Abir Mukherjee’s 2017 debut novel is an easy-to-read police procedural that shares many of the charms of his subsequent novel, A Necessary Evil, which I reviewed some time ago. Set in India around 1920, it provides a probably too-rosy view of the Raj, though many of the social problems, the racism, the unrest are certainly there. Nevertheless, within the frame of Mukherjee’s clever plot, in the end, you come away feeling you know more about the culture and the country than when you opened the book.
Michael Koryta’s thriller possesses what might be one plot thread too many, though the inciting event—a murder in which the only witness is injured and suffering from locked-in syndrome—starts the plot moving with a bang. If only she’d come out of it, she might have useful information about the murder. The principal protagonist, an insurance investigator, knows this. The FBI knows it. Her sister knows it. And so do the assassins who want to ensure her silence lasts forever. Medical websites consider locked-in syndrome a “rare neurological disorder,” but it’s not rare in thrillers! Here’s another good one.
Yes, that Troy. Theodor Kallifatides uses a Greek classroom in WWII as the setting for a teacher’s inspired retelling of the tale of the Achaeans’ quest to recapture Helen, the frightful battles, the death of Hector, the loss of Achilles, and the cunning horse. Beautifully done, and a pleasure to read!
Adrian McKinty has received considerable publicity with this book, in part because it almost didn’t get written. Author of several excellent police procedurals featuring Catholic Sean Duffy, a detective with the heavily Protestant Belfast police, with all the conflicts that set-up suggests, McKinty had just about abandoned writing. Then comes The Chain, and, while I loved the Belfast books, the premise here is a stretch. On audio, the narrator, January LaVoy, beautifully conveys the fear experienced by frantic parents whose children have been ensnared by The Chain. They cannot get them back without paying a ransom and kidnapping someone else’s child. It’s diabolical, but is it even a bit believable? Hoping he’s back on a roll.
By Matt Gianni – The Knights Templar, a Catholic military
order that distinguished itself during the Crusades, existed for less than two
hundred years. But it has been a treasure trove of secrets and mysteries, real
and imagined, ever since. When this thriller begins in 1307, the Holy Land has
already been lost, and the Templars are under siege. One thing has preserved
them through the era’s political vicissitudes—the Lever Templar—a scroll that
would “redefine Christianity.” What and where is it?
In the opening scenes, Knight Malcolm of Basingstoke and his
sergeant Brimley Hastings break into the Templar’s Preceptory south of London to
steal an ancient leather pouch. Only later does Brim, who becomes the hero of
the piece, learn the pouch contains the Lever Templar. Malcolm and Brim escape to
Cyprus, where the Templars maintain a tenuous presence. There they reconnect
with old friends, including a young woman who becomes Brim’s love interest,
while violent opposing forces scour the island for the missing scroll. And so Brim’s
quest to safeguard the Lever Templar begins.
In current-day Mosul, Iraq, American Rick Lambert works for the Iraqi Interior Ministry’s Investigations Unit, trying to solve a rash of Christian priest abductions. He partially foils the latest attempt, during which a dying priest hands him an ancient domino, saying, “protect Cyprus.” Vatican emissaries are sent to bird-dog Lambert (that is, to make sure anything he finds that’s important ends up back in Rome). The Farsi-speaking terrorists targeting Christian churches know about the scroll and believe it will destroy Christianity. And so the modern-day race to find the scroll commences.
This is a rip-roaring adventure told in chapters alternating
between ancient and current times and with lots of characters. Gianni does what
I wish more authors would do to help you keep it straight: maps of the
principal locations are especially helpful, because he’s not generous with place
descriptions; ditto his list of characters, real and fictional. He’s done a
creditable job in portraying life seven centuries ago in a believable way. I
loved the detail of how they used carrier pigeons to deliver messages across
Gianni’s writing style is clear and has strong forward
momentum. With more delving into his characters’ feelings, he might encourage a
greater emotional connection with them, but if people are best known by their
deeds, those are certainly on view here. He makes a half-hearted attempt to
give Lambert a character flaw—excess drinking after his terrible Army
experiences in Fallujah (left to your imagination)—but it isn’t convincing,
never gets in Lambert’s way, and has been done too many times.
