The Pine Barrens Stratagem

New Jersey has hosted a run of excellent (and humorous) crime thrillers in the past year. The latest example is Ken Harris’s high-octane thriller, in which investigator Steve Rockfish tackles a series of 1943 crimes in rural southern New Jersey. The healthy young men were going to war, and they left behind quite a few pregnant girlfriends. Unfortunately, many families considered pregnant unmarried daughters an embarrassment, sent them away, kept them out of sight, or cut them off completely. If they and their babies disappeared, that may have seemed like the best outcome. One local police officer, Edward McGee, persisted in investigating these disappearances. When he disappeared too, the questions stopped.

This chilling history lesson is the prologue of The Pine Barrens Stratagem. From that point, the story fast-forwards to 2020. An unlikely crusader for justice—a Los Angeles-based true crime podcaster named Angel Davenport—hears tantalizing threads of this story and decides it could be his ticket to a lucrative, high-profile Netflix television series.

Temperamentally allergic to hard work, not to mention being located 2700 miles from the scene of action and in pandemic lockdown, Davenport hires Baltimore’s Steve Rockfish to pursue the case. It could be murder, it could be child trafficking, it could be both. At least Davenport’s dramatic instincts are correct: it has all the makings of a compelling story.

Rockfish has something of a drinking problem—a trait he shares with the man who hired him—but it turns out he’s a good investigator, and it’s entertaining to see him smoothly work the system, talking his way into places to conduct interviews and making allies as well as enemies as his investigation proceeds. He has a wicked sense of humor (there’s a coarseness in the early part of the book that mostly disappears as the story goes along) and locks onto the politics of the people he meets, using their prejudices against them. They never realize what he’s doing, but I was laughing.

He teams up with Jawnie McGee, great-granddaughter of the long-ago missing and presumed dead policeman, who turns out to be an excellent partner. Naturally, it’s not all smooth sailing for this pair. Lots of people have a stake in keeping the lid on those long ago events—the local cops, the Mafia, the Catholic Church. Will Steve and Jawnie be able to evade them all?

Harris is a retiree from more than three decades as a cybersecurity executive with the FB, and his affection for his home state of New Jersey shines through. An epilogue reveals this is the first of a series. A sequel is expected in July.

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The Runaway

Fans of award-winning author Nick Petrie’s high-octane action adventures won’t be disappointed in his latest, seventh in the series. The Runaway again features knight-errant Peter Ash, a U.S. Marine no longer serving in the military, who, over the course of these thrillers is gradually learning to manage a debilitating case of PTSD. At the same time, Petrie’s writing shows ever-increasing skill and confidence with no sign of flagging.

The sparsely populated countryside of several Great Plains states—Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska—features heavily in this story. The area has its beauties, but it’s remote. A stranger sticks out. Mostly, there’s not much help around if and when you need it. And he will.

Driving across Nebraska, using one of the back roads he prefers, Ash encounters a small white car parked by the side of the road. Out of gas? Mechanical problem? It’s in Ash’s nature to stop and help—part of his atonement for Iraq and Afghanistan—but it seems no one is around. Then a heavily pregnant woman emerges from behind a cottonwood tree.

Helene is terrified and trying to escape her husband, but the car she’s appropriated broke down. Husband Roy is a high-end thief, robbing empty vacation homes. He used to be a Minneapolis police officer and has cultivated connections with cops across multiple states, which makes going to the police a risky option. Yet he’s said he’ll help her, and he’s determined to do it. Though a controlling spouse is a familiar plot idea, Petrie’s skill in developing Helene’s character keeps you caring about her fate.

Roy’s hunt for Peter, Peter’s hunt for Helene, and his strategies to keep them both alive make for a page-turning, stay-up-late adventure. The story’s not just about the difficulty of escaping a wily and determined spouse. It’s about the internal resources you need to actually go through with it. Helene is very young. Can she do what needs to be done? For his part, Peter is not only clever about resolving difficult situations, he displays a strong streak of humanity, as well.

