Garnethill by Denise Mina

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.garnethll

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!exile

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)field-of-blood

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
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Fadeout by Joseph Hansen

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.

fadeoutDave 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

The Other Side of Silence by Philip Kerr

When we first meet Philip Kerr’s character, Bernie Gunther, he is a left-leaning German police officer in the 1930s in Berlin. That was in March Violets, published in 1989. One knows Bernie is in for a stressful few years, but thanks to Kerr, we have had Bernie Gunther adventures from 1934 through to 1956 with the latest publication, The Other Side of Silence.51bDmJKVI7L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_

Let me start out by saying that this is hands-down my favorite historical mystery series. Kerr gives us a look at Nazi Germany, its power, its weaknesses and finally its destruction from the eyes of Bernie as he navigates the hell he has been thrown into. This series is a gem. If you haven’t yet read the 11 books in the series, you are one lucky reader!

The Other Side of Silence is set in the French Riviera in 1956, and Bernie is still alive – no small feat. Usually Kerr writes about Nazi Germany, but this time the story is really about Great Britain and East Germany and what came to be called “The Cambridge Five,” English spies who worked for the Soviets.

As Kerr likes to place real people in his stories, we meet Somerset Maugham this time. Maugham pulls poor Bernie (who is finally at peace working as the concierge at a local deluxe hotel) into clandestine activities he wants no part of. But alas, Bernie has never been one to shirk the action. I love Bernie’s voice as usual, battered by history and hopeful by nature.

This Cold War espionage novel dwells on vengeance and revenge (as Bernie explains, there is a critical difference). The novel has quite the nod to John LeCarre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in plot development, and without giving too much away, let’s just say you have to be on your best game to stay equal to Kerr’s quick developing action in the second half of the book. Like LeCarre’s Spy, The Other Side of Silence, starts off slow and builds to a denouement that thrills.

51PU4oLabYL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_One can read the Bernie Gunther series in any order after the first three – March Violets, The Pale Criminal and A German Requiem (published as an omnibus edition, Berlin Noir in 1992), because Kerr jumps around in history with Bernie mostly in Germany or Europe, but in other novels he does wash up in Havana and Buenos Aires as well.

Bernie will return in 2017 with the 12th book, Prussian Blue; and I cannot wait. My rating 5 of 5.

Night Life by David Taylor

New York City, 1954 – this is where David Taylor takes us in his first novel, Night Life. A Noir mystery that gives us great plot that balances well with character and setting. We get some really fun reality-based characters such as Roy Cohn and even a bit part from J. Edgar Hoover because this is the Commie-witch hunt 1950’s. Part spy novel, part mystery, part historical fiction, this is a first class mystery.

Seldom do I find a book that captures me like this novel did. Our cop hero, Michael Cassidy, is the son of a Russian immigrant who now is a famous Broadway producer. He is a heavy drinking, not much talking detective who is a throwback to the Noir PIs of old, except that in Night Life the beautiful women aren’t bimbos but rather intelligent characters who help move the story along.

When a Broadway dancer is found tortured to death in his Hell’s Kitchen apartment that has been ransacked, Cassidy, the CIA, the FBI and the mob are all on the hunt for something that the killer wanted. The FBI and the CIA were battling out power and boundaries during the 50’s, and Taylor catches the feel of the times.

The book is not overly violent like many Noir crime stories, nor does it portray Cassidy as excessively hard-edged. While I do like Noir mysteries, even those who do not will like the balance of this novel. The story is engrossing and the dialogue believable—a detailed and complex book about NYC and the Red Scare in the early 1950’s. There is even some well-needed humor with Cassidy’s loyal partner, Orso, who often reminds Cassidy that he threw a dirty cop out a window – thus making Cassidy one of the only honest cops in NYC.

There is a bit of a cinematic quality to the book since Taylor used to write for television and movies in Hollywood. But this just means that the story moves along and the reader gets a first class ride for their money. A second Michael Cassidy book will be published on April 1, 2016.

