Savage Ridge by Morgan Greene

Morgan Greene’s new thriller, Savage Ridge, is named for the tiny Northwest US town where the action takes place. Ten years before the now of the story, three teenage best friends—Nicholas Pips, Emmy Nailer, and Peter Sachs—committed murder. (Not a spoiler; you find this out on page one.) Though they were suspects in the crime, an air-tight alibi set them free. For the last decade, they have been deliberately out of touch with each other, scattered across the western United States. Now, within days of each other, they’ve arrived back at their home town, where the ghosts of the past confront them on every street and around every corner. Coincidence? Not a chance.

The story is told in chapters that alternate then and now—the time of the murder and the current day. And they alternate perspectives—mostly those of Nicholas Pips; the long-time sheriff, Barry Poplar; Ellison Saint John, son of the wealthiest man in the valley and brother of the deceased, Sammy Saint John; and Sloane Yo, a private detective Ellison has hired to reexamine the case. Her first assignment—bring all three of them back—is a success.

Sachs has thrived in his new life away from Savage Ridge, Pips has had a mediocre decade, and Nailer is a mess. None of them escapes the guilt they feel about the murder, no matter how much they reassure each other that it was wholly justified. The crime looms over them like the steep hillsides loom over the town, their pine forests jagged sentinels against the sky, ever watching, and darkening the outlook of the people below. Nor are the three friends exactly the same people they were ten years before and, as the story progresses, the absolute trust they once had in each other is increasingly, dangerously, shaky.

Yo’s investigations reveal Sammy was much disliked by his classmates and had zero friends. He was not the golden boy his father and brother pretend he was, but the product of an entitled, autocratic, abusive man. Now, ten years later, the father is dying, and Ellison desperately hopes that, by pinning the crime on his only suspects—Pips, Nailer, and Sachs—he can gain his father’s respect at last. If it isn’t soon, it will be too late.

The story is an interesting kind of psychological thriller, because of the careful construction of the mental states of the three killers. Their reactions, their jockeying with Yo (who circles ever-closer) and with each other create much of the tension.

Savage Ridge is also a fascinating study of small-town life. Everyone knows everyone else, everyone has felt the overweening power of the Saint John family.

For me, this book was a real page-turner. Although you know all along who committed the crime, the why is unstated for a long time. Meanwhile, the characterizations are so strong, I found myself really invested in the fates of all three of the friends, and Sloane Yo, too.

The Teacher by Tim Sullivan

The screen and television writing experience of author Tim Sullivan comes through strongly in his series of crime thrillers involving neurodivergent Avon and Somerset Police Detective George Cross. The Teacher is the newest this entertaining series of police procedurals whose titles come from the murder victim’s profession. I also went back and listened to the first in the series, The Dentist.

Neurodivergent protagonists are increasingly popular, given the success of clever books like Nita Prose’s The Maid and Liz Nugent’s Strange Sally Diamond. They’re good examples that what might have been labelled a weakness can, instead, be a great source of strength.

George Cross—deemed by his boss to be the best detective in the Major Crimes Unit (MCU)— is on the autism spectrum. He’s not the easiest to get along with because his understanding of social graces is just about nil. And, because he deals only with hard facts, not the distracting possibilities and speculations hovering around a case like a bad aura, his investigations are a slow process.

A lot of good-natured humor arises from people’s inability to figure out where Cross is coming from. They aren’t accustomed to such bracing candor, so little waffling. I found myself delighted at every interaction characters have with him, because they show so clearly how much of the communication between people is vague and, at times, off-point. Cross is a breath of fresh air. Sullivan has done a terrific job in modelling Cross’s character, and I for one hope to read more of his exploits. Great job here!

It’s a Fast-Changing World. It’s the 1880s!

Each Sherlock Holmes: A Year of Mystery volume, published by Belanger Books, includes at least a dozen stories, filling in the years 1881-1886. Holmes and Watson were already together then, but Watson was uncharacteristically quiet about their adventures. In Sherlock Holmes: A Year of Mystery 1885, edited by Richard T. Ryan, contemporary writers make up for Watson’s reticence, creating excellent adventures to help fill in the gap.

