Four for the Road

****A Rising Man

India, dawn, village

Abir Mukherjee’s 2017 debut novel is an easy-to-read police procedural that shares many of the charms of his subsequent novel, A Necessary Evil, which I reviewed some time ago. Set in India around 1920, it provides a probably too-rosy view of the Raj, though many of the social problems, the racism, the unrest are certainly there. Nevertheless, within the frame of Mukherjee’s clever plot, in the end, you come away feeling you know more about the culture and the country than when you opened the book.

****If She Wakes

Michael Koryta’s thriller possesses what might be one plot thread too many, though the inciting event—a murder in which the only witness is injured and suffering from locked-in syndrome—starts the plot moving with a bang. If only she’d come out of it, she might have useful information about the murder. The principal protagonist, an insurance investigator, knows this. The FBI knows it. Her sister knows it. And so do the assassins who want to ensure her silence lasts forever. Medical websites consider locked-in syndrome a “rare neurological disorder,” but it’s not rare in thrillers! Here’s another good one.

*****The Siege of Troy

Yes, that Troy. Theodor Kallifatides uses a Greek classroom in WWII as the setting for a teacher’s inspired retelling of the tale of the Achaeans’ quest to recapture Helen, the frightful battles, the death of Hector, the loss of Achilles, and the cunning horse. Beautifully done, and a pleasure to read!

****The Chain

Adrian McKinty has received considerable publicity with this book, in part because it almost didn’t get written. Author of several excellent police procedurals featuring Catholic Sean Duffy, a detective with the heavily Protestant Belfast police, with all the conflicts that set-up suggests, McKinty had just about abandoned writing. Then comes The Chain, and, while I loved the Belfast books, the premise here is a stretch. On audio, the narrator, January LaVoy, beautifully conveys the fear experienced by frantic parents whose children have been ensnared by The Chain. They cannot get them back without paying a ransom and kidnapping someone else’s child. It’s diabolical, but is it even a bit believable? Hoping he’s back on a roll.

Photos: India (Mario Lapid), Trojan Horse (Ian Scott), creative commons license.

NETFLIX: Unbelievable

This Friday, September 13, Netflix begins its eight-episode mini-series Unbelievable based on a fascinating true crime story (trailer). Journalists T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong won a 2016 Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on how different police departments handled the uncertainties and ambiguities that arise in rape cases. And, in the book, they go into the long, sorry history of why women are so readily disbelieved.

Created and executive produced by screenwriter Susannah Grant, with novelists Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon, the series stars Toni Collette, Merritt Wever, and Kaitlyn Dever.

Miller and Armstrong found they still had more to say about the contrasting investigative approaches—one, involving a case that takes place near Seattle where a young woman’s story was disbelieved, and others, in the Denver suburbs, where police went to extraordinary lengths to tie together their investigations with those of other local departments. The authors report what they learned in the new book Unbelievable, an excellent, real-life police procedural.

Read my full review on CrimeFictionLover.com, see the mini-series, or read the book!

****The Honorary Jersey Girl

orchid-leis

By Albert Tucher – Al Tucher returns to the Big Island of Hawai`i in this fast-paced adventure that shows how, underneath the tropical paradise veneer, the mai-tais and the surf, you find the same criminal proclivities everywhere.

Criminal defense attorney Agnes Rodrigues has successfully defended her client Hank Alves against a charge of murder, but apparently not everyone accepts the verdict. Now someone is trying to kill him. And because the murder victim was a cop’s wife, it may be the loyal brothers in blue.

Rodrigues is convinced of Alves’s innocence—he’s too lame to commit an actual murder. He needs protection, and she knows where to find it. She flies ten hours across the country to New Jersey to try to persuade Diana Andrews, a former high-end prostitute who now runs a top-notch personal security business, to take the case. But Andrews turns the job down. She’s had dangerous encounters in Hawai`i in the past—two, in fact—and won’t go near the place. But she does offer to send two of her operatives.

The trio arrives at the remote ranch where Rodrigues has stashed Alves and start work. Before long, there’s another attempt to kill him, a long-distance rifle shot that barely misses. The police arrive to investigate, but get nowhere. It’s clear that protecting Alves will depend on identifying who really murdered the woman. Rodrigues suspects her policeman husband.

