Thanks, Ellery Queen!

As always, the Jan-Feb issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine is packed with good reading. Here are some of the standout stories for me:

“The Killing of Henry Davenport” by John Shen Yen Nee and S.J. Rozan – Admittedly, this story, set in London in 1924, was bound to be a hit with me, as it involves both Sherlock Holmes and my favorite detective, Dee Goong An (hearkening back to a real-life personage from the Tang Dynasty). Holmes, Watson, Dee, and the narrator, Lao She (another real-life character), set out to solve an English murder in which a Chinese man stands accused. The story is a foretaste of a new project Rozan is working on that fans (me!) eagerly await.

“The Soiled Dove of Shallow Hollow” by Sean McCluskey – It’s always fun to see a nicely crafted story in the mag’s Department of First Stories. A hint of more good stuff to come. And I’m easily seduced by a con job where the question of who’s being conned is up for grabs. Nice!

“The Bowser Boys Are Back in Town” by Hal Charles – You can expect some humor in a story that begins, “Like a loud rooster, the bomb in Beverly Dezarn Memorial Park awoke the entire town of Woodhole . . .” The bad-luck Bowser duo is on what turns out to be an all-too-brief (for them) return home from jail, but it looks like they’re headed back to the slammer.

“Can the Cat Catch the Rat” by Steve Hockensmith – This is another in his entertaining series about Big Red and Old Red Amlingmeyer, tyro detectives in an Old West where the frequent shenanigans offers steady employment. The surprise in this episode is that Old Red has finally agreed to let Big Red teach him to read. However, identifying the counterfeit coins someone’s producing requires nothing more than a healthy set of teeth.

Read these and more good stories in EQMM. Subscribe here!

The Pain Tourist by Paul Cleave

What I like about the two Paul Cleave thrillers I’ve read is how he ties social behavior into the story of a crime and investigation. In his work, Internet frenzies make bad situations worse, leaving me thinking, “Oh, yeah. I can see that happening.”

In the first book of his I read, The Quiet People, a couple suspected of harming their child is besieged by angry would-be vigilantes camping out in front of their home. Suspicions inflamed by social media are enough to produce a crowd edging toward violence. The Pain Tourist touches on people’s fascination with true-crime stories and their willingness to believe they are competent and informed enough to become investigators themselves. You’ve seen this in action if you watched the discovery+ channel’s 2021 series Citizen P.I. In the official confusion and near-vacuum of information after the recent killings at the University of Idaho, the amateurs stepped in.

Amateurs have provided helpful information in a number of instances. They’re good at code-cracking, occasionally find missing persons, and willing to delve into cold cases. But more ambitious self-assigned tasks, such as identifying pedophiles and targeting presumed perpetrators can get dangerous for both the citizen and the accused, who may, in fact, be innocent. This is particularly so when accusers decide to take action.

Authorities worry they can jam up an investigation, overwhelming police with “tips” that need to be checked out (more than 6,000 in the Idaho case in the first three weeks after the crimes). In Cleave’s writing, these true crime devotees are pain tourists.

Taut. Twisty. Propulsive. You can trot out all the cliches regularly used to describe thriller fiction and use them with abandon for The Pain Tourist.

A home invasion leaves Frank and Avah Garrett dead. Nine years later, their 19-year-old son, James, remains in a coma with a bullet wound to the brain, and their 14-year-old daughter, Hazel, is trying to piece a life together. The three men seen running from the Garrett home have never been identified.

While Christchurch Detective Rebecca Kent investigates a serial murderer case, alternating chapters provide insight into what’s going on inside James’s head. A lot, and it’s fascinating. His mind is constructing an alternative reality – one in which his parents don’t die and he and Hazel carry on their lives as they would have been. Eight years and 10 months after the attack, in the now of the novel, James wakes up.

As he describes his memories during those years, Hazel and his doctor see correlations with real-life events. James calls what’s in his head Coma World. In Coma World, he had adventures that drew from the books Hazel read to him. The dates he believes certain events occurred match reality. Naturally, the police want to talk to him to find out whether this amazing memory contains clues from that fatal night. He agrees to try. It’s an intriguing possibility, with loads of implications.

