Tag Archives: american crime fiction

The Blinds: Adam Sternbergh

“Everything that happened to you before you got here has either been forgotten or is better off forgotten.”

Adam Sternbergh’s book The Blinds is set in a remote bleached-out, dusty town called Caesura– a fenced area in Kettle County, Texas, “the third least populous county” in America. Caesura, a secret facility created by the Justice Department and maintained by the murky Fell Corporation, does not exist on any map or census, but its existence is the subject of internet speculation–“chatter of secret government camps and black helicopters, mind experiments and covert crackdowns.” The town is set inside a perimeter fence. There’s no hospital, no school, but then only one child lives there. There’s a rundown-trailer for the sheriff, a structure that serves as a bar, and a small library for those who can muster the energy to read. The town is run on a cash-less basis, but there’s a commissary, which has groceries delivered once a week, and a laundromat. There’s no internet, no phones, and only two cars–the sheriff’s pickup and another in case of emergencies.  The residents can leave if they want, but they do so at their own peril. It’s well known that a woman left with her son some years ago, and it didn’t end well.

The Blinds

So who lives in this sunbleached hellhole? Who are the residents of Caesura or the Blinds as it is otherwise known?

She looks over the surrounding blocks of homes with their identical cinderblock bungalows, each with the same slightly elevated wooden porch, the same scrubby patch of modest yard. Some people here maintain the pretense of giving a shit, planting flowers, mowing grass, keeping their porches swept clean, while others let it all grow wild and just wait for whatever’s coming next. 

The residents are a blend of career criminals, the worst sort of scum–hired killers, serial killers, epic child molesters and even a few ‘innocents’ as they are called who were offered a way out for certain testimony. Instead of going into the Witness Protection programme, they disappeared, with new names, into Caesura, but only after having their memories wiped by The Fell Corporation. Over the years, and Caesura’s been in existence for eight years now, the memory wipe has been perfected.

He remembers something vaguely, as a kid, with his dad, in a dusty basement, with small windows, and the sound of tools clattering, but that’s where his memory gets ragged. Orson’s case, the doctors told him before he entered the town, was a deep dive; the relevant memories required something like a root canal for his brain. Plus he was one of the early ones, the original eight, back before they’d perfected the precision of the technique. Some of the newer people, they remember almost everything–childhoods, first crushes, wives, kids–except for the part of their lives they chose to forget.  With Orson, they scoured most of his memories, just to be sure.

So here you have a town full of vicious killers whose memories of their past mis-deeds have been wiped away. What can possibly go wrong?

That’s what happens when you wipe out a big chunk of a person’s memories: Fear breeds in the empty space that’s left behind.

Caesura, with its community of memory wiped villains has run smoothly for the past eight years, but cracks begin to appear. One resident commits suicide, and while the act itself isn’t a shocker, it’s the fact that a gun was used that is unsettling since “theoretically at least,” Sheriff Cooper is the only one who is supposed to have a gun. Then Cooper’s long-term deputy left in a hurry after the suicide, and he’s been replaced by Dawes, a woman who begins digging into loose ends. ….

Sheriff Cooper, the story’s anti-hero, is laid back and laconic, a style which causes him to project a lazy mind, but in reality he has the perfect temperament to run this hellhole. His temperament also matches the plot which unfolds layer upon layer.

Now he stands at a remove from the body in question, studying the scene with the weary air of a man who’s returned from  particularly tedious errand to find that his car’s been keyed.

To say more about the plot would ruin this book for others. I’ll add that Sternbergh’s style meshes perfectly with this dark tale that is creative and yet also oddly possible at the same time. The Blinds has to be one of the most unusual, interesting and creative books I’ve read this year. There are a couple of loose ends at the end of the story, but that’s relatively minor. It’s not often I come across a book and find myself thinking ‘this is really different,’ but Sternbergh created something new and plausible here.

Someone…. please… option this book for a television series

Review copy

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The Lady in Mink: Vera Caspary (1946)

“My type can’t afford to have anything to do with your type except in dreams.”

