Rodolfo Walsh’s Last Case by Elsa Drucaroff

Weary of US politics? How about a peek at the way other countries handle political disputes? Argentina, for example. In this historical “true crime” novel by Argentine novelist and literature professor Elsa Drucaroff, translated from the Spanish by Slava Faybysh, fact and fiction overlap, reinforce, and illuminate each other.

In real life, as in the novel, Rodolfo Walsh was a well-known Argentinian writer of detective fiction and an investigative journalist. His career started in the politically tumultuous 1950s and continued for the two succeeding decades. He joined a militant underground group, the Montoneros, allied with the Peronists (“Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina”—that Peron family). The Montoneros appointed him their director of intelligence, and he was adept at ferreting out information to aid their cause. These activities and the militance of his daughter Maria Victoria (Vicki) made them regime targets. Walsh was eventually assassinated in 1977, the day after publishing his famously scathing Open Letter from a Writer to the Military Junta, criticizing its economic policies.

Drucaroff weaves her novel around these facts and a compelling “what if?” What if, using his skills as a writer of detective stories, Walsh investigated the disappearance of his 26-year-old daughter himself? She, along with four men, were involved in a shoot-out with army troops—tanks and helicopter included—but in Drucaroff’s story, he is tantalized by differing reports of the number of bodies removed from the building and whether the woman involved was still alive when she was taken away. He has to track down the facts.

You can see why Walsh might want to shift his interest away from the Montoneros, who are prone to lengthy debates on Marxist principles (I hadn’t heard the phrase “dialectical materialism” in, I don’t know, decades?), and engage in a little practical action.

There’s danger in the air, and Walsh and his key contacts go about their business in increasing peril. In politically fraught stories, peopled by spies and secret police, you can never be absolutely sure which side a character is on, and Drucaroff has some surprises in store.

Drucaroff writes in a particular style, providing limited visual description. To keep the story moving, she places greater reliance on the significance of interactions among characters and their dialog. And move it does. It’s written in short segments—sometimes only a page or two until the point of view changes. From the early political arguments, where the story stalls a bit, to its acceleration with her cinematic cutting back and forth, the pace soon hurtles toward its dramatic climax.

Not a must-read, but an interesting and memorable look at another corner of the world we hear relatively little about.

CIA veteran David McCloskey’s New Thriller: Moscow X

Two years ago, David McCloskey hit it big with his debut espionage novel, Damascus Station. Hordes of readers, intelligence professionals, and critics alike praised its realism and lively, timely plot. His new book, Moscow X, is even better, with more than one pundit calling him “The new John Le Carré.”

There’s no point in suggesting the plot in anything other than broad brush strokes because, in the tradition of the best spy fiction, what’s happening on the surface, the day-to-day events, are only a small part of the picture. And probably misleading too. I saw this story as essentially about the interplay of three women, all three well characterized, committed, and worth rooting for. But vastly different agendas.

Outspoken and profane Artemis Aphrodite Procter is back, heading a new CIA unit called Moscow X whose aim is to undermine the Russian Federation and—yes, McCloskey names names—Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. Her unconventional approach to spycraft gives her a creative edge in this job and, naturally, keeps her skating on some pretty thin bureaucratic ice. Hortensia Fox is a CIA operative working at a London law firm that specializes in handling the assets of wealthy Russians. Calling herself Sia, she’s busily trolling for information and cultivating contacts. Anna Andreevna Agapova is a Russian FSB agent, member of a wealthy Russian family, and married to an even wealthier man she cannot stand, for good reason. The Agapova family is being systematically shut out of the government power structure and, as the story opens, a huge portion of its wealth is stolen at the behest of a Putin intimate. Anna and her father believe (or prefer to believe) this occurred outside Putin’s awareness, and they want their money back.

Procter, as much a fireball as ever, sees an opportunity for Sia to use this theft as an opening wedge that will lead to, well, who knows? Maybe getting the money back and maybe in a way that looks like a coup was in the works. If Putin hasn’t paid attention to the internecine warfare among his cronies, he cannot ignore an attempted coup. And would take dramatic, destabilizing action in response.

Procter’s team develops a rather charming ruse to get Anna and her husband, Vadim, in contact with the Western agents. Vadim and Anna live on a large horse farm outside Saint Petersburg. Sia offers a visit to an elegant Mexican horse farm, headed by Maximiliano Castillo—around Sia’s age and handsome—leaving out the critical detail that the farm has been a CIA front for decades. All Max and Sia need do is act like a couple and winkle their way into the Russians’ confidence, Anna’s at least, through the business of buying and selling and riding thoroughbreds. It becomes a clever cat-and-mouse game between Anna and Sia and your opinion of which is the cat and which the mouse will keep changing.

Difficulty piles onto difficulty. What makes this book such an exciting read is that, between the Russians’ impenetrable motivations and the Western agents’ complicated and shifting agendas, there is no end to the potential dangers Max and Sia and Anna face, with Procter wringing her hands back in Langley. Although all the characters’ actions make sense, according to their own visions of reality and self-interest, you nevertheless can’t predict what will happen when you turn the page. When your operative in a hostile country starts looking for a beam she can throw a noose over, you know the situation has reached a desperate point.

Oh, and did I mention it’s winter in Russia? Lots of snow. Snow everywhere. You can’t hide your tracks or your heat sig and, of course, those drones with their facial recognition technology are watching. When Max and Sia visit Anna, they know microphones and cameras are everywhere, even in the bedroom, so their being a couple has to seem real to those watchers—more challenging than it sounds.

McCloskey effectively evokes the paranoia and suspicion of the autocratic Russian state, in contrast to sunny San Cristobal. The author avoids most mention of the drug cartels, and you may wonder how the Castillo family keeps that brand of violence away from their barns and pastures, but so much bad stuff is going on—you’ll never miss it.

Order it here through my affiliate link.

Dead Drop

James L’Etoile’s award-winning crime thriller Dead Drop takes a 360-degree look at the intertwined issues of illegal immigration, drug and arms smuggling, and unfettered violence plaguing the southwest United States and the challenges they present law enforcement. After a career spent in the California penal system, L’Etoile has seen these problems play out first-hand. In this action-packed story, you do too.

When it comes to the illegal border crossers, Phoenix, Arizona, detective Nathan Parker tries vainly to hold on to the principle, “Yes, they’re desperate, but what they’re doing is against the law.” But when he’s faced with some of the realities the immigrants confront—and, ultimately, when he becomes an illegal border crosser himself—he starts not just to see, but to appreciate the other side of the story.

In this novel, the immigration issue has many troubling dimensions—fentanyl trafficking, rapacious coyotes, weapons galore, disregard for human life, and the spotty coordination of federal, state, and local efforts to combat any of these. The quest for personal and organizational glory makes inter-agency cooperation more difficult, as always.

While the U.S. Attorney is working to create an airtight case against the drug smugglers—a process that’s taking literally years—people are dying in real time. One of them was Parker’s long-time partner, a death for which Parker blames himself. A new lead appears when a cell phone number is found on a dead man. He’s one of four found in the desert, sealed up in 55 gallon oil drums. Parker’s encounter with the owner of that cell phone leads to his suspension from the force.

The barrels were discovered by Billie Carson, a woman living on the raggedy margins of society, scavenging whatever she can find abandoned in the desolate landscape. Billie has learned how to navigate a dysfunctional support system and, contrary to his expectations, Parker learns a lot from her. Suspended, he isn’t supposed to keep investigating any link to his partner’s shooting, but (of course) he does, and Billie and he may be at risk because of their connection with the bodies in the barrels.

Given all the players—criminals, law enforcement, bystanders, innocent or not—it’s a complicated plot with a lot of characters and a lot of agendas, much like real life, probably. L’Etoile writes convincingly about his law enforcement characters, and some have managed to maintain a sense of humor. Billie’s a solid female character, but several of the other women are less believable.

