Review: Maigret and the Good People of Montparnasse

Maigret

Maigret and the Good People of Montparnasse(Inspector Maigret #58), Georges Simenon, translated by Ros Schwartz. New York: Penguin Classics, 2019 (originally published 1962).

Summary: Maigret investigates a murder of a loved and respected retired businessman, with no hint of motive from family, neighbors or associates–all good people.

René Josselin has been found dead in his apartment, seated in his favorite chair, two bullets to the heart, fired from his own pistol, missing from his apartment. His wife and daughter had been out at the theatre, witnessed by the people who sat behind them. His son-in-law, a devoted physician, had stopped by earlier in the evening for their favorite pastime, a game of chess. There had been no disaffection and the son had left on a call that ended up being a false call.

The men Josselin had sold his business to were faithfully meeting the terms, thriving, and appreciative of Josselin. Neighbors, if they knew the Josselins, spoke of them as good people, and from what Maigret can discover, they were good people themselves. As far as he can tell, everyone around René Josselin were good people, and yet Josselin had been murdered.

Then puzzling, stubborn facts emerge. Madame Josselin and her daughter Veronique do not seem entirely forthcoming. The motive obviously was not robbery but there was one other thing missing–a key to a room in the servant quarters, a room that had been empty but occupied the night of the murder. Another dead end. The fingerprints did not match any known criminal. Then there is the restaurateur who witnessed the same individual meeting both Monsieur or Madame Josselin right before the murder.

Maigret knows there is a killer out there. He struggles with caring for grieving people and the need to discover what they are hiding. Who could possibly had a motive to kill Monsieur Josselin?

I had watched several adaptations of Simenon’s novels on Mystery. I found that like many of the detectives I enjoyed the most, Inspector Maigret was both a gentleman and a thinker, careful not to jump to conclusions but willing to pursue his intuitions. Simenon unfolds a story of step by step investigation, deliberate without being plodding, that moves steadily toward a conclusion, one that we didn’t see coming until it arrived. A good story about good people–and a killer. Kudos to Penguin Classics for reissuing this series!

Mysteries I Would Re-read

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Mystery Writers,” by Nana B Agyei licensed under CC BY 2.0

In the second installment of “books I would re-read” I consider mysteries. This strikes me as perhaps a peculiar category because once you’ve read a mystery, you know how it turns out. That is, unless you’ve forgotten, which for some of the mysteries on this page, is the case for me. For all of them, it is the mastery of the story-telling, how the author has woven the plot. So here are some mysteries so good, I’d be happy to enjoy them again.

G. K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday. This fantastic story, subtitled “A Nightmare” concerns the infiltration of an anarchist group, where nothing that occurs is as it seems. A wild romp!

Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Many consider this one of her best. Poirot comes out of retirement to solve this murder, and I loved the surprise ending.

Agatha Christie, 4:50 from Paddington. Mrs. McGillicuddy is sure she has witnessed a murder, yet no body is found. Enter her good friend, Miss Marple! With Agatha Christie, I just had to include two to get in a Poirot and a Marple.

Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone. This is considered the first and one of the greatest mysteries, centering around a diamond from India. Collins created the art. Another of his masterpieces is The Woman in White.

P.D. James, A Taste for Death. James’ Adam Dalgliesh, a poet and detective, has some of the most penetrating insights into the human soul of any detective. This is one of the best in the series, but it might be time for me to re-read them all!

Charlie Lovett, The Bookman’s Tale. Peter Byerly has recently lost is wife at a young age and moved to the village of Kingham, England, living in the cottage he and Amanda renovated just before her death. In an effort to resume his bookselling career he peruses the shelves of a local bookseller. Inside a volume on literary forgeries, he discovers a watercolor that must be a hundred years old that could have been a painting of his wife. His quest to find the origin of this work results in his being framed for a murder.

Louise Penny, Still Life. This work introduces us to Chief Inspector Gamache and Three Pines. I am new to this series and only beginning my first reading. But I can tell there is plenty here for re-readings should I live that long!

