I was fond enough of Midwestern novelist Alex Grecian’s premiere Murder Squad tale, The Yard, that I chose it as one of the top crime novels of 2012. Naturally, my expectations of its sequel were high. Although The Black Country lacks some of the attractions of its predecessor, it still secures Grecian standing as somebody whose work is well worth following.
This sophomore outing for Inspector Walter Day of Scotland Yard’s Murder Squad opens in the spring of 1890. Day and his rather eccentric associate, Sergeant Nevil Hammersmith, have been dispatched to the beleaguered coal-mining village of Blackhampton, in the British Midlands, from which three members of the Price family have gone missing. Concerns about their fate have only been heightened by a child’s recent discovery — in a tree’s upper branches, of all places — of an eyeball. As if these factors didn’t make the case weird enough, a seeming plague has struck the town, the foundations of houses and other buildings there have been undermined by aged mine shafts, and a gruesomely disfigured stranger appears to be lurking in the vicinity. Being a superstitious lot, Blackhampton residents take these turns with some equanimity; but Day and Hammersmith want answers and aren’t willing to leave villagers with any secrets unexcavated. As the village is slowly swallowed up by the earth, Hammersmith is struck down by the advancing plague and a long-festering vengeance threatens to trim Blackhampton’s population still further.
The Yard made excellent use of its London backdrop and the displeasure Victorian-era Londonders exhibited toward Scotland Yard, which had failed to protect them from Jack the Ripper, the city’s deadly scourge of 1888. The rural setting of The Black Country proves less captivating (and reminds me overmuch of Charles Todd’s better-known Inspector Ian Rutledge novels). And though Day’s colleague, progressive pathologist Dr. Bernard Kingsley, eventually rolls into Blackhampton to aid in sorting out the mysteries at hand (together with his dim but endearing assistant, Henry Mayhew), the absence of other Scotland Yarders and the police-procedural atmosphere they helped impart to The Yard is keenly felt in these pages. I hope that by their third adventure, Grecian’s gang of colorful historical crime-solvers will have found their way back among the belching smokestacks and ribald underworld corners of the British capital. ~ Jeff Pierce
At the conclusion of Mosley’s 10th Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins novel, Blonde Faith (2007), we found his Los Angeles private eye drunk, depressed at the loss of his longtime girlfriend, Bonnie Shay, and wheeling his automobile over a cliff on the Pacific Coast Highway north of Malibu, California. “The back of my car hit something hard,” Easy told readers, “a boulder no doubt. Something clenched down on my left foot and pain lanced up my leg. I ignored this, though, realizing that in a few seconds, I’d be dead.” It was hardly unreasonable to think that Mosley had thereby delivered his final Rawlins outing.
Six years later, though, Easy is back, if not in great condition — the plummet from that precipice had thrown him free, but it took most of a day for his old buddy, the ever-armed-and-dangerous Raymond “Mouse” Alexander, to locate him and get him medical attention. After spending two months in bed in a semi-coma, the detective finally reawakens to the world of 1967 … only to have Mouse ask that he take on a new assignment: locating Evander “Little Green” Noon, a man of 19 or 20 (“but he’s immature for his age”) who disappeared after calling his mother to tell her that he’d met some girl on the Sunset Strip.
A lesser, perhaps smarter man might have said no way, that he needed considerably more bed rest before tackling anything so difficult. But Easy has never been one to fail a friend, and so, bucked up by a “voodoo elixir” supplied by “Southern witch” Mama Jo, he sets off in a bright red 1965 Plymouth Barracuda to bring Evander home — and in the meantime, protect the young man from folks who would rather he ceased breathing immediately. All of this, despite risks to his own life. (“It’s always been my opinion,” Easy tells us at one point, “that if a man’s going to be a fool he should go all the way.”) As the case unfolds, Rawlins will rub elbows (and more intimate body parts) with free-spirited hippie chicks, run afoul of gun-wielding thugs, do his best to hide a small fortune in tainted cash, and try to figure out why Evander’s mother hates Mouse so, despite the lengths Mouse is willing to go to rescue her oldest child. There’s a secondary plot here, too, which has Easy helping another longtime pal, Jackson Blue, squeeze out from under a blackmail threat.
