Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years OldThe Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old by Hendrik Groen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Loneliness is often more difficult to endure when one has company."
(Own translation from the Polish translation of the Dutch original.)

This is the most optimistic book I have read in a very long time. It shows that life can be beautiful and worthwhile even at the age of eighty-four, despite urinary incontinence, troubles with maintaining balance when walking, and memory lapses. All the debilitating and embarrassing limitations notwithstanding the author, about 18 years older than I am, is still in great shape intellectually, which gives me hope that maybe it is not yet time to prepare for that most special one-way trip of my life.

The Dutch title - I have read the book in Polish translation and as far as I know the book has not yet appeared in English - is Pogingen iets van het leven te maken ("Attempts to make something of life", Google translation), with the clarifying subtitle "A secret diary of 83-and-a-quarter-year-old Hendrik Groen." And indeed it is a regular diary which covers the entire year 2013 spent by the author in a nursing home for the old people in Amsterdam Noord. We meet Mr. Groen's co-residents, the nursing home staff and administration and we learn about the daily routine of the elderly, about their loneliness, depression, mental and physical decay, the ever-present threat of Alzheimer, and the life in the shadow of death whose touch the residents can feel every day. But we also read about hope, joy of life, and about love. Yes, love: Mr. Groen's diary is a unique, beautiful and subtle love story, even with a few wonderfully unexpected physical touches.

The diary is also an inspiring document about how people in a hopeless situation can thrive through participation in group social initiatives. Instead of just following the usual waiting-for-death routine Mr. Groen and his gang of very elderly friends take charge of their lives and organize themselves into an OYSA club ("Old Yet Still Alive"): the members develop a regime of frequent outings away from the nursing home. The club activities - such as visit to a casino, cooking lessons, golf practice, amateur painting - make the seniors' remaining years or months worth living. Obviously Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest comes to mind: instead of a mental institution we have a nursing home, but the overall situation is precisely the same. Mrs. Stelwagen, the director, resembles Nurse Ratched, the Big Nurse, the sole authority on every single issue, who skillfully keeps appearances of patients/residents participating in the decision making. Mr. Evert is a senior version of Chief Bromden, and the OYSA club's outings mirror the deep sea fishing trip from One Flew.

While a wholehearted affirmation of life the book is also a passionate cry for allowing people to die with dignity at the time of their choosing. Although in the domain of social issues the Netherlands belongs to the most progressive countries in the world, for instance it is one of the only four countries that allow human euthanasia, the author describes all the painstaking hoops that a very elderly person who wants help with ending his or her life has to go through. Holland also happens to be an extremely rich country and it is even more saddening when Mr. Groen demonstrates how little money that obscenely affluent society allocates for senior care.

Hard to believe but this deep, thoughtful, inspiring and heartwarming book is also extremely funny. I have been laughing out loud every few pages and out of likely a hundred of funny passages let me quote just two: one for its hilarious absurdity:
"Mrs. Aupers has recently taken to walking backwards - she claims it reduces her need to go to the bathroom."
and the other one as an example of sharp political satire which happens to push my favorite button:
"I wonder - since the nice American children get their first weapon, my first rifle for their fifth birthday [...] - whether in the American nursing homes the geezers walk around with their loaded last rifle[s]."

While not a literary work of art Pogingen is a true delight to read and a rich source of joy of life, whatever the circumstances. Despite all the New Year's 2017 Doom and Gloom, this is a book that will make people happier. I hope it will be translated into English really soon.

Four and a half stars.

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Monday, December 26, 2016

The Algonquin ProjectThe Algonquin Project by Frederick Nolan
My rating: 1 of 5 stars


A friend of mine whose judgment I value recommended Frederick Nolan's The Algonquin Project (known outside the US as The Oshawa Project) (1974) as the best political thriller he had ever read so despite my lack of interest in thrillers I was looking forward to reading the novel. Alas, either my friend played a practical joke on me or I confused the title with something else: Project is not a good book at all: its plot is formulaic and ridiculous at the same time, the characters are pure paper, and the author's insights into politics, military affairs, and the spy business seem to have been based on watching television shows and movies.

