Author Archive

More At The US Review & Pacific Book Revews

Monday, October 12th, 2015

If you’ve read all the reviews here, including the great ones in the archives, you can find more of my reviews at The US Review and Pacific Book Reviews.

Just look for the reviews written by Joe Kilgore, The Fiction Fortune Hunter’s actual name.

Lots of good books and good authors there.

Have fun.

Where Nothing Is As It Seems

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

Is it the newsreels? The films of the 40’s? What is it that immediately shifts our mnemonic transmissions into black and white when we think of the Second World War and its aftermath? What is it that turns streets and alleys and craters and ruins into varying shades of gray. It really is gray, isn’t it? Yes, the shadows are black, or charcoal perhaps. And the snow is white, when not tinged with soot. But eventually it all becomes gray. Not just the image, but also the times, the people, the stories too.

Nowhere is gray more apparent than in Joseph Kanon’s latest novel, Leaving Berlin. It’s postwar Berlin, but just barely. It’s the Berlin airlift, but only tangentially. Mostly it’s the gray Berlin of divided zones, hazy memories, unsure motivations, unendurable alliances, unintended consequences, and perhaps most piteously, unachievable aspirations.

Alex is a Jewish exile retured from America to take his place among the emerging Communist community in East Berlin. Or so it seems. Irene is his first love who survived the Nazi ascent to power, the city’s descent into starvation, even the victorious Russians rape of the vanquished. Or did she? Dieter is an ex German policeman now working for the West. Markus is a new German policeman now working for the East. Markovsky is a Communist victor now overseeing unspeakable acts. Gustav is a Nazi doctor now hiding acts of his own. Berlln, 1949, is a patchwork of intrigue, hidden agendas, heroism and treachery. A study in gray if ever there was one.

Kanon is a master storyteller. With each sentence, each paragraph, each chapter, he reveals information that illuminates what you’ve already read and infuses what is to come with even more mystery. Nothing is obvious plot device. His characters act and react as befits real human beings caught up in the envy, the lust, the sorrow and the hope that is life. When you leave Berlin, and the characters that populate this engaging novel, you will be sorry to go.

Joseph Kanon is often compared to John Le Carre and Graham Green. Rather heady company to be associated with. Certainly his work, especially Istanbul Passage and The Good German compare favorably with The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and The Third Man. But make no mistake, Kanon is his own man in wit, style, and in his ability to hold the reader in a compelling grasp. Don’t believe me? Take this black and white tour of a very gray Berlin when the war had ended but intrigue continued to snatch you into a waiting car. Like The Fiction Fortune Hunter, you’ll be the better for it.

Delve Into Deception

Sunday, May 10th, 2015

The city as a character. Happenstance as motive. A mystery within a mystery. These are the thoughts foremost in my mind after recently finishing three novels from one of the original masters of noir–the great Cornell Woolrich. While his reputation has not been as storied as Raymond Chandler and other crime and mystery writers of the 30’s and 40’s, his output and success rate often surpassed his contemporaries. More Woolrich books and stories were turned into movies and teleplays than writers more easily remembered today. Alfred Hitchcock’s famous film, Rear Window, was based on a Woolrich story. Chances are, if you watch old movies on TV, you’ve seen a number of Woolrich works without knowing so, unless you’re as glued to the credits as you are to the films.

In Deadline At Dawn, a couple thrown together by circumstance, must solve a murder one of them is suspected of before the sun rises so they can catch a bus that will take them out of the city that has seemed to plot their downfall. The city itself becomes the all-seeing, all-schemeing, omnipotent force that continually conspires to thwart their efforts and keep them wrapped in its tentacles. Woolrich’s evocation of the city as the ultimate evil is as entertaining, if not more so, than the plot of this pot boiler as the hours and minutes until sunrise tick away.

The hyperbolically titled I Married A Dead Man, has nothing to do with the gore laden zombie books and films of today. The dead man in question does not return from the grave. Woolrich is too skilled at plotting to rely on such a haggard cliche. Rather, he has the heroine of the story posing as the dead man’s wife in order to raise her newborn child with some measure of security under the roof of the deceased’s loving (and wealthy) parents. Parents who never met their son’s fiancee and bride prior to their wedding. The actual couple died in a tragic accident enabling the deception. The suspense comes in living through the heroine’s fear and terror at being discovered. Particularly when the real father of her child comes back into the picture with blackmail on his mind.

Phantom Lady is an exercise that borrows a bit from both of the novels above, without copying either. Rather than a clock counting down the hours until sunrise, here the days, weeks, and months tick away leading to a final sunset–the execution of an innocent man convicted of murder. As each day brings us one day closer to an appointment with the electric chair, Woolrich spins a tale rich in detail and ingeniously plotted. The reader is fairly sure he knows where this story is heading, but not how it will get there. When it arrives at what appears to be the conclusion, the reader is not only surprised, but astounded that he missed the clues the author planted along the way to give him the real identity of the murderer.

Some have faulted Woolrich for an over-reliance on coincidence as plot device. But this reviewer sees that merely as literary nit-picking. The willing suspension of disbelief is essential to virtually all mystery or cloak and dagger tales. Accepting it in Woolrich’s writing takes nothing away from the enjoyment of being caught up in the wicked webs he weaves to engulf both his characters and his readers in deliciously torturous situations.

Cornell Woolrich’s life was often as macabre as some of his stories. Why did his marriage end mere weeks after it began? What was the mother like that he lived with until her death? Why did he keep wearing a shoe too small for his foot that eventually gave him gangrene and caused him to lose his leg? Why did the creator of so many successful novels and stories wind up dying as a virtual recluse, nearly penniless and alone?  To find the answers you can look into his life in the search engines or the biographies. To find out why he is regarded as one of the most renowned writers of crime and noir, you need only read one of his novels. The Fiction Fortune Hunter hopes you do.

Dirty Tricks And Riotous Retribution

Wednesday, February 25th, 2015

Some wise person once said, “Politics is show business for ugly people.” That sentiment is often taken to another level in political thrillers, where people are not only ugly, but also do very ugly things. Of course, in political thrillers, there are enough beautiful people around to keep all the dastardly deeds from being too indigestible. That’s certainly the case in the last political thriller Ross Thomas wrote, Ah, Treachery.

Ross Thomas was one of the acknowledged masters of the oft tongue-in-cheek political whodunit. His intricate plotting, detailed machinations of shadowy government organizations and covert subcontractors infused his tales with enough reality to keep plausibility high, and enough chicanery to keep morals low. It’s sometimes difficult to keep up with the multiple characters flowing in and out of Thomas’s tomes but it’s worth the effort if only to revel in the menacing motivations of each. There are always plenty of good guys, bad guys, victims, perpetrators, and not-so-innocent bystanders to keep you turning pages looking for the next twist or turn.

Ah, Treachery makes the majority of its cat and mouse moves between the sun-splashed streets of Los Angeles and the grey and granite facades of Washington DC and surrounding suburbs. It’s set in the late 1990’s when Bush 1 was on the way out and Clinton 1 was on the way in. The plot involves stolen campaign stashes, mysterious wrongdoings in El Salvador, murder here, there and everywhere, and a sense of impending peril that seems to trail all the participants regardless of their various political affiliations.

In the middle of all the cloak and dagger comings and goings is Edd Partain, an ex-military type who gets bounced from a dead-end (but low maintenance) job in the wilds of Wyoming and ends up providing aid, comfort, and muscle to an ex-Texas matriarch now sequestered in her own rent-free hospital room in Beverly Hills. She’s looking for millions that have somehow gone missing, and he’s looking for a paycheck and payback (if available, which it turns out to be) on whoever was responsible for separating him from the only woman he ever loved long enough to marry. Rest assured that Edd runs up against sinister schemers, charming conspirators, stone cold killers, and dangerously desirable (and available) romantic interests. How he maneuvers his way in, out, through and over this maze of honor’s mutineers is what keeps you churning from chapter to chapter.

The Fiction Fortune Hunter found Ah, Treachery up to the Ross Thomas standard of sly, intelligent, wicked fun. Here’s hoping you will too.

Time Long Past But Not Forgotten

Thursday, February 5th, 2015

Most people live long lives. Innumerable seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, and years. Why is it then, that most of that time is easily forgotten? Gone, as if it never happened. And yet some of it remains with us always. Locked forever in the corners of our minds. Or perhaps our souls. Where we keep the moments that have shaped us, and made us who we are.

