Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2022,
Part V: 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.

No Plan B, by Lee Child and Andrew Child (‎Delacorte Press):

As this 27th Jack Reacher yarn kicks off, our favorite fictional avenger finds himself in the usually quiet town of Gerrardsville, Colorado. Usually quiet, that is, until Reacher witnesses a murder: a man pushes a woman, one Angela St. Vrain, under a bus, then steals her handbag and makes his escape amid the ensuing commotion. After pursuing and dispatching the assailant, Reacher retrieves items belonging to the dead woman that he’d been trying to conceal in a black bin-liner. It seems the deceased worked at the privately operated Minerva Correctional Facility in Winson, Mississippi, and she was carrying a letter penned by a reformed gangster who’s scheduled for imminent release. Unfortunately, before Reacher can learn more, he’s almost run down by a car wheeled by the hit man’s associate, and the handbag disappears.

The local police chief doesn’t want to hear Reacher’s version of events; he has another witness who claims Angela’s death was an accident, or suicide.

But of course, the ex-military cop can’t leave this mystery alone. He learns that the Mississippi prison where Angela worked has rooms without windows, and that she’d recently come back to Colorado to report the situation there to her former boss. That said boss had passed away from a reported heart attack less than a day before Angela perished only raises Reacher’s suspicions further. So in company with that dead boss’ ex-wife, he sets off for the South, not aware of the deadly opponents awaiting him there, determined that our oversized hero never learn the troubling truth behind Angela’s murder.

Released 25 years after Reacher debuted in Killing Floor, No Plan B is a classic tale of Child’s protagonist facing off against conspiracy and corporate greed. The story traverses several U.S. states, offers subplots about a boy in California trying to locate his biological father and a father seeking revenge for his son, and features plenty of bone-crunching action (some of it altogether cathartic).

Ian Chapman, whose parents persuaded British publishing house William Collins to add the soon phenomenally successful thriller writer Alistair Maclean to its stable of authors, has said, “Alistair thought of his novel writing as a formula. I think that’s to diminish his ability.” Lee Child and his younger brother, Andrew (the latter of whom is set to take over the Reacher series), also have their formulas. But as No Plan B proves, plenty of novelty, adventure, and excitement can still be wrung from those conventions.

Desert Star, by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown):

In this fifth outing for Los Angeles police detective Renée Ballard and Connelly’s longtime protagonist, Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch. (following 2021’s The Dark Hours), the now-retired Bosch joins his colleague as a volunteer with the LAPD’s recently rebooted Open-Unsolved Unit. Among other cold cases, Ballard is hoping to take a second crack at the 1994 slaying of 16-year-old Sarah Pearlman, a tragedy that was greatly obscured by the murder, just one day later, of footballer/broadcaster O.J. Simpson’s wife. Meanwhile, Bosch wants to amass new evidence regarding the 2013 killing of industrial contractor Stephen Gallagher and his family, a crime that has haunted him ever since (and which reminds this reader of Connelly’s earlier City of Bones). That he was not able to close that case represents a failure to him, because a psychopath remained free to roam society and strike again.

Bosch is feeling his years in this story, annoyed by the medicines he must take to stay active. Yet his mind remains as sharp as ever. Which is good news for Ballard, as her investigation proves to be both more surprising and more problematic than either of them had expected. Bosch’s own struggle to pin the Gallagher homicides on Finbar McShane, who vanished in their aftermath, is comparatively methodical and less dramatic, but familiar for Bosch’s intensity and his pathological attention to detail. This is Bosch at his most Bosch-like.

Desert Star, taking its title from a tiny white desert flower, is a masterwork of intricate plotting and careful character development, with a dénouement as rewarding as it is stunning. It’s a fine reminder that Connelly is a professional among more amateur rivals.

Lying Beside You, by Michael Robotham (Sphere UK):

I recall remarking, in my review of Robotham’s first Cyrus Haven novel, Good Girl, Bad Girl (2019), that “there are unanswered questions [here] I hope the author with flesh out, as this novel cries out for an encore.” The Australian writer has since given us two sequels, 2020’s When She Was Good and this year’s Lying Beside You, the latter of which goes a long way in fleshing out British forensic psychologist Haven’s life and painful past.

In these pages we find Haven being summoned by Detective Lenny Pavel to a bloody crime scene in Nottingham, England. A pensioner has been savagely attacked in his residence, and his daughter, Maya Kirk, is nowhere to be found. Pavel wants to know whether Maya could have been complicit in the carnage. Clues, however, suggest a break-in, and that Maya fled to protect herself. Can police find her before she, too, loses her life? And might that pensioner’s demise be linked to the concurrent mystery of an apparently intoxicated woman who Evie Cormac, Haven’s brilliant but damaged young ward, tried one night to help find a share ride home—but who never reached her destination?

