Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2018,
Part IV: 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.

Gallows Court, by Martin Edwards (Head of Zeus):
Don’t let the early 20th-century backdrop fool you: this yarn from Crime Writers Association (CWA) chair Martin Edwards isn’t the comforting historical novel suggested by its cover. In fact, Gallows Court is a thriller that explores—with a contemporary eye—the darkest elements of human nature. Its narrative starts with a terse diary entry from 1919, written by a girl living on a remote island in the Irish Sea, recording the loss of her parents, allegedly killed by the Spanish flu. But little is as it seems in the journal excerpts peppered throughout this novel—and that includes Rachel Savernake, a brilliantly enigmatic figure who becomes central to the diarist’s continuing entries. Now jump ahead to London in 1930, where we are introduced to young and ambitious reporter Jacob Flint. He works for the Clarion newspaper, and has been promoted to head the crime desk after his chief is—much to Flint’s shock, though also to his career benefit—hurt in a Pall Mall-area automobile accident. There has recently been a series of murders in the city, terrible crimes delivering sometimes karmic justice, and Flint leaps upon that story. Integral to it may be the aforementioned Rachel Savernake, the well-heeled daughter of a notorious hanging judge (“Savernake of the Scaffold”), who’s established herself as an altogether sagacious amateur crime solver—though she’s often found a little too near her chosen quarry. Flint’s trajectory soon leads him into close contact with Savernake, like a moth drawn to the luminosity of a flame. His investigation links him as well to an innocent-seeming illusionist, who has attracted his eye and may be in need of his protection, and to a mysterious gentlemen’s club housed in the Gallows Court of Edwards’ title. Although this author (known for his Harry Devlin legal thrillers, as well as his Lake District mysteries) has long delivered thought-provoking, evocative fiction, little prepares the reader for the suspense or grim revelations this story features. I am delighted to hear from publisher Head of Zeus that Edwards is at work on a follow-up to Gallows Court, which may again find Rachel Savernake at large.

A Noise Downstairs, by Linwood Barclay (Morrow):
Barclay’s work grows more intriguing with each novel, and A Noise Downstairs is decidedly strange. Protagonist Paul Davis is a college professor with a relatively normal life. One night, though, while he’s wheeling home, he spots a colleague, Kenneth Hoffman, driving erratically, and decides to follow him. When Hoffman finally stops, Davis gets out to lend assistance—only to discover his fellow academic extracting the bodies of two deceased women from his trunk. A struggle ensues, during which Davis is struck in the head with a shovel. Hoffman is subsequently apprehended and incarcerated, while Davis ends up in the hospital. Even after his release, Davis isn’t OK. He battles post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and memory problems, and has trouble at work. In an effort to exorcise his memories of that awful evening, and with his therapist’s acquiescence, Davis decides to research Hoffman’s background as a serial killer. His real-estate agent wife, Charlotte, even buys him an antique Underwood typewriter to encourage his efforts. But things don’t go well. Davis is convinced he hears the typewriter keys clacking away at odd hours of the night, as if the old black machine is possessed. But only he can hear it, and fears he’s losing his mind. He fears, too, that the Underwood may once have belonged to a murderer who forced his victims to type apologies to him before he took their lives. As in all of Barclay’s stories, it’s the characters—Hoffman, Davis’ ex-wife, and his therapist, among them—who bring the mystery to life in A Noise Downstairs. You cannot trust all you see, or in this case hear, as this story rushes toward its truly unexpected denouement.

