BABYLON BERLIN by Volker Kutscher

Image result for photo of Weimar Berlin 1929(Weimar Berlin, 1929)

After recently visiting the Jewish quarter of Budapest, former Nazi sites in Nuremberg, and several German towns along the Danube and Rhine Rivers, 20th century German history has taken hold of my thoughts.  When I travel I have a personal tradition of trying to discover regional authors who have written historical mysteries about countries I have visited.  In this case I have come upon, Volker Kutscher’s first novel, BABYLON BERLIN, which introduces Book I of his Gerson Rath series.

Gerson Rath is an interesting protagonist who stems from a somewhat questionable background.  A former Cologne detective, he was forced to leave that police department due to a shooting incident where Rath was strongly implicated.  Because of the influence of his father, Police Director Engelbert Rath, he was able to transfer to a vice squad in the Berlin Police Department as an investigative detective.  From that point on Kutscher provides an insightful look at the underside of Weimar Berlin in 1929 as the depression looms and right-wing parties begin to proliferate.  Kutscher explores the role of drugs, pornography, and the actions of immigrant elements and their effect on German crime, politics and society in general.

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(Weimar Berlin, 1929 witnessed the rise of the Nazi Party)

Rath soon finds himself involved in a series of vice raids, but his heart is in solving homicides, not busting pimps, prostitutes, or porno-film producers.  After several murders take place, Rath sees an opportunity to solve them as a vehicle of self-glorification to gain a promotion to the Homicide Division.  He keeps information from his superiors, becomes involved in an accidental murder which he hides, false in love with a stenographer in Homicide, all on the way to achieving a promotion, due in large part once again to his father’s influence.

As Rath proceeds with his own investigations, the pervading atmosphere in Berlin is one of fear of communist demonstrations that could lead to a coup against the government.  This fear was further reinforced with the emergence of a group called the “Red Fortress.” Pre-Hitlerite Berlin is on full display as we witness the rise of anti-Semitism and the Nazi Party, the cafes and dance halls infested with alcohol and cocaine, opium dens, mob killings, corruption, and labor unrest.  Berlin is a city where Communists and ultra-nationalists are at war with each other to wreck the Weimar Republic’s fragile democracy. Another component to Kutscher’s plot emerges as Rath discovers a connection with a circle of oppositional Russian exiles who try to purchase weapons with smuggled gold stolen from Stalinist Russia.  Rath’s actions and machinations should be self-destructive as he himself becomes a murder suspect.  Rath is a character with many secrets, which include PTSD from combat in World War I, and Kutscher has no compunction about presenting Rath as an individual who is morally compromised as he tries to achieve a greater good for his city.

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(1929, Hitler the politician in Weimar Berlin)

Kutscher introduces several interesting characters to carry his novel.  Among them are Charlotte Ritter, a stenographer in the Homicide Department that Rath falls in love with; Elizabeth Behnke, Rath’s landlady who is jilted by Rath after a one night stand; Detective Chief Inspector Wilhelm Bohm, a boisterous commander that Rath must deal with; Dr. Magnus Schwartz, the coroner who repeatedly tests Rath’s reaction to autopsies;  Berthold Weinert, a newsman and neighbor of Rath; Commissioner Zorgiebel, a friend of Rath’s father, who needed publicity the way an addict needs his drug fix; Bruno Wolter, Rath’s partner;  Countess Svetlana Sorokina, whose family held $80 million worth of gold; Alexej Ivanovitsch Kardakov, worked to smuggle gold into Germany; and Johann Marlow, a cocaine dealer linked to the Red Fortress plot. Other criminals and interesting personality types are also present representing the Russian mob, drug dealers, murderers, and Nazis, all designed to complete a complex plot line that meanders throughout the novel.  For Rath, as the investigation proceeds he is forced to ask himself; “how was it that every time he learned something new about the case, he understood less than before?”

Kutscher has written a fast-paced story that seems to twist and turn from page to page.  It will keep the reader’s attention through an excellent translation from German and the end result should surprise everyone.  The end of the novel forms the basis of a continuing series involving Detective Investigator Rath in the second installment, entitled, THE SILENT DEATH.  For those interested, BABYLON BERLIN, currently forms the basis of a new series on Netflix.

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(Weimar Berlin, 1933)

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LIE IN THE DARK by Dan Fesperman

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(Sarajevo during the Yugoslav Civil War-1990s)

The names Slobadan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic, Ratko Mladic, and Franjo Tudman probably have long receded from our minds.  Perhaps places like Srebrenica, Racak, Banja Luka, the sites of massacres during the 1990s Yugoslav civil war might jog your memory, if not Dan Fesperman’s novel, LIE IN THE DARK explores the terrors and murder associated with that dark time concentrating on Sarajevo.  The story will take you back to a period of intolerance, ethnic cleansing, and wonderment about the depths of evils that people succumb to.

Fesperman sets the tone of his novel from the outset as homicide investigator, Vlado Petric observes the early morning grave digging crew unearthing bodies that were victims of shelling and sniper fire the previous day.  His observations go directly to the absurdity of war as he describes grave digging during a period of genocide, the continuous cycle of snipers and shelling as almost normal vocations.  Sarajevo and its environs presented a universe of slaughter, death, and destruction which was the daily norm for the city.  It is a story dealing with human depravity, treachery, and ethnic cleansing among Serbs, Croats, and Moslems.  To what end was the glory of this national ideal, a belief resting on genocide with groups like the Chetniks, the Ustasha, and others committing murder daily.  In this environment Petric believed that what he did made a difference, but his rationalization did not always protect him from the reality of this brutal civil war.

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(Siege of Sarajevo)

Petric was Catholic and a Croat who had sent his wife and daughters to Germany to escape the civil war, a conflict where the Serbs were bent on leveling Sarajevo layer upon layer if they could not capture it.  Fesperman’s description of the morass of the civil war places the reader amid the carnage that was Sarajevo.  During the shelling Petric tried to maintain his sanity by painting miniature soldiers from diverse historical periods, an occupation that became his therapy.  Petric’s secondary therapy was police work, investigating murders amidst the war raging around him.  A world where the paucity of food, supplies and the necessities of life became a battle of scavenging, barter, and other strategies to deal with the black market on which their lives depended.

