COPPER RIVER by William Kent Krueger

Map of Marquette County, MI

I just completed William Kent Krueger’s MERCY FALLS which left a number of things up in the air as it concluded.  I found it unusual in that his first four books in his masterful Cork O’Conner series had solid endings on which to move forward toward the next installment.  Since I am hooked on the series and extremely curious to know where Krueger’s imagination would take me I started reading COPPER RIVER, the sixth book in the O’Conner chain and it proved to be almost as satisfying as the previous five.

One of the many strengths of Krueger’s thrillers is character development and COPPER RIVER is no exception.  Krueger returns the entire O’Conner family that includes Cork, the Sheriff of Tamarack County, MN who at the outset of the novel finds himself on the run fleeing those who are trying to assassinate him; his wife Jo, a lawyer who does a great deal of work for the Iron Lake Indian Reservation; and their three children;  Henry Meloux’s philosophy of life returns, the old Ojibwe mid whose wisdom everyone seeks;  Dina Willner, a former FBI agent and Cook County DA in Chicago who became Cork’s protective angel; and members of the Tamarack County Police Department which Cork heads as Sheriff.

There are a series of new characters that appear, all with significant roles in the story.  Cork’s cousin Jewell Dubois a veterinarian in Bodine, MI. who cares for his wounds and provides a hiding place.  Her son Renoir (Ren) DuBois, a 14 year old whose father was murdered by police and is trying to grow up.  Ren’s close friend Charlene (Charlie) Miller who is saddled with a drunken and abusive father after her mother ran off.  Detective SGT Terry Olafsson of the Marquette County Sheriff’s office.  Ned Hodder, Bodine’s constable.  Gary Johnson, the publisher and editor of the Marquette County Courier, and a host of others.

autumn foliage color at Copper Harbor Michigan, overlooking Lake Superior autumn at Copper Harbor, overlooking Lake Superior Autumn Stock Photo
(Cooper River, MI Harbor)

Since Krueger’s previous novel is a prequel to COPPER RIVER the author does a workmanlike job explaining what Cork is dealing with apart from two murders that have turned up in Bodine.  For Cork he is the victim of trying to solve the murder of Eddie Jacoby back in Aurora.  The problem is his father, Lou Jacoby, a rich powerful man is distraught when his eldest son, Ben is also murdered.  It seems that Ben Jacoby and Jo O’Conner were lovers in law school, and to exacerbate the situation, Ben’s son Philip rapes Jo O’Conner.  Lou Jacoby refuses to accept the truth and blames Cork for the murder of his sons when the real murderers are Gabriella, Eddie’s wife and her brother Tony Salguero.  Lou refuses to listen to reason and puts out a mob style hit on Cork offering a $500,000 reward.

As usual, Krueger presents vivid descriptions of the natural beauty of the Huron Mountains, conveys a solid sense of place, along with the woodlands near the shore of Lake Superior, northwest out of Marquette,  the forests that make up the county of Marquette and the wildlife of the region.  Further, Krueger integrates Native-American life on the reservation, culture, and racism geared against “Indians,” by townspeople and certain high school bullies into his story line which is his usual modus operandi.

Eagle River Falls and Dam
(Cooper Harbor, MI)

Among the key characters are Max Miller and his daughter Charlie.  In an awful scene Max is murdered with his daughter’s baseball bat, and his daughter is seen as a suspect.  Once her father’s body is discovered Charlie flees, but to no avail.  Her flight sets in motion a chain of events that leads to the discovery of a grisly, monstrous conspiracy aimed at girls like Charlie.  A number of incidents have impacted Charlie, particularly the death of her friend Sara Long with whom she lived at Providence House, a home for wayward teens.  Naturally, the wounded Sheriff sheds his own problems and takes on Charlie’s. No one will be surprised when selflessness and virtue, not hit men, are rewarded.

There is a great deal of backstory in the novel, lots of marking time and, at the end, a flurry of overplotting.  In addition, the segway to the familiar children-in-peril theme feels like a cop-out, especially since the previous novel had primed readers for something more intense and harrowing.  This novel had a great deal of potential, but it will not stop me from moving on to the seventh book in the series, THUNDER BAY.

