Tag Archives: american crime fiction

After I’m Gone: Laura Lippman

“Did you know the more we tell a story, the more degraded it becomes? Factually, I mean. It’s like taking a beloved but fragile object out of a box and turning it over in your hands. You damage it every time.”

63 -year-old retired Baltimore homicide detective ‘Sandy’ Sanchez now works on cold case crimes for the city. The pay isn’t great, but it keeps him busy and gives him the semblance of a life. With his wife dead, and his only son institutionalized, Sandy understands that solving cold cases brings some sense of meaning to his life.

There are no shortage of cold case crimes, but when the book opens, Sandy selects the unsolved murder of Julie Saxony for his attention. Although Sandy prefers to work on the cases of elderly victims, there’s something about the Julie Saxony case that catches his interest. Julie, a one-time stripper, cleaned up her act when her married boyfriend, Felix Brewer, who was facing a long term prison sentence, disappeared in 1976. Rumour has it that Julie helped Felix flee the country. Rumour also has it that Felix left her a wad of cash. While Bambi Brewer, Felix’s wife, floundered with no income stream, Julie morphed from stripper to coffee shop owner once Felix skipped town. Ten years later, in 1986, Julie was on the verge of opening an upscale inn complete with restaurant when she disappeared off the face of the planet. Many people assumed she’d finally joined Felix in exile, but when Julie’s body was found in 2001, that rumour was laid to rest.

After I'm gone

So Sandy begins digging into Julie’s murder which is, of course, connected to Felix’s flight so many years earlier. Reading the files, Sandy concludes that with this case, with this victim, there are  “really two stories, parallel universes.” On one hand here’s Julie Romeo, stripper, and then years later, Julie “respectable business owner.” As he works through the evidence, Sandy encounters a range of people who knew Julie in both of her lives; there’s her sister who’s not telling the whole story, and Julie’s former chef who swears Julie never mentioned Felix and yet he knows a lot of details. There’s also Julie’s friend, a stripper turned housewife, and Felix’s bail bondsman, Tubby Schroeder, who now lords it over the ladies in assisted living.  Tubby is a slippery character, and he obviously knows more than he’s saying. Yet he doesn’t entirely clam up either:

He didn’t answer. He was a smart guy. Smart enough not to talk to a cop at all, if it came to that. But something–Sandy’s not-quite-cop status, Tubby’s boredom in his plush nest–made him want to play this game. More challenging than bridge with a bunch of wistful ladies. 

Sandy is a great character–a man who feels that he failed his wife and son and clings to the detective work he’s good at. He’s calm, non-confrontational and as he talks to these witnesses about a decades old crime, Sandy learns that sometimes it’s not what people say, but how they say it, or what they leave out. 

She knew something. He wasn’t sure what it was, or if she even realized she had something of significance to share He’d prefer that she be a liar, actually. You could break down a liar. 

Sandy also questions Felix’s wife, Bambi, a beautiful trophy, a high-maintenance woman abandoned by her husband. With no money (and yes what happened to Felix’s money btw?), Bambi brings up their three daughters alone, convinced that her philandering hubbie left his mistress every rotten penny. Bambi’s three daughters grow up with memories of a larger-than-life man who apparently adored them yet who easily abandoned them, severing ties completely. 

I’m a Laura Lippman fan, and After I’m Gone written with great sensitivity, is one of her best IMO. Just as Sandy finds that there are two parallel universes in Julie’s life, there are two sets of characters–those who knew Julie in her stripper life and those who knew of her from their cushier nests. These rich, three-dimensional characters leap off the pages almost as though they were waiting for Sandy to come and ask the questions that went unanswered for so long. Some of those questioned by Sandy had things to hide when Julie first disappeared; others held back information as it didn’t seem relevant or they were protective of Julie. Others have had a shift in attitude as the years ground on or simply no longer have anything to lose. There’s Bambi’s best friend, a lawyer’s pampered wife, Lorraine, living in a home of “ruthless perfection” who reveals she knew more about Julie than initially discovered, and then there’s Julie’s best friend whose loyalty has been honed into a searing honesty.  As Sandy moves around Baltimore digging up the past, he confronts his own memories and demons.

Felix appears in the first pages before he does a bunk, and even in his absence, as the book goes back and forth in time, Felix dominates the story.  His abandonment and disappearance force his daughters and his wife to confront the uglier aspects of his life–that his stripper mistresses “were like Cadillacs to him.” “He drove them for two to three years and traded them in.” 