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The Quiet People

In award-winning author Paul Cleave’s new crime thriller, Cameron and Lisa are crime writers based in Christchurch, New Zealand, with a string of successful books behind them. They’re also parents of seven-year-old Zach who is, euphemistically “a little different.” More bluntly, he’s a terror—unpredictable, badly behaved, uncooperative. You know Cameron wants to be a conscientious father, but it’s hard, and one morning, Zach is gone.

Detective Inspector Rebecca Kent and her new partner DI Ben Thompson are in charge of the investigation and follow the usual playbook. There’s a shortage of physical clues, and everything Cameron says works against him. He narrates much of the story, which enables a deep look into his psyche, in the manner of a psychological thriller. Chapters about the police work, by contrast, are in third-person, and read more like a police procedural.

A short prologue reveals that Zach and another boy are in the hands of a known pedophile named Lucas Pittman, which, for readers, justifies Cameron’s frenzy and makes the police’s painstakingly slow progress all the more frustrating.

At a too-hastily assembled news conference, Cameron loses his temper on live television. Now the circus really starts. The police suspect the distressed parents; growing crowds incited by social media picket the house, yell at the couple from the street, and call Cameron a child killer. As each new piece of evidence comes to light, the crowds and wild accusations grow.

The news coverage is disastrous. Old footage of Cameron and Lisa giving talks at writers’ conferences making jokes like “we kill people for a living” are shown out of context. An arrest seems inevitable and imminent.

At this point, you might think Cameron has hit bottom. Oh, no. Things get much worse and in surprising ways. It’s a testament to author Cleave’s skill that, as Cameron becomes increasingly unhinged, he has become such a compelling and believable character that you’re ready to follow him along a quite dark path. Meanwhile the bad calls the police have made are precipitating a crisis of conscience for Detective Kent. 

There’s much more to come, and while many books are promoted as “page turners,” for me this really was one! The most chilling aspect was the vitriolic and insensitive behavior of the crowds that felt as if it could spill over into violence any second. It’s a scenario all too believable as another dark side of social media. (In a true story reported by Katherine Laidlaw in the October issue of Wired, “Last year in a small bayside town in Nova Scotia, 3-year-old Dylan Ehler vanished, leaving nothing but two rain boots. In the following days, thousands of online sleuths descended on Facebook groups to help with the search. Then they turned.” On the parents.)

That’s what happens when all “facts” are equal, and there’s no incentive to distinguish true from false, but rather, to coast through life on a tide of emotion and outrage. Cleave well describes how Cameron and Lisa were at risk of drowning in it.

Appointment in Tehran

By James Stejskal – If like me you remember the 1979 episode when radical Iranian students seized the US embassy in Tehran and took more than 50 Americans hostage, you’ll read James Stejskal’s riveting new thriller with an increasing sense of foreboding. That’s especially if you also recall that the US military launched a rescue mission that came to a disastrous end in the desert south of Tehran. Ultimately, the American hostages—many of them diplomats—were held for 444 days, until the inauguration of a new American president, Ronald Reagan. (The rescue of several Americans who escaped the embassy invasion and hid in the Canadian embassy was the subject of the highly entertaining 2012 film, Argo.)

Given that Stejskal’s characters are smart and skilled Special Forces men, members of Delta Force, I was interested in how he’d handle the botched rescue. No revisionist history here. His description is an accurate picture of how it happened, and, perhaps more important, why it happened: an overly complex strategy, contingency planning failures, and sheer bad luck.

As real events simmer in the story’s background, Stejskal’s characters, led by Master Sergeant Kim Beck and Staff Sergeant Paul Stavros, have a lot of work to do. First, they undergo specific and intensive training in skills likely necessary for the rescue attempt: close quarter battle marksmanship, casing a target location, working as a team following a target through the city without being detected. Fascinating. Naturally, these skills come into play before the story ends.

