*****Ed’s Dead


photo: Kate Mereand-Sinha, creative commons license

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****What You Break

Long Island

photo: Shinya Suzuki, creative commons license

By Reed Farrel Coleman – Coleman’s latest crime novel is the second to feature retired Suffolk County cop John Augustus (Gus) Murphy. Coleman portrays his Long Island environment so well that his books carry a gritty realism and his characters live real, if doggedly unglamorous, lives. Says Washington Post reviewer Patrick Anderson, “His Long Island is scruffy, blue-collar, corrupt, choked by traffic and fueled by fast food, cheap beer and unrelenting anger. Jay Gatsby isn’t in the picture.”

Murphy is the security detail and after-hours van driver for the ironically named Paragon Hotel, located near Long Island’s MacArthur airport, and its night spot, the Full Flaps Lounge. His girlfriend Magdalena calls it a third-class hotel—“Second-class,” he corrects her. The job’s easy and doesn’t require any emotional investment. In other words, he can stay on auto-pilot, as he has been in almost every arena of his life since the sudden death of his 20-year-old son, a centerpiece of the earlier book.

The pain of losing his son and all the consequent chaos in his personal life has not gone away, but he’s managing it better now. The downside is that Murphy’s a bit less conscientious about his own safety than he perhaps ought to be, with two separate catastrophes looming on his personal horizon. He’s called in to investigate the apparently motiveless death of a young Vietnamese woman and he fingers one of the hotel guests as potential trouble. Correctly.

Murphy pokes the beast with inquiries into Linh Trang’s past and the hotel guest’s intentions, which puts him and possibly even Magdalena in jeopardy from rough and  determined characters. The plot moves quickly as the circle of people involved in both cases widens, ultimately reaching an inspired conclusion.

Award-winning author Coleman is also a poet, so it’s no surprise he’s been called the “noir poet laureate.” He paints compelling scenes and circumstances, as well as complex psychological portraits.  If you like non-stop action thrillers that nevertheless have some intellectual weight, this is a book to pick up and enjoy.

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:

Delicious Mayhem in 3 Crime Thrillers

reading, book

photo: Kamil Porembiński, creative commons license

Recent vacations gave me the chance to delve into my scary pile of “to-read” books, where I discovered these gems. I hope you’ll enjoy them too.

*****The Poison Artist

By Jonathan Moore – About this psychological thriller Stephen King said, “I haven’t read anything so terrifying since Red Dragon.” Based in San Francisco, it’s the story of a UCSF professor of toxicology asked to help look for the presence of poisons in a set of torture-murder victims. Something very grim haunts the scientist’s past, his wife has left him, and he becomes obsessed with a beautiful, absinthe-drinking woman named Emmeline, whom he meets in an exclusive late-night bar. As the number of victims increases and he comes to know Emmeline better, he suspects she may be linked to the murders, but could he give her up? Is he the next victim? Smartly written and thoroughly immersive.

****Forgiving Mariela Camacho

By A.J. Sidransky – NYPD detectives Pete Gonzalvez and Tolya Kurchenko discover the body of a young woman inside what’s meant to look like an elaborate suicide device, but they see what really happened: murder. And Gonzalvez knows the victim, a Dominican beauty named Mariela Camacho whom he once loved. Maybe still does. As this police procedural unwinds, you learn more about Gonzalvez’s early life in the Dominican Republic, and the code the people he grew up with lived by. Kurchenko also has reasons to look into his past and his family’s enemies in Russia. Past and present move toward a deadly collision in this fast-moving ride through the city streets. It’s also a powerful testament to friendship. The detectives’ banter—spiced with Dominican Spanish—is entertaining and genuine. The book won the 2016 David Award at the annual Deadly Ink conference.

****The Good Cop

By Brad Parks – Reporter Carter Ross is based in Newark, New Jersey, quietly rebelling against the commodification of the news for internet and social media tastes. This is the fourth book featuring Ross and his wicked sense of humor. He needs it, because his work takes him to some pretty dark places. Ross is looking into the suicide death of Newark policeman Darius Kipps and before long decides the death wasn’t a suicide at all. Clues are hard to come by, though, and he can recognize stonewalling when he encounters it. The paper accepts the official story, so he’s pretty much on his own, depending for help on a lively and engaging set of secondary characters. Absinthe is drunk (apparently I missed a trend here). You’re reminded of the importance of deep reporting and a commitment to uncovering the truth somehow lost in the era of “non-stop news” soundbites.

