Out of Amnesia: Garment of Shadows by Laurie R. King

In Garment of Shadows, the intrepid Mary Russell is back on serious territory after her unusual (and undesired) foray into the pop culture of the time (1924) with Fflytte Films (detailed in her last book of “memoirs”, Pirate King). This story is twelfth in the series of suspense novels by Laurie R. King (starting with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice) about an unusual partnership between the retired famous detective Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell, a young woman with a classical education from Oxford; well-versed in Judaism and other theologies; sharp-witted; an excellent shot (when she has her glasses on); and very skilled at wielding the sharp knife she keeps hidden in her boot (only when cornered or attacked.)

Garment of Shadows opens with Mary Russell concussed and amnesiac, trying to figure out who she is, where she is, and how she got there. Her life up until that point is a near-blank. Out of a haze of shadowy thoughts and with the help of muscle memory, she escapes this latest dangerous situation, and the latest adventure of this most unusual married couple (separated from each other at the moment) begins. This time, they are in the divided country of Morocco, where the borders of French and Spanish protectorates are being threatened by local tribal factions and where, it appears, civil war is imminent.

The Mary Russell series falls into the genre of historical mystery and suspense, but the author’s writing style gives them a contemporary feel. Russell is a thoroughly modern woman who drives, speaks her mind, and records such thoughts in her memoir as “It was damnably irritating” and “Oh, that was just great.” Neither the 25-year-old Russell nor the 70-something Holmes expect proper behavior from the other – allowing both partners to indulge in eccentricity, frequent disguises, dangerous exploits, and the exercise of their keen, complementary intelligence. Russell and Holmes do show a traditionally gentlemanly reluctance to kill in cold blood, and display good English sportsmanship when playing The Game (i.e. espionage) by only using deadly force when absolutely necessary to save another’s life.

Each of the books in the series can stand alone, but they really are best read in order, to appreciate the organic growth of the relationship of the main characters from mentor and pupil to equal partners in detection and espionage in the service of queen and country. You can read a substantial PDF excerpt from the beginning of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, when Mary Russell is only fifteen, from the author’s Web site.

Read my review of Pirate King here.

Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of Garment of Shadows from Random House through NetGalley.

Garment of Shadows
King, Laurie R.
Random House, Sept. 4, 2012
978-0-553-80799-8
288 pp.
$26.00

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Business as Usual on the Streets of Boston: Hard Knocks by Howie Carr

From conservative Boston Herald columnist and radio personality Howie Carr, this novel of intrigue and corruption in the cramped underworld of Boston crime, politics, and law enforcement – where the three groups frequently bump up against each other or even overlap – isn’t going to win any awards from the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau, but it should appeal to fans of the author’s recent nonfiction books, The Brothers Bulger and Hitman, and to readers looking for local color that has nothing to do with foliage or baseball.
Appropriately enough, the book starts off with a local, low-level gangster getting bumped off, right after involving Jack Reilly in his problem – which then becomes Jack’s problem. Jack Reilly is a disgraced ex-Boston cop and former political bag man (But don’t call him that; he prefers the term “fixer.”) turned shady private investigator, who, though down on his luck, hasn’t yet lost all his connections or used up all of his political capital (i.e. “dirt,”), but with this little problem he’s had dumped in his lap, he’ll be lucky to be alive to worry about being able to pay next month’s rent, alimony, and cable bill.
I kept thinking Howie Carr had to be writing tongue in cheek when he created the character of Jack – the corrupt ex-cop with a warped, but still present code of honor – and the many other characters who continually mourn the passing of the formerly all-white neighborhoods of Boston and spout other bigoted, provincial, and self-serving cliches about the “good old days” that you might hear on Howie Carr’s talk radio show. By the end of the book, though, I decided he probably wasn’t writing tongue in cheek, so that made the book a little less enjoyable and a lot more offensive, given that I’m not a Herald subscriber for a reason.
There is plenty of humor in the other wry asides from Jack Reilly to make any reader or listener chuckle, however, especially jaded readers who think politics and ethics don’t have much in common except their last four letters. Being a Herald columnist, the author gets in quite a few jabs at the competition, The Boston Globe, and also gives Jack an attractive female crime reporter from the Herald to spar with and trade favors with. The book is loaded with references to local landmarks, mostly of the non-tourist variety, and even has a long drive through the South Shore and down Route 18 to Brockton, my current home city!
The audiobook narration is really well done; Peter Berkrot seemed to relish the variety of Boston accents and the mob-inflected growling dialogue, and even throws in an authentic-sounding Irish brogue for Jack’s rosy-cheeked, red-nosed, and faithful politician friend, Slip. I would recommend this book/audiobook to readers/listeners with a tolerance for intolerant characters  looking for a contemporary take on The Friends of Eddie Coyle (by Brockton-born George V. Higgins) or for more crime fiction with Boston settings, like Dennis Lehane‘s Kenzie and Gennaro books. Another recent entry in this field, The Charlestown Connection, by Massachusetts author Tom MacDonald (nominated for a Massachusetts Book Award) has a nicer main character, Dermot Sparhawk, who works in a parish’s food pantry, which I don’t think you would catch Jack Reilly doing!

Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter:

“Reilly Associates,” I said with as much enthusiasm as I could muster.
“Is this Jack Reilly?”
“Speaking.”
“This is Bucky Bennett.” It didn’t ring a bell. “I know your brother.” The bell was ringing now. It was an alarm. “I knew him down in Otisville.” Another federal pen, in upstate New York, inhabited by a lot of Northeast organized-crime types, among them, at one point, my brother.
Marty’s friend spoke softly, but he might have been trying to lull me. “He told me to give you a call sometime.” That was mighty white of good old Martin T. Reilly. “I got a big, big problem, Jack.” Ex-cons often do. “Hello? Are you there?”
“Yes,” I said with a sigh. “I’m here.”
“Jack, you don’t know me, but I heard a lot about you. I heard you used to handle a lot of work for the mayor, the old one, and I know you were a cop, and now you’re on your own.”
That certainly was the CliffsNotes version of the life of Jack Reilly, a man teetering on that fine line between has-been and never-was. I sensed a pitch was imminent.
“I gotta talk to you. They’re looking for me. I gotta screw before they find me.”
“Who’s they?”
A hollow chuckle. “Can I meet you somewhere?”
Some people claim they can smell money. Me, I can smell no money, and I can smell it a mile away. “Pro bono” is just Latin for “deadbeat.” I decided to try to lose the guy.
I asked him, “Have you thought about calling the police?”
Another nervous laugh. “Marty told me you were a funny guy.”
“Look,” I said, staring at the two piles of unpaid bills in front of me. “I’m kinda busy right now.”
“Please, man, I’m desperate. I know what I must sound like, but I got some stuff, I gotta make sure it gets into the hands of the right people or I’m dead. You’re on Shawmut Ave., right? How far are you from Foley’s?”
Oh great. Not only was I not going to get paid, now I was going to have to buy him a drink, in my own place on top of everything else. James Michael Curley used to say that it’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice. That’s excellent advice, I suppose, if you’re running for office, but who exactly was I trying to impress? Still, Bucky wasn’t going to take no for an answer.

Hard Knocks (Audiobook)
Carr, Howie
Berkrot, Peter (Narrator)
AudioGo, 2012
978-1-60998-772-5
9 hrs., 56 min.
8 CDs

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this audiobook from AudioGO. Listen to an excerpt from the audiobook here.
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Overwrought: Iron House by John Hart

Excited blurbs from Patricia Cornwell and Vince Flynn on the cover should have given me a clue that Iron House, John Hart’s fourth literary thriller, is more action and thrills than novelistic description and character development. If you’re a fan of Patricia Cornwell and Vince Flynn, then try Iron House. There are murders, mobsters, crooked politicians, trauma, and torture scenes in abundance.
For a thriller, though, the story takes a long time to build up steam — jerkily pausing for melodramatic flashbacks to childhood abuse in Iron House, an anarchic orphanage deep in the mountains of North Carolina. And for a “literary thriller”, writing like this just doesn’t cut it:

A final shudder rolled under her skin, then she collected herself as she always did. She crushed the weakness and the doubt, drove home to tall, stone walls and mirrors that failed to see so deep. She reminded herself that she was iron on the outside, and harder than any woman alive.