Elizabeth Peters, The Crocodile on the Sandbank. This is the first of Elizabeth Peters’ (Barbara Mertz) Amelia Peabody stories. My wife and I had ten years of delight reading through this series, but that was a decade ago.

Dorothy L. Sayers, The Nine Tailors. The setting, in a country church, the nine bells that are the nine tailors, provide a wonderful backdrop for a mystery regarding a mysterious scrap of paper, a grave with the wrong body in it, and an absent-minded rector. Many consider this Sayers’ best. I concur.

Josephine Tey, Brat Farrar. Brat Farrar is an orphan, a doppelganger of Simon Ashby’s missing brother Patrick, and is persuaded by a former friend of Simon’s to impersonate the brother. He succeeds, yet unknown to him, Simon is on to him but does not say anything. The plot hinges on discovering why.

I’m sure you will have many others to add to this list and that you might have a few of your own. But these, especially the ones that are part of a series, offer the promise of many diverting evenings sheltering at home.

 

Review: Still Life

still life

Still Life (Chief Inspector Gamache #1), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2005.

Summary: The suspicious death of Jane Neal a day after her painting is accepted into an art show brings Gamache and his team to Three Pines, and to the grim conclusion that someone in this small community is a murderer.

Jane Neal was an elderly retired teacher, seemingly beloved by everyone in the secluded town of Three Pines, near the Quebec/US border. Everyone had heard she was an artist. Yet no one had been allowed beyond her kitchen or saw her work. That is, until she entered a piece into the local Arts Williamsburg show–a painting called Fair Day. At first the jurors thought it was a child’s drawing, but then felt there was a peculiar power to this piece. When Jane learns the painting was accepted, she invited all her friends to a party the night of the show opening, at her house–Olivier and Gabri, the gay couple who owned the Bistro, Myrna, the bookstore owner, Ruth Zardo, the brilliant and curmudgeonly poet, Clara and Peter, an artist couple, and Ben Hadley, a bachelor artist whose mother Timmer had recently died after a battle with cancer.

The next morning Jane was found dead in the forest by Ben Hadley. She died of an arrow through the heart, an arrow removed. And so Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his team discover Three Pines. At first the investigation appears to indicate a hunting accident, perhaps from a hunter from away who thought he had spotted a deer. Then a troubled youth, or his father. The youth had been part of a group throwing manure from a flower bed at Olivier and Gabri, mocking them for being gay. Jane, on the morning before she died yelled at them to stop. Suspicion then turned to Yolande, Jane’s niece, who thought she would inherit Jane’s estate, or her uncouth husband or son. Eventually the focus turns to those in the cafe who had received Jane’s invitation. Among these people, all of whom seemed friends, and friends of Jane, there was a murderer.

While Gamache and his core team of Jean Guy Beauvoir and Isabelle LaCoste work together as a well-oiled machine, a new agent, Yvette Nichol, the daughter of immigrants, tries so hard to succeed on her first assignment that she fails to listen to Gamache, follow through on leads, and asserts herself where she is not welcome. Gamache, after much effort, must send her home. Yet her insights do move the investigation forward, leaving us wonder if this is the last we will see of her.

I picked up one of the books of this series (#10), loved it, and was told by others who like Penny’s work that I had to go back to the beginning. So I have, and I would say it was worth it, and I intend to go on. Penny has created a lovable mix of townsfolk and an investigative team. Gamache is the classic detective, seemingly slow at times, who watches, listens, and thinks, and tries to cultivate these virtues in others, including Nichol. There is a winsome integrity about him, typified in his willingness to accept a suspension rather than arrest a man he considered innocent.

I have encountered many who wish Three Pines was a real town, a place of rural beauty and rich local culture. In this book, we learn the reason for the name. We also discover for all its beauty and seemingly serene atmosphere, it is hardly a place of still life. Penny reminds us that deep within people we think we know, there are hidden depths, and hidden secrets, that sometimes blossom into exquisite beauty, or the most terrible acts. In words quoted by Jane from W.H. Auden the night before she died:

Evil is unspectacular and always human,
and shares our bed and eats at our own table.

