Category Archives: Mystery

The Watchman (Joe Pike #1), by Robert Crais

2007. Robert Crais is a master craftsman who delivers on his promise.

There are alot of variations on the LA private eye story. And lots of good practitioners of the genre. Crais is among the best. His two characters Elvis Cole and Joe Pike, in my book, belong among the best LA literary sleuths.

This is Joe Pike’s novel, but Elvis Cole is his buddy and of course he makes more than a cameo. Pike relies on Cole to provide key backup.

Pike is a damaged soul from childhood, but he’s a tough survivor who has beaten back his demons in a way that makes him stronger than anyone else. He lives by a code that prizes loyalty above all else. He protects and serves whether as a member of LAPD or as an independent. He hates bullies in any shape, and he never walks out on a friend.

You can read elsewhere for plot summary. I’m only going to tell you that Pike and his buddy Cole are worth spending time with. Their relationship lifts this story above the standard gumshoe narrative, as do the relationships these men develop with other key people they meet over the course of their cases. The bonds of family and friendship are tested through secondary characters that provide further depth.

Crais knows his police procedural stuff, his ballistics, his forensics, his terrain, and police groupthink. But he knows his characters even better, and that’s why I’ll keep coming back for more.


A Darker Domain, by Val McDermid

2008. A cold missing persons case in a Scottish mining town reopens an unsolved twenty-two year old kidnapping and murder and leads Detective Inspector Karen Pirie to a pair of “unrelated” disappearances which together unravel the complex relationship between the miners and the most powerful man in Scotland.

If that sounds like a huge story, it is. We’ve got: Class warfare. Gender warfare. Abuse of power. Press connivance. Provincialism. Nationalism. Union busters and scabs. Art versus commerce versus love. Marital infidelity and betrayal. Families versus families versus neighbors and friends. Murder, robbery, conspiracy. And the 1984 miners strike in Great Britain.

Plus, to set the clock ticking, a young child is in desperate need of a bone marrow transplant from his missing father.

I admire Val McDermid and so do alot of other people. She’s won a shelf of awards and has had her characters and novels brought to life in acclaimed TV programs and serials. She doesn’t need me to write a few words about anything she’s done as journalist or novelist. Her place is secure. My two stars will twinkle in the nighttime sky unseen by anyone but me.

But I barely got through this book. Which made me wonder why we like one book and not another. What makes us connect to a character, say, or a voice? Why do we fall deeply into one story and not care about another? It isn’t simply that one book is well-written and another one isn’t. McDermid writes expertly. She is a master of her craft. I have read other work by her and been blown away.

I like the genre. I lived in London–not Scotland, I admit–and traveled the novel’s terrain. I remember the time and the history of the miners strike.

But reading this book was a chore. So why didn’t I just chuck it and move on to something else? No one forced me to keep reading. That’s what puzzles me.

I kept reading even though I felt led along by made-up characters purposefully created to bring out the class warfare etc as listed above. The plot was overly complex and over the course of four hundred pages it unfolded backwards, as any good mystery does, at a snail’s pace. It didn’t help that nothing was much of a surprise. It didn’t help that nearly all the characters were unlikeable, with the exception of the protag, DI Pirie. It didn’t help that–without giving anything away–a key character explained everything he did in a fifteen page letter, the epistolary equivalent of a drawing room confession, making that character utterly despicable in the process.

McDermid’s fans will probably tell me to get stuffed. Even though the author has deep heartfelt passion for the community of miners, that’s not enough to make for a great or even a good book. Her passion is genuine. The well-crafted book though is a failure. It is flat. It is predictable. It is paint-by-the-numbers.

I guess I’m getting to the reasons why I don’t like this book. But does that translate to why we don’t like one book over another? Do we need to believe, to be surprised, if not wowed, by either story, voice, or character? Do we need to be transported somehow somewhere? Do we need to be more than entertained? Do we need to look up from the book and consider our world a bit differently? What makes a story work, resonate, remain with us?

Don’t have those answers yet. Will keep trying.

Looking on the bright side though, if someone with McDermid’s talent can turn out an occasional clunker, maybe there’s hope for the rest of us. We might just turn the tables on the writing muses and toss off the odd winner.

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.

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.