Incident at Hidden Temple

Incident at Hidden Temple, Pan Asian Rep

Dinh James Doan & Briana Sakamoto – photo: John Quincy

Pan Asian Repertory Theatre’s current production—the world premiere of Damon Chua’s Incident at Hidden Temple—is an evocative reminder of a pivotal piece of World War II history, and its title reminiscent of my favorite mystery novels—the Tang Dynasty adventures of Judge Dee. Part noir murder mystery and part political showdown, the play takes place in Southwest China in 1943. Under the direction of Kaipo Schwab, the production opened January 26 at Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row.

U.S. Flying Tigers squadrons are helping the Chinese Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-Shek (played by Dinh James Doan). In the first of the play’s many short scenes, an American pilot (Nick Jordan) is murdered by a Chinese woman (Rosanne Ma).

Nearby, a train stops at a place called Hidden Temple, and journalism student Ava Chao (Ying Ying Li) disembarks to stretch her legs. She meets Chinese-American pilot trainee Walter Hu (Tim Liu) and a mysterious blind man (also played by Dinh James Doan).

Ava’s younger sister Lucy (Briana Sakamoto) also talks to the blind man, who tells her a story. In one of the play’s most charming moments, he and she act out the story using classical Chinese gestures and body movements. When Lucy disappears, Ava seeks help in finding her from U.S. General Cliff Van Holt (Jonathan Miles), head of a Flying Tigers squadron.

Soon, several mysteries are in play. Why was the pilot killed? Why is Walter Hu pretending to be someone else? What happened to Lucy? Will any of the characters ever be pure enough in heart to see the hidden temple?

Meanwhile, on the stage of world power politics, larger issues are unresolved. Van Holt wants to cooperate with Chiang and build a forward air base in the eastern region of China from which U.S. planes can attack the Japanese islands directly. General Stillwell, through his aide (Nick Jordan), opposes this plan. The Japanese are the immediate threat, but Mao’s Communist forces in the north also must be reckoned with.

Act One does a good job in setting up the multiple conflicts and questions. While Act Two has resonant moments, it isn’t as strong, relying on some unlikely coincidences and encounters. Ultimately, though the story questions are answered (except the biggest one, which the playwright leaves to the audience), there’s almost too much to bring together smoothly.

The staging and the acting overall are excellent, with Dinh James Doan and Ying Ying Li deserving special mention. Set designer Sheryl Liu, in tandem with Pamela Kupper (lighting), creates just the right amount of moody atmospherics on a stripped-down stage.

For tickets, call Telecharge: 212-239-6200 or telecharge.com. Special performances and discounts are detailed at the Pan Asian Rep website.

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.

***Blonde Ice

spy, espionage, reading

(photo: David Lytle, creative commons license)

By RG Belsky — This is the third crime mystery in the series featuring New York Daily News reporter Gil Malloy, dogged practitioner of a fading profession. Written in the first person, it holds you close to the genial Malloy and his ups and downs—reportorial, romantic, and bureaucratic.

On the up side, Gil Malloy has fallen into what may be the scoop of the year: a beautiful blonde serial killer is targeting married men cheating on their wives. Malloy’s print editor Marilyn Staley and his internet/social media editor Stacy Albright want to milk the sexy story for all it’s worth. Keeping these two antagonists happy could be a second career. Another plus, Malloy’s adored ex-wife Susan shows promising signs that all is not well with hubby #2. Is there a chance? Capstone to his good luck, Malloy has a juicy job offer from the man likely to be New York’s next mayor.

On the down side, Malloy discovers the scoop through Victoria Issacs, who tells him her husband’s gone missing. In a former life, Issacs was the infamous prostitute Houston. When Malloy wrote a Pulitzer-nominated feature article about her several years back, neglecting to disclose his quotes were all second-hand and he’d never actually met the elusive Houston, criticism of him and the paper was withering. He nearly lost his job, and the stress cost him his marriage. Saying too much about Issacs now will reveal that Malloy actually knows her real identity and, probably worse, has concealed it from his editors.

