The Ethical Assassin–David Liss

the Ethical AssassinI probably wouldn’t have said it without the beer, but I’d had the beer. 

“Okay, fine. Meat is murder.  But you know what else is murder?  Wait, let me think.  Oh, yeah.  I remember now: Murder.  Murder is murder.  That’s right.  Killing a couple of people who are minding their own business.  Breaking into their home and shooting them in the head.  That’s murder too, I think.  The Smiths have an album about that?”

Source: Bought copy

Publisher: Ballantine Books

Publication Date: March, 2006

Lemuel Altick is just a kid, selling encyclopedias door to door in the trailer park township of Meadowbrook Grove, a charming accumulation of worn down trailers permeated with the musk of the local pig farm waste lagoon.  He’s good at it, a natural seller, and the profit he makes from this travelling summer job (Champion Encyclopedias!) should just about cover tuition for college in the fall.  So, when he manages to charm his way into one last trailer before knocking off for the day, he’s ecstatic.  Between the disinterested palooka by unlikely name of “Bastard” and his gullible “wife” Karen, it’s an easy score for a talented salesman like Lem.  And so it goes—the pitch is made—the cheque is written, and Lem is on his way to a $1200 commission. Everything’s clockwork, right up until the moment a spikey haired blonde assassin in black jeans and a button down shirt bursts in on them and shoots his almost clients in the head.  Lem’s commission, and possibly his life, are now forfeit.

Luckily for him, this particular assassin has a peculiar code of ethics, not so much the “no women, no children” of Leon Montana (The Professional), but rather one in which he will not kill those he considers innocent.  However, his definition of “innocent” is the peculiar part.  So, Lem is offered a deal.  His silence, coupled with his fingerprints on the murder weapon—just in case—and things will be cool.  Unknown to either Lem or the assassin, things are most definitely not “cool”, as Bastard and Karen are much more than the uneducated hicks they seemed pre-mortem.  Add a corrupt cop, a wannabe pedophile, a low-level mobster, a meth operation, and most importantly, $40 000 in missing cash to the mix and you have the bizarre ride that is The Ethical Assassin.

I first saw a copy of The Ethical Assassin in a store window while walking down Queen St. West in Toronto, way back in 2006.  What caught my attention were the title and the question that popped to mind.  Is it possible to be ethical when one’s chosen profession is the killing of others?  After all, murder is not exactly what the masses would call an “ethical” profession.  Sure, there are reasons to kill: self-defense, the “politics by other means” known as war, maybe even (if you’re pro-death sentence) execution as punishment for one’s crimes. Melford Kean, the titular “Ethical Assassin” kills not for money, or revenge, but due to a deep rooted—and decidedly odd—sense of morality.

Kean is not so much an ethical assassin as he is an ideological one.  Charming on the surface, yet more empathetic to the animal kingdom than his fellow Homo sapiens, Melford has an uncanny ability to argue his position, making an intriguing portrait of a zealot.   Mired in the idea of moral relativism, what seems/is amoral to Lem, Melford accepts as the price to be paid for his activism by other means.  Without giving out too much detail as to why Melford does what he does, let’s just say it’s not about the money or the drugs but more about his profound sense of egalitarianism of species.

It becomes obvious during the course of the novel that Lem, while terrified of Melford’s predilection towards extreme violence, is also somewhat taken in by his charming nature, and while not exactly becoming friends, they share a relationship that borders on it.  And that’s the thing about Melford—he’s a zealot, and a persuasive one.  Lem is smart enough not to be taken in by his ideology, but their time together and some of his subsequent choices show that he’s definitely influenced by Melford’s arguments, even if only on a subconscious level.

As for Lem, he’s a charming portrait of a boy in the wrong place at the wrong time.  An earnest and upstanding kid, simply trying to make the best of the bad deal he’s been dealt in life, he spends the novel trying to extricate himself from a situation not of his making while not getting killed in the  process.  There’s some irony in the fact that he doesn’t really have to worry about Melford—ethically Lem is in the clear—but his perceived association to the crime by those seeking revenge, and the $40K in drug money.  His problems are also compounded by Melford’s desire to look out for him, all the while proselytizing about his system of ethics while trying to sort out the situation in a way that keeps Lem from harm.

