Fiction Review

“A Drink Before the War” by Dennis Lehane

Lehane, Dennis. A Drink Before the War (1994)  
HarperCollins, 277 pages, $6.99 mass market paperback  
ISBN 0 380 72623 8     

Sometimes it pays to start reading a series at the beginning. And sometimes it doesn’t. After discovering Dennis Lehane in Gone, Baby, Gone, I decided to get to know Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro from their introduction.

A Drink Before the War introduces first-person narrator Patrick Kenzie and his PI partner Angie. Both grew up in Dorchester, a working-class section of Boston, where they still live and work. And both are tough, able to negotiate the political and social realities of their workplace and to give as good as they get.

The problem with this book is that Lehane has Patrick indulge in frequent outbursts about various social injustices, for example:

There is a war going on. It’s happening in playgrounds, not health clubs. It’s fought on cement, not lawns. It’s fought with pipes and bottles, and lately, automatic weapons. And as long as it doesn’t push through the heavy oak doors where they fight with prep school educations and filibusters and two-martini lunches, it will never actually exist.

South Central L.A. could burn for a decade, and most people wouldn’t smell the smoke unless the flames reached Rodeo Drive. (p. 108)

Fortunately, in Gone, Baby, Gone Lehane demonstrates that he has matured as a writer. By the time of this later novel he has learned how to let his story carry the message instead of resorting to his lead character’s tirades to make the point. This later Patrick better embodies the noir tradition Lehane’s best work represents.

© 2002 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“Gone for Good” by Harlan Coben

Coben, Harlan. Gone for Good (2002)  
Delacorte, 341 pages, $23.95 hardcover
ISBN 0-385-33558-X

While looking over his mother’s belongings just after her death from cancer, Will Klein discovers a photograph that indicates his brother, Ken, may still be alive. Eleven years earlier Will’s former girlfriend and neighbor, Julie Miller, was murdered in their suburban New Jersey hometown. A lot of Ken’s blood was found at the murder scene, and Ken hasn’t been seen since. Was Ken another victim, taken somewhere else and murdered that night? Or was Ken himself the murderer who fled, injured, from the scene and has been in hiding ever since?

While Will is suffering from his mother’s death and the shock of realizing that Ken may be alive somewhere, his live-in girlfriend, Sheila Rogers, disappears. And just like that FBI agents appear at Will’s door demanding that he tell them the whereabouts of Sheila Rogers, whose fingerprints were found at a murder scene in Nebraska a few days earlier.

The description of Gone for Good sounds a lot like the story line of Tell No One (all of this material is given in the first few pages of each book, so I’m not giving anything away here):

Tell No One

  1. The main character’s wife, thought murdered 8 years earlier, may be alive.
  2. The first-person narrator, David Beck, is a physician in an inner-city children’s clinic in New York City.
  3. Beck’s beloved wife—his true love, his best friend since age 7—is murdered.
  4. The police have always suspected Beck in his wife’s murder.
  5. One of the minor characters is a really bad guy who enjoys torturing people before killing them.

Gone for Good

  1. The main character’s brother, who either was killed or disappeared 11 years earlier, may be alive.
  2. The first-person narrator, Will Klein, is director of a shelter for runaway children in New York City.
  3. Klein’s girlfriend—his true love, his soul mate—disappears.
  4. The police have always suspected Klein in the murder of his former girlfriend and probable murder of his brother.
  5. One of the minor characters is a really bad guy who enjoys torturing people before killing them.

Despite all these similarities, though, there’s one big difference between Gone for Good and Tell No One: Coben’s latest novel hangs together, without any gaping plot holes. Admirers of the Myron Bolitar novels will be pleased to know that Coben has once again regained his skill at writing take-your-breath-away thrillers.

Oh wait, there’s one more similarity between this novel and the previous one: don’t start reading Gone for Good in the evening unless you’re prepared to stay up all night.

© 2002 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“Tell No One” by Harlan Coben

Coben, Harlan. Tell No One (2001) 
Delacorte, 339 pages, $22.95 hardcover 
ISBN 0-385-33555


Spoiler Alert!

This review gives away plot details that may spoil the reading experience for you. Proceed at your own peril!

You’ll get a second warning below.

“Don’t start this book at bedtime,” several people told me. “I stayed up all night reading it.”

Indeed, Tell No One is a page turner. The book opens with David Beck and his young wife making their annual pilgrimage to David’s family’s secluded lake property to carve a notch on a special tree on the anniversary of their first kiss. Once they arrive in the woods, David is knocked on the head. The last thing he remembers as he’s passing out is Elizabeth’s screams.

