Review 1750: The Final Murder

Anne Holt’s Stubo and Vik series books are so far suspenseful, and her characters are convincing. I enjoyed The Final Murder but found it a bit far-fetched.

Johanne Vik and Adam Stubo are a couple five years after the events of the last book, and Johanne has just given birth to their daughter. She hasn’t been sleeping, and she is worried that the new baby may exhibit symptoms of the undiagnosed condition of Kristiane, her first child.

A TV personality is found dead in a bizarre murder with her tongue cut out, split, and placed in an elaborate origami bowl. Despite the efforts of Adam’s team, they cannot find anyone who bore her a grudge. Then a rising young politician is found crucified. The team begins to be afraid they have a serial murderer of celebrities.

Something about the murders seems familiar to Johanne. After the third one, she realizes that it is not just about celebrities—someone is re-creating five unrelated murders that Johanne’s FBI mentor regularly talks about in his lectures. We readers periodically check in on the murderer and know that she is a woman.

To explain my problems with this mystery, I have to reveal a spoiler, so stop reading now if you don’t want to know more. The murderer is actually targeting Johanne with these murders, trying to see if she can catch her. I found the re-creation idea a little iffy, but this plot point seems more like the old-fashioned diabolical mastermind challenging the detective—sort of Holmes/Moriarty—the kind of thing that has always seemed ridiculous and unlikely to me. I also felt frustrated by the ending, which I will not reveal.

Don’t misunderstand me, though. I still enjoyed reading the book and look forward to the next one, although I find Johanne a bit neurotic.

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Review 1748: Black Tide

I understand Peter Temple’s Jack Irish series is classified as hard-boiled crime, which is usually too much for me, but Temple’s writing is so effortless and funny and his characters so interesting that reading these books is a pleasure.

In this second book of the series, Jack is trying to help Des Connors, an old friend of his father. Des’s son Gary has borrowed all of Des’s savings and disappeared. Further, he has mortgaged Des’s house and not paid the bills. If Jack can’t find Gary, Des will be homeless and penniless.

Jack is also involved with his friends Harry and Cam in finding and betting on unlikely racehorses. While involved in this pursuit, they uncover serious cheating at the track.

One of the pleasures of this series besides its carefully constructed plots and punchy dialogue is the full life Temple has constructed for Jack. There is his bunch of elderly pals at the bar, who are obsessed with his dad’s old footie team, his woodworking apprenticeship under his severe teacher, Charlie, his disreputable clients, and his love life. This isn’t going so well as Linda Hillier has taken a job in Sydney.

As Jack looks for Gary, the plot becomes more and more tangled, and he keeps encountering dead bodies. These are really fun, exciting thrillers.

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Review 1724: The Mist

Here’s another book for RIP XVI.

I didn’t realize until just now that The Mist is the third book in a trilogy. Having not read the other two books, I’m not sure how much it would have affected my reading if I had read them.

Detective Hulda Hermannsdóttir is back at her desk after a traumatic experience. She is having trouble focusing, however, on the case of a missing young woman. Then she is called out of the office to investigate bodies found on a remote farm in the east of Iceland.

The story goes back three months to show what happened to Hulda and on the farm. Erla and her husband Einar are snowbound at the farm just before Christmas when a mysterious man appears at their door, claiming to be separated from his friends on a hiking trip. Erla is immediately suspicious of him, and he certainly acts suspiciously. But Einar invites him to stay until the snowstorm stops.

This novel is complicated and at times suspenseful, but I had some problems with it. First, it’s obvious almost immediately what’s wrong with Hulda’s teenage daughter. Second, most of the action of the novel is triggered when a character receives a letter. The next obvious step would have been for him to take it to the police, whom he is already working with. But does he? Of course not. There wouldn’t be much of a story if he did, but novelists should avoid such silly pitfalls.

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Review 1722: Punishment

Here’s another book for RIP XVI.

I thought maybe I had read an Anne Holt mystery years ago, but it appears not. In any case, I got interested in reading her Stubo/Vik series after watching Modus, a Swedish television series based on her Norwegian characters. It’s interesting, having seen the television series first, to notice the changes they’ve made.