The Lady in Mink is a lesser-known novella (also known as The Murder in the Stork Club) from Vera Caspary, the author of  Laura. I read The Secrets of Grown-Ups Caspary’s autobiography a few years ago, and found a lot to admire and like in this remarkably strong, interesting woman. So I’m slowly reading Caspary’s work that remains in print, or is at least available:

Laura

Bedelia

Stranger than Truth

The Man Who Loved His Wife

The Lady in Mink is a fairly standard detective story which centres on the poisoning death of playboy Henry Pendleton. Henry, “the double-L type, ladies and liquor,” spent his last night at The Stork Club, mingling with celebrities and various women from his past. He became violently ill, and on the way home in a taxi cab, he died. Police Captain Mulvoy suspects that Henry met his murderer in the club, and that he was slipped the poison in plain sight. Henry, who was about to publish a book which included old love letters, had dinner that night with a mystery woman in mink. She’s now disappeared. Who was she, and is she the killer?

IMG_0715 (1)Private detective Joe Collins takes on the case and proceeds to worm his way into the club and into the lives of the main suspects. There’s Henry’s ex-wife Dorothy, Maggie, a former girlfriend now engaged to a millionaire, and the mystery woman in mink.

First-class, gilt-edged gold-digger” Maggie is a disarming combination of “artlessness” and artifice. Her “earnestness and shy pauses had the effect of calculation.” She appears to be reading War and Peace, but Joe isn’t sure if she’s reading it or if it’s an “adornment.” Pendleton’s ex wife, Dorothy mentions her psycho-analysis moments after meeting Joe: “She seemed to regard psycho-analysis as some sort of adornment like a permanent wave.”

The Lady in Mink is a snapshot of its time. Name dropping of celebrities who visit the club is interspersed with the fascination with mink coats. Every woman either has one or wants one. The murder investigation puts Joe’s marriage to the test. Joe Collins begins to question his wife, Sara’s fidelity and also, after catching her in a number of lies, whether or not he can trust her. Sara writes for radio and makes $500 a week. Joe doesn’t make nearly as much money, so Sara is the main breadwinner, and that causes tensions which float to the surface during the murder case. The investigation takes Joe into the world his wife left behind: a world of champagne, gold cigarette cases, and mink coats.

This isn’t Caspary’s best work, it’s not nearly so well crafted as either Laura or Bedelia, but it’s entertaining enough with some snappy lines thrown in.

Good Housekeeping hired Caspary to write the story, The Murder in the Stork Club. My copy was published in 1946 in the UK, so The Lady in Mink may have been the British title.

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The Late Show: Michael Connelly

The Late Show brings us a new series from author Michael Connelly and this time, instead of Harry Bosch,  it’s Renée Ballard, a detective in the Hollywood Division. Renée and her partner, Jenkins, work at night, “the midnight shift, the late show, moving from case to case, called to any scene where a detective was needed to take initial reports or sign off on suicides. But they kept no cases.” She’s been shelved and transferred to this shift following a sexual harassment complaint, which was thrown out, against Lt. Olivas. Ballard is still bruised from the experience, but she’s dealing with it, working hard, and trying to do her job.

The Late Show

The book opens with a call to the home of a woman whose credit card appears to have been stolen, and then it’s onto Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center for the vicious beating and torture of a young woman (later discovered to be trans gendered), but before Ballard can press for forensic tests, another victim arrives from a quadruple murder that occurred in a Hollywood Club called the Dancers. When that victim, a waitress at the club dies, Ballard goes to the club to talk to witnesses.

So we have three crimes: a credit card theft, the beating and torture of a transgender person, and a multiple homicide at the club. The shooting at the club is odd. How are the victims related? –they’re an assorted trio of felons, a bookie, an enforcer, and a drug dealer, all in the same place at the same time, shot to death. And the drug-dealing waitress was “collateral damage.”

“Did anybody in here tell you they saw the waitress get hit?”

Jenkins scanned the tables, where about twenty people were sitting and waiting. It was a variety of Hollywood hipsters and clubbers. A lot of tattoos and piercings. 

