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.
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
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.
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
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.
The spring crime/thriller/mystery award season is for me means
listening to the many nominees I’ve missed. Below are four recent listens. Good
books, all, but these reviews focus on their strengths as spoken-word products.
Listed in order of preference, my favorite at the top.
1 – Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens (12 hours, 12 minutes) – I fell under the spell of this engrossing novel and Cassandra Campbell’s placid narration. Yes, Owens glosses over the serious difficulties that would be faced by an eight-year-old girl living alone in the North Carolina marsh. With the help of her friend Tate, Kaya teaches herself to read and to record her detailed observations of the marsh’s plant and animal life. In the background, Owens weaves in the investigation of a murder that takes place when Kaya is in her early twenties and, the plot being what it is, you know she’ll be accused of the crime and totally unprepared to defend herself. I was with Kaya’s story all the way up to the end. Though Owens laid the factual groundwork for it, it didn’t make emotional sense. Nevertheless, the story is a fine ride, sensitively and beautifully read.
2 – The Liar’s Girl, by Catherine Ryan Howard (10 hours, 26 minutes) – A nicely plotted thriller about Alison Smith, whose boyfriend, in her first year of college, confessed to a string of murders of young Dublin women. He’s been in a psychiatric institution ever since, but now, ten years on, the murders have started again. The Dublin police visit Alison in the Netherlands where she now lives, saying her boyfriend may be able to help with the current investigation. But he will only talk with her, and they guilt-trip her into returning. Solid reading by a trio of actors: Alana Kerr Collins (mostly), Alan Smyth, and Gary Furlong.
2- (Yes, a tie) – Down the River Unto the Sea, by Walter Mosley (7 hours, 44 minutes) – Loved the narration of this New York tale and its diversity of voices. Disgraced NYPD detective Joe King Oliver, now a private detective, sees a chance to redeem himself and his career with the takedown of a group of crooked cops. And he has the chance to rescue another possibly falsely accused black man. But, it’s New York, so it’s complicated. He finds himself an unlikely ally in a dangerous character named Melquarth Frost whom I liked a lot. Great narrating job by Dion Graham, capturing all the humor and subtleties of Mosley’s wildly colorful characters.
3 – The Witch Elm, by Tana French (22 hours, 7 minutes) – I hadn’t realized this book was so much longer than the others. It sure felt that way. French is such a greatly admired author, I must be missing something when I find her tedious. Only after you’ve invested several hours does evidence of the crime at the book’s center emerge. Perhaps it’s a reflection of how well she wrote the dialog of twenty-something Toby and his cousins—snarky, whining, self-absorbed—or the pitch-perfect rendition narrator Paul Nugent gives it (“Toe-beeee!”), but listening to their endless talk was like fingernails on a blackboard.
There’s a buzz from just being in a room packed with crime
writers and hearing topics discussed that consume your waking brain (but are of
negligible interest to your kids, your running buddy, and pretty much anyone
else). Then there are the ideas the discussion sparks. Oh, for the luxury of
time to follow all those ideas to their dramatic conclusion and to absorb into
my bones the writing advice provided by panelists Jane Cleland, Steve Liskow,
and Hallie Ephron.
1. Themes and variations. How a case is investigated and
handled in court varies across jurisdictions. Envision a clutch of short
stories in which similar crimes have very different handling and outcomes.
2. The case of the gentleman prosecutor. When a defendant’s
mistress was about to be called to testify, the prosecutor let his wife know
she might be happier waiting in the hallway. What other courtesies might a
3. Is that your best argument? An appellate lawyer advised, “Put
your best argument first,” while people are still listening.
4. If you’re reading crime fiction to assess the state of
the market, “don’t go back farther than five years.” There was a lot of nodding
and murmured assent to the notion that Agatha Christie couldn’t get published
5. Coincidences happen in real life all the time. But in
fiction, forget it. At least, “have no more than one,” advised Hallie Ephron,
who for a similar reason nixed twins as a plot device. (We won’t mention that Louise
Penny based a plot on the Dionne quintuplets.)
6. American English is tightly connected to rhythm, said
Steve Liskow, which is why reading a manuscript aloud exposes problems in the language
that are invisible on the page. Readers will stumble over the same awkwardnesses
7. No need to write in dialect. In fact, don’t. Mention a
character’s accent once and use word choice and the rhythms of subsequent
speech to reinforce it.
8. Jane Cleland said great heroes are not afraid to act, though
the panelists agreed they have a flaw or failing that must be overcome.
9. Put the important information at the beginning or end of
a paragraph. Bury your red herrings in the middle.
10. And keynote speaker Peter Blauner repeated advice from legendary
journalist Pete Hamil: “When doing an interview, listen very carefully to the
last thing someone says to you.” You’re on your way out the door, your
interviewee’s guard is down. This could be the juicy stuff.
By Amanda Robson –The suburban London borough of Twickenham is home to the upwardly mobile young couple Faye and Phillip and their two daughters. Thirty-four year old Faye cuts a striking figure, walking the older girl to school and dropping in on the agent who occasionally finds her modeling jobs. She’s beautiful, thin, and, to all appearances, has her world well put together.
Those appearances are carefully noted by Erica, a neighbor
in a rental flat who is overweight, insecure, and has little going on in her
life. Before long, Erica’s preoccupation with Faye moves beyond watching; she
begins following her.
Divided into short chapters, the novel is told from the
alternating points of view of Erica, Faye, Faye’s husband Phillip, and their
architect friend Jonah who’s in charge of Faye and Phillip’s loft conversion.
Early on, we learn about cracks in Faye’s façade when she
visits the modeling agency and learns she’s been turned down for a job because
the client wants someone younger. At a party where she meets a top modeling
agent, he won’t even take her card. He says over-contrived looks are out of
fashion. Faye is devastated until friend Jonah appears.
In his first-person sections, Jonah makes clear his motive
is not friendship, but seduction. He plies Faye with alcohol and flattery,
soothing her insecurities. In a ‘why doesn’t she see this coming’ moment, he
persuades her to go home with him and they have an uninhibited night of sex.
When she wakes in the morning, Faye is horrified and slips away unobserved—except
by Erica, that is. Erica becomes convinced Faye is irresponsible and a bad
mother and that she can be the young girls’ savior. Despite her delusions, she
remains a sympathetic character, with a nice character arc.
Faye is aghast at what she’s done and determined to keep
Phillip from finding out. Ah, once again, secrets are the fuel that propel the
plot forward. Jonah is not backing off.
Lots goes wrong from here on out, as the pressure on Faye increases to an excruciating point. While Erica is a convincing adversary, as a young woman without advantages who lets herself be inhabited by a foolish fantasy, Jonah is not. You may not fully believe in him and his smarmy descriptions of the sex he and Faye had. It would be a stronger book if his character inspired the kind of divided loyalty Erica does. You still kind of root for her, despite her missteps.
By Timothy Jay Smith – Take a walk back in time to Warsaw,
1992, with Timothy Jay Smith’s new crime thriller. The Cold War has recently
ended, but average citizens struggle to figure out the new economic realities.
Nothing quite works yet, and the gray concrete dullness of Soviet brutalist
architecture is made even harsher by the dismal April weather. Politically, old
relationships are unraveling, and chaos in the former Soviet Union and some of
its satellites raises an important question, who’s watching the nukes?
Warsaw police, meanwhile, are dealing with a baffling series
of murders. Over just a few weeks, three unidentified young men have been shot
to death, their bodies abandoned on the banks of the Vistula River, one cheek
slit open, all labels expertly cut from their clothing. Now they’ve found a
fourth victim, older this time. By chance, the forensic pathologist noticed the
third victim’s hands bore traces of radiation. Whatever he’d been smuggling, Poland’s
new Solidarity government wants help to stop it.
American aid comes to them from the FBI in the person of Jay
Porter, who in turn calls on the expertise of the local CIA officer—a gay black
man named Kurt Crawford—and the genial Ambassador. There are good interactions
and good humor among the three Americans. They all want to put an end to what seems
to be nuclear material being spirited out of the former Soviet Union—but each
has a totally different way of going about it.
Porter meets an attractive Polish woman, Lilka, who, he
learns, is divorced from her abusive husband, but the apartments in Poland are
so few and so small, so they still live together. The American starts seeing
Lilka, which gives author Smith a vehicle for introducing realistic aspects of
everyday Polish life—the shortages, the cranky cars, the small indulgences, and
the stresses immediately post-communism—one of the most interesting aspects of
the book, in fact.
