All posts by Annette

Review: Ruthless Crimes – Sophie Allen #9 (Michael Hambling)

Ruthless Crimes is the ninth book in the Sophie Allen series. As usual, I’m coming into the series at this book having not read the previous books.

A man hurrying to catch a train for work finds a body in one of the carriages. The authorities are called and the dead man identified. problem: he doesn’t seem to exist. The team begins digging around. I was a bit confused, because while this is tagged with Sophie Allen as the presumed lead of the series, she doesn’t show up until chapter four.

As they trace the dead man, with Allen talking to the higher-ups as it seems the dead man may have been an undercover operative, a woman in a secure facility in another jurisdiction is killed by someone acting as a nurse. As with the dead man, the dead woman seems to also be a ghost. The teams intersect and there is more talking with intelligence types, who think this was some kind of off the books operation dealing with immigrants landing in the country.

During all this, an overloaded boat of immigrants is making its way to shore, capsizing as it gets into the breaks at the shore. Several people die, including a couple of children. The rest are taken to the hospital.

The authorities continue to investigate. The head of the off the books op is apparently kidnapped, held for several days, and manages to escape. She can’t think of any leaks, etc., via which anyone would know about the op or who is running it, and seems a tad sketchy.

More dead bodies show up – they seem to be part of the smuggling crew rather than random murders.

Eventually, it all comes to a head and the perps are caught.

I did not like this book at all. Not because of the content. That was fine, even with the author throwing his politics into things via long monologues by characters. There are more nuanced ways to do this that don’t involve the book pausing so a character can preach a the reader. It simply was not captivating in a way a book should be: too much politicking, as noted, too much characters telling one another the story and telling each other things they already know, just so the reader will. There were also some odd moments where the cops didn’t seem to be terribly smart: in one very striking instance, one of them wonders how criminals could have obtained falsified passports. Seriously? An officer offers to resign because a woman she had interviewed during the course of the investigation turns out to have been one of the bad guys. Not a happening thing. A house they’ve taped off for forensics is described as deserted, almost neglected, yet one officer has his service weapon out. Why, if the place is deserted and only other cops are present?

Speaking of -ly, I have never been one for the hard and fast rule of going through a manuscript and ejecting all adverbs. At the 80% point in this book, I was ready to embrace it fully. for this book, though, because by that time I was supremely annoyed by this book.

There was far too much telling versus showing in this book. Don’t tell me “(Name) could see something was wrong as (Other Name) came toward him.” How? Were they frowning? Brows furrowed? Walking briskly? Running? Scanning the surroundings for a threat? Just ending a phone call? Who knows? This happens A LOT.  Like the deserted, almost neglected house above. A couple of paragraphs after that, the author does give some details as to how the place looks. Dump the tell-y “looked deserted” line and just go with the description, as that will show the reader the same thing, instead of telling the reader and then showing it.

The author gets points for diversity, and for having a mystery involving current events like immigration and systemic racism. I just think the story could have used another developmental editing pass.

Two and a half stars out of five, rounded down to two.

Thanks to Joffee Books and NetGalley for the review copy.

Reviwe: The Night of the Fire – Ann Lindell #11, #8 in English (Kjell Eriksson)

This is the eleventh book in the Ann Lindell series and the eighth to be translated to English for those of us (like me) who generally love Nordic noir.

The titular night of the fire is how this entry to the Ann Lindell series begins: an abandoned schoolhouse, used as temporary housing for immigrants goes up in flames, rapidly running out of control and decimating the building, killing several immigrants in the process. There are several characters introduced – one an immigrant, who ran from the building, one an old man who saw who set the blaze, but does not tell the authorities, etc.

My biggest gripe and level of disgust came when the story indicated Swedes from the area made no attempt to do anything about the fire. According to the man who saw the arsonists, they stood around “as if attending a bonfire”. I had to take a short break from the book at that point, and that was right after the opening chapter.

In the meantime, someone has called the police, wanting to speak to Ann Lindell, the detective attached to the local station. But she no longer works there, leaving after her mentor retires. She now lives in a cottage in the village, making cheese , while still acknowledging to herself that she misses the thrill of the chase.

