My Friends Write!

Despite Covid, my friends who are writers are coming out with new books, but with fewer—or at least vastly different—strategies to let us know about them. I’ve joined any number of their ZOOM and Facebook book launches, followed their social media announcements, and read their marketing emails. By and large, these strategies are interesting and not totally satisfying. Better than nothing, I suppose, if frustrating for them.

Here are three recent books by writer friends not reviewed here before. Dick Belsky and Al Tucher I know from crime writing conferences and events sponsored by the New York chapter of Mystery Writers of America. I haven’t met PA De Voe in person, but we’ve bonded over a shared passion for Robert van Gulik’s Tang Dynasty magistrate, Judge Dee Goong An. I mentioned James McCrone’s new political thriller yesterday. Click on the book’s title for my Amazon affiliate link.

The Last Scoop

RG Belsky is a former New York City newsman who’s turned his intimate knowledge of the city and its characters into a number of engaging crime novels. In this story, harried Channel 10 news director Clare Carlson is in the middle of both a puzzling murder story and a potential exposé of city political shenanigans. In following clues left by her late mentor, she gradually uncovers what would have been his last scoops: a previously unrecognized serial killer on the loose and a pattern of mob payoffs. Clare is a bull in a china shop, but she has a powerful, self-deprecating sense of humor, and the demands of the daily news cycle keep her plowing forward at speed. Read my full review here.

Pele’s Domain

A novella set in Hawai`i is almost too appealing. This new story by Al Tucher brings the lore, the multicultural mix, the unique foods, and the island attitude front and center once again. Pele, the volcano goddess, is acting up, and the volcano that’s her home, Kilauea, is erupting spectacularly.

For residents of the raggedy communities in the path of the searing lava, the eruptions are more deadly hazard than spectacle. Trees, houses, cars—all incinerated. Perfect places to hide a couple of murders. The ironic contrast between tropical paradise and dirty dealing in Tucher’s novels is always fun and, here, Kilauea itself is added to the detectives’ adversaries. Read my full review here.

Judge Lu’s Case Files

If a Hawaiian escape isn’t quite distant enough, go back to Ming Dynasty China where PA De Voe channels what must be an earlier incarnation to write with such authenticity her novels and short stories set in that period.

The twelve short stories in this collection have straightforward plots, partly a result of their length and party the reality that cases in that era had to be wrapped up in a day or two. Plus, miscreants were expected to confess, and “encouraged” to do so by their jailers.

Although the stories take place more than 600 years ago, they provide timeless insights into human behavior. Read my full review here.

****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

****The Kennedy Connection

Kennedy half-dollar

photo: Eric Golub, creative commons license

By R.G. BelskyAuthor Belsky was most recently managing editor of news for NBCNews.com and is a former managing editor for the New York Daily News, among other journalistic posts. He has ample experience to write authoritatively about his main character and first-person narrator, Gil Malloy, a down-on-his luck Daily News reporter, and about the book’s Manhattan setting. The Kennedy Connection is the first in the Gil Malloy series and takes place in 2013, as the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination approaches.

When we meet Malloy, he’s been disgraced after a serious breach of journalistic ethics. Though he kept his job, he’s assigned to the newsroom dregs, while he watches another young reporter, Carrie Bratten, acquire the mantle of up-and-comer that he once wore. Frustrated with his second-class citizenship, he’s a little too quick to latch onto a story he thinks will redeem him.

Meanwhile, his former agent asks him to help her get publicity for a new book. The hook? The author claims to be Lee Harvey Oswald, Jr., illegitimate son of Kennedy’s assassin. Oswald, Jr.,  believes the book will clear his father’s name.

And a police buddy asks him to investigate the death of a young ex-gang member from the South Bronx, Victor Reyes. Reyes was shot 15 years earlier, left a paraplegic, and finally died when the bullet lodged in his spine worked loose and traveled to his heart. The unknown malefactor who shot him is now a murderer. Malloy’s friend is killed by a drunk driver before the reporter can do more than conduct a few initial interviews with family and cops on that case. Now one is a serious drunk and another’s a deputy police commissioner.

These distractions are soon cut short when a series of murders begins, each with a Kennedy half-dollar left at the scene. These deaths seem too much of a coincidence, taking into account the revelations of the new book by Oswald, Jr., especially when someone sends Malloy a letter promising more mayhem. In the envelope, a Kennedy half-dollar.

Malloy is teamed up with Bratten to cover this high-profile story and again riding high in his journalistic world. Author Belsky does a good job making Malloy a likeable character who could use a little more personal insight. The other newsroom characters are also well drawn, and there’s some engaging banter.

Just like Jake Epping in Stephen King’s 11/22/63, the character of Oswald, Jr., is trying to rewrite the history of JFK’s assassination and, like Jake, ends up having second thoughts about meddling with the past. Efforts to deconstruct what Malloy calls “the greatest murder mystery in history” have a substantial literary pedigree, from King’s work to Don DeLillo’s Libra, to James Ellroy’s American Tabloid, to Tim Baker’s Fever City. Belsky has made an engaging contribution to this lineage.

A longer version of this review appeared on CrimeFictionLover.com.