The way L’Etoile describes the unforgiving desert environment of northern Mexico and south Arizona, for many people and even for a time for Parker, it’s almost as much an enemy as the gun-toting coyotes smuggling people through the tunnels under the “impenetrable” U.S. border wall.

It’s a memorable story, and if you want to read more about this troubled area, I recommend Don Winslow’s The Cartel and Down by the River, riveting nonfiction by the late investigative reporter Charles Bowden.

Order here from Amazon (if you use these affiliate links, Amazon sends me a small payment):
Dead Drop
The Cartel
Down by the River

drugs, El Paso, Rio Grande, narcotraficantes, DEA, Border Patrol, Mexico, Texas
U.S. Border Patrol agents on the Rio Grande (photo: c1.staticflickr)

Conspiracy Theory Season

A new presidential election season is fast-approaching, and it would be timely to take a look at the American Electorate. The publication Military Times recently reminded me of a survey reported a decade ago that found 12.6 million Americans believed that “Lizard People” run the country. Reptilians are popular characters in science fiction and fantasy, going back decades. Time enough for people to distinguish fact from fiction, you’d think.

Also at that time, as reported in The Atlantic, 37 percent of Americans believed global warming was a hoax. (Time to re-ask that one.)

Conspiracy theories explain this confusing world in simplistic and sometimes bizarre ways. Some of them boost their appeal by pretending to secret knowledge, playing on alienated individuals’ desire to be “on the inside.” Think QAnon. In fact, one social psychologist has suggested that the smaller the group believing a specific theory, the more attractive it becomes. “You’re special,” the belief conveys.

Perhaps the difficulty is not what conspiracy theorists believe, but what they don’t believe. They don’t believe government and other leaders work in their best interests. This can morph into disbelieving any information from official channels—for example, that 20 children and six adults were killed at Sandy Hook, that COVID vaccines work. Loss of trust in social, political, and economic institutions has many causes, some quite compelling, which is why effective accountability efforts are so important. They are more than a response to a single incident; they preserve the integrity of the entire institution.

With the election looming, conspiracy theories are likely to blossom in classic and new forms. Sometimes these theories focus on supposed external enemies, and sometimes the enemies are within, like the lizard people. Americans who feel alienated and powerless are more likely to believe them, as a way of explaining why their lives feel out of their control (and it’s not their fault). Ironically, the result may be that they are less likely to take action to improve their situation, consigning themselves to lives of dissatisfaction.

Picture: SarahRichterArt for Pixabay

A Pair of Timely Thrillers

Let’s hope the political shenanigans James McCrone uncovers in Bastard Verdict stay squarely in the fictional realm, but, really . . . And Polly Stewart’s The Good Ones shows the warping power of true-crime obsessions.

Bastard Verdict by James McCrone
Thriller author James McCrone must have had his crystal ball turned up high back in 2014 when he wrote the first in his four-part series of political thrillers, Faithless Elector. The fourth, Bastard Verdict, is just out and paints another frightening picture of the way electoral politics might devolve in the current ruthless climate.

This time, he focuses his story around the doubts about the 2014 Scottish Referendum on independence. Voters who said ‘Yes’ wanted to leave the United Kingdom ; those who said ‘no’ wanted to stay. Strong arguments and opinions on both sides. Powerful forces in London wanted Scotland to stay, and a few well-positioned men were not above some pretty dirty tricks to make sure the vote went in their favor. In this novel, a a second referendum on this same question is looming, and the behind-the-scenes cabal fears its past maneuverings are getting a too-close examination.

Into this political minefield strolls McCrone’s protagonist, Imogen Trager, an FBI agent on leave in Scotland for a year to do some research on referenda politics. You’d think that exposing the Faithless Elector case would have put her in the Bureau’s good graces. Quite the contrary. She’s been shunted to a backwater post in the election integrity unit and her bosses are only too glad to ship her across the Atlantic.