Anyone who has ever lived in a small town knows that small town folk tend to be guarded, and small towns usually have tons off secrets. Ann is drawn into the investigation, feeding the information she susses out to a former colleague. When additional fires break out, she does the same. There are also bombs going off, in the village, and in Stockholm. Are all these things related? And where is the missing immigrant? Is he the one going around doing this? If so, why?

Many current issues are brought up in the book: immigration, xenophobia, racism, and so on. Ann fights through all of these things in addition to the tight-lipped nature of her village. Eventually, the mystery is solved, but while on vacation, Ann is approached by a man who works for the national police, and cryptically tells her perhaps they will meet again when she walks away. Will she be drawn back to the work permanently and officially? I suppose we’ll need to read the next book to find out.

Overall impression: it does go heavy on current events, as noted. On the plus side, the book works just fine as a standalone, so reading the previous books in the series, while informative, is not necessary. Ann is a complex, deep character, without some of the tics/schticks that some writers put in place to make their characters memorable for reasons other than whatever it is they do in the story. The story is good, the investigations are carried out competently, without anyone suddenly doing anything completely out of character.

On the downside, at times the narrative got a bit clunky, but this could be more about the translation than anything else, as is not always easy to translate something and have it retain the same flavor as the original. The pacing drags just a bit, and there are numerous characters the reader has to track throughout, and this may be an issue for some people. The issues that pop up in the story may be a tad depressing for some people, and at times threaten to overwhelm the entire narrative. if you’re looking for a fast-paced mystery, this is not the book for you.

I’m giving it a solid four out of five stars. Ann is what really carries this book through to the end.

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

Review: Should Grace Fail – A Twin Cities Novel (Priscilla Paton)

Quick note: I know this was an uncorrected ebook, but the formatting of it was DREADFUL. Hopefully, they get it under control for the release.

Detective Deb Metzger, who was to speak briefly at an event hosted by Nancy Leclerc, scion of a hotel chain, is asked to take over the keynote speech, which was supposed to be given by Dan Routh, a former policeman, when Routh doesn’t show. She hesitantly agrees.

Routh, it turns out, has been murdered, his body found in a Dumpster. Detective Erik Janssen, Deb’s partner, is on the scene where the former policeman and now quasi-social worker has been found.

The duo are assigned to investigate, and the first person they wind up speaking to is Gordy, Routh’s sponsor in AA. Gordy’s one of the most delightful and funny characters in this book – clearly wanting to o good, and right by Routh, but he also clearly has a case of scattershot thinking. After collecting the information he has, they continue on, following Routh’s footsteps.

They find that Routh was lately working primarily with a girl named Luna – a fetal alcohol syndrome baby who grew up to be a talented musician. But she is in the wind, leaving Erik and Deb to start digging around in her life as well, trying to find her.

There’s a secondary plot involving Jaelyn, an accomplished pianist, who may or may not know Luna, but who is definitely seeing Ray, a drug dealer – and carrying cash and/or product around for him.

By this point, we have a good reading of the two detectives’ personalities: divorced Erik, quiet, and prone to going off to do something without telling Deb. Deb, single after breaking up with her last girlfriend, but seeing a possible new love interest in Jude, right hand to the imperious Nancy Leclerc.

As the story progresses, the overall investigation gets both broader but also more intently smaller, focused on Jaelyn’s drug dealing boyfriend, another young man who seems to be ready to spill his guts, and someone within Nancy’s inner circle.

Erik and Deb doggedly follow the clues, resulting in the arrest of the killer and a rather satisfying ending.

While there were a couple of draggy spots – the neighbors and voles/gophers, for instance – overall the book is quite readable and there weren’t any gigantic plot holes to run trucks though en route to all the pieces of the investigation dovetailing quite nicely at the end.

A solid four out of five stars.

Thanks to Coffeetown Press and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: Absence of Mercy – Lightner and Law #1 (S. M. Goodwin)

Absence of Mercy is the first of what I hope will be a very long string of books featuring Jasper Lightner, son of a duke sent to pre-Civil War America and Hieronymus Law, a former New York City policeman Lightner rescues from the Tombs, NYC’s notorious prison.

Lightner is a veteran of the Crimean War, having taken part in the charge of the Light Brigade and is the best Inspector the Metropolitan Police have. Police reformers in NYC have requested his assistance in solving a string of murders of wealthy men, all found outside brothels. The Home Secretary prefers that he go, but his father – horrified that the son of a duke is working at all – gives him a choice between two positions, neither of which he really wants: go to America for a year to assist them, or take a position that involves being a figurehead and nothing else. Lightner, stubborn, chooses to go to America for a year.

