Sunday, February 24, 2013

Murder of Norman Ware by Rosamund Kendal

Advocate Norman Ware has been murdered in the men's room by the pool in the exclusive San Le Mer eco-estate near Durban, South Africa. The '...murder was the culmination of a series of seemingly unrelated, purely random events.'

Rosamund Kendal builds her story on the lives and actions of 20 people who contributed to Norman Ware's murder—21, if you include Norman himself since he played a part in his own demise. 21 character studies! How can the author pull that off without the story bogging down? In Kendal's case, very well, indeed. The stories-within-a-story are sometimes humorous, poignant in one case, and deliciously cynical when examining politicians, corrupt businessmen, and wealthy suburban dwellers. You'll find some anthropology, sociology, politics, and history worked in. Since at the heart this is a murder, you also get some police procedural and decidedly non-CSI forensic science.

As a reader, I couldn't wait to find out how each person's story fit into the overall scheme. I wasn't disappointed by any piece to the puzzle which is no mean feat when you are juggling this many mini-narratives. After I finished the book and found out how Norman Ware came to be dead, I went back and mapped out the connections between the characters and the murder and marveled at how well the author pulled everything together. I wish I could give some examples but there is no way to do so without spoiling part of the story.

I don't think I've ever read a crime story structured like this one and found it an irresistible, fun read. I think non-South African lovers of a good mystery (such as myself) will enjoy it as well and perhaps learn a bit.

I learned about this book from a brief blurb on Books Live announcing the launch party and found it available for download from It was a happy whim on my part that I gave into impulse and purchased it. How much do I like this book? When it became available on Kindle I purchased a second copy so I would show up as a an Amazon Verified Purchase when I posted my review.

The Murder of Norman Ware is available for the Kindle and in print at Amazon and Adobe DRM epub and print from Kalahari.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Detroit Breakdown by D.E. Johnson

Detroit, Michigan, 1912. A vibrant, active city, the trolleys are packed no matter the time. The automobile industry is booming with the electric vs internal combustion engine question still to be decided. The suffragette movement is going strong.

A late night anonymous call takes Elizabeth Hume and Will Anderson to Eloise, the insane asylum outside of Detroit. Her cousin, Robert Clarke, a long-time resident there, is accused of strangling another patient. But Robert says it was the Phantom. Francis Beckwith, son of the hospital administrator and himself a schizophrenic, agrees. Francis is obsessed with  The Phantom of the Opera, and says the murder was committed with a Punjab lasso, just as in the book. Furthermore, there have been three other murders committed in the same manner.

Elizabeth wants to clear her cousin but there is something fishy going on at Eloise. The Asylum is a small town with its own police force and gates have slammed shut against outsiders. Frantic for information —Elizabeth can't even find out where Robert is being held —Elizabeth agrees to let William get himself committed so that he can continue the investigation from the inside. For her part, Elizabeth forms a plan to become a volunteer at the hospital. With the plans in effect, Detroit Breakdown shifts into thriller mode with plenty of action to bring the story to a perilous and satisfying conclusion.

Detroit Breakdown was an unexpected treat. I don't often read historicals but I accepted Detroit Breakdown as a review copy and I was quite pleased with the reading experience.

This is the third in a series featuring Elizabeth Hume and Will Anderson. As such, there is a lot of backstory. The author doesn't do a data dump of everything that happened previously but integrates references to prior events into the story as the characters experience feelings of self-doubt or guilt. What is soon obvious is that the Elizabeth and Will are tortured souls— emotionally, psychologically, and, in Will's case physically. The story can be enjoyed without knowing the entire backstory but I'm going to follow up by reading the first two books: The Detroit Electric Scheme and Motor City Shakedown.

If you are looking for a book with a strong, independent female protagonist then this book should satisfy. Elizabeth comes across as the stronger, more adept of the two characters. She is an active suffragette, preparing for the vote to ratify the 19th amendment. She owns two guns and shows herself capable of using them. She has vulnerabilities and insecurities but is a determined, proactive woman. I quite like her. Both she and Will appear to be prone to drug abuse but have overcome that by the events here. Will's role is to take the physical brunt. Here and in the previous books, he suffers horrific physical trauma. Both Elizabeth and Will are complex characters with backgrounds they have to suppress to solve the mystery.

I visited Detroit several years ago and it is fascinating to read about a time when it was thriving. This being Detroit, the competing automobile industries are part of the story. Will's father owns Detroit Electric which began as Anderson Electric Car Company. I hadn't thought much about early electric cars before reading this book but it sent me off to Wikipedia where I learned that Detroit Electric was an actual company started by someone named Anderson. Elizabeth drives an electric which allows the author to work in the logistics of owning an electric automobile. Interesting stuff particularly with the battery powered car making a comeback with the hybrids and the Tesla.

The main focus of the story, Eloise, was an actual psychiatric hospital. As in the story, it was self sufficient in many ways with its own train stop, police force, fire station, pig farm. It even had the tunnel that figures into the story. The Tales of Eloise web site is an interesting read and it was fun to compare the map included in Detroit Breakdown with the map of the actual institution. Johnson  graphically illustrates the state of psychiatric care at the turn of the century. Have amnesia, don't speak English, the police found it convenient to warehouse problems by sending to the mental hospital. Psychiatric therapy was just emerging when the story is set so we see alternate approaches to treatment that we would consider horrific today.

