Guns + Tacos at the Midnight Hour

Gosh, I’ve read a lot of good books lately, as well as some notable short story collections!

I received Volumes 5 and 6 of the Guns + Tacos series, edited by Michael Bracken and Trey R. Barker. These were the “subscriber editions,” and each contained three novella-length stories. (some of the editions are sold for parts on Amazon; since they’re short, order the compilations). The stories in Volume 5 were by Dave Zeltserman, Stacy Woodson, and David H. Hendrickson and in Volume 6 by Hugh Lessig, Neil S. Plakcy, and Andrew Welsh-Huggins.

The underlying conceit is that somewhere in Chicago you can find a taco truck after midnight, where, if you order “the special,” you get a handgun with it. Thus the stories have names like “Refried Beans and a Snub-Nosed .44” or “Chimichangas and a couple of Glocks” or “Two Tamales, One Tokarev, and a Lifetime of Broken Promises.” In Volume 6, editor Bracken provides dessert with the three entrees, “Christmas Enchiladas and a Gold-Plated Derringer.”

Of course, if all the folks in these stories know about the taco truck, the cops must too, but set that aside. The stories are highly and consistently entertaining, long enough to develop a strong premise, but not so long as to wear it out.

Midnight Hour, edited by Abby L. Vandiver, is a compilation of twenty remarkable stories by authors of color. In a foreword, Stephen Mack Jones says their writing “without preaching or proselytizing, uncovers and reveals the distortions and delusions, fallacies and myths of an American society that has often pushed such voices to the back of the literary bus.” Or, as it may feel to the authors, under the bus. You don’t have to have a political agenda to enjoy these stories, many of which would stand up against many other recent compilations. There’s a lot of great stuff here, and if The Best American Mystery and Suspense series intends to diversify its selection of authors, I’d say, start right here. Highly recommended.

The Ones We Keep

Bobbie Jean Huff’s powerful new domestic drama, The Ones We Keep, is a real standout. It’s quite a testament for a debut author’s novel to be compared to the works of Elizabeth Strout and Diane Chamberlain! I enjoyed it thoroughly, as much for the quality of the writing as the fully developed and compelling characters.

As the story begins, New Jerseyans Olivia and Harry Somerville and their three young boys are vacationing at a Vermont lake. Olivia, returning from a walk, sees a police car leaving the resort, and two teenagers she encounters on the trail tell her a boy from New Jersey has drowned. All Olivia can think to do is run. If she gets away, if she hides, if she cuts off communication with her family and friends, she will never know which of her boys is lost. I have three sons, becomes her mantra.

Once she makes this break from what would have been her reality, it’s somehow better to keep that door firmly closed than to go back and face her loss. The story describes the accommodations she must make as she builds a new life, how Henry and the two remaining boys cope with her absence, how time moves on. Olivia’s choice may not be one most of us would make, but it is the choice she believes she has to make, in order to keep all her sons alive in her mind and for her own survival.

Bobbie Jean Huff and I are acquainted, having taken some of the same writing workshops together, and I couldn’t be more delighted that this novel turned out so beautifully!

Find Her First

Former newspaper journalist Emma Christie’s second novel, Find Her First, could be called a crime thriller, which it is, or a murder mystery, which it also is. Trying to figure out what is really going on in a sea of red herrings is a big part of this book’s enormous pleasures.

The story takes place in Edinburgh and the surrounding countryside, where Andy Campbell and his wife Stef are dedicated hikers. Scotland’s well-described forests and cliffs and vistas are an essential backdrop to their story.

The book opens with Andy, apparently on trial for murder, awaiting the verdict. He’s an experienced paramedic, but has he taken a life? Though the contours of his crime are not yet defined, his sadness that events reached this point is clear.

You’re left waiting for the court’s judgment, which won’t come for many pages. Instead, the narrative goes back six months to the previous summer. Chapters taking Andy’s point of view alternate with those written by Betty Stevenson, the housecleaner for Andy and his wife Stef, also a paramedic, but on mandatory leave.

Fate and whether it’s possible to escape it or to take it into your own hands is a major theme of the book. Betty is fond of Stef and desperately eager for closeness with someone. She believes in luck—the luck of a shiny penny found on the street—and in fate. Being a friend to Stef, she thinks, is her fate. And now, it seems, Stef is missing. Betty is going to Do Something About It.

