Saturday, December 05, 2020

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2020,
Part VI: J. Kingston Pierce

J. Kingston Pierce wears more hats than his head can firmly hold. He is the editor of both The Rap Sheet and Killer Covers, the senior editor of January Magazine, a contributing editor of CrimeReads, and a columnist with Down & Out: The Magazine.

The Devil and the Dark Water, by Stuart Turton
(Sourcebooks Landmark):

This second novel from Turton (after The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle) may be challenging to categorize—is it a whodunit, a high-seas adventure, a work of supernatural fiction?—but it’s easy to recognize as exceptional. The year is 1634, and Batavia’s callous governor general, Jan Haan, has been summoned by the Dutch East India Company back to Amsterdam, where he’s to be seated among that notorious trading conglomerate’s plutocracy. However, his voyage on the Saardam portends ill from the outset, when a tongueless leper curses the merchant vessel … then promptly bursts into flame. Further traumatic events follow, not limited to a locked-room slaying, the vanishing of a cadaverous witchfinder, and the appearance of an apparent ghost ship. “Indiamen sail on superstition as much as wind and waves,” says the Saardam’s captain, and his crew of “murderers, cutpurses, and malcontents” are quick to suspect the hand of a demon, “Old Tom,” behind these malefic incidents. The most able person aboard to make sense of it all is Samuel Pipps, a storied “problematary” (criminal investigator); but he’s imprisoned in the bow, destined for execution once their months-long journey concludes. Instead, it falls to Pipps’ giant bodyguard/apprentice, former mercenary Arent Hayes, and Haan’s much-abused wife, healer Sara Wessel, to sift rational explanations from recent events, but also to learn what the mysterious cargo is that Haan stored away in the ship’s fetid hold—all as a mammoth storm bears down upon the Saardam. Rife with tension, awash in plot twists, and so richly atmospheric that you can almost feel the ocean’s spray grace your cheeks, this is historical crime fiction at its rollicking best.

Midnight Atlanta, by Thomas Mullen (Little, Brown UK):

Why is this novel published in Britain, but not in the States? Its author, after all, is an American living in Georgia, and his previous two volumes in this historical crime series—Darktown (2016) and Lightning Men (2017)—were both printed on this side of the Atlantic. But not Midnight Atlanta, which is nonetheless every bit as thoughtfully conceived and crisply plotted as its predecessors. Eight years have passed since the events dramatized in Darktown; it’s now 1956. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. is busy stirring up anti-racist passions across the South; the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which struck down the segregation of public schools, has many white southern parents worried for their children’s welfare; and the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott—challenging mandates against the blending of races on public transit—is making headlines nationwide. Meanwhile, Mullen’s cast of African-American Atlanta cops has grown somewhat from its original eight. They still aren’t allowed squad cars, but their precinct has finally been moved from the basement of the Negro YMCA … though only to the basement of APD headquarters. “This was progress,” writes Mullen. One person unwilling to accept such small changes is Tommy Smith, who left the force to take a crime-reporting job with the Atlanta Daily Times, the nation’s only black daily newspaper. He’s in that paper’s offices one night when his publisher, Arthur Bishop, is shot to death, the perpetrator escaping before Smith finds the body. Suspicion falls quickly on Bishop’s purportedly unfaithful spouse. Yet Smith, known for his rashness and tomcatting ways, as well as his nose for scoops, figures there’s more behind all this than jealousy. Perhaps his boss’ killing links to his defense of a young black man accused of raping a white teenager. Or might secrets from Bishop’s past be to blame? As Smith chases down leads, his former sergeant, Joe McInnes—the sole white officer in their city’s black precinct—and Smith’s college-educated ex-partner, Lucius Boggs, bump heads with federal agents, Communist activists, and bigoted white detectives unwilling to question an open-and-shut case. Against the backdrop of mid-1950s, tinderbox Atlanta, Mullen offers a captivating yarn that simultaneously revisits the spread of America’s civil-rights movement and mirrors the corrosive racism that has bubbled up during the Trump years, while also relating the history of America’s black newspapers. I hungrily await Book 4!

