WRATH OF THE FURIES: Roman detective Gordianus the Finder tries to go undercover amid angry Greeks bearing arms – #bookreview

 

Wrath of the Furies

A Novel of the Ancient World

Steven Saylor

Minotaur Books – hardback, Kindle

As a young student, I deliberately avoided the ancient world—all of those armless and headless statues, magnificent carved-stone structures collapsed into rubble, “wonders of the world,” and gods and goddesses who allegedly had both magical powers and human frailties.

Now that I am somewhat older (okay, a lot older), I have read several of the 15 novels in Steven Saylor’s popular Roma Sub Rosa series of historical mysteries. The series features a clever Roman investigator known as Gordianus the Finder. Gordianus is a fictional character, but he encounters many of the ancient world’s real-life kings, queens, generals, political leaders and other figures while trying to solve murders and other crimes.

Thanks to Saylor’s expertise and irrepressible enthusiasm for ancient Roman and Greek times, I have found myself both enjoying his engaging fiction and pausing now and then to look up more about the people, places, things, and customs that Gordianus is encountering in each book. In other words, I am learning some eye-opening things about the ancient world and wishing I had gotten an earlier start.

In Saylor’s new novel, Wrath of the Furies, set in 88 B.C., Gordanius is a young man of just 22 and still somewhat subject to youth’s reckless belief in invincibility.  He receives a cryptic message, apparently a distress signal, from his former tutor and friend, Antipater, and decides to sneak into Greek-held territory to try to rescue him. Of course, this is at a dangerous moment. Greek forces led by the brutal King Mithridates are taking back Greek-speaking cities previously held by the Roman Empire. Some of Italy’s states also are revolting against Rome. So now is not a good time to be Roman detective snooping around amid angry Greeks bearing arms.

It is also not a good time for travelling with your slave (and lover), Bethesda, while trying to disguise yourself as a mute so your Roman-accented Greek won’t give you away. And it is an especially bad time to be going to the ancient Greek-speaking city of Ephesus (where King Mithridates now holds the home-court advantage), particularly when you don’t realize that sinister and powerful forces are drawing you in, and you must solve the mystery of Antipater’s message before it gets you and others killed.

Wrath of the Furies is a fine addition to Steven Saylor’s excellent Roma Sub Rosa ancient history-mystery series.

Si Dunn

 

 

 

 

 

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See Also Murder – A fine mystery featuring an unusual investigator in an unusual locale – #bookreview

 

See Also Murder

A Marjorie Trumaine Mystery

Larry D. Sweazy

(Seventh Street Books – paperback, Kindle)

 

I love mystery stories where the investigator is neither a bitter private detective nor a jaded cop, and the setting is somewhere far away from New York, Los Angeles, Paris or other “usual suspect” cities.

Larry D. Sweazy’s new novel features a North Dakota farm wife who freelances as a book indexer while also taking care of her disabled husband and their tenuous hold on their windswept acreage.

When a nearby farm couple is brutally murdered, the local sheriff comes to see Marjorie Trumaine and asks her to help him track down the meaning or identity of a puzzling clue, a strange, Norse copper amulet found clutched in one victim’s hand.

Marjorie is reluctant, at first, to help, creeped out by what has happened to her neighbors and worried about protecting her blind and partially paralyzed husband from danger.

Once she does go to work on trying to identify the amulet, however, she begins to come across odd, seemingly disconnected clues. But the puzzles start to become clearer to her once she puts her book indexing skills to work. She begins creating an index of clues and suspects. And what she organizes soon leads her right into an unexpected, deadly trap.

Larry D. Sweazy is a well-established Western writer who has been casting a wider fiction net recently. And, like Marjorie Trumaine, he is a professional book indexer. Unlike Marjorie, however, he has compiled more than 800 back-of-the-book indexes for major trade publishers and university presses.

Set in the 1960s, See Also Murder is mystery at some of its engrossing best, with an investigator definitely worth following as the new series grows.

Si Dunn

 

The Sun is God – Adrian McKinty takes readers well off the beaten path with this new historical mystery – #bookreview

 

The Sun is God

Adrian McKinty

Seventh Street Books – Kindle, paperback

Take a weird but true exotic setting. Throw in some real people and real murders. Add to the mix a fictional investigator: Will Prior, an ex-military police lieutenant who deliberately got himself cashiered from the British army during the Boer War following a deadly clash with African prisoners. Wrap it all up with a (very) surprising ending.

