Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, by Patrick Radden Keefe.

January 25, 2020 at 1:55 am (Best of 2019, Book review, books)

  To start with, I had no desire to read this book. My recollection of Northern Ireland’s so-called ‘Troubles,’ at their appalling height in the early 1970s, held nothing good for me, certainly nothing that I cared to revisit. Yet Say Nothing kept appearing on ‘Best’ lists. To be more specific: It was on the ‘Ten Best Books of 2019’ lists posted by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. So I changed my mind….

This was a rough reading experience. In the beginning, there was so much murder and mayhem, so much killing and destruction, that I didn’t think I’d make it through. But gradually, the author’s focus narrowed to several individuals: the Price sisters, Dolours and Marian, and a woman named Jean McConville. There are numerous significant supporting players, one of which is Gerry Adams, purportedly a past member of the Provisional IRA – he denied it – who transitioned into a political role. He was president of Sinn Fein from 1983 to 2018.

Marian Price, left, and Dolours Price

If these look like mug shots, they probably are. Dolours and Marian were both front line fighters in the Provisional IRA. Both did time in prison, for various terrorist acts, including the notorious placing of four car bombs in London in 1973. (Two were defused; the other two exploded.)

In a curious turn of events, Dolours, after serving her prison term, married a movie star. This was actor Stephen Rea, who gained fame in the sensational 1992 thriller, The Crying Game.

Dolours Price and Stephen Rea, married in 1983

Sure, she managed to get herself a dreamboat husband, but she harbored plenty of anger toward Gerry Adams:

There is a concept in psychology called “moral injury,” a notion, distinct from the idea of trauma, that related to the ways in which ex-soldiers make sense of the socially transgressive things they have done during wartime. Price felt a sharp sense of moral injury; she believed that she had been robbed of any ethical justification for  her own conduct. This sense of grievance was exacerbated by the fact that the man who steered republicanism on a path to peace was her own erstwhile friend and commanding officer, Gerry Adams. Adams had given her orders, orders that she faithfully obeyed, but now he appeared to be disowning the armed struggle in general, and Dolours in particular. It filled her with a terrible fury.

(Dolours and Stephen Rea had two sons together. They divorced in 2003.)

I mentioned above a woman named Jean McConville. Here she is, with three of her children and her husband Arthur:

By 1972, Jean McConville was a widow. She had given birth fourteen times. Ten of the children survived; they ranged in age from a daughter, aged twenty, to six-year-old twin boys.

One night around 7:00, there was a knock on the door. A gang of people burst into the apartment, members of an IRA squad called the Unknowns. They demanded that Jean go with them. She was hustled out the door, down the stairs and into a waiting car. That was the last any of the children saw of their mother.

There is a lot going on in this book, and there are numerous individuals to keep track of. The story is for the most riveting. But for this reader, anyway, nothing compares to the disappearance of Jean McConville. What was ultimately done to her is, to my mind, one of the cruelest, most  heinous, and most unforgivable crimes ever committed.

I finished Say Nothing some weeks ago. I have not stopped thinking about the fate of Jean McConville.



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Best reading of 2019: Nonfiction, Literary Fiction, and One Purely Perfect Short Story

December 31, 2019 at 10:50 pm (Best of 2019, Book review, books)


The Europeans: Three Lives and the Making of a Cosmopolitan Culture, by Orlando Figes

    Stealing the Show: A History of Art and Crime in Six Thefts, by John Barelli with Zachary Schisgal

Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America, by Jared Cohen

    Murder by the Book: The Crime That Shocked Dickens’s London, by Claire Harmon

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, by Hallie Rubenhold

Author Hallie Rubenhold

Renaissance by Andrew Graham-Dixon

Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West, by H.W. Brands

The Trial of Lizzie Borden by Cara Robertson

Schumann: The Faces and the Masks, by Judith Chernaik

Robert and Clara Schumann

The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest To Break an Ancient Code, by Margalit Fox

    Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession, by Rachel Monroe

Little Dancer, Age Fourteen: The True Story Behind Degas’s Masterpiece, by Camille Laurens

In Hoffa’s Shadow: A Stepfather, a Disappearance in Detroit, and My Search for the Truth, by Jack Goldsmith

Becoming, by Michele Obama

The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, by Eric Foner

Lee C. Bollinger, President of Columbia University (left), presents the 2011 Pulitzer History Prize to Eric Foner.

