Play the Red Queen & The Coroner’s Lunch

Bust out of your quasi-quarantine and take a trip halfway around the world and decades back in time with crime thrillers set in Saigon in 1963 and Ventiane in 1978. The politics feel tragically quaint, knowing how they turned out, but the settings are ripe for conspiracy, conflicting agendas, and misunderstandings at every level. Yet both books include characters who manage to maintain a sense of humor and perspective, even as their worlds are crumbling around them.

Play the Red Queen

By Juris Jurjevics – This new book has received considerable well deserved attention, bittersweet because the author died suddenly in late 2018, not knowing whether it would even be published. It was his aim that the book would, in his phrase, “bear witness” to an underreported aspect of the Vietnam War: the “elaborate, even treasonous corruption—and our complicity in it.”

He brings all this out in a book that is not a political diatribe but a page-turner of a thriller. American military advisors in Saigon are being killed by a beautiful and mysterious young woman who shoots with unerring accuracy from the back of a speeding Vespa. The U.S. military wants to get to the bottom of it and assigns two genial investigators. They run into countless operational and political obstacles, within the Vietnamese and American bureaucracies. Meanwhile, a powerful sense of foreboding settles on the city, as the corrupt Diem regime loses its grip. Tragically, its ouster opens the door for massive American intervention, which we know as the Vietnam War.

Buy here from Amazon, or Shop your local indie bookstore.

The Coroner’s Lunch

This is the first of Colin Cotterill’s entertaining mysteries about Dr. Siri Paiboun, a 72-year-old physician appointed to be Ventiane’s coroner in the new socialist Laos. He has a disconcerting habit of saying what he thinks—and one thing he thinks is that he has no training for this role—which doesn’t suit the era of extreme political correctness. Yet, people continue to die under questionable circumstances, and he has to sort it out. Fortunately, his staff is loyal and he finds a few important allies.

In theory, I would expect not to like the occasional excursions into the supernatural that Cotterill deploys, but they are so culturally consistent and believable that I just went with it. And am glad I did. It’s a charming book.

Buy here from Amazon, or Shop your local indie bookstore

(This post is my first try at Indie.Bound, an alternative to Amazon. Let me know what you think! And whether it doesn’t work!!)

The Place in Your Book

Shaker Heights, Ohio

Celeste Ng’s second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, takes place in Shaker Heights, Ohio, the leafy suburb just east of Cleveland where she grew up. In a vintage interview with David Naimon for the late lamented lit mag Glimmer Train, he asks about the particular characteristics of Shaker Heights that come through so strongly in her novel.

Ng explains that she lived there from age ten until she went to college, and the way life is organized there was normal to her. With a little distance and time, like all of us, she came to recognize (and in her case, appreciate) the unique characteristics of her community. Shaker Heights was one of the nation’s first planned communities, a garden-style suburb built on land once owned by the North Union Community of Shakers. That group of utopians inspired the later property developers, a pair of railroad moguls, and the suburb’s name.

The quest to create a perfect environment ultimately led to a lot of rules. Strict building codes and zoning laws restricted what color you could paint your house, the requirement to keep the yard tidy and mowed. (I don’t know whether the town fathers imposed the rule in my parents’ gated community that you had to keep your garage door closed. Who wants to see all that junk?) Ng explained that the community even used a fleet of tiny garbage trucks the size of golf carts that travel up and down every driveway, in order to collect the trash from the back of the house. No unsightly curbside obstacle course on trash day. In the old days, this was the function of the alley.

More important, and salient to those who’ve read the book or seen the television version with Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington, a strong thread in the community has been support for racial integration. It was the community’s deliberate response in the era of  blockbusting and “white flight,” Ng says. Community leaders believed that encouraging diversity among residents—in other words, embracing change—would, ironically, be the best way to keep the community the same, stabilizing it against the potential destructiveness experienced in so many other locales.

White residents went through a period of self-satisfied delusion, claiming a person’s race didn’t matter to them. They believed they were race-blind, suggesting that they, as one of Ng’s characters says, “don’t see race.” Many of us have heard people say things like this at some point or other.

Ng says the problem with such statements is clear, in Shaker Heights and elsewhere. “If you don’t see a huge aspect of someone’s life and experience, you are devaluing all the experiences they’ve had walking around in that skin.” In Little Fires Everywhere, despite articulated good intentions, the “little fires” of racial tension are flaring up, marking out the well-known road.

That idea, of people seeking to understand others, even other family members, and failing to do so permeates Ng’s work, including her 2015 debut novel, also set in Shaker Heights, Everything I Never Told You (my review here).

One of the chief values of fiction, she believes, is that “it actively asks us to empathize with other characters, with people are aren’t like us.” Even in a community ostensibly committed to bridging divides, understanding can be elusive.

Stellar New Crime Novels from South America

Crocodile Tears by Mercedes Rosenda

Uruguay probably isn’t at the top of your list of places clever crimes are hatched—with cleverer police detectives on the prowl—but Mercedes Rosenda’s new book, admirably translated by Tim Gutteridge, will clue you in. It’s dubbed ‘a blackly comic caper in the style of Fargo.’ You may object to the descriptor, caper, as being too weighted on the comic rather than the ‘blackly’ side. But if you think of a caper as involving slightly dim criminals who can’t quite get anything right, this is surely one.

The story begins in confusion. Diego is in an overcrowded and dangerous prison, charged with a recent kidnapping. The slippery lawyer Antinucci promises to spring him. It seems that Ursula López, wife of the kidnapped man, says Diego never contacted her, never asked for a ransom. But the ransom was paid, and Diego’s partner absconded with it. Still, without Ursula, he can’t be convicted.

Before long, you realize two very different women named Ursula López are intertwined in the story, and it’s hard to see how everything can work out well for them both. The situation looks increasingly perilous for Diego too, when he’s forced to participate in an ill-conceived armored truck robbery.

I found Ursula and the female detective, Leonilda, especially interesting. They’re women whom the men dismiss as unimportant, yet they keep the events of the story moving in unexpected directions and provide much of the wry humor. Glimpses of life in Montevideo peep through too.

Repentance by Eloísa Díaz

Eloísa Díaz’s riveting new political thriller takes place during two tumultuous periods in Argentina’s history. The present-day of the story is December 2001, when riots in Buenos Aires and elsewhere will lead to the president’s resignation. These events alternate with flashbacks to 1981 and Argentina’s Dirty War, a terrifying era in which the military, security forces, and right-wing death squads kidnapped, tortured, and murdered tens of thousands of supposed left-wing sympathizers. Among the murdered was the younger brother of the book’s protagonist, Inspector Joaquín Alzada of the Policía Federal.

Alzada has a new deputy, Orestes Estrático, eager to please, alarmingly wet behind the ears, and insufferably by-the-book. A young woman from one of the country’s wealthiest landowners is reported missing, and Alzada’s superiors don’t want him spending time on the case. After all, what kind of investigation is it? A missing person? Not enough time has elapsed. A murder? There’s no body. Unless . . . Alzada and Estrático recall the body of an unknown woman discovered that morning in a dumpster behind the city morgue. Could they pretend she and the disappeared woman are one and the same?

Alzada is an engaging character, and how he goes about discovering what happened to his family in 1981 and to the missing woman in 2001 is told from close-in point of view. You’re privy to many of his thoughts and wry observations at odds with the politically correct demeanor that’s his survival strategy. Especially enjoyable is young Estrático, who has talents Alzada doesn’t expect.

Foreign Intrigue

If domestic intrigues are giving you fits, you might try some stories set in other countries. What you’ll find, of course, is that there’s no end to the shenanigans people get up to. But you knew that, right? Here are three award-winners from France, Germany, and Japan. In general, crime novels by non-American, non-British authors have a different style. They often have subplots that leave you to draw your own conclusions. Personally, I like that extra dose of mystery. These three happen to have wonderful cover art too!

Summer of Reckoning

Summer of Reckoning, Marion Brunet

Some teenage summers are just too awkward and painful to revisit. Marion Brunet’s novel expertly describes a summer exactly like that. When I say it’s set in the south of France, you’re thinking Provence. Lavender and cabernet. The bleak, poverty-stricken village where sixteen-year-old Céline and her fifteen-year-old sister, Johanna, live with their brutish father, Manuel, is not that. Céline is pregnant, and Manuel insists she reveal who the father is. From his drunken determination, much tragedy ensues. Winner of the French Mystery Prize (the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière), it was translated by Katherine Gregor. Read my full review here.