Walter Mosley may have taken a half-dozen-year break from his man Easy, but in the course of it he lost none of his sure footing with this series. Little Green ranks as one of the finest Rawlins novels to date, and that’s no small compliment. These pages are filled with the author’s typically incisive characterizations and careful attention to historical detail. (You can almost smell the patchouli oil and pot smoke so beloved by America’s sexually liberated generation.) While this tale is certainly a mystery, challenging “research and delivery” man Rawlins to sort out why Evander vanished and remains in danger, it also boasts strong social commentary. Easy is always sensitive to the unfairness and insults any black resident of the United States experienced during the mid-20th-century; yet he senses things might be changing a little, that in the age of Martin Luther King Jr. and the African-American civil-rights movement, blacks may see more acceptance and evenhandedness in their future. For a guy who recently died, such revelations can be powerful incentives to go on living. ~ Jeff Pierce
In writing three memoirs about her years as a midwife-in-training, Worth employs the same qualities that made her excel in her chosen profession. She’s brisk but attentive to detail, compassionate but not sentimental, and she has a warm-hearted sense of humor and great timing. Her books provide a compelling picture of a time and place—post-war East End London—that seems much further away than just an ocean and 60 years. If you enjoyed Angela’s Ashes, you should give these books a try. ~ Liz Goodwin
Southern California writer Thomas Perry hit it big right off the bat, his 1983 suspenser, The Butcher’s Boy, winning an Edgar Award for Best First Novel. Since then, he’s produced a variety of standalone thrillers, as well as seven entries in a series featuring Native American “guide”/troubleshooter Jane Whitefield (most recently last year’s Poison Flower).
The Boyfriend reintroduces protagonist Jack Till (from 2007’s Silence), who retired from the Los Angeles Police Department as a homicide detective after almost two dozen years and now earns a living as a private investigator, content to take on unremarkable cases that allow him time enough to help care for Holly, his 28-year-old daughter with Down syndrome. However, Till has recently taken on a more difficult assignment, to solve the slaying of high-end “professional escort” Catherine Hamilton. The cops have pretty much exhausted their interest in that murder, designating it a simple shooting committed in the course of a robbery. But Catherine’s parents want to know more. Till’s own digging around the details of Catherine’s demise soon reveals a disturbing pattern: she’s one in a string of female escorts, all with strawberry blond hair but residing in different towns, who’ve been killed in their homes with the same sort of gun.
For Till to get to the bottom of it all, he’ll have to become intimately acquainted with the clandestine depths of the online escort business, and figure out some way to curtail the predations of a murderer unusually adept at getting close to women who are, by professional necessity, self-protective in the extreme. ~ Jeff Pierce
Alan Clay, a 54-year-old tech salesman, has come to Saudi Arabia on a last-ditch effort to regain his fortune. He is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, a victim of the hurricane forces that have reshaped our global economy. Day after day, Alan is driven—usually at a late hour—to a large white tent in the desert, part of the King Abdullah Economic City, or KAEC (pronounced “cake”). Along with three young colleagues, he sits around waiting for the king so that he can sell him a new teleconferencing system. This sale will go a long way toward making Alan solvent. Day after day, the king fails to appear.
Meanwhile, Alan obsesses over how he will pay the high tuition he owes to his daughter’s college, how he will repay the five-figure loans that he has obtained from friends who are becoming insistent on repayment, and when the king will arrive so he can convince him to buy this state-of-the-art system.
It is beastly hot in KAEC, and while some buildings and highways there seem complete, other parcels are merely abandoned holes in the ground. Alan almost falls into one that’s several stories deep. He meets a young taxi driver who shows him some of the authentic life of the area. He discovers that while Saudi Arabia is a puritan kingdom, everyone seems to be secretly drinking. In the long empty days, he meets lonely expats and drops in on a wild embassy party.
Alan is a fish out of water with little understanding of the Middle Eastern mindset. He makes joking comments that can get him in big trouble. At one point, a jesting remark leads to a confrontation, revealing that some Saudi men mistake him for a CIA spy or perhaps a terrorist from America. While trying to locate someone who can tell him when the king will finally arrive, he notices that the Chinese, who appear to be lurking in the background, are being given preference in spite of assurances to the contrary.
Ironically, over a long career working for Fuller Brush, Schwinn Bicycles and a dozen other companies, Alan has been part of the process that encouraged outsourcing of manufacturing from the United States. The result is that many in our country have watched in dismay as jobs have evaporated and gone overseas. We all know people who have been brutalized by the unexpected implosion of our economy in recent years. Dave Eggers has written a highly readable and compassionate parable of modern America. He creates a sympathetic portrait of an Everyman character who continues to hold out for his dream of meeting the king in spite of all the odds. ~ Gretchen Echols
Most readers outside of Scandinavia probably didn’t encounter the character of Swedish cop Irene Huss until 2003, when Helene Tursten’s first novel in the series, Detective Inspector Huss (originally Den krossade tanghästen), was published in an English translation. Since that time, four other Huss police procedurals have been rendered into English, with another half dozen still awaiting that treatment.
The Golden Calf, published in 2004 as Guldkalven, finds Huss (a mother and jujitsu expert when she isn’t tracking down malefactors) probing the slaying, near the town of Göteborg, of a prosperous restaurateur named Kjell Ceder. His wife, Sanna, discovered the body, and it isn’t long before Huss and her Violent Crimes Unit partner, Tommy Persson, start to figure this for a crime of passion, with the notably pale and peculiarly hostile Sanna to blame. After all, the Ceder marriage was hardly ideal; the paternity of their newborn son was even in doubt. But when two more people are found murdered in the same execution-style manner, the detectives must revise their theories. It turns out that one of the latter victims had once been a business partner with Sanna, and it isn’t long before the detectives learn that a third partner in that venture has been missing for years. Rather than being a killer, could Sanna Kaegler-Ceder actually be the next target? ~ Jeff Pierce
In the last months of 1899, the Earl of Dilberne’s household is thrown into utter disarray. Lord Robert finds himself on the brink of financial ruin, as the result of an unwise investment in a South African gold mine. Below stairs, the staff knows that Lord Robert gambles with the Prince of Wales, pays rent on the house of a past mistress and is ignoring a stack of unopened letters on his desk, obviously from creditors. The Earl’s impending financial doom threatens their livelihoods also.
When his wife, Lady Isobel, the daughter of a wealthy coal baron, grasps the serious nature of the looming disaster, she realizes it is imperative that Arthur, her youngest child and the Dilberne heir, marry quickly. Grace, her lady’s maid, is sent to visit the households of Lady Isobel’s friends in order to discreetly discover names of suitable young women of fortune who might be introduced to Arthur.
Arthur, meanwhile, enjoys the special favors of Flora, who lives—all expenses paid—in London’s Half Moon Street. He occupies his waking hours working on the family’s horseless carriage, devising a more efficient, water-propelled engine. Is the combustible engine the wave of the future?
Rosina, the eldest Dilberne daughter, unable to inherit because of her sex, is at age 28 on the brink of spinsterhood. She keeps a messy parrot in her bedroom, whose habits have undermined the good will of the staff members who must clean up after it. Her hours are spent attending various radical group meetings, including one dedicated to simplifying women’s cumbersome garments.
While Lord Robert contemplates lobbying his powerful friends for a cabinet post—Fisheries, perhaps?—a wealthy daughter of a Chicago meat packer arrives in the British capital with a brash, outspoken mother and a soiled past. Are these upstart colonials the answer to the Dilberne household’s prayers?
With a touch of Wodehouse glee found in the antics of Bertie Wooster and his resourceful valet, Jeeves, along with the sort of plot-twisting events familiar from Downton Abbey, Fay Weldon—the prize-winning author of the original pilot for Upstairs, Downstairs—has created a lighthearted romp through foggy London, where changes are propelling the inhabitants into the 20th century at the speed and fury of those newfangled horseless carriages. ~ Gretchen Echols
The Battle of Midway is stunning in its sweep and detail of this pivotal confrontation in the Pacific, which took place just six months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Beginning with the arrival of U.S. Admiral Chester A. Nimitz at Pearl Harbor on December 25, 1941, author Symonds chronicles the events, personalities, circumstances, assets and weaknesses of both the American and Japanese forces.
Between Pearl Harbor and Midway lay a string of easy victories for the Japanese Mobile Striking Force (the Kido Butai), from the Philippines to Singapore. Japan dominated the Pacific with plans to control it from the Aleutian Islands of Alaska all the way south to Australia. The drivers of this strategy were the six aircraft carriers at the center of Japan’s naval fleet.
