CITY ON FIRE by Don Winslow

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(East Providence, Rhode Island yacht club)

Let me begin by stating Don Winslow is a superb crime novelist who has offered a number of excellent novels to his ever expanding readership.  Winslow’s mastery of his genre was evident in his Cartel Trilogy made up of THE POWER OF THE DOG, THE CARTEL, AND THE BORDER.  He followed this up with THE FORCE and BROKEN and now has introduced a new novel, CITY ON FIRE, an exceptional work of mob fiction, which introduces Danny Ryan who is caught between two criminal New England Empires, one Irish,  one Italian.  Winslow explores the themes of loyalty, betrayal, vengeance, and honor as he offers his unique storytelling genius to his fans.

In his latest novel Winslow begins with a playful scene at the beach, a beautiful woman walks out of the ocean with a bathing suit that accentuates her anatomy.  At this point the reader has no conception of what this person’s anatomy will have on the course of the novel. Danny Ryan’s wife responds to his roving eye in comical fashion, and we are introduced to our main character’s life story.  Danny’s role is a carefully crafted one as he is placed at the vortex of organized crime in Providence, Rhode Island in an area referred to as Dogtown.  Two families one Italian-the Moretti’s and one Irish-the Murphy’s competitors in the past have made their peace and have come to agreement on how their mob activities will be conducted.

Providence's police chief, Col. Hugh T. Clements Jr., provides a briefing May 13 of the mass shooting earlier that night on Carolina Avenue in the city's Washington Park neighborhood. Behind him, from left, are Deputy Chief Thomas Verdi, Maj. David Lapatin and Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza.
(Providence, Rhode Island Police Chief after gang murder)

Danny, perhaps the only character in the novel that has somewhat of a moral compass is very unhappy with his situation as he is part of the muscle that the Murphy’s provide and is married to Terri, the daughter of the head of the Italian mob and owes his union card to his father-in-law.  Danny would rather be on a fishing boat than scaring people when debts are due or conduct the vengeance that mob life periodically calls to fulfill.  Both families have a number of sons who are friends until Liam Murphy, known to suffer from a lack of intelligence and timing insults Paulie Moretti’s girlfriend.  The beatdown that follows looks as if it will touch off a gang war between the families.  Soon payback comes as one of the Irish boys is murdered.  Pasco Ferri who runs all of New England for the mob emerges as an interesting character as the relationship between the Murphy’s and Moretti’s deteriorates.  For Danny, caught in the middle because of his family obligations, marriage, and friends the situation is very disconcerting.

Winslow has constructed what seems like a typical story involving different organized crime factions with violence, family loyalty, and dreams for the future.   The author also produces a number of interesting characters that enhances the novel.   Madeline McKay, a name chosen to further her career as a show girl and take advantage of her stunning looks emerges as a dominant character.  Her mini-biography is fascinating, but most importantly we learn halfway through the novel she is Danny’s mother.  Along the way we meet Solly Weiss, a well connected Jewish jeweler with strong mob and political connections, Manny Maniscalo, known as the undergarment king of the world, Sal Antonucci who carries out the Moretti’s dirty work, Philip Jardine a corrupt FBI agent among many.

The novel evolves through parallel tracks.  First, Danny Ryan and his relationship with his mother and the mob.  Second, the war between Peter Moretti and the Murphy family.  Third, the internal conflict within the Moretti family and Sal Antonucci and his crew.  Lastly, the full scale gang war that develops that permeates the entire novel.

Richard Lipez observes in his recent Washington Post book review accurately characterizes Winslow’s effort that “does for Rhode Island what David Chase’s ‘The Sopranos’ did for New Jersey.”  Providence,

Bestselling author and Rhode Island native Don Winslow at East Matunuck State Beach, one of the settings fictionalized in his new book, "City on Fire," part one of a trilogy about warring crime families in Rhode Island.
(Author, Don Winslow)

Rhode Island is the center of the mob action, but organized crime in the region must answer to Boston and New York.  In true Winslow fashion the depiction of the stupidity of one character sets off a series of escalating power moves, betrayals and bloody murders fostering a gang war for control the docks, drug trade and other sources of income for a number of unsavory characters.  The book exposes the racism and misogyny of the 1980s in New England and juxtaposes how organized crime acted in the by gone days of the 1950s and 60s as opposed to the new generation of mobsters that exist in the 1980s.

Winslow recreates gangland history at its best and though the author has stated he is retiring from writing he will deliver two more installments of this genre in the next two years.  If this is true it is a loss as Winslow’s earlier “Cartel Trilogy” is the best recreation of the Mexican drug trade, and his new trilogy should be on par for mob books like the works of Mario Puzo, Martin Scorsese, and David Chase.  Whatever the case maybe I look forward to the screenplay which is sure to come and the next novel depicting Danny Ryan’s quest for a normal life.

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(Providence, Rhode Island)

THE VIOLIN CONSPIRACY by Brendan Slocumb

TCHAIKOVSKY CONCERT HALL

Tchaikovsky Concert Hall

At a time when the 1619 Project, terms like critical race theory and cancel culture are in vogue a novel that explores the depths of American racism is very prescient.  The novel in question is Brendan Slocomb’s first literary entry, THE VIOLIN CONSPIRACY which centers on the idea that black classical musicians seem to be an anomaly particular a talented violin soloist in American society.  Slocumb’s effort strikes a nerve as it drives home its theme of the lack of opportunity for blacks in high brow musical culture and how members of society react to people of color who have the talent but not the opportunity to pursue a career performing classical music because of the attitude of an elitist aristocratic club that dominates this field.