MERCY FALLS by William Kent Krueger

Aurora,Minnesota Map

After completing an immensely satisfying read of William Kent Krueger’s fourth installment of his Cork O’Conner series it “behooved” me to move on to the next installment, MERCY FALLS.  As is usually the case Krueger’s storyline drew me in and I immediately got comfortable for what I knew would be another excellent read.

Straightaway we learn that O’Conner has been reinstalled as Sheriff of Tamarack County replacing the disgraced former Sheriff, Arne Soderberg who quit in the middle of a scandal.  This would be his second go round in the Sheriff’s office having spent seven years on the job when he too was forced to resign.  The situation he was confronted with involved a phone call from the home of Lucy and Eli Tibodeau who lived on the Ojibwe reservation.  The couple had a history of domestic violence against each other but when O’Conner and Deputy Marsha Dross arrived they were immediately met by gunfire from a sniper.  Dross was shot and it soon became clear that O’Conner was the target.

O’Conner tried to figure out who may have had a motive and the only thing he could come with was a meth bust a few weeks before when one of the perps was killed in an explosion with his brother vowing revenge.  While developing an investigation into who was trying to kill him, O’Conner was presented with a murder scene at Mercy Falls where the victim had been stabbed to death and castrated.  The victim was Edward Jacoby who represented Starlight Enterprises and provided management for casinos across the Midwest and was trying to sign up the Ojibwe Casino as one of its clients.

Aurora District 1 Police station on ...

Starlight’s goal split the reservation community in half as to who might want their services.  Jacoby was also a client of O’Conner’s wife Jo who was a lawyer.  Events greatly upset Ms. O’Conner.  First her husband was almost killed by a sniper and now one of her clients was murdered.  They had left Chicago where O’Conner was a police officer because it was so dangerous and moved to a beautiful and supposedly peaceful town of Aurora, MN near Iron Lake to raise their children.

As in all of his novels Krueger highlights the natural beauty of northern Minnesota in addition to his deep respect for Native-American history and culture.  Krueger delves into the development of casinos on the reservation as means of overcoming the poverty that federal law had imposed on the reservation.  However, once the casino lifestyle was introduced it brought with it other socio-economic issues for locals to deal with.

Krueger can always be relied upon for interesting twists and turns in his stories.  A case in point is the Jacoby family with the victims overly aggressive obnoxious father and his son Ben.  It seems that twenty years had passed since Ben and Jo O’Conner had seen each other.  They had been classmates at the University of Chicago Law School as well as lovers.  It made for a very uncomfortable situation for Jo as Ben seemed to want more than catch up on old times. O’Conner also found himself in an uncomfortable situation when Dina Willner, a former FBI agent and Cook County DA in Chicago took a liking to Cork.  She was part of the Jacoby family entourage and became part of the murder investigation.  She and Cork worked close together which made him nervous.  The Jacoby family also included an interesting Argentinian branch.  Gabriella, the widow of Eddie Jacoby and her brother Antonio Salguero have their own agenda which is difficult to discern.

William Kent Krueger
(William Kent Krueger, author)

Krueger ‘s plot line is split into two parts.  First, the attempted murder of O’Conner and the continuing threat that included his family.  Second, the murder of Edward Jacoby who was pressuring the Iron Lake Ojibwe Council to contract with Starlight’s managerial services for the casino.  The question that comes to mind, are these two scenarios related, and if so how?  To answer the questions the reader must follow the twists and turns in Krueger’s plot from the Great Boundary North in Minnesota to Chicago, along with unusual characters like Bryan St. Onge and Lizzie Fineday who play important roles as the plot moves quickly.  It is an interesting ride, and if you take it you should be drawn in and quietly entertained, but keep in mind that the ending is somewhat obscure, and it could be an introduction to the next novel in the series.

