December 1, 2012

A Few Random Thoughts


Now that that traditional greeting is out of the way, I can get on with the post for this month. I had planned this month to post a critical review of the first novel in the Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January series. I decided instead to review it in February 2013 and to review the other nine novels in the series in remaining nine months of 2013. The 10 novels feature Hambly’s believable 19th century African American detective.

Why February? Well, I have to post my review of a novel that I read in November before embarking on my adventure through 1830s New Orleans with Benjamin January.

Every December, to give my brain a break, I relax from reading crime fiction by reading a so-called literary novels. I choose the novels at random. This year I plan to read two novels—Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro and Tumbling, a first novel by Diane McKinney-Whetstone. If I can find the time, I might read one of the novels I have on my Kindle or Nook. On the Kindle, I have current crime fiction, and on the Nook, I have crime novels from the 19th century that I downloaded from the Gutenberg website. 

Well, that’s it for this short and sweet post.

November 3, 2012

All Things Revealed

I chose the novel All Things Hidden (2004) by JudyCandis because of the title, which is from 1 Corinthians 4:5, and I was prepared to reject it because of the Biblical reference. At the same time, I wondered how a religious theme would play out in a police procedural novel. I’m not antireligious, but when I sense a religious motif in a crime novel, I cringe because I feel I’m about to be preached at. Is it possible to write a such a novel without seeming to preach. Maybe, but Candis has failed to do so.

Candis introduces the motif of Christian faith in the opening scene. The protagonist enters a crack house where body has been found and has a moment of panic despite her faith in God:
God had not given her the spirit of fear. Jael knew this like she knew there were sixty-six books in the Bible. She knew this like she knew the exact hour and second that she accepted Christ as her Lord and Savior. More important, she knew this like she knew God's Word was eternal and true. Yet the pounding of her heart was so rapid, so pro­found, it threatened to burst through her rib cage.
Jael Reynolds, the only Black female in the police department of Dadesville, Florida, is the lead detective in the investigation of the killings of three drug dealers. It appears dealers are being target, and she speculates that it might be a war among them. She also speculates that it might be a serial killer or a Black vigilante taking the law into his own hands. Her investigation puts her and her son in jeopardy as she gets closer to discovering the killer and the diabolical motive.

All Things Hidden is a novel Christians may well enjoy because of the motif of a woman of faith who, with the help of God, defeats the forces of evil. To make sure the point of the novel is not missed, the narrator reminds the reader that Jael is "in the clutches of a serious spiritual battle. Warfare at the highest level." She is named after the warrior woman who helped “the Israelites in battle by nailing their enemy king’s head to the ground” (Book of Judges, 4:17-23).

All Things Hidden reminded me of the story of Job, who never wavered in his faith. Jael is put through many trials and at times wonders if God hears her prayers. After a while, the repetition of her internal battle with her faith, altering between feelings of doubt and confirmation, becomes tedious and at times slows the action. The novel reads like a book on how to write a novel: put the heroine in one dangerous situation after another.

All Things Hidden didn’t encourage me to read Candis’s other three novels, but if you, dear reader, enjoy stories with religious themes, then you might enjoy Colorblind (1998), Still Rage (2001), and Blood Offering (2002).

October 6, 2012

The Truth is Hard

My favorite character is back in Charlotte Carter’s second novel featuring amateur detective, Cassandra. The twenty-year old college student I met in Jackson Park who made me want to slap the taste out of her mouth gets her grandaunt Ivy and Ivy’s husband Woody involved in another dangerous mystery-thriller in Trip Wire.  

A few months after solving the 20 year old murder of a White school teacher, Cassandra and her grandaunt Ivy and granduncle Woody investigate the murder of her best friend Wilton and his White girl friend Mia in a hippie commune where Cassandra lives with six other people. To prove she is independent and to annoy her aunt and uncle, she moved out of their home and into the commune, an apartment on Chicago’s north side. She met Wilton, the black member of the commune, in Lincoln Park during Bobby Seale’s appearance at the Democratic Convention in 1968.

In her usual impetus and annoying way, Cass can’t rest until she finds out who killed Milton and Mia. Like most 20-year-olds in the 1960s, she mistrusts  adults, especially, Ivy and Woody as well as the Chicago police, including her uncle’s detective friend Jack Klaus. During her investigation she discovers a Black militant organization called “The August 4 Committee” whose mission is to kill White Army officers they consider racists and who, they believe, murdered Black soldiers in Vietnam. She also learns about spies for the FBI and snitches for the Chicago police.

Carter deftly describes Chicago in late 1968 and by extension the entire nation as seen through the eyes of Cassandra.