Detective Inspector Rebecca Kent is assigned to James’s case, and because her old friend, retired Detective Inspector Theodore Tate, worked the original case, she gets in touch. He’s now working as a technical advisor for true crime television shows, and Cleave nicely portrays the rise in true crime ‘entertainments’, the dark side of the audience obsession and the shamelessness of the media.

Cleave has a special talent for misdirection, which you don’t fully appreciate until near the book’s end, when several investigations start to come together most satisfactorily. Kent and Tate share one serious concern, that the men who killed James’s parents will come back to finish the job.

Rebecca Kent and Theodore Tate are solidly written characters. Hazel and James’s relationship is especially close, a cup of kindness in a vat of cruelty. James and his prodigious abilities form a completely believable, highly sympathetic character. And, along the way, numerous minor characters are given enough detail for plausibility. Maybe the bad guys are a bit too irredeemable, though that merely raises the stakes. This is a fast-moving, engaging story that has something to say and is hard to put down.

Read more:
The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases, by Deborah Halber – “Part whodunit, part sociological study . . . The result is eminently entertaining.”

Winter Tales

Maybe you think the best books to read in January are set in the South Seas or maybe Australia where it’s high summer.

But if a book which a chilly setting or subject is more your cup of tea, here are a few good ones.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson – I just got around to reading this last month and while it probably has lost a bit of its shock value in the sixty-plus years since it was published, it is still full of chills. A group of would-be paranormal investigators plans to spend a week at the notorious, isolated Hill House. It seems, at least to the psychologically vulnerable among them, that the house has other plans, . Most delightful is the lead investigator’s oblivious wife. The link is to the book. I did not see the TV series.

The Surfacing by Cormac James – In 1850, the ship Impetus sailed north of Greenland to rescue men lost while searching for the Northwest Passage. The dangers of the expedition are apparent to the Impetus’s second-in-command, yet the Captain is determined to push on. This literary fiction tale is an adventure story and one, in which every character is tested to the limit. If your personal heroes include Admiral Richard Byrd and Ernest Shackleton, you’ll love this! And you’ll need a sweater.

Five Decembers by James Kestrel – No surprise that a book with this title leads you into an epic snow-filled journey. This award-winner starts out pleasantly enough, in Hawai`i, but, alas it is 1941. The life of Honolulu police detective Joe McGrady is upended when a murder investigation takes him to Hong Kong right at the time Pearl Harbor is attacked. Captured by the Japanese, he must figure out how to survive in extraordinary circumstances. A 2022 best book of the year.

If you’re looking to warm yourself in front of the electronic fire with a good movie, you might like 2017’s Wind River. It tracks the investigation into the strange death of a young woman from Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation (Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes)—the same part of the country as the Longmire series, another favorite. DVD from Amazon.

So, What’s Santa Reading?

Santa Claus, reading

Santa has eclectic tastes in literature, but confesses to a soft spot for stories about Christmas, especially the ones about himself. Well, who wouldn’t?

Death on a Winter Stroll

Reading Death on a Winter Stroll, the new holiday mystery by Francine Mathews, seventh in a series, would be perfect for S. Claus. In December, Nantucket Island’s popular restaurants and shops are brightly lit and open for business, pine and potpourri scent the air, Santa arrives in a Coast Guard cutter, and residents and tourists alike join in the three-day Christmas Stroll.

Stroll Season is about to start, and this year, two sets of visitors warrant special attention. First, the US Secretary of State, her husband, and his twenty-three-year-old son. The second, much larger group comprises cast and crew of a new streaming television series. Hollywood stars, fawning diplomatic assistants, old friends and new loves—in short, a delicious cast of characters.

You’re very aware of the ocean here, grey and enticing, wind and white caps. At times, it’s as easy to get around by boat as by car. (Santa does.) So, how did a murderer find his way to the cottage of a reclusive woman photographer, and why did he kill her? When a second murder occurs, this one among the Hollywood contingent, the two deaths appear completely unconnected. But are they? Take heart, police chief Meredith Folger is on the job.

