Friday, December 23, 2022

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2022,
Part VII: J. Kingston Pierce

J. Kingston Pierce wears an abundance of hats. He’s the editor of both The Rap Sheet and Killer Covers, the senior editor of January Magazine, and a contributing editor of CrimeReads.

The Goldenacre, by Philip Miller (Soho Crime):

Every year brings at least one crime novel I can’t wait to give to everybody on my holiday gift list. Last year it was Chris Whitaker’s We Begin at the End; in 2022, it’s The Goldenacre, the third book from Scottish journalist, poet, and author Philip Miller. This tale introduces us to Thomas Tallis, an art authority from London, who’s come to Edinburgh, Scotland, to confirm the provenance of a captivating watercolor, worth a fortune: the final work credited to renowned, real-life artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh. That painting is currently owned by Olivia and Felix Farquharson, but they hope to donate it to the city’s public gallery, and thereby offset some of the inheritance taxes they owe on their lately deceased father’s estate.

Tallis seems to be a man at the end of his tether. He was dismissed from his previous art-curating post under not entirely clear circumstances. He’s now embroiled in a bitter divorce, is trying desperately to speak with his beloved 7-year-old son, and is having still greater difficulty reaching his father, a former intelligence chief who seems to exist only at the cool remove of a phone-message system. Tallis is also having to deal with an impatient superior, who wants him to finish his authentication and hurry home, and isn’t happy to entertain suspicions about the Mackintosh canvas.

Shona Sandison is barely better off. A scrappy, refreshingly foul-mouthed senior reporter for the Edinburgh Post, a daily paper under attack by a new editor with inflated cost-cutting and digitization dreams, she’s assigned to cover the suspected murder of an acclaimed local painter found beaten to death in his residence. When that’s followed in short order by the similar brutalization of a city councilor, one who’d stood firmly in the way of an extensive but questionable real-estate development, even a journalist less seasoned than Sandison could catch the scent of a juicy story. An on-the-job injury that has left her to walk with a cane doesn’t slow her down any, as she pursues her inquiries, eventually linking the slayings with The Goldenacre’s rushed and rather mysterious donation.

The Goldenacre offers a slow-building but beautifully rendered amalgam of deceit, disappointments, and tragedy, delivered with noir stylings and a gasp-producing dénouement. Even at the end, there remain questions, and the administration of justice is credibly incomplete. A sequel is probably too much to hope for, but if Miller has more books in him, he can count on my reading them.

Hot Time, by W.H. Flint (Arcade CrimeWise):

New York City was hell on earth in early August 1896, when a 10-day “hot wave” plagued the crowded metropolis, killing some 1,300 residents, mostly tenement dwellers packed into the Lower East Side. Daytime temperatures climbed to 90 degrees and above, with high humidity, and stubbornly refused to drop below the 70s at night. Beyond general fear for public health, officials worried the oppressive conditions might spark violence among the poor.

It’s crimes of a different sort, though, at the heart of Hot Time, a twisty, high-tension thriller by W.H. Flint, the pseudonym of historian and critic Gerard Helferich. In the summer of 1896, Theodore Roosevelt is in his late 30s, but already New York’s police commissioner, with plans to expunge corruption from the department, much to the disgruntlement of officers who’ve benefited from more slipshod supervision. He and his special assistant Otto “Rafe” Raphael—one of the first Jewish NYPD officers—are summoned to an audience with corporate financier J.P. Morgan, who demands Roosevelt shut down a blackmail-through-innuendo scheme being employed by William d’Alton Mann, owner of the scandal sheet Town Topics, that has victimized many members of the city’s silk-stockinged Four Hundred. Soon after that, the commissioner meets privately with Mann, but is overheard threatening the publisher. Mann’s subsequent slaying, supposedly during an alleyway robbery, leads Rafe to wonder whether his boss and mentor might have had a hand in the man’s murder.

