Tag Archives: investigation

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

Book of Nathan: A Novel by Curt Weeden and Richard Marek (Oceanview Publishing; $25.95; 264 pages)

“Dan Brown meets Janet Evanovich…”   Roxanne Black

Co-authors Curt Weeden and Richard Marek have teamed up to create a fascinating novel that is part mystery and part life lesson.   Their main character is Rick Bullock, formerly a successful Madison Avenue advertising man who turned agnostic soul saver when his beloved wife, Anne, died from a brain tumor.   Rick has refocused his life and manages a shelter for men in the inner city.   He knows his clients and when one of them named Zeus is accused of a high-profile murder, Rick makes it his task to prove the accusers wrong.

The first person narrative is an excellent vehicle for combining the disparate elements of the tale.   Rick’s thoughts and actions are consistent with a man of high moral principles.   Fortunately, the authors have resisted portraying him as a saintly type.   He is capable of trickery and a little arm twisting to obtain the resources needed to travel to Florida where Zeus is incarcerated.   Lacking funds for the journey, Rick calls in a favor from a buddy in his advertising past, Doug Kool, who is a fundraiser par excellence for a big nonprofit.

The team Rick takes to Florida is a rag-tag group.   Some of them are helpful for the mission (Doc Waters and Maurice) and one is a genuine bundle of precocious trouble (Twyla Tharp – no, not that one).   This reviewer was reminded of The Wizard of Oz and the pilgrimage that Dorothy made with her band of seekers.   Amazingly, the story line manages to stay reasonably tight and manageable regardless of the wide variety of characters.   Oh, did I mention that an extremely wealthy man also plays a part?   Indeed, the reader will discover more than the identity of the killer by the story’s end.  

The values and moral judgements presented are all too real and not off the scale of everyday issues we all face.   Kudos to Weeden and Marek for delivering their message in such an entertaining way.   Highly recommended.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Ballad of a Thin Man

The Vaults by Toby Ball (St. Martin’s Press; $24.99; 307 pages)

“Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is.   Do you, Mr. Jones?”   Bob Dylan

Toby Ball’s debut novel starts off with the feel of John Verdon’s excellent debut, Think of a Number.   That’s the good news.   The bad is that Ball’s story is far more complicated, involving more protagonists and characters – perhaps too many.   “The City,” unidentified in The Vaults, may be a windy Chicago or a mean Philadelphia or an old Los Angeles (“The purple light above The City…  And those searchlights beaming from the top of City Hall…”), but it sometimes felt as if Ball was attempting to populate the novel with every one of its inhabitants.

There are three male protagonists, each of whom happens to be accompanied by a female or male partner or colleague, and there are several political, labor and law enforcement officials who have notable roles.   Oh, and I have yet to mention the criminals – guys with names like Blood Whiskers and Otto Samuelson – who become key players.   This reader knows that a story has become complex when he needs to take out the old legal note pad to chart the characters.

Set several decades in the past, The Vaults begins with a criminal records archivist named Puskis, who comes to fear that someone is tampering with the files under his control.   Some of the conviction records contain the notation “PN,” which stands for something unknown to Puskis.   This is where we begin to suspect that corruption is going on in The City run by the power-hungry mayor Red Henry.

Puskis is not alone in his quest to find out what’s going on.   There’s also an investigative newspaper reporter, the well-known Frings, and a P. I. named Poole who smells something wrong as he searches for a missing child.   Puskis collaborates with his predecessor Van Vossen; Poole with his union-based activist and lover Carla; and Frings with his girlfriend and popular jazz singer Nora.   (Together they will learn that PN stands for something known as the Navajo Project – therein lies the tale.)

With all of these figures on-stage and off, I began thinking of Robert Altman’s film Nashville, which had a cast of myriad characters.   As with Nashville, you know here that the characters are going to come together at the story’s resolution.   This is not a surprise and, at about four-fifths of the way through the novel, the reader can see the ending that’s in sight.   The ending was logical, predictable and preordained; not the type of conclusion one would expect in a mystery.

With some mysteries the end is opaque until the final pages, which is perhaps as it should be.   For example, with the sci-fi mystery novel Everything Matters! the author needed not one but two endings to come to a conclusion.   Even then, some found the conclusion discomforting.   I loved Everything Matters! specifically because I didn’t see either ending coming, the fake one or the reprise that constituted the true ending.

Toby Ball has a tremendous imagination, and possesses what appears to be a great deal of knowledge about the criminal justice system.   Because of this, The Vaults is unique and is worth reading.   This reader, however, would love to see Ball’s skills applied the next time around to a tighter-woven and simpler story.   One that feels more natural.   The Vaults sometimes struck me as a type of engineering-as-writing exercise – “If this piece goes here, then this other piece must go there.”

“…it is all chaos.”

Reaching the end of this review, we must come to a conclusion.   We’re rating this novel as Recommended – but with a caution.   Those who like big cinematic stories with a mega-cast of characters are going to be carried away by The Vaults and they’ll enjoy the time they spend in The City.   But those who like smaller stories – micro rather than mega, human scale rather than I-MAX – would be advised to instead pick up a calm and concentrated family novel.

