Crime and Thriller Beach Reads!

photo: klarinette71, creative commons license

Here’s your beachbag packing list: sunscreen, bottled water and Bai drinks (a local product!), organic non-GMO snacks, and, most important, half a dozen books, plus one. From my past year of book reviews, many of which are beachbag-worthy, I’d recommend:

  • I.Q. by Joe Ide – the banter among the characters will keep you laughing all the way to where you parked the car, wherever that may be.
  • Maisie Dobbs – if 21st century mayhem is a bit much for a beach holiday, try one of Jacqueline Winspear’s charming books, set in England between the wars. This is the first.
  • The Never-Open Desert Diner – by James Anderson. Now is where I have to confess a bit of a crush on his half-Indian, half-Jewish protagonist Ben Jones, who drives a hundred-mile route across the high Utah desert, serving his customers, most of whom live far from civilization for a pretty good reason.
  • Kompromat by Stanley Johnson – In real-life an EU official and father of one of the Brexit proponent Boris Johnson, this hilarious roman a clef explains the two baffling political cataclysms of the past two years: Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.
  • Back Up by Belgian author Paul Colize – a murder mystery that begins in 1967, when all the members of the rock band Pearl Harbor die mysteriously, except for one. Are they still after him?
  • Paper Ghosts – Janet Haeberlin’s novel requires you to believe a young woman would knowingly embark on a cross-Texas road trip with the man she thinks killed her sister. Get past that, and it’s a page-turning cat-and-mouse game.
  • Beside the Syrian Sea – a spy thriller with an unexpected hero. Does this bumbler have a plan to rescue his father from mid-East terrorist or not? No one knows. And you won’t either. Funny and surprising.

****Beside the Syrian Sea

Beirut, street, watcher

photo: Jonhy Blaze, creative commons license

By James Wolff – When reading this British spy thriller, you may feel that, like the protagonist, you’ve gone for a stroll in a dangerous section of town and found yourself in over your head.

Jonas’s father, part of a church delegation visiting Syria, has been kidnapped by Islamic fundamentalists, who demand a $100 million ransom for the 75-year-old cleric. Father and son have been a bit at odds, but despite that—or because of it—Jonas has vowed to rescue him.

Jonas did work for the MI6, yes, but in a desk job. His tradecraft is thin and contacts are few. Thus does Wolff put Jonas and his exploits in the realm of the doable. He makes decisions and takes actions an ordinary person, as opposed to an espionage superhero, might—a believable, somewhat erratic, and doubt-ridden character, easy to identify with and root for.

The story starts in a seedy Beirut bar, where Jonas seeks the help of the middle-aged former priest Tobias, who has previously negotiated the release of terrorist-held hostages. Jonas doesn’t tell him everything, wondering “how it had come to pass unnoticed that deceit had been worn into him like grooves in a record until all he could play were false notes.” Tobias is reluctant to get involved, but he has an interest in a woman named Maryam also stuck in Syria. Jonas says, if he helps, “we’ll get her out.” We?

Because this shaky rescue mission has no official standing, he’s unlikely to deliver on this promise, or on any of the commitments he ultimately makes with Hezbollah representatives, the espionage establishment, and anyone else he thinks can help him. You feel you’re mounting a wobbly tower made of playing cards, a fragile edifice that may collapse at any moment.

MI6 sends the tennis-playing Desmond Naseby to befriend and spy on Jonas and persuade him to give up his efforts. Naseby is quickly followed by CIA case office Harvey Deng. Deng is all business, aggressive and profane, but Jonas and Naseby banter amusingly. Says Naseby, “You can’t stand to be cooped up. Smell of the sea, bustle of the bazaars.” “Thwack of the tennis racket,” responds Jonas.

Edward Snowden taints the narrative like a malevolent spirit when it dawns on MI6 higher-ups that Jonas may have availed himself of some of the secret reports he’s been reading at his desk all those years. When it appears he is trying to trade a USB drive for his father, they give his case the operational name LEAKY PIPE and, well, panic sets in.

What keeps the pages turning in this highly entertaining tale, is that, like Jonas’s MI6 and CIA opponents, you can never be quite sure how much he really knows, what his strategy really is, or even if he has one. As a result, the outcome of his dangerous mission might succeed or, as seems much more likely, go disastrously wrong.

