Best Mystery, Crime, and Thriller Fiction – May 2017

books

(photo: wikimedia.org)

Because reading a bad novel seems, well, criminal, we can thank Bill Ott at The Booklist Reader for wading through the enormous output of crime, thriller, and mystery fiction to come up with his list of top books of the year, 5/1/16-4/15/17. He admits to ignoring some long-running series, in favor of bringing to light less familiar authors and work. So, from his list, in alphabetical order:

  • The Boy Who Escaped Paradise, by J. M. Lee, translated by Chi-Young Kim – part of a growing shelf of fiction set in North Korea—home base for alternative facts—where the mechanisms of the state purposefully distort the lives, minds, and hearts of the people. Gil-mo has escaped, following an adventurous trail through several countries. Now he sits wounded in a New York City jail cell, while the authorities try to answer the question, is he a murderer and a terrorist or a mathematical genius?
  • Celine, by Peter Heller – Celine is nearly 70, a private investigator with an oxygen tank, who specializes in missing persons. A “captivating, brainy, and funny tale” full of suspense, it’s set in the beautifully described Yosemite National Park. As in so many investigations, her quest is for more secrets than the fate of a nature photographer presumed killed by a grizzly.
  • Dark Side of the Moon, by Les Wood – Ott compares the zingy dialog of this novel about the theft of a diamond to that of Donald E. Westlake (author of the classic jewel-theft caper, The Hot Rock). It’s told from the  point of view of one of Glasgow’s notorious crime lords. Wood honed his crime-writing skills concocting detection challenges as a teaching tool for his physiology students at Glasgow Caledonia University.
  • Darktown, by Thomas Mullen – Set in post-World War II Atlanta, the story follows an unauthorized murder investigation by two newly hired black cops, at a time when “one-quarter of Atlanta policemen were, in fact, members of the Ku Klux Klan,” said Mullen in an NPR interview. They were supposed to patrol only the black neighborhoods, many of whose residents “saw them as toothless sellouts.” This story of men under pressure is already in line to become a television series.
  • Let the Devil Out, by Bill Loehfelm – “The most compelling, complex patrol cop in the genre” is Loehfelm’s New Orleans rookie Maureen Coughlin, on the trail of a white supremacist militia. This is Loehfelm’s fourth book featuring his smart and strong protagonist, with the gritty, corrupt, fascinating city of New Orleans her frowzled co-star.
  • Razor Girl, by Carl Hiassen – another laugh-out-loud story displaying “Hiaasen’s skewed view of a Florida slouching toward Armageddon.” The super-cool Merry Mansfield may be a scammer, whose trade is phony auto accidents, but when she rear-ends the rental car of the agent to a TV reality star, a high-profile mess ensues, richly peopled with Florida characters, including disgraced detective Andrew Yancy, eager to redeem himself.
  • Revolver, by Duane Swierczynski – Set in 1965, 1995, and 2015, this three-generation crime story is a “bleak, powerful tale of corruption,” Ott says, and shows how long a family will persist in trying to resolve a tragic murder. Crimespree Magazine likens the book’s style and its portrayal of the city of Philadelphia (“a character unto itself”) to the master, Dashiell Hammett.
  • What We Become, by Arturo Pérez-Reverte – In 1928, Max works ocean liners as a tango dancer with an eye for the ladies and their jewelry. Pérez-Reverte “drinks freely from many genres: historical epic, Hitchcockian thriller, and deliciously sexy love story,” Ott says. His affair with the beautiful but married Mecha Inzunza flares, then fades. Eleven years later their paths across again in France, when Max becomes involved in a risky espionage and her husband away, fighting in Spain.

Edgar Winners 2017

The Mystery Writers of America recently announced its 2017 Edgar winners. As last year, none of the nominees for “best novel” were in Ott’s list, which to me is evidence of the quantity of good writing out there. Awarded an Edgar for “best novel” was Before the Fall by Noah Hawley and for “best first novel” was Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry. Two other truly excellent novels in the latter category, reviewed here, were Dodgers by Bill Beverly and The Drifter by Nicholas Petrie.