McCrone expertly establishes the story’s setting in several Scottish locales, betraying an intimate knowledge of the terrain and the culture, the pubs, Glasgow’s gangster vibe. He uses Scottish dialect is just enough to make you feel right there with Imogen as the deadly cat-and-mouse game begins.

As we’ve learned in so many political fiascos, the cover-up is more disastrous than the crime itself. As her opponents gear up for Round Two, she and her colleagues will lucky to stay one step—even one half-step—ahead of danger. Democracies require a lot of faith in the process, and McCrone consistently identifies ways that process can go off the rails. The trend line of electoral trickery, obfuscation, and, even violence makes this novel fair warning.

The Good Ones by Polly Stewart
One takeaway from Polly Stewart’s mystery/thriller The Good Ones is: “Everyone’s a hero of their own story.” Narrator Nicola Bennett is fixated on what she sees as her own role in instigating the mysterious disappearance—and possible murder—of her best friend Lauren Ballard nearly twenty years earlier.

Nicola has newly returned to rural Virginia’s (fictional) Tyndall County to be with her dying mother, and now she’s fixing up her their dishevelled house for sale. This suggests a second theme, one from Southern writer Thomas Wolfe: “You can’t go home again,” or at least in Nicola’s case, perhaps you oughtn’t to. Along the way, Stewart also provides food for thought regarding how people’s private pain is being turned into public entertainment via social media.

Nicola dwells on her and Lauren’s experiences on the high school soccer team, the drunken teenage parties and female rivalries, Lauren’s mean streak, and memories of her and Lauren’s relationships with two wealthy brothers. Then one night when the brothers were out of town, Lauren disappeared.

The wealth of detail about their teen years contrasts with surprisingly sparse filling out of Nicola’s present life, except for the lusty affair that develops between her and Lauren’s former husband. When she starts receiving harassing messages, Nicola seems only intermittently troubled by any threat they may represent. This dampens the story’s tension.

I’ve recently read several richly imagined books about rural Virginia, and Tyndall County lacks the rural noir vibe. Generally, Stewart’s characters live on the right side of the tracks. They have middle and upper-middle class preoccupations. Yet, in Nicola’s many flashbacks, she certainly captures the high school atmosphere and all its behavior-warping glory. With luck, if Nicola finds the answers she’s seeking, she can finally move on.

Reckoning with a Troubled Past

The main motivation for our recent trip through south Georgia and Alabama was to visit civil rights sites. To that end, we spent four nights in Montgomery, Alabama, which has them in thought-provoking, overwhelming abundance. The photo is of the marker for Martin Luther King’s church, with the Alabama State capitol only blocks away and visible on the right. 

First, we drove an hour west to Selma, to see the Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of the “Bloody Sunday” voting rights march in 1965 that focused national attention on the civil rights cause. There were three attempts at a Selma to Montgomery march. The first ended with Bloody Sunday when marchers, including the young to-be congressman John Lewis, were attacked with billy clubs, whips, and tear gas. Many were injured. Two days later, Dr. Martin Luther King led several thousand protesters back to the bridge. They crossed it then turned around to return to their starting point. It was a symbolic gesture of their determination, as well as a necessity, given a court order prohibiting the march.

Two weeks later, the march was allowed to proceed to Montgomery, with ample protection from military police and US Army troops. Some 25,000 people joined for the last stretch into the city and the Alabama State Capitol. Three months later, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (a law Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts has dedicated his career to dismantling).

As of this writing, the Lowndes Interpretive Center, located on US Hwy 80, the route of the march, is temporarily closed due to a water main break, but should reopen soon and be well worth a visit. The National Park Service also maintains a small but powerful National Voting Rights Museum on the Selma side of the Pettus Bridge.

Several days are needed to properly take in the civil rights sites in Montgomery itself. We started with a visit to The Legacy Museum, a project of Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative. (If, in the unlikely event you are not familiar with this profound thinker about US race relations, start here.)

