Thursday, December 21, 2023

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2023,
Part VI: 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 Golden Gate, by Amy Chua (Minotaur):

I’m a known sucker for mid-20th-century noir yarns, so Chua’s brilliantly atmospheric debut mystery was bound to please. The year is 1944, and Homicide Detective Al Sullivan has been summoned to investigate reported gunfire at Berkeley, California’s opulent Claremont Hotel. In Room 602, he finds libidinous, Midwestern industrialist and former U.S. presidential candidate Walter Wilkinson (clearly modeled on Wendell Wilkie), claiming to have just survived an attempted shooting by “a Communist” he’s at a loss to cogently describe. Sullivan promptly has Wilkinson moved, and starts asking questions, but with negligible results. Then, only three hours later, he returns to Room 602, this time to find the 59-year-old Wilkinson actually dead. Shot in the head at close range, he’s sprawled out on the king-size bed with his trousers gathered about his ankles and his mouth crammed full of “hotel detritus: a pen, unsmoked cigarettes, a bar of soap, a paper doily, crumpled stationary, flowers, and apparently a piece of chocolate.” There’s a tiny green cube in his throat, too. Oh, and a child’s disfigured doll hidden in the closet.

The only person with any information about Wilkinson’s fate is a frightened Mexican cleaning lady, but her identification of the young blonde she saw entering the industrialist’s room shortly prior to his snuffing is less than helpful. She insists it was one of the three granddaughters of venerable Bay Area socialite Genevieve Bainbridge—Isabella Stafford or her cousins, Nicole and Cassie Bainbridge—all of whom are hotel regulars. Yet she says the three look alike to her.

Chua’s sinuous tale follows dual timelines, and is told generally through either Sullivan’s first-person account or the coerced testimony of Genevieve Bainbridge, who’s determined to protect her granddaughters—at almost any cost. It’s the latter who provides the background necessary to ultimately solve Wilkinson’s demise; but Sullivan commands (and deserves) greater attention. He’s the college-educated son of an Irish mother from Nebraska and a part-Jewish father from Guadalajara, who’s caring for his irresponsible half-sister’s precocious 11-year-old daughter, while “passing” for white. Sullivan is a proficient crime-solver, but his task is complicated by talk of insanity in the Bainbridge family tree and Japanese spies operating out of the hotel; an eyebrow-raising relationship between Wilkinson and China’s first lady, Madame Chiang Kai-shek; and connections between this latest murder and the unsolved slaying—14 years before, and also at the Claremont—of Isabella Stafford’s 7-year-old sister.

The author has quite obviously done her homework. This narrative is peppered with notes about Bay Area history and architecture, as well as obscure historical details that greatly enhance its verisimilitude. What most distinguishes this fine novel from classic noir, though, is the attention Chua pays to deep economic and racial disparities that were present during World War II, and still afflict us today.

Unnatural Ends, by by Christopher Huang (Inkshares):

Here’s a twisty whodunit that should make you feel better about your own upbringing, no matter how wretched it seemed. It’s 1921, and Sir Lawrence Linwood has been bludgeoned to death at his Yorkshire manse, likely by someone he knew. His three adopted, adult children—Alan, Roger, and Caroline—all return home for the funeral, only to learn of a peculiar clause in their pater’s will: the one of them who identifies his murderer inherits the estate.

Although the siblings hungered for his approval, Sir Lawrence was a callous parent, instilling in them fear, and emphasizing ruthless self-interest over compassion. Weakness and any demonstration of emotion were judged unacceptable. Despite that severe upbringing, all three children seemed to survive largely unscathed, and to thrive in adulthood. Alan, the oldest, became an archaeologist; Roger went into engineering, and now tinkers with automobiles and airplanes; while the Asian-featured youngest, Caroline—for whom their father imagined a triumphant future in politics—works as a journalist in Paris, but is interested as well in the performing arts. Before his passing, Sir Lawrence had convinced each of them, separately, that they were his favorite, and that the entirety of his considerable estate would eventually go to them. But now that he’s been the evident victim of homicide, those beliefs can be construed as motives for patricide. So, which of the trio had the most to gain from his eradication?

