Delicious Mayhem in 3 Crime Thrillers

reading, book

photo: Kamil Porembiński, creative commons license

Recent vacations gave me the chance to delve into my scary pile of “to-read” books, where I discovered these gems. I hope you’ll enjoy them too.

*****The Poison Artist

By Jonathan Moore – About this psychological thriller Stephen King said, “I haven’t read anything so terrifying since Red Dragon.” Based in San Francisco, it’s the story of a UCSF professor of toxicology asked to help look for the presence of poisons in a set of torture-murder victims. Something very grim haunts the scientist’s past, his wife has left him, and he becomes obsessed with a beautiful, absinthe-drinking woman named Emmeline, whom he meets in an exclusive late-night bar. As the number of victims increases and he comes to know Emmeline better, he suspects she may be linked to the murders, but could he give her up? Is he the next victim? Smartly written and thoroughly immersive.

****Forgiving Mariela Camacho

By A.J. Sidransky – NYPD detectives Pete Gonzalvez and Tolya Kurchenko discover the body of a young woman inside what’s meant to look like an elaborate suicide device, but they see what really happened: murder. And Gonzalvez knows the victim, a Dominican beauty named Mariela Camacho whom he once loved. Maybe still does. As this police procedural unwinds, you learn more about Gonzalvez’s early life in the Dominican Republic, and the code the people he grew up with lived by. Kurchenko also has reasons to look into his past and his family’s enemies in Russia. Past and present move toward a deadly collision in this fast-moving ride through the city streets. It’s also a powerful testament to friendship. The detectives’ banter—spiced with Dominican Spanish—is entertaining and genuine. The book won the 2016 David Award at the annual Deadly Ink conference.

****The Good Cop

By Brad Parks – Reporter Carter Ross is based in Newark, New Jersey, quietly rebelling against the commodification of the news for internet and social media tastes. This is the fourth book featuring Ross and his wicked sense of humor. He needs it, because his work takes him to some pretty dark places. Ross is looking into the suicide death of Newark policeman Darius Kipps and before long decides the death wasn’t a suicide at all. Clues are hard to come by, though, and he can recognize stonewalling when he encounters it. The paper accepts the official story, so he’s pretty much on his own, depending for help on a lively and engaging set of secondary characters. Absinthe is drunk (apparently I missed a trend here). You’re reminded of the importance of deep reporting and a commitment to uncovering the truth somehow lost in the era of “non-stop news” soundbites.

SFMOMA Redo a Hit!


SFMOMA main stair (photo: Tom Ervin, used with permission)

After visiting the magnificent new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA), you may be tempted to hum “I Found My Art in San Francisco.” According to an article in Marin, SFMoMA was the first museum in the West dedicated to displaying 20th century art. Jackson Pollock’s inaugural exhibition was held here, for example.

The 10-story museum addition, which reopened May 14 after a three-year, $305 million makeover, is across from the Yerba Buena Gardens in SOMA (the downtown area south of Market Street) near the Embarcadero.

“In many ways, the unveiling of the new SFMOMA caps a period of transformation that speaks to forces at play in many U.S. cities — the rehabilitation of what had once been dilapidated urban cores. But the museum is also indicative of the role that high culture can play in that process. With its very presence, a museum can help shift the dynamics of a neighborhood,” says Carolina A. Miranda in the LA Times.
The 145,000-sq.ft. added exhibit space displays some 32,000 works—including large installations by Carl Andre and Donald Judd. Most of the inaugural exhibition works have not been seen before, including the impressive 1,000-piece Doris and Donald Fisher Collection, and numerous donated works by contemporary artists, including a gallery of works by color field painter Ellsworth Kelly, who died in 2015. The museum also includes a permanent center of photography and a temporary exhibit on the history of typography in graphic design.

Experience it Online

The eye-popping exterior redesign by Norwegian architecture firm Snohetta includes an oculus—an eye-like opening—and what the New York Times described as a “crinkly” façade of fiberglass-reinforced polymer skin that mimics the bobbing waves of San Francisco Bay. Other critics say the exterior resembles a beached cruise ship or a glacial form. An interactive article by Rene Chun in Wired highlights the museum’s many innovative architectural features.

The first floor is open to the public and includes exhibition space, a well-curated museum store and, soon, a public restaurant featuring culinary contributions from Bay Area chef luminaries such as Alice Waters. You scale a grand staircase flooded with natural light from the oculus to access the gallery floors. Once inside the galleries, a variety of well-executed architectural and artistic elements reveal themselves.

