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Murder, They Wrote: The Year In Mysteries

Dec 15, 2010

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Faithful Place The Rembrandt Affair The Sleepwalkers The Confession

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Okay, let's acknowledge the big pink elephant (or giant red Swedish fish?) in the living room, and then we can get on with this salute to some of the other best mysteries and suspense novels of 2010. Stieg Larsson. It would be preposterous to offer a round-up of the year-in-crime-fiction without paying homage to The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest and the international phenomenon of Larsson's entire Millennium Series. (My local independent bookstore is doing a brisk business selling black rubber bracelets imprinted with the question: "What Would Lisbeth Do?")  Maybe 2011 will bring us Lisbeth Salander fans some version of that rumored fourth installment floating around on Larsson's companion's computer. If not, it's still been a thrill to witness the launch of one of the mystery and suspense canon's groundbreaking series.


Faithful Place

By Tana French, hardcover, 416 pages, Viking Adult, list price: $25.95

This year also saw a slew of crime novels — some by veterans; others by frisky newcomers — published in the shadow of Larsson. Certainly, Irish author Tana French is not a new name to mystery aficionados: her first novel, In the Woods swept up the Edgar, Barry, Macavity and Anthony Awards. Faithful Place, the third installment in French's saga about the Dublin Murder Squad, is an elaborate ballad of class resentments, family burdens, regret and passion. The story alternates between the depressed Ireland of the 1980s and the depressed Ireland of the present day, which means that the country's all-too-brief era of prosperity has been skipped over altogether. Not that the Celtic Tiger ever prowled much on Faithful Place, the inner city street where Dublin police detective Frank Mackey grew up.

For years, Frank has kept his distance from the neighborhood until the day he gets wind of a horror: builders who've been gutting a derelict tenement on Faithful Place have found a decayed suitcase stuck inside a fireplace. Soon enough, a corpse is unearthed in the basement and identified as Rosie Daly, Frank's teenaged love. Twenty-two years earlier, Frank and Rosie were set to run away to London. Rosie never showed up at their meeting spot and Frank always assumed she'd had second thoughts and left without him. To solve Rosie's murder, Frank must re-ingratiate himself with family and neighbors he thought he'd exorcised long ago. French writes vividly about Frank's adolescent yearnings for Rosie and also summons up the suffocation that Frank feels even now in the presence of his family:

"My ma is your classic Dublin mammy: five foot nothing of curler-haired, barrel-shaped don't-mess-with-this, fueled by an endless supply of disapproval. The prodigal son's welcome went like this:

"Francis," Ma said . . . . "Could you not be bothered putting on a decent shirt, even?"

By its devastating end, Faithful Place affirms the wisdom of Thomas Wolfe's much quoted adage: "You can't go home again." But, brilliantly, it also affirms the dark truth of every great noir — "You can't escape home, either."


The Rembrandt Affair

By Daniel Silva, hardcover, 496 pages, Putnam, list price: $26.95

The stranglehold that the past has on the present is also the premise of Daniel Silva's latest stand-out Gabriel Allon thriller, The Rembrandt Affair. Poor Gabriel: All he longs to do is to take early retirement from his life as a crack agent (and assassin) for the Israeli Mossad, bury himself deep in the English countryside and enjoy his other career as an art restorer, as well as marriage to his beautiful young co-worker, Chiara. But, Palestinian extremists, rogue Russian arms dealers and all-too-vivid ghosts of the Holocaust won't let Gabriel be. Gabriel has barely breathed his first lungful of gorse when word reaches him that a fellow art restorer has been murdered and the Rembrandt painting he had been working on has been stolen. Soon enough, Gabriel and his team of intelligence agents are burrowing deep into the soiled past of the painting (during the Holocaust, it was used as a bargaining chip to buy the life of a Jewish girl), as well as into the background of a do-gooder, international financier whose ostentatious charity work provides a cover for evil.

Intelligence is the factor that has distinguished Silva's espionage novels from his very first, stand-alone, jewel of a World War II thriller, The Unlikely Spy, through the breathtaking Allon series. Silva writes spy novels for people who are willing to think about uncomfortable political questions and the ongoing history of human brutality. Maybe the strongest endorsement I can give of The Rembrandt Affair and Silva's writing overall is to share this anecdote:  When the novel came out this summer, I was at the beach. The review copy of the book, I knew, had been delivered to me at my home. I couldn't wait a week to read it, so I plunked down full price and read it in two days. It was worth every penny and then some.


The Sleepwalkers

By Paul Grossman, hardcover, 320 pages, St. Martin's Press, list price: $24.99

Nazis also infest the world of The Sleepwalkers. Talk about a "world gone wrong." Weimar Germany, which is where Paul Grossman's inventive debut novel is set, makes Raymond Chandler's L.A. of a slightly later period look like a kiddie petting zoo. Chandler's Philip Marlowe only had to fend off femme fatales and trigger happy tough guys. Willi Kraus, the Berlin police detective who stars in The Sleepwalkers, has to outwit Hitler and his minions — a job made all the more dicey by the fact that Willi is Jewish

Drawing on historical accounts of the period, The Sleepwalkers summons up what must have been the surreal quality of everyday life during the last days of the Weimar Republic. Willi is a decorated "Inspektor-Detektiv" in the police force; a middle-aged widower with two young sons. Everything is settled, even a bit boring, in Willi's world, as long as he can shut out the shouts of the Brown Shirts gathering on the city streets; the sudden eruptions of anti-Semitism at his sons' school.  Willi comes to realize that it's only a matter of days before his police badge will be as effective as a library card in fending off the thugs coming to power that fateful autumn in Germany.  Before he finds himself turned into the pursued, rather than the pursuer, Willi is determined to solve a bizarre crime spree bedeviling Berlin: a number of people have simply vanished, apparently walking away from their lives under hypnotic suggestion.  The corpse of one of the disappeared, a young woman, turns up in the River Spree.  As a horrified Willi observes, her legs beneath the knee have been mutilated — amputated and reattached backwards — "as if someone had taken giant pliers and turned the fibula around."

Though the puzzle of these vanished Berliners is involving, it's the period atmosphere that really distinguishes The Sleepwalkers. The fact that we readers know more than Willi does about the disastrous future looming over the horizon in late 1932 adds an urgency to this story far beyond the mechanics of the mystery plot.


A Fierce Radiance

By Lauren Belfer, hardcover, 544 pages, Harper, list price: $25.99

Lauren Belfer has already demonstrated that she's adept at writing historical fiction that sizzles.  Her 1999 suspense tale, City of Light, was a bestseller; her latest novel, A Fierce Radiance, recounts the World War II era race to make large quantities of penicillin, pronto! Discovered in 1928 by Scottish researcher, Dr. Alexander Fleming, penicillin was a finicky substance to work with; therefore, it was left on the shelf until the advent of the war when the Allies became desperate for a medicine that could be mass produced to fight battlefield infections.  Because the Brits were busy repelling the Blitz, the challenge was taken up by American pharmaceutical companies, working in uneasy alliance with government labs and private research institutions.  They succeeded.  As Belfer notes in an afterword to her compelling novel, at "D-Day, in June 1944, every medic going ashore in France carried penicillin in his pack."

The focus of Belfer's story is Claire Shipley — a single mother working as a photojournalist for Life magazine. Think a hotter version of Margaret Bourke White. The novel opens in December 1941 with Claire on assignment at New York's Rockefeller Institute (now Rockefeller University) where researchers are experimenting with small doses of penicillin. Before long, Claire becomes romantically involved with a hunky young doctor and finds herself swept up into a murder investigation when a researcher is killed and her lab notes stolen. Nazi sympathizers and jealous colleagues are among the cast of eccentric suspects, but the star attraction here is Belfer's detailed depiction of wartime New York City as well as her evocation of the everyday terrors posed by pneumonia, scarlet fever and scraped elbows — now vastly diminished thanks to penicillin and other antibiotics. Historical Fact: Thank a penicillin-rich moldy cantaloupe at a Peoria, Ill. market and dogged government researchers at The Northern Regional Research Lab in Peoria for the big breakthrough!


The Confession

By John Grisham, hardcover, 432 pages, Doubleday, list price: $28.95

In terms of authors-with-world-wide-name-recognition, John Grisham certainly belongs up at the top of the roll with the late Stieg Larsson. Grisham's latest novel, The Confession, shows that he hasn't taken his acclaim for granted.  The Confession is the kind of frenetic, grab-a-reader-by-her-shoulders suspense story that demands to be inhaled as quickly as possible. It's also a superb work of social criticism in the literary troublemaker tradition of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. The novel's target — the death penalty and its innocent casualties — derive from Grisham's other life as an activist and board member for The Innocence Project, an organization that fights to exonerate prisoners it deems wrongfully convicted.

The novel opens on a classic noir situation in which an Ordinary Joe finds himself suddenly thrust into a nightmare. Our flummoxed hero is the Rev. Keith Schroeder, the pastor of a Lutheran church in Topeka, Kan. Sitting in his office one cold morning, Schroeder is paid a visit by a monster. Travis Boyette is a convicted felon, currently out on parole, who tells Schroeder that he's dying from a malignant brain tumor and that he wants to confess to the abduction, rape and murder of a Texas high school cheerleader who disappeared almost ten years ago. Time is of the essence. In less than 24 hours, Donte Drumm, the victim's former classmate, will be put to death for a murder he didn't commit.  If Schroeder will drive Boyette to the site of the proposed execution — and, thus, become his accomplice in breaking parole — Boyette says he will confess to the authorities and take them to the spot where he buried the body. Schroeder agrees, and, soon, the two men are piling into Schroeder's clunker for the ultimate road trip from Hell.

Grisham doesn't spare his readers or himself from gruesome experiences or hard questions. At one crucial point in The Confession, Schroeder is forced to ask himself whether he would approve of the death penalty if Boyette, instead of Drumm, were scheduled to receive a lethal injection of muscle relaxer to stop his heart.  By the time you finish reading The Confession, you may well find that your answer, like Schroeder's, is different from the one you would have given before this darkly brilliant narrative began unfolding.

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Book Club Picks: Give 'Em Something To Talk About

Dec 6, 2010 (Weekend Edition Saturday)

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The Imperfectionists Parrot and Olivier Wench Faithful Place Sunset Park

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Making suggestions for your book club can be gratifying — or terrifying. If everyone loves the book, you're a hero. On the other hand, if your pick is a turkey, it takes a while to live it down. I had a pretty good run in my book club this year. All my suggestions seemed to get a warm reception. Then I recommended Ian McEwan's Solar to the group. Though McEwan has written some great novels, this was not one of them. But I found it amusing, and I thought the subject matter would interest the group. As it turns out, they were interested in the subject (a man at wits' end trying to harness the power of the sun), but they pretty much hated the author's take on it. And where I chuckled at the main character's excesses, most of the group seethed. I've been lying low ever since — but that is not going to stop me now. So here are a few books that might get you talking. You might even like some of them.


Parrot And Olivier In America

By Peter Carey; hardcover, 400 pages; Knopf, list price: $26.95

This novel is a riff on Alexis de Tocqueville's famous book Democracy in America, and, like its source, it is an insightful look at post-revolutionary America. But it is also a delightful romp with of two of contemporary fiction's most memorable characters. There's Olivier, a sickly and overprotected young aristocrat raised in the ever-threatening shadow of the French Revolution, and Parrot, the son of an itinerant British printer, who suffers an early tragedy that spins his life in unexpected directions. When the two become unlikely companions, they bicker and grumble their way through America until finally realizing that this new world really is entirely new and completely different. The aristocratic Olivier thinks he has found love. The plebeian Parrot wonders if this is a place where he can finally rest. For those who like to fall into a big, sprawling novel and get lost, this book is for you.


Wench

By Dolen Perkins-Valdez; hardcover, 304 pages; Amistad, list price: $24.99

Of the many inexplicable aspects of the institution of slavery, one of the hardest to fathom is the relationship between slave owners and the slaves they took as mistresses. It is this relationship that Dolen Perkins-Valdez explores in the novel Wench. She sets her story mostly in a resort in the free state of Ohio, revealing a little-known slice of slave life — the phenomenon of Southern slave owners vacationing with their mistresses. The false air of normalcy and the tantalizing proximity to freedom that results has a profound effect on four women whose lives are utterly dependent on the mercy and whims of their owners and lovers. For one of these women, the hint of freedom is also an invitation to escape, upending the carefully constructed lives of both owners and slaves. This is a fascinating and tragic story that is also a compulsive read.


Faithful Place

By Tana French; hardcover, 416 pages; Viking Adult, list price: $25.95

In Faithful Place, Tana French takes readers into a corner of Dublin where families do their best to suffocate dreams and cops are to be avoided at all costs. Detective Frank Mackey escaped from there long ago, but the discovery of a body in an abandoned house brings him back to the old neighborhood. When the abandoned body turns out to be a girl Mackey thought had jilted him on the night he ran away years ago, he is forced to face his past and the family he hoped he had left behind forever. French has a way of creating characters whose own lives are as mysterious as the crimes they are involved in solving, a reason her books can be interesting even to readers who are not normally attracted to detective stories. Faithful Place is as much as study of the complexities of family relations as it is a crime novel, and as everybody knows, families are endlessly fascinating and always surprising.


The Imperfectionists

By Tom Rachman; hardcover, 288 pages; The Dial Press, list price: $25

This kaleidoscopic look at a Rome-based English language newspaper is both hilarious and surprisingly moving. Through a series of interlocking stories, we glean the life of a newspaper from its heyday to its decline. From the young publisher who inherited his role and has no idea what to do with it to the obit writer who discovers his own ambition in the worst of possible ways to the avid reader who is years behind in keeping up with the news, we fall for this cast of characters and the paper that has sustained them over the years. If you still harbor a secret love for the days when news wasn't delivered instantaneously, and also accept the fact that the people who brought it to you were neither villains nor cardboard heroes (but merely flawed humans), then you may find a place in your heart for The Imperfectionists.


Sunset Park

By Paul Auster; hardcover, 320 pages; Henry Holt, list price: $25

At a time when lawns are littered with for sale signs and lives are being devastated by foreclosures, it's noteworthy that a writer like Paul Auster would use the nation's housing crisis as a backdrop for his latest novel. As Sunset Park opens, its main character, Miles Heller, is working for a company that "trashes out" foreclosed homes, getting rid of the things families left behind in their haste to abandon what they once called home. Heller has been living in self-imposed exile from his own family in New York, but soon enough circumstances force him to return home. He takes up an offer to squat rent-free in a dilapidated house with a group of young people and is reunited with his estranged father, who has longed for his return. All this provides Auster with the material for a meditation on the meaning of home and the fragility of life with, or without, a safety net.

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