****The Horseman’s Song

By Ben Pastor – This book is one of Ben Pastor’s six detective novels featuring German intelligence officer Martin Bora and a prequel to novels covering Bora’s activities during the Second World War.

As the book opens, it’s summer 1937, in the midst of the Spanish Civil War. Two tiny encampments located high in the rocky sierras of Aragon overlook a valley, a cane-lined brook, and the small town of Teruel. Bora heads one of these camps, comprising about seven Nationalists; the other, near enough for occasional sniper-fire, is similarly sized and led by American volunteer Philip Walton. Walton is a World War I veteran, a couple of decades older than Bora, and has joined the Republican side less because of conviction and more because he can’t think of anything better to do.

The men in both camps are a ragtag bunch and more prone to follow their own inclinations than any official orders. Neither unit is interested in attacking the other, preferring to save their energies for a big battle rumored to be coming soon. The proximity of these two encampments is illustrated by the fact that both Bora and Walton both visit the same prostitute high on the mountaintop. For Bora, the encounters with this young woman are life-changing; for Walton, they’re a painful reminder he’s aging. Yet they inspire destructive sexual jealousy.

Bora finds the body of a stranger shot in the head on the road below his encampment and wonders how this stranger ended up there. Walton also knows about the corpse, plus he knows who the man is: his friend Federico García Lorca (pictured), the revered poet and playwright, homosexual, and staunch Republican. Walton and his men bury García Lorca’s partway up the mountain; Bora’s scouts find the grave, remove the body, and bury it elsewhere. The official story—in the novel as well as in real life—is that García Lorca was murdered in 1936 outside Granada. The authorities on both sides would prefer that Bora and Walton let the official story stand unquestioned.

Separately, they conduct a somewhat clandestine investigation of the events of the fatal night and the motives of various people who might have been involved. It’s slow going, because Walton and Bora are mostly otherwise engaged. The times themselves dampen progress further. If Bora wants to send a message to Teruel, someone has to get on a donkey and take it. A response won’t arrive for hours. If Walton wants to investigate an event in the village of Castellar, he must climb the mountain to do so. The overall impression is of a hostile environment that’s dusty and hot, hot, hot. Author Pastor does an admirable job evoking the landscape, the conditions, and the way things got done (or not) eight decades ago.

With their murder investigations limping along, there is ample opportunity for exploring the characters of both Walton and Bora, as well as several of their underlings. Pastor’s writing style is dense and full of psychological insight. Her short scenes feel almost like an hour-by-hour bulletin on camp activities. And, of course, writing about García Lorca gives the opportunity for pithy epigrams from his wonderful poems.

Ben Pastor is the pseudonym for Maria Verbena Volpi. Born in Rome, she holds dual citizenship in Italy and the United States. Though Martin Bora is fictional, he was inspired by Claus von Stauffenberg, best known for his leading role in the July 1944 attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

A Trio of Fascinating Reads

*****The Surfacing – literary fiction

Cormac James tells the story of the dangerous 1850 voyage of the Impetus, which sailed north of Greenland to find and rescue men who’d been lost while searching for the Northwest Passage. The story is told from the viewpoint of Impetus’s second in command, Mr. Morgan, and his doubts about the judgment of their captain are growing. Captain Myer has a monomaniacal desire to push on, even though it’s late in the season, and his ship risks being trapped in the ice.

It’s ice and snow and wind and water and more ice everywhere. Such conditions might seem likely to become rather tedious, but James surprises with his inventiveness and acute perception, expressed in beautiful prose.

Despite conditions, there’s good humor among the crew, especially between Morgan and his friend, the ship’s doctor. The woman with whom Morgan had a dalliance in their last port-of-call has been smuggled on board, pregnant, and he must contend not just with an incompetent captain and implacable weather, but with the unexpected pull of fatherhood.

The conditions so far north put everyone to the test. As the darkness of another winter descends, they must each face their fate in their own way. Order from Amazon here.

****No Happy Endings – comic thriller

I won Angel Luis Colón’s novella at an event where he did a reading, and I have mixed feelings about recommending it. Readers may have trouble with a couple of disturbing scenes in a crazy sperm bank. Those aside, protagonist Fantine Park is funny and engaging. She’s a thief, a safecracker, and a good daughter. To protect her father living in a nursing home, she agrees to steal some of the sperm bank’s “product.” So much easier said than done. As Joe Clifford wrote for the book jacket, Colón “takes the time-tested trope of retired robber on a final heist, and delivers one of the most weirdly original, satisfying, and unexpected capers of the year.” Order from Amazon here.