Working both with and around Roosevelt, Rafe—facing bigotry from his primarily Irish colleagues, and untrained in homicide investigation—determines to solve this killing, aided by an intrepid orphaned newsboy named Dutch, and Minnie Gertrude Kelly, Roosevelt’s young bicycle-riding stenographer. The author proves to be a dab hand at re-creating Gilded Age Gotham, with its corrosive poverty, ivy-shrouded brownstones, horse-drawn delivery wagons, and clanging trolleys. Although the pugnacious Roosevelt makes a habit of stealing scenes, Hot Time nicely fills out the characters of Rafe and his cohorts, and shifts the spotlight occasionally to historical figures such as muckraking journalist and photographer Jacob Riis, businessman-turned-Republican kingmaker Mark Hanna, and Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, at whose Madison Square Garden rally this novel’s cat-and-mouse finale takes place.

Because of their shared backdrop, Hot Time reminds me of William L. DeAndrea’s The Lunatic Fringe (1980). Yet Flint/Helferich brings to this mystery drama, compassion, and humor all his own. Let’s hope for Rafe Raphael’s return at some point in the near future.

Blackwater Falls, by Ausma Zehanat Khan (Minotaur):

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, hate crimes are generally down in the United States as compared with previous years, yet “they are up against American Muslims.” So the decision by author Khan (Among the Ruins, A Dangerous Crossing) to make anti-Muslim hostility the focus of her latest novel—the opening entry in a new series—is timely as well as a powerful reminder of how much work the United States must still if it’s ever to fulfill the Constitution’s promise of being a nation where “all men are created equal.”

Detective Inaya Rahman is a half-Aghan, half-Pakistani member of the Denver, Colorado, police department’s compact Community Response Unit, charged with enforcing accountability in cases that involve cops under review for brutality. She’s been sent to a crime scene in Blackwater Falls, a (fictional) town in the Rocky Mountains not too distant from the capital, where she also lives. A Syrian refugee student, Razan Elkader, has been found “nailed to the door of a mosque in a gruesome emulation of the Crucifixion,” her hijab stripped from her head. There are concerns that the town’s hard-line, middle-aged sheriff, Addison Grant, may harbor too many sexist and xenophobic opinions to handle this inquiry assiduously. Those doubts are heightened by the fact that a couple of Somali girls have recently gone missing, too, and Grant simply dismisses them as “runaways.” Rahman and her Palestinian-Iranian supervisor, Lieutenant Waqas Seif, must contend with a surfeit of negative complications—a motorcycle gang of white supremacists, an intolerant and deceptive evangelical church, etc.—as they dig for motives behind the multiplying horrors. Are they dealing with a series of manifest hate crimes? Or could the answers be hiding in the business affairs of a local meatpacking plant and an ambitious tech research firm? Equally concerning: Does Seif’s hesitancy to back Rahman in some endeavors suggest a hidden agenda?

Not everyone in this book is who they appear to be, but author Khan portrays Inaya Rahman quite clearly. Twenty-nine years old, earnest but not fearless, she’s a lawyer turned cop who still believes it’s possible to change the inequities of policing from inside the system, and who takes great pride in her work. She must frequently face the disappointment of her mother, who thinks Inaya ought to be starting a family by now and has turned instead to her younger sisters for satisfaction in marrying off one of her children. And as we learn in Blackwater Falls, our heroine is finding it difficult sometimes to fit in, seeking to maintain her identity as Muslim but substituting a more anonymous tight French braid for a traditional headscarf.

I’d says Khan’s latest series is off to a promising start, indeed.

Death in Blitz City, by David Young (Zaffre UK):

Racism again raises its ugly head in this atmospheric yarn, set in 1942 in Kingston upon Hull (or simply Hull), a port city that suffered more harm than any other in England during World War II. Blitzkrieg raids by the German Luftwaffe between 1940 and 1945 damaged or leveled most of Hull’s buildings, and caused more than 1,200 deaths.

David Young is most familiar for his East German thriller series, beginning with 2017’s Dagger Award-winning Stasi Child. However, he’s no less skilled at bringing rubble-strewn Hull to life on the page. We meet here Detective Chief Inspector Ambrose Swift, a onetime cavalry officer who’s been left with a prosthetic arm as a result of his service in World War I. Because of his campaign on behalf of London’s Metropolitan Police Service to infiltrate a band of British fascists, he has been posted to Hull for his own protection. Now he’s tackling cases alongside a pair of working-class locals: part-time knuckle boxer and full-time giant Sergeant Jim “Little” Weighton; and Kathleen Carver, a farmer’s daughter and a particularly bright member of the Women’s Police Auxiliary.

