Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2015,
Part VII: J. Kingston Pierce

J. Kingston Pierce is the overworked editor of both The Rap Sheet and Killer Covers, the senior editor of January Magazine, and the lead crime-fiction blogger for Kirkus Reviews.

The Axeman, by Ray Celestin (Sourcebooks):
New Orleans, Louisiana, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was a culturally rich but sometimes violent place to reside. “[C]olorful miscreants stalked the streets,” explains Gary Krist in his 2014 history of the place, Empire of Sin; “warring vice lords shot up their rivals’ saloons and gambling dens; and mysterious Italians, purportedly members of the murky organization called ‘the Mafia’ or ‘the Black Hand,’ assassinated one another for obscure and sinister reasons.” Making matters even worse, from the spring of 1918 until the autumn of 1919, a serial killer known in the popular press as the Axeman, preyed on the Crescent City’s populace, mostly on its Italian-American residents, killing them with old axes that he (presumably he) left at the scene of his atrocities. Amid the facts of this case, British author Celestin inserts three fictional sleuths whose goal it is to identify the killer and bring his reign of terror to a swift halt. The first is a 20-year police veteran, Michael Talbot, who has previously endangered his career by helping to prosecute and imprison a crooked fellow cop and former mentor. Next comes Luca D’Andrea, that adviser himself, newly freed after a five-year penitentiary stint and soon drafted by a Mafia chieftain who wants the Axeman removed from the streets before his homicidal acts provoke police to crack down on all crime in the city. Finally, there’s Ida Davis, an able young black woman who clerks at the local office of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, and who hopes--with the aid of a “chubby-face” musician known as Lil’ Lewis (or Louis) Armstrong--to bring the Axeman down and thereby win promotion to field agent. The Axeman’s plotting gumbo of political shenanigans, gang hostilities, and hints of the supernatural diverges somewhat from the historical record, but you can’t say the dramatic results aren’t worth Celestin cheating here and there.

The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins (Riverhead):
Because it gathered plaudits right from the moment of its release in early 2015 (and quickly built up a reader following, thanks in part to heavy promotion through the Goodreads site), I was sure I’d despise this novel; I rarely enjoy best-sellers. In this case, though, I was wrong to be skeptical. Hawkins, who has previously concocted romantic-comedy tales under the nom de plume Amy Silver, here delivers the thoroughly suspenseful story of Rachel Watson, a divorced but not quite indigent young alcoholic who rides a commuter train in to and out of London every day, despite the fact that she lost her public-relations position some while ago. The rail transit brings her peace that she lacks in other areas of her life. It also lets her fantasize about the people she sees inside the houses passing by. Those folks include Scott and Megan Hipwell, an attractive couple who occupy a residence not far from the one Rachel and her ex-hubby, Tom, once owned. Lonely Rachel is convinced the Hipwells share an idyllic life--at least until the morning she spots blonde Megan swapping kisses with another gent in her back garden. Not long after that, Megan goes missing, and Rachel summons up the courage to approach local police with what she knows of the apparent betrayal, sure it will help their search. But the cops don’t believe her, both because they’re wise to her dipsomaniacal ways and because she has recently behaved erratically toward Tom and his new wife. Rather than slink away, Rachel determines to figure out for herself what has happened to Megan. She contacts the missing woman’s lover, allows her concern for Scott Hipwell to evolve into a disastrous affair, and generally makes a mess of things. That her nosiness and poor choices eventually lead to a resolution of this mystery is remarkable, but credibly executed. Readers who have accidentally picked up the wrong book when looking for Hawkins’ psychological thriller will want to correct that error post haste.

