The Oxford Murders – Guillermo Martinez

oxford murdersI’ve read the Penguin Press 2005 paperback edition translated from Spanish to English.

This is the third novel by Argentinian mathematician Guillermo Martinez. The story is a nice, compact (197 pages) page turner on a classic mystery reminiscent of an Agatha Christie novel. I enjoyed this story, its narration was clear and to the point, no barrel of red herrings that you would get from Colin Dexter.

Our narrator, an Argentinian mathematics student come to Oxford to further his studies, tells this tale of events that happened in the past… it unfolds nicely at a leisurely pace on the bucolic suburb of Oxford. Shortly after settling into a room he lets from an elderly lady, she is murdered, and a mathematical clue is left with his mentor Professor Seldom, who discovers the body with our narrator.

I like the opening to this story. Its narrated in a journal or a diary tone that seems somewhat intimate and old fashioned… I can picture the then young, now older man reflecting back a what would probably be one of the most memorable highlights of his life. A grand adventure!

The story touches on several mathematical topics and theories, as well as several philosophical themes as the two gentlemen work to solve what may be a series of murders, each laid out in a mathematical sequence. As I finished this book, there was something that I had remembered from somewhere else… the best place to hide a murder, is in a series of murders.

One of the draw backs to this book being so brief, is that although we are taken to several different locations within Oxford while taking this pursuit, we never really get to stop and admire our surrounding all that much. Surely Kaminsky would have shown us more of the sights.

Now that the years have passed and everything’s been forgotten, and now that I’ve received a terse e-mail from Scotland with the sad news of Seldom’s death, I feel I can break my silence (which he never asked for anyway) and tell the truth about the events that reached the British papers in the summer of ’93 with macabre and sensationalist headlines, but to which Seldom and I always referred – perhaps due to the mathematical connotation – simply as the series, or Oxford Series. Indeed, the deaths all occurred in Oxfordshire, at the beginning of my stay in England, and I had te dubious privilege of seeing first at close range.

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Red Chameleon – Stuart Kaminsky

red chameleonThis is the third Inspector Rostnikov novel. Published in 1985 I found it interesting that the novel mentions the transitions in Soviet leadership through the span of the prior novels, Death of A Dissident (1981) and A Black Knight in Red Square (1983) From Brezhnev to Andropov and then the death of Chernenko. From the climax of the second novel to the start of this third novel finds Chief Inspector Rostnikov demoted to simply Inspector Rostnikov, and it is due to this demotion that Procurator Khabolov, who succeeded Procurator Timofeyeva, assigned Rostnikov, along with his new leg-man the uninspired Comrade Zelach, to investigate an insignificant murder of an old Jew.

“In Moscow, the investigation of a crime is a question of jurisdiction, and the investigation of important crimes is an important question of jurisdiction. Minor crimes, and no one is quite sure what a minor crime is, are handled at the inquiry stage by MVD, the national police with headquarters in Moscow. Moscow itself is divided into twenty police districts, each responsible for crime within its area. However, if a case is considered important enough, a police inspector from central headquarters will be assigned. The doznaniye, or inquiry, is based on the frequently stated assumption that “every person who commits a crime is punished justly, and not a single innocent person subjected to criminal proceedings is convicted.” This is repeated so frequently by judges, procurators, and police that almost everyone in Moscow is sure it cannot be true.”

An old man is murdered in his bath and the only clues that Inspector Rostnikov has to go on is a very old photograph of four young men, and an old brass candlestick was taken from the scene. A very old photo of now very old men… who are they? Where are they? Are they even still alive? Well, at least one of them isn’t alive anymore. But who takes a simple old candlestick? It’s a question, a puzzle that draws the detective in Rostnikov to solve.

Along the way he, like Prometheus, tries to bring that spark to Comrade Zelach and ignite the detective in him.

“Zelach,” he said as they rode up the escalator, “do you think of me as a violent man?”

“No, chief inspector,” said Zelach indifferently. “There’s a stand on the corner. I have not eaten. Would it be all right if I bought some blinchiki?”

“It would be all right, Comrade Zelach,” Rostnikov said sarcastically, but the sarcasm was lost on Zelach. “Do you want to know where we are going?”