[While pursuing his doctorate in American history at Columbia, my brother Richard had the great good fortune to study with Professor Eric Foner.]

  A Month in Siena, by Hisham Matar. Lucky man, Hisham Matar, to be able to make this pilgrimage to a place steeped in such a gorgeous heritage. And such lovely writing:

The play of understated exteriors and magnificent interiors, of calm serenity on the outside and deliberate care and thoughtfulness on the inside, of a modest or moderate face concealing a fervent heart, is a Sienese habit, a magic trick the city likes to perform. It does this not only out of the desire to surprise but also, I felt during those early days, to demonstrate the transformative possibility of crossing a threshold.

Your friend forever, A. Lincoln : the enduring friendship of Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed, by Charles B. Strozier. This book was the perfect companion volume to Louis Bayard’s Courting Mr. Lincoln, of which more below.


The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

A Philosophy of Ruin by Nicholas Mancusi

Courting Mr. Lincoln by Louis Bayard

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan. Oh. Ian McEwan, you cunning artificer! You had me mesmerized, from the very outset, by this strange and disturbing invention.  (Ian looks great, but that cover creeps me out.)

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver. Oh dear…a book I wanted so much to like. And there were some memorable moments; of course there were; Kingsolver is such a gifted writer. But I have rarely read a novel in which the dialog was so annoyingly unbelievable. I kept wanting to exclaim, “C’mon, Barbara, real people don’t talk to each other like that – in long, rambling disquisitions on weighty topics – commentary that is more like a  series of rants than anything else! (I got through it, but barely.)

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips. I just finished  this novel, and I believe it will haunt me for a long time. Among its many singular attributes, it takes readers to a place most of us know nothing about: the Kamchatka Peninsula,

Short story

“The Little Donkeys with the Crimson Saddles” by Hugh Walpole. As sensitive and moving an exploration of human affection as I’ve come across in a long time.

Sir Hugh Seymour Walpole, CBE

A final word on this year’s reading: I just completed a rereading of Courting Mr. Lincoln, and I think it is  brilliant. Not just in its category of historical fiction, but as a novel in any category, or just in its own category. Actually, with its wit, wonderful recreation of Springfield, Illinois in the 1840s, meticulous writing, and above all, bringing to such vivid life those  two singular individuals, Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed, everything about it is superb. Why has this book not garnered more notice? Lately I’ve started so many novels only to set them aside in frustration and dismay. But Courting Mr. Lincoln is a triumph. Kudos to you, Mr. Bayard!

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Best Reading in Crime Fiction 2019: Part Two

December 21, 2019 at 2:42 am (Best of 2019, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Karin Fossum

Jill Ciment

Dervla McTiernan

Killing with Confetti by Peter Lovesey. Always reliable, always enjoyable

The Whisperer by Karin Fossum. Okay, I put it on the list, but this would never be my favorite Fossum novel. The writing was excellent, as always, but the narrative was almost entirely given over to an interiority that quickly became, for this reader, downright suffocating. The plot was somewhere betweem slow and inert.

Unto Us a Son Is Given by Donna Leon. Up to Leon’s usual high standard. Trace Elements, the twenty-ninth novel featuring the indefatigable Commissario Guido Brunetti, is due out on March 3 of the coming year.

Joe Country by Mick Herron. Another entertaining entry in the Sough House series

The Body in Question by Jill Ciment. A trial concerning an unspeakable crime gives rise to a powerful and illicit passion.

The Scholar by Dervla McTiernan. A worthy follow-up to The Ruin.

