About Time I Read It: The Letter Writer by Dan Fesperman

I was in the mood for a little fiction after finishing “The Rest of Us” and Overdrive recommend I follow it up with Dan Fesperman’s The Letter Writer. How could I refuse a historical whodunnit set in New York City in the months following  Pearl Harbor in which a detective, newly arrived from North Carolina teams up with a mysterious “letter writer” who earns a living writing letters for the city’s illiterate immigrants, speaks five languages, has the manners and speech of a university professor, and possesses an almost supernatural ability to uncover priceless information? I mean come on, what’s not to like?

When a body is found floating in the Hudson River, Detective Woodrow Cain is sent to investigate. Through the assistance of Mr. Danziger, the above-mentioned letter writer he learns the murdered man was a recent German immigrant, likely Nazi sympathizer and a suspect in the recent fire of the ocean liner SS Normandie, which suspiciously caught fire while being converted to a troop ship. Proudly advertising himself as a dealer in “information” Danziger proves to be an invaluable guide to New York City’s diverse immigrant community, not to mention the city’s seedy underside. But no matter how helpful Danziger is to Cain’s investigation, nevertheless the detective suspects there’s more to Danziger than he lets on.

The Letter Writer has everything. There’s an out of his element detective with a tragic past who’s also a single dad to a young daughter. If trying to solve a series of murders wasn’t hard enough, his crooked, old-boy dominated police precinct thinks he’s either incompetent or an informant sent by higher ups to spy on them. There’s also action, romance, political intrigue and high level corruption. I was thoroughly entertained by The Letter Writer and have no reservations whatsoever recommending it.

Soviet Spotlight: Polar Star by Martin Cruz Smith

The day at the public library I picked up Martin Cruz Smith’s Wolves Eat Dogs I also grabbed his 1989 thriller Polar Star. Published decades ago, I can still remember when  it was released to much fanfare and touted as a sequel to Cruz Smith’s mammoth best seller Gorky Park.

Instead of set in Moscow and environs like its predecessor, Polar Star takes place in the Bearing Sea mostly aboard a giant factory ship. As part of an inaugural joint venture between the USSR and the United States a small fleet of American-owned fishing boats pass their fish-laden nets up to the Polar Star to be processed, frozen, stored and later sold with the two parties sharing the profits. With the USSR deep into glasnost and perestroika expectations are running high both teams can work together for the greater good.

Deep inside the bowels of the huge factory ship is former Moscow Militia Inspector Arkady Renko, knee deep in fish guts slaving away on the production line. When one of the Soviet crew is found dead, Renko is quietly pressed into service to determine how she died, and to do so as quickly and discreetly as possible lest her untimely demise derail the fragile commercial alliance. His task is daunting one, made even more difficult by those who would rather call it a suicide and cover things up. Before long he learns just about everyone onboard the small flotilla is shady, secretive and potentially criminal. Think of it as Murder on the Orient Express meets The Deadliest Catch.

Polar Star, while an older thriller still packs a punch. (Although thanks to its age it now reads like historical fiction.) I enjoyed it even more than Cruz Smith’s more recent Wolves Eat Dogs. After enjoying Polar Star I now wanna read the entire Arkady Renko series.

City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai by Paul French

It only took me six years but in the summer of 2018 I finally got around to reading Paul French’s 2012 book Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China. Not only did Midnight in Peking did make my Top Five Books of Summer but also my year-end list of Best Nonfiction. While I didn’t notice it at the time, that same summer another book by Paul French was released. City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai is another in-depth look at the seedy underside of a major Chinese city on the eve of World War II. Oddly enough, as much as I enjoyed Midnight in Peking I didn’t run out and get a copy of City of Devils. But I figured someday in the near future I’d read it.

Recently, I was bored, found myself searching Overdrive for something new to read and saw City of Devils was available to borrow. After downloading it to my Kindle I jumped into French’s 2018 book and never looked back. Just like Midnight in Peking there’s a good chance it make my year-end Best Nonfiction List.