The novel centers on the murder of Esmir Vitas, the Chief of the Ministry of the Special Police.  Petric is placed in charge of the investigation as he is seen as not being tainted by the war, which made him palatable to United Nations bureaucrats.  Petric pursues a standard approach to his investigation, but he soon runs into road blocks forcing him to stretch police procedures to their limits.  Vitas’ murder goes deeper than meets the eye after Petric conducts a few interviews, and takes the investigation into Sarajevo’s underworld of gangs, war lords, and government and United Nations officials who have their own agendas and cannot be trusted.

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(a woman risks her life for food in Sarajevo)

Fesperman presents a parallel track in the novel as he describes the dehumanizing nature of the war, and how the ongoing fighting affects people’s daily lives.  For the civilian population there is no such thing as a casual stroll.  If you went out for food, desperate from hunger you took your life into your own hands, and most likely you would become a target for a sniper.  Fesperman spends an inordinate amount of time presenting the lunacy of war, but he does provide glimpses into the bygone age when life was normal, but boys playing basketball off a bent rim with sniper fire all around is a bit disconcerting to categorize as normal.  Petric, like others has difficulty coping with the separation from his family as he realizes he does not know his daughter after two years of being apart following her first birthday.  He can speak by telephone for a brief time monthly, but this just heightens his anguish.

Perhaps Fesperman’s most interesting character is Milan Glavas, a white haired individual with a hacking cough who was an expert in Yugoslav art and antiquities from World War II to the 1990s.  Petric learned from Glavas about the lists of artifacts and other objects that had been stolen since the war.  The recovery of objects from the Nazis led to a black market trade that disseminated art works throughout Yugoslavia and other countries.  Glavas had gone to Germany at the end of the war to investigate and he became a wealth of knowledge concerning the location of these items.  A transfer file had been created which had been destroyed in a fire, but Glavas supposedly was the only source for that information.  The novel takes on a different tact as Glavas, “the curator of the world’s most scattered collection.  The shepherd, if you will, of all of [Yugoslavia’s] wandering lambs,” is introduced.   It seems the black market trade, the role of certain military officials, bureaucrats, and United Nations representatives is greatly involved, and the question is how does Vitas’ murder fit into the main plot. What results is a fascinating story were by a senile woman, a reluctant prostitute, and an English reporter play prominent roles.

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Fesperman is masterful story teller with excellent command of the historical information that makes this novel believable.  Fesperman is not your typical novelist as he has constructed the netherworld of art seizures and recovery from World War II.  He explores how items are smuggled, and the lengths that some go to enrich themselves from this illegal trade.  For some the story might be far-fetched, but seen in the context of the 1990s in Yugoslavia, it is an accurate setting.  I have read a few Fesperman’s later novels including, THE PRISONER OF GUANTANAMO and THE WARLORD’S SON, and LIE IN THE DARK begins a pattern of excellence that is followed in all of his later books.  Fesperman has become one of my favorite practitioners of historical “mystery” fiction, and his gripping style and character development should attract a wide audience.

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(Sarajevo during 1990s Yugoslav Civil War)

THE EMPEROR’S TOMB by Steve Berry

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(Terracotta Warrior Army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di)

Steve Berry’s sixth novel in his remarkable Cotton Malone series, THE EMPEROR’S TOMB has tremendous resonance in today’s geopolitical world.  For example, Chinese leader XI JinPing recently had his presidency extended for life.  Second, is the US, China, and Russian competition for energy resources and control of new land masses.  Third, the world geostrategic balance is being reoriented through the use of new technologies.  All of these contemporary issues are played out throughout Berry’s novel that opens with Malone, the former US Justice Department Special Agent for the Magellen Billet receiving a computer message from longtime ally, and possible romantic interest Cassiopeia Vitt, that she is in dire trouble and needs his help.  Since in the past she has rescued him, for Malone it was an easy decision to leave his retirement occupation as bookstore owner in Copenhagen to fly off and help her in Belgium and China.

Berry weaves an interesting web whereby Vitt has been asked by a Russian geochemist who lives in China, Lev Sokolov for assistance as his four year old son has been kidnapped.  Sokolov had left Russia years before against the wishes of Moscow to marry a Chinese national.  Sokolov fears his son has been stolen because of China’s one child policy as males are in such demand.  As you will see this is not the reason for the kidnapping, and Vitt immediately becomes involved in a Chinese plot to secure energy independence, and Beijing’s role in the world.  It seems that Sokolov was an expert in abiotic oil- oil that is not a fossil fuel but emanates from deep in the ground and as the ability to regenerate itself, making its supply infinite- “a primordial material the earth forms and excretes on a continual basis.”

Berry creates a number of fascinating characters to carry out his plot as he integrates Chinese history and philosophy to educate his reader.  Karl Tang is the Chinese Minister of Science and Technology and First Vice President of the People’s Republic of China, and second in power to the president.  Tang believes in the ancient authoritarian legalist philosophy pursued by Chinese Emperors for centuries and reinstituted by Mao Zedong.  Tang believes that any further Chinese democratization is against its cultural past.  Tang’s competition to succeed the aging Chinese president is Ni Yong who heads the Central Commission for Discipline of the People’s Republic.  Ni is a practitioner of Confucian values and is the antithesis of Tang when it comes to the exercise of power domestically and abroad.  Another interesting creation is Pau Wen, a rich Chinese emigre who left China, and was the former advisor to Mao, now living in Belgium.  It appears Wen is a leading member of the Brotherhood of the Ba, an organization of powerful eunuchs, who have historically influenced Chinese government policy through advice to the Emperor, a movement that seems allied with Tang.  For the United States the evolution of this power struggle is extremely important because should China gain total energy independence through abiotic oil, and Tang assumes the Chinese presidency, it would pursue an increasingly aggressive foreign policy.

