Edited by René Appel and Josh Pachter – Fourteen of The Netherlands’ premier authors of crime and literary fiction contributed stories to this collection, with the editors—top-rated crime authors themselves—providing the fifteenth. Amsterdam Noir is the latest in Akashic Books’ long-running series of place-based crime anthologies.
If this enterprise is in part intended to impart a vision of the locale and its residents through the lens of crime, this collection is another success.
Whenever a story purports to represent a certain place, you can fairly ask yourself, could these events have unfolded this way anywhere else? Geography, history, and culture all affect what can and does take place in a city and the official and unofficial reactions to events.
Appel and Pachter assigned the stories to four broad
headings inspired by classic film noir, and below I briefly describe a story or
two under each of their headings. The collection includes both well established
authors, like Theo Capel, and writers new to the scene, like Karin Amatmoekrim.
Meet some of the very best Dutch crime writers, right here in these pages.
Out of the Past
Welcome to Amsterdam by Michael Berg is a story of revenge—a
revenge the wronged man never thought he could achieve. It’s pretty strong
stuff. Berg was the 2013 winner of the Golden Noose, the award for the best
Dutch-language crime novel of the year. Herman Koch, who wrote 2013’s
best-selling crime novel, The Dinner,
contributed Ankle Monitor, which launches with a brilliant first line: “Maybe
it was a mistake to go back to my old neighborhood on the very first day of a
weekend leave.” No stopping reading there.
Kiss Me Deadly
All three of these stories are about ill-conceived love and
all are written by women, interestingly. Silent Days by Karin Amatmoekrim
proves that just because a woman is old and alone doesn’t mean she is helpless.
Touch of Evil
Here you have Satan himself, a pedophile, an alcoholic
fratricide, and a man channelling Ted Bundy (for an international touch), plus
a hard-working police detective who unexpectedly comes out on top in Theo
Capel’s entertaining Lucky Sevens.
They Live By Night
Echoing that film’s theme of inescapable tragedy, most of
these stories are from the victim’s point of view, but Abdelkader Benali’s The
Girl at the End of the Line is told through the eyes of a Moroccan police
officer assigned to find the killer of a Muslim girl. Winner of a top literary
prize, Benali opens this story, “A farmer found her with her head facing
southeast, toward Mecca, as if in prayer.” It’s an effective reminder of the
pluralistic culture of Western European cities today and a strong intimation of
the layers of social complexity the story will probe.
By Ruth Ware – It was a big house, with big grounds, supervised by a noisy tiding of magpies. Harriet Westaway, barely eking a living as a psychic advisor on the Brighton Pier, receives a letter from faraway Penzance inviting her to the funeral and will-reading of her grandmother, the wealthy Hester Westaway. Trouble is, her grandparents are all dead.
Curiosity wins out and she shows up for the event. What starts as something she could explain as a misunderstanding draws her in deeper and deeper, and the search for her real family takes off. Liked it. The Death of Mrs. Westaway
****The Bolivian Sailor
By Donald Dewey – Sometimes a book arrives unexpectedly in the mailbox, or “over the transom,” as publishers used to say, as this one did. To my delight, there were many things to like about this book. Poor P.I. Paul Finley finds himself enmeshed in a deadly plot when a Bolivian seaman is murdered in a seedy motel. He keeps his sense of humor, though, if not his part-time gig teaching a college course in Practical Problems in Law Enforcement. Alas, quite a few of those problems are playing out in front of him. Fun! The Bolivian Sailor
***Low Down Dirty Vote
Edited by Mysti Berry – A timely collection of eleven crime and mystery stories on the theme of fighting voter suppression. Women, blacks, the elderly—in these stories, various groups are discouraged from voting because of presumptions about how they’ll cast their ballots. Most unexpected and amusing use of the vote appeared in Catronia McPherson’s tale about the comeuppance of a man in a crowded commuter train. Good job, all! Low Down Dirty Vote
***A Deadly Indifference
By Marshall Jevons – Harvard economics professor Henry Spearman travels to Cambridge, England, to help a friend wanting to buy the former home of economist Alfred Marshall and establish a foundation there. Marshall may be dear to some economic theorists, including Spearman, but the university faculty is dominated by leftists opposing Marshall’s legacy. Soon, intellectual sparring is replaced by violence and murder. Spearman engagingly calls on economics theory (sometimes a lot of it) to explain these events. Secondary characters, not required to trot out their supply-and-demand curves, are nicely drawn too. A Deadly Indifference
Chloe Benjamin’s accomplished 2018 novel details the lives
of four siblings who, as children, visit a fortune teller who reveals the date they
will die. We follow them then, in turn, and the question is, did her
predictions engage them as accomplices in creating self-fulfilling prophecies,
or was she simply right? The career of the younger daughter, Klara, who becomes
an accomplished magician, was the most intriguing to me. Named “one of the best
books of the year” by many sources.
Probably you read Markus Zusak’s 2005 best-seller when it
first came out, but I missed both book and movie. Children (again) in a small town
outside Munich face the coming of World War II—the paranoia, the excitement,
the vicious militants. Liesel’s mother has left her nine-year-old daughter in
the care of Rosa and Hans Hubermann. The deepening relationship between Liesel
and her foster parents—both kindly Hans and foul-mouthed, foul-tempered Rosa—is
They take in someone much more dangerous too. There’s a Jew
in the basement, son of the man Hans owes his life to. Just as I’d become
immersed in the story, Death, a 20,000-foot observer of the book’s events,
would intrude and pull me out again. I came to appreciate him as a character, though
not these constant interruptions.
Another historical novel is Simone van der Blugt’s 2018 book, her first published in the United States. In 1654, the young widow Catrin leaves her small village to seek her fortune and leave behind the suspicions about her role in her husband’s death. In Amsterdam, she finds work as housekeeper to the wealthy Van Nulandt family. Madame Van Nulandt takes painting lessons from a local master, Rembrandt van Rijn, but Catrin, it turns out, is the real artist in the household. The secret of her husband’s death returns, however, and her struggle to make a successful life despite all shows plenty of pluck and talent. Translated by Jenny Watson.
Photo: Meg Lessard, creative commons license
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By Joe Clifford – Clifford has an innovative premise for
this crime thriller about a woman who turned out to be the last kidnap victim
of a serial killer plaguing a dreary upstate New York town called Reine. Alex
Salerno was 17 when she was kidnapped, then rescued, and the murderer brought
to justice. The town celebrated her and the end of its reign of terror for only
a short while until another girl, Kira Shanks, disappeared and was believed murdered.
That was a dozen years ago, and now Alex has made a rare
trip back to Reine because a reporter wants to hear her story. This is the
first time anyone has shown a flicker of interest in her in a very long while, and
Alex wants to believe her story’s worth telling. Maybe the reporter will even
pay for it. She soon learns he’s no reporter, just a journalism student needing
dirt for a class project that might—or might not—become a story for the college
The student takes hardly a moment before bringing up the
name Sean Riley, the detective who rescued Alex from that basement bunker,
starving, dehydrated, terrified. Riley was the one bright spot in that time,
the one person who could evoke her tender feelings. And did. Too bad an affair
between a married detective and a 17-year-old victim could only end badly. Though
it was a long time ago, it still hurts.
The police identified the person they believe took Kira
Shanks, a mentally challenged young man named Benny Brudzienski. When word got
out, Benny was badly beaten and has spent the years since in a mental hospital,
unable to speak. In that condition, he will never go to trial.
Alex has tried to forget her life in Reine, and author
Clifford does a good job describing the dismal town. She pretends—to herself,
even—that she’s helping the student with his story and visits Benny in the mental
hospital. Something in his eyes suggests more going on inside his brain than
people believe, though the chapters told from Bennie’s point of view didn’t
ring true to me.
After that insightful look, Alex is determined to find out
what really happened to Kira. Meanwhile, plenty of people want her to leave it
alone. Someone is following her. She’s attacked. Riley resurfaces. Because
their past relationship is never far from the mind of either of them, they
teeter between attraction and hostility.
Clifford plausibly describes Alex’s initial feelings, but
never lets her develop further, replaying the same emotional notes. She’s
unpleasant and hostile in her dealings with people. It’s puzzling her
people-skills are so weak and that anyone would cooperate with her
pseudo-investigation. Yet Alex has caught the eye of one young man determined
to find a soft spot in her shell.
Occasionally, Clifford constructs a too-obvious and
unnecessary cliff-hanger at the end of a chapter, even though what’s coming
follows the predictable plotting of thrillers—the false starts, the red
herrings, the apparent threats that evaporate, the climactic confrontation.
The unwanted role of victim was Alex Salerno’s only and brief claim to fame. You can only hope her most recent experience in her home town will finally let her move on. She’s already come a long way from that dark cellar.
photo: xusenru on pixabay
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Here’s news I like to hear from an anthology editor.
Wrote Lyn Worthen, “I am proud to announce that Quoth the Raven, which was recently named the Best Anthology of 2018 by the Critters Workshop/Preditors and Editors Annual Reader’s Poll, is now on the 2018 Bram Stoker Awards Preliminary Ballot.”
In Quoth the Raven,
poets and short story authors tell a contemporary tale, riffing on the style
and sensibility of Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s “Berenice” inspired my story, “Tooth
and Nail,” and now some of my family members hesitate to be in a room alone
with me . . . Nevertheless.
Why Dark Fiction?
My fellow QtR
author, Tiffany Michelle Brown interviewed several of the collection’s 32
authors on why they are attracted to dark fiction. “Why do you think we like to
read about the things that terrify us?” she asked.
Emerian Rich, author of the story “My Annabel” says, “Horror
addicts like to be scared in a safe, non-harmful way. Creep me out, test my limits,
push me over the edge as long as in reality I am safe in my warm bed, able to
switch on the light and see the monsters are just in my head.”
Can this predilection be traced to the fight or flight
instincts developed over millennia? Susan McCAuley, author of “The Cask,” thinks
so. Our world today is relatively safe, she says, and “going to scary movies,
reading scary stories, and going on scary rides, helps fulfill a part of us that
isn’t being used very often, at least in countries where all our major survival
needs are met.”
Her theory may get some support from Donea Lee Weaver,
author of “The Ca(t)sualty,” who admits that, for her, the attraction of dark
fiction is “the adrenalin rush.” She says she may be covering her eyes, “but I’m
still peeking through my fingers, because I just have to know what happens
The stories that Sonora Taylor, author of “Hearts are Just ‘Likes’” says she’s most drawn to aren’t just about a dark force, but how someone’s responding to that darkness” and is possibly unhinged by it. Understandably, the Poe work that inspired her story was “The Tell-Tale Heart.”
My own answer to Tiffany’s question is that “sometimes reading about—exposing oneself to—supremely terrifying things makes it easier to deal with the fearful events encountered in everyday life. Some experts suggest this accounts for the popularity among women of a certain kind of thriller. Reading about sexual violence helps readers contemplate not just the terror of such an event, but also its survivability. Maybe.”
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Raven artwork by rebeccarawrr, creative commons license.
By Jonathan Lethem – Jonathan Lethem, who has been called
one of America’s greatest storytellers, returns to crime fiction with this new
novel, The Feral Detective. It opens with the narrator, Manhattanite Phoebe
Siegler, searching for her best friend’s teenage daughter, Arabella, who has
disappeared from Reed College. Her trail has led to the small California town
of Upland, east of Los Angeles. It’s at the edge of the San Gabriel Mountains,
a short drive to the mountains’ highest peak, Mount Baldy, and within striking
distance of wilderness and desert, vividly described settings as bleak and
untamed as the situations Phoebe will encounter.
The local police, loathe to put any energy into a search for
Arabella, pass Phoebe on to a social worker who specializes in runaways, and
the social worker refers her to The Feral Detective, Charles Heist. Phoebe’s
told that, though Heist’s methods may be unorthodox, he’s a good man on a cold
trail, an expert in rescuing runaways and teenagers snared in cults or human
trafficking networks. In fact, Phoebe learns, one such teen lives in an armoire
in his office.
Heist’s unique set of skills and experiences sets you up for
a strange romp through the underbelly of California society. Scanning Heist’s
unpromising office building, Phoebe says,“To make an appointment here was to
have dropped through the floor of your life, out of ordinary time. You weren’t
meant to be here at all, if you were me.”
Phoebe’s New York temperament is distinctly at odds with
that of the Californians, and she’s pegged it; she wasn’t meant to be there.
But Phoebe already has dropped through the floor of her life, first by quitting
her job at a major newspaper because she couldn’t tolerate the prospect of the
Trump presidency. She can’t fathom why the Californians aren’t similarly
She’s thirty-three, with no immediate employment prospects,
a lot of anger, and dubious romantic feelings about Charles Heist. Her reflexive
wisecracking is balanced by despair, a weak shield against reality. Lethem lets
her be defensive, show poor judgment, and lash out when it would be better not
to. She’s not perfect.
