****The Last Meridian

Los Angeles, palm trees, night

photo: Alissa Walker, creative commons license

By Joe Hefferon – The author spent a quarter-century “in law enforcement” in gritty Newark, New Jersey. In this, his first full-length novel, he’s created an engaging female protagonist in a jam who turns to a private detective for help, and he set the story in and around Los Angeles. On the surface, his characters are savvy and confident—on top of the world—but underneath, well, it’s more complicated. The book’s brief prologue has a particularly engaging first line: “The coroner’s wagon had a flat tire.” Nothing good can follow.

Sixteen years before the novel begins, now-successful Hollywood interior designer Nina Ferrer lived in Chicago and gave up an illegitimate son because she was too young, too unready, and too unwilling to raise a child alone. She abandoned her child and the Midwest for a better, more glamorous life. It turned out she has a talent for perfectly divining the aspirations of her well-paying clients, making their homes an expression of their best selves. Her own home, however, is empty of love, as she and her wealthy businessman (and Cuban cigar-smuggling) husband have long since lost interest in each other.

Still, her life is reasonably well-ordered until she receives a telegram saying that her son back in Illinois has been accused of murder. His adoptive mother swears he is innocent, but she can’t afford a proper defense, and unless some kind of deus ex machina appears—most likely in the form of Nina herself—the boy is doomed to a lengthy prison term.

Nina’s husband is unaware of the boy and at this late date, she doesn’t want to tell him. So she travels all the way to dismal Bakersfield to find a private investigator and gets much more than she bargained for.

The short chapters toggle back and forth mostly between events early in 1965 and toward the end of that year. The later scenes are a series of journalist interviews with Nina that take place after she’s been incarcerated. You don’t know why she’s in custody or what is likely to happen to her until near the end of the story. Although Hefferon precedes each scene with the appropriate time stamp, this switching back and forth became a bit dizzying as the plot gains in complexity and the crimes that led to the boy’s arrest are investigated.

Hefferon’s engaging presentation of Los Angeles and its denizens, its petty criminals, and the detective Nina hires all seem plausible. Yet the novel has an occasional unevenness of tone that is jarring and which Hefferon will probably overcome with more writing experience. At times it seems he’s trying too hard to achieve a literary effect. Nevertheless, Hefferon is capable of pleasing on-point description. For example, “Whether it was (the reporter’s) inability to ask questions rapidly, or a natural gift for shutting up, he listened better than he talked, offering Nina a wide runway on which to land her story.”

You’ll enjoy spending time with these characters and may conclude this is an author who, when his literary skills catch up to his gifts of characterization and plot development, may become highly regarded in the crime fiction field. It’s gritty noir tinged with tinseltown glamour. And you may find these characters, especially the wise-cracking detective (whose wit is easily matched by that of Nina herself), modern incarnations of the types so well portrayed by Los Angeles literary icon Raymond Chandler and his progeny.

****The Nix

demonstration

photo: Pedro Lozano, creative commons license

By Nathan Hill, narrated by Ari Fliakos – A lot happens in the early pages of this multilayered novel set in the American Midwest: a woman throws a few bits of gravel at a right-wing presidential candidate; adepts play a round of the immersive multi-role-player game World of Elfscape; and untenured college professor Samuel Andreson Anderson debates how to handle plagiarizing student Laura Pottsdam.

Then the pieces start to fit. The professor is one of the gamers, indulging in his e-addiction when he should be doing something productive, like working on the book he’s contracted to write, and for which he received a healthy advance. Another piece clicks into place when Samuel meets with his impatient publisher, who reveals the gravel-thrower was his mother Faye, who abandoned her son when he was 11. If he will only write Faye’s biography—how she came to be such a dangerous radical terrorist—all will be forgiven, and he won’t have to return the advance, long-since spent.

The problem is, he knows nothing about his mother. Once he starts asking questions, though, he realizes how badly he wants some answers. At first the clues are scant. The novel spends time on Samuel’s childhood and the Norwegian legends his immigrant grandfather and mother passed on to him. The one that gave the book its title is the household spirit—the Nix—whose mission is to foil a person’s plans. The lesson of the Nix is: “Don’t trust things that are too good to be true.” Once a Nix latches onto you, it never leaves. “A person can be a Nix to another person,” his mother explains, and pretty much everyone in this book has Nixes to contend with. That includes Samuel’s best childhood friends, Bishop and his twin sister, the violin prodigy Bethany.