Detroit Breakdown is a good read particularly if you enjoy a well written historical story. Johnson works the culture, fashion, lifestyle, and technology of the day into the story naturally without leaving readers feeling that they have happened upon entries from an encyclopedia. I like the characters, enough to want to read the first two books in the series. They're flawed human beings which makes them more interesting, even likable. You'd want them on your side in a fight.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Dare Me by Megan Abbott

Last year I was excited to see that Megan Abbott had a new book out. But cheerleaders! Nah, not for me. Jump ahead to January and I'm browsing bookshelves and see Dare Me. "Hold on", I think to myself, "this is Megan Abbott. She wrote the novel Queenpin (a Jim Thompson style noir that I love) and the non-fiction book, The Street was Mine: White Masculinity in Hardboiled Fiction and Film Noir (which I have on permanent loan from the library). She's hardboiled and knows her stuff" and picked up a copy. This was a lesson to me and Megan I'll never doubt you again. I loved the book from page one and consumed it in one sitting. I'm late to the game and won't be doing a full-on review but, for those readers who know nothing about Dare Me, these blogs wrote what I wish I had so check them out:
Full Stop
Three Guys One Book
Jen's Bookshelves
Spinetingler Magazine

Full Stop calls this a "suburban noir" and it's a good description. The teenagers in Dare Me are dark, hardboiled, and like a gangland mob with a rigid hierarchy and a vicious enforcement of discipline. Mean Girls. Hah! This cheerleading squad would eat them for breakfast.

The crime isn't the main focus of the story which is the power struggle between Beth, the head girl, her faithful lieutenant Addy, and the new coach, Colette French. The story is pretty self-contained in that the rest of the high school is more or less a shadow behind the actions of the squad.

Megan's prose is perfect and the lyrical flow of the first person narration pulled me into the story. The characters became scary real the more I read and I was both fascinated and repelled by them.

When you read Dare Me, I recommend you make a note of the cheerleader routines Megan describes. There are You Tube videos demonstrating all of them. Stop reading and take a look at what the girls are doing. Remarkable stuff.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Exhibit A by Sarah Lotz

Rape. An ugly word. A heinous act. Is justice possible if the rapist is someone whose job it is to provide protection, a police officer? Sarah Lotz's first legal drama explores this question.

George Allen is a Cape Town lawyer. He can't afford a pro bono case but when a woman he met in a bar (and whom he'd like to know better) asks him to help her sister who says she was raped in a police cell by a policeman, he agrees to investigate. George heads off to Barryville, a small town in the Klein Karoo. Backing him up is Patrick McLennan, known to the entire legal community (and his wife) as the Poison Dwarf, 'one of the most feared advocates in Cape Town' who makes up for his short stature by being a 'total and utter bastard'. In the backseat is Exhibit A, a scruffy dog Patrick claims is a witness to a crime. The many irregularities they find resolve George and Patrick to pursue the case all the way to the courtroom.

Aside: The South African legal system is modeled after the British. George is an attorney. He meets with clients and handles their legal needs like contracts, divorces, etc. If the case goes to court, the attorney briefs an advocate who is an expert in arguing cases in front of a judge.

Exhibit A is based on an actual event and dramatizes the serious problem of rape in South Africa. The country is reported to lead the world in rape cases and a 2010 study reveals that a quarter of the males in South Africa have admitted to committing a rape. And those are just the known cases. Searching South African news also shows that rape by police officers is disturbingly common. Some readers might prefer a little more distance between their fiction and reality but I think the author's decision to solidly anchor the story in a national crises makes it a stronger.

Lotz has a deft touch creating her characters who are among my favorites in crime fiction. She also finds a way to include dark, ironic, sarcastic humour to offset a grim topic.  Patrick is often the focus in humorous situations being short, Scottish, and constantly eating, but his excellence as an advocate is never questioned. Likewise, George, a little down at the heels, practice eking along, and whose love life is a shambles after breaking up with fellow attorney, Val (aka The Witch), has wry observations about himself but still comes across as a lawyer I would engage. Val is George's ex domestic and law partner. She doesn't get as much page time but when she does, it is a treat. She is the target of some of Patrick's best caustic comments. If the author asked me what I wold like to see next in this series, I would ask for a story from before Val and George broke up.

In addition to a good story and characters, the author gives you a good sense of place. You know you are in South Africa. I enjoyed the way she described Barryville in the Klein (Little) Karoo. She lets you feel that you are in one of those 'tiny South African towns that stuck in a time warp and is dripping with small-town prejudice and incipient racist values'. If you enjoy books set in a different country that gives you a feeling for the location then I predict you will enjoy Exhibit A.

Sarah has a second book featuring these characters, Tooth and Nailed. Both are available in Kindle editions here: Exhibit A, Tooth and Nailed. Buy both and maybe she will be encouraged to write a third.
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