The higher floors have expansive windows running alongside the galleries, and wraparound terraces from which glimpses of the cityscape engage the eye and bring natural light in. A third floor gallery of huge Alexander Calder mobiles opens onto a larger terrace flanked by a three-story wall of native plants from nearby Mount Tamalpais that enhance the green building theme.


Author Jodi Goalstone at SFMOMA (photo: Tom Ervin, used with permission)

To minimize crowding and noise, hidden, one-way only stairs take visitors up or down along with easily accessible elevators. Another clever design element is found, oddly enough, in gallery restrooms. Higher floors’ facilities have a different, bold color scheme. The one I visited had deep purple walls and magenta stalls with soft, subtle lighting.

Because this is a modern art museum, new media is imbedded in the experience. Visitors can explore the museum with an audio tour that provides a personal docent—with a twist. One example: see the museum guided by Hall of Fame baseball broadcaster Jon Miller and San Francisco Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti.

More to Come

Coming soon is an app for virtual visits at “SFMOMA’s chief content officer, Chad Coerver, calls the app ‘a cross between This American Life and the movie Her,’” according to another Chun article.

For more information on tickets, hours and directions, visit

This guest post is by Tucson-based Jodi Goalstone, who writes the highly entertaining blog Going Yard, Offbeat Baseball Musings.

Asian Immigrants’ Tales

suitcase, Asian

adapted from Roger Wagner, creative commons license

The recent success of the movie Brooklyn has reminds us of the universality of immigrant stories in American history (even as anti-immigrant, anti-refugee positions characterize the political discourse). While the immigrant experience is a common thread running through our national character, and the experiences of Irish and Italian immigrants relatively well known, each country’s immigrant story is in many ways as unique as the person and family who dons this new cultural garment.

Shawna Yang Ryan, writing for LitHub (“From There to Here: Five Essential Tales of Immigration”) says “Immigration is anything but pedestrian. To displace one’s self in adulthood, to uproot, to leave behind ways of speaking, moving, being that are second nature is a feat of true grit.” She tells of her own mother’s move to the United States from Taiwan after marrying an American GI, which helped inspire her novel Green Island. Among the tales from other immigrants that she recommends are:

  • Carlos Bulosan’s autobiographical America Is in the Heart, about the struggles and prejudices faced by Filipino farm workers. They worked in America legally (and, by the way, served in the U.S. military), but, says Ryan, were barred from citizenship. His book has been called a brown-skinned Grapes of Wrath.
  • The Namesake, a novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, about the Ganguli family’s move from Kolkata (Calcutta) to Massachusetts and the inter-generational rifts that creates. Pulitzer Prize-winner Lahiri has now taken displacement one step further, living part-time in Italy and writing in that language
  • The “graceful essays” by Andrew Lam, collected in Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora, not only examine what it’s like to come to American, but also the experience of a return visit to Vietnam

On this  theme, I would add these classic award-winners from my bookshelf:

  • Anne Fadiman’s non-fiction The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, the tragic consequences for a Hmong family, whose child is afflicted with epilepsy, when their traditional beliefs collide with modern medicine. (National Book Critics Circle Award, 1997)
  • The unforgettable memoir, The Woman Warrior, by Maxine Hong Kingston, relates her “girlhood among ghosts”—both her female relatives’ ghosts from China and the New World ghosts she encounters: Policeman Ghosts, Social Worker Ghosts, Garbage Ghosts, and Wino Ghosts. (National Book Critics Circle Award, 1976)
  • Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker—one of the early books selected for community-wide reading—about Korean American Henry Park, the “perpetual outsider.” (PEN/Hemingway award for best first novel, 1996)
  • Asian American Dreams, by award-winning journalist Helen Zia describes the transformation of Asian Americans from a small and largely invisible minority to a presence in virtually every facet of American life.
  • In the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Korean American businesses were especially targeted for destruction, with some 1500 looted and destroyed. Blue Dreams, by Nancy Abelmann and John Lie, explores the reasons Koreans were singled out and what happened in the aftermath.
  • The classic Strangers from a Different Shore, by historian Ronald Takaki, lays out the successive waves of Asian immigration in American history, with each nationality’s experience taking place in a different context.

Reader Question:

What favorite books would you recommend that tell the immigrant story?

