Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2017,
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.

Magpie Murders, by Anthony Horowitz (Harper):
Anthony Horowitz’s love for the British Golden Age mystery is evident in this intricate homage to Dame Agatha Christie. Reviewers are often on the hunt for something new, something fresh, and Magpie Murders is just that—a most unusual, and almost flawless, take on the classic mystery yarn. Horowitz offers here a “novel within a novel” that, in addition to its plotting strengths, reflects on the state of modern crime-fiction publishing and blends the names of real people (such as his own publicity manager, Angela McMahon) with purely fictional ones. When, in an introduction, literary editor Susan Ryeland acquaints readers with Magpie Murders, the 1950s-set work at the center of this book, around which Horowitz wraps a second mystery, she makes clear that the novel changed her life. The rest of this tale shows us why. Magpie Murders, we soon learn, is best-selling author Alan Conway’s ninth novel starring half-Greek, half-German detective Atticus Pünd, a very Hercule Poirot-like figure. It kicks off with the funeral of one Mary Elizabeth Blakiston, housekeeper to Sir Magnus Pye of Somerset. She apparently tripped over a vacuum cleaner cable and tumbled down a staircase to her death. Or did she? That’s the puzzle facing Pünd, who’s summoned from his London abode to investigate, and for whom this case might be his last—it seems he’s facing a terminal condition of his own, which he has yet to reveal publicly. From editor Ryeland’s perspective, the yarn is rolling smartly along, with mysteries being solved or on their way to resolution, when suddenly author Conway’s manuscript just … ends. The final chapters are missing. Turning sleuth herself, Ryeland sets off to find out what happened to the omitted pages, a challenge made more tricky by the fact that Conway has committed suicide. To figure out who was behind the killings in Magpie Murders, and perhaps also determine why Conway died by his own hand, Ryeland must parse the connections between the author’s life and his final knotty, fictional plot. This book boasts more red herrings than a coastal fishing vessel, a testament to Horowitz’s devious mind. Yet working your way through them is decidedly satisfying. In two words, Magpie Murders is “bloody good.”

The Saboteur, by Andrew Gross (Minotaur):
After penning a succession of modern “suburban thrillers,” about everyday people suddenly caught up in frightening situations, Andrew Gross shifted gears last year with The One Man, about a near-impossible mission to help a scientist escape from the World War II-era Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz, Poland. He followed that up last summer with The Saboteur, another fictionalized recounting of events from the same war, only this time the plot focuses on efforts by clandestine Norwegian subversives to stop Nazi Germany from acquiring heavy water created at a hydro plant in Vemork, Norway—heavy water (deuterium oxide) being a product Adolf Hitler’s cruel regime could have used in its nuclear weapons development. After the Allies fail disastrously in their initial campaign to destroy the remote and heavily fortified Norsk Hydro Ammonia Fertilizer Plant (NH3), they turn for assistance to Leif Tronstad, a scientist who had been engaged in the Norwegian resistance movement before fleeing to England. With the backing of British Special Operations (SOE) and the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS, the precursor to today’s CIA), Tronstad helps engineer a second sabotage attempt on the facility, this one led by Kurt Nordstrum. The assignment is spectacularly dangerous, and Nordstrum’s special squad faces a competent foe, Captain Dieter Lund, representing Norway’s post-occupation government and its Nazi puppet dictator, Vidkun Quisling. Lund is a bitter man, who exploits his allegiance to the Nazi conquerors to achieve power and respect he was never able to win as a civilian. While he once attended the same school as Nordstrum, their ideals can hardly be more different. Yes, Lund and Nordstrum hold the leads in this yarn, but the secondary characters are perhaps even more intriguing, with particular applause due Nordstrum’s covert field agents—Ox, Hella, Einar and Alf Larson, along with Austrians Natalie Ritter and her grandfather, cellist August Ritter of the Viennese Philharmonic Orchestra. The Saboteur is an elegant and nerve-shredding thriller in the Alistair MacLean tradition, with enough intrigue and action to keep one on the edge of his or her seat. (No wonder that same raid on the Vemork power station inspired a 1965 Kirk Douglas/Richard Harris film, The Heroes of Telemark.)