****Shadows the Sizes of Cities


photo: Carlos ZGZ, creative commons license

By Gregory W. BeaubienIn this tension-filled debut thriller, you get rather quickly to the point where you don’t trust anyone—and that includes first-person narrator Will Clark, who claims to be a travel writer from Chicago. Yet it always seems possible he might be something more. You never really learn how Will acquired his fighting skills or whether there is more to his agenda than appears on the surface. Beaubien takes advantage of using a first-person narrative to let Will tell you exactly what and how much he wants you to know.

The book starts in Madrid, where Will is waiting to hook up with three friends for a trip to Morocco and a writing assignment. He needs money, and he’s preoccupied with “the Dutchman’s offer,” a mysterious phrase invoked a couple of times too many, though when the explanation finally comes, it turns the story on its head.

If you don’t trust Will, you certainly don’t trust his friends. There’s Tammy, the spoiled rich girl accustomed to having the whole world bend to her wishes, and her loser (Will’s opinion) Irish boyfriend Nigel. Nor do you trust Will’s women—the unpleasant Marissa, especially, and Stacy, who’s just arrive on the scene. Stacy keeps turning up, her cool blonde beauty a salve to Will’s overheated spirit, but who is she, really?

Tammy and Nigel and Will and Marissa meet up in Madrid before heading across the Strait of Gibraltar to Tangier. The couple recklessly embroils Will and Marissa in a small-town drug deal that goes frightfully bad. People are dead, and the escape south to Marrakesh is risky. I really don’t want to say more about the fast-moving plot, to let you discover its surprises for yourself.

Much of the excitement in reading the book is that the story—and Will—are never predictable. You can’t be sure where you’ll end up—geographically, morally, or metaphorically. If there’s a fault in the writing, it is that Beaubien (via Will) tends to name the emotions he’s feeling, rather than trusting the readers to discern them through his Will’s actions.

Beaubien is a journalist and has a reporter’s eye for descriptive detail that takes you right to where you feel the gritty desert, the heat, and the hostile stares of the men in tea shops. If you’ve been to Morocco, you will experience it all again, down to the hair-raising trek over the Atlas mountains. If you haven’t, you’ll believe you have. This dense atmosphere is one of the book’s most compelling aspects.


“Super-Recognizers”: A Crime-Fighting Super-Power


photo: Kevan, creative commons license

The ability to recognize faces is a neurological trait that some people are simply better at than others. You can test yourself here. People at the lowest end of the spectrum lack this perceptual ability altogether. In these extreme cases, mothers cannot recognize their own children; colleagues don’t recognize someone they’ve worked with for years. At this level, the condition is called prosopagnosia, “face-blindness,” and some degree of difficulty recognizing faces may affect about 14 million Americans.

For many years, interest in this trait focused on people who have problems recognizing faces. When recent scientific advances indicated the trait exists on a continuum, this opened interest in people who have a superior ability to recognize faces. Detective Chief Inspector Mick Neville of London’s Metropolitan Police Service (the Met) thought he had a job for them: identifying criminals.

London is the perfect place to test Neville’s idea, according to a fascinating article by Patrick Radden Keefe in The New Yorker. London has the densest concentration of closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras in the world—more than a million of them, mostly in the hands of homeowners and businesses. Keefe quotes former London Mayor Boris Johnson as saying, “When you walk down the streets of London, you are a movie star.”

Crime fiction writers will have a field day with this. The “super-recognizers” seem ideally suited for solving cold cases and identifying suspects in real time. On the other side of the courtroom, smart defense attorneys—I’m thinking Mickey Haller here—might chip away at the facial-recognition ability of “eye-witnesses.”

In the 1990s, installation of cameras was promoted throughout London as a crime prevention measure, but it turned out to be a weak deterrent. There were too many images, they were too hard to analyze, and though the camera recorded lots of crimes, nothing came of this evidence, because the images couldn’t be matched to specific people. Last weekend, NewYork/NewJersey bombing suspect Ahmad Khan Rahami was captured on camera at both Manhattan bomb sites, but it was the fingerprint left at the scene that led to his identification and the match with the man seen on camera.

Early on, Neville headed a unit that analyzed this CCTV footage, trying to make identifications. It was slow work. But when he learned about super-recognizers, he saw the potential benefit of recruiting people who might be extra-skilled at the process.

Now a small, dedicated unit within the Met is assembling an image database, which has more than 100,000 pictures of unidentified suspects in crimes recorded by CCTV. Unit experts compare these images with mug shots of known criminals. They collect images of the same individual at different crime scenes; if the person in one of the images is finally identified, multiple crimes are solved. And, knowing when and where multiple images of the same person were captured gives clues to a criminal’s behavior patterns.