***Naked Shall I Return

Cliff House fire, San Francisco

(photo: Ed Blerman, creative commons license)

By Christopher Bartley – Noir mysteries set in the 1930s are delicious. Noir mysteries set in the 1930s in San Francisco’s Chinatown are as tasty as a platter of Peking duck. In this complex novel, protagonist and career criminal Ross Duncan is launched on a mysterious quest. An an elusive couple wants him to locate a thing—they’ve never seen it and can’t really describe it—called the Blue Orb, which legend says holds the key to immortality.

Whether Duncan believes this or not is immaterial. The couple also agrees to help him fence a load of stolen jewels that will bankroll him for a good long while and for that reason alone, he’s game. He encounters a succession of interesting characters—opium den impresarios, antiques experts, people whose legends precede them—whose help he might be able to use in locating the Blue Orb. Too bad they keep being murdered before they can provide much assistance.

This book has shady characters galore, a beautiful dame out to bed Duncan, and a plot with more twists and turns than a Chinese Dragon. As it happens, he keeps meeting people connected to Adolph Sutro’s Cliff House who were present when it was destroyed in the famous 1907 fire. That the Blue Orb was smuggled out of tunnels under Cliff House on that fateful day is just one theory about its fate that Duncan must run to ground.

I wouldn’t have heard about this entertaining book if it weren’t for a review on the Crime Fiction Lover website—a great source for tips about the latest thriller, mystery, and crime novels, author interviews, and the like. Some of my reviews appear there too.

*****Ghost Fleet

navy ships, ghost fleet

America’s “ghost fleet” (photo: Ingrid Taylar, creative commons license)

By P. W. Singer and August Cole – This gripping thriller about what the next world war might look like has captured the attention of Washington policymakers and defense industry insiders alike. Singer is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan Washington, D.C., think tank, and Cole is a former defense industry reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

Unlike so many other speculative fiction outings, this one is based on technologies already plausibly “in the works,” and the authors provide 374 endnotes to backstop the action and interfere with readers’ ability to sleep peacefully at night. Ghost Fleet is a novel of the post-Snowden world, in which the techniques the U.S. National Security Agency used on others are turned back against the Americans.

The story begins at the International Space Station. Russia and China have declared war against the United States, and a U.S. Air Force Colonel, on a disastrously timed space-walk, becomes the unwitting point of the spear. Oblivious to the political developments taking place on the blue globe spinning below, he finds the ISS reentry hatches sealed against him. “Goodbye, my friend. I am truly sorry. It is orders,” says his Russian cosmonaut colleague.

It’s the initial action in a war fought not solely, but significantly, in cyberspace. Takeover of the ISS enables the analogous Chinese space station, Tiangong-3, to systematically knock out every communications satellite that U.S. armed forces depend on. It soon becomes apparent that not only the satellites are down, all local-area communications networks are compromised, because military suppliers have been using low-cost Chinese-made computer chips in their planes, ships, and communications equipment by the unidentifiable thousands, and these chips are insecure, tiny moles. Only the mothballed planes and ships destined for the scrapyard–the Ghost Fleet–are now safe: “The 707 passenger-jet derivatives did not have a modern chip anywhere, unlike the new KC-46s, which had turned out to be missile magnets like all the other Chinese-chipped gear.” This new top-to-bottom vulnerability of the military, which has become overly confident in the security of its communications systems, shows in brilliant and devastating relief.

This is a multiple point-of-view novel, with short scenes from many locations involving numerous protagonists, though most of the action takes place in the Pacific, San Francisco, and Hawaii, where “The Directorate”—comprising Chinese military, along with Russian elements under their command—has established an important outpost. At the story’s heart are the trials of the USS Zumwalt, an oddly designed, mothballed ship recalled into action after much of the modern U.S. fleet is destroyed—again at Pearl Harbor. The Zumwalt’s newly appointed captain, Jamie Simmons, is challenged militarily and by relations with his estranged father, retired chief petty officer Mike Simmons. Like the vintage tin cans—seagoing and aerial—rescued for the U.S. counterattack, retired military personnel are called back into service, and by some inevitable cosmic sense of humor or irony, Mike is assigned to the Zumwalt.

Other principal characters include: a Hawaiian woman working as a freelance assassin who is tracked by the omnipresent surveillance drones and a live Russian operative; a small team of surviving Marine insurgents harassing the Chinese forces on Oahu; a Russian who attempts to aid the Americans and ends up in a neuroscience laboratory nightmare; Sun-Tzu-spouting Admiral Wang, captain of the Chinese battleship Admiral Zheng He; and a wealthy Brit-turned-space-privateer. Other non-state players also emerge, providing a level of DIY unpredictability.

