*****Back Up

photo: Darren Price, creative commons license

By Paul Colize, translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie This crime thriller by Belgian writer Paul Colize about a British rock band was short-listed for a number of prizes when first released. Only now available in English, the book should find a natural home and receptive audience among rock fans everywhere.

It’s 1967. The rock band Pearl Harbor is taking a break after a hastily organized, late night Berlin recording session, and its four members have scattered. Within days, each of them is dead and unaccountably flush with cash.

One is found at the bottom of a swimming pool in a luxury hotel in Palma de Mallorca, one with a bullet in his head in a hotel room in Hamburg, one crushed under a train in a Berlin U-Bahn station, and one who was apparently hiding out in a London hotel and jumped from his fifth floor room.

Who could believe all these deaths were coincidental? The authorities, with their scattered jurisdictions and the differing modes of death believe it, especially when the bodies—and the victims’ histories—reveal alarmingly high levels of drug and alcohol abuse. The band members become no more than rock n roll detritus, washed up by the tide of 1960s counterculture. It’s a bang-up start to this well-constructed mystery.

Fast forward to 2010. In Brussels, a homeless man is hit by a car near the Gare du Midi train station. He’s badly injured, cannot speak, cannot be identified, and comes to be known as X Midi. You are privileged to read his thoughts, however, as he recuperates. He reconstructs his past and his fleeting but deadly association with Pearl Harbor in chapters that alternate with those narrated by his caretakers. They are trying with infinite patience to help him recover from locked-in syndrome, which leaves him almost totally incapable of communicating.

Drug and alcohol use is part of the immersive environment Colize creates and manages not to become tedious. Rumors of U.S. military involvement in the testing psychoactive drugs simmer. There’s lots of music-making too, which is filled with energy and considerable joy. Berlin’s rock scene takes place in bars and nightclubs, and the bartenders and denizens are portrayed convincingly.

Nevertheless, you may be grateful when X Midi’s narrative emerges from his substance-abusing days to confront the deeper and more sinister evil dogging him. Only gradually does he come to understand the true significance of Pear Harbor’s fateful and final recording session, in which he served as the substitute drummer. The back up.

And murder has a long tail.


Bayou, Louisiana, swamp

photo: Bart Everson, creative commons license

By James Lee Burke – For an American story setting that immediately and richly evokes a colorful geographic, cultural, moral, and culinary milieu, it’s hard to beat the hot, humid Cajun country of southern Louisiana. James Lee Burke has made Iberia Parish the primary home for his literary works, and it continues to serve him well. This new novel is his twenty-first featuring now semi-retired but perpetually on-call sheriff’s detective Dave Robicheaux.

If you’re a fan, you will expect Burke’s newest crime fiction to serve up a gumbo thick with oddball characters, history, philosophy, current crises, people trying to do right, and others not caring to. You won’t be disappointed. From corruption to an unhinged serial killer, this book has it all.

At the outset of the story, most of which is told by Dave in first person, he sees the ghosts of Confederate soldiers marching through the swamp. The scene enables a meditation on mortality, a reexamination of grief over his wife Molly’s death in an automobile crash, and a way to get at truths “that have less to do with the dead than the awareness (that life is) a continuum in which all time occurs at once, like a dream inside the mind of God.” Heavy stuff for a man soon to be facing some nightmarish characters more likely spawned by the devil’s imagination. Burke’s Acadiana is a place where you can believe in such things.

About the plot, suffice it to say that it is complex, with perhaps four main threads that Dave must tease apart and reweave into a coherent set of motives and opportunities. An unexpected subplot involves Dave’s daughter Alafair (the name of Burke’s real-life daughter), a mystery writer (again, as in real life).

Although the narrative follows Dave Robicheaux through the steps of his investigations, to call this a police procedural would shortchange the essence of the book. It more resembles a philosophical probe of the circumstances in which crimes can occur. An example are two of Burke’s quintessential Louisiana characters, sons of old southern families, who are deeply involved in the story’s events: Jimmy Nightingale and Levon Broussard.

Dave notes “an existential difference between the two families. For the Nightingales, manners and morality were interchangeable. For Levon Broussard and his ancestors, honor was a religion, . . . the kind of mind-set associated with a Templar Knight or pilots in the Japanese air force.” Such reflections on the psyches of his characters provide the sense that you’re reading about living, breathing individuals, with all their baggage and capacity for the unexpected.

As the mayhem of the story winds down, Dave’s best friend gives his assessment of their situation in south Louisiana: “There’re no safe places anymore. Everyone knows that except you.”


