Talkin ’bout Your Generation

Recently, in the UK’s Guardian, five authors attempted to identify the five books—fiction, nonfiction, occasional poetry—that shaped each generation since World War II. How well do their picks match your touchstone books? And are you a cross-generational reader?

Baby Boomers (selected by Blake Morrison): Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, RD Laing’s Knots, and Penelope Leach’s Your Baby & Child. True to my generation, I’ve read a couple of these (first and last).

Gen X (Chris Power, who notes a “tension between earnestness, self-consciousness and cynicism” in these picks): Alex Garland’s The Beach, Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, Naomi Klein’s non-fiction No Logo, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Does seeing the movie count?

Millennials (Megan Nolan, whose picks, she said, convey “a sense of cautious, questioning dread.” Great.): Halle Butler’s The New Me, Leslie Jamison’s essay collection, The Empathy Exams, Ling Ma’s Severance, JM Holmes’s How Are You Going to Save Yourself, and Malcolm Harris’s Kids These Days. Hmmmm. Not part of my reading past.

Gen Z (Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé): Chloe Gong’s These Violent Delights (a retelling of Romeo and Juliet), Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper, Kelly Jensen’s anthology of mental health-related essays (Don’t) Call Me Crazy, Aiden Thomas’s Cemetery Boys, and Adam Silvera’s They Both Die at the End.

When time travel deposits you at this last generation, you find books have evolved not only in content, but in form and intent. The last five are, respectively, YA, a graphic novel series, an anthology of essays, a YA paranormal adventure, and “a TikTok sensation.”

Quite obviously, I need to get out more!

Beyond the Headlines

RG Belsky’s Clare Carlson series may technically fit in the ‘amateur detective’ category, because Clare is a New York City television news director, not a police officer or FBI agent, but her skill at getting to the truth doesn’t take a back seat to anyone’s. There may be delays, detours, and false starts, but she gets there.

In Belsky’s latest book, his fourth in the Clare Carlson series, she’s again not content to assign the big story of the day to her reporters, she’s on the case herself. Clare’s best friend tips her off that mega-celebrity and Vietnamese immigrant Laurie Bateman wants to divorce her wealthy older husband, Charles Hollister. Bateman wants Clare to tell her story on-air.

This is shocking news, because the couple maintains a super-happy public image, but when Clare arrives at the Batemans’ apartment building, the street is filled with police. Hollister is dead, and Bateman is accused of killing him. Clare witnesses her would-be interviewee driven away in a squad car. Still, the murder is breaking news, and she has the story first.

Turns out, quite a few people might have wanted Hollister dead: his son, who believes himself short-changed in his father’s will, disgruntled business people he’s trodden upon, his mistress, her jealous husband. The police and prosecutor are not interested in any of these possibilities. They have the wife in a Riker’s Island cell, and tunnel vision keeps them focused on her. When Clare finally does get to speak with Bateman, the woman maintains her innocence.

When Clare’s interview with Bateman is televised, it opens a floodgate of public support, just as cracks appear in the prosecution’s case. Before long, Bateman is a free woman again and credits Clare with getting her out of jail. It was a big story, rewarding even, but Clare starts to have doubts. Had she just managed to set a murderer free?

The puzzle aspects of this book are nicely intriguing, and Belsky writes with a lot of narrative energy and humor. He also writes with authenticity and conviction on various aspects of the news business and about his Manhattan setting. The new well of experience he draws on for this book is his military experience in Vietnam, before the war began its slow wind-down.

When investigating a crime, Clare leads with her strength, conducting smart interviews. Her news stories are not police procedurals, and there’s not a lot of attention to CSI-type details. However, here, I thought some gaps needed filling. There was such a rush to arrest Laurie, why no gunshot residue test on her and her clothing? When it appears the killer may have had access to the apartment the evening before the body was found, what had the coroner established as time-of-death? Belsky recognizes this hole and patches it with a throwaway statement about the medical examiner’s uncertainty. Not quite good enough. These are investigative touchstones that Clare, with her experience, would presumably be asking about herself.