Perhaps there are a couple too many plot coincidences and
intersections among the cast of characters. All of them remain distinctive and
interesting, though, even the minor ones. Smith’s well described settings put
you right in the scene, whether it’s the drably elegant hotel favored by a
Yugoslav general, a seedy bar in the bowels of the train station, or the riverside
wasteland where the corpses keep washing up.
Photo: “Soviet buttons” by seitbijakaspars, creative commons license.
By Brad Parks – In an author’s note, Parks reveals the book
was motivated by a real-life episode. Between 2004 and 2007, the U.S. mega-bank
Wachovia failed to use appropriate money-laundering controls and cleansed at
least $378 billion dollars from the Mexican drug cartel Sinaloa, reaping
billions of dollars in fees. While the bank ultimately received a fine, modest
compared to its gains, “no Wachovia executive faced criminal charges, nor
served a single day in prison.” Wachovia was subsequently bought by Wells
the practice has continued.
But can Parks’s sense of outrage translate into fiction
without becoming polemical? Absolutely. His unlikely protagonist is Tommy Jump,
a former child star, small in stature but aging out of his career in musical
theater and still too young for character roles. He’s at loose ends, ending a
gig as Sancho Panza in The Man of
LaMancha, when he’s approached by an old high school buddy, now an FBI
agent. He offers Tommy a deal.
The FBI wants the actor to pose as a felon and infiltrate
the minimum-security Federal Correctional Institution in Martinsburg, West
Virginia, where convicted banker Mitchell Dupree is confined. As a bank
executive, Dupree helped a Mexican drug cartel launder more than a billion
dollars, and has hidden away a trove of evidence, which the FBI hopes can bring
the cartel to its knees. But the documents are Dupree’s insurance policy. If
anything happens to him or his family, they will be released to the
authorities. So he’s not sharing.
They want Tommy to find out where they’re hidden. It will be
the acting job of his career. No one at the prison, not even the warden, will
know he’s not a real prisoner, because secrets have an inconvenient habit of
leaking. He’ll have six months to befriend Dupree and discover where the
documents are. In return, he’ll be at least $150,000 richer. Tommy’s out of
work, his pregnant girlfriend is an artist with no regular income. They don’t
want to think of themselves as people tempted by money, but they are.
As Tommy, now Pete, enters prison, author Parks does a
terrific job describing his mental state and coping mechanisms, and the
strategies he uses to befriend Dupree. You get a strong sense not just of the
physical environment, but of the power structure and the people within it.
That’s the set-up. I won’t say more about plot, because you should discover for yourself the agonizing twists Parks has in store. As every major character launches some competing smokescreen, this is a book you won’t be able to put down.
When they’re good, thrillers set in interesting foreign
places are like a trip without the airport hassles. Both of these seemed like promising
journeys, and both had good points. If the premise intrigues you, go for it.
***Secrets of the
By Murray Bailey – This is the second of Murray Bailey’s crime thrillers to follow the adventures of Egypt archaeologist Alex MacLure, and it’s clear the author knows his subject.
Secrets of the Dead
begins, not in Egypt, but in Atlanta, Georgia, where a cache of bodies has been
found, eight in all. The victims were buried in a crawl space under The Church
of the Risen Christ. FBI agent Charlie Rebb and her annoying partner Peter
Zhang are immediately brought into the investigation because she’d worked a
previous serial killer case in which the eight victims were murdered in the
same manner as those under the church. They bear a mysterious mark loosely
linked to a local tattoo artist who appears to have fled the country.
Alex MacLure’s research is under way in the town established
by Pharoah Akhenaten and his beautiful wife, Nefertiti. Ancient secrets hide in
the artifacts of the period, and MacLure hopes to reveal them. A stranger claiming
special knowledge asks MacLure to meet him in Cairo, and MacLure follows a
rather obscure trail of breadcrumbs to find the mysterious man. When he enters
the apartment, he finds not an informant, but a dead body. Hard on his heels
are the police, and an uncomfortable time in an Egyptian jail ensues. Bailey’s
vivid description of jail conditions are enough to make you not risk even a
jaywalking ticket in Cairo.
