****Broken Windows

Los Angeles, Hollywood

James Gubera, creative commons license

By Paul D. Marks – Paul Marks’s second Duke Rogers PI thriller is a follow-up to the recently reissued White Heat, a Shamus award-winner, recently reissued. Rogers, principal narrator of this entertaining tale, has the sly humor of a modern-day Philip Marlowe and a similar penchant for attracting trouble.

Maybe it’s something about Los Angeles—too much sun, too much tinsel, too many people trying too hard, too much too much—that makes it the perfect setting for so many great noir novels. The prologue describes a quintessential Los Angeles move: the suicide of an aspiring actress who takes a dive off the iconic Hollywood sign. Her death hangs out there, disconnected, waiting for PI Rogers to reel it into the story.

Rogers is a famous guy around LA, famous for a detective, anyway. He’s the one who solved the murder of up-and-coming starlet Teddie Matson, recounted in White Heat. The frequent acknowledgements of his success rub salt in a wound that has not healed. Though he caught Teddie’s killer, people don’t know that it was he who mistakenly told the killer how to find her.

Out for a stroll with his new dog, Rogers encounters the neighbor’s housekeeper walking her employer’s Yorkies. Marisol Rivera is young, pretty, Mexican, and illegal. And she has a problem. Her brother’s been found dead. The police say un accidente, but Marisol believes it was murder. She thinks they’re reluctant to invest time and effort in the case because Carlos, too, was undocumented.

Eventually Rogers persuades Marisol to let him help her, but wading into a highly charged political swamp is a good way to encounter alligators, and soon there’s a second body to account for—this one a man high in the bureaucracy of the Catholic Church. When he turns up dead shortly after visiting Rogers, the local police figure him a person of particular interest.

Marks writes with an easy style that carries you through the story and creates engaging characters to spike your interest. His Los Angeles is familiar and believable. He softens Rogers around the edges by giving him a new dog needing care, a friend who has earned and receives unswerving loyalty, and a woman he would like to reconnect with. She’s the sister of the dead starlet Teddie Matson, and his guilt over Matson’s death keep him from picking up the phone. Yet he obsesses about her. Perhaps a bit too much.

Marks places this story in the broader political context of California Proposition 187, a 1994 ballot initiative aimed at curbing the flow of illegal immigrants into the state and denying them public services. Characters in the story represent various stakeholder groups and positions that resonate with today’s vicious public policy debates.)

But this is, of course, not a political essay, but a mystery, and, in the quest for Carlos’s killer, Rogers must peel back the masks worn in public by these various elected officials and community leaders. It’s always a treat to see hypocrisy stripped bare, and Rogers finds that what these stalwarts say to their constituents about immigration is more a reflection of self-interest than principle.

Part of the story is told from the point of view of Eric Davies, a disbarred lawyer whose downward spiral has landed him in a cockroach-infested apartment in Venice, California. He is out of luck and out of prospects unless someone answers his desperate advert saying he will “do anything for money.” Someone does. The writing of Eric’s chapters is very close in. You are inside his addled, frustrated head, and hope that when the time comes, despite all indications to the contrary, he will do the right thing.

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Toronto: Backdrop for Mystery

Park Bench, snow

Trang Pham, pexels license

Two very different mystery/thrillers from authors based in Canada, where everyone is supposed to be so nice. !

*****Bellevue Square

By Michael Redhill – A compelling contemporary psychological thriller set in Toronto, Bellevue Square won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s most prestigious literary award and is now out in paperback.

Narrator Jean Mason runs a downtown bookshop. When customers begin mistaking her for Ingrid—a woman they know from Kensington Market—Jean decides to track down this supposed doppelganger.

She stakes out a bench at the market’s heart, Bellevue Square, and observes the comings and goings of the folk living and trading nearby. The richly described life of the square becomes the center of the novel and of Jean’s attention. The Bellevue Square regulars are “a peculiar collection of drug addicts, scam artists, philanthropists, philosophers and vagrants.” Author Redhill gives them distinctive personalities and preoccupations that are occasionally comic, yet never cruel.