As all of this plays out, we also watch Haven grapple with the imminent release of his elder brother, Elias, from a secure psychiatric hospital. Twenty years ago, Elias murdered the remainder of their family during a schizophrenic episode. Although he still harbors doubts as to whether he can forgive his sibling for ruining their childhood, Haven—ever determined to save lost souls—has agreed to take the man into his home while Elias acquaints himself with a world now unfamiliar to him. Robotham offers a split narrative here, delivering both Haven’s viewpoint on developments, and the perspective of 21-year-old Evie, whose skills as a “truth-seer,” someone who can tell when people are lying, will come in very handy as this tale progresses.

This may be the third Cyrus Haven novel (due for release in the States in February), but it reads like a standalone thriller, making it a reasonable entry point for anyone wishing to break into the series. Just beware: Lying Beside You is Robotham’s darkest work yet. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it might prove to be a strong contender for one or more of next year’s crime-fiction awards.

The Furies, by John Connolly (Hodder & Stoughton UK):

How is it possible that this book is the 20th to feature Portland, Maine, private investigator Charlie “Bird” Parker? It seems like just a few years ago (rather than 23!) that Irish journalist-turned-author Connolly welcomed into the world his disturbing debut novel, Every Dead Thing, for which he earned the Private Eye Writers of America’s Shamus Award—making him the first non-American to be so honored. Connolly has gone on since to prove he is no one-trick pony, concocting tales outside the limits of crime and mystery, and scoring prizes to encourage his audacity in trying new things.

The Furies is a coda, a continuation or rather an expansion of work he did during the modern plague we call COVID-19. It pairs two novellas. First comes The Sisters Strange, which Connolly wrote serially during the pandemic, rolling out 64 daily installments on his Web site, while his readers hunkered down inside their homes, fearful of the deadly, headline-grabbing contagion that spread around them. That tale introduces the eponymous Strange Sisters: Dolors and Ambar Strange, who operate a Portland coffee shop and both once romanced Raum Buker, an evil ex-con recently returned to town. A lumber company exec, now sweet on one of the sisters, wants Parker’s aid in protecting her from Buker. That assignment leads the P.I. to suspect Buker of involvement in a theft of valuable coins, which are connected to the murder of a collector found choked to death with his own ancient booty. The second novella, The Furies, has Parker employed by a mobster’s widow, who’s being harried by her husband’s ex-associates, because they think she knows the whereabouts of a good deal of stolen money.

These twinned narrative works share a sense of claustrophobia, a decided air of urgency, and a feeling of doom, thankfully leavened to some degree by the presence of Parker sidekicks Angel, Louis, and the Fulci Brothers. As ever, Connolly evokes the supernatural in his stories, and his use of language paints pictures in the mind that may occasionally leave the reader in a fugue-like state. Odious characters come and go, rubbing shoulders with the innocent, but all the while the reader is forced into contemplation as the narratives progress. Anyone interested in dark yarns outside the traditional boundaries of crime fiction should give Connolly’s Parker outings a try.

The Accomplice, by Steve Cavanagh (Orion UK):

Make no mistake: this is not your average serial-killer novel. First off, the repeat offender—identified as ex-hedge fund manager Daniel Miller, better known by his appellation, The Sandman (a reference to his grotesque modus operandi)—has been horribly successful, taking almost 20 lives in just over a year’s time. Second, he’s vanished from view despite a frantic FBI manhunt. As the media ramp up pressure on New York law-enforcement agencies to do more in ending this murder spree, a decision is made to arrest and prosecute Miller’s wife, Carrie, despite her protestations that she doesn’t know what her husband is up to and can’t say where he is.

With public opinion and the wheels of the U.S. legal system determined to incarcerate Carrie as her husband’s willing abettor, New York City-based con man-turned-attorney Eddie Flynn (last seen in 2021’s The Devil’s Advocate) is asked by Carrie’s family lawyer to take over her defense. As we all know by now, Flynn only accepts clients he’s convinced are innocent, no matter what crucial evidence seems stacked against them. It takes some convincing before he accepts Carrie Miller’s case, especially as there are only days left before her trial commences, but he finally believes her. And then, once he signs on as her advocate, things really get dicey. Carrie’s husband, still in the wind and not at all hesitant to employ violence, learns of her predicament and comes out of hiding in order to hunt down prosecution witnesses and apply unpleasant pressure on Flynn to secure his wife’s release.

The Accomplice’s engaging premise—its “hook”—makes it one of 2022’s best crime novels. Multiple narrative threads are presented and wound together in deliberately unsettling fashion, until Northern Irish lawyer/novelist Steve Cavanagh (aka Stephen Mearns) finally untangles them for readers, delivering a whiplash climax. To call this thriller “fast paced” is to do it—pardon the pun—an injustice, because the narrative velocity is light-speed. However, packed within its pages are deeper themes and meticulous research that provoke thought and insight as to the relationship between good and evil.

Other 2022 Favorites: The Book of the Most Precious Substance, by Sara Gran (Faber and Faber UK).

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