This would be an entertaining book to take on a Hawaiian vacation, in real life or the armchair variety. The number of towns and locales where this investigation takes Rodrigues and crew is like a travelogue. Tucher’s characters are confronted with significant logistical difficulties and road hazards—smoldering lava, deep gorges, torrential rain that turns unpaved roads to mud fields—but his easygoing writing style moves them along smoothly.

Information that Don Savage has been investigated by internal affairs for shaking down prostitutes starts Rodrigues and crew on the trail of a different motive and reveals a much larger crime in the background. Then the body of a prostitute washes up near the town of Kalapana, and Diana Andrews can help after all, mining her contacts within the relatively small sorority of high-end escorts.

This is a short book (only 129 pages), and I can’t say more about its fast-paced plot without revealing too much. Despite its brevity—another feature that makes for great vacation reading—it’s filled with colorful characters who reflect the diversity of Hawaiians’ ethnic and cultural backgrounds. And how does Rodrigues become an honorary Jersey Girl, itself practically another ethnicity? Like anything else gets done these days: connections.

Photo: Emilia, creative commons license

****Pieces

package, box

By Michael Aloisi and Rebecca Rowland – Serial killer Dennis Sweeney had a really bad idea: kill a young woman, divide her into parts, and mail them to 30 randomly selected, unsuspecting people all across the United States. Who doesn’t like a surprise package? There’s 30 people in this novel who would never open another one.

Sweeney sends an anonymous letter to over-the-hill reporter Jackson Matthews, whom he admires, describing what he’s done and proving it with pictures. He invites Jax to cover the story, “to be the voice of my actions.”

If all the pieces of the girl are found, Sweeney promises to turn himself in. If not? He says, “All the King’s horses and All the King’s men, will force me to start all over again.” Jax calls the police. It seems the letter isn’t a hoax, and reports of the macabre parcels begin to appear in the news media.

Bizarrely and, you may think, predictably, only eighteen of the grisly packages are turned in to the authorities. That’s 12 people who received a body part and did something else with it. The stories of what happened to these dozen packages make up most of the book. The authors treat those twelve chapters as short stories, with quirky back-stories for the recipients—character studies of people who, for wildly varied reasons, are incapable of the correct response. (Apparently none of them listen to the news to know there’s a bigger picture here.)

In between these stories are chapters that let you catch up with Jax and his efforts to identify Sweeney, and what else Sweeney is up to. The stakes increase dramatically when Sweeney threatens Jax’s wife, if the reporter doesn’t start writing about him. Early on Jax is approached by a young man who introduces himself as a police detective. Jax soon unmasks him as the creator of a serial killer website with lagging viewership who hopes the inside scoop on this story can renew its popularity. He claims to have an algorithm that can find the killer, and it certainly unearths some unsavory folk.

Between the chapters about the missing body parts, Jax’s investigations, and Sweeney’s story, past and present, the authors have a lot of balls to keep in the air, yet the tale is never confusing. I liked the diabolically varied missing pieces stories, although perhaps two or three fewer would have worked as well, as the rhythm of the chapters gets a little exhausting. On the whole, Pieces has a clever premise, innovative format, and quite capable writing that kept me engaged. Not for the faint of heart.

Photo: Jonathan, creative commons license.

Award-winning Listens

earphones

Once the nominees and winners for the many, many awards in the crime/mystery/thriller genre are out, I listen to some of the ones I haven’t read. A talented narrator can really put a story into your head! Here are five I’ve heard lately, all (except one) with excellent narration. Three are nominees for Anthony Awards, which will be announced later this year.

*****Bearskin

Written by James A McLaughlin, narrated by MacLeod Andres – Oddly, Bearskin had some of the same appeal as the very different Where the Crawdads Sing, because part of the narrator’s challenge is dealing with a heavy dose of the natural world. Rice Moore is hiding out in an Appalachian Virginia nature preserve, living pretty much off the grid and hoping an assassin from the Mexican drug cartel whose younger brother he killed doesn’t find him. Meanwhile, he must deal with bear poachers, motorcycle outlaws, and an interesting parade of Old Dominion miscreants. Winner: 2019 Edgar Award for Best First Novel; Nominee: 2019 Anthony Award for Best Novel

*****November Road

In November Road, written by Lou Berney, narrated by Johnathan McClain – President Kennedy has been shot and New Orleans player Frank Guidry realizes the errand a local crime boss sent him on is connected to that crime. It sounded simple: drive this sky-blue Cadillac Eldorado to Dallas and park it in a particular place. It was the assassin’s getaway car. Now Guidry is supposed to dispose of the vehicle and rightly worries he’ll be disposed of next. Meanwhile, an Oklahoma housewife leaves her alcoholic husband and hits the road with her two daughters, never expecting to meet a man like Guidry. Winner: 2019 Left Coast Crime Award for Best Mystery Novel and a “Best Book of the Year” by at least 13 publications; Nominee: 2019 Anthony Award for Best Novel

****House Witness

Written by Mike Lawson, narrated by Joe Barrett – A powerful member of Congress has a secret: years ago his mistress bore him a son. When that son is shot dead in a Manhattan bar, he sends his fixer, Joe DeMarco, to make sure the culprit—son of a wealthy businessman—goes to jail. The case in House Witness should be a slam-dunk. There were five witnesses, after all. But as the witnesses start disappearing, the prosecutor suspects a campaign to get rid of them. She enlists DeMarco in a desperate cat-and-mouse game with a beautiful sociopath. Nominee: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for Best Novel

****The Chalk Man

Written by C J Tudor, narrated by Euan Morton. Years ago, in a small English town, a tight-knit gang of four twelve-year-olds communicated with each other via coded messages chalked on the sidewalk. One day a strange chalk message leads them to the body of a missing girl and a teacher–The Chalk Man–is blamed. Thirty years on, Eddie drinks too much, fuzzing his thinking about the new appearance of chalk men and the mysterious letter he and each of his friends have received. Is he creating these messages in a drunken blackout? When one of the four dies, Eddie must find out what happened so long ago in order to save them all. Winner: 2019 International Thriller Writers’ Award for Best First Novel; Strand Magazine Award for Best Debut Novel

***Jar of Hearts

Written by Jennifer Hillier, narrated by January LaVoy – In Jar of Hearts, sixteen-year-old Georgina Shaw’s boyfriend, Calvin James, kills her best friend, and buries the dismembered corpse in the woods behind Geo’s house. Twenty years later, Angela’s body is found, and Calvin is convicted of her murder, but he soon escapes from prison. Geo is incarcerated for five years, derailing her lucrative career and high-profile engagement. As she is about to be released, new bodies are found in the same woods. Calvin is the chief suspect, and Geo may be the next victim. This thriller loses a star mainly because the narration didn’t work for me. The print book might be a better choice. Winner:2019 International Thriller Writers’ Award for Best Hardcover Novel; Nominee: 2019 Anthony Award for Best Novel

Photo: John O’Nolan, creative commons license

*****Blood

scissors, blood, editing

By Maggie Gee — Far from the ordinary crime story, literary author Maggie Gee’s Blood is a comic excursion into the rough-and-tumble mind of narrator Monica Ludd. She’s 38, over six feet tall, outspoken and awkward, far from tiny with, as she is fond of pointing out, an enormous bosom. When Monica squeezes you into the rollercoaster seat beside her on page one, you’re in for a wild ride.

Monica claims to be a respectable citizen of East Kent. Doubtful. Much of the story plays out near the seacoast there and on the peninsula of Thanet. The little community, the seashore, the shops—come to life nicely. Even such a remote area has its dose of violence, terrorism, and, well, blood.

Monica has a job. She’s the deputy head in a school, loathes her new boss, and takes no pains to hide it. She thinks he’d like to be rid of her, and who could blame him?, but he rarely stands up to her.

Monica has a family. She calls them “artistes of awfulness.” She landed in the middle of a congeries of three boys and three girls, all grown up now. Ma’s in a care home, forgetting everything or choosing not to remember, it’s hard to say which. It’s Dad who drives the family disaster train. He’s a dentist who has sex with his patients in the chair. He’s a serial philanderer whose current girlfriend is two decades younger than Monica. When his children were young, he beat them. He mocks them yet. His bullying drove his youngest son Fred into the Army, and the siblings blame him for Fred’s death.