While Lem and Melford are the focus of David Liss’ novel, the villains of the story are interesting in their own right.  The relationship between B.B. and Desiré, meth kingpin/pedophile wannabe and his sexy former addict/consigliere, a truly vile corrupt cop by the name of Joe Doe and a former mafia heavy by the unlikely name of Kenny Rogers (hence the nickname “the gambler) demonstrates an odd alliance of interesting characters.  B.B. seems an unlikely kingpin, more concerned with “advancing” the moral character of young men, while Desiré finds herself questioning her allegiance to a man who may have saved her from the gutter but is on a downward spiral into behavior she can’t countenance.  Doe is a delusional character who thinks he’s the smartest man in the room while continually proving he’s not, and the Gambler is actually somewhat sympathetic.  He’s got Lou Gehrig’s disease, and while his chosen profession is suspect, it’s the only way a former mob heavy can pay his mounting medical costs.  Brought together in opposition to the partnership that is Lem and Melford, they all discover that the ethical assassin is not someone to be trifled with.

There are times when The Ethical Assassin feels like social activism parading as fiction, yet it’s so well written that the author can be forgiven for injecting his particular world view.  David Liss has been interviewed on several occasions regarding the animal rights message of the novel and is very adamant that he’s not suggesting direct action, claiming that the character of Melford is written so outrageously as to make this obvious.  However, there are times in the novel where his claim falls short and it devolves into a lecture on the evils of both the commercial farming of animals and the demerits of choosing to be a carnivore.  I’ll take his word on that (re: direct action) but reserve the right to question his sincerity as to whether or not he’s lecturing the reader.  It’s a narrow path to follow, creating such a charming and persuasive character while still showing the flaws of their argument.  It’s also hard to review without delving into the controversial subject.

Having said that, The Ethical Assassin is a charming novel, well written and entertaining, and deserving its place in the pantheon of unusual crime fiction. 

B

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The Last Policeman–Ben H. Winters

policeman_winner-cover_Layout 1“I’m sorry, what did you say you were looking for?”

“I don’t know yet. An investigation’s proper course cannot be mapped in advance.  It follows each piece of information forward to the next one.”

“Oh yeah?”  When the young woman raises her eyebrows, it creates delicate furrows on her forehead.  “It sounds like you’re quoting from a textbook or something.”

Detective Henry Palace has a whole host of problems.  He’s got a moon bat sister whose equally ditzy husband is missing.  His fellow detectives no longer seem to be taking their jobs seriously.  He’s got a dead body hung in a McDonald’s washroom that everyone from the district attorney to the forensic examiner has determined is a suicide, his protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.  He’s also going to be dead in six months.

When it was finally determined that a 6.5 kilometer asteroid known as 2011GV, a.k.a. “Maia” is definitely going to hit the earth within six months, society fell apart.  Many people quit their jobs to pursue their “bucket lists”; many others chose to end things on their own terms, with pills, a gun, or dangling at the end of a rope.  Still others continued on with their daily lives through force of habit, either pretending nothing was wrong or simply not knowing what else to do.  Henry Palace is one of the lucky ones, in that he’s right where he wants to be.  He’s dreamed of being a detective since childhood, and finally realized it in the months preceding the discovery of Maia.  End of the world or not, Palace is doing what he loves, so when Peter Zell, insurance salesman and purveyor of pretty much the least useful service you could think of in a pre-apocalyptic world, ends up hanging from a belt in a dirty washroom, it looks like an open and shut case of suicide.  At least it does to everyone but Palace.  Something’s just not right, something innocuous, but curious at the same time.  If you’re going to kill yourself—why buy a new belt?

Thus begins Ben H. Winter’s Edgar award-winning, The Last Policeman, a novel which explores what it means to solve crime in a world where it really doesn’t matter.

The Last Policeman is a police procedural in unusual times.  Henry Palace has to deal with both a dysfunctional society and the eroding infrastructure of a fictionalized Concord, New Hampshire which only gets worse as the end nears.  Basic modern technology such as the internet and cell phone service are spotty at best.  Simple forensics such as toxicology reports are hard to come by, and even fueling a departmental car is a daunting proposition.  A man who prefers a life of structure and reason, Palace is stubbornly rule bound and methodical, yet willing to bypass those investigative rules–if necessary–in his dogged pursuit of the truth.  He’s also got a well-honed sense of decency.  Where a meal costs tens of thousands of dollars due to the collapse of the banking system and the resulting hyper-inflation, he still tips well, even though he can’t really afford it.  When he discovers an unsavory aspect to the deceased Peter Zell’s past that might explain suicide as a likely scenario, he doesn’t just bow to popular opinion, and when his sister implores him to find her missing husband, family duty requires he follow-up.