It is always rewarding when an author’s first novel exceeds expectations.  Slocumb’s work reflects his own struggle to live his life and play the music he loved, when often stymied  for the reasons he states were incomprehensible.  The novel centers around an amazing character, Rayquan (Ray) McMillan, a poor young black man from North Carolina who is blessed with classical music talent and an ability to convey it through the strings of his violin.  He is an individual who is confronted with racist attitudes and actions almost at every turn and is able to overcome the roadblocks placed in front of him by the force of his convictions and personality.  It is a story of family dysfunction, greed, highlighted by an individuals’ fight to maintain his dignity and pursue his love of music when confronted by the inequities of American society.

The story begins as Ray is preparing to compete in the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, the world’s most prestigious and difficult classical music competition judged by the top musicians in the world.  Almost immediately a significant impediment emerges as after spending time in New York with girl friend Nicole he flies back to his home in Charlotte and discovers that his violin has been stolen.  The violin is not just any musical instrument, but a Stradivarius valued at $10 million.  Ray is at a loss.  First the violin was a gift from his deceased grandmother Nora, secondly it is the only violin he believes that he can play and win the competition.

(Brendan Slocumb, author)

The plot revolves around the theft, but more so is a commentary about American society.  Slocumb does a superb job developing the background to the crime tracing the evolution of how the violin came into the possession of Grandma Nora’s great grandfather, Pop Pop who was a slave on a Georgia plantation and was freed following the Civil War when his master, and possibly his father gave him the violin.  When the FBI is brought in to investigate two suspects immediately come to the fore.  First, the Marks family, descendants of the Georgia slave owners who claim the violin belongs to them as Pop Pop or Leon as he was known as a slave stole the instrument.  Second, Ray’s own family, particular his mother and Uncle who believe the violin belongs to the entire family and should be sold with the proceeds divided up between five family members.

Ray is adamant that he will not give up his prized possession as the novel evolves.  For Ray, the story reflects his own demons as he struggles with the concept of how a black person could be a violinist of his quality.  Slocumb creates numerous scenes from school, work, and performing that reflect many of the author’s own life experiences dealing with racial discrimination.  Slocumb carefully develops the rift between Ray and his family centering on his mother who is a selfish self-absorbed individual who uses her son’s ability as her meal ticket.  Growing up she tried to block Ray’s love of music preventing him from practicing in the house and demanding that he get a job at a Popeye’s restaurant so he could buy her a 60 inch television.  But for Ray, “every time the conductor raised the baton, a new joy blossomed in his chest.  Each note felt special, a gift.”  This special individual believed that he not only had to prove his talent to white audiences, his family, particularly his mother, but to his own race.

Slocumb creates a number of important characters that allow the novel to proceed at a smooth pace and maintain the interest of his readers. Janice Stevens, a university professor who becomes his friend and mentor.  Grandma Nora teaches Ray humility and strategies to cope with the racism he confronts at every turn.  The Marks family, a group of bigoted racists who see the opportunity for a big pay day.  The McMillans who are nothing but hangers on hoping to cash in on Ray’s talent, and lastly, his girlfriend Nicole.

THE VIOLIN CONSPIRACY takes the reader on an important journey providing insights into a field that most do not associate with racism.  It is delicately presented with pathos and empathy and should garner Mr. Slocumb a great deal of admiration and success for his literary thriller.  As Joshua Barone states in his New York Times review “Yet Slocumb isn’t too different from his protagonist: a natural.  He easily conjures the thrill of mastering a tough musical passage and the tinnitus-like torture of everyday racism.  There is a lot of work ahead as he writes his second novel, but as a teacher says to Ray, ‘precision and technique can be learned.’  After all, that’s just practice.”*

*Joshua Barone, “String Theory,” New York Times, February 27, 2022

(Tchaikovsky Concert Hall, Moscow)

LINDA, AS IN THE LINDA MURDERS by Leif G.W. Persson

Vaxjo, Sweden - December, 2017: The Swedish Tradition Of Lucia Is Celebrated In Vaxjo Church With So
(Vaxjo, Sweden)

There is nothing as satisfying as a Swedish noir on a cold winter’s night.  I had hoped that Leif G.W. Persson’s first installment of his Evert Backstrom series, LINDA, AS IN THE LINDA MURDERS  would meet that need.  After reading one of Persson’s earlier works and being quite satisfied, the current instance produced nothing but disappointment.  Persson, the winner of numerous crime writer’s awards begins the novel with a phone call to the Vaxjo Police Authority located in southern Sweden which would lead to a flat in town that contained a scene reflecting the rape and beating of a female victim. Immediately it became obvious that a murder had taken place and that the victim was Linda Wallin, a soon to be twenty-one year old who was due to start her third term of the police course in Vaxjo.

At issue was the fact that Wallin had been involved with another police trainee, Erik Roland Lofgren.  Since Lofgren was black, the racist element in Vaxjo enjoyed writing nasty editorials in the newspapers.  His race also figured in DNA testing when the perpetrator’s analysis pointed to a non-Nordic type.  The question was who then was responsible for the murder?

Persson does a reasonable job developing his story line – but he draws out his work to the point that the reader can become confused by what is presented.  The local police force is supplemented by members of the National Crime Force sent from Stockholm in the persons of Detective Superintendent Evert Backstrom and his investigative unit.  Persson describes Backstrom as “short, fat, primitive, but when necessary he could be both sly and slow to forget things.  He regarded himself as a wise man in the prime of life, an unfettered free spirit who preferred the quiet life of the city, and since a number of sufficient appetizing scantily clad ladies seemed to share the same view, he had no reason at all for complaint.”