The Switch, by Joseph Finder (Dutton):
When Boston coffee company executive Michael Tanner inadvertently picks up the wrong laptop computer while traversing transportation security at Los Angeles International Airport, his life definitely takes a turn for the worse. It appears the machine he mistook for his own actually belongs to powerful U.S. Senator Susan Robbins of Illinois. In most cases, this wouldn’t be a big problem: Tanner could contact authorities and the laptops would be switched back. However, the Mac Tanner walked off with is not only Robbins’ personal one, but in a serious breach of protocol, the politician has downloaded onto it top-secret files concerning a National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance program. If her computer should tumble into the wrong hands, it would not only present a severe security risk to the United States (and potentially other countries as well), but scandalously terminate her dreams of being elected to the White House. While Robbins’ chief of staff puts into gear a stop-at-nothing operation to retrieve the senator’s laptop, Tanner’s investigative reporter friend, Lanny Roth, advises him to keep hold of the computer until he can make a deal with the NSA for its return. But Roth’s death soon afterward, disguised as suicide, makes Tanner realize the true dimensions of the danger he’s facing. And not only him, but his family too. This novel’s terse and concise chapters, coupled with a building dread that seeps through its pages, makes The Switch an addictive but anxiety-producing read, laying bare some of the many worrisome downsides of our digital age. If ever a thriller novel deserved to come with a health warning, this is the one.

The Word Is Murder, by Anthony Horowitz (Century UK):
Wait, another Anthony Horowitz novel makes my top-five list of crime fiction for 2017? Yes, but with good cause. The Word Is Murder is metafiction of a high order, with Horowitz casting himself as a character in his yarn. Here’s the set-up: Diana Cowper is a wealthy 60-year old widow living in modern London, who is found murdered by strangulation only hours after she’d arranged her own funeral. Robbery doesn’t appear to have been a motive for her demise, but there are other incidents in her past—notably, a fraud scheme and an automobile accident that cost a young boy his life—that may provide clues to her fate. Called in by the Metropolitan Police to consult on the investigation is Daniel Hawthorne, a standoffish former Met detective with whom Horowitz has struck a business deal: He’ll write a book about the case and Hawthorne’s involvement in it, and the two men with split the profits 50-50. The trail Hawthorne and Horowitz follow here in hopes of solving Cowper’s homicide is quite curious, with strands reaching Hollywood as well as a seaside resort in Kent, England. The narrative provides grief and misfortune, and there are more than a few suspects worth grilling. If the case wasn’t complicated enough from the outset, it becomes further so when another killing occurs—one that relates to an earlier tragedy poorly understood by police. Although The Word Is Murder is somewhat weird in terms of storytelling structure and the fact that it weaves real people into its plot (among them Horowitz’s publisher, Selina Walker), the novel offers splendid insights into Horowitz’s life as a writer and the publishing business, in general. And the Cowper mystery is solved in fair-play fashion, with Horowitz drawing our attention to its facets with all the precision of a stage magician, pulling back the curtains to expose past misdeeds and twists from the dark edge of human behavior. A U.S. edition of The Word Is Murder is due out in June 2018 from Harper.

Let me leave you with one additional pick, this one plucked from the crime non-fiction shelves …

Black Dahlia, Red Rose: The Crime, Corruption, and Cover-Up of America’s Greatest Unsolved Murder, by Piu Eatwell (Liveright):
It was 70 years ago—on January 15, 1947—that a dead young brunette was found in a weedy vacant lot in south Los Angeles, her body severely mutilated and drained of blood. The identity of that 22-year-old would soon come to light in the newspapers: Elizabeth Short, though history remembers her best as “The Black Dahlia.” However, the name of her killer remains officially unknown. In the decades since, much has been written about Short’s murder, both in fiction (James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia, Max Allan Collins’ Angel in Black) and non-fiction. And the case continues to pique the public’s imagination, as demonstrated by the widespread interest shown in a book published earlier this year titled Black Dahlia, Red Rose, by Piu Eatwell, a British TV producer and documentary maker. This is a most unusual work, racked on non-fiction shelves yet composed in a novelistic style that adds dramatic flair to its real-life horrors. The research Eatwell did before drafting her text and postulating as to who was behind the tragic destiny of waitress and would-be starlet Short seems extraordinary, and is spelled out in detailed notes, glossaries, an index, and footnotes—all of which might have run against the work’s novelistic structure, but only wind up contributing to the ominous ambiance that overlays her narrative. This is by no means a fast read, but that is perhaps for the best of reasons: one is quickly caught up in Eatwell’s rich re-creation of post-World War II Hollywood, with its beacon summoning misfits from around the country in search of fame, fortune, or love (as was the case with Short). The author frames the Black Dahlia story with observations about the darker side of the American Dream, an ample enumeration of the Los Angeles Police Department’s corruption scandals of that era, and a look back at how local newspapers fueled the public’s appetite for the sordid and the sensational. Doubts have been raised, notably by former L.A. Times editor Larry Harnisch, as to some of this publication’s facts and conclusions. Nonetheless, Eatwell’s attempt to drain the murky mire of mythology surrounding Short’s murder in order to reveal a most likely suspect in her long-ago homicide is commendable. The appeal of Black Dahlia, Red Rose as a story is obvious, yet it must be said that it’s troubling, too. Is it simply part of human nature that we gravitate toward lurid mysteries?

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