One-Minute Book Reviews

July 30, 2009

‘Princeton Wouldn’t Engage in Corporate Espionage’ — James Rollins’s New Sigma Force Thriller, ‘The Doomsday Key’

Dan Brown’s new novel, The Lost Symbol, will be published on Sept. 15, 2009, but I’m not poring over the clues its publicists are scattering on the Twitter feed for the novel: I couldn’t finish The Da Vinci Code. So I’ve been looking into other thrillers about fraternal or ecclesiastical conspiracies, trying to answer the question, “Are any of these readable?” I found James Rollins’s new Sigma Force novel, The Doomsday Key (Morrow, 431 pp., $27), on a library display of New York Times bestsellers, and the dust-jacket copy said:

“At Princeton University, a famed geneticist dies inside a biohazard lab. In Rome, a Vatican archaeologist is found dead in St. Peter’s Basilica. In Africa, a U.S. Senator’s son is slain outside a Red Cross camp. The three murders on three continents bear a horrifying connection: all the victims are marked by a Druidic pagan cross burned into their flesh.

“The bizarre murders thrust Commander Gray Pierce and Sigma Force into a race against time to solve a riddle going back centuries, to a ghastly crime against humanity hidden within a cryptic medieval codex …”

This was not a promising beginning, so I’m sure whether I’ll read more of The Doomsday Key than I did of The Da Vinci Code. But here are a few quotes from the book that might help you decide whether it’s for you:

1. “Her methods were brutal – like murdering the Venetian curator – but who was he to judge? He had not walked in her shoes.”

2. “ ‘Great. So now we’re breaking into a prison and a tomb.’ Kowalski sank down and crossed his arms. ‘Nothing could possibly go wrong with that plan.’”

3. “’Princeton wouldn’t engage in corporate espionage.’”

4. “Gray weighed that information. The Knights Templar were considered to be the keepers of many secrets. Could this be one of them?”

5. “‘The priest should have been more careful to whom he made his confession.’”

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

July 27, 2009

‘Nobody Calls Me Pecker Head and Lives’ — A New Jersey Critic Looks at ‘Finger Lickin’ Fifteen,’ Janet Evanovich’s Latest Novel About a Trenton-Based Bounty Hunter

Killers behead high-profile chef with a meat cleaver, and, yes, it’s supposed to be funny

Finger Lickin’ Fifteen. By Janet Evanovich. St. Martin’s, 308 pp., $27.95.

By Janice Harayda

Janet Evanovich is one of the writers whose books I most want to like. She and I went to rival New Jersey high schools at different times – you haven’t lived if you were born too late for a South River–New Brunswick Thanksgiving Day game at the old Rutgers Stadium! – and I share a few traits with her Trenton-based bounty hunter Stephanie Plum, including blue eyes, a Hungarian grandmother, and bad car karma. My first novel came from her publisher, a firm that in a perilous market has kept its integrity to a degree widely admired in the industry. And I love comic novels and look for opportunities to praise them on this site.

But Evanovich seems to have lost her focus since the publication of One for the Money, her first novel about Plum, in 1994. From the start, she has combined genres — romance, mystery, adventure, and comedy — in the series. In Finger Lickin’ Fifteen, the comedy devolves into farce, a form that relies on over-the-top elements such as improbable plotting and slapstick. Her humor is so broad, it undermines her attempt to tell a plausible story. And it clashes with the realism of other aspects the novel, such as Plum’s flirtations with the plainclothes cop Joe Morelli and with Carlos “Ranger” Manoso, who heads the Rangeman security firm for which she moonlights. At times the comedy is so silly or tasteless, Evanovich seems to be parodying herself.

The opening pages of Finger Lickin’ Fifteen describe how a pair of killers used a meat cleaver to behead a high-profile chef absurdly named Stanley Chipotle on a Trenton street: “There was a big gusher of blog when they whacked the head off,” a witness says. “It was like Old Faithful going off, only it was blood. And then the head rolled down the sidewalk … ”

Am I the only person who read this and thought of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter beheaded in Pakistan in 2002 after his kidnappers released a terrifying video of his captivity? And the only reader who isn’t ready to laugh — as this novel asks us to do — at the story of an effort to find the people who chopped off a man’s head with a cleaver?