The epigrams for the several parts of the book come from Sun-Tzu’s advice to warriors, and the one for Part 3 is “All warfare is based on deception.” The levels of deception between the Chinese and Russian “allies,” between the antagonists, and arising from the inability to rely on secure communications is paranoia-inducing. Meanwhile, the roles of drones and robots escalate, which is great when they’re yours.

If you are a fan of techno-thrillers, like I am, this novel is the ultimate: fast-paced, high stakes, well-grounded, and, one may hope, consequential. International readers may be disappointed that the book is so US-centric—a casualty of “write what you know” or a realization that there’s already so much going on, we have to stop somewhere?! The book doesn’t come to a too-tidy conclusion, either, and that is also sadly realistic. The authors use it to explore in a vivid way what might happen and what we should be thinking about before it comes to pass.

****The Breaks

streetwalker, San Francisco

(photo: David Selsky, creative commons license)

By Eden Sharp – In the hardboiled thriller The Breaks, readers are introduced to two engaging and memorable characters—private investigator Angela McGlynn and her sometime associate John Knox. McGlynn is self-assured and sassy, a computer hacking whiz and martial arts expert, not above using her attractiveness to lure bad guys into compromising positions. Knox is a recently discharged U.S. Marine with PTSD haunted by his Afghanistan experiences. McGlynn takes on Knox as a favor to a friend, who thinks the man needs something to occupy him, a way to feel useful again, and, as the case she’s embarking on turns darker and more dangerous, she’s damn glad to have him at her side.

This thriller takes place in San Francisco, where you can go from exclusive neighborhood to dangerous gang territory in a few steps. “The worst parts were only blocks away from the tourist traps and not marked on the map. It was easy to stray off track.” All strata of society are compressed on that small peninsula, and McGlynn and Knox stray way off track in this complex story, presented in short scenes from multiple points of view. McGlynn narrates in the first person, keeping her in the center of the action, but the scenes from Knox and others are third-person. There are quite a few characters to keep in your head, and I often had to use the search function to find the first mention of a name to place them.

Trouble begins when a retired suburban high school teacher asks McGlynn to find his teenage daughter. She’s run away from home, missing two weeks, and the police aren’t doing much. About all the father can tell McGlynn about the girl’s disappearance is that she had a serious cocaine habit and threatened to turn to prostitution to support it. Through her contacts in the community of working girls, McGlynn finds who the girl has been running with.

McGlynn suspects the girl was snatched because of an identity mix-up. She was carrying the stolen phone and I.D. of the daughter of a big-time narcotics smuggler. The police are trying to pull off an ambitious sting operation against him. But as they move forward, they keep tripping over McGlynn and Knox, and they aren’t happy.

Meanwhile, apart from her paying work for clients like the distraught dad, McGlynn uses her hacking skills to expose child pornographers. She’s tracked down a big-time seller of these images who lives in the city and is scheming to put him out of business.

These three skeins of criminality and investigation inevitably become tangled, which makes for a challenging guessing game among McGlynn, Knox, the cops, and the reader. Sharp has a talent for energetic prose that keeps this complicated story moving and the ability to put her characters in credible danger. The choreography of the final showdown scene is a little confusing, though the outcome is clear.

Ironically, I learned more about Knox’s character and motivations than McGlynn’s, despite the first-person narration. It makes for an interesting switch in expectations that McGlynn reacts to situations (after sex, in dangerous straits) in a coolly logical way typically associated with male protagonists, whereas Knox, because the trauma of his war experience is just under the skin, has more emotional reactions. One of the most interesting and insightful aspects of the novel is McGlynn’s running analysis of people’s psychology in various situations.

Sharp has a few troublesome writing tics, and the novel would have benefited from copy-editing and proofreading. Nevertheless, it’s an engaging read, and I look forward to more from her and the further exploits of McGlynn and Knox.

A slightly longer version of this review appeared on the Crime Fiction Lover website.

****Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore

books, bookshelves, library

(photo: PromoMadrid, creative commons license)

By Robin Sloan, read by Ari Fliakos – This book was on many “best books of 2012” lists, and it’s tremendously entertaining. The narrator, Clay Jannon, is an unemployed web marketer who finds work as the sole night shift clerk at a strange San Francisco bookstore. The store stocks little current or popular inventory and attracts few customers; however, it has masses of arcane, one-of-a-kind reading matter that is not for sale, merely borrowed. The borrowers are regulars, a “community of people who orbit the store like strange moons,” taking out volume after volume of the dusty materials. Clay has been warned not to read these texts, and any of you who recall Bluebeard’s wife know what’s coming next.

