The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

January 25, 2014


May, 1981. Northern Ireland. Bombs, assassinations, torture, hunger strikes, riots. Sectarian violence is the clean label the journalists slap over the ugly and complex brutality known gently and woefully as The Troubles. If you're present, you're involved. There's no escape short of emigration. And it's not as simple as Catholic vs. Protestant, or Irish vs. English, or police vs citizens. Because it's all of that and more. It's rich vs. poor, man vs. woman, gays vs. straights, expectations vs. reality, loyalty vs. betrayal. It's duality in everything, every person, every situation. And author Adrian McKinty captures it all, in a luxurious clarity of language and reasoning that are both intelligent and easily followed.

In Sean Duffy, a  young detective sergeant in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, McKinty has created a fascinating character: Duffy is Catholic, a rarity in the 1981 RUC (and perhaps still today for all I know), who buys a house in a Protestant district because that's the house he wants and can afford. Clearly the Protestants aren't going to be happy with him, but the IRA condemn Catholics in the RUC as traitors - in other words, it's open season on Catholic cops, from either side. One would think these facts alone would be enough to keep Duffy on his toes 24/7. But no, he occasionally forgets to check under his car for bombs. Duffy's a trifle laid back, yet he can also be described as an excitable boy, one who does not readily cope with frustration created by those who ought to know better.

When a murder case, and then a second one, land in Duffy's lap and those killings have nothing to do with The Troubles, but appear to be the work of a serial killer, our lad has to ask himself: If you want to be a serial killer in Belfast, why not join one of the paramilitary groups that encourage murder? That way, you get your killing done and get it approved as well, with lots of people willing to cover for you. Why make yourself stand out? And then a young woman, missing for months, is found dead, an apparent case of suicide, and what had been a complex case for Duffy now becomes positively labyrinthine. Before it's over, this case will reveal to Duffy his own dual nature, one that is just as complex as the world he inhabits.

All praise to McKinty for his depiction of Belfast in the throes of civil war:
There was trouble up in Belfast again. Potassium nitrate flares falling through the darkening sky. A Gazelle helicopter flying low over the lough water. Little kids walking past the police station showing each other the best technique for lobbing Molotov cocktails over the fence. Jesus, what a nightmare.

This was a city crucified under its own blitz.

This was a city poisoning its own wells, salting its own fields, digging its own grave...

Yet the author never sacrifices story, plot or pacing to accomplish the vivid creation of this historical setting. The story is a cracking good whodunnit, leavening the tragedy with wit and humor and fine characterization. Not to mention sticking very close to actual events. THE COLD COLD GROUND is the first in McKinty's trilogy about Sean Duffy and The Troubles. I'll be purchasing the second installment, I HEAR THE SIRENS IN THE STREET, very soon. Like today.


January 19, 2014

THE WAYS OF EVIL MEN by Leighton Gage

The Awana tribe in the rainforest of Brazil is dying: Only 41 Awana remain, and they know they are the last of their people. A matter of years only, and there will be no more Awana. But some person or persons felt the need to hurry things along. When Amati and his eight-year-old son return from a day of hunting, they find everyone in the village dead. No wounds, no signs of violence at all, but from the youngest child to the oldest citizen, all are dead. Poisoned, perhaps, but how? Amati is convinced that the white men from the nearest town are responsible. The local representative from the government for Indian affairs, Jade Calmon, demands that the deaths be investigated, but the local police chief says that what happens on the reservation is beyond the scope of his authority. The regional delegado de polícia is far too lazy to care what happens hundreds of miles away. But Jade is a tireless crusader, and she knows someone who knows someone who pulls Federal Inspector Mario Silva and his team into investigating. It isn't long before genocide mushrooms into another murder, a lynching, a kidnapping, a missing person, domestic abuse, betrayal, and still more murder. Silva and his team have their hands full just trying to get a racist, elitist, corrupt, and fearful populace to talk to them, never mind trying to exhume bodies and collect evidence (or even make phone calls) in the remote and deadly rainforest where even the most macho of men would never dare to be caught after dark.

The town of Azevedo will perhaps remind the reader of the Old West of the United States, where the nearest law enforcement was often too far away to be of any value, where white people repeatedly stole tribal lands and Native Americans were treated as either juvenile imbeciles or dangerous lunatics. The situations in this book may also bring to mind the premise of the film, Bad Day at Black Rock, in which a stranger in town encounters suspicion and the threat of violence, though no one in town will say why the town is so full of, well, evil. Luckily for Inspector Silva, he is not alone, as Spencer Tracy was in the film. Silva has his trusted team of detectives and medical examiner to help him; he also has the albatross of a very pretty, highly ambitious journalist figuratively draped around his neck. And the determination of that journalist provides an internal threat to the security of Silva's team that he could not have foreseen.

The Mario Silva series comes to a close with this seventh book and the sad, too soon, passing of author Leighton Gage last summer. And what a terrific and complex final story he has given us, condensing into highly readable form five centuries of continuous assaults on the indigenous people of Brazil, and the environmental disasters stemming from toxic mining and the continued decimation of the rainforest.  Gage neatly outlines the vast gulf between the lives of the haves and the have nots, not to mention the bigotry and corruption of both groups, all the while maintaining both an impending sense of danger and a sharp-witted camaraderie between the members of Silva's team. It is the humor, cynical though it may be, that prevents the reader from being crushed under the weight of the evil abounding in the small town of Azevedo. That humor, plus the humanity and unpredictability of Silva, a man whose work may be the law, but whose primary interest is justice, all make for wonderful reading.


