A Feast for Book Lovers!

Last week, to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the New York Times Book Review, current staff and contributors presented an entertaining look back at books where reviewers got it dreadfully wrong and reviews that sparked particularly pointed letters to the editor.

Contemporary authors read scathing sections of reviews panning books now considered classics. Catch-22, reviewed in 1961, was deemed too long and too episodic—a collection of incidents, not a coherent novel. Though the reviewer of Anne of Green Gables considered her “one of the most extraordinary girls to ever come out of an ink pot,” she was deemed far too clever, well-spoken, and much too wise. (That’s why we readers loved her!) Fahrenheit 451, reviewed in 1953, was dismissed as a polemic. The reviewer believed Ray Bradbury had “developed a hatred for many aspects of current life,” and showed what would eventually happen if the tendency to treat reading as a heinous event went unchecked.

Book Review editor Tina Jordan called the letters the review has received “the Internet message board of their day,” containing praise, complaints, grievances, and corrections. In one from 1962, an author pointed out a mistake in the review, and the reviewer agreed she’d mis-read something (a bit unfathomably when they read us the disputed passage). Norman Mailer was mentioned in the review of a book by a different author, and Mailer wrote to dispute the comparison and in the process, assuring that more people heard about the controversy.

Best was Jack London’s response to a 1905 review that criticized the “unrealistic” fight scenes in his short story, “The Game.” A devoted boxing fan and amateur boxer himself, London felt obliged to respond, saying, “I have had these experiences and it was out of these experiences, plus a fairly intimate knowledge of prize-fighting in general, that I wrote The Game.” So there!

The 1986 novel in verse, The Golden Gate, by Vikram Seth, received only condescending praise from its reviewer, which instigated a fiery letter from Susan Sontag, who called it “a thrilling, subtle literary achievement.” Clearly, opinions differ.

This month, the Book Review will be publishing its list of finalists for the best book of the past 125 years—and you can nominate your favorite here! Meanwhile, you can read reviews and interviews selected from the Review’s amazing archives. The Book Review’s anniversary celebration isn’t ignoring the crime/mystery/thriller genre. Included in its retrospective content—linked above—are a 1912 review of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and commentary from over the years on such classics as Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Ellery Queen’s The Dutch Shoe Mystery, Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, and, one of my favorite books, not technically a crime novel, but filled with crimes, high and low—Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. A feast for book lovers!

I Saw It at the Movies

Bernie

My original impetus for seeing Richard Linklater’s 2012 movie Bernie (trailer) was that at least some of it was filmed in Smithville, an east Texas town named after my great great grandfather, William Smith (as was Smithville, Mississippi). Smithville is in Bastrop County, where a lot of movies made in Texas are filmed. Add to that, it’s based on a true crime My interest was piqued.

Cleverly filmed like a Cold Case documentary, it uses interviews with the principals and various townspeople to gradually build up the story. Many of them are outrageously hilarious.

Jack Black does an impressive portrayal of the small town’s genial, much-loved assistant funeral director, Bernie Tiede. Reviewer Roger Ebert said his performance “proves that an actor can be a miraculous thing in the right role.” Out of compassion or greed (depends who’s talking), Bernie takes up with a truly nasty elderly woman (Shirley MacLaine), and is accused of murdering her. Bernie’s nemesis is ambitious district attorney Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey), determined to prosecute, no matter what the townspeople think about the crime. These are the kinds of roles where you can go over-the-top, and the cast does.

Rotten Tomatoes’ critics rating: 88%; audiences: 73%.

The Lost Leonardo

Here’s a story rife with ideas for crime writers! The documentary follows the trail of a painting purchased in 2005 from a New Orleans auction house for $1,175 (trailer). After restoration, it was believed (by some) to be the much-copied “Salvator Mundi” by Leonardo da Vinci. Twelve years later, carrying that identity, it sold at auction for $450,300,000. Now presumed to have been bought by Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, some believe it’s headed for Louvre Abu Dhabi.

The Scandinavian documentarians, led by director Andreas Koefoed, never come to a conclusion about the work’s authenticity—how could they, when the art world remains so sharply divided?

