THE COLD DISH: A LONGMIRE MYSTERY by Craig Johnson

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The last week or so my wife and I have been binging on the Netflix program, Longmire.  We have found it almost addictive as each program leaves the viewer hanging anticipating the next episode.  The characters are fascinating as is the Wyoming landscape that is presented.  This being the case I thought it would be interesting to see where the mindset for the program derived.  It seems the series was the brainchild of the novelist Craig Johnson whose first effort was entitled THE COLD DISH: A LONGMIRE MYSTERY, part of a fifteen book compendium.  Johnson has what I would characterize as a soft sarcastic approach to dialogue and writing in general.  He sprinkles in the beauty of Wyoming and the intricate relationship between life on an Indian reservation and the town of Durant.  The main character is Sheriff Walter Longmire, a cultured man educated at USC and an individual who served in Vietnam.  Longmire became a widow three years before the story begins when his wife Martha suffering from cancer was murdered while undergoing chemotherapy in Denver.  Longmire comes across as a disheveled man living in a partially completed log cabin on the outskirts of Durant.  The people closest to him are his daughter Cady, a lawyer who lives in Philadelphia, and his childhood friend Henry Standing Bear who is Longmire’s link to the reservation and served with Special Forces in Vietnam.  A great deal of the socialization that takes place in the novel is centered in the Red Pony tavern which is owned by Henry and the local police station.

Johnson has created an eclectic group of characters as the plot unfolds.  His department consists of Deputy Victoria Moretti, a former Philadelphia cop who carries her own personal and professional baggage.  Ruby is the lady in charge of the office who runs a very tight ship and at times acts as Longmire’s conscience. Deputy Brian Connally, known as “Turk” has a very dysfunctional relationship with Longmire.  Jim Ferguson is the Head of Search and Rescue, and Lucien Connally is the former crusty old sheriff who lives in an assisted living complex who serves at times as Longmire’s alter ego.

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Johnson does a wonderful job integrating the native culture and everyday life of the Cheyenne Indian reservation to the reader.  The problems of the reservation range from the lack of education, drugs, alcoholism to the constant struggle for survival.  The Indian bureaucracy put in place by the US Department of the Interior often comes in conflict with Longmire and his office as the fight against federal control is ever present with the many rules and regulations that exist on the reservation which Longmire navigates like a minefield.  Longmire relies on Henry as his guide throughout the plot and is one of the strongest characters that Johnson creates.

The novel opens with Johnson bringing the reader up to date on all the major characters then launches into a scene at the Red Pony when Longmire informs Henry that Cody Pritchard has been found dead amidst a herd of sheep outside of Durant.  Pritchard was among a group of four teenagers who four years earlier had raped and sodomized an emotionally challenged Indian girl whose trial split the entire community, white and non-white.  When three of the four boys served less than two years, and the fourth received probation and 100 hours of community service, the animosity spilled over.  The death four years later brings a number of people to the conclusion that Pritchard, who was the least apologetic over what had been done was murdered in a revenge killing.  Later in the novel when another of the boys is killed, Longmire is confronted with a very dangerous case.

Longmire is a loner and still grieves over the death of his wife.  He has difficulties establishing and maintaining relationships with others, particularly women.  His friends pressure him to seek the companionship of someone, but his awkwardness and guilt over the death of his wife is a stumbling block as he has a habit for saying the wrong thing.  Despite these shortcomings Johnson introduces Vonnie Hayes and through their relationship we can see what a tortured individual Longmire has become.

The reader is taken through the wilds of Wyoming as Longmire and Henry seek the killer and it is a very suspenseful journey.  As the novel reaches its climax the reader will be stunned with the path that the author takes.  Johnson has created the basis for a very effective and entertaining series and the television program along with his novels are well worth the time to experience them.

