New In Print

Release day! Today’s the day for the print version of the anthology, The Best Laid Plans, edited by Canadian mystery writer Judy Penz Sheluk. She’s collected 21 stories from popular short story writers, and if you like your crime and chills in small bites, you’ll enjoy this! Here’s a quick rundown of these entertaining tales.

About my story, “Who They Are Now”: When an aging sportscaster is murdered in his bed under cover of a vicious Florida hurricane, is someone after his priceless collection of baseball memorabilia? The Delray Beach police are on the case, aided by his neighbor, a feisty but no-longer-young Hollywood star.

Order here from Amazon.

From Author’s Page to Your Ear

earphones

The spring crime/thriller/mystery award season is for me means listening to the many nominees I’ve missed. Below are four recent listens. Good books, all, but these reviews focus on their strengths as spoken-word products. Listed in order of preference, my favorite at the top.

1 – Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens (12 hours, 12 minutes) – I fell under the spell of this engrossing novel and Cassandra Campbell’s placid narration. Yes, Owens glosses over the serious difficulties that would be faced by an eight-year-old girl living alone in the North Carolina marsh. With the help of her friend Tate, Kaya teaches herself to read and to record her detailed observations of the marsh’s plant and animal life. In the background, Owens weaves in the investigation of a murder that takes place when Kaya is in her early twenties and, the plot being what it is, you know she’ll be accused of the crime and totally unprepared to defend herself. I was with Kaya’s story all the way up to the end. Though Owens laid the factual groundwork for it, it didn’t make emotional sense. Nevertheless, the story is a fine ride, sensitively and beautifully read.

2 – The Liar’s Girl, by Catherine Ryan Howard (10 hours, 26 minutes) – A nicely plotted thriller about Alison Smith, whose boyfriend, in her first year of college, confessed to a string of murders of young Dublin women. He’s been in a psychiatric institution ever since, but now, ten years on, the murders have started again. The Dublin police visit Alison in the Netherlands where she now lives, saying her boyfriend may be able to help with the current investigation. But he will only talk with her, and they guilt-trip her into returning. Solid reading by a trio of actors: Alana Kerr Collins (mostly), Alan Smyth, and Gary Furlong.

2- (Yes, a tie) – Down the River Unto the Sea, by Walter Mosley (7 hours, 44 minutes) – Loved the narration of this New York tale and its diversity of voices. Disgraced NYPD detective Joe King Oliver, now a private detective, sees a chance to redeem himself and his career with the takedown of a group of crooked cops. And he has the chance to rescue another possibly falsely accused black man. But, it’s New York, so it’s complicated. He finds himself an unlikely ally in a dangerous character named Melquarth Frost whom I liked a lot. Great narrating job by Dion Graham, capturing all the humor and subtleties of Mosley’s wildly colorful characters.

3 – The Witch Elm, by Tana French (22 hours, 7 minutes) – I hadn’t realized this book was so much longer than the others. It sure felt that way. French is such a greatly admired author, I must be missing something when I find her tedious. Only after you’ve invested  several hours does evidence of the crime at the book’s center emerge. Perhaps it’s a reflection of how well she wrote the dialog of twenty-something Toby and his cousins—snarky, whining, self-absorbed—or the pitch-perfect rendition narrator Paul Nugent gives it (“Toe-beeee!”), but listening to their endless talk was like fingernails on a blackboard.

****The Fourth Courier

By Timothy Jay Smith – Take a walk back in time to Warsaw, 1992, with Timothy Jay Smith’s new crime thriller. The Cold War has recently ended, but average citizens struggle to figure out the new economic realities. Nothing quite works yet, and the gray concrete dullness of Soviet brutalist architecture is made even harsher by the dismal April weather. Politically, old relationships are unraveling, and chaos in the former Soviet Union and some of its satellites raises an important question, who’s watching the nukes?

Warsaw police, meanwhile, are dealing with a baffling series of murders. Over just a few weeks, three unidentified young men have been shot to death, their bodies abandoned on the banks of the Vistula River, one cheek slit open, all labels expertly cut from their clothing. Now they’ve found a fourth victim, older this time. By chance, the forensic pathologist noticed the third victim’s hands bore traces of radiation. Whatever he’d been smuggling, Poland’s new Solidarity government wants help to stop it.

American aid comes to them from the FBI in the person of Jay Porter, who in turn calls on the expertise of the local CIA officer—a gay black man named Kurt Crawford—and the genial Ambassador. There are good interactions and good humor among the three Americans. They all want to put an end to what seems to be nuclear material being spirited out of the former Soviet Union—but each has a totally different way of going about it.

Porter meets an attractive Polish woman, Lilka, who, he learns, is divorced from her abusive husband, but the apartments in Poland are so few and so small, so they still live together. The American starts seeing Lilka, which gives author Smith a vehicle for introducing realistic aspects of everyday Polish life—the shortages, the cranky cars, the small indulgences, and the stresses immediately post-communism—one of the most interesting aspects of the book, in fact.

Perhaps there are a couple too many plot coincidences and intersections among the cast of characters. All of them remain distinctive and interesting, though, even the minor ones. Smith’s well described settings put you right in the scene, whether it’s the drably elegant hotel favored by a Yugoslav general, a seedy bar in the bowels of the train station, or the riverside wasteland where the corpses keep washing up.

Photo: “Soviet buttons” by seitbijakaspars, creative commons license.

****Paid in Spades

New Orleans, French Quarter

By Richard Helms – In this fast-paced crime thriller, award-winning author Richard Helms guides you to the darker corners of New Orleans, where at any moment the extravagant pleasures of the food, the culture, and the music can turn deadly.

Pat Gallegher makes just enough money to get by, playing his cornet in Holliday’s, a seedy French Quarter watering hole. A gambling addiction caused many of his more recent troubles, but a twelve-step program has helped him reclaim some normalcy, if you can call it that: “One thing about being in a recovery program, you meet the most interesting people.”

One of those interesting people is Cabby Jacks, who got him started in Gamblers Anonymous and insisted he take it seriously. Now Gallegher believes part of his recovery depends on righting the balance in his life by doing what he terms “favors.” He has a particular skill in finding people and things that are lost. One of those people is Cabby Jacks.

History is responsible for Gallegher’s rocky relationships with the cops. But those are balanced by excellent interactions with his woman friend, Merlie, with the bar’s owner, Shorty, and with the other musicians. The dialog in Gallegher’s interactions with friend and foe is full of sly humor, not always appreciated, but sparkling throughout.

Merlie also needs a favor. She runs a shelter for teenage “runaways, throwaways, and other destitute children.” One of her charges needs surgery, but the dad needs to sign the consent and no one can find him. Another job for Gallegher.

Helms builds the tension nicely when tracking down the father leads Gallegher into the swampy wilderness where an oil pipeline is being laid. The hunt for Cabby leads him to a ship docked at the port of New Orleans and unexpected exposure to ultra-violent Brazilian gangs trying for a toe-hold in Louisiana.

Gallegher is not a lone actor here. He gets help from a former Secret Service man and calls on his long-time acquaintance Scat Boudreaux, whom Gallegher believes may be “the most dangerous man in America.” The real dark horse of the piece is a young guitarist who understands more about surveillance and guns than any young musician ought to.

Author Helms has a knack for making all these people vivid and interesting. I could read a whole novel about any of them. The plot edges close to spiraling into unbelievability near the end, but the strength of the writing and the characters keeps it together.

Photo: David Ohmer, Creative Commons license

Two Promising Thrillers

When they’re good, thrillers set in interesting foreign places are like a trip without the airport hassles. Both of these seemed like promising journeys, and both had good points. If the premise intrigues you, go for it.

