Personal by Lee Child (audio)

personalWhat else can I say about Reacher? In some ways, my review of this book is going to say “this is like all the other Reacher books,” but I mean that in the best possible way. He is still a whiz, a he-man, a polymath expert – although I do like the odd bit where he is lacking. For example, we’ve heard before that he’s not a very good driver: it’s not a skill he had much time to develop in his Army-based life. I also found it refreshing that in this installment (minor spoiler here) he does not sleep with any of the beautiful women. I mean, I enjoy those scenes; but it’s more realistic for him to bat less than 1.000, don’t you think?

Briefly: in Personal, Reacher is tracked down by an Army contact to whom he owes a favor. There has been an assassination attempt against the French president, and all the major world powers are pitching in to help solve the crime, because they fear for their own leaders’ safety at an upcoming G8 meeting. The shot was taken so accurately from such a distance that only a few snipers in the world could have done it, making the list of suspects very short. Reacher resists the conclusion, but it does seem likely that an American took the shot – specifically, a man Reacher sent away to prison for 15 years, just 16 years ago. He is paired up with a young woman from the State Department (…or is she?) to investigate, and travels from Seattle to North Carolina to Arkansas to Paris and London, etc. It is, typically, an exciting and blood-splattered storyline, and I loved every minute of it.

I’m not saying much new here – if you know and love Reacher, you’ll be pleased by Personal, another chapter in the longer story and not at all Lee Child’s weakest. Next!

Rating: 7 pills.

Death on the Riviera by John Bude

A quirky cast and scenic setting characterize this long-out-of-print British classic mystery.

death on the riveria

The British Library’s Crime Classics series, with Poisoned Pen Press, presents a mystery that was out of print for decades: Death on the Riviera by John Bude. Originally published in 1952, Bude’s novel benefits from an introduction offering context and a brief biography of the author.

The titular death does not occur until late in the story, which is mostly concerned instead with a counterfeiting ring. Scotland Yard’s Detective Inspector William Meredith and inexperienced Acting-Sergeant Freddy Strang take an alluring trip to the French Riviera to track down an Englishman suspected to be an expert engraver of false bank notes. There they enjoy sunshine, food and drink, and Strang pursues a potential romantic interest. Meredith and Strang contemplate their case aloud, sharing their investigation with distinctive French colleagues like the rotund and self-indulgent, but able, Inspector Blampignon. They’re repeatedly drawn into the household of a complacent, moneyed widow, her estate peopled by eccentric hangers-on: a romantically bohemian artist, a bored niece, a spoiled young playboy and an unwelcome beauty.

Bude employs period-specific usages and references, which add color and amuse. Death on the Riviera is recommended particularly for fans of classic or playful mysteries seeking a nostalgic experience. The mystery itself is less puzzling than its modern counterparts; rather than presenting a true challenge as a whodunit, it gives Meredith and Strang the opportunity to explore an appealing setting and a cast of whimsical characters. Bude offers a funny, light-hearted read, and marks a point in the historical development of the murder mystery.

This review originally ran in the March 11, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

Rating: 6 sunny days.

did not finish: Ripper by Isabel Allende (audio)

ripperAll right, I give up, a little bit, on Allende. The Japanese Lover was stronger on language than on character, and Maya’s Notebook even more so. Not since Inés of My Soul have I been bowled over by the whole package of story, character and language.

Ripper starts out intriguingly, as noted. But I only made it about 10% through the book before finding myself frustrated by the characters. The voluptuous, beautiful blonde with a heart of gold who is blind to people’s flaws; the materialistic rich guy she dates; the obnoxious teen (really, I find this one a lot. I know they can be difficult – I was – but they have to be more complex than this); etc. And then the unrealistic details (which I noted in Maya’s Notebook), as when our teenaged sleuth demands all the details of an ongoing murder investigation, because “it’s public record”: not so.* This kind of disregard for facts, in an otherwise realistic setting, bugs me; and combined with the flat characters, I couldn’t keep going.

