*****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.

*****What You Break

Long Island

photo: Shinya Suzuki, creative commons license

By Reed Farrel Coleman – Coleman’s latest crime novel is the second to feature retired Suffolk County cop John Augustus (Gus) Murphy. Coleman portrays his Long Island environment so well that his books carry a gritty realism and his characters live real, if doggedly unglamorous, lives. Says Washington Post reviewer Patrick Anderson, “His Long Island is scruffy, blue-collar, corrupt, choked by traffic and fueled by fast food, cheap beer and unrelenting anger. Jay Gatsby isn’t in the picture.”

Murphy is the security detail and after-hours van driver for the ironically named Paragon Hotel, located near Long Island’s MacArthur airport, and its night spot, the Full Flaps Lounge. His girlfriend Magdalena calls it a third-class hotel—“Second-class,” he corrects her. The job’s easy and doesn’t require any emotional investment. In other words, he can stay on auto-pilot, as he has been in almost every arena of his life since the sudden death of his 20-year-old son, a centerpiece of the earlier book.

The pain of losing his son and all the consequent chaos in his personal life has not gone away, but he’s managing it better now. The downside is that Murphy’s a bit less conscientious about his own safety than he perhaps ought to be, with two separate catastrophes looming on his personal horizon. He’s called in to investigate the apparently motiveless death of a young Vietnamese woman and he fingers one of the hotel guests as potential trouble. Correctly.

Murphy pokes the beast with inquiries into Linh Trang’s past and the hotel guest’s intentions, which puts him and possibly even Magdalena in jeopardy from rough and  determined characters. The plot moves quickly as the circle of people involved in both cases widens, ultimately reaching an inspired conclusion.

Award-winning author Coleman is also a poet, so it’s no surprise he’s been called the “noir poet laureate.” He paints compelling scenes and circumstances, as well as complex psychological portraits.  If you like non-stop action thrillers that nevertheless have some intellectual weight, this is a book to pick up and enjoy.

****The Heavenly Table

Heavenly TableBy Donald Ray Pollock In the early 20th century, the three Jewett brothers are under the thumb of their crazily religious, impoverished failure of a father. He’s working them practically to death in the swampy field they’re clearing near the Georgia-Alabama border. The wealthy landowner has promised that if they meet some impossible deadline, he will give them 10 laying hens. If so, maybe they will finally have something to eat. What the reader knows is he has no intention of keeping that promise.

A couple of states north, in southern Ohio, live the elderly farmer Ellsworth Fiddler and his wife Eula, also struggling. The previous year, Ells gave all the savings Eula had scraped together over the decades to a flim-flam man who stole the family’s pride and hope along with their cash.

The title of this literary crime novel reveals its theme. Early on, Pearl Jewett encounters a mysterious hobo with a long grizzled beard who tells him about the heavenly table. There, a man’s hungers will be satisfied, but only those who have suffered in life can sit there. God gives men the chance to suffer by bringing them troubles. Thereafter, Pearl actively pursues misery for himself and his boys, to ensure their place there.

When Pearl dies, the three boys fall into a life of crime, stealing guns and robbing stores and banks on their way north to Canada. They soon become wanted men, with a heavy price on their heads. They need to lie low for a while, which brings them to a brief sojourn on the farm of Ellsworth and Eula Fiddler near the small town of Meade.

Many other colorful characters weave in and out of the brothers’ lives, including Jasper Cone, the Meade “sanitarian,” whose job is to assess the functioning of the town’s hundreds of outhouses; Sugar, a black man whom the trio encounters and torments; Pollard, owner of the Blind Owl bar and a sadistic killer; and Lieutenant Bovard at the nearby army camp who dreams of dying in glory in France.

Reviewers of Pollock’s previous books, Knockemstiff and The Devil All the Time, compared him to William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor for his gothic southernness and unsettling storylines. This book reminds me of Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, deemed a comic masterpiece. The Heavenly Table has its brief comic moments, though it’s mostly the darkest of Southern Noir.

Living in squalor, uneducated, making bad decisions, drinking too much, and succumbing to violence, few of the characters have any hope for redemption in this life or of reaching “the heavenly table” in the next. But as Jason Sheehan said for NPR, by the end of the book, it turns “a smart and complicated corner, asking (without ever really asking) who are the bad men and who are the good? And just how much blame for badness can be laid at the feet of those who know nothing and fear everything, who have no recourse to change but that it be met with furious violence?”

