False Witness

The standalone thriller begins in the summer of 1998, with the uneasy relationship between Callie and Buddy, which, for his part, seems to revolve solely around sex, rough sex, and keeping his ten-year-old son from knowing what he’s up to.

Then it’s spring 2021, and Callie’s sister Leigh is called on at the last minute to defend an especially brutal serial rapist. Leigh works for a prestigious Atlanta, Georgia, law firm and has only days before jury selection begins. The demeanor of the defendant, Andrew Tenant, puts her off, but she can’t say no without risking her job. Soon she realizes her creepy new client is the grown-up boy from long-ago, when she and Callie were his baby-sitters.

Something bad happened back in 1998, involving Callie and Leigh, and they’ve kept the secret ever since. To Leigh’s dismay, Andrew uses what he knows about it to manipulate her into mounting a vigorous and unethical defense. No matter that she’s convinced he’s guilty.

Leigh is afraid to sabotage the defense in any way, certain that Andrew would not hesitate to harm the people she loves, including Callie. Callie has long-standing substance abuse problems, and some of the most poignant parts of the story are her attempts to calibrate the drugs in her system so she can cope with the demands posed by Andrew’s threats.

There are both good characters and bad in this novel, and the good ones are treated with respect and compassion, despite their flaws. Oh, and wait until you meet Callie and Leigh’s mother! A library full of child-rearing advice wouldn’t have changed her behavior an iota!

The story is set in the midst of the pandemic, and though it’s not about covid, the characters’ everyday lives are affected by it—to mask (or not), the erratic court schedule. The disease is part of the realistic environment of the story. Slaughter, who lives in Atlanta, set the novel there, though it’s not a novel in which place plays a dominant role. Occasionally, the author breaks in and delivers a lecture on, for example, the way drug addiction affects the brain, which derails the story for a few paragraphs and feels unnecessary. Readers put off by cursing will have much to complain about.

I personally found Leigh too repetitive and tiresome with her guilt and self-doubt and her willingness to jump to (consistently wrong) conclusions about what other people are feeling. It felt cliché to make Andrew super-wealthy, and he was over-the-top slimy, but then a psychopath would be extreme, no? Those quibbles aside, the book held my interest and I found more to like than not.

Here’s a recent interview with Karin Slaughter related to this book.

Order False Witness here from Amazon.

Or here from IndieBound.

Short Story Collections: EQMM (Sept/Oct) & Fiction River

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For its 80th Anniversary issue, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine assembled almost 200 pages of short stories, book reviews, and blog suggestions. Among my favorite stories this issue were:

  • Jane Jakeman’s “Trick or Treat”—She adds an element of timelessness to her tale of small-town revenge by heading scene breaks with quotes like these: “Beware of meeting a witch underground, for then she is at her most powerful—The Grimoire of Lysbet Malkin.
  • Matt Goldman’s entertaining “Sixteen Lies” (but who’s counting?).in which a savvy private eye unravels the motives that led to the death of a disabled woman, which his client, the dead woman’s sister, believes is suspicious. The fake-supportive banter between the sister and her husband is priceless.
  • “Demon in the Depths,” a novella by William Burton McCormick kept me riveted. A reporter’s Norwegian expedition to investigate her great-grandmother’s death in a mysterious plane crash some 60 years earlier is disrupted by volcanic debris, subzero temperatures, international politics, and a 500-year-old Greenland shark.
  • And I liked John F. Dobbyn’s adventure poem, “Nugget,” which begins: “I’d come in from our claim on the Klondike that week, and I’d made it just under the gun. The trails and the rivers were hell on the dogs, once the icing and snows had begun.”

Fiction River’s latest anthology, Dark and Deadly Passions, deals with crimes that come from emotion—especially extreme emotion. Editor Kristine Kathryn Rusch has a story in the above issue of Ellery Queen, and her long story for Fiction River, “Grief Spam,” was one I couldn’t put down. Other especially good tales included:

  • Annie Reed’s “Missing Carolyn,” which shows just how complicated revenge can be.
  • Lauryn Christopher’s  “Tilting at Windmills,” demonstrating that art can have unexpected value.
  • Michael Warren Lucas’s “Getting Away with It” further shows that the value of art depends on the beholder.