Such are the musings brought to mind upon finishing Larry Watson’s small novel of a few unforgettable days in Montana 1948. It tallies less than two hundred pages and covers less than a month in a boy’s twelfth summer, but its impact, like the young man’s memories, stays with the reader long after the last page has been turned.

Watson fashions his tale as a recollection. An older, wiser man recalls events in a summer that changed his life like none since. He imbues the narrative with both an adult’s perspective and an adolescent’s wonder. And in so doing creates a time and place we can all relate to whether we spend our summers in cities, suburbs, or small towns like Bentrock, in Mercer County, Montana, where the author sets his story.

It’s impossible not to be reminded of To Kill A Mockingbird, when reading Watson’s story. Elements of that classic abound–violence, sexual awakening, prejudice, fear, bravery, the loss of innocence and the acquisition of insight. But the author tells his story in his own way about the Sheriff of a windblown prairie community trying to do what’s right when it would be infinitely easier to simply do what’s pragmatic. The plot centers on how the young boy and his parents react to events around them as discoveries of heinous behavior entwine them in legal, ethical, and moral choices that become increasingly difficult to deal with. Questions are raised about duty to family, fealty to truth, and honor or the lack of it. But not all is philosophical. Physical danger figures into the equation as well. There’s more than the loss of self respect involved. There’s also loss of life, with the fear of more to come.

I’ve tried to give the essence of Watson’s novel without giving away details of the story itself. Because it’s the story that keeps you turning the pages briskly to see what’s going to happen from one moment to the next. But it’s what’s between the lines that will leave you reflecting on Montana 1948 long after you’ve finished it.

If you enjoy literature steeped in honesty, insight, and exceptional storytelling, take a trip like The Fiction Fortune Hunter did to Montana 1948. You’ll be glad you did.

Devil In The Details Can Be Dour

Monday, February 10th, 2014

People who enjoy police procedurals love the details–evidence, clues, witness statements, lineups, third degree questioning and more. What really happened? What was the real motive? Who did it? Those are the questions that really drive the narrative. Most novels in this particular genre drop in a dollop of action now and then to keep the search for answers from becoming a wholly intellectual enterprise. Most, but not all

Ian Rankin’s The Impossible Dead leaves anything that could remotely be called action to the end of the novel. In so doing he creates a police procedural that is probably more true-to-life than most but hovers precariously on the precipice of plodding.

Set in Scotland, this tome tells the story of a team of policemen assigned to investigate the possible cover-up or compliance with incidents of improper sexual behavior by other policemen. In the U. S. these fellows and what they do would be called Internal Affairs. In Scotland, they’re called The Complaints. As in complaints against the police. The story begins as a task to find just who and how many might be involved in coercing sexual favors from the citizenry. But it eventually turns into a quest to find out if one or more murders have been committed and by whom.

The principal protagonist and lead seeker of the truth is Inspector Malcolm Fox–an affable fellow who has the typical set of problems most policemen do in these sorts of tales. He’s divorced and now no longer drinks. He has a father wasting away in an assisted living facility. He has a sister who continually berates him for not spending enough time with the father, or her for that matter. And as you might expect, he feels guilty about all of that. While most other novels of this nature would include a willing paramour that helps him soothe his aching psyche, Rankin twists that cliche a bit. There is a willing paramour, but Fox evades her overtures. Even though they once shared a sheet-rumpled night and she’s apparently willing to share more, the fact that she’s married keeps Fox from re-engaging. A touch of nobility that adds character but subtracts emotion.

Frankly, it’s an overall lack of physical contact that makes The Impossible Dead rather slow going. While it’s probably much truer to life without the fist fights, car chases, shootouts, and other manufactured mayhem that populates most detective stories, the realistic depiction of intellectual sleuthing often gets bogged down in too many dead ends, too many names to keep up with, and too few confrontations that go beyond relatively mild-mannered annoyance. Rankin’s use of associated terrorist bombings, prep-school communist flirtations, plus past and present Scottish politics add some spice to the goings-on but not enough for The Fiction Fortune Hunter’s taste.

Still, in all, one must give Mr. Rankin plaudits for adding to his long list of successful crime novels. And if you like your law-breaking pursued step-by-step, inch-by-inch, and more with brain than braun, you just might enjoy spending time with The Impossible Dead. I’d tell you the significance of the title if I felt better equipped to interpret it. But frankly, it eluded me. Guess I let the procedures overwhelm the inference.