Road trips into the area surrounding Upland, with and
without Heist, lead her to some sketchy places and characters. Heist has
mysterious connections with these troubled people that the New Yorker cannot
understand. Phoebe is drawn to the taciturn feral detective, though their
mismatched relationship seems most likely to go awry. But perhaps he can give
her the anchor in life she so obviously needs.
Lethem writes strong prose, with more than a sprinkling of
appreciation for the ridiculous. Lovers of literary crime fiction will find
Lethem has created interesting and engaging characters in Phoebe and Heist, as
well as an array of distinctive secondary characters—and some dogs—whose fates
are worth caring about. He never lets up in describing people, places,
situations, and feelings in fresh and memorable ways. Several review sites
included it among the top crime books of 2018, though I’ve noted that Amazon
readers don’t much like it and seem to have missed the humor altogether.
Lethem’s previous detective fiction, Motherless Brooklyn, won the National Book Critics Circle Award. It
was narrated by a man with Tourette’s Syndrome—sympathetically. In this new
work, the characters are less overtly damaged, but the damage is there, not far
below the surface.
rabbit photo by wbaiv, creative commons license
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Edited by Louise Penny – What an entertaining collection
this is! The stories cover a wide range of mystery/crime/suspense writing, with
a fair bit of edge. Edited by Louise Penny from a collection assembled under
the direction of Otto Penzler, the twenty stories, all published in 2017, first
appeared in US crime magazines, in literary magazines, in themed anthologies,
and in single-author collections by T.C. Boyle, Lee Child, Scott Loring
Says editor Penny, “A great short story is like a great
poem. Crystalline in clarity. Each word with purpose. Lean, muscular, graceful.
Nothing wasted. A brilliant marriage of intellect, rational thought, and
creativity.” This edition underscores her point on every page.
Though most of the stories run to about twenty pages, Lee
Child, with “Too Much Time,” doubles that length. He meticulously describes how
the redoubtable Jack Reacher digs himself in deeper and deeper with Maine
police while all the time working on an unexpected (by this reader) solution to
his precarious situation. Joyce Carol Oates also provides a near-novella with
“Phantomwise: 1972,” about a naïve college coed who makes consistently bad
choices and the men who exploit them.
Most of the stories take place in the good old US of A, from
the sketchy surrounds of Paul Marks’s Venice Beach (“Windward”) to James Lee
Burke’s Cajun country (“The Wild Side of Life”), though a few are set in more
exotic climes: Africa in David H. Hendrickson’s Derringer-winning “Death in the
Serengeti,” the tropical and fictional island of St. Pierre (“Breadfruit” by
Brian Silverman), and the Republic of Korea (“PX Christmas” by Martin Limón).
The selected authors found clever and creative ways to
deploy the staple characters of crime fiction—unfaithful wives (“Waiting on
Joe” by Scott Loring Sanders), assassins (“Takeout” by Rob Hart) and serial
killers (“All Our Yesterdays” by Andrew Klavan). They deal with classic crime
situations too: trying to escape a difficult past (“Smoked” by Michael Bracken
and “Gun Work” by John M. Floyd) or the long tail of a super-secret job (“Small
Signs” by Charlaine Harris); prison breaks (“Cabin Fever” by David Edgerley
Gates), and the double or is it triple? cross (“Y is for Yangchuan Lizard” by
Andrew Bourelle and “Rule Number One” by Alan Orloff).
A couple of the scams were so deftly described that you may
find yourself grinning with the vigilante surprise of Michael Connelly’s “The
Third Panel” and the flim-flamming of an elderly man in TC Boyle’s “The Designee,”
in which you must decide how complicit the elderly “victim” is. It’s the best
story of his I’ve ever read. There’s also a thought-provoking twist in “Banana
Triangle Six” by Louis Bayard.
This talented collection of authors fills their stories with
great lines, though one of my favorites comes from “The Apex Predator,” by
William Dylan Powell, wherein the main character claims he learned in Uncle
Sam’s navy the “most useful tactical skill ever developed by humankind—and it’s
not swimming or fighting or tying knots. It’s the art of bullshitting someone
so you don’t get in trouble.”
If you’ve been glancing over the author names looking for
(and finding) many that are familiar, you may also have noticed the
near-absence of women authors. Joyce Carol Oates who has more than a hundred
published books is not a surprise in this list, nor is Charlaine Harris, who’s
been publishing mystery fiction since 1981. It’s a real mystery why no other
accomplished, newer authors appear here. Women are somewhat more prominent in
the list of “Other Distinguished Mystery Stories of 2017” at the back of the
volume, where nearly a third are women (10 of 31).
Which publications brought these stories to light in the
first place (and where you might find next year’s winner’s now)? Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine published
four of the stories, Mystery Tribune
(two), and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery
Magazine, Fiction River, and Switchblade, one apiece. Also Level Best
Books’ anthologies (Noir at the Salad Bar
and Snowbound) produced a pair of
When Bruce Pritchard unlocked the door to his weekend Cape May, New Jersey, cottage one Friday early in June, the wind crowded in behind him like a presence, gusts of rain snapping at his heels. He flipped the light switch and shed the old-fashioned boots, oilskins, and sou’wester he affected, a fully wired city boy summoning the crusty New England sea captains of his imagination.
He lit the fireplace to exorcise
the weekday shadows and dispel the ocean’s powerful breath, swirling about him
like a salt-tinged mist. In the kitchen, he unpacked provisions — steaks for
friends, a purple cluster of mussels for himself, a bottle of prosecco, ditto.
This he opened at once.
He toured the four downstairs
rooms, glass of wine in hand, shedding the week’s frustrations like a sodden
overcoat. The cottage’s renovations were finally, finally finished, and the
next evening his six best friends — and investment clients — were driving down
from New York to help him celebrate.
A line of sand-clouded puddles
tracked from door to fireplace disturbed the perfection of the moment, and
Bruce chided himself as he fetched a towel to dry them.
After dinner, he sat in front of
the fire and paged through a musty volume of nautical prints — oversized
engravings of merchant ships, three-masted clippers, an artist’s impression of
The Flying Dutchman. Tonight he’d skip the blood-soaked ghosts of the Stephen
King he’d been reading, the book slumbering like a serpent on his beside table.
He’d rescued the book of engravings
from the attic, a farrago of yellowing volumes, framed pictures, half-empty
chests, and broken whatnots he’d barely glanced at as yet. The elderly sisters
who sold him the cottage said they’d never been up there and exchanged a
secretive look. “Noises,” one said, and the other said, “Best not to be too
curious.” “Or disturb things,” the first one nodded, but her sister cut off
further comment with one glance. Of course they didn’t want to call attention
to how they’d left everything “undisturbed,” and unrepaired, and unpainted, un,
un, un, which was why the place was crumbling around their ears and why he’d
been able to buy it at such a good price.
Well into the night, the storm
provided a soundtrack for dreams of howling seas and wind-battered sailors,
decks slippery as glass, whiplashing ropes and renting sails, so that he awoke
feeling he’d tussled with the elements for hours. From the bedroom window, he
watched the morning sun chase the ocean waves, a quarter-mile away. His prize
Mary Benaker’s station wagon pulled
into the smoothed patch of sand next to his BMW. He threw on a robe and met her
at the front door. Mary was the real estate agent who kept an eye on the place
for him, arranged his cleaning service, and oversaw any weekday workmen. She’d
been a godsend during the renovation. All 18 harrowing months of it. Now she
greeted him, holding a flat of annuals.
“Thought you might want these,” she
said, too cheerful for the hour. “I just drove past the farmer’s market.
They’ve got strawberries.”
Bruce regarded the banal mix of
orange marigolds, red salvia, and purple and white petunias. Nothing he would
plant. Certainly not in that color combination. “No thanks. I’m headed to the
garden center today myself. Very generous of you, but, no.”
She looked a bit sadly at the
unwanted annuals, but said nothing.
As an afterthought, he said, “One
thing, though. Was the maid service here last week?”
“Next week. First and third
Wednesdays. Everything OK?”
He looked past her, head cocked.
“Yes, but …” He paused to focus a thought. “Everything looks moved, slightly,
like someone dusted. And, it just feels like … someone’s been here.” He’d had
a parade of unsettling feelings when at the house in the last few weeks, but he
wasn’t going to tell Mary about the worst of them — that someone was watching
him. That he chalked up to urban paranoia and, possibly, too much Cabernet.
