The Woman in the Library

When you read this latest psychological thriller by Sulari Gentill, The Woman in the Library, you may need to stop every so often and think, where am I? Its clever plot is like a set of nesting boxes, and you have to check which box you’re in. You may be familiar with Gentill’s ten historical novels featuring gentleman detective Rowland Sinclair, and, though this is not part of that series, it displays the same storytelling chops.

In this story, Australian author Hannah is writing a contemporary novel set in the United States. Her main character, Winifred (‘Freddie’) Kinkaid is also an author, working on a new book in the inspiring setting of the Boston Public Library. One day she finds herself at a table with three more young people and idly muses about them. They’d make great characters in her novel, she thinks. So, what you are reading are the chapters in Hannah’s novel, concerning Freddie and her new friends.

They’ve all four quietly checked each other out, but the ice is broken when a piercing scream shatters the library’s stillness. Oddly, the scream pulls them together. They speculate, start to chat, introduce themselves, and soon wander off for coffee as a group. The other woman, Marigold, heavily tattooed, has a rather obvious crush on their tablemate, Whit Metters, and the fourth is a handsome fellow named Cain McLeod. After that unusual bonding experience, the four spend much time together, especially when their curiosity is raised by the discovery of a murdered woman, presumably the screamer, under a table in the library meeting room.

Hannah (fictional, remember) is a best-selling author back in Australia, and as she’s writing about daily life in another country, she accepts the offer from a Boston-based fan to review her chapters and look for anachronisms in vocabulary—‘jumper’ instead of ‘sweater,’ ‘crisps’ instead of ‘potato chips,’ and the like—and location details. This man, Leo Johnson, is also an author, very down in the dumps about the publishing industry’s lack of interest in his book. Chapters of Hannah’s book are followed by a ‘Dear Hannah’ reaction from Leo.

At first, Leo’s advice is confined to minor factual matters and minor adjustments in descriptions. The fact that the fictional Freddie encounters these cultural quirks makes sense, as she’s Australian, too. She’s able to work on her book and live in Boston’s upscale Back Bay, thanks to a fellowship. A neighboring flat is occupied by another fellowship recipient, a character whom Hannah names Leo Johnson. (A third Leo is buried in the name McLeod. Significant?) Her correspondent is delighted at being recognized in this way, which may contribute to his growing intrusiveness. He makes corrections, fights for his suggestions, and sends photos he thinks Hannah might (should?) use for inspiration. His long-distance efforts to encroach on her creative territory made me increasingly uneasy! Creepy!

Meanwhile, in Hannah’s novel, the four friends learn unsettling revelations about Cain McLeod’s past. (Real) author Gentill plays the gradual erosion of trust nicely. Nor is the killing finished. McLeod seems to be the police’s top suspect.

The relationships among the friends are well developed, and, as Freddie gradually falls in love with McLeod, you hope she’s not getting in over her head. Not only is there the risk that he’s not whom he pretends to be, as Marigold warns her, there’s also the inconvenient fact that the police are watching his every move. Her proximity may put her on their radar too. Not until she and McLeod visit an Aussie bar does she recognize how hard she’s been trying to fit in.

This is a very readable book, with a strong sense of menace generated by Leo’s correspondence. I enjoyed it!

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Gods of Deception

Upfront I’ll tell you that David Adams Cleveland’s book is 917 pages long. Before you stop reading, consider why an author would write such a book and how it even got published in this era of instant information? Of itself, length isn’t an insuperable barrier for me. I gladly stick with Neal Stephenson’s door-stops, though twenty pages can be too many if they’re boring. But this book was heavy, even for a paperback. So I ripped off the cover and used a butcher knife to slice it into four 250-page sections. (Are you cringing?)

I read it. I liked it. If you’re wondering what justifies taking so much of a reader’s time?, I’d say “layers.”

At the heart of the story is the controversial 1950 trial of diplomat Alger Hiss, which divided the country for years. Liberals thought Hiss was a victim of red-baiting in the simmering anti-Communist climate; conservatives were convinced he got off lightly with his conviction and sentence on two counts of perjury. Spying was his real game, they believed. Documents that came to light after the collapse of the Soviet empire confirmed he was a spy (though not everyone believes it even yet).