How did this selfish, self-focused man get so many women to love him? His disappearance left a huge void in the lives of those women, and it’s sad as quite frankly he wasn’t worth a tear.

There’s always been this stupid fiction that he comes back, like some benevolent spirit.

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Nothing Can Hurt You: Nicola Maye Goldberg

“At a certain point, you realize the world is so bad, that it’s easier to pretend that people deserve the terrible things that befall them. That way, at least, you can pretend that you are safe.”

In a series of interconnected stories centered on the murder of a college student, Nothing Can Hurt You from Nicola Maye Goldberg sensitively examines the fallout from the crime. In 1997, Sara Morgan is  horrifically murdered by her boyfriend, Blake Campbell, and when Blake pleads guilty by temporary insanity, he is acquitted. But this doesn’t end the story for those who are involved, touched, and haunted by Sara’s death in one way or another.

Nothing can hurt you

The book begins strongly with an opening section from a young, damaged married woman named Marianne. She’s moved to upstate New York along with her husband, and while their new idyllic home makes it seem that they “had wandered into a painting,” the darkness in Marianne’s head remains. There are hints that the root cause of her “episodes” lies buried deep in her past. Yes you can move to the country, buy a big house, and get a dog, but these are just the trappings of normalcy. Marianne is damaged and nothing’s going to change that.

It’s Marianne who finds Sara’s body in the woods. There’s some debate whether Sara was the victim of serial killer, John Logan, who operated in the area, but Blake Campbell’s confession eradicates that theory. As the book continues we meet characters who are caught in the ripples that form in the wake of Sara’s murder. Many of the characters knew both the victim and the killer, and find it impossible to align the events that took place. And what of Blake who walked away from the murder and spent a short time in an upscale Rehab center? 

Katherine, an alcoholic, meets Blake at the Paradise Lake Recovery Center. He’s young, handsome and a reader like Katherine. Katherine hears the “gossip” that Blake murdered Sara, but she finds it hard to believe that Blake is capable of such violence. Blake’s friend, Sam, the owner of the knife used to kill Sara is still haunted by her death. He’s plagued by bad dreams, dissects the past to try to look for clues he missed about Blake, and even now, years later, the murder stains Sam’s personal life. 

In this chorus of voices, there’s a third circle of people–not family, not friends, but still people touched by the crime. During the trial of serial killer, John Logan, Juliet, a reporter who works for a small local paper in upstate New York meets Celeste, a veteran NY reporter who’s feeling burnout from all the violence. Juliet, at the beginning of her career becomes obsessed with Sara’s murder

“How so they manage it? Serial Killers?” I asked Celeste once. “I can barely keep my shit together, and I only have one job.” I was having a lot of days when things like showering and buying groceries seemed not only pointless but basically impossible.

“It energizes them,” she said, without hesitation. “They’re at work, they’re waiting in line at the DMV, whatever, and they’re thinking about what they’ve done, what they’re going to do. It’s how they get through the day.”

The families of the victim and the killer are at ground zero when the murder occurs. Sara’s half-sister, Luna grows up in the wake of the murder and eventually cuts herself off from her family. Blake’s family “hired a lawyer, a good one, from New York, to represent their son. Did that make them bad parents? Bad people?” Blake’s sister, Gemma, has managed to detach herself from her family, but she wonders if her daughter is headed for inherited mental illness. A young girl writes to the manipulative serial killer, and Sara’s mother, who years later is a psychic, is called in on the disturbing case of a missing child:

The Stoddards live in what used to be a farmhouse. It’s big for three people. which makes Jonathan think they wanted more children. They moved up here from New York before William was born, probably to escape the terrors and temptations of the city. Inside, it’s beautifully decorated with thick, soft carpets and silver doorknobs. But it smells slightly off, like rotting fruit. On a table by the front door is a crystal vase full of nothing but dirty water.  

Threading through the stories is the dark, inexplicable nature of violence. There’s random violence against strangers, and then there’s violence against people we say we cherish the most. We look for reasons for violence–not just the solution to a crime, and that’s what’s so disturbing about Sara’s murder; there are no answers.

Some victims stay victims but others … well others who face monsters learn what they are capable of. As Josephine Hart writes in Damage“Damaged people are dangerous. They know they can survive.” Marianne shows just how dangerous she can be when another man makes a clumsy pass. It was at this early point in the book, that I knew I was reading something special. 

The snow had fallen so heavily overnight that Ted could not get his car out of our driveway. He and my husband spent all day watching TV, playing Risk, and drinking whiskey. They ate leftovers. I pretended to be busy in bed with a book, when I was really sitting with the emptiness. For the first time I longed for one of my visions. I wanted to see Ted’s head crack open, to see myself scooping out his brain with my fingernails.

