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Two Mysteries About Early 20th Century Labor Unrest

I have recently finished two somewhat similar mysteries set in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

All Men Fear Me,” by Donis Casey is the first of these mysteries. This book is the eighth in the “An Alafair Tucker Mystery” series.  The book is set just after the US joined World War I and the town of Boynton, Oklahoma is at heightened alert for German traitors and union activists fomenting unrest.  In the midst of all this unrest the Tucker family is trying to stay together with the older sons all contemplating joining the Army and heading for France, and a son-in-law afraid for his life because of his German heritage.  All of the foreign-born people in town are keeping a low profile because of prejudice and suspicion that has become very prevalent among the residents.  Alfair’s brother, a union organizer, comes to town ostensibly for a visit, but is suspected of really being in town to stir up trouble at a local factory. There is worry that trouble will brew at the “Liberty Sing” following the drawing of names for the draft lottery.  A man, called Old Nick, is another recent addition to the town, a very mysterious person no one knows.

The author, Donis Casey, has done an excellent job of researching the era and making the reader feel as if they are back in state-side life during the 1st World War with FDA-mandated austerity measures, suspicion about neighbors who may not originally have been from the area, formation of a chapter of the Knights of Liberty to offer vigilante justice to anyone who appears to be unpatriotic or unwilling to serve.

All Men Fear Me” is a nostalgic novel that will take the reader back to the days at the beginning of America’s involvement in the Great War.

Jack H. Bailey’s “Orchard” attempts to mix fact with fiction.  Bailey uses historic mine unrest in and around Coeur d’Alene in the late 1890s and early 1900’s and the efforts of mine owners to break the control of the Western Federation of Miners and weaves a fictional story around the shadowy life of a real union contract killer named Harry Orchard, a man who was finally sent to prison for the killing of the former governor of Idaho in 1906, Governor Steuenenber.  Orchard’s arch-rival and eventual captor is Pinkerton Agent, Charlie Siringo.  The details of exactly what activities Orchard and Siringo engage in and the dialog as they interact with their union and law enforcement associates is made up, but gives a fascenating picture of what may have taken place.  It is clear that there were many wrongs to redress on both sides.

Bailey succeeds in making both Orchard and Siringo more than just two-dimensional characters.  We have a sense of what makes both men tick.  There are times when we are ready to root for Orchard as a champion of poor minors and their families, and times when we want Siringo to capture the killer in order to stop the bombings and contract killings.

All Men Fear Me” and “Orchard” are both highly recommended.

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Blood on Snow byJo Nesbo

Blood on Snow” is a bit of a departure for Jo Nesbo.  We are used to seeing serial killers through the eyes of his police detective, Harry Hole.  This tale is told in the first person by the contract serial killer himself, Olav, a “fixer” for an Oslo crime family.  He is a fixer with a moral compass, and that is what ultimately gets him in trouble.  Olav can do anything for his boss except drive a get-away car, deal in drugs, participate in a robbery, or deal in prostitution.  Mostly, he deals in killing people who, in his opinion, deserve it.

The main thrust of Olav’s tale is how he deals with the order to kill the boss’s wife, Corina.  Olav makes the mistake of wanting time to think about it, which dooms him to becoming expendable once the deed is done.  Even after Olav agrees to the job he stalls.  He concentrates first on killing the wife’s supposed lover, who turns out to be the boss’s son and then he tries to make it seem like he has accomplished his task while actually protecting the wife.  But is Corina to be trusted?  Will Olav’s other love interest, Maria live or die?

This is a rather simple tale with an unusually principaled killer acting as anti-hero.  The characterizations of Olav and some of the people surrounding him are finely drawn, even though some of the characters seen through Olav’s eyes are romanticized and badly mis-judged.  Near the beginning of the book Olav describes a black widow spider who will devour her mate if he outlasts his stay.  This becomes a metaphor for the actions of Corina and women like her.

I am a big fan of Jo Nesbo, and “Blood on Snow” does not disappoint.  He takes the horror and thriller genres beyond their usual levels of literary sophistication.  His characters are always fascinatingly complex.  A recommended read for lovers of this genre.

