Sunday, November 22, 2020

The Coroner's Lunch (Dr. Siri Paiboun, #1)The Coroner's Lunch by Colin Cotterill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've been meaning to read this series for a long time and have had a couple of volumes of Cotterill's lying around the house forever. This first in a series featuring the reluctant coroner Dr. Siri introduces us to a lot in Laotian culture and history that I hadn't even thought to ask about.

I am a little more ambivalent about the endeavor than I would have been at the time it was written. 2004 is not all that long ago, but it's still on the other side of a watershed moment when more of the general public began to look at things through the lens of critical thinking about cultural appropriation. It's not that I noticed or even think that Cotterill got anything in particular wrong. I'm not in a position to know. It's just that in our very 'woke' moment, a Western writer writing a Laotian character stands out in a different way and raises questions that wouldn't have come up so much when it came out.

Nevertheless, Dr. Siri is an engaging character and he turns out to have an even more interesting backstory, which is revealed in the later portion of the book. One thing that definitely wouldn't have caused a stir when Cotterill wrote the novel is that in Laotian society, a great deal of polite handshaking goes on. Reading this as I did just as we were all learning the etiquette of social distancing, this oft-mentioned ritual made me gasp a few times in a way the author definitely never intended.

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Friday, July 17, 2020

Murder at the Slaughterhouse by Tom Crowley

Murder in the Slaughterhouse
In most cities of the world, you could say as the dawn eases its way above the horizon that the city begins to stir. In Bangkok, that wouldn’t be precisely correct. The mystical mix of the city’s night beat continues through the verge of dawn and the pace of the city only hesitates. There is a somewhat perceptible pause in the city’s life movements as the often desperate human night activity slows to a crawl, around dawn, as the night people complete their retreat with the last of the seductively clad sex workers and transgender beauties scurrying out of the growing light into the back of taxis. But the beat is taken up virtually immediately with the morning traffic of the day people as they begin to reclaim the city.

So opens Chapter One of this second Matt Chance thriller, which, like the first, is set largely in Thailand. The first few paragraphs continue this almost lyric ode to Bangkok, which appreciates the city’s beauty but doesn’t shy away from describing the darker side. But before long, this wide pan of the city landscape homes in on the violated body of a teenage boy, found within the perimeters of a slaughterhouse for hogs.

Matt turns out to have known this boy as a student in a kickboxing class for at-risk youth at which he has helped out. Through his connections there, he is pressed into trying to find out what happened to the youth, but finds himself entangled in an ever widening circle of people involved in one way or another with this tragedy, reaching the highest levels of both crime syndicates and governmental agencies. And their range isn't confined to Thailand alone.

Crowley, who is a Vietnam vet who went on after the war to work in both governmental and business communities in Thailand and Washington, has a lot of knowledge to draw on from these quarters. But just as valuable is his observation of daily life in Bangkok, where he has volunteered at a center for Thai street children, which I’m sure helped him flesh out the the community that the murdered boy of the novel comes from.

I've been remiss in waiting so long to get to this story, but at least I'm not too late to be ready for the third Matt Chance book, which is rumored to be coming out in November.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Ten-Seven by Dana King


This is the fourth outing in King's Penns River series, featuring Detective Ben Dougherty and a host of recurring characters. In an interview for Crime Spree magazine, King describes Penns River as a fictional version of a three city area in western Pennsylvania that King grew up in and returns to often. After a death in a casino parking lot, Dougherty is called in to investigate, and because it's a casino, the local mob connections can't be far away. There's a large cast of characters and probably the best thing to do is to start the first in the series, Worst Enemies, because there are a lot of people with continuing story lines. But I haven't read the books in consecutive order and I got by, as the backstory is brought in deftly.

One of the interesting threads in this novel features three women cops who have been brought onto the police force in Penns River by a federal decree. I appreciated that this played out as not just one story but several different stories, as the men and women all assess each other in their new relations.

I was quite impressed with the unexpected slam bang opening, although it might not have the same impact if you read about it in the intro from Goodreads and some of the reviews. So don't. just jump in.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Heart of the Hunter by Deon Meyer

Heart of the Hunter
I'm not much of a thriller reader, but I've realized lately that I do really enjoy the subcategory of the cat and mouse type when I come across them if they're well written. Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male was the first one I read where I became explicitly conscious of this.

I think I made a couple of attempts at starting this book when it came into the bookstore where I worked, but the opening didn't reveal the subgenre of the book to me, and in fact, you have to get through a couple of setup chapters before you get to the main thrust of the story. After that, though, even these secondary stories of the people giving chase to a man impelled on a heroic quest across South Africa add to the story rather than taking away from it.

Although many of the characters in this novel are black--his protagonist is Xhosa, but other native South Africans appear as well--Deon Meyers is white, and this book was originally written in Afrikaans. Although he is an enormously popular writer in both South Africa and Europe, this was the first of his many titles to be published in America. At the time I was working in a bookstore, he didn't seem to have found his following here yet, and that's a shame, because deserves one. This particular story happens not too long after Apartheid has ended, and Meyer gives a sense of how complicated this transition was and how many different players were involved, without making it too dry.

His main character, Tiny Mpayipheli, is a man we meet enjoying a quiet life after being heavily involved in many unsavory things that different political powers were up to in his youth. One of the questions Tiny asks of himself throughout the book is whether one can turn from their essential nature. I'm not sure we really discover the answer to this in the course of the story, but it does give him a complexity that adds dimension to his story.

