‘History was never very far away in New Mexico….’ Land of Burning Heat, by Judith Van Gieson

March 18, 2018 at 1:40 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Judaism, Mystery fiction)

This past Tuesday, the Usual Suspects took up Anne’s choice for discussion, a book entitled Land of Burning Heat by Judith Van Gieson. Anne explained that in advance of a trip to New Mexico she had sought out reading that would complement her journey. Van Gieson’s novel, set in Albuquerque,  seemed just the ticket.

Our discussion ranged far and wide. The plot was rather convoluted, and we didn’t spend very much time trying to untangle it. This is because at the center of the novel there resides a fascinating subject: the saga of the Conversos, sometimes called Marranos or more lately, crypto-Jews. These were Jews who escaped the Inquisition by pretending to convert to Catholicism, while all the time practicing their Jewish faith in secret.

Most of us think of the Inquisition as an event – and a despicable one at  that – that happened exclusively in Spain in the late fifteenth century. But as the expelled Jews fled to Portugal and to other Spanish speaking lands, the practices of the Inquisition followed them, first to Peru and then to Mexico City. Eventually some of these superficially converted individuals found their way north of the border.

NPR’s site has an interesting feature piece on this subject. In addition, there’s a first person narrative from a 2009 issue of Harper’s that I simply must link to because it has a title that delights me.   Also, if you’re interested in learning more on this subject, I recommend the book The Mezuzah in the Madonna’s Foot by Trudi Alexy.

We did spend some time talking about the series protagonist, Claire Reynier. Claire is an archivist at the University of New Mexico. As such, she has a natural interest in the region’s varied and colorful past.

History was never very far away in New Mexico, which was one of the things she liked about it. She enjoyed the sensation of moving from one century to another.

This is especially true as regards the rich mixture of ethnicities that have resided in the Land of Enchantment over the course of centuries.

A young woman named Isabel Santos comes to Claire’s office at the University to ask for her help. She has recently moved into the family home in nearby Bernalillo. In the process, she’s made a strange discovery. Under a loose brick in the house’s flooring, she found a wooden cross with a hole in its bottom. From this hole, Isabel extracted  a small piece of paper with writing on it. She has copied  out the text and brought it with her to show Claire. The language was not immediately recognizable, It  seemed to be a mixture of archaic Spanish and Hebrew.

Isabel Santos wanted to know what it all meant. She felt that as an archivist, Claire might be able to assist her with this conundrum. Claire is clearly intrigued. But before she can take even the smallest step toward investigating this possibly valuable find, murder rears its ugly head. And the cross and its precious secret disappear.

Rather than being the end of Claire’s involvement in the case, this turns out to be just the  beginning.

Anne provided us with a list of probing discussion questions. Here is the first:

Did you find Claire Reyner an unusual detective? What attribute equipped her for solving this case when the police and everyone else believed it was a simple interrupted burglary?

The short form answer would be that in light of her training as an historian, Claire tends to take the long view, placing that alongside factors that are more immediately relevant. As for Claire herself being an unusual detective, we thought she was, for several reasons. First of all, as an academic with a decidedly intellectual bent, she seems an unlikely person to get involved with some of the vain and venal characters she encounters as the plot unfolds. But on a more personal level, she does not come across as a strong, aggressive distaff version of the classic male tough guy cop or private eye. Nor is she as matter-of -fact, (relatively) nerveless, and upbeat as say, Kinsey Millhone. On the contrary, she seems clear-headed, thoughtful, and a bit unsure of herself. Why doesn’t she just pull out? Because she has a very clear concept of right and wrong; in other words, a conscience that won’t let her off easily, if at all.

Currently in early middle age, Claire lives alone but is kept intermittent (and not always welcome) company by her cat, Nemesis. She’s divorced and has two grown children, a son and a daughter. Neither of them lives locally, and they don’t seem to figure very prominently in her emotional life. Although she enjoys her work and has plenty of friends and colleagues in Albuquerque, she seems to be in the grip of an inchoate yearning. In other words, she’s  prey to loneliness. At least, she seemed so to me.

I found her believable, likable, and admirable.

How great it was to come back to Judith Van Gieson, a writer who so effectively evokes the otherworldly magic of New Mexico.

  I’ve been a fan of this author since I first read The Other Side of Death when it came out in 1991. The protagonist of that series is Neil Hamel, a twice divorced attorney living, like Claire Reynier, in Albuquerque. At the time the events in this series take place, Neil has a younger lover whom she calls the Kid,  an auto mechanic by day – he has his own shop – and a musician at night.