Fichier:Växjö in Sweden.png

Persson uses Backstrom as a vehicle to express his opinions about police work, journalism, and society in general.  If one could imagine a cartoon character with the bubble above his head rendering expressive thoughts to himself then you have our protagonist.  Backstrom’s thoughts and commentary are racist, anti-gay, and misogynistic.  Despite his negative personality traits, he is an excellent investigator despite what some would describe as an unorthodox approach to crime solving.

The use of Backstrom as the lead character detracts from Persson’s writing and plot development.  It is clear he is not the warm fuzzy type, but he drives his unit to solve the murder which is negatively affected by his colleague’s low opinion of him as a person.  The only member of his team that he can stand to be with who he might call a friend is Deputy Inspector Jan Rogersson, an old colleague from the violent crimes division in Stockholm.  Detectives like Erik Knutsson and Peter Theron are too often the victims of his nasty commentary.  Other characters who play significant roles are Lilian Olsson a psychoanalyst attached to the Vaxjo Police Department, a woman Backstrom despises; Detective Superintendent Jan Lewin who is an excellent investigator; his civilian assistant Eva Svanstrom; Lars Martin Johansson, head of Operational Security who despised Backstrom; Detective Superintendent Bengt Olsson in charge of the investigation; Bengt Karlsson, a former abuser who now was a member of the Växjö Men Against Violence to Women Committee; Bengt Olsson, another Deputy Superintendent; and Bengt Mansson believed to be the killer. This leads to repeated comments that there are too many Bengt’s involved in the story by other characters!

(the author)

Persson’s novel, is in part an ode to good old fashioned police work.  Backstrom’s commentary about computers and other technology employed in scientific police work is not useful nor is his repeated need to drink beer.  It seems that in every scene he longs for a “lager” and can’t seem to get along without one.  Backstrom’s remarks about “poofs,” dykes, tits, queers etc. gets old after a while.  If they had been used sparingly perhaps it would be acceptable, but it is a constant barrage.  If you like this type of character then Persson has created the perfect one.  It is a shame because Backstrom as a character has potential because of his quick wit and policing skills and had Persson employed him differently it would have made for a better story.

Perhaps the best part of the book involves the post-investigative dive into the murderer’s background and the events leading to the crime.  The questioning of the accused by Anna Holt of the National Crime Unit of the victim is incisive and brilliant as she led the murderer down a path that reinforced his guilt even though he refused to accept that he had perpetrated the crime.  Persson’s focus on cognitive interviewing is important to the structure of the culminating investigation and provide important insights into how police solve crimes gaining the cooperation of the accused.

Persson does make a number of important points concerning police work and investigative journalism throughout the novel.  First, his description of the dysfunctional relationship between National and local police cooperation or “hillbilly cops” and “city police” only hurts the investigative process.  Second, the tabloid approach by the press only hinders investigations, hurts the victim’s family, and makes police work that much more difficult.

As to whether I will read another of Persson’s novels – the jury is still out.  Perhaps I will give him another chance, but if I do I hope Mr. Backstrom’s character has undergone a great deal of therapy.  At the outset I had hoped for a novel on par with Henning Mankell, but the one I read does not measure up to the late Swedish mystery writer’s work.

(Vaxjo,Sweden)

THE GREEN MILE by Stephen King

US-TEXAS PRISON MUSEUM-OLD SPARKY : News Photo

A few years ago, I decided that I needed to read a Stephen King novel and see what I was missing.  The problem that arose is that I am not a fan of horror stories, so I was in a quandary.  Luckily, Mr. King had just published 11/23/63: A NOVEL, a counter-factual approach to the Kennedy assassination that I found fascinating.  I did not attempt another King novel until his most recent work, BILLY SUMMERS about a hit man who victimized bad people, another excellent novel.  Since I still have not gotten over my aversion to horror novels I chose THE GREEN MILE, another King novel that cannot be categorized as part of the horror genre. The story takes place in 1932 with the United States in the midst of the Great Depression.  In true King form it provides a number of fascinating characters along with phrasing and descriptions that are intriguing, sarcastic, and at times humorous. 

In 1836 Charles Dickens, the English novelist published THE PICKWICK PAPERS by serializing segments in magazines and smaller volumes called chap books.  The process was very successful and lucrative for the author. That serialized format went out of style for novels, but 20 years ago Stephen King revived it for his project THE GREEN MILE a book, which focuses on the magical powers of death row inmate John Coffey and was released in six segments one per month throughout 1996. The process was an immediate hit and in 2018 King and his publisher rereleased it as a complete novel which greatly benefited his reading audience.

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(Georgia nursing home)

The novel itself focuses on John Coffey, a giant of a man who supposedly murdered and raped nine year old twin girls Cora and Kathe Detterick absconding with them from their farmhouse in Trapingus County Louisiana.  Once caught and convicted he was sent to Cold Mountain Penitentiary where he was housed in Section E or death row waiting to meet what King labeled as “Old Sparky,” the electric chair.  The narrator, Block Superintendent Paul Edgecombe who had overseen 72 executions during his career tells his story from the perspective of his later years in a Georgia nursing home delving into Coffey’s the  character of a number of other prison employees and inmates.  Coffey was a large man, with the mind of a child whose traits and behavior would challenge many of Edgecombe’s beliefs formed over decades working in prisons.

Throughout the novel we are presented the inner workings of the prison, the staff that was in charge and conducted policies along with a number of inmates who were waiting to walk the “green mile” to their deaths.  Even in prisons politics rears its ugly head as guard, Percy Wetmore, a political appointee due to family connections acts with extreme brutality towards prisoners carrying his baton/hickory stick like a badge of honor alienating everyone including his fellow guards.  At one point Edgecombe thought of resigning because of him but realized in the midst of a depression it was not the best time to quit.

