The Coming Storm

The Coming Storm is a much-anticipated follow-up to Greg Mosse’s well-regarded 2022 debut thriller, The Coming Darkness. The new book takes up the complex, futuristic plot of the first novel. I hadn’t read the earlier book, and there were some situations I didn’t completely understand, at least at first, but that really didn’t affect my experience of this new book. Mosse so effectively establishes that the deteriorating social and political situation in his dystopian future matters greatly to the characters that a little ambiguity didn’t put me off.

Mosse writes about a future (the year is 2037) we can see, at least dimly, especially on our bad days. Eco-terrorism. Drought and a rapidly warming climate. Strange, difficult-to-treat infections. And hazards of any era: people in power who can’t be trusted and whose self-interest trumps any impulse to do good.

The action takes place mostly in France and North Africa. The main character, Alexandre Lamarque, is widely regarded as “the man who saved the world” from eco-terrorism. This is an embarrassing level of notoriety he’d just as soon do without. And it’s made him a target. But of whom? Or who all?

Three eco-terrorism plots are in play: opposition to the enlargement of a dam, a plot to destroy the Aswan dam which will practically annihilate Egypt, and sabotage in the lithium mining industry.(I was a bit puzzled by the references to lithium mining, as I thought lithium does not occur in concentrations that would allow it to be mined in any conventional way, but perhaps I missed that explanation.)

Cutting back and forth between these several ambitious plots and Lemarque’s efforts to discover and thwart them, the story speeds along. While Lemarque and his colleagues are strong characters, the terrorists themselves remain somewhat shadowy. Lurking way in the background is a man who seems to be the main plotter, living on a Caribbean island near Haiti, who is the least believable of all.

The unfolding of the terrorists’ plans is certainly exciting. Yet I couldn’t help a bit of a bait-and-switch feeling when I realized they wouldn’t be resolved by the end of the book. Of course, they’re all so significant that, realistically, they can’t be dealt with in any quick way, so perhaps, in spreading the action over several volumes, Mosse has made a good choice. One that will require Book Three, at least. People who read and enjoyed the first book will be happy to see this follow-up and will no doubt look forward to the story’s ultimate resolution. The Coming Storm terrorists are not finished, and neither is Lamarque. And certainly not Mosse.

The Innocents by Bridget Walsh

This is the second in the entertaining historical mystery series Bridget Walsh launched last year with The Tumbling Girl. The stories are set in a somewhat seedy Victorian England music hall called the Variety Palace.

The Innocents takes its title from a mass-casualty event that occurred at Christmastime fourteen years before the main story. In a different theater, subsequently closed, a sold-out audience of children had been promised presents after the show. Actors on stage threw the treats toward the audience in the stalls. Seeing they would never get any of the presents, the children seated upstairs in the balconies and galleries rushed downstairs only to find that the doors into the main auditorium bolted shut against them. In the massive pileup of small bodies, pushing and shoving, many children were injured and one hundred eighty-three suffocated. No one was ever held to account for the tragedy—a bitter pill in the hearts of a great many families.

Minnie Ward, protagonist of the earlier novel and this one, is a skit-writer for the Variety Palace. She is temporarily in charge of the Palace while her boss, Edward Tansford (Tansie) recovers from the tragic events recounted in the earlier book. (While author Walsh makes frequent reference to those events, it isn’t necessary to have read the earlier novel in order to follow the story in this one.) Minnie is again teamed up with former policeman, now private detective, Albert Easterbook. You can’t help but believe that, if the series goes on long enough, those two will finally capitulate to their obvious mutual attraction, but so far Minnie is holding fast. Well, wavering.

Now it’s 1877, and the theater world has experienced a series of recent murders. They hit close to home when one of the Palace’s performers reports his brother missing and asks for Minnie’s help. When Minnie and Albert discover the missing man’s body in his dressing room, the realization gradually takes hold that all of the dead were connected in some way to the Christmastime tragedy. What’s more, all the deaths involved some form of suffocation. With so many people and families affected by the children’s deaths, it’s a challenge for Minnie and Albert to figure out where to begin their investigations.

Tansie reemerges, ready to take the helm of the Palace again but soon distracted again—this time by the disappearance of his monkey, who, he believes, has been snatched by a nefarious character who runs dog fights. Here Walsh gives you a peek at not just the talented and sometimes tony denizens and patrons of the Victorian theater world, but also a look at a decidedly seamy side of London life. Her vivid descriptions of these distinctive settings and the picturesque people they attract add considerably to the charm of the whole narrative.

Of course Albert worries about Minnie’s safety and of course she takes chances she shouldn’t, but in the fast pace of events here, you don’t have time to dwell on her occasional lapses of good sense. Nor do you lose confidence in the basic goodness of the main characters. Flaws and all, they are eminently likeable (even the monkey, who hides in the theater’s rafters and pees on the audience below).

Meanwhile, other complications have arisen. There’s plenty of plot here, engaging characters, a  colorful setting, and a fast pace. If you like to lose yourself in another era with a solid historical mystery, this is one you may really enjoy!

It’s a Fast-Changing World. It’s the 1880s!

Each Sherlock Holmes: A Year of Mystery volume, published by Belanger Books, includes at least a dozen stories, filling in the years 1881-1886. Holmes and Watson were already together then, but Watson was uncharacteristically quiet about their adventures. In Sherlock Holmes: A Year of Mystery 1885, edited by Richard T. Ryan, contemporary writers make up for Watson’s reticence, creating excellent adventures to help fill in the gap.

Naturally, the challenges in writing a story set almost 140 years ago are significant. No cell phones, no video surveillance, no DNA evidence, no criminal databases, and no other scientific or organizational trappings modern crime stories employ. I asked my fellow authors whether these differences are a help with their stories or a hindrance. Here’s what they said:

The Victorian setting allows for a more “classical” mystery, says George Gardner. For his story, he researched how much the Victorians knew about dynamite. He admits that he “may have bent some rules in terms of chronology there,” but since dynamite was invented by Alfred Nobel in 1866, George is on pretty solid ground, it seems.

The Victorian setting “is an advantage more than a hindrance as the instantaneousness of modern communications can get in the way of a good story,” says Kevin Thornton. The telegraph is the fastest communications technology available to Holmes, and in Thornton’s two stories, he makes good use of it. Another advantage, says George Jacobs, is that he can “keep Holmes’s mind at the forefront of the adventure.” What’s more, “having to rush around London (or farther afield) on foot or in a cab, and sometimes engage in fisticuffs with the villains” adds to the adventure.

The authors strive to be sure that not just the technology, but “the feel of every story is right,” too, says Katy Darby. This includes language and dialog, style and social etiquette, and even making sure the types of characters are true to their times. How to accomplish this? Darby says, “The 1860s-1880s is my second home, period-wise, and my Victorian library is ever-growing.” Shelby Phoenix noted what is an extra attraction of the Victorian era for her: It “allows for so many more paranormal approaches, and who can say no to making things seem spooky?”

It’s really a balance. By setting a story in the Victorian era, authors avoid having modern technology “short-circuit the elaborate investigation” they’d planned. Nevertheless, Holmes’s era was one of rapid scientific and technological progress, and authors must pinpoint when these advances took hold, says D.J. Tyrer. Over the period in which the Holmes stories are set—roughly 1885 to 1914—much about society, science, and politics changed. But, “whatever level of technology Holmes has access to,” says author Paul Hiscock, “I always see him as being at the cutting edge of forensic science.” Whatever the technological details, “a good mystery is about how the detective puts all the pieces of evidence together.”

Many authors say that one of the aspects of writing in that era that they like best is delving into those details. As an example, Kevin Thornton’s two linked stories involving shenanigans related to new North American transcontinental railways offered numerous enticing rabbit holes for this author to pursue. As Watson extols the excitement of shortening travel times, Holmes points out that “as the citizenry disperses, so does crime.” This observation foreshadows a visit from a representative of the much-indebted Canadian Pacific Railroad, fearful of a hostile takeover. Watson needs an explanation of this financial predicament, which leads to a lucid explanation of the constraints faced by a publicly traded company. Other examples of Thornton’s research include descriptions of the myriad ways Holmes could visually identify an American, military training, Eastern martial arts, American railroad moguls, the action of poison, and the lineage of the Earl of Derby, the Honourable Frederick Stanley. (In 1888, Stanley became Governor General of Canada, and Thornton helpfully notes that the famous hockey trophy is named for him.)