However, it’s the middle of the story in which events become as murky as the overpainting of the possible masterpiece. In 2013, a Swiss art dealer, Yves Bouvier, purchased the painting for around $75 million and sold it to a Russian oligarch  for $127.5 million. The oligarch was displeased with Bouvier’s mark-up and sued. Interestingly, Bouvier ran an international company that specialized in the transportation and storage of art works, luxury goods, and other collectibles, and is currently under investigation in several countries. He exploited the concept of freeports, which rent space (and services) to art collectors and museums. These facilities are outside the control of customs and taxing officials and have come under increasing scrutiny for their possible role in the trafficking of looted Syrian artifacts, tax evasion, and money-laundering.

At present, no one knows for sure where the painting is. Some investigators believe it is in storage in one of Bouvier’s never-neverland storage facilities. Others, that it’s on bin Salman’s yacht. No one knows for sure. Prepare to be astonished!

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 97%; audiences: 80%.

The Lost City of the Monkey God

Deep in the Mosquitia region of Honduras—an area of steep mountains and impenetrable jungle—is some of earth’s most remote and still-unexplored mysteries. Yet within this forbidding area, according to legend, lay the abandoned White City, The Lost City of the Monkey God.

Act 1

Over decades, various expeditions had tried to find the city, mostly using the rivers and their many tributaries, without notable success. In 2012, aircraft equipped with laser-guided Light Detection and Ranging technology (LIDAR) become available. LIDAR could penetrate the jungle canopy for the first time and its images revealed a city’s-worth of  plazas and structures. At ground level, these were invisible, fully camouflaged by dense overgrowth. Finally, an expedition could be mounted whose destination was more than guesswork.

Thriller writers will recognize the author of this true-life adventure, Douglas Preston, as the author with Lincoln Child of the Prendergast and Gideon series of suspense novels, as well as a number of stand-alones. His first love was science, and as a journalist, he’s covered archaeology, paleontology, and other -ologies. The first work of his I read was The Monster of Florence, the true crime story of a serial killer and the case’s botched prosecution. Its invaluable insights about the Italian legal system informed my thriller set in Rome.

A long-time acquaintance, the filmmaker and adventurer Steve Elkins, invited Preston to participate in the Honduran exploration team. Due to limits on the availability of helicopters to transport the team and their supplies in and out, they had only a very few days on site. Although they managed to clear away no more than a small portion of the dense jungle, the LIDAR findings were validated.

With the full backing of and (one hopes) ongoing site security from the Honduran government, discoveries are still there to be made. The book conveys the team’s profound thrill of discovery as they faced drenching rains, freeze-dried meals, jaguars prowling outside their tents at night, and an encounter with a six-foot fer-de-lance, the most deadly snake in the Americas.

Act 2

Unbeknownst to several members of the team, once they scattered to their home communities, they were on the cusp of a new and undesirable adventure. One by one, they began to suffer mysterious physical symptoms. In Preston’s case, it was a bug bite that wouldn’t heal. It was painless, so he ignored it until he learned others were having problems too. U.S. doctors rarely see tropical diseases, so it took some time for diagnoses to coalesce around leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease acquired from the bite of an infected sandfly. The way the disease manifests in different individuals—and their responses to the available treatments, such as they are—vary widely. They may never be free of it.

This part of the experience allowed Preston to explore the significance of infectious diseases in human society and the inevitability (this was written in 2017) of pandemics, past and future. It wasn’t a prediction about our present situation, but a useful reminder. Because of global warming, the natural range of vectors like sandflies is expanding steadily northward. Scattered cases of leishmaniasis are now being found in Texas and Oklahoma, and these are not associated with travel to endemic areas.

The Lost City of the Monkey God is about exciting discoveries in a region whose perils were more numerous than expected. An engrossing and worthwhile read, it was widely regarded as one of the best books of 2017.

Photo: StanVPeterson for Pixabay

My Friends Write!

Despite Covid, my friends who are writers are coming out with new books, but with fewer—or at least vastly different—strategies to let us know about them. I’ve joined any number of their ZOOM and Facebook book launches, followed their social media announcements, and read their marketing emails. By and large, these strategies are interesting and not totally satisfying. Better than nothing, I suppose, if frustrating for them.

Here are three recent books by writer friends not reviewed here before. Dick Belsky and Al Tucher I know from crime writing conferences and events sponsored by the New York chapter of Mystery Writers of America. I haven’t met PA De Voe in person, but we’ve bonded over a shared passion for Robert van Gulik’s Tang Dynasty magistrate, Judge Dee Goong An. I mentioned James McCrone’s new political thriller yesterday. Click on the book’s title for my Amazon affiliate link.

