Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2015,
Part III: 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.

Dead Soon Enough, by Steph Cha (Minotaur):
Los Angeles private eye Juniper Song (simply “Song” to all those she encounters) is back for the third entry in this intriguing series. Hired by an affluent expectant mother to monitor her surrogate’s activities, Song soon finds herself investigating the disappearance of that surrogate’s best friend, Nora Mkrtchian, an Armenian political activist and blogger who was being stalked by Internet trolls protesting the erection of a centennial monument commemorating the Armenian Genocide. It becomes clear that the activist’s drumbeat of criticism against genocide deniers was striking many of the wrong chords among her opponents, who may be connected to the Turkish government. In trying to piece together Nora’s whereabouts, Song confronts wingtip corporate law firms, under-the-radar casinos, and her own struggles about what might have been an unwise decision made in her past. I’ve been a fan of author Cha’s ever since the release of the first entry in this series, Follow Her Home (2013), which introduced an amateur sleuth with a serious Philip Marlowe complex. In the succeeding two books, Song has developed into a fascinating private-eye protagonist with a millennial edge and sensibility. While the character clearly contrasts with many of the P.I. clichés, Cha still knows how to keep the classic elements of the genre moving forward. The climax of Dead Soon Enough contains a twist that is both surprising and chilling. Variations of it have been done before, but not with this level of skill and sensitivity to character. Cha is a major talent.

Death in the Face, by Craig McDonald (Betimes):
Those of us who inhale the Hector Lassiter series (starting with 2007’s Edgar-nominated Head Games) enjoyed a big year in 2014, so it was fair to expect that 2015 might be a bit on the quiet side. Happily, this was not the case, as McDonald released a new and unexpected entry in the series late in the year. Death in the Face finds Lassiter on assignment for Playboy magazine, shadowing Ian Fleming’s research trip to Japan while the latter scouts locations for his next James Bond adventure, You Only Live Twice. Lassiter and Fleming were fighting comrades working for their respective intelligence services during World War II, and we soon learn that this literary junket has a more serious dual purpose: to bring an end to a Japanese biological weapon, Operation Flea, that’s still very potent and capable of decimating English and American agriculture. Lassiter also has his private motive for coming back to Japan--he’s heard a rumor that there’s a lost manuscript written by his late and beloved wife, Brinke Devlin, whose ghost has been lurking throughout all of the Lassiter books. In this, the ninth outing featuring the writer “who lives what he writes and writes what he lives,” Lassiter hasn’t lost a step. Rubbing elbows not only with Fleming, but also with actors Sean Connery and Robert Shaw, and Japanese author-poet Yukio Mishima, Lassiter dodges bullets and explosions, and the set piece here involving a pool of crocodiles is alone worth the price of admission. McDonald’s Lassiter stories represent a sorely needed throwback to ultra-hard-boiled adventure tales, and while the series is winding down (we can expect only one more novel and a collection of short stories, both due in 2016), the entire series hangs together as a multi-volume biography of the greatest fictional pulp writer ever created.

As a side note, 2015 also saw the release of the Craig McDonald-curated Borderland Noir (Betimes), an anthology of crime stories featuring a roster of writers that included Ken Bruen, James Sallis, and the chronically underrated Manuel Ramos, among others. It’s a terrific addition to the location-themed collections we’ve seen published over the last few years.

The Harder They Come,
by T.C. Boyle (Ecco):

While literary staple T.C. Boyle might not appreciate being included here (at least judging by this Q&A exchange), I’m prepared to go out on a limb and state that The Harder They Come deserves a place in the fraternity of great suspense reads of 2015. On style points alone, this novel impresses mightily, but it doesn’t end there. It’s a penetrating study of extreme anarchists and the fracturing of families due to mental illness. Sten Stenson is a mild-mannered, retired school administrator on a vacation cruise. He’s also an ex-Marine, and during a poorly planned land excursion in Costa Rica, his tour group is robbed by local bandits. Guided by long-suppressed instinct and training, Stenson single-handedly strangles one of the robbers. Although he’s heralded as a hero back home in Northern California, all he wants to do is fade into the background. His son, however, has other plans. Adam is a mentally damaged pseudo-survivalist, living not only off the grid but at the indulgence of his parents and grandmother, while fantasizing that he’s a modern-day John Colter (Adam prefers to be addressed merely as “Colter” as an homage to the 18th-century frontiersman). Taking shelter with Sara, an older woman who subscribes to the theory that any level of government equals fascist oppression, Adam suddenly kills a local and leads law enforcement on a feral manhunt through the forests of redwoods lasting weeks, keeping the entire local population on edge. Readers who know Boyle as a wicked satirist will perhaps be surprised that this tale is told “straight,” with little authorial commentary. The characters offer their opinions and biases freely and their conflicts drive much of the action toward a climax sadly all too common these days.

No comments: