****The Shanghai Factor

Shanghai, woman

photo: Fabrizio Maestroni, creative commons license

By Charles McCarry – This Shanghai-U.S. East Coast-based spy thriller is reminiscent of the early works of John le Carré, where the question always is, Whom can you trust? And the answer: no one. At least that’s how the unnamed narrator, a new CIA recruit, chooses to operate. Paranoia 101. Throughout, it’s McCarry’s wry observations of characters and their situations that make the reading such a pleasure.

Undocumented CIA agents, like the narrator,

. . . never carry official ID. This absence of proof that they’re up to no good is their protection. Otherwise, they are warned, they’re on their own. If they get themselves into trouble, they’ll get no help. If they do well, they’ll get no thanks. That formula is, of course, catnip to romantics.

McCarry gives his protagonist a deceptive openness and surface sociability. A Chinese languages major in college, he’s been sent to Shanghai to improve his language skills and cultural acumen and to keep a lookout for potential Agency recruits.

Early in his stay, a beautiful young woman crashes her bike into his, he buys her an expensive replacement, and before long, they’re lovers. It’s a fun way to learn the language not generally endorsed by Berlitz. From the beginning, he assumes she’d been sent by the Guoanbu, the Chinese intelligence service. Other than her name, Mei, he never asks her any questions about her background—what would be the point?—except to learn she was an exchange student in Massachusetts, which accounts for her American English. Nor does she ask such questions of him—ditto. Plus, he figures she already knows.

Through Mei, he meets wealthy, upwardly mobile young Chinese, disdainful of their stodgy Communist parents. Through one of them, he meets a prominent Chinese CEO and receives an employment offer he suspects is a feeler from Guoanbu. Such a placement could be invaluable to the CIA, if highly risky to him.

McCarry creates a number of entertaining secondary characters, especially lusty Mei, the hot-and-cold Chinese spy Lin Ming, and his mother’s former crack-addict cook, Magdalena. Are any of them what and who they seem? Then there’s his handler, the eccentric CIA director of counter-intelligence Luther Burbank (to the surprise of horticulturalists everywhere), who advises him take the job.

Burbank is the only man at the Agency who knows what he’s up to, and they talk only rarely. When they do, Burbank counsels that becoming a an effective espionage agent and undermining Guoanbu, will be a long game, vulnerable to exposure at every turn. They have to be content to wait for the payoff. He does take the job and, from there, life gets complicated.

McCarry’s writing is smooth and literary, and one of my favorite authors, Alan Furst, calls him “a master of intelligent, literate spy fiction.” If you like an old-fashioned spy story dependent more on agents’ wits than electronic wizardry and body count, you may enjoy this one too.

****The Expatriates

Hong Kong - aotaro

photo: aotaro, creative commons license

By Janice Y.K. Lee – In December I read Lee’s debut novel, The Piano Teacher, only to realize her second book was the January selection of my book club. I now feel quite immersed in the fascinating multicultural community of Hong Kong. This book, which takes place in the current era, is told from the point of view of three American women in Hong Kong for indefinite periods.

Mercy is a young, single Korean-American graduate of Columbia University who can’t seem to get started in a career or a relationship. This would be no surprise to the Korean fortune-tellers back in Flushing who threw a pall over her future when they said her life would be muddled and full of bad luck. Margaret is a happily married mother of three on whom terrible tragedy falls. And Hilary, who has a husband and gobs of family money but lacks the one thing she thinks would make her happiest—a child of her own. In the hothouse, insulated community of Hong Kong that Lee describes, the three women’s stories inevitably intertwine.

“The new expatriates arrive practically on the hour, every day of the week. They get off Cathay Pacific flights from New York, BA from London, Garuda from Jakarta, ANA from Tokyo, carrying briefcases, carrying Louis Vuitton handbags, carrying babies and bottles, carrying exhaustion and excitement and frustration. . . . They are Chinese, Irish, French, Korean, American—a veritable UN of fortune-seekers, willing sheep, life-changers, come to find their future selves.”

For the women, Hong Kong is a revelation. Everyone has help—the near-invisible Chinese maids and cooks and nannies and drivers. The married ones have come for their husband’s job and left their own careers, if they had them, mostly behind. Freedom from whole categories of daily routine enables a different, more demanding social life. Luncheons, the club. And a fixation on motherhood. Lee is a beautiful writer and an expert observer of people, creating many moments that are funny as well as painful.

Each of the women finds herself in key situations that probably never would have existed stateside. And how that will eventually play out is in her own hands. While I never did understand Mercy’s inability or unwillingness to get hold of her future—she’s like the smooth side of velcro—and while New York Times reviewer Maggie Pouncey complains that too much of Margaret’s suffering occurs off-stage, the book was nevertheless an absorbing read. Perhaps we’re observing the characters more with a weak pair of binoculars than a magnifying glass, but we see a lot of the landscape that shapes their actions.

Glimmer Train Short Stories

tapas, small plates

photo: Ken Hawkins, creative commons license

Catching up with two back issues of Glimmer Train—one of the premiere U.S. venues for short story writers—with thoughts about writers to watch, based on these pages. The winter 2015 issue (#92, 13 stories) and fall 2016 issue (#97, 14 stories) are culled from a vast sea of literary output—some 32,000 stories submitted to the GT editors each year.

Most GT writers appear (from their bios) both youngish and frightfully accomplished. Their work and how the editors’ tastes have reacted over the years suggest an evolution in concepts of narrative and characterization, plot and story. Some stories in these recent issue push the envelope of narrative, depending less on scene and dialog. Others deliver their message in short bursts, perhaps thematically linked but otherwise superficially disconnected from what comes before or after. Some require a bit of figuring out. I like the challenge!

Among the stories I enjoyed most from Issue 92 were:

  • “Language Lessons” by Barbara Ganley, each section of which is a mini-story in itself. Ganley is the founder of Community Expressions, LLC, whose purpose is “to help small communities bring storytelling to civic engagements and change efforts”—an enterprise at least as interesting as her fiction.
  • The multiple point-of-view story “Keller’s Ranch,” by award-winning essayist Ming Holden, which includes the memorable line, “I knew that hope can be as sharp as our teeth.” Not an abstract danger, an incarnate one.

Several stories in Issue 97 deal with death, an ambitious topic for a young author and yet dealt with effectively by A. Campbell (“On Fleck/ Fleck On”), a debut author, Matthew Iribarne (“We Are Heaven”), and Lauren Green (“When We Hear Yellow”): “. . . if the heart were a lighthouse, I wouldn’t be able to count on mine. Mine would send out distress signals only after the shipwreck had taken place.”

I also enjoyed:

  • “Pepper,” dog-park action by Weike Wang, author of the novel Chemistry, forthcoming in May, and
  • “Jumping Doctor He Come in Future” by Karen Malley, a story whose good humor starts with the title. Fires and storms and recalcitrant cats.

Tap a source of fine short stories—find them in the magazine section of your big box book store and on many websites—for “small plates” that satisfy.

****What Remains of Me

Los Angeles, Hollywood

photo: James Gubera, creative commons license

By Alison Gaylin , narrated by Ann Marie Lee – If, as the Bible says, the sins of the fathers will be visited on their children (or more colorfully “The fathers have eaten a sour grape, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”), this story is the proof of it. It’s set in two time periods—1980 and 2010—among a small group of Hollywood teenagers. They’re about 17 in 1980 and nearing 50 in 2010, with a whole lot of water under the bridge in between.

The three friends—Kelly, Bellamy, and Vee—come from vastly different backgrounds. Kelly, the principal point-of-view character, is barely middle class, while Bellamy and Vee are children of “tinseltown royalty,” rich kids whose actions bring few consequences. They all smoke, drink, use drugs, and skip school. Gaylin dwells on the substance abuse and resultant bad decision-making more than necessary, as there was not much new there. But even so, it’s the parents whose problems run deepest, under the shiny surface.

Teenage Kelly Michelle Lund—as she is forever known in the media—after ingesting more than a few illegal substances, goes to a movie wrap party at Vee’s home. Before the party ends, his director-father is murdered—shot three times, once right between the eyes. Thanks to a weak defense effort, Kelly is convicted of the crime.