The first two pages of this novel are…well, let me quote some of it for you:

Spring moves north about as  fast as a person on foot would–fifteen to twenty miles a day. It crosses the border at El Paso and enters New Mexico at Fort Bliss….following the twists of the Rio Grande, it wanders through Las Cruces and Radium Springs, bringing chile back to Hatch. A few more days and it has entered Truth or Consequences and Elephant Butte. The whooping cranes leave Bosque del Apache, relief comes to Socorro….By mi-March the season gets to those of us who live in the Duke City, Albuquerque. On 12th Street fruit trees blossom in ice cream colors. The pansies  return with purple vigor to Civic Plaza.The Lobos are eliminated from NCAA competition. The hookers on East Central hike up their skirts. The cholos in Roosevelt Park  rip the sleeves off their black T-shirts, exposing the purple bruises of tattoos….

This intense and lyrical description is in the first paragraph on the first page. It goes on for  a while, and then becomes more specific on page 2. Now we see that there’s another kind of magic Van Gieson is equally good at summoning up:

At my place in La Vista Luxury Apartment Complex, the yellow shag carpet needed mowing; the Kid’s hair was getting a trim. His hair is thick, black and wound tight and the way to cut it is to pull out a curl and lop off an inch. The hair bounces back, the Kid’s head looks a little narrower, the floor gets littered with curls.

He sat, skinny and bare chested, in front of my bedroom mirror, and I took a hand mirror and moved it around behind him so he could see the effect of the trim. “Looks good, Chiquita,” he said. I vacuumed up the curls and helped him out of his jeans, then we got into bed.

The afternoon is the very best time: the window open to the sound of kids playing in the arroyo, motorcycles revving in the parking lot, boom box music but not too close, the polyester drapes not quite closed and sunlight playing across the wall and the Kid’s skin. Warm enough to be nice and sweaty, but not so hot as to stick together. And in the breeze the reckless, restless wanderer— spring.

“Oh, my God,” I said in a way I hadn’t all winter.

Chiquita mia,” said the Kid.

I was a real fan of the Neil Hamel novels, having read all eight of them, when the series ended – abruptly, I thought – in 1999 with Ditch Rider. The new series featuring Claire Reynier began the following year with The Stolen Blue. I read it but I remember being underwhelmed at the time, most likely because I was missing the wisecracking,  free spirited Neil Hamel. Reading Land of Burning Heat has changed my mind and made me more receptive to the Claire Reynier series. That said, The Shadow of Venus, the fifth and last entry in the series, is dated 2004. Van Gieson’s present efforts would appear to be centered on publishing. ABQ Press is an initiative aimed at promoting and sustaining New Mexico writers. What the future holds for her as a writer remains unclear – at least, to me. I’ve examined her website for clues but found none. (For a complete listing of the books in both series, see Stop! You’re Killing Me.)

Judith Van Gieson

I corresponded briefly with Judith van Gieson in the early 1990s, when I was preparing a presentation and discussion of The Other Side of Death. I recall that she was generous in providing me with background information on herself and her books. This was all done via snail mail. I may still have those notes and articles, but I have no idea where to look for them. With luck, in the course of the Great Clean-up that looms in my future, they will turn up.

Judith Van Gieson in her home in Albuquerque’s North Valley. I seem to recall reading that she was able to purchase this lovely domicile when one of her novels – or perhaps the whole series – was optioned for either film or TV by a production company. Alas, as so often happens, those plans never materialized.

One more point concerning our discussion of Land of Burning Heat: Prompted by Marge’s curiosity, we explored the subject of what it means to be Jewish; specifically, why being Jewish is different from being, say, Presbyterian or Catholic. I, for instance, tread very lightly when it comes to the observance of the Jewish religion (and that includes even the High Holy Days). Yet I consider myself unquestionably Jewish. It is an identity, in fact, of which I am singularly proud. In 2010, David Brooks wrote an article for the New York Times in which he cited the following:

Jews are a famously accomplished group. They make up 0.2 percent of the world population, but 54 percent of the world chess champions, 27 percent of the Nobel physics laureates and 31 percent of the medicine laureates.

Jews make up 2 percent of the U.S. population, but 21 percent of the Ivy League student bodies, 26 percent of the Kennedy Center honorees, 37 percent of the Academy Award-winning directors, 38 percent of those on a recent Business Week list of leading philanthropists, 51 percent of the Pulitzer Prize winners for nonfiction.

