***A Noise Downstairs

typewriter, writing

Steven Depolo, creative commons license

By Linwood Barclay – A professor at a small Connecticut college, living with his second wife on the shore of Long Island Sound, Paul Davis has had a rather unremarkable life until late one October night when he recognizes the broken taillight of his colleague Kenneth’s car and follows it.

Kenneth is driving erratically, and Paul worries the older man might be tipsy. When Kenneth stops his car on a lonely road and pops the trunk, Paul stops too and is shocked to see the bodies of two women inside. Wielding a shovel, Kenneth bangs him on the head and would have murdered him, except for the timely appearance of the police, investigating that car with a broken taillight they noticed a few moments before.

Eight months later, Kenneth has pleaded guilty to the murders and is in prison, but Paul hasn’t fully recovered. The blow to the head has mostly resolved, but he suffers from post-traumatic stress, panic attacks. His wife Charlotte and his psychologist Anna encourage him, but he has headaches, he forgets things, he’s haunted by the murders. Paul knew the dead women slightly and it seems Kenneth was carrying on with both at once. Only his wife was unaware of his reputation for womanizing.

Much of the story takes place within the four walls of Paul’s house, making it another one of those claustrophobic, unreliable narrator domestic thrillers which there are a lot of lately. Unfortunately, for me at least, that took the freshness out of Barclay’s story, though he has a nice red herring woven in.

Paul is determined to regain a grip on his life and decides the best way to try to answer his many lingering questions about the murders would be to review everything about the case and the reasons people commit murder. Charlotte and Anna are initially dubious, but persuaded by his determination.

Charlotte even buys him an old-fashioned Underwood typewriter. It’s a talisman of the case, because in one of its more ghoulish aspects, Kenneth made his victims type a note on such a typewriter, apologizing for their “immoral, licentious, whore-like behavior.” When Paul repeatedly hears the typewriter in the middle of the night, he slips downstairs to see who is using it, but the house is empty. He half-believes the dead women are trying to communicate with him.

On a visit to Anna, he loses his keys and Charlotte has to pick him up. Now here, the author lost me, because if he drove to the office and after their session he doesn’t have his keys, why wasn’t a thorough search made before calling for a ride? Then when Paul believes there’s been an intruder at his home, why does it take many pages for the characters to recall the missing keys? Ultimately, they are “found” in one of the two chairs in Anna’s office, but that unlikely discovery is taken at face value, and no one wonders whether they were there all along.

Odd events continue, and to put the ghostly typewriter issue to rest, his friend Bill suggests that he put a piece of paper in it and see what the women want to say. It’s an absurd idea, except that messages begin to appear. Even if you are skeptical of the paranormal, it’s not easy to see how these tricks are being accomplished, and Paul, not fully of sound mind, is increasingly anxious.

Author Barclay keeps the tension and the possibilities going at a brisk clip, and though you may figure out the direction of the plot early on, he has surprises in store.

***Sticks and Stones

funeral

Herry Lawford, creative commons license

By Jo Jakeman – Phillip Rochester was a man who had everything—an ex-wife who acted more like his mother, a current wife, and his new young lover. When this debut domestic thriller opens, these three women are together at Rochester’s funeral, and each subsequent chapter begins by saying how long before the funeral it takes place.

Although Phillip is a malevolent presence in the lives of all three women, who live somewhere outside London, this is really their story as told by his current, albeit estranged and increasingly frantic wife Imogen. About three weeks before the funeral, Imogen visits Phillip’s home. She’s determined to stop his foot-dragging about signing the divorce papers and his increasing demands for more time with their son Alistair.

Imogen eventually leaves without seeing her ex. But she has seen something: evidence that Phillip is bullying his paramour Naomi in the same way she herself had been bullied for years, leaving more emotional than physical damage, though plenty of that too. But Phillip was a police officer, and the one time Imogen reported the abuse, the cops who arrived were buddies of his, and it was clear her complaint wouldn’t go anywhere. In her experience, ex-wife Ruby always takes Phillip’s part too.

