Award-winning Listens

earphones

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.

*****Bearskin

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

*****November Road

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

****House Witness

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 Witness should 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

Photo: John O’Nolan, creative commons license

****Gretchen

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!

Puzzle photo: Sephelonor for Pixabay

Deadly Ink: “Everybody Wins”

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The annual Deadly Ink conference held in northern New Jersey last weekend was loads of fun. Guest of Honor Wendy Corsi Staub was a lively presence and toastmaster Dick Belsky charmed. I saw a number of old friends, met authors I admire, and was delighted to be included on several panels. Yesterday’s post reviewed some of the discussion about “character.”

The Dark Side
The panel on noir stories and hard-boiled characters  risked bogging down in semantics but clearly demonstrated the many shades of black actually out there. Apologies if you’ve read this here before, but I offered Dennis Lehane’s definition of noir: In a tragedy, a man falls from a great height (Macbeth, the Greeks, Chinatown); in noir, he falls from the curb. Panelist Rich Zahradnik provided another good one: “In noir, nobody wins.”

Hard-boiled stories usually involve a detective who is not emotionally involved or is struggling not to be. Humphrey Bogart’s portrayals of Sam Spade (written by Dashiell Hammett) and Philip Marlowe (Raymond Chandler) epitomize the genre. Cynical and street-smart, not reliant on the intellectual powers of Sherlock Holmes or the “little grey cells” of Hercule Poirot.

The hard-boiled character nevertheless gets the job done. Occasionally crossing my path are books that are too dark. They feature down-and-out characters living in filthy apartments who smoke and drink too much; some of them can’t think beyond their next fix. I don’t find them interesting. With four strikes against them already, whaddaya know, they make (more) bad decisions. Give me a character who at least has the opportunity to make choices.

With me on this panel were Charles Salzberg (whose Swann character operates on the fringes of society, but has plenty of agency), Al Tucher (whose work features a smart and tough prostitute), and moderator Dick Belsky.

Location, Location, Location
In the session on story setting, historical mystery author Annamaria Alfieri said she chooses her location first (British East Africa, for example), then the time period in which that place offered the most interesting fictional possibilities.  

Panelists’ strategies for establishing a strong sense of place included attention to the small details and local idiosyncrasies (lots of research here, including site visits for contemporary works), plus making sure to describe the character’s emotional reaction to the location. If you could pick a San Francisco story up and move it four hundred miles south to Los Angeles, you should end up with a different story. New Orleans isn’t New York, and South Carolina isn’t South Dakota.

Of course, panelists and audience alike thought Al Tucher is onto something with his new book set in Hawai`i. “It’s a research trip.” Yeah, right.

This and yesterday’s post about “character” are a small sample of the conference’s varied and interesting program. Whether you’re a writer or a fan, be there in person in 2020!

Photo: Sebastien Wiertz, creative commons license

*****Blood

scissors, blood, editing

By Maggie Gee — Far from the ordinary crime story, literary author Maggie Gee’s Blood is a comic excursion into the rough-and-tumble mind of narrator Monica Ludd. She’s 38, over six feet tall, outspoken and awkward, far from tiny with, as she is fond of pointing out, an enormous bosom. When Monica squeezes you into the rollercoaster seat beside her on page one, you’re in for a wild ride.

Monica claims to be a respectable citizen of East Kent. Doubtful. Much of the story plays out near the seacoast there and on the peninsula of Thanet. The little community, the seashore, the shops—come to life nicely. Even such a remote area has its dose of violence, terrorism, and, well, blood.

Monica has a job. She’s the deputy head in a school, loathes her new boss, and takes no pains to hide it. She thinks he’d like to be rid of her, and who could blame him?, but he rarely stands up to her.

Monica has a family. She calls them “artistes of awfulness.” She landed in the middle of a congeries of three boys and three girls, all grown up now. Ma’s in a care home, forgetting everything or choosing not to remember, it’s hard to say which. It’s Dad who drives the family disaster train. He’s a dentist who has sex with his patients in the chair. He’s a serial philanderer whose current girlfriend is two decades younger than Monica. When his children were young, he beat them. He mocks them yet. His bullying drove his youngest son Fred into the Army, and the siblings blame him for Fred’s death.