The final insult—and the inciting incident of the novel—occurs when the siblings organize an elaborate party in Fred’s memory, and Dad doesn’t show up. Monica is so angry, she says she’s going to kill him. Alas, a lot of people hear this threat, and the next morning when Monica finds Dad’s brutally beaten, blood-soaked body, even her siblings think she’s a murderer. That attack launches her impulsive and lengthy campaign of lies and misdirection. There’s truth in the old saying, blood is thicker than water, and you see it here. Her siblings’ loyalty to her through this whole saga says volumes about the sides of Monica that she tries to hide with her bluster.

In Monica, Gee has created an unforgettable character. Not only large, but larger than life. Profane and resourceful. She speaks her mind, loudly (rarely a good thing). And she is a genius at self-justification. All of which I found highly entertaining, even on the not-infrequent occasions that I was embarrassed for her.

From a crime fiction point of view, Blood is refreshingly unconventional and a reminder that violence and retribution, jealousy and fear, have been important literary themes forever. Literary novelist Maggie Gee, OBE, is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and was its first female chair.

Photo: Guzmán Lozano, creative commons license

****Grab a Snake by the Tail

By Leonardo Padura, translated by Peter Bush — For decades, glimpses into Cuban life were hard to come by, and for Americans will be harder to come by again with renewed travel restrictions. English-language crime fiction about contemporary Cuba, written by Cubans, also has been sparse, despite reader curiosity about a tropical culture with such a heady mix of Caribbean, Spanish, African, and Indian influences.

Leonardo Padura, whom the book jacket calls “Cuba’s most celebrated living author,” is the author of the Havana Quartet, crime novels that in their English versions each have a color in the title: Havana Gold, Havana Blue, Havana Red and Havana Black. Spanish-language television films were created from them, and they appeared on Netflix with English subtitles as Four Seasons in Havana. This police procedural follows the protagonist of those popular earlier works, police inspector Mario Conde, as he reminisces about a murder investigation from 30 years ago in Havana’s Barrio Chino (Chinatown).

Cuba’s significant Chinese community immigrated to the island under contracts that amounted to slave labor, and which led to the atmosphere of loneliness, contempt, and uprooting that forms the backdrop to the narrative and sets the stage for murder. Even in a culture where diverse racial and ethnic identities are a commonplace, the dirty, poverty-ridden Barrio Chino is considered mysterious and alien to most Havana residents.

Conde is persuaded to look into the murder by a beautiful African-Chinese police lieutenant Patricia Chion, about whom Conde has impure thoughts. Patricia tells him to engage her father, Juan, as his guide through the barrio’s labyrinthine streets and cultural ways. That’s because, as Conde says, “There were complications, as there almost always are in situations involving a chino.” (So evocative of the last line of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”)

Patricia explains that the dead man, Pedro Cuang, was a friend of her godfather and an acquaintance of her father, even though her father denies knowing him. That would be one of the complications.

Cuang was a retired dry cleaner, no family, living alone on a pension in a dingy one-room apartment. Conde visits that apartment, where the corpse has yet to be removed. He and his sergeant Manuel Palacios see the 73-year-old has been hanged, with a couple of peculiar flourishes: a severed index finger and a circle with two crossed arrows inside carved on his chest.

Crime was rampant in the Barrio Chino, but what Cuang’s link to it may have been is murky. As is the meaning of the strange symbols. In Havana, there are lots of possibilities: a Congolese practice called nganga, Yoruba santaria, voodoo, or some heretofore unknown Chinese witchcraft. Investigating these possibilities and their practitioners gives Padura an excuse to delve into them a bit. These interesting diversions into cultural anthropology aren’t distractions from the main thrust of the story. It needs them to move forward.

Grab a Snake by the Tail is short book that employs a somewhat literary style, appropriate for a cop who wants to be a writer. The translation seems good – you aren’t frequently reminded of it, at least. The characters, especially Conde, his aide Manuel, and his unofficial deputy, Juan Chion, engage in lively interplay. There’s some sex. You never have the sense detective Conde is in any serious, thriller-style danger. It’s more that you’re following him around a fascinating town trying to avoid the complications—criminal, female and cultural.

Photo: dimitrisvetsikas1969 from Pixabay.

