The Good Liar: Catherine McKenzie

In some ways, The Good Liar mirrors the all-too familiar headlines of our current times, but the back story explores the aftermath of grief through the lens of three women who all played a role in a horrific tragic event.

Triple Ten is the name given to the event: this was an explosion that ripped apart a Chicago building and left hundreds dead or missing. It’s now a year later, the anniversary of the event, and Cecily Grayson, who has, unwillingly, become the poster woman for the tragedy, is still unable to move on with her life. Then there’s Kate, a woman who’s working as a nanny for an affluent family in Canada. Finally, there’s  Franny, a young woman whose birth mother died in the fire.

The Good Liar

Through these three characters (with published articles and the transcripts of interviews from a documentary filmmaker thrown in) it gradually becomes clear that all three women are lying to one extent or another. Slowly, the real stories of the relationships lost in the fire emerge.

A shiver runs through me, because that is how I feel now all the time, that nervous feeling like something bad’s about to happen, something I could avoid if I knew which event to skip, which route not to take, which call not to answer. 

Cecily Grayson, now in therapy, a widow and mother of two, is the main character here, which is a good thing as she is sympathetic.  At first, all we know about Kate is that she fled Chicago and hasn’t returned. Franny, who had just managed to reconnect with her birth mother, has become a permanent fixture in the family her deceased birth mother left behind. While Cecily and Franny run a foundation which dispenses compensation to the victims of the tragedy, there’s a slippery unease between them which is hard to place.

Through the plot, the story explores how we grieve, and how guilt combined with lack of closure disrupt the healing process. But there’s also the thriller element here, a streak of danger, a stench of psycho running through the narrative, and while the plot takes a long time to get there, we know that explosive confrontations will occur.

Cecily is the most convincing character here, and it’s easy to identify with her conflicting feelings of anger and loss combined with the shattered sense of security and safety. As always with domestic thrillers, we are left pondering the choices our characters make. Some of these choices are foolish, some are downright illogical, but then we all know people who constantly make stupid mistakes. I guessed the big reveal, which was a shame. Glancing over reviews on Goodreads, the book seems to be a big hit with fans. While I liked the lack of closure/guilt elements, the thriller/psycho aspect of the book stretched credulity for this reader.

Review copy

 

 

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The Kremlin Ball: Curzio Malaparte

“It rather appears that Stalin doesn’t like certain worldly behaviors of the Soviet nobility, nor does he like scandals involving women. Stalin, at heart, is a puritan.”

Curzio Malaparte’s The Kremlin Ball grants a look at 1929 Stalinist Russia which is terrifying, delirious and hypnotic: this is a freshly transformed society, post revolution, post civil war, post NEP and post Lenin’s death that is already teetering on its decaying legs. Trotsky is in exile, and Kamenev has been arrested: “The great purge had begun,” but in these early days, no one quite grasps what is happening.  Think of the Titanic as it hits the iceberg and that’s the feeling which seeps through these pages.

The Kremlin Ball

Malaparte is shocked by what he finds in Moscow; a new social elite has risen on the corpses of those they’ve replaced. There’s still an obsession with “Western behaviours,” and some people, always trying to keep ahead of fashion, have clothes delivered from London:

I had arrived in Moscow believing I would find a tough, intransigent, puritan class in power who had risen from the working class and who abided by a Marxist puritanism.

Malaparte moves through society, mingling with those who appear to be in control, and he watches the doomed–those who have power which is so soon to slip from their grasp:

They had very suddenly risen up to sleep in the beds of the great women of the tsarist nobility, to sit in the gilded chairs of the tsarist officials, carrying out the same functions that until the day before had been carried out by the tsarist nobility. 

Malaparte mingles with the highest echelons of Soviet society; he rubs shoulders with politicians, their wives, listens to gossip about ballerinas, attends balls and dinners, recording all he sees, even as Stalin’s brooding, malevolent presence lingers over every society event. Malaparte recalls the French revolution and draws comparisons:

The chief characteristic of the communist nobility is not bad taste, vulgarity or bad manners, nor is it the complacency of wealth, luxury, and power: it is the suspicion, and, I would also add, ideological intransigence. All of us in Moscow were united in our praise for the spareness and simplicity of Stalin’s lifestyle, of his simple, elegant, worker-like ways: but Stalin did not belong to the communist nobility. Stalin was Bonaparte after the coup of 18 Brumaire. 