Fast forward eight years. Beck is now a pediatrician in an inner-city health clinic. Elizabeth, we soon learn, was killed that night by the lake. Her body, found a few days later, carried the signature marking of a serial killer known as KillRoy. KillRoy, later convicted of another murder, is now on Death Row. Beck, having never gotten over the loss of his wife, has poured himself into his work.

And then Beck receives an e-mail that suggests Elizabeth might be alive. Further developments bring the police to Beck’s door, since Beck had originally been the prime suspect in Elizabeth’s death despite the lack of any evidence pointing to his guilt. The gripping plot combined with an array of colorful secondary characters keep this book moving rapidly along.

It’s only after you’ve finished the book and know the whole story that you think, “Wait a minute . . . .” After you know the whole story, you realize that the book contains at least three gaping holes, two of which would require Beck, the first-person narrator, to have acted totally out of character.

My mystery book group read this, and everyone agreed: It’s compelling while you’re reading it, but afterwards you can see its flaws. Don’t let that stop you from reading it if you’re in the mood for a good thriller, though. Just don’t start it at bedtime.

Final Warning!


Stop here if you haven’t yet read this book and don’t want to know how it ends!

My TBR shelf: nonfiction
My TBR shelf: nonfiction

There are several plot holes in the story of Tell No One that only become evident after you’ve finished reading the novel:

At the end of the book, we learn that a Vietnam-era draft evader pulled Beck from the lake, carried him to the cabin, and called for help. But early in the book we learn that no one has used the cabin on the family property for years. It’s unlikely that anyone would have been paying the bills to keep a phone working in a cabin that no one ever uses. (The fact that a Vietnam war resistor has been living in the woods all these years also stretches credulity, but we’ll let that one pass.)

Beck says that he had decided to tell Elizabeth about his killing of Scope on the night they went to the woods, but she was abducted before he got around to telling her. Now from the beginning Beck has told us that he and Elizabeth were soul mates, best friends since childhood. The first thing Beck would have done was tell Elizabeth what had happened. It never would have occurred to him NOT to tell her. He wouldn’t have to think about whether he should or shouldn’t tell her.

Beck knew that Elizabeth worked with Scope. When Scope came into the apartment that night, Beck must have figured Scope had come for Elizabeth. Even after killing Scope, Beck would have wanted to tell Elizabeth what had happened so that he could find out why Scope had come looking for her.

When the police confront Beck with the photos of the battered Elizabeth found in the safe deposit box, Beck is clueless. But, knowing that Scope had come after Elizabeth, he’d have to figure that Scope must be the person who had beaten Elizabeth up. It makes sense that Beck wouldn’t want to tell the police about this. However, the author has done nothing to indicate to the reader that Beck is an unreliable narrator . So Coben isn’t playing fairly with us when he lets Beck plead complete ignorance.

Beck says that after killing Scope he went out for a walk while deciding whether to call the police. But Beck is such a straight arrow that the first thing he would have done after killing Scope was call the police and report what had happened. It never would have occurred to him NOT to call the cops; he wouldn’t have had to think about that possibility at all.

© 2002 by Mary Daniels Brown

Author News Fiction

Harlan Coben: Introductory Notes

Harlan Coben was born in Newark, NJ, in 1962 and grew up in Livingston, NJ. He continues to live in NJ with his wife, a pediatrician, and their four children. He graduated from Amherst College with a major in political science.

Coben is the first author to win all three of mystery’s most prestigious awards: the Edgar Award, the Anthony Award, and the Shamus Award. His books have repeatedly been nominated for awards and have consistently appeared on best seller lists.

For a lot more about Harlan Coben, including Netflix and foreign productions of some of his works, see his web site

Study Notes

For some insight into Harlan Coben’s writing process, see these related posts:

Harlan Coben in St. Louis: Part I  

Harlan Coben in St. Louis: Part II

Fiction Review

“Blood Work” by Michael Connelly

Connelly, Michael. Blood Work (1998).  Little Brown, 391 pages, $23.95 hardcover   ISBN 0 316 15399 0     

Taking a break from LAPD detective Harry Bosch, Michael Connelly introduces a new character, former FBI agent Terry McCaleb. We first meet McCaleb two months after his heart transplant surgery, living in a Los Angeles marina on a boat, inherited from his father, that’s he’s refurbishing. When a woman, Graciela Rivers, comes to ask him to look into the murder of her sister, Gloria Torres, because the police don’t seem to be investigating the case very diligently, McCaleb politely declines. But Graciela is persistent, and when McCaleb continues to demur, she plays her trump card: she tells McCaleb that he has Gloria’s heart.

