*****Best American Mystery Stories – 2018

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(Pedro Ribeiro Simōes, cc license)

Edited by Louise Penny – What an entertaining collection this is! The stories cover a wide range of mystery/crime/suspense writing, with a fair bit of edge. Edited by Louise Penny from a collection assembled under the direction of Otto Penzler, the twenty stories, all published in 2017, first appeared in US crime magazines, in literary magazines, in themed anthologies, and in single-author collections by T.C. Boyle, Lee Child, Scott Loring Sanders).

Says editor Penny, “A great short story is like a great poem. Crystalline in clarity. Each word with purpose. Lean, muscular, graceful. Nothing wasted. A brilliant marriage of intellect, rational thought, and creativity.” This edition underscores her point on every page.

Though most of the stories run to about twenty pages, Lee Child, with “Too Much Time,” doubles that length. He meticulously describes how the redoubtable Jack Reacher digs himself in deeper and deeper with Maine police while all the time working on an unexpected (by this reader) solution to his precarious situation. Joyce Carol Oates also provides a near-novella with “Phantomwise: 1972,” about a naïve college coed who makes consistently bad choices and the men who exploit them.

Most of the stories take place in the good old US of A, from the sketchy surrounds of Paul Marks’s Venice Beach (“Windward”) to James Lee Burke’s Cajun country (“The Wild Side of Life”), though a few are set in more exotic climes: Africa in David H. Hendrickson’s Derringer-winning “Death in the Serengeti,” the tropical and fictional island of St. Pierre (“Breadfruit” by Brian Silverman), and the Republic of Korea (“PX Christmas” by Martin Limón).

The selected authors found clever and creative ways to deploy the staple characters of crime fiction—unfaithful wives (“Waiting on Joe” by Scott Loring Sanders), assassins (“Takeout” by Rob Hart) and serial killers (“All Our Yesterdays” by Andrew Klavan). They deal with classic crime situations too: trying to escape a difficult past (“Smoked” by Michael Bracken and “Gun Work” by John M. Floyd) or the long tail of a super-secret job (“Small Signs” by Charlaine Harris); prison breaks (“Cabin Fever” by David Edgerley Gates), and the double or is it triple? cross (“Y is for Yangchuan Lizard” by Andrew Bourelle and “Rule Number One” by Alan Orloff).

A couple of the scams were so deftly described that you may find yourself grinning with the vigilante surprise of Michael Connelly’s “The Third Panel” and the flim-flamming of an elderly man in TC Boyle’s “The Designee,” in which you must decide how complicit the elderly “victim” is. It’s the best story of his I’ve ever read. There’s also a thought-provoking twist in “Banana Triangle Six” by Louis Bayard.

This talented collection of authors fills their stories with great lines, though one of my favorites comes from “The Apex Predator,” by William Dylan Powell, wherein the main character claims he learned in Uncle Sam’s navy the “most useful tactical skill ever developed by humankind—and it’s not swimming or fighting or tying knots. It’s the art of bullshitting someone so you don’t get in trouble.”

If you’ve been glancing over the author names looking for (and finding) many that are familiar, you may also have noticed the near-absence of women authors. Joyce Carol Oates who has more than a hundred published books is not a surprise in this list, nor is Charlaine Harris, who’s been publishing mystery fiction since 1981. It’s a real mystery why no other accomplished, newer authors appear here. Women are somewhat more prominent in the list of “Other Distinguished Mystery Stories of 2017” at the back of the volume, where nearly a third are women (10 of 31).

Which publications brought these stories to light in the first place (and where you might find next year’s winner’s now)? Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine published four of the stories, Mystery Tribune (two), and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Fiction River, and Switchblade, one apiece. Also Level Best Books’ anthologies (Noir at the Salad Bar and Snowbound) produced a pair of them.

Windjammer

By Vicki Weisfeld

When Bruce Pritchard unlocked the door to his weekend Cape May, New Jersey, cottage one Friday early in June, the wind crowded in behind him like a presence, gusts of rain snapping at his heels. He flipped the light switch and shed the old-fashioned boots, oilskins, and sou’wester he affected, a fully wired city boy summoning the crusty New England sea captains of his imagination.

He lit the fireplace to exorcise the weekday shadows and dispel the ocean’s powerful breath, swirling about him like a salt-tinged mist. In the kitchen, he unpacked provisions — steaks for friends, a purple cluster of mussels for himself, a bottle of prosecco, ditto. This he opened at once.

