****The Last Meridian

Los Angeles, palm trees, night

photo: Alissa Walker, creative commons license

By Joe Hefferon – The author spent a quarter-century “in law enforcement” in gritty Newark, New Jersey. In this, his first full-length novel, he’s created an engaging female protagonist in a jam who turns to a private detective for help, and he set the story in and around Los Angeles. On the surface, his characters are savvy and confident—on top of the world—but underneath, well, it’s more complicated. The book’s brief prologue has a particularly engaging first line: “The coroner’s wagon had a flat tire.” Nothing good can follow.

Sixteen years before the novel begins, now-successful Hollywood interior designer Nina Ferrer lived in Chicago and gave up an illegitimate son because she was too young, too unready, and too unwilling to raise a child alone. She abandoned her child and the Midwest for a better, more glamorous life. It turned out she has a talent for perfectly divining the aspirations of her well-paying clients, making their homes an expression of their best selves. Her own home, however, is empty of love, as she and her wealthy businessman (and Cuban cigar-smuggling) husband have long since lost interest in each other.

Still, her life is reasonably well-ordered until she receives a telegram saying that her son back in Illinois has been accused of murder. His adoptive mother swears he is innocent, but she can’t afford a proper defense, and unless some kind of deus ex machina appears—most likely in the form of Nina herself—the boy is doomed to a lengthy prison term.

Nina’s husband is unaware of the boy and at this late date, she doesn’t want to tell him. So she travels all the way to dismal Bakersfield to find a private investigator and gets much more than she bargained for.

The short chapters toggle back and forth mostly between events early in 1965 and toward the end of that year. The later scenes are a series of journalist interviews with Nina that take place after she’s been incarcerated. You don’t know why she’s in custody or what is likely to happen to her until near the end of the story. Although Hefferon precedes each scene with the appropriate time stamp, this switching back and forth became a bit dizzying as the plot gains in complexity and the crimes that led to the boy’s arrest are investigated.

Hefferon’s engaging presentation of Los Angeles and its denizens, its petty criminals, and the detective Nina hires all seem plausible. Yet the novel has an occasional unevenness of tone that is jarring and which Hefferon will probably overcome with more writing experience. At times it seems he’s trying too hard to achieve a literary effect. Nevertheless, Hefferon is capable of pleasing on-point description. For example, “Whether it was (the reporter’s) inability to ask questions rapidly, or a natural gift for shutting up, he listened better than he talked, offering Nina a wide runway on which to land her story.”

You’ll enjoy spending time with these characters and may conclude this is an author who, when his literary skills catch up to his gifts of characterization and plot development, may become highly regarded in the crime fiction field. It’s gritty noir tinged with tinseltown glamour. And you may find these characters, especially the wise-cracking detective (whose wit is easily matched by that of Nina herself), modern incarnations of the types so well portrayed by Los Angeles literary icon Raymond Chandler and his progeny.

Noir at the Bar: Manhattan

microphone

photo: Adam Fredie, creative commons license

I had to see for myself. Noir at the Bar (N@B) is a thing, a cultural phenomenon I’d never heard of until Canadian writer-friend June Lorraine Roberts told me about it. It’s simple in concept: crime writers occasionally get together at a local watering hole and read about ten minutes’ worth of their work to each other. I suspect the interpersonal dynamics can be more complicated.

Last Sunday, my friend Nancy K. and I met up at Shade Bar in Greenwich Village for the Manhattan N@B and found a noisy group laughing and talking. I yelled in Nancy’s ear, “Well, they are word people.” Mostly under 40, mostly male, and a notable prevalence of tattoo sleeves. We heard nine of the 11 scheduled presenters, ducking out early so I could catch the train back to Princeton.

What an entertaining evening! The quality of the presentations never let up. The authors read from printouts, books in hand, cell phones, tablets. E.A. Aymer included music (a first, we were told); Nik Korpon had memorized a piece in the style of a tent-revival preacher.