The Last Scoop

RG Belsky is a former New York City newsman who’s turned his intimate knowledge of the city and its characters into a number of engaging crime novels. In this story, harried Channel 10 news director Clare Carlson is in the middle of both a puzzling murder story and a potential exposé of city political shenanigans. In following clues left by her late mentor, she gradually uncovers what would have been his last scoops: a previously unrecognized serial killer on the loose and a pattern of mob payoffs. Clare is a bull in a china shop, but she has a powerful, self-deprecating sense of humor, and the demands of the daily news cycle keep her plowing forward at speed. Read my full review here.

Pele’s Domain

A novella set in Hawai`i is almost too appealing. This new story by Al Tucher brings the lore, the multicultural mix, the unique foods, and the island attitude front and center once again. Pele, the volcano goddess, is acting up, and the volcano that’s her home, Kilauea, is erupting spectacularly.

For residents of the raggedy communities in the path of the searing lava, the eruptions are more deadly hazard than spectacle. Trees, houses, cars—all incinerated. Perfect places to hide a couple of murders. The ironic contrast between tropical paradise and dirty dealing in Tucher’s novels is always fun and, here, Kilauea itself is added to the detectives’ adversaries. Read my full review here.

Judge Lu’s Case Files

If a Hawaiian escape isn’t quite distant enough, go back to Ming Dynasty China where PA De Voe channels what must be an earlier incarnation to write with such authenticity her novels and short stories set in that period.

The twelve short stories in this collection have straightforward plots, partly a result of their length and party the reality that cases in that era had to be wrapped up in a day or two. Plus, miscreants were expected to confess, and “encouraged” to do so by their jailers.

Although the stories take place more than 600 years ago, they provide timeless insights into human behavior. Read my full review here.

Other People’s Problems

Reading

Memoir is not my favorite genre, but lately I’ve read a couple of interesting ones—about a misbegotten woman and an idolized father—and two nonfiction stories about the trials of war, one with a happy ending, one not.

****Celibacy: A Love Story
By Mimi Bull – The book’s subtitle as the punchline, “Memoir of a Catholic Priest’s Daughter.” As a child in a world of secrets, she was adopted by an older woman and her twenty-something daughter. It doesn’t surprise that her “sister” turns out to be her mother. Only after the mother dies does Mimi learn who her father was. Despite the lack of suspense, the book is fascinating. The adult Mimi and her husband lived in Istanbul, in Sedona, in Vienna. A unique story, charmingly told.

**The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit
By Lucette Lagnado – I heard about this book while I was in Egypt, a country that once had a significant Jewish population, until Egyptian President Nasser forced them to leave. To the child Lucette, Cairo and her family’s apartment were paradise, and her father was king. When they are exiled, a Jewish aid agency finds them a disreputable lodging in Paris and an unsatisfactory apartment in New York. Lucette’s father’s business is murky; in New York, he sells fake Italian neckties. The family hates its new life. Lucette blindly adored her father, but I cannot tell you why.

****Escape from Paris
By Stephen Harding – This is the true story of a group of American airmen shot down over France and the complicated escape routes the French set up for them. Danger is on all sides. One of the safe houses is right under the nose of the Nazis, in the apartment of the caretaker of the Hôtel des Invalides, site of Napoleon’s tomb. Very exciting!

***The 21
By Martin Mosebach – As the cover proclaims, this is “a journey into the land of Coptic martyrs.” On February 15, 2015, twenty-one young Egyptian men, ISIS captives, were marched onto a beach in Libya and beheaded. The video recording of that event went around the world. What was most striking was the dignity and faith they maintained until the end. The author sets out trying to learn about them, their home villages, and the faith that supported them. A bit philosophical for me, but I read it to pay my respects.

3 Top-Notch Foreign Crime Novels

High-velocity plots and gritty characters typify American and British crime thrillers. Yet, this style is an artistic (and marketing) choice, not a precondition for gripping fiction.

Here are three recent crime novels from Nigeria, Argentina, and India that I enjoyed tremendously that stand up to the US/UK’s best. 

*****My Sister, the Serial Killer

By Oyinkan Braithwaite – For a book about violent death and two sisters’ efforts to cover it up, this entertaining fiction debut from Nigerian writer Oyinkan Braithwaite is remarkably full of life.

You can’t help but be charmed by the narrator Korede, who early on in her tale provides this advice: “I bet you didn’t know that bleach masks the smell of blood.” It’s a lesson she’s learned the hard way, covering up her sister Ayoola’s crimes now three times. The sisterly bond is more than the glue in this story; ultimately it is its subject.