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HOUSE OF SPIES by Daniel Silva

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Daniel Silva seems to reward his readers with a new Gabriel Allon tale each summer.  This July it is no exception with the appearance of HOUSE OF SPIES, a story that is very contemporary as Silva seems to have a knack for constructing a plot, unbeknownst to him that has a striking resemblance to what is occurring on the streets of England and Europe.  Silva’s new novel moves seamlessly from THE BLACK WIDOW to his latest iteration of the Allon character.  Last summer when THE BLACK WIDOW was published Allon was chasing an ISIS inspired master terrorist named, Saladin and it concluded with the fear that after his successful attack in Washington, D.C. he would soon strike again.  These fears came to fruition at the outset of the novel as Julian Isherwood, a London art dealer with strong ties to Allon and Israeli intelligence becomes a hero during a Saladin operation in West London.  Isherwood is able to save a number of lives, but the result of the attack on three separate sites is close to 1000 deaths and the most devastating London has suffered since the Nazi bombing during World War II.

A number of characters from THE BLACK WIDOW reappear in the HOUSE OF SPIES.  Christopher Kelly, a former M16 operative who returns to the British spy agency after an absence of twenty five years has a major role.  Graham Seymour, the head of MI6, Paul Rousseau head of France’s elite Alpha Unit, Dr. Natalie Mizrahi, a physician turned Israeli agent who had saved Saladin’s life, Adrian Carter, the Chief of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, and numerous Israeli agents, and of course Ari Shamron, Allon’s mentor all appear.  Silva’s story is prescient as Saladin’s attack in West London follows on the heels of the real attack in London on the bridge across the Thames and the Borough Market in early June.

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In the current situation Allon finds himself as Chief of Israeli Intelligence having to take somewhat of a background role as the complex operation that has been prepared unfolds.  There are many moving parts and characters that Israeli agents and Kelly carry out with Allon offering instructions through ear pieces from afar.  The question is can Allon allow “younger” operatives to play the central role in carrying out the OP, which is totally against his nature. The novel itself is not as intense and gripping as previous episodes.  It seems to move at a more leisurely pace missing much of the drama that Silva’s readers have grown accustomed to.  Silva is still right on when it comes to the current world situation and does not shrink from commentary concerning politics, European-American relations, European society, and cooperation among allies.  There are numerous references to the questionable attitude put forth by the Trump administration, the problem of dealing with a “dirty bomb,” issues within the American intelligence community, the role of French society in creating jihadists, and a number of other pertinent problems.

If there is a lesson to be learned from Silva’s work is that allies need to work together; share intelligence and not create road blocks against each other, avoid demeaning the intelligence community, never publicly criticize one’s allies, and pursue a policy that can only be described as “chaotic,” as it is not conducive to maintaining the security of people in the fight against terrorism.  Perhaps certain individuals should read some of Silva’s novels as it may be easier to digest than intelligence briefings and other national security papers that are presented daily.  Silva’s latest work is a good read, but not one of his best.  But in true Daniel Silva style he leaves enough threads at the end of the book dealing with Iran, Syria, and ISIS that the next Allon caper must already be outlined in his mind.

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MIDNIGHT AT THE BRIGHT IDEAS BOOKSTORE by Mathew Sullivan

BIRDMAN by Mo Hayder

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Mo Hayder’s, BIRDMAN introduces us to her new character Jack Caffery, a Detective Investigator with the London police department.  Almost immediately Caffery is confronted with a strange murder as a body is found in the Millenium Dome in southeast London.  Once the police respond and excavate the site they locate four more bodies, and the possibility they are dealing with a serial killer.

 

Jack Caffery is a very complex individual who is haunted by the childhood disappearance of his brother, Ewan.  When he was eight he and Ewan were playing in a tree house when they got into a fight and his brother ran away never to be found.  A pedophile lived in their neighborhood, but nothing could be proven that he was involved.  Jack’s mother blamed him and their relationship was ruined.  Later as an adult Jack’s parents were happy to sell him his childhood home that brought him close to his neighbor, John Ivan Penderecki, the suspected pedophile.  Even in adulthood Jack carried the guilt of his brother’s disappearance with him each day.  His work as a detective always seemed conducted with Evan in the background.

