Long Bright River

By Liz Moore – This family thriller, set in Philadelphia, is on a number of “best books of 2020” lists, and for good reason. Mickey Fitzpatrick is a 30-something female police officer who loves her patrol job, loves her intimacy with the Kensington area that’s her beat, knows who lives there, who serves the best coffee, who the working girls are, and generally tries to keep bad things from happening.

She’s called out to the site where the body of a young woman has been discovered by disused train tracks. The terror coursing through her body doesn’t subside until she sees the dead woman is not her younger sister Kacey, a many-times-relapsed drug user who’s disappeared. Mickey fears the worst.

The novel’s third significant character is Philadelphia itself, whose gritty neighborhoods and obscure loyalties take on real life in Moore’s telling. Mickey has tried many times to pull Kacey away from the dark side, but every time, the drugs lure her back. That’s an old and familiar story, but the way Moore builds the relationship between the sisters makes it compelling nonetheless.

Mickey is the older of the two—the quiet, bookish one. Kacey was the social butterfly. Their mother died of an overdose, and their father died too. They were raised by their grandmother, a strict and bitter woman with little money and even less affection to share.

Now Kacey’s in the wind, and Mickey takes every opportunity to look for her. At least at home she has a wonderfully bright son, Thomas, whose dad is an older man, a police detective, who befriended the teenage Mickey. He listened to her, gave her understanding and advice, and she responded to his warmth.

I especially enjoyed the scenes with Mickey’s extended family—aunts and uncles, cousins—whom we meet when she drops in unannounced for Thanksgiving. Mickey, with her hard-won academic achievements, is a fish out of water with them. In their opinion, “work was done with your body, with your hands. College was for dreamers and snobs.”

Mickey doesn’t fit in at work, either. Her boss actively dislikes her, and as the local prostitutes’ death count begins to climb, a frantic Mickey takes some liberties with departmental rules. Her suspicions are mostly ignored and even backfire.

The serial killer theme and the good-girl/bad-girl dynamic are crime fiction staples, but the quality of Moore’s writing and the honesty at the novel’s core make them fresh again. And Moore delivers some surprises along the way that will keep you turning pages.

A Trio of Notable Crime Novels

photo: Stew Dean, creative commons license

Exciting plots, award-winning authors, worthy protagonists. Three crime thrillers for spring!

****Slow Horses

By Mick Herron – In Britain’s MI5, the slow horses are the agents whose incompetence, outrageous errors, or general unlikeability cause them to slip off the fast track. They’re stabled at the aptly-named Slough House, far from Regent’s Park, the energized center of important decisions and brisk walking. With luck, sheer boredom will move them to seek some different pasture.

The slow horses work under the benign supervision of Jackson Lamb, who may be more wolf than lamb, and you’d be forgiven for anticipating that the luckless occupants of Slough House are not without tradecraft tools and the wit to use them.

When a young man is abducted by people threatening to behead him live on the Internet, the political complexities of the situation quickly escalate. Slough House has reason to be involved, but HQ won’t hear of it. Worse, a violent attack on one of them suggests any means possible will be used to prevent their sticking their noses in. Slow horses or no, the race is on. Against the kidnappers and against their own superiors.

Herron has written a page-turner of a novel, with many laugh-out-loud moments. This first in an award-winning series was thoroughly enjoyable.

***Night Life

By David C. Taylor, narrated by Keith Szarabajka – In 1954 New York City, police detective Michael Cassidy—who could have inspired Sinatra’s “My Way”—becomes embroiled in a mystery that will require all his detecting skills and a great deal of political savvy to unravel. A young gay man is found tortured to death. The killer was apparently looking for something. Cassidy must look for it too.

He’s not sure what he’ll find when he starts turning over rocks in these early Cold War days, with paranoia about Communism and Communists on the rise, with the hearings of Senator Joe McCarthy’s witch hunt in the news, with the CIA and the FBI competing for scraps of information. Cassidy is a straight-up cop, but he’s unaware of his own vulnerabilities. He’s about to discover them, and they will put the people he cares about most at risk.

Screenwriter Taylor creates a powerful noir atmosphere that evokes not only the streets of New York some sixty years ago but also the psychic atmosphere, with its fear-mongering about the Red Menace and its rampant homophobia. In this novel, both of these caused people to kill and be killed. Nice narration from Keith Szarabajka.

This book won the 2016 Nero Wolfe Award for Best American Mystery, and was a Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award nominee.

***Shutter Man

By Richard Montanari, narrated by Scott Brick – Another good cop story, this one intergenerational. It’s set in Philadelphia, and the early scenes take place in 1976 in an Irish neighborhood called Devil’s Pocket. Back then, a group of teenage friends from the Pocket were involved somehow in the death of a mentally disabled young man who was a member of the powerful Irish crime family, the Farrens.