Welcome sign on south end of town, Aurora Minnesota, 2009

BLOOD HOLLOW by William Kent Krueger

William Kent Krueger is not your typical formulaic practitioner of suspense/thriller oriented fiction.  Despite this fact he has created the award winning Cork O’Conner series with story lines and characters that do not follow any systematic pattern.  Krueger focuses on many of the same characters from earlier books, but that is all that is predictable as he has the unique ability to introduce new characters and create plot lines that seem random but are engrossing and absorb the reader.  The fourth installment in the series, BLOOD HOLLOW is no exception.

Krueger begins by introducing the reader to the white expanse of the northern Minnesota winter as it is January, and a blizzard is approaching. Cork O’Conner is joined by his compatriot, Oliver Bledsoe, an attorney and true blood Iron Lakes Ojibwe who handles the legal affairs for the tribal council.  Both men are in a race to locate Charlotte Kane, a seventeen year old young lady who left her New Year’s party intoxicated on a snowmobile as the storm seems imminent.  The girl has been missing for two days and O’Conner is deeply disappointed as the search is called off by Sheriff Wally Schanno who is about to retire.

(Iron Lake, MN)

The sheriff’s office plays a significant role in Krueger’s plot.  O’Conner had been the sheriff but was replaced by Schanno after a nasty tribal incident.  Now reaching retirement Schanno is replaced by Arne Soderberg who knows nothing about law enforcement and whose background is the family trucking business.  Needless to say, Soderberg and O’Conner do not get along as the new sheriff is a political animal who wants to use his new position as a political steppingstone to enhance his career.

Once Charlotte Kane’s body is located the novel kicks into gear as Soderberg believes he has his ticket for a political future – Kane’s former boyfriend Solemn Winter Moon.  When O’Conner shows up at the murder seen Soderberg feels threatened as the former sheriff points out a number of discrepancies in the new sheriff’s investigation.  From this point on Krueger lays out the plot very meticulously as he introduces background information about his characters and the role they will play in the story.

Kruger’s novels can stand alone as he nicely fills in the context of each character from previous books and how they fit into the author’s current effort.  Krueger has the ability to create intimacy among his characters particularly the O’Conner family, the role of Henry Meloux an aging Midewiwin, a mide, and member of the Grand Medicine Society, and the relationship between Solemn Winter Moon and Cork O’Conner.

Solemn is a troubled young man with a dark side that has gotten into difficulties in the past.  O’Conner always looked after him as he was the great nephew of Sam Winter Moon, O’Conner’s surrogate father and mentor.  Once Kane disappears her father Dr. Fletcher Kane is convinced Solemn is the murderer.  Cork’s wife Jo, an attorney, represents Solemn and for the two of them proving his innocence becomes an obsession.

White Iron Lake Lots
(Iron Lake, MN)

After digging around much to Soderberg’s chagrin who is in the midst of railroading Solemn, O’Conner develops an interesting theory as to who the real murderer is, and his private investigation begins to split the town of Aurora in half.  Since Solemn is Native-American and Cork is one-quarter Native-American the segment of the local population that abhors the reservation and the people who live their rally around the District Attorney to prosecute Solemn for first degree murder.  For O’Conner, the evidence just does not add up.

Krueger adds an interesting wrinkle to the story focusing on Anti-Native prejudice which gives way to spiritual controversy when Winter Moon turns himself in after claiming to have seen Christ while seeking a vision from Kitchimanidoo, the Great Spirit.  The encounter changes Solemn’s view of life and brings tourists, the sick, and numerous others to Aurora to be healed by one of Jesus’ newest disciples.   Krueger also introduces a series of new characters that have not appeared in previous novels.  Arne Soderberg and Dr. Fletcher Kane play key roles as each has their own agenda, and Fletcher and O’Conner having their own convoluted history.  Solemn’s personal journey is crucial to the story as are Lyla Soderberg, the sheriff’s spouse, Deputy Randy Gooding, a former FBI agent from Milwaukee and friend of O’Conner, and Father Mal Thorne whose actions raise some interesting questions.