Some of the characters Malaparte meets are ‘ghosts’ of the past regime–they’ve survived, and yet they may as well not exist–even as they hang onto life by a fingertip. One of the book’s greatest scenes takes place at the flea market on Smolensky Boulevard. Malaparte goes there with Bulgakov and runs into “ghosts of the tsarist aristocracy” who are selling their “meager treasures.” A surreal meeting takes place between Malaparte and Prince Lvov who is trying to sell an armchair. There’s also an incredible meeting between Malaparte and Florinsky, the Chief of Protocol of the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Republic who rides around Moscow in a carriage:

All rouged and powdered, his little yellow eyes rimmed with black, his eyelashes hardened with mascara.

On another occasion, Malaparte meets Trotsky’s sister, Olga Kamenev. She’s waiting for death to arrive, even as she continues her work in the face of her doom. Others will soon die, and there’s a motif of rot and death throughout the book. Malaparte visits Lenin’s Tomb,  the morgue (or what passes for a morgue) and a glue factory where a “mountain of dead animals” emits a stench of rot even as the animals are converted into usable objects. People are being arrested, others commit suicide: Death awaits nearly everyone Malaparte meets, and of course there’s a subtle comparison to be drawn between the piles of animal corpses and the soon-to be dead:

What did Trotsky think would happen if he lost? The hateful thing, in my opinion, about Trotsky wasn’t that he killed thousands upon thousands of the bourgeoisie, of counterrevolutionaries, of  tsarist officers, nor that he killed them with bad feelings–good feelings do not make for a good revolution–but I reproached him for having placed himself at the head of a political faction that identified itself with the corrupt Soviet ruling class of the years 1929-1930. Behind his rhetoric lurked the pederast, the prostitute, the enriched bourgeoisie, the petty officers, all those who exploited the October Revolution. Trotsky’s sin was not that he had placed himself at the head of a proletarian faction, but at the head of the most corrupt faction comprised of the revolutionary proletarian exploiters.

The Russian Revolution, the Russian Civil War, and the Great Purges, but this is a time in-between: 1929. So many people had been slaughtered, but many many more were to die. There’s a sense of unease, a troubled sleep in between the past violence and the violence yet to come, and Malaparte’s amazing, perverse intellect, devoid of moral judgement, captures this moment in time. Malaparte ruminates about Russian literature and how the characters in Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, Goncharov and Chekhov “were alive in a world inhabited by death.” He discusses religion, death and the nature of revolutions while evoking Proust, Balzac, and Russia’s greatest authors. This is a brilliant work which will make my best-of year list.

Review copy

Translated by Jenny McPhee

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The President’s Hat: Antoine Laurain

‘The important events in our lives are always the result of a sequence of tiny details.”

Last year I read Antoine Laurain’s delightful book: The Portrait, a story of a man whose life is transformed when he buys a painting of an 18th century nobleman. I’d passed over other books by this author before, and so I decided to read Laurain’s earlier books.

The President’s Hat is somewhat reminiscent of The Portrait in its premise that the possession of an object can change lives. Whereas in The Portrait, one man’s life is changed, The President’s Hat concerns a handful of people, serially, who come into possession of a hat that belongs to François Mitterrand.

the president's hat

This short novel begins with a somewhat despondent Parisian, Daniel Mercier treating himself to a fancy dinner. His wife and child are out of town, and Daniel has a new, unpleasant boss to deal with. Daniel hopes that the dinner, ostensibly, “a bachelor evening,”  will allow him to relax and forget his work troubles for a few hours anyway. Luck seems to favour Daniel that night. Another guest cancelled, so Daniel gets a table, and then, a few minutes later, to his shock, Mitterand sits at the adjacent table.

Daniel can’t help but eavesdrop on the topics of conversation between Mitterand and his dinner companions. Dinner over, Mitterand forgets his hat, Daniel grabs it, and from that moment, Daniel becomes a changed man. …

The hat passes through various hands and each time the life of its wearer alters for the better. Daniel, of course, knows who owned the hat, so it’s fairly easy, assuming that Daniel is an impressionable person, to accept that the hat grants a sense of confidence and power. But other people who find the hat are unaware of its origin, and the hat still manages to transform the lives of those who wear it. So in that sense, the story has a thread of magical whimsy.

In one section, a man imagines a “parallel life” in which he did not discover the hat:

In this ‘parallel life’ he was still wearing his old sheepskin jacket and had his beard, had never opened the door of his study and still went every Friday to his analyst. What Aslan, called a ‘parallel life’ was actuality a perfect illustration of quantum mechanics and of applied developments in probability theory, starting from the hypothesis that everything we do in our lives creates a new universe which does not in any way wipe out the previous universe. 

(Since I am fond of the Multiverse theory, I liked that quote)

I am not overly fond, in theory, of a novel centered on an object which passes through various hands. That said, however, The President’s Hat is a light, pleasant read.  I preferred The Portrait as the latter is a shade darker, moving from eccentricity to delusion or even possible madness. The President’s Hat is an optimistic tale which focuses on the ebullient nature of a handful of Parisians. It’s fun to speculate that an object would have the ability to cause reversals in fortunes. Would that it were so easy.

Translated by Gallic Books (review copy)

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The Last Stand: Mickey Spillane & Max Allan Collins

“You on your lunch break?”

Her eyebrows lifted. “If so, I’m drinking it.” 

Hard Case Crime continues to mine gems from some of the greatest names in detective fiction. March 2018 brought a two-fer: A Bullet for Satisfaction and The Last Stand. A Bullet for Satisfaction was edited and completed by Max Alan Collins, Spillane’s long-time friend, while The Last Stand is Spillane’s final novel.

A Bullet for Satisfaction‘s appropriate title follows disgraced, ex-cop Dexter as he digs deep into the dirt surrounding the  murder of a married politician in a hotel room.

Mayes Rogers was a big name in politics around here-he’d made it to the top, and on the way ruined quite a few. A lot of people would have liked to see him put underground, and maybe they had good reasons.

I pulled out a cigarette, stuck the flame of my lighter to it, and drew in the smoke.

We’re in solid Spillane territory here. Dexter meets the grieving widow and her shapely sister, and offends local politicians as he investigates a case that stinks of corruption. Spillane books, for fans of the hard-boiled detective fiction, are great fun but then there are also watershed moments of brief, sudden brutality: those instances when we are jerked from our enjoyment into the reality of the darker side of human nature.

The Last Stand, written at the end of Spillane’s long writing career, has a completely different pace, with an adventure-focused plot. Pilot Joe Gillian finds himself stranded in the desert when he’s forced to make an emergency landing in his ancient plane. The tale involves Native Americans, the FBI, with a few gangsters thrown into the mix. Naturally, there has to be a beautiful woman–in this instance it’s a Native American wincingly named,  Running Fox.

Of the two, I preferred A Bullet for Satisfaction. I’m much more comfortable with hard-boiled detective tales of the 40s and 50s, and perhaps a great deal of that enjoyment comes with the idea that Spillane’s pugnacious male characters drank hard liquor for lunch and breakfast, fought crime and corruption to the bitter, bloody end, and loved women with lingering regret and the knowledge that they’d already moved on. Maybe it’s a Bogart thing.

Review copy

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The Gioconda Smile: Aldous Huxley

I bought a copy of Aldous Huxley’s The Gioconda Smile some years ago, and it’s taken me this long to get to it. It’s brief: my copy of oversized print runs to 42 pages, so it’s a short story. This is the tale of married man, Mr Hutton, who fancies himself as dashing and handsome. The story opens with Mr Hutton visiting “poor” Janet Spence. She’s the one with the Gioconda smile, and all I could think of was that old song, ‘Mona Lisa.’

If there’s a mirror in a room, that’s where you will find Mr. Hutton admiring himself whenever he gets the chance. There’s “no sign of baldness ” yet  “only a certain elevation of the brow,” which Hutton thinks is “Shakespearean.” Hutton has money, an invalid wife, a perky, doting lower-class mistress, and yet, he still finds the time and energy to visit Janet Spence. Hutton never knows what to make of Janet. She’s so calm and self-contained–not like the other women in his life.

Hutton, like most womanizers, liberally drops hints about his unhappy married life (he sounds a lot like Grant in Christina Stead’s A Little Tea, a Little Chat):

Reality doesn’t always come up to the ideal, you know. But that doesn’t make me believe any less in the ideal. Indeed, I do believe in it passionately the ideal of a matrimony between two people in perfect accord, I think it’s realisable. I’m sure it is.

He paused significantly and looked at her with an arch expression.

Poor Hutton… making his unhappiness known. But the next scene shows Hutton rapidly switching gears as he joins his cockney mistress who’s waiting patiently for Hutton in the back of his chauffeur driven car.

Aldous Huxley smoking, circa 1946The portrayal of Hutton is masterful–even if the story’s denouement is not. Hutton is very much a type, and yet still strongly individualistic. A man who thinks he owns the world, runs the world and yet is still basically clueless.

I’ve read a few Huxley stories/novellas now and enjoyed them all. Brave New World dominates Huxley’s work, and other than that book, he seems to have fallen out of fashion.

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Foreign Bodies: Martin Edwards ed.

“We want to murder someone. We haven’t the courage to walk up to him and attack him, or for that matter to strike him from behind. So we go to the corner drug store, buy a penny’s worth of rat poison, and give it to the son-in-law, the man across the street, the husband, the lover.”

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a fan of The British Crime Classics series, published here in America by Poisoned Pen Press. The short story collection, Foreign Bodies, edited and introduced by Martin Edwards, contains a wide range of short stories from all over the globe. We readers often seek out books from other countries and chew over the customs, traditions and beliefs. Foreign Bodies shows that international flare aside, murder… occurs everywhere and for the same reasons: greed, rage, jealousy are all ingredients that, when explosive enough, can add up to murder.

Here’s the list of contents:

The Swedish Match: Anton Chekhov (Russia) Translated by Peter Sekerin

A Sensible Course of Action: Palle Rosenkrantz (Denmark)

Strange Tracks: Balduin Groller (Hungary: Romania after his death)

The Kennel: Maurice Level (France)

Footprints in the Snow: Maurice Leblanc (France)

The Return of Lord Kingwood: Ivans (Netherlands) Translated by Josh Pachter

The Stage Box Murder: Paul Rosenhayn  (Germany)

The Spider: Koga Saburo (Japan) Translated by Ho-Ling Wong

The Venom of the Tarantula: Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay (India) Translated by Sreejata Guha

Murder à la Carte: Jean-Toussaint Samat (France)

The Cold Night’s Clearing: Keikichi Osaka (Japan) Translated by Ho-Ling Wong

The Mystery of the Green Room: Pierre Véry (France)

Kippers: John Flanders (Belgium) Translated by Josh Pachter

The Lipstick and the Teacup: Havank (Dutch) Translated by Josh Pachter

The Puzzle of the Broken Watch: Maria Elvira Bermudez (Mexico) Translated by Donald A. Yates

I’m not going to discuss all the stories in this wonderful collection–after all, the themes are murder and detection, but I will discuss some of my favourites. The Chekhov story, The Swedish Match seems to have fun with the detective genre, while The Kennel is short, vicious and horrific. Shades of Joseph Conrad linger in Kippers.

If spiders creep you out, then you will shiver over The Venom of the Tarantula and The Spider. In The Venom of the Tarantula, a man is asked to discover how a bedbound “foul-mouthed; mistrustful, crafty malicious” writer continues to get a supply of his favourite drug: the venom of tarantulas.

The Spider is eerie, unusual and gripping. In this tale, a young man is employed to enter the abandoned laboratory of Tsujikawa, a dead professor, who died of …  yes you guessed it … a bite from a poisonous spider.

At first sight, the laboratory resembled a misshapen lighthouse or a time-worn fire watchtower. I gazed up at the building in awe. 

The narrator is asked by the dead professor’s family to go into the building which is full of jars of “monstrous spiders.” He’s supposed to dispose of them, and after all … the one that killed the professor may still be loose.

I knew where The Return of Lord Kingwood was headed, but I enjoyed the character of Mr Monk (and his bribery of a local lad) so much that I didn’t care that the story’s trajectory was predictable.

