****Amsterdam Noir

Edited by René Appel and Josh Pachter – Fourteen of The Netherlands’ premier authors of crime and literary fiction contributed stories to this collection, with the editors—top-rated crime authors themselves—providing the fifteenth. Amsterdam Noir is the latest in Akashic Books’ long-running series of place-based crime anthologies.

If this enterprise is in part intended to impart a vision of the locale and its residents through the lens of crime, this collection is another success.

Whenever a story purports to represent a certain place, you can fairly ask yourself, could these events have unfolded this way anywhere else? Geography, history, and culture all affect what can and does take place in a city and the official and unofficial reactions to events.

Appel and Pachter assigned the stories to four broad headings inspired by classic film noir, and below I briefly describe a story or two under each of their headings. The collection includes both well established authors, like Theo Capel, and writers new to the scene, like Karin Amatmoekrim. Meet some of the very best Dutch crime writers, right here in these pages.

Out of the Past

Welcome to Amsterdam by Michael Berg is a story of revenge—a revenge the wronged man never thought he could achieve. It’s pretty strong stuff. Berg was the 2013 winner of the Golden Noose, the award for the best Dutch-language crime novel of the year. Herman Koch, who wrote 2013’s best-selling crime novel, The Dinner, contributed Ankle Monitor, which launches with a brilliant first line: “Maybe it was a mistake to go back to my old neighborhood on the very first day of a weekend leave.” No stopping reading there.

Kiss Me Deadly

All three of these stories are about ill-conceived love and all are written by women, interestingly. Silent Days by Karin Amatmoekrim proves that just because a woman is old and alone doesn’t mean she is helpless.

Touch of Evil

Here you have Satan himself, a pedophile, an alcoholic fratricide, and a man channelling Ted Bundy (for an international touch), plus a hard-working police detective who unexpectedly comes out on top in Theo Capel’s entertaining Lucky Sevens.

They Live By Night

Echoing that film’s theme of inescapable tragedy, most of these stories are from the victim’s point of view, but Abdelkader Benali’s The Girl at the End of the Line is told through the eyes of a Moroccan police officer assigned to find the killer of a Muslim girl. Winner of a top literary prize, Benali opens this story, “A farmer found her with her head facing southeast, toward Mecca, as if in prayer.” It’s an effective reminder of the pluralistic culture of Western European cities today and a strong intimation of the layers of social complexity the story will probe.

30-Second Book Reviews

****The Death of Mrs. Westaway

By Ruth Ware – It was a big house, with big grounds, supervised by a noisy tiding of magpies. Harriet Westaway, barely eking a living as a psychic advisor on the Brighton Pier, receives a letter from faraway Penzance inviting her to the funeral and will-reading of her grandmother, the wealthy Hester Westaway. Trouble is, her grandparents are all dead.

Curiosity wins out and she shows up for the event. What starts as something she could explain as a misunderstanding draws her in deeper and deeper, and the search for her real family takes off. Liked it. The Death of Mrs. Westaway

****The Bolivian Sailor

By Donald Dewey – Sometimes a book arrives unexpectedly in the mailbox, or “over the transom,” as publishers used to say, as this one did. To my delight, there were many things to like about this book. Poor P.I. Paul Finley finds himself enmeshed in a deadly plot when a Bolivian seaman is murdered in a seedy motel. He keeps his sense of humor, though, if not his part-time gig teaching a college course in Practical Problems in Law Enforcement. Alas, quite a few of those problems are playing out in front of him. Fun! The Bolivian Sailor

***Low Down Dirty Vote

Edited by Mysti Berry – A timely collection of eleven crime and mystery stories on the theme of fighting voter suppression. Women, blacks, the elderly—in these stories, various groups are discouraged from voting because of presumptions about how they’ll cast their ballots. Most unexpected and amusing use of the vote appeared in Catronia McPherson’s tale about the comeuppance of a man in a crowded commuter train. Good job, all! Low Down Dirty Vote