We Begin at the End

The annual lists of crime, mystery, and thriller award winners and nominees always reveal gems I’ve missed, like Chris Whitaker’s much-lauded We Begin at the End. The audio version is narrated by George Newbern with absolute fidelity to the different characters and where their heads are in the moment.

One of the protagonists is Chief Walker, whom everyone calls Walk, the long-time police chief of Cape Haven, a small town on the California coast. Walk, in his mid-forties, tries hard to keep his community from changing. In fact, he’d much prefer to go back in time about thirty years to before the hit-and-run in which his best friend Vincent King killed seven-year-old Sissy Radley.

Vincent received a ten-year sentence at an adult prison, with twenty more tacked on when he killed another inmate in a fight. The novel starts just before Vincent is released from prison and Walk is bringing him home to what promises to be a chilly welcome.

Before he can reclaim his friend, Walk is approached by two children—Duchess Radley, 13, and her brother Robin, five. Their mother has overdosed again, and Walk helps them get her to the hospital. Star Radley has been going off the deep end with increasing frequency. When they were all teenagers, Star and Vincent were a couple, part of a foursome that included Walk and Martha May, and it’s obvious that Walk remains deeply loyal to all of them.

The other main character is Star’s daughter, Duchess, who styles herself an outlaw and goes about proving it. Foul-mouthed and take-no-guff, Duchess has an uncritical eye only for her little brother. He has a lioness defending him.

Tragedy strikes, and Vincent King is once more accused of murder. Despite Walk’s pleading, Vincent won’t say a word in his defense, except that he wants Walk’s former girlfriend, Martha May, to defend him. She’s a family lawyer, and approaching her about Vincent’s case is a difficult journey into the past for them both.

Duchess and Robin are sent to live in Montana with a grandfather they’ve never met, and Duchess is determined not to like him or the ranch or Montana or her new school or anything else. You ache to see her fighting the relationships that would be good for her. You’ve probably known teenagers like this; perhaps you were one yourself.

The story includes many strong secondary characters, some of whom are quite admirable. Even those who do bad things are fully developed and drawn with compassion. Not a roller-coaster of a thriller, this book is more like a slow train through a darkening woods. The journey includes plenty of hazards, both physical and emotional, as it steadily, inexorably, carries you forward. If you take that train ride, you’ll find it’s both moving and memorable. There’s a small, but telling reveal near the end that stopped me, even though it had been in front of me all the time. And if you can do the audio version—do it! Newbern’s narration is flawless.

Order from Amazon here. Or here from your local Indie bookstore.

Suburban Dicks

Several times a week, I encounter every gas station, restaurant, and road in this novel. So that feeling of being able to visualize the story’s setting? This was its epitome.

Early one weekday morning, massively pregnant Andrea Stern screeches into a gas station and emerges from her minivan carrying a toddler desperate for a pee. With the mom-urgency of the situation and the distraction of four wailing children inside the vehicle, she’s overlooked the parked police cruiser and the two officers standing around uncertainly. Nor does she initially see the sprawled body of the South Asian station attendant who’s been shot in the head.

The female officer won’t let unlock the restroom for her, because it’s a crime scene, but Andrea, who trained to be an FBI behavioral analyst, four and three-quarters kids ago, instantly sees that the two young patrol officers have already hopelessly compromised the scene. Held out at arms’ length by her mother, the little girl gives in to the inevitable and lets loose. So much for preserving evidence. Andrea squeezes back into the minivan and speeds away before detectives arrive with lots of questions.

Andrea is famous for solving a difficult serial murder case in New York. She gave up that work, to her lasting regret, to become a suburban mom. She loves her kids but doesn’t romanticize motherhood, and her wry comments about the job are ones any honest parent can identify with. Later the day of the murder, in talking with several South Asian women at the community pool, Andie has an idea about the murder and is determined to investigate.

Disgraced journalist Kenneth Lee arrives at the crime scene to get the story—the first murder in West Windsor Township in decades. He once won a Pulitzer Prize, but several serious judgment errors have moved him down the reportorial food chain, and he now scrapes by, writing for a flaccid weekly newspaper. There’s more to the station attendant’s death, he senses, and this story excites him as nothing has in years. He too is determined to investigate.

