Alaska investigator-turned-author John Straley had a good run in the 1990s. He captured a Shamus Award from the Private Eye Writers of America for The Woman Who Married a Bear (1992), his first novel featuring Sitka P.I. Cecil Younger, then produced another five entries in that series before pretty much falling off the publishing map.

After an almost-under-the-radar return in 2008 with The Big Both Ways, he’s now back with Cold Storage, Alaska, a quirky escapade centered on Clive “The Milkman” McCahon, who, after serving seven years of a decade-long sentence at Washington’s McNeil Island Corrections Center for cocaine commerce, returns to his hometown of Cold Storage, a “failing fishing village” on the coast of southeastern Alaska. There he purchases a decrepit watering hole that once belonged to his grandmother, and transforms it into a “bar slash church.” (It seems local regulations require there be no more drinking establishments in Cold Storage than there are houses of worship, so Clive’s refurbished joint has to serve both functions.) Aside from his younger brother, Miles — a lonely physician’s assistant, who’s been taking care of their sick mother — most locals know little about Clive. But that is almost certainly going to change, and pretty damn fast, because following his trail north are a state trooper anxious to take Clive down for further infractions of the law, and Clive’s former business partner, a wannabe Hollywood screenwriter who intends to relieve the ex-con of money he believes Clive stole from him. As if Clive wasn’t in enough trouble already, he’s also worried about the state of his sanity: animals have begun talking to him — and they have nothing pleasant to say.

As he did in his Cecil Younger series, Straley here makes the Alaska environment as much a palpable character as any of his eccentric, make-believe town dwellers and disruptive interlopers. He also packs plenty of humor into these pages (an author’s note at the end says he intended Cold Storage, Alaska to be “a tribute to one of my favorite genres: screwball comedy”). While the novel is being marketed as crime fiction — and indeed, illegalities provoke much of the action taking place in these pages — it also satisfies with its thoughtful exploration of human tenderness and foibles. Imagine what Richard Russo might have done with an episode of the 1990s TV hit Northern Exposure, and you’ll have a fair idea of what Straley has accomplished in Cold Storage, Alaska. ~ Jeff Pierce

 
Felix Brewer created a handsome life for himself in Baltimore, Maryland, even if his income wasn’t all made in the good old-fashioned, legal way. In 1976, though — facing a lengthy incarceration — he fled with his money to Montreal, Canada, leaving his wife of almost two decades, Bambi, to take care of their three daughters. Felix also left behind his girlfriend, Julie Saxony, who Bambi believed knew more about her husband’s whereabouts than she’d admit.

When Julie eventually disappears, it’s presumed that she has rejoined her former paramour; only the unearthing of her corpse from a nearby wooded area puts an end to that neat conclusion. And it’s not until years later, when a retired police detective, Roberto “Sandy” Sanchez, starts digging into Julie’s slaying, that there’s hope of untangling the manifold mysteries scattered in Felix’s wake. Lippman unfurls her narrative slowly, jumping between time periods and points of view; but the character depth and surprises she packs in here certainly reward patient readers. ~ Jeff Pierce

 
Taking another detour from his Matthew Shardlake Tudor detective series — as he did with the melancholy Winter in Madrid (2008) — Sansom gives us a what-if spy adventure set in 1952. A dozen years have passed since Great Britain surrendered to the greater military might of Nazi Germany, though World War II continues to rage on in Russia. Britons are chafing under the authoritarian regulations imposed by their new government, and they’re worried by reports of atrocious acts taking place in their midst. However, Winston Churchill’s Resistance movement appears to be expanding, and it may have discovered a way to tip the balance of power in its favor.

Much depends, though, on the daring efforts of a civil servant turned Resistance spy, David Fitzgerald, who has been assigned to help a scientist, trapped in a Birmingham mental hospital, flee the country. Fitzgerald soon finds himself hiding from capture, together with a group of other Resistance activists, in a London menaced by a hazardous air-pollution event, the notorious Great Smog of ’52. Meanwhile, Fitzgerald’s wife, Sarah, faces her own terrors, and one of the Gestapo’s most notorious manhunters is hot on both their heels.

Sansom’s characters are given dimensions and detailed histories enough to make them credible, and in Dominion the author has cobbled together enough real events from 1950s Britain with his own imaginings to make readers believe, if only now and then, that the story presented in these pages could actually have happened. Fans of Len Deighton’s own alternative thriller, SS-GB (1978), may see similarities in Dominion, but they shouldn’t be disappointed with this new novel. ~ Jeff Pierce

 
I don’t know if a greater knowledge of astrology would have enhanced my understanding of the characters depicted in The Luminaries. However, I doubt my ignorance detracted in any way from my delight and pleasure in reading Catton’s Man Booker Prize winner.