He toured the four downstairs rooms, glass of wine in hand, shedding the week’s frustrations like a sodden overcoat. The cottage’s renovations were finally, finally finished, and the next evening his six best friends — and investment clients — were driving down from New York to help him celebrate.

A line of sand-clouded puddles tracked from door to fireplace disturbed the perfection of the moment, and Bruce chided himself as he fetched a towel to dry them.

After dinner, he sat in front of the fire and paged through a musty volume of nautical prints — oversized engravings of merchant ships, three-masted clippers, an artist’s impression of The Flying Dutchman. Tonight he’d skip the blood-soaked ghosts of the Stephen King he’d been reading, the book slumbering like a serpent on his beside table.

He’d rescued the book of engravings from the attic, a farrago of yellowing volumes, framed pictures, half-empty chests, and broken whatnots he’d barely glanced at as yet. The elderly sisters who sold him the cottage said they’d never been up there and exchanged a secretive look. “Noises,” one said, and the other said, “Best not to be too curious.” “Or disturb things,” the first one nodded, but her sister cut off further comment with one glance. Of course they didn’t want to call attention to how they’d left everything “undisturbed,” and unrepaired, and unpainted, un, un, un, which was why the place was crumbling around their ears and why he’d been able to buy it at such a good price.

Well into the night, the storm provided a soundtrack for dreams of howling seas and wind-battered sailors, decks slippery as glass, whiplashing ropes and renting sails, so that he awoke feeling he’d tussled with the elements for hours. From the bedroom window, he watched the morning sun chase the ocean waves, a quarter-mile away. His prize view.

Mary Benaker’s station wagon pulled into the smoothed patch of sand next to his BMW. He threw on a robe and met her at the front door. Mary was the real estate agent who kept an eye on the place for him, arranged his cleaning service, and oversaw any weekday workmen. She’d been a godsend during the renovation. All 18 harrowing months of it. Now she greeted him, holding a flat of annuals.

“Thought you might want these,” she said, too cheerful for the hour. “I just drove past the farmer’s market. They’ve got strawberries.”

Bruce regarded the banal mix of orange marigolds, red salvia, and purple and white petunias. Nothing he would plant. Certainly not in that color combination. “No thanks. I’m headed to the garden center today myself. Very generous of you, but, no.”

She looked a bit sadly at the unwanted annuals, but said nothing.

As an afterthought, he said, “One thing, though. Was the maid service here last week?”

“Next week. First and third Wednesdays. Everything OK?”

He looked past her, head cocked. “Yes, but …” He paused to focus a thought. “Everything looks moved, slightly, like someone dusted. And, it just feels like … someone’s been here.” He’d had a parade of unsettling feelings when at the house in the last few weeks, but he wasn’t going to tell Mary about the worst of them — that someone was watching him. That he chalked up to urban paranoia and, possibly, too much Cabernet.

Now she hesitated. “Anything missing?”

“Nothing like that. Probably my imagination.” The uncertain way he said this made it clear he didn’t believe it was his imagination at all, and he turned to go back inside the house. “Thanks, anyway.” He indicated the plants.

“Suit yourself,” she said to the closing door.

Bruce leaned his back against the door, annoyed. Throughout the endless renovation, she always managed to slip in a dig. “If that’s what you like,” “Of course, that’s up to you,” “Suit yourself.” Her distaste for his choices, his polished style couldn’t be clearer.

“So what!” he scolded himself, then gasped. He took a step forward, then another, transfixed by what he saw over the fireplace. In place of his prized large-format Robert Mapplethorpe photograph — ambiguous portions of two male torsos, one black, one white, so rich in tone it seemed a color print, but wasn’t — sailed a four-masted windjammer, sheets unfurled and running with the wind, straight at him.

He wheeled and opened the door. “Mary!” he shouted, but the station wagon turned onto the road and disappeared behind a stand of beach plums.

The frame of the Mapplethorpe peeked above the back of a low sofa. He pulled it from its hiding place and marched to the fireplace to switch the two. And stepped in a puddle of seawater containing a miniature beach of sand and trailing a seaweed thread.

Maybe a shower would clear his head. But in the bathroom, he found scrimshaw ornaments cluttering the glass shelf. Where the hell did those come from? Figuring they were cheap plastic souvenirs, someone’s idea of a joke, he picked up a piece to toss it into the trash, and noticed the weight, the fine detail, a map he recognized as Nantucket Island, and the date: 1846. He set it back on the glass and contemplated it.

* * *

A piece of toast in one hand and his smartphone in the other, he called Mary. “Who lived here before me, do you know? Before the sisters.”

