Solace in True Crime?

In Cold Blood, Truman CapoteEditors of The Guardian gave a topping headline to a Rafia Zakaria story about the attractions of the true crime genre: “Reading a genre where the worst has already happened is an odd comfort.” There’s truth in that. A few years ago, I was struck low by life circumstances and in a rare (for me) state of malaise sat down in front of the television in the middle of a Saturday afternoon to watch The Pianist. Oddly, when the end credits rolled, I felt better. When I told my daughter about this, she said, “Ah. A movie about someone with real problems.” Exactly.

Zakaria suggests true crime as a corrective, even for political angst. “No other genre is a more apt testament that our evil, primal, fearful selves linger just beneath our calm, civilised exteriors, that life goes on even after the worst has happened, and that all catastrophe, central or marginal, has to be understood and confronted before a future becomes possible.”

In our household we’re stuck back at the first stage: probing the calm, civilized exteriors, looking beneath Victorian London with our six books on Jack the Ripper—each with its earnestly promoted theory of the villain’s identity—our five books about the Lizzie Borden case, six about the 1930s Lindbergh kidnapping, and more.

The distance afforded by time provides a bit of psychological insulation, and weighting the theories about these “unsolved” or “unresolved” cases have enlivened many a dinnertime conversation. Perhaps if you visited Cleveland, you went to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame or even a ballgame at Progressive Field. Not likely you made a pilgrimage to the 1954 home of Dr. Sam Sheppard and his soon-to-be-late wife, Marilyn (LMGTFY). We did.

If in these trying times, you want to test the true crime palliative, Truman Capote’s 1966 book In Cold Blood still sets the standard. (Both the Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toby Jones movie versions are riveting as well.)

Here are four more excellent possibilities:

****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.

****Triple Crown

horse-racing

photo: Tsutomu Takasu, creative commons license

By Felix Francis Carrying on his late father’s series of horse-racing mysteries, Felix Francis has now written his fifth about the most famous set of horse races in the world, the U.S. Triple Crown. The Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs is the first of the three, and the most prestigious. The Preakness Stakes at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course is the oldest, dating back to 1873. The mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes at New York’s Belmont Park, which takes place exactly five weeks after the Derby, is the most demanding—an insurmountable hurdle in many Triple Crown quests. Francis effectively captures the excitement, behind-the-scenes anxiety, traditions, and pageantry of these iconic meets.

Protagonist and narrator Jefferson Hinkley is an investigator for the British Horseracing Authority invited to the States by a colleague from the fictional U.S. Federal Anti-Corruption in Sports Agency (FACSA) on a secret quest to identify a mole in the agency. Horse owners and trainers are being tipped off before FACSA raids. Hinkley, who misses his adrenaline-fueled days working undercover, is grateful for the change of pace.

A few days before the Kentucky Derby, the timing of a FACSA raid on barns at Churchill Downs is moved up several days, surprising even the agents and certainly the suspect trainer, and one of them shoots the trainer dead. It’s evident the mole is still at work, but worse is about to happen.

Two Derby favorites come down with equine influenza, leaving only one favorite, Fire Point, who wins both the Derby and Preakness. To speed up his investigation, Hinkley poses as an Irish groom, and gets himself hired by Fire Point’s trainer at his Belmont Park stables. Oddly, since author Francis is from the U.K., Hinkley’s speech doesn’t seem especially British, nor particularly Irish in word choice or rhythm when he’s acting as the groom.

Before long, there isn’t much mystery as to who’s is tampering with the horses and how they’re doing it—Francis provides a clue as big as Secretariat’s legendary 31-length win in the Belmont Stakes. Nor is there a puzzle regarding motive. Any Triple Crown winner will generate many millions in stud fees, well beyond his potential racing purses. But if a horse has had equine influenza, his stud career is over before it starts.

Francis’s plot effortlessly and admirably engages the ticking clock device that has become such a staple of thrillers. The rapidly approaching Belmont Stakes means some of the world’s most valuable equine athletes are at risk. And that mole is still out there.