My ROOM WAS GRAY AND MUSTY FROM CIGARETTE SMOKE. IT was long past sunrise, but light was hard to come by. The news is­suing from my clock radio was just as sunless and heavy-

Death toll for the week so far: 80. That was just "our" side. No figures on how many of the enemy incinerated. A Christmas truce was in the offing, and Bob Hope was on the way to Saigon.

Other headlines: Two children and their welfare mother as­phyxiated. Mix poor people with no heat and a faulty gas oven. Result, death. A drunk driver killed four teens on the highway.

In Cassandra, Carter has created the personality of an idealistic 20-year-old Black female rebelling against the system and having to learn to accept the truths she finds in the system. While talking about how drug dealers operate with Henry Waddell, the old gangster in Jackson Park, who has some past connection to Ivy and Woody, Cassandra realizes that she and Wilton had drifted apart:

Suddenly I realized how far away from Wilton I had traveled in just a few days. Maybe it was just a matter of knowing, accepting in a way I hadn't before, that he was dead and forever lost to me. But I don't think that was the whole answer. Accepting the death meant acknowledging how far away he had gone from me. What I was remarking on now was how far away I had gone from him. Curious that of all the friends and strangers I'd spoken to, it should be Henry Waddell who triggered this insight. 

Unlike her Greek namesake, it is not others who will not accept what she is saying, but Cassandra who must finally accept the truth of what she learns about herself and her grandaunt and granduncle.

If Charlotte Carter wrote another novel featuring Cassandra, I couldn’t find it on the Internet. So, if you know of another Cassandra novel, please let me know.

September 1, 2012

The Real Charlotte Carter Is Back

I felt Carter wasted her talent in the semi-pornographic novel Walking Bones. She redeems her self in Jackson Park, in which she returns to the detective novel. This time the amateur detective is not the New York street musician Nanette Hayes. She is a smart mouth, wonderfully irritating, intelligent twenty-year-old freshman college student in Chicago named Cassandra. She never knew her mother or father, and, when her grandmother with whom she was living died, went to live with her grandaunt and her husband in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago.

Cassandra, Ivy, and Woody become amateur detectives when Clay Jackson from their old neighborhood asks Woody to find his missing granddaughter Lavelle Jackson. Lavelle disappeared during the riots following Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination. She was last seen rushing out of the corner grocery store where she had gone to buy groceries for Clay. The owner found a high school ring among the groceries she dropped and, after some persuasion, gives it up to Woody. After reading the inscription on the inside of the ring, Woody decides to drop the case.

Cassandra, however, feels Mr. Clay deserves to know what happened to Lavelle and insists that Woody find her, or she will continue without his help. This na├»ve child doesn’t understand that Woody is reluctant to continue the search because it might lead to the family’s involvement in the investigation of the 20 year old murder of a white school teacher and conflict with members of the Chicago police department. She will also discover the involvement of some of her classmates in a black militant organization called “Root.”

Cassandra is an irritating, rebellious, intelligent 20 year old who, like most young people her age, thinks she knows everything, and yet, she is wonderfully fascinating. She describes herself: “I was ugly misshapen, red haired, and walked with a light limp.” She also considers herself 20 pounds overweight. She is the engine that keeps the rapidly moving plot rushing to an unexpected ending, especially for her.

Oh yes, Charlotte Carter, the real detective novelist, is back with a sort of coming-of-age detective novel. 

August 1, 2012

Psycho/Erotic Thriller Misfires

On May 29, 2009, I posted reviews of Charlotte Carter’s novels featuring her smart, beautiful, Black amateur detective Nanette Hayes. I had not, at the time, read her three other novels: Walking Bones, Jackson Park, and Trip Wire. Starting with Walking Bones, I’ll be reviewing the novels in my next three post.

Carter is a writer of detective stories. Walking Bones is a significant departure from her detective novels. Although one character is a detective, and a crime is committed, it doesn’t drive the plot. Lecherous sexual behavior does. It is as though Carter decided to experiment with a different genre, writing an erotic thriller to test her talent. The experiment, if it is that, is unsuccessful. I admire her for taking the risk, and I have to accept that doing so means she produced a very disappointing novel. No matter how good a novelist is, not all that she writes will be of a quality that matches her talent.

The action in this awful erotic thriller opens with a black woman slapping a middle-aged white man in the face with a glass after he makes the crude remark that he likes black cunt. His crude remark and her response ignites a chain of events that will set three people on a deadly collision course: the protagonist Nettie Rogers, her gay friend Rufe Beard, and the alcoholic, sexual deviant White man Albert Press.

Six Foot tall, light-skinned Nettie Rogers came to New York to be a model, but when she started to gain weight, her modeling career went down the drain and she into deep depression. Her friend Rufe decided that sleeping with strange men whom he procured for her would cure the depression. Nettie quits having unsatisfying sex with strangers because it increases rather than cures her depression. She finds satisfaction and ease of mind in making and selling handbags from which occupation she makes a modest living.