This is, says Scientific American, a very special super-power.

Friday: The Future of Facial Recognition: Man vs. Machine?

Information vs. Confession: New Police Interrogators

Punch & Judy, police

photo: Dan Dickinson, creative commons license

Mystery and crime fiction readers (and writers!) may soon encounter a new approach to police interrogation that may be more effective at producing solid information and valid confessions. Until the mid-1930s, suspected criminals were subjected to the “third degree,” which often included bodily harm or at least the threat of it—like dangling a suspect out of a window (!).

Currently, police mostly use confrontational techniques “a rusty, stalwart invention that’s been around since the days of JFK,” says reporter Robert Kolker in the current issue of Wired.

These supposedly more scientific techniques are based on psychological manipulation, in which police attempt to persuade their suspect that confession is their only reasonable choice. Hallmarks of the technique are the claustrophobic interview room in which detectives appear absolutely convinced of a suspect’s guilt and present a damning version of facts (and even made up “facts”) that paint the suspect as the culprit. (If you want to see a memorable demonstration of this technique, check out this terrific YouTube clip from The Wire.)

The developers of confrontational interrogation justified the use of false information and other tricks because they—and many cops trained in their methods as well as judges and prosecutors—were convinced an innocent person simply would not confess to a crime he did not commit. This post demonstrates what a tragically wrongful conviction that was. Evidence against its reliability started piling up when DNA analysis became available and a large number of convictions were thrown out, even though the accused at some point “confessed.” Further, and contrary to expectation, Kolker says, “The more confident police officers are about their judgments, the more likely they are to be wrong.”

Now a growing number of police departments, starting with the LAPD, recognizes the shaky science behind these methods and are moving to an “investigative” approach more similar to that long used in England and Canada. As a joint effort of the FBI, CIA and Pentagon, the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG) studied interrogation techniques around the world, with an eye to producing valid confessions and avoiding false ones among terrorists. Bottom line: “If you want accurate information, be as non-accusatorial as possible.” Now they are trying to spread the word throughout domestic police departments.

I can see changes in fiction—plots where one officer is trained in the HIG techniques, but the partner resists; repeat criminals unnerved by the change in police attitude; and the expansion of information police have to work with when their questioning causes suspects to simply clam up. Of course, in both fiction and real life, many skilled interviewers have used these techniques for years, without official sanction. (Fictional detective Lt. Colombo comes immediately to mind as a possible, possibly extreme example.) Any attempt to change the culture of policing is ripe for drama.

Photographic Evidence

Julius Caesar, bust

Julius Caesar (photo: William Warby, creative commons license)

On view in New York now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Gilman Gallery is “Crime Stories: Photography and Foul Play” for those whose interest in crime stories goes beyond the fictional to the grittily real. Since its earliest days, photography and other arts have been used to document crime and its purported perpetrators.

In this assemblage, crime-related photography from the 1850s to the present has been assembled from photojournalists, including such auteurs as Diane Arbus and Walker Evans, and a great many more dubious and less artistic sources. The resulting exhibition of some 70 works will be on display through July 31, 2016.

Among the highlights of the installation are such early examples of the genre as Alexander Gardner’s documentation of the aftermath of the assassination of President Lincoln, and rare forensic photographs by Alphonse Bertillon. In the Paris of the late 1800s, detectives throughout Europe and the United States were using Bertillon’s methods—called “bertillonage”—to identify criminals. According to the Met’s website, Bertillon’s system of criminal identification paved the way for the modern mug shot. Psychological research over the decades has failed to eradicate the “common-sense” perception that malefactors can be detected by the way they look.

In the current day, Bertillon’s methods have been displaced by much more scientific measurement and identification techniques, such as modern fingerprinting, iris scanning, and other biometric assessments.

Says the Met, in addition to the photographs on display, the exhibition will feature work by artists who have used the criminal underworld as a source of inspiration. These include Richard Avedon, Walker Evans, Andy Warhol, and Weegee. (Weegee was the pseudonym for a New York City press photographer in the 1930s and 1940s, who developed a very stark, black and white, photojournalistic style and found his subjects by trailing city emergency service workers.)

While many of the works on view may suggest an impulse for artistic debridement of the incomprehensible wounds violence inflicts, New York Times critic Ken Johnson found the exhibition “confused and confusing.” Perhaps that’s because the impulses that lead to crime and its aftermath are not necessarily coherent. They are open to interpretation.

That very confusion at the heart of the matter is part of the fascination. But, see the exhibit, and decide for yourself.

