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Posts tagged ‘John Sandford’

Crime Always Pays

I’ve been on a reading binge lately, mostly devouring a lot of crime fiction novels. I try to balance out my reading with some non-fiction and what might be called more “serious” novels, but when it comes down to it, crime fiction is usually my main entrée. Here are some short reviews of what I’ve read lately: a few recently published novels, along with older titles from the vaults. Some qualify as traditional mysteries or police procedurals, while others drift into spy and espionage territory. Just don’t dare call them thrillers!

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Michael Connelly – The Burning Room

This is another strong entry in Connelly’s beloved Harry Bosch series. I’ve read them all up to this point and I ain’t stopping now. Connelly remains one of the best in the crime fiction business. This time around Bosch is paired with a new partner, a young Hispanic woman who is on the rise in the police department. My favorite part of this book, as in all Connelly novels, is the investigative thread. I enjoy the way that Bosch picks up seemingly random clues and finds something buried in there that turns out to be crucial to the case that he is investigating. Another cool aspect to the Bosch novels is the way the Connelly weaves a music thread into the story. Bosch is a traditional jazz fan and finds that listening to music helps him to maintain a certain “momentum” when investigating a case. At one point in this novel, Bosch puts on a Ron Carter CD, Dear Miles, because he “was looking for rhythm, and Carter’s vibrant bass line leading the quartet would certainly bring it.” My only complaint about this book was the climax to the story. After so much digging and perseverance, not to mention copious amounts of good luck, the ending came much too soon and left me unsatisfied. But, as typical of Connelly, there is a final twist at the very end of the novel that will leave you pondering: what will Bosch do next?

 

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John Sandford – Deadline

I thought that this was one of the better recent entries in Sandford’s Virgil Flowers series of novels set in Minnesota. In all of the other books in this series there was a disclaimer of sorts in the book’s preface, something along the lines of how Sandford wrote the novel in collaboration with a fishing buddy, friend, or someone else. But this time around there is no such notice, so it appears that this novel was written entirely by Sandford with no outside help. Like his novels in the “Prey” series, this is a well-paced story with a few sub-plots amidst all the murders, and this time around some dog-napping. Despite the blood and body count, Virgil’s antics and the witty dialogue keep things on the lighter side. In fact, I thought that this was one of Sandford’s funniest books yet. Yet another strong point to this novel was the cast of interesting if not bizarre characters. I would love to see the likes of Johnson Johnson and young Muddy turn up again in future novels. But of course the star remains “That fuckin’ Flowers”, the goofy but canny investigator who always gets his man — along with a few women. Fans of this series will find this one to be another engaging, page-turning delight.

 

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Walter Mosley – Rose Gold

There is not much deviation in formula or style for Mosley in this latest entry in the long-running Easy Rawlins series. And for fans of Easy and company that’s a comforting notion. As a storyteller, Mosley does a good job of sustaining interest, but I found parts of the plot, and the various sub-plots, either implausible or confusing to follow. Plus, there were far too many characters to keep track of. All those names became a mental jumble after a while. As usual, Easy Rawlins himself is a mess of contradictions and emotions. Sometimes he is an astute, thoughtful fellow, a caring and kind parent, possessing a rare intellectual curiosity and insight into people’s problems. But at other times he is a rash, headstrong, even violent man, unable to control his emotions or actions. Nevertheless, Rawlins and his friends and characters such as Mouse, Jackson Blue, and Jewelle remain enjoyable company, and the story moves along at a brisk pace, taking you back to Los Angeles in 1967, in all its glory and strife.

 

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Tom Franklin – Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter

I read this novel on the recommendation of a friend and I need to write him a thank you letter; I totally loved this book. I have no hesitation in saying that this was one of the best books that I’ve read in a year or more. It’s that special. Tom Franklin weaves an intriguing story — one that qualifies as a true mystery, but also as a solid work of literature — and populates his novel with very well-sketched characters. The dialogue is crisp and believable, and the story is carefully paced. In every aspect, this is simply an outstanding novel. Such a wealth of emotions, complex relationships, and sub-plots at work in this novel, that I could write a full essay on it. Suffice to say, this is a memorable read.

 

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Ed McBain – Alice in Jeopardy

For most fans of Ed McBain, those who have enjoyed the fine Matthew Hope series and the outstanding 87th Precinct series, this novel will be a huge disappointment. It’s populated by shallow, unlikeable characters, an unbelievable police investigation, and some totally unnecessary sex scenes. There are moments — very brief ones — where the old magical McBain style jumps off the page, particularly in the second half of the book when it seems like McBain finally hits his stride, only to lapse into ridiculous scenarios and lame dialogue once again. I realize that this was one of the last books he wrote before he passed away in 2005, but it’s really not up to the quality of work that earned him such praise and devotion from readers. If you’re a McBain fan you might want to read this one anyway, but don’t have high expectations.

 

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Alex Berenson – The Counterfeit Agent

I have mixed feelings about this latest installment in Berenson’s John Wells series. On one level, it’s another addictive, gripping read, a solid addition to a very good series. On another level, it’s predictable and offers pretty much the same formula and action that Berenson has used in his other books: an “impossible” assignment that can only be saved by the heroic efforts of John Wells; a bleak situation which looks like the end for our hero; Wells dispersing cash like he is a walking ATM. Some of it gets tedious, but Berenson still has a flair for storytelling and crisp dialogue, all of which help to keep the pages turning. The biggest strike against this novel is the ending … or rather a lack of one. It’s not quite the tidy climax you might expect, or at least hope for. Instead, the story is “to be continued” in yet another novel next year, Twelve Days. I realize that this is a “shrewd” move on the part of the publisher and their marketing weasels, but I think other readers will be as annoyed with this tactic as I am. And yet, I’ll most likely read the next installment … at some point.

 

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John R. Maxim – Whistler’s Angel

This novel is a good companion to Maxim’s excellent “Bannerman” series. Although Bannerman doesn’t actually appear in this book, he’s mentioned several times and some of his associates pop up for cameo appearances. This Whistler novel, however, doesn’t have as hard an edge as the Bannerman series. In fact, there are times when the characters, especially the villains, are so bizarre that it reminds me of a Carl Hiaasen tale. One bad guy in particular fits the Hiaasen mold: a raving right-wing religious nut, sporting gashes in his face from cut glass (but telling people that the cuts were from wasp stings!), who totes around a golf bag that is packed with bombs, sandwiches and bottles of Snapple. Maxim’s writing is so descriptive that you can picture this crazed yahoo walking unsteadily down the street in his golf spikes. The protagonist of this novel, Adam Whistler is a also very memorable character, as are Adam’s father, the curious “twins”, and the angel herself, Adam’s girlfriend Claudia. Maxim is truly a top-shelf crime fiction writer and this is a worthy companion to his other books.

 

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Peter Spiegelman – Thick as Thieves

This is a novel that requires a bit of patience. Frankly, I almost gave up on it several times, putting it down and going back to it a few days later. But I kept plugging away and plowed through it, saved by the fact that the plot finally became more focused and gripping in the second half of the book. I think a good edit would have helped prune some of the sluggish parts of the book and made this a tauter tale. Another problem is that there were far too many characters in the story, most of whom I didn’t care about or like. This was actually an intelligent, well-written novel for the most part, but too much time and effort — too many pages — were spent on detailing the planned heist and not enough on character development.
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Joseph Hansen – Nightwork

I’ve read about a half-dozen books in Hansen’s Dave Brandstetter series and like them, but I usually end up thinking I should have liked them more than I did. Hansen’s prose is lean and tight, a style that has earned him comparisons to classic mystery writers such as Ross MacDonald, and the big “twist” to this series is that the main character, Dave Brandstetter, is a gay private detective (specifically, an insurance claims investigator) and a tough, hard-nosed one at that (bucking against at least one stereotype). This novel has its share of interesting characters, as Dave investigates a series of troubling “accidental” deaths. Sometimes I marvel at Hansen’s deft writing style, and other times I groan at the way he succumbs to stereotypes when portraying a minority character (such as Cecil, his young black live-in boyfriend, or the Hispanic gang-banger in this novel). So no, it’s not all fantastic, but still well worth a read, especially for mystery fans looking for something a bit different than the usual crime caper.

 

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Les Standiford – Black Mountain

I’ve read most of the books in Standiford’s “Deal” series and have enjoyed them all. This novel, however, is not part of that series and introduces us to some new characters. The story is not set in Florida as the Deal novels are, but drifts from the concrete jungle of New York City (in particular, the underground corridors of the subway system) to the beautiful and dangerous splendors of the Wyoming wilderness. Some scary stuff, some funny stuff, plenty of interesting characters, and Standiford does an outstanding job of describing the beauty and danger of the Wyoming mountain terrain. Parts of the story fall into cliché story at times (particularly one aspect of the story’s climax), but overall I thought this was a really good novel, a nice departure from Standiford’s typical fare.

 

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Greg Hurwitz – Trust No One

The first book I ever read by Greg Hurwitz was The Crime Writer, a clever and compulsive read. This stand-alone novel proved to be another very excellent read. The main character, Nick Horrigan, doesn’t seem like a particularly interesting protagonist at first, but the more the novel evolves, the more you find yourself rooting for Horrigan and getting into the flow of the story. In addition to the plot twists — and this one will indeed keep you guessing until the end — I like the way that Hurwitz develops the characters and their relationships in this book. There is the complex relationship between Horrigan and his mother, plus the special bond he had with his late step-father. Throw in a beautiful, brilliant ex-girlfriend and a mysterious homeless man whom Horrigan befriends, and you have a fascinating cast of characters that help to make this novel quite a treat.

 

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Elmore Leonard’s Last Ride

I was very saddened today to hear about the death of author Elmore Leonard. I was a big Elmore Leonard fan, having read nearly everything he ever wrote, except for a few of his early westerns, a recent short story collection, and the children’s books.

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I have vivid recollections of the first time I ever heard of Elmore Leonard. It was, I’m pretty sure, in 1988, and I was doing a phone interview for a music magazine with Dan Stuart, the leader of the great band Green on Red. When I asked what he was reading lately, Dan mentioned the new Elmore Leonard novel, Freaky Deaky. I had to confess ignorance; who was Elmore Leonard? The name sounded like some old blues musician! Dan Stuart, however, soon set me straight, giving me a quick crash course in the greatness of Elmore. Dan Stuart sounded like he knew what he was talking about — and anyone that can record an album as amazing as Gravity Talks, will always be cool in my opinion — so curiosity got the best of me and the next day I tracked down a copy of Freaky Deaky. I devoured that book in a few short days. It was like a drug; I needed more Elmore! I tracked copies of his older crime fiction novels at used book shops in Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami, and then began buying hardcover editions when new novels came out every year afterwards.

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So yeah, I became a big fan. In fact, I would say that reading Elmore Leonard was my inspiration for discovering other crime fiction authors too; everything from the old classic writers such as Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald, to Florida legends like John D. MacDonald and James W. Hall, and the new generation of greats such as Lawrence Block, Donald Westlake, Ed McBain, John Sandford, Michael Connelly … and well, you get the idea. I became a crime fiction fanatic. Thanks to Elmore Leonard. And a tip of the hat — and guitar — to Dan Stuart too!

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After reading most of his crime fiction I also began reading some of the old westerns that Elmore Leonard wrote early in his career. I would never consider myself a fan of cowboy stories or westerns, but Elmore made these stories riveting. And really, they weren’t actually that much different than his crime novels, utilizing crisp dialogue and oddball characters to create very atmospheric settings and action-packed tales. Even his short stories were cool. About the only book I haven’t liked was his recent novel, Djibouti. But hey, the guy was 87, and reportedly working on a new novel, at the time of his death, so you gotta give him a little slack for any recent novels that weren’t up to par. Other than that slight blip, his other novels are classics of the genre. Actually, two genres. Another great writer who is going to be missed very much.

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Finding good new authors

Anyone who reads a lot of books, particularly novels that feature a series with the same characters, runs into the problem of running out of new authors to read. You find an author you like and end up reading every book they’ve written, becoming attached to the characters and their lives. But after you’ve finished the entire series, then what? You find another author that writes equally gripping tales and read all of those books, and then try to find other authors in a similar vein. For whatever reasons, some click and some don’t. I’ve read a lot of books in the past few years, but sometimes I can’t make it past the 50-page mark without becoming either bored or annoyed. Those are the books I don’t finish.

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In the past six months or so I’ve devoured the latest novels from favorite authors such as John Sandford, Robert Crais, Dennis Lehane, Jonathan Kellerman, Michael Connelly, and Lee Child. Loved them all. I’ve recently started reading Daniel Silva’s series of novels featuring the Gabriel Allon character, and find those to be top-shelf fare too. Allon is certainly one of the more unusual and multi-dimensional characters in crime/espionage fiction these days. He’s an artist who works as an art restorer in various locations around Europe. But he’s also an Israeli citizen who is employed by that government in various spy-related activities, including the assassinations of “bad guys.” An intellectual hit-man with artistic skills.  Not your normal plot premise, but seriously addictive stuff.

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Among the new authors that I’ve discovered — and liked— this year are Jess Walter and Greg Hurwitz. I’d actually read one Jess Walter novel, Over Tumbled Graves, about a year ago and enjoyed it. It was more of a standard crime fiction story, but two others that I’ve read since then are even better and have more depth than the usual mystery. One novel, The Zero, is set in New York City, shortly after the Twin Towers disaster of 9/11. The main character is a police officer who was hailed as a hero after 9/11 and becomes a minor celebrity around town. But depression soon takes its toll and the man wakes up one day to discover that he had shot himself in the head the night before during a drinking binge. The wound wasn’t fatal, of course, but he can’t remember exactly what happened that night, and in the days and months afterwards he continues to have memory lapses, at times not even sure why he is at a certain location or what he is supposed to be doing, or who he is talking with. Walter’s skillful prose takes the reader inside the mind of this troubled man as he deals with his frustrating issues. Some passages are moving, others totally hilarious, and some quite frightening. Altogether, a very powerful and moving novel.  

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I read a third Walter novel earlier this month, Citizen Vince, that I also thought was superlative. In this novel the main character, Vince, is a career criminal who somehow gets involved in a mafia scheme. He ends up testifying against the mob and enters a witness protection program, given a new identity, and relocated to Spokane, Washington. Vince trains to be a baker and ends up working at a donut shop, a job he actually enjoys very much. But to supplement his income he also starts dealing in forged credit cards again. This novel is set in the fall of 1980, in the days before the US Presidential election between Carter and Reagan. The idea of voting in the election becomes an exciting prospect for Vince; due to his previous convictions he has never been able to vote in previous elections. Adding to the election fervor, a person from his criminal past discovers Vince living in Spokane. Lots of intrigue, a few laughs, and more great writing from Jess Walter. He has written several other books too, so I’m excited that there are more waiting to discover.

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As for Greg Hurwitz, he’s one of those names I’ve seen on the shelf for years but I’d never read anything until I started a novel called The Crime Writer last month. The basic plot is a twist on the typical whodunit: a fellow who writes crime fiction novels is charged with murdering his girlfriend. The evidence at the scene of the crime suggests that this is a no-brainer: this guy definitely did it. But due to a brain tumor he had at the time, the man really can’t remember if he had done it or not. Some things about the crime don’t add up in his mind, so he ends up investigating his own case, turning up some baffling and disturbing facts. In addition to the clever plot, the novel is populated by some very interesting characters (ones that are so engaging that you hope Hurwitz does a sequel), and some seriously funny dialogue. On top of that, Hurwitz is one of those crime fiction authors — like Jess Walter — who also a very good writer; a definite step above the rest of the mystery pack. I just started a new novel by Hurwitz, Trouble Shooter, more of a traditional cops and robbers tale, but still very well written and absorbing. He’s also written more than a handful of books, so I look forward to reading those also.

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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.  

 

Recent Reading

On the road, at home, and occasionally at work, here are some of the books that I’ve read in the past month or so. All real books with stained pages and no digital versions.

 

Graham Greene – Our Man in Havana

I went on a Greene spree about 20 years ago and read five or six novels, then didn’t read anything again until last year when I belatedly finished The Quiet American. I found a copy of Our Man in Havana while browsing the street book stalls in Yangon recently. This is a very gripping tale, and probably the funniest thing I’ve ever read by Greene.

 

T. Jefferson Parker – Renegades

Parker continues his run of strong mystery novels, this one featuring the ingratiating Charlie Hood character once again. Parker’s vividly real characters, sharp dialogue, and deft plotting have elevated him to the top tier of those currently purveying the crime fiction genre.

 

John Sandford – Buried Prey

The latest in Sandford’s addictive “Prey” series of mystery novels, featuring sharp-dressed crime-stopper Lucas Davenport, is another winner. Some truly hilarious moments amidst all the violence and suspense.

 

Norman Lewis – Naples ‘44

Lewis is best known as a travel writer, but this book is more of a memoir of the time he spent in Naples, Italy as a soldier during World War II. As always, Lewis graces the pages with descriptive prose, giving the reader a real feel for the place and time. And his fondness for the kind but beleaguered Italians he meets during his time in the city comes pouring off the pages.

 

Chester Himes – The Heat’s On

This is one of the novels in Himes’s acclaimed “Harlem Cycle” featuring police detectives Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones. In addition to being a highly entertaining work of crime fiction, this novel, like others that Himes wrote in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, sheds light on racial relations and tensions in the United States. It’s akin to exploring an entirely different world, far from that of mainstream white America. Realistic dialogue and absurd scenarios make this an entertaining read. For some bizarre reason, the novels of Himes remain more popular in France than in his native US. Himes died in 1984.

 

Jo Nesbo – The Leopard

Nesbo is the hottest new writer on the mystery circuit — hailed as the “next Stieg Larsson” due to his Scandinavian roots no doubt, although Nesbo is Norwegian and Larsson was Swedish. This is the newest of five novels that Nesbo has penned so far, and I liked it a lot. Much better writing than Larsson (or, at least, better translating) and an endearingly complex character in detective Harry Hole (yes, that’s his unfortunate name). I’ve already started reading The Snowman, figuring I’ll just go in reverse order until I get to the first one in the series.

 

David W. Moore – The Superpollsters

This is a fascinating insider’s tale about the history and “business” of opinion polls, particularly those involving politics in the USA. It’s a bit dated, having been written and published in the mid-1990s, but it’s still an important book and offers an illuminating look at polling and the mistakes that are often made by these “experts”. After Thailand’s recent polling debacle — in which all of the major opinion polls made huge miscalculations in their projections — this is a must read for anyone who has doubts and reservations about the accuracy and ramifications of polling.

 

Bill Pronzini – Boobytrap

Pronzini is one of America’s better, yet more unheralded mystery novelists. This novel, published in the late 1990s, is one in his “Nameless Detective” series set in San Francisco. Absolutely stellar stuff; sharp dialogue, memorable characters, and lots of tension.

 

Joseph Hansen – Early Graves

Hansen wrote many mystery novels featuring the Dave Brandstetter character, a whiskey-drinking insurance investigator who is also gay. Inevitably, Brandstetter ends up solving crimes that the police cannot. Early Graves is one of the better books in the series. A few troubled, if not screwed-up characters, along with Brandstetter’s sexuality and a turbulent relationship make for an absorbing novel.

 

Ed McBain – Lullaby

I can’t get enough of McBain’s wonderful 87th Precinct “police procedural” novels, and this ranks as one of the best of the bunch. And it’s certainly one of the longest in that series. Between the frenzied action, and colorful characters at the precinct, McBain shows that he is also a skilled writer who can move the reader.

 

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