Inspector of the Dead, by David Morrell (Mulholland):
Thomas De Quincey is not the most obvious candidate to become a crime solver. A journalist turned essayist, with intestinal problems, bad eyesight, and a serious opium jones, by 1855--the year in which Inspector of the Dead is set--he was 70 years old. Yet in the hands of author Morrell, De Quincey and his youngest child, the surprisingly resourceful and progressive Emily (who assumes a Watson-like role here), seem well on their way to joining the ranks of fiction’s memorable Victorian-era amateur sleuths. Someone is intent in these pages on doing away with members of England’s fashionable class, presumably to satisfy a desire for revenge. On the corpse of each victim the killer leaves the name of a person (and there were several) who at one time or another sought to assassinate Queen Victoria. Assisting Scotland Yard, as they did in Morrell’s much-praised last novel, Murder as a Fine Art (2013), the De Quinceys look toward the twisted psychology of the murderer in order to discern his identity, exposing somebody whose outward respectability conceals a volatile well of self-justified resentment. Yet even then, there’s no guarantee that the laudanum-imbibing De Quincey and his more youthful cohorts from the constabulary can stop the so-called Revenger from striking what appears to be his ultimate target: the right-proper Victoria herself. Morrell shows a keen eye for historical atmospherics, and he does an extraordinary job of illuminating faults in both the social and political strata of mid-19th-century British society. Moments of humor and rollicking adventure make the reading of this second installment in what Morrell says will be a trilogy of books all the more pleasurable.

A June of Ordinary Murders, by Conor Brady (Minotaur):
Temperatures are running quite high in Dublin, Ireland, during the summer of 1887, and so are tempers. With representatives of Queen Victoria coming to the city soon to help celebrate the monarch’s Golden Jubilee, local police are on the lookout for anarchists who would like nothing more than to end British hegemony over this island nation. The last thing they need are further criminal distractions. But those come anyway. Two corpses, evidently belonging to a man and a boy, are found in a public park, shot to death, their faces mutilated. Detective Sergeant Joe Swallow of the Metropolitan Police, a cynical copper who’d like to add new successes to his record, quickly realizes there is nothing “ordinary” about these slayings. The murdered man, after all, turns out to have been a woman in masculine attire, and Swallow’s difficulty in identify either victim exposes him to press derision. If that weren’t enough bad news, a local criminal matriarch, Ces “Pisspot” Downes, has died in her bed, leaving her covetous lieutenants to vie for control of her empire, and a house servant is found mortally bludgeoned and discarded in a canal. Brady, a former editor of The Irish Times, does an estimable job of establishing Swallow’s multiple dimensions, fleshing out his historical environs, and exploring the politics that roiled Dublin 130 years ago. I’m very much looking forward to reading his sequel, The Eloquence of the Dead, due out in March 2016.

The Whites, by Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt (Henry Holt):
It’s possible I would have passed on reading The Whites, had it not been for author Richard Price’s interview with Terry Gross, host of National Public Radio’s Fresh Air program, back in February. So interesting did I find Price, and so open about his history and his goals in composing this novel, that I went out the next day and bought The Whites. Smart move. At the center of this expansive cop tale is Sergeant Billy Graves. He used to be part of a crackerjack anti-crime unit of the New York Police Department, known as the Wild Geese, that rewarded cowboy independence. But he eventually shot the wheels off his own career when he killed an innocent 10-year-old boy rather than the drug-crazed scumbag for whom he’d been aiming. Graves has since been lucky to earn command of the NYPD’s Manhattan Night Watch, which responds to post-midnight felonies and tees up further investigations for the morning shift. However, his hard-won peace is put at risk after a slashing at Penn Station costs the life of a man he had known in his Wild Geese days, a murder suspect who’d “walked away untouched by justice.” Borrowing a term from Moby Dick, Graves and his Wild Geese cohorts used to call such lawbreakers-on-the-loose “Whites.” Now it appears that one of their number has turned vigilante, eliminating those Whites piecemeal, and if might fall to Graves--the last member of that old unit still with the NYPD--to put a stop to it. Meanwhile, a psychopathic detective stalks our hero’s family, hungry for his own version of revenge. This is no straightforward police procedural or action-rich whodunit; it’s a loosely focused narrative that compels reader interest with its character development and Price’s dexterity with language.

No comments: