****Grab a Snake by the Tail

By Leonardo Padura, translated by Peter Bush — For decades, glimpses into Cuban life were hard to come by, and for Americans will be harder to come by again with renewed travel restrictions. English-language crime fiction about contemporary Cuba, written by Cubans, also has been sparse, despite reader curiosity about a tropical culture with such a heady mix of Caribbean, Spanish, African, and Indian influences.

Leonardo Padura, whom the book jacket calls “Cuba’s most celebrated living author,” is the author of the Havana Quartet, crime novels that in their English versions each have a color in the title: Havana Gold, Havana Blue, Havana Red and Havana Black. Spanish-language television films were created from them, and they appeared on Netflix with English subtitles as Four Seasons in Havana. This police procedural follows the protagonist of those popular earlier works, police inspector Mario Conde, as he reminisces about a murder investigation from 30 years ago in Havana’s Barrio Chino (Chinatown).

Cuba’s significant Chinese community immigrated to the island under contracts that amounted to slave labor, and which led to the atmosphere of loneliness, contempt, and uprooting that forms the backdrop to the narrative and sets the stage for murder. Even in a culture where diverse racial and ethnic identities are a commonplace, the dirty, poverty-ridden Barrio Chino is considered mysterious and alien to most Havana residents.

Conde is persuaded to look into the murder by a beautiful African-Chinese police lieutenant Patricia Chion, about whom Conde has impure thoughts. Patricia tells him to engage her father, Juan, as his guide through the barrio’s labyrinthine streets and cultural ways. That’s because, as Conde says, “There were complications, as there almost always are in situations involving a chino.” (So evocative of the last line of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”)

Patricia explains that the dead man, Pedro Cuang, was a friend of her godfather and an acquaintance of her father, even though her father denies knowing him. That would be one of the complications.

Cuang was a retired dry cleaner, no family, living alone on a pension in a dingy one-room apartment. Conde visits that apartment, where the corpse has yet to be removed. He and his sergeant Manuel Palacios see the 73-year-old has been hanged, with a couple of peculiar flourishes: a severed index finger and a circle with two crossed arrows inside carved on his chest.

Crime was rampant in the Barrio Chino, but what Cuang’s link to it may have been is murky. As is the meaning of the strange symbols. In Havana, there are lots of possibilities: a Congolese practice called nganga, Yoruba santaria, voodoo, or some heretofore unknown Chinese witchcraft. Investigating these possibilities and their practitioners gives Padura an excuse to delve into them a bit. These interesting diversions into cultural anthropology aren’t distractions from the main thrust of the story. It needs them to move forward.

Grab a Snake by the Tail is short book that employs a somewhat literary style, appropriate for a cop who wants to be a writer. The translation seems good – you aren’t frequently reminded of it, at least. The characters, especially Conde, his aide Manuel, and his unofficial deputy, Juan Chion, engage in lively interplay. There’s some sex. You never have the sense detective Conde is in any serious, thriller-style danger. It’s more that you’re following him around a fascinating town trying to avoid the complications—criminal, female and cultural.

Photo: dimitrisvetsikas1969 from Pixabay.

Booky, Booky

Reading

Four books out of sync with my new crime fiction reviewing.

Yes, even I occasionally tire of a reading life of crime. And sometimes I want to catch up with a book from prior years.

And book clubs make choices . . .

****Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

By Gail Honeyman – Which of us hasn’t felt saddled by a critical parent? One whose admonishing voice we hear when we least need it? Who among us isn’t more likely to remember a parent’s upbraiding rather than the praise? Eleanor remembers, to a miserable extreme. Patterning herself after her ultra-demanding mother, she needs to (to learn how to) unwind a bit, no, a lot. She longs for human connection and gets in her own way when she tries. Vodka helps, until it doesn’t. Although the plot doesn’t surprise, Honeyman has established a strong, if painful, voice for Eleanor, just too smart to stay locked inside herself forever. A prime example of the new literary trend called up-lit—“books that give us hope.” In many ways similarly plotted to Where the Crawdads Sing, it raises both hope and skepticism for the same reasons. The author, not the character, seems in charge, if that makes any sense.