****The Bulldog and the Helix

Double helix

By Shayne Morrow – This fascinating true crime story by a former newspaper reporter is set in Port Alberni, a small town on Vancouver Island, the 12,000 square mile island across the Strait of Georgia from the city of Vancouver, British Columbia. Two tragedies from this tiny town tested the limits of DNA technology and forensic practice.

In 1977, Carolyn Lee, age twelve, was abducted as she walked to her parents’ restaurant after dance class. Her body was found the next day in a remote area, face down in the mud. While the police had a strong suspicion about who her murderer was, they had no evidence. In 1996, eleven-year-old Jessica States disappeared from a park near her Port Alberni home, and a massive search finally located her battered body, hidden in a nearby ravine under bark torn from a tree. In this case, there initially was no suspect.

While these tragedies were traumatic for the community, what propels them into salience for the wider world is how they demonstrate advances in forensic analysis. In the almost 20 years between these murders, DNA technology arrived. Morrow effectively details how not just the science improved dramatically during that period, but law enforcement procedures evolved, and legal requirements related to collecting DNA evidence changed. He describes a justice system constructed of moving parts. One mistake by the police and an entire case could be dismissed.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police have a practice of moving officers around, much like itinerant preachers, so the officers who first worked on the Lee case had long been reassigned. Yet it wasn’t forgotten, and the RCMP hoped the new DNA analysis would finally solve it. Miraculously, some of the evidence had been saved from that two decade old crime and from which DNA could be extracted. The tenacity and careful work of the officers dedicated to solving this cold case—the investigative Bulldog of the title—that finally led to a conviction in 1998. Fortunately for the States family, justice was not so long delayed, and her killer was convicted in 2001.

These two cases were landmarks in Canadian jurisprudence regarding the treatment of forensic DNA evidence, and author Morrow was the primary court and crime reporter for them both. His meticulous retelling of the RCMP decision-making process—which, although it could have gone off the rails at any number of points, led to a successful prosecution of two killers—is as much a page-turner as any novel.

Graphic: Mehmet Pinarci, creative commons license

Snatching Summer Reading Time

reading, beach

Planning a relaxing time at the shore, interspersed with a few (or more) restorative naps? You need a book! But not War and Peace, however strong your guilt that you’ve never read it. Perfect solution? Short stories. Three recent collections (plus two of mine).

****Exit Wounds, edited by Paul B. Kane and Marie O’Regan – The cover featuring names of some of today’s best-selling crime fiction authors—Lee Child, Val McDermid, Dean Koontz, Mark Billingham and more—signals good reading ahead. Highlights:

  • From the Department of Clever Twists comes Jeffrey Deaver’s story of the bullying of a suspect in a string of serial killings and Sarah Hilary’s The Pitcher, in which a journalist visits an obscure Spanish taverna and smacks into the unexpected.
  • The opening line of Fiona Cummins’s Dead Weight—“You’re not going to eat that, are you?”—says all you need to know about these mother-daughter duelists.
  • There’s an Edgar Allan Poe vibe to On the Anatomization of an Unknown Man (1637) by Dublin author John Connolly. Take My Hand by A K Benedict involves something Poe would have loved, a Hand of Glory. If you don’t know what that is, Google it. A sure-fire conversation-stopper.
  • Dennis Lehane seems to be channeling Raymond Chandler in this line from The Consumers: “When she let (her hair) fall naturally, with its tousled waves and anarchic curls, she looked like a wet dream sent to douse a five-alarm fire.”
  • In Paul Finch’s The New Lad, a brand new policeman is assigned to watch a crime scene overnight. Alone. Outside a derelict mental hospital. In the woods. Excruciating tension!

The Akashic collection ****Milwaukee Noir, edited by Tim Hennessy, reflects the challenges of a city undergoing a rocky transition away from heavy industry and the challenges and changes that result. As horror writer Peter Straub says about his home town (Millhaven in his books), “What happened to the Millhaven where a guy could go out for a beer an’ bratwurst without stumbling over a severed head?” The collection includes stories by Reed Farrel Coleman, and Nick Petrie, but they’re not the only reason to pick up this collection. Two of my favorites were:

  • Runoff by Valerie Laken. An adventuresome trio of teens exploring the pipes under the city finds the unexpected. Perfectly captures the equivocation and fearlessness of youth.
  • Transit Complaint Box by Frank Wheeler, Jr. A jaded transit security officer and his probationer ride the city’s bus routes, solving some problems, preventing others, and generally filling in for our tattered mental health system. Heartwarming and chilling, rewarding and dangerous in equal proportions.