Allende is one of the best when it comes to description and language. But that’s not always enough, for me at least. I’ll hold out for her next critically acclaimed work before I come back.


*I felt like I knew this from watching crime shows on television. Obviously not a strong source, so I found some stronger ones, below. The gist of it is, specific details of a crime whose investigation is ongoing are exempt from public records legislation, where the release of those details might jeopardize the investigation. For example, the details of specifically what was done to a murder victim might be held back so that the police can distinguish real confessions from fake ones. This is classic crime fiction stuff, but also fact. “Most states exempt from disclosure law enforcement investigatory records,” from the Connecticut General Assembly’s Office of Legislative Research, reporting on states’ laws. The LA Times refers to “investigative records exempt from public release under California’s public records law.” “Specified facts from investigatory or security records, without disclosure of the records themselves, must be disclosed unless disclosure would endanger the successful completion of an investigation, or related investigation, or endanger a person involved in the investigation. Cal. Gov’t Code §§ 6254(f)(1), (f)(2) and (f)(3),” from Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “Information that may jeopardize an investigation, related investigation or law enforcement proceeding” are exempt from public records access, according to the LAPD. “Law enforcement investigative files may be withheld, but not the basic facts.” Californians Aware, The Center for Public Forum Rights. Etc.

book beginnings on Friday: Ripper by Isabel Allende (audio)

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.


She is not perfect: I found The Japanese Lover to be, not bad, but less than she is capable of. But I still look forward to reading Isabel Allende.

Ripper begins:

“Mom is still alive, but she’s going to be murdered at midnight on Good Friday,” Amanda Martín told the deputy chief, who didn’t even think to question the girl. She’d already proved she knew more than he and all his colleagues in Homicide put together.

I thought that was a hell of an opening, and the pages that follow are equally engaging. Stick around.

The Red Storm by Grant Bywaters

The case of a disgruntled P.I. with mysterious enemies is set in atmospheric 1930s New Orleans.

red storm

Grant Bywaters employs his expertise as a licensed private investigator in his first novel, The Red Storm. William Fletcher was a 1920s black prizefighter whose ambitions for the heavyweight title were frustrated by the prejudices of his day. After the end of his boxing career, he becomes a P.I. in New Orleans, a city Fletcher credits with a “more lax view on segregation.” He struggles to make a living, though, so when a contact from his old life shows up more than 15 years later requesting help, Fletcher reluctantly agrees to investigate, even though Bill Storm is a wanted murderer. Storm wants to find his estranged daughter. But as soon as Fletcher contacts her, violence breaks out around both Fletcher and Zella Storm. What, exactly, has Storm gotten him into?

Fletcher is a loner, with racial tensions adding to the distinctive anti-authority stance his profession tends to take. Zella is a peppery character, with an ambitious career singing in French Quarter establishments that would rather she just take her clothes off. Bywaters evokes a recognizable New Orleans and surrounding swamps, and the police are hard beset by organized crime, both local and inbound from New York City. Fletcher may be just the man to help out, if he can keep himself and Zella alive. The Red Storm‘s plot is solid, but it is the setting in both time and place that distinguish this classically styled noir P.I. story, which Bywaters flavors with period slang as liberally as a Creole cook spices food.

This review originally ran in the December 22, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 6 songs.

movie: Rear Window (1954)

Happily, after some disappointment with The Birds the other night, I moved directly into another Hitchcock film that pleased me far more. I found Rear Window entertaining, clever, funny, and visually pleasing. Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly don’t hurt, of course. But fundamentally, I think murder-mystery ages better than horror, and that is what Rear Window is: not horror, but a noir murder mystery, which is one of my favorite things.

rear windowJames Stewart is L.B. Jefferies (“Jeff”), successful photographer of the adventurous sort, known for action shots, combat and the like. He is laid up with a broken leg, in a wheelchair, in his apartment, which suits him poorly, of course. Also irksome is his girlfriend and would-be fiancé, the lovely Lisa (Grace Kelly), a wealthy socialite he feels can’t possibly accept his life on the edge. Bored and bothered, he takes to spying on his neighbors out the window. The entire movie takes place from this perspective: we only ever see the inside of Jeff’s apartment, and the view he sees out its window, into a courtyard and the windows that also look upon it. There’s a middle-aged couple with a little dog; a female sculptor; a young ballerina who entertains many men; a slightly older, lonely woman; a composer struggling with his latest work; and a salesman who appears to be entirely tired of caring for his invalid wife. Jeff is visited by Lisa as well as a nurse, and a police detective friend he calls on for help when he thinks he’s witnessed a murder.

