A Trio of Notable Crime Novels

photo: Stew Dean, creative commons license

Exciting plots, award-winning authors, worthy protagonists. Three crime thrillers for spring!

****Slow Horses

By Mick Herron – In Britain’s MI5, the slow horses are the agents whose incompetence, outrageous errors, or general unlikeability cause them to slip off the fast track. They’re stabled at the aptly-named Slough House, far from Regent’s Park, the energized center of important decisions and brisk walking. With luck, sheer boredom will move them to seek some different pasture.

The slow horses work under the benign supervision of Jackson Lamb, who may be more wolf than lamb, and you’d be forgiven for anticipating that the luckless occupants of Slough House are not without tradecraft tools and the wit to use them.

When a young man is abducted by people threatening to behead him live on the Internet, the political complexities of the situation quickly escalate. Slough House has reason to be involved, but HQ won’t hear of it. Worse, a violent attack on one of them suggests any means possible will be used to prevent their sticking their noses in. Slow horses or no, the race is on. Against the kidnappers and against their own superiors.

Herron has written a page-turner of a novel, with many laugh-out-loud moments. This first in an award-winning series was thoroughly enjoyable.

***Night Life

By David C. Taylor, narrated by Keith Szarabajka – In 1954 New York City, police detective Michael Cassidy—who could have inspired Sinatra’s “My Way”—becomes embroiled in a mystery that will require all his detecting skills and a great deal of political savvy to unravel. A young gay man is found tortured to death. The killer was apparently looking for something. Cassidy must look for it too.

He’s not sure what he’ll find when he starts turning over rocks in these early Cold War days, with paranoia about Communism and Communists on the rise, with the hearings of Senator Joe McCarthy’s witch hunt in the news, with the CIA and the FBI competing for scraps of information. Cassidy is a straight-up cop, but he’s unaware of his own vulnerabilities. He’s about to discover them, and they will put the people he cares about most at risk.

Screenwriter Taylor creates a powerful noir atmosphere that evokes not only the streets of New York some sixty years ago but also the psychic atmosphere, with its fear-mongering about the Red Menace and its rampant homophobia. In this novel, both of these caused people to kill and be killed. Nice narration from Keith Szarabajka.

This book won the 2016 Nero Wolfe Award for Best American Mystery, and was a Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award nominee.

***Shutter Man

By Richard Montanari, narrated by Scott Brick – Another good cop story, this one intergenerational. It’s set in Philadelphia, and the early scenes take place in 1976 in an Irish neighborhood called Devil’s Pocket. Back then, a group of teenage friends from the Pocket were involved somehow in the death of a mentally disabled young man who was a member of the powerful Irish crime family, the Farrens.

Today, one of those young men is police detective Kevin Byrne, another is DA candidate Jimmy Doyle, and the Farrens are still operating outside the law. Byrne and his friend, Assistant DA Jessica Balzano (teamed up in several of Montanari’s books) are working on a set of bizarre killings that seem to be linked, but how? And do they reach all the way back to those Devil’s Pocket days?

Montanari’s characters are interesting and well-rounded and he creates considerable narrative tension. While Scott Brick provided a fine narration, the multitude of characters and the switching between time periods make this a better candidate for enjoying in print.

One of The New York Times‘s 10 Best Crime Novels of 2016.

****A Hole in One

Golf Clubs

photo: Susanne Nilsson, creative commons license

By Judy Penz Sheluk – In this charming cozy mystery set in a small town north of Toronto, Canada, Arabella Carpenter decides to promote her Glass Dolphin antiques shop by sponsoring a hole in one contest at a local charity golf tournament. The prize: a pricy jet ski. All good fun until she hits her ball into the woods, and amongst the trees finds not her golf ball, but a dead body.

The victim, killed by a gunshot to the chest, is the estranged father of Arabella’s ex-husband, Levon Larroquette. The two men were so estranged that Arabella never met her ex-father-in-law. But she has seen him. He and Levon were arguing in the park just a few days before the tournament. Arabella still has feelings for Levon, and precisely how strong those feelings are is revealed whenever he encourages her to join him in drinking a little too much cognac.

