Thursday, December 14, 2017

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2017,
Part II: Jim Napier

Jim Napier is a crime-fiction critic based in Quebec, Canada. He’s also the creator of the award-winning Web site Deadly Diversions, which features more than 500 reviews and interviews with leading crime-fiction writers. In the spring of 2017, Napier’s own crime novel, Legacy, was published by FriesenPress. It’s the opening installment in a series of Britain-based police procedurals.

Cold Earth, by Ann Cleeves (Minotaur):
Even in today’s interconnected world, Scotland’s far-north Shetland Islands remain inarguably isolated, their inhabitants’ lives shaped largely by the bleak local weather and the cloistered existence typical in that remote corner of the world. As Cold Earth opens, we find Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez having joined a group charged with burying Magnus Tait, an elderly resident of the nearby village of Ravenswick. But they’re interrupted in their labors by a sudden and ominous rumbling. It has rained heavily in recent days, apparently loosening the ground and now sending a mammoth wall of mud and stone hurtling down from an adjacent hill toward the mourners. Perez and his fellow grievers scramble out of the way, with the DI pulling one of their older members to safety. Happily, when the excitement has run its course, no one seems to have been hurt. However, the slide has engulfed a nearby and supposedly empty cottage, and a search of the debris reveals the body of a woman in a red silk dress. Someone had been living there, after all. Perez and his team initially focus on the routine task of identifying the deceased. But their work takes on a new significance when the pathologist reveals that the victim had not died in the mudslide. She had been strangled, and as their efforts morph into a murder enquiry, revelations will turn the quiet village upside down. Cold Earth is perfectly paced and structured, the plot enhanced by Cleeves’ masterful misdirection. It is also a compelling portrait of a people at once simple and straightforward, and yet harboring dark secrets from one another. A superb read.

The Late Show, by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown):
In the jaded jargon of the Los Angeles Police Department, the duty shift between midnight and 8 a.m. is known as the Late Show. That’s not only because it comes at the end of the day, but because it’s when a lot of the criminal elements surface at local nightclubs and on the streets, at 24-hour service stations and convenience stores, taking advantage of the darkness to ply their illicit trades. Thirty-something Detective Renée Ballard works the Late Show. It wasn’t her choice. After reporting that she’d been sexually harassed by her superior officer, her then partner—who could have confirmed Ballard’s allegations—didn’t stand up for her. As a result, she was bounced from Robbery-Homicide down to exile on the Hollywood Division’s post-midnight stint. It’s a slot few officers like. For one thing, the incidents she encounters on the street during those early hours are turned over to daytime teams at the end of her shift, so there’s no continuity, and given their caseload, often no follow-through. This is frustrating for Ballard, who only wants to close cases and see justice done for the injured parties. While working one routine graveyard shift, checking out the transgender victim of a vicious assault who lies in a coma in a nearby hospital, Ballard is called away to a club known as Dancers, where multiple attacks have just taken place. Four people are dead and a fifth victim is fighting for her life. Even in L.A. that’s a big deal, and all available police detectives and forensics support folks are focused on this case. Leading the investigation is Lieutenant Robert Olivas. That’s bad news for Ballard, because he is the senior officer she’d accused of sexual harassment two years ago. Hoping to sideline her, Olivas assigns Ballard to notify the victims’ next of kin—his not-so-subtle way of saying he doesn’t want her anywhere near the Dancers case. But Ballard doesn’t let go of things that easily, and when another cop working the same investigation, Detective Kenny Chastain—Ballard’s former Robbery-Homicide partner—is found executed in his own driveway, she decides to get to the bottom of these crimes, regardless of her orders. The Late Show marks yet another milestone in Michael Connelly’s already impressive fiction-writing career. With an engaging protagonist, a complex back story, and Connelly’s characteristically crackling dialogue and diligent attention to detail, this series premiere has me clamoring for a sequel. And I bet I’m not alone in that.

Munich, by Robert Harris (Hutchinson UK):
The prizewinning English author of 11 previous novels and five non-fiction works, Harris this year delivered a compelling thriller about the interwoven fates of two men—one British, the other German—whose paths cross on the eve of the Second World War. Both of them had attended Oxford two decades earlier, but they haven’t seen each other in half a dozen years. Now, though, during four eventful days in May 1938, with tensions growing across Europe, they find themselves on opposite sides, as each of them struggles to head off another global conflict. Hugh Legat is a junior private secretary to UK Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain; his friend Paul von Hartmann is a German diplomat who’s also a part of a resistance movement hoping to launch a coup against Adolf Hitler before the Führer can put his cataclysmic plans for the invasion of Czechoslovakia into action. Formidable opponents stand in the way of these two players. Legat must contend with the naïveté of a leader whose sole aim is preventing another war destined to damage Britain, and who refuses to accept the fact of Hitler’s deviousness; Chamberlain’s intransigence is abetted by Cabinet sycophants and senior War Office figures who understand that Britain is woefully unprepared for major hostilities, and are playing for time. Meanwhile, Paul Hartmann is surrounded by Nazi loyalists who distrust him and watch his every move. The faces of Hitler, German officials Joachim von Ribbentrop and Hermann Göring, and Italians Benito Mussolini and Gian Ciano are to be seen in these pages, but their roles are secondary to that of a Gestapo officer who suspects Hartmann of being far too close to his old college friend, Legat. Munich is a high-stakes tale of individuals pitted against historic forces that were set in motion by the flawed treaty ending the First World War, and of men whose friendship and, indeed, very lives, are at risk in this examination of loyalty and betrayal, family and country. Meticulously researched and incorporating authentic characters and incidents interwoven with Harris’ fictional ones, Munich is a fine, gripping story about power and self-deception, and an insightful portrait of the people, attitudes, and events that led to the outbreak of the 20th century’s worst military conflict. The U.S. edition of Harris’ latest novel is due out in January from Knopf.

