****Swann’s Down

Written by Charles Salzberg – Henry Swann’s Manhattan business is a murky one that only a big city, with all its ragged fringes, could support. He’s mainly a skip tracer, someone whose true skill is in finding people and sometimes things—lost, runaway, hiding—and a good guide to the dark corners that would never appear in a tourist’s Top Ten.

His self-described partner Goldblatt is loud and unpredictable, and Swann would prefer not to be saddled with him, but he’s harder to get rid of than a bad memory. How little he actually knows about Goldblatt becomes clear when the man asks Swann for help with a personal problem involving Goldblatt’s second wife, Rachel: “You… You’ve been married?” Three times, in fact.

Rachel is a little spacey, a little too trusting, and a fake psychic has bilked her out of some $75,000. Goldblatt wants Swann to find this psychic. And get the money back, if he can. Delving into the world of the con, Swann interacts with some real New York characters, brimming with a lively mix of attitude, insights, and venality.

Thankfully, a paying client turns up as well. Swann is asked to find a missing witness who supposedly can alibi her truculent boyfriend, Nicky Diamond, a notorious hitman who claims he’s innocent in this case. He’s bad news and Swann is reluctant to help him out.

Why did the girlfriend disappear? Does whoever actually did the killing want Diamond to take the fall? Did Diamond encourage (or frighten) her into disappearing because she actually can’t back up his story? When Swann finds her, will it be wise to encourage her to return to New York, or will he just make her a target? If she fled because she was afraid, would she return at all? The case is full of such quandaries, but Diamond’s lawyer finally talks Swann into pursuing it, and Swann applies one of his guiding principles to the decision: “Okay. I’m in. So long as I get paid, what do I care?”

Swann has to use his considerable persuasive powers to move these two cases in the direction of resolution, even if his remit is not to follow them to their absolute end. His self-deprecating narration and wry humor are charming, his descriptions of the daily frustrations of living in Manhattan hit home, and the issues that raise Swann’s curiosity interested me too.

Author Salzberg is a former magazine writer with both non-fiction and crime fiction to his credit. He’s a founding member of the New York Writers Workshop and has had a successful teaching career. This is the fifth Swann book—and Salzberg says the last. Whether he can really leave Swann behind or not, I’ll be on the lookout for those previous four books!

Photo: krazydad / jbum is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

****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

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.