(Stephen King, author)

Aspects of the novel are vintage King including his description of Coffey’s capture, certain absurdities like the adventures of a mouse named Mr. Jingles, character descriptions of  prisoners on E block such as Edvard Delacroix who cherished his trained mouse, Arlen Bitterbuck, a Native-American Chief and member of the Cherokee Council who was executed with dignity, and “Wild” Bill Wharton, a nineteen year old kid who Edgecombe described as the “new psychopath” when he arrived at Cold Mountain, a man who didn’t care about anything who was similar to “back country stampeders” who passed through the prison and were “dullards with a mean streak.”

Edgecombe interfaces his personal life with his prison occupation as he sits in the Georgia Pines Nursing Home solarium writing his memoirs seemingly suffering from PTSD after witnessing over 70 executions.  The job of prison guards at Cold Mountain created a community of insanity among the guards as they took their roles in the executions that King describes.  But nothing they experienced would compare with their interactions with John Coffey.

The key element to the novel is a scheme hatched by Edgecombe to assist Warden Hal Moores wife Melissa who is dying of cancer.  Edgecombe is convinced that Coffey is God’s conduit on earth to provide healing to those who suffer.  His evidence is being touched by Coffey to relieve his excruciating urinary infection, saving Delacroix’s pet mouse who was crushed by Wetmore’s boot, and his belief that he was innocent of the crimes of which he was convicted.  Edgecombe hopes to bring Coffey to Melissa believing he has the ability to cure her.  The last third of the novel centers on this scenario.

King’s use of Georgia Pines Nursing Home outside of Atlanta is perfect for resident Paul Edgecombe to serve as a purposeful narrator for prison life and his retirement.  In a sense living in a nursing home is similar to working in Block E at Cold Mountain – you were just waiting to die, and there was even a version of Percy Wetmore at the old age facility in the person of Brad Dolan!  This juxtaposition has a great deal of truth in it and King’s commentary on both lifestyles is eye opening.  THE GREEN MILE  is a superb read and I look forward to another non-horror novel by Mr. King.

CLOSE SHOT OF AN ELECTRIC CHAIR IN 1920S : Stock Photo

LIGHTENING STRIKE by William Kent Krueger

Color image of Iron Lake, Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, 2012.
(Iron Lake region of northern Minnesota)

We live in a political culture where there is a movement to prevent teaching facts that pertain to our past history.  Boards of education and state officials are pressured to teach topics that avoid anything that might be negative about our America.  Be it slavery, the treatment of Native-Americans, white racism, or limiting the rights of women they are all under scrutiny by those who believe it presents white people in a damning light.  Sadly, it has become a political issue which deprives our children of accuracy in their education.  In William Kent Krueger’s latest novel in the Cork O’Conner series LIGHTENING STRIKE the reader is presented with a microcosm of Native-American history and life on the reservation in1963, a topic I imagine proponents of critical race theory would oppose.

Krueger’s seventeenth installment of the Cork O’Conner series serves as a prequel for the first sixteen novels and explores the daily life of the twelve year old Corcoran O’Conner, a precocious teenager and his relationship with his father Liam who is the sheriff of Tamarack County, MN.  The story unfolds in Aurora, MN, a small town on the shores of Minnesota’s Iron Range, the setting of many of Krueger’s previous novels where Cork serves in the same position as his father and is trying to put back his marriage with Nancy Jo and their three children, Jenny a typical teenager, Steven, a kindergartner, and Anne a middle school student.  As sheriff Cork has to deal with the needs of Native-Americans who live on the reservation in northern Minnesota and the myriad of issues ranging from murder, drugs, the environment all wrapped up in local politics.  As I read the series I often wondered about Cork’s background, and Krueger’s latest work provides many answers.

1: Watersheds (HUC-08) of the Mesabi Iron Range. The subwatersheds (HUC-10) are those portions of the watersheds located within the mining region. 

Set in 1963, the novel is about the coming of age of a son trying to unravel the mystery that had been his father.  The story begins as the young Cork and his friend Jorge are hiking in the Superior National Forest along an abandoned logging road.  They will come across a man, Big John Manydeeds hanging from a tree, an apparent suicide.  Manydeeds was close with Cork who served as an excellent guide in the Quetico-Superior wilderness.  Cork’s father, Liam is in charge of the investigation and concludes that all the evidence points to a suicide, not murder.  For Cork, the incident sparks many questions surrounding death, i.e.; the Ojibwe belief in the soul walking a path to a better place and the Christian view of heaven.

Liam and Manydeeds had fought in World War II and experienced many things they would like to forget.  Both experience characteristics of PTSD which Liam is able to cope with, but Big John turns to alcohol for solace in dealing with his demons.  The “suicide” scene at a clearing called Lightening Strike is littered with whiskey bottles as is Big John’s cabin.  The issue of Native-American alcoholism on the reservation is one of the aspects of Indian life that Krueger explores in detail through his characters.  Liam may accept the death was suicide, but his son Cork does not who along with his friend Jorge and Big John’s nephew Billy.  The three boys begin to conduct their own parallel investigation which reminded me of the Hardy Boy mysteries I read as a youngster.

Krueger provides painful glimpses into reservation life and how for over a century the federal government has tried to ruin Native-American culture by forceful assimilation into the white man’s world.  Liam is responsible for enforcing the law on the reservation and must deal with the anger and distrust that Indians feel toward white society.  Interestingly, Liam’s spouse Colleen is half Anishinaabe.

