Book Review: Silver Pebbles by Hansjörg Schneider

Silver Pebbles by Hansjörg Schneider—an engrossing, realistic police procedural with a host of compelling characters on both sides of the law.

silver-pebbles-by-hansjorg-schneider

Silver Pebbles

by Hansjörg Schneider

Translated by Mike Mitchell

Published by Bitter Lemon Press

from February 22, 2022

Genre(s): Detective Fiction, Police Procedural, International Crime Fiction

ISBN 978-1-913394-622

205 pages

I’ve been reading a lot of very impressive international crime novels recently, and Silver Pebbles by Hansjörg Schneider is yet another. A die-hard fan of crime fiction for decades, I’ve purposely expanded my crime fiction reading beyond the borders of my own country. So it delighted me when a publicist for Bitter Lemon Press offered me a copy of this book, and Schneider, a Swiss writer, and dramatist did not disappoint. While Silver Pebbles has elements of a slow-burn crime thriller, it fits best in the police procedural genre, a sub-genre of detective fiction. A police procedural differs from other cop novels. Instead of a single policeman getting called in to solve a crime and doing it alone, an entire squad cooperates to solve the crime using the methodology of detection based on real-life police work. Inevitably certain characters are more interesting or intelligent than others and get more space in a novel, but putting the bad guys away and solving the crime is a team effort.

“An elegant young Lebanese man, carrying diamonds in his bag, is on the train from Frankfurt to Basel – a drug mule on the return journey. At Basal train station, Hunkeler is waiting for him after a tipoff from the German police, but the courier first manages to flush the stones down the public toilets. Erdogan, a young Turkish sewage worker, finds them in the pipes under the station. To him they mean wealth and the small hotel he always wanted to buy near his family village. To his Swiss girlfriend Erika, the jewels signify the end of their life together. She knows that Erdogan has a wife and children in Turkey.

For the courier, finding the stones is a matter of life and death. His employers are on their way to ‘tidy things up’. For Hunkeler the diamonds are the key to finding the people behind the drug deal. They turn out to include, not only the bottom-feeding criminal gangs, but the bankers and politicians very high up the Basal food chain.”

Typically in a police procedural, someone commits murder, and a squad of police detectives gets called upon to find the killer. However, what drew my attention to Silver Pebbles was that it isn’t about a murder but a drug courier transporting a fortune in diamonds back to his employers in payment for the delivery of drugs. That fresh and creative approach is one of the things I liked best about the book. It captured my imagination and made for a more compelling premise than my usual steady diet of murder novels.

As the book unfolds, we first meet a key criminal in the story, Guy Kayat, a young Lebanese man working for a drug cartel as a drug mule and courier. Kayat is on the train from Frankfurt to Basel (a city in northwestern Switzerland on the river Rhine). In his bag, Kayat carries a fortune in perfectly cut diamonds received in payment for a delivery of narcotics which he is couriering back to his cartel bosses. Unfortunately for Kayat, the Swiss police are on to him, thanks to a tip from the German police, and a squad of detectives is waiting on him at the Basel train station. Schneider does an accomplished job painting this character for us. As the story progresses, we learn much about Kayat, why he does what he does, and what motivates him to participate in the drug trade. Once we learn about him, even though he is a criminal, it’s difficult not to feel a measure of sympathy for him.

A few pages later in the first chapter, we meet the main character, Peter Hunkeler, a detective inspector with the Basel police and the detective in charge of the squad tasked with apprehending Kayat and seizing the illicit diamonds. Hunkeler, as the protagonist, gets more space in a novel than his police colleagues, and naturally, we get a more in-depth look at his life than the lives of the other cops involved in the investigation. We see the investigation develop primarily through his eyes. In a real sense, the book often seems less concerned with solving a crime than examining the complex life, motives, strengths, and weaknesses of Hunkeler.

The biggest challenge for some readers of this book might be that the Hunkeler character seems a bit clichéd. After all, he has all the usual flaws one expects from the main character in a novel of the genre. First, he smokes and wants to quit but can’t. Second, Hunkeler struggles with his long past divorce and estrangement from his adult daughter, who remains the most important person in the world to him. Third, the detective inspector is cynical and burnt out. Fourth, he is a maverick and doesn’t get on well with his supervisor, and sometimes he drinks excessively. Finally, Hunkeler has an intimate relationship with a woman he hasn’t married, which he uses mostly for only sexual satisfaction and fulfillment of his emotional needs.

I get it. Crime novel characters must have flaws to appear like real people. As I know from personal experience, policing is a stressful job, no doubt about it. But not so stressful that every single cop hits the bottle the moment their shift ends. Yes, many police marriages don’t always survive, and divorces happen. But cop marriages can be as strong as anybody else’s. It’s one of the things that can help a police officer cope with the stress. Unfortunately, at least in the opinion of readers not devoted to the genre, crime fiction writers don’t always spend enough time pushing out from safety zones of the genre conventions. They believe that’s why we end up with tropes and clichés.

Alternatively, those like me who are devoted to the genre aren’t particularly bothered by reliance on the usual conventions, even if they might agree that sticking to them results in tropes and clichés. We sort of expect that from a police procedural. And from an author’s perspective, sticking to the conventions still sells books. Just consider an American super-star of cop novels, Michael Connelly, whose Harry Bosch is in the pantheon of all-time great police detectives. If you know much about Bosch, you know he shares all the same flaws with Hunkeler.

To be fair, there is far more to Hunkeler than the predictable flaws we’ve come to expect from police detective main characters. He possesses characteristics that make him unique and multi-layered. Examples include his political and social world views and his disdain for capitalists and politicians, many of whom Hunkeler regards as the true criminals while acknowledging their wealth and positions makes them virtually untouchable. Also, while Hunkeler enforces drug laws, he feels a high degree of sympathy for drug addicts. All in all, I find Hunkeler a compelling, multi-faceted, and believable character.

As much as I liked Hunkeler, the character in the book which most captured my attention and I like most is Erika, the Swiss girlfriend of the Turkish sewage worker, Erdogan, who eventually finds the discarded diamonds in a sewer pipe beneath the Basel train station.

Erika might be considered a only a minor character in the overall scheme of the novel. She is a single, childless, middle-aged woman, past her prime, who works as a supermarket cashier and desperately clings to the relationship of mutual convenience that she shares with Erdogan. Yet it is with Erika I believe Schneider’s expertise with drawing realistic, believable, and complex characters shows through most brilliantly. Moreover, the crafting of Erika is a virtuoso performance. We feel immediate empathy for Erika and sympathy for her difficult life while at the same time feeling astonishment upon learning she is a woman of grace, character, strength, and wisdom.

If you’re unfamiliar with the works of Hansjörg Schneider, as I was before reading this book, I think it fair to say that stylistically, Silver Pebbles reads quite like a Henning Mankell Wallander novel. Even those who haven’t read Mankell have likely seen the popular films based on his Wallander character. Silver Pebbles isn’t a whodunit. Both the police and the reader know who the criminals are and what they’ve done out the outset. The story is about the systematic attempts by the police to solve the crime by bringing the bad guys to justice and how the criminals try to get away. The book has its suspenseful, edge-of-your-seat moments, but at times the pace of the story lags as we wait for something to happen, some catalyst to reignite the action. However, that is the nature of the police procedural, which seeks to mirror the realism of actual police investigations that play out similarly. The police do not solve crimes in an hour, as television dramas portray.