Murder à la Carte deals with the subject of poisoning in an intriguing way:

Poisoning? What with? With anything you choose! Or nothing whatever! I mean just that. People don’t realize it, that’s all. They think they know; they really don’t know anything about it. They think that you have to use a poison. Strychnine? Obviously strychnine is a poison. A killer. But the symptoms of strychnine poisoning are too well know. And besides, you have to get strychnine. But why bother with strychnine? You talk about poisons. There are hundreds of effective poisons. Ah, but their symptoms, too, are all known? And even those whose symptoms aren’t known reveal themselves in the autopsy? Well there are things which are poison, and things which are not poison. Poison and nonpoison. There’s no trick about murdering with poison; any fool can do it, provided he has the killer instinct, or the desire, or the need. 

The Stage Box Murder is an epistolary between a young man and the girl he hopes to marry when his fortunes improve. A murder opens up a career opportunity for the young man, but the crime brings a famous American detective to the scene…

A Sensible Course of Action from Danish writer Palle Rosenkrantz is set right after the Russian civil war and concerns a beautiful Russian countess who claims that her vengeful brother-in-law, who is hot on her heels, intends to kill her. Lieutenant Holst is called in to investigate a situation that requires no small amount of diplomacy. Holst tends to dismiss the Countess’s claim (the fact that she’s female works against her), and yet … there’s always the thought of recent Russian political events:

The whole business mighty have come out of a Russian novel, but in Russia, as one knew from the newspapers, anything was possible. 

Included here is yet another new name for me: Maria Elvira Bermudez “One of the most prolific female detective fiction writers in the Spanish-speaking world,” and here I’d (shamefully) never heard of her, and that brings me back to the collection’s merit. I’d never heard of most of these writers, but according to the intro before each story, these authors were prolific, popular and important to the genre in their respective countries.

This is a wonderful collection for crime aficionados and it’s a great way to collect names that we may not have heard of before. Martin Edwards provides a brief, yet informative intro, focusing on literary careers, of each writer.

review copy.

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The Beauties: Essential Stories: Chekhov

“I realized how unnecessary, trivial and false everything had been that prevented us from loving each other. I realized that when you are in love, you must start your reflections about your love with what is highest, what is more important than happiness or unhappiness, or sin or virtue in their accepted senses–or you shouldn’t reflect at all.”

The Beauties, from Pushkin Press, is a splendid collection of Chekhov short stories. These 13 stories examine many facets of Russian life through the themes of love and loss, and that elusive, shimmering moment: when all that is important in life becomes crystal clear.

Here’s the contents:

The Beauties

The Man in a Box

A Day in the Country

A Blunder

About Love

Grief

The Bet

A Misfortune

Sergeant Prishibeyev

The Lady With the Little Dog

The Huntsman

The Privy Councillor

The Kiss

The Beauties is told by a man who recalls seeing two remarkably beautiful girls over the course of his life, and he notes how this beauty struck him on two different occasions: the desire to be near beauty, and also a sadness, a sense of longing.

Whether I envied her beauty, or whether I was sorry that this girl was not mine and never would be mine and that I was a stranger to her, or whether I had a vague feeling that her rare beauty was accidental , and like everything on earth, would not last; or whether my sadness was that special feeling aroused when a person contemplates real beauty-God only knows!

I loved The Man in a Box (a Burkin/Ivan Ivanovich story) for its intense character study of the neurotic teacher Belikov:

That man showed a constant, overpowering urge to surround himself with a sort of wrapping, to create an outer box for himself, which would isolate him and protect him from outside influences. Reality upset him, frightened him, kept him in a constant state of alarm; and perhaps it was to justify this timidity on his part, his aversion towards the present time, that he always praised the past, and things which had never been. 

Although Belikov is in many ways, an introvert, nonetheless he dominates his surroundings and manages, through his warped sense of duty, to make everyone in his circle miserable. Belikov’s downfall, his bête noire, if you like, is love which appears in the form of Varenka, the sister of another teacher.

The Beauties

About Love is another one of Chekhov’s Burkin/Ivan Ivanovich stories. The narrator, Aliokhin relates how he fell in love with a married woman, and how we question love too much, intellectualize it when in fact we should just act:

And we too, when we’re in love, never stop asking ourselves questions–whether this is honorable or dishonourable, sensible or stupid, where this love is leading, and so forth. Whether all that’s good or not, I don’t know, but I do know that it’s unsatisfying and upsetting and gets in the way. 

