One-Minute Book Reviews

October 22, 2007

Cleveland Never Loses in Les Roberts’s Mysteries

Filed under: Mysteries and Thrillers — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:58 am
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Can’t wait until the 2008 baseball season for more scenes of the city people used to call “the Mistake on the Lake”? Pick up any of Les Roberts‘s 13 Cleveland-based mysteries about the Slovenian sleuth, Milan Jacovich, which include Deep Shaker, Full Cleveland, Pepper Pike and the recent The Irish Sports Pages, all published by Gray & Co.

Roberts was the mystery columnist for the Plain Dealer when I was the book editor, so I can’t pretend to neutrality about his klobasa-sandwich-loving private investigator. But the Washington Post said of the first Milan Jacovich novel, The Cleveland Connection: “There’s an affection for Cleveland and an insistence on its ethnic, working-class life that gives vividness to the detection. Roberts writes with sharp wit, creates action scenes that are drawn with flair, and puts emotional life into a range of people.”

Roberts is a former Californian whose love for his adopted city helps to drive the series. So you may not be surprised to hear that he’s a serious Indians fan: He appears on the dust jacket of one Milan Jacovich novel, The Lake Effect, in a Tribe jacket.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 26, 2007

Agatha Christie’s Iraq Novel, ‘Murder in Mesopotamia’

“The dirt and the mess in Baghdad you wouldn’t believe – and not romantic at all like you’d think from the Arabian Nights! Of course, it’s pretty just on the river, but the town itself is just awful – and no proper shops at all.”
— From a letter by the nurse Amy Leatheran in Murder in Mesopotamia

Murder in Mesopotamia: A Hercule Poirot Mystery. By Agatha Christie. Black Dog & Leventhal, 284 pp., $12.

By Janice Harayda

Agatha Christie once cleaned ancient relics with cold cream while accompanying her second husband, an archaeologist, on a dig at Nineveh. The technique, she said, was excellent for “coaxing dirt out of crevices” without harming the artifacts.

Christie made that comment in her autobiography. But she also drew on her travels in Iraq for Murder in Mesopotamia, which involves the death of the wife of an archaeologist who is leading a dig at a site a day and a half’s journey from Baghdad. No one has any idea who might have killed the lovely Louise Leidner until the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot – who happens to be in the region — turns up at the house where the crew is staying and begins asking questions.

You could argue that the story that follows has all the faults for which critics have derided Christie – shallow characterizations, a surfeit of clues and so many plot twists that the ending seems to come out of the blue because the evidence points to everybody and nobody. But Christie’s defects were the flip side of her virtues. You tear through her novels because she has removed everything that would slow the pace or tempt you to linger, including psychological depth and ravishing descriptive passages. Amy Leatheran, the nurse who narrates Murder in Mesopotamia, warns:

“I think I’d better make it clear up front that there isn’t going to be any local color in this story. I don’t know anything about archaeology and I don’t know that I very much want to.”

That’s more of a boast than a fact, but Christie does give you a kind of Cliffs Notes to her physical and psychological landscape. Leatheran expected something grand from an Assyrian palace: “But would you believe it, there was nothing to see but mud! Dirty mud walls about two feet high – and that’s all there was to it.” Christie’s characterizations of people are just as skimpy and, at times, stereotypical. They spring from a view of “human nature” – a recurring phrase — that is more cynical than is fashionable in our age of “positive psychology.” A character in Murder in Mesopotamia says: “They seemed like a happy family – which is really surprising when one considers what human nature is!” That spirit is no less apparent in books that about Christie’s other detective, Miss Jane Marple.

But Christie’s observations about character can be surprisingly modern and astute. Poirot grounds his search for Louise Leidner’s killer in his belief that “the state of mind of a community is always directly due to the influence of the man at the top.” If this is an oversimplification, it is one that has become a pillar of 21st-century corporate management. And it helps to explain why Christie’s novels still appeal more than two decades after her death in 1976.

