***In Strangers’ Houses

Cleaner

photo: ePi.Longo, creative commons license

By Elizabeth Mundy – Highly visible as an “issue” and yet highly invisible as individuals, East European immigrants and best friends Lena Szarka and her friend Timea Dubay clean London’s houses in the daytime and its offices at night. Although the work offers them more upward mobility than would be possible back in Hungary, working in a foreign country isn’t easy. The language is difficult, the systems and culture are unfamiliar, and nasty anti-immigrant sentiment lies just below the surface.

Most of Elizabeth Mundy’s debut murder mystery is told from Lena’s point of view, enabling a close-up perspective on the complexities and hazards of immigrant life on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. As house cleaners, she and Timea work in others’ private spaces, see their most intimate secrets, and observe their habits. It is an act of faith that they can do so safely and will be paid for their efforts. Mundy has created engaging characters facing believable challenges. It’s no surprise this is intended as the first of a series featuring the warm-hearted Lena.

Lena is a few years older than Timea and coping fairly well. But Timea, a single mother, is struggling. She’s never told anyone who her son Laszlo’s father is—and though it was hard to leave the boy behind, she expects this sojourn abroad to jump-start a better life for them both. The women’s childhood friend Istvan, a handsome television actor, also lives in London. Istvan is married to a well-off woman who has helped his career, and he’s achieved a lifestyle starkly contrasting with that of the women, one that lets him concentrate on what is most important, himself.

Early in the story, Lena begins to worry about Timea. Her friend is increasingly unhappy and confesses that the problem is someone she must get away from. When Timea doesn’t come home one night, Lena’s worry blossoms into fear, and when she doesn’t return by the next day, Lena goes to the police. They are disinclined to take the disappearance seriously. Experience tells them Timea is most likely with a boyfriend and will turn up.

When Timea’s body does turn up, floating in Regent’s Canal, the police take a brief interest, but conclude the death was suicide. They hold this opinion even more strongly once the autopsy reveals Timea was three months pregnant. Mundy rounds out her characters in a series of flashbacks to Lena, Timea, and Istvan as children, a history that convinces Lena that Timea would never kill herself. In true amateur detective form, Mundy gives Lena no choice but to embark on the investigation herself.

Mundy shows a somewhat different facet of London than we usually see and makes Lena’s situation fresh and interesting. The writing is solid, though the police detective sometimes sounds as if he’s memorized a criminology textbook. By contrast, Lena’s slight awkwardness in expression is part of the book’s charm. After all, English is a bit of a struggle for her, but she sticks with it bravely, just as she does the pursuit of Timea’s killer. A quick read without a lot of graphic violence or sex. I’ll be interested to see more from Mundy.

Got the Horse Right Here!

horse racing

photo: TNS Sofres, creative commons license

It’s Derby week, and attention turns to things equine. The horses are huge, but run on the most fragile of ankles. The jockeys are small, but mostly heart. Racing is a quick way to burn money. No wonder storytellers have capitalized on its dramatic potential. This is a repost of my favorite horse books and screen entertainment, with the addition of Triple Crown, a crime novel by Felix Francis, carrying on his late father Dick’s call to the post.

Horse Heaven – by Jane Smiley. Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for A Thousand Acres, yet I found this novel way more satisfying. She’s developed a stableful of engaging characters as you follow the fates of several horses bred for racing, a risky proposition in the best of times. As much about people and their passions and predilections as about horses, of course.

Lords of Misrule – by Jaimy Gordon. Winner of the 2010 National Book Award, this novel is set in the lower echelons of horse-racing, among people for whom the twin spires of Churchill Downs are a distant dream. She has an almost miraculous way of capturing the way horse people think and talk.

The Horse God Built – by Lawrence Scanlan. This one I haven’t read, but it was too tempting to include a book about Secretariat—“the horse God built.” Secretariat won racing’s Triple Crown (the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes) in 1973, with track-blistering performances. This nonfiction book is Secretariat as seen through the eyes of his groom and a story of friendship. This is one of six great nonfiction books about racing compiled by Amy Sachs for BookBub.

