Category Archives: Book Reviews

Review: James W. Ziskin Heart of Stone

Review: Heart of Stone – James W. Ziskin
Susan Courtright – S.E. Shirley

How does Ziskin follow the Anthony Award nominated Stone Cold Dead? He sends Ellie Stone on vacation. If Tom Wolfe cautioned against going home again, he didn’t think to include childhood vacation camps, especially when those camps contained a couple of bodies at the bottom of a cliff. Ellie is thrown into a maelstrom of feelings old and new, untangling lifelong relationships of relatives and friends, and by the way, solving the murders of the newly-discovered corpses. Ziskin is, as always, gentle with Ellie’s naiveties, given her often-audacious behaviors in the early 1960s; he allows Ellie to explore her past girlhood crushes – redux. No matter how often the reader sighs with understanding of Ellie Stone’s relationship situations, there is no doubt about her innate prowess as a detective. Shrewd dissection of her surroundings, instinctive observations of the people within the circle of the crimes, leave the reader nodding in admiration of Ellie’s abilities.
Ziskin recounts with his extraordinary love of language the times of the mid-20th century when Jewish groups of like souls gathered in mountain camps to celebrate music, literature and politics. It is a little-explored time of American East-coast history, and fascinating to read. As with the earlier Ellie Stone books, James Ziskin writes in a prose reminiscent of Raymond Chandler and his era: taut plotting combined with read-aloud language.
The best of the Ellie Stone novels – FIVE STARS

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Book Review: “A Serial Killer in Nazi Berlin” by Scott Andrew Selby

Having read “The Axmann Conspiracy” the eagerly anticipated “A Serial Killer in Nazi Berlin” came as a great shock. This reviewer is not naive and widely read about the atrocities served up by the Nazis during the horrors of World War II.  There is something in this book though that defies even the extremes of the Holocaust.  In this outing Selby, a consummate researcher, serves up the grim story of “the chilling true story of the S-Bahn murderer”.  The killer, one Paul Ogorzow, a physically forgettable railway employee on the S-Bahn in Berlin, begins his hunt for women on September 20, 1940.  Nighttime blackouts were in place, although the ruby red/yellow ochre cars of the high-speed rail transportation above-ground were not blacked out.  As in all of Europe and the U.K. most of the jobs were taken by women – the men conscripted into various military.  For a fledgling serial killer the potential prey was a plentiful assortment of women coming and going alone in the train compartments.  Although serial killers as an entity provoke mighty yawns in true crime, mainly because they are a singularly uninteresting group with tweaked minds, this killer was able to evade authorities.  The elite Kripo (kriminalpolizei), led by police commissioner Wilhelm Ludtke, put a sound team together to track down, arrest and try whomever was attacking women, raping them and tossing their death or near-dead bodies off the trains.  As the killer escalates, so does the Kripo, until in mid-July, 1941 Ludtke was able to obtain a confession from Ogorzow, thus allowing the women of Berlin to breathe again.

The End?  Hardly.  This book is chilling, and not because of a serial killer.  The polizei/political hierarchy in Berlin was comprised of names that make hairs stand up on the necks of readers everywhere:  Himmler, Goebbels…the best of the best detectives living in a parallel universe: finding a ruthless killer and bringing him to justice with additional ‘duties’ of eradicating Jews – by mass shootings, gassings, preparing for the ‘final solution’.

Selby’s writing style is always simple and direct as he is seducing the reader to the edge of the abyss and kicking that reader down the rabbit hole – this one will keep you up at night.

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The Invisible Code – A Bryant & May Peculiar Crimes Unit Adventure

There are few writers whose work I eagerly anticipate – Christopher Fowler and his amazing cast of “peculiar” characters are among those!  The latest offering “The Invisible Code” once again pits the always-in-jeopardy Peculiar Crimes Unit against a heinious invisible villain, the Home Office (always looking for an excuse to shut down the Unit), and their own bosses.  St. Bride’s Church is the readers’ new domain and history lesson, along with a trail of clues scattered from the infamous Bedlam Hospital to the code-breaking Bletchley Park of WWII fame.

Fowler has the supreme gift of leading the reader through historical mazes while never missing a beat with his tightly-patterned plots.  The oft ill-used phrase “twists and turns” never enters the lexicon of Senior Detectives Arthur Bryant, John May, reluctant Acting Unit Chief  Raymond Land, and the five other members:  Janice Longbright (Detective Sergeant), Dan Banbury (Crime Scene Manager/InfoTech), Giles Kershaw (Forensic Pathologist – St Pancras Mortuary), Jack Renfield, (Sergeant), Meera Mangeshkar (Detective Constable) – oh and Crippen, the Staff Cat.  The various other cast members, Bryant long-suffering housekeeper, Alma plus  his dear friend and white witch, to say nothing of the connecting characters at Bletchley Park, take the inquisitive reader through  a maze of clues, respecting and challenging the reader to form some sort of pattern in order to solve the intertwined cases.

