If you have yet to read any of James Thompson’s first-rate novels featuring the exploits of Finnish cop Kari Vaara, please take this advice from me: Ta...moreIf you have yet to read any of James Thompson’s first-rate novels featuring the exploits of Finnish cop Kari Vaara, please take this advice from me: Tackle them in order of their publication. First read Snow Angels, (Booklist called it “one of the best debut crime novels of 2010”). The book takes place in Finland’s far north and sets the stage for the three that follow. Lucifer’s Tears (a Kirkus pick for one of the Best Ten Crime Novels of 2011) brings Vaara to Helsinki and involves him in a sequence of events that continue seamlessly throughout the course of the next two books, Helsinki White and Helsinki Blood. The cost of those events, in psychological and physical terms, is great, not only to Vaara, but also to his much-beloved American wife, Kate. And the changes they bring about are as much a part of the story as the thoroughly-engrossing plot. I doubt that any reader would seek a friendship with a man like Vaara. But Thompson has a genius for making us to care about what happens to him. And what happens to him in Helsinki Blood is a hell of a lot. The book begins with Vaara’s life being threatened by powerful enemies and with his marriage on the rocks. Could things get any worse? You bet they do! This is Thompson. I can’t get enough of this author. No one writes noir better, Nordic or otherwise. Read him! (less)
It is the year in which Sigmund Freud publishes the Psychopathology of Everyday Life. The year Hans Gross publishes his classic Encyclopedia of Crimino...moreIt is the year in which Sigmund Freud publishes the Psychopathology of Everyday Life. The year Hans Gross publishes his classic Encyclopedia of Criminology. The year Gustav Klimt paints Judith and the Head of Holofernes. A year in which Gustav Mahler holds sway as director of the Imperial Opera. And the year in which J. Sydney Jones has set the fourth book in his splendid Viennese Mystery Series, The Keeper of Hands. It is 1901 – and Vienna is at the height of its cultural renaissance. There are many things to like about Jones’s books, not the least of which is his ability to weave historical characters into a seamless narrative centered about a character of his own invention. That character, Karl Werthen, is a lawyer, who first appears as a young bachelor in The Empty Mirror. In that book, and in the subsequent ones, (Requiem in Vienna and The Silence) Jones teams Werthen up with Gross, now a nearly-forgotten figure, but still held, among the cognoscenti, to be the father of modern criminal investigation. As The Keeper of Hands begins, Werthen has settled into a comfortable married life with his wife, Berthe, and his infant daughter, Frieda. Thirteen years later, Austria would be plunged into the first of two great wars, experiences from which she would never entirely recover. But that time is not yet. The Vienna that Jones preserves for us, like an insect caught in amber, is of an earlier, more hopeful, more optimistic time. It is, however, a time in which, for all of its charm, the seeds of future destruction are being sown. Social injustice is rampant. Anti Semitism is rife. In this outing, Jones’s characters include the journalist, Felix Salten, the controversial playwright, Arthur Schnitzler, and a brothel keeper by the name of Josephine Mutzenbacher. And, of the three, the most familiar to German-speaking readers of today, will be Mutzenbacher. Josephine Mutzenbacher – The Life Story of a Viennese Whore, as Told by Herself became an erotic classic, sold more than three million copies, was translated into ten languages and became the subject of numerous films, theater productions, parodies, and university courses, as well as two sequels. It’s an impressive legacy for an author who never existed and for a book whose true author was probably Salten. In The Keeper of Hands (I’m not going to spoil it by telling you the origins of the title) Werthen is initially called upon to solve two mysteries at the same time: the murder of a nineteen-year-old prostitute and a violent assault on the playwright, but he soon finds himself caught in a web of espionage and secrets of state. Once again, Jones has delivered an action-packed and thoroughly engaging book – and he’s done it in a mere two-hundred-and-fifty-six pages. You can read The Keeper of Hands as a standalone, but if you are, as yet, unfamiliar with Jones’s work, I strongly suggest you start with the first book in his series. You’ll be glad you did. (less)