Phillip’s begun insisting that Imogen and Alistair be out of their jointly owned house by the end of the month. Otherwise, he’ll fight her for custody of their son. He’s willing to play dirty, bringing up Imogen’s bouts of depression as evidence she’s unfit. When Phillip appears unexpectedly with new demands, Imogen, in a desperate moment, locks him in the cellar. It’s a small act of revenge that feels good, but now what?

By keeping most of the action in Imogen’s house and, even more constricted, the cellar, author Jo Jakeman creates a claustrophobic atmosphere that adds to the story’s power. The house and its disposition become a metaphor for the intimate relationship that has gone awry. Ruby and Naomi appear on the scene, and, over the next few days, power shifts back and forth as first Phillip and the women hold the upper hand. The relationships among these three women are nicely developed and believable, as is Imogen’s mistrust of them. Phillip is less convincing. It appears he’ll stop at nothing to maintain his control over them.

Starting the book with the information that Phillip is dead and the women are not removes a major source of tension from the story. Nevertheless, you wonder how it happens, and the novel takes pains to tell you why. If you’re a fan of the close-in domestic thriller, this may be a book you’d enjoy.

*****Paris in the Present Tense

Paris

pixabay, creative commons license

By Mark Helprin, narrated by Bronson Pinchot – On those days when you just can’t face another serial killer and would like a crime novel more akin to eating a warm and soothing dish of crème caramel, this literary novel, which includes crimes great and small, may be just the thing.

It’s pleasantly reminiscent of the best-seller A Gentleman in Moscow. In both books, an elderly man of old-school culture is coping quite well, thank you, due to the habits of a lifetime and despite the political shifts that destroyed his world and continue to threaten it. These same habits have unexpectedly prepared both books’ protagonists for a brave enterprise on behalf of someone they love.

With the audio version of Mark Helprin’s book, there is the additional pleasure of Bronson Pinchot’s narration, his French accent as musical as the book’s hero, Jules Lacour.

Lacour is a cellist, a Jew, living and teaching in Paris and nearing the end of his career. He has a daughter and a seriously ill grandson. His time of life and an impending domestic disruption prompt many reflections on his past life—his happy marriage to Jacqueline and his unhappy early childhood. Born during World War II while his parents were hiding in an attic in Reims, his first years were lived entirely in whispers. After years of hiding, the family was discovered just as the Nazis were fleeing, and the young Lacour saw his parents shot to death in the street.

While Lacour’s reflections on present-day Paris are like a love letter to the city, his shattered childhood is never far away. One evening, he sees three young man attacking a fourth man wearing a yarmulke and shouting anti-Semitic slogans. Lacour doesn’t hesitate to intervene. To their surprise, the spry old man manages to kill two of them, while the third runs away, as does their intended victim.

The story now becomes something of a police procedural, with two mismatched detectives trying to figure out how to work together. Narrator Pinchot captures their distinctive accents and the humor in their cobbled together, if dogged partnership.

Meanwhile, Lacour is presented with the opportunity to write a jingle for a big US financial services company (telephone hold music), and the way he and the American who recruits him talk past each other is highly entertaining.

But the situation does not evolve as Lacour expects, the police are suspicious, and he must devise a clever new crime that is both undetectable and foolproof in order to get his last wish. Although the novel moves at a stately pace, Pinchot’s narration never flags. Treat yourself!

Listen Up! Take 2

earphones

photo: John O’Nolan, creative commons license

Three notable audiobooks for your consideration: the fantastic debut novel She Rides Shotgun, award-nominee The Breakdown, and Hangman, follow-up to last year’s mega-hit, Ragdoll. Starting with the best of the three.

