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Newsletter #45 March - May, 1999


Mystery Reviews
by Jeff Hatfield

        There are three master sniper thrillers coming in the next three months. Enough for a pattern - enough for a sub-genre. Three distinct times, places, and wars.
        Stephen Hunter's Time to Hunt (Island $7.50, April 13, 624 pp.) received a rave from me a year ago when it appeared in hardcover (signed copies still available at $23.95). Series character Bob Lee Swagger, a.k.a. "Bob the Nailer", Vietnam War hero is visited by his violent past. In an exciting narrative that moves toward a sniper duel with his Soviet counterpart, Swagger has to save himself, his family, and extricate himself from a shadowy web of government plotting and intrigue.
        Frederick Busch's The Night Inspector (Harmony $23, late April, 288 pp.) features maimed Union veteran and deadly sniper William Bartholomew in the gilt and dirt of New York City in 1867. Bartholomew survived a minie ball in the mouth and wears a custom mask or sometimes a thin veil. Much slimmer than either of the two other sniper novels, it also offers more sublime writing and language. The Night Inspector is also more difficult to pigeon-hole. It could be described as a Literary/Historical thriller. But because it is such a strong novel of character the "thriller" label should be dropped on the riverbank and the story slipped into the mainstream. Among those this first person narrator encounters: a fellow Civil War survivor and Boston newspaperman who wants to Write, a Creole prostitute who convinces him that black slavery didn't stop with the end of the war, and a deputy inspector of customs named Herman Melville. Dark, sorrowful, and actually displaying more Weltschmerz than the other two, it's a novel recommended for it's power but perhaps will prove too grim for some readers.
        Busch has an impressive string of nineteen novels that began in 1971. We are carrying his most recent and recommended novel of intense modern realism, Girls (Fawcett Columbine $12, '97). He's making the Twin Cities a stop on his tour for The Night Inspector. And while I don't expect Frederick Busch to pause at Uncle Edgar's, I do know there's planned advertising for the book in the Hungry Mind Review. So perhaps we can make a good guess as to where he will appear for a reading.
        If one equates war, as I do, with crime on a grand but inglorious scale, then the story of the Siege of Stalingrad (Aug, '42 through Jan. '43) must serve as an unapproachable benchmark. Gettyberg, The Somme, Pork Chop Hill, the Rape of Nanking - nothing quite compares in terms of brutality and carnage. While the Red Army still had its back pressed against the Volga and men were dying in hand to hand combat in alleys, hallways, and amid bombed-out factories, German foot soldiers called the fighting Rattenkrieg. Later, around Thanksgiving, when the freezing, starving, and lice-ridden Germans were surrounded in a surprising counterattack they called their situation der Kessel - the Cauldron. David L. Robbins uses this devastated backdrop in War of the Rats (Bantam $23, now postponed to July 7, 416 pp.).
        Nicknamed "The Hare", Chief Master Sergeant Vasily Zaitsev was a hunter in the taiga, a peasant who is now the Red Army's most effective and efficient killing machine. When this master sniper turns schoolmaster and successfully and lethally trains (on the job, so to speak) a cadre of marksmen (and women) the Communist propaganda machine grabs the opportunity. So the Germans quickly learn of this and respond be sending to Berlin for their best marksman and head of the German sniper school, SS Colonel Heinz Thorvald. Where Zaitsev learned his deadly craft shooting rabbits and deer, Thorvald polished his awesome skill with targets and skeet. This becomes a riveting tale of two master snipers - one Russian, one German - with orders to hunt down, target, and kill each other.
        But there's also the significant romance subplot between Zaitsev and his sniper student Tania Chernova. She's a Russian-American caught up in the war after unsuccessfully trying to get her grandparents out of Minsk before its capture. Chernova turns partisan and literally crawls out of the Volga to join the defenders of Stalingrad. She's luckier keeping her American citizenship secret.
        War of the Rats is based on real people and events. Its perhaps because of this that both the sniper duel and romantic plots end as anti-climax. But the drama-filled denouement succeeds in helping the reader overlook this fact. Thank goodness (though there's little goodness in the story) an historical preface and a map are included to give the big picture. And in the end, we go back to the beginning, where the Duke of Wellington of all people sums it up with a prefactory quote, "Next to a battle lost, the greatest misery is a battle gained."