 

In addition to his guilt over Evan, Jack is involved with a woman named Veronica who is in remission from Hodgkin’s disease, but after six months he wants to call it quits, when she tells home the cancer is back.  She uses the disease as a ploy to keep Jack until one day he learns the truth.  With all of this baggage, Jack is trying to solve multiple murders.  Jack is convinced that the murderer is white with a medical background.  Since the crime scene was near a hospital it all seemed to fit in place except for the fact that a racist colleague pushes a black drug dealer as the perpetrator.  Jack is now in a race with an incompetent colleague for evidence and wastes a great deal of time.

 

Hayder does an excellent job developing her characters, particularly Toby Harteveld, a former medical student who has inherited an enormous amount of wealth from his parents.  His problem is a sick mother who mentally abused him as a child.  Another important character is Rebecca, an artist who rooms with Joni Marsh who knew all of the victims.  The problem is that Jack becomes emotionally involved with Rebecca which influences his investigation.

 

Hayder builds her plot very carefully and about half way through the story she recalibrate her approach drawing the reader further into to her web.  Out of the blue a neighbor begins to hear things, but she is the type who complains to the police each Monday morning so she is ignored.  Jack continues his race with a colleague who is bent on prosecuting an innocent man.

Hayder does an exceptional job integrating Jack’s private life and his own demons into  the story.  She has a very empathetic approach that makes her characters very real as they try and cope with everyday issues as the hunt for the killer progresses.

 

When all seems to be coming together, Hayder introduces a diabolical twist that at once brings disgust, but also a curiosity of how two murderers came together as partners in a pact of perversion, and how their crimes would finally be solved.  I must warn that there are a number of scenes that are not for the squeamish and can be very troubling.  Their inclusion is important in understanding the murderers and what the police were up against.

 

Since this is Hayder’s first Jack Caffery novel which captures the imagination in a crisp and somewhat harrowing manner I am looking forward to others in the series.  Hayder’s provides a chilling narrative at times, but also a sensitivity to the plight she places her characters in.  For me Mo Hayder is now on my watch list.

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THE WILD INSIDE by Christine Carbo

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(Glacier National Park, Montana)

During the Fall, 1987 fourteen year old Ted Systead is camping with his father at Oldman Lake on the lower eastern corner of Glacier National Park when the unthinkable occurs. So begins Christine Carbo’s first suspense novel, THE WILD SIDE as Ted’s father is dragged away and killed by a grizzly bear as Ted escapes with his life. We soon learn that it was a difficult recovery for Ted physically and emotionally, leaving scars in adulthood as he became a special agent for services Eighteen Eleven for the Department of the Interior. He is one of the agents in charge of homicide investigations in the western national parks from their Denver office. Solving murders is his job, but at the same time, despite his teenage experience he develops an emotional and passionate attachment to Ursula arctos horribilis  – Grizzly bears.

Ted is an emotionally damaged person whose character is the product of a stunted childhood caused by the death of his father. Carbo develops Ted’s character slowly as the mystery unfolds. We witness the failure of his marriage after his wife, Shelly who did all she could to save their relationship, sees it collapse once she suffers a miscarriage. Carbo effectively integrates Ted’s story and personality flaws into the murder plot she constructs and brings in a number of interesting characters, particularly Monty Harris, his new partner, Joe Smith, Chief of the park police, and Smith’s family to make her story work.

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The case involves the death of Victor Lance, a meth user, blackmailer, gambler, among his many shortcomings. At first it appears that Lance was mauled by a bear, but once Ted begins his investigation he realizes that Lance was shot and tied to a tree before the bear finished him off. Ted’s state of mind and investigation are heavily influenced by his childhood memories concerning his father’s death. Since Ted grew up in the West Glacier area many people from his past became part of his investigation. Especially hard for him is working with the Park Superintendent, Eugene Ford who had investigated his father’s death who now had his own agenda for solving the Lance murder. Since Ted’s life is integrated into the plot and we get to know as much about him as we do about the crime.

