*****The Kennedy Moment

By Peter Adamson – In this political thriller by former UNICEF official Peter Adamson, the reunion of five college friends launches a do-good project that none of them could have anticipated, that has every potential of imminently and disastrously going off the rails, and that has almost incomparably high stakes.

In the early 1960s, a group of Oxford University students were best friends. As Stephen Walsh, a stubbornly Marxist professor writes to the others, “We’ve lost touch, the months drifting into years and the years into decades.” He proposes a reunion.

Michael Lowell, the only American, leads a World Health Organization team on childhood immunization; Seema Mir works on a biography of the African American Hemings family; Toby Jenks is the hard-drinking creative director of an advertising agency; and Canadian Hélène Hevré is a physician, exhausted from the demands of tending patients within the minimalist health care system of Côte d’Ivoire.

The relationships among these friends, especially the two almost-couples (Michael and Seema; Toby and Hélène), are believable and sometimes painful because the characters are so engaging.

At the reunion, Toby, with his flair for the outrageous, responds to the health professionals’ angst over vaccine-preventable illnesses saying, “Seems to me, possums, the obvious thing to do here is to get hold of a little test tube of cached smallpox virus and threaten to blow bubbles with it in Times Square unless the world gets off its butt and immunizes every last kiddie.”

A few months later, the friends reunite in New York. No one has forgotten Toby’s little joke, and before long they have a plan to use smallpox virus to blackmail the US government into fulfilling its immunization commitments. But it must be carried out in complete secrecy.

Predictably, the government focuses not on meeting these mysterious demands, but on finding out who is behind this little venture and stopping it. To them, it’s bioterrorism, and a nail-biting chase is on. Meanwhile, Toby crafts a powerful statement for the US President: “Twenty years ago, President John F. Kennedy committed the United States to the goal of putting a man on the moon within a decade. Today, the United States commits itself to another great goal: a goal for our times; a goal to be achieved here on earth; the goal of immunizing all of the world’s children against the major killer diseases of childhood.”

I loved this book and the daring team of characters that took on the crimes of neglect and half-measures. Hugely satisfying and out of the ordinary. Available here.

Photo: anjawbk for Pixabay.

A Juicy Idea

The origin stories of novels are as varied as their authors. The idea for the Harry Potter series first came to J.K. Rowling while traveling on a train delayed between Manchester and London. (No more whining about airport delays, please. Use your time wisely). Lee Child has variously attributed the creation of Jack Reacher to sheer commercial motivation and as “an antidote to the all the depressed and miserable alcoholics that peopled the genre.” The writing duo of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, authors of several crime thriller series, began by leveraging the pair’s publishing and museum experience.

In the firehose of information about authors and their books that flows across my computer screen daily, I recently noticed another intriguing origin story. A mother and son duo created a new book called The Gourmet Gangster. It combines episodes in the life of a fictional New York gangster who owns an upscale restaurant with real recipes the apocryphal restaurant serves. And the book’s roots are as quirky as the title suggests. Here’s how it came about, according to author Marcia Rosen.

“I wrote the mysteries, and my son Jory provided the recipes. Together we created some murderous titles and decided which types of food would best fit the stories.” These titles include “He’s a Dead Duck” paired with a recipe for Duck à l’Orange and a recipe for “The Quiche (Kiss) of Death.”

But the impetus for the collection goes even deeper. Marcia says in the book’s epilogue that her father was a Jewish gangster in Buffalo, New York, who owned a gambling hall and consorted with a tribe of colorful local characters. She says: “Remembering my father, and picturing him at a restaurant he owned when I was a teenager, initially inspired me to write about events set in a restaurant.

“I’m a mystery writer, so of course they had to be about murder, mayhem and, I thought, a fun bit of madness. Loving short stories, I decided to write a series of short mysteries, all involving the same criminal organization and taking place in a restaurant called Manhattan Shadow. The stories are from my vivid and sometimes frightening imagination, played out for the pleasure of mystery lovers.