See how these authors put fact and fiction together. Their stories in Sherlock Holmes: A Year of Mystery 1885 are:
George Gardner – “The Adventure of the Damaged Tomb”
Kevin Thornton – “Tracks Across Canada” and “Tracked Across America”
George Jacobs – “The Mystery of the Cloven Cord”
Katy Darby – “The Adventure of the Lock Hospital”
Shelby Phoenix – “Sherlock Holmes and the Six-Fingered Hand Print”
D.J. Tyrer – “The Japanese Village Mystery”
Paul Hiscock – “The Light of Liberty”

Finding Your Author Niche

The anthology, Sherlock Holmes: A Year of Mystery 1885, edited by Richard T. Ryan, is one of a series filling in the years 1881-1886, the period between the stories “A Study in Scarlet” and “The Reigate Squire” when no Holmes cases were reported. This fallow period was interrupted only by “The Speckled Band” (one of my favorites), set in 1883. Contemporary writers, not content to assume the duo spent those years twiddling their thumbs, have enthusiastically created adventures to fill in the gap.

Each A Year of Mystery volume, published by Belanger Books, includes a dozen stories, one for each month, and even a bonus story or two from that year. Clearly, the Great Detective was capable of multitasking at a high level! The 1885 volume, which contains one of my stories, was published last December, and I asked some of my fellow authors how much experience they had with this very particular mystery genre. Turns out, a lot!

George Gardner’s story, “The Adventure of the Damaged Tomb,” was his debut as a Holmes/Watson pasticher, and three of the authors (including me) have had two or three published. But to demonstrate that the genre’s well of inspiration is far from empty, five of the authors have published repeatedly in it and one—David Marcum—has published 118 short stories and two novels involving Holmes and Watson.

“The Faulty Gallows” by David Marcum

Let’s give Marcum’s latest story, “The Faulty Gallows,” a closer look. In endnotes, he tells how in real life John “Babbacome” Lee “famously survived three attempts to hang him” for murdering his employer, and how James Berry, another real-life character, was the official executioner who tried and failed to execute him, repeatedly. Marcum provides pictures of both men, and Lee is dapper in his bowler hat. Berry looks unhappy.

Marcum did a beautiful job taking the raw facts of Lee’s narrow escapes and fictionalizing them. Holmes is asked to involve himself in this fiasco by a mysterious “acquaintance at Whitehall.” This device gives him a plausible reason to investigate and allows Marcum to wrap the circumstances of the botched executions in a larger conspiracy that Holmes tumbles to. By the story’s end, a bit remains unresolvable and, when pressed by Watson, Holmes asks for time. No too-neat-and-tidy ending here.

Holmes fans will realize that the mystery man is no doubt Holmes’s brother Mycroft, but since Watson hasn’t met him yet, he’s a cipher to the story’s narrator. Says Marcum, “Mycroft is a useful tool in pastiches—although as a strict Holmesian Chronologist, [I can’t bring him] in too early.”

Holmes is known for his brilliant deductions, yet “the story structures also allow for a lot of off-stage techniques to advance suddenly toward the story’s conclusion,” Marcum says. Contact with Mycroft, which doesn’t have to be explained in detail, sometimes accomplishes that. Mycroft’s murky Whitehall connections also can give some stories, like this one, a bigger frame.

Read more about Marcum’s Holmes addiction on his blog or visit his Amazon author page.

Who’s the Best Holmes and Watson On-Screen?

I asked this question of a certain kind of Sherlock Holmes expert: people who write stories in the Conan Doyle tradition. Quite a few contemporary writers take inspiration from Victorian England, Holmes’s wide-ranging if idiosyncratic erudition, and Watson’s genial writing style. I’ve had three such stories published and can attest to how much fun it is to don another writer’s hounds tooth suit.

The writers whose picks for best on-screen Holmes/Watson portrayals all appear in Sherlock Holmes: A Year of Mystery 1885, published last December by Belanger Books. Many of them have written a number of Doyle pastiches, and in the coming weeks, I’ll say more about why and how. They’ve generously shared their love of Holmesiana with me—and now you. *=one vote

*Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce
The 14 Hollywood films in this series are the classic of classics, released between 1939 and 1946, and the vehicle by which Americans first developed a relationship with an on-screen Holmes and Watson. Thus, “for tradition’s sake, maybe Rathbone-Bruce have the edge,” says author Hassan Akram. My own quibble with this series are well put by David Marcum, who says, “Basil Rathbone would be my favorite Holmes if he wasn’t saddled with Boobus Brittanicus Nigel Bruce, who was not Watson.” If you’ve seen the Rathbone/Bruce Hound of the Baskervilles [1939], you’ll know what he means.