“Let me ask Chuck. If he doesn’t know, he can find out.” Chuck Benaker was her husband, another realtor and a past president of the county historic society. These combined interests could generate a dizzying amount of genealogical detail about any parcel of local property. Bruce found Chuck tiresome, but Mary was right. He’d know.

Bruce was planting herbs next to the kitchen door when Mary called back.

“Chuck says your house was built by a retired sea captain. This would have been about 1850. The house was in his family for 75 years or so until the Darby family bought it. The parents died soon after World War II, and they left it to their daughters — the sisters who sold it to you. Not many owners.”

“What does he know about this sea captain?”

“He said the historic society has some papers and such. They open for the season in a couple of weeks, but wait.” Mary put her hand over the receiver and spoke to someone. “Chuck says he can meet you there about three.”

* * *

The historic society headquarters and museum occupied a simple clapboard house on Washington Street. Chuck Benaker looked up from a pile of mail. “So, your house? Quite a history.” He handed Bruce a folder. “Captain Newsome was a true legend. You have there the original deed to the property and records of some purchases. Stuff found after he was murdered, I suppose. Plus the registries kept by his nephew, who lived with him and let out the upstairs rooms to lodgers. The Darbys —”

“Murdered?”

“Newsome? Oh, yeah. Made enemies like Dunkin’ makes Donuts. If he hadn’t died, he would have been charged with a murder or two himself. Beat the rap by bleeding to death. The clippings are here somewhere,” Chuck walked to a file cabinet and rattled a drawer open. “We’ve been closed since fall, and the girls left everything a mess.” He slammed the drawer. “But I remember the story.”

Bruce leafed through the folder, mesmerized. So much for his house as a peaceful place, a refuge. He held up a green feather.

“Ah. Newsome’s parrot, ‘Cap’n,’” Chuck said. “According to their diaries, the Cape May ladies were more terrified of Cap’n than of Newsome himself. Stunning vocabulary.

“Newsome was captain of a merchant ship in the mid-1800s, sailed out of Massachusetts,” Chuck drawled, and Bruce could see the rest of the afternoon unwinding drearily in front of him, despite Chuck’s rendition of the despicable Newsome. Chuck pulled open the shallow drawer of a map cabinet and located a floor plan of the house. “Carpenter’s records.” He pointed to a second floor room. “Happened right there. When I unearth the newspaper stories, you can read the police description. Strong stomach?” He looked at Bruce over the top of his half-glasses.

“That’s my bedroom,” Bruce said, staring at Chuck’s tapping finger.

“Really.” Chuck paused, as if he found that fact somehow significant, and the word hung ambiguously in the air. “Newsome and his killer, Henry Carver — now that was a prophetic name — had a royal feud about your property. Came to a head one night, both of them drunk. Carver tried to escape across the Pine Barrens, but a timber rattler got him, so the police said.”

Bruce caught the skepticism. “You don’t believe it?”

Benaker shrugged. “The other lodgers didn’t believe it. The night in question they were all jammed in the doorway of the murder room, but none of them lifted a hand while Carver did the bloody deed. Newsome’s last words were, ‘I’ll come back and get you,’ and he shook his fist at the lot of them. When Carver turned up dead, they hightailed it.”

“What time is it?” Bruce startled, as if wakened from a bad dream, and checked his watch. 5:30.

“Oh. Sorry to keep you.” Chuck looked disappointed. “I get all wound up in these stories. Cape May County has a colorful history, that’s for sure.”

Bruce stood up, a little wobbly from information overload. “No, it was . . . helpful. But I have friends coming at seven.”

“You go on. When I dig up those clippings, we’ll talk again.” He rubbed his hands together, a gesture that made Bruce wince.

Back at the cottage, The Windjammer was back above the fireplace. He found the torn Mapplethorpe outside in the trash barrel, frame and glass shattered.

* * *

Bruce’s guests said the cottage was fantastic and thought the painting an inspired bit of camp. But their admiration gave him no pleasure, and he was uncharacteristically quiet all evening. He couldn’t talk to his New York friends about ghosts, then expect them to invest their life savings with him.

He gave two of the men the “murder room,” as Benaker termed it. As he stood in the doorway to point out the switches and extra bedding, he began to shake, and he hurried back downstairs. He slept on the sofa and hoped a sunny Sunday morning at the beach would expunge Newsome’s gory phantom.

Too soon he was awakened by a commotion in the kitchen. Up already before seven, his visitors prowled for coffee. He found them clustered around the kitchen table, staring at a tall bell-shaped object covered with a fitted cloth.

“Looks like my mother’s mixer,” said one, “only bigger.”