You can read Tim Hallinan’s latest novel, “The Fear Artist”, as a standalone. Can. But why are earth would you want to? The other books in the Poke Ra...moreYou can read Tim Hallinan’s latest novel, “The Fear Artist”, as a standalone. Can. But why are earth would you want to? The other books in the Poke Rafferty series are such a delight that you’d have to be whacky not to read them. And, if you haven’t done so as yet, I daresay it’s only because you’ve never heard of Hallinan, or because you don’t like mysteries set anywhere else than in your own backyard. Either way, in my opinion, you run a grave risk of selling yourself short. But suppose you’re like me. Suppose you love “international” mysteries, and suppose you’ve been eagerly awaiting the next installment in this gripping, extraordinarily well-written series. Is there anything about the book that might possibly disappoint you? Well, yeah, actually there is. If you’re anticipating another get-together with Poke’s wife, Rose, and his now-turned-troublesome teenage daughter Miaow, you’re going to have to put that pleasure aside for a while. At least until the next book. They put in an occasional appearance in “The Fear Artist”, but they’re not really reunited with our hero until the very end. Good thing, too, because while Rose and Miaow are out of rainy Bangkok, visiting her mother in Rose’s, remote “two buffalo” village, Poke is being pursued by Hallinan’s nastiest, most despicable villain yet. Not that the author leaves him entirely without female, familial protection. In this one, Poke’s half-sister, Ming Li, is back – just the right person to help him through the difficult times – and that’s not only good for Rafferty, it’s also good for us, because, in Ming Li, Hallinan has created an absolutely delightful character. I, for one, was delighted to see her put in another appearance. “The Fear Artist” has deep roots, carrying us decades into the past, into the horrors of the war in Vietnam and the super-secret Phoenix Program – a plan to pacify the country by the indiscriminate torture and slaughter of people, often entirely innocent ones, who were suspected of being members of, or offering support to, the Viet Cong. If you, like me, have a habit of reading before going to sleep, watch out for “The Fear Artist”. It’s like potato chips. You wind up promising yourself “just one more” – and, before you know it, you’ve finished them all. Chapters not chips. Hallinan WILL keep you up until three AM. Fortunately, though, his novels don’t leave crumbs in your bed. (less)
There was a time in America (and in Britain, too, I suspect) when, if you’d asked folks what they knew about the sinking of the RMS Titanic, you would...moreThere was a time in America (and in Britain, too, I suspect) when, if you’d asked folks what they knew about the sinking of the RMS Titanic, you would have drawn a blank. Yes, I know that’s hard to believe, but it’s absolutely true. In the four decades that passed after she took her two-mile plunge to the floor of the North Atlantic, other tragedies of greater note, including two World Wars and a worldwide flu epidemic, gradually erased the disaster from public consciousness and, by the early 1950’s, had caused it to be largely forgotten. That changed radically in 1955, with the publication of Walter Lord’s smash bestseller, “A Night to Remember”, a book in which he compiled the first moment-by-moment account of the disaster based on scores of interviews with passengers who survived it. Lord’s book, and the film that followed, had an impact that led to an awakening of interest on the part of, oceanographers, playwrights, filmmakers and other writers. Robert Ballard, who discovered the vessel’s wreckage in 1985, once remarked that Lord’s book was the beginning of his fascination with the sinking and one of his inspirations to undertake the search. Meredith Wilson cited the book as an influence to undertake his 1960 musical, “The Unsinkable Molly Brown”, later a movie. In 1997, “Titanic” opened on Broadway and won five Tony awards. In that same year, James Cameron released his epic film with a completely different story, but with the same title. And there are currently 239 paperbacks available for sale, on Amazon, that deal with the disaster. So did we really need another one? Actually, we did. And my thanks go out to Dan James who has written it. The book is called “Unsinkable”, and it combines