Picture Santa Claus sitting in front of a blazing fire in the long, dark evenings up at the North Pole and reading my 2021 book reviews. Well, he’s been diligent, and he has suggestions that may fit people on your gift list who are:
My fellow-authors in the anthology inspired by the work of Edgar Allan Poe, Quoth the Raven, have bonded via social media. Tiffany Michelle Brown, author of the story “My Love, In Pieces,” has interviewed a number of us regarding our experience looking at contemporary issues through a Poe-ish lens. Her interview with me is now posted on her website.
I loved Tiffany’s story because it grew from the seed of Poe’s gothic tale “Berenice,” as did my story, “Tooth and Nail.” Yet, they’re so different! She notes that when “Berenice” was first published by the Southern Literary Messenger, readers were so disturbed by its graphic content, they complained to the editor. When Poe published it subsequently, apparently he toned it down a bit. Hmph!
By Val McDermid—There’s a reason readers around the world look forward to a new book by the “queen of crime,” and her legions of fans will not be disappointed with this one! Val McDermid’s new police procedural is her fifth crime thriller featuring Edinburgh police cold case detective Karen Pirie, who’s not above putting her faith in the value of her work above the priorities of her superiors.
Pirie and her trusty ally, Detective Constable Jason Murray, and her untrustworthy new detective sergeant, “that utter shitehawk Gerry McCartney”—sent by the new Assistant Chief Constable Ann Markie to spy on Pirie, she’s sure—try to unravel three different cold cases.
They’re tackling the first, a series of brutal 30-year-old rapes, with recently obtained information about a vehicle that may have been involved. In the second, they’re flouting the rules to stay involved in a current-day situation: Pirie has overheard two women in a coffee shop planning to confront a hostile estranged husband. It’s a poor strategy with a strong potential for violence, and Pirie tells them so—advice not received as kindly as it was intended. It’s a testament to McDermid’s narrative skills that the pursuit of these two cases, subplots, really, are every bit as engaging as the team’s biggest and much more tangled investigation.
In an opening scene set in Wester Ross, Scotland, in 1944, two friends bury a pair of large crates in a peat bog. Seventy years later, the granddaughter of one of them returns to the Highlands to claim her inheritance. Using her grandfather’s map to the hiding place, she and her husband approach the local crofter, Hamish Mackenzie, a handsome fellow who might have swaggered out of the pages of Outlander. He agrees to help them dig.
The excavation proceeds smoothly. One crate up: in it, a pristine (I won’t say what; I’ll let you discover this treasure for yourself). They unearth the second crate, but it seems to have been disturbed, perhaps by the dead man lying on top of it. The body is remarkably well preserved, due to the peculiar characteristics of peat bogs. However it came there, it wasn’t recently, which means the investigation is in the remit of Pirie’s Historic Cases Unit.
McDermid is much-praised for her brilliant evocation of the places, mores, and culture of Scotland, as well as the procedures and rivalries within Police Scotland. As a result, the atmosphere she creates is believable down to the last wisp of mist. Introducing Hamish Mackenzie as a potential love interest for Pirie adds a bit of Celtic spice.
Although the cases Pirie works on are old, the investigation methods brought into play are fascinatingly up-to-the-minute. DNA analysis, deployed in the rape case, is only one of them. Rapid reconstruction of the bog corpse’s appearance is another. Analysis and enhancement of cell phone contents is yet a third. McDermid, who has a great interest in forensics, likes to get these technologies right, and she gives Pirie a pair of worthy confederates: her friends River Wilde, a forensic anthropologist, and Tamsin, head of a laboratory in Police Scotland’s Gartcosh Crime Centre. They, like she, believe families should not have to wait one day longer than necessary to learn the fate of their loved one.
Though Pirie occasionally missteps, mostly by treading on the toes of other police officials, and especially ACC Markie, McDermid never puts a foot wrong. Her prose is so clear and engaging, this is a book that will keep you turning pages. Like Pirie, you will be hungry for just that one more bit of evidence.
****The Skeleton Road
Having read the six books I took to Sicily, I raided my last hotel’s shelf of abandoned books and picked up this 2014 thriller by McDermid, which entangles Pirie and Murray in a case of long-ago war crimes, revenge, and distorted justice. The eight-hour airplane ride flew by!
It might almost be worth seeing the new movie Gotti with a sneering John Travolta in the lead, simply because it has received a (surprisingly) rare “0” rating from Rotten Tomatoes critics. Unanimity about a movie’s goodness or apparent awfulness is so rarely achieved that this may be a cinematic low-water-mark. A filmic Sahara. A future cult classic.
Last weekend, I went to another movie most critics have panned, because it is crammed with components I like: spies! history! Nazis! baseball! Based on a book by Nicholas Dawidoff, it recounts a bit of the true story of Red Sox catcher Moe Berg and was directed by Ben Lewin (who gets most of the blame), with a good script by Robert Rodat (trailer).