Now she hesitated. “Anything
“Nothing like that. Probably my
imagination.” The uncertain way he said this made it clear he didn’t believe it
was his imagination at all, and he turned to go back inside the house. “Thanks,
anyway.” He indicated the plants.
“Suit yourself,” she said to the
Bruce leaned his back against the
door, annoyed. Throughout the endless renovation, she always managed to slip in
a dig. “If that’s what you like,” “Of course, that’s up to you,” “Suit
yourself.” Her distaste for his choices, his polished style couldn’t be
“So what!” he scolded himself, then
gasped. He took a step forward, then another, transfixed by what he saw over
the fireplace. In place of his prized large-format Robert Mapplethorpe
photograph — ambiguous portions of two male torsos, one black, one white, so
rich in tone it seemed a color print, but wasn’t — sailed a four-masted
windjammer, sheets unfurled and running with the wind, straight at him.
He wheeled and opened the door.
“Mary!” he shouted, but the station wagon turned onto the road and disappeared
behind a stand of beach plums.
The frame of the Mapplethorpe
peeked above the back of a low sofa. He pulled it from its hiding place and
marched to the fireplace to switch the two. And stepped in a puddle of seawater
containing a miniature beach of sand and trailing a seaweed thread.
Maybe a shower would clear his
head. But in the bathroom, he found scrimshaw ornaments cluttering the glass
shelf. Where the hell did those come from? Figuring they were cheap plastic
souvenirs, someone’s idea of a joke, he picked up a piece to toss it into the
trash, and noticed the weight, the fine detail, a map he recognized as
Nantucket Island, and the date: 1846. He set it back on the glass and
* * *
A piece of toast in one hand and
his smartphone in the other, he called Mary. “Who lived here before me, do you
know? Before the sisters.”
“Let me ask Chuck. If he doesn’t
know, he can find out.” Chuck Benaker was her husband, another realtor and a
past president of the county historic society. These combined interests could
generate a dizzying amount of genealogical detail about any parcel of local
property. Bruce found Chuck tiresome, but Mary was right. He’d know.
Bruce was planting herbs next to
the kitchen door when Mary called back.
“Chuck says your house was built by
a retired sea captain. This would have been about 1850. The house was in his
family for 75 years or so until the Darby family bought it. The parents died
soon after World War II, and they left it to their daughters — the sisters who
sold it to you. Not many owners.”
“What does he know about this sea
“He said the historic society has
some papers and such. They open for the season in a couple of weeks, but wait.”
Mary put her hand over the receiver and spoke to someone. “Chuck says he can
meet you there about three.”
* * *
The historic society headquarters
and museum occupied a simple clapboard house on Washington Street. Chuck
Benaker looked up from a pile of mail. “So, your house? Quite a history.” He
handed Bruce a folder. “Captain Newsome was a true legend. You have there the
original deed to the property and records of some purchases. Stuff found after
he was murdered, I suppose. Plus the registries kept by his nephew, who lived
with him and let out the upstairs rooms to lodgers. The Darbys —”
“Newsome? Oh, yeah. Made enemies
like Dunkin’ makes Donuts. If he hadn’t died, he would have been charged with a
murder or two himself. Beat the rap by bleeding to death. The clippings are
here somewhere,” Chuck walked to a file cabinet and rattled a drawer open.
“We’ve been closed since fall, and the girls left everything a mess.” He
slammed the drawer. “But I remember the story.”
Bruce leafed through the folder,
mesmerized. So much for his house as a peaceful place, a refuge. He held up a
“Ah. Newsome’s parrot, ‘Cap’n,’”
Chuck said. “According to their diaries, the Cape May ladies were more
terrified of Cap’n than of Newsome himself. Stunning vocabulary.
“Newsome was captain of a merchant
ship in the mid-1800s, sailed out of Massachusetts,” Chuck drawled, and Bruce
could see the rest of the afternoon unwinding drearily in front of him, despite
Chuck’s rendition of the despicable Newsome. Chuck pulled open the shallow
drawer of a map cabinet and located a floor plan of the house. “Carpenter’s
records.” He pointed to a second floor room. “Happened right there. When I
unearth the newspaper stories, you can read the police description. Strong
stomach?” He looked at Bruce over the top of his half-glasses.
“That’s my bedroom,” Bruce said,
staring at Chuck’s tapping finger.