Hoping to clear themselves in the eyes of the law, Alan, Roger, and Caroline all take up investigating the killing (often reluctantly), in the process revealing themselves as intriguing individual characters. They also uncover disquieting family secrets and determine that answers to this mystery must lie in their birth origins. The stakes only become greater after Sir Lawrence’s wife, Rebecca—who’d give up her medical career to bow wholly before her brutish spouse’s demands, and had never been overly interested in their adopted progeny—is arrested for his slaying. Her claim that she has no recollection of what went on during Sir Lawrence’s last night only enfeebles her defense.

Canadian author Huang heaps this gripping, tightly-plotted yarn with red herrings and other classic genre tropes (secret passages, impersonators, talk of hauntings, and a locked room), but employs them in distinctive fashion. It’s an outstanding follow-up to his 2018 debut novel, A Gentleman’s Murder.

Ashes in the Snow, by Oriana Ramunno (HarperVia):

As Italian author Ramunno explains in this powerful work, her interest in Germany’s oft-brutal World War II history was born from an interview she conducted as a teenager with her great-uncle. He’d survived imprisonment at Bavaria’s Flossenbürg concentration camp, and while there had witnessed rare Nazi commanders employing subterfuges to help inmates endure camp life. This novel reflects her uncle’s unearthing of humanity amid the war’s horrors.

Taking place during the 1943 Christmas season at Auschwitz concentration camp in southern Poland, Ashes in the Snow’s story centers around the perplexing expiry of Sigismund Braun, a pediatrician specializing in genetic diseases, who was also a close associate of Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor known as the “Angel of Death” because of his barbarous experiments on prisoners. Braun allegedly choked on a mouthful of apple. Yet there are rumors of ghosts haunting Block 10, the building where he met his end, and the authorities want those discredited before they can cause trouble.

Dispatched from Berlin to look into these matters is Hugo Fischer, a young police criminologist who long ago shucked off his devotion to Adolf Hitler’s regime and is now keeping a secret the Reich would deem to be solid grounds for his suicide: he suffers from multiple sclerosis, and must rely on drugs to cloak his symptoms. Fischer has scant evidence to guide him in his fact-finding efforts: Braun’s office was scrubbed before the detective arrived; the doctor’s lofty wife is disinclined to cooperate in the inquiry; and his best source of information is an 8-year-old Jewish inmate, Gioele Errera, who—with his twin brother—is under Mengele’s “care.” But Fischer is warned early on not to take seriously anything the camp’s Jews might tell him. “Jews have one role here,” explains a Nazi officer, “and that’s to vanish from the face of the earth.”

Against a bleak but vividly rendered historical backdrop, Fischer pursues those responsible for the slaying of Braun (who hardly lacked for enemies); discovers Auschwitz’s quotidian atrocities (including the source of its “sickly-sweet smell”); and exposes a substratum of German military men determined to impede the pernicious goals of their superiors. Don’t be surprised to find that this tale leaves you saddened but at the same time feeling strangely uplifted.

The Broken Afternoon, by Simon Mason (Riverrun UK):

Ray and Ryan Wilkins may share a surname, and they may both be young cops in Oxford, England, but otherwise, the two could hardly be more different from one another. As we learned in Mason’s A Killing in November (2022), Detective Inspector Raymond Wilkins is a “strikingly good-looking” man of affluent Nigerian-London heritage, eloquent, thoughtful, Balliol College-educated, and ambitious as hell. Ryan Wilkins, meanwhile, is white, the rough-around-the-edges product of a trailer-park upbringing and too much friendly association with the criminal classes. He’s a single father, with an infant son and a mammoth chip on his shoulder regarding those who believe themselves better than him. Their partnership seemed unlikely, at best; but Ray came to realize that despite his bluntness and impulsive behavior, Ryan notices things others don’t. That comes in handy when you’re detectives chasing killers and other malcontents.

However, when we encounter him again in this sequel, Ryan is no longer a member of the Thames Valley force. Disciplinary issues led to his dismissal at the end of the previous novel, and he’s now a disgruntled night-watch security guard for a van rental business. So he’s left to watch dull surveillance camera footage and shoo riff-raff from his company’s property, as Ray assumes command of a team charged with locating 4-year-old Poppy Clarke, just abducted from her nursery school. That assignment carries more than a modicum of urgency, for as Ray knows all too well, the longer a child is missing, the less chance there is of him or her being found. Or found alive, in any case. But clues to Poppy’s whereabouts are negligible, and obvious suspects not easily found culpable. Concurrently, Ryan faces a puzzle of his own. He finds an old acquaintance, down-on-his-luck ex-con Michael “Mick” Dick, endeavoring to break into one of his vans to escape the rain. Ryan ejects him before the cops he’d called show up, but the next days hears that Dick was killed in a hit-and-run.