The quality of Krueger’s work measures up to the first three books of the series as O’Conner in his own bullish way skeptical of Winter Moon’s religious claims is determined to prove his innocence.  O’Connor will uncover a twisted family drama, frightening religious fervor, and suspicious betrayals. As per usual, Krueger skillfully crafts ample plot twists to keep the reader guessing through the bloody climax to the thrilling conclusion of the novel that this reader did not see coming.


(Provincetown, MA, circa 1970)

In February 1969, the bodies of four women were discovered buried in a North Truro Cemetery on Cape Cod.  The bodies reflected gruesome attacks that involved dismemberment and other despicable acts.  The victims were in their late teens or early twenties and according to police sources the murderer, Antone “Tony” Costa was suspected of killing a total of eight women.  The details associated with the investigation and conviction of the serial killer are the subject of Casey Sherman’s latest book, HELLTOWN: THE UNTOLD STORY OF A SERIAL KILLER ON CAPE COD. Sherman, a bestselling author of fifteen books including such topics as the mobster Whitey Bulger, the Boston Strangler, and the assassination of John Lennon, grew up on Cape Cod, attending Barnstable High School and shares his extensive knowledge of the region in his narrative.

Sherman has created a book with aspects of fictional storytelling as he writes in the author’s note, that “a work of fiction can benefit from elements of fiction storytelling.”  The book is a mishmash of fact and fiction, filled with invented dialogue interspersed with actual events.  In part, HELLTOWN, the nickname given to the Cape Cod community of Provincetown in the 17th century because of its affinity with drinking, gambling, and other vices of the time – reads like a novel. 

Mary Anne Wysocki (near right) and Patricia Walsh went missing in 1969, their bodies later found in nearby woods.
(Mary Ann Wysocki and Patricia Walsh)

Sherman has exceptional command of the material relying on interviews, primary research, his personal knowledge of the case and area, including Costa’s own unpublished autobiography “Resurrection,” as he reconstructs each murder scene, provided knowledge of the victims, highlights a careful reconstruction of the investigation zeroing in on the detectives involved, the trial itself, and Costa’s incarceration at the Walpole State Prison until he committed suicide on May 12, 1974.  The book itself has a number of ancillary stories particularly the relationship between writers Kurt Vonnegut and Norman Mailer who both lived on the Cape for periods of time.  Their rivalry is explored as is their relationship to Costa, especially the role of Vonnegut when the killer was imprisoned.

For the people of the area the case and hunt for the serial killer reminded them of the Boston Strangler case of Albert De Salvo that had been solved two years earlier.  Sherman explores the reasons behind the killings focusing on Costa’s split personality; the good Tony, and his alter ego, Cory Devereaux.  The author recreates conversations between the two elements of Costa’s personality and offers a psychological profile dealing with his complex relationship with his mother.  Sherman adduces that Costa idealized his father and resented the fact that his mother remarried.  As a young man he craved the attention of his mother and had to fight for her affection with two unwelcome rivals; his stepfather and his brother Vincent.  According to Sherman’s analysis his mother had been taken away from him, therefore, somebody had to pay.  The murders were a result of Costa’s convoluted thought process and the dichotomy that existed in his brain.

Mugshot of serial killer Tony Costa
(Anthony “Tony” Costa)

A number of important characters emerge in the narrative; George Killen, the chief investigator for the Bristol County District Attorney, Detective Bernie Flynn whose belief in understanding the active personalities of the victim led to an acquaintance of Costa who would expose the location of the buried body parts; Massachusetts State trooper, Edgar “Tom” Gunnery who focused on Costa from the outset and dug up the bodies at the cemetery; Maurice Goldman, Costa’s lawyer; Edmund Dinis, the Bristol County District Attorney who saw the murder case as an opportunity to advance his political career resulting in his sensationalizing events and outright lies, i.e., referring to Costa as “the Cape Cod vampire,” to achieve the notoriety he craved; and lastly of course Tony Costa.

Costa was a native of Somerville, MA and grew up with a deep interest in taxidermy.  While growing up neighbors reported that he killed pigeons, squirrels, and household animals.  He purchased a copy of Maynard’s MANUAL OF TAXIDERMY, whose instructions on how to skin animals was transferred onto Costa’s mutilated victims. 