****Crazy Rhythm

gumshoe, detective

photo: Jason Howell, creative commons license

By T.W. Emory If you need a break from serial killers and world-at-risk mayhem, TW Emory’s Gunnar Nilson mysteries may be a perfect, lighthearted alternative. Crazy Rhythm is entertaining, engaging, and written with tongue in cheek and a big tip of the grey fedora to Raymond Chandler’s wisecracking private eyes.

PI Gunnar Nilson lives in the rain-soaked northwest United States. In the current era, he’s a resident in the Finecare assisted living facility in Everett, Washington, north of Seattle, recuperating from a broken leg. But in his early 1950s heyday, he was a private eye in the city itself. He has stories to tell, and what’s even more gratifying for an old man, attractive Finecare staff member Kirsti Liddell, aged about 20, wants to hear them.

This is the second book having this set-up, and author TW Emory moves you smoothly back to the post-WW II era with its ways of talking and living. Nilson, the detective, lives in a heavily Scandinavian boarding house with his landlady, Mrs. Berger, a former fan dancer with the photographs to prove it, and two other single men.

In the story he tells Kirsti, years ago Rune Granholm, the younger ne’er-do-well brother of an old friend wants Nilson to attend a meeting with him where a significant amount of cash will be exchanged for an expensive Cartier watch. The whole set-up sounds fishy to Nilson, but he agrees to go out of loyalty to his dead friend and an understandable dab of curiosity. When he arrives at Granholm’s apartment to meet up prior to the exchange, he finds Granholm shot dead.

He is soon distracted from looking into Granholm’s death by a potentially lucrative case dropped in his lap. He’s asked to investigate threatening phone calls a wealthy heiress has been receiving. Delving into this woman’s complicated past reveals, well, complications.

Nilson is soon embroiled in more than one tricky situation involving beautiful women who seem rather more ardent than informative. At these points, Kirsti breaks in to remind Nilson that her mother, to whom she relays their conversations, finds his many supposed romantic conquests entirely unbelievable.

Some blood is spilled – Granholm’s certainly – but the whole effect is more charming than nail-biting. Nilson’s evocation of Raymond Chandler is also entertaining, such as, “…it was guys like Rune who eventually got me to believe that the human race was for me to learn from, when I wasn’t bent over laughing at it.”

Nilson is never wrong-footed as he pursues his investigations of various colorful characters, and it’s fun to watch him in action. Writing a pastiche of an author as revered as Chandler is brave, and Emory carries it off in a style aptly embodied in the novel’s title. A fast read—perfect entertainment for a long airplane flight!

****White Bodies


Farley Granger & Robert Walker, the “Strangers on a Train”

By Jane Robins – This is a fun read that puts a 21st century twist on the premise of the famous 1951 Alfred Hitchcock movie, Strangers on a Train. That’s the one where two strangers fall into conversation and agree to murder a person of the other’s choosing. They convince themselves that, since there is nothing to connect murderer and victim, the crimes will be easy to get away with. Right.

But, how would you effect such an anonymous encounter today? Where would you look for such a willing accomplice? The Internet, of course! “The internet is where psychos find each other,” says character Tilda. And Robins makes good use of the strengths and weaknesses of social media in crafting her tale.

The protagonist in this London-based domestic thriller is Callie—a bit socially awkward, insecure about her looks (and everything else), a librarian. The relationship between her and her glamorous twin sister Tilda is explored in both the current time and a succession of flashbacks. Callie increasingly believes that “the perfect man” Tilda has become involved with—the wealthy, handsome, larger-than-life and more than a bit obsessive-compulsive American, Felix Nordberg—is actually quite dangerous.

Desperate to help Tilda, Callie becomes involved with a website called controllingmen.com, where all the classic signs of a relationship headed toward abuse are spelled out, just the way she sees them in Tilda and Felix’s relationship.

But Tilda dismisses her sister’s concerns, and you’ll understand Callie’s bafflement at how to proceed without creating a rift between them. At times you may want to wring her neck for the way she can’t stop herself from blurting out her suspicions. Moreover, she can’t seem to see how her obsession with Tilda and Felix is interfering with her own life.

We know from the first pages that Felix is dead. But was he murdered? The medical examiner says he died from natural causes. Although I thought I understood how Felix died, I hadn’t reckoned with Jane Robins’s diabolical imagination. I had to reread some of the last bits to be sure I understood the extent of the duplicity. That sense of something happening behind the scenes that I hadn’t quite grasped really kept the pages turning.

Robins has written several true-crime and non-fiction books and has a straightforward style that is a nice counterpoint to the emotions rampaging through Callie, and every one of the main characters in White Bodies is believable.