***Secrets of the Dead

By Murray Bailey – This is the second of Murray Bailey’s crime thrillers to follow the adventures of Egypt archaeologist Alex MacLure, and it’s clear the author knows his subject.

Secrets of the Dead begins, not in Egypt, but in Atlanta, Georgia, where a cache of bodies has been found, eight in all. The victims were buried in a crawl space under The Church of the Risen Christ. FBI agent Charlie Rebb and her annoying partner Peter Zhang are immediately brought into the investigation because she’d worked a previous serial killer case in which the eight victims were murdered in the same manner as those under the church. They bear a mysterious mark loosely linked to a local tattoo artist who appears to have fled the country.

Alex MacLure’s research is under way in the town established by Pharoah Akhenaten and his beautiful wife, Nefertiti. Ancient secrets hide in the artifacts of the period, and MacLure hopes to reveal them. A stranger claiming special knowledge asks MacLure to meet him in Cairo, and MacLure follows a rather obscure trail of breadcrumbs to find the mysterious man. When he enters the apartment, he finds not an informant, but a dead body. Hard on his heels are the police, and an uncomfortable time in an Egyptian jail ensues. Bailey’s vivid description of jail conditions are enough to make you not risk even a jaywalking ticket in Cairo.

Charlie Rebb is sent to Egypt to work with Cairo police, as a body has been found there with similar markings as those under the church. Clearly the two stories are becoming intertwined. Occasional sections are from the point of view of the killer and his Master, unnecessary in my opinion, and not very realistic.

Bailey intersperses Rebb’s and MacLure’s narratives with the story of Yanhamu, an official from 1315 BCE who became the Pharoah’s Keeper of Secrets. He was given the charge of finding one particular secret, that of everlasting life.

Bailey’s writing moves the action along smoothly. His authentic passion for the country’s long and complicated ancient history shines through. It’s a strong contender for your summer beach bag, the kind of book you don’t want to have to think about too much. That’s partly because Bailey doesn’t give you much help. The map and schematic of the Great Pyramid are a step in the right direction. A glossary, perhaps a timeline, would be equally welcome.

***Pretense

By John Di Frances This is the first book of a trilogy about an international hunt for a trio of assassins targeting European politicians. As a crime thriller, the tradecraft of the assassins is detailed and persuasive, and the police procedural elements also are good. It’s billed as a book that demonstrates disenchantment with the European Unionthe assassination targets are big EU supporters – but it doesn’t really work as a political thriller, because there’s very little politics in it. The assassins could just as well be murdering top chefs or social media gurus.

The assassins are an Irish couple, handsome and strikingly beautiful, wealthy, elegant, and socially adept (in a too-good-to-be-true way) and a more rough-around-the-edges German man, who is an expert sniper. The couple’s first target is Slovakia’s prime minister, killed by a car bomb outside a Bratislava restaurant. The German accomplishes the second murder, that of the Polish prime minister. It’s technically difficult, shooting from a distance of 640 meters into a packed stadium of excitable soccer fans.

The three escape to Berlin, several steps ahead of the multiple security services now on their trail. The cat-and-mouse game is well done and may carry you through some of the clunky writing. Technical information dumps show Di Frances did his homework. Yet the weight or length of a rifle is immaterial, of itself. Such information needs to be brought into the story. Has the sniper had experience with a rifle of that type, is its length an advantage or does it make it hard to conceal? Worst was a bullet-point list of 16 variables affecting the soccer stadium shot. Dude, this is fiction!

The plot pulls you forward nevertheless, and Di Frances has a great twist in store. Unfortunately, when you reach the end of Pretense, you’re not at the end of the story. To really understand what’s been going on, you’ll have to read book two and very probably book three. Not sure I’m ready for that. Link to Amazon.

Photo: Ron Porter from Pixabay.

****A Long Night in Paris

Written by Dov Alfon, translated by Daniella Zamir – Lots of action is packed into Dov Alfon’s debut novel, A Long Night in Paris, Israel’s bestselling book of 2016-2017, now available in English. It’s hard to believe so much can happen in little more than twenty-four hours!

