Reading in the Time of Covid

chalk outline, body

A new approach to book reviews: In the past, I’ve reviewed almost every book I’ve read. My thought was that even a so-so review could be helpful to you. The aspects that bothered me might not be issues for you. And, if they are, then a lackluster review might save you the time and trouble of delving into a book you probably won’t like. Going forward from September 2020, I’m abandoning that approach. If you see a book here, it’s because I do recommend it.

Since my last book review post on April Fool’s Day, I’ve read at least 40 books and listened to a dozen more. Many of them were crime fiction, and full reviews on CrimeFictionLover.com are linked below. Click the book title for my Amazon affiliate link. Here’s the first three among the very best, in print. Audio on Thursday.

Rules for Perfect Murders

In this entertaining novel, Peter Swanson has concocted the perfect plot for lovers of classic mysteries. Malcolm Kershaw, the widowed part-owner of Boston’s Old Devils Bookstore wrote a blog post some years ago that described what he considered the best depictions of ‘the perfect murder.’

Now, it seems, someone has taken up his challenge and is recreating those scenarios. Or are they? Is he a suspect or the next potential victim? Desperate for answers, he launches his own investigation and, as the pages fly by, you’ll find there’s more to this bibliophile than you may have assumed. Read my full review here.

Little Altar Boy

John Guzlowski’s riveting new police procedural takes you back to the time before sustained pressure on the Catholic Church brought to light its widespread and systemic problem of child sexual abuse. It’s the late 1960s, in the post-Christmas dark night of winter, and Chicago police detective Hank Purcell is at home, waiting for his 19-year-old daughter Margaret. She has new friends, new habits, and new attitudes, none of which make him happy.

Hank and his partner are trying to resolve not one, but two compelling dilemmas: they’re clearly outraged by the evidence of child abuse among the clergy, but, while they’re trying to save the world’s altar boys, what about Hank’s own child, beset by a whole different class of predator? Hank’s wife Hazel is a useful foil for the two detectives, pressing for handling Margaret’s situation differently. But it seems there are no right answers; each course of action threatens consequences more chilling than the wind blasting off Lake Michigan. Full review here.

Nine Tenths of the Law

This literary crime thriller by Claudia Hagadus Long is part treasure hunt, part family story, part romance, part tragic history woven together in a complicated plot through the strong voice of the story’s sympathetic narrator, Zara Persil-Pendleton. At a Manhattan museum show, Zara and her sister Lilly spot a menorah the Nazis stole from their family many years before. Lilly wants it back.

The women embark on an ill-conceived plot to obtain it, which leads them into some sticky situations. At first these are awkward and funny, but gradually, they become potentially dangerous. Zara, with all her on-point observations and clever asides will keep you amused and interested. Long strikes a nice balance between describing Zara’s inner conflicts and maintaining the action of the story. My Crime Fiction Lover review is here.

Armchair Adventures

In case you wonder what the *** mean in my reviews, there’s a key on the book reviews page. They’re a good guide to how much I liked a book—since my reviews leave open the possibility a read I found meh might suit someone else perfectly.

****The Dead Don’t Sleep
By Steven Max Russo—It has taken five decades for the long arm of retribution to reach halfway around the world and tap the shoulder of Frank Thompson. Today, Frank is a recent widower living in rural Maine, and he doesn’t talk about Vietnam, but the buddies of the American he shot there so many years ago have found him.

The three men are full of plans for tracking him down, and for the massive, highly illegal firepower needed for this mission, one fueled with alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine. They’re all about Frank’s age, nearly 70, which is a stretch. I can imagine guys in their twenties and even thirties talking themselves into such a crazy plan. Yet the author makes clear the years haven’t added to these guys’ store of common sense or muted their violent tendencies.

From his home in New Jersey, Frank’s nephew Bill knows about the danger and wants to help. He has zero experience with the kinds of situations Frank has seen, and his indecision alone is enough to tell you he’d be a liability in any kind of showdown. “Stay home!” I kept telling Bill telepathically. He doesn’t listen.

This is Steven Max Russo’s second thriller. He’s an advertising executive and lives in New Jersey, which accounts for his solid descriptions of life here in the Garden State.

