Appointment in Tehran

By James Stejskal – If like me you remember the 1979 episode when radical Iranian students seized the US embassy in Tehran and took more than 50 Americans hostage, you’ll read James Stejskal’s riveting new thriller with an increasing sense of foreboding. That’s especially if you also recall that the US military launched a rescue mission that came to a disastrous end in the desert south of Tehran. Ultimately, the American hostages—many of them diplomats—were held for 444 days, until the inauguration of a new American president, Ronald Reagan. (The rescue of several Americans who escaped the embassy invasion and hid in the Canadian embassy was the subject of the highly entertaining 2012 film, Argo.)

Given that Stejskal’s characters are smart and skilled Special Forces men, members of Delta Force, I was interested in how he’d handle the botched rescue. No revisionist history here. His description is an accurate picture of how it happened, and, perhaps more important, why it happened: an overly complex strategy, contingency planning failures, and sheer bad luck.

As real events simmer in the story’s background, Stejskal’s characters, led by Master Sergeant Kim Beck and Staff Sergeant Paul Stavros, have a lot of work to do. First, they undergo specific and intensive training in skills likely necessary for the rescue attempt: close quarter battle marksmanship, casing a target location, working as a team following a target through the city without being detected. Fascinating. Naturally, these skills come into play before the story ends.

Even though the Delta team members are not part of the main rescue force headed for disaster in the desert, they have several critical jobs. They must make on-site assessments of the situation where Americans are being held (the embassy and the Iranian Foreign Minister’s office). They must double-check the adequacy and security of sites and logistics for extracting the hostages. It’s dangerous undercover work. Iran isn’t just hostile, it would welcome the chance to make political hay out of the capture of American spies.

And that’s not all. An army intelligence operation has smuggled a tactical nuclear weapon into Iran to be used against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and the Americans want their bomb back at all costs. A traitor within US European forces has told the Soviets about the weapon, and they want it too. While this part of the story is purely fictional, the accuracy with which Stejskal portrays real events adds to the credibility of the entire plot.

This then is the Delta Force mission: backstop the rescue efforts, extracting the diplomats held at the foreign minister’s office, find that nuclear device, and move it out of the country. Any or all of this could go badly in so many ways.

Like his previous thriller involving many of the same characters, A Question of Time, this story is a pure adventure. It’s as much a political thriller as a military one, and you become a frustrated observer of the way bureaucracies tie themselves up in knots. Stejskal is a former CIA officer and US Army Special Forces member who had assignments worldwide, which has helped him create a plausible and exciting story.

Order here from Amazon.

Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?

These mystery authors do! At the richly rewarding book sale at Killer Nashville, I was drawn to these two books by authors I’d just met. Both are set in New Orleans, both make terrific use of the city’s unique culture(s), so that you can almost smell the damp, hear the rhythms, and taste the food. You feel the heat. And the fear. Their unique and compelling characters will take you places you probably haven’t been before.

Love Power

By Martha Reed – Jane Byrne is a former New England police detective dealing with aftermath of a fatal shooting. Though she was exonerated, she left her job in disgrace and needs a new start. Not many places could offer a more different environment than New Orleans does.

Jane’s job working security at a self-storage facility doesn’t pay much, but at least she has interesting landlords. Even they are put in the shade by their ebullient and indiscreet transgender daughter Gigi. She’s a ball of fire through whom Jane meets an array of exotic and sexually nonconforming friends. I suspect Jane wouldn’t have previously thought of herself as straight-laced, but these new acquaintances are out there!

Danger comes calling as first one then another of Gigi’s friends is hideously murdered, and, while the NOPD is sort-of on the case, Jane can’t help but bring her police training into play, welcome or not. Can they solve the case before Gigi—or Jane herself—joins the murdered? An excellent read!

Order Love Power here from Amazon or order it here from IndieBound.

Under the Blood Moon

By Tracie Provost – I’ve read next-to-no vampire literature, with the exception of one Anne Rice novel decades ago. New Orleans, with its voodoo practitioners and affinity for the occult and bizarre is surely the perfect setting for one.

Juliette de Grammont is a skilled practitioner of magic arts and a vampire. She was staked more than 200 years ago, but now her body has been found and restored. Not only must Juliette learn to cope with modern life (cars, computers, cell phones!), but also she’s returned to life just as a major power struggle begins between two powerful vampire families (as treacherous as the Mafia, but without the pasta).

What enables the suspension of disbelief necessary to this narrative is Provost’s excellent world-building. She describes a culture and way of behaving that is consistent and just coherent enough that I got into the story, then the force of her characterizations kept me there, as the paranormal beasties descended. Highly entertaining.

Order Under the Blood Moon here from Amazon or order it here through IndieBound.

Dust Off the Bones

By Paul Howarth – Responsibility, redemption, and squandered chances are among the themes in Paul Howarth’s second novel, which will live in your memory long after turning the last page. Just as indelible is the portrait of the Australian outback—the dust and drought—and the hardness and hardiness of the people who take up residence in such a hostile environment.

Billie and Tommy McBride, ages sixteen and fourteen, respectively, arrive at their remote home to find their mother and father shot dead, and their younger sister Mary, dying. The Native Police arrive to investigate, headed by a sociopathic white inspector named Noone. The police claim to believe that the crime was committed by an aboriginal group called the Kurrong, and set off in pursuit, taking the teenagers with them.

Eventually, they find the group and slaughter them—men, women, and children alike, upwards of a hundred people, except for a few women they keep alive for other purposes. The boys are made complicit in these depredations and the subsequent revisions of events. The rest of the novel is about how the McBride boys cope with that guilt and horror.

Noone remains a dominant presence in their lives, even though they rarely see him. He has insisted the boys split up and have nothing to do with each other or he will return and kill them, any family they have, and everyone they care about. They believe him.

Billie marries successfully to a widow with a sizeable station. Tommy, with his black companion Arthur, has a job on another distant station, where he’s putting up fencing under the thumb of a vindictive overseer. In a confrontation Tommy inadvertently kills the overseer. He and Arthur flee, and, with the telegraph likely one step ahead of them, lie low.

What modest successes either young man achieves are tainted by the anxiety that the annihilation of the Kurrong will come to light, that Noone will decide they are a risk to his position and he and his minions will track them down, and, in Tommy’s case, that the murder he committed will come out. If you’re familiar with the writing of Cormac McCarthy or Donald Ray Pollock, you may find Howarth’s bracing writing style similar. Reading this book is like having all your veins and arteries cleaned out, cleared of everything easy and soft. While the writing is hard as a diamond, it’s also beautiful and properly paced to magnify the weight of the men’s actions.

Diverse Diversions: 3 Entertaining Crime Stories

Gunslinger: Killer’s Requiem

By AW Hart, pen name of Michael Black. I miss good stories about the Old West, which were such a feature of American life a half-century ago and before. Take a trip back there with this new novel, featuring Hart’s gunslinger character, River Hicks. Hicks is returning to the Oregon home town where he’s wanted for murders he didn’t commit. In tow are teenage twins Connor and Abby, whom he rescued from an abusive situation in Texas. The trio faces a deadly opponent in Hicks’s brother, the town’s wealthiest man, exploiter of lumber-mill workers, and, secretly, father of the twins. A whole corral of colorful and memorable characters head toward a showdown between Hicks and his allies and anti-union hired guns. Amazon link here.

That Darkness

By Lisa Black – I enjoyed her informative presentations at Killer Nashville, but had never read one of her books. Her experiences as a crime scene investigator really comes through in 2016’s That Darkness, as her protagonist, Maggie Gardiner, ekes every bit of information out of the scant clues (look out for those cat hairs!) in a series of unexplained murders of men with impressive violent crime rap sheets. You’ll know from the beginning that the killer she’s pitted herself against is Cleveland detective Jack Renner, fed up with the justice system’s failure to get these violent characters off the streets and taking matters into his own hands. Maggie soon begins to suspect a police vigilante, but who is it? She sets up quite an interesting cat-and-mouse game between herself and Renner, and both are challenged to reconcile the differences between law and justice. Amazon link here.