Or in words on Jane Neal’s mirror, words Agent Nichol did not yet understand, “You’re looking at the problem.”

Review: A Cold Red Sunrise

a cold red sunrise

A Cold Red Sunrise (Porfiry Rostnikov #5), Stuart M. Kaminsky. New York: Mysterious Press/Open Road Media, 2012.

Summary: After making enemies in the Kremlin, a demoted Porfiry Rostnikov is sent to Siberia to solve the murder of a Russian official, while others are working to undermine Rostnikov, and prevent a solution to the murder.

A Russian commissar had been sent to Tumsk in Siberia to investigate the suspicious circumstances behind the suspicious death of a dissident doctor’s daughter, a dissident soon to leave for the West. On the way to a hearing in the early morning hours, he is killed by a mysterious killer who stabs him through the eye with an icicle.

Porfiry Rostnikov has been demoted after offending enemies in the Kremlin in the pursuit of justice. Working with two younger assistants, Emil Karpo and Sasha Tkach, who have followed him into the backwater of solving low-level crimes, they work to stem the efforts of theft rings and thugs harassing locals. That is, until Rostnikov is assigned to investigate the death of Commissar Rutkin in far off Tumsk in Siberia. Karpo accompanies him, order by the KGB to report back on the case. Another official goes along as well to observe him. Tumsk is where they send exiles and it can be wondered if it will become Rostnikov’s home.

He methodically pursues his work, interviewing and befriending the ex-priest Galich, the exiled general Krasnikov, who is furiously working on a secret manuscript, and Dr. Samsonov and his attractive wife Ludmilla. He and Karpo interview Mrasnikov, the aged caretaker of the People’s Hall. He saw something but fears to speak. For some reason, he is only allowed to investigate the Commissar’s death, even though he suspects that death is connected to the death of Samsonov’s daughter

Rostnikov only has a few days to solve the case, made more urgent by news that his wife is facing a life-threatening condition requiring brain surgery. Between interviews, he works out with weights, and thinks. But what moves things forward is an attempt on his life that results in the serious wounding of the old man Mrasnikov. The killer has been careless. And Rostnikov knows it.

This mystery won an Edgar Award for Best Mystery Novel in 1989. The layered plot, with what is going on behind the scenes against Rostnikov, and with the KGB, the relations Rostnikov forms with everyone around him from his fellow detectives, and even the potential suspects, and the “presence” of Rostnikov as events come to their culmination all contribute to a great read. Many fictional detectives fight not only crime but the system. Soviet Russia in the 1980’s offers a unique setting, but confronts Rostnikov with the risks of cynicism or bitterness many detectives face. The Rostnikov character is striking as one with a calling to fight crime, a knowledge of the criminal mind, of the possibilities and limits of his situation, and someone utterly secure with himself.

I hope you get to know him.

 

Review: The Nature of the Beast

the nature of the beast

The Nature of the Beast (Chief Inspector Gamache #11), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2016.

Summary: A young boy from Three Pines, prone to fantastic tales, reports seeing a big gun with a strange symbol, and then is found dead, setting off a search for a murderer, and an effort to thwart a global threat.

I never knew about Louise Penny until a year ago. One of the benefits of hosting an online book page is you learn of interesting authors you’ve not heard of. I’ve always loved classic crime fiction, and a great detective. I’ve been converted. Louise Penny’s works, and her Chief Inspector Armand Gamache belong with this group.

I made a mistake and bought number eleven in the series, thinking it was the first. At this point, Gamache and his wife Reine-Marie are retired in the idyllic village of Three Pines in eastern Quebec, a place seemingly forgotten by GPS systems. A local theatre group is rehearsing a play by an unnamed author, She Sat Down and Wept. Gamache and a number of friends, including his successor Isabel Lacoste and his son-in-law Jean Guy are relaxing in a local bistro when Laurent LePage, a nine year old boy prone to telling tall tales bursts in with another one of a huge gun in the forest with a picture of a scary woman being drawn by seven horses on it. No one believes him and Gamache drives him home to his parents, Al and Evie, aging hippies (he, a supposed draft dodger) with a farm on the edge of town.

The next day, Laurent goes missing, and is found dead off the side of the road, apparently having lost control of his bicycle, falling and striking his head on a rock–or so it seems to all but Gamache. Something is not right about the position of the body, but no one buys it. Then Gamache realizes something else–Laurent’s favorite stick (his “gun”) is nowhere to be found. A search in the woods for the “gun” leads to a much bigger gun, hidden in camouflage for years. On it, an engraving of the whore of Babylon, being drawn by seven furious steeds. At it’s base, Laurent’s favorite stick. Laurent was telling the truth, which he paid for with his life. And no one, not even Gamache had believed him. Actually someone did, the murderer.

The story gets more complicated as an elderly physicist and two intelligence agents (“file clerks”) who all had been investigating this weapon for years, descend on the quiet village and join in a quest to unravel the tale of its makers, seeking to find the plans for this weapon, which, in the wrong hands, could bring untold devastation and global conflict.

Meanwhile, it turns out that the author of the play is a wicked, sadistic serial murderer, John Fleming, with whom Gamache has a secret, and haunting connection that has been brought back to life. That is not his only connection to Three Pines. A batty old poet and kindly old grocer also carry haunting memories of this man.

Penny does so many things so well in this book. The setting is one I’ve seen a number of people say they would love to live in. The characters have depth, especially Gamache, but also Reine-Marie, Jean-Beauvoir, Lacoste, and even Ruth Zardo, the batty old poet. Gamache at this stage is deeply conflicted, wounded and weary from his efforts to cleanse the Sureté, yet ambivalent about really calling Three Pines and retired life the only life he will know. The unsolved murder of the boy he did not believe awakens all of this. Combine all this with superb writing and an ever-more suspenseful plot and you have all the ingredients of great crime fiction.

As I write, there are fifteen books in this series with a sixteenth due in September 2020. Temptation, thy name is Gamache! I suspect this won’t be the last review of a Louise Penny work you see here.

Review: Elephants Can Remember

elephants can remember

Elephants Can Remember (Hercule Poirot #37), Agatha Christie. New York: Harper Collins, 2011 (first published 1972).

Summary: Poirot and crime writer Ariadne Oliver team up at the request of a mother and young couple, to learn the truth about an unexplained double suicide many years earlier.

Celia Ravenscroft and Desmond Burton-Cox want to marry. Desmond’s mother by adoption, looking for cause to oppose it, seeks out the help of crime writer Ariadne Oliver, who is Celia’s godmother. Celia’s parents died years ago in what authorities determined to be a suicide pact. Mrs. Burton-Cox want to know who killed who, and if there is a streak of mental instability that Celia might inherit. Celia and Desmond wish the truth as well.

Oliver enlists her old friend Poirot, and the two of them go in search of “the elephants,” those who remember crucial facts that might bring to light what truly happened, and incidentally, why Mrs. Burton-Cox is really so bent on discouraging the marriage. Along the way, we learn of Mrs. Ravenscroft’s deranged identical twin sister, who died by falling from the same cliffs where the Ravenscrofts took their lives three weeks later. Poirot wonders about the exceptional number of wigs worn by Mrs Ravenscroft, despite a healthy head of hair. What did French au pair know, who was staying at the time of their deaths? Finally, we wonder about the affectionate dog that inexplicably bit.

Reading the story, I was curious how much of Agatha Christie is written into the character of Ariadne Oliver. It was fun to envision Agatha going about with Poirot crime solving. I have to admit that the solution was fairly apparent before the denouement. What I liked about this story was the diverse set of characters Christie offers us: the somewhat eccentric Ariadne Oliver, the strong-willed Celia, the determined Desmond, the unlikable Mrs. Burton-Cox, and the au pair torn by love and the promise to keep a secret. We also encounter an older Poirot, one who sits and thinks even more. We wonder, as does Ariadne at one point, whether he still has his edge. As always, we discover his edge is to listen, to observe, to wait, and to think, drawing on his insights into human nature, until the pieces fall in place.

