Thursday, December 21, 2017

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2017,
Part VII: J. Kingston Pierce

J. Kingston Pierce is the overworked editor of both The Rap Sheet and Killer Covers, the senior editor of January Magazine, and now a columnist with Down & Out: The Magazine.

The Dry, by Jane Harper (Flatiron):
There’s no mystery as to why Jane Harper’s debut novel, The Dry, won not only this year’s Gold Dagger award from the British Crime Writers’ Association, but also Australia’s 2017 Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction and the 2017 Davitt Award for Best Adult Novel. It’s one hell of a tale, its character development finely tuned, raw human emotions roiling across its pages, and a whodunit plot at its center, the dimensions of which are revealed with the utmost patience. Set in the fictional, drought-ravaged Australian farming community of Kiewarra, northwest of Melbourne, this harrowing yarn builds around what looks like a murder-suicide case. Evidence suggests that Luke Hadler turned his shotgun on himself after first ending the lives of his wife and 6-year-old son; only his baby daughter—too young to serve as a witness—survived the carnage. However, Aaron Falk isn’t convinced by that straightforward solution to the Hadler family’s end. A federal police officer specializing in white-collar crime, Falk grew up in Kiewarra, but 20 years ago, when he was 16, he and his father were booted out following the suspicious demise of Aaron’s girlfriend. Luke Hadler was Aaron’s best friend back then, and it’s Luke’s funeral that has finally brought him back to town. Despite the hostile reception he receives in Kiewarra, Falk agrees to remain there after Luke’s mother requests his help in unraveling the truth behind her son’s alleged crimes. But by sticking around, Falk also runs the risk that a long-buried secret from his childhood will be uncovered. The British-born Harper, currently a journalist with Melbourne’s Herald Sun, has created in The Dry a claustrophobic mystery filled with ominous flashbacks and innumerable engaging misapprehensions of the truth. If I have any criticism of the book, it’s that the solution to the present-day crime isn’t as twisted as I expected. A sequel, Force of Nature, is slated for release on both sides of the Atlantic in February.

The Force, by Don Winslow (Morrow):
“Cops fall into two categories—grass eaters and meat eaters,” Don Winslow says in his 18th novel. “The grass eaters are the small-timers—they take a cut from the car-towing companies, they get a free coffee, a sandwich. They take what comes, they’re not aggressive. The meat eaters are the predators, they go after what they want—the drug rips, the mob payoffs, the cash.” Sergeant Denny Malone is definitely of the latter herd. A repeatedly decorated 18-year veteran of the New York City Police Department, he’s risen to lead an elite but insufficiently overseen task force charged with working the front lines of gun, gang, and drug hostilities. Trouble is, Malone has learned not only how to follow the rules, but more importantly from his perspective, how to deftly break them. Any reluctance he once had about delivering (and accepting) payoffs, “testilying” to help the District Attorney’s Office win convictions, and dispensing vigilante justice long ago went by the wayside. Malone still believes in the Job—his crucial function in keeping Manhattan’s busy streets from turning barbarous—but he’s also interested in securing a comfortable future for himself and his small family, even if that requires under-the-table dealings. Following a particularly large heroin bust, Malone spots and intends to seize an opportunity to feather his nest a bit more. Only after he’s caught on camera funneling dirty dough to an assistant D.A. does the precarious balance of Malone’s world begin to crumble. While Gotham seethes with racial tensions, Malone tries to bargain with federal agents, hoping to save his brother officers and the other people he loves, but quickly learns that no amount of cooperation with his superiors or betrayal of his colleagues guarantees his salvation. As much as The Force is about corrupt cops, it’s no simplistic indictment of U.S. law enforcement. It’s about a culture that demands integrity but too often rewards its opposite. Malone may be a self-destructive protagonist with a hard-luck mistress, a ready supply of bad habits, and an inflated sense of invulnerability, but he somehow manages to come off here as more pathetic than contemptible.

If We Were Villains, by M.L. Rio (Flatiron):
Comparisons between the debut novels of M.L. Rio and Donna Tartt are inevitable. Both this year’s If We Were Villains and Tartt’s The Secret History (1992) are about over-privileged students at small colleges who are involved in murders and then try to cover them up, becoming increasingly burdened by the weight of their confidences. But I’d say that Rio’s If We Were Villains is the more tightly composed and suspenseful (and less annoying) of the two works. Its story takes place at Dellecher Classical Conservatory, an elite arts school in Illinois, and focuses on “seven bright young things with wide precious futures ahead of [them]”—a quartet of men, a trio of women, all fourth-year students—studying and performing the works of William Shakespeare. Their interest in the Bard has, in fact, become an obsession, as is evident on those many occasions when lines from his plays infiltrate even their exchanges off the stage. Having rehearsed and acted together so many times, and been rather stereotyped in roles throughout, the members of this septet now display characteristics familiar from the parts they’ve been asked to inhabit, whether it be arrogance, seductiveness, or audacity. By 1997, though—the students’ last year at Dellecher—the easy-going relationship between them starts to fray. Jealousies, rages, power struggles, and other tensions that were once subsumed beneath a mutual affection for the theater are coming to the fore. When, after some unexpected casting changes precede an ugly and violent opening-night party, and one of their number is found drowned in a nearby lake, it upsets the order of these friends’ lives and forces them to show their true acting mettle, as they endeavor to convince the police—and each other—that they weren’t to blame. Rio, who holds a master’s degree in Shakespeare studies, skillfully uses her cloistered college environment as a Petri dish where the taxing demands of thespianism mix hazardously with the stumbling efforts of young adults to establish their social and sexual identities. Most of her tale unrolls in flashbacks from 2007, when one of those seven actors is being released after a 10-year prison sentence for having confessed to the killing, and may finally be prepared to tell the truth about what really happened that fateful opening night. Rio has created, in If We Were Villains, a mystery worth more than one standing ovation.

