Thursday, January 28, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Blood Road (Logan McRae, #11) by Stuart MacBride

The 11th book in the Logan McRae series written by Stuart MacBride set in Aberdeen, Scotland is one of the best. The Blood Road has all the elements we’ve come to love from a Logan McRae novel: irrepressible humor and awfully funny jokes, ghastly images of murder and mayhem, and extensive details of police procedure as they try to solve truly horrific crimes, some committed by the dregs of humanity and some by people Just Like Us.

The Logan McRae books have quickly become some of my favorites in the genre of British police-procedural, murder-mysteries. They have all the feature of other similarly labeled books but somehow MacBride is also able to successfully include humor, in multiple forms. The Logan books feature macabre jokes, awful puns, ridiculous encounters, and truly farcical situations. I’m shocked the series hasn’t been adapted for television yet like other series (which are also quite good but not nearly as amusing) Peter Robinson’s DCI Alan Banks, Val McDermid’s Tony Hill & Carol Jordan and Elisabeth George’s Inspector Lynley.

What really makes the Logan books extraordinary is while they are often hilarious they are also suspenseful thrillers and interesting mysteries. The very first book begins with Logan returning to work a few months after being stabbed repeatedly in the stomach and experiencing a near-death experience. In fact, Logan earns the nickname “Laz” (short for Lazarus) by his boss, the astonishingly horrible DI Roberta Steele. Steele is one of the great fictional comic inventions in British mysteries. She’s completely without shame or scruples; she regularly takes credit for Logan’s excellent detective work and is a walking H.R. and P.R. disaster. The interactions between Logan and Steele are the primary sources of comic relief in the books, but there are many others as well; first among these are the antics and descriptions of their eccentric police co-workers.

In The Blood Road, the Scottish police are dealing with multiple major (high-profile) crimes simultaneously: several young children have disappeared recently and the public is increasingly anxious about their whereabouts and safety. The book begins with the body of a Scottish police officer being found in a car—the problem is that same officer had been found dead and buried in an official funeral two years before after a supposed suicide. This means that not only was the officer (known by the sobriquet of “Ding-Dong”) a rotten cop, someone (likely Ding-Dong himself) must have killed someone else two years ago to produce a body that could be mistaken for him and now he’s been killed himself! As usual, Logan gets up to his eyebrows deep in solving multiple crimes (which is odd because after the events of the previous book In the Cold Dark Ground Logan now works for Professional Standards, not Major Crimes).

Overall, The Blood Road is one of the best entries in the series, reminiscent of some of the very best which cemented its appeal for me (books 4-7, in my humble opinion). It has multiple laugh out loud (LOL) moments while simultaneously being legitimately suspenseful. Logan gets put through the ringer again physically and the reader isn’t really sure he’s gonna get out of peril without permanent serious consequences (like death!) All of the best sidekicks from the previous books make appearances in this one (Steele, Tufty and of course Rennie!) and even the though the central crimes are truly appalling the book is quite engaging and enjoyable. The sad part of finishing The Blood Road is the knowledge that now there’s only one unread entry in the series remaining: Book 12’s All That’s Dead.

Title: Ancillary Justice.
Stuart MacBride.
Paperback: 496 pages.
Format: Kindle.
Publisher: HarperCollins.
Date Published: June 14, 2018.
Date Read: November 25, 2020.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★  (5.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (4.0/4.0).


Thursday, January 21, 2021

Blood on the Tongue (Cooper & Fry, #3) by Stephen Booth

Blood on the Tongue is the third book in the police-procedural, murder-mystery series featuring Detective Sergeant Deborah Fry and Detective Constable Ben Cooper written by Stephen Booth set in the Peak District north of Nottingham in Derbyshire. In the first three books there have been three very different but compelling mysteries that Cooper and Fry have successfully solved. The central feature at the heart of these books is the relationship between two very different main characters. Cooper is an insider, while Fry is an outsider; Cooper is well-liked, Fry is not. Cooper is a DC, Fry is a DS (and Cooper’s boss). Cooper grew up in Edendale on a family farm with multiple siblings and a father who was a copper, Fry grew up in foster care in the big city of Manchester with a sister whom she has lost contact with due to addiction. 

