Tag Archives: mystery

The sad business of redemption

JulianJulian Wells was a writer of true-crime books, books that laid bare the atrocities that man can commit, that took an unflinching look at evil.  But why, with all his success and security, did Julian make his own life so difficult?  Why did he spend so much time apart from friends and from family? And why did he choose to kill himself?

That final question is the one which most troubles Julian’s best friend, Philip Anders, in Thomas H. Cook’s The Crime of Julian Wells.   Close since childhood, Julian is like a second son to Philip’s father, a state department functionary who dreamed at one time of being a spy.

Anders thinks that the answer may be found in the book that Julian was researching at the time of his death, which connects to an episode in their shared past in which a young Argentinian woman – their guide – disappeared.   As he works to unravel the mystery of Julian’s suicide, Anders finds that he did not know his friend as well as he thought he did, and that many people are not what they seem.   Through his discovery of the true Julian, Anders also finds himself.  The resolution is tinged with irony and sorrow, but also hope.

Thomas H. Cook is a author with many books to his name, an Edgar recipient for The Chatham School Affair, and reliably entertaining and thought-provoking.  Another excellent read is his The Last Talk with Lola Faye (my review here), a book which also explores the interpersonal underpinnings of crime.

Quick Review: King’s Joyland a Sweet Read

joylandNot a lot of posts from me so far this summer, due to a hectic work schedule.  But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading!  (I skip sleep before I skip the printed word.)  And that means I have a lot of reviewing to do.  So let’s get started with Stephen King’s new novel, Joyland.

All I knew going in was that King chose Hard Case Crime –  retro and pulpy – as the publisher for the book.  So my expectation, especially given the book’s cover art, was for a lurid and gritty noir.  Instead, the book is a tender coming of age story.  It’s more Adventureland than Chinatown.

The premise:  College boy Devin Jones takes a job in the summer of 1973 at third-tier amusement park Joyland on a whim.  Years ago, a girl was murdered there, and it’s said that her ghost haunts the ride where she was killed.  King has a light touch with the paranormal in this book, and the focus is on Devin’s self-discovery and the relationships he builds, rather than on the hunt for the killer.   In the book’s satisfying resolution, the ghost is laid to rest and the murderer gets his comeuppance, and Devin has grown from a good-hearted boy into a sensitive man.  The framing device – that 60+ Devin is looking back on his past – is handled well and adds to the sense of nostalgia.

Compared to other Stephen King novels (for example, The Stand)  Joyland is a slim book.  It benefits greatly from the narrower focus.  No summer blockbuster, it’s a sweet read for a breezy backporch.

Quick review of The Round House – last post for a while!

I’m going to be out of the blogosphere for a few weeks due to vacations and other commitments, but I couldn’t close my laptop without sending a final message out to everyone to read Louise Erdrich’s latest, The Round House.  It’s phenomenal.  Set in 1988, the story is told in retrospect by the now-adult Joe Coutts, who was the 13-year-old-son of a respected Native American couple when his world turned upside down with the brutal rape and near-murder of his mother.  The repercussions of that assault, Joe’s quest to reveal the truth and seek vengeance, make the book a mystery (although not classified as such).  A literary mystery, I suppose some would say.

Making The Round House deeper, more layered, and more compelling is the portrayal of life on the reservation and the many interconnections that serve to both illuminate and render unremarkable the beauty and the evil that are woven into daily life.  Erdrich is masterful in revealing the characters in all their compelling complexity, and I marvel at her ability to show the workings of the world as seen through the eyes of a pubescent boy.

I’d love to do a more thorough review, but I’m very short on time, so I’ll just say – The Round House is highly recommended!  And if you’ve not read Louise Erdrich previously, you might want to start with her earlier books, particularly A Plague of Doves, which features some of the same characters as The Round House.  