Levon might have flaws as a husband, but Arabella is convinced he’s no killer. Worried that her information has made him appear more guilty, she’s determined to clear Levon’s name by investigating the murder herself, with the help of her business partner Emily, a former investigative reporter.

This is the second in the Glass Dolphin mystery series, in which Arabella and Emily boldly go where, maybe, they shouldn’t, as some of the information they turn up seems to implicate Levon even further. Their inquiries give author Sheluk the opportunity to introduce a sizeable cast of interesting, often amusing characters, with their tidbits of information and propensity for creating confusion: an Elvis impersonator, potential romantic interests for both Arabella and Emily, a vengeful local newspaper editor and reckless blogger, and an antique dealer going out of business who has sad secrets of her own.

Sheluk is an antiques expert herself and currently editor of the New England Antiques Journal. Writing with a light touch, she has a knack for inserting just the right amount of intriguing details about antique items, the antiques market, or running a small business. That information gives the story a nice grounding in reality, even as the plot twists and turns.

A Hole in One is thick with dialog, with the banter between the two women full of good humor. You may not doubt that they will succeed, almost despite themselves, but the fun is in seeing how they go about it as their theories—and the bodies—pile up.

 

*****Fever

Abandoned house

photo: Lane Pearman, creative commons license

Written by Deon Meyer, translated from the Afrikaans by KL Seegers – Opening with the lines, “I want to tell you about my father’s murder. I want to tell you who killed him and why,” this noted South African author takes a good long while to get to the actual killing of Willem Storm, but he uses the time well.

The world has been devastated by the Fever—a new infectious disease that spreads rapidly and catastrophically. A few people have a genetic quirk that saves them, but 95 percent of the world’s population has died. Willem and his son Nico, hiding out in a remote South African cave, survive. The big challenge is “now what?”

Willem has a vision for what should come next. He and his son fill a tractor-trailer with useful items they find as they traverse the countryside. They aren’t the only survivors, of course, and food becomes increasingly hard to find. With a pre-Fever population of approximately 56 million, South Africa alone would have a residual population of 2.8 million.

How people react in such a desperate situation reveals their fundamental values. Willem Storm envisions a new egalitarian society built on democratic principles. He finds a suitable location, and he and Nico drive the countryside, leaving posters asking people of good will to come. Gradually, they do, and they name their new community Amanzi, “water.”

Teenage Nico is torn between his father’s idealism and the aggressive values of a new arrival in the community, Domingo. He has a past he won’t talk about, works with military precision, and an affinity for weapons. He consistently argues for more security precautions, because the threats are real—packs of wild dogs, marauding motorcycle gangs, and murderous thieves. “People are animals,” Domingo says.

Amanzi’s creation is an amazing adventure story. The book may be 530 pages long, but it is very hard (truly, almost impossible) to put down—at least for someone like me who is interesting in how things work, or don’t. Nico narrates most of it, though a great many other residents recount their experiences both before Amanzi and in the community, gradually building up a “360-degree” perspective on Willem, Domingo, Nico, and Amanzi. Only in the last 20 pages are the most horrifying crimes of the novel revealed, and these are the least satisfying pages of all.

If you are intrigued by the situations and challenges presented in post-apocalyptic thrillers like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Stephen King’s The Stand, this novel is sure to get you thinking.

***A Darker State

car headlights

photo: Lothar Massmann, creative commons license

By David YoungLife in East Germany in the mid-1970s is the true subject of David Young’s intriguing series of police procedurals-cum-political-thrillers, and dark it is.

Oberleutnant Karin Müller in East Berlin’s Kriminalpolizei—considered by some overpromoted to that post—has been inexplicably promoted again while on maternity leave. Now a major, she’s being put in charge of a team that will oversee investigations of high-profile murders anywhere in the country, murders that might “prove embarrassing to the Republic.” In other words, investigations that inevitably will put her on a collision course with the Ministry for State Security, the dreaded East German Secret Police. The Stasi.

