It’s been more than a decade and a half since the last appearance of Paul Thomas’ best-known protagonist, Detective Sergeant Tito Ihaka, a headstrong, overweight, and blithely profane Maori police detective based in Auckland, New Zealand. But the wait was worth it, for his fourth Ihaka outing, Death on Demand, ranks among the best entries in this award-winning series.
Death on Demand comes out of the blocks with a succession of vignettes spotlighting seemingly unconnected characters — among them a handsome young man who’s seduced away from his hometown by a peripatetic older woman; a quartet of middle-aged gents who swap confidences during their annual “boys’ weekend”; and a well-heeled Auckland woman, Joyce Lilywhite, who falls victim to an early morning hit-and-run incident. It isn’t until three dozen pages in that Ihaka finally steps to the fore. We learn that he’s spent the last several years exiled to Wairarapa, a rural region southeast of Auckland, following his unsuccessful efforts to close the aforementioned hit-and-run case and his run-in, in a public restroom, with an ass-kissing colleague, DS Ron Firkitt, who’s bent on undermining Ihaka’s law-enforcement career. Thomas’ account of that altercation — which finds Firkitt trailing his fellow detective into the toilet in order to continue berating him — gives you a sense both of this author’s humor-tinged storytelling style and his protagonist’s abject disregard for authority:
Ihaka registered that none of the stalls were occupied. He stepped up to the weeping wall. Firkitt followed suit, still snorting with amusement. As Firkitt unzipped, Ihaka threw a hard, fast elbow, spearing it into the side of his jaw, just below the ear. Firkitt bounced off the wall, his knees gave way, and he slid face first into the trough of the urinal. Ihaka unbuttoned his jeans and took a long, leisurely piss. The drainage flow encountered an obstacle, but the obstacle didn’t seem to notice.
Ihaka washed and dried his hands and walked out of the toilet. Firkitt still hadn’t moved.
Yeah, Tito Ihaka is not exactly a team player. Yet when Christopher Lilywhite, the dying husband of that woman who was killed by a speeding car six years ago, suddenly demands an audience with Ihaka, the latter’s bosses decide its worth their summoning him back to Auckland, if only temporarily. It turns out Lilywhite is ready to confess that he hired a hit man to do away with his wife — just as Ihaka suspected he had done, but was unable to prove conclusively. The problem is, Lilywhite never learned his hit man’s identity. Which soon becomes a problem, as people linked to that long-ago slaying, not the least of them being Lilywhite himself, start turning up in body bags. Is Auckland suffering the predations of a serial murderer, or is Lilywhite’s assassin trying to remove anyone conversant with the scope of his activities? As the parameters of Ihaka’s investigation expand to include a prolific gigolo, an imprisoned mobster, and instances of blackmail and possible police corruption, Ihaka proves that his recent banishment to the bush has not dulled his crime-solving acumen (or his robust self-confidence) one iota.
used to think that nobody could touch Erle Stanley Gardner when it came to manufacturing twisted plots. But Paul Thomas is no slouch in that regard. There are enough questions raised in Death on Demand to make a Jeopardy! contestant’s head spin. Slowly and persistently, though, the author ties together all of the loose ends offered in the vignettes opening his new novel, and resolves the myriad mysteries he raises subsequently. At the same time, he invites readers to dine on a buffet of quips and lighthearted quotes scattered through his chapters, including this exchange between Ihaka and a glamorous but volatile TV personality
She examined Ihaka through the glass doors, tapping her chin with her cellphone. “You don’t look like a policeman.”
“This isn’t television, Ms. Kelly. I didn’t have to audition for the part.”