It wasn’t perfect, and maybe it’s slow for action film devotees, but the acting was superior. Paul Rudd played Berg, a man who loved baseball and had a great smile, but was hard to know. Through his Princeton connections, he was recruited to the fledgling OSS by its head Wild Bill Donovan (Jeff Daniels), mostly because of his facility with languages and despite his somewhat ambiguous sexuality. He has a girlfriend in Boston (Sienna Miller) for much of the film, but that’s an on-again, off-again thing, first with his baseball travel schedule, then his work in Washington and overseas.
Finally he gets the kind of assignment he craves: the U.S. has the Manhattan Project to develop a nuclear weapon, and the Allies believe the Germans are attempting this too, led by Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong). But they can’t be certain (sorry). Berg is teamed up with a military man (Guy Pearce) and a physicist (excellent work by Paul Giamatti) to find out. If these suspicions are correct, Berg is to assassinate him. Unlike so many celluloid spies, Rudd’s Berg seems actually to weigh the significance of this assignment.
In a key scene early in the film, Berg signals the pitcher, but the pitcher waves him off. The opponent on first tries to steal second, but Berg manages to get the ball there in time to throw him out, ending the inning. Walking back to the dugout, he says to the pitcher, “Never ignore my signal when a man’s going to try to steal second.” Pitcher: “How’d you know he’d try?” “I just knew.” Berg’s skill in sizing up people was perfect for the OSS.
Rex Reed in the New York Observer said, it’s “a juicy story told blandly,” but still a movie worth seeing, and I agree. Maybe Gotti should get a second look.
Written by Julia Heaberlin – I just spent a week in Texas, including a family reunion in Waco, where Paper Ghosts begins, and am happy to report that trip was nothing like this story, a creepy and deliciously entertaining battle of wits.
Grace is twenty-four and obsessed with finding out what happened to her only sister Rachel, who disappeared when Grace was twelve. What ignited her search was finding a photograph of two ethereal girls taped to the bottom of their home’s attic stairs.
The photographer, Carl Feldman, was later tried and acquitted in another local woman’s disappearance, although suspicions about him never went away.
Heaberlin masterfully weaves this backstory through the narrative— enlightening, coloring, providing motivation. Diagnosed with dementia, the elderly Carl now lives in a halfway house run by Mrs. T. Grace poses as Carl’s daughter to persuade Mrs. T to let her take him on a “vacation.” In reality, she plans to revisit places where three young women disappeared, hoping to break through the tattered veil of confusion that Carl pulls over himself. He’s just lucid and insightful enough to know what Grace is up to, to go along with the deception, and to toy with her mercilessly.
Grace’s personal safety trainer has readied her to handle the tricks Carl might try. Most important, she’s worked on conquering fear. You see pages from her childhood “survival notebook,” which contained her strategies for conquering various fears, like spiders or ghosts. Charming, but more important, these entries show an organized determination that foreshadows the adult Grace will become.
Mrs. T gives her ten days, at which time she absolutely must return Carl to the halfway house. Ten days in a car with a possible serial killer, in motel rooms at night, in situations where he may say who knows what? Carl is infinitely unpredictable. And sneaky.
Around day four or five, you may wonder whether Heaberlin’s inventiveness will run out, whether the diaristic recitation of their doings will wear thin. It never does. Her writing style is rich with metaphors tied to Carl’s strong identity as a photographer. In his photos, his paper ghosts, much is revealed, and much is hidden.
This risky road trip through a nightmare Texas doesn’t deflect Grace from the fundamental question, what happened to Rachel? And does Carl even know? And if he doesn’t, or if he’s overtaken by dementia, will she ever find out? You keep turning pages to find out.
Written by Deon Meyer, translated from the Afrikaans by KL Seegers – Opening with the lines, “I want to tell you about my father’s murder. I want to tell you who killed him and why,” this noted South African author takes a good long while to get to the actual killing of Willem Storm, but he uses the time well.
The world has been devastated by the Fever—a new infectious disease that spreads rapidly and catastrophically. A few people have a genetic quirk that saves them, but 95 percent of the world’s population has died. Willem and his son Nico, hiding out in a remote South African cave, survive. The big challenge is “now what?”
Willem has a vision for what should come next. He and his son fill a tractor-trailer with useful items they find as they traverse the countryside. They aren’t the only survivors, of course, and food becomes increasingly hard to find. With a pre-Fever population of approximately 56 million, South Africa alone would have a residual population of 2.8 million.
How people react in such a desperate situation reveals their fundamental values. Willem Storm envisions a new egalitarian society built on democratic principles. He finds a suitable location, and he and Nico drive the countryside, leaving posters asking people of good will to come. Gradually, they do, and they name their new community Amanzi, “water.”