The plot begins in Berlin in the days immediately after the end of World War II as the military brass of the Allied Forces celebrate the victory over Germany. The four-star General Campion, the legendary victorious war hero and now the Military Governor of Bavaria, refuses to drink to the health of the Soviet officers because he expects that the allies for now will become enemies in the near future and that he will soon be fighting against "the Mongol bootmakers and Siberian potato farmers." Campion is obviously modeled on real-life General George S. Patton, also a "hated hero" and "an awesome legend", the commander often taken to "irrational outbursts" and unable to conform to the tactical meandering in politics. The real general Patton died in a car accident in 1945 and the basic premise of the novel is that there had been a conspiracy on high levels of the US government to eliminate the outspoken general whose inconvenient views interfered with political goals of the moment.

Sure, one can entertain conspiracy theories but Mr. Nolan's fantasy goes too far: for instance, the plot involves a government operative consulting with an imprisoned mobster as to the choice of an assassin to eliminate the general. So ridiculous that I forgot to laugh. In another visit to fantasyland we have a Spanish master handcrafting a one-of-a-kind rifle designed to kill the general. In addition to Salvatore Luciana, the all-powerful, all-knowing mobster, we meet President Truman, the infamous Kim Philby of the British intelligence, and - best of all - Lavrentii Beria, the Marshall of the Soviet Union and the head of the vast NKVD apparatus. We have killers and teams of counter-killers. The action structured in several parallel threads moves fast from the US and Canada, to Naples, Berlin, Munich, London, and even to Bletchley Park, which gives the author a pretext to teach the reader some basic principles of cryptography.

While one has to admit that the plot is interesting, its tenuous connection to even the most improbable of realities and the rather surprising naiveté in the depiction of special forces' work might perhaps work in a cheap TV series but certainly not in a supposedly good thriller. When I think about John le Carré's "Smiley series" with all its depth and authenticity, it is hard not to laugh at Mr. Nolan's plot.

One and a half stars.

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Friday, December 23, 2016

Tumble Home: A Novella and Short StoriesTumble Home: A Novella and Short Stories by Amy Hempel
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"This is what happens to me. I start out being myself, and end up being my mother."

A big disappointment! I liked Amy Hempel's set At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom , which - in addition to unremarkable pieces - has three or four memorable stories. Unfortunately I find every story included in Tumble Home (1997) quite unexceptional and the cover blurb that says "Tumble Home is a tour de force" is a misleading statement.

Tumble contains seven short stories - one of them extremely short - and the title novella of about 85 pages. The stories are well-observed slices of life, but there is nothing compelling there, no focal points to hold the readers' attention; they are well-written bagatelles disappointing in their averageness. The microscopic story titled Housewife - it contains only a single sentence! - is particularly feeble: the sentence does not convey any deeper truths nor does it evoke any strong feeling. I love the microscopic story, In the Animal Shelter, from the At the Gates set, which - in just four sentences - tells us a lot about the lives of humans and animals and demonstrates Ms. Hempel's talent. This "story" is just pretentious in its hyperbrevity.

The novella is narrated by a woman, a voluntary patient in a mental institution, who is writing a letter to a famous painter. Although she had met the man just once she uses him as a crutch to help her handle personal problems. As many of the so-called mental patients she is not mentally ill in any way; she just is unable to face the world and cope with the real life. When she was a child her mother committed suicide and now she is one of those millions of people, unloved and unneeded by their parents, whose lives have been damaged and often completely destroyed by their wasted childhood.

I like the novella more than the other stories: it convincingly portrays the maladjusted person's slightly askew view of the outside world and their unconventionally structured thinking with the characteristic jumps in logic and non sequiturs:
"Do you find consolation in a person? In a woman? I found it once with a man, but I lost my combs."
There are a few memorable sentences other than the epigraph quote, for instance:
"A sign of getting better: without getting larger, we seem to take up more room in a room."
Yet overall - despite the insightful and well-written novella - the set has little to offer to a reader and the pretentious shortest story is a laughable effort.