Take Away:  This novel starts off in third gear before moving quickly into fourth and skirting with overdrive.   However, the excitement and originality of the first half of the book was lacking in the second – the latter part seemed to lag in second and first gear.   Overall, more pluses than minuses.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Dirty Old Town

The Vaults by Toby Ball

If The Vaults by Toby Ball is made into a movie, it will have to be shot in black and white.   A film noir mood permeates the City, from the desolate squatter camps in abandoned factories to City Hall, where heavyweight-boxer-turned-mayor Red Henry rules with a predator’s innate understanding of his opponents’ weaknesses.   It’s big-city America in the 1930s, the heyday of the newspaper, when deeply flawed men can become heroes by exposing corruption.   That’s where we meet Francis Frings, the Gazette’s star reporter, who’s working on a story that implicates the entire criminal justice system and threatens to topple Red Henry.

The hardboiled characters who populate Frings’ world – his lover, a sultry jazz singer; his hootch-swilling editor – are richly drawn.   Frings’ investigation, alone, would make a compelling crime thriller.   But his investigation is just one of three that threaten the mayor’s kingdom, and therein lies the genius of Ball’s novel:  Three “heroes” with vastly different motivations – and no knowledge of one another – simultaneously begin tugging on the threads of the central mystery.   Ethan Poole is a private eye with socialist leanings who’s not above blackmail.   Arthur Puskis is the rigidly methodical archivist of the City’s criminal files.   Mayor Henry lashes out at all who threaten his kingdom, his brutality kept in check only by the pragmatic consideration of public relations.

Ball’s writing is fast-paced and terse.   He rotates the action from one investigation to the next, and in the process, fleshes out a world of ingenious criminality, unionizing, strike-breaking, smoky nightclubs, and insane asylums.   The characters’ quests are provocative and timeless:  Truth, Justice and The Purpose of Life.   The book’s one weakness is the implausibility of the operation that Mayor Henry kills to protect.   But The Vaults is such a good read that it hardly matters.

The Vaults (St. Martin’s Press) is Ball’s first novel.   It’s a winner, and anyone who reads it will be standing in line to get his second.

Review by Kimberly Caldwell Steffen.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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The Case of the Wrong Place

The Magician’s Accomplice: A Commander Jana Matinova Investigation by Michael Genelin (Soho Crime, 336 pages, $25.00)

It’s a case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time, or is it?   Michael Genelin’s third Commander Jana Matinova mystery novel begins by introducing the reader to a charming, if somewhat opportunistic, starving student.   No sooner does the reader take a liking to the young chap, than poof, he’s gone.   Not in the magical, disappearing sense, more like a bang, you’re dead departure.  

The sinister undercurrent starts with the student’s death at breakfast in the dining room of an elegant Slovakian hotel and gains momentum as another murder takes place within hours, this time at the city prosecutor’s office.   The second  murder is by far the most traumatic for the Commander, as her lover (actually, her would-have-been fiance) is the victim of a telephone bomb.

The story is smoothly depicted in flawless English, somewhat reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s style in her Tuppence and Tommy mysteries.   Genelin draws the reader into his scenes with highly cinematic descriptions of the Eastern Europe locales where the action takes place.   The mystery might well be moonlighting as a sophisticated travelogue.   The cafes and their menus reflect the foods and traditions that make each city unique.   The Magician’s Accomplice is also reminiscent of the 1963 film Charade, starring Audrey Hepburn; however, Commander Matinova is no Audrey Hepburn.   Her character aligns better with Cary Grant’s character, for she’s truly a capable spy/law enforcement officer.

There are no gimmicks, or sleight-of-hand tricks, just dogged pursuit, plenty of worn shoe leather, and characters that are generally not what they appear to be.   The author obviously has first-hand knowledge of bureaucracy and law enforcement.   Each agency depicted in the story contains a full complement of the personalities one would expect to encounter, along with their gossip and tight cliques.

Although the settings are a bit exotic, the calm resolve of the main character is welcome and familiar.   This is not because the book is the third in a series; rather, Commander Matinova is the embodiment of today’s serious professional woman.   Society has come to expect her to suppress her raw emotions in the aftermath of disaster and soldier on.   She is able to carry on admirably as she embarks on an odyssey to placate her boss and secretly search for her lover’s killer.   The commander’s unlikely companion is an elderly magician who insinuates himself into her travels and ultimately aids the hunt for the murderer.

The Magician’s Accomplice is a classic police drama and mystery complete with a fine dedication to principles.   It is a joy to read because author Genelin knows how to write, in the very best sense of the word.

Highly recommended.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was received from the publisher.

 

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On Skeleton Hill

Skeleton Hill: An Inspector Peter Diamond Investigation by Peter Lovesey

Peter Diamond, head of the criminal investigations division (CID) for the city of Bath, England stars in this, the tenth book in the British detective series written by Peter Lovesey.   The first few chapters are devoted to setting the stage for a most enjoyable hunt for the facts needed to solve two mysterious murders.   There are two deaths to be investigated – which initially seemed to be unrelated – that were separated by about twenty years.   The first involves a skeleton found in the roots of a landmark tree and the other turns up in a nearby graveyard in a pool of blood.

The mystery opens with a reenactment of a 1643 battle during the Civil War (not ours, theirs) at Lansdown above the city of Bath.   Although the story develops methodically, the reader would be wise to take notes and prepare for what accelerates into a mad dash for the finish line.   Along the way we’re treated to some strictly English terms and eccentricities with a generous side order of correct local history.   All of this serves to make the book feel like a vacation/field trip combined with a really good game of Clue. 

Author Lovesey provides the reader with a full array of suspects, red herrings and human foibles that add up to a very enjoyable read.   This reviewer looks forward to reading the nine other books by Lovesey that preceded Skeleton Hill.

Highly recommended.

Review by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy of Skeleton Hill was provided by Soho Press.   This book is also available as a Kindle Edition download from Amazon.

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