Today, one of those young men is police detective Kevin Byrne, another is DA candidate Jimmy Doyle, and the Farrens are still operating outside the law. Byrne and his friend, Assistant DA Jessica Balzano (teamed up in several of Montanari’s books) are working on a set of bizarre killings that seem to be linked, but how? And do they reach all the way back to those Devil’s Pocket days?

Montanari’s characters are interesting and well-rounded and he creates considerable narrative tension. While Scott Brick provided a fine narration, the multitude of characters and the switching between time periods make this a better candidate for enjoying in print.

One of The New York Times‘s 10 Best Crime Novels of 2016.

More Philadelphia Outdoor Art Magic

Isaiah Zagar, Philadelphia

(photo: Rob Wanenchak, creative commons license)

Although Philadelphia street-art may be most famous for its astonishing array of some 4000 public murals and several world-famous sculptures, the city is also home to a quirky collection of outdoor mosaic art by Isaiah Zagar. He has covered storefronts, purpose-built walls, doorways, and the fully mosaicked gallery spaces and labyrinth sculpture garden called “Magic Gardens” at 1020 South Street. Online resources include a map of the locations of Zagar’s mosaic installations in his Center City neighborhood.

Philadelphia-born Zagar assembles his elaborate designs from broken pottery, pieces of mirror, bottles, and even unexpected materials like bicycle wheels. They are a sprightly addition to the area’s staid colonial architecture, and on a sunny day wink at passersby with their color and shine. In order to make art more accessible to wider audiences and to engage more people in artistic creation, the Magic Gardens hold monthly Mosaic Mural Workshops and Family Jams.

Isaiah Zagar, Philadelphia

(photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

Zagar’s work is included in the permanent collections of a number of prominent museums, and he has received numerous awards. He says his work makes reference to other visionary artists from around the world who have created memorable public art environments, such as those here. (If Philadelphia isn’t near you, perhaps the work of one of these other eccentric creatives is!)

Zagar’s son Jeremiah made a well regarded “warts and all” film about the family and Isaiah’s artistic ambitions, In a Dream.


Enlarging Your Travel Circle:

  • Philadelphia is less than 50 miles away when you’re visiting Wilmington (33 miles)
  • About 100 miles away when you’re in New York (96) or Baltimore (101) and
  • Only 140 miles away when you’re in Washington, D.C.

Mural Capital of the World!

mural, philadelphia

“Building the City” by Michael Webb (photo: Erik Anestad, creative commons license)

Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program has become a world leader in public art and community involvement with the amazing 4,000 murals it has supported now gracing the exterior walls of all types of buildings. Many of them, like “Building the City” above, use trompe l’oeil techniques that make you look twice: where does the building end and the mural begin?!

The roots of the program are in an initiative city government began 30 years ago to combat graffiti. But it has gone far beyond that limited goal, to become a positive force in the community, with a rich array of activities and initiatives. A key success factor was the decision to create a nonprofit organization to run the program, which allows it to raise money and increase its annual budget manyfold. Now only $1 in $6 comes from City of Philadelphia coffers.

The murals are community projects in every sense, in that neighborhood people actively participate in decisions about what and whom each mural should depict, and they also may help actually create the mural. The technology for producing murals has advanced in ways that enable groups as diverse as schoolchildren and prison inmates to help. Inmates are taught program-related job skills that may help them find future employment. Graffiti is rarely a problem on walls with murals, and community murals can motivate local development and pride. As MAP director Jane Golden says, “Art ignites change.”

In the old days, scaffolding or cherry-pickers were used to lift painters to the top of their big outdoor “canvas.” Some murals are still produced that way, with paint applied directly to the carefully prepared wall. Today, however, many murals are painted in pieces—usually five feet by five feet—on parachute cloth, which is what allows them to be worked on off-site. The painted cloths pieces are then glued in place on the wall. Over the years, paints used in the murals have improved too.

Because of UV protection, they are less likely to fade, and are expected to last from 25 to 30 years. Eight to 10 are scheduled for refurbishment each year. Although most of the murals are painted, some are partially or wholly completed in ceramic tiles.

The Mural Arts Program offers many guided tours—by neighborhood, by theme, by artist—allowing visitors to explore this remarkable public resource. Some of the tours are by trolley, segway, or bicycle. People who want go their own way will find a guide online. Many murals have collateral information available by app or phone.

Enlarging Your Travel Circle:

  • Philadelphia is less than 50 miles away when you’re visiting Wilmington (33 miles)
  • About 100 miles away when you’re in New York (96) or Baltimore (101) and
  • Only 140 miles away when you’re in Washington, D.C.