“No, but from what I hear, she was waiting on the table when the shooting started,” Jenkins said. “Four men in a booth. One pulls out a hand cannon and shoots the others right where they’re sitting. people start scattering, including the shooter. He shot your waitress when he was going for the door. Took out a bouncer too.” 

Ballard is supposed to pass off the cases she works on the Late Show to the day team, but this is a driven detective who, still smarting at an unjust transfer, wants more.

She manages to wrangle holding onto the transgender torture case, but since the victim is in a medically induced coma, many questions are unanswered. Ballard’s partner Jenkins is distracted by his wife’s illness, but Ballard, who likes to go solo in her personal and professional life, starts investigating both the club shooting and the torture cases on her own. …

I thought I knew the direction the plot was heading, but I’m delighted to say that I was wrong. When it comes to crime enforcement, author Michael Connelly obviously has respect for the profession, but not every cop is idealized, and many flaws fester under the badges of some of the characters in these pages. The book’s visceral tone draws the reader into Ballard’s cases, and there’s a sense of immediacy–we are there with Ballard, an intriguing protagonist, who is strong enough to lead a series. It’s fun to think that we know how all the procedures of police work, but occasionally, only occasionally, there were too many details. But apart from that niggling issue, The Late Show is a pageturner.

Review copy.

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The Will to Kill: Mickey Spillane & Max Allan Collins

Where there’s a will …

In The Will to Kill, Mike Hammer is back in a tightly-woven PI tale of greed, dysfunctional siblings and a legacy of millions of dollars. When the novel opens, it’s past midnight and Mike Hammer has a quiet moment watching the Hudson River. A slab of ice caught by the pier carries strange cargo–half of a body. Hammer asks himself “what was it about me that attracted death? What turned a reflective moment at the waterfront into a damn crime scene?”

The half-a-body is identified as Jamison Elder, a bachelor and a butler in his sixties. The official story, according to his employers, the four wealthy Dunbar siblings, is that Jamison’s sister was ill, and he left the family estate near Monticello, to rush to her side. Somewhere along the way, his car ploughed into a snow bank, and then the story gets blurry. Police speculate that somehow or another Jamison fell into the river and suffered extensive injuries that caused his death.

the will to kill

Captain Pat Chambers, Mike Hammer’s old friend, finds Jamison’s death suspicious. Add that to the death a few years earlier of Jamison’s employer, ex-cop turned inventor, millionaire Chester Dunbar. Chester Dunbar was Chambers’ precinct captain when Chambers graduated from the academy, and now Chambers feels a sense of moral obligation to investigate both Dunbar and Jamison’s deaths. Since the case is outside of Chambers’ jurisdiction, he hires Hammer reasoning that “if Mike Hammer can’t sniff out murder, nobody can.”

Hammer contacts the four Dunbar siblings who live together at the family estate. There’s Wake and Dex adopted by Chester Dunbar when he married their widowed mother, and Dorena and Chickie, Dunbar’s own children. According to Chambers, “two are bums, one’s beautiful and one’s a congenital idiot.” All four Dunbar offspring are waiting for their generous inheritance which only comes their way as they each turn forty.

Hammer stays at the estate, and curiously the three eldest Dunbar offspring welcome an investigation into the death of their father while 20-year-old Chickie is too busy playing with his toys to have an opinion. There’s a lot of dirt and scandal under the surface of the Dunbar estate. Wake is married to a beautiful gold-digger, and Dex is a compulsive gambler. Dorena, a budding playwright, seems to be the only normal one of the bunch, but with millions of dollars at stake in the will, Hammer reasons, “no wonder there’s murder in the air.”

