Fiction Review

“Angels Flight” by Michael Connelly

Connelly, Michael. Angels Flight (1999)  
Little, Brown, 393 pages, $25.00 hardcover  
ISBN 0 316 15219 6

Howard Elias, an attorney well known around the LAPD for bringing charges of police brutality, is found murdered in Angels Flight, a small two-car train that travels up and down a hill in Los Angeles. The murder investigation falls to Harry Bosch, even though Angels Flight is not located in his normal beat, because Elias was due to start a trial the following week against some of the regular detectives on this beat. 

Dead with Elias in the Angels Flight car is Catalina Perez. “He [Bosch] studied Catalina Perez the way someone might study a sculpture in a museum. There was no feeling for the object in front of him as human. He was studying details, gaining impressions” (33). However, this picture of the cold, unfeeling detective contrasts with the other, the personal, Bosch, who must continue the murder investigation against the backdrop of the dissolution of his marriage.

© 2001 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“The Black Echo” by Michael Connelly

Connelly, Michael. The Black Echo (1992)  
St. Martin’s, 412 pages, $7.50 paperback  
ISBN 0 312 95048 9

Harry Bosch of the LAPD, newly demoted to Hollywood detectives after 10 years in RHD—Robbery Homicide Division—catches what looks like a routine homicide. Soon, though, Bosch realizes that the corpse is Billy Meadows, whom Bosch had known 20 years earlier in Vietnam. Meadows and Bosch had both been “tunnel rats,” scouts who went down into the tunnels that connected villages throughout Vietnam:

Out of the blue and into the black. That’s what he said going on a tunnel mission was. We called it the black echo. It was like going to hell. You’re down there and you could smell your own fear. It was like you were dead when you were down there (174).

There was no name for it, so we made up a name. It was the darkness, the damp emptiness you’d feel when you were down there alone in those tunnels. It was like you were in a place where you felt dead and buried in the dark. But you were alive. And you were scared. Your own breath kind of echoed in the darkness, loud enough to give you away. Or so you thought. I don’t know. It’s hard to explain. Just . . . the black echo (324).

In trying to discover why Meadows was murdered, Bosch has to go back down into the hole, where he once again hears the black echo.

The Black Echo, which won the Edgar Award for best first novel, is based in part on a real robbery that took place in Los Angeles in 1987. Although complex, the plot never seems convoluted. This is a first-rate thriller in which Connelly combines a superb plot and a dynamic character.

© 2001 by Mary Daniels Brown

List Year's Best

The Best Books I Read in 2000

Listed alphabetically by author

Gibbons, Kaye. A Virtuous Woman

Hamilton, Jane. The Short History of a Prince

Hegi, Ursula. Stones from the River

James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw

Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird

McEwan, Ian. Enduring Love: A Novel

Percy, Walker. The Moviegoer

Pipher, Mary. Reviving Ophelia

Shreve, Anita. The Weight of Water

Stansberry, Domenic. The Last Days of Il Duce

Honorable Mention

Berne, Suzanne. A Crime in the Neighborhood

Golden, Arthur. Memoirs of a Geisha

King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

McCourt, Frank. ‘Tis

Turow, Scott. Personal Injuries

Fiction Review

“The Run” by Stuart Woods

Woods, Stuart. The Run (2000)  
HarperCollins, 352 pages, $26.00 hardcover 
ISBN 0 06 019187 2

Just in time for the U.S. Presidential election comes The Run, a political thriller about a U.S. Senator’s campaign for the Presidency.  Fortunately, the candidate is not Stone Barrington, but William Henry Lee, IV, of Georgia. A descendant of the first police chief of Delano, Georgia, whom we meet in Chiefs, Will Lee has appeared earlier in Run Before the Wind and Grassroots.

Senator Lee plans to run for the Presidency in eight years, after the current Vice-President has his two terms as leader. But circumstances force Lee into the running much earlier than he had anticipated. Woods paints a picture of political maneuvering that reinforces all of our suspicions about how these things are done, although Senator Lee manages to stay above the slime. 

