*****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.

****The Idol of Mombasa

Mombasa, Africa, Masks

photo: Angelo Juan Ramos, creative commons license

By Annamaria AlfieriSet in 1912 in the British Protectorate of East Africa (now Kenya), The Idol of Mombasa is Alfieri’s second novel featuring Justin and Vera Tolliver. In this book, the newlyweds embark on a none-too-welcome stay in the steamy, smelly coastal city of Mombasa, where Justin is the new Assistant District Superintendent of Police.

In Mombasa, they find themselves in a deliciously rendered stewpot of mixed racial, ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds and loyalties. Though the local government is British, Mombasa—and that portion of its population that is Arab—remains under the significant influence of the Sultan of Zanzibar. The British have introduced into the police service their loyal Indian subjects, and Africans of many tribes fill the population.

The Tollivers are a mix too. Justin is the second son of a Yorkshire earl. He had a conventional if aristocratic upbringing, but possesses no fortune. Vera is more of a free spirit. She’s the daughter of a Scottish missionary, born and raised in the Protectorate’s pastoral up-country region.

The conflicts inherent between and among such wildly diverse people are tailor-made for both social and domestic drama.

The novel’s prologue describes a daring nighttime slave and ivory smuggling operation, and the book’s central dilemma relates to the illegal, but quietly tolerated practice of holding and selling slaves. Vera is an absolutist, unable to countenance slavery in any form, whereas Justin may be as morally opposed, but constrained by unwritten policy and his superiors.

When a runaway slave is murdered, followed soon after by the death of a notorious Arab slave-trafficker, Justin and Vera both set out to find the perpetrator—he in his official capacity and she with secret, possibly risky, and sometimes unaccountably naïve actions of her own. Conflict between the couple is thereby assured, as Justin alternately admires and is frustrated by Vera’s passionate, impulsive personality.

Alfieri’s descriptions of exotic Mombasa and its environs a hundred years ago vividly evoke the setting. Her writing is clear and interesting, yet somehow doesn’t exude a strong sense of menace, despite the cast of desperate characters and perilous environment. She keeps multiple plot balls up in the air, through a set of intriguing and well-drawn secondary characters. The net result is that this atmospheric novel transports you back in time and across continents to set you down in the middle of Mombasa, 1912.

A longer version of this review appeared at crimefictionlover.com.

Loving

loving, Ruth Negga, Joel Edgerton

Ruth Negga & Joel Edgerton in Loving

The landmark 1967 Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, which ended state bans on interracial marriage is brought to life here, lovingly, (trailer). This fine film is from writer/director Jeff Nichols, whose script has been called subtle and “scrupulously intelligent.”

Hard though it may be to believe that miscegenation laws persisted more than a century after the Civil War, at the time the case was decided, 16 Southern states had such laws. Virginia’s law put Richard Loving and his wife, Mildred Jeter Loving—and their three children—at serious risk.

Richard and Mildred marry in Washington, D.C., knowing Virginia authorities would give them problems, and when they return home and are caught, their attorney advises them to plead guilty to “cohabiting as man and wife, against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth.” They are given a suspended sentence contingent on a promise to leave Virginia and not return (together) for at least 25 years. If they are found together in the state, they’ll go to prison. The judge’s sentence effectively turns them into exiles in their own country.

Life in the District of Columbia is not easy or pleasant for two rural people. It is too crowded, too loud, too fast, and too dangerous for their children. But the Civil Rights movement is happening around them, and a letter Mildred writes to Attorney General Robert Kennedy ends up in the hands of the American Civil Liberties Union, which takes on their case pro bono.

The decisions the Lovings make and why they make them are the meat of the movie. And while they don’t necessarily understand the machinations of the law and the courts or the strategies of their lawyers, their quiet courage is clear. As critic Mal Vincent wrote in the (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot, “In the end, when you think about the film’s ‘message,’ it is a very simple one. With so much hate in the world, should we suppress any effort to express love?”

With a strong supporting cast, Joel Edgerton as Richard and Ruth Negga as Mildred do a standout job in low-key, tender performances that never stray into sentimentality. Late in the day, Richard is asked whether there’s anything he wants to say to the Supreme Court Justices. He gives his lawyer a how can I make this any plainer? glance and says, “Yeah. Tell the judge I love my wife.” That’s all the Court—and the Virginia legislature, and the county sheriff, and anyone else—should need to know.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 90%; audiences, 79%

Learning to Drive

Ben Kingsley, Patricia Clarkson, Learning to DriveDirector Isabel Coixet has put together an altogether pleasant comedy (trailer) set in Manhattan, although much of the action takes place on the inside—inside Wendy Shields (played by Patricia Clarkson) whose husband has left her for younger woman, forcing her to rethink her life. This leads to the startling decision to learn to drive. It takes place on the inside of her Sikh driving instructor, Darwan (Ben Kingsley), whose life is upended by the arrival of an Indian woman he’s never met who’s expecting to become his wife. And, it takes place on the inside of Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury), who speaks little English and who has entered a much more foreign territory than a stamp on a passport would suggest.

The superb cast conveys all the internal yearning, turmoil, disappointment, and joy experienced by these characters without the burden of a heavy-handed script. Writer Sarah Kernochan based the screenplay on a New Yorker essay and built in plenty of funny and sweet moments, too. Especially appreciated is the opportunity to see the colorful and intriguing interior of a Sikh temple.

The cramped confines of a car make for filming challenges worthy of a team of contortionists, but it’s an intimate setting, too (as the excellent 2008 British movie Happy Go Lucky proved), in which quotidian experiences are spiced with the ever-present possibility of catastrophe (bicyclists! trucks! jaywalkers!). “You can’t always trust people to behave properly,” Darwan advises, and this truism resonates with his pupil. Though she would add the caveat that he actually does.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 67%; audiences 68%. Hard to understand why the critics dinged this movie for “predictability” and didn’t notice that exact problem in the awful Grandma which they liked! If you’ve had a hard week or are allergic to people screaming their problems at you for two hours, this is the better choice.

*****Seveneves

Perseids, meteor shower, night

(photo: David Kingham, creative commons license)

By Neal Stephenson – All my book-reviewing predelictions are about to be revealed, when I say this is exactly a kind of book I like best! Even readers who ordinarily don’t gravitate to their book store’s science fiction section because of a severe allergy to tired genre tropes—aliens, ray-guns, and domineering robots—cardboard characters, and future visions that strain believability might like this one. It’s science, all right, but it’s all about human beings and their behavior when really put to the test. Why that is, in Stephenson’s own words.

The novel’s premise is that something (we never know what, and it doesn’t matter) penetrates the moon “like a bullet through an apple” and causes it to explode mostly into seven large and innumerable smaller pieces. Watching the fragments of the moon clank about in space becomes an interesting phenomenon until astronomer and science popularizer Dubois Harris—clearly modeled on Neil deGrasse Tyson—stops wondering about the cause of the breakup and starts worrying about its effects. Scientists around the globe quickly agree with his conclusions: the moon’s fragments—bolides—will keep banging into each other making smaller and smaller pieces whose numbers will rise exponentially.

Eventually (in about two years), enough shattered fragments will begin entering the Earth’s atmosphere to create a cloud of debris that will spread out and, as Harris explains to U.S. President Julia Flaherty, “we are going to witness an event that I am calling the White Sky.” A day or two later would begin the next phase, “the Hard Rain,” as a rapidly increasing number of fragments enter the Earth’s atmosphere and their fiery trails “merge into a dome of fire that will set aflame anything that can see it. The entire surface of the Earth is going to be sterilized. Glaciers will boil.” How long will the Hard Rain last? Harris estimates “Somewhere between five thousand and ten thousand years.”