“The idea of adding recipes made good sense, since my father was a chef. Level Best Books, our publisher, suggested putting a recipe before each story. ‘Great idea,’ I responded. ‘My son is a fabulous cook; he can create the recipes.’” And that’s how Marcia and Jory ended up with “The Chicken Piccata Caper,” “The Sacrificial Lamb,” and, of course, “A Deadly Delicious Dessert,” based on Marcia’s father’s recipe for donuts.

Says Marcia, “As I considered mystery stories for the book, I thought about places familiar to me. One story, ‘He’s A Dead Duck,’ was a reminder of a duck pond we lived near on Long Island, years ago. I loved the idea of creating a story beginning with a duck recipe!”

Son Jory (a marketing/advertising executive by day) adds, “In my family, today, we truly look forward to our evening meals. I have three kids (two girls, ages 9 and 7, and a boy, age 3). My grandfather would have adored them. What I cook allows my children to get know my grandfather through every bite of the cuisine he created. I hope the recipes in my mother’s book inspire good memories and experiences in others, too.”

“Really,” Marcia says, “I’m deadly serious!” Read more about Marcia’s writing and her series, The Senior Sleuths, on her website.

3 Top-Notch Foreign Crime Novels

High-velocity plots and gritty characters typify American and British crime thrillers. Yet, this style is an artistic (and marketing) choice, not a precondition for gripping fiction.

Here are three recent crime novels from Nigeria, Argentina, and India that I enjoyed tremendously that stand up to the US/UK’s best. 

*****My Sister, the Serial Killer

By Oyinkan Braithwaite – For a book about violent death and two sisters’ efforts to cover it up, this entertaining fiction debut from Nigerian writer Oyinkan Braithwaite is remarkably full of life.

You can’t help but be charmed by the narrator Korede, who early on in her tale provides this advice: “I bet you didn’t know that bleach masks the smell of blood.” It’s a lesson she’s learned the hard way, covering up her sister Ayoola’s crimes now three times. The sisterly bond is more than the glue in this story; ultimately it is its subject.

Braithwaite infuses her narrative with insights into the culture, not only of Lagos, Nigeria, where the story is set, but also of the hospital where Korede works—the rivalries among the women staff and the administrators who do not lead. There’s not a shred of meanness in any of this, and much of it is quite funny.

Braithwaite’s light touch when exploring serious matters and the extraordinary honesty of the writing prompted numerous media outlets to name it one of the best books of last year, garnered it a 2019 Booker Prize nomination, and a made it a finalist for the 2019 Women’s Prize, among other honors. Best of all, it’s fun! Order it here. 

*****The Fragility of Bodies

By Sergio Olguín and translated by Miranda France – This award-winning Argentine novelist’s fast-paced 2012 crime novel is only now available in English. With all the elements of an engaging, visually arresting drama, no wonder it became an eight-episode tv series in 2017. The protagonist is a crusading reporter who acts with dedication and truth-telling, and if you enjoy the banter and oneupsmanship of the newsroom, as I do, you’ll find those scenes entertaining indeed.

Glamorous investigative journalist Verónica Rosenthal lives a privileged life in Buenos Aires. She’s pursued by attractive men, has loads of friends, drinks and smokes too much, but she’s serious about her investigative work. As a character, she’s fully developed, as are most of the men she interacts with, old and young, and there are some steamy sex scenes.

A wire service blurb about the suicide of a railway worker captures her attention when it quotes the man’s apology for the crimes he committed, especially the death of a child. Was the letter a confession or an explanation? Suicide by train is rather common, she learns. The drivers of the killer trains see the catastrophe coming, yet are helpless to prevent it. Some can never drive again.

Worse, on one specific train line, pairs of young boys are playing chicken with the speeding trains, and, occasionally, one waits too long to jump out of the way. Olguín makes the boys’ contests—how they think about them, how they prepare—into high-tension, truly horrifying encounters, and the closer Verónica gets to the truth behind this diabolical game, the greater the danger to her.

The admirable translation by Miranda France is so smooth, you’re never aware it actually is a translation. An unusual, brilliant read. Order it here.

*****Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous

By Manu Joseph – When an apartment building collapses in Mumbai, the lone survivor is a man filled with regrets, and complicated efforts are under way to extricate him from the rubble. The catastrophe coincides with the election victory of a conservative Hindu nationalist party, and the influence of politics on the characters in the past and in the current emergency is never far away.