The story begins one morning when a gregarious Israeli software engineer disappears from the arrivals hall of Charles de Gaulle Airport. An irrepressible flirt, he peels off from a group of colleagues to link up with a beautiful blonde before the two seemingly disappear into thin air.

Police Commissaire Jules Léger grudgingly organizes an investigation, predictably hampered by too many cooks: airport security, the Israeli police representative for Europe, a mysterious Israeli security colonel named Zeev Abadi, and, most uncooperative of all, El Al security.

Abadi is a Tunisian Jew raised in the Paris suburbs. Not until midnight does he assume his official role as the new head of Israeli intelligence’s SIGINT unit. Temporarily in charge of the unit back in Tel Aviv, with minuscule bureaucratic power, is Lieutenant Oriana Talmor.

At the airport, Abadi uncovers footage showing the hapless Israeli attacked by a pair of Chinese thugs and thrown into a sewer pit where survival is impossible. Abadi soon realizes the attack was a case of mistaken identity. He must figure out who was the actual intended victim and calls on Talmor her team back in Israel for help. Separated by more than two thousand miles, the two try to uncover the identity of the intended victim, his current location, and the reasons he’s a murder target.

Although most of the short chapters are written from the point of view of Abadi, Talmor, or Léger, some are from clueless higher-ups in the Israeli and French governments, the various criminal operatives involved, and the real quarry of the killers, a young man named Vladislav Yerminski. What you mostly learn about him is that he’s checked into an expensive hotel with a suitcase full of electronic gadgetry. (I forget how that bag got through Tel Aviv’s airport security, if I ever knew.)

It’s a multinational cast of characters and you’re well along before you realize what game Yerminski is playing and who’s behind the mysterious gang of Chinese pursuing him. All the bureaucrats are busy trying to spin the first victim’s undignified death in a way that masks the shortcomings and errors in their own intelligence work. Even though I couldn’t quite believe in the criminal mastermind whose Chinese assassins murdered the wrong man, I totally believed that they work in a rogue system that does not tolerate error.

Alfon came to the writing of this book with the perfect resume. He knows Paris, having been born and raised there. He is himself a former intelligence officer in the Israeli Intelligence Corps’ Unit 8200, which is responsible for signals intelligence (SIGINT) and code decryption. His political acumen was honed as a former cultural observer and editor in chief of Israel’s major newspaper, Ha’aretz, and he served as an editor for Israel’s largest publishing house. The translation flows smoothly as well.

30-Second Book Reviews

****The Death of Mrs. Westaway

By Ruth Ware – It was a big house, with big grounds, supervised by a noisy tiding of magpies. Harriet Westaway, barely eking a living as a psychic advisor on the Brighton Pier, receives a letter from faraway Penzance inviting her to the funeral and will-reading of her grandmother, the wealthy Hester Westaway. Trouble is, her grandparents are all dead.

Curiosity wins out and she shows up for the event. What starts as something she could explain as a misunderstanding draws her in deeper and deeper, and the search for her real family takes off. Liked it. The Death of Mrs. Westaway

****The Bolivian Sailor

By Donald Dewey – Sometimes a book arrives unexpectedly in the mailbox, or “over the transom,” as publishers used to say, as this one did. To my delight, there were many things to like about this book. Poor P.I. Paul Finley finds himself enmeshed in a deadly plot when a Bolivian seaman is murdered in a seedy motel. He keeps his sense of humor, though, if not his part-time gig teaching a college course in Practical Problems in Law Enforcement. Alas, quite a few of those problems are playing out in front of him. Fun! The Bolivian Sailor

***Low Down Dirty Vote

Edited by Mysti Berry – A timely collection of eleven crime and mystery stories on the theme of fighting voter suppression. Women, blacks, the elderly—in these stories, various groups are discouraged from voting because of presumptions about how they’ll cast their ballots. Most unexpected and amusing use of the vote appeared in Catronia McPherson’s tale about the comeuppance of a man in a crowded commuter train. Good job, all! Low Down Dirty Vote