Naturally, the challenges in writing a story set almost 140 years ago are significant. No cell phones, no video surveillance, no DNA evidence, no criminal databases, and no other scientific or organizational trappings modern crime stories employ. I asked my fellow authors whether these differences are a help with their stories or a hindrance. Here’s what they said:

The Victorian setting allows for a more “classical” mystery, says George Gardner. For his story, he researched how much the Victorians knew about dynamite. He admits that he “may have bent some rules in terms of chronology there,” but since dynamite was invented by Alfred Nobel in 1866, George is on pretty solid ground, it seems.

The Victorian setting “is an advantage more than a hindrance as the instantaneousness of modern communications can get in the way of a good story,” says Kevin Thornton. The telegraph is the fastest communications technology available to Holmes, and in Thornton’s two stories, he makes good use of it. Another advantage, says George Jacobs, is that he can “keep Holmes’s mind at the forefront of the adventure.” What’s more, “having to rush around London (or farther afield) on foot or in a cab, and sometimes engage in fisticuffs with the villains” adds to the adventure.

The authors strive to be sure that not just the technology, but “the feel of every story is right,” too, says Katy Darby. This includes language and dialog, style and social etiquette, and even making sure the types of characters are true to their times. How to accomplish this? Darby says, “The 1860s-1880s is my second home, period-wise, and my Victorian library is ever-growing.” Shelby Phoenix noted what is an extra attraction of the Victorian era for her: It “allows for so many more paranormal approaches, and who can say no to making things seem spooky?”

It’s really a balance. By setting a story in the Victorian era, authors avoid having modern technology “short-circuit the elaborate investigation” they’d planned. Nevertheless, Holmes’s era was one of rapid scientific and technological progress, and authors must pinpoint when these advances took hold, says D.J. Tyrer. Over the period in which the Holmes stories are set—roughly 1885 to 1914—much about society, science, and politics changed. But, “whatever level of technology Holmes has access to,” says author Paul Hiscock, “I always see him as being at the cutting edge of forensic science.” Whatever the technological details, “a good mystery is about how the detective puts all the pieces of evidence together.”

Many authors say that one of the aspects of writing in that era that they like best is delving into those details. As an example, Kevin Thornton’s two linked stories involving shenanigans related to new North American transcontinental railways offered numerous enticing rabbit holes for this author to pursue. As Watson extols the excitement of shortening travel times, Holmes points out that “as the citizenry disperses, so does crime.” This observation foreshadows a visit from a representative of the much-indebted Canadian Pacific Railroad, fearful of a hostile takeover. Watson needs an explanation of this financial predicament, which leads to a lucid explanation of the constraints faced by a publicly traded company. Other examples of Thornton’s research include descriptions of the myriad ways Holmes could visually identify an American, military training, Eastern martial arts, American railroad moguls, the action of poison, and the lineage of the Earl of Derby, the Honourable Frederick Stanley. (In 1888, Stanley became Governor General of Canada, and Thornton helpfully notes that the famous hockey trophy is named for him.)

See how these authors put fact and fiction together. Their stories in Sherlock Holmes: A Year of Mystery 1885 are:
George Gardner – “The Adventure of the Damaged Tomb”
Kevin Thornton – “Tracks Across Canada” and “Tracked Across America”
George Jacobs – “The Mystery of the Cloven Cord”
Katy Darby – “The Adventure of the Lock Hospital”
Shelby Phoenix – “Sherlock Holmes and the Six-Fingered Hand Print”
D.J. Tyrer – “The Japanese Village Mystery”
Paul Hiscock – “The Light of Liberty”

Past Lying by Val McDermid

Publication of a new police procedural featuring Val McDermid’s intrepid Detective Chief Inspector Karen Pirie is something to get excited about. In Past Lying, the streets of Edinburgh have never been so ominous—and empty—as when this story takes place in April 2020, at the height of the covid epidemic. Authors were of mixed minds about whether to write about covid, thinking “too much already!” but McDermid makes the lockdown an effective handicap to Pirie, whose investigation of a not-quite-stone-cold case must (at least in theory) accommodate the public health restrictions.

