The Tzer Island book blog features book reviews written by TChris, the blog's founder.  I hope the blog will help readers discover good books and avoid bad books.  I am a reader, not a book publicist.  This blog does not exist to promote particular books, authors, or publishers.  I therefore do not participate in "virtual book tours" or conduct author interviews.  You will find no contests or giveaways here.

The blog's nonexclusive focus is on literary/mainstream fiction, thriller/crime/spy novels, and science fiction.  While the reviews cover books old and new, in and out of print, the blog does try to direct attention to books that have been recently published.  Reviews of new (or newly reprinted) books generally appear every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  Reviews of older books appear on occasional weekends.  Readers are invited and encouraged to comment.  See About Tzer Island for more information about this blog, its categorization of reviews, and its rating system.


The Execution of Justice by Friedrich Dürrenmatt

First published in Switzerland in 1985; published in translation by Pushkin Vertigo on April 2, 2019

The Execution of Justice reminds readers that there are “cases where the justice system made no sense, became mere farce.” At the very least, the justice system often flounders when it tries to discover the truth in a world where nothing is certain. Friedrich Dürrenmatt explores that concept in an engaging crime novel that indicts not just the Swiss justice system, but Switzerland itself, and perhaps all of humanity.

Dr.h.c. Isaak Kohler, former canton deputy, strolls into a restaurant, amiably greets Professor Adolf Winter, then pulls out a revolver and shoots him dead. Or did he? The police commandant looks up from his meal in time to see his friend Kohler strolling away from the victim. The public prosecutor, Jammerlin, insists upon using the full force of the police to find Kohler, which turns out to be unnecessary when Kohler strolls into the concert Jammerlin is attending, sits down next to the prosecutor, and enjoys the music until the police arrest him after politely waiting for the performance of Brahms to end.

Kohler puts up no defense, readily admits the crime (or does he?), but insists he had no motive. Nor can any motive be discovered. Thus he is condemned as a killer who kills for the joy of killing and is given the hefty (by Swiss standards) sentence of 20 years.

The novel is narrated by a low-rent lawyer, Herr Spät, who specializes in representing whores. Spät gets a letter from Kohler and visits the penitentiary to meet with him. The warden can’t understand why Kohler is so happy; it defies his faith in realism. Kohler asks Spät to reinvestigate his case on the assumption that he is not the murderer — another blow to realism and seemingly pointless, but Spät needs the money. Later, for much the same motivation, Spät sells himself again, but in a different way.

It is easy enough for Spät to figure out how Kohler rid himself of the murder weapon, but it is altogether more difficult to make a case for Kohler’s innocence. At Kohler’s request, he engages the services of a private investigator named Fredi Lienhard. His investigation brings him to a woman who calls herself Monica Steiermann, the boyfriend who beats Monica (Dr. Benno), and the Prince von Cuxhafen, a Formula I racer who also beats her. The convoluted “lives, loves, guzzles, swindles, scrambles and fusses” he encounters lead him at any given moment closer to or farther from the object of his investigation: “the truth behind the truth.” A truth that, in the end, “seems hardly more than a bizarre and evil fairy tale.”

The story is immensely clever. If Kohler had no motive, it soon becomes clear that someone else did. People begin to wonder, against all odds, whether the person with the motive is actually guilty, and the reader begins to wonder whether actual guilt has anything to do with justice. Innocence and guilt are both theories; nobody knows the truth. Spät, in the meantime, becomes involved in a surprising mystery of his own, one that seems to give the plot its final twist. The main story ends inconclusively, with Spät resolved to take a certain retributive action that he might or might not carry out. An “editor’s note” follows, completing the story with yet another twist.

A rambling section near the novel’s end is narrated by a drunken Spät, who indicts the justice system not as corrupt but as a lie, a false image of impartiality when everything about the police and lawyers and judges is biased in one way or another. Justice in such a system is an illusion, or at best a happy accident. Of course, those sorts of musings inspire people to administer their own brand of justice, a temptation that causes one of the characters to advise against revenge. “What had happened was unimportant, because it happened. You had to shake off the things that happened to you, anyone who was unable to forget was simply throwing himself in the path of time and would be crushed.”

Dürrenmatt describes his country and its post-war history in prose that is both lush and scathing. Spät tells us that he has been raised “according to the principles of the pedagogues and psychiatrists that our nation has produced along with precision watches, psychopharmaceuticals, secret bank accounts, and eternal neutrality.”

The story sometimes resembles a carnival in the way it assaults the reader with colorful and freakish characters. Strong prose, captivating characters, philosophical depth, and a plot that manages to be both byzantine and clear make me recommend The Execution of Justice as a classic example of a crime novel that rises above the genre.



The Labyrinth Index by Charles Stross

Published by on October 30, 2018

I’m not really into stories about vampires and demons, but Charles Stross is such a good writer that I make an exception for his Laundry Files novels. And while I generally prefer science fiction to fantasy, I have to admit I couldn’t wrap my head around Stross’ Accelerando or Glasshouse, two novels that are acclaimed for their ideas, which are plentiful, although plot and characterization are largely sacrificed for the sake of stuffing the books full of Stross’ notions of what the future might hold. The universe in which the Laundry Files series is set is rich and layered, but Stross also devotes some effort to creating action-adventure plots that are always entertaining.

