Reviews of M.C. Beaton, R.J. Elroy and more…

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THE SILENT OLIGARCH

By Christopher Morgan Jones

New York: Penguin Press, 2012. $25.95

At the heart of The Silent Oligarch, a political thriller and the debut novel from Christopher Morgan Jones, lies Russia and its people—a country no longer powerful and a population still powerless. The author’s experience working in Russia for a corporate investigations firm lends credibility to his insights into the government and the few nameless men who manipulate people through fear while pretending that democracy is the rule. Noteworthy is how Jones portrays the Russian people—shaped by their circumstances to be contradictory.

Richard Lock is the front man for a Russian oil czar. But Lock’s loyalty—which in fact is his complacency—begins to flag when challenged by a lawsuit, his ex-wife, and the murder of the man who previously held his position. He wants to quit and return to England and his family but, as his name indicates, he is locked in as “the richest foreign investor in Russia” with “no plausible account of how he had come by any of it.”

Intrigue and tension build as Benedict Webster, special investigator for the plaintiff, identifies Lock as the key to demolishing the Russian energy oligarch. Webster works for Ikartu Consulting, a prosperous group of lawyers and investigators. He is a perceptive man with a conscience, able to respect the indomitable spirit within people while accepting their frailty—and yet he is an anti-hero, a man of action who flails and quakes within the situations he causes.

Christopher Morgan Jones gives the reader an insider’s tour of the power places: Monte Carlo, Cannes, Turkey, London, and Berlin. The author’s love for Russia and his insider’s view of business and politics make for an exciting read. The Silent Oligarch exposes the ruthless, their methods, and the effects they have both on a personal and societal level.

—Patricia Cook

TOWN IN A WILD MOOSE CHASE

By B.B. Haywood

New York: Berkley Prime Crime, 2012. $7.99

B.B. Haywood’s third Candy Holliday novel, Town In a Wild Moose Chase, is a cozy mystery filled with the pleasantries of a small picturesque, coastal village—Cape Willington, Maine. As the village prepares for its eleventh Winter Moose Festival, an unidentified body with an axe in its back, a white moose, and a vanished hermit all serve to change the mood of the festivities. In addition, the townsfolk learn that an ice-sculpting contest may put Cape Wellington on the map and stimulate their economy, but is that something they really want?

Candy Holliday is a reporter for the community paper and lives on Blueberry Acres with her father, Doc, an amateur local historian. Candy is duly convinced that an evil, vengeful genius has orchestrated the five murders that have taken place in the last two years, numbered in this and the two previous books in this series. A visit to the Psychic Sisters enhances this premonition when they tell her that “the darkness is attracted to you.” White moose sightings, wild “goose” chases, and a historic family feud lead to the killer, but not necessarily to the mastermind. Town in a Wild Moose Chase is a quick, enticing read with a slight edge—not enough to horrify but enough to titillate imaginations.

—Patricia Cook

AS THE PIG TURNS

By M. C. Beaton

New York: Minotaur, 2011. $24.99

In her twenty-second outing, M. C. Beaton’s unforgettably incorrigible and usually unflappable heroine, former ad executive-turned-private detective Agatha Raisin, finds herself the prime suspect in the grisly homicide of a Cotswold village policeman. Subdued after hip replacement surgery, and regretting her interference in the love life of her young assistant Toni Gilmour, Agatha stumbles upon the tattooed oil-basted torso of the murdered policeman as it is turning on the barbecue spit of Winter Parva’s festive fundraising “village thingie” pig roast.

Agatha is charmingly supported by her usual deftly sketched supporting cast: the vicar’s sensible wife Mrs. Bloxby; Agatha’s chintzy admirer Sir Charles Fraith; Detective Sergeant Bill Wong, who tries and often fails to protect Agatha from herself; and her neighbor and former husband James, with whom Agatha has promised herself never to become obsessed again.

In this latest installment of the series, Beaton has succeeded in further developing Agatha’s personality—she’s grown from amusing two-dimensional shrewhood to convincing multidimensional (if acerbic) maturity. At one end she threatens an insulting policeman with roasting “slowly over a spit in hell” and at the other she’s shedding tears when, lonely and dispirited, she discovers her cats care for her after all. As the Pig Turns may not rule the roast, but as usual M. C. Beaton’s imagination has gone hog wild.

—Mitzi M. Brunsdale

BAD SIGNS

By R. J. Ellory

London: Orion Books, 2011. $19.95

R. J. Ellory’s latest novel is a departure from his previous works. Although it takes place in the shadows of contemporary America, as do his previous books, Bad Signs reveals Ellory at his most disturbing. Reminiscent of the amoral nihilism of Jim Thompson’s early works, the novel is a shotgun wound to the face. Readers will find many of the images Ellory evokes hard to erase from their mind’s eye.

