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.

A Notable True Crime Anniversary

Dutch Room, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. Photo: Sean Dungan

Shortly after midnight, thirty-one years ago today, two fully uniformed Boston policemen were let into the indifferently secured Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. But they weren’t cops; they were thieves. They tied up the two security guards and proceeded to wander the museum, stealing what appeared to be an almost random collection of paintings and art objects, retrieved the video footage from the security system, and departed.

Thirty-one years ago this morning, the daytime security guard located and released his colleagues, the museum staff were brokenhearted, the real Boston police arrived, trailed shortly thereafter by the FBI. While the haul was essentially priceless, it has been collectively valued at more than $500 million. It was the largest art crime and the largest property theft in U.S. history, and it remains unsolved. Netflix is taking it on now; details below.

The museum offered a huge reward—now $10 million. No takers, not in over three decades. From the first, FBI agents theorized the theft was the work of low-level organized crime figures. When the statute of limitations on the theft ran out, the FBI confidently predicted some mug would finally come forward with information. Crickets. Then they said fugitive mobman Whitey Bulger, might hold the key. Whitey was finally nabbed in California in 2011. He died in 2018, without a chirp. They engaged another New England mobster for help, but he died last fall, apparently without providing any. In fact, for thirty-one years, the FBI has periodically predicted an imminent resolution to this spectacular crime, and each time, nothing.

My short story “Above Suspicion” was published in 2018 in the Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine (Issue 26). It suggests an entirely different scenario. My thieves are two Massachusetts General Hospital surgical residents, recruited by a European fence. The docs are impoverished by years of medical training, and, on reflection, happy to have a substantial nest-egg to start their practices. Here’s how it answers the key questions the crime has raised.

1.How did the thieves talk their way into the museum against institutional policy? Do you know any surgeons? If they can’t convey a sense of authority, no one can.
2.Who hired/organized them? A man from Europe, a fence unknown to U.S. authorities or mobsters.
3.Since stealing art is child’s play compared to getting rid of it afterward, what happened to it? They stole items “to order.” The fence pre-sold them to people who aren’t fastidious about provenance.
4.Why did they overlook several more valuable works? Again, the buyers made their choices.
5.Why has no word leaked out? The European believed two doctors, unlike low-level mobsters, would never reveal his crime in a drunken confession or to a stoolie cellmate.
6.Why, with all the valuable art on display, did they steal two low-value Degas sketches? Those works were for them, one apiece, as a reminder.

Fictionalizing a real-life event has constraints. While I could make up the characters and the means for getting the works out of the country (sewn into the upholstery of a couple of showy vintage Cadillacs), I kept the core details of the crime completely true-to-life, fitting my fiction into a box of facts. Each time another FBI prediction falls flat, my theory remains standing. (smile)

I’m eager to see what Netflix does with this story. A four-part docuseries, This is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist, is coming April 7.

My reading (Amazon has a three-book deal on these books):

The Gardner Heist by reporter Ulrich Boser, Order on Amazon
Priceless by FBI Art Crime Team founder, Robert K. Wittman – Amazon link
Stealing Rembrandts by Gardner Museum security director Anthony M. Amore and reporter Tom Mashberg. Amazon link

Leapin Leprechauns!

When it comes to a painful history, Irish authors know whereof they speak, and they know how to tell a story laced with humor. Fiction is one way to process lingering cultural traumas.

While I’ve read quite a few books by Irish authors in paper, they are wonderful books to listen to, as the narrators’ accents are transporting.

Crime Fiction

Next up for me is A Galway Epiphany by the award-winning Ken Bruen, called “the Godfather of the modern Irish crime novel,” being released April 1. It features his character Jack Taylor, an ex-cop turned private eye who becomes the center of his own mystery, when he is hit by a truck and left comatose but unscratched (narrated by Gerry O’Brien).