These were not trivial suspicions. Hiss managed to get himself attached to the US delegation to the Roosevelt-Churchill-Stalin Yalta conference about the post-World War II world. Thus, he was in a position to influence the meeting’s significant pro-Soviet outcomes, such as handing Poland over to the Soviets and returning millions of Soviet citizens to their home country and almost certain death.

One of Hiss’s defense attorneys was Judge Edward Dimock who, when Cleveland’s book takes place in 2002, is in his 90s and wants his grandson George Altmann to handle his memoirs. George, whose other grandfather was a Depression-era artist, begins to doubt the manuscript. Gradually evidence accumulates that Dimock knew Hiss was a spy, but did he, really? It’s a bit like a visit to the optician. You believe you are seeing the picture clearly, but then some shift, some slightly new way of looking is introduced, and the picture snaps out of focus again.

In the 1930s, the suspicious deaths and convenient disappearances of five men who could have testified against Hiss occurred (in real life), and George Altmann’s artist grandfather made a sixth (fictional one). Young George and his girlfriend, a character I never warmed up to, try to sort out the truth of the mysterious deaths, but again, facts are hard to pin down.

On top of the questions of intrigue and murder is a thick layer of art and music. Young George runs an art gallery, and his girlfriend is an artist. They look at the world around them in a particular way. Judge Dimock’s wife was a concert pianist, and insisted her son and three daughters also play. The family home in the Catskills is itself like a work of art with one priceless feature—an ancient ceiling painted with frolicking gods and goddesses, who become silent family friends and bemused observers.

All these layers—the significance of Hiss and the trial; the long tail of violence; the law and its opposite, the creative arts; the perennially perturbed family relations—any of these could be a book in itself. And I haven’t even mentioned Young George’s mother’s scandalous involvement with the Woodstock concert and music scene. Cleveland’s intricate layering of these innately intriguing elements makes the experience of each more resonant.

Ultimately, one message of the book is that the Hisses of the world, determined liars and true believers, can create a climate of disinformation, a parallel reality it’s hard to break free of. Their deceptions can lead even the most intelligent people astray and down paths of destruction. This is certainly a message that should resonate in today’s world. Though I thought the book started slow, before long it drew me into their fractured world.

The Quarter Storm

Veronica G. Henry’s The Quarter Storm introduces a stubborn young Haitian-American woman, Mambo Reina Dumond, working as a vodou practitioner in New Orleans. This is not a genre of book I’d usually read, but I definitely enjoyed it. A certain amount of suspension of disbelief is necessary with any book involving the supernatural, but Reina was so believable, it wasn’t a difficult stretch to just go with it.

As you might imagine, Reina’s social circle is not the usual. Her best friend owns a bar/restaurant, and he is trying without great success to teach her to cook. When she needs help finding someone, she calls on a young woman who has no fixed address. And her ex-boyfriend (hard to say how ex he really is) is a New Orleans police detective who has no patience for vodou practices and traditions.

Trouble begins when a young man is murdered in what appears to be a ritual way in the apartment above a French Quarter vodou shop. The shop owner is arrested. Reina, whose vodou practice is geared toward helping, not hurting people, nevertheless thinks it’s ridiculous to believe a practitioner would jeopardize her business by committing such a vicious crime on her own premises. She sets out to prove the woman innocent.

The city’s wealthiest and most successful practitioner of their branch of vodou refuses to help. He, her father, and everyone else is warning her off the case, but Reina keeps on digging. Such a blot on the reputation of her style of vodou is intolerable.

Reading this book, I really felt as if I’d spent some time in an exotic place, much like my experience with the other two New Orleans books lately reviewed here, which explore totally different sides of this iconic city,.

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Cover Story

Like a clever jigsaw puzzle, Susan Rigetti’s new novel, Cover Story, about a world-class con artist gives you a lot of pieces. It takes a while for them to start fitting together, allowing the picture to emerge, and it doesn’t snap completely into focus until the end.

The story is told mainly through the diary entries of New York University drop-out Lora Ricci as she embarks on one of her life goals—becoming the editor of an important fashion magazine. Her other goal is to be a famous writer, and she plans to work hard at both. She’s taking the first step, having secured a summer internship at the fashionista watering-hole, Elle. Lora’s diary entries are written in the sort of breathless, pep-talky style totally appropriate to who she is, enthusiastic but inexperienced.

The book leads off not with the diary, but with a short memorandum to the file from Agent Jenée Parker in the FBI’s New York field office. It was written in response to a tip from an editor at Elle suggesting that one of the magazine’s employees isn’t who she claims to be. Cat Wolff makes an instant impression on everyone, especially Lora.

Why does someone with Cat’s connections and sophistication—even criminal tendencies—need to cultivate an unsophisticated, if well-meaning, young woman like Lora? There’s no question that Cat has some scheme in mind in which Lora will get the short end of the stick, but what is it? And how badly will she be hurt?

You’re also privy to Cat’s multiple exchanges with credit card companies, banks where she’s seeking loans, and venture capitalists she’s trying to entice to fund a fashion project. Most immediately pesky are the hand-written notes from the Plaza’s front desk—at first nicely, then firmly— requesting payment of her massive bill. You worry that Lora may somehow be stuck with that bill. Cat may look as serene as a duck floating on a pond, but all the while, her feet are paddling furiously out of sight, as the FBI closes in.

It’s certainly something of a relief when Lora finally starts waking up and realizes Cat may not be quite what Lora thinks she is. And that she may not have Lora’s best interests at heart.

This is a quick read and highly entertaining, and I suspect the scope of Cat’s scam will take your breath away. It sure did mine!

California-based author Susan (Fowler) Rigetti was the technology op-ed editor at The New York Times, and worked as a software engineer in Silicon Valley—good background for Cat, who boldly harnesses the deceptive potential of the Internet. She came to whistleblower fame (Person of the Year for TIME and the Financial Times; numerous magazine covers) writing about her experience as a Uber software engineer. The unaddressed sexual harassment, along with management’s chaos-inducing sexism and political oneupsmanship became notorious, leading to serious reexamination of tech industry culture and practices.

Listen Up!

earphones

Plug into into 2022’s crime/mystery/thriller hits and award nominees–all of them worthwhile in print, with some audio standouts..

Joe Country by Mick Herron

You can’t go wrong with Herron’s books about Slough House, the career dead-end for London’s MI5 security personnel who’ve suffered, let’s call them, lapses. If working for ill-tempered and slovenly Jackson Lamb weren’t disheartening enough, they have troubled back stories, and book by book you get to know them. Even better is that Joe Country is narrated by Gerard Doyle, who is just as good here as always.

Clark and Division by Naomi Hirahara

This is a rare instance where I’d recommend you stick to print. In Hirahara’s WWII-era novel, a Japanese American family released from internment camp arrives in Chicago to rejoin their older daughter, only to learn she committed suicide the previous day. In that the younger daughter, Aki, sets out to discover the truth about her sister’s death, it’s a detective story; in that it’s set in a Nisei world with all its constraints and opportunities, it’s social history. Nominated for a Mary Higgins Clark Award from Mystery Writers of America (MWA) and an Agatha Award from Malice Domestic.

Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby

Adam Lazarre-White does a spectacular job with his rendering of this story’s characters. And the two leads couldn’t be more different: Ike, a taciturn black landscape service owner, and Buddy Lee, a voluble white man down—way down—on his luck. Their sons fell in love and married, something both dads have trouble with. But the young men were happy—that is, until they were murdered. Now their fathers want to know who did it. It’s a compelling story, and Lazarre-White delivers it with feeling and humor. Nominated for an Audie Award by the Audio Publishers Association. Edgar award nominee for Best Novel from MWA.

Trouble is What I Do by Walter Mosley

Dion Graham narrates this story in Mosley’s popular series about private investigator Leonid McGill. In this story, his challenge is to protect an elderly Mississippi bluesman, upending the wealthy and the corrupt in the process, always a task to McGill’s taste. The reading is smooth as silk. Finalist for a 2021 Audie Award for Mystery.

