****White Bodies

strangers-on-a-train

Farley Granger & Robert Walker, the “Strangers on a Train”

By Jane Robins – This is a fun read that puts a 21st century twist on the premise of the famous 1951 Alfred Hitchcock movie, Strangers on a Train. That’s the one where two strangers fall into conversation and agree to murder a person of the other’s choosing. They convince themselves that, since there is nothing to connect murderer and victim, the crimes will be easy to get away with. Right.

But, how would you effect such an anonymous encounter today? Where would you look for such a willing accomplice? The Internet, of course! “The internet is where psychos find each other,” says character Tilda. And Robins makes good use of the strengths and weaknesses of social media in crafting her tale.

The protagonist in this London-based domestic thriller is Callie—a bit socially awkward, insecure about her looks (and everything else), a librarian. The relationship between her and her glamorous twin sister Tilda is explored in both the current time and a succession of flashbacks. Callie increasingly believes that “the perfect man” Tilda has become involved with—the wealthy, handsome, larger-than-life and more than a bit obsessive-compulsive American, Felix Nordberg—is actually quite dangerous.

Desperate to help Tilda, Callie becomes involved with a website called controllingmen.com, where all the classic signs of a relationship headed toward abuse are spelled out, just the way she sees them in Tilda and Felix’s relationship.

But Tilda dismisses her sister’s concerns, and you’ll understand Callie’s bafflement at how to proceed without creating a rift between them. At times you may want to wring her neck for the way she can’t stop herself from blurting out her suspicions. Moreover, she can’t seem to see how her obsession with Tilda and Felix is interfering with her own life.

We know from the first pages that Felix is dead. But was he murdered? The medical examiner says he died from natural causes. Although I thought I understood how Felix died, I hadn’t reckoned with Jane Robins’s diabolical imagination. I had to reread some of the last bits to be sure I understood the extent of the duplicity. That sense of something happening behind the scenes that I hadn’t quite grasped really kept the pages turning.

Robins has written several true-crime and non-fiction books and has a straightforward style that is a nice counterpoint to the emotions rampaging through Callie, and every one of the main characters in White Bodies is believable.

As a side note, a disadvantage to book reviewing is the “promotional cover.” The White Bodies review copy bore a temporary cover with a quote in tall, all-capital scarlet letters, “Everyone wants someone murdered.” Not the kind of thing you can put on an empty train seat beside you for a stranger to see.

Murder in a Nutshell

Nutshell 1

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Frances Glessner Lee was a wealthy divorcee who used her money, her energy, her contacts, and her passion for crime investigation to jumpstart the field of forensic medicine in the United States some 80 years ago. One of this country’s first forensic pathologists, George Burgess Magrath, was a Boston friend, and his informal tutelage piqued her interest. Denied the chance to go to college and discouraged from pursuing her rather odd interest in murder, her career didn’t get going until she was in her 50s.

According to journalist Bruce Goldfarb, on staff at the prestigious Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Frances was the country’s only woman involved in the early development of forensic science. At a Renwick Gallery talk, he described how she gave funds to support lectures by leading European forensic medicine specialists at Harvard Medical School; donated her library of more than a thousand volumes on crime investigation; established training fellowships; endowed Harvard’s Department of Legal Medicine (the first in the country); and promoted the training of police detectives in forensic methods.

Further, she lobbied her wealthy and powerful connections to replace the outdated system of coroners with one employing trained medical examiners, thus enabling, among other things, many entertaining seasons of CSI. Coroners, an office that still exists in many parts of the United States, are often elected officials and need have no particular forensic, medical, or legal knowledge. They were known to tromp through crime scenes, take a quick look at the body, and decide on the spot whether it was homicide, suicide, or death by misadventure. A list of “causes of death” extracted from coroners’ reports in New York included the enlightened conclusion “found dead.”