Betty and Andy both had traumatic childhoods that shaped their current lives, with Andy determined to save people and Betty, in her own way, trying to recapture the innocence of those much younger days. A few chapters are in Stef’s point of view from a year before the trial. All these time shifts can be a mite confusing, but in the end make sense.

All three of the main characters have regrets. Fractured family relationships. A romantic indiscretion. Lies they’ve told. A series of miscarriages. Author Christie spins out a complicated, entangling web and keeps you guessing about where its strands will lead. Are their current challenges related to the past, the present, or the future?

She writes with a close-in psychological perspective, and you come to have a rather deep understanding of the principal characters. You know why they act as they do, even when another course might be objectively better. In a sense, it’s an object lesson in the perils of partial information. You have only partial information too, and not until the end do you learn what the story is really about. An excellent read.

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Or here from IndieBound.

Power in the Blood

Highly recommended is debut fiction author Hiawatha Bray’s entertaining new techno-thriller, set mostly in Boston. Like Bray himself, his protagonist, Weldon Drake, is a technology reporter for a leading newspaper, and both are deacons in an African-American Baptist Church.

Late one night, MIT graduate student Astrid Nelson is stabbed in the basement of Drake’s church. The motive for the attack is unclear, but the victim’s phone and laptop are missing. Days later, when she can finally talk, she tells Drake she’s been working with an international team of hackers on a secret botnet protection project. The day she was attacked, another member of her team was murdered in Germany.

She explains to Drake they are trying to thwart a botnet created for a worldwide attack on the banking industry. Bray’s descriptions of the botnet and other elements of the cyber attack are not overly technical but convincingly convey their dangers, and there’s plenty of danger to come in the physical world as well.

As he pursues leads from Astrid, Drake concludes her team members are not trying to protect the banking system. Rather, they seem more interested in increasing the attack’s destructiveness. Finally, Astrid confesses that, as launch time neared, she and the German hacker got cold feet and tried to call it off. In a flash, they went from insider to expendable. Now Drake is a target too.

The character of Drake has a number of interesting attributes. He says he has antisocial personality disorder, but what he’s really missing seems to be empathy. At least he says he doesn’t care about other people’s problems and that his church activities are a way to compensate.But I don’t quite buy it. For example, Drake has good relations with his friend, Boston PD detective and fellow deacon, Damon Carter, and they candidly discuss the tricky issue of how a black man must behave in encounters with white police officers. You may wonder whether a lifetime of such experiences has contributed to Drake’s tamped-down emotional responses.

The author has written for The Boston Globe, Wired, and Fast Company, so you’d expect him to write well, and he does. You keep cheering Drake on in part because he’s quite funny and shows excellent psychological insight. And I haven’t even mentioned his intriguing descriptions of how he uses a flight simulator to overcome his fear of flying.

The dangers of cybercrime are front and center in this book, along with the risks involved in an increasingly connected world. If you worry that the Powers That Be don’t take these risks seriously enough, this story won’t reassure you. Not only has the author crafted a timely adventure, he’s peopled it with believable, complex characters. You’ll be rooting for Weldon Drake all the way. A great read!

House of Ashes by Stuart Neville

Initially, I had doubts about Northern Ireland writer Stuart Neville’s new crime thriller (audio narration by Caroline Lennon) House of Ashes. (Oh no, not another book about men abusing women.) But the story gradually creeps into your consciousness until it becomes irresistible. Sara Keane, who’s English, and her newish husband Damien have moved from Bath back to his home in Northern Ireland. He’s started a job in his father’s construction business, which is completing work on a rehabbed and expanded country house for the couple. It’s called The Ashes, named for the ash trees that distinguish the property.

There’s some irony in the book’s title, as a prologue recounts a dangerous fire that forces an elderly woman named Mary to flee the house in the middle of the night. As Sara begins to uncover the house’s history, she has questions about how that fire started. Worse, she learns, sixty years previous, the house was owned by Ivan Jackson, who lived there with his sons, Tam and George, women named Noreen and Joy, and the young Mary, about age ten.

Not until the dazed child Mary walked into a grocery shop on the edge of the village did the shocked locals discover the women even existed. But all five adults are dead, in what the authorities conclude was a murderous spree by George, who then took his own life. Neville gives away the outcome early, leaving the narrative to describe how the residents arrive at that fatal juncture.

Sara can’t stop probing this old story. Damien does all he can to extinguish her curiosity, suggesting it’s an obsession linked to Sara’s fragile emotional state. Back in England, she tried to overdose on pills, the result of finally realizing how Damien has isolated her from her friends and family. Now, he’s put the Irish Sea between them. And you can’t stop wondering whether Sara’s experience will parallel the house’s dark history.

