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Bookends: Reaching Back into Jack’s Past March 10, 2017

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Bookends: Reaching Back into Jack’s Past

By Dan Davidson

Night SchoolJanuary 23, 2017

– 843 words –


Night School: A Jack Reacher Novel

By Lee Child

Delacorte Press

385 pages



“In the morning they gave Reacher a medal and in the afternoon they sent him back to school.”

It was a Legion of Merit – his second. It was nice, “But he figured the real reason he was getting it was the same reason he had gotten it before. It was a transaction. A contractual token. Take the bauble and keep your mouth shut about what we asked you to do for it.”

What they had asked him to do was kill a couple of bad men, not exactly the sort of detail you expect to be handed to a Military MP. It wasn’t a chase and capture scenario, but a very clinical execution.

We get a précis of this operation later in the book, during one of several intimate interludes with Dr. Marian Sinclair, who is technically Reacher’s superior in the current operation.

You see, Major Reacher has not been sent to school, but to a very high level assignment involving interagency cooperation between the military, the FBI and the CIA.

Wait a minute, you say. Where’s the former MP who travels with nothing but a bankcard and a toothbrush?

Well, Child has been giving us the Reacher saga in no particular order ever since Killing Floor. It’s rare that one novel follows right after another, though there was a pair of them a few books ago. There have also been short stories dating back to his army days, and even some from when he was an army brat, living in various exotic locales around the world.

In this book it’s 1996, just about three years since that first group of terrorists tried to blow up the World Trade Centre with some bombs in the parking garage, and Reacher is still a Major.

The Reacher books also swing back and forth between first and third person narratives, depending on the needs of the story. In this one Child decided we needed to hear some of the interplay among the bad guys, so it’s a third person story, with interludes away from Reacher’s central viewpoint.

In Hamburg, Germany, the CIA have a mole planted in the group of unfriendly Arabs, and from that mole they have learned this: there is an American, probably a service man, who is willing to sell something to a bunch of potential jihadists. More importantly, he wants $100 million for whatever it is.

What the McGuffin (an object or device in a movie or a book that serves as a trigger for the plot) might be, no one has any idea. This is also pre-internet and e-mail time, and the jihadists are using the old school method of human couriers who have nothing written down. All transactions are oral, and all the folks at code name Night School know is that the communications all come back to Hamburg eventually. After a few false starts most of the action moves there.

Hamburg also seems to be home to a group of extreme German nationalists, who occupy a number of positions of power, have some intelligence expertise of their own, and very much want whatever the weapons or information might be to further their own goals with regards to the recently reunified Fatherland.

Most of the fight scenes (because this is a Reacher novel) involve Reacher versus these skinheads and neo-Natzis.

Each of the three agencies bring their own teams to work on the case. Reacher’s picks come from the MP group that he used to head up back in the States. One of them, Sgt. Frances Neagley, is a woman we first met later in the series (confusing, isn’t it?) Several others also arrive to play their parts.

The American, who remains nameless for much of the book until the police procedural sort of work ferrets out his name, has been planning his operation for some time, and has been taking care to leave very few clues. However, part of his leaving no tracks involves the murder of a sex-trade worker, who happens to be a favorite of a Hamburg Chief of Detectives named Griezman. This means that Griezman, who is a good homicide policeman in spite of that little indiscretion, has a personal and professional stake in pursuing this case. When Reacher suggests a connection with his own assignment, Griezman becomes a valuable asset.

There are quite a few twists and turns in this case, and once they finally determine who the American is and what he is willing to sell, the pace picks up dramatically. Where there had been a little too much “talking heads” exposition, things suddenly get very active. For me it was the last third of the book that really made it feel more like a Reacher story.

I enjoy these adventures and, in spite of Tom Cruise, I am looking forward to the second Reacher movie. He’s too short, but he plays the part well.





Bookends: An Upstairs, Downstairs Kind of Murder March 10, 2017

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Bookends: An Upstairs, Downstairs Kind of Murder

The Massey MurderBy Dan Davidson

January 18, 2017

– 812 words –


The Massey Murder
By Charlotte Gray

Harper Collins

307 pages



On the evening of Monday, February 8, 1915, Charles Albert Massey was on his way home from work. He was the not quite so well to do scion of the very well to do Massey family, a family which had grown wealthy and powerful making and selling agricultural equipment. It was a family that would go on to produce a Governor General and a world famous actor.

At 34 years of age, Bert, as he was generally known, cut quite a swath in Toronto’s social circle. It was true that he was less well off than others of the clan, that the house he and his family lived in was not nearly so grand. He was a high end car saleman in a new industry, and the family was living about his income.They had but one domestic servant, a mousy, quiet 18 year old import from Great Britain named Carrie Davis.