But if the corrupt behind-the-scenes politicos can’t bring Lee down, a fanatical militia member from Idaho just might do the job for them. This plot complication apparently was too complicated for Woods because he provides a climax that is too abrupt and unconvincing. This ending detracts from what is otherwise a plausible thriller. 

© 2000 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“Worst Fears Realized” by Stuart Woods

Woods, Stuart. Worst Fears Realized (1999)  
HarperCollins, 332 pages, $25.00 hard cover  
ISBN 0 06 019182 1

Stone Barrington is up to his usual activities. At the beginning of Worst Fears Realized, he picks up Susan Bean, a female attorney who was the assistant prosecutor on a recent high-profile case. Susan and Stone go back to her apartment, then order Chinese take-out food. Stone goes to pick up the food, and by page 11 he has returned to find Susan in a pool of blood in her kitchen, her throat slit.

Within another 10 pages Stone has identified the body of his long-time secretary. She had stayed late at Stone’s home office to work on some documents the night before and was apparently hit over the head and killed on her way home. 

Two deaths so close together could be a coincidence. But Stone thinks not when he and his former NYPD partner, Dino Bacchetti, watch from a window in Stone’s house as his neighbor—who happens to enjoy vacuuming in the nude—has her throat slit by an intruder. (This murder occurs on pages 28-29, so I’m not giving much of the story away here.)

Ex-cop Stone Barrington fears he’s now living every police officer’s worst nightmare. As his buddy Dino puts it, “The idea that somebody you’ve busted and sent up will come back to haunt you, to get even. I think that, after getting killed in the line of duty, it’s every cop’s worst fear” (26-27).

Dino’s seductive sister-in-law, Dolce, provides the usual Stone Barrington plot complications as Stone and Dino work to identify the vengeful killer. These novels are becoming standard fare for Woods, and he’s becoming increasingly more formulaic as he continues to crank them out.

© 2000 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“Hard Time” by Sara Paretsky

Paretsky, Sara. Hard Time (1999).  Delacorte, 385 pages, $24.95 hardcover  ISBN 0 385 31363

Whatever demons were haunting Sara Paretsky, she seems to have exorcised them in Ghost Country, for Hard Time brings back V.I. Warshawski in the author’s best novel yet.

When Global Entertainment, a media conglomerate, purchases the Chicago Herald-Star, V.I. Warshawski’s long-time friend, former reporter Murray Ryerson, becomes host of a television show on Global’s network. Driving home from a grand party celebrating Ryerson’s TV debut, V.I. almost runs over a woman lying in the street.

Never one to let go of a question, V.I. determines to find out who the woman was and why she was lying in that street at that time. Her search for answers to her questions takes her from inside the world of corporate glamour, power, and wealth to behind the bars of a women’s prison. As usual, V.I. worries over the fate of the marginal and dispossessed members of society. Fans of V.I. Warshawski won’t be disappointed in her latest appearance.

© 2000 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“Ghost Country” by Sara Paretsky

Paretsky, Sara. Ghost Country (1998)  
Delacorte, 386 pages, $24.95 hardcover 
ISBN 0 385 29933 8

I was very glad when Sara Paretsky finally proved wrong my fear (after reading Windy City Blues) that she might never publish again with the appearance of Ghost Country. Then I read the novel.  

Ghost Country starts off promisingly enough, as a story about homelessness in the city (Chicago) and the conflict between homeless people and the corporation that owns the hotel outside of which the homeless want to congregate.  The homeless, the dispossessed, the conflict between the haves and the have-nots—all of this is familiar ground to Paretsky in her V.I. Warshawski novels.

But before long Ghost Country veers away from social realism—far, far away. Two of the major characters are Harriet Stonds and her half-sister, Mara Stonds. Both orphans, the girls have been raised by their grandfather, the powerful and egotistical Dr. Abraham Stonds. Harriet, a successful lawyer, has always been the perfect child, doing exactly as she was told and expected to do; she has blond hair and white skin. Her sister Mara, in contrast, has dark, unruly hair, dark skin, and a hot temper; she’s rebellious and a constant source of trouble to her grandfather. 