As a side note, a disadvantage to book reviewing is the “promotional cover.” The White Bodies review copy bore a temporary cover with a quote in tall, all-capital scarlet letters, “Everyone wants someone murdered.” Not the kind of thing you can put on an empty train seat beside you for a stranger to see.

****The Missing Girl

junk shop

photo: anyjazz65, creative commons license

Written by Jenny Quintana – In this debut psychological thriller, narrator Anna Flores returns to England after her mother’s death to do what needs to be done—quickly—before returning to her life she’s made in sunny Greece. The gloom and wet of approaching winter practically seep into her bones, and making her escape turns out to be much more difficult than she hopes. And, like all villages (at least in mysteries!), Anna’s childhood home has its dark secrets.

She finds herself burdened by the house and all its memory-filled contents, the divestiture of her father’s second-hand shop, the House of Flores, the encounters with friends and neighbors from her youth.  Though she has been away for three decades, the house, the shop, the people remind her incessantly about the one thing she will not find: her sister Gabriella.

Anna was 12 and her sister 15 in the autumn of 1982 when Gabriella disappeared without a trace. The chapters alternate between the current day and the year Gabriella went missing. You don’t learn much about the decades in between; it’s as if Anna’s life went on pause when she lost her sister.

Anna’s mother, who had been a so-so manager of the shop after her husband’s death, has inexplicably contracted to do a house clearance for Lemon Tree Cottage, a dwelling with painful memories for Anna. In part out of guilt over abandoning her mother for so long, she resolves, with some reluctance, to finish up this last job for her.

Quintana gets the psychology of the piece just right: the dynamic between the two girls, Anna’s adoration of her sister and obsession with finding her, the differing relationships the girls have with their parents, the grief that haunts them after Gabriella disappears, and the lengths Anna will go to in order to deny the possibility Gabriella is dead. The voice of the youthful Anna and the 40-year-old Anna are handled believably.

Long after the police gave up the search, little Anna persisted. One focus of her ill-conceived investigations was Lemon Tree Cottage and its mysterious occupants. Now, decades later, she has a chance to go through every scrap of belongings from the cottage, and she is drawn back into her researches, knowing and expecting she will find nothing.

Quintana has a smooth, absorbing writing style that carries you deeper and deeper into the complicated past of the Flores family. Instead of graphic violence, she chooses to explore the long tail of evil.

Murder in a Nutshell

Nutshell 1

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Frances Glessner Lee was a wealthy divorcee who used her money, her energy, her contacts, and her passion for crime investigation to jumpstart the field of forensic medicine in the United States some 80 years ago. One of this country’s first forensic pathologists, George Burgess Magrath, was a Boston friend, and his informal tutelage piqued her interest. Denied the chance to go to college and discouraged from pursuing her rather odd interest in murder, her career didn’t get going until she was in her 50s.

According to journalist Bruce Goldfarb, on staff at the prestigious Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Frances was the country’s only woman involved in the early development of forensic science. At a Renwick Gallery talk, he described how she gave funds to support lectures by leading European forensic medicine specialists at Harvard Medical School; donated her library of more than a thousand volumes on crime investigation; established training fellowships; endowed Harvard’s Department of Legal Medicine (the first in the country); and promoted the training of police detectives in forensic methods.

Further, she lobbied her wealthy and powerful connections to replace the outdated system of coroners with one employing trained medical examiners, thus enabling, among other things, many entertaining seasons of CSI. Coroners, an office that still exists in many parts of the United States, are often elected officials and need have no particular forensic, medical, or legal knowledge. They were known to tromp through crime scenes, take a quick look at the body, and decide on the spot whether it was homicide, suicide, or death by misadventure. A list of “causes of death” extracted from coroners’ reports in New York included the enlightened conclusion “found dead.”

Nutshell 2

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Back in the days before virtual reality, one of her educational activities was constructing highly detailed, dollhouse-sized dioramas of crime scenes. These “nutshell studies” were used to train homicide investigators in what to look for in cases of unexplained death. Nineteen of them still exist, and this winter they were gathered at Washington, D.C.’s Renwick Gallery for an immensely popular exhibit: “Murder Is Her Hobby,” which I saw in its last days.

You may recognize CSI’s slant homage to Lee in its “Miniature Killer” episodes (season 7; see trailer). Look for a copy of the film “Murder in a Nutshell: The Frances Glessner Lee Story” (trailer) or “Of Dolls and Murder” (trailer), both directed by Susan Marks. Apparently there’s a new book coming out, too, and the 2004 book by Corinne May Botz, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, has been reprinted. “The Nutshells are essentially about teaching people how to see,” said Renwick curator Nora Atkinson.

