Recommendations from the SMSA Crime & Mystery Book Club

This month we focused on crimes and mysteries set during a natural disaster. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 in New Orleans was featured in three of the choices and the Great Earthquake of 1906 in San Francisco was the centre of two. One of our members got creative and included books set during the two World Wars, which were not technically natural disasters but disasters nonetheless.

The Draining Lake by Arnaldur Indridason
Published in 2004, The Draining Lake is the fourth Detective Erlendur books from award winning Icelandic author Arnaldur Indridason.  Based on an acutal Icelandic lake, Kleifarvatn, which began draining away in 2000 following an earthquake. In this story, the draining lake reveals a body. Erlendur investigates this cold case (no pun intended) which delves into the political and social history of Iceland with left-wing students during the time of communist East Germany during the Cold War. 

This is a great novel fulled with pathos and realism. Indridason is a master storyteller and any books written by him are well worth it.

First the Dead by Tim Downs
First of the Hurricane Katrina novels read this month, First The Dead is the third in the Bug Man series that features forensci entomologist Dr Nick Polchak who volunteers for the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team (DMORT), which is part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the USA. This is a real life organisation that responds to disasters such aeroplane crashes, fires and hurricanes. The volunteers are doctors, nurses, pathologists, scientists and in the case of Polchak, a forensic entomologist, who deploy and work very hard over a short period of time to identify and investigate the bodies of victims of these disasters.  Polchak is an unusual protagonist, but very likeable and the insight into the bureaucracy that was involved during the actual natural disaster that was Hurricane Katrina and the additional disaster which was the lack of assistance and clean up that followed. 

Tim Downs crafts a well written dialogue driven story that is a quick and interesting read. He creates scene and atmosphere through very natural dialogue. Downs has written five Bug Man novels and this is what he says about these novels on his blog, 'my Bug Man stories are not about the bugs—they’re about a man who thinks he’s a bug. Why does he think that? Why would he want to? What’s wrong with him? What was it in his past that made him that way? Will he ever change? Can he? And is there a woman anywhere who could love a man like that? Anyone who has read one of my novels will tell you that that’s what my stories are really about. The bugs—well, they’re just bugs. - See more at: http://www.timdownsblog.com/category/the-writing-process/#sthash.J8ehNloH.dpuf.'

Bony and The Black Virgin by Arthur Upfield
Arthur Upfield's Detective Inspector Napolen Bonaparte (Bony) series from the outback in Australia from 1920s to 1960s features a natural disaster in Bony and The Black Virgin. Bony (a mixed race Australian, his mother was an Aboriginal woman and his father is a white man) is called into investigate the death of two men on a desolate sheep station in outback New South Wales, in the middle of a drought. The men have been beaten to death and it is up to Bony to find out what happened. As usual, Bony is discounted as an investigator because of his heritage and the inherent racism in Australian culture in regards to Aboriginal people.

Upfield is an Englishman who immigrated to Australia in 1910 and wrote copiously about rural Australia, the outback, Aboriginal culture as well as white Australia. His Bony series is an insight into the cultural and social history of Australia.  

Bad Karma In The Big Easy by D. J. Donaldson
Featuring Chief Medical Examiner, Andy Broussard and forensic psychologist Kit Franklin, this seventh novel from Donaldson focuses on the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It is August 2005 and Broussard is identifying bodies from the natural disaster. He is intrigued by the bodies of three women who apparently died of foul play and calls in Kit to help him solve the mystery.

Donaldson is a retired professor of Anatomy and Neurobiology from the University of Tennessee and his New Orleans forensic mysteries featuring Broussard and Franklin and his medical thrillers have a strong understanding of science and medicine that gives them a level of authinticity. His writing style is described as 'a hard-hitting, punchy, action-packed prose that’s dripping with a folksy, decidedly southern sense of irony.'

The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke
Two of our members read this James Lee Burke novel that focused on Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005.  The Tin Roof Blowdown is the sixteenth Dave Robicheaux novel and it follows a number of smaller stories until they meet up against the backdrop of Hurricane Katrina. In an interview with Reuters in 2007 when doing publicity for this book, Burke (then 70 years old) said "If you want to know about a society, look at it from the bottom up." This is a personal novel for Burke and in that age old tradition of using crime fiction to look at society he crafts a novel that is full of rage and disgust for the events of Hurricane Katrina. 

James Lee Burke has written over 30 novels, 20 of which are the Robicheaux series. Burke has won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Novel of the year in 1990 for Black Cherry Blues, and again in 1998 he won the Edgar for Best Novel for Cimarron Rose. In 2009 he received the Mystery Writers of America's Grand Master Award. 

Isaac's Storm by Erik Larson
Issac's Storm is a non-fiction novel about the hurricane that devestated Galvastan, Texas on 8 September 1900. Issac Cline was the resident meterologist for the US Weather Bureau who witnessed and was taken by surprise by a massive hurricane that caused Galvastan to be flooded,  completely destroying the town and killing over six thousand people. It is seen as the greatest natural disaster in American history.  This hurricane killed more people than Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which Katrina killed at least 1,836 people and inflicted damages estimated at around $125 billion.