The infrastructure of the meth trade is on full display including the corruption within law enforcement that allowed it to proliferate. Ted finds himself in a bind as higher ups want the bear that mauled Lance set free which fits the Park’s agenda, but does not facilitate his investigation. Ted believes the bear has swallowed the bullet that killed Lance and hopes it will “expunge” the evidence. Lou Shelton appears to be the perfect suspect, but Ted believes that despite the evidence that points to him, the case is much more complex. Carbo creates a number of surprising twists and turns as Ted finally gets to the bottom of the crime as well as his own emotional issues. Carbo’s ending will both surprise and create a moral dilemma in terms of when is murder justifiable.

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Ted Systead is a wonderful character and the way Carbo brings her first novel to a conclusion it is obvious that this will be the beginning of a new suspense series that centers in Glacier National Park. Another important aspect of the novel is the beauty of Glacier that is on full display. Having visited the park two years ago the images presented by Carbo brought back the amazing views my wife and I experienced. I enjoyed her first effort and I look forward to MORTAL FALL her next book.

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(Glacier National Park, Montana)

PRUSSIAN BLUE by Philip Kerr

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(Hitler’s Berghof retreat)

The title of Philip Kerr’s latest Bernie Gunther novel, the 12th in the series is PRUSSIAN BLUE, a title that is either the antidote for a nasty odorless and colorless poison or the color of Prussian Army coats worn during the Great War.  The novel that includes the usual array of Nazi historical figures takes places rotating between Nazi Germany in October, 1939 and France during April, 1956.  Kerr deftly moves back and forth between the two time periods as Gunther must weave his way among Hitler’s Nazi henchmen and East German Stasi secret police.  The mysteries in two separate time periods seem disconnected for part of the novel and then hints emerge and finally the two time periods come together.

Gunther learns about “Prussian Blue” at a dinner on the French Riviera from General Erich Mielke, a Nazi era acquaintance who happens to be the Deputy Head of the East German secret police – the Stasi.  It is October, 1956, and Mielke has a simple proposition for Gunther, kill another old acquaintance, Anne French who is living south of London.  If Gunther chose not to cooperate the Stasi head would arrange his death, by hanging, which is used to convince him take on the task, or by other means.  Supposedly, once the mission is accomplished Gunther would be assigned to West Germany setting up a neo-Nazi organization that would desecrate and vandalize Jewish sites in order to discredit the Bonn government.  Gunther, always a resourceful individual finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place.  However, Bernie being Bernie, decides to escape from his Stasi chaperoned train ride to Berlin and make his way into the French countryside.

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As in all the Bernie Gunther novels, Kerr’s command of history is impeccable and he does a wonderful job integrating accurate events and figures into the flow of the story.  This is evident when Kerr introduces Reinhard Heydrich, the Chief of the Reich Main Security Office, also known as “the butcher of Czechoslovakia” who summons Gunther to a meeting in April, 1939.  Gunther is told that he is being dispatched to solve a murder that has taken place in Berchtesgaden, the site of Hitler’s Berghof retreat.  It seems that the Fuhrer’s birthday is only a week away, and the murder of Dr. Karl Flex, a civil engineer has put a damper on the coming festivities.  In true Kerr fashion, Gunther must work with Martin Bormann who sees himself as Hitler’s right hand man.  Upon meeting Bormann, Gunther is told he must solve the murder within seven days or else.  If the Fuhrer will not visit until the murder is solved, and if Gunther fails, Bormann could lose his esteemed position in the Nazi hierarchy (which would make his rival Heinrich Himmler very happy!).  Despite Bormann’s seeming power, Heydrich wants Gunther to spy on Bormann while he is conducting his investigation, in addition to gathering dirt on Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the SS Head in Austria who is in the midst of a number of extra-marital affairs, something Hitler frowns upon.    As in the first story line, Gunther is once again caught in the middle and though he has always been a resourceful detective, a Social Democrat and not a Nazi Party member, he may not have the skill to navigate these situations.

