Tales of the Red River of the North

Flannery O’Connor’s book Everything That Rises Must Converge comes to mind whenever life brings seemingly random stuff together around a common theme. It happens all the time. Recently, I’ve read two books about the same patch of land on the Red River of the North, which forms most of the border between Minnesota and North Dakota, then flows into Canada (pictured). You can’t even say that I gravitated to these geographically linked books out of personal interest—one was a pick of my book club and the other a gift. Both by prize-winning authors; both great.

The mystery Murder on the Red River, first of a series of three by Marcie R. Rendon, features 19-year-old Cash Blackbear who lives alone in Fargo, North Dakota, and drives trucks for local farmers. Her lifestyle choices leave room for improvement: too much beer, lots of cigarettes. She earns extra money playing competitive pool, often with her romantic partner, a married man. Playing pool isn’t destructive, per se, of course, but being out late at night in honky-tonk bars where the pool-playing events are held does expose Cash to certain dangers.

When she was a child, she fell under the watchful eye of Sheriff Wheaton, who can recognize an at-risk kid when he sees one. They are still friends. He thinks she’s the smartest person he knows and she has intuition so strong, it produces visions. When an Indian man turns up dead in a field, she helps the sheriff investigate, and an engrossing story is launched.

Multiple award-winner Louise Erdrich’s book The Sentence is wonderfully rich and evocative, not only of the cultural background and nuanced relationship of her main characters Tookie, an Ojibwe tribe member, and her husband Pollux, a Potawatomi. The ways—big and small—that they integrate tribal teachings with their present lives is fascinating. At the book’s outset, Tookie commits a crime that takes her to prison (one of the meanings of the book’s title), and the first chapter begins, “While in prison, I received a dictionary.” With that juxtaposition of unlikely elements, you just have to keep reading!

The dictionary was sent to her by a former teacher, and when Tookie’s sentence is commuted, the teacher hires her to work in her bookstore. (Erdrich herself owns a bookstore in Minneapolis, Birchbark Books). This story takes place in Minneapolis, with the occasional reference to Red River places and people—all very fresh in my mind, thanks to Marcie Rendon.

The bookstore’s most annoying customer dies on All Souls’ Day 2019, and the story takes place over the following year, one full of incident. In the wider world, there’s the pandemic, with employees having to figure out how to work, how to keep the business going, even how to live, in the face of that upheaval. A couple of months in, George Floyd is murdered, and social isolation seems not the right way to go, when conscience urges people onto the streets. Aggressive police tactics have affective the Indian community too, as the bookstore employees are quick to point out.

Tookie’s own life has its complications. The dead customer haunts the store, especially her. The staff try any number of stratagems to persuade the poor woman to go. Will they ever get rid of her? At the other end of the life cycle, Pollux’s daughter has come home, bringing her baby, and Tookie is smitten.

It’s a lovely book, and one where my interest never flagged. Can recommend this Red River excursion to whole-heartedly.

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Inspector Maigret: A French Sense of Justice

Providing food for thought for authors and readers alike is a recent New Yorker piece by Adam Gopnik that probes the enduring popularity of Belgian author Georges Simenon and his police inspector Jules Maigret (portrayed above by Michael Gambon).

Anyone who can write five hundred books—seventy-five about his most famous invention, Maigret—must have something to say to us. Simenon attributed his massive output to his stripping away of everything “literary” from his work—no adjectives! no adverbs! But, as Gopnik points out, his books are full of simple modifiers. What he does not do is comment on the narrative. You might have, as in Gopnik’s example, “The lethargic blonde cashier”—two adjectives right there—but not “The lethargic blonde cashier, of a kind you find in every bar of this sort, usually a former dancer . . .” She’s lethargic, she’s blonde. Leave it at that.

Unlike the modern police procedural (which I quite like, because I’m fascinated with the details of how people do things), Maigret relies more on manipulating the psychology of his suspects. Gopnik suggests they confess out of a sort of collaboration between them and the inspector, rather than because of the weight of forensic evidence. Possibly, in countries where people believed in the power of the confessional, where a priest could intercede with God, a police inspector could intercede with the State.