I loved the visuals: both James Stewart and Grace Kelly (particularly in tandem), and the vignette-style views of courtyard and other apartments, almost a shadowbox effect. I loved the survey of lives and loves provided by Jeff’s perspective. The lives he peeks into represent a range of experiences of life, different levels of contentment. I thought the suspense was well-done in a classic, thunder-and-lightning, guns-and-beautiful-ladies style. Even the puzzle itself – the whodunit – was engaging, if imperfect. The business with the flashbulbs struck me as quite ridiculous, but I laughed good-naturedly, because the overall effect of the story, the sets and the cast was so enjoyable. My fourth Hitchcock film is definitely my favorite. Fans of Agatha Christie will be pleased.

Rating: 9 little red pills.

Two Wheels by Greg Moody

two wheelsAn unusual treat: I read this book all of my own choosing.

Two Wheels is the first in Greg Moody’s series of murder mysteries framed by the professional road bike racing world. Naturally, it is set in Europe, although the main characters are Americans. Jean-Pierre Colgan is the world’s best, and leader of the accomplished Haven team, sponsored by Haven Pharmaceuticals. He is a cocky and not entirely likeable character, which is a fine thing because he dies in the opening pages when his brand-new, high-tech American toaster explodes. In the first quirky turn, we then see Colgan enter heaven – or something like heaven – where he is greeted by Il Campionissimo, Fausto Coppi. Anquetil, on the other hand, won’t speak to him.

Next we meet the American Will Ross, a washed-up retired racer drinking himself stupid in Belgium, who inexplicably gets hired to replace Colgan on the Haven team. Will is as surprised as anyone, still more so when his ex-wife turns out to be part of the team’s management. With no love lost between them, her position only makes his hiring more confounding.

Cheryl is the team soigneur, also American and regretting the recent end of her own race career. She and Will get off to a rocky start, but she will turn out to be an ally. Tomas Delgado is team mechanic, and an old friend of Will’s: good news. The rest of the Haven squad is understandably unhappy to have Will join them, but he is just starting to get the hang of things again – find his legs, and his lost passion for the sport – when the body count begins to rise. Colgan’s death, of course, was no accident. Somebody seems to have it out for the Haven team, and Will finds himself attempting an awkward impromptu investigation, in the interest of saving his own skin. Oh yes, and there is French detective Godot, who reminds us of Columbo and seems to be imitating that American icon on purposes. There is a thread throughout the story of the tension between American and French culture: television, slang, American football versus professional cycling.

Two Wheels is not quite a cozy, as the murder weapon of choice is plastic explosives and the results are pretty bloody; but it fits into the sub-genre of mysteries defined by their framing elements. The plot of the mystery itself is enjoyable, if not especially remarkable unto itself. Will is a little slow on the uptake as investigator, and a big coincidence revealed late in the book falls a bit short of credible. As a mystery, then, Two Wheels is fine but not unique. The cycling motif is more distinctive, and adequately well done; the pain and love of the sport, the pavé of Paris-Roubaix and the climbs of La Ronde van Vlaanderen are convincing. Moody is at his best when he works with Will’s self-deprecating humor; for lyrical praise of the road I recommend Tim Krabbe’s The Rider instead; but the whole package is perfectly entertaining, often funny, and overall loveable. Obviously, Two Wheels will be most appreciated by those who share Moody’s and Will’s love for the sport. I think it could be the start of a promising series.

Rating: 6 kilometers.

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