Monday, November 30, 2020

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2020,
Part I: 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.

Winter Counts, by David Heska Wanbli Weiden (Ecco):

Virgil Wounded Horse is the local enforcer on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He’s the court of final appeal, the reservation distributor of retribution in a world of selectively enforced laws. When crimes against Native Americans are too small to interest the feds, and home-cooked justice turns a blind eye, Virgil is the one people call, to track down the bad guys and deliver some personalized punishment. Such is the premise of Winter Counts, the propulsive debut crime novel by David Heska Wanbli Weiden. When a tribal official approaches Virgil to investigate and rid the rez of a growing heroin problem, the appeal lies primarily in settling a long-overdue score with one of Virgil’s childhood antagonists, a courier within a mini-cartel out of Denver. But then, Virgil’s 14-year-old nephew, Nathan, accidentally overdoses on his first sample of smack and is arrested after too many opioids are found in his school locker. That’s all it takes for this mission to become far more personal. Virgil juggles his responsibilities to his community, his nephew, and his own sense of justice while navigating criminal lawyers, the tribal elders, and the feds who are incapable of executing on the sting that they have only haphazardly planned.

The hook of this novel is that it takes place largely on tribal land with an almost exclusive Native American cast of characters. That’s a good start, but what keeps the pages turning is the slow crescendo of action, with Virgil trying not to become overwhelmed in hopelessness as matters seem beyond anyone’s control. Despite his profession as hired muscle, Virgil is emblematic of his people and their desire to be allowed to peacefully go about their lives. It’s a conflict that makes for a gripping read.

Blacktop Wasteland, by S.A. Cosby (Flatiron):

For my money, the strongest debut novel of the year is Blacktop Wasteland, by S.A. Cosby, a turbo-charged tale combining the best of Richard Stark, James Sallis, and George V. Higgins. If you like your noir crime fiction burying the accelerator at 120 miles an hour, this is the ride you’ve been looking for.

Close to nothing is going right for Beauregard “Bug” Montage. His teenage daughter is heading to college with no means to pay for her schooling, Bug’s body shop is losing business since a cut-rate competitor moved into town, and his mother got caught scamming her Medicaid-funded nursing home and is facing near-immediate eviction. It’s enough to make a guy take off and never return, which is what Bug’s father did back in the day. So, what does the best car mechanic and wheel man in the American South decide to do? Toss his better judgment out the driver’s-side window and take on one more job being run by a doofus covered in Elvis Presley tattoos.

Of course, the jewelry store heist goes sideways faster than a hydroplaning Buick. Not only was a civilian shot, but the store is a front for a crime lord who is willing to forgive the theft of his diamonds and the police attention it brought if Bug and the crew will pull one job to erase the debt: relieve his competition of a truckload of platinum.

Blacktop Wasteland is a tour-de-force, a ’65 Mustang with power and style to spare. The plot rockets forward, and the collection of characters, both high and low, haven’t been seen since the last Elmore Leonard tale. Take this one out for a spin.

These Women, by Ivy Pochoda (Ecco):

Under normal circumstances, I avoid serial-killer novels. I often find them sacrificing any level of literary merit in favor of cheap thrills and high-gloss gore. But these days aren’t normal and Ivy Pochoda is not a writer plumbing the lowest common denominator. So, based on her track record, I reached for her fourth novel, These Women, after seeing rapturous reviews. Boy, were they right.

Pochoda’s twist on the serial-killer subgenre is to tell the story from the point of view of the killer’s prey, all found in the freeway-divided West Adams area of Los Angeles in 2014. It’s a quintessential transitional neighborhood, once containing upper-middle-class homes, but now home to strip malls and food trucks. It’s in this environment that someone was preying on sex workers years ago, went back underground after eluding detection, and now seems to be back on the scene, murdering again as though just awake from a long nap. The police aren’t connecting the dots and the victims are on the margins of society, not attracting much in the way of attention by anyone except the killer. This novel is structured as a series of interconnected stories, with characters from one narrative passing in the background of another. It is this technique that allows the reader to understand the ecosystem of the culture “these women” occupy. There are numerous ways this novel could have crashed, but under Pochoda’s steady hand, it seems natural and effortless.

