****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.

****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:

**Love Me Not

Motorcycle

photo: Chris Jefferson, creative commons license

By M J ArlidgeThis contemporary crime thriller set in Southampton, England, pits the local police force against a pair of serial killers. It’s a multiple point-of-view novel, told mostly from the perspective of DI Helen Grace, newly returned to her job, but also from the perspective of numerous other characters, including DS Charlene (Charlie) Brooks, various witnesses, and sleazy and irritating journalist Emilia Garanita.

Although many of the principal characters are women, they seem no more than superficially female. Grace rushes into situations on her Kawasaki without analyzing them or indicating the police department has any procedural requirements. Well along in the story, the author writes that she is now being propelled by instinct, whereas it seems that instinct is what has driven her all along. And, though the author refers to Grace’s feelings about her work, her emotions tend to be expressed in clichéd, rather than insightful, ways. There’s an unsatisfying pop psychology analysis of the killers’ motivations that does not evolve as new information is gained.

Perhaps police and school administrators’ paranoia about shooting incidents is markedly less in the U.K. than in the States, but when the serial killer invades a middle school, you have to wonder whether there should be more of a protocol or official response than having Grace calmly saying to a bunch of bemused teachers and students, “You should leave.”

Authors are constantly told “show, don’t tell,” especially when it comes to emotions. A worse pitfall is showing then telling, which suggests the author doesn’t trust the reader to understand what has taken place and needs him to explain it. Arlidge does this repeatedly. One example: A man is numb with shock about his wife’s murder until his dogs bound into the room and affectionately greet him. As he pets them, he comes near to tears. The author can’t resist explaining that the dogs’ love and devotion has penetrated the husband’s shock, revealing how devastated he is, which of course takes all the wind out of the emotional moment.

The action of the novel occurs over the course of a single jam-packed day, with flashbacks as necessary. Surprisingly, the police determine the identity of one of the killers less than a third of the way into the novel and the other, less than half-way in. This means the entire last half the book is an extended chase scenario as the police struggle to get one step ahead of the perpetrators.

This last half is fast-paced, of course, and readers attracted to entertainment rich with car chases may find it just the ticket. According to Amazon, this is Arlidge’s seventh novel featuring DI Grace, and he has been producing two of them a year since 2014, plus a pair of short stories. That’s a pretty fast pace too!

****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.

Short Mystery Fiction – Ellery Queen Picks

baby sea turtles

photo: Chris Evans, creative commons license

Short stories are a great diversion when you don’t have the time or attention span for a novel. The pacing is different. Every word should count. A paperback or magazine of short stories travels well too. Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, now in its 76th year, is one of the best.

The EQMM editors select a wide variety of stories from the broad categories of mystery, crime, and suspense and now publish six times a year. Here are a few from recent issues that I found particularly entertaining.

  • “Frank’s Beach” by Scott Loring Sanders – a bit of sea turtle ecology and a dead body. Sanders’s stories have appeared in Best American Mystery Stories and he has a new collection out last month, Shooting Creek. (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, November 2016)
  • “Flowing Waters” by Brendan DuBois – a prolific writer of short stories, this one focused on a woman with PTSD and her formerly abused rescue dog. A classic case of who rescued whom? DuBois latest novel, Storm Cell, was published late last year. (EQMM, January/February 2017)
  • “Oh, Give Me a Home” by Gerald Elias – tracking down a rogue group of survivalists in Utah’s Uintas Mountains. Elias (a former violinist) has a novel, Devil’s Trill. (EQMM March/April 2017)
  • “Ruthless” by Judith Cutler – a Black Widow meets her match. Cutler’s novel Head Start will be out later this year. (EQMM March/April 2017)
  • “The Model Citizen” by William Dylan Powell – love these humorous tales featuring former cop Billy Raskolnikov and his monkey Ringo who live on the boat David’s Fifth Margarita. (EQMM March/April 2017)

If you follow this blog at all, you may recall that my own story, “A Slaying Song Tonight” led off the EQMM holiday issue (January/February 2017), with a tale of how relationships are tested when a Christmas caroling excursion becomes the opportunity for murder.

 

****Jade Dragon Mountain

Red Lantern, China

photo: Jakob Montrasio, creative commons license

By Elsa Hart – This charming debut mystery hits my personal buttons, set as it is in China, 1708, and incorporating many of the conventions of novels of Old China. Elsewhere I’ve written about my admiration of the Tang Dynasty’s quasi-historical Judge Dee, made famous by the detective novels of Dutch author Robert van Gulik.

