Review: The Silkworm

The Silkworm (Cormoran Strike, #2)The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Although not quite as strong as The Cuckoo’s Calling, The Silkworm is an enjoyable read which expands the world and characters from its strong and confident predecessor.

Despite Private Detective Cormoran Strike’s imposing figure the story does not rely on physical altercations and chases to generate drama. Strike is focused, patient, observant and clever. His thoughtful interviews guide the subjects to talk freely and fill their own uncomfortable silences. The case is built in layers as each interview adds, underscores, contradicts or attacks previous testimony. This process gives the reader access to the case in a way a Sherlock mystery never could. Strike’s capable assistant Robin Ellacot again provides a vital sounding board for his analysis and compliments with her own insight. Her role as an investigator grows with more time in the field and increasingly working on her own. More attention is focused on her personal life and her fiance, Matthew Cunliffe, introducing his POV for the first time.

I appreciate the the violence, sex and gore of the case is cataloged and scrutinized; while again refraining from explicit detail of Cormoran or Robin’s sex lives. It would be easier to write those scenes then what Galbraith does, to focus on the state of mind of the investigator, rather than go for salaciousness. I appreciate the arc Robin and Matthew go through in this novel, which should only make Robin stronger as the series progresses. For Cormoran it seems his romantic life is still finding familiar patterns but his interaction with his family and friends show potential for some level of happiness. It is my sincere hope the in the next novel Cormoran’s prosthesis and amputated leg are less of a focus. I like it as a character trait, but Cormoran’s swollen aching stump is practically the fourth most discussed character in the book.

The Silkworm proves that The Cuckoo’s Calling was not a fluke. As Robert Galbraith, Rowling knows what she is doing. The pacing, characters, and subtly of tone far outstrip her work in the Harry Potter series. Some crutches remain, such as protracted misunderstandings due to lack of communication, but even there it is improved from the previous novel. I definitely would recommend this series to anyone familiar with the genre, and although flawed, The Silkworm successfully transitions Cormoran Strike into a series stable enough for many stories to come.

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Review: Cold City

Cold City (Repairman Jack: The Early Years, #1)Cold City by F. Paul Wilson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I had heard good things about Repairman Jack, so I grabbed book one and dove in. Well apparently it’s not that easy. This is book one of the Repairman Jack: The Early Years trilogy, not to be confused with the Young Repairman Jack trilogy, which along with the Repairman Jack (currently a quinquadecology) are all spin-offs of The Adversary Cycle.

Entering the series with Cold City [Repairman Jack: The Early Years 01] you will find a young man looking to lose himself in New York City, shedding his name and all contact with his past. At the start of the book he is working as a landscaper on a mixed-race (I’ll get to it) crew when he gets bullied by one of the other men and seemingly has a psychotic break, nearly beating the man to death. Apparently this is not his first murderous episode having previously (and ritually) killed a kid who thoughtlessly killed Jack’s mother. Our titular psychopath then looks up a family friend and gets involved in the lucrative field of trafficking stolen goods and worse.

From my vantage point he is aimlessly drifting from scene to scene. He stumbles into various characters but with the compartmentalization of illegal enterprises and cabals he never learns anyone’s last names, history or true motivations. Most of the character development is based on the most base stereotypes of various racial/ethnic backgrounds. It is shorthanded and lazy writing. Realizing far too late that this is a prequel I imagine all of these are important figures and settings in the primary spin-off series. It is probably a highlight reel for anyone already familiar with the series, but on its own is frustratingly directionless, then ends with numerous unresolved story lines and cliffhangers. As a stand-alone story is falls short of recommending.

Side note about the Goodread blurb:

…one of the most popular characters in contemporary dark fantasy: a self-styled “fix-it” man who is no stranger to the macabre or the supernatural…

At no point in this book is there any hint of anything supernatural. It is shelved as Horror, Urban Fantasy, and Mystery and it is literally none of these things. It is barely a Thriller and definitely a Crime book, but only because Jack is committing the majority of the crimes. If you are curious about Repairman Jack my guess is to start with The Tomb [Adversary Cycle 02], and perhaps loop back to Cold City when you feel nostalgic.

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Review: The Pain Scale

The Pain Scale (Long Beach Homicide)The Pain Scale by Tyler Dilts
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Pain Scale is somewhat less personal than A King of Infinite Space and A Cold and Broken Hallelujah which are the first and third books in the Long Beach Homicide series respectively. It loses a bit of the intimacy and unique empathy Tyler Dilts infused the other novels with, but this is still a very good book.

Detective Danny Beckett is back on the job after a lengthy leave due to the fallout from A King of Infinite Space. His descent into alcohol, medication and depression continues as he copes with physical and emotional pain (thus The Pain Scale). His focus on the job is the only thing that seems to keep him going. Second novels in a series are difficult to pull off. This time the murders under investigation involve powerful people and it seems everyone gets involved: FBI, congressmen, military, mafia, and more. It almost gets too big and the characters and their intersecting relationships start to blur, but Tyler Dilts keeps it just grounded enough to prevent this from turning into a “thriller”.

