CHRISTINE FALLS by Benjamin Black

Irish novelist John Banville, writing  under the pen name Benjamin Black, has created a crime series that is both detective work and literary fiction, a fine work, interesting and gritty.

It features pathologist Quirke, (who seems to have no other name,so I am assuming it is his last name),  a widower of 20 years who still mourns his wife and dead child.  He works in the morgue of a Catholic hospital in Dublin along with his brother-in-law who is a famous ob-gyn.   The BIL is married to the sister of the dead wife.

Quirke comes upon his BIL in his (Quirke’s) office late one night writing in a file of a young woman brought in, dead of a botched abortion.  But when Quirke goes to view the body, it is gone.  This starts off a casual investigation in which Quirke tries to find out what became of the body.  It becomes more serious, as it appears it was not exactly an abortion, but a botched delivery, in which the baby seems to have disappeared.

The story moves to the Boston area of the USA, and an orphanage and a young childless couple who are given a baby to raise.  It becomes clear that this orphanage and others like it have been established to receive unwanted Irish babies to informally adopt them out, to be later taken back and educated to be priests and nuns.   A source, as it were, to maintain the Catholic clergy.

Quirke’s family is involved, lots of skullduggery and unpleasantness ensue as Quirke more or less stumbles upon clue/fact/incident and is threatened by unknown assailants to stay out of it.

Great story, dark, noir, twisty, and eccentric as only Irish writing can be.

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FELLOWSHIP OF FEAR by Aaron Elkins

After reading a  book further along in this series and liking it, I decided to start at the beginning of the 18-book series.  (Don’t panic.  I may not get through all of them.  I may not actually live that long.)

The opener of the series featuring the likable Gideon Oliver, a  forensic anthropologist,  finds him on his way to Heidelberg, Germany, to take part as a guest lecturer for a teaching fellowship consisting of a two-month series of lectures at the United States Overseas College (USOC), which serves those stationed at US military bases in Germany, Sicily, Spain, Italy and Holland.

Keep in mind, this was written in 1982, and the Cold War was still chilly-ish, and the I Spy-You Spy thing was still  the Real Deal.  Dr. Oliver, (who I can’t stop picturing as Tom Hanks in The DaVinci Code), affable, self-effacing, improbably fit, lands in Heidelberg and lands in the middle of an internecine clusterf**k within the NATO Security Directorate (NSD)’s counterespionage bureau, and the KGG’s two spy bureaus.

Each organization thinks he is a spy who is courier-ing (is that a word?)  secret information around Europe, and he is attacked a couple of times,  his room is searched a couple of times, and all in all, it’s a pretty big leap from mild mannered professor to Espionage Agent.

The frantic search is on for who really is the mole in the USOC organization, and frankly, even I — the worst detective in the world — figured it out.

Some interesting side identifications of bodies through only a few bones, and of people’s origins, through language use and cultural mannerisms.  Which is why I am reading this series, not because the mysteries are all that fantastic.

Not bad, not great either,  but definitely readable.  On to the next.

A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF by Lawrence Block

This is the last of the Matthew Scudder detective series.  I disliked the previous two because of the unwanted sections giving the viewpoint of the serial killer.  But in what may be the final Scudder book, we are back to old times, old style.

Scudder is now in his sixties, still sober, still married to Elaine, and sitting around with his old friend and criminal, Mick, who has now married the daughter of the folks murdered two books ago.  He has also cut way back on the drink, some days not drinking at all.   As the two get to reminiscing, Scudder remembers old High-Low Jack, Jack Ellery.  They were in grammar school together for a couple of years before Scudder’s family moved, and ran into each other a couple of times since, with Matt having joined the police force, and Jack having taken a criminal route.

But when they meet once again, about a year after Matt is sober, it is at an AA meeting, and Jack has been sober longer than Matt, a couple of years at least.  He is working the Steps, the twelve steps of the program which have been created to help a person get sober and remain sober.   He is working on the 8th and 9th steps, where one lists all those one has harmed by one’s drinking, and in the 9th step, goes to each one to make amends.

He is found one day in his rooming house room, shot twice, once in the mouth, and it is not suicide, unless you consider him a very determined person.   The police have nothing, and the case goes cold, but Jack’s sponsor has a dilemma which he discusses with Matt.  He has the list of persons harmed written by Jack, and if he turns it over to the police, they could involve a lot of innocent people with dicey backgrounds.  If he doesn’t turn over the list, perhaps the killer is among those on the list and will go free.  He asks Scudder to investigate the people on the list in order to clear them.  And it looks like everyone on the list is clear.  And then some of them start turning up dead, one as an apparent victim of a murder, and one an apparent suicide.

Great mystery, really well done, and the case solved by Scudder’s now legendary tenacity and inability to let go.