Johanne Vik, a university researcher doing work on convicted criminals who maintain their innocence, is contacted by an old lady who has long been convinced of a miscarriage of justice. In 1988, Aksel Seier was convicted of the rape and murder of a young girl based on flimsy evidence. After he served nine years, he was mysteriously released from prison and all the case paperwork disappeared. The woman wants Johanne to find out if Seier was innocent. Although this is not the kind of work Johanne does, she becomes interested in the case and agrees to help.

At about the same time, Detective Adam Stubo sees Johanne on television and asks her to help brainstorm the case of a series of kidnapped and murdered children. At first, she refuses but is drawn in by his persistence.

All along, we follow the story of Emilie, one of the kidnapped children who has not been killed, as well as the thinking of the murderer. This lends an extra layer of suspense about whether she will be saved.

I think this is a complex and well-plotted novel with interesting characters. There are a couple of huge coincidences at the end that I’m not sure of, but I am more than willing to continue the series.

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Review 1703: The Searcher

Tana French has gone slightly afield from her usual dark mysteries in The Searcher. For one thing, this novel doesn’t involve the Dublin Murder Squad. For another, although morally murky, the novel isn’t as dark as most of the others.

Cal retired to Western Ireland from the Chicago police force, because he felt himself losing his moral certainty. He has purchased a dilapidated farm, which he is fixing up, and he has formed a sort of friendship with Mart, an older neighbor.

Lately, though, he feels like he’s being spied on. One night when he has that feeling, he climbs out the bathroom window and catches someone looking in the living room window, but the person gets away. A few days later, while he is working outside, he hears someone approach and tells him to come out. The person is a boy, about twelve, named Trey. Cal gives him work to do, and it takes about three visits before Trey tells him what he wants. His brother Brendan, 19, has disappeared. Trey has heard Cal is a policeman and wants him to find Brendan.

Cal soon believes that Brendan got involved with some bad people from Dublin, but no one will tell him anything. Then he finds himself being warned off by different parties. At the same time, someone is killing his neighbors’ sheep.

French likes to work in the gray areas of morality, and The Searcher continues this interest. I think it is one of her best.

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Review 1698: Bad Debts

My husband and I binge-watched all of the Jack Irish series and movies early during the pandemic. That led me to look for the first Jack Irish book, Bad Debts.

Jack Irish is a lawyer who has moved from high-powered cases to investigations and more mundane law work after the murder of his wife. He doesn’t immediately return the call of an ex-client, Danny McKillop, because he frankly doesn’t remember him. He misses another phone call from McKillop saying he’s in trouble and asking Jack to meet him in a pub parking lot. Jack looks up his file and finds that McKillop was found guilty of a hit and run of a political activist, while he was drunk. When Jack tries to contact McKillop, he learns he is dead, having been shot by police in the parking lot where he asked Jack to meet him.

Jack figures he probably didn’t do a great job of defending McKillop, since he was drunk most of the time after his wife’s murder. The evidence against him seemed solid: McKillop was found passed out in his car with Jeppeson’s DNA on the hood. But when Jack talks to Danny’s brother, he says that Danny was seen passed out some distance from his car shortly before the hit and run. McKillop’s wife says he had been a model citizen since he got out of jail, contrary to the police explanation of the shooting.

Jack decides to investigate the original incident, opening up a big can of worms.

This is an enjoyable novel, tightly plotted, full of action yet witty and well-written, a little more hard-boiled than I usually read but with appealing characters. The setting is a gritty Melbourne, Australia. Unlike most investigators in fiction, Jack has a well-developed other life, working horse-racing deals with Harry Strang and his colleague Cam, hanging out with the guys at the local, and learning woodworking from a master. And he meets Linda Hillier, an attractive reporter. I will definitely read more.

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Review 1619: The Outcast Dead

Elly Griffiths has always been good with characterization, but her mysteries are getting harder to solve, too. So, all is good with the series so far.

Forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway is working on a TV series after her discovery during the excavation of castle grounds of a skeleton that may belong to “Mother Hook,” a Victorian childminder who was famously executed for murdering the children in her care. The show’s historian, Frank Barker, believes, however, that Jemima Green may have actually been innocent.

For Inspector Nelson’s part, he and his team are investigating the death of Liz Donaldson’s baby son. Her two other sons died as babies, but the deaths were found to be from natural causes. Something feels off about this one, though, and the forensics team finds indications of smothering.