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(Iron Lake, Minnesota)

Pressure from Native-American reservation leaders like Sam Winter Moon, Liam’s friend and his mother-in-law Grandma Dilsey, along with Cork’s own investigation convince Liam that Big John did not commit suicide.  The question that emerges is who was responsible for the death.  Emerging evidence points to Duncan MacDermind, the owner of a vast mining complex whose racial views are untenable.  MacDermind, a racist who fought in World War II and was aboard the Indianapolis and survived a Japanese attack that killed over 2000 also suffers from PTSD.  The question is motive.  Why would MacDermind kill Big John?  Rumors of an affair may be the answer, but it is not clear, particularly since the county attorney is in MacDermind’s hip pocket.  MacDermind is not the only person of interest, perhaps Big John’s half brother Oscar was guilty, or perhaps the culprit is someone who we cannot fathom.

Krueger introduces a number of characters that appear in his later novels.  Henry Meloux, a member of the Grand Medicine Society, is a Mide or healer and is the philosophical leader that reservation members turn to for advice.  Sam Winter Moon, Liam’s close friend will serve the same role for Cork.  Both men try to guide Liam and his son and try to make them understand the impact the death of Big John and the disappearance of Louise La Rosa, a young Ojibwe girl whose body was found in the Boundary Waters has on the reservation population.   Liam was under intense pressure as he was caught in the middle as Native-Americans whose badge made him an athame as a white sheriff, whites in the community referring to him as the “squaw man” for having married a half Indian woman, and even his mother-in-law and wife questioning his approach to the investigation.

William Kent Krueger
(William Kent Krueger, the author)

LIGHTENING STRIKE explores the gentle relationship between a father and son and provides insights into the type of man Cork will become.  It is written with grace and understanding and lays the groundwork for the wonderful series that Krueger has developed as Liam has seeded compelling and complicated wisdom to his son which will make him a better man.

Iron Lake Campground
(Superior National Forest, Iron Lake Region, Minnesota)

BILLY SUMMERS by Stephen King

Stephen King
(Stephen King)

Let me begin by admitting I am not a Stephen King fan.  This is not a criticism, but I am not into horror stories or other genres Mr. King has employed in his novels.  The one notable exception thus far is 11/22/63, a story line that deals with the “what ifs” as they pertain to the Kennedy assassination.  As a retired historian it captured my interest from the outset.  The same can be said for King’s latest novel, BILLY SUMMERS which also grabbed me from the first page, perhaps because of the references to the French novelist, Emile Zola, and Archie comic books, both favorites of mine.

In his latest book, King’s protagonist is an assassin who morphs into a writer.  The one scary aspect of the story is that Billy Summers is haunted by books, not anything related to the supernatural.  I especially enjoyed the references to numerous authors, many of which are my favorites, including Tim O’Brien, Cormac McCarthy, Robert Stone, Charles Dickens, and the previously mentioned Emile Zola.

Summers is lured out of retirement as an assassin for one last job for the mob.  Interestingly, the mob boss who hired him wants him to pose as a writer.  In his noir tale, King has created a dual plot.  First is Summers planning and conducting the assassination of a Joel Allen who is about to go to trial. However, since Allen knows too much he must be eliminated.   Once the assassination is completed he escapes from the scene which will prove to be quite interesting once Summers meets up with a gang rape victim, Alice Maxwell.  Second, during his down time, Summers writes his biography which carries him to the depths of his emotions from witnessing the murder of his sister, killing his stepfather for the murder, his training as a Marine sniper, and his experiences in Fallujah, Iraq. 

Title: Billy Summers (Spanish Edition), Author: Stephen King

King has created a character with a convoluted sense of justice.  Summers believes in honesty and that people should not take things that do not belong to them.  He firmly believes that people who commit egregious acts like the rape of Alice or not paying what they have agreed to, then trying to kill him, must pay, but in a different manner.  Further, King creates a dichotomy in Summers’ mind as he sees himself as having a dumb self-juxtaposed to the bright person he really is. 

Summers wonders if he can really write a fictionalized dumb self-version of his own life.  As he attempts to write he opens the door to the pain of his past.  In a sense Summers is authoring a novel within King’s overall story line.  It is fascinating how King approaches this literary strategy.  Summers is a victim of an Eriksonian identity crisis.  He is a gun for hire named Billy Summers. To the inhabitants of where he lives he is the wannabe writer, David Lockridge.  Lastly, living on Pearson Street, he is an overweight computer geek named Dalton Smith.  In addition to suffering from an identity crisis, Summers must confront his PTSD because of his experiences in Iraq. Alice Maxwell also suffers from PTSD because of her gang rape experience, and it is interesting how King develops their relationship which dominates the second half of the novel.

King continues to be the master of sarcasm with a dry sense of humor.  He integrates his own brand of current social commentary throughout the dialogue using Summers as a vehicle to remarks about our current state of politics and society, the coming pandemic,  life in the suburbs, a FOX type network conglomerate, and of course Donald Trump.

For a trained assassin Summers is a character who it is easy to like.  He exhibits a great deal of compassion and empathy, particularly toward Alice and other families he comes in contact with who will be shocked when they learn what he really is.  King purposefully has created a warm human being on the one hand, a stone cold killer on the other.

As King develops Summers’ character the novel exhibits numerous twists and turns making it difficult to put the book down until you finish its 514 pages.  Once Alice Maxwell is introduced the tenor of the story is changed and King mesmerizes the reader as he pushes on as his characters drive across America to the inevitable climax which we witness as the lonely figure makes what could be his last stand.