The chapters narrated by Mary that describe her life with Mummy Noreen and Mummy Joy (an ironic name for sure) become riveting. The three men work them like slaves and prevent any contact with the outside world. Mary has never been to school or church or a shop. In the daytime, the women cook and clean, and do some farm chores. At night, they’re locked in the dark basement. Even the slightest commotion risks Daddy Ivan taking off his belt and beating them. They daren’t attempt escape, because the men will catch and kill them. All of them, probably. And you believe it, knowing what eventually happens.

Damien has a more twenty-first century approach to domination. He handles the couple’s money; he has the car; all Sara has is a creepy house she doesn’t want to be in. It’s a gripping story of manipulation and fear, nicely paced, so that you’re invested in both the historical and the contemporary stories. Although the course of Sara’s relationship with Damian is predictable, the tension lies in wondering whether she will have the courage to do what she needs to do.

Irish actor Caroline Lennon—who has narrated more than 300 audio books—does an excellent job. Her Mary is convincingly simple—when she’s both a child who doesn’t understand and an adult who does.

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Successful Reading Experiments: 2021 Edition

I read a lot.  Forty to fifty just-published books a year that I review for the U.K. website CrimeFictionLover.com, Audiobooks of prize-nominees and winners. And books that have been out a while picked by my mystery readers book club. And a few books that have nothing to do with crime or espionage or the Dark Side.

Here are a half-dozen authors, debutantes and established, that I “discovered” last year. Maybe you would enjoy them too.

Two New Jersey writers who not only write with style and precision, they offer a nice dose of humor are Bill Baer, who has two books in his New Jersey Noir series, and experienced writer but new-to-novels Fabian Nicieza, with Suburban Dicks.

The unlikely team of characters in Chris Brookmyre’s The Cut—an elderly woman who spent her career devising grisly stage makeup for horror films and a young Black guy who’s the consummate horror fan—were a delight to chase around Europe with.

If you asked, I’d say I’m not a horror fan, but Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians presented horror in a way that made it work for me. One of the best books I read last year. (If you can, listen to the audio version, narrated by Shaun Taylor-Corbett. Genius.) Jones has a number of others, including My Heart is a Chainsaw, which NPR picked as a best book of 2021. Will have to get to that!

Liz Moore’s Long Bright River, nominated for a number of prizes, is the painful story of two sisters—one a cop, the other a drug addict—and the corners they’re forced into. She has more where that came from too.

About once a year, I scrub sentimentality out of my brain with the caustic prose of authors like Cormac McCarthy. The book that accomplished that job this year was Australian author Paul Howarth’s Dust Off the Bones. This year, maybe his Only Killers and Thieves.

Did you find a favorite new author last year?

The Last Mona Lisa

Art crimes are an intriguing branch of the international crime tree, and in The Last Mona Lisa Jonathan Santlofer ably fulfills their potential. He begins with a real crime that took place in 1911, when a man named Vincent Peruggia was fired from his job at the Louvre, then hid in the museum overnight and stole the Mona Lisa. The destitute but patriotic Peruggia wanted to return the painting to his native Italy, and doubtless make a little money too. The painting resurfaced two years later in Florence whereupon the Italian police arrested him.

Santlofer’s novel features an American named Luke Perrone, fictional great-grandson of Peruggia. Since childhood, Luke has researched his notorious ancestor and the rumors he kept a diary during his months in prison. Luke is a frustrated painter and college history of art professor, and an upcoming school break gives him a chance to follow up a new lead. Apparently, his great-grandfather’s journal was donated to Florence’s Laurentian Library among the papers of a recently deceased art scholar.

Other people are just as interested in the diary as Luke is. Another library patron, the luscious Alexandra Greene, is just too friendly, except when she’s not. Interpol analyst John Washington Smith suspects the painting in the Louvre may not be authentic. During the Mona Lisa’s two-year disappearance, several copies were made and sold as originals. Perhaps the one hanging in the Louvre is one of these. Smith knows about Luke’s new lead and the trip to Florence, and if it pans out, it could revive his sagging career. A stop-at-nothing collector is also keenly interested and believes Luke can tell him whether “his” Mona Lisa, hidden in a vault, is the real thing.

Maybe I read too many thrillers, but I thought Luke was a bit slow to realize he’s experiencing too many coincidences and too many people dying around him. Chapters about Luke and Smith in the present day are interspersed with Vincenzo’s story, as told in his diary. These atmospheric historical chapters give resonance to Luke’s quest.

Santlofer also grounds the present-day of his tale with reference to the real-life controversy surrounding another Leonardo work, the Salvator Mundi, dubbed “the male Mona Lisa.” In real life, this painting was bought in 2005 from a New Orleans auction house for $1,175 and sold 12 years later for $450,300,000, even though art experts disagree about its authenticity. This saga was subject of a top-rated 2021 documentary by Andreas Koefoed.

Linking the two stories underscores not just the amazing sums involved, but also the tangled motivations of people in the world of stolen and fabricated art. Craziness happens when you are dealing with objects that are, essentially, priceless. If you are fascinated by art world intrigue, this book is for you!

Santlofer is himself an artist of some note. As well as his award-winning mystery novels, he has created more than 200 exhibitions worldwide. His short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies, and he was creator and director of the Crime Fiction Academy. He resides in New York.

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KGB Banker

This financial thriller by William Burton McCormick and John Christmas was inspired partly by the real-life experiences of whistleblower Christmas, who worked for the corrupt Latvian bank, Parex. (Follow that link for a “truth is stranger than fiction story!) When the bank collapsed, information about its billions in bad assets was suppressed, and the Latvian government (i.e., taxpayers) covered enormous losses.

In KGB Banker, we meet Chicago banking executive Robert Vanags who is fed up with corner-cutting in the financial industry. Recently widowed, he’d like to make a fresh start. An unexpected opportunity to do so arises when a head hunter recruits him for an executive position with the $70 billion Turaida Bank in Riga, Latvia, where his family was from. This new job sounds like the perfect professional and personal fit.

His interviews go well but as he’s leaving the bank he meets an employee named Ēricks Helmanis in the elevator. Helmanis has one word of advice: “Run.” Bob ignores this puzzling admonition, along with a few other signs that all is not as it should be, and takes the job.

Bob doesn’t know that someone’s monitoring his office, apartment, phones, computer, and even his 17-year-old son David. His watchers know about the elevator conversation and that Ēricks is hoping to meet with a young reporter for an obscure newspaper named Santa Ezeriņa.

His fourth day in the new job, Bob and a large bank contingent attend the funeral of Ēricks Helmanis, who apparently committed suicide. There, he meets Agnese Avena, an executive at the International Development Bank, with which Turaida often partners. He also meets Latvian politician Dāvids Osis, a true national hero, member of parliament, and champion of the European Union. Bob named his son after him.

While Bob becomes uneasy about some activity at the bank, he’s also distracted by an affair he’s started with Agnese. He chooses to reveal his misgivings at a meeting that will determine whether the international banking community should regard Turaida as solid. He tells the group that most of the bank’s loans are made to only a dozen shell companies owned by Russian oligarchs prohibited from receiving loans from EU banks.

From here on, Turaida officials are highly suspicious of him. The only insider Bob can trust is his elderly assistant, Evgeny, and on the outside, the legendary David Osis. Before long, not only is his information discredited, it’s apparent his life is on the line. His last hope is to trust that crazy reporter, Santa Ezeriņa, who is never one to swallow the official story.

Bankers and their secrets, oligarchs and their dirty dealing, politicians and their agendas, reporters and their dangerous probing. In a sea of betrayal, it’s all Bob can do to keep himself and David safe. As this intriguing story spools out, that goal seems less and less likely. William Burton McCormick and John Christmas have both lived in Latvia and establish the setting convincingly. Before you think some of the financial shenanigans are a little far-fetched, recall what has actually taken place there in recent decades, and you’ll conclude the set-up for this fictional story is not far afield. Plus it’s a cracking good adventure for both Bob and the journalist Santa, who sees the flashing neon warning signs that Bob tries so hard to ignore.

Holiday Time Management Guide

The weeks before Christmas at my daughter’s house follow this pattern: Daughter and husband on Zoom calls all day; kids in school. My mornings: wrapping presents and making cookies! By the dozens! My afternoons: Reading!! Just because your progeny is sitting Right There tapping on a laptop does NOT mean s/he’s available for maternal interruptions, however well-meaning. Respecting their “workspace” has the corollary benefit of suggesting respect for your “reading space.” To prove I put those afternoons leading up to Christmas to good use, here’s what I read.