A second plot – it gets so much space, you can’t call it a “subplot” — involves a series of break-ins at properties protected by the Rangeman security staff, and you keep expecting it to relate in the end to the murder of Stanley Chipotle. It doesn’t. The two plots seem to exist mainly to give Plum a chance to flirt throughout the story with Morelli and Ranger, and both storylines have unsatisfying resolutions. The prime mover of one plot escapes justice completely, and only his underlings are apprehended. The people behind the other aren’t mentioned by name for the first 300 pages, so if you read mysteries partly for the pleasure of sorting through clues and trying to guess the identity of the perpetrator, you’re out of luck.

Some people say that you don’t read Evanovich for her plots but for her humor, and that’s fair enough. But as her comedy has become more farcical, her humor has become cruder and more sophomoric. Finger Lickin’ Fifteen abounds with jokes about farts and other body functions or parts, including those described on its pages as “number two,” “cooter,” “pecker,” “wanger,” or “winkie.” “Nobody calls me pecker head and lives,” says a character unwisely named Peter Pecker. Is Evanovich courting 10-year-olds moving up from Harry Potter books?

Perhaps oddest of all given that Evanovich grew up in New Jersey, Finger Lickin’ Fifteen gives you no sense of what makes Trenton unique or a worthy setting for a mystery. The action might as well take place in Cleveland. As I write this review, the United States Attorney for New Jersey has just announced the arrest of dozens of people, including rabbis, mayors and and current or former state legislators. One defendant is said to have passed cash illegally in a box of Apple Jacks cereal stuffed with $97,000. Nobody is asking Evanovich to return to New Jersey from her current homes Florida and New Hampshire. But she has clearly lost touch with some of the wellsprings of material. Who needs to send a severed head rolling down a Trenton street when you can find so much drama in a box of Apple Jacks?

Best line: “… gravy so thick you could walk across a vat of it.”

Worst line: No. 1: “ ‘Nobody calls me pecker head and lives,’ Pecker said.” No. 2: “ ‘Yep,’ Grandma said. ‘He’s got a big one. All them Turleys is hung like horses. … I tell you, for a little guy, he had a real good-sized wanger.'” No. 3: “It was a record-breaking fart. On my best day, I couldn’t come near to farting like that.”

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Finger Lickin’ Fifteen appears in the post that directly preceded this one.

Published: June 2009

Listen to the beginning of Finger Lickin’ Fifteen.

Janice Harayda is a former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and wrote the comic novel The Accidental Bride (St. Martin’s, 1999).

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

June 24, 2009

Why Do We Keep Reading Mystery Series That Are Running Out of Gas? Maureen Corrigan on Robert B. Parker’s ‘Spenser’ Novels

Filed under: Mysteries and Thrillers — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:46 am
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Why do we keep reading novels in mystery or other series long after their plots have become formulaic and their characters have begun to repeat themselves? Sometimes the answer is simple: We hope their authors will regain their form.

But I’ve stayed with series after I knew that wouldn’t happen and continued to enjoy them. And Maureen Corrigan offers a possible explanation for why in a discussion of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels in Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books (Vintage, 240 pp., $14.95, paperback). Corrigan says she started reading the Spenser series in part because it “helped to transform the macho politics of the private eye and also the profession’s monkish lifestyle” with by having a male hero who has a mostly monogamous relationship with a female therapist.

“When I began reading them the Spenser novels were pretty much out there in terms of their depiction of utopian alternatives to the traditional nuclear family,” she writes.