He says, “Maigret knows that people want to tell their stories, and, if prompted, will. Listening, not inquiring, is the detective’s gift.” Here’s where Maigret’s pipe-smoking becomes an investigatory tool. The long drawn-out process of finding a pipe in some pocket, then the tobacco, filling it, finding the matches in some other place, and getting the pipe properly lit, offers ample realms of silence that a suspect may feel compelled to fill.

Marked differences exist between Maigret’s world and that of detectives in typical American police procedurals. You may have noticed these peculiarities in your reading or capitalized on them in writing set outside the United States. Mostly, as Gopnik says, Maigret is “so French!” What makes him so? He’s a salaried government employee, a functionary, and proud to be one. He doesn’t see the system itself as a problem, just those who try to keep it from working. (No structural problems there. No Don Winslow’s The Force.)

American detectives tend to be independent spirits, chafing under official policy, threatened with demotion for insubordination, and the like. With Maigret, it’s the opposite. Maigret is frustrated not by his bosses, but by his underlings, with their inefficiency and dullness of brain.

Maigret also is not afflicted by a mania for justice, or at least he sees that justice comes in many guises, one of which may not be the need for conviction and incarceration. On this point, Gopnik’s argument reminded me of Inspector Montalbano, which, in several episodes, the Sicilian detective decides not to follow down a particular case where the situation is resolving itself. Stories set in the U.S. rarely go that way, perhaps only when there’s a particularly worldly-wise sheriff who’s seen it all. “Sanctimony and self-righteousness, favored American traits, are disfavored in Simenon’s world.” (This is leaving aside the implacable Inspector Javert, of course.)

Put it like this: it’s a world not dominated so much by black and white, but by gray.

Penguin has released newly translated paperback versions of the full Maigret series, with covers resembling that of his first Inspector Maigret novel, Pietr the Latvian.

The Narrator

The new Audible Original crime thriller, The Narrator by KL Slater, makes sly meta-fiction use of the audio medium. Two narrators—Clare Corbett and Kristin Atherton—read the story of Philippa Roberts, best-selling author of nine novels about police detective Jane Tower, and Eve Hewitt, the woman who has brought all nine novels to audio life. In an early chapter you learn that Philippa has disappeared—apparently kidnapped, but no ransom demand has been received. The publishing world is alight with rumors.

Ten months later, the attitudes of her agent, her editor, and the head of the publishing company—Harris-Lasson—toward the disappearance provide a mostly cynical look at the competing agendas in the publishing industry. The only person who seems to have Philippa’s best interests at heart is Eve, the narrator. While you may find some of these characters a little over-the-top (the agent, especially), their actions support the notion of a cutthroat industry in which, maybe, the worst actually has happened.

When Philippa’s wife Fleur discovers the manuscript for a tenth Jane Tower thriller hidden in their attic, Harris-Lasson, to a person, is overjoyed. The high-profile mystery surrounding Philippa’s fate will undoubtedly rocket sales of the new book to stratospheric heights. And, the publisher wants Eve, who has always been the voice of the Jane Tower books, to narrate. She’s overjoyed as well, with a chance to relaunch her career.

Eve is sent an original copy of the new book and has begun to read it. She is rather surprised to find it deviates from previous characterizations of Jane and the minutia of her backstory. In the recording studio, she’s given a different copy, and some of the more blatant discrepancies have been fixed. She’s asked to delete the original from her computer and not to tell anyone about the editing that was necessary—a red flag if there ever was one.

It doesn’t take long for Eve to wonder whether the still-missing Philippa was making these awkward errors because she’s trying to send a message. Perhaps even a clue to where Philippa is? A casual reader might miss it, but not someone like Eve.