****Murmur

By Will Eaves – This is literary fiction and far from as straightforward in the telling as Eleanor Oliphant. It’s based on the life of Alan Turing (Alec Pryor in the book), the brilliant British mathematician and computer scientist (now on the £50 note) who later led the Bletchley Park team that helped unravel the secrets of the Nazi code machine, Enigma. Ping-ponging between dreams, memories, letters with a woman friend, and more in the months before his suicide, the novel has been called “a hallucinatory masterwork.” Much of it looks back to Pryor’s adolescence, his discovery of his homosexuality, and the social and school problems that resulted. Murmur has won numerous prizes. Will Eaves is a poet and a teacher, as well as a novelist. This is the first of his books published in the United States.

***Blood Sisters

By Kim Yideum, translated from the Korean by Jiyoon Lee – I joined a book club that sends novels by international authors several times a year, as a way to become acquainted with other voices and sensibilities. This book was a hard go in the beginning, partly because of the unadorned writing style, but became easier, page by page. The narrator has left home (more difficult, hypercritical parents), and lives as cheaply as possible in a room over a café called Instant Paradise (yeah, right). She has a great many challenges including physical injuries, a parent who deserted her, plus an unexpected romance. Wait, am I writing about Eleanor Oliphant again? Totally different books, striking parallels, but without the too-easy resolution.

****The Word is Murder

By Anthony Horowitz – OK, back to my comfort zone. Horowitz is a crimewriter and TV scriptwriter (Midsomer Murders, Foyle’s War). This novel starts with the murder of a woman who appears to have predicted her own demise. A gruff former police detective, Daniel Hawthorne, is called in to take a look at the case, joined by a clueless writer named Anthony Horowitz who’s looking for some new plot ideas and manages to blunder about spectacularly. “Full of surprises and suspense,” said The Washington BookReview. And comic moments. This adventure has been followed up by 2019’s The Sentence is Death, again featuring Hawthorne and Horowitz.

****No Way to Die

ancient China

By PA De Voe – If you want a total escape from Brexit or US or European politics, PA De Voe’s second-in-series Ming Dynasty Mystery, No Way to Die, will take you back to late 1300s China. As a devoted fan of the Judge Dee mysteries of Robert van Gulik, set six hundred years earlier in the Tang Dynasty, I was delighted to find De Voe’s well-crafted series.

The prose is deceptively simple. No lengthy descriptions, just enough information to let you picture the scene—a style in keeping with both the era in which the stories are set and the heavily verb-dependent Chinese language.

Women’s doctor (and woman doctor) Xiang-hua is asked to serve as coroner to determine whether the mangled body of a stranger found in the village herbalist’s pig pen got there through foul play. Alas, the pig had made a bit of a meal of the man before his body was removed. Numerous males of the community are concerned the sight of the mangled corpse may be too much for the young Xiang-hua. But she does not shrink from the task. Trained as a healer by her grandmother, Xiang-hua is determined to fulfill her obligations (striking a feminist note that resonates in the 21st century). It’s tough, but she’s in possession of herself well enough to discover the dead man, muddy and bloody, had been stabbed in the back.

The local officials want to know the victim’s identity and, if possible, who stabbed him, before they have to report the crime to higher authorities. If they fail to find out, it will likely to bring down the wrath of the bureaucracy, never a pleasant outcome in ancient China, as punishments were plentiful and harsh. This is a prime example of how De Voe uses 700-year-old realities to create situations that adhere to one of the basic memes of modern crime stories: the ticking clock.

The investigation enables a fascinating trip back to a colorful and simpler time, and though the culture was so different, human emotions and motivations are the same across eons. De Voe’s training as an anthropologist and her advanced degree in Asian studies mean that what she writes carries an authority based on deep knowledge of that long-ago culture and society. I’ll be looking forward to more of her excellent tales!