Do No Harm, by Max Allan Collins (Forge):

In previous books, Chicago private eye Nate Heller reinvestigated some of the 20th century’s most notorious crimes, from the “presumed” murder of bank robber John Dillinger to the slaying of L.A.’s enigmatic “Black Dahlia.” So it’s no surprise that he should finally tackle the real-life case of Cleveland osteopath Sam Sheppard, charged with bludgeoning his wife to death in July 1954. As on television’s The Fugitive—supposedly inspired by this case—the accused here claimed innocence, insisting an intruder had offed his spouse. And in Do No Harm, Perry Mason creator Erle Stanley Gardner believes Sheppard … which is why he hires Heller to review the evidence, three years later. In so doing, Heller walks readers back through the bizarre, haunting circumstances of that homicide and its aftermath, raising doubts not only about Sheppard’s guilt but about the actions of authorities (and newspapers) that helped to promptly convict him. In addition to Gardner, “Untouchable” Eliot Ness and celebrity attorney F. Lee Bailey guest star in this inventive 17th Heller novel, one of the series’ finest entries—and that’s saying a hell of a lot.

Black Sun Rising, by Matthew Carr (Pegasus Crime):

Integrating crime fiction into historical events can be a ticklish balancing act: one or the other component usually suffers. Not so with this suspenseful, impellent yarn set amid Barcelona, Spain’s notorious Tragic Week, during which socialists and Catalonian nationalists clashed with Spanish armed forces in the summer of 1909. The story introduces Irish-Chilean private investigator Harry Lawton, a Boer War vet and once-rising Scotland Yard detective, who’s hired both to confirm that a British scientist/explorer, Dr. Randolph Foulkes, was killed in a terrorist bombing on Barcelona’s scenic pedestrian way, the Ramblas, and to identify a woman Foulkes gave money to before his passing. As tensions build in the city, provoked by Spain’s colonial bellicosity in North Africa and augmented by an imminent general strike, Lawton—inhibited by his unfamiliarity with the city as well as his random epileptic fits—labors to reconstruct Foulkes’ final days, connecting that scientist with a prominent mesmerist, eugenics experiments, and a rumored blood-drinking killer, the “beast of the Ramblas.” Yet even aided by a local poet-journalist and a naïve young anarchist schoolteacher, Lawton is hard-pressed to solve his case before Barcelona erupts in violence. If we’re lucky, this won’t be Carr’s sole Harry Lawton novel.

Moonflower Murders, by Anthony Horowitz (Harper):

If you thought Horowitz’s Magpie Murders (2017) was circuitously plotted, wait till you see the puzzles presented in this closely connected sequel. We return here to the company of Susan Ryeland, the London book editor who solved the murder of one of her authors, Alan Conway, in the previous mystery. Now living in Crete, where she runs an ill-starred inn with her boyfriend, Ryeland is hungry for a change. So when the elderly owners of Branlow Hall, an upscale hotel in Suffolk, ask her to return to England and—for £10,000—help find their missing daughter, Cecily, she can hardly pack fast enough. Cecily vanished shortly after telling her parents that one of Conway’s whodunits, Atticus Pünd Takes the Case, contains a clue proving the innocence of the Romanian maintenance man convicted of bludgeoning a Branlow guest, Frank Parris, eight years earlier, on the day of Cecily’s wedding. Conway had, in fact, visited Branlow after Parris’ murder, and found there the inspiration for Atticus Pünd Takes the Case. Although Ryeland’s on-site probing leads nowhere, her familiarity with Conway’s fondness for anagrams and for hiding revealing messages in his text will prove crucial as she compares Conway’s fiction with the circumstances surrounding Parris’ demise, struggling to discover the evidence only Cecily saw. Horowitz’s flawed but congenial protagonist, his use of the story-within-a-story trope, and his fair-play blend of red herrings and tip-offs rank this story among Horowitz’s most winning works.

Other 2020 Favorites: Dead Land, by Sara Paretsky (Morrow); The Finisher, by Peter Lovesey (Soho Crime); Grave’s End, by William Shaw (Riverrun UK); Death in the East, by Abir Mukherjee (Pegasus); and Germania, by Harald Gilbers.

1 comment:

HonoluLou said...

Mr. P, a tip of the Panama Hat to you for all the reviews, articles, covers and more! Who was it that said, "I'll sleep when I'm dead?"