Dust Off Your Library Card

chalk outline, body

You see so many reviews of brand new crime novels on this website because, as you may know, I read and review them for the fantastic UK website CrimeFictionLover.com. Occasionally, I dig into my book pile and find something not suitable for CFL. Possibly it’s a book that’s been out a while, a new book already reviewed by CFL or in one case below, great non-fiction. A post for another day is a list of not-crime books. There is such a thing!

***Identical
By Scott Turow (2013) – if you want a novel full of twists and turns, this one has it. If you want a novel that stretches the bonds of plausibility, you have that too. Twin brothers Cass and Paul (Castor and Pollux, get it?) couldn’t be more different. One is running for city mayor, the other about to be released from jail after 25 years. He pled guilty to the murder of his girlfriend Aphrodite Kronon. Confusions worthy of the ancient Greeks and arising from twinhood are here, fairly predictably.

****Statute of Limitations
By Steven F. Havill (2006) – This is one of Havill’s meticulous police procedurals set in small-town New Mexico. I’ve read three of them, and I love them! A retired police chief abandoned after collapsing from a heart attack, a body in an arroyo, a late-night attack—this Christmas season is certainly not filled with goodwill toward mankind. Under-sheriff Estelle Reyes-Guzman doesn’t miss a beat.

****The Aosawa Murders
By Riku Onda (2005), translated from the Japanese by Alison Watts – Newly published in English, the scenes in this prize-winning book are like a set of still lifes. Different points of view describe a crime in which 17 members of a single family were murdered, with only one survivor, a young blind woman. Gradually, the crime is pieced together. Lovely writing, stellar cover.

***False Light
By Claudia Riess (2019) – This is the second outing for amateur sleuths, art experts, and randy spouses Erika Shawn and Harrison Wheatley. Their challenge this time is to decipher a coded message from a famous art forger, now dead. Supposedly, it will identify some of his works masquerading in prestigious collections as the real thing. It’s a great set-up, and if you’re a fan of art world skullduggery, you may enjoy this, but I found the denouement implausible.

*****Breaking and Entering
By Jeremy N. Smith (2019) – Subtitled “the extraordinary story of a hacker called ‘alien,’” this is the nonfiction story of a woman’s career from her exploits as an MIT undergraduate through to her current role consulting with banks, government agencies, and others on security issues. Cybersecurity is their big concern, and she and her team are cyber experts, but they also routinely prove to clients that good old humanware can be their weakest link. Fascinating.

How Authors Get Police Procedures Right

Guest Post: Author John Schembra

Are you writing police mystery-thrillers? Want to get the policing details right? I do too, though I may have an advantage, having been a police officer for 30 years in Contra Costa County, east of San Francisco.

The home setting for my books is the San Francisco Police Department, but sometimes my characters must seek the help of or coordinate with other departments or federal agencies. Cross-jurisdictional situations present a challenge for writers, as not all law enforcement agencies conduct investigations the same way. General investigative protocols are roughly the same, but every department will have its own set of procedures. These differences may affect evidence collection, interrogations, interviews, use-of-force policies, and so on. The list is long.

Meanwhile, your readers have diverse backgrounds, which means there is always that person out there who will know if you make a mistake—and probably tell you so. Research is critical. Knowing how a particular agency conducts investigations, along with its personnel’s everyday duties, adds realism and actually makes the writing simpler, helping you manage the possibilities.

Getting police procedures right has other benefits too. It can make a difference in whether readers believe your story, which has a big impact on whether they like your work overall. If they do, your book could show up in a favorable review, and your fans can give it good marks in discussions with other potential readers. Unfortunately, if you get those details wrong, it could mean a less than sterling review, and none of us want that.

But how do you conduct the research you need? The best way is to talk to a police officer from the agency you are writing about. In my books, set in the SFPD, I was lucky that my best friend’s son and daughter-in-law were SFPD officers, and the wife was a forensics and crime scene technician. They were a big help whenever I needed answers to a procedural question.

In addition, I’m a member of the Public Safety Writers’ Association, whose membership is made up of people from around the country with police, fire, emergency medical service, and military backgrounds and the people who write about them. That network is unfailingly helpful to writers.

If the agency in your book is fictitious, model its procedures after an agency that resembles it. Look for one of similar size, serving a community with similar demographics, and use its procedures.

Very likely the agency you’re using as a setting will have a website, and you can contact (via email) the public information officer. I have found them to be very accommodating and willing to help. They want policing information to be correct too!

Bottom line: getting it right is satisfying and enjoyable for readers and, I believe, makes the story easier to write. It enables you to cover the all-important details that will make your readers feel they were there.