****On the Road with Del and Louise

Route 66, highway, Arizona

(photo: wikimedia.org)

By Art Taylor– Is it OK to say a book by a male author is “charming”? Regardless of possible gender-bias, this book is. Del and Louise are a couple brought together by crime. They met when Del was robbing the 7-11 in Eagle Nest, New Mexico, where Louise worked. They stay together during a succession of American-style self-reinventions aimed at getting a “fresh start,” reinventions that invariably wind up in one shady enterprise or another, and they ultimately . . . well, read the book and find out.

Taylor is an award-winning short story writer, and the individual chapters of this picaresque could stand alone. In fact, the first two chapters have done so, in past issues of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, where I first read and admired his work. His stories have won numerous Derringer, Agatha, and Macavity awards and are frequently anthologized.

What’s especially fun about On the Road is how well Taylor develops the two principal characters. Del wants to do right, to get straight, but it just isn’t happening, and Louise isn’t above a little larceny herself, if it promotes the couple’s welfare. Del’s intelligence is complemented by Louise’s cleverness in a pinch, and Del’s planning skills by Louise’s gut instincts. Together, they are a “doing the best they can” pair and their story is filled with humor and insight into human failings. The people they meet along the way have plenty of those, as they do themselves.

Their adventures are recounted by Louise in a straightforward and wry narrative voice that includes plenty of insight into her own shortcomings. Although the text is relatively unembellished, Taylor allows himself some spot-on literary flourishes (for instance, when he describes an early morning near Taos as “the sun creeping up, the boil not yet on the day”) and comic bits: “If that first winery we went to was upper crust, the bar in Napa was sure the bottom of the pie.”

Their travels take them from New Mexico to Victorville and Napa Valley, California, then to a comically disastrous scene in a Las Vegas wedding chapel (do I even need to say “cheesy”?). A stint in the North Dakota oil fields proves financially rewarding and emotionally bankrupting. There, Louise learns anew that “The reasons you do things don’t always make up for the doing of them.” Finally they reach North Carolina, Louise’s home state, and her acerbic mother Cora. Her relentless belittling and undermining of Del are priceless, as if all the wicked thrusts and jabs of a lifetime must be desperately delivered in one short visit.

Taylor has created an enjoyable tale and some nerve-wracking adventures without the need for a gruesome body count or far-fetched end-of-the-word-as-we-know-it scenarios. Because the story is so grounded in imperfect humanity and told so convincingly, we share Del and Louise’s bumpy ride, rooting for them every mile of the way. While their lives will never be trouble-free, the reader senses they will always be good.

A longer version of this review appeared on the Crime Fiction Lover website.

***Ellery Queen – February to May 2015

Sherlock Holmes, detective

(photo: wikimedia)

The short stories in the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine sometimes lead me to authors whose books I also enjoy. Here are several of the stories I especially liked from the February, March/April, and May 2015 issues:

  • Terence Faherty’s “The Man with the Twisted Lip”—a Sherlock Holmes parody—very entertaining. Faherty is an award-winning mystery writer with two long-running series. His most recent stand-alone novel, The Quiet Woman, set in Ireland, was published last year. [February issue]
  • “Leap of Faith” by Brendan DuBois about the lengths a boy will go to in order to protect his sister. DuBois’s most recent book is Fatal Harbor (2014) features his “fascinating character” (Boston Globe), former Defense Department analyst Lewis Cole.[February issue]
  • Loren D. Estleman’s story, “The Black Spot,” has hitman Peter Macklin doing clean-up for a Detroit-area mafia chieftain. Estleman’s 2014 book Don’t Look for Me is book 23 in a series featuring Detroit private investigator Amos Walker, “who views a dishonest world with a cynical eye—and is still disappointed” (Booklist).[March/April]
  • In “The Lovers of Traber,” private eye Willie Cuesta travels from the Miami he inhabits in Pulitzer-winning journalist John Lantigua’s crime novels to a rural Florida farming area to sort out a romantic interest gone too far afield. His most recent Latin-flavored book is On Hallowed Ground. [March/April]
  • Art Taylor’s first-person story “Commission” is told with a good sense of humor and will appear this fall in his book of short stories, On the Road with Del and Louise. [May]
  • “A Loneliness to the Thought,” by Michael Caleb Tasker, is set in New Orleans, with a teenage narrator whose life has that amber-enclosed feel of adolescence, while a series of murders takes place in the city. Nice evocation of place. Watch for his short stories. [May]

Always an entertaining read and available digitally from Amazon, B&N, Google Play, Kobo, Apple iPad, and Magzter.