Pirie and Detective Sergeant Daisy Mortimer are camped out in Pirie’s boyfriend Hamish’s fancy flat while he has relocated up north to tend his sheep farm in the Highlands. He’s bought a former gin still up there and is manufacturing hand sanitizer.

As ever, Pirie has a couple of pots bubbling away. One complication in her life is a subplot involving a Syrian refugee being hunted by assassins from his home country. I’ve always admired how McDermid keeps two powerful story strands going, such that when she switches from one to the other, I’m instantly engrossed again. In this instance, the secondary plot isn’t as compelling as it might be, and the exigencies of covid mean there is less interaction with some of Pirie’s colleagues in various crime labs who serve such a satisfying role in other works.

The main plot is more squarely in the domain of Pirie’s Historic Cases Unit. In touch with her by telephone, Detective Constable Jason ‘The Mint’ Murray reports that a librarian, reviewing papers submitted by the estate of a deceased Tartan Noir crime writer, Jake Stein, has run across the opening chapters of an unpublished manuscript. They describe a murder that sounds eerily similar to an unsolved disappearance from the previous year, in which an Edinburgh University student named Lara Hardie vanished.

What Jake Stein has written compel Pirie and Mortimer to dig into his past. Stein was apparently not a very nice guy; he was in the middle of a marital calamity; and his formerly successful career was on the skids. His only remaining friend is another author who’d come and play chess with him and where Stein would talk about “the perfect murder.” The parallels between Stein’s real life and his fictional book are striking, so that the narrative takes on the characteristics of nested dolls. I found myself having to stop and think, am I reading Stein’s book? Or about him?

If you have read other McDermid books featuring Pirie (this is the seventh), you may have run across DC Jason Murray previously. You may recall he’s sometimes considered not the brightest bulb, but in this book, he finally comes into his own. I don’t know why, maybe it’s the stresses of lockdown, but I found Pirie a less sympathetic character than usual. At times, she’s almost mean. She pays lip service to the lockdown rules, but ignores them whenever she wants to. The justification that every day is important to the family of a disappeared person wore a little thin.

A crime novelist is an ideal character to obsess about the perfect crime, and Stein’s draft-cum-confession, as you read it, raises a multitude of good questions—not necessarily relevant to his plot, nor his personal life, but about Pirie’s investigation. Nesting dolls again.

While McDermid has certainly earned the sobriquet of Britain’s ‘Queen of Crime,’ I confess to a slight disappointment with this latest book. Of course, it’s still head and shoulders above many crime novels, and if you like the Pirie character, you won’t want to miss it.

Dead Drop

James L’Etoile’s award-winning crime thriller Dead Drop takes a 360-degree look at the intertwined issues of illegal immigration, drug and arms smuggling, and unfettered violence plaguing the southwest United States and the challenges they present law enforcement. After a career spent in the California penal system, L’Etoile has seen these problems play out first-hand. In this action-packed story, you do too.

When it comes to the illegal border crossers, Phoenix, Arizona, detective Nathan Parker tries vainly to hold on to the principle, “Yes, they’re desperate, but what they’re doing is against the law.” But when he’s faced with some of the realities the immigrants confront—and, ultimately, when he becomes an illegal border crosser himself—he starts not just to see, but to appreciate the other side of the story.

In this novel, the immigration issue has many troubling dimensions—fentanyl trafficking, rapacious coyotes, weapons galore, disregard for human life, and the spotty coordination of federal, state, and local efforts to combat any of these. The quest for personal and organizational glory makes inter-agency cooperation more difficult, as always.

While the U.S. Attorney is working to create an airtight case against the drug smugglers—a process that’s taking literally years—people are dying in real time. One of them was Parker’s long-time partner, a death for which Parker blames himself. A new lead appears when a cell phone number is found on a dead man. He’s one of four found in the desert, sealed up in 55 gallon oil drums. Parker’s encounter with the owner of that cell phone leads to his suspension from the force.

The barrels were discovered by Billie Carson, a woman living on the raggedy margins of society, scavenging whatever she can find abandoned in the desolate landscape. Billie has learned how to navigate a dysfunctional support system and, contrary to his expectations, Parker learns a lot from her. Suspended, he isn’t supposed to keep investigating any link to his partner’s shooting, but (of course) he does, and Billie and he may be at risk because of their connection with the bodies in the barrels.