Nevertheless, when it comes to the central aspects of the story—the motives and behavior of a long list of iffy characters, each of them having their own secrets—Belsky excels.

Order here from Amazon. Or, Shop your local indie bookstore.

The Only Good Indians

By Stephen Graham Jones, narrated by Shaun Taylor-Corbett –If I’d realized there was a supernatural element to this book, I probably wouldn’t have listened to it. Real life is scary enough! Boy, would I ever have missed something spectacular. I urge you not to be put off by the “horror” label attached to award-winning Blackfeet author Stephen Graham Jones’s latest, The Only Good Indians.

A crime sets the plot in motion. It’s the kind of irresponsible daredevilry four young male buddies are prone to. As a big snowstorm starts four days before Thanksgiving, Ricky, Lewis, Cass, and Gabe decide they need to put some of their own game on the holiday table. They take their hunt to the portion of the Blackfeet reservation set aside for the elders.

Down below a cliff, they find a herd of elk. They shoot into the herd, killing far more animals than they can drag uphill and far more than the truck can hold. Doesn’t matter anyway. At the top of the cliff, the game warden waits. One of the animals Lewis shot was a young doe. When he begins to field-dress her, he discovers she isn’t dead and she is pregnant. Her calf is alive inside her, and several more shots are required to finally kill her. Lewis takes her hide, intending to make something good out of this sad episode, not to waste one bit of her.

Ten years have passed since the hunt Gabe calls the Thanksgiving Classic. Ricky is working a temporary job with a North Dakota drilling crew. One night, outside a bar, he encounters a herd of elk in the parking lot. The animals panic and, in running away, do considerable damage to the parked trucks. Shrieking vehicle alarms send the bar patrons stumbling outside. They see a native, jump to the wrong conclusion, and chase and kill Ricky. ‘Indian Man Killed in Dispute Outside Bar.’ From the viewpoint of Lewis, Cass, and Gabe, Ricky’s death is totally predictable.

Lewis has married a white woman, Peta, works at the post office, and has his life pretty together until he starts see that pregnant elk lying on his living room floor. Increasingly obsessed with this notion, he digs her hide out his freezer—the hide he wanted to do something with and never has. As his mental state deteriorates, the intrusion of Shaney, his Crow coworker, disrupts the home equilibrium in ways you may not expect.

To this point in the story, you could legitimately think of the elk sightings by Ricky and the half-mad Lewis as hallucinations, possibly brought on by (in one case) alcohol and (in the other) guilt. The situations are strange and terrible, but not totally outside the realm of logical explanation—metaphorical, not metaphysical.

Amid much good-natured bantering, Gabe and Cass concoct a plan for a sweatlodge ceremony to commemorate their dead friends. Bad idea. Now revenge comes thundering toward them.

What I found most intriguing about this story is how enriched it is by Blackfeet traditions and folklore, put in a modern context. Folktales last for generations because they hold a kernel of truth. While this story would never work set in downtown Washington, D.C., in the remote world of Big Sky, of native culture? It finds its groove. The interesting way the men negotiate two different worlds, that worked for me.

Following and getting connected to the story was made easier by the stellar narration of actor Shaun Taylor-Corbett, who gave authenticity to every word. Even in the story’s most bizarre moments, never a sliver of doubt entered his voice. (Saw him on stage once, playing Romeo. Now there’s a contrast!)

Interestingly, many publishers of crime and mystery fiction these days say they want to see stories with ‘paranormal elements.’ Presumably, there’s market interest. If you give it a try, I think you’ll find it a memorable and moving experience.

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Long Bright River

By Liz Moore – This family thriller, set in Philadelphia, is on a number of “best books of 2020” lists, and for good reason. Mickey Fitzpatrick is a 30-something female police officer who loves her patrol job, loves her intimacy with the Kensington area that’s her beat, knows who lives there, who serves the best coffee, who the working girls are, and generally tries to keep bad things from happening.

