BLUFFING MR. CHURCHILL by John Lawton

During gas invasion test during WWII, all civilians and wardens wear gas masks (respirators). Location: London, United Kingdom Date taken: 1941 Photographer: Hans Wild Life Images London History, British History, Modern History, Women's History, Vintage London, Old London, Vintage Photos, Old Photos, The Blitz
(London, 1941, during the “Blitz”)

John Lawton’s BLUFFING MR. CHURCHILL (published in England as RIPTIDE) is the fourth installment of his Inspector Frederick Troy series and opens with a British retaliatory strike against Berlin as payback for the continued German blitz that was pounding London a year after Dunkirk.  At this point, Brigadefuhrer Wolfgang Stahl, a British spy realizes it is time for him to leave Germany as quickly as possible.

Stahl had joined the Nazi Party in 1929 and by 1934 he had wormed his way into the confidence of Reinhard Heydrich, a high-ranking SS police official and the architect of the Holocaust.  Stahl was in part able to get into his good graces because of his shared love of Mozart.  They would play together and discuss music for hours on end.  Once the bombing ended Stahl returned to his apartment house and found a body that was a similar to himself with its face blown off.  Stahl took the dead man’s identity and began to make his way out of Germany.  The problem for Stahl was that the suspicious Heydrich had the corpses hand shown to him and he realized that Stahl was not dead.  At this point Lawton has lured the reader into the story line and in true Lawton form provides historical fiction dealing with spy craft at its best.

(WALTER RICHARD) RUDOLF HESS German Nazi leader; flew to  Britain without Hitler's  knowledge in 1941 to attempt Stock Photo

(Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s Deputy)

Lawton will develop a number of plot lines.  The dominant story revolves around the search for Wolfgang Stahl who carries with him plans for the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. Obviously, the Nazis want him dead because he knew too much, and the British want him to learn what he knows.  A number of important characters emerge in the chase.  The most important are Lt. Colonel Alistair Ruthuen-Greene of the British Consulate, someone who had Churchill’s ear.  He convinces Captain Calvin M. Cormack III, an American stationed in Zurich who had been Stahl’s handler to accompany him to London to identify him.  Cormack was assigned to work with Walter Stilton, Chief Inspector at Scotland Yard to locate Stahl.  When they arrive in London, another thread that Lawton develops emerges, Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess had flown from Berlin to Scotland and all wonder why he has done so.

Lawton has created a taught spy novel integrating fiction with historical fact.  Examples include the Bismarck  sinking the HMS Hood, disagreements between American intelligence and British MI5 over sharing German code information as well as the British hope that the United States would soon enter the war.  Further, the debate over whether to warn the Soviets that a German invasion was imminent is presented – but in reality, as early as April 1941 Stalin ignored British warnings as he did later the day before the actual invasion.

File:Winston Churchill 1941 photo by Yousuf Karsh.jpg

(Prime Minster Winston Churchill)

Lawton does an excellent job showing the reader the horrors of the blitz.  Descriptions of bombed out streets with only one building remaining abound as people shelter in the underground, and the Home Guard searches for bodies and civilians clear damage.  Lawton zeroes in on the English vernacular focusing on accents verbiage, and dialects.  It is easy for English characters to communicate with each other, but for men like Capt. Cormack he has difficulty understanding the British at times.

Real figures and events are inserted into the plot reflecting Lawton’s command of the historical information.  He accurately describes the British rationing system along with the death and destruction that Goering’s bombers reigned on England.  Winston Churchill, Lord Beaverbrook, H.G. Wells, and Robert Churchill, a distant cousin of the Prime Minister make appearances.

Many have argued that the war created an aura of commonality for the British people as all classes faced the Nazi terror.  Lawton examines this theme pointing out repeatedly it is more veneer than fact.  The core of the story revolves around Stilton and Cormack then joined by Sergeant Frederick Troy of Scotland Yard who refuse to share their own intelligence in the hunt for Stahl.  Once Stilton passes from the scene the Troy-Cormack relationship becomes very tricky when Cormack falls in love with Kitty Stilton, a police officer and daughter of Walter Stilton who also possesses a ravenous sexual appetite and is Troy’s former lover.  Further linking the two men is that both men have strong willed fathers, Cormack’s is a decorated general turned politician, and Troy’s a renown intellectual and diplomat who emigrated from Russia in 1910, as both men operate in the shadows of their fathers. Despite these issues the two men come together and foster a working relationship that is a key to solving the crimes at hand.

The novel slowly evolves into a tightly spun murder mystery with a number of victims.  It is an espionage thriller, but also a well thought out detective story.  The next book in the Troy series is FLESH WOUNDS where Kitty Stilton plays an interesting role and I have added it to the pile of books on my night table.