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(Mao Zedong)

The issue of achieving unfettered access to energy sources is a key to Tang’s realpolitik as it is today in China. China imports 60% of its oil from Africa, Latin America, and Russia as a means of avoiding becoming dependent on Mideast oil which is such a volatile source.  To this point China has survived by trading technology and financial aid to corrupted regimes to secure its energy needs.  If they were able to achieve energy self-sufficiency, Tang would press domination in the South China Sea, seize Taiwan and possibly Korea, and expand influence throughout South East Asia.  A key component to the plotline is the role of the tombs that house the Terra Cotta warriors in Shaanxi, China.  It seems that all the major characters have an interest in exploring a newly discovered area of the tomb and what may lay hidden could be the key to the future world balance of power.

Berry’s periodic summary of Chinese history is extremely important to the overall story providing context for events.  Berry has the ability to weave aspects of Chinese philosophy and technological advancement, i.e., discovery of salt, drilling techniques, oil, natural gas from previous centuries and how they impact events in the novel.  Berry’s mantra as in all of his books is to blend real historical events and discoveries with a counterfactual plot that approaches contemporary realism, this mantra is firmly met in THE EMPEROR’S TOMB.  As in all of his “Malone” novels, Berry offers a historical essay at the conclusion of the novel depicting what is actual history, and what is fiction in the author’s presentation – a valuable asset for the reader.

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(Confucius)

Other characters who emerge important are Viktor Thomas, a Russian operative who seems to work for all sides in the novel at one time or another.  Ivan, a Russian agent, bent on stopping China’s power play, Jin Zhao, a geochemist who knew too much about abiotic oil and Tang’s plans.  Stephanie Nell, Malone’s old boss at the Magellen Billet appears throughout the plot as do Malone’s many skills that he nurtured throughout his career.  Malone is very distrustful of most individuals in the novel who all seem to have their own agendas which usually do not correspond with his.  What is different about this current rendition of the Malone saga is that there is a vocalization of his relationship with Vitt as each come to realize the importance of their feelings for each other.

THE EMPEROR’S TOMB contains the usual suspense, country hopping, historical education for the reader, strong plot development, and interesting characters that one comes to expect from a Berry novel.  At times the dialogue and background can become a bit long winded, but overall Berry has another success on his hand. If you are interested in continuing with the Malone saga, the next book in the series is the JEFFERSON KEY.

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A LITTLE WHITE DEATH by John Lawton

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(London, 1963…Rolling Stones)

The 1960s witnesses a social and sexual revolution throughout the western world.  England was no exception with the Profumo-Keeler Affair that eventually brought down Harold MacMillan’s Conservative Party and led to the Labour government’s rise to power in 1964.  The sexual revolution and the remnants of the Cuban Missile Crisis form the background of John Lawton’s novel A LITTLE WHITE DEATH.  The story is the third iteration of his Inspector Troy series set in New York, Moscow, but mostly London.  At the outset the reader is drawn to a Manhattan street where Clarissa, a pseudonym for Tosca, or whatever name she chose at the time, who was also the recent spouse of Inspector Frederick Troy of Scotland Yard.  Tosca meets Dr. Patrick Fitzgerald, and after a conversation about medical treatment for the American president she asks him to convey a letter to her husband who she has not seen for three years.

Inspector Troy has suffered through a rough patch in the novel.  He is exposed to sexual mores that he has never experienced before.  He must deal with his close friend and possible member of the Cambridge Five spy ring, Charles Leigh-Hunt, the suicide of his physician and the niece of his former boss and mentor, Stanley Onions, and cope with a medical leave that was caused by a bout with tuberculosis.

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(October 3, 1963, the Beatles in London)

immediately reintroduces Rod Troy, Frederick’s brother, and spokesman for the opposition Labour Party, as they continue to muse over the life of their father who had been a revolutionary in early twentieth century Russia but came to America in 1910 and left them a fortune upon his death.  They always wondered if he was a spy or a legitimate businessman.  Each would receive a telegram, Rod would be summoned to London as Hugh Gaitskell, ticketed to be the next Prime Minister is near death.  Troy receives a missive from Leigh-Hunt who he had not heard from since 1956 to meet him in Beirut.

Lawton offers a realistic portrayal of Beirut in a very pleasant manner.  He describes its history, political factions, and the tenuous nature of its government.  The author continues his habit of presenting literary references as he has in other novels with the mention of Hemingway, Graves, Greene, and especially Tolstoy who had a relationship with Troy’s grandfather and father.  Troy will meet Said Hussein in Beirut who will bring Troy up to snuff about his former “colleague” and possible spy and provide the airline tickets to travel to Moscow.  Troy would become the first member of his family to return to Moscow in 58 years.  Troy soon learns that Leigh-Hunt has been contacted by Tim Woodbridge, MP, Minister of State, and second in command at the Foreign Office informing him that after seven years the body of a Special Branch officer, Troy had killed in 1957 had turned up.  The British government wants Leigh-Hunt to return to England for the first time since the murder.  At the same time these conversations were occurring, both gentlemen were being surveilled by the KGB, even as Troy visited Tolstoy’s home.

July 22, 1963 Christine Keeler, a principal witnesses in the vice charges case against osteopath Dr. Stephen Ward.
(Christine Keeler)

The second plot centers on a “sexual procurement trial” in London involving Troy’s doctor, Patrick Fitzgerald and MP Time Wooldridge.  It seems that Fitzpatrick known as “Fitz” had a “den of iniquity” at his Uphill Manor in Sussex where woman below and above the legal age of sixteen engaged in orgies and other types of amusements with Fitz’s friends.  Even Troy visited at one time, which would come back to haunt him later on.  Lawton expounds on the wonders of the English social revolution through the dialogue between Troy and Leigh-Hunt.  It seems that they believed that World War II had bound society together with shared values, but by 1963 those values were fast changing.  The author focuses on the drugs and sex that are beginning to permeate English society as is reflected at Fitz’s Uphill Manor.  Woodbridge was not the only important figure to visit Uphill.  It seemed that Anton Tereshkov, who Troy remembered as Khrushchev’s “man” during his 1956 visit to London, was a constant visitor and with Troy’s visit to Moscow, the Scotland Yard inspector grew concerned.

