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Book Review 40: The Reckoning by Jane Casey

22 Oct
*I received this book for free as part of a Goodreads giveaway*
I’ve been sitting on this book for over a year. I received it in May 2012 and didn’t get around to reading it until July 2013. The premise is interesting. There’s a serial killer operating in an Irish town, but he’s only killing pedophiles and suspected pedophiles.  Maeve is the detective assigned to the case and she has a fierce sense of justice.
The book is kind of asking the question that Dexter asks.  If a serial killer is killing victims who society abhors, do we care? Is it still a crime? Maeve thinks it is, but her colleagues disagree. I’m in the Maeve camp. Just because someone is targeting “undesirable” victims, doesn’t make it less of a crime.
There are sufficient twists and turns, including a mafia connection. It was mildly entertaining, but there was a distracting plot about Maeve’s personal life that was simply not compelling.  Continue reading

Book Review 7: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

5 Feb
The cover of the 1994 novel

The cover of the 1994 novel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Perusing CannonballRead while in a book rut, I saw faintingviolet’s review of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and couldn’t believe I’d never read it. It’s right up my alley – salacious gossip, Southern setting, murder mystery, small town style drama unfolding in the middle of an almost unbelievable set of trials.

Part I of the novel introduces the reader to the city of Savannah. Savannah is a character of its own in the book, and the city surpasses the sum of its very quirky inhabitants. You meet Joe Odom, a broke ex-lawyer running some kind of trashy piano bar salon where ever he’s currently squatting. And Lady Chablis, the gorgeous transvestite who tricks the author into being her chauffeur  And of course Jim Williams, he of the antiques and fabulous, prestigious part fame.

Part II is what happens after the murder. The most fun part of this book is that it’s not a whodunit, it’s a whydunit. We know Jim Williams pulled the trigger.  Self defense or cold blooded murder? This is not the typical crime novel trope with the angelic, innocent victim who was clearly wronged.  This is real life; murder is messy; Williams’s victim Hansford was a male hustler with a violent temper. It depends on what evidence you believe. It depends on who you’re friends with in the town. It depends on who you like the best. Continue reading

Book Review 6: Homicide: A Year of Killing on the Streets by David Simon

5 Feb

Before David Simon was writing and producing the Wire, the show frequently described as the great American novel of television, he was writing Edgar Award winning actual novels like Homicide.  In 1987, Simon  took a leave of absence from the Baltimore Sun to shadow and write about the Baltimore Police Department’s homicide division during 1988.  For reference, in 2011, the homicide rate came in at 196, the first time in three decades Baltimore’s homicide rate came in at under 200.

1988 was relatively early in the rise of Baltimore’s homicide rate.  And Simon, without even being aware of it, shows you how the BPD began to sag under the growing weight of the number of murders and how the detectives grew cynical. Because these  increasing murders were basically unsolvable, occurring in neighborhoods with no witnesses at all, where were citizens rightfully skeptical of the police, where no evidence was left.  The detectives solve just enough murders that they still incredibly hold on to a handful of hope, but the

There is not neat wrap up of the outstanding plot lines at the end of Homicide. The most politically intriguing murder and the most gruesome, devastating murder remain unsolved. And you feel the pain of the detectives at the fact those murders are still on the board, waiting. You feel the remorse seeping from the pages, you think back on the mistakes that were made by detectives, lab techs, filing clerks, and so forth, and you know that crime will probably be left unsolved. You feel the  adrenaline when an anonymous tip comes in months after the crime or a new piece of evidence seems certain to lead to a suspect. It doesn’t. The detectives catch just enough breaks to hold on hope. But they also watch the cases that they eat, sleep and breathe go unsolved enough that hope seems…imaginary.

Aside from how engrossed I was, this novel had two of the best passages on crime I’ve ever read and if I ever in my post-law school career teach a class on criminal law (unlikely) they will be included.  The first passage contrasts the legal provisions giving police officer’s discretion to shoot and kill a suspect they believe will cause them harm, with the shockingly (to me) minimal gun training police officers received at the time.  The second is ten pages of straight dialogue between hypothetical detectives and hypothetical suspects that show just how meaningful the supposed legal victory of the Miranda rights really was in the 1980s (and probably today).  A third passage on the autopsy process, and how the detective and medical examiner work together, was also particularly fascinating.

If you like the Wire, if you like mysteries, if you like thrillers, if you like true crime novels or if you have ever watched an episode of CSI or Law and Order and mildly enjoyed it – you will enjoy this book.

*Homicide  spawned the similarly named groundbreaking television show.  Simons joined the Homicide writing staff for four seasons. Ultimately, Simons partnered with former BPD detective Ed Burns to write another true crime novel The Corner, which HBO turned into a miniseries.

And then HBO gave them the chance to create The Wire, and the rest was history.

Book Review 5: The Ice Princess by Camilla Lackberg

31 Jan

I’m embarking on what I like to call a “crime spree” and I’m taking another tour through the crime/mystery realm of books. In the next few posts, in addition to this Swedish crime novel, I’ll be reading a fictionalized account of a true crime story, a journalist’s account of crime in Baltimore over the course of a year, and an Elmore Leonard novel (he’s his own genre by now,  I think, based on how prolific he is).

So, up first was The Ice Princess by Camilla Lackberg which had great reviews but I overall found lacking. Erica Falck, a writer, ends up investigating the death of her childhood friend who’s an ice princess in all senses of the word (dies in a frozen bathtub, is cold and emotionally withholding).  There are a decent number of twists and turns, but I felt that the red herrings were a little too obvious so by the end, you knew what was up.

Also, I can’t really say anymore in detail without giving everything away, but there was a plot point that irritated me because it was almost medically infeasible. Aside from that, I think my main problem with the book was that there was minimal character development, they felt like sketches of real people.  For me, what distinguishes the Dragon Tattoo series or Tana French novels is how real, and honest, and unique the characters feel. You get a real sense for what the characters will do next, and why, and it makes it feel meaningful.

While this book was a reasonably compelling mystery, it was missing that…spark that makes me want to read more of an author’s novels.

Book Review 2: The Street Lawyer by John Grisham

11 Jan

Oddly enough (for a law student) I don’t read a lot of legal fiction. This is probably the second John Grisham book I’ve ever read, and I can’t remember the last book before Defending Jacob that I read that was a legal/suspense type book.  The set up of The Street Lawyer is fairly simple: a homeless man takes a group of lawyers hostage, one of those lawyer’s has a life change and moves from his corporate law firm to working as a homeless advocate, and a battle between the lawyer and his former firm ensues.

I won’t give any spoilers away, but it follows what I believe is a standard Grisham plot line. The most interesting part of the book was the detail regarding just how disenfranchised homeless people are in America.  It was really striking, and prompted me to do a fairly substantial amount of reading on the internet about just how bad it is and the most effective ways to help. Popular, paper back suspense novels are not usually delivering such a powerful message about how we treat the people on the margins of our society. Obviously, much of the information in this book is used to drive the plot, but the social issues raised made this book far more interesting  to me than your average legal thriller.

Book Review #62: Gods of Gotham by Lindsay Faye

21 Sep

This is the best mystery I’ve read this year. Set in New York City in 1845, Timothy Wilde and his unpredictable but highly political brother Val find themselves among the first police officers in NYC. One of the last major cities to form and fund a police force, the cities residents aren’t necessarily fond of the new “copper stars.”

What is the role of the police in our society? Something I’ve always taken for granted is that cops do two things: they prevent crime, and they solve crimes after they happen. In this historical fiction novel, in the early days of the police force, they had to spend their extremely limited resources on preventing crime. Protagonist Timothy Wilde proves himself far more adept at solving crimes.

