November 22


Archived Newsletter Content


Newsletter #46 June - August, 1999

Mystery Reviews
by Jeff Hatfield

        Jeff Rovin's Vespers (St. Martins Oct. '98, $23.95) is enjoyable reading -- well-paced, well-balanced, and well-assembled. The Vespers refers to Verperlionids, the breed of bat suddenly responsible for uncharacteristic swarming and vicious attacks in New York City.
        Early on Detective Robert Gentry, leading the Accidental Investigations Squad at Midtown South, is at home and runs to the aid of a neighbor. An extraordinary swarm of cockroaches pours out of the wall of the old woman's apartment, scattering in full flight. What could they possibly be running from? Simultaneously Dr. Nancy Joyce of the Bronx Zoo in analyzing the carcass of a half-eaten 600 pound deer found high up in a tree. And it appears the carcass wasn't dragged up, but rather dropped down to the branch. The two investigators team up to probe this inexplicable and increasingly terrifying phenomenon which races toward a violent climax inside the Statue of Liberty. (Nevada Barr's latest, Liberty Falling, is also centered on lady Liberty, and I wonder how ranger Anna Pigeon would have handled Gentry and Joyce's ordeal.)
        Tiny bites with needle teeth, blood, claws tangled in hair, smothering leathery wings, more blood, a permanent case of the willies -- and it gets much worse. Vespers is like a mutant cross-breeding of Benchly's Jaws, DuMaurier's "The Birds", Smith's Nightkill, Bayer's Peregrine, and Weber's Empire of the Ants.

        I've had the chance to beat the drum early over Wayne Johnson's subtle, stylish, and excellent Don't Think Twice (Crown $23.00 due June 10). On the most trivial level it's the title itself that's been tickling my brain stem. One of course wants to finish the Bob Dylan song line with "'s all right." (Van Siller's 1970 novel It Had to Be You hits me the same way -- and remains one of my favorite mystery titles.)
        Paul, the Chippewa protagonist and narrator, owns a resort lodge with cabins on an island on Red Lake in northwest Minnesota. And he's in danger of losing it. His floundering marriage to Gwen, whom he met back east at a suggested Ivy League college while majoring in philosophy and chemistry, just gets more dysfunctional. Plus he's haunted by the circumstances of his only child's "accidental" shooting death.
        The catalyst for this explosive mix comes when Paul is hustled by the local white cop to the Beltrami County Morgue to identify his Chippewa friend Al, who's committed suicide. The ritual native markings seem correct -- but where's his missing boot? Paul and Al also had a long and checkered past. Debts were owed. And could it be that this ties in somehow to his son's tragic death?
        It's admirable how quickly and how deep the reader gets into Paul's character. Then as pages turn, more layers are revealed. This is abetted by a large and very colorful cast of secondary characters. Many with frustrations of their own, especially since Paul keeps his own council to an extreme: "Christ, TP!" he said, "you know you can't tell your friends from a fucking hole in the wall. Anyone ever tell you that?" In literary terms it's a very interesting new view and fresh angle on the hardboiled character. Paul is in many ways the classic Raymond Chandler hero, who "...must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a weathered phrase, a man of honor...". But added to this is a certain kind of American Indian stoicism, a distinct attitude, and vigilantism.
        The plot is also teasingly revealed layer by layer. Timber, casino interests, and tribal politics are involved. And there are people with grudges. There are actually three mysteries involved, with the third hidden truth that Paul searches for being brought to light for the reader on the last page.
        The beautiful landscape of this part of the country provides a strong setting, and there is a provocative depiction of the lives of the Chippewa people. This novel was certainly completed before the news story broke of the program to restore the walleye population of Upper and Lower Red Lake. A two year fishing moratorium has been imposed, with the depletion due to over-fishing from commercial netting by the Red Lake Band and sports fishing. This has caused several area resorts to close.
        While an accurate picture is assuredly presented in Don't Think Twice you'll have to decide for yourself on the "political correctness". After all, the "A Word" is used a couple of times --A as in Apple. Red on the outside, white in the middle.
        Wayne Johnson has bounced around a bit (recently teaching at the University of Kansas) but has deep enough roots here so as to claim local author status. We're very much looking forward to his autographing appearance at Uncle Edgar's Tuesday, July 13th, 6:30 to 8 pm.