Djinn Patrol in the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara

This novel has three narrators—Indira Varma, Himesh Patel, and Antonio Aakeel. Ordinarily, I don’t find multiple narrators necessary. Most of story is told by nine-year-old Jai, and the actor conveys both his enthusiasm and naivete. When his schoolmates begin to disappear from their slum neighborhood without a trace, Jai and his friends decide to investigate. Author Anappara, a former journalist, based the story real-life child disappearances, which, in India, occur every eight minutes. 2021 Edgar Award for Best Novel.

Spies, Spies, Spies!

You might with justification believe that John le Carré’s death marked the end of sophisticated spy fiction. Three reasons to take heart.

First up, le Carré may be gone, but his work isn’t quite finished. While I enjoyed what at the time was termed his “last” espionage novel—Agent Running in the Field—the posthumously published, rather slender, novel Silverview is also worth a read. Both are expert at focusing your attention in one direction, while all along, the protagonist is engaged in a much bigger, much more complicated game. It’s that combination of spywork and grifter that I find so intriguing.

Over his career, le Carré had done such a convincing job of peopling the various sides in the Cold War and setting their minions against one another, that I for one wondered what he would write about after the breakup. I shouldn’t have worried. Not only were there many more books, but the Russian menace was apparently just on pause. Too bad he’s not still here to probe its current-day secrets. (You’ll recall that in The Russia House, set in the Gorbachev years, le Carré’s premise was that the Soviet military menace was not all it was cracked up to be. Fast-forward to 2022.)

Second, let me introduce you to a 21st century spy novelist who I believe is a potential heir to le Carré’s mantle as chronicler of the cynical, conflicted, mistake-prone and sometimes baffling and baffled espionage agent: author James Wolff. A member of the UK government for fifteen years, he writes under a pseudonym. His two books—2018’s Beside the Syrian Sea, and 2021’s How to Betray Your Country—are a different breed than the usual spy story, more complex, like the people he portrays.

In Wolff’s work, you have a strong sense that the context and actions of the characters are grounded in reality, as the agents are, too, flaws and all. As Wolff said in an interview with the Harrogate Festivals, “I don’t think that a book can be thrilling if the reader doesn’t believe that the characters are real.” No need to amp up the energy with over-the-top, implausible situations and confrontations. I’ve lost patience with authors struggling to pack in yet another far-fetched idea or action scene.

And third, finally, Apple TV has finally started showing its original production of Mick Herron’s Slow Horses, witty and quick-witted. As Apple describes it, the spy drama “follows a dysfunctional team of MI5 agents—and their obnoxious boss, the notorious Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman)—as they navigate the espionage world’s smoke and mirrors to defend England from sinister forces.” And Mick Jagger singing the theme song! What more can you ask? There are eight novels and three novellas in Herron’s series, so, fingers crossed, there will be lots of good watching ahead.

Nine Lives

Author Peter Swanson has created another lively homage to classic mystery puzzles in his new novel, Nine Lives. Much like his earlier book, Rules for Perfect Murders, several of the characters in this new story recognize parallels to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (Ten Little Indians) and The ABC Murders—but Swanson gives these plot devices his own diabolical modern twists.

Nine strangers receive a letter containing a single sheet of paper with nine names on it in alphabetical order. The names aren’t familiar, the envelope lacks any identification. The recipients react in predictable, but different ways. A couple of them ignore the letter completely, several rack their brains trying to figure out what it means. Ultimately, most chalk it up to some species of computer mistake. Only one views it with much suspicion. She’s a female FBI agent, and it’s her job to be suspicious.

A day or two later, when a man whose name is on the list is found dead, the keen ears of the agent’s FBI supervisor perk up. The deceased, Frank Hopkins, was a man in his seventies and owned the Windward Resort in Kennewick, Maine. If he drank a little too much and got a little hazy at times, what killed him was having his head pushed into a tide pool where he drowned, a mysterious letter crumpled in his hand.