(Norman Mailer, author)

A further aspect of the story are the roles of Vonnegut and Mailer who are fascinated by the brutality of Costa’s actions.  Their rivalry seems like a literary footnote to the murder narrative and seems rather irrelevant to the overall story.  Sherman details Vonnegut’s jealousy and envy toward Mailer whose literary success won a Pulitzer and a National Book award for ARMIES OF THE NIGHT while Vonnegut struggled to complete what would become his masterpiece SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE.  While Mailer enjoyed his notoriety which led to, opposition to the Vietnam War, directing films, and a run for mayor of New York City; Vonnegut ran a failing Saab dealership and as an American GI in World War II he endured the psychological impact of living through the carpet bombing of Dresden, and was later captured and imprisoned by the Nazis.  Vonnegut would cover the trial of Costa as a journalist and wrote about it for Life magazine in an article entitled “there’s a Maniac Loose Out There,” giving the false impression that his daughter Edie knew and was perhaps in danger from Costa.  Mailer also followed the story and the trial and later used some of its details in an unsuccessful novel and film.

Kurt Vonnegut
(Kurt Vonnegut, author)

HELLTOWN successfully integrates Costa’s story with the major events and movements of the 1960s.  Sherman discusses the Vietnam War, the impact of the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the Civil Rights Movement, the Chicago Democratic convention, the Apollo 11 moon landing, the death of Mary Jo Kopechne on Chappaquiddick Island, the Charles Manson killings along with other events and issues.  The result is an interesting study of the mind of a seral killer and the impact of the violent murders on the community involved.  The book is well written and at times mesmerizing, the result of which is a fascinating read. 

(Provincetown, MA, circa 1970)

SAFE HOUSES by Dan Fesperman

Deustchland Berliner Mauer Westberlin
(Berlin Wall, circa 1979)

It’s been a few years since I have read a Dan Fesperman novel which is an obvious oversight since I greatly enjoyed his previous works LIE IN THE DARK, THE PRISONER OF GUANTANAMO, and THE WARLORD’S SON.  All novels met expectations for creativity and Fesperman’s ability to create realistic scenarios that maintain historical relevance is one of his many strengths.  Therefore, his work was an obvious choice for my current read, SAFE HOUSES which did not disappoint.

In true Fesperman fashion, SAFE HOUSES is a complex novel that develops a multi-faceted plot involving a number of characters that are difficult to sort out.  The main character, Helen Abell pursues a life that is a dichotomy.  In the late 1970s she was employed by the CIA in West Berlin in charge of maintaining and operating four safe houses for agents and the German sources they handled.  After overhearing a classified conversation and witnessing a rape by an important CIA operative Abell finds herself in a compromised position.  She decides to report the assault on the German source, but her station chief, Ladd Herrington, a rather misogynistic pompous individual wants no part of any investigation and would like nothing better than to get rid of her. 

View of Chesapeake City from the Chesapeake City Bridge, Maryland
(Maryland’s eastern shore)

Fesperman deftly flips the script as he turns to 2014 and Maryland’s eastern shore in developing a second plot line as Helen Abell and her husband are murdered.  The police and public believe the murderer is their son Willard Shoat, a psychologically disturbed young man.  Willard’s sister, Anna, cannot believe he has the capacity to engage in such violence and in seeking answers hires Henry Mattick, a private investigator who in the past held positions in the White House, Congress, and the Justice Department.  Mattick is an interesting character as he also working for an operative named “Mitch” who wants him to keep on top of the events surrounding the murder and making sure that Willard is found guilty.  The problem that surrounds the murder is that while Abell was in the CIA from 1977 to 1979 where she made an enemy out of Kevin Gilley, a CIA agent who resented her in the past and always wanted to remove her as an obstacle to his career.

