***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.

 

***The End of Lies

lock

photo: pug50, creative commons license

By Andrew Barrett – “How can you tell if you’re lying to yourself?” this crime thriller begins, and it’s a good question. Middle-aged protagonist Becky, a librarian and the first-person narrator of the story, and her husband Chris, a police investigator in the north of England, appear to have been lying to themselves for some time.

In Andrew Barrett’s telling, Becky and Chris have been planning a crime, if not a perfect crime, one they think they can pull off, that will allow them to escape to a well-heeled retirement somewhere warm. To accomplish this, Chris will sell a stolen list of police informants to a notorious crime boss, appropriately named Savage. The high likelihood such a scheme could go wrong in any number of ways hasn’t prevented their planning from proceeding apace. That is, until Becky arrives home one day and finds Chris dead on the living room floor and a team of gangsters ransacking their house.

The gangsters want the informants list, Becky’s tears suggest she wants her husband back, and her best friend Sienna is there to help. Becky learns that Chris received half of his £2 million payoff up-front, but where’s the money now? And where’s the list? If Becky doesn’t find one or the other—from her point of view, preferably both—she is promised a gruesome death.

This is one of those “things can’t get any worse, can they?” stories, in which they always do, and author Barrett provides it with a loudly ticking clock. Becky has one week to find the goods or be torn about by trucks, in a technologically advanced version of that classic British punishment for treason, drawing and quartering, though without the drawing part or, perhaps in a concession to modern sensibilities, the disembowelment.

Becky is an unusual character. Though she understandably works hard to meet the criminal’s demands, her behavior is erratic. She cries often, and she’s foul-mouthed and profane in a way not generally associated with librarianhood. (Read more about convincing female investigators here.)

If you like crime novels of the fast-paced, page-turner variety, you may want to join Barrett’s many fans. He’s a Yorkshire Crime Scene Investigator, who’s written almost a dozen previous novels in two series featuring CSIs. The End of Lies is a standalone and his first psychological thriller.

***Know Me Now

Scottish Highlands

Scottish Highlands photo by Paul Wordingham, creative commons license

By CJ Carver – This is the third in a crime thriller series featuring former MI5 operative Dan Forrester and Yorkshire-area Detective Constable Lucy Davies. It takes place in the Scottish highlands, where, as a youth, Dan spent his summer vacations. His father and three university friends reunited there each year, and their four children, all approximately the same age, grew up together.

The children now have well-established careers of their own. Gustav created a clinic in Isterberg, Germany; Christopher took up genetic engineering of superstrains of rice and has a lab near Duncaid; audacious former-tomboy Sophie does something for the government in London; and Dan joined MI5. Although this rundown suggests a large number of core characters, Carver does a good job of making them distinct enough to avoid confusion.

Though Christopher and his wife are having a rough patch, their situation grows tragically worse when their thirteen-year-old son Connor dies, in what the police seem too hasty in labeling a suicide. Dan persuades his friend Lucy to take a few days off and join him in Duncaid to look into the case. Carver does such a good job describing the damp, oppressive, grey highland atmosphere, you may feel compelled to put on a jumper—or two—while you ponder why a doctor’s patients are dying too young.

Then news arrives that Dan’s father has been murdered in Germany. The unlikely coincidence that two family members of this tight-knit group died within days of each other strikes them all. What is the connection? Someone is determined that Dan not discover it, and his probing soon puts himself, his wife, and his newborn son at risk. In light of the very tangible threats, his motivation for continuing to investigate—and some of the other characters’ motivations as well—aren’t as believable as they might be.

Lucy has a form of synesthesia, and in situations of high emotion sees certain colors. She’s a bit of an oddball, trying to hide what she views as dysfunctions in her personality. Dan also has a quirk, in that his memory has gaping holes from his past work with MI5. Although Carver tends to provide a dump of backstory about characters that becomes a drag on the narrative, I wish she’d more fully explored these two interesting mental conditions, which could bear strongly on Lucy and Dan’s ability to do their work, for good or ill.