If you’re a fan of the Indiana Jones franchise
or appreciate the speculations of Dan Brown and others, you’ll find this an
By Michael Aloisi and Rebecca Rowland – Serial killer Dennis
Sweeney had a really bad idea: kill a young woman, divide her into parts, and
mail them to 30 randomly selected, unsuspecting people all across the United
States. Who doesn’t like a surprise package? There’s 30 people in this novel who
would never open another one.
Sweeney sends an anonymous letter to over-the-hill reporter Jackson Matthews, whom he admires, describing what he’s done and proving it with pictures. He invites Jax to cover the story, “to be the voice of my actions.”
If all the pieces of the girl are found, Sweeney promises to turn himself in. If not? He says, “All the King’s horses and All the King’s men, will force me to start all over again.” Jax calls the police. It seems the letter isn’t a hoax, and reports of the macabre parcels begin to appear in the news media.
Bizarrely and, you may think, predictably, only eighteen of
the grisly packages are turned in to the authorities. That’s 12 people who
received a body part and did something else with it. The stories of what
happened to these dozen packages make up most of the book. The authors treat
those twelve chapters as short stories, with quirky back-stories for the
recipients—character studies of people who, for wildly varied reasons, are incapable
of the correct response. (Apparently none of them listen to the news to know
there’s a bigger picture here.)
In between these stories are chapters that let you catch up with Jax and his efforts to identify Sweeney, and what else Sweeney is up to. The stakes increase dramatically when Sweeney threatens Jax’s wife, if the reporter doesn’t start writing about him. Early on Jax is approached by a young man who introduces himself as a police detective. Jax soon unmasks him as the creator of a serial killer website with lagging viewership who hopes the inside scoop on this story can renew its popularity. He claims to have an algorithm that can find the killer, and it certainly unearths some unsavory folk.
Between the chapters about the missing body parts, Jax’s investigations, and Sweeney’s story, past and present, the authors have a lot of balls to keep in the air, yet the tale is never confusing. I liked the diabolically varied missing pieces stories, although perhaps two or three fewer would have worked as well, as the rhythm of the chapters gets a little exhausting. On the whole, Pieces has a clever premise, innovative format, and quite capable writing that kept me engaged. Not for the faint of heart.
Once the nominees and winners for the many, many awards in the crime/mystery/thriller genre are out, I listen to some of the ones I haven’t read. A talented narrator can really put a story into your head! Here are five I’ve heard lately, all (except one) with excellent narration. Three are nominees for Anthony Awards, which will be announced later this year.
Written by James A McLaughlin, narrated by MacLeod Andres – Oddly, Bearskin had some of the same appeal as the very different Where the Crawdads Sing, because part of the narrator’s challenge is dealing with a heavy dose of the natural world. Rice Moore is hiding out in an Appalachian Virginia nature preserve, living pretty much off the grid and hoping an assassin from the Mexican drug cartel whose younger brother he killed doesn’t find him. Meanwhile, he must deal with bear poachers, motorcycle outlaws, and an interesting parade of Old Dominion miscreants. Winner: 2019 Edgar Award for Best First Novel; Nominee: 2019 Anthony Award for Best Novel
In November Road,written by Lou Berney, narrated by Johnathan McClain – President Kennedy has been shot and New Orleans player Frank Guidry realizes the errand a local crime boss sent him on is connected to that crime. It sounded simple: drive this sky-blue Cadillac Eldorado to Dallas and park it in a particular place. It was the assassin’s getaway car. Now Guidry is supposed to dispose of the vehicle and rightly worries he’ll be disposed of next. Meanwhile, an Oklahoma housewife leaves her alcoholic husband and hits the road with her two daughters, never expecting to meet a man like Guidry. Winner: 2019 Left Coast Crime Award for Best Mystery Novel and a “Best Book of the Year” by at least 13 publications; Nominee: 2019 Anthony Award for Best Novel
Written by Mike Lawson, narrated by Joe Barrett – A powerful member of Congress has a secret: years ago his mistress bore him a son. When that son is shot dead in a Manhattan bar, he sends his fixer, Joe DeMarco, to make sure the culprit—son of a wealthy businessman—goes to jail. The case in House Witnessshould be a slam-dunk. There were five witnesses, after all. But as the witnesses start disappearing, the prosecutor suspects a campaign to get rid of them. She enlists DeMarco in a desperate cat-and-mouse game with a beautiful sociopath. Nominee: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for Best Novel