***Jeremy Brett/David Burke/Edward Harwicke
In this Granada Television series, which over its 41 episodes (1984 – 1994) involved two actors in the Watson role, is the favorite of DJ Tyrer. “Not only does Jeremy Brett fit very closely to how I imagine Holmes,” he says, “but the series is a faithful adaptation, adding to the illusion.” George Gardner also favored this series, noting Watson’s direct voice and Brett’s “manic edge.” When he was writing, “it was Jeremy Brett’s Holmes that I saw.” Author Shelby Phoenix couldn’t be clearer: “It’s Jeremy Brett and David Burke all the way.” David Marcum takes exception. He says, Brett “did not play Holmes—he played himself, foisting his own physical and mental illnesses on the character.” (Brett took lithium to control his bipolar disorder, and the medication affected his health and appearance.)

**Robert Downey, Jr./Jude Law
George Jacobs admits to missing the classic duos and to admiring the films featuring Robert Downey, Jr., and Jude Law from 2009 and 2011 (directed by Guy Ritchie ). Their “modern take” also appeals to Gustavo Bondoni, and Shelby Phoenix calls them “an iconic version.”

**Benedict Cumberbatch/Martin Freeman
This four-season BBC series (airing 2010-2017) is a tight runner-up for author Hassan Akram, and Kevin Thornton says Cumberbatch is “The only [Holmes] who has energized me enough in the last twenty years to sit and watch him,” suggesting an interesting tension between historical and contemporary influences in his creative process! The tabloids suggest the series would have gone on longer if the two stars had gotten along. It’s my current favorite, too, admitting great admiration for Martin Freeman. Interestingly, the producers image of Holmes was as a “high functioning sociopath.”

*Johnny Lee Miller/Lucy Liu
Here’s an unconventional choice. George Jacobs, who admits to missing the classics, found that the CBS series, Elementary, with 154 episodes that aired from 2012 to 2019, “had the best friendship chemistry and kept Holmes’s demons without losing his intrinsic goodness.”

Extra Credit
David Marcum provides a handy list of the many other actors who he believes have successfully played the Great Detective: Arthur Wontner (in a 1930s film series, set in the 30s), Ronald Howard (1954), Douglas Wilmer (in a 1964 – 1965 BBC series), Peter Cushing (a continuation of the BBCseries, airing in 1968), and Ian Richardson (1983). That Holmes has appeared in so many notable productions is irrefutable evidence of his lasting appeal.

So, who’s your favorite?

Photo of Benedict Cumberbatch by Fat Les, cc by 2.0 license.

The Great Gimmelmans

Lee Matthew Goldberg’s title for his new crime novel–The Great Gimmelmans–sounds like the name of a circus act. And, indeed, the story includes masks, taking on roles, daring feats, and surprising actions, all most definitely like a circus. While in its early stages, you may be inclined to believe—in fact, you may fervently hope—that what is presented as Aaron Gimmelman’s memoir is the recounting of a light-hearted romp. It is not, and the author takes pains to foreshadow the darkness to come.

Twelve-year-old Aaron and his family—father Barry, mother Judith, sister Stephanie (16), and sister Jenny (8)—live an upper middle-class life in suburban New Jersey until Barry loses his job, and their house and nearly all their belongings are repossessed. Left with a few clothes and a campervan the collection agency didn’t know they own, they pile everything into the vehicle’s small space and head south. Nicknamed the Gimmelmans’ Getaway Gas-Guzzler, the camper threatens to exhaust every penny they have in the first few hundred miles, until, in desperation, Aaron robs a convenience store. Barry recognizes a good idea when he hears one and begins to plot other robberies—liquor stores, then a small bank. The farther south they travel, the more grandiose his ideas, the bigger the robbery targets. He ropes every family member into commission of the crimes, even Jenny.

They’re headed toward the Florida home of Judith’s mother, who has become an Orthodox Jew. She’s a hard case—prickly and judgmental. She’s never liked Barry, and as the story progresses, her criticisms seem more than justified. The contrast between her world, extreme in its own way, and that of her daughter and her family of talented lawbreakers is a head-spinning example of competing realities. It can be hard to know whom to root for.

