*****Paper Ghosts

photographer

photo: Chris Dorward, creative commons license

Written by Julia Heaberlin – I just spent a week in Texas, including a family reunion in Waco, where Paper Ghosts begins, and am happy to report that trip was nothing like this story, a creepy and deliciously entertaining battle of wits.

Grace is twenty-four and obsessed with finding out what happened to her only sister Rachel, who disappeared when Grace was twelve. What ignited her search was finding a photograph of two ethereal girls taped to the bottom of their home’s attic stairs.

The photographer, Carl Feldman, was later tried and acquitted in another local woman’s disappearance, although suspicions about him never went away.

Heaberlin masterfully weaves this backstory through the narrative— enlightening, coloring, providing motivation. Diagnosed with dementia, the elderly Carl now lives in a halfway house run by Mrs. T. Grace poses as Carl’s daughter to persuade Mrs. T to let her take him on a “vacation.” In reality, she plans to revisit places where three young women disappeared, hoping to break through the tattered veil of confusion that Carl pulls over himself. He’s just lucid and insightful enough to know what Grace is up to, to go along with the deception, and to toy with her mercilessly.

Grace’s personal safety trainer has readied her to handle the tricks Carl might try. Most important, she’s worked on conquering fear. You see pages from her childhood “survival notebook,” which contained her strategies for conquering various fears, like spiders or ghosts. Charming, but more important, these entries show an organized determination that foreshadows the adult Grace will become.

Mrs. T gives her ten days, at which time she absolutely must return Carl to the halfway house. Ten days in a car with a possible serial killer, in motel rooms at night, in situations where he may say who knows what? Carl is infinitely unpredictable. And sneaky.

Around day four or five, you may wonder whether Heaberlin’s inventiveness will run out, whether the diaristic recitation of their doings will wear thin. It never does. Her writing style is rich with metaphors tied to Carl’s strong identity as a photographer. In his photos, his paper ghosts, much is revealed, and much is hidden.

This risky road trip through a nightmare Texas doesn’t deflect Grace from the fundamental question, what happened to Rachel? And does Carl even know? And if he doesn’t, or if he’s overtaken by dementia, will she ever find out? You keep turning pages to find out.

This is the third missing-sister book I’ve read recently, all strong. The others were Jenny Quintana’s The Missing Girl and Chris Whitaker’s All the Wicked Girls.

Listen Up! 3 Terrific Thrillers in Audio

earphones

photo: John O’Nolan, creative commons license

Catching up on highly regarded crime thrillers of the last year, I’ve turned to audio for these:

*****Prussian Blue
By the late Philip Kerr, narrated by John Lee. This was Kerr’s next-to-last historical crime novel featuring Berlin detective Bernie Gunther, and takes place in 1939 and 1956. Lee’s reading imbues Gunther with every sly hint and ironic twist in his attitude toward the Nazis. Some of his colleagues at the time were aware: “I don’t know how you’ve survived this long, Gunther, feeling as you do.” But survive he has, and 17 years later, he’s working in France when a former colleague—now head of the East German secret police, the Stasi—demands he murder a certain woman. Rather than comply, Gunther goes on the run. Scenes of his flight across France are interspersed with recollections of a 1939 murder case at Hitler’s famous mountaintop retreat in Obersalzberg, which he was brought in to solve and which put him right in the middle of a power struggle between two of Hitler’s top men. It would be a hard job to choose which tale is more nerve-wracking. Lee’s Gunther is just right, his Nazis odious, and his Stasi enemies no better. Nominated for a 2018 Edgar Award and five stars from CrimeFictionLover.com.

****Bluebird, Bluebird
By Attica Locke, narrated by J.D. Jackson. In northeast Texas, a black man’s body is found floating in the bayou behind the only black-owned business in the tiny fictional town of Lark. Texas Ranger Darren Matthews is on suspension, but decides to poke around. One of the few black Rangers, he’s worked before on race-connected deaths and believes this is one. When he arrives in the town, the sheriff’s men are fishing another body out of the water—this one a white woman. Surely the deaths are linked, but how? And can he prove it? As he tries, Jackson’s narration expertly conveys not just Matthews’s determination, but the sheriff’s weakness, the malevolence of local Aryan Brotherhood of Texas members, the shifting moods of the dead man’s elegant wife from Chicago, who is the sort of Bluebird (messenger) of the title, and, finally, the townspeople black and white who are protecting a decades-old wall of secrets, all of whom are intriguing if just a bit predictable. Winner of the 2018 Edgar Award for Best Novel. TV series in the works.

