The Bliss of a Deeper Dive

skull4It is rare when a mystery or thriller attempts to do more than entertain. But when a book does shift away from the genre’s shallow end and charges into the deeps, most often it will do so by analyzing an issue, dissecting a threat, or diving into unexplored history. These are all worthy efforts. Best of all is a book that finds its depth in its characters, that through their story reveals something about what it means to be human.

“Patient Number 7,” set in Austria and Germany during the dismaying rise and precipitant fall of the Nazis, accomplishes this in spades. It might bear a goofy title (the meaning of which only becomes clear in the last pages) but is an excellent book because of the depth of its interest in what constitutes a genuine person.

Patient Number 7

There are twin timelines, occupied by two main characters: Clara Eugenie Herzog, a budding university student in Vienna; and Albert Leonhardt, a captain in the Austrian cavalry. Over the objections of her family, their romance ignites while Albert squires Clara around the countryside on his Norton motorcycle.

There are twin timelines, occupied by two main characters: Clara Eugenie Herzog, a budding university student in Vienna; and Albert Leonhardt, a captain in the Austrian cavalry. Over the objections of her family, their romance ignites while Albert squires Clara around the countryside on his Norton motorcycle.

However, the dark dawn of the Third Reich already looms over their idyll – as indeed it does over the entire Western Hemisphere. In short order, Austria is absorbed by Hitler via the Anschluss in 1938, then  British prime minister Neville Chamberlain secures his everlasting post in infamy by appeasing the Reich and handing over part of Czechoslovakia through the Munich Agreement.

These events first entangle, then ensnare our characters. Albert is dragooned into the German army and becomes a tank commander under Guderian and Rommel. Meanwhile Clara and her family are swept up in the rising Nazi dominance of society at large, and are ceaselessly badgered to join in it. Amid such fraught and parlous times, how can the lovers endure? After they marry and have children, how can they help them survive?

Their salvation is not just that Clara is a strong-minded woman. It is that she’s a woman who knows how to maintain a strong mind, no matter what challenges her. Since the early Thirties, she has taken advantage of a liberal wave in European education to study philosophy, not as a heap of abstract theorems, but as a way to foster inner strength, peace and poise. She studies with Wittgenstein and Freud, and the book presents amusing and intriguing scenes of her with them and other deep thinkers – she even spots Martin Heidigger musing on a park bench, and convincingly imagines what he might be brooding about.

Clara comes to realize you can make philosophy a house that you live in, and regard the world and all its tumult through the windows. You can live in that world, yet still refuse to be of that world.  This poise, coupled with Albert’s innate sense of honor, duty, fair play and dignity, are what see the pair through – even when the story’s great villain, SS Obersturmfuhrer Bonninghaus corners her in a farmhouse to attack her while Albert is gone. The couple have already prepared each other to survive and win.

You know, plenty of stock characters wind up getting deployed over and over again in this genre. One of the hardest-working guys in the thriller bizz, for example, is a former Special Ops military man, cynical but brave, skilled with weapons and adept in martial arts, who wanders about the world’s mean streets to ceaselessly deal out his own special brand of justice, while cracking wise every step of the way. I know you’ve seen this cool bastard in action, since he turns up almost everywhere! He’s Jack, Frank, Clete, Magnum, etc. etc.

And at this point, the guy bores me to tears.

That’s why it’s so compelling to spend quality reading time with a fresh and strong, smart and unique, well-drawn and intriguing heroine like Clara Eugenie Herzog.


Aboard the Good Ship “Thriller”

Review of Dublin DeadDublin Dead. by Gerard O’Donovan

skull3In one of her lapidary poems, Emily Dickenson incisively summoned for all time our image of a book as an argosy, a ship that can transport a reader to foreign climes and cultures. And indeed, readers can readily expect time spent with a thriller or a mystery to transport them into deeper dimensions of crime and social dysfunction, the horrors of violence, and the harrowing challenges willingly taken up by the champions of justice.

A good mystery or thriller can accomplish this, and more besides. It can also illustrate Dickenson’s literal point by bearing a reader as nearly as far into a distant nation as an actual physical trip might. Such an achievement is scored by Dublin Dead.

Dublin Dead.In this complex tale of crime in modern Ireland, O’Donovan brings back a pair of main characters from a highly successful debut novel, “The Priest.” One of them is Siobhan Fallon, a pretty and feisty investigative female reporter for The Sunday Herald who was literally crucified and almost slain by the demented killer Rinn in O’Donovan’s  earlier work. Mike Mulcahy is a dedicated and dour, implacable detective inspector who heads up the National Drug Unit for the Gardai – the Irish national police.