***A Deadly Indifference

By Marshall Jevons – Harvard economics professor Henry Spearman travels to Cambridge, England, to help a friend wanting to buy the former home of economist Alfred Marshall and establish a foundation there. Marshall may be dear to some economic theorists, including Spearman, but the university faculty is dominated by leftists opposing Marshall’s legacy. Soon, intellectual sparring is replaced by violence and murder. Spearman engagingly calls on economics theory (sometimes a lot of it) to explain these events. Secondary characters, not required to trot out their supply-and-demand curves, are nicely drawn too. A Deadly Indifference

Magpie photo: AdinaVoicu, creative commons license

****Mrs. Cox

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By Jan Moore, narrated by Jilly Bond – It’s January 1608. London is dark most of the time, and the citizens are restless. Food shortages put residents of the poorer neighborhoods in increasing peril, though the authorities are still hiding the extent of the grain shortage. When a well respected woman of the Aldgate neighborhood dies under mysterious circumstances there is no lack of suspects. Just proof.

In Mrs. Cox, Jan Moore has created a powerful sense of time and place, and one of her story’s most salient features is the disregard the men have for women. The victim’s landlord, Mr. Sutton, proprietor of the alehouse across the street, investigates her disappearance and discovers not a body, but the bones of a hand, burnt in the fireplace, a detail based on a true crime of the era. He’s a rascally sort and people are willing to believe he might have done her in.

The local Alderman, Blincoe, is trying to expand the domain of Aldgate through the acquisition of Duke’s Place, widening of the roads, and construction of housing projects, with an eye eventually to becoming Mayor. A number of people, including the current mayor, suspect him of dirty dealing, but aren’t sure how to stop him. Blincoe also had a motive for murder, because the victim could thwart his development plans.

Moore’s narrative is as full of colorful characters as a Dickens novel, and some of their names are equally apt. Particularly entertaining is the newspaperwoman Mrs. Gosson, so close in sound to gossip, which well describes her stock-in-trade. The irrepressible laundress Bitty is a lot of fun, and the vivid procession of sticky-fingered maids, apprentice needleworkers, and persons of both sexes harboring secrets will stay in your mind long after the story ends.

Rumors suggest the murderer was a woman called Mrs. Abbott, who was wearing a dress decorated with cobweb lace. Eventually, a woman so described is found. She’s tried, found guilty, and due to hang, but Mrs. Cox knows she’s not guilty and persists in trying to save her. Moore has done a creditable job imagining the difficulties and prejudices the women would face, confronting the disinterest and intransigence of the male authorities and the venality of those with a smidge of influence.

I enjoyed the book’s award-winning narrator, Jilly Bond. She has a significant challenge in developing distinctive voices and speech mannerisms for this colorful cast and conveys the different women expertly. The men’s voices are a little less convincing, yet they are easily told apart. If you like historical mysteries or pre-Dickensian London, you’ll find this book both intriguing and delightful! Mrs. Cox is currently available only in its audio version, was a UK finalist for an Audible New Writing Grant: Crime Edition 2018.

Photo above: John O’Nolan, creative commons license


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Three Minute Book Reviews

Tarot cards

You can read that headline two ways and either works. I enjoyed all three of these books, out of my usual crime fiction lane.

****The Immortalists

Chloe Benjamin’s accomplished 2018 novel details the lives of four siblings who, as children, visit a fortune teller who reveals the date they will die. We follow them then, in turn, and the question is, did her predictions engage them as accomplices in creating self-fulfilling prophecies, or was she simply right? The career of the younger daughter, Klara, who becomes an accomplished magician, was the most intriguing to me. Named “one of the best books of the year” by many sources.

****The Book Thief

Probably you read Markus Zusak’s 2005 best-seller when it first came out, but I missed both book and movie. Children (again) in a small town outside Munich face the coming of World War II—the paranoia, the excitement, the vicious militants. Liesel’s mother has left her nine-year-old daughter in the care of Rosa and Hans Hubermann. The deepening relationship between Liesel and her foster parents—both kindly Hans and foul-mouthed, foul-tempered Rosa—is a joy.

They take in someone much more dangerous too. There’s a Jew in the basement, son of the man Hans owes his life to. Just as I’d become immersed in the story, Death, a 20,000-foot observer of the book’s events, would intrude and pull me out again. I came to appreciate him as a character, though not these constant interruptions.

***Midnight Blue

Another historical novel is Simone van der Blugt’s 2018 book, her first published in the United States. In 1654, the young widow Catrin leaves her small village to seek her fortune and leave behind the suspicions about her role in her husband’s death. In Amsterdam, she finds work as housekeeper to the wealthy Van Nulandt family. Madame Van Nulandt takes painting lessons from a local master, Rembrandt van Rijn, but Catrin, it turns out, is the real artist in the household. The secret of her husband’s death returns, however, and her struggle to make a successful life despite all shows plenty of pluck and talent. Translated by Jenny Watson.

Photo: Meg Lessard, creative commons license

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****Death in Shangri-La

India, dawn, village

By Yigal Zur, translated by Sara Kitai – Israeli thriller writer Yigal Zur skillfully uses both an exotic setting and ongoing political turmoil to create a high level of tension in this fast-paced thriller. Published in Israel in 2012, Death in Shangri-La is the first of Zur’s novels to be translated into English, and quite smoothly at that.

A trip to India after their military commitment has become rite of passage for many Israeli young adults. When one young Israeli seems bent on abandoning a future law career and immersing himself in the life of an ashram somewhere in Sikkim, his father, arms dealer Willy Mizrachi, is outraged. He complains about it to his acquaintance, former security agent Dotan Naor, familiar with India from his days working for Israeli state security.

While Dotan counsels him to accept his son for who he is, Willy is determined to bring him home. In an action that will have deadly consequences, Willy wagers that within a year, he’ll have his son happily back home, with a wife and baby.

A few months later, Dotan learns Willy has been murdered in Delhi, just as news reports are filled with stories of terrorist attacks on Israeli young people in north India—backpackers, guest house visitors, honeymooners. Most of the novel is told by Dotan in first-person. However, the attacks are told from the points of view of the Israelis and their would-be rescuers, which effectively conveys the situational chaos.

Shortly after Dotan learns about Willy, security agency agents visit his Tel Aviv apartment hoping he will cooperate in unraveling Willy’s murder. Dotan at first refuses, but when a posthumous letter from Willy arrives saying he’s being watched, the clues it contains convince him to take the job. The female agent, Maya Kfir, will accompany him. (You anticipate where that relationship is going.)

The action moves to India, and Zur wonderfully evokes a sense of place. His descriptions of the street life, the seedy hotels where Dotan and Maya stay, the markets, the food, are terrific. The elements of the setting are not just pasted on, they are well worked into the plot. Could this story have taken place anywhere else? Probably not.

In the course of trying to untangle Willy’s death, Dotan and Maya land in the heart of the current terrorist trouble spot and must draw on Dotan’s contacts with Indians on both sides of the law. The Muslim terrorists, drug runners, Tibetan freedom fighters, the Indian army—all have their agendas and guns manufactured in Israel. Are they Willy’s deadly legacy?

The main part of the story takes place in a highly compressed few days and the propulsive action keeps the pages turning. My only complaint is Dotan—a man in his forties, not a teenage boy—is obsessed with the sexual conquest, past, present, or future, of practically every woman in the story. When he quickly develops a supposedly sincere, if highly predictable, relationship with Maya, it’s hard to take seriously. This is the middle one of three thrillers about Dotan Naor. I hope the others will be translated too, and soon!

Photo: Mario Lapid, creative commons license

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***The One That Got Away

By Joe Clifford – Clifford has an innovative premise for this crime thriller about a woman who turned out to be the last kidnap victim of a serial killer plaguing a dreary upstate New York town called Reine. Alex Salerno was 17 when she was kidnapped, then rescued, and the murderer brought to justice. The town celebrated her and the end of its reign of terror for only a short while until another girl, Kira Shanks, disappeared and was believed murdered.

That was a dozen years ago, and now Alex has made a rare trip back to Reine because a reporter wants to hear her story. This is the first time anyone has shown a flicker of interest in her in a very long while, and Alex wants to believe her story’s worth telling. Maybe the reporter will even pay for it. She soon learns he’s no reporter, just a journalism student needing dirt for a class project that might—or might not—become a story for the college newspaper.

