Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2016,
Part VI: Ali Karim

Ali Karim is The Rap Sheet’s longtime British correspondent, a contributing editor of January Magazine, and the assistant editor of Shots. In addition, he writes for Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine, Crimespree, and Mystery Readers International.

Fool Me Once, by Harlan Coben (Dutton):
Maya Stern Burkett has endured more than her fair share of strife and strains. Her career as a U.S. military helicopter pilot was ended by a whistle-blower who posted video evidence of her ordering a defensive assault in Iraq that led to the deaths of five people. Her husband, Joe Burkett, was killed senselessly in New York’s Central Park by a couple of masked muggers. Her sister, Claire, was slain during a home invasion while Maya was stationed in the Middle East. Maya, suffering from the stresses of her military assignments, has had to support herself and her daughter, 2-year-old Lily, by working as a flight instructor. And as if she didn’t have enough worries on her plate, she returns from work one day to discover that the “nanny cam” she’s installed in her home features footage showing what appears to be her late husband alive and visiting her den. When Maya questions her nanny, Isabella Mendez, about this unlikely resurrection, she gets a faceful of pepper spray, and Isabella steals the camera’s memory card. It’s enough to make beleaguered Maya paranoid, to trust no one—not her late husband’s wealthy family, not her deceased sister’s husband, and eventually not even herself. Author Coben has obviously done a good deal of research into the lives and deaths of military personnel, and he addresses the war-born horrors inflicted upon them with compassion. Thankfully, as Maya pursues solutions to the multiple puzzles raised in this story, Coben also sprinkles observational humor into his yarn, enough to prevent the grimness of her findings from crippling the plot’s drive. The final pull of the curtain at the dénouement of Fool Me Once is deftly executed, and it makes one pause for thought before beginning the inevitable search for the hidden-in-plain-sight clues you missed.

The One Man, by Andrew Gross (Minotaur):
I’ve been reeling somewhat ever since I read this decidedly literate suspense yarn, which is so very different from previous efforts by the same author. Andrew GrossThe One Man is a heavily researched World War II-era techno-thriller that mixes in the themes of family and of ordinary people being caught up in extraordinary situations. Gross uses the conventions of the historical thriller genre, but steers clear of the line that takes convention toward cliché. The One Man opens with a terse memo, dated August 21, 1943, and sent from nuclear physicists working on America’s Manhattan Project to J. Robert Oppenheimer, head of that project’s secret weapons laboratory, in which those physicists warn that Germany’s Nazi regime might succeed in creating a destructive nuclear device before the Allies can develop their own. In the prologue that follows, Gross introduces an elderly, unnamed man—a widower—whose daughter confronts him with a box of artifacts she’s found during a clean-out, and is curious to learn what they mean. “You really want to know?” he asks. When she replies, “I do,” then corrects herself—“We all do”—the old gent sits back to unfurl his tale. And what a story it is, involving a concentration camp in Poland, Jewish U.S. Intelligence agent Nathan Blum, and what initially seems like an impossible mission to free the single prisoner, a scientist, whom the Allies believe can help them win the war. This is a remarkable yarn, one that reminds me of thrillers by Alistair MacLean, and made me recall a weekend when I was a teenager and devoured Fredrick Forsyth’s The Odessa File and The Day of the Jackal, back-to-back, so hypnotized was I by Forsyth’s storytelling prowess. Tucked beneath The One Man’s prominent moments of action, though, are some poignant stories about both love and the corrosive affects war and hate can have on families. Like Gross’ 2003 novel, The Jester, this new book informs at the same time as it makes our blood rush. Today, when countries stockpile weapons that can decimate the planet, we need to be reminded of how shamefully humans have dealt with their destructive powers in the past, and how one man’s actions really can make a difference.

