Thursday, April 23, 2015

Gun Games

I don't know what Faye Kellerman has planned for Gabe Whitman.  Is he a replacement for the Deckers' grown children or is he the central character in a story arc within a long running series?  Kellerman introduced Gabe in Hangman.  Kellerman, as usual, deftly integrated Gabe's assimilation into the Deckers' home life and a string of serial killings, but she also brought back Gabe's father Chris Donetti.  Chris is a compelling character, but I find recurring villains unsatisfying and their subsequent appearances forced.  Chris's appearances have avoided extraordinary levels of coincidence so far, but I remain wary.

Gabe takes the lead in Gun Games which devotes equal time and weight to Gabe's personal story and Peter Decker's investigation of a pair of teen suicides.  There's only one obvious connection between Gregory Hesse and Myra Gelb.  They attended the same private school, surrounded by rich kids whose Daddies will buy them out of any trouble.  It's a slightly above average mystery, and Decker, Marge Dunn, and Scott Oliver solve it though the combination of plodding, hunches, and inter-team comfort you expect from people who've worked together for decades.  This time "who" is a bit less of a mystery than "why" or "how" and that's a nice twist on the police procedural.

The detectives also get some help from Gabe.  The brilliant and talented 15-year-old has already complete his high school curriculum and his encounter with the suspects takes place against the backdrop of his clandestine romance with the younger sister of one of Hannah Decker's classmates.  It starts as a non-date date to the opera (Yasmin's sister backed out and if Gabe didn't go, the ticket would go to waste), but soon the sheltered Orthodox 14-year-old and the emotionally battered boy are meeting before school.  This leads to stolen afternoons, frequent text messages, and a violent attack that leads Decker to culprits of the "suicides," as well as the brief appearance of Chris Donetti.  I said at the start of this review that I don't know why Faye Kellerman brought Gabe Whitman into the Deckers' home.  That's not quite true.  I have an idea, but Spoilers, darling.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Mystery in the Minster

A few weeks after the events of The Killer of Pilgrims, Ralph de Langelee may have a solution to Michaelhouse College's financial problems.  Now the Master of Michaelhouse, Langelee was a soldier in service to the late William Zouche, Archbishop of York.  A codicil to Zouche's will left a church to Michaelhouse, and now that the incumbent priest has died, Michaelhouse can claim the parish's income.    There's a problem, though.  No one can find the codicil and the minster's vicars have taken possession of the church.  To enforce Michaelhouse's claim, Langelee travels to York with law lecturer John Radford, devious courtier-turned-theologian Brother Michael, and exhausted physician Matthew Bartholomew (ostensibly for "relaxation").

Once in York, they discover that the codicil may never have existed and that several Zouche's executors have died mysteriously.  Then Radford dies, shortly after claiming to have found the codicil.  Matt sets out to learn who killed his friend, and succeeds.  I, unfortunately, didn't care.  Matt belongs to Cambridge, and I feel a bit lost when he roams too far from home.  Gregory needed too much exposition to introduce all the new characters and settings, and yet many the characters remained indistinguishable and the situations confusing.  Mystery in the Minster entertained me, particularly the final action scenes, but didn't stick in my mind.  It's worth reading if, like me, you're a bit obsessive about reading whole series in order.  The casual Susannah Gregory fan can probably give it a miss.

Monday, April 13, 2015

American Connections: The Founding Fathers Networked

Why write  book like this?  Well, writing beats real work.  And I hope you'll find it diverting.  History is where we come from, so it's worth a look.  And as navigators say: you don't know where you're going if you don't know where you've been.

That paragraph from the preface of James Burke's American Connections sums up the entire book.  He's written a good commute book; entertaining enough to distract you but neatly parceled into 5-7 page chapters so you won't miss your stop.  Burke uses his Connection walk through history to connect the signers of the Declaration of Independence to someone or something that's part of recent memory (and yes, he connects Josiah Bartlett to his fictional descendant, President Bartlett of The West Wing).  Some connections feel forced, others are more natural, and most chapters either share information or recycle facts from Burke's prior books (hence the "beats real work" comment).  Burke also retains his breezy, slightly irreverent style, so I'll forgive the recycling.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

W is for Wasted

I've never believed that genre fiction sits on a lower rung of the quality ladder than straight fiction.  Good writing with complex, believable characters make a good novel, whether the plot involves simmering family resentment or a dead body.  W is for Wasted includes both, as well as medical fraud, a shady investigator, and return appearances by two of Kinsey's ex-boyfriends.

The dead body belongs to a homeless man who had Kinsey's name and office phone number in his pocket.  She's never seen him before, but business is slow so she decides to investigate her dead potential client.  Terrence - R.T. Dace - turns out to be an exonerated ex-con who wanted to clean up and reconnect with his now-grown children.  Dace's son and daughters didn't care about their father, alive or dead, but they are interested in the half-million dollar settlement he received from California for his false imprisonment.

It's all very straightforward (Dace must have found Kinsey's address in the phone book and planned to hire her as a go-between with his family) until Robert Deitz shows up.  He and Kinsey haven't spoken since the end of their affair, but there wasn't any bad blood until a sleazy investigator named Pete Wolinsky used Kinsey's name to subcontract a job out to Dietz, inflate his bill to his client, and then stiff Dietz because, well, by then Wolinsky is a stiff himself - shot at a bird refuge a few weeks before Dace died on the beach.

Grafton neatly connects the two crimes, with clean logic and few coincidences.  It's so cleverly constructed that it's difficult to review without spoiling.  It's enough to say that W is for Wasted, like the three preceding installments is a highlight of this long-running series.  As Kinsey approaches 40 (and Grafton approaches retirement), she's exploring issues with wider impact than simply uncovering insurance fraud, and wrapping serious discussions in novels which, although they're hard to put down, cannot be dismissed as merely "page-turners."