Death on Demand is one of four contenders for this year’s Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel, designed to honor “excellence in New Zealand crime, mystery and thriller writing.” Having now read all of those works, I can say that Paul Thomas’ fourth Tito Ihaka novel (published in the States by Bitter Lemon Press) deserves its nomination. Without a doubt. ~ Jeff Pierce
Set in the fabled City of Light, beginning in 1926, Byrd’s colorful, often clever tale spotlights Toby Keats, a still-traumatized veteran of the so-called Great War, who now works as a rewrite man for the Chicago Tribune. Keats is accustomed to a fairly peaceful, near-monkish existence, sampling Paris’ gourmet wares as he observes girls herding goats through the streets and mutilated French ex-soldiers trying to survive without too obviously begging. But then into his life falls what could be Vaucanson’s Duck, a “somewhat scandalous” 18th-century automaton that’s coveted by an American banker and a delightful, resourceful young woman named Elsie Short of the Thomas Edison Doll Company, as well as by criminals who may desire the phony fowl for its interior mechanism — technology that might further advance weapons development. Byrd won a Shamus Award for California Thriller (1981), the first in a trio of novels starring San Francisco private investigator Mike Haller. During the 1990s he penned historical fiction about a trio of U.S. presidents: Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Ulysses S. Grant. Now, in The Paris Deadline, he delivers a sparkling and suspenseful caper with a mystery plot well-rooted in a loving re-creation of Jazz Age Paris. ~ Jeff Pierce
Have you ever noticed how often cults — be they religious or reactionary, satanic or satirical — figure into mystery and thriller tales? Writers seem fascinated (and who can blame them?) by what causes some people to fall under the spell of charismatic, passionate, and occasionally whacked-out prophets who’ll usher them into the wilderness or to some less remote locale, where they can jointly pursue enlightenment or simply escape the restrictions of modern society. And in most such yarns, cults harbor secretive agendas, and the results of extended contact with them can be, well, dire.
I started pondering all of this as I was reading A Serpent’s Tooth, Craig Johnson’s ninth novel featuring Absaroka County, Wyoming, sheriff Walt Longmire.
The story kicks off with the discovery of a teenager, Cord Lynear, who’s been hiding at the home of one of Longmire’s constituents and making repairs to her residence in exchange for food filched from her icebox. As it turns out, Cord is a Mormon “lost boy,” cast off from a tightly controlled polygamous sect in South Dakota: the Apostolic Church of the Lamb of God. He’s now looking for his mother, Sarah Tisdale, who was once also part of the Lamb of God community, but who has recently disappeared. Longmire would dearly like to reunite mother and son. To do so, however, will mean dealing with an eccentric tough who claims to be a 200-year-old Mormon “enforcer,” confronting the alarmingly well-armed religionists, and figuring out why they’re so protective of territory that the federal government has deemed worthless — the same tract that, in the early 20th century, was at the center of the Teapot Dome scandal.
Johnson’s tales about Longmire, the protagonist’s short-tempered undersheriff, Victoria Morretti, and his Native American friend/sidekick, Henry Standing Bear, always offer light-hearted elements. Indeed, the polygamists’ lack of acquaintance with contemporary culture is a ripe source of humor here. But there’s nothing funny about the lengths to which that secretive sect will go to keep the outside world out of its business. When I call A Serpent’s Tooth explosive, it’s with good reason. ~ Jeff Pierce
Until recently, I hadn’t read a James Bond novel in a very long while. I think the last one was Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger (1959), which I re-read probably a decade ago. Prior to that, I’d picked up two or three of John Gardner’s Bond pastiches from the 1980s and ’90s (though not The Man from Barbarossa, which the author apparently thought was his best). However, I never quite got around to purchasing Raymond Benson’s 007 adventures, Sebastian Faulks’ Devil May Care (which was set in 1967), or Jeffery Deaver’s hotly promoted Carte Blanche. There were just so many other promising books demanding my attention. Having enjoyed most of Fleming’s spy thrillers in my youth, I figured I had pretty much “done” Bond.
But then Ian Fleming Publications — which holds the Bond books copyright — commissioned UK novelist William Boyd to produce a new “official” 007 work. I was very fond of Boyd’s 2006 historical thriller, Restless, and while his other books have been hit-and-miss with me (I was especially disappointed in 2009’s Ordinary Thunderstorms), he can usually be counted on for deftly configured characters and some artistry in his use of the English language. I couldn’t very well ignore the possibilities of what he might be able to do with Fleming’s resourceful, randy master spy.
