Review: What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman

13 August 2008

Most of Laura Lippman’s books have featured Tess Monaghan, a former journalist, now a private detective in Baltimore.  However, she has also written a number of others that all feature Kevin Infante, a Baltimore County police detective, his colleague, Nancy Porter, and his sergeant, Harold Lenhardt.  All of these books have a common theme in that they are all based on an incident involving young girls, and how the consequences of that incident impact on the characters involved and their families.  This approach gives Laura Lippman the opportunity to delve more into the minds and motivations of the people concerned, and in particular how the girls think and respond on the basis of their environment and individual characters.  The results are some very good books, and especially What the Dead Know, which in many ways reminded me of that other great Baltimore writer, Anne Tyler.

In Every Secret Thing, two eleven-year old girls are convicted of killing a baby, and following their release seven years later another child goes missing.  In The Power of Three, three teenage girls are found shot at school, one dead, one seriously injured, but the evidence doesn’t match the survivor’s story.  The plot in What the Dead Know centres on the disappearance of the Bethany girls, Sunny and Heather, in 1975, and the apparent reappearance of one of them in the present day.  The story unfolds through a range of perspectives at a range of times – the woman claiming to be Heather Bethany; Kay Sullivan, a social worker; Miriam Toles, previously Bethany, the girls’ mother; and the police, Kevin Infante, Nancy Porter, Dan Lenhardt, and Chet Willoughby, the policeman on the original case.  The other major character in the book is Baltimore and the countryside around it.

Laura Lippman maintains a superb tension, flicking backwards and forwards in time and place and perspective to bring us pieces of the story, pieces of the characters.  Every now and then there are surprise revelations, but the police continue to chip away to try and find the truth.  The outcome is brilliant in its inevitability.  The characters in this book are reminiscent of characters in Anne Tyler’s books, in that they possess a quality of peculiarity or eccentricity that takes them a little outside the normal – it could be Dave Bethany’s Fivefold Path, or Kay Sullivan’s recourse to reading books in preference to other people’s company – and provides an explanation for why things might happen the way they do.  This is one of the best books I have read this year.

What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman, Published by Orion (2008, paperback); ISBN: 978-0-7528-9337-2

Other books by Laura Lippman:

Featuring Tess Monaghan – Baltimore Blues (1997), Charm City (1997), Butchers Hill (1998), In Big Trouble (1999), The Sugar House (2000), In a Strange City (2001), The Last Place (2002), By A Spider’s Thread (2004), No Good Deeds (2006), Another Thing to Fall (2008).

Other – Every Secret Thing (2003), To The Power of Three (2005), What the Dead Know (2007)

Short stories – Baltimore Noir (ed. 2006)

See also the Wikipedia entry and the fantasticfiction site entry.

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Review: Pomona Queen by Kem Nunn

12 July 2008

In his surf noir novels, Kem Nunn wrote about surfing and about the people who make up the gritty, ugly and painful reality that seems to be life in California (see previous reviews of Tapping the Source and The Dogs of Winter).  In Pomona Queen, he gives us a day in the life of Dean Earl, currently a vacuum cleaner salesman, but previously “Johnny Magic”, member of a band.  Dean spends a lot of the day thinking about the past – the days of his great-grandfather, who came out to Pomona Valley to grow oranges, did well, but died early, and the rise and fall of the citrus industry; and also his own earlier days when he played in a band with Rayann, the red-headed girl that he can’t forget.  Life is not really great for Dean right now – he seems to be a pretty good vacuum cleaner salesman, but really he wants money so he can fix up his great-grandfather’s house on the last acre of orange groves in the Valley; he owns it, but it’s currently lived in by his mother and step-father.

However, life takes a turn for the worse when he has to visit a prospective customer in Clear Lake, a place of cheap tract houses in the Valley.  It turns put that the it’s Dan Brown’s place, Dan being a real mean dude, well-known since their school days for causing all sorts of mayhem and mischief, including a few dead and broken bodies.  He recognises Dean as “Johnny Magic” and proposes that he should sing a song for Buddy, Dan’s little brother, who has just been stabbed to death, and whose body is sitting in the back of Dan’s truck in a freezer.  First of all though, Dan has to find out who killed his brother, with the main suspect being the lead singer of a girl band called “Pomona Queen”.  This is also the brand name that Dean’s great-grandfather had chosen and printed for his oranges, but which never got used.  Dean tries to escape, fails, and spends the rest of the day and night in a surreal tour through Pomona and its surrounds, as events unfold and the truth of the stabbing becomes clear, sort of.  By the end, it seems that Dean’s “theology of hope” might have some validity, but we wouldn’t bet on it.