        We like carrying the historical naval adventure titles, and the latest notable novel is Dewy Lambdin's Jester's Fortune (Dutton $26.95). This is the eighth Alan Lewrie adventure, with the only real mystery in the saga being why the second, The French Admiral, remains missing as a paperback reprint. All six others are available at $5.99.
        Lewrie is captain of the 18-gun sloop Jester and part of a four-ship Adriatic squadron of British men-of-war in 1796. A short ex-corporal of French artillery named Napoleon has been made general and given an army. Soon he will sweep aside the Austrians, invade northern Italy, and send what Italian resistance there is into a panicked retreat. The neutral and decadent port of Venice is only alarmed for a moment before returning to its blasé and pleasure-seeking ways -- much to the frustration of the British command. To prevent Adriatic timber and naval and military stores reaching the French, the British make a devil's pact with Serbian pirates. Lewrie has taken cutlass cuts from pirates around the world and he knows this Mephistophalean agreement is doomed to failure. What he can't foresee is himself in the center of a bloody and barbaric climax.
        What adds a dimension to this story for today's reader is the Balkan background and setting. Place names like Serbia, Macedonia, Kosovo, Bosnia, etc. all play a part and were in as much nationalistic and ethnic turmoil then as now. Lambdin helpfully includes a sail chart for a full-rigged three mast ship and a points of sail graphic. There's also an afterword which helps the reader with the background and big picture.

        Expected late September is the latest Patrick O'Brian, Blue at the Mizzen, with Aubry and Maturin getting involved with Chile's fight for independence from Spain. Audio of the new adventure and earlier titles are
being made available.

        On the strength of the excellent and well-received four-movie series last April on A&E cable TV of C. S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower, Back Bay is reissuing his saga in attractive trade paperback at $13.00. Most recent to appear, Hornblower During the Crisis and Hornblower and the "Atropos", with another pair coming this fall.

        Yet to be mentioned in the newsletter, and presently in limited quantity, is the latest Sharpe by Bernard Cornwell, Sharpe's Fortress (UK HarperCollins $39.95). This completes the story of Sharpe in India (1803). The preceding title, Sharpe's Triumph, is also only out in British hardcover.

Mystery Reviews
by Gerri Balter

        It has to be extremely difficult to defend a member of your family on a murder charge, especially if you're not sure she's innocent. That's what happens to Caroline Masters in The Final Judgment by Richard North Patterson ($6.99). Caroline is happy with her life. She's up for a federal judgeship. She hasn't seen any of her family for years when she's asked to defend her niece who's been charged with murder. There are too many unhappy memories for her at home. While she looks into the murder, she begins to relive her own past and puts her future in jeopardy. There are two mysteries in this novel. One is, of course, who actually committed the murder. The other is why Caroline left home and didn't come back. Both will hold your interest.
        Usually when you read a mystery, you know that the main character or characters figure out whom the murder is. What happens, however, when each of the main characters suspects a different person? Who's right? That's what happens in Pentecost Alley by Anne Perry ($6.99). In this novel, Thomas Pitt investigates the brutal murder of a prostitute. At the scene, he finds a cufflink that belongs to Finlay Fitzjames, a well_to_do young man. While Thomas thinks he might be guilty, Charlotte and her sister believe someone else committed the crime. Thomas arrests one of the other suspects, a pimp. The man is tried, found guilty, and is convicted. Then another prostitute is killed in the same way. Is it a copycat killer? If not, then who did do it? Charlotte and her sister will do whatever it takes to prove that Finlay is innocent while Thomas Pitt feels guilty that an innocent man might have been hanged for a crime he didn't commit. Thomas is determined to find the real killer, no matter what because to him it doesn't matter who you are, no one deserves to be murdered.
        One of the things I liked best about this book is that Anne didn't make the prostitutes the stereotypical "hooker with a heart of gold". They are portrayed like real person, with good and bad traits. She also portrays their way of life quite realistically.