Zelach shrugged as they pressed through the morning crowd.

“In that case, we will let that be your surprise for the day.”

Meanwhile, we find our old friend Inspector Emil Karpo investigating a sniper at large in the city, and Inspector Sasha Tkach investigating a series of luxury car thefts. The pursuits of these investigations enable us a readers to again venture through the streets of Moscow and encounter the unique characters that populate the city… hell, this is as enjoyable as dogging Spenser around Boston!

Crooked House – Agatha Christie

crooked houseA classic British mystery first published in 1949

Charles, a young man striking out on a career in the diplomatic service returns home to England after the war to look up a young woman he knew in Cairo and ask for her hand. But, as is the fashion in a Christie novel, a corpse stands in the way. Well, that’s the lead into Crooked House a mystery of a well-heeled immigrant family three generations living at the family estate Three Gables in Swinly Dean, whose patriarch Aristide Leonides has died in rather uncertain circumstances.

Sophia, Aristide’s granddaughter, whose hand it is being sought, invites Charles to the house to meet her family and discretely see if he can assist the police, lead by Chief Inspector Traverner, as Charles’s father is an Assistant Commissioner at Scotland Yard and perhaps he may be able to see into the heart of the matter as the inspector appears stymied in his efforts to delve into the family secrets.

Of the characters in residence at the estate are Aristide’s two sons Philip (Sophia’s father) and Richard, their wives Magda and Clemence respectively, and Sophia’s younger brother Eustice and her younger sister Josephine. Also, there is Sophia’s great-aunt Edith de Haviland, sister to Aristide’s first wife, and his second wife Brenda Leonides (fifty years his junior).

The story moves at a slow pace… leisurely taking the reader through a series of interactions and interviews with family. Charles tagging along with the inspector on his questioning of the family and their various motives. The real insight into the case come from Charles’s conversations with his father at his home. The old detective offering his insights into murder and murderers. From here the reader can gain a good perspective and a toehold as to the crooked solution to this puzzle.

Although I enjoyed the story (and the movie BTW), it did lag somewhat in its pacing. It was slow to unfold and even as the story’s climax was approaching the pace never really picked up. There really didn’t seem to be any sense of ‘urgency’ to this drama…

“Dad, what are murderers like?”

“Yes, I’ve never met a murderer who wasn’t vain … It’s their vanity that leads to their undoing, nine times out of ten. They may be frightened of being caught, but they can’t help strutting and boasting and usually they’re sure they’ve been far too cleaver to be caught.” He added: “And here’s another thing, a murderer wants to talk.”

Noir – Christopher Moore

noirWilliam Marrow – Harper Colling published April 2018

“A couple of onions short of a Gibson.” Funny… It’s the first book from this author that I’m reading.

Set in San Francisco in 1947, its Ramond Chandler meets J. A. Konrath with a humorous story of Sammy, a gimpy barman who falls for a blonde, Stilton (like the cheese) who’s built like a B-52 and wandered into the bar one dark and stormy night. Speaking of bombshells, we are introduced to a General who wants to perk up a weekend get-away in the woods with some working girls and Sammy’s shady boss Sal who has his fingers in many a shady pie, has just the idea…

Speaking of idea’s… Sammy get a helluva genius one when his Chinese friend and side-kick Eddie Moo Shoes take him for dinner at a place in the Chinatown back-alleys… If they could just get their hands on a snake and Sammy just knows a South African merchant marine from the bar who might just have the goods.

Things get a little out of hand with the snake crated up back at the bar… and now Sal needs to be put on ice. Next thing you know, the snake’s gone, Sal’s gone and the Cheese turns up missing!

Sammy recruits some friends, all neighborhood characters, and a search is underway… hijinks, including a high-speed car chase, ensue… Hold on to your aliens and G-men, its going to get bumpy!

She had the kind of legs that kept her butt from resting on her shoes – a size-eight dame in a size-six dress and every mug in the joint was rooting for the two sizes to make a break for it as they watched her wiggle in the door and shimmy onto a barstool with her back to the door. I raised an eyebrow at the South African merchant marine who’d been spinning out tales of his weird cargo at the other end of the bar while I polished a shot glass.