Fesperman carefully manipulates his dual plot as the reader wonders how events in 1979 are related to the 2014 murder.  As the link is established, suspense dominates as Gilley, the high priest of the CIA’s darkest arts operated by his own rules with a propensity to go rogue and had a history of attacking women with no consequences because of the male dominated structure of the CIA.  Fesperman is a master at throwing out a series of hints to guide the reader, but then will shift the focus of the novel to a new path which is totally surprising.

The novel is an ode to persistence and hunting down a rapist and possible murderer while you are being hunted yourself.   The story revolves around “the sisterhood” made up of Abell, Clair Saylor, a clerk at Paris station, and Audra Vollmer who will support Abell and assist her in challenging the misogynistic way in which the CIA operated risking their careers and their lives to bring about justice for the many women who have been violated.  The key for Anna and Mattick is to unravel the life and career of Helen Abell and determine what really occurred in West Berlin and why she and her husband are eliminated thirty-five years later.

(Writer Dan Fesperman pictured in his home).

A series of important characters dominate the story.  Apart from Abell is her lover and mentor in West Berlin, Clark Baucom, an aging CIA type who tries to control Helen and one wonders whose side he is really on.  Kevin Gilley, code named “Robert” lives by his own rules and is difficult to control.  Anna, in her early thirties had left the family years before, but she wanted to save her brother and learn her mother’s true history.  Henry Mattick, an operator in his own right, falls for Anna, but can he be trusted.  Larry Hilliard, an archivist at the National Archives who guides Abell in trying to understand “the Pond,” a clandestine intelligence organization spun off from the CIA. The members of the “sisterhood” within the CIA, a group made up of Claire  Saylor who supported Abell and helped her conduct her clandestine mission, Audra Vollmer who turns out to be deeply involved with “the Pond,” which was supposed to be disbanded in 1955 and was not, and of course Helen Abell.  Other characters appear with important roles and all point to Fesperman’s inventiveness and imagination in fitting the novel together as assassinations of politicians, intelligence assets and others have been arranged or carried out by Gilley in 1979, 1998, 2000, and possibly 2014.

Fesperman’s “Safe Houses” have a number of implications.  The houses are designed for agents to meet in private and carry out their missions, but the houses contain hidden listening devices and traps for female agents.  Helen Abell is the key to the story, and it is fascinating how she evolves from an employee who lacks confidence in herself to one who refuses to be cowed by the CIA leadership infrastructure. “Safe Houses” is an amazing thriller both on the international and domestic scene, particularly the #MeToo slant.  After reading SAFE HOUSES, Fesperman’s latest novel, WINTER WORK is now near the top of my pile of books on my night table!

(West Berlin, circa 1979)

The Quaker by Liam McIlvanney

Gorbals back court between Camden Street and Florence Street.
(Glasgow, Scotland in the 1960s)

What could be better than a Scottish noir with the authentic ring of its slang as a major component of the characters vernacular?  In the present case of Liam McIlvanney’s first attempt at the genre in THE QUAKER, very little as the complex and creative mystery moves along on a straight path, presents a number of forks in the road and settles into a marvelous whodunit.  The novel focuses on the search for a serial killer who has already claimed three women as his victims.  After a yearlong investigation, the Marine Flying Squad of the Glasgow Police Department have reached a dead end and are searching for closure.  The problem that arises is that a fourth victim turns up, but an individual who is charged with all four murders has nothing to do with the first three which authorities do not want to hear or accept.   What could be the motivations of the powers that be?  A commander who has reached a retirement age and wants to go out with a major success.  A police department that wants to put the crimes behind them and move on or for some other nefarious reason.

The scenario that McIlvanney has laid out becomes quite frustrating for the main character, Detective Duncan I. McCormack who is brought in from another department to bring the case of the first murders to some type of conclusion.  McCormack is instructed to investigate the Marine Flying Squad and determine what went wrong and why the police have failed in trying to solve the case.  McCormack is not accepted by his colleagues that he is overseeing, and he receives little cooperation which does not stop him from conducting his due diligence and concluding that the Marine detectives have conducted a thorough investigation but relied too heavily on a particular witness and that other avenues of inquiry were overlooked.  As he was tasked McCormack advised that the investigation be wound down, especially since there had not been another murder for over a year, and it was logical to assume that the perpetrator was no longer at large in the Glasgow area.