Bert liked her, and had crossed a line a day earlier (while his American born wife was visiting family in Bridgeport. Connecticut) by making several aggressive moves on the girl, which she successfully evaded. Even so, he was surprised, we assume, when she met him at the front door carrying his own .32 calibre Savage automatic pistol, and proceeded to shoot him twice, killing him almost immediately.

Those facts were never in doubt, having been witnessed by several people, and never actually denied by Carrie herself, although she was initially uncertain that she had killed him.

There were larger questions in play in almost no time at all. How quickly could the Massey family get this dealt with in a polite way (the girl was obviously deranged and Bert’s behavior had nothing to do with it) without besmirching the family name?

Then there was the question of public opinion, and what it might due to stimulate the sales of the two big rival newspapers in the city, not to mention the smaller ones.

Then there was the question of Carrie’s defense, and how it might put a feather in the cap of any potential lawyer willing to take it on.

Not much of this had any bearing on whether or not she had killed the man – because she had. Was it a planned event, a spur of the moment decision? Was the girl merely protecting her honour (her virginity, as it were) against a further assault?

Hartley Dewart, KC, had the daunting task of presenting a Carrie that was tried beyond her young endurance, forced to defend herself, and driven to the killing of her employer on the spur of the moment.

The city, already excited by the anxiety brought on by the war in Europe, which had begun the previous August, was somewhat diverted by this drama on the home front, and all sorts of people adopted all sorts of opinions as to what had happened and what ought to happen next.

This book is a kind of forensic examination, but it is not one about the facts of the case, which were mostly available to Gray through the newspaper coverage during the 19 days between the act and the verdict.

It is rather an examination of the time, place and society within which the events transpired. It is a portrait of Toronto during that month in 1915, in the midst of the war. As background and context we are offered the rise and fortunes of the Massey family, some of the history of the city’s newspaper wars, and a good look at the tactics that were used to both prosecute and defend Carrie Davis.

One of the reasons the book goes in this direction is that there is very little about the case preserved in the official record. It was a case where assumptions about character and motive trumped the cold facts of the killing.

Gray is the first to admit that the newspaper coverage was pretty cut-throat, and there are often competing accounts of the same speeches and descriptions, but that does help to make the book interesting.

Carrie Davis was a virgin, a major fact in her favour. She had a young suitor who was fighting the Hun in Europe. She seemed even younger than 18 much of the time, and utterly disconsolate at the state in which she found herself. The jury took pity on her.

Gray unfolds the narrative in four parts: The Story, The Law, The Trial and the Aftermath. Chapter 17 finishes off the war story that is interwoven with the trial for the month, and chapter 18 tells us something of what happened to Carrie Davis during the rest of her life. All told, it’s an engrossing story.

Charlotte Gray was Berton House writer-in-residence in 2008.







Bookends: Murder is a matter of decision and action March 10, 2017

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Bookends: Murder is a matter of decision and action

By Dan Davidson

January 11, 2017

– 779 words –

Black River Road 

Black River Road: An Unthinkable Crime, an Unlikely Suspect, and the Question of Character

By Debra Komar

Goose Lane Editions

224 pages


also available in e-book format.

Debra Komar is the author of three previous books that have used her forensic investigative skills to reexamine real life historical crimes that have taken place somewhere in Canada.

In The Bastard of Fort Stikine, she took on a case from 1842, in which a miscarriage of justice in northern British Columbia was hushed up by the Hudson’s Bay Company. The death of John McLoughlin Jr. may have been a justifiable homicide, but Komar gave it the hearing it never got at the time.

In The Lynching of Peter Wheeler she looked at the evidence in the case of a coloured man who was hanged on the assumption that he has murdered a white girl. In 1896, forensic detective work was in its infancy and Komar concludes that several competing narratives were permitted to overcome the facts of the case

In The Ballad of Jacob Peck, Komar examined an even earlier case, from 1805, in which Amos Babcock was found guilty of killing his sister, under the influence of a religious mania. That he did the deed is not in doubt in her view, but how he came to do the deed, how he was inspired and by whom, become clear during Komar’s narrative.

Her method is to visit the archives, pull out the available material on cases which are somewhat shady, and see what a full “cold-case” examination of the existing records will reveal.

Each book so far deals with a particular manner in which the facts of a case may be distorted. Her most recent book, Black River Road: An Unthinkable Crime, an Unlikely Suspect, and the Question of Character, provides its theme in the title.

What is, or should be, the role of an accused person’s character in determining his or her guilt or innocence? The murders of Maggie Vail and her child are particularly instructive in examining this premise, for this 1869 case, taking place in St. John. New Brunswick, is seen to be the first in which the social standing and reputation of the accused, respected architect John Munoe, were used as the main argument in his defense by his trial lawyer.

