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The Demon’s Parchment by Jeri Westerson

The Demon’s Parchment” is the third in Westerson’s Crispin Guest Medieval Noir series, and by far the creepiest. The book is not for the faint of heart and must also be read with its historical context in mind.

The novel is set in 1384 London. Crispin Guest is a former knight who is exiled and stripped of his estate by King Richard II. He had been a knight of the Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt, who exercised considerable influence over his nephew, King Richard, before the boy turned 18. Crispin settles in a poor part of London and becomes known as the Tracker, someone who will solve crimes for pay.

One day Crispin and his servant, Jack, come upon a crowd who have found a dead boy washed up on the shores of the Thames. Suffice it to say, this was a gruesome death, and Crispin finds out that three other boys have been found in similar condition in recent months along the Thames. There has been little attention cast on these serial killings because the dead seem to be beggar boys or possibly members of a secret Jewish community. With the death toll mounting the London and Westminster sheriffs hire Guest to solve the serial murders.

The plot also gets entwined with the story of a Jewish doctor and his son who are brought from southern France to attend to the Queen. Some parchments relating to the ancient Jewish lore about the making of a Golem, a monster made of clay, is stolen from the doctor’s quarters and he hires Guest to find them. There is some thought that the Golem is to blame for the deaths of the boys and that they have been sacrificed as part of a Jewish ritual.

Most of the Jews had been thrown out of England a hundred years earlier by Edward I on rumors of such ritual killings. Now an inquisitor has come to root out the few remaining Jews who have not converted to Christianity. Crispin must face his own prejudice in helping the Jewish doctor to recover the parchment and to discover the truth that the murdered boys.  He concludes that the boys have not been killed as part of any Jewish ritual and in fact at least one was from the secret Jewish community of potters and goldsmiths.

This medieval noir is full of violence and instances of prejudice. Much of the story, however, is rooted in historical fact. The serial murders are similar to one found in the historical record in France 100 years after the setting for this book. The prejudices and indignities cast upon the Jews in medieval England are accurately told. The life that Crispin and his servant would have led are also accurate for the times. Those were dark, dark times full of violence, prejudice, superstition, and strict class distinctions. The Crispin series is only for those readers who are willing to face the reality of those brutal times.

I can’t say that I enjoyed reading this novel, but I did learn something in its telling.

Liz Nichols

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Lake Charles by Ed Lynskey

“Lake Charles” by Ed Lynskey is a taught, atmospheric southern noir that will keep most readers glued to their chairs start to finish. I found myself really enjoying getting to know the colorful characters and following with bated breath what happens to the protagonist and his friends.

The story is set in remote eastern Tennessee along the shores of what I think is a fictional reservoir near Gatlinburg in the Blue Ridge Mountains the author calls Lake Charles. In this backwoods environment everyone packs a pistol (or a few) and knows how to use these deadly weapons. This is a tale of a modern day blood feud between a pack of pot and cocaine smugglers/growers and some ordinary folks who get in their way. The innocent protagonist and his friends decide to retaliate after being bushwacked and commit some pretty violent acts themselves as vigilantes.

The protagonist, Brendan Fishback, is an average joe who works by day as a printer and by night does his share of drinking and smoking pot at local taverns and at home. He meets the daughter of a local politician who convinces him to spend the night with her at a local motel. They smoke and drink too much and the next thing Brendan knows the girl is lying in bed next to him dead of an overdose of angel dust. Brendan is accused of murdering the girl and gets beaten up by the girl’s father and some corrupt local cops when he reports the death and is interrogated. While he is awaiting his trial Brendan, his brother-in-law, Cobb, and sister, Edna decide to go fishing and jet skiing for the weekend at the local reservoir, Lake Charles.

The apparent kidnapping of Edna while jet skiing on the lake starts off a series of attacks and counter-attacks between Brendan, Cobb, Cobb’s father, Mr. Kuzawa, and Brendan’s attorney, Herzog, vs. the pot growers and forces aligned with the politician, Sizemore.