Although this tale is lean, Hammer’s observations, always laced with a bitter humour, give a strong sense of time, place and character. Here he is meeting the Dunbar family lawyer in a low-rent diner:

I went down and slid in opposite him in a high-backed booth, tossing my hat on the table. He had what must have been a sturdy frame before time and pie–he was halfway through a piece of coconut crème-caught up with him. His charcoal worsted would have been too good for the place if it hadn’t looked slept in. The black-and-white silk tie seemed fresh enough

The tale, full of snappy dialogue and Hammer’s wry, cynical wit, rips along with very little down time as Hammer moves from one corpse to another, meeting a number of beautiful, seductive women along the way. A Will to Kill is another product of Mickey Spillane’s unfinished work now seamlessly completed by Max Allan Collins who inherited Spillane’s unfinished manuscripts upon his death. As usual, it’s impossible to tell where Mickey Spillane ends and Max Allan Collins begins, so fans should be pleased.

review copy

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Her Every Fear: Peter Swanson

I somehow missed Peter Swanson’s blockbuster The Kind Worth Killing; I’ve heard so many positive things about the book that I knew I couldn’t miss Her Every Fear.  After finishing Her Every Fear, I took a look at reviews and the consensus seems to be that The Kind Worth Killing is a better read. That’s reassuring; I liked Her Every Fear but found the book to have problems–more of that later.

So here’s the plot: London-based Kate Priddy agrees to a six-month long apartment swap with her second cousin, Bostonian Corbin Dell. The two have never met, but arrangements are made via e-mail. For Kate, who has always been on the neurotic side and is still recovering from a horrible experience involving an ex-boyfriend, the opportunity to live in Boston for six months allows her to try and put the past behind her.

her-every-fear

Problems for Kate begin almost immediately; she hasn’t even entered the front door of her cousin’s large, lush apartment (“like something out of a Henry James novel,“) when she meets a young woman who is knocking frantically on the front door of the next apartment, looking for a neighbour who is apparently missing. The neighbour is, or should I say, was Audrey Marshall, and she’s been murdered and mutilated inside the apartment right next to Kate.

Enter two new men in Kate’s life: Alan Cherney, a man whose voyeuristic tendencies led to an obsession with Audrey, and Jack who claims to be Audrey’s ex-boyfriend. Soon Kate is communicating with Corbin via e-mail, and he claims he barely knew Audrey. Yet according to Alan, who constantly observed Audrey from afar, Corbin and Audrey had a sexual relationship…..

The first part of the book, with the action focusing on Kate’s perspective, was compulsively readable, and the plot moves along at a terrific, nail-biting pace, but then the plot slows when it switches to Corbin and his past.

The plot requires the reader to wrestle a bit with plausibility. Kate is already badly damaged by her past when she lands in the middle of a murder in Boston. How likely is it that she would open herself up to a strange man knowing that there’s a killer on the loose? I struggled with this, but then decided to accept Kate’s actions as she has a history of being a psycho magnet. The plot makes it clear that Kate isn’t the most stable woman on the planet–she forgets where she’s put her medication, and she forgets, or thinks she forgets or misplaces, several other things at crucial moments. And here’s a plot element I struggled with: I don’t know about you, but if I had a door going from my apartment to the basement, I’d go buy a hammer and nail that sucker shut, but Kate, who has a history of panic attacks,  manages to live with it…..

I had a more difficult time, for reasons I cannot extrapolate, with the character of Corbin. Those of you who’ve read the book may know what I mean….

Anyway, Her Every Fear is a good beach, plane or train read. You could even be stuck in the middle of a doctor’s office with half a dozen annoying conversations flying over your head, and the plot will keep your attention. This Female in Peril novel, with its emphasis on slimy, creepy voyeurism, is flawed but entertaining.

Review copy

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Till Death Do Us Part: John Dickson Carr (1944)

I’d never read John Dickson Carr before but took up a challenge from The Invisible Event to read one of this author’s books and post a review on November 30, 2016, to commemorate Carr’s 110th birthday. My pick: Till Death Do Us Part–selected on the merits of its title alone. John Dickson Carr (1906-1977) was an American author who lived in England for several decades of his life, and this novel, set in an English village, features Gideon Fell, arguably (according to everything I read) the author’s most famous character. This is a story of blackmail, murder, and deceit which takes place over the course of just a few days.

till-death-do-us-part

The novel opens at a charity fête on the grounds of Ashe Hall, home of the local gentry. We’re thrown right into the action as playwright Dick Markham, a creator of  “psychological thrillers,” and his fiancée Lesley Grant arrive on the grounds. There’s a storm brewing (literally and figuratively), and after an unfortunate moment at the rifle range, Lesley slides off to visit the fortune-teller, who just happens to be “one of the greatest living authorities on crime” Sir Harvey Gilman, the Home Office Pathologist. Something strange occurs between the fortune-teller and Lesley; she leaves the tent hurriedly and upset. A few moments later she accidentally shoots the fortune-teller, who is subsequently hustled off for medical attention.