Another pip of a yarn from Christopher Fowler, hard at work on his next two Peculiar Crimes Unit mysteries: The Bleeding Heart and  The Bleeding Man.  So ready the teapot, put on the kettle, search up a few biscuits and boiled sweets and prepare to enjoy The Invisible Code.

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Review: Death and the Olive Grove – Marco Vichi

olive groveThere are four novels and two short stories that feature Florentine Inspector Bordelli, native of a small town in Tuscany near Fiesole.  Although translated into English (kudos to the translation of award-winning Stephen Sartarelli) none of the atmosphere suffers.  Marco Vichi acknowleges the assistance of Carlo Lucarelli “for having saved me at the outline stage”, and the cover quotes Andrea Camilleri, “Inspector Bordelli is a disillusioned anti-hero who is difficult to forget”.  This last provoked an entire after-dinner evening of Bordelli fans who find it difficult to call him an anti-hero;  the Second World War is still within nightmares in 1964 and some monster is killing little girls and leaving bite-marks in their stomachs.  As child after child is murdered, Bordelli becomes more and more obsessed with locating the perpetrator and discovering his motive.  Bordelli is fifty-four and unmarried and childless; many of his evenings are quietly spent in the company of an out-aged prostitute named Rosa without any thought but relaxation.  The days of Inspector Bordelli are spent with his deputies, Piras, a Sardinian, Taddei,  Mugnai – and a dwarf-CI named Casimiro.  Wandering through this cast of characters are the inhabitants of the village, his friend Botto who owns Bordelli’s favorite restaurant and Gideon the dog.  Among the long list of acquaintances leftover from the war is a determined Nazi-hunter.

If one reaches through the pages of Death and the Olive Grove and closes one’s eyes,  the scent of the damp trees in the groves, the slick cobblestones in town and the musty stone wall surrounding a mysterious house on a hill outside of town waft through one’s senses.  Beyond these smells are the aromas rising from Botto’s restaurant, wet dog and the faint, unmistakable odor of death.  Not just death. The inexplicable deaths of  little girls. Oh how that monster turns the town on its collective head, and digs deep within each resident for answers.

Layer after layer of atmosphere, psychology, the inevitable plodding through evidence and theory pile up like the fog.

Like the award-winning Death in Florence, Death and the Olive Grove challenges the reader to track the intricate plotting and to revisit one’s own sense of morality and history.  Like the onion, the sweet fruit keeps the reader on the edge of tears – for the Inspector and his staff, for the little girls and their mothers, for the townspeople,  and for ourselves. “If a man kills little girls there must be at the source of his crime an even greater wrong.”

 

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Review: Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol

Review: Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol.

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Book Review: The Ghost Riders of Ordebec

Oh happy days! It takes nearly two years for the wonderful English translations of Fred Vargas’s books to reach across the pond, but oh when the latest Commissaire Adamsberg mystery flies across we are at once gently, intelligently and with great sophistication dropped into that world described best by the Commissaire himself:

“Among my officers, I have a hypersomniac who goes to sleep without warning, a zoologist whose speciality is fish, freshwater fish in particular, a woman with bulimia who keeps disappearing in search of food, an old heron who knows a lot of myths and legends, a walking encyclopaedia who drinks white wine non-stop – and the rest to match. Theyy can’t allow themselves to stand on ceremony with me.”

Is it any wonder then that Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg (recently found to be the father of a twenty-eight year old fondly known as Zerk) can readily engage this group of Major Crime officers in a series of murders seemingly cast by a thousand-year old myth? Do the grisly half-decomposed ghost riders in Ordebec commit the crimes for which they are accused? Or rather is the sinister reckoning of this mere village informed by the myth?

As is always the case Vargas packs the plot with arresting personae: in this book they are animals. An abused pigeon, Fleg the ancient dog, butterflies in Brazil and the languid cat that resides on the warm photocopier in the Major Crimes Office in Paris.

    The Ghost Riders of Ordebec

is a No.1 best-seller in both France and Italy; it will add to the plethora of awards garnered by the amazing Fred Vargas.
As with all Fred Vargas novels, this, her seventh goes nicely with a chocolate croissant and foamy cafe-au-lait. It is just that much of a treat. Available through www. Penguin.com it is a Penguin Mystery Original.

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The Incomparable S.J. Bolton

images crime scene German shadow on cobble stonesDear Readers,
It is not often that I read a series backwards! In this case I merely transposed the S.J.Bolton

    Dead Scared

for

    Now You See Me

. The fascinating experience of tucking into a partnership, in this case DC Lacey Flint and DI Mark Joesbury, after the initial meeting in

    Dead Scared

. Realizing I had sacrificed backstory for a fresh plot I found myself actually enjoying that. Therein lies yet another talent of the amazing Ms Bolton: the ability to nearly shape-shift her main characters through grisly, gothic and rather graphic crime story. Both of these are multiple award-winners; I found myself looking back at the character development with a practiced eye of a crime/mystery writer myself. There is tension between the two, of course, rather a necessity – but there is almost a tentative development. Nowhere in either novel is plot sacrificed for character – they seem to develop each other.

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