The series has changed a lot since its launch, with The Godwulf Manuscript, in 1973, but she’s stayed with it. Corrigan writes:

”Whenever a new Spenser novel appears, usually every spring, I still read it in one or two sittings. By now, the plot is almost beside the point. Instead, I read the latest greatly diminished Spenser novels to check in with his extended alternative family: I’m curious about what Hawk is up to these days and about Paul’s ongoing search for love and Susan’s latest home purchase. Reading the Spenser novels now is a little like reading one of those chatty holiday letters that come tucked in Christmas cards. The story lines are predictable, but still, it’s nice to keep up with who’s lost weight, gotten married, or had a set of brass knuckles smashed into his face.”

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

June 22, 2009

Krait Expectations — James Patterson’s ‘The 8th Confession’

Patterson writes at a 10-year-old reading level in the his new “Women’s Murder Club” novel

The 8th Confession. By James Patterson and Maxine Paetro. Little, Brown, 352 pp., $27.99.

By Janice Harayda

Who are the intended readers of The 8th Confession? The large font and generous white space suggest that James Patterson wrote it for nursing-home residents or people reading the book by candlelight while eating Beanie Weenies out of a can during a power blackout. But the short chapters – generally, no more than three pages long – make you wonder if he had in mind fans of MTV. And what about the 5th grade or 10-year-old reading level that the novel has, according to the readability statistics that come with Microsoft Word?

Clearly a lot of people don’t care about the conflicts. Fifty-four titles appear on a list of “Books by James Patterson” at the back of The 8th Confession, many of them worldwide bestsellers. Patterson’s latest is a glorified police procedural and the eighth volume in his popular  “Women’s Murder Club” series that involves Detective Lindsay Boxer, San Francisco Chronicle reporter Cindy Thomas and others who try to solve their boyfriend problems along with crimes.

On the evidence of The 8th Confession, it’s hard to account for Patterson’s appeal. “James Patterson likes rape, torture, mutilation and death,” Gary Dexter wrote in the Spectator. That’s a polite way of saying that he likes scum, and his new book involves several types: a streetwise con artist with a history of recruiting girls and turning them into crack dealers, an ex-beauty queen on trial for bludgeoning her father to death with a crowbar, and a psychopath who is murdering San Francisco’s rich with a krait that leaves hard-to-spot bite marks.

The large font and small chapters create at least the illusion of a fast-moving plot – a trick a lot of novelists have caught onto – because you’re continually turning pages. And Patterson has a stronger grip on the English language than some blockbuster authors. He doesn’t bludgeon you with inanities like Stephenie Meyer’s deathless, “It’s a voluntary choice” — a line that, you suspect, he would never allow in one of his novels. But The 8th Confession has neither heart nor soul nor even much tension or San Francisco atmosphere (though we do learn that Restaurant LuLu is “the place for homey Provenςal cooking, rich casseroles and pizzas grilled in a hickory-wood oven”). The ending of The 8th Confession, which has eight people confessing to one crime, devolves into farce. It may tell you all you need to know about this novel that a line intended to crank up the suspense is: “Booker has Al Sharpton’s home number and he’s threatening to use it.”

Best line: “Tyco was wearing his party clothes: a feather boa around his slender shoulders, nipple rings, and a black satin thong.”

Worst line: No. 1: “There were times when reporting to Jacobi was like having bamboo slivers pushed under my finger nails.” This cliché should have died with Mao. No. 2: “But a year and a half ago a psycho with an illegal sublet and an anger-management problem,  living two floors above her, had sneaked into apartments and gone on a brutal killing spree.” As opposed to one of those killing sprees that wasn’t brutal. No. 3: “ ‘I’m not finished talking yet,’ I growled at Cindy.”

Published: April 2009

About the author: Patterson has also written 14 novels about the psychologist Alex Cross, including Jack & Jill, Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider. He lives in Florida.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer, the book columnist for Glamour, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

April 13, 2009

Review of Lisa Scottoline’s ‘Look Again’ in the Washington Post

Filed under: Mysteries and Thrillers — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:55 am
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Update: When I posted this, anyone could read the review I mention below without registering. But since then, it’s been archived, and you have to log in (free). Jan

Lisa Scottoline’s 16th thriller arrives in bookstores this week. The heroine of Look Again works my profession (journalism) and in a city (Philadelphia) not far from where I grew up. You can read my review of the book in today’s Washington Post.