The list of possible suspects is short, but the author provides us with enough theories that the reader isn’t aware of the culprit, or even if there is one, until late in the novel. Was it Zell’s boyhood friend with whom he had a falling out?  Could Zell’s suspiciously disinterested sister or her family have a role in his death?  As an insurance salesman unlikely to pay out policies in the face of the apocalypse, could it be a disgruntled customer?  And what is Zell’s connection with the charming Ms. Naomi Eddes, personal assistant to his boss and first noticed by Palace as she hurriedly walked away from the McDonald’s Zell’s body was found in?

When I started reading The Last Policeman, I expected a maudlin and depressing novel.  After all, he’s writing about the futility of doing your job when you know it’s most likely all going to end within a short period of time.  However, in Henry Palace we find a case study of a man who is, as I said earlier, right where he wants to be.  True, I’m sure he doesn’t want to be facing the apocalypse, but lacking an alternative, he’s making the best of a bad situation and relishes the thought of a mystery he can solve.  Palace obviously has a strong sense of duty, taking his job seriously while others simply go through the motions, but the reader gets the impression that his determination to prove this suicide is not suicide stems not just from duty, but also an unwillingness to accept what he feels in his gut is wrong, and maybe an attempt to resolve demons from his own past. Perhaps in the end, he feels he owes it to history to wrap up the details, and not allow Zell’s death to be misrepresented.

The Last Policeman is written from Palace’s point of view in a style that constantly demonstrates his methodical nature, both dealing with those around him and with his investigation.  It’s also a broader look into dealing with the unthinkable, whether people will rise to the occasion or sink into behavior that at any other time would be unconscionable.  Ben H. Winters deserves much kudos for a thoughtful and intelligent mystery that has garnered him an Edgar award for “Best Paperback Original” of 2013.  It’s also the first in a trilogy of his apocalyptic mysteries featuring Henry Palace.  Winters’ second novel, Countdown City, is out now.

A

The Affinity Bridge–George Mann

The-Affinity-Bridge2“One thing is certain.  There doesn’t appear to be a simple solution to any of this.”  Veronica shrugged, folding her hands on her lap. 

Newbury smiled.  “There rarely is, my dear Miss Hobbes.  There rarely is.”

A few weeks ago, Titan Books offered advanced copies of George Mann’s The Executioner’s Heart for review.  While mine is in the mail, I thought I’d better play a little catch up, starting with The Affinity Bridge, first of the Newbury and Hobbes series of Steampunk mysteries.  Mann’s Steampunk adventures have been on my “intent to read” list for a while now, and this seemed a good opportunity to meet Sir Maurice Newbury and his plucky assistant, Ms. Veronica Hobbes, following their exploits around a reimagined London, where wondrous airships inhabit the skies, deadly revenants plague the streets, and murder is in the air—or at least the back streets of Whitechapel.

The year is 1901, and Victoria is still Queen due to the ministrations of her personal physician, who has artificially extended her lifespan through the wonders of both modern medicine and engineering.  Sir Maurice Newbury is one of her foremost Agents of the Crown.  An academic at the British Museum, dabbler in the Occult, and occasional laudanum addict, Newbury brings his inquisitive mind and deductive ability to any situation the Queen demands.  He also finds himself on loan to Scotland Yard and Chief Inspector Sir Charles Bainbridge from time to time, utilized on cases requiring a unique perspective.  At the moment, Newbury is consulting on The Case of the Glowing Policeman, wherein a series of murders in and around the Whitechapel district has baffled the regular police force.

Naturally, every good detective needs a stalwart companion, and in this case, the honour falls to Newbury’s newly hired assistant, the comely and intelligent Ms. Veronica Hobbes.  She’s not so much an assistant as she is a partner in his investigations—a modern woman determined to make her mark in a world dominated by men.  Her sharp wit and deductive skills compliment Newbury’s own, and her femininity puts those who might otherwise be reluctant to talk at ease.  Manners, after all.  She also has a few secrets that we as readers are privy to, but which Newbury will have to discover on his own.