My rating is 5 out of 5

Asian Mysteries — The Ville Rat / Tokyo Kill

Though we have an abundance of Asian American focused mysteries today, that has not always been the case, of course. One of the first detectives I read (I loved the movies, too!) was the Charlie Chan character established in 1925 by Earl derr Biggers. Biggers went on vacation in Hawaii and came up with one of the most popular detectives of all time. To Biggers, the Chan character was a major step away from the “yellow peril” stereotypes of Chinese characterization in popular literature of the time as exemplified by Fu Manchu, among others. After all Chan was quite Americanized and displayed wisdom and benevolence.

The Chan films and books today are typically seen in a negative light –the series did use a white actor in “yellowface” to portray Chan and the books are full of racist stereotyping. The reaction is so strong that the four-dozen Charlie Chan films are rarely shown, even on classic movie channels.

Fortunately, we have very intelligent and culturally savvy mysteries on Asian to choose from today. The door to Asian mysteries was opened by Biggers and has been kicked off its hinges by authors such as S.J. Rozan (P.I. novels featuring Lydia Chin in NY City), Lisa See (a trilogy of detective novels exploring US/China relations with her cop heroine, Liu Hulan) and John Burdett (Police detective/ Buddhist Sonchai Jitpleecheep in Bangkok, Thailand), among many others.

Tokyo Kill by Barry Lancet takes us to modern Japan where art dealer turned private investigator Jim Brodie tackles a case for a 96-year-old WWII veteran, worried because two of his former comrades were recently murdered. This is the second in the Jim Brodie series, after Japantown. Lancet is American and has lived in Japan for over 25 years and thus conveys well the culture, the country and the people. Chinese Triads, spies, WWII atrocities and expatriates! It is all packaged in a fast paced, mesmerizing novel – if you want to learn about Japan while enjoying a good story, this is your book.

One of my favorite series is Korean and takes place in the 1970’s. Martin Limon just released his 10th book called The Ville Rat. Limón retired from military service after twenty years in the US Army, including ten years in Korea, and with his knowledge, Limon writes a treasure-trove of Korean history and army life. A young Korean woman dressed in a traditional chima-jeogori is found strangled to death on the frozen banks of the Sonyu River with only a calligraphed poem in her sleeve. CID Sergeants George Sueño and Ernie Bascom are called in by the KNP to investigate since their job is to liaise with Korean law enforcement on matters that may implicate 8th Army American servicemen.

Limon writes about a time and place which I had no prior experiences with – one of the most pleasing features of a mystery to me is to travel where I have not been before though the pages of the books. Like Tokyo Kill by Barry Lancet, this procedural mystery excels at that. Neither of these two books are literary masterpieces, but they do tell a good, realistic story with characters you like and believe in. I have read all of Limon’s Korean series and loved all but one or two in the middle where he veered into too much mysticism for my mystery-loving heart. For a cheap trip to Japan or South Korea, give them a try. My Rating – 4 out of 5 for both Tokyo Kill and The Ville Rat.

 

 

 

Gun Street Girl by Adrian McKinty

For some reason I usually avoid mysteries set in Ireland. I guess I feel that they are too dark and foreboding and that there is just too much violence and too few realistic women. I have read Benjamin Black, Tana French and Stuart Neville — all with heavy drinking and heavy soul searching but not eFeatured imagenough thoughtful detecting by likable characters.

I am glad to find a series set in Ireland which I thoroughly enjoyed — Adrian McKinty’s Detective Sean Duffy is my kind of cop. Clever, funny, thoughtful and believable. McKinty is a fine writer who makes the writing seem readable while at the same time uniquely profound. He gives us complex female characters as well as male characters which we admire and want to follow! How daring!

It is Belfast 1985, so the plot does involve “the troubles.” Also gun runners, arms dealers, MI5 and a rogue American agent with a fake identity. McKinty gives us a genuine mystery with twists and turns while teaching us about those times in Ireland. Detective Duffy isn’t at all innocence with his drugs and self-loathing tenancies, but he’s a loyal boss and friend. And he is a good cop.

I am definitely going back to read the first three in this Sean Duffy series, the first being The Cold, Cold Ground from 2012. There is another expected out in 2016 as well, called Rain Dogs. My rating — 4 of 5.