*****She Rides Shotgun
By Jordan Harper, narrated by David Marantz – Winner of the 2018 Edgar Award for best debut novel, this is the audio equivalent of a real page-turner (though I’m never tempted to listen at 2x speed!). When Nate McClusky leaves prison after refusing to work for the dangerous gang Aryan Steel, a death warrant is issued for him and his family. He finds out how determined the killers are when he discovers his ex-wife and her new husband murdered, and realizes his eleven-year-old daughter Polly will be next. He picks her up at school before the killers find her, and the chase is on. They’re practically strangers to each other, as he’s been incarcerated for most of her childhood. She’s a quirky kid, shy and smart as a whip, teddy bear in tow.

Nate hasn’t had much parenting experience, but he warms to the role, and two have terrifying—and sometimes heartwarming—adventures roaming Southern California, as they gradually become partners in evading their would-be killers as well as the police. Betrayal is a constant anxiety. Based on the premise—the criminal dad, the kid—I didn’t think I’d like this book as much as I did, no small part of which relates to Marantz’s excellent narration.

Another recent and remarkable book about a criminal father raising a daughter was Hannah Tinti’s The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, also an award nominee.

***The Breakdown
By B.A. Paris, narrated by Georgia Maguire – Another domestic thriller of the “is she going crazy, or is someone doing this to her?” variety. Unfortunately, the big reveal seemed obvious early on, which tarnished the entertainment value. I selected it because the book was on the “Best Novel” short-list for a 2018 Thriller Award. Compared to the other two nominees I read, it falls short of the nail-biting excitement of Gin Phillips’s Fierce Kingdom or the fascination of Dan Chaon’s Ill Will.

Rain on Windshield

Iwan Gabovitch, creative commons license

The story takes place in and around a mid-sized English market town. One night, as Cass is driving through the woods to her isolated (natch) home in a terrible rainstorm, she sees a woman in her car, stopped by the side of the road. Since the woman doesn’t appear to be in distress, rather than get drenched, she doesn’t offer aid. The next morning, she learns the woman has been murdered. And that she knows her.

Guilt over not helping, strange occurrences that make her think the killer may now be stalking her, and fear that, like her mother, she may be suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s make for a pretty mopey outlook. The narration reflects that, though I admire Maguire’s portrayal of the long-suffering husband. You can hear—and empathize with—his growing doubts about his wife’s mental state. If you like the “gaslight” sub-genre, you may enjoy this.

**Hangman
By Daniel Cole, narrated by Alex Wyndham – This book follows on the successful 2017 thriller Ragdoll, and involves some of the same characters, charged with solving a series of baffling murders that hits London and New York. Are they Ragdoll-related or grisly copycats? DCI Emily Baxter, who was key to solving the Ragdoll case, is flown to New York to liaise [!]. I like how prickly she is—don’t try to sweet-talk her for god’s sake! The CIA operative is an engaging character too.

I’m not squeamish, but my lack of enthusiasm for Hangman derives from its excess of sadistic violence, which appeared ramped up for shock value. A male narrator was chosen for the audiobook, though usually the narrator’s gender matches that of the protagonist. Possibly the publishers thought the extreme violence would be better portrayed in a male voice, and Wyndham does a fine job presenting UK and US characters of varying ethnicities.

Read an earlier Listen Up! compilation here.

****Don’t You Cry

Heimlich

pixabay; creative commons license

By Cass Green, narrated by Lisa Coleman, Anna Bentinck, Huw Parmenter, and Richard Trinder – Cass Green’s third thriller for adults deals with the power of maternal love.

In recognition of the ascendant popularity of audiobooks, she chose to have this book come out in audio first. It’s a hybrid of a traditional audio book read by a single narrator and one in which all the dialog is spoken by actors playing parts. Each chapter is written from the point of view of one of four characters, and the actors, who are all first-rate, read the entirety of the chapters having their character’s point of view, regardless of who is speaking. I liked this way of doing it—much less jarring than having a group of actors reading lines as in a radio play.

Nina is a divorced English teacher living with her 12-year-old son Sam in a suburban area of England. Sam is about to go on holiday in Provence with his father and his new partner, Nina’s considerably younger replacement. Nina is preoccupied by her resentment and grief over the dissolution of her marriage and is fretting about the impending separation from her son.

