Find Her First

Former newspaper journalist Emma Christie’s second novel, Find Her First, could be called a crime thriller, which it is, or a murder mystery, which it also is. Trying to figure out what is really going on in a sea of red herrings is a big part of this book’s enormous pleasures.

The story takes place in Edinburgh and the surrounding countryside, where Andy Campbell and his wife Stef are dedicated hikers. Scotland’s well-described forests and cliffs and vistas are an essential backdrop to their story.

The book opens with Andy, apparently on trial for murder, awaiting the verdict. He’s an experienced paramedic, but has he taken a life? Though the contours of his crime are not yet defined, his sadness that events reached this point is clear.

You’re left waiting for the court’s judgment, which won’t come for many pages. Instead, the narrative goes back six months to the previous summer. Chapters taking Andy’s point of view alternate with those written by Betty Stevenson, the housecleaner for Andy and his wife Stef, also a paramedic, but on mandatory leave.

Fate and whether it’s possible to escape it or to take it into your own hands is a major theme of the book. Betty is fond of Stef and desperately eager for closeness with someone. She believes in luck—the luck of a shiny penny found on the street—and in fate. Being a friend to Stef, she thinks, is her fate. And now, it seems, Stef is missing. Betty is going to Do Something About It.

Betty and Andy both had traumatic childhoods that shaped their current lives, with Andy determined to save people and Betty, in her own way, trying to recapture the innocence of those much younger days. A few chapters are in Stef’s point of view from a year before the trial. All these time shifts can be a mite confusing, but in the end make sense.

All three of the main characters have regrets. Fractured family relationships. A romantic indiscretion. Lies they’ve told. A series of miscarriages. Author Christie spins out a complicated, entangling web and keeps you guessing about where its strands will lead. Are their current challenges related to the past, the present, or the future?

She writes with a close-in psychological perspective, and you come to have a rather deep understanding of the principal characters. You know why they act as they do, even when another course might be objectively better. In a sense, it’s an object lesson in the perils of partial information. You have only partial information too, and not until the end do you learn what the story is really about. An excellent read.

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A Valentine to Agatha Christie

The Guardian has a new monthly guide to the works of selected authors and their first pick recently was the creator of the intrepid Miss Marple and Belgian dandy Hercule Poirot, the original queen of cozy crime, Agatha Christie. Modern-day crime novelist Janice Hallett wrote the commentary, which amounted to a love-letter to the Dame of Detection.

Early on, Hallett reveals her pick for the “best” Christie: And Then There Were None. You may  I remember it by the title Ten Little Indians, which was used in the 70s paperback edition and as the title of two films. Says Wikipedia, it’s the world’s best-selling mystery, with more than 100 million copies sold. Christie said it was the most difficult book she ever wrote.

If you really want to go down a rabbit hole, the Wikipedia article includes a chart showing how each of the characters died and how the manner of their demise matches up with the nursery rhyme. You get a little peek into Christie’s head as she made those associations.

The isolated setting, the group of friends, a shocking death. That staple of crime fiction today was debuted in Christie’s lesser-known Sparkling Cyanide, and it’s the best story to refer to at a dinner party, says Hallett. (Remember to strike her from your invite list.) Echoes of both of these books are apparent in many modern tales—One by One by Ruth Ware and two books by Lucy Foley—The Hunting Party and The Guest List.

Hallett dubs 1934’s Murder on the Orient Express and its many cinematic and theatrical adaptations as Christie’s “classic.” The photo above shows the (movable) set created for a brilliant production of the theatrical version of the story at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre. Real-life events—the Lindbergh baby’s kidnapping and a stranded train in Turkey—were Christie’s inspirations.

The one Hallett calls “the shocker” is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, whose sudden, violent death is investigated by his neighbor, Hercule Poirot. It was voted best crime novel ever[!] by the British Crime Writers’ Association in 2013. The title, alas, always reminds me of a famous 1945 essay by American critic Edmund Wilson, no fan of detective fiction. His article, “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?”, expressed an opinion generations of mystery fans have gleefully ignored.