Charlie Rebb is sent to Egypt to work with Cairo police, as
a body has been found there with similar markings as those under the church. Clearly
the two stories are becoming intertwined. Occasional sections are from the
point of view of the killer and his Master, unnecessary in my opinion, and not
Bailey intersperses Rebb’s and MacLure’s narratives with the
story of Yanhamu, an official from 1315 BCE who became the Pharoah’s Keeper of
Secrets. He was given the charge of finding one particular secret, that of
Bailey’s writing moves the action along smoothly. His
authentic passion for the country’s long and complicated ancient history shines
through. It’s a strong contender for your summer beach bag, the kind of book
you don’t want to have to think about too much. That’s partly because Bailey
doesn’t give you much help. The map and schematic of the Great Pyramid are a
step in the right direction. A glossary, perhaps a timeline, would be equally
By John Di Frances
– This is the first book of a trilogy about an international hunt
for a trio of assassins targeting European politicians. As a crime thriller,
the tradecraft of the assassins is detailed and persuasive, and the police
procedural elements also are good. It’s billed as a book that demonstrates
disenchantment with the European Union – the assassination targets are
big EU supporters – but it doesn’t really work as a political thriller, because
there’s very little politics in it. The assassins could just as well be
murdering top chefs or social media gurus.
The assassins are an Irish couple, handsome and strikingly
beautiful, wealthy, elegant, and socially adept (in a too-good-to-be-true way)
and a more rough-around-the-edges German man, who is an expert sniper. The
couple’s first target is Slovakia’s prime minister, killed by a car bomb outside
a Bratislava restaurant. The German accomplishes the second murder, that of the
Polish prime minister. It’s technically difficult, shooting from a distance of
640 meters into a packed stadium of excitable soccer fans.
The three escape to Berlin, several steps ahead of the multiple
security services now on their trail. The cat-and-mouse game is well done and
may carry you through some of the clunky writing. Technical information dumps
show Di Frances did his homework. Yet the weight or length of a rifle is
immaterial, of itself. Such information needs to be brought into the story. Has
the sniper had experience with a rifle of that type, is its length an advantage
or does it make it hard to conceal? Worst was a bullet-point list of 16
variables affecting the soccer stadium shot. Dude, this is fiction!
The plot pulls you forward nevertheless, and Di Frances has a great twist in store. Unfortunately, when you reach the end of Pretense, you’re not at the end of the story. To really understand what’s been going on, you’ll have to read book two and very probably book three. Not sure I’m ready for that.Link to Amazon.
People around the world were stunned and saddened as photographs of the partial destruction of the cathedral of Notre Dame, that icon of Paris, burned. (See how laser point clouds of gothic cathedrals, which may help in reconstruction, are created.) Paris, its landmarks, its street scenes, and its culture have inspired classic literature from the popular works of Dickens and Victor Hugo (for whom Notre Dame plays a starring role) to the American expats in the 1920s to Anthony Doerr.
Crime writers too have found it a congenial home, not
because crime happens there as it does elsewhere, but because to set a crime
novel in Paris is to establish a contrast, a friction between the sordidness of
deeds and the beauty of the setting, even as it may live only in the reader’s
The Sûreté was quick to adopt some of the early criminal detection
measures developed in France, too: Alphonse Bertillon’s system of identifying
criminals through body measurements—a forerunner of today’s biometric
identification—and the 1863 discovery by Paul-Jean Coulier of the means to
reveal fingerprints on paper, roots from which sprang stories of very French
detectives, most notably Georges Simenon’s
The attraction continues. Here are four crime novels from
the last year with significant Paris roots.
****The Long Road
from Paris by Kirby Williams – In the late 1930s, a New Orleans octoroon jazz
prodigy is making a success of his nightclub with the help of his Jewish
girlfriend. Then the fascists appear.
****A Long Night
in Paris by Dov Alfon – an Israeli mistakenly murdered at Charles de Gaulle
airport triggers a desperate investigation in Paris and Israel to find the real
*****Paris in the Present Tense by Mark Helprin – A gentlemanly aging cellist plunges well outside his comfort zone to help the people he loves.
****Number 7, Rue Jacob – by Wendy Hornsby – A Parisian couple is pursued around Europe in a deadly game, as shadowy persons ask cell phone users to “find them,” then “stop them.”