“His lawyer’s strategy was as simple as it was revolutionary,” for that time and place, she writes.

“Munroe’s wealth, education and exemplary character made him incapable of murder.”

These things had not rendered him incapable of having an extramarital affair with Maggie, or of fathering a child with her. That he was connected to her in a number of ways and could be traced to the area where, some months latter, a group of teenaged berry pickers stumbled across the badly decomposed bodies, were facts dismissed by his lawyer as incongruent with his character.

Komar prefaces the elegantly told story of Munroe’s life with an essay titled “The Dahmer Effect” in which she shows how the case of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer led forensic psychiatrist Park Dietz to develop his theory of universal lethality. In short, under the right circumstances, anyone can make the decision to become a killer; it’s the ability to decide and the will to act that make the difference.
Dietz wrote, “I think people are born with the inherent ability to be cruel and harmful and destructive and selfish and acquisitive. It’s the function of many of the institutions of society to train us out of that.”

To some this would seem to contradict the notion that people are naturally good and that crimes such as murder are committed by deviants. To others this might well put a new spin on the older notion of original sin, divorcing it from any connection the sexual act.

In the courts of the post-Dahmer days, character, and its adjunct, motive, matter less than decisions and actions, and it is this point that Komar uses the Maggie Vail case to illustrate.

She does so in a prose style that deliberately echoes 19th century writing and is supported by useful maps, photographs, memorabilia from the high profile trial and a very thorugh listing of footnotes and references.

Debra Komar was the fall to early winter writer-in-residence at Berton House, having turned to writing non-fiction crime books after 23 years as a practicing forensic anthropologist. She has testified as an expert witness at The Hague and throughout North America and is the author of many scholarly articles and a textbook, Forensic Anthropology: Contemporary Theory and Practice.


Bookends: Spenser does a favour for an old friend March 10, 2017

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WonderlandBookends: Spenser does a favour for an old friend

By Dan Davidson

January 4, 2017

– 830 words –


Robert B. Parker’s Wonderland

By Ace Atkins

Unabridged audiobook

Narrated by Joe Mantegna

7 hours and 2 minutes

Random House Audio



This is book 41 of the Spenser series, the second written by successor writer Ace Atkins following the death of series creator Robert B. Parker. The first of these was Lullaby, which I reviewed as being decent enough, but longer than normal (by about 30 minutes longer than this one in the audio version) and quite a bit more profane in its use of language.

There was a pattern to Parker’s books. There would be a certain amount of cooking, some running, some Boston travelogue, some Susan and a bit of violence. Atkins hit all those notes, but it seemed like he was trying too hard.

He hits them again in Wonderland, but seems to be less forced. He is still more long winded. The last Parker novel was about a 5 ½ hour read and the Atkins’ books I’ve listened to so far clock in at 7 hours plus. In this case, the length is justified by a more complicated plot. At about the point where it seemed the main plot of the story was wrapping up, an unexpected murder sets it off in a new direction.

Susan Silverman is less present in this book than in most of the later Parkers, being on assignment teaching at a university in another city. She drops by Boston on the weekends.

Hawk is entirely absent from this story, being on some sort of personal assignment in Florida.

Atkins has apparently decided to flesh out some characters that are part of the canon, but haven’t been used too much. Zebulon Sixkill, a American Indian former college football player who had fallen on hard times, was introduced in the last of Parker’s novels (Sixkill). In this one he has been taken on as Spenser’s protégé. Z, as he is usually known, suffers from a bit of physical arrogance and had been a budding alcoholic when we met him. He still has that problem, especially when he finds himself physically overmatched by some of the bad guys in this book. So a good part of the story is about Spenser working with Z and Z learning the ropes.

Henry Cimoli owns the gym and training facility, which has been a feature in this series since almost the beginning, but in this book Henry is given a key role and provided with a lot of backstory with which we are not overly familiar.

Someone is trying to force Henry and the other elder residents of the condo where he lives to sell out and move on. The offer is pretty good, but awfully mysterious. Some residents like the proposed deal. Those who don’t, Henry chief among them, have been experiencing a series of increasingly annoying “accidents”. In fact, Spenser and Z enter the picture at about the time when things look to be getting personal and violent. Henry is set upon by a trio of thugs who are scared off by our heroes.

Since no one knows exactly who the interested buyer is, Spenser starts there and soon his poking around, as it often does, causes a series of reactions by the bad guys. Z, who has been tasked with watching over Henry, is set upon and injured by two of the same thugs they met before. He is hurt physically, but also psychologically, and his emotional recovery is one of the subplots in this adventure.

It turns out that the condo is the last piece of property needed to cement a deal for the creation of a casino in the area of the old Wonderland (hence the book’s title) dog racing park. Two parties are competing. One seems marginally more honest than the other, and, just as the deal is brokered with that group, with Spenser acting as mediator, one of the two front men is murdered and the affair takes a whole new turn.

There have been a number of readers in this series over the years, and while all have been interesting for the time of Spenser’s life, Joe Mantegna is one of the best for the most recent stories. Mantegna played the lead role in three made for TV Spenser movies and, to my mind, was better in the part than the late Robert Urich, who starred in the Spenser – For Hire TV series.

His bio includes the tidbit that he was a bass player as a young man in the 1960s, and was a member of the rock/jazz group that eventually morphed into the Chicago Transit Authority, which became just Chicago after that first double album.

He has, of course, been a regular cast member on Criminal Minds since he signed on in 2007 and has provided the voice of Fat Tony on the Simpsons since 1991.



Bookends: LeCarré performs true to form February 17, 2017

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Bookends: LeCarré performs true to form

By Dan Davidson

December 7, 2016

our-kind– 780 words –


Our Kind of Traitor

By John LeCarré

Penguin Books

429 pages



I admit to being a few books behind on the work of David John Moore Cornwell, better known as John LeCarré. When I was using The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in my English classes, I made a point of always reading his latest novel as soon as it came out in paperback. As a result, I’ve actually had this one for a few years and, for some reason, just wasn’t getting to it. In this case, a review of the book that I read somewhere, put me off. I should have known better.

I was motivated to pluck it off the shelf by the news that there was a movie with a rather impressive cast that seems to have preserved all the most important characters. I can see Ewan McGregor as Perry, the disillusioned Oxford don, and Damian Lewis and Mark Gatiss as the British agents who play games with his life.

Not unlike The Spy, and several other novels, this book involves an attempt by someone, a Russian mafia oligarch named Dima, to break away from a personal situation that has become intolerable. He approaches Perry and Gail, an unmarried couple who are on vacation in Antigua (changed to Morocco in the movie for some reason) and strikes up an acquaintance with them. This eventually leads to him proposing that they assist him and his extended family in escaping to England.

Dima is a gifted money launderer, a financial wizard and, after the murder of his protégé and his wife, he is convince that he is marked for death as part of the schemes of another mob boss known as the Prince. His offer is to turn over everything he knows about the Russian mob’s finances in return for sanctuary.

Perry and Gail take his offer back to London, where they meet with agents Hector, Luke and Ollie, and it is during the scenes where they are being questioned by British agents, where the narrative flits back and forth between these Q&A sessions and the original events, that the book begins to get good.

The basic idea of the plot is thin, but the meat of the book is all about relationships. Just when I thought we were going to spend most of the story with Perry, Gail, Dima and his family, playing tennis and dancing around spy-like intrigue, the focus shifted and I found myself charting relationships within the agency that LeCarré has called the Circus in the half dozen books that feature George Smiley.

This isn’t quite the same thing, but it’s an agency under severe scrutiny by both its political masters and other agencies. Indeed, this is a rather small group; it almost seems to be something that has gone rogue and is struggling to justify its own existence.

Relationships are everything in this story, Perry and Gail are working out the dynamics of their commitment to each other. Both of them have bonded to a certain extent to their Russian “friends”, Perry to Dima, and Gail to his teenaged daughter, who has gotten herself into “trouble”.

Luke has a roving eye, which has him in trouble on the home front. We never meet his family, but he thinks about them a lot, and we know he suffers from the fear of losing them. Hector has been in and out of the agency, and while he was out he managed to save his family’s fortune against a corporate raid instigated by the man he now must report to as his superior. Tricky.

The narrative style is an odd mixture of things. Sometimes we seem to be within the viewpoint of a particular character, but then the author’s voice steps out to deliver a commentary and let you know who’s in charge.

LeCarre’s escape novels generally work one of two ways. In The Spy (1963) the liberated Alec Lemas is killed trying to escape East Germany. In the The Russia House (1989), nearly 30 years later, “Barley” Blair manages to get a woman named Katya out of Moscow to safety at some personal cost, but he survives the adventure.

I’m not going to tell you how this one works out.

LeCarré has a knack for misdirection, perhaps an inheritance from his con man father, or perhaps a hold over from some of his years as an actual intelligence officer, and can manage to tell stories that have certain similarities without being boring or exactly repeating himself. This book is an excellent read. The other reviewer must have been having a bad day.

LeCarré has recently published a memoir. The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life, under his real name. I look forward to finding a copy.



Bookends: Living with the Curse of Total Recall January 31, 2017

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Bookends: Living with the Curse of Total Recall

By Dan Davidson

October 5, 2016memory-man-audio

– 828 words –


Memory Man

By David Baldacci

Narrated by Ron McLarty and Orlagh Cassidy

13 hrs ad 17 mins

Hachette Audio


Paperback edition


560 pages



“Amos Decker would forever remember all three of their violent deaths in the most paralyzing shade of blue.”