O’Donovan grasps well that the most potent part of human sexuality is yearning. Siobhan and Mike clearly have got the steamy hots for one another.

Unfortunately they, like many native Irish, carry a mental infection brought on by generations of Manichean Catholicism. For them, strong desire is reason enough to develop resistance to the very thought of getting together. Instead, both members of this potential couple stand frozen before the gleaming apple of temptation. To them the prospect of romance seems simultaneously forbidden and alluring, powerful yet poisonous. Besides that, Siobhan is traumatized by her experiences with Rinn, and Mike is rattled by the blend of his own flight impulse, coupled with excessive concern for her frailty. So all they can seem to offer each other is a bumbling camaraderie that switches back-and-forth between angry confrontation and awkward affection.

In short their situation is so bloody Irish, it fairly sweats Guinness and reeks of peat smoke.

Frustrated passion doesn’t prevent Siobhan and Mike from rushing fiercely into danger over and over again to save each other’s lives. Rather, it actively forces them to do that very thing. Because, you see, it’s a mighty form of sublimation, a substitute for that other consummation which they struggle with all their strength to avoid.

The shamrock is flamboyantly branded on some other story elements that are more atmospheric. These include: a Church whose once-omnipotent presence has faded to a dim, decaying backdrop; a turbulent history whose modern harvest is a glowering belligerence readily accessible to most of the characters; and the faltering spasms of a “Celtic Tiger” economy everywhere reduced to mewling-kitten status.

One more major element helps “Dublin Dead” bear readers away on a voyage to a tarnished Emerald Isle: the well-rendered, rich vernacular language, robust and profane, which is scattered throughout the book’s scenes with a prodigal hand. Here follows a few of my favorite phrases.

Rain is a, “feckin’ downpour”; a criminal is a, “yellow gobshite”; a suspect is, “some eejit”; and the deity is either, “Jaysus” or “Christ on a bike.” For complete sentences, I savored, “All the molly-coddling, it’s complete bollocks”; and, “How do you fancy that pint I owe you?”

As to plot, it primarily deals with the fallout from the seizure of ninety bales of Columbian cocaine, taken from an ocean-going yacht off the Irish coast; this find is Mulcahy’s main focus. Another mystery is presented by the suicide of a promising young Irish real estate developer, who takes a flyer off a high bridge in England; this is the focus of an investigation by Fallon. As the troubled duo of detectives flail through a welter of confusing clues and false leads, they belatedly come to understand they’ve been laboring to unravel opposite ends of the same sprawling conspiracy.

I loved many parts of this novel, except for its climactic finale, which held too many head-snapping reversals-of-fortune for my taste.

However, overall, the part of it I far-and-away loved best was a chance to fly straight into Ireland and linger there for a good while, without any need to purchase or endure a six-hour plane ride.

“There is no frigate like a book

To take us lands away,

Nor any coursers like a page

Of prancing poetry.

This traverse may the poorest take

Without oppress of toll;

How frugal is the chariot


Virtue of the Stark and Simple

The Drop (A Harry Bosch Novel)“  – by Michael Connelly


I just finished my new favorite work by Michael Connelly: “The Drop,” a Harry Bosch mystery from 2011. (It displaces “Void Moon,” from 1999.) I realize the dude’s scribbled four or five more volumes since Drop. What can I say? Connelly seems to turn ‘em out more quickly than Famous Amos bakes cookies. It’s tough for mere mortals to keep up! Plus, he’s not the only writer any self-respecting mystery/thriller buff must read to stay au courant.

A path into “The Drop” was provided to me by Connelly himself in a recent New York Times book review section (Feb. 2015), wherein he assessed the debut of “The Whites,” by a colleague (and presumptive  competitor) in the genre, Richard Price. Connelly leads into that piece with a generous anecdote, recounting how impressed he was by a Price quote he once plucked from a magazine interview.

To wit: “When you circle around a murder long enough, you get to know a city.”

Connelly cut that line out and stuck it above his computer screen, where it served as a lodestone for his own writing for a few years. I’d like to think that it was still up there as he wrote “The Drop,” because that’s precisely what this deceptively simple – at first! – procedural mystery achieves. It doesn’t only add a fresh stratum to the legend of his enduring detective cum knight errant, Harry Bosch. This book also limns the smog-wreathed skyline of LA and the city’s beleaguered PD… as well as the shadow realm that lurks below the spires and towers of this afflicted metropolis.