meticulous research (the author is a seasoned journalist) with rich imagination (he’s also a best-selling fiction author). James begins his tale with two factual incidents the “Houndsditch Murders” and the “Sydney Street Siege”, both of which occurred in London, both of which involved the killing of policemen and in both of which a Latvian revolutionary criminal by the name of Peter Piaktow (or or Piatkov, Pjatkov, Piaktoff) was implicated – but never caught. What if, James surmises, Piaktow (dubbed Peter the Painter by the press of the time) attempted to escape to America aboard the Titanic? And what if a Special Branch officer desperate to apprehend him also sailed on that same ship? And what if he teamed-up with an attractive lady, an American reporter whose easy ways he found quite enchanting? It all makes for a cracking good read. And, even though we know from the outset what’s going to happen to the ship, James still manages to supply us with a totally unexpected surprise ending. I immensely enjoyed this book and heartily recommend it. (less)
How’s this for a nightmare scenario? You’re a woman alone, on holiday, in a developing country where you don’t speak the language. A crooked cop plants...moreHow’s this for a nightmare scenario? You’re a woman alone, on holiday, in a developing country where you don’t speak the language. A crooked cop plants some drugs on you and hauls you off to jail. A countryman comes along to spring you, but it soon turns out that he’s in cahoots with the cop. You can’t leave, because they’re holding on to your passport. And, unless you agree to spy on a guy you hardly know, but with whom you’ve suffered a violent assault in your very own hotel room, they’re going to fling you right back into the pokey. Me? I’d play along. And so does Michelle Mason, the protagonist in Lisa Brackmann’s Getaway. Getaway is set in the resort town of Puerto Vallarta in Mexico. Brackmann paints it as a place of luxury hotels and considerable charm, but with an ugly underbelly. Corruption and drug- dealing are rife. Human lives are cheap. And Michelle’s early troubles, the ones I’ve described above, soon pale when she’s confronted by what comes next. Michelle is an engaging character, and Getaway is a cracking good yarn, a wild-ride that never lets up. Not even in the last paragraph. Is that a cryptic statement? Yeah, I suppose it is. But you’ll find yourself agreeing with me after you’ve finished the book. (less)
"There’s a great myth believed by nearly everyone that Finland is corruption-free. Police and politicians are scripture pure, dedicated to the good of...more"There’s a great myth believed by nearly everyone that Finland is corruption-free. Police and politicians are scripture pure, dedicated to the good of the nation beyond all things. Foreigners even write about it in travel guides for tourists." That’s Kari Vaara, telling us about his country in the first pages of James Thompson’s new novel, Helsinki White. Shortly thereafter, he goes on to say, "I run a heist gang. I’m a police inspector, shakedown artist, strong-arm specialist and enforcer…Three months ago, I was an honest cop."
What a way to kick-off a book!
Snow Angels, James Thompson’s first novel to feature Vaara as a protagonist, was named by Booklist as one of the ten best debut crime novels of 2010 and was nominated for both an Edgar and an Anthony.
His second, Lucifer’s Tears, was included in Kirkus’s List of the Best Novels of 2011. And anyone who knows Kirkus also knows that they’re the toughest critics that ever there were – or are.
Now, Thompson has given us the third in his series, Helsinki White -- and it's as cool as a Nordic wind.
As the book begins, Vaara’s personal life is bittersweet: on the positive side, he’s a new dad, deeply in love with his American wife, Kate, and infant daughter Anu; on the negative, he continues to suffer from paralyzing headaches, is haunted by his past exploits and is obsessed by thoughts about the type of man he has become.
Meanwhile, his professional life keeps getting worse: He and his boss, Jyri Ivalo, are polar (no pun intended) opposites. The National Chief of Police is as corrupt and twisted as they come. Vaara, on the other hand, is an essentially moral man who sees his position in the police as a path to doing good, perhaps the only thing he’s qualified for in the doing-good department.
The men hate each other, and the Chief would fire Vaara if he could.
But Vaara has something on him that would destroy the Chief’s career.