The story moves along briskly with plenty of local color and numerous plot twists. It just goes to show that people who spend their lives looking at the world through the lens of a camera—not just the dead woman, but the film people as well—sometimes miss things just out of frame. A fun, quick read, perfect for stuffing Christmas stockings! Order right here with my Amazon affiliate link.

The Santa Klaus Murder

A British Library Crime Classic, The Santa Klaus Murder by Mavis Doriel Hay, was first published in 1936 and has all the comfy hallmarks of a traditional English country-house mystery—rural setting, large cast of slightly uneasy family members, unwelcome holiday visitors, and the dead body of the wealthy patriarch, Sir Osmond Melbury. It’s complicated, and, sorry, Santa, you appear to have committed the deed. Or at least someone dressed like you may have. Motives galore. It’s up to Chief Constable Halstock to figure out where everyone was at the time of the murder and why some of them are lying. Order here with my Amazon affiliate link.

Architect of Courage

Santa also encourages you to read (and give!) one of his favorite books of 2022, Architect of Courage. “It’s perfect for people who like mysteries and thrillers,” he says, “and on those long winter nights up at the North Pole, we need good, solid entertainment!” Amazon affiliate link here.

Big Easy, Big Stories

The familiar traveler’s dilemma—what books to pack?—was easily solved for a recent trip to New Orleans. I had already set aside two ideal reads: my friend Tracie Provost’s New Orleans-based Under the Harvest Moon (book two in her under the moon series) and a collection of short stories about the Crescent City published by Akashic. As it turned out, both were entertaining late-evening companions.

Under the Harvest Moon

Tracie Provost’s books are packed with paranormal events, with vampires and werewolves and mages. Not at all the kind of book I usually read, so kind of thrilling as a result. Provost is so skilled at creating a consistent world for her unusual characters, with their unusual talents, that I’m never caught up short, thinking “Wait a minute . . .” Her heroine is Juliette de Grammont, a healer and a magic-using vampire, who had been staked for centuries and only recently revived. Still a young beautiful woman, Juliette’s occasionally dated ideas and struggles with technology amuse her millennial assistant, Jaime.

When the story begins, a New Orleans police detective who understands Juliette’s special powers calls her in to analyze a crime scene where a vampire and his girlfriend are both dead in a ritual killing. What has taken place, who is doing it, and why become more mysterious and more important as the number of killings increase.

There’s intrigue among the various covens in the city. Juliette’s coven has been reduced to her and Jaime, as its other members recently staged an unsuccessful coup against the City’s Grandmaster. A few from her coven were killed, but most are still out there . . . somewhere . . . As the risks mount and the evil motivation behind the killings gradually emerges, Juliette and her lover Josh must look for help from unusual sources—including the pack of werewolves living outside the city—for protection and help.

Provost makes the interactions among the characters quite real, almost ordinary—well, almost. She makes them eminently practical. For example, there’s someone they can call who comes with an after-crime clean-up team (he used to work for Al Capone) in order to hide various crimes. In fact, there’s a whole group of mages whose job it is to keep the paranormal world secret—the Gatekeepers. Even select members of the NOPD are in on it.

When you finish Under the Harvest Moon, you can be sure there’s a Book 3 on the way, and will await it eagerly! (You may want to use one of my affiliate links to find it on Amazon, as several books have this title.)

New Orleans Noir: The Classics

This collection, edited by Julie Smith, is a bit different than the usual Akashic collection, in that the 18 stories are not all contemporary. In fact, the earliest is from 1843. They include entries from revered authors like O.Henry, Eudora Welty, and Tennessee Williams, as well as modern masters like James Lee Burke and Ace Atkins.

Overall, they provide a rich portrait of the city, its contrasts and its corruptions, its amusements and its shenanigans, as seen through these different eyes, with their very different, if precise ways of seeing. Quite a nice collection!

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.