Lawton introduces several interesting characters both real and fictitious.  The writer, Rebecca West appears and engages Troy in a wonderful conversation, as does Sir Harold Wilson and several historical figures.  As to the fictitious ones, Alex Troy, Frederick Troy’s nephew, a reporter for the family owned Sunday Post, the Fifitch sisters, Caro and Tara, residents of Uphill Manor, and keys to the prosecution court case; Clover Browne, a.k.a. Jackie, Stan Onions daughter; Moira Twelvetress, a prostitute who engages the prosecuting attorney at trial in a wonderful argument concerning the correct definition of prostitution, and a number of others.

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(John Profumo, Conservative politician and British War Minister)

Troy soon learns that he is being placed on medical leave by his doctor and is placed in a TB sanitorium.  Troy’s disease allows Lawton to contemplate the English health system and its relation to politics.  It would have been heresy for the brother of the number two man in the Foreign Office to be treated in a private facility, hence Troy was committed to a state institution.  Inside, Troy describes medical care and how it reflects the British social class system.

As British tabloids zone in on events at Uphill and the salacious trial of Woodbridge and Fitzgerald, Troy develops a moral conundrum as he had witnessed the mores on display at Uphill, and he wondered if he was out of place, or whether he really wanted to participate.  Lawton presents a trial transcript which is funny, demeaning, and sad all at the same time as the different characters are called to testify.  The prosecution must prove that the women at Uphill were prostitutes and paying off Fitz which leads to a fascinating array of examination and cross examination at the trial.  This along with the incompetence of Inspector Percy Flood of the Scotland Yard Vice Squad makes for an interesting investigation.  Lawton’s dialogue makes one wonder if the trial represented “the new England” putting the old on trial since it appeared a social revolution was in the making, or perhaps “old England” was putting the new on trial.

One of the women involved cannot be located and it is feared she was underage when she lived at Uphill.  As the trial ends it appears that a double suicide has taken place.  On the same day, Fitz, and the women who could not be located by the police commit what appears to be suicide.  For Troy, who convinced his life long friend and medical examiner, Dr. Ladislaw Gronkiewicz to declare him fit to return to work after four months in order for the cases be  to explored further.  Troy was not convinced that the deaths were suicides and he feared his Scotland Yard replacement would not investigate the cases, particularly when one of the victims was Stanley Onions’ granddaughter.  This launches Troy on dangerous journey to locate the killer or killers.  Where the culprits from inside Scotland Yard, MI5, or politicians who held grudges.  To learn who was responsible Troy relies on his masterful use of deductive logic and his refusal to trust those that others might think highly of.  At times difficult to follow the logic that Troy employs but by the end of the book the reader and Troy will be on the same page.

The question in my mind as I read on was how did Leigh-Hunt’s situation, the murder/suicides, and other aspects of the plot fit together.  Rest assured that they all do in true “Lawton” style.  The book itself is advertised as a spy and murder thriller, but in this case, though true, it is also a social commentary on early 1960s England and is enlightening for those who have forgotten what that period in English history was like.  For Troy, once the murders were solved, with British politics in an uproar, he had to deal with several suppressed emotions and move on with his life, a decision whose light of day must wait as Lawton’s next book, RIPTIDE (also known as BLUFFING MR. CHURCHILL) is a prequel to the Inspector Troy series.

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 (London, circa 1963)

OLD FLAMES by John Lawton

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(Piccadilly Circus, London, 1956)

The year is 1956 and the Cold War is in full bloom when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev visits England in an attempt to show the “softer” side of the Russian regime three years following Stalin’s death.  London is still recovering from the damage caused by German bombing from World War II and the Suez Crisis permeates the background of British politics.  This is the setting of John Lawton’s novel, OLD FLAMES, the second iteration of his Inspector Frederick Troy of Scotland Yard Series.  The novel opens with the escape of a female spy from Moscow, with the interesting name of “Major.”  She disappears from the story until midway through the plot when she reemerges in a very powerful manner.

Lawton’s protagonist is called to return from a three-week vacation and report to his London office.  It seems two members of the Special Branch have been killed in an automobile accident and Troy’s talents are needed to become part of the security detail for the upcoming visit of Marshal Nikolai Bulganin and Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev to London.  Troy has been chosen in part because of his Russian language skills, and his spy craft.  A number of fascinating characters appear throughout the novel.  Historical figures such as Prime Minister Anthony Eden, Winston Churchill, Gamal Abdul Nasser, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Cambridge Five, a number of other British officials, in addition to the aforementioned Russian leaders.  Lawton creates a series of fictional characters who carry the plot; Rodyon Troy, Frederick Troy’s brother who is the “shadow foreign minister” and member of the British Labour Party, Frederick’s sisters Masha and Sasha, Nikolai Troisty, Frederick’s uncle, Arnold Cockerell, furniture salesman or spy, Masha’s husband, Lawrence, the owner of the Sunday Post, Angus Pakenham, an accountant who was a RAF war hero who lost his leg trying to escape from Colditz, Inspector Norman Cobb of the Special Branch, a man most cannot tolerate,  most importantly, Larissa Dimitrovna Tosca, KGB, Fredrick’s former lover, spouse, among many identities.

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(Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev)

Lawton provides a view of recent Russian history through the perceptive eyes of Frederick Troy (Troy).  Troy reminisces about his Russian roots as he traces the rise of Khrushchev’s rise to power as rumors abound concerning a speech that may have denounced Stalin.  Lawton’s command of history is top drawer as is exemplified by his commentary concerning Eden’s rise to 10 Downing Street, a position he trained for and was heir apparent for years until Churchill finally let loose of the reins.