****The Chalk Man
Written by C J Tudor, narrated by Euan Morton. Years ago, in a small English town, a tight-knit gang of four twelve-year-olds communicated with each other via coded messages chalked on the sidewalk. One day a strange chalk message leads them to the body of a missing girl and a teacher–The Chalk Man–is blamed. Thirty years on, Eddie drinks too much, fuzzing his thinking about the new appearance of chalk men and the mysterious letter he and each of his friends have received. Is he creating these messages in a drunken blackout? When one of the four dies, Eddie must find out what happened so long ago in order to save them all. Winner: 2019 International Thriller Writers’ Award for Best First Novel; Strand Magazine Award for Best Debut Novel
***Jar of Hearts
Written by Jennifer Hillier, narrated by January LaVoy – In Jar of Hearts, sixteen-year-old Georgina Shaw’s boyfriend, Calvin James, kills her best friend, and buries the dismembered corpse in the woods behind Geo’s house. Twenty years later, Angela’s body is found, and Calvin is convicted of her murder, but he soon escapes from prison. Geo is incarcerated for five years, derailing her lucrative career and high-profile engagement. As she is about to be released, new bodies are found in the same woods. Calvin is the chief suspect, and Geo may be the next victim. This thriller loses a star mainly because the narration didn’t work for me. The print book might be a better choice. Winner:2019 International Thriller Writers’ Award for Best Hardcover Novel; Nominee: 2019 Anthony Award for Best Novel
By Shannon Kirk – The crime—the first one that is—is
kidnapping. Shannon Kirk’s gripping new psychological thriller Gretchen begins with a mother determined
to prevent her daughter’s father from kidnapping her. Susan explains to Lucy
that he’s from a country where women have no rights and live practically like
slaves, and he will do anything—send anyone—to get her back. They’ve been on
the run since Lucy was a toddler, never really settling down, and now they are
fleeing Indiana, their tenth state.
What will a mother do to protect her child? Live on the
fringes of society and be prepared to pack up and leave at any moment. Never
engage with anyone or reveal anything about themselves. Never even make eye
contact. Susan and Lucy have fake identities, she pays cash for everything, and
accesses a hidden stash when they run short.
Now that she’s fifteen, Lucy is tired of the secrets, tired
of the hiding, tired of not having friends, exhausted by Susan’s paranoia.
Homeschooled until recently, she barely has acquaintances, since she can’t
really share personal information with anyone she meets in school. As the book
opens, a chance encounter in a park with a man who acts as if he recognizes her
forces them to pick up sticks and flee once again.
Susan finds them a rental home in the small New Hampshire
town of Milberg. Although the landlord gives off a creepy vibe, Lucy wants to
stay, to settle. He lives up the hill in a big brick house and has a daughter
her age, Gretchen. Though the girl seems a bit odd, too, maybe she can be a
friend. Kirk’s depiction of Lucy, in the chapters she narrates, is a persuasive
picture of adolescent psychology. She’s hoping for a friend despite the
negative signals, severe and over-confident in her judgments of Susan, silently
second-guessing all her own actions.
Kirk expertly handles the ramp-up of tension between Lucy and Gretchen, and it’s a relief when Lucy gets a summer job at the local gourmet grocery store—a rare bit of mom-authorized independence. She won’t go inside Gretchen’s house again, but out-of-doors. Lucy paints while Gretchen works puzzles.
At work one day, Lucy encounters the man who recognized her back in Indiana. Apparently, in an awkward coincidence, he and his son live in Milberg. He recognizes her again. And contrary to every paranoid impulse Susan has drilled into her, Lucy doesn’t tell, even though it could turn out to be the riskiest decision possible. Of course she’s not the only one with secrets. Susan has a big one, and the landlord, well . . .
Kirk’s flair for description brings his and his daughter’s bizarre lives (and dwelling) vividly to life. They are a stark contrast to the middle-class normality of the Milberg residents Lucy observes from behind her cash register, a normality she’s struggling to become part of. Quite a compelling read!