On January 27, 1866, Walter Moody arrives in Hokitika, New Zealand, after a perilous journey on board the Godspeed buffeted about by a storm at sea and terrified by a “vision” he cannot explain. Undone by his experience, he checks into the Crown Hotel and seeks solace in its upstairs smoking room. Gradually, he becomes aware that the 12 other men occupying this space are not there by accident. He is engaged in conversation by one among them, and is gradually drawn into the circumstances that have brought them all together. They seek to discover the meaning and relationship between the death of a hermit, an attempted suicide by a whore and the disappearance of a rich young man, all on the same night, two weeks prior. The story is revealed and constructed through the parts played by each character and their relationship to the three in question, to each other and to outside characters, all of them part of a web of persons and events leading to that fateful night. Catton presents a complex puzzle set during the mid-19th century New Zealand gold rush, mixing greed, blackmail, theft, murder and revenge with love, luck, friendship and good intentions, all steeped in the smoke of opium. As the weeks pass, the web tightens, discoveries are made, and interactions lead to a place where it is up to Walter Moody to sort everything out in a way that satisfies everyone.

I loved every minute of reading the 830 pages of The Luminaries. ~ Marla Vandewater

 
Journalism was very much within the male realm during the 19th century. Yet a widely publicized and much-promoted ’round-the-globe race was completely a women’s endeavor. The New York World’s best-known daredevil reporter, Nellie Bly (the pseudonym of Elizabeth Jane Cochrane) departed Manhattan in November 1889 to try and beat the trip time imagined by Jules Verne in his novel Around the World in Eighty Days. Shortly thereafter, Cosmopolitan magazine assigned one of its own feature writers, Elizabeth Bisland, to head in the opposite direction about the earth in hopes of topping the travel records of both Verne’s fictional Phileas Fogg and the manifestly corporeal Bly. As newspaper readers everywhere kept track of their often circuitous paths and various means of transportation, these two women did their best to surmount obstacle after unexpected obstacle, and — more in Bisland’s case than Bly’s — appreciate the diverse cultures through which they were spinning headlong. Goodman (whose previous work, The Sun and the Moon, was among my favorite books of 2008) does an exceptional job here of presenting the two competitors as characters and of framing their adventure as an important landmark in the history of female journalists. ~ Jeff Pierce

 
It’s truly a jumbo-sized yarn that Daly delivers in Topsy: The Startling Story of the Crooked-Tailed Elephant, P.T. Barnum, and the American Wizard, Thomas Edison. By turns humorous, heartwarming and horrifying, it encompasses everything from the first elephant debarking in the United States in 1796, to the 19th-century rise of American circuses, the invention of “pink lemonade” (believe me, you don’t want to know its founding ingredients), and the zealous rivalry between pioneering electricity entrepreneurs Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse.

However, the thematic and emotional center of this book is occupied by a female Asian elephant, Topsy, who was born around 1875 and came to the United States in 1877. Despite that history, her original American owner — Adam Forepaugh, the cheapskate proprietor of a traveling circus that competed head-to-hype against “humbugger” Phineas T. Barnum’s own big-top spectacle — fraudulently declared Topsy to be the first native-born proboscidian.

Over the years, she, like so many other imported elephants, was cruelly mistreated by handlers, one of whom actually broke Topsy’s tail in a wrathful thrashing. As Daly explains, it was rare to find people who understood that pain and fear weren’t necessary motivators for pachyderms — but Topsy at least had two such early trainers, one of them a young black man whose gentle expertise with animal performers was actually hidden from white circus-goers. “Both men,” the author states, “were secure enough in themselves that they did not need to inflate their sense of self by dominating and abusing elephants. They sought to connect with elephants, not subjugate them.”

Daly says he’s surprised and impressed at how few elephants retaliated against their abusers. “Topsy endured a lifetime of torment,” he notes, “but, by my count, only killed once and that after a guy threw a lit cigar in her mouth. Even after that, she put up with treatment so brutal that cops in Coney Island twice felt compelled to arrest her drunken trainer. She could have killed her tormentor at will, but never harmed him as he struck and stuck her again and again, day after day.”

Nonetheless, after being retired from circus duty and acquired by Fred Thompson and Elmer “Skip” Dundy, the builders of Coney Island’s ostentatious Luna Park, Topsy gained a rep in the press as a “bad elephant.” The park wanted no such negative publicity, so a decision was made to electrocute the onetime star performer. This wasn’t the first time an elephant had been thusly eliminated; and electrocution had become an accepted form of capital punishment, thanks in part to its grudging endorsement by inventor Edison.