Queen’s Gambit

By Bradley Harper – No, not the tv movie, but a 2019 thriller set in England in 1897, in which a pair of sleuths try to foil an assassination attempt against Queen Victoria. Margaret Harkness is called upon by an old friend—Professor Joseph Bell, who in real life was an inspiration for Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes—to help identify a German anarchist bent upon killing the queen, an act the anarchist deems “propaganda by deed.” The story, set at the colorful time of Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebration, offers a prime opportunity for royal pomp and for the anarchist’s dark doings. Can Harkness and Bell outwit the determined killer? Masterfully entertaining and with a helpful map. Amazon link here.

The Only Good Indians

By Stephen Graham Jones, narrated by Shaun Taylor-Corbett –If I’d realized there was a supernatural element to this book, I probably wouldn’t have listened to it. Real life is scary enough! Boy, would I ever have missed something spectacular. I urge you not to be put off by the “horror” label attached to award-winning Blackfeet author Stephen Graham Jones’s latest, The Only Good Indians.

A crime sets the plot in motion. It’s the kind of irresponsible daredevilry four young male buddies are prone to. As a big snowstorm starts four days before Thanksgiving, Ricky, Lewis, Cass, and Gabe decide they need to put some of their own game on the holiday table. They take their hunt to the portion of the Blackfeet reservation set aside for the elders.

Down below a cliff, they find a herd of elk. They shoot into the herd, killing far more animals than they can drag uphill and far more than the truck can hold. Doesn’t matter anyway. At the top of the cliff, the game warden waits. One of the animals Lewis shot was a young doe. When he begins to field-dress her, he discovers she isn’t dead and she is pregnant. Her calf is alive inside her, and several more shots are required to finally kill her. Lewis takes her hide, intending to make something good out of this sad episode, not to waste one bit of her.

Ten years have passed since the hunt Gabe calls the Thanksgiving Classic. Ricky is working a temporary job with a North Dakota drilling crew. One night, outside a bar, he encounters a herd of elk in the parking lot. The animals panic and, in running away, do considerable damage to the parked trucks. Shrieking vehicle alarms send the bar patrons stumbling outside. They see a native, jump to the wrong conclusion, and chase and kill Ricky. ‘Indian Man Killed in Dispute Outside Bar.’ From the viewpoint of Lewis, Cass, and Gabe, Ricky’s death is totally predictable.

Lewis has married a white woman, Peta, works at the post office, and has his life pretty together until he starts see that pregnant elk lying on his living room floor. Increasingly obsessed with this notion, he digs her hide out his freezer—the hide he wanted to do something with and never has. As his mental state deteriorates, the intrusion of Shaney, his Crow coworker, disrupts the home equilibrium in ways you may not expect.

To this point in the story, you could legitimately think of the elk sightings by Ricky and the half-mad Lewis as hallucinations, possibly brought on by (in one case) alcohol and (in the other) guilt. The situations are strange and terrible, but not totally outside the realm of logical explanation—metaphorical, not metaphysical.

Amid much good-natured bantering, Gabe and Cass concoct a plan for a sweatlodge ceremony to commemorate their dead friends. Bad idea. Now revenge comes thundering toward them.

What I found most intriguing about this story is how enriched it is by Blackfeet traditions and folklore, put in a modern context. Folktales last for generations because they hold a kernel of truth. While this story would never work set in downtown Washington, D.C., in the remote world of Big Sky, of native culture? It finds its groove. The interesting way the men negotiate two different worlds, that worked for me.

Following and getting connected to the story was made easier by the stellar narration of actor Shaun Taylor-Corbett, who gave authenticity to every word. Even in the story’s most bizarre moments, never a sliver of doubt entered his voice. (Saw him on stage once, playing Romeo. Now there’s a contrast!)

Interestingly, many publishers of crime and mystery fiction these days say they want to see stories with ‘paranormal elements.’ Presumably, there’s market interest. If you give it a try, I think you’ll find it a memorable and moving experience.

Order here from Amazon.

I Love Streaming!! Recent Finds

News of the World is a 2020 movie starring the ever-genial Tom Hanks and 12-year-old Helena Zengel, directed by Paul Greengrass and written by Greengrass and Luke Davis (trailer).