Excuses, Excuses, And Truces

Monday, October 21st, 2013

Sorry I haven’t posted any reviews recently. My only excuse is that I’m neck deep in finishing the writing of my latest novel and I haven’t had time to read any others. So, I’m asking for a truce while I try to wrap it up.  If all goes well, I should be able to do it by this years end. If not…oh well, think positive.  Thanks for checking in from time to time.

Less Than Best Still Better Than Most

Sunday, June 23rd, 2013

“If both life and death frequently leave things unresolved, why should I be any different.” I wonder if that’s what John Le Carre was thinking when he ended his twenty-second novel, Our Kind of Traitor. For a writer remarkably skilled at tying up loose ends, he leaves a number of them fluttering in the breeze. Was boredom, advancing age, or the desire to empower the reader to create the settlement of accounts beyond the hardback’s walls, the author’s primary motivation? Surely not degenerative skills. For those all seem to be in tact and firing on all cylinders.

Indeed it takes consummate skill for a cloak and dagger tale to keep you turning over three hundred pages when not one shot (in the present tense anyway) is fired. Nor a gun drawn. Nor a weapon brandished. Unless of course you count the silver laptop computer that crashes onto the back of the neck of one minor character some two hundred and fifty plus pages into the tome. Only the finest of craftsmen can build suspense, intrigue, and impending doom with little or no physical action sequences to back it up. Le Carre manages to do so adroitly.

There’s a bit of the favored Hitchcock plot at work here. That of drawing the unsuspecting, inexperienced amateur into the world of jaded, battle-scarred (more emotionally than physically) professionals who ply their trade in safe houses, uncarpeted offices, and non-descript suburbs. In this case, two amateurs. One is a college teacher outfitted with good looks, athleticism, and an oncoming midlife crisis. The second is his beautiful, brainy, would-be fiancee, who is a junior attorney in a firm that seems to hold far less attraction to her than her conflicted academic lover. But as is the case in many Le Carre novels, Our Kind Of Traitor is more about angst than action, more concerned with inner than outer conflict, and move focused on human frailty than heroic deeds.

All those things we’ve come to love about John Le Carre tales are here in abundance. Internecine warfare, backstabbing underlings and credit-grabbing supervisors, musty institutions, glamorous locales, treachery, guilt, and circumstantial patriotism. Plus, we get a larger than life character in the traitor of the title, Dima, a Russian killer, mobster, money-launderer supreme, who also happens to be a stern, but caring family man to an expanding brood made larger by the vengeful actions of his unforgiving colleagues in crime. This would have been the perfect role for James Gandolfini had not fate recently intervened. There’s also international high finance, world-class tennis, and exotic Swiss resorts, but as always, the author’s real concern is with why people do the things they do.

Why does the academic agree to become involved with the defector? Why does the attorney acquiesce to the government’s shady practices? Why does agent A agree to work for agent B when they both know their superior, agent C, is likely to muck up the works when it comes to nailing corruption and wrongdoing on the part of A, B, and C’s own chain of command?

And…in this particular instance…why does the author give you an ending that answers a big question but leaves a battery of smaller questions unanswered. Is a sequel in the offing? Probably not. But then who knows. It’s Le Carre and anything is possible.

If you like great writing and storytelling and heaps of moral conundrums without the slightest trace of moralizing, give Our Kind Of Traitor a go. The Fiction Fortune Hunter did. And he’s the better for it.

Death In The Piazza

Thursday, December 27th, 2012

Here’s a nice twist on the tried and true police procedural murder mystery. It all happens in Rome. And part of the mystery is whether or not a murder has even been committed. Oh, there’s a dead body to be sure. But was it murder? Or simply death by misadventure. For a majority of the novel, you really don’t know. But there’s more to hold your interest than just the cause of death. There’s serial muggings of foreign tourists, Mafia protection racket hit and runs, and enough forgeries of artistic masterpieces to give you a graduate level education in Italian art.

The novel is entitled The Fatal Touch. Which frankly, seems a rather strained attempt at symbolism for a story that doesn’t really need it. The author, Conor Fitzgerald, has fashioned an intriguing matrix of plot, subplots, major and minor characters, and events both present and past to keep readers eagerly engaged. Let’s start with the plot.

