Modern Crime, Thriller

Closer Than You Know by Brad Parks

Closer.jpgI really enjoyed reading Brad Parks’ previous novel, Say Nothing, which is a superb domestic thriller. One of Brad Parks’ strengths as an author is his uncanny ability to play on parents’ fears to deliver unsettling thrills that can hit close to home. Say Nothing was predicated on the idea of a child being kidnapped while Closer Than You Know begins with a new mother discovering that her infant son has been taken into custody by social services based on an accusation made against her.

The book alternates perspectives between the mother Melanie, the couple who foster her children during the case, and Amy, the assistant district attorney who is prosecuting the case against her. This allows us to see the case from both sides which means that we frequently have a better idea of what is taking place than the characters.

Melanie Barrick is quite a likeable and sympathetic protagonist. We learn early on that she was raped and impregnated by her attacker. Her boyfriend stuck by her and they decided to keep the child, getting married and moving into a starter home together. Her job, working as a dispatcher for a freight company, is not her dream career but the healthcare is excellent and life is at least comfortable. All that comfort is shattered when she arrives at her daycare to discover that her child was seized while she was at work.

The early chapters of the book are very effective at presenting Melanie’s panic at being separated from her child and her complete confusion about what is taking place. We have a little more knowledge about the accusations being made but we still have to piece together who has made this accusation and what their motives are. At times Melanie makes some bad choices but they are very credible given this situation and this worsens the hole that she finds herself in.

We also get to learn about Amy’s background as assistant district attorney and the forces pushing for a speedy resolution to Melanie’s trial. Her boss is relatively green but incredibly ambitious and hopes to use a successful conviction to springboard himself to become State’s attorney general and later seek higher office. Several months earlier he had success sending an African-American dealer to prison and he is keen to make sure that a comparatively tough sentence is handed down to this White suburban mom, preferably before his November reelection.

Amy has her own priorities however and one of these is trying to find and prosecute the serial rapist who has been preying on women in the county over the past decade. As the novel develops these two stories will begin to intersect though it will take a while for some of the characters to realize this.

Parks remains a strong storyteller and he manages to keep things moving briskly, delivering some moments of surprise and causing us to question just how well we know the people in our lives. Unfortunately however I found the combination of these two storylines to be a little too incredible and it leads to some very contrived moments in the final third of the novel.

A key moment will come at trial when a whopping great piece of evidence is volunteered, seemingly from nowhere, that will completely alter the trajectory of the story. It is an incredibly convenient development that feels much too clean and tidy, existing to allow the author to smoothly transition the story into its final phase.

That final phase is certainly exciting and once again it demonstrates Parks’ skill at building tension but I am not sure I bought a key character’s motivation or thinking heading into that encounter.

 

I do want to give some credit to Parks for managing to present the foster system and the individuals who work it with some perspective. While the protagonist, herself a former foster child, voices her fears about her son Alex ending up in the system, Parks acknowledges that the social workers  and legal authorities involved are acting in what they perceive the best interests of her child to be.

Parks attempts to create complex supporting characters that will challenge our perceptions of them. One of the successes is Melanie’s brother who has issues with drug addiction who clearly, in spite of his problems, loves his sister and appreciates what she has done for him. Sometimes the attempts to speak to the reader feel a little too blatant such as in the case of her neighbor, a man who is passionate about the second amendment and likes to refer to himself as one of Hillary Clinton’s basket of deplorables. I didn’t object to the characterization but the awkward, on the nose exchange in which it occurs.

In spite of some of my grumbles, I do want to emphasize that I think the book is an exciting read and I did want to find out how things would be resolved. I cared about Melanie and her son and wanted them to find a happy ending. In these respects I do think the book is quite successful.

While I enjoyed it, the issues I have with some aspects of the plotting keep me from enthusiastically recommending it the way I would Say Nothing. If you haven’t read that book I’d encourage you to go check it out because it is a fantastic read. This has its moments too but it is let down by some contrived developments in its final third.