Brilliant.

Review copy

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More Better Deals: Joe R. Lansdale

“Some people pave a short way to hell.”

In Joe Lansdale’s hard-boiled noir novel, More Better Deals, it’s Texas in the 60s and Ed, a used car salesman makes a marginal living pushing junkers on a used car lot. There are a few tricks of the trade: moving the odometer back, blacking tires, plugging holes in the transmission. But a deal’s a deal, and Ed doesn’t have trouble sleeping nights even though he knows most of the customers have been ripped off. Boss Smiling Dave, “about two hundred and fifty pounds of lard on a five-foot frame mounted on tiny feet, had a cheap pistol”  in his desk just in case any of the customers think they have a complaint. Smiling Dave’s advice:

Don’t grow a conscience., Ed. It’s bad for your bank account. You know what they say. Buyer beware, and better you fucked than me.

Customers are suckers, and every sale presents an opportunity to screw someone over and grab a commission. It’s a marginal life, and Ed’s in a rut. His mother, a bitter alcoholic wreck, thinks that Ed can do better since he can ‘pass’ for white, so there’s nagging pressure to improve his life and the life of his sister. And one day the opportunity for Ed to get ahead comes knocking in the shape of a cheap blonde who’s behind on her car payments.

More better deals

Ed tries to repo a red Cadillac and runs right into Nancy Craig, a “blond in a cheap out-of-the-bottle way.” Barely dressed, cocktail in hand, she invites Ed inside her home and claims that her abusive husband, a travelling encyclopedia salesman is on the road, presumably with the Cadillac. Nancy, hardly an oppressed housewife, oozes sex and availability; “she could make Billy Graham pull down his pants and jack off in five o’clock traffic.” Nancy and her husband own a run-down drive-in and a pet cemetery, and to Ed, it’s a sweet deal; get the blonde, the drive-in and the cemetery. Frank, Nancy’s gorilla of a husband is in the way of that plan of course, but a few sweaty hot sexual encounters later and Ed signs on for murder.

Nancy is a bad woman, but that doesn’t stop Ed. Since he’s ok with ripping off customers, he’s apparently also unperturbed by Nancy’s explanation of how to run a pet cemetery.

Be honest with you, Ed, what we found out is digging a hole is work. So we mound the dirt up a little, scrape some here or there and make it look like a grave, then we take the beloved off in the woods and throw it in a ditch somewhere.

That would be a hint to make a run for it, but Ed is too wrapped up in the hot sex to hear alarm bells. 

It may sound as though More Better Deals is a typical noir novel–perhaps it even sounds like something you’ve read before: the bad blonde, an inconvenient husband, and a murder plot. In the hands of Joe Lansdale, however, this book is something special. A simple debt collection launches our narrator into hell–he may think he’s landing a sweet deal, but in this tale of greed, lust and murder, just who is screwing who is up for grabs. Lansdale laces this tale with some wonderful touches, violent cops, crude sex and a narrator who’s bad but not as bad as he needs to be. For Lansdale fans, I think this is one of his best, and for anyone who’d like to read a hardboiled noir novel, go no further.

They throw the switch and the devil is showing you your hotel room.

Review copy

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I Married a Dead Man: Cornell Woolrich (1948)

Helen, 8 months pregnant, penniless and abandoned, boards the sleeper train. She’s hit rock bottom, and fruitless attempts to contact the father of her child result only in an envelope containing a 5 dollar bill and a one-way ticket from New York to San Francisco. Even though there’s no note, the message is clear.

Once on the train, she meets a young couple, happy, very much in-love, Patrice and Hugh Hazzard, who are travelling to Hugh’s family. They’ve yet to meet Patrice. Patrice is also pregnant, and stuck travelling in an over-crowded train together, Patrice generously befriends Helen. Even though Helen doesn’t share her story, it’s clear that she’s down on her luck. A terrible accident occurs, and Patrice, Hugh and their unborn baby are killed while Helen survives. Thanks to the fact that Helen had tried on, and was still wearing Patrice’s ring when the accident happened, Helen wakes up in hospital and discovers that due to a mix-up everyone thinks she’s Patrice.

I married a dead man

Helen isn’t a bad person, and she doesn’t intentionally set out to deceive anyone. But Hugh’s parents have arranged for a private room for the daughter-in-law (now with a baby) they never met. Along with the private room come flowers and baskets of fruit. With just 17 cents to her name, Helen, drugged up to the eyeballs, finds it easier to go along with the case of mistaken identity.