There was a lot about AA and the meetings, and a fair amount about the steps, and I found it all just so interesting.  I am glad this seems to be the last of the series, because I was getting tired of it,  and judging from the previous two books, so was the author, but I did want to finish out the series.  The book ends with Matt and Mike:

Somewhere along the way he’d returned his bottle to the back bar and came back with a liter of Evian water.  And there we sat, two old men up past our bedtime, talking and drinking water.

I might try some of his other series.  He is a prolific writer with a style I enjoy.

 

CARS, CATS AND CROOKS by r. H. Carter

A little cozy mystery, and I didn’t even deduct points for it not using the Oxford comma in the title.

Very lightweight mystery.  A guy loses his job he has had at a car factory, and is actually happy, because he wants to become a private eye, now is his chance.  So he sets up shop, his wife being very helpful, and offers him his first case, the missing cat of the elderly next door neighbor.   He takes on a ‘partner’, the at-loose-ends 18-year-old-son of his divorced sister, and together they nose around the neighborhood.  However, when the woman receives a ransom note, the case takes on more gravitas as a catnapping.  He enlists the aid of his police detective brother, and come up with some useful info, and go to the perp’s house and discover the missing cat.  Case solved!

No, no, no, wait. Don’t leave.  There’s more.  The boyfriend of his sister has a son who works at the same place our new PI used to work.  The son of the boyfriend appears to have committed suicide, and Peyton (our PI) rushes over there with his sister.  The police arrive, call it a suicide, complete with suicide note on computer, but the father is sure it is not and enlists the aid of Peyton and partner to see what he can find out.   Things get hairier and more serious, family secrets begin bubbling to the surface, and it all sounds a lot more interesting that it really was in the reading.

I don’t know why.  It was a fairly decent plot and a fairly decently contrived mystery, but somehow it never read as all that serious. Not sure why. You ever have that experience of reading about some serious issues but it doesn’t have that weighty feel to it?  Wish I could explain better.

Anyway, this is the first in the Kimble Detective Agency series.

 

THE BIG CLOCK by Kenneth Fearing

This 1946 novel is one of those pieces of crime fiction that you can call literature, encompassing as it does something of a meditation on mortality, which the protagonist calls The Big Clock.   It has what I think of as a literary mid-twentieth century feel to it, (think The New Yorker fiction).

In this noir crime novel, we meet George Stroud,  a writer, managing editor for one of the entities of a large New York media conglomerate.  He meets the girlfriend of his boss at a party, and as things happen, they get together.  They go away for a weekend, return to the city in time for dinner and a stop at a bar, and a stroll down a street of antique shops where he buys a small painting from a now obscure painter, one whose work he is collecting.

He drops her off at her apartment building but does not go in.  As he stands there, he sees his boss arrive and go into the building.

The next day, the woman is found murdered, and we know the boss did it, because the perspective of the narration goes from character, and one of them is the boss telling us of his act.

The boss goes from the woman’s apartment to the home of his number one guy, one who is willing to do what needs to be done, and this guy sets up a search for the unknown man who was with her, because he would be the most likely candidate for the killing.  The second in command sets George and his staff, who work for Crimeways, an investigative magazine, to pull out  all the stops and find this unknown man.  George does what he can to slow down this process as he thinks of what he can do to get out of this, because he knows his life isn’t worth diddly as the top brass work to keep the boss’ name clear, to keep the magazines from going under.

Very cleverly plotted, tight and concise.  And I am not telling you anything more.  Read it yourself, because it is short, and you can get it free on Project Gutenberg.

You can get very artsy if you wish about the symbolism in the book, because Fearing was very concerned with the dissolution of American life, with it becoming a mechanized society devoid of belief, faith, and love.  George Stroud represents Everyman, the antihero, the Big Clock represent the inexorable march of time and its tyranny over everything, the media company he worked for represents the soulless money machine, the Pac Man of its day gobbling everything in its wake.  It won’t surprise you to know that Fearing was a very respected poet in his day.

The book has been adapted for the cinema three times. The first and most faithful was the film of the same title,  then came a little-known adaptation  Police Python 357, a 1976 French film starring Yves Montand, Stefania Sandrelli and Simone Signoret , and finally one  loosely adapted into the Kevin Costner spy movie No Way Out.

 

LAND OF THE BLIND by Jess Walter

                               “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”  – Erasmus

I wonder how many books feature Spokane, Washington, as their setting?  Not many, I would venture to guess.  Well, this police procedural does.  I hesitate to call it a police procedural.  It does feature a homicide detective, — a female homicide detective, always a plus in my feminist book, — who is on swing shift at the Spokane Police Department, working nights, when a derelict is brought in having been pulled out of the abandoned Davenport Hotel for vagrancy, and claiming he wants to confess to a crime.