At the book’s outset, she’s in a restaurant awaiting a “blind date.” When he arrives, late, he almost immediately propositions her. She’s so shocked, she chokes, and her server Angel’s timely use of the Heimlich maneuver saves her. At least near-death is a sufficient excuse to cut this disastrous date short.

In the middle of the night, Nina is awakened by someone knocking at her front door. It’s Angel, carrying a gun. Soon thereafter, Angel’s brother Luke arrives—blood on his hands and a months’-old baby under his coat. Over the long hours of that night, Nina hears fragmentary news reports revealing that in a nearby town a young mother has been murdered and her baby kidnapped. Though she fears the worst, Nina is helpless, focused solely on keeping the infant safe. The intruders have disconnected her phone, taken her cell phone, and left her with no resources.

If Nina is a bit of an agonized mess, trying to think of ways to escape with the baby, Angel is implacable and anticipates Nina’s every ruse. The character of the brother is especially strong, as he veers between caring and desperation, and in the chapters he narrates, quite convincingly sounds on the verge of mental collapse.

Nina tries to negotiate reasonably with this difficult pair, encouraging them to be on their way and to leave the baby with her. For her, his fate is uppermost and it’s a difficult job keeping him quiet (which may have inspired Green’s title), getting him fed, and finding diaper substitutes.

Green maintains a high degree of tension throughout this long night as the balance of power between the siblings and Nina shifts agonizingly.

However, between Nina’s incessant worrying about the baby and tormenting herself for having to tell Sam he couldn’t come home, she grows a bit tiresome. I would have liked Nina to have had a more nuanced motivation and a few more emotional notes to hit, though as the story proceeds, she shows real courage against a somewhat cardboard foe.

For me, the novel’s strongest characters are Luke and Angel, who have both convincing motivations and the great virtue of unpredictability. On the whole, it’s a good listen.

The paperback version of the book, which will be published next spring apparently has a different title: No Good Deed, which doesn’t make sense to me (nor does the cover photo below). Somebody’s good idea.

****Resume Speed and Other Stories

Automat

photo: Philip Bump, creative commons license

By Lawrence Block – This entertaining collection of short crime fiction combines old and new short stories, plus one novella by multiple-award-winning and amazingly prolific American author Lawrence Block. Never-before appearing in collections, the seven stories cover 56 years of publishing, from 1960 to 2016.

According to Block’s revelatory notes accompanying each story, “Hard Sell” was originally published in 1960 under another author’s name—not unusual in that era, apparently. Of course that still goes on today. Just ask James Patterson. The story itself is an entertaining bit of deduction with a twist at the end, in which the detective not only solves a series of murders but refuses to accuse the culprit. The distinctive character names are fun too and practically Dickensian—Cowperthwaite, Kirschmeyer—especially the running gag that the detective can’t quite remember Kirschmeyer’s name. By the end, he’s calling him Kicklebutton.

Many of the story characters have idiosyncratic names, which is helpful for readers confronted with a lot of different people. These are noir stories, generally, using Dennis Lehane’s definition of noir: In tragedy, a character falls from a great height; in noir, he falls from the curb. And most of Block’s characters perch only precariously on the curb. They’re denizens of bars and cheap motels, rooming houses, and the smoky cop shops of the detectives on their trail.

Block has a straightforward, unassuming, unsentimental style that carries you right through to his pull-up-short endings. Often they seem to be set in some ambiguous former era, before smartphones and DNA analysis changed the rules for cat-and-mouse games.

One of my favorites in this collection is “Autumn at the Automat,” a 2017 Edgar Award winner. Block’s surprise ending made me laugh out loud. Says Block, the story came to him upon seeing Edward Hopper’s painting “Automat.” His paintings are stories-in-waiting, and Block edited an entire anthology of Hopper-inspired fiction, In Sunlight or in Shadow, published in 2016.