Photo by T. Charles Erickson

The Last Mona Lisa

Art crimes are an intriguing branch of the international crime tree, and in The Last Mona Lisa Jonathan Santlofer ably fulfills their potential. He begins with a real crime that took place in 1911, when a man named Vincent Peruggia was fired from his job at the Louvre, then hid in the museum overnight and stole the Mona Lisa. The destitute but patriotic Peruggia wanted to return the painting to his native Italy, and doubtless make a little money too. The painting resurfaced two years later in Florence whereupon the Italian police arrested him.

Santlofer’s novel features an American named Luke Perrone, fictional great-grandson of Peruggia. Since childhood, Luke has researched his notorious ancestor and the rumors he kept a diary during his months in prison. Luke is a frustrated painter and college history of art professor, and an upcoming school break gives him a chance to follow up a new lead. Apparently, his great-grandfather’s journal was donated to Florence’s Laurentian Library among the papers of a recently deceased art scholar.

Other people are just as interested in the diary as Luke is. Another library patron, the luscious Alexandra Greene, is just too friendly, except when she’s not. Interpol analyst John Washington Smith suspects the painting in the Louvre may not be authentic. During the Mona Lisa’s two-year disappearance, several copies were made and sold as originals. Perhaps the one hanging in the Louvre is one of these. Smith knows about Luke’s new lead and the trip to Florence, and if it pans out, it could revive his sagging career. A stop-at-nothing collector is also keenly interested and believes Luke can tell him whether “his” Mona Lisa, hidden in a vault, is the real thing.

Maybe I read too many thrillers, but I thought Luke was a bit slow to realize he’s experiencing too many coincidences and too many people dying around him. Chapters about Luke and Smith in the present day are interspersed with Vincenzo’s story, as told in his diary. These atmospheric historical chapters give resonance to Luke’s quest.

Santlofer also grounds the present-day of his tale with reference to the real-life controversy surrounding another Leonardo work, the Salvator Mundi, dubbed “the male Mona Lisa.” In real life, this painting was bought in 2005 from a New Orleans auction house for $1,175 and sold 12 years later for $450,300,000, even though art experts disagree about its authenticity. This saga was subject of a top-rated 2021 documentary by Andreas Koefoed.

Linking the two stories underscores not just the amazing sums involved, but also the tangled motivations of people in the world of stolen and fabricated art. Craziness happens when you are dealing with objects that are, essentially, priceless. If you are fascinated by art world intrigue, this book is for you!

Santlofer is himself an artist of some note. As well as his award-winning mystery novels, he has created more than 200 exhibitions worldwide. His short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies, and he was creator and director of the Crime Fiction Academy. He resides in New York.

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Blood Like Rain

By Albert Tucher – In Al Tucher’s latest Big Island Mystery, Hawai`i County police detective Errol Coutinho has his hands full from the first page. He’s called out on a homicide case and discovers the victim is his wife’s best friend, Eleanor Swieczak. He wasn’t crazy about the woman, but his wife will be devastated.

Coutinho and his partner, Harlan Kim, have a lead suspect: Eleanor’s new boyfriend, Jerry Wyatt. Not only does he have a murky past, he’s disappeared along with Eleanor’s Mercedes. Coutinho’s wife Lucy is the best crime lab technician the department has, and she really wants to dig into this one. Over the course of the story, her science and her insights about her friend prove invaluable.

Coutinho and Kim suspect a connection to the drug trade. Pakalolo—Hawaiian weed—believed by many to be the world’s finest. At the top of the island’s significant pakalolo enterprise is a well-established drug entrepreneur named Morrison, in his late middle age. If Wyatt’s involved, Morrison will know. But he seems to have cleared out too. Rumor has it that he and another drug lord—the violent but elusive Trondheim—are waging a war off the coast.

These rumors are substantiated when a body washes ashore on the once-lovely Kamilo beach. It’s now caught in the gyre of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and the area’s unique currents deposit a constant stream of trash there. A volunteer cleanup crew discovered the body atop a pile of plastic garbage.