Samuel learns that his mother was briefly a student in Chicago in 1968, as the radicals and the Establishment prepared for the Democratic convention. For a while, his mother’s story takes over the narrative, and though her students days were short, they were filled with incident and the outsize personalities of the counterculture and its foes. Faye had a Nix too.

Jason Sheehan for NPR said the lives of both Samuel and Faye were filled with “the small mistakes that become a life’s great tragedies,” or you could just say their Nixes keep getting in the way.

With its sly and at time hilarious commentary on American culture of the Sixties and today, The Nix was chosen by numerous publications as a Notable Book of 2016. Though the book is hard to describe without becoming entangled in its richly conceived plot, it’s author Hill’s writing—“looping, run-on, wildly digressive pages,” Sheehan says—and the on-point humor that pull you in. An early scene in which the plagiarist student Laura explains why she shouldn’t be penalized for her poor performance is a LOL model of self-absorption and self-justification.

Narrator Ari Fliakos does a fine job inhabiting the characters—not just the principals, but also the entitled Laura, the self-satisfied Chicago protestors, the insufferable publisher, and the World of Elfscape-obsessed Pwnage (pronounced Pone-aj). At almost 22 hours, it is rather a long book for listening, yet I enjoyed it a lot.

****The Soul of an Octopus

photo: Matt Biddulph, creative commons license

By Sy Montgomery – The New York Times has called naturalist Sy Montgomery “equal parts poet and scientist” and the Boston Globe says she’s “part Indiana Jones and part Emily Dickinson.” Maybe, with all those parts, it’s fitting that this 2015 book—National Book Award finalist The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness—is also about a creature with many parts.

If we really understood how wondrous octopuses are, we wouldn’t eat them. (Their remarkable nature, by the way, extends to the genetic level.)

The first thing that’s hard to grasp about octopusus is that almost two-thirds of their neurons are not in their brains, but in their arms. In one early encounter with the octopus Athena, Montgomery says, “Unconstrained by joints, her arms were constantly questing, coiling, stretching, reaching, unfurling, all in different directions at once. Each arm seemed like a separate creature, with a mind of its own. In fact, this is almost literally true.”

octopus

(photo: wikimedia/commons)

She speculates that this “distributed intelligence” enables the octopus to multitask. It reduces the burden on the brain to coordinate all those arms, which can change color and surface texture in an instant, camouflaging themselves from predators or potential prey and indicating mood, from calm to distress to happy red (as pictured). The arms, she says, “learn, think, decide, and remember—while at the same time processing the flood of taste and touch information pouring in from every inch of skin.”

That the information they receive by touch is remembered is evident from another powerful theme of Montgomery’s book. Octopuses are not just smart—as she demonstrates in describing their many tricks—they have something akin to an emotional life, evidenced by their relationships with the people around them. (No, they’re not just food-seeking.)

They can recognize individual people and other animals because of their extraordinary senses. An octopus’s chemoreceptors can detect another’s “scent” from at least thirty yards away, and research suggests their suckers are a hundred times more sensitive than the chemical receptors on your own tongue.

At Boston’s New England Aquarium where Montgomery interacted with several octopuses over a period of years, one—Octavia—was very friendly. As Octavia’s life was coming to a close, she  laid thousands of eggs, which she obsessively guarded night and day. For many months Montgomery and the caretakers had no physical contact with her. When she was weakening fast, they moved her to a simpler environment without her eggs. Freed from that duty, Octavia’s behavior made it clear she remembered her friends, embracing them as before.

Read this book and marvel!

****Jack the Ripper: Case Closed

Doyle and WildeBy Gyles Brandreth – London’s 1888 Whitechapel Murders have provided seemingly endless inspiration for authors’ speculation. Latest in this parade of theorists exploring the grisly deaths of five prostitutes is a former Conservative member of Britain’s Parliament, actor, and broadcaster who uses the real-life friendship between playwright Oscar Wilde and Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle as his premise.