All of this is quite splendid, but it still doesn’t answer Marge’s question. (By the way, I remember this same subject being raised when I was in Religious School: “Is being Jewish a religious identity? An ethnic identity? A nationality?” I remember being very impatient with the whole topic and just wanting to get home so I could have some Matzoh Brei.)

Finally Hilda observed: “You don’t ever hear of someone being a ‘lapsed Jew.'” Somehow that seemed to sum things up. It was a bracing discussion; it’s nice to have one of those in connection with the reading of crime fiction.

When I got back from New Mexico (the first time? second time?), I listened to Ottmar Liebert’s “Santa Fe” over and over again.


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A (somewhat different) Passage To India: The Widows of Malabar Hill, by Sujata Massey

February 21, 2018 at 2:31 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  This is a novel that succeeds on several levels: as an examination of a particular culture at a specific moment; as the narrative of a complex mystery that unfolds in the context of that culture; and finally, as a look into the heart of a vibrant, intelligent, and vulnerable young woman.

In post World War One India, Perveen Mistry aspires to be an attorney. She has before  her the example of her father Jamshedji. He is a superb lawyer of upright character and unquestioned integrity; moreover, he is devoted to Perveen and fiercely protective of her. He  would like nothing more than for her to join him in his legal practice. But they both must figuratively walk through fire before realizing this goal.

I knew almost nothing about India during this period, so reading this novel was a learning experience for me. I didn’t realize what a rich mixture of ethnic origins and creeds the country was at that time. (Perveen and her family are part of the Parsi minority dwelling in Bombay at that time.) It should be emphasized, though, that Massey wears her erudition lightly. There’s no dry academic tone here; rather,  aspects of the different cultures are presented in service to the narrative and to the characters and their often turbulent lives.

Perveen Mistry is a wonderful creation. For me as a reader, she came along at just the right moment. I was beginning to tire of the trope in which the Plucky and Resourceful Female takes on big challenges and, by means of unwavering determination and perseverance, surmounts them (with little, if any, material assistance from nearby males.) Perveen does waver; she’s not absolutely sure of herself at every turn, and she readily acknowledges her mistakes. Ultimately, she prevails, both personally and professionally, through a combination of her own native courage and the unwavering support of friends and family.

Sujata Massey appends the following information in her Acknowledgments pages:

Perveen Mistry was inspired by India’s earliest women lawyers: Cornelia Sorabji of Poona, the first woman to read law at Oxford and the first woman to sit the British law  exam in 1892, and Mithan Tata Lam of Bombay, who also read law at Oxford and was the first woman admitted to  the Bombay Bar in 1923.

Some readers might feel that there is too much time spent on Perveen’s personal life and not enough on the actual mystery. For this reader, the former was substantially more compelling than the latter. When the novel begins, a complex legal situation has already presented itself and is made yet more complicated by  murder. The cast of characters is large and diverse. Add to all of this, it’s difficult to care about the victim. But from the outset, I was so enthralled by Perveen herself that I was glad to remain on board for the privilege of being in her company.

One other caveat about The Widows of Malabar Hill: it jumps back and forth in time. This can be disconcerting. It is almost always my preference that a fictional narrative adhere to a strict chronology. If it was good enough for Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Anthony Trollope, it should be good enough for other novelists as well. (Not that I have definite opinions on this subject!)

That said, I consider these reservations to be minor. I still loved this book and recommend it highly.

I confess that when I learned the name of this protagonist, and that of Mistry Law, the firm headed by her father, I was reminded of the novel A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. I read this novel shortly after it came out in 1996. It is without doubt one of the most moving and powerful works of fiction I have ever encountered.

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A Conspiracy of Faith by Jussi Adler-Olsen, read by Graeme Malcolm

February 13, 2018 at 6:18 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  Many things interrupted my getting through this recorded book. (I do my listening only in the car.) But I finally finished a couple of days ago. The experience has not quite left me.

A Conspiracy of Faith by Danish author Jussi Adler-Olsen is basically a story of revenge. A man who was brought up by a despotic father according to the tenets of a rigid creed decides to take out out his anger and resentment on other religious families. Most of these people are blameless and quite unlike his own family of origin. That doesn’t matter to him. He works out a system where he gets close to them and then betrays them in the cruelest way imaginable.  Equally frightening is the fact that he has a wife and a young child. He seems devoted to them, at least on the surface.