Booth often gives us access to his protagonists’ thoughts and feelings in order to engage the reader. Fry basically despises everything that (she thinks) Cooper stands for. She views him as a daydreaming Boy Scout who doesn’t really understand the point of policing. He views her as strange and emotionally distant but an efficient cop who doesn’t understand that empathy and cultural competence can improve police outcomes. What I noticed more in Blood on the Tongue than in previous books is that Fry spends a lot more of her mental energy thinking about Cooper than Cooper does thinking about her. Their relationship is somewhat asymmetrical in that regard. Similarly, although they began the series equal in rank, Fry now outranks him, which means their professional relationship is also asymmetrical as well.

There are three main mysteries in Blood on the Tongue: 1) a dead body of an unidentified well-dressed man is found at the side of a road during a massive snow storm after a snow plough hits the corpse; 2) a dead body of a woman who they discover had given birth to a baby within the last two months is also found frozen in the snow (the whereabouts of Baby Chloe becomes the more important mystery here because it seems like the woman died by deliberately exposing herself to the wintry elements); 3) a 57-year-old cold case of the disappearance of a survivor of a World War II plane crash that killed 5 men, including one Polish soldier whose brother still lives in the area, is being actively investigated by the survivor’s attractive Canadian granddaughter trying to clear his name of the ‘deserter’ label. Of course these mysteries lead to other questions/puzzles: Who is Baby Chloe’s father? Will Ben and Allison (the Canadian granddaughter) hook up? Why did Chloe’s mom kill herself? Why do so many of the people involved with the recently discovered dead bodies also have connections to the decades-old crash?

As with all good sequential mystery series, a significant fraction of the appeal of the book is the new information provided about the protagonists Cooper and Fry. Cooper finally bites the bullet and moves out of his family’s farm into an apartment ‘in town.’ He fitfully adapts to living by himself (although he has a stray cat or two as a roommate) and after he moves in he begins to realize that maybe the reason why Fry is so dedicated to her job is the fear of coming home to a lonely, empty apartment. Fry seems to be more and more interested in Cooper, what he’s thinking and what he’s doing (and whom he’s doing it with.) At one point she says to him directly “Sometimes I can’t tell what you’re thinking, Ben.” It’s bizarre to me that as Cooper’s superior officer she thinks she has the right to know his thoughts at all times when he’s on duty! However, at the end of the book her watchful eyes over him probably saved his life after Cooper makes a selfless (and reckless) decision to try and save a suicidal suspect from self-harm. Fry, of course, does the appropriate thing by calling for back-up instead of rushing into help without a clear plan or assessment of the danger of his actions.

Overall, Blood on the Tongue is another excellent entry in what is fast becoming one of my favorites in the genre of British police-procedural murder-mysteries (which experienced readers know is quite a large and varied genre). Readers of books by Peter Robinson, Peter James, Ian Rankin, Stuart MacBride and Jane Casey will likely agree with me that the Cooper & Fry series is an enjoyable addition to these lists. And, happily, there are more than a dozen more books in the series for me to read, which I intend to do!

Title: Blood on the Tongue.
Stephen Booth.
Page Length: 400 pages.
Format: Kindle.
Publisher: Witness Impulse.
Date Published: December 3, 2013 (First Published 2002).
Date Read: December 18, 2020.

★★  (5.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A (3.67/4.0).