I found Silver Pebbles a gripping and entertaining read and came away impressed with Schneider’s obvious and considerable talent as a crime writer. He is the author of several highly acclaimed plays and the bestselling Hunkeler crime series, with ten titles published. The Basel Killings, the first in series published in English, was awarded The Friedrich Glauser Prize, Germany’s most prestigious crime fiction literary award. Silver Pebbles is the second book in the series to be published in English. I found not a single awkward passage in the book, revealing that translator Mike Mitchell did an admirable job with the translation. Those of us who enjoy reading novels from international authors first published in other languages always appreciate that. If you’re a devoted fan of detective fiction and police procedural novels, you’re sure to like this book. I truly loved the ironic denouement. The resolution was both appropriate and most satisfying.

Bitter Lemon Press will publish Silver Pebbles from February 22, 2022. I received an advance reading copy of the book from the publisher used for this review, representing my honest and unbiased opinions.

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A Stranger From the Storm by William Burton McCormick

A Stranger From the Storm by William Burton McCormick—is an engaging, fast-paced historical mystery with plenty of surprising twists.

New novella from Author William Burton McCormick, a Shamus, Derringer, and Claymore awards finalist whose fiction regularly appears in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

A Stranger From the Storm

by William Burton McCormick

Published by Mannison Press, LLC

from November 4, 2021

Genre(s): Mystery & Thrillers, Murder Mysteries, Victorian Mysteries

ISBN 978-1-00513-275-0

110 pages

The year is 1900. The port city of Odessa on the Black Sea is being terrorized by a brutal killer called the Specter. With five people already dead, the murderer promises more.

One family, the Karadopoulinas, run a boarding house. Sisters Tasia and Eleni feel certain the killer is a scarred, shambling Londoner who took lodging with them one night during a thunderstorm. Furtive and threatening, Henry Humble, stalks Odessa’s labyrinth of interlocking courtyards and foggy docks at night, armed with weapons and skeleton keys.

As the body count rises, so do the questions…

I don’t read a lot of historical fiction to include historical mysteries. So candidly, A Stranger From the Storm is not a book I’d likely have picked up to read on my own, even though the summary piqued my curiosity mildly. But I accepted the book as it was offered to me along with McCormick’s KGB Banker, and I’m so pleased I agreed to read it. This novella allowed me an entirely different view of McCormick’s writing, which I found intriguing and showed me that he is not only a skillful storyteller but also a versatile writer.

On July 9, 1900, shortly before midnight, twin fifteen-year-old sisters Tasi and Eleni are at home alone on a stormy night waiting for their mother, Maia Karadopoulina, to return home to the boarding house they live in and that Maia operates. Suddenly, they encounter a most peculiar man, an Englishman named Mr. Humble, in this fast-moving historical mystery novella from William Burton McCormick (KGB Banker), set in Odessa*, the third-largest city in Imperial Russia and the country’s second most important port, after St. Petersburg, at the time.

* Odesa is the modern preferred transliteration from Ukrainian.

Humble inquires about lodging for at least a fortnight (two weeks), and the Karadopoulina girls allow him into the parlor to await the arrival of their mother. She alone makes all the decisions on letting the rooms. When Maia gets home and before she learns of Mr. Humble’s presence, she tells her daughters there has been another murder in the Slavic quarter. A fiend prowling the quarter has claimed his sixth victim, all little children. In letters penned to the local newspapers, someone claiming to be the murderer uses the moniker the “Specter.”

Once Tasia remembers to tell her mother they have a prospective lodger, Maia speaks to Humble. She agrees to rent him a bottom-floor room, they settle on the price, and Mr. Humble takes up residence.

As time passes, a series of strange events cause Tasi and Eleni to increasingly suspect that their odd, eccentric lodger may well be the murderer, perhaps the Specter himself. Then something happens that makes them certain of it. So, they begin to investigate. What could go wrong? Quite a lot, actually.

While my first William Burton McCormick book, KGB Banker, both impressed and entertained me, this one is quite a different type of story, but one I found just as enjoyable to read. A novella, A Stranger From the Storm, is a quick read simply because of its length, considerably fewer pages than that of a full novel. But the fast-paced plot makes it seem an even speedier read.

McCormick does an admirable job of capturing and holding the reader’s interest from the opening chapter. The story unfolds from the points of view of the two fifteen-year-old sisters, Anastasia “Tasi” and Eleni Karadopoulina. The setting, Odessa on the Black Sea in 1900, when the city was still an important part of the Russian Empire and before the start of the revolution in 1905, was fresh and intriguing. McCormick capably gives readers a feel for what living in the city might have been like during that period. In addition, I felt the prose perfectly mirrored the period.

Something I found captivating about the two main characters, Tasi and Eleni, is that the deeper I got into the book, the more I forgot they were only fifteen-year-old girls as they seemed far older. That feeling was not at all inconsistent with the period setting of the book. No offense to contemporary teenagers intended, but fifteen-year-olds in 1900 bore little resemblance to today’s teenagers. From a very young age, parents and society imposed far more responsibility on children in those times than is now the case in our age of helicopter parenting. Thankfully, I’m not old enough to have grown up in that period. Still, even the children of my generation grew up with far greater responsibilities and consequently possessed considerably more maturity and life experience as teenagers than those of today. That’s what parents and society expected and required of us. It saddens me that so many parents today give so few responsibilities to their children and expect so little in the way of maturity from them. In my opinion, they do their children a grave injustice by hindering their children’s growth as individuals on the difficult journey towards adulthood. I mention this only to offer an example of how well McCormick did the job of providing us an authentic historical feel to the book and depth of characterization.

What I liked best about this book was the imaginative plot and the unexpected but welcome bits of comic relief that I, for one, find far too infrequently in mystery tales. The comedy adds both interest and texture to the story. There were also plenty of unexpected twists along the way to keep the pages turning.

While I don’t read much historical mystery fiction, I am a lifelong fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. I also enjoy reading some of the better modern Sherlock Holmes retellings that have grown popular since the expiration of the copyright on Doyle’s iconic detective character. So, I think it fair to say I’m capable of recognizing quality historical fiction and put The Stranger From the Storm firmly in that category.

For those who enjoy reading historical mysteries with a Victorian-era vibe, The Stranger From the Storm is a well-told, engaging story that is an entertaining read you’re sure to enjoy.

The Stranger From the Storm was published by Mannison Press, LLC, and the book is available from November 4, 2021.

I received an advance copy of the book used for this review, representing my honest and unbiased opinions.

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Book Blitz: The Girl on the Beach by Larry Darter

Mystery & Suspense

Date Published: 10-05-2021
Publisher: Fedora Press

Rick Bishop, a former cop and lazy Honolulu private investigator who specializes in divorce investigations, reluctantly agrees to help his love-struck best friend, Joe Rose, track down a mysterious girl named Elle Palmer. Rose met the woman briefly on a moonlight stroll on a Waikiki beach. After the fleeting romantic encounter, Palmer vanished the same evening without a

trace. Rose believes he is in love with the woman and that she is in grave danger.

Bishop begins his investigation apathetically, but when he meets the wealthy and powerful Hawaii pineapple magnate Derek Ballard, Rick grows more interested in the case. When he spots a photo of the woman Rose wants him to find in Ballard’s office, Ballard explains the woman in the photo is his former fiancé, Elle Palmer, who committed suicide nearly forty years ago. As he continues to dig, Bishop discovers the girl on the beach was actually Kate Weaver, the niece of the long-deceased Elle Palmer. Rick also learns Weaver bears an uncanny resemblance to her dead aunt and appears in various places around Honolulu, claiming to be Elle Palmer while wearing the same ivory-colored formal dress her aunt was wearing the night friends and relatives last saw her alive at a party in 1982.

The plot thickens once Rick uncovers the motivation behind Kate’s bizarre impersonations of her dead aunt’s ghost. Weaver believes her aunt didn’t commit suicide but that Derek Ballard murdered her in a jealous rage. Kate has traveled to Honolulu from California to expose Ballard as her aunt’s killer. She pretends to appear as Elle Palmer’s ghost as a ruse aimed at garnering enough publicity to encourage the Honolulu authorities to reopen the decades-old investigation into her aunt’s death. Bishop decides to help Weaver get justice for her aunt after realizing she truly is in grave danger. Unfortunately, Derek Ballard intends to keep his dark secrets buried by shutting her up by any means necessary. Rick also becomes a target when Ballard tires of his interference and hires a Chinatown thug to eliminate him in a staged auto accident. Bishop and Weaver must find out where all the bodies are buried and fast before Ballard buries them.

About the Author

LARRY DARTER is an American writer of fiction, primarily of the mystery & detective and police procedural genres. He is best known for the eight novels written about the fictional Los Angeles private detective Malone. Darter has also written three novels based on the fictional character T. J. O’Sullivan, a female New Zealand ex-pat, working as a private investigator in Honolulu, Hawaii, and two recent police procedural novels featuring the fictional character LAPD homicide detective Howard Drew.

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To Bring My Shadow by Matt Phillips

To Bring My Shadow by Matt Phillips—A gritty and engrossing old-school hardboiled tale set in the darkest corners of San Diego.

Book Details

To Bring My Shadow

by Matt Phillips

Published by All Due Respect, an imprint of Down & Out Books

from July 15, 2021

Genre(s): Mystery & Detective, Hardboiled Mysteries

ISBN 978-1-73709-781-5

274 pages

This haunting, hardboiled tale follows detective Frank “Slim Fat” Pinson and his partner as they try to unravel the vexing mystery surrounding a who-done-it drug murder in San Diego.

Frank “Slim Fat” Pinson is your regular hardboiled murder cop—hell, Frank’s a cliché. His wife is dead after jumping from a bridge and he’s a mal-practicing Catholic. He’s tough as nails. Hard as sin. Except not.

When Frank and his partner, “Skinny” Slade Ryerson, catch a cartel murder case, they’re sucked into a black hell of political corruption with ties to Santa Muerte. And Frank—a man who knows himself so well—spins into an epic crisis of faith.

The first detective novel from acclaimed pulp writer Matt Phillips introduces readers to a fascinating character of indefensible fault, immense morality, and incalculable demise.

Matt Phillips’ adroitly plotted and nimbly executed hardboiled crime tale kicks off with the discovery of a partially dismembered body inside an oil drum in shallow water beneath the Coronado Bridge. Seasoned SDPD homicide detective Frank “Slim Fat” Pinson and his partner Slade “Skinny” Ryerson catch the case. The scene has particular significance to Pinson. His late wife, Miranda, committed suicide by jumping from the bridge, and Pinson is still reeling from it.

After identifying the victim, Enrico Frederico Pablo Castaneda, the detectives discover he has a Santa Muerte—Saint Death—tattoo over his heart, a known drug cartel tattoo. The grotesque dismembering and the tattoo suggest it was a cartel hit. As their investigation proceeds, Pinson and Ryerson obtain information that leads them to discover the bodies of a San Diego family—Mark Jacoby, his wife, and their fourteen-year-old daughter—buried in shallow graves in east San Diego county near the border with Mexico. The family had been missing for about six months, and the feds had big-footed the case. More painstaking investigation leads the detectives to believe the Jacoby and Castaneda cases are connected. However, the more dirt the pair dig up, the more convoluted the investigation becomes when they learn the murders involve drugs, money laundering, a shady real estate development plan, and political corruption. The investigators are tenacious, but it seems someone is throwing up barriers to shut down their investigation at every turn.

Frank Pinson, the lead character, is cliché. But that’s okay because Frank knows it.

“Don’t worry—the detective knows he’s a cliché.”

Pinson has suffered a recent tragedy. Predictable. He is alone since his wife’s suicide and his estrangement from his son and daughter. Expected. But, Frank isn’t only alone. He is lonely and depressed. Check. He’s 49-years-old and has spent most of his adult life as a cop. Pinson is overweight, out of shape, cynical, and drinks too much. All Anticipated. It’s all hackneyed characterization that crime writers have overused with detective characters to the point it seems worn out, stale, ineffective, and meaningless. But, again, it’s okay that Frank is a cliché, and not only because he knows it. That’s precisely the characterization called for in hardboiled—a tough, unsentimental style of American crime writing that embraces tones of earthy realism in the genre of detective crime fiction. It’s almost a trope of the genre. Also, throughout the book, Phillips cleverly adds layer upon layer to Pinson’s character, and in the end, you forget all about him being cliché. He becomes a complex, realistic, fully developed protagonist. The author did an equally good job fully drawing a host of believable and interesting supporting characters. The characterization is one of the best things about the novel.

I liked that Phillips chose San Diego as the setting for the book. The storied, almost legendary LAPD overshadows every other police department in California (along with most every other police department west of the Mississippi). The status of LAPD means a vast majority of American crime writers choose Los Angeles as the setting for their novels involving police detectives. This is as true of past authors as with contemporary crime writers like Joseph Wambaugh (although I recall Wambaugh used San Diego as the setting for at least one novel) and Michael Connelly (Harry Bosch creator). It’s refreshing to see an author use San Diego, especially for a hardboiled novel. Even before I was aware Phillips is from San Diego, I already knew it from the authenticity of his descriptions of the area. I spent a fair amount of time there during my years in the military and recognized many of the landmarks described, particularly the Coronado Bridge.

True to the book’s genre, Phillips’ concrete, matter-of-fact prose includes profuse profanity and copious crude remarks along with abundant graphic sex and violence. All that is likely too familiar to shock devotees of the genre (like me). But those who aren’t fans of hardboiled fiction might find it all a little jolting and perhaps off-putting. None of it is what I’d consider gratuitous but as much a part of the genre as the vivid but often sordid urban backgrounds and fast-paced, slangy dialogue. But, of course, that shouldn’t surprise anyone since hardboiled crime fiction is a literary style, most commonly associated with detective stories, birthed by pulp magazines.

The hardboiled detective was created in the pages of “Black Mask” magazine in the early 1920s by Carroll John Daly. It’s difficult to find authentic hardboiled crime fiction today, and a pleasure to find a contemporary crime fiction author who writes hardboiled and writes it properly. I found reading While To Bring My Shadow almost like reading a modern-day (without the fedoras) James M. Cain or Mickey Spillane novel. It’s easily the best modern hardboiled book I’ve read since the Harry Kenmare series written by A. B. Patterson, an Australian crime writer and friend of mine who knows first-hand about corruption, power, crime, and sex from his own police career. The murder investigations conducted by Pinson and his partner Ryerson read like a top-tier police procedural.

If you’re a fan of hardboiled or even a devoted reader of well-written crime fiction not easily offended by coarse language, explicit sex, and graphic violence, you should pick up a copy of To Bring My Shadow. From personal experience, I can attest that Phillips does an impressive job of capturing the souls of veteran police officers, most of whom are cynical, but with good reason. They have borne witness to far too many dead bodies, blood and gore, and traumatizing examples of the mindless inhumanity that human beings tend to visit on other human beings. To hang on to their sanity, cops must learn to shield their humanity within an impenetrable shell to the degree that crime victims’ bloody, broken, dead bodies don’t register emotionally. But, of course, as Pinson and Ryerson’s experiences in the book illustrate, when they find a murdered 14-year-old, that only works with adult victims. No cop I’ve ever known, no matter how cynical, can withstand the wrenching emotional pain that comes from encountering a child victim. Phillips’ awareness of all that added extraordinary authenticity to his strong writing.