Department of Sensitive Crimes by Alexander McCall Smith. Everything he does delights me! I’ve chosen this book for my 2020 Usual Suspects presentation and discussion.

Cold Wrath by Peter Turnbull. A procedural set in York, with a cast of characters that I feel as if I’ve known for a long time. And no wonder – this is the twenty-fifth entry in the Hennessey and Yellich series!

A Suspicion of Silver by P.F. Chisolm. The ninth entry in an historical series that I love.

Tombland by C.J. Sansom. Marilyn Stasio opens her New York Times review with this lively exclamation:

Oh, goody! An 800-page novel about the peasant uprisings of 1549!

This venerable crime fiction reviewer goes on to  state:

Sansom describes 16th-century events in the crisply realistic style of someone watching them transpire right outside his window.

All I can say is, it just flew by…all 800 pages of it!!

Two Kinds of Truth by Michael Connelly. The king of the American procedural just keeps getting better.

A Rising Man, A Necessary Evil, and Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee. Here’s a new series that takes place in India just after the First World War. Mukherjee really hit the ground running with these books. A Rising Man is excellent; so are the two that follow it. All you need to do is look at the awards and nominations garnered by these novels.
I just finished Smoke and Ashes, and though I very much enjoyed it, I do want to register a critical note. Toward the novel’s conclusion, a situation arises in which a dastardly plot endangering many lives, must be foiled as soon as possible. I thought this section of the narrative was longer and more convoluted than it needed to be; moreover, Captain Sam Wyndham, the series protagonist, was constantly running from one place to another, putting out fires literally and figuratively and seeming to be the only person able to intuit what the enemy was up to.

I thought it was a bit over the top.

Hog’s Back Mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts. Another classic worthy of rediscovery. I particularly like this author’s writing: it’s succinct, vivid – and not dated.

Freeman Wills Crofts, 1879-1957

Diary of a Dead Man On Leave by David Downing. Quoting myself here:

The setting is pre-World-War-Two Germany, in Hamm, to be specific, in the far north of the country. Josef Hoffmann has come there in order to do work on behalf of international Communism. But he becomes involved in the life of Walter, the young son of the woman who runs his boarding house. Gradually he becomes like a substitute father to the boy.

As Josef’s emotional commitment to Walter grows, his commitment to “the cause” recedes. Eventually he must make a crucial decision.

What could be better than espionage with a beating heart at its center? I loved this book and would definitely read another by this author, David Downing.

Safe Houses by Dan Fesperman. Having read and very much liked two of Fesperman’s earlier books – The Small Boat of Great Sorrows and The Warlord’s Son – I kept meaning to get back to him. With Safe Houses, I accomplished this return, and I’m glad that I did. Fesperman, a former foreign correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, knows well the secret world, and brings it and its denizens vividly to life.

Dan Fesperman

To Die But Once by Jacqueline Winspear and Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny. Both these titles were Usual Suspects selections. I’ve put them together because in both cases, they are written by highly regarded authors whose novels sometimes work for me and sometimes don’t. I remember the Winspear title as having its worthwhile moments and an appealing protagonist in Maisie Dobbs. But the narrative was all over the place and rather hard to follow.

And as for Louise Penny, well I must register a mildly dissenting voice amidst the swell of admiration on the part of her many fans. I know her readers are charmed by the cast of characters in their almost magical village of Three Pines somewhere in darkest Quebec, but alas, I sometimes find them more annoying than endearing. I admit,though, that I have had some good reading in this series. Bury Your Dead, my favorite entry, takes place in Quebec City and brought the place so vividly to life that I wanted to drop everything  and go there at once!

Maigret and the Nahour Case by Georges Simenon. I recently told my fellow mystery lovers in Usual Suspects that I read the Maigret novels as palate cleansers between longer and more involved reading matter. I do not mean to deprecate them; rather, to me the Maigret stories are gleaming jewels of the mystery world.

Love this cover – Love that car!

