South of Evil – Brian Dunford

south of evilSouth of Evil – Brian Dunford 234 pages – Murder Thriller

So, I downloaded this to my kindle as the author had contacted me through goodreads and suggested it to me. I read the blurb and found the story an interesting one and since I had a little time here, I figured why not take a break for those pulps of the 40’s and 50’s and read something set in a more contemporary timeframe. A story of a Federal Agent, a drug dealer, and a stash of cash just waiting south of the border in a winner take all tale. Well… this review is a story of timeframes, the benefits of finishing well and a reviewer ‘read all’ tale.

The first third of this novel was plagued by discontinuous timeframes, jumping back and forth, leaving me unsure where I was at times. Then there was an annoying issue with the names of characters, sometimes using a first name to identify a character but then jumping right in an using the character’s whole name and back again… when I really didn’t see it as necessary and I don’t recall any two characters having names that were in anyway similar. And, there are two characters which the author tells us are fond of calling people by nicknames. I love a good nickname, its can be very revealing and characters, but then I really got into the story, I find that only one or two characters are being referred to by nicknames… a little bit of an unfulfilled promises. As I finished the first third I figured I would rate it two stars and shelve it… but, instead, I decided to greatly increase my reading pace and move through the story at a much higher level sacrificing detail while maintaining a cohesive narrative.

As I finished the second third of this novel the timeframes had stabilized and I found myself following a more cohesive story. The characters were all well in place, their relations to one another were fleshed out a bit more, their sense of who and where they were has becoming more clear and the narrative came together and the author was able to pick up the story’s pace. As a result I decided to reduce my reading pace. I took a pause as I approached the two thirds mark and felt the story was really keeping me engaged and the characters were starting to grow on me here. Despite the fact that only ‘The Russian’ had a nickname. I was thinking that this would probably be a good, three-stars overall review if everything stayed stable.

But, every story has an ending… well, at least the ones I finish reading do! And this novel… it really had an ending. No spoilers here… I want you to read it for yourself. It really came together, well planned. The some main characters had really developed and changed in fundamental ways, others remained stubbornly, unapologetically unchanged, and climax was… climatic! It really ended well, a good four-star story once it got its feet under it. I would recommend it and see if there are more stories from Mr. Dunford.

   Strauss hadn’t heard it in a long time, but he had heard “You don’t look Mexican” enough times to know it was true. He looked European. His hair and skin were lighter, and he had the bearing and countenance of the old world.

A man went into the small café. He made eye contact for a second with Strauss, but quickly looked away.

Sometimes, he thought of them by name. Other times, he gave them nicknames: The old man, the sad man, the fat man, the man who should have known better, the man who should have stayed dead the first time.

———-      Dunford, Brian. South of Evil (p. 15). Kindle Edition.

Foreign Deceit – Jeff Carson

foreign deceitCarson, Jeff. Foreign Deceit: A David Wolf Mystery, Cross Atlantic Publishing 2013. I read the Kindle Edition from Amazon

This is a first novel from what I can tell by author Jeff Carson. It’s a mystery of the thriller variety. While awaiting a potential promotion to Sheriff, Deputy Sargent David Wolf gets notified of his brothers suicide in a small city in northern Italy. Circumstances surrounding his brothers death have details that do not ring true, so he goes there to look into it and bring the body home. While investigating with the help of an attractive, young police woman Lia Parente he uncovers more than just the local charms. The book ends with his return to Colorado and a nice hook into volume two. The e-book edition I read, the first two chapters of the second book in this series are provided.

After letting this sit and digest with me, nothing there really stands out that I can recall with good texture. Perhaps the thing sticking out to me the most is Lia’s ability to drive an Alfa Romero very well, and that she may be ‘vivacious’ but I would have like to have spent more time at the post-climax of the novel exploring that in better detail.

Between Colorado and northern Italy Carson does a decent job in describing the landscapes and settings, but nothing really grabs me with any detail, or texture. I’m not expecting James Lee Burke pastoral here. But given two opportunities to bring a place to life I see an opportunity wasted I suppose. The language used is… standard, no, flat. Yeah, I would describe the descriptions as flat.