The author’s command of Cold War jargon ie; the bomb is accurate as his description of Khrushchev’s uncouth behavior and folksy peasant persona.  The pompousness of British officials is unmistakable as Russian leaders are ferried around London. The accuracy is on further display with the description of the Russian First Secretary’s speech at a state dinner bringing up standard complaints relating to 1919, 1930s appeasement, and facing Hitler by themselves.  The British response is fairly even handed, but it will enrage the Soviet leader who storms out of the dinner setting a remarkable interchange between Khrushchev and Troy.  After leaving the dinner Troy will comply with the First Secretary’s request with an unofficial tour of London.  They will visit the underground, a number of pubs, and many sites.  It is a fascinating display of historical dialogue that is one of the most important components of the book as Lawton applies his expertise of artistic license and counter factual history.  Lawton’s portrayal of Khrushchev is rather sympathetic in light of his previous history dealing with collectivization under Stalin in the Ukraine and other crimes.  The Russian leader will conclude that the British people are somewhat “boring.”

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(British Prime Minister, Anthony Eden)

Troy’s own Russian background is explored in detail particularly the role of his father, a former Menshevik, who arrived in London in 1910 and purchased the Hertfordshire mansion, and left his family a significant amount of wealth after he died in 1943.  A major question for the Troy family is what role their father played in Russia and was he loyal to his new country or did he spy against England during World War II.

Lawton conveys the plight of the British people in the post war years very accurately throughout the book.  Repeated references to the German “blitz” in 1940 and the carnage to historical sites highlight the damage that remains in the mid-1950s in addition to the lack of food staples for the general population.  The problems of English “workman” are described in detail and the political debate between Conservative and Labour Party members over their plight is an ongoing theme.  As Lawton conveys his story his repeated references to film and literature are a wonderful addition.

There are a number of plot lines that swirl throughout the book that center on the role of Nikolai Troisty, Troy’s father’s younger brother who emigrated from Russia also in 1910 but though retired, was an expert on ships, planes, bombs, and rockets.  In addition, a British frogman died while examining the Russian ship that conveyed Russian leaders to London – what was his identity, and was he a British spy?  Where was Arnold Cockerell, who was either dead or just disappeared, or did Cockerell kill his auditor George Jessup?  What role does MI6 play in the Cockerell fiasco?   How do Russian spies and their actions influence events?  Further, the appearance of Lois Teale or perhaps her name was M/SGT Larissa Tosca, or a Russian spy named Dimitrovna who knew Troy in Berlin in 1948 and how they renewed their relationship in 1956.

Lawton’s command of history is mostly accurate as he presents Khrushchev’s February 20, 1956 speech to the 20th Communist Party Congress, known as the “Destalinization” speech that denounced the former Soviet dictator.  Lawton also discusses details of the developing Suez Crisis as it comes to a head.  In general, the author has his facts straight, but his chronology of events is a bit off. President Eisenhower had suspicions about the Sevres Agreement between England, France, and Israel, but the CIA was not certain of its applicability until the Israelis invaded at the end of September.  Eisenhower’s conversation with Rodyon before the attack is not totally supported by the documentary evidence, but the gist, especially the actions of the US Treasury Department and the American manipulation of the Conservative Party that replaced Eden with Harold MacMillan in mid-December after the British and French withdraw from Suez is accurate.

Lawton has composed an intriguing novel that reflects his amazing storytelling ability.  He tells a number of stories within the larger story and in the end, they come together in a fascinating and meaningful way. Troy is a somewhat broken man at the end of the novel, but Lawton has created a vacuum that will soon be filled.  There are eight books in the Inspector Troy series with A LITTLE WHITE DEATH the next in chronological order which has now moved up on my books to read.

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(Coventry Street, London, 1956)

 

DREGS by Jorn Lier Horst

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(Larvik, Norway)

William Wisting’s career as a law enforcement professional who became a Chief Inspector in the Criminal Investigation Department of Lavrik Police mirrors that of DREGS author Jorn Lier Horst.  The author, one of Norway’s most experienced crime fighters introduces Wisting as he is immediately called to a crime scene at a tourist beach south of Oslo where he is confronted by a training shoe with a severed foot inside that has washed along the shore.  What is disconcerting is that it is the second left footed training shoe with a human foot inside that has appeared in a six day period.

Wisting is an interesting character who has been a widow for three years and has begun a relationship with a woman named Suzanne.  He is the father of twins one of which is his daughter, Line, a journalist who plays a significant role in the novel.  Wisting is well respected and the type of law enforcement individual, unlike some colleagues, who shuns publicity.  He is very workmanlike in his approach to crime and follows the mantra that there are no coincidences when investigating.  Other important characters that Lier Horst develops include; Espen Mortensen, a young crime technician, Ebbe Slettaker, an oceanologist, Nils Hammer, the leader of the Narcotics Division, Torunn Borg, a female colleague, and Audun Vetti, the Assistant Chief of Police, an arrogant careerist who has difficulty making critical decisions.

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Wisting and his colleagues are at a loss after examining missing person’s files from the previous year.  They have come up with a series of names, that at the outset lead nowhere, but after pursuing further examination there appear to be some interesting coincidences.  Torkel Lauritzen, a widower who suffered from the effects of a stroke had resided at the Stavern Nursing Home.  Otto Saga, a former Air Force officer who suffered from dementia also lived at the Stavern Nursing Home.  Sverre Lund, an old school teacher went missing after leaving his home, and Hanne Richter, a nursery teacher, and a diagnosed schizoid paranoiac has disappeared.

Lier Horst twists the plot by having Wisting’s journalist daughter, Line on an assignment that brings her to interview murderers who have served their time in prison.  Her goal is to investigate the impact of punishment on homicidal killers, believing that a milder use of coercion by the state could contribute to a more humane society.  Line’s second interview subject is Ken Ronny Hague who had killed a policeman in 1991.  The victim was the same age and an acquaintance of her father which brought back memories from when Line was eight years old.  When she learned of the case her father was dealing with, her boss informed her that her newspaper was sending a team to Lavrik to cover the missing “feet” story.