In an unconvincing subplot, a young Puerto Rican groom is overtly hostile to Hinkley, which only adds to his unease as he works around the barns. Plus, there’s the risk he’ll be recognized, and he is well aware of the lengths to which people will go to make sure Fire Point becomes a Triple Crown winner.

If you liked Francis’s other novels or if you just love the pulse-pounding Sport of Kings, you should enjoy this latest entrant in a storied bloodline. Or watch the excellent television series Luck, starring Dustin Hoffman, alas, only one season.

***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?

Keep the Gimmicks Coming

Adrian Monk, Tony Shaloub

Tony Shaloub as Adrian Monk

What do agents and publishers most look for in a crime/mystery novel? “Gimmicks matter most,” said long-time literary agent Evan Marshall at the recent “Deadly Ink” conference.

Evidence supporting his claim comes from Sisters in Crime’s monthly list of members’ book deals. In the list are numerous examples of novels and series with distinctive premises, including books featuring the sleuthing activities of:

  • A wine club, “where drinking wine and solving crimes go hand in hand” (where do I sign up?)
  • A small-town knitting club
  • A “centuries old alchemist and her impish gargoyle sidekick”
  • A dowager duchess (I’m thinking Violet Crawley. You?) and
  • A bed-and-breakfast owner and her deceased husband’s ghost.

The whole idea of ghostly crime-solving is a thing, apparently. CrimeFictionLover.com recently had a special article on novels narrated by the deceased. Talk about needing to have the last word!

Fanciful set-ups like these remind me of the 1984-1996 tv show, Murder, She Wrote, starring Angela Lansbury. Why would ANYbody in Cabot Cove, Maine, ever invite that woman to dinner? But they did, for 264 episodes. How many murders is a wine or knitting club or b&b owner likely to stumble across? Apparently, enough to keep a series going.

In fact, Marshall said, series is everything in mystery fiction these days, even for authors who are self-published. The popularity of series fiction derives in part from the attachment that develops between reader and dowager duchess or impish gargoyle. Also, readers can enjoy the mystery knowing that said duchess and gargoyle are never likely to be in any serious danger. Like Miss Marple, James Bond, and Jason Bourne, series characters will survive to appear in the next book.

Yet, stakes must be raised, so authors often threaten someone the protagonist cares about. Male protagonists may develop a disposable romantic interest, which also enables a lot of (invariably) fantastic sex. For women protagonists, a favorite niece or sister or former college roommate may be imperiled.

At another recent writers’ conference, best-selling author Lee Goldberg said authors can make even rather far-fetched gimmicks more acceptable to readers by balancing them with realistic elements. He should know. He published nine books and six short stories about a seriously germ-phobic, obsessive-compulsive, symmetry-fixated, former San Francisco homicide detective who unerringly solves crimes in his head. We know that wildly unrealistic character as Adrian Monk.

***The Bends

Woods Hole pier

photo: Andjam 79, creative commons license

By Leah Devlin – This current-day police procedural is the third mystery-thriller in a series that takes place in and around the picturesque village of Woods Hole, located on far southwest Cape Cod. Big water—Nantucket Sound, Cape Cod Bay, Buzzards Bay, the Atlantic—is never far.

The irony that young Detective Bill Bleach, pale as his name suggests, is prone to violent seasickness is not lost on him. Unfortunately, corpses have the same effect on his digestion, and he has to deal with them too.

Devlin effectively conjures up the Woods Hole environment and the preoccupations of several principal characters: Nobel laureates Lindsey Nolan and Sara Kauni, who are inventing a new dive helmet, and marine biologist Jessie McCabe (protagonist of Devlin’s previous book, Ægir’s Curse). Nolan’s adopted daughter, Maggie May, takes the lead in this story. She’s an accomplished diver and a talented student at the nearby Newbury College of Art, as well as a former drug user whom Nolan met in rehab.

