franklin makes the harsh realities of the Weimar Republic part of the story, then folds them into the even harsher realities of the Nazi rise to power. Her characters are driven to overcome their situations, not be driven by them. The principals are shaped by what they have endured, yet retain the drive and courage to try to shape future events to their liking. Rarely has a more sincerely courageous bunch been brought to life on paper.

Good plot, excellent, well-drawn characters; why only three-and-a-half bolts? City of Shadows just misses on several counts, pacing prime among them. Scenes that demand more time are passed over too quickly while other passages threaten to wear out their welcomes. There’s nothing bad about this book, but the writing isn’t riveting enough to keep the eye from wanting to skip forward until something happens again.

It’s a strange thing, pacing. The last book I read was Lee Child’s The Hard Way. At least as much actually happens in City of Shadows as in The Hard Way, yet Child’s book seems to move quicker. It’s a hundred pages shorter, true, but there’s more than that to it. Franklin hasn’t yet mastered the innate ability to wrap you so tightly in a book that you forget about everything else. There’s always a bit of distance between the reader and the characters. In a book so dependent on the motivations and suffering of its protagonists, this is a substantial weight to carry.

No matter. Any time spent reading City of Shadows is well invested; the above criticisms may be more of personal inclination than refined taste. The look into an evolving Germany is fascinating, and some of the descriptions of the political climate may chill those who see a modern erosion of civil discourse. (“Schmidt was suddenly...sick of living through crises; sick of political broken reeds; sick that he hadn’t even voted in the last election because his chosen [party] had proved themselves unfit to be voted for.”)

City of Shadows is a well-crafted and –researched look into depravity, the human instinct to survive, and the fermenting vat of the Twentieth Century’s great cataclysm, and well worth reading.



The Big Boom by Domenic Stansberry

Publisher: St. Martin's Minotaur ISBN: 0312324707

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader

When San Francisco PI Dante Mancuso is asked to look into the disappearance of Angela Antonelli, an ex girlfriend from his old neighborhood in North Beach, he's quick to agree having known and cared for the family.  And when her body is discovered in the churning water of the bay, Dante is naturally quick to realize it's nothing less than murder that put her there.  Too young to die, she had before her death been working in the slowly disintegrating tech market, working for a company like many others whose product was merely a nebulous thought at best, and one that had ties with her very own father, a man who has his own dark connections.  And it doesn't take long until these connections begin to show themselves in increasingly threatening ways, but Dante and his boss have come this far and have no intention of turning back.     

Set against the background of the tenuous time of the tech crash, when instant wealth turned just as quickly into instant poverty, where the old neighborhoods in this conflicted city changed with the tides, Dante searches for the truth, one that might just take him back to his own dark side, one that is much too close and seems to be waiting to reclaim him once again. 

Stansberry does an amazingly convincing job in setting the tone of fear and desperation that marked this period, especially in the Bay area where inflated wealth butted heads with crashing poverty until the empty truth behind this fanciful house of cards was finally revealed once and for all, creating the perfect backdrop for this ominous tale of suspense.  And when throwing Dante Mancuso into the mix, a man with his own disturbing secrets from a questionable past, you have a read that easily gets under your skin.  Definitely recommended if you like your stories full of menace and gloom mixed with an erratic humanity and thoughtfulness, this one has all that and more.      




Dead Before Dying by Deon Meyer

Publishers: Little, Brown, ISBN: 0316000132 

Reviewed by Narayan Radhakrishnan, New Mystery Reader

A couple of years no one in the English speaking world had heard of Deon Meyer. A writer of repute in Africa, his books were a big rage therein. But unfortunately as they were in Afrikaans, the readership was restricted to one continent alone. A couple of years back Little, Brown translated the books to English and Heart of the Hunter and Dead at Daybreak became huge worldwide successes…

Thus I was one of the early few to be hooked onto Deon Meyer’s works and I enjoyed them for their fast paced readability and tense action, so when I got hold of a copy of Dead Before Dying, I immediately started reading it- and its one hellova read.

I don’t  know whether the author intends to make Joubert a series character or not- with sequels and prequels, but take it from me-with this kind of talent, this author is sure to be a big international success either way.

Three men are dead. The deaths are seemingly in no way interconnected- the victims do not know each other and there is no connecting web. But in the death pattern they share a common factor. All three are murdered using a century old German revolver, with bullets that splinters not only the flesh but also the bone. And Captain Mat Joubert of the Murder and Robbery Squad of South Africa is called on to investigate. Joubert who has yet to fully come into terms of his wife’s death reluctantly starts investigating, and his investigation takes him through a ride and an adversary, whose ingenuity is one sense baffling and in another sense truly motive ridden.

A grand read, with a grand end- Deon Meyer’s Dead Before Dying is a recommended read and a worthier buy.