This entry into the crowded Scottish crime fiction field (Tartan Noir!) employs a straightforward, clear style, and the plot clicks right along. Admittedly, I’m a sucker for literary flourishes and subtext, which the book lacks, and it includes perhaps a few too many coincidences. However, it raises questions about biomedical technology and its possibilities well worth thoughtful consideration.

30-Second Book Reviews – Part 2

Reading

photo: Carlos Martinez, creative commons license

Recently Published

All the Wicked Girls by Chris Whitaker – An thriller in which real and symbolic dark clouds hover menacingly over a tiny Alabama community. Young girls—young religious girls—are being murdered. When another goes missing, the town’s turned into a tinderbox, and the sheriff is hard put to control the situation. The sheriff, the girl’s twin sister, and a couple of outsider friends are captivating characters. Written from multiple points of view, this is a complex, compelling story.

A Cold Death by Marilyn Meredith – Another in the popular Deputy Tempe Crabtree series. A group of sniping acquaintances is snowbound at a mountain cabin and none too happy about it. Loyalties shift; suspicions rise; accusations cascade. Crabtree also must deal with the ghost of a former resident, and the light touch of paranormal is handled well.

Classics Revisited

Theft: A Love Story by Man Booker prize-winner Peter Carey – In this 2006 novel, a flamboyant Australian artist struggles with a career past its peak, while dealing with his developmentally disabled (but entertainingly astute) younger brother, a conniving girlfriend who is always one step ahead of him, and an unforgiving ex-wife. “Witty, urbane, funny, and profound.”

Our Game by John le Carré – When one of the oldest friends of retired MI6 agent Tim Cranmer goes missing, along with Cranmer’s mistress, he sets out to find them. In this 1995 spy thriller, Cranmer’s bosses try to convince him his Cold War and thus his career are over, but his friend and fellow-spy appears to have identified some new mission, using the £37 million he’s stolen from the Russians to finance it. With this fast-paced, enjoyable read, you’re in the hands of the master.

The Directive by Matthew Quirk – There’s a short window of time between when the U.S. Federal Reserve makes its recommendations and when they’re made public. During that hour or so, they are one of the most closely guarded secrets in the financial world. The Ford brothers want that information, which is worth, well, millions. Clever plotting, persuasive, a fun read from 2014.

Audiobooks

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – Prepare yourself to fall in love with Count Alexander Rostov, confined after the Revolution to Moscow’s famed hotel, The Metropol. The rich life he builds there never strays from elegance and civility, traits that the new Soviet power-brokers lack utterly. It’s a lovely story, and, as Ann Patchett says, “The book is like a salve.” Great narrator too.

The Lady from Zagreb by Philip Kerr – Kerr’s tenth Bernie Gunther novel, this one has the Berlin police detective on a confidential assignment from Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels—to track down the father of his favorite actress. Gunther meets the woman, and they begin a risky love affair. He does find her father, knee-deep in a bloodbath in Yugoslavia, but he and Goebbels decide to keep his murderous career a secret and tell her he’s dead. Like all secrets, this one has consequences. Gunther’s sly critiques and disdain for the Nazis is another dangerous activity, and you worry he’ll go too far.

A few more thirty-second book reviews are here. Enjoy!

****The Snowman

The Snowman, Jo NesboBy Jo Nesbø, narrated by Robin Sachs — As the film of Jo Nesbø’s quintessential police procedural The Snowman (2007) comes to the big screen, listening to the audio version is perhaps a dramatized alternative between reading this terrifying bestseller and seeing the film (trailer), which, if the critics are to be believed, is pretty much a bust.

The book begins in 1980 on “the day the snow came.” A clingy married woman and her lover have a final midday assignation while her young son waits outside in the car. A hint of menace, a sense of being watched, hangs over the scene. The watcher turns out to be nothing more than a snowman, but the boy says the snowman gave him a message: “We’re going to die.”

