NICKEL PACKAGE by David Chill

This is the sixth in a mystery series.  I think it must have been free, because I have no others in the series, and I usually read series in order.

“A vicious killer is on the loose. Their targets are connected, but the motives are unclear. Brought in by a Fortune 500 company to do a simple background check, Private Investigator Burnside is suddenly thrown into the middle of a sea of carnage. And as he moves forward into this harrowing case, his own life is placed in mortal danger.

Desperate to find the culprit before they strike again, Burnside faces his biggest challenge yet, and one in which a single wrong move — or an ill-timed quip — could prove to be very deadly.

Filled with unexpected twists and turns, the story focuses on the glitz of the entertainment industry, but goes on to reveal the harsh corruption that lies seething beneath the surface.

Nickel Package embarks on another vivid tour through the eclectic world that is Los Angeles. From the tony corporate suites to the seemingly peaceful middle-class neighborhoods to the gritty urban neighborhoods, the reader is introduced to intriguing new areas and fascinating characters.

And it wouldn’t be a Burnside novel if it weren’t loaded with irreverent humor! Nickel Package delivers an exciting mystery that is both compelling to follow — and marvelous to read.”

I agree.  Not much to add, other than it was a fine, workmanlike offering.  Nothing overly special.  Burnside is an ex LAPD cop, and an ex high end university football coach, and quit the big life so he could spend more time with his lawyer wife and young son, which definitely makes a nice change from the usual hard-drinking, alcoholic, divorced loner P.I. trope.  The book title is from football.  Yeah, I had to look it up.

The nickel defense is a basic defensive formation that is designed to stop a pass play. The alignment features four down lineman, two linebackers, and five defensive backs. It can also be referred to as a nickel play, nickel package or nickel alignment. Also, it is known as a 4–2–5 or 3–3–5 defense.

I’m not really sure just how this applies to the plotline, but then again, I wasn’t giving this a close reading.  If it doesn’t jump out and whack me between the eyes, I just keep moving on.

 

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THE FUNERAL PARTY by Ludmila Ulitskaya

Books about Russian emigrés always seem to be a bit surreal, because, I think, of the nature of Russian people.

Official Description:   August 1991. In a sweltering New York City apartment, a group of Russian émigrés gathers round the deathbed of an artist named Alik, a charismatic character beloved by them all, especially the women who take turns nursing him as he fades from this world. Their reminiscences of the dying man and of their lives in Russia are punctuated by debates and squabbles: Whom did Alik love most? Should he be baptized before he dies, as his alcoholic wife, Nina, desperately wishes, or be reconciled to the faith of his birth by a rabbi who happens to be on hand? And what will be the meaning for them of the Yeltsin putsch, which is happening across the world in their long-lost Moscow but also right before their eyes on CNN?

As one reviewer put it, the book captures the divided soul of the emigrant, who lives eternally in a state of transition, never able to consolidate a singular identity. The characters are colorful, eccentric, and are the soul of the book.  There is no real plot, no real action, it is all about the characters.

Charming, and sad in its own way, it was a lovely read.

A FINE BALANCE by Rohinton Mistry

Wow.  That is all. Wow.  As in what seems to be every book written by an Indian writer and set in India, the country itself takes center stage as the main character, like an arrogant extra in a movie who keeps moving in front of the camera, blocking out the stars and those characters with speaking parts.  The corruption, the cruelty, the violence, the stupidity, the greed that is life in India (or does that sound like the USA?), is the supposed backdrop to the story of four people who come together by chance, and who themselves become the screen on which the story of India is set on display.

Dina is 30, widowed after only two years of marriage in her young twenties, and clinging precariously to a shabby three room apartment in an unnamed city by the sea, bedeviled by the landlord’s minion for the rent, which she is finding harder and harder to pay.  She decides to take in a paying guest, and her friend arranges for the university-age son of her school-days schoolmate who now lives in a far hill station, a rural area up in the mountains.  That will certainly ease the monetary situation.