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Kerr creates a number of characters to augment his Nazi/Stasi types.  Friedrich Korsch is a good example, a clinical assistant to Gunther in 1939, by 1956 he is a Stasi agent in charge of making sure that Gunther carries out his mission to London.  Through this character Kerr describes how Nazi training before the war was put to good use by the Stasi in East Germany in the post war world as the skill set to be successful in the two organizations are quite similar.  Kerr employs Gunther’s sarcasm as a tool to show the continuity between the Nazis and the Stasi, in addition to cutting remarks about the lack of French bravery and the immorality of Nazi society.  Kerr also explores the byzantine world of Nazism and the political rivalries within the Nazi hierarchy as he unveils the egoism, corruption and cruelty of the likes men like Heydrich, Himmler, Bormann, Kaltenbrunner and others.

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(Hitler in his Berghof study)

It appears that Kerr has read the new book that describes drug use among Nazi security services and the military, BLITZED by Norman Ohler that describes the use of meta-amphetamines before and during World War II.  As Bormann gives Gunther the drug pervitin he becomes more alert, productive, and while on the drug he seems to lack fear.  As the plot evolves Gunther discovers that meta-amphetamines are being diverted from civilian to military use as part of the run up to the war which seems to have a great deal to do with his murder investigation.

As in all the Gunther novels, Bernie is the ultimate survivor who has committed acts in the past that weigh on his conscience, and in his own intrepid way manages to move on.  As is evident in previous installments Kerr has a strong handle on historical research, character development, and the ability to surprise and capture his readers.  PRUSSIAN BLUE should be added to the list of successful Bernie Gunther novels, and hopefully number 13 will follow.

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(Hitler’s Berghof retreat)

LIAR MOON by Ben Pastor

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(Verona, Italy, April, 1945)

Ben Pastor’s LIAR MOON is the second installment of her Martin Bora series that follows her first effort, LUMEN.  In her latest book we find Wehrmacht Major Bora lying on a gurney in an emergency room in German occupied Verona, Italy in September, 1943.  By this time the Italian government had switched sides and declared war on Germany.  Italy was divided with the north under the control of the Fascists, and the south was being liberated by allied troops as they worked their way up the Italian boot.  Bora lay in unbearable pain, having lost his left hand suffered in a grenade attack by partisan forces in which three of his men were killed.  Bora had experienced a great many deaths during the war as he had spent time in Spain, Russia, and Poland witnessing the slaughter of civil war and the eastern front.

After a few months in which he recovered somewhat he was approached by a Fascist Centurion named Gaetano DeRosa to assist in the investigation of the murder of a Fascist official named Vitoria Lisa.  The evidence in the case seemed to point to Visi’s ex-wife who was thirty years younger than him who had been divorced for months when he had been killed.  Visi’s death was deemed important because he was a friend of Benito Mussolini.

The story has a number of important threads.  First, is the death of Lisa, the local Fascist official.  Second, there appears to be an escaped convict on the loose, who may be a serial killer and the case has been assigned to Police Inspector Sandro Guidi.  Third, is the search for partisans who attacked Bora and his men who remain very allusive with mounting attacks against German troops.  At certain points all three cases overlap and Bora and Guidi are forced to work with each other leading to a rather tenuous relationship.

Pastor’s grasp of history is admirable and she presents her story through the perspective of Bora and Guidi.  Bora is the central character and he continues to be the same flawed man that appeared in LUMEN.  He is deeply troubled professionally and on a personal level.  He is a Wehrmacht officer who is morally against the war, but as a good soldier he carries on.  He deplores the tactics employed by his government, particularly the SS who seem to be hunters who have no respect for human life.  The Final Solution of the Jewish problem is ongoing and he resents being co-opted into assisting in the transportation of Jews, priests, and partisans to death camps.  On a private level he worries about his marriage to his wife, Dikta, an equestrian who still does not know about the attack on her husband that left him with a prosthesis for a left hand and shrapnel in his body.  Bora worries that they do not have an intellectual relationship and find that physical attraction is what keeps them together.  Bora would like to have a child as he fears he will not survive the war and would like to leave some type of legacy.  The problem is that his wife’s activities do not lend themselves to a successful pregnancy.  Pastor introduces Sandro Guidi to work with Bora.  Guidi seems to have his own issues as he still lives with his mother and suffers from an extreme lack of confidence.  He is a foil for Bora, as each point out the deficiencies that each seem to suffer from.  Guidi is an integral part of the plot, and tends to soften Bora’s personality.