The Sun is God, Adrian McKinty’s new historical mystery, likely will please and amaze many readers. Trying to track down a murderer in a 1906 German nudist colony off the coast of New Guinea is a stunning and challenging departure from his Detective Sean Duffy trilogy set in the urban battles and enormous tensions of Northern Ireland in the 1980s.

McKinty is in fine form in this book as he offers up a complicated crime story set within a little-remembered slice of pre-World War I history: Part of New Guinea, north of Australia, was a German colony in the year 1906.

It is here that Will Prior is now living with his “servant girl,” Siwa, amid the colony’s failing banana, rubber and tea plantations.  While still willing to swear allegiance to the British Empire, Will now lives under German rule. So, when a German army officer, Captain Hauptmann Kessler, comes to his house one day, Will fears that it is to take back the money Germany previously loaned him to become a plantation owner. Instead, Will learns that the colony’s governor wants him, because of his past military police experience, to go with Captain Kessler to an island where some German nudists claim to have discovered the secret of immortality.

One of the immortals, unfortunately, has suddenly turned up quite dead. And while the nudists claim the victim died in his bed from malaria, an official autopsy in the capital of German New Guinea has revealed something quite different: the victim drowned and had bruise marks consistent with a struggle.

Things quickly get even more strange after Will and Kessler arrive and have to camp amid the nudists and share their dangerous diet while they attempt to find clues. There’s sex, yes, and drugs. (But the novel is set 50 years before Elvis Presley, so no rock ‘n’ roll.)  And, once danger erupts for the two investigators, they can’t call for backup, and they definitely can’t hide — not on a very small island that boats seldom visit, because it’s thought to be haunted.

Si Dunn

The Troubles Trilogy: Adrian McKinty’s Northern Ireland crime novels are powerful, engrossing reading – #bookreview

In the Morning I’ll Be Gone

Book Three: The Troubles Trilogy

Adrian McKinty

(Seventh Street Books, paperback)

I wish I had discovered The Troubles Trilogy and Detective Sean Duffy much sooner than Book Three. I really don’t like reading trilogies in reverse.

But Adrian McKinty is an amazingly good crime novelist. And now that I have also read his two other books in ThTroubles Trilogy,  I can honestly say that it is pleasingly easy to read these works in any order you wish.

In the Morning I'll Be Gone cover

Yes, Book One: The Cold Cold Ground and Book Two: I Hear the Sirens in the Streets are tied together by some of the same characters and settings found in Book Three: In the Morning I’ll Be Gone. Each novel, however, stands solidly on its own.

Detective Sean Duffy is an Irish Catholic cop working for the Royal Ulster Constabulary, Northern Ireland’s decidedly unpopular police force. The three novels unfold during the early 1980s, amid some of the most violent times in a small-scale but deadly civil war that has been raging for decades. On one side are the mostly Protestant Unionists and Loyalists, who want Northern Ireland to stay part of the  United Kingdom. On the other side are the mostly Catholic Nationalists and Republicans who want Northern Ireland to become part of the Republic of Ireland again.

Duffy, caught in the middle and working for a mostly Protestant police force, must try to solve grisly murder cases while not getting blown up by Irish Republican Army car bombs–he never goes anywhere without first looking beneath his vehicle–or killed by bullets fired by snipers on both sides.

There are neighborhoods where it’s deadly to be a Protestant or a Catholic and neighborhoods where it’s equally deadly to be one of Her Majesty’s cops, or “peelers,” in the local argot.  (Sir Robert Peel, a 19th century British prime minister, is credited with creating the concept of a metropolitan police force. As a result, police officers became known as “bobbies” in England and “peelers” in Northern Ireland.)

Sometimes, in pursuit of leads and suspects, Duffy finds himself on streets that are British territory on one side of the center line and Irish territory on the other. And, a classic tough-guy detective, Duffy seldom hesitates if he needs to sneak into Ireland, where he has absolutely no jurisdiction except his fists and his guns. Also, he sometimes crosses that dark, ill-defined border between good cop and bad cop, in the name of justice as he defines it.

Adrian McKinty has been compared, deservedly so, to Raymond Chandler and a few other leading crime novelists. He is a native of Northern Ireland, and his taut, well-written, realistic prose makes excellent use of that region’s cultures, languages and longstanding sectarian tensions. He draws you in quickly and doesn’t let you escape –not until after gritty Detective Sean Duffy finally has tracked down and confronted the killer face to face.