Even though the Delta team members are not part of the main rescue force headed for disaster in the desert, they have several critical jobs. They must make on-site assessments of the situation where Americans are being held (the embassy and the Iranian Foreign Minister’s office). They must double-check the adequacy and security of sites and logistics for extracting the hostages. It’s dangerous undercover work. Iran isn’t just hostile, it would welcome the chance to make political hay out of the capture of American spies.

And that’s not all. An army intelligence operation has smuggled a tactical nuclear weapon into Iran to be used against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and the Americans want their bomb back at all costs. A traitor within US European forces has told the Soviets about the weapon, and they want it too. While this part of the story is purely fictional, the accuracy with which Stejskal portrays real events adds to the credibility of the entire plot.

This then is the Delta Force mission: backstop the rescue efforts, extracting the diplomats held at the foreign minister’s office, find that nuclear device, and move it out of the country. Any or all of this could go badly in so many ways.

Like his previous thriller involving many of the same characters, A Question of Time, this story is a pure adventure. It’s as much a political thriller as a military one, and you become a frustrated observer of the way bureaucracies tie themselves up in knots. Stejskal is a former CIA officer and US Army Special Forces member who had assignments worldwide, which has helped him create a plausible and exciting story.

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Wayward Girls

A novel that sets out to make a political point runs the risk of straying into the polemical—less novel, more essay. That’s a fate that co-authors Claire Matturro and Penny Koepsel avoid in their engrossing new crime thriller, Wayward Girls. A dedication reveals the novel was “inspired by the well-documented horrors” at a wilderness school in Texas, Artesia Hall, where a female student died in 1972, and by Florida’s infamous Dozier School for Boys, which finally closed in 2011. The result is a highly readable book with a strong sense of purpose.

The story begins in the present day, when the adult Jude receives a call from an old friend, known as Farmer Max, who tells her that her old boarding school, Talbot Hall for Girls, is about to be demolished. Jude had a best friend and fellow-sufferer there—Camille—whom she’s estranged from. Farmer Max calls Camille too.

Jude is now an artist, making a reasonable living with sales of her paintings; Camille is a psychotherapist and college professor. Both women decide to make the trip to central Florida to witness the destruction. Camille digs out her journals, and the impressions of her fifteen-year-old self lead you into the girls’ difficult past.

The school is a giant, gothic-looking building with fake turrets and a tower in the middle of nowhere. What terrible acts brought Jude and Camille to Talbot? Camille skipped school to spend time with her boyfriend (she’s still a virgin). Her psychotherapist, Dr. Hedstrom recommended Talbot, and her parents were happy to have her out of the house. Jude’s therapist reported she had the “potential for violence” after Jude, provoked, shoved her. A “more structured environment” was recommended for them both.

Not that the Talbot students are angels. Warnings pass among them not to trust their housemother, Mrs. Dalfour, or Jack, the young handyman who spies on them. At least Camille is away from creepy Dr. Hedstrom. But he takes a part-time position at the school and keeps trying to insinuate himself into Camille’s life. Another new girl enters the mix: Wanda Ann Mosby, the wildest of them—loud and brash and undereducated.

When some of Camille’s possessions go missing, she makes a big deal of it, but then they reappear. She doesn’t know what to think, but the other girls do. They think she’s crazy, and you can’t believe anything she says. A perfect gaslight.

The reconstruction of Camille and Jude’s teen years occupies most of the story, but there are flash forwards to today as they meet at Farmer Max’s bar and juke joint. Authors Matturro and Koepsel provide hints about the final tragedy all those years before—a fire, an allegation of murder—and it’s uncertain whether Camille and Jude can get past all that to reconnect.

Matturro and Koepsel have plotted the tale well, with high stakes and believable motives. The central Florida location—hot, humid, buggy—seems the very definition of a neglected, out-of-sight place where bad things can happen unimpeded. The authors falter a bit in characterization, without the depth you might want, and Dr. Hedstrom, especially, is too transparently awful. Nevertheless, I grew to care about Jude and Camille, about Wanda and Farmer Max and how they might escape Talbot’s influence.