On January 4, 1903 — four months before Luna Park opened — electrodes were fitted to two of Topsy’s huge feet, and a switch thrown. The 10-foot-tall leviathan collapsed under 6,600 volts of electricity, while a crew sent by Edison filmed her demise. Daly recalls how difficult it was to write that scene: “Had [Topsy] been a person, everybody would now be saying that she was wrongly executed on trumped-up charges, and it seemed important to describe her death in whatever detail was most telling. The supposed crazed man killer obligingly raised her foot when asked so the electrode could be adjusted moments before the fatal jolt. The result was indeed sad and unnecessary and, more than anything, unjust.” ~ Jeff Pierce

 
At 82 years old, Sheldon “Donny” Horowitz is a retired, widowed, and Jewish watch repairman living well out of his element. His beloved granddaughter, Rhea, has moved him from New York City to Oslo to be with her and her new Norwegian husband, Lars. She fears that Sheldon — congenitally insolent and cranky in often extreme measures — is fast slipping into dementia, since he claims to have been a sniper in the Korean War, rather than a mere file clerk. But after a Kosovar war criminal murders Sheldon’s neighbor and tries to take her son, it falls to our octogenarian philosopher-hero to flee with that boy, dodging cops and killers and, if disaster doesn’t intervene, finally deliver himself from the guilt he’s borne for his own son’s death during the Vietnam War. Ripe with memories of conflicts long ago fought and regrets insurmountable, this is a remarkably moving, memorable debut thriller. It can also be awfully damn funny at times, as in this paragraph describing Sheldon’s nighttime rendezvous with a bathroom fixture:

The light is off, and it is dark. He has one hand pressed against the cold tiles of the wall above the toilet, and with his other hand he is taking aim, such as it is. He’s waiting for his prostate to get out of the way so he can take a well-deserved leak and get back to bed where he belongs, so that if by chance his heart stops this very second, he won’t be found — holding his pecker, dead on the floor — by a bunch of twenty-year-old medics who will gawk at his circumcision and bad luck.

It’s hard not to love a crime novel that alternates its dramatic elements — and there are plenty of those here, especially as the yarn nears its close — with such noteworthy commentary about the absurdities of life. ~ Jeff Pierce

 
It’s been more than a decade and a half since the last appearance of Paul Thomas’ best-known protagonist, Detective Sergeant Tito Ihaka, a headstrong, overweight, and blithely profane Maori police detective based in Auckland, New Zealand. But the wait was worth it, for his fourth Ihaka outing, Death on Demand, ranks among the best entries in this award-winning series.

Death on Demand comes out of the blocks with a succession of vignettes spotlighting seemingly unconnected characters — among them a handsome young man who’s seduced away from his hometown by a peripatetic older woman; a quartet of middle-aged gents who swap confidences during their annual “boys’ weekend”; and a well-heeled Auckland woman, Joyce Lilywhite, who falls victim to an early morning hit-and-run incident. It isn’t until three dozen pages in that Ihaka finally steps to the fore. We learn that he’s spent the last several years exiled to Wairarapa, a rural region southeast of Auckland, following his unsuccessful efforts to close the aforementioned hit-and-run case and his run-in, in a public restroom, with an ass-kissing colleague, DS Ron Firkitt, who’s bent on undermining Ihaka’s law-enforcement career. Thomas’ account of that altercation — which finds Firkitt trailing his fellow detective into the toilet in order to continue berating him — gives you a sense both of this author’s humor-tinged storytelling style and his protagonist’s abject disregard for authority:

Ihaka registered that none of the stalls were occupied. He stepped up to the weeping wall. Firkitt followed suit, still snorting with amusement. As Firkitt unzipped, Ihaka threw a hard, fast elbow, spearing it into the side of his jaw, just below the ear. Firkitt bounced off the wall, his knees gave way, and he slid face first into the trough of the urinal. Ihaka unbuttoned his jeans and took a long, leisurely piss. The drainage flow encountered an obstacle, but the obstacle didn’t seem to notice.

Ihaka washed and dried his hands and walked out of the toilet. Firkitt still hadn’t moved.