(Novelist Stephen King says writing is like leaving the ordinary world for a world of his own making: “It’s a wonderful, exhilarating experience.”)

THE FIRE MAKER by Peter May

Beijing map

(Beijing and its metropolitan area)

After visiting China, many times from the early 1980s through the advent of the 20th century, author Peter May has witnessed the evolution of Chinese society from one that suffered under the cruelties of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.   Beginning in 1966 the Chinese dictator sought to reinvigorate his revolution as he feared death by purging the older generation according to psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton in his book REVOLUTIONARY IMMORTALITY.  Once Mao passed from the scene pragmatists like Deng Xiaoping guided China through a period of modernization that has culminated in making China the superpower she is today.  May uses this evolution in China as a focal point in the preparation of his six volume fictional compendium entitled the China Thrillers.  These works of fiction allow May to present a nuanced historical picture of China as he develops his story lines, the first of which is entitled THE FIRE MAKER.

The novel centers around the relationship between Margaret Campbell,  a forensic pathologist and sassy character who left her position in the city of Chicago to accept a six week exchange with the People’s University of Public Safety in Beijing, China.  It appears she is trying to gain  personal space because of the breakup and death of her husband and hoped to share her professional skills with her Chinese colleagues.  Her interactions with Li Yan, recently promoted to Deputy Section Chief, Section One of the Beijing Municipal Police force, is one that develops slowly ranging from the acrimonious to one of mutual respect to romantic involvement.  Through their relationship May does an excellent job in reflecting the atmosphere of China in the late 1990s in Beijing as China was beginning to evolve into a dominant superpower on the world stage.

The dialogue between Campbell and Li Yan allows May to review the contentious relationship between the United States and China.  Their back and forth centers on China’s unconscious inferiority when compared to America’s perceived superiority toward the Middle Kingdom.  Their arguments center around the issues of civil and human rights with each character bringing up events from Tiananmen Square to the Vietnam War in their frequent exchanges.  By doing so May allows the reader to gain insight into Sino-American discourse that has produced so much angst between the two for decades.

The plot focuses on three murders.  The first, the immolation of Chao Heng, a former senior technical advisor to the Minister of Agriculture who was suspected of being a pedophile and a drug addict. Campbell, whose specialty is the autopsies of burn victims is brought in and convinces Li Yan that the victim did not commit suicide but was murdered.  The second victim, Mao Mao, a known drug user, and the third is an itinerant laborer from Shanghai named Guo Jingbo.  The question is whether the three murders are separate and coincidental or are they linked in some way.  The key for Li Yan is the discovery of Marlboro cigarettes at the site of each crime scene and his “gut” instinct.

(Palace Museum, Forbidden City, Beijing, China)

May integrates a great deal of Chinese government policy in the late 1990s and its impact on family life.  Examples include the government’s “one child” policy and its approach to the civil rights of its citizens.  May also delves into Chinese history and philosophy through the application of Confucian ideals and in entertaining scenes that reflect the concept of feng Shui and is able to juxtapose the old China with a modernizing China very clearly.

May introduces a series of interesting characters apart from Campbell and Li Yan.  Li Yan’s uncle Yifu is a colorful individual whose reputation includes that of being a phenomenal police officer during his career.  Li Yan looks up to his uncle who taught him English and convinced him to train and study in the United States and whose shoes he would like to fill.  Bob Wade is a computer profiler who plays the role of Campbell’s guide and handler.  May Yongli, a chef and lifelong friend of Li Yan is a partier who tries to get his compatriot to loosen up and enjoy life.  Lotus, is a prostitute and May Yongli’s girlfriend.  Constable Li Ping is in charge of security surrounding Campbell but finds herself left out of most important situations.  Johnny Ren, a freelance Triad hitman from Hong Kong.  There are various other Chinese officials introduced along with detectives and low level government bureaucrats as the story lines unfold.

Margaret’s work with Li exposes her to a broad section of Chinese culture and opens her eyes to a vastly different world that she comes to respect. As the case evolves, she and Li Yan become more aware of a cover-up by highly placed government officials who have developed a genetically engineered form of rice to meet China’s food supply needs.  Margaret is set up for death by an alcoholic plant geneticist, Li Yan is framed for the death of his beloved uncle, and both must run for their lives in the hope that they can tell the world what they know of a dangerous secret that could lead to disaster after what appears to be three murder committed by a professional hit man.

The novel is not overly violent and exhibits a slow meandering pace that catches fire after several hundred pages.  The novel succeeds as a taut thriller, but more importantly as a window into China in the late 1990s.  As is the case in most mystery series, the conclusion of the novel leaves an opening that will be filled in the next installment of the Campbell-Li Yan relationship entitled, THE FOURTH SACRIFICE.

(Beijing, China)

SLEEPING BEAR: A THRILLER by Connor Sullivan


(Alaskan wilderness)


We have all heard the expression, “like father like son.”  In the case of Connor Sullivan his approach is markedly different from his father Mark.  In his excellent debut thriller, SLEEPING BEAR: A THRILLER, Connor Sullivan has written a taut suspenseful story that describes the plight of the Gale family who live in Montana but find themselves in the midst of the remnants of the Cold War with Russia that dates to the former Soviet Union.  Mark Sullivan’s approach is different in that he develops true historical figures and events and morphs them into novel format as he did with Pino Lella, an Italian teenager who guides Jews escaping the Nazis across the Alps in his award winning BENEATH THE SCARLETT SKY, and Emil and Adeline Martel who must decide what do as the Nazis push their way into the Ukraine in his most recent novel, THE LAST GREEN VALLEY.  Both authors are wonderful story tellers who know how to lure the reader into their fictional web, but their techniques diverge as Mark relies on historical characters, and Conner recreates a tableau from the past, but his presentation is fictional.