Author Joseph is known for his biting political satires, and the significance of this book is enhanced by his sly observations about the state of Indian politics. (If you read Dexter Filkins’s recent reporting in The New Yorker about the Modi government’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and actions, events in the novel will seem all-too possible.)  

The unknown man is alive, but confused and mumbling about a terrorist threat involving two people (but who?) headed somewhere (but where?) to carry out an attack (but what?). The intelligence forces see the need for drastic preventive action, but no one knows what that should be. Overreaction seems almost inevitable.

Joseph’s character descriptions are strong throughout, making it easy to appreciate the characters’ motivations, as well as the stresses of living in a culturally and religiously polarized society. Although he makes strong points, he’s not giving a lecture. He lets the story make his case. Joseph is a literary author who has won several awards for his previous novels and is a former columnist for the International New York Times. Order it here.

Picture: GDJ for Pixabay.

*****The Murder of Harriet Monckton

poison, bottle Arek Socha for Pixabay

By Elizabeth Haynes – If you have people on your holiday gift list who are fans of historical mysteries, this might be just the book for them! Author Elizabeth Haynes stumbled across a trove of documents in the UK’s National Archives relating to an obscure mid-1840s murder in the (then) small town of Bromley, a few miles southeast of London. The coroner’s jury verdict was delayed several years because of the case’s numerous uncertainties and the plethora of suspects.

Haynes uses those uncertainties to create a fictional story that begins from the certain knowledge that on 6 November 1843, Harriet Monckton took or was administered poison, died, and her body stowed in the privy behind the Congregational Chapel. When the next day she’s noted as missing, a search ensues. Even before her body is found, multiple efforts are under way to mislead, mischaracterize, and otherwise frustrate any inquiries.

The story is imagined from the points of view of several real-life people, chief among them: Harriet’s friend, the schoolteacher Frances Williams; Reverend George Verrall, her confidant; Thomas Churcher, a shoemaker in love with her; and Richard Field, Harriet’s former mentor and lover, now married and living in London. Verrall and Churcher are the more obvious suspects, though if a wider net were cast, Williams and Field or even Field’s wife and Churcher’s ex-fiancée might be suspected.

Each of these characters provides an account of their association with Harriet—both in response to the coroner’s questioning and in their private thoughts. It’s a Rashomon-like treatment, with each not only seeing the sketchy facts in different ways, but recounting them to their best advantage. Haynes gives each a distinct voice and point of view, not all admirable. Her slightly old-fashioned writing style helps transport you to the era. All of their views, however revelatory, are one step removed from Harriet herself, but you finally do hear from her directly when Frances reads her diary.

Haynes’s Bromley is completely convincing, as are the reactions of the residents as one secret after another is revealed and as some secrets manage to remain hidden. As the author says, “The impact on my life has been profound, to the extent that I feel as if I have inhabited Bromley in 1843 myself.” I felt it too. Even though the book’s events took place a long time ago, the tension was fresh.

Harriet is a character who isn’t so much described as assembled. Like the build-up of daubs of paint that produce a portrait, Haynes’s text-clues allow you, eventually, to see the dead woman, with all her flaws and vibrancy, as she was in life.

Photo: Arek Socha for Pixabay

Last Books Read in 2019

magician, assistant

***Cairo Modern

Written by Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, translated from the Egyptian by William M. Hutchins. This story of how an unscrupulous college graduate gets his comeuppance captures a bygone time in the city and culture. Originally published in 1945, it’s more interesting than entertaining.

*****The Magician’s Assistant

I hadn’t heard of this 1997 book by Ann Patchett, but thankfully another tourist left it behind. It was captivating, start to finish and not the first book I’ve read lately about people involved in creating illusions. Sabine’s magician-husband, a gay man named Parsifal, has died, and soon she learns he’d made up his backstory. Grief-stricken, she tries to connect with his real history. Amazon link.

*****Inland

Téa Obreht’s new book is just great, and she vividly captures the essence and rhythms of America’s Old West. In a lawless, drought-stricken Arizona, a family struggles with the politics of water. Meanwhile, several states east, some bright individual in the US Army decides to import camels to use as pack animals—an experiment with unexpected consequences. Amazon link.