To Bring My Shadow by Matt Phillips, published by All Due Respect, an imprint of Down & Out Books from July 15, 2021, is now available.

I received a copy of the book from the publisher used for this review, representing my honest and unbiased opinions.

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*Also available direct from the publisher.

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Betrayal by Lilja Sigurðardóttir

Betrayal by Lilja Sigurdardóttir—A complex story, impossible to second-guess, which reveals that the human heart can be as dark and frozen as the Icelandic landscape.

Sigurðardóttir takes you slowly to the top of the roller coaster before the bottom drops out and you free fall towards a conclusion you never see coming.

Betrayal

by Lilja Sigurdardóttir

Translated by Quentin Bates

First Published in English by Orenda Books

From August 15, 2020

Genre(s): Thriller & Suspense

ISBN: 978-1-913193-41-6

231 pages

Burned out and traumatised by her horrifying experiences around the world, aid worker Úrsula has returned to Iceland. Unable to settle, she accepts a high-profile government role in which she hopes to make a difference again.

But on her first day in the post, Úrsula promises to help a mother seeking justice for her daughter, who had been raped by a policeman, and life in high office soon becomes much more harrowing than Úrsula could ever have imagined. A homeless man is stalking her – but is he hounding her, or warning her of some danger? And why has the death of her father in police custody so many years earlier reared its head again?

As Ursula is drawn into dirty politics, facing increasingly deadly threats, the lives of her stalker, her bodyguard and even a witch-like cleaning lady intertwine. Small betrayals become large ones, and the stakes are raised ever higher.

Betrayal is the third of Icelandic author Lilja Sigurðardóttir’s novels I’ve read. The title of this standalone perfectly fits the story she tells as betrayal is the book’s overarching theme that we find saturates the narrative on many levels.

When front-line international aid worker, Úrsúla Aradóttir, returns home to Iceland, exhausted and traumatized by her horrifying experiences abroad, she tries to reconnect to her husband and children and find normalcy. A one-year, high-profile government appointment seems to offer Úrsúla the chance to continue making a difference in the world while she struggles to come to grips with her difficult past. But the moment she assumes the position as interior minister, the role thrusts Úrsúla into a vortex of dirty politics, police corruption, and deadly threats. Small betrayals become large ones, and the stakes rise quickly to life and death proportions.

In Úrsúla Aradóttir, Sigurðardóttir once again offers us a strong, flawed, and sometimes-unlikable female protagonist. While we can quickly sympathize with her after learning of a myriad of horrific past experiences she tries to come to grips with, Úrsúla has some glaring character imperfections that at times make her appear weak, selfish, and sometimes downright unlikeable. These character weaknesses culminate in Úrsúla betraying her devoted husband, Nonni, which puts both her marriage and family at risk.

Unfortunately, even though we understand what explains Úrsúla’s bad behavior, that doesn’t justify it. And, predictably, Úrsúla’s weaknesses come back to haunt her in the end.

Of course, strong but flawed and sometimes-unlikable female characters are part of Sigurðardóttir’s magic in crafting characters that appear all too real. The flaws are always unique, not the clichéd variety we often find in other novels’ characters. It seems a bit weird to say it when speaking of fictional novel characters. Still, Sigurðardóttir has this incredible and unusual gift for offering readers windows into the very souls of her characters, making them appear extraordinarily real. After reading Betrayal, you feel almost certain that if you traveled to Iceland and looked hard enough, you would undoubtedly find a living, breathing Úrsúla Aradóttir. We could say the same about some of the other primary supporting characters.

Úrsúla isn’t by any means the only absorbing character in the book. I found Stella, an immigrant, witch-like office cleaner, Gunnar, Úrsúla’s driver and self-appointed bodyguard, and Pétur, a homeless guy having a history with Úrsúla, equally fascinating. And that’s just to name a few.

I truly admire Lilja Sigurðardóttir’s writing because her novels have a serious, socially significant heft coupled with her confident narratives. In Betrayal, beyond the smartly crafted plot, Sigurðardóttir nimbly tackles real-world social and cultural issues like dirty politics, police corruption, immigration policy, lesbian and gay culture, and misogyny. It’s one of the things that makes her writing feel so unusually textured and cinematic. Though they are works of fiction, Sigurðardóttir’s books never fail to teach me something, not only about Iceland but about life in general. That makes her novels even more compelling reads.

Each of the three Sigurðardóttir’s novels I’ve read thus far have individual strengths, but as much as I liked and enjoyed the previous two, I think it fair to say that Betrayal is my favorite. It is a complex story, impossible to second-guess, revealing that the human heart can be as dark and frozen as the Icelandic landscape. Of course, I plan to read much much more from Sigurðardóttir. I’d recommend you do likewise.

I purchased the copy of the book used for this review, representing my honest and unbiased opinions.

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The Investigator by John Sandford

The Investigator by John Sandford—A brilliant series starter even by Sandford’s lofty standards.

The Investigator (A Letty Davenport Novel)

by John Sandford

Published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

from April 12, 2022

Genre(s): Suspense &Thriller, Crime Mysteries

ISBN 978-0-59332-868-2

400 pages

Letty Davenport, the brilliant and tenacious adopted daughter of Lucas Davenport, takes the investigative reins in the newest thriller from #1 bestselling author John Sandford.

By age twenty-four, Letty Davenport has seen more action and uncovered more secrets than many law enforcement professionals. Now a recent Stanford grad with a master’s in economics, she’s restless and bored in a desk job for U.S. Senator Colles. Letty’s ready to quit, but her skills have impressed Colles, and he offers her a carrot: feet-on-the-ground investigative work, in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security. 
 
Several oil companies in Texas have reported thefts of crude, Colles tells her.  He isn’t so much concerned with the oil as he is with the money: who is selling the oil, and what are they doing with the profits? Rumor has it that a fairly ugly militia group—led by a woman known only as Lorelai—might be involved. Colles wants to know if the money is going to them, and if so, what they’re planning. 
 
Letty is partnered with a DHS investigator, John Kaiser, and they head to Texas.  When the case quicky turns deadly, they know they’re on the track of something bigger.  Lorelai and her group have set in motion an explosive plan . . . and the clock is ticking down.

It isn’t easy to write a review of a John Sandford novel without gushing superlatives, but I’ll do my best to remain professional. I’ve been a dedicated Sandford fan since reading Rules of Prey, the first book in the bestselling Lucas Davenport Prey series. While the Prey series remains my favorite, I also have read and enjoyed every novel in the Kidd and Virgil Flowers series.

We all have favorite authors whose passion for writing seemed to wane once they had written a few bestsellers, earned a lot of money, and became household names. The prolific John Sandford, with over forty bestsellers, is not one of those authors. He continues to pour his best efforts and considerable writing skills, honed to a razor-sharp edge during his days as a journalist, into every book. Sandford has never written a bad book, in my estimation. The Investigator is no exception. His writing is as crisp and fresh as ever.