Redemption Road, by John Hart
(Thomas Dunne):

Gun-safety efforts, dubious police shootings, and the fast-changing modern faces of justice and family are all concerns that find places in Redemption Road, Edgar Award-winner Hart’s first new novel since Iron Horse (2011). His intricate and lyrical narrative centers primarily on two North Carolina cops, Elizabeth Black and Adrian Wall, both of whom have been caught on the wrong side of gunplay incidents. Black is under investigation following her bullets-flying rescue of 18-year-old Channing Shore, who was being held prisoner in an abandoned home by two sexually abusive men. The news media are all over that case, because Black and the historically privileged Channing are both white, while the girl’s captors were African American. Black discharged her weapon 18 times in the course of Channing’s dramatic recovery. Should that be deemed excessive force? And is Black a “hero” or an “angel of death”? Meanwhile, former officer Wall has just be released on parole after serving more than a decade in prison for the ritual slaying of Julia Strange—a crime for which he has always protested his innocence. Black, who has harbored feelings for Wall, believes him, regardless of the evidence. But not so Julia Strange’s teenage son, Gideon, who sets out on the morning Wall walks free, holding a gun and with revenge on his mind. The theme of fractured relationships frames this Southern Gothic yarn quite nicely, and its plot gains further welcome complication thanks to Hart’s injection of another woman’s murder, police corruption, and his thoughtful portrayal of alcohol’s corrosive affects on families. It’s terrific to see this author back after such long radio silence, and I hope he has space on his mantelpiece, because Redemption Road is likely to figure heaving in the competition for next year’s major crime-fiction awards.

What Remains of Me, by Alison Gaylin (Morrow):
Taking a break from her acclaimed Brenna Spector series (Stay with Me, etc.), Alison Gaylin delivers this standalone, split-timeline whodunit full of Hollywood decadence. The focus is primarily on Kelly Michelle Lund, the vulnerable fraternal twin of an aspiring actress who took her own life in 1978. Two years after that, Kelly—hungry to be noticed, and given to hanging out with the trouble-prone children of Los Angeles big shots—is charged with murdering renowned film director John McFadden, and subsequently sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. Kelly is a teenager at the time, and speculation regarding her motive runs rampant. Now jump ahead to the first decade of the 21st century. Kelly has been released and has walked down the aisle with Shane Marshall, the son of movie legend Sterling Marshall. There appears to be potential for Kelly to finally turn her life around … until the elder Marshall is found dead at his Hollywood residence, done in by a gunshot wound to the head (just like John McFadden), and Kelly falls under suspicion once more. There are plenty of vividly rendered back-stories in these pages, some having to do with the Lund family’s tragedies, others with Kelly’s search for acceptance among her acquaintances, especially Bellamy Marshall, her hubby Shane’s sister. As twisty and satisfying as Gaylin’s narrative is, it’s her characterizations that really distinguish What Remains of Me from the pack. Like Hollywood itself, Kelly’s life is filled with secrets, which are slowly revealed here as investigators look into the two homicides with which she’s connected. This is a highly recommended thriller with an unexpected and thought-provoking climax.

Finally, a selection from the crime non-fiction shelves ...

Death Comes Knocking: Policing Roy Grace’s Brighton, by Graham Bartlett with Peter James (Pan Macmillan UK):
This companion piece to Diamond Dagger Award winner Peter James’ best-selling, Brighton-set series of Roy Grace police thrillers was penned in partnership with Graham Bartlett, a former Sussex Police beat officer, who during a 30-year career rose to become chief superintendent. A fine foreword, contributed by James himself, establishes the historic seaside resort scene against which Bartlett recalls some of the most intriguing criminal cases he encountered during his many years of maintaining law and order. The writing is surprisingly easygoing, and there’s very little stilted, officious “thin blue line” vernacular. This book reads more often like a novel than a work of non-fiction. And it’s gently striated with humor—some of it pretty black, due to the underworld figures (among them psychopathic murderer Paul Teed) and drug gangs that figure into Bartlett’s recollections. Mention should also be made, though, of forgers David Henty and Clifford Wake, for the details of that investigation made me laugh out loud; had I not known it was factual, I’d have thought it too incredible for fiction. No doubt many loyal Peter James readers will grab this book because of its links to Grace; and indeed, Bartlett does relate some interesting real-life criminal encounters to James’ fiction. However, Death Comes Knocking is essential reading for anyone curious about the world of the police procedural, whether they be devotees of John Rebus, Alan Banks, Adam Dalgliesh, or others.

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