I have a soft spot for the risk-seeking but loyal spy, especially when on the run from other spies. One of my favorite modern espionage writers is Charles Cumming who has just published his third in the Thomas Kell/ Amelia Levene series. And while I may be biased in favor of almost any espionage novel over most fiction, Cummings has once again given us a smart novel to stay up late reading.
This time there is a high-profile terrorist plot unfolding, while Kell jousts with a Russian intelligence agent. But Amelia Levene once again appears in her character of the first female Chief of MI6, and in fact, this book continues the story line of the first two books. So I am going to suggest if you haven’t read Cumming’s Kell series before (he has written quite a few other espionage stand-alone books), you should start with number one, A Foreign Country.
In A Foreign Country Levene has disappeared without a trace, just six weeks before she is due to take over as the most influential spy in Europe. Kell is off across Europe to find her. In the second book, A Colder War, Kell comes in from the cold (why is he in the cold? Read book one!) to investigate a mole in MI6 who is sabotaging joint intelligence operations in the Middle East.
I love these books for their introspection on the subjects of deceit and living a life defined by lies. These are not the novels for those who want action on every page with car chases and bombs going off every chapter. Cumming has been compared often to John le Carre and I understand that — Cumming’s prose about the creation of false identities and elaborate mirages does remind me of le Carre, the greatest spy novelist of all time.
A Divided Spy is not my favorite of the trilogy, as it is somewhat predicable and perhaps tells us too much and shows us too little, but I recommend it still — after you have read the others. One fear I have is that this is the end of the Kell story line since Kell has finally been smothered by the deceit in his life.
In a release for this novel, it was mentioned that Colin First has purchased the rights to The Foreign Country. I certainly hope so as I would love to revisit the story on the big screen. But you should hurry and read the Kell books before the movie hype takes over!
My rating: 4 of 5
I have discovered that some readers do not know about Denise Mina, the Scottish mystery writer who is both outlandishly funny and brutal at the same time. She writes other things such as stand-alone novels and the graphic novel adaptation of the Steig Larsson books. But forget about those and focus here on her amazing three series which are exceptional.
When someone asks me who my favorite authors are I often say Louise Penny, Philip Kerr, Harlan Coben, Lee Child. But I always say…. Denise Mina! If you have not been lucky enough to find her, I can point you to 11 books in three different series to gorge on in the coming months!
Her first series called Garnethill – first book by that name – is my favorite of the three. Young Maureen O’Donnell is about to end her affair with her psychotherapist when she awakes from a drunken stupor to find him tied to a chair in her living room with his throat slit. Poor Maureen is, of course, a suspect, as is her drug-selling brother.
Oh, the language Maureen spouts! Funny and yet poignant, she is hell on wheels to defend her friends and her brother. Yet, she is not so careful at taking care of herself. You will laugh and cry and instantly move right on to the next in the trilogy – Exile – when you finish Garnethill. The third in the series is titled Resolution. I quite understand Mina’s desire to put Lisbeth Salander (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) into graphic novels – Maureen is Lisbeth with no education, money or expertise!
The writing is the best you will find, often called Tartan Noir; and you can smell and taste Mina’s Glasgow along with Maureen as she moves about the city. There is nothing predictable about these books. I have no idea why Mina does not have the accolade of other lesser authors. Except that they are very Scottish and quite different from the norm. All positives in my book. (Garnethill did win the CWA John Creasy Dagger for Best First Crime Novel)
And when you finish with the Garnethill Trilogy, you can begin on the other two series– one featuring a young Glasgow journalist, Paddy Meehan, in the trilogy beginning with Field of Blood, which won the Barry Award for Best Mystery in 2006. And then the other series featuring Glasgow detective Alex Morrow. You will be happy in Scotland for months!!
My rating: 5 of 5
I recently read an article in the Sunday Times of London from last year, which pulled together their favorite crime and thriller books for the past 5 years. There are many lists of “the best” mysteries, but they always include titles from the 1920 like The 39 Steps and all those assassin books from the 1960’s like The Day of the Jackal. Of course, I love those two novels and all the other mysteries of old, but rarely do you get a list of modern exceptional reads.
No, this list is wonderful because the list is modern and insightful as well.
Lee Child, CJ Sansom, Belinda Bauer, Steve Hamilton and Charles Cumming.
My absolute favorite authors! Well, they did leave out Denise Mina, my number one favorite author. And, unfortunately, Louise Penny is not mentioned as well (don’t panic!) because I think the point of the list is more crime and thriller than mystery. And very much less cozy police procedurals. Denise Mina should have been on the list, but even the Sunday Times of London isn’t perfect.