“Wolf had been studying the foliage of the area, and could only come to the conclusion that nature looked confused. There were palm trees, pine trees with long drooping limbs, stiff spiked trees with red flowers that looked like fruit, large-leaved prehistoric looking bushes, pine trees you might see in Colorado, and a variety of exotic-looking foliage he’d never seen. The lawn was lush green, full of grasses and thick-stemmed wild flowers with tiny yellow and blue blossoms, and at least a foot tall. One thing was certain—this area got a lot of rain.”

The area is well described, yet… nothing really has a texture. And this marks the description of, well, everything. Its there, but not that we ‘feel’ it. Even the Italian dinner scene at Detective Rossi’s house lacks texture…and if anything is ripe for pulling all our senses in, its an Italian dinner… I WANT to taste that spaghetti! And experience Office Parente… now THAT would be a sensation to textualize!

Black Cherry Blues – James Lee Burke

black cherry bluesPublished in 2011 by Mulholland Books, 288 pages I read this on my kindle at a very nice price.

This is the third book in the Dave Robicheaux series, and it seems to pick up right after the death of his wife. Her death, as well as her ghost haunts him through this story. But it’s a friend of his from College that brings the former New Orleans homicide detective to check into a pair of oil company men his friend Dixie seems to have gotten himself in bed with.

One thing leads to another as they say, and when thugs send a not to subtle threat involving his adopted daughter, its payback time. Then, when one of the oil lease-men turns up dead, Dave follows the leads to Montana to clear himself and finds that his old friend Dixie has taken refuge with a mafia family who’ve helped him in the past.

With missing Indian activists, oil company land deals and mafia drug transactions… well as picturesque as the landscape is, it may not be the healthiest place for an ex-lawman to be asking too many questions.

I’ve read this book having just finished his novel New Iberian Blues (2019). Its been thirty years between these two books and it’s a clear demonstration of something I’ve been calling the “Stephen King effect”. This novel has a fairly simple linear narrative with a limited number of characters moving through it… whereas New Iberian Blues has several narrative threads weaving through numerous characters over a sweeping story arc, and it shows how James Lee Burke has grown and developed as a masterful storyteller.

And, though this novel is smaller in scope than its latter novels it is no less dramatic in is descriptive landscapes:

“I headed for the Blackfeet Reservation, on the other side of the Divide, east of Glacier Park. In the early morning light I drove up the Blackfoot River through canyons of pink rock and pine, with woodsmoke drifting through the trees from the cabins set back in the meadows. The runoff from the snowpack up in the mountains was still high, and the current boiled over the boulders in the center of the river. Then the country opened up into wider valleys and ranchland with low green hills and more mountains in the distance. I started to climb into more heavily wooded country, with sheer rock cliffs and steep-sided mountains that ran right down to the edge of the road; the canyons and trees were dark with shadow, and by the time I hit the logging town of Lincoln the air had turned cold and my windows were wet with mist. I drove into clouds on the Divide at Rogers Pass, my ears popping now, and rivulets of melted snow ran out of the pines on the mountainside, bled across the highway, and washed off the dirt shoulder into a white stream far below. The pine trees looked almost black and glistened with a wet sheen.”

 

New Iberia Blues – James Lee Burke

new iberia bluesPublished January 2019 by Simon and Schuster, 465 pages of pure scenic detective fiction. I checked my copy out from the library and I sure wasn’t disappointed with this. This is the book I had in mind when I was reading Debbie Herbert’s Cold Waters. There are several threads running through this story and its woven together masterfully.

Detective Dave Robicheaux spies a woman tied to a cross drifting in from the bay while on the deck of his old friend Desmond Cormier’s house. The award winning director Desmond and company are in the area filming a new movie when a series of unfortunate incidents occur. From a dead woman on a cross, to a hanged laborer, then a crooked sheriff’s deputy is killed… as Robicheaux diggers deeper into the people surrounding Desmond the bodies pile up.