Conner Sullivan’s debut focuses on the plight of Cassie Gale, a former Army Ranger, who has reached the depths of despair after she finds her husband Derrick after he hanged himself in the family barn.  Other issues have also influenced Cassie’s psychological downfall and she decides to travel to the Alaskan wilderness to try and get her “head on straight.”  While camping she is kidnapped and winds up in a Russian prison, a plight she cannot understand.  Cassie is not the only American who has been kidnapped in the same manner from the Alaskan terrain.  Paul Brady, a former chief Petty Officer on Seal Team Two suffers from PTSD from tours in Iraq and his attempt to solve his personal issues in Alaska also bring him to a Russian prison.  A third person, Billy French, a young environmentalist who had met Cassie north of Dawson City in the Yukon has also been taken by the Russians.

Cassie happens to be the daughter of Jim Gale, a former CIA operative whose family is unaware of his past and it is interesting how Sullivan creates a scenario that links his past and present through Russian General Viktor Aleksandrovich Sokolov, Chief of SVR Lines, the Illegal Directorate in the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service.  Sokolov is an eighty-one-year-old who has strong ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin and is a throwback to the old Soviet Union in charge of torture for the KGB.

As the novel unfolds each character’s role emerges and the plot becomes increasingly complex.  Sullivan does an excellent job presenting the bureaucratic in fighting in the Russian intelligence agencies, the lack of law enforcement in Alaska to help locate and rescue those that have gone missing, the inner workings of the Gale family, and the links between Russian spies in America that include Ned and Darlene Voight who have helped the Russians extract Americans from Alaska for over thirty years to be used for experiments by Captain Akulina Yermakova, a pseudo psychologist for the Russian GRU, int heir Science Directorate.

The question that eventually dominates the novel is what is the relationship between Sokolov and Gale, and what does Cassie and her sister Emily have to do with it.  A series of interesting characters are brought to the fore that include Sergeant Meredith Plant, six months pregnant, who oversees finding Cassie for the Alaska Bureau of Investigation.  Others include Max Tobeluk, a drunken Alaskan Public Service Officer in Eagle, Alaska, Ralph Condon of the Canadian Mounted Police, Peter Trask, Emily Gale’s husband, Maverick, Cassie’s ex-Marine guide dog who plays a major role, Eve Attla, a Han village elder who knows the people and region of the search better than anyone, Susan Carter, Director of the CIA, Prescott McGavran, Gale’s handler when he was known as Robert Gaines, Earl Monks, the FBI’s expert on locating missing persons in Alaska, among several others.

Sullivan writes with an intensity and determination that makes SLEEPING BEAR: A THRILLER the type of mystery that is difficult to put down.  Sullivan uses the captured Americans as victims of a sick Russian entertainment practice of pitting them against the dregs of the Russian Gulag in combat against each other as well as conducting medical experiments on those extracted from Alaska.  Higher ups wager on this “sport” and it contributes to the tenseness of the Navy Seals rescue mission.  Sullivan’s debut is the type of book you read from cover to cover during cold winter nights when you want to curl up with a book and not pay attention to the time!

Bowhunting the Alaskan Wilderness

(A bull moose with antlers in velvet stands knee deep in the colorful tundra of Denali National Park)

TRESPASSER by Paul Doiron

(ATV Riding in Maine)

After whiling away the hours reading Paul Doiron’s THE POACHER’S SON and enjoying it immensely, I decided to move on to the second iteration of Maine Game Warden Mike Bowditch in TRESPASSER.  The book lived up to my expectations as Doiron develops a taut plot that carries through the three hundred plus pages that justified the time spent with Warden Bowditch.

Doiron continues to develop Bowditch’s life story and character after the events in THE POACHER’S SON.  In TRESPASSER, Bowditch continues to show up at murder investigations and when the higher ups warn him off and tell him to tend to his “warden” duties” he can’t control his curiosity which are based on his empathy and sensitivity to the cases that emerge.  In the current situation Bowditch finds himself chasing a demented family bent on using their ATVs in order to anger their neighbors as they destroy private property and deal drugs.  Further, there is another father and son partnership engaged in similar activities as Doiron’s commentary of the “interesting” types of people who live in certain parts of Maine seemed justified.  Apart from his Warden duties, Bowditch has a sixth sense when it comes to crime.  Bowditch follows up a call of an accident where automobile has struck a deer and the driver just walks away from the accident and disappears.  The State Trooper who showed up late to the accident scene is incompetent and full of himself leaving Bowditch holding the bag.  Later, Ashley Kim, a graduate assistant at the Harvard Business School is found dead after being sexually assaulted in her mentor’s house – of course discovered by Bowditch.

The problem that emerges is that the crime is reminiscent of a murder seven years previous where a young lady is raped and murdered, and controversy surrounds the conviction of one Erland Jefferts who receives a life sentence.  However, the prosecution withheld evidence and cut corners raising the question as to whether Jefferts was railroaded.  A group referred to as the J Team made up of Jefferts Aunt and Uncle and a series of lawyers are convinced he is innocent which creates a number of theories as to whether Jefferts was in fact guilty and what is the relationship to the death of Ashley Kim.  Of course, Bowditch pursues his own investigation and lo and behold he locates the individual who was the prime suspect, Professor Hans Westergaard dead in his car.