Symonds disputes conventional beliefs that the U.S. victory at Midway was a “miracle” or just plain luck. Yes, Japan struck a heavy blow to American naval forces at Pearl Harbor, proving that it was the major power in the Pacific. However, the American aircraft carriers were elsewhere on December 7. Carriers were the foundation of naval power at the time. It was to draw out those carriers for destruction that the Japanese planned to attack the U.S. base at Midway Atoll.
Symonds emphasizes here the importance of the American code breakers and the information they were able to glean from thousands of Japanese transmissions; those contributed to the preparedness of the base at Midway and the overall battle plan. Drawing on after-action reports, naval archives, oral histories and memoirs, as well as recent and better translations of Japanese information, he pieces together—to the minute—who was where, doing what. Included are the unintended consequences of an interaction between the American submarine Nautilus and the Japanese destroyer Arashi on the morning of the battle. Maps and photographs are included.
It is the details that enhance this story: descriptions of each ship and plane and the role they play; the opponents’ different philosophies of war and battle; the biographies of the decision-makers and the struggles within each command structure. These play out to humanize and propel Symonds’ narrative. More, it is the available details about the individual sailors and pilots that make this better than a cold retelling of ships and planes attacking and defending. The Battle of Midway is human-scale and even personal. It’s exciting, frustrating, sad and fascinating. Although the war lasted three more years, the Japanese power in the Pacific never recovered. It was the industrial capacity of the United States, allowing it to replace the large numbers of planes and ships lost in the battle, that tipped the balance. The Japanese lacked such capacity.
All of my previous reading about World War II has focused on Europe, even though my own father was in the Pacific (though never spoke of it). The Battle of Midway has opened a door I look forward to walking through. ~ Marla Vandewater
Frances Thorpe is so attuned to other people’s emotions that it seems she’s unable to have any of her own. When tragic circumstances allow her to use this talent to infiltrate the glamorous family of a literary lion, her agenda remains mysterious—and the book’s tone ominous—because you can never be sure if she’s inhumanly wicked or just a real go-getter. This novel is creepy, brainy fun and kept me wondering long after I finished reading. ~ Liz Goodwin
Coming off the success of three novels (beginning with The Ghosts of Belfast) set in his native Northern Ireland, Stuart Neville now transports readers south and back half a century to the Republic of Ireland, where homicide threatens to overshadow what could be one of the country’s proudest moments.
It’s 1963, and American President John F. Kennedy is planning a visit to Ireland, his family’s ancestral home. But trouble is brewing. An aging German national has been found shot to death in a coastal guesthouse. It’s the third such slaying in a fortnight, all of the victims former Nazis who were granted asylum in Ireland after the end of World War II. Hoping to curtail this string of killings before it develops into a national or even international scandal, Minister of Justice Charles J. Haughey (“a politician with boundless ambition and the balls to back it up”) orders Lieutenant Albert Ryan of the Directorate of Intelligence to investigate. Quietly, of course, since Dublin officials don’t wish to draw excessive attention to their history of harboring ex-Nazis.
Ryan’s known as a big, tough young cuss who actually volunteered to fight with the British Army, despite his hometown’s disgust with the Crown, and who has since kept a heel on the Irish Republican Army. He is also, though, a man with a conscience, and his conscience is disturbed by the notion of protecting war criminals. Especially Otto Skorzeny, an erstwhile SS colonel—“once called the most dangerous man in Europe”—who has set himself up as a “gentleman farmer” and minor celebrity in County Kildare.
A legendary tactician, Skorzeny believes he can control Ryan, use him as a shield against whoever’s threatening Nazi “refugees” like himself, and as a shovel to unearth his enemies. To ensure the younger man’s cooperation, Skorzeny even tosses into his path a fetching redhead, whose job it is to report on Ryan’s thoughts and plans. However, as Ryan probes the case further, checking into allegations that a Jewish cabal is behind the recent slayings and attracting sometimes violent attention to his person, he discovers that Skorzeny is running a network that helps war criminals escape Europe. Can Ryan bring down this tale’s killers before they make good on their promise to remove Otto Skorzeny from among the living? Does he want to?
Author Neville’s combination of smartly conceived characters, high-strung tension, and moral quandaries makes Ratlines a pell-mell-paced treat. ~ Jeff Pierce