That evening, Sir Harvey Gilman, wounded and resting, insists that Dick Markham visit, and Dick is told that Lesley is actually a three-time murderess, a poisoner who has killed two husbands, polished off another lover and very possibly intends Dick to be her next victim. Sir Harvey insists that Lesley, so far, has been too slippery to be caught and punished for her crimes and so he enlists a reluctant Dick to help him.

The next morning, however, Sir Harvey is found dead with a hypodermic needle containing prussic acid–and this is exactly the MO that Sir Harvey, now the victim, attributed to Lesley….

Before too long Dr Fell arrives on the scene and takes over the case aided and abetted by Inspector Hadley. Dr Fell is a large man (think Sidney Greenstreet), given to eccentricities. Till Death Do Us Part is the 15th Carr novel to feature Fell. There’s nothing here about a personal life; he appears around the halfway mark of the book, and mostly grunts, sending significant glances towards Inspector Hadley. I was a bit disappointed in the great detective.

I enjoyed the subtext involving Dick Markham’s behaviour with Cynthia Drew. Everyone in the village predicted a match but when Lesley arrived six months earlier, Markham had eyes for no one else. There’s an undercurrent of disapproval in the village against Markham for disappointing Cynthia. The obvious sexual attraction between Markham and Lesley does not exist with Cynthia–nonetheless Markham, a character I rather liked, gets himself in quite a bit of trouble with his gallantry.

Poisoner’s Mistake was proclaimed from one wall, Panic in the Family from another. Each an attempt to get inside the criminal’s mind: to see life through his eyes, to feel his feelings. They occupied such wall space as was not taken up by stuffed shelves of books dealing with morbid and criminal psychology.

There was the desk with its typewriter, cover now on. There was the revolving bookcase of reference works. There were the overstuffed chairs, and the standing ash trays. There were the bright chintz curtains, and the bright rag rugs underfoot. It was Dick Markham’s ivory tower, as remote from the great world as this village of Six Ashes.

The solution to the crime is wrapped by Fell who hugs all of the information to himself and then does a Grand Reveal at the end–this happens to be something I dislike in my crime books, and since I’ve never read this author before, I can’t say if this is usual or not. The set-up, the writing, the atmosphere were all great fun. I tried finding John Dickson Carr at the library, but the cupboard was bare. Have other readers out there found this author at the library?

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The Dead Stand-In: Frank Kane (1956)

Following on the tail of Richard Deming’s Kiss and Kill comes Frank Kane’s The Dead Stand-In–the second novel in Armchair Fiction’s  two-fer. At just over 70 pages, this tale rattles along with very little down time. The novella’s protagonist is Kane’s series character, PI Johnny Liddell. While the story has nothing new to add to the genre, and has the usual tropes, it’s entertaining, and with a colourful cast of characters, it’s a lively, if somewhat predictable read.

the dead stand in

Johnny Liddell fits a general image of the 50s low-rent PI. He has a red-headed secretary, no clients and a mountain of bills, so when he gets a note telling him that there’s $500 up for grabs if he goes to the Savoy Grill, he takes the bait. When the mystery note writer fails to show, Liddell thinks he’s been stood up, but then he gets a call from a woman (naturally with a “sultry” husky voice) who refuses to identify herself. She hires Liddell to look into the death of hitman Larry Hollister who was shot to death by police a few weeks previously. The official version is that Hollister was a “gun-crazy hood who was burned down resisting arrest.” Liddell thinks the case is a waste of time but with a $500 fee dangling, he takes the case. It doesn’t take much digging before Liddell sniffs a rat. …

The tale has a few interesting twists, and it’s loaded with the PI tropes. Liddell is a tough guy who gets help from his woman–Muggsy. There are some low-life gangsters, a shady nightclub and a platinum blonde singer who’s “hard, cold, and expensive.” As I said, there’s nothing new here but The Dead Stand-In, a pulp read, has its entertaining moments.