Back in the days before virtual reality, one of her educational activities was constructing highly detailed, dollhouse-sized dioramas of crime scenes. These “nutshell studies” were used to train homicide investigators in what to look for in cases of unexplained death. Nineteen of them still exist, and this winter they were gathered at Washington, D.C.’s Renwick Gallery for an immensely popular exhibit: “Murder Is Her Hobby,” which I saw in its last days.

You may recognize CSI’s slant homage to Lee in its “Miniature Killer” episodes (season 7; see trailer). Look for a copy of the film “Murder in a Nutshell: The Frances Glessner Lee Story” (trailer) or “Of Dolls and Murder” (trailer), both directed by Susan Marks. Apparently there’s a new book coming out, too, as the 2004 book by Corinne May Botz, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, is not readily available. “The Nutshells are essentially about teaching people how to see,” said Renwick curator Nora Atkinson.

Nutshell 2

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

*****Beneath the Mountain

Bletterbach, mountain, the Dolomites, gorge

The Bletterbach – photo: Esther Westerveld

By Luca D’Andrea, translated by Howard Curtis – When a debut thriller appears that sold to thirty countries within a month, became a bestseller in the author’s home country of Italy and in Germany, and was greeted with breathless praise like “can be compared (with no fear of hyperbole) to Stephen King and Jo Nesbø,” you know you’re in for quite a ride.

D’Andrea delivers. Beneath the Mountain is set in the northern Italian province of South Tyrol, in the village of Siebenhoch, whose Italian residents speak German. Siebenhoch is near the end of the eight-kilometer Bletterbach gorge in the jagged Dolomite mountains. Hikers are warned they enter the steep terrain “at their own risk,” because of rockfalls, mudslides, freezing water, and flash floods. The geological characteristics and history of the gorge are essential to D’Andrea’s story, anchoring it to a reality that could not have existed anywhere else.

Thirty years before the novel begins, three experienced hikers—Kurt, Evi, and Marcus—trekked deep into the gorge and were set upon first by an unusually powerful storm, then by one or more unknown assailants who hacked their bodies into pieces. By the time a four-man rescue team arrived, any forensic evidence was washed away or lost in the mud.

The deaths of these three young people reverberated through the community, affecting, disastrously, not only the men who found them but also their families. One time or another suspicion has fallen on a disappeared paleontologist with some bizarre theories that Evi thoroughly discredited, on a wealthy developer who built a visitor center on land her analyses had shown was unstable, on various members of the insular community, even on the rescuers themselves.

Now, American screenwriter Jeremiah Salinger, his wife Annelise, and their five-year-old daughter Clara have relocated to Siebenhoch. The fresh location inspires a new television series about the work of Dolomite Mountain Rescue. As its name implies, the rescue service comes to the aid of stranded tourists, injured hikers, and others in distress among the precipitous peaks. Jeremiah is party to a disastrous helicopter crash that kills four rescuers and a tourist, but his physical injuries are nothing compared to a serious case of PTSD, compounded by guilt and fear, that impairs his judgment. The booze doesn’t help. To distract himself, he starts investigating the 1985 Bletterbach murders, a deeper, more dangerous rabbit hole than the one he’s already in.

D’Andrea frequently introduces new information through the device of a community member offering to tell Jeremiah a story, which is a powerful enticement for the reader as well. Especially engaging is Jeremiah’s relationship with daughter Clara. Their word game—she loves to spell—is a theme throughout, which becomes ironic when, despite his obvious devotion to her, he puts his off-the-books investigation before even her.

****And So It Began (Delaney Book 1)

Child_beauty_pageant

photo: Lloyd Gallman, creative commons license

By Owen Mullen – Brave of a resident of Scotland and the Greek Islands to write a police procedural set in one of America’s most iconic cities, one with a strong and unique culture, history, and personality. Still, he’s chosen New Orleans for the first in his series featuring protagonist Vincent Delaney—former NOPD detective, now a private investigator.

For the most part the character of the Big Easy comes through in the details Mullen chooses to provide, though the deep trauma of Hurricane Katrina receives only a single mention. There’s maybe too little attention to food and the weather, some nice references to music (Delaney plays in a band), and directly related to the story, a reopening of the old wounds of NOPD corruption that have helped poison race relations in the city.