When you enter the museum, you find yourself in a large space dominated by the sight and sounds of the sea, whose overpowering waves were filmed at surface level. It’s a dramatic and creative opening. It certainly put me in mind of the terrifying experience of Africans wrested from their homes for a perilous journey across a wild ocean. Throughout the museum, the curation is remarkable, from the recreation of the transatlantic slave trade to the domestic slave trade, to the Civil War and Reconstruction, and the push for Civil Rights. The museum employs many compelling ways to tell these complex stories.

A second powerful EJI project is the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened in 2018. In words and sculpture, it commemorates the lives of African Americans who were victims of racial terror lynchings, in order to more truthfully and completely reflect the nation’s history. Each of the more than 800 hanging steel monuments represents a county in the United States where a racial terror lynching took place. Each bears the names of the victims.The accompanying photo is the monument for McLennan County, Texas, whose county seat is Waco, where my mother was born in 1908. My grandparents and great-grandparents lived in the county during the years when many of these lynchings took place. These events had to be known to them and their children, but the family never spoke of them, at least not in my presence. That’s one reason the Memorial is so vital, to connect us to this past.

While some white Americans oppose exhibits like these, because they believe the experience will make children (and, possibly, themselves) “feel bad about themselves,” I believe the opposite should be true. By not hiding the past, we can see it more clearly and avoid being stuck in its destructive attitudes and behavior. We can see how ideas about right and wrong have evolved, acknowledge how far we have come and the importance of honoring and preserving those gains. At the same time, we can recognize the work that still needs to be done. Deliberate ignorance of the past only perpetuates wrongs.

We visited the Dexter Avenue Memorial Baptist Church, Dr. Martin Luther King’s home church in Montgomery, as well as the Parsonage Museum on South Jackson Street, where the King Family lived from 1954-1960, and which was bombed several times.

The tour of the house let us walk the floors Martin and Coretta walked, see the rooms they saw. We were fortunate to have as our tour guide the granddaughter of R.D. Nesbitt, deacon of the church and chairman of the pulpit selection committee, and he recruited Dr. King to Montgomery. She knew everyone in every photograph! Nesbitt said, King’s “major strength, in my opinion, was his ability to get along with people.”

The Rosa Parks Museum, part of Troy University, includes a nice recreation of the famous bus ride in which she refused to give up her seat for a white person. This led to the 13-month Montgomery bus boycott, a key event in ending segregation.

Also in this Georgia-Alabama travel tips series:
Brushes with Literary Fame (Lee, Capote, O’Connor, and more)
“Bloom Where You’re Planted” (US Presidents in rural Georgia)

“Bloom Where You’re Planted”: US Presidents in Rural Georgia

Our swing through the southeast included visits to sites associated with two U.S. Presidents—Jimmy Carter and Franklin Roosevelt. It’s refreshing to think about Presidents of the past, on this day especially when a former president will be arraigned on criminal charges. They may have had flaws, but their vision and strength of character brought the country through dark times. Both men valued contact with “ordinary Americans” in rural Georgia and never lost their sincere interest in and connection to them.

We spent a night at the Plains (Georgia) Historic Inn, in Plains, Georgia, which Jimmy and Rosalynn helped refurbish and which was loaded with charm. Each of the seven rooms is decorated in the style of a decade from the 1920s to the 1980s. (It would be a perfect place for a mystery story. The old building’s squeaky floors provide a challenge to anyone trying to sneak up on a victim, and the building’s former use as a funeral home—complete with a special, still-working elevator to move caskets between floors—imparts the right ghostly vibe.) Ellen, the innkeeper, was most welcoming, had breakfast options available, and went above-and-beyond by returning the raincoat I left in the closet. The rooms contained presidential-related memorabilia and some have views of Plains’s Main Street, possibly three blocks long.

The Jimmy Carter National Historical Park includes the visitor’s center, housed in the Carters’ high school (pictured), with numerous displays of their lives and times, plus an excellent video. The Plains Depot museum commemorates its role as Carter’s 1976 Presidential campaign headquarters. The boyhood farm, two and a half miles outside town, showed what life was like in 1938, when Carter was 14. Lots of work, starting before dawn and lasting until suppertime. It prepared Jimmy to be hands-on with his aid to Habitat for Humanity. He knows through experience which end of a tool is the working end.