**A Time for Violence: Stories with an Edge, edited by Andy Rausch and Chris Roy. If you want stories of murder and mayhem, this collection is for you. The editors’ intent was to inspire “edgy and transgressive” material. In this, they succeeded. One story, Rausch says, “is neither crime nor horror by standard definitions, and yet it’s the worst of both.” I couldn’t finish it. It wasn’t the only one. Past a certain point of gruesomeness, I lose interest.

Still, I chuckled at Santa at the Café by Joe R Lansdale, which proves, once again, there’s no honor among thieves. Max Allan Collins’s Guest Service: A Quarry Story demonstrates an ideal way to get rid of a troublesome spouse. Elements of a police procedural make Manner of Death: Homicide by Peter Leonard fun and funny too, with its inclusion of the kind of banter prevalent among fictional cops and ex-cops. And, I loved the promise of later hijinks in Andrew Nette’s Ladies Day at the Olympia Car Wash, when the clean-up of a glamorous gal’s trunk provides clues to homicide.

Murder, of course, and betrayals by friends and family run through the whole collection like the bass line of a death march. So, if you like your stories extra-dark, you’ll find much to like here.

* * *

After the foregoing, my two stories published in June only prove how vast is the crime/mystery/thriller terrain. They’re both in great company in their respective publications with other excellent stories:

  • In Who They Are Now, an aging sportscaster is murdered under cover of a Florida hurricane. Is someone after his priceless collection of baseball memorabilia? The Delray Beach police are on the case, with help from a no-longer-young Hollywood star. It’s one of 21 tales in The Best Laid Plans, edited by Judy Penz Sheluk.
  • New Energy describes how a young Japanese-American newspaper reporter in Sweetwater, Texas, investigates a friend’s murder. He was killed by a rattlesnake bite, 30 stories up in a wind turbine cabin. In the Jul-Aug issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, available at your local big box or mystery bookstore.

***The Divinities

By Parker Bilal – With The Divinities, Parker Bilal starts a new police procedural series, involving the potentially interesting duo, Met detective Calil Drake and Iranian-born forensic psychologist Dr. Rayhana Crane.

When a ton of rocks crushes a man and woman at the bottom of a swimming pool under construction in Battersea, Drake is called in, though it’s Crane who wonders whether the avalanche of stone is merely a mechanized form of the ancient punishment of stoning. The link between the two victims is a mystery, and in Drake’s interviews with the victims’ families, he doesn’t ask obvious questions that would have revealed that connection early on.

Although there are a few subtle hints about his mixed-race identity, Calil Drake is called Cal, and the author doesn’t clarify until well along that he had a British mother and Sudanese father or that as a teenager he had embraced Islam. This sheds a very different light on his rocky relationships with other police detectives. His chief makes it clear he has only forty-eight hours before the case will go to the Homicide and Major Crimes Command, where DCI Pryce is itching to put Drake in a bad light. Much is made about this forty-eight hours, yet that time passes without any increase in narrative urgency.

Although Cal and the pair of younger officers who work under him banter amusingly, they have no other style of communication. When every interaction prompts a wisecrack, the device loses something.

A police procedural needs to develop a clear logic chain, and this novel fails to do that at both the larger plot level and within individual conversations. Drake’s reasons for interviewing whom he does, when he does, and the questions he asks all feel very ad hoc. Perhaps that’s due to Drake’s drinking on the job—a crime fiction cliché overdue for retirement. The author says Drake understands the killer’s motivation instinctively, but really, some evidence would help.

Parker Bilal is the pseudonym for literary fiction writer Jamal Mahjoub, himself a mixed-race son of Sudanese and British parents. He’s won prizes for his literary novels and short stories and since 2012, as Parker Bilal, he’s written seven crime novels. Yet, mysteriously, the literary flourishes that frequently crop up in crime fiction do not appear here. You may want to like these interesting lead characters. Now if only future stories do them justice.

Photo: Fredrik Alpstedt, creative commons license