Pastor’s approach to creating a good mystery is to begin her story with what seems to be a rather routine murder investigation and then tries to spin into a detailed plot with tentacles that reach out to numerous characters amidst the military situation in Italy in the Fall and Winter of 1943-44.  Her approach was very successful in LUMEN, but it does not work as well in LIAR MOON as the story evolves almost in slow motion, and lacks the excitement of her previous effort.  However, the plot results in a surprising ending and an interesting twist to Bora’s relationship with Guidi.  Though the book was somewhat disappointing there is enough here to make me move on to read her next Bora installment, A DARK SONG OF BLOOD.

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(Verona, Italy, April 26, 1945)

THE CRYPT THIEF by Mark Pryor

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(Paris’s Pere Lachaise Cemetery)

Paris, a late summer evening when two unsuspecting tourists in search of Jim Morrison’s grave site in the Pere Lachaise cemetery are murdered.  So begins Mark Pryor’s second installment of his Hugo Marston series, THE CRYPT THIEF.  Marston, a former FBI profiler and chief of security at the American embassy in Paris is called into the ambassador’s office and told that one of the murder victims is Maxwell Holmes, the son of a US senator who was about to begin an internship at the embassy; the other is an Egyptian woman named Hanna Elserdi.  Later the action shifts to another cemetery, nine hours from Paris in the small town of Castet where the night watchman, named Duguay is murdered.  It seems that all three murders were committed by the same man.

It turns out that the Egyptian girl is Pakistani, from Karachi and her real name is Abida Kiam.  She had traveled to Paris with Mohammad Al-Zakiri, the son of a prominent mullah in Pakistan whose views were pro-al-Qaeda and Taliban.  His alias was Pierre Labor, an Egyptian-Frenchman.  Marston argues that the murders might all be a coincidence and not acts of terrorism, something that Senator Norris Holmes cannot accept.

The author does a nice job reintegrating characters from his first novel, THE BOOKSELLER.  We become reacquainted with Tom Green, Marston’ wisecracking and unpredictable former CIA operative who still consults for the American intelligence agency.  Capitale Raul Garcia of the Paris Police Department returns to renew his relationship with Marston when they worked on solving the murder of Max, a poor bookseller who sold books from his kiosk along the Siene River.  Marston’s former lover/girlfriend, Claudia, a newspaper reporter reenters his life as she covers the cemetery murders.  Soon, Marston will learn that in addition to the murders, a crypt has been robbed of the skeletal remains of the famous dancer, Jane Avril who had been buried over seventy years ago.

Early in the novel a number of questions confront Marston.  First, what is the relationship between the murdered American and the woman who accompanied him and the crypt robber?  Second, what role does international terrorism play in his investigation, if any.  Further, when a number of crypts are broken into to steal the bones of dead can-can girls, is it related to the overall investigation or is it something even more bizarre occurring, particularly when the killer is leaving an Egyptian scarab beetle at each murder scene.  It becomes a race to the next cemetery to prevent what seems to be a serial killer from taking more lives, and “bones.”

As one reads on one gets the sense of Pryor’s views of terrorist threats and how they germinate.  The treatment of Al-Zakiri by CIA operatives, who act first, then investigate thoroughly is important as it provides evidence as to why the United States is seen so negatively in the Islamic world.  Marston’s measured approach is one that the author believes the US should take when dealing with a possible terrorist threat.  Pryor also raises the issue of a free press during an investigation that could lead to a terrorist attack.  What role should journalists play, particularly when their actions could endanger people?  It is a tough call, but common sense should prevail, but at times that is not the case.

Pryor provides a well-crafted story, though his character development is weaker than his first Marston novel.  But the intrigue created by the grave robber/murderer will keep the reader’s attention.  The story is complex and eerie at times and should not be read right before you go to sleep, however despite what seems to be a predictable ending, the book is worth the read.