*****The Marsh King’s Daughter
By Karen Dionne, narrated by Emily Rankin. Helena Pelletier is the protagonist in this thriller, set in the Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She’s trying to live a normal life with her husband and two daughters, while keeping her bizarre past a secret. Rankin’s reading makes it clear this isn’t easy, and it becomes impossible when her Native American father kills two guards and escapes from prison, “armed and dangerous.” Years before, he kidnapped a fourteen-year-old girl and took her into the remote marshlands as his wife. There they lived off the land and had a daughter—Helena. Rankin conveys how much the young Helena adored her father and what he taught her about hunting, fishing, and survival. Eventually, the girl and her mother were found, and her father ended up in prison, an outcome that has left Helena deeply conflicted. Now that he’s on the run, she’s has to see whether she can live up to his nickname for her, Bangii-Agawaateyaa, “Little Shadow,” and find him before he finds her and her daughters. An international bestseller, it was frequently named one of the best books of 2017. Movie in the works.

****High White Sun

Marfa Texas

photo: Nathan Russell, creative commons license

By J. Todd Scott – High White Sun is a solid follow-up to Scott’s 2016 debut hit, The Far Empty. A prologue set in 1999 recounts the murder of Texas Ranger Bob Ford, the long echo of which reverberates through events of the current day like the howling of the wind off the distant Mexican mountains. In the small town of Murfee, Texas, Sheriff Chris Cherry does not wear his badge easily. He worries.

When a popular river guide is murdered and suspicion lights on new arrivals to the area, pegged by everyone as bad actors, he worries a lot. They’ve set up some distance from Murfee at a wide spot in the road ominously named Killing. Head of this clan is an obvious hard case, John Wesley Earl, accompanied by his brother, two sons, a couple of girlfriends, and several cousins and hangers-on. Author Scott dives deep into Earl’s history, and while he never becomes sympathetic, you certainly understand him and how little regard he has for anyone else, including his family.

The sheriff’s wants to rid his county of the Earl clan, but his priorities aren’t shared by the FBI. Its agent wants Cherry to leave the Earls alone. John Wesley Earl is their confidential informant, recruited when he was in prison and a leader in the ultra-violent Aryan Brotherhood of Texas. More than a white supremacist group, Earl’s ABT is a major criminal enterprise, responsible for bringing drugs into every one of the state’s prisons and beyond and connected to all the dirty deals and killing that goes along with that. Out of prison, he’ll be getting his cut of the “business.” It will make him wealthy.

Earl is holed up in Killing because his son Jesse is there, awaiting the appearance of Thurman Flowers, a self-styled preacher with grandiose plans for establishing a community of white supremacists, his Church of Purity. They need only two things: guns and money. An ex-soldier who’s part of the clan promises to get them the guns, and Jesse is plotting to get hold of his father’s money.

Unfortunately, the sheriff’s deputies are keeping a few secrets from him, certainly the men of the Earl crew have secrets, and the law enforcement agencies aren’t sharing everything with each other, either. When all these secrets come out into the open, the resulting storm seems destined to destroy them all.

Hell or High Water

Ben Foster & Chris Pine in Hell or High Water

Ben Foster & Chris Pine in Hell or High Water

This modern outlaw Western directed by David Mackenzie (trailer) is receiving high praise from critics. Like the faceless cattle barons and railroad tycoons memorialized in 1950s celluloid, today it’s the bankers who are handy villains bent on destroying the little guy. That’s true even if the modern cowboy rides a drilling rig.

Brothers Tanner and Toby Howard (Ben Foster and Chris Pine, respectively) team up to rob branches of the Texas Midland Bank, an institution that has drained the value from their late mother’s ranch and now (since corporations are officially people, I can anthropormorphize) sits rubbing its hands, waiting to foreclose. That would be a double catastrophe, because oil has been found on the land, and Toby is desperate to hang onto it so he can pass this valuable parcel to his kids. But he lacks the cash to save it. Thus, the robber scheme is hatched.

Jeff Bridges & Gil Birmingham, Hell or High Water

Jeff Bridges & Gil Birmingham, Hell or High Water

On the hunt for the robbers are two Texas Rangers—Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). Hamilton is just weeks from retirement, and figures out the broad outlines of the plot. He just can’t quite put the pieces together. He rides his American/Indian/Mexican partner mercilessly, and you understand Parker’s stoicism in the face of these insults is part of the joke. He gets his own barbs in too. Early on, he asks Hamilton: “Are you going to do anything about these robberies, or just sit there and let Alzheimer’s take its course?”

Watching Hamilton and Parker is fun; watching the brothers is fun. They are real characters and they have real relationships here. For me, a big part of the fun is not knowing exactly what to expect, because the movie falls both within and outside the usual formulas. As Philadelphia Inquirer reviewer Stephen Rea says, it’s “at once a tale of desperation in hard times and a keenly observed character study—or studies.” I’d give it 7 stars out of 10.

I had a little flutter when the lawmen referred to Lubbock (home of my grandparents) and Young County (my great-grandparents). The filming, however, was in New Mexico. Not the same at all.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 98%, audiences 90%.