Be sure to check out the “Book Reviews . . .” tab above to find more in the crime/mystery/thriller genre.

****The Owl Always Hunts at Night

Owl at night

photo: Jacob Spinks, creative commons license

By Samuel Bjork, translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte BarslundBjork is yet another name to add to the pantheon of Nordic Noir authors. In this second solidly written police procedural featuring Oslo detectives Holger Munch and Mia Krüger, their strong working relationship continues, even as they themselves are at risk of breaking apart.

Munch—overweight and troubled by his failed marriage—leads a team of detectives investigating the ritualistic murder of a teenage girl, whose naked body was found posed on a bed of owl feathers in a pentagram formed by the candles that surround her. The pathologist’s report reveals she was strangled and highlights the grazing to her knees and elbows, the blisters on her hands, and her emaciated condition.

This case is just too weird, and Munch reaches out to Krüger, on leave from the department for mental health reasons. Short on emotional reserves and long on intuition,  Krüger is considered practically a genius at penetrating the murky depths of a case. Though Krüger agrees to help with the investigation, she’s fighting a battle she may not win with alcohol and pills and the overwhelming desire to follow her parents and twin sister to the grave. Mia Moonbeam, as she’s nicknamed, has a dreamy quality to her thinking, that sharpens to a point whenever she focuses on a detail of the case.

Munch’s involvement in the lives of his daughter—a single mom who may have found a new love—and six-year-old granddaughter periodically brings him in painful contact with his ex-wife. One minor confusion in the book (series?), which Bjork could easily have avoided, was naming the ex-wife, daughter, and granddaughter Marianne, Miriam, and Marion.

The dead teenager, Camilla Green, had gone missing from a group home for troubled teens. In this multiple point-of-view novel, you see some of the other girls in action and know they are hiding important information—information that may put one of them at risk too.

At the book’s end, a few threads remain untied, and I don’t understand why the detectives used a character’s cell phone records—not passport control information—to establish whether he was out of the country, when those data indicate only where the phone was. The book’s setting and atmospherics were utterly convincing, though if you’re tired of the torture-of-beautiful-young-women trope, beware.

What you can easily envision is Munch’s daughter’s attraction to Ziggy, the new man in her life. He’s part of an animal rights action group that involves her longtime friend Julia and others, and the fact that he turns out to be super-rich is a pleasant bonus. But, suspicious you, you have your doubts.

A longer version of this review appeared on crimefictionlover.com, and the affiliate link is below. I received an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

***Freefall

cyberspace

photo: openDemocracy, creative commons license

By Brian Lutterman – Pen Wilkinson has appeared in two previous books in this contemporary amateur sleuth series, and author Lutterman gets points for creating a protagonist who uses a wheelchair. Pen has solid contacts in law enforcement and strings she can pull when she needs investigatory assistance, but everyday issues are a challenge. Lutterman acknowledges the practical aspects of her disability, as well as its impact on her relationships with others.

Pen lost her mobility as an adult, the result of an auto accident, so is acutely aware of how people treat her differently than before. Fine, empathetic work. Pen is a get-on-with-it kind of gal and, at least in this novel, has come to terms with her situation.

Pen was driving when the accident occurred, and her sister’s young daughter was killed. Although she was not held responsible, she blames herself. And so, apparently, does the girl’s mother, Pen’s older sister Marsha. The rupture between them has brought to the surface Marsha’s longstanding resentment of Pen, and guilt over this resentment has led to hostility. Now Marsha needs Pen.

About a year before the book begins, Marsha’s son Kenny, a computer prodigy, left Marsha’s Tampa home to live with his father and stepmother. He then convinced them to move to Minneapolis. Why people would leave sunny Florida for the notorious icy winters of Minnesota, Marsha can’t understand and no one has adequately explained. Now Kenny has gone missing.