Moghul Buffet by Cheryl Benard – What’s life like for women in Peshawar, Pakistan? This book will fill you in. In describing the investigation into a disappeared—possibly murdered–American, Benard provides abundant cultural insights. Alas, not enough has changed since she wrote this novel two decades ago. Benard is the wife of a former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq and knows wherof she speaks. Smooth writing, marvelously funny moments.

The Beggar King by Oliver Potzsch – It’s 1637 in Germany and a village executioner visits Regensburg to help his ailing sister. The visit is a set-up, and he finds himself in a city dungeon accused of her murder. Can his daughter and her fiancé save him? On a ten-point scale, I’d give this a 6.5; interesting plot, but too much anachronistic language.

Home Reading Service by Fabio Morábito – For some minor offense, Eduardo has been sentenced to a year of community service, reading to the elderly and disabled. Other than this activity, his life has little purpose, but his outlandish clients manage to involve him in some crazy shenanigans. The story takes place in Cuernavaca, Mexico (translated by Curtis Bauer). Why the clunky cover?

The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles – It’s 1954, and Emmett is going home, having finished his year-long sentence for manslaughter. His father has died, but his eight-year-old brother (the charming Billy) awaits. Two fellow inmates soon find him and you know they’ll lead him into mischief. Towles writes from a place of compassion, so that I cared about these characters and their fates, despite the book’s daunting near-600-page length. A soothing read.

The Italian by Shukri Mabkhout (translated from the Arabic by Karen McNeil and Miled Faiza) – Set in Tunisia in the late 1980s, this novel won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2015. In an era of significant upheaval, lovers Zeina and once-idealistic journalist Abdel Nasser are caught in a tussle between reactionary Islamism, a corrupt political system, and traditional family expectations. Full of narrative tension but too much political theory for me.

All these books have good points. While tastes vary, my favorite was Moghul Buffet, followed by The Lincoln Highway. Read on!

The Quiet People

In award-winning author Paul Cleave’s new crime thriller, Cameron and Lisa are crime writers based in Christchurch, New Zealand, with a string of successful books behind them. They’re also parents of seven-year-old Zach who is, euphemistically “a little different.” More bluntly, he’s a terror—unpredictable, badly behaved, uncooperative. You know Cameron wants to be a conscientious father, but it’s hard, and one morning, Zach is gone.

Detective Inspector Rebecca Kent and her new partner DI Ben Thompson are in charge of the investigation and follow the usual playbook. There’s a shortage of physical clues, and everything Cameron says works against him. He narrates much of the story, which enables a deep look into his psyche, in the manner of a psychological thriller. Chapters about the police work, by contrast, are in third-person, and read more like a police procedural.

A short prologue reveals that Zach and another boy are in the hands of a known pedophile named Lucas Pittman, which, for readers, justifies Cameron’s frenzy and makes the police’s painstakingly slow progress all the more frustrating.

At a too-hastily assembled news conference, Cameron loses his temper on live television. Now the circus really starts. The police suspect the distressed parents; growing crowds incited by social media picket the house, yell at the couple from the street, and call Cameron a child killer. As each new piece of evidence comes to light, the crowds and wild accusations grow.

The news coverage is disastrous. Old footage of Cameron and Lisa giving talks at writers’ conferences making jokes like “we kill people for a living” are shown out of context. An arrest seems inevitable and imminent.

At this point, you might think Cameron has hit bottom. Oh, no. Things get much worse and in surprising ways. It’s a testament to author Cleave’s skill that, as Cameron becomes increasingly unhinged, he has become such a compelling and believable character that you’re ready to follow him along a quite dark path. Meanwhile the bad calls the police have made are precipitating a crisis of conscience for Detective Kent. 

There’s much more to come, and while many books are promoted as “page turners,” for me this really was one! The most chilling aspect was the vitriolic and insensitive behavior of the crowds that felt as if it could spill over into violence any second. It’s a scenario all too believable as another dark side of social media. (In a true story reported by Katherine Laidlaw in the October issue of Wired, “Last year in a small bayside town in Nova Scotia, 3-year-old Dylan Ehler vanished, leaving nothing but two rain boots. In the following days, thousands of online sleuths descended on Facebook groups to help with the search. Then they turned.” On the parents.)

That’s what happens when all “facts” are equal, and there’s no incentive to distinguish true from false, but rather, to coast through life on a tide of emotion and outrage. Cleave well describes how Cameron and Lisa were at risk of drowning in it.