She’s called out to the site where the body of a young woman has been discovered by disused train tracks. The terror coursing through her body doesn’t subside until she sees the dead woman is not her younger sister Kacey, a many-times-relapsed drug user who’s disappeared. Mickey fears the worst.

The novel’s third significant character is Philadelphia itself, whose gritty neighborhoods and obscure loyalties take on real life in Moore’s telling. Mickey has tried many times to pull Kacey away from the dark side, but every time, the drugs lure her back. That’s an old and familiar story, but the way Moore builds the relationship between the sisters makes it compelling nonetheless.

Mickey is the older of the two—the quiet, bookish one. Kacey was the social butterfly. Their mother died of an overdose, and their father died too. They were raised by their grandmother, a strict and bitter woman with little money and even less affection to share.

Now Kacey’s in the wind, and Mickey takes every opportunity to look for her. At least at home she has a wonderfully bright son, Thomas, whose dad is an older man, a police detective, who befriended the teenage Mickey. He listened to her, gave her understanding and advice, and she responded to his warmth.

I especially enjoyed the scenes with Mickey’s extended family—aunts and uncles, cousins—whom we meet when she drops in unannounced for Thanksgiving. Mickey, with her hard-won academic achievements, is a fish out of water with them. In their opinion, “work was done with your body, with your hands. College was for dreamers and snobs.”

Mickey doesn’t fit in at work, either. Her boss actively dislikes her, and as the local prostitutes’ death count begins to climb, a frantic Mickey takes some liberties with departmental rules. Her suspicions are mostly ignored and even backfire.

The serial killer theme and the good-girl/bad-girl dynamic are crime fiction staples, but the quality of Moore’s writing and the honesty at the novel’s core make them fresh again. And Moore delivers some surprises along the way that will keep you turning pages.

Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine – May/June 2021

Eighteen stories in this issue, blanketing the gamut of mystery and crime subgenres. Recently I read 75 short stories published last year for the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s Derringer Awards. Most I hadn’t read previously, but some I recognized immediately as having appeared in EQMM. It’s a testament to the editors of the leading mystery fiction magazines that they select such memorable short fiction!

Among my favorites in this issue:

“The Hidden Places” by Linda Stansberry – A nice barroom tale: “The Open and Shut wasn’t a bar for wine lovers. It was a bar for lawyers who needed to drink.”
“The Case of the Strangled Man” by Steven Torres – A suspect is strangled to death while sitting alone in a police station interview room, and the cops must investigate each other. A detective and the desk sergeant had “gotten to the part of the interview where it was relevant to ask who was the greatest hitter in baseball history.” LOL
“Frank Scarso Finds His Life” by Doug Crandall – A true feel-good story, as is “Birdman” by Alex Knight. Revenge takes many forms.
“The Bunker” by Herbert De Paepe and translated from the Flemish by Josh Pachter. Great evocation of a bizarre workplace!

And, best of all, this issue contains the news that my editor, Barb Goffman, won the EQMM 2020 Readers’ Award for her “Dear Emily Etiquette.” Barb’s “irrepressibly satirical tale about the modern wedding” appeared in last year’s Sept/Oct issue. I certainly enjoyed that story and, clearly, many other readers did too!

Be sure to check out the issue cover, for a challenge along the lines of “what’s wrong with this picture?” I see at least three mysterious and deadly references.

The Measure of Time

By Gianrico Carofiglio, translated by Howard Curtis — Guido Guerrieri is a lawyer of middle years who practices in Bari, on Italy’s Adriatic coast. In this, Gianrico Carofiglio’s sixth legal drama featuring Guerrieri, a woman named Lorenza Delle Foglie asks him to appeal her son’s conviction on a first-degree murder charge.

Decades before, when Guerrieri was in his twenties and still in training, he had a love affair with Lorenza. She was older than he and at the time of their relationship, the center of his life. Not hers, though.

