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


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*****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!

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Disappointment on Screen and on the Page

Bang, gun

photo: Kenneth Lu, creative commons license

If you’ve read a few of my book and movie reviews, you’ll have noticed I generally praise these creative efforts. Maybe you’ve thought I’m not very critical (my family members will gladly disabuse you of this notion). No, I end up reviewing mostly good stuff, because I don’t read a book or go to a movie that promises not to be pretty darn good. Life is short. In the past week, though, I’ve had two disappointments—one book and one movie that defied expectations.

The Scarpetta Factor

Patricia Cornwell’s forensic investigator Kay Scarpetta has many devoted fans. Somehow, I’d never read one of these books and scooped up this one at a book exchange. I won’t read another, even though I suspect this was a sub-par entry in the long-running series.

First of all, it was almost 500 pages long. To demand that much commitment of precious reading time, a book has to meet a high bar. Second, it could have been 300 pages, or anyway, 350. Sooo much tedious backstory clumsily dropped in that I kept thinking, can’t we get back to this story? Annoying repetition, repeatedly, over and over, as if the author tried three different ways of saying something, planning to go back in the editing process and eliminate the two weakest. Then didn’t.

Naming three characters Berger, Bonnell, and Benton was an invitation to reader confusion, which I accepted, most ungraciously. I never could get them straight. Did I mention plot holes? Hundreds of pages in, the story is building to a climax that was more like a gun that shoots a message saying “bang.” So much else had gone on, I had no interest at all in her villain (show, don’t tell his perfidies).

So, if you’re tempted to read one of Cornwell’s thrillers, check online reviews carefully—“not one of her best” is a giveaway—and maybe try one of the early ones. This was number 17 in the Scarpetta series, and perhaps she’d run out of steam.

P.S. I could have saved myself a lot of time if I’d remembered that she’s the author who keeps trying to prove the cockamamie theory that Jack the Ripper was the English painter Walter Sickert.

First Reformed

Ethan Hawke, First ReformedWriter-director Paul Schrader’s new film about an upstate New York Dutch Reformed minister’s apostasy can’t be faulted for the acting (trailer). Ethan Hawke as the desperately unhappy Reverend Ernst Toller (Earnest, get it?) is spectacular, as always. He’s a drinker and, believe it or not, that doesn’t help. Perhaps that’s why his character can’t see trouble coming every time he encounters his pregnant congregant with the heavily symbolic name, Mary, played by Amanda Seyfried. I especially liked Cedric Kyles, as the head of the local megachurch, Abundant Life.

The polar opposite of Abundant Life, Toller’s tiny First Reformed congregation is merely an archaic satellite of the larger church, kept alive more for historical value—its 250th anniversary approaches—than for its contribution to the spirit and economics of the parent enterprise.

The problem for me was the plot. Where is this story going? Is it an exercise in consciousness-raising about the environment? Is it about one man’s spiritual journey? The point must have flown by on wings of song (the singing is good), and I missed it. Perhaps it all boils down to the theme first expressed by Mary’s husband, a depressed environmental activist—“Will God forgive us?” And maybe that question applies equally to Rev. Toller’s personal quest as well as to our worldwide environmental depredations. Plus, the ending is strange, with two different interpretations in our household. (See the movie and tell me your, please.)

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 95%; audiences: 72%.

A Mysterious Affair & the Ur-Story

chalk outline, body

(image: pixabay, creative commons license)

Last Saturday the Princeton Arts Council hosted an afternoon conference featuring an impressive gang of mystery and crime writers who ply their trade between New York and Philadelphia. A first of its kind, in my memory at least, it drew around a hundred writers and readers and fans.

Panels talked about writing stories set in a region—does it matter whether you’ve actually been there? Or, when is Google Earth not enough?—and stories where the author can’t have been there, because they’re set in a different historical time—how much research do you really need? Even stories set in the future, in the case of some thrillers—is research even important? Don’t you just make it up?

Audience members asked the burning question: how do people react when the find out you write about murder? And, while this prompted some humorous replies, in fact, most people are fascinated. They often say they would like to write a mystery themselves, though few end up doing it. Panelists encouraged them to. As to how they manage writing, other jobs, families, and so on, panelist Jeff Cohen (who writes as E.J. Copperman) had the best reply: “If you can swing it, it helps to have a wife with a full-time job.”

