I had just devoured the latest Robert Crais novel — another excellent Elvis Cole and Joe Pike adventure called The Sentry — and was looking for a new book to read, preferably something in the crime/mystery vein. I’ve actually been reading a lot more non-fiction lately — all the Malcolm Gladwell books, the most recent Jared Diamond, Freakonomics, Naomi Klein, and some other political stuff — but on this day I had the itch for a mystery and wanted to try a new author instead of one that I’d read before. I noticed this book called The Bricklayer by a new writer named Noah Boyd. The blurb on the cover by James Patterson was what caught my eye: “Move over Jack Reacher, here comes The Bricklayer.” Even Lee Child himself, the creator of the famous Jack Reacher character, chimed in with: “Non-stop action and non-stop authenticity make this a real winner.” I’ve enjoyed all of Child’s novels very much, but invariably I end up not liking books that he recommends. And this one was no exception. It was so lame and unexciting that I didn’t even finish the thing. The characters were shallow, the attempts at humor weak, and the plot lacked tension. Jack Reacher has nothing to worry about.
Next try was a novel by Joseph Wambaugh, famous for the true crime classic The Onion Field and novels such as The Choirboys, all set in Los Angeles … and all written about three or four decades ago. Wambaugh may once have been a very good writer, but based on Hollywood Crows, a book published in 2008, his best days appear far behind him. I hesitate to say that the cause is old age — Wambaugh turned 74 earlier this year — because mystery writers such as Ed McBain and Donald Westlake never lost a beat and remained sharp well into their seventies. Even Elmore Leonard is still going very strong in his eighties, although his last book, Djibouti, I thought was one of his weakest. For the most part, though, Hollywood Crows is pedestrian stuff that never takes off or captures the imagination, and Wambaugh’s attempts at humor fall flatter than a pole-vaulting sumo wrestler. Yeah, it was that bad.
But finally, I found a book that hooked me: A Quiet Flame by Philip Kerr. This is one of the author’s Bernie Gunther novels, a series he’s been writing about a Berlin police detective, set mostly in the 1940s. In this novel, however, the story rotates from Berlin in the early 1930s to Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1950, where Gunther has relocated after the war is over. I have almost zero desire to read books about Nazis and Hitler or World War II, but Kerr’s deft writing and use of multi-faceted characters helps to make this a compelling tale. He uses real Nazi villains such as Eichmann and Mengele, along with Argentina’s famous first couple, Juan and Evita Peron, which adds more spice to the story and gives the plot added validity.
Another pleasant new discovery was Daniel Suarez, an author I stumbled upon after reading the teaser on the back cover Suarez has written two books thus far, Daemon and Freedom, and I raced through both of them this past month. They tend to fall into what’s been dubbed the “techno-thriller” genre, but basically they don’t stray far from the typical mystery novel, leaving you hanging with anticipation until the very end. There are lots of scary “this could really happen” examples of cyber shenanigans and government eavesdropping in the plot, enough disturbing examples to either keep you off-line for a while, or cast yet more suspicion and distrust on that famous “freedom-fighting” government. If nothing else it will stop and make you think about what “Big Brother” is actually doing.