Although I had a friend in the audience (short story writer Al Tucher), the readers were all new to me, and they weren’t all from New York, coming from Washington, Baltimore, and California too. For the flavor of these events, here’s E.A. Aymer reading one of his stories at the Washington, D.C., N@B—he was the lead-off reader Sunday.

While each reader was entertaining in his own way, the most compelling for me was Danny Gardner’s gritty story about how black people in Chicago get guns. Maybe that’s because my family lives in Chicago, and I care about that city. Maybe it’s because I was in Chicago for the four-day July 4 holiday when 101 people were shot. Or maybe it’s because the story’s characters were just damn good. All three, I think.

Other readers we heard were Joe Clifford, Angel Luis Colon (Nancy won one of his books!), Rory Costello, Lee Matthew Goldberg, Nick Kolakowski, and one of the organizers of Sunday’s event, Scott Adlerberg.

Peter Rozovsky started the N@B thing about a decade ago in Philadelphia, and it has spread across this country and internationally, including to Canada and the U.K. Over the next few months June and I are going to report on conversations with some of these N@B organizers and participants about the enduring appeal of crime fiction, story trends, and the local crime writing scene.

Meanwhile, if you discover a Noir at the Bar near you, go, enjoy!

****Jack the Ripper: Case Closed

Doyle and WildeBy Gyles Brandreth – London’s 1888 Whitechapel Murders have provided seemingly endless inspiration for authors’ speculation. Latest in this parade of theorists exploring the grisly deaths of five prostitutes is a former Conservative member of Britain’s Parliament, actor, and broadcaster who uses the real-life friendship between playwright Oscar Wilde and Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle as his premise.

Six years after the Jack the Ripper murders, these two luminaries are brought into the investigation by another real-life character, Metropolitan Police CID Chief Constable Melville Macnaghten. Why them? Most of Macnaghten’s chief suspects are known to Wilde and, the detective says, “you are a poet, a Freemason and a man of the world. All useful qualifications for the business at hand.”

The police are resurrecting their failed investigation for several reasons. Because Macnaughten is writing a definitive report and would like to provide a conclusion. Because he wants to end speculation about the identity of the killer, which, in the absence of a definitive alternative, even occasionally extends to the late Prince Eddy, Duke of Clarence and Avondale. And, because a new murder has occurred that bears all the hallmarks of a Ripper case, except that the body was found not in Whitechapel but in Chelsea. More particularly, in the alley behind Tite Street, where Wilde and Macnaghten have their homes.

Whether you fully buy into the plausibility of this notion, you cannot deny that it makes for an entertaining read, as Brandreth is able to draw on the wide and diverse acquaintanceships Wilde had among members of London society, high and low. He does a creditable job of eliminating Macnaghten’s weaker suspects—the suicide John Druitt, the spiritualist Walter Wellbeloved, and actor Richard Mansfield. He avails himself of opportunities to mention Wilde’s friend, the painter Walter Sickert, briefly considered a suspect in real life. (As evidence of the long half-life of Jack the Ripper theories, American mystery author Patricia Cornwell produced her second book attempting a case against him last February.) Brandreth then constructs a scenario in which the more unsavory suspects and some new players can cavort.

Brandreth has written six other mysteries featuring Oscar Wilde and his circle, sometimes including Doyle, and he knows his principal character and their London milieu well. If you’re familiar with Wilde’s plays, you’ll recognize various lines in the witty epigrams he’s constantly spouting. Brandreth liberally butters the narrative with other literary allusions as well. There’s even a character named Bunbury, and you know what happened to him.

As to the clever resolution and identification of “the real Jack,” this may not be so satisfactory. The motivation is weak and the method (which I cannot reveal as it would be a spoiler) is now discredited, though it was thought effective in the Victorian era. These issues, which would be serious in a contemporary crime thriller, are almost beside the point in this book. It’s a case of the journey being more important—and entertaining—than the destination.