Finally, the collection’s title story perfectly fits the “noir” definition above. Bill Thompson is convinced he’s committed some unremembered violence and believes he has to get out of town. He lands in a small town with a job he’s good at and a girlfriend who fills all his requirements. The trick will be to get out of his own way and let himself succeed. This isn’t a story with a plot twist like the others. Much as you want Bill to make a go of it, you carry a load of unease that he will not. Block says this story is based on a true story he heard one night almost forty years before he actually wrote it. It haunted him, and he tells it well.

****Texas Two-Step

cowboy boots

photo: Robert Stinnett, creative commons license

By Michael Pool – In this novel of crimes, both petty and not-so, Michael Pool takes you from the laid-back atmosphere of Colorado, where marijuana growing, possession, and sale is legal to rural Teller County in East Texas where it definitely is not. The county’s official policy is strictly anti-pot, rigorously enforced by its long-time sheriff, Jack Gables, who is especially diligent if he isn’t getting a cut of the action.

Transplanted Texans Cooper Daniels and Trevor Davis, close friends from childhood, have been living in Colorado for years. They think of their Texas drug deal as just going home for a spell, but home has changed, and they’ll have to dance a pretty lively two-step to stay out of jail and, maybe, out of the cemetery.

Cooper believes it’s worth the risk of selling his organic crop to the sketchy Texas drug dealer, “Sancho” Watts, because he’s vowed this deal will be his last. He’s turning a new leaf and has sworn to acquire himself a legitimate career to please his pregnant girlfriend. If he doesn’t shape up, she’s leaving him.

Cooper and Davis seem like good-natured stoners, but Watts is a wild man. Some time before the story starts, Watts sold a psychedelic drug to the grandson of a Texas state senator, and the boy killed himself. Now the legislator wants revenge, and he’s tapped Texas Ranger Russ Kirkpatrick to get something on Watts—anything, just so it puts him in jail for a long stretch.

To Kirkpatrick, the senator is a pest with a strong sense of entitlement. But the politician is not letting go, and if Kirkpatrick doesn’t produce, he’ll be a Ranger no more. While he’d rather not have this assignment, he has it, and it leads him to Teller County where the sheriff is notorious for pulling in the welcome mat when out-of-town law enforcement arrives.

Sancho Watts has teamed up with a Teller County celebrity, and you’d have to appreciate how much Texans love their football to understand the full significance of this partnership. The young man is former University of Texas footballer Bobby Burnell who lost his budding pro football career in a freak accident.

The separate strands of the story move smoothly toward an inevitable showdown, the outcome of which could go a number of different ways, most of them disastrous. Focusing on the action, Pool is light on description, and he writes good, humor-laced dialog. This is a book for fans of how things are done in Texas. Big. Very big.

Noir at the Bar

photo: Jo Sutera, with permission

Last Sunday, the Manhattan efflorescence of Noir at the Bar had one of its irregular celebrations of crime fiction writing at Greenwich Village’s Shade Bar (where the food is pretty darn good too). Ten crime fiction authors read from their works in three sets, with intermissions for nonstop talking and grabbing another beer.

Jen Conley and Scot Adlerberg are the m.c.’s, of the Manhattan group, and make an effort to exert some organization (no doubt plenty goes on behind the scenes). But the vibe is more good-natured free-for-all. Jen is an editor at Shotgun Honey and read her short short story about the meetup of two teenage girls’ soccer teams—one preppy, the other from the “New Jersey girls, they have big hair” school. It doesn’t end well. Scott also read from his crime fiction, and he has written novels and short stories and conducts a series or two of Manhattan-based meet-ups about films.