To read this book, you’ll need a strong stomach and may want a hot shower afterward, but you’ll never forget Pollock’s compelling characters and powerful writing.

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

*****Black Wings Has My Angel

cigarette

(photo: pixelblume, creative commons license)

By Elliott Chaze – A 2016 reissue, this noir crime novel by a Mississippi newspaperman, originally published in 1954, is a roller-coaster of a read—lightning fast and a lot of fun. At the outset, an escaped prisoner using the name Tim Sunblade has just finished a stint working on an oil drilling rig.

To rid himself of four months of grime, he takes a nice long bath at a cheap hotel. The comforts of the bath put him in mind of having a little female companionship, and with the bellman’s aid he meets Virginia. They turn out to be quite a team. His plan is to head west (isn’t that the classic American criminal’s destination—the wide open spaces?). Virginia’s look and demeanor suggest she’s not just a hotel tramp, and eventually he learns she’s on the lam herself, fleeing the New York City cops.

The book is full of sly dialog. When Tim discovers her call-girl past, Virginia tells him she used to “go with” various Army officers, who were always talking about “the big picture.” “Do I make it clear, Tim? About what is the big picture?” she asks. “You make it clear that your wartime activities were not on the enlisted level.”

Virginia is accustomed to rolling in dough, literally, and more than a bit money-mad, so she encourages Tim’s plan to rob an armored car in Denver and dispose of it in an abandoned mine shaft they’ve found in the Rockies. Flush with their cash, they hit the road again until a drive through a small town turns out to be a big mistake.

It’s a first-person narrative, and Chaze has captured the voice of Sunblade terrifically well. A bit bemused by life’s twists and turns, but resigned to them. Loving and hating Virginia in fairly equal amounts and never quite trusting her. Too much whiskey and too many cigarettes.

In the introduction to this reissue. Barry Gifford calls Black Wings a gem that still sparkles, and though author Chaze wrote several other novels, none of them stack up to it. A New Orleans native, Chaze worked for the Associated Press, served in the Second World War, then settled in Mississippi. He lived a time in Denver as well, which is perhaps why the book’s locations are so well drawn.

He working in various capacities for The Hattiesburg American, for a decade as its city editor. His newspaper training shows in the economy and precision of his prose, and even when events are dire, the narrator’s detached view allows his wry humor to surface. Though Sunblade doesn’t often dwell on Life’s Larger Questions, I was struck by this observation: “Life is a rental proposition with no lease.” That’s exactly the kind of thing Tim Sunblade would say.

I don’t give very many books five stars, but in this one, every word is perfect. A longer version of this review appeared on the Crime Fiction Lover website.

***Naked Shall I Return

Cliff House fire, San Francisco

(photo: Ed Blerman, creative commons license)

By Christopher Bartley – Noir mysteries set in the 1930s are delicious. Noir mysteries set in the 1930s in San Francisco’s Chinatown are as tasty as a platter of Peking duck. In this complex novel, protagonist and career criminal Ross Duncan is launched on a mysterious quest. An an elusive couple wants him to locate a thing—they’ve never seen it and can’t really describe it—called the Blue Orb, which legend says holds the key to immortality.

Whether Duncan believes this or not is immaterial. The couple also agrees to help him fence a load of stolen jewels that will bankroll him for a good long while and for that reason alone, he’s game. He encounters a succession of interesting characters—opium den impresarios, antiques experts, people whose legends precede them—whose help he might be able to use in locating the Blue Orb. Too bad they keep being murdered before they can provide much assistance.

This book has shady characters galore, a beautiful dame out to bed Duncan, and a plot with more twists and turns than a Chinese Dragon. As it happens, he keeps meeting people connected to Adolph Sutro’s Cliff House who were present when it was destroyed in the famous 1907 fire. That the Blue Orb was smuggled out of tunnels under Cliff House on that fateful day is just one theory about its fate that Duncan must run to ground.

I wouldn’t have heard about this entertaining book if it weren’t for a review on the Crime Fiction Lover website—a great source for tips about the latest thriller, mystery, and crime novels, author interviews, and the like. Some of my reviews appear there too.