(Bomb damage in London during the “Blitz”)

THE SILENT DEATH by Volker Kutscher

Berlin by night, 1930s? Street view,

Berlin by night, 1930s? Street view, Friedrichstraße, Berlin, Germany. Stock Photo

The late Philip Kerr had his Bernie Guenther series.  Ben Pastor has Martin Bora.  Now we have Volker Kutscher’s Gereon Rath character as an addition to the German civilian police/military police genre that depicts Berlin in the 1930s, crimes during World War II as well as the Cold War.  Kutscher has followed up his BABYLON BERLIN with the second in his Rath series entitled THE SILENT DEATH where he continues the exploits and personal journey of a flawed Berlin detective who has  a very unorthodox approach to police work, much to the chagrin of the higher ups in the Berlin Police Department.  As with the work of Kerr and Pastor, Kutscher takes the reader inside the thought process and life experiences of his protagonist in a meaningful way injecting outside influences on criminal investigation be it the role of the Gestapo, the SS, or as in THE SILENT DEATH Berlin in the 1930s with the Weimar Republic teetering on the edge, as the rise of the Nazi Party proceeds quite rapidly with all it engenders.

Berlin Inspector Rath has a checkered past.  He had been on the police force in Cologne, but an incident forced his relocation to Berlin as his father a police director in Cologne arranged his transfer.  He employs a “lone ranger” approach to police work and has little respect for those above him in the police hierarchy.  He is an engaging character who must survive in an atmosphere that seems to change every day.  Kutscher does a superb job conveying to the reader what Rath is up against as the noise from Nazi murders, crimes, and demonstrations form the background of daily life in Berlin in an addition to his own intemperate ways, i.e., “punching out” Deputy Inspector Frank Brenner for making fun of his last girlfriend, Charlotte Ritter who he was deeply in love with.

Police headquarters in Berlin, 1933 Stock Photo
(Berlin Police Headquarters 1930)

Kutscher has created an interesting plot line focusing in on the German movie industry as it seems to be moving away from “silent films” to “talkies.”  The problem is that there are producers and directors who do not see the new “talkies” approach as progress and may be involved in trying to sabotage the new type of film.  Enter Betty Winter, a silent film actress who is about to make her first talkies film when suddenly she is felled by a lighting system during the filming of her latest movie.  She is crushed and dies from the flames  – was it sabotage or was it an accident?

Rath is called in to investigate but soon runs out of favor with his superior, Detective Inspector Wilhelm Bohm, a stereotypical Prussian type who will remove him from the investigation of Winter’s death.  Rath refuses to allow Bohm to impede his investigation and continues his work.  It seems that sabotage may have gone awry as Heinrich Bellman, a producer who worked with Winter is up against Manfred Oppenberg another producer who is in competition over the new genre.  As this progresses, Oppenberg’s star Vivian Franck disappears and it is up to Rath to find her.  This competition forms the first thread that Kutscher develops.

The second thread involves Konrad Adenauer, the Mayor of Cologne.  Rath’s father Engelbert travels to Berlin to introduce his son to Adenauer who seeks his help.  It seems that Adenauer is being blackmailed over certain investments and financial transactions centered in Berlin involving the transfer of a Ford Motor plant to Cologne.  In addition to taking on this task for his father, Rath must deal with his removal from the Winter case and being tasked to deal with the Horst Wessel case.  Horst Ludwig Georg Erich Wessel, commonly known as Horst Wessel, was a Berlin leader of the Nazi Party’s stormtroopers, the Sturmabteilung. After his murder in 1930, he was made into a martyr for the Nazi cause by Joseph Goebbels.  Wessel is an interesting character who has the dubious distinction to having the official anthem of the Nazi Party dedicated to him.  Wessel in reality is murdered by Ali Hohler, the former pimp of the whore Wessel is involved with.  But for Goebbles, a master of “fake news” and propaganda it was a situation that he would take full advantage of.

As in the Wessel case, Kutscher has an excellent command of German history, a case in point is the death of Gustav Ernst Stresemann the German statesman who served as Chancellor in 1923 and Foreign Minister 1923–1929, during the Weimar Republic. He was co-laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1926 and his death brought about the end for any hope for the success of the Weimar Republic.

The last thread that permeates the novel is Rath’s attempts to navigate the intricacies of surviving the Berlin police bureaucracy and leadership embodied in Wilhelm Bohm.  There are many fascinating characters that Kutscher develops including movie stars, producers, politicians, and gangsters.  The book itself is a gripping read from the perspective of criminal investigation, but also the tangled private life that Rath leads.  His love life is shambles as he is in love with Charlotte who dumped him six months before Winters death, Kathi, the woman he lived with who he turned away, and his own past.

As in the tradition of Kerr and Pastor, Kutscher’s work is well worth exploring if you enjoy period crime novels subsumed with good historical fiction.  In the present instance the reader must sort out the deaths of a number of actresses and determine if a serial killer is involved.  Newspapers have already made up their minds which in part gets Rath into further trouble with his superiors.  At times, the plot seems to meander, but in the end, Kutscher produces a rousing closure.  Having completed  THE SILENT DEATH,  I look forward to reading the next installment in the series, GOLDSTEIN.