Given all the players—criminals, law enforcement, bystanders, innocent or not—it’s a complicated plot with a lot of characters and a lot of agendas, much like real life, probably. L’Etoile writes convincingly about his law enforcement characters, and some have managed to maintain a sense of humor. Billie’s a solid female character, but several of the other women are less believable.

The way L’Etoile describes the unforgiving desert environment of northern Mexico and south Arizona, for many people and even for a time for Parker, it’s almost as much an enemy as the gun-toting coyotes smuggling people through the tunnels under the “impenetrable” U.S. border wall.

It’s a memorable story, and if you want to read more about this troubled area, I recommend Don Winslow’s The Cartel and Down by the River, riveting nonfiction by the late investigative reporter Charles Bowden.

Order here from Amazon (if you use these affiliate links, Amazon sends me a small payment):
Dead Drop
The Cartel
Down by the River

drugs, El Paso, Rio Grande, narcotraficantes, DEA, Border Patrol, Mexico, Texas
U.S. Border Patrol agents on the Rio Grande (photo: c1.staticflickr)

A Twisted Love Story

If only the main characters of Samantha Downing’s new psychological suspense thriller, A Twisted Love Story, would tell the truth once in a while, a lot of their problems would be solved and maybe even avoided. Wes Harmon and Ivy Banks have been an on-again, off-again couple for almost a decade—ever since college—and their breakups are every bit as passionate as their reunions. But if they each harbor secrets, they also share a growing list of them. And those shared secrets put them on a slippery path leading straight to prison.

Early on, Wes meets the couple’s main antagonist, Karen Colglazier. She’s a detective with the Sex Crimes Unit of Fair Valley, California, the featureless mid-sized town where Wes and Ivy live. It seems Ivy has accused him of stalking her and described to Colglazier the ominous notes, presents—including a box of half-eaten chocolates—and pictures, she’s been receiving. Nothing against the law, technically. Not so far, but Colglazier believes a visit from the police often puts a stop to such low-level harassment. Wes denies doing any of it, but then he would, wouldn’t he?

Ivy, fierce and funny, has perhaps the weakest impulse control you’ll ever encounter in fiction, and Wes believes that reporting the alleged stalking was her way of getting his attention. In the past, she’s used some dramatic, even damaging, ways to do that. He’s obviously on Ivy’s mind because when he shows up at her apartment the night of Colglazier’s visit, she gives every indication she was expecting him. The relationship, heavily burdened with the baggage of past mistakes, is on again.

Detective Colglazier is far from convinced by Ivy’s new forgiving attitude toward Wes. She believes Ivy’s denials are further evidence of how afraid and beaten down she is. Her prominent blind spot may be in the wrong place in this instance, but her instinct that more is going on here than meets the eye is correct. Wes and Ivy may seem doomed to keep reenacting their breakups and reconciliations, but it’s Colglazier’s doggedness that creates the book’s tension. Can they ever be free of their past mistakes without being free of each other? If you like thrillers involving dangerous secrets and struggling relationships, this may be a good book for you.

Samantha Downing, born in California, has made a specialty of psychological suspense since her successful 2019 debut novel, My Lovely Wife.

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Deep Roots by Sung J. Woo

Deep Roots is an entertaining soft-boiled PI story, second so far in a series by Sung J. Woo that features Korean American detective Siobhan O’Brien. If the name and the ethnicity seem at odds, it’s because Siobhan was adopted by an Irish-Norwegian couple in Minnesota, as was her African American brother, Sven.

O’Brien inherited a private investigation business from her deceased boss (whom she misses), and a former client suggested billionaire Philip Ahn might benefit from her help. Ahn’s illustrious Korean lineage traces back to the late 1500s. At least. His estate—Woodford—is on a San Juan Island he owns in the far northwest United States, near the Canadian border.