Guest of Honor S. J. Rozan, a mystery writer with 15 novels, more than 60 short stories, and  multiple awards on her c.v., gave the keynote. She talked about how genre writers—crime (including mystery and thrillers), romance, Westerns, science fiction, and she’d include coming-of-age—are still disparaged as “not literature,” yet remain wildly popular.

Why is that? She said genre writing can be distinguished by having an ur-story, a fundamental story line. Readers (and moviegoers) expect and take comfort in those ur-stories and in their very predictability, and writers violate the established genre conventions at their peril. The ur-story in the romance genre is “love conquers all”; in science fiction, it’s “what it is to be human.” Mysteries and thrillers, despite their uncountable variations, have ur-stories too, she maintains. In mystery, it’s “here’s why this happened”—attractive in a world where so much seems inexplicable—and in thrillers, it’s “is there time?” This last manifests itself in the frequently encountered literal “ticking clock” that thriller protagonists are trying to beat.

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell maintained there is a single ur-story underlying all fiction, ancient to 21c. This has led to the “hero’s journey” school of story construction, in which a protagonist is marched through a call to adventure, begins a quest, overcomes trials, brings home the goods, and so on. That fundamental storyline can be detected in Rozan’s more descriptive genre-specific ur-stories. Whatever it is, however it’s aggregated or subdivided, we love hearing and seeing the ur-story over and over in books, on stage, and in the movies.

The event, sponsored by Princeton’s Cloak & Dagger bookstore, was co-hosted by the local chapters of two organizations I belong to: Mystery Writers of America, and Sisters in Crime.

****The Last Meridian

Los Angeles, palm trees, night

photo: Alissa Walker, creative commons license

By Joe Hefferon – The author spent a quarter-century “in law enforcement” in gritty Newark, New Jersey. In this, his first full-length novel, he’s created an engaging female protagonist in a jam who turns to a private detective for help, and he set the story in and around Los Angeles. On the surface, his characters are savvy and confident—on top of the world—but underneath, well, it’s more complicated. The book’s brief prologue has a particularly engaging first line: “The coroner’s wagon had a flat tire.” Nothing good can follow.

Sixteen years before the novel begins, now-successful Hollywood interior designer Nina Ferrer lived in Chicago and gave up an illegitimate son because she was too young, too unready, and too unwilling to raise a child alone. She abandoned her child and the Midwest for a better, more glamorous life. It turned out she has a talent for perfectly divining the aspirations of her well-paying clients, making their homes an expression of their best selves. Her own home, however, is empty of love, as she and her wealthy businessman (and Cuban cigar-smuggling) husband have long since lost interest in each other.

Still, her life is reasonably well-ordered until she receives a telegram saying that her son back in Illinois has been accused of murder. His adoptive mother swears he is innocent, but she can’t afford a proper defense, and unless some kind of deus ex machina appears—most likely in the form of Nina herself—the boy is doomed to a lengthy prison term.

Nina’s husband is unaware of the boy and at this late date, she doesn’t want to tell him. So she travels all the way to dismal Bakersfield to find a private investigator and gets much more than she bargained for.

The short chapters toggle back and forth mostly between events early in 1965 and toward the end of that year. The later scenes are a series of journalist interviews with Nina that take place after she’s been incarcerated. You don’t know why she’s in custody or what is likely to happen to her until near the end of the story. Although Hefferon precedes each scene with the appropriate time stamp, this switching back and forth became a bit dizzying as the plot gains in complexity and the crimes that led to the boy’s arrest are investigated.

Hefferon’s engaging presentation of Los Angeles and its denizens, its petty criminals, and the detective Nina hires all seem plausible. Yet the novel has an occasional unevenness of tone that is jarring and which Hefferon will probably overcome with more writing experience. At times it seems he’s trying too hard to achieve a literary effect. Nevertheless, Hefferon is capable of pleasing on-point description. For example, “Whether it was (the reporter’s) inability to ask questions rapidly, or a natural gift for shutting up, he listened better than he talked, offering Nina a wide runway on which to land her story.”

You’ll enjoy spending time with these characters and may conclude this is an author who, when his literary skills catch up to his gifts of characterization and plot development, may become highly regarded in the crime fiction field. It’s gritty noir tinged with tinseltown glamour. And you may find these characters, especially the wise-cracking detective (whose wit is easily matched by that of Nina herself), modern incarnations of the types so well portrayed by Los Angeles literary icon Raymond Chandler and his progeny.