(Berlin, 1930)

THE RED LOTUS by Chris Bohjalian

Sunset at Halong Bay from Cat Ba Island in Vietnam

(Northern Vietnam)

Alexis Remnick met Austin Harper in her Emergency Room in a Manhattan hospital after he had been brought in with a gunshot wound in his bicep.  She cleaned the wound, stitched him up as a result their relationship began.  Alexis had been an ER doctor for three years in a NYC hospital but had never met Austin who was a development officer at the same hospital.  It was an environment in which she thrived as the adrenaline rush of the ER allowed her to overcome her own anxiety and depression that plagued her since she was a teenager when she engaged in “cutting.”  In the ER, her public person was transformed, and she became an expert doctor, while Austin was a bicycle junkie who had a past that Alexis, despite dating him for seven months, was unaware of.

This is how Chris Bohjalian, the author of 21 books, many of them New York Times bestsellers, and a number of which have been made into films, begins his latest novel, THE RED LOTUS which may be one of his best efforts to date.  At a time when the United States is being hit with a massive pandemic where predictions of death are currently between 100-240,000 people Bohjalian’s novel is scary to say the least.  Once he introduces the backstory Bohjalian immediately shifts the focus of his novel to Vietnam where Alexis is lying on the beach at a resort in Hoi An where she and Austin had traveled so Austin could pay homage to his father who was wounded and his uncle who had died in the Vietnam War.  Austin had left the bike touring group to travel a seventy-mile route to pay his respects and disappears.  Alexis’ texts and calls go unanswered as Austin has been kidnapped during his ride but left behind a lemon-yellow Psych energy gel and two chocolate flavored packets on the trail which Alexis and the group leaders came across as they searched for him to no avail.

Bohjalian writes with an intensity that produces an atmosphere that  seems as if could be cut with a knife.  One of the most disconcerting aspects of the novel is that rats play such a significant role.  Bohjalian is very careful by drawing the reader into what appears to be a love story for about one-third of the plot before he provides hints about where he is taking you.  There are energy gels, cuts on Harper’s fingertips, possible research labs in New York and Vietnam as things begin to come together.  The author has created a complex plot that in many ways deals with our current fears as one of the important characters alludes to the fact that all pandemics begin in some way with rats.  Bohjalian provides more information about rats that most readers would ever want to know.  Interestingly, North Korea becomes part of the larger picture as three people are murdered in a lab in Da Nang, of course involving rat research, while most of us are worried about “Dear Leader” and his quest for nuclear weapons!

The story of course is about human avarice and the mental sickness and greed that drives people.  Douglas Webber, a wealthy freelance travel writer and expert dart aficionado, Sally Gleason, Harper’s boss and Webber’s lover, Dr. Wilbur Sinclair, a viral/bacteria researcher at the hospital where Remnick, Harper, and Gleason are employed, Oscar Bolton, who replaces Harper as Webber’s minion, along with Bao and Giang and other thugs in Vietnam who form the cabal designed to inflict a pandemic and of course make a great deal of money.  One of the most interesting characters is Ken Sarafian, a retired New York City cop in his seventies who is forced to revisit his service in Vietnam and cope with the death of his daughter who recently died of cancer is hired by Remnick to investigate her boyfriend’s death.  His wit and quiet nature belie a though ex-cop who is advised not to take the case but becomes trapped by the decency of its cause.  Remnick can’t seem to let go and her questions and doubts lead her to uncover aspects of Harper’s death that don’t seem to fit which will make her safety very questionable as Webber grows suspicious.

Other important characters include, Capt. Nguyen Quang, a member of the Canh Sat Company Dong (CSCD) of the Da Nang Police Department’s mobile terrorism unit.  By integrating Quang and his cohorts Bohjalian provides insights into how Vietnamese professionals go about solving a criminal case that appears to be a threat to millions.  Toril Bjornstad, an FBI legal attaché stationed in the United States Embassy in Phnom Penn provides support and information to Remnick and Harper’s parents who just cannot accept the fact that their son was a liar and schemer who after a life of getting away with things has gotten himself in too deep.  The key to the novel is Remnick’s use of her ER medical skills that were developed to diagnose patients to uncover how and why Harper died.  As the plot evolves the ending might seem too predictable, until it wasn’t.

The story transverses Vietnam from Da Nang, Hanoi, and Ho Chi Minh City to New York and Washington, D.C.  At each stop important twists and turns occur as people keep dying.  Bohjalian is a master of the thriller with a nice human touch at times.   He doles out information very carefully be it about murder, its investigation, and research into rat behavior and the danger they represent.  He develops his characters with expertise and reflects a great deal of compassion for them.  He knows how to draw the reader along to the point where a seeming love story evolves into something much more dangerous and complex.  If you have enjoyed his previous books, his latest effort may top them all.

Map of Vietnam

Political Map of Vietnam

VICTIM 2117 by Jussi Adler-Olsen

Berlin street (Imago/Jürgen Ritter)

(Berlin, Germany)

The most despicable tragedy of the last decade has been Bashar al-Assad’s war on the Syrian people to retain power.  The actions of the Russian and Turkish governments have exacerbated the situation that has produced the death of over 400,000 people and created over 5,000,000 refugees.  In VICTIM 2117, Jussi Adler-Olsen’s latest work, the author introduces the Syrian catastrophe at Ayia Naba, a beach in Cyprus as 37 bodies have washed ashore having drowned in the Mediterranean Sea in an attempt to escape their home country.  At the same time there is an emotionally stunted young man who recently graduated high school named Alexander who lives in Copenhagen.  Alexander is a virtual gamer who claims 2080 wins and in his demented mind has added the 37 drowning victims he read about in the newspaper to his total, 2117.  This milestone now reached has set in motion Alexander’s plan to kill his parents and wreak havoc on the public.