“Your mother dressed her appliances, too? I thought that was my Mom’s Midwestern chic.”

Bruce knew what the thing was. But he lifted the cover, anyway.

“Cap’n’s back,” squawked the parrot, followed by an outpouring of dark obscenities.

* * *

Late that afternoon the phone rang in the Benaker real estate office, and Chuck picked up. “Hey, Bruce,” Chuck said. He continued to listen for several minutes. “Sorry to hear that. . . . No, I do not believe in . . .” He listened some more. “Well, OK, if you’re sure.” Finally, he hung up.

He looked across the office and smiled at his wife. “Your dream house? As good as yours.”

***The Winters

By Lisa Gabriele – The author set herself a high bar in tackling a modern reimagining of Daphne du Maurier’s classic psychological thriller, Rebecca, with its famous first line—“Last night I dreamed I went again to Manderley.” Gabriele’s first line, “Last night Rebekah tried to murder me again” is startling, if lacking the original’s poetic power.

Nevertheless, a novel is more than its opening line. I reread the set-up for du Maurier’s gothic thriller to reacquaint myself with the story and her style, so I could assess whether Gabriele’s new novel stands up to the original, since it so deliberately invites the comparison. I ended up with a mixed opinion.

As in the original, Gabriele’s (again, unnamed) narrator, a rather unsophisticated if sincere young woman, does not fit easily in the social set of her new fiancé, wealthy New York Senator Maxim Winter. Winter dismisses her feelings of being out-of-place, despite (or is it because of?) her stark dissimilarity to his late wife—the beautiful, charming, and talented Rebekah. I didn’t really warm up to the narrator—odd, since the book is written in the first-person—nor did I find her a wholly convincing character.

As in the original, most of the story takes place at a legendary and enormous family residence. The Winter estate, Asherley, was built on its own island at the far eastern end of Long Island, facing the sea.

In a brilliant move by Gabriele, the narrator’s antagonist is not the confidant of the late Mrs. Winter, the housekeeper (Mrs. Danvers in the original); in Gabriele’s version, the principal opposition to the marriage and to the narrator herself comes from Max and Rebekah’s teenage daughter, Dani. Many of us have seen how fraught relationships with step-children can be, and this was a persuasive adjustment to modern times. There is a lot going on with Dani, though her rebellious teenage machinations are hard to forgive, for narrator and reader alike.

While the set-up of the two novels is reasonably similar, their plots begin to diverge about half-way through. Even so, having Dani volunteer to help the narrator find a wedding dress evokes nail-biting echoes of disaster that play out in a completely unexpected way.

Gabriele’s writing style is, of course, markedly different from that of a novel written eighty years ago. Still, I miss du Maurier’s long loopy sentences and lush descriptions. In the new version, you see the Winter mansion through modern eyes and a more practical, less dreamy affect. In place of a wall of blood-red rhododendrons, you have a profusion of vases full of Rebekah’s favored deep red roses. Tastes differ as to whether a more florid style better fits a romantic story about a woman blinded by love—or is she?—and haunted by her dead rival.

Gabriele’s narrator is a refreshingly modern woman, appreciative of Max Winter’s extreme wealth, but not overawed by it. Even so, she finds herself trapped by circumstances. In today’s world, a difficult housekeeper would be dismissed; it’s not so easy to divest oneself of a step-daughter, even a calculating, substance-abusing, and foul-mouthed one like Dani. Gabriele, having set aside the evil housekeeper, finds new ways for Rebekah’s memory to torment the new Mrs. Winter, while the ghost of du Maurier’s Rebecca necessarily haunts The Winters.

You may recall Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 Academy Award-winning film, Rebecca. A new version is in the works, starring Armie Hammer and Lily James.

*****101

By Tom Pitts – Book publicists are fond of the awkward adjective “unputdownable,”but in the case of Tom Pitts’s new California crime thriller, this enthusiastic description is wholly justified. Those familiar with California will recognize 101 as the highway that runs the length of California from Los Angeles—where it’s part of the world’s busiest and most nightmarish freeway interchange—north to the Oregon border and beyond. Pitts’s book focuses on that northern bit, from the Bay Area up to Humboldt County, where a different kind of traffic is all-important: weed.

The book is set in mid-2016, six months before California voters will legalize marijuana, and the impending vote has made the Humboldt County growers more paranoid than usual. They’re accustomed to warding off rustlers and junkies and deer and water-thieves, but unsure how to arm themselves for a massive market shift. Pitts’s description of the steep hillside partly covered in redwoods and brambles and the long, rutted dirt track up to where the nervous growers live is so vivid you could almost choke on the dust of their ATVs.