I would have been worried about the escalation (and continued depiction of violent crimes against women) if I hadn’t already read the next in the series which is his best yet. Smart, character driven, and compelling – if you enjoy detective novels, this is a series you should be reading.

Also check out my review of A King of Infinite Space [Long Beach Homicide #1] and A Cold and Broken Hallelujah [Long Beach Homicide #3] which made my Best of Realistic Fiction: 2014 list.

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Review: A King of Infinite Space

A King of Infinite SpaceA King of Infinite Space by Tyler Dilts
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is my second Tyler Dilts book and before I get into the review I just want to acknowledge that Dilts’ book titles are fantastic, lifted from brilliant quotes tied to the theme, and his music tastes are impeccable. If I ever write a book I want Tyler Dilts to name it and make me a mix tape.

Detective Danny Beckett is a thoughtful and diligent cop, haunted by the violence he has seen on the job and the loss of his wife. He can barely sleep for the nightmares and settles himself a little to frequently with vodka. Neither of these things are out of control, but you get the sense that Beckett is on the precipice and only the job and his partner, Detective Jen Tanaka, keep him from giving in.

Generally in a mystery/crime novel I get pretty disappointed if I can identify the killer in the first interview. While I think Dilts played his hand too early, this isn’t a book which relies on the collar for the drama. The characters, especially Beckett, are so well written that it is the methodical, procedural working of the case that sells the story. The work is hard, slow, and takes its toll. I think it is easy to render a detective who stands as witness for the victim as a sap, or a tired trope of the genre, but Detective Danny Beckett’s portrayal feels sincere. There is an honesty and integrity in the Long Beach Homocide novels which makes them well worth recommending.

Also check out my review of A Cold and Broken Hallelujah [Long Beach Homicide #3] which made my Best of Realistic Fiction: 2014 list.

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Review: The Cuckoo’s Calling

The Cuckoo's Calling (Cormoran Strike, #1)The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a great detective story with fully fleshed out characters. The young attractive temp secretary Robin is earnest and resourceful. You can believe she would be endeared to the job and a capable foil to her guarded and intimidating boss, Private Detective Cormoran Strike. Strike is a physically imposing everyman character who is clearly intelligent, diligent and determined. It was truly satisfying to see their respect and trust in each other grow without resorting to sexual undertones. Cormoran Strike is by no means perfect, he slips into the bottle and into a bed as his life descends towards rock bottom, but the case never strays.

The story is appropriately complex, and through Strike’s dogged investigation we get to hear the witness accounts layered over each other with all the subtle differences and personal biases. There are very few aha moments, instead it is like a slowly retracting, slowly focusing lens. The cases expands from a balcony and apparent suicide to incorporate connections, relationships and decades of history. All of which is carefully sifted, categorized, weighed and quantified by Strike. I love the slow methodical pace – the work. Strike meticulously takes notes and records; builds his case in convergent scraps of conversation and miniscule gaps in recollections.

I was impressed with the confidence of the storytelling and strong voices of the characters. All the useful, familiar tropes of crimes stories are represented; including the second floor, two-room office, the hard detective who can handle himself, the beautiful assistant, the agency’s eminent financial ruin, witness backstabbing and red herrings. What has been excised is equally important, namely everything I despised about Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. Strike is respectful, disciplined, honorable and doesn’t resort to violence or vice lightly. I very much enjoyed and recommend The Cuckoo’s Calling and look forward to reading The Silkworm and much more from Galbraith.

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Review: Altered Carbon

Altered Carbon (Takeshi Kovacs, #1)Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Altered Carbon is a mash-up of most of my favorite genres: sci-fi, anti-hero, ronin, hard-boiled detective and thriller rolled into one, so this should have been a home run. Instead it just landed a bit funny and took me a long time to sort out my feelings and expectations and get around to reviewing this book. A few of the things I didn’t love about this book (misogyny and uneven pacing) are certainly the fault of the author, but mostly it didn’t meet my expectations and the high bar set by others.

Prior to reading this book I had already read John Scalzi‘s
Old Man’s War (2005), The Ghost Brigades (2006) and Lock In (2014). With Altered Carbon releasing in 2006 it was generally contemporary with the first two, and well before the last, but I cannot help but compare the science fiction framework employed in each of these works. Scalzi approached his science fiction with a more curious mind; teased out more scenarios, ramifications and opportunities. You could tell that he labored on the scientific framework and wove the story to incorporate the most intriguing aspects. While Richard K. Morgan’s world building is deep and engaging the science fiction felt cursory and surface level; a cool overlay to a detective story. This feels like the second book in the series, like all the background, explanation and experimentation of the science fiction was lost in another volume and now we are just playing in the sand box.