Written by Charles Salzberg
– Henry Swann’s Manhattan business is a murky one that only a big city, with
all its ragged fringes, could support. He’s mainly a skip tracer, someone whose
true skill is in finding people and sometimes things—lost, runaway, hiding—and
a good guide to the dark corners that would never appear in a tourist’s Top
His self-described partner
Goldblatt is loud and unpredictable, and Swann would prefer not to be saddled
with him, but he’s harder to get rid of than a bad memory. How little he
actually knows about Goldblatt becomes clear when the man asks Swann for help
with a personal problem involving Goldblatt’s second wife, Rachel: “You…
You’ve been married?” Three times, in fact.
Rachel is a little spacey, a little
too trusting, and a fake psychic has bilked her out of some $75,000. Goldblatt
wants Swann to find this psychic. And get the money back, if he can. Delving
into the world of the con, Swann interacts with some real New York characters,
brimming with a lively mix of attitude, insights, and venality.
Thankfully, a paying client turns
up as well. Swann is asked to find a missing witness who supposedly can alibi
her truculent boyfriend, Nicky Diamond, a notorious hitman who claims he’s
innocent in this case. He’s bad news and Swann is reluctant to help him out.
Why did the girlfriend disappear?
Does whoever actually did the killing want Diamond to take the fall? Did
Diamond encourage (or frighten) her into disappearing because she actually
can’t back up his story? When Swann finds her, will it be wise to encourage her
to return to New York, or will he just make her a target? If she fled because
she was afraid, would she return at all? The case is full of such quandaries,
but Diamond’s lawyer finally talks Swann into pursuing it, and Swann applies
one of his guiding principles to the decision: “Okay. I’m in. So long as I get paid,
what do I care?”
Swann has to use his considerable persuasive powers to move these two cases in the direction of resolution, even if his remit is not to follow them to their absolute end. His self-deprecating narration and wry humor are charming, his descriptions of the daily frustrations of living in Manhattan hit home, and the issues that raise Swann’s curiosity interested me too.
Author Salzberg is a former magazine writer with both non-fiction and crime fiction to his credit. He’s a founding member of the New York Writers Workshop and has had a successful teaching career. This is the fifth Swann book—and Salzberg says the last. Whether he can really leave Swann behind or not, I’ll be on the lookout for those previous four books!
Photo: krazydad / jbum is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Written by RG Belsky – This is former newsman Dick Belsky’s second crime story featuring Pulitzer-Prize winning print journalist Clare Carlson, now significantly reduced in career status by working as the news director for Channel 10 television.
Clare has a wittily cynical, self-deprecating take on her job and the events and people around her, and the novel begins with her musing on why some deaths—those of blonde white females—matter more than others, at least in the news business. Most of the time.
Clare runs a lively morning news meeting, in which the
reporters and staff hammer out which stories to feature that day, absent any
even bigger story breaking. On this particular day, Clare’s assignment editor
Maggie challenges the team to look a little deeper and discover what was
important about the life and death of a person they wouldn’t ordinarily spend
time on, a fifty-four-year-old homeless woman stabbed to death in an ATM
vestibule. Because Clare rises to the challenge, they discover, over time, just
how significant the story of Dora Gayle turns out to be.
The first glimmer there may be more to the homeless woman’s story
than they anticipated comes when Grace Mancuso, a woman Gayle’s polar
opposite—young, beautiful, wealthy, a stockbroker—is brutally murdered. Beside
her body is a list of five names, five people who appear to have nothing in
common, who in fact believe they have never even met. The last name on the list
is Dora Gayle.
Through Clare’s investigative journalism, Belsky expertly
rolls out the stories of all these people, living and dead, and their possible
intersections. Except for Gayle, of course, are they suspects in either murder?
Potential victims? In the process, Belsky lays down enough red herrings to feed
Belsky, who lives and worked in Manhattan for years, knows
his setting well, not just its geography, but its culture down to the
neighborhood level. You may look up from his pages and be surprised to find
yourself somewhere other than Washington Square or the East Village, so
thoroughly is this story imbued with the spirit of New York.
