Wednesday, December 02, 2020

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2020,
Part III: 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 Magazine, and Mystery Readers International.

A Private Cathedral, by James Lee Burke (Simon & Schuster):

This lengthy and stunning literary crime novel floored me. We are often given elements of the supernatural or weirdness when James Lee Burke writes his adventures of southern Louisiana police detective Dave Robicheaux. He mirrors the intriguing strangeness of his state, as if time jolts those who walk through that place. It is hard to accept that this is Burke’s 23rd adventure featuring Robicheaux (the series began in 1986 with Neon Rain). Time flies, as they say—and that‘s certainly true for this world-weary cop. Assassination, time travel, rock ’n’ roll (the devil’s music!), and sacred rituals are the bones that ensure Burke’s latest narrative remains upright despite its fevered pace. And it’s good to see Clete Purcell assisting his erstwhile New Orleans Police Department partner here, as Robicheaux investigates crimes of the past … or are they in the past?

Some readers may not be able to cope with this plot’s plentiful peculiarities—what might be dismissed as “woo woo.” Yet in the hands of a master, such disbeliefs can be suspended as the pages fly-by. Metaphysics, history, and a pervading evil are the themes of this elegant and very different thriller rooted in a longstanding family rivalry within the New Iberia criminal underworld. At times, I thought I understood what was happening; at others, I grew fearful and had to question my assumptions. Throughout, however, my mind remained fully engaged with Burke’s brilliant narrative, as it provided a much-needed distraction from the horrors of our current times. There are horrors between these covers, too—powerful violence that, like some roadside car accident, is too stunning and magnetic not to watch.

Fair Warning, by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown):

I recall Michael Connelly’s 1996 breakout novel, The Poet, and its protagonist, John “Jack” McEvoy, with affection. While reading it, I sensed the looming shadow of Thomas Harris, just as I did when enjoying its 2009 sequel, The Scarecrow. Harris’ influence is once more present in Fair Warning, McEvoy’s third outing, which gives us another serial killer, referred to as The Shrike, and again finds McEvoy at the epicenter of a shocking investigation.

Like his creator, McEvoy is a veteran journalist working the crime beat. He used to be on the staff of the Los Angeles Times, but was given his walking papers (in The Scarecrow), due to that newspaper’s financial woes. Now he’s an investigative reporter with a consumer watchdog news service called Fair Warning. That should not be an assignment that requires hazard pay, but in McEvoy’s case, it does. Before you can shout “Freddy Lounds,” this novel’s storyline—which finds our hero probing the death of a woman with whom he enjoyed a one-night stand, only for her to be slain shortly thereafter—is striated with suspenseful, at times disturbing turns. Some of the best crime fiction contains elements of menace, and Fair Warning is no exception.

There’s also a distinctive currency to this tale, as the noble profession of journalism finds itself being vilified here—as in the real world—by players who boast dubious political agendas, and don’t appreciate having their acts or motives questioned. In an age when the term “alternative facts” has planted its anchor in our vernacular, and certain self-interested politicians labor to undercut distinctions between truth and lies, Connelly’s take on the value of news gathering serves as an important and reassuring counterweight.

Connelly deftly navigates this tense, haunting, and tightly twisted plot, never sensationalizing but showing the crimes at hand for what they are. Unspeakable cruelties are explored here, as are the dangers presented by a mind deranged … or one manipulated.

Trojan Horse, by S. Lee Manning (Encircle Publications):

Because of its confident pacing, its backdrop of circumstances, and an array of characters who stand up quite smartly on the page, this novel reads like the work of a seasoned wordsmith. Yet it actually marks the fiction-writing debut of an American attorney and well-known death penalty opponent, long interested in Russian affairs.

Manning’s story raises an important moral dilemma: Is the death of a single person justifiable when the lives of the many hang in the balance? Centerstage here is occupied by a Russian-Jewish immigrant called Kolya (aka Nikolai Ivanovich Petrov), an intriguing operative in the service of a devious U.S. intelligence organization (the ECA) that lies tucked beneath the protective wings of the National Security Agency. Kolya has been tasked with dogging the mysterious Mihai Cuza, a descendant of Vlad the Impaler (yes, the 15th-century eastern European leader said to have inspired the vampire legend of Dracula). Kolya thinks Cuza is planning to initiate meltdowns at various worldwide nuclear power plants, but can’t seem to find proof of that without risking the lives of his team members. Hoping to move things along, Kolya’s superior determines to plant a Trojan horse on Cuza’s computer, but to do so will require sacrificing one of her own spies. That unlucky offering is, of course, Kolya.

