Up Front With Martin B. Deutsch
Books, Our Preferred Traveling Companions
January 15, 2015 -- My previous column recommended several of the favorite books I read in 2014. Even if you haven't had a chance to get through them, I wanted to offer a head start on some good reads for 2015. It's going to be a long year on the road and these choices may provide some solace and company as well as an intriguing variety of literary escapes.

What we have is a charming coming-of-age novel, an insightful historical biography and three seat-of-your pants thrillers from a trio of fine Scandinavian mystery writers. An eclectic mix to say the least.

It seems to me that the contemporary detective genre has come to be dominated by a cluster of talented Scandinavian writers. They've wrested the mystery-writing crown from British and American authors and it's all been fueled by the global success of the late Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the first in his best-selling Millennium trilogy.

Virtually any list of recommendations these days, whether from librarians, reviewers or detective-loving friends, is topped by names such as Mankell, Nesser and Nesbo. They and a host of others are modern-day successors to the Swedish writing team of Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall whose detective stories from the 1960s and 1970s first garnered attention for Nordic crime solvers. And like any other dedicated book reader, I've greatly enjoyed a number of these Nordic mysteries featuring compelling police procedures.

One of the first of these talents to rise to prominence, Sweden's Henning Mankell, gave us the memorable Kurt Wallander series. The books are so popular that there are now two television series drawn from them. The English-language version stars Kenneth Branagh and the Swedish version, which many fans consider the superior effort, features Krister Henriksson.

I discussed two of Mankell's Wallander efforts in an earlier column. But I think my favorite Mankell work is The Return of the Dancing Master, a cleverly crafted tale of revenge and its consequences. This 2005 novel focuses on police detective Stefan Lindman and his investigation into the murder of a retired colleague. The story goes back to World War II and ends with a more than acceptable denouement in 1999.

I favorably reviewed Norwegian writer Jo Nesbo's The Redbreast in a column last year. And I'm equally impressed with his 2012 novel, Nemesis, a tautly paced thriller anchored by the capable and crusty Inspector Harry Hole. Revenge is also on the table in this highly readable mystery. It's no surprise that Nesbo is up to book number 10, Police, in the popular Harry Hole series.

Next on the list is The Keeper of Lost Causes: The First Department Q, a 2011 novel by the Danish writer Jussi Adler-Olsen. In this hard-to-put-down tale, Deputy Superintendent Carl Morck, formerly one of Copenhagen's top homicide detectives, is promoted despite a serious cold case lapse. The goal? Move him upstairs to get him out of the way of the more prominent cases. But, to no one's surprise, he gets involved in a fascinating event surrounding the mysterious disappearance five years earlier of an up-and-coming political figure. This book has spawned at least five sequels in the Department Q series.

Alexander Hamilton, one of the country's most influential Founding Fathers, has been at least somewhat overlooked in the pantheon of great Americans. But Ron Chernow's 2004 effort, Alexander Hamilton, did for the brilliant and at times irascible Hamilton what David McCullough's 2001 biography did for John Adams.

Chernow's massive volume is deeply researched and written with a clarity that brings to life the short-but-brilliant career of the West Indies-born émigré. By age 25, Hamilton had risen to the singular position of aide-de-camp to George Washington during the Revolutionary War. As the fledgling nation's first Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton's vision of government and its central role in the country's affairs still resonates today with its imprint on everything from banking to commerce. Hamilton's doctrines were in direct conflict with one of his antagonists in Washington's cabinet, namely Thomas Jefferson, who envisioned a United States built around states' rights and a rural, agricultural society. You can see who won that chess match. To publicize his Federalist vision, in 1801 Hamilton founded the New York Post, the longest continually published daily newspaper in the United States.

Chernow, a Brooklyn-born historian and journalist, also details Hamilton's turbulent private life, which included a torrid and ill-advised love affair despite his close relationship with his wife and eight children. Hamilton's base of operations always was Manhattan, but prophetically, his 19-year-old son, Philip, died in a duel in 1801 in Weehawken, New Jersey. (Dueling had been banned in New York hence the trek across the river.) The same fate befell the elder Hamilton three years later at the same tragic New Jersey site. In what is probably the most famous duel in American history, Hamilton was shot dead by Aaron Burr, another rival, who was then serving as vice president under Jefferson.

What you'll gain for the sizable investment of your reading time is a deep appreciation of Hamilton's seminal impact on our way of life.

In Black Swan Green, author David Mitchell tracks the trials and tribulations of 13-year-old Jason Taylor who lives in the sleepy, rural English village of the title. What transpires month by month in the early 1980s is particularly complicated for this likeable teen by the fact that he stutters or stammers, a distinction that is described by the author but that left this reader still confused. In addition, the young man is routinely bullied for, among other things, being spotted by his mates in a movie queue with his mother, an unpardonable sin for a lad his age. The book also involves a local band of gypsies, marital tension between his parents and, in the background, the vague presence of the Falklands War between England and Argentina.

The semiautobiographical 2006 novel is a warm and charming read that appeals to both adults and young adults. I found this coming-of-age-tale hard to put down once I got into it.

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