Andie and Kenny meet up on the steps of the police station. They knew each other in school, but have lost touch. While their motives and approaches are vastly different, they have one belief in common: the police are lying. But why?

Author Fabian Nicieza does an admirable job describing the social dynamics of this multicultural area of New Jersey. He tells the story with great good humor, sometimes at the expense of one ethnic group or another. In the acknowledgements, Nicieza thanks his multicultural reading group for advising him about the cultural portrayals in the book and for “understanding that its intent was to be an equal opportunity mocker.”

Born in Buenos Aires, Nicieza grew up in New York City and New Jersey. For decades he worked in the comic book industry. He co-created the character Deadpool, who has appeared in three X-men films, and after a lengthy stint at Marvel, he’s done work for almost all the major comics companies. This is his first novel and one you may find supremely entertaining.

Foreign Entanglements

The Foreign Girls

Sergio Olguín’s The Fragility of Bodies was one of my favorite books of 2020 (review here). His new one, The Foreign Girls once again features the sexy trouble-magnet, journalist Verónica Rosenthal. When I refer to the books as “new,” bear in mind that these are books in translation and have been out several years already in Olguín’s home country, Argentina. But neither one has lost any of its freshness in the interim.

Verónica has deserted Buenos Aires for the countryside, hoping to put the traumatic events at the conclusion of Fragility behind her. She hooks up with two young European women and they travel together for a while, and stay at her cousin’s remote vacation home with pool. What should be a sun-drenched idyll becomes a compelling noir adventure.

One night after a party at a rich man’s home, the foreign girls are missing. What happened to them and who is responsible consumes Verónica. Even though she’s supposedly not working, she knows how to dig out a story and does it without regard for her own safety.

Both of Olguín’s Verónica Rosenthal books were expertly translated by Miranda France, and published by Bitter Lemon Press.

Order it here from Amazon or here from your local indie bookstore.

The Basel Killings

Swiss author and playwright Hansjörg Schneider’s first Inspector Hunkeler mystery, translated by Mike Mitchell, has already won the Friedrich Glauser Prize, Germany’s most prestigious crime fiction award. Like Olguín’s story, the book was first published in German a few years ago and is newly available in English.

Peter Hunkeler, a Basel police detective, is feeling old. His prostate bothers him, he’s tired, his girlfriend is on an extended stay in Paris, and he’s past wanting to deal with his superiors in the police department and prosecutor’s office who want him to play according to their rules.

Walking home from a bar one dreary November night, a season as dark as this story, he spots a man he knows sleeping on a park bench, but the man isn’t asleep, he’s been murdered, and the earlobe where he always wore a diamond earring has been slit open, the earring gone.

To Hunkeler, the crime is too similar to a case he’s investigating, the murder of a prostitute, whose ear also was slit open. The pearl that was always there, gone. Coincidence? But when a young girl from the gypsy camp outside town is attacked, strangled, and her ear cut, he realizes he has a serial killer on his hands. What do these three very different victims have in common?

Hunkeler has an interesting low-key approach to investigating, and uses his farmhouse in Alsace as a retreat from the city, a place to think more clearly. Like many books by European authors, Schneider’s writing is barebones and straightforward, more Hemingway than Faulkner. Yet I found the characters he created here eminently believable.

Order it here from Amazon or from your local indie bookstore.

Disappointed Expectations

You may have noticed that the book reviews on this website tend toward the positive. I decided a few months ago to post reviews here of only those books I could recommend. I’m choosy about what I read in the first place, but if a book doesn’t meet expectations, OK. What’s the point of giving a tepid review to a book that probably won’t ever come to the notice of most readers? Let those authors have their shot. Tastes differ.

Two books I’ve read lately are exceptions. Both are receiving a healthy dose of publicity—one because the author is popular and the other, a debut, because the publisher has put big bucks behind it. So these books may actually may attract your attention. Here’s what troubled me about them.