The only hope for human survival is to gear up the International Space Station (“Izzy”) to receive many more residents and, somehow, survive long-term, growing plants for food and oxygen, and mining asteroids and even the remaining chunks of the moon for materials. But there’s no way Izzy can take on several billion or even several hundred thousand souls, and a difficult selection process will be required. International politics must be set aside and every creative mind and resource focused on the survival of a few. With Doomsday approaching, technological development must move light-years faster than previously believed possible—or safe. Yet the meat of the book is the mechanics of the human psyche when subjected to such an extreme scenario. Inevitably, some readers will find the balance between mind and emotion not to their taste, and this may not be their kind of book.

There’s a lot of science and engineering here, but it’s wrapped in such an exciting adventure tale, and presented so clearly and plausibly, that I never lost interest for a moment. The 860 [!] pages fly by, faster than you can say Bolide Fragmentation Rate. In fact, there was so much there that a few loose ends escaped me—like, what happened to the mission to Mars? I don’t believe it had more than a passing reference. What happened to the rings Earth was supposed to acquire after the Hard Rain? These are hardly worth a quibble, though, amid all this amazing content.

As Jason Sheehan said in his review of Seveneves for NPR, “The experience of reading a modern Stephenson novel is like going out drinking with 20 or 30 of the smartest people on earth.”

Weekend Double-Play

The Guardsman

Jon Barker, Victoria Mack, The Guardsman, Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey

Jon Barker & Victoria Mack in STNJ’s The Guardsman

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey (STNJ) continues its 2015 season—a celebration of Bonnie J. Monte’s 25th season as artistic director—with another play about actors, this one The Guardsman, by Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár. In it, a young actor begins to suspect his wife is tiring of him and pretends to be a member of the Royal Guard—he can do wigs and costumes after all—to see whether she’ll be tempted. At the end, it seems he’s learned more about himself than he has about her constancy.

The play has many laugh-out-loud moments as the actor struggles to maintain two personas at the same time. Should he be flattered that the actress seems attracted to the dashing guardsman, or offended? He’s both, alternatingly. Talented company regular Jon Barker conveys every bit of this confusion with his expressive body language. Victoria Mack as his wife plays a more opaque character, and in the talk-back at the end, the audience was divided about whether she saw through his disguise. Brent Harris was excellent as the Critic, who is the foil to both actors’ longings.

The play has been mounted several times in English, and is usually played as romantic farce, but Monte believes its frivolous exterior has obscured darker messages at its heart. To pursue this line of thought, she obtained a new literal translation by the playwright’s great-grandson and used that for her adaptation. She found it has “an extraordinary provocative, ground-breaking, heart-breaking, and disturbing inner core” that provokes gales of laughter at the same time it “questions identity, reality, perception and what it takes to validate our existence.”

Love’s Labour’s Lost

On Sunday, we saw Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, one of his many comedies about romantic confusion, this year’s outdoor stage production by the STNJ. Excellent comedic performances by the entire cast. I had both my sun and rain umbrellas with me, though the threatened rain never materialized. These productions are always a highlight of the summer, and the cast manages not to faint in the heat, despite their elaborate costumes and the play’s lively staging, including running up the stairs of the amphitheater at the College of St. Elizabeth.

outdoor theater, STNJ

Set for the outdoor production of Love’s Labour’s Lost, STNJ

Coming Up Next

Yesterday was the last performance for both these plays, a successful continuance of this anniversary season. Next up: Shaw’s Misalliance, August 5 – 30, in which Shaw “gleefully exposes and dismantles the idiosyncrasies of the British classes and their various ‘family values.’”

Also, some critics believe The Guardsman inspired Harold Pinter’s The Lover, whose similar plot likewise melds comedy and drama and has been played both ways. STNJ will have a reading of The Lover on Monday evening, August 17, to explore those possibilities.

What I’ve Learned about Book Reviews (by writing them): Part 1

books, reading

5-star books of 2015 (photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

You may have read some of the book reviews I’ve written for vweisfeld.com and Crime Fiction Lover. Perhaps you’ve wondered what criteria I use in assessing a book and assigning the stars. For one, you may have noticed that most books reviewed cluster in the 3-4 star range (good to excellent). There’s a reason for that. I really don’t read books at random; unless they promise to be pretty good, they aren’t on my reading pile. Another way to say this is, there’s so much good stuff out there these days, why waste time on schlock?

Offhand, I can think of only two one-star reviews I’ve given, and those books were gifts, well-intended, of course. At the same time, a book has to be really a cut above—usually by having strong literary qualities or a truly compelling story—before I give five stars. Proof of this “high average” is that I’ve reviewed 36 fiction/memoirs so far this year; of these, 18 were four-star, while five were five-star. In 2014, I read 56 books, and gave 22 of them four stars and only half that many five stars. The stars are explained on this website’s “Reading . . .” page, as follows:

Book Review Rankings

***** Highly recommended
**** Excellent read
*** Some flaws, but good
** Take it or leave it
* Save your $

While good reviews are important to writers, book reviews are mainly for readers, so I try to focus on the factors that make a book a good reading experience. And, because they’re for readers, **no spoilers!** in my book (and movie) reviews. This probably doesn’t please my friend who turns to the back of a new book and reads the last chapter first.

It’s generally helpful to signal the genre of the book (some people love sci fi and other hate it, for example) and provide a short synopsis of the book’s set-up. This lets prospective readers know whether it’s the kind of book they would like in general, and whether the subject matter is likely to interest them.

Summary Judgment

First, I think about the overall impression a book makes. When I reach the last page and think, “Now THAT was a good book,” assigning the stars is easy. But it isn’t enough to tell other readers “it’s awesome” or “meh” and be done with it. Writing these reviews has helped me figure out why I have these overall impressions.

An important component of this summary impression is the idea or theme a book explores, which is accomplished by bringing together all its elements (plot, character, etc.) in a coherent, if sometimes invisible, way. Invisible or barely visible, because no reader wants to be lectured at. Ideas and themes must be presented artfully, something numerous critics (not me) felt Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior did not achieve, and which Neal Stephenson’s novels do so well. As the old Hollywood saying has it, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.”

Ideas and themes are what a book is fundamentally about, and what it is about is not the same as plot. It took me a long time to learn that in my own writing. People would ask, “So, what’s your book about?” and I’d say, “It’s about a New York City architect who finds his mistress murdered and then what all happens as he tries to figure out why.” Now I say some of that, but I add “and what it’s really about is a man trying to regain his self-respect.” The “what a book is about,” stripped of plot intricacies, is the universal that readers respond to.

Tomorrow: Component Parts, Errors, & You

****The Water Knife

Lake Mead, drought, California

Echo Bay Marina, Lake Mead National Recreation Area (photo: James Marvin Phelps, Creative Commons license)

By Paolo Bacigalupi, narrated by Almarie Guerra – In the American Southwest, Nevada (specifically Las Vegas), Arizona, and California are battling over a dwindling water supply caused by climate change, population pressure, and brazen political brokering. So far, this story could be a repeat of the nightly news, right?

In this novel, however, the situation has escalated (as it well might IRL). States have declared their sovereignty, closed their borders, and enforce interstate transit with armed militias that shoot to kill. Zoners (Arizonans) have few ways to make a living, and those with weapons prey on the desperate poor. To have water is to be rich or, as the saying goes, “water flows toward money.” The wealthy have bought their way into “arcologies”—high-rise buildings with complex plant and aquatic ecosystems for recycling and recirculating virtually every drop of water.

In Las Vegas, the Cypress arcologies were built by Catherine Case, nicknamed the Queen of the Colorado River, and head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. Las Vegas is to some extent thriving, because of her cunning and cutthroat tactics. But Phoenix is dying.

Angel Velasquez, one of the book’s three protagonists, is an ex-prison inmate—smart, ruthless, a “water knife” who works for Catherine Case, cutting other people’s water supplies. Lucy Monroe is a Phoenix-based Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and social media star (#PhoenixDowntheTubes) who just might have a lead on some serious water rights, and Maria Villarosa is a highly disposable Texas refugee barely surviving in Phoenix and at the constant mercy of a brutal gang headed by “the Vet.” People who get on the Vet’s really bad side are thrown to his pack of hyenas.

The book’s opening sequence gives a taste of the winner-take-all mentality. Clever legal maneuvering has stalled the filing of a water rights appeal by Carver City, Arizona, giving the Nevada National Guard a window of a few hours to attack and destroy the citiy’s water supply infrastructure. With Angel in the unofficial lead, it does.

Before too much time passes, Angel, who has a boatload of false identities, must visit Phoenix to investigate the mutilation death of one of Catherine Case’s undercover operatives, and the plot really starts to flow. He finds Phoenix swimming with Calis—Californians also working undercover to assure that state’s gluttonous water requirements are met, regardless of the fate of everyone upriver. Before long, all the players are after the same thing—original water rights documents that would supersede everything on the books—and no one is sure who has them. This apocalyptic thriller is set in the not-too-distant future, and Bacigalupi takes real-life issues and situations several steps farther, adds in toxic intergovernmental rivalries and a healthy dose of greed, weaving them into an exciting, plausible, and thought-provoking tale.

While the story is a critique of a governmental environment in which local interests are allowed to trump regional and federal ones, it never reads like a political tract. And, while quite a bit is imparted about the issue of water rights and reclamation strategies, it isn’t a legal or scientific tome, either. It’s a thriller about a compelling trio of people with different motivations, different places in the water aristocracy, and different strategies for coping. The drought, dust, and poverty that envelop Angel, Lucy, and Maria and their cities affect everyone who lives there. The universal catastrophe turns Maria’s musing about how this desperate situation came about into a powerful warning: “Somehow they hadn’t been able to see something that was plain as day, coming straight at them.”

A lot of powerful straight journalism has been written recently about water rights, droughts, agricultural demand, and intergovernmental bickering about rights. In looking a few years forward, this important novel makes the stakes eminently—and memorably—clear.

Almarie Guerra does a solid narration, putting just the right Latino topspin on the Mexican voices. A slightly longer version of this review appeared on the Crime Fiction Lover website.

Ripped from the Headlines Reading list:

“Rich Californians balk at limits: ‘We’re not all equal when it comes to water’” – The Washington Post, June 13, 2015
“In epic drought, California’s water cops get tough at last,” WIRED, June 16, 2015
“The Dying Sea: What will California sacrifice to survive the drought?” The New Yorker, May 4, 2015
“Where the river runs dry: The Colorado and America’s water crisis,” The New Yorker, May 25, 2015

**The French Detective: A Novel of New Orleans in 1900

New Orleans, French Quarter

(photo: David Ohmer, Creative Commons license)

By O’Neil De Noux – A jambalaya of factors go into a reader’s enjoyment of a crime novel, and this one is definitely a (mostly) flavorful mix. De Noux has selected a time and place ripe for drama. New Orleans is consistently intriguing on many levels, most particularly for its diversity of strong cultures stewing together in the oppressive Louisiana heat. The time period, the turn of the last century, is filled with dramatic possibility, because of the city’s changing demographics and because of the real-life occurrence of the Robert Charles race riots, which De Noux draws into his story.

The challenges to New Orleans Police Detective Jacques Dugas begin when a four-year-old boy is kidnapped from the city’s Vieux Carré, at this point in its history an Italian and Sicilian district. Mostly recent immigrants, the residents have little use for the police and cooperation is scant, even when Dugas has the volunteer translating assistance of glamorous young Evelyn Dominici—Italian-speaking daughter of a Corsican jeweler and an English Lady. The Corsican is a New Orleans resident, but Lady Evelyn’s mother lives in England, ensconced in a drafty castle with her lover.