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Thriller

The Blessing Way by Tony Hillerman

BlessingThe Blessing Way is the first of a series of novels by Tony Hillerman, now being continued by his daughter Anne, featuring Navajo Tribal Police Lt. Joe Leaphorn. This is my first encounter with the series, having been pushed towards it by The Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction lectures as one of the earliest and most influential examples of a series featuring Native American characters.

From what I gather having read a little about the book since finishing it, this novel adopts a slightly different focus than later entries in the series by splitting the focus between Leaphorn and white anthropologist Bergen McKee. In the course of the book we spend more time in the company of the latter though Leaphorn is there for the most significant parts of the book and will be the one to explain what happened.

Bergen McKee has come to the Navajo Reservation with an anthropologist colleague for a summer research trip to investigate reports of witchcraft. Leaphorn is working the case of a young man, Luis Horseman, who has fled into the desert under the belief that he has killed someone in a fight. Leaphorn is looking for him but soon receives the news that his body has been found near Ganado with its mouth full of sand. Though the narrative separates Bergen and Leaphorn, it will be clear to the reader that their efforts are linked.

The Blessing Way is generally described as a mystery novel and certainly there are mysterious things going on and a question to be answered but I think it reads more like a thriller. Heading into the final chapters, the book puts one of its two leads in significant physical danger and even in a little combat and when they are grappling with the villain they have little conception of who they are and what their purpose is. The reader can make inferences based on clues in the text but do not expect a series of suspects you could name and pick between. In fact the novel’s secondary characters are barely sketched out at all.

I struggled a little at points in this novel to follow exactly what was going on and I am not entirely sure why. It is perhaps because I came to the book expecting a more typical mystery than I ended up reading or it may reflect that I think the story suffers from the splitting the action between its two protagonists as I felt I never really knew either of them as well as I should like.

While I don’t like to abandon a read that I find frustrating, I think I may well have done were it not for my appreciation for the book’s anthropological details and the discussion of Navajo culture which are woven throughout the novel. Hillerman’s focus didn’t always quite work for me. Sometimes I found myself wishing for more details about an aspect of the culture he was discussing, at others I felt we were spending too long on something that seemed incidental to the story. Still, these details could be fascinating and coupled with the stark isolation of its setting, gave the book a very distinct feel that is quite unlike anything I have read before.

The Blessing Way interested me but left me feeling unsatisfied. Hillerman delivers some wonderful pieces of action and a great sense of place but I was somewhat disappointed by the mystery. I liked the book more as it progressed though and found the final seventy pages to be quite exhilarating, both in terms of its action and also in the way that the different elements of the novel finally fit together. While they won’t be high on my to read list, I expect I’ll return to try some others in this series.

Book of the Month, Inverted, Thriller

A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin

KissAs many of you will know, one of my long-term aims has been to seek out lots of inverted mysteries with the idea of at some point making a top five list. I hate to spoil my future work before I’ve even really started it but as things stand A Kiss Before Dying is easily the best inverted crime novel that I have read. Suffice it to say that when the time comes, this may place in that list.

Ira Levin’s story is broken into three sections, each of them titled for a woman. The first of these is told from the perspective of a male character who is dating the daughter of a prominent industrialist. He receives the undesirable news that she has become pregnant and, realizing that her father will likely disown her if he learns about this, pushes her to take some pills to make their problem go away.

When she tells him the next day that the pills didn’t work, he begins to panic. He agrees that they should get married but persuades her that they need to wait for the weekend. And in those few days he plots another way to get rid of his problem.

As for those other two sections – I want to be careful not to spoil anything too much. I can say that the second section sees the victim’s sister arrive in town with the hope of proving that she did not commit suicide and to identify her murderer. This section is really quite wonderfully written and pulled off a reveal that I think was one of the most satisfying surprises I’ve had reading in a while. As for that final section, all I shall say is that it’s named for the third sister and centers around her interactions with the killer.