Eve will try to find out. She begins to ask unwelcome questions. It turns out quite a few people might want to do Philippa harm. And Eve too, apparently. Author Slater deftly expands the list of possible suspects—a super-fan, former friends, former spouses, even Fleur herself—leaving you wondering whether anyone actually liked Philippa. Still, it’s a bit of a stretch to believe so many of these people would actually talk to Eve about the author and their thoughts on her disappearance.

If you’re tempted to rank the suspects most likely to have targeted Philippa, the ones most likely to be targeting Eve are not quite the same. This mismatch deepens the story’s mysteries and heightens its tension. The ending seems a bit of a rush, with a hint of What Just Happened? But on the whole, the plot is strong, with well-placed clues and nicely developed red herrings.

Narrators Corbett and Atherton handle the voices of their respective characters well, across genders and ages. There’s no difficulty distinguishing among the key characters, and the story moves along briskly. If it were a print novel, it would be a page-turner, packing a lot into a little over eight hours! Well worth a listen.

Order here from Amazon.

Halloween Countdown: The Writing of Stephen Graham Jones

pumpkin, book art

It was a lapse when I ordered the audio version of Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians, brilliantly narrated by Shaun Taylor-Corbett. If I’d known in advance it was considered a horror novel, I probably wouldn’t have listened to it. Boy, would I ever have missed something spectacular.

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 their truck can hold. Doesn’t matter. 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.

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.

For quite a time, 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. That changes. But by then, you’re all in.

Having liked this book so much, I listened to another of Jones’s: My Heart is a Chainsaw (a Bram Stoker Award winner). Teenage Jade Daniels is a loner, half-white, half-Native, shunned by her peers and effectively abandoned by her parents. Her life has one bright spot—an obsession with something even worse than her own situation, slasher movies. Her knowledge of that genre is encyclopedic. Now, I’ve never watched any of those films, so no doubt a lot went over my head, but there was never a point where I was at all confused. Jade sees around her the clues that a massive slasher event is going to occur in their rural town, but, following a core tenet of slasher films, The Adults Don’t Believe Her. I came to admire and love Jade with her woefully unappreciated big heart and lightning brain. Another great narration of the audio version by Cara Gee.

Further Reading:
What Horror Can Teach Us” by Kelsey Allagood

EQMM/AHMM – Sept-Oct 2022

Reading

The September/October issues of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine are, as always, filled with super collections of crime fiction of across the wide playing field of crime fiction. It’s always hard to pick stories to highlight—I could almost tape up the tables of contents and throw darts—but here are a few, limiting myself to three each. First from AHMM:

  • “My Two-Legs” by Melissa Yi – this charming story is about a clever dog who helps solve the crime when his “two-legs” (a young man named Sunil) goes missing. I found the way Yi translates doggie behavior into the narrative of the story simply brilliant.
  • “When the Dams Break” by James A. Hearn, set in hill country, Texas, shows that even the cleverest Lone Star politician will eventually have to confront his past.
  • “Peril in Pasadena” by Edith Maxwell is a fem-fest, with two women PIs, a female scientist victim, and a demonstration of the perils of treating a cleaning woman like she’s invisible. All in the context of the leadup to the Rose Parade.

Ellery Queen also offers up a nice diversity, including:

  • “The Wraith of Bunker Hill” by Paul D. Marks—probably his last published story before his untimely death, it combines Hollywood lore with an intriguing con game involving present-day murders and the Black Dahlia legend.
  • “The Light on the Lagoon: by Canadian author Elizabeth Elwood—it’s never too soon to start teaching the younger generation about the Hitchcock canon.
  • “The Kindness of Strangers” by Twist Phelan—the author perfectly captures the self-absorption and insecurities of adolescent girls that would allow this calamity to unfold—and lives up to her own name here.

Suspect by Scott Turow

When you crack open a new legal thriller by Scott Turow, you know you’ll be in good hands. In the veteran author’s latest novel, Suspect, the hands he puts you in are those of narrator Clarice ‘Pinky’ Granum, a 33-year-old private investigator working for downmarket lawyer Rik Dudek. Pinky has acquired a bit of a reputation as a screw-up, not solely because she is one. Maybe it’s the trail of failed romantic relationships, male and female. Maybe it’s the outrageous ink. Maybe it’s the nail in her nose. Yet she’s earnest in her work supporting Rik, and it’s those very quirks and that sincere dedication that make her a character you want to root for.

This is the 12th book in Turow’s long-running series based in fictional Kindle County, Illinois, reportedly based on Cook County, which is mostly taken up by Chicago. Lucia Gomez is the police chief of the town of Highland Isle and a long-time friend of Rik’s. She asks him to represent her as she fights accusations that she demanded sexual favors from three officers when they were up for promotion. The three-person Police and Fire Commission has scheduled a hearing. It’s always satisfying when a fictional attorney nails an opposing witness to the courtroom wall, trapped in their own lies, as Rik handily does with two of the accusers.

They’re retired now and working for local property magnate Moritz Vojczek, AKA The Ritz, another former cop. When he worked in narcotics, he not only stole cash and dealt drugs, but used them too. When Gomez became chief, she canned him. Now she figures the plot to get her fired is his revenge. You can’t help but worry that his combination of money, connections, street smarts, and viciousness will be more than a match for Rik and Pinky.

The third accuser is a little more difficult to dismiss. At the hearing, he comes up with a photograph of the chief and him in a shockingly compromising position. It’s a picture that will most probably lead to Lucy’s firing, regardless of the commission’s finding. You’ll probably find the chief likeable, but you may start to doubt her. It seems she isn’t telling everything and it’s nerve-wracking to think she’s leading her legal team into serious trouble. When her accuser turns up dead, with Lucy the person most motivated to silence him, Rik and Pinky’s simple sextortion case spins out of control.

Pinky’s out-of-the-office life is going in a couple of interesting directions. She has a new neighbor who’s suspiciously quiet. Using her skills with the PIBOT (Private Investigator Bag Of Tricks), she starts tailing and tracking his middle-of-the-night spying on a nearby technology center. What’s he looking at? Or for? Fans of techno-thrillers will enjoy the deets about surveillance gear and ways to thwart it.

The strategy sessions between Rik, Pinky, and law enforcement are like watching a hard-fought game of chess. They can put all their pieces in the best positions possible, but the Ritz’s next move may be out of their control.

Suspect has a fast-moving story, and much of the enjoyment of it lies in the well-developed character of Pinky. She’s fearless, and you never quite know what she’ll do next. A master plotter like Turow, of course, knows just how to parcel out the clues and the questions to maintain a high level of tension, and Pinky is one of those indelible characters you won’t soon forget.

Tried the New Shepherd.com Reviews?

Shepherd.com is a book review site that wants to make the search for a new book part of the fun. One of their ways is asking authors to recommend five books that fit a theme. The themes can be broad or incredibly niche. As an example, you might want to check out “the best mouthwatering reads for foodies” (I know I do!) or “the best books about historic Coney Island.” Hmmm. There could be a possible duplication there, if there’s a book about Nathan’s Famous.

The theme I picked is one of my favorites: “ordinary people in extraordinary situations.” Shepherd gives me the chance to explain why I picked it and to describe my own recent book, Architect of Courage. If you’ve read it, you’ll know it’s definitely built on that theme.

Here are five terrific thrillers that also show the kind of unexpected trouble people fall into and how they fight their way out of it!

  • The World at Night by Alan Furst – Reading Furst’s books was what made me think about how much this theme resonates with me. His thrillers are set in the months leading up to World War II, and his characters are trying for “business as usual.” Not a chance.
  • Disappeared by Bonnar Spring – In this new thriller, two American and two Moroccan women are trying to escape the country. For the Americans, all the social rules are upended. Not only are the authorities no help, they’re actually pursuing the women too.
  • Cover Story by Susan Rigetti – This is a jigsaw puzzle of a thriller, and I’ll bet you’ll be surprised when that last piece clicks into place. I was! The main character is a naïve young college dropout who wants to succeed in fashion publishing. You’d just like to shake her and wake her up.
  • Razorblade Tears by SA Cosby – A Black landscaper and white alcoholic ne’er-do-well find themselves an uneasy team when their gay sons are murdered. The police are getting nowhere in finding the killers, so the dads have to try. Awesome in audio.
  • Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips – A mom and her son have to hide in the zoo after hours, in the dark, because a pair of killers is stalking the grounds. Keeping a four-year-old quiet for hours challenges every maternal instinct this remarkable woman has!