But not quite enough. Her eyes are failing from the years of sewing she has done for a living, and she comes across an opportunity to sew for a wholesaler.  She gets the idea to hire a couple of tailors to do the sewing in her home.  In order to accommodate the sewing business and the paying guest, she moves her own things out of the bedroom into one of the other rooms for the guest.  There is a problem, because she is not permitted to either operate a business or have a paying guest in her home, and could easily lose her apartment.

Ishvar and Om, uncle and nephew, have come to the city from their remote and tiny village to find work and earn enough money to set themselves up in business in their village. They are from a very low caste, originally tanners and leather workers, whose brother/father sent them to learn tailoring with a Muslim friend in another city to escape the cruelty and violence against their caste in their own village.

Our final protagonist, Maneck, is 17 and going to school for refrigeration and air conditioning.

Each has a backstory, worthy of its own book, and taken together, form a powerful and compelling story that is hard reading.  Don’t look for a happy ending, because there is none, in a book whose main theme is the impossibility of escaping one’s fate.  There are sweet moments along the way, and some arcs that seem to point toward a sunny tomorrow, but as our hopes are constantly dashed for this sunny tomorrow, we Readers must keep reminding ourselves that this is FICTION, that these are not REAL PEOPLE, so get over it.

Profound and unsettling, this is a book that makes you put it down and say, enough.  And then pick it up again because you just have to keep reading.  Until the bitter end.

A Fine Balance was a Man Booker Prize Nominee (1996), Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize (1996), Scotiabank Giller Prize (1995), Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction (1996), Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book Overall (1996)CBC Canada Reads Nominee (2002), International DUBLIN Literary Award Nominee for Shortlist (1997).

 

BLACK by Russell Blake

An upbeat noir thriller.  Contradiction in terms? Perhaps, but this is fiction, and in fiction you can do what you want, right?

So, the official blurb is:  “Artemus Black. Perennially down-on-his-luck Hollywood PI whose Bogie fixation is as dated as his wardrobe. With an assistant who mocks him relentlessly, an obese cat that loathes him, a romantic life that’s deader than Elvis, money problems, booze, nicotine, and anger management issues, how much worse can it get? When he takes a case that’s supposed to be easy money working for a celebrity whose colleagues and surrounding paparazzi are dropping faster than interest in the star’s big comeback, the cakewalk turns ugly and Black finds himself in a web of deceit, betrayal, and murder – and bad hair days.”

Nobody calls him by his first name except his hippy dippy parents,(Spring and Chakra) who are still livin’ the dream of the sixties … but with money.  Mom sold her hobby craft to a big company for big bucks, while Artemus, (“Black.  Just call me Black”.) is struggling to make the rent ever since his glory days of song writing hits for his now ex-wife tanked when she stole them from him or something.  A few other failed gigs (limo service, etc) have led to a stab at a P.I. business, but hey, it IS LA, so anything is possible.

While the book isn’t exactly lite, it ain’t Raymond Chandler, either, what with the wise-cracking assistant, has-been gossip purveyor, now down on her luck living in a single wide in a sad excuse for a mobile home park, and Gracie, his landlady whose glory days were so long ago that the glow is hardly visible anymore, especially through the fumes of her bottle a day intake of something faintly resembling alcohol.

Gracie’s pugnacious demeanor belied by her frailty and the faint reek of perennial decay, or organs breaking down and time having its way.

He dresses in vintage 40s clothes, complete with fedora, and drives an elderly — very elderly … El Dorado convertible, about which

His maintenance ethos for cars was in accord with this physical fitness regime — a combination  of procrastination and denial.  Every morning, he gave it the old Texas tune-up .. started the motor and revved it until the lumpiness generally subsided.

Living in LA and moving in the culture of stars, wanna-be stars, celebrity, money, and appearances, he says to his cop friend

I probably shouldn’t say this, but I get the feeling that Hunter [his married client] was banging her.

[His friend replies]  Big deal.  People bang each other all the time.  This is Holly wood.  Banging is like ordering a latte or something, except for guys like you and me.  Everyone else in this town is out banging right now — while we’re sitting in this armpit talking about how your client is out banging.

