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THE VANISHING MAN by Charles Finch: Book Review

I always find it interesting when an author decides to write a prequel to an existing series.  The Charles Lenox novels, featuring the protagonist as a private detective, is set in the Victorian era; The Vanishing Man, the second prequel to Charles Finch’s first mystery, A Beautiful Blue Death, takes place in 1853, some 15 years into the queen’s reign.

Charles has become a bit of an outcast because of his desire to become a detective.  To choose such a profession simply isn’t done in the rigid aristocratic society into which he was born, and it has resulted in fewer luncheon invitations and a not-so-subtle withdrawal from the ranks of England’s most eligible bachelors, at least in the thoughts of the mothers of marriageable-age daughters.  But Charles is content with his decision.

Still, being human and sensitive to his demotion by society, he is pleased when he receives an invitation from the most august nobleman in the country, the Duke of Dorset.  The duke’s family ranks immediately below the royal family, and his home and personality reflect his prominence.  To call his residence a mansion would be an understatement, and it reveals the family’s position in society, having the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey as its neighbors.  And, Charles thought, “If you took the whole power of Oxford University it might compete with the duke’s.  But not with his wealth.”

When Charles arrives at Dorset’s home, he is led into the private private study, not the public private study where he takes large meetings.  Obviously the duke wants to see Charles on a most pressing and confidential matter.

A painting has been stolen from the wall of the private private study.  Charles sees that there had been eight paintings hanging, but now there are seven.  To his surprise, however, the duke tells him that the missing painting, a portrait of one of his ancestors, is of no particular value and has no sentimental meaning; it is a different painting that still hangs on the wall that is nearly priceless.  That work is the only known portrait of William Shakespeare that was painted from life.  Only three people, including Dorset, are aware of that fact, the other two being Her Royal Highness and the Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, obviously both not suspected of the theft.

So Charles is commissioned to find the missing artwork under the condition of deepest secrecy.  And if that were not difficult enough, it turns out that the duke has not given Lenox the most important piece of information of all.

In addition to the wonderful characters in this series and the exciting plot, I was fascinated, as I have been in Finch’s previous novels, by the author’s ability to drop tidbits of information about the era throughout the book.  For example, did you know that when dining with the queen, as soon as she puts down her fork all her guests immediately have to do the same; this is as true today as it was in Victoria’s time.  And that every day the royal chefs had to prepare forty-eight servings of curry in case forty-eight unexpected guests of Asian descent called upon Victoria.  And if forty nine dignitaries came unexpectedly?  Apparently one of them would have to eat what the queen ate, since she herself despised curry.

The Vanishing Man is a wonderful addition to the Charles Lenox series.

You can read more about Charles Finch at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

Y IS FOR YESTERDAY by Sue Grafton: Book Review

Along with all the other readers of the Kinsey Millhone series, I approached Sue Grafton’s latest novel with both anticipation and despair.  The anticipation is obvious–I’ve been reading Ms. Grafton’s mysteries since A is for Alibi was published in 1982 and have enjoyed every one.  At that time it seemed inconceivable that the end of the alphabet would ever be reached; delusional thinking, I know.

Now comes the despair–Y is for Yesterday is, I imagine, the next-to-last book in the series.  I’m trying to think how Ms. Grafton can work around her self-imposed finale.  Could she start all over with A+ is for Adventure/Adultery/Absence?  It works for me; anything to read more about Kinsey Millhone.

When the book opens in 1989 (that’s present time in the series), Kinsey is approached by Lauren McCabe, whose son Fritz has just been released from prison.  Ten years earlier Fritz killed a teenage friend, Sloan Stevens.  The two were part of a group of high school students led by Austin Brown, who was both admired and feared by his classmates.  Austin had been the instigator of a “shunning” of Sloan for reasons that secretly benefited him.  Allegedly trying to patch things up, he invited her to a party at his family’s cabin.

She reluctantly agreed to go, although once she got there words were exchanged between the two of them.  Angry and upset, she started to walk away, but she was overtaken by Austin and three of his friends, driven to a remote area in the woods, and killed.  Although Austin’s gun was the murder weapon, it was Fritz who fired the shot.  Of the four boys implicated, one gave state’s evidence and avoided jail time, one was convicted of lesser charges and spent time in prison, Fritz spent ten years in jail and was automatically freed under California law at age twenty-five, and Austin Brown disappeared.