Six years after the Jack the Ripper murders, these two luminaries are brought into the investigation by another real-life character, Metropolitan Police CID Chief Constable Melville Macnaghten. Why them? Most of Macnaghten’s chief suspects are known to Wilde and, the detective says, “you are a poet, a Freemason and a man of the world. All useful qualifications for the business at hand.”

The police are resurrecting their failed investigation for several reasons. Because Macnaughten is writing a definitive report and would like to provide a conclusion. Because he wants to end speculation about the identity of the killer, which, in the absence of a definitive alternative, even occasionally extends to the late Prince Eddy, Duke of Clarence and Avondale. And, because a new murder has occurred that bears all the hallmarks of a Ripper case, except that the body was found not in Whitechapel but in Chelsea. More particularly, in the alley behind Tite Street, where Wilde and Macnaghten have their homes.

Whether you fully buy into the plausibility of this notion, you cannot deny that it makes for an entertaining read, as Brandreth is able to draw on the wide and diverse acquaintanceships Wilde had among members of London society, high and low. He does a creditable job of eliminating Macnaghten’s weaker suspects—the suicide John Druitt, the spiritualist Walter Wellbeloved, and actor Richard Mansfield. He avails himself of opportunities to mention Wilde’s friend, the painter Walter Sickert, briefly considered a suspect in real life. (As evidence of the long half-life of Jack the Ripper theories, American mystery author Patricia Cornwell produced her second book attempting a case against him last February.) Brandreth then constructs a scenario in which the more unsavory suspects and some new players can cavort.

Brandreth has written six other mysteries featuring Oscar Wilde and his circle, sometimes including Doyle, and he knows his principal character and their London milieu well. If you’re familiar with Wilde’s plays, you’ll recognize various lines in the witty epigrams he’s constantly spouting. Brandreth liberally butters the narrative with other literary allusions as well. There’s even a character named Bunbury, and you know what happened to him.

As to the clever resolution and identification of “the real Jack,” this may not be so satisfactory. The motivation is weak and the method (which I cannot reveal as it would be a spoiler) is now discredited, though it was thought effective in the Victorian era. These issues, which would be serious in a contemporary crime thriller, are almost beside the point in this book. It’s a case of the journey being more important—and entertaining—than the destination.

*****Fierce Kingdom

paw

photo: Josh Henderson, creative commons license

By Gin Phillips – If you want to write a psychological thriller as compelling as this Gin Phillips debut, here’s how. If you’re a parent—or can imagine being one—construct your “worst nightmare” scenario, including in it all the times you thought about, as most parents do, how you would extricate you and your child from deadly peril.

Then think about all the ways your scenario could go wrong, your possible misjudgments, the quirks of your and your child’s behavior that spell possible doom.

Once you’ve depleted your daily allotment of adrenaline with this imaginary exercise, write it all down. Few child-in-danger novels set out to immerse themselves in the relationship between mother and child as Phillips has. It’s that relationship that brings the novel its relentless, overwhelming power.

Phillips has done that here in an edge-of-your seat thriller told mostly from the acutely observant third-person point-of-view of a young mother. Devoted, attentive mom Joan is hurrying her four-year-old son, Lincoln, out of the zoo at closing time. As they near the exit, she realizes they were wrong about the noises they’ve been hearing. They weren’t firecrackers or popping balloons, they were gunshots, and people lie dead and dying. Where to hide? How to hide, when Lincoln is averse to whispering and to having his wishes more-or-less met upon request?

The action takes place in the three hours, ten minutes from 4:55 to 8:05 p.m. one weekday, so, in a way, it unfolds before you in real time. The zoo/park setting in an unnamed American city is meticulously rendered, introducing not only the animal exhibits, but also the miscellaneous trappings—the snack court, the carousel, the circulating train and, in the season of Joan’s nightmare, the cheesy Halloween decorations.

The behavior and preoccupations of a four-year-old are so accurately described, you know this child. You can absolutely believe in every mistimed, too-loud complaint, every desire that needs immediate attention, and every incipient wail. You sympathize with Joan trying to comfort and control her son and be a positive parent, to reassure not terrify him. She knows him so well, she anticipates the best ways to assuage his discomforts. Unfortunately, what will work can be risky. At times, the tension is so high, you may need to take a break. (I did!)

Lincoln is a child who follows the rules. That mostly works, but Joan must finally tell him, “The rules are different today. The rules are that we hide and do not let the man with the gun find us.” The police have arrived—she’s heard the sirens—but the gunfire continues and they don’t seem to have penetrated the zoo itself. Why not? This delay is one of the few lapses in the novel’s believability.

So, if you write down a terrifying story such as that, you will have done what Phillips has done. Oh, and you need to throw in a moral dilemma or two, you must capture the thinking of a bright, inquisitive child without becoming saccharine or tedious, you have to create compelling secondary characters, and you must have the writing chops of a serious, thoughtful author. In other words, you must be Gin Phillips.

****DIS MEM BER

teenage girl

photo: Tammy McGary, creative commons license

By Joyce Carol Oates – This collection of mostly longish short stories features Oates’s sly humor and penchant for the off-kilter. There’s something just a little bit obsessive, just a little wrong about many of the stories’ protagonists, until there’s a LOT wrong. Someplace along the line, they take a turn into some very dark places.

The disarticulated title of the story, “DIS MEM BER” anticipates the menace underlying the tale of a pre-teen girl fascinated by her older step-cousin—handsome, mysterious, and just disreputable enough to charm a young girl and enrage her father. The first-person narrator mostly misses the sinister potential in his attentions, but you will not, and you read on with growing unease.

Similarly, in the story “Heartbreak,” a lumpy young teen is jealous of her attractive older sister and her budding relationship with their stepfather’s handsome nephew. It opens as follows: “In the top drawer of my step-dad’s bureau the gun was kept,” signaling that Oates will follow Chekhov’s famous advice: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.”

Although these two tales turn out quite differently, they show an affinity for the voice of a young girl troubled by her sexuality and the impact on men that she has, may have, may never have, wants, and fears. Oates mimics the progress and backtracking and stuttering nature of thought with liberal use of interjected italics and parenthetical phrasing: “Even when Rowan was furious with me, and disgusted with me, still he was fond of me. This I know. It is a (secret) memory I cherish.” These devices in places feel excessive, even intrusive. Parentheses within parentheses send you down a rabbit hole.

Young girls are not the only females prey to second thoughts. The eerie story “The Crawl Space” concerns a widow haunted by—and haunting—the home she shared with her husband, now in other hands. Similarly, in “Great Blue Heron,” a new widow is plagued by her husband’s brother, determined to wrest the executorship of his estate—and, undoubtedly, all his assets—from her. What precisely happens in these two stories, as the women’s ghosts and fantasies take hold, is not clear. Their trace of ambiguity leaves you free to interpret. Letting readers “do some of the work themselves” can be a strength of the short story form.

In “The Drowned Girl,” a college student becomes obsessed with the unexplained death of a fellow student. “Like gnats such thoughts pass through my head. Sometimes in my large lecture classes the low persistent buzzing is such that I can barely hear the professor’s voice and I must stare and stare like a lip-reader.” In this, as in all of these stories, Oates deftly creates a specific, concrete setting for her characters. The believability of these environments makes you believe the characters also are plausible until you’ve traveled with them pretty far into the deep weeds of their bizarre perceptions.

The final story, “Welcome to Friendly Skies!” is not a thematic fit with the others, but ends the book on a decidedly humorous note. Passengers on a you-can-anticipate “ill-fated” flight to Amchitka, Alaska, are taken through the standard airplane safety monologue with a great many ominous additions.

Lawrence Block’s recent multi-authored short story collection, In Sunlight or in Shadow, inspired by the realist paintings of Edward Hopper, could not pass up the opportunity to include one of Oates’s lonely—and deliciously skewed—female protagonists.

*****A Necessary Evil

Hindu God Baruda

photo: Keshav Mukund Kandhadai, creative commons license

By Abir Mukherjee – Reading this fast-paced police procedural is like a trip back in time to the British Raj, mid-1920. Calcutta-based Imperial Police Force Captain Sam Wyndham and his Sergeant Surendranath Banerjee—whom Wyndham insists on calling Surrender-not—find themselves embroiled in a complicated and politically tricky investigation.