Vic Thomas runs one of these hillside growing operations, out of the sight of most people, which is exactly how he likes it. Twenty years before, he and a woman he’d never met before, Barbara Bertram, witnessed a horrible crime and, in self-defense, meted out a little on-the-spot justice. The experience bonded them forever. The police totally misunderstood what went on in that charnel-house and have been trying to track down Barbara and Vic ever since.

The story opens with a middle-of-the-night call from Barbara. She tells Vic her son Jerry is in trouble again, and she wants to send him to Vic so he can lie low awhile among the marijuana growers. Vic can’t tell her no. Alas, Jerry is a serial screw-up with less sense than Vic’s dogs.

Vic is not pleased when he discovers that Jerry and his girlfriend Piper stole a considerable amount of cash from a Russian who runs a Bay Area weed club. His name is Vlad—“Vlad the Inhaler”—and he and his mobsters are determined to get their money back and make an example of Jerry.

When Piper finds her way up the hill to Jerry’s “hideout,” Vic recognizes that his unwelcome guest can’t keep his mouth shut. He’s even more alarmed when he realizes Piper’s stepfather is the head of the Dead BBs, a vicious outlaw motorcycle gang. Vlad has a financial relationship with the BBs, which makes them equally determined to find Jerry and Piper and reclaim the money. The stepfather considers Jerry completely expendable and Piper only slightly less so. Pitts shifts the narrative point of view frequently, so you know not only what Vic is thinking, but also what Vlad and the Dead BBs are up to. You’re never in doubt about the danger heading up the 101 toward Vic, Jerry, Piper, and anyone else who gets in the way.

With three sets of determined antagonists—the Russians, the Dead BBs, and the cops—looking for some combination of Jerry, Piper, and Vic, the opportunities for mayhem expand exponentially, and Pitts has deftly orchestrated the chase. There’s no time here for literary flourishes, maybe just a dash to the fridge for a beer, right in step with the denizens of 101. AMAZON LINK HERE.

Santa’s Bookshelf

Santa Claus, reading

Creative Commons License

Still looking for that perfect book for under the Christmas tree? Here are a few ideas for your weekend shopping that might suit some of the hard-to-buy for people on your list:

Film Noir Junkies – A.J. Finn filled his blockbuster psychological thriller, The Woman in the Window, with references to classic noir, and the main character watches quite a few too. And drinks Merlot by the case (trigger warning, Sideways fans).

Intrepid Travelers – if you can’t give a trip to Paris, you can give Mark Helprin’s Paris in the Present Tense. If they’re also classical music devotees, bonus points to you for finding this story about an aging cellist in the City of Light who really makes crime pay.

Jive-Talking Rap Music LoversRighteous or any of the other I.Q. books by Joe Ide. His characters’ language unspools across the page in pure urban poetry, as they solve crimes and right wrongs.

Unrepentant Bookworms – a book they can burrow into for days and maybe never sort out all the plot shenanigans, Lost Empress is about football, Rikers’ Island, a missing Salvador Dali painting, a man and his mom, transcribing 911 calls, Paterson, New Jersey, and so much, much more.

Armchair Psychologists – OK, does he have dementia or doesn’t he? Grace may not live long enough to find out on a Texas road trip with the elderly man she believes murdered her sister. Paper Ghosts is nice work from Julia Heaberlin.

Inveterate Classicists – David Hewson’s Juliet & Romeo is another in his fine adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. Always inventive, always interesting. His Macbeth and Hamlet were winners too.

Road WarriorsShe Rides Shotgun is Jordan Harper’s award-winning debut thriller about a man and his young daughter on the run. They won’t be able to turn the pages fast enough.

Fairy Tale Fans – True, they may be startled at the liberties Karen Dionne took with Hans Christian Anderson’s tale, but in The Marsh King’s Daughter, she’s created a compelling story of a girl raised off the grid and what it takes for her to build a conventional life. Can she keep it?

Anyone Who Just Likes a Damn Good Book – You should get a twofer for Philip Kerr’s book Prussian Blue, which does a deep dive into both the dark days of the Third Reich and early 1950s France. Detective Bernie Gunther’s skill at solving murders doesn’t always make him friends.

*****Wrecked

razor wire fenceBy Joe Ide, narrated by Sullivan Jones –Joe Ide is a master at conveying distinctive personalities and subcultures, and Sullivan Jones brings them vividly to life. In his newest book, Ide deftly weaves together his principal plotline and engaging subplots into a masterful tale of escape, revenge, pursuit, and retribution.