When a second person whose name is on the list is found shot to death, the possibility of a coincidence is too remote to contemplate. The FBI agent calls it “the second plane.” When the first airplane hit the World Trade Towers on 9/11, the shocked witnesses all assumed it was a tragic accident; when the second plane hit, everyone’s assessment changed, immediately and completely.

The FBI begins a massive effort to track down the seven remaining people, all but two of whom they do eventually identify and question. The recipients are clueless and the police offer protection. This makes no difference at all, as the next victim dies in his bed with a police officer sitting in the driveway. Now you’re firmly in And Then There Were None territory.

The people on the list are all interesting in their own ways, mostly under 40, but wildly diverse in where they live and what they do (aspiring actor, singer-songwriter, college professor, kept woman—does anyone still know what that means?—retiree, oncology nurse). Surprisingly, they’re mostly not deeply frightened, even as the body count rises.

Meanwhile, you can’t help but troll the text for clues of buried commonalities among the letter recipients. Several are estranged from their parents, three are in the arts, loosely speaking, two have cats (nine lives?). That kind of thing. You’ll likely enjoy trying to work out the puzzle Swanson lays before you. I did. Of course, one little fact has been withheld that would clinch your theory, but Swanson does provide enough information to get there without it. This book strikes me as an ideal vacation read, as it moves swiftly through the mayhem, while retaining a light touch.

The Short of It: Crime Stories

reading

Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine both included some stellar stories in their March/April issues. Lots to like in the varied offerings of both publicationss.

Here are some of my favorites from EQMM:

  • Mat Coward’s comic adventure “Morbid Phenomena of the Most Varied Kind” – It’s hard not to like a story that begins “If you were thinking of assassinating a politician, my main advice would be don’t bother—they keep spares.”
  • Lou Manfredo’s “Sundown” is a police procedural (always a favorite subgenre) that fascinated me as reader and writer with its insightful look at how police detectives follow a thread and keep following it, just in case
  • I chuckled at Anna Scotti’s “Schrödinger, Cat” in which a man makes the mistake of taking his girlfriend’s faith in him for granted

And from AHMM:

  • In “Red Flag” by Gregory Fallis deals with the disconnect between knowing a person’s perceived violent tendencies are raising red flags and the system’s inability to do anything about it. Quite cleverly, too
  • You can hear the howling wind and feel the lashing rains in Michael A. Black’s “Waiting for Godot,” when a hurricane provides cover for crime
  • For a little paranormal adventure, there was Merrilee Robson’s delightful “Tired of Bath,” which includes a memorable encounter with the ghost of Jane Austen

Finally, I read Paris Noir: The Suburbs, an anthology of short stories in the Akashic Books Noir Series. I’m pretty open-minded, but did not like this one. Too dreary.

Exciting News for Readers and Writers

Frank Coffman, editor of the ambitious new publication JOURN-E (“The Journal of Imaginative Literature”), included my short story “The Old Man of the Mountain” in his inaugural issue, published on the vernal equinox. A call for submissions to the next issue (autumnal equinox) appears on the journal’s home page.

This innovative magazine includes fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and illustration, all geared around what Coffman calls “the genres of the high imagination”: Adventure; Detection and Mystery; Fantasy; Horror and the Supernatural; and Science Fiction. In its first issue, the balance among stories by genre is about even, with most sections checking in at around 50 pages.

My short stories mostly have “and it all worked out” endings—not necessarily happy, but some measure of situational control reestablished, and not leaving the reader in need of therapy, either. Except this one. I started working on it several years ago, and quite a few drafts were needed to get it into publishable shape.

The experiences in the story could apply to any tragic wartime situation and its lingering impact on those left behind, the so-called “survivors.” Although the enemy who wreaked havoc in my story is the long-gone “Nazis.” Now, perhaps, one could substitute “Putin.”

I also drew on a frightening experience from my college years, when I was working at a summer theater near Pittsburgh. The theater manager put her interns up in a bedroom in her basement. The other intern hadn’t arrived yet, and I slept down there alone. It was very dark. Very dark. And one night I felt like the dark was palpable, suffocating me. Of course, after a moment of frightened paralysis, I got up and turned on a light. Problem solved. But the feeling of oppressive blackness was something I resurrected for this tale.