Teenage Nico is torn between his father’s idealism and the aggressive values of a new arrival in the community, Domingo. He has a past he won’t talk about, works with military precision, and an affinity for weapons. He consistently argues for more security precautions, because the threats are real—packs of wild dogs, marauding motorcycle gangs, and murderous thieves. “People are animals,” Domingo says.
Amanzi’s creation is an amazing adventure story. The book may be 530 pages long, but it is very hard (truly, almost impossible) to put down—at least for someone like me who is interesting in how things work, or don’t. Nico narrates most of it, though a great many other residents recount their experiences both before Amanzi and in the community, gradually building up a “360-degree” perspective on Willem, Domingo, Nico, and Amanzi. Only in the last 20 pages are the most horrifying crimes of the novel revealed, and these are the least satisfying pages of all.
If you are intrigued by the situations and challenges presented in post-apocalyptic thrillers like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Stephen King’s The Stand, this novel is sure to get you thinking.
Here are a few of my favorite books by Irish writers. Grab one of these books and pour yourself something tarry. Sláinte!
Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha won the Man Booker Prize for its recounting of the life of a 10-year-old Dublin boy whose family is on the eve of destruction.
The Gathering by Anne Enright, another Booker prize-winner “has more layers to it—of grief, love, lightness, tragedy, absurdity, and trauma—than an onion, and may cause as much weeping” says The American Scholar. I felt privileged to hear her reading last year under auspices of Princeton’s Fund for Irish Studies.
The Year of the French is a wonderful historical tale (part of a trilogy) by American writer Thomas Flanagan. Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. Don’t know who Wolf Tone was? Read this and you will.
The International by Glenn Patterson, another writer who has appeared in Princeton, and his The International is the story of a single night in the bar of the International Hotel, while upstairs a consequential meeting forming the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. It’s not about militants at all but about state-of-mind.
You may think there’s not much new literary territory to explore in male-female sexual relations, yet award-winning author Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians finds it and mines it. Innovative, immersive, dazzling.
Tana French is an American who’s lived in Dublin for nearly thirty years. In her books about the Dublin Murder Squad, she has created what might be termed an ensemble production, as each department member takes a turn in the leading role. Of these, I’ve read Broken Harbor, featuring Dublin detective “Scorcher” Kennedy.
The Ghosts of Belfast, by Stuart Neville won the LA Times Book Prize for its depiction of an IRA assassin unable to come to terms with his past. Edge-of-your seat.
Adrian McKinty writes about crime in his native Belfast amidst the Troubles. His detective, Sean Duffy, is a rare Catholic in the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The Cold, Cold Ground is first in the series. The 2017 entry—which I would want to read based on the title alone—is Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly. I recommend the audio versions for the super narration by Gerard Doyle.
Finally, to quote another notable Irish writer, Oscar Wilde, “If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.” Any of these is worth more than one pass!
Last Saturday the Princeton Arts Council hosted an afternoon conference featuring an impressive gang of mystery and crime writers who ply their trade between New York and Philadelphia. A first of its kind, in my memory at least, it drew around a hundred writers and readers and fans.
Panels talked about writing stories set in a region—does it matter whether you’ve actually been there? Or, when is Google Earth not enough?—and stories where the author can’t have been there, because they’re set in a different historical time—how much research do you really need? Even stories set in the future, in the case of some thrillers—is research even important? Don’t you just make it up?
Audience members asked the burning question: how do people react when the find out you write about murder? And, while this prompted some humorous replies, in fact, most people are fascinated. They often say they would like to write a mystery themselves, though few end up doing it. Panelists encouraged them to. As to how they manage writing, other jobs, families, and so on, panelist Jeff Cohen (who writes as E.J. Copperman) had the best reply: “If you can swing it, it helps to have a wife with a full-time job.”
Guest of Honor S. J. Rozan, a mystery writer with 15 novels, more than 60 short stories, and multiple awards on her c.v., gave the keynote. She talked about how genre writers—crime (including mystery and thrillers), romance, Westerns, science fiction, and she’d include coming-of-age—are still disparaged as “not literature,” yet remain wildly popular.
Why is that? She said genre writing can be distinguished by having an ur-story, a fundamental story line. Readers (and moviegoers) expect and take comfort in those ur-stories and in their very predictability, and writers violate the established genre conventions at their peril. The ur-story in the romance genre is “love conquers all”; in science fiction, it’s “what it is to be human.” Mysteries and thrillers, despite their uncountable variations, have ur-stories too, she maintains. In mystery, it’s “here’s why this happened”—attractive in a world where so much seems inexplicable—and in thrillers, it’s “is there time?” This last manifests itself in the frequently encountered literal “ticking clock” that thriller protagonists are trying to beat.