Today we think of Shanghai as the ultra modern Paris of the Orient. China’s richest and largest city is blessed with a booming economy, futuristic skyline and a well deserved reputation as a global hub for international trade, finance and transportation. But in the decades prior to the Second World War Shanghai was a much different place. Thanks to a collection of unequal treaties imposed upon China by the Western powers and Japan, Shanghai, while technically a Chinese city, was home to several foreign settlements, each separately administered by British, French, American and Japanese authorities. Within these foreign enclaves Chinese sovereignty didn’t apply and a general sense of lawlessness prevailed. The city was home to thousands of Russian refugees who’d fled Communist rule as well as countless Jews from Central and Eastern Europe. Adding to this polyglot mix were a number of residents from Italy and the Philippines.

In its heyday, Shanghai, just like Mos Eisley on the planet Tatooine was a wretched hive of scum and villainy rife with gambling, prostitution, corruption, gun-running, drugs and alcohol. At the same time, coexisting with this vice was a lively world of wealth, opulence and sophistication as well-heeled crowds danced the night away in palatial ballrooms to the music of world-class orchestras. African American bands from Harlem served up cutting edge jazz to appreciative audiences on a nightly basis. Shanghai was a mixture of New York City, Paris, London and Roaring 20s mob-ruled Chicago with Russian and Yiddish overtones transported to the Orient.

Two self-made men, both of them foreigners, ruled free-wheeling Shanghai like modern royalty. One was “Lucky” Jack Riley,  U.S. Navy boxing champion and escaped convict, his introduction of slot machines to Shanghai revolutionized the city’s gambling scene. The other was “Dapper” Joe Farren, a Viennese Jew who went from professional ballroom dancer to nightclub mogul and with it Shanghai’s premier man about town. But, as history as shown us time and time again, impressive fortunes can fall as fast, or even faster than they rise and when it came to those of Lucky and Dapper there would be no exceptions.

I thoroughly enjoyed City of Devils. If you’re a fan of Erik Larson or anyone else who has the gift for writing nonfiction that reads like fiction this book is for you. I have no problem recommending this great book.

About Time I Read It: Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz Smith

Right before our local public libraries closed their doors in an effort to halt the spread of the rampaging Corona Virus I secured a tall stack of books betting I’d probably be hunkered down for a while. Luckily for me, as a health precaution our libraries ordered us to not return any borrowed materials and as a result we get to keep our books until further notice. As the world battles the worst pandemic in a century at least I’ve got plenty to read.

One of the books I grabbed before our libraries suspended operations was Martin Cruz Smith’s 2004 whodunnit Wolves Eat Dogs. Over the last year or so I’ve been supplementing my diet of nonfiction with international thrillers, crime novels and the like and figured now was a good time to dive back into the fiction of Martin Cruz Smith, an author I haven’t read in decades. Set mostly in Ukraine, I could apply it towards Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge, making it hard to resist. I burned through Wolves Eat Dogs in only a few days and I must have enjoyed it because it left me wanting to read more of his stuff.

It looked like a simple suicide. One of Russia’s billionaires, deciding he couldn’t take it anymore and jumped out the window his Moscow luxury high-rise. A lesser Investigator would have closed the book the second he arrived on the scene but not Arkady Renko. Knowing from experience whenever wealthy and powerful Russian men are killed it’s never by their own hands Renko, over the protests of his superiors decides to dig a bit deeper. Before long his investigation takes him to Ukraine, specifically to Chernobyl and the Zone of Exclusion, an irradiated shadowland abandoned since the 1986 nuclear disaster now home to an assortment of squatters, animal poachers, scavengers and corrupt militia men. It’s here Renko suspects there’s some sort of connection between Chernobyl and the dead billionaire. But what is it?

Inspector Renko is one of those great characters you can’t get enough of. Smart as hell and honest, and because he’s been at it so long knows his stuff. After years of fighting crime in the USSR and the near lawless post-Communist regime that took its place, Renko’s left cynical and damaged, but amazingly still in possession of his humanity. He’s tough, level-headed and never reckless. Those occasions when he does need to kick some ass, he does it right.