As the book continues the distinction between the two women—one light, the other dark—becomes nearly allegorical although inverted, with Harriet as the Ice Maiden and Mara as a life force. Further, their grandfather, Dr. Stonds, emerges as the traditional allegorical picture of evil, while his helpmate, the housekeeper Mrs. Ephers, comes to resemble Mrs. Danvers, the devoted yet demented housekeeper in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.

Then Paretsky introduces a new character, Starr: “The woman was a horrible specimen. Her hair was piled in a massive pompadour that looked like snakes, but Harriet was more revolted by her breasts. The newcomer was naked from the waist up, and her breasts looked so enormous, Harriet had the fantasy that they were reaching across the sidewalk to suffocate her” (p. 186). And here’s the reaction of Hector Tammuz, an emergency room doctor and sympathetic character, when he sees Starr:

Naked from the waist up until one of the orderlies found an old T shirt for her. Her breasts were large and golden, like ripe gourds, the nipples glowing cherries. Even after Millie Regier, the psychiatric charge nurse, managed to cover them—a struggle, since the woman’s hair was piled high with heavily waxed curls that looked like horns; she was tall, too, so that Millie, panting and heaving, maneuvering long bronze arms into sleeves, stretching to pull over curls and braids, the woman not resisting, but not helping, staring around at the attendants, the machinery, Tammuz himself—even after those dugs, which looked as though they might suckle the whole world, were covered, Tammuz found his gaze returning to the woman’s bosom, looking past the red cotton [T shirt] (p. 189).

It’s evident that Paretsky is pushing Starr toward some symbolic or mythical significance, although exactly what the character signifies is unclear. Even Mara, Starr’s companion and champion, can’t explain her:

Why do you have to label her? It’s enough that she was here. She healed me, she healed Hector and dozens of other people. She saved my life, and Luisa’s too. Does it matter whether she did something supernatural or not? You looked into her eyes, and you saw yourself, just as you were. For some people that reflection was too horrible to endure. . . . But if you could stand your own reflection, you discovered you could like yourself (p. 377).

The book ends without satisfactorily establishing the purpose of this Earth Mother figure. Mara seems to have benefited from Starr’s presence, which is more than can be said for the reader. The best thing about Ghost Country is this reassurance that Paretsky offers in the prefatory note:  “For those worried about V.I. Warshawski, the detective has been on strike, but we are currently in mediation and should resume work together soon.”

© 2000 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“Windy City Blues” by Sara Paretsky

Paretsky, Sara. Windy City Blues (1995)

When Windy City Blues, a collection of V.I. Warshawski short stories, came out, Sara Paretsky was in the midst of a prolonged and well publicized writing slump. After I read this book, my heart sank. I feared that we might never see another Paretsky book again.

I imagined this scenario: Paretsky’s agent and/or editor said, “Sara, it’s been a while since you published a book. We need to get your name back out in front of the public. What do you have for us?”

Having completed very little of her current work in progress, Paretsky reached into the bottom drawer of her file cabinet and drew out a stack of earlier stories. In the introduction to this book Paretsky tells us she wrote these pieces when she needed to work through an idea that didn’t require a complete novel. In the “Author’s Note” she says, “These stories were written over a period of thirteen years, beginning with ‘The Takamoku Joseki’ (1982) and ending with ‘Grace Notes’ (1995), created especially for this collection.”

These stories were cobbled together into the volume published as Windy City Blues. With the exception of the addition of the new story, “Grace Notes,” nothing was done to the material to give it any kind of continuity. It looks very much as if Paretsky was desperate to publish something—anything—with her name on it.

In the Introduction to this volume Paretsky says, “The eye with which I see Chicago is always half cocked for alienation and despair, because for me the city is a dangerous place where both states are only just below the surface” (p. 2). Unfortunately, the short story form doesn’t allow the author to explore these conditions. Whereas the V.I. Warshawski novels often do probe such issues, there’s no such meaty content in the stories that make up Windy City Blues.