Ahn wants Siobhan to come to Woodford to perform a delicate task. Now over 80, Ahn has been married three times. These alliances have produced three daughters and one son, Duke, a college student. If something happens to Ahn, Duke, the youngest of his children, will take over the businesses, something it is immediately obvious the young man is unprepared to do, intellectually or temperamentally.

Ahn, his three wives, Duke, and his daughters and their partners, along with two grandchildren, all live at Woodford together. If you’re familiar with the Zhan Yimou’s wonderful movie, Raise the Red Lantern, which Woo cites as an inspiration, you’ll be alert to the desperate rivalries and other difficulties enforced spousal proximity can engender. Siobhan’s principal contact in the family is Ahn’s daughter Lady Mary. You won’t go far wrong if you keep in mind the elegant and self-contained Lady Mary of Downton Abbey—another source Woo credits as contributing to his early ideas.

The issue Ahn wants Siobhan to resolve is Duke’s identity. He makes the rather extraordinary statement that the boy “is not who he purports to be.” If Duke were booted from the line of succession, though, which mother, and which daughter (or grandchild) would take his place? Thus, a lot is riding not only on what Siobhan discovers, but how she goes about discovering it.

Siobhan can summon ‘SiobhanDrone’ to lead her to any remote corner of the estate as she goes about interviewing family members. SiobhanDrone also will bring her anything she wants (under two pounds), etc. The support system and technology at Woodford is over-the-top, but if you loosen your grip on reality just a bit, it’s at least almost plausible and a lot of fun!

Told by Siobhan, the story depends for its success on how engaging she is as a character. I liked her a lot—her wit, her wits, her ability to say the wrong thing and move on, and her strong desire to do the right thing. Once Philip Ahn disappears and is presumed dead, her investigation has multibillion-dollar consequences for everyone in the family.

There’s a brief secondary plot involving her brother Sven and an unlucky business venture that isn’t really needed, and the setting of the climactic moments truly stretches the imagination, but on the whole, the characters are so nicely built out and act in ways so consistent with their personalities you will play right into Soo’s capable hands.

Raise the Red Lantern – Find ways to see it here.

Like Printing Money by R.A. Cramblitt

You may have a pretty good guess what the wonks working after hours at 3D printing company 3Make are up to—after all, only a few activities are likely to be Like Printing Money, the name of RA Cramblitt’s new technological crime novel. But, don’t worry, the technology isn’t so dense that it obscures the basic human motivation at work here—greed.

Set in Baltimore, Maryland, the story does evoke the city’s row houses and freeways and the backwoods countryside that’s not really that far away. Baltimore is coming into its own as a location for crime stories, building on the success of author Laura Lippman and the television series, Homicide: Life on the Streets and The Wire. It’s definitely a city, it has distinct neighborhoods, but it’s not so big as to be fictionally unmanageable—it doesn’t take three hours to drive across town, for example.

An interesting set of characters, Black and white, negotiate Cramblitt’s city streets, and you can be forgiven for not spotting who the star of the show is going to be. At first you may think it’s Bernard Jamal, college hoops player and successful venture capitalist, who’s kidnapped in the first chapter, his long legs folded into the uncomfortable confines of an automobile trunk. In fact, however, the story’s main character is Charlaine Pennington, an investigator in a private detective agency.

Charlaine is working on a case assigned to her by the detective agency owner, Tony Mancuso. It involves 3Make in some way, but she’s received precious little information about what the job entails. She doesn’t like it and objects, and if there’s one thing Charlaine is good at—several things, actually—it’s sticking up for herself. It turns out that Tony himself doesn’t know as much as he’d like to about why the sketchy Russian has hired them.

Something is very wrong at 3Make, and Charlaine and Tony are determined to find out what that is, even before they find the first body. And Jamal may have escaped his captors, but he hasn’t shed his desire to find out who they were and what they were up to. I loved the charming elderly Black man who helps him. Great character!

