*****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.

*****Blue Light Yokohama

Tokyo - Rainbow Bridge

photo: mytokyoguide.wordpress.com, used with permission

By Nicolás Obregón – What an entertaining debut! Told almost exclusively from the perspective of Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department Inspector Kosuke Iwata, it’s a multilayered police procedural involving murder, official corruption, and dangerous secrets.

A brief prologue set in 1996 describes the death of a woman who jumped from a dangling cable car into the sea, despite the efforts of police detective Hideo Akashi to save her. Fifteen years later, Akashi is investigating the quadruple murder of a Korean family. In the midst of his investigation, he commits suicide by jumping off Tokyo’s Rainbow Bridge (pictured above). No one knows why. This theme of falling pervades the novel and ties together many of its strands, past and present.

The brass at the police department asks their newest detective, U.S.-trained (and therefore highly suspect) Iwata to pick up Akashi’s investigation of the family’s murder. Iwata is aided by Assistant Inspector Sakai, transferred from the Missing Persons department to work with him. These two inexperienced homicide detectives are assigned such a complex investigation because the department is short-handed, having lost Akashi, and is focused instead on another of his cases, the mysterious death of high-profile actress. A little racism creeps in, as well; as Iwata’s supervisor explains, “The family were Korean, so not exactly front-page news.”

Iwata and Sakai manage to get along rather well, considering. He is haunted by memories of his childhood in an orphanage, and she is a feisty young woman whose reflexive prickliness provides a lively counterpoint of humor. (I loved her!)

Iwata and Sakai haven’t made much progress in their investigation when the lonely widow of a judge is murdered. Striking details at the crime scene are similar to the Korean family’s case. Though Iwata and Sakai energetically pursue multiple lines of inquiry, they cannot begin to figure out what links these deaths until he starts breaking rules.

The author, who has lived in Japan, not only evocatively describes the physical and social settings of Tokyo, Kyoto, and Hong Kong, he also carefully explores Iwata’s complex interior life and motivations. The atmosphere he creates is dense with possibilities and a bit dreamlike.  This is in part because a dozen or so mysteriously poetic lines repeatedly float through the detective’s mind: “The lights of the city are so pretty”; “I walk and walk, swaying, like a small boat in your arms.” You don’t learn the origin of these lines until well along—a song that is the source of the book’s title (hear it here).

But Obregón is a more subtle writer than that, and the title also echoes other blue lights. A local suicide prevention program uses them, based on the supposition that the color blue is calming. The flashing blue lights of police cars, another recurrent Obregón image, would belie that assumption. Blue Light Yokohama is an immersive police procedural that uses its exotic setting and distinctive characters to great effect.

Solace in True Crime?

In Cold Blood, Truman CapoteEditors of The Guardian gave a topping headline to a Rafia Zakaria story about the attractions of the true crime genre: “Reading a genre where the worst has already happened is an odd comfort.” There’s truth in that. A few years ago, I was struck low by life circumstances and in a rare (for me) state of malaise sat down in front of the television in the middle of a Saturday afternoon to watch The Pianist. Oddly, when the end credits rolled, I felt better. When I told my daughter about this, she said, “Ah. A movie about someone with real problems.” Exactly.

Zakaria suggests true crime as a corrective, even for political angst. “No other genre is a more apt testament that our evil, primal, fearful selves linger just beneath our calm, civilised exteriors, that life goes on even after the worst has happened, and that all catastrophe, central or marginal, has to be understood and confronted before a future becomes possible.”

In our household we’re stuck back at the first stage: probing the calm, civilized exteriors, looking beneath Victorian London with our six books on Jack the Ripper—each with its earnestly promoted theory of the villain’s identity—our five books about the Lizzie Borden case, six about the 1930s Lindbergh kidnapping, and more.

The distance afforded by time provides a bit of psychological insulation, and weighting the theories about these “unsolved” or “unresolved” cases have enlivened many a dinnertime conversation. Perhaps if you visited Cleveland, you went to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame or even a ballgame at Progressive Field. Not likely you made a pilgrimage to the 1954 home of Dr. Sam Sheppard and his soon-to-be-late wife, Marilyn (LMGTFY). We did.