You can read more about my five picks here or search for recommendations around your own favorite theme on the Shepherd website.

Book Review: Jewish Noir II

Just in time for the High Holidays, comes Jewish Noir II, edited by Kenneth Wishnia and Chantelle Aimée Osman. In his lively introduction, noted crime writer Lawrence Block says you can sum up every Jewish holiday in three sentences: “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat!” While great food is an essential part of Jewish holiday celebrations, Block points out that the first two sentence are even more tied to the Jewish experience and, as he says, make the combination of Jews and noir almost inevitable. And timely, I’d add, given current trends.

This collection of twenty-three short stories, many of which were written by prize-winning authors, are clustered in six themes: legacies, scattered and dispersed (stories from the diaspora); you shame us in front of the world (embarrassment and dishonor); the God of mercy; the God of vengeance; and American Splendor (stories that could only happen in the United States). Editors Wishnia and Osman point to a subtext of many of the stories: fear amidst the stresses of modern life. Fear of the past, fear of loss, fear of anti-Semitism, fear of violence. Fear that is another signpost on the road to noir. Even with that common thread, the stories themselves are wildly diverse, and readers will find many that appeal, regardless of stylistic preferences. This review tackles only three of them, from across the themes mentioned.

“Taking Names,” the opening story by Steven Wishnia, sits perfectly in the sweet spot between past and present. It begins with the commemoration of a notorious tragedy, the 1911 fire at New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. In that calamity, scores of young women jumped nine stories to their deaths, rather than be burned alive. Because of the business owners’ negligence, 146 people—mainly Italian and Jewish immigrants—died. The issue of worker safety is brought up to the present day by reporter Charlie Purpelburg, who’s covering union efforts to increase worker safety in the construction industry. Once again, risky conditions affect the most vulnerable employees—undocumented workers, this time around. They’re not only caught in the political machinations of Jewish developers skirting safety regulations, their wages are being stolen. Enter the social media trolls. Where does all this racial hostility end? No place good.

Craig Faustus Buck’s “The Shabbes Goy” is another tale of exploitation, this time of an elderly woman by her ultra-religious husband, who fills their apartment with gloom and domination. How three members of the younger generation ally to thwart him is quite satisfying. Funny and horrifying, all at once.

“What was I thinking?” is the first line of “The Nazi in the Basement” by Rita Lakin. An elderly Jewish woman living in California returns to New York for a funeral and decides to do the unfathomable. She visits her old neighborhood in the Bronx for the first time in decades. When she lived there, the residents were mostly Jews, Irish, and Italians, and now, before she can park the rental car, she encounters teenagers from Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Hong Kong, and Bangladesh. They wheedle most of her life story out of her. But she doesn’t tell them the ending, the tragic events that produced in her “the scars masquerading as memories.”

Many of the remaining stories address the issues of younger generations of Jews and people living in other countries. Still, it is today’s elderly, grandchildren of the immigrants from the last century who have witnessed the massive social changes of upward mobility, and who, at this point, may be most caught between past and present.

Book Review: Death and the Conjuror

Fans of locked-room mysteries should love debut author Tom Mead’s historical mystery, Death and the Conjuror. In 1936 London, elderly showman and conjuror Joseph Spector is called on to aid Scotland Yard detective George Flint, who hopes Spector’s skills at misdirection can lead him to figure out what really happened in a strange case that involves not one, but two locked-room murders.