*****The Far Empty

Chisos Mountains, West Texas

photo: Robert Dees, creative commons license

Written by J. Todd Scott – It’s hard to believe this well-crafted crime thriller is a debut novel. The author’s experience as a DEA agent lends authority to his prose, and his meticulous rendering of the Big Bend country south and east of El Paso, Texas, and its fictional town, Murfee, takes you to that dusty back-of-beyond. Outlaw country.

The two key voices in this multiple point-of-view novel are those of 17-year-old Caleb Ross, son of Big Bend County’s despotic sheriff, who’s called “the Judge,” and new deputy Chris Cherry, once a local high school football star. Caleb’s mother disappeared 13 months before the novel begins, and he’s convinced his father killed her, which colors their every interaction. Cherry lost any hope of a football career when he blew out a knee and still isn’t sure where his new future lies.

Caleb and Cherry are lost souls, floating under the brilliant West Texas stars, staying out of the deadly orbit of the sheriff, and trying to find out what kind of men they will be. Scott does not give them an easy path, and you’ll hold your breath as they are repeatedly tested.

These two narrators are joined by another deputy, Duane Dupree—a living, violence-addicted, coked-up example of why it’s best to steer clear of the Judge’s snares. You also hear from the Judge himself. One way or another, he knows everyone’s secrets.

Not only are these male characters convincingly portrayed, but Scott does a good job with his women too. You get part of the story from the perspectives of Caleb’s friend America, his teacher Anne, and Cherry’s live-in girlfriend Melissa. Their problems are believable and compelling enough for the characters to take the actions they do.

You have to root for Deputy Cherry, who has a bad habit of actually trying to investigate stuff. Early on, he responds to a call from a rancher who’s found a dessicated corpse and, while the Judge’s other deputies would gladly assume the deceased was “just another beaner” who died in the desert, Cherry isn’t sure. Because of the extent of the sheriff’s corruption as well as his confidence in his absolute authority, he reacts to Cherry’s probes like a horse responds to flies. They warrant a twitch, maybe, but no more.

The chili really starts bubbling when a gunshot couple is found in a burning SUV, far from anything.

Scott keeps his plot threads alive and moving at a clip. I never lost interest for a moment and even forgive a little deus ex Máximo at the end. (Not a typo. Trust me.) Readers who enjoyed The Cartel, which appears on many lists of the best thrillers of last year, will appreciate this sharp view from the northern side of the border.

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

****As Texas Goes . . .

Texas, farm, road

(photo by Carol Von Canon, creative commons license)

By Gail Collins – This funny-but-serious political analysis is a good, quick read. The book came about when Collins realized that “Without anyone much noting it,” Texas has “taken a starring role in the twenty-first-century national political discussion.” Certainly, it has produced a goodly number of memorable politicians in the last quarter-century: Phil Gramm, Tom DeLay, Dick Armey, up-and-comer John Cornyn, Ron Paul, Karl Rove, Rick Perry, ex-President Bush II, and the inimitable H. Ross Perot.

The state has had outsized influence in many spheres, says Collins in As Texas Goes…, subtitling her book “How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda.” On prosperity: the 2008 economic meltdown was largely the result of financial deregulation inspired by Phil Gramm. On education: although its influence on school textbook content across the nation may be waning, the Texas State Board of Education’s past actions promoted its conservative, anti-scientific, and ahistorical views on a generation of Americans. (At one point, the Board included a member “who believed public schools are the tool of the devil,” Collins reports.) On national energy policy: the state’s representatives, attuned to the needs of the local oil and gas industry, shape national energy policy and denigrate global warming. And, as the New York Times review picked out, Texas leaders have been “entangling us in an occasional war.”

Collins’s theory about the source of Texans’ attitudes are illuminating. “You have to start with the great, historic American division between the people who live in crowded places and the people who live in empty places.” In crowded places, you need rules to protect you from other people’s intrusive behavior; in empty places, you do not. In fact, you don’t want government rules and programs. Tom DeLay was once asked whether there were any government regulations worth keeping, he said, “None that I can think of.” That’s empty-space thinking. And, she says, “The current Tea Party strain in the Republican party is all about the empty-place ethos.”

Ironically, Texans holds fast to their empty-place perspective, even though eight out of 10 of them live in a major population area. Six of the nation’s 20 largest cities are in Texas. Most Americans probably consider Fort Worth no more than an upstart cousin of Dallas, but its population is larger than that of Seattle, Boston, or Denver.

If you want to read about outsize personalities who sometimes need to lasso it in, and how the country got to where it is in important policy areas, you might enjoy this entertaining and well-researched book. “Don’t mess with Texas” began as an anti-littering campaign slogan, but it’s taken on a larger life and now may need a coda: “but Texas is messing with you.”