The greatest disconnect for me was the concept of “real death” and its circumstances. We are informed in this story that each person has a biological computer the size of cigarette butt buried at the base of their skull which carries all of their thoughts, memories, personality and knowledge. If a person is killed then their “cortical stack” is removed and inserted into another body (“sleeve”) and they carry on. Seemingly everyone has at least enough insurance to get a new body and transfer, but although this is a digital process apparently only wealthy have digital copies on file somewhere, and the very wealthiest have regular backups. This makes no sense to me. Pure digital storage is the cheapest part of computing, and if a functional copy with all the bio-computing interface fits in a cigarette butt then I cannot fathom how most people seem not to have off-site storage. Isn’t that the number one rule of data management? Worst case scenario (apart from the religious group’s self imposed mortality) is that “real death” would be a reset to someone’s consciousness from months or years back. In fact I would guess most muscle-for-hire, prostitutes, and everyone else who seems to populate this book would work on a “burner” copy of their consciousness as a manner of contract so not to betray any illegal deeds and maintain deniability. This fundamental(albeit super nerdy) logical problem stole all the stakes out of the game for me.

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Review: The Devil You Know

The Devil You Know
The Devil You Know by Mike Carey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mike Carey’s The Devil You Know will feel familiar to fans of The Dresden Files but works with a subtler magical system and is more focused on the detective work. Felix “Fix” Castor is a necromancer in modern London who works as an independent exorcist. He starts, in a typical fashion, as a sullen loner who is not exactly honorable, but lives by a personal code. His talent with ghosts is to enchant them with music, preferably from his tin whistle which he carries as his only weapon. He plays a song which describes the spirit in detail. The song reflects the emotional truth of the ghost and its binding to the Earth. He envelops and intertwines with the spirit until they become one with the song, and when he stops the ghost is gone. This is the conflict in Fix, his focus is fine-tuned to the specifics. This is how an exorcist becomes a detective, by describing the ghost he becomes intimately aware of the spirit, including how this person came to die and the nature of its haunting; he is decidedly not focusing on his role in the transaction and the bigger picture. Fix is an atheist and believes in the aspects of the supernatural that he has experienced. There are ghosts which can be bound and unbound from this plane, but he does not investigate the larger magical framework. If there are ghosts, is there a soul? There are demons, is there a god – a devil? When he banishes them, where do they go – Is there a heaven or hell? I think these questions are probably the overall arc of the series, but at this point Felix Castor will not see the forest for the trees.

In tone the language is sharp and witty. Mike Carey is very aware of the expectations of the reader and toys with them – commenting on obvious jokes, acknowledging cultural references. But where the tone is light, the subject is quite dark. I can read about all forms of paranormal violence without effect but I am sensitive to human cruelty, and most of the violence is all too human and involves human trafficking and torture. I’m sure this is a conversation more fit for a therapist’s couch, but if a demon had been responsible for the same acts I probably wouldn’t have batted an eye. I am a big fan of detective stories and the case is thoughtfully laid out with many of the clues and loose threads woven throughout so that a careful reader can actively engage in the mystery. That aspect, along with the voice of the protagonist, definitely have be on board for a second book in the series, but the nature of the human crimes might be too much for me if the investigations don’t take a turn toward the larger supernatural questions this story raised.

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Review: The Case of Death and Honey

Weird Detectives: Recent Investigations
The Case of Death and Honey by Neil Gaiman

My Rating 5 of 5 stars

I love Sherlock Holmes and after so many books, movies and television series it is a special treat to read a unique Sherlock Holmes story which adds to the cannon in so many brilliant ways. The marvelous Neil Gaiman provides us with a rare first person point of view, albeit in the form of a letter to John Watson, from the pen of a retired, aging Sherlock Holmes as he visits his brother’s death bed. With all of the bickering and condensation between the brothers over their long history it is heartbreaking to see Sherlock’s acknowledgement of Mycroft’s greatness and the tremendous weight of his loss. (Pun intended) Mycroft’s passing ignites a passion in Holmes to answer one of the greatest mysteries of mankind. I will not flirt with spoilers or the nature of the investigation, which Neil Gaiman so expertly weaves through the alternating point of view of an elderly Chinese beekeeper and Holmes’ journal entries. At a scant 13 pages, The Case of Death and Honey is exquisitely sharp of focus and is a worthy chapter in the history of the world’s greatest detective.

The Case of Death and Honey is included in the anthology Weird Detectives: Recent Investigations edited by Paula Guran.

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Review: Love Hurts

Weird Detectives: Recent Investigations
Love Hurts by Jim Butcher

My Rating 5 of 5 stars

Jim Butcher is one of my favorite authors and his character Harry Dresden is one of the truly great characters in genre fiction. Due to my familiarity it is difficult to objectively review this short story. At just 22 pages Jim is able to artfully introduce Harry Desden, Consulting Wizard Detective, and Sargent Karrin Murphy, Chicago Special Investigations officer. As their investigation begins Harry reaches out to all of his usual contacts and haunts. In so doing Jim Butcher is able to provide a network of characters, places and methods. Although this is written following the 14th book in the Dresden Files, Butcher can effortlessly acclimate the reader to his world and characters. Through Harry and Karrin’s interactions we see their comfort, respect and affection. This is a sweet story with a self-contained mystery which provides a little tease to the longtime fans who may have wished to see the pair in the more intimate light that this road trip story provides. This is a fun story for new and longtime fans alike.

Love Hurts is included in the anthology Weird Detectives: Recent Investigations edited by Paula Guran, and is also collected in Jim Butcher’s Side Jobs.

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