Two stars.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Ghosts (87th Precinct #34)Ghosts by Ed McBain
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"The chant echoed down the stairwell. [...] The ball bounced, [...] and the words "Hang them, hang them" floated down the stairwell where he stood [...] The air around [...] shimmered; the ball took on an iridescent hue."

Ed McBain's Ghosts, the thirty-fourth novel in his famous 87th Precinct series, is the sixth in my fragmentary re-read of the opus, in which I skip over half-decades. I find it the best of the six novels I have read so far, probably because of its unusual main theme and whimsical treatment of the subject. Also, mercifully, the author does not rely as much on clichés so painfully abundant in other novels.

The best aspect of the novel is that the title ghosts are not metaphorical. Of course while I categorically do not believe in the existence of ghosts, the real, actual ghosts in literature are fully welcome. The phrase "real ghosts" sounds as an oxymoron, but that's exactly what we are dealing with here. Thankfully, the author treats the topic with all seriousness, which indicates his good sense of humor.

The usual protagonists, Carella, Hawes, Meyer et al., investigate a pair of connected murders: a writer, the author of immensely popular book about ghosts, is killed in his apartment and a woman is stabbed to death just in front of that apartment building. The killed writer's girlfriend, a successful medium, plays an important part in solving the case, and is a quite well (unusually for Mr. McBain) drawn character. We also have an interlude, not connected to the main plot, about the crimes - triple murder, robbery, and the theft "of the entire street" (yes, the street gets stolen!) - which happen on the Christmas day that coincides with Hannukah and which surprisingly does not interfere with the enjoyment of the main thread. The good bits offset an awfully formulaic aspect of the solution that I prefer not to reveal. I also suspect that the author selected the initials of the third victim as a subtle joke referring to the character's lifestyle choices, which for once allows me to use this appalling euphemism for a good reason.

I like the not-quite-complete ending that does not assume - as most mystery authors do - that the readers are slow-witted and need to be told things in detail. Yay! I have also learned a new word - "ecdysiastical" (try googling the word and see the hilarious spelling that is suggested). And I like the double meaning of the title. To sum up: while ghosts definitely do not exist they are certainly real. A recommended read!

Three and a quarter stars.

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Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Kreutzer SonataThe Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

" [...] the world does not contain a scoundrel of however deep a dye who, if he only made a thorough search, would not discover another scoundrel in some respects worse than himself, and a reason therefore for feeling proud of, and satisfied with, himself."

Of the five Leo Tolstoy's novellas The Kreutzer Sonata (1889) is probably as famous as The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886) but for me only the latter - a penetrating study of the process of dying - may be considered an undeniable masterpiece and one of the best novellas ever written. While a magnificent work and a true classic I find Sonata too disjoint to merit the highest rating; however, I am probably biased against the story because of one of its main themes.

During a long train ride in Russia the narrator meets a certain Mr. Pozdnichev who recounts his life story. Before the tale gets to the gruesome events of Pozdnichev murdering his wife, it is an impassioned diatribe against the hypocrisy of marriage and against the sexual aspects of the union between a man and a woman. While Tolstoy's observations of the institution of marriage are an insightful document of social mores and norms in the 1880s in Russia, I am unable to stomach or even just simply understand the author's apotheosis of the concept of sexual purity. Through Pozdnichev's words Tolstoy seems to glorify
"simple, clear, pure relations with womankind, relations as of a brother towards his sister."
Of course, people should have a right to practice purity but why condemn consenting adults for expressing their humanness through sexual behaviors?

Pozdnichev's sharp and rather extreme views on the institution of matrimony - I understand they at least partly express Tolstoy's own views - provide a lot of food for thought. He chides the marriage meat market: mothers selling their daughters' charms and men falling into the marriage trap. He denounces the inequality of sexes where it is not in the woman's power " to choose her husband, but she must wait to be chosen by him." He writes
"[...] while, on the one hand, women are reduced to the lowest degree of humiliation, they are all-powerful on the other."
The imbalance of the situation where women serve as "an instrument of pleasure", a "degraded, demoralized serf" yet are still in full charge of the relationship through the power of dispensing sexual favors worries the author. Pozdnichev's view of married life as the process of building the "mutual hatred" that starts in the days right after the wedding and keeps growing until further life together becomes dangerous to both parties is, sadly, quite an astute analysis of relationship dynamics in many marriages.