And despite the fact that the rot doesn’t stop with Ivalo, despite the fact that his principal assistant, a man he can’t get rid of, is a sociopath, despite the fact that he’s been put in charge of a clandestine unit which has been specifically created to function outside the law, Vaara wants to stay on.
Couldn’t get any worse, you think? Then you don’t know James Thompson.
Before the first chapter is out, Vaara discovers his headaches are being caused by a brain tumor. You might conclude, from the little I’ve told you, that Helsinki White isn’t a cheerful book. Well, you’d be right there. But it’s a fascinating one, superbly written and full of insights about Thompson’s adopted country. Take this one, about drinking:
"It’s May second, a sunny Sunday…The outdoor bars are packed…Yesterday was Vappu – May Day, the heaviest drinking holiday of the year – and most of these people have been drunk non-stop, morning to night, since they got off from work on Friday."
Or this one, a scene that takes place on a tram:
"Two elderly women, one on a walker, asked the driver, a black immigrant, a question about where to get off to reach her destination. He answered in accented but understandable Finnish. The two grannies sat in front of me and spoke in loud voices, to make certain he could hear, and discussed how the (racial epithet deleted) ought to learn to speak the (expletive deleted) language. The grannies garnered guffaws."
Note: both the racial epithet and the expletive add flavor, and the anecdote can’t be fully appreciated without them, but this review wouldn’t be published in certain venues if I’d left them in.
And how about this unpleasant truth: "Here in Finland and the surrounding countries, thousands of gangsters orchestrate the buying and selling of young girls, and hundreds or thousands of those girls pass through this nation every year…"
Corruption, crooked cops, racism; wholesale exploitation of minors; not what you imagined Finland to be like, is it? No, Me neither. White slavery issues play the most prominent roles in Helsinki White, but there are a lot of other things going on as well: the unsolved kidnapping of a billionaire’s children; the murder of a Swedish-speaking Finn, a champion of immigrants’ rights; the drug trade; Vaara’s blooming relationship with Arvid Lahtinen and the increasingly-sinister role of Adrien Moreau.
Talk about rich characters! Lahtinen is a war hero, wanted for extradition by the Germans. Arvid knew Vaara’s grandfather during the war. They killed men together. And Moreau is a French policeman, Finnish by birth, who spent fifteen years in the French Foreign Legion, exercised his right as a Legionnaire and took French citizenship and identity.
There’s only one thing wrong with Helsinki White: it’s too short. And, if it was twice as long, it would still be too short. It’s a first-class crime novel, and I don’t think it will harm your enjoyment of the book to share the words Thompson uses to conclude the final chapter. By then, the mysteries have been cleared-up and (most of) the bad guys have gotten their just deserts.
"June twenty-sixth is mid-summer’s eve, the third anniversary of Kate and my first meeting. On the twenty-fourth, I text Kate, ask her if she would like to spend our anniversary together. She doesn’t reply. "Except for our two disastrous dinners, I’ve seen no one since I went into self-imposed isolation. I call my brother Timo. He’s having a party. He invited me a while ago, and I ask if I can still come. Sure. "I go, get whacked on Timo’s pontikka, eat grilled sausages. They light the bonfire at midnight. I get a text from Kate. 'I miss you.' I don’t think she wants a reply. I put the phone back in my pocket, have a long drink from my glass of pontikka, and watch the flames climb higher."
Where will the author take Kate and Kari Vaara from here? Has Thompson backed himself into a corner with their relationship? I hope not.