If in these trying times, you want to test the true crime palliative, Truman Capote’s 1966 book In Cold Blood still sets the standard. (Both the Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toby Jones movie versions are riveting as well.)

Here are four more excellent possibilities:

****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.

Ian Rankin’s 30th Year of Rebus

Ian Rankin

photo: wikimedia

In Daneet Steffens’s recent interview for LitHub with Scotland’s crime fiction star Ian Rankin, he says, “All crime fiction boils down to ‘Why do we keep doing these terrible things?” Go back to Shakespeare, to Euripides, and the combination of natural proclivity and circumstances has produced people who destroy not just their enemies, but also the people they love.

Rankin says his early books were more typical whodunits, “but as I got more confident about the form and about what the crime novel could do, I thought, ‘Well there’s nothing it can’t do.’” Writers who want to talk about politics can do that, like author David Ignatius. Those who want to talk about race relations can emulate Bill Beverly. The environment, Paolo Bacigalupi. And, those who want to explore domestic tensions can stake out territory alongside Gillian Flynn or Megan Abbott. In that way, choosing to write about crime is not a limiting factor for authors, but one that gives their story about politics, race relations, the environment, domestic life—whatever—an extra urgency.

You may have read Rankin’s short stories, or be familiar with his best-known work, the award-winning Detective Rebus series (21 books!) set in Edinburgh, or seen one of the several television series made from them. The most recent series title, out earlier this month, is Rather Be the Devil, in which the retired detective takes on a cold murder case, and finds it tied up with a complex money laundering scheme and an aging rock star.

Rebus also has aged and represents some values and a black-and-white view of the world that Rankin says he doesn’t share. It’s Rebus’s partners—the books secondary characters—whose job involves “trying to change his mind on things.” After 30 years of writing the same character and his consistent opponent, Big Ger Cafferty, an old-fashioned gangster up against an old-fashioned detective, the world has changed around them, but the series has “no signs of wearing out,” says a CrimeFictionLover.com review.

You can hear Rankin for yourself at a three-day Rebus festival in Edinburgh, June 30 to July 2. Or in New York at The Center for Fiction, 17 E 47th St., which will host Rankin for a Crime Fiction Master Class on Tuesday February 7th at 7 pm. He’ll be interviewed about his career and the Rebus series by author Jonathan Santlofer. Free and open to the public.

*****Burning Bright

photo: Kevan, creative commons license

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****What Remains of Me

Los Angeles, Hollywood

photo: James Gubera, creative commons license

By Alison Gaylin , narrated by Ann Marie Lee – If, as the Bible says, the sins of the fathers will be visited on their children (or more colorfully “The fathers have eaten a sour grape, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”), this story is the proof of it. It’s set in two time periods—1980 and 2010—among a small group of Hollywood teenagers. They’re about 17 in 1980 and nearing 50 in 2010, with a whole lot of water under the bridge in between.

The three friends—Kelly, Bellamy, and Vee—come from vastly different backgrounds. Kelly, the principal point-of-view character, is barely middle class, while Bellamy and Vee are children of “tinseltown royalty,” rich kids whose actions bring few consequences. They all smoke, drink, use drugs, and skip school. Gaylin dwells on the substance abuse and resultant bad decision-making more than necessary, as there was not much new there. But even so, it’s the parents whose problems run deepest, under the shiny surface.

Teenage Kelly Michelle Lund—as she is forever known in the media—after ingesting more than a few illegal substances, goes to a movie wrap party at Vee’s home. Before the party ends, his director-father is murdered—shot three times, once right between the eyes. Thanks to a weak defense effort, Kelly is convicted of the crime.

After a quarter-century in prison, Kelly has been out for five years and is trying to rebuild her life. When Bellamy’s father is murdered in much the same way Vee’s was, the media and the police immediately suspect Kelly. In Gaylin’s twisting plot, every significant character has secrets, and they are ingeniously linked, While the plot mostly holds, a late confrontation between Kelly and Bellamy felt excessively contrived.