When two murders at the College baffle the police, a small group of students is at the top of the list of suspects, Maggie May chief among them. Unfortunately for Detective Bleach, he’s seriously attracted to the chain-smoking, brittle young woman. His partner begins to doubt his objectivity, and Maggie May to doubt his intentions. He desperately wants to clear Maggie May, and protect her too, since it appears to him she may be the killer’s next victim.

Devlin’s characterization of the art college—the faculty politics, the student life, the manipulations and rivalries—struck me as quite believable. Less so was the architectural design of the place, built in the 1970s, with thick interior stone walls. In fact, these walls are so thick they allow a passage down the middle, and slits in the walls (apparently invisible to the users of the various studios and offices) allow every room to be spied upon.

No one knows about this building feature except the architect who designed it, Edward Gripp. As a wealthy benefactor of the college and donor of the campus buildings, Gripp keeps a small office there, which allows him secret access to his “Labyrinth.” He particularly enjoys spying on two married faculty members carrying on a torrid affair.

Devlin’s development of Maggie May as a young woman determined to stay sober, who faithfully attends her NA meetings, and in times of stress turns to the psychological supports they provide, makes her an interesting, unique character. Her roommate and occasional dive-partner Lily is the precious daughter of a fierce mother, determined that her daughter succeed in every endeavor—in other words, one of those delicious characters you love to hate.

While the book could have used a good copy-editing to resolve some grammar and usage problems, Devlin writes in a straightforward, unembellished style. You’ll find a little more plot (physical events) than story (emotional journey) in this novel, but it moves along briskly, with interesting characters, a well-created setting, and a satisfying surprise at the end.

A longer version of this review appeared on CrimeFictionLover.com.

****The Bitter Season

Samurai

photo: David Pursehouse, creative commons license

By Tami Hoag – The Bitter Season is Hoag’s latest crime thriller featuring the Minneapolis, Minnesota-based team of police detectives Sam Kovac and Nikki Liska. This time, the pair is split up, because Liska has joined a new Cold Case unit, hoping for more regular working hours that will let her spend time with her teenage sons.

The first case she’s assigned is the 25-year-old murder of a fellow detective, Ted Duffy, a star in the department’s sex crimes division, was shot to death in his back yard. The man’s family is less than enthusiastic about dredging up the details of the crime again. Repeated investigations over the years have plowed the same unpromising ground, unearthing nothing more than painful memories.

Meanwhile, Kovac has a new partner, newbie Michael Taylor, who is not only easy to look at, but actually knows a few useful things. An adolescence spent watching martial arts movies comes in handy when Kovac and Taylor are assigned to a brutal new murder case. Lucien Chamberlain, a University of Minnesota faculty member in the running for the chair of the East Asia studies department and his wealthy, socially connected, alcoholic wife Sondra have been viciously murdered in their home. They were slashed and stabbed with items from the professor’s collection of martial arts paraphernalia—a collection that is, the medical examiner’s investigator says, “a homicidal maniac’s wet dream.”

Out of the woodwork comes a parade of victims. Or are they suspects?

Despite working on separate cases, Kovac and Liska interact fairly often, and the banter between them and their teams’ other detectives is lively. They’re experts at bringing in a spot of erudition, too. “Shakespeare would have had a freaking field day with these people,” Kovac says, and another detective responds, “ʻThou hast spoken right, ʼtis true. The wheel is come full circle . . .’”

But are Kovac’s and Liska’s cases truly separate? Through fast-moving chapters written from alternating perspectives, you see these skilled detectives work their way through to the core of their respective cases, culminating in a surprising confrontation that demonstrates how skillfully Hoag has laid out her clues.

A longer version of this review appeared on CrimeFictionLover.com.

*****Hamlet, Prince of Denmark: A Novel

Hamlet, Kenneth Branagh

Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet

By A.J. Hartley and David Hewson, narrated by Richard Armitage – Ok, Ok, before you say “been there, done that Hamlet thing—five times, maybe ten!” this is another Hamlet animal altogether. As an inveterate audiobook fan, I will say that the Hartley/Hewson Macbeth, narrated by Alan Cumming (be still, my heart) was one of the best audio books I’ve ever “read.” So, I was eagerly anticipating listening to the their Hamlet.

Perhaps this Hamlet doesn’t quite reach the stratospheric genius of Macbeth, but it gives the listener plenty to chew on. I think Hartley (a Shakespeare scholar) and Hewson (a mystery/thriller writer, interviewed here)—an inspired pairing if there ever was one—have truly done it again. They fill in the leaps and gaps in the Bard’s plot, they provide background information that heightens appreciation of the stakes and therefore the tension, they infuse the text with modern psychological insights. In short, they have made Hamlet more real than perhaps you have ever felt him before.

No need to dwell on plot. We all know it. But what they have done in novelizing Shakespeare’s text is brilliant. First, they’re fleshed out some (potential) action scenes. The play’s glancing reference to pirates receives a full treatment here, which shows Hamlet to be more a man of action than the black-garbed, skull-staring  brooder we have come to associate with the Danish prince. Ophelia’s death also has a much more robust development than the usual wan, flower-strewn suicide.

Perhaps Hartley and Hewson’s cleverest stroke was in creating a son of Yorick to be Hamlet’s constant friend and goad, to share and prompt him with the lines of the famous soliloquies. I was so taken with this creation that I didn’t fully appreciate its subtle origins and intent until the story’s conclusion. Listening to the interviews with Hartley and Hewson that follow the novel explains how and why they arrived at this fictional device.

Purists, take note. There is nothing here that is not fully suggested or believable in the context of the play. Before you get your doublet in a knot, recall that the play itself was not created out of cloth entire, but built on folk tales and previous works. The authors are merely taking the creative armamentarium of Shakespeare himself and aiming it at 21st century sensibilities.

Hamlet is a ghost story; it is a murder story; it is a tale of guilt and revenge; it is about treachery and lust. Everything that makes a good crime thriller!

Richard Armitage is well suited to take on the narrative challenge. He has appeared in numerous television and film roles and played John Proctor in The Old Vic’s production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, where he earned an Olivier Award nomination. He won the 2014 Best Audiobook of the Year Award for this rendering of Hamlet. While it’s also available for the Kindle, let Armitage tell you the story.

This review appeared on CrimeFictionLover.com.

***A Tapping at My Door

The Raven, MWA, Poe

Page by Ian Burt (photo: c2.staticflickr.com)

By David Jackson, narrated by Jonathan Keeble – The early chapters of this police procedural are tremendously intriguing. A woman copper in Liverpool is murdered in her back garden, with a dead raven splayed over her face. Only when the crime scene investigators remove the bird do they learn her eyes have been gouged—pecked?—out. And that the raven has a note attached to its leg saying ‘nevermore.’

Even for people who are not fans of Edgar Allen Poe, that’s spooky. And, it’s a puzzle the police must struggle to work out. Not too long afterward, another police officer is found murdered in his home, again with a dead bird nearby, carrying a new message.

While these crimes are bizarre, at least there’s something to work with. Both murdered officers were implicated in the death in custody of a mentally challenged youth a few years earlier. An investigation cleared the two officers of wrongdoing, but the family and a large segment of the public still blame them for this death. Accordingly, the family is questioned, with all the renewed mutual hostility one might anticipate.

When two more police are killed who seem to have no connection to the earlier tragedy, what are the investigators to think? Are these new deaths merely a diversion? Jackson does a good job portraying the fractured relationships between the community and the coppers, writ small in this family tragedy, and writ large. He presents the action through alternating perspectives, mostly those of DS Nathan Cody and the unknown murderer, whose motives ultimately—well, you can pass judgment on that.

Cody is the principal investigator of the crimes, and to his surprise he’s teamed up with a new murder unit detective, Megan Webley. Unbeknownst to the powers that be, Cody and Webley were once an item, engaged to be married even, until his love of the job put a wedge between them. They dance around each other, not wanting to bring up the past and wanting to get on with their current assignment. There’s a cop-killer out there, after all.