John Schembra spent a year with the 557th MP Company at Long Binh, South Vietnam, in 1970. His experiences as a combat MP contributed to his first book, M.P., A Novel of Vietnam. Upon completing his military service, John joined the Pleasant Hill (California) Police Department in Contra Costa County. In 2001, he retired from there as a Sergeant, after 30 years of service. His second novel, Retribution (2007), describes homicide detective Vince Torelli’s hunt for a serial killer. Since then, he’s published two more novels featuring Torelli—Diplomatic Immunity (2012)and Blood Debt (2019)—as well as the stand-alone, Sin Eater (2016).

Egypt Adventure: Security

Close quarters in the temple at Sakkara
Close quarters in the temple at Sakkara

The first question almost everyone asked when they learned I was traveling to Egypt had to do with safety. So let me tell you what has been done to protect tourists—vitally important to the country, as tourism is a multibillion-dollar source of revenue and a huge employer. Tourism is on the rise again in Egypt, and our guide estimated it’s reached about 80 percent of pre-2011 levels. It’s an odd balancing act, really, with concerns about safety on one hand and wanting to see these popular monuments sans crowds on the other.

Friends who visited Egypt shortly after the Arab spring had the Valley of the Kings almost to themselves. By contrast, we visited it on the same 95-degree day as the vice-premiere of China and his many perspiring, black-suited minions, big video cameras, and hangers-on. That was a special case, but you could see how a crowd affects the experience.

There is a big police presence in Egypt, and wherever you drive, as you enter a new jurisdiction, there are knots of police, road barriers that must be negotiated—drivers cannot just barrel through—and elevated sentry posts, most of which have six or eight inches of a rifle barrel sticking out of them. If the young man inside sees you driving by in your bus, he smiles and waves.

As I understand it, whenever 10 or more tourists travel anywhere, they must be accompanied by the Tourist Police, and several times our three buses had to await the arrival of our police escort. Usually that escort consists of a police car in front or behind. In one rural area, the accompanying officer was so energized by this assignment that he gave us lights and sirens—charming and embarrassing in equal measure. Traveling to some sites, our security detail also involved a plainclothes policeman (always a man) traveling with us inside each bus. Yes, they were armed. Once when I lagged behind the group to take a picture, I noticed one of our accompanying officers discreetly hanging back to make sure I got back with the group. The tour company also had staff keeping track of us, especially in crowds, watching out for turned ankles, falls, over-insistent hawkers, and the like. Probably the right word here is teamwork.

On the boat there were police, but they were invisible to us, and a guy whom we’d occasionally see coming in from deck patrol carrying an AK-47. Our itinerary did not include the Red Sea or the Sinai Peninsula, where security is likely much tighter, as that’s where most of the trouble has occurred.

All this is separate from the well-armed security personnel working at the monuments themselves and not specifically for our tour. When we were at the pyramids, I even saw a policeman on a camel!

The Semiramis Hotel in Cairo has two public entrances, each guarded by a clutch of uniformed police and a sniffer dog that walks around every car, even checking the trunk. It’s next door to the British Embassy and adjacent to the US Embassy, and security around those blocks is extreme—piles of big, ugly concrete block the streets, police everywhere. The US embassy is capped by something that looks like a rural water tower—stuffed with listening gear, I suppose—and has asked the hotel to confiscate guests’ binoculars. Our guide advised us of this in advance and suggested simply, don’t bring them. They are returned on check-out.

Any well organized, reputable tour company and hotel probably provides these levels of security. Was it oppressive? Not at all. I viewed it as a preventive measure. I was never made uneasy by anything or anyone I encountered, even on a post-tour day-trip to Alexandria with only a guide and a driver. And, at the major sites we always had generous “free time” to wander where we wanted to, take pictures, soak in the atmosphere. Probably when we were on group outings our escorts kept an eye on us, but it wasn’t obvious. When we struck out on our own from the hotel or boat, we were unaccompanied (and the hawkers knew it!).

Egypt Adventure: The Nile
Egypt Adventure: Muslim Dress
Egypt Adventure: Cairo’s Ancient Sights/Sites

Photo: Vicki Weisfeld. I did not take pix of any of the security or police!

NETFLIX: Unbelievable

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

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

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

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

****The Honorary Jersey Girl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Emilia, creative commons license

****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

***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

Seasoning Dinner with Crime: Second Course

Forensic psychologist Louis Schlesinger of John Jay College of Criminal Law spoke to the NY chapter of Mystery Writers of America after dinner last week. Yesterday, I summarized his points about staging a homicide scene and undoing a murder—both aspects of criminality that writers may find useful in their diabolical plotting. Here’s more.