He lands not only in the period just prior to the American Civil War, but in a city already at war with itself, and corruption at every turn. The captain to whom he reports doesn’t want him, the rank and file resent him, and the Alderman he first meets seems to have his finger in every pie.

He begins his first case immediately: a wealthy man, killed in the same fashion two others were. As he susses out the case and finds out details of previous cases, he tracks down Law. Lightner’s boss has said he can have anyone he wants to assist him, so he basically jailbreaks Law in order to get the information Law has on the first two cases, as the case files for those have been conveniently lost at the precinct.

Together, they go through the mean streets of New York, into the bleakest, hellish basements of the poorest residents, to the posh and spotless homes of the very wealthy – including the widows of the men who had been killed.

As they continue to turn over every rock and put together evidence, they find men with disgusting predilections, men who claim to be reformers, men who actually are reformers helping free blacks flee to Canada (if you have seen 12 Years a Slave (and if you have not, you should) you will have seen at least one story of a free black man captured and sold into slavery; it is the same here in 1857 New York), women who know more than they tell, a plot involving guns, slaves, and money, and corrupt cops looking to get ahead by any means.

Lightner and Law’s investigation finally puts them on the trail to determining the culprit, but other factors are at work in the shadowy world of actors behind even the corrupt governing forces of New York. The real truth, when Lightner finally comes to it, is a punch to the gut.

This story takes no time at all to get moving – in fact, on the first page, we are with Lightner as he looks over a grisly murder scene. Lightner has sharp mind, an superb control of his emotions. Unfortunately, he also has a good chunk of his memory missing, a bum knee, gets headaches, and smokes opium-loaded cigars to treat his ailments. Law, for his part, turns out to be a fair detective himself, and tries to follow Lightner’s lead – asking questions people don’t want to answer, tracking down clues, so he can become a good detective rather than a fair one.

This is an excellent book, although there are a lot of characters, both dead and alive, and with differing loyalties, to keep straight. However, this does not detract from the book at all. The pace is quick when it needs to be, slower when it is appropriate. Overall, a superb read.

Five out of five stars.

Thanks to Crooked Lane Books and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: All Your Little Lies (Marianne Holmes)

Annie is a quiet, socially awkward young woman in love with her boss Paul, and thinks Paul feels something for her in return. After having a bit too much to drink at a company function, she talks just a tad too loudly about he relationship she sees between them, and is escorted to the door by am embarrassed Paul.

She knows where Paul keeps his spare keys, though, so while Paul continues at the pub, she goes into his apartment to wander around, leaving her nametag in his bathroom and taking a tiny statuette f a baby she had given him from his mantel. There is a moment she believe she is caught, after hearing voices outside his apartment, and once the voices have faded, she leaves, returning Paul’s spare keys to their hiding place.

Flushed with the success of her mission, she drunkenly makes her way back to the train station and then to her car, sits there for an hour or so, and then heads home.

From there, everything seems to go downhill for Annie. While Paul does not directly accuse her of being in his apartment the next day, she thinks he knows she was. In addition, a girl has gone missing from Annie’s area, and from a CCTV that captured the last known movement of the girl, Annie knows it is her car Chloe passes in front of. But Annie did not see her: she was not paying attention to anything outside. Feeling badly, she joins in the searches for the girl, but the others in the group she’s assigned to find her both weird and a little creepy due to her awkwardness.

After some hesitation, Annie finally calls the police to tell them she may have been the last person to see Chloe, even though she didn’t actually see the girl. When the police visit, she tells them this. But there are questions about her timeline, and they want to know why she didn’t actually see the girl who passed right in front of her. She has no good answer, of course, other than she was drink, but she can’t tell them that.

When people find out Annie has been interviewed by the police, suddenly the shy, awkward girl is the center of attention in the office. She enjoys it for awhile, but finds that being unable to give up any real meat about the case returns her to her lonely world.

During the searches, Annie sees that Chloe’s two best friends are behaving oddly. She doesn’t mention this to the police, makes a few (awkward, of course) mentions of the friends to her search team, and it’s clear they wish she was anywhere except with them.