Shallow End, by Brenda Chapman (Dundurn):
When sexual offenses become the focus of a crime novel, seldom are convicted sexual predators portrayed effectively and in depth. Canadian author Chapman tries for a better result in Shallow End, giving full dimensionality to a woman imprisoned for assaulting a young person in her care. It is an ambitious effort, and succeeds brilliantly. Jane Thompson, a former English teacher, has recently been paroled from prison, where she’d served a four-year sentence as a child predator. Her already fragmented life is soon further shattered by the discovery of a body on the shores of Lake Ontario. It doesn’t take long for the corpse to be identified as that of 17-year-old Devon Eton. His head has been bashed in, and his mother is certain she knows who did it: Jane Thompson, who had been one of Devon’s instructors four years earlier, and been convicted of violating the boy. The evidence produced at her trial was persuasive and damning: text messages exchanged between Devon and Thompson setting up meetings; naked photos of Devon on Thompson’s home computer; a witness who’d supposedly seen the two in “compromising positions” and testified that Devon had confided to him that he and his teacher had been having sex together; and Thompson’s DNA found on clothing in Devon’s gym bag. Against such proof of misbehavior, the teacher’s denials and her claim that she’d been set up appeared pathetically flimsy. A year after her conviction, she’d confessed to the charges. In the end, Jane Thompson lost her family, her job, her reputation, and her freedom. Now she’s the most likely suspect in Devon’s demise, and no one—certainly not the police—takes her assertion of innocence seriously. Nonetheless, Detective Kala Stonechild of the Kingston, Ontario, police department pursues the facts surrounding Devon’s murder. Something of a loner, Stonechild has challenges of her own to grapple with as well. A native Canadian from a First Nations reserve, she has faced all the tribulations common to people of her heritage. She lived on the streets for a while, and after that fact became public she lost custody of her niece, Dawn, while the girl’s parents were in prison. On top of that, Stonechild’s partner, Paul Gundersund, is going through the breakup of his marriage to a woman who is convinced that Gundersund will go running to Stonechild if she gives him up. More than enough on Stonechild’s plate, then. But not enough to keep her from getting to the bottom of things. Brenda Chapman has written a textured, nuanced account of people caught up in the whirlwind of a major criminal investigation. She sensitively explores the shifting boundaries between accusation and guilt, public image and self-worth, and Shallow End ranks among the very best of recent Canadian crime writing.

Finally, a book from 2016 that I only caught up with in paperback this year …

Night Work, by David C. Taylor (Forge):
When former movie and TV screenwriter David C. Taylor launched his debut crime novel, Night Life, back in 2015, I predicted good things for his future. Night Life (which went on to win the 2016 Nero Award) was a stylish noir yarn, set during the McCarthy era of the 1950s and perfectly capturing those troubled times. In his protagonist, Michael Cassidy, Taylor concocted the portrait of an honest New York City police detective facing off against a powerful adversary that was both compelling and impressive. The sequel, Night Work, picks up Cassidy’s story four years later, not long after Fidel Castro’s revolution turned his Cuban homeland into a Communist showpiece a scant 90 miles off America’s coastline. Castro has plenty of mortal enemies, and when he schedules a visit to the headquarters of the United Nations in Manhattan—in part, so he can thumb his nose at capitalist imperialists—his personal safety is seriously tested. Cassidy is dragooned into the security detail responsible for keeping the Cuban leader alive, but he’s not at all sure the people pulling the strings want him to succeed. Complicating matters further, when Cassidy was in Havana only months prior to all of this, he ran into (and eventually rescued) an old flame, a woman he’d thought was dead but who’d been sent to the Caribbean by the Soviet KGB as part of a blackmail operation against American political figures. It falls to Cassidy to protect Castro, while he simultaneously assesses just how far he can trust his former lover. Drawing on the steamy history of the early 1960s, and revealing its intricacies through multiple viewpoints, Taylor delivers an exceptional, perfectly paced tale that captures the drama and fear of a period when superpowers stood toe to toe … but it was ultimately left to the “little people” to make sure the entire world didn’t come unglued as a consequence. Readers should be pleased to learn that, by the end of this novel, Taylor ties up all of his plot’s loose ends, but leaves enough room for another entry in this lush, riveting series about the America of an earlier, but no less violent, time.

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