Saturday, August 30, 2014

Hardcastle's Actress (Hardcastle Mysteries) by Graham Ison | LibraryThing

Enjoyable audiobook.  Hardcastle, a gruff, often rude, DDI (Divisional Detective Inspector) is sent from Scotland Yard to investigate the murder of a young actress, Victoria Hart, the recently married wife of a Navy Commander. The investigation wanders from husband to theater director to others who might have resented the lovely actress.

WW I in full swing, Victoria Hart, the dead woman, known for her risque outfits and dancing, had tried to help recruitment by offering a kiss to any man willing to sign recruitment papers (otherwise known as a death warrant.) When two recruiting sergeants are also murdered the investigation takes a different shift, focusing instead on looking for someone who might have resented having a loved one recruited leading to his death in France.  The end result is something different, indeed.

Hardcastle is temperamental and often obnoxious sometimes getting results as much through bullying as intelligence with only occasional -- and surprising -- acts of kindness toward his inferiors in rank.

The author, Graham Ison was apparently a Scotland Yard detective for many years.  He has an entire series built around the effects of WW I on the general population and the police.  He’s written close to forty novels.  They contain authentic details of police procedure in the early twentieth century as well has a host of obsolete slang, e.g. “who would know these days the meaning of a ‘fourpenny cannon’?  But in Hardcastle’s day, it was a steak and kidney pie.  And a ‘Piccadilly window’ was a term describing a monocle. “  (From the author’s web page.)

I’ll have my work cut out to read (listen to) all of the Hardcastle series.

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Friday, August 29, 2014

Widowmaker by Drew Martensen | LibraryThing

Riveting, but not for the faint-hearted.  The term “widowmaker” comes from the slang term given to battalions with casualty rates approaching 90 percent. The average was around 50 percent. Definitely not the Marine Corps of John Wayne. Mortensen’s squad has descended to a level of inhumanity that’s difficult to read.  He tries to maintain a level of sanity, but the pressure to become as evil as the rest is overwhelming. “Then, I begin thinking about what I am becoming in this wretched place. Something evil grabbed hold of me today. I feel my spirit of patriotism and belief in just causes slowly slipping away. I have moved a step closer to being a boonie rat in the Nam.”

Arriving in ‘Nam as a grunt Marine, one of the first tasks his platoon engages in is to burn a Vietnamese village. Having just lost three Marines to severe injuries from a makeshift IED (“  Mr. Frankenstein, a trip wire connected to a grenade stuck inside a spool of barbed wire.”) the  leader of the platoon orders his men to tie up three village women and then kicks them over a cliff to their deaths.  The new Marines are horrified and protest, only to be threatened with death themselves :

This ain’t the fuckin’ real world, asshole! Y’all better get your shit together before it’s too fuckin’ late. Now y’all know what payback is.” Dusty stares at me with icy blue eyes. He turns, lights a cigarette, and walks away with Tanner. I’m in shock and very confused. This unconscionable attack against defenseless women can’t be justified under any circumstances. I keep repeating to myself, Why? Cars and I walk silently back to our position along the dike. I am still stunned about what had happened when Killer, Calahan, and a fire-team leader from third squad named Corporal Stafford approach us. I’m thinking, now what? Stafford does the talking. “You guys better learn to keep your mouths shut or something bad might happen to you. What I mean is, when there is one of those crazy firefights, anything could happen.

“I’m really feeling the pressure to become one of the hardcore members of the platoon. Getting my first gook is one thing, but I am expected to move on to more insidious, evil acts. Becoming an animal in the eyes of others is the next step. Now, I will be evaluated on how well I rape or kill in cold blood. It seems I am constantly being pressed to walk the fine line between bravery and blackhearted insanity… This is the Vietnam War I had never envisioned. I had always believed that American fighting men were brave and honorable like John Wayne and Audie Murphy. This war, however, is nothing like the movies. I feel empty, betrayed, and alone in a world of chaos. Nothing makes sense any more.”

Mortensen’s life is saved only by being badly injured during an attack on an NVA stronghold, one that gave the battalion its nickname of “widowmaker” All of his friends but one were killed. His description of the scene is extraordinarily vivid and realistic and equally horrifying. The nightmare continued on the hospital ship where a soldier, reminiscent of the famous scene in Catch-22 where nurses come daily to switch bottles on the soldier in white, has lost all his appendages and screams constantly. “The Marine Corps is supposed to produce heroes—not freaks. Tears fall down his cheeks like a dreary autumn rain. Now he must come to grips with the reality of being a freak, a war leper destined to live in a country where beauty and strength are worshipped. He’s distant, remote, and totally alone. He probably would have been better off dead. As my mind clears, I become aware.”

 Another soldier, his arms and legs shot to pieces, his nose and ears missing and having been tortured by the NVA is lying in the hospital at Bethesda. “Later that afternoon his parents rush onto the unit to be with their dying son. I’m shocked they let them see him in such a hideous condition. From my bed at the end of the ward, I hear his mother let out a blood-curdling scream. She falls to the floor, unconscious. I am so upset I leave the ward and walk around the hospital in disgust. Mercifully, the Marine dies later in the day. He will always remind me of the real horror of war." Mortensen comes to truly appreciate the benefits of pain-killing drugs, a relief that comes back to haunt him when he is discharged back into civilian society and is labeled “baby-killer.”