The redhead got up from her chair, brought her glass over to the coffee table. She picked up a cigarette from the humidor, chain-lit it from the one in Liddell’s mouth. “I’ve bumped into him around, but I never knew him too well. He wasn’t exactly my type.” She blew a stream of feathery smoke at the ceiling, squinted through it. “He was the kind of a guy that asked for killing, I guess. Everybody hated him, but most of the people he dealt with were too afraid of him to show it.”

“Women?”

“By the carload. He practically had them working in shifts.”  

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Kiss and Kill: Richard Deming (1960)

“We sort of drifted into the business of murder.”

When crime writer Richard Deming (1915-1983) penned Kiss and Kill, a few Lonely Hearts killers had made the headlines. Wikipedia has a page devoted to such crimes–men and women who placed ads in the lonely hearts newspaper columns, courted (briefly) and murdered their prey. While the killing duo in Kiss and Kill doesn’t quite fit any real life characters, this lean crime tale, highly readable at 136 pages, feels like an intimate retelling of a crime spree.

I suppose in any profession you grow with experience. I know I did. When I think of my crude planning in the early years, and the chances I took, it makes my hair curl. Time and time again I blundered past disaster by pure luck.

Our narrator, Korean war veteran Sam, who uses several surnames during the course of the novel, picks up the story when he’s working in California as a grifter, working a con that needs an accomplice. The perfect woman walks into his life–Mavis–a girl from Chicago, inspired by the grandeur depicted in film, who’s eager to learn and willing to take Sam’s bidding. They make a great team, but in between scores, they whoop it up, living lavishly, and this spending creates a boom-and-bust cycle. Eventually when they exhaust their old scam and their “sucker list,”  Sam and Mavis move onto murder and the lonely women who advertise through the lonely hearts columns. They learn from each kill, finessing their techniques, taking no chances.

We had learned a lot from the Houston job. The most important thing we had learned was to lower our sights and never again try for such a big score. The more money people leave when they die, the more speculation there is about their heirs. It was safer to pull small jobs regularly than to try to clean up with only an occasional big one. We concentrated on marks whose passing would leave only the faintest ripple of public comment.

The Houston job also taught us never again to try to operate on the mark’s home ground. In small towns, where we found it safest to operate, the death of a newcomer excites not nearly as much interest as the death of a lifelong resident. So we avoided women with deep roots in their own communities. If they weren’t willing to move off with me to some new town after marriage, we bypassed them.

There are indications that Mavis wants to settle down, and after all, since she has to sit on the sidelines while Sam courts, marries and has sex with his victims, Mavis has arguably the most uncomfortable part to play. Not according to Sam, however, who finds it hard, apparently, to have sex with a series of demanding women. Mavis turns him on, and Sam complains about the fat or bony women he must sleep with in order to seal the numerous marriages. Poor Sam. It’s a dirty job but someone has to do it:

“I had to,” I said roughly. “There was no other way to loosen her up. I’m not going to pass up twenty grand just because you’re jealous. You think I like making love to a fat, middle-aged slob.”

Moving from score to score, Sam and Mavis are lucky, but sooner or later, luck runs out….

kiss and kill

The tale follows Sam and Mavis through various cycles as they spend thousands of dollars and then when they’re down to just their stake money, they begin a hunt for the next victim. Sam isn’t interested in retiring, saving or settling down. He kills in order to fund a decadent lifestyle of casinos, hotels, and Monte Carlo. Years after beginning the Lonely Hearts scam, he is no farther ahead financially. He is living an unsustainable life. As the victims pile up, Sam seems to worry less about courting and more about opening that joint checking account. Impossible to tell if this is a flaw of the novel or a sign of Sam’s vanity going to his head.