There are great reviews of Iron House out there and the bodies in the book pile up quickly, but King of Lies, the first novel by John Hart (a former lawyer turned bestselling author) is still his best work, in my opinion, combining a suspenseful story with narrative twists. Each book that followed (Down South, The Last Child, Iron House) has disappointed, although glowing reviews suckered me into reading all of them. This one is definitely the last.
For literary thrillers, I’ll stick with Peter Abrahams, Val McDermid, Thomas H. Cook, and Inger Ash Wolfe and others whose writing I don’t notice until I close the book at the end, saying, “Wow! Good book!”

8 in the Box by Raffi Yessayan

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Author Raffi Yessayan’s name isn’t as easy to remember as “Robert B. Parker”, but he was named in a Boston Globe article as one of the up-and-coming authors likely to win a place in the hearts of readers who miss Parker’s mystery series starring Spenser, Boston’s favorite private investigator. (Robert B. Parker died on January 18, 2010.)
8 in the Box introduces homicide detective Angel Alves, a family man. He is newly promoted and confronting the case of the Blood Bath Killer, a serial murderer who leaves his female victims’ bathtubs full of their own blood. If you enjoy reading John Sandford’s Prey series or Harlan Coben’s thrillers, this fast-paced story should be a good match for you.
A Massachusetts author, Raffi Yessayan spent 11 years as an assistant district attorney in Boston, and has set 8 in the Box — his first mystery novel — in a fictional South Bay district courthouse where the DAs work closely with police in cracking down on crime on the streets of Boston. (For the sake of the story, Mr. Yessayan has some of the lawyers ignore proper legal procedures. Let’s hope those parts aren’t drawn from his own experience.)
The second book in the series, 2 in the Hat, is already out, and the author will have a chance to develop the character of Angel. Be careful! Don’t read them out of order.
Keep up with local bestsellers and author visits on The Boston Globe‘s book blog, Off the Shelf.

Shoot to Thrill by P.J. Tracy

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If you haven’t met the Monkeewrench crew, you might want to start with the book that introduces them: Monkeewrench. If you have met them, you’re probably waiting for me to return my copy of Shoot to Thrill, the fifth book in the suspense series, to the library.
Monkeewrench is a group of computer hacker geniuses — some of them quirky to the point of pathology — who help the Minneapolis Police Department detectives bring down murderers. The Monkeewrench books by P.J. Tracy — a pen name for the mother-daughter team, Patricia and Traci Lambrecht — have action-packed plots, serial killers, and rapid-fire dialogue. If you’re in the mood for a thriller, try this series.
Here’s the order to read them in, although the Publishers Weekly review says you can jump in on the fifth one without any problem:
Monkeewrench (check OCLN for availability)
Live Bait  (check OCLN for availability)
Dead Run  (check OCLN for availability)
Snow Blind  (check OCLN for availability)
Shoot to Thrill  (check OCLN for availability)
By the way, whenever I want to look up the order of a series, I use the wonderful What’s Next™: Books in Series database maintained by the Kent District Library in Kent County, Michigan.

Stripped by Brian Freeman

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Had a chance to tag along on a trip to Las Vegas last week so I picked up Stripped by Brian Freeman to read while I was there.
The second book in what is so far a 4-book series featuring Detective Jonathan Stride, the fast-paced Stripped throws the former lieutenant from Duluth, Minnesota into the world of glitzy, gritty Las Vegas streets and casinos, where everything happens at night and high rollers walk side by side with criminals. Working the case for Metro Homicide, Stride and his new partner Amanda have to track a vicious killer before he strikes again.
As the lurid orange cover warns you, this is no cozy mystery to read snuggled up with a cup of cocoa. Pour yourself a stiff one before you start reading and save yourself the plane fare to Las Vegas.

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