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submitted by the estate of a deceased Tartan Noir crime writer, Jake Stein, has run across the opening chapters of an unpublished manuscript.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.

Crime Stories That Take the Heat

Heavy-duty noir seems not quite right for sunny, summery August. So here are two recent books light and bright enough to compete with surf and sand: The Tumbling Girl by Bridget Walsh and the comic novel Clonk! by JP Rieger.

The new Victorian-era mystery The Tumbling Girl blends murderous deeds with a healthy dose of romance between an unlikely pair of investigators. It evokes the sights, smells, and sounds of 1870s London, while believably capturing the social class distinctions of the day.

Minnie Ward is a retired music hall performer who writes songs and skits, and day-to-day oversees the Variety Theatre’s mix of tumblers, tightrope walkers, singers, not-so-funny comedians, Shakespearean actors, plate-spinners, and more, including a troublesome monkey. With this crew, something is always going on—cast-member drama, audience eruptions, the monkey in the rafters peeing on the customers below. Author Walsh has created a world that is intriguing, full of story possibilities, and rife with unexpected developments.

Albert Easterbrook is a public school-educated private detective. His friends in the police force are tracking a serial killer who has targeted the city’s women for a decade. Footsteps in the dark and chance encounters can be more than a little anxiety-provoking for Minnie and her friends.

When one of the acrobats is found hanged below the pest-ridden Adelphi Arches, the police dismiss her death as a suicide. But Minnie and the girl’s mother don’t believe it; they want Albert to find out what really happened. Minnie volunteers to help him, despite his objections that it’s too dangerous, as it proves to be. You also have a chance to see a bit of Victorian high-life, as members of the most exclusive gentlemen’s club in London seem to be involved.

If I had to sum up this story in a single word, it might be “romp,” because it moves fast, there’s plenty of entertainment along the way, and, even if you’re pretty sure where Minnie and Albert’s relationship will end up, getting there is half the fun.

In Clonk! you follow eight guys, friends from high school, who’ve managed to stay in touch and call on each other’s help for all kinds of matters, great and small. You might term the book a police procedural, because the main character, Kev Dixit, is a Baltimore, Maryland, police officer, but his procedures are hardly textbook. He has a brilliant way of subverting the system and solving problems outside—sometimes far outside—any approved method. His way of outfoxing the detective exam is LOL.

Two of these longtime friends are not nearly as bright as they think they are and become embroiled in a fraudulent real estate scheme. Arson is involved. In their worst possible moment, their old pal Kev helps them out, along with Chris, an ever-optimistic actor and terrible singer who believes his big theatrical break is always just around the corner, and Brian (the Troll), an undertaker. Yes, a dead body is involved.

Three more alumni of their Catholic high school who play smaller, but plot-vital parts are a disgraced doctor, an agoraphobic FBI agent, and an over-the-top attorney called in to save the doctor’s bacon.

You’ll find some uniquely Baltomorean touches and topics here, yet you can get the sense that these guys are essentially well-meaning, occasional screw-ups whom you could find almost anywhere. Occasionally they reminisce about their high school days as (no surprise!) the weirdos no one else wanted to spend time with. These backward glances lay the groundwork for how they react in a crisis as adults. And the crises keep coming.

A lot happens in this book’s 217 pages, as the world of policing the Dixit way hurtles forward. The novel is a testament to the value of loyalty and friendship, with Dixit, as author Rieger says, “a fortress in the storm of life’s absurdities.” Loved it!

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Imagining Holmes’s Place in History – Guest Post by Richard T. Ryan

Where exactly is Sherlock Holmes’s place in history? Well, if you’re a writer the answer to that is rather simple: It’s anyplace you care to put him—within reason.

Like so many other pasticheurs, I enjoy placing Sherlock Holmes in situations that are grounded in reality. In other words, I think of my works as a blend of history and mystery. I like to think of it as Conan Doyle meets Dan Brown.

With a background in the medieval and early Renaissance periods, I’m always seeing various connections that span the centuries. As a result, druids figure prominently in one of my works, The Druid of Death, as does the ogham system of writing, used hundreds of years ago by the Irish.

In another work, I focused on the plique-à-jour style of jewelry-making, and was fortunate that the best example of this technique—The Mérode Cup—happened to be housed in the South Kensington Museum (which became the Victoria and Albert Museum some years later) and shown here.

An article about Fabergé eggs, and the discovery that Consuela Vanderbilt, Duchess of Marlborough, had commissioned the Pink Serpent Egg served as the starting point for my novel The Merchant of Menace. Also worth noting is that the Duchess was the first person outside of Russia to own one of these masterpieces.