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(Paris’ Pere Lachaise Cemetery)

LUMEN by Ben Pastor

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(Cracow, Poland, 1939)

The key figure in Ben Pastor’s excellent historical mystery LUMEN seems to be a murdered nun.  Mother Matka Kazimierza was not just any nun.  Known as the “Holy Abbess,” Kazimierza was considered a visionary who could supposedly predict the future.  In early October, 1939 her body is found in a convent in Cracow, Poland by a German officer who was surreptitiously meeting with her as he tried to cope with the approaching death of his four year old son.  The Germans were slowly wrapping up control of Cracow following their invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939.  In addition they were implementing joint occupation of the country, as per the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 26, 1939, as the Soviet Union had invaded Poland in mid-September to seize their half of the country.  The German Commander, Lt. Colonel Emile Schenck appoints Captain Martin Bora to head up the investigation into the nun’s death.

LUMEN is the first in Pastor’s well received series of historical mysteries that take place during World War II that Capt. Bora, a well-educated Ph.D from the University of Leipzig, and veteran of the Spanish Civil War is the main character.  For the investigation of the “Holy Abbess” Bora, a Jesuit himself must collaborate with Father John Malecki, an American priest from Chicago who had been sent by the Archbishop to study the phenomenon of Matka Kazimierza.  Once she was murdered he was instructed to remain in Cracow and assist in the investigation with the German authorities.

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(Nazis marching through Cracow, Poland during World War II – a city that made it through the war unscathed)

Bora faced a number of difficulties in dealing with the case.  First, his roommate Major Richard Retz had a very productive love life that made Bora very uncomfortable as he was expected to stay away from their apartment for Retz’s liaisons.  Second, were his personal values.  Though only in Cracow for a short period of time he witnessed a number of things that more than troubled him.  The use of Jewish slave labor; executions; beatings; revenge killings; rape; massacres; seizure of private property; enforcement of racial laws; and the destruction of books and documents from university libraries all went against his moral code.  Third, he resented the constant lectures from his commander concerning what was expected of the pure blooded Aryan male – propagate the Reich for the next generation.  Lastly, trying to work with Father Malecki whose loyalties and values seemed to conflict with his own.  As the story evolves Bora’s moral confusion no longer controls him as he witnesses what Nazism has brought to Poland.  Bora’s consciousness raising awareness stems from seeing Ukrainians hanged, and “Polack farmers” shot, and while some remained alive locked in a barn to be burned to death.

Pastor has an excellent grasp of historical events that are woven into her story.  German-Russian distrust is on full display over boundaries and accusations that each side is engaging in atrocities.  The action of the German SD, or secret police reflect everything Bora finds reprehensible about Nazi rule.  The competition between the Wehrmacht and the SS for control of certain investigations, jurisdiction, and territorial oversight is analyzed carefully.

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(Main Square, Cracow, Poland, 1948)

The core of the story involves why the “Holy Abbess” was murdered?  Was it a result of her predictions for the future?  Did she help the Polish underground?  These questions factor into the investigation as does the Abbess’ predictions as to whether they were apocalyptic or political.

Pastor does a remarkable job developing her characters, particularly the relationship that grows between Bora and Father Malecki.  The author also develops the characters of a number of Polish actresses, especially Ewa Kowalska and her daughter Helena Sokora who were both involved with Bora’s roommate.  There are numerous other characters from the Polish Archbishop, SS Captain Salle-Weber, Lt. Colonel Nowotny, the German coroner, among others who greatly impact the plot.

Pastor’s novel is a combination of the Catholic faith, politics, ethics, as some are conflicted by events, while others seem to enjoy what ultimately will lead to the Holocaust and murder of countless Poles.  Lumen (light) and darkness are in conflict with each other throughout the story and through Bora’s quest for truth the reader should have a satisfactory read.  If you are a fan of Philip Kerr’s Bernie Guenther series you will especially enjoy Pastor’s work.   I look forward to enjoying, LIAR MOON the next installment of the Martin Bora series.