On the verge of quitting her boring, low-ranking senatorial assistant and researcher job, twenty-four-year-old Letty Davenport reconsiders when her boss, Senator Christopher Colles, offers her a new position. She is to become his liaison to the Homeland Security IG’s office, complete with DHS credentials and a gun carry permit. With the change in assignment, Letty partners with DHS agent John Kaiser, a former Delta operator, and veteran of multiple combat tours. The pair travel to West Texas to investigate crude oil thefts from some Permian Basin producers. Their objective is not to bust the oil thieves, a matter for local law enforcement, but to determine what the crooks are buying with the oil money. But after stumbling onto a double homicide, Davenport and Kaiser find themselves up against heavily armed, ruthless members of a far-right militia group led by a shadowy woman who goes by the nom de guerre, Jael. After uncovering that the militia group has got their hands on stolen military explosives and seems bent on pulling off some kind of terrorist attack, Letty and her partner must find a way to stop them before there is a mass casualty event.

When I learned that John Sandford had written the first novel in a new series featuring Letty Davenport, I couldn’t wait to read it. Imagine how thrilled I was to get my hands on an advance copy from the publisher more than seven months before its release. The hardest part of being a John Sandford fan has always been waiting impatiently for the next book to come out.

Letty Davenport, the adopted daughter of Lucas and Weather Davenport, first appeared at age twelve in Sandford’s Naked Prey, the fourteenth novel in the Prey series. When a crooked cop murdered the then Letty West’s alcoholic mother leaving her orphaned with no family to take her in, Lucas and his wife became her legal guardians and later adopted her. I’ve liked the Letty character ever since. Even as a twelve-year-old, due to her difficult upbringing, Letty was always been smart and tough as nails. Every Prey novel since Naked Prey has mentioned Letty, and she has been a key supporting character in some. So it seemed almost inevitable that once Letty reached adulthood, like prominent Prey series character Virgil Flowers, she would eventually star in a series spinoff of her own. Enter The Investigator.

Filled with suspense, rich characterization, and the exceptional drama that are hallmarks of Sandford’s writing, this is one of his best novels yet. Fans of the Prey series will know that Letty and Lucas are kindred spirits.

After Letty once shot and killed two intruders who broke into the Davenport home intent on killing the family, Weather told her daughter, seemingly unaffected by the killings, that she was almost exactly like her father—that they both made very cold judgments about people, about their worth, and didn’t cut them any slack. But when Lucas heard about the conversation, he assured Letty that they weren’t psychos or sociopaths who killed without remorse. Instead, he explained that they were “pragmatists—really harsh pragmatists” willing to do what must be done. So, unsurprisingly, in The Investigator, Letty Davenport proves a near-perfect archetype of her father, Lucas. That’s one of the things I liked most about the novel. Unfortunately, as painful as it is to accept, Lucas Davenport is getting old for a credible law enforcement officer after thirty-one books. We must assume that the Prey series is likely approaching its logical conclusion. This series will make a worthy replacement.

While I was already well acquainted with Letty Davenport, the reader doesn’t need to have read a single Prey novel to enjoy this book. Using effective flashbacks, Sandford tells us all we need to know about Letty—her difficult childhood, her adoption, character, and worldview. Even those who might pick up this book as their first John Sandford novel won’t be lost because of unknown past backstory.

Besides Letty, I also truly liked the John Kaiser character, her partner. He reminds me a good bit of Bob Mattes, a deputy marshal with the U. S. Marshal’s Special Operations Group, a gregarious and pivotal character (and a personal favorite) in several of Lucas Davenport’s past adventures in the Prey series.

As we’ve come to expect, Sandford paints for us some interesting, ruthless, and realistic antagonists that we’re eager to root against as John bounces them off of Letty and Kaiser. As usual, he uses multiple points of view so that we not only understand who the bad boys and girls are but what they intend to do and why.

What I think made the plot particularly interesting and realistic is that Sandford chose the circumstances on which to create it based on two things most of us are well familiar with—far-right militias (think ex-Army soldier and domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh and the Branch Dravidian religious cult), and immigration which the current southern border crisis has thrust back into the center of public debate with the unprecedented numbers of migrants entering the country. The author features both themes prominently in this novel.

If you are a crime thriller enthusiast, especially a John Sandford fan, you won’t want to miss The Investigator. I can’t recommend it enough. I didn’t read it in one sitting as I started the book late one afternoon. While I hated to put it down, I didn’t finish it until the following morning. Still, at 400 pages, it’s a fast read. Having watched the video of a recent John Sandford interview, I knew his editor told him the ending seemed flat and recommended a re-write. Evidently, the author punched it up marvelously since I found the ending very satisfying. In no small measure, that is because the ending seems to promise this isn’t the last Letty Davenport novel.

The Investigator, published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, will be available from April 12, 2022.

As I mentioned at the start, I received an advance copy of the book from the publisher via NetGalley used for this review, representing my honest and unbiased opinions.

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KGB Banker by William Burton McCormick and John Christmas

KGB Banker by William Burton McCormick and John Christmas—A geopolitical/international crime thriller covering such startling and original territory, it seems all too real.

KGB Banker

by William Burton McCormick and John Christmas

Published by Milford House, an imprint of Sunbury Press, Inc.

from September 14, 2021

Genre(s): Geopolitical Thriller/International Crime & Mystery

ISBN 978-1-62006-669-0

330 pages

A return trip to the land of his ancestors is about to turn deadly for one whistleblowing Chicago banker. When financial executive Bob Vanags takes a job at ominous Turaida Bank.

When financial executive Bob Vanags takes a job at ominous Turaida Bank in Latvia, he hopes to learn of his heritage and  to fight economic fraud in Eastern Europe. Instead, Bob finds himself pulled into a world of political intrigue, blackmail, and murder.

Aided by his son David, his beautiful colleague Agnese, and a fearless Latvian journalist named Santa Ezeriņa, Bob begins to unravel his employer’s darkest secrets, discovering their sins and conspiracies beyond his wildest fears. Secrets that Turaida wants to keep hidden, even at the cost of Bob’s life.

Now framed for murder by Turaida operatives, Bob must go on the run to clear his name, protect his family, and reveal the plot to the world before governments topple and war ignites in Europe. KGB Banker is a pulse-pounding international thriller spanning the globe from Latvia to Iceland, Moscow to America, Ukraine to the Estonian islands and back again.

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t read political thrillers much these days. But when the publisher offered me a copy of KGB Banker recently, I accepted for two reasons. First, earlier this month, I read and reviewed another geopolitical thriller set in Eastern Europe. That book piqued my interest in the ongoing threat Russia poses to the Baltic States. Second, KGB Banker is set in one of those states, Latvia.

It’s no secret that Vladimir Putin wants to bring Baltic countries like Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania back into the orbit of the Russian Federation as part of a strategy to rebuild Russia’s power and influence nearly thirty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. From Putin’s perspective, Moscow has the right to engage in “humanitarian intervention” in Eastern European countries where there are significant minorities of ethnic Russians, the ploy used to annex Ukraine’s Crimea.

In 2015 during an interview with (now retired) American television journalist Charlie Rose, Putin reiterated his desire to reunite all Russian-speaking peoples with the Russian Federation. KGB Banker, while a work of fiction, deftly delves into this area. According to available statistics, thirty-six percent of Latvian citizens speak Russian as their primary language, including fifty-three percent in the capital, Riga. This ethnolinguistic situation provides a firm ground for Russian geopolitical mischief and a perfect setting for the novel.

Besides satisfying my keen interest in the geopolitics of Eastern Europe, KGB Banker includes plenty of criminal activities. That makes it a good fit for a blog that focuses on crime fiction. The book works equally as well as an international crime & mystery novel as it does a geopolitical thriller.