The Civil War is over, and former Confederate Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is traveling between the ramshackle towns of north central Texas entertaining the (mostly illiterate) residents with his readings from newspapers. It is, literally, the news of the world he brings to their muddy doorsteps.

Traveling between gigs, he encounters a busted wagon, a hanged man, and someone running through the trees. It’s an eight-year-old (approx.) girl, kidnapped by the Kiowa years before from a German-speaking settlement in the Texas Hill Country. She speaks only Kiowa. With little exposure to white culture, she longs to return to the Indians, while he’s determined to return her to her family against her will, and her will is formidable.

Together, they encounter a number of fairly predictable lowlifes and have some nevertheless tension-filled adventures. The depiction of immediate post-war Texas was of particular interest, as much of my family moved there from Central Tennessee and other places in the South. The rougher elements are not folks you’d want to tangle with!

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 88%; audiences: 89%.

Les Parfums (Perfumes) is a 2019 French romantic comedy (subtitles) we watched through our local independent movie house’s website (trailer). Written and directed by Grégory Magne, it stars Emmanuelle Davos and Gregory Montel, who played Gabriel in the wickedly funny tv series, Call My Agent.

She’s a “nose”—someone who’s cultivated her sense of smell to the point that she’s created perfumes and developed scentscapes for boutiques. It’s a job that requires high sensitivity, and she’s afraid of losing it. Meanwhile, she’s very much the diva. Montel plays her much put-upon chauffeur, desperate to hang onto his job so he can gain partial custody of his daughter.

Unlike so many American shows, she’s a person with a real job and an interesting one, and you see her doing it. Montel is his bumbling self, who brings unexpected skills to the task of accommodating her.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 100%; no audience rating.

The Rose Code

By Kate Quinn – Spies afoot in World War II, and not all of them are who you think! Most of the story of The Rose Code takes place in December 1939, when three young women converge on Bletchley Park. They’ve been recruited for ill-defined jobs and arrive in a mixture of youthful high spirits, enthusiasm, and uncertainty. Interspersed are chapters from, November 1947, which are a day-by-day countdown to the royal wedding of Prince Philip of Greece and Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, future Queen of England.

Most people today know the story of Bletchley Park (BP): how bright young things learned to decode messages generated by the German Enigma machines. Led by a collection of genius misfits and military leaders, an enormous decryption enterprise was quietly assembled. Quinn’s detailed construction of that world is riveting, not just the technical hurdles overcome, but also the human interactions in that intense and desperate effort.

Osla Kendall’s socialite mother hopes to stash her in Canada to wait out the war, but the sidelines are never a place for Osla, and she returns to London. She’s a goddaughter of Lord Louis Mountbatten and, as it happens, the wartime girlfriend of Prince Philip. (Lest you think this is a fictional bridge too far, the character Osla is modeled on the real-life Osla Benning, “a beautiful, effervescent, Canadian-born heiress and Hut 4 translator who was Prince Philip’s long-term wartime girlfriend,” Quinn explains in an afterword.)

Mabel Churt has none of Osla’s advantages, living in Shoreditch with her mum and younger sister, but she’s bright and hard-working, and, like the many summoned to BP, she’s meant to help the male “brains of the outfit” with administrative and secretarial duties. That restriction doesn’t last.

Mab and Osla are billeted in the spare bedroom of a Bletchley village house, where they meet the shy family daughter, Beth Finch. Beth is their age, but so totally cowed by her Bible-spouting mother, they feel obligated to bring her out of her shell. To her mother’s chagrin, Beth lands a BP job, and she turns out to be the best code-breaker of them all.

The work the women do is fascinating and deadly serious, yet the (mostly) young people they work with are full of life and humor. One by one, the coding systems of the Germans fall to the BP’s round-the-clock efforts. From this vital but obscure corner of the war, you view its stuttering progress: Dunkirk, the bombing of London, the naval battle of Cape Matapan, the United States entering the war, the Germans’ snarl in the Soviet Union, preparations for D-Day—the innate excitement of the story propelling you past one wartime milestone after another. By constantly grounding her plot in real events, Quinn’s narrative feels both believable and significant.