Columbus Noir, edited by Andrew
Welsh-Huggins (Akashic):

It was inevitable that this kid from Central Ohio was going to pick up Columbus Noir, one of the new entries in the iconic globetrotting series from Akashic Books. Edited by Andrew Welsh-Huggins (an occasional Rap Sheet contributor), this anthology presents 14 tales from distinct neighborhoods and suburbs of the Buckeye State capital.

While Columbus Noir brings us stories by rising stars of the crime-fiction world (Edgar nominees Craig Macdonald and Robin Yocum, together with Shamus Award winner Kristen Lepionka), there’s also a nice handful of writers who were previously unknown to me. I was pleased as well to see that Welsh-Huggins avoids allowing the stories to drift into the suburbs, instead focusing on the unique neighborhoods around the central city. One story in particular, “The Luckiest Man Alive,” by Pulitzer Prize finalist Lee Martin, takes place in a sliver of the west side barely known by outsiders—the Italian enclave of San Margherita, home to marble quarries, adult book shops, a bar literally by the railroad tracks, and St. Margaret of Cortona Catholic Church. Martin’s is the strongest story in this collection, and much of that has to do with its setting.

Like many anthologies, this is a mixed bag of the excellent and the serviceable. There is also a tendency to checkmark landmarks more to demonstrate authenticity than to actually add to the story, but overall this entry in Akashic’s signature series is solid and brings attention to a growing metropolis that is claiming homegrown crime-fiction talent. Columbus may not be as exotic as Belfast, Havana, or Baghdad, but this collection demonstrates that it is equally as sinister.

Finally, one work from the non-fiction stacks …

Scandinavian Noir: In Pursuit of a Mystery, by Wendy Lesser (Farrar, Straus and Giroux):

Prior to reading Scandinavian Noir: In Pursuit of a Mystery, I had known Wendy Lesser as the editor of The Threepenny Review and the author of a terrific biography of architect Louis Kahn. What I learned in the midst of reading her latest book was that what she doesn’t know about Scandinavian crime-fiction writers isn’t worth knowing. Scandinavian Noir is the book-length essay by a close and passionate reader of a subgenre of which I am embarrassingly ignorant. Not any longer. If, like me, you haven’t stuck your toe into this particular fjord, Lesser’s enthusiasm is your passport to all things Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian in crime fiction.

The first half is a glossary of terms and features weaving in various aspects (tropes?) of the crime novel. For example, under “Alcohol,” Lesser writes, “I can’t think of a single Scandinavian mystery I’ve read that does not, somewhere in its pages, refer to alcohol consumption, and most of them refer to it as a noticeable welfare or health problem, even when the characters themselves are happily enjoying their drinks.” Other headings are “Isolation,” “Narrative,” “Religion,” and 22 more. The second half of this book, by contrast, is a travelogue in which Lesser visits these three countries to see how the real Norway, Denmark, and Sweden stack up against the settings depicted in the books. This half is written in third person, a little jarring at first, but trust me, it ultimately works.

Lesser is an unabashed fan of Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall’s 10-book series featuring Martin Beck. She pulls no punches on the subject of another author, Karin Fossum, calling her a sadist, and is borderline obsessed with the 1986 assassination of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme (the repercussions of which she sees in every Swedish novel). You may not agree with all of her conclusions, but her passion is infectious, and she will send you in search of new authors. A great achievement.

Other 2020 Favorites: Eight Perfect Murders, by Peter Swanson (Morrow); City of Margins, by William Boyle (Pegasus); The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood, by Sam Wasson (Flatiron); Unspeakable Acts: True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit and Obsession, edited by Sarah Weinman (Ecco); and Howdunit: A Master Class in Crime Writing by Members of the Detection Club, edited by Martin Edwards (Collins Crime Club).

1 comment:

Lisa said...

Thanks so much for these nuggets to go after, Stephen. This review is an eloquent and fun read in itself! Look forward to reading more from you soon.