Now that the case is personal, McCaleb reluctantly agrees to look into it, although he expects to find that the police are doing the best they can and to leave it at that. But when he looks, he notices things that the police apparently didn’t notice, and soon he finds two more unsolved murders that might be related to Gloria’s. So McCaleb persists, until he finds out that the case is even more personal than either Graciela or he could have imagined.

In the acknowledgments at the end of the novel, Connelly says that the story “was inspired by conversations with my friend Terry Hansen, who received a heart transplant on Valentine’s Day 1993.” The movie version of Blood Work, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, came out in 2002.

© 2002 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“The Concrete Blonde” by Michael Connelly

Connelly, Michael. The Concrete Blonde (1994).   St. Martin’s, 397 pages, $5.99 mass market paperback.   ISBN 0 312 95500 6     

Four years earlier, during the hunt for the serial killer known as the Dollmaker, LAPD homicide detective Harry Bosch had followed a lead to a small apartment, where he confronted and killed Norman Church. The contents of the apartment linked Church to nine of the eleven murders under investigation, and he was identified as the Dollmaker. Bosch was credited with catching the Dollmaker, although, because he had not followed proper procedure by going into the apartment alone, he was demoted with a transfer from the elite robbery and homicide division to Hollywood homicide.

The Concrete Blonde opens four years after the death of Norman Church. Church’s widow is suing Bosch and the Los Angeles Police Department in civil court for the use of excessive force in the death of her husband. On the opening day of Bosch’s trial, the police department receives a note – similar to the notes the Dollmaker used to leave – directing them to a body under the floor of a burned-out building. Investigators find the corpse of a blonde woman entombed in the concrete and, by making casts of her fingerprints and face, are able to identify her. But this woman disappeared only two years earlier – in other words, two years after Bosch supposedly killed the Dollmaker. Could Bosch have killed the wrong man? Or did the Dollmaker have an accomplice who is now taking over? Or could there be a copycat killer at work? Whoever killed the blonde in the concrete had intimate knowledge of the investigation, including knowledge of some information that was never released to the public.

Because Bosch has to be in court all day, he cannot participate fully in the investigation of the murder of the concrete blonde. But he works on the case every day after court, feeling a personal stake in the outcome. But every case is personal for Bosch; as he watches his partner, Jerry Edgar, at work, Bosch thinks, “He never seemed to understand that the homicide squad wasn’t a job. It was a mission. As surely as murder was an art for some who committed it, homicide investigation was an art for those on the mission. And it chose you, you didn’t choose it” (pp. 43-44). Trying to find the relationship between this new case and the Dollmaker murders, Bosch examines the list of the Dollmaker’s victims: “Reading the names and the dates of the deaths. Looking at the faces. All of them lost angels in the city of night” (p. 152).

Connelly continues the characterization of Bosch as intensely driven and intensely private. To ground himself in reality, Bosch takes comfort in the baseball statistics published in the paper:  “He somehow found the columns of numbers and percentages comforting. They were clear and concise, an absolute order in a disordered world. Having knowledge of who had hit the most home runs for the Dodgers made him feel that he was still connected in some way to the city, and to his life (p. 7).”

Concrete Blonde takes place about a year after the events in The Black Ice. Bosch and Sylvia Moore, widow of Cal Moore, whose death Bosch investigated in that novel, have been dating for that long. But Sylvia, concerned that Bosch is unable to reveal much of himself to her, is unsure about continuing the relationship. The civil trial and the concrete blonde investigation raise both personal and professional issues that Bosch will have to learn to deal with.

© 2002 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“The Black Ice” by Michael Connelly

Connelly, Michael. The Black Ice (1993). 
St. Martin’s, 368 pages, $6.99 mass market paperback  
ISBN 0 312 95281 3

It’s Christmas Day, and L.A. homicide detective Harry Bosch is on call. When he hears a broadcast for a homicide on the police scanner, he wonders why he, the on-call detective, hasn’t been notified. Bosch soon learns that the apparent victim is another police detective, Calexico Moore, whom Bosch knew slightly and who has been missing for several days. Bosch also soon learns that he’s purposely being squeezed out of the investigation loop – a big mistake on the part of his superiors.

