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REVIEW: The Cuckoo’s Calling

cuckoos-callingAuthor: Robert Galbraith

2013, Mulholland Books

Filed under: Mystery

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C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 7
Depth..... 4

By now, if you’re reading this, you’ve heard about JK Rowling writing a detective novel (the first of three or more, reportedly) under a closely guarded pen name, which remained guarded for all of about six weeks after publication. To be sure, I’m only reviewing this book because it was written by the author of the Harry Potter books, but I will refer to her by her chosen pseudonym, as I have with other well-known writers’ pen names.

First the good news: when I talked about this book on our most recent podcast, I described it as failing to rise above the morass of mediocre mysteries out there. Since then, I’ve read the second half, and I’m happy to report that it’s much better than the first half. The major downside of Galbraith’s style is a tendency to exhaustively lay out every nuance and detail of the investigation, and so the interview scenes are staggeringly dull, and they mostly come in the first half. After that, the climax of the book gets downright riveting. There isn’t really a unique premise here, and there’s certainly none of the ingenuity and boundless gleeful creativity of the Harry Potter books, but there is a surprisingly well-plotted mystery, and if Galbraith’s editor wields a sharper pen next time, I’d read another one.
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REVIEW: Crashed

crashedAuthor: Timothy Hallinan

2013, Soho Crime

Filed under: Mystery

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C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 7
Depth..... 5

For the first 95% of this book, I mistakenly thought that this was Hallinan’s first novel, and under that umbrella it reads like the promising early work of a writer who might be great someday. As it turns out, this is only the first novel of a new series. Hallinan has actually written dozens of mysteries, including two more in the Junior Bender series in the three months since this one came out.

That’s a whole different situation, and a more unfortunate one. Hallinan’s missteps are structural: his overblown premise and a couple of cartoonish characters stop the novel from reaching its potential, as does his reluctance to fully explore the darkness of what he imagines. If this were his debut, he might well learn and grow from here. But since it’s his 13th book, there’s little hope he’ll learn from his mistakes.

While writing that last paragraph, counting books in Hallinan’s bibliography, I realized that I’ve actually read one of his other mysteries, an Edgar-nominated throwaway mystery notable only because relatively few mysteries take place in Thailand. If I’d remembered that book, I would’ve skipped this one, and indeed, they suffer from the same problems.
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REVIEW: Travels in Elysium

Author: William Azuski

2013, Iridescent Publishing

Filed Under: Literary, Mystery

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 4
Entertainment..... 3
Depth..... 2

Billed in the jacket blurb as a “metaphysical thriller,” Travels in Elysium proves neither particularly enlightening nor thrilling. What it is is a slog, 539 pages of one-track characters having the same conversations on an over-described Greek island.

It actually starts out okay. The writing isn’t terrible, and the setup is pretty good as far as the “thriller” aspects of the novel go. Nicholas Pedrosa is heading for the island of Santorini where he will join an archeological expedition headed by the famous Marcus Huxley. When he arrives, he finds a team wracked with internal rivalry facing a local populace divided over the dig. Some of them like the money it brings their tiny island; others see it as sanctioned looting.

Then some mysterious things start happening. Someone searches Nicky’s luggage before it’s delivered to his lodgings. He learns that his predecessor, Benja, died in an on-site accident after Nicky had already been hired to replace him. Local laborers working the dig report sightings of the undead Benja, and refuse to continue work until an exorcism has been performed. To top it off, it turns out the goal of the dig may be unearthing the lost city of Atlantis.
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REVIEW: Joyland

Author: Stephen King

2013, Hard Case Crime

Filed under: Horror, Mystery

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C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 8
Depth..... 4

I’m not much of a horror reader, so I have little experience reading Stephen King, but since his latest novel ventures into mystery territory, I thought I’d give it a try.

Perhaps my impression is colored a bit by his reputation, but Joyland definitely reads to me like the work of an experienced, competent, slightly bored novelist. There’s a pat mystery with a thrilling (if off-the-shelf) conclusion, but it’s wrapped in quite a bit of meandering, and a substantial B-story that has next to nothing to do with the main plot. It’s not a bad way to spend a couple of afternoons, but if you’re hoping for more than a quick, forgettable book, look elsewhere.

The main character, our narrator, is pretty boring, though everyone tells him he’s special. The worst part of the book is him walking around, thinking his boring thoughts, using up words to get us near 300 pages. His name is Devin Jones (I just had to look that up, is how boring he is), and he’s a college student having a quarter-life crisis because his one and only girlfriend obviously doesn’t want to be his girlfriend anymore, though she’s not quite dumping him.

