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Book Author: Peter Blauner

PICTURE IN THE SAND by Peter Blauner: Book Review

Picture in the Sand is a family history, a lesson in politics, and a crime novel all in one fascinating package.  It takes the reader from Brooklyn to Egypt to Hollywood, and it encompasses both popular culture via the making of “The Ten Commandments” and the political turmoil that has engulfed the Middle East for over seven decades.

The novel opens with an email from a son to his mother.  Alex Hassan (asking henceforth to be called by his new name, Abu Suror,”father of joy”) is leaving home, rejecting his acceptance from Cornell University in order to fight with his “brothers” in Syria.  His parents, of course, are devastated and try everything they can think of to locate him and bring him home, but their search is in vain.

His aging grandfather then begins an email correspondence, telling Alex his own life story, how he came from Egypt to the United States, and his realization that Alex’s ignorance of this story may nevertheless have impacted on his life.  His hope is that by telling his story, it will bring his grandson back.

In a scenario familiar in many immigrant families, there is often a desire to shield descendants from unpleasant, even traumatic, family history.  This has been the case for the Hassans.  Basically all that Alex knows about his grandfather is that Ali was born in Egypt, made his way to the United States, and eventually opened a successful business in Brooklyn.  But there is more, much more, to Ali’s story, and most improbably Cecil B. DeMille played a major part in it.

As Ali begins to tell his story to his grandson, he recalls his desire to be a part of the motion picture industry.  He went to his local movie theater in Cairo as frequently as possible, mesmerized by the stories the films told.  In 1954 Ali sent a letter and an “enhanced” resume to the production company that had come to Egypt to film DeMille’s last film, “The Ten Commandments.”

At first he was assigned a lowly job in the company’s motor pool, but after a few days he was promoted to an assistant to DeMille himself.  That presented an opportunity for Ali’s cousin and closest friend Sherif to begin a plan for sabotaging the director’s movie, and for that he needs Ali’s help.

Complicating the story even more, DeMille arrives in Egypt in 1954, just when Gamal Abdel Nasser wrested the premiership of the country from Muhammad Nagui, two years after the monarchy was overthrown.  There was turmoil everywhere, and Sherif and his cohorts are planning to take advantage of the political chaos to overthrow Nasser.  As part of that plan, they want to ruin the movie, and that’s where a very reluctant Ali enters the picture.

All of this was unknown to Alex, and in the emails that go back and forth between him and his grandfather there’s a lot of history he has to learn and then accept, much of it contrasting with what he’s being told by the group he joined to fight in Syria.  In the process we learn how Alex’s “boring grandfather…spent many years in prison for being a violent criminal, and lost his left eye in the process.”

The author has brought mid-century Egypt to life with his vivid descriptions of Cairo and the countryside where “The Ten Commandments” was filmed.  Peter Blauner has written eight previous novels, including his Edgar-award-winning first novel, Slow Motion Riot.  You can read more about him 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 OldiesPast Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

SUNRISE HIGHWAY by Peter Blauner: Book Review

The saying “some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em” is a famous line from Twelfth Night.  Can it also be that some are born evil and some have evil thrust upon them?

Hauppauge, New York is the kind of small town people move to in order to escape violence and crime in the big city.  On the surface all is well in this town with its good public schools and its strong police force and judiciary.  But under the surface things are rotten.

In 1977, a young white girl is killed in a wooded area of town, with a bunch of twigs and leaves stuffed down her throat.  Suspicion immediately falls on Delaney Patterson, one of the few young black men in town.  The police theorize that Delaney, who had recently moved to Hauppauge and was touted to be a star on the high school football team, got in with the wrong crowd when an injury forced him off the gridiron.

Detective “Billy the Kid” Rattigan tells the new, naive, and eager-to-please assistant district attorney, Kenny Makris, that he believes the young man and the girl had a fight, possibly over drugs, and that Delaney killed her.  Rattigan even has someone who witnessed, or nearly witnessed, what happened–that both young people went into the woods but only Delaney came out.  And the witness is Joey T., then the teenage son of a police officer in town.