A Chicago banker, Robert “Bob” Vanags, still battling grief over the recent loss of his wife, Maria, to cancer and chronic exhaustion, gets an offer for a new banking executive position in Latvia, a country on the Baltic Sea between Lithuania and Estonia, the homeland of his parents. Having a longstanding interest in working for a few years in Latvia to experience his parent’s native country, Vanags consents to an interview for the position with Latvia’s largest bank and flies to Riga, the capital city. After the interview, which turns out a mere formality, Tereze Abele, Turaida Bank’s Senior Vice President, hires Vanags as Vice President of International Relationships.

When a corporate headhunter first contacted Vanags about the job at Turaida Bank, he told Bob that the bank was committed to improving its reputation within the international community because the reputations of Eastern European banks were considered a bit suspect. Moreover, the headhunter says Bob’s reputation as an honest, ethical banker made him a perfect candidate for the job. His new boss, Tereze Abele, assures Vanags that the first principle of Turaida is “transparency,” but Bob soon discovers the bank is rife with dodgy loans. He learns that almost the entire loan portfolio consists of loans made to shell companies owned by nine powerful oligarchs with close ties to the Kremlin. And those borrowers aren’t repaying the loans. Yet, the story turns out to be much bigger than he thinks.

As Vanags uncovers the true scope of the problems at the bank, he naively but doggedly tries to do the job he thought Tereze Abele had hired him to do. Bob tries to expose the giant international Ponzi scheme that he fears will end with the bank’s collapse. He even goes so far as reaching out to one of Latvia’s most prominent and revered politicians to blow the whistle. But failing to appreciate the real breadth of the web of conspiracy, Vanags soon finds himself on the outs with everyone connected with the bank.

A ruthless oligarch abducts Vanags and threatens his life. A gangster frames him for serious crimes he didn’t commit, leaving Bob’s reputation in tatters, and destroying his credibility. He must go on the run, wanted by the Latvian police, Interpol, and the FBI and targeted for assassination by the cold-blooded oligarchs. Vanags quickly recognizes that once he became a whistleblower, he didn’t risk only the loss of a job or hazard just his life but that of his teenage son. 

The choice of Bob Vanags, a corporate banker, as the protagonist, was intriguing. He hardly resembles a Jason Bourne-like character, and until near the end of the book, doesn’t seem particularly heroic. But given Bob seems a decent guy, the danger he faces, and the high stakes, Vanags is someone the reader quickly relates to and cares about what happens to him. It soon makes sense why the authors used such a protagonist.

Still, my favorite character in the book is Santa Ezerina, an investigative journalist. Having received a tip from Vanags’ deceased predecessor about the Turaida Bank scheme to steal billions of euros from the Latvian government, America, Britain, and the world at large, Ezerina was already investigating the bank before her acquaintance with Vanags. As a result, the same oligarchs had already targeted her. But once she gets involved with the American banker to get his story, her prospects for staying alive grow even dicier. Ezerina is a strong female character who truly delivers when it comes to heroic characters.

Like Vanags and Ezerina, the authors offer us a host of other well-drawn, realistic characters, good and evil alike. The authors supply everything you could possibly want from an Eastern Europe-based geopolitical thriller—ruthless oligarchs, spies, assassins, twists, turns, betrayals, and much, much more. KGB Banker will keep readers turning the pages compulsively as the authors shift the gears within this mesmerizing, grim, multifaceted story. Whether you’re a geopolitical thriller or crime fiction fan, this novel will not disappoint. It’s a geopolitical/international crime thriller covering such startling and original territory that it seems all too real.

KGB Banker by William Burton McCormick and John Christmas was published by Milford House, an imprint of Sunbury Press, and is available now. I received an advance copy of the book from the publisher used for this review, representing my honest and unbiased opinions.

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The Creak On The Stairs by Eva Björg Ægisdóttir

The Creak On The Stairs by Eva Björg Ægisdóttir—A visceral and ambitious debut that is essential reading for every Icelandic Nordic noir fan.

Critically acclaimed and popular novels by the likes of Arnaldur Indriðason, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Ragnar Jónasson, and Lilja Sigurðardóttir have boosted the visibility of Icelandic Nordic noir on bookstores’ shelves—not only in Iceland but with widely translated versions across English-speaking markets. As a longtime fan of Nordic noir by authors like Stieg Larsson and the chronicler of Inspector Harry Hole, Jo Nesbø, it’s seems so weird to admit, but until 2019 I didn’t read Icelandic crime novels.

In my defense, Iceland is not only one of the least populated countries globally; it is one of the safest countries in the world and has one of the lowest murder rates. Iceland is so safe that the country often does not require police to patrol the streets. Little violence means Icelandic police do not regularly carry firearms. So, who knew Iceland was chocka with talented crime writers who can spin a thriller or murder mystery with the best of them? My first experience with a brilliant Icelandic Nordic noir author was Ragnar Jónasson. Now that the genre has hooked me, I keep finding more favorites. After reading her gripping and sophisticated debut, that list now includes rising Icelandic crime-writing star Eva Björg Ægisdóttir.

The Creak On The Stairs by Eva Björg Ægisdóttir is set in Akranes, a small town about half an hour’s drive from Reykjavík, where she was born and raised. The novel’s sense of place, set in the cold, dark country of Iceland, is defined by its emotional chilliness and an overarching sense of despair, expressed by a brutal murder-mystery plot. The author sustains this bleak, chilly tone throughout.

The Creak On The Stairs (Forbidden Iceland Series, 1)

by Eva Björg Ægisdóttir

Translated by Victoria Cribb

Published in English by Orenda Books

from November 1, 2020

Genre(s): Thriller & Suspense, Nordic noir

ISBN 978-1-913193-05-8

315 pages

When a body of a woman is discovered at a lighthouse in the Icelandic town of Akranes, it soon becomes clear that she’s no stranger to the area.

Chief Investigating Officer Elma, who has returned to Akranes following a failed relationship, and her colleagues Sævar and Hörður, commence an uneasy investigation, which uncovers a shocking secret in the dead woman’s past that continues to reverberate in the present day.

But as Elma and her team make a series of discoveries, they bring to light a host of long-hidden crimes that shake the entire community. Sifting through the rubble of the townspeople’s shattered memories, they have to dodge increasingly serious threats and find justice … before it’s too late.

The discovery of a woman’s body propels a small Icelandic town police criminal investigator into a murder investigation and thrusts her into a churning vortex of dark, buried secrets.

In 2017, Elma, a former Reykjavík police investigator, relocates to her hometown while trying to come to grips with the devastating end of a nine-year relationship. While settling into a criminal investigations division position at the local police department, a woman’s body turns up in the sea near a lighthouse. Once the authorities determine someone killed the woman, Elma and her colleagues must pursue the murder investigation. Circumstances force her to put aside her own problems to focus on catching a killer.

The book opens with an ambiguous but gripping prologue that seems the recollections of a young unidentified girl from 1989. Then we meet Elma as she walks home from the Akranes police station. The author immediately sets the bleak, chilly tone by describing the town, the darkness, the chill, and Elma’s childhood remembrances of the town of only about seven thousand.

We learn that before moving back to Akranes, Elma had lived with Davið, her former boyfriend, in a flat on the fashionable west end of Reykjavík. The relationship has ended, but we don’t learn the circumstances right away. Still, it’s clear Elma feels lost and in despair over it. She still misses, Davið and stops to send him a text, even though she knows it won’t do any good. He won’t reply. It’s clear the ended relationship is what motivated Elma to move back to Akranes, even though years before, she couldn’t wait to escape the town.

It was still a small town of only seven thousand or so inhabitants, and you encountered the same faces day in, day out. Once she had found the idea stifling, like being trapped in a tiny bubble when there was so much more out there to discover. But now the prospect had the opposite effect: she had nothing against the idea of retreating into a bubble and forgetting the outside world.