Anyway ladies: if you are a women of means, you meet some man, and he wants you to marry him and move away, I’d advise CAUTION.

Kiss and Kill made me think about the criminal life. Sam’s a criminal because he can’t see the point of working a subsistence job for the rest of his life. I’m currently watching an Italian crime series which concerns a group of gangsters who are all motivated by different things but as their wealth increases, they don’t seem any happier–just more violent, more unpredictable and most of the profit seems to go towards funding various vices. Scenes show opulent homes decorated in astonishingly poor taste, and then I thought of Scarface and the gangster lifestyle. What to do with all that loot?

scarface

Kiss and Kill is part of a two-fer published by Armchair Fiction reminiscent of the old Acedouble novel.” (And they have a entire Sci-fi line for those interested).

 

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Revolver: Duane Swierczynski

“She gets the eerie feeling that this it it-that Philadelphia has lured her back home to trap her, like one of those fly-eating plants.”

Revolver, written by Duane Swierczynski, goes back and forth through three separate timelines to follow three generations of a Philadelphia Polish-American family through a narrative of disturbingly unsolved crimes. In 1964-1965, white police officer, Stan Walczak, teamed with black officer George Wildey during race riots, unknowingly triggers the attention of some powerful people when he begins helping Wildey with an investigation of heroin use in the city. In 1995, Stan’s son, Jim Walczak, haunted by the unsolved murder of his father, has an opportunity for revenge, and in 2015, Jim’s adopted daughter, Audrey, struggling to finish her thesis in forensic science, begins reinvestigating the unsolved murder of her grandfather, Stan Walczak.

revolver

The author takes us into the lives of the Walczak family through their ties to the Philadelphia PD. The book opens in 1965 with officers Walczak and Wildey waiting in a North Philly bar for a snitch who never arrives. It’s a powerful beginning which then segues to 1995 and picks up with homicide detective, Jim Walczak. It’s through Jim’s discussions with his son, that we know that Stan Walczak was murdered, and that the crime remains, officially, unsolved. Jim Walczak is about to investigate a case which will haunt him–the rape and murder of a young female journalist.

In the third timeline, 2015, Jim Walczak is retired, but his two sons, Cary and Stas, are both police officers. Audrey, the black sheep of the family, studying to be a forensic scientist, flies into Philadelphia to attend a memorial ceremony for her long-deceased, grandfather, Stan Walczak. Estranged from her family, Audrey hasn’t been home in years, and when she decides to start digging into her grandfather’s unsolved murder, she very quickly discovers that the established narrative about the crime is fundamentally untrue….

Swierczynski novels, and regular readers of this blog know that I’m a fan of this author, are always highly readable. I read this is a couple of sittings, juggling timelines and unsolved crimes in my head. The novel argues that the present is impacted by the past, and that is certainly true in the case of the Walczak family. Moving back and forth through time, we see how the male police officers in the Walczak family sacrifice home life–not for career concerns but due to the sheer dark weight of the crimes they investigate. Some scenes show the Walczak males coming home at night after facing scenes of horror, and then they have to switch gears and pretend to be ‘normal’ for their wives and children who, wrapped in a cocoon of safety, are largely oblivious. Jim Walczak copes with the two vastly different areas of his life by understanding that there’s an “Outer Jim,” and an “Inner Jim.” But that doesn’t stop him from wondering how his father coped with juggling police work and family life.

He wishes he could ask his father how he did it. The whole family thing. Granted, his pop was a career patrolman. He wasn’t obsessing over homicides. But even towards the end of his career, when they assigned him to the worst district in the city, Stan Walczak was there. He was present. Drinking tomato juice and laughing with Jim before school in the morning. Waking up before he got home from school to fix him a snack. Taking his boy to the Phillies games. (When was the last time you took your kids to a ball game?) His pop never talked about cases. Somehow he left it all in the squad car.