The novels imagine a British spy agency (the Laundry) that protects the nation from occult threats. Magic is both a weapon and a defense, although the magic is equation-based. The American counterpart (the OPA), sometimes known as the Black Chamber, is not well liked by Laundry operatives (American Postal Inspectors of the occult are more welcome). Early books focused on a character named Bob Howard, but more recent books tend to have ensemble casts. The occult threats grow in number and power with each new novel. The protagonists tend to be vampires who are (sort of) under the British government’s control. At this point, however, the British government is under the control of a dark and sinister power. The Prime Minister has been replaced by an incarnation of the Black Pharaoh, as The Delirium Brief explains in detail. Even darker powers are on the horizon.

The vampire protagonist in The Labyrinth Index is Mhari Murphy. Murphy is working as an executioner for the British government, among her other duties as a highly placed official in New Management. Executions are a necessity because vampires need a blood supply. For dire reasons that earlier novels explain, the Laundry has been officially disbanded but Murphy performs chores as assigned by the new PM.

The PM is convinced (and he might be right) that nonhuman entities are taking over America’s Executive Branch. He assigns Murphy to build a team that will infiltrate the USA and gather intelligence, since the president is no longer answering the phone. He also tasks her with rescuing (e.g., kidnapping) the president, if he is still sufficiently human to be worth the bother. Finding him is complicated by the fact that Americans have blissfully forgotten that they even have a president, creating a void that the forces of evil plan to fill by waking a sleeping god, Lovecraft’s Cthulhu. Murphy does her best with the assistance of other characters, although the PM may have had an ulterior motive for sending her on her mission.

Stross’ smart, tongue-in-cheek prose and the vivid universe he has created are the primary reasons to read these novels. It’s impossible to take this kind of story seriously and Stross wisely relies on humor and action to keep the reader entertained. Murphy telling a demon’s assistant that she demands diplomatic immunity is priceless. Despite all the mayhem, vampire bites, and general nastiness, the ending delivers a sweet little love story. There’s something for everyone in The Labyrinth Index. If you like the series, you’ll probably like this entry.



The Never Game by Jeffery Deaver

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on May 14, 2019

It isn’t often that thriller writers come up with a fresh premise. I don’t know if The Never Game is based on an original concept, but it’s new to me. A role-playing video game called The Whispering Man requires players to escape their captivity. They are initially given five objects to help them escape; they then search for more objects, trade with other players, or kill other players, depending on their strategy. In the real world, someone is kidnapping people, apparently at random, and supplying them with five objects. The involuntary players either escape and survive or not. The victims are left in places that correspond to different levels of the game. As improbable criminal schemes go, this one is fresher and more entertaining than most. The idea of forcing someone to play a game isn’t new, but forcing people into the real-world version of a video role-playing game is something I haven’t seen before.

The protagonist of this new series, Colter Shaw, travels around in his RV collecting rewards. The Never Game begins with a confrontation between Shaw and a fellow with a Molotov cocktail, but soon shifts to Shaw’s agreement to find information leading to the location of a missing girl named Phoebe, for which her father will pay $10,000. She was last seen riding her bicycle in Santa Clara County, California, where Shaw begins his hunt.

Phoebe’s kidnapping is eventually followed by another, leading Shaw (with the assistance of people who know more than he does about video games) to conclude that the kidnapper is following the progression of The Whispering Man. Shaw spends some of his time learning (and thus educating the reader) about the world of gaming and different perspectives on the players who inhabit it. One of his teachers is an attractive young woman named Maddie, adding a bit of sexual tension (or just sex) to the plot.

Shaw is the kind of restless loner who is familiar to thriller fans. He grew up on a large compound adjacent to forested public lands. Only the strangest of people live in compounds, but Shaw is only moderately damaged by his childhood. His father taught him many rules, all of which begin with “Never.” Shaw also learned how to track, a skill that led to his current occupation as a finder. Shaw’s backstory is developed intermittently as the novel progresses. Suffice it to say that he learned how to handle himself in the wilderness, armed or unarmed, and that he is still unraveling a mystery concerning his father. Shaw doesn’t pretend to be a skilled fighter, which makes him a refreshing thriller protagonist.

A clever and timely twist at the end has Shaw and the reader rethinking the killer’s motivation. I’m not always a fan of Deaver’s novels — I like his Lincoln Rhyme books more than the Kathryn Dance series — but he pushes all the right buttons in The Never Game. The story is smart, it moves quickly without devolving into mindless action, and the protagonist has a bit of depth.

Shaw’s backstory gives him reason to investigate a formative incident from his past, while various encounters during the novel set up a mystery that could unfold over the course of several books. The concept of collecting rewards for finding missing persons gives Deaver room to take this series in any number of directions, and the last chapter sets up alternative scenarios for Shaw’s next mission. If The Never Game is any indication, crime novel fans who like to follow a protagonist throgh a series of books should consider adding Shaw novels to their book-buying lists.