Listen Up! 3 Terrific Thrillers in Audio

earphones

photo: John O’Nolan, creative commons license

Catching up on highly regarded crime thrillers of the last year, I’ve turned to audio for these:

*****Prussian Blue
By the late Philip Kerr, narrated by John Lee. This was Kerr’s next-to-last historical crime novel featuring Berlin detective Bernie Gunther, and takes place in 1939 and 1956. Lee’s reading imbues Gunther with every sly hint and ironic twist in his attitude toward the Nazis. Some of his colleagues at the time were aware: “I don’t know how you’ve survived this long, Gunther, feeling as you do.” But survive he has, and 17 years later, he’s working in France when a former colleague—now head of the East German secret police, the Stasi—demands he murder a certain woman. Rather than comply, Gunther goes on the run. Scenes of his flight across France are interspersed with recollections of a 1939 murder case at Hitler’s famous mountaintop retreat in Obersalzberg, which he was brought in to solve and which put him right in the middle of a power struggle between two of Hitler’s top men. It would be a hard job to choose which tale is more nerve-wracking. Lee’s Gunther is just right, his Nazis odious, and his Stasi enemies no better. Nominated for a 2018 Edgar Award and five stars from CrimeFictionLover.com.

****Bluebird, Bluebird
By Attica Locke, narrated by J.D. Jackson. In northeast Texas, a black man’s body is found floating in the bayou behind the only black-owned business in the tiny fictional town of Lark. Texas Ranger Darren Matthews is on suspension, but decides to poke around. One of the few black Rangers, he’s worked before on race-connected deaths and believes this is one. When he arrives in the town, the sheriff’s men are fishing another body out of the water—this one a white woman. Surely the deaths are linked, but how? And can he prove it? As he tries, Jackson’s narration expertly conveys not just Matthews’s determination, but the sheriff’s weakness, the malevolence of local Aryan Brotherhood of Texas members, the shifting moods of the dead man’s elegant wife from Chicago, who is the sort of Bluebird (messenger) of the title, and, finally, the townspeople black and white who are protecting a decades-old wall of secrets, all of whom are intriguing if just a bit predictable. Winner of the 2018 Edgar Award for Best Novel. TV series in the works.

*****The Marsh King’s Daughter
By Karen Dionne, narrated by Emily Rankin. Helena Pelletier is the protagonist in this thriller, set in the Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She’s trying to live a normal life with her husband and two daughters, while keeping her bizarre past a secret. Rankin’s reading makes it clear this isn’t easy, and it becomes impossible when her Native American father kills two guards and escapes from prison, “armed and dangerous.” Years before, he kidnapped a fourteen-year-old girl and took her into the remote marshlands as his wife. There they lived off the land and had a daughter—Helena. Rankin conveys how much the young Helena adored her father and what he taught her about hunting, fishing, and survival. Eventually, the girl and her mother were found, and her father ended up in prison, an outcome that has left Helena deeply conflicted. Now that he’s on the run, she’s has to see whether she can live up to his nickname for her, Bangii-Agawaateyaa, “Little Shadow,” and find him before he finds her and her daughters. An international bestseller, it was frequently named one of the best books of 2017. Movie in the works.

****High White Sun

Marfa Texas

photo: Nathan Russell, creative commons license

By J. Todd Scott – High White Sun is a solid follow-up to Scott’s 2016 debut hit, The Far Empty. A prologue set in 1999 recounts the murder of Texas Ranger Bob Ford, the long echo of which reverberates through events of the current day like the howling of the wind off the distant Mexican mountains. In the small town of Murfee, Texas, Sheriff Chris Cherry does not wear his badge easily. He worries.

When a popular river guide is murdered and suspicion lights on new arrivals to the area, pegged by everyone as bad actors, he worries a lot. They’ve set up some distance from Murfee at a wide spot in the road ominously named Killing. Head of this clan is an obvious hard case, John Wesley Earl, accompanied by his brother, two sons, a couple of girlfriends, and several cousins and hangers-on. Author Scott dives deep into Earl’s history, and while he never becomes sympathetic, you certainly understand him and how little regard he has for anyone else, including his family.

The sheriff’s wants to rid his county of the Earl clan, but his priorities aren’t shared by the FBI. Its agent wants Cherry to leave the Earls alone. John Wesley Earl is their confidential informant, recruited when he was in prison and a leader in the ultra-violent Aryan Brotherhood of Texas. More than a white supremacist group, Earl’s ABT is a major criminal enterprise, responsible for bringing drugs into every one of the state’s prisons and beyond and connected to all the dirty deals and killing that goes along with that. Out of prison, he’ll be getting his cut of the “business.” It will make him wealthy.

