Sunday, December 17, 2017

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2017,
Part IV: Stephen Miller

Stephen Miller was a regular contributor to Mystery News, writing the “In the Beginning” column about new crime-fiction writers for several years. He has also penned posts for The Rap Sheet and reviews for January Magazine. Originally from Central Ohio, Miller now makes his home in Massachusetts with his wife, Leslie, and spends his days working in the insurance industry.

Bluebird, Bluebird, by Attica Locke (Mulholland):
Attica Locke’s fourth novel (following Pleasantville, which won the 2016 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction) is a masterpiece. Bluebird, Bluebird is a crackling police procedural set in rural East Texas in the present day. Texas Ranger and law school dropout Darren Matthews is on suspension after testifying before a grand jury on what could well have been a calculated murder committed by one of his friends. While cooling his heels waiting to see if an indictment is handed down, Matthews is talked into investigating a pair of murders in a small town that may be related and appear to have been racially motivated. One victim was an African-American Chicago lawyer who wandered into a roughneck bar known to be an Aryan Brotherhood hangout; the second was the hapless wife of one of the ex-con Aryans. When the Chicago victim’s estranged wife arrives on the scene, followed by a television reporter, the tensions escalate and the secrets refuse to stay buried. Much of the action takes place in a diner owned by Geneva Sweet, the acknowledged matriarch of the local African-American community who has, over the years, buried both her husband and son, neither of whom met natural ends. Watching over Geneva, both literally and figuratively, is Wallace Jefferson III, the head of the current generation of the white family who calls all the shots in this backwater county. Reviews of Bluebird, Bluebird have centered on the locale of Lark, Texas (population 178), in heralding Locke’s book as a great Southern mystery. While this is true, the themes here transcend the setting. At many points in the narrative, the character of Matthews struck me as a modern-day incarnation of Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins, if the latter had gone into more traditional law enforcement. Bluebird, Bluebird will likely be found on many Best Books of 2017 lists, and deservedly so. I hope it’s also remembered come 2018 award season.

Bosstown, by Adam Abramowitz (Thomas Dunne):
Ever since my wife and I moved to Boston, I have been seeking out books that take place in New England. I’ve been working my way through backlists of Robert B. Parker, Dennis Lehane, and Linda Barnes, so I was excited to hear about Bosstown, by debut novelist Adam Abramowitz. Here, the kinetic energy of the city is complimented by a gripping story. Zesty Myers is a bike messenger shooting through Boston streets, delivering anonymous packages to faceless recipients, when he is plowed over in an intersection by a hit-and-run Buick that seemed to gun for him. After regaining consciousness, Zesty looks around to see a shower of money that was in the package he’d just picked up from a record store in Back Bay. Later, when he is visited by agents from the FBI, he learns that the dough he lost in the accident may have been the proceeds from an armed robbery of a Wells Fargo truck that left one security guard dead. This is not Zesty’s first encounter with Boston’s sometimes sordid history. His father was a legendary local “fixer,” tight with both cops and pols. His long-gone mother was an explosions expert who worked with a band of bank robbers reminiscent of the Weather Underground. And his brother, Zero (OK,so the names are a bit much), runs a local moving company where he employs ex-cons … and at least one freshly dead Wells Fargo guard. In the midst of all this storytelling is a parallel plot involving Zesty’s father, now in the grip of Alzheimer’s, and how his former life intertwines with Zesty’s current troubles. A criminal mastermind clearly modeled on Whitey Bulger supplies the thread to tie these plot lines together. It all results in a bit of a jumble that, for this reader, required a second run-through. Yet as unnecessarily complicated as Abramowitz’s yarn can be on occasion, those frustrations are nitpicks when the overall book performs in high gear, racing along much like Zesty on his bike. I particularly enjoyed Bosstown’s high-octane dialogue, highly stylized but always smile-inducing, not unlike that of another Boston crime-fiction legend, George V. Higgins.

Gone to Dust, by Matt Goldman (Forge):
Fans of private-eye fiction who are weary of stories that lay the noir ambiance on with a trowel will find much to like in Matt Goldman’s inaugural novel, Gone to Dust. Highly entertaining without lapsing into triviality, Goldman writes an engaging story about Nils Shapiro (known as “Shap” by one and all), who is hired by a suburban police force outside of Minneapolis, Minnesota, to help solve the baffling case of a recent divorcée who was murdered in her home without signs of forced entry. The great hook of this yarn is that the killer contaminated the crime scene with copious amounts of dust brought in from an unknown outside source. Goldman, a former writer of television comedies (Seinfeld, Ellen), demonstrates in his fiction both skill and humor (for instance, he calls one setting “the kind of neighborhood where every parent makes their kid take piano lessons but no parent wants their kid to be a musician”). And he weaves into his whodunit issues relating to U.S immigration policies and a terrorist investigation underway by the FBI. Gone to Dust is not groundbreaking, but it returns to the tradition of American private-eye tales exemplified by Robert B. Parker, Arthur Lyons, and the chronically underappreciated Roger L. Simon. Shap is a sleuth without a dark and predictable back story, which keeps the narration from turning maudlin and overbearing. A very promising series introduction.

Finally, a couple of fine works from the crime non-fiction shelves …

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, by Martin Edwards (Poisoned Pen Press)
The Otto Penzler Collection of Bibliomysteries: A Catalogue of First Editions of Mystery Fiction Set in the World of Books, 1849-2000 (The Mysterious Bookshop):
This year brought two superb reference books that crime-fiction aficionados should consider adding to their own library. In 2016, British author Martin Edwards won just about every award possible for The Golden Age of Murder, his entertaining study of classic crime fiction published between the two world wars. He now follows up with The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, an esoteric collection of seminal works both famous and obscure in the development of traditional crime fiction. In this latest offering, Edwards expands his focus to the period 1900-1950 and, as he puts it in the introduction, “My choice of books reflects a wish to present the genre’s development in an accessible, informative, and engaging way.” To the extent that Edwards both manages to remind me that Winnie-the-Pooh’s creator, A.A. Milne, penned a well-regarded locked-room whodunit (1922’s The Red House Mystery) and introduces me to dozens of authors I had not previously encountered, he has been successful in his mission. If, like me, you occasionally seek out the obscure for a good read, Edwards’ latest study of the genre should be placed within arm’s reach.

Someday a statue will be erected in honor of Otto Penzler. Or perhaps, more appropriately, a grand library. The founder of The Mysterious Press and New York City’s renowned Mysterious Bookshop, and an editor as well as a seemingly tireless anthologist, Penzler is the Protector of the Faith in the world of crime, mystery, and thriller fiction. Given this pedigree, it comes as no surprise to learn that he is also without peer as a collector of works from this genre. His interest in that enterprise has now led to the compiling of The Otto Penzler Collection of Bibliomysteries. This significant work is a directory of Penzler’s astounding assortment of mystery stories with a bookish theme. There are, of course, the expected entries (such as John Dunning’s Booked to Die and Lawrence Block’s Burglar series), but this index also runs to the enigmatic (G.B. Vale’s The Mystery of the Papyrus) and works pointing back to Penzler (including a 1999 chapbook by Ed McBain, I Saw Mommy Killing Santa Claus, which is set in The Mysterious Bookshop). If you are afflicted with what American author Nicholas A. Basbanes terms “the gentle madness” of bibliomania, then Penzler’s directory is a great source for helping you decide what to read next. Also included with each entry is a purchase price, should you wish to acquire one of Penzler’s books for your personal stock.

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