Husbands’ ability to commit their unruly wives to a mental hospital in the 1800s is fairly well known. The cases that inspired Matturro and Koepsel show the continued vulnerability of young people, especially girls and women, to exploitation. And if you think society has finally extinguished the desire to control women through drastic means, you haven’t been following the sad saga of Britney Spears.

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Weekend Movie Pick: The Courier

The Cold War spy film The Courier, which came out last year (I missed it totally), is available on Netflix. A “based on true events” tale that took place around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it describes how a British businessman was persuaded by MI6 and the CIA to make contact with a Soviet scientist who appeared eager to share information about his country’s nuclear program with the West. As we now know, that cascade of events in 1962 came much closer to disaster than our leaders and the American public believed.

The film, directed by Dominic Cooke and written by Tom O’Connor (trailer), stars Benedict Cumberbatch as real-life businessman Grenville Wynne. The Soviet contact, Oleg Penkovsky, is played by a sad-eyed Merab Ninidze. The cast is great and the story gripping, even though it follows a well-trodden path. The stakes couldn’t have been higher. For both Wynne and Penkovsky, it was either take the risk or total annihilation.

The film was originally titled Ironbark, the Brits’ code name for Penkovsky, but the star turn belongs to Cumberbatch, the courier. The touches of Soviet perfidy seem right out of John le Carré. When the MI6 crowd starts talking about exfiltrating Penkovsky, it seemed like an impossible long-shot. (I wish they’d make a film about Oleg Gordievsky, another real-life Soviet spy, whose story was told in Ben Macintyre’s The Spy and the Traitor, which gives a hair-raising account of how difficult saving Soviet spies really was.

The Courier is a cautionary tale and a solid bit of filmmaking about a period people under 60 weren’t alive to experience.Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 87%; audiences 95%

Disappointed Expectations

You may have noticed that the book reviews on this website tend toward the positive. I decided a few months ago to post reviews here of only those books I could recommend. I’m choosy about what I read in the first place, but if a book doesn’t meet expectations, OK. What’s the point of giving a tepid review to a book that probably won’t ever come to the notice of most readers? Let those authors have their shot. Tastes differ.

Two books I’ve read lately are exceptions. Both are receiving a healthy dose of publicity—one because the author is popular and the other, a debut, because the publisher has put big bucks behind it. So these books may actually may attract your attention. Here’s what troubled me about them.

The Hollows

Mark Edwards is a popular British thriller writer. He set this story at a family camp in Maine—remote, wooded. A grisly double murder occurred there twenty years earlier, and the local teenager thought to have committed the crime disappears and isn’t seen again. When British journalist Tom and his teenage daughter arrive for a getaway, they learn right away about the killings and that many of the camp’s visitors are murder-porn tourists. Creepy events ensue. Is the place haunted, has the killer been living in the woods all this time, why are people warning them to leave? Of course, they don’t take any of this good advice (or there wouldn’t be a story), but Tom’s second-guessing and the predictable plot become tiresome.

Falling

TJ Newman’s debut thriller is an exciting read, so much so (especially for us formerly-frequent flyers) that it may distract you from the plot’s implausibility. But after you close the book, the head-scratching will begin. Newman is a former flight attendant and captures the technical aspects of commercial flight very persuasively and her flight attendant characters are nicely three-dimensional. In a nutshell, a transcontinental passenger airline is hijacked and the pilot is told he must crash the plane when it reaches New York. If he refuses, his kidnapped wife and children will be killed. But aside from the behavioral clichés in the story, the bad guys’ plot is way way more complicated than it needed to be. Ultimately, it makes no sense. (I won’t say why in case you decide to give it a go.) There’s a lot of feel-good stuff near the end that doesn’t hold up either. This book has already been optioned for film and has Hollywood fakery written all over it.