Earl is holed up in Killing because his son Jesse is there, awaiting the appearance of Thurman Flowers, a self-styled preacher with grandiose plans for establishing a community of white supremacists, his Church of Purity. They need only two things: guns and money. An ex-soldier who’s part of the clan promises to get them the guns, and Jesse is plotting to get hold of his father’s money.

Unfortunately, the sheriff’s deputies are keeping a few secrets from him, certainly the men of the Earl crew have secrets, and the law enforcement agencies aren’t sharing everything with each other, either. When all these secrets come out into the open, the resulting storm seems destined to destroy them all.

****Number 7, Rue Jacob

cell phone camera

photo: rocksee, creative commons license

By Wendy Hornsby –Maggie MacGowen is an almost-forty-year-old American, dedicated to her documentary filmmaking career and engaged to delightful Frenchman Jean-Paul Bernard, about a decade her senior. Though he says his job is “in business,” she realizes it is something far more consequential and lets him keep his secrets.

She’s in Paris to rendezvous with him and look for some documentary film work there, as they plan to marry. She’ll stay at number 7, rue Jacob, in a flat inherited from her biological mother, a Frenchwoman she never really knew. After her mother died, she learned she has a half-brother, a grandmother, an uncle, and nephews in France, still practically strangers.

Her inheritance isn’t just the flat. Maggie and Jean-Paul now own all three buildings of a former convent, including a mysterious basement library. Many people want the library’s contents, including officials from the diocese, the Vatican, and the Louvre, whom Maggie’s mother believed should have the religious books. The library also contains a number of illuminated manuscripts created for 17th c. Russian regent Sofia Alekseyevna. These are of almost inestimable value, since most such treasures were destroyed during the Revolution.

Almost before Maggie can unpack, Jean-Paul sends an urgent summons and a request for her to meet him in Italy. She follows his ominous instructions—burner phones only, cash, no credit cards—to the letter. When she finds Jean-Paul, he’s been injured. A drone dropped a bomb in front of his vehicle. This is an exciting set-up for the cat-and-mouse game that takes the pair from Venice to Ravenna and across Italy.

Hornsby’s novel is a cautionary tale about how easily people’s location can be tracked these days. First, a simple tracking device was attached to Maggie’s coat. Then someone uses social media to broadcast a call to “find this couple!” Photos of them are posted by dozens of casual passersby, as if Maggie and Jean-Paul are targets in some terrifying Pokemon Go universe.

The instructions change from “find them” to “stop them” with a reward attached, and the risk goes through the roof. Anyone with a cell phone can potentially expose them. Whether all the technology can be used exactly as Hornsby uses it here, the story bears the stamp of “Oh yeah, I can believe some idiot would try that.”

But what do their pursuers want? Are they after Maggie, with her film exposé about unexploded landmines? Or is Jean-Paul the real target? Or is it 7 rue Jacob itself, and its hidden library of precious illuminated texts? My questions about the initial attacks on Jean-Paul weren’t ever satisfactorily answered, but in the thrill of the chase, I set them aside. Again, though, the motivation is weak.

From the streets of Paris to the canals of Venice, to the several other locales in this story takes, Hornsby establishes an alluring sense of place. She has a clear writing style and creates significant tension around the threat to Maggie and Jean-Paul, as well as a warm and sexy relationship between them. At the same time, she pays attention to the ties to Maggie’s new French family that complicate whatever she decides about her unexpected, many-strings-attached inheritance.

****Lullaby Road

Night Sky

photo: U.S., Bureau of Land Management

By James Anderson–In this, as in Anderson’s admirable debut novel, The Never Open Desert Diner, you share the adventures of short-haul truck driver Ben Jones, who drives a hundred-mile stretch between two small towns in the high Utah desert. If the town of Price is next-to-nothing, Rockmuse, at the other end of his route, amounts to even less.

These are literary novels, yet they encompass mysteries and crimes of many kinds, including crimes of the spirit. Anderson sets you down, unmistakably, in the high desert—with its sunrises and sunsets, the brilliance of its stars at night, its smells, the amazing quiet, and its deadly hazards, human and otherwise.