Broken Ground by Val McDermid. Loved it – Just the kind of meticulous, action-packed British police procedural that I find utterly satisfying. It was a Suspects selection (thanks, Carol!), but I’d already read it.

Although I’ve not quite finished it, I want to slip The Old Success by Maryland resident Martha Grimes onto this list before I finish. I have a sentimental attachment to this series, as you’ll see.

The Man with a Load of Mischief and The Old Fox Deceiv’d were hot off the press in the early 1980s when I first read them. I had just started work at the library, and was commencing on my own Magical Mystery Tour, as it was. I was at once charmed by Grimes’s style and her unique, and uniquely appealing cast of characters. And I’m happy to report that, after all these years their attraction has not lessened one bit. Richard Jury of Scotland Yard,  Lord Ardry, aka Melrose Plant, and the other denizens of Long Piddleton – they’re all still very much on the scene. Plus we’re introduced to three singular  denizens of the animal world; namely, a horse, a goat and a dog, named respectively Aggrieved, Aghast, and Aggro. That’s the kind of thing Grimes does that pleases me no end!

And so I salute you. Martha Grimes, on the occasion of this, your twenty-fifth Richard Jury novel.

Val McDermid

David Downing

Martha Grimes



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Best Reading of 2019: Crime Fiction, Part One

December 16, 2019 at 3:48 pm (Best of 2019, books)

Paul Doiron

Deborah Crombie

Jane Harper

Stephen Mack Jones

Almost Midnight by Paul Doiron  Why is this Maine author so little known? Come on, crime fiction lovers: Grab The Poacher’s Son and get going on this excellent series!

Agent Running in the Field by John LeCarre. Pure LeCarre; i.e. pure delight.

A Bitter Feast by Deborah Crombie. Liked it, but not quite as much as Water Like a Stone

The Dry, Force of Nature, and The Lost Man by Jane Harper. Australia comes vividly to life in these novels. Jane Harper is new on the scene, but she has hit the ground running!

August Snow by Stephen Mack Jones

The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware. This author is also on a roll. This novel, her fifth work of domestic suspense, is a sort of updated riff on The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. In general, I liked it, but I had some issues with it as well. (See my review.)

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson. This is the fifth novel featuring private investigator Jackson Brodie, and in my view, it’s the best since the first one, Case Histories.

Dead Man’s Mistress by David Housewright

The Sentence Is Death by Anthony Horowitz. If you’re not yet on the Anthony Horowitz bandwagon – well, step right up! You can start with this one, but it would be better to begin with The Word Is Murder, the first entry in the Daniel Hawthorne / Anthony Horowitz series. (Yes, the author is also a character in these novels. After all, Hawthorne needs an amanuensis, someone to write up his exploits. Remind you of someone?)

The Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman. A rich stew of Baltimore history, as it played out mainly in the 1960s, this novel is yet another example of crime fiction authors utilizing actual crime as an element of their narratives. Not quite in a league with Lippman’s stunning What the Dead Know, but still very engaging.

Rules of Prey by John Sandford. It was about time I read one of Sandford’s ‘Prey’ novels; he’s been churning them out since 1989, when Rules of Prey first appeared. I was somewhat apprehensive; would the narrative be saturated with violence? Now I read this book back in February of last year, so my recollection is imprecise. I do know that in general I liked it and would happily read another entry in this long running series. (Number 29, Neon Prey, came out this year.) This is yet another example of a felicitous Usual Suspects selection. (Thanks, Chris!)

Overture To Death by Ngaio Marsh. Like me, Mike is fond of the Golden Age authors. Good choice, Mike!

Shiver Hitch by Linda Greenlaw. Our discussion of this title has been postponed until next year.  I read it some months ago and liked it, but by next August, I’ll have mostly forgotten the particulars. Hey – I already have! Anyhow, I do recall that it’s yet another title with the Maine setting put to effective use, and with a likeable and admirable protagonist called Jane Bunker (and yes, I had to look up that name).

Anthony Horowitz

John Sandford

David Housewright

Kate Atkinson

Linda Greenlaw

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