He takes a summer off from school and works at a South Carolina amusement park called Joyland. Devin meets a couple of lifelong friends, finds that he’s good at dressing up in a big dog costume, and generally has a mediocre summer in terms of general interest. Every detail of this summer, especially the workings of Joyland, is described for us, dragging out the first hundred pages of this book. The best parts are the bits of carny lingo King calls “the Talk,” though they don’t entirely make up for the rest of the dry exposition.

Luckily, after this extended setup, the story picks up in two directions. Devin and his friends Erin and Tom (luckily almost every other character besides Devin is more memorable than he is) hear a story about a murder that happened in Joyland’s Horror House a few years earlier. They visit the Horror House on a day off, and Tom sees the ghost of the girl, which scares him for the rest of his life.

Then they try to solve the mystery of the girl’s murder. I have some quibbles with King’s handling of this mystery—too much supernatural, and the solution is a bit too pat—but overall, if you’re looking for a light mystery, this fits the bill. King certainly knows how to draw out tension and how to feed out plot points bit by bit.

There’s also that tangential B story, about a young boy with muscular dystrophy and his (hot) mother, whom Devin helps. This subplot is wish fulfillment in the vein of The Shawshank Redemption, both satisfying and saccharine in the way that Andy Dufresne’s adventures are.

The thread tying these storylines together is supposedly that some people die before their time, and that’s not fair. It’s quite a lazy throughline for a mystery novel with a murder at its center, but again, look elsewhere for world-bending depth.

So, even though this is my first first-hand experience with King, I think this book fits his reputation. It’s not the work of a great writer, but it’s satisfying in a simple way that I expect from a good pulp writer. I won’t remember it next week, but it made for a pretty fun afternoon read.

Similar books: False Negative, by Joseph Koenig; Lady, Go Die!, by Mickey Spillane; Snow White Must Die, by Nele Neuhaus

A review copy was provided.

REVIEW: He Died With His Eyes Open

Author: Derek Raymond

2006, Serpent’s Tail (originally published 1984)

Filed under: Mystery

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C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 8
Entertainment..... 7
Depth..... 7

I’ve had a tough time finding a book to follow up my last great read, as is usually the case. I’ve started about half a dozen, but none of them held my attention past fifty pages, until I came across this piece by A.L. Kennedy about the 1984 mystery novel He Died with His Eyes Open, the first in the “Factory” mystery series by the British crime writer Derek Raymond.

Kennedy says, “I’ve read He Died With His Eyes Open twice. I don’t know if I could stand to read it again. Like all of Derek Raymond’s work, it has a remarkable and disturbing physicality.” It’s true. Raymond’s world is a grossly imagined one full of lecherous pub governors, filthy apartments, and sadistically violent criminals, though not sociopaths… his characters have more complex psyches than simply amoral monsters.

For a modern mystery reader, this book might be unsatisfying. It’s relatively sparse on plot, following a lone, unnamed detective in the Unexplained Deaths unit at London’s Metropolitan Police. When a middle-aged drunk turns up messily beaten to death, the detective takes it a bit personally and sifts through the victim’s life to find out why. Luckily, the victim left a long series of journals on tapes (thus the cover), and much of the novel simply transcribes these tapes.

There’s a quote at the end of this reprint from Drive author James Sallis, who calls Raymond’s Factory series “literature truly written from the edge of human experience.” That should give you a decent idea of the kind of book we’ve got here. Raymond’s plot essentially sketches out a straight line, and though there’s a rather absurd reveal at the end, the oomph of the novel comes from the messy lives it depicts. 
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REVIEW: Seduction of the Innocent

Author: Max Allan Collins

2013, Hard Case Crime

Filed under: Mystery

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C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 6
Entertainment..... 6
Depth..... 5

Popular depictions of the comic book industry tend to focus on awkward, unwashed readers, hyper-vigilant defenders of their chosen realm of escapism, and the perpetually scoffing retailers who feed their habit. Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons, the cast of Comic Book Men, Dave Lizewski from Kick-Ass; not exactly an intimidating lot. And to the extent film and television depict the writers and artists behind the comics, it’s more of the same stereotypes, but with thwarted ambitions added in.

That pervasive, if inaccurate, image of the subculture would seem an unlikely setting for a murder mystery. But anyone who’s studied the history of comic books, read Gerard Jones’s excellent Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book, and Alan Moore’s excoriation of the industry as founded on vice, knows better. The origins of the medium more closely resembled White Heat than The Big Bang Theory.

Seduction of the Innocent, from Hard Case Crime, is the third in Max Allan Collins’s trilogy of mysteries set in the comic book industry and featuring protagonists Jack and Maggie Starr. As the title alludes, it takes place in the mid 1950s, when Fredric Wertham’s alarmist book of the same name was published, shortly before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority and the bankruptcy of EC Comics. Collins covers the history in a gossamer thin veil – Werner Frederick stands in for Frederic Wertham, Bob Price for Bill Gaines, Hal Feldman for Al Feldstein – then twists the narrative by having the controversial doctor murdered in his hotel room, setting off an investigation that peeks into the turbulent lives of those very real artists.
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REVIEW: The Round House

[This coming of age quasi-mystery novel set on a reservation is a C4 Great Read.]

Author: Lousie Erdrich

2012, Harper

Filed Under: Literary, Mystery

Find it on Goodreads.

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 9
Entertainment..... 8
Depth..... 8

I went into this book (which won the 2012 National Book Award) completely blind, on purpose. When it comes to books that I expect a lot from (hype is one thing, collecting a bunch of awards is another), I sometimes prefer to not read even the jacket copy. So i had no idea what this book was about. My immediate association was to think of Patrick Swayze (Roadhouse; round-house kicks in Roadhouse), and thankfully that was way off the mark.

Before anything else, I was struck by Erdrich’s descriptive prose. Here’s the beautiful opening paragraph: 

Small trees had attacked my parents’ house at the foundation. They were just seedlings with one or two rigid, healthy leaves. Nevertheless, the stalky shoots had managed to squeeze through knife cracks in the decorative brown shingles covering the cement blocks. They had grown into the unseen walls and it was difficult to pry them loose. My father wiped his palm across his forehead and damned their toughness. I was using a rusted old dandelion fork with a splintered handle; he wielded a long, slim iron fireplace poker that was probably doing more harm than good. As my father prodded away blindly at the places where he sensed roots might have penetrated, he was surely making convenient holes in the mortar for next year’s seedlings.

It’s a great description that does a great job of foreshadowing the story to come. This is a story about about a family’s seemingly futile struggle against unseen forces and the pull of decay. It centers around Joe, a young Native American teen on the cusp of maturation, who suddenly finds his world crashing down around him–and the gritty realities of his world weighing on him heavily.
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REVIEW: Snow White Must Die

Author: Nele Neuhaus

2013, Minotaur

Filed under: Mystery, Thriller

Find it at Goodreads

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 5
Entertainment..... 8
Depth..... 3

Nele Neuhaus is evidently the reigning queen of Germany mystery fiction, and it’s not terribly hard to see why. Neuhaus, like other European mystery writers (Stieg Larsson in particular), has a dark view of humanity, and a boring hero to face off against it. In both Snow White Must Die and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a flavorless investigator looks into a crime that leads to a group of seemingly normal citizens. As the investigator digs deeper, he or she discovers that nearly every one of the people he or she meets has a terrible secret, almost nobody has a conscience, and the overall effect of victory is the relief of survival, not the pleasure of triumph.
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REVIEW: Who Could That Be at This Hour?

Author: Lemony Snicket

2012, Little, Brown

Filed under: Mystery, Children’s

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C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 9
Entertainment..... 8
Depth..... 7

The only book I’d previously read by Lemony Snicket (real name: Daniel Handler) is his adult novel Adverbs, which was surprisingly good. Though I quite liked the Lemony Snicket movie, I never got around to trying the Snicket books.

So when Handler/Snicket released the first of a new series, I jumped in. Who Could That Be at This Hour? is the first in the four-part All the Wrong Questions series, which delves into the childhood of the fictional author Snicket, and his apprenticeship to a mysterious organization of freelance detectives/fixers.

After reading the first half of this book, with its noir sensibility and tidy plot, I chose it as one of my best books of 2012. But after finishing it, I have to downgrade it a level because it doesn’t solve its own mystery. The four-part series, it seems, will cover a single mystery broken into four parts, which is quite irritating. 
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REVIEW: The Cocktail Waitress

Author: James M. Cain

2012, Hardcase Crime

Filed Under: Mystery

Find it on Goodreads.

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 8
Depth..... 5

When we meet Joan Medford, the young heroine of Cain’s posthumously published novel, it seems he has hit the bottom. Joan has just returned from the funeral of her abusive husband, whose death she is implicated in. Her young son is staying with her sister-in-law, a woman who makes clear her plans to keep him. Already beaten down by life at just twenty-one, Joan’s situation is so desperate that the job she takes as a cocktail waitress at a local bar, where she is alternately pawed by drunken guests and pressured to solicit herself to the client by a fellow waitress, seems like a stroke of great fortune.

Even this luck cannot hold, though, as Cain has more in store for Joan than even these travails.  Unfortunately for Joan, the bottom is far deeper than she thought.
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