*****Ill Will

Cemetery

photo: Andrew, creative commons license

Written by Dan Chaon – Past and present crimes haunt the two main protagonists of this beautifully crafted new literary thriller. In the present day, psychologist Dustin Tillman lives in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. One son is away at college, and his younger son, Aaron, is supposedly taking college courses locally. In truth, he and his friend Rabbit are heavy into the drug scene, and part of the story is told in Aaron’s spot-on voice.

Dustin grew up part of a closely knit family in small-town western Nebraska. Two brothers had married two sisters, and Dustin was the child of one pair, and his twin cousins Wave and Kate the daughters of the other. In addition, his parents adopted a teenager, Russell Bickers, whose previous foster family died in a fire. Rusty and Dusty.

Dusty is a dreamy, highly suggestible kid. Rusty and the twins entertain themselves with manufacturing Dusty’s memories, putting him places he hasn’t been, including him in scenes he hasn’t observed, making him not trust his own senses and memories.

Dustin’s parents are oblivious to all this, boozing and using, and the siblings may be careless about which spouse they sleep with. Early on, you learn that when Dustin was thirteen and the girls seventeen, all four parents were shot to death. Kate believed Rusty did it. Wave did not. And Dustin’s memories are, well. Thirty years later now, DNA evidence exonerates Rusty, and he’s released from prison to lurk on the fiery horizon of the story like a rising sun.

Interwoven with the exploration of these past events is a narrative about mysterious present-day deaths. Dusty’s patient Aqil Ozorowski—a police officer on medical leave—is obsessed with the accidental drowning of a series of male college students. Over a period of years, young men’s bodies have been found in lakes and rivers of the Midwest, some with what Ozorowski deems significant dates of death, like 10/10/10. The authorities are frustratingly unconcerned, saying the students simply fell into the water, drunk, but Ozorowski rails at the lack of proper investigation. Eventually he inveigles Dustin in some unofficial research.

Aaron thinks his dad is a fool. The whole family mocks the “astral traveling” when Dustin’s attention just . . . goes. Dustin suffered bouts of sleepwalking after his family’s murders, and in some respects, he still sleepwalks through life. Chaon typographically expresses the tendency of minds to wander, through blanks in the middle of         You get the idea. After a while, this technique establishes a dreamy disconnect that seems not just real, but really dangerous.

Chaon is a widely praised short story writer and was a National Book Award finalist for an early collection. He has no trouble here sustaining interest in the actions and fates of his fascinating, flawed characters. If you tire of thrillers where the characters are no deeper than the page they’re written on, you’ll find this richly presented family a welcome change.

A longer version of this review appeared on CrimeFictionLover.com. You can order a copy with the affiliate link below.

*****Ed’s Dead

Bookstore

photo: Kate Mereand-Sinha, creative commons license

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****What Remains of Me

Los Angeles, Hollywood

photo: James Gubera, creative commons license

By Alison Gaylin , narrated by Ann Marie Lee – If, as the Bible says, the sins of the fathers will be visited on their children (or more colorfully “The fathers have eaten a sour grape, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”), this story is the proof of it. It’s set in two time periods—1980 and 2010—among a small group of Hollywood teenagers. They’re about 17 in 1980 and nearing 50 in 2010, with a whole lot of water under the bridge in between.

The three friends—Kelly, Bellamy, and Vee—come from vastly different backgrounds. Kelly, the principal point-of-view character, is barely middle class, while Bellamy and Vee are children of “tinseltown royalty,” rich kids whose actions bring few consequences. They all smoke, drink, use drugs, and skip school. Gaylin dwells on the substance abuse and resultant bad decision-making more than necessary, as there was not much new there. But even so, it’s the parents whose problems run deepest, under the shiny surface.

Teenage Kelly Michelle Lund—as she is forever known in the media—after ingesting more than a few illegal substances, goes to a movie wrap party at Vee’s home. Before the party ends, his director-father is murdered—shot three times, once right between the eyes. Thanks to a weak defense effort, Kelly is convicted of the crime.

After a quarter-century in prison, Kelly has been out for five years and is trying to rebuild her life. When Bellamy’s father is murdered in much the same way Vee’s was, the media and the police immediately suspect Kelly. In Gaylin’s twisting plot, every significant character has secrets, and they are ingeniously linked, While the plot mostly holds, a late confrontation between Kelly and Bellamy felt excessively contrived.

Hollywood is the perfect backdrop for a story in which nothing is as it seems—a place where you shouldn’t peer behind the curtain or, perhaps, for your own good, you’d better!. Throughout the story, characters repeatedly suggest that powerful Hollywood folk can do whatever they please, without consequences. That certainly was true when the studios’ star system was in place and bad behavior was aggressively covered up, but it’s less true since (with Bill Cosby a prominent exception). Yet that presumption makes so many characters’ secrets easier to keep.

Ann Marie Lee’s narration nicely evokes both the teens and the parents. She might have used more mature voices for Kelly and Bellamy at age 47, but that’s a minor quibble regarding an overall fine reading.

*****No Stone Unturned

justice

photo: Dan4th Nicholas, creative commons license

By Steve Jackson, narrated by Kevin Pierce. Every year, thousands of Americans disappear who are believed murdered, but their bodies are never found. Even if the police have a suspect, lack of a body and the evidence associated with it impedes and may even prevent prosecution. Without a body, the case may be just not winnable “beyond the shadow of a doubt.”

As harrowing as any fictional thriller, this absorbing book tells the real-life story of Colorado-based NecroSearch International—an organization of volunteer scientists that brings a surprisingly large array of disciplines to the search for clandestine graves and the analysis of the evidence they hold. What began as a research project has led to work with police forces from across the country to find the bodies of more than 300 people missing and believed murdered. This book, initially published in 2001, was updated in 2015 for the audio and Kindle editions.

When a small group of researchers began this work, they were interested only in developing more scientific methods for grave searches. They started by burying the bodies of pigs at various depths to see how, over time, different detection methods could yield useful results. Eventually, they added experts in additional specialties, bringing together forensic scientists, soil experts, naturalists, botanists who know which plants grow in disturbed soil, geologists, experts on hydrology, meteorology, psychology, geophysics, entomology, anthropology, and “cadaver dog” handlers. Some members now are from law enforcement.

They use technology—like ground-penetrating radar, infrared imaging, and aerial photography (now sometimes using drones)—but it’s their encyclopedic knowledge of the way soil, stone, water, plants, insects, and wildlife interact that sets them apart. The scientists always caution that no technology can reveal where a body is, but their methods can tell the police where to look.

When the police have a suspected grave site, the alternative, still used too often, is to bring in a backhoe, destroying evidence and disturbing the remains, so that tiny details that provide important clues are lost. NecroSearch approaches a site like an anthropologist exploring an ancient city, gently removing one layer of soil at a time and sifting it for evidence.

Their first of many setbacks was when some of the pigs were dug up and scavenged by animals. Once they realized a human corpse was as likely to be scavenged as one of the pigs, this became an opportunity to bring in animal behavior experts to consider likely predators and how they would deal with the remains.

Jackson, a journalist with a talent for clear and compelling prose, tells the story of their accumulating expertise through the actual cases they worked on—not all of which were successful. Team members work as volunteers, asking only for expense reimbursement. Their payment is in the form of satisfaction—the successful application of scientific methods to difficult problems, aiding the police in finding evidence that will allow a murderer to go to trial, and, every bit as important to them, giving closure to the family and the investigators, often after years of fruitless searching and agonizing uncertainty.

Kevin Pierce gives a fine, energetic reading that draws you into the cases and what it means to the scientists when they are able to resolve one. “There is no statute of limitations on murder,” they say, “and no statute of limitations on grief. The truth does matter.”

***Combustion

combustion, fire, wildfire

The King Fire; photo: US Forest Service Region 5, creative commons license

By Martin J. Smith – I guess it’s some kind of progress to see the growth in the number of crime novels and television series that give hardworking male police detectives a woman boss. And, perhaps it reflects even more progress that these female supervisors are allowed to have flaws, unlike the ever-understanding “Ma’am” in the Inspector Lewis shows.

In Martin J. Smith’s new police procedural, Detective Ron Starke works for the police department in the city of Los Colmas, in giant San Bernardino County, California’s Inland Empire. His new chief—grabbing a job he expected would be his—is Donna Kerrigan, recently divorced from a rich husband and an inveterate micromanager, who Starke thinks has “the people skills of a rattlesnake.”

Starke is a likeable detective, diligently trying to unravel what befell wealthy property developer Paul Dwyer. Dwyer’s body was found at the bottom of a rapidly evaporating pond adjacent to his most recent upscale housing development. He had a bullet in his brain and evidence suggested he’d been tortured. Starke has a history with the widowed Mrs. Dwyer, the magnate’s second wife, that goes back to high school and a brief romance.

When he interviews Shelby Dwyer and her daughter Chloe in their magnificent home, it’s quite a contrast to his down-market residence above the Suds-Your-Duds laundromat. Any number of people turn up as serviceable murder suspects. In fact, there may be too large a stack of possibilities, because the motives of them all can’t be developed to the extent that would make them truly credible.

There’s even a whiff of DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) concern about money-laundering for the Sinaloa drug cartel. This possibility prompted a couple of authorial essays about how the cartels work—interesting stuff that you might want to know about, but not necessary to the plot of this book, especially since that line of inquiry soon evaporates like the water in Dwyer’s containment pond.

Because this is a multiple point-of-view novel, you know things Starke does not. You know Shelby has sought relief from her unhappy marriage online, establishing a chatroom relationship with someone who calls himself LoveSick—ever supportive, ever kind, ever romantic. But who is he, really? Shelby has every urgent 21st century reason for wanting to know. I especially enjoyed Smith’s descriptions of the computer geeks Starke eventually deals with, as he tracks down Shelby’s missing hard drive. Those guys were entertainingly totally on their own wavelength—broadband, of course.

The blind forces of nature help bring matters to a head. A massive wildfire, driven by the Santa Ana winds, is bearing down on Los Colmas and the Dwyer development. In the middle of that fiery maelstrom, Smith’s protagonists face their ultimate challenges.

The fire proves unequivocally that, no matter how “in control” you think you are, some things are beyond you. I wish the author hadn’t overstuffed the narrative with tantalizing suspects and a couple of brief, early scenes with Starke’s ailing father, in care because of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. He was an interesting character and that was a relationship worth developing. Sequels?