After the war, in the days leading up to the royal wedding, Osla and Mab receive a coded message from Beth. The friends have become estranged, unaware Beth is confined in a particularly horrifying mental institution. She hints at the existence of a Bletchley traitor who sold secrets to the Soviets and recalls their past friendship (‘You owe me.’) Uneasily, Osla and Map reunite, and the hunt for the traitor is on. Without all the resources of BP, they must decipher the Rose Code.

It’s a book that grabs your attention from the beginning and never lets go. I loved it!

The Cut

By Chris Brookmyre – “Millicent Spark’s life ended on the twenty-third of January, 1994,” starts Chris Brookmyre’s new thriller. She woke up with the body of her lover Markus next to her, covered in stab wounds. She served 20-some years in prison for his murder – her sentence lengthened because she insisted she was innocent. She’s finally out, living in Glasgow, trying to cobble together some kind of modus vivendi in a vastly changed world.

At a university across town, Jerry Kelly is an uneasy first-year student, having trouble fitting in. He’s black, from a village in North Ayrshire, and grew up with almost nothing. A big piece of his education, such as it was, came from obsessive viewing of horror videos from his gran’s rental outlet. This explains his encyclopedic knowledge of film in general and especially the legendary gore-fests.

Brookmyre’s two misfits have plenty of depth and individuality; they’re sympathetic, despite their flaws, with a wry sense of themselves. On the surface they appear to be polar opposites, but plot magic happens once their paths cross.

Jerry applies to live in an off-campus house, not expecting to be accepted, given who he is and how he looks—dreadlocks, black wardrobe of metal band t-shirts—and given that his prospective housemates are three elderly ladies. To his surprise and theirs, they take him in. He discovers that pre-prison, his prickly new housemate Millie Spark had been a genius makeup artist on many of the blood-soaked films he loves. Grisly wounds were her specialty. The movie-banter between them is highly entertaining, and she’s not put off by his dark affect. But what cements their relationship is when he rescues her from a man trying to smother her with a bed-pillow.

The last movie Millie worked on was Mancipium, a film rumored to be such pure evil no one has ever seen it. All copies were destroyed, and everyone connected with it died. Not strictly true, although several unexplained deaths and disappearances gave the story legs. Seeing Mancipium is at the top of Jerry’s all-time wish-list.

Millicent and Jerry discover that her murdered lover Markus was not a film production company rep, as he claimed, but a London cop. Why did he lie, and what was he after? Who really killed him, and why was Millie framed for his murder? The answers to these questions could prove Millie’s innocence and answer the more urgent question, who wants her dead now? Author Brookmyre effectively ramps up the tension as the danger to Millie mounts and as she and Jerry discern the outlines of a much bigger conspiracy.

The long-ago summer Mancipium was wrapping up offers intriguing clues: immense pressures on the production team, a decadent lifestyle of underage sex and over-consumed drugs, and the influx of high-powered guests that lifestyle attracted. Millie and Jerry search out the scattered remnants of the old crew and ask their questions, with their pursuers never more than a half-step behind.

There may be a fifty-year age difference between Jerry and Millie, but a lively and wholly believable friendship grows up between them. Getting out of their predicament will require the knowledge and skills of both. They are fascinating, funny, and spirited protagonists who are such good companions—to the reader and to each other—that I wished the book could continue for another hundred pages. I hated to give them up! In sum, a most satisfying adventure.

Angelino Heights

By Adam Bregman – Quirky thrillers that don’t follow typical “hero’s journey” plotting have great appeal. You really don’t know what’s coming next. Adam Bregman’s debut thriller is one of these books, with the quirkiness intensified by a passion for the Los Angeles of decades ago. The story is set in the late 90s, and the protagonists are on the hunt for classic neighborhoods, bars that have lived through innumerable trendiness cycles, and other vestiges of California when it was still a shared national dream, The Golden State.