Snatching Summer Reading Time

reading, beach

Planning a relaxing time at the shore, interspersed with a few (or more) restorative naps? You need a book! But not War and Peace, however strong your guilt that you’ve never read it. Perfect solution? Short stories. Three recent collections (plus two of mine).

****Exit Wounds, edited by Paul B. Kane and Marie O’Regan – The cover featuring names of some of today’s best-selling crime fiction authors—Lee Child, Val McDermid, Dean Koontz, Mark Billingham and more—signals good reading ahead. Highlights:

  • From the Department of Clever Twists comes Jeffrey Deaver’s story of the bullying of a suspect in a string of serial killings and Sarah Hilary’s The Pitcher, in which a journalist visits an obscure Spanish taverna and smacks into the unexpected.
  • The opening line of Fiona Cummins’s Dead Weight—“You’re not going to eat that, are you?”—says all you need to know about these mother-daughter duelists.
  • There’s an Edgar Allan Poe vibe to On the Anatomization of an Unknown Man (1637) by Dublin author John Connolly. Take My Hand by A K Benedict involves something Poe would have loved, a Hand of Glory. If you don’t know what that is, Google it. A sure-fire conversation-stopper.
  • Dennis Lehane seems to be channeling Raymond Chandler in this line from The Consumers: “When she let (her hair) fall naturally, with its tousled waves and anarchic curls, she looked like a wet dream sent to douse a five-alarm fire.”
  • In Paul Finch’s The New Lad, a brand new policeman is assigned to watch a crime scene overnight. Alone. Outside a derelict mental hospital. In the woods. Excruciating tension!

The Akashic collection ****Milwaukee Noir, edited by Tim Hennessy, reflects the challenges of a city undergoing a rocky transition away from heavy industry and the challenges and changes that result. As horror writer Peter Straub says about his home town (Millhaven in his books), “What happened to the Millhaven where a guy could go out for a beer an’ bratwurst without stumbling over a severed head?” The collection includes stories by Reed Farrel Coleman, and Nick Petrie, but they’re not the only reason to pick up this collection. Two of my favorites were:

  • Runoff by Valerie Laken. An adventuresome trio of teens exploring the pipes under the city finds the unexpected. Perfectly captures the equivocation and fearlessness of youth.
  • Transit Complaint Box by Frank Wheeler, Jr. A jaded transit security officer and his probationer ride the city’s bus routes, solving some problems, preventing others, and generally filling in for our tattered mental health system. Heartwarming and chilling, rewarding and dangerous in equal proportions.

**A Time for Violence: Stories with an Edge, edited by Andy Rausch and Chris Roy. If you want stories of murder and mayhem, this collection is for you. The editors’ intent was to inspire “edgy and transgressive” material. In this, they succeeded. One story, Rausch says, “is neither crime nor horror by standard definitions, and yet it’s the worst of both.” I couldn’t finish it. It wasn’t the only one. Past a certain point of gruesomeness, I lose interest.

Still, I chuckled at Santa at the Café by Joe R Lansdale, which proves, once again, there’s no honor among thieves. Max Allan Collins’s Guest Service: A Quarry Story demonstrates an ideal way to get rid of a troublesome spouse. Elements of a police procedural make Manner of Death: Homicide by Peter Leonard fun and funny too, with its inclusion of the kind of banter prevalent among fictional cops and ex-cops. And, I loved the promise of later hijinks in Andrew Nette’s Ladies Day at the Olympia Car Wash, when the clean-up of a glamorous gal’s trunk provides clues to homicide.

Murder, of course, and betrayals by friends and family run through the whole collection like the bass line of a death march. So, if you like your stories extra-dark, you’ll find much to like here.

* * *

After the foregoing, my two stories published in June only prove how vast is the crime/mystery/thriller terrain. They’re both in great company in their respective publications with other excellent stories:

  • In Who They Are Now, an aging sportscaster is murdered under cover of a Florida hurricane. Is someone after his priceless collection of baseball memorabilia? The Delray Beach police are on the case, with help from a no-longer-young Hollywood star. It’s one of 21 tales in The Best Laid Plans, edited by Judy Penz Sheluk.
  • New Energy describes how a young Japanese-American newspaper reporter in Sweetwater, Texas, investigates a friend’s murder. He was killed by a rattlesnake bite, 30 stories up in a wind turbine cabin. In the Jul-Aug issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, available at your local big box or mystery bookstore.