Muggings of tourists are going on in a neighborhood of Rome where they shouldn’t be going on. A body is found in a nearby piazza that may or may not have been murdered. It may or may not have been connected to the muggings. The victim was not a tourist however. He was an expat Irish artist not particularly well thought of by those who thought of him at all. The Rome police proceed to conduct an investigation as they normally would. But quickly, normalcy is interrupted by the Carabinieri,the national military police of Italy. They want the city police to drop the investigation. They seem content to label the artist’s death an accident. He got drunk. He fell down. He hit his head. He died. Case closed as far as the Carabinieri is concerned. But as is usually the case in novels such as these, the case is far from closed to the primary investigating officer, Commissioner Alec Blume.

Blume is an American who lives and works for the local police in Rome. He’s had run-ins with the Carabinieri in the past, and as you might expect, he’s less than thrilled to be told to step down. As the story unfolds, we meet a variety of his staff who could make up the personnel files of any police drama in any city. While believably characterized, they’re not as interesting as the potential suspects they come in contact with. An obscenely obese Carabinieri Colonel, an aging hippie bank teller, a beautiful young receptionist with a penchant for telling lies, a somewhat shady art gallery owner and more. However the most interesting character in the entire novel is the dead body. An unrepentant Irish artist given to wild outbursts of temper, immense consumption of alcohol, and an exceptional talent for rationalization and forgery.

This stew of characters simmers along at a reasonable rate with little action but plenty of plot twists and turns. Near the climax, there is gunfire, dog bites, conflagrations and surprising revelations. The extended ending is a little overcooked for my taste, but if you have an appetite for a good old-fashioned mystery in an art-filled historic locale, check out The Fatal Touch. The Fiction Fortune Hunter did and came away satisfied.

Cops And Robbers And Cops

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012

When’s the last time you read a Joseph Wambaugh novel? Yeah, me too. Couldn’t tell you. Until the other day when I read one. This one was from 2008. Entitled Hollywood Crows, it’s not what you think. Assuming you’re thinking, like I was, that it was going to be about all those Hollywood hangers-on types who flit about tinsel town like a flock of crows. Of course assumptions are often incorrect. And this one certainly was. It turns out Hollywood Crows was about cops (as is virtually everything Wambaugh writes) in the Hollywood Division Community Relations Office, or CRO, pronounced and referred to as “crows” by the cops.

Turns out cops who work in this particular division are more about “community relations” and less about “real cop work.” At least that’s what the cops who work in said division think…according to Wambaugh who ought to know. Joseph Wambaugh used to be a cop in Los Angeles, and as most readers of this column will know, wrote some of the best “cop” fiction and non-fiction of the last few decades. On the fiction side you’d have to mention The New Centurions, The Choirboys, and The Glitter Dome. On the non-ficiton side, no one could avoid mentioning The Onion Field which really cemented Wambaugh as the “go-to guy” for LA police prose.

Hollywood Crows starts out with what seems to be just another series of dramatic scenes strung together for no other purpose than to simply introduce another of the large cast of characters (cops) who make up almost all of Wambaugh’s fiction. They’re always similar even though their different. This group is made up of police partners who are actually surfer dudes, hardworking street cops who are only trying to do their jobs and, a suck-up supervisor who’s making everything more difficult and more dangerous. If it sounds like something you’ve seen and heard before it’s because you have. Except perhaps for the wave-riding, lingo-spouting partners whose main role is simply to provide comic relief.

So many movies have been made of Wambaugh’s novels, and so many films and TV shows have been patterned after his work, that it’s hard for anything he writes now not to give the reader the impression of “been there, done that.” But the good news is, once you plough past the various vignettes of suicide attempts, petty thievery,gang busting and more, there’s a page-turning story waiting for you. It involves betrayal, revenge, adultery, shame, resentment, murder, frame-ups, and karma. All the things that basically make reading worthwhile.

There’s still no writer around who does a better job of being honest about what cops go through, fight against, deal with, and eventually succumb to than Joseph Wambaugh. Hollywood Crows is far from his best example of west coast cop life and death, but it’s one that should whet your appetite for the best of Wambaugh I mentioned earlier. It was worth the weekend The Fiction Fortune Hunter spent with it. Chances are it will be worth your time too.