As in Ide’s previous two books, IQ and Righteous, the story centers on East Long Beach investigator and righter-of-wrongs Isaiah Quintabe and his sometime friend—and in this book, new business partner—Juanel Dodson. Isaiah is called IQ not only because those are his initials, but also because he’s a brilliant strategist, who saves situations with brainpower more often than firepower.

Neighbors in his low-income community need a burglar caught or an ex-husband warned off? Isaiah’s their man. A school club needs help with a bully? Isaiah again. Unfortunately, these clients pay him in roof repairs, cakes and pies, and a promised handknit reindeer sweater. Once, a live chicken. These exchanges do not pay the bills, and Dodson plans to change all that. The slivers of insight Ide provides about the East Los Angeles community create an almost tangible sense of place.

In front of the local art supply store, Isaiah spots the woman he’s attracted to—Grace Monorova. Tongue-tied, he lets his gray pit bull Ruffin make the initial contact. Grace is great with the dog, but her reaction to Isaiah isn’t nearly as warm. Unexpectedly, she calls him one night to ask for help finding her mom, Sarah, missing for a decade. She pays him with one of her paintings, to Dodson’s disgust.

It emerges that Sarah is the target of a trio of ex-military who participated in the atrocities at Abu Ghraib prison and the CIA operative who egged them on, Stan Walczak. Bad as the photos were that documented the depraved treatment of Iraqi prisoners, there are worse photos out there, and Sarah has them. She’ll sell them to Walczak for a million dollars. He has that kind of cash, but his scorched-earth modus operandi won’t let him buy them back. He wants her dead. Grace too, if necessary. And, if he interferes, Isaiah.

Meanwhile, Isaiah’s business partner Dodson decides to take care of a different situation himself, without putting Isaiah wise. The old case involves the 21st century Malaprop of hip-hop, Junior, “who sounds like he swallowed a dictionary sideways” and brings Dodson’s former girlfriend Deronda into the story in full whackdown mode. Dodson’s reactions to new fatherhood and his live-in mother-in-law left me grinning. Jive-talking, slick operator though this father is, baby Micah has obviously seized control of the household.

While author Ide captures the sometimes skewed thought processes and humor of all his characters and Jones delivers them with spot-on narration, Dodson may be the sentimental favorite of them both.

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Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Can You Ever Forgive MeThe trials of women authors are laid bare this season in several movies (The Wife, Colette), never more amusingly and heart-breakingly than in director Marielle Heller’s honest comedy-drama, written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, based on Lee Israel’s autobiography (trailer).

Melissa McCarthy is perfect as Lee Israel, a middle-ranking author of celebrity biographies in 1970s and 1980s New York, settling down into the ranks of the unpublishable. Lee can’t get her next project going—an unpromising, probably unsaleable biography of Fanny Brice. Her agent (Jane Curtin) won’t take her calls, her prickly personality has alienated any people who might have helped her, she’s behind in her rent and reduced to stealing a winter coat, and her cat is sick. Life is tough and so is she.

By chance, Lee stumbles upon a couple of original letters by Brice and sells them to the kind of antiquarian book dealers who trade in such collectibles. She soon learns bland doesn’t sell. What makes notables’ correspondence valuable is the personal touch, a bit of wit. She’s a writer; she can do this. And does.

Into her insular life arrives a comet of a man. Jack Hock, played with manic relish by Richard E. Grant, is Lee’s polar opposite. Gregarious and most probably homeless, he becomes her companion (the word “friend” would be tricky here), her drinking buddy, then her partner in crime.

The filmmakers initially saw Julianne Moore in the role of Lee, but they were so fortunate in casting McCarthy. Says Monica Castillo on RogerEbert.com, “The range in McCarthy’s performance cannot be overstated. At almost every turn, her character gives the audience plenty of reason not to like her. Yet, with Heller’s sympathetic approach and McCarthy’s acting, the movie humanizes her beyond caricature,” and Israel is presented with tremendous empathy and understanding.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 98%; audiences: 86%.

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****Broken Windows

Los Angeles, Hollywood

James Gubera, creative commons license

By Paul D. Marks – Paul Marks’s second Duke Rogers PI thriller is a follow-up to the recently reissued White Heat, a Shamus award-winner, recently reissued. Rogers, principal narrator of this entertaining tale, has the sly humor of a modern-day Philip Marlowe and a similar penchant for attracting trouble.

Maybe it’s something about Los Angeles—too much sun, too much tinsel, too many people trying too hard, too much too much—that makes it the perfect setting for so many great noir novels. The prologue describes a quintessential Los Angeles move: the suicide of an aspiring actress who takes a dive off the iconic Hollywood sign. Her death hangs out there, disconnected, waiting for PI Rogers to reel it into the story.

