musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Posts tagged ‘Daniel Suarez’

Crime Spree

I read a lot of books, trying to balance my literary diet with a mixture of fiction and non-fiction. That said, the bulk of what I read leans heavily towards crime fiction. Call the genre crime fiction, or even mystery (sometimes, though, there is no actual “mystery” involved in the plot), but I really detest the term “thriller.” Such a flippant categorization just cheapens the novel, in my opinion. Sure, some books in this genre may not qualify as “serious” literature, and will most likely never be nominated for a Booker Prize (then again, most of those picks are total head scratchers), but that doesn’t make the book disposable fluff either.


In any case, I’ve been on a real crime reading spree lately, more than usual. I even set aside a couple of non-fiction books that I had been reading (John Man’s book about Genghis Khan, and a biography about the intrepid early 20th century explorer Gertrude Bell), so that I could buzz through a few new novels. During my recent trip to Myanmar I read City of Fire by Robert Ellis, Dance for the Dead by Thomas Perry, and Three Doors to Death by Rex Stout (okay, that one wasn’t exactly “new”, but I’d never read it).


There was a blurb by Michael Connelly on the cover of City of Fire, raving about the book. I was wary, though. Some of those glowing reviews don’t always translate to an impressive read. The Ellis novel, however, turned out to be as good as advertised. A tense, taught mystery with an engaging female protagonist in Detective Lena Gamble, the necessary shady characters, some interesting music references (like Connelly’s Harry Bosch character, Lena is a jazz fan), some absolutely horrific crime scenes, a few surprising plot twists, and plenty of lively dialogue. Since I returned to Bangkok I also devoured The Lost Witness, the sequel to City of Fire, which once again features Lena Gamble. Another excellent read, reaffirming my belief that this Ellis is about to join the elite ranks of crime fiction writers.


I had read two of Thomas Perry’s older novels, both featuring the “Butcher’s Boy” hit man character and enjoyed those very much. Dance for the Dead, however, features an entirely different protagonist, Jane Whitefield, a young Native American woman who protects deserving people in trouble, often helping them “disappear” from the bad guys. Very interesting premise and Jane Whitefield is a most unique character. The only knock against this novel was the lame dialogue. It just didn’t have the ring of authenticity that I associate with top tier mystery writers. Plus, each character tended to sound the same: the 8-year old boy, the 21-year old gang-banger, the middle-aged judge, the senior citizen neighbor, and even Jane herself, all used the same vocabulary and had the same speech patterns. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book enough that I plan to read others in the series.


Three Doors to Death is a collection of three Nero Wolf “short mysteries”. I love this series, especially the colorful characters; the delightfully acerbic and eccentric Wolfe; and Archie Goodwin, his womanizing, witty, and clever assistant. Fine dining, orchids, sparkling dialogue, and dead bodies galore. What’s not to like? It always amazes me that these books were written so many years ago (the late 1940s in the case of these short stories) yet they still thrill and fascinate.


Once I was back in Bangkok, my mystery addiction only intensified. I paid a visit to the Kinokuniya branch in the Emporium and picked up the new novels from John Sandford and Barry Eisler. The Sandford book, Stolen Prey, is the latest in his series featuring the sharp-dressed Minnesota crime investigator Lucas Davenport. His goofy sidekick, Virgil Flowers (the star of another series by Sandford) also pops up several times in this tale. Like the other books in the Prey series, this one has multiple plots, witty dialogue, grisly murders, and is a delight to read.


Eisler’s The Detachment marks the return of his popular John Rain character, his colorful — and lethal — cohort Dox, and a couple of characters from the previous two non-Rain novels. These four hired assassins are lured into taking a most challenging assignment, but it soon become apparent that this “mission” isn’t all what they thought it would be. Have they become targets themselves? Eisler injects a bit of political intrigue into the plot, further ratcheting up the page-turning factor. Some scary cyber scenarios are presented, most of which are entirely plausible in this technology-driven age.


At my own bookshop I was thrilled to find the new novels from Daniel Suarez and T. Jefferson Parker. I had read the first two books by Suarez (Daemon and Freedom) and enjoyed them very much, so I was quite happy to find an “Advance Reading Copy” of his new novel, Kill Decision. This could be his best book yet, a riveting tale of high-tech warfare and political manipulation, featuring deadly drones and creepy military characters. Like Eisler’s book, a lot of disturbing “it could really happen” elements figure in the plot. At the end of their books, both Eisler and Suarez offer lists of recommended reading, based on the controversial topics covers in their novels. Much appreciated! But you may want to throw away your cell phone and go into hiding after reading those two particular books. Orwell was prophetic: Big Brother is now watching — and tracking — our every move.


The Parker book, Iron River, is another novel featuring the Deputy Charlie Hood character. This was as good as expected, but it took me a while to get into the flow of the story. Parker uses a couple of different narratives, including one that’s oddly in the first person, plus the story switches from California to Mexico and back again, as Hood and cohorts attempt to rescue a colleague who has been kidnapped by a ruthless drug gang. Despite the odd plot, I credit Parker with “stretching out” and trying something a bit different. There is plenty of action and plenty of twisted characters, propelled by Parker’s flair for writing believable and colorful dialogue, along with telling an interesting story.  


Looking for a Good Book

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.

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