Müller isn’t eager to cut short her maternity leave. But, as inducement, her boss reveals that a spacious apartment will be hers if she accepts the new job assignment—a giant step up from the tiny quarters where she’s living with her infant twins, their father, and her grandmother. And there’s the not inconsiderable inducement that she’d be working again with Werner Tilsner who also has been promoted. Müller accepts. Thank goodness. Now we can move on with the story and leave behind awkward references to the series’ earlier books.

Their first case arises when Tilsner is summoned to where a young man’s body has been found. The body has the marks of restraints and, it turns out, an abnormally high amount of testosterone in his blood. He’s only the first. The roadblocks that Müller and Tilsner encounter as their investigation proceeds have the machinations of the Stasi written all over them.

Meanwhile, Jonas Schmidt, the pedantic Kriminaltechniker who aids Müller and Tilsner with the forensic aspects of their investigations is in an increasingly sour mood. Trouble at home. Schmidt’s teenage son Markus has taken up with friends his parents deem unsuitable. Markus’s new friends are homosexual, and you suspect he’s being set up for something dangerous, even if he doesn’t see it. While East Germany legalized homosexuality in 1968, changing the law has not changed prejudices.

As in his first book, Stasi Child, Young tells part of the story from a victim’s first-person point of view, in this case Markus’s, starting a few months before Müller and Tilsner begin their new assignment. It’s a clever way to introduce backstory, since all crimes have some sort of history.

While the time shifts were mostly easy to follow, what would add to my understanding of the narrative would be a map showing the places the story takes place. Frequently, Müller is torn by late-night calls to go off somewhere, leaving the twins with her grandmother once again. I had no sense of whether these places are a few miles or a few hundred miles distant.

In an afterword, Young writes that he became interested in East Germany when he arranged a tour for a band he was in. “German venues loved booking UK bands.” Luckily for us (and for Young and his fellow musicians), they did not meet the same fate as the British band Pearl Harbor in the Belgian thriller Back Up, reviewed here recently, in which all the band members are murdered in the first eighty pages!

A longer version of this review appeared on crimefictionlover.com.

*****The Woman in the Window

Wine Bottles

photo: H Williams, creative commons license

By AJ Finn — From the first pages of this immersive psychological thriller by newcomer AJ Finn, you’re pulled into the claustrophobic world of Anna Fox, the story’s first-person narrator. You don’t see much of New York other than her townhouse, and by the end of the book, you may feel boxed in by its walls too.

Anna is not coping well after suffering some psychological trauma that’s caused the breakup of her marriage, and you eventually learn the particulars. Though she talks to husband Ed and daughter Olivia by phone, they have moved out, leaving her rattling around her Harlem townhouse alone.

Before the family break-up, Anna worked as a child psychologist with children damaged by abuse, neglect, psychosis, modern life. Now she’s the patient. She has developed a severe case of agoraphobia and does not—cannot—leave that house. Her psychiatrist and physical therapist come to her. Her groceries and drugs are delivered. She actually takes quite a few drugs, washing them down with astonishing quantities of red wine, delivered a case at a time, and lies about this dangerous practice to her doctor, husband Ed, and anyone else who asks.

To amuse herself, Anna watches old black and white movies and spies on the neighborhood, using the zoom lens of her camera—much better than binoculars, she claims. Soon her own situation takes on the elements of the classic noir films Gaslight and Rear Window. Between the drugs and the merlot, you wonder whether Anna’s movie obsession is coloring her perceptions of real-life events.

Although Anna is obviously both disturbed and muddled, Finn has written her with compassion and truth. Her behavior is consistent with her character and disordered state of mind, and you believe in her actions, even the brave ones almost impossibly difficult for her.

Her new neighbors become aware of her spying and want her to stop. However, their teenage son befriends her. He’s a little lonely living in a new city and has other unremarkable teenage woes like the adolescents she’d occasionally see in her clinical practice. To him, she’s a refreshingly non-judgmental conversationalist. But when Anna sees the teenager’s mother murdered and accuses the husband of killing her, the family tells the police she’s delusional. Noticing the profusion of empty wine bottles, they doubt her too. I thought I saw where all this was headed, but Finn has several surprises in store.

