The Madness of Crowds

If it’s August, it must be time for the annual Inspector Gamache mystery by Louise Penny. It’s amazing to me that she can keep turning one out every year, no matter what. A few times I feel like the series has suffered, but mostly they are intricately plotted, with intelligent dialogue, in-depth philosophy, and compelling characters. This one was no exception, although there were a few moments while reading it that I wanted to say, Where is your editor in all of this?

The setting is once again the village of Three Pines, south of Montreal, Quebec (the previous book in the series occurred while the Gamaches and Beauvoirs were on a visit to Paris), and it is post-covid. I’m sure that when Penny wrote it, she anticipated a legitimate post-covid world in which everyone was going about their normal lives again instead of one plagued by variants that threaten to keep us in masks and in isolation for yet another season (or year). But at the heart of her plot is a moral issue that has sprung to life partially as a result of the medical shortages and triage of the worst days of the epidemic, and it’s dark.

Never assay a Penny mystery expecting it to be an ordinary police procedural. She incorporates not only philosophy and politics, but also art and poetry, and while the police work is meticulous, the feelings and intuitions of the officers involved (with Gamache at their head) are always as essential as are the bare facts of the case. One of the things I enjoy about Penny is that she inserts real poems and quotes and books into her fictional works; the title of this one is based on a book by Charles Mackay, called Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. She immediately made me want to seek it out.

This book uses its characters and story to explore such social issues as disinformation and propaganda, xenophobia, and eugenics. I feel like her pivotal character, Professor Abigail Robinson, is consciously modeled on some of the charismatic but wildly morally skewed characters who have appeared as players in the recent American story, in the way that she divides the culture in two over the validity of her theories with the sheer strength of personality and certitude.

One Goodreads reviewer opines that this novel is “the most allegorical of Louise Penny’s work. The actual murder is incidental to the plot, serving only as a springboard to examine morality on both personal and societal levels.” I’m not sure I would go that far; but there is occasionally an arms-length feel to the crime they are supposed to be solving, as opposed to the debate they are constantly having.

Gamache is asked to provide security at a lecture being given by a professor of statistics. Given the presumably dry content of a speech on statistical analysis and the fact that it’s taking place at an obscure university auditorium in between Christmas and New Year’s Day, Gamache is puzzled as to why anyone would approach the Chief Inspector of the Sûreté du Québec to oversee this task; but then he does a little research on the likely content of the professor’s speech and immediately musters a far bigger response than anyone would expect at what should be an incidental, poorly attended event. More people show up than the venue can accommodate, and Gamache has a volatile and angry crowd on his hands as the professor steps up to speak.

One thing that bothered me about this book is how long it takes to reveal the specific contents of the professor’s government-solicited (but later repudiated) report on which her call for action is based. Another was how long it took to get to the actual murder, using some “foreplay” crime to keep the reader going until we arrive. And a third was the resolution of the mystery: There were multiple individuals who could have been the culprit, and none of them stands out for long, as facts are discovered that exonerate each one, only to raise more doubts about the others and then circle back around again. It felt like Gamache, Beauvoir, and Lacoste spent an aeon going over basically similar theories for why each person was or could be the murderer, and they all made sense! This is one of the few of her books that didn’t have that “Ahah!” moment in it when the unexpected solution arises and proves to be the truth. I think this is probably because Penny wanted the social commentary, rather than the murder, to be the star of the show…but it made the actual mystery a long, drawn-out process.

With all this caveating (is that a word?), I was still thoroughly engaged by and absorbed in the story. We are reunited with familiar villagers, get to know others who haven’t been prominent before, and are also introduced to a variety of strangers, each of whom brings their own twist to the plot. The physical details are, as usual, spot-on for a winter interlude in coldest Canada, and made me want to drink hot chocolate even in 100-degree Los Angeles! (I sometimes wish that her annual pub-date was in February, so I could be in accord with her characters as they snuggle up with comfort food and beverages around the fire.) And the moral dilemma around which the entire plot is wrapped is likewise riveting, albeit deeply disturbing.

I made a comment in my review of A Better Man (two books back) about a stylistic shift I saw taking place in Penny’s writing structure and, while I noticed that it mostly disappeared again in All the Devils Are Here, it’s back in this book. She does this short-phrase, incomplete-sentence thing that can occasionally work as a device to emphasize something, but is less pleasing when it constantly occurs. Perhaps she (or her editor) will see this comment, here or elsewhere and, taking it to heart, go back to the more fluid literary construct of yore. But even with that, I still give the book four stars out of five.