Harry’s boss should know that telling Harry not to investigate a case is the surest way to get Harry involved. Moore’s beat was illegal drugs, and Harry has just been handed the investigation into the death of a suspected drug dealer. Deciding that there’s a possible link between the drug dealer’s death and Cal Moore’s, Harry begins looking into the Moore case as well.

To investigate Cal Moore’s death, Bosch must analyze the other man’s life. In many ways Moore’s childhood paralleled Bosch’s own. The deeper Bosch penetrates into Moore’s history, the more he also has to confront his own past. Bosch’s mother, a prostitute, “had once told him he was the namesake of an artist whose work she admired. She said the painter’s five hundred year old paintings were apt portraits of present L.A., a nightmarish landscape of predators and victims” (p. 212).

Throughout the Bosch series Michael Connelly brings this “nightmarish landscape of predators and victims” to life. What makes this series so effective is the sense that all of this matters deeply, that every murder case Harry confronts tilts the universe slightly on its axis. Solving the case may provide some justice, but it can never completely undo the damage. It’s as if each murder tilts the universe two degrees off center, but each resolution can only correct the situation by one degree. 

Attempting to set the universe back aright is a personal mission for Harry Bosch, and he’ll do whatever he thinks the job requires. This is why the LAPD brass don’t want Bosch involved in cases – like Cal Moore’s death – that they want to keep quiet. As Assistantt Chief Irving tells Harry, “You don’t play for the team. You play for yourself” (p. 360). Given the two-steps-backward-for-every-one-step-forward nature of Bosch’s mission, readers of Connelly’s series have to wonder how long Bosch can keep at it before the job breaks him.

© 2002 by Mary Daniels Brown

List Year's Best

The Best Books I Read in 2001

Listed alphabetically by author

Bragg, Rick. All Over But the Shoutin’

Haruf, Kent. Plainsong

Irving, John. The World According to Garp

Lethem, Jonathan. Motherless Brooklyn

Liss, David. A Conspiracy of Paper

Oates, Joyce Carol. Blonde

Oates, Joyce Carol. We Were the Mulvaneys

Schwarz, Christina. Drowning Ruth

Shreve, Anita. Strange Fits of Passion

Vreeland, Susan. Girl in Hyacinth Blue

Honorable Mention

Chevalier, Tracy. Girl with a Pearl Earring

Dubus III, Andre. House of Sand and Fog

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God

Fiction Review

“The Echo” by Minette Walters

Walters, Minette. The Echo (1997)  
Penguin Putnam, 351 pages, $6.99 paperback 
ISBN 0 515 12256 4

When a homeless man known as Billy Blake dies of malnutrition in the garage of an expensive home in London, police are unable to discover anything about the man’s true identity. Several months later journalist Michael Deacon is sent by his editor to interview the wealthy widow in whose garage Billy chose to die. As Deacon digs deeper, he finds echoes of both his own life and the widow’s life in the story of Billy Blake. Like Walters’s earlier novels, The Echo illustrates that appearances can be deceiving if people are unwilling to look below the surface.

I found this novel to be much less compelling than the earlier ones. The plot is way too convoluted and contrived, and the relationships between the characters and the truths the novel reveals are too tenuous to be convincing.

© 2001 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“The Scold’s Bridle” by Minette Walters

Walters, Minette. The Scold’s Bridle (1994)  
St. Martin’s, 365 pages, $5.99  paperback  
ISBN 0 312 95612 6


Nobody is very concerned when the body of Mathilda Gillespie, a venomous old woman, is discovered in her bathtub. Mathilda apparently has committed suicide by slitting her wrists while wearing her scold’s bridle, an ancient iron instrument that fit around the head and into the mouth to immobilize the tongue and therefore bridle the speech of a scold—a nagging, cantankerous woman. Mathilda used the scold’s bridle, which had been in her family for generations, as a room decoration.

But an inquest determines that Mathilda’s death was murder, not suicide. Both Matilda’s daughter, the strikingly beautiful Joanna, and Joanna’s daughter, Ruth, are suspects; the three generations of women apparently hated each other and argued constantly. But when Mathilda’s will is read, the prime suspect becomes the old woman’s physician, Dr. Sarah Blakeney, to whom Mathilda leaves her entire estate. The only way that Blakeney, who had known Mathilda for only a year, can prove her innocence is by discovering who the real murderer is.

© 2001 by Mary Daniels Brown