She was mysterious and vague, and what she did between their meetings was an unknown he never dared probe. The sex was great, but more lastingly, she introduced him to literature and philosophy—heady discussions for a young man. Then, for no particular reason he ever learned, she dropped him.

Now her son, Iacopo, a small-time criminal, has been convicted of murdering a drug dealer. When Guerrieri and his team review the case evidence and trial transcript, they feel pretty confident the son is guilty, but it’s also true a weak defense was mounted on his behalf.

Guerrieri hopes he and his investigators can make the most of a few poorly examined leads. Then he may convince the judges and jury that the prosecution’s version of events is not the only reasonable one. Doubt will be their friend.

Chapters about the investigation, which no one on the team seems to have much enthusiasm for, alternate with chapters in which Guerrieri reflects on his and Lorenza’s long-ago relationship. His team might have engaged more had he made them aware of their past, but he doesn’t. While his recollections about Lorenza show how some of his attitudes have evolved over nearly thirty years, I found those sections of the book slow-going. Lorenza herself came across as bloodless and intellectually pretentious. Guerrieri sees her more clearly now, of course.

When the case finally comes to court, the proceedings are rather staid. The judge is even-handed, and the shrill female prosecutor appears not a bit worried that the original verdict will be upended. As a result, there’s a lack of narrative energy to this aspect of the story, though Guerrieri nicely demonstrates important points about establishing doubt. If I’d been on that jury the prosecutor certainly would have failed to convince me that hers was the only possible interpretation of a sketchy set of facts.

Carofiglio’s works are extremely popular in Italy. Fans of his work, especially, may appreciate the opportunity to observe the inner-workings of a talented investigative mind. Once again, Howard Curtis translated, and he does so seamlessly. You’re not aware, really, that it even is a translation. Nice work.

Murder on the Island

By Daisy White – If you like to be in on the very beginning of a new cozy mystery series, you should know that Murder on the Island is billed as the first book in the Chloe Canton Mystery Series. At Chloe’s 50th birthday dinner, her husband of some years announced he was leaving her. Impeccable timing.

Soon thereafter, she learned her grandmother had died and left her the house and horse stables she owned in Bermuda. The timing of that is pretty spot-on, too, as Chloe definitely needed a fresh start. The story begins on the airplane ride taking her from the UK to her new life.

Thirty-some years earlier, Chloe spent time in Bermuda with her grandmother and the beautiful island is still somewhat familiar. But still, it holds surprises. Not all of them pleasant. On an early-morning trail ride, she discovers a dead body on her property. The victim turns out to be an up-and-coming artist showing at a gallery in town. Chloe is a bit of a busybody—ok, more than a bit—and, as the investigation seemingly bogs down, starts asking questions herself. Always a risky proposition.

Is her curiosity the reason for her escalating troubles? There’s a break-in at her home, rampant rumors her business is going under, and the horsenapping of a palomino scheduled for a high-profile photo shoot. Or, are other stable owners on the island concerned she’ll be too successful? Or, does someone want her to leave Bermuda altogether? Author White has an easy writing style that keeps the story pinballing among these possibilities with alacrity.

Helping Chloe sort out her increasingly fraught situation, as well as trying to assure that she stays safe are her jovial neighbor, her conscientious stable manager, and a detective from the local police—her age, handsome, and widowed. Romance is definitely on the turquoise horizon.

Chloe takes oddly unnecessary risks, as heroines in the cozy genre do, and you may be puzzled as to why she’s thinking whatever she’s thinking at a particular moment. And, while you may not be surprised at the whodunnit solution, getting there is definitely a pleasant ride. One of the strongest features of the book is author White’s depiction of Bermuda. She became acquainted with the island in real life while working as a flight attendant, and her descriptions are so lush and vivid, this book is like a vacation between covers.