 

(Jussi Adler-Olsen, author)

If this plot line was not enough, Adler-Olsen focuses on Joan Aiguader, a self-promoter and a struggling free-lance journalist for a newspaper in Barcelona who has hit rock bottom until he becomes interested in the increasing numbers of refugee drownings, particularly 37 in Cyprus.  Twisting his story line further Adler-Olsen zeroes in Assad, a member of Department Q of the Copenhagen Police  Department who has appeared in most of the author’s previous novels.  It seems that Assad has kept his past hidden from Carl Morck his superior in Department Q who believed that the man who had introduced himself ten years ago as “Hafez el-Assad, a Syrian refugee with green rubber gloves and a bucket by his feet.  But inside he was really Zaid al-Asadi: special forces soldier, language officer, Iraqi, and almost fluent Danish speaker.  The man was one hell of a gifted actor.”   Assad’s tortured past involves what transpired 16 years previously at the hands of a Sunni terrorist and former official under Saddam Hussein named Abdul Azim or Ghaalib, a man who had kidnapped Assad’s pregnant wife and two daughters who Assad believed were dead for all of those years.

For those familiar with Adler-Olsen’s previous novels, VICTIM 2117 will not disappoint.  For those who are reading his work for the first time you probably will become hooked as he has deftly created a story with resonance today as he intertwines a series of plotlines.  Apart from Assad and Morck a number of characters from previous novels appear, though VICTIM 2117 can stand alone.  Adler-Olsen takes the reader back to Fallujah in Iraq at a time when United Nations weapons inspectors are looking for Saddam’s Weapons of mass destruction (WMD).  Events that take place are part of Assad’s past but they tie into a great deal of contemporary evidence, particularly newspaper photos of Marwa, Assad’s wife, and daughter appearing alive as well as a photo of the body of Lely Kebaki, an old woman who had taken care of Assad’s family when he was a boy as they had to flee Iraq and Saddam.

Assad’s life before Department Q is quite revealing and he will be supported by Morck and company, Roe and Gordon, including the new Chief of Homicide, Marcus Jacobsen.  Adler-Olsen provides a tense novel with a number of twists and turns linking the past and the present.  Morck’s quick wit and sarcasm is on full display as is the commentary provided by his assistant Rose, a depressive personality who has returned to Department Q after an absence of two years.

Adler-Olsen may have been a juggler in a previous life because he is able to maintain a number of plots floating in the air, all at the same time.  VICTIM 2117 is a complex story that as you read on it is very difficult to put down as Assad tries to locate his arch enemy and rescue his family who he is afraid he will not recognize and conversely will not recognize him.  As the novel is about to come to fruition and you think the terror will subside, Adler-Olsen introduces another twist that will leave you hanging.  If the book is as satisfying as I believe you will probably want to consult Adler-Olsen’s previous seven books dealing with the adventures of Department Q.

THE GODS OF GOTHAM by Lynsay Faye

Map of Broadway and Anne Over Time

(New York City in the 1840s)

I am always looking for realistic historical fiction, which is both accurate and creative.  It must reflect the time period it encompasses, and its fictional and non-fictional characters must be believable.  In the case of Lynsay Faye’s novel, THE GODS OF GOTHAM I was pleasantly surprised.  The book introduces Timothy and Valentine Wilde, two brothers that are as opposite as day and night.  Orphaned in childhood because of a fire they survived in New York City’s underworld in the 1820s and 30s.  Timothy will emerge as a strong individual who is hard working and honest, his brother Val will become what his brother describes as an alcoholic, drug addict, extortionist, thief, gambler, cheat, corrupt and violent, but he loves him in his own way.

Faye’s novel is the first of a trilogy involving Timothy Wilde as her main character.  After surviving a devastating fire in New York City in 1845, loosing everything Timothy rebuilds by accepting a position as a police officer in a department that was newly created because of what seemed to be daily murders on the city’s streets.   Wilde will make an excellent policeman as he is able to maximize his intuitive skills he learned as a bartender.  His brother Val becomes an officer on the force and the two of them make quite a combination as Val does not exhibit the same empathy and altruism of his brother.  Faye’s plot is fully integrated with the atmosphere in New York City in the 1840s.  The issues of Irish immigration, nativism, the corruption of city government, and the debauchery that runs rampant is background to what appears to be a mass murder of twenty two people, a number of which are children who appear to be Irish and are employed at Silkie Marsh’s brothel.

(Newspaper row (Park Row) in New York City in the 1840s)

Faye posses a superb knowledge of New York City politics, night life, characters endemic to the city, its culture, and its numerous ethnicities.  The odors of the city come across vividly to the reader and helps establish an ambiance that places one in a different time period.  Faye is able to capture the bigotry against Irish Catholics in a meaningful way from the outset of the novel, as she delves into the hatred for the Irish poor that saw over a million people leave their homes in Ireland because of the almost genocidal attitudes of the British government in the 1840s and their response to the potato blight and famine.  The corruption of ward politics is on full display reflected in the machinations of the Democratic Party and how its dispensed jobs and social services to the city’s inhabitants.  In fact, that patronage system is how Timothy and Valentine became policemen in the first place.