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Lier Horst deftly works the poor care at the Stavern Nursing Home into the plot as patients and then a care giver from the home go missing.  Wisting grows very frustrated with the lack of progress in the investigation as “everything seemed so meaningless and improbable,” particularly as two more left footed training shoes with human feet float ashore.  A major break takes place when Hannah Richter tells Wisting she believes it was her sister that is one of the missing.  For Wisting the coincidences seemed to build as the house in which Hanne Richter lived before her disappearance was owned by Christian Hague, but he died three weeks before she disappeared.  Interestingly, his heir was his grandson, Ken Ronny Hague, the convicted cop killer who was interviewed by Wisting’s daughter.  What the reader is left with is the beginning of the unraveling of the spider’s web that the author has created.

It seemed that all the presumed dead or missing people knew each other.  They may have formed their own intelligence unit that feared for a Soviet invasion of Norway in 1970.  Wisting comes across a photo of five men, but only four of which can be identified.  After showing the photo to his father, Wisting learns the identity of the fifth man, Carsten Meyer, who had worked at the Norwegian Defense Department Research Institute.  From this point on it seems that the crime investigation should come together, but it does not and Wisting becomes even more frustrated as bodies, minus their left foot are uncovered by a mini-submarine employed by the police after the calculations of Ebbe Slettaker.

Lier Horst’s conclusion is somewhat predictable, but there is an element of surprise, particularly in the role played by Line.  Wisting is a practitioner of deductive logic and in the end he will figure it out.  Despite the plethora of bodies, the author keeps the bloodshed to a minimum, unlike many other practitioners of this genre.  Lier Horst has had a number of his novels translated into English, the next being CLOSED FOR WINTER.  If you enjoyed DREGS, you should try the next in the series, for me I have yet to decide.

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(Larvik, Norway)

THE HYPNOTIST by Lars Kepler

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(Stockholm, Sweden)

My wife and I have been very fortunate to have traveled to many foreign countries and one of my favorite pastimes is to visit bookstores.  My goal is to acquire mysteries written by local authors of that venue because it is a wonderful way to learn about different countries and cultures.  Scandinavia is of particular interest and I have discovered numerous excellent writers that include; Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbo, Kristina Ohlsson, Hakan Nesser, among many others.  Crime in Stockholm, Oslo, or Helsinki and how the different law enforcement characters approach their work, their attitude toward criminals, and their personal lives fascinates me.  Until recently, I had not come across Lars Kepler (who happened to be a literary couple), but having just read their first novel, THE HYPNOTIST I have added them to my list of authors that I intend to read.  The book is a spellbinding mystery that introduces the Detective Joona Lenna series.  Lenna is a no nonsense investigator who is a member of Sweden’s National Criminal Investigation Department and is called to the scene of a brutal murder that has left a father, and his wife and daughter murdered.

The father, Anders Ek is a high school science teacher who after refereeing a soccer game was brutally stabbed.  The murderer then proceeded to Ek’s house and slashed to death his wife, and daughter, but his fifteen year old son, Josef is found alive.  Evelyn, the twenty three year old daughter had moved out, but investigators are worried that the killer is after her to complete the eradication of the entire family.  Once Lenna arrives at the scene he realizes it is imperative that they get as much information from Josef as they can to save his older sister.  In so doing Lenna contacts Dr. Erik Marin, a trauma specialist and a practitioner of the hypnotic arts to hypnotize Josef to gain information.  The problem is that Marin, ten years earlier had sworn to his wife and family that he would never practice hypnosis again.

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Marin carries a great deal of personal baggage.  His marriage to his wife Simone is crumbling as she has lost trust in her husband from past events and cannot decide to leave him or not. Their fifteen year old son, Benjamin suffers from Willebrand’s disease, a rare blood disorder that requires that Marin inject his son with medication on a weekly basis.  Marin himself appears to be addicted to pain killers and other drugs, but when lucid he is an expert in his field.  Lenna convinces him to hypnotize Josef which provides an opening from which the novel explodes.

Three major stories evolve in the plot.  First, Kepler pays particular attention to the Marin family dynamic that also includes his father in law, Keenet Strang a retired Stockholm detective who becomes very involved in an investigation involving the family, his relationship with his wife, and problems faced by Benjamin as he tries to deal with issues in family.  Second, the investigation into the Ek family murders that center around their son Josef and his sister Evelyn.  Third, the moral and ethical issues that surround using hypnosis as a tool for criminal interrogation as applied to Marin’s work ten years before the brutal Ek family murder.

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Kepler’s style is crisp and to the point.  Humor and sarcasm are present, but not to the extent of many writers of this genre.  The scenes that present the actual crimes, and how people respond are somewhat unnerving for the characters.  These characters are developed in depth and we learn a great deal of behavioral motivation and how private lives influence how the different characters go about their public actions.  A number of personal crisis are developed in an intricate fashion that carry forth the story.  Erik’s broken promise concerning the practice of hypnosis and the intense study of Josef’s childhood are of the utmost importance.  Lenna’s approach to solving the murder reflects strong critical thinking, but also a methodology that some consider “out of the box.”  What is different in Kepler’s approach is that Lenna, the central character does not dominate the novel.  What evolves are other important characters that Lenna must share the central stage.  The difference is that in most books of this type the “police officer” tends to dominate, but not here.

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After thoughtful and raises many questions in the reader’s mind as the pages turn very quickly.  The fact that Marin must revisit his own uncomfortable past in order to try and save his family and the depths that it takes him is very unique.  There are three novels in the Lenna series and I look forward to THE NIGHTMARE which reading THE HYPNOTIST, Lars Kepler has hooked me.  Their approach to crime fiction is next.