February 15, 2009

Sue Grafton’s Last Kinsey Millhone Novel Will Be Called “‘Z’ Is for Zero”

Filed under: Mysteries and Thrillers,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:52 pm
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Sue Grafton's new book is her 20th about Kinsey Millhone.

More than a decade ago, Sue Grafton said that the title of her final Kinsey Millhone mystery would be “Z” is for Zero, ending the bestselling series that began in 1982 with “A” Is for Alibi. Or so André Bernard reported in his Now All We Need Is a Title: Famous Book Titles and How They Got That Way (Norton, 127 pp., $11, paperback).

I first wrote about Grafton’s plan for the last Kinsey Millhone mystery when I reviewed Bernard’s book for the Plain Dealer in 1995. And because Now All We Need Is a Title was widely reviewed, I thought her intention was well known, especially now that it’s turned up on Wikipedia.

But I found a surprising comment on the page for Grafton’s new “T” is for Trespass on the site Powell’s, the great Portland bookstore: “We don’t know what Z will be, except that it will be very, very good.” So consider this post a reminder: It’s “Z” is for Zero. But it comes with a warning: Grafton could get an idea for a novel about, say, a compulsive womanizer who meets a ghastly death involving his hyperactive zipper. Would you really want her to ignore that one so she could stick with “Z” is for Zero?

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

January 9, 2009

Adultery for Third-Graders — A Review of ‘What I Saw and How I Lied,’ Winner of the 2008 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

A tale of theft, blackmail, adultery, anti-Semitism and a possible murder, written at an 8-year-old reading level

What I Saw and How I Lied. By Judy Blundell. Scholastic, 284 pp., $16.99. Ages: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

What would you do if you were a publisher who knew that reading test scores were declining as children were seeing more sex and violent crimes in the media? Maybe play both sides against the middle as Scholastic has done with What I Saw and How I Lied, the winner of the 2008 National Book Award for young people’s literature.

This stylish literary thriller deals with subjects appropriate for the 13-to-18-year-old age range that the publisher recommends on its site — theft, blackmail, adultery, anti-Semitism and a possible murder. But Judy Blundell writes at a third-grade reading level in the novel, according to the readability statistics on Microsoft Word.

So who, exactly, is this book for? Much of the content is too mature for 8-year-olds. But the reading level is too low for the sophisticated adolescent and teenage girls likely gravitate to its glamorous, noir-ish cover, which shows a thin, beautiful model applying red lipstick. Blundell is condescending to them even if they enjoy its page-turner of a plot: Anyone who is ready for the subjects covered in this novel is also ready for a higher reading level.

Evie Spooner is 15 years old when her stepfather, Joe, returns from Austria in 1947, having overstayed the end of the war for murky reasons. Evie’s seductive mother has quit her job at Lord & Taylor – “Either that or get fired”— because veterans needed jobs. And she’s surprised her husband by learning to make Sunday suppers and perform other domestic tasks. “Son of a bitch,” Joe says of the change.

But the glow of the family reunion fades after Joe packs up the three of them for what he casts as an overdue Florida vacation. They settle into a Palm Beach hotel (aptly named Le Mirage), nearly deserted in the off-season. And Evie becomes swept up in a riptide of events that involves looted gold, a hurricane, an inquest into a possible homicide and her crush on a seductive 23-year-old who says he served with Joe overseas.

The plotting is tight and ingenious until an improbable last scene, and well-supported by details that evoke the era (including the chocolate cigarettes that Evie buys to “practice smoking”). And the book deals with larger issues than whether a murder occurred: What is loyalty? What do we owe the dead? Do truth and justice differ and, if so, how?

Questions like these appeal strongly to adolescents and teenagers, and this book could provide a framework for exploring them. As for their reading test scores: They’re not likely to improve if more publishers — encouraged by the National Book Award for this novel — put a senior prom dress on a third-grader’s soccer shorts.

Best line: A warning heard on the radio as a hurricane approaches Palm Beach: “Watch out for flying coconuts.”