Many humorous moments are sprinkled throughout, but author Goldberg makes his characters so real, I couldn’t set aside my anxiety about the increasing dangers they face—from the armed robberies, from an alcoholic FBI agent, and from a New Jersey mobster Barry has cheated.

Barry Gimmelman takes his family—and readers—on a wild ride at such a pace that family members rarely have time to stop and think. You may wonder how such a deluded individual ever operated as a stock trader. Or maybe that was the perfect job for him. Hope overcoming caution every time. Until . . . This crime thriller has received several award nominations (Anthony, Lefty), not, you’ll understand, from the Good Parenting Association. Yesterday I posted about establishing causation in a story (what prize-winner George Saunders says is often missing in his students’ literary works), well this novel is packed with consequences, most of them awful.

Weekend Movies: Two Good Choices, One Not-So

popcorn

If a Black Friday shopping frenzy has you wanting to get off your feet for a couple hours in a darkened movie theater, here are some of your choices.

The Holdovers
This comedy-drama, directed by Alexander Payne, is head and shoulders above recent formulaic comedies I’ve seen (trailer). It’s the story of the students—actually one student—left behind at a New England prep school’s holiday break, so has the added benefit of seasonality. A disliked classics teacher is assigned to supervise, and a Black kitchen supervisor is there to make sure the two eat.

The performances of Paul Giamatti as the teacher, newcomer Dominic Sessa as the student, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph as the most sensible of the trio animate David Hemingson’s script. Scenes with the other students are adolescent boyhood on full display. But mostly, it’s the three of them. You can just relax and enjoy it.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 96%; audiences 92%.

Nyad
One of those feel-good sports biopics that leaves you in awe (trailer). Diana Nyad became famous in her early career for her long-distance swimming accomplishments, but what has haunted her for decades is the event where she failed: Cuba to Florida, 110 miles. Director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s adept movie shows how Nyad at age 60 decides to train and pick up that challenge again.

Annette Bening prepared for the role by swimming four to five hours a day for a year and does most of the swimming in the film. You might think watching someone swim, day and night, might not be that riveting, but in the movie the actual swimming is interspersed with scenes from her close friendship with her coach, played by Jodie Foster, and the crew of her boat, captained by its irascible captain, played by Rhys Ifans. And there are plenty of dangers in this endeavor, physical and emotional.

I thought the film was great, and the showing at my local theater was followed by a q-and-a with the director. She said that uppermost in their minds making the film was to convey Nyad’s complexity as a person, and Bening and Foster help them do that every step of the way. Oh, and two words you never want to hear linked together again: Box Jellyfish.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 85%; audiences 82%.

Joan Baez: I Am a Noise

What a disappointment! Joan Baez’s parents kept all her early tapes, her interviews, her journals and artwork, family photos, etc., etc., in a storage unit, and Baez made it available to filmmakers Miri Navasky, Karen O’Connor, and Maeve O’Boyle (trailer). Of all the interesting things they might have conveyed about this amazing artist, what did they cherry-pick out of these riches? Tapes of her with a creepy-sounding therapist, her anxiety and depression as revealed in her letters, her drawings done under hypnosis (maybe, not clear) or through guided imagery that make her think she has a multiple personality disorder, excerpts from her baffled mother’s letters, and the vaguest possible hints she might have been an abuse victim. While these factors are no doubt important in her personal history, they dominate the film.

Baez is not only a remarkable singer, she is a compassionate and interesting person who has done important work. Prepared to be uplifted, when this movie ended, I was exhausted and depressed. I don’t understand the raves. She deserved So Much Better! (It’s also streaming.)

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 98%; audiences: 85%

Island Adventures

Retribution by Robert McCaw

Retribution is the fifth in Robert McCaw’s series of police procedurals set on the Big Island of Hawai`i featuring Chief Detective Koa Kāne. Hawai`i of course has been on everyone’s mind lately, and McCaw creates an atmosphere thick, not with wildfire smoke, but with tropical sights, smells, and sounds. McCaw’s writing style is straightforward, yet he musical Hawaiian language and incidental descriptions of the environment create a rich portrayal of “place as character.”

Even a tropical paradise has its ne’er-do-wells. Late one night, as the book opens, a Philippine freighter heads toward the Big Island’s port of Hilo. Before it arrives, a mysterious passenger, with a single suitcase and a long flat gun case, disembarks on a powerboat—the first of a small company of mysterious characters whose presence presages a succession of violent attacks that rock the island.

Koa Kāne is called to investigate the vicious stabbing death of a local thief and drug user, in which his brother is soon implicated. Kāne must withdraw from this case, no matter how convinced he is his brother is being framed. The chief replaces him with Deputy Chief Detective Moreau, but Moreau has little investigatory experience and is trailed by accusations of excessive use of force. His only asset appears to be the unflinching support of Hilo’s ambitious new mayor.

The author conveys the kind of stand-up guy Kāne is, not in so many words, but by showing how those around him act toward him. Attacks on these people circle closer and closer to Kāne himself. What triggered this eruption of violence? The possible suspects operate on separate political and historical planes, and you don’t put the pieces of the story together until the last chapters.

McCaw never sacrifices character development to the maintenance of the story’s fast pace. While it’s hardly a tropical vacation, you nevertheless feel like the author has taken you someplace distinctive, and given you an engaging story there.

Incident at San Miguel by AJ Sidransky

Murder, lies, and corruption are the crimes at the center of this riveting piece of historical fiction, Incident at San Miguel, by AJ Sidransky. Like me, you may not have known or remember that, in the 1930s, with war clouds massing, many European Jews immigrated to Cuba, which welcomed them, gave them safe haven, and encouraged their businesses to thrive.

They did very well until 1959 and Fidel Castro’s communist revolution, when the Jews’ situation, like that of all wealthy Cubans, quickly deteriorated. The novels main characters are two brothers—Aarón and Moises Cohan—on opposite sides of the new political divide. Aarón is a lawyer, about to be married, and Moises is his younger brother, in love with a political firebrand and leader of the Havana-based rebels. Despite their differences, they share one core value: an abhorrence for corruption.

Sidransky does a remarkable job describing the island, the Old Havana, the colorful streets, the foods, the music drifting from every radio, rum and cigars—all the minutia of daily life. What I particularly admire is how he conveys the substance of the brothers’ lives: Aarón trying to figure out which staff members to trust, Moises traveling the broken highways to remote manufacturers, both of them trying to relate to old friends without putting either themselves or the friends at risk. And the risks can be deadly. The spies of the Revolution are everywhere. You can be on the inside one day and on the outside the next. Jail or worse awaits people deemed traitors to the Revolution.

Sidransky gives an especially thoughtful portrayal of Moises. Despite his hardline views and occasional bursts of feverish political orthodoxy, he never becomes a two-dimensional character. He believes absolutely in his work, and his biggest blind spot is his wife.

Their livelihoods and even their lives threatened, many Jews (and others) try to flee the island—a dangerous undertaking demanding much planning and absolute secrecy. When Aarón realizes he cannot stay, and indeed, at other times over the years, the brothers desperately need each other.

In the last section of the book, the brothers reunite after decades of infrequent communication, and we learn much more about their lives’ key events. At the end, I expect you’ll be satisfied that the big questions have been answered and understand how each man has found his own way. You’ll want to read the introductory material that explains how the novel is based on a true story and where it diverges from that history to become exemplary historical fiction.

The Bone Records

What’s most fun about Rich Zahradnik’s new crime thriller set in Brooklyn, The Bone Records, is the peek into worlds most of us haven’t experienced first-hand. It tells the story of Grigg (Grigoriy) Orlov, whose father has been missing for five months. Grigg is trying to find him.

As the story begins, Grigg searches for Dad between his daytime job working for the city and a more intriguing evening gig at Coney Island’s Conquistador Arcade. He has scoured his Coney Island neighborhood and the Little Odessa portion of Brighton Beach, where Russian émigrés like his father gravitate. A high school teacher, his father was well known and liked. Surely, someone must have an idea whom his father might have connected with, where he might have gone.

Grigg doesn’t fit into the community the way his father always has. His mother, who died when he was a toddler, was from Jamaica. To the Russians, he will always be an outsider. The author gives you a good sense of Grigg’s anxieties and makes them seem well-founded. He feels out of place, and you feel it too.

