A LITTLE WHITE DEATH by John Lawton

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(London, 1963…Rolling Stones)

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

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

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(October 3, 1963, the Beatles in London)

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

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

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

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

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

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(John Profumo, Conservative politician and British War Minister)

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

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

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

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

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 (London, circa 1963)
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OLD FLAMES by John Lawton

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(Piccadilly Circus, London, 1956)

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

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

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(Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev)

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

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

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(British Prime Minister, Anthony Eden)

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

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

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

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

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

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(Coventry Street, London, 1956)

 

DREGS by Jorn Lier Horst

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(Larvik, Norway)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(Larvik, Norway)

THE HYPNOTIST by Lars Kepler

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(Stockholm, Sweden)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(Stockholm in winter)

 

THE KREMLIN’S CANDIDATE by Jason Matthews

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(Russian President Vladimir Putin)

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

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(CIA headquarters, Langley, VA)

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

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

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

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

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(The Kremlin)

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

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

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THE BOOKWORM by Mitch Silver

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(Moscow State University)

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

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

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(Hitler’s Wolf Lair)

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

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(Anthony Blunt)

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

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(Moscow State University)

 

 

THE SCARRED WOMAN by Jussi Adler-Olsen

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(Copenhagen, Denmark)

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

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

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(Copenhagen policemen at a crime scene)

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

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

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

KINDNESS GOES UNPUNISHED by Craig Johnson

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(“Rocky” statue in Philadelphia)

Craig Johnson’s third iteration of Absaroka County Sheriff Walt Longmire finds our Wyoming law enforcement hero driving cross country with his best friend since childhood, Henry Standing Bear, and Dog (yes, he named his dog, Dog!) to the city of brotherly love.  As KINDNESS GOES UNPUNISHED begins Henry arrives at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts to speak about his Mennonite photograph collection and is accompanied by Longmire who avails himself the opportunity to visit his daughter Cady who is a lawyer in Philadelphia.  In true Longmire fashion as soon as they arrive in town things begin to happen in an unexpected way.

Almost immediately Johnson’s wise cracking and sarcastic dialogue begins to dominate the developing story line as Longmire and Detective Victoria “Vic” Moretti’s mother Lena are chatting when a Philadelphia PD patrolman tracks them down and informed them that Cady has been viciously attacked near the steps of the Franklin Institute.  The situation becomes confusing when Devon Conliffe, Cady’s supposed boyfriend was rather disingenuous about their relationship and his actions at the time of the incident.  This provokes Longmire to begin his own investigation apart from the Philadelphia PD.  As Longmire begins to dig into the assault, Conliffe is thrown off a bridge and dies.  What begins to emerge is that his death may be related to the city’s drug trade.

As the story evolves it appears more and more that Cady’s accident and Conliffe’s death are related.  When Longmire receives a warning to “but out” the drama begins to escalate as Cady remains in a coma and one of the best story tellers around will have captured your interest.

One of the different aspects Johnson introduces is the entire Moretti family.  Lena, Vic’s mother, a beautiful woman who already has had an affair and seems quite taken with Longmire.  Victor, the father is Chief Inspector Field Division North of the Philadelphia PD, Vic’s brothers, two of which are policemen and involved in Cady’s investigation.  Through these characters we are exposed to a dysfunctional family dynamic that explains Vic’s view of life and how the Philadelphia PD operates.

As the drug trade is introduced as well as a corrupt District Attorney it seems that Longmire may be in over his head.  After he gains the confidence of two Philly detectives he has greater access to information to try and figure out why Cady was attacked.  What he learns is very disconcerting and forms the core of the novel.  As the story progresses it seems that Longmire is doing the work of a Philadelphia cop.  He is hindered as the closer he gets to solve the attack, that person is murdered.  But as he continues clues are left in unusual places to assist him.  Longmire has to overcome corruption, self-interest, and politics to finally achieve success.  A success that was encouraged by the concept of hope that permeates the novel.

KINDNESS GOES UNPUNISHED is an entertaining read as it reflects the value of friendship and family.  It places Longmire in a milieu he is unfamiliar with and like a “Clint Eastwood character” he navigates with a western chip on his shoulder.  The book should be a satisfying read for those who have watched the Netflix version, which differs a great deal from the novels or for those who are reading the books as a standalone.

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(“Rocky” statue in Philadelphia)

DEATH WITHOUT COMPANY by Craig Johnson

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Craig Johnson’s sequel to his successful THE COLD DISH which introduced Absaroka County Sheriff Walter Longmire is entitled DEATH WITHOUT COMPANY.  Many of the same characters reappear including retired Sheriff Lucian Connally, who resides at the Durant Home for Assisted Living, Longmire’s constant foil, Victoria (Vic) Moretti, Henry Standing Bear, Longmire’s closest friend since childhood and owner of the Red Pony Bar, as well as Ruby, the person who is really in charge of Longmire’s office, and Cady, Longmire’s daughter who was an attorney in Philadelphia.  Johnson introduces a few new characters, the most important of which are newly hired deputy Santiago Saizarbitoria, and “dog,” Longmire’s new companion that he never got around to giving a name.

The current Longmire episode begins with the seemingly routine death of Mari Baroja at the Durant Home for Assisted Living.  A seemingly normal occurrence at the facility turns out to be a possible investigation as it appears that Lucian was once married to Baroja for three hours over fifty years ago.  It seemed the two ran off to get married at a young age when Baroja’s Basque father and uncles had the marriage annulled.  The first part of the book is dominated by the question, what was Lucian hiding, and why?

Johnson’s empathy for the historical plight of Native-Americans seems to drip off of each page.  His constant references to their treatment by the US government and life on the “rez” (reservation) is present in character dialogue and background descriptions providing the reader with an accurate picture of Native-American life.  Johnson is a very nuanced and descriptive writer as he is able to set a scene and comfortably places the reader among the characters, i.e.,  Lucian’s ruminations of his past life.

The first third of the book is spent reacquainting old reader or acquainting new readers with the main characters and how they interact, and the dynamics of the Baroja’s family, particularly when it emerges that they control a great deal of methane production on the Four Brothers Ranch which they own – production that is worth millions.  All the evidence points to Mari’s death as one of natural causes, until a lab report that she had been poisoned by naphthalene, an ingredient in moth balls.  It turns out that Mari was susceptible to this poison and Lucian’s insistence that she did not die of natural causes finally rings true.  Further evidence of foul play is obvious when Mari’s doctor, the Holocaust survivor Isaac Brumfield is involved in a car accident and is almost killed.  Further, Mari’s granddaughter Lana is attacked in her bakery, but survives. It turns out that Mari was worth millions and had changed her will fourteen times, the last being a few days before she died, and it appears that the case may also rest on a missing can of Metamucil.

From this point on Longmire is in full investigative mode.  He relies on Standing Bear and Vic, his deputy to gather information and evidence concerning family members as it appears they have the most to gain.  He also uses his daughter’s legal expertise as she arrives in the midst of events to celebrate Christmas.  In so doing we learn a great deal of the history of how dysfunctional the Baroja family was, especially once the will is read and it appears the largest portion of Mari’s wealth went to her granddaughter Lana, and her twin daughters Kay and Carol receiving substantially less.

Johnson’s current effort, along with the television series “Longmire” are superb entertainment.  They reflect the avarice of human nature, excellent plot development, and twisted and surprising endings.  I recommend the entire series, both video and the printed word and look forward to KINDNESS GOES UNPUNISHED, the next installment in the Longmire saga.

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THE COLD DISH: A LONGMIRE MYSTERY by Craig Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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