Quirky detectives are all the rage on television these days. Bones, Castle and Elementary have all carried on the pattern that you could find in earlier shows like Monk, Pretender and Profiler.

The Amos Decker series, of which this is the first book, has a similar idea behind its central character. Decker, who had been a pretty good high school and college football player, made it to the NFL and was sidelined by a critical brain injury in his first game.

It did two obvious things to his brain and a third thing that is less obvious. The obvious things are revealed in that opening sentence and in the book’s title. Decker has perfect total recall. His memory is described as being like a DVD that he can access by date at any time he likes.

The other effect is that events in the real world, and in his recorded memories, often take on colours. Some emotional states are also coloured and his sense of impending danger comes with some nasty black shadows.

The less obvious change is in his emotional life. He has trouble dealing with empathy, doesn’t play well with others, and is very much a loner, Even people who value the edge that he seems to have as an investigator have trouble dealing with him as a person.

He managed to cope with the world pretty well, even got married, and fathered a daughter. Within his family unit he managed to function as an almost normal person with a range of emotional responses that, though muted, were still far beyond what he could manage with other people.

Then someone broke into his house, killed his wife and daughter and his brother-in-law, planted clues that seemed to point to him, and left him to discover the horrible mess when he returned from a police stakeout. While investigation proved him innocent, there was no clue as to who had actually done the deed. Amos’ life fell apart without his family foundation.

A year later, the former athletic police detective is off the force, grossly overweight, and, after a time living homeless on the streets, is barely able to support himself as a private eye, doing piecemeal work and living in a cheap residential hotel.

Two things happen to shake up his life again. First, a man walks into the police station where he used to work and confesses to the Decker murders. While it can absolutely be proven that he did not do them, he insists that he did and that it was all because Decker had once insulted him in a local 7/11 store. Decker, who literally can’t forget anything, has no memory of this man.

Second, there is a horrible massacre at the local high school – the one Decker once attended. There seem to be no clues. Decker’s former boss, knowing that this is the kind of case his old colleague used to excel at, brings him onto the case as a consultant and pairs him with the woman who used to be his partner when he was on the force.

Baldacci, who is the keyboard behind six different ongoing series, totaling 24 novels at present, along with a string of 11 standalone thrillers, and five children’s books, is really good at taking what starts out as a simple enough sounding initial case and complicating it beyond anything that the reader might expect at the beginning.

The first half of this book comes across as a very detailed police procedural, enhanced only by Decker’s strange brain and his ability to see things that others don’t. In painstaking, and yet interesting, detail he builds up the geography of the school, reveals how the killer got in, did what he did and managed to stay completely hidden the entire time, except by those he killed.

Then he turns up the heat.

The other thing I really like about Baldacci’s work is his ability to write strong female characters and really make them matter. In the King and Maxwell books, as well as the John Puller series, he has done such as good job at this that the people producing his audio books feel the need to have male and female voices.

Ron McLarty and Orlagh Cassidy are teamed up again for this one. McLarty gets the male voices and the narration, but Cassidy voices two strong female characters and a number of others.

The Decker and Puller series seem to be the most recent books Baldacci is working on, based on their publication dates. They make great audio books, using the same team of narrators.



Bookends: The Detective as Stranger in a Strange Land January 31, 2017

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Bookends: The Detective as Stranger in a Strange Land

By Dan Davidson

October 26, 2016

– 833 words –


The Bat

By Jo Nesbø

Vintage Canada

384 pages


E-book: $12.99


There are trends in publishing, and a breakout success by a particular author will often trigger a spate of interest in a particular kind of book. The massive popularly of J.K.
Rowling’s Harry Potter books resulted in a resurgence of interest in stories about young wizards. It was not a new genre. It had been done before, notably by Ursula K, Leguin in A Wizard of Earthsea, and its sequels, but that was a generation ago and trends often need to be rediscovered.

Dystopian futures featuring young people are not new. I used to teach John Wyndham’s lovely book, The Chrysalids in high school (partly because it was set in the North, in Labrador), and it went over well with my classes. John Christopher did a lot of this kind of work, especially in his Tripods YA series. So Suzanne Collins wasn’t really breaking new ground when she wrote The Hunger Games trilogy, but her success inspired library shelves full of new YA dystopian trilogies

Sometimes, older books will be rediscovered by this sort of process. Stieg Larsson’s “Girl Who…” trilogy (and its ghost written sequels) inspired a revived interest in Scandinavian mystery books. The last time I can recall this happening was with the work of Janwillem van de Wetering, whose Grijpstra and de Gier novels, set in Holland, were popular for about 25 years after the first one came out in 1975, an inspired an interest in other writers, including Henning Mankell, who work from Sweden overlapped van de Wetering’s later novels.

Larsson’s books began appearing in Swedish in 2005 and first came out in English translation in 2008. Nesbø’s Harry Hole series had begun in Norway in 1997 and translations I English began appearing in 2005. For some confusing reason the English versions don’t start at the beginning, with the book I’
reviewing this week, Flaggermusmannen, or The Bat (see, I’m finally getting to it) but with the fifth book in the series, The Devil’s Star. At least five other books, in no particular sequence, were translated before they got around to this one.

My theory is that the others are set in Norway, and this one isn’t, so the publisher wanted to establish the character in his normal setting of Oslo. For reasons known only to himself, Nesbø decided that Harry Hole would be introduced to the world with a case that took him way out of his comfort zone and dropped him down in Australia.

Not that the book doesn’t work, or wasn’t apprecia
ed when it appeared. It picked up the most prestigious crime writing award in Norway, The Riverton Prize (Rivertonprisen) 1997 for Best Norwegian Crime Novel of the Year, as well as the premier crime writing award in Scandinavia, The Glass Key (Glasnyckeln) 1998 for Best Nordic Crime Novel of the Year.

But these aren’t the Edgar, Agatha Christie, Macavity, Poirot, Shamus or Arthur Ellis awards, so they don’t mean as much to the English speaking mind.

Inspector Harry Hole is a troubled man. He doesn’t seem it at first, but we eventually get enough backstory to l
arn why he struggles with alcoholism and just how the mess this case becomes could drive him back to it. He’s been sent to Sydney to observe the progress on a case involving the murder of a 23 year old Norwegian woman who had been a minor celebrity back home. The local brass want to make sure he does nothing but observe, and it’s easy to see from the opening pages just how that will work out.

He’s mentored (not in method but in local culture) by one of the lead detectives on the case, and he becomes close to one of the witnesses. Events and his temperament lead him deeper into the case and he eventually uncovers what has not be noticed until then, that this case has echoes in various parts of the country. There is a serial killer at work.

Up to that point, the killings have adhered to a particular pattern, but as the investigation advances, the killer starts working on the people around Harry, and the strain of that drives him back to the bottle for quite a while. While the third narrative viewpoint is exclusively trough Harry’s eyes, we seem to pull back from him while he is in the state. The author doesn’t pass judgment, but we feel really let down by Harry’s inability to pull hi
mself out of the bottle. If he was able to do it once, he should have been able to do it againI’m having mixed feelings about Harry’s character flaws. He’s an engaging character and the final resolution to the case, though telegraphed earlier in the book, is both gruesome and satisfying. I think I’d recommend finding out the publication order and reading them that way.





Bookends: Body Shifting Suspects make for a Difficult Case January 31, 2017

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Bookends: Body Shifting Suspects make for a Difficult Case

By Dan Davidson

September 21, 2016        lock-in

– 870 words –

Lock In

By John Scalzi

TOR Books

336 pages



The science fiction field has a long history of crossing over into the mystery field. One of the earliest obvious practitioners of crossover writing was Isaac Asimov, whose three novels featuring the detective Elijah Bailey took the murder mystery to outer space in an obvious way. Outside the field Asimov produced six volumes of short stories about a mystery discussion group he called the Black Widowers.

Other SF writers frequently “ghosted” in well-known series. “Ellery Queen” was already a pen name for two cousins, Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee, and several SF writers – Theodore Sturgeon and Jack Vance, among others – wrote some of the later entries in the series.

John Scalzi seems determined to write every sort of SF related book that he possibly can, and has done an excellent job of following in that tradition, creating a future world shaped by a pernicious disease, and a murder mystery that has everything to do with that disease.

Some years from now a new, highly contagious virus appears. Like the zica virus, most people who catch it have just a few days of fever and misery, but it has other mysterious effects on some peoples’ brains. One per cent of its victims find themselves “locked in”, closed off from all voluntary motor functions and sensory inputs – fully awake but truly isolated from the world. They call it Haden’s Syndrome, mostly because the wife of President Haden is one of the victims.

Partly because of this connection, and because a good number of the victims come from wealth, an effort is made to find a way for these disconnected brains to access the world. The solution is to create robot surrogate bodies and implant in the brains hardware and software that allow people to interface with these bodies and “live” in the world again.

This is somewhat similar to the gimmick used in the Bruce Willis movie, “Surrogates”, except that most of the artificial bodies are not so cosmetically perfect.

One other, rare, side effect of the virus is that a very small percentage of Haden’s sufferers come out undamaged, but, with the installation of matching hardware and software in their craniums, are able to share their bodies with those who are locked in. They are called Integrators.

Chris Shane is Haden’s survivor from a wealthy family who has been locked in since he was a child. He was one of the first to use a surrogate, which are known as “threeps”, in honour of a very famous golden robot in an old movie. Tired of being the poster child for Haden-kind, he has taken up law enforcement as a career. He has been partnered with a difficult experienced cop named Leslie Vann, who has many secrets in her background.

Their first case together involves the murder of an Integrator, who may have been killed by another Integrator. The problem is that the apparent murderer doesn’t remember a thing about it. He was being “ridden”, as they call it, by someone else at the time, and while he’s supposed to be aware of everything his rider does, he has no memory of how he came to be in that hotel room with that dead man.

I spent some space on the social background of this story because it spoiled nothing to do that, and you need to understand that it’s entirely possible that some of the people you meet may not be who they seem to be at any given time in the book. All that is clear from the outset is that this is a Haden related crime, probably committed by a Haden person.

Means, motive and opportunity are much harder to pin down when your suspect might in any one of several threeps at any given time, or be integrated with another actual human some of the time.

In that sense the book reminded me very much of Asimov’s Bailey novels, in which the sociology and psychology of the places where the crimes occurred had so much to do with why and how they occurred.

Shane is the first person narrator of this story, and the fact that he is not moving about in a flesh and blood body didn’t come clear for me until I was a chapter or so into the story. There was certainly something odd about him, but I couldn’t pin it down until some of the expository dialogue made it clear. After that, I adjusted, and just sort of forgot about it, until he had an internal conversation with the caregiver looking after his body at home, or shifted bodies, or crossed the country in an eyeblink (more shifting) in order to follow up clues.

It’s not a simple mystery so it gives you lots to puzzle about and the future setting keeps you just off base enough to give the writer the edge in hiding some things from you along the way.

I continue to be impressed with Scalzi, who first came to my attention about six years ago and has yet to disappoint.







Bookends: Investigators baffled by what lies beneath January 31, 2017

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, mystery, Science Fiction, Whitehorse Star.
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Bookends: Investigators baffled by what lies beneath

By Dan Davidsonfirewalk

December 28, 2016

– 847 words –



By Chris Roberson

Night Shade Books

348 pages



Zombies. They’re everywhere. The original horror flicks, back as far as the George Romero classic, were vague about what caused them, but the condition was infectious and the diet was human brains. I saw the original Night of the Living Dead back in college and have had no desire to see further renditions over the years.

The Resident Evil series introduced the idea that moved the plague away from the supernatural and made it into something humans might cause by means of evil science.

In other versions, the condition is caused by a virus or is some form of disease.

Stephen King’s Cell has the condition being triggered by a rogue cellphone signal that shuts down the brain’s higher functions.

Chris Roberson and artist Michael Allred created the comic book iZombie, in which an unfortunate combination of an energy drink and a designer drug triggers a zombie reaction. This can also be passed on by a bite or scratch. It can be controlled and the victims can only continue to function as normal humans by ingesting small quantities of human brain material. In zombie mode they possess unnatural strength and resilience.

After eating of another person’s brain they have access to that person’s memories and personality traits. The central character in the series, and in the television show now in its third season, is a victim named Olivia Moore (so, of course, Liv Moore). She is a former medical student who gets her require grey matter by working in the city morgue.

In Firewalk, Roberson, who writes fantasy novels as well as comic books, has come at the idea from a different angle, in what promises to be the first book in a new series. This is framed as a mystery/thriller, but it’s in familiar zombie territory and has echoes of iZombie.

Five years ago Izzie Lefevre, of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, and Detective Patrick Tevake, on the Recondito Police Force, were instrumental in tracking down and ending the career of a serial killer, a scientist named Nicholas Fuller, who had left a dozen sword decapitated bodies in his wake before they cornered him.

What is unusual about both partners is that their family backgrounds, which they both try to ignore, have exposed them to lore and legend which allows them to see what might be supernatural significance in events which have begun to occur in the city again.

Izzie’s grandmother was a voodoo priestess. Patrick’s Polynesian great-uncle believed that there were special places on earth where the walls between worlds were thin.

There is a new street drug called Ink, so-called because prolonged use of it causes its addicts to break out in ink-like blotches on their skin. It also causes them to want to avoid sunlight and, when gathered in groups, to behave in a herd-like manner, as if being controlled by a single intelligence.

When violent individuals in the final stages of this addiction are killed by decapitation, autopsies reveal that there are large empty spots in their brains, much like what happens to victims of variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, sometimes called Mad Cow Disease. The condition is identical to that found in the brains of Fuller’s victims from five years earlier. It is this coincidence that causes Tevake to request that Lefevre return to Recondito to compare notes with him.