Solo is certainly not a disappointment. It doesn’t seek to imitate Fleming’s voice or to play it too safe with his protagonist. Neither, though, does it ignore the tropes and traditions of the famous espionage series. We find 007 in these pages reveling in the pleasures to be had from expertly engineered automobiles, finely tailored clothes, bracing cocktails, and lissome ladies. It’s not giving anything away to say that he doesn’t die at the end … and he lives every page in between to the fullest. That he must also endure deceptions and hostilities is only to be expected. This is, after all, a Bond yarn.
The year is 1969. The half-Scottish, half-Swiss Commander Bond is residing in a spacious Chelsea flat that’s undergoing some remodeling, and ruminating over both his past and present. After celebrating his 45th birthday — alone, save for the posh libations in close attendance — and then becoming enamored of a woman named Bryce Fitzjohn, who’s not much younger than he, 007 is dispatched to the fictional west African nation of Zanzarim, where a civil war has resulted in considerable bloodshed, much to the regret of Her Majesty’s Government. It’s Bond’s job, posing as a journalist with a French news agency, to locate the “tactical genius” who’s leading this rebellion and, presumably, take him out — although his assignment is unusually short of specifics.
Helping to acquaint him with conditions in Zanzarim and the breakaway state of Dahum, is a comely young black woman named Blessing Ogilvy-Grant, the British Secret Service’s local head of station. She accompanies him, as his translator, into Dahum, where they find a remorseless mercenary named Kobus Breed, whose quirk of weeping copiously from one eye — the result of a terrible facial injury — does nothing to curb his penchant for violence. (He’s most fond, it seems, of stringing his adversaries up from fish hooks.) Bond manages to win Breed over a bit by employing his military experience from World War II at a crucial moment. But theirs is a temporary alliance; 007 soon finds a way to undermine the Dahumian force’s faith in its invulnerability, and in the process not only makes an enemy of Breed, but finds himself at the ugly end of an automatic pistol.
To give much more of the plot away would be a disservice to Boyd’s literary endeavors. I will add, though, that James Bond soon winds up in a Scottish hospital, where he decides to exact revenge on Breed & Co. In order to do so, 007 must “go solo,” despite all the Secret Service regulations prohibiting such activities. He jets off for Washington, D.C. (making this the first novel since Benson’s The Facts of Death to send Bond to the States), where he searches for answers to questions that were left unresolved at the end of his Dahum interlude — notably, why it is that an African charity seems to have grown exponentially in the wake of the Zanzarim civil war.
Although there’s ample gun play in these pages (and knife play, as well), readers expecting to find the sorts of whiz-bang gadgetry and cinematic fireworks in Solo that have become familiar from the Bond films might be disappointed. As in Fleming’s original books, this new story is lower on technology than human treachery, and author Boyd — while he succumbs in some ways to the demands of a formulaic thriller — demonstrates a preference for realism that inhibits his ability to cut loose with fantastical but too-convenient plot twists. This is spy fiction for adults who don’t demand a video-game pace in their storytelling. Solo is not perfect: there’s a secondary character here, for instance, who suffers with a lisp, but unaccountably fails to maintain that impediment throughout his dialogue; and Bond’s inability to recognize, for so long, that he’s endangering people he cares about merely by associating with them can be downright maddening.
Nonetheless, Solo is a consuming work, and Boyd has made Bond his own. I wouldn’t be at all disappointed if Ian Fleming Publications begged him for a sequel. ~ Jeff Pierce
The past comes back to haunt — with particular urgency and drama — the present in Irish author-journalist Anthony Quinn’s first novel, for even though Northern Ireland no longer resonates with the echoes of bombs and gunfire, the much-promised peace has not yet been realized in some quarters of the country.