During his first patrol, Timothy encounters a young girl covered in blood, and takes her home to secure her safety. This little girl, Bird, was a child prostitute working in the city who leads Timothy to a graveyard filled with the bodies of 19 children, almost surely other child prostitutes, with giant crosses cut in their midsection. Timothy finds himself trying to untangle the mystery, making enemies of politically powerful madams, his own brother, and trying to navigate the complicated religious politics (Catholic v. Protestant) of the time.  Continue reading

Book Review #55: The Gunslinger by Stephen King

4 Sep

It seems amazing to me that I’ve made it this far in my life without reading Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, but here we are. I am beginning the journey and it’s awesome so far. I can’t seem to find the second book on reserve in the library, but once I locate it, I plan on reviewing the following 6 novels in a row.

In Book I, we meet the key players. There’s Roland, the gunslinger, who’s chasing the Man in Black across the world, hoping to capture him and force him to take him to the Dark Tower. Roland is sort of a cowboy figure – solitary, quick to draw and passionate about the few women he’s loved. But he’s also surprisingly nostalgic, and the flashbacks throughout the novel really help you get a sense of his motivations. Too often in fantasy character development is sacrificed for advancing the plot, and I really enjoyed the glimpses into Roland’s past. Continue reading

Book Review #56: The Boy Under the Table by Nicole Trope

4 Sep

This is the third book I read during “trapped in Lima 2012” and I hated it. It was the reading equivalent of a Lifetime movie. But at least Lifetime movies are kind of campy and if you watch them while drinking wine with your friends the can be hilarious. This book was not hilarious, it was dark and depressing and just felt false.

This is one of those books that tells the intersecting stories of a few characters. Tina, a prostitute, finds a young boy chained under the table when visiting a john one night. She returns later that night to free the boy, and kills his captor. Sarah and Doug, the boys parents, had lost him at a county fair.  It turns out the boy’s captor killed numerous children before him, and Tina saved him in the nick of time. Continue reading

Book Review #53: Ghost Story by Jim Butcher

4 Sep

I’ve been meaning to read the Dresden Files for ages. These are the things I love most in books: series, mysteries, supernatural elements, private detectives and police officers. The Dresden Files hits everything on my list. Normally, I would start with the first book in the series. But this was on sale at Target, and I’ve heard the first book or two are hard to get to.

Harry Dresden is a crime solving wizard living in Chicago. In this book, he finds himself dead. And back to his old life, in ghost form, trying to solve the mystery of his murder among things. His life is significantly more complicated now that he’s a ghost – his old wizarding tricks are not so easy anymore. He has to relearn how to use his powers, and learn how to live and survive as a ghost.

Harry is exactly how I like my detectives. He’s snarky, he breaks the rules (both wizarding rules, and the law) and he seems like he’d be a fun guy to hang out with. The mystery side of this book got a little complicated, particularly because I had no background on all of the super natural beings Butcher had introduced in earlier novels.

I also think I would’ve gotten more out of this particular novel if I’d read some of the prior books. Ghost Harry spent a lot of time reflecting on his life, and what had gone wrong (and right), which would have meant more and probably been more enjoyable with some context.

Overall, I was neutral towards the book but I’m interested in reading more. So that’s a win!

Book Review #48: In the Shadow of Gotham by Stefanie Pintoff

30 Aug

The Strand is one of my favorite places in NYC. I went there on a Friday night and bought three books at $5 a piece. I grabbed this historical murder mystery off the shelf because it took place in NYC and also was set during the development of criminal profiling.

Shadow of Gotham‘s lead detective is Simon Ziele, who is working in a small upstate New York town while getting over the tragic death of his fiance. When Sarah Wingate, a female doctorate student in mathematics, is found brutally murdered in her wealthy aunt’s home,Ziele is dragged back to New York to solve her murder.

Criminal profiling is a major part of this book. Ziele works with Alistair Sinclair, who has been conducting research on criminals, and criminal rehabilitation, to track down one of Sinclair’s former research subjects suspected of murdering Wingate. The validity of the research, the special favors Sinclair calls in to make his research possible, and Sinclair’s odd assortment of staffers are almost more interesting than the murder itself.  Continue reading

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