Review: The President’s Dossier (James A. Scott)

I almost added my nonfiction-scams tag to this one in addition to tagging it as a thriller, as the book is clearly based on the Steele Dossier. If you are not from the US, or do not follow US politics, the Steele Dossier (in this book, renamed the Ironside Dossier) reported on Russian involvement during the 2016 elections in the US, favoring the Republican candidate.

In The President’s Dossier, Max Geller, who previously worked for the CIA in its Moscow station, has been fired from the Agency after he offers anything less than praise for recently elected President Ted Walldrum (which anagrams to Mr Lewd Adult, something I found amusing and fitting, given the real life person he’s modeled on), dumped by one girlfriend only to take up with another who works so much they barely see one another, and even with his credentials is unable to find a new job three weeks after his dismissal. He wonders if the Agency is waving people away from him. This “Duh!” moment is one I will have repeatedly for Max throughout the book, even though he is supposedly a superspy.

One day, a man named Bowen appears at the bar where Max spends his afternoons, carrying a briefcase of money. He offers $10 million (USD) to Max to verify the content of (and thereby sources for) the Ironside Dossier, so named because of the British MI6 intelligence officer who put it together. As someone obviously not a fan of Walldrum, Max has no issues signing a contract – with a Panamanian entity Bowen represents, which should have been another flag for Max – and taking the job.

Max also receives a call from Rodney, his old boss at the CIA, who knows Bowen has been to see him (another red flag) and dangles some reward in front of him. He also gives Max some gear, including an identity and a satphone.

I was suspicious, and Max should have been as well. Max makes some calls to have other people get all sorts of arrangements done – travel, gear, surveillance, etc. In fact, he doesn’t seem to do much work himself of any sort that is not either walking into a place under a forged identity, sometime lifting documents or thumb drives from people, sleeping with Jill Rucker, who Bowen assigned to Max as a cutout (i.e., someone between Bowen and whoever he represents and Max), or getting kidnapped and subsequently rescued by other members of his team. There are also operational failures that are unforgivable – Max gets other people killed because he fails to think things through. As just one instance, he doesn’t even seem to consider for a moment that perhaps Ironside is under surveillance by the Russians.

After being kidnapped, rescued, then rescued again in the same chapter, and now being hunted by MI6 in addition to the Russians, Max and crew head to St. Petersburg (Russia), to verify some items in the dossier – specifically, the loans and money laundering, and what I refer to as the “peeing with prostitutes” thing, all of which are in the real Steele Dossier. There is a nice setup with lookalikes that allow Max and Jill to leave the cruise ship they were on and not reboard it, giving them a head start on Russian intelligence.

After some time and activities in St Petersburg, the action moves to Moscow, where they contact a group known as Omega, who are working toward a future where Putin is removed from office and the oligarchs prosecuted for looting the country. In one of those more fantastical scenes, Max and Rucker impersonate FSB officers, enter a bank where one of the Omegas works, and retrieve thumb drives from a worker there. But Max, having not entirely thought it out, is seen by a security guard. That leads to a shootout and various deaths, and they’re now on the run again, chased by Zaluda on behalf of the Russian intelligence service.

One thing that had me scratching my head was just how easily Max and Rucker managed to move from country to country. At no point were they ever questioned about their identities, held up at Customs, or anything else. They either simply traveled as themselves, without facial altering, under forged identities, or impersonated (in one rather unbelievable instance) a man and woman who looked very much like them, who just happened to be part of a flight crew of a Russian plane leaving for Paris.

Every now and again, Max asks himself some questions: about the timing of his firing, and why, about his current girlfriend, about Bowen/Panama, about his old boss offering him the same job, and so on. Never does he actually delve into any of it, even though this entire job could at any point result in his death or the deaths of members of his team. He is suspicious of Bowen, and (finally) of Rucker, sending her to Mexico City, away from the rest of the team.