Black Knight In Red Square – Stuart Kaminsky

red knightI read the 2012 MysteriousPress.com kindle edition of this novel.

This is the second in the Inspector Rostnikov series. There has been a murder, a poisoning of an American, two soviets and a Japanese citizen at a hotel in Moscow. The American was a journalist reporting on the Moscow Film Festival. The other victims were also connected with the festival. Is this just an isolated incident? Could there be a nefarious person or group who seeks to spoil an important cultural event?

Chief Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov and his trusted assistants, the idealistic Sasha Tkach and dedicated Emil Karpo set off to investigate. From swank hotels, to meeting with prostitutes in dark Metro Stations, and following suspicious westerners to theaters and Moscow landmarks. Something is certainty going on..

Thanks to a brief meeting with the KGB’s Colonel Drozhkin, Porfiry is informed that there may be western capitalist fanatics loose within the city of Moscow. Now, not only does he have to solve the murder, but he is being tasked with preventing any terrorist plots against the Film Festival.

I’m real taken with the writing, the way Kaminski draws me into the whole story. And, there’s even a bit of the old noir detective fiction. Here Tkach is interviewing a suspect at her hotel room:

“I haven’t been much help, have I?” she said, rising slowly.

“You’ve told me what was necessary.”

“If you’d like to come back tonight after dinner and ask more questions,” she said, taking a step toward him, “I’ll be right here.”

Now Tkach smiled, and his smile stopped her. The game-playing halted, for she had seen something that told her things had not gone as she had guided them. That smile was quite knowing and much older than the face of the good-looking young detective.

“I have to work tonight,” he said, stepping past her. “But I may have more questions. And perhaps next time you will answer with the truth.”

Without looking at her he crossed the room, opened the door, and stepped into the hall, closing the door behind him. At this point, he had no idea whether or not she had told the truth. He’d had no reason to be suspicious until he gave her know what you are hiding. Tkach didn’t know that it was the smile of all detectives from Tokyo to Calcutta to San Francisco to Moscow. He had seen her play her scene out, then had given her the knowing smile, and for an instant she had broken, showing that there was something more behind those eyes and that lovely facade. He had no idea what she might be hiding or why. He would simply give the information to Rostnikov and let him worry about it.”

Death Of A Dissident – Stuart Kaminsky

death of a disidentOriginally Published in 1981 – I read the kindle version from MysteriousPress.com

On the eve of a political dissident’s trial he is murdered by means of a rusty sickle, left at the scene. Is it a political crime? A crime of passion? Or perhaps a random act of violence which does not occur in the Soviet state… It is assigned to Inspector Porfiry Petrovich Rostnikov to investigate. But, where to begin… well it doesn’t take long for the hammer to drop and now there are two murders on his plate.

This is the first in the Inspector Rostnikov series and I found it to be quite the experience. I felt myself really drawn into the city and its people. The story is peppered with both the broad brush strokes of scenic narrative as well as the pinpoint vignettes of interactions which make the story come to life. For example in a simple act of questioning witnesses we see the psyche of the average muscovite.

“He was a foreigner?” tried Karpo.

“Yes,” went on the old man, “definitely a foreigner, English or American, he…”

“Did he speak?” tried Karpo.

“I…I…,” stammered the old man, anxious to please.

“No,” said the son, hugging the blanket over his vulnerable legs. “He said nothing. He just ran down Petro Street.”

Pytor Roshkov had decided to fix his eyes on the fascinating painting on the wall of the first meeting of the Presidium.

“Then you don’t know if he was a foreigner,” Karpo continued.

“No,” said the son.

“Yes,” said the father.

“If you would try less hard to please me and harder to simply tell the truth, you will get out of here much faster and back to your home or work,” Karpo said.

You can feel the weariness of exasperation coming through Inspector Karpo. The way Kaminsky just drops these little interactions through the novel makes this story so immersive. I really had the feeling of being transported to another time and place.

I am very much looking forward to the next book in this series “A Black Knight in Red Square”

“Though there are rules and regulations, restrictions and requirements, it is no easier in Moscow to find a killer or a saint than it is in New York, Tokyo, or Rome. If the world does not know this, the police do, and so they learn to value patience and good shoes.”