In the Cold, Cold Ground – Adrian McKinty’s first book featuring police detective Sean Duffy–a rare Catholic in the Royal Ulster Constabulary. In the bleak Belfast spring of 1981, hunger strikers in HM Prison Maze are dying. Paramilitaries are setting off bombs, gunfire rakes the streets, and Duffy is investigating a possible serial killer who targets homosexuals. The violent backdrop is tangible, especially with the forceful narration of the award-winning Gerard Doyle.

Stuart Neville wrote a series of excellent novels also set in Belfast, including the one I listened to, The Ghosts of Belfast. Fellow author John Connolly called it “not only one of the finest thriller debuts of the last ten years, but also one of the best Irish novels, in any genre, of recent times.”  Also narrated by Gerard Doyle.

In an interview, Doyle says that when he was a child, his parents would often take him with them to the pub. “I’d sit on the bench late into the evening listening to the stories and the lies. And the music! I even sang sometimes. They’d put me up on a table. One of my best was Ronnie Donegan’s ‘My Old Man’s a Dustbin.'”

Other Fiction

The Gathering by Booker prize-winner Anne Enright “has more layers to it—of grief, love, lightness, tragedy, absurdity, and trauma—than an onion, and may cause as much weeping,” said the editors of The American Scholar. I felt privileged to hear her reading a few years ago under the auspices of Princeton’s Fund for Irish Studies.

Glenn Patterson is another writer who gave a memorable reading in Princeton, and his The International is the story of a single night in the bar of the International Hotel, while upstairs a consequential meeting forming the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association takes place. It’s not about militants at all but about state-of-mind.

You may think there’s not much new literary territory to explore in male-female sexual relations, yet award-winning author Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians finds it and mines it. Innovative, immersive, dazzling.

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.

Play the Red Queen & The Coroner’s Lunch

Bust out of your quasi-quarantine and take a trip halfway around the world and decades back in time with crime thrillers set in Saigon in 1963 and Ventiane in 1978. The politics feel tragically quaint, knowing how they turned out, but the settings are ripe for conspiracy, conflicting agendas, and misunderstandings at every level. Yet both books include characters who manage to maintain a sense of humor and perspective, even as their worlds are crumbling around them.

Play the Red Queen

By Juris Jurjevics – This new book has received considerable well deserved attention, bittersweet because the author died suddenly in late 2018, not knowing whether it would even be published. It was his aim that the book would, in his phrase, “bear witness” to an underreported aspect of the Vietnam War: the “elaborate, even treasonous corruption—and our complicity in it.”

He brings all this out in a book that is not a political diatribe but a page-turner of a thriller. American military advisors in Saigon are being killed by a beautiful and mysterious young woman who shoots with unerring accuracy from the back of a speeding Vespa. The U.S. military wants to get to the bottom of it and assigns two genial investigators. They run into countless operational and political obstacles, within the Vietnamese and American bureaucracies. Meanwhile, a powerful sense of foreboding settles on the city, as the corrupt Diem regime loses its grip. Tragically, its ouster opens the door for massive American intervention, which we know as the Vietnam War.

Buy here from Amazon, or Shop your local indie bookstore.

The Coroner’s Lunch

This is the first of Colin Cotterill’s entertaining mysteries about Dr. Siri Paiboun, a 72-year-old physician appointed to be Ventiane’s coroner in the new socialist Laos. He has a disconcerting habit of saying what he thinks—and one thing he thinks is that he has no training for this role—which doesn’t suit the era of extreme political correctness. Yet, people continue to die under questionable circumstances, and he has to sort it out. Fortunately, his staff is loyal and he finds a few important allies.

In theory, I would expect not to like the occasional excursions into the supernatural that Cotterill deploys, but they are so culturally consistent and believable that I just went with it. And am glad I did. It’s a charming book.

Buy here from Amazon, or Shop your local indie bookstore

(This post is my first try at Indie.Bound, an alternative to Amazon. Let me know what you think! And whether it doesn’t work!!)