I didn’t think this was Christie at her best. She left too many clues, too few red herrings. Yet I found the story a pleasant diversion, with a great mix of characters and good pacing. This was published less than four years before her death. Some have speculated that she was struggling with the onset of some form of dementia when she wrote Elephants Can Remember. Perhaps the title was a valiant attempt to say “I’ve still got what it takes!” She was in her early 80’s when she wrote this–and still capable of writing circles around younger writers!

Review: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Mr. Penumbra

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan. New York: Picador, 2012.

Summary: When Clay Jannon starts clerking in Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore, he discovers a most unusual bookstore with unusual customers and figures out that the store is part of a far-flung scheme pursuing one of the oldest quests.

Clay Jannon is an out-of-work web developer who happens on a help wanted sign for the late shift at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. He takes the job. He discovers there are two kinds of customers. There are the ordinary customers who buy books in the front of the store in its eclectic and relatively limited selection. As it turns out, there are relatively few of these. Then there is a much more interesting group of members of a secret society, which we later learn is called The Unbroken Spine. They have a card with a number. They return a book and ask for another. A description of the transaction, including the person’s appearance and the book returned and requested are to be logged. No questions asked. No looking in the books. These books are in the back of the store on shelves that tower up several stories and must be reached by ladders. They are the Waybacklist.

Jannon’s curiosity gets the best of him, so he uses programming skills and the advice of geeky friends to create a 3-D visualization of the store, then programs the current log into the visualization. He discovers there is a pattern. About this time a cute girl who works at Google, Kat Potente, happens into the store as a result of a Google ad Clay wrote. She spots his visualization and they start working together to add more to the visualization by “borrowing” another log book. Penumbra happens on him in the store just as the visualization is complete. It is a face, that of Aldus Manutius, a pioneer in type-setting. Jannon has completed a task in hours that it would take other members years or even decades.

This discovery sets an unexpected turn of events into motion. Mr. Penumbra’s store is shut down and he is called to New York to meet “Corvina” who it turns out is head of the secret society of the Unbroken Spine, which has stores (really libraries) all over the world for novices to solve the first part of the quest. It turns out that the ultimate quest is to decode the codex left by Manutius, and those who have significantly progressed are all engaged in this, yet for centuries, no one has done so. It is believed that to decode Manutius will result in immortality for all the members of this secret society.

The plot turns on the conflict between old fashioned scholarly study, and the marvels of Google’s algorithms. Should such new ways even be employed? Will either yield the solution to Manutius? And what will happen to Mr. Penumbra and his store?

For lovers of bookstores, this is a great mystery, with the smell of old books and a quest for knowledge. It explores the time we are in, between the world of texts engaged by readers, and the different path of knowledge the web and its algorithms offer. The plot is a page-turner, first as Jannon and his friends (and Kat, with whom Clay falls in and out of love), try to unravel the mystery of the Waybacklist, and then the quest to decode Manutius.

If I would have one beef, it is the characters. They are quirky, but flat. They seem to be caricatures that provide the needed personnel to move a story of old and new ways of knowing forward. It almost feels to me that they are in a video game. The plot saves this book as one is drawn in by the mystery and sense of adventure. I find it interesting that the book was named a best book by NPR and several newspapers and won several other awards. It was a good and diverting read but fell short of great for me. I did like the cool, glow-in-the-dark cover, however.

 

Review: Who’s On First

Who's on First

Who’s On First (A Blackford Oakes Mystery), William F. Buckley, Jr. New York: MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Media, 2015 (originally published 1980).

Summary: Oakes becomes involved in a plot to abduct a Soviet scientist couple involved in the research to launch Sputnik.

CIA agent Blackford Oakes leaves Hungary with the memory of the execution of Theophilus Molnar during the quenched Hungarian uprising of 1956. Having provided access to a “safe” house, somehow his safety is betrayed, Molnar is arrested, and executed on the spot.