***The Divinities

By Parker Bilal – With The Divinities, Parker Bilal starts a new police procedural series, involving the potentially interesting duo, Met detective Calil Drake and Iranian-born forensic psychologist Dr. Rayhana Crane.

When a ton of rocks crushes a man and woman at the bottom of a swimming pool under construction in Battersea, Drake is called in, though it’s Crane who wonders whether the avalanche of stone is merely a mechanized form of the ancient punishment of stoning. The link between the two victims is a mystery, and in Drake’s interviews with the victims’ families, he doesn’t ask obvious questions that would have revealed that connection early on.

Although there are a few subtle hints about his mixed-race identity, Calil Drake is called Cal, and the author doesn’t clarify until well along that he had a British mother and Sudanese father or that as a teenager he had embraced Islam. This sheds a very different light on his rocky relationships with other police detectives. His chief makes it clear he has only forty-eight hours before the case will go to the Homicide and Major Crimes Command, where DCI Pryce is itching to put Drake in a bad light. Much is made about this forty-eight hours, yet that time passes without any increase in narrative urgency.

Although Cal and the pair of younger officers who work under him banter amusingly, they have no other style of communication. When every interaction prompts a wisecrack, the device loses something.

A police procedural needs to develop a clear logic chain, and this novel fails to do that at both the larger plot level and within individual conversations. Drake’s reasons for interviewing whom he does, when he does, and the questions he asks all feel very ad hoc. Perhaps that’s due to Drake’s drinking on the job—a crime fiction cliché overdue for retirement. The author says Drake understands the killer’s motivation instinctively, but really, some evidence would help.

Parker Bilal is the pseudonym for literary fiction writer Jamal Mahjoub, himself a mixed-race son of Sudanese and British parents. He’s won prizes for his literary novels and short stories and since 2012, as Parker Bilal, he’s written seven crime novels. Yet, mysteriously, the literary flourishes that frequently crop up in crime fiction do not appear here. You may want to like these interesting lead characters. Now if only future stories do them justice.

Photo: Fredrik Alpstedt, creative commons license

New In Print

Release day! Today’s the day for the print version of the anthology, The Best Laid Plans, edited by Canadian mystery writer Judy Penz Sheluk. She’s collected 21 stories from popular short story writers, and if you like your crime and chills in small bites, you’ll enjoy this! Here’s a quick rundown of these entertaining tales.

About my story, “Who They Are Now”: When an aging sportscaster is murdered in his bed under cover of a vicious Florida hurricane, is someone after his priceless collection of baseball memorabilia? The Delray Beach police are on the case, aided by his neighbor, a feisty but no-longer-young Hollywood star.

Order here from Amazon.

****The Paris Diversion

cafe

By Chris Pavone – The Paris Diversion is the followup to Chris Pavone’s popular and award-winning debut thriller from 2013, The Expats. In the new book, former CIA agent Kate Moore is living in Paris with her husband Dexter when the ghosts from that earlier story come in search of her. A lot of action and a great many characters are packed into the twelve-hour period this novel covers. Along the way, you’re treated to a granular depiction of Paris—not just monuments and streets, but the way of life.

Kate doesn’t know whether she still works for the CIA. She’s a one-woman operation, head of something called the Paris Substation, and has ample money to hire all the help she needs to carry out assignments, though who and where do these orders come from? Dexter works from home, day-trading, and scheming to find a get-rich-quick idea. He thinks he’s found one.

In a recent panel discussion, author Pavone said he was drawn to writing thrillers because the characters lie so much. He’s brought that tendency to a high art in this novel with Kate and Dexter’s innumerable secrets and reflexive avoidance of the truth.