An old school acquaintance of the Sergeant’s, Crown Prince Adhir Singh Sai of Sambalpore is visiting Calcutta to attend the formation of a Chamber of Princes, another in His Majesty’s Government’s urgent stratagems to dampen the population’s growing sentiment supporting Home Rule. While Wyndham and Banerjee are riding in a car with the Prince, he tells them he’s received anonymous death threats back home. Right on cue, a man dressed in the saffron robes of a Hindu priest steps in front of the car and shoots him dead. The two policemen investigate and find the attacker, who commits suicide rather than be taken.

Further steps in the investigation, it seems, will have to take place in Sambalpore, but as one of the larger and more important Princely States, Sambalpore is administered under the auspices of its Maharajah, not the British government. The Sergeant’s acquaintanceship with the prince provides an excuse for the pair of them to go to Sambalpore for the funeral and—strictly unofficially, of course—see what they can find out.

In an author’s note Mukherjee says there was an actual princely state of Sambalpur southwest of Calcutta, with a several thousand-year history. It was notable as a place where both diamonds and coal—which figure in the plot of the novel—were prevalent. Carbon in its various forms has made the fictional Maharaja of Sambalpore the fifth richest man in India, enabling the lavish lifestyle Wyndham and Surrender-not enjoy as his guests.

Sambalpore is also a center of the worship of Lord Jagannath, an avatar of Vishnu. The English word juggernaut, which refers to a merciless and unstoppable force, derives from the temple cars used in worshiping Jagannath and metaphorically in this novel, to the forces that ally to secure Sambalpore’s future.

As a first-person narrator, Wyndham is perceptive and charming. At times he plays his clueless Englishman card, as in the sobriquet for his sergeant. He good-naturedly criticizes their peon for not managing to master English, despite years of service, never turning that linguistic mirror on himself. The only cultural difficulty he seems unable to accommodate is the idea of an Englishwoman involved with an Indian man. Meanwhile, he’s adopted some local customs quite whole-heartedly, including the rituals and pleasures of opium-smoking.

Wyndham’s cultural blind spots are a clever narrative device for Mukherjee, who uses them to inform the Captain—and the reader—about social, political, and religious matters that impinge on the investigation. Mukherjee has created an engaging pair of police protagonists and an array of well-conceived secondary characters too.

As the plot unfolds, the complexity of Sambalpore palace life, the royal family, and the ambitious civil servants is spread out before you, and it is difficult to see how matters will resolve. Yet, time is short. The English diplomat stationed in Sambalpore, who has a deliciously gossipy wife, is determined to get rid of him and Surrender-not, and the two policemen may be put on the next train north to Calcutta at any moment.

****The Incarnations

Chinese Dragon - Hong Kong

photo: Arthur Chapman, creative commons license

By Susan Barker — “A thousand years of obsession and betrayal,” says author Adam Johnson about this intricately plotted tale, a finalist for the 2015 Kirkus prize for fiction. Author Barker has managed to create a multitude of compelling plots, drawing inspiration from the convoluted and violent history of China, all within one overarching framework.

The premise is that present-day Beijing taxi driver Wang is being watched by a first-person observer, who refers to the two of them as “you” and “I.” The narrator writes him a series of letters that purport to recount the driver’s previous lives—thus, the book’s title.

“As biographer of our past lives, I recount the ways we have known each other. The times we were friends and the times we were enemies.” Sometimes they were men, sometimes women, sometimes related, sometimes not, first one was older, then the other. They circle each other through time like dragons.

After each foray into the past, the narration returns briefly to the present and the insightful, often humorous portrayals of the puzzled driver, his wife and young daughter Echo, his stubborn father and seductive stepmother, and an old flame he’s reluctantly rekindled. The letters are too bizarre and at times too shameful to share, and they contribute in some part to deteriorating relations between Wang and his current contemporaries. So consumed by the past, he’s unable to see the present clearly.

Some of these past lives were plenty brutal too, especially the one where “you” were a beautiful young concubine in the court of a cruel and debauched emperor, and “I” an older concubine who thought she’d earned a place of respect. Perhaps because it was closest to our own time and can be viewed through a modern lens, the section that takes place during the Cultural Revolution was especially poignant.