Author Tucher’s encyclopedic knowledge of the Hawaiian Islands comes constantly into play in these novels. They aren’t stories that could happen just anywhere, and he does a great job weaving the unique settings into his plots. A body on a garbagy beach is just the start. A breakneck trip down the steep and narrow road into Waipi’o Valley is enough to give you vertigo.

Was Eleanor’s death the first indication of a new drug war? Or, was her death a one-off, a car-theft gone wrong? The pieces start to look like they’ll fit together when she’s tangentially linked to the deaths of two reporters investigating the pakalolo business some twenty years earlier. The murders have started up again, and, as their investigation proceeds, Coutinho and Kim have an increasing number of bodies in the morgue that attest to the continuing trail of violence.

So, Coutinho and Kim are trying to figure out an organized crime drug smuggling operation with ties to the mainland, reopening a double homicide everyone had given up on, and, getting back to the original subject, attempting to explain the death of Lucy’s friend Eleanor.

Tucher has a knack for creating interesting characters, and may go a bit overboard here, with several sets of siblings and an improbable number of twins. Even a former wife of Coutinho’s makes an unwelcome appearance. She is, of course, a twin. Family feuds are always the worst and seeing how the several families tangled up in this story treat each other, it will make you grateful if you’re an only child.

You can read Tucher’s novels for their complicated plots or for characters you’ll come to enjoy—Coutinho and Kim are solid partners, you’ll like their boss, Lieutenant Tanaka, and a young female officer, Jenny Freitas, who “had a knack for being in the right place at the right time.”

Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?

These mystery authors do! At the richly rewarding book sale at Killer Nashville, I was drawn to these two books by authors I’d just met. Both are set in New Orleans, both make terrific use of the city’s unique culture(s), so that you can almost smell the damp, hear the rhythms, and taste the food. You feel the heat. And the fear. Their unique and compelling characters will take you places you probably haven’t been before.

Love Power

By Martha Reed – Jane Byrne is a former New England police detective dealing with aftermath of a fatal shooting. Though she was exonerated, she left her job in disgrace and needs a new start. Not many places could offer a more different environment than New Orleans does.

Jane’s job working security at a self-storage facility doesn’t pay much, but at least she has interesting landlords. Even they are put in the shade by their ebullient and indiscreet transgender daughter Gigi. She’s a ball of fire through whom Jane meets an array of exotic and sexually nonconforming friends. I suspect Jane wouldn’t have previously thought of herself as straight-laced, but these new acquaintances are out there!

Danger comes calling as first one then another of Gigi’s friends is hideously murdered, and, while the NOPD is sort-of on the case, Jane can’t help but bring her police training into play, welcome or not. Can they solve the case before Gigi—or Jane herself—joins the murdered? An excellent read!

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Under the Blood Moon

By Tracie Provost – I’ve read next-to-no vampire literature, with the exception of one Anne Rice novel decades ago. New Orleans, with its voodoo practitioners and affinity for the occult and bizarre is surely the perfect setting for one.

Juliette de Grammont is a skilled practitioner of magic arts and a vampire. She was staked more than 200 years ago, but now her body has been found and restored. Not only must Juliette learn to cope with modern life (cars, computers, cell phones!), but also she’s returned to life just as a major power struggle begins between two powerful vampire families (as treacherous as the Mafia, but without the pasta).

What enables the suspension of disbelief necessary to this narrative is Provost’s excellent world-building. She describes a culture and way of behaving that is consistent and just coherent enough that I got into the story, then the force of her characterizations kept me there, as the paranormal beasties descended. Highly entertaining.

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Best American Mystery & Suspense: 2021 – Part 2

Yesterday’s post delved into the steamy politics surrounding this collection and its new editor’s highly successful efforts to make the selection more representative of the breadth of American crime and mystery writing. Here are some of my favorites from the new collection.