Panama was next on the list, where they verified, somewhat loosely, the loan/money laundering items by breaking in to the 13th floor of “Walldrum Tower Panama” and seeing that the floor was incomplete and showed no signs of any work in progress – even though the entire floor of condos had been purchased by Russians. Max is, once again, caught while snooping around and is rescued by another member of the team. It’s in this portion of the book that the manner in which money is laundered via loans and real estate investing/purchases is explained fairly well by one of the characters to Max, in layman’s terms – so, also, to the reader, since Max should presumably know at least the basics. There’s a showdown between Max and Rucker, from whom he forces the truth, after she shows up very angrily in Panama City.

The whole gang then moves back to the US, their job complete: mirroring real life once more, they’ve verified the Ironside Dossier. Bowen says Max has not completed it, because the sources are not named. Max refuses to name them, pointing out that Bowen only contracted him to verify the details. It occurred very late to Max that maybe, just maybe, Bowen was working for the Russians, trying to get Max to name names attached to the items in the dossier, which would have resulted in a (longer) hitlist for the Russians.

There’s more shooting, a showdown with Rodney, and then, of course, the nonsensical bureaucratic issues that plagued the real Steele Dossier. I won’t give away the actual ending, to avoid spoilers, but it sets things up nicely for Max and his crew if they should go on other adventures that are very noisy and leave a trail of bodies everywhere.

The writing is fine, and the book speeds right along between different milieus – in fact, there’s very little downtime that we actually see, versus hear about. There’s also an annoying motif where this sort of thing happens:

Character: (says something in code)
Spyspeak: (explains what Character just said)
Character: (says something in code)
Spyspeak: (explains what Character just said)

We get it, spies speak in code, but it would have flowed better had Max just explained it once he got off the phone with whoever it was.

The beginning and end of this shadow reality: there is a dossier, it was adjudged to be predominantly true, and the conclusion was reached that the Russians did interfere with the 2016 US presidential election. The middle part is one account of how the investigation of its content could have gone, and despite the items that bugged me about Max and how some of the story was conveyed, I’d say it isn’t a bad way to spend a couple of hours.

3.5 out of five stars, rounded down to three for the issues mentioned.

Thanks to Oceanview Publishing and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: The March Fallen – Gereon Rath #5 (Volker Kutscher)

In my usual theme, I’ll say this is the fifth book of the Gereon Rath series, but he first I’ve read (and i have not watched Babylon Berlin, which is based on one or two of the previous books in this series). I’m happy I began with this one. Allow me to explain.

I’m a student of history, and especially WWII, with a side dip into the sociological studies of how good people do and say nothing in the face of great evils. In The March Fallen, it is 1933 Berlin, and the Nazis are consolidating their power. When a homeless WWI veteran is murdered at a train station, Rath is tasked with finding his killer – a job no one else wants to do.

The book starts out slowly, but is worth getting through, as Kutscher draws the atmosphere of an ill wind blowing into Germany while Rath puts his head down ad goes to work. Change is all around him, and despite his somewhat tepid suggestion to Charly, his fiancee, that good people will not go along with the Nazi plans, it’s clear that eventually, he will have to face the reality that his job is not just to find murderers, but to toe the Nazi line, and watch what he says and does, lest he make the wrong person angry and wind up in the hands of the SA.

The murdered man is identified by the author of a memoir, who identifies the dead man as being his orderly – and a witness to their (Jewish) Captain’s shooting of two children and another German soldier over a disagreement about gold their unit had found in a French villa as they retreated, destroying everything in their wake.

Meanwhile, another storyline focuses on a young girl – the daughter of a injured veteran who drifted into hopelessness and drugs, disillusioned with the country he once served – who set fire to the boardinghouse where they lived, killing her father and others, in her quest to escape the abuse she suffered at the hands of other men there. She’s judged unfit to stand trial and sent to a sanitarium, where she once again is abused by a man (a one legged man, keep this in mind as you read). Her escape is very clever, but everyone is trying to find her, so she relies on her wits to survive the streets. This seems to have nothing to do with the main plot of the book. Over time, as Rath’s investigation digs more deeply, that will change.

Charly gets her own subplot, as she is sent back to the department where the female detectives investigate graffitti and the like – neither this nor the changes in her country are things that she is happy with. She, at least, recognizes what’s happening, but trying to get through to Rath results in them quarreling about it. She decides to unofficially help in the investigation.