The student takes hardly a moment before bringing up the name Sean Riley, the detective who rescued Alex from that basement bunker, starving, dehydrated, terrified. Riley was the one bright spot in that time, the one person who could evoke her tender feelings. And did. Too bad an affair between a married detective and a 17-year-old victim could only end badly. Though it was a long time ago, it still hurts.

The police identified the person they believe took Kira Shanks, a mentally challenged young man named Benny Brudzienski. When word got out, Benny was badly beaten and has spent the years since in a mental hospital, unable to speak. In that condition, he will never go to trial.

Alex has tried to forget her life in Reine, and author Clifford does a good job describing the dismal town. She pretends—to herself, even—that she’s helping the student with his story and visits Benny in the mental hospital. Something in his eyes suggests more going on inside his brain than people believe, though the chapters told from Bennie’s point of view didn’t ring true to me.

After that insightful look, Alex is determined to find out what really happened to Kira. Meanwhile, plenty of people want her to leave it alone. Someone is following her. She’s attacked. Riley resurfaces. Because their past relationship is never far from the mind of either of them, they teeter between attraction and hostility.

Clifford plausibly describes Alex’s initial feelings, but never lets her develop further, replaying the same emotional notes. She’s unpleasant and hostile in her dealings with people. It’s puzzling her people-skills are so weak and that anyone would cooperate with her pseudo-investigation. Yet Alex has caught the eye of one young man determined to find a soft spot in her shell.

Occasionally, Clifford constructs a too-obvious and unnecessary cliff-hanger at the end of a chapter, even though what’s coming follows the predictable plotting of thrillers—the false starts, the red herrings, the apparent threats that evaporate, the climactic confrontation.

The unwanted role of victim was Alex Salerno’s only and brief claim to fame. You can only hope her most recent experience in her home town will finally let her move on. She’s already come a long way from that dark cellar.

photo: xusenru on pixabay

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*****The Feral Detective

By Jonathan Lethem – Jonathan Lethem, who has been called one of America’s greatest storytellers, returns to crime fiction with this new novel, The Feral Detective. It opens with the narrator, Manhattanite Phoebe Siegler, searching for her best friend’s teenage daughter, Arabella, who has disappeared from Reed College. Her trail has led to the small California town of Upland, east of Los Angeles. It’s at the edge of the San Gabriel Mountains, a short drive to the mountains’ highest peak, Mount Baldy, and within striking distance of wilderness and desert, vividly described settings as bleak and untamed as the situations Phoebe will encounter.

The local police, loathe to put any energy into a search for Arabella, pass Phoebe on to a social worker who specializes in runaways, and the social worker refers her to The Feral Detective, Charles Heist. Phoebe’s told that, though Heist’s methods may be unorthodox, he’s a good man on a cold trail, an expert in rescuing runaways and teenagers snared in cults or human trafficking networks. In fact, Phoebe learns, one such teen lives in an armoire in his office.

Heist’s unique set of skills and experiences sets you up for a strange romp through the underbelly of California society. Scanning Heist’s unpromising office building, Phoebe says,“To make an appointment here was to have dropped through the floor of your life, out of ordinary time. You weren’t meant to be here at all, if you were me.”

Phoebe’s New York temperament is distinctly at odds with that of the Californians, and she’s pegged it; she wasn’t meant to be there. But Phoebe already has dropped through the floor of her life, first by quitting her job at a major newspaper because she couldn’t tolerate the prospect of the Trump presidency. She can’t fathom why the Californians aren’t similarly outraged.

She’s thirty-three, with no immediate employment prospects, a lot of anger, and dubious romantic feelings about Charles Heist. Her reflexive wisecracking is balanced by despair, a weak shield against reality. Lethem lets her be defensive, show poor judgment, and lash out when it would be better not to. She’s not perfect.