Late one night, asleep in his empty house, Grigg is awakened by an intruder. It’s Dad! But hard on his heels is a man with a gun. The Orlovs try to escape, and his father is mortally wounded. He leaves Grigg two things: his dying words, which are “Get to Katia. Katia Sokolov—” and a strange black tube. Katia’s and Grigg’s fathers were best friends and left the Soviet Union together. She may know something, but her orbit is another place he doesn’t seem to fit.

Once he and Katia unroll the tube, they discover it is a bootleg sound recording (and not a good one) of the old Buddy Holly song, “Not Fade Away.” In the 1950s, when the Soviet Union was busily banning Western music and performers, rock n roll fans recorded blacklisted songs on discarded X rays and surreptitiously sold and traded them. They called them bone records. Author Zahradnik provides just enough background information about Soviet life to suggest the secrets the fathers left behind. Very possibly, the past has now reached out to snare his father, and maybe Grigg too.

He’s convinced the police won’t give the investigation a good try, and in a well-worn staple of amateur detective fiction, decides he will have to investigate the murder himself. Katia will help. This quest brings him into inevitable conflict with the Russian mafia, vicious crime lords who dominate Little Odessa. Constantly running into new dangers, he’s on a carousel whirling faster and faster. To get off is to die.

The story’s Coney Island amusement park backdrop was fun, and I enjoyed the complex web of relationships in the local Russian émigré community. The neighborhood comprises just a few square blocks in south Brooklyn, yet gives this thriller a distinctive flavor. The result is as much a roller coaster ride for the reader as a turn on the Coney Island Cyclone.

Rich Zarahdnik is the author of the Coleridge Taylor mysteries, including Lights Out Summer, which won the Shamus Award from the Private Eye Writers of America in 2018.

Damascus Station

So many former CIA analysts turn to writing fiction, you have to wonder whether real life outside the agency seems to lack sufficient drama. Whatever, their willingness to lay bare their former lives often redounds to the benefit of fans of realistic spy fiction, like me. David McCloskey’s debut thriller, Damascus Station, is one of the best. I listened to the audio version, narrated by Andrew B. Wehrlen, and found it utterly engaging.

In the early days of the Syrian uprising, around 2011, Americans are determined to infiltrate the multi-pronged and highly paranoid security apparatus of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It’s a challenging task but certainly well worth doing.

CIA case officer Sam Joseph is helping his colleague and friend, Valerie Owens, exfiltrate an important Syrian asset. Assad’s agents are everywhere, and the panicky agent misses his meeting with Joseph and Owens. When their safe house is attacked, Joseph escapes, and Owens is arrested. Because she has diplomatic protection, they believe she will be safe. Not so. Evidence eventually emerges of her torture and death.

Joseph has plenty of motivation to return to Syria. Not only does he want to avenge Owens’s death, he must find and recruit another Syrian to help undermine the shaky Assad regime. Though student rebellions and terrorists’ assassination campaigns are doing their bit to destabilize the political situation, plenty of ruthless bad guys lead Assad’s security forces. Their anxieties and rivalries create a situation as stable as a bowl of nitroglycerine in an earthquake. The Americans need a fearless, highly motivated mole to go up against them.

Joseph finds the kind of person he’s looking for in Mariam Haddad, daughter of a commander in the Syrian Army and niece of a colonel in Assad’s chemical weapons program. Haddad works in Assad’s Palace—effectively Assad’s personal office. She is in a position to learn secrets. For family reasons, she’s vulnerable to Joseph’s outreach. McCloskey creates a nice balance between Mariam’s fear and self-doubt, on one hand, and her determination to bring down the evil men leading the security forces, on the other.

I wish McCloskey hadn’t chosen to raise the stakes by having Joseph and Haddad break one of the iron rules of clandestine work and fall in love, even though that makes the situation more dangerous for them both. Despite the cliché overtones, McCloskey manages to keep their relationship real. The tension keeps building as what he needs Haddad to do becomes increasingly difficult, and as evidence accumulates about an unthinkably deadly plot.

David McCloskey is a former CIA analyst whose writing bears the stamp of authenticity, and the book has received much praise by former Agency personnel. It was a finalist for the International Thriller Writers’ Best First Novel Award in 2022. Narrator Andrew Wehrlen makes Sam Joseph a convincing American character and creates distinctive voices for the many Syrian bad-guys as well. Highly recommended.

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