In 1972 Hansen wrote the first of what would be 12 classic mystery novels featuring Dave Brandstetter, an open, content and very gay tough-guy. And if you happened to have missed the chance 40 years ago to read these wonderful books, you’re lucky enough to have another chance as they have been re-released.
Dave is an insurance company investigator looking into false claims. His life partner of 20 years has just died, and Dave is learning to live again. Of course, these are noir reads – but the prose is so clear and delightful that you will forget the darkness and see the charm of our hero.
In Fadeout, a popular singer’s car goes off a narrow bridge in a storm and Dave investigates a death claim – but where is the body? As Dave questions friends and fans, he grows certain that the singer is alive, though a killer is also looking for him.
The key to Hansen’s popularity lies with his prose. These are short books, really novellas. But from the first page you are absorbed in the shrewd and deeply felt writing.
“When I sat down to write Fadeout in 1967, I wanted to write a good, compelling whodunit,” said Hansen. “But I also wanted to right some wrongs. Almost all the things folks say about homosexuals is false. So I had some fun turning clichés and stereotypes on their heads in that book.” Over 40 years later everything Hansen writes is still compelling and revealing.
My rating: 5 of 5
Myron Bolitar is back!! It has been 5 years since we got to hang out with Myron and Win as they quipped and joked their way through an investigation. This time Win calls on Myron for help in the 10 year old kidnapping of his then 6 year-old nephew. Win has a lead in London, and of course, things get sticky.
For those who are new to Harlan Coben, he has this wonderful series with Myron, a sports agent of sorts who helps clients and friends out of problems – think Jack Reacher with a great sense of humor. Coben also has 15 stand-alone thrillers which are good, but his Myron Bolitar series is where he excels.
This series reminds me of Louise Penny’s Gamache series combined with Robert Parker’s original series staring Spenser. Like with Penny, you quickly grow to love the characters who come back time and again. Esperanza and Big Cyndi (female wrestlers and Myron partners) make an appearance in Home, as well as Myron’s mom, dad, and nephew Mickey who has his own 3-book YA series now by Coben. And then there is Win, Myron’s mega-rich college buddy who I would really want as a friend if I had problems. Or even if I didn’t!
I don’t want to give the impression that the books are light or silly. The story line is quite serious, but the characters are enjoyable and sassy like Parker’s Spenser and Hawk. This plot is well played out and challenging to fully guess how it will go. You could not ask for a better book in this genre.
Coben’s stand-alone thrillers are good, some really good, but he finds his true form with Myron, Win and the rest of the cast. If you are new to the Bolitar series, which has 11 books in it now, you might want to start with Deal Breaker, his first from 1995. Lucky you!
My rating 5 of 5.
Julia Dahl’s latest and second novel which centers on the Ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish neighborhoods and people in the New York area, Run You Down, is just as eye opening and well written as her first, Invisible City. Our protagonist is a Jewish reporter raised by a Christian dad after her Jewish mother left them, who unknowingly gets embroiled in murders in this very closed and secretive community. As Rebekah learns about Hasidic Jewish customs and life, so does the reader.
Rebekah’s missing mother tells her tale in alternating chapters as her daughter runs around New York trying to solve the mystery of a woman who may or may not have been murdered. It seems everyone from the police to the Jewish community have closed ranks to keep the truth from coming to light.
The main character, Rebekah, is young and suffering from depression and anxiety. She constantly questions herself. So much so that often I wanted to yell at her to knock it off and get serious about what was going on — just as I would for any 25 year old woman going through these life changing events. Dahl writes real characters involved in very interesting times. This mystery has it all — plot, setting and well-done characters.
My rating 5 of 5.
** To Read or Not to Read has 8 new posts to help you decide what’s next on your to-read-list. Check out the Archives for To Read or Not to Read for all the old posts.
I am quite happy I discovered Michael Koryta! He has two series with PIs as protagonists and another 5 stand-alone thrillers beyond Those Who Wish Me Dead. I anticipate a great deal of enjoyable reading ahead of me. Koryta was the youngest winner of the annual St. Martin’s Press/Private Eye Writers of America “Best First Private Eye Novel” contest in 2003. It seems to have taken me a while to get to him, but it is always a plus to find so many new books to read.