But we’re going to have to wait a year to find out. (less)
Remember all that brouhaha a number of years ago, when some people were trumpeting the wholesale abandonment of French cheese and telling us we should...moreRemember all that brouhaha a number of years ago, when some people were trumpeting the wholesale abandonment of French cheese and telling us we should avoid Paris as a tourist destination? Ya know what? I have a suspicion that the people behind it secretly wore hair shirts and beat themselves with flails. I mean, avoid Paris? Give me a break! If you aren’t a masochist, why would you want to torture yourself like that? Okay, maybe you don’t like cheese, but surely you wouldn’t disagree with the immortal Ernest about Paris. Remember what he called it? That’s right: a moveable feast – a feast that Cara Black, in her Aimée Leduc series, serves up with all the quality of three-star Michelin. If you’ve read just one of Ms. Black’s books, you know what I’m talking about. What follows, is meant for the rest of you, those who have yet to meet Aimée Leduc. Aimée is the daughter of an American mother, who took charge of her French father’s detective business after his death. She’s a high-heeled, Gallic Kinsey Millhone with the fashion sense of a Parisienne and a penchant for bad boys. And Cara Black, her creator, is the Sue Grafton of the City of Light. Ms. Black’s latest, the fifteenth in the series, is a mere 320 pages long, but it’s as replete with action as a Romanée-Conti with bouquet. In Murder at the Lanterne Rouge, Aimée links a manuscript half-a-millennium old to a modern murder, is pressured by two rival French security services, visits Paris’s Chinese underworld and, twice, narrowly escapes being murdered. On the more personal level, René, her partner, has fallen head-over-heels in love with Meizi, a girl he’s just met. But she mysteriously disappears. Aimée suspects there is something strange about Meizi’s parents – and there is. Aimée’s mother, whom she’s been trying to track down for years, comes closer. Her best friend involves her in a car wreck. Her Godfather reveals additional secrets. Her current boyfriend promises to spirit her away for a vacation in Martinique – and doesn’t. And all of it is served up garnished by the sights, and sounds, and smells of one of the most beautiful cities in the world. What’s not to like? Murder at the Lanterne Rouge is a feast indeed. And you’re invited. (less)
Annamaria Alfieri’s first novel, City of Silver, was set in seventeenth-century Potosi. Now, in Invisible Country, she carries us two centuries forward...moreAnnamaria Alfieri’s first novel, City of Silver, was set in seventeenth-century Potosi. Now, in Invisible Country, she carries us two centuries forward, and a thousand kilometers away, to the little Paraguayan village of Santa Caterina. As the book begins, the War of the Triple Alliance, the bloodiest clash in South American history is in its fourth year. Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay continue to pursue their conflict of attrition against little Paraguay. Santa Caterina’s crops and livestock have been consumed or confiscated for the war effort. People are starving. The young men of the village have been killed or conscripted. Only the old, the infirm, or those favored by Francisco Solano Lopéz, Paraguay’s cruel dictator, remain. The war would end almost two years in the future with the death of Lopéz and the dispatch, into exile, of Eliza Lynch, his mistress and partner in crime. But, at the time of the story, the country continues to live in fear of the ruling couple, and their stranglehold on the village is strong. When Ricardo Yotté, a close ally of Lynch (an Irish adventuress whose real-life exploits shrink those of Evita Peron into near insignificance) is murdered, the dictator pressures his local Comandante, Luis Menenez to find the culprit. Menenez knows his head will be on the block if he fails. A coward and a bully, he has no compunctions about accusing an innocent, even his war-hero brother-in-law, to save his own skin. So, to ensure that justice is done, a small band of Santa Caterina’s prominent citizens takes the initiative to come together and root-out the killer. In the end, they do. But it’s just about the last person anyone would suspect. Invisible Country excels as a mystery, but it’s a lot more than that. It’s a love story, several love stories in fact, all going on at the same time. Love and hate, desperation and despair, terror and suspense, unexpected twists and outright surprises, Invisible Country has them all. Even a suggestion about what might have happened to Paraguay’s national treasure, a hoard that was reputed to have traveled with Lopéz and Lynch and, to this day, has never been found. It’s a lovely book. And no one is better at spinning South American mysteries than Annamaria Alfieri. Incidentally, I once blogged about Eliza Lynch on the blog I share with six other writers of “International” mysteries, Murder Is Everywhere. Those of you who would like to see pictures of Eliza and her lover, Solando Lopéz, might like to go there: http://bit.ly/xAIS60