  • Series: Chief Inspector Mario Silva
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Soho Crime (January 21, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1616952725
  • ISBN-13: 978-1616952723

January 12, 2014

BLACK SKIES by Arnaldur Indridason

Inspector Erlandur, the main character in Arnaldur Indridason's Icelandic police series, has taken some time off. While he's away, one of his team, Sigurdur Óli, never the most dedicated of crimefighters, takes the spotlight.

Sigurdur Óli has a friend who shocks the detective by revealing his wife-swapping behavior, then asks Sigurdur Óli to talk to a husband-and-wife amateur team of blackmailers and get them to knock it off. But when Sigurdur Óli goes to talk to them, he finds the woman has been beaten nearly to death and her home trashed. And Sigurdur Óli nearly gets his own head bashed in before the assailant takes to his heels. In the ensuing investigation, Sigurdur Óli does not quite reveal all the facts - trying to protect his friend, of course - to his colleagues and refuses to recuse himself from the case. The reader can safely trust that his failure to do so will come back to bite him in the derrière

While trying to track down the assailant, a homeless man, Andres, makes Sigurdur Óli the object of some mysterious declarations and sends the policeman a soundless 12-second filmstrip that shows a naked and terrified young boy. Sigurdur Óli can never pin down the constantly-in-motion Andres long enough to get direct answers, but then, even if he could, Andres's mental condition and habitually drunken state are not likely to improve his coherence. While Sigurdur Óli wrestles with these puzzles, he must also grapple with mounting personal issues including the break up of his long-term relationship and the revelation that his father has prostate cancer.

Throughout this series, Sigurdur Óli has never been a sympathetic character, and the same is true in this book. He is cold, cynical, callous, and profoundly snobbish. By book's end, the reader still may not like this character, but there will be dawning respect as his personal crises do cause Sigurdur Óli to spend some time in self-examination, and to find himself wanting -- and wanting to be better. In past books Sigurdur Óli has not been a hardworking detective, and his self-absorption and superior attitude have made him insensitive to nuances in witness statements. In BLACK SKIES, his sudden solitude makes him more willing to put in the hours: long, dull, thankless hours of legwork. His introspection awakens in him a new awareness that the people around him are people, not stereotypes. And his contact with the pitiful, broken Andres helps him toward a better understanding of why Sigurdur Óli is the way he is.

As bleak as this book is - and its title does it justice - as long as a character like Sigurdur Óli can begin finding greater humanity in himself, there is hope for us all.

RECOMMENDED but with the added caution that this book is at times so bleak that reading it in one sitting is not advised. Walk away a time or two, and maintain perspective.

January 5, 2014

PURGATORY by Ken Bruen

Oh, sure, I was prepared to like PURGATORY -- the book, not the concept -- from the outset. Ken Bruen? Jack Taylor? Wit and poetry and irreverence and, natch, violence? Just my cuppa.

But when Bruen introduces me to a quotation from Mark Twain, dissing Jane Austen? I went from pure reading pleasure straight on to literary paradise. No stops for purgatory -- the concept, not the book -- along the way.

Want to know what Twain said? Sure, you do. If you are as sickened as I am by the constant parade of cinematic pap for what amounts, IMHO, to little more than a collection of 19th-century soaps occasionally breathed on by the faintest breeze of humor, you want to know (if you don't already) what he said. And if you are one of the Army of Austenites, ready to take up teaspoonly cudgeons in her defense, you want to know, too, so that you might gird your loins for literary battle. So. What Twain said was:
'Any library is a good library that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen. Even if it contains no other book.'
You can't imagine my delight at reading that. Oh, Ken Bruen, how much I owe you for introducing me to that line! And knowing a bit about Twain, just enough really, it seemed likely that he had more than that to say about Austen's books. So I went looking and found, for the vindictive pleasure of we few, we happy few, we band of Anti-Austenites, this pair of nasty gems:
'I haven't any right to criticize books, and I don't do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can't conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read 'Pride and Prejudice' I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.
                             -- Letter to Joseph Twichell, 13 September 1898 
'To me his prose is unreadable -- like Jane Austen's. No, there is a difference. I could read his prose on salary, but not Jane's. Jane is entirely impossible. It seems a great pity that they allowed her to die a natural death.
                             -- Letter to W. D. Howells, 18 January 1909

No, please, don't anyone send me any impassioned defenses of Ms. Austen's creations, or of any of the works that sprang (sprung? springed? spronged?) from them. It would be quite useless. Neither of us will persuade the other. Instead I will admit here and now to being a literary heathen. And I will continue to laugh every time I read one of Mr. Twain's remarks about her work. You may consign me, not to purgatory (the place, not -- you know), but directly to perdition if you like. I shall be happy to shake Mr. Twain's hand upon my arrival there.

Which locale, one muses, may be where Jack Taylor is heading. Anyone who has read much of the series probably thinks Jack has either already been to perdition or long been doomed to eventually end there. And yet, here in PURGATORY -- the book, not the other -- Jack seems to be managing his vices and character flaws better than he ever has; backsliding a bit now and again, but not only making a recovery, but wanting to make a recovery. Wanting to avoid the violence, the drugs, the booze, the cigarettes. Jack even manages not to immediately lay verbal waste to his arch-enemy, Father Malachy, when he discovers the ill-natured padre is reading FIFTY SHADES OF GREY. No doubt Jack is saving his barbs for his final downward spiral into perdition so that he has that one last feel-good moment before eternal damnation.

No, this isn't much of a review of Ken Bruen's fine book, is it? But what I said a few paragraphs back, about wit and poetry and irreverence and violence, that all holds true. This book is trademark Bruen in that, yes, his fans will find what they expect to find in a Jack Taylor book. And PURGATORY is also trademark Bruen in that his fans will find what they least expect to find as well. This is why Bruen is still the King of Crime Fiction in my universe.