The Cold Cold Ground by Adrian McKinty

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 finthe-cold-cold-ground-adrian-mckinty1ally 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

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.

Istanbul Passage by Joseph Kanon

Featured imageEspionage novels are difficult to write post 9/11 since the reader needs to empathize with the bad guy at least a little. How to do that with a terrorist who is willing to blow himself up! So many of our best writers in the sub-genre, Espionage Thrillers, are opting to give us historical spy novels –Joseph Kanon’s Istanbul Passage (2012) is an intelligent and complicated novel set in 1945 in exotic Turkey. Because of its neutrality during the war, it became a haven for espionage during and after WWII. Here we find thoughtful questions of morality, betrayal and honor, European Jews trying to smuggle through Turkey into Palestine and spies on every corner. All reminiscent of Graham Green. No small compliment.

I began reading Kanon with his first novel Los Alamos in 1997 – and have been a big fan ever since. You can start with any of his seven books, as they are all stand-alones. Kanon has a wonderful touch with setting, giving us the smell and feel of a place as you read. If you like history, Kanon will thrill you with accurate moments and descriptions. In Istanbul Passage the atmosphere is its own character.

This novel has everything I want – reliable history, characters I care about, a strong setting and a plot which intrigues me. Bravo, Joseph Kanon! My rating –5 of 5 stars.