Braithwaite infuses her narrative with insights into the culture, not only of Lagos, Nigeria, where the story is set, but also of the hospital where Korede works—the rivalries among the women staff and the administrators who do not lead. There’s not a shred of meanness in any of this, and much of it is quite funny.

Braithwaite’s light touch when exploring serious matters and the extraordinary honesty of the writing prompted numerous media outlets to name it one of the best books of last year, garnered it a 2019 Booker Prize nomination, and a made it a finalist for the 2019 Women’s Prize, among other honors. Best of all, it’s fun! Order it here. 

*****The Fragility of Bodies

By Sergio Olguín and translated by Miranda France – This award-winning Argentine novelist’s fast-paced 2012 crime novel is only now available in English. With all the elements of an engaging, visually arresting drama, no wonder it became an eight-episode tv series in 2017. The protagonist is a crusading reporter who acts with dedication and truth-telling, and if you enjoy the banter and oneupsmanship of the newsroom, as I do, you’ll find those scenes entertaining indeed.

Glamorous investigative journalist Verónica Rosenthal lives a privileged life in Buenos Aires. She’s pursued by attractive men, has loads of friends, drinks and smokes too much, but she’s serious about her investigative work. As a character, she’s fully developed, as are most of the men she interacts with, old and young, and there are some steamy sex scenes.

A wire service blurb about the suicide of a railway worker captures her attention when it quotes the man’s apology for the crimes he committed, especially the death of a child. Was the letter a confession or an explanation? Suicide by train is rather common, she learns. The drivers of the killer trains see the catastrophe coming, yet are helpless to prevent it. Some can never drive again.

Worse, on one specific train line, pairs of young boys are playing chicken with the speeding trains, and, occasionally, one waits too long to jump out of the way. Olguín makes the boys’ contests—how they think about them, how they prepare—into high-tension, truly horrifying encounters, and the closer Verónica gets to the truth behind this diabolical game, the greater the danger to her.

The admirable translation by Miranda France is so smooth, you’re never aware it actually is a translation. An unusual, brilliant read. Order it here.

*****Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous

By Manu Joseph – When an apartment building collapses in Mumbai, the lone survivor is a man filled with regrets, and complicated efforts are under way to extricate him from the rubble. The catastrophe coincides with the election victory of a conservative Hindu nationalist party, and the influence of politics on the characters in the past and in the current emergency is never far away.

Author Joseph is known for his biting political satires, and the significance of this book is enhanced by his sly observations about the state of Indian politics. (If you read Dexter Filkins’s recent reporting in The New Yorker about the Modi government’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and actions, events in the novel will seem all-too possible.)  

The unknown man is alive, but confused and mumbling about a terrorist threat involving two people (but who?) headed somewhere (but where?) to carry out an attack (but what?). The intelligence forces see the need for drastic preventive action, but no one knows what that should be. Overreaction seems almost inevitable.

Joseph’s character descriptions are strong throughout, making it easy to appreciate the characters’ motivations, as well as the stresses of living in a culturally and religiously polarized society. Although he makes strong points, he’s not giving a lecture. He lets the story make his case. Joseph is a literary author who has won several awards for his previous novels and is a former columnist for the International New York Times. Order it here.

Picture: GDJ for Pixabay.

NETFLIX: Unbelievable

This Friday, September 13, Netflix begins its eight-episode mini-series Unbelievable based on a fascinating true crime story (trailer). Journalists T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong won a 2016 Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on how different police departments handled the uncertainties and ambiguities that arise in rape cases. And, in the book, they go into the long, sorry history of why women are so readily disbelieved.

Created and executive produced by screenwriter Susannah Grant, with novelists Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon, the series stars Toni Collette, Merritt Wever, and Kaitlyn Dever.

Miller and Armstrong found they still had more to say about the contrasting investigative approaches—one, involving a case that takes place near Seattle where a young woman’s story was disbelieved, and others, in the Denver suburbs, where police went to extraordinary lengths to tie together their investigations with those of other local departments. The authors report what they learned in the new book Unbelievable, an excellent, real-life police procedural.

Read my full review on CrimeFictionLover.com, see the mini-series, or read the book!