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Jaspar’s War by Cym Lowell

Jaspar’s War” is Cym Lowell’s first novel, and it is an interesting, imaginative start to what may well become a significant career as a novelist.  Lowell’s previous career was as an international tax specialist and it is that prospective that informs Lowell’s knowledge about what brought about the Great Recession.  With “Jaspar’s War” Lowell has put a sinister twist not only on the causes of the downturn, but also the dangers to real recovery embedded in government-funded economic stimulus.  His theory is probably simplistic, but could at least in theory be plausible.

Jaspar Moran is the wife of the Treasury Secretary, Trevor Moran, who is presumed dead on a flight from London that disappears.  At the time that Jaspar learns of her husband’s presumed death her two young children are kidnapped.  Jaspar is soon whisked away under deep cover in the protection of an Australian soldier of fortune/contract killer who is known to Jaspar’s priest.  Nulandi is a very enigmatic character and is probably the weakest element of “Jaspar’s War.”  The aboriginal Australian fighter has almost super-human abilities, as does his side-kick dog, Alice.  He has a heart of gold that stands in stark contrast to his no mercy approach to fighting his enemies.  Typically, serial killers are psychopaths with no capacity to feel compassion or to have a conscience.  Nulandi displays both compassion and a conscience.  He just does not come across as believable.  It is also not believable that an upper-middle class mother of two could turn into a ninja warrior with three months of intensive bootcamp, even with the tremendous incentive of saving her children.

The plot is very exciting and the many international settings (the Australian Outback, Rome, Tuscany, Washington DC to name a few) make the descriptions exceptionally colorful.  There is also a strong cultural mix.  Nulandi and his sister are aboriginal people from Australia.  Jaspar is white and a devout Catholic mother and wife from suburbia.  They interact with a band of Vietnamese emigrants to Italy who were set up in business in a Tuscany vineyard by Nulandi after the Vietnamese War.  They are Nulandi’s operatives in many of his contract kills and play key roles in the effort to find out who has kidnapped the kids and to get them back.  There is a gang of mafiosi Nulandi and his crew must defeat and various sinister financial barrons on three continents to defeat.  To add to the ethnic mix, there is even an American Indian tribal chief who is also a financial wizard who helps Nulandi to pull off this seemingly impossible mission.

All in all, I found “Jaspar’s War” an exciting, nail-biting read, but I had to suspend my belief in what is possible in order to feel any real connection to the cast of characters.

Liz Nichols

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The Wrong Quarry by Max Allan Collins

Lovers of hardboiled crime and detective mysteries or the TV show “Dexter” will love Max Allan Collins new offering in the Hard Case Crime Novel series, “The Wrong Quarry.”

The “anti-hero” of this Collins series is a semi-retired contract killer with the alias Jack Quarry.  Quarry is not a psychopath in the sense that he does not have a psychological need to kill; his expediency is more economic than anything else, and a sense of vigilante justice that he is ridding the world of people who deserve to die.  Quarry has a rather unique way of finding his prey now that he is semi-retired.  He acquired the contact file of a former contract middleman with about fifty names of killers on it.  Some of the people on the list Jack knows to be the people in a two man team who stake out the quarry to be killed and then pass along the information to the trigger man.  The other names on the list are people who generally carry out the contract.  Quarry used to work as the hit man in these two person scenarios all the time, and now he is gradually taking out the list of contract killers and their surveillance people by following them, finding out who is the person to be killed and getting hired by that person to take out the contract team.

The case in “The Wrong Quarry” involves taking out a team contracted to torture and kill a small town dance instructor and in the process finding out who took out the original contract and offering to also get rid of the originator of the contract, if possible.  The dance instructor is accused of raping and killing the teenage granddaughter of the patriarch of the wealthiest family in Stockwell, MO.  No one can pin this crime to the instructor and make it stick because no body has ever been found.  There is no physical evidence linking the dance instructor to the crime and he has an alibi for the time the girl disappeared.  The grandfather is convinced the man is guilty.  Enough about the plot.

While the hardboiled crime novel is usually not my cup of tea, Collins is the reigning master of this genre and he creates such entertaining and interesting characters that it is a pleasure to read his novels.  “The Wrong Quarry” is no exception.  I’m addicted much as I was to the “Dexter” TV series.

Reviewed from a supplied copy.  This book is scheduled to be published January 7.

Liz Nichols

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