Doiron is master in plot development.  He slowly allows his story to unravel with numerous twists and turns that draws the reader in.  In my case after a few pages, I was hooked and I decided to get comfortable and read the novel through in one sitting absorbing the plot, the author’s commentary describing “Mainers,” the ecology of the region, and the intricacies of Bowditch’s life.  As Doiron develops his whodunnit the two murder cases come together as number of people begin to feel uncomfortable. Among them is one of Doiron’s new characters, Assistant Attorney General Danica Marshall, a tough and attractive prosecutor who does not care for Bowditch.  Other new characters include Calvin Barter, a sexual predator and drug dealer; Dave and Donnie Drisko, poachers who replicated the actions of the Barter family; Knox County Chief of Police, Dudley Baker, among others. 

Doiron reintroduces characters from his first novel. Sgt. Kathy Frost, Bowditch’s boss reappears as does Charley Steven, the retired Game Warden pilot, Sarah Harris, Bowditch’s girlfriend, and Detective Mike Menceri, who seems to be in a running argument with Bowditch throughout the novel.  For our protagonist he seems to have a career death wish as he continually angers higher ups by his actions.  But he is obsessed with finding justice for victims whether they are non-human or human.  For Bowditch, whose own life was recently shattered by violence turning away from these crimes is not an option.  His investigation has reopened old wounds among the locals and the rich summer “invaders” and because of his persistence he puts his life in danger as well as the women he loves as he has touched a nerve among certain people who refuse to allow him to solve the case.

Doiron’s first two novels can stand alone but I would recommend they be read one after the other and then move on to third the installment in the Mike Bowditch series, BAD LITTLE FALLS.

(ATV Riding in Maine)

THE POACHER’S SON by Paul Doiron

A few weeks ago, my wife and I were browsing in a wonderful bookstore in Camden, Maine and I asked the lady behind the counter for any recommendations by local authors that were of the “mystery” genre.  She immediately mentioned Paul Doiron, the editor and chief of Down east: The Magazine of Maine.  I purchased a copy of Doiron’s first iteration of his Mike Bowditch series; THE POACHER’S SON and it did not disappoint.

Doiron’s main character, Mike Bowditch is a game warden in northern Maine and through his eyes the author conveys what that avocation entails on a daily basis.  His descriptions are impeccable especially dealing with vacationers, particularly those who emanate from Massachusetts.  The usual approach that Bowditch takes during boating and fishing season is to check boat registrations, fishing licenses, and floatation devices and periodically he will come across people who resent his questions and only offer abuse until they comply with his requests.  The stories he relates are priceless as he discusses the traffic on Route 1 as Massachusetts residents clog the roads heading north and to his credit, he refrains from describing their regional nickname, “Mass holes.”

Doiron also relates Bowditch’s job description, expectations, and the public’s view of what he does.  Bowditch is perfect for the role based on his longing for privacy and his commitment to the animals he must police and prevent being abused by the public.

Aroostook County Foliage Scenic Drive

The novel itself revolves around the murder of a Somerset County police officer, Bill Brodeur, and Jonathan Shipman, a lawyer for Wendigo Timberland LLC, a company who purchased a great deal of land and forest in the northern timberland which would result in the eviction of numerous lease holders who have lived in the region for over thirty years.  One of the lease holders is Mike’s father Jack who he had been estranged from for years.  It seems the state police and local authorities are convinced that Jack Bowditch was the murderer, and for some reason Mike, who has a very low opinion of his father and describes him as a “saloon brawling logger with a rap sheet of misdemeanors and the public persona of a Tasmanian devil.”  Mike is fully aware what an SOB his father is, but he could not accept the fact that he was a murderer.  Despite his feelings concerning his upbringing and his father in general he decides to risk his career in order to prove his innocence as Jack believes that he is being framed.

The hazards of Mike’s career choice are on full display as he must confront people who have vendettas against animals, particularly bears who take the law into their own hands when their property is attacked.  In this current situation he is up against law enforcement, local individuals, and even his stepfather who believe that his father is a murderer.  Mike’s fear is that if his father does not turn himself in, he will be killed as he killed a police officer.  As Doiron develops his plots, he integrates Mike’s upbringing, and we learn a great deal about him as well as his dysfunctional parents who divorce when he is nine years old.

Doiron develops a series of interesting characters, the first of which is Charley Stevens, a retired game warden who still fly’s his pontoon plane throughout the region to assist the state police.  Stevens is a perceptive individual who served as Mike’s mentor when he decided to become a game warden.  Katherine Frost is a Sergeant and Mike’s boss who does her best to help salvage Mike’s career when he engages in a number of  self-destructive actions while trying to save his father.  Other important characters include Sarah Harris, Mike’s ex-girlfriend who he still loves; Brenda Dean, Jack’s girlfriend; Russell Pelletier who ran the Rum Pond Sporting Camp, Vernon Tripp, the owner of the Natanis Trading Post, and Truman Dellis, Brenda’s father, all of whom had reason to kill the Wendigo lawyer.  Lastly, Detectives Wayne Soctomah and Mike Menceri who are in charge of the murder investigation and believe Jack is guilty.

Doiron’s environmental views are front and center in each chapter as is his love for the ecology of the region.  He writes with wit and a certain amount of sarcasm and weaves a web of intrigue that enhances the story line and contributes to the reader’s experience.  Two key themes that dominate the novel are Maine’s changing landscape and unconditional love between a father and son despite their negative history.  The novel is about relationships and  outdoor adventure and is a sterling debut which became an Edgar Award finalist and easily absorbs the reader’s attention. Having completed THE POACHER’S SON, I will begin the next installment of Mike Bowditch’s path in life, TRESPASSER and other books in the series.

Thunder Hole, Acadia National Park
Thunder Hole, Acadia National Park