When Kinsey and Lauren meet, Lauren tells the detective about a package she received after Fritz’s return home.  It contained a tape of sexual acts committed by four boys, including Fritz, against Iris Lehmann, another member of the student group, who was obviously drunk and/or stoned at the time of the attack.  The tape was accompanied by a demand for $25,000 from the McCabes with the warning that unless it was paid, another copy would be sent to the police.  Even though Fritz had served time for Sloan’s murder, he still could be prosecuted for rape and sexual assault.

As always, Sue Grafton’s characters are wonderfully portrayed.  We meet Fritz, who was desperate to be a friend of Austin’s when they were in school together; Iris Lehmann, who now wants revenge on the boys who violated her and taped the assault for their own amusement; Troy, who spent years in prison for his involvement in Sloan’s death and since his release has been trying to atone for his part in the attack on Iris; and Lauren and Hollis McCabe, fearful that their son is headed down the wrong road again but with conflicting opinions on how to deal with it.

Y is for Yesterday shows the reader a more vulnerable, more cautious, Kinsey but still a woman determined to do her job.  Ms. Grafton’s other returning characters–Kinsey’s elderly landlord Henry; Rosie, the owner of the Hungarian restaurant down the block from Kinsey’s apartment; and Jonah Robb, a former lover of Kinsey’s who is still in an off-again-on-again marriage with a very jealous wife–are all present in Y is for Yesterday and the novel is richer for them.

Wait–here’s another thought.  The author could switch to another alphabet, since many other languages have more than 26 letters.  Tamil, for example has 247; if that seems too daunting, she could choose Hindi or Hungarian, each with 44!  If you know Ms. Grafton, please feel free to pass this post along to her.

You can read more about Sue Grafton at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.

COLD HEARTS by Gunnar Staalesen: Book Review

I don’t think of Bergen, Norway as a place with a lot of criminal activity.  But there’s apparently enough crime and abuse to keep private detective Varg Veum busy.

Varg has just recovered from a life-threatening attack, one which killed his client, and he’s still feeling a bit vulnerable.  So when he’s approached by Hege Jensen, his son’s childhood friend, he’s wary of taking her on as a client, especially given the case she wants him to investigate.

Hege’s friend Maggi Monsen has been missing for three days.  Hege won’t go to the police, she tells Varg, because “…you know how they treat cases like this when it’s about people like me and Maggi.”  By “people like me and Maggi,” Hege means prostitutes.  Varg is forced to agree with her assessment, so a bit reluctantly he sets out to search for the missing woman.

Varg’s first action shows him the dangers surrounding the two women.  He gets the key to Maggi’s apartment from Hege, but aside from a small photo album he finds nothing of interest there.  He’s about to leave when he hears a key inserted into the lock and two men enter.  They present themselves as the owners of Maggi’s apartment, having come for her rent, but it’s obvious to the detective that they are her pimps.  And to underscore their message that finding Maggi is none of Varg’s business, one of the men cuts a sharp line with a knife from Varg’s ear to his collarbone.

Determined not to be stopped by the threats and the attack, Varg finds out that the two men are Kjell Malthus and his knife-wielding assistant, Rolf.  Kjell is a lawyer who runs an investment firm, and Varg finds another connection between Kjell and Maggi besides prostitution.  Maggi’s brother KG has been imprisoned for years for the murder of Kjell’s brother.

Maggi was one of three children of dysfunctional parents: the father was an abusive alcoholic and the mother a depressed, passive woman.  Sent to school without lunch and looking malnourished, the children came to the attention of Bergen’s social services.  But before anything could be done officially, a committee of five friends of the family intervened with the intention of making certain that the children were not removed from their home.  The committee promised to provide food and assistance to the family, anything to keep the family together.  But in the end, given the history of two of the three children, was this the best outcome?

Cold Hearts takes the reader into the seamy side of a small Norwegian city, showing how the strains of child abuse, incest, and hypocrisy follow its victims and its practitioners throughout life.  Not a story for the faint-of-heart, the novel is extremely well-written, with characters and settings that bring the story to life. 

Gunnar Staalesen is a well-known novelist throughout Scandinavia.  A statue of Varg Veum stands outside the Strand Hotel in Bergen; a photo of Gunnar Staalesen and his literary creation are available at this Google web site.

There are several translated sites about the author on the web.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her web site.

 

 

 

 

 

 

HOW LIKE AN ANGEL by Margaret Millar: Golden Oldie

How Like an Angel was written in 1962, exactly fifty years ago. It’s a true classic.