Of course, the romantic vision of historical China in novels—A Dream of Red Mansions and those written by Westerns alike—and movies—from Raise the Red Lantern to The Assassin—bears no resemblance to China under Communism, nor to the everyday lives of poverty and privation of most Chinese of the past. The novels, even the mysteries dealing with lust, avarice, and murder are generally set among the nobility and the scholars. The tea may be poisoned, but it’s served in a translucent porcelain cup.

In Hart’s debut, exiled former librarian in the Forbidden City Li Du (already we encounter a scholar), traveling in a remote southern area, enters a town where his cousin is the magistrate to register his presence. On his arrival he learns that the Emperor of China is visiting the town in six days! He will preside over (and pretend to instigate) an eclipse of the sun. This visit accounts for the enormous bustle and elaborate preparations Li Du observes.

The town and the magistrate’s compound, including its impressive library, are evocatively described. Hart took me right to those places. For me, a delightful return. Although the Emperor’s visit will be a great honor for the magistrate and the town, it creates great risk as well. Many people, including foreigners, are anxious to influence what the Emperor sees and believes.

The magistrate, beset with difficult decisions and details, would prefer to dismiss the untimely murder of a Jesuit astronomer as simply the work of a group of Tibetans camped in the nearby mountains. But Li Du knows these men and believes them innocent. As an exile, he cannot afford to create any difficulties, yet he cannot let the false accusation rest and a murderer go free. His cousin allows him just a few days to solve the crime, as the Emperor’s visit comes ever-nearer. But is a worse crime in the making?

Hart has woven an intricate plot, drawing on real-life politics: the historical isolationism of China versus European pressure to open trade, conflicts between the Jesuits and the Dominicans, the friction inherent in the rigid Chinese class structure. These elements make the story both fascinating and subtle.

Murder on the Orient Express

Hercule Poirot, Murder on the Orient Express - Corduner

Allan Corduner as Hercule Poirot in McCarter Theatre Center’s Murder on the Orient Express; photo: T. Charles Erickson

Here’s a play for people who like fun! Agatha Christie’s masterpiece, Murder on the Orient Express, has been adapted for the stage by award-winning playwright Ken Ludwig. This world premiere opened March 17 and is on stage at McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton through April 2, directed by McCarter’s artistic director, Emily Mann. Already the buzz about the show is at a high pitch, and it is reportedly on track to sell the most tickets in McCarter history. The popularity of the theater’s earlier foray into Christie-land, last year’s The Mousetrap, required an extended run.

Starting from the opening scene in an elegant Istanbul restaurant, the production design transports you to the menacing—and in Ludwig’s adaptation, humor-laced—world of the story. Tony Award-winning set designer Beowulf Boritt has created a stunning representation of the ill-fated train, the luxe Orient Express, for the cast to play on. Beautifully surmounting the technical difficulties of staging a play whose action mostly occurs on a train, the cars move, the snow falls, the whistle blows, and you are off on a theatrical adventure.

In true Christie (and cozy mystery) style, the violence is minimal, clues are everywhere, red herrings and all, and the ensemble cast is peopled with quirky characters, confined in a setting where every interaction is significant. All gather for the final dramatic reveal, led by Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (played by Allan Corduner), in the train’s dining car.

The cast includes an exiled Russian princess (Veanne Cox), a Parisian conductor (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh), a showtune-singing, multiply-married, Minneapolis mahjongg-player (Julie Halston), a dewey nanny (Susannah Hoffman), a glamorous Hungarian countess (Alexandra Silber), an English manservant/secretary (Juha Sorola), an African missionary (Samantha Steinmetz), a military veteran and the murder victim (Max von Essen), and the manager of the Wagon-Lits company, Monsieur Bouc (Evan Zes).

In order to preserve his company’s reputation, Monsieur Bouc is determined to enlist Poirot in solving the murder of an American gangster stabbed in his sleeping car. Poirot finds himself presented with too many clues, and it’s delightful to see Carduner and the cast sort through the information and disinformation presented. Each of the actors brings verve and sharp definition to their performances, especially noting Corduner, Halston, and Silber.

In attendance on opening night was Matthew Pritchard, grandson of Dame Agatha and in charge of her estate. In pre-opening conversations, Pritchard said his grandmother had a great appreciation and love of live theater. How effectively her work transitions to this medium testifies to that sensibility. He commissioned Ludwig to choose one of her stories for a stage adaptation, and Orient was Ludwig’s first choice. Not only is it a story not previously presented on stage, the unusual setting, the striking characters, and dramatic plot create the “sense of occasion” Ludwig strives for.

In addition to Boritt’s glamorous set, the production enjoys wonderful costumes by six-time Tony winner William Ivey Long.

For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the box office online.

*****Blue Light Yokohama

Tokyo - Rainbow Bridge

photo: mytokyoguide.wordpress.com, used with permission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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