As Jean gets to know them, she likes them and they her. She lets them know she will pay for information about Ingrid and they come up with sightings and information, but should she trust it? Her husband Ian, a policeman, insists on knowing where she’s spending her days, and when she takes him there, his fresh and unsentimental eyes see a collection of loonies. “So this is how you’ve been spending your time? With these kinds of people?”

You hope Jean is successful in her quest for Ingrid, even as its likelihood dwindles. Redhill says Bellevue Square “is a literary novel but has one foot in mystery and a couple of toes in psychological thriller,” and Jean’s reality cracks and splinters around you in unique and unexpected ways. Well worth a read.

P.S. Until recently, the Bellevue Square of the novel was a real location in Toronto. In the spring of 2017, reports Redhill in his acknowledgements, the city’s Parks, Forests and Recreation division razed it. He says, “My regards to the City of Toronto for enthusiastically illustrating some of the themes in my work.”

 ***The Language of Secrets

By Ausma Zehanat Khan – Now also out in paperback, is Ausma Zehanat Khan’s second Toronto-based thriller featuring Esa Khattak,  head of the Community Policing Section, and his sergeant and chief sounding-board, Rachel Getty. As winter sets in, the Canadian authorities are trying to thwart a rumored New Year’s Day terrorist attack and Khattak’s friend, Muslim intelligence officer Mohsin Dar, has infiltrated the plotters. Then he’s murdered.

Khan vividly describes the icy, remote location where key scenes take place, as well as the cramped urban mosque where the police believe the plotters meet. Their putative ringleader is a charismatic but evasive man named Hassan Ashkouri who speaks in riddles and poetry.

Khattak is tasked with finding Dar’s killer. For personal reasons, Inspector Ciprian Coale, who heads the team trying to stop the terrorists, is determined to thwart Khattak’s investigation at every turn. He’s not above suggesting that Dar may not have been playing straight with him and hints Khattak may be equally unreliable.

Politics is thus intertwined with many aspects of this story, and every move Khattak makes is subject to political interpretation by his rivals, the news media, and the minority communities he serves. This slant on police work give his investigation an appealing timeliness. However, the author occasionally stops writing fiction in order to provide a lecture on political topics.

Khattak’s sister Ruksh has a new man in her life, one she plans to marry—coincidentally, the terrorist leader Hassan Ashkouri. In her reflexive hostility toward her older brother and her defiant determination to pursue the relationship she acts more like a sulky teenager than a grown woman. By contrast, Rachel Getty, Khattak’s sergeant, is an appealing character. Khan gives her an interesting background as a competitive hockey player with an important all-star game imminent, yet she doesn’t go to hockey practice once during the entire novel.

Although the desire to learn the fates of these characters kept me reading, Khan’s prose is murky at times; at others, she telegraphs too much, announcing, that a character just made a big mistake, for example. Show, don’t tell.

As a bottom line, this book contains unusual characters and situations that should carry you through the uneven patches in the writing.

*****Broken Ground

Scottish Highlands, thistle

usameredith, creative commons license

By Val McDermid—There’s a reason readers around the world look forward to a new book by the “queen of crime,” and her legions of fans will not be disappointed with this one! Val McDermid’s new police procedural is her fifth crime thriller featuring Edinburgh police cold case detective Karen Pirie, who’s not above putting her faith in the value of her work above the priorities of her superiors.

Pirie and her trusty ally, Detective Constable Jason Murray, and her untrustworthy new detective sergeant, “that utter shitehawk Gerry McCartney”—sent by the new Assistant Chief Constable Ann Markie to spy on Pirie, she’s sure—try to unravel three different cold cases.

They’re tackling the first, a series of brutal 30-year-old rapes, with recently obtained information about a vehicle that may have been involved. In the second, they’re flouting the rules to stay involved in a current-day situation: Pirie has overheard two women in a coffee shop planning to confront a hostile estranged husband. It’s a poor strategy with a strong potential for violence, and Pirie tells them so—advice not received as kindly as it was intended. It’s a testament to McDermid’s narrative skills that the pursuit of these two cases, subplots, really, are every bit as engaging as the team’s biggest and much more tangled investigation.