Mexico Street

Simone Buchholz, Mexico Street

Simone Buchholz’s street-smart Hamburg public prosecutor Chastity Riley works closely—in some cases intimately—with the local police. Her cast of well characterized lovers, former lovers, and police colleagues is investigating the latest in a rash of car fires. This one is different, there’s a dying man inside, a member of a notorious Bremen gangster family.

That connection leads Riley and her crew to some dark and lawless places, to a world and family life that operate under their own unforgiving rules. Winner of the German Crime Fiction Prize in 2019, translated by Rachel Ward. Read my full review here.

The Aosawa Murders

Aosawa Murders, Riku Onda

In the 1970s, an Aosawa family birthday party ends with 17 people poisoned to death. The only survivor is teenage daughter, Hisako, who is blind. The evocative, layered story by Riku Onda is created retrospectively from interviews with the principals, starting with Hisako’s memories, the ruminations of the police detective who is convinced Hisako somehow must have been involved, and the author of a best-selling book about the murders.

Was this the perfect crime? As the book blurb says, “Part Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Part Capote’s In Cold Blood.” Winner of the Mystery Writers of Japan Best Novel Award, and translated by Alison Watts.

Reading in the Time of Covid

chalk outline, body

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

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

Rules for Perfect Murders

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

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

Little Altar Boy

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

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

Nine Tenths of the Law

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

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

Prose by Any Other Name

books, bookstore

With more than 4,500 new books published every day in the U.S., the odds of coming up with a unique title would seem to evaporate by the minute. No surprise, then, that when you search for a book by title, you often have to scroll through a lot of misses to get your hit. Amazon had 10 books with the same title as a short story collection I recently reviewed!

Suitability

In Emily Temple’s recent Literary Hub encomium on the naming of Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea, she says, notice first “the incantatory effect of the repetition, the rush of sibilance, the plain punch of those four syllables,” not to mention, I’d add, the evocation of the sea itself: sssssss . . . sssssssss. “It just sounds good, and any great title should sound good,” she says. Beyond that is the title’s provenance, which goes back to Greek literature. While this distinguished patrimony may not resonate with most of us, she says, “It’s also, not for nothing, a band name.” More news.

We can think of any number of novels whose titles perfectly encapsulate their core: Rosemary’s Baby (Ira Levin) or, more recently, Below the Fold (Dick Belsky), and Where the Crawdads Sing (Delia Owens). Way too many book titles provide no memory-jog about their contents, as a scan of your own bookshelf will prove.

Distinctiveness

I’ve reviewed almost 175 new crime/thriller novels for CrimeFictionLover.com over the past four-plus years, and occasionally need to find one on my list. Some titles recall the book immediately. Others leave me wondering, did I read this??

One strategy is to include the name of a person or place in the title: A Gentleman in Moscow, Wolf Hall, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. Such a title will be distinctive, but since the prospective book buyer doesn’t yet know who Eleanor Oliphant is, it may not be memorable. Lincoln in the Bardo works because you know who Lincoln is, even if, like me, you have to look up “the bardo.”

Overfamiliarity

Gone Girl and the cover with the flying hair was suitable and distinctive. Not so the—dozens? hundreds?—of girl-titles that followed. So many the effect was lost. At least AJ Finn, whatever his other foibles, had a woman at his window. Similarly, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley (with a bullet-ridden dust-jacket), suitable, distinctive, even though we don’t know him yet, has now been followed by The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. A little too similar for my taste, but both titles contain a puzzle. Even a cat has only nine lives and one death. A little snare for your memory.

Memorability

Being suitable and distinctive are ways of making your book title memorable. Given that word of mouth is one of your most potent marketing tools, you want to make sure the title of your book springs to the tongues of your many fans. When their friends seek it out, you want them to find your book, not twelve other people’s. Those right few words on the cover are hard to come by, but worth every effort.

Booky, Booky

Reading

Four books out of sync with my new crime fiction reviewing.

Yes, even I occasionally tire of a reading life of crime. And sometimes I want to catch up with a book from prior years.

And book clubs make choices . . .

****Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

By Gail Honeyman – Which of us hasn’t felt saddled by a critical parent? One whose admonishing voice we hear when we least need it? Who among us isn’t more likely to remember a parent’s upbraiding rather than the praise? Eleanor remembers, to a miserable extreme. Patterning herself after her ultra-demanding mother, she needs to (to learn how to) unwind a bit, no, a lot. She longs for human connection and gets in her own way when she tries. Vodka helps, until it doesn’t. Although the plot doesn’t surprise, Honeyman has established a strong, if painful, voice for Eleanor, just too smart to stay locked inside herself forever. A prime example of the new literary trend called up-lit—“books that give us hope.” In many ways similarly plotted to Where the Crawdads Sing, it raises both hope and skepticism for the same reasons. The author, not the character, seems in charge, if that makes any sense.

****Murmur

By Will Eaves – This is literary fiction and far from as straightforward in the telling as Eleanor Oliphant. It’s based on the life of Alan Turing (Alec Pryor in the book), the brilliant British mathematician and computer scientist (now on the £50 note) who later led the Bletchley Park team that helped unravel the secrets of the Nazi code machine, Enigma. Ping-ponging between dreams, memories, letters with a woman friend, and more in the months before his suicide, the novel has been called “a hallucinatory masterwork.” Much of it looks back to Pryor’s adolescence, his discovery of his homosexuality, and the social and school problems that resulted. Murmur has won numerous prizes. Will Eaves is a poet and a teacher, as well as a novelist. This is the first of his books published in the United States.

***Blood Sisters

By Kim Yideum, translated from the Korean by Jiyoon Lee – I joined a book club that sends novels by international authors several times a year, as a way to become acquainted with other voices and sensibilities. This book was a hard go in the beginning, partly because of the unadorned writing style, but became easier, page by page. The narrator has left home (more difficult, hypercritical parents), and lives as cheaply as possible in a room over a café called Instant Paradise (yeah, right). She has a great many challenges including physical injuries, a parent who deserted her, plus an unexpected romance. Wait, am I writing about Eleanor Oliphant again? Totally different books, striking parallels, but without the too-easy resolution.

****The Word is Murder

By Anthony Horowitz – OK, back to my comfort zone. Horowitz is a crimewriter and TV scriptwriter (Midsomer Murders, Foyle’s War). This novel starts with the murder of a woman who appears to have predicted her own demise. A gruff former police detective, Daniel Hawthorne, is called in to take a look at the case, joined by a clueless writer named Anthony Horowitz who’s looking for some new plot ideas and manages to blunder about spectacularly. “Full of surprises and suspense,” said The Washington BookReview. And comic moments. This adventure has been followed up by 2019’s The Sentence is Death, again featuring Hawthorne and Horowitz.

****Stay with Me

By Ayobami Adelbayo – This superb debut novel is set in Nigeria, starting in the 1980s—a time of political upheaval following an aborted election and resurgent military dictatorship. With that as a backdrop, it focuses on the considerably smaller-scale politics within the household of a married couple, Yejide and Akin Ajayi.

Narrating mostly by Yejide, with occasional chapters from Akin, author Adelbayo presents an eloquent deconstruction of the social and family pressures on the couple to have children—a not-unusual problem that the author manages to make distinctly fresh. Difficult solutions are proposed and undertaken that have profound consequences, forever altering Yejide and Akin’s relationship.

While that central problem remains intensely engaging, the daily aspects of Yejide’s life, running her hair salon, remembering her childhood and its stories, and catering to relatives’ demands and expectations are rendered in vivid detail. The result is a novel nominated for numerous prizes, one with “remarkable emotional resonance and depth of field,” says Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times.

Adelbayo’s prose is deceptively straightforward, carrying you along easily, and you occasionally must stop yourself to reread a sentence or paragraph to fully appreciate its beauty or insight. An example is when Akin talks about a breast-milk stain on his wife’s blouse: “As I watched the milk stain spread downwards, I realised that the ground under our feet had just been pulled away, we were standing on air, and my words could not keep us from falling into the pit that had opened up beneath us.” 

It doesn’t take long to read—give it a try!

photo: .craig on Visual Hunt, creative commons license

****Mrs. Cox

earphones

By Jan Moore, narrated by Jilly Bond – It’s January 1608. London is dark most of the time, and the citizens are restless. Food shortages put residents of the poorer neighborhoods in increasing peril, though the authorities are still hiding the extent of the grain shortage. When a well respected woman of the Aldgate neighborhood dies under mysterious circumstances there is no lack of suspects. Just proof.