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A Galway Epiphany

By Ken Bruen, narrated by Gerry O’Brien–A Galway Epiphany is the latest in award-winning Irish author Ken Bruen’s long-running series involving former (and disgraced) Garda detective Jack Taylor. He’s now a private investigator with a haphazard career since being thrown off the force for excessive drinking and associated poor judgment. At last he’s found some solace, a result of long stays at the farm of his friend, Keefer, once a roadie for the Rolling Stones, and their falcon, Maeve.

Bruen begins with musings on the seven epiphanies identified by a mid-eighteenth century monk who called them ‘blends of blessed curses and cursed blessings.’ Such a pregnant statement was sure to cast its spell over the ensuing story, and indeed it does.

A pair of children from a Galway refugee encampment is seen near Galway’s Irish Famine Memorial. They light a candle, and the girl whispers, “Here’s a trick I learned in Guatemala.” She causes a blue light to shimmer over their heads, and that’s all the public needs to start a frenzy of religious fervor.

Soon thereafter, Jack is in town on business and is hit by a truck. A big one. He’s in a coma for some weeks, but, inexplicably, otherwise unscathed. The children from the blue light were seen bending over him, and his lack of injuries is interpreted as their first miracle.

Various characters wander into the story to complicate Jack’s life. They include: his long-time acquaintance, Father Malachy, vainly hoping for a bishopric. Failing that, and suffering a debilitating illness, he wants Jack to kill him. There’s a spiffily dressed oddball whose calling card is a long matchstick; a California woman starting her own religious sisterhood, a scam for certain. They all want to get their hands on the miracle children. And they want Jack’s help. But are the children innocents or exploiters themselves?

Jack is irreligious in the best of times—hostile would be pretty much on the mark—and is disgusted by the machinations of the miracle-seekers and quashers alike. He just wants to go back to the farm. His drinking is out of control, and he’s not as much help to anyone as he really needs to be.

Bruen is a master of the apt witticism and nicely placed literary quote. Because the story is told by Jack in first person, his prejudices and cynicism and erudition have full rein. Despite the abundant humor, a pall hangs over the tale, like the smoke from one of the match-toting arsonist’s fires, and you may sense events will end badly.

This impression is aided by the sadly ironic reading by superb audiobook narrator Gerry O’Brien, who wrings every drop of Jamieson-soaked humor and regret out of Jack’s thoughts. An audiobook with a skilled narrator is a thing of joy, and O’Brien makes you believe for a few hours, that you too are in Galway, sitting on a barstool next to Jack, puzzling out the Fates.

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Red Widow

By Alma Katsu – I really wanted to like this book more. Written by a former officer of both the US Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency, Red Widow plunges you right into the world of partial information, hidden agendas, latent violence, and self-interested double-dealing.

Lyndsey Duncan is a CIA officer whose romantic attachment to an agent of Britain’s MI6 has put her under a cloud. This, despite her remarkable success on her first overseas assignment. Detailed to the high-stakes Moscow Field Station, she recruited and ran an invaluable asset, Yaromir Popov, a high-ranking officer in the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service. Now she’s been sent back to CIA headquarters, unsure of her future there, while an investigation drags on.

On the promising side, the Chief of the Russia Division, Eric Newman, wants her help in investigating the disappearance of two Russian double-agents. The coincidence suggests Russian internal security was onto them. And that information on their identity came from within CIA.

In another shock, Eric tells Lyndsey that her prize, Yaromir Popov, has died of poisoning.

Since Lyndsey has been overseas for several years, many of the Division staff she knew have moved on. However, she recognizes one woman, Theresa Warner, whom she knew slightly in the old days. Theresa’s husband was killed while conducting a sketchy Russian operation, and her colleagues regard her simply as The Widow. These two quasi-outsiders, Lyndsey and Theresa, form a friendship.

The extreme compartmentalization of the Agency, particularly Lyndsey’s sensitive task, means not much job-related information can be exchanged, but author Katsu doesn’t give the women any other common interests—movies, tennis—that they could share. As a result, the basis for their relationship is thin and feels contrived.