After Chloe goes missing, and between scenes of the present, we get flashbacks to Annie’s childhood. Known as Lottie then, one day two older girls want to include her in a secret club that involves pixies (fairies). creatures Lottie is fascinated by. The girls draw her in by setting trials she has to complete, which she does, and the last of those is a rather heinous one: sacrifice.

All of this informs Annie’s rather odd development and her awkwardness in her adult life. Eventually, Paul confronts her about being in his apartment, but doesn’t fire her. The searches are called off, and the press gets wind of Annie’s past, then police return to question her some more, and eventually, her lie is going off the rails and she considers that she may need to flee.

But then a shocking conclusion brings the entire case crashing down: more secrets are revealed, and we find that sometimes, those closest to you can be the worst for you.

It’s a great story, and Holmes captures the shy, awkward kid turning into a shy, awkward adult incredibly well. There are no major plot or character issues, and this one gets a 4.5 out of 5 stars from me, rounded up to five.

Thanks to Agora Books and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: Sirocco – St. Nicholas Salvage & Wrecking #2 (Dana Haynes)

Sirocco is the second book in the St. Nicholas Salvage & Wrecking Series, and I have to say, it’s great fun.

The duo behind St. Nicholas Salvage & Wrecking – a sham company – an ex-cop named Finnegan and an ex-spy assassin named Fiero, work out of Cyprus as international bounty hunters. One day, the Paris Station Chief for the CIA, Annie Pryor, and Hugo Llorente, from the Spanish Central Intelligence (who also trained Fiero to be a killer) come to the office in Cyprus to hire them to track down the leadership of a jihadist group that has taken responsibility for bombings in various countries. The group follows up each bombing by releasing a video, with the usual death to the infidels sort of thing.Pryor and Llorente have dark money slush funds, so they’re paying an unspecified (tot he reader) but probably obscene amount of money, and promising that the two will have whatever support the can clandestinely give – a sort of blank check for a rollicking story that rolls through Switzerland, Spain, Germany, and France.

As Finnegan and Fiero dig around in the history of the bombings, a security company (think Blackwater) ALSO want to find the jihadis – and they want to get Finnegan and Fiero away from the trail because those two want to bring in the leader of the group for trial, but the security firm intends to kill him.

But as we learn through Finnegan and Fiero’s investigation, not everything is as it seems, and the truth of the reason for the bombings eventually reveals itself. A truth that brings danger right to their doorstep. To go deeper into it would be much too spoilery – and would take the fun out of reading it.

This is a fun, fast read. Some of the things that are done are not particularly believable, but beyond a couple of instances, the action was plausible, and the banter between Finnegan and Fiero was, at times, quite witty.

A solid four out of five stars.

Review: Solstice Shadows – VanOps #2 (Avanti Centrae)

Solstice Shadows is the second book in the VanOps series. As per usual, I have not read the first, but from the description, it apparently could be read as a standalone. I really, really wish the publisher had not implied this, because it is not so. It’s clear that the story of what came before is important, and treating this like a second book where the first needs to be read, instead of a standalone part of the series, does a disservice to the book and thus to the reader.

The issue is that the author does not weave the backstory into this book well. We get internal monologues out the wazoo, and a bunch of “As you know,” with some flat out telling mixed in for good measure. Were the backstory presented as necessary, in short bursts, instead of the author trying to get in a large chunk of it at once, it would have been less annoying.

At its most basic: a star chart that supposedly maps to a source of superconductive material has been stolen from the apartment of Maddy Marshall (if it’s so important, why does she not keep it in a safe?) but the thief did not find the sliver of a blade? material? something. She, her twin brother, and her boyfriend Bear have been recruited to the super super super secret VanOps group – interestingly, even with all the telling going on, I’ve no idea at 35% what the “van” part of that stands for – and Maddy is dithering on accepting because she’s part of a super super super secret and special group of international spies. Or something.

I’m sorry, but the narrative in this is driving me crazy as I read it and it’s going on the DNF list at 35%. I didn’t care about these people, what they’d done, or what they were going to do, and I just don’t think the writing itself is very good. This one was not for me, even though it sounded interesting when I came across it.

Thanks to Thunder Creek and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: Crimcon Lake Road – Desert Plains #2 (Victor Methos)

This will be part review and part storycraft (including consistency) and will contain spoilers. It also describes some of the gore in it. The book also deals in child abuse. If you want to read this book, or you’re not a fan of child in danger books, you may want to skip this review. It’s also fairly long.