The Donaldson case isn’t going very well when the baby of another couple disappears. This time, the police find a note saying that the baby is with the Childminder. Then another child disappears.

This time, I figured this one out about the time that one of the detectives did. Griffiths’ novels are always atmospheric and entertaining, and I continue to be interested in the characters.

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Review 1585: Eight Perfect Murders

I had a hard time rating this high-concept mystery on Goodreads, because there were things I liked about it and things I didn’t like. Overall, however, I felt it was a fast-paced novel with a love for books, especially old-fashioned crime novels.

Malcolm Kershaw has a visit from the FBI at the beginning of the novel. He is part owner of a mystery and crime bookstore in Boston. Years ago, when he first went to work there, he wrote a blog post named “Eight Perfect Murders” in which he listed eight mystery novels with near-perfect murders. Agent Mulvey has figured out that someone is using the list to re-create not the murders but the spirit of the murders. Moreover, one of the victims is someone Malcolm knew, an annoying woman who used to frequent his bookstore before she moved away. Agent Mulvey wants Malcolm to help figure out if any other deaths are related to his list.

Right away, I knew Malcolm wasn’t a trustworthy narrator, and almost immediately I guessed there would be some connection to the death of his wife, Claire. The novel takes lots of twists and turns, but I expected some of them. Still, it clipped right along, was well written, and was full of references to fiction I loved.

Why did I have trouble rating it? First, it got bogged down in the explanations at the end. The murderer explains things, and then Malcolm explains what he’s been holding back, and it’s a lot. Finally, I don’t know that I like so much these high-concept twisty-turny novels that are so popular lately, possibly because they have too many twists to be believable. They remind me of the old mysteries that are only concerned about the difficult puzzle, only with better characterization.

Then again, the book is strongly atmospheric, set in a frozen, stormy Boston, and I liked most of it. There are almost no clues about the identity of the murderer but lots of clues about Malcolm’s own secrets.

I see that Goodreads has this novel labeled Malcolm Kershaw #1. I hope that’s a mistake. I’m just saying that because of the ending. Now I bet you’re mystified. (Note: I am posting this review from my notes about six months after I read the book, and I can remember almost nothing about it. That doesn’t happen very often, so I doubt that this book is going to become a classic mystery.)

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Review 1524: Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead

Mrs. Dusczejko lives in a tiny Polish village near the Czech Republic, so remote that they get Polish or Czech police depending upon where in town they call from. In the early morning, her neighbor, whom she calls Oddball, comes to get her, telling her he has found their other neighbor’s body. Although she hates this other neighbor, whom she calls Big Foot, because he’s a hunter and she believes it’s a crime to kill animals, she helps him make the body decent before the police arrive. Later, it’s determined that he died from choking on a deer bone.

Mrs. Duszejko is an eccentric old lady who spends her time doing astrological charts, helping an ex-student translate William Blake’s writings into Polish, and writing letters to the police complaining about poaching. After a few months, though, her life is disturbed when men in the area begin dying in a series of bizarre killings.

This is an unusual crime story that’s not so concerned about the criminal case as it is about the activities of its characters. It is sometimes funny and always atmospheric. I really enjoyed it.

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Review 1508: The Gallows Pole

In a remote Yorkshire valley in 1767, David Hartley and his brothers call together all the clippers in the area. Clippers have for centuries been debasing the coin of the realm by clipping edges off to make counterfeit coin. Hartley is already known as King David in the region for his control of the valley that his home lies above on the moor, but now he declares that they will all become rich by becoming systematic. All the people in the area will send him coins, and in return they will all get a portion of the proceeds. To make more money, he brings in a man called the Alchemist, who will make more convincing coins. Any man who refuses to participate is brought into line.

Within two years, this gang has caused enough disturbance in the local economy that an exciseman, William Deighton, is brought in to try to bring the Hartleys and their gang to law. James Broadbent, a member of the gang who thinks he hasn’t been rewarded enough, decides to turn informant.

On the one hand, this novel is at times lyrical, especially in evoking the landscape, and it is based on true events. On the other hand, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the subject or the brutality. There is a lot of fascination in our society with people who are essentially gangsters that I don’t share. Although Myers tells most of the story in a fair-handed way, he does seem to come down a bit on the side of the thieves, even as he recounts some crimes against innocent men. This book won the Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize for 2018, but I’m not sure it’s the one I would have picked.

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