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.

****God’s Bankers: A History of Money and Power at the Vatican

Vatican, Rome, St. Peter's

photo: Nick Fewings, creative commons license

By Gerald Posner, narrated by Tom Parks – If this troubled history of Vatican financial dealings over the past 150 years were fiction, it would be dismissed as unbelievable, but, alas, it is not. Former Wall Street lawyer Posner has done a remarkable job of in-depth reporting to pull together this story. Although much of the story has come out piecemeal over the years, he’s assembled it in a highly readable, occasionally jaw-dropping narrative.

Posner helpfully puts the Church’s opaque financial dealings in the context of pressures on it at any given time. His descriptions of the politics around the election of recent popes are likewise fascinating. Few of them had any awareness of—or interest in—the questionable and large-scale financial activities taking place practically under their noses.

Since 1942, when the Church reorganized many of those activities by forming the Vatican Bank, authorities in Italy, in the United States, and in the international financial world repeatedly pressured the Church to reveal what the Bank was up to, with little success. Bank leaders would claim ignorance of financial matters when it suited them (“we’re just poor priests here”), and employed a succession of shady financial advisors (“a few bad apples”). Meanwhile the international monetary wheeling and dealing was unstoppable. As Damon Linker says in The New York Times, “The result (of the Church’s history) has been a tension—and sometimes a blatant contradiction—between the church’s exalted claims for itself and its behavior.”

Not all of the Bank’s financial deals were successful and some too much so. Millions and millions of dollars simply disappeared. Many readers may know about the Pope’s barely audible muttering when it came to dealing with Hitler; they may not know that the financial side developed ratlines to provide monetary and other aid to Nazi fugitives. Or how its lack of records “made it an ideal safe haven for money plundered from Jews and other wartime victims,” said Chicago Tribune reviewer Trine Tsouderos.

They may not know about the money-laundering for the American mafia or the political slush funds disguised as benevolent sounding charities. Or how the Bank was used to support the anti-Communists in Poland and the right-wing Nicaraguan Contras. Or the Vatican Bank’s role in the demise of Italy’s largest private bank. Or the assassinations. . . . In short, it’s “an extraordinarily intricate tale of intrigue, corruption and organized criminality—. . . not widely known among more casual church watchers—from Pius XII down to Benedict XVI,” says Linker.

Pope Francis is now taking concrete, meaningful steps to reform the Bank and limit its activities. He’s letting the sunshine into an institution that for many years did not operate like a normal financial institution. It did not conduct independent audits, and it had a scanty, periodically destroyed, paper trail.

Posner’s book was almost 22 hours long, and though Parks’s narration was excellent, there were so many characters, I wish I’d read it instead of listened, so I could flip back through to remind myself who was who (the affiliate link below is to the paperback). Nevertheless, the overall picture resounded clear as a church bell.

*****Ill Will

Cemetery

photo: Andrew, creative commons license

Written by Dan Chaon – Past and present crimes haunt the two main protagonists of this beautifully crafted new literary thriller. In the present day, psychologist Dustin Tillman lives in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. One son is away at college, and his younger son, Aaron, is supposedly taking college courses locally. In truth, he and his friend Rabbit are heavy into the drug scene, and part of the story is told in Aaron’s spot-on voice.

Dustin grew up part of a closely knit family in small-town western Nebraska. Two brothers had married two sisters, and Dustin was the child of one pair, and his twin cousins Wave and Kate the daughters of the other. In addition, his parents adopted a teenager, Russell Bickers, whose previous foster family died in a fire. Rusty and Dusty.

Dusty is a dreamy, highly suggestible kid. Rusty and the twins entertain themselves with manufacturing Dusty’s memories, putting him places he hasn’t been, including him in scenes he hasn’t observed, making him not trust his own senses and memories.

Dustin’s parents are oblivious to all this, boozing and using, and the siblings may be careless about which spouse they sleep with. Early on, you learn that when Dustin was thirteen and the girls seventeen, all four parents were shot to death. Kate believed Rusty did it. Wave did not. And Dustin’s memories are, well. Thirty years later now, DNA evidence exonerates Rusty, and he’s released from prison to lurk on the fiery horizon of the story like a rising sun.

Interwoven with the exploration of these past events is a narrative about mysterious present-day deaths. Dusty’s patient Aqil Ozorowski—a police officer on medical leave—is obsessed with the accidental drowning of a series of male college students. Over a period of years, young men’s bodies have been found in lakes and rivers of the Midwest, some with what Ozorowski deems significant dates of death, like 10/10/10. The authorities are frustratingly unconcerned, saying the students simply fell into the water, drunk, but Ozorowski rails at the lack of proper investigation. Eventually he inveigles Dustin in some unofficial research.

Aaron thinks his dad is a fool. The whole family mocks the “astral traveling” when Dustin’s attention just . . . goes. Dustin suffered bouts of sleepwalking after his family’s murders, and in some respects, he still sleepwalks through life. Chaon typographically expresses the tendency of minds to wander, through blanks in the middle of         You get the idea. After a while, this technique establishes a dreamy disconnect that seems not just real, but really dangerous.

Chaon is a widely praised short story writer and was a National Book Award finalist for an early collection. He has no trouble here sustaining interest in the actions and fates of his fascinating, flawed characters. If you tire of thrillers where the characters are no deeper than the page they’re written on, you’ll find this richly presented family a welcome change.

A longer version of this review appeared on CrimeFictionLover.com. You can order a copy with the affiliate link below.

*****Ed’s Dead

Bookstore

photo: Kate Mereand-Sinha, creative commons license

By Russel D. McLean – Jen Carter, the young Glaswegian bookstore clerk who narrates this book, makes one tiny mistake at the novel’s outset.

When she comes home late at night to find her apartment broken into, she searches the place, holding a kitchen knife. She panics when the hall closet door opens and the person inside stumbles out onto her knife. Her boyfriend Ed has just stabbed himself. And now he’s dead.

Confused and wracked with guilt, she compounds her dilemma. Instead of calling the police, she calls Ed’s nerdy roommate Dave. Dave gets into the spirit of concealment and, while Jen sleeps, he dismembers the corpse to make it easier to dispose of. He even cleans up. After that, there’s no going back, no possibility of bringing in the cops after all. Dave and Jen deposit poor Ed—that is, the pieces of him—in a remote stretch of Loch Lomond.

A closer examination of Jen’s messy hall closet reveals what Ed was doing in there. He’d concealed two duffel bags among her disorderly belongings. One contains an enormous stash of money and the other an enormous stash. Dave takes the drugs and Jen takes the cash. Why not, really? Really? And the hunt is on. Glasgow’s crime lords want their money and their drugs, and soon the cops are on Jen’s trail too.

Though the body count is high, McLean writes this first-person story with a light touch and a bit of heartbroken bemusement, if those two words can live in the same sentence. In Jen, McLean has created an appealing protagonist, with a strong and consistent voice.

Jen can’t understand how her relatively orderly life has gotten so out of control and never expects to have the resources, internal or otherwise, to foil the determined criminals, led by the evil old man, Solomon Buchan. Nevertheless, she keeps trying to rise to the occasion.

Though you may see some of the plot twists coming, and some may not bear close examination, the writing is so silky smooth it focuses your attention on whether Jen can slip out of trouble again and how she will try to do it.

Short Mystery Fiction – Ellery Queen Picks

baby sea turtles

photo: Chris Evans, creative commons license

Short stories are a great diversion when you don’t have the time or attention span for a novel. The pacing is different. Every word should count. A paperback or magazine of short stories travels well too. Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, now in its 76th year, is one of the best.

The EQMM editors select a wide variety of stories from the broad categories of mystery, crime, and suspense and now publish six times a year. Here are a few from recent issues that I found particularly entertaining.

  • “Frank’s Beach” by Scott Loring Sanders – a bit of sea turtle ecology and a dead body. Sanders’s stories have appeared in Best American Mystery Stories and he has a new collection out last month, Shooting Creek. (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, November 2016)
  • “Flowing Waters” by Brendan DuBois – a prolific writer of short stories, this one focused on a woman with PTSD and her formerly abused rescue dog. A classic case of who rescued whom? DuBois latest novel, Storm Cell, was published late last year. (EQMM, January/February 2017)
  • “Oh, Give Me a Home” by Gerald Elias – tracking down a rogue group of survivalists in Utah’s Uintas Mountains. Elias (a former violinist) has a novel, Devil’s Trill. (EQMM March/April 2017)
  • “Ruthless” by Judith Cutler – a Black Widow meets her match. Cutler’s novel Head Start will be out later this year. (EQMM March/April 2017)
  • “The Model Citizen” by William Dylan Powell – love these humorous tales featuring former cop Billy Raskolnikov and his monkey Ringo who live on the boat David’s Fifth Margarita. (EQMM March/April 2017)

If you follow this blog at all, you may recall that my own story, “A Slaying Song Tonight” led off the EQMM holiday issue (January/February 2017), with a tale of how relationships are tested when a Christmas caroling excursion becomes the opportunity for murder.