The Hollows

Mark Edwards is a popular British thriller writer. He set this story at a family camp in Maine—remote, wooded. A grisly double murder occurred there twenty years earlier, and the local teenager thought to have committed the crime disappears and isn’t seen again. When British journalist Tom and his teenage daughter arrive for a getaway, they learn right away about the killings and that many of the camp’s visitors are murder-porn tourists. Creepy events ensue. Is the place haunted, has the killer been living in the woods all this time, why are people warning them to leave? Of course, they don’t take any of this good advice (or there wouldn’t be a story), but Tom’s second-guessing and the predictable plot become tiresome.

Falling

TJ Newman’s debut thriller is an exciting read, so much so (especially for us formerly-frequent flyers) that it may distract you from the plot’s implausibility. But after you close the book, the head-scratching will begin. Newman is a former flight attendant and captures the technical aspects of commercial flight very persuasively and her flight attendant characters are nicely three-dimensional. In a nutshell, a transcontinental passenger airline is hijacked and the pilot is told he must crash the plane when it reaches New York. If he refuses, his kidnapped wife and children will be killed. But aside from the behavioral clichés in the story, the bad guys’ plot is way way more complicated than it needed to be. Ultimately, it makes no sense. (I won’t say why in case you decide to give it a go.) There’s a lot of feel-good stuff near the end that doesn’t hold up either. This book has already been optioned for film and has Hollywood fakery written all over it.

Karin Slaughter: No Sugarcoating

Last week a library consortium sponsored an interview with best-selling crime author Karin Slaughter to discuss her new standalone thriller, False Witness. She told the interviewer that it is a hard book to talk about without revealing spoilers, and since I’ve read and reviewed it for CrimeFictionLover.com, I can attest to the difficulty.

The book centers on two sisters, Leigh and Callie, who in their mid-teens experience a horrible event that has changed their lives in many ways. The book was a way to for Slaughter to explore her abiding interest in the impact trauma has on people. The bond between the sisters is at the book’s emotional core. Sister relationships, she says, are so fraught. “A sister is the person you can love the most and hate the most at the same time.”

The interviewer noted that many readers consider her books very “dark,” and she said “if my name was Ken Slaughter, they wouldn’t say that.” She puts violent situations in context but does not shy away from portraying them as they are. No sugarcoating. When she was a child, her grandmother would often have a black eye or split lip or even a broken bone. Her uncles would always make light of it, saying how clumsy she was, but as Karin grew older, she realized her grandfather was an abuser. The family’s refusal to face or even discuss the violence “only hurt my grandmother” and enabled the beatings to continue.

Tough issues, indeed, but despite them, Slaughter works considerable humor into her stories. In this one, Callie works in a veterinary clinic and gives the animals humorous (and very apt) nicknames. Her boss, Dr. Jerry, entertains her with intriguing animal stories. “This book was my opportunity to put in all the obscure animal facts I’ve collected,” Slaughter said. “You can’t have all the dark stuff without balance.”

As adults, Leigh is a lawyer in a high-priced Atlanta firm, and Callie a drug abuser, intermittently sober. To research Callie, Slaughter talked with current and former drug abusers and wanted to describe their outlook without defaulting into clichés. She wanted to separate Callie’s base personality from the addiction and does so in part through Callie’s love of animals. In my opinion, Callie comes across as the novel’s most engaging and believable character.

She read Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Katherine Anne Porter’s novel about the 1918 influenza epidemic, which contains so many parallels to our covid experience. The new book includes a pointed epigram from Porter too. Slaughter produces a book a year, generally, and has published 21 novels with more than 35 million copies sold worldwide. Several of her books are optioned for television, and the one closest to airing is Pieces of Her, which will be an eight-part Netflix series starring Toni Collette, premiering in late 2021 or 2022 (covid delays).

Revisited: The Water Knife

By Paolo Bacigalupi, narrated by Almarie Guerra – Recent news about the drought in the American Southwest reminds me to revisit this excellent 2015 thriller that pits governments against each other and new technology (interesting in itself) benefits some people more than others (go figure). Set in the not-too-distant future, Bacigalupi’s story uses real-life issues as a springboard, adds in toxic intergovernmental rivalries and a healthy dose of greed. It’s an exciting and thought-provoking tale.