The final insult—and the inciting incident of the novel—occurs when the siblings organize an elaborate party in Fred’s memory, and Dad doesn’t show up. Monica is so angry, she says she’s going to kill him. Alas, a lot of people hear this threat, and the next morning when Monica finds Dad’s brutally beaten, blood-soaked body, even her siblings think she’s a murderer. That attack launches her impulsive and lengthy campaign of lies and misdirection. There’s truth in the old saying, blood is thicker than water, and you see it here. Her siblings’ loyalty to her through this whole saga says volumes about the sides of Monica that she tries to hide with her bluster.

In Monica, Gee has created an unforgettable character. Not only large, but larger than life. Profane and resourceful. She speaks her mind, loudly (rarely a good thing). And she is a genius at self-justification. All of which I found highly entertaining, even on the not-infrequent occasions that I was embarrassed for her.

From a crime fiction point of view, Blood is refreshingly unconventional and a reminder that violence and retribution, jealousy and fear, have been important literary themes forever. Literary novelist Maggie Gee, OBE, is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and was its first female chair.

Photo: Guzmán Lozano, creative commons license

****Swann’s Down

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 Ten.

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

Booky, Booky

Reading

Four books out of sync with my new crime fiction reviewing.

Yes, even I occasionally tire of a reading life of crime. And sometimes I want to catch up with a book from prior years.

And book clubs make choices . . .

****Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

By Gail Honeyman – Which of us hasn’t felt saddled by a critical parent? One whose admonishing voice we hear when we least need it? Who among us isn’t more likely to remember a parent’s upbraiding rather than the praise? Eleanor remembers, to a miserable extreme. Patterning herself after her ultra-demanding mother, she needs to (to learn how to) unwind a bit, no, a lot. She longs for human connection and gets in her own way when she tries. Vodka helps, until it doesn’t. Although the plot doesn’t surprise, Honeyman has established a strong, if painful, voice for Eleanor, just too smart to stay locked inside herself forever. A prime example of the new literary trend called up-lit—“books that give us hope.” In many ways similarly plotted to Where the Crawdads Sing, it raises both hope and skepticism for the same reasons. The author, not the character, seems in charge, if that makes any sense.

****Murmur

By Will Eaves – This is literary fiction and far from as straightforward in the telling as Eleanor Oliphant. It’s based on the life of Alan Turing (Alec Pryor in the book), the brilliant British mathematician and computer scientist (now on the £50 note) who later led the Bletchley Park team that helped unravel the secrets of the Nazi code machine, Enigma. Ping-ponging between dreams, memories, letters with a woman friend, and more in the months before his suicide, the novel has been called “a hallucinatory masterwork.” Much of it looks back to Pryor’s adolescence, his discovery of his homosexuality, and the social and school problems that resulted. Murmur has won numerous prizes. Will Eaves is a poet and a teacher, as well as a novelist. This is the first of his books published in the United States.

***Blood Sisters

By Kim Yideum, translated from the Korean by Jiyoon Lee – I joined a book club that sends novels by international authors several times a year, as a way to become acquainted with other voices and sensibilities. This book was a hard go in the beginning, partly because of the unadorned writing style, but became easier, page by page. The narrator has left home (more difficult, hypercritical parents), and lives as cheaply as possible in a room over a café called Instant Paradise (yeah, right). She has a great many challenges including physical injuries, a parent who deserted her, plus an unexpected romance. Wait, am I writing about Eleanor Oliphant again? Totally different books, striking parallels, but without the too-easy resolution.