There’s a case of misidentification, missteps by Rath that lead to at least one death, the smuggling out – in plain view- a prisoner of the SA, the ebb and flow of personnel as rising stars in the Nazi party consolidate the power they have around themselves, constant surprises to Rath of people he thought he knew wholeheartedly joining the Nazis, and a satisfying resolution that both catches the killer and clears the name of the maligned Jewish Captain, in a nice dovetail of all the storylines.

It’s worth the read.

Five out of five stars.

Thanks to Sandstone Press and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: Every Waking Hour – Ellery Hathaway #4 (Joanna Schaffhausen)

Every Waking Hour is the fourth book in the Ellery Hathaway series. While it is possible to get through it as a standalone, I’d recommend reading the previous books – something I have not done – because of the sheer trauma of the lead character, who was abducted by a serial killer and survived until she was rescued by Reed Markham, an FBI agent. Hathaway is now a detective with the Boston PD, and winds up being the lead on the disappearance of Chloe Lockhart, who vanishes at a fair at which the pair happens to be at with Markham’s young daughter.

I don’t mind characters who have some Bad Thing in their past that winds up shaping them. It’s a bit harder to imagine them in various stressful professions (like a detective) when they clearly exhibit PTSD symptoms as much as Hathaway does. While it strikes me that she’s obviously very strong to have survived a hellish near death experience, it would give me pause to set her out on the street where the very possibility of the same thing happening to someone else – like the missing Chloe – could potentially derail their ability to perform her duties. I’m also not a fan of Markham and Hathaway’s relationship, but I understand why it’s there for fictional purposes.

That aside: it’s a good story, with many excellent suspects, following clues that often lead nowhere (as is often, unfortunately, the case), some nice red herrings thrown in, and while not an entirely unexpected ending (if you remove all the potentials when you read it, you’ll understand), a satisfying one. There’s also a fascinating subplot involving another Lockhart child, along with a bit of discussion about protecting kids versus basically jailing them.

Overall, I’d recommend it unless children in danger is not your bag. A solid four out of five stars.

Thanks to Minotaur/St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: Bone Canyon – Eve Ronin #2 (Lee Goldberg)

Yet another series I come to without having read anything previous. This is actually useful, because it allows me to evaluate a book almost as a standalone and see how the author weaves in some of the backstory so we get to know what has come before and who the main character (and some of the secondary characters as well).

Rookie detective Eve Ronin has been called out to a scene where human remains have been found due to a wildfire that exposed them. Her partner, Duncan, is on the edge of retiring, which worries her, as she’s not certain that she can do the job. This is a recurring theme, and gets old a bit quickly.

How did she get the job? Based on the pieces of the backstory, she was essentially shoved into the position, leapfrogging other officers attached to the Sheriff’s Department, breeding resentment among some of the other LASD members.To add to the pile of simmering resentment – and since it’s Hollywood, after all – people are approaching Ronin about a film version of the escapades that happened in the previous book. As we go through the story, Ronin is also rehabbing her wrist with a physical therapist due to an injury sustained in the previous book.

The remains belong to a young woman who simply vanished some years ago. When another set of remains is found, and a jogger goes missing on the hills, Ronin and Duncan have their work cut out for them. While both skeletons have been determined to be female, there is seemingly nothing to tie the two female victims together. The detectives slog through the work of following the trail to determine what happened to these women and who needs to be brought to justice.

Warning: rape and suicide are both in this investigation. While the former is not depicted directly, but only as a recounting of events in the past, the latter is described as it happens, narrative-wise. There is also a blame the victim mentality going on for the rape.

Eventually – and some readers will figure this out before the reveal, as I did – the bad guy will be found and arrested for their misdeeds.

The story flows nicely, and except for a couple of draggy moments that clear up quickly, and the suspension of disbelief a reader will need to believe someone would be promote to homicide investigation in the way Ronin seemingly was, it’s well rounded and is a quick read.

Four out of five stars.

Review: Black River – Jess Bridges Mystery #1 (Joss Stirling)

Jess Bridges, out with her reading group on the banks of the river Thames, decides to go skinny dipping after a bit too much to drink. Her clothes are taken by a dog, and her friend goes running after it, leaving Jess shivering in the bushes. She spies a boat, and thinking it may have a tarp or something else she can cover herself with, slips into the water and pulls it toward her. She doesn’t find a tarp – she finds a dead man.