But Houston’s secret isn’t keepable when a hotel maid finds Walter Issacs dead. The knockout blonde who went up to the room with him has disappeared. As the murders keep coming, the chase is on: NYPD after the killer, and Malloy after the story.

Malloy is a regular-guy kind of narrator with a wisecracking exterior that makes for some lively banter in the newsroom and in his efforts to get back between the sheets with Susan. His colleagues keep telling him his constant jokes can wear thin. He knows that, but can’t seem to stop himself. It is, in fact, his armor.

Frustratingly, Staley, Albright, and NYPD detective Wohlers repeatedly jump to conclusions about the case, based on their assumptions and a remarkable lack of definitive evidence. The narrative glosses over various routine questions that arise in murder investigations. How is it possible there was no forensic evidence at any of these violent crime scenes? No long blonde hair, for instance? How did a woman overpower these much larger, fit men? Drugs are an obvious possibility, but there’s no mention of toxicology tests of the victims until Chapter 49. Although this book is not a police procedural, Malloy’s proximity to the investigation and his evident skills as a reporter suggest he should be asking questions exactly like these.

Despite these quibbles, it’s fun to spend time with Gil Malloy on another wild ride. Author Belsky is an experienced New York journalist who perceptively describes the woes and conflicts in today’s news business and conjures a realistic, energetic New York City, too.

Mystery Short Stories: Ellery Queen & Betty Fedora

reading, apple

photo: Greg Myers, creative commons license

The September/October 2016 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine is the one picked to be the 75th anniversary issue in the year-long celebration of the publication’s staying power and popularity. The precise date of the first issue in 1941 is unknown, but it was fall, in a rather bleak time in history, with World War II raging and uncertainty everywhere. Three-quarters of a century later, EQMM still challenges and entertains!

Betty Fedora, by contrast, is a new mystery/crime publication, dubbed “kickass women in crime fiction.” Issue 3 arrived recently and contains a story of mine, “Breadcrumbs,” with the kickass woman in question a Michigan state trooper hoping to protect a young woman hiding from her abusive husband. She fears he’s tracked her down.

Here are some of my favorite stories from these two magazines—writers I hope to read more from:

  • reading, beach

    photo: El Coleccionista de Instantes Fotografía & Video, creative commons license

    Linda Barnes’s EQMM story, “The Way They Do It in Boston” has great energy and atmosphere. She’s the author of 17 novels and has collected numerous award nominations.

  • “The Specialty of the House” by Stanley Ellin—his first published story—is reprinted from the 1948 issue of EQMM. Ellin was a novelist whose books were adapted for the screen, big and small. He was foremost a master of the short story, and this is “one of the most famous crime stories ever published.”
  • In this issue, perennial EQMM reader favorite (mine, too!) Dave Zeltserman’s a.i. assistant Archie helps not his detective Julius Katz this time, but Katz’s sister Julia elude a determined assassin.
  • Preston Lang’s Betty Fedora story, “The Sign,” is a tale of double-double-crosses, launched by a decades-old sign in a seedy Manhattan bar that reads “Hardtack Coghlan doesn’t pay for a drink.” Has the real Hardtack finally walked in?
  • Office speculation runs high about the true identity of dishy Rudy in the Louisa Barnes story, “Her Colours.” Rudy, she says, had “a gift for insubstantiality.” While the women fixated on him, was there really a spy in their midst?
  • Colleen Quinn’s story poses Betty Fedora readers an intriguing problem. In “The Game of Six Brothers,” when the groomsmen at a wedding discover one of the bridesmaids is a private investigator, they challenge her to figure out which of them is a murderer. And she can ask each of them only one very important question.

Read and enjoy!