*****A Necessary Evil

Hindu God Baruda

photo: Keshav Mukund Kandhadai, creative commons license

By Abir Mukherjee – Reading this fast-paced police procedural is like a trip back in time to the British Raj, mid-1920. Calcutta-based Imperial Police Force Captain Sam Wyndham and his Sergeant Surendranath Banerjee—whom Wyndham insists on calling Surrender-not—find themselves embroiled in a complicated and politically tricky investigation.

An old school acquaintance of the Sergeant’s, Crown Prince Adhir Singh Sai of Sambalpore is visiting Calcutta to attend the formation of a Chamber of Princes, another in His Majesty’s Government’s urgent stratagems to dampen the population’s growing sentiment supporting Home Rule. While Wyndham and Banerjee are riding in a car with the Prince, he tells them he’s received anonymous death threats back home. Right on cue, a man dressed in the saffron robes of a Hindu priest steps in front of the car and shoots him dead. The two policemen investigate and find the attacker, who commits suicide rather than be taken.

Further steps in the investigation, it seems, will have to take place in Sambalpore, but as one of the larger and more important Princely States, Sambalpore is administered under the auspices of its Maharajah, not the British government. The Sergeant’s acquaintanceship with the prince provides an excuse for the pair of them to go to Sambalpore for the funeral and—strictly unofficially, of course—see what they can find out.

In an author’s note Mukherjee says there was an actual princely state of Sambalpur southwest of Calcutta, with a several thousand-year history. It was notable as a place where both diamonds and coal—which figure in the plot of the novel—were prevalent. Carbon in its various forms has made the fictional Maharaja of Sambalpore the fifth richest man in India, enabling the lavish lifestyle Wyndham and Surrender-not enjoy as his guests.

Sambalpore is also a center of the worship of Lord Jagannath, an avatar of Vishnu. The English word juggernaut, which refers to a merciless and unstoppable force, derives from the temple cars used in worshiping Jagannath and metaphorically in this novel, to the forces that ally to secure Sambalpore’s future.

As a first-person narrator, Wyndham is perceptive and charming. At times he plays his clueless Englishman card, as in the sobriquet for his sergeant. He good-naturedly criticizes their peon for not managing to master English, despite years of service, never turning that linguistic mirror on himself. The only cultural difficulty he seems unable to accommodate is the idea of an Englishwoman involved with an Indian man. Meanwhile, he’s adopted some local customs quite whole-heartedly, including the rituals and pleasures of opium-smoking.

Wyndham’s cultural blind spots are a clever narrative device for Mukherjee, who uses them to inform the Captain—and the reader—about social, political, and religious matters that impinge on the investigation. Mukherjee has created an engaging pair of police protagonists and an array of well-conceived secondary characters too.

As the plot unfolds, the complexity of Sambalpore palace life, the royal family, and the ambitious civil servants is spread out before you, and it is difficult to see how matters will resolve. Yet, time is short. The English diplomat stationed in Sambalpore, who has a deliciously gossipy wife, is determined to get rid of him and Surrender-not, and the two policemen may be put on the next train north to Calcutta at any moment.

Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine – May/June 2017

Ellery Queen

(photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

Beginning this year, EQMM—a prominent short story publisher with a 75-year history—began publishing six times a year. The issues are longer than the former single-month editions, and the policy was instituted undoubtedly to save mailing costs. I hope this doesn’t mean an eventual reduction in the number of stories EQMM publishes, because outlets for mystery/crime short stories are severely limited.