Joe Quinn, licensed Nevada private detective/security guard, has been cleaned out at the Reno gambling tables and has grabbed a ride back to California with a friend.  The friend, in a hurry to get home, leaves him at the side of the road some forty-five miles from San Felice, Joe’s destination.  The friend tells him that there’s a religious community just up the road that will give him food and drink and shelter for the night, so without any other resource to fall back on Joe takes his advice.

The Tower is a community of twenty-seven people, including three children, that is headed by The Master. The members have renounced all worldly goods–telephones, television, regular clothes–the better to get to heaven; it is their belief that wearing wool robes, going barefoot, and bathing no more than weekly in cold water will assure them a place in Paradise.  Even their given names have been left behind–now they are known as Sister Blessing, Brother Tongue, Brother Crown, and Brother Light of the Infinite, for example.

During his overnight stay, Joe is approached by Sister Blessing, who acts as the nurse and manager of The Tower.  She appears kind and concerned about Joe’s physical and emotional well-being, and when she learns that he is a detective she asks him to do a job for her.  She emphasizes that this is against the rules of the community, and she pays him with money secreted from the others that her son sends her every Christmas.

Sister Blessing’s request is that Joe go into Chicote, a nearby town, and find a man named Patrick O’Gorman. He’s not a friend or relative, she assures Joe, and she doesn’t want Joe to contact him in any way.   Whether O’Gorman is in Chicote or not, she tells Joe to “come back here and tell me about it, me and only me.”

Joe is only slightly interested, but he’s broke and doesn’t have any other job offers.  So he gets a ride to San Felice in the community’s truck the next morning and starts asking questions.  And early on he discovers that Patrick O’Gorman has been missing and presumed dead for five years.

The novel takes a number of twists and turns, and circles back on itself again, but every detour has a reason and every red herring is perfectly contrived.  About ten pages from the end of the book I realized what had happened in the past and what was about to happen, and I was blown away.  The plot is so skillful and well thought out that it made me want to start reading How Like an Angel over again to see if I could have/should have figured out the ending sooner.

Margaret Millar lived from 1915 to 1994; she was the wife of Kenneth Millar, better known to mystery fans as Ross Macdonald.  Imagine having that couple to your house for drinks and dinner!

WALL OF GLASS by Walter Satterthwait: Book Review

I always wonder why an author chooses to stop writing a particular series.  Between 1987 and 1996 Walter Satterthwait published five books about Santa Fe private detectives Rita Mondragon and Joshua Croft, and then he stopped.  Did he tire of the pair?  Did he feel he had said all he needed/wanted to?   Although he has written other mysteries and some Westerns too, his official web page was lasted updated in 2007.  Has he stopped writing completely?  If you know the answer to any of these questions, please let me know.

Wall of Glass is the first of this series.  In it, Rita Mondragon, the owner of the Mondragon Agency, is wheel chair-bound, having been paralyzed from the waist down by a bullet that killed her husband two years earlier.  Joshua Croft is her assistant and “legs.”  He would obviously like to be more, but Rita is still dealing with the injury and is determined to keep their relationship on a professional, not physical, level.

The story revolves around a missing diamond necklace that had been stolen from the home of a Santa Fe builder and his wife a year earlier. The insurance company had paid the Leightons for their loss and considered the case closed although the necklace was never recovered.  Now Frank Biddle comes to the detective agency with a “hypothetical” story about possibly being able to recover a valuable piece of jewelry and needs Croft’s help in getting a finder’s fee from the insurance company.  Croft’s not interested in this bit of double dealing, but he plays along to find out more, and Biddle promises to contact him with more information.  But the next day the man is found dead.

The Leighton family, from whom the necklace was stolen, is dysfunctional at its core.  The husband and wife have an “open marriage,” the teenage son is drinking and doing coke while his parents are away with their “friends,” and their teenage daughter is cowed by her mother’s demeaning behavior toward her.  And Stacey Killebrew, a former convict and former friend of the murdered man, definitely doesn’t want Croft asking questions.

There’s a nice amount of description of the beautiful Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco, The City Different.  Satterthwait obviously loves this city, and he brings the clear blue skies and cinnamon colored hills to life.  Having been to both Santa Fe and Albuquerque, I can see why the state’s license plates read “The Land of Enchantment.”

There’s a fair amount of violence in Wall of Glass, but it’s realistic, not gratuitous.  There are three murders, two attempted murders, a near-fatal barroom brawl, and a car chase.  But Croft keeps his cool throughout, and the ending is believable and quite surprising.

You can read more about Walter Satterthwait at his web site.