Monthly Archives: January 2012

The Infiltrator: My Secret Life Inside the Dirty Banks Behind Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel, by Robert Mazur

2009. Without cooperative bankers there is nowhere for the drug trade to wash its billions.

Robert Mazur, Italian American, joined the IRS out of college and became a special agent for their Intelligence Division. In Tampa he learned how to work an undercover identity. After a successful case under his belt, he was offered a job with U.S. Customs meaning a pay cut, a million miles less of red tape, and his dream job.

At his new job, Robert Mazur became Robert Musella, a cover identity close enough to his own New York background for him to easily play the part of a scion of a New York crime family with legit businesses laundering illicit cash flow. Through this cover Mazur/Musella and his colleagues at Customs infiltrated the global financial world of the Columbian drug trade.

From 1983 to 1988 Mazur/Musella little by little ingratiated himself with narco traffickers and narco financiers.  Remember BCCI? They were the dirtiest bank in the world at the time and thrilled to facilitate the flow of narco dollars for fees, all negotiable of course due to the great amounts involved.

These men and women of U.S. Customs put their lives on the line–one wrong step could mean getting whacked–to gather enough evidence to disrupt and seize narco assets, to arrest and prosecute the narco traders and their dirty bankers.

Despite Mazur’s success, at $400 to $500 billion in drug trade revenue per year, $10 trillion has circulated through the world financial system since the success of this case.

The writing reads like a trip report at times but that is part of its appeal. The narrative is straight from the guy who lived through it. Most amazingly, after the takedown and testifying in open court, Mazur survived a $500,000 price tag on his head and wrote this book.

Real story. Real people. Real guts. Real glory.


A Sport and a Pastime, by James Salter

1967. Tender story, beautifully narrated.  A privileged young expatriate American’s passionate and sensual love affair with an  eighteen year-old French woman.

The unreliable narrator is older, 34, and meets Phillip Dean, a Yalie on sabbatical at a pension(?) in the town of Autun. But, the narrator tells us, “None of this is true. I’ve said Autun, but it could easily have been Auxerre.” And he reminds us periodically that though there may be elements of truth to the tale, he made much of it up for his own vicarious reasons. He created in Dean a hero for his own lost youth.  (Lost youth?! He’s 34!)

And so we follow Dean on this made-up tale as he meets Anne-Marie and they explore southern France to get away from everyone they know so they can devote themselves to one another body and soul.

Yes, Dean and Anne-Marie do meet and they do disappear on a long sojourn to the south, but the details, the sights and sounds and smells of their intense lovemaking are all constructs of the narrator’s imagination. (If Anne-Marie was any younger, I might consider the narrator a pale version of Humbert Humbert.)

Strong visuals. Strong sense of place: I’ve traveled beside those canals under those poplars; eaten those croissants in those small town cafes; climbed those stairs in those rural inns. Salter’s style almost feels cubist, image fragments assembled to create more than the sum of the parts. He demands an attentive reader.

But it would be remiss not to call out Salter for his handling of class and race which made me struggle with the overall story. Those instances are threaded seamlessly through the narration, meaning you could consider such attitude a reflection of this unreliable, horny narrator as he wishes he was younger, richer, and able to find a lover from among those French women he longingly eyes. But I think not. These were Salter’s views and they detract, for me at any rate, from an otherwise enticing story.

Likeable for its time and place. Unlikeable for its embedded bias.

Borkmann’s Point: An Inspector Van Veeteren Mystery, by Håkan Nesser

1994. (In English 2006.) Received the 1994 Swedish Crime Writers Best Novel Award. Thanks to Stieg Larsson for the flurry of translations of Nordic crime writers.

Inspector Van Veeteren is a thinking man’s crime solver. He goes quiet, almost meditative, when he’s on to the solution, when the pieces so neatly fall into place and he strategizes his arrest. His underlings know to leave him alone when he slips into such a mood.

While Van Veeteren is on vacation in the north of Sweden a couple of gruesome ax murders occur in a nearby coastal village. Of course he’s called on to interrupt his less-than-perfect personal down time. His personal life apparently isn’t that great. He could use the change of scenery.

Van Veeteren takes the assignment and immediately forges a bond with the soon-to-retire chief of police of the village. The two men discover a mutual love of chess and keep each other apprised of progress over the chess board while sipping fine wine from the chief’s cellar.

The clues to the case are few, other than the bodies dispatched so cleanly with a single blow to the neck, and there seems to be nothing linking the victims. Pressure builds on the police to catch the killer and gets worse with a third victim.

Borkmann’s Point: That point in an investigation when enough information has been collected and beyond which new information only blurs the vision of the solution. One of Van Veeteren’s challenges: determining when he reaches that point.

Well-drawn and sympathetic characters, a strong sense of place, and an easy flow to the narrative. I have to admit that I spotted the red herrings early and had my eye on the killer about mid-way through but I still enjoyed the way the tale built to its satisfying conclusion.

Thank you Stieg.

The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories, by Agatha Christie

1932. 1934. 1935. 1936. 1939. Nine stories published during the thirties when Christie was established and famous as a mystery writer. Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, and the lesser known Mr Parker Pyne make appearances in this delightful sampler from the MWA’s first Grand Master.