There is a lot to like about this noir tale– it is inventive, action-packed, the characters are colorful, and the writing is very descriptive. The main cast of heroes in this tale are flawed, but likeable.

What I don’t like is that the author seems to be trying very hard to be literary and it makes the conversations between these ordinary, folksy characters sound like they belong in a college graduate level English seminar. I occasionally muttered to myself as I read the book, “who talks like that?” Well, Brendan is a printer, after all, but not one who ever went to college. His way of talking just isn’t believable.

I found the lack of authenticity in Brendan’s voice a little annoying, but it did not take away my empathy for the guy or my interest in reading the book cover to cover to find out what happens to Brendan and his friends. I think most others will find the plot sufficiently nail-biting to hang in there as well.

I read a pre-pub review copy of the book. “Lake Charles” is scheduled for publication by Wildside Press on June 15, 2011.

Liz Nichols

Murder in the Palais Royal by Cara Black

Among the things that is most fun about reading mysteries is that often there are very detailed descriptions of locations I particularly like or would like to visit. Such is the case with the atmospheric “Murder in the Palais Royal.” This is one of the Aimee Leduc mysteries by Cara Black.

I have been to Paris many times and can follow Leduc’s visits to different parts of the central city, but I never knew until I read this book that underneath Palais Royal and its gardens is a honeycomb of secret passageways. These secret escape routes figure into the solution of who murdered one of the people Aimee is trying to help, the girl friend of a man she helped put away for a hate crime years before.

In this mystery Aimee is trying to undo what appears to be a false conviction of Nicolas Evry and to discover who put Nicolas up to taking the fall for the burning of a synagogue and the deaths of an elderly Jewish couple. It gets far more complex than that. Aimee is accused of trying to gun down her partner, Rene, and she must prove that she is being framed. Are these three incidents related– what happens to Evry, his girlfriend and Rene? At the same time, she is trying to stay in contact with an investigator in New York City who may have tracked down the whereabouts of her kid brother, who left Paris with her mother, an accused spy, many years earlier.

At first it is hard to keep track of all the threads of this story, but it soon comes together into a coherent and ingenious plot. Francophiles will love this book, if just to soak in the Parisian atmosphere. Mystery lovers will love the constant action, the danger around every dark and dank corner, and the descriptions of Paris the way a resident would know it.

Liz Nichols

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Pray for Silence by Linda Castillo

“Pray for Silence” is the second in Linda Castillo’s “Silence” mystery series set in Amish Ohio. The protagonist is Police Chief, Kate Burkholder, who was born into the Amish community and left after a rape as a teenage girl where she found no support among her family and Amish friends.

While her past has made Burkholder a fearsome crime fighter, it has also left her with bouts of physical and mental anguish, as well as a mean streak that can cause her to lash out without thinking about the consequences. While it is easy to be sympathetic with Burkholder, it is not easy to read some of the passages where she has lost her objectivity as a police officer because of her personal history. It is scary to contemplate what might eventually happen to Burkholder’s career and to her personally if she does not get her personal demons under control.

Her sometime boyfriend and colleague from the state crime lab, John Tomasetti, has his own demons to deal with. He fights a case of traumatic stress syndrome that leaves him depressed and unable to do his job objectively as well. His past trauma relates to the brutal murder of his wife and two daughters. Tomasetti and Burkholder make quite a pair.

In this case an Amish teenage girl falls for an Englisher (a non-Amish person) who ends up brutalizing her, drugging her and using her for porn flicks. She ends of pregnant and she tells her parents, who plan on telling the police and the bishop of their church. When the boyfriend gets wind of the fact that he may be discovered he brutally murders the girl and her family. Burkholder and Tomasetti set out to discover which of several possible suspects was involved in the killings.

This is not an easy book to read. It is extremely graphic and the description of all that was done to the girl and her family, as well as to people who could rat out the murderer, are nauseating. This is one case where I think the author may have gone a little over the top to get across her points about rape and child pornography.