Now, thirty years later, Joey T. has become the town’s police chief.  He is in control of every aspect of the law, and those who oppose him do so at their peril.  It’s Joey T. who seems to have been born evil and Kenny Makris who has evil thrust upon him.  But evil is insidious, and once Kenny has taken that first step over to the “dark side,” it’s too late to reconsider.

Into this situation comes Lourdes Robles, a New York City police detective.  She is called to Far Rockaway in that city’s borough of Queens when a large green bag is washed up on the shore.  Upon opening the bag it’s discovered that inside is the corpse of a pregnant woman, her throat stuffed with rocks.  Given that Far Rockaway is almost swimming distance to Nassau County, Lourdes and her team reach out to the police there and are surprised at their colleagues’ immediate determination to take over the case.  It’s too quick, Lourdes thinks, and she determines not to give up the case until she’s forced to do so.

Joey T. runs his town with an iron fist, and those who try to oppose him are dealt with summarily.  He is adept at finding the chinks in one’s armor, and if they doesn’t exist he’ll use force to get his way.  The combination of threats and bribery has made him untouchable.  That is, until Lourdes comes to town.  She is a heroine fighting her own family-related demons, but they will not get in the way of her solving the case. 

Sunrise Highway will have you hooked from its first chapter.  Peter Blauner has written a chilling novel, with a strong, believable plot and realistic characters.   You can read more about him 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.

PROVING GROUND by Peter Blauner: Book Review

When Nathaniel “Natty Dread” Dresden returns from the Iraqi War, he’s not the same man he was before he was deployed.  Every loud noise is a mortar shell, every crowd on a Brooklyn street is a group of terrorists, every young boy has the face of the small Iraqi child he killed by mistake.  He’s trying hard to hold it all together, but it’s not working.

It doesn’t help that as Proving Ground opens, Natty’s father is murdered and found dead on the ground of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.  David Dresden was, according to one’s political leanings, either a champion of the poor and disadvantaged or, in the words of the police captain at the scene, …”the lawyer every cop in the city hates.”

New York City police detective Lourdes Robles is partnered with Kevin Sullivan, the man she privately calls The Last of the Mohicans.  Kevin is only a few months away from retirement but he’s a cop who doesn’t quit, and Lourdes is attempting to pick up some of his tricks to try on her own.  Sensing that there’s going to be a lot of coverage of the murder, Kevin tries to give Lourdes the opportunity to keep her distance from it.

But Lourdes is determined to pursue every option to solve Dresden’s killing and prove herself to her colleagues.  She’s a woman who grew up in the projects, whose father is serving a life sentence in an upstate New York prison, whose mother locks herself in the bathroom so she can smoke even though she’s using an oxygen tank.  “You want me off, do whatever you have to do,” she says.  “But I’m not going willingly.”

At the time of David Dresden’s death he was trying to get reparations for an Egyptian man, suspected of being a terrorist, who was deported by the FBI and tortured.  David’s law partner, known to all as Benny G., invites Natty to help with the lawsuit against the federal agency, saying that’s what his father would have wanted.  But Natty wonders whether he will be able to help, given his emotional state, and wonders what is truly motivating Benny.

Is it because Benny thinks Natty can add to the defense, having been a prosecutor in Florida before he joined the Army?  Does Benny simply want to keep an eye on his former partner’s son because he’s worried about another violent episode that Natty might have?  Or is there a more sinister motive that Natty can’t quite figure out?

Peter Blauner is the author of Slow Motion Riot, which won the 1992 Edgar® for best first mystery.  Proving Ground, the author’s first mystery novel since Riot, is well worth the wait.  It’s a thrilling story that will have you emotionally involved from the first chapter, with nearly every character strongly imprinting his/her presence:  the tormented Natty Dresden, realizing that it’s too late to work through his complicated relationship with his father; the determined Lourdes Robles, wanting to overcome her disadvantaged background and follow in the footsteps of her aunt and mentor, another member of the New York City Police Department; Benny G., an attorney who brags that he’s never lost a case; Alice Ali-Dresden, David’s widow and Natty’s mother, feeling bereft after a long marriage that ended so violently, acknowledging that her writing career is over.

All these characters and several more will keep you turning the pages of Proving Ground faster and faster.  Peter Blauner has written a marvelous mystery that contains deep insights into what makes people do what they do.

You can read more about Peter Blauner at this web site.

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