In his new book, half-Jewish, half-Indian Ben and his cast of oddball desert dwellers are as reclusive and tetchy as ever. They live far from ordinary conceptions of civilization for a reason, generally. Ben delivers their groceries, water, auto parts, horse feed—whatever they need. In hot weather, it can be a brutal job. In winter, it may be worse. Blinding snowstorms barrel over the mountains, scouring the land and hitting the mesa to the east, only to ricochet back for another strike on the inhabitants.

Ben is in a tricky situation. On a not very good morning, winter weather-wise, he fuels up at the Stop ‘n’ Gone before starting a run to Rockmuse, and finds a Mexican child and a suspicious dog, sitting by one of the pumps. A child not dressed for the freezing temperatures. The station owner has locked up and won’t respond to Ben’s pounding. Ben has “no choice”—a phrase he particularly loathes—but to take the child inside the warm truck cab and sort things out later. The child doesn’t talk. Eventually, Ben finds out why.

This is bad enough, but his neighbor stops him before he can drive away and hands over her infant daughter. She has “no choice” but to deposit her baby with him for the day. Like it or not, and he definitely does not, he’s left holding the diaper bag. So now you understand the book’s title.

The child, the protective dog, and the infant Belle turn out to be good travelers. That’s lucky, because the day turns dangerous and requires all Ben’s concentration. With the road margins indistinct in the blinding snow, it’s like driving into oblivion. And that’s just the weather.

Author Anderson does a great job describing the difficulties Ben runs up against trying to help the people living in such a remote place—their scant resources and limited access to communications, helicopter airlifts, and other take-for-granted trappings of modern life.

Much as Ben hates it, “no choice” often is the choice, and everything cannot turn out well. The book is generous in acknowledging that good people can make bad decisions, it is sincere in grieving for the innocent, and it leaves open the expectation that bad people may yet get what’s coming to them.

***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.

****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.

****Stasi Child

Berlin Wall

photo: Department of Defense

By David Young, narrated by Julia Barrie – In a sense every person in this novel is a candidate to be the “Stasi Child” of this book’s title, so pervasive is the influence, the spying, and the danger posed by the Stasi, the State Security Service of the former German Democratic Republic. This is Cold War fiction at its most chilling.

Not even Karin Müller, the book’s main protagonist, a detective in the murder squad of East Berlin’s Kripo, is exempt. (The Kripo is the nickname for the Kriminalpolizei.) In fact, she is very much in the Stasi’s sights for several reasons. Closest to home, her math teacher husband has been fraternizing with “fascist elements,” risking a spell in jail, or worse. Already he was sent for a time to teach at a remote youth detention center as a warning. One he hasn’t heeded.

Mysteriously, detective Müller has been called on to investigate the death of a teenage girl whose body was found in a cemetery at the foot of the Berlin Wall. Dead bodies near the wall were not uncommon in winter 1975, when the story is set, as would-be escapees were shot on sight, but it appears this girl was shot in the back while attempting to escape into East Germany, not out of it.

The case is a minefield of political elements, as well. Müller is told that Stasi agent Klaus Jäger will actually be in charge of the investigation, though Müller and her Unterleutnant Werner Tilsner will do the work. Moreover, their remit is confined to discovering the girl’s identity, not seeking to find out who murdered her.

Whether the Stasi knows they are violating the terms of their assignment, whether they know she and Tilsner have been indiscreet, whether her husband is in jeopardy—everything could become a threat. Author David Young is an expert at ramping up these tensions, with one or two too many twists and turns nearing the end.

Interwoven with the chapters about the investigation are first-person chapters, set seven months earlier, told from the point of view of Irma Behrendt, a fifteen-year-old inmate at the youth work camp where Müller’s husband was sent. She dreams of escape and wants to take her best friend with her. It would be dangerous, of course, but desperation breeds courage. Eventually, the two narratives converge. Irma’s tale has been, all along, vital backstory.

With a female protagonist and first-person narrator, Julia Barrie was chosen to narrate the audiobook. Perhaps to give the many male characters distinctive audio personalities in her lower registers, she pitched Karin’s and Irma’s voices rather high. That sort of works for Irma—she’s young, after all—but not for Karin. She sounds too light, too immature, not forceful enough to be heading a murder squad. A benefit of audio is that Barrie handled all those multisyllabic German words with admirable ease.