But one thing leads to another, and Helen is taken to the Hazzard home. Surrounded with the loving, affluent family Helen doesn’t have, she goes along with the deception mainly for her son’s sake. Soon she’s in so deep, it’s impossible to say where this will end. Hugh’s parents have already been devastated by their son’s death, but they carry on knowing that they have a grandson. The story isn’t just about Helen anymore: she has other people to consider–people who will be brokenhearted again.

It’s not easy to step into someone else’s shoes and Helen makes a couple of errors; no one seems to notice–except for Hugh’s brother Bill who isn’t as blinded by grief as his parents. Then the louse who abandoned pregnant Helen, smelling money, reappears like a wolf hunting his prey.

The book starts slowly and it’s not until chapter 4 and the train trip that things take off, but then the book takes shape. In this noir tale, Helen’s life looks bleak but then Fate takes a hand with the death of Patrice, Hugh and their baby. Helen steps into Patrice’s shoes, but it’s an uneasy existence, and it seems just a matter of time before events comes crashing down on Helen. And Fate seems to deal Helen a cruel hand once again–giving her what she thought she wanted back in New York.

And here’s a fantastic quote about Fate–always central to noir:

What makes you stop, when you have stopped, just where you have stopped? What is it, what? Is it something, or is it nothing? Why not a yard short, why not a yard more? Why just there, where you are, and nowhere else?

Some say: It’s just blind chance, and if you hadn’t stopped there, you would have stopped at the next place. Your story would have been different then. You weave your own story as you go along.

But others say: You could not have stopped any place else but this even if you wanted to. It was decreed, it was ordered, you were meant to stop at this spot, and no other. Your story is there waiting for you, it has been waiting for you there a hundred years, long before you were born, and you cannot change a comma of it. Everything you do, you have to do. You are the twig, and the water you float on swept you here. You are the leaf and the breeze you were borne on blew you here. This is your story, and you cannot escape it; you are only the player, not the stage manager. Or so some say.

For this reader, Helen isn’t a particularly interesting character, but the plot is fantastic; when we meet Helen, she’s beaten down by life. The train wreck appears to flip Helen’s fortunes, but it seems unsavoury that anyone would profit from the death of a young married couple and their unborn child. Helen is never comfortable with the deception, she’s not a grifter looking for an easy buck–she’s waiting for the ax to drop. Again. 

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Four Novellas of Fear: Cornell Woolrich

The collection Four Novellas of Fear from Cornell Woolrich is aptly named. Woolrich creates four domestic scenarios that tap into primal terror. Here’s the line-up

Eyes That Watch You

The Night I Died

You’ll Never See Me Again

Murder Always Gathers Momentum

Eyes That Watch You is the story of a paralyzed wheelchair bound woman who overhears her daughter-in-law, Vera, plotting to murder her son. Without the power of speech and unable to move, she is helpless to stop the crime. Given the woman’s incapacity, this is a story that in other hands could have lacked tension, but it’s the pure callous savagery of the plotters that knocks a powerful punch:

Just see that he soaks up enough, and you can bet all the oxygen in the world won’t pull him through. Watch his face. When that gets good and blue, all mottled, you got nothing more to worry about. 

For me, The Night I Died was the weakest of the bunch. This is the story of a married man who goes from marriage and dead-end job to murder, insurance scam and stolen identity all in one night:

The point about me is: that I should stay on the right side of the fence all those years, and then when I did go over, go over heart and soul like I did–all in the space of one night. In one hour, you might say.

I liked the story’s premise: a married man comes home unexpectedly from work and finds his wife plotting his murder. Nice. Things go downhill from there. The narrator/husband’s decisions seemed a little implausible given that he can’t trust his wife to the slightest degree. Murder is one way to end life, but handing it over to someone you can’t trust is another.

Four novellas of fear

You’ll Never See Me Again is the longest story in the book, and again Woolrich taps into a primal fear when he creates a nightmarish situation involving a missing wife. Newlyweds argue about the wife’s baking and she takes off into the night and disappears . …

Murder Always Gathers Momentum is the story of Paine, a married man who goes to his boss to claim his wages. The encounter ends in murder and murder having been done once… This story shows Woolrich’s skill at pacing for the tale seems to speed up with each murder as Paine rushes towards his violent fate. 

My favorite was Eyes That Watch You. Woolrich really ramps up the fear factor with this tale. It’s terrifying to imagine being paralyzed but even more terrifying to be paralyzed, overhear a plot to murder your child and be unable to stop it. ….