Given the settings he’s chosen—Minnesota and Tampa—Lutterman had considerable opportunity to explore how such vastly different urban cultures shape people and events, but this story could have played out just about anywhere, only changing the street names.

Pen agrees to help find him, since the police—and his father—seem unconcerned. It appears Kenny was doing some hacking for a mysterious person called Z. Z is well known to Pen’s old friends in the banking industry for a string of ransomware exploits, but has been strangely quiet of late. The book takes advantage of the growing appreciation of the vulnerability of systems and institutions to cybercrime, financial institutions in particular.

This is a multiple point-of-view novel, and you know Z is planning something big. The risks to Kenny are coming from at least two directions, since Z believes Kenny is expendable and a highly trained team of mercenaries is on his trail.

Lutterman’s complex plot is peopled by members of the Russian mafia, the mercenaries, the hackers, banking insiders, the FBI and local law enforcement, plus Kenny’s friends and family. Many of them are not behaving as Pen would expect them to. Yet she repeatedly arrives at conclusions without much indication of how she reached them.

If you like cybercrime plots and don’t think too hard about it, Lutterman’s fast-paced story will carry you forward. However, the book would greatly benefit from more realistic dialog. The heart of the book is Pen, Lutterman’s captivating protagonist, dealing with her significant challenges and urgent desire to reconnect her family.

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

*****Say Nothing

By Brad Parks – After these powerful opening lines, you pretty much have to keep reading this new thriller:

Say Nothing, Brad Parks, cell phone

photo: Japanexperterna.se, creative commons license

“Their first move against us was so small, such an infinitesimal blip against the blaring background noise of life, I didn’t register it as anything significant.
“It came in the form of a text from my wife, Alison, and it arrived on my phone at 3:28 one Wednesday afternoon:
“‘Hey sorry forgot to tell you kids have dr appt this pm. Picking them up soon'”

With these few words, the deep anxiety all parents feel for the safety of their children bubbles up. The reader anticipates the next shattering revelations, and from there, the plot follows multiple tracks: part legal thriller, part financial thriller, and a big part psychological thriller, as a family confronts its horrifying challenges.

Most of the book is told in first-person, from the point of view of Scott Sampson, a judge for the U.S. Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, sitting in Norfolk. He, his wife, and six-year-old twins Sam and Emma live on the York River in rural Gloucester County, Virginia, “many steps off the beaten path.”

The kidnappers’ goal, it first seems, is to blackmail Judge Sampson into convicting a clearly guilty drug-dealer and murderer. At the last minute, his instructions change: “Let him walk.” It’s not an exercise in thwarting justice; it’s to show how much power they hold over him. One order the kidnappers are consistent about is, of course, the source of the book’s title, “Say nothing.”

Soon you realize the criminals have their sights on a much bigger, more consequential case—a patent dispute involving a multibillion-dollar pharmaceutical product. To accede to their demands, Sampson must throw away his professional integrity and much else, which he does with an enormous sense of loss. Once he has unshackled himself from the basic tenets of the legal system, how far will he actually go?

Parks believably portrays the dynamic between the parents, showing all the anger and sadness and second-guessing and mutual doubts such a high-stress game would generate. Alison’s mother, two sisters, and their families live close by and it’s impossible to keep from them what happened to the children. The family wants to help. That could be risky. Yet, their support gives the couple one solid thing to hang onto as events sweep on.

Parks does an especially good job describing the courtroom action and the interactions in the judge’s chambers. Although you probably have a pretty good idea who is manipulating Judge Sampson’s strings—and why—there are surprises in store. There’s also an unnecessary plot twist at the end that muddies the mother’s motives. Those are minor quibbles for a book whose writing is, on the whole, deft and a pleasure to read.

Parks’s earlier books, like The Good Cop, demonstrate a wicked sense of humor, which he says he deliberately excised from Say Nothing. This book shows he also can grab hold of your heart and keep squeezing.

A Thriller Reading List for the Trump Administration

Mar-a-LagoDear New Trump Administration Members, Friends and Hangers-on:

I propose an easy, entertaining way to enhance your understanding of how the world of secrets actually works. Read (or watch) a few of the many highly regarded thrillers for key lessons. They may spare you more of the embarrassments of the past few weeks.

Trust no one.
The initial reaction of ousted Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort to the possibility he’d engaged with Russian spies—“It’s not like these people wear badges that say, ‘I’m a Russian Intelligence officer’”—was LOL funny to thriller fans. When you’re dealing with a power whose aims differ from yours, anyone may be a spy. To get his paranoia up, Manafort shoulda read:
The Shanghai Factor by Charles McCarry
The Increment by David Ignatius
John le Carré’s “Smiley” novels, newly relevant

There are no secrets.
If Manafort caused chuckles and head-shaking, the allegations against ousted National Security Agency Director Michael Flynn was jaw-dropping. Not because Flynn had premature conversations with Russians, not because he lied about them, but because he apparently didn’t know his conversations would be monitored, recorded, transcribed, and become fodder for a political debacle. Surely the head of the NSA would understand the reach of the nation’s security apparatus.

Leaving aside the debate about whether Snowden should have snagged our stuff, what about the content of his revelations? What does Flynn think NSA’s $1.5 billion data storage facility at Camp Williams, Utah, is for, anyway? He should have read—and maybe somebody over there still ought to:
No Place to Hide – Glenn Greenwald (non-fiction)

The terrace of a resort isn’t the best place to strategize about national security. (See above).
Technology’s ability to “listen” by supersensitive microphones and by monitoring phone traffic and to “see” via miniaturized cameras and screen captures of compromised electronics far exceeds what participants in that meeting apparently supposed. Do all the Mar-a-Lago wait and kitchen staff have security clearances? Do the members? Are tested for common sense? Apparently not, since a number of them recorded the confab. Worst was club member Richard DeAgazio, who posted a picture on Facebook of himself with “Rick,” the service member who carries the nuclear launch codes for the President—the “nuclear  football.” One hopes Rick, now identifiable by millions, has a safe new assignment.
Eye in the Sky – film by Gavin Hood
Ghost Fleet by P.W. Singer and August Cole

AND, WHILE YOU’RE AT IT, DEVELOP BETTER POLICIES, BECAUSE . . .

Climate change is real.
Dewy-fresh EPA director Scott Pruitt believes the debate about climate change is “far from settled.” While  recent heavy rains have alleviated most of California’s drought for now, the long-term trend persists. A fight over water in the U.S. Southwest is not inevitable, but its ugly consequences can be prevented only if the problem is squarely faced through regional strategies, which are what federal governments promote.
The Water Knife, by Paolo Bacigalupi

The War on Drugs is a loser.
This ill-conceived “war” has led to untold misery in Mexico and created a strong motive for illegal immigration. No wall will stop the drug flow. Fix this.
The Cartel, by Don Winslow
Down by the River, by Charles Bowden (non-fiction, not new, but harrowing. We’ve learned nothing.)

There, that should get the Washington newbies started. What would you have them read?

*****What You Break

Long Island

photo: Shinya Suzuki, creative commons license

By Reed Farrel Coleman – Coleman’s latest crime novel is the second to feature retired Suffolk County cop John Augustus (Gus) Murphy. Coleman portrays his Long Island environment so well that his books carry a gritty realism and his characters live real, if doggedly unglamorous, lives. Says Washington Post reviewer Patrick Anderson, “His Long Island is scruffy, blue-collar, corrupt, choked by traffic and fueled by fast food, cheap beer and unrelenting anger. Jay Gatsby isn’t in the picture.”

Murphy is the security detail and after-hours van driver for the ironically named Paragon Hotel, located near Long Island’s MacArthur airport, and its night spot, the Full Flaps Lounge. His girlfriend Magdalena calls it a third-class hotel—“Second-class,” he corrects her. The job’s easy and doesn’t require any emotional investment. In other words, he can stay on auto-pilot, as he has been in almost every arena of his life since the sudden death of his 20-year-old son, a centerpiece of the earlier book.