Let's forgive the author his lunatic ramblings about purity: the final part of the novella delivers a near masterpiece in its sharp examination of the nature of rage and the mechanisms of jealousy. The final description of the killing is clinical and unforgettable - it reads with more authenticity that most crime dramas of today. The ending is frightening in its raw power of truth about the human beast.

Four stars.

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Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Laguna HeatLaguna Heat by T. Jefferson Parker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"For a brief moment Shephard felt that rare emotion, the opposite of déjà vu: not that he had been there before but that he would never be there again."

Laguna Heat (1985) is the debut novel by the three-time Edgar winner T. Jefferson Parker. It does not quite rank with Silent Joe or California Girl, two outstanding works, which - although technically a mystery and a procedural - clearly transcend their genre and belong to "real" literature, but it still is a solid, extremely readable crime novel.

Detective Tom Shephard is the sole member of Laguna Beach Homicide Division transferred there after his "trouble" in Los Angeles where he spent 12 years on the force. In contrast to LA Laguna Beach has had little need for homicide detectives. This picturesque wealthy little seaside town in Orange County and a Mecca for artists boasts little crime, perhaps one murder a year. But the statistics are to be spoiled now: Shephard is on a crime scene where a badly burned body of a well-known resident has been found. Before death the victim was tortured, then had his brains bashed out with a rock, and then was set on fire. Shephard's investigation will widen and will eventually touch events from over thirty years ago.

Shephard is still in psychotherapy after an "officer-involved shooting," a deplorable, vile euphemism for a police officer killing a person. The incident, quite relevant for today's readers particularly because the detective's victim had been a black teenager, has resulted in Shephard's deep trauma, rather plausibly portrayed in the novel. A bit less plausible are the detective's personal connections with the event of the past. His father had been a police officer before becoming a television preacher and the relationship between the two Shephards constitutes the most important motif in the substantial non-police-procedural layer of the novel.

The complex plot is extremely interesting and well paced. The portrayal of Pacific coast locations, my home for the last 34 years, is first class and the characters, at least in some scenes, resemble real people. Most of the book is well written: I like the long passage where Shephard ruminates on his life while in the background his father drones his empty and meaningless "spiritual" phrases on TV. Alas, Mr. Parker decided to include a truly cringeworthy sex scene. There is nothing more obscene than a badly written depiction of a sex act, so I will refrain from quoting the nauseating or giggle inducing complete sentences, but allow me just a few atrocious phrases: "mingled, locked, released," "slick abundance," "spilling in a rush," "he churned harder," and on and on. I am happy that I do not remember any such pearls of prose in the author's later works.

If we forget the debuting author's utter failure in the sex scene, Laguna Heat is a good psychological procedural and a very readable thriller.

Three and a half stars.

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Saturday, December 10, 2016

AdoreAdore by Doris Lessing
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Two little girls arrived at the big school on the same day, at the same hour, took each other's measure, and became best friends."

Another book with symmetry in human lives as the main motif that I have read within the last five weeks. While in Martin Amis' Success (reviewed here) the life trajectories of two protagonists' move simultaneously in opposite directions on the success-failure axis, Doris Lessing's short novella Adore (2003) is built around almost complete symmetry of relationships between several pairs of main characters. Mr. Amis' adolescent-tinged story is more readable and way more fun, but Lessing's mature-themed novella is much deeper.

Adore begins with three pairs of characters walking to the beach: two "handsome women of about sixty", followed by "two handsome men", the women's sons, and the men's little daughters. The idyllic mood of the scene is suddenly shattered as the girls' mothers join the group and take their daughters away from the adults. Something is terribly wrong:
"'No,' she said wildly, the emotion that had been poisoning her at last pulsing out. 'No. No, you won't. Not ever. You will not ever see them again.'
She turned to go, pulling the children with her."
The reasons for this catastrophe will gradually become clear when there emerges an altogether different set of connections between the grown-ups involved in the scene.