****The Oxford Murders

Billed as “a scholarly whodunit,” this novel by Guillermo Martínez, set in England, provides numerous puzzles for its mathematician protagonists to decipher in order to stop a serial killer. A lot of fun. Amazon link.

***Sharp Objects

Gillian Flynn’s 2006 debut novel is a page-turner, though you may guess early on who’s killing children in the tiny Missouri home town of the protagonist, Chicago reporter Camille Preaker. Camille has spent time in psychiatric care because she carves words into her body, and I found her experience with that even more engrossing than the mystery!

Photo: Enrique Meseguer for Pixabay

Spies X 3

spy, espionage, reading

****Spy’s Fate

Overhearing someone talking about you can be both unsettling and revealing. Arnaldo Correa’s novel, full of observations about the US and its spycraft, from the point of view of a Cuban intelligence operative, is another such revelation. While there’s plenty of ineptitude and bureaucratic blindness on one side or the other, the main character, Carlos Manuel, is an expert at exposing and outwitting it. For a book about a Cuban spy stranded in Miami with a vindictive CIA agent on his trail, there’s quite a bit of humor and a heartwarming romance too. I really enjoyed this book. First published in 2002, it was Correa’s first novel translated into English. Available here from Amazon.

***Spies

This Fiction River special edition, edited by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, includes 15 short spy stories by a range of authors. If you think the short story form doesn’t provide enough space to explore the long con of espionage, these tales may change your mind. Rusch says that what links them, besides their topic, is “their willingness to look at the world in all its messiness,” without flinching from the corrosive effects of secrets on everyone involved. My favorites included two historicals—the clever and very British “Our Man in Basingstoke” by Sabrina Chase, set during World War II, and “The Message” by CA Rowland, set during the Civil War—and Ron Collins’s “The Spy Who Walked into the Cold,” set in racially divided Chicago a few decades back. Get it here.

****From the Shadows

Spies needn’t be government agents or involved with great sociopolitical questions. Spanish author Juan José Millás’s novel (translated by Thomas Bunstead and Daniel Hahn) barely escapes the bedroom. Damián Lobo, a youngish man down on his luck and out of work, entertains himself by carrying on pretend conversations with a famous talk show host. This fantasy so preoccupies him that, in a rash moment, he steals a tie pin he believes the tv star would like. The police chase him through an outdoor market and he ducks inside an old wardrobe on display. Before it seems safe to emerge, the wardrobe is trundled away, loaded onto a truck, and delivered to its new owners’ bedroom, with Lobo still inside. As it turns out, there’s never a good moment to climb out, and through an elaborate ruse, Lobo makes his home there, listening in on all the family’s intimate secrets. An amusing tale that Kirkus Reviews calls “spectacularly bizarre.” Millás has won numerous literary prizes; this short novel is his first published in North America. Loved it! Available from Amazon.

Photo: David Lytle, creative commons license

****City of Windows

snow city blizzard

By Robert Pobi – In a CrimeFictionLovers interview with Robert Pobi about his 2012 debut novel Bloodman, he revealed he’d wanted to write an old-fashioned character-driven story. He’s done it again with his new police procedural, City of Windows.

Ten years before the start of this book, Dr. Lucas Page, astrophysicist, left his FBI career on uneasy terms after an accident with explosives nearly killed him. He now has a prosthetic arm, a prosthetic leg, and one ceramic eye that doesn’t quite track with the other. Page’s challenges in dealing with the bionic parts of his body greatly increase the depth of his character.

Now Page teaches at Columbia University in Manhattan. He thinks his students are generally lackluster, but then he has a jaded view of most things. Except his family. His wife Erin is a pediatrician. They have five kids and a happy dog—a ragtag collection of children “whose biological parents had failed them and the system had given up on.” The family interactions provide a nice balance to the story’s crime elements, though the kids are possibly too cooperative.

As the university’s semester closes out for the Christmas holiday, a huge blizzard is under way. Many blocks south in midtown Manhattan, a bizarre shooting has occurred, and the news reports show Page’s old FBI colleagues working the case. The victim was in a moving vehicle, shot from a high angle from a considerable distance. Identifying the sniper’s nest will be difficult.

