S.D. Sykes’ Plague Land Presents an Complex Murder Mystery Against the Back Drop of Britain After the Plague

S.D. Sykes has written a masterful murder mystery set in the immediate aftermath of the Black Death in Britain.  Plague Land has an unwilling hero.  Oswald de Lacy, the third son of a minor British lord, was destined for the religious life, despite his lack of faith.  When Oswald’s father and two elder brothers are killed by the plague, Oswald inherits his father’s title and returns home literally to become the lord of the manor.  

In the course of an interesting plot and intriguing characters, S.D. Sykes tells her readers quite a bit about how the Black Death

I Will Have Vengeance, The Winter of Commissario Riciardi — A Very Noir Neapolitan Mystery

image

I Will Have Vengeance – The Winter of Commissario Ricciardi is Maurizio de Giovanni’s first book in the Commissario Ricciardi series.  Based on the two books I have read thus far, this is a great series.  Commissario Ricciardi is a compelling  and mysteriosly driven detective struggling in the dangerous muck of fascist Naples.   The few friends he has are intriguing in their own right, and Naples provides a dangerous and romantic backdrop.

Since I Will Have Vengeance is the first novel in the series, De Giovanni takes his time describing Commissario Ricciardi, his environment and what makes him tick.  Ricciardi is an unusual, tragic soul with a mystical approach to solving crimes.   I found the mystical twist to be an unnecessary distraction, but I still loved this book.  Ricciardi is plenty smart; he doesn’t need to “see things” that others do not see.  Mysticism aside,  Ricciardi is a compelling and clever detective whose remote and forbidding demeanor intimidates his boss and vaguely offends most of his colleagues.

The historical and operatic context of I Will Have Vengeance is its greatest strength.  A nasty yet immensely talented opera singer is bumped off, and Ricciardi faces intense political pressure to solve the case immediately.   The year is 1931, and Mussolini’s fascism has overtaken Italy, but this particular mystery is driven by opera.   As it happens, Ricciardi knows little about opera, so an enthusiastic opera buff is recruited to educate the detective about the opera and its singers.   It is a nice twist to have an Italian detective know so little about opera, and we learn as Ricciardi learns.

Even so, the prevailing political mood is sinister and opportunistic.  Fairness and justice are early casualties, although this book doesn’t have the cold and deadly atmosphere of terror that dominates a later book I read in this series.  Clearly things will be getting much worse in fascist Italy.

I happen to love European noir mysteries.  This excellent series stands out because it is set in Naples, which combines its own blend of poverty and corruption with deadly fascist terror.  With the benefit of hindsight, I recommend that you read this series in order to take full advantage of De Giovanni’s brilliant depiction of the creeping horror of fascism, while at the same time developing a complex picture of an unusual and oddly pragmatic detective and his friends.

A Beautiful Blue Death

A-Beautiful-Blue-death

A Beautiful Blue Death is fantastic book title, and Charles Finch’s murder mystery lives up to the promise of its title.  It is always wonderful to discover a new author who has written a series of mysteries with an interesting detective.   A Beautiful Blue Death is the first in a series, and I have high hopes that the other books in the series will be equally interesting.

Charles Lenox is an English gentleman whose avocation is solving mysteries.  In A Beautiful Blue Death, Lenox can’t resist getting drawn into the murder of a young housemaid.  Lenox is an interesting man.  He clearly longs for something else in his life and loves to plan exotic trips he is unlikely to take  —  he knows somehow that something will get in the way.  All the book’s characters are well-drawn, and there is a potential romantic interest in the form of a thoughtful and content youngish widow.  In addition to an excellent detective, fine characters and a complex plot, Charles Finch draws an excellent picture of Victorian England.  The political context and the social order are an important part of A Beautiful Blue Death, and the book is the better for it.  All in all, this series holds great promise.  I’ve already ordered the next book in line.

A Man Without Breath — An Excellent Bernie Gunther Novel

image

I am a big fan of Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series, and A Man Without Breath is an excellent addition to the series.  Bernie Gunther would like to be an ordinary criminal investigator, but the Nazi regime and World War II make that impossible.  No one is untainted in Bernie Gunther’s world, but Philip Kerr still manages to present Gunther as a sympathetic character  —  hard-bitten with just a little bit of idealism left in him.  Humphrey Bogart would have played him very well.

This time Gunther finds himself in on the Eastern Front on an errand for Joseph Goebbels.  It is the Spring of 1943, and a lot of Germans have begun to realize the war may not end well for them.  Their frantic maneuvering doesn’t preclude still more atrocities, but it does muddy the waters for Gunther, who would really just like to solve his crimes and go home to Berlin.  There is a plethora of interesting historical detail, particularly with respect to the NKVD’s own atrocities and the growing interest on the part of certain aristocrats in assassinating Hitler.  It is a grim story, but the characters, plot and setting are really interesting.  Kerr adds some Casablanca-like repartee, a little romance and an excellent sense of the absurd to make this a really good novel.

Best Book This Fall — Robert Harris’ An Officer and a Spy

image

After reading a number of books that were either meh or merely good, I am really pumped about this book!  I loved An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris.

I resisted joining a book club for a very long time on the theory that I didn’t want to discuss a beloved book to death.  I have changed my tune, and An Officer and a Spy is one of the best reasons for joining a book club so far.  I never would have opened this book, but the book club I just joined had already selected it.

This is a wonderful, intelligent book, rich with all kinds of period detail and just one heck of a story.  It is told from the perspective of French army officer who somewhat reluctantly comes to the conclusion that Alfred Dreyfus was framed and then just can’t let it go.  Newly promoted to lead counter-intelligence, Colonel George Picquart is the relentless investigator.  He doesn’t always get it right, but he keeps going at great risk to himself.  The tension and pace of this novel are terrific.  As a lawyer, I particularly liked the book’s legal proceedings, but I don’t think that limits this book’s general appeal.  There are a wealth of interesting characters, and even if it is occasionally difficult to keep the various high level villains straight, each conversation propels the action.  In short, it was very hard to put down this excellent historical novel, and I highly recommend it.

Dark Mystery Set in Fascist Naples

image

Murder mysteries set in Fascist Europe are dark and creepy.  There is something particularly ominous and exciting about a detective trying to do his job and solve a crime in an atmosphere of violent corruption.  Typically the detective’s efforts to solve the crime peel away layer upon layer of cruelty and horrific abuse, and no one is really a good guy.   This is the essence of noir, with the added dimension of knowing how much worse  things are going to get as Fascism plays out.  The reader knows that most of these characters are doomed and that they have no idea of the horrors that await them.

Viper, a dark Italian mystery by Maurizo deGiovanni, is a fine contribution to this gloomy genre.  Set in Naples in 1932, Viper involves a murder at a brothel in 1932, and Commissario Ricciardi has the case.  The characters are well-drawn and conflicted.  Ricciardi is very much a Humphrey Bogart sort of character.  He is smart and sarcastic, while at the same time displaying a closet idealism.  He fears what is to come.   Notwithstanding his scruples, circumstances compel him to play ball with terrifying thugs.  He has a few cards to play and uses them carefully, but the new Fascist order complicates everything and threatens everyone.  Much as Ricciardi and his colleagues might like to proceed with business as usual and simply solve the murder, the present reality drags them into bed with the regime and its representatives.  The solution to the crime is cleverly plotted, and fortunately the humor and understanding among Ricciardi’s various relationships mitigate some of the despair.  The unresolved romantic backstory adds some welcome humanity and a pleasing vulnerability to a very interesting detective.

I highly recommend this book, particularly to readers who are interested in Italy and in Europe between the two world wars.  I can’t wait to go back and read the first book in this series.

From Reykjavik to London During the Blitz — Two Fine Mysteries

image

 

I like to read mystery series in order, when I get the chance.  I’ve just finished Arnaldur Indridason, Reykjavik Nights, which is actually a recently written prequel to his popular series featuring Inspector Erlendur.  A true “first in a series” is Susan Elia MacNeal’s Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, which features Maggie Hope as a less professional detective, at least in this first book.  I really enjoyed both books.  They share intriguing settings, excellent detail and interesting sleuths, so I plan to read more in both series.

Reykjavik Nights, not surprisingly, is set in Iceland.  Erlendur is a low level cop with a stubborn need to know what happened to one of the town’s homeless men.  He works without authorization and under the radar in a way that would be implausible in the average police department, I hope.  Like so many detectives in the Scandinavian mysteries, Erlendur’s thought process regarding his case is set out fairly plainly, but it is hard to understand what makes him tick outside this need to solve the crime.  His more personal side is referenced but not given the kind of passionate detail common to so many American mysteries.  Even he seems to be merely observing his personal life without any need to evaluate it or commit to it.  Nor does he have the close friend or colleague to support him and serve as his sounding board that are so common in the American genre.  That’s not a criticism, but this is something that sets Reykjavik Nights apart.  The actual plot is quite interesting, and all the shady characters Erlendur encounters in his unofficial investigation really enhance the story.  Even as Erlendur seems uninterested in his own personal life, his sympathy and regard for many of the down-and-out people he interviews helps to fill in some of the contours of his own character.

I picked this particular book because I am about to go to Iceland for the first time and am curious about the country.  Reykjavik Nights provides rich detail and helpful historical background about Iceland in general and Reykjavik in particular.  Some of the descriptions of peoples’ public behavior seems oddly consistent with some of the bizarre characterizations sketched by Michael Lewis in his recent book Boomerang (a great book about Lewis’s visits to Iceland and other countries that contributed in their own special ways to the worldwide financial crisis of 2008).   It will be interesting to compare the Iceland I see as a tourist with the world that Indridason sets out.  Of course I am hoping to avoid death in general and murder investigations in particular.

Mr. Churchill’s Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal is an historical mystery set in London during the Blitz.  Unlike Erlendur in Reykjavik Nights, we know a lot about Maggie Hope, who finds herself working as one of Winston Churchill’s secretaries during World War II.  Maggie is very likable, and it is easy to empathize with her resentment that she is only permitted to be a secretary because of her sex.  Her Wellesley education and monster math brain are initially of no importance to anyone but Maggie, but of course things change and Maggie’s talents are revealed.  As she becomes involved in an investigation into wartime spying and a murder, she stumbles upon her own personal mystery.  There is a lot going on in this warm and sympathetic mystery.  I liked the character, and I am a sucker for World War II stories, so I found it a good read.  The descriptions of London and the people living and working there at that time were excellent.  If you don’t know much about the period, this book is a very enjoyable way to get a little background.  It has a more chatty and social tone, but it shares some of the code-breaking background of that wonderful movie, The Imitation Game.

Now that I have read Inspector Erlendur’s prequel and the initial installment of the Maggie Hope series, I am interested to see how these characters develop and how their subsequent books play out.  I recommend both books.