Thus begins Black River, which is listed as “Jess Bridges Mystery, #1”. That would be remarkable for me, as I usually find myself landing in the midst of an ongoing series. However, it seems as if Jess has found a dead body previously – both she and DI Leo George mention “the West case”, as if it’s something the reader might know about. And the reader might know about it if there were a book about it prior to this one.

Jess is discovered on the bank by Jago Jackson, who had been jogging on the path. He happens to be the author of a book Jess’ book club was reading, on wild swimming – that is, going to swim in places people usually don’t go, or a hidden swimming hole, and things of hat nature. Of course he wants to ask her out, and does. DI George shows up, and begins his investigation, questioning Jess. Of course he wants to ask her out, but does not, as that would be unseemly.

The investigation itself is well written when it’s DI George on the trail, moving from dot to dot to trace who the dead man is and what he would be doing there. Then, another two bodies are found, this time in a place Jackson has mentioned in his book, and where he had taken Jess to go swimming. Is someone targeting Jackson? Jess? The culprit does seem to be picking places Jackson has written around, so DI George calls in Michael Harrison to consult. He, of course, was involved with Jess years ago, and of course Harrison and Jackson have some animosity toward one another, it’s said, but it doesn’t appear all that much except for when Michael is handling the narrative.

We also get DI George taking his turn at the narrative reins (as does Jackson), but it’s clear Jess is the primary character. I found I would rather have stayed with DI George throughout.

There is a subplot involving Jess and her breakup with her boyfriend, and her taking a case for her side job of finding missing persons. The missing person is not actually missing – she’s just gone to her father’s, and the father is threatening the mother about claims the girl has made. The girl, to me, seems to be a sociopath in the making. Jess’ job is to find out what’s true and what is not about the situation.

The main and the subplot dovetail in the end, as various adults, except Michael, fanning out to search for both the girl and her young brother. The culprit is revealed during the course of the search and captured, and the subplot’s resolution explained to us all.

Overall, it wasn’t a bad read. It isn’t a five star read, though, and I have a hard time with female protagonists who attract virtually every man they come across, including some gay dudes. The opening coincidence between Jess and Jackson is something I know is required for the plot, and I’m feeling generous today, so I’ll give it a pass. The theory of the murders is at least possible, although the first murder is never really fully explained in terms of what connection it has to Jackson’s book on wild swimming.

I’ll give it four out of five stars.

Thanks to One More Chapter/HarperCollins UK and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: Out of Her Mind – Sawyer Brooks #2 (T. R. Ragan)

This is the second book to feature Sawyer Brooks, following Don’t Make a Sound, which I have not read. While I found this did not completely torpedo my ability to follow this second book without having read the first, I think it would have been quite helpful to have read that first book, especially to understand Sawyer’s personal issues and the Black Wig ladies. It was a bit confusing to suddenly jump into the head of one of the latter group.

Here, we have Sawyer looking into the disappearance of a young girl after her music lesson at the home of her piano teacher. While the authorities are treating it as a generic disappearance, Sawyer digs around and finds connections to other disappearances. When the bones of a small child are unearthed, the stake get even higher, and it’s then a race against time for Sawyer to find the missing girl, with the help of her editor and sister.

I filed this under thriller instead of mystery, because there is no mystery here: we know who took the girl, because the perpetrator gets their own turn in the spotlight, with several chapters from their viewpoint. The only mystery involved here is whether Sawyer and crew will find the girl before she, too, winds up in a shallow grave.

When the narrative suddenly broke into the viewpoint of one of the Black Wigs women, it was a little jarring and a tad confusing. Again, this may be due to me not having read the first book. We also get several scenes of what those women are doing to men who have harmed them. It wasn’t until the third time that I realized one of the women was Sawyer’s other sister (not the one helping her find the missing girl).

The story was enjoyable enough – there isn’t anything hidden from the reader, so what Sawyer knows, we know, and that’s a plus for me, as I don’t like withheld evidence that prevents readers from connecting the dots to find the ad guy (or in this case, potentially find the missing girl).