“Living to Tell the Tale” – EQMM March/April 2021

The title of this issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine reminds readers how grateful they are that so many authors—20 in this issue alone—lived long enough to tell their tales and continue to do so! I should add a 21st writer—Dean Jobb—who writes the “Stranger Than Fiction” column. Probably many writers keep a file of head-shaking stories they know they’ll never use because, “who’d believe it?” I have a file like that. Lots of stellar tales in this issue, and here are four that stood out for me.

“Who Stole the Afikomen?” by Elizabeth Zelvin – After reading Liz Zelvin’s story, you’ll feel you’ve already done Passover this year (my Seder table pictured). The bantering among the family members across generations is perfection. Sharon take her new fiancé (the narrator; nice use of “external viewpoint”) to his first Seder and to meet the family. Her mother has thinly disguised objections. Bad enough that he’s not Jewish, he’s a cop. I loved this can’t-win exchange, which starts with the mother’s line: “This is what I get for sending you to Harvard Law?” “You didn’t send me to Harvard Law! I worked every day through high school and college and went into debt up to the eyeballs so I wouldn’t have to ask you.” “So you didn’t trust your mother and father to give you an education?”

“Cold Hard Facts” by Chad Baker – The corrosive effects of suspicion taint a woman’s view of her husband. Surely, he couldn’t have murdered their awful landlord. Or?? Insightful line: “She did not fear Adam. She feared the future.”

“Yeah, I Meant to Do That” by Mat Coward – I’m a pushover for stories about grifters and con artists. In this tale, a near-retirement grifter is recruited by an oddball assortment of “civilians” to devise a con on a wealthy and successful man who’s cheated them. Though they’re inexperienced, their Fagin gives them each a role, and it’s fun watching them play it!

“The Phone Message” by Robert Cummins – a juicy police procedural in which the detective turns over every investigative stone in the hope he won’t find anything. And his suspect appears to be giving him free rein. Cummins really has you rooting for these dueling protagonists.

Intrigued by great stories like this? Subscribe to EQMM here.

Hotel Cartagena

Hotel Cartagena, award-winning Hamburg-based author Simone Buchholz’s new novel, with English translation by Rachel Ward, is an edge-of-your-seat carnival ride (more on that later) featuring Buchholz’s spirited series character, public prosecutor Chastity Riley.

Because her chapters are told in first-person, you’re well aware of her wry sense of humor and her dread of an after-hours birthday celebration at a hotel’s 20th floor bar. Not that she doesn’t favor a drink after work, but the ten celebrants include two of her ex-lovers. Before her current sometimes lover, detective Ivo Stepanovic, can arrive, the bar is invaded by a dozen well-armed men, and escape is cut off.

Before you find out what this is all about, the book skips back a couple of decades to tell the story of Henning, a young man from Hamburg’s sketchy St. Pauli area, who relocates to Cartagena, Colombia. He becomes involved with a Colombian drug trafficker wanting to expand his German market. The money is simply too tempting, and Henning identifies a couple of appropriate contacts. The lucrative kickback he receives continues for years until Hamburg police catch on. Henning flees to Curaçao, where he’s safe from the authorities, but not from the past.

Henning’s story alternates with Riley’s. The hostage-takers seem reasonable and have declared an open bar. Riley sliced open her thumb on a piece of pineapple, and while she drinks the first of a goodly number of gins and tonic, she immerses her injured thumb in vodka.

Over the course of the next few hours, the captors reveal their game, as her thumb steadily worsens. She spikes a fever and sees everything through a hallucinatory haze. I really enjoyed the sense of  teetering on the edge of disaster, which Buchholtz handles deftly.