My favourite story in the entire collection is The Bet. This is a story that covers a fifteen year period and concerns a bet (19th century Russian bets always seem extreme) that takes place over the question of whether or not the death penalty is preferable to a long, solitary prison sentence. I can’t say much about this story without giving away some of its most delightful elements, but I will say that this story shows how well Chekhov understood human nature and why he is a master of the short story.

A couple of the short stories are a touch too sentimental for me, but overall, this is a magnificent collection. Of course, it includes The Lady With the Little Dog, which is arguably Chekhov’s most famous story–at least it seems to be the one that makes the anthologies so often. I’ve read this story many times, and yet I read it again, and this time I found it even more poignant than I remember. This collection is superb: either a great introduction of those new to Chekhov, or a great reminder of this writer’s phenomenal talent.

I wish Gooseberries had been included, but it isn’t, so now off to read it.

Translated by Nicolas Pasternak Slater

Review copy

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The Neighborhood: Mario Vargas Llosa

“You know very well they disappear people here and nothing happens because the terrorists are to blame for everything.”

Mario Vargas LLosa’s novel, The Neighborhood is a look at the dirty politics of Peru through the lives of a handful of characters. It’s the 1990s in Peru,  Alberto Fujimori is president, and two affluent couples,  Marisa and businessman Quique (Enrique), Chabela and lawyer Luciano are good friends. Cachito, who was also in Marisa and Chabela’s stratified circle, was kidnapped two months ago, and his release is currently being negotiated. But even though someone from their circle has been kidnapped, the darker, more terrifying aspects of Peru remain, more or less, a spectacle for these four people:

They were having a whiskey on the terrace, watching the sea of lights of Lima at their feet, and talking, naturally, about the subject that obsessed every household in those days, the attacks and kidnappings of the Shining Path and the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, the MRTA, the blackouts almost every night because electrical towers had been blown up, leaving entire districts of the city in darkness and the explosions the terrorists used to awaken Limeños at midnight and at dawn. They recalled having seen from this same terrace, a few months earlier, on one of the hills on the outskirts of the city, the torches light up in the shape of a hammer and sickle, a prophecy of what would happen if the Senderistas won this war. 

Wealth and status are protections against many of the dangerous aspects of society, but they are also magnets for opportunists, and not long after the book begins, Quique is approached by Rolando Garro, the owner of a sleazy tabloid known for its vicious, career-destroying attacks on various people involved in the entertainment industry. Garro, who has photographs in his possession of an orgy starring Quique, blackmails Quique who then turns to his lawyer and best friend, Luciano for advice.

the neighborhood

The meeting between Garro and Quique unleashes powerful, dark manipulative forces within the Peruvian government, and while a lot of the plot concentrates on the wealthy–Marisa, Quique, Chabela and Luciano, other characters enter the story, including the opportunistic Shorty and the shadowy figure of the Doctor. The character of Shorty (Julieta), a reporter “capable of killing her own mother for a scoop, especially if it was dirty and salacious,” is arguably the most interesting person in this story, and it’s through her that the question is posed: what makes one person corrupt and another take a stand?

Her idea of journalism came from the small yellow scandal sheets displayed in the newsstands in the center of town, which people stopped to read–or rather look at, because there was almost nothing to them beyond the large, glaring headlines–and to contemplate the naked women showing off their buttocks with fantastic vulgarity, and the panels in strident red letters denouncing the filthy things, the pestilential secrets, and the read or imagined vile acts, thefts, perversions, and trafficking that destroyed the reputations of the most apparently worthy and prestigious people in the country. 

The book begins with an extended sex scene and while it put me off the book, I pushed on. The sex sub plot is far less interesting than the novel’s political thread, and the somewhat lengthy descriptions of sex seem gratuitous especially since this subplot led nowhere. Ultimately, however, I decided that the trivial drama between these two bored, superficial, decadent society wives, juxtaposed with the reality of Peruvian politics, illuminated the contrast between the classes. Here’s Shorty dragging herself up from the grimiest poverty, doing anything to survive while Marisa and Chabela (in between Italian classes, society dinners and vacations) start an affair. It’s a “how-the-other 1% live” study in contrasts, but still the detailed sex didn’t add to the book’s merit.

Review copy

Translated by Edith Grossman

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Sunburn: Laura Lippman

“If only you knew what it means to walk away from something, what it takes.”