In Bacigalupi’s Southwest, Nevada (specifically Las Vegas), Arizona, and California are battling over a dwindling water supply caused by climate change, population pressure, and brazen political brokering. The situation has escalated, with states declaring their sovereignty, closing their borders, and enforcing interstate transit rules with armed militias that shoot to kill. Zoners (Arizonans) have few ways to make a living, and those with weapons prey on the desperate poor. To have water is to be rich or, as the saying goes, “water flows toward money.” The wealthy have bought their way into “arcologies”—high-rise buildings with complex plant and aquatic ecosystems for recycling and recirculating virtually every drop.

In Las Vegas, the Cypress arcologies were built by Catherine Case, nicknamed the Queen of the Colorado River, and head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. Las Vegas is to some extent thriving, because of her cunning and cutthroat tactics. But Phoenix is dying.

Angel Velasquez, one of the book’s three protagonists, is an ex-prison inmate—smart, ruthless, a “water knife” who works for Case, cutting other people’s water supplies. Lucy Monroe is a Phoenix-based Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and social media star (#PhoenixDowntheTubes) who just might have a lead on some serious water rights, and Maria Villarosa is a highly disposable Texas refugee barely surviving in Phoenix and at the constant mercy of a brutal gang headed by “the Vet,” who throws enemies to his pack of hyenas.

Angel must visit Phoenix to investigate the mutilation death of one of Catherine Case’s undercover operatives, and the plot really starts to flow. He finds Phoenix swimming with Calis—Californians also working undercover to assure that state’s gluttonous water requirements are met, regardless what happens to everyone upriver. Before long, all the players are after the same thing—original water rights documents that would supersede everything on the books—and no one is sure who has them.

While the story is a critique of a policy environment in which local interests are allowed to supersede regional and federal goals, it never reads like a political tract. And, while quite a bit is imparted about the issue of water rights and reclamation strategies, it isn’t a legal or scientific tome, either. It’s a thriller about a compelling trio of people with different motivations, different places in the water aristocracy, and different strategies for coping. The drought, dust, and poverty that envelop Angel, Lucy, and Maria and their cities affect everyone who lives there. “Somehow they hadn’t been able to see something that was plain as day, coming straight at them.”

A lot of powerful straight journalism has been written recently about water rights, droughts, agricultural demand, and intergovernmental bickering about rights. This important novel makes the stakes eminently—and memorably—clear.

Almarie Guerra does a solid narration, putting just the right Latino topspin on the Mexican voices.

Order here from Amazon, or from your local indie bookstore.

As of July 2021, Lake Mead, the nation’s largest water reservoir by volume, is at 37% of capacity.

The Thursday Murder Club

What better review for today, right? I highly recommend the audio-version of Richard Osman’s award-nominated debut cozy crime novel, narrated by Leslie Manville. Osman, who’s had a career in television production, has a second book with many of the same characters already available for pre-order.

Four septuagenarians living in the Coopers Chase Retirement Village, located in the Kentish Weald, meet every Thursday to discuss cold murder cases. Their combination of still being sharp as a tack and varied life experience makes for lively, insightful discussions. Elizabeth, the group’s leader, is the veteran of some possibly clandestine career that took her to countries around the world, Joyce was a nurse, Ibrahim a psychiatrist, and Red Ron a notorious union organizer and gadfly.

Their differences in temperament add to the group’s chemistry. While Ibrahim would like to analyze every factor down to its nub, Ron’s instinct is to barge in and clobber somebody. Elizabeth keeps various thoughts to herself, but Joyce writes a diary, and lucky thing too, because in it, she tells us what the group is thinking and, possibly, why. Joyce’s diary is Osman’s clever way to handle backstory and summary without tedious authorial intrusions.

In an early scene, local DC Donna De Freitas visits the group to five her usual spiel on “Practical Tips for Home Security.” She’s barely begun before Elizabeth cuts her off. “Dear, I think we’re all hoping this won’t be a talk about window locks.” Ibrahim adds, “And no ID cards, please; we know about ID cards. ‘Are you really from the gas board, or are you a burglar?’ We’ve got it, I promise.” “And no need to tell us we mustn’t give our PIN to Nigerians over the phone.”

De Freitas regroups and asks what they do want to talk about, and an enjoyable hour-long free-for-all starts. They recognize that the young De Freitas, for all her amiability, is rather underutilized in the local police department. What she’d like to be working on is a nice juicy murder.