The stories live up to the billing with their emphasis on noir. Dark deeds and dark characters on the underside of down-and-out. Jennifer Hillier’s excerpt from her new novel, Jar of Hearts, featured a woman about to be released from prison; Rick Ollerman’s story about a bunch of lowlifes in Las Vegas (I think), ends with a real ouch! twist; and Danny Gardner read a chapter from new work. At a previous Noir at the Bar I attended, he read from his highly rated A Negro and an Ofay, and the new work sounded just as powerful.

photo: Jo Sutera, with permission

What else? Especially enjoyable was the glamorous Hilary Davidson’s excerpt from “Answered Prayers,” a story that appeared in the May/June Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Even though we only heard a few minutes’ worth, the conviction that a diabolical imagination lay behind what she read had everyone chuckling. Shout-outs also to Rob Hart, Alex Segura, and Kenneth Wishnia. My writing group does a public reading in March and October, and I can attest to how helpful it is for authors to have a live audience and get that feedback.

In the book raffle, I was delighted to choose a copy of James McCrone’s Faithless Elector. Now what made him think that the people who actually elect U.S. presidents would be of any interest at all? Go figure.

Many U.S. cities have Noir at the Bar events. Including, but not limited to Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Durham, N.C., Washington, D.C., St. Louis, New Orleans, St. Paul, the Bay Area, Dallas, Chicago, Denver, Baltimore, Miami, Queens and Staten Island, Seattle, Monterey, and cities around the world, from Glasgow to Melbourne. It may take a bit of sleuthing to find one near you—try Facebook—but it’s a fun evening meeting authors, hearing new work. Treat yourself!

***Animal Instinct: Human Zoo

Elephant - Sam Felder

photo: Sam Felder, creative commons license

By Simon Booker (this is an Audible Original, narrated by Imogen Church with a strong cast portraying the characters). PTSD has left former police detective Joe Cassidy (played by Brendan Coyle—Bates on Downton Abbey) with debilitating panic attacks. To get away from the world, he’s set himself up in a remote cottage on Dungeness Beach in Kent, but the world comes to him when he’s contacted by an old friend. Adam Pennyfeather (Joseph Marcell) inherited a wild animal park, and once saved Cassidy’s life when he was almost trampled by an elephant. Adam’s daughter Bella has gone missing, and he wants Cassidy to help find her. As a friend. As someone who owes him.

Cassidy is also on hiatus from his marriage to Katie (Lia Williams), herself a police detective, who’s handling the investigation of Bella’s disappearance. When Bella’s body is found in the elephant house, strung up like a side of meat, Katie is handed her first murder investigation. This creates inevitable tension between the couple, acting in their official and unofficial capacities.

The fault lines in the Pennyfeather family gradually reveal themselves. Adam’s wife is Isabel (Victoria Hamilton), and his younger daughter is Saffron (Rebekah Hinds). She and her husband, pizza entrepreneur Liam O’Mara (Harry Lloyd), tell Cassidy about Isabel’s lifelong loathing of her younger brother Felix, now Adam’s lawyer, and how Isabel preferred her daughters to her son Gabriel. His birth led to serious post-partum psychosis for which she was hospitalized. Fearing for the boy’s safety, Adam put him up for adoption many years before, and has since learned that Gabriel died in a motorcycle accident.

Trying to worm her way into Cassidy’s orbit is a relentless local journalist, an Australian woman named Chrissy McBride. Brigid Lohrey makes this character so annoying that, along with Cassidy, you’ll probably think, “Oh, no, not her again!”

Cassidy believes his wife is seeing someone, was seeing someone while they were married, at least early on, and that their son Luke is the other man’s child. Three DNA samples sent to a Cambridge lab will tell the tale, but is that information he really wants? Booker builds a nice bit of tension around the receipt of these laboratory results, and with Coyle’s solid portrayal, you can appreciate how torn Cassidy is.

The production includes sound effects of the type a foley artist would deploy in a radio play to indicate a closing door, footsteps, and the like. Possibly this is a matter of personal taste, but the sound effects feel redundant and jar me out of the story.

Animal Instinct is a nicely played, complex story and billed as the first book in a series featuring Joe Cassidy. TV writer Booker will find his listeners looking forward to more.

Crime and Thriller Beach Reads!

photo: klarinette71, creative commons license

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

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