© 2000 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee

Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)  
rpt. Warner, 1982, 281 pages, $6.99 paperback
ISBN 0-446-31078-6

Highly Recommended

Cover: To Kill a Mockingbird

The story takes place in rural Maycomb, Alabama, between the summer of 1933 and Halloween of 1935. In Part One the young narrator, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, sets the stage for the main action by introducing us to life in her small town, where the farmers have been hit hard by the Depression. We meet Scout’s brother, Jem; her father, lawyer Atticus Finch, whom the children address by his first name; and the family’s black cook, Calpurnia. We also meet Dill, a boy who spends summers with his aunt, the Finches’ next-door neighbor. Scout is almost six years old when the story begins, her brother almost 10.

The novel employs a first-person narrator. This narrator is not the young child telling the story as it happens, but rather an adult remembering events of her childhood. This technique allows the older narrator to present herself whenever necessary to supply information that the child narrator could not have known at the time or to comment on the action.

Scout, Jem, and Dill spend most of their first two summers together devising elaborate schemes to lure their neighbor, Boo Radley, out of his spooky house.

Part Two presents the central action of the novel, the trial of Tom Robinson, in summer, 1935. Bob Ewell, a shiftless and dishonest alcoholic whose family lives in a run-down old shack behind the garbage dump, accuses Tom Robinson, a black man, of raping his daughter Mayella. The town judge has assigned Atticus to defend Tom. Despite Atticus’s upstanding reputation, his neighbors have been hurling offensive remarks about him at his children because of his efforts to defend a black man.

The night before the trial Scout, Jem, and Dill watch Atticus confront a lynch mob in front of the town jail, where Tom Robinson is being held. The cowardly mob disperses when the three children appear and Scout begins talking to one of the men she knows.

After the jury delivers the verdict that everyone knows is a foregone conclusion, Bob Ewell, who feels that Atticus humiliated him on the witness stand, vows to get even. In the story’s dramatic climax, Jem and Scout are attacked on their way home from a Halloween pageant at the school. They are saved by the appearance of a man who carries the unconscious Jem home.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a double coming-of-age story involving both Jem and, to a lesser degree, Scout. In a way the novel is also a coming-of-age story about southern culture as it takes its first small step toward emerging from its racist past. 

© 2000 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“O” is for Outlaw by Sue Grafton

Grafton, Sue. “O” is for Outlaw (1999)  
Henry Holt and Company, 318 pages, $26.00 hardcover  
ISBN 0 8050 5955 5

In an introductory note Grafton explains to the reader that Kinsey Millhone time progresses at a slower pace than real time: “Since the books are sequential, Ms. Millhone is caught up in a time warp and is currently living and working in the year 1986, without access to cell phones, the Internet, or other high-tech equipment used by modern-day private investigators. She relies on persistence, imagination, and ingenuity: the stock-in-trade of the traditional gumshoe throughout hard-boiled history.” At least in terms of high-tech hardware Kinsey differs from her counterpart V.I. Warshawski, who, in her latest adventure, totes around a cell phone and a Palm Pilot, and uses a desktop computer connected to the Internet to dig up information with the help of electronic databases.

In “O” is for Outlaw Kinsey revisits her past when long-forgotten personal items surface from a storage locker previously rented by Kinsey’s first husband, Mickey Magruder. Kinsey married Mickey, a cop, when she was 19 or 20 and still a student at the police academy. The marriage didn’t last long: she filed for divorce when Mickey wanted her to lie to provide him with an alibi in an investigation that finally got him expelled from the police force. She would have divorced him eventually anyway, though, once she found out about his drinking and womanizing.

When Kinsey learns that Mickey has been shot by an unknown gunman and is comatose, she decides to find out what brought him to that fate. Her investigation involves looking into her own past as well as into Mickey’s. Along the way she finds that she may have been too quick to judge Mickey, too quick to walk away. 

When she’s finally unraveled the mystery, she returns to the dying Mickey’s bedside: 

After the rapture of love comes the wreckage, at least in my experience. I thought of all the things he’d taught me, the things we’d been to each other during that brief marriage. My life was the richer for his having been part of it. Whatever his flaws, whatever his failings, his redemption was something he’d earned in the end. (p. 318)

This is a kinder, gentler Kinsey than we’ve seen before. By providing such character nuances, Sue Grafton keeps fresh this continuing series.

© 2000 by Mary Daniels Brown