Vadim and Viktor sustained each other through eight years in the Gulag. Both were scientist arrested for “anti-Soviet” agitation. Viktor believes Vadim saved his life by giving him hope. Later Vadim defects, and becomes involved with the CIA as “Serge.”

The Soviet Union and the United States are in a mad race for space, to put the first satellite in orbit. Each has technical problems, which if solved would clear the way to launch. Each has the answers the other needs.

All these factors come together in Paris when Viktor and his wife Tamara are in Paris for a scientific conference. It is decided to abduct the couple, who are working on the critical research, using the friendship with Vadim to elicit their co-operation. Oakes is enlisted as a taxi driver to abduct them during a staged bus breakdown, with a cover plot of an Algerian radical group seeking an exchange of weapons for hostages.

Unbeknownst to Oakes, KGB agent Bolgin knows Oakes is in Paris. A mole in the French resistance develops a plot to seize and execute Oakes. Oakes, recognized in photos at the abduction scene, unknowingly betrays the kidnapping as a CIA operation. The attempt to obtain Russian secrets jeopardizes the lives of Oakes, and Viktor and Tamara. Along with the death of Theo, all of this raises questions for Oakes, questions that if he survives could end his career. Meanwhile, questions of a different sort at a higher level raise the question of whether winning the space race is worth it, even as a critical operation to sink a Russian freighter carrying a critical piece of technology is counting down to zero hour.

Buckley weaves a compact, fast paced espionage novel around these elements. He recalls the mood that existed in the Cold War era leading up to the launch of Sputnik on October 4, 1957, an event that actuated a military and scientific effort in the United States anticipated in this novel. He exposes the moral dilemmas of what Cold War maneuvering meant for the individuals whose futures and even lives might be sacrificed in covert efforts to attain a benchmark of supremacy. Having missed this series when it first came out, I’m glad for the second chance afforded by the folks at Open Road Media.

 

Review: Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore

midnight at the bright ideas bookstore

Midnight at the Bright Ideas BookstoreMatthew Sullivan. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018.

Summary: When Joey the Bookfrog commits suicide at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, Lydia Smith’s ordered life is overturned as she discovers a connection between his death and buried memories from childhood that had marked her life ever since.

Lydia Smith seems to finally have found the haven she was looking for as a bookseller at the Bright Ideas Bookstore. Surrounded by books, an interesting collection of fellow booksellers, and the “Bookfrogs,” street people who spend their days in the recesses of the store, life is pretty good. That is, until the night she finds Joey, one of the Bookfrogs with whom she had a special connection, dead by suicide in the store. In his pocket is a picture of Lydia blowing out candles at her tenth birthday with two friends, Raj and Carol. A picture she had not know existed. How could Joey have gotten it? A picture taken just before that terrible night.

Lydia had been brought up by her father, Tomas, a librarian. One night, she and Carol, the new friend who was crowding out Raj Patel, at whose parents’ gas and donut shop she used to go after school to talk with Raj, were to have a sleepover at Lydia’s. Tomas had totally forgotten about taking a bookmobile to a remote location outside Denver and his boss insisted he drive there that night, in a snowstorm. Carol’s parents, the O’Tooles, offer to host. That night, “The Hammerman” brutally murders all three O’Tooles. Lydia, hiding in a cupboard under a kitchen sink, is spared. The Hammerman is never found, though at least one detective, now retired continues to suspect Tomas, who was having an affair with Dottie O’Toole, and when he came for Lydia in the morning, had compromised the crime scene. Tomas and Lydia flee Denver for a small town, Rio Vista, changing their last name. He became a prison guard, and slowly he and Lydia grew estranged, resulting in her eventual return to Denver.

In addition to the photo, Joey has left her a collection of books, all of which have little windows cut out of them, and a sale label for a different book. When the books are matched up, page for page, they reveal messages that point Lydia to the reason Joey took his life. The messages and a picture taken of Lydia watching Joey’s body being carried out of the bookstore lead to connections back to her father, to Raj, and ultimately to the identity of the Hammerman.