Skyjack, by K.J. Howe (Quercus):
Kimberly Howe’s full-throttle follow-up to 2017’s The Freedom Broker finds the resourceful Thea Paris, a kidnap and ransom expert with Quantum Security International, on her way back to London. With her are her colleague, Rif Asker, and a couple of traumatized orphan brothers turned child-soldiers, who are scheduled to be placed with adoptive parents. Despite her issues with heights, Thea and her team think they have everything pretty much in hand—until the charter jet they’re riding in is hijacked by the pilot (who locks his cockpit) and rerouted to the Libyan desert. Howe—who’s the executive director of International Thriller Writers (ITW), in addition to being a novelist—offers little baggage here in the way of back story, instead crafting this adventure as if it were a standalone. Only after the plane touches down does Thea realize who’s behind their detour: Prospero Salvatore, a character without whom she’s had previous dealings. He tells Thea that before he will turn the plane and its passengers loose, the Quantum team must go to Budapest and engage in a deeply troubling mission to nab a truckload of Syrian refugees. The reason for this demand is not initially clear, but it apparently relates to a secret society in Austria, led by the father of one Johann Dietrich, that is determined to rid the world of anyone with a Middle Eastern heritage. In terms of theme, Skyjack reminds me of another sophomore work, Frederick Forsyth’s The Odessa File (1972), in which secret societies that date from our past hide in the shadows of contemporary times. Anxiety and action are Skyjack’s driving forces, but Howe also introduces engaging characters, especially Johann Dietrich, who is torn between his girlfriend, Fatima Abboud, and his hate-filled father. Howe has crafted an excellent read for anyone, except perhaps passengers looking to relax on Middle East-bound flights.

Thirteen, by Steve Cavanagh (Orion):
This fourth and latest of Cavanagh’s legal thrillers (following 2017’s The Lair)—once more starring con man-turned-attorney Eddie Flynn—may also be his most surreal, boasting the most intriguing premise for a courtroom drama that I’ve read in some while. The tale commences with Flynn becoming involved in the defense of Bobby Solomon, a young Hollywood star accused of killing his wife, Ariella Bloom, and his security man, Carl Tozier. The pair were found naked on a bed in Solomon’s New York City apartment, and evidence seems to single out Solomon as their slayer. At first, Flynn is skeptical about taking part in this case; but a piece of evidence makes him wonder whether Solomon is in fact innocent. The yarn’s point of view alternates between Flynn, who works his contacts in the courtroom and local law enforcement, and the actual murderer … who contrives to win a place for himself on Solomon’s jury of 12. How he achieves that is remarkably imaginative and elegantly woven into the narrative. There are abundant tense and suspenseful moments in Thirteen that will have readers reaching for the Xanax, but also some welcome dark wit. And Cavanagh’s exploration of the mind of a psychopath brings out human dimensions that lesser fictionists might never have found. By all rights, this should be Irish lawyer-turned-crime writer Steve Cavanaugh’s breakthrough novel, a blindingly fast read that I guarantee will linger in memory longer than most thrillers. A U.S. edition of Thirteen is due for release this coming August.

Bluebird, Bluebird, by Attica Locke (Mulholland):
Yes, I know most people enjoyed this novel when it was first published last year, but I didn’t get around to it until 2018. Locke’s extraordinary book, her fourth after Pleasantville (2015), follows Ian Fleming’s recipe for a best-seller: “you simply have to turn the page.” Yet it also forces the reader to think deeply about the world—what’s changed, and what demonstrably has not. The story’s pivot is Darren Matthews, a Texas Ranger and law-school dropout who’s battling demons both in his marriage and at the bottom of liquor bottles. While on suspension from his job—the result of irregularities in a case involving a murdered member of the racist group ABT (Aryan Brotherhood of Texas)—he’s convinced to help investigate a couple of slayings in the small East Texas town of Lark (population 178). The corpses of Chicago attorney Michael Wright and a local waitress, Missy Dale, have been pulled free from a bayou. Wright was African American, while Dale was white, immediately raising suspicions that these atrocities were racially motivated. Matthews comes to the aid of Wright’s estranged wife, placing him on the wrong side of some influential people in Lark and forcing him to examine the bigotry that still simmers under some corners of American society and today claims a voice in the Oval Office. Locke employs the familiar trappings of thriller fiction to offer social commentary, but she takes care not to turn Bluebird, Bluebird into a diatribe against modern racism. Like Sidney Poitier in the big-screen version of John Ball’s In the Heat of the Night, Darren Matthews’ presence in Lark is far from welcome. Local ranks close tightly against him as long-concealed secrets threaten to reveal themselves. The story’s pace is measured, as powers-that-be seek to avoid accepting a racial motive for the killings. In the end, Bluebird, Bluebird disturbs at the same time it entertains. That combination has proved to be more than a little powerful, winning Locke’s book the CWA’s 2018 Ian Fleming Steel Dagger as well as the Anthony Award and Edgar Award for Best Novel of the Year.

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