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.

***In Strangers’ Houses

Cleaner

photo: ePi.Longo, creative commons license

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Trio of Notable Crime Novels

photo: Stew Dean, creative commons license

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

****Slow Horses

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

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

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

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

***Night Life

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

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

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

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

***Shutter Man

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

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

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

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

*****Back Up

photo: Darren Price, creative commons license

By Paul Colize, translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie This crime thriller by Belgian writer Paul Colize about a British rock band was short-listed for a number of prizes when first released. Only now available in English, the book should find a natural home and receptive audience among rock fans everywhere.

It’s 1967. The rock band Pearl Harbor is taking a break after a hastily organized, late night Berlin recording session, and its four members have scattered. Within days, each of them is dead and unaccountably flush with cash.

One is found at the bottom of a swimming pool in a luxury hotel in Palma de Mallorca, one with a bullet in his head in a hotel room in Hamburg, one crushed under a train in a Berlin U-Bahn station, and one who was apparently hiding out in a London hotel and jumped from his fifth floor room.

Who could believe all these deaths were coincidental? The authorities, with their scattered jurisdictions and the differing modes of death believe it, especially when the bodies—and the victims’ histories—reveal alarmingly high levels of drug and alcohol abuse. The band members become no more than rock n roll detritus, washed up by the tide of 1960s counterculture. It’s a bang-up start to this well-constructed mystery.

Fast forward to 2010. In Brussels, a homeless man is hit by a car near the Gare du Midi train station. He’s badly injured, cannot speak, cannot be identified, and comes to be known as X Midi. You are privileged to read his thoughts, however, as he recuperates. He reconstructs his past and his fleeting but deadly association with Pearl Harbor in chapters that alternate with those narrated by his caretakers. They are trying with infinite patience to help him recover from locked-in syndrome, which leaves him almost totally incapable of communicating.

Drug and alcohol use is part of the immersive environment Colize creates and manages not to become tedious. Rumors of U.S. military involvement in the testing psychoactive drugs simmer. There’s lots of music-making too, which is filled with energy and considerable joy. Berlin’s rock scene takes place in bars and nightclubs, and the bartenders and denizens are portrayed convincingly.

Nevertheless, you may be grateful when X Midi’s narrative emerges from his substance-abusing days to confront the deeper and more sinister evil dogging him. Only gradually does he come to understand the true significance of Pear Harbor’s fateful and final recording session, in which he served as the substitute drummer. The back up.

And murder has a long tail.

Phantom Thread

Phantom Thread

Day-Lewis & Krieps in Phantom Thread

If this is indeed Daniel Day-Lewis’s last film, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s new movie (trailer) turns out to be an odd swan song. Apparently the idea it would be his last came over Day-Lewis in reaction to this character, for reasons he can’t quite explain, but perhaps related to the draining intensity with which he prepares for his roles.

Reynolds Woodcock, the British fashion designer Day-Lewis plays, doesn’t display the physical energy of Hawkeye (in one of my favorite movies of all time, The Last of the Mohicans) or the agonizing choices facing Abraham Lincoln, or the disturbing intensity of knife-throwing Bill “The Butcher” in Gangs of New York. Woodcock’s challenge, a drive for perfection, comes not from circumstances, but eats him from within.

Woodcock is a fastidious, often languid character. Some of the dialog was included in a radio review, and I was struck by how slooowly Day-Lewis spoke and the long pauses between utterances. You’re less aware of that watching him, of course, because even when he’s not speaking, he’s doing a lot. The eyebrow, the little smile, the internal consideration, the piercing glance, the innate elegance. While the acting is wonderful, the character Woodcock is not especially likeable, and Day-Lewis is too honest an actor to try to make him so.

Woodcock runs his domain—domestic and commercial—his way, as a well turned out obsessive. He cannot abide a disturbance at breakfast or his whole day is ruined. When his new lady-love Alma (played by Vicky Krieps) scrapes the burnt bits from her toast (with a microphone hidden in the jam-pot, surely), it’s fingernails-on-the-blackboard for the entire audience.

The Fitzroy Square townhouse where he lives and conducts business is presided over by his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), who knows exactly how to keep order. Is she a benign presence or an over-protective monster? Even she is thwarted when Alma realizes that, to keep her man, she must bring him low.

The production team had fun—Woodcock’s breakneck driving trips (an uncharacteristic unleashing of spirit), the 1950s ambience, the workshop with its dowdy middle-aged women—seamstresses in real life—producing fabulous garments they could and would never wear. Day-Lewis himself spent many months studying the craft of clothing design, and director Anderson has remarked on the actor’s fine hands, able to do work believably, to sew.

Fashion historian Alistair O’Neill has commented that the rich satin fabrics used remind him of Charles James’s post-war designs. (Luscious show about James at the Metropolitan Museum in 2014.) In its workshop and showroom scenes, the film eerily echoes the PBS mini-series, The Collection, which aired last fall. Couture in the 1950s is an infrequent setting for drama; is it the hive mind that inspires two such resonant efforts in the same few months?