For those who like the ugliness of rape and murder to be out there for everyone to see, this is the book to get. For those who prefer to leave some details left unspoken, this is not the book to read.

Liz Nichols

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The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson

“The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” is the last of the Millennium Trilogy. It was given to the publisher in Sweden just before Stieg Larsson died in 2004. It is not only a great piece of Swedish fiction, but a literary triumph by world standards.

Larsson was editor in chief of Expo. Larsson spent his journalistic career investigating Nazi and other right wing and extremist organizations. His knowledge was probably very useful in developing material for the Millennium Trilogy. His journalistic style also created a sense of realism in his plots and his characters.

I thoroughly appreciated (enjoyed would not quite be the right word) the whole Trilogy. I became emotionally involved with the characters in a way that rarely affects me as much as these three works. Mikael, Lisbeth and several other characters became real in a way. I cared about what happened to them. I felt sad and frustrated when they screwed up. I felt vindicated along with them when Mikael’s sister, Annika, absolutely demolishes the state’s case against Lisbeth.

The Hornet’s Nest provides the finality that the trilogy demands and it was fortunate and most appropriate that Larsson lived to complete all three works. The three works combined rank, in my opinion among the greatest literary series in the last 100 years.

If you haven’t read Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, do yourself a favor, and get all three. They can be enjoyed separately, to be sure, but the storytelling is best when it is when it is experienced in its entirety.

Liz Nichols

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First Two in Trilogy for Stieg Larsson

I recently completed both “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and “The Girl Who Played With Fire,” two of the trilogy that Swedish journalist and fiction writer completed just before he died in 2004. Both have now also been made into movies in Sweden, and we are awaiting production of an English language version of them.

The books I’ve read so far in this trilogy are literary classics, first-class psychological thrillers and, at least in the second book, Police procedurals. They contain all the elements of great storytelling, intrigue and excellent character development. In both cases I found it hard to put the books down and had to basically declare myself on vacation with each book in order to keep reading for hours on end.

In both books I found myself fascinated with the character and personality of Lisbeth Salander, the protagonist. She is such a frustrating character because just when you feel you know her and are feeling some sympathy, she does something completely outrageous, though always completely within her own frame of logic.

It appears as if the only person who “gets” her completely is the man she agrees to work for temporarily in an investigation of a corrupt industrialist, Wennerstrom, journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, the publisher of Millennium Magazine.

In “Dragon” Lisbeth is a researcher for a private investigation firm, and a world-class computer hacker. She uses these powers to determine how Wennerstrom managed to catch Blomkvist into a trap that led him to be tried and found guilty of libel in an expose about Wennerstrom in Millennium Magazine. They then needed to figure out a way of getting back at Wennerstrom without being caught in anything illegal.

At the same time, Mikael, with Lisbeth’s help, solves the mystery of what happened to one of the cousins in a large industrialist family, the Vangers. Everyone assumes Harriet Vanger’s sudden disappearance was a murder.

Mikael takes a break from Millennium to work for the Vangers as a way to get out of the limelight and to pay for his fines and court costs after losing the trial. Supposedly he has also been commissioned to write a biography of the patriarch of the Vanger family. In the end, Lisbeth discovers a sadomasochist killer in the Vanger’s town and saves Mikael from being killed by the serial killer.

Lisbeth is certainly the central, and most interesting, character in both books. We learn more in the second book about how she ticks and why. We know from the first that she is really a brilliant young woman with a photographic memory, greatly underdeveloped social skills, and a deep distrust of other people, particularly men. She has very good reason, as we find out in the second book.

As a teen she is inaccurately labeled as mentally ill and is assigned to a guardian. Her first guardian is a kindly man who is just about to release her from guardianship when he has a stroke. Her second guardian is a sadistic rapist. All Lisbeth can think about is getting even with her second guardian, Bjurman, while she does everything she can to help her first guardian get well.