I must mention Dominique Bibeau’s story, “Russian for Beginners” in the March/April Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (translated by @JoshPachter), which brought that frightening claustrophobia back once again.

The Goodbye Coast

In Joe Ide’s newest crime thriller, The Goodbye Coast, he abandons his popular crime-solver Isaiah Quintabe, in favor of a twenty-first century private investigator Philip Marlowe (yes!) who’s working on two compelling missing persons cases at once. 

In his acknowledgements, Ide quotes Chandler himself, who once claimed there are no classics of crime and detection fiction, but Ide maintains that Chandler came closer than anyone. He was Ide’s original writing inspiration, and that of many other writers, and attracted millions of fans. Movies made from his books helped define film noir, with Humphrey Bogart’s Marlowe an indelible representation of the cynical, world-weary p.i. of hardboiled crime fiction.

Undertaking to write what’s billed as a modern version of such an icon is more than a bit cheeky. How well did Ide do? He succeeds to some extent—he has the cynicism and wisecracking down and the occasional skewering of the Establishment. He leaves most of the hard drinking to a character invented for this story, Philip’s father, Emmet Marlowe, a Los Angeles homicide detective on leave to dry out after the death of his wife, Philip’s mother. The modern Marlowe shares his namesake’s tendency for insubordination, which cost him his place in the police academy and led him to a mentorship with low-rent private detective, Basilio Ignacia.

Marlowe’s new client is fading movie star Kendra James, whose husband Terry was shot dead on the beach in front of their Malibu home a few weeks earlier. Terry was a failed movie producer desperately trying for one last big score. His seventeen-year-old daughter Cody has gone missing, and Kendra wants Marlowe to find her.

Before long Basilio drops another case in Marlowe’s lap—unwanted, but there it is. A woman has flown in from London to search for her son Jeremy, kidnapped by her ex-husband.

The theme of parents and children—and how these relationships can go terribly wrong, warping a person’s actions and reactions—permeates the book. In the case of Ren and her kidnapped son, the ex-husband is the problem, and she’s become monomaniacal about getting Jeremy back; in the case of Kendra and Cody, neither has a compassionate or generous bone in their bodies. No way could a healthy relationship evolve. Marlowe gets along with his dad, mostly, because he’s repressed his anger about his father’s neglect of his mother as she was dying. Emmet’s drinking shows he feels that shortcoming too, of course.

While you can chuckle at the relentless snark of Cody, only because it’s not directed at you, and enjoy the more civilized jibes of Ren (who’s English, after all), neither one of these females listens to Marlowe or takes his advice. Stay in your car until I get there? Not a chance. Don’t go there by yourself? Already out the door. Needless to say, their incautious behavior causes worlds of trouble.

Marlowe uses his connections in the film industry, mostly in the form of past clients who are still speaking to him, to try to get a lead on Jeremy. Once he’s found Cody, he’s suspicious of her stepmother’s intentions and stashes her at his dad’s house until he can sort things out. Unfortunately, the situation is far more complicated and deadly than he anticipates, involving the Russian mob, Armenian hitmen, a Bosnian assassin, and Cody’s brother, a gay minor league baseball player.

As a big fan of Ide’s I.Q. books, I think he misses the mark here. There are just too many violent confrontations and climaxes. It’s like a movie with endless car chases and shootouts. Non-stop action is tiring. At the end, I felt like somebody just beat me up.

In a rare period of quiet near the story’s end, Marlowe takes some time to review his notes and comes up with a theory about who killed Terry that he thinks holds water. His conclusions come very close to violating a basic principle of mystery-writing: Don’t introduce new clues at the end of the story. At least two pieces of his explanation relied on information I did not have. Possibly I missed these elements in the reading, but I don’t think so.

Finally, one of the pleasures of reading Chandler is his unforgettable deployment of metaphor. (My favorite: “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.”) Ide is quite skilled with the language, and writes in an effective, forceful way, but, as this is a homage, I expected a few high-flown metaphors. Maybe they wouldn’t feel right in 2022, but I missed them.

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