Like McDonald’s, Christie’s 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections have sold billions and billions; her West End plays have entertained millions and millions; movie versions, radio plays, video games based on her most beloved novels have entertained millions and millions more.

But when’s the last time you sat down and enjoyed the source material? Whether you sample these short stories or any other collection, it’s worth the time. Read one or two out loud. They improve with the telling.

Likeable characters and suspenseful plots. Murders most foul, missing jewels, locked rooms, and eagle-eyed investigators who spot the telling clues.

Enough to sample for a lifetime. Thanks, Dame Agatha.

Adventures Among Ants: A Global Safari with a Cast of Trillions, by Mark Moffett

2010. Mark Moffett gave a great interview on NPR. He described ant nation-states battling for world domination under my feet and my imagination did the rest. I had to read this book.

Moffett has gone everywhere in search of ants. Colonies range from as few as four ants to supercolonies that number in the billions. They are native to every continent except for Antarctica. They’ve conquered every habitat. They live below the earth, on the earth, in trees, and above the forest canopy. They dine on fungus, seeds, nectar, insects, small vertebrates, each other. They are altruistic but they can take and maintain slaves. A colony can live its entire life in one spot or it can expand across thousands of miles.

Of the 10,000 to 12,000 species, Moffett concentrates on six subject ants to roughly approximate human societies throughout history: foragers, hunter-gatherers, pastoralists, slave societies, farmers, and world-conquerors.

Incredible photos come alive with context. Swarms hunting for food to return to the nest, taking down a wasp like lions bringing down an elephant, overwhelming and subduing a frog by sheer numbers. My only complaint is that there aren’t enough of these great visuals. If he’s taken the thousands of shots he says, why be so stingy?

Most of what you know about ants survives Moffett’s presentation, but to tell their story he digs deeper into the nests and climbs higher into the trees, suffering the bites and stings that go with the territory.

Ant nation-state warfare is only the last section and I would have liked more time with this phenomenon since it was the reason I bought the book. Imagine supercolonies of billions waging perpetual warfare along their borders where millions of ant corpses mark territorial boundaries. The Argentine ants hitched rides from their native Argentina and worked their way across the US and down the California coast–among other areas of the world–overrunning native ants in the process.  Local flora which depend on the native ants to procreate, suffer and die. The Argentine ants, like the Conquistadores, are remaking the California countryside by killing off their indigenous rivals.

If you thought you only glimpsed the tip of the ant iceberg and wondered what hid below the surface, this book will take you there. There’s alot going on under your feet or over your head by an organism that’s been perfecting itself over millions of years.

The Devil’s Star (Harry Hole #5), by Jan Nesbo

2003. (2005 in English.)

The Devil’s Star is a good fast-paced crime novel that takes you around downtown Oslo, a city I know from repeated visits, to its parks and its monuments. It’s the heat of summer, which usually lasts about a week, and everyone’s in the mountains or out at their hutta on the fiord.

Harry, er, Hole, I can’t get my head around what I’m supposed to call this guy. Call him Hole? Okay, so Hole doesn’t do vacations. He drinks. He has a busted up personal life. He’s of course the best police detective in Oslo. His boss protects him from his departmental enemies as long as he can but even he loses patience. As the book begins, Hole is in the process of being fired.

But. A grisly murder of an attractive woman mobilizes the vacation-depleted force. Hole gets called in, refuses the call, and his nemesis assumes control of the investigation. Then another similar murder five days later results in Hole and his sworn enemy working the case together.

It’s a serial killer. There are grisly details. Attractive victims. Plot twists. False trails. A corrupt police element. A taunting cat-and-mouse game with the killer. And Hole’s fight with the bottle.

Nesbo reminds me of Harlan Coben. His characters are well-drawn but for me they don’t really pop. His plots are intricate and well-paced but for me they could use some creative editing. Nesbo, like Coben, could cut a third from the books that I’ve read and save a few trees.

At the end, for example, the killer explains his actions to Hole for fourteen pages. He simply decides to tell him everything he did in mind-numbing detail. Show don’t tell? Maybe that advice doesn’t apply to best-selling crime writers.

One of Us Is Wrong, by Donald Westlake

1986. Donald Westlake writing as Sam Holt, a protected pen-name.

For five years, Holt, a former police detective, stars in a TV series about a criminology professor and sometime private eye. After the series is cancelled, new roles are hard to find. Holt’s too identified with his successful TV character.  We’ve all had that problem, right?

Holt is almost murdered one day while driving on the San Diego Freeway. One thing leads to another and the actor playing the private eye is soon using his policing skills and notoriety to find out who tried to kill him and why.

Of course he’s loaded: big house, bicoastal-life style, celebrity status, lotsa friends in the biz. All these elements converge in a fast-paced thriller that feels more like TV show than book rack potboiler. There were times I raced ahead just to keep going to the decent ending, but all in all a fun quick read.

As a character, Holt is eighties sass from when he was spawned. Bad guys are dark and swarthy. Women are savvy and willing. The solution to the mystery hides in plain sight – is that a spoiler? – nah.  There’s so much in plain sight that you’ll still have to figure it out.