Albert, on the other hand, becomes obessessed with Nettie and lies to the investigating detective about what happened to him in the bar, alleging he doesn’t remember. He tracks her down through Rufe and begins showering her with gifts. We see how dangerous he is through his past relationship with a young White woman he hired and mentored in his publishing company. The relationship reveals his sexually deviant dark side.

Rufe suspects Albert of being a sexual deviate and believes he will harm Nettie. His big brother-type protective instinct toward her takes over. He must save her from herself and Albert. This creates rising tension and suspenseful anticipation: What is going to happen when the paths of the three characters, Nettie, Albert, and Rufe collide? Any further discussion of the plot of this highly disappointing novel would be a spoiler.

Walking Bones is not “exhilarating, funky, sensuous,” as the blurb on the front cover from the Cleveland Plain Dealer claims, but it is “downright vulgar.” I couldn’t make up my mind as to whether it is literary erotica or literary pornography. Since I don’t think Carter wrote the novel to satisfy readers’ possible prurient desires, I tried to see some social or culture significance. Possibility: Expose White men’s perverse hunger for Black women, which is speculation on my part.

Walking Bones is not up to Carter’s talent.

July 5, 2012

The Hunter Becomes The Hunted

Camacho’s first thriller, The Payback Assignment, disappointed me. He redeemed himself in his second thriller. Orion is packed with as the Electrifying Duo, Morgan Stark and Felicity O’Brien, battle a big, handsome, dangerous Irishman. Unlike the villain in The Payback Assignment, Ian Michael O’Ryan, who got the nick name Orion, after Orion, the great hunter in Greek mythology, while hunting big game in Africa, is bigger than life both physically and mentally.

Felicity’s Uncle Sean Sullivan, the priest of a small village in Ireland, comes to the U. S. to hire Morgan to help stop O’Ryan, whom he considers a terrorist, from recruiting the young men in the village. He believes O’Ryan wants to revive the IRA and restart ”the troubles” (religious wars). He doesn’t want O’Ryan killed, just stopped.

When the Electrifying Duo arrive in the village, Morgan, a Black man in Ireland, knows he’ll have to out drink and out fight the biggest dude in the pub to be accepted. He challenges and defeats Max Grogan in arm wrestling and drinking contests, thus becoming a hero to the patrons.

Once he is comfortable with the residents of the village, he and Felicity devise plans to stop O’Ryan. She devises the first of three plans. O’Ryan gets money he needs for his operation in Ireland from organizations that sponsor terrorism. She cleans out his bank accounts, which lack of ready cash puts him in a bind. Sorry, to explain how she does it would be a spoiler.

Morgan directs the operation to deprive O’Ryan of arms he has bought for a Middle Eastern terrorist. When the shipment arrives on the Irish coast, with the help a group of gypsies among whom Felicity lived after running away from home when she was 16, he makes sure the arms will not get to O’Ryan. O’Ryan must refund the customer’s money.

To get the money, he enters a motorcycle race in France, which he has never lost. Morgan enters the race under the Seagrave Industries sponsorship and riding one of their bikes. His objective is not to win but to make sure O’Ryan loses. Of course he knows O’Ryan will have his henchmen station along the course to take out any rider in the lead. A fact that spices up the scenes of the race.

O’Ryan doesn’t take Morgan’s interference very well. His men later ambush Morgan, who takes out three of them before they subdue him. O’Ryan holds Morgan on an island off the coast of southern France. Believing Morgan works for a government agency, he enjoys torturing him to try to get him to reveal which agency.

With her partner missing, Felicity goes into action. She doesn’t accept the possibility that he might be dead. he is too far away for her to sense his presence. But she is able from the direction in which the van fled to start out on the trial. She and Paul continue to the coast until she senses she is close, and learns about an isolate island. Once she is on the island and inside the house, she tangles with O’Ryan.

But it isn’t over. As Felicity is wheeling Morgan out of the hospital, they feel danger but too late to get back in the hospital. A man named Youssef and his henchmen stop them. The electrifying duo, Claudette, and Paul face their guns. Youssef was O’Ryan’s customer and now he blames Morgan for causing him to lose the weapons. Again, I can’t be a spoiler.

Camacho makes sure his readers are on the side of good when he has O’Ryan suggest that Morgan is no different from him—both are in a way mercenaries. However, Morgan considers what he does—helping other honest folks—as an honor. O’Ryan’s terrorist activities are about power. Orion is better than The Payback Assignment because it is better plotted and the villain is more worthy of the Electrifying Duo’s many talents.

The introduction of O’Ryan’s customer at the end disappointed me. It was a loose end that didn’t need wrapping up.