After Poppy Clarke’s corpse turns up in a shallow woodland grave, Ray Wilkins’ search refocuses on her kidnapper. In the meantime, Ryan has been rooting about in Mick Dick’s past, only to stumble across his link to another prison alumnus, trailing a history of illicit contacts with children. Suddenly, and quite improbably, the two ex-partners find themselves once more working in tandem.

The Broken Afternoon is remarkably nuanced in portraying both the victims and perpetrators of crime, and in its emotional fleshing out of Mason’s protagonists. Ray Wilkins’ wife is facing a difficult pregnancy, which only exacerbates his anxieties at becoming a parent. Ryan’s struggles with rearing a precocious boy reveal him as far more sensitive than he appears; and when the opportunity to reclaim his rank with Thames Valley Police is dangled before him, Ryan realizes just how much that job means to him, despite its strictures. This is police-procedural writing of the highest order. A third entry in the series, Lost and Never Found, arrives in Britain next month.

The Second Murderer, by Denise Mina (Mulholland):

Scottish crime-fictionist Mina has demonstrated her versatility in recent years with modern fictional takes on historical dramas (Rizzio, Three Fires). In this evocative, crisply penned new tale, she stretches her muscles further, dispatching Raymond Chandler’s solitary L.A. gumshoe, Philip Marlowe, in search of Chrissie Montgomery, a naïve 22-year-old heiress gone missing after her engagement party.

Marlowe suspects her repugnant father—who comes from money “so old there was a rumour that some of it still had Moses’ teeth marks on it”—has employed him in hopes that he’ll fail, yet at least keep a lid on the affair. Instead, our hero easily locates his quarry, but suspects she may have good reason for wishing not to be returned. Marlowe’s alternatives there are limited by the involvement in these doings of another sleuth, lovely Anne Riordan (introduced in 1940’s Farewell, My Lovely), who’s been put on the same trail. And they’re further complicated when he discovers Chrissie standing over a freshly slain Nazi painter said to have perished months before in Europe.

Class stratifications, violence against women, and corruption of all flavors figure into this pre-World War II story, jockeying for elbow room against Mina’s sun-baked atmospherics and Marlowe’s signature witty patter. It’s not quite Chandler, but it will do in a pinch.

Last but not least, one work from the biography shelves …

Spillane: King of Pulp Fiction, by Max Allan Collins and
James L. Traylor (Mysterious Press):

“The chewing gum of American literature” is how writer Mickey Spillane described his crime novels, which blended eye-for-an-eye justice with risqué innuendos and granite-chinned philosophizing (“Too many times naked women and death walked side by side”). And boy, did readers eat up his fiction, making his first Mike Hammer private-eye yarn, I, the Jury, into a best-seller that spawned a dozen sequels and turned its protagonist into a radio, film, and TV fixture.

Spillane crafted his own media persona along the way, part-Hammer (he portrayed his Gotham gumshoe in a 1963 film, The Girl Hunters) and part-ham (he spoofed himself in a succession of Miller Lite beer commercials). In this enlightening biography, fellow scribblers Collins (his friend and posthumous collaborator) and Traylor make the most of their extraordinary access to Spillane’s personal archives, delivering acute perspectives on his comic-book years, his multiple marriages, his pugnaciousness and wont to embellish the facts of his life, his surprising conversion by Jehovah’s Witnesses, his vexation with Hollywood, and his eventual recognition by peers who’d earlier condemned him as “a vulgar pulpmeister.”

This book’s paramount success, though, is in depicting Mickey Spillane as a trendsetting stylist, who recognized early the value of paperback publication and helped shape late-20th-century detective fiction.

Other 2023 Favorites: Dead of Night, by Simon Scarrow (Kensington); The Square of Sevens, by Laura Shepherd-Robinson (Atria); The Nightingale Affair, by Tim Mason (Algonquin); Sing Her Down, by Ivy Pochoda (MCD); Too Many Bullets, by Max Allan Collins (Hard Case Crime); and Evergreen, by Naomi Hirahara (Soho Crime).

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