Fascinated by historical China as I am, I enjoyed the novel’s subject and setting, as well as the high quality of its writing and its clever plot and subject matter. Even at the end, it had surprises in store.

Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine – May/June 2017

Ellery Queen

(photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

Beginning this year, EQMM—a prominent short story publisher with a 75-year history—began publishing six times a year. The issues are longer than the former single-month editions, and the policy was instituted undoubtedly to save mailing costs. I hope this doesn’t mean an eventual reduction in the number of stories EQMM publishes, because outlets for mystery/crime short stories are severely limited.

Judging by the quality of the May-June 2017 issue, there’s no shortage of entertaining content out there. Here are some of the stories I liked best:

  • “Charcoal and Cherry,” by Zoe Z. Dean, in which an amateur sleuth teams up with a retired police detective to unravel a cold-case murder.
  • “Rosalie Marx is Missing,” by Robert S. Levinson. A pair of amateur Las Vegas sleuths find a missing granddaughter. Lively banter.
  • “Find and Replace,” by Marjorie Eccles, an increasingly hilarious (and suspicious) exchange of letters between a homeowner and a newspaper’s gardening expert.
  • “Your Name Will Be Written in Lights,” by Jonathan Moore, author of last year’s excellent The Poison Artist. A show girl puts on the performance of her life.
  • “In the Time of the Voodoo,” by John Lantigua, high-tension effort to protect a Miami immigrant from her past and the Tonton Macoute.
  • “Angel Face,” by M.C. Lee, attention to detail may exonerate a wrongly convicted death row prisoner, in Florida, “a state where the statue of Blind Justice would be better suited standing in front of a Whac-A-Mole machine.”

Libraries and big box bookstores carry EQMM, or subscribe! Available in print and for the Kindle.

Books by some of the authors highlighted above:

**Love Me Not

Motorcycle

photo: Chris Jefferson, creative commons license

By M J ArlidgeThis contemporary crime thriller set in Southampton, England, pits the local police force against a pair of serial killers. It’s a multiple point-of-view novel, told mostly from the perspective of DI Helen Grace, newly returned to her job, but also from the perspective of numerous other characters, including DS Charlene (Charlie) Brooks, various witnesses, and sleazy and irritating journalist Emilia Garanita.

Although many of the principal characters are women, they seem no more than superficially female. Grace rushes into situations on her Kawasaki without analyzing them or indicating the police department has any procedural requirements. Well along in the story, the author writes that she is now being propelled by instinct, whereas it seems that instinct is what has driven her all along. And, though the author refers to Grace’s feelings about her work, her emotions tend to be expressed in clichéd, rather than insightful, ways. There’s an unsatisfying pop psychology analysis of the killers’ motivations that does not evolve as new information is gained.

Perhaps police and school administrators’ paranoia about shooting incidents is markedly less in the U.K. than in the States, but when the serial killer invades a middle school, you have to wonder whether there should be more of a protocol or official response than having Grace calmly saying to a bunch of bemused teachers and students, “You should leave.”

Authors are constantly told “show, don’t tell,” especially when it comes to emotions. A worse pitfall is showing then telling, which suggests the author doesn’t trust the reader to understand what has taken place and needs him to explain it. Arlidge does this repeatedly. One example: A man is numb with shock about his wife’s murder until his dogs bound into the room and affectionately greet him. As he pets them, he comes near to tears. The author can’t resist explaining that the dogs’ love and devotion has penetrated the husband’s shock, revealing how devastated he is, which of course takes all the wind out of the emotional moment.

The action of the novel occurs over the course of a single jam-packed day, with flashbacks as necessary. Surprisingly, the police determine the identity of one of the killers less than a third of the way into the novel and the other, less than half-way in. This means the entire last half the book is an extended chase scenario as the police struggle to get one step ahead of the perpetrators.

This last half is fast-paced, of course, and readers attracted to entertainment rich with car chases may find it just the ticket. According to Amazon, this is Arlidge’s seventh novel featuring DI Grace, and he has been producing two of them a year since 2014, plus a pair of short stories. That’s a pretty fast pace too!