In Mrs. Cox, Jan Moore has created a powerful sense of time and place, and one of her story’s most salient features is the disregard the men have for women. The victim’s landlord, Mr. Sutton, proprietor of the alehouse across the street, investigates her disappearance and discovers not a body, but the bones of a hand, burnt in the fireplace, a detail based on a true crime of the era. He’s a rascally sort and people are willing to believe he might have done her in.

The local Alderman, Blincoe, is trying to expand the domain of Aldgate through the acquisition of Duke’s Place, widening of the roads, and construction of housing projects, with an eye eventually to becoming Mayor. A number of people, including the current mayor, suspect him of dirty dealing, but aren’t sure how to stop him. Blincoe also had a motive for murder, because the victim could thwart his development plans.

Moore’s narrative is as full of colorful characters as a Dickens novel, and some of their names are equally apt. Particularly entertaining is the newspaperwoman Mrs. Gosson, so close in sound to gossip, which well describes her stock-in-trade. The irrepressible laundress Bitty is a lot of fun, and the vivid procession of sticky-fingered maids, apprentice needleworkers, and persons of both sexes harboring secrets will stay in your mind long after the story ends.

Rumors suggest the murderer was a woman called Mrs. Abbott, who was wearing a dress decorated with cobweb lace. Eventually, a woman so described is found. She’s tried, found guilty, and due to hang, but Mrs. Cox knows she’s not guilty and persists in trying to save her. Moore has done a creditable job imagining the difficulties and prejudices the women would face, confronting the disinterest and intransigence of the male authorities and the venality of those with a smidge of influence.

I enjoyed the book’s award-winning narrator, Jilly Bond. She has a significant challenge in developing distinctive voices and speech mannerisms for this colorful cast and conveys the different women expertly. The men’s voices are a little less convincing, yet they are easily told apart. If you like historical mysteries or pre-Dickensian London, you’ll find this book both intriguing and delightful! Mrs. Cox is currently available only in its audio version, was a UK finalist for an Audible New Writing Grant: Crime Edition 2018.

Photo above: John O’Nolan, creative commons license


As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases—a few pennies to put in a jar to pay my WordPress bills. When you buy the book through the link on my website, you help me fill the jar. Thank you!

*****Juliet and Romeo

Verona

photo: Lo Scaligero, creative commons license

By David Hewson – Violent gangs roaming city streets looking for trouble, murder, illicit love, poisoning, suicide, and what amounts to the sale of a human being, these are the crime elements of thriller writer David Hewson’s latest reimagining of one of Shakespeare’s works. I’m not talking about one of the Bard’s tales of the murder of kings or caesars, but a story more often thought of as the pinnacle of romance, Romeo and Juliet.

Hewson’s is a wonderfully readable and entertaining recasting of a story that itself was reconceived several times before Shakespeare took his turn with it. According to an author’s note, the fundamental story appeared in a volume published in 1476, which a Venetian writer adapted in 1531, with a subsequent version in 1562 that was translated into French, then into a poem in English, which was the version Shakespeare used in creating the play, published in 1597.

In the spirit of a story that has repeatedly evolved to fit its time, Hewson has changed some things. Most notable is the ending, which may give purists fits, but the author says, “that’s what adaptation entails.” Juliet comes first in the title, because, with Hewson’s shifted emphasis, it’s her story. She’s a self-actualized, practical young woman, while Romeo is a dreamer, a little fuzzy around the edges. She knows what she wants and it is definitely not the forced marriage to the older Count Paris that her father has in mind. “So that’s the role Count Paris will perform,” Juliet challenges her father. “Not so much my husband as your proxy son. I marry him because it’s good for business.”

In addition to immersing himself in Shakespeare’s plays, Hewson comes to this project with a solid understanding of Italian culture, reflected in the contemporary crime stories he sets in Italy. The book is a full novel rework of an award-winning audio project he did with Richard Armitage, who narrated Hewson’s exciting version of Hamlet.

Clearing out the underbrush of Elizabethan-era language and putting more modern words in the characters’ mouths creates a refreshing experience. Hewson’s brilliant adaptations Macbeth: A Novel and Hamlet, Prince of Denmark: A Novel, written in collaboration with Shakespeare scholar A.J. Hartley, prepared Hewson to penetrate to the core of Shakespeare’s characters and situations, making the familiar new again. Read and enjoy!

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. Click the photos below to order one of these books.