The Girl on the Train

girl-on-the-trainThis movie thriller (trailer) written by Erin Cressida Wilson and directed by Tate Taylor is based on Paula Hawkins’s runaway best-selling novel. Cognoscenti in the crime fiction world consider the book distinctly overrated, so an investment of two hours in the movie theater may be preferable to a dozen hours of reading. Maybe this was a bad choice. As Christy Lemire at RogerEbert.com says, “The Girl on the Train is good trash. At least as a novel, it is. As a film, however, it’s not even that.”

The story is initially engaging, thanks primarily to excellent acting by Emily Blount as Rachel, the alcoholic protagonist. She knows her husband Tom had an affair and left their childless marriage primarily because of her drinking but seems to be spinning ever-further out of control, a vodka-in-the-water-bottle kind of drinker.

I’m not persuaded by critics who say the film withholds pertinent information, because it is mostly told from Rachel’s point of view. We see the world as she does—none too clearly—with a few scenes from the also-limited perspectives of the other two principal women.

Rachel commutes into the city every day from Westchester (London in the novel), and her train passes behind their former house. She can see him (played by Justin Theroux), his new wife (Rebecca Ferguson), and their baby. She also sees the devoted neighbor couple (Luke Evans and Haley Bennett), whose love seems perfect in these tantalizing glimpses. If her city job were real, exposing herself to hurt with this voyeurism might be torture. Since her job is imaginary, it’s pathological.

You will have guessed that the neighbor couple’s relationship is more complicated than Rachel apprehends, and when the woman turns up missing, Rachel’s obsessions and her hazy perceptions create havoc. It’s always fun to see Allison Janney, here as a police detective investigating the disappearance and trying to make sense of Rachel’s “evidence.”

Ultimately, the motivations that drive what turns out to be a six-sided story of love and lust, deceit and dangerous truth-telling are deeply clichéd, and there are a few too many close-ups of a befuddled Rachel. The Girl on the Train is a ride to nowhere terribly interesting.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 44%; audiences 56%.

***Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine – August 2016

chalk outline, body

(image: pixabay, creative commons license)

Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine continues its 75th year celebration with another collection of classic and new stories. Collectively, they demonstrate many of the forms this genre can take. Whether you prefer cozies or police procedurals or amateur detectives or hardboiled, you will find them in EQMM’s pages. From the August issue, which celebrates past EQMM editors, here are four of my favorites:

• In “The Ten-Cent Murder,” the first EQMM editor, Frederic Dannay, teams up with his real-life friend Dashiell Hammett to solve a crime in 1950s Manhattan. Joseph Goodrich, whose play Panic won the 2008 Best Play award from the Mystery Writers of America, adopted a period tone for this amateur sleuth outing.
• I always enjoy Dave Zeltserman’s stories and their sly humor. This month Zeltserman deviates from his Julius Katz private-eye series to present a classic noir tale. In “The Caretaker of Lorne Green,” a man on the run from the mob poses as a home health aide and plans to rob his elderly, wheelchair-bound client, but which of them is more ruthless?
• Jonathan Moore’s compelling police procedural, “A Swimmer from the Dolphin Club,” begins with the discovery of a woman’s backpack, shoes, and neatly folded clothes underneath San Francisco’s Bay Bridge. Suicide? Murder? Disappearance? Will the truth come too late? Moore’s most recent book is 2016’s The Poison Artist, which Stephen King called “an electrifying read . . . I haven’t read anything so terrifying since Red Dragon.” High praise from the master.
• In Ruth Graviros’s psychological tale “Ted Bundy’s Father,” you are gradually overtaken by the same horror that grips the late middle-aged protagonist, Warner Chadason. Chadason has “enjoyed an unthreatened life,” as the author puts it early on, a life about to explode disastrously. His name reveals all. Graviros was a pseudonym used by EQMM’s second editor, Eleanor Sullivan.

