Four friends: Alex, the ne’er-do-well dad who toils by night as a bartender; Ian, the high-stakes dealmaker with an addictive personality; Jenn, a travel agent with an ever-more-humdrum existence; and Mitch, the doorman at a tony apartment building. Somehow, amid the comings and goings of other friends and acquaintances, these four have stuck together, carving out space for one another at a down-at-the-heels bar every Thursday night—the very bar where Alex serves as bartender. Their major bond is that they are all inveterate game players, the favorite pastime being variations of “what if,” as in “what if I had the opportunity to appropriate a bucket of money that didn’t belong to me?” They are about to find out the answer to that question, and it will be light years away from what any of them could have predicted. Marcus Sakey’s The Amateurs takes the reader on a roller coaster ride of epic proportions, an ill-planned heist in which Murphy (of Murphy’s Law fame) runs amok, and outcomes can only be guessed at by extrapolating worst-case scenarios. Friendships will be strained, new alliances formed and the rules of the game will change at the whims of the key players, leading up to a dramatic (and more than a little cathartic) conclusion.
Dark times in Africa
Kwei Quartey’s Wife of the Gods is one of the best debuts I have had the pleasure of reading in some time. Set in Ghana, the book has generated comparisons to Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books, although I have to say I don’t see any similarity whatsoever—apart from the African setting. Kwartey’s book is a darker tale of murder in the bush, a malevolent village shaman and a tradition of human bondage. The title refers to young women who are “apprenticed” to fetish priests, in order to bring blessings and good fortune to their families. They are little more than indentured servants at best, or concubine slaves at worst. In the midst of this antiquated system, an attractive social worker is murdered, and the investigation quickly overwhelms the local constabulary. The big guns are summoned from the capital, and immediately there is turf conflict with the locals, who have identified (or perhaps framed?) a village lad for the crime. As Detective Inspector Darko Dawson digs into the meager assortment of clues, he comes face to face with a mystery that has haunted him since he was a child. Wife of the Gods is a lush and well-written tale of murder most foul, set in an alien landscape, but laced with many of the same motivations and alibis you might expect to find much closer to home.
Dueling narratives make for a suspenseful ride
One of my favorite types of suspense novel follows the actions of two main characters, displaced either by distance or time, and their inexorable march toward one another. Dan Fesperman’s latest novel, The Arms Maker of Berlin, plays on this theme like a classical concerto. In half of the story, the action follows Kurt Bauer, the college-age son of a Berlin industrialist in the closing days of WWII. Bauer is faced with the Sophie’s Choice of selling out his friends and lover to save his family; his decision will haunt him for the rest of his days. Fast forward to present times: in the wake of the suspicious jailhouse death of his estranged mentor, a young professor of German history finds himself conscripted by the FBI to do some consulting regarding a box of wartime German documents—documents featuring the aforementioned Bauer, and real-life prototype spymaster Allen Dulles. Under normal circumstances, it would be a researcher’s dream, but not when people are lining up to steal the documents and, if necessary, kill anyone who stands in their way. And so the cat-and-mouse games begin, the trail leading from New England to Switzerland to Berlin, with both “white hat” and “black hat” guys in hot pursuit. There are clues to the denouement for the ardent mystrophile (don’t bother looking this word up; I just coined it), and although one piece thereof came as no surprise to me, I was completely blindsided by another more critical revelation, to my immense delight.
Mystery of the month
In a month filled with extraordinarily good mysteries, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Played With Fire stands apart from the crowd, a hip post-modern tale of a crusading journalist and an inordinately talented computer hacker caught up together in the aftermath of a lurid murder. Lisbeth Salander, a troubled young woman who can play a computer the way Tommy Emmanuel can play an acoustic guitar, has used her talents, quite illegally and untraceably, to make herself a wealthy woman. It should almost be the happily-ever-after end of the story, except that her fingerprints have been found on a gun used to kill a pair of researchers on the eve of their publication of an expose on sex slavery in Scandinavia.
Respected journalist Michael Blomqvist doesn’t think Salander had anything to do with it. He had a relationship with her some time back, and he knows all too well what she is capable of—or more importantly, what she is not capable of. Blomqvist’s relationship with Salander ended badly, and she doesn’t trust him any further than she can spit, but with or without her help, Blomqvist intends to clear her name, and perhaps in the process figure out just what went wrong between the two of them. Blomqvist’s only ally is an elderly hospitalized man of limited communication capacity, Salander’s onetime advocate. Together, the men launch a investigation parallel to the official one, an investigation without the foregone conclusions that seem to characterize the police work in the case.
Salander is an edgy character, more than a little reminiscent of Robert Eversz’ punk photographer/detective Nina Zero; Blomqvist, for his part, is an urbane mix of relentless researcher and firebrand reformer, always stirred, never shaken. The Girl Who Played With Fire is their second outing together; their first, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, should be on your “do not miss” short list as well.Copyright 2009 BookPage Reviews.
Lisbeth Salander, the antisocial but brilliant computer hacker who helped journalist Mikael Blomkvist uncover a serial killer on a remote Swedish island in Larsson's acclaimed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, takes center stage in this second volume of his "Millenium" trilogy. Opening 18 months after the events of the first book, the novel finds our heroine lounging by the pool at a Caribbean hotel, reading a math textbook, and watching a woman who may be a victim of domestic abuse, while in Sweden, Blomkvist, bewildered by Salander's abrupt disappearance from his life, is set to publish a magazine expos on the sex trade. Impatient readers may chafe at this seemingly irrelevant prolog, but like the mathematical puzzles Salander enjoys solving, there is a logic to the clues that Larsson carefully drops--integral to understanding his protagonist as we gradually learn her back story. The main plot takes off with the murders of Salander's legal guardian and the two writers of the article, and her fingerprints are found on the gun used in the killings. VERDICT Although the pace slows when the police investigation takes precedence and Salander briefly disappears from the action, we are well-rewarded in the exciting final section when she finally confronts her dark past. This is complex and compelling storytelling at its best, propelled by one of the most fascinating characters in recent crime fiction. Eager fans will placing library holds for the final volume, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest, scheduled for a 2010 U. S. publication. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 4/1/09; see also the Q&A with Knopf editor in chief Sonny Mehta and executive director of publicity Paul Bogaards on p. 60.--Ed.]--Wilda Williams, Library Journal[Page 62]. Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.
Fans of intelligent page-turners will be more than satisfied by Larsson's second thriller, even though it falls short of the high standard set by its predecessor, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which introduced crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist and punk hacker savant Lisbeth Salander. A few weeks before Dag Svensson, a freelance journalist, plans to publish a story that exposes important people involved in Sweden's sex trafficking business based on research conducted by his girlfriend, Mia Johansson, a criminologist and gender studies scholar, the couple are shot to death in their Stockholm apartment. Salander, who has a history of violent tendencies, becomes the prime suspect after the police find her fingerprints on the murder weapon. While Blomkvist strives to clear Salander of the crime, some far-fetched twists help ensure her survival. Powerful prose and intriguing lead characters will carry most readers along. (Aug.)[Page 27]. Copyright 2009 Reed Business Information.