Revisited: The Water Knife

By Paolo Bacigalupi, narrated by Almarie Guerra – Recent news about the drought in the American Southwest reminds me to revisit this excellent 2015 thriller that pits governments against each other and new technology (interesting in itself) benefits some people more than others (go figure). Set in the not-too-distant future, Bacigalupi’s story uses real-life issues as a springboard, adds in toxic intergovernmental rivalries and a healthy dose of greed. It’s an exciting and thought-provoking tale.

In Bacigalupi’s Southwest, Nevada (specifically Las Vegas), Arizona, and California are battling over a dwindling water supply caused by climate change, population pressure, and brazen political brokering. The situation has escalated, with states declaring their sovereignty, closing their borders, and enforcing interstate transit rules with armed militias that shoot to kill. Zoners (Arizonans) have few ways to make a living, and those with weapons prey on the desperate poor. To have water is to be rich or, as the saying goes, “water flows toward money.” The wealthy have bought their way into “arcologies”—high-rise buildings with complex plant and aquatic ecosystems for recycling and recirculating virtually every drop.

In Las Vegas, the Cypress arcologies were built by Catherine Case, nicknamed the Queen of the Colorado River, and head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. Las Vegas is to some extent thriving, because of her cunning and cutthroat tactics. But Phoenix is dying.

Angel Velasquez, one of the book’s three protagonists, is an ex-prison inmate—smart, ruthless, a “water knife” who works for Case, cutting other people’s water supplies. Lucy Monroe is a Phoenix-based Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and social media star (#PhoenixDowntheTubes) who just might have a lead on some serious water rights, and Maria Villarosa is a highly disposable Texas refugee barely surviving in Phoenix and at the constant mercy of a brutal gang headed by “the Vet,” who throws enemies to his pack of hyenas.

Angel must visit Phoenix to investigate the mutilation death of one of Catherine Case’s undercover operatives, and the plot really starts to flow. He finds Phoenix swimming with Calis—Californians also working undercover to assure that state’s gluttonous water requirements are met, regardless what happens to everyone upriver. Before long, all the players are after the same thing—original water rights documents that would supersede everything on the books—and no one is sure who has them.

While the story is a critique of a policy environment in which local interests are allowed to supersede regional and federal goals, it never reads like a political tract. And, while quite a bit is imparted about the issue of water rights and reclamation strategies, it isn’t a legal or scientific tome, either. It’s a thriller about a compelling trio of people with different motivations, different places in the water aristocracy, and different strategies for coping. The drought, dust, and poverty that envelop Angel, Lucy, and Maria and their cities affect everyone who lives there. “Somehow they hadn’t been able to see something that was plain as day, coming straight at them.”

A lot of powerful straight journalism has been written recently about water rights, droughts, agricultural demand, and intergovernmental bickering about rights. This important novel makes the stakes eminently—and memorably—clear.

Almarie Guerra does a solid narration, putting just the right Latino topspin on the Mexican voices.

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As of July 2021, Lake Mead, the nation’s largest water reservoir by volume, is at 37% of capacity.

The Beresford

In Will Carver’s new literary thriller, The Beresford is a grand old pile at the edge of an unnamed city. The bottom two floors contain the quarters of Mrs. May, the landlady, the ‘library,’ and four furnished flats—spacious, airy, and cheap—and she has no difficulty keeping them filled. From the time a tenant departs, no more than a minute passes before a replacement rings the front bell.

When the story opens, Mrs. May has two tenants in residence, a third arriving momentarily. One is the insufferably pretentious conceptual artist Sythe, né Aidan Gallagher, desperate to escape his Irish farm-boy roots and even more desperate to become a famous painter. He makes heavy use of Mrs. May’s immaculate back garden and its burning bin, where he destroys piles of disappointing artworks.

A longer-term tenant is Abe Schwartz, whom the narrator introduces by saying, “Your daughter brings home Abe Schwartz and you’re pleased. Not for her.” He’s polite, normal, nice. So of course Abe interrupts what he’s doing to help the new tenant, Blair Conroy, shuttle her boxes up the Beresford’s imposing staircase. After a week or so, she notices that, although she’s heard a lot about Sythe, she hasn’t met him. Nor will she, as Abe has murdered him. When she arrived that first day, he was preparing to dismember the body.