After a quarter-century in prison, Kelly has been out for five years and is trying to rebuild her life. When Bellamy’s father is murdered in much the same way Vee’s was, the media and the police immediately suspect Kelly. In Gaylin’s twisting plot, every significant character has secrets, and they are ingeniously linked, While the plot mostly holds, a late confrontation between Kelly and Bellamy felt excessively contrived.

Hollywood is the perfect backdrop for a story in which nothing is as it seems—a place where you shouldn’t peer behind the curtain or, perhaps, for your own good, you’d better!. Throughout the story, characters repeatedly suggest that powerful Hollywood folk can do whatever they please, without consequences. That certainly was true when the studios’ star system was in place and bad behavior was aggressively covered up, but it’s less true since (with Bill Cosby a prominent exception). Yet that presumption makes so many characters’ secrets easier to keep.

Ann Marie Lee’s narration nicely evokes both the teens and the parents. She might have used more mature voices for Kelly and Bellamy at age 47, but that’s a minor quibble regarding an overall fine reading.

****The Collection

Art Gallery

photo: WellDone2012, creative commons license

By Lance Charnes – If you like “ticking clock thrillers,” in this first-person caper, narrator Matt Friedrich faces a whole clockwork factory ticking toward deadlines, emphasis on “dead.”

If he doesn’t find certain stolen art, the women in his life will be dead at the hands of ʼNdràngheta, the Calabrian mafia, a group that makes those Sicilian guys look like amateurs. If he doesn’t find out who’s fencing stolen art, he won’t be paid the desperately needed $10,000 he’s supposed to earn for this mysterious gig. Meanwhile, he has to come up with a plausible tale and report in on time to his parole officer, who would send him back to the slammer if he knew Matt was flitting all over Europe on a venture with a growing body count.

But Matt is an engaging protagonist and you can’t help but hope he finds a way out of all these dilemmas–in time!

He trained as an architect and got into trouble working for a corner-cutting Southern California art gallery. In a tense early scene, we see him pushing up the auction price of a Corot landscape with fake bids. Eventually, his shenanigans landed him in the federal Prison Camp Pensacola for 14 months. Now Matt’s out of prison, working as a barista, staying with a generous friend, and broke. Lawyer fees and restitution payments take almost everything he earns.

He reconnects with a woman he met in Geneva, Allyson DeWitt, who said she sometimes needs art experts. She’s purposefully vague about the nature of her business and the identity of her clients, but a few weeks later, a bike messenger gives Matt a package containing a flash drive, a packet of €1,100 in used bills, a well-used fake passport, and a European itinerary. Consumed with curiosity, lust for Allyson, and the need for cash, Matt flies to Europe and the adventure begins.

Charnes’s writing is full of Matt’s self-deprecating humor, breezy asides, and an occasional pleasing literary flourish. They cleverly elucidate Matt’s character, putting you squarely in his corner, as in: “The pressure from the fifty hundred-euro notes in my pocket eventually cuts off the blood flow to my better instincts.”

Even though he’s seriously back-footed by everything he does not know (and won’t be told) about his assignment, Matt gamely plows ahead. He’s aware that stolen artworks are being used to move large amounts of dirty money, since cash has become too easy for governments to track. Allyson’s assigned him a partner named Carson, a woman short on details and temper. They make an interesting pair, as they delve into this complicated scam. Matt and Carson each have skills the other lacks, which makes for a believable partnership, even if Matt is never quite sure whether he trusts her.

Author Charnes has developed a meticulously complex, rapid-paced plot, and some of the ways the scam works are briefly difficult to follow, but you never believe for a moment that he hasn’t thought the whole thing through. The subtitle of this book is The Dewitt Agency Files #1, which sets you up for the final scene, when Matt the bike messenger reappears with an envelope containing information for his next case. Can’t wait!

The Critics Pick: Best Crime/Mystery/Thrillers of 2016

police, San Francisco, passersby

(photo: Thomas Hawk, Creative Commons license)

Yesterday, I reported on the only book to receive four mentions among eight different “best of 2016” lists for crime, mystery, and thriller fiction, and the three mentioned three times. Below are the books receiving two mentions. All the others—just over 60 books in all—were mentioned only once. So there’s lots of “best” books out there. If readers are interested, I’ll post the list of the 60, as well. Let me know. Yesterday’s post here.