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Wild Town: Jim Thompson (1957)

Jim Thompson’s tale of corruption,  Wild Town feels like a much earlier novel than The Killer Inside Me which was published 5 years earlier in 1952. The Killer Inside Me remains one of my favourite  Thompson novels, while Wild Town doesn’t feel as mature, as polished and certainly not as dark. Yet both novels feature Lou Ford. It was actually somewhat surreal to read about Wild Town‘s Lou Ford while The Killer Inside Me‘s Lou Ford lurked in my memory, but enough of that; onto the plot.

Wild town

The Wild Town of the title is a Texas oil boom town with Lou Ford as the local chief deputy sheriff. It’s the sort of place where men are expected to get drunk and get into fights, so local law enforcement is more about limiting damage.  The town itself is rowdy and not built for permanence. “Practically all the structures were temporary–built as cheaply as possible and as quickly as possible.” The town’s one hotel, the Hanlon Hotel, is a fourteen storey building where everyone turns a blind eye to various shenanigans. It’s hardly a respectable joint, but it’s not a fleabag hotel either. And this is where our main character Bugs McKenna comes in.

McKenna is fresh out of prison. His life story is a series of missteps, and he’s aware that one more mistake will land him in prison for the rest of his life. He arrives in town and is promptly thrown in jail, but then a strange thing happens. The sheriff, Lou Ford points him towards a job as the house detective at the Hanlon Hotel.

McKenna, who is used to being labelled as a jailbird, distrusts Lou Ford’s friendly, good ‘ol boy manner. (So did I.)

He was about thirty, the chief deputy. He wore a pinkish-tan shirt, with a black, clip-on bowtie, and blue serge pants. The cuffs of the trousers were tucked carelessly into the top of his boots. In Bug’s book, he stacked up about the same-in appearance-as any county clown.

His black, glossy hair was combed in a straight-back pompadour. His high-arched brows gave his face a droll, impish look. A long thin cigar was clamped between his teeth.

McKenna takes the job, and he finds that he likes having security, likes being able to shower and shave, and likes the hot coffee brought to his room every morning. The job, however, is not without its problems: first someone is stealing money from the hotel, and then the owner’s sexually rapacious wife, Joyce is determined to seduce McKenna.

While the plot sounds good, the book has its flaws. McKenna and Ford are both interesting creations but I found it impossible not to connect ‘this’ Ford with the Ford of The Killer Inside Me (a far superior novel). Also, there are a couple of bellboys who are cartoonish, and then there’s a lot of good-ol boy hee-haw slang going on which gets annoying after a while. I’d consider this a lesser Jim Thompson, so if you haven’t read any, I’d suggest you start elsewhere. Still if you’re a die-hard Thompson fan, you won’t be able to resist:

“Aw, heck. Gosh all fish-hooks. Gee willikers,” drawled Ford. “and here we-all thought we had you fooled.” 

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Lemons Never Lie: Donald Westlake (1971)

Lemons Never Lie is written by Donald Westlake using his Richard Stark pseudonym. That means it’s not one of Westlake’s funny ones; it’s harder, tougher, meaner.

The lemons in the title refer to slot machine lemons, and when actor/thief Grofield flies into Vegas to listen to a pitch about a heist, the very first thing he does on terra firma is to go to the closest slot, put in a nickel, and pull the handle. Three lemons flip onto the screen. Yes three lemons. According to Grofield, “Lemons never lie,” and three lemons on the slot machine signal bad luck. He should have turned around and got onto the next plane back to Indiana, but he didn’t, and that’s what this tale is all about: bad luck, fate and revenge.

Lemons never lie

Grofield meets a man called Myers in a hotel on the strip. They’re joined by a handful of other crooks and Myers (accompanied by a bodyguard) explains a heist he plans.  Myers, a “blowhard,” exudes a bad vibe. Grofield who runs a theatre in Indiana which doesn’t pay the bills, needs the money badly, but when he hears that the badly conceived plan includes murdering several people, he backs out–as does acquaintance Dan Leach, another crook who invited Grofield to attend the meeting.

“No,” said Grofield.

Myers stopped mid-sentence, his hand dipping down for yet another photo or map or graph. He blinked. “What?”

“I said no. Don’t tell me any more of it, I’m out.”

Myers frowned; he couldn’t understand it. “What’s the matter, Grofield?”

“Killing,” Grofield said.

“They’ve got a half a dozen armed guards in there,” Myers said. “There’s absolutely no other way to get past them.”