Rogers is a famous guy around LA, famous for a detective, anyway. He’s the one who solved the murder of up-and-coming starlet Teddie Matson, recounted in White Heat. The frequent acknowledgements of his success rub salt in a wound that has not healed. Though he caught Teddie’s killer, people don’t know that it was he who mistakenly told the killer how to find her.

Out for a stroll with his new dog, Rogers encounters the neighbor’s housekeeper walking her employer’s Yorkies. Marisol Rivera is young, pretty, Mexican, and illegal. And she has a problem. Her brother’s been found dead. The police say un accidente, but Marisol believes it was murder. She thinks they’re reluctant to invest time and effort in the case because Carlos, too, was undocumented.

Eventually Rogers persuades Marisol to let him help her, but wading into a highly charged political swamp is a good way to encounter alligators, and soon there’s a second body to account for—this one a man high in the bureaucracy of the Catholic Church. When he turns up dead shortly after visiting Rogers, the local police figure him a person of particular interest.

Marks writes with an easy style that carries you through the story and creates engaging characters to spike your interest. His Los Angeles is familiar and believable. He softens Rogers around the edges by giving him a new dog needing care, a friend who has earned and receives unswerving loyalty, and a woman he would like to reconnect with. She’s the sister of the dead starlet Teddie Matson, and his guilt over Matson’s death keep him from picking up the phone. Yet he obsesses about her. Perhaps a bit too much.

Marks places this story in the broader political context of California Proposition 187, a 1994 ballot initiative aimed at curbing the flow of illegal immigrants into the state and denying them public services. Characters in the story represent various stakeholder groups and positions that resonate with today’s vicious public policy debates.)

But this is, of course, not a political essay, but a mystery, and, in the quest for Carlos’s killer, Rogers must peel back the masks worn in public by these various elected officials and community leaders. It’s always a treat to see hypocrisy stripped bare, and Rogers finds that what these stalwarts say to their constituents about immigration is more a reflection of self-interest than principle.

Part of the story is told from the point of view of Eric Davies, a disbarred lawyer whose downward spiral has landed him in a cockroach-infested apartment in Venice, California. He is out of luck and out of prospects unless someone answers his desperate advert saying he will “do anything for money.” Someone does. The writing of Eric’s chapters is very close in. You are inside his addled, frustrated head, and hope that when the time comes, despite all indications to the contrary, he will do the right thing.

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*****Lost Empress

Football, leaves

guvo59, creative commons license

By Sergio de la Pava – Does anyone these days have the time to read a 640-page novel? I made the time and was glad of it! This remarkable book came to me as a reviewer for crimefictionlover.com, and it bucks convention in more ways than its length.

In all those pages, a lot happens—interesting, challenging stuff you won’t find in a typical novel. It includes a meditation on Time, an evisceration of professional football, a hilarious take-down of the U.S. health care system, an exploration of the meaning of loneliness and the futility of religion. Fundamentally, however, it’s a kaleidoscopic, postmodern approach to the question “what is justice?” All the while, Sergio de la Pava’s sly sense of humor keeps the pages turning, as situations at first merely odd spiral out of control like a poorly judged forward pass.

Characters are described with juicy details that make their stories tantalizing, and as the story settles down, two principal characters emerge. The first is Nina Gill, former co-owner and brains behind the wildly successful Dallas Cowboys. Family maneuvering gives her a football team of her own—not the Cowboys, the decidedly non-competitive Paterson (N.J.) Pork.

Nina is a woman who gets what she wants, and what she mostly wants is a winning football team. The NFL players are in a lockout, the owners have cancelled the season, and gutsy Nina recruits men desperate to play. Her second-in-command is college student Dia Nouveau, and the laugh-out-loud banter between tough Nina and can-do Dia is like the script for a screwball comedy, sometimes even written in script format.

Nuno DeAngelis is a career lawbreaker headed to Rikers Island. Nuno is a philosopher. “They can put him in Rikers, but they can’t make him live there.” The story of his life in prison, how he gets out and back in again, is written in what you might call a suprarealistic style, not as gritty crime drama, but floating somewhere above reality. But, since he’s there, his various connections give him assignments: avenge a vehicular homicide, snatch a Salvador Dali painting Nina wants . . . you know, the usual prison malarkey. Nuno writes his own brief for his Grand Jury proceeding, and it’s both expletive-laced and morally persuasive.