Two Mentions

Putting several of these, starting with those in bold, on my “to read” list!

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley – A suspicious plane crash leads to a damaging media onslaught for survivors while the police investigate.
Black Widow by Chris Brookmyre – A rogue journalist investigates a woman victimized by Internet trolls; when her husband dies, is the “Black Widow” moniker correct?
The Black Widow by Daniel Silva – a political thriller about efforts to prevent an Islamist attack on Paris with a “heart-stopping, unexpected and deeply unsettling” grand finale, says the Washington Post.
Fool Me Once by Harlan Coben – a nanny cam reveals a widow’s husband may not be dead after all in this “smart, fast-paced thriller by a master,” according to Library Journal.
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet – combines a legal thriller and literary game so well, it wound up on the Man Booker prize shortlist.
I Let You Go by Claire Mackintosh – “A clever combination of police procedural and psychological thriller,” says CrimeFictionLover.com, which begins with a child’s hit-and-run death.
Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner – A missing woman’s nearest and dearest may not be telling the police the whole story.
Rise the Dark by Michael Koryta – Investigator Mark Novak is taunted by a recently released prisoner who claims knowledge of Novak’s wife’s murder.
The Second Life of Nick Mason by Steve Hamilton – Convicted murderer Nick Mason gets a surprise early prison release and must try to build a new life, and goes about it all really, really wrong.
The Trespasser by Tana French, provides another outing of the fascinating Dublin Murder Squad.

The Sources

These U.S. and U.K. publications provided the original lists: BookRiot, The Guardian, Kirkus Reviews, Library Journal, New York Times, The Telegraph (crime & thriller), The Telegraph (50 Best Books for Christmas), Washington Post.

Best of the Best in Crime Fiction – 2016

chalk outline, body

(image: pixabay, creative commons license)

Been accumulating a list of year-end lists of “Best Mystery/Crime/Thriller Novels of 2016.” A total of 75 books appears on the eight lists I researched. More than 60 of them appear only once, suggesting not only the tremendous volume of good writing in these genres but the wide range of reviewers’ personal tastes.  I’ve read and reviewed 30 new crime books in 2016, and my favorites aren’t on any of these lists. They are:

  • Dodgers by Bill Beverly – Los Angeles teenagers embark on a murder mission and much, much more
  • The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock – ne’er-do-wells in the early 1900’s South meet the inevitable; not for the squeamish
  • The Far Empty by J. Todd Scott – local law enforcement in Big Bend country fighting (or is it helping?) the Mexican drug cartels

Below are the books that appeared on three or four lists; tomorrow the books appearing on two and where to find these lists, if you want to investigate further.

For reviews of great new crime/mystery/thriller releases year-round, bookmark the U.K. website CrimeFictionLover.com. I’m one of the site’s reviewers, and the team there does a fantastic job!

Four Mentions

You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott – a book that surely benefited from exquisite timing. This story of an elite gymnast and the sacrifices she, her teammates, and their families must make coincided with the summer Olympics and enthusiasm around the gold-medal-winning U.S. women’s gymnastics team. The story is told mostly from the point of view of the young gymnast’s mother, and it’s full of teen-age angst, parental fixation, and gym-rat rivalries. But are they strong enough to precipitate and cover up murder?

Three Mentions

Disclaimer: I’ve not read any of these. Note to self: get busy!

Charcoal Joe by Walter Mosley – Mosley is in his element here, writing about Los Angeles in the uneasy aftermath of the deadly 1960s Watts riots. Says the New York Times review, Mosley’s protagonist, Easy Rawlins, is “an unconventional hero who’s unafraid to lower his fists and use his brain.”

A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny – the twelfth outing of Penny’s popular Chief Inspector Gamache (I’ve listened to two of the audio versions and every time the narrator says “Gamache,” I hear “Ganache” and must go eat a piece of chocolate). He’s ensconced with his pals in Three Pines, Quebec, and charged with searching out corruption within the police academy, an investigation soon confounded by murder.