The symmetry motif provides a solid structure to the narration and I like the main theme of the novel: rather extraordinary pair of love affairs (symmetry again). Some readers will likely find the theme risqué or inappropriate but I would strongly disagree: no topic in literature should be taboo as long as its treatment rises to the level of a literary work of art. While a lesser author's exploration of an ostensibly inappropriate subject would quite likely be indecent, Ms. Lessing examination of unusual relationships - or for that matter Gabriel Garcia Marquez' or Vladimir Nabokov's treatment of older men's love affairs with adolescent girls - can only help the readers understand the wide scope of what it means to be human. On the negative side, I quite dislike the omniscient narrator's occasional explanations of the characters' motives and behavior. Shouldn't this be left to the reader?

I have read this short novella of 70 pages as a separate book, but it was originally published in the collection The Grandmothers: Four Short Novels. In 2007 Ms. Lessing received the Nobel Prize in literature. This novella, while quite far from a masterpiece, clearly demonstrates the author's potential: the profound understanding of human foibles and accomplished prose.

Three and a quarter stars.

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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Burn OutBurn Out by Marcia Muller
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"No longer visible by day or night were the brownish-white towers of calcified vegetation - tufa - that gave the lake its name. Years ago, the siphoning off of feeder streams for drought-stricken southern California had caused the lake's level gradually to sink and reveal the underwater towers [...] they were saved by conservationists [...] and now the streams flowed freely, the lake teemed with life."

I wish the descriptions of nature featured more prominently in Marcia Muller's Burn Out (2008): Mono Lake - renamed Tufa Lake in the novel, presumably for legal reasons - and its vicinity are some of the most fascinating places in the US and each visit to Mono County makes me even more happy that I became a Californian. Alas the novel is focused on Sharon McCone, the narrator of the story, rather than on the California landscapes. Ms. McCone, a "full-blooded Shoshone" Native American, a private investigator and the owner of a thriving investigative agency in San Francisco, is suffering from severe depression (the title "burn-out") after almost getting killed on the job. When recuperating on her and her husband's ranch she is forced to return to the profession when she finds the body of her ranch foreman's niece. Ms. McCone hesitatingly undertakes a private investigation, which soon significantly widens to involve many characters.

Unfortunately, Ms. McCone, despite being a college graduate, an accomplished pilot, and a skillful detective, is a singularly uninteresting character. It is a pity that the author focuses so much on the protagonist because the later parts of the story (after about page 130 in hardcover edition) are very interesting and keep the reader glued to the text. The plot reminds me of Ross Macdonald's books in that the crimes of today are caused by people's misdeeds in the distant past and also because the truth is uncovered gradually, bit by bit. Ms. Muller's otherwise competent writing suffers from two major flaws: the incessant stream of detailed descriptions of the characters' basic actions, such as cooking, eating, etc. - probably designed to make the characters seem more realistic - is irritating. (Ms. Grafton suffers the same malady in her late novels about Kinsey Millhone - I stopped reading her at "U"). Second, and even worse, why does the author use this pretentious and annoying manner of quoting Ms. McCone's "inner voice" in italics?

To sum up: interesting plot, great locations of the high desert area near Mono Lake, climactic ending that almost avoids being silly, and a reasonably plausible resolution of mystery spoiled by too much of Sharon McCone and way too many words. This is the 26th novel in a series that has over 30 titles, yet while I would gladly return to Mono Lake landscapes I doubt if I will be coming back to Ms. McCone.

Two and a half stars.

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Sunday, December 4, 2016

Monty Python at WorkMonty Python at Work by Michael Palin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"I manage to write some more of the 'Twibune'. Helen suggests he should have a friend, so I write in Biggus Dickus, who thpeaks with a lithp."

Michael Palin's Monty Python at Work (2014) is an essential read for Monty Python fans and a must-have book for Python completists. I also hope that the readers who do not know the British comedy masters from late 1960s and early 1970s - if there are any such people on the planet - and even people who know them but do not think they are the funniest item in the history of human entertainment, which should be an even rarer category, will find the book interesting. This work is an edited selection of material from the diaries of Michael Palin, one of the Magnificent Six, often called the "nicest Python", and an author of several popular travel books which still await their turn on my shelves.