Like I said above, I enjoyed Wolves Eat Dogs and I’m hoping to read more of Cruz Smith’s fiction in the future. With a little luck this won’t be my last blog post featuring the adventures of Inspector Renko.

About Time I Read It: Siren of the Waters by Michael Genelin

It’s not every day I get to read a novel set in Slovakia. Even if roughly half of Michael Genelin’s 2008 crime novel Siren of the Waters takes place in the what used to be the eastern half of the Central European nation of Czechoslovakia it’s still my first literary foray into that part of the world. (Keep in mind of course if its author Michael Genelin is an American, so it can’t be considered Slovakian literature.) Wanting something set in Slovakia for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I borrowed an ebook version through Overdrive and went to work reading it almost immediately. I burned through it quickly and generally enjoyed it. Like any good crime novel, it’s entertaining and filled with a number of plot twists, most of, if not all I never saw coming.

On a highway outside the capital Bratislava, Jana, a veteran commander in the Slovak police force and her partner are called to investigate a deadly automobile accident. Inside the smoldering wreck of a van they find multiple bodies and no survivors. After discovering the deceased passengers were all young women and the driver male (and probably from Ukraine) Jana suspects it’s a case of human trafficking come to a fatal end. Knowing the fire in the van was purposely set she sets off in search of the those criminal elements responsible. Her search takes her to first Ukraine and then France, where she takes part in a international conference on human trafficking. Every clue Jana uncovers along the course of her international journey leads to more questions, as well as additional violence.

Roughly over half of Siren of the Waters is set in Slovakia in the years preceding the fall of Communism.  Arranged chronologically in the form of flashbacks, they follow Jana’s life starting with her career as a young police officer employed by the authoritarian Communist government, her stormy marriage to her actor husband turned political dissident and ending with the collapse of the old Communist regime. I enjoyed this part of the novel and I credit the author for doing the research needed to give those passages their authenticity.

Like I said, it’s not every day I get to read a novel set in Slovakia. Luckily for me it also kept me entertained.

2019 European Reading Challenge Wrap-Up

Well, another year of Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge has come to a close. In my perennial quest to win the coveted “Jet Setter” award I try to read as many books as possible set in, or about different European countries, or by different European authors. With one country per book and each book by a different author, each year I find myself moving from book to book across Europe, like some post-modern armchair version of a Bella Époque grand tour of the Continent.

2018 was a down year for me since I read and reviewed just 15 books. I’m happy to report this year I rebounded nicely with a final tally of 23. Just like in past years, there’s a variety of countries represented, ranging from large counties like Russia and Germany, to smaller ones like Belgium, Iceland and even the micro-state of Vatican City. This year I even read a book about Moldova.

  1. Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich (Russia)
  2. A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939–1940 by William R. Trotter (Finland)
  3. Island on Fire: The Extraordinary Story of a Forgotten Volcano That Changed the World by Alexandra Witze and Jeff Kanipe (Iceland)
  4. The Fourth Figure by Pieter Aspe (Belgium)
  5. Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History by Steven J. Zipperstein (Moldova)
  6. A Journey to the Edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova (Bulgaria)
  7. The Man Who Went Up in Smoke by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’ (Hungary)
  8. Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City by Russell Shorto (The Netherlands)
  9. The Swede by Robert Karjel (Sweden)
  10. Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg (Denmark)
  11. The Prince’s Boy by Paul Bailey (Romania)
  12. Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier (United Kingdom)
  13. The Abyssinian Proof by Jenny White (Turkey)
  14. 1924: The Year That Made Hitler by Peter Ross Range (Germany)
  15. The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss (France)
  16. Hell and Good Company: The Spanish Civil War and the World it Made by Richard Rhodes (Spain)
  17. The Volunteer: One Man’s Mission to Lead an Underground Army Inside Auschwitz and Stop the Holocaust by Jack Fairweather (Poland)
  18. Angels and Demons by Dan Brown (Vatican City)
  19. The Italians by John Hooper (Italy)
  20. The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal (Austria)
  21. A Child of Christian Blood: Murder and Conspiracy in Tsarist Russia: The Beilis Blood Libel by Edmund Levin (Ukraine)
  22. Prague Fatale by Philip Kerr (Czech Republic)
  23. North of Ithaka: A Granddaughter Returns to Greece and Discovers Her Roots by Eleni N. Gage (Greece)