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware – The blurbs make this sound like Agatha Christie’s classic train case, The Lady Vanishes. In this story, a passenger on a luxury cruise ship thinks she hears and sees the body of a woman hit the water and sink beneath the waves. She swears she met this woman in Cabin 10, but no one believes her.

Have you read any of these “best books”? Were they among your favorites of 2016?

Tomorrow: the ten books that received two votes and how to find mention of the 60 others.

Three Classic Mysteries: Stout, Simenon, McDermid

Stout, Simenon, McDermid

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Inspired by Crime Fiction Lover’s “Classics in September” coverage, I’ve reacquainted myself with two favorite authors—Rex Stout and Georges Simenon–and finally read one I should have gotten to a long time ago, Scotland’s Val McDermid. Reading these older mysteries really shows how much the genre has changed. Today we generally have more realistic characters and motivations, more detail about procedure (thanks, CSI), more graphic violence, and more body fluids.

Rex Stout: The Doorbell Rang

Stout’s legendary private detective Nero Wolfe has an active fan base for his 33 novels and 39 short stories and novellas. Their hero is famous for several reasons: Wolfe loves good food and wine and, as a consequence, is not slim. Notoriously sedentary, he very rarely bestirs himself outside the office in his well-appointed Manhattan townhouse, where he tends his orchids. (When these were written, orchids were exotic, and not available in every supermarket!)

Wolfe’s wise-cracking assistant Archie Goodwin narrates the novels and does Wolfe’s

leg-work, as well as any necessary strong-arming. The stories are about a profession—the private eye with the Big Case—that barely exists today, in fiction or anywhere else.

The Doorbell Rang (1965) takes more than a few swipes at the FBI along the way as, from behind his desk, Wolfe pits wits against not just the NYPD, but J. Edgar Hoover and his men. Can he pull it off? Archie thinks not. Good clean fun.

Georges Simenon: The Misty Harbour

This 1932 story likewise involves a trademark detective, Inspector Jules Maigret, who appeared in 75 novels and 28 short stories from this French author and was reportedly second in world renown only to Sherlock Holmes.

The title of this novel was most apt, because I could never penetrate the fog surrounding what Maigret was doing in his investigation or why he was doing it, though in the end he pulled out a neat solution. It all starts intriguingly enough with an amnesiac wandering Paris with evidence of a memory-blasting gunshot wound to the head. But who is he? Why was he shot? And when he’s finally identified and returned home, why does someone immediately finish him off? Lots of suspects, no apparent motives. An evocative read.

Val McDermid: A Place of Execution

McDermied is interesting as a writer not only for the clarity of her prose and the complexity of her plots, but also for the care with which she pursues her craft. I have her writer’s guide, Forensics, which I keep at hand always.

In a recent interview with LitHub’s Daneet Steffens, McDermid says that writing her next book “doesn’t get easier, it gets harder! . . . With writing: one sits down with ambition, knowing in this little part of your head that you will not realize all that you want to achieve with this book.” That determination to “fail better,” as opposed to believing oneself a master of one’s genre and starting to coast, is what makes her books so compelling.

Compared to the above two short novels (less than 200 pages each), the 400-page A Place of Execution (1999), is a layered examination of interpersonal dynamics in a remote, claustrophobic hamlet (nine houses) where a young girl has gone missing. The secrets the community holds and the challenge to the police authorities in penetrating them make for thrilling reading.

While Stout and Simenon are entertaining, it’s McDermid, who published her 30th novel this year, who makes you truly care about the outcome.

“If you read my books and you’re not disturbed by them, then you probably need professional help,” McDermid said, at the recent Iceland Noir conference.

****The Piano Teacher

piano

photo: Ovi Gherman, creative commons license

By Janice Y. K. Lee – Set in Hong Kong in two time periods—1952 and leading up to the Japanese invasion in 1941—this lovely debut  novel is part romance, part mystery, and part sociological study of the behavior of an expat community in good times and very very bad ones.