Set in 1960s rural America, Bad Signs follows the trail of orphaned half-brothers “Digger and Clay” (a.k.a. Elliott Danziger and Clarence Luckman) and chronicles what happens when they cross paths with former murderer and current psychopath Earl Sheridan, who drags them on a series of violent misadventures through California, Arizona and Texas. Sheridan’s presence alters the brothers’ relationship and forces them to face the darkness of their origins. While Digger embraces the madness, Clay fights against the shadows that Sheridan brings into their lives. There is philosophical debate in the story as to whether genetics, fate, or nurture, or a combination of the three, have made the brothers choose their divergent paths, but one thing is certain: the malevolent presence of Sheridan has played a part.

This is R. J. Ellory’s ninth published novel and he seems to be getting better with each one. It’s the sharp dialogue between Digger and Clay that propels this dark tale to its cathartic conclusion. And contrasting the violent imagery, Ellory creates a sense of pathos in his characters and peppers the novel with dark humor, all of which provides insight into the darker side of human nature. Readers won’t forget the two boys, nor the journey that was their undoing, and certainly not the grinning face of Earl Sheridan.

—Ali Karim

THE BETRAYAL OF TRUST

By Susan Hill

New York: Overlook Press, 2011. $25.95

Susan Hill is a master storyteller. Her 1983 ghost story, The Woman in Black, is arguably the most frightening ever written—with Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House a hot contender for this title. It is not surprising then that Hill’s crime novels comprising the Simon Serrailler series—The Various Haunts of Men, The Pure in Heart, The Risk of Darkness, The Vows of Silence, Shadows in the Streets, and The Betrayal of Trust—are engaging and often gripping reads. There are shades of Inspector Morse and possibly a touch of Midsomer in these books, as the fictional cathedral town of Lafferton where the stories are set becomes a hotbed of serial murders, deranged abductions, and terrorist threats.

The Betrayal of Trust is the sixth book in the series and opens with the discovery of human bones after an embankment collapses during a flood. The bones are the remains of a teenager who disappeared sixteen years prior and the cold case lands on Simon Serrailler’s desk. In the meantime, a woman is struggling with her much-loved partner’s dementia, while Serrailler’s love interest, Rachel, is married to an older, sick man.

Serrailler has often been a contradictory character. He is a senior police officer, a successful artist, and irresistible to women, but he is also emotionally illiterate and cannot disengage from his family. These contradictions have not always been blended successfully, yet he has become a more rounded character as the series has progressed. In Betrayal of Trust, however, there is something of a betrayal of trust. Here we find Serrailler becoming involved in a romance that drifts dangerously close to Mills & Boon territory, which is inconsistent with the Serrailler readers know from previous books. Characters should evolve throughout the life of a series, but readers expect some kind of rationale behind that change, and in this book, none is given.

Hill’s narrative touch also wobbles a bit in this book. For example, her exploration of the issues around euthanasia and assisted dying seems forced at times, presenting an almost entirely one-sided view of cynical doctors, profit-driven European clinics, and sinister “hangers-on.” There is also some inconsistency in the behavior of the characters, as when Serrailler’s response after the book’s dénouement belies the context of what has gone before.

That said, the book is thought provoking and at times disturbing. The other narrative strands pick up and explore the issues of terminal illness, old age, and incurable disease. Despite its flaws, The Betrayal of Trust is eminently readable. No less would be expected from a writer of Hill’s caliber. The seventh Serrailler book, The Sound of Footsteps, will be published in October 2012.

—Danuta Reah

BLACK DIAMOND

By Martin Walker

New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. $24.95

Martin Walker’s fictional village of St. Denis in Dordogne Province of southwest France is a simple place to live, smelling of vineyards and truffles and sheltering caves of primitive art. Bruno Courrèges, the town policeman, lives among the village characters—indigenous, returning citizens, and newcomers (foreign and domestic) seeking quiet, sustainable lives. “He sniffed the cold night air, saw the very first light of dawn, and he knew that he loved these woods and his home and St. Denis and never wanted to leave them.” The author’s sentiments parallel the affections Louise Penny’s detective, Armand Gamache, professes for Three Pines, a fictional village south of Montreal. And in both otherwise tranquil places, the human element from within and without eventually brings crime and often murder.

It is nearing Christmas when Black Diamond begins. France in general and St. Denis in particular are coping with friction between a large number of Vietnamese residents and an increasing number of illegal Chinese immigrants. With the recent fire bombing of various small businesses, terror and counter-terror are reaching extremes. Then Hercule Vendrot, an elderly war veteran of the Algerian Revolution (1954-1962) and participant in the early French/American conflicts in Vietnam, is tortured and killed. Vendrot was a respected truffles grower to whom Bruno was apprentice, learning the ins and outs of growing the most expensive fungus and its epitome—the Black Diamond.



Martin Walker is a well-known international journalist, economic adviser, and writer. This fourth novel in the Bruno series reveals where Walker’s heart lies and his hopes for twenty-first century communities. Bruno is a refreshing old-fashioned hero willing to put his own life in peril for others and to right injustices. Highly recommended. -Patricia Cook