Seabiscuit, by Laura Hillenbrand, was made into an Academy Award-nominated film starring Toby Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper, and real-life jockey Gary Stevens. A heartwarming story, this production includes footage shot from the midst of a race—an unforgettable view of why this sport is so dangerous. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 77%, audiences 76%.

Luck – HBO. For the full immersion experience, try this nine-episode series, developed by David Milch. It’s all-star cast includes Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Farina, John Ortiz, Richard Kind, Nick Nolte, Michael Gambon and, again, jockey Gary Stevens (who raced in the 2016 Kentucky Derby at age 53). The three touts, convinced they’re on track for riches, are priceless.

****The Greek Wall

razor wire fenceWritten by Nicolas Verdan, translated from the French by W. Donald Wilson –The European refugee crisis has been front-and-center in the news media for so long it’s become easy to tune it out. In award-winning Swiss author Nicolas Verdan’s literary crime thriller, all the horrifying consequences of what happens when groups of people are ripe for exploitation are on display. And he doesn’t stop there, underscoring how wide its ripples have spread in European society.

It’s 2010, and Agent Evangelos of the Greek National Intelligence Service is sent to investigate a severed head found outside the northern city of Orestiada on the border separating Greece and non-EU Turkey border. Is it the head of a Westerner? That’s what Evangelos’s superiors want to know, and they want the answer to be ‘yes.’ Something else to blame on the refugees.

Finnish members of the European Border and Coast Guard (Frontex) found the head near the bank of the Evros River. This strip of land is not only Greece’s border but that of the EU’s passport-free Schengen Area—in a sense, all of Europe. It’s the main crossing point for refugees into the European Union. Greek politicians want to build a Trump-like border wall there, and they want the EU to pay for it. Greece certainly can’t. (In real life, a 10-mile wall—actually a razor-wire fence—was eventually built.)

Verdan’s novel – his first available in English – is part political thriller, part police procedural, part mystery. A brief prologue offers hints regarding who has lost his head, but the circumstances are murky.

Much of this literary, sensitively written novel adopts the close-up point of view of Agent Evangelos, who takes the constant reversals of policy in stride simply by ignoring them. His focus is on solving the crime, and he moves doggedly forward, even when he’s told not to push his inquiry too hard. Novels based on current events risk becoming outdated, but the essential humanity of Verdan’s characters make this story timeless. An extra star here for humanity.

A Trio of Notable Crime Novels

photo: Stew Dean, creative commons license

Exciting plots, award-winning authors, worthy protagonists. Three crime thrillers for spring!

****Slow Horses

By Mick Herron – In Britain’s MI5, the slow horses are the agents whose incompetence, outrageous errors, or general unlikeability cause them to slip off the fast track. They’re stabled at the aptly-named Slough House, far from Regent’s Park, the energized center of important decisions and brisk walking. With luck, sheer boredom will move them to seek some different pasture.

The slow horses work under the benign supervision of Jackson Lamb, who may be more wolf than lamb, and you’d be forgiven for anticipating that the luckless occupants of Slough House are not without tradecraft tools and the wit to use them.

When a young man is abducted by people threatening to behead him live on the Internet, the political complexities of the situation quickly escalate. Slough House has reason to be involved, but HQ won’t hear of it. Worse, a violent attack on one of them suggests any means possible will be used to prevent their sticking their noses in. Slow horses or no, the race is on. Against the kidnappers and against their own superiors.

Herron has written a page-turner of a novel, with many laugh-out-loud moments. This first in an award-winning series was thoroughly enjoyable.

***Night Life

By David C. Taylor, narrated by Keith Szarabajka – In 1954 New York City, police detective Michael Cassidy—who could have inspired Sinatra’s “My Way”—becomes embroiled in a mystery that will require all his detecting skills and a great deal of political savvy to unravel. A young gay man is found tortured to death. The killer was apparently looking for something. Cassidy must look for it too.

He’s not sure what he’ll find when he starts turning over rocks in these early Cold War days, with paranoia about Communism and Communists on the rise, with the hearings of Senator Joe McCarthy’s witch hunt in the news, with the CIA and the FBI competing for scraps of information. Cassidy is a straight-up cop, but he’s unaware of his own vulnerabilities. He’s about to discover them, and they will put the people he cares about most at risk.