German immigrant (sometimes referred to as a psychologist and sometimes as a psychiatrist) Dr. Anselm Rees has recently relocated to London, along with his daughter, Dr. Lidia Rees.(Mead wisely set the story a few years before the gathering war clouds would have further complicated the story.) The elder Dr. Rees has gradually acquired three patients—musician Floyd Stenhouse, actor Della Cookson, and author Claude Weaver.

Lidia and her playboy boyfriend Marcus Bowman arrive home late one night and learn Dr. Rees’s throat has been slit. For one reason and another, all three patients become suspects, along with an unidentified evening caller, daughter Lidia (who stands to inherit), and her boyfriend (who needs the money). The door to the office was locked that evening, as were the French windows, with their keys on the inside.

On the evening of another unproductive day of investigation, Flint receives an urgent call from the musician Stenhouse, who believes he’s being followed. Flint and his sergeant hear a shot, and fruitlessly chase a shadowy figure. Upon returning to the apartment building, they discover the second locked-room puzzle: the elevator operator is dead inside his small cage.

Although Spector provides occasional interesting disquisitions about the creation of illusions, his potential seemed not fully exploited. Stories about illusionists and (real-life) magicians usually include some spectacular demonstrations. In this story, inexorable logic wins out. Because the setup of the two murders was so complicated, many pages are required to explain them, as various theories are posed and discarded.

You may have the sense—despite the automobiles, hairstyles, and a few other signals—that this story could just have easily taken place fifty years earlier, given the dialog, the background narration, and many of the characters’ attitudes. It has a definite old-fashioned feel, which, on one hand, is part of its charm, and on the other, may distance you from engaging with the characters.

It is a locked-room puzzle in that fine tradition, with a surfeit of clues, red herrings, and suspicions. The clever and complicated plots the unknown antagonist concocts will likely keep you guessing all the way through.

Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight

If you enjoyed Riku Onda’s previous mystery translated into English, The Aosawa Murders, you’ll find many of the same attributes in her new psychological thriller, Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight. It offers that same dreamy feeling and a quality of uncertainty about the characters’ perceptions. It’s almost as if the story were told by those very fish, trying to make sense of the light and dark around them through a veil of water.

The short chapters of this new book are related alternately by Chiaki (Aki) and Chihiro (Hiro), who met in the tennis club at college and were immediately attracted to each other. Paired up to play doubles, it seemed like they had played together their whole lives. When their parents learn about their friendship, they reveal that the young people are, in fact, brother and sister, twins separated when their mother could no longer take care of them both and gave daughter Aki up for adoption. Since age three, they were raised as only children.

To recapture the lost years of siblinghood, Aki and Hiro decide to share a flat in Tokyo and are very happy for a time. The relationship falls apart after a mountain hike when their guide is killed in a fall, and they are each wracked by suspicion that the other somehow engineered the tragedy. The novel takes place on their last night together.

Every chapter peels away another layer, as each of them is intent on extracting a confession about the guide’s death from the other. It turns out that the guide is connected to the twins in a way that might provide a motive for murder, but did it? Author Onda spreads out the revelations, and in large part, they’re the siblings’ differing impressions of the tragedy.

Unexpected fragments of memory find their places in the puzzle of their lives, as the deepening mystery flashes, twists, and turns much like the eponymous fish that Aki at one point describes.

The translation by Alison Watts effectively conveys this sense of gradual discovery—about the guide, about the siblings’ relationship, about their un-twin-like misinterpretation of the other’s state of mind, about the past, and, perhaps even about their futures. Onda has a lovely, slow-moving and relatively unadorned style of writing. But beneath the placid surface is a tidal wave of emotion. She minimizes physical description in lieu of emotional nuance, resulting in a complex and memorable story.  

Onda is a well-known Japanese novelist, whose works have won numerous top awards and been adapted for both film and television there. The Aosawa Murders was the first to be translated into English. It won a Best Novel award from the Mystery Writers of Japan and was selected as a 2020 Notable Book by The New York Times.