Despite the grim situation, Carver’s deft touch maintains an upbeat tone and romance blossoms between Abe and Blair. Meanwhile, oblivious Mrs. May keeps her rigid schedule, which involves numerous glasses of wine during the day, violent prayer, and an afternoon siesta.

As the story progresses, you may hear a bizarre echo of the Eagles’s hit, “Hotel California”: “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” At least not in one piece. Carver keeps the story moving along briskly with new people to meet, including some who are asking too many questions and whose tenancy may be rather short. They’re all initially charmed by the building and their dotty new landlady, which conjures up another line from the same song: “This could be Heaven or this could be Hell,” with The Beresford leaning distinctly toward the latter.

Newcomer Gail upends the uneasy equilibrium. She’s escaped an abusive husband, and she and Abe incinerate her cell phone (a literal burner) to stop his offensive texts. Complicating matters, she’s unexpectedly pregnant.

Carver leads off his novel with an epigram credited to Charles Bukowski: “Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must live.” This may lead you to wonder about the extent of crazy at work in this story. Being overcome by madness is referred to several times, even when Abe muses about his affection for Blair. For the most part, he thinks, love is interchangeable with madness, but nobody would ask to be mad. As Gail obsesses on the future of her unborn child, she too is increasingly unhinged.

How much does ancient Mrs. May know? Or suspect? You’ll start to wonder that during the awkward dinners she hosts for new arrivals. She challenges her guests with Faustian questions like, What do you most want in the world?, and its dangerous corollary, What would you do to get it?

This is an entertaining book, full of surprises. Carver’s smooth writing style and the hothouse environment he creates prevent you from being troubled by certain logistical details. And, at the end, don’t be surprised if you recall a third “Hotel California” lyric, ‘They just can’t kill the Beast.’

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Long Bright River

By Liz Moore – This family thriller, set in Philadelphia, is on a number of “best books of 2020” lists, and for good reason. Mickey Fitzpatrick is a 30-something female police officer who loves her patrol job, loves her intimacy with the Kensington area that’s her beat, knows who lives there, who serves the best coffee, who the working girls are, and generally tries to keep bad things from happening.

She’s called out to the site where the body of a young woman has been discovered by disused train tracks. The terror coursing through her body doesn’t subside until she sees the dead woman is not her younger sister Kacey, a many-times-relapsed drug user who’s disappeared. Mickey fears the worst.

The novel’s third significant character is Philadelphia itself, whose gritty neighborhoods and obscure loyalties take on real life in Moore’s telling. Mickey has tried many times to pull Kacey away from the dark side, but every time, the drugs lure her back. That’s an old and familiar story, but the way Moore builds the relationship between the sisters makes it compelling nonetheless.

Mickey is the older of the two—the quiet, bookish one. Kacey was the social butterfly. Their mother died of an overdose, and their father died too. They were raised by their grandmother, a strict and bitter woman with little money and even less affection to share.

Now Kacey’s in the wind, and Mickey takes every opportunity to look for her. At least at home she has a wonderfully bright son, Thomas, whose dad is an older man, a police detective, who befriended the teenage Mickey. He listened to her, gave her understanding and advice, and she responded to his warmth.

I especially enjoyed the scenes with Mickey’s extended family—aunts and uncles, cousins—whom we meet when she drops in unannounced for Thanksgiving. Mickey, with her hard-won academic achievements, is a fish out of water with them. In their opinion, “work was done with your body, with your hands. College was for dreamers and snobs.”

Mickey doesn’t fit in at work, either. Her boss actively dislikes her, and as the local prostitutes’ death count begins to climb, a frantic Mickey takes some liberties with departmental rules. Her suspicions are mostly ignored and even backfire.

The serial killer theme and the good-girl/bad-girl dynamic are crime fiction staples, but the quality of Moore’s writing and the honesty at the novel’s core make them fresh again. And Moore delivers some surprises along the way that will keep you turning pages.