The new police department would be headed by Justice George Washington Matsell, a rather short, balding, large man who will surprise the reader with his cleverness and intellectual dexterity.  Other important characters include the reverend Underhill and his daughter Mercy, who Timothy will love no matter what behaviors she engages in.  Bird Daley, a precocious ten-year-old who witnesses the burial of most of the bodies and accidentally runs into Timothy on the street creating an interesting friendship.  Mrs. Boehm, a wonderful woman who makes end meet as a baker.  Dr. Peter Palsgrave whose actions will shock the reader.  Father Connor Sheehy of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  Jacob Piest, a brilliant investigator.  Silkie Marsh, a madame who knows where all the secrets are buried, and numerous Irish immigrants and street toughs whose lives are in a constant battle for survival.

Faye has created an interesting juxtaposition between two brethren with different moral codes.  One a tool of a corrupt political system, the other a bit naive with a strong sense of right and wrong.  Faye has also captured the street vernacular that existed at the time and lends itself to the book’s authenticity.  The undercurrent that pervades the novel is carefully crafted and historically accurate as Chief Matsell and his force try and keep the bodies secret for fear that if the truth emerged and the murderer was Irish it could touch off violent riots that would result in the deaths of countless people.  In addition, if the murders took place under the auspices of the Democratic Party, the Whigs would replace them in power.  As you read the book one wonders who the possible serial killer might be.  Is it Valentine, perhaps a Protestant trying to create a situation that would send the Irish back across the Atlantic, or is it Silkie Marsh and her hired hands?  The end result will surprise you as Faye weaves a web that is difficult to dissect.

If you are a fan of Caleb Carr’s works or the film “Gangs of New York” the novel should whet your appetite and be very satisfying.  It is an unsettling read at times, but if you want a feel for a city that grew from about 60,000 in 1800 to half a million in just fifty years this book will offer many insights that can explain what such a demographic explosion could lead to.

 

Map of Broadway and Anne Over Time

(New York City in the 1840s)

THE UNWILLING by John Hart (to be published in June, 2020)

To begin I would like to thank the representative from St. Martin’s Press for contacting me and asking me to review John Hart’s latest novel, THE UNWILLING before publication.  I found the novel to be an exceptional read with an intricate storyline, interesting characters, and a series of themes that directly and indirectly touch a range of human emotions.  The book should measure up to Hart’s previous thrillers which have won numerous awards, particularly two consecutive Edgar Awards.

The evocative novel begins with the release of Jason French from prison after serving two and a half years that followed three tours of duty in Vietnam.  Jason has been linked to drugs, guns, and rumor has it he killed 29 people in the war and possibly two more while at Lanesworth State Prison.  Jason is a broken man who comes from a somewhat dysfunctional family with an older brother Robert, the family favorite killed at Ke Sanh, and a younger brother, Gibson or “Gibby” who idolizes his brothers but has been kept in a protective bubble by his parents, particularly by his mother who is still grieving the loss of her first son and shuns Jason.  William French, the father is a detective for the Charlotte Police Department and is doing his best to maintain some sort of normality and in the end save his family.  He loves his sons equally but was distraught over his inability to communicate with his middle son who he feels he no longer knows.  He and his wife try to keep Gibby away from his brother, creating further resentment driving them closer together.

ASHLEYCOXPHOTOGRAPHY_JOHNPORTRAITS-46C.png

(Author, John Hart)

The powerful novel explores the depths of human depravity.  These depths are a function of many things, but foremost in Hart’s mind is the Vietnam War and how it affected Jason French and turned him into something his reflection in the mirror could never condone.  Further, the novel reflects a father who has lost one son and perhaps another because of the war and as the story progresses, he fears he is about to lose his youngest.

Hart’s plot in part pits two men who cannot overcome their demons.  One, called X is a wealthy psychopath scheduled to be executed in a few months.  X uses his wealth as a vehicle to dominate a corrupt prison on the inside and through his tentacle’s certain lives on the outside.  Second, Jason French, a man shattered by war and a family destroyed by the same war who does not recognize how deep his emotional issues are and how to obtain help.  While imprisoned Jason was manipulated by X and did something to him that wants revenge against him and his family.  He will arrange a murder that implicates Jason resulting in his return to prison and the control that X fosters.  Gibby believes his brother has been abandoned and tries to locate the killer and in doing so becomes caught in X’s web that caused the death of another woman that is linked to Gibby.

Hart has a very tight conversational writing style that allows him to tell the story mostly through Gibby as narrator.  He has the ability to drill down into the core of each character presenting their flaws and upside.  He knows exactly when to shift the focus from one character to another as the thriller evolves and allows his plot to play out maintaining a sharp focus on keeping the reader glued to the written page.  If I were to compare Hart’s work with another author, Pat Conroy comes to mind, but without the inherent southern prose as well as the intensity of Greg Iles.  Further, he has been compared to John Grisham and Scott Turow but for me he has taken the genre of crime fiction to a new level.  In the end the best way to describe John Hart’s writing is that he is a master storyteller.