The Break Line by James Brabazon

Published by Berkley on January 29, 2019

Max McLean has the usual tough guy credentials — he’s seen “Syrian torture chambers” and “Columbian cartels’ killing rooms.” He’s killed a lot of people. McLean was identified in the military as a legally sane psychopath, someone who would follow orders to kill without questioning them, regardless of the circumstances. A couple of decades later, McLean has developed an ethic, if not a conscience. His failure to follow an order stirs up a commotion, but he is given a chance to redeem himself with a new assignment.

McLean is an off-the-books asset of the British government, a civilian assassin who, as part of “the Unknown,” does not officially exist. His new assignment, opposed by the more sensible heads on the team of decisionmakers, is to terminate the command and control of a group of rebels in Sierra Leone who are considered an imminent threat to the British government’s interests. The rebel force is believed to be ruthless and Russian-backed. The last guy the Brits sent on that mission returned without his sanity, although he might not have had much sanity to lose.

McLean’s first inkling of the trouble he’ll face comes when he encounters victims of gruesome killings who, in addition to being beheaded and disemboweled, seem to have been chewed upon by human teeth. The descriptions are quite graphic, although I imagine that sensitive readers who might be particularly disturbed by them do not read tough guy novels. Still, take this as a warning.

The underlying story — the mystery McLean uncovers in Sierra Leone — is not particularly original. That doesn’t make it a bad story (most thrillers aren’t particularly original) but don’t expect to encounter a “wow” factor.

The plot does offer one big surprise that plays into the developing characterization of McLean prior to the big reveal. The surprise might be a bit contrived but contrived surprises are common in modern thrillers, and this one is no more contrived than most. It also adds an interesting wrinkle to the story, which makes it forgivable.

McLean spends too much time telling us that he feels empty inside. Emptiness is standard characterization for a tough guy protagonist who has seen the horrors of war, but when it comes across as whining, readers lose empathy for the character. McLean’s abandonment issues are too heavy-handed to generate empathy, but at least they integrate well with the plot. And given that most action heroes are self-righteous nitwits, it is always a relief to find one who doesn’t consider himself the savior of the limited population groups he deems worthy of salvation.

Some of the story borders on the ridiculous. James Brabazon crosses the border by the novel’s end when the terrible evil is unleashed. The Break Line features some strong action scenes, although when one guy with a handgun took out six guys with assault rifles, I had to take a brief break from reading to roll my eyes. McLean dodges mortar rounds and RPGs and machine guns and takes on fighters who have the equivalent of superpowers. The story becomes more outlandish and less believable as it moves forward, but it is exciting in the way that video games can be fun without being plausible. And the ending, which reverts in some ways to a traditional spy thriller, is quite good.



Buckskin by Robert Knott

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on May 7, 2019

More Cole/Hitch westerns have been written by Robert Knott than by Robert B. Parker, who originated the characters. Parker is long dead but his name still appears more prominently on the cover of Buckskin than Knott’s. Go figure. The full title of the novel is Robert B. Parker’s Buckskin, but it really isn’t Robert B. Parker’s. In any event, I don’t know that Parker would be happy to have his name attached to Buckskin.

A dispute between the McCormick brothers and the Baptiste Group over gold mining rights brings Marshal Virgil Cole and Deputy Marshal Everett Hitch to the hills outside of Appaloosa. The McCormicks bought land from Baptiste and discovered gold, leading to the suspicion that the McCormicks knew about the gold before they bought the land. Baptiste finds gold on his adjacent land and both sides are working claims when a hand hired by the McCormicks disappears. Cole investigates but he’s more interested in keeping the lid on a potential feud than in the fate of expendable workers.

Eventually someone with money dies and Cole and Hitch become involved in a murder mystery, a task for which they are not well suited. The story is heavy on dialog along the lines of “You don’t scare me none” and “I aim to make things right.” Some of the dialog, like “Do not make a move or I will drop you,” is stilted; most of it is just clichéd. Quite a bit of the dialog is unimportant drivel that stretches out the story without adding substance to it. None of it leaves the impression that Cole and Hitch have enough collective brainpower to light a candle, much less solve a murder.

A parallel story tells of a murderous young man who is on his way to Appaloosa to find his mother. Along the way he encounters a woman whose husband doesn’t mind her interest in sleeping with him. That story has a vaguely supernatural feel (the woman apparently sees things that other people don’t, including things that have not yet happened) and she gets the young man high on various mind-altering drugs so she can steer him on a journey that will serve her purposes. Since the subplot’s destination is not apparent from the beginning, it holds more interest than the main plot, which essentially has Cole and Hitch shooting bad guys until they shoot the right one.

Hitch and Cole might be the two most boring heroes in the history of westerns. One of them comments about something obvious and the other one invariably agrees. A book that consists largely of dull conversations isn’t what fans expect from westerns. The reveal of the murderer is less than surprising. While the story of the young killer in search of his mother and his manipulation by the woman who drugs him is more interesting, its ending is predictable. Neither story creates tension, a flaw that is deadly in a western.