Fun read, and there are a few more in the series, with clever titles like: Black Is Back, Black Is the New Black, Black to Reality, and Black in the Box.  I love clever word play.  Got to see if I can scare up a couple more in this series.

MURDER IN ADLAND by Bruce Beckham

“When a high-flying ad agency boss is brutally murdered on a company weekend in the English Lake District, Detective Inspector Dan Skelgill finds himself wrenched from his rural Cumbrian comfort zone.

As the investigation unfolds, DI Skelgill is led a merry dance between London and Edinburgh, at every turn confronted by uncooperative suspects – colleagues, wife and lovers of the deceased – each of whom are possessed of motive and opportunity.

Was this a crime of passion, a professional hit, or a cleverly calculated killing borne of out greed and jealousy? In this traditional whodunit, the case can only be solved by carefully piecing together the essential clues – but Skelgill is running out of time. The patience of his superiors wears thin, while the actions of an anonymous agent provocateur serve only to advance the moment when the killer must strike again.”

This first of the Inspector Skelgill Investigates series was certainly an enjoyable read.  All the things I like in a British police procedural — relatable DI, nice DS assistant, in this case a young woman, a nifty mystery that does not involve politics or international intrigue, and an ending I can almost solve before the ending.  hahahaha.

It is set in Cumbria, and OK I had to look it up, my British geography is a bit sketchy,  with forays into Edinburgh and London,  and a bunch of local dialect thrown in for interest, this is a good beginning to what I hope will be a good series.

Cumbria, for those of you who share my pathetic lack of knowledge, is  a ceremonial and non-metropolitan county in North West England.  It is in what is called the Lake District, and one of the attractions is Hadrian’s Wall.  Right across from the Isle of Man.  (I don’t know what it means when it says ‘ceremonial’ county.)

THE BIRTHDAY PRESENT by Barbara Vine

A good, solid, plot description;  “Ivor Tesham is a handsome, single, young member of Parliament whose political star is on the rise. When he meets a woman in a chance encounter-a beautiful, leggy, married woman named Hebe-the two become lovers obsessed with their trysts, spiced up by what the newspapers like to call “adventure sex.”
It’s the dress-up and role-play that inspire Ivor to create a surprise birthday present for his beloved that involves a curbside kidnapping. It’s all intended as mock-dangerous foreplay, but then things take a dark turn.
After things go horribly wrong, Ivor begins to receive anonymous letters that reveal astonishingly specific details about the affair and its aftermath. Somehow he must keep his role from being uncovered-and his political future from being destroyed by scandal.
Like a heretic on the inquisitor’s rack, Ivor is not to be spared the exquisitely slow and tortuous unfolding of events, as hints, nuances, and small revelations lay his darkest secrets hideously bare for all the world to see.
“The Birthday Present” is a deft, insightful, and compulsively readable exploration of obsessive desire-and the dark twists of fate that can shake the lives of even those most insulated by privilege, sophistication, and power.

I have to admit I kind of like the detached British story telling of a first person narrator, although other readers seem to find it off-putting.  This story has two narrators; one is the rather prim-but-kindly brother-in-law of Ivor Tesham, the somewhat sleazy pol, and the other is a somewhat deranged single woman, a friend of the tragically deceased Hebe, whom Hebe used as her alibi for going a-trysting with Ivor Tesham.  OK, maybe not deranged, exactly, but deluded, certainly.  In her thirties she is still single, and cannot understand why.  She keeps losing jobs, and can’t understand why.  When her friend Hebe dies, leaving behind a very young son and a thoroughly gutted husband, Jane offers to baby sit, and finally to act as live in nanny.  She is convinced they will love her and the guy will marry her, but the child obviously doesn’t much like her, and the husband does quite a bit not to be around her very often.

The contrast in the two narrators, one totally grounded, and the other living a life that does not really exist, (complete with a fictional lover she made up so people wouldn’t think she was a total dud),  actually almost meet in the distance, like parallel lines, as we learn of the self-delusion of the PM BIL, who believes he can buy his way out of his problems.  Both, as the British say, come a cropper in the end.