*****The Wild One
By Nick Petrie – This is Nick Petrie’s fifth thriller featuring PTSD-afflicted Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran Peter Ash, and it retains all the energy of his earlier works. Ash’s old war-buddy seeks his help in locating an eight-year-old boy, who disappeared a year earlier from his Washington, DC, home, after witnessing his mother’s murder. The kidnapper is most likely the boy’s own father, the presumed killer, and he’s most hiding out with his tight-knit family in remote northern Iceland.

The mother, Sarah, ran a computer security business. On a client’s servers, she discovered career-ending evidence of criminality among Washington’s political class. She sets up a mirror server with an unbreakably long encryption key preserved in only one form, in the photographic memory of her son Óskar. The bad guys want it.

Ash has plenty of antagonists, aside from his internal demons. There’s the mysterious crew following him: do they want him to find Eric and Óskar? Or not? There is Erik’s paranoid extended family, not averse to ensuring their privacy with violence. There is the head of the Icelandic Hjálmar, relentless in trying to bring Peter in. But perhaps his greatest adversary is Iceland’s brutal, dead-of-winter weather. A more apt metaphor would be difficult to find. So, throw on a couple of sweaters, make yourself a cup of something hot, and settle in for a wild ride.

If there’s anything to object to in Petrie’s work, it’s a tendency to reach a little too far in the closing pages. In this book, a final act of violence puzzled me, because it came out of the blue. But that wasn’t enough to negate everything solid that had gone before. Do note that Ash is now a wanted man and has no passport or I.D. It will be interesting to see how he gets back to Oregon. I’m hoping Petrie plans to tell me.

Photo: Sasint Tipchai for Pixabay

*****The Murder of Harriet Monckton

poison, bottle Arek Socha for Pixabay

By Elizabeth Haynes – If you have people on your holiday gift list who are fans of historical mysteries, this might be just the book for them! Author Elizabeth Haynes stumbled across a trove of documents in the UK’s National Archives relating to an obscure mid-1840s murder in the (then) small town of Bromley, a few miles southeast of London. The coroner’s jury verdict was delayed several years because of the case’s numerous uncertainties and the plethora of suspects.

Haynes uses those uncertainties to create a fictional story that begins from the certain knowledge that on 6 November 1843, Harriet Monckton took or was administered poison, died, and her body stowed in the privy behind the Congregational Chapel. When the next day she’s noted as missing, a search ensues. Even before her body is found, multiple efforts are under way to mislead, mischaracterize, and otherwise frustrate any inquiries.

The story is imagined from the points of view of several real-life people, chief among them: Harriet’s friend, the schoolteacher Frances Williams; Reverend George Verrall, her confidant; Thomas Churcher, a shoemaker in love with her; and Richard Field, Harriet’s former mentor and lover, now married and living in London. Verrall and Churcher are the more obvious suspects, though if a wider net were cast, Williams and Field or even Field’s wife and Churcher’s ex-fiancée might be suspected.

Each of these characters provides an account of their association with Harriet—both in response to the coroner’s questioning and in their private thoughts. It’s a Rashomon-like treatment, with each not only seeing the sketchy facts in different ways, but recounting them to their best advantage. Haynes gives each a distinct voice and point of view, not all admirable. Her slightly old-fashioned writing style helps transport you to the era. All of their views, however revelatory, are one step removed from Harriet herself, but you finally do hear from her directly when Frances reads her diary.

Haynes’s Bromley is completely convincing, as are the reactions of the residents as one secret after another is revealed and as some secrets manage to remain hidden. As the author says, “The impact on my life has been profound, to the extent that I feel as if I have inhabited Bromley in 1843 myself.” I felt it too. Even though the book’s events took place a long time ago, the tension was fresh.

Harriet is a character who isn’t so much described as assembled. Like the build-up of daubs of paint that produce a portrait, Haynes’s text-clues allow you, eventually, to see the dead woman, with all her flaws and vibrancy, as she was in life.

Photo: Arek Socha for Pixabay

Last Books Read in 2019

magician, assistant

***Cairo Modern

Written by Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, translated from the Egyptian by William M. Hutchins. This story of how an unscrupulous college graduate gets his comeuppance captures a bygone time in the city and culture. Originally published in 1945, it’s more interesting than entertaining.

*****The Magician’s Assistant

I hadn’t heard of this 1997 book by Ann Patchett, but thankfully another tourist left it behind. It was captivating, start to finish and not the first book I’ve read lately about people involved in creating illusions. Sabine’s magician-husband, a gay man named Parsifal, has died, and soon she learns he’d made up his backstory. Grief-stricken, she tries to connect with his real history. Amazon link.

*****Inland

Téa Obreht’s new book is just great, and she vividly captures the essence and rhythms of America’s Old West. In a lawless, drought-stricken Arizona, a family struggles with the politics of water. Meanwhile, several states east, some bright individual in the US Army decides to import camels to use as pack animals—an experiment with unexpected consequences. Amazon link.

****The Oxford Murders

Billed as “a scholarly whodunit,” this novel by Guillermo Martínez, set in England, provides numerous puzzles for its mathematician protagonists to decipher in order to stop a serial killer. A lot of fun. Amazon link.

***Sharp Objects

Gillian Flynn’s 2006 debut novel is a page-turner, though you may guess early on who’s killing children in the tiny Missouri home town of the protagonist, Chicago reporter Camille Preaker. Camille has spent time in psychiatric care because she carves words into her body, and I found her experience with that even more engrossing than the mystery!

Photo: Enrique Meseguer for Pixabay

****The Honorary Jersey Girl

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By Albert Tucher – Al Tucher returns to the Big Island of Hawai`i in this fast-paced adventure that shows how, underneath the tropical paradise veneer, the mai-tais and the surf, you find the same criminal proclivities everywhere.

Criminal defense attorney Agnes Rodrigues has successfully defended her client Hank Alves against a charge of murder, but apparently not everyone accepts the verdict. Now someone is trying to kill him. And because the murder victim was a cop’s wife, it may be the loyal brothers in blue.

Rodrigues is convinced of Alves’s innocence—he’s too lame to commit an actual murder. He needs protection, and she knows where to find it. She flies ten hours across the country to New Jersey to try to persuade Diana Andrews, a former high-end prostitute who now runs a top-notch personal security business, to take the case. But Andrews turns the job down. She’s had dangerous encounters in Hawai`i in the past—two, in fact—and won’t go near the place. But she does offer to send two of her operatives.

The trio arrives at the remote ranch where Rodrigues has stashed Alves and start work. Before long, there’s another attempt to kill him, a long-distance rifle shot that barely misses. The police arrive to investigate, but get nowhere. It’s clear that protecting Alves will depend on identifying who really murdered the woman. Rodrigues suspects her policeman husband.

This would be an entertaining book to take on a Hawaiian vacation, in real life or the armchair variety. The number of towns and locales where this investigation takes Rodrigues and crew is like a travelogue. Tucher’s characters are confronted with significant logistical difficulties and road hazards—smoldering lava, deep gorges, torrential rain that turns unpaved roads to mud fields—but his easygoing writing style moves them along smoothly.

Information that Don Savage has been investigated by internal affairs for shaking down prostitutes starts Rodrigues and crew on the trail of a different motive and reveals a much larger crime in the background. Then the body of a prostitute washes up near the town of Kalapana, and Diana Andrews can help after all, mining her contacts within the relatively small sorority of high-end escorts.

This is a short book (only 129 pages), and I can’t say more about its fast-paced plot without revealing too much. Despite its brevity—another feature that makes for great vacation reading—it’s filled with colorful characters who reflect the diversity of Hawaiians’ ethnic and cultural backgrounds. And how does Rodrigues become an honorary Jersey Girl, itself practically another ethnicity? Like anything else gets done these days: connections.

Photo: Emilia, creative commons license

****Pieces

package, box

By Michael Aloisi and Rebecca Rowland – Serial killer Dennis Sweeney had a really bad idea: kill a young woman, divide her into parts, and mail them to 30 randomly selected, unsuspecting people all across the United States. Who doesn’t like a surprise package? There’s 30 people in this novel who would never open another one.