Bringing it all back home
(Author, Liam McIlvanney)

The original murders centered on three woman, Jacquilin Keevins, Ann Ogilvie and Marion Mercer who had gone out dancing and wound up raped and murdered.  McCormack was against investigating the investigators as he wanted to concentrate on putting away John McGlasham, the biggest crime boss in Glasgow.  In conducting his reinvestigation McCormack comes across important characters who his colleagues reject.  As the author lays out the noir he provides an intimate portrait of Glasgow in the late 1960s focusing on run down parts of the city and a program to renovate the city’s many decaying tenements.  In addition, by relying repeatedly on Scottish slang for dialogue the conversations between characters present a high degree of authenticity.

There are a number of important characters that are developed.  McCormack’s partner, Derek Goldie is a big mouth blowhard of a detective who seems cocksure about everything.  DCI Angus Flett, McCormack’s boss is the Commander of the Flying Squad who tries to keep McCormack aboard, and DCI George Cochrane in charge of the first failed investigation, among others.  McIlvanney has the unique ability to develop clues that appear far-fetched but in the end become important.  Esoteric discoveries like the role of Mary Queen of Scots and her four women in waiting seem to be important, leading McCormack to brush up on his history through renowned historian Antonia Fraser’s biography.  Evidence hidden in abandoned tenements abound, Scottish poetry, and a series of songs sung to McCormack by his grandmother when he was a child. Another interesting touch is how McIlvanney gives the murder victims their own voice as he has them recount their own murders from their perspective – very eerie!

As the noir focuses on the serial murders, McIlvanney introduces a second story line which at first centers around the planning and conducting of a robbery of the Glendinning Auction House.  The robbers are led by Stephen Dalziei who brings in an outside safecracker from London, Alex Paton.  The robbery is a success until Paton is arrested for the fourth murder as he was hiding in a tenement in which the body was found.  There are certain elements of the police force that are desperate for a conclusion and charge him as the serial killer even though the evidence is rather incomplete – the question is why.

(Glasgow Police Headquarters, 1969)

Once McCormack completes his report he wants to return to fight organized crime but refuses to let go.  Higher ups are angry because of his tenacity which becomes the deepest mystery of all.  Why do they want to convict an innocent man and who is the Quaker? 

McIlvanney has structured an at times frustrating scenario.  First, and foremost he lays out the crimes, the investigation, the re-investigation, and the fake scenario of an alternative murderer to cover for the real Quaker.  Second, was the Quaker arranging a set up for Alex Paton who was innocent of murder to be found guilty even after a fourth murder takes place.  For McCormack what was really happening and what could he do to solve the crime against the wishes of others.

My only suggestion for the author is to develop the personal lives of his main characters more.  There is a hint of the private lives of McCormack, Goldie, Cochrane, Flett, Levein, apart from the Quaker which could have enhanced the story line and drawn the reader closer to the characters.  Despite this slight drawback, the author knows how to capture the reader’s attention and create a nail bitter that has a powerful ending.  Further, the noir concept can at times be formulaic, but in the author’s hands he reminds us of what an enduring approach to murder mysteries it is.  McIlvanney’s first effort produced a number of awards and I look forward to reading his latest just released, THE HERETIC.

Nuclear Defence Plan - crowds gather round a shop window in Sauchiehall Street.
(Glasgow, Scotland in the 1960s)

CITY ON FIRE by Don Winslow

Thumbnail Image 14
(East Providence, Rhode Island yacht club)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uploaded Image
(Providence, Rhode Island)



Tchaikovsky Concert Hall

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

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

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

(Brendan Slocumb, author)

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

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

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

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

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

(Tchaikovsky Concert Hall, Moscow)


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

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

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

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

Fichier:Växjö in Sweden.png

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

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

(the author)

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

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

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

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


THE GREEN MILE by Stephen King


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

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

moses cone 17
(Georgia nursing home)

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

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

(Stephen King, author)

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

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

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

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