Mr. Palin kept his diary since April of 1969 and we witness the entire history of the Pythons: I believe the author recorded every single important event that happened to the group between 1969 and 1983. We read about the pivotal Monty Python Flying Circus TV show, from its first "test" run in front of a small audience in August of 1969 to the fourth and last series aired in the UK in 1974. Next Mr. Palin provides a lively chronology of the troupe's work on their big-screen movies: And Now For Something Completely Different, Monty Python And The Holy Grail, Life of Brian (which was extremely successful in the US), and my personal favorite, Monty Python's Meaning Of Life. The following fragment of the diary entry refers to the famous Mr. Creosote sketch from the last movie, the sketch that contains the unforgettable "wafer-thin mint" line:
Evidently 9,000 gallons of vomit were made for the sketch, which took four days to film [...]
It is totally fascinating to learn how the Pythons created their sketches: some worked in pairs, some alone, and then they ran the drafts in front of the whole group, which provided the most severe and thorough vetting of humor potential. I find the stories about the group's struggles against censorship most interesting. Over the years many individuals and organizations tried to censor the Pythons' work on obscenity, offensiveness or religious grounds and often the attempts proved funnier than the humor itself. There is a priceless passage dated December 19, 1975 that describes the Pythons' New York courtroom argument to defend their sketch about a courtroom argument.

On slightly more serious note, Mr. Palin's modesty is commendable and quite rare in the genre of (quasi-)autobiographies. In most cases he praises the other Pythons' material higher than his own. And on even more fundamental level: I find it quite illuminating to witness the change of the artists' priorities and goals between the times when they were just a relatively unknown group on their way up and the late 1970s when they were enjoying a huge financial success. Even the funniest people on the face of this Earth change their outlook when they come into money.

A hugely informative diary, an interesting read, and an essential source for all Monty Python fans.

Three and a half stars.

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Thursday, December 1, 2016

So Long as You Both Shall Live (87th Precinct, #31)So Long as You Both Shall Live by Ed McBain
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

"He had planned something of a big male macho entrance, and he stood now in the bathroom doorway with a towel wrapped around his waist, and saw immediately that she was not in the room [...]"

The less I write about Ed McBain's So Long As You Both Shall Live (1976) the better. Not that it is a particularly bad book: it is quite interesting, readable, and competently written. But the plot of this thriller/police procedural is completely paint-by-numbers and my main problem with the novel is that I have read at least twenty *identical* thrillers. Sure, the names of characters are different, and so are the locations and maybe a few other details, yet the structure of the plot, the sequence of events, the timing, etc., are totally formulaic.

Bert Kling, one of the younger 87th Precinct cops, had survived the tragedy of losing a girlfriend and experienced several unsuccessful love affairs. Now he is marrying Augusta, a beautiful and successful model. We observe the ceremony and the wedding party through the eyes of a photographer. "So long as you both shall live," says the officiating minister, but things do not look promising when the bride disappears on the wedding night. So begins the cliché plot: cops look for Augusta and the procedural/thriller stereotype is followed with unerring accuracy, right down to the dramatic conclusion that includes the precise-to-one-second timing. Yawn.

In this police commedia dell'arte stereotypical dramatis personae substitute for actual people and every paper character plays a strictly predefined role. For instance, the author offers stereotypical comic characters like Fat Ollie Weeks, the uncouth detective, and Fats Donner, the stool pigeon. By the way, the author calls Fat Ollie a "bigot". Since one of the characteristics of bigotry is relying on stereotypes can I consider Ed McBain's writing literary bigotry?

Is there anything I like about the novel? Sure, Kling's wedding takes place in 1976 - a good year for marriages (insert a smiley). But seriously, I am amazed how drastically my tastes in detective books have changed in the thirty or so years since I read this novel the first time! I remember liking all McBain books a lot. Well, I have still about 30 years of 87th Precinct novels to go through and I am hoping to encounter some more originality.

One and a half stars.

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