Road trips into the area surrounding Upland, with and without Heist, lead her to some sketchy places and characters. Heist has mysterious connections with these troubled people that the New Yorker cannot understand. Phoebe is drawn to the taciturn feral detective, though their mismatched relationship seems most likely to go awry. But perhaps he can give her the anchor in life she so obviously needs.

Lethem writes strong prose, with more than a sprinkling of appreciation for the ridiculous. Lovers of literary crime fiction will find Lethem has created interesting and engaging characters in Phoebe and Heist, as well as an array of distinctive secondary characters—and some dogs—whose fates are worth caring about. He never lets up in describing people, places, situations, and feelings in fresh and memorable ways. Several review sites included it among the top crime books of 2018, though I’ve noted that Amazon readers don’t much like it and seem to have missed the humor altogether.

Lethem’s previous detective fiction, Motherless Brooklyn, won the National Book Critics Circle Award. It was narrated by a man with Tourette’s Syndrome—sympathetically. In this new work, the characters are less overtly damaged, but the damage is there, not far below the surface.

rabbit photo by wbaiv, creative commons license

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*****Best American Mystery Stories – 2018

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(Pedro Ribeiro Simōes, cc license)

Edited by Louise Penny – What an entertaining collection this is! The stories cover a wide range of mystery/crime/suspense writing, with a fair bit of edge. Edited by Louise Penny from a collection assembled under the direction of Otto Penzler, the twenty stories, all published in 2017, first appeared in US crime magazines, in literary magazines, in themed anthologies, and in single-author collections by T.C. Boyle, Lee Child, Scott Loring Sanders).

Says editor Penny, “A great short story is like a great poem. Crystalline in clarity. Each word with purpose. Lean, muscular, graceful. Nothing wasted. A brilliant marriage of intellect, rational thought, and creativity.” This edition underscores her point on every page.

Though most of the stories run to about twenty pages, Lee Child, with “Too Much Time,” doubles that length. He meticulously describes how the redoubtable Jack Reacher digs himself in deeper and deeper with Maine police while all the time working on an unexpected (by this reader) solution to his precarious situation. Joyce Carol Oates also provides a near-novella with “Phantomwise: 1972,” about a naïve college coed who makes consistently bad choices and the men who exploit them.

Most of the stories take place in the good old US of A, from the sketchy surrounds of Paul Marks’s Venice Beach (“Windward”) to James Lee Burke’s Cajun country (“The Wild Side of Life”), though a few are set in more exotic climes: Africa in David H. Hendrickson’s Derringer-winning “Death in the Serengeti,” the tropical and fictional island of St. Pierre (“Breadfruit” by Brian Silverman), and the Republic of Korea (“PX Christmas” by Martin Limón).

The selected authors found clever and creative ways to deploy the staple characters of crime fiction—unfaithful wives (“Waiting on Joe” by Scott Loring Sanders), assassins (“Takeout” by Rob Hart) and serial killers (“All Our Yesterdays” by Andrew Klavan). They deal with classic crime situations too: trying to escape a difficult past (“Smoked” by Michael Bracken and “Gun Work” by John M. Floyd) or the long tail of a super-secret job (“Small Signs” by Charlaine Harris); prison breaks (“Cabin Fever” by David Edgerley Gates), and the double or is it triple? cross (“Y is for Yangchuan Lizard” by Andrew Bourelle and “Rule Number One” by Alan Orloff).

A couple of the scams were so deftly described that you may find yourself grinning with the vigilante surprise of Michael Connelly’s “The Third Panel” and the flim-flamming of an elderly man in TC Boyle’s “The Designee,” in which you must decide how complicit the elderly “victim” is. It’s the best story of his I’ve ever read. There’s also a thought-provoking twist in “Banana Triangle Six” by Louis Bayard.

This talented collection of authors fills their stories with great lines, though one of my favorites comes from “The Apex Predator,” by William Dylan Powell, wherein the main character claims he learned in Uncle Sam’s navy the “most useful tactical skill ever developed by humankind—and it’s not swimming or fighting or tying knots. It’s the art of bullshitting someone so you don’t get in trouble.”