More Barclay

It turns out that my last read by this author, No Time for Goodbye, has a sequel, called No Safe House. So I decided to read that too, but while I was waiting on a copy from the library, I picked up his book Never Look Away. I think this one is my favorite so far, in terms of the drawn-out suspense.

It actually answered questions that came up when I read his more recently published Promise Falls series. It’s the back story of one of the protagonists from that series—David Harwood, the newspaper reporter. There are comments made in that series about the tragic events involving his wife that took place the last time he lived in Promise Falls, and this book tells that story.

David and Jan Harwood have been married about six years, and have a darling four-year-old boy, Ethan. But lately Jan seems to be struggling with depression. She isn’t able to articulate what’s wrong, so David encourages her to see the family doctor for a talk, and hopes for the best. They make plans for a little getaway one Saturday, taking their son Ethan to a new amusement park that has just opened. But shortly after they arrive, Jan takes her eyes off Ethan’s stroller for just a couple of minutes, and when she turns back, he’s gone. The parents split up to search the park and finally, when they have almost given up, David spots Ethan’s stroller, with a suspicious-looking man running away from it. He’s relieved to find Ethan unharmed—the kid apparently slept through the entire abduction!—and calls Jan’s cell to let her know everything is okay. David waits with Ethan just inside the park for Jan to meet up with them, but after standing there for a really long time, David starts to wonder—has he found Ethan only to lose his wife?

In the days that follow, David’s work life impinges upon his personal situation in such a way that the police start to look at him with suspicion in the matter of Jan’s disappearance and continuing absence. It’s up to David to figure out how he could have gotten his signals so crossed up and what, exactly, has happened to Jan…and why.

No Safe House takes us back to Cynthia (Bigge) Archer, whose family disappeared without a trace one night when she was a teenager. This book takes place six years after the end of No Time for Goodbye; Cynthia’s daughter Grace is now 14 years old, and is responding with typical teenage contrariness to Cynthia’s admittedly somewhat paranoid attempts to keep a tight hold on her schedule. After a particularly fraught interchange, Cynthia moves out of the house and into a sublet apartment to take a break from family life, leaving husband Terry, who’s a little less tightly wound, in charge of Grace. Grace takes advantage by telling her dad she’s going to the movies with a girlfriend and will get a ride home from the friend’s mom afterwards, but instead going out with Stuart, a former student of her father’s who is a couple of years older and exemplifies trouble on two feet. Later that night, there’s a panicky call from Grace to her dad: “I think I might have…done something.” And this sets off events that bring the family back in contact with the lawless Vince, who helped them out during their drama six years ago and suffered for it, and Vince’s stepdaughter Jane, who proves to be a tower of strength for Grace. Things escalate, as is typical of Barclay stories, and stay pretty exciting and perilous throughout. I enjoyed this follow-up even more than I did the first book.

I’m going to take a break now from mysteries to embrace some other genres, but I’m sure I’ll be back with Mr. Barclay someday soon.

Promise Falls

On the recommendation of my friend Patrice, who also enjoys mysteries, I checked out a few books by Linwood Barclay, whose writing I had yet to explore. It just so happened that a fairly recent trilogy by him was available through the library (e-books), so I first read Broken Promise, Far From True, and The Twenty-Three.

The structure of this trilogy seemed to me like an anomaly among mystery writers: Although many write series featuring the same detectives, most of the books in those series are self-contained; that is, a mystery is opened at the beginning of each book and solved by the end of that same volume. But this trilogy carried several complex situations over from book to book, so that small parts were solved in books one and two, but it took until book three to reach final resolution on all sides.

Additionally, instead of just one detective protagonist (or a team), these books feature three protagonists, each with a different profession and a separate agenda, although all of them are ultimately interested in solving the complex situation taking place in Promise Falls, an upstate New York town seemingly plagued by bad luck.

We are introduced to the town in Broken Promise by David Harwood, a “native son” who decides to move back from Boston and a decent (though stressful) career as a reporter, after the passing of his wife. He applies for and gets a job at the local newspaper, only to have the paper fold within a week of his returning home, and he and his son Ethan are stuck living with his parents until he can figure out some other way to support them. Then his cousin Marla, who suffered a recent devastating loss when her child was stillborn, turns up with a baby that is not her own. She claims the child was left with her by an “angel” who exhorted her to care for it; but when the child’s mother turns up murdered, all eyes are on the somewhat unstable Marla as the culprit. David puts aside his own concerns to focus on finding out the truth, but other strange events in town muddy the waters even further.

