Category Archives: mystery

Review: Winter at Death’s Hotel by Kenneth Cameron

5th September 2013

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*I received this book from the publisher Sourcebooks in exchange for an honest review.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle arrives on the island of Manhattan with his wife, Louisa. There for a book tour, the loving couple check into the Britannic Hotel, a building that boasts the thickest walls and an added bonus of soundproof rooms. As their room is prepared, Louisa glimpses a man and young woman arm in arm, noting their happiness.

The next day, the papers arrive, and a gory murder is splashed across the front pages. The victim? The same woman Louisa saw in the lobby of the Britannic the day before. She pens a note to the police, but the victim was the wife of a wealthy man. And the man she was with at the hotel was most certainly not him. In the corruptible Manhattan police force, the case goes away, but Louisa cannot stop thinking about it.

A sprained ankle keeps her from going on tour with Arthur, and she enlists the help of the hotel detective and a determined female reporter to track down the identity of the girl and her killer.

Promising, right? Even though not all that historically accurate, this is the type of book that can help me while away a summer’s day. Except that Cameron’s writing style was…odd. From the opening of the book, Louisa goes on at length about her and Arthur’s sex life. So much so that it stood out and began to be almost funny. But then, Cameron also used vivid sexual imagery in his narration as well:

The island of Manhattan looked in it like a thick penis about to penetrate the New Jersey Bay, which rather tickled Dunne; at the moment, however, he had the map placed vertically so that the penis seemed too flaccid to penetrate anything.

Immediately, at her eye level, somebody had written in indelible pencil, Fitch eats the hairy banana. She thought she knew what “banana” meant but didn’t understand the “hairy” party, although she’d seen only the one and maybe other men had hair on theirs.

These inclusions were…unsettling, but as the book progressed and more murders happen, I was absolutely horrified by Winter at Death’s Hotel. Gratuitous, heinous violence against women is disturbing, and the murders are described so vividly I had to set the book down and take deep breaths. A man is killed in the book (not a spoiler), but the violence is nowhere near as graphic in its depiction, and even more troublesome is the fact that the male character is described as a homosexual. The connection between sex, females and/or effeminate young men, and horrible violence is reinforced throughout the entire book. Most people I know don’t actually enjoy this. Yet we regularly consume books, TV, and movies that seem to glorify in just this type of gore. Disturbingly, these images haven’t lessened even as we are more aware of the “torture porn” industry and its perpetuation.

I did finish the book, though I wanted to pull a Joey from Friends and stick it in the freezer. After I finished reading it, I wanted it as far from me as possible even though the cover art isn’t suggestive of what lies beneath it. Perhaps if Winter at Death’s Hotel had spoken to larger problems of the correlation between women and sexuality and violence or had examined the killer and his tendencies I may have felt more willing to read and at least understand the inclusion of the violence. However, that never seemed to happen, and the closing scenes did nothing to change my opinion. In fact, I wish it had come with a warning, as I do not actively choose to read books like this. So I say, with hesitation, that you may…

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TLC Tour: Mystery Girl

21st August 2013

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*This book was sent to me by the publisher New Harvest, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in coordination with TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review.

I became an assistant detective, and solved my first murder, right after my wife left me, when I went a little mad. Never as crazy as the master detective himself, of course; he was completely nuts….And trust me, I know from crazy, being, as I admit right here at the outset, no poster child for emotional health myself.

Sam Kornberg starts his tale thus, in the great tradition of unreliable narrators before him. His wife Lala has left him; he’s unemployed, and his plotless novels are gathering dust. His only friends are MJ, his former employer who owned (and lost) a used bookstore and frequently went on poetry binges, and Milo, a former gay porn film projectionist who rents videos. Lala likes nice things, and novels without plots and failed bookstores certainly don’t provide for her. In an effort to impress her, Sam takes a job as an assistant to Solar Lonsky, a morbidly obese private eye who can’t leave his home.

Sam is tasked with following Ramona Doon, a beautiful young women with whom he becomes more and more intrigued. Yet he’s perplexed by his job. As he asks himself after observing Ramona one evening, “Was this what he sent me to learn? What mystery could it solve, what crime? Where was the victim, and who the criminal, besides me?”

Sam quickly finds the answer to that question, and as he is drawn deeper into Lonsky’s grip and Ramona’s spellbinding nature, Sam’s seemingly simple job becomes absurdly real, and Satanic rituals, porn, and doppelgangers confuse matters further.

Pulpy and raw, David Gordon’s writing is reminiscent of great noir while still retaining the shockingly real voice of a more modern fiction writer. Mystery Girl is an excellent exploration of a bumbling sad sack writer forced to transcend his own mediocrity.

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Review: A Dangerous Fiction by Barbara Rogan

5th August 2013

pg1*I received this book from the publisher The Viking Press in exchange for an honest review.

Sometimes, but not often, you open a book, read the first few pages, and know without a doubt that you will thoroughly enjoy a book. A Dangerous Fiction by Barbara Rogan was just that sort of book. As is obvious by the title, this is a literary mystery but not one you might expect.

Jo Donovan owns Hamish and Donovan, a literary agency handed down to her by her former boss, mentor, and friend Molly. Though she occasionally doubts the method in which she was chosen to handle the firm – she was married to the famous author Hugo Donovan – Jo knows she’s good at her job. She runs a tight ship, cultivating her loyal staff  – Lorna, Harriet, Jean-Paul, and Chloe – and using their strengths to benefit the authors she represents. Together, they weed through submissions to determine which deserve a chance and which either aren’t good enough or don’t fit the image of Hamish and Donovan.