One of the most impressive things about this novel is its careful construction. Take that first section of the novel which manages to make the reader feel like they have got to know the murderer. I managed to get all the way to the second section of the book before I realized that Levin has avoided ever giving you the character’s name, either in conversation or narration. This allows the writer to then switch format from the inverted style to a more traditional investigation format.

I was similarly impressed by the character of the killer, who is one of the coldest, most calculating figures I’ve yet to encounter in an inverted mystery. Sometimes when a character is written that way it becomes hard to understand why anyone would like him and be taken in by him, yet here it is clear that those traits are part of what enables him to seem devoted and caring. When he does kill his girlfriend it is all the more vicious and terrible because of the way he has manipulated her and, in that moment, the reader realizes that this is not the action of a selfish, frightened man who doesn’t want his dreams to come to an end but those of a sociopath who sees his girlfriend as a dead end to be disposed of. It is chilling stuff.

I also appreciated that the character’s plan is not allowed to go flawlessly in spite of the killer’s cold efficiency. He endures a couple of false starts and we see him having to rethink and recalculate how he will achieve his ends. My only issue with this first section of the novel is a moment in which he plays a piece of music on the jukebox which reinforces his intent, though his victim doesn’t recognize that in the moment. The author emphasizes the thematic relevance of the song by quoting portions of the lyrics while the action of the scene takes place. I can forgive it however as I do think it has a purpose. Later in the book Levin uses the same technique at a crucial point to much better effect and that moment would not work without the author having already used the technique once.

The second and the third sections of the novel are just as gripping as the opening as we wonder whether the killer can be identified and then, in the final section, what they will do next. There are a couple of moments that I think are genuinely shocking and because it is as much a thriller as it is a mystery novel, we may wonder if the killer will even be apprehended at all.

While the killer is a fascinating figure, the supporting characters Levin creates stand out just as much. Each of the three Kingship sisters are distinctive and credible, each having their own set of daddy issues created by their domineering father. I never struggled to believe that they would fall into the murderer’s orbit, nor that he would be able to manipulate them and I appreciated that Levin allows us the time to get to know each of them to make those interactions credible.

Similarly I appreciated the complex character of Leo Kingship, a man who is responsible for his daughters’ isolation and who we see transform a little as a result of his experiences. It would be easy to make a relatively minor character like this fit a standard type and yet Levin allows him to have conflicting tendencies and motivations. Some other relatively minor supporting characters receive similar thoughtful treatment.

The novel builds to an absolute belter of a conclusion that not only resolves our immediate questions of what will happen to the various characters but also recalls one of the book’s most striking images, providing some thematic closure as well. It makes for a remarkable end to a remarkable book that I think will stay with me for some time.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: At least two deaths with different means (How)

Modern Crime, Thriller

Dark River Rising by Roger Johns

DarkRiverWe all have something that creeps us out. My rather conventional thing is snakes of any description. You might think after living in Georgia for a decade and having had several unintentional close encounters of the serpent kind that those irrational fears would have gone away but they remain deep-rooted. That is why the opening image of this book absolutely terrified me. If you share my fear you may want to skip the next paragraph.

Dark River Rising begins with the body of a big-time drug dealer being discovered in a disused warehouse. It is tied upside down, its fingers are crushed and there are recent signs of surgery visible on the corpse’s stomach. The reason for those cuts, and for the sleepless night I will likely endure tonight, is that a living emerald boa snake has been sewn inside the victim while they were still alive. Thankfully this turns out to be a very small part of the case.

While the local Police start to interview witnesses and compile their list of suspects, the case catches the attention of the Drug Enforcement Agency who recognize that gross snake-move as a calling card of a major drug kingpin south of the border. One agent is particularly worried that this is a sign that two cartels will begin aggressively competing with each other in Louisiana and he gets in touch with Wallace, the lead investigator on the case, to ask to meet with her and share information.

Wallace and Mason have different objectives and at times gently spar about issues of jurisdiction which I always enjoy – this is one of my favorite tropes of the American crime novel. Wallace is focused on the homicide and wants to be clear that this is her case while Mason would prefer to use federal resources to handle aspects of the investigation. Ultimately the pair get on well though and establish a solid working relationship with some romantic overtones, though those moments are kept in the background for almost all of the novel.