****Stasi Child

Berlin Wall

photo: Department of Defense

By David Young, narrated by Julia Barrie – In a sense every person in this novel is a candidate to be the “Stasi Child” of this book’s title, so pervasive is the influence, the spying, and the danger posed by the Stasi, the State Security Service of the former German Democratic Republic. This is Cold War fiction at its most chilling.

Not even Karin Müller, the book’s main protagonist, a detective in the murder squad of East Berlin’s Kripo, is exempt. (The Kripo is the nickname for the Kriminalpolizei.) In fact, she is very much in the Stasi’s sights for several reasons. Closest to home, her math teacher husband has been fraternizing with “fascist elements,” risking a spell in jail, or worse. Already he was sent for a time to teach at a remote youth detention center as a warning. One he hasn’t heeded.

Mysteriously, detective Müller has been called on to investigate the death of a teenage girl whose body was found in a cemetery at the foot of the Berlin Wall. Dead bodies near the wall were not uncommon in winter 1975, when the story is set, as would-be escapees were shot on sight, but it appears this girl was shot in the back while attempting to escape into East Germany, not out of it.

The case is a minefield of political elements, as well. Müller is told that Stasi agent Klaus Jäger will actually be in charge of the investigation, though Müller and her Unterleutnant Werner Tilsner will do the work. Moreover, their remit is confined to discovering the girl’s identity, not seeking to find out who murdered her.

Whether the Stasi knows they are violating the terms of their assignment, whether they know she and Tilsner have been indiscreet, whether her husband is in jeopardy—everything could become a threat. Author David Young is an expert at ramping up these tensions, with one or two too many twists and turns nearing the end.

Interwoven with the chapters about the investigation are first-person chapters, set seven months earlier, told from the point of view of Irma Behrendt, a fifteen-year-old inmate at the youth work camp where Müller’s husband was sent. She dreams of escape and wants to take her best friend with her. It would be dangerous, of course, but desperation breeds courage. Eventually, the two narratives converge. Irma’s tale has been, all along, vital backstory.

With a female protagonist and first-person narrator, Julia Barrie was chosen to narrate the audiobook. Perhaps to give the many male characters distinctive audio personalities in her lower registers, she pitched Karin’s and Irma’s voices rather high. That sort of works for Irma—she’s young, after all—but not for Karin. She sounds too light, too immature, not forceful enough to be heading a murder squad. A benefit of audio is that Barrie handled all those multisyllabic German words with admirable ease.


***The End of Lies


photo: pug50, creative commons license

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, MissouriOn a drive through the American South some years ago, British writer-director Martin McDonagh saw a set of billboards that challenged the authorities similar to the way the sheriff of Ebbing, Missouri, is challenged in this film (trailer). The rage they embodied stayed with him, and although this film is billed as a black comedy, don’t go looking for belly laughs. Its true subject is heartbreak.

With an intelligent script that’s perhaps a few minutes too long, McDonagh’s characters’ actions impinge on others like billiard balls knocking about on the table. Mildred Hayes (played by Frances McDormand—a genius at portraying tough, uncompromising women) intends for her actions to affect others when she pays for three billboards to be pasted up on a remote stretch of road outside town, blood red and anger-filled: “Raped While Dying. And Still No Arrests? How Come, Sheriff Willoughby?” Guilt and anger are written just as clearly on her unsmiling face.

The sheriff’s deputies, accustomed to have their way in all local matters, great and small, are offended. They want her to take them down. Of course she won’t. One of them, Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is an overgrown boy, prey to his every violent whim and McDonagh gives him a complex character arc.

Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) has other troubles on his mind and, while it’s true he hasn’t made progress in solving Angela Hayes’s murder, it isn’t true that he hasn’t tried. Although his place in their world is the slipperiest, he has the best sense of what that place is.

Several supporting roles are equally powerful (I especially liked Mildred’s ex-husband’s new girlfriend), and there are some laughs—people being their natural selves can be hilarious, usually without realizing it. Though a broken heart manifests itself differently in all three main characters, it’s Sheriff Willoughby who points the way to healing. Already the film has received numerous awards and nominations, including the Golden Globe for best motion picture drama, with Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, and Martin McDonagh (screenplay) winners too. Well worth the time.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 93%; audiences: 87%.

***Know Me Now

Scottish Highlands

Scottish Highlands photo by Paul Wordingham, creative commons license

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

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

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

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

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

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