Sometimes an event sends me scurrying down the research rabbit hole. I was intrigued when I learned that a group of Scottish students had stolen the Stone of Scone on Christmas Day in 1950. They pilfered the artifact in an effort to attract attention to the cause of Home Rule for Scotland. In The Stone of Destiny, I changed things a bit to suit the history of Holmes’s times and had a group of Irish separatists abscond with the stone in order to delay the coronation of King Edward VII.

In my most recent book, The Devil’s Disciples, which is due out later this year, I once again examine the question of Home Rule for Ireland. This time I focus on the Fenian dynamite campaign that plagued London in the mid- and early 1880s. Among the targets was the London Bridge, followed a few weeks later by the Tower of London, the House of Commons, and Westminster Hall—all on the same night!

At that point, Holmes is contacted by Her Majesty’s government and tasked with bringing the bombers to heel. This is a more in-depth look at the question of freedom for Ireland, and I touch on such events as the potato famine; the support for the movement in America, specifically from a group called the Clan na Gael; and one particular individual who shall live in Irish infamy forever.

The challenge in my books is to insert Holmes into these events without disturbing the line that is history. Sometimes, it’s fairly easily accomplished, but at other times it can be a real struggle. And, of course, I also have to find a place for Dr. Watson, so in some instances it is doubly tricky.

If you’d like to check out The Devil’s Disciples, this link will take you to its page on Kickstarter, and you can see part of the cover and check out the various rewards. Right now, we are at 94 backers, if we get to 100, everyone will receive $50 worth of free Holmes ebooks as a bonus.

The Mérode Cup photograph is licensed by CC (view license here).

Philip Marlowe’s Big Leap

“Philip Marlowe has taken his place among characters of American myth, with Natty Bumppo, Captain Ahab, Huckleberry Finn, and Thomas Sutpen,” Apparently myth-deprived, I had to look up Sutpen—protagonist of William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! But you knew that.

Marlowe was elevated to this status by Nasrullah Mambrol in a fascinating essay in Literary Theory and Criticism I’d missed until now. Time helps. It’s been sixty-five years since publication of Chandler’s last Marlowe novel, Playback.

Mambrol says Chandler believed detective fiction was a heroic form modern readers could believe in. Modern writers, too, since they continue to follow in his footsteps with greater or lesser success. In last year’s The Goodbye Coast (my review), author Joe Ide erases any doubt about whom he’s emulating by naming his protagonist Philip Marlowe.

Raymond Chandler, Philip Marlowe, Humphrey Bogart
(art: wikimedia.org)

Establishing a realistic hero in modern times wasn’t an easy decision. The American frontier had disappeared, removing the possibility of stories about the self-reliant loner pitted against the hostile forces of man, beast, and terrain. (I’m ignoring the nomadic Jack Reacher here.) Chandler’s heroes instead inhabit what he termed “the mean streets,” whether they emerge from a back alley or run past gilded mansions. Says Mambrol, he’s “more interested in exploring cruelty and viciousness among the very rich than among the people of the streets.” This to me also has many more dramatic possibilities. Characters at the very bottom of the social ladder rarely have much agency. It’s the people higher up in society who do have choices and who make bad ones that interest me.

Chandler believed strongly in the possibilities of redemption, though many of his contemporaries were shunning that aspect of heroic tradition. Except, Chandler believed, Hemingway. When a character in Farewell, My Lovely, asks Marlowe who Hemingway is, he says “A guy that keeps saying the same thing over and over until you begin to believe it must be good.”

Marlowe’s instinct is to help society’s victims. This makes him both interesting and vulnerable, and he shields himself with a tough-guy persona, but it’s a pose, in which he wisecracks his way through tricky situations. You’ll recognize his protective impulse in the symbolism deployed in The Big Sleep, where a stained glass panel shows a knight in armor rescuing a lady.

With all the forces rending the social fabric and leaving gaping holes for corruption to slip through, Marlowe lives and works by one principle: loyalty, especially client loyalty. In the age of chivalry, people believed in rigid established standards of behavior. In modern times—and one might say, increasingly so—there is no common understanding of “good behavior,” which is why Marlowe developed his own guiding principle.

In this much longer and fascinating essay, Mambrol credits Chandler, particularly The Long Goodbye, with marking the transition of the detective novel into “the realm of serious fiction.” Any crime novels you’ve read lately that make that leap?