The final straw for them both is the death of an Ink pusher who continues to rise from the ground and try to assault them after nearly every bone in his body has been broken by a fall and he has been shot enough times to take down a horse. Only after his neck has been broken so thoroughly that it is barely attached to his body, does he stop moving, and the Ink blotches fade from his skin.

They begin to wonder if Fuller hadn’t been killing the people he did for a specific, and perhaps very good, reason. His victims were all participants in a series of experiments that took place in an abandoned mine shaft, as part of a project called Undersight.

“Gravity leaks into other spaces, but doors swing both ways. They went down into the dark,” Fuller said of his victims before they died, “and the dark came back with them. Ridden. Passengers. I saw it, even if no one else did.”

He’d killed 12 people in horrible ways, but there was a number 13, someone he called the student, and five years later that man was continuing the work Fuller had tried to stop.

Before the book ends the two investigators, and a couple of other people who get roped into the case, find the true source of Ink, are chased by a zombie horde, find sanctuary in a light house, and realize they have a lot more work to do, The story will continue in the next book, Firewalkers. I’ll be looking for it. This one was fun.












Bookends: Murder in Prince Edward County January 31, 2017

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, mystery, Whitehorse Star.
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Bookends: Murder in Prince Edward County

By Dan Davidson

September 6, 2016

sowing-poison– 739 words –


Sowing Poison: A Thaddeus Lewis Mystery

By Janet Kellough

Dundurn Press

369 pages


Thaddeus Lewis is a former Methodist circuit rider, an itinerant preacher who moves from town to town, holding services where ever there is the chance of a congregation in need of his services. This has been his career for many years, but as we meet him in this book, the health of his wife and their sudden acquisition of a granddaughter (following their daughter’s murder) has forced the little family to settle down.

It’s the 1840s in Ontario, just a few years after the 1837 uprisings in both Upper and Lower Canada, and things are still unsettled. Thaddeus and Betsy have settled down with young Martha in Wellington, trading service in the Temperance Hotel run by his sister and her husband, for the use of a cottage adjacent to the hotel property. Betsy is not always well, but dos what she can, while Thaddeus has adjusted to the role of general handyman and occasional server.

The story begin with the disappearance of Nathan Elliot, who has returned home from the States to help his brother tend to their ailing and aged (and cantankerous) father. Brother Reuban rushed for help when Nathan had an accident in the woods, but when the rescue party arrived, there was no sign of him.

Shortly after that, a woman claiming to be his wife arrives. Clementine Elliot and her young son, Horatio, take up residence at the Temperance, and much to the dismay of Thaddeus, she immediately sets up shop as a medium and starts holding séances in her rooms.

It’s not Thaddeus’ hotel, so he really can’t put a stop to this practice, which he is convinced is fraudulent and not some sort of supernatural evil. Still, that doesn’t stop him from trying to figure out just how she is rooking the locals who have suffered the loss of a loved one. It turns out that she’s a great “cold reader” and also makes free use of the town gossip, but there is also a bit of 19th century technology involved, somewhat in the line of what has been on display in this summer’s “Houdini & Doyle” television series.

According to the author’s notes, Thaddeus Lewis is based on a real person of that name who left behind an 1865 autobiography which is the source material for some of this series. It began with On the Head of a Pin, to which references are made in this second book, Sowing Poison, and continues with 47 Sorrows, The Burying Ground, and Wishful Seeing.

In the first book, Thaddeus tracked down a serial killer, one of whose victims had been his daughter. In this book, as several mysteries seem to arise in the town, he is inspired by reading “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, one of a series of early mysteries written by Edgar Allan Poe. He makes a conscious effort to apply the observational techniques used by Le Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin in this story.

While the mystery of Nathan’s disappearance looms large in this book, there are other problems. Members of the Orange Order attempt harm to a Roman Catholic family. A strange little man who turns out to be a detective investigating the activities of Mrs. Elliot vanishes suddenly. The two children discover the presence of a very ugly young man out on the sand marshes and t eventually turns out that this hare lipped wild child, all alone since the death of his parents, has been harvesting whatever meat he can find, including the bodies of individuals who have met their deaths by other means.

While there is a strong focus on the various mysteries that attract Thaddeus’ attention, this is also a tale about life in the 1840s, and it has threads of romance and domesticity woven around the mysteries.

I found a very pleasant way to pass the time while flying across the country recently. The only thing that left me a bit puzzled is the title.. There is murder, deception, cannibalism, mob violence and lots of activity in this story, but there is nary a hint of poison that I can see, unless it is an oblique reference to such moral poisons as greed and fraudulent practices.

That said, I’m certainly encouraged to look for more from this author.