When Carter was a teenager, his uncle in the Navy wrote him letters about his experiences, inspiring Jimmy to attend the Naval Academy. When he first applied, his would-be Senate sponsor said his high school was too small, he’d never make it. So Carter went to Georgia Southwestern College in Americus for a year, excelled, and tried again. Once more, the school was deemed too small, so he went to Georgia Institute of Technology for another year, and again he excelled. More senatorial foot-draggin. After church one Sunday, Carter and his father visited the Senator, unannounced, and talked to him until late that night. Finally, the Senator said, “If you’ll just go home, I’ll put his name in for the next Annapolis opening.” A good lesson in persistence! The news that he has entered hospice care has prompted a lot of reexamination of his career, including how, as a Navy lieutenant, he saved a Canadian nuclear reactor from a catastrophic meltdown.

Warm Springs, Georgia, was a favorite retreat for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as the 88-degree spring-fed pools there (now empty and in need of renovation; model pictured–sorry about the reflections!) allowed him some relief from the debilitating effects of polio. In 1927, he founded Roosevelt Warm Springs rehabilitation center to treat polio patients; it continues today as a comprehensive rehabilitation center for people with disabilities. The photographs of him playing with the kids in the water show his love of life, children, and his indomitable spirit.

We also toured the FDR State Historic Site visitors’ center and Little White House. The visitors’ center museum houses a variety of memorabilia, including FDR’s 1938 Ford convertible retrofitted with hand controls, and a large display of canes sent him by supporters. The Warm Springs retreat gave FDR a chance to visit with neighbors in the area’s rural communities and learn about their problems, which inspired some elements of the New Deal. When we were there, in recognition of the concept of service to the country, the museum included an exhibit about military chaplaincy, including commemoration of “The Four Chaplains.”

The Little White House was built in 1932 to make his recuperative stays more feasible, given the demands of the governorship of New York, soon to be superseded by those of the Presidency. The house still displays the chair where he died April 12, 1945, mere weeks before the end of the War in Europe, which he’d worked so hard to bring the country through successfully. That afternoon, he was posing for a portrait by Madame Elizabeth Shoumatoff, and the “Unfinished Portrait” is a highlight of the museum.

Also in this Georgia-Alabama travel tips series:
Brushes with Literary Fame (Lee, Capote, O’Connor, and more)

Authors for Ukraine

Mystery author Amy Patricia Meade sent out a call to authors to donate a book to be auctioned to raise money for CARE’s Ukraine Crisis Fund. Some 170 responded from the US, UK, and Canada, including me! The auction will take place from 8am EDT March 29 through 11 PM EDT April 12. Your book will be signed by the author with a message especially for you.

In the market for a good new book for yourself or friends and family with birthdays, anniversaries, moves, graduations, weddings, new babies (lots of reading time for them!), or want to help the people of Ukraine in every possible way? Here’s your chance.

The book I donated is Seascape, Best New England Crime Stories, which includes a wide range of engaging tales, including my short story, “The Ghost Who Read the Newspaper.” This story, based on a “real ghost” said to haunt a Washington, D.C., hotel, was selected for reprinting earlier this year in Black Cat Weekly. The successful bidder on this book will also receive a copy of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (Jul/Aug 2019), in which my story “New Energy” is the lead.

CARE’s Ukraine Crisis Fund is striving to reach four million people with immediate aid and recovery. This includes, food, water, hygiene kits, psychosocial support, and cash assistance. The program prioritizes women and girls, families, and the elderly.

Because the authors are handling shipping costs, the auction is limited to residents of the US and Canada. Especially if you’re a fan of cozy mysteries, you’ll appreciate this auction. And heaping praise on Amy for thinking of it and organizing it!

KGB Banker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holiday Time Management Guide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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