Erik Larson is an American journalist and non-fiction author. According to wikipedia, he started writing books in 1992 with' The Naked Consumer: How Our Private Lives Become Public Commodities, followed in 1995 by Lethal Passage: The Story of a Gun, Issac's Storm (1999)....and The Devil in the White City (2003), about the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago and a series of murders by H. H. Holmes that were committed in the ciyt around the time of the Fair....In 2006, Larson published Thunderstruck, which intersperses the story of Hawley Harvey Crippen with that of Guglielmo Marconi and the investion of radio....In the Garden of Beasts (2011), concerns William E. Dodd, the first Amercian ambassador to Nazi Germany.'

An Unmarked Grave by Charles Todd
An Unmarked Grave is the fourth Bess Crawford mystery set during World War One. Bess is a nurse and amateur investigator who becomes involved in investigating the murder of an officer, whose body is hidden amongst the numerous dead from the frontline and the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. The pandemic infected 500 million people across the world and killed 50 to 100 million of them. That is about three to five percent of the world's population at the time. 

Charles Todd is the pen name for Caroline and Charles Todd, the mother-son writing team from USA. In addition to the Bess Crawford mysteries, they have also written the Inspector Ian Rutledge series set in England just after World War One.  

Shoulder The Sky by Anne Perry
Anne Perry is known for her Victorian crime novels featuring Thomas Pitt and a second Victorian series featuring William Monk. Anne Perry is a prolific writer and has written over 80 novels since 1979.

Shoulder The Sky is the second in Perry's World War One series. It crisscrosses from the trenches, back to London and the intelligence work going on, back Ypres and Gallipoli through three protagonists - siblings Captain Joseph Reavley (an Army Chaplain), Judith who is a driver for General Cullingford and Matthew who is a British Intelligence Officer.

Ashes to Ashes by Barbara Nadel
Set during the London Blitz in World War Two, this third Frances Hancock novel focuses on people sheltering in St Paul's Catherdral during the bombing raids. Hancock is one of those people in St Pauls and becomes involved when a young girl disappears during the night. Hanock is a World War One veteran and undertaker and is half-Indian makes an interesting protagonist as he is quite peculiar but likeable. The book is really about atmosphere and setting and if you like to sink into the era, this will be a good read for you.

English writer, Barbara Nadel is known for her Inspector Çetin İkmen novels (all 15 of them) set in Turkey. There are four books in the Hancock series and she has started on a third series featuring Hakim and Arnold set currently in East Ham in East London, UK. East Ham is an immigrant and low socio-economic neighbourhood and private investigator, Lee Arnold, works with his assistant Mumtaz Hakim, a widowed Muslim working mother.  Sounds interesting. 

Prague Fatale by Philip Kerr
Policeman Bernie Gunther came into being in the Berlin Noir trilogy set in the lead up to World War Two in Berlin, Germany. Prague Fatale is the eighth Bernie Gunther novel and it is now September 1941 and Bernie has returned home to Berlin from the horrors of the Eastern Front. He is invited by his old boss Reinhard Heydrich of the SD, the new Reichsprotector of Bohemia and Moravia to spend a weekend at Heydrich's country house in Prague. In the midst of war there is a murder for Bernie to solve.  Like his previous novels, Philip Kerr explores World War Two from the perspective of the Germans who just try to survive Hitler's Nazi regime and the war they find themselves in. Fighting for ideals they do not believe in.  These books are quite depressing, however there is an element of black humour throughout.  

Locked Rooms by Laurie R. King
Laurie R. King is the creator of the popular Sherlock Holmes pastiche featuring Mary Russell (the American wife of Sherlock Holmes). Locked Rooms in the eighth Mary Russell novel and it is set in 1906 in San Francisco during the Great Earthquake. They are in San Francisco to settle some legal affairs related to Mary's family. The earthquake and the city is the backdrop to peeling back the history of Mary's family and the unexplained deaths that are happening around them.  

The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters
Published in 2012, The Last Policeman is the first in a trilogy set in the last six months of earth's existence. There is an asteroid heading towards earth and everyone is reacting in their own way. Some people are committing suicide, some are giving up their everyday life and doing what they please. One of those people is a young twenty something policeman in Concord, New Hampshire, Hank Palace, who is promoted from patrolman to Detective and insists on investigating a suspicious hanging in the time remaining. Ben Winters is known for his 2009 bestseller Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, however he won an Edgar Award for The Last Policeman and has finished writing the trilogy this year.

Acts of Nature by Jonathon King
This is the fifth Max Freeman novel by Jonathon King featuring Max and his paramour Detective Sherry Richards who head to the Florida everglades for some time off and find themselves in the middle of a tense situation involving looters, killers and corporations during a hurricane. Not your average holiday then. Jonathon King used to be a journalist with a couple of US city newspapers before he created private investigator Max Freeman in 2012. His books are written in a hard boiled style and set on the streets of South Florida. 

The Last Nightingale by Anthony Flacco
This is another novel set during the earthquake in San Francisco in 1906. It teams up 12 year old Shane Nightingale who witnesses the killing of his adoptive mother and sisters the night of the earthquake. He starts to work with Sergeant Randall Blackburn who is investigating the killings. According to Bookreporter, Anthony Flacco "is the author of numerous nonfiction books and novels. He holds an MFA in Screenwriting from the American Film Institute, where he was honored with the Paramount Studios Fellowship Award and a Disney Studios Fellowship." This more visual/screenwriting approach is noticeable in this novel as it feels like it is written with a movie adaptation in mind.