“I believe you. That’s why I’m out.”

Myers looked sardonic. “You really that kind, Grofield? Sight of blood bother you?”

“No, it’s more the sight of cops. The law looks a lot harder for a killer than it does for a thief. Sorry, Myers, but you can count me out.”

Leach wins big at the tables that night, but then Grofield and Leach are later mugged. Grofield managed to ID Myers and his bodyguard as the culprits, but Myers disappears while the body guard is in the hotel room with his throat cut.

At this point, Grofield knows to get out of Vegas fast, and since the popular phrase is “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” he flies home thinking he’ll never cross paths with Myers again. …

He’s wrong.

This is a dark, mean tale that begins with an omen of bad luck and then weaves a savage twisted thread. To add more to the plot would spoil the read that awaits Westlake fans. The novel brings up the issue of crooks working with other crooks: who do you trust? Sooner or later you’re going to run into psychos, egomaniacs, and sadists, and then what do you do? For its emphasis on the inescapable nature of fate, I’d file this under noir. 

(This book is number 4 in the Alan Grofield series)

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Rendezvous in Black: Cornell Woolrich

“For me, she thought wryly, but without complaint, all life is a tunnel; a long, never-ending tunnel, which has no other end.”

Cornell Woolrich’s Rendezvous in Black is a relentlessly bleak, cold, dark tale of revenge. Its powerful, ceaseless bleakness resides in a killer’s uncompromising mission: revenge yes, but it’s revenge involving innocents and driven by complete mercilessness.

It’s May the 31st, and Johnny Marr is waiting outside of a drugstore in the town square, as he does every night, for his long-time girlfriend Dorothy. Dorothy and Johnny have been in love since the ages of 7 and 8; they’ve always been a couple, and they cannot imagine a world in which the other does not exist. Lack of money led to them putting off their wedding for years, but now the date is planned. It will be a June wedding:

They would have been married long ago; last June, the June before, the very first June that he was a man and she was grown up girl. Why hadn’t they? What’s the one thing that always interferes, more than any other? Money. First no job at all. Then a job so small it wasn’t even big enough for one, let alone for two. 

The work-related death of Johnny Marr’s father led to a small pay-off from the railroad. It’s not much money and by the time the lawyer takes almost half, it’s even less, but it’s still enough for Johnny and Dorothy to set a date.

The book’s first pages establish several main themes: there’s the unexpected consequences of murder and how one person’s callous indifference ricochets throughout the universe. The idea of wasted time is another theme which is juxtaposed, in intriguing contrast, with timelessness. Other characters in the book struggle with the fact that they’ve ‘wasted’ time, and also time plays a huge role in the crimes. Another main theme is the powerless of the individual when faced with Big Business or dazzling wealth. The small man will always stay small and powerless because that’s the way the world is organised. Money rises up; it doesn’t trickle down. The fact that Johnny’s father was killed through negligence, has allowed a few thousand to come Johnny’s way. Yes the money was almost split 50:50 with the lawyer, but to Johnny, the money is a miracle. Finally, Johnny, an “average” man, an underdog, has managed to move ahead a little in the world and finally he can marry Dorothy.

But in this noir novel, fate intervenes and snatches Dorothy away in a freak accident. At first Johnny just hangs around in the town square, still waiting for Dorothy. A little kindness is occasionally shown to Johnny but he becomes a curiosity and then a spectacle. Finally a cop “brutally” tells Johnny to move on, and with a few pokes of the nightstick, Johnny ambles off:

Maybe the cop should have let him stand there, should have let him alone. He hadn’t been hurting anybody , until then.  

Johnny Marr, driven insane by grief, assumes various identities and finds out who is ‘responsible’ (in his mind) for Dorothy’s death. He draws up a death list. On May 31st of each year, one by one, a man whose name is on the list will lose the woman he loves the most: a wife, a mistress, a girlfriend, a daughter … it doesn’t matter to Johnny who the victims are as long as their deaths causes irreparable damage to the men left behind: they will feel the same pain that he endures.

Detective Cameron, another unassuming, almost invisible man, realizes that something isn’t right when the first death occurs. By the third, he knows he’s on the trail of a maniac who has a death list. He doesn’t know the identity of the killer; the only thing he knows for certain is that the next death will occur on the 31st.

Money only has power over the sane mind. Maniacs don’t have motives. I could call it revenge, but even that wouldn’t be correct, because where the injury has been unintentional or unknowing, revenge can be reasoned with, turned aside. About the closest I can get to it would be a revenge-mania.