The Affinity Bridge is no simple murder mystery—glowing policeman notwithstanding—for as an agent of the crown, it is Newbury’s duty to be at the beck and call of his monarch, and when an airship crashes in central London with numerous casualties, that call comes.  Her majesty is concerned, as the airship was piloted by one of Chapman and Villiers astounding automatons, artificial pilots claimed to be foolproof.  Was the accident proof that they aren’t, or was it foul play?  Their investigation will lead them into a diabolical tale of murder and mayhem through the fog ridden streets of London and eventually above, culminating in a flight above those same streets in an out of control airship.  Of course, there is the matter of the Affinity Engine, but since it bears directly on the resolution of several mysteries, you should be allowed to find out about it on your own.

Sir Maurice Newbury is an intriguing character.  Like the iconic Sherlock Holmes, he is a master of observation, yet slave to his appetites.  Whereas Holmes used cocaine recreationally in an attempt to alleviate his boredom between cases, Newbury uses laudanum in an attempt to forget the horrors he has seen, perhaps elicit a breakthrough when stymied by a case, or even to breach the boundaries between reality and the spirit world.  He sees his addiction as a necessary failing, yet propriety keeps him from either seeking help or acknowledging the weakness. Like Mr. Holmes, Newbury has some skill with both his fists or a blade, prerequisites of an agent of the crown, recalling the image of a Victorian Bond.  No word on his license to kill, however.  Newbury is also a dabbler and believer in the Occult, something Holmes was generally incredulous of.

Veronica Hobbes brings her own intrigue to the novel.  Seemingly just a feminine version of Dr. Watson to Newbury’s Holmes, she’s very much as canny as Newbury, and has her own secrets.  Hobbes is much more grounded than Newbury, and takes it upon herself both to protect his image and subtly keep him from harm when the laudanum takes over.  She’s a relatively strong female character, holding her own in a time and place where man’s chauvinism still runs deep.  I suspect as the series progresses, we’ll see Veronica come into her own as both an investigator and possible paramour for the brilliant, yet troubled Newbury. 

One cliché, or rather trope, of the Steampunk genre is the idea of the “Agent of the Crown. ”  Trope/cliché it may be, but it’s a rather fun idea that runs throughout Steampunk culture and honestly, never gets old.  Both Ulysses Quicksilver, of the remarkably wonderfulUlyssesQuicksilver Pax Britannia series by Jonathan Green, and Richard Francis Burton of Mark Hodder’s Adventures of Burton and Swinburne share the title with Sir Francis Newbury.  In fact, Green’s Quicksilver could realistically be described as a descendant of Maurice Newbury, or at least of the Universe which he inhabits, what with his introduction as an agent of Queen Victoria, who has managed to extend her reign through means mechanical and medicinal to the year 1997.   Alas, Ulysses Quicksilver’s story is for another time.

The Affinity Bridge is the first in a quartet of Steampunk novels by George Mann, and if the rest prove as delightful as the first, then I suggest a foray to your local bookstore in search of the adventures of Newbury and Hobbes.  Preferably by Steam Carriage.

A-

Bloggers note–While finishing my own draft of this review, I managed to breeze through Mann’s sophomore Newbury and Hobbes novel, The Osiris Ritual and if anything, it’s better than the first.

The Yard–Alex Grecian

The Yard“Breath through your mouth, Mr Day.  The odor isn’t pleasant.”

Day nodded, panting heavily.

“I suppose it is Mr Little.  But what have they done to him?”

You can see what’s been done.  The question is why has it been done?”

“It’s inhuman.”

“I’m afraid it’s all too human.”

I am not a fan of the “Columbo method of mystery writing.  While it worked well on-screen for Peter Falk, as far as I’m concerned, if you let the reader know the identity of the villain at the top of the story, it’s no longer a mystery, but rather a thriller.  I much prefer a mystery where the reader is given as much chance as possible to discover the culprit before the author gives us the big reveal.  Even Sherlock Holmes, who almost invariably had things solved well before the end of the story,  let the reader follow along without knowing until the last second–whodunit?  So, I expected to be much disappointed with Alex Grecian’s The Yard, a novel where the identity of the culprit is known within the first few chapters.  However, extenuating circumstances turned what could have been a straight out thriller into a nicely rounded mystery.