Thumbs up for Howard Owen’s Oregon Hill

What kind of sociopath kills a college freshman, decapitates her, and ships her head to her father in a box?  Cops say that it was the sleazy, hit-on-the-coeds 32-year-old Martin Fell, but police beat reporter Willie Mays Black has his doubts.  True, Fell’s not a fabulous guy, and he did argue with Isabel Ducharme that night.  But he says he drove to his Mom’s house that night, she backs him up, and there’s that mustard stain on his shirt.  It’s the mustard that convinces Black that Fell might just be actually telling the truth.  Plus, it’s a long way from killing a girl because she slapped you to mailing her head to her father.    How Willie Mays Black gets to the bottom of this crime, and others, is an excellent read.

Howard Owen’s Oregon Hill reminds me of Dennis Lehane‘s Mystic River and the Patrick McKenzie/Angie Gennaro books, including Gone Baby Gone.  The plot, the people, and their motivations all hinge on a shared history and a strong sense of place.  Oregon Hill is in Richmond, Virginia, and as Wikipedia tells me, it’s a white working class neighborhood.

Willie’s the almost-50, half-black son of the former neighborhood roundheels who’s sliding into old age, genial and perpetually baked.  Going to jail or going on the cops are options that are about equally likely for kids growing up in Oregon Hill in the 70s.  No surprise, race and class make a big difference in Richmond.

The good-hearted, up-from-the-working class, aging alcoholic with multiple failed marriages character may be a bit of a cliche in crime fiction, whether he’s cop, PI, or reporter, but Howard Owen does a great job with Willie.  His character feels real, but more than that, he feels fresh.  The reader cares about Willie, his ex-wives, his daughter, his mother and her current live-in, even his friends, contacts and connections.  And the way Willie doggedly uncovers the link between today’s crime and a miscarriage of justice from the past, and lives to write about it, keeps those pages turning.

It’s no surprise that Howard Owen can write – he’s a journalist and now editor of the local paper in Fredericksburg, Virginia.  No wonder his depiction of the pressures on newspapers today is so realistic.  He’s definitely going on my list of authors I watch for.  Best of all, he has a back list – Oregon Hill is his 10th book.  Fab.

Very Bad Men Very Good Book.

“My name is David Loogan.  Most of the manuscripts that come to me are awful, but some of them have promise.  I find the best ones and polish them up and publish them in a mystery magazine called Gray Streets. Maybe it’s not surprising then, that my part in this story begins with a manuscript.  The facts are simple enough.  I found it on a Wednesday evening in mid-July, in the hallway outside my office.  That’s not unusual.  Local authors leave manuscripts out there more often than you’d think.  This one was different, though.  It came in a plain, unmarked envelope and amounted to fewer than ten pages.  It was the story of three murders, two already committed, one yet to come.  And it wasn’t fiction.”

And so Harry Dolan introduces the reader to the crime we are about to examine.  Those aren’t the first lines of Very Bad Men; the author first tells us how Loogan’s relationship with Detective Elizabeth Waishkey – a good cop with smarts and heart – turned to love.  For those who read his debut novel, Bad Things Happen it’s a great way to show what what happened “between books”  in the series. And for any reader, it sets up what Loogan has to lose.

I gave a rave review to the first book.  In fact, I was disappointed that Bad Things Happen wasn’t an Edgar finalist for Best First Novel!  Now Loogan’s back in Very Bad Men, and once again the plot involves the magazine as well as his now-live-in-love, Detective Elizabeth Waishkey and her daughter Sarah.

The story progresses through two points of view:  Loogan’s first person narrative, sharing his thoughts and actions related to the pursuit of the killer, and Anthony Lark’s, the killer himself, which unfolds in third person.

Lark has a list of names:  Terry Dawtry, Harry Kormoran, and Sutton Bell.  These three men, along with Floyd Lambeau and the unknown driver of the getaway car, robbed the Great Lakes Bank 17 years ago.  The robbery went bad, Lambeau was killed and Sheriff Harlan Spencer was shot and paralyzed.   Lark’s out for retribution on behalf of Spencer’s daughter Callie, but we don’t know why. He’ll stop at nothing – including killing innocent people – to accomplish his goal, despite debilitating headaches.  He hears his doctor’s voice in his head, helping him keep it all together.