EQMM regularly includes reviews of new books, as well as a monthly rundown of mystery/crime blogs and websites worth following up on, as well as additional features, especially in this 75th year. You can subscribe on the website or through Amazon. Or obtain the August issue here:

***Skeletons in the Attic: A Marketville Mystery

Crystal Ball

photo: Jeffrey, creative commons license

By Judy Penz Sheluk – Thirty years ago, Abigail Barnstable disappeared, leaving behind her young husband Jimmy and six-year-old daughter Callie. Raised by her doting father, Callie reaches her mid-thirties oblivious to a mountain of family secrets until Jimmy’s death in an industrial accident starts her on a path of discovery. Callie narrates this present-day cozy mystery by Canadian author Sheluk, set in the fictional town of Marketville, an hour north of Toronto.

The first surprise is in her father’s will. Not only does Callie inherit a house in Marketville, he leaves her $100,000 to fix it up. The catch? She has to quit her dead-end job in a bank call center fraud unit and move into the house for a year. Renovation will be a major undertaking, but her father also left her a connection with the building contractor living next door—a handsome single man named Royce, eager to help Callie develop her fix-up plans.

Oh, and while she’s living there, Jimmy wants her to try to find out what happened to her mother. It seems the police at the time suspected foul play—and Jimmy—but nothing was ever proved. The bequest may be his way of asking her to clear his name. Once Callie takes up residence she encounters a series of intriguing puzzles and clues. I enjoyed muddling along with her as she tried to figure out what they mean and who left them. Though occasionally, Sheluk’s dialog is a little stiff, she moves the plot along briskly, keeping Callie’s ingenuity on high alert.

Callie reaches out for help from a number of colorful characters, including two who claim psychic abilities. (One of them—Callie’s long-time friend and operator of the Glass Dolphin antique shop, Arabella Carpenter—features in Sheluk’s previous mystery, Hanged Man’s Noose, also published this year.) Callie’s never quite sure how much she can trust some of her new confidants, and people keep telling her to “be careful.” While you may never believe Callie is in any physical danger, the risk to her emotional health from mucking around in thirty years’ worth of carefully kept family secrets is significant.

The romantic risk is also real, when Royce’s family turns out to have some pretty big skeletons in its closets too. You’re left to speculate how their budding relationship may play out, because at the end of the book, all possibilities are open. If you like a tidy ending with all questions wrapped up neatly and tied with a bow, this isn’t that. Yet, Sheluk has described her principal characters so well, you may feel, as I did, that you can see into this particular crystal ball.

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

****The Kennedy Connection

Kennedy half-dollar

photo: Eric Golub, creative commons license

By R.G. BelskyAuthor Belsky was most recently managing editor of news for NBCNews.com and is a former managing editor for the New York Daily News, among other journalistic posts. He has ample experience to write authoritatively about his main character and first-person narrator, Gil Malloy, a down-on-his luck Daily News reporter, and about the book’s Manhattan setting. The Kennedy Connection is the first in the Gil Malloy series and takes place in 2013, as the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination approaches.

When we meet Malloy, he’s been disgraced after a serious breach of journalistic ethics. Though he kept his job, he’s assigned to the newsroom dregs, while he watches another young reporter, Carrie Bratten, acquire the mantle of up-and-comer that he once wore. Frustrated with his second-class citizenship, he’s a little too quick to latch onto a story he thinks will redeem him.

Meanwhile, his former agent asks him to help her get publicity for a new book. The hook? The author claims to be Lee Harvey Oswald, Jr., illegitimate son of Kennedy’s assassin. Oswald, Jr.,  believes the book will clear his father’s name.

And a police buddy asks him to investigate the death of a young ex-gang member from the South Bronx, Victor Reyes. Reyes was shot 15 years earlier, left a paraplegic, and finally died when the bullet lodged in his spine worked loose and traveled to his heart. The unknown malefactor who shot him is now a murderer. Malloy’s friend is killed by a drunk driver before the reporter can do more than conduct a few initial interviews with family and cops on that case. Now one is a serious drunk and another’s a deputy police commissioner.

These distractions are soon cut short when a series of murders begins, each with a Kennedy half-dollar left at the scene. These deaths seem too much of a coincidence, taking into account the revelations of the new book by Oswald, Jr., especially when someone sends Malloy a letter promising more mayhem. In the envelope, a Kennedy half-dollar.

Malloy is teamed up with Bratten to cover this high-profile story and again riding high in his journalistic world. Author Belsky does a good job making Malloy a likeable character who could use a little more personal insight. The other newsroom characters are also well drawn, and there’s some engaging banter.

Just like Jake Epping in Stephen King’s 11/22/63, the character of Oswald, Jr., is trying to rewrite the history of JFK’s assassination and, like Jake, ends up having second thoughts about meddling with the past. Efforts to deconstruct what Malloy calls “the greatest murder mystery in history” have a substantial literary pedigree, from King’s work to Don DeLillo’s Libra, to James Ellroy’s American Tabloid, to Tim Baker’s Fever City. Belsky has made an engaging contribution to this lineage.

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

Who Writes the Best Crime Novels: Men or Women?

unmade bed

photo: Peter Lee, creative commons license

In the current issue of The Atlantic, author Terrence Rafferty has an intriguing piece titled “Women Are Writing the Best Crime Novels” (in the “Culture” column, no less). Hmm. For real cultural insights, skim the article and read the comments.

Rafferty attributes women authors’ strength in this genre to the growing popularity of “domestic thrillers,” the kind where your enemy sleeps next to you. Gone Girl catapulted this resurgent genre to public attention. Theirs “is not a world Raymond Chandler would have recognized,” Rafferty says. His characters’ motives were more basic (sex and greed) and their methods more direct. “Take that, you punk!” bang, bang.

Rafferty thinks Chandler’s lone detective genre is almost as dead as the corpse in the dining room, though plenty of popular books are clear heirs to that tradition. The Jack Reacher series by Lee Child, the Tess Monaghan series by Laura Lippman, and the Strike/Ellacott books of J.K. Rawlings (writing as Robert Galbraith) feature investigators working outside official channels. Their investigations are a bit hard to pull off in these technology-reliant days, but they can usually find a friendly cop to snag certain kinds of information for them. Cell phone logs and whatnot.

As a person who reads a large number of books in the crime/mystery/thriller genre—reviewing 46 in the past year for CrimeFictionLover.com—I can tell you there are some really tired tropes out there—heroes with arcane martial arts skills, who know thirty-two ways to kill a person in two seconds flat, who get beat up but bounce back in record time, and who never met a woman they couldn’t bed. A few of them also have a sense of humor.

The “girl” novels discard all that. Instead, they rely on astonishing levels of manipulation and the workings of the characters’ minds, which Rafferty says often dwell on unresolved adolescent angst. A few years hence, those features will likely seem just as tiresome and overworked as the boy wonders. I laughed out loud reading this from one of the commenters on Rafferty’s article: “I think that after a certain number of introspective life years, the Self as object d’art is too debunked to stand much further scrutiny.”

Rafferty cites a bunch of female authors he admires, including Laura Lippman, Denise Mina, Tana French. Their type of storytelling, he says, doesn’t depend so strongly on heroes, making it “perhaps a better fit for these cynical times.” Less gunplay, more emotional violence. I’d add to his list Becky Masterson, Meghan Tifft, and Cecilia Ekbäck.

But here’s where his argument gets tricky. By conflating crime fiction, mystery, and thriller genres, he makes his argument a bit difficult to follow, because they have different foundational premises and conventions, and their readers have greatly different expectations. There isn’t a lot of overlap between the audiences for John Sanford and Agatha Christie.

Yet he says today’s women writers have “come a long way from the golden age, from Christie and Sayers, from the least-likely-suspect sort of mystery in which, proverbially, the butler did it” (emphasis added). In today’s psychological thrillers, authors “know better. The girl did it, and she had her reasons.”

Reviewing my own reading of some 60 books in the broad crime/mystery/thriller category over the past 18 months, I find that whether a book is interesting, well-written, genre-stretching, and good entertainment does not depend on the author’s gender. Women and men were equally likely to write a book I liked. Great books are simply great books.