“Really.” Chuck paused, as if he
found that fact somehow significant, and the word hung ambiguously in the air.
“Newsome and his killer, Henry Carver — now that was a prophetic name — had a
royal feud about your property. Came to a head one night, both of them drunk.
Carver tried to escape across the Pine Barrens, but a timber rattler got him,
so the police said.”
Bruce caught the skepticism. “You
don’t believe it?”
Benaker shrugged. “The other
lodgers didn’t believe it. The night in question they were all jammed in the
doorway of the murder room, but none of them lifted a hand while Carver did the
bloody deed. Newsome’s last words were, ‘I’ll come back and get you,’ and he
shook his fist at the lot of them. When Carver turned up dead, they hightailed
“What time is it?” Bruce startled,
as if wakened from a bad dream, and checked his watch. 5:30.
“Oh. Sorry to keep you.” Chuck
looked disappointed. “I get all wound up in these stories. Cape May County has
a colorful history, that’s for sure.”
Bruce stood up, a little wobbly
from information overload. “No, it was . . . helpful. But I have friends coming
“You go on. When I dig up those
clippings, we’ll talk again.” He rubbed his hands together, a gesture that made
Back at the cottage, The Windjammer
was back above the fireplace. He found the torn Mapplethorpe outside in the
trash barrel, frame and glass shattered.
* * *
Bruce’s guests said the cottage was
fantastic and thought the painting an inspired bit of camp. But their
admiration gave him no pleasure, and he was uncharacteristically quiet all
evening. He couldn’t talk to his New York friends about ghosts, then expect
them to invest their life savings with him.
He gave two of the men the “murder
room,” as Benaker termed it. As he stood in the doorway to point out the
switches and extra bedding, he began to shake, and he hurried back downstairs.
He slept on the sofa and hoped a sunny Sunday morning at the beach would
expunge Newsome’s gory phantom.
Too soon he was awakened by a
commotion in the kitchen. Up already before seven, his visitors prowled for
coffee. He found them clustered around the kitchen table, staring at a tall
bell-shaped object covered with a fitted cloth.
“Looks like my mother’s mixer,” said
one, “only bigger.”
“Your mother dressed her
appliances, too? I thought that was my Mom’s Midwestern chic.”
Bruce knew what the thing was. But
he lifted the cover, anyway.
“Cap’n’s back,” squawked the
parrot, followed by an outpouring of dark obscenities.
* * *
Late that afternoon the phone rang
in the Benaker real estate office, and Chuck picked up. “Hey, Bruce,” Chuck
said. He continued to listen for several minutes. “Sorry to hear that. . . .
No, I do not believe in . . .” He listened some more. “Well, OK, if you’re
sure.” Finally, he hung up.
He looked across the office and
smiled at his wife. “Your dream house? As good as yours.”
By Lisa Gabriele – The author set herself a high bar in tackling a modern reimagining of Daphne du Maurier’s classic psychological thriller, Rebecca, with its famous first line—“Last night I dreamed I went again to Manderley.” Gabriele’s first line, “Last night Rebekah tried to murder me again” is startling, if lacking the original’s poetic power.
Nevertheless, a novel is more than its opening line. I
reread the set-up for du Maurier’s gothic thriller to reacquaint myself with
the story and her style, so I could assess whether Gabriele’s new novel stands
up to the original, since it so deliberately invites the comparison. I ended up
with a mixed opinion.
As in the original, Gabriele’s (again, unnamed) narrator, a
rather unsophisticated if sincere young woman, does not fit easily in the
social set of her new fiancé, wealthy New York Senator Maxim Winter. Winter
dismisses her feelings of being out-of-place, despite (or is it because of?)
her stark dissimilarity to his late wife—the beautiful, charming, and talented
Rebekah. I didn’t really warm up to the narrator—odd, since the book is written
in the first-person—nor did I find her a wholly convincing character.
As in the original, most of the story takes place at a
legendary and enormous family residence. The Winter estate, Asherley, was built
on its own island at the far eastern end of Long Island, facing the sea.
In a brilliant move by Gabriele, the narrator’s antagonist is not the confidant of the late Mrs. Winter, the housekeeper (Mrs. Danvers in the original); in Gabriele’s version, the principal opposition to the marriage and to the narrator herself comes from Max and Rebekah’s teenage daughter, Dani. Many of us have seen how fraught relationships with step-children can be, and this was a persuasive adjustment to modern times. There is a lot going on with Dani, though her rebellious teenage machinations are hard to forgive, for narrator and reader alike.