Inspector Celcius Daly is called to a rural home, from which David Hughes, an elderly gent afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, has lately vanished. Hughes’ sister and caretaker fears he has wandered off and into trouble. But as the inspector investigates, he discovers that Hughes isn’t the quiet country putterer he seems. Instead, he’s part of a larger and much more complicated story connected to the long-ago slaying (by the Irish Republican Army) of an alleged political informer, Oliver Jordan, and the more recent torture murder of an ex-intelligence agent. The fact that said agent placed his own obituary in a local newspaper, prior to his death, makes this whole affair particularly bizarre. Daly — a detective still wrestling with a recent separation from his wife and more capable at his job than he is at handling his personal life — adds further to the stakes in this mystery by inviting Jordan’s answers-seeking son into the case. It soon becomes apparent that the missing Hughes harbors secrets in his deteriorating mind that others don’t wish to see released.
Quinn enriches Disappeared with Irish history and he does an excellent job of ratcheting up the tension as his yarn progresses. I’m very pleased to note that he has a sequel to this thrilling work due out in October 2013. It’s called Border Angels. ~ Jeff Pierce
The Mojito Coast (its title a play on Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast) is something of a throwback, but in the best sense. Its list of debts extends at least to Mickey Spillane, Brett Halliday and that renowned Humphrey Bogart picture, Casablanca.
Set in Havana, Cuba, beginning in 1958, it finds Miami-based private eye Cormac Loame following the twisted path of Lila Hacker, an overripe 14-year-old who has slipped the clutches of her father, Cecil “Madman” Hacker, a former heavyweight boxer now grown wealthy from laundering money for Florida mob boss Santo Trafficante Jr. Hacker doesn’t start out as the most savory of clients, and he may be still more reprehensible than Loame realized.
If not for the pile of greenbacks Madman is willing to spend to retrieve his daughter — who he says has been seduced away by handsome, 26-year-old bodyguard Danny McCarl — Loame probably wouldn’t have set foot again in Cuba. On his last visit there, in 1952, he chased down a bookie who’d skipped bail in the Sunshine State and absconded to the Caribbean. Amid an uneven exchange of hot lead, Loame finally managed to load his quarry onto a plane bound for Key West. He was less successful in convincing a dazzling young cubana named Marisol to join them on that same flight. She stayed behind to wed a politically well-connected sugar baron, Hector Gonzalez.
Six years later, Havana is a different place, more decadent and corrupt than ever. American mobsters, including Trafficante and Meyer Lansky, enjoy tremendous sway in Cuba’s capital, thanks to the aid they provided military strongman Fulgencio Batista when he assumed control of the island’s government. However, their influence is currently at risk from revolutionary forces led by Fidel Castro. While all may seem serene in Havana, the city is being surrounded by communist rebels.
Loame hopes to locate and liberate the wayward Lila before Batista’s fall. Nothing in this tale, though, is so easily accomplished. First, a local man from whom the shamus had sought help is murdered. Then Loame is snatched by thugs, whose criminal employers warn this “two-bit private cop” that causing trouble for their profitable Cuban casinos and hotels could threaten his well-being. And after Loame is contacted by Danny McCarl, who claims he took Lila from her father for her own protection, McCarl meets a violent demise. As if all those twists weren’t enough to convince Loame that he should find a more boring occupation, he soon discovers that Marisol isn’t as satisfied with her marriage as he’d thought. Can our gumshoe hero grab Lila Hacker and keep her safe, and also steal away with Marisol, without being shot by a jealous Hector Gonzalez?
This is a classic private-eye yarn, told with all the crackling drama, dubious loyalties and durable cynicism we’ve come to expect of the breed. ~ Jeff Pierce
While reading HHhH I felt pleasantly discombobulated — in much the same way I did when I first saw color photographs taken during World War II. My initial reaction at the time was a delighted, “So that’s what it actually looked like,” followed by the realization, “but those aren’t exactly the right colors.” In Laurent Binet’s novel, which is based on true events, he conveys the historical researcher’s satisfaction in digging up colorful factual details, together with the resigned knowledge that historical accuracy is an ever-receding goal. Binet’s writing is also playfully disconcerting, because while it often sounds less like fiction and more like a diary, with its frequent authorial musings, it moves like an adventure tale — his pacing creates an intense suspense despite our awareness of the outcome. Any WWII buff or amateur historian will enjoy this riveting true story and understand Binet’s obsession with verisimilitude — which is really just a sense of grief that there is no such thing as a time machine. ~ Liz Goodwin
Satanism has finally come to call on the village of St. Denis, in France’s Dordogne region. Or at least, that’s the way it appears when the naked corpse of an unidentified young woman floats down the river into the town center, her body flanked on a small boat by two large black candles and her torso inked with a pentagram.