Mystery Reviews
by Gerri Balter

        I tried to read two books with Japanese_American main characters. One I couldn't finish. The other one, Death in Little Tokyo by Dale Furutani ($5.99) kept me interested all the way to the end. The main character, Ken Tanaka, is a Japanese_American male who is interested in mysteries. He's a member of a mystery club where different members stage mysteries for the others to try to solve. Ken has rented office space in a run down building in Little Tokyo and has set himself up as a pretend detective, complete with his name on the window. When a woman comes in and wants to hire him, he thinks it's someone his actress girlfriend asked to play a joke on him and goes along with the gag. The joke's on him when the job is real and the man he visits as part of the job is murdered. He, of course, is the main suspect. As he tries to solve the mystery, he explains life in the Japanese_American community in Los Angeles. It's interesting to read about a world most of us know so little about. What I liked most about this book, besides the fact that I never figured out who did it, is that although the author established Ken as an intelligent man, he also made him realistic. He made the kind of mistakes that most people would make in his situation.

        Normally I don't read acknowledgements. They usually aren't very interesting. However, I recommend that everyone read the acknowledgement in Harlan Coben's Backspin ($4.99). Once you do, I think you will want to read the novel even if you aren't a sports fan. I admit I started reading Harlan's books because I enjoyed talking with him and someone, whose taste is similar to my own, told me I would enjoy the series. She was right. Sports aren't a major part of these novels. Harlan concentrates on the players and shows that they aren't any different from people who work in any other profession. Myron Bolitar runs MB SportsRep, a sports representation firm along with Win, an old friend of his. They are at the U.S. Open to recruit new clients. When Win's uncle asks Myron to help him and Win's cousin, Linda and her husband, Jack, by investigating the kidnapping of their teenage son. Myron begins to wonder if the boy actually was kidnapped especially when the kidnappers call from the local mall and don't ask for a ransom. What's even stranger is that Win refuses to help him. When Linda's husband is killed and the kidnappers release the boy, the police think that either Myron helped Linda kill her husband or she conned him. That makes Myron mad enough to make a determined effort to find out who is responsible. The suspects range from the very rich to a former caddy that may or may not be dead. Each of them has a secret that could make them the guilty one. Good luck in trying to figure out who it is.

        I have heard many complaints from people who grow tired of mystery series because the main characters never grow or change. That isn't true of Mary Daheim's Emma Lord series. Emma Lord is a single mother who inherited some money and bought a small newspaper in Alpine, Washington. Since the beginning of the series, Emma has been involved with two men, her son has gone off to college, members of her staff have left and been replaced by new people and they have had relationships, gotten married, and become pregnant. In The Alpine Icon ($5.99), Emma is suffering from the empty nest syndrome. Her son isn't coming home for vacation. Nor is her brother. The current man in her life, Milo Dodge, is the sheriff and has to work long hours. She doesn't have time to feel too sorry for herself when Ursula O'Toole Randall is found drowned in six inches of water. It isn't long before Milo and Emma find out that she's been murdered. Ursula had been born and raised in Alpine, left and then returned to marry a local man who had been married twice before. She also was one of the people running for the school council in a Catholic school. She wasn't a very popular or well_liked woman. Almost everyone who knew her had a reason to dislike her. Only one person hated her enough to kill her. While Emma and Milo look for her killer, the killer is watching them, waiting for a chance to stop them.

        Hamish Macbeth is an unusual police officer. He isn't traditionally handsome. He is lazy. He poaches fish. He isn't ambitious. Yet I like him even though I'm not sure I can explain why. Maybe it's because he isn't a traditional cop yet is intelligent enough to find out who the criminals are. In M.C. Beaton's Death of a Macho Man ($5.99), Hamish accepts a challenge from a bully that moved into the small Scottish village of Lochdubh to a fight. Hamish is soon sorry that he accepted the challenge especially after the bully is found dead. Hamish's superior office, who doesn't like him, blames Hamish and tries to get him fired. By lying Hamish manages to save his job, but is prohibited from investigating the murder. That doesn't stop him however. He finds that the dead man has been involved with several villagers, including one of Hamish's friends. The novel doesn't end when Hamish finds the killer. Because he disobeyed orders, he could be fired. This time lies won't save his job. Is this his last case? If you're looking for a lightweight, fun to read book, I suggest you try this one.

        In Honky Tonk Kat ($6.99) by Karen Kijewski, PI Kat Colorado is hired by a friend of hers, country_western singing star, Dakota Jones, because someone is sending her threatening notes. Kat has plenty of suspects to choose from, Dakota's ex_husband, a relative who Dakota knew nothing about until recently, members of her band, fans and her father. Or is Dakota doing this for publicity? Kat hasn't seen her friend for several years and people change. While Kat sifts through all the clues, the violence escalates. Karen Kijewski is good at developing characters and drawing you into their lives to such an extent that you forget all about solving the mystery.