****The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial – non-fiction

Fifty years ago, the murders of seven young women rocked Ann Arbor. Maggie Nelson’s book tells the real-life story of one of those deaths. Her aunt, Jane Mixer, a law student at the University of Michigan, put up a bulletin board request for a ride home. She found one. Though at first believed the third of the “Michigan murders,” her death did not fit the pattern of the others.

In November 2004, 35 years after Jane’s death, Nelson’s mother received a call from a Michigan State Police detective who said, “We have every reason to believe this case is moving swiftly toward a successful conclusion.” DNA evidence had at last identified Jane’s killer. This is the story of the family’s reaction to reopening these old wounds, of attending the trial of a now-62 year old man, of seeing the crime scene photographs, of dealing with the media. It traverses the landscapes of grief, of murder, of justice, and the importance, even after so many years, of bearing witness. Order from Amazon here.

Photo: maxpixel.net, creative commons license.

*****Hell Chose Me

By Angel Luis Colón – Just when avid crime fiction readers might be tiring of low-life protagonists, seedy surroundings, and grimy situations larded with expletives, along comes a novel that upends expectations. Angel Luis Colón’s new thriller certainly is filled with reprehensible characters and actions, but he has made it so interesting that it rises far above the type.

Author Dennis Lehane has described noir protagonists perfectly: “In Greek tragedy, they fall from a great height. In noir, they fall from the curb.” Colón’s protagonist, Bryan Walsh, has teetered on the curb for some time. He was raised Irish Catholic in the Bronx, with his grandfather Mairsial, his mother—“an awful, manipulative monster”—and his younger brother Liam. Bryan fled these unpromising surroundings at age 18, going straight into the U.S. Marines. In Iraq, he led a mistimed assault on a house that killed a child, and he can’t shake the memory.

He deserts the Marines, bolting to Ireland, to the only family member who may be able to protect him, his uncle Sean. Sean Shea is the son of one of the original members of the Irish Republican Army, a hard bastard whom Sean seems determined to outdo. Bryan works his way up in Sean’s loose criminal organization, learning to make bombs, killing people Sean has fingered.

When Bryan learns some of Sean’s mates doubt his loyalty—a situation unlikely to promote longevity—again he splits, returning to the U.S. illegally a year before 9/11. Liam has a diabetic stroke that leaves him in permanent intensive care—“all vegetable,” as Bryan’s boss, a gangster middleman named Paulie Gigante, so sensitively puts it. The work Bryan does for Paulie is mostly as a hitman, killing people Bryan considers losers and nobodies.

But Paulie keeps cutting back on Bryan’s take, and Bryan desperately needs money to pay Liam’s interminable hospital bills. He mistakenly kills the son of a big crime boss, who’s determined to get revenge. The hunt for Bryan is on, and blood in great quantities begins being spilled.

Several aspects of this story make it a stand-out. First is Colón’s wonderful use of language. It’s elegant, evocative, and economical. Most distinctive is the indelible way he describes what’s going on in Bryan’s head. The man is haunted by the ghosts of his victims—dissolving, reassembling, their margins fluid—who follow him in a growing and inescapable train. They repeat the words they uttered just before death, a macabre Greek chorus that oddly enriches the novel’s events. Bryan’s living, breathing companions here in the real world doubt his sanity.

While the question of whom the protagonist can trust is a hallmark of thriller fiction, in this novel, the layers of deception and betrayal expand geometrically. Though just under 200 pages, this book packs a wallop and is one you will have a hard time forgetting.

Photo by SuperHerftigGeneral for Pixabay

****The Long Road from Paris

By Kirby Williams – A book with Paris in the title two weeks in a row? It’s enough to make you stock up on croissants. While the title of this one echoes Dov Alfon’s contemporary crime thriller, A Long Night in Paris, the similarity ends there.

This is Kirby Williams’s second thriller featuring New Orleans jazz prodigy Urby Brown, an expat living in Paris as the dark clouds of Naziism spread over Europe.

Author Williams, an expat himself, effectively conveys his love of the city where he has lived and worked for many decades in real life.