Is there a killer amongst Desmond’s friends or could it be a fugitive death row inmate from Texas who has been spotted in the area… or perhaps its an albino mafia contract kill whose also returned to New Iberia. It couldn’t be a young deputy who has a knack for being around just when someone is killed… could it?

The descriptions are wonderfully drawn in a vibrancy of detail and oe of the things that I liked about this story is that there is time in between the events. Everything isn’t cramped together, its spaced out, paced over a series of months, season even. The story starts in the spring and concludes in the fall and Burke gives amble nuanced description of the bayou throughout its transitions.

And its not just the physical landscape, no, the characters themselves are painted with a fine-tip brush. Even the recently deceased get rendered in full dimension:

   By Monday the victim had been identified through his prints as Joe Molinari, born on the margins of American society at Charity Hospital in Lafayette, the kind of innocent and faceless man who travels almost invisibly from birth to the grave with no paper trail except a few W-2 tax forms and an arrest for a thirty-dollar bad check. Let me take that one step further. Joe Molinari’s role in life had been being used by others, as a consumer and laborer and voter and minion, which, in the economics of the world I grew up in, was considered normal by both the liege lord in the manor and the serf in the field.

He’d lived in New Iberia all his life, smoked four packs of cigarettes a day, and worked for a company that did asbestos teardowns and other jobs that people do for minimum wage while they pretend they’re not destroying their organs. He’d had no immediate family, played dominoes in a game parlor by the bayou, and, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, never traveled farther than three parishes from his birthplace. He had gone missing seven days ago.

Cold Waters – Debbie Herbert

cold waters2019 published by Thomas Mercer 323 pages, I read the kindle edition

More drama llamas running through this book than bulls at Pamplona!

I picked this book hoping to get a sense of small town Alabama, and a good mystery in the mix… instead, I know more about the Keurig machine in the police station in an ‘old man vs new tech’ trope than I do about the building itself. The characters themselves are drawn straight out of central casting and never really developed past their tightly confined narratives… they boarder on base stereotypes. .. and as far as the ‘mystery’ goes, the only red herring will be found in a jar of cream sauce in Delaney’s pantry…

The story is about Violet, as she returns home from her stint in a halfway house having been interred at a mental facility for ten years following her witnessing the death of her best friend… or is she more than a witness? She is presented as a troubled soul who takes solace in her superstitions and talismans. And she has her reservations about returning to her home in Normal, a small Alabama town, to claim an inheritance left by her mother.

Waiting for her there are her evil step-sister Delaney and her father, an alcoholic with rage issues now showing signs of dementia. I characterize Delaney as ‘the evil step-sister’ because that is how she is presented by every character that narrates their interactions with her… and she is true to that stereotype.

The story is narrated in the first person and predominantly by Violet. For most of the time she’s narrating in the present-time, but smore chapter are set in the past, mostly ten years ago when the death of her friend Ainsley occurred. Other characters narrate scenes from their points of view, Delaney, Hyacinth (Her mother), Boone (the detective)… but even though the narrator changes, the ‘voice’ doesn’t change. Its as if all these characters sound the same.

Since is was an Amazon April recommendation I didn’t want to just shelve it. But, at about the halfway point I was able to push the throttle down and go right into skimming mode, just to get through this.

As for the theme in all this? Quite simply, the ends justify the means. Cue music, roll credits…

“You were rude,” she accused. Her eyes rked over me. “And why didn’t you wash up? I told you they were coming this afternoon.”

“No, you didn’t.”

“I mentioned it twice at breakfast,” she insisted.

She hadn’t, but I let that go. “Why did you tell them those lies about me having nightmares?”

“they weren’t lies. Every night, you scream in your sleep.”

My anger went down a notch. Was she telling the truth? I shook my head. “If I had nightmares, I’d remember.”

Delany arched a brow. “Do you always remember your dreams or wake up from a bad one?”

“No, guess not,” I had to admit. “Do I really call out Ainsley’s name?”

“You do. Repeatedly. Last night and most every night.”

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.