Mikael describes Lisbeth as always making the moral choice, even though it often doesn’t seem so. Those who define “moral” in terms of straight sexual orientation, not stealing, and refraining from vigilante and violent behavior might disagree with Mikael’s assessment of Lisbeth.

No matter what one thinks of Lisbeth personally, however, it is fair to say that she only reacts with violence or vindictiveness with extreme provocation. If she had not had so many bad early experiences with authority she probably would have let the police handle more of the problems in her life. As the story unfolds it is easy to see why she always relied just on herself.

“Fire” starts a couple months after the end of “Dragon.” Lisbeth has been horribly abused for yet another time in her life and disappears for a year in a quest for some elusive answers about life, solutions to mathematical puzzles and a decision about what she wants to do for the rest of her life after receiving quite a windfall from the Wennerstrom case.

When she returns to Sweden she is more secretive than ever. She visits her old boss, Armansky, as well as Mikael, and renews a friendship with a lesbian lover, Miriam Wu. She must remain under cover when she is accused of a triple murder of her former guardian, a journalist and a criminologist graduate student. The latter two are about to expose the inner workings and people behind the Swedish sex trade with the help of Mikael and Millennium.

Like the 9 tattoos on Lisbeth’s body, these books get under your skin. First-rate writing. I look forward to the last in the series and I regret that we will never have more given Larsson’s untimely death.

Liz Nichols

Patricia Gussin’s And Then There Was One

Normally I find the books I review in the excellent collection of the Iowa City Public Library. This time I received a review copy of a psychological thriller that will be released on October 4, 2010, Dr. Patricia Gussin’s “And Then There Was One.”

Gussin is a board certified Family Medicine physician who has spent at least part of her career as the director of research and vice president of a health care company. She grew up in Michigan, practiced medicine in Philadelphia, and now splits her time between Florida, New York and New Zealand.

Somehow Gussin has also found time to become a very accomplished writer with this fourth thriller and one non-fiction title under her belt. Her first novel, “Shadow of Death,” was nominated for Best First Novel for the Thriller Awards, and I look forward to catching up with these earlier works soon.

Gussin has put the things she knows as a physician, native of Michigan and current resident of Florida to good use in her writing. She obviously has great empathy for parents of missing and abused children and has a very detailed and heart-wrenchingly intimate knowledge of what child abuse can do to individuals and families. Abduction, abuse and murder of children are without question the ultimate nightmare scenarios for any parent, and Gussin portrays the physical and psychological impact of those experiences with chilling, heart-stopping accuracy. She doesn’t waste any time at it either: the abduction takes place on page one and the suspense builds from there.

The story revolves around a bi-racial family, Katie and Scott Monroe and their triplets, Sammie, Jackie and Alex. Sammie and Alex are abducted from a movie theater while Jackie and her cousin are spared, having gone in to see a different show. The police and FBI are faced with a complex process of evaluating the credibility of any number of persons of interest and witnesses. Were the nine-year-olds abducted by an old flame of Katie’s, a jealous baseball player who was fired by Scott, a child abuser on parole who was put away by Katie’s expert testimony as a child forensic psychiatrist, by an alleged abuser Katie is about to testify against, or someone completely different?

Unlike the Police procedurals on TV, the case is not cracked by high tech forensics or mind-bending profilers, but rather by old-fashioned observations from witnesses and dedicated law enforcement professionals. My guess is this is a more realistic look at how abduction cases are solved than the ones we see on TV.

This book delves deep into the psyche and emotional state of almost every character which makes for a fascinating read. In this respect, it reminds me a lot of “Lovely Bones,” and like that book makes an important statement in a very literary way.

“And Then There Was One” should be read and appreciated by a much wider audience than just those who like to read mysteries and thrillers. This book has a lot to say about how we raise our children, issues that surround bi-racial families, the impact of abuse on children and families, the abused who grow up to abuse, and so many other issues.

“And Then There Was One” receives a thumbs up from this reviewer. It is an important novel on a similar level of quality and emotional pull as “Lovely Bones” or “The Secret Lives of Bees.”

Liz Nichols

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