PURGATORY RIDGE by William Kent Krueger

Giant waves crash into large cliffs on Lake Superior at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park during Wednesday's storm on the North Shore. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Giant waves crash into large cliffs on Lake Superior at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park during Wednesday’s storm on the North Shore. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

William Kent Krueger has written another exceptional thriller in his third Cork O’Conner novel, PURGATORY RIDGE with the main character seemingly having righted his marriage and filled the voids that emerged in previous mysteries.  As he has done in his other works, he has combined the beauty of nature in northern Minnesota, reservation life and economics, and of course a work of fiction that produces angst and fear.  Krueger is a master of novels that run on a number of tracks.  In the present iteration of Cork O’Conner, the conflict between lumber interests and environmentalists dominates.  Further, the death of a young man who drowned along with many others in a shipping accident on Lake Superior explains a great deal of what transpires.  The question that immediately comes to mind is how the plight of white pine trees  known as Our Grandfathers by local Native-Americans, the tragedy of the “Alfred M. Teasdale,” and an explosion at the Lindstrom Lumber Company all fit together.

2016_William Kent Krueger (2)

The puzzle that Krueger offers reflects the animosity between logging interests represented by Lindstrom Lumber and the actions of environmental groups in the courts, demonstrations, and at times violence.  In this instance the loggers are opposed by the “Army of the Earth,” and on another level the conflict involves the interest of those who make their living from the logging industry against those of the Anishinaabe Indians on the Iron Lake Reservation.

Krueger returns a number of important characters from previous novels one of which is Nancy Jo O’Conner, who is the lawyer  for the Anishinaabe Ojibwe in their fight against the loggers to save the white pine trees.  It appears that Aurora, the home of the O’Conner’s is on the eve of war and after the explosion at Lindstrom Lumber that killed Charlie Warren, the traditional chief of the Iron Ojibwe Indians, the death count has begun.  The conflict between “red” and “white” leaps off the pages and it is a continuation of the troubles that came to a head two years earlier over fishing rights that cost Cork O’Conner his job as sheriff.  Other returning characters include, Henry Merloux, the Anishinaabe medicine man who seems “all wise” and has known Cork his entire life.  Wally Shanno, the Tamarack County Sheriff,  Helmut Hanover, the editor of the Aurora Sentinel, whose nickname is “hell,”  and the O’Conner children and Aunt Rose.

New characters that take prominent roles include John Le Pere who was the only survivor aboard the “Alfred M. Teasdale” and witnessed the drowning of his brother Billy.  Wesley Bridger, a former Navy Seal who partners with Le Pere in trying to show negligence by the Fitzgerald Shipping Company and recover damages while explaining why the ship sank.  Joan Hamilton, an environmentalist known as “Joan of Arc of the Redwoods,” and her son Brent who belongs to the “Army of the Earth” who refer to themselves as Eco-Warriors.  Lastly, Grace Fitzgerald, author and poet who is married to Magnus Karl Lindstrom III the owner of Lindstrom Lumber whose father had been the owner of Fitzgerald shipping.

Le Pere’s grief is palatable and has shadowed his life for over fifteen years leading him to behavior that is the result of forces he cannot control when all he is seeking is justice.  The  O’Conner family will be dragged into the nastier aspect of the existing conflict resulting in the  family moving closer together.  Underlying family issues is whether Cork should run for reelection as Sheriff which Nancy Jo fears will rip apart the progress that has been made in restoring their relationship.  Krueger’s plot will come full circle before its conclusion that encompasses a number of flawed characters, but the prolonged tension of the story remains until the very end, an ending the reader will not be able to anticipate.  Krueger’s writing will not win any awards for fine prose, but it does maintain the reader’s interest throughout and does not disappoint as the Cork O’Conner series remains a hit.  The next installment is entitled, BLOOD HOLLOW.

 

BOUNDARY WATERS by William Kent Krueger

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

In BOUNDARY WATERS William Kent Krueger continues the saga of Cork O’Conner who still remains apart from his family with hopes of resurrecting his marriage.  The hurt that was present at the end of IRON LAKE has dimmed but it remains just below the surface.  Cork still lives in the back of a Quonset Hut, that doubles as a hamburger stand in season.  The second installment of the series opens with a woman hiding in the wilderness of northern Minnesota that is known as the Boundary Waters region where she hopes that her close friend Wendell Two Knives, a Anishinaabe Native-American will locate her and bring the supplies that are necessary as winter is not far behind.

The immediate question is what the woman called Shiloh is running from, who is chasing her, and for what reason.  The novel digs into the past and Shiloh’s birth is in question as is the death of her country music star mother Marais Grand.  What secrets are buried in the past as the murder took place fifteen years earlier and it seems to involve the role of the FBI, the California State Police and Attorney-General, and organized crime.  Grand had a checkered past with me and we spend a good part of the novel trying to determine who her father is.