A Conspiracy of Faith is the third novel in the Department Q series. The name comes from the place to which Detective Carl Mørck and his team have been exiled: the police station’s basement. It’s about as inhospitable as it sounds. Mørck’s second-in-command is Assad, Syrian born but now a resident of Denmark, which, in his exasperation with the climate, he calls “this refrigerator country!” Assad was not even a trained officer when he was first assigned to Department Q. But in the event, he turns out to be a gifted detective. (He has to provide proofs of this gift, in order to counter Carl’s initial skepticism.) In this novel, Assad’s resourcefulness proves nothing less than crucial in solving this terrible mystery. At one point, after he has unearthed several vital but hidden clues, Carl at last gives way to feelings of amazement:

And then he looked up at Assad in disbelief. What the hell would he do without him?

Assad may be brilliant in his way, but he does not have the native knowledge of Danish ways and the Danish people that Carl possesses by right. He is at the same time both astute and naive, sometimes touchingly so. He’s a wonderful character, in my view, an inspired creation.

And this is probably the right moment to praise Graeme Malcolm’s outstanding narration. Malcolm, a Scottish actor, gets it exactly right in his reading of this novel. He’s especially good at rendering Assad’s lines in an utterly convincing manner.

I read the first entry in Department Q series, The Keeper of Lost Causes, shortly after it came out here in 2011. I was seriously impressed by Adler-Olsen’s storytelling gifts, yet I have to say also that the novel approached the extremity of the violence that I’m able to tolerate in crime fiction. Still, I found myself wanting to revisit the characters and the milieu they inhabit. Hence, my decision to listen to A Conspiracy of Faith. (I had previously encountered Graeme Malcolm as a reader of M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth novels, so I already knew how good a narrator he was.)

Incidentally, there exists some confusion regarding the titles of the Department Q novels. There are currently seven in the series; the first four were released with different titles here and in the UK.  (The latest one, The Scarred Woman, also has a variant title.) Your best bet is to view the listing on StopYoureKillingMe.com.

The first three novels have been made into films. Trailers can be viewed on YouTube. I confess I’m wary of them, but of course you can decide for yourself.

A few more words on A Conspiracy of Faith. You will note that I’ve not identified the perpetrator by name. In the course of the novel, he goes by several of them: Mads Christian Fog, Lars Sorensen, Mikkel Laust. He’s extremely slippery, I almost want to say slithery. One of the most thoroughly cunning and evil humans I have ever encountered in fiction.

Finally I’d like to make this observation. I’ve read many mysteries in which the ending was, for one reason or another, a disappointment. (That actually goes for ‘literary fiction’ as well.) A Conspiracy of Faith concluded beautifully – a very moving ending that to me, seemed exactly apt.

Jussi Adler-Olsen


Graeme Malcolm


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When to the sessions of sweet silent thought…

January 27, 2018 at 3:08 am (Book clubs, Book review, books, Family, Historical fiction, Mystery fiction)

  So there I am reading this mystery set in New Jersey in the year 1914, when I come across the following:

Deputy Morris went first and cut to the left, which would take him down a narrow street occupied mostly by cobblers and tailors and other such shops whose doors had closed hours ago.

Constance Kopp, the main character, is headed for a potentially dangerous rendezvous. She’s being discreetly shadowed by members of the Bergen County Sheriff’s Department, including Sheriff Heath himself. (This novel is, in fact, based on a true story.)

The above quoted sentence, however, plucked me out of that scenario and hit me in the face with another – one that, for this particular reader, was very close to home.

But first – a bit of background:

My father was  born in Westfield, in Union County, New Jersey in 1914. Shortly thereafter, the family moved one county north to Maplewood, in Essex County. (My grandparents had immigrated from what was then called Russia, now the Ukraine. They came through Ellis Island, where immigration officials struggled with foreign names written in unknown alphabets. What they came up with for my father’s family was ‘Tedlow.’ ‘Tevelov’ might have been closer. As best I’m able to reproduce it, it might have looked like this in Cyrillic: ‘Тевелов.’)

My grandfather Jacob Tedlow had a small tailoring business in Maplewood. He named the establishment The New York Tailoring Company, or something like it. I know that the name contained “New York” because I recall my father commenting that the choice of moniker revealed “delusions of grandeur” on his father’s part. (This was said in jest, but it was a sort of poignant jest.)

Below is a map of the counties that make up the state of New Jersey:

It can be readily seen that Essex County is just below Bergen County, with a section of Passaic County inserting itself in between the two. (Some of the action in Girl Waits with Gun takes place in Passaic County.) So you see, the mention of shops occupied by tailors and cobblers in the city of Paterson, in Bergen County in 1914, caused the personal association  to spring immediately to mind.

In the early 1990s, when my parents were  still active and healthy, Ron and I went with them to a restaurant in Maplewood. If recollection serves (which it often doesn’t), this small eatery was across the street from the building in which my grandfather’s tailoring business was located. The family, consisting of my grandparents, my father, and his two sisters, also lived in that building. (This was not an unusual arrangement in those days. My mother’s parents had a candy store – or confectioners, as it was officially designated – in Montclair, also in Essex County. They, my mother, and my uncle resided in an apartment on the premises.)

After we’d finished our meal and gone outside, my father pointed to the building’s top floor and told us that as a boy, he used to carry coal up to an elderly lady who lived there.

My father was a handsome and reserved man, not given to revealing his feelings or indulging in recollections of the past. The only other childhood memory that I remember him sharing was  of standing outside with a crowd of people who were cheering the soldiers who’d come back from the First World War. That would have been in 1919; at the time, he would have been five years old.

(I’m digging deep into the past here, and I hope I haven’t made any egregious misstatements. If I have, I apologize.)

Girl Waits With Gun is our next selection for the Usual Suspects Mystery Book Group discussion.At present, I’m about two thirds of the way in, for the most part, I’m enjoying it, especially as regards the novel’s historical aspect.  For me, it has certainly summoned up “remembrance of things past,” and I’m grateful to Carol for choosing it for us.

I admit, though, that I was made somewhat uneasy at first, as there were several disparaging references to those of the Jewish faith made at the outset. For instance, here is Constance Kopp relating some of her family’s history:

My grandfather—an educated man, a chemist—liked to say that he brought his family here to give them a more stable and certain future, and to keep his boys out of the endless wars with France and Italy, but my grandmother once whispered that they moved to get away from the Jews. “After they got to leave the ghettos they could live anywhere,” she hissed, and glanced out the window as if she suspected they were moving to Brooklyn, too, which of course they were.

However, thus far there’s been no recurrence of this kind of casually tossed-off antisemitism, and I can only conclude that it’s been made a part of this narrative for the sake, alas, of verisimilitude. (Although my parents and grandparents rarely spoke of it, they had from time to time encountered the expression of this prejudiced attitude firsthand.)

Some years ago, my son Ben made me a gift of a beautifully framed photograph of my father. It enjoys pride of place on our living room wall. When I’m reading on the couch – a favorite place for that activity – I can look up and see it. In this way, he keeps me company during this solitary pursuit.

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Best Books of 2017: Contemporary Crime Fiction, Part Two

January 3, 2018 at 3:11 pm (Best of 2017, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

We’ve slipped over the finish line into 2018, so it behooves me to finish posting my “best reads” in crime fiction of the past year:

Old Bones by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. A series that, by virtue of its wit, sympathetic cast of characters, and above all its self-effacing hero Bill Slider, has been an unadulterated delight since its inception back in 1991.

Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

Dungeon House Martin Edwards. Another winning series, by an author who’s also a distinguished scholar of the genre.

Skin and Bone by Robin Blake. An historical series of superior quality in which Blake narrates the exploits of Titus Cragg, coroner, and Luke Fidelis, a physician in 18th century Lancashire, England. People need to discover these marvelous novels!

Robin Blake

Stone Coffin by Kjell Eriksson. This Swedish series featuring Detectives Ann Lindell and Ola Haver is exceptionally well written and at times, genuinely moving. (Although Stone Coffin is the most recently published book in this series, it’s actually the earliest that’s been translated into English and is therefore a good place to begin.)

Kjell Erikkson

A Fine Line by Gianrico Carofiglio. I continue to champion this little-known high quality series set in Bari, Italy, and featuring the extremely appealing ‘avvocato’ Guido Guerrieri. (Carofiglio’s nonseries novel The Silence of the Waves is also very much worth reading.)

Gianrico Carofiglio

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz. For sheer delicious enjoyment, this one was the big winner.

Trace by Archer Mayor. This is number twenty-eight in a series I’ve been following for years. Also I’ve felt a special bond with this author ever since I stood right next to him while ostensibly browsing the magazines at Onsite News in BWI  Thurgood Marshall Airport several years ago. (Sighting was later confirmed by means of a subsequent email exchange with the ever congenial Mayor.)

Archer Mayor

Fast Falls the Night by Julia Keller. I was deeply touched by the sufferings, both noble and ignominious, of the people of Acker’s Gap, West Virginia. I can do no better than  to quote the Kirkus Review of this novel: “Keller’s prose is so pure that her exploration of the desperate scourge of drugs and poverty and her forecast of a grim future for her heroine are a joy to read.”