Si Dunn

Man in the Blue Moon – Fine Southern fiction by Michael Morris – #bookreview #fiction

Man in the Blue Moon
Michael Morris
(Tyndale, paperbackKindle)

Book reviewers, particularly Southern U.S. book reviewers, frequently pick through new “Southern” novels looking for “echoes” of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee, Eudora Welty, or Walker Percy. (I wish some of them also would look for echoes of that good but now almost-forgotten Southern novelist James Street.)

Though I was born in Mississippi and grew up in Arkansas, I had never thought of Florida as “Deep South.” It was, after all, something of a military backwater during the Civil War (yet a vital place for smuggling in supplies for the Confederacy). During my 1950s youth, when bands played “Dixie” and all-white crowds stood up to raucously cheer, I always pictured the Deep South as ending at the southern borders of Georgia and Alabama. Florida never really entered my thinking as a Confederate state, even though it was among the first to secede.

There are, however, plenty of “Southern” echoes in Michael Morris’s fine new novel, Man in the Blue Moon, set in rural Florida during World War I. How the characters talk, think, and interact seem very Southern to me. And the values they hold, as well as the self-righteous justifications they bring to wrongdoings, also seem familiar and right in my recollections of growing up in the South. So I am happy to declare Michael Morris an excellent novelist “in the Southern tradition.” And I hereby amend my mental picture of the literary Deep South to include Florida – especially its panhandle.

In Man in the Blue Moon, Ella Wallace’s drug-addicted husband has disappeared and left her deep in debt in tiny Dead Lakes, Florida, with three young sons to support, a small store to run, and a tract of panhandle land “thick with pines and cypress.” Ella’s father had called the tract her “birthright” and, on his deathbed, begged her to hold onto it, no matter what. Now, however, a crooked banker in nearby Apalachicola has come up with a scheme to profit from Ella’s land and is playing every angle – some of them creepy and deadly — to gain possession of the acreage. At the same time, looming large in the background and close around, the infamous 1918 Spanish flu epidemic is taking lives with shocking suddenness.

Against this grim backdrop, a mysterious stranger enters Ella’s life in a very unusual way (no spoilers here). And he quickly has two strikes against him. One, he is a distant relative of Ella’s missing husband. And two, he seems to have both a troubled past and some abilities to heal sick and wounded animals and people. These simply heighten the suspicions that Ella and others hold against him. Yet, to save her land, her store and her family, Ella must trust him to help her and her sons try to harvest enough timber in time to pay off the bank note, even as murder, hypocrisy, and other troubles unfurl around them.

After reading and relishing Man in the Blue Moon, I am very pleased to add Michael Morris to my personal pantheon of fine Southern novelists. He brings his own echoes to the hall.

Si Dunn

Five Dark Riders – A novel rich with history, intrigue, action & romance – #fiction #bookreview

Five Dark Riders
Bill Sloan
(Zipp City Press, paperback, Kindle)

Bill Sloan is an acclaimed historian and veteran newspaper journalist previously nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He also is one of America’s best writers of World War II Pacific-theater combat narratives. (His latest, Undefeated: America’s Heroic Fight for Bataan and Corregidor, was published in April.)

With Five Dark Riders, his new “fact-based novel,” Sloan demonstrates that he can write engrossing, entertaining historical thrillers, as well.

Drawing upon President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s real-life 1936 trip to Dallas, Texas, Sloan has concocted an absorbing tale built around American domestic political intrigue, international espionage and an unfolding assassination plot.

In Sloan’s novel, Nazi agents have infiltrated a rural area of Texas where German immigrants first arrived in the 19th century, and pro-German culture and sympathies remain strong as Adolph Hitler continues to gain power. The agents’ goal is to assassinate FDR in Dallas, so Vice President John Nance Garner, an avowed isolationist, will take over the White House and keep the United States from going to war with Germany.

The only people who can stop the plot are two South Texans who don’t seem to stand much of a chance: Adam Wagner, a mildly disabled World War I combat veteran who now tends to his father’s sheep and goat farm in South Texas, and Elena Velasco, the beautiful and Anglo-distrusting daughter of an Hispanic family that operates a drugstore in a small Texas town.

Adam and Elena decipher the plot while trying to figure out who killed Elena’s cousin, Julio, who Adam had known since Julio was a baby. The local sheriff, an Anglo of German descent, has done little to investigate the young Mexican’s death, and now he has been duped by a close friend who secretly is at the center of the assassination plot. The sheriff has come to believe Adam may be Julio’s killer and may be involved in other crimes, as well. In reality, one of the Nazi agents killed Julio, and Adam and Elena have figured out how and why.