We move back and forth from 1989 to the present via a series of the same cryptic-like recollections of the small girl we encountered in the prologue. The author uses the flashbacks to great effect to imbue in us the girl’s sense of sadness and hopelessness. We don’t know who the girl is, so we can only guess what comes next as we start to feel a sense of foreboding. Eventually, we do learn who the girl is, and her recollections continue from 1990 through 1992, helping us understand what leads to the murder.

I liked how the author used multiple points of view, making us privy to the main character’s inner thoughts. This technique helps the reader understand the characters and their motivations better and provides useful insight into the murder case. I liked Elma. She isn’t perfect, but that is what makes her feel real. She is a competent investigator and displays strong inner character through her willingness and ability to put aside her inner demons to accomplish her job. The reader quickly feels empathy for her and wants her to succeed and sympathy for her because it is so evident she is hurting over the ended relationship. Her partner, Sævar, is also an interesting character, though I would have liked to have gotten to know him a little better as he seems quite a savvy cop. Still, I realize his backstory isn’t really relevant when of course, Elma’s is pivotal to the plot.

About halfway through, I thought I’d worked out the whodunit bit. The solution seemed maddeningly simple. But as it turns out, that was only some masterful misdirection by the author, and I was completely wrong. Ultimately, there are a few mysteries on offer here, and Eva Björg Ægisdóttir tosses in several brilliantly constructed twists I never saw coming.

While the description is a bit overused by reviewers these days, I truly found this an atmospheric read. The author does a great job of planting us in a small Icelandic community, and her descriptive prose gives such an authentic feel to the narrative. The Creak On The Stairs is a visceral and ambitious debut that is essential reading for every Icelandic Nordic noir fan. I loved the book and am looking forward to reading the next book in the series, Girls Who Lie, which I’ve already added to my to-be-read stack.

The Creak On The Stairs by Eva Björg Ægisdóttir was published in English by Orenda Books and is available now. I purchased the electronic version of the book used for this review.

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Blog Tour and Review of Resilience by Bogdan Hrib

Resilience by Bogdan Hrib—A hybrid crime fiction/political thriller set mostly in Romania and England in late 2019, is bathed in browns, shadows, and pale lighting.

resilience-by-bogdan-hrib
Resilience

by Bogdan Hrib

Translated by Marina Sofia

Published by Corylus Books

on August 20, 2021

Genre(s): Political Thrillers, International Mystery & Crime

ISBN 978-1-916-37976-3

286 pages

Stelian Munteanu has had enough of fixing other people’s problems: all he wants to do is make the long-distance relationship with his wife Sofia work. But when a notorious Romanian businessman asks him to investigate the death of his daughter in the north of England, he reluctantly gets involved once more.

This time it turns into a tangled web of shady business dealings and international politics. Moving rapidly between London, Newcastle, Bucharest, and Iasi, Resilience shows just how easy and dangerous it is to fall prey to fake news and social media manipulation.

Resilience by Bogdan Hrib is a difficult book to categorize. I jumped in when offered an advance copy for review and participation in the book tour, assuming it to be a usual crime fiction title. It’s no secret that is the focus of this book blog. But just a few chapters in, I realized that Resilience was as much a geopolitical thriller as a crime novel. That’s not a genre I read much anymore.

I admit it. Once upon a time, I was a big Tom Clancy fan. There’s no shame in that admission. Clancy wrote some brilliant political thrillers until losing his touch. Once the point arrived where the stories took a back seat to Clancy showing off how much he knew about the technical aspects of all things military, I lost interest. That’s when I turned to crime fiction. Of course, a good detective novel or crime thriller is almost always about the story and the characters, which I prefer. But I digress. Here there was plenty of a noir vibe to hold my interest.

Resilience opens with the death of a young woman, a junior staffer at the Romanian Cultural Institute; we meet in the first chapter—a death that may or may not be suspicious. Nevertheless, the woman’s father, Pavel Coman, who we learn is a wealthy (but shady) businessman, suspects foul play and employs Stelian Munteanu (the protagonist) to investigate.

Munteanu is an interesting character. The author describes him as “a man with his fingers in many pies,” which we discover is an appropriate description. Munteanu is not a licensed private detective, but a book editor and former intelligence officer who self describes as “neither a detective, nor an editor, nor a spy, nor journalist, but a little bit of each.” Dabbling in private investigations seems a side interest based on his previous occupation.

Munteanu, somewhat reluctantly, accepts the case, mostly because it requires that he travel to England where his wife Sophia lives. Because of her job, the couple lives apart. Munteanu, who feels he never spends nearly enough time with Sophia, takes the case even though he doubts anyone murdered Coman’s daughter because it offers the chance for him time to spend time with his wife in London.

As the story progresses, the mystery surrounding the woman’s death fades into the background as the plot turns more toward geopolitics, specifically Russia’s historic interference in the politics of other sovereign Eastern European countries. Don’t misunderstand. The events at the book’s opening are—in many ways—the start of everything that comes after, but it feels as if the plot is about something altogether more sinister than what we expected. Hrib gives us glimpses into it, but it feels like something is missing. That piece of the puzzle left unsaid or unexplained made me feel I entered the story late and was playing catch-up. Hrib cleverly keeps things somewhat vague for a while and the reader in suspense. We recognize that we don’t have the full story and are left waiting for more.

The plot is imaginative, and the prose well-written, which made me feel the story was well worth hanging in for to the end. But, in all honesty, this book can at times seem a bit destabilizing, confusing, and manipulative once you realize it isn’t what it seems at the start.

Our lead character Stelian Munteanu often gives way to other narrators, notably Anton “Tony” Demetriade, a police detective and Munteanu’s friend that Stelian often turns to for help with his investigation. Demetriade is such a prominent character it seems almost fair to label him the co-protagonist rather than a mere side kick. Other conspicuous narrators are Ionescu, a Romanian secret services operative, and Scotland Yard DCI Harriet Darlow.

Reminiscent of a Robert Ludlum spy novel, Resilience demands concentration from the reader as a host of characters populate the story that we must keep track of as the novel shifts quickly between settings and narrators. The plot features a fair degree of complexity, but once you get past the first few chapters, it’s oddly compelling for that reason.

There is much I liked about Resilience. It’s a twisty read told from multiple points of view by realistic and fully drawn characters. I found the character development particularly interesting, becoming far more attached to some than seemed sensible.

The book also references many contemporary issues that will be familiar to readers—climate change, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the explosion of social and political activism produced by the internet, increasing migration and its effects, and the influence of “fake news” on politics and social unrest.

While the focus is on the Balkans, the aforementioned contemporary issues helps make the book relevant and relatable across English-speaking markets. This felt particularly relevant to me as an American in this era where the politics of balkanization (identity politics) pursued by corporate media-supported social organizations and movements to shift the balance of political power has fragmented the country into “tribes,” making many Americans hostile and uncooperative with one another.

I enjoyed Resilience even more than expected, especially since I first assumed it would be more of a traditional crime fiction novel. But that’s not at all the case. Instead, the novel is a hybrid crime fiction/political thriller, bathed in browns, shadows, and pale lighting. And the geopolitical circumstances involved are probably one of the best parts of the plot, certainly not expected at the outset; something I didn’t see coming.

Something else I hadn’t realized about Resilience is that it is the sixth book in a series featuring Stelian Munteanu. Typically, I prefer to enter a series with the first book. But, Bogdan Hrib, born in Bucharest, Romania, wrote and published the series in Romanian (obviously), and the English translations began with  Kill the General (2011), the fourth book in the series. Still, I feel the book works well as a standalone.