Thursday, January 14, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Not Dead Yet (DSI Roy Grace, #3) by Peter James

Not Dead Enough is the third book in the long-running and best-selling Detective Superintendent Roy Grace series written by Peter James set in the Southern England area of Brighton and Hove. These books are British police procedural novels in the mystery, crime, suspense, thriller and detective genres. After reading the first three books I have a growing admiration for the superior quality of the series and understand why they have sols so well and are soon to be adapted into a television series by the BBC (what took so long?). In the first three books, we have been exposed to three very different but compelling stories which DSI Grace has successfully solved. Happily, these are not simplistic portrayals of our hero cracking the case on their own, figuring out things that have stumped everyone else through the use of magical power or plot devices. Instead the books are centered around depictions of collaborative teams of investigators working together to try and bring perpetrators of horrible and horrific crimes to justice.

In addition to Grace, other interesting characters we spend a fair amount of time with include DS Glenn Branson (Grace’s best mate who happens to be big, bald and black; he is going through some marital trouble in Not Dead Enough and so the two are currently temporarily living together!), Cleo Morey (Grace’s new heterosexual love interest) and a number of other police officers who are on Grace’s team (such as his frightful superior the Assistant Chief Constable, the boorish DS Potting, the up-and-coming DC Nichols, etc).

The central mystery in Not Dead Enough is pretty interesting and intriguing. The wife Katie (and mistress) Holly of a successful local business owner named Brian Bishop are both found dead, naked, raped and garroted with World War 2-era gas masks on their faces within days of each other. It takes awhile for the police to even realize that Brian is related to both deaths, primarily because even though he is the main suspect when his wife Katie’s body is found (it’s always the husband!), he doesn’t appear to be lying when he adamantly denies knowing Holly and repeats in every interview how much he loved his wife. He has a pretty strong alibi since he was having dinner in London right before his wife was being murdered in Brighton. Similarly, although there’s an eyewitness saying they saw someone matching Brian’s description the afternoon before Holly’s body was found, Brian was being closely watched by Brighton police in that time period. So, police need to find someone who looks like (and somehow has easy access to significant quantities of Brian’s DNA.) James does a good job of providing interesting twists on the expected solution to this mystery. (One of the tag lines of the book is "How can someone be in two places at the same time?"

Another thing the author does well in Not Dead Enough (and the other books in the series so far) is to strategically provide the reader with information about the motivations of multiple characters (even the perpetrator!) This works frighteningly well, especially when the characters we care about are placed in imminent danger and the suspense ratchets up to pulse-pounding levels. (Happily this time the source of suspense is entirely sourced not in the mortal danger to our main character. Overuse of this plot device is an annoying pet peeve of mine; far too many authors use it too often as a cheap means to engage readers in the story.)

Overall, Not Dead Enough is another excellent entry in the DSI Roy Grace series. We get advances in the lifestories of many of the main characters and they solve an exciting and puzzling mystery. This series is definitely on my list to follow to its conclusion.

Title: Not Dead Enough.
Peter James.
Length: 546 pages.
Format: Kindle
Publisher: Pan.
Date Published: August 1, 2007.
Date Read: December 5, 2020.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★ (5.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A/A- (3.83/4.0).


Thursday, January 07, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Searcher by Tana French

Tana French is on my short list of must-buy authors. These are the authors who when you hear they have a new book coming out you think, “I must buy that!” It is a rather short list: French, Peter F. Hamilton, James S.A. Corey and Richard K. Morgan. My must-read list of authors is much longer. The reason why Tana French is one of the authors that I am willing to put down my hard-earned cash to pre-order their latest book is because she always produces reading experiences for me that are engrossing, exciting and extraordinary. All of this is to say, I’m very happy to have a new Tana French novel to read and review. You’re in for a treat!