Wallace is undoubtedly the lead character however, getting the most to do and a much more detailed back story. In the course of the novel we encounter her family, learn about a tragedy that still affects her years later and meet her mentor and partner who is on an indefinite leave of absence to deal with a medical issue. I found her to be a likeable protagonist and appreciated that Johns balances the darker aspects of her thinking with lighter aspects of her character.

While most of the novel follows the actions of Wallace and Mason, there are occasional interludes presented from the killer’s point of view. At times these directly contradict some evidence or theory that the Police have gathered, helping the reader connect things together, explaining an action they have taken or to eliminate a suspect from consideration.

Given this exposure to the killer’s psychology I toyed with labeling this an inverted mystery but stopped myself based on how little of the novel is in that format. I did find those sections of the novel to be very effective though and I was glad of the chance to get to understand the killer’s actions a little better.

That these sections do not help the reader much in identifying the killer and the reasons for their actions reflects that this is not really a puzzle mystery but rather would be better described as a thriller. Certainly I do not think that a reader could deduce the identity of the killer before it is revealed though I suppose they might be able to work out the motive and what the victim was up to before the detective works it out. I rather enjoyed the approach taken here and found that the little timestamps at the start of each chapter were a nice touch both to give a sense of the passage of time and also to help build some tension as time seems to run out.

I found the case itself to be quite intriguing and will admit to not guessing the murderer’s identity at all. I wanted to keep reading to find out what would happen and devoured the book in just two sittings. For the most part I was very satisfied, though there are a few story threads that just seem to get forgotten or at least never completely resolved. For the most part though the case makes sense and I enjoyed watching our heroes solve it.

On the downside, there are a few moments where the dialogue didn’t quite ring true to me. I also felt that though the case takes several fascinating twists and turns, the ending seemed a little too low-key after some of the craziness that had preceded it.

Overall, I really did enjoy Dark River Rising. I don’t think it quite did enough to grab my January Book of the Month award but it certainly deserves to be in the conversation. There are some fun ideas here and I felt that were this to be the fist in a series it shows a lot of potential. I did find myself hoping that Johns may follow it up with another adventure for Wallace or Mason. As debuts go, this was very promising and I will look forward to seeing what Roger Johns has in store for us next.

Golden Age, Locked Rooms and Impossible Murders, Thriller

Murder on the Way! by Theodore Roscoe

MurderontheWayMurder On the Way! is one of two novels by Theodore Roscoe that were republished earlier this year by Bold Venture Press. Both books were edited and boast introductions written by our very own JJ so when I read his tweet and blog post about these books I became rather excited, immediately buying both and placing them on the top of my To Read list.

After purchasing my copies of each came the dilemma of which of the books to read first. In the end I opted to start with this title because I thought that the Haitian setting could be interesting. I was also curious to see how a supernatural element such as zombies could coexist with the structure of a mystery story.

The answer is complex and potentially spoilery. Let me begin by assuring those who might be turned off by the mention of zombies that while the book does have a macabre flavor and features some horrific moments, this is very much a mystery story. Haitian superstitions certainly do play a very important role in this narrative but each of the killings, no matter how bizarre or seemingly impossible, will have an entirely rational explanation by the end.

The novel begins with the narrator’s girlfriend, Pete, being summoned to Haiti to hear the terms of a will in which she has been named. After some reluctance she, and her artist boyfriend, decide to attend. On arriving they encounter the other people named in the will who are a strange collection of highly unsavory types. When the will is read they learn that each of the people named has been placed in an ordered list. Whoever the highest remaining person on that list is twenty-four hours after the deceased’s body is buried will inherit his entire estate, provided they have not left the grounds. Pete, it turns out, is the last name on the list.