****The Word is Murder

By Anthony Horowitz – OK, back to my comfort zone. Horowitz is a crimewriter and TV scriptwriter (Midsomer Murders, Foyle’s War). This novel starts with the murder of a woman who appears to have predicted her own demise. A gruff former police detective, Daniel Hawthorne, is called in to take a look at the case, joined by a clueless writer named Anthony Horowitz who’s looking for some new plot ideas and manages to blunder about spectacularly. “Full of surprises and suspense,” said The Washington BookReview. And comic moments. This adventure has been followed up by 2019’s The Sentence is Death, again featuring Hawthorne and Horowitz.

****No Way to Die

ancient China

By PA De Voe – If you want a total escape from Brexit or US or European politics, PA De Voe’s second-in-series Ming Dynasty Mystery, No Way to Die, will take you back to late 1300s China. As a devoted fan of the Judge Dee mysteries of Robert van Gulik, set six hundred years earlier in the Tang Dynasty, I was delighted to find De Voe’s well-crafted series.

The prose is deceptively simple. No lengthy descriptions, just enough information to let you picture the scene—a style in keeping with both the era in which the stories are set and the heavily verb-dependent Chinese language.

Women’s doctor (and woman doctor) Xiang-hua is asked to serve as coroner to determine whether the mangled body of a stranger found in the village herbalist’s pig pen got there through foul play. Alas, the pig had made a bit of a meal of the man before his body was removed. Numerous males of the community are concerned the sight of the mangled corpse may be too much for the young Xiang-hua. But she does not shrink from the task. Trained as a healer by her grandmother, Xiang-hua is determined to fulfill her obligations (striking a feminist note that resonates in the 21st century). It’s tough, but she’s in possession of herself well enough to discover the dead man, muddy and bloody, had been stabbed in the back.

The local officials want to know the victim’s identity and, if possible, who stabbed him, before they have to report the crime to higher authorities. If they fail to find out, it will likely to bring down the wrath of the bureaucracy, never a pleasant outcome in ancient China, as punishments were plentiful and harsh. This is a prime example of how De Voe uses 700-year-old realities to create situations that adhere to one of the basic memes of modern crime stories: the ticking clock.

The investigation enables a fascinating trip back to a colorful and simpler time, and though the culture was so different, human emotions and motivations are the same across eons. De Voe’s training as an anthropologist and her advanced degree in Asian studies mean that what she writes carries an authority based on deep knowledge of that long-ago culture and society. I’ll be looking forward to more of her excellent tales!

New In Print

Release day! Today’s the day for the print version of the anthology, The Best Laid Plans, edited by Canadian mystery writer Judy Penz Sheluk. She’s collected 21 stories from popular short story writers, and if you like your crime and chills in small bites, you’ll enjoy this! Here’s a quick rundown of these entertaining tales.

About my story, “Who They Are Now”: When an aging sportscaster is murdered in his bed under cover of a vicious Florida hurricane, is someone after his priceless collection of baseball memorabilia? The Delray Beach police are on the case, aided by his neighbor, a feisty but no-longer-young Hollywood star.

Order here from Amazon.

****The Paris Diversion

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By Chris Pavone – The Paris Diversion is the followup to Chris Pavone’s popular and award-winning debut thriller from 2013, The Expats. In the new book, former CIA agent Kate Moore is living in Paris with her husband Dexter when the ghosts from that earlier story come in search of her. A lot of action and a great many characters are packed into the twelve-hour period this novel covers. Along the way, you’re treated to a granular depiction of Paris—not just monuments and streets, but the way of life.

Kate doesn’t know whether she still works for the CIA. She’s a one-woman operation, head of something called the Paris Substation, and has ample money to hire all the help she needs to carry out assignments, though who and where do these orders come from? Dexter works from home, day-trading, and scheming to find a get-rich-quick idea. He thinks he’s found one.

In a recent panel discussion, author Pavone said he was drawn to writing thrillers because the characters lie so much. He’s brought that tendency to a high art in this novel with Kate and Dexter’s innumerable secrets and reflexive avoidance of the truth.