Aside from the suspense, there is an aspect of the novel that also places it in the road trip genre, and one of the pleasures of the book is getting to know South Africa a little through the description of the landscape, as well as some of the different people of the countryside. In truth, Tiny makes his way forward through the kindness (or cluelessness) of strangers more than he does by his own derring-do, but that gives Meyer a chance to add a little humor to an otherwise rather relentless tale.

A minor quibble is that with some of the secondary characters, Meyer can't seem to refrain from pointing out distinctive physical features, especially if they might be viewed as negative ones. Once a character is designated as fat, you are sure to be told it again at every opportunity. One of the characters pitted against Tiny has a small hump on his back, which I think we are reminded of at least thirty times. This is a pity because Meyer is actually quite good at character and has some better arrows in his quiver than these.

That said, though, this certainly won't keep me from reading more from this master storyteller.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Winterkill by C. J. Box

Winterkill (Joe Pickett, #3)
Although I've known of C. J. Box for years, this is the first of his books I've actually read. It's the third in the series and I chose it because it happened to be a random unread book on my shelves. I think it would probably be better to start from the beginning of the series, as some important events that happened in earlier books are mentioned here. But I really enjoyed finally becoming acquainted with the author's work.

In an epigraph to the novel, we learn that"winterkill" is defined as "to kill (as a plant or animal) by, or to die as the result of, exposure to winter weather conditions. There are quite a few deaths in this story, and it is winter, but Box is expanding the meaning of this term a bit to cover most of them, some of which could have happened in any season at all.

I really enjoyed Box's gift for rendering the Wyoming landscape--and the Wyoming winter--so vividly. His protagonist, game warden Joe Pickett, spends a lot of time traversing wide expanses of wild land, and it's never boring. His work reminds me a bit of Tony Hillerman in his descriptions of the Southwest.

Another enjoyable aspect of the book, and presumably the series, is that Pickett's roaming is counterbalanced by his home life with his wife and daughters. They are portrayed lovingly and with an eye to their individual aspirations. A couple of the women outside of this sphere are portrayed in a black and white, good and evil sort of way, where I think they could have been painted a little more complexly. Box is capable of it, as seen in the shadowy character Nate Romanowski, who pops up part way through the novel. But it's a small quibble. I look forward to reading more of the series.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Until Thy Wrath Be Past, by Asa Larsson

Until Thy Wrath be Past (Rebecka Martinsson, #4)

Although I had read Larsson's first Rebecka Martinsson novel, Sun Storm, ideally I probably should have read the two books that come between the first and the forth, as this one refers a lot to several people's backstory that occurs in one or the other of those. That said, though, you really don't need to have read the books in order to understand the crime story told in this volume.

Right from the outset we know that one of the main characters here has already died, but her strong narration of this event is one reason this book gets off to such an exciting start.

In terms of mystery, there don't end up being a whole lot of suspects, so if you're looking for a puzzle this may not satisfy you. The things I enjoyed about the story are different. First, Larsson writes of a certain mystical or spiritual element, and not just the immediate appearance of the dead girl. As another reviewer here writes, there is an element of redemption here, but it's not an easy fix and it certainly doesn't apply to everyone.

Second, Larsson apparently grew up in this small Swedish mining town of Kiruna herself and has a real gift for describing the natural beauty of its surrounds. And she is good on animals, particularly dogs, as well.

Finally, there is a lot of interesting Swedish World War II history that is part of the story, particularly Sweden's complicated relation to Germany, which it allied itself to for awhile. My impression is that this was not so much ideologically as in an effort to save itself from the Soviet Union, a nation they perceived as a bigger threat. There is a list of books she read to fill out this aspect at the back of the book, for those who want to know more.

(Originally posted on GoodReads.)

Sunday, January 5, 2020

The Pavilion by Hilda Lawrence

I really enjoyed this atmospheric novel from the forties. Regan, whose mother has died only a month before, decides to visit her Uncle Hurst at his request, as both remember the simpatico relationship they had when she was a small child. But by the time Regan arrives at the Herald family mansion, Hurst is already dead and she is left to fend for herself among his family, his in-laws, and some household servants. At the same time, Regan gradually becomes aware that there is an event in her own past here that she's so far managed to suppress.

The creepy old house has an equally creepy bunch of inhabitants and I enjoyed Lawrence's skill at bringing them to life. Although Lawrence was an American writer and this story is set in a small town on the Eastern seaboard (I think), her characters remind me of certain eccentrics that spring up in British crime fiction--I'm thinking particularly of the earlier work of Margery Allingham.

Cousin May was old, Regan knew that. Older than Hurst, nearly seventy, she thought. But the white hair curled youthfully about her soft face , and foamed and frothed into curls around her jeweled ears. Her round cheeks quivered as she held out her hand.

Regan advanced, full of pity when she saw how each step forward robbed Cousin May without mercy. When she reached the outstretched hand she saw an old, old woman, hiding under a shell of pink powder.

Regan teams up with her considerably older cousin Fray, who does most of the real detective work in the story. But Regan's gradual and intuitive understanding of the situation felt convincing to me and I admired the way Lawrence was able to pull this off.

My copy of this book is an old Penguin Crime series book with the distinctive green spine. I was surprised that GoodReads doesn't offer that particular cover as a choice, as it must have been fairly common at one point.  And Lawrence herself seems a little hard to track down. She wrote other crime fiction, though not a lot, and you would think there would be more reviews and interviews from her day. In fact, the only Wikipedia article I found on her is in French.

I have to admit a particular pleasure in discovering a writer I like who is not currently much remembered. More than with such perennially popular writers as Christie or Sayers, I feel that, against all the odds, a talented author has managed to breach the chasm of time and speak to me directly.