And so begins this story constructed on the ‘story within a story’ model.  The derelict wants to write his confession, and is furnished a legal pad and a pen, and begins to write.  He says that a confession is worthless, because the authorities already know who died and who killed the deceased.  But he wants to write context, to give his confession meaning.  He will not give his name, nor the name of the person he claims he has killed.

The bulk of the book is his confession, a linear story starting with his childhood experiences with a neighborhood bully and a neighborhood ubergeek, or nerd, or dweeb.    At one point, the bully forces him and another friend to join him in a beebee gun war against another neighborhood bully, during which our unnamed (so far confession writer) is shot in the eye and loses the eye.

As he continues his school career, he finds he is a joiner and a runner-for office, and eventually goes to law school in Seattle, and in order to impress his now grownup crush from high school whose husband is a venture capitalist in this heyday of .com startups, claims he can steer them to a video game of some  interest, which is being worked on by the old neighborhood dweeb.  The VC guy goes to Spokane to see what they have, our confession writer and the dweeb hire some coding guys to patch together some semblance of a game which impresses the VC guy, who then produces a wheelbarrow full of money for development of the game.    Our writer is hired by the VC people to drum up startups, which he does with some ease, he makes a ton of money, and is encouraged by the dweeb to run for state governor.  He loses.  Big surprise, yeah?

Meanwhile, as he is writing, the detective does some pretty snazzy detecting and learns who he is, his friends, and a bit of his story before having read any of the ‘confession’.  She is frantically looking for a body, because she is being told by her superiors that the writer is just another fruitloop and she needs to cut him loose, but she doesn’t agree.  She thinks there is something to this.

There is a lot about her and her life, her thoughts, and the book cuts back and forth between the ‘confession’ and her investigative efforts.

At one point in his life, the writer’s brother says to him that he (the writer) doesn’t know who he is, and asks whether the true us is the persona that we see, or the personna that others see, and accuses his brother of being the person other people want to see, so much so that he doesn’t know who he really is inside anymore.

The title is wonderful,  multi-layered, from the loss of his eye (it’s always either a stick or a bee bee gun, various characters opine throughout the book) to the quote from Erasmus at the beginning of the book,  or the various musings, (“For the first time in my life, I could see. Or I was blinded.  Or there’s no difference.”,   “The less honest I was, the more famous I should be.  The very limit of human blindness is to glory in being blind.”  – St. Augustine, ), to the idea that most of the police force could not see him for what was really going on, and Detective Caroline could.

It was a good mystery, and at the very end, a bit of a thriller, but it was basically a kind of love story.

Turns out this is the second of the Detective Caroline mysteries, so I snagged the first, Over Tumbled Graves, and I sure hope it is as good is this one.

EVERYBODY DIES by Lawrence Block

The crime series that never ends.  haha  This is number 14 in the Matthew Scudder NYC PI series.

Our boy is getting older, NYC seems to be getting cleaner, spruced up, the tech world has finally forced him into computers and cell phones, his street buddy lives across the street in his old hotel room, and he is still friends with the old criminal, Mick “The Butcher” Ballou.   When his ‘assistant’, young TJ tells him, “Heard all about you. How you the baddest dude in the ‘hood, kicking’ ass and takin’ names.”,  Scudder replies, “At my age, it’s more a matter of kicking ass and forgetting names.”

Mick has a problem.  He takes Matt out to a storage unit in New Jersey, a space he uses to store his stolen cases of whiskey.  They open the door to find two of Mick’s guys assassinated and all the whiskey gone.  Mick has no idea who did this, and because of a couple of other lesser,  very lesser, incidents, ask Matt to see what he can uncover.  Of course, he can’t go to the police, so he, Matt, and his driver Andy take the bodies up to his farm in upstate New York and bury them there.

Over the course of the series, we have seen how Matt has somewhat flexible ethics, and a willingness to commit ‘justice’, when official justice does not seem to be forthcoming.

While walking on the street, Matt is accosted by two thugs and essentially beat up and told to drop the issue.  Matt had already decided before this there was nothing more he could do and had told Mick this.  So when these two showed up, he told them the same thing, but that did not deter them.  Matt apparently got the better of them, but it scared him enough to start carrying a gun.

Then one night at his weekly dinner with his longtime AA sponsor, he was using the men’s room when a shooter entered the almost empty restaurant and shot and killed his sponsor, and his accomplice threw a bomb into the premises.   Also in the restaurant was the woman Matt had been committing adultery with, seeming to be having a tense relationship conversation with a man wearing a wedding ring.  The bomb killed her, and almost everyone else in the place.

This put the heat on Scudder to do more to find out who was behind all this.

As the bodies pile up, some of them belong to employees of Mick, one was his driver.

What a mess.  It ends with a shootout at the OK corral (the farm), and Mick decides to go live with the Thessalonian Brothers monastery on Staten Island.

Yeah.  Everybody dies.  Almost.

Very dark.  Very good.