“Fall Colors” – Northern lights over Boulder Lake near Duluth, Minnesota 
Post image

The core of the novel is the search and rescue mission launched by Cork from Aurora to locate her and save her life.  In doing so a number of questionable characters emerge.  Supposedly the FBI has returned under the auspices of Booker T. Harris and two other agents.  The question is are they really acting for the Bureau or do they have a different agenda.  The California Attorney-General has a significant interest in finding Shiloh as does organized crime boss Vincent Benedetti.  As Krueger develops his story his keen sense of the dramatic and mystery dominate.  The wilds of northern Minnesota and its pitfalls are on full display as is Native-American myth and lore in the persons of Stormy Two Knives, and  his amazing son Louis.  Other important characters include Willie Raye better known as “Arkansas Wille, the head of Ozark Music and Charon/Milwaukee, a killer for hire who also possesses a modicum of a conscience.

The divide between law enforcement and the treatment of Native-Americans is clear by the interaction of the Two-Knives family and the supposed FBI agents.  Another common theme is the issue of Native-American casino ownership and the money it generates.  It is clear the new revenues for the Iron Lake Reservation have improved the quality of life for its people, but a dilemma is present as more and more strangers keep pushing near the reservation with gambling, vacation, and investment plans.

Krueger has a way of inducing the reader’s interest by the tight dialogue between characters that emits new information.  It appears as if the author is stringing the reader along but in doing so he keeps the reader totally immersed in the story, a story that keeps changing as the search for Shiloh continues.

Characters that appeared in IRON LAKE are present in this thriller.  Nancy Jo, Cork’s wife now feels tremendous guilt about her marriage.  Her sister Rose is present and keeps the family that includes five-year-old Steven, twelve-year-old Annie, and the teenage Jenny who is beginning to feel her oats.  Tamarack County Sheriff Wally Shanno, who replaced Cork in law enforcement a few years earlier is an important figure as is Anishinaabe medicine man Henry Merloux.

A number of murders occur as the story unfolds, some seem related to Shiloh’s disappearance, but others seem unrelated.  Questions abound as to what country music might have to do with the murders in addition to the death of Shiloh’s mother fifteen years earlier.  Krueger is a master of tying all of these loose ends together as he has followed his first Cork O’Conner thriller with another that is equally well done.  If you enjoy taut mysteries with a human touch Krueger’s latest work should be satisfying.  For me it is on to the third iteration, PURGATORY RIDGE.

Welcome sign, Aurora Minnesota, 2009

IRON LAKE by Willam Kent Krueger

One of the many snowmobile trails in Voyageur National Park in northern Minnesota // Photo via Voyagaire Lodge

(Northern Minnesota in Winter)

A few days ago, I was perusing the isles of one of my favorite bookstores and came across the works of William Kent Krueger.  I read a number of book jackets which piqued my interest in his main character Corcoran (“Cork”) O’Conner, the former sheriff of Tamarack County, MN.  Krueger has written seventeen novels involving “Cork” and I decided it would be best to start at the beginning with his first installment, IRON LAKE.  In thinking about Krueger’s work the names of James Lee Burke, Henning Mankell, and Craig Johnson all come to mind.

We are introduced to Cork’s family at the outset.  Three children, Jenny, a precocious fourteen-year-old, Steven, five years old, eleven-year-old Annie, and his wife Nancy Jo.  Cork is concerned about his children as he and Nancy Jo, a powerful lawyer in Aurora, MN have separated, and he is trying to keep the family together.  The core of the plot begins to unfold immediately as the local paper boy Paul LeBeau finds the body of Judge Robert Parrant in his home when delivering the daily paper after hearing an explosion.   Cork is contacted by Paul’s mother Darla as Paul has gone missing.  The problem is that Cork is no longer sheriff, but many townspeople turn to him when they have problems.

Ken Kruegr

(Author, William Kent Krueger)

In a town like Aurora, population 3752 this type of incident is rare and exceptionally disturbing.  For Cork, who is part Irish, and Anishinaabe Indian who was once a cop on the dangerous southside of Chicago horrible crimes are nothing new. The death of the judge and the missing boy will lead Cork on a path of discovery that will hit very close to home.  Darla believes her son has been kidnapped by her husband, Joe Johns who has experienced many bad breaks in the past and has turned to alcohol.

Krueger develops the backgrounds of his characters very slowly.  Once completed, the insights into each character, allows the reader to understand why people act as they do.  In the case of Cork, it goes back to the death of his father at the age of fourteen when Sam Winter Moon takes him under his wing.  Fast forwarding to the period when he was sheriff, we find ourselves in the midst of conflict between the Anishinaabe Indians and local resort owners on Iron Lake which falls in part on the Indian reservation.  During a demonstration dealing with control of the lake Cork is confronted by a demonstrator who he is forced to shoot leading to a recall election that costs Cork his job.  The recall was pushed by Judge Parrant.    Later Cork is haunted by the fact that he may have over reacted, but he is cleared of any wrongdoing.  Other background that Krueger provides deals with  the development of a casino on the reservation and other financial opportunities for the white community as well as Native-Americans.  Krueger does an exceptional job seamlessly integrating the past, which include Native-American myths, and questionable financial activities.