The pain of losing his son and all the consequent chaos in his personal life has not gone away, but he’s managing it better now. The downside is that Murphy’s a bit less conscientious about his own safety than he perhaps ought to be, with two separate catastrophes looming on his personal horizon. He’s called in to investigate the apparently motiveless death of a young Vietnamese woman and he fingers one of the hotel guests as potential trouble. Correctly.

Murphy pokes the beast with inquiries into Linh Trang’s past and the hotel guest’s intentions, which puts him and possibly even Magdalena in jeopardy from rough and  determined characters. The plot moves quickly as the circle of people involved in both cases widens, ultimately reaching an inspired conclusion.

Award-winning author Coleman is also a poet, so it’s no surprise he’s been called the “noir poet laureate.” He paints compelling scenes and circumstances, as well as complex psychological portraits.  If you like non-stop action thrillers that nevertheless have some intellectual weight, this is a book to pick up and enjoy.

*****Burning Bright

photo: Kevan, creative commons license

By Nick Petrie – Petrie’s debut thriller, The Drifter, was a 2016 favorite. In these novels, Petrie’s protagonist, Peter Ash, is a veteran Marine lieutenant who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. His war experience left him with a form of post-traumatic stress disorder that he calls “the static,” and it starts up whenever he’s in a confined space—indoors, for example—threatening to bloom into a full-blown panic.

For that reason, he’s spent a lot of time tromping around the deep forests of the northwest United States, living in a tent, trying to convince himself no one is shooting at him. Unfortunately, in this book, someone is.

When he climbs a young redwood tree to escape a rampaging bear, he discovers he’s not the first or the only one hiding out up there. Following a trail of ropes, he finds a woman with a bow and arrow, the arrow aimed at his heart. (Hits it, too, but not in the literal sense.) The sound of automatic weapons on the ground tells them they need to fly. Their escape through the treetops, thirty stories up and above the forest fog is pure excitement. And that powerful opening just begins their non-stop adventure.

The woman, June Cassidy, is on the run. Her mother—an artificial intelligence researcher at Stanford University—was killed by a hit-and-run driver, all the contents of her office were carried away in the middle of the night by “government” heavies, who later tried to kidnap Cassidy. Her mother has developed an algorithm to penetrate secure networks called Tyg3r, and quite a few determined folks think now Cassidy has it.

Cassidy wants to know who killed her mother. Ash’s interest is in Cassidy, and he wants to use his considerable tactical and physical skills to protect her. In a recent essay about thriller superheroes, London Review of Books editor John Lanchester described his Superman Test for plausibility: “Is what I’m being asked to believe less likely than the character’s being able to fly?”

Somehow, Petrie’s depiction of Ash and his actions would pass that test. In part that’s because the author is meticulous about explaining how Ash and Cassidy do what they do. Whether you understand all those rope climbing terms or not, the details are utterly convincing.

At the same time, it seems less believable that multiple teams of heavily armed pseudo-governmental agents are driving around in phalanxes of black Ford Explorers. Yet, Ash needs a significant foe, and there’s a high-tech prize of inestimable value here. Perhaps it makes sense that considerable human and firepower resources are focused on acquiring it.

Though heavily overmatched, Ash and Cassidy are not without resources of their own. In addition to their personal skills, Ash calls on some a few pals, including one from The Drifter, Lewis: genius investor, crack shot, awesome sense of humor. Banter between Cassidy and Ash is pretty genuine and entertaining too.

The Northern California and Seattle-area settings are refreshing and full of possibility for the kind of mental isolation that breeds paranoia. And there’s plenty of it in this novel, given the game-changing significance of the technologies it explores. As Petrie says in an author’s note, “large institutions, both public and private, operate with few controls in a fast-changing environment. For some reason, I don’t find this entirely comforting.” Nor will you.

****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.

****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!