Having suffered a “dear John” letter earlier, he was fortunate to meet his first wife, Jean, but that relationship became haunted by the specter of Vietnam, also. The final 20% of the book reminded me of “Chickenhawk,” and the problems of psychologically having to deal with the horror of what he experienced.

A disturbing book, and I fear for my son, having already been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, may be yet again.  When are we humans ever going to stop this insanity.

And let’s not forget that those who tell us the highest honor is to die for one's country are those who didn't.

The author has a facebook page ( with pictures of himself at bootcamp and in Vietnam.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Zoo Station by David Downing

David Downing has written a series of novels about an English journalist in Berlin during WW II.  In Zoo Station, the first of the series, John Russell, is in Danzig when he’s approached by a Soviet NKVD agent offering him a lot of money for a series of articles that portrayed Naziism in a positive light.  Russell is an Englishman, a former Communist, who fought in WW I, having married (now estranged) a German woman.  His son, Paul, born in Germany, is a member of the Hitler Youth.

Russell suspects the Russians might be laying the groundwork for a future non-aggression pact. Then the Nazis approve, having their own motivation.  Both sides want him to report whatever he might learn about the other side’s interests.  So Russell is walking a tight-rope as the Russians demand more (no surprise), but Russell uses that for his own ends.

Some reviewers have complained there is no action and that the book is just a litany of Nazi evils with too much journal-like writing.  I disagree.  What Downing has done is to present the horrifying atmosphere and story of a people gradually being subjugated (often quite willingly) by a group of thugs.  At what point are we willing to resist and what motives lead us to participate or push back.   There’s the story of the mother who discovers her retarded daughter has been pegged for euthanasia by the state as part of their ethnic-cleansing and the father who reports his Down-Syndrome children precisely because he wants the child to disappear.  The recurring theme is the failure of ordinary people to resist.

What makes this series (at least this first book that I’ve read in the series) interesting, as with Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther books, is the sense of place, the paranoia and fear of living in a repressive regime, and the difficulties faced by relatively ordinary people during that time of crisis. I’m reading Traitor’s Gate by Michael Ridpath, which has similar themes.

I will be reading the other volumes.

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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Hope to Die (Matthew Scudder Mysteries) by Lawrence Block | LibraryThing

Another classic Scudder novel.  As I’ve noted in other Block reviews, I’ve listened to Block read his own work and there’s a definite cadence to his writing, as unique as Robert Parker’s Spenser novels (but much less intrusive.) So now when I read any of Block’s work, it’s almost as if I’m hearing his voice in my head.  Pleasant but sometimes disconcerting.

Scudder investigates the killing, burglary and rape of the Hollanders.  He’s approached initially by Byrne Hollander’s niece who has suspicions that their daughter, Kristin, was somehow involved. Nothing seems to point in that direction but the discovery of the bodies of the two burglars, dead from an apparent murder/suicide seems a bit too coincidental for Scudder. Good investigation despite the rather thin motivation for the complicated killings.

Something I found a bit discomfiting was the italicized thoughts of the killer, outlining and discussing his actions. I may be wrong, but I don’t remember that kind of interposition in the other Scudder books I’ve read.

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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

False Conception by Stephen Greenleaf

There’s something about a really well-written mystery that makes it a real pleasure to read.  Such is the case with Stephen Greenleaf’s Tanner novels and False Conception is no exception.

Tanner is hired by his friend, Russell, an attorney, to investigate a surrogate.  Seems some very wealthy clients of his, the Colberts, scions of a wealthy fashion empire, who wish to remain completely anonymous, want to implant an embryo in Stuart Colbert’s former secretary (for $100,000).  At least that’s the story.  It gets complicated because Russell must write up a contract without knowing the the law will be regarding surrogate rights and those of the biological parents. Russell needs Tanner to check out the former secretary without her knowledge and especially without her finding out who the the parents are of the  child she will bear.  The parents want to make sure no one will ever find out how the conception was brought to fruition, not realizing they are being manipulated by Stuart’s father.

As is axiomatic in Greenleaf and Ross MacDonald, the investigation turns over piles of corruption, hatred, and incest and once the links are connected hidden motives pop to the fore.

The reader is treated to passages such as this, “Because it was his office, Stuart Colbert looked comfortable and self-possessed and bursting with something to say. From the heat in his eyes and the flush to his face, I guessed it wouldn’t be pleasant. He was wiry and small, with an aesthete’s high forehead, a lizard’s bulbous eyes, and a languid smirk that declared he was master of all he surveyed. He struck me as a cold fish—judgmental, sanctimonious, arrogant, didactic—and a trifle jejune underneath. All to be expected, I suppose, given that his only source of early nourishment had come from a silver spoon. “

Excellent.  Really hard to put this one down.