David Crosby: Remember My Name

This A J Eaton documentary (trailer), released so close in time to Echo in the Canyon, covers some of the same ground and personalities, but in a totally different way. Echo is about the musician-heavy Laurel Canyon area in a brief period of the mid-sixties. This film, by contrast, examines one man’s career and his musical and cultural influence over a lifetime, and it shares a fair amount of that music with you.

As to cultural influences, in a poignant coincidence, the film tells how Dennis Hopper modeled the character of Billy in the film Easy Rider on Crosby. It was bittersweet seeing clips from the film so soon after its star Peter Fonda died (a young Jack Nicholson too).

In the documentary, David Crosby says he’s 76 years old, has eight stents in his heart, diabetes, a liver transplant—in short, a load of health problems. “How is it you’re still alive?” he’s asked, when so many others are not. There’s no answer to that, and he doesn’t attempt one.

Yet he’s still making music, still releasing albums as recently as last year. He’s touring. His life is music. It’s too bad he shot himself in the foot so many times with his band mates in the Byrds, and Crosby Stills Nash, with and without Young. His behavior was terrible, but it was in Echo that he said point-blank that Stills, Nash, and Young dumped him “because I was an a——.” Subsequently, acrimony has repeatedly thwarted the group’s attempts to reassemble.

He doesn’t spare himself or make excuses. What emerges from the many hours of interviews with Cameron Crowe, who’s known the musician for 45 years, is compelling viewing. Jon Bream in the Minneapolis Star Tribune says, “Rarely have we seen such an unvarnished, unflattering and revealingly real portrait of a music star.”

Echo was dinged for not including Joni Mitchell (she came later, the filmmakers said), but you see plenty of her here. Crosby saw her perform in Florida and brought her to Los Angeles, but as with most of his relationships with women, theirs was fraught. He blames himself. In 1969, his girlfriend Christine Hinton was killed in an auto accident, and Graham Nash (if I remember correctly) said that after Crosby identified her body, he was never the same. Since 1987, he’s been married to Jan Dance.

Asked whether he has regrets, he admitted to big ones, mainly the wasted decade as a junkie, which led to lost music and lost potential. Time, he says, is the ultimate currency. “Be careful how you spend it.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 91%; audiences: 92%.

Revolution in the News

The American Revolution. The first one. Last week Joseph Adelman gave a talk at the wonderful (and, alas, soon to be moving out of our area) David Library of the American Revolution about his new book, Revolutionary Networks.

While much has been written about the importance of colonial-era newspapers and broadsides in spreading the word about the ideas and events of the American Revolution, no one before has paid as much attention to the printers actually responsible for producing them. Only a few were as well known or wealthy as Benjamin Franklin. Yet, though they were engaged in hard physical labor and not necessarily well educated, they straddled a unique place in society—one foot in the working class and the other in contact with the elite of their communities.

Much of what appeared in the newspapers of the day was recycled from other larger papers (a slow-motion form of “broadcasting”), some came from oral reports of townspeople, visitors, or sea captains, and some from written reports to the newspaper or obtained by it. Only the largest newspapers would employ journalists to go out and find stories. Oddly, in most towns, local news got short shrift. The number of local movers and shakers was so small, the local news was not news to them. The job of the printer was to decide which material from these sources to reprint and how much of it, and in that curatorial role, they played a significant part in spreading the arguments for independence and popularizing those ideas.

The Stamp Act, a significant British miscalculation, hit printers especially hard by taxing the paper they printed on. In case you wonder what the printers thought of it, the skull and crossbones version pictured gives a fair idea! A boss of mine would often repeat the maxim, “never alienate the man who buys ink by the barrel.” That is exactly what the British did, and the “the killing stamp” was circumvented every way possible.

Prior to the Boston Tea Party, the Sons of Liberty worked with local printers to encourage stories emphasizing how calm and orderly they were, a prescient public relations effort. Paul Revere rushed to Philadelphia with the story of the Tea Party, which prevented a similar occurrence in that city. The ship’s captain was given a choice: sail back to England with his tea or suffer the same fate as the East India Company’s ships in Boston. He sailed.

A final anecdote: you may recall that Benjamin Franklin advocated for creation of the U.S. Post Office. His goal wasn’t to facilitate personal correspondence, but to improve the circulation of newspapers, which he of course printed. So all those newsprint sales flyers that arrive in your mail? Annoying as they are? Going right into recycling? They are carrying out the original purpose of our postal service!

Adelman is an assistant professor of history at Framingham State University, among other posts.

****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