 

*****Lola

Bodega, Los Angeles

photo: Alissa Walker, creative commons license

By Melissa Scrivner Love – Lola, the energetic protagonist of this Los Angeles-based crime thriller, is an eminently likeable young woman, flirting with death at the hands of rival drug operatives and flouting the legal establishment.

Lola lives with Garcia, the supposed leader of the Crenshaw Six, a four-person gang in their Huntington Park barrio. In the book’s opening scene, a backyard barbecue Garcia is hosting is visited by El Coleccionista, an emissary from Mexico’s Los Liones drug cartel. When you see how intent Lola is on monitoring the conversation between the two men, you understand she is much more than Garcia’s girlfriend. Lola battles throughout the book with the desire to be known and respected for her fearlessness and strategic acumen and the need to remain invisible for safety’s sake.

One of the gang members is Lola’s younger brother Hector, which poses particular challenges for her leadership, because, unfortunately, Hector keeps messing up. He fumbles a two million dollar cash-drug exchange that could lead to the gang members’ arrest or their deaths at the hands of Los Liones, their Los Angeles partners, or their mysterious and well-heeled competition. She must figure out a way that her gang can satisfy the competing—and apparently irreconcilable—demands of these multiple players, without becoming beholden to any of them.

The drug business is not a business just like any other. It has terrible downstream consequences, and you aren’t spared a glimpse of those either. Lola and Hector’s mother is a frequently relapsing addict, which has caused considerable grief in her children’s lives, a hole in Lola’s heart where maternal love should live.

Love does a persuasive job evoking the barrio flavor—its sights, sounds, and smells. This Latino neighborhood is down, way down, but not out. She expertly draws the desperation and determination of her complex characters. You become so immersed in their world that the degree of their alienation from mainstream society becomes clear only when Lola has to interact with people from outside

This debut crime thriller is exceptionally well-written, with nice literary touches. It offers strong and varied personalities, an intriguing and multi-layered setting, and believably dangerous situations. Finding such a talented new author is a delight!

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

****Jade Dragon Mountain

Red Lantern, China

photo: Jakob Montrasio, creative commons license

By Elsa Hart – This charming debut mystery hits my personal buttons, set as it is in China, 1708, and incorporating many of the conventions of novels of Old China. Elsewhere I’ve written about my admiration of the Tang Dynasty’s quasi-historical Judge Dee, made famous by the detective novels of Dutch author Robert van Gulik.

Of course, the romantic vision of historical China in novels—A Dream of Red Mansions and those written by Westerns alike—and movies—from Raise the Red Lantern to The Assassin—bears no resemblance to China under Communism, nor to the everyday lives of poverty and privation of most Chinese of the past. The novels, even the mysteries dealing with lust, avarice, and murder are generally set among the nobility and the scholars. The tea may be poisoned, but it’s served in a translucent porcelain cup.

In Hart’s debut, exiled former librarian in the Forbidden City Li Du (already we encounter a scholar), traveling in a remote southern area, enters a town where his cousin is the magistrate to register his presence. On his arrival he learns that the Emperor of China is visiting the town in six days! He will preside over (and pretend to instigate) an eclipse of the sun. This visit accounts for the enormous bustle and elaborate preparations Li Du observes.

The town and the magistrate’s compound, including its impressive library, are evocatively described. Hart took me right to those places. For me, a delightful return. Although the Emperor’s visit will be a great honor for the magistrate and the town, it creates great risk as well. Many people, including foreigners, are anxious to influence what the Emperor sees and believes.

The magistrate, beset with difficult decisions and details, would prefer to dismiss the untimely murder of a Jesuit astronomer as simply the work of a group of Tibetans camped in the nearby mountains. But Li Du knows these men and believes them innocent. As an exile, he cannot afford to create any difficulties, yet he cannot let the false accusation rest and a murderer go free. His cousin allows him just a few days to solve the crime, as the Emperor’s visit comes ever-nearer. But is a worse crime in the making?

Hart has woven an intricate plot, drawing on real-life politics: the historical isolationism of China versus European pressure to open trade, conflicts between the Jesuits and the Dominicans, the friction inherent in the rigid Chinese class structure. These elements make the story both fascinating and subtle.

*****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.