        I like reading about older people who lead a rich, full life. That's probably why I enjoy Stephanie Matteson's books about Charlotte Graham, a 70_something former actress.
        In Murder Under the Palms ($5.99), Charlotte goes to Florida to attend a charity ball inspired by the French passenger ship Normandie that burned in New York Harbor during World War II. She had sailed on the ship in 1939. During the voyage, she started a romance with Eddie Norwood, a bandleader and balladeer. Afterwards She lost track of him. They meet again during the ball. When a jewelry designer is killed during the ball and Charlotte's godchild is one of the suspects, she and Eddie decide to investigate the crime. They find that the murder is related to the fire aboard the Normandie. Everyone thought it was an accident. They find out that it was an act of sabotage. The answer has to do with what she and Eddie remember about the Normandie and what happened the day of the fire. Can they reclaim memories that are over 50 years old before it's too late? Both Stephanie and Eddie are portrayed as vibrant, alive people in spite of the fact that they're no longer young. They have to use their intelligence instead of their muscles.

        I don't know about you, but more often than not when someone tells me, "You just have to read this book. You'll love it," I end up hating it. Not this time. Richard North Patterson's Silent Witness ($7.99) is filled with rich characters and lots of plot twists. Figuring out who did it isn't the most important mystery in this novel. The bigger mystery is what the protagonist, Tony Lord, will do once he finds out. At age 17, Tony Lord is living a life most teenagers would do anything to have. He's a jock, up for a scholarship at a prestigious university, dating one of the prettiest girls in town, and well liked by everyone. His life falls apart when his girlfriend is raped and murdered and he becomes the prime suspect. He's never convicted, but most people think he's guilty. He leaves town, vowing never to return.
        He becomes a criminal lawyer, defending people who are guilty of murder. His justification for this is that they are entitled to the best defense and that none of them have ever committed another crime. When his former best friend becomes a suspect in the murder of one of his students, Tony comes back to defend him. The similarities between this murder and the one he was accused of committing years ago come back to haunt him. However, he's sure his friend is innocent just as he was innocent. In order to defend his friend, he has to ruin the lives of people he knows. He begins to question the way he practices law and what he has to do to prove his friend's innocence.
        Then he finds out who killed both girls. The question is what will he do now.

        Midsummer Malice ($5.99) is the best and most complex Peggy O'Neill mystery that M.D. Lake has done to date. He takes a story with multiple points of view and makes it one that is almost impossible to put down. Local people will have an added bonus of recognizing the locales where the action takes place.
        While Peggy O'Neill, a campus cop, makes her rounds, she meets Steadman George, who lives aboard a showboat that is anchored on the Mississippi River and is used as a theater. He tells her a story about Bernie who has come back after twenty years to find out about the daughter she sold twenty years earlier. What he didn't tell Peggy is that Bernie accidentally gave him a clue as to who the baby's father was. Steadman calls the man, a minister who wants a political career and threatens to tell everyone he fathered an illegitimate child unless he gives Steadman money. The minister tells his brother who decides to kill Steadman, Bernie and her daughter to keep the secret from coming out. Steadman is killed in such a way as to make it look like a suicide to everyone except Peggy. She begins to investigate as the killer begins to look for Bernie and her daughter. Who will find them first? Who will survive?

        What I liked the most in Downsized to Death ($5.99) is that Joyce Christmas portrays Betty Trenka as a realistic middle_aged woman thinking about her own mortality and grieving over the death and/or illness of her peers. It seems that the plot is divided into two parts, each with no connection to the other. But the reader knows that there is one. Part of the fun is trying to figure out what the connection is. Betty is one of those people who are forced to retire from her job in Grafton, Connecticut before she is ready. She is surprised to hear from Sid Edwards, Jr., the man who asked her to leave. It seems that her boss, Sid Edwards, Sr. has had a stroke Junior wants to her return to help clear out his father's office. Although she doesn't understand why he can't do it himself, she agrees so that she can visit her former boss.
        Then a Japanese man that she has met once is killed in East Moulton where she now lives. Although she isn't a suspect in this murder, she is one of the last people who have seen him so the police question her.
        After she starts the job in Grafton, she finds a file in which there is a key to a safety deposit box. She opens the box and finds jewels, other presents and a note from Sid Edwards, Sr. telling her that he bought them for her. She had always loved him, but he was married so she never did anything about it. When Sid's wife is killed and the contents of the safety deposit box is stolen, she has to investigate to find out what is happening because she is a suspect in the murder and the contents of the box mean a great deal to her. Can she figure it out and get the presents back before the murderer targets her?