While the set-up of the two novels is reasonably similar,
their plots begin to diverge about half-way through. Even so, having Dani
volunteer to help the narrator find a wedding dress evokes nail-biting echoes
of disaster that play out in a completely unexpected way.
Gabriele’s writing style is, of course, markedly different
from that of a novel written eighty years ago. Still, I miss du Maurier’s long
loopy sentences and lush descriptions. In the new version, you see the Winter
mansion through modern eyes and a more practical, less dreamy affect. In place
of a wall of blood-red rhododendrons, you have a profusion of vases full of
Rebekah’s favored deep red roses. Tastes differ as to whether a more florid
style better fits a romantic story about a woman blinded by love—or is she?—and
haunted by her dead rival.
Gabriele’s narrator is a refreshingly modern woman, appreciative
of Max Winter’s extreme wealth, but not overawed by it. Even so, she finds
herself trapped by circumstances. In today’s world, a difficult housekeeper
would be dismissed; it’s not so easy to divest oneself of a step-daughter, even
a calculating, substance-abusing, and foul-mouthed one like Dani. Gabriele,
having set aside the evil housekeeper, finds new ways for Rebekah’s memory to
torment the new Mrs. Winter, while the ghost of du Maurier’s Rebecca necessarily haunts The Winters.
By Tom Pitts – Book publicists are fond of the awkward adjective “unputdownable,”but in the case of Tom Pitts’s new California crime thriller, this enthusiastic description is wholly justified. Those familiar with California will recognize 101 as the highway that runs the length of California from Los Angeles—where it’s part of the world’s busiest and most nightmarish freeway interchange—north to the Oregon border and beyond. Pitts’s book focuses on that northern bit, from the Bay Area up to Humboldt County, where a different kind of traffic is all-important: weed.
The book is set in mid-2016, six months before California voters will legalize marijuana, and the impending vote has made the Humboldt County growers more paranoid than usual. They’re accustomed to warding off rustlers and junkies and deer and water-thieves, but unsure how to arm themselves for a massive market shift. Pitts’s description of the steep hillside partly covered in redwoods and brambles and the long, rutted dirt track up to where the nervous growers live is so vivid you could almost choke on the dust of their ATVs.
Vic Thomas runs one of these hillside growing operations, out of the sight of most people, which is exactly how he likes it. Twenty years before, he and a woman he’d never met before, Barbara Bertram, witnessed a horrible crime and, in self-defense, meted out a little on-the-spot justice. The experience bonded them forever. The police totally misunderstood what went on in that charnel-house and have been trying to track down Barbara and Vic ever since.
The story opens with a middle-of-the-night call from Barbara. She tells Vic her son Jerry is in trouble again, and she wants to send him to Vic so he can lie low awhile among the marijuana growers. Vic can’t tell her no. Alas, Jerry is a serial screw-up with less sense than Vic’s dogs.
Vic is not pleased when he discovers that Jerry and his girlfriend Piper stole a considerable amount of cash from a Russian who runs a Bay Area weed club. His name is Vlad—“Vlad the Inhaler”—and he and his mobsters are determined to get their money back and make an example of Jerry.
When Piper finds her way up the hill to Jerry’s “hideout,” Vic recognizes that his unwelcome guest can’t keep his mouth shut. He’s even more alarmed when he realizes Piper’s stepfather is the head of the Dead BBs, a vicious outlaw motorcycle gang. Vlad has a financial relationship with the BBs, which makes them equally determined to find Jerry and Piper and reclaim the money. The stepfather considers Jerry completely expendable and Piper only slightly less so. Pitts shifts the narrative point of view frequently, so you know not only what Vic is thinking, but also what Vlad and the Dead BBs are up to. You’re never in doubt about the danger heading up the 101 toward Vic, Jerry, Piper, and anyone else who gets in the way.
With three sets of determined antagonists—the Russians, the Dead BBs, and the cops—looking for some combination of Jerry, Piper, and Vic, the opportunities for mayhem expand exponentially, and Pitts has deftly orchestrated the chase. There’s no time here for literary flourishes, maybe just a dash to the fridge for a beer, right in step with the denizens of 101. AMAZON LINK HERE.