But Cody become unhinged in several run-of-the-mill situations and Webley is starting to doubt his mental stability. His strange outbursts and reckless self-endangerment hearken back to an experience a year earlier in which he was held and tortured by a mysterious group of kidnappers.

About the time of the lengthy flashback in which Cody relives this hostage situation for the sympathetic Webley—an experience he has refused to seek any counseling for—I began to lose interest. The gruesome nature of the torture seemed intended to titillate, not interest me in Cody as a character. From there on out, the plot followed the well-trodden path of escalating craziness and bad decisions, woman-of-interest in danger, and drawn-out final resolution, with a particularly ham-handed, flashinglightsallaround ‘sequel!!’ signaled at the end.

Since this was an audiobook, the narration inevitably affected my reaction. In some passages Jonathan Keeble was terrific, but in others, it was as if he were narrating a silent film (you can listen to a bit through the Amazon link below). They were jarringly melodramatic. In other words, a mixed bag.

****Love & Treasure

peacock

photo: kansaikate, creative commons license

By Ayelet Waldman – This lovely novel opens with a prologue set in 2013, involving elderly Jack Wiseman and his granddaughter Natalie. Her new husband has abandoned her, and she’s just quit her Manhattan attorney’s job to come stay with Jack in Red Hook, Maine, and her beloved grandfather is dying. It’s questionable which of them needs more tender care.

Searching a drawer, Jack runs across a worn black pouch containing a jeweled peacock dangling on a chain. “Whose was it?” Natalie asks, her curiosity aroused. “Well, that’s the thing. I don’t know.” He charges her with the near-impossible task of returning it to its rightful owner, which will require unraveling its history.

The book then reveals how the pendant came into Jack’s hands at the close of World War II. It had been one item among thousands and thousands on the Hungarian Gold Train, a 42-car freight train the Germans were using to remove valuables—most of them looted from Hungarian Jews—to Berlin. The train was seized by French troops and finally came under U.S. military control and the contents warehoused in Salzburg, Austria. (The U.S. government kept most details about the Hungarian Gold Train secret for 50 years.)

Items were pilfered from the horde by thieves and the soldiers guarding it; U.S. military commanders used the warehouse as a department store for outfitting their quarters with fine china, silverware, crystal, furniture, and oriental rugs. Jack, in charge of the loot, had to comply with his superiors’ orders and was constantly frustrated at his inability to protect and preserve these treasures, much less return them to their rightful owners. His responsibilities as a soldier and as a Jew are at war within him.

Waldman writes compellingly about Jack’s situation and the treatment of the Displaced Persons flooding Salzburg, many of whom were concentration camp survivors. He meets one, a Hungarian with flame-red hair, Ilona Jakab, and falls in love. Jack keeps the peacock pendant in her memory, but never loses the feeling that taking it was dishonorable.

In her quest to fulfill her grandfather’s charge to find the pendant’s rightful present-day owner, Natalie travels to Budapest and finds much more than she expects. That section of the book is a treasure hunt, a mystery story, and a romance.

The last major section of the book dips back in time to 1913. It’s narrated by a libidinous psychiatrist charged with “treating” Nina S., an early suffragist who wears the pendant, and whom he rapidly concludes is quite sane, just at odds with her repressive father.

Natalie, Ilona, and Nina are interesting, compelling characters in challenging situations. Waldman doesn’t tell a good story once, but three times. Descriptions are vivid, characters’ motivations heartfelt, and conversations witty and spirited. Occasionally, she may be a little heavy-handed, and occasionally a verbal anachronism or clunky love scene sneaks in, but overall, the stories have strong narrative power. I don’t quite understand all the carping about this book in the mainstream media—each reviewer seeming to fixate on some different issue. I found it not only an exploration of conflicting loyalties, identity, and the struggle to be honorable, but also a fascinating historical mystery.

Love & Treasure is certainly timely, given recent renewed attention to the issue of Nazi plunder. The peacock pendant, silent witness to the pain and abuse of history, is the treasure in Waldman’s story, but love is the constant.