As in Dolan’s first book, the plot is complex but not convoluted, and the author achieves the miracle of making you care about each and every person in the book – including Anthony Lark.   Bad Things Happen is not a who-done-it but a fascinating why-done-it.  How is the murderer connected to the robbery?  What’s the connection to Callie Spencer’s race for the U.S. Senate?  And who has intrepid tabloid reporter Lucy Navarro?

You won’t see the plot twists coming, but they all hang together, and the ending feels just right.  Nobody’s completely bad, not even the most evil character. You’ll have a hard time putting this one down, because Very Bad Men is a very good book.

Getting out there again… agents, take note

Excellent Paula for the future movie.

So, great news!  I just finished the final edit of Character-Driven, the first mystery in my 1-and-3/4 book series featuring sometime-actress, sometime-sleuth Paula Berger.  Paula’s headstrong, funny, and super-nosy.  All great characteristics if you’re going to get to the bottom of the bizarro behavior of your best friend’s husband.  Then he disappears and things heat up.  Throw in a couple of goons, a mob lawyer, a sociopathic surgeon, a cute cop… you’ll eat it up.  Or so I hope.  My writing pal, Addy, gave me great feedback, I’ve put in a super-au-courant subplot, and I took out almost all the ellipses.

Anyway, my new 2012 Guide to Literary Agents came in the mail today.  (Thanks, Amazon.)  So I’ll be scouring it for agents who will NOT say “I loved it!  But I don’t think I can sell it.”  I want one who will say “I loved it and I bet I can sell it.”  Ahh, the dream does not die.

V is for Vengeance

Sue Grafton has got to be one satisfied lady, to have made a solid writing career out of one iconic character.   She and her protagonist, Kinsey Millhone, started back in 1982 with A is for Alibi, followed quickly thereafter with B is for Burglar and C is for Corpse.  And that’s when I started reading her.  I own quite a few books in hardcover, including her latest, V is for Vengeance.

It’s no news to anybody that Kinsey lives in an alternate universe, where the earth takes quite a bit longer to circle the sun than it does in ours.  Kinsey started out  in 1982 investigating the death of a divorce lawyer.  She was 32 then, cutting her hair with her nail scissors and living in jeans and sneakers.   Me?  I was 27.  As I recall, my hair was naturally golden, I had a truly terrible perm, and I was still trying to lose the weight from my first baby.  Kinsey was a full five years older then I was.

Flash forward to today. I sat down to read V is for Vengeance, the 22nd book in the series.  It is 2012 and I am (gulp) 57.  The hair?  Silver, not gold.  Still trying to lose the baby weight, though.  The baby’s 30.

Kinsey?  She’s 38.  Damn her.  She’s still wearing that all-purpose black polyester dress that only requires a shake to render it wrinkle-free.  She’s personally without wrinkles, as well, although she does get more than her fair share of black eyes and bruises – this outing, even a broken nose.  Of course, in the Grafton Universe, it’s only 1988.  Time goes very, very slowly there.  No cell phones.  No personal computers.  No Google.  Kinsey’s still looking things up in the reverse directory and knocking on doors.

The book is a good read, of course.  That goes without saying.  A little darker than usual, in my opinion.  Starts with a bit of a prologue – college kid thinks he’s a big-shot gambler, runs up a tab he can’t pay, and goons throw him off a roof.  Awk.  Who are these people?  You won’t really know everything you need to know for a couple of hundred pages.

In the meantime, Kinsey spies a shoplifter, ends up getting hired by the mysterious shoplifter’s heartbroken fiance after she supposedly commits suicide, picks around until she uncovers a bigger, more impactful crime.  In a separate plot thread, a mobster tries to deal with his big lunk of a stupidhead brother and falls in love with the lovely but sad wife of a cheating husband who owes him money.

Confused?  You won’t be.  Grafton keeps it all straight, you’ll follow her through all the twists and turns and there’s a surprise you don’t expect at the end.  It’s funny, with funny characters, but not over the top.   Definite thumbs up.

I don’t know what Sue Grafton will do when she gets to Z.  Start over with AA (bra size?  batteries?).  Or perhaps start in Greek:  Alpha is for Arrivederci  could be a multilingual hit.  She could start at 1; then again, Janet Evanovich might have that tied up.  In interviews and on her website, she declines to speculate.