Written in the author’s inimitable style, tension blended with relaxed humor, over the course of this story of power, corruption and duty to crime enforcement, the history of three generations of the same family unfolds. We see sons who identify with their fathers; sons who want to be involved and solve the crimes their fathers can’t. It’s in this fashion that three generations of Walczaks, tied to the past, pay a price for their commitment to the police department.

As an aside, the author dedicated this book to his relative Philadelphia police officer, Joseph T. Swierczynski, “who was gunned down by a gangster” in 1919. So the echoes of crimes in the past and how they impact the present continue in a real-life domino effect. Once again, as in Swierczynski’s fantastic novel, Canary (and there’s a connection between Canary and Revolver,) the plot is firmly set in the author’s native Philadelphia, so the plot is steeped in history–the good and the bad sides of a city that Swierczynski obviously cares about.

This author has an intuitive knack of creating fiction that reflects the pulse of modern America. Revolver addresses, through the lives of its troubled characters, the very personal cost of serving as an undervalued cop in society. For this reader, Swierczynski is one of the most exciting names in American crime fiction. Always unpredictable, he never churns out old plots with new titles, and you can never guess where his next book is going to take you.

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Filed under Fiction, Swierczynski Duane

The Exiled: Christopher Charles

The Exiled, from Christopher Charles, opens at the scene of a horrendous murder at the Wilkins ranch, a place owned by an older married couple. This is not the sort of crime usually found in the sparsely populated deserts of New Mexico.

death here seemed governed by natural law. What happened in that bunker belonged to another place. It was urban, something from what Bay had called Raney’s past life, something that would have made sense on the basement of a Lower East Side tenement.

Raney, a former New York narcotics detective, is the sole homicide investigator covering an area over 200 sq miles, and he’s used to cases “that solved themselves.” The blood and carnage he finds at the Wilkins ranch echo scenes from Raney’s past when his life as an undercover cop derailed with horrible consequences.

The exiled

The Wilkins ranch, “over a thousand acres of pinon-dotted slopes,” is owned by a husband and wife well known to Bay, the local sheriff who oversees the small nearby town. Inside a bunker on the ranch, there are three dead bodies along with the telltale signs of a major cocaine operation. The cocaine, approximated at ten kilos, is gone, and the widow Mavis Wilkins, who doesn’t even bother to pretend she cares, professes she knows nothing about her dead husband’s drug activities or the identities of the two other victims who have connections to a major Mexican drug cartel.

Their search of the house turned up nothing-no drugs, no ledger, no hint of who Wilkins bought from or sold to–nothing but the portrait of a relationship that had long since become something less than a marriage.

While Sheriff Bay takes Mavis Wilkins’s story at face value, Raney, who has much more experience in the world of narcotics, knows that she must be involved. Mavis Wilkins owns an art gallery in the nearby town, and yet the local economy hardly seems likely to support such an improbable business venture. Raney gets a tip to track down a man with a bad toupee, and that brings Raney to the local Indian casino. It’s here that Raney spots some signposts to help him solve the case. As he delves into the complex investigation and Mavis’s shady past, the body count savagely rises, and Raney realizes that he’s chasing someone who’s looking for revenge.

The case, for its violence and its drug connections, opens a window to Raney’s past, and the book goes back and forth between the Wilkins case and Raney’s life as an undercover narcotics cop. Interestingly, there’s an 18 year gap between Raney’s exodus from New York and the Wilkins case. We know little of his life in that time; permanently damaged by events in New York, he’s stayed single and has no relationships.

Raney’s past bleeds into his present and his future, and it feels as though Raney could become a series character. While the author creates two distinct, violent worlds and starts very strongly indeed, a plot twist involving revenge seemed a little implausible to this reader. The New Mexico terrain, however, certainly adds a flavorful dimension to the tale; the sleepy little town has just one “commercial street” and tries to maintain its “pioneer charm.” But there’s an ugly side to the town that even the locals seem blissfully unaware of, and that ugliness comes bubbling to the surface in the wake of the Wilkins Ranch murders.

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Filed under Charles Christopher, Fiction