Julia Keller

Paganini’s Ghost by Paul Adam. Recently reviewed by me in this space.



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‘Somewhere deep in the soul of the instrument was the indelible memory of that one great man.’ – Paganini’s Ghost, by Paul Adam

December 31, 2017 at 10:38 pm (Italy, Music, Mystery fiction)

This is a great mystery for lovers of both classical music and Italy. Gianni Castiglione is a luthier – a maker of violins and other  stringed instruments. He lives and works in Cremona, a city that has long been the center for this exacting art. Previous practitioners include Antonio Stradivari, Andrea Guarneri, and Andrea Amati. Instruments crafted by these past masters still command steep prices. In the ways that count, though, they are priceless.

Luthiers also condition and repair existing instruments, and it is in this capacity that Gianni has been sought out by Yevgeny Ivanov, a youthful violinist whose career is just taking off, and his imperious and overbearing mother, Ludmilla. The mystery begins with this seemingly straightforward encounter and gains in complexity until, I admit, I was having some trouble keeping track of the cast of characters and the twists and turns of the plot. But as is so often the case with this kind of crime fiction, it didn’t bother me. I was  so thoroughly engaged with the lore of the violin and its fascinating history, especially as it relates to that brilliant and tempestuous legend, Niccolo Paganini. Also helpful is the fact that Paul Adam’s prose is exceptionally fine. In this scene, Gianni is working on a violin that was once Paganini’s. He’s working under time constraints and has to get it right:

I was conscious of the time ticking by as I worked on the violin, but I tried not to let it disturb me. I also tried not to think of the status of the instrument. I had to regard it as an ordinary violin, not the violin that had belonged to the most celebrated virtuoso in history. But it wasn’t easy. Every time I touched it, I was aware that Paganini’s hands had been there  before mine. His fingers had held it; his chin had rested on the front plate; his breath had drifted over the varnish. Somewhere deep in the soul off the instrument was the indelible memory of that one great man.

Handling the violin gave me a strange feeling of transience. It had been made two centuries before I was born and it would survive long after I was gone. It wasn’t passing through my life; I was passing through its life, just as Paganini had passed through it.

Niccolo Paganini, by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1819

Paul Adam studied law at Nottingham University before embarking on a career in journalism. He is the author of twelve novels for adults, including the two that currently comprise the Cremona series. He has also written the Max Cassidy Trilogy for young readers.

In the above bio, I could find no indication of where or when Adam’s deep love for, and knowledge of, the violin had come into his life. Fortunately, I found an interview in which he explained that he’d played the violin as a child and long been interested in its history and in the city of Cremona.

Paul Adam

I finished this novel several weeks ago, but it’s been brought vividly to mind by an extremely poignant essay I just read in The New Yorker. Entitled “A Tech Pioneer’s Final, Unexpected Act,” it is also about a young violinist and the power of music to exalt and to heal.


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Sue Grafton

December 29, 2017 at 9:44 pm (In memoriam, Mystery fiction)

Shocked and saddened to hear this: After battling cancer for the last two years, Sue Grafton has passed away. Her daughter Jamie Clark has posted a poignant obituary on Sue’s  home page.

I know I speak for many readers when I say that Sue’s “Alphabet mysteries” have given great pleasure since they debuted in 1982 with A Is for Alibi. We feel as though we know Kinsey Milhone. At least, we  we wish we did. She would have been great fun to hang out with: cheerfully irreverent but always compassionate, ever resourceful, and always good company.

Sue Grafton will be  genuinely and deeply missed.

Sue Taylor Grafton April 24, 1940 – December 28, 2017

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Best books of 2017: Contemporary crime fiction, Part One

December 26, 2017 at 1:37 pm (Best of 2017, books, Mystery fiction)

A Legacy of Spies. What wonderful work from John LeCarre, a living demonstration that his gifts as a  storyteller and his uncanny feeling for the shadowy world of espionage remain undiminished.

The Girl in the Ice and The Night Stalker – Bryndza. After The Girl in the Ice, I knew I’d be coming back for more – the second is, if anything,  better than the first.

A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny

The Crow Trap and The Seagull by Ann Cleeves. I’m now happily working my way through the Vera Stanhope series. What an original and oddly appealing protagonist she is.

The Templars’ Last Secret – Walker. I read each new Bruno Chief of Police novel as it comes out, not waiting on the reviews – I know I want to spend time with Bruno and the other denizens of the village of St. Denis. And I always want to be updated on his never-quite-successful love life. (Bruno earnestly desires a wife and children:  I’m rooting for you, Bruno!)