The plots may be far-fetched. But Christie’s novels reflect in simplified a form a sharp understanding of, if not human nature, human beings. Like Murder in Mesopotamia, they often have settings that provide a glamour or drama lacking in everyday life. No one who has read them can doubt the sincerity of a comment Christie makes in Agatha Christie: An Autobiography: “I always thought life exciting and I still do.”

Best line: A character says it wouldn’t be safe to tell any man the truth about his wife. He adds: “Funnily enough, I’d trust most women with the truth about their husbands. Women can accept the fact that a man is a rotter, a swindler, a drug-taker, a confirmed liar, and a general swine without batting an eyelash and without its impairing their affection for the brute in the least! Women are wonderful realists.”

Worst line: A doctor says that Amy Leatheran is “a woman of 35 of erect, confident bearing.” Leatheran describes herself as 32. It’s unclear whether the discrepancy is a mistake or meant to suggest that one character was unreliable witness.

Published: 1936 (first edition)

Furthermore: The Black Dog & Leventhal imprint of Workman publishes attractive hardcover editions of Christie’s mysteries in an easy-on-the-eyes font at the unusually reasonable price of $12 per book. The titles in its series include Murder on the Orient Express, Murder at the Vicarage, The ABC Murders, A Murder Is Announced and A Caribbean Mystery.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 25, 2007

Defending Agatha Christie — Tomorrow on One-Minute Book Reviews

Critics have scorned Agatha Christie for more than a half century — no one more famously than Edmund Wilson, who alluded to the title of one of her best-known mysteries in his 1945 essay in The New Yorker, “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?”

Tomorrow One-Minute Book Reviews will have a modest defense of Agatha Christie and a reconsideration of her Murder in Mesopotamia, about an archaeological dig near Baghdad that captures the interest of the detective Hercule Poirot.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 6, 2007

Does Agatha Christie Deserve the Scorn She Gets From Critics? Coming Soon to One-Minute Book Reviews

Agatha Christie once vied with mystery novelist Georges Simenon for the title of the world’s best-selling author. But since her death 1976, she has declined in popularity. Her books are often derided by critics and harder to find than those of contemporary novelists such as Mary Higgins Clark. Do they deserve this fate? Do they have any interest today except as period pieces or the inspiration for such movies as Witness for the Prosecution and Murder on the Orient Express?

A reconsideration of Christie’s work will appear soon on One-Minute Book Reviews. Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing this post. Until then please feel free to leave your comments on Christie’s work.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

August 5, 2007

Authors for 49¢ on Amazon: John Lithgow, James Lee Burke, Melissa Fay Greene and Others

Filed under: Books,Essays and Reviews,Fiction,Humor,Mysteries and Thrillers,News,Nonfiction,Poetry,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:34 pm

Fed up with the alpine cost of books? sells previously unpublished short stories, essays and other works for 49¢ through its Amazon Shorts program. The online bookseller requires that all sellers have at least one book for sale on Amazon. And some of the authors who have posted their work may surprise you, including actor John Lithgow, journalist Melissa Fay Greene and mystery novelist James Lee Burke.

But you could easily miss hearing about the program, because it isn’t listed on the home page for You have to use the search bar to look “Amazon Shorts” or go to the pull-down menu that says, “See All 41 Product Categories.” I knew nothing of the program until a writer friend persuaded me to post my “A Year in Cleveland,” a parody of A Year in Provence, there. So you may want to check this section of the Amazon site if you enjoy short fiction, nonfiction and poetry. You can read the shorts by downloading them, having them e-mailed to you, or following an HTML link.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 15, 2007

Los Angeles Crime Stories, Hardboiled

Filed under: Mysteries and Thrillers,Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:25 pm
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A noir series visits the headwaters of the form