The book begins with Brown’s early years in New Orleans as a white-skinned octoroon, son of a woman named Josephine Dubois and a white Frenchman who skedaddled back to France after impregnating her. In 1895, Josephine left her newborn in a Moses basket on the doorstep of Saint Vincent’s Colored Waifs’ Home. She later pleaded with Father Gohegan, the priest in charge of the Waifs’ Home, to contact the baby’s father who she claimed was a Count. The priest refused, and Josephine committed suicide.

As a teenager, Brown played his clarinet at Madame Lala’s Mahogany House (flaunting both Louisiana law and Father Gohegan’s rules), an infamous bordello that brought together top jazz players. These connections were renewed once he moved to Paris, joining the many musicians escaping U.S. Jim Crow laws.

Along with his mentor and fellow clarinetist Stanley Bontemps and his live-in girlfriend, Hannah Korngold, Brown lives in Paris in relatively peace and prosperity into the 1930s. Hannah helps Brown run his nightclub, but she is an American Jew whose future under the Nazis will be just as precarious as his own.

Williams writes Brown’s first-person story with an emphasis on what happens, not why or how. He doesn’t engage in lengthy descriptions of people, places or events and will even slide past significant dramatic opportunities. This spareness is both bothersome and energizing—bothersome because you don’t always know why Urby Brown does what he does. At the same time, it establishes a powerful narrative energy. The author apparently assumes readers have a pretty solid mental picture of the fascists and the threat they pose his characters and of Paris between the wars, and he relies on our imaginations to fill out the picture.

Within that general atmosphere of risk are the very specific risks to Urby Brown. His father, to whom he bears a remarkable likeness, is indeed a count, a confidant of Marshal Philippe Pétain, and leader of the Oriflamme du Roi, a group of right-wing thugs who parade around like stormtroopers in advance of the real thing. Murder, blackmail, and spying are their stock-in-trade.

With the arrival of the Nazis, Urby and Hannah desperately attempt to escape back to the United States, but every indication is they’ve waited too long.

****Stay with Me

By Ayobami Adelbayo – This superb debut novel is set in Nigeria, starting in the 1980s—a time of political upheaval following an aborted election and resurgent military dictatorship. With that as a backdrop, it focuses on the considerably smaller-scale politics within the household of a married couple, Yejide and Akin Ajayi.

Narrating mostly by Yejide, with occasional chapters from Akin, author Adelbayo presents an eloquent deconstruction of the social and family pressures on the couple to have children—a not-unusual problem that the author manages to make distinctly fresh. Difficult solutions are proposed and undertaken that have profound consequences, forever altering Yejide and Akin’s relationship.

While that central problem remains intensely engaging, the daily aspects of Yejide’s life, running her hair salon, remembering her childhood and its stories, and catering to relatives’ demands and expectations are rendered in vivid detail. The result is a novel nominated for numerous prizes, one with “remarkable emotional resonance and depth of field,” says Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times.

Adelbayo’s prose is deceptively straightforward, carrying you along easily, and you occasionally must stop yourself to reread a sentence or paragraph to fully appreciate its beauty or insight. An example is when Akin talks about a breast-milk stain on his wife’s blouse: “As I watched the milk stain spread downwards, I realised that the ground under our feet had just been pulled away, we were standing on air, and my words could not keep us from falling into the pit that had opened up beneath us.” 

It doesn’t take long to read—give it a try!

photo: .craig on Visual Hunt, creative commons license

Short Crime Fiction – March Hare Edition

For a recent Chicago jaunt, my suitcase held short story magazines not getting read in the flurry of daily life. Since the temperature in my daughter’s house was 63 degrees (the furnace repair man threw in the towel and refused to charge anything), my preferred keep-warm strategy was to wrap myself in a comforter with a cup of ginger tea and catch up with what’s hot between the covers of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Mystery Tribune.

Ellery Queen (Nov/Dec 2018)

This issue is a perfect example of the diversity of story types the mystery/crime genre embraces, everything from the echoes of Raymond Chandler and his P.I.’s in Bill Pronzini’s “Smoke Screen,” to John H. Dirckx’s nifty police procedural, “Where the Red Lines Meet,” which every real estate agent should read. Ditto “Open House,” by Reed Johnson.

O.A.Tynan’s “Jenny’s Necklace” and Jehane Sharah’s debut story “The Screening” show people haunted by deaths that took place long ago. The future of crime prevention is secure too, as a couple of feisty kids help resolve some bad situations in Anna Scotti’s entertaining “Krikon the Ghoul Hunter” and Michael Sears’s “The Honest End of Sybil Cooper.”