Stories with unreliable narrators are a staple of the thriller genre. Sometimes the narrators know they’re bending the truth to manipulate the people around them. Anna is as desperate to bring reality into focus as is everyone else around her.

****Lincoln in the Bardo & ***The Sympathizer

Cemetery Angel

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

How many books can you read in a lifetime, or what’s left of it? (To calculate the limits on your literary throughput, check this out). Whatever the number is, it’s finite, so the books you choose may as well be good ones. Here are two prize-winners I recently ticked off my list.

****Lincoln in the Bardo

By George Saunders – This, the first novel by Saunders, a highly-regarded short story writer, appeared on many “best books” list for 2017. “The bardo” is a Buddhist concept of a state of being between death and rebirth. The Lincoln in question is our 16th President.

It’s still the early days of the Civil War, yet death and the prospect of death loom over the country. Willie Lincoln, the President’s twelve-year-old son lies upstairs in the White House, ill with typhoid fever. Nothing can be done but wait. Then, nothing can be done. The funeral is arranged, the small still body is placed in its coffin, and the coffin is set in a niche in a borrowed tomb. Yet Lincoln cannot let go.

In the cemetery after dark, the spirits of the bardo emerge. Dispossessed of their bodies, they cannot accept that they are dead and resist the mysterious forces that attempt to persuade them that they are. These spirits counsel Willie on how to deal with his grief-stricken father.

Written in many voices, in snippets, like the libretto for a manic and desperate chorus of the dead, the story is full of humanity and sorrow, with flashes of dark humor and, ultimately, deep compassion for the grieving Lincoln. Overwhelmed by his son’s death, the President knows he cannot indulge his grief for long, with the chaos of war rising around him.

***The Sympathizer

Written by Viet Thanh Nguyen, narrated by François Chau. Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, The Sympathizer opens with the chaos and terror of Saigon’s fall in the waning days of the Vietnam war. In the middle, the scene migrates to California, in the community of formerly powerful refugees, now consigned to marginal lives, and finally returns to the hostile territory of Communist-led Vietnam, where the first person narrator—“the captain”—is captured and interrogated. This book, readers are told, is his “confession.”

The captain early on declares himself a man with two minds, equally able to see both the tragedy and the farce of the war destroying his country. “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces,” he says. Though he works for a general in the South Vietnamese Army, he is a spy for North Vietnam. Still on assignment, he accompanies the general in exile and reports on his continuing and hopeless plans to return to their native country to wage counterrevolution.

Filled with both nostalgia and cynicism, the captain undertakes various duties, some banal, some murderous, and the latter haunt him. His most irony-filled task is accompanying a Hollywood filmmaker to the Philippines to assure that “real Vietnamese people” have a role in the auteur’s shallow cinematic depiction of the war. In that process, he realizes the real Vietnamese people were no more than extras in the war itself. Like the movie, it was an American production.

For my taste, the interrogation section of the book dragged. Chau’s narration lacked the propulsive energy to carry me through nearly 14 hours of listening. Better in print.

*****Back Up

photo: Darren Price, creative commons license

By Paul Colize, translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie This crime thriller by Belgian writer Paul Colize about a British rock band was short-listed for a number of prizes when first released. Only now available in English, the book should find a natural home and receptive audience among rock fans everywhere.

It’s 1967. The rock band Pearl Harbor is taking a break after a hastily organized, late night Berlin recording session, and its four members have scattered. Within days, each of them is dead and unaccountably flush with cash.

One is found at the bottom of a swimming pool in a luxury hotel in Palma de Mallorca, one with a bullet in his head in a hotel room in Hamburg, one crushed under a train in a Berlin U-Bahn station, and one who was apparently hiding out in a London hotel and jumped from his fifth floor room.