Riley, especially, but Stepanovic and Henning too, are interesting characters with lots to command your attention. While the situation doesn’t seem too overtly dangerous for the hostages, with so many men armed to the teeth, the police massing downstairs itching to do something, and possible plotting among the police attending the birthday party (who they are is something the assailants still don’t realize), so much can go wrong. The situation is as wobbly as the swirling carnival ride—the ‘chairoplane’—Riley believes she’s riding.

Stellar New Crime Novels from South America

Crocodile Tears by Mercedes Rosenda

Uruguay probably isn’t at the top of your list of places clever crimes are hatched—with cleverer police detectives on the prowl—but Mercedes Rosenda’s new book, admirably translated by Tim Gutteridge, will clue you in. It’s dubbed ‘a blackly comic caper in the style of Fargo.’ You may object to the descriptor, caper, as being too weighted on the comic rather than the ‘blackly’ side. But if you think of a caper as involving slightly dim criminals who can’t quite get anything right, this is surely one.

The story begins in confusion. Diego is in an overcrowded and dangerous prison, charged with a recent kidnapping. The slippery lawyer Antinucci promises to spring him. It seems that Ursula López, wife of the kidnapped man, says Diego never contacted her, never asked for a ransom. But the ransom was paid, and Diego’s partner absconded with it. Still, without Ursula, he can’t be convicted.

Before long, you realize two very different women named Ursula López are intertwined in the story, and it’s hard to see how everything can work out well for them both. The situation looks increasingly perilous for Diego too, when he’s forced to participate in an ill-conceived armored truck robbery.

I found Ursula and the female detective, Leonilda, especially interesting. They’re women whom the men dismiss as unimportant, yet they keep the events of the story moving in unexpected directions and provide much of the wry humor. Glimpses of life in Montevideo peep through too.

Repentance by Eloísa Díaz

Eloísa Díaz’s riveting new political thriller takes place during two tumultuous periods in Argentina’s history. The present-day of the story is December 2001, when riots in Buenos Aires and elsewhere will lead to the president’s resignation. These events alternate with flashbacks to 1981 and Argentina’s Dirty War, a terrifying era in which the military, security forces, and right-wing death squads kidnapped, tortured, and murdered tens of thousands of supposed left-wing sympathizers. Among the murdered was the younger brother of the book’s protagonist, Inspector Joaquín Alzada of the Policía Federal.

Alzada has a new deputy, Orestes Estrático, eager to please, alarmingly wet behind the ears, and insufferably by-the-book. A young woman from one of the country’s wealthiest landowners is reported missing, and Alzada’s superiors don’t want him spending time on the case. After all, what kind of investigation is it? A missing person? Not enough time has elapsed. A murder? There’s no body. Unless . . . Alzada and Estrático recall the body of an unknown woman discovered that morning in a dumpster behind the city morgue. Could they pretend she and the disappeared woman are one and the same?

Alzada is an engaging character, and how he goes about discovering what happened to his family in 1981 and to the missing woman in 2001 is told from close-in point of view. You’re privy to many of his thoughts and wry observations at odds with the politically correct demeanor that’s his survival strategy. Especially enjoyable is young Estrático, who has talents Alzada doesn’t expect.

The Survivors

By Jane Harper – Award-winning Australian crime writer Jane Harper has done it again. Her Harper’s latest crime mystery, now out in hardcover, revisits the perils of small-town life so expertly deconstructed in The Lost Man (audiobook reviewed here) and her first novel, The Dry, recently released in its film version (trailer), with a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (15 reviews).

For The Survivors, the setting is the village of Evelyn Bay in coastal Tasmania. Kieran Elliott, has reluctantly returned to there to help his mother pack up the family home. His father has Alzheimer’s disease, and Kieran’s mother, Verity, needs help. I wondered at the naming of this character. Are we to suppose that Verity is a reliable truth-teller?

Kieran’s older brother Finn was one of the storm’s victims, along with Toby, older brother of Kieran’s friend Sean. Kieran blames himself for the tragedy and many locals do too. He’s borne an agonizingly heavy burden since the tragedy and every bit of shoreline, every sound and smell and photo in the family home bring it all back.