Those rejections come under scrutiny when an author dressed in a trench and fedora accosts Jo outside her building, telling her ominously, “Mark the time, Jo. Remember this moment. Both our lives are about to change.” Chalking it up to the peculiarities of some writers, Jo entertains others with the tale of the man she dubs Sam Spade until a cruel act of sabotage follows, making Sam Spade seem much more sinister. Another client, Max Messinger, whose loyalty is only matched by a guard dog given to Jo by another author, is a former FBI agent who helps the agency navigate life after the attack, but he’s also a source of support for Jo who is unused to dealing with police and specifically lead detective Tommy Cullen, a former boyfriend.

As Jo watches her agency and her life come under attack, she also has to examine the life she led with her beloved husband Hugo and who she is without him, and though I loved this book in its entirety, I especially loved watching Jo’s painful transformation. She mentions at some point that we craft our own stories of our lives, and I definitely believe that to be true. For Jo, a difficult childhood means that she really equates much of her marriage with her life story as she knows it, and the realization that a. her story must include the bad bits and b. even her marriage may not have been what she thought is both heartbreaking and lovely.

A Dangerous Fiction is also full of perfect readerly moments such as these:

As I ate, I felt stronger. The dark cloud had receded, if only for the moment. Raymond Carver was right, I thought. It is the small, good things that save us.

I have known only one man as vivid and outsized as a proper fictional protagonist, and reader, I married him.

Yet the novel never bargains away story, character, or mystery for its wit.

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Review: Death’s Last Run by Robin Spano

1st August 2013

pg1*I received this book from the publisher ECW Press in exchange for an honest review.

Clare Vengel is back again in Robin Spano’s sequel to Death Plays Poker. Now an FBI agent, Clare is called to go undercover when a U.S. Senator’s daughter dies. Though Sasha’s death is ruled a suicide, Senator Martha Westlake, also campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination, doesn’t believe her daughter killed herself. With enough clout to call in the FBI, Martha expects results but also begins doing her own digging to determine what happened.

As Clare embroils herself in the snowboarding culture of Whistler, she learns that drug running is hot business and that Sasha likely had several people who wanted her dead. She also learns that Sasha may have had other motives than drug money and counter culture.

Clare is an odd protagonist. At times, she’s incredibly childish – painting herself into corners with her boyfriend and her boss – yet she also makes it clear she’s not a child, doing things for the job that shock and anger those around her. She also doesn’t seem to be an incredible undercover agent, allowing herself to become wrapped up in the people and the place she’s assigned without keen observation or detection. But what the reader discovers each time is that Clare’s assumption of her role is exactly what makes her successful, even if it puts her in danger at times.

As always, Spano’s sharp storytelling and economical prose quickly grabbed my attention. What sets her apart even further, however, is her expert handling of multiple perspectives, exploring the quirky citizens of Whistler and their motives without judgment. She also does an excellent job of providing readers with characters we should like – Clare, Martha, Noah – who are pretty awful at times, and characters we should dislike or suspect and making them sympathetic and likable. Thus, when the denouement occurs, there’s an uneasy feeling as the reader holds his or her breath, waiting to find the identity of the culprit.

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Review: The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell

3rd July 2013

pg1*I received this book from the publisher, Riverhead Books, in exchange for an honest review.

In the opening pages of The Other Typist, beginning with the first line, “They said the typewriter would unsex us,” Suzanne Rindell immediately displays her writing chops, linking the typewriter, the women who use them, and the distance between the woman and the men for whom she types in a fitting criticism of the workplace in the 1920s.

Rose Baker is a typist for the police department, transcribing the confessions of those who walk through the precinct. She marvels at being thought too weak to handle the graphic talk, aptly pointing out that as a typist, she must hear the confession twice – once as it is dictated and again, as she types it.  Rose presents herself as clever, punctilious, and slightly prudish, a fact excused by her past – an orphan, she was raised by nuns.

But the other typist – Odalie – switches everything up. As Rose says, when Odalie enters the precinct, “I knew: It was like the eye of a hurricane. She was the dark epicenter of something we didn’t quite understand yet, the place where hot and cold mixed dangerously, and around her everything would change.”

Drawn in immediately by the confessional nature of Rose’s tale, the reader has no choice but to wonder at the tone Rose takes when she talks about the vivacious Odalie. At first wary of Odalie, Rose soon becomes enamored of someone so different from herself, calculatingly vying for her friendship. When Odalie does turn her light on Rose, it’s fast and bright, and Rose can’t turn away, bound by the dangerous mix of glamour and daring that Odalie exudes.

Along the way there are signs of distress, but Rose is in too deep, and the rumors of an inappropriate relationship with a nun hint at the possibility that Rose feels romantically toward Odalie, adding to her dependency. At the same time, The Other Typist briefly comments on the changing social sphere as well, as Rose says,

In a flash it came to me, and I suddenly understood something about my own generation….Their youth was what kept them moving, a sort of brutal vitality lingering in their muscles and bones that was all too often mistaken for athleticism and grace. But their innocence was something they were obligated to go on faking in order to maintain the illusion something fresh and spontaneous and exciting was just around the next corner.

But for Rose, the reality is that something spontaneous and exciting is around the corner; it just may not be what she thinks.

The Other Typist, though not as tight as perhaps the deft fiction of Sarah Waters, is an enthralling read I’d  compare to Affinity. It’s well worth the read as well as the edginess most readers will feel as Rindell unwinds this novel of love, obsession, and corruption.

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