The second book, Far From True, features Cal Weaver, a private investigator who, subsequent to a major tragic event that takes several peoples’ lives, is hired by one of the deceased victims’ daughters to look into a break-in at his house. Cal discovers far more about a number of supposedly upstanding town citizens than he ever wanted to know; but how are their activities related to the break-in, and are they also connected somehow to the murders the local police are still trying to solve?

The third book’s narrative, The Twenty-Three, is primarily driven by Detective Barry Duckworth, the lead officer on almost every criminal case in Promise Falls. Right now he is feeling out of his depth, torn in five different directions, between the murders he has yet to solve, the new and ominous events that are piling up around the significant number 23, and the latest disaster that is sending a good portion of the town’s citizenry to the emergency room—and some to the morgue.

Although each of the books begins with a particular narrator and may feature more details about that person and his efforts, all three of the protagonists appear in each of the other books as well, and it’s a bouncing timeline that jumps from one crime scene to another, from one character to another (and not just the protagonists), from one interview to another, as the three pursue their separate agendas but also come into contact with one another—sometimes for an amicable exchange of information, other times as opponents or even suspects.

I enjoyed these books in a different way than with regular mysteries, since the cases took three books to solve; the pace is more leisurely and allows you to get to know the characters better (and also for the author to add characters without too much confusion as to who they are). At first I did have to pay close attention to the different story lines between David and Cal, because they are about the same age and share some of the same concerns and characteristics (intelligent, curious, fit, interested in some of the women with whom they interact); Barry Duckworth was much easier to keep separate, since he was the only policeman involved (initially), as well as being a decade (or two) older than the others, married, and described in different terms (a big gut owed to an irresistible sweet tooth, a sweaty suit and tie rather than casual dress, etc.). I liked having all the different perspectives from which to draw conclusions, and I also appreciated Barclay’s introduction of other colorful characters from the community, particularly the former (and hoping to be future) mayor, a genial sociopath who mucks up the works for all of the crime-solvers in his attempts to be both relevant and constantly in the public eye.

In the end, it was a lot to wrap up, even for a trilogy! Serial murders, sex scandals, opportunistic former mayors, a series of what amounted to terrorist attacks on the people of Promise Falls…and basically only two detectives and a couple of well-meaning amateurs working full-time on all of it. In the hands of a less skillful author this would have become a confusing mashup, but I feel like Barclay handles the multiple trains of thought well and keeps everything focused in the general direction he wants things to go. I saw one of the guilty parties coming, but only because our attention was so firmly directed towards someone else; but I was blindsided by the other one. A good conclusion, although Duckworth’s final situation left something to be desired—by him! Still, he knows he has cake in his future…

After completing the trilogy I decided to read a few more of Barclay’s books, which are for the most part stand-alone. One, Too Close to Home, harks back to a specific event in the history of a minor character from the later trilogy; Derek Cutter (father of cousin Marla’s baby in the trilogy) was just 17 when the family next door were all brutally murdered while he hid in their basement. Barry Duckworth has his eye on Derek as his prime suspect, and Derek’s father, Jim, has to do some quick work to figure out who else besides his son could have done the deed and, almost as important, why? Soon Jim has a potential culprit in his sights, but Jim’s wife, Ellen, thinks Jim is taking this opportunity to exact revenge on a former rival. Getting to the truth proves more complex than anyone expects.

The other, No Time for Goodbye, has a fascinating premise: One morning when she is 14 years old, Cynthia Bigge wakes up to discover that her entire family is missing from the house—her mother, father, and brother Trevor. The cars are both gone, and she initially assumes that they have left for work, school, or errands before she came downstairs. When they don’t return, however, the suspicion by the authorities is that they have left—and left her behind. There’s no note; no clothes or possessions are missing; there are no circumstances that overtly indicate a violent end; it’s completely baffling. Twenty-five years later, Cynthia and her husband and daughter are dealing with the trauma afresh, after Cynthia goes on one of those television documentary shows that tries to solve cold cases. Weird things start happening: A car lurks in the neighborhood and seems to follow Cynthia when she walks Grace to school; an anonymous phone call hints that the mystery should be abandoned; a strange artifact from the past appears inside the house. Cynthia’s husband, Terry, is trying his best to be supportive, but can’t help wondering if it’s all a figment of Cynthia’s anxious imagination—or worse, that she’s the source of all of it. Cynthia, determined to solve the mystery, hires a private investigator, and his actions soon send things out of control.

