R.I.P. Philip Kerr

A sad day today. Philip Kerr, one of my favorite authors, died today in London. With him dies Bernie Gunther, the hard-boiled Gekerr photorman cop, turned Private Investigator, set in the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s violent world.

Through 13 novels we have followed Bernie as he survives Nazis and the following so-called peace. Our sarcastic Bernie moves from wise-cracking, reluctant Nazi to a jaded man on-the-run from all governments and politics. And we will miss him terribly.

Gunther is “one of crime fiction’s most satisfying and unlikely survivors: the good cop in the belly of the beast,” wrote Jane Kramer, The New Yorker’s longtime European correspondent, last year.

Kerr was a Scottish born writer who captured the evil of that time and place better than anyone I have ever read. He died at only 62-years-old from bladder cancer just before the publication of his final novel, Greeks Bearing Gifts, which comes out next week. There is apparently another Bernie manuscript left behind, Metropolis, which let’s us explore the Weimar Republic when Bernie was young in the 1920’s.

If you are lucky enough to not have read Philip Kerr at this point, start with his trilogy, Berlin Noir berlin, which contains the first three Bernie Gunther novels. Though you can really start anywhere in his Gunther books since Kerr consistently jumped around by time and location.

As readers, we have moved through time with Bernie from the early 1930’s in Germany to the 1950’s in Havana and the French Riviera. The world-weary ex-cop never caught a break as history pushed him along. Now we too, have lost our luck and must say goodbye to Bernie as well.




Sue Grafton R.I.P.

Three women led the way in the Second Golden Age of the Mystery in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. The huge boom in detective fiction was due to the courage of three women authors who moved the mystery novel from violence AGAINST women to alibiviolenceSOLVED by women. These leaders were Marcia Mueller, Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton.

Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone broke onto the mystery scene in 1982 with A is for Alibi and went on to achieve cult status in the 1980’s as she became the most read detective of either gender in that decade. The new young, hard-boiled but female detective Grafton and the others created was strong, intelligent and yet emotional about the effects of violence and crime. A new era in mysteries was beginning.

Sue Grafton died Dec. 28th at the age of 77 having written the entire alphabet series from yesterdayA to Y…. Z is for Zero, which was to be her last novel in the series, will not be written after all. Grafton’s family says that she was adamant about not allowing her novels to be turned into television or film so Y is for Yesterday, which came out last August, will be the last Grafton we will be able to enjoy.

Kinsey Millhone and Sue Grafton had a sort of alter-ego connection, according to Grafton. But she noted in an interview that there was one big difference – She realized early in writing the series that if she was going to write the entire alphabet, Kinsey could not age in real time and still be a young, strong detective.

“When I started, she was 32 and I was 42,” Grafton said to the Seattle Times last August. “And now she is 39 and I am 77, which I just do not think is fair.”


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

Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney

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.

lou-berney-long-faraway-goneThere 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.

Don’t Lose Her by Jonathon King

Let me start off by saying that I LOVE mysteries that take place in Florida – as a Minnesotan who has put up with enough snow and ice for a lifetime, I bask in stories that take place with in high temps and gentle Gulf breezes. So it is no surprise that I read a substantial list of authors who hail from The Sunshine State.

One of my favorites is Jonathon King, who has written seven Max Freeman novels. King is reminiscent of James Lee Burke, Lee Child and William Kent Krueger, who write of loner, heavy-hearted ex-cops who can’t cut that life anymore.

Freeman is a former Philadelphia police officer who seeks refuge in a secluded shack deep in the Everglades because of killing a child in a shoot out. The Blue Edge of Midnight won the Edgar’s Best First Novel Award in 2002 – in it Freeman discovers a young girls body floating in the muddy waters around his shack. In his second book, A Visible Darkness (2003), which also was nominated for a Shamus for Best Novel, Freeman starts to work as a PI for a local lawyer, Billy Manchester, who wants him to look into a recent string of homicides – all poor elderly women with sizable and recently sold-off insurance policies. Typical PI mysteries, and I love them all!

However, having said that, I think that King’s latest, Don’t Lose Her (2015), is probably my least favorite of his novels. This time Freeman chases after an eccentric gang deep into the Florida Everglades to bring back the kidnapped and pregnant wife of his friend, Billy Manchester. From the start we see the kidnapping from both Freeman’s and the perpetrator’s points of view – a writing device that I do not care for in a mystery.

The mystery was less of a mystery and more of a character study. And that does not seem to be King’s forte as a writer. But I do love Max Freeman, and the chase went through the Everglades so I was quite willing to finish reading this latest publication. Next time we can only hope that Freeman gets back to the good old fashion PI case with suspects and only our hero’s point of view, as well as, of course, the Everglade’s locale.

It was in 1964 that Florida started to blossom as a prime locale for mysteries with the publication of The Deep Blue Goodbye by John D. MacDonald – the first of 21 Travis McGee novels. Now we have Randy Wayne White who writes of Doc Ford, a marine biologist based on Sanibel Island. A former Sanibel fishing guide, White has restaurants on Sanibel and Captiva Islands and Ft. Myers Beach, which are called, appropriately, Doc Ford’s Sanibel Rum Bar & Grille. The restaurant also sells his 23 Doc Ford books and other paraphernalia dealing with the books. If you haven’t read White, start with the beginning books which are (as usual) the best.

Then there is Carl Hiaasen, Edna Buchanan, Carolina Garcia-Aguilera, Dave Barry, T.J. MacGregor, Stuart Woods, Stuart Kaminsky, Tim Dorsey and Tom Corcoran (my favorite police photographer who bums around Key West!). These are just my favorite Florida mystery writers – but there are many, many more. In fact the Florida Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America has become the third largest state chapter in the country.

I am going to rate Jonathon King a 5 out of 5; but Don’t Lose Her a 4 out of 5.


Drink the Tea by Thomas Kaufman

Those of us who love the mystery genre have a soft spot for Private Investigators. We can argue over which type of mystery is the best (cozies or hard-boiled) or argue the educational advantages of historical mysteries or the vicarious experiences with international mysteries, but we all love that down on his/her heels, the PI.

Featured imageActually, I seldom read a straight-up American PI mystery any more as the genre has grown in so many varied directions. The current trends in this genre are with historical, international and high tech mysteries. But the American image of the mystery is the PI going against the system – and Drink the Tea by Thomas Kaufman is a delightful way to remember this.

Willis Gidney is a PI in Washington DC who has a juvie record and has lived in the foster system—now at 35 he is tough and cocky but also smart and resilient. As we have seen in many PI novels, a good friend asks him to help find his missing daughter who has been gone for two decades. But if you expect the usual read here, you will be surprised.

I am happy to follow a PI who is not a drinking, sarcastic, tough guy – rather Gidney is often funny with his quirky offbeat thoughts and comments. His childhood trauma has made him strong and clever, not a depressed loner. His business card reads: “I cheat the other guy and pass the savings on to you.” I can see why this book won the 2008 PWA Best First Private Eye Novel Competition.

Gidney may be scarred, but it has turned him into a modern-day knight with a sense of humor, instead of the usual negative tortured soul. He loves women and children! He charmingly courts a woman! I laughed out loud many times as I read this book – he stole my heart, and I think he will steal yours, too. My rating —  5 of 5.