In an opening scene set in Wester Ross, Scotland, in 1944, two friends bury a pair of large crates in a peat bog. Seventy years later, the granddaughter of one of them returns to the Highlands to claim her inheritance. Using her grandfather’s map to the hiding place, she and her husband approach the local crofter, Hamish Mackenzie, a handsome fellow who might have swaggered out of the pages of Outlander. He agrees to help them dig.

The excavation proceeds smoothly. One crate up: in it, a pristine (I won’t say what; I’ll let you discover this treasure for yourself). They unearth the second crate, but it seems to have been disturbed, perhaps by the dead man lying on top of it. The body is remarkably well preserved, due to the peculiar characteristics of peat bogs. However it came there, it wasn’t recently, which means the investigation is in the remit of Pirie’s Historic Cases Unit.

McDermid is much-praised for her brilliant evocation of the places, mores, and culture of Scotland, as well as the procedures and rivalries within Police Scotland. As a result, the atmosphere she creates is believable down to the last wisp of mist. Introducing Hamish Mackenzie as a potential love interest for Pirie adds a bit of Celtic spice.

Although the cases Pirie works on are old, the investigation methods brought into play are fascinatingly up-to-the-minute. DNA analysis, deployed in the rape case, is only one of them. Rapid reconstruction of the bog corpse’s appearance is another. Analysis and enhancement of cell phone contents is yet a third. McDermid, who has a great interest in forensics, likes to get these technologies right, and she gives Pirie a pair of worthy confederates: her friends River Wilde, a forensic anthropologist, and Tamsin, head of a laboratory in Police Scotland’s Gartcosh Crime Centre. They, like she, believe families should not have to wait one day longer than necessary to learn the fate of their loved one.

Though Pirie occasionally missteps, mostly by treading on the toes of other police officials, and especially ACC Markie, McDermid never puts a foot wrong. Her prose is so clear and engaging, this is a book that will keep you turning pages. Like Pirie, you will be hungry for just that one more bit of evidence.

****The Skeleton Road

Having read the six books I took to Sicily, I raided my last hotel’s shelf of abandoned books and picked up this 2014 thriller by McDermid, which entangles Pirie and Murray in a case of long-ago war crimes, revenge, and distorted justice. The eight-hour airplane ride flew by!

 

Vacation Reading, Italian Style

chalk outline, body

(image: pixabay, creative commons license)

Seventeen days out of the country, two eight-plus hour air flights, how many books should I pack? Always the burning question. This time, it turns out, not enough. I packed six and had to raid the hotel guest discards shelf for the return flight. Picked a good one too.

Here are quick reviews of five of them:

****Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine – The nearly 200 pages of this bi-monthly is like reading an entire book, one where you sometimes meet old literary friends, as in:

  • J.Rozan’s tale about the quick-wittedness of an elderly Chinese woman in “Chin Yong-Un Helps a Fool.” One of Chin’s previous escapades garnered Rozan a 2018 Edgar Award nomination.
  • Doug Allyn’s Dylan LaCrosse from Valhalla, Michigan, P.D. in another entertaining story steeped in the ethos of the Upper Peninsula.
  • Richard Helms’s Pat Gallagher, an unlicensed P.I. who roams New Orleans’s French Quarter, toting his cornet and stumbling into trouble. And
  • Lou Manfredo’s Sgt. Joe Rizzo, dealing with a “Brooklyn playboy murdered.”

**The Third Act, by John Wilson – This book which turned out to be YA, I hadn’t realized, blew an interesting premise. An Ohio drama program director writes a concluding act for an unfinished play by the program’s most illustrious graduate. The play is set in China at the time of the Nanjing Massacre of 1937, and the scenes in China create the sense of reading a play—little scene description, a few gestures. But the modern-day framing story is weak, and its grim conclusion sends an unsuitable message for young audiences, in my opinion.