The film has garnered six Academy Award nominations—best picture, actor (Day-Lewis), director, supporting actress (Manville), score, and costume design. If Mark Bridges hadn’t received that last, well-deserved nomination, surely he would have retired.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 92%; audiences, 70%.

****Swing Time

Swing Time, children dancing

photo: cavalier 92, creative commons license

By Zadie Smith – Yes, I do read good books that are not crime fiction, and this is one of them! The term “frenemies” could have been coined to describe the long relationship between the book’s unnamed first-person narrator and Tracey, drawn together by being the only mixed-race children in a dance class. They meet, play, pirouette, and study in council housing in North London.Tracey is the talented one, accepted into a selective performing arts program, her future seemingly assured.

“Unnamed, unsure, neither black nor white, the narrator is fittingly indistinct in this brilliant novel about the illusions of identity,” said Annalisa Quinn in an NPR review. The story swings back and forth between present-day events and flashbacks about the girls’ childhood, their growing up, and their sporadic encounters over the years. Later the narrator sees her in minor roles in classic musicals—Guys and Dolls, Show Boat, ironically—before her career fades from view.

The dance theme is present throughout, a universal uniting characters through time and across cultures: “a great dancer has no time, no generation, he moves eternally through the world, so that any dancer in any age may recognize him. Picasso would be incomprehensible to Rembrandt, but Nijinsky would understand Michael Jackson.” Late in the book, dance even becomes a weapon.

The narrator, meanwhile, has landed what seems like a plum job: assistant to Australian pop star Aimee. Aimee and her team divide their time between London and New York. Aimee’s peripatetic lifestyle, kids and nannies in tow, means perpetual rootlessness for the narrator, a disconnect not just from her past—her childhood friend, her parents—but also from a future of her own.

Aimee gets the notion to establish a girls’ school in rural West Africa, and some of the novel’s most heartfelt passages involve the narrator’s yearning to connect with the Africans and the disconnect between the rich pop star and her entourage and the people she wants to help. Aimee’s motives are genuinely kindly, but implementing them on the ground is far more complicated than she imagines.

The narrator certainly is a perceptive observer, but will she grab hold of life and learn to dance to her own tune?

Darkest Hour

Perhaps you feel about Churchilled out, what with Netflix’s The Crown and his memorable words floating over the disheartened British soldiers in Dunkirk, but director Joe Wright’s new film (trailer) is absolutely mesmerizing. I wish the film had gone on to present the whole rest of the war as vividly and thoughtfully, not just those desperate early days of the title.

Gary Oldman as Winston looks more the role than did John Lithgow, but the power of his performance comes from truly inhabiting the part and having a script by Anthony McCarten that shuns the clichés. Kristin Scott Thomas is brilliant as Churchill’s ever-supportive wife Clementine (resembling not a little Harriet Walter in The Crown). Lily James (Downton Abbey’s Rose, brunette this time) is sweet as his long-suffering secretary Elizabeth.

What this film provides that so many gloss over is scrupulous candor about the political facts facing Churchill. He was a compromise candidate for the role of Prime Minister, and people in his own party mistrusted him. They didn’t want him. The king didn’t want him. His predecessor, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), and a strong faction, led by Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), advocated a peace deal with Hitler, which Churchill adamantly opposed.

While today’s viewers may side with Churchill on the question of whether a good treaty could have been achieved with the dictator, Wright never over-eggs the pudding by weakening Halifax’s arguments. Both sides of this consequential debate are principled and passionate.

Churchill was new and shaky in his position, the entire British army was stranded at Dunkirk, the European countries were overrun, France was about to fall, and America could not help (yet). It was truly Britain’s Darkest Hour.  How the PM deals with it all reflected his genius. “If it’s a history lesson,” says reviewer Godfrey Cheshire at RogerEbert.com, “it’s one that plays like a tightly wound, pulse-pounding thriller.”

And Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography offers many nice touches, too. The slow-motion views of people in the street (which you realize is Churchill’s view as he passes in his car), the isolation of the elevators, the pockmarked French countryside from the air. Wonderful.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 84% ; audiences: 83%.

****Kompromat

newspaper headlines

CC BY-SA HonestReporting.com, flickr/caseydavid

By Stanley Johnson – If you’re one of the millions of people on both sides of the Atlantic who look back on the elections of 2016 and say, to yourself or at the top of your lungs, “What just happened?” this satirical new political thriller is for you.

Its characters are such thinly disguised versions of today’s leading political figures, you can be forgiven for thinking you’ve inadvertently picked up a recent copy of The Times. Much-needed is the list of its many characters—from the US, Russia, Germany, China, various other countries, four “key animals” and, most numerous of all, leaders of the UK. “Kompromat” is a Russian word—a portmanteau meaning compromising material, and in this novel—as, possibly, in real life—most of these countries hold plenty of it on each other.

As the book opens, a 2016 US presidential candidate is participating in an international wildlife expedition that hopes to radio-collar a tiger. Events go wrong almost immediately. The candidate ends up in a hospital where the Russians plant a bug in his body. The CIA, ever on the ball, figures this out, and replaces it with their own bug. And they’re not the only ones. By the book’s end, America’s new president unwittingly has unwittingly become another “Voice of America.”