I gave this 3.5 stars out of five, and rounded it up to 4, as there were no glaring plot holes. Although there were some scenes that didn’t quite ring true, those involved the Black Wig crew and not the main character.

Thanks to Thomas & Mercer and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: Missing Persons – Buddy Steel #1 (Michael Brandman)

Buddy Steel, who has relocated from LA to the small town of Freedom to take over the Sheriff reins from his father – who has been recently diagnosed with ALS -finds himself investigating the apparent disappearance of the wife of a well known and well liked local preacher of a megachurch.

This is listed as “Buddy Steel #1”, and is the first in a series for Brandman, who some people may know picked up Robert Parker’s Jesse Stone novels after Parker died, and who has also written some of the Jesse Stone movies.

Unfortunately, Buddy Steel reminds me a ton of Jesse Stone (for those who have not read those books, Stone relocates from LA to the small town of Paradise, although on the other side of the coast, has loads of sarcastic dialogue, doesn’t like wearing his uniform, beds the local ladies, etc.). Steel is sardonic, doesn’t like wearing his uniform, doesn’t waste time falling into bed with a woman with whom he comes into contact due to an investigation, and so on.

In Steel’s case, the woman part of that equation is the sister of the preacher – and Brandman has tried a bit too hard to make the woman quirky (she has a quirky blog, wears quirky clothes, etc.). He wears civilian clothes and often does not identify himself as he wanders in and out of areas like the living quarters of the family at their megachurch location. The dialogue is also trying to hard to make Buddy seem sarcastic and/or humorous, and it sometimes misses the mark.

The story is fairly straightforward, although in some cases stretches the limits of suspension of disbelief. The housekeeper for the Long family reports Catharine Long as missing, and further says Preacher Long is acting oddly about it. She’s in fear for her life, because of course the Longs run everything in town, so she reports it to Steel, then vanishes, never to be heard from again.

Steel doesn’t care where he has to go or who he might offend, and starts poking around. Various people declare that Catherine is fine, the Long family attorneys threaten to sue, there’s a subplot involving another Long brother of being in cahoots with a local gang, as well as a Ponzi scheme, and the entire thing reads like an episode of American Greed, as if various elements were pulled out, tossed together, and this is what the end result is.

It’s a very fast read, but reads more like something written for TV than something written for a novel. In some places, descriptions are scarce. In others, it’s hard to track who is saying what in the dialogue – even though I am a firm believer in using as few dialogue tags as possible, I think there needs to be *something* in place every so often so the reader doesn’t have to backtrack to match up dialogue. This is made particularly difficult when it’s anyone but Steel and the quirky sister talking (although I counted one 19-exchange instance between the two of them that had no attribution beyond Steel beginning the exchange) as everyone in the department seems to have the same sardonic tone and is trying to be funny. This sort of thing is fine for TV, since there will be bother visual cues and the actors’ voices won’t be the same, but can make for some difficult novel reading.

The book (originally released in 2017) sets itself up well for further books in the series, as evidenced by the three books that followed this one. In a rare twist for me and ARCs, this is the first book I’ve read in a series new to me, versus the nth. I’m not quite sure if I’ll read the books that follow (although who am I kidding, I have some weird compulsion to read all the books in a series).

Overall, a fast read with a decent enough mystery at its heart.

Three stars out of five.

Thanks to Poisoned Penn Press an NetGalley for the review copy.

RIP, Notorious RBG

Ruth Bader Ginsburg died today at the age of 87 due to complications from cancer.  First of all, fuck cancer – nobody deserves it, no matter who they are. Second….no, I’m not going to say that part out loud, since people get stupid and offended too easily these days.

The rest – my words are failing me, for once. I have crossed some Rubicon where everything I try to write seems simplistic and unworthy of a breath of life.

Rest in peace, Ruth.

 

Review: When the Past Kills – DI Ridpath #5 (M.J. Lee)

I wasn’t that enamored with the title, even though it does reflect the goings-on in the book. That said, the synopsis was intriguing, and although I’d not read any of the previous DI Ridpath books, I was hopeful that the character and the writing was fairly mature.By that, I don’t mean in age, but in development. There have been some series I’ve read where the author still doesn’t really know what they’re doing with their main character until they’re ten books in, and it makes reading the books a bit of a chore.