        Although I knew little about antiques, I do know what a Ming vase
is. That's part of the mystery in The Ming and I by Tamar Myers ($5.50). When Abigail Timberlake finds the vase after the woman who tried to sell it to her is murdered. Her friends are the ones who point it out to her. She doesn't tell her police boyfriend about it until it's too late. Someone has stolen it from her. She finds out that the dead woman has a connection to the Roselawn Plantation, a Confederate Home, where tours are given. Through her mother's connections, she meets the people who work there and is hired to look at the furniture in the home. The board of directors wants to know what pieces are antiques and what they are worth. She takes the job, hoping it will help solve the mystery. However, there is someone who doesn't want her there. As the Ming vase comes and goes, the killer is coming closer to killing Abigail. Will she find out what's going out before it's too late?

        Even though Christmas is over, I still enjoy reading stories about the holiday. In The Last Noel ($5.50), Jean Hager writes a story about what goes during rehearsal for a Christmas pageant. She does an excellent job of introducing all the characters that are involved in the murder so that the reader gets to know them quite well. In fact part of the mystery for me was who the murder victim would be. There was more than one likely candidate. Once the murder is committed, there are plenty of people who could be guilty. Tess Darcy is the amateur sleuth who tries to find out who the killer is. Although she is the owner of bed and breakfast house, most of the story takes place in the church and the homes of the various suspects. Most of them are people she thought she knew quite well until after the murder. Then she finds out how little she knows about them. Some of their secrets could be worth killing to keep.

        Having worked in the American Indian Studies Department at the University of Minnesota for almost ten years, I know enough about the Ojibwe to be impressed by the amount of research William Kent Krueger must have done to portray the people so realistically in Iron Lake ($23.00, $6.99 paperback due early May). Kent does a fantastic job developing the characters in this novel into realistic, multi_faceted people that I found myself caring about. The plot kept me reading until late at night because I had to know what was going to happen.
        Cork O'Connor is the past sheriff of Aurora, Minnesota. When people start dying and/or disappearing, there are those who come to him for help. He decides to find out what is going on because he knows something evil is in town, something that is after him too. He learns that there can be as much crime in a small town than there is in the big city. The difference is that he knows the victims and the criminals, and they know him and his family. Although he is separated from his wife, she and their children live in Aurora. Their lives could be sacrificed to keep him quiet.

        Too often, for me, humorous novels don't work because the humor seemed forced, not natural. Not Death, Lies, and Apple Pies by Valerie Malmont ($5.99). The humor is an intricate part of the plot without overpowering it. I could really relate to Tori who becomes involved in small town events because she wants to be accepted.
        Tori goes to Licken, a small town in rural Pennsylvania, to visit her boyfriend and to become accepted by the townspeople. Before she realizes what's happening she becomes a judge in the Old Fashioned Apple Butter Festival and gives a talk to the local reading group. When Tori finds Percy Montrose dying, he tells her he has been poisoned. The problem is that no one believes her because he has been suffering from aplastic anemia and ostensibly that's what killed him. When others start dying, she is taken seriously. The problem is that Tori is too involved with what is happening in Licken and the surrounding area. Tori has also found a large field of marijuana, and her boyfriend is looking for the people involved the growing and selling of the drug before they come after Tori. After surviving attempts on her life, Tori decides to take matters into her own hands and find out who is trying to kill her and why before it's too late.

        Violent Crimes ($6.99) is a police procedural written by Hugh Holton, a Police commander in the Chicago Police Department. He definitely knows about how police departments work. Although it's no secret who is committing the crimes, the mystery is how the police are going to catch him and how many people will he kill before being caught. Part of the story takes place in the 1970s when the killer begins his life of crime. Most novels end after the criminal is caught or killed. This novel tells the story of what happens to people after a crime is committed and what happens when the criminal returns to wreak havoc on those who he thinks have wronged him.
        Commander Larry Cole is investigating the murder of a soldier in Chicago. It turns out that the soldier was selling high tech weapons to the highest bidder. While Cole and his team is trying to find out who that is, more people are being killed. Each one is warned ahead of time. None of them take the warning seriously. The more Cole learns, the more he remembers a rape case that took place in 1976. Even though there doesn't seem to be any similarities, he wonders why one case reminds him of the other. If he doesn't find out the answer soon, he may be the next victim.