Resilience has garnered a lot of buzz from reviewers, book bloggers, and bookstagrammers, so I was excited to read it, though I wasn’t sure what to expect. After all, I’d not read Hrib’s books previously, and it is a translation. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always augur well. You’re at the mercy of the translator’s ability to transform not only the language but the tone and underlying nuances of the author’s original style. There were probably times early on that I was aware of reading a translation, but either the phrasing settled, or I became accustomed to the style of the author and translator as I stopped noticing part-way through, giving me confidence that translator Marina Sofia did the original justice.

What’s important is whether I liked this book. Yes, I loved it. I read it in one sitting, and the story kept me turning the pages quickly, keen to learn more. It offers something a bit new—something fresh. And, I found it a cleverly plotted book. While Resilience offers something slightly different than the reader expects at the jump, we learn fairly quickly where our assumptions are incorrect and can then settle comfortably into the story Hrib chose to tell. I loved how he brings his leading characters to life and helps the reader build relationships with them.

While presented in a fictional context, Hrib tackles a range of contemporary and complex issues with precision, challenging us to ponder our own attitudes and beliefs. This book by Romanian author Bogdan Hrib took me out of my comfort zone a bit as it departed from my steady diet of whodunits and crime thrillers. Still, I found Hrib’s writing and storytelling intelligent and easily devoured. I believe the book will satisfy political thriller and crime fiction fans alike.

Many thanks to Corylus Books for the advanced copy of the book used for this review representing my my honest and unbiased opinions.

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Better Off Dead by Lee Child and Andrew Child

Better Off Dead by Lee Child and Andrew Child—Vintage Jack Reacher.

Better Off Dead (Jack Reacher 26)

by Lee Child and Andrew Child

Published by Penguin Random House

from October 26, 2021

Genre(s): Thriller & Suspense

ISBN 978-1-984-81850-8

400 pages

Reacher goes where he wants, when he wants. That morning he was heading west, walking under the merciless desert sun—until he comes upon a curious scene. A Jeep has crashed into the only tree for miles around. A woman is slumped over the wheel.

Dead? No, nothing is what it seems. 

The woman is Michaela Fenton, an army veteran turned FBI agent trying to find her twin brother, who might be mixed up with some dangerous people. Most of them would rather die than betray their terrifying leader, who has burrowed his influence deep into the nearby border town, a backwater that has seen better days. The mysterious Dendoncker rules from the shadows, out of sight and under the radar, keeping his dealings in the dark.
 
He would know the fate of Fenton’s brother. 

Reacher is good at finding people who don’t want to be found, so he offers to help, despite feeling that Fenton is keeping secrets of her own. But a life hangs in the balance. Maybe more than one. But to bring Dendoncker down will be the riskiest job of Reacher’s life. Failure is not an option, because in this kind of game, the loser is always better off dead.

I’ve been a Jack Reacher fan since picking up and reading Killing Floor in 2000. Afterward, I bought and binge-read the next three novels. Then, starting with Echo Burning in 2001, I bought and read every new Reacher book as soon as it came out.

When Child (James Grant) launched the series, there was no character quite like Jack Reacher. He’s an ex-military cop turned drifter who wanders the back roads of America, always finding some injustice he must put right like some modern-day mythic avenger. I think it’s fair to say that the series developed a cult-like following.

The first twenty-five books were bestsellers, with sixteen hitting the top of the list. James Grant’s nom de plume, Lee Child became one of the most recognized thriller author names on the planet. He went on to sell more than 100 million books, which have been translated into 40 languages and adapted into two movies starring Tom Cruise.

Through the twentieth novel, Make Me, the author never missed a beat. With each new installment, the writing remained tight, and the action non-stop. Once I started a Reacher novel, I didn’t want to put it down until I’d read the last page. Then something happened. The quality of the writing started to slip.

Beginning with Night School, the twenty-first novel—probably an ill-advised second prequel for such a mature series—Child took us back to Reacher’s days as an Army MP and wrote the book in the third person rather than the usual first person. As a result, Reacher just didn’t seem like Reacher, and the explosive action we were accustomed to, fizzled. Similarly, the next three novels proved equally disappointing.

In 2020, James Grant announced his days as an author were over. I’ve always marveled at authors who remain passionate about writing the same series for going on a quarter of a century with no drop-off in quality. I can think of only a few who have achieved it. Even an imaginative author who wrote as brilliantly as Grant must have found it increasingly difficult to conceive new, fresh Reacher adventures. It seemed better that he exited the stage while the books were still hitting the bestseller list on the strength of the Lee Child name than to turn out bad ones. But his retirement wasn’t the end of the Jack Reacher franchise.

In combination with James Grant’s retirement announcement, he revealed he was turning the series over to his younger brother, Andrew Grant, a thriller author of nine thrillers of his own. To maintain the consistency of the brand, Andrew adopted the pen name Andrew Child to carry the series into the future.

Although Lee Child appears on the cover as co-author, according to James, his novelist brother largely wrote The Sentinel, the twenty-fifth Reacher novel. I bought the book but couldn’t bring myself to finish it. It wasn’t that the writing was bad, but Reacher just wasn’t Reacher. When it comes to this immensely popular series, Jack Reacher is the series. Getting that right is job one.

In fairness, the family relationship aside, it is never easy for a new author to take over a series as popular as this one. Nothing against Andrew’s skills as a writer, but the change in authors in The Sentinel was far from subtle. It was glaringly detectable, and the Jack Reacher character was too different from past novels. He felt phony.

Still, I wasn’t ready to call it quits with Reacher without trying the second Andrew co-authored book. Sometimes, a new author of an existing popular series grows into the role and finds their footing. So, when I had the opportunity to snag an advance copy of Better Off Dead from the publisher, I jumped at the chance.

When Reacher hitchhikes west to see the Pacific Ocean, he encounters under unusual circumstances, Michaela Fenton in a small dead-end Arizona town on the border with Mexico. Fenton, an army veteran and former FBI agent confides she is trying to rescue her twin brother, Michael (also a veteran), who is involved with some very dangerous people. Once Reacher learns the details, he realizes that even a capable woman like Fenton won’t succeed alone against the steep odds she faces. So he decides to postpone his trip to help her out, which might turn out one big mistake.

I won’t keep you in suspense. Jack Reacher is back, the original six-foot-five, technology-challenged brawler version who captured the imagination of fans at the start. Reacher does use a cell phone a few times in this book, but still prefers getting change for payphones.

I don’t know who did the lion’s share of writing this time around, but since he is taking over the series, we must hope it was Andrew and that he has now found his stride. This twenty-sixth installment is the best Reacher novel since Make Me and every bit as good as many of the early books in the series. The writing is tight, and the action is as non-stop and explosive as ever. The plot is fresh and imaginative, and there is plenty of suspense.

Reacher is always going to be my favorite character in this series. He’s the whole point of reading the books. But, in this one, I really liked Michaela Fenton. She’s no damsel in distress but a strong female character capable of holding her own when the numbers are reasonable. But facing an army of bad guys, she needs help as anyone would. We meet other fascinating characters along the way.

My recommendation, if you’re a fan of this series, whether you liked The Sentinel or had trouble getting into it as I did, is to get this book. Reacher is back. Those who have never read a Jack Reacher novel but enjoy a gripping, suspenseful thriller will also enjoy Better Off Dead.

Better Off Dead by Lee Child and Andrew Child is published by Penguin Random House and is available from October 26, 2021. I received an advance copy of the book used for this review from the publisher via NetGalley, representing my honest, unbiased opinions.

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