****Faithless Elector by James McCrone – This is a look at one of the ways the U.S. Electoral College might be manipulated to propel a losing candidate into the Oval Office—entertaining and bone-chilling at the same time. Well-written with a bit of a logic stretch here and there. Particularly unnerving (and plausible) is that the conspiracy was discovered only by a fluke.

*****Twice Buried by Steven F. Havill – I love these evocative Posadas County Mysteries, which are fine-grained police procedurals. In this one, Undersheriff Bill Gastner takes great care investigating the apparently accidental death of an unexceptional old woman whose death (and life) law enforcement might tend to write off, and that makes all the difference.

****Half a Chance by John Perrotta – A quick read, this book is steeped in the action and lore of the thoroughbred race track. Someone’s playing fast and loose with big wads of cash, and can he keep all his financial transactions afloat while he rides out of town with the greenbacks? Lots of fun, strong characters, some redemption, and a fine evocation of horse-racing’s arcane world.

Listen Up! Take 2

earphones

photo: John O’Nolan, creative commons license

Three notable audiobooks for your consideration: the fantastic debut novel She Rides Shotgun, award-nominee The Breakdown, and Hangman, follow-up to last year’s mega-hit, Ragdoll. Starting with the best of the three.

*****She Rides Shotgun
By Jordan Harper, narrated by David Marantz – Winner of the 2018 Edgar Award for best debut novel, this is the audio equivalent of a real page-turner (though I’m never tempted to listen at 2x speed!). When Nate McClusky leaves prison after refusing to work for the dangerous gang Aryan Steel, a death warrant is issued for him and his family. He finds out how determined the killers are when he discovers his ex-wife and her new husband murdered, and realizes his eleven-year-old daughter Polly will be next. He picks her up at school before the killers find her, and the chase is on. They’re practically strangers to each other, as he’s been incarcerated for most of her childhood. She’s a quirky kid, shy and smart as a whip, teddy bear in tow.

Nate hasn’t had much parenting experience, but he warms to the role, and two have terrifying—and sometimes heartwarming—adventures roaming Southern California, as they gradually become partners in evading their would-be killers as well as the police. Betrayal is a constant anxiety. Based on the premise—the criminal dad, the kid—I didn’t think I’d like this book as much as I did, no small part of which relates to Marantz’s excellent narration.

Another recent and remarkable book about a criminal father raising a daughter was Hannah Tinti’s The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, also an award nominee.

***The Breakdown
By B.A. Paris, narrated by Georgia Maguire – Another domestic thriller of the “is she going crazy, or is someone doing this to her?” variety. Unfortunately, the big reveal seemed obvious early on, which tarnished the entertainment value. I selected it because the book was on the “Best Novel” short-list for a 2018 Thriller Award. Compared to the other two nominees I read, it falls short of the nail-biting excitement of Gin Phillips’s Fierce Kingdom or the fascination of Dan Chaon’s Ill Will.

Rain on Windshield

Iwan Gabovitch, creative commons license

The story takes place in and around a mid-sized English market town. One night, as Cass is driving through the woods to her isolated (natch) home in a terrible rainstorm, she sees a woman in her car, stopped by the side of the road. Since the woman doesn’t appear to be in distress, rather than get drenched, she doesn’t offer aid. The next morning, she learns the woman has been murdered. And that she knows her.

Guilt over not helping, strange occurrences that make her think the killer may now be stalking her, and fear that, like her mother, she may be suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s make for a pretty mopey outlook. The narration reflects that, though I admire Maguire’s portrayal of the long-suffering husband. You can hear—and empathize with—his growing doubts about his wife’s mental state. If you like the “gaslight” sub-genre, you may enjoy this.

**Hangman
By Daniel Cole, narrated by Alex Wyndham – This book follows on the successful 2017 thriller Ragdoll, and involves some of the same characters, charged with solving a series of baffling murders that hits London and New York. Are they Ragdoll-related or grisly copycats? DCI Emily Baxter, who was key to solving the Ragdoll case, is flown to New York to liaise [!]. I like how prickly she is—don’t try to sweet-talk her for god’s sake! The CIA operative is an engaging character too.

I’m not squeamish, but my lack of enthusiasm for Hangman derives from its excess of sadistic violence, which appeared ramped up for shock value. A male narrator was chosen for the audiobook, though usually the narrator’s gender matches that of the protagonist. Possibly the publishers thought the extreme violence would be better portrayed in a male voice, and Wyndham does a fine job presenting UK and US characters of varying ethnicities.

Read an earlier Listen Up! compilation here.

Pages vs. the Silver Screen – 2018 Edition

BlacKkKlansman

BlacKkKlansmanThe real-life Ron Stallworth infiltrated the KKK in the late 70s, but in his movie, director Spike Lee resets the action earlier in the decade and makes some other changes for a stunning result. Every thoughtful American should see this riveting film (trailer), which ping-pongs between comedy and tragedy, passing repeatedly through high drama and providing first-rate acting from a fine cast, start to finish.

The comedy part comes from the ability of Colorado Springs’s first black police officer, Stallworth (played by John David Washington), to convince a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and even former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) that he’s actually a hate-filled white racist. The tragedy comes from considering that the racial issues that divided the country in the 1970s remain painfully relevant today. In a grim coincidence, I saw this film on August 12, the one-year anniversary of Charlottesville’s deadly white supremacist rally.

Stallworth built his unlikely relationships by phone, but when his physical presence was needed, his white colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) stood in. Spike Lee could have made a predictable film out of this basic material, but he works it, proving nuance and impact. He intercuts footage of a KKK initiation ceremony with scenes from a black student organization’s meeting with an aging civil rights figure (Harry Belafonte). Two speeches received with wild enthusiasm by totally different audiences bookend the story: a compelling stemwinder early in the film by Corey Hawkins as Kwame Ture, the name adopted by former Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael, and, near the end of the film, a speech by David Duke carefully designed to mask his underlying meaning and make it more palatable to mainstream.

Self-awareness, loyalty, respect, humanity—these values are all on view, as are their opposites.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 97%; audiences 77%.

Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace Based on Peter Rock’s 2009 novel My Abandonment, this film, directed by Debra Granik, raises a lot of questions it doesn’t answer (trailer). It was inspired by the true episode, which you can read about on Rock’s website, that in its conclusion is more unsettling than the film.

For four years, Vietnam Veteran Will (played by Ben Foster) has lived with his adolescent daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) in Portland’s 5200-acre Forest Park, their camouflaged encampment further hidden by waist-high vegetation. Will apparently suffers from PTSD, and selling the drugs the VA gives him is one way the pair makes money. They visit the city for groceries and other supplies, though most of their time is spent in the rain forest.

Eventually, they are discovered. Unexpectedly, the authorities make a heroic effort to find a living arrangement that Will can tolerate. Helicopters spook him. Crowds spook him. Many things. For Tom’s benefit, he struggles to adapt to a more regularized life. The love between them is palpable, but will it be enough?

Foster gives a strong performance; McKenzie has received considerable praise, though the scanty dialog doesn’t give her much to work with, and she hits just a few emotional notes. You can count the times she smiles on one hand.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 100%; audiences 86%.

The Book – Film Smackdown

Quite a few other movies this year are based on well-regarded books, as noted in this Literary Hub article. Which works better? Based on Book Marks ratings for books and Rotten Tomatoes for films, here’s the score:

  • Both darn good: Annihilation, Crazy Rich Asians, We the Animals, Lean on Pete, Sharp Objects, The Wife, The Looming Tower (I’m watching it on Hulu now)
  • Books markedly better than the movie: Red Sparrow, The Yellow Birds, Ready Player One, On Chesil Beach, Dietland
  • Movies markedly better than the book: Uh-oh.
  • Still to come in 2018: Bel Canto (read the book years ago; looking forward to the film and Ken Watanabe!)

****Texas Two-Step

cowboy boots

photo: Robert Stinnett, creative commons license

By Michael Pool – In this novel of crimes, both petty and not-so, Michael Pool takes you from the laid-back atmosphere of Colorado, where marijuana growing, possession, and sale is legal to rural Teller County in East Texas where it definitely is not. The county’s official policy is strictly anti-pot, rigorously enforced by its long-time sheriff, Jack Gables, who is especially diligent if he isn’t getting a cut of the action.

Transplanted Texans Cooper Daniels and Trevor Davis, close friends from childhood, have been living in Colorado for years. They think of their Texas drug deal as just going home for a spell, but home has changed, and they’ll have to dance a pretty lively two-step to stay out of jail and, maybe, out of the cemetery.

Cooper believes it’s worth the risk of selling his organic crop to the sketchy Texas drug dealer, “Sancho” Watts, because he’s vowed this deal will be his last. He’s turning a new leaf and has sworn to acquire himself a legitimate career to please his pregnant girlfriend. If he doesn’t shape up, she’s leaving him.

Cooper and Davis seem like good-natured stoners, but Watts is a wild man. Some time before the story starts, Watts sold a psychedelic drug to the grandson of a Texas state senator, and the boy killed himself. Now the legislator wants revenge, and he’s tapped Texas Ranger Russ Kirkpatrick to get something on Watts—anything, just so it puts him in jail for a long stretch.

To Kirkpatrick, the senator is a pest with a strong sense of entitlement. But the politician is not letting go, and if Kirkpatrick doesn’t produce, he’ll be a Ranger no more. While he’d rather not have this assignment, he has it, and it leads him to Teller County where the sheriff is notorious for pulling in the welcome mat when out-of-town law enforcement arrives.

Sancho Watts has teamed up with a Teller County celebrity, and you’d have to appreciate how much Texans love their football to understand the full significance of this partnership. The young man is former University of Texas footballer Bobby Burnell who lost his budding pro football career in a freak accident.

The separate strands of the story move smoothly toward an inevitable showdown, the outcome of which could go a number of different ways, most of them disastrous. Focusing on the action, Pool is light on description, and he writes good, humor-laced dialog. This is a book for fans of how things are done in Texas. Big. Very big.

***Animal Instinct: Human Zoo

Elephant - Sam Felder

photo: Sam Felder, creative commons license

By Simon Booker (this is an Audible Original, narrated by Imogen Church with a strong cast portraying the characters). PTSD has left former police detective Joe Cassidy (played by Brendan Coyle—Bates on Downton Abbey) with debilitating panic attacks. To get away from the world, he’s set himself up in a remote cottage on Dungeness Beach in Kent, but the world comes to him when he’s contacted by an old friend. Adam Pennyfeather (Joseph Marcell) inherited a wild animal park, and once saved Cassidy’s life when he was almost trampled by an elephant. Adam’s daughter Bella has gone missing, and he wants Cassidy to help find her. As a friend. As someone who owes him.

Cassidy is also on hiatus from his marriage to Katie (Lia Williams), herself a police detective, who’s handling the investigation of Bella’s disappearance. When Bella’s body is found in the elephant house, strung up like a side of meat, Katie is handed her first murder investigation. This creates inevitable tension between the couple, acting in their official and unofficial capacities.

The fault lines in the Pennyfeather family gradually reveal themselves. Adam’s wife is Isabel (Victoria Hamilton), and his younger daughter is Saffron (Rebekah Hinds). She and her husband, pizza entrepreneur Liam O’Mara (Harry Lloyd), tell Cassidy about Isabel’s lifelong loathing of her younger brother Felix, now Adam’s lawyer, and how Isabel preferred her daughters to her son Gabriel. His birth led to serious post-partum psychosis for which she was hospitalized. Fearing for the boy’s safety, Adam put him up for adoption many years before, and has since learned that Gabriel died in a motorcycle accident.

Trying to worm her way into Cassidy’s orbit is a relentless local journalist, an Australian woman named Chrissy McBride. Brigid Lohrey makes this character so annoying that, along with Cassidy, you’ll probably think, “Oh, no, not her again!”