Dexter plans to sell short a large hunk of shares in a company called 4Syte. It will make him a massive profit as long as those shares drop in price as insider information predicts. 4Syte’s president, Hunter Forsyth, is an arrogant high-flyer, who Dexter believes was “born on third base, believing he hit a triple”—such a perfect description I laughed out loud. Forsyth is so convinced of his invincibility he doesn’t realize he’s been kidnapped.

The ominous sound of sirens pervades the book’s early chapters. Several bombs have been found in strategic spots around the city, and a Muslim man wearing a suicide vest has taken up a position in the plaza outside the Louvre. Rooftop snipers have him in their sights, though shooting him may merely precipitate the catastrophe. The petty arguing among the various police departments regarding whether to shoot sounded exactly right, with the ironic touch that the sniper is Muslim too.

Pavone’s secondary characters are strong, especially Forsyth’s assistant, Colette. Coolly French, married, she’s the object of Hunter’s lustful imaginings. The suicide bomber is another good character, knowing he will die, but not when, and with unexpected reasons for strapping on the vest.

You may want to stop reading this fast-paced novel occasionally to ask yourself, “What just happened?” as layers of the complex plot come into focus. A few aspects of the story—especially the idea that there are multiple off-the-books spy agencies operating around the world—may stretch credulity, but you probably will be turning pages too fast to worry about such things.

Photo: Dan Novac from Pixabay.

****Below the Fold

Written by RG Belsky – This is former newsman Dick Belsky’s second crime story featuring Pulitzer-Prize winning print journalist Clare Carlson, now significantly reduced in career status by working as the news director for Channel 10 television.

Clare has a wittily cynical, self-deprecating take on her job and the events and people around her, and the novel begins with her musing on why some deaths—those of blonde white females—matter more than others, at least in the news business. Most of the time.

Clare runs a lively morning news meeting, in which the reporters and staff hammer out which stories to feature that day, absent any even bigger story breaking. On this particular day, Clare’s assignment editor Maggie challenges the team to look a little deeper and discover what was important about the life and death of a person they wouldn’t ordinarily spend time on, a fifty-four-year-old homeless woman stabbed to death in an ATM vestibule. Because Clare rises to the challenge, they discover, over time, just how significant the story of Dora Gayle turns out to be.

The first glimmer there may be more to the homeless woman’s story than they anticipated comes when Grace Mancuso, a woman Gayle’s polar opposite—young, beautiful, wealthy, a stockbroker—is brutally murdered. Beside her body is a list of five names, five people who appear to have nothing in common, who in fact believe they have never even met. The last name on the list is Dora Gayle.

Through Clare’s investigative journalism, Belsky expertly rolls out the stories of all these people, living and dead, and their possible intersections. Except for Gayle, of course, are they suspects in either murder? Potential victims? In the process, Belsky lays down enough red herrings to feed lower Manhattan.

Belsky, who lives and worked in Manhattan for years, knows his setting well, not just its geography, but its culture down to the neighborhood level. You may look up from his pages and be surprised to find yourself somewhere other than Washington Square or the East Village, so thoroughly is this story imbued with the spirit of New York.

It isn’t a spoiler to say that, in the end, the death of Dora Gayle, a death that ordinarily would have been passed over without journalistic notice, started the novel’s engine, bearing out Clare’s advice to her news team that “there’s a story to every murder.”

Image by Michal Kryński from Pixabay

*****Conviction

By Denise Mina – In her new deftly plotted crime thriller, Denise Mina uses a compelling story-within-a-story to draw you in. First-person narrator Anna McDonald lives in Glasgow with husband Hamish and two young daughters. Early one morning, she’s listening to a true-crime podcast about the sinking of the Dana, a private yacht moored in France’s Île de Ré. The boat suffered an explosion below decks and sank, drowning a father and his two grown children.

Anna is a dispassionate listener to this story until it mentions the yacht-owner’s name, Leon Parker. She knows him. Years before, when she worked as a maid at an exclusive Scottish holiday resort, Parker was a guest, and she remembers him fondly. “Oh, God, Leon’s laugh. So dark and wild you could drown a bag of kittens in it.”

Anna can’t reminisce forever, though, she has to awaken the children and her husband and start their day. In a frenzy of morning preparations, Anna finally answers the knock at the door. Her best friend Estelle is there with a roller bag, and Hamish is at the top of the stairs, his own roller bag beside him.

Hamish is leaving her for Estelle. He’s keeping the house and the girls. Anna will get money. Throughout this roller-coaster of a story, Mina effectively conveys Anna’s erratic state of mind, and while her character doesn’t always make the best decisions, you can believe in her. She’s prickly and charming.

And she has secrets. She wasn’t always Anna McDonald. She was Sophie Bukaran until she was raped by four footballers. The case attracted unwanted notoriety, the fans never forgave her, and team owner Gretchen Tiegler tried to get her killed.

Soon Estelle’s husband Fin Cohen arrives. He’s an instantly recognizable member of a popular band who is as well known for being anorexic as for his music. Without thought of logistics or consequences, Anna and Fin launch into a road trip to flee the reminders of their abandonment. As they listen to the podcast episodes in the car, Fin also becomes intrigued with the Dana’s sinking and its reputation of being haunted.

Eventually, the two begin their own series of podcasts, asking new questions about the crime. Thanks to Fin’s celebrity and the almost immediate outing of Anna as Sophie, their forays into pseudo-journalism attract an improbably large audience. Sophie is afraid the attention will spark renewed risk from Tiegler and her minions—not only to her. Her daughters are vulnerable too. Fin tells her she’s being paranoid, until he has a fright of his own. “Now that Fin was scared too, my paranoia never came up again.” Love Sophie’s sly humor!

You’re in for quite an adventure, at times a deadly one, with Mina’s intriguing tale.

For a quirkier side of Glasgow crime, I’d also recommend the entertaining adventure of book store clerk, inadvertent murderer, and fugitive crime-fighter Jen Carter in Russell D. McLean’s Ed’s Dead.

Photo: Jan Alexander from Pixabay.

****The Better Sister

wedding rings, rose

By Alafair Burke – Which is the better sister? An interesting question, but not one their husband Adam can answer, because he’s dead. In an intriguing plot complication, both women were married to the same man, just not at the same time. Nicky married him first, almost twenty years ago, but her increasingly erratic behavior finally forced Adam to seek a divorce and custody of their toddler son Ethan. Soon he moved to Manhattan where Chloe lives, and for a number of years he worked happily and successfully as a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Chloe, now his wife, urged him into a much more lucrative job, a partnership at a white-shoe law firm. Adam hates it. Not only that, something’s gone wrong in their relationship, though you can’t quite put your finger on it—yet.

A bit of a control freak, Chloe doesn’t reveal the cracks in her armor right away. She’s also a bit of a modern hero, using her magazine to let not just media darlings, but everyday women tell their sexual abuse and harassment stories. Misogynistic Twitter trolls make her a target—an unpredictable, persistent threat lurking in the background.

When Chloe arrives home late one night, Adam has been murdered, which brings Nicky to Manhattan, hoping to reconnect with her now sixteen-year-old son and taking up residence in Chloe’s home office. These temperamentally opposite sisters circle each other like newly introduced housecats. At least Nicky has stopped the drugs and the drinking, and she’s started making jewelry to sell on Etsy. In an unexpected rebalancing of the scales of likability, you may find yourself more sympathetic to Nicky than Chloe, who works so hard at being perfect.

The police detectives clearly hope to pin Adam’s death on Chloe, but when they realize Ethan has lied about where he was the night of his father’s death, they focus laserlike on him. A third strong woman enters the story in the character of Olivia Randall, Ethan’s lawyer. Chloe would like to manage the case, Nicky would like to do something rash, but Olivia stays in charge. But if Ethan didn’t kill his father, who did?

Author Burke’s real-life experience as a prosecutor serves the story well, and the details of the trial and the strategies of the attorneys make for excellent courtroom drama. The pressures of the trial bring forth a few “I didn’t see that coming” surprises too. It’s is an engaging, well-told tale that benefits from Burke’s clear writing style.

Photo: Myriam Zilles from Pixabay