Those Who Wish Me Dead is a thriller involving a 14 year old boy who has witnessed a brutal murder. His protective custody, while the police search for the two killers, gives him a new name and places him in a Montana wilderness survival program for troubled teens. This entire gripping book produces adrenaline and wide-eyed reading!
Fortunately, the wilderness program leaders, Ethan and Allison, impart their survival knowledge to the teens, but the tracking killers slaughter everyone in their wake. Again, the detailed violence is a bit too much for me, and some illogical decisions put me off a bit. But overall it was a fun read – one of those books to read straight through on a solitary evening. Koryta won the Best Novel Barry Award in 2015 for this book. I will be returning to his older novels for more thrills!
My rating – 4 of 5
Berney’s psychological mystery reminds me of Kate Atkinson and Laura Lippman. Though not compelling enough to be a thriller, Long and Faraway Gone is not a typical mystery either since the only murder happened 25 years ago in a robbery of a movie theater. Now, Wyatt, our PI hero, is asked to return to Oklahoma City, the setting of that crime, to solve a current harassment case.
At the same time another mystery across town of a missing girl (also from 25 years ago) is being reexamined by the sister of the missing girl. The crippling and shifting memories of these two unsolved crimes drags the two unconnected cases closer and closer. At least in the traumatic memories of both protagonists.
There is a quiet darkness to this story – I can’t really say I enjoyed reading this book, though it will be one of those stories that I remember long after I have forgotten many other stories. It is well written and the characters are well drawn and believable…. At least until the ending when suddenly, both characters (the PI and the sister) remember details of their lives 25 years before! And of course, these details lead to the resolution of the cases.
I learned a great deal about Oklahoma City. But unless you plan to visit there, I am not sure that I can recommend this book over others. I liked Wyatt, and I hope to see him again in other mysteries where there actually is a mystery. Long and Faraway Gone was nominated for both the Anthony and the Barry Awards — but I can only rate it a 3 out of 5.
Having read Gun Street Girl by McKinty last fall, I decided to go back and read the first in his Irish historical series on The Troubles. And I am certainly glad I did. I am a big fan of Irish Noir (Ken Bruen, Tana French, Stuart Neville, Declan Hughes, Alex Barclay, Declan Burke) but only tolerate the routine violence to enjoy the prose. Here with McKinty, I have finally found a great noir writer who gives the Irish experience without detailing all the gore.
It is 1981 in Northern Ireland, and Belfast is on the verge of outright civil war. Soldiers, riots, bombings. And in the midst of it all, a serial killer of gay men. Poor Sean Duffy, a young and Catholic detective in a Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary, is trying to personally survive as he uncovers a smart plot of deceit and false clues.
The setting and the characters are written superbly. You know you have a winner when you like the protagonist and cheer him/her on – even when they do foolish things like drink to excess when the killer is headed his way or forget to check for bombs under his car! You will really enjoy this series. Start with this one if you haven’t read any before
My rating 5 of 5
Yet another Thriller is hyped as the “Next Gone Girl!” OK, I did like this book; it is fast paced and a page-tuner in the truest sense. And I really wanted to LOVE it as the topic is just to my liking – an abused woman on the run from police and bad guys who struggles to survive without ID or money as she moves around the US.
And Lisa Lutz clearly has some great ideas for just such a dilemma – how to steal or forge ID, where to work and sleep for free or at least cash, how to travel under the radar. Not an easy task in the techno world of today. Our heroine, Tanya, is frail emotionally, yet the necessity of survival keeps her alive and moving. You will definitely need a map of the US as you read this book!
But (yes, there is a but), our 28 year-old Tanya can also pick locks with a paper clip(!!) and has the knowledge to dig Apache snare traps in the yard. Seriously. I would have indeed LOVED The Passenger IF Lutz had kept her survival escapade within the bounds of reasonableness! Too often Tanya would only stay alive for the next chapter due to outrageous skills or luck.
Another woman named Blue comes into the picture at one point and ends up saving Tanya in the end. Instead of Tanya saving herself, we have yet another unlikely and personally non-satisfying twist in the story.
There are many fun and clever twists in the book, but Lutz just misses the mark, unfortunately, by a few steps. Lutz is the author of the popular Spellman Files series which features a quirky young PI from a dysfunctional family. This book is more serious and more engaging than the Spellman books, and I did like the quick read.
This is the perfect book for a long air flight or a day on the beach. You will enjoy the Thriller “ride.” I hope Lutz continues to try her hand at Thrillers but leaves the “not likely” bits for the Spellman books.
My rating 4 stars out of 5