 

As you might guess, I’m a huge fan of this challenge. I encourage all you book bloggers to sign up and read your way across Europe. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

About Time I Read It: The Fourth Figure by Pieter Aspe

I’ve read just two novels set in Belgium. There’s Tracy Chevalier’s The Lady and the Unicorn, set in both Brussels and Paris in the late 15th century and the other being Jonathan Coe’s Expo 58, also set in Brussels but during the 1958 World’s Fair. My search on Overdrive for something set in Belgium I could apply towards Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge brought me to Pieter Aspe’s crime novel The Fourth Figure. Having good luck of late with this genre, and seeing it was nominated for the impressive-sounding Hercule Poirot Award, I decided to download a borrowable copy to my Kindle. I took a liking to The Fourth Figure after only a few pages, and like many an entertaining novel found it damn near impossible to put down. And since it’s book four of a series, all staring Bruges police Commissioner Pieter Van In, hopefully in the near future you’ll see the other three novels discussed on my blog.

When a young woman’s body is discovered in a canal outside her apartment Commissioner Van In and his partner Guido first assume it’s a suicide. But after learning she was murdered and had ties to a local satanic cult the two detectives are forced to turn Bruges upside down in search of answers. Just to make things even more complicated, Van In is forced by his superior to let a stunningly attractive journalist tag along, which in turn makes his District Attorney pregnant wife jealous.

The Fourth Figure has all the things you’d want in a European crime novel: picturesque setting, powerful individuals with dark secrets, interagency rivalries and turf wars, plot twists and a world-weary but yet unbroken talented lead investigator. Expertly translated from Flemish, The Fourth Figure reads wonderfully. Like I said at the start, you’ll be seeing more from this series on my blog.

About Time I Read It: The Man Who Went Up in Smoke by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

Back in August I called Peter Høeg’s whodunnit Smilla’s Sense of Snow the grandaddy of Nordic noir/Scandinavian crime because it was published in the early 90s, long before authors like Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbø and Henning Mankell achieved international notoriety. Lo and behold I learned just this week there was a Swedish husband and wife duo writing such novels way back in the 60s. While searching on Overdrive for something set in Hungary for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I came across an available copy of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s 1966 mystery novel The Man Who Went Up in Smoke. Intrigued, a downloaded it to my Kindle and gave it a shot. I’ll admit I wasn’t sure how a 50 year old piece of crime fiction would hold up after all these years but fear not, for The Man Who Went Up in Smoke met, if not exceeded my modest expectations. And now I want to read more from this pioneering Swedish duo.

Published in 1966, our story begins when Stockholm homicide detective Martin Beck is recalled from a well-deserved family vacation on orders from the Foreign Office. A Swedish journalist has gone missing while on assignment in Budapest and government officials are desperate to find out why as quickly and quietly as possible, fearing he’s either defected or has met some untimely end. (One official fears they might have another Raoul Wallenberg on their hands since he also vanished in Hungary without a trace.) Admitting he doesn’t speak a word of Hungarian (neither does anyone else on the force his superiors point out) he can nevertheless liaise with the local police in German and English, both of which he speaks. Once in Budapest Inspector Beck begins retracing the missing journalist’s steps looking for clues in hopes of solving the mystery of his disappearance.