The book then jumps to 2004, again November, again a first snowfall, and a missing woman, Birte Becker. She and her husband Filip also have a son. A snowman mysteriously appears on the Becker’s lawn.

The Snowman was the seventh outing for Nesbø’s prickly alcoholic detective, Harry Hole. Harry’s notoriety from capturing an Australian serial killer in book one (The Bat) haunts him in the Oslo department, making his superiors and colleagues reluctant to believe Harry’s contention that a serial killer is at work in Norway. The psychology of these interactions is strong. There’s a lapskaus (Norwegian stew) of grudging respect and desire to downplay another’s success—in short, all the petty office jealousies that interfere with getting work done.

A bright new transfer from the Bergen PD, Katrine Bratt, is assigned to work with Harry on the Birte Becker case. While he at first doubts her usefulness, her experience on the Bergen sex squad gives her good insight. They investigate cases of missing women going back a number of years, and Bratt discovers they all coincided with winter’s first snowfall. Another previously unrecognized common denominator is that a snowman stood near where each woman disappeared, an innocent symbol transformed into a diabolical observer.

The trope of settling first on one suspect, then having that theory demolished and settling on another, and so on, has become a bit hackneyed, though this is an excellent example of where it works well. When you are only 50 pages (or an hour) into a book and the police start saying they have their man, you know they’re wrong. Twists and turns inevitably lie ahead, with the real culprit laying down a succession of misleading clues. Nesbø is so clever with his logical traps that, even though you are sure they lie in wait, they’re still a surprise.

The Scandinavian setting is, basically Nordic noir. Snowy. Wet. Dark. And the story moves through the slush in a doggedly determined fashion, like Harry himself, without any of the literary attributes that help crime fiction rise above the genre.

Well-developed secondary characters—a slimy plastic surgeon, the strangely distant father Filip Becker, a chauvinist playboy media mogul, and a now-dead policeman involved in an earlier Snowman case—are all attractive suspects whom Nesbø dangles in front of you.

The narration by the late English actor Robin Sachs is solid. Sachs has a good feel for the characters, having narrated several Harry Hole books, even though he makes Harry sound older and more dissolute than I picture him. A bit of a problem for audio that wouldn’t arise in reading this story is that the characters’ names are hard to remember, especially those of the victims. Regular readers of Harry Hole novels would have an advantage here, because they’d be already familiar with the Oslo PD personnel. It’s a minor quibble and requires only a little extra attention.

For more on Harry Hole and his universe, read CrimeFictionLover.com’s complete guide to the series here.

*****The Cossack

photo: Ivan Bandura, creative commons license

By KJ Lawrence – Though this debut espionage thriller kicks off with a murder in winter 2014, it’s not the usual intercontinental bloodbath. In fact, in a nice twist, the killer—a Russian hit man named Mikhail Petrov—is having serious second thoughts about his choice of career. He regrets the string of corpses he’s left in his wake, and is weighing the likelihood he could change occupations without himself becoming a victim of the SVR—the heir to the KGB. With the death that opens this book, at least he gets what he came for: a set of 18th century banking documents.

Mikhail is an ethnic Russian who grew up in the Ukraine, and his victim is a young Ukrainian named Ivan, working in London as an assistant to noted photographer Daniel Brooking. Ivan has disappeared, but it’s happened before, and Daniel is not too worried about it until he receives a visit from Ivan’s friend, British intelligence official Anthony Graves. Finding out what happened to Ivan becomes a truth mission for Daniel. All he has to go on are some documents relating to a mysterious financial transaction during the American Revolution.

Across town, Mikhail Petrov likewise studies the papers he stole from Ivan. Though Ivan had cleverly divided his resources, both sets of documents converge on one location, a bank headquartered in New London, Connecticut. Mikhail travels there, and finds Daniel a half-step ahead of him. In author Lawrence’s hands, the shifts between these two characters’ points of view work well. They’re well-rounded, believable, interesting, and temperamentally different from each other. Daniel may be the novel’s main character, but Mikhail is more sympathetic than you’d expect and has considerably more skills for dealing with the hazards this unlikely duo eventually confronts.