Cramblitt has a habit of overloading the narrative with back story. He’s good at showing, and I for one could do with a lot less telling. I like to see a novel’s characters in action and figure out their strengths and weaknesses for myself. Like Printing Money is Cramblitt’s first crime novel, though, and he may realize he doesn’t need all that history. The narrative screeches to a stop every time. You can certainly hope there aren’t any technological wizards like 3Make’s Barrett and Chen, working after hours on projects akin to the one exposed in this novel, but the sad truth is, there undoubtedly are. The book gives you fair warning.

confiscated drug money
Confiscated drug money (photo: wikimedia.org)

Two 5-Star Thrillers: Her, Too and Sleepless City

Her, Too
Perhaps inevitably, the Me, Too movement would uncover complicated situations that go beyond simply punishing sexual predators (which is hardly simple in itself), and in Bonnie Kistler’s new thriller, Her, Too, she reveals a bundle of them.

When the story opens, Boston-based defense attorney Kelly McCann has just won a major case. Scientist George Carlson Benedict—the beloved Dr. George—is a pharmaceutical researcher whose discoveries related to Alzheimer’s Disease have short-listed him for the Nobel Prize in Medicine. Could such a valuable and visible member of society be guilty of raping a subordinate? In the trial just concluded, his former colleague Reeza Patel said yes. And so did three other women whom Kelly silenced with payoffs and non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). Benedict is a toad, really, but Kelly doesn’t consider him an actual rapist, until his next victim—her.

Kelly sets out for revenge. And she knows who can help. The three women who signed the NDAs, except that they hate her.

The story lays bare the manipulative and inequitable way NDAs are handled. A former executive at Benedict’s company received more than a million dollars, the office cleaner only $20,000. Kelly doesn’t draw Reeza Patel into the group’s sketchy plans—the way Kelly eviscerated her on the witness stand is just too recent, too raw. Soon, there’s no choice: Patel dies from a drug overdose. Was it really suicide? And her death is just the first.

You might think Kelly is pretty unlikable, someone who’s taken advantage of women at their most vulnerable. But the author takes pains to show she isn’t a monster. In other parts of her life, she bravely faces difficult issues involving care, caring, and letting go. These are big subjects, and in this provocative, well-written novel, the author doesn’t shrink from them.

In so many ways, the Kelly McCann you meet on page one is not the same person you leave on page 304. Go with her as she works her way through some of the most consequential social issues of our times. Bonnie Kistler is a former trial lawyer whose previous books were The Cage (or Seven Minutes Later) and House on Fire.

Sleepless City
Reed Farrel Coleman’s new crime thriller Sleepless City is for readers who like their noir black as ink and thick as pitch. You can’t really call it a police procedural, although the main character—Nick Ryan—is a detective working in the New York Police Department’s Intelligence Bureau, because he doesn’t follow any procedures learned in the Academy or that the higher-ups would publicly condone. Early in the story, he’s recruited to do exactly that—help the city solve intractable situations by, you might say, coloring outside the lines.

The department is beset by difficulties. The city’s waiting to erupt into chaos with the next cop-on-civilian killing. An investment fraudster has stolen billions, including police pensions, and won’t reveal where the money is. A reptilian right-wing podcaster is intent on sowing social discord and anti-police feeling with wacko conspiracy theories. Nick’s bosses would like to clear up these messes through normal channels, but it’s impossible.

Someone, Nick never knows precisely who, approaches him to use his creativity, initiative, and fearlessness to work out difficulties such as these. He’ll get whatever weaponry and manpower he needs plus access to files and security footage. Like a latter-day 007, he has a license to kill. I’m guessing, the powers-that-be hope he’ll use it.

This set-up creates a no-holds-barred fantasy of vengeance, a “simple” answer to complex questions. Although I used the word fantasy, Coleman’s writing is anchored in a gritty reality. Blood is shed. Bones are broken. Explosions dismember victims. Dirt is smeared.

Yet Nick doesn’t simply march through the city brandishing weapons and mowing down bad guys. He takes into account the consequences of his actions, their moral aspects, and selects his approach based in part on the lesson it will impart to other malefactors. In other words, he seeks justice more than revenge. Seeing his various clever plots unfold—and how he has to think on his feet when something goes awry—is one of the story’s chief pleasures. Plus, I chuckled to notice Coleman’s discreet nod to his fellow NYC crime writers Tom Straw and Charles Salzberg.