Scotland Yard

Scotland Yard

First, let us set the scene.  The year is 1889, and it’s been a year since Saucy Jack, a.k.a. Jack the Ripper has haunted the streets of Whitechapel, carving up prostitutes and taunting the good detectives of Scotland Yard to stop his reign of mayhem.  Detective Inspector Walter Day is on his first week of service with the Yard, and catches his first case—the murder of a fellow detective, stabbed and left in a trunk on the platform of one of London’s busiest transit stations. It’s a situation that’s doubly uncomfortable for the newly minted detective, feeling the pressure to both impress his fellow detectives and to solve the murder of one of Scotland Yard’s own. Thrust into a situation that would test the mettle of even a seasoned detective, Day follows the forensics, with the help of Dr. Bernard Kingsley, coroner and advocate of this new field of scientific inquiry.  Has Saucy Jack returned?  Or is there a new madman haunting the streets of London?  Day and Kingsley resolve to find out before the killer strikes again.

Intertwined with Day’s story is that of Constable Neville Hammersmith, obsessed with his own inquiry into the death of a chimney sweep’s assistant, a five year old boy left to die trapped in a flue when he becomes stuck.  Hammersmith is met with derision by the detective assigned to the case, who would rather chalk the enquiry up to “death by misadventure” rather than pursue the chimneysweep who left one of London’s child labourers to die alone in the dark.  Hammersmith refuses to let the matter go, spurred by his own experiences as a child in the coal mines of  Wales and his desire to punish those that would use a child as a tool to be thrown away when broken.  When his own inquiry involves the prominent doctor whose house the dead child was discovered in, a series of events is unleashed that eventually involves Hammersmith in the lives of Day and Inspector Michael Blacker, their work on the murder of Inspector Christian Little, and a third set of murders that Blacker is convinced Little was close to solving when he met his end.

The Yard is split into several narratives, written from the point of view of the various detectives, constable Hammersmith, Doctor Kingsley, and, interspersed throughout the story, the murderer, allowing us as readers some insight into the killer’s motivations.  However, very early on the identity of the murderer is revealed to the reader—we’ll call that the “Columbo Effect”—something that usually ruins the mystery for me as a reader.  I like a mystery to be a mystery, and once you know who the murderer is, as I said earlier—that’s a thriller.  Grecian manages to save the mystery aspect by very deftly intertwining a series of actual mysteries into the narrative, and providing motivation for the villain’s crime from his/her point of view.  It’s very much the Columbo method/effect, but the author manages to make it work.

The Yard is also an intriguing study of the birth of forensics, in the form of Doctor Kingsley.  A medical examiner on retainer to Scotland Yard, he’s obsessed with forensic science and pathology, specifically a new method of identification involving the use of an individual’s fingerprints.  He’s also clearly modeled on Dr. Joseph Bell, or possibly the less known Henry Littlejohn, the former being the template used by Sir Arthur

Joseph Bell

Joseph Bell

Conan Doyle when he created Sherlock Holmes.  Back to Kingsley—he’s also a pioneer in the field of forensic pathology, and when the reader first meets him, he’s elbow deep in an autopsy, with his daughter (and assistant) drawing diagrams of the procedure for future reference.

Alex Grecian also gives a patina of authenticity to this Victorian mystery with the inclusion of many subtle examples of life in Victorian England.  Hammersmith and his roommate, constable Colin Pringle, share a room due to their relative poverty and ration both food and second hand tea (infused with copper to give some semblance of taste) simply to get by.  The author also gives insight into the use of child labour at the time, whether it be as chimney sweep assistants or working in the mines, and demonstrates the obvious lack of social services for the poor or mentally ill.  The climax of the novel takes place round and about one of the many workhouses that dotted London at the time, and provides a look at the squalid conditions of life in Victorian London, juxtaposed with the relative opulence of life amongst the upper crust of society.  Even the murder squad at Scotland Yard is shockingly deficient.  Composed of a small unit within the metropolitan police force, it’s hard to imagine the evolution of such a ragtag bunch of detectives into the cultural and investigative icon of today’s Scotland Yard.

My final analysis—The Yard is more thriller than mystery, but Grecian manages to weave enough of the investigative process into the novel that the reader is able to overlook the premature reveal and end up with a ripping good read.  I look forward to the sequel, The Black Country, out in Hardcover now.BlackCountry

B

 

Alex Grecian maintains a website at alexgrecian.com.

Cadaver In Chief–Steve Hockensmith

Cadaver In Chief

“Hello,” Woods said as she walked to her car.  “Hello.  Hello.  Hello.  Hello.  Hello.”  She said, “Hello” to everyone she passed, and they all said “Hello” to her.  Anyone who didn’t say “Hello” would get looked at pretty hard.  Maybe even shot. 