        What do you do when your old high school friend is accused of murdering her husband? That's what Kali Jacobs has to decide in Shadow of a Doubt by Jonnie Jacobs ($5.50). She is a lawyer who comes back to Silver Creek, the town where she grew up, to go through her father's belongings after he died. When Jannine Marrero's husband is killed, her mother asks Kali to help investigate the crime because the police believe Jannine did it. There's plenty of proof against her. It was her gun that was used to kill her husband. The alibi she gave was a lie. She argued with her husband before he was killed. He had a mistress. In spite of all that, Kali believes her friend. As she begins to investigate, her own life begins to fall apart and someone tries to kill her. Can she find the killer before she's killed?

        In The Spirit Caller ($5.99), Jean Hager does a wonderful job of telling the reader about Cherokee culture interwoven with a compelling mystery. Molly Bearpaw, Investigator for the Cherokee Nation, becomes involved when Talia Wind, aunt of one of her employees, Natalie Wind, dies under mysterious circumstances. The Sheriff wants to write the death off as a suicide. Molly thinks it's murder. Talia has made a lot of enemies among the Cherokee because she mixes New Age crystals with Cherokee religion, and because she tried to get the Cherokee women to become more independent and stand up to their husbands. Meanwhile, her own father who abandoned her and her mother when she was a baby wants to come back into her life. And he was at the scene of the murder. While she comes to terms with her feelings towards her father, she must investigate the murder to make sure that all the Cherokees involved are treated fairly. This is not one of those books where the murder takes place after chapter one. Jean Hager takes the time to develop the characters so that the reader knows them quite well before the murder takes place. It's both a fun and interesting read.

         Poor Myron Bolitar. In Harlan Coben's Dropshot ($5.50), he and Win, his friend and partner, are sitting at the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament, waiting for Valerie Simpson, a former tennis star, to meet them when she is murdered. Myron feels responsible and starts an investigation. What he finds out is that she knew information about a murder that occurred several years earlier, information that no one wanted her to reveal. In the meantime, he is trying to make deals for his other clients. There are people who want to take them away from him. When his life is threatened, he isn't sure which group is after him. Maybe they have joined forces to stop him. That doesn't stop him, of course. He has to find out the truth, no matter what. As in Harlan's other sports mysteries, you don't have to know about the sport involved. These mysteries are filled with richly drawn characters and a complex plot.

        Whether or not you're a Sherlock Holmes fan, I think you will enjoy Sherlock Holmes and the Red Demon ($9.95 trade paperback or $22.95 first printing hardcover) by Larry Millett. It's obvious that he has done his research. Part of what fascinates me about this book is how he shows what life was like in the United States and specifically Minnesota during the 1890s while weaving a complex and interesting mystery. What's especially interesting is Watson's description of St. Paul. If you're a Holmes fan, he proves how this is possible in a way that Holmes fans can appreciate and accept. If you're not, it's still a fun and interesting read. The year is 1894. An agent of the Great Northern Railroad, an employee of James J. Hill, made Holmes and Watson a fantastic offer of $50,000 to come to Minnesota and find out who is trying to burn down one of his railroads. Holmes accepts, not because of the money, but because the agent and Mr. Hill have read his monographs and admire his work. Once they arrive in Hinckley, they find plenty of suspects and a state in great need of rain. As Holmes and Watson begin their investigation, they find that someone seems to be anticipating their every move. Then the fire begins. Holmes and Watson try and save as many people as possible while the arsonist wants as many people to die as possible. Holmes and the arsonist, which the newspaper calls "The Red Demon", are forced into a face_to_face confrontation that only one person can win.
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