In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell maintained there is a single ur-story underlying all fiction, ancient to 21c. This has led to the “hero’s journey” school of story construction, in which a protagonist is marched through a call to adventure, begins a quest, overcomes trials, brings home the goods, and so on. That fundamental storyline can be detected in Rozan’s more descriptive genre-specific ur-stories. Whatever it is, however it’s aggregated or subdivided, we love hearing and seeing the ur-story over and over in books, on stage, and in the movies.
The event, sponsored by Princeton’s Cloak & Dagger bookstore, was co-hosted by the local chapters of two organizations I belong to: Mystery Writers of America, and Sisters in Crime.
Our Kind of Traitor is my kind of movie (trailer). A political thriller that avoids the eye-rolling tropes of so many films in the genre—the relentless testosterone-fueled special effects, vehicular mayhem, and beyond-evil bad guys. Instead, it relies for tension on the attachment it craftily develops between viewer and character, thanks to an excellent script and solid acting.
Based on the 2010 John Le Carré novel, as adapted by Houssein Amini, and directed by Susanna White, Our Kind is a movie about trust. While it shows that people at the highest levels of public trust may not necessarily have the public’s good at the top of their agendas—no news flash in this genre—trust at the personal level is still possible. And trust is entails risk. Life-and-death risk.
Low-key London academic Perry Makepeace (played by Ewan MacGregor) and his wife Gail (Naomie Harris) are in exotic Marrakesh trying to revive a fading relationship. When she leaves him alone in a restaurant, he’s befriended by a Russian at a neighboring table, Dima (Stellan Skarsgård, brilliant!), who convinces him to go to “a Russian party” extravagant even by oligarchical standards. The next day Dima persuades Perry and Gail to drop in at his daughter’s 16th birthday party, where it’s just the usual—you know, bands, fireworks, sword swallowers, bejeweled camels.
At the party, Dima pulls Perry aside and confesses he’s the chief money launderer for the Russian mafia and in imminent danger of being murdered in an internecine war. He gives Perry a flash drive and asks him to get it to MI6. He says a big bolus of dirty money is about to land on British shores by way of a shell bank headquartered in the Mediterranean. Dima wants to defect, and he wants the Brits to protect him and, most of all, his family.
Plots featuring the “average man” work because you inevitably wonder, “what would I do?” The operational guys in the British security services (sly Damian Lewis, especially) like Perry’s information, but the big bosses don’t want them to follow up, for reasons of tangled agendas noted above.
After that it’s cat-and-mouse, with Dima and Perry two little mice and pretty much everyone else in the role of fat cats. Says critic Scott Marks of the San Diego Reader, “The mid-summer release of an adult, effects-free British thriller relating to the collapse of Europe’s global financial system timed out perfectly. You’ll Brexit knowing that your entertainment dollar was well spent.”
Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 67%; audiences 57%. The principal complaint seems to be that not much blows up (exactly what I liked about it!). Except of course, for people’s lives. Don’t believe the naysayers. It’s a subtle gem.
By Tami Hoag – The Bitter Season is Hoag’s latest crime thriller featuring the Minneapolis, Minnesota-based team of police detectives Sam Kovac and Nikki Liska. This time, the pair is split up, because Liska has joined a new Cold Case unit, hoping for more regular working hours that will let her spend time with her teenage sons.
The first case she’s assigned is the 25-year-old murder of a fellow detective, Ted Duffy, a star in the department’s sex crimes division, was shot to death in his back yard. The man’s family is less than enthusiastic about dredging up the details of the crime again. Repeated investigations over the years have plowed the same unpromising ground, unearthing nothing more than painful memories.
Meanwhile, Kovac has a new partner, newbie Michael Taylor, who is not only easy to look at, but actually knows a few useful things. An adolescence spent watching martial arts movies comes in handy when Kovac and Taylor are assigned to a brutal new murder case. Lucien Chamberlain, a University of Minnesota faculty member in the running for the chair of the East Asia studies department and his wealthy, socially connected, alcoholic wife Sondra have been viciously murdered in their home. They were slashed and stabbed with items from the professor’s collection of martial arts paraphernalia—a collection that is, the medical examiner’s investigator says, “a homicidal maniac’s wet dream.”
Out of the woodwork comes a parade of victims. Or are they suspects?
Despite working on separate cases, Kovac and Liska interact fairly often, and the banter between them and their teams’ other detectives is lively. They’re experts at bringing in a spot of erudition, too. “Shakespeare would have had a freaking field day with these people,” Kovac says, and another detective responds, “ʻThou hast spoken right, ʼtis true. The wheel is come full circle . . .’”
But are Kovac’s and Liska’s cases truly separate? Through fast-moving chapters written from alternating perspectives, you see these skilled detectives work their way through to the core of their respective cases, culminating in a surprising confrontation that demonstrates how skillfully Hoag has laid out her clues.