Who could believe all these deaths were coincidental? The authorities, with their scattered jurisdictions and the differing modes of death believe it, especially when the bodies—and the victims’ histories—reveal alarmingly high levels of drug and alcohol abuse. The band members become no more than rock n roll detritus, washed up by the tide of 1960s counterculture. It’s a bang-up start to this well-constructed mystery.

Fast forward to 2010. In Brussels, a homeless man is hit by a car near the Gare du Midi train station. He’s badly injured, cannot speak, cannot be identified, and comes to be known as X Midi. You are privileged to read his thoughts, however, as he recuperates. He reconstructs his past and his fleeting but deadly association with Pearl Harbor in chapters that alternate with those narrated by his caretakers. They are trying with infinite patience to help him recover from locked-in syndrome, which leaves him almost totally incapable of communicating.

Drug and alcohol use is part of the immersive environment Colize creates and manages not to become tedious. Rumors of U.S. military involvement in the testing psychoactive drugs simmer. There’s lots of music-making too, which is filled with energy and considerable joy. Berlin’s rock scene takes place in bars and nightclubs, and the bartenders and denizens are portrayed convincingly.

Nevertheless, you may be grateful when X Midi’s narrative emerges from his substance-abusing days to confront the deeper and more sinister evil dogging him. Only gradually does he come to understand the true significance of Pear Harbor’s fateful and final recording session, in which he served as the substitute drummer. The back up.

And murder has a long tail.

Good Health, Good Luck, Good Reading

Beer

photo: Phil King, creative commons license

Here are a few of my favorite books by Irish writers. Grab one of these books and pour yourself something tarry. Sláinte!

Literature

    • Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha won the Man Booker Prize for its recounting of the life of a 10-year-old Dublin boy whose family is on the eve of destruction.
    • The Gathering by Anne Enright, another Booker prize-winner “has more layers to it—of grief, love, lightness, tragedy, absurdity, and trauma—than an onion, and may cause as much weeping” says The American Scholar. I felt privileged to hear her reading last year under auspices of Princeton’s Fund for Irish Studies.
    • The Year of the French is a wonderful historical tale (part of a trilogy) by American writer Thomas Flanagan. Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. Don’t know who Wolf Tone was? Read this and you will.
    • The International by Glenn Patterson, another writer who has appeared in Princeton, and his The International is the story of a single night in the bar of the International Hotel, while upstairs a consequential meeting forming the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. It’s not about militants at all but about state-of-mind.
    • You may think there’s not much new literary territory to explore in male-female sexual relations, yet award-winning author Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians finds it and mines it. Innovative, immersive, dazzling.

Crime/Thrillers

  • Tana French is an American who’s lived in Dublin for nearly thirty years. In her books about the Dublin Murder Squad, she has created what might be termed an ensemble production, as each department member takes a turn in the leading role. Of these, I’ve read Broken Harbor, featuring Dublin detective “Scorcher” Kennedy.
  • The Ghosts of Belfast, by Stuart Neville won the LA Times Book Prize for its depiction of an IRA assassin unable to come to terms with his past. Edge-of-your seat.
  • Adrian McKinty writes about crime in his native Belfast amidst the Troubles. His detective, Sean Duffy, is a rare Catholic in the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The Cold, Cold Ground is first in the series. The 2017 entry—which I would want to read based on the title alone—is Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly. I recommend the audio versions for the super narration by Gerard Doyle.


Finally, to quote another notable Irish writer, Oscar Wilde, “If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.” Any of these is worth more than one pass!

****Need to Know

Matrushka

photo: Chauncey Huffman, creative commons license

By Karen Cleveland – Debut Author Karen Cleveland’s new spy thriller comes from a heartfelt place. She wrote it while on maternity leave from her former position as a CIA analyst, and it is steeped with both internal agency politics and maternal concern.

First-person narrator Vivian Miller has developed an algorithm to help identify the Russian sleeper cells the CIA is convinced are hiding in the United States. Finding a cell’s handler—the only person who knows the agents’ identities—is  is an essential first step to unmasking the entire group.

Using her algorithm, she’s eliminated all but one of her handler candidates and is so close to cracking into the computer of the last one—a man named Yury Yakov—that she doesn’t mind the long working hours. Well, she does mind. She has a loving husband, Matt, and four kids at home, including toddler twins, one of whom has a serious heart defect. Fortunately, Matt works from home, and pitches in when she can’t pick up the kids or make the lunches or take Caleb to his doctor appointments. He also cooks.

In a breakthrough moment early in the book, Vivian finally worms her way into Yury’s computer, and, in a folder labeled “friends,” finds photographs of the sleeper agents in Yury’s cell. Four are strangers. The fifth is a shocking discovery—her husband Matt. From there on she must try to sort out the lies and deception from the true core of what she thought was a healthy, loving relationship. She really does “need to know.”

Throughout the story, she believes in him, then she doesn’t, then she does, and her waffling on this question may be realistic, or merely convenient, for her and the plot. Vivian’s uppermost concern is the safety of her children, especially as Yury circles nearer. Perhaps Cleveland occasionally overdoes Vivian’s mounting anxiety, but you can understand the confusion she is thrown into and how she naturally does return again and again to her touchstone: keeping the kids safe when she cannot trust anyone.

The tension is definitely there in this thriller, ratcheting up with each action Vivian does—or does not—take. The most engaging part of the story is her relationship with Matt, as each new event causes her to reevaluate everything that has gone on before and whether she can ever trust him again—a plot question I found rather easier to answer than Vivian did.

Cleveland evocatively describes the Washington, D.C., setting—the attitudes, travel logistics, and other details. Reportedly, people in the U.S. intelligence community are enthusiastic about this book. and a movie deal is in the works.

*****Robicheaux

Bayou, Louisiana, swamp

photo: Bart Everson, creative commons license

By James Lee Burke – For an American story setting that immediately and richly evokes a colorful geographic, cultural, moral, and culinary milieu, it’s hard to beat the hot, humid Cajun country of southern Louisiana. James Lee Burke has made Iberia Parish the primary home for his literary works, and it continues to serve him well. This new novel is his twenty-first featuring now semi-retired but perpetually on-call sheriff’s detective Dave Robicheaux.

If you’re a fan, you will expect Burke’s newest crime fiction to serve up a gumbo thick with oddball characters, history, philosophy, current crises, people trying to do right, and others not caring to. You won’t be disappointed. From corruption to an unhinged serial killer, this book has it all.

At the outset of the story, most of which is told by Dave in first person, he sees the ghosts of Confederate soldiers marching through the swamp. The scene enables a meditation on mortality, a reexamination of grief over his wife Molly’s death in an automobile crash, and a way to get at truths “that have less to do with the dead than the awareness (that life is) a continuum in which all time occurs at once, like a dream inside the mind of God.” Heavy stuff for a man soon to be facing some nightmarish characters more likely spawned by the devil’s imagination. Burke’s Acadiana is a place where you can believe in such things.

About the plot, suffice it to say that it is complex, with perhaps four main threads that Dave must tease apart and reweave into a coherent set of motives and opportunities. An unexpected subplot involves Dave’s daughter Alafair (the name of Burke’s real-life daughter), a mystery writer (again, as in real life).

Although the narrative follows Dave Robicheaux through the steps of his investigations, to call this a police procedural would shortchange the essence of the book. It more resembles a philosophical probe of the circumstances in which crimes can occur. An example are two of Burke’s quintessential Louisiana characters, sons of old southern families, who are deeply involved in the story’s events: Jimmy Nightingale and Levon Broussard.

Dave notes “an existential difference between the two families. For the Nightingales, manners and morality were interchangeable. For Levon Broussard and his ancestors, honor was a religion, . . . the kind of mind-set associated with a Templar Knight or pilots in the Japanese air force.” Such reflections on the psyches of his characters provide the sense that you’re reading about living, breathing individuals, with all their baggage and capacity for the unexpected.

As the mayhem of the story winds down, Dave’s best friend gives his assessment of their situation in south Louisiana: “There’re no safe places anymore. Everyone knows that except you.”