If you are thinking ‘that sounds like a recipe for a bloodbath’ then you’d be quite correct.  One-by-one these potential heirs are picked off, often in seemingly impossible ways including a locked room murder. That this takes place in spite of the presence of the Haitian police, who arrive to take charge of the crime scene early in the novel, makes these murders seem all the more remarkable.

Roscoe packs his story with a number of seemingly inexplicable moments or situations to a point where I was seriously beginning to worry that he might need to resort to a supernatural explanation to pull everything together. The variety on offer is seriously impressive and it is striking to think that many of those little mysteries could easily have formed the basis for whole novels. Of these moments, my favorite involves a chase in which a character disappears in a corridor but there are plenty of other good ones to pick from.

I was a little less impressed with the cast of characters that Roscoe creates. Certainly this gallery of undesirables are each presented quite distinctively and represent a variety of backgrounds and types but some of these characterizations have not aged particularly well and feel distinctly of their period. It should be said though that this book, unlike a much more famous title in which a group of people are slowly killed one-by-one in an isolated house, has been presented as originally written and I would argue that in the context of its contemporaries the portrayals of characters from non-white ethnic backgrounds is fairly typical and in some ways is more nuanced than in works like Ian Fleming’s Live and Let Die – a novel that was published some twenty years later.

Roscoe’s novel can be said to defy easy categorization and it is notable how the middle section of the book represents a significant shift in tone and style. In the opening Roscoe pitches his story as though he is laying the groundwork for the investigation of an impossible crime yet by this stage the novel feels like a thriller in the way Roscoe builds and manages tension.

This pace encourages the reader to keep going, building momentum as they know another murder will be just a few pages away and if the reader chooses to enjoy the book as a thriller they will be satisfied. The book contains some really great surprises and builds to a rather striking crescendo that cultivates a sense of dread while placing the narrator in significant danger.

Yet, should the reader prefer to take their time and reflect, the novel works equally well as a more conventional detective story. Roscoe takes the time to make sure his book is fairly clued. The solution to what is happening can be reasoned even without a thorough search for clues or comprehensive interviews with each of the suspects. In doing so, this satisfies both as a thriller and also as a more traditional mystery.

Murder on the Way! is a rich and interesting read packed with striking imagery and boasting an intriguing mystery. I enjoyed discovering just what had happened in this house and found the ending to be very satisfying. While I plan on spacing it out, I am looking forward to reading I’ll Grind Their Bones soon and seeing how it compares.

 

Book of the Month, Japanese Crime, Pushkin Vertigo, Thriller

The Master Key by Masako Togawa

TheMasterKeyThe Master Key is a fascinating read that defies easy categorization. The cover of this Pushkin Vertigo reissue features a quote from a review in The Times that describes it as an ‘atmospheric Japanese Thriller’ yet while it has suspenseful moments, I think that gives a slightly inaccurate impression of what the book will be like.

Instead I think the book is best described as a series of puzzles and revelations that the reader slowly pieces together to form a clear impression of what has happened. Events are told out of order and often seem to be unconnected yet Togawa works them together in the most extraordinary way in the closing chapter and epilogue to make sense of them all.

The book is also somewhat unsettling, dealing as it does with the secret burial of a child and the sense of intrusion into our private spaces both physical and emotional. While there are few instances of violence explicitly shown, the reader is at times experiencing intrusions from the perspective of the person whose space is being violated and at others from the perspective of the voyeur. And, as we read, we come to see that the boundaries between those situations are less clear than they initially seem.

Togawa’s story is set in an apartment building inhabited exclusively by single women. At the start of the novel we are told that the building is about to be relocated a small distance to enable the road to be widened. The residents have been told that this can be achieved without their even needing to leave the building and that if they were to place a glass of water on a shelf during the move it would not spill.

As residents retreat into their rooms preparing to carry out this experiment at least one person within the building is aware that a secret will be unearthed when the foundations are exposed. We also learn that there is a nervous energy building among the residents as a master key that can unlock every door in the building had been stolen several months before, leading residents to feel uneasy in their own homes and that, at any moment, their secrets may be revealed. This is a truly unsettling idea that plays off our wish to believe that a locked door is a permanent barrier and it is incredibly effective.

From this starting point Togawa weaves a complex and often unsettling web of stories that overlap and inform each other. We learn a lot about the various inhabitants and the ways they have been disappointed in life as well as some of the cruelties and crimes they have committed. We are left to question, at points, who has taken the master key, what secret they are trying to reveal and why. Sometimes the answers to these questions are less clear than they seem.

Her characters are each well constructed and given the number we meet I was very impressed by how complex they were. Although the novel is quite short, I was surprised at just how developed they each were. Learning these women’s stories and seeing how they will all fit together was really satisfying.

I found this a really remarkable work and devoured it quickly. This was the first novel I have read by Masako Togawa and I was really impressed both by the depth of characterization as well as the sense of unease she builds in this world. At times I was left curious how some elements could be fully resolved, making the ending all the more striking and powerful. I hope more of Togawa’s work becomes available in translation soon.

Review copy provided through NetGalley. The Master Key is available in the UK by Pushkin Vertigo and will be released in the United States on March 27, 2018.

Update: I selected The Master Key as my Book of the Month for November 2017.

Modern Crime, Thriller

Say Nothing by Brad Parks

say-nothingThere are many ways that becoming a parent three years ago changed my life but the one I could never have predicted is that I, being the sort of man who regularly gets described as stony and unemotional, would get verklempt at the mere sight of an old pair of baby shoes or stay up half the night with worry when the kid has a particularly bad case of the sniffles. It’s a cliche but like most good cliches it comes from a truthful place; the moment you become responsible for another person’s life that changes you.

Say Nothing absolutely preys on that parental emotional with a premise that would strike fear into any father or mother’s heart. Federal Judge Scott Sampson receives a text message from his wife telling him that he doesn’t need to pick the children up from school and is astonished later that evening when his wife arrives home without the children. Moments later the kidnappers get in touch, making it clear that in exchange for their children’s safety Sampson will need to act according to their instructions in his rulings on a case but if they tell anyone there will be severe consequences.

Parks focuses on the psychological impact that the kidnapping has on the parents and explores the way it affects their relationships with each other and their family and colleagues. Knowing that they cannot contact the FBI, Scott and Alison try to figure out who might be responsible but paranoia drives some of their actions and accusations and their seemingly perfect marriage threatens to crumble around them.

The decision to have most of the story told from Scott’s perspective is a solid one and it certainly allows the reader to feel that sense of paranoia build within him and to share in the choices he makes. The remaining chapters are told from the perspective of the kidnappers which I feel was a less successful choice as this gives away a lot of what is going on and at times only serves to remove some of the mystery about what is going on.

To Parks’ credit, he does sustain the premise and builds a sense of tension throughout his novel which is quite long for a thriller at close to 440 pages long. The chapters are relatively short, helping add to the suspense and keep the pages turning.

I appreciated the way Parks builds up the characters of Scott and Alison and introduces elements of their backstory as a family. I had a strong sense of empathy for both characters at points in the novel and when I was frustrated by them I could at least understand what led them to act the way they did.

Unfortunately I was less convinced by the depiction of the two children who seem unnaturally mature in the way they speak at points in the novel. As they play a relatively small role in the story I was able to overlook this and while it may not have been realistic, I do think that the choice did contribute to the clarity of the story.

As you might expect from a thriller there are several significant twists and revelations that help to keep things moving though there are remarkably few action sequences. Instead Parks builds a sense of mystery as Scott and Alison try to figure out just who may be responsible and what their ultimate aim is. While I am not sure if the fair play thriller is really a thing, I can say that the book gives the reader all you need to deduce this information and I felt that the conclusion was strong, if not spectacular.

While I am not sure that I would have felt quite so emotionally engaged in the story prior to becoming a father, I must admit that this story hit those parental trigger points very effectively and kept me turning the pages. I was pleasantly surprised by the development of the mystery which felt well-clued and engaged to the end. It worked for me and I will certainly consider trying some of Parks’ other work in the future.