I was struck while reading The Man Who Went Up in Smoke just how the authors depicted the Hungarian authorities as reasonable and sympathetic characters, even though the country was a Communist dictatorship when the novel was published in 1966. (At one point when Beck visits a Budapest police station he remarks to himself how much it looks like his own back in Stockholm.) For a crime novel written 25 years before the Fall of Communism and set mostly behind the Iron Curtain I found it surprisingly apolitical and wondered if this had anything to do with Sweden’s long history of political neutrality. On the other hand, maybe its the authors’ opinion that no matter our political differences, we all have to deal with a world plagued by criminals.

2019 In Review: My Favorite Fiction

Now that I’ve posted my favorite nonfiction of 2019 it’s time to announce this year’s favorite fiction. Of course, it doesn’t matter when these books were published. All that matters is they’re excellent.

 

The bad news is I didn’t read a lot of fiction this year. As a result, there’s only six books on my list. The good news is I read some great stuff. So, in no specific order of preference here’s my favorite fiction from 2019.

  1. GI Confidential by Martin Limón
  2. The Swede by Robert Karjel
  3. Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg
  4. The Prince’s Boy by Paul Bailey
  5. Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier
  6. Abyssinian Proof by Jenny White

As for declaring an overall winner, it wasn’t easy since all six are fantastic. In the end,  Smilla’s Sense of Snow edged out Remarkable Creatures my favorite. As high as my expectations were for Smilla’s Sense of Snow I was not disappointed.

Typical of me and my reading tastes, all six novels on this list are set outside the USA. Also typical for me, four are historical in nature, ranging from the 19th century to the early 1970s. Lastly, four of these novels could be classified at crime drama and/or mystery. Could I be developing a taste for crime and mystery novels? Perhaps only time will tell.

GI Confidential by Martin Limón

After a heavy diet of nonfiction it was time for something lighter. With no clear idea where to start I decided to explore the New Books shelf at my public library. It was here I came across a copy of Martin Limón’s 2019 historical mystery/police procedural GI Confidential. Flipping through Limón’s novel it looked to be both light and entertaining . Once I saw it’s set in South Korea in the early 70s I simply had to read it. But why you might ask?

As I’ve gotten older I’ve become fascinated with the politics of the 1970s, both domestic and international. It was a decade when American and Soviet leaders sought to achieve a degree of peaceful coexistence between the USA  and USSR, even though both nations and their respective allies were locked in a bitter rivalry. As a result, just about every armed conflict and international rivalry around the world from Southeast Asia to Latin America to Africa was seen as another manifestation of the struggle between East and West. Perhaps nowhere in the world better exemplified this global standoff than the Korean peninsula, a land divided by two sworn enemies forever on the brink of war.

Back when I was a kid, whenever South Korea was in the news it was never good. From the assignation of President Park Chung-hee, to a young American soldier’s defection to North Korea to two American Army officers killed by North Korean troops while pruning a tree in the DMZ I kinda got the impression growing up the country was an awful place. Looking back, this was probably made worse thanks to the unflattering depiction of Korea on the TV show M*A*S*H.

But even sour memories can make one nostalgic, or at least curious enough to engage the ghosts of the past with the courage, intelligence and wisdom of a learned adult. No better place to start then with GI Confidential.

Previously unbeknownst to me GI Confidential is the 14th book in the Sergeants Sueño and Bascom series set in South Korea. In this latest installment, Criminal Investigation Department (CID) officers George Sueño and Ernie Bascom find themselves investigating a string of bank robberies perpetrated by a gang of American servicemen. As they race to identify and apprehend the robbers they discover they’re being shadowed by Katie Byrd Worthington, an aggressive yet talented reporter for the Overseas Observer, an investigative tabloid reviled by America’s military brass. If having to capture a gang of American bank robbers was tough enough, before long Sueño and Ernie are tasked with investigating rumors of an American General involved in sex trafficking dangerously close to the DMZ – who by the way might also be losing his mind.

Fast-paced with sharp dialog, cleaver and entertaining as hell, I totally lucked out with GI Confidential. With 13 more books in this series, I can almost guarantee you’ll see more of them featured on my blog.