Sweeney sends an anonymous letter to over-the-hill reporter Jackson Matthews, whom he admires, describing what he’s done and proving it with pictures. He invites Jax to cover the story, “to be the voice of my actions.”

If all the pieces of the girl are found, Sweeney promises to turn himself in. If not? He says, “All the King’s horses and All the King’s men, will force me to start all over again.” Jax calls the police. It seems the letter isn’t a hoax, and reports of the macabre parcels begin to appear in the news media.

Bizarrely and, you may think, predictably, only eighteen of the grisly packages are turned in to the authorities. That’s 12 people who received a body part and did something else with it. The stories of what happened to these dozen packages make up most of the book. The authors treat those twelve chapters as short stories, with quirky back-stories for the recipients—character studies of people who, for wildly varied reasons, are incapable of the correct response. (Apparently none of them listen to the news to know there’s a bigger picture here.)

In between these stories are chapters that let you catch up with Jax and his efforts to identify Sweeney, and what else Sweeney is up to. The stakes increase dramatically when Sweeney threatens Jax’s wife, if the reporter doesn’t start writing about him. Early on Jax is approached by a young man who introduces himself as a police detective. Jax soon unmasks him as the creator of a serial killer website with lagging viewership who hopes the inside scoop on this story can renew its popularity. He claims to have an algorithm that can find the killer, and it certainly unearths some unsavory folk.

Between the chapters about the missing body parts, Jax’s investigations, and Sweeney’s story, past and present, the authors have a lot of balls to keep in the air, yet the tale is never confusing. I liked the diabolically varied missing pieces stories, although perhaps two or three fewer would have worked as well, as the rhythm of the chapters gets a little exhausting. On the whole, Pieces has a clever premise, innovative format, and quite capable writing that kept me engaged. Not for the faint of heart.

Photo: Jonathan, creative commons license.

****A Fool’s Journey

By Judy Penz Sheluk – A Fool’s Journey is the third cozy mystery in Canadian author Judy Penz Sheluk’s entertaining Marketville Mystery series. Protagonist Callie Barnstable has assembled an interesting team that works for Past and Present Investigations, to find missing persons.

Genealogical research is the domain of her friend Chantelle Marchand. Former librarian Shirley Harrington conducts online and archival research—if something was ever published, Shirley will track it down. Antique shop owner Arabella Carpenter is occasionally called upon to evaluate a client’s physical evidence, such as old letters, jewelry, and, in this story, tattoo art. Oddest member of the team is Misty Rivers, a tarot reader, who posts surprisingly popular insights drawn from tarot cards on the Past & Present website.

The team’s current case comes to Callie via what a gentle bribe. In her will, Callie’s great-grandmother has asked her to investigate the disappearance of Brandon Colbeck, grandson of great-grandma’s best friend in the nursing home. In 2000, 20-year-old Colbeck left home “to find himself,” taking very little with him and, significantly, leaving behind his identification. If Callie gives her search a good effort, regardless of whether she actually finds Colbeck, she’ll receive her great-grandmother’s legacy.

Over the years, Colbeck’s family has made numerous fruitless attempts to locate him. Nevertheless, they have agreed to cooperate with Callie as she gives it one last try. Their willingness arises in part from a recent telephone call Colbeck’s grandmother received from someone claiming to be the long-lost grandson. Was it Colbeck? Or a scam?

Brandon had a tattoo, which tarot expert Misty recognizes as a portion of the tarot card “The Fool.” Sheluk artfully weaves interesting information about tattooing, tattoo art, and tarot into her story, telling you what you need to know without hindering the action.

In her initial interviews, Callie is convinced each family member is holding out on her. With the help of her team, she determinedly goes about discovering these secrets with determination and considerable savvy and skill. In Callie, author Sheluk has created a competent, conscientious protagonist—the kind of super-responsible person her clients can entrust their secrets to. You learn her likes and dislikes, her strengths and weaknesses, how she spends her day. Sheluk’s clear writing style helps the plot and the discoveries move along briskly, and it’s fun to see how every team member makes her unique and valuable contribution to the investigation.

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.

****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.