A good example of how criminals paint themselves into tight corners—which once again proves the validity of Murphy’s Law—is E. Gabriel Flores’s story, “Mala Suerte.” In it, Carmelita wonders whether bad luck runs in families. A recounting of her family history suggests it may. But she’s plucky and talks her way into a pretty good job. Now, if only she would leave well enough alone. But she’s one of those people who cannot recognize when she’s about as well off as she has any right to expect, and you know she won’t.

It’s hard to say much about Ravi Howard’s suspense story, “The Good Thief,” without giving away the clever plot twist. A conscientious cook at a small-town luncheonette is asked to prepare a prisoner’s last meal, actually a cake the young man once ate in her establishment. Alone in the kitchen of the prison’s new wing—the biggest kitchen she has ever seen—you are alone with her thoughts, as she talks briefly with the warden and methodically goes about preparing the cake. So little action, so much happening.

Aya de León’s touching “Frederick Douglass Elementary” delves into the crimes a mother will commit in order to get her son into a decent elementary school, when all manner of bureaucracy is set against her. Keisha’s not a serial killer or a bank robber, or someone at the very fringes of society. She’s just a working single mom. Her crimes may seem trivial, but in the lives of her and her son, they are hugely consequential. (You could be forgiven for believing that the real crime is the condition of the schools that tempted her into law-breaking.) Any parent will recognize the stomach-dropping uncertainty that hits Keisha throughout.

In “The Killer,” by Delia C. Pitts, you return to familiar crime-story territory. A mother and small child are on the run from New York to Tampa, with a gangster hot on their heels. The story’s told from the point of view of their driver and bodyguard, who believes every stop along the way risks bringing their pursuer closer and every encounter risks betrayal. They stop at the kind of rural Virginia diner where the manager and cook have never met up with anyone as dangerous as their pursuer, and even that naivete presents a potential risk. First published in the literary magazine, the Chicago Quarterly Review, it’s a nail-biter.

I’d read “One Bullet. One Vote,” by Faye Snowden in the Low Down Dirty Vote collection, liked it then and on repeat. In the mid-1960s, a young Black man from up north has arrived in small-town Louisiana determined to convince his new wife’s relations to register to vote. “What you trying to do? Get us all killed?” His wife’s elderly grandmother is the only one who takes him up on it. Bureaucracy repeatedly thwarts her, but she’s dealt with that before. The author not only created an engaging story of people pushed to extremes, she provides a powerful demonstration of what’s meant by “systemic racism.” Not one, but two true heroes in this one.

Among the other authors included are Jenny Bhatt, Gar Anthony Haywood, Alison Gaylin, and Laura Lippman. If you’re puzzled by the title to the second story in the collection, SWAJ by Christopher Bollen—it’s the logo to the movie ‘Jaws,’ read backward. In some circles, that’s a thing.

On the whole, the selections were excellent, and you may find yourself returning to several of them for the issues and social truths they reveal. In this era of social media bubbles, when we hear mostly from people who share our beliefs and outlooks, seeing the world through the eyes of some of these characters is enormously valuable. If this collection presages what Cha will manage in future editions, they will be well worth looking forward to.

Yesterday: the controversy over editorial direction.

Best American Mystery and Suspense: 2021 – Part 1

Edited by Steph Cha–Short mystery/crime fiction lovers in the United States have been more than a little curious to see what changes might be made in this annual series since publisher HarperCollins yanked the project from founding editor Otto Penzler last year. The ousting prompted a juicy literary brouhaha. Some thought Penzler was mistreated, but many (including me) believed that, under Penzler’s guidance, the anthology trended too “white and male.” It wasn’t bringing in new voices and, by extension, wasn’t expanding the audience for the crime/mystery genre.

The new series editor is award-winning author Steph Cha (Your House Will Pay) with guest editor for the 2021 edition, Alafair Burke (The Better Sister). The process worked the same as under Penzler. Cha, as series editor, took an initial whack at the huge pile of stories and gave her favorites to Burke, who made the final selection.

The differences in the new collection are immediately obvious, in the refreshing diversity of authors and story content, as well as in the large number of new (to me) bylines. Undeterred by his ouster, Penzler maintains his past preferences in another new collection, confusingly titled, The Best Mystery Stories of the Year: 2021, now published by his own company, The Mysterious Press.