Nine Lessons by Nicola Upson. Ordinarily I’m not drawn to mysteries featuring real historical personages as protagonists, but I’d been hearing and reading good things about this series; this is especially true of Jessica Mann’s review of this novel (among others) in the October issue of Literary Review Magazine. Being a staunch fan of Josephine Tey’s mysteries, I decided to give it a try. I liked it a great deal, for its depiction of the interwar years, the Cambridge setting, and the portrayal of Tey as a resourceful, courageous woman of great integrity. (This is precisely  how I prefer to think of her factual counterpart.)

The Grave Tattoo by Val McDermid. A rich mixture of history and literature made this somewhat lengthy mystery well worth the effort.

Dance Hall of the Dead. What a pleasure it was to return to the works of Tony Hillerman; his mysteries brought the Native American culture of New Mexico to such vivid life. In fact, he and Judith Van Gieson both made the state itself seem so special and exotic that I felt I had to go there. I did – twice – and I fell in love with the place. It is truly the Land of Enchantment.

Earthly Remains by Donna Leon. Not my absolute  favorite from the Guido Brunetti series, but being in the company of the urbane and compassionate Commissario  always results in time well spent.

The Crossing and The Late Show by Michael Connelly. As good as The Crossing was – it was voted best ‘read’ of 2017 by the Usual SuspectsThe Late Show was even better. Michael Connelly has given us a terrific new protagonist – Detective Renee Ballard – provided her with an intriguing back story, and then summoned up a rich brew of murder, departmental backstabbing, and fiendishly complicated criminal enterprise with which to contend. And boy, does she contend!

When I started reading The Late Show three days ago, I was  daunted by its length – 400 pages. I’m hopping on a plane next week and can’t possibly schlepp such a weighty tome along with me. As it turns out – no worries; I finished it this morning. Among its many other virtues, it is quite the page turner.

(A slightly altered version of my blog post on the Suspects’ discussion of The Crossing appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of the Mystery Readers Journal.)




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Best Books of 2017, Part Two: Crime fiction and suspense: older and classic titles

December 24, 2017 at 9:25 pm (Best of 2017, books, Mystery fiction)

I’ve already written a post on the classic mysteries I’ve consumed with gusto this year. I’ve also read other older mysteries that might not rightly be termed classics but that nevertheless made for enjoyable reading.

Envious Casca by Georgette Heyer (1941)


Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, a landmark story collection edited by Sarah Weinman

The Hours Before Dawn – Celia Fremlin’s 1958 Edgar Award winner is a novel of domestic suspense well ahead of its time. An exhausted mother of three demanding children takes in a lodger and comes to wish she hadn’t.

The Mystery of a Hansom Cab. Fergus Hume’s 1886 runaway bestseller set in Melbourne, Australia. (This is a book about which a book has been written: Blockbuster! by Lucy Sussex.)


Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham (1931). Thanks to a perceptive article by A.S. Byatt, I finally “get” Albert Campion and Company – even Magersfontein Lugg! This one was a twist on the country  house murder trope: elegantly plotted and witty to boot.

Dead Letter and The Figure Eight (1866 and 1869 respectively) by Metta  Fuller Victor. If you’re going to read one, make it The Dead Letter.

Madame Maigret’s Friend by Georges Simenon (1950). Read this during insomniac moments in London. Good, but not , methinks, the best of the Maigret novels.


The DA Cooks a Goose and The DA Goes To Trial (1942 and 1940 respectively). Still working my way through the hugely enjoyable (for this reader, at least) Doug Selby novels.


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The 2017 year end meeting of the Usual Suspects Mystery Book Discussion group

December 19, 2017 at 4:56 pm (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

I always look forward to the Usual Suspects’ end of year meeting. It’s a time and place where we talk about the books and authors we’ve read during the year, both for group discussion and for individual reading pleasure.

Pauline always sends us material in advance of this meeting. She creates a grid in which the following material about each book appears: title and author, the month that the discussion took place, comments/awards for author, and the name of the discussion leader. Then there is a further breakdown containing information as to setting and time period, type of investigator (e.g. lawyer, detective, private investigator), and finally, sex and nationality of the authors we read. (That last is always interesting and sometimes surprising: in our 2017 discussion year, there were three male authors and seven women. Six of the authors were American, three were British, and one was Canadian.)

Here are the books:




Pauline also provided us with the following discussion questions:

1. Which is the most impressive book? What did you like about this book? What did you dislike about the book?

2. Did you notice anything in particular about the author’s writing style in any of the books? Which is the best-written book? Which has the best-developed characters?