Katsu does what I assume is a creditable job describing operational constraints and office operations within the CIA—who can talk to whom, when, and about what. The big reveal the women experience isn’t much of a surprise for readers of espionage fiction, nor is what they do with that knowledge.

Additional plot information risks being a spoiler. Suffice it to say that, even if Lyndsey and Theresa’s actions are a tad predictable, they remain interesting characters. The bigger problem is that the male characters didn’t come across as real, three-dimensional people.

Authors worry, maybe a little, sometimes a lot, that friends and family will think they recognize themselves among a novel’s characters. (They’re almost always wrong about this.) Perhaps Katsu was hampered in writing about a world she knows so well, precisely to avoid any such misconceptions.

Reading Red Widow, you come away with a strong impression of what it’s like to work in a clandestine service, the resources at your disposal, those withheld from you, and the cynicism of many of the participants. You won’t develop a strong affinity for many of the people involved, and perhaps that’s part of the game.

Order it from Amazon here or from Indiebound here.

The Rose Code

By Kate Quinn – Spies afoot in World War II, and not all of them are who you think! Most of the story of The Rose Code takes place in December 1939, when three young women converge on Bletchley Park. They’ve been recruited for ill-defined jobs and arrive in a mixture of youthful high spirits, enthusiasm, and uncertainty. Interspersed are chapters from, November 1947, which are a day-by-day countdown to the royal wedding of Prince Philip of Greece and Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, future Queen of England.

Most people today know the story of Bletchley Park (BP): how bright young things learned to decode messages generated by the German Enigma machines. Led by a collection of genius misfits and military leaders, an enormous decryption enterprise was quietly assembled. Quinn’s detailed construction of that world is riveting, not just the technical hurdles overcome, but also the human interactions in that intense and desperate effort.

Osla Kendall’s socialite mother hopes to stash her in Canada to wait out the war, but the sidelines are never a place for Osla, and she returns to London. She’s a goddaughter of Lord Louis Mountbatten and, as it happens, the wartime girlfriend of Prince Philip. (Lest you think this is a fictional bridge too far, the character Osla is modeled on the real-life Osla Benning, “a beautiful, effervescent, Canadian-born heiress and Hut 4 translator who was Prince Philip’s long-term wartime girlfriend,” Quinn explains in an afterword.)

Mabel Churt has none of Osla’s advantages, living in Shoreditch with her mum and younger sister, but she’s bright and hard-working, and, like the many summoned to BP, she’s meant to help the male “brains of the outfit” with administrative and secretarial duties. That restriction doesn’t last.

Mab and Osla are billeted in the spare bedroom of a Bletchley village house, where they meet the shy family daughter, Beth Finch. Beth is their age, but so totally cowed by her Bible-spouting mother, they feel obligated to bring her out of her shell. To her mother’s chagrin, Beth lands a BP job, and she turns out to be the best code-breaker of them all.

The work the women do is fascinating and deadly serious, yet the (mostly) young people they work with are full of life and humor. One by one, the coding systems of the Germans fall to the BP’s round-the-clock efforts. From this vital but obscure corner of the war, you view its stuttering progress: Dunkirk, the bombing of London, the naval battle of Cape Matapan, the United States entering the war, the Germans’ snarl in the Soviet Union, preparations for D-Day—the innate excitement of the story propelling you past one wartime milestone after another. By constantly grounding her plot in real events, Quinn’s narrative feels both believable and significant.

After the war, in the days leading up to the royal wedding, Osla and Mab receive a coded message from Beth. The friends have become estranged, unaware Beth is confined in a particularly horrifying mental institution. She hints at the existence of a Bletchley traitor who sold secrets to the Soviets and recalls their past friendship (‘You owe me.’) Uneasily, Osla and Map reunite, and the hunt for the traitor is on. Without all the resources of BP, they must decipher the Rose Code.

It’s a book that grabs your attention from the beginning and never lets go. I loved it!