I really enjoyed both of these books. The writing is engaging and entertaining, the plotting is smart and convoluted without being confusing, and the outcomes are nearly always unexpected. I would probably label his books thrillers rather than straight mystery, although there is an element of detecting going on throughout. But the pacing and the level of suspense (and the ultimate revelations) definitely qualify as thriller material. I’m happy I’ve been introduced to Linwood Barclay and will look forward to reading more.

Next two Kruegers

After my fantasy binge, I went back to Cork O’Connor, since I had checked out the first three in one volume from the library and wanted to keep going before my time expired.

The second book is Boundary Waters, and it takes place about nine months after the conclusion of the first. Based on a promise to a friend, Cork has given up cigarettes and taken up running; his relationship with his ex-wife and children has improved; and his burger stand is doing a thriving business.

Then a man, a prominent music producer, comes to town looking for his daughter, a famous singer named Shiloh, who has been on retreat in a remote cabin in the area. The Anishinaabe man who has been bringing her supplies and carrying her letters out into the world has gone missing, and his family is likewise concerned that something is wrong. It turns out a bunch of people are looking for Shiloh, including the FBI, in connection with a murder she may have witnessed as a child. Cork, her father, some FBI agents, and a 10-year-old Ojibwe boy and his father head out into the wilderness to find her, but there are also some hired assassins on her trail, and they’re not going to let Cork and friends stand in their way. Lots of bloodshed and cruelty ensue amidst a high-tension story as various people end up running for their lives.

I liked this book better than the first one—the involvement of Cork was more logical, given his connections with various of the protagonists. Plus, he has the freedom to take independent action, unlike the sheriff, who has multiple responsibilities in various directions and can’t just flit off into the woods after the bad guys. I thought the red herrings were quite effective and kept the mystery going long after one usually guesses what’s up. And the details about nature and woodcraft, including the portage of canoes between bodies of water, were engaging.

The third book, Purgatory Ridge, was better written and plotted than either of its predecessors; I can see why people keep going with this series after the somewhat disappointing debut book. This one has two distinct story lines, the one in the present that directly involves Cork in its drama, and a tragedy from the past that is drawn together with the first as the action progresses.

The first involves a logging operation that is directly counter to the sacred traditions of the Anishinaabe tradition, which seeks to preserve the white pines known as Our Grandfathers. The owner of the lumber mill, Karl Lindstrom, is attempting to reach a compromise with the tribe over selective winnowing of the trees when some environmental activists cross the line and set off a bomb at the mill. The sheriff calls on Cork to investigate, since he is former law enforcement but also a distant member of the tribe, but having ties to both sides makes it a difficult proposition.

The second story is of the sole survivor of a shipwreck on Lake Superior in which he lost his beloved brother. It’s not clear at first how this story relates, but it’s an involving one that approaches ever nearer to the central theme as the book unfolds.

I was completely caught up in this narrative and didn’t see the twist in the story until moments before it was revealed. The involvement of Cork also finally began to make more sense; the current sheriff’s wife is descending ever farther into the fog of Alzheimer’s, and he has plans to retire that include encouraging Cork to re-up in the election for a new sheriff.

Not to harp on one note, but I really hope Krueger quits being such a fat shamer in future volumes. Sister-in-law Rose “lumbered,” short of breath, throughout this book, and as usual I wonder why it’s considered bigotry and prejudice to call people out for their race, their handicaps, and other elements over which they have no control, but completely acceptable to belittle a woman for the size and shape of her body. The days of believing that all it takes is will power to be perfectly svelte and beautiful are over, and I hope Krueger figures this out as this series progresses, because it’s getting really wearing to repeatedly encounter these slurs.

One might consider the beauty and strength of Vermeer’s milkmaid as an example of a woman to whom “the perfect body” is a foreign concept…

Cork O’Connor

After reading and loving This Tender Land, by William Kent Krueger, I was excited to try out his mystery series featuring Cork O’Connor, since that book had met my expectations for good writing, good character development, and imagination. I wasn’t exactly disappointed by Iron Lake, the first in the series, but I wasn’t bowled over, either.