Bill Peschel at Reader’s Almanac aptly describes Los Angeles as “ground zero to noir,” that fatalistic form of crime fiction that came into its own with novels like James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity. Akashic Books goes there in the 13th installment in its city-themed series of noir short story collections, which has made earlier stops in Detroit, Miami, Chicago, Baltimore, New Orleans and the Twin Cities. Peschel says that Michael Connelly gets the star turn in Los Angeles Noir (Akashic, $15.95, paperback), edited by Denise Hamilton, but that the book also has fine stories by Emory Holmes, Neal Pollack, Lienna Silver and others.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 29, 2007

Mysteries and Thrillers Set in Paris, London, Hawaii and Other Places You May Be Dying to Visit

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Fiction,Mysteries and Thrillers,Novels,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:20 pm

When a plot is your passport

Can’t afford that big trip you’d hoped to take this summer? Reading an atmospheric mystery or thriller can help to keep the fantasy aglow until next year. And Bill Peschel has reviewed lots that are set in places I’d love to revisit or revisit. Some of the novels he’s covered and their backdrops include:

Hawaii: Dan Gordon’s Just Play Dead (St. Martin’s, 1999)
Paris in the 1920s: Water Satterthwait’s Masquerade (St. Martin’s, 1999)
London: Simon Shaw’s A Company of Knaves (Minotaur, 1998)
Rural England: Ann Granger’s A Word After Dying (Avon, 1999)
Edinburgh: Ian Rankin’s Dead Souls (Orion, 2005)
The Everglades: Carl Hiaasen’s Nature Girl (Knopf, 2006)

You can read more about these novels at Planet Peschel, where you’ll also find reviews of many other books in those genres.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 18, 2007

Looking for a Good Mystery or Thriller?

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Mysteries and Thrillers,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:03 pm

The weather we’re having here in New Jersey makes a lot of people want to stay home with a good mystery, or possibly murder someone. Did you read that, over in New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg had to apologize to all the residents whose cars got tickets because the city snow-removal crews plowed them in?

I review relatively few mysteries and thrillers on this site, partly because I have trouble keeping up with their authors. To give you an idea of my progress: The last Sue Grafton novel I read was B Is for Burglar. And whenever I try to catch up, I seem to end up slogging through a book like Thomas Harris’s recent thriller, Hannibal Rising, which Entertainment Weekly rightly named one of the five worst books of 2006.

But Bill Peschel over at Reader’s Almanac specializes in mysteries and thrillers and has an archive of reviews of these, alphabetically arranged by author and title, on his site. So check out his blog when you’re in the mood for crime. His recent recommendations include Giles Blunt’s By the Time You Read This (Holt, $19.95), the latest novel about Ontario detective John Cardinal. Blunt won Britain’s Silver Dagger and Canada’s Arthur Ellis award.

As for me, I hope to weigh in soon on Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie mystery, The Right Attitude to Rain (Pantheon, $21.95). If you’ve read this one, please tell me it’s going to be better than Harris’s book.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 23, 2007

Hannibal Falling

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Mysteries and Thrillers,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:38 pm

Thomas Harris cannibalizes the English language … and guess what else?

Hannibal Rising: A Novel. By Thomas Harris. Delacorte, 323 pp., $27.95.

By Janice Harayda

Nobody sold out his fans more ruthlessly in 2006 than Thomas Harris, author of The Silence of the Lambs and other books about the cannibalistic sociopath Hannibal Lecter. Hannibal’s depravity has always defied explanation. And his creator’s attempt to rationalize the savagery in this novel shows unmatched obtuseness even in a year full of news reports about O.J. Simpson’s cancelled If I Did It. Harris tries to account for Hannibal’s actions by describing his war-ravaged childhood in Lithuania. It’s like trying to explain why King Kong carried a terrified woman to the top of the Empire State Building by telling you what happened to the ape when he was a baby gorilla.