3. What new things did you learn about the world from a particular book and subsequent group discussion? Which book provided the best treatment of a location?

4. Which author(s) would you like to read more of? Is there a particular type of mystery you’d like to read in the future?

5. Which book has the best puzzle?

6. Which book(s) deserve or do not deserve the awards they received?

7. Are there any other books that we should comment on that have been left out of today’s discussion?

Frank added these questions to the mix:

For each of the books please answer, if you can, the following questions:

  1. What did you like about the book?
  2. What did you dislike about the book?
  3. What new things did you learn about the world from the book and/or subsequent group discussion?
  4. What new things did you learn about the art of writing from the book and/or subsequent group discussion?

As usual, we dove with zest into the discussion. Several of us expressed our gratitude for the chance to revisit the works of Tony Hillerman. We appreciated the Washington DC setting of Hagar’s Last Dance; even more so, the setting of Wilde Lake – right here in Columbia! Marge felt that she got a sense of what World War Two was like for Parisians in Murder on the Quai.

I think that we were all impressed by Jade Dragon Mountain, with its setting so remote in time and place and yet so vividly brought to life by author Elsa Hart. Frances reiterated her praise for Louise Penny. It interests me that while Penny’s Three Pines novels are so widely loved by readers – both here and in Penny’s native Canada –  and are so highly praised by reviewers, several members of our group have reservations about them. I’m one of them. Although there have been a number of books in this series that I’ve genuinely enjoyed, I found A Great Reckoning hard going.

Even people who did not for the most part care for Envious Casca agreed that its locked room puzzle was a cunning contrivance. Finally, Frank’s  choice of Michael Connelly’s The Crossing has caused several of us to want more of the same from this distinguished author of American police procedurals set in – where else? –  Southern California.

At this year end meeting, we always vote for our favorite “read” from among that year’s selections. This year’s winner was The Crossing; Dance Hall of the Dead came in second.

As is the custom, we were asked to bring a book to share with the group. If there’s time, you can mention a second title. Here’s how that worked out this year:

Frances: A Conspiracy in Belgravia (Lady Sherlock Series) by Sherry Thomas
Frank: Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher and William Ury
Anne M.: The Inheritance by Charles Finch
Roberta: Death in the Air: The True Story of a Serial Killer, the Great London Smog, and the Strangling of a City by Kate Winkler Dawson; and Fast Falls the Night by Julia Keller
Cheryl: Blood on the Water by Anne Perry
Pauline: My Darling Detective by Howard Norman; Maggie Hope mystery series starting with Mr. Churchill’s Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal
Marge: The Siege Winter by Ariana Franklin and Samantha Norman; Fatal by John Lescroart
Ann R.: Paganini’s Ghost by Paul Adam
Mike: The Chessmen : The Trilogy by Peter May
Louise: Design for Dying by Renee Patrick
Carol: The Late Show by Michael Connelly

Carol has been gently but firmly coaxing us towards declaring our choices for next year. Here’s how that list is currently shaping up:

(The process of choosing your title for the coming year can be tortuous. Sometimes one becomes afflicted with analysis paralysis. You want the book to be enjoyable to read and also to lend itself to a good discussion. Something that’s not too heavy but not too lightweight either. At times, this can seem like a tall order. Then of course it’s a tricky business trying to anticipate the reaction of others to what you’re presenting. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s preferable to pick something that you’re not extremely emotionally attached to. )

I was pleased to see that we’re doing another Erika Foster novel by Robert Bryndza, as I very much enjoyed Girl in the Ice. And after starting with the second book in Martin Walker’s Bruno Chief of Police series and reading pretty much every entry thereafter, I’m at last going to get around to reading the first! The Crow Trap I read this summer and loved. It made me into a Vera  Stanhope groupie! And finally I’m pleased and delighted that we’ll be reading a Judith Van Gieson novel. For years, Marge and I have lamented the fact that this fine writer never found a wider audience. We especially like her earlier series featuring Albuquerque lawyer Neil Hamel, but really, any and all of her books are worth reading.

The only problem with this meeting is that I always end up with more titles to add to my must-read list – not exactly what I need, at the moment! But I am genuinely grateful to the Suspects for a year of excellent reading, with more to come. I devour book reviews in magazines and newspapers, but the really memorable reading experiences I have usually come via recommendations from fellow book lovers.

So thank you Suspects for yet another year of fine reading, stimulating conversation, and fast friendship.



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