The end times were hell on shy people.

The end times were also pretty much hell on the newspaper industry.  Already under siege by the rise of on-line media, the zombie apocalypse put the last coffin nail in a dying industry.  After all, if people were taking their lives in their hands every time they left the house for work, they certainly wouldn’t want to venture out in search of a People magazine or their favourite daily.  Besides—all the paperboys were dead.

Jan Woods, reporter for the Washington Tribute, is winding down her last couple of days before retirement, reporting puff pieces on dog grooming that no one is likely to read.  She’s going through the motions: research story…shoot a zombie…write the story…run down a zombie with her car…etc. etc. Just another day in the big city.  However, when that city is Washington, from time to time one must forget about the mindless undead and write about the brainless living.  Send in the politicians!

As it so happens, Jan’s editor has an interesting story for her to pursue. A nasty rumour has surfaced online, “Nasty” being the term used these days to describe the walking dead.  Nasty, as in the President’s been dead for a while, but he’s still walking around, glad-handing and kissing babies (nasty!) and all the assorted duties of the commander in chief.  Or, Cadaver in Chief, if the rumours are true.

Not since Watergate had such a juicy tip fallen into the hands of a Washington reporter, crazy though it sounds.  If the president is really a former president, a “ManChompian” candidate of sorts, then it’s a conspiracy that reaches to the highest level of government, and Jan’s got herself a scoop that could end her career on a high note.  However, if the plot goes as deep as that, Jan’s got a scoop that could end her—permanently.

There is a bit of a snag—the juicy tip comes from one Rick Klinger, on-line conspiracy freak and blogger for Truthbuffet.org, a left wing “political” site akin to the Huffington Post.  Known as a bit of a loon, Klinger (who bears a striking resemblance to the odious Alex Jones—minus the obvious psychopathy) has a source within the Republican administration that claims President Brick Bradley died months earlier during a political fundraiser and the man making the rounds is actually an imposter.  However, Klinger is also a paranoid loon (again, Alex Jones) and won’t divulge his source for Jan to check out. As for her queries to the White House:

“Quote: The President is alive and well and you’re an idiot and don’t call here again. Unquote.”

Jan is nothing if not persistent, and during the course of the next several days investigates the hotel (and morgue) where the president was rumoured to have died. Next thing you know, there’s a parcel in her apartment, containing a dwarf zombie with a huge appetite.  He’s also got an explosive personality.  Maybe there is something to the rumours after all?

From there it’s an action packed adventure through Washington and its surroundings as Jan searches for answers while avoiding the attentions of mysterious government operatives and having conversations in dark parking lots with the likes of, “Debbie Does Dallas”, the “Deep Throat” of this decidedly anti-first amendment administration and their zombie minions.  Luckily, Jan is very pro-second amendment (who wouldn’t be in a world where take out dinner describes what might happen to you?) and has gotten pretty good with that hot pink Uzi she got at 7-11.  The story climaxes with a literal assault on the first amendment as Jan and her coworkers fight for their lives in the offices of the Washington Tribune, and shortly thereafter, a reelection rally that no one would forget—if they survive it.

Cadaver in Chief is a tongue in cheek political mystery that pays homage to movies like The Manchurian Candidate and All the Presidents Men—with zombies.  It’s also a nice little novella.  However, if there’s any problem with this mini-novel, it’s that it could use a little fleshing out.  Steve Hockensmith creates an interesting mystery full of government operatives and smarmy politicians, political apathy and conspiracy nuts (who may not be so nutty) and the type of experiments that might get a scientist branded “mad”,  but ten chapters is barely enough space to scratch the surface.  By the end of the novella, I felt a bit—unsatisfied.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not because the story was lacking, rather that it lacked a bit of story.  Or, to put it another way—this novella screams for a sequel.

As for the main character, Jan Woods may be the stereotypically “plucky” reporter, but she’s also days away from retirement, much like “that cop” in any police procedural, and it’s refreshing to see a character who’s not a young, perky blonde with crazy computer skills and a body to die for.  Nor is she the grizzled Ed Asner type, simply a good reporter who’s become slightly apathetic in an age where no one respects her medium (newsprint) yet still wants to get the truth out there.