The birthday present of the title refers to a somewhat faddy practice at the time, of the lover arranging a fake kidnapping, with the kidnapped lover bound and gagged and delivered to the lover for a romantic interlude.  Presumably the kidnapped person is in on it, or has some idea of it.  Popular among folks who were of the more kinky-sex orientation.

Barbara Vine is the pseudonym of Ruth Rendell.  Rendell created a third strand of writing with the publication of A Dark Adapted Eye under her pseudonym Barbara Vine in 1986. Books such as King Solomon’s Carpet, A Fatal Inversion and Anna’s Book (original UK title Asta’s Book) inhabit the same territory as her psychological crime novels while they further develop themes of family misunderstandings and the side effects

THE WITCH ELM by Tana French

The author of the Dublin Murder Squad series of police procedurals has produced what is touted as a psychological thriller, but I always find that genre title problematical.  It brings to mind something dark and scary and waiting for something disgusting to jump out at you, but this work is nothing like that,  so I think of this more as a psychological treatment of a situation.

Here’s the official word:  Toby is a happy-go-lucky charmer who’s dodged a scrape at work and is celebrating with friends when the night takes a turn that will change his life: he surprises two burglars who beat him and leave him for dead. Struggling to recover from his injuries, beginning to understand that he might never be the same man again, he takes refuge at his family’s ancestral home to care for his dying uncle Hugo. Then a skull is found in the trunk of an elm tree in the garden – and as detectives close in, Toby is forced to face the possibility that his past may not be what he has always believed.

The Witch Elm asks what we become, and what we’re capable of, when we no longer know who we are.”

It is about Toby, yes, the most popular of three cousins.  Their fathers are brothers, along with Hugo, the never-married brother who stayed in the large family home, and eventually took care of his parents until their deaths, and continued to live there.  It was the central meeting place, ‘home’, to the entire family, for holidays and summers, and as the children of the three brothers grew a bit older, they got left to summer with Hugo at the house while the three couples went on vacation.  The three cousins became very close, even though as young adults they had gone separate paths, one a gay man living mainly in Europe, the girl choosing to marry a dull but solid guy and have kids, and Toby, working in PR for a prestigious art gallery.

Told in Toby’s first person, it reveals a fellow totally caught up in his own easy, lucky, life, with no real knowledge of what went on with his less popular cousins.  When it is learned that Uncle Hugo has brain cancer and not much time left, the family needs someone to stay with him to help out during his decline.  Toby, still reeling from the burglary in which he was severely beaten and suffered major head trauma, decides to stay with his Uncle, in a situation that should be healing for both of them.

Then, a skeleton was discovered in a 200 year old Elm tree on the property, a wych elm, huge and hollow.  The skeleton turned out to be a schoolmate of the three cousins, who disappeared during the summer after they finished high school, and it was assumed because of  circumstantial evidence that he had committed suicide by throwing himself into a local fast-running river.  His body was never found.

The second half of the book is about the police investigation, and what it brings out, and what Toby learns of his cousins’ lives, which was nothing like he had believed it to be.

Not a police procedural, not a thriller, but a possibly somewhat overlong examination of what it is to be who we are.

Some interesting info on the witch or wych elm:

The word wych (also spelled witch) comes from the Old English wice, meaning pliant or supple, which also gives us wicker and weak. An older name for the tree was “wych hazel”, perhaps based on the similar appearance of hazel and wych elm shoots (not to be confused with Hamamelis wych-hazels).

The Greeks believed there was a wych elm at the gates of the Underworld.   It sprang up where Orpheus stopped to play a lament after he’d failed to rescue Eurydice.   ‘In the midst’, Virgil says, ‘an elm, shadowy and vast, spreads its aged branches:  the seat, men say, that false Dreams hold, clinging beneath every leaf.’

According to Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, the ‘decoction of the bark of the root fomented, mollifieth hard tumors’.   Also, it ‘cureth scurf and leprosy very effectually.’

“Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be.”  – Shakespeare, Hamlet