Worst line: No. 1: “Our pipsqueak attorney had turned into a pretty decent linebacker.” It’s a stretch that a 15-year-old girl living in 1947 would know enough about linebackers to use the word in this way. No. 2: “Lana Turner was every man’s dream, sultry and blond. It was Lana filling out a sweater at a drugstore that got her a Hollywood contract.” That Turner was discovered at a drugstore is a myth. Even if the teenagers of 1947 believed the myth, the book is perpetuating this legend for a new generation of readers.

About the reading level: The reading level comes from the Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics that are part of the spell-checker on any recent version of Microsoft Word. To find it, I entered a minimum of 300 words from each of the following two-page sections of What I Saw and How I Lied: pages 36-37 (Grade 4.2), pages 136-137 (Grade 2.6) and pages 236-237 (3.7). I also entered all of last two pages (Grade 3.0). The post “Does Mitch Albom Think He’s Jesus?” lists the reading levels of authors and tells how to use Word to find the level of a book.

Furthermore: What I Saw and How I Lied
won a 2008 National Book Award. The National Book Foundation.
has posted an excerpt from and the citation for the novel on its site.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

January 6, 2009

‘Hamlet, Revenge!’ A Classic Shakespeare-Inspired Detective Novel

Filed under: Mysteries and Thrillers — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:14 pm
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Will the bestsellerdom of the Hamlet-influenced The Story of Edgar Sawtelle lead to more fiction that nods to Shakespeare? Hard to say, in part David Wroblewski’s first novel is so long, it may leave you feeling that you’ve had your fill of the Bard for a while. But if you’d like to find more fiction inspired by the Shakespeare, you might track down the classic mystery Hamlet, Revenge!, which made the cut for Richard Shephard and Nick Rennison’s 100 Must-Read Crime Novels (A&C Black, 2006).

“For 50 years, the Oxford don J.I.M. Stewart used the pseudonym Michael Innes to publish a series of self-consciously erudite, whimsical crime stories, crammed with literary allusions and featuring the urbane and intelligent police inspector, John Appleby,” the authors say. “The best of the series, Hamlet, Revenge!, is set, like so many novels from the Golden Age of English detective fiction, against the backdrop of a country house party. During the party, an amateur production of Hamlet is staged and, at the moment Polonius is due to be stabbed behind the arras, the actor playing him, a political high flyer named Lord Auldearn, is shot dead. Inspector Appleby finds himself pursuing the murderer down the corridors of power and looking for suspects among the great and good of the land.”

Shephard and Rennison note that Innes belongs to what the novelist and critic Julian Symons once called the “farceur” school of English detective fiction, a group of books that often have improbable characters and over-the-top plots.

“No one should pick up a Michael Innes novel expecting social realism or mean streets,” the authors add, “but in books like Hamlet, Revenge! And Appleby’s End, he did create his own unmistakable word in which to unfold his fantastic and often farcical plots.”

Question of the Day: Another Hamlet-influenced novel is Iris Murdoch’s literary thriller The Black Prince. What are some of the others — good or bad — inspired by the play?

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda,com

October 13, 2008

Ghosts of Venice — Susan Hill’s Novella, ‘The Man in the Picture’

An 18th-century painting of masked revelers at the Grand Canal has sinister properties

The Man in the Picture: A Ghost Story. By Susan Hill. Overlook, 145 pp., $15.

By Janice Harayda

A Halloween-costume superstore has opened in my town and raised the frightening possibility that I will soon be the only person on the streets not dressed like Bigfoot or a tavern wench. I will defend to the death anyone’s sartorial-first-amendment right to don a Borat Lycra Mankini or a Sexy Ms. Mental Patient outfit (“includes shirt with vinyl restraints”).

But if you’re looking for another way to spend Halloween, why not read a ghost story? You might start with this intelligent new novella by the English author Susan Hill.