***A Deadly Indifference

By Marshall Jevons – Harvard economics professor Henry Spearman travels to Cambridge, England, to help a friend wanting to buy the former home of economist Alfred Marshall and establish a foundation there. Marshall may be dear to some economic theorists, including Spearman, but the university faculty is dominated by leftists opposing Marshall’s legacy. Soon, intellectual sparring is replaced by violence and murder. Spearman engagingly calls on economics theory (sometimes a lot of it) to explain these events. Secondary characters, not required to trot out their supply-and-demand curves, are nicely drawn too. A Deadly Indifference

Magpie photo: AdinaVoicu, creative commons license

*****The Feral Detective

By Jonathan Lethem – Jonathan Lethem, who has been called one of America’s greatest storytellers, returns to crime fiction with this new novel, The Feral Detective. It opens with the narrator, Manhattanite Phoebe Siegler, searching for her best friend’s teenage daughter, Arabella, who has disappeared from Reed College. Her trail has led to the small California town of Upland, east of Los Angeles. It’s at the edge of the San Gabriel Mountains, a short drive to the mountains’ highest peak, Mount Baldy, and within striking distance of wilderness and desert, vividly described settings as bleak and untamed as the situations Phoebe will encounter.

The local police, loathe to put any energy into a search for Arabella, pass Phoebe on to a social worker who specializes in runaways, and the social worker refers her to The Feral Detective, Charles Heist. Phoebe’s told that, though Heist’s methods may be unorthodox, he’s a good man on a cold trail, an expert in rescuing runaways and teenagers snared in cults or human trafficking networks. In fact, Phoebe learns, one such teen lives in an armoire in his office.

Heist’s unique set of skills and experiences sets you up for a strange romp through the underbelly of California society. Scanning Heist’s unpromising office building, Phoebe says,“To make an appointment here was to have dropped through the floor of your life, out of ordinary time. You weren’t meant to be here at all, if you were me.”

Phoebe’s New York temperament is distinctly at odds with that of the Californians, and she’s pegged it; she wasn’t meant to be there. But Phoebe already has dropped through the floor of her life, first by quitting her job at a major newspaper because she couldn’t tolerate the prospect of the Trump presidency. She can’t fathom why the Californians aren’t similarly outraged.

She’s thirty-three, with no immediate employment prospects, a lot of anger, and dubious romantic feelings about Charles Heist. Her reflexive wisecracking is balanced by despair, a weak shield against reality. Lethem lets her be defensive, show poor judgment, and lash out when it would be better not to. She’s not perfect.

Road trips into the area surrounding Upland, with and without Heist, lead her to some sketchy places and characters. Heist has mysterious connections with these troubled people that the New Yorker cannot understand. Phoebe is drawn to the taciturn feral detective, though their mismatched relationship seems most likely to go awry. But perhaps he can give her the anchor in life she so obviously needs.

Lethem writes strong prose, with more than a sprinkling of appreciation for the ridiculous. Lovers of literary crime fiction will find Lethem has created interesting and engaging characters in Phoebe and Heist, as well as an array of distinctive secondary characters—and some dogs—whose fates are worth caring about. He never lets up in describing people, places, situations, and feelings in fresh and memorable ways. Several review sites included it among the top crime books of 2018, though I’ve noted that Amazon readers don’t much like it and seem to have missed the humor altogether.

Lethem’s previous detective fiction, Motherless Brooklyn, won the National Book Critics Circle Award. It was narrated by a man with Tourette’s Syndrome—sympathetically. In this new work, the characters are less overtly damaged, but the damage is there, not far below the surface.

rabbit photo by wbaiv, creative commons license

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*****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.

Santa’s Bookshelf

Santa Claus, reading

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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.