As a reflection of breakdowns in the social order, crime writing deserves the kind of attention to what makes the social order actually work that Coleman gives it here. Nick Ryan may be a fantastical creation, in terms of his deeds, but in terms of engaging with the quandaries facing big-city policing, he’s wrestling with modern reality. Sleepless City leaves you wondering, is this what it takes? Sounds to me like a series in-the-making.

Island Adventures

Retribution by Robert McCaw

Retribution is the fifth in Robert McCaw’s series of police procedurals set on the Big Island of Hawai`i featuring Chief Detective Koa Kāne. Hawai`i of course has been on everyone’s mind lately, and McCaw creates an atmosphere thick, not with wildfire smoke, but with tropical sights, smells, and sounds. McCaw’s writing style is straightforward, yet he musical Hawaiian language and incidental descriptions of the environment create a rich portrayal of “place as character.”

Even a tropical paradise has its ne’er-do-wells. Late one night, as the book opens, a Philippine freighter heads toward the Big Island’s port of Hilo. Before it arrives, a mysterious passenger, with a single suitcase and a long flat gun case, disembarks on a powerboat—the first of a small company of mysterious characters whose presence presages a succession of violent attacks that rock the island.

Koa Kāne is called to investigate the vicious stabbing death of a local thief and drug user, in which his brother is soon implicated. Kāne must withdraw from this case, no matter how convinced he is his brother is being framed. The chief replaces him with Deputy Chief Detective Moreau, but Moreau has little investigatory experience and is trailed by accusations of excessive use of force. His only asset appears to be the unflinching support of Hilo’s ambitious new mayor.

The author conveys the kind of stand-up guy Kāne is, not in so many words, but by showing how those around him act toward him. Attacks on these people circle closer and closer to Kāne himself. What triggered this eruption of violence? The possible suspects operate on separate political and historical planes, and you don’t put the pieces of the story together until the last chapters.

McCaw never sacrifices character development to the maintenance of the story’s fast pace. While it’s hardly a tropical vacation, you nevertheless feel like the author has taken you someplace distinctive, and given you an engaging story there.

Incident at San Miguel by AJ Sidransky

Murder, lies, and corruption are the crimes at the center of this riveting piece of historical fiction, Incident at San Miguel, by AJ Sidransky. Like me, you may not have known or remember that, in the 1930s, with war clouds massing, many European Jews immigrated to Cuba, which welcomed them, gave them safe haven, and encouraged their businesses to thrive.

They did very well until 1959 and Fidel Castro’s communist revolution, when the Jews’ situation, like that of all wealthy Cubans, quickly deteriorated. The novels main characters are two brothers—Aarón and Moises Cohan—on opposite sides of the new political divide. Aarón is a lawyer, about to be married, and Moises is his younger brother, in love with a political firebrand and leader of the Havana-based rebels. Despite their differences, they share one core value: an abhorrence for corruption.

Sidransky does a remarkable job describing the island, the Old Havana, the colorful streets, the foods, the music drifting from every radio, rum and cigars—all the minutia of daily life. What I particularly admire is how he conveys the substance of the brothers’ lives: Aarón trying to figure out which staff members to trust, Moises traveling the broken highways to remote manufacturers, both of them trying to relate to old friends without putting either themselves or the friends at risk. And the risks can be deadly. The spies of the Revolution are everywhere. You can be on the inside one day and on the outside the next. Jail or worse awaits people deemed traitors to the Revolution.

Sidransky gives an especially thoughtful portrayal of Moises. Despite his hardline views and occasional bursts of feverish political orthodoxy, he never becomes a two-dimensional character. He believes absolutely in his work, and his biggest blind spot is his wife.

Their livelihoods and even their lives threatened, many Jews (and others) try to flee the island—a dangerous undertaking demanding much planning and absolute secrecy. When Aarón realizes he cannot stay, and indeed, at other times over the years, the brothers desperately need each other.

In the last section of the book, the brothers reunite after decades of infrequent communication, and we learn much more about their lives’ key events. At the end, I expect you’ll be satisfied that the big questions have been answered and understand how each man has found his own way. You’ll want to read the introductory material that explains how the novel is based on a true story and where it diverges from that history to become exemplary historical fiction.