The year is 1942, and as this mystery kicks off we see Swift and Weighton being called out to a bomb site, where they find the corpse of a 20-something white woman, her heart “literally ripped out” of her chest. She’s no casualty of war, but instead a murder victim, one the inspector learns had been dating a Black American soldier stationed in the area. Before long, more sadistic slayings take place. Swift and his team follow every lead they can, but are stymied by U.S. Army officials, who resist their requests to search records and interview servicemen, and insist on dealing themselves with crimes perpetrated by their troops on British soil. As Swift links the atrocities to a Ku Klux Klan offshoot in America and subterfuge among prominent politicians, WPCA Carver is suddenly abducted, and the likelihood of imminent execution hangs over an African-American suspect Swift believes is innocent.

Young’s portrayal of Swift is particularly effective. The inspector tours the damaged town atop his own white horse; he doesn’t get along with his superior; he can be burdened with self-doubt, but is full of compassion for others. Details about how women police volunteers were treated in the early 20th century, and the challenges of wheeling a police vehicle around the countryside in a period of gas rationing and blackouts add to the book’s verisimilitude. For a reader like me, who gobbles up stories of ordinary crimes being probed during extraordinary wartimes, Death in Blitz City is a first-class find.

WAKE, by Shelley Burr (Morrow):

Nannine is an erstwhile outback boomtown in New South Wales, Australia, that’s been reduced to a proliferation of padlocked stores and a minimum of essential businesses. It’s a wonder the place even bothers to exist anymore; as Burr remarks, “its primary industry now was stubbornness.” Had Nannine not been the site, 19 years ago, of pretty schoogirl Evelyn McCreery’s still-enigmatic disappearance, chances are nobody would remember its name.

That broken burg is where we still find Evelyn’s twin, Mina, who’s never really been able to move beyond the terrible night her sister was supposedly snatched from their shared bedroom. The mystery has since become Internet fodder, argued over by lonely people in their pajamas who theorize endlessly about the crime, one popular hypotheses being that Mina was behind it all. (There’s even an acronym that at once stresses Mina’s “rather striking resemblance to Christina Ricci’s Wednesday [Addams]” in the 1993 film Addams Family Values, and pins her as the culprit: WAKE, or “Wednesday Addams Killed Evie.”) For years, the twins’ mother tried to keep law-enforcement agents on Evelyn’s trail; since her death, Mina’s self-protective silence on the matter has only fueled suspicions that she was complicit in Evelyn’s fate. The last thing Mina, now a semi-recluse in her late 20s, wants is for a private detective to come snooping around, hoping to reopen that case … but that’s exactly what Lane Holland has in mind. A specialist in missing-persons investigations, he is convinced it’s possible to find clues to Evelyn’s vanishing that eluded others—and he can sure use the $2 million reward for solving this puzzle. Trouble is, he’ll need Mina’s assistance to accomplish his goals, and she shows no immediate inclination to provide it. Holland perseveres, though, and slowly gains her trust, in part by helping a friend of Mina’s to locate her own lost sibling.

What she doesn’t realize is that Holland has ulterior motives for wanting to identify Evelyn’s kidnapper. Those will eventualy propel the sleuth to take risks that he as well as Mina come to regret.

An early version of this novel won the British Crime Writers’ Association’s Debut Dagger award in 2019. The favorable reception its publication received this year (The New York Times Book Review called WAKE “politically savvy, cleverly plotted … the kind of book that invites the ravenous language of binge reading”) suggests we will see additional fiction from Shelley Burr very soon.

Other 2022 Favorites: A Traitor’s Heart, by Ben Creed (Welbeck UK); Under a Veiled Moon, by Karen Odden (Crooked Lane); Yesterday’s Spy, by Tom Bradby (Atlantic Monthly Press); Queen High, by C.J. Carey (Quercus UK); and The Life of Crime: Detecting the History of Mysteries and Their Creators, by Martin Edwards (HarperCollins).

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