Cassidy believes his wife is seeing someone, was seeing someone while they were married, at least early on, and that their son Luke is the other man’s child. Three DNA samples sent to a Cambridge lab will tell the tale, but is that information he really wants? Booker builds a nice bit of tension around the receipt of these laboratory results, and with Coyle’s solid portrayal, you can appreciate how torn Cassidy is.

The production includes sound effects of the type a foley artist would deploy in a radio play to indicate a closing door, footsteps, and the like. Possibly this is a matter of personal taste, but the sound effects feel redundant and jar me out of the story.

Animal Instinct is a nicely played, complex story and billed as the first book in a series featuring Joe Cassidy. TV writer Booker will find his listeners looking forward to more.

Listen Up! 3 Terrific Thrillers in Audio

earphones

photo: John O’Nolan, creative commons license

Catching up on highly regarded crime thrillers of the last year, I’ve turned to audio for these:

*****Prussian Blue
By the late Philip Kerr, narrated by John Lee. This was Kerr’s next-to-last historical crime novel featuring Berlin detective Bernie Gunther, and takes place in 1939 and 1956. Lee’s reading imbues Gunther with every sly hint and ironic twist in his attitude toward the Nazis. Some of his colleagues at the time were aware: “I don’t know how you’ve survived this long, Gunther, feeling as you do.” But survive he has, and 17 years later, he’s working in France when a former colleague—now head of the East German secret police, the Stasi—demands he murder a certain woman. Rather than comply, Gunther goes on the run. Scenes of his flight across France are interspersed with recollections of a 1939 murder case at Hitler’s famous mountaintop retreat in Obersalzberg, which he was brought in to solve and which put him right in the middle of a power struggle between two of Hitler’s top men. It would be a hard job to choose which tale is more nerve-wracking. Lee’s Gunther is just right, his Nazis odious, and his Stasi enemies no better. Nominated for a 2018 Edgar Award and five stars from CrimeFictionLover.com.

****Bluebird, Bluebird
By Attica Locke, narrated by J.D. Jackson. In northeast Texas, a black man’s body is found floating in the bayou behind the only black-owned business in the tiny fictional town of Lark. Texas Ranger Darren Matthews is on suspension, but decides to poke around. One of the few black Rangers, he’s worked before on race-connected deaths and believes this is one. When he arrives in the town, the sheriff’s men are fishing another body out of the water—this one a white woman. Surely the deaths are linked, but how? And can he prove it? As he tries, Jackson’s narration expertly conveys not just Matthews’s determination, but the sheriff’s weakness, the malevolence of local Aryan Brotherhood of Texas members, the shifting moods of the dead man’s elegant wife from Chicago, who is the sort of Bluebird (messenger) of the title, and, finally, the townspeople black and white who are protecting a decades-old wall of secrets, all of whom are intriguing if just a bit predictable. Winner of the 2018 Edgar Award for Best Novel. TV series in the works.

*****The Marsh King’s Daughter
By Karen Dionne, narrated by Emily Rankin. Helena Pelletier is the protagonist in this thriller, set in the Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She’s trying to live a normal life with her husband and two daughters, while keeping her bizarre past a secret. Rankin’s reading makes it clear this isn’t easy, and it becomes impossible when her Native American father kills two guards and escapes from prison, “armed and dangerous.” Years before, he kidnapped a fourteen-year-old girl and took her into the remote marshlands as his wife. There they lived off the land and had a daughter—Helena. Rankin conveys how much the young Helena adored her father and what he taught her about hunting, fishing, and survival. Eventually, the girl and her mother were found, and her father ended up in prison, an outcome that has left Helena deeply conflicted. Now that he’s on the run, she’s has to see whether she can live up to his nickname for her, Bangii-Agawaateyaa, “Little Shadow,” and find him before he finds her and her daughters. An international bestseller, it was frequently named one of the best books of 2017. Movie in the works.

****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.