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Category Archive for 'Mystery, Thriller, Noir'

Erle Stanley Gardner, a man who found his metier early in life, bridged the gap between pulp and literary fiction during the 1940s and 1950s, and THE CASE OF THE CARELESS KITTEN is one of his best. A lawyer for fifteen years, he has said that while he enjoyed litigation and the development of trial strategy, that he was bored by the day-to-day work in the office. He soon began writing stories for pulp magazines, setting as his writing goal over a million words per year, and using some of his cases as inspiration. Beginning in 1933 with his first novel, he eventually developed the Perry Mason series, which, alone, consists of eighty novels. Gardner quickly developed a style which fit his legal experience and interests, and modern readers discovering him for the first time, and older readers who have not read him in years, will be intrigued by the obvious formula which governs his work. In every case, the characters are introduced briefly, and their upcoming roles in the book are quickly established. Gardner is interested in the facts and has no interest in developing personal psychologies or complex motives. He keeps the character list simple and the action moving quickly. Ultimately he creates a puzzle, rather than a plot: Something terrible happens, and the reader is supplied with every piece of information s/he needs, along with a few red herrings, leading to a grand climax in which the evil-doer is revealed as a surprise. The reader’s objective is to figure out the guilty party ahead of the author’s revelation.

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In this complex mystery, Chinese author Zhou Haohui creates main characters who are so surprisingly human that their behavior crosses the usual political, geographical, and cultural boundaries which often limit mysteries from other nations.  Exploring crimes which are among the worst and most vicious behaviors of which man is capable, the author describes two impeccably planned murder sprees attributed to the same criminal mind – that of Eumenides – a name chosen to recall the Furies, the gods of vengeance in Greek mythology.  Eumenides committed his first murders on April 18, 1984, crimes which resulted in several grotesque deaths.  The Chengdu Criminal Police established the 4/18 Task Force at that time to try to deal with these crimes on several levels and within several different police departments, but the crimes stopped before the police concluded their investigations.  Eighteen years later, many of those police officers are still working within the department when the murders begin again.  The police are more experienced now, and they know they are dealing with the same person when his unique modus operandi reappears.  In every case, past and present, Eumenides has sent a Death Notice to his intended victim, detailing the person’s crimes, stating the date of punishment (that day or the next day), and identifying himself as the executioner. The Chengdu Police have a major problem on their hands, and it even affects the police themselves.

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Maurizio de Giovanni’s Commissario Ricciardi’s mysteries, hugely popular in Italy and Europe, are now attracting large numbers of readers from the US and UK. Intriguing, sometimes wryly humorous characters living everyday lives in 1930s Naples, then ruled by Benito Mussolini, provide insights into the period and its fraught atmosphere. For two characters, Commissario Ricciardi and his partner Brigadier Rafaele Maione, “every day life” consists of police work, often dangerous, as they investigate murders and try to stay on the good side of some of their politically connected superiors. One characteristic of de Giovanni’s novels which has made them especially popular is that a group of appealing characters repeats throughout the series, and their personal stories and personalities continue to develop in succeeding narratives. The action starts with a love story in which fifteen-year-old Cettina and seventeen-year-old Vincenzo Sannino fall desperately in love, though World War II is looming and Vincenzo is not able to support Cettina adequately. His only hope is to take his chances in America, hoping that he can find a job and earn enough money to return to Naples as a success. He does not return for sixteen years. Cettina has changed since then.

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Marseilles, unlike many other noir settings, has always had a large number of culturally diverse populations within the city, each with its own special characteristics, values, and relationships with the French people, the police, and the political establishment. The cultural variety comes into play in this novel, TOTAL CHAOS, involving French criminals, Italian criminals who have moved to Marseilles, Algerian immigrants who believe they have been driven to crime for economic reasons, and other criminal elements who cross international borders with their influence. As a result, this noir novel feels broader, darker, and more challenging than most other noir novels. Main character Fabio Montale, who grew up in an under-populated seaside area outside of Marseilles, has chosen, ultimately, to avoid the life of an outsider by becoming a Marseilles police detective, a job he has held for twenty years. When Fabio’s two closest friends from childhood are murdered, however, he decides that his own honor demands that he investigate and avenge these deaths himself. He recognizes that he “needed boundaries, rules, codes. Something to hold on to. Every step I was about to take would move me farther away from the law…” Published originally in 1995, this is the first of the Marseilles trilogy.

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Few other recent mystery thrillers have accumulated anything like the number of prizes and awards as The Dying Detective by Leif GW Persson, a former adviser to the Swedish Ministry of Justice, a renowned psychological profiler, and currently a professor at the Swedish National Police Board. This novel, recently released in English, attests not only to Persson’s knowledge of criminal behavior and criminal justice, but also to his ability to create intriguing but decidedly “normal” characters and show them in situations which challenge all their abilities. By using characters who are not exotic, however clever and talented they may be in their knowledge of police procedure, Persson allows the reader to identify with them in a series of conundrums which continue without letup for the entire novel as the main character and his associates try to catch the terrible killer of a nine-year-old girl. This is the best organized and developed mystery novel I have read in years. It is complex enough that I found it helpful to create a character list, but each character has a clear place in the action, which develops in meticulous order. The image of an intricate puzzle, though trite, is unavoidable, as Persson adds little piece to little piece to develop and fill in the story of Yasmine and her murder, along with the people in her life who have survived her. The conclusion is a classic, resolving some of the questions still left with only three pages to go, while also, importantly, leaving some questions without direct answers. Persson trusts that his readers have paid attention. The final scene is not open to question if that is the case.

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