Kolya is slow to discover this betrayal, to realize that he’s suddenly at the nucleus of Cuza’s digital puzzle. But once it does dawn on him, he’s left with the decision of whether to try and foil a plot that could kill thousands, or protect himself and the woman who has captured his heart.

Trojan Horse is a fast-moving thriller, filled with short chapters broken into almost cinematic sequences, each rich with tradecraft and historical details that place Manning’s story in satisfying context.

The Sentinel, by Lee Child and Andrew Child (Delacorte Press):

Let’s get the most pressing question about this book out of the way immediately: Is the 25th Jack Reacher novel any good?

Short answer: Indeed it is.

The Sentinel marks a significant turning point for Reacher, the lone-wolf, highly self-reliant military policeman turned peripatetic vigilante, who was introduced in 1997’s Killing Floor and has since become a best-selling series character. While all of the previous Reacher books were penned by Child (real name James Grant), this latest work was co-authored with Child’s younger brother, Andrew Grant, who now styles himself as “Andrew Child” and is being groomed to take over the series in the near future. Yet this story’s circumstances are very familiar. Reacher washes up in a town not far from Pleasantville, Tennessee, which is itself not terribly distant from Nashville, the state capital and a familiar center of America’s country music scene. Rather than expose rancor or treachery within the community of song writers and performers, however, the Child brothers explore links here between information technology, political elections, and cyber-terrorism threats. Reacher’s defense of a recently fired IT manager, one Rusty Rutherford, from a street ambush provides him an entry into that world—and a reason to investigate further. Andrew Child’s technical background in IT lends this novel a vivid, essential, and on occasion terrifying realism.

Although there will be voices in the stalls who disagree with this reviewer’s opinion, I have to say that the latest Reacher adventure differs from its predecessors—but in favorable respects. I found The Sentinel to be more engaging, more anxiety-producing, and rather more thought-provoking than a few earlier entries in the series. Yes, we still have the same Jack Reacher and a menace lurking in small-town America; but this book gives us a modicum of additional elegance, more sparkle than usual in its short chapters, and a terse narrative flourishing throughout. It’s good to see our man Reacher diffracted through a modified lens, one that traps more energy, one that propels us through the plot complexity with a firm hand on the rudder, steering us toward Reacher’s 26th escapade.

Finally, one from the non-fiction stacks …

The Reacher Guy: A Biography of Lee Child, by Heather Martin (Pegasus):

While we’re on the subject of Child and Reacher, let’s consider this unusually accessible academic tome, mirroring the novels themselves. The most evocative thrillers feature fragments of truth woven in their narratives, and so it is with the Reacher series. To fully understand why Jack Reacher has become such a global phenomenon, Martin—a London-based instructor and researcher with a PhD in comparative lit—delves deep into the history of his creator.

Authorized by Lee Child, this 352-page work presents readers with an array of photographs, as well as personal insights presented in a succession of vignettes. Although many readers are aware of the turn of events that originally provoked Jim Grant to become Child—specifically, his firing from the UK’s Granada Television in the mid-1990s—Martin’s biography has plenty more to reveal. Some of the details are precious, and at times very droll, but they’re never boring. For instance, we learn here that when Grant was an undergraduate enrollee at the University of Sheffield, he could be heard frequently listening to Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon and Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells—iconic albums of their time that still rank as all-time favorites. There was evidently insufficient heating in young Grant’s student abode, because he told Martin that “I still feel cold when I listen to Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells to this day.”

In the same manner that biographers of Ian Fleming seek connections between that author and his singular creation, British super-spy James Bond—often remarking upon their shared upper-middle-class (and some would say jingoistic) view of the world—so Martin teases out comparisons between Child and the able Mr. Reacher. It is perhaps of no surprise that the two boast a liberal viewpoint on the world. And not unlike Fleming, Jim Grant took from his surroundings what he needed to launch himself as a novelist, then made of it something more, becoming Lee Child in the process.

Other 2020 Favorites: Blacktop Wasteland, by S.A. Cosby (Flatiron); Kill a Stranger, by Simon Kernick (Headline UK); Long Bright River, by Liz Moore (Riverhead); Moonflower Murders, by Anthony Horowitz (Harper); and The Hunted, by Gabriel Bergmoser (Faber and Faber).

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