The 1952 story begins with newly arrived Claire Pendleton, wife of a water engineer who’s mostly away and mostly ignores her. Claire’s a bit bored and lets it be known she’s offering piano lessons. She’s hired by a prominent Chinese family, Melody and Victor Chen to teach their ten-year-old daughter Locket. With the Chens, she comes to know temptation.

On the street and at practically every social event she attends, she runs into a long-time Hong Kong resident, the emotionally elusive Englishman Will Truesdale. He has an odd limp and an confident manner, and he pursues Claire with determination. Over time, she learns his history and the preoccupations that haunt him.

In 1941, Truesdale was the Hong Kong newcomer. Almost immediately he meets and falls for Eurasian beauty Trudy Liang, a fixture in the social scene and cousin of Melody Chen. Will and Trudy’s love affair changes them both. Then the Japanese overwhelm the colony, bringing their detention camps, their bombs, their random, brutal murders, and deep, starvation-level privation. Choices were made, and those long-ago choices shape Claire’s world too.

Having shown the glitter of Hong Kong, Lee now exposes the grime. She reveals the aspects of character that allow individuals to survive changed circumstances, or not. The ones who come out the other side, like Claire, who needed to believe there was more to life, learn who they truly are.

The plot is strong and the prose elegant. Lee carries you along so easily that before you know it, you are plunged into difficulty all around. Her vivid description of the city of Hong Kong and the life there is like a prolonged, unforgettable visit to an exotic hothouse world.

****Triple Crown

horse-racing

photo: Tsutomu Takasu, creative commons license

By Felix Francis Carrying on his late father’s series of horse-racing mysteries, Felix Francis has now written his fifth about the most famous set of horse races in the world, the U.S. Triple Crown. The Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs is the first of the three, and the most prestigious. The Preakness Stakes at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course is the oldest, dating back to 1873. The mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes at New York’s Belmont Park, which takes place exactly five weeks after the Derby, is the most demanding—an insurmountable hurdle in many Triple Crown quests. Francis effectively captures the excitement, behind-the-scenes anxiety, traditions, and pageantry of these iconic meets.

Protagonist and narrator Jefferson Hinkley is an investigator for the British Horseracing Authority invited to the States by a colleague from the fictional U.S. Federal Anti-Corruption in Sports Agency (FACSA) on a secret quest to identify a mole in the agency. Horse owners and trainers are being tipped off before FACSA raids. Hinkley, who misses his adrenaline-fueled days working undercover, is grateful for the change of pace.

A few days before the Kentucky Derby, the timing of a FACSA raid on barns at Churchill Downs is moved up several days, surprising even the agents and certainly the suspect trainer, and one of them shoots the trainer dead. It’s evident the mole is still at work, but worse is about to happen.

Two Derby favorites come down with equine influenza, leaving only one favorite, Fire Point, who wins both the Derby and Preakness. To speed up his investigation, Hinkley poses as an Irish groom, and gets himself hired by Fire Point’s trainer at his Belmont Park stables. Oddly, since author Francis is from the U.K., Hinkley’s speech doesn’t seem especially British, nor particularly Irish in word choice or rhythm when he’s acting as the groom.

Before long, there isn’t much mystery as to who’s is tampering with the horses and how they’re doing it—Francis provides a clue as big as Secretariat’s legendary 31-length win in the Belmont Stakes. Nor is there a puzzle regarding motive. Any Triple Crown winner will generate many millions in stud fees, well beyond his potential racing purses. But if a horse has had equine influenza, his stud career is over before it starts.

Francis’s plot effortlessly and admirably engages the ticking clock device that has become such a staple of thrillers. The rapidly approaching Belmont Stakes means some of the world’s most valuable equine athletes are at risk. And that mole is still out there.

In an unconvincing subplot, a young Puerto Rican groom is overtly hostile to Hinkley, which only adds to his unease as he works around the barns. Plus, there’s the risk he’ll be recognized, and he is well aware of the lengths to which people will go to make sure Fire Point becomes a Triple Crown winner.

If you liked Francis’s other novels or if you just love the pulse-pounding Sport of Kings, you should enjoy this latest entrant in a storied bloodline. Or watch the excellent television series Luck, starring Dustin Hoffman, alas, only one season.