Of course, good dialogue is something I’ve always appreciated in a novel, and it’s something Steve Hockensmith excels at.  Granted, in real life not everyone is witty or wittily sarcastic (although they might like to think so), but, as I’ve said before–smart, funny dialogue is a defining feature of his previous novels.

I was a little worried at times that this was simply going to be a put-down of conservative (read that as Republican) politicians, but as time went on, the satiric vitriol came down pretty much equally on both sides of the aisle.  If there’s one thing that crosses party lines, it’s the capacity of politicians to set themselves up for ridicule.

Overall, Cadaver in Chief is a bit of zombie fun that partisans of both liberal and conservative bent can sink their teeth into.

B

(A word of apology to Steve Hockensmith: He was gracious enough to send me a preview copy of Cadaver in Chief back in November and grant me an interview, yet it’s taken until now for me to get a review together.  I’ve no readily available excuse except to claim a bit of “zombie fatigue” which has resulted in the delay.  Steve Hockensmith is a great writer and a good guy, and if you’d like to learn more about his works and process, he maintains a blog at http://www.stevehockensmith.com)

Alex Grecian’s The Yard has my attention

The Yard

Anyone who knows me and my book habits will know that I’m a sucker for anything “Holmesian,” and frankly, anything to do with Scotland Yard has the same effect. I’ve always had a soft spot for the beleaguered Inspector Lestrade and his fellow colleagues, especially those of the Murder Squad.  Imagine my excitement then while browsing at my favourite discount book store and coming across a hardback copy of Alex Grecian’s  The Yard

The Yard chronicles the life of inspector Walter Day, newly inducted into Scotland Yard’s Murder Squad just a year after their failure to apprehend “Saucy Jack”–a.k.a. “Jack the Ripper.”  At a time when morale is down, he has the unfortunate luck to be assigned to solve the case of a body dumped at a local railway station.  The body of a fellow Murder Squad detective.

A Victorian murder mystery involving Scotland Yard solving the murder of one of their own?  Sign me up!

A brief look at Alex Grecian’s website elicited a fair bit of excitement on my part. Firstly, The Yard is intended to be the debut of a larger series.  Secondly, the sequel, The Black Country, is scheduled to be released in hardback on May 21st.  And thirdly–The Yard has its own book trailer:

Review to follow…

Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula–Loren D. Estleman

sherlockdracula

“Who is Count Dracula,” he intoned, frowning.  “As well may you ask me who is Lucifer, for the two have much in common.  Perhaps I should begin by telling you who was Count Dracula, and by this means prepare you for the odds we face in dealing with who he is.”~Abraham Van Helsing.

Over the past few years, Titan Books has published a series of Sherlock Holmes pastiches by various authors placing Sherlock Holmes and his stalwart companion Watson in a series of unique situations.  Many involve the good detective interacting with other famous characters of literary and historical fame such as the fictional Dr. Jekyll or the real life serial killer, Jack the Ripper.  Loren D. Estlemen decided to pit Holmes and Watson against one of the literary greats of the 19th century, a character whose influence on the genre of horror may even eclipse Holmes’ influence on the modern mystery.  Who could provide Holmes an opponent of the same intellectual caliber as Moriarty, and yet add a taste of gothic horror to the milieu?

Dracula—Count Dracula.

Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula may seem an odd addition to the mythos, yet Watson admitted on several occasions that the Sherlock Holmes case files were far from complete–some redacted due to their less than interesting nature, but others—perhaps because they would be unbelievable or distressing to the general public?

Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula (a. k. a. the Adventure of the Sanguinary Count) begins with Dr. John Watson’s admission that he wrote the tale to “set the reader straight” about the events described in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  Watson is somewhat miffed by the exclusion of his and Sherlock’s involvement in the investigation of the wreck of the Demeter and subsequent events leading to the Count’s demise.  Why he stored it away instead of publishing is left to the reader’s imagination.

The novel begins with the arrival of a reporter on Holmes’ doorstep, entreating him to come down to Whitby and investigate the wreck of the Russian clipper Demeter, which sailed into harbor the night before and mysteriously ran aground.  Onboard, coast guard officials discovered the crew missing, save the corpse of the captain, tied to the wheel with a crucifix in his hand.  Upon further examination, the corpse was found to be exsanguinated, bearing two fang marks upon the neck and a look of absolute horror on his face.  Sherlock (and Watson) quickly make their way to Whitby and are allowed to board the wreck.  Once he makes his rounds of the deck and hold, Sherlock discovers clues that suggest to him that each member of the crew was killed in a similar manner and then thrown overboard by a being of extraordinary strength.