Foreign Objects

Schlesinger has written about foreign object insertions, a topic he considered not suitable to delve into in a postprandial talk, except to say that about half are not discovered until autopsy and the moths found in the throats of The Silence of the Lambs killer’s victims were not realistic. Why not? I wonder. He’s published an article on this topic, and if you’re super-curious, you can access the full article here.

Serial and Sexual Homicides

Serial and sexual homicides often involve rituals and follow a pattern—a “signature.” The murder alone is not psychologically sufficient to fulfill the killer’s intent. Creating any kind of an elaborate crime scene tableau requires time, which increases the risk of apprehension. Taking this extra risk shows how important that aspect of the crime is to him.

Recall Douglas Preston’s true-crime book, The Monster of Florence, about a series of 16 (at least) murders that took place in north Italy between 1968 and 1985. The killer’s victims often had complicated wounds that would have taken some time to inflict, yet as I recall, the bodies were found in well frequented lovers’ lanes. It was a mystery how he got away with it for so long. (Preston’s book describes the horribly botched investigation masterminded by prosecutor Giuliano Mignini. Over the course of Mignini’s “investigation,” he prosecuted some 20 individuals, all of whom were subsequently acquitted. If his name rings a bell, Mignini was also responsible for the mishandling of the case against Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito.)

But just because a serial killer has a signature, he may vary it occasionally, depending on circumstances. These variations crop up anywhere in the series of killings and can take many forms, making identification of all the victims in a challenge for your fictional investigator.

Psychopathic serial killers are typically of average intelligence, Schlesinger said, with Ted Bundy the exception that proves the rule. What they’re very smart about is masking their pathology. Maybe that’s why a killer’s neighbors and co-workers always say, “He seemed like such a normal average guy!”

Trends

Schlesinger pointed to several trends of interest to crime writers. Advances in emergency medicine that have helped save injured military personnel on the battlefield have been imported to our city hospitals. Many people whose injuries would have been fatal a few years ago now can be saved. That’s the good news, partly responsible for holding murder rates down.

The bad news is that, despite more police and better analytic techniques, only about 60 percent of murder cases are cleared by an arrest. It isn’t that the police aren’t doing a good job. Back when most murders occurred between people who knew each other, police investigations had something to go on. Today, the increases in random shootings, drive-by killings, drug killings, and gang warfare mean that, absent a confession, the responsible party is forever a question mark. And, they lack the dramatic possibilities of a 20-year feud between neighbors, a wronged lover, or jealous sibling.

Seasoning Dinner with Crime: First Course

The audience’s murder weapons are pen and keyboard, members of the New York chapter of Mystery Writers of America. They came together last week to hear Louis Schlesinger, professor of psychology at Manhattan’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, present some of his insights as a forensic psychologist—very useful stuff for people who write crime stories.

Staging a Homicide Scene

He talked about “crime scene staging,” when killers try to make a murder look like something elsefor examples, as if the a victim died in a fire, in an auto accident, during a robbery, or by suicide.

About one in five domestic homicides is staged, the highest rate for any type of murder, Schlesinger said. Seems to me the main reason he could know that is that they aren’t staged very well. Consider how cleverly writer Gillian Flynn used the idea of staging in Gone Girl. Amy’s disappearance looked to be the result of a kidnapping after a pitched battle in her living room. But the physical evidence didn’t quite add up, so the detectives looked further. One drop of blood in the clean-looking kitchen prompted them to bring out the luminol, which revealed evidence of mopped-up blood. Clearly, something else entirely had gone on there. Of course, what really went on, the reader finds out only much later. A staging double-cross.

Only about five percent of single-victim homicides (not domestic) are staged, in part because of the greater likelihood of witnesses may make staging too difficult. Schlesinger’s studies have found no cases of serial sexual homicide that have been staged, in part because the offenders’ focus is not on misleading investigators, but on something else entirely.

“Undoing” a Murder

If staging is done to mislead the detectives, symbolic reversal—or “undoing”—is done, in a sense, to mislead the perpetrator. It’s a kind of bizarre coping strategy. Especially when a young child has been killed, a mother (usually) may try to reverse the death by tending to the baby, washing it, changing its clothing, psychologically telling herself she was a good, caring mother. Or, she might bandage the child’s injuries (to me, that’s especially creepy).

When the victim is not a child, symbolic reversal is rare, occurring in about one percent of cases. These acts may be as simple as covering the victim’s body, putting it on a sofa or bed, or putting a pillow underneath the victim’s head, for example. In a study of 975 homicides, 11 such cases were found, with 10 of the 11 offenders male and all of the victims female.

Unfortunately, the undoing, which suggests perpetrators’ guilt and remorse, came too late.

Tomorrow: Foreign Objects, Serial and Sexual Homicide, and What’s Trending

Photo: geralt from Pixabay