This author seems to be at a charmed point in his career. Not just because he’s made the best-seller lists only slightly less often than God, but also, because he now knows he doesn’t need to open a story with a garish and gory splash. His fan base will stick, so he can launch readers into The Drop with a stark and simple scene of detectives shoving files around on desks in their dingy office. And these are not even contemporary files, they’re musty records (“murder books”) of the Open-Unsolved Unit, kicking around cases from decades past.

So Connelly shows us basic cop procedure, rendered in language basic and un-flamboyant. That style happen to remind you of anything? Readers of a certain age may recall the clear and clipped cadences of the old “Dragnet” TV show of the 50s and 60s, which featured the laconic Jack Webb as Detective Sgt. Joe Friday. Cue the musical theme, “dum-da-dum-dum.” And then, after an image of the phallic county courthouse and his badge, number 714, hear Webb intone, “This is the city, Los Angeles, California. I work here. I’m a cop.”

Well, laconic at first, maybe. In some episodes Webb grew way too loquacious and pontifical. But my point is, in the opening tone of “The Drop,” Connelly invokes Joe Friday. Just as in the character development of Harry Bosch, he invokes the long-suffering persistence and battered honor of Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe, and other guardians of the presumed innocent in a neon-washed L.A.

Another beauty of “The Drop” is the way a single clue – a faint blood smear on the neck of a 19 year-old coed that did not come from her, nor even from her killer – is unfolded, origami-like, by Bosch, to eventually lead him to a serial murderer who’s outsmarted everyone for decades. This mystery is interwoven with another, as he digs into the truth behind the apparent suicide of the son of a city councilman. These two threads combine to weave a tapestry of deception in which the only reliable constant is Bosch’s dogged persistence.

A third charm, highly unusual in this genre, is that there’s almost no violence. Oh, there are crimes aplenty, some with gruesome evidence, vividly described. But the sole physical action occurs when Bosch engineers a take-down and cuffing of the serial killer, and next prevents his death at the hands of a former victim. The beauty of this is that it allows the reader to focus on the detective work and the character of the detective. Bosch at this point is a gruff, no-nonsense, greying eminence on the force. He needs the job – nailing miscreants is his raison d’etre. But he certainly doesn’t need to take any shit from anyone, including his bosses, and he won’t. That gives his every interaction a stolid, curmudgeonly charm.

To put it simply, in The Drop, Connelly concentrates on making simplicity a virtue. And he ends up with a stark, clear work that portrays victims, assailants and cops churning through a complex dance where death and danger call the tune, and success at completing a number only means winning the chance to do it all over again. This novel offers a map to the homes of the stars, and the retreats of scumbags, and the locations of those caught in between – plus a few unusual people who carry well the awful burden of badges – in a town that Joni Mitchell sang of as, “L.A., city of the fallen angels.”



Hurricane King hit South Florida in the fall of 1950. Paul McHugh blew into town then, too. His father piled limestone boulders into an old Army jeep to keep it from being blown off the road, before he drove McHugh’s mother – already in labor – to the hospital.

McHugh grew up in the Everglades, the Florida Keys and the Bahamas, fostering a deep love for nature and vigorous outdoor sports. At age 13, he entered a Roman Catholic seminary to study for the priesthood. He left at age 19 to complete a secular education at FSU in Tallahassee. He graduated with a summa cum laude degree in English, with an emphasis on poetry (and a minor in psychology) from FSU in 1972.

He rambled by motorcycle across the U.S., looking for the place he wanted to live. It turned out to be Northern California. McHugh supported himself by a variety of jobs – including fair barker, archery instructor, catering truck driver, masseur and union carpenter – while writing his first novel, “The Search for Goodbye to Rains” (published by Island Press in 1980).

McHugh moved up to the thriving artist’s colony of Mendocino, where he launched a career as a freelance writer and video producer, focusing on topics like resource use, environmental issues, and outdoor sport. Meanwhile, he expanded his resume’ of activities, adding rock climbing, ski mountaineering, bow hunting, mountain biking, whitewater kayaking, sea kayak racing and surfing to the activities he had enjoyed growing up in Florida – fishing, hiking, sailing and skin diving.

In 1985, he was hired to be co-editor and main feature writer for the Outdoors section of The San Francisco Chronicle, a post he held until 2007.

During that period, McHugh also published a non-fiction book, “Wild Places,” with Foghorn Books.