Dugas and his translator, rapidly falling for each other and flirting outrageously, pursue the many potential leads in the case until the investigation is derailed by the riots. The book is populated with white supremacists, Italian citizens committees, Sicilian mafia, Irish cops, and, always at the fringes, the blacks and the poor. Jambalaya. One delicious aspect of the book is how often Dugas, Evelyn Dominici, and their colleagues must stop to eat. Reading this book is enough to make the reader put on five pounds by literary osmosis.

Yet all is not well-served in this literary endeavor. This is a self-published book, which to me means the author-as-publisher takes on extra responsibilities. While De Noux attempts to absolve himself from any errors via a note saying “If you found a typo or two in the book, please don’t hold it against us. We are a small group of volunteers . . .” There are many, many more than a typo or two. The writer’s role, as John Gardner had it, is to create a fictional dream in which writer and reader are co-conspirators. Keep the dream going, and the reader continues to believe in the story created. Tyops wake you up.

Such lack of attention cannot help but make the reader wonder about the care expended on plot, characterization, and other literary matters. In this book, the plot raced hither and yon so often, I occasionally lost the thread, and it left loose ends (who wrote all those notes?). The character of Evelyn was, to me, unbelievable in her liberated attitudes for a woman of that era and an English Lady, no less. Nor was the attention devoted to the attractiveness of her figure interesting on a sustained basis.

Nevertheless, I actually enjoyed this book on its own terms, as a window into a pivotal time in one of America’s most fascinating cities.

A longer version of this review is available here on the Crime Fiction Lover website.

****The White Van

police, San Francisco, passersby

(photo: Thomas Hawk, Creative Commons license)

By Patrick Hoffman — This is a story about what happens when people get in way, way over their heads. At its center is 31-year-old Emily Rosario, a down-on-her-luck San Francisco woman living on society’s sharp edges. “She was pretty, but in a beat-up way. She would have been prettier in a different life.” One with fewer drugs and kinder men.

The story opens with Emily being picked up in a Tenderloin district dive bar. The Russian man who approaches her, doesn’t look dangerous. He has money, he’s clean. And he has crack. With these thin rationalizations, she accompanies him to his hotel near the airport. Soon she’s being fed more drugs than she’s bargained for. Three Russians keep her for a week in a state of semi-stupefaction, then, still foggy, send her into a bank to carry off the pretense of a robbery. Now in possession of a satchel containing $880,000, she stumbles out of the bank, but instead of climbing into the robbers’ waiting white van, she steps back into the bank, nabs the security guard’s gun, and sends him running. Confused, with sirens approaching, the van driver takes off. Emily emerges and runs away. The robbers have lost her and, of infinitely greater concern, the cash.

Meanwhile, Leo Elias and his younger partner Gary Trammell, members of the SFPD’s Gang Task Force cruise the streets. Elias’s recent string of lousy financial decisions is fast catching up with him. This robbery seems to Elias like a crime he might be able to solve. And in solving it, he means to steal the money for himself. Elias draws Trammell in, and as they sink deeper and deeper into a case they have no authority to investigate, Elias acts crazier and crazier. Trammell, unsure what to do, decides to just go along, at least for a while.

Emily can’t quite make up her mind to leave San Francisco, but the Russians and the two increasingly desperate cops are on her trail. A private detective has staked out her crib, and if any of her neighbors even suspect what’s in that bag she never lets out of her sight, her life will be over in a finger-snap.

Saying much more would spoil Patrick Hoffman’s well-planned plot twists, but suffice it to say, they keep coming. He has lived in San Francisco and worked as an investigator, and his knowledge of the city and its geography, his familiarity with police procedures, and—even better—his understanding of police attitudes is totally convincing. Here’s an example: “Delgado [the police union representative] leaned toward Elias and whispered, ‘There were a couple cameras in the alley, but none of them caught the incident. Which is to say, your memory of what happened is the correct version.’” He also understands the psychology of people in trouble. Through his obsessive attention to their state of mind, he puts readers right in both Elias’s and Emily’s heads as the tension and the stakes continue to mount.

This terrific debut novel is a true page-turner. Start reading this book and you won’t want to stop.

A longer version of this review is available on the Crime Fiction Lover website.