Yeah, Tito Ihaka is not exactly a team player. Yet when Christopher Lilywhite, the dying husband of that woman who was killed by a speeding car six years ago, suddenly demands an audience with Ihaka, the latter’s bosses decide its worth their summoning him back to Auckland, if only temporarily. It turns out Lilywhite is ready to confess that he hired a hit man to do away with his wife — just as Ihaka suspected he had done, but was unable to prove conclusively. The problem is, Lilywhite never learned his hit man’s identity. Which soon becomes a problem, as people linked to that long-ago slaying, not the least of them being Lilywhite himself, start turning up in body bags. Is Auckland suffering the predations of a serial murderer, or is Lilywhite’s assassin trying to remove anyone conversant with the scope of his activities? As the parameters of Ihaka’s investigation expand to include a prolific gigolo, an imprisoned mobster, and instances of blackmail and possible police corruption, Ihaka proves that his recent banishment to the bush has not dulled his crime-solving acumen (or his robust self-confidence) one iota.

used to think that nobody could touch Erle Stanley Gardner when it came to manufacturing twisted plots. But Paul Thomas is no slouch in that regard. There are enough questions raised in Death on Demand to make a Jeopardy! contestant’s head spin. Slowly and persistently, though, the author ties together all of the loose ends offered in the vignettes opening his new novel, and resolves the myriad mysteries he raises subsequently. At the same time, he invites readers to dine on a buffet of quips and lighthearted quotes scattered through his chapters, including this exchange between Ihaka and a glamorous but volatile TV personality

She examined Ihaka through the glass doors, tapping her chin with her cellphone. “You don’t look like a policeman.”

“This isn’t television, Ms. Kelly. I didn’t have to audition for the part.”

Death on Demand is one of four contenders for this year’s Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel, designed to honor “excellence in New Zealand crime, mystery and thriller writing.” Having now read all of those works, I can say that Paul Thomas’ fourth Tito Ihaka novel (published in the States by Bitter Lemon Press) deserves its nomination. Without a doubt. ~ Jeff Pierce

 
Set in the fabled City of Light, beginning in 1926, Byrd’s colorful, often clever tale spotlights Toby Keats, a still-traumatized veteran of the so-called Great War, who now works as a rewrite man for the Chicago Tribune. Keats is accustomed to a fairly peaceful, near-monkish existence, sampling Paris’ gourmet wares as he observes girls herding goats through the streets and mutilated French ex-soldiers trying to survive without too obviously begging. But then into his life falls what could be Vaucanson’s Duck, a “somewhat scandalous” 18th-century automaton that’s coveted by an American banker and a delightful, resourceful young woman named Elsie Short of the Thomas Edison Doll Company, as well as by criminals who may desire the phony fowl for its interior mechanism — technology that might further advance weapons development. Byrd won a Shamus Award for California Thriller (1981), the first in a trio of novels starring San Francisco private investigator Mike Haller. During the 1990s he penned historical fiction about a trio of U.S. presidents: Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Ulysses S. Grant. Now, in The Paris Deadline, he delivers a sparkling and suspenseful caper with a mystery plot well-rooted in a loving re-creation of Jazz Age Paris. ~ Jeff Pierce

 
Have you ever noticed how often cults — be they religious or reactionary, satanic or satirical — figure into mystery and thriller tales? Writers seem fascinated (and who can blame them?) by what causes some people to fall under the spell of charismatic, passionate, and occasionally whacked-out prophets who’ll usher them into the wilderness or to some less remote locale, where they can jointly pursue enlightenment or simply escape the restrictions of modern society. And in most such yarns, cults harbor secretive agendas, and the results of extended contact with them can be, well, dire.

I started pondering all of this as I was reading A Serpent’s Tooth, Craig Johnson’s ninth novel featuring Absaroka County, Wyoming, sheriff Walt Longmire.

The story kicks off with the discovery of a teenager, Cord Lynear, who’s been hiding at the home of one of Longmire’s constituents and making repairs to her residence in exchange for food filched from her icebox. As it turns out, Cord is a Mormon “lost boy,” cast off from a tightly controlled polygamous sect in South Dakota: the Apostolic Church of the Lamb of God. He’s now looking for his mother, Sarah Tisdale, who was once also part of the Lamb of God community, but who has recently disappeared. Longmire would dearly like to reunite mother and son. To do so, however, will mean dealing with an eccentric tough who claims to be a 200-year-old Mormon “enforcer,” confronting the alarmingly well-armed religionists, and figuring out why they’re so protective of territory that the federal government has deemed worthless — the same tract that, in the early 20th century, was at the center of the Teapot Dome scandal.

Johnson’s tales about Longmire, the protagonist’s short-tempered undersheriff, Victoria Morretti, and his Native American friend/sidekick, Henry Standing Bear, always offer light-hearted elements. Indeed, the polygamists’ lack of acquaintance with contemporary culture is a ripe source of humor here. But there’s nothing funny about the lengths to which that secretive sect will go to keep the outside world out of its business. When I call A Serpent’s Tooth explosive, it’s with good reason. ~ Jeff Pierce

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