Delaney has three—make that four—issues on his hands. First is a background hazard in the form of Julian Boutte, a mentally deranged African American man whose brother Delaney killed a decade back when he was still an NOPD detective. Boutte has escaped from prison, and there’s no question that he plans to kill Delaney.

A group of African American small business people from the North Le Moyne area are having to pay protection money they can ill afford and seek Delaney’s help.

The third problem, and the one that takes up most of the book’s plot deals with a bizarre phenomenon of American life, the child beauty/talent pageant. Across the southern states, children who participate in these pageants are being murdered. One of the victims is a five-year-old boy, killed only minutes after winning with a memorable Charlie Chaplin imitation—inspiration for the paperback’s striking cover (below).

The FBI leads the investigation, but there are some 5000 such pageants in the US every year, and they cannot begin to cover them all, so bring in local help. Delaney’s niece is a pageant participant, which gives him an ideal opportunity to meet organizers, participants, obsessed parents, and, possibly, a killer.

While the culprit in Mullen’s tale is more obvious early on than the elusive true-life murderer of JonBenet Ramsey, still at large after twenty-one years, the child beauty pageant world is ripe for exploration. Mullen does a nice job highlighting the different motivations of several sets of parents and their young daughters.

If all these work challenges weren’t sufficient, Delaney has woman troubles, though he has a mostly good relationship with his sister and brother-in-law, as well as several friends still on the force. Mullen describes the interaction between Delaney and his family and friends warmly, and they feel real.

There are more books in the Delaney series to come, and especially if you like the New Orleans setting (I miss Treme!), they may just put the chickory in your coffee.

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”!

****The Place of Refuge

orchid-leis

photo: Emilia, creative commons license

By Al Tucher – This 160-page novella takes great advantage of its setting on the Big Island of Hawai`i. For those who’ve visited the islands (or wanted to), this is a low-cost, no-jet-lag trip full of adventure.

For some time, Detective Errol Coutinho of the Hawai`i County Police and his partner, Detective Kim, have been on the trail of a serial killer of prostitutes. The murders stopped for a period of months, but now a Filipino hotel maid has discovered what appears to be the renewal of working-girl carnage. They need a decoy.

On the island of Oahu, undercover police officer Jessie Hokoana of the Honolulu Police Department is working to expose a major drug dealer, getting close to him and gaining his confidence using the oldest trick in the book. Jessie grew up on the Big Island, daughter of the owner of a small Korean barbeque place and Hosea Hokoana, an enormous Hawaiian man who feared nothing and no one, except perhaps Jessie’s mother. Hosea decamped from the family twenty years ago, when Jessie was young.

Jessie’s investigative target and boyfriend, Teddy Dias, is persuaded to go to Mexico to try to make a marijuana-supply deal with the leader of a Mexican cartel. Pakalolo—nicknamed Kona Gold or Puna Butter—could be supplied by Teddy and fed into the Mexicans’ distribution network. He takes Jessie with him. She agrees, mainly because she’s heard about a cage fighter there whom she believes may be her father.

In Hawai`i the police can give her only minimal protection, but in Mexico, none at all. And when the hoped-for drug deal goes south, only her father can save her. If he realizes who she is. If he wants to.  The story of Jessie’s family, especially of Hosea and his return to Hawaiian society and the consequences of that, ultimately involving Coutinho and Kim, predominate in the story.

This book provides a great flavor for the rich multi-cultural society in Hawai’i. Coutinho’s ancestors were Portuguese, while Kim is Korean; their boss, Tanaka, is Japanese. Jessie is half Hawaiian and half Anglo. In author Tucher’s hands, these characters are interesting and unique individuals, not bending to stereotype.

There’s also humor in the book, especially among the detectives. Tucher resolves the big plot questions, but not the human relationship questions, which is probably more realistic than an excessively tidy ending and holds the door open for further installments, which will be as welcome as a trip to the islands!

****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.

**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.