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(Cracow, Poland, during World War II)

THE GIRL FROM VENICE by Martin Cruz Smith

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(World War II Venice)

For those that are familiar with the work of Martin Cruz Smith the author of GORKY PARK, STALIN’S GHOST, TATIANA, among others, his latest effort, THE GIRL FROM VENICE should prove very satisfying.  The novel is centered in Venice in the small fishing village of Pellestrina.  One evening during the spring, 1945, Innocenzo Vianello, a poor fisherman is watching allied planes pass overhead on their way to rain havoc on Turin, Milan, or Verona, as he tries to secure his catch, when he notices a body floating in the water.  The body turns out to be a survivor of a Nazi SS raid on San Clemente, a mental institution.  The survivor is Giulia Silber, from a wealthy Jewish family, whose parents, aunts and uncles, in addition to many others have been seized by the Nazis and are presumed dead.  Cenzo, against his better judgement rescues the girl and immediately is confronted by an SS boat in a lagoon.  It seems the SS is looking for the escaped Jewess.  Cenzo hides the girl and an incident will occur that makes him as much of a target as Giulia.

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(Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler)

Smith’s writing is very clear and he does a remarkable job developing the relationship between Cenzo and Giulia, from teaching her to be a fisherman, how to enunciate as not to appear upper class, friendship, and finally falling in love.  For Cenzo thinking about his own miseries pale in comparison to what Giulia has been through and he becomes very protective of her.  They are both in a quandary as to how to proceed when Cenzo’s friend, Eusebio Russo, who was a smuggler, arranged to take Giulia north and turn her over to Communist partisan to allow her to escape.  However, at this point Cenzo and Giulia realize they might mean more to each other than they thought.

As the novel progresses the reader will come across a number of interesting characters.  There is Cenzo’s brother Giorgio a famous actor and follower of Mussolini who he is estranged from.  Nido, the owner of a bar in Pellestrina, who along with his good friend Cenzo oppose the war after their experiences fighting against Haile Selassie’s forces in Abyssinia.  Colonel Steiner, a Nazi officer that may have turned against Hitler.  Steiner claims he needs to locate Giulia as she is the only witness to what happened at San Clemente when Steiner’s conduit to the Americans disappeared, Vittorio Silber, Giulia’s father.  The catch is Steiner wants Cenzo to work with his brother to find her.  Maria Paz Rodriguez, the wife of the former Argentine Counsel in in Salo, the capitol of the remainder of the Italian Socialist State.  Paz is an interesting character as she is an excellent forger for both Jews and Germans who are fleeing.  Otto Klein, supposedly a neutral Swiss filmmaker, but he has ties to the black market, Joseph Goebbles, and seems to want to bring down the Germans.  Farina, an Italian Fascist who cannot understand that the war is lost.  Lastly, Dante, the partisan leader whose loyalty is to communism.

There is a Kafkaesque quality to the story.  As the war winds down everyone thinks it is almost over and they begin to contemplate their lives once hostilities will come to a close.  They wonder who will be in charge and most conclude the Germans will just leave, but Italian fascists and partisans will battle for Italy’s soul.  Smith provides unique insights into society in the “capitol,” Salo.  The nerves of the people are being shredded as they worry about who they will be able to trust.  Cenzo will undergo a remarkable transformation as he tries to find Giulia and has to deal with his brother Georgio, but also has nightmares over the death of his younger brother Hugo, who had been killed by an American pilot the year before.  The novel has an undercurrent that pervades each page as Cenzo, also a talented artist had painted a picture of the scene where his brother Hugo had been killed.  The problem is that Cenzo is transfixed by what he has created, and it takes him almost to the end of the story to finally understand what his unconscious was telling him.

The novel itself is an indictment of Mussolini’s regime and the marionettes that followed him.  Smith’s dialogue reeks of sarcasm as he points to the weaknesses and incompetence of Italian fascism.  Il Duce is a comic figure, however the story that he is a part of is not.  Martin Cruz Smith’s new book is worth engaging and I recommend you take a few hours, get comfortable with a glass of wine, and enjoy-it will be bellissimo!

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(June 25, 1941, the Venice Conference)