Good? Good.

Crimson Lake Road is listed as “Desert Plains, #2” on Goodreads. As is the case in many of my reviews, I’m parachuting into a series after the characters have been established. It isn’t really apparent in this book that it’s #2 in a series on the cover (in fact, it doesn’t mention it at all) and past events aren’t really brought up in terms of these characters working together as a group, so it can and does work as a standalone, although reading the first will certainly inform the second.

The book opens with a horrific scene: a woman in a tunic on a kitchen table, her head obscured by bloody gauze. FBI agent Cason Baldwin and Detective Lucas Garrett (and everyone else in the entry team) believe the woman is dead. Until she start flailing around.

We then cut to a bar, where (super smart) Jessica Yardley, currently working for the US Attorney’s office is telling Baldwin she’s leaving the office and moving somewhere that she doesn’t have to see the terrible things she (and he) have seen. She agrees with her boss to work on this particular case and bring New Guy (Kyle? Don’t recall, he’s annoying and a cartoony frat boy know-it-all who has zero character development despite the fact he will be working this case) up to speed and get him going on it. New Guy’s schtick is having a sucker in his mouth all the time – even in court, and having to have the judge to tell him to ditch it. Even a frat boy would know this is not acceptable, come on.

Yardley goes to see the victim, whom they believe is the second victim of a killer using a series of four paintings as inspiration. The first, a woman named Kathy Pharr, did not survive. Yardley befriends woman #2, Angela River (“Call me Angie.”), telling herself there is no reason they can’t be friends. OK, I’ll push my disbelief that a prosecutor – even one leaving – would get emotionally involved with the victim of an open case in this way, even if Yardley seems desperate for friends and finds River a willing ear. The way things work out, however, it does seem that Yardley makes pretty bad choices about the people she wants to be in her life.

Meanwhile, everyone is trying to determine who the killer is, and delving into Pharr’s life to see if there are connections between her and River. There don’t seem to be any, but they keep digging, reinterviewing everyone. There’s an intimation that River’s fiancee, Dr. Michael Zachary could be the killer/attacker, based on a profile developed by the FBI. The BAU, in fact (who develop such profiles) is on the verge of being shut down, which brings some tension into Baldwin’s life, since that’s his department.

We get some references to Yardley’s teenaged daughter Tara, and Yardley tells her new bestie that she was once married to a man who was a serial killer (this is apparently what the first book is about) and had a relationship with another bad guy. Tara is described as some kind of math savant and super smart, and we find out that she has been secretly visiting her (super smart and super manipulative) father on death row, while telling her mother she’s working in the robotics lab at the university.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit I love a good, morally grey character. I’ll even root for bad guys if they’re doing good things. But I want consistency. Barring some catastrophic event, for instance, an FBI agent isn’t going to suddenly rob a bank. Yardley is conscientious and wants bad guys found and punished for their wrongdoings.

That’s why it bothered me that when Tara and a friend are at River’s house, and River leaves, Tara calls Yardley, knowing Yardley wants to snoop around a bit. When Tara asks her “That’s what you wanted, right?”, this should have been a sign to Yardley to rethink herself. Instead, she does go snooping, and in doing so, finds a garage with gauze, etc., that indicate Dr Zachary could be their man, and calls Baldwin to get a judge to sign a warrant to search Rover and Zachary’s outbuildings. Baldwin does write the warrant but does not get a chance to get it under a judge’s pen, so Yardley takes it, thin as it is, and gets it signed. This should have been another sign to Yardley. But it isn’t.

When the warrant is served, River naturally accuses Yardley of getting close to her solely for the purposes of arresting Zachary, and storms off – rightly so, in my opinion. But, River gets over it, and they’re again friends as the book moves suddenly to the viewpoint of a defense attorney, previously not introduced to the reader, by the name of Dylan Aster. If you asked me to point to the character I’d be most interested in reading a book about, it would be Aster.

It seemed to me that Methos was having much more fun writing the parts with Aster – from describing his antics in getting himself held in contempt during a trial in front of a particular judge so that judge would likely have to recuse himself from any case Aster was involved with, to the play he made to have himself be able to be present while the grand jury was seated for Zachary’s indictment. Aster was irrepressible, and those scenes both lightened he mood during the middle of the book, but also helped carry the middle along. Often, the “sagging middle” is quite a problem for writer and reader alike, but Methos has avoided that here for the most part.