Judging by the quality of the May-June 2017 issue, there’s no shortage of entertaining content out there. Here are some of the stories I liked best:

  • “Charcoal and Cherry,” by Zoe Z. Dean, in which an amateur sleuth teams up with a retired police detective to unravel a cold-case murder.
  • “Rosalie Marx is Missing,” by Robert S. Levinson. A pair of amateur Las Vegas sleuths find a missing granddaughter. Lively banter.
  • “Find and Replace,” by Marjorie Eccles, an increasingly hilarious (and suspicious) exchange of letters between a homeowner and a newspaper’s gardening expert.
  • “Your Name Will Be Written in Lights,” by Jonathan Moore, author of last year’s excellent The Poison Artist. A show girl puts on the performance of her life.
  • “In the Time of the Voodoo,” by John Lantigua, high-tension effort to protect a Miami immigrant from her past and the Tonton Macoute.
  • “Angel Face,” by M.C. Lee, attention to detail may exonerate a wrongly convicted death row prisoner, in Florida, “a state where the statue of Blind Justice would be better suited standing in front of a Whac-A-Mole machine.”

Libraries and big box bookstores carry EQMM, or subscribe! Available in print and for the Kindle.

Books by some of the authors highlighted above:

*****The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley

clock

photo: Lorena a.k.a. Loretahur

By Hannah Tinti – Samuel Hawley wears the evidence of his past brushes with death on his skin, in the form of scarred-over bullet wounds that are the organizing principle of this fine book. Chapters describing the circumstances under which he got “Bullet Number One,” etc., are interspersed with chapters about his peaceful, if not uneventful, life with his late wife Lily and daughter Loo. Although Hawley is a criminal and the book details his many crimes, it’s also about love and retribution. It’s about universals as ancient as the twelve labors of Hercules.

Many chapters are told from the third-person point of view of the adolescent Loo. Typical of teenagers, she is mostly uncurious about her father’s past, accepting his scars and his affinity for firearms as merely the familiar backdrop of her own story. When the book opens, he’s retired from his life of crime, yet its first lines are “When Loo was twelve years old her father taught her how to shoot a gun.”

Hawley had a couple of misspent decades, starting with an armed robbery when he was a runaway teenager. His escapades were mostly as muscle-and-gun-for-hire on behalf of someone else, and several of them involved the acquisition of rare and costly timepieces. Gold pocket watches with diamond and sapphire star charts embedded in the case, a rare and ancient water clock called a clepsydra. Hawley hauled the cash, made the trade, returned with the goods. If only it always went that smoothly.

Tinti’s choice of time-pieces, and a few other recurrent themes in the narrative—celestial navigation, a great humpback whale, even water—give the book depth and resonance. If you prefer to focus on the fates of Loo and her father, both terrifically engaging characters, these themes do not intrude. (Apparently, the novel has already been optioned for television.)

Loo and Hawley have a strong, believable, and loving relationship, but their interactions with Lily’s mother, Mabel Ridge, are far more prickly and at times hilarious. When Lily had arranged for Hawley to meet her mother the first time, she was rightly apprehensive, but he was so in love with her, he was willing to face that Gorgon. “‘Right now,’ said Lily, ‘I’m glad you don’t have any parents.’ ‘Me, too,’ said Hawley. But he was lying. There’d been plenty of times over the past six months when he’d wished he had someone to show Lily off to.”

Tinti’s writing is full of similarly honest, unsentimental devotion. The only time his bond with Loo is seriously threatened is when the troublemaking Mabel Ridge makes a devastating accusation against him. When Loo confronts him, Hawley reacts in a way only this deeply imagined character could.

Tinti effectively describes their coastal people whose lives depend on the cold bite of the Atlantic Ocean and a continuing supply of fish. Among the townspeople is a lone, but inevitable woman doggedly advocating for making the locals’ fishing grounds—the Bitter Banks—a marine sanctuary. If you want to turn yourself into a hometown pariah, this is a good strategy.

Loo finally comes to understand the woman and her motivation, one that could serve as  a summary of the whole book: the desperate need to be loved. She sees that people’s hearts are “cycling through the same madness—the discovery, the bliss, the loss, the despair—like planets taking turns in orbit around the sun.” This desperation is as true for Hawley, with the ever-present likelihood his crimes will one day catch up to him, as for any of them. Or us.

Best Mystery, Crime, and Thriller Fiction – 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.