Not so with When the Past Kills: DI Ridpath, recently diagnosed as being free of the cancer that forced him to take time off, is working as an investigator in the Coroner’s Office before he can return to the major incident team (MIT). Throughout the book, he’s just a guy – albeit a good investigator – trying to balance his work and personal life. Fortunately, he wasn’t constantly moping or preoccupied with how his work life interferes with his personal life. When I see that in books, I have to roll my eyes, and I want to yell at the character that they chose this career, and if they wanted one where they could spend more time with their family, they could do that. Otherwise, man up and let’s get the story rolling.

Ridpath’s old team is now being led by DCI Paul Turnbull, who is exactly like That Guy all of us know: convinced of his own superiority in every aspect, who is in a rush to close out an investigation or case or issue orders without much contemplation about what resources should be set where, kissing the boss’ ass, and in general, being an all around terrible person. Turnbull is not pleased that Ridpath is on loan to MIT due to a series of events related to an innocent man being sent to prison before the real killer – who Ridpath helped catch – was caught and sentenced.

The book opens with the coroner being sent a video of the previous coroner being hung. We then backtrack to the desecration of a grave – that of an investigator who was lead on the case that jailed the innocent man. Others are picked off (warning – if you can’t abide animals being harmed, do not read this book) one by one as Ridpath and MIT desperately attempt to get one step ahead of the killer, who they are sure is the once-innocent man who is not so innocent any longer.

There are loads of twists and turns, and the only item that really bothered me is something I can’t list here without it being a spoiler. Suffice to say that we directly meet a lot of people along the way in this book except one that matters quite a bit. The very end bothered me just a tad, as I’m not a fan of cliffhangers, but I’m more forgiving of those in an established series.

That said, it was an enjoyable read. A solid four out of five stars.

Thanks to Canelo and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: The Reflecting Pool (Otho Eskin)

I do love a sardonic, grey-moral kind of main character.

Marko Zorn is a Washington, DC detective who dresses well, drives a Jaguar, and basically doesn’t look the part in this noir-ish book. He happens to catch a case of the death of a woman in the Reflecting Pool. He’s also been assigned a new, young partner who is part new guy, part puppy.

When he begins investigating the murder, he’s suddenly being told to stand down by everyone from the FBI to the Secret Service – all telling him to let it go, but as he tells the mysterious Miss Shaw, the woman looked like his dead sister, and he promised to find out who killed her.

In the middle f this, a woman named Sister Grace – a local gangster, and for whom Zorn occasionally does some jobs, which allows him to wear those snazzy clothes and drive that fancy car – has another job for him. This time, though, it’s murder, to take out her second in command (Cloud), who is getting a bit too full of himself. That, however, is a line Zorn has told himself he would not cross. Sister Grace doesn’t care about his ethics, of course, and tells him to figure it out.

The investigation flows along nicely, without things like DNA or toxicology coming back in thirty minutes. There are times when witnesses or interviewees melt a bit too quickly under Zorn, but it’s a good, fun (if murder can be fun) story that is both gritty and strangely polished at the same time, due to Zorn’s personal habits and the interplay of his professional role and coming into contact with Federal offices, and the jobs he does to appease what is basically his gangster boss.

I enjoyed the dialogue. It was neither too stilted nor trying too hard to be edgy. There were some instances where it was rather snappy, and overall, it was what you’d expect if you were shadowing a detective doing their job.

In the end, Zorn does figure out a way to complete the task given to him by Sister Grace, via proxy, by setting up Cloud and Cloud’s right hand against one another. That scenario was more believable than the conclusion of the mystery of the murder.

The reveal of the killer was a bit of a letdown,and I didn’t think it was totally believable. But it was one conclusion that could have been reached by the investigation, and was possible, if not probable, so I didn’t ding it too badly for that.

Overall: a decent read, and a solid four out of five stars. I am hopeful that Zorn becomes a series character.

Thanks to Oceanview Publishing and NetGalley for the review copy.