Krueger develops a fascinating group of characters that dominate the story.  Tom Griffin, a priest who is known for his ancient motorcycle and snowmobile has the nickname of “St. Kawasaki.”  Wanda Manydeeds is a tough woman who runs a shelter on the Iron Lake reservation and in the past was part of the American Indian Movement and is the sister of Joe Johns.  Sam Winter Moon, Cork’s father’s closest friend and is steeped in Native-American myth and culture.  Molly Nurmi, Cork’s friend and waitress at Johnny’s Pinewood Broiler.  Helmuth Hanover lost a leg in Vietnam and is a pugnacious newspaper editor at the Aurora Sentinel.  Sandy Parrant, the judge’s son, a developer, politician, and a man not to trust.  Henry Meloux, the Anishinaabe medicine man.  Wally Schanno, the new sheriff.  Harlan Lytton, an unstable man who lived in the woods with his dog Jack the Ripper.  There are other important characters particularly as they relate to the Minnesota Civilian Brigade, a militia that has its own agenda.

As the plot plays out Cork is confronted by a number of personal issues, and his life begins to deteriorate, but a number of murders recenters his outlook and he wonders why they all seem to lead back to him.  The murders appear disparate but the key to the novel is how Krueger ties them all together including old Native-American myths.

The book is an enjoyable read that captures the readers attention from the outset.  Krueger has the ability to draw emotional responses from the reader as they become immersed in each character.  For me it is obvious the respect that Krueger holds for Native-Americans and the landscape of Northern Minnesota which provides a wonderful setting for the novel.  Lastly, I was unable to put it down, and cannot wait to begin the second iteration of Cork O’Conner, BOUNDARY WATERS.

Winter scene on a rural northern Minnesota farm Stock Photo - 4288501

(Rural Northern Minnesota)

THE SIBERIAN DILEMMA by Martin Cruz Smith

Image result for map of siberia in russia

A number of years ago novelist Martin Cruz Smith introduced readers to Moscow detective Arkady Renko in his landmark work, GORKY PARK.  Since that time Smith has developed the reputation as the premier practitioner of the Russian crime novel that includes POLAR STAR, STALIN’S GHOST, TATIANA, and WOLVES EAT DOGS.  Smith’s latest and ninth rendition of the Renko series is THE SIBERIAN DILEMMA which measures up nicely with his previous work, but it is a bit understated and does not rise to the level of intensity as a number of other works.

The story takes place mostly in the Siberian city of Chita and Lake Baikal as Renko is confronted with trying to keep his “girlfriend” journalist Tatiana Petrovna safe, carrying out the wishes of his boss, State Prosecutor Zurin, and untangling the machinations of Russian oligarchs, Mikhail Kuznetsov, referred to as “the hermit billionaire,” and Boris Benz.  Renko remains the irreverent character he has projected in other novels as he continues his humorous sarcasm amongst his constant wisecracks particularly targeting Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian system of justice as is highlighted by the false arrest of Aba Makhmud, a Chechen falsely accused of trying to assassinate State Prosecutor Zurin.

Image result for picture of lake baikal russia
(Lake Baikal, Russia, the deepest lake in the world)

Smith provides the underside of Putin’s Moscow as oppressive policing, corruption, illegal wealth and other such issues are obvious to the reader.  The plot centers on Tatiana’s research and writing and Renko’s need to protect her.  Tatiana has traveled to Siberia covering a story centering Kuznetsov who is an idealistic oligarch (an oxymoron!) who has spent five years in prison after criticizing Putin and his cronies but is a candidate for president.  Tatiana is helping to edit a book Kuznetsov is writing, but the oligarch has a relationship with Boris Benz, a more traditional oligarch who is only out for himself and his money.  The problem is that as Victor, Renko’s partner points out “Tatiana is fatally attracted to dangerous stories, and you are attracted to her.  It makes for inevitable consequences.”

It is clear that both oligarchs have their own agendas and as usual in dealing with Russia it involves oil.  The question for Renko is that he does not know who he can trust as well as being inhibited by the fact he is in love with Tatiana.  As usual, as in other Renko novels he becomes flummoxed before he sharpens his perspective as the plot reaches a new level of suspense as the extraction of natural resources dominates.

Image result for photo of chita russia

Smith introduces a number of new characters, chief among them is Rinchin Bolot who Renko met on the flight to Siberia.  Bolot describes himself as a “factotum,” or “a general servant,”  as well as a shaman.  Bolot will make himself indispensable to Renko and he seems to turn up at the most important parts of the story and Renko could not have survived without him.  Another interesting character is Saran, a pretty young lady who manages the Admiral Kolchak Hotel in Chita and will develop a warm relationship with Renko.

Smith’s 9th installment is a thriller by definition, but for most of the book is on a meandering path, and one wonders when the author will turn up the suspense a notch.  About two thirds of the way into the book he finally does, as Renko is attacked by a bear while at the same time there is an important assassination.  Aside from bears, Renko’s biggest problem is the box that Zurin has placed him.  Despite this uptick in suspense the story remains uneven.  But, despite this weakness Smith has written a fine novel that should not disappoint his readership – but then again it might.

Image result for map of siberia in russia964 × 529