Woolrich eases us into the darkness easily at first. The first murder is fait accompli, and the second murder with its unexpected consequences form their own sort of rough justice. But the subsequent crimes are malicious, evil and enacted with maximum cruelty. I’m not talking gore here–I’m talking about cold, calculated vicious retribution calculated to cause maximum suffering. The novel is particularly bleak when considering that 5 people who had nothing to do with Dorothy’s death  but who are connected with 5 men (ONE of whom MAY be responsible) will pay the ultimate price. Unlike Fate, Marr’s retribution isn’t random; it’s directed and deliberate, forming its own nihilistic ball of hate, taking aim at innocents. Nonetheless, the cosmic unfairness of Johnny’s selection and relentless pursuit mirrors Fate in a distorted, warped way.

My Modern Library copy includes a bio of Woolrich as well as a brief section describing the relationship Woolrich had with a woman that mirrors Marr’s (without all the murders):

A “sense of isolation, of pinpointed and transfixed helplessness under the stars, of being left alone, unheard, and unaided to face some final fated darkness and engulfment slowly advancing across the years towards me .. that has hung over me all my life.”

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Fugitive Red: Jason Starr

“Choosing another path in life doesn’t necessarily solve your problems–sometimes it just leads to a new set of them.”

Forty-four-year old real estate agent Jack Harper, a recovering alcoholic, is in a rut. His professional life is at an all-time low, and his marriage to Maria is stale and sexless. He hasn’t landed any sales in some time, and when Rob, a former bandmate, flies in from California looking to buy a two million dollar Manhattan penthouse apartment, Jack’s failure is rubbed in his face. Rob, a practiced womanizer, sniffs Jack’s failure and lords his success over his old friend’s head, but more significantly, he mentions that he uses an online dating app called Discreet Hookups, a “Cheating site” which is “the best thing for married men since Monday Night Football.” While Jack feels disgust at his old friend’s behaviour, there’s another part of him that envies Rob’s brash confidence and material success.

Late one night, bored and restless, Jack logs onto Discreet Hookups, the website whose logo is: “people marry for companionship, cheat for happiness.”  Jack tells himself he’s led by curiosity, but he has a past of addictive behaviour, so it’s just a very short step until he has an online profile and connects with a wealthy married woman who calls herself Fugitive Red. …

Jason Starr’s Fugitive Red takes an insightful look at the perils of online relationships, adeptly navigating the narrative of Jack’s rapidly unraveling life. Online, we can be anyone we want to be, and when sex and/or money enter the picture, things go downhill fast. Most of us know people who have had exploitative disastrous online relationships, and Jack is a great fictional example. Soon he’s accused of murder, and while Jack thought his life was bad before his exposure to Discreet Hookups, he finds out how bad gets worse. With his life spiraling out of control, he still imagines he has options which have long since been removed from the table. There’s a morbid sense of humour at work as we watch Jack, who can’t quite accept that things are as bad as they are, missteps repeatedly in the quicksand of a murder investigation.

The plot, peopled with colourful characters, explores the hazards of misinterpreting virtual life on the computer as reality, and there are times when Jack has insight into his own ego and addictive behaviour, but these times are alternated with his blind spots. Here’s Jack being grilled by the detective who will soon become his arch-nemesis:

Then he added,” I don’t want to say you’re gullible, Mr Harper, but okay, I’ll say it–you’re gullible. I mean, you meet some chick online, she says she wants to screw around, and you think she’s telling you the truth?”

“She wasn’t ‘some chick,’ ” I said. “She was a sweet, sincere woman, and yes, I believed her.” 

“Just like you believed it was her first time meeting a guy online.”

Jason Starr’s novels often include some reference to New York housing, and how outrageous costs impact life and relationships, so here we find Jack living in a 580 sq foot apartment and wondering if he should have moved to the ‘burbs. I thought I knew where Fugitive Red was taking me, but it had more twists than I anticipated, and since it’s Jason Starr, these twists are laced with deviant behaviour.

The book synopsis includes a reference to Gone Girl, and if you arrive at this book expecting another Gone Girl, you will be disappointed. This is classic Jason Starr, which means a different set of things from Gone Girl, and I wish publishers would stop referencing this book as though it’s the bible of suspense. Frankly while Gone Girl was highly readable, by its conclusion, I was annoyed at the plot devices.

Rant over.