In her new book, The Searcher, French again eschews producing an entry in her Dublin Murder Squad series; instead she has written what is presumably a stand-alone mystery novel with a new protagonist in a new setting. In fact, she’s moved even further away from the series that brought her fame, fans and fortune in The Searcher than she did in The Witch Elm, which at least was set in Dublin, even though that book didn’t contain any characters from earlier novels, which had been French’s signature story element prior to its publication in 2018. The Searcher, however, is set in a tiny fictional Irish village (named Ardnakelty) and the main character is not Irish but American: Cal Hooper, an ex-Chicago P.D. detective who, following a bewildering divorce and sudden retirement, has bought a pile of land and decrepit fixer-upper in the middle of nowhere Ireland.

Just like The Witch Elm was very different from any of French’s previously published books (by not using a previously introduced secondary character as the primary character in a subsequent book) so is The Searcher different from all her previous books. One of the constitutive elements of her stories has been a view of the interplay between the police protagonist and their fellow detectives as well as between the protagonist and their profession. Plus all of French’s previous books were set in Dublin or its suburbs, with urbanized living as a feature of her characters’ lives. In French’s new book she throws out all these familiar aspects of her previous work and strikes out in a new, unfamiliar direction. It’s a brave (and rewarding) move.

The Searcher is set in a remote, rural village that has at its core a pub cum general store and one gas station and a police station with one cop. Most of the inhabitants earn their meager living from the land as farmers. Ardnakelty is the kind of place where all the kids who graduate from school are expected to leave for better opportunities elsewhere, with only the unsuccessful trapped behind, with only distant (or not so distant) relatives. Cal has moved here precisely because it is remote and sparsely populated. He was also interested in Western Ireland when he was looking for places to retire to on the Internet because the weather doesn’t get too cold or too hot. French is clearly enamored by such places, and her typically lyrical prose waxes poetic as she describes the weather, landscape and scenery.

The book starts with Cal making friends with a local tween boy named Trey Reddy who has learned that the new American neighbor is some kind of cop and wants him to find out what happened to his older brother Brendan, 19. Trey last saw his brother nearly six months ago when Brendan left their house in a hurry with a backpack and a worried expression. Cal really doesn’t want to take the case, because as a cop he is pretty sure what a 6-month-old missing persons case means (Brendan’s dead, right? Or run away to the big city to seek his fortune). He’s also unfamiliar with the terrain (literally) and because he’s new to the area, he doesn’t know where the bodies are buried or what the criminal undercurrents in the village are. Cal’s neighbor Mart has generally been his guide to acclimating to life in Ardnakelty but he is definitely not in favor of Cal sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong. He doesn’t even want Cal to look into what or who is going around killing local farmer’s sheep in strange and disgusting ways. Are these cases related? As an experienced mystery reader, I was pretty sure they would be.

As others have noticed, basically, what French is doing in The Searcher is that she is writing a Western disguised as a mystery novel! Cal is the taciturn stranger new to town who is convinced to try to resolve an injustice that the townspeople have been living with for a longtime. Trey is the sympathetic local resident who convinces the outsider to act. And the current powerbrokers don’t react well to the newcomer trying to disrupt the status quo. It’s a brilliant move, and French puts a fresh twist on a familiar tale. As the plot unwinds, she slowly ratchets up the tension higher and higher, while simultaneously revealing secrets about the quiet, remote village and its inhabitants who shows themselves to be as potentially dangerous as those in Cal’s old stomping grounds on the South Side of Chicago.

Overall, I though The Searcher was very good, but not as good as French’s two previous books, The Witch Elm and The Trespasser, which I think are two of her very best. Of course, French at her very best means these are some of the best mystery novels in the entire genre and obviously no one can reach that level all the time. Even merely sublime Tana French is extremely satisfying, and The Searcher is one of the best books I read all year. (I still hope that her next book is Dublin Murder Squad mystery, or perhaps follows one of the minor characters from The Searcher or The Witch Elm!)

Title: The Searcher.
Tana French.
Format: Hardcover.
Page Length: 451 pages.
Publisher: Viking.
Date Published: October 6, 2020.
Date Read: December 27, 2020.

★★★★  (5.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A+/A (4.16/4.0).



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