Kem Nunn’s writing moves seamlessly from the historical to the present, from Dean’s inner musings to the ever-present danger of dialogue with Dan.  In terms of the writing, this seems to me to be the most assured of Kem’s Nunn’s books that I have read.  It is certainly very funny in a noir sort of way.  I particularly liked the quotes from F P Brackett’s history of the area at the beginning of each chapter, and especially the first, which includes a description of the original inhabitants of Southern California as “…squat, fat and unattractive.  Untrustworthy they were, and ready to kill on provocation or for gain, but not brave or fierce.”  This could just as easily apply to the Southern Californians who inhabit this book.

Pomona Queen by Kem Nunn, published by Washington Square Press (1993, trade paperback), ISBN: 0-671-79877-4

Other books by Kem Nunn – Tapping the Source (1984), Unassigned Territory (1986), The Dogs of Winter (1997), Tijuana Straits (2004)


Review: The Overlook by Michael Connelly

13 February 2008

theoverlook.jpgHarry Bosch has been around a long time now, but doesn’t seem to change much. In The Black Echo (1992) when Michael Connelly first introduced him to us, we learned that Harry (Hieronymous) Bosch had been a Vietnam tunnel rat, that his prostitute mother was murdered and he had been institutionalised for most of his childhood, and that he has a lot of trouble with bullies, senior management and the FBI (although he does get close to several female agents). In other words, a typical man who goes down the mean streets but is not himself mean and operates by his own strict code.

In The Black Echo Harry is described like this:

Harry was not a big man. he stood a few inches short of six feet and was built lean. The newspapers, when they described him, called him wiry. Beneath the jumpsuit his muscles were like nylon cords, strength concealed by economy of size. The gray that flecked his hair was more partial to the left side. His eyes were brown-black and seldom betrayed emotion or intention.

By the time of The Overlook (2007), Harry looks at himself in the mirror and sees:

At 56 years old he was trim and fit and could even stand to add a few pounds while other detectives his age were getting round in the middle…The gray had not yet chased all of the brown out of his hair but it was getting close to victory. His dark eyes, though, were clear and bright and ready for the challenge awaiting him at the overlook.

In most of the eleven books in between, Harry doesn’t stray far geographically or morally, or in terms of behaviour. He has a number of partners, he gets offside with the brass and seems to be pulled off cases, suspended, fired, brought back, shot, and generally makes a nuisance of himself. But throughout the books, great plots and good writing use Harry’s attention to detail and ability to link information to bring us a one of the great crime series. Mind you, I don’t think I’d want to read too many of these books in one sitting – might get seriously affected by deja vu, since they do tend to follow a pattern.

In The Overlook, Harry Bosch is called out to a murder victim found at an overlook off Mulholland Drive. It turns out that the victim had access to lethal chemicals, which naturally brings in the Department of Homeland Security and their obsession with potential terrorism – if put in the water supply the chemical could do serious damage to Los Angeles. Among the Feds on the case is Rachel Walling, an old squeeze of Harry’s. Anyway, after the usual red herrings and wrong turnings Harry works out what really went down, pursues killer, gets shot, killer’s got, case closed.

The book ends with Harry musing:

But, Bosch thought, it didn’t really matter if you died cornered in a butcher shop or on an overlook glimpsing the lights of heaven. You were gone, and the finale wasn’t the part that mattered. We are all circling the drain, he thought. Some are closer to the black hole than others; some will see it coming, and some will have no clue when the undertow grabs them and pulls them down into darkness forever. The important thing is to fight it, Bosch told himself. Always keep kicking. Always keep fighting the undertow.

Well, long may Harry fight the undertow, and the killers, and the brass, and the Feds.

The Overlook by Michael Connelly; Orion paperback 2008; ISBN 13: 9780752882734; Wikipedia entry for Michael Connelly

Other books by Michael Connelly:

Harry Bosch –The Black Echo (1992), The Black Ice (1993), The Concrete Blonde (1994), The Last Coyote (1995), Trunk Music (1997), Angels Flight (1999), A Darkness More Than Night (2001), City Of Bones (2002), Lost Light (2003), The Narrows (2004), The Closers (2005), Echo Park (2006), Suitcase City (2008)

Other novels – The Poet (1996), Blood Work (1998), Void Moon (2000), Chasing the Dime (2002), The Lincoln Lawyer (2005)


Review: The Watchman by Robert Crais

30 January 2008

thewatchman.jpgRobert Crais has been writing excellent crime novels for twenty years now. Most of them have featured Elvis Cole and his sidekick, Joe Pike, a former cop, former marine and former mercenary who plays the really hard guy who often as not gets Elvis out of trouble and generally watches his back. But this book concentrates on Joe, and its Elvis who is the support player.

