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.

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Fool Me Once by Harlan Coben

Every now and then I like to read a thriller. Not a mystery where I use logic and analysis to decide who-dun-it. Rather I like to get on the roller coaster and ride for a short time with my heart in my throat, thrilled to the max.

Harlan Coben is the master of the thriller. Some would say his books are formulaic, and actually, I do agree with that. But what a fun formula! Coben had written seven consecutive #1 New York Times bestseller thrillers, and this one makes number eight.

Fool Me Once is a fast paced ride with all the necessary elements to keep you trying to guess what is going on. The novel opens at Maya’s husband’s funeral. He has been killed while with Maya during a robbery gone bad. The police arrest the bad guys and close the case, but Maya is sure that these men are not guilty. She decides to handle her own investigation, but then Maya sees her husband walking across the nanny-cam video used to watch her child’s nanny. Uh-oh…

Coben said in an interview that he wanted “to write a normal, intelligent woman” character – and he certainly has done so in Maya, a Special Ops pilot who has all the makings of a more classy Lizbeth Salander (The Girl in the Dragon Tattoo)!

News stories are reporting that Julia Roberts will produce and star in the movie adaptation. Apparently, she read the book in two days and solicited the part of Maya. I think that Fool Me Once is this year’s Gone Girl or Girl on a Train. Only this time the Girl is a heroine you can cheer for.

I love the twists and turns Coben puts in his thrillers. And yes, his novel plots are very similar to each other. But I am willing to take this wild ride every now and again, even if I know what I am in for.

Coben also wrote the Myron Bolitar series about a sports agent detective. If you haven’t read that series, start with number one, Deal Breaker, which won the 1996 Anthony Award in the category “Best Paperback Original.” I loved this series and fans will be happy to note that another Myron book will come out in September 2016, after nothing in that series since 2011.

  My rating: 4 out of 5

The Good Cop by Brad Parks

With Parks fourth book about Carter Ross, ace reporter for a Newark, NJ, newspaper, I found a predictable mystery – but who cares! Parks is funny, clever and entertaining as he takes his hero in search of a cop killer. The attraction in Park’s novels is Ross and his somewhat unrealistic but still fun adventures.

At first the police say that the dead cop committed suicide but Ross thinks differently. After all, why would a man with a job he loved, a beautiful and adoring family, and plans to go to Disneyland suddenly kill himself – and in the police station shower nonetheless!

The minor characters are some of the book’s high points with an intern who Ross uses and abuses, a boss who wants to have Ross’ baby and sources who are just short of ridiculous. The story is original even though it is the typical reporter who solves the crime story – a summer read to make you smile.

Parks’ debut, Faces of the Gone (2009), won the Nero Award for Best American Mystery and the Shamus Award for Best First Mystery. In doing so, Parks became the first author in the combined 60-year history of the Nero and the Shamus to win both awards for the same book. And The Good Cop won the Shamus Award for Best Novel in 2014.

I am going to go back and read all the Carter Ross series (there are 6 as of today). If you like to take a break sometimes from the violence and dark side of mystery novels, give Brad Parks a chance to amuse you with his fine writing.

My rating: 5 out 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

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.

 

Biografies

              Artist Alicia Martin transforms thousands of disused books into towers that pour out of windows and into the streets. Her larger than life sculptures have popped up throughout Europe.

Martin’s most recent project, called “Biografies,” is based in her home town of Madrid. Biografies incorporates three of Madrid’s historic buildings – where cascades of books pour out of each building like waterfalls.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web

 

As a big fan of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy about Lisbeth Salander, I welcomed a fourth novel in the series. I had great hopes of continuing to read about the angry, intelligent and unforgettable character. While Swedish writer David Lagercrantz does a fine job of bringing back Mikael Blomkvist, Salander’s journalist counterpoint, alas, he does nothing for me in his interpretation of Salander in Girl in the Spider’s Web.

The late Larsson wrote just three novels about Salander, all published posthumously, and selling more than 80 million copies around the world, thus far. Unfortunately, Larsson died without a will, leaving his estate to his father instead of his long time, but unmarried, live-in partner. The father was all too happy to hand the reigns over to Lagercrantz; while the unmarried partner, Eva Gabrielsson, has vocally opposed the continuation of the series.

I think that Eva was right — Larsson would not have been happy with this follow-up to his brilliant series. But then again, this book doesn’t really feel like it has much of a connection to the original series anyway, except for the use of the same characters and a great deal of explaining about the character’s back stories. Perhaps as an entirely new series, I would have less to complain about.

Larsson’s point in the Millennium series was to show all the types of violence against women — I think I counted 27 ways of hurting women in the first book, The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo. After all the real Swedish title to his first book was Men Who Hate Women! The Dragon Tattoo title change was for the sensitive American audiences. This Girl in the Spider Web follow-up, while not nearly as violent as Larsson’s books in the first place, also doesn’t make much mention of women at all.

This book is not about Salander— Blomkvist is the main character really. And not one we are all that concerned with. We see Blomkvist moping about. Bored now that the Millennium series is over (I couldn’t agree more!). But Lisbeth doesn’t even appear until a third of the way into the book. Lagercrantz tries so hard to tie this book to the first three through many pages of explanation of Salander’s back-story. Rather annoying to read about — I much prefer to see the action in a book, not be told of it.

The best part of the book is the autistic boy’s story line. But even here as Salander saves the boy, her motivation and intensity does not come through.

In fact motivation is a big problem in the book — the primary motivation for the crimes committed is simply greed, per usual, and not the complex need for power over others, especially women, that Larsson showed us in the Millennium Series.

The New York Times and The Guardian loved The Girl in the Spiders Web, but for me it was a shallow follow-up to a wonderful series. As a new stand alone, however, it was interesting and held my attention as long as I skipped over the back-story explanations, which were unfortunately, too often. I can only give it a 3 out of 5.

Film Noir Festival

The 14th Annual San Francisco Film Noir Festival
January 22-31, 2016
The Castro Theatre in San Francisco

This is the most popular film noir festival in the world — so they say! Twenty five noir-stained films explore the pressures, the pitfalls and the paranoia of living in an often cruel world…. Here are some of the films offered – perhaps I will re-watch a few in the comfort of my home when I am feeling in a darker mood. Though I don’t think I have ever seen “Screaming Mimi!” Such a title, obviously a murder or two awaits!

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.