Screenwriter Taylor creates a powerful noir atmosphere that evokes not only the streets of New York some sixty years ago but also the psychic atmosphere, with its fear-mongering about the Red Menace and its rampant homophobia. In this novel, both of these caused people to kill and be killed. Nice narration from Keith Szarabajka.

This book won the 2016 Nero Wolfe Award for Best American Mystery, and was a Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award nominee.

***Shutter Man

By Richard Montanari, narrated by Scott Brick – Another good cop story, this one intergenerational. It’s set in Philadelphia, and the early scenes take place in 1976 in an Irish neighborhood called Devil’s Pocket. Back then, a group of teenage friends from the Pocket were involved somehow in the death of a mentally disabled young man who was a member of the powerful Irish crime family, the Farrens.

Today, one of those young men is police detective Kevin Byrne, another is DA candidate Jimmy Doyle, and the Farrens are still operating outside the law. Byrne and his friend, Assistant DA Jessica Balzano (teamed up in several of Montanari’s books) are working on a set of bizarre killings that seem to be linked, but how? And do they reach all the way back to those Devil’s Pocket days?

Montanari’s characters are interesting and well-rounded and he creates considerable narrative tension. While Scott Brick provided a fine narration, the multitude of characters and the switching between time periods make this a better candidate for enjoying in print.

One of The New York Times‘s 10 Best Crime Novels of 2016.

****A Hole in One

Golf Clubs

photo: Susanne Nilsson, creative commons license

By Judy Penz Sheluk – In this charming cozy mystery set in a small town north of Toronto, Canada, Arabella Carpenter decides to promote her Glass Dolphin antiques shop by sponsoring a hole in one contest at a local charity golf tournament. The prize: a pricy jet ski. All good fun until she hits her ball into the woods, and amongst the trees finds not her golf ball, but a dead body.

The victim, killed by a gunshot to the chest, is the estranged father of Arabella’s ex-husband, Levon Larroquette. The two men were so estranged that Arabella never met her ex-father-in-law. But she has seen him. He and Levon were arguing in the park just a few days before the tournament. Arabella still has feelings for Levon, and precisely how strong those feelings are is revealed whenever he encourages her to join him in drinking a little too much cognac.

Levon might have flaws as a husband, but Arabella is convinced he’s no killer. Worried that her information has made him appear more guilty, she’s determined to clear Levon’s name by investigating the murder herself, with the help of her business partner Emily, a former investigative reporter.

This is the second in the Glass Dolphin mystery series, in which Arabella and Emily boldly go where, maybe, they shouldn’t, as some of the information they turn up seems to implicate Levon even further. Their inquiries give author Sheluk the opportunity to introduce a sizeable cast of interesting, often amusing characters, with their tidbits of information and propensity for creating confusion: an Elvis impersonator, potential romantic interests for both Arabella and Emily, a vengeful local newspaper editor and reckless blogger, and an antique dealer going out of business who has sad secrets of her own.

Sheluk is an antiques expert herself and currently editor of the New England Antiques Journal. Writing with a light touch, she has a knack for inserting just the right amount of intriguing details about antique items, the antiques market, or running a small business. That information gives the story a nice grounding in reality, even as the plot twists and turns.

A Hole in One is thick with dialog, with the banter between the two women full of good humor. You may not doubt that they will succeed, almost despite themselves, but the fun is in seeing how they go about it as their theories—and the bodies—pile up.

 

***A Darker State

car headlights

photo: Lothar Massmann, creative commons license

By David YoungLife in East Germany in the mid-1970s is the true subject of David Young’s intriguing series of police procedurals-cum-political-thrillers, and dark it is.

Oberleutnant Karin Müller in East Berlin’s Kriminalpolizei—considered by some overpromoted to that post—has been inexplicably promoted again while on maternity leave. Now a major, she’s being put in charge of a team that will oversee investigations of high-profile murders anywhere in the country, murders that might “prove embarrassing to the Republic.” In other words, investigations that inevitably will put her on a collision course with the Ministry for State Security, the dreaded East German Secret Police. The Stasi.

Müller isn’t eager to cut short her maternity leave. But, as inducement, her boss reveals that a spacious apartment will be hers if she accepts the new job assignment—a giant step up from the tiny quarters where she’s living with her infant twins, their father, and her grandmother. And there’s the not inconsiderable inducement that she’d be working again with Werner Tilsner who also has been promoted. Müller accepts. Thank goodness. Now we can move on with the story and leave behind awkward references to the series’ earlier books.

Their first case arises when Tilsner is summoned to where a young man’s body has been found. The body has the marks of restraints and, it turns out, an abnormally high amount of testosterone in his blood. He’s only the first. The roadblocks that Müller and Tilsner encounter as their investigation proceeds have the machinations of the Stasi written all over them.

Meanwhile, Jonas Schmidt, the pedantic Kriminaltechniker who aids Müller and Tilsner with the forensic aspects of their investigations is in an increasingly sour mood. Trouble at home. Schmidt’s teenage son Markus has taken up with friends his parents deem unsuitable. Markus’s new friends are homosexual, and you suspect he’s being set up for something dangerous, even if he doesn’t see it. While East Germany legalized homosexuality in 1968, changing the law has not changed prejudices.

As in his first book, Stasi Child, Young tells part of the story from a victim’s first-person point of view, in this case Markus’s, starting a few months before Müller and Tilsner begin their new assignment. It’s a clever way to introduce backstory, since all crimes have some sort of history.

While the time shifts were mostly easy to follow, what would add to my understanding of the narrative would be a map showing the places the story takes place. Frequently, Müller is torn by late-night calls to go off somewhere, leaving the twins with her grandmother once again. I had no sense of whether these places are a few miles or a few hundred miles distant.

In an afterword, Young writes that he became interested in East Germany when he arranged a tour for a band he was in. “German venues loved booking UK bands.” Luckily for us (and for Young and his fellow musicians), they did not meet the same fate as the British band Pearl Harbor in the Belgian thriller Back Up, reviewed here recently, in which all the band members are murdered in the first eighty pages!

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

*****The Woman in the Window

Wine Bottles

photo: H Williams, creative commons license

By AJ Finn — From the first pages of this immersive psychological thriller by newcomer AJ Finn, you’re pulled into the claustrophobic world of Anna Fox, the story’s first-person narrator. You don’t see much of New York other than her townhouse, and by the end of the book, you may feel boxed in by its walls too.

Anna is not coping well after suffering some psychological trauma that’s caused the breakup of her marriage, and you eventually learn the particulars. Though she talks to husband Ed and daughter Olivia by phone, they have moved out, leaving her rattling around her Harlem townhouse alone.

Before the family break-up, Anna worked as a child psychologist with children damaged by abuse, neglect, psychosis, modern life. Now she’s the patient. She has developed a severe case of agoraphobia and does not—cannot—leave that house. Her psychiatrist and physical therapist come to her. Her groceries and drugs are delivered. She actually takes quite a few drugs, washing them down with astonishing quantities of red wine, delivered a case at a time, and lies about this dangerous practice to her doctor, husband Ed, and anyone else who asks.

To amuse herself, Anna watches old black and white movies and spies on the neighborhood, using the zoom lens of her camera—much better than binoculars, she claims. Soon her own situation takes on the elements of the classic noir films Gaslight and Rear Window. Between the drugs and the merlot, you wonder whether Anna’s movie obsession is coloring her perceptions of real-life events.

Although Anna is obviously both disturbed and muddled, Finn has written her with compassion and truth. Her behavior is consistent with her character and disordered state of mind, and you believe in her actions, even the brave ones almost impossibly difficult for her.

Her new neighbors become aware of her spying and want her to stop. However, their teenage son befriends her. He’s a little lonely living in a new city and has other unremarkable teenage woes like the adolescents she’d occasionally see in her clinical practice. To him, she’s a refreshingly non-judgmental conversationalist. But when Anna sees the teenager’s mother murdered and accuses the husband of killing her, the family tells the police she’s delusional. Noticing the profusion of empty wine bottles, they doubt her too. I thought I saw where all this was headed, but Finn has several surprises in store.

Stories with unreliable narrators are a staple of the thriller genre. Sometimes the narrators know they’re bending the truth to manipulate the people around them. Anna is as desperate to bring reality into focus as is everyone else around her.

*****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.

*****Robicheaux

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!