        When Benni Harper marries San Celina, California's Police Chief Gabe Ortiz, she expects that she will be reliving the same kind of happiness as she had in her first marriage. In Earline Fowler's Kansas Troubles ($5.99), Benni founds out Gabe is nothing like her first husband, and second marriages are different than first ones. While she and Gabe are adjusting to marriage, they travel to Kansas to meet Gabe's family and friends. While Benni's family is warm and open, Gabe's family is more reserved. She does her best to try to fit in. When Tyler Brown, an aspiring country singer, is murdered, Gabe's friends are suspects. Because Gabe has no jurisdiction in Kansas, he can't investigate officially. Benni is curious to find out what happened to the young Amish girl who left her roots to become a country singer. Gabe is worried about Benni's meddling and wants her to stop. Benni is angry that Gabe won't share his past with her. Benni begins to wonder if her marriage was a mistake. When Benni's life is threatened, they overcome their differences and work together to find out who the guilty person is. They begin to learn to make their marriage work. Benni realizes that there is more than way to have a happy marriage.

        I think that Murder in the Air by Ellen Hart ($5.99) is the best book in the Sophie Greenway series, so far. There is more than one mystery in this novel. As in most mysteries, I wanted to know who did it. I also wanted to know if the suspect is alive or dead and if he's alive, who is he. Ellen tells the story of what happened in the past through the suspect's letters to his mother interspersed what is happening now. Even though I was sure I knew all the answers, I kept on reading because I enjoyed reading about the characters, and I had to know if I was right. Although I did figure out who the murderer was, I was completely wrong as to what happened to the man accused of the forty_year_old crime. It is a fun read, especially for those who enjoy mystery radio series and/or who know St. Paul well.
        The original murder took place in 1958 when Justin Bloom is accused of killing Kay Collins. He escapes to Europe where he was supposed to have died. Forty years later, his mother, Heda Bloom, buys the radio station in St. Paul where Sophie's husband, Bram, works as a broadcaster. She revives an old radio serial, "Dallas Lane, Private Eye." And the case he is trying to solve, of course, is the murder of Kay Collins. When the man who does the voice of Dallas Lane is murdered, Bram takes over the role. There are those who find it difficult to separate the role from the man playing it. When someone who has proof of who the murderer is contacts Bram, both he and Sophie find themselves involved in the investigation.

        Mandarin Plaid by S. J. Rozan ($5.99)is not only a good mystery but also gives an accurate picture of what it's like being a first generation American. The main character is Lydia Chin, a New York P. I., has to contend with two cultures, neither of which is willing to accept her for who she is. Her mother and brothers wants her to find a safe job and marry a nice Chinese man. Most non_Chinese look at her petite figure and don't believe she can take of herself. The author gives us a view of modeling that is different from the one is portrayed in the fashion magazines, television, and the movies.
        Lydia's brother, Andrew, has gotten her a P.I job that he was sure was safe. Genna Jing, a fashion designer, has had her design book stolen. The thief is asking for $50,000 for the return of the book. All Lydia needs to do make the ransom drop. Everyone thinks it will be simple. Instead, shots are fired and the ransom money disappears. As Lydia and her partner, Bill Smith, begin to investigate the shooting and the theft, they learn that everyone involved has something to hide from Genna's boyfriend, John, to the police. When John is kidnapped and held for ransom, Lydia finds out that learning some secrets can lead to murder and family can come to the rescue in ways you might never imagine. The plot is complex and fascinating. The characters are wonderfully drawn.

        Usually when the murder doesn't take place by the end of the first chapter or two, I lose interest. In Silent Words by Joan Drury ($10.95), the murder doesn't take place until Chapter 15, and I didn't care. The first thing that grabbed my interest was her words about the death of a parent. She managed to articulate the way I felt when my mother died. The characters were the kind of people I found intriguing. Having lived all my life in the Twin Cities, I never thought about the fact that rural Minnesota has as many different kinds of people living there as does the Cities. The author has a writing style that makes you want to read more even when all she's doing is describing a house or car. Although the murder takes place long after the beginning of the novel, there are other mysteries that grabbed my attention. Although this may not be considered a traditional mystery, it is a fascinating read and a great change of pace.


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