You’re first introduced to Nathan Lyme, a youngish man who begins the story with a long rant about the infelicitous changes wrought in his city. “It’s not that I’m opposed to change. It’s just that I prefer they don’t change anything, unless it’s somehow for the better.” Before long, you realize Nathan’s fussiness doesn’t apply to his own behavior, as he rifles the coats and handbags of guests at a house party he briefly attends.

Next up is Dalton Everest, a high school teacher, short to Nathan’s tall, who also prowls for vintage watering holes. Sitting next to each other at a bar one night, they strike up a conversation, then an unlikely friendship. Nathan is everything Dalton is not—good looking, charming, a risk-taker, and street-smart. He’s also very private about how he makes a living.

But Nathan, whose life story you eventually learn, is lonely. He wants a partner in his crimes. And he thinks Dalton is reliable and congenial enough to assist him in his long string of car thefts and home robberies.

At first Nathan uses the heavy-drinking, but beautiful French woman Melanee to lure Dalton in, but that approach goes badly awry, and he ends up making his pitch flat-out. To Dalton’s own surprise, he goes along with Nathan’s proposal to team up, getting in deeper and deeper, terrified every step of the way.

Finally, you meet Orlando Talbert, a morose Black LAPD detective concerned about a career advancing at a snail’s pace who would like to have one spectacular score to jump-start the professional recognition he believes is his due. He makes a success of cases he’s assigned by pursuing them relentlessly, and you recognize him as Nathan and Dalton’s potential nemesis.

It’s a fast-paced read, nicely written, with strong dialog. Author Bregman has brought to the page his own enthusiasm for the remaining old, odd bits of the city and his encyclopedic knowledge about its eccentricities—geographical, architectural, and sociological. Reading the book is like a tour with a most interesting and entertaining guide.

Out of the Frying Pan

Just when we might indulge in a huge sigh of relief about the narrow escape our democracy has just experienced, on the horizon looms a more-than-plausible thriller about the disastrous consequences of deteriorating U.S.-China relations.

If you like political or military thrillers, get yourself a copy of the current issue of Wired (29.02), which is entirely devoted to a four-chapter excerpt of 2034: A Novel of the Next World War, the new book by Elliot Ackerman (novelist, Marine with five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan) and Admiral James Stavridis, supreme allied commander of NATO from 2009 to 2013 and recent Dean of Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

The Wired editors made this unusual choice by explaining that, while their content is often wildly optimistic about the future, sometimes they must take pains “to envision futures that we really, really want to avoid.” Cold War-era fiction laid out the grim path the great powers were on. As Stavridis explained, they made “the unthinkable as vivid as possible.” The cautionary tale 2034 tries to do the same.

I’ve read the first chapter, which starts, not surprisingly, in the flashpoint of the South China Sea, where a trio of U.S. destroyers is on a “freedom-of-navigation” patrol.

You may recall that IRL, China has been creating and weaponizing artificial islands in the sea, has seized our drones there, and is gradually asserting an expanded zone of influence. Why do we care? About a third of world commerce passes through those waters, which are the primary link between the Pacific and Indian oceans; it has oil and gas reserves; and is a gateway to many of our allies.

The fictional U.S. ships, their communications disabled, become surrounded by PRC warships, and must resort to signal flags to communicate with each other. (This reminds me of P.W. Singer and August Cole’s 2015 speculative thriller Ghost Fleet, in which U.S. military communications is compromised by malware embedded in cheap Chinese computer chips–a pound-foolish penalty of low-bidder procurement. To operate at all, the Navy must deploy ships, planes, and submarines that predate modern computers and wireless communications.)

The lesson from both books is what we become most reliant on makes us vulnerable. As if the military has become like people who cannot get from home to office and back without GPS. In a sort of epigram, Wired offers this: “They fired blindly in the profound darkness of what they can no longer see, reliant as they had become on technologies that failed to serve them.”

Anyway, it’s a cracking good read, and it appears you can download the whole book as a pdf (or other format) here.

170427-N-ES536-0005 NORFOLK (April 27, 2017) Quartermaster 1st Class Jose Triana, assigned to the Pre-Commissioning Unit aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78), attaches signal flags to a line. Ford’s “over the top” lines are being weight tested by the ship’s navigation department. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Elizabeth A. Thompson/Released)