“Bug Appetit’ by Barb Goffman, nominated for an Agatha Award, offers the author’s trademark comeuppance for characters too clever for their own good! (If you’ve read Barb’s story, you appreciate the Asian insect buffet in the photo. And, if you haven’t, you’ve got a pretty good guess about the connection right now.)

Mystery Tribune (Fall 2018) – Kindle edition available online

I love the mix of stories, essays and photo galleries that make this magazine unique. Naturally, you know you’ll get a good story from Reed Farrel Coleman, who leads off this issue with “The Devil Always Knows.” Joe De Quattro’s “Still Life with Stalin” was one of my favorites here, as were the photos by Philip Kanwischer.

Ellery Queen – March/April 2019 Kindle edition available online

I looked high and low for the Jan/Feb issue, because I wanted to read Art Taylor’s award-nominated story, “English 398: Fiction Workshop,” but that issue is buried somewhere. A pleasure to look forward to. This current issue nevertheless contains some gems.

“Life and Death in T-Shirts” by British author Liza Cody was fun, as was Susan Dunlap’s tables-turning “Aunt Jenna Was a Spy.” Paul D. Marks’s “Fade Out on Bunker Hill” and Robert S. Levinson’s “All About Evie” prove once again that Hollywood is the gift to mystery-writers that keeps on giving. Even though I saw what was coming, I especially enjoyed the Peruvian connection in John Lantigua’s “The Revenge of the Puma.” More great tales than I have room for here!

****A Long Night in Paris

Written by Dov Alfon, translated by Daniella Zamir – Lots of action is packed into Dov Alfon’s debut novel, A Long Night in Paris, Israel’s bestselling book of 2016-2017, now available in English. It’s hard to believe so much can happen in little more than twenty-four hours!

The story begins one morning when a gregarious Israeli software engineer disappears from the arrivals hall of Charles de Gaulle Airport. An irrepressible flirt, he peels off from a group of colleagues to link up with a beautiful blonde before the two seemingly disappear into thin air.

Police Commissaire Jules Léger grudgingly organizes an investigation, predictably hampered by too many cooks: airport security, the Israeli police representative for Europe, a mysterious Israeli security colonel named Zeev Abadi, and, most uncooperative of all, El Al security.

Abadi is a Tunisian Jew raised in the Paris suburbs. Not until midnight does he assume his official role as the new head of Israeli intelligence’s SIGINT unit. Temporarily in charge of the unit back in Tel Aviv, with minuscule bureaucratic power, is Lieutenant Oriana Talmor.

At the airport, Abadi uncovers footage showing the hapless Israeli attacked by a pair of Chinese thugs and thrown into a sewer pit where survival is impossible. Abadi soon realizes the attack was a case of mistaken identity. He must figure out who was the actual intended victim and calls on Talmor her team back in Israel for help. Separated by more than two thousand miles, the two try to uncover the identity of the intended victim, his current location, and the reasons he’s a murder target.

Although most of the short chapters are written from the point of view of Abadi, Talmor, or Léger, some are from clueless higher-ups in the Israeli and French governments, the various criminal operatives involved, and the real quarry of the killers, a young man named Vladislav Yerminski. What you mostly learn about him is that he’s checked into an expensive hotel with a suitcase full of electronic gadgetry. (I forget how that bag got through Tel Aviv’s airport security, if I ever knew.)

It’s a multinational cast of characters and you’re well along before you realize what game Yerminski is playing and who’s behind the mysterious gang of Chinese pursuing him. All the bureaucrats are busy trying to spin the first victim’s undignified death in a way that masks the shortcomings and errors in their own intelligence work. Even though I couldn’t quite believe in the criminal mastermind whose Chinese assassins murdered the wrong man, I totally believed that they work in a rogue system that does not tolerate error.

Alfon came to the writing of this book with the perfect resume. He knows Paris, having been born and raised there. He is himself a former intelligence officer in the Israeli Intelligence Corps’ Unit 8200, which is responsible for signals intelligence (SIGINT) and code decryption. His political acumen was honed as a former cultural observer and editor in chief of Israel’s major newspaper, Ha’aretz, and he served as an editor for Israel’s largest publishing house. The translation flows smoothly as well.

****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

earphones

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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