Police chief Bruno Courrèges already has plenty of concerns on his plate, notably a domestic abuse case and a highly touted real-estate development project that may be far less agreeable than it seems. He’s also having to negotiate his relationships with two different women — one of whom is off in Scotland, concerned about her declining mother, while the other has arrived in St. Denis, ready to help Bruno keep his crime-clearance rate up and his bed warm. The discovery of satanic ritual remains in a popular local cavern intensifies media interest in St. Denis’ devilish escapades. But as Bruno investigates, he realizes that the “evil” at the root of that young woman’s slaying may have more to do with lust and lucre than Lucifer.
The Devil’s Cave, the fifth novel in Walker’s character-rich and atmospheric French mystery series (following The Crowded Grave) prove that Bruno, a romantic ex-military peacekeeper with a fondness for good food and wine, has great staying power as a protagonist. His interactions in these pages with a prominent Communist Party elder, a suspicious hotelier, a long-legged nurse of peculiar influence, and a basset hound pup in need of new digs show the St. Denis copper to be capable of far more than maintaining civility between rival shopkeepers and enforcing parking regulations. If you haven’t already discovered Walker’s often amusing series, you can start with any of the entries (they need not be read in order to be understood), but Bruno, Chief of Police was the first. ~ Jeff Pierce
For me, Curtis Sittenfeld is one of those authors who could write about absolutely anything and I’d want to read it. To wit: I avoid books with even a hint of the supernatural, yet when I heard that Sisterland was a coming-of-age story about psychic twin sisters I did not hesitate to buy it. In hardcover. The day it came out. Sittenfeld’s unlikely premises (her last book was an intimate, fictional account of Laura Bush’s life — fantastic!) are merely hooks to get her stories started. The main events are her characters’ relationships and attempts to build satisfying lives. That may sound like standard chick-lit, but while she covers some of the same terrain, Sittenfeld’s novels feel completely different from any glossy Cinderella stories. Her books are funny, slightly dirty, moving, and always emotionally complex. Sittenfeld is so observant of her characters, and her characters can be so observant of themselves and their surroundings, that when you finish one of these tales the players seem to walk off the page and into the future. I swear that after I finished Sisterland, I actually thought, “I wonder how Kate and Vi are doing now?” ~ Liz Goodwin
Unfortunately, that cast-off communication was discovered years ago and hundreds of miles away from Denmark, where it had originally been dropped into the sea, and its lettering has faded badly since. In fact, the only really legible word is the first one: “Help.” But that’s enough to get Detective Carl Mørck and his ever-eccentric colleagues from the Copenhagen Police Department’s cold-case division, Department Q, involved. Is this cry for rescue authentic, and if so, who sent it — and is that person still alive? Once deciphered, the note suggests that children were kidnapped, and yet there were no reports of missing youngsters filed at the time and in the location it specifies. Further complicating matters, when Mørck & Co. finally determine who at least one of the absent youths must be, his parents stonewall the police rather than help them. Can Mørck and his two more energetic associates, Hafez el-Assad and Rose Knudsen, track down the earlier kidnap victims before their abductor snatches the next couple of children he’s targeted?
Danish author Adler-Olsen’s first English-translated Department Q novel, The Keeper of Lost Causes (2001), earned him considerable attention, in part because enthusiastic readers of the late Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium Trilogy” were hungry for more Nordic crime fiction. Keeper’s sequel, The Absent One (2012), kept interest in Department Q high, and no doubt Conspiracy will attract a comparably wide audience. Although these books can be frustratingly thin on nuance, as far as the development of some characters (particularly the “bad guys”) goes, their detection components are well-constructed and strong and their pacing is dramatic. ~ Jeff Pierce