If you’ve been glancing over the author names looking for (and finding) many that are familiar, you may also have noticed the near-absence of women authors. Joyce Carol Oates who has more than a hundred published books is not a surprise in this list, nor is Charlaine Harris, who’s been publishing mystery fiction since 1981. It’s a real mystery why no other accomplished, newer authors appear here. Women are somewhat more prominent in the list of “Other Distinguished Mystery Stories of 2017” at the back of the volume, where nearly a third are women (10 of 31).

Which publications brought these stories to light in the first place (and where you might find next year’s winner’s now)? Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine published four of the stories, Mystery Tribune (two), and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Fiction River, and Switchblade, one apiece. Also Level Best Books’ anthologies (Noir at the Salad Bar and Snowbound) produced a pair of them.

*****LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media

In David Sanger’s chilling book about the dangers of cyberweapons, reviewed here last week, he includes the impact of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, but P.W. Singer and Emerson T Brooking focus laserlike on them in LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media. If you want to know chapter and verse about the barrage of efforts to manipulate American opinion in the election of 2016—and risk of even more in future—this is the book for you.

Singer and Brooking’s book, like Sanger’s, pulls together in one place the various threads of information about cyberthreats from the last few years, weaving them into a coherent, memorable, and understandable(!) whole. All these authors provide exhaustive lists of sources. It’s incumbent on responsible people to understand the tactics of information warfare, because, “[recent Senate hearings] showed that our leaders had little grasp on the greatest existential threat to American democracy,” said Leigh Giangreco in the Washington Post.

These ill-intentioned manipulators understand the human brain is hard-wired for certain reactions: to believe in conspiracy theories (“Obama isn’t an American”); to be gratified when we receive approval (“likes”!); to be drawn to views we agree with (“confirmation bias”). If we feel compelled to weigh in on some bit of propaganda or false information, social media algorithms see this attention and elevate the issue—“trending!”—so that our complaints only add to the virality of disinformation and lies. “Just as the internet has reshaped war, war is now radically reshaping the internet,” the authors say.

Contrary to the optimism of the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who saw social media as a positive, democratizing force, this new technology is being used to destructive effect at many levels of society. At a local scale, for example, it bolsters gang violence in Chicago; at a national scale, it contributed to the election of fringe politicians; at a regional scale, it facilitated the emergence of ISIS; and at an international scale, it undergirds the reemergence of repressive political movements in many countries.

How to be a responsible citizen in this chaos? Like it or not, “we’re all part of this war,” the authors say, “and which side succeeds depends in large part on how much the rest of us learn to recognize this new warfare for what it is” and how ready we are for what comes next. Start by reading one—or both—of these important books.

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Our Biggest Threats Keep Growing

In The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage, and Fear in the Cyber Age, New York Times national security correspondent David Sanger talks about nations’ pervasive and growing uses of spyware and malware to achieve their ends. According to Paul Pillar’s review in the Times, Sanger’s book is “an encyclopedic account of policy-relevant happenings in the cyberworld (that) stays firmly grounded in real events.”

It’s not a question of keeping the stuff out of our electric grid, the controls of our nuclear plants, our military establishment, our government. It’s already here. And a piece of spyware in our systems—watching, waiting—can turn instantly destructive on command.

While U.S. companies, utilities, and some government agencies would like to reveal how much they know about these intrusions—“hey, we’re looking at you, too, so watch it!”—the clandestine services argue against it, because they don’t want others to know that we know and what our detection capabilities are, much less guess our offensive capacity. If you were suspicious of that improbable string of fizzling North Korean missiles last year and wondered “could it really be . . ?” you were right.

Sanger’s riveting journalism covers the woes Russia has inflicted on Ukraine, especially its power grid, a seeming test-bed for attacks on the West; it reviews the Stuxnet virus developed by the U.S. and Israel, which exceeded its mission of damaging Iran’s nuclear centrifuges to emerge in the wild; he covers the fallout from Edward Snowden’s revelations; and he describes more recent threats. Across at least three Administrations in Washington, the responses to the size and potential scope of this threat have been paltry. “The clock cannot be turned back,” he says, and it’s up to all of us to hear the ticking.