Hannibal Rising asks you to find entertainment in this premise: Not only did the Nazis have gas chambers, they created Hannibal by eating his baby sister when food ran low. The novel appropriates the horrors of the Third Reich in a much more offensive way than did the comedy The Producers in its film and stage versions. The Producers acknowledged that nothing could be worse than making light of Hitler’s atrocities. Harris never does this but tells his story straight up and in the pretentious literary style of a creative writing student who is about to get handed a “Drop” card by the professor. He saddles his novel with tedious italicized flashbacks, self-conscious present-tense narration, and cannibalized verb-less sentences. The dialogue is ludicrously stilted. An uncle tells Hannibal, “Our family, we are somewhat unusual people, Hannibal.” So that explains why Hannibal cut off the face of a captor and used it to escape in The Silence of the Lambs!

When it isn’t trivializing the Nazis, Hannibal Rising exploits the stereotype of the subservience of Japanese women and panders to male sexual fantasies of it. Hannibal finds a protector in Lady Murasaki, a namesake of the author of The Tale of Genji, who takes long, gardenia-scented baths. Lady Murasaki stands by Hannibal even after he has decapitated his first victim. An implicit message: Other female companions would run from this man as fast as they could, but a Japanese woman might be dumb enough to stick around. After all of this, you wonder what Harris will ask us to accept next: Maybe a porn film full of women women flock to Hannibal because they find cannibalism a turn-on?

Best line: None.

Worst Line: Let’s skip the mangled French, the pop psychology, and the scene in which Hannibal eats a shish kabob made from the flesh of a victim. Let’s look instead at the florid and ungrammatical overwriting, such as: “Hannibal walked Lady Murasaki to her very chamber door …. ” And: “The moonlight diffused by the wavy, bubbled window glass creeps across Hannibal’s face and inches silent up the wall.”

Published: December 2006

Furthermore: Hannibal Rising was named one of the five worst books of 2006 by Entertainment Weekly in the special year-end double issue dated Dec. 25/Jan. 5, 2006.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 17, 2006

Dennis Lehane’s Debt to Clint Eastwood

Filed under: Movie Link,Mysteries and Thrillers — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:58 pm

Eastwood shows again that he’s a good director of bad books

Mystic River. By Dennis Lehane. HarperPaperbacks, 416 pp., $13.95, paperback.

Dennis Lehane told a reporter for the Boston Herald that he was “over the moon” about Brian Helgeland’s screenplay for the 2003 movie version of Mystic River, and no wonder. Helgeland’s script is remarkably faithful — in its plot, tone, and theme — to Lehane’s psychological thriller about three friends separted by a crime in childhood and reunited by another in adulthood.

Lehane’s plot hinges on the implausible coincidence that two tragedies occurred almost simultaneously in a gritty section of South Boston. One of these events receives so little foreshadowing that when it’s revealed late in the novel, it makes much of the earlier action seem like a cheat. In the movie strong performances by Sean Penn and others help to offset such flaws, so it’s easier to forget that Lehane is tilling with much less skill the same ground that George Higgins worked in The Friends of Eddie Coyle, the gold standard in novels about small-time Boston thugs.

Some critics said that Eastwood’s film version of The Bridges of Madison County showed that he’s a good director of bad books, and Mystic River strengthens their case. Who would have thought that it would be Eastwood — and not Steven Spielberg or George Lucas — who would turn out to be a novelist’s best friend?

Best line: “First Communion was an event in a Catholic child’s life — a day to dress up and be adored and fawned over and taken to Chuck E. Cheese’s afterward for lunch …”

Worst line: “Brendan Harris loved Katie Marcus like crazy, loved her like movie love, with an orchestra booming through his blood and flooding his ears.” Get out the sump pump for similies and metaphors.

Consider reading instead: The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Owl, 2000),

Movie Link: Sean Penn and Tim Robbins won the Academy Awards for best actor and best supporting actor for their roles in Mystic River, which also received four other Oscar nominations.

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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