It isn’t a spoiler to say that, in the end, the death of Dora Gayle, a death that ordinarily would have been passed over without journalistic notice, started the novel’s engine, bearing out Clare’s advice to her news team that “there’s a story to every murder.”
By Alafair Burke – Which is
the better sister? An interesting question, but not one their husband Adam can
answer, because he’s dead. In an intriguing plot complication, both women were
married to the same man, just not at the same time. Nicky married him first, almost
twenty years ago, but her increasingly erratic behavior finally forced Adam to
seek a divorce and custody of their toddler son Ethan. Soon he moved to
Manhattan where Chloe lives, and for a number of years he worked happily and
successfully as a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Chloe, now his wife, urged him into a much more lucrative job, a partnership at a white-shoe law firm. Adam hates it. Not only that, something’s gone wrong in their relationship, though you can’t quite put your finger on it—yet.
A bit of a control freak, Chloe doesn’t reveal the cracks in
her armor right away. She’s also a bit of a modern hero, using her magazine to let
not just media darlings, but everyday women tell their sexual abuse and
harassment stories. Misogynistic Twitter trolls make her a target—an unpredictable,
persistent threat lurking in the background.
When Chloe arrives home late one night, Adam has been
murdered, which brings Nicky to Manhattan, hoping to reconnect with her now
sixteen-year-old son and taking up residence in Chloe’s home office. These
temperamentally opposite sisters circle each other like newly introduced
housecats. At least Nicky has stopped the drugs and the drinking, and she’s
started making jewelry to sell on Etsy. In an unexpected rebalancing of the
scales of likability, you may find yourself more sympathetic to Nicky than
Chloe, who works so hard at being perfect.
The police detectives clearly hope to pin Adam’s death on Chloe, but when they realize Ethan has lied about where he was the night of his father’s death, they focus laserlike on him. A third strong woman enters the story in the character of Olivia Randall, Ethan’s lawyer. Chloe would like to manage the case, Nicky would like to do something rash, but Olivia stays in charge. But if Ethan didn’t kill his father, who did?
Author Burke’s real-life experience as a prosecutor serves the story well, and the details of the trial and the strategies of the attorneys make for excellent courtroom drama. The pressures of the trial bring forth a few “I didn’t see that coming” surprises too. It’s is an engaging, well-told tale that benefits from Burke’s clear writing style.
By Amanda Robson –The suburban London borough of Twickenham is home to the upwardly mobile young couple Faye and Phillip and their two daughters. Thirty-four year old Faye cuts a striking figure, walking the older girl to school and dropping in on the agent who occasionally finds her modeling jobs. She’s beautiful, thin, and, to all appearances, has her world well put together.
Those appearances are carefully noted by Erica, a neighbor
in a rental flat who is overweight, insecure, and has little going on in her
life. Before long, Erica’s preoccupation with Faye moves beyond watching; she
begins following her.
Divided into short chapters, the novel is told from the
alternating points of view of Erica, Faye, Faye’s husband Phillip, and their
architect friend Jonah who’s in charge of Faye and Phillip’s loft conversion.
Early on, we learn about cracks in Faye’s façade when she
visits the modeling agency and learns she’s been turned down for a job because
the client wants someone younger. At a party where she meets a top modeling
agent, he won’t even take her card. He says over-contrived looks are out of
fashion. Faye is devastated until friend Jonah appears.
In his first-person sections, Jonah makes clear his motive
is not friendship, but seduction. He plies Faye with alcohol and flattery,
soothing her insecurities. In a ‘why doesn’t she see this coming’ moment, he
persuades her to go home with him and they have an uninhibited night of sex.
When she wakes in the morning, Faye is horrified and slips away unobserved—except
by Erica, that is. Erica becomes convinced Faye is irresponsible and a bad
mother and that she can be the young girls’ savior. Despite her delusions, she
remains a sympathetic character, with a nice character arc.
Faye is aghast at what she’s done and determined to keep
Phillip from finding out. Ah, once again, secrets are the fuel that propel the
plot forward. Jonah is not backing off.
Lots goes wrong from here on out, as the pressure on Faye increases to an excruciating point. While Erica is a convincing adversary, as a young woman without advantages who lets herself be inhabited by a foolish fantasy, Jonah is not. You may not fully believe in him and his smarmy descriptions of the sex he and Faye had. It would be a stronger book if his character inspired the kind of divided loyalty Erica does. You still kind of root for her, despite her missteps.
Said Peter Goldberg in Slant Magazine, “Single-minded and direct in its execution, Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s The Mustang is a hard look at the extremes of masculine guilt and healing” (trailer).
The main character, Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts) smiles only once, I think, in the whole film. For the most part, Coleman doesn’t interact with his fellow prisoners in a Nevada medium security prison. His attempts at a relationship with his daughter stall. We find out only deep in what his crime was, and the weight of it.
There’s a special prison program (in
place in Nevada and a number of Western prisons IRL) to train convicts to
work with wild mustangs, and tame them to the point they can be auctioned to
the border patrol, to ranchers, or for other uses. Putting a man like Coleman
in a corral with 1500 pounds of frantic horse seems more than a bit risky and
is. If only Coleman can learn relate to this one living thing—and vice-versa—perhaps
they both can be saved. As another prisoner/horse trainer says, “If you want to
control your horse, first you gotta control yourself.”
The parallels between the confinement and anger of this
mustang and this prisoner are obvious. Bruce Dern plays the elderly cowboy in
charge of the project, and he and the other prisoners are strong characters.
But it is Schoenaerts movie and, although the camera is on him throughout most
of it, he grows to fill the screen. Beautiful scenery too. (For one of the most
beautiful and moving films ever about men and horses, get ahold of last year’s The Rider.)Rotten
Tomatoes critics rating: 94%; audiences 74% .
Woman at War (2019)
This movie from Iceland director Benedikt Erlingsson has absurdist elements, real tension, and a lot of heart (trailer). Choral director Halla (played by Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, who also plays Halla’s twin sister Ása) is outraged at the prospect of booming unenvironmental heavy industry invading Iceland. She sets out to disrupt the development plans by sabotaging the electrical system, a bit at a time.
The authorities consider her protests eco-terrorism, and are determined to find whoever is carrying them out, with some nail-biting pursuits by helicopter and drone. To keep the story from becoming too anxiety-provoking, an absurd trio of musicians—piano, tuba, and drums—appears wherever she is, whether it’s on the heath or in her apartment. It’s the incongruous presence of the tuba that lets you know she’s ok.
She’s single and childless, until a four-year-old adoption
request is unexpectedly filled. A child is waiting for her in the Ukraine. From
this point, carrying out one last adventure before flying to retrieve her new daughter, Halla is
also accompanied by three Ukrainian women singers in full costume, as well. I
laughed out loud at this and some of the other antics. You will too.Rotten
Tomatoes critics rating: 97%; audiences 90%.
Netflix provided this 2018 movie from director Brad
Anderson, written by Tony Gilroy, a controversial
political thriller set in Beirut, once the Paris of the Mideast, which has disintegrated
into civil war (trailer).
In 1972, John Hamm is an American diplomat and expert negotiator stationed in
Beirut who, after one tragic night returns to the States. He never wants to go
back. About a decade later, he does, when a friend is kidnapped, and he’s asked
by some highly untrustworthy U.S. agents to help in the rescue. Only Rosamund
Pike seems to have her head on straight. He finds a city in shambles, divided into fiercely
protected zones by competing militias. Finding his friend, much less saving
him, seems impossible. A solid B.Rotten
Tomatoes critics rating: 82%; audiences 55%.
This documentary should be appended to last week’s review of
recent films on Caravaggio and Van
Gogh, a rare alignment of the planets that took me to three art films in a
week. This one describes the creation of an exhibition of Rembrandt’s late
works, jointly sponsored by Britain’s National Museum and the Rijksmuseum (trailer). Like those
other big-screen delights, the chance to look up close and unhurried at these
masterworks is the best part. There’s biographical information and commentary
from curators and others. The details of how the exhibition was physically put
together were fascinating too. One of my favorites among the works featured was
“An Old Woman Reading,” from 1655 (pictured). From Exhibition on Screen, you
can find a screening
Tomatoes critics rating: not rated yet.