This story has Joe Pike returning a favour by taking on bodyguard duties for Larkin Barkley, a Paris Hilton-style heiress rich girl, who saw too much at a car accident and is now targeted, by someone. The action is about how Joe, with help from Elvis and others, decides to take the action to the pursuers, to find out who they are and why they are targeting Larkin. Needless to say there are plenty of plot twists, lots of shootings and bodies, and justice is done in the end without much recourse to the legal system. Also, the inevitable happens and Joe falls for the girl – well that was so predictable that it doesn’t really reveal anything you couldn’t have guessed up front.

The narrative is interspersed with flashbacks to Joe Pike’s past as a boy growing up in a violent household, as a rookie cop (origin of the favour he’s returning in this book), as a Marine and as a mercenary – all of them violent. But Joe is not really mean, he has a code and he sticks to it. What I get out of this is that this book is intended as an explanation of Joe Pike and the kind of character that he is – the plot is simply the backdrop for Joe’s story. This means that the balance between biography and crime is tilting towards the former, possibly to the detriment of the book, but at least you’ll have a better awareness of what makes Joe tick when he appears in future Robert Crais novels.

As always, the writing is crisp, and we can accept the combination of forensics, street awareness, deduction and human understanding that keep driving the story forwards. The characteristic humour is there – not necessarily through Pike, who seems a bit bereft in that direction, but Elvis contributes his bit, as does criminalist John Chen.

The Watchman by Robert Crais, published by Pocket Books (Simon & Schuster), (2007), ISBN-13: 978-1-4165-6169-9, ISBN-10: 1-4165-6169-2

Other books by Robert Crais:

Elvis Cole and Joe Pike – The Monkey’s Raincoat (1987), Stalking the Angel (1989), Lullaby Town (1992), Free Fall (1993), Voodoo River (1995), Sunset Express (1996), Indigo Slam (1997), L.A. Requiem (1999), The Last Detective (2003), The Forgotten Man (2005)

Other – Demolition Angel (2000), Hostage (2001), The Two-Minute Rule (2006)


Review: Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell

21 January 2008

wintersbone.jpgDaniel Woodrell was one of the writers to feature in John Williams Back to the Badlands . Williams describes Winter’s Bone as “…a wonderful book, as beautiful and harsh and as indelibly of its people as an Appalachian folk song.” This is a pretty good description of the book. There is a lyrical quality to the writing that has it hovering somewhere above stark reality but very much reflecting it. It seems to be done so easily that you know it must have taken a lot of hard work and a lot of skill to achieve something this good.

In Winter’s Bone, sixteen year-old Ree finds that her father, who left her to care for her two younger brothers and her mother, has put up the house for bail, and they will lose it if he doesn’t show up for court. Ree’s search for him takes her through the valleys and creeks of the Ozarks, to friends and enemies, most of them related in some way or another. These people seem to exist on the edge of society, outside the law, but with their own code.

The story is rooted in the people and places, and seems timeless. There is a looming, gray presence of winter – “The sky came into the valley low, glum and blustery, about to bust open and snow.” Ree is a Dolly, of the clan that inhabits these places:

There were two hundred Dollys, plus Lockrums, Boshells, Tankerslys, and Langans, who were basically Dollys by marriage, living within thirty miles of this valley. Some lived square lives, many did not, but even the square-living Dollys were Dollys at heart and might be helpful to kin in a pinch. The rough Dollys were plenty peppery and hard-boiled toward one another, but were unleashed hell on enemies, scornful of town law and town ways, clinging to their own.

Ree’s father, Jessup, is rough Dolly, a crank chef, which seems to have taken over from moonshine as the illegal drug of choice, and he has messed up. She tries to find him through Uncle Teardrop – “He was a nightmare to look at but he’d torn through a fistful of appealing wives. – and then through Thump Milton – “a fabled man, his face a monument of Ozark stone, with juts and angles and cold shaded parts the sun never touched.” She finds violence and pain, but perseveres. The outcome is as bleak as the life being led in this isolated culture, but does suggest some light at the end of Ree’s tunnel.

theonesyoudo.jpgTo follow up on Winter’s Bone, I tried The Ones You Do, that was written in 1992, and was not disappointed. The writing reminded me of George V Higgins and Elmore Leonard in the way that the dialogue tells the story of John X Shade and his family. John X and his young daughter have to leave town quickly after her mother absconds with Lunch Pumphrey’s money. They head for St Bruno, where John X’s sons from a previous marriage all live. Lunch follows. Lunch is not a pleasant fellow. As he tells a cuckolded husband “..when you get aged and rackety and think back across your entire life span, why, it ain’t the ones you do you regret, it’s the ones you don’t.” John X has a similar sort of view, but not as nasty, and pretty much knows what has to happen. The story is not complex, but the quality of the writing makes it a joy to read. I’m now going to track down all of Daniel Woodrell’s other books.

Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell, published by Sceptre (2006), ISBN (hardback): 0 340 89797 x

The Ones You Do by Daniel Woodrell, published by No Exit Press (1994), ISBN: 1-84243-049-1

Other books by Daniel Woodrell – Under the Bright Lights, Woe to Live On (aka Ride With the Devil), Muscle for the Wing, Give Us a Kiss: A Country Noir, Tomato Red, The Death of Sweet Mister


Review: Hidden River by Adrian McKinty

8 January 2008

hiddenriver.jpgNot far into Hidden River and you start to have a bit of sense of deja vu – haven’t we read something like this before from Adrian McKinty? Well, yes, sort of. There are parallels with Dead I Well May Be, McKinty’s first book. Both books are about Northern Irishmen fleeing their troubles by going to the USA and ending up in more trouble, violent trouble. In the earlier book the protagonist lost his dole eligibility through benefit fraud, so goes off to New York to work for an Irish gangster. In Hidden River, Alex Norton has resigned from the RUC after a meteoric rise to drug squad detective, is addicted to heroin, and gratefully takes the opportunity provided by a grieving family to go off an investigate the death of a school days girlfriend in Denver, before Scotland Yard can involve him in a corruption inquiry, or the corrupt cops silence him.

Alex’s friend and former colleague, John Campbell, comes along with him, and they make a start on investigation the death of Victoria Patawasti, who had worked for an environment organisation and had apparently been killed in a robbery. Of course she wasn’t, there is something dodgy about the environment organisation – its founders are rich boys with ambitions, one of whom has a very beautiful wife. Alex and John tend to mess things up, there’s a body so they need to scarper, and – amazing luck – they find a great place to hide. Violence, and sex, follows them around. Alex makes some progress in his investigation, but screws up (in a number of ways), is nearly killed, escapes back to Ulster.

The hidden river is the Saraswati, that flows only in heaven but comes to the earth at the point where the Ganges and the Yamuna meet, and it is here that your sins can be bathed away, wiping them clean for seven generations backward. Alex ends up there, and it helps him realise a vital clue involving another hidden river, a river that has dried to a trickle and so reveals Victoria’s killer. So justice of a sort is done, finally.

As in his first book, McKinty’s prose is sharp, well-paced, and compelling. But I think I like Dead I Well May Be better because it was bleaker, more noir, and its Michael Forsyth was somehow more real than Alex Norton. I’m looking forward to reading The Dead Yard, which picks up on his travails.

Hidden River, published by Serpent’s Tail, 2006. ISBN: 1 85242 472 9; ISBN 13: 978 1 85242 472 5

Other books by Adrian McKinty – Dead I Well May Be, The Dead Yard, Bloomsday Dead


Review: The Shape Shifter by Tony Hillerman

25 December 2007

shapeshifter.jpgTony Hillerman has written a long series of novels set in the Navajo country in the US Southwest, and featuring Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee as Navajo Tribal Police called on to solve various crimes. The books reflect a deep knowledge and respect for Navajo traditions and thinking that play a major role in the way in which the leads carry out their investigations. They also reflect the conflict at both personal and system levels between the Navajo culture and that of the world around them.

Shape Shifter has a retired Joe Leaphorn working on an unsolved case from his past, triggered by a former colleague and a picture of a priceless Navajo rug, woven with images of the Long Walk of the Navajo when the white culture wanted them removed as a final solution. Trouble is, the rug was meant to have been destroyed in a fire that also burned up a wanted murderer. The story is about Joe’s dogged and patient working through of the evidence that suggests that his target’s identity may have been changed and assumed – a shape shifter. The investigation also brings Joe into contact with Tommy Vang, a Hmong from South-east Asia, whose people have some similar experiences to the Navajo. The end is reached in a hail of bullets and bloodshed, and justice is done, if not quite by the book.

The feel of The Shape Shifter seems to be a bit different from most of the earlier books – more elegaic, perhaps matching Joe Leaphorn’s reflective mood in his “retirement”. The detecting, as always, seems to require many miles and hours of travel and a lot of awareness of Navajo manners and customs. And that’s ok. But what does seem a little forced is the use of Tommy Vang as some sort of plot mechanism to help move the action along. This detracts from the book, which is a pity, because for the most part it’s a great read, with enough hints of future issues that Joe will need to face to suggest that more will come.

My copy published by Allison & Busby. For more details on Tony Hillerman’s books go to the Wikipedia entry, and for more about everything related to Tony Hillerman go to the unofficial website (don’t bother with the official HarperCollins site – too busy, not user-friendly).