No one in authority, however, will listen to, nor believe, Adam and Elena and relay what they have discovered to the Secret Service. So, in desperation and with very few resources, the two South Texans begin a journey to Dallas to try to stop the plot themselves.

It’s a dangerous gamble. The Nazis want them dead. And the Secret Service has become aware that there may be some kind of plot against FDR and is trying to maintain very tight security in Texas. Meanwhile, the president’s protectors also are having trouble keeping track of the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, who keeps slipping away from them. And now they have been alerted to the movements of a suspicious, dangerous couple – Adam and Elena – who seem to keep trying to get close to the president, most likely to harm him.

It’s an excellent setup for a thrill-ride finish that’s full of history, intrigue, action, and romance.

Si Dunn

Steven Saylor’s ‘The Seven Wonders’ – A fine intro to Gordianus the Finder, famous sleuth of ancient Rome – #bookreview #in #mystery #fiction

The Seven Wonders: A Novel of the Ancient World
Steven Saylor
(Minotaur Books, hardback, list price $25.99; Kindle edition, $12.99)

To be honest, until I picked up this book, I had paid zero attention to best-selling author Steven Saylor’s long-running Roma Sub Rosa series of mysteries set in ancient times, in the Roman Empire. The hero in that series’ 10 novels and two short story collections is Gordianus the Finder, Rome’s most sought-after investigator.

I’ve never been keen on stories (or movies) where people run around in togas and sandals, swear upon assorted gods and goddesses, and kill each other with swords or poisons.

Also, my notion of private detectives has tended to go back only as far as Sherlock Holmes. I’ve mainly been a Spenser/Marlowe/Hammer kind of guy. You know, fists and firearms, not swords and sandals.

The Seven Wonders, the new “prequel” to the Roma Sub Rosa series, has, however, just expanded my horizon quite a bit. Saylor has created a mystery- and adventure-packed tale that introduces Gordianus as a young man, before he has assumed the mantle of “The Finder” from his father.

The tale is set in 92 B.C., a time when the Roman Empire still dominates Greece. But rumors of war are afoot (literally), spies are everywhere, and even the most seemingly trustworthy friend cannot really be trusted amid all of the anti-Roman political intrigue.

It is also the year when Gordianus has reached – and at last crossed – the dividing line between childhood and getting to wear the “manly toga” of an adult. He’s now ready to leave home – Rome – and have some adventures.

He soon gets much more than he expects as he travels with his tutor and travel guide, the aging Antipater of Sidon, “one of the most celebrated poets in the world, famed not only for the elegance of his verses but for the almost magical way he could produce them impromptu, as if drawn from the aether.”

A real figure in history, Antipater has been given at least some of the credit for coming up with the famous list of the Seven Wonders of the World.

In the novel, the poet leaves Rome under mysterious circumstances but takes Gordianus along as he revisits each of the Seven Wonders. He carefully tutors the young Roman, yet things quickly and repeatedly go awry. At their first stop, for example, the Greeks’ wondrous Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, a young girl drops dead unexpectedly during a major celebration. And Gordianus stealthily investigates, using skills learned from his father, a man who “called himself Finder, because men hired him to find the truth.”

The Finder’s son soon determines that the young girl was murdered. Meanwhile, another young girl has been blamed and will die if Gordianus can’t solve his first case fast enough. He succeeds in a clever way, kills his first bad guy, and also has his first sexual encounter, thanks to the sensuous generosity of a beautiful slave woman who has helped him trap the murderer.  

There are then six more Wonders to see, and at each stop, Saylor provides the reader with mysteries rich in history, legend, danger, plot twists and engrossing entertainment as the youthful Gordianus struggles to puzzle them out.

Steven Saylor, who lives in Berkeley, California, and Austin, Texas, is a rare kind of writer, one who deftly blends scholarly detail with fast-paced fiction and makes dead worlds seem to come alive again.

I’m now a Spenser/Marlowe/Hammer/Gordianus kind of guy when it comes to detective fiction. And, thanks to this clever prequel, I’m ready to stop ignoring and start reading the Roma Sub Rosa series.

The Seven Wonders will be available starting June 5, 2012 and can be pre-ordered on Amazon.com.

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Si Dunn is a novelist, screenwriter, freelance book reviewer, and former software technical writer and software/hardware QA test specialist. He also is a former newspaper and magazine photojournalist. His latest book is Dark Signals, a Vietnam War memoir. He is the author of an e-book detective novel, Erwin’s Law, now also available in paperback, plus a novella, Jump, and several other books and short stories.