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(Stockholm in winter)

 

THE KREMLIN’S CANDIDATE by Jason Matthews

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(Russian President Vladimir Putin)

Jason Matthews’s RED SPARROW set the bar extremely high in creating a unique approach to the espionage thriller. He followed that with PALACE OF TREASON which met the bar and may have raised it. Matthews, a retired officer of the CIA’s Operations Directorate who specialized in recruitment and obtaining national security secrets creates his scenes based on his vast experience with spy craft which is exemplified throughout the novel.  In his third installment of his American-Russian spy series THE KREMLIN’S CANDIDATE the plot develops more slowly than his previous successes.  Aspects of story line are the same, particularly the love affair between Colonel Dominika Egorova of the Russian SVR and Nathaniel Nash, her CIA handler.  Dominika is known as DIVA and she is the highest placed CIA operative in Putin’s Russia who has worked her way up through the Russian intelligence network from a “sparrow” to one of the Russian president’s most trusted operatives.

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(CIA headquarters, Langley, VA)

In the current rendition of CIA-SVR competition, Vladimir Putin seems to have a larger presence than in previous novels.  He is involved in all operations and seems to hover over a great deal of the dialogue.  Other characters reappear; Tom Forsyth, CIA Chief European Division, Marty Gable, a career long friend of Forsyth and in charge of Nash, Simon Benford, Chief of Counter Intelligence, Dr. Anton Gorelikov, close to Putin and a Kremlin recruiter who handles Dominika. There are a number of new characters integrated into the cast.  One of the most important is US Navy Lieutenant, later Admiral Audrey Rowland, a particle physicist intimately involved in US Navy railgun technological research.  A lesbian targeted by the SVR in 2005 on a student trip to Moscow, she becomes Russia’s most important asset in the United States.  Another is Grace Gao, a Chinese “sparrow type” called Zhanniao or “poison-feather bird” – an assassin, who appears as a restaurateur and yoga expert.

There are a number of tributaries that flow from the main plot line.  The Russian president is angry over the publication of corruption in a Russian joint-stock company, OAK that combines private and state owned assets with the lion’s share of its wealth going into the pockets of Putin’s favored oligarchs.  Putin wants to stem the leaks and seeks revenge for the besmirching of his carefully choreographed image and ego.  The man with the eyes of ice hopes to kill the CIA Director Arthur Larson to settle the score and replace him with an American asset, known by the CIA as MAGNIT.  Throughout the novel we feel the current state of American politics and relations with Russia with a “Trump like” US president, and a Russian leader who is constrained by no boundaries.

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A number of other plots are developed to provide background or digressions from the main story with a certain amount of continuity.  The employment of a Cold War Polish group of agents that has not been used for years is resurrected by Nash called WOLVERINE.  Marty Gable is sent to the Sudan to deal with an incompetent Chief of Station in Khartoum.  Another involves a Russian operation dealing with North Korean nuclear technology, as well as an op to arm Kurdish rebels as a means of destabilizing Turkey and driving a wedge between the US and an important NATO ally. The dispatch of Nash to Hong Kong to work on a joint US-Australian China op involving the People’s Liberation Army is also amusing.  Finally, Dominika is instructed to try and recruit a Chinese MSS officer named General Sun.

Russian spy techniques are on full display throughout the novel as are the internecine jealousies and conflicts within the Kremlin.  Disinformation was the key in attempts to manipulate the news, be it in digital, written, or spoken form as Matthews trolls Moscow’s tool box.  The author’s approach is very contemporary as Putin deals with the American president who he is able to manipulate easily.  Since the reader is exposed to nightly news stories of the Mueller and Congressional investigations the book at times seems to be ripped right from the headlines.

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(The Kremlin)

At times the plot will hold the reader, but it does not have the bite and crispness of the first two books in the series.  In fact, it took about two-thirds of the book for the plot to gather speed and grab this reader.  Dominika and Nash’s relationship has become very predictable.  Matthews shifts from operation to operation at times, with little connection to the main plot, and some of the twists and turns seem on an island from the main story line.   To Matthews’ credit his signature sarcasm and humor is on full display in much of the dialogue.  Further, he has continued the tradition including recipes at the end of each chapter that are a nice addendum to the material the reader has just “ingested.”  Overall, the book is a good read that builds on the first two novels as it arrives at an ending that may disappoint some and surprise others.

(Point of information – saw the film “Red Sparrow” this afternoon – as good as the book!)

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THE BOOKWORM by Mitch Silver

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(Moscow State University)

Larissa Mendelova Klimt is a full professor of history at Moscow State University specializing in geopolitical history, a field that debunks traditional historical interpretations.  At the conclusion of her introductory class lecture a young “thug” confronts her with a shopping bag with six Dictaphone recordings dating back to World War II.  Since Klimt is about to complete her latest book, THE GREAT PATRIOTIC WAR she is seen as an expert and is offered a large sum of money to listen to the tapes and uncover a secret related to a book that Hitler had at his desk before he decided to invade the Soviet Union.  Klimt is the pivotal character in Mitch Silver’s second historical novel, THE BOOKWORM, which also happens to be Professor Klimt’s nickname.  Klimt’s personage is very important to the novel as her character interacts with her twin brother’s oil refinery work in Valdez, Alaska.  In addition, the discovery of an ulnar bone with handcuffs on its wrist at a London construction site which had been hit by a V-2 rocket in 1944, by a soon to be murdered worker named Davidson Gordon is difficult to explain.  Further, the presence of a leather case that had been attached to the buried bone heightens a sense of mystery.  At this point Silver has set elements of his plot that attracts the reader’s attention, particularly when the ulnar bone is discovered a man in a walker yells at a television set, “Fools! You’ve no idea what you’ve got.”