Laura Lippman’s standalone novel, Sunburn begins in 1995 when two strangers, Adam and Polly, meet in a bar in Belleville, a small town in Delaware. Their meeting seems accidental and innocent enough, but is it? After dumping her husband and child and hitching a ride, Polly finds herself in this dead-end town, while Adam claims to be passing through. He is attracted to this prickly redhead, and she doesn’t seem to mind the attention. Adam, who claims he has a few months to kill before moving on, decides to stay in Belleville and begins working in the same bar as Polly.

And why is she here, sitting on a barstool, forty-five miles inland, in a town where strangers seldom stop on a Sunday evening? Belleville is the kind of place where people are supposed to pass through and soon they won’t even do that. 

As the plot unfolds, it’s apparent that Adam and Polly are lying about who they really are and about their intentions. …

And why is she here? Does her husband know where she is? Does the husband know anything? Why did she leave him? And her little girl, how does that work? Feral his client says of her. No capacity for genuine emotion. She’s out for herself, always.

“Whatever you do,” his client says, “don’t turn your back on her.” Then he chuckles in an odd way. “Even face-to-face, you might not be safe with that one.”

Although the two central characters are introduced immediately, and we know their innermost thoughts, the controlled narrative keeps us at a distance, parceling out slivers of information at a time. Just as we come to know the real reason for Adam’s interest in Polly, we also begin to understand exactly what Polly is running from.

sunburn

And yet, even though we discover elements to Polly’s past that might create some sympathy… there’s a lot about Polly that sends shivers down the spine. She’s cold, hard, and calculating and uses men to get what she wants.

The goal is never a man. Never. Men are the stones she jumps to, one after another, toward the goal.

There’s a murder in Polly’s past and very possibly another looming in her future. In creating Polly who is clearly fashioned as a noir femme fatale (think Phyllis Dietrichson), Lippman takes chances, and yet she succeeds admirably in her noir archetype creations. Polly is not a woman who’s easy to warm to–although Adam certainly charges in–despite many warnings. With Polly as the reptilian, intriguing femme fatale, that leaves Adam as the gullible male, well one of them, at least.

You have to be willing to leave some doors closed, to focus on the task at hand. Some people are like rabbit holes and you can fall a long, long way down if you go too far.

Lippman has written a range of crime fiction, and Sunburn is a far darker read than the Tess Monaghan novels.

Review copy

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Help I Am Being Held Prisoner: Donald Westlake (1974)

‘That’s Künt with an umlaut’ explains Harold Künt, the main character of Donald Westlake’s lively, entertaining novel Help I Am Being Held Prisoner, but no matter how many times Harold protests the pronunciation of his name, he’s doomed to be called … well you can figure it out.

Having his last name mispronounced is just one of Harold’s problems. A bigger problem is that he’s serving time in prison for a practical joke that went wrong (you have to read the book to find out what he did).  Harold’s intentions may have been humour, but it’s no joke when he find himself locked up in prison and warned to avoid the showers when the Joyboys are there.

But wait … when Harold finds himself working in prison alongside the Joyboys, they seem like decent fellows and they befriend him. They can’t be that bad, can they?

Think of the idea of An Innocent Abroad, well Harold Künt is An Innocent Inside. Yes he is guilty of a thoughtless prank, but he isn’t a criminal as such. Thrown in with hardened criminals, Harold very quickly gets in too deep, but since his life depends on going along with the programme, he must survive by his wits. After all, ‘Snitches get stitches.’

Help I am being held prisoner

If you like the humorous novels of Donald Westlake, then you will enjoy Help I am Being Held Prisoner from Hard Case Crime. Harold is an entertaining, likable narrator, and it’s fun to go along for the ride in this well-paced blend of crime and humour.

“I think it’s beautiful,” I said.

“You want in?”

Later I would have more than one occasion to give that question deep thought, but at the moment it was asked I considered none of the implications; such as, for instance, the criminal nature both of the act and of my new companions. I was outside the wall, it was as simple as that. “I want in,” I said.

“There’s maybe more to it than you know right now,” he said. “I got to tell you that.”

The tiniest of warning lights went on at the end of some cul-de-sac of my head, but I was looking the other way. “I don’t care,” I said. “Besides, what’s the alternative?”

This is the first of 4 rediscovered novels from Donald Westlake scheduled to be published by Hard Case Crime

Review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Westlake, Donald