The Man in the Picture lacks the psychological complexity of Patrick McGrath’s neo-Gothic novels and Alison Lurie’s underrated short story collection, Women and Ghosts. But Hill’s book works on its own terms, which are those of a well-crafted Victorian ghost story. The opening lines set the tone:

“The story was told to me by my old tutor, Theo Parmitter, as we sat beside the fire in his college rooms one bitterly cold January night. There were still real fires in those days, the coals brought up by the servant in huge brass scuttles. I had traveled down from London to see my old friend, who was by then well into his eighties …”

The tale involves a painting that Theo bought at auction as a young man, an untitled 18th-century work showing masked revelers at a carnival in Venice. From several narrators we learn that that the picture has a chimerical effect: New people seem to keep appearing in it. The meaning of the changes begins to emerge when a countess summons Theo to her Yorkshire estate and links the painting to acts of sexual jealousy and revenge, an ill-fated honeymoon in Venice and the violent deaths of her husband and son. Lady Hawdon warns Theo that for his own good, he must sell her the painting. He doesn’t sell. Alas, poor Theo!

True to the conventions of Gothic novels, The Man in the Picture has shadowy hallways, long-buried secrets and odd noises in the night. It also includes a genteel psychopath whose mental instability appears contagious. Characters tend to stay conveniently out of range of pragmatists who could shout at crucial moments, “No! No! Don’t go into that empty room!”

By modern standards, much of the plot is no more rational than the idea that a priceless garnet would end up inside a Christmas goose in the Sherlock Holmes tale “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.” And it isn’t supposed to meet contemporary tests of plausibility. Like dressing up as tavern wench, it’s unabashed retro escapism, well suited to a month when you may hear mysterious sounds as you stumble through the darkened rooms of a haunted house.

Best line: “The faces of the revelers were many of them the classic Venetian, with prominent noses, the same faces that could be seen on Magi and angels, saints and popes, in the great paintings that filled Venice’s churches.”

Worst line: “She was extremely old, with the pale-parchment textured skin that goes with great age, a skin like the paper petals of dried Honesty.” The similie reaches for a higher tone than the rest of the book.

Recommendation? In the U.S. ghost stories have been so thoroughly absorbed into the horror-novel genre that, except in children’s fiction, few writers attempt them and readers tend to associate them with lumbering behemoths like Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers. The Man in the Picture gives Americans a chance to rediscover the appeal of these stories in a purer and in some ways more elegant form.

Because of its conversational tone and multiple narrators, this is also good book to read aloud, which you could probably do in less than two and a half hours. Book clubs might consider having members take turns reading this one aloud at a meeting instead of reading it in advance.

Published: October 2008 www.susan-hill.com/

Second opinion: Salley Vickers observed perceptively the Independent: “As with many successful ghost stories – The Turn of the Screw comes to mind – the form of the book is a re-telling; indeed, a series of re-tellings. Hill knows that the sinister is enhanced by obliqueness. By giving us a chain of raconteurs, she skilfully conveys the ambience in which the uncanny survives via rumour and report.”

Furthermore: Hill also wrote two mystery novels about Chief Inspector Simon Serailler and The Woman in Black www.thewomaninblack.com/, the theatrical version of which opened in 1989 in London’s West End and is one of its longest-running shows.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

August 4, 2008

Around the World in 80 Sleuths — A List of Crime-Solvers and Their Turf

Filed under: Mysteries and Thrillers — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:43 pm
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Kerrie at the Mysteries in Paradise blog steered me to Jonathan Gibbs’s traveler-friendly post Around the World in 80 Sleuths in the Independent
www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/crime-fiction-around-the-world-in-80-sleuths-873660.html, which has thumbnail descriptions of 80 fictional crime-solvers and their haunts. The featured sleuths work in places that span the alphabet from roughly Amsterdam (Nicholas Freeling’s Inspector Piet Van der Valk in Because of Cats) to Ystad, Sweden (Henning Mankell’s Inspector Wallander in Faceless Killers). Kerrie covers additional ground on her unusually well-organized mystery blog paradise-mysteries.blogspot.com/, some of it in a recent review of R. N. Morris’s A Gentle Axe, set in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1866.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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