Hollywood is the perfect backdrop for a story in which nothing is as it seems—a place where you shouldn’t peer behind the curtain or, perhaps, for your own good, you’d better!. Throughout the story, characters repeatedly suggest that powerful Hollywood folk can do whatever they please, without consequences. That certainly was true when the studios’ star system was in place and bad behavior was aggressively covered up, but it’s less true since (with Bill Cosby a prominent exception). Yet that presumption makes so many characters’ secrets easier to keep.

Ann Marie Lee’s narration nicely evokes both the teens and the parents. She might have used more mature voices for Kelly and Bellamy at age 47, but that’s a minor quibble regarding an overall fine reading.

****The Collection

Art Gallery

photo: WellDone2012, creative commons license

By Lance Charnes – If you like “ticking clock thrillers,” in this first-person caper, narrator Matt Friedrich faces a whole clockwork factory ticking toward deadlines, emphasis on “dead.”

If he doesn’t find certain stolen art, the women in his life will be dead at the hands of ʼNdràngheta, the Calabrian mafia, a group that makes those Sicilian guys look like amateurs. If he doesn’t find out who’s fencing stolen art, he won’t be paid the desperately needed $10,000 he’s supposed to earn for this mysterious gig. Meanwhile, he has to come up with a plausible tale and report in on time to his parole officer, who would send him back to the slammer if he knew Matt was flitting all over Europe on a venture with a growing body count.

But Matt is an engaging protagonist and you can’t help but hope he finds a way out of all these dilemmas–in time!

He trained as an architect and got into trouble working for a corner-cutting Southern California art gallery. In a tense early scene, we see him pushing up the auction price of a Corot landscape with fake bids. Eventually, his shenanigans landed him in the federal Prison Camp Pensacola for 14 months. Now Matt’s out of prison, working as a barista, staying with a generous friend, and broke. Lawyer fees and restitution payments take almost everything he earns.

He reconnects with a woman he met in Geneva, Allyson DeWitt, who said she sometimes needs art experts. She’s purposefully vague about the nature of her business and the identity of her clients, but a few weeks later, a bike messenger gives Matt a package containing a flash drive, a packet of €1,100 in used bills, a well-used fake passport, and a European itinerary. Consumed with curiosity, lust for Allyson, and the need for cash, Matt flies to Europe and the adventure begins.

Charnes’s writing is full of Matt’s self-deprecating humor, breezy asides, and an occasional pleasing literary flourish. They cleverly elucidate Matt’s character, putting you squarely in his corner, as in: “The pressure from the fifty hundred-euro notes in my pocket eventually cuts off the blood flow to my better instincts.”

Even though he’s seriously back-footed by everything he does not know (and won’t be told) about his assignment, Matt gamely plows ahead. He’s aware that stolen artworks are being used to move large amounts of dirty money, since cash has become too easy for governments to track. Allyson’s assigned him a partner named Carson, a woman short on details and temper. They make an interesting pair, as they delve into this complicated scam. Matt and Carson each have skills the other lacks, which makes for a believable partnership, even if Matt is never quite sure whether he trusts her.

Author Charnes has developed a meticulously complex, rapid-paced plot, and some of the ways the scam works are briefly difficult to follow, but you never believe for a moment that he hasn’t thought the whole thing through. The subtitle of this book is The Dewitt Agency Files #1, which sets you up for the final scene, when Matt the bike messenger reappears with an envelope containing information for his next case. Can’t wait!

The Critics Pick: Best Crime/Mystery/Thrillers of 2016

police, San Francisco, passersby

(photo: Thomas Hawk, Creative Commons license)

Yesterday, I reported on the only book to receive four mentions among eight different “best of 2016” lists for crime, mystery, and thriller fiction, and the three mentioned three times. Below are the books receiving two mentions. All the others—just over 60 books in all—were mentioned only once. So there’s lots of “best” books out there. If readers are interested, I’ll post the list of the 60, as well. Let me know. Yesterday’s post here.

Two Mentions

Putting several of these, starting with those in bold, on my “to read” list!

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley – A suspicious plane crash leads to a damaging media onslaught for survivors while the police investigate.
Black Widow by Chris Brookmyre – A rogue journalist investigates a woman victimized by Internet trolls; when her husband dies, is the “Black Widow” moniker correct?
The Black Widow by Daniel Silva – a political thriller about efforts to prevent an Islamist attack on Paris with a “heart-stopping, unexpected and deeply unsettling” grand finale, says the Washington Post.
Fool Me Once by Harlan Coben – a nanny cam reveals a widow’s husband may not be dead after all in this “smart, fast-paced thriller by a master,” according to Library Journal.
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet – combines a legal thriller and literary game so well, it wound up on the Man Booker prize shortlist.
I Let You Go by Claire Mackintosh – “A clever combination of police procedural and psychological thriller,” says CrimeFictionLover.com, which begins with a child’s hit-and-run death.
Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner – A missing woman’s nearest and dearest may not be telling the police the whole story.
Rise the Dark by Michael Koryta – Investigator Mark Novak is taunted by a recently released prisoner who claims knowledge of Novak’s wife’s murder.
The Second Life of Nick Mason by Steve Hamilton – Convicted murderer Nick Mason gets a surprise early prison release and must try to build a new life, and goes about it all really, really wrong.
The Trespasser by Tana French, provides another outing of the fascinating Dublin Murder Squad.

The Sources

These U.S. and U.K. publications provided the original lists: BookRiot, The Guardian, Kirkus Reviews, Library Journal, New York Times, The Telegraph (crime & thriller), The Telegraph (50 Best Books for Christmas), Washington Post.

Best of the Best in Crime Fiction – 2016

chalk outline, body

(image: pixabay, creative commons license)

Been accumulating a list of year-end lists of “Best Mystery/Crime/Thriller Novels of 2016.” A total of 75 books appears on the eight lists I researched. More than 60 of them appear only once, suggesting not only the tremendous volume of good writing in these genres but the wide range of reviewers’ personal tastes.  I’ve read and reviewed 30 new crime books in 2016, and my favorites aren’t on any of these lists. They are:

  • Dodgers by Bill Beverly – Los Angeles teenagers embark on a murder mission and much, much more
  • The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock – ne’er-do-wells in the early 1900’s South meet the inevitable; not for the squeamish
  • The Far Empty by J. Todd Scott – local law enforcement in Big Bend country fighting (or is it helping?) the Mexican drug cartels

Below are the books that appeared on three or four lists; tomorrow the books appearing on two and where to find these lists, if you want to investigate further.

For reviews of great new crime/mystery/thriller releases year-round, bookmark the U.K. website CrimeFictionLover.com. I’m one of the site’s reviewers, and the team there does a fantastic job!

Four Mentions

You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott – a book that surely benefited from exquisite timing. This story of an elite gymnast and the sacrifices she, her teammates, and their families must make coincided with the summer Olympics and enthusiasm around the gold-medal-winning U.S. women’s gymnastics team. The story is told mostly from the point of view of the young gymnast’s mother, and it’s full of teen-age angst, parental fixation, and gym-rat rivalries. But are they strong enough to precipitate and cover up murder?

Three Mentions

Disclaimer: I’ve not read any of these. Note to self: get busy!

Charcoal Joe by Walter Mosley – Mosley is in his element here, writing about Los Angeles in the uneasy aftermath of the deadly 1960s Watts riots. Says the New York Times review, Mosley’s protagonist, Easy Rawlins, is “an unconventional hero who’s unafraid to lower his fists and use his brain.”

A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny – the twelfth outing of Penny’s popular Chief Inspector Gamache (I’ve listened to two of the audio versions and every time the narrator says “Gamache,” I hear “Ganache” and must go eat a piece of chocolate). He’s ensconced with his pals in Three Pines, Quebec, and charged with searching out corruption within the police academy, an investigation soon confounded by murder.

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware – The blurbs make this sound like Agatha Christie’s classic train case, The Lady Vanishes. In this story, a passenger on a luxury cruise ship thinks she hears and sees the body of a woman hit the water and sink beneath the waves. She swears she met this woman in Cabin 10, but no one believes her.

Have you read any of these “best books”? Were they among your favorites of 2016?

Tomorrow: the ten books that received two votes and how to find mention of the 60 others.