While the titles of the two collections have created some (deliberate?) confusion, their content couldn’t be more different. Only six of Penzler’s twenty-one selections (28 percent) are from women authors, compared to 60 percent of Cha’s. My data may not be perfect, but as far as I can tell, not one of Penzler’s 21 “best” was written by a person of color, whereas 45 percent of Cha’s selections were.

To bring a wider array of voices to the “best” table, Cha scoured literary journals, anthologies, and online publications. It’s heartening to see the number of high-quality, non-genre magazines that cherish high-quality crime and mystery fiction, well outside the usual stalwarts.

Diversity is the name of the game here. Not only diversity among the authors and the publications where their stories first found a home, but in the types of mystery and suspense stories represented. Whether your taste is for police procedurals or amateur sleuths, people getting their comeuppance, or giving it, or the hapless nature of criminals, you’ll find stories that hit those buttons, from across the social spectrum. They aren’t all conventional crime stories, either; in several, the characters are up against implacable bureaucracies.

Tomorrow: Some of my favorites from this year’s selection.

Historical Mysteries II

reading

The journal of Mystery Readers International, which includes essays on various authors’ response to a theme, compiled by Janet Rudolph, are consistent interesting and insightful. I reviewed part 1 of a pair of issues on historical mysteries a few months ago. The second one was released not long ago. The writers represent multiple points of view and provide lots to think about for other writers as well as readers looking to discover new authors they may like.

In that last category, I’m itching to read some of the work of Joe Gores after Catherine Accardi’s tempting essay in the summer 2021 issue. Similarly, David Clark opens the door on a fascinating period when he discusses Michael Russell’s Stefan Gillespie novels set in the nascent nation of Ireland in the 1930s and 40s, when the politics were rough and convoluted.

One of the benefits a well written historical novel can bestow is to bring the murky events and people of past decades into sharp relief enabling readers to see their choices and, one hopes, learn from them (without getting preached at!). As Harald Gilbers writes in the current issue, “The fact that a society with a high cultural level can descend into barbarism is a warning example and I think it is important to tell people how this could happen.” Similarly, Rebecca Cantrell writes about her World War II novels, “People always ask me how ordinary Germans could have allowed this to happen. How democracy could have been so fragile. How hatred and violence could have triumphed over truth and reason. How a civilized country could run to its own destruction.” Good questions worth thinking about. Then the kicker: “No one asks me that now.”

In “Should I tinker with the facts?” Jim Fusilli describes the tension between absolute accuracy and storytelling, when in one of his novels, reversing the timing of two events would enable a stronger narrative. “But doing so would make the story seem less real to me, making it more a work of speculative fiction.” When he wrote this, he was still deciding how to handle this dilemma. Gilbers, by contrast, has made his choice. “I am not allowed to change history for the sake of my narrative.” He see his challenge as recreating a world for his characters that nearly exactly matches what people at the time faced .

What these diverse authors and their stories have in common, is something all historical mystery writers face. As Clare Whitfield put it so well, “The events might be far away, but the people are much closer than you think.”

Short Story Collections: EQMM (Sept/Oct) & Fiction River

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For its 80th Anniversary issue, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine assembled almost 200 pages of short stories, book reviews, and blog suggestions. Among my favorite stories this issue were:

  • Jane Jakeman’s “Trick or Treat”—She adds an element of timelessness to her tale of small-town revenge by heading scene breaks with quotes like these: “Beware of meeting a witch underground, for then she is at her most powerful—The Grimoire of Lysbet Malkin.
  • Matt Goldman’s entertaining “Sixteen Lies” (but who’s counting?).in which a savvy private eye unravels the motives that led to the death of a disabled woman, which his client, the dead woman’s sister, believes is suspicious. The fake-supportive banter between the sister and her husband is priceless.
  • “Demon in the Depths,” a novella by William Burton McCormick kept me riveted. A reporter’s Norwegian expedition to investigate her great-grandmother’s death in a mysterious plane crash some 60 years earlier is disrupted by volcanic debris, subzero temperatures, international politics, and a 500-year-old Greenland shark.
  • And I liked John F. Dobbyn’s adventure poem, “Nugget,” which begins: “I’d come in from our claim on the Klondike that week, and I’d made it just under the gun. The trails and the rivers were hell on the dogs, once the icing and snows had begun.”

Fiction River’s latest anthology, Dark and Deadly Passions, deals with crimes that come from emotion—especially extreme emotion. Editor Kristine Kathryn Rusch has a story in the above issue of Ellery Queen, and her long story for Fiction River, “Grief Spam,” was one I couldn’t put down. Other especially good tales included:

  • Annie Reed’s “Missing Carolyn,” which shows just how complicated revenge can be.
  • Lauryn Christopher’s  “Tilting at Windmills,” demonstrating that art can have unexpected value.
  • Michael Warren Lucas’s “Getting Away with It” further shows that the value of art depends on the beholder.

The Thursday Murder Club

What better review for today, right? I highly recommend the audio-version of Richard Osman’s award-nominated debut cozy crime novel, narrated by Leslie Manville. Osman, who’s had a career in television production, has a second book with many of the same characters already available for pre-order.

Four septuagenarians living in the Coopers Chase Retirement Village, located in the Kentish Weald, meet every Thursday to discuss cold murder cases. Their combination of still being sharp as a tack and varied life experience makes for lively, insightful discussions. Elizabeth, the group’s leader, is the veteran of some possibly clandestine career that took her to countries around the world, Joyce was a nurse, Ibrahim a psychiatrist, and Red Ron a notorious union organizer and gadfly.

Their differences in temperament add to the group’s chemistry. While Ibrahim would like to analyze every factor down to its nub, Ron’s instinct is to barge in and clobber somebody. Elizabeth keeps various thoughts to herself, but Joyce writes a diary, and lucky thing too, because in it, she tells us what the group is thinking and, possibly, why. Joyce’s diary is Osman’s clever way to handle backstory and summary without tedious authorial intrusions.

In an early scene, local DC Donna De Freitas visits the group to five her usual spiel on “Practical Tips for Home Security.” She’s barely begun before Elizabeth cuts her off. “Dear, I think we’re all hoping this won’t be a talk about window locks.” Ibrahim adds, “And no ID cards, please; we know about ID cards. ‘Are you really from the gas board, or are you a burglar?’ We’ve got it, I promise.” “And no need to tell us we mustn’t give our PIN to Nigerians over the phone.”

De Freitas regroups and asks what they do want to talk about, and an enjoyable hour-long free-for-all starts. They recognize that the young De Freitas, for all her amiability, is rather underutilized in the local police department. What she’d like to be working on is a nice juicy murder.

Fate conspires to accommodate her. Tony Curran, a man with a gangster past, and the greedy developer, Ian Ventham, intend to build a second phase of Coopers Chase, on more of the former convent land Ventham purchased from the Church, including plans to dig up the nuns’ cemetery. When Tony is stabbed to death in his kitchen, the Thursday Murder Club wants in on the action. Their new friend Donna De Freitas may be the key, if they can only manage to get her on the murder team and convince her to let them help.

Ventham’s helper Bogdan, has hardly started excavating the graves when he discovers a set of human bones, not in a coffin, but on top of one. This looks like trouble, so he reburies them. Now the Club has two mysteries to solve: who killed Tony Curran, and who is the extra body? Though the local police barely tolerate this amateur assistance, in truth, the oldsters run rings around them. Joyce especially has a way of sounding like a batty old lady, chatting about cakes and tea, while maneuvering the detectives into spilling some useful tidbit.

Although the overall mood is lighthearted, there are moments of sadness, as loss is ever-present in a place like Coopers Chase. That doesn’t stop these four memorable characters from living their lives to the fullest. If you’re in a summertime mood for something light and delightful, this book could be it. If you choose the audio version, Leslie Manville’s narration is tops.

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