This mystery is a bibliophile’s dream. Set in what sounds like a dream of a bookstore, with the main character a meticulous, quiet but caring bookseller working with a quirky cast of fellow booksellers, it is a story a bibliophile can find oneself within. As we follow the twists and turns as Lydia tries to unravel Joey’s messages, the mystery of his last days, and his connection to her, her father, and that terrible night, we feel with her the choice of both wanting to know, and not wanting to know; of wanting to know the truth of that night and what her father’s part was, or just wanting to get on with her life with him out of it.

The book is well-paced, getting each piece of the puzzle in place, and moving to the next, even while several pieces seem to remain hidden. While this is not an edge-of-your-seat suspense thriller, I found my interest and curiosity building until the final pages where all the connections become clear including what happened on that terrible night.

 

Review: Fall of a Cosmonaut

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Fall of a Cosmonaut (Porfiry Rostnikov #13), Stuart M. Kaminsky. New York: Mysterious Press, 2000.

Summary: Chief Inspector Rostnikov and his team are charged with investigating three cases, a missing cosmonaut, a stolen film, and a brutal murder in a Paranormal Research Institute, only the first of the murders in the course of the story.

My son often manages to find books I probably never would have noticed that end up as fascinating reads. This book was such a case. It is actually the thirteenth installment in Stuart M. Kaminsky’s Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov series and the real find here is the character of Rostnikov who combines the savvy political instincts necessary to survive in a cutthroat Russian bureacracy with an intuition about human behavior that leads him to surround himself with shrewd associates, and solve crimes.

In this installment, there is not one, but three cases that his boss, the Yak, has assigned him, expecting results. One is a cosmonaut that has disappeared, along with secret knowledge of events on the Mir space station, knowledge that others have already died without revealing, the most recent by a swift injection from an umbrella-bearing man that is following Rostnikov and his son Iosef, as they travel to the village where Tsimion Vladovka grew up.

In the second case, a movie director, Yuri Kriskov has just completed what is adverted to be a great epic on the life of Leo Tolstoy. Then he receives word that the movie and its negatives have been stolen, and are being held for a ransom that if not paid will result both in the destruction of the movie and the death of Kriskov. It turns out that this is a plot of an assistant, Valery Grachev who is in love with Vera, Kriskov’s wife, and Vera, who wants to be rid of Yuri. Sasha Tkach and Elena Timofeyeva are assigned to this case, trying to find the manic genius who has stolen the film, and is seeking a way to kill Yuri.

The third case involves the gruesome death by claw hammer of a sleep and dream researcher at a Paranormal Studies Institute. Emil Karpo and his understudy Zelech are assigned this one. Zelech is sidetracked by a woman researcher who suspects him of special abilities. Karpo collects shoes, finds a suspect who is a reclusive researcher who claims he is framed, and homes in on a jealous fellow scientist good at covering tracks.

Rostnikov has the skill to adeptly counsel each both on the cases and their personal lives. Karpo needs a personal life. Tkach is estranged from his wife. Elena and his son Iosef are engaged. Zelech is single. They eventually unravel each case, but not before others die and their own lives in several instances are endangered. The cases also provide “information”  that “the Yak” can use to advance his own ambitions, and his ability to control and manipulate others.

I mention all the figures associated with the cases because, like any good Russian novel, keeping track of the names and who is doing what is more than half the battle! The narrative keeps moving back and forth between the cases briskly enough that we don’t lose the thread of any of them as we move to the climax and resolution of each.

Altogether, there are sixteen numbers in Kaminsky’s Rostnikov series. I don’t know if I’ll get around to reading all of them, but I did pick up another one as a result of reading this. I think one of the most intriguing thing about mysteries is the distinctive character of the detectives–Holmes, Poirot, J. B. Fletcher, Kay Scarpetta, Robicheaux, Maigret, and Rostnikov–each seems a world different from the others and the delight is as much in the depths of these characters as in the resolution of these cases. I think I’m going to have to modify the bibliophile’s complaint and say, “So many series and so little time!”