Dexter plans to sell short a large hunk of shares in a company called 4Syte. It will make him a massive profit as long as those shares drop in price as insider information predicts. 4Syte’s president, Hunter Forsyth, is an arrogant high-flyer, who Dexter believes was “born on third base, believing he hit a triple”—such a perfect description I laughed out loud. Forsyth is so convinced of his invincibility he doesn’t realize he’s been kidnapped.

The ominous sound of sirens pervades the book’s early chapters. Several bombs have been found in strategic spots around the city, and a Muslim man wearing a suicide vest has taken up a position in the plaza outside the Louvre. Rooftop snipers have him in their sights, though shooting him may merely precipitate the catastrophe. The petty arguing among the various police departments regarding whether to shoot sounded exactly right, with the ironic touch that the sniper is Muslim too.

Pavone’s secondary characters are strong, especially Forsyth’s assistant, Colette. Coolly French, married, she’s the object of Hunter’s lustful imaginings. The suicide bomber is another good character, knowing he will die, but not when, and with unexpected reasons for strapping on the vest.

You may want to stop reading this fast-paced novel occasionally to ask yourself, “What just happened?” as layers of the complex plot come into focus. A few aspects of the story—especially the idea that there are multiple off-the-books spy agencies operating around the world—may stretch credulity, but you probably will be turning pages too fast to worry about such things.

Photo: Dan Novac from Pixabay.

*****Conviction

By Denise Mina – In her new deftly plotted crime thriller, Denise Mina uses a compelling story-within-a-story to draw you in. First-person narrator Anna McDonald lives in Glasgow with husband Hamish and two young daughters. Early one morning, she’s listening to a true-crime podcast about the sinking of the Dana, a private yacht moored in France’s Île de Ré. The boat suffered an explosion below decks and sank, drowning a father and his two grown children.

Anna is a dispassionate listener to this story until it mentions the yacht-owner’s name, Leon Parker. She knows him. Years before, when she worked as a maid at an exclusive Scottish holiday resort, Parker was a guest, and she remembers him fondly. “Oh, God, Leon’s laugh. So dark and wild you could drown a bag of kittens in it.”

Anna can’t reminisce forever, though, she has to awaken the children and her husband and start their day. In a frenzy of morning preparations, Anna finally answers the knock at the door. Her best friend Estelle is there with a roller bag, and Hamish is at the top of the stairs, his own roller bag beside him.

Hamish is leaving her for Estelle. He’s keeping the house and the girls. Anna will get money. Throughout this roller-coaster of a story, Mina effectively conveys Anna’s erratic state of mind, and while her character doesn’t always make the best decisions, you can believe in her. She’s prickly and charming.

And she has secrets. She wasn’t always Anna McDonald. She was Sophie Bukaran until she was raped by four footballers. The case attracted unwanted notoriety, the fans never forgave her, and team owner Gretchen Tiegler tried to get her killed.

Soon Estelle’s husband Fin Cohen arrives. He’s an instantly recognizable member of a popular band who is as well known for being anorexic as for his music. Without thought of logistics or consequences, Anna and Fin launch into a road trip to flee the reminders of their abandonment. As they listen to the podcast episodes in the car, Fin also becomes intrigued with the Dana’s sinking and its reputation of being haunted.

Eventually, the two begin their own series of podcasts, asking new questions about the crime. Thanks to Fin’s celebrity and the almost immediate outing of Anna as Sophie, their forays into pseudo-journalism attract an improbably large audience. Sophie is afraid the attention will spark renewed risk from Tiegler and her minions—not only to her. Her daughters are vulnerable too. Fin tells her she’s being paranoid, until he has a fright of his own. “Now that Fin was scared too, my paranoia never came up again.” Love Sophie’s sly humor!

You’re in for quite an adventure, at times a deadly one, with Mina’s intriguing tale.

For a quirkier side of Glasgow crime, I’d also recommend the entertaining adventure of book store clerk, inadvertent murderer, and fugitive crime-fighter Jen Carter in Russell D. McLean’s Ed’s Dead.

Photo: Jan Alexander from Pixabay.