Kathy Pharr’s daughter, Harmony, goes missing. Her father Tucker, recently released from prison after being convicted of snatching and murdering a girl about Harmony’s age, has seen nothing, heard nothing, and is generally unhelpful. He also talks like someone from an Appalachian holler. I’m supposing this is because we’re told he has something like a 5th grade education, and is not terribly bright, so of course he’d speak poor English and have a southern accent, living there in Nevada. Baldwin finds the girl’s necklace and her phone, but not the girl herself. Since Zachary was remanded without bail, so could not have taken the girl himself, the group posits that perhaps Zachary and Tucker were working together. An independent crime reporter has been hovering at the edges of the investigation, and Yardley encounters him while she and Baldwin are working a piece of the case, interviewing a drug addict who claims to have seen Harmony. She thinks it’s interesting that he was nearby, but then thinks nothing more of it.

Meanwhile, in a subplot involving Tara, she is doing some work for her imprisoned father, selling his artwork. She changes her appearance and goes to some very sketchy warehouses to meet some equally sketchy bad dudes. This does not strike me as the actions of a supposed very smart person, and although Tara is described as a “savant”, she’s not someone who cannot function in society. She knows it’s dangerous, she knows her father is dangerous, yet she tells her mother nothing of all this (and Yardley doesn’t ask, even though a 17 year old seems to be at a college lab at all hours, every day).

The drug addict is then found hanging by his intestines in a house at Crimson Lake Road. This scene is not described in details, but the original painting that inspired it was. If you’ve seen the movie Hannibal (the film, with Anthony Perkins and Julianne Moore), the scene where Hannibal kills Inspector Pazzi will give you a good idea of it.

The group finally begins to realize that Zachary is not guilty, and looks even more closely at the original incident for which Tucker went to prison, which occurred in another town. Baldwin is close behind her, but Yardley is abducted before he arrives. When she comes to, she realizes she’s in a basement, and Tucker is strapped to a table, naked. The character who snatched her – who we guessed was the crime reporter – leaves the basement for a minute, and Yardley opens the small window to get out, but is unable to do so before their captor returns, and quickly hides in a closet. Their captor goes charging out to chase down Yardley, who manages to get out of the house for real and begins running. The bad guy is almost on her when Baldwin arrives on..I mean in…his Mustang to clip the bad guy and then cuff him.

Yardley’s fine, for the most part, and Tucker has been rescued, but is under arrest, as they’ve discovered Tucker used to live on Crimson Lake Road, and his family had other land there back in the day. While Tucker is lying in a hospital bed, cuffed to the rail, a nurse comes in, supposedly to give him pain meds, but really to inject him with something that will paralyze his muscles but will keep his heart and brain working while she slices and dices him to remove all his organs like the fourth painting.

We’ve already guessed that River is involved in these killings. When Yardley goes to River’s house, she sees that River has left in a hurry. Good thing they were BFFs, and River told Yardley where she’d go if she left the area. Yarley calls San Pedro to let them know there’s a fugitive in their area. She goes herself, finds Sue Ellen/Angie, who has Harmony with her. Yardley tells River she’s decided not to leave the US Attorney’s office after all, and that she’s going to move to the crimes against children section. Baldwin, for his part, has also told his boss he wants to move to the crimes against child department, which I suppose means the series will continue with these two working together in books detailing the number of ways people can be horrible to kids. I’m not squeamish, and I know these things happen, but I know I’ll also pick something else to read if it’s a choice between that and something like this, even if the bulk of the horrible acts of violence are left offscreen.

Remember consistencies? It was VERY difficult for me to believe that Yardley would just let River walk away – and take Harmony with her, even though I understood River’s motives. But she does just that, and I had been rooting for her to find her integrity again. Alas, I was disappointed. Hopefully, in the next book, Yardley will reflect on her choice to get too cozy with the victim of a case.

Four stars for a good premise for the murders and not just the investigation, but the way some investigators stop looking at things closely once they think they have the perp – looking at you, New Guy. Two stars for inconsistency and inaction/blind eye in Yardley. We’ll go with the middle and give it three stars out of five. Worth a read if you’re not too squeamish.

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

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.