You can almost smell the dust on the half-forgotten legend they uncover concerning a fortune in gold. What could this far-fetched tale have to do with modern-day Ukraine? Why was Ivan killed for delving into it? A question that does not occur to Daniel, at least at first, is whether poking a stick at this particular bear puts him at risk too.

Lawrence creates a strong sense of urgency by interspersing a parallel story line involving Ukrainian protests against the Russian-supported government, which peaked in 2014, the time when this novel is set. Ivan’s sister Yana, a physician, is an active participant in Kiev’s independence movement and a witness to the violence perpetrated by the Ukrainian police. Yana is poking a bear, too, determined to put an end to the careers of the worst offenders. Although this thread of the story is thinner than the main tale, it provides a real-life grounding and urgency to Daniel and Mikhail’s activities continents away.

The Cossack is a fine debut, with Lawrence a compelling—and compassionate—author worth watching.

**Without Fear or Favor

NYCity  police officer

photo: scubacopper, creative commons license

By Robert K. Tanenbaum – Among many other legal posts, Tanenbaum has been a prosecutor, an Assistant District Attorney, has taught law, and served two terms as mayor of Beverly Hills, California. This book-jacket terms him “a New York Times bestselling author,” although many readers have learned that doesn’t necessarily mean what we think it does. This is the 29th book in the long-running series of legal thrillers featuring New York City District Attorney Roger “Butch” Karp and his wife, investigator Marlene Ciampi. How could one man do all that? Easy. He didn’t.

In a rather notorious (in writing circles) revelation in 2003, Tanenbaum’s cousin, Michael Gruber revealed he had ghostwritten the “bestselling author’s” novels, the two had parted ways, and he was pursuing his own writing career. Followed by a rather inexpert successor, the quality of Tanenbaum’s books reportedly suffered, then for a while it appeared more skilled hands were at the computer keyboard. I knew none of this when I read Without Fear or Favor, but Tanenbaum’s hunt for a good ghostwriter should continue.

The new novel tells the story of a white cop murdered by a black militant who uses the nom de guerre, Nat X. Nat X proclaims that there’s a war on black people, and cops are the enemy. He does murder a policeman early in the story, then entices a teenager to shoot another one, and the remainder of the book is about bringing him to justice.

In some respects, this book is the antithesis of Don Winslow’s The Force, also about black-white relations in New York City as they collide within the criminal justice system. In Winslow’s book, corruption is rampant; in Tanenbaum’s, aside from three vigilante cops, duly punished, the police, the investigators, and the prosecutors are models of probity. Their solid ideals are revealed in unrealistic lengthy statements, more like essays than realistic conversations.

If these editorial opinions were confined to one or two characters, you might accept that they reflect a particular character’s point of view and bombastic communications style, but they also appear in the narration, which becomes indistinguishable from the characters’ “good citizenship” and “flaws in the system” lectures.

In addition to constant editorializing, the writer has a bad habit of introducing a bolus of superficial backstory every time a new character is introduced. It doesn’t explore the individual at all, and you’re left to apply whatever assumptions you may have about someone described as a product of “only the finest prep schools.”

Unsurprisingly, the story is loaded with clichés and stereotyped and cardboard characters. Perhaps most puzzling are the courtroom scenes of Nat X’s trial. I wonder whether Tanenbaum even read them. The defense attorney is not a worthy adversary for protagonist Karp, which greatly undercuts the tension of the trial. Not to mention that her deceptive behavior might well subject her to an ethics investigation.

Instead, How About . . .

If you like legal thrillers, you may find more believable courtroom drama in Steve Cavanagh’s The Liar or The Plea or Brad Parks’s recent Say Nothing. Or, come to Richardson Auditorium on October to hear John Grisham, Wednesday October 25, 2017, 4:30 p.m. Tickets on sale at the Auditorium website at noon October 19.