Lightning Men, by Thomas Mullen (Atria/37 INK):
As revealing and richly atmospheric as I thought Thomas Mullen’s Darktown was, its sequel is better still. Again, we’re introduced into the company of Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith, partners in a small, new, and widely suspect squad of black policemen charged with maintaining peace in the crowded, post-World War II “colored neighborhoods” of racially divided Atlanta, Georgia. The year is now 1950, and the Georgia capital is changing, not necessarily for the better. Ever since Prohibition, there’s been a profitable trade there in illegal booze, but now the “white lightning” distillers—mostly Caucasian thickheads from outside the city limits—are branching out into marijuana, as well, happily peddling their wares in Darktown, the district for which Boggs, a college-educated preacher’s son, and the more street-savvy Smith are responsible. Following a fatal encounter with a moonshine runner, these two cops set off to identify and topple the drug sellers before street fights and gunplay can get out of hand. Trouble is, they aren’t allowed to question, much less apprehend, white folks. And they can’t expect assistance from the APD’s other officers, most of whom hold racist viewpoints. A rare exception is Denny Rakestraw (“Rake”), a half-German war hero turned flatfoot, who at least believes segregation should be made more fair. But he’s busy enough already with family troubles. It seems his Klansman brother-in-law, Dale Simpkins, agreed to demonstrate “moral authority” by beating someone he’d been told was a sinful man—a sinful white man, as it turns out. When that task takes a horrible turn, Rake must decide whether to help simpleton Simpkins, or hand him over to the law and in so doing, hurt his sister, Simpkins’ wife. Mullen mixes far more ingredients into this yarn, including Boggs’ courting of a domestic servant with ex-boyfriend woes and a scheme to curtail the encroachment of better-off black families into whites-only sectors of town. And he does so quite adroitly, illuminating the ugliness of America’s racist past, while giving greater dimensions to his principal players and testing their loyalties to one another. It’s welcome news, indeed, that Thomas Mullen has already completed a third entry in this rewarding series.

Magpie Murders,
by Anthony Horowitz (Harper):

It’s extremely rare for two Rap Sheet critics to put forward, in any given year, the same crime novel as a favorite. So when three do so in 2017, you know there’s something special going on. Like Kevin Burton Smith and Ali Karim, I’m a big fan of screenwriter-author Anthony Horowitz’s Agatha Christie homage, Magpie Murders. This wasn’t at all predictable, since I don’t usually select my reading material from the genre’s cozier edge. But Horowitz manages at once to respect, even applaud, the hoary conventions of Golden Age whodunits, while reinvigorating them in a multi-layered, dark puzzler of a story. We’re introduced initially to Susan Ryeland, an editor with a minor London publishing house, who has just sat down to peruse the manuscript of the ninth, and apparently concluding, entry in author Alan Conway’s best-selling mystery series starring Atticus Pünd, a 65-year-old half-Greek, half-German concentration camp survivor who, since the end of World War II, has set himself up in London as a private investigator. From that point, Horowitz propels us into the midst of Conway’s twisted narrative, which is set in a fictional English village in 1955. We learn about the stairway death there of Mary Blakiston, a controlling woman who had served for many years as the housekeeper at Pye Hall, the local ancestral abode of Sir Magnus Pye. There’s gossip that Blakiston’s “accident” might have been something else—perhaps homicide, with her rebellious son, Robert, imagined as the architect of her exit. Robert’s fiancée has sought Pünd’s help in putting that gossip to rest, but he’s preoccupied with news that a cranial tumor will soon cost him his life, and turns her down. Not until a second slaying occurs—Sir Magnus being the victim on this occasion—does Pünd begin probing both tragedies. The Hercule Poirot-esque sleuth successfully unearths motives, clues, and suspects galore. However, before he can unmask the killer (or killers?), Conway’s manuscript … abruptly ends. Horowitz’s story line bounces back to the present, where we find editor Ryeland in pursuit of the book’s missing chapters. Her hunt hits a daunting roadblock with Conway’s sudden suicide, but it is made more intriguing by the parallels she discovers between the author’s life and the plot of his valedictory work. Concealed codes and word games—perfect tests for Ryeland’s detail-oriented mind—help move the plot toward a resolution, but I, for one, didn’t figure everything out before Horowitz provided the answers. Playful, poignant at times, and boasting an intricately knotted scenario, Magpie Murders is likely to be a major contender for next year’s book awards.

1 comment:

Maryann Miller said...

Thanks for the great reviews. Some of the authors are new to me, and I have purchased The Dry after reading the review and the sample pages at Amazon. So many great books to choose from.