Because Page has an uncanny ability to plot bullet trajectories and lines of sight, that evening’s visit from his former FBI supervisor, though unwelcome, is not unexpected. The Bureau is involved because the dead man was one of their own, Page’s former partner. Page’s uncanny ability, though rusty, still works—automatic, instinctive, and unexplainable. He identifies a building almost eight football fields away from the point of impact.

Old jealousies arise, family needs pull at him, his former supervisor is as opaque as ever, there’s political pressure to pin the shooting on a Muslim extremist, without any evidence, and Page is not on a track that will make him friends, but when a second law enforcement officer is assassinated a mere thirteen hours later, any hope evaporates that the first agent’s death was a fluke. In his heart of hearts, Page loves this work.

The second victim was shot on the semi-crowded tram that operates between Roosevelt Island and Manhattan, moving at almost eighteen miles an hour, through the continuing snowstorm, from a distance of almost a half-mile. Another impossible shot. And again, Page pinpoints the shooter’s position. When yet a third law enforcement officer is killed, it’s clear the killer is after specific individuals, but they seem unrelated and even are from different law enforcement agencies. Figuring out what they have in common calls on Page’s insightful investigatory skills, aided by three of those maligned college students.

As the bodies pile up, it appears that Page and his family are the assassin’s ultimate targets. This is the book’s weakest point, as it seems manufactured so the plot can culminate in a showdown between Page and the killer. While the rationale for the earlier murders follows a kind of twisted logic, the targeting of Page and his family does not. That problem aside, the story provides plenty of thrills along the way, and I hope Pobi writes more about Lucas Page.

Photo: from Pixabay

*****This Mortal Boy

justice

By Fiona Kidman – Based on a true story of one of the last executions in New Zealand, Fiona Kidman’s historical crime novel, This Mortal Boy, concerns a young man found guilty of murder is a powerful question mark. When is the death penalty justified? How does politics affect ‘blind justice’? Fundamentally, what is justice?

Although the novel takes place in New Zealand in late 1955, its thought-provoking issues are still germane to the United States and to the more than 50 countries where the death penalty exists today, countries where more than 60 percent of the world’s population lives.

What’s remarkable about this book is how Kidman brings forth the issues involved like specimens under a strong light, showing them in all their complexity, without ever preaching or becoming polemical. You are reading a compelling and disturbing story, not an essay.

Albert Black is a young man from tension-filled, divided Belfast, who leaves his parents and younger brother to immigrate to New Zealand for a fresh start and a better life. In a bar fight, he stabs Johnny McBride, the bully who’s been tormenting him. From his Auckland jail cell he reminisces about his upbringing on the other side of the world and his life during the two years since he left Northern Ireland. The vivid descriptions of these various communities and his circumstances, as well as his actions, make him a fully rounded person. While Kidman doesn’t romanticize him, he inspires empathy.

He feels he’s an outsider in New Zealand. That feeling turns into grim reality when he’s on trial, and jury members hold his Irishness against him. He’s ‘not one of ours,’ the judge says. Kidman also reveals the mindset of the jurors (‘set’ being the operative word) and the high-level discussions amongst the legal establishment regarding capital punishment.

She skillfully uses the frame of the trial to enable comparison of retold events to witness testimony, and while there’s no doubt that Black attacked McBride, the circumstances make both the situation and the cause of death more ambiguous than they first appear or than the court ever hears.

Albert Black was hanged 5 December 1955, and, as Kidman says in an Afterword, “A tide of disgust against the penalty overtook public perception after the hanging of Albert Black.” When a new government took over in New Zealand in 1957, all death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment, and in 1961, the death penalty was abolished.

This Mortal Boy won the 2019 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize, the NZ Booklovers Award, the NZSA Heritage Book Award for Fiction, and the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel. Dame Fiona Kidman, DNZM, OBE, was born and lives in New Zealand and is the award-winning author of novels, poems, plays, and short stories.

Photo: Mike Gifford, creative commons license

****Fishermen of Kérity

fishing nets

By Peter James Quirk – In 1959, when Peter James Quirk’s protagonist Tommy Kiernan goes in search of his past, he finds a more complicated and thrilling story than he’d ever imagined. Only 19 and an American college student from upstate New York, he was born in the English fishing village of Brixham to an elegant French mother and Irish father, now separated.

Two events start his quest. One night recently, a deliberately set fire destroyed Tommy and his mother’s home, and not long afterward, his mother is killed when her car plunges from the mountain highway into a ravine. Suspicion arises that these two events are not unrelated, and Tommy decides he must find out who murdered her. As she is not the type to develop enemies, he believes the killer is someone from her mysterious past.

Clues to her life in Brittany might lie in her beautiful artwork. Tommy finds her journal, sketchbook, and a bit of shocking information. When Breton fishermen helped her escape the Nazis in 1940, she was already pregnant, which means the big Irishman, Francis Thomas Kiernan, isn’t his father after all.

His mother’s painting, Fishermen of Kérity, suggests where to start in trying to fill in the details of her life. Tommy travels to Kérity on the Breton coast, hoping to meet some of Jackie’s long-ago friends. Did any of them survived the war, do they know who his birth father was, and will they talk to him about any of this? Author Quirk does an excellent job evoking the Breton community as the threat of war materializes into invasion, occupation, and retribution. It is a sad, dangerous time.

Quirk, born and educated in England, now lives in the United States. The knowledge of the sea he gained as a fisherman and with the British Merchant Marine gives the book’s scenes on the Breton docks and sailing the French coastline a nice realism. While I enjoyed the historical content that makes up most of the book, the scenes set in 1959 Vermont—Tommy’s romance and his clumsy methods for finding his mother’s killer—are less convincing.

This is a short novel (169 pages), quickly read, and while I had the aforementioned quibble with the 1959 story, on the whole Quirk’s writing style is clear and enjoyable. He has created a memorable tale in a colorful, high-stakes setting.

Photo of fishermen’s nets: Lisa Redfern for Pixabay

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

McCarter Theatre in Princeton imported the exciting new play, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein from Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company. It opened October 19 and runs through the Halloween season until November 3. Written and directed by David Catlin, the play contextualizes the familiar story of Victor Frankenstein and his ill-fated creature by grounding it in the strange and tragic life of the story’s author, Mary Shelley. More than a tale of horror, it’s a tale of deep woe.

The five characters are Mary Shelley herself (played by Cordelia Dewdney), her half-sister, Claire Claremont (Amanda Raquel Martinez), her lover and, later, husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley (Walter Briggs), and the couple’s friends, Dr. John Polidori (Debo Balogun) and Lord Byron (Keith D. Gallagher).

During a sojourn on Lake Geneva, the ominously stormy skies fire the characters’ imaginations. Byron suggests they each pen a ghost story to see which is scariest. Only 18 when she begins writing Frankenstein, Mary’s life is already marked by terrible events, including the deaths of her mother from childbed fever and her own first baby. Mary’s real-life sorrows help shape her narrative and, as the five characters enact her gothic fantasy, reality breaks through at poignant moments.

Mary’s tale demonstrates the folly of trying to play god. Victor Frankenstein wants to be “the Modern Prometheus,” to bring the spark of life to the creature he’s assembled. Much tragedy occurs before he recognizes he hasn’t grappled with the possible unintended, bad consequences. (Is this a cautionary tale for today, with respect to artificial intelligence and genetic manipulation?)

Nor does Victor (nicely ironic choice of name) take responsibility for the monster. He viciously rejects him, yet the monster’s relentless pursuit of his creator contains an element of devotion. “I would have loved to be your son,” he laments. Thus, we are confronted with a truth Mary expresses: “Within every man there is a monster; within every monster, a man.”

The play’s emotional experience is intensified by the reconfigured theater space. McCarter undertook the massive task of removing several rows of seats and moving the stage forward, to create an “in-the round” effect. (Watch this amazing transformation here.)

Most of the company comes direct from the Lookingglass production. All strong players, they manage the dramatic aerial features and give the characters richness and three-dimensionality. Though all are excellent, Gallagher delivers an unforgettable portrayal of the monster.

McCarter Theatre is easily reached from New York by car or train (New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater and the university’s new arts district. For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the ticket office online.