Trying to give a sense of the plot of a novel this sprawling is probably irrelevant. De la Pava has created a three-ring circus involving clowns, daredevils, and high-wire performers, creating extraordinary characters from people engaged in seemingly ordinary activities—a 911 call transcriber, a man caring for his ailing mother, a parking garage operator, a priest in a dwindling parish, and a failed doctor who becomes the Paterson Pork mascot.

De la Pava’s first novel, 2008’s A Naked Singularity, was originally self-published, but when the University of Chicago Press discovered and republished it in 2012, it received the PEN/Bingham Prize for best debut novel of the year. His is a refreshing and unforgettable voice, one that busts out of the boxes of both crime and literary fiction, stretching the form and the reader as well.

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Toronto: Backdrop for Mystery

Park Bench, snow

Trang Pham, pexels license

Two very different mystery/thrillers from authors based in Canada, where everyone is supposed to be so nice. !

*****Bellevue Square

By Michael Redhill – A compelling contemporary psychological thriller set in Toronto, Bellevue Square won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s most prestigious literary award and is now out in paperback.

Narrator Jean Mason runs a downtown bookshop. When customers begin mistaking her for Ingrid—a woman they know from Kensington Market—Jean decides to track down this supposed doppelganger.

She stakes out a bench at the market’s heart, Bellevue Square, and observes the comings and goings of the folk living and trading nearby. The richly described life of the square becomes the center of the novel and of Jean’s attention. The Bellevue Square regulars are “a peculiar collection of drug addicts, scam artists, philanthropists, philosophers and vagrants.” Author Redhill gives them distinctive personalities and preoccupations that are occasionally comic, yet never cruel.

As Jean gets to know them, she likes them and they her. She lets them know she will pay for information about Ingrid and they come up with sightings and information, but should she trust it? Her husband Ian, a policeman, insists on knowing where she’s spending her days, and when she takes him there, his fresh and unsentimental eyes see a collection of loonies. “So this is how you’ve been spending your time? With these kinds of people?”

You hope Jean is successful in her quest for Ingrid, even as its likelihood dwindles. Redhill says Bellevue Square “is a literary novel but has one foot in mystery and a couple of toes in psychological thriller,” and Jean’s reality cracks and splinters around you in unique and unexpected ways. Well worth a read.

P.S. Until recently, the Bellevue Square of the novel was a real location in Toronto. In the spring of 2017, reports Redhill in his acknowledgements, the city’s Parks, Forests and Recreation division razed it. He says, “My regards to the City of Toronto for enthusiastically illustrating some of the themes in my work.”

 ***The Language of Secrets

By Ausma Zehanat Khan – Now also out in paperback, is Ausma Zehanat Khan’s second Toronto-based thriller featuring Esa Khattak,  head of the Community Policing Section, and his sergeant and chief sounding-board, Rachel Getty. As winter sets in, the Canadian authorities are trying to thwart a rumored New Year’s Day terrorist attack and Khattak’s friend, Muslim intelligence officer Mohsin Dar, has infiltrated the plotters. Then he’s murdered.

Khan vividly describes the icy, remote location where key scenes take place, as well as the cramped urban mosque where the police believe the plotters meet. Their putative ringleader is a charismatic but evasive man named Hassan Ashkouri who speaks in riddles and poetry.

Khattak is tasked with finding Dar’s killer. For personal reasons, Inspector Ciprian Coale, who heads the team trying to stop the terrorists, is determined to thwart Khattak’s investigation at every turn. He’s not above suggesting that Dar may not have been playing straight with him and hints Khattak may be equally unreliable.

Politics is thus intertwined with many aspects of this story, and every move Khattak makes is subject to political interpretation by his rivals, the news media, and the minority communities he serves. This slant on police work give his investigation an appealing timeliness. However, the author occasionally stops writing fiction in order to provide a lecture on political topics.

Khattak’s sister Ruksh has a new man in her life, one she plans to marry—coincidentally, the terrorist leader Hassan Ashkouri. In her reflexive hostility toward her older brother and her defiant determination to pursue the relationship she acts more like a sulky teenager than a grown woman. By contrast, Rachel Getty, Khattak’s sergeant, is an appealing character. Khan gives her an interesting background as a competitive hockey player with an important all-star game imminent, yet she doesn’t go to hockey practice once during the entire novel.

Although the desire to learn the fates of these characters kept me reading, Khan’s prose is murky at times; at others, she telegraphs too much, announcing, that a character just made a big mistake, for example. Show, don’t tell.

As a bottom line, this book contains unusual characters and situations that should carry you through the uneven patches in the writing.