At this point the investigation is suddenly halted when officials discover the ship’s log and judge it “obvious” that the first mate was deranged and responsible for the murder of the entire crew.  On the basis of his initial observations–and his own examination of the log–Holmes finds this explanation ludicrous.  Clearly there has been a cover up, but without the chance to further inspect the ship or her cargo, he realizes the adventure of the foreign schooner will most likely be unsolvable.

Flash forward a few weeks and Watson receives an unexpected guest, carrying a copy of the Westminster Gazette and a synopsis of what the paper describes as, “The Hampstead Horror.”  Apparently children have been disappearing only to reappear on the heath, shaken and confused but otherwise unharmed, except for slight injuries to the throat and tales of “The Bloofer Lady, an apparition that lures them into the shadows and steals their memories.  Holmes immediately makes the connection between the adventure of the Whitby Horror (a more apt description of the events of the Demeter) and that of the Bloofer lady and has come to ask Watson for his help resolving both cases.

Once on the heath, it is only a matter of time before they find the Bloofer lady and thwart her from claiming another victim.  After tracking her to her lair–even then Holmes has his suspicions as to what she might be–they come across another group of adventurers. This group is not set upon solving the case, but rather embarking upon what Watson might describe as, “murder most foul!”

And thus it is that the dauntless Sherlock Holmes meets the indomitable Abraham Van Helsing and his band of vampire hunters at the moment they release Lucy Westerna from the pernicious clutches of one Count Dracula, a being as near the devil as can be without taking his crown.  Watson, a man of medical science, takes their explanation ( staking her heart and cutting her head off will break the curse!) with such a grain of salt he almost chokes, and even questions Holmes’ sanity when Sherlock explains that what Van Helsing is saying is the truth.  There is a vampire loose on British soil.

Holmes is in turn surprised when his offer to help hunt down the vampire is rebuffed by Van Helsing and company.  Due to Watson’s writings, apparently Holmes has a certain ‘notoriety’ that the hunters would rather not embrace for fear of panicking the general public.  At this point Holmes decides that if he cannot help Van Helsing, perhaps Mina Harker might feel differently…

…and next thing you know, they’re chasing down locomotives, exploring Dracula’s various crypts and generally thwarting the Count’s  efforts to assimilate into British society.  So much so that Dracula finally decides to flee the country, taking Mrs. Watson along as insurance that the intrepid duo will leave him to his business.  Dracula’s choice of hostage proves ill thought out, galvanizing the detective and his biographer to become a threat rather than a nuisance, culminating in a confrontation on the deck of another clipper some time later.

Having read Fred Saberhagen’s The Holmes-Dracula File a few years ago, I was relieved to find Loren D. Estleman’s take on the odd match up of Sherlock Holmes and Dracula greatly more satisfying.  Lately I’ve been reading the original Sherlock Holmes stories (I know, I know, what was I waiting for?) and was pleasantly surprised to find that during the course of reading Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula, the author managed to capture both the voice and character of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s signature creation.  Estleman’s Watson is very much one Doyle would recognize, and Sherlock is very much true to form, something I would imagine hard to achieve when attempting to emulate the writing style of a master of his genre. After all, Saberhagen was a master in his own right, and his attempt met with much less success.

Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula is also very much Watson’s story, with Sherlock as his main character and Dracula as the man (demon?) behind the curtain, much discussed but rarely seen.  However, on those few occasions, Holmes and Watson only manage to escape with their lives because the Count underestimates their tenacity–and Holmes’ intellect–or is occupied by something else.  Along the way we get a look at Holmes and his process of deductive reasoning, and a fair bit of action, whether hopping a moving train or chasing down a vampire by bloodhound, by carriage, and even steam cutter.

The one complaint I have with this novel is the one that can’t be avoided.  Sherlock’s portion of the story of Count Dracula of necessity has to end before the threat that is Dracula can be resolved, keeping the chronology of Stoker’s novel intact.  Knowing that the villain will not be vanquished by the end of the novel is somewhat unsatisfying, but necessary to the continuity of Stoker’s tale.  However, it leads to a novel which “stops short,” leaving you wanting more.  Luckily, Estleman also wrote Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Holmes, another adventure I plan to pursue in the near future.

Rating: A