The killer storm was much worse than expected, and Kieran, then 18, was not as cautious as he should have been. He was down in the shoreline caves, romancing the beautiful Olivia, ignoring the strength of the incoming tide that would fill the caves, drowning anyone inside. When he and Olivia finally tried to leave, their exit was almost cut off, and he put out a call for help. Finn and Toby headed out to rescue him, but their boat capsized, and they were lost. Kieran and Olivia swam and climbed, barely reaching safety. Olivia’s younger sister Gabby was seen on the shore rocks around that same time; her body was never found. In a small town, so much loss is hard to get past. And harder to forgive.

Olivia now lives on the beach with her tiresome summer roommate Bronte, and is dating Kieran’s long-time friend Ash. This tight circle of friends welcomes him. But Kieran picks up persistent hostility from Toby’s son, among others. Then Bronte’s body is found on the beach and a new round of recriminations begins.

Author Harper has nicely paced this novel, with each bit that is removed or clarified providing new insights into the town’s tragedies. I especially like how she develops such strong characters and realistic dialog. You understand them, yet they retain the capacity to surprise. They seem to be involved in real relationships, stretched a bit taut at times, but these times are demanding.

Harper has received much praise for the quality of her writing, and this novel does not disappoint. It seems a good many compelling stories are bottled up inside her, and I’m grateful she shares them with us.

New Jersey Noir: Cape May

New Jersey Noir: Cape May is the second of William Baer’s novels about private investigator Jack Colt, set firmly in New Jersey. Jack is a resident of Paterson, noted for its waterfalls that powered local industry (pictured). There, one of his forebears founded the Colt firearms manufacturing company, so naturally, the revolver he carries is a Colt Python. Luckily, he’s pretty good with it too.

A judge from Cape May, New Jersey, at the far southern tip of the state, calls on Jack with an intriguing tale of two mysterious deaths. He’d hired a local Cape May private investigator, Edward Colt—puzzling coincidence there—to look into the murder of his daughter ten years before. Now Eddie Colt has been murdered.

Judge O’Brien had twin daughters, Nikki and Rikki. When Nikki was seventeen, her car was driven into the Atlantic Ocean with her in the trunk. The police long ago exhausted their available suspects, but Eddie Colt wanted to pursue it. In his papers were twenty-five thousand dollars and a note: “Remittance for Jack Colt.” “He wants you to solve the case,” the judge told Jack. “Both cases.”

Jack goes about doing just that, re-interviewing the dead girl’s twin, Rikki, their friends, and trying to get a lead on a college student Nikki met the night she disappeared. The story, as Jack gradually unwraps it, has unexpected twists and is nicely plotted.

Two additional aspects make the novel a true pleasure to read: humor and narrative voice. The banter between Jack and Rikki and between Jack and his elderly receptionist will keep you chuckling. For that matter, all the dialog is strong, reflecting author Baer’s playwriting expertise.

Most of the story is told by Jack himself. You feel as if you’re sitting in the passenger seat of his car, tooling down the Garden State Parkway.

As such conversations go in real life, Jack wanders a bit, taking the opportunity to throw in facts about New Jersey, which he clearly loves, Paterson especially. But Baer has such a light touch, these digressions stay interesting, not pedantic. For example, he points out that Cape May has more Victorian homes than any other city in the United States, except San Francisco.

In addition to the first novel in this series, author Baer has published several books of short stories, plays, and nonfiction works and is an award-winning poet and playwright.

You can be forgiven for assuming the book is part of the Akashic Books short story series set in various cities and, in fact, Akashic published a New Jersey Noir a few years ago. Unlike stories in that volume, many of which unfortunately seemed as if they might have occurred anywhere, Baer’s book is New Jersey all the way. Real New Jerseyans will recognize that last bit as a shout-out to one of our state’s most famous characters.