Fate conspires to accommodate her. Tony Curran, a man with a gangster past, and the greedy developer, Ian Ventham, intend to build a second phase of Coopers Chase, on more of the former convent land Ventham purchased from the Church, including plans to dig up the nuns’ cemetery. When Tony is stabbed to death in his kitchen, the Thursday Murder Club wants in on the action. Their new friend Donna De Freitas may be the key, if they can only manage to get her on the murder team and convince her to let them help.

Ventham’s helper Bogdan, has hardly started excavating the graves when he discovers a set of human bones, not in a coffin, but on top of one. This looks like trouble, so he reburies them. Now the Club has two mysteries to solve: who killed Tony Curran, and who is the extra body? Though the local police barely tolerate this amateur assistance, in truth, the oldsters run rings around them. Joyce especially has a way of sounding like a batty old lady, chatting about cakes and tea, while maneuvering the detectives into spilling some useful tidbit.

Although the overall mood is lighthearted, there are moments of sadness, as loss is ever-present in a place like Coopers Chase. That doesn’t stop these four memorable characters from living their lives to the fullest. If you’re in a summertime mood for something light and delightful, this book could be it. If you choose the audio version, Leslie Manville’s narration is tops.

Order here from Amazon.

Kiss the Detective

This is the first book I’ve read by Élmer Mendoza, who’s thought of as “the godfather of narco-lit,” translated from the Spanish by Mark Fried, and the third book in this series. Mendoza has a distinctive writing style, and I’m guessing it’s “love it or hate it.” Definitely, it takes a little getting used to, but well worth it to experience his compelling story and memorable, entertaining characters.

Mendoza, omits quotation marks, “he said” and “she said” some of the time, as well as paragraph changes when the speaker changes at other times.

After a few pages I got the hang of this, and for the most part, I could track the conversations pretty easily (artful writing and excellent translation!). Where I couldn’t—say, when two gangsters of fairly equal power are talking—knowing for sure which one is speaking actually matters less than I thought it might. It’s as if Mendoza submerges you in a river of dialog that sweeps you along through his intriguing plot.

Operating in Culiacán, Sinaloa, police homicide detective Edgar Mendieta is well acquainted with Samantha Valdés, head of the Pacific Cartel. The story opens with an operation against Valdés that offers enough firepower and double-dealing to conjure Don Winslow’s The Border. No time to wait for an ambulance, her crew drives her to the nearest hospital, where she’s in intensive care.

As the cartel members keep their own watch, nervous Mexican army troops and federal police surround the hospital, waiting until she’s well enough to travel, when they’ll transport her to a military hospital in the capital. Word is, they’re coming down on her hard. Still, perhaps the greatest immediate risk she faces is the professional assassin hired to finish her off. And Mendieta too.

The Pacific Cartel fiasco technically belongs to the police department’s narcotics unit. Mendieta has his hands full, anyway, with two unrelated murders: a snappily dressed young fortune-teller whose body was found with fifteen bullets in it; and a small-time crook killed clutching a woman’s purse he’d just snatched.

Mendieta can’t resist some hospital visits to see how Valdés is faring and whether her people know anything about his two cases. In exchange for this information, he agrees to help smuggle her out of the hospital. There’s no going back from this decision. His standing in the police is jeopardized, not to mention his safety.

A call from Mendieta’s ex-wife in Los Angeles further raises the stakes. Their son Jason has apparently been kidnapped by an unknown party, no ransom demanded. Now not only are the Mexican authorities out to get him, he has to negotiate with the FBI as well. The spectre of betrayal lurks everywhere, as Mendieta is pushed into a tighter and tighter corner.

While Mexico’s President Obrador may have declared the war on drugs to be over, Mendieta sees the bodies that keep piling up. Yet, despite threats to his career, his family, and himself he keeps going, finding himself a new girlfriend, sharing beers with friends, holding his head up, a (mostly) honorable man in a dishonorable world. Whose side are you on, Edgar? At times the sides are hard to tell apart.

The book helpfully provides a list of the many characters, which I made good use of. If you give Mendoza’s unusual approach to telling a story a chance, you may find his lively, honest writing refreshing, and Fried’s translation reads beautifully.