Lost in the shadows of the shelves, I almost fall off the ladder. I am exactly halfway up. The floor of the bookstore is far below me, the surface of a planet I’ve left behind. The tops of the shelves loom high above, and it’s dark up there — the books are packed in close, and they don’t let any light through. The air might be thinner, too. I think I see a bat.

I am holding on for dear life, one hand on the ladder, the other on the lip of a shelf, fingers pressed white. My eyes trace a line above my knuckles, searching the spines — and there, I spot it. The book I’m looking for.

The prohibited books are in code.

As he’s starting to suspect more going on than meets the eye, Clay meets Kat Potente, an expert in data visualization working for Google, and, determined to impress her, he creates a computer model of the store. When powerful computers match the book borrowing records against the store model, strange patterns appear. Together Clay and Kat embark on a quest to figure out the store’s coded secrets. They soon encounter a strange 500-year-old society of academics, the Unbroken Spine.

Against the society’s hundreds of years’ experience with OK (Google-speak for Old Knowledge) is arrayed all the creativity and computing power of the Googleplex, along with Clay’s colorful friends, and kindly Mr. Penumbra himself. The book “dexterously tackles the intersection between old technologies and new with a novel that is part love letter to books, part technological meditation, part thrilling adventure, part requiem” said Roxane Gay in The New York Times (though I disagree with her “requiem”). The plot isn’t really the point—it’s a flight of fancy—but the juxtapositions of old and new raise significant questions about the enduring power of print, about the value of the search as well as the answer.

On its journey, the novel gently skewers some of the greater pretensions of Silicon Valley and those who feverishly embrace—and reject—technology. But in a good way. Numerous times while listening, I laughed out loud. The reading by Ari Fliakos was breathless and eager, a perfect voice for the 20-something Clay. Since I listened to the audio version, I missed the clever touch that the book cover glows in the dark.

****The White Van

police, San Francisco, passersby

(photo: Thomas Hawk, Creative Commons license)

By Patrick Hoffman — This is a story about what happens when people get in way, way over their heads. At its center is 31-year-old Emily Rosario, a down-on-her-luck San Francisco woman living on society’s sharp edges. “She was pretty, but in a beat-up way. She would have been prettier in a different life.” One with fewer drugs and kinder men.

The story opens with Emily being picked up in a Tenderloin district dive bar. The Russian man who approaches her, doesn’t look dangerous. He has money, he’s clean. And he has crack. With these thin rationalizations, she accompanies him to his hotel near the airport. Soon she’s being fed more drugs than she’s bargained for. Three Russians keep her for a week in a state of semi-stupefaction, then, still foggy, send her into a bank to carry off the pretense of a robbery. Now in possession of a satchel containing $880,000, she stumbles out of the bank, but instead of climbing into the robbers’ waiting white van, she steps back into the bank, nabs the security guard’s gun, and sends him running. Confused, with sirens approaching, the van driver takes off. Emily emerges and runs away. The robbers have lost her and, of infinitely greater concern, the cash.

Meanwhile, Leo Elias and his younger partner Gary Trammell, members of the SFPD’s Gang Task Force cruise the streets. Elias’s recent string of lousy financial decisions is fast catching up with him. This robbery seems to Elias like a crime he might be able to solve. And in solving it, he means to steal the money for himself. Elias draws Trammell in, and as they sink deeper and deeper into a case they have no authority to investigate, Elias acts crazier and crazier. Trammell, unsure what to do, decides to just go along, at least for a while.

Emily can’t quite make up her mind to leave San Francisco, but the Russians and the two increasingly desperate cops are on her trail. A private detective has staked out her crib, and if any of her neighbors even suspect what’s in that bag she never lets out of her sight, her life will be over in a finger-snap.

Saying much more would spoil Patrick Hoffman’s well-planned plot twists, but suffice it to say, they keep coming. He has lived in San Francisco and worked as an investigator, and his knowledge of the city and its geography, his familiarity with police procedures, and—even better—his understanding of police attitudes is totally convincing. Here’s an example: “Delgado [the police union representative] leaned toward Elias and whispered, ‘There were a couple cameras in the alley, but none of them caught the incident. Which is to say, your memory of what happened is the correct version.’” He also understands the psychology of people in trouble. Through his obsessive attention to their state of mind, he puts readers right in both Elias’s and Emily’s heads as the tension and the stakes continue to mount.

This terrific debut novel is a true page-turner. Start reading this book and you won’t want to stop.

A longer version of this review is available on the Crime Fiction Lover website.