Many well-known historical figures will make their appearance; among them are Noel Coward, the British playwright, Anthony Blunt, who was outed as a Soviet spy after the war, the actress Marlene Dietrich, Ian Fleming, later of James Bond fame, and John F. Kennedy.  Silver’s develops a formula to present his counter-factual history.  His approach is to develop something that appears to be believable and blends it with something that has actually occurred.  British intelligence directs Blunt to prepare a forgery outlining a historical prophecy for Adolf Hitler.  Blunt develops a scheme were by a prophecy is given by Michel de Nostradamus and it is imprinted on the cover leaf of a bible.  The bible will be given to the German dictator and it calls for a German invasion in the east.  The hope was that Hitler would act on the prophecy and turn his attention away from England during the Battle of Britain.  This is an interesting scenario, a fit farfetched, but its outcome is something that Winston Churchill would have adopted immediately.

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(Hitler’s Wolf Lair)

Silver’s competing plot deals with an announcement by the United States of a major oil strike in the Alaskan Wilderness Reserve.  Lara’s twin brother and an American are working in Valdez at the end of the oil pipeline when they notice a problem with the texture of the oil.  The American either commits suicide or is murdered as they have fallen upon something much larger than they realized.  It appears that there is a race to gain drilling rights under the Arctic Circle.  Based on previous agreements the Russian claim rests on their energy rights on the Lomonosov Ridge under the Arctic Circle.  Fortunately for the Russians the American president is a “Trump like figure” who does not accept global warming and wants to open Alaska to commercial drilling.  The Russian leader offers the American president a deal; Moscow would surreptitiously supply the United States oil as a means of showing how successful the Alaska drilling was, and in return Washington would drop any opposition to Russian Arctic claims.  This would guarantee the reelection of the “Trump like figure” and allow him to pursue his goal of maintaining America’s dependence on fossil fuels.  The deal would last either four to eight years, and by that time the United States would be totally dependent on fossil fuels, and Russian oil.

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(Anthony Blunt)

These two plot lines seem to be very diverse and a number of questions arise; first, how do the plot lines intersect?  Second, what role does Professor Lara Klimt play in this process?  Third, was the bible real, and if it was where was it?  Lastly, how does Lara’s ex-husband, Viktor, a Russian intelligence officer fit into the story?  When these questions are finally answered this reader emerged unsatisfied.  The novel seemed to have great potential, but its ending is rather pedestrian.  The first half is intense and believable, however, the last half of the book leaves a lot to be desired as the interaction of certain characters produces an ending that cannot be considered dramatic.

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(Moscow State University)

 

 

THE SCARRED WOMAN by Jussi Adler-Olsen

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(Copenhagen, Denmark)

Anne-Line Svendsen is a very unhappy individual who is entering the mid-life doldrums.  She is employed in the Danish Social Security office and has developed a tremendous hostility for the clients she deals with on a daily basis.  She does not have any empathy for the people she is supposed to help, in particular a woman named Denise Zimmermann whose grandfather had been a member of the Nazi SS during World War II, a mother who is totally without any redeeming qualities, and an abusive grandmother.  At the outset of Jussi Adler-Olsen’s seventh installment of his Department Q of the Danish Police Department series, THE SCARRED WOMAN, Anne-Line begins to contemplate what it would be like to murder some of those who are taking advantage of the Danish social safety net.   As the plot develops Adler-Olsen’s usual panoply of characters appears; Detective Carl Morck of Copenhagen’s cold cases division; his side kick, Assad, a refugee from Syria who is slowly becoming a competent detective; Gordon Taylor another assistant, and Rose Knudsen, Morck’s administrative assistant, who after an earlier breakdown is still struggling to deal with the reemergence of her past.

What makes Adler-Olsen’s latest effort so inviting is that the complex web that he creates making it is very difficult to figure out a series of murders over different time periods.  There are a number of candidates aside from Svendsen and a plethora of scenarios are presented to confuse the reader further.  Along with the mental exercise that is presented, there is a great deal of comic relief.  Every chapter or two there is a scene involving Assad who’s English and/or Danish leaves a lot to be desired.  Morck continuously corrects him leading to much laughter.  Morck’s feud with the Head of Homicide, Lars Bjorn begun in previous books is continued, as is the dysfunction of his command, and the lack of competence among certain detectives.  In addition, a number of characters seem to reemerge, the most important of which are retired homicide detective Marcus Jacobsen, Morck’s old boss, and Tomas Laursen, an investigative technician.

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(Copenhagen policemen at a crime scene)

Adler-Olsen does a wonderful job developing a number of plot threads that converge at times.  First, there is Anneli Svendsen who is determined to be rid of women who are soaking the Danish social welfare system.  Second, is Denise Zimmermann who supports herself through a number of sugar daddies and finally resorts to robbery with Jasmine Jorgensen, another woman approaching thirty who is concerned that she can no longer rely on her body as her chief means of support as she continued to get pregnant in order to collect more money from social services.  Third, is Morck’s valiant attempts along with other members of Section Q to solve the murder of Denise’s grandmother Rigmor, and a cold case that is twelve years old that appears similar.  Fourth, and most distressing for Section Q is the condition of Rose.  She has a checkered past of psychiatric care, a father who mentally abused her and her three sisters.  Rose’s diaries are discovered and they are a cry for help as she recommits herself to a psychiatric hospital.  For Morck and company this is all a revelation and their relationship with Rose takes on new meaning after being kept in the dark concerning her mental condition for a number of years.

As the story evolves Morck’s priorities become confused.  He has the twelve year old murder, a three week old murder, Rose’s condition, and a number of breaking issues, and he is torn as to what he should concentrate on.  Adler-Olsen plays on his dilemma, but also creates a plot that in some way links all of these disparate elements by the end of the book.

In THE SCARRED WOMAN Adler-Olsen displays a great deal of empathy and personal emotion that is much stronger that previous Section Q tales.  We see a more mature Assad, and a Carl Morck who seems to review previous relationships and faces up to a number of personal mistakes.  If you have read previous renditions of Section Q, or about to try Adler-Olsen’s craft for the first time you will not be disappointed.  Adler-Olsen is a master story teller and his latest is difficult to put down until the last sentence.