If you are a Jason Starr fan, you will not be disappointed. There’s a lot to appreciate here in the insights into human behaviour: the lies we tell ourselves, the types of horrible relationships we endure, the disappointment of how our lives turned out, and how tricky, deceptive and seductive online ‘relationships’ can be–and yes those online relationships just happen to slot into all of life’s shortcomings.  Psychologists argue that first impressions take just a few seconds. How does that translate to online relationships? Jack’s impressions of Fugitive Red are formed and sealed before he meets her, and that proves to be a deadly mistake.

Review copy

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Life Sentences: Laura Lippman

Cassandra Fallows, soon to be 50 years-old, has two immensely popular, best-selling memoirs under her belt. The first, “My Father’s Daughter,” reveals her childhood, youth, and ends with the failure of her first marriage. The second book, “The Eternal Wife” tells how Cassandra’s second marriage went down the toilet, flushed with innumerable extramarital affairs. So fast forward to Cassandra’s third book: this one is fiction and it’s not selling well. Everyone connected with Cassandra urges her to return to non-fiction as that seems to be her forte.

Life sentences

Cassandra happens to catch a news story which refers to a crime that occurred decades before involving Calliope Jenkins, Cassandra’s former classmate, an afro-american woman whose baby disappeared. Since Calliope’s first child was removed by Child Protective Services previously, the baby’s disappearance, along with Calliope’s history of drug use, takes on sinister overtones. Calliope refused to talk, and the baby was never found. Calliope served 7 years in prison and was subsequently released. Cassandra’s next book begins to form in her head–not exactly “true crime” as she explains:

I don’t know what I’m writing, but there’s clearly a story there. She was one of us once. Not part of our gang, but a classmate. I want to figure out how the path deviates, how we end up in middle age, safe and snug, and she flounders so horribly.

So New York based Cassandra returns to her old stomping grounds, Baltimore, to uncover “the accidents of fate, the choices and temptations we faced.” Soon Cassandra is contacting former classmates: Donna, Tisha and Fatima. To complicate matters Donna is now married to Tisha’s brother who was Calliope’s one-time lawyer. Cassandra also tries to talk to Calliope’s first lawyer, the flinty Gloria, and Teena, the detective who worked on Calliope’s case. People connected with the case were forever tainted by it and the buzz is:

That case, it’s like a curse, isn’t it? Like something you’d see in an old movie.

Memory, truth and perception lie at the heart of this novel. I’ve read several Lippman titles, and Life Sentences is the most impressive. Cassandra has ‘bared all’ in her memoirs, but those memoirs are written according to her perceptions. She may have written ‘her story,’ but when she includes other people as bit players, some are offended. According to Cassandra’s childhood friend, Tisha, Cassandra “thought everything was about her. She’s incapable of telling a story where she’s not at the center.”

While on one level, Life Sentences is about what happened to Calliope Jenkins’ baby, it’s really about the stories we tell–the stories we tell ourselves, our interpretations of events. Those stories can remain safely in our heads, but when we air them to other people, especially other people who may ‘appear’ in those stories, the ‘truth’ slides into parallel, yet deviating, narratives. At one point, for example Cassandra finds herself questioning whether or not a publisher truly doesn’t remember meeting her (and turning down her first book) or whether he’s just trying to save face.

Early in the book, a woman attends one of Cassandra’s readings and asks why she gets to tell a story involving real people, and that is yet another issue that floats to the surface of this multi-layered novel: why should Cassandra tell Calliope’s story? How can she possibly do that? There are many times when Cassandra tries to pull Calliope from the fog of her childhood memories, and it’s clear that she did not know Calliope as other than a figure in the same room. Cassandra may have bared her own life to public exposure, but even then it’s through a lens of her construction. Does she have the moral right to co-opt Calliope’s story?

A middle-aged, twice divorced white Cassandra returning to her old stomping grounds and meeting her former Afro-American friends makes for fascinating reading. While Cassandra set out to tell Calliope’s story–whatever that may be–she runs headlong into what happened to several other women who were connected to Calliope’s case.

The solution to the mystery was the least satisfactory part of this otherwise interesting, highly readable book. The novel is populated with memorable characters including Calliope’s first lawyer, “famously, riotously deliberately seedy,” Gloria, former detective Teena, “if this was what pretty could become, what age could take away from you,” now permanently damaged physically and mentally who still considers the Calliope Jenkins case her ‘bête noire,’ and Cassandra’s philandering father, her “psychic tar pit,” a man who shapes his infidelities into a palatable narrative and massive love story.

Ignore the cover. It does the book no favours.

(The book includes a note from the author in which she explains that the Calliope Jenkins case is loosely based on a real crime.)

TBR stack.

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