Meanwhile, the British have problems of their own. Its Secretary of State for the Environment is approached by the Russians, who have singled him out as a leading light of the “Eurosceptic wing” of the Conservative Party. He learns the Prime Minister agreed to the Referendum on EU membership (the “Brexit” vote) for a reason no more complicated than money. Apparently, the PM believed the vote would never actually occur and, even if it did, it wouldn’t succeed, and the Party would receive money for doing nothing.

Author Johnson devises numerous amusing and convoluted scenarios in which the hapless politicians become entangled. In his scenario, these byzantine schemes are organized and carried out by the Russian Security Service—the FSB, heir to the KGB—“ to change the whole structure of international politics.” The book is not only entertaining, it makes you think “what if?” and, as more news drifts out of world capitals, perhaps “why not?”

Johnson is a former politician and member of the Conservative Party, and a former employee of the World Bank and the European Commission, who has held a number of prominent environmental posts as well as being an environmental activist. In the time preceding the Brexit vote, he co-chaired Environmentalists for Europe. Although he’s on record as opposing the Referendum, his son Boris was a key leader of the “leavers.” The book is in development for a six-part television series too.

Legends of the Undead are . . . Undead

Cemetery, gravestones

photo: John W. Schulze, creative commons license

In Chicago recently, we took a nine-year-old to a theatrical version of Dracula (playing at the Mercury Theater through November 5). “Weren’t you scared?” several audience members asked him after the show, as he was the show’s youngest audience member by many decades. “No.” This was said with deadpan aplomb. And possibly an eye-roll.

Perhaps some of the edge was off Bram Stoker’s classic because of all the much more horrifying real-life shenanigans filling the daily news, or perhaps it was because this production veered occasionally—and entertainingly—close to camp. While it wasn’t terrifying, it had good acting and nice touches. Notably, the production credits include acknowledgment of the show’s “violence and blood/gore designer.” Which gives an inkling.

When the Stoker’s tale first appeared 120 years ago, The Manchester Guardian dismissed it with almost the same nonchalance as our young theater companion. “Most of the delightful old superstitions of the past have an unhappy way of appearing limp and sickly in the glare of the later day,” the reviewer said. “Man is no longer in dread of the monstrous and the unnatural, and . . . the effect is more often grotesque than terrible.” Tell that to Ann Rice and Stephenie Meyer and the legions of other authors who continue to resurrect “the ancient legends of the were-wolf and the vampire”!

*****Maisie Dobbs

cup of tea

photo: Raheel Shahid, creative commons license

Though this book hasn’t acquired the patina of age, the legion of fans for the award-winning 13-book series would no doubt enthusiastically endorse its classic status. Having read the first one, I’m eager to read more.

Maisie’s story begins in London in 1929, when she opens her office as a “psychologist and investigator.” She’s enormously advantaged—not because she’s born to the upper classes, like the roughly contemporaneous Lord Peter Wimsey—but because of her own pluck, hard work, and keen insight.

Her first client is a man who believes his wife’s strange behavior hides a possible dalliance. Maisie shadows the woman and uncovers something quite different behind her mysterious disappearances. Before she will reveal the wife’s sad secret, she makes sure the husband is prepared to act on her findings and thereby to relieve his wife’s distress.

Maisie’s insights have been cultivated by the celebrated detective Dr. Maurice Blanche. Raised the daughter of a costermonger, financial straits require her to enter service at a young age, and in a long section in the middle of the book, we learn how Maisie’s employer, Lady Rowan, discovers her reading the Lord’s library in the wee hours of the morning. Her intellectual gifts recognized, Maisie’s education is turned over to Lady Rowan’s friend, Dr. Blanche. Hard work subsequently gets her into university. Her academic career, if not her education, is interrupted by World War I, and she serves as an aid station nurse behind the front lines of France.

Now it’s 1929, and though the world powers have signed a peace treaty, for many Britons, the Great War is not over. Both the client’s mysterious wife and Lady Rowan’s own son—suffering from what was then called shell-shock and today we call PTSD—have links to a murky organization called The Retreat, which purports to give veterans who simply cannot live in society a safe haven. But is it what it says it is? By combining a clandestine investigation of The Retreat with Maisie’s strong emotional connection to the experiences of war, author Winspear has created a truly compelling story.

What sets the series apart from the norm is the interplay of psychological elements and Maisie’s strong empathy. Take, for example, the interesting notion drilled into her by Dr. Blanche that, when you pry a story or a confession out of someone, you need to recognize that “the story takes up space as a knot in a piece of wood. If the knot is removed, a hole remains. We must ask ourselves, how will this hole that we have opened be filled?” In other words, investigators’ responsibilities don’t end when they’ve wrung a confession out of someone.

The book is written in an easygoing style, and the details of daily life, manners, and attitudes seem to perfectly fit the post-war era in which it is set. Never stodgy, it moves along briskly, in part thanks to strong secondary characters. The occasional clashes in social strata keep things interesting, as dramas like Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey exploited so effectively. In Maisie, I’ve found a terrific new literary companion!