First of all, when I started reading I felt disoriented when I realized that we had come in halfway through O’Connor’s career, and at a low point. O’Connor had worked in Chicago as a cop while his wife, Jo, went through law school; after she was done, he moved her and the kids back to his home town of Aurora, Minnesota, where he had expectations of a better life for them all. His part-Irish, part-Anishinaabe heritage let him fit in as the town’s sheriff with both the whites and the tribe, whose reservation (and casino) border on the town; but when we enter the story, a catastrophe has resulted in a recall election that has kicked O’Connor out of office, and the aftermath of emotional mood swings (and drinking) has also caused his wife to push him out of the house. His wife is distant, his children live at home with her, and Cork is staying in the living quarters behind a drafty old hamburger stand willed to him by a native friend and mentor, who is also dead.

Despite his no longer being the sheriff, many of the townsfolk (especially those of Anishinaabe blood) still call on him when in need. Darla’s son Paul turns up missing after going out to do his paper route in the midst of a blizzard, and when, at her request, Cork goes to the last house on Paul’s route to see if he made it all the way through, he discovers one of the town’s prominent citizens shot through the head.

At this point, things started to go awry for me. The new sheriff isn’t painted as incompetent, exactly, but he plays by the book and isn’t really interested in above and beyond, so Cork takes it upon himself to keep investigating. While I liked the main character and enjoyed his initiative to a point, I felt that he didn’t have enough legitimate agency, even as the former sheriff, to get away with all that he subsequently does. And I found it decidedly weird how the sheriff kept reminding Cork that he was no longer sheriff…and then either directly solicited his help or let him get away with stuff that would be considered obstruction of justice, pollution of crime scenes, and rank interference. It didn’t seem like it would be consistent for even a lackadaisical sheriff to do this, and this one was not that bad.

I did like the tie-in to the Anishinaabe culture and the pervasive sense of place in Krueger’s writing, and hope that he keeps that up in future books. But I felt the mystery in this one was diffuse and kind of unsatisfying; by the time it gets pinned on the proper villain, so many lesser bad guys and red herrings had been trailed across my path that I almost didn’t care.

I also didn’t appreciate the double standard the author promotes in this book, although I realize it is somewhat a product of its time 20 years past: Cork is portrayed as paunchy and balding, but is still apparently hot stuff to the sexy local waitress, while his wife’s sister, Rose, who has lived with the family for 17 years and essentially kept the household afloat while both the parents worked, is dismissed as ineligible for a relationship because she is “heavy.” This despite being kind, sweet, helpful, and a great cook. C’mon, Krueger, cut it out with the fat-shaming of women. We’re not all perky blondes or voluptuous redheads, but we’re just as worthy of love as you paunchy balding men with hair growing out of your ears.

I didn’t love this book…but I liked it well enough (because of the writing and some of the characters) to try another in the series to see where it goes. Hopefully it will go there without quite so many clichés. I’ll keep you posted.

Fans of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series would probably enjoy this one too; they share in common a maverick leading man, wide open spaces beautifully described, and First Peoples details.

Innocent vs. not guilty

I just finished reading Michael Connelly’s latest, The Law of Innocence. This was a “Lincoln Lawyer” book featuring Mickey Haller, and the case he was attempting to defend was his own. A traffic stop turns into a fishing expedition when the cop sees something leaking from under Haller’s car, and when he pops the trunk it contains a dead body.

The body is that of a former client of Haller’s, and the evidence that he was killed in the trunk of the car while inside Mickey’s garage is pretty damning. Obviously (to the reader), Haller is being framed by someone, but by whom and for what purpose? Denied bail due to the machinations of a spiteful judge, Mickey has to muster his team and plan his defense while living in a cell inside Los Angeles’s Twin Towers Correctional Center, where he’s a potential target of inmates and jailers alike.

I enjoyed this mystery for a variety of reasons, including Connelly’s usual attention to detail as he presents the story from a Los Angeles resident’s viewpoint, including that of an inmate of Twin Towers. The distinction between a not-guilty verdict and proof of innocence was the quandary that drove the story, since Haller’s reputation and his future as a successful attorney is on the line if there is a shadow of a doubt about his culpability. He doesn’t just have to prove reasonable doubt—he needs everyone to know that someone else did this.

One reader commented that he liked the Haller novels better than the Bosch ones because the Haller ones were narrated in first person and therefore more compelling than the third-person Bosch. Weirdly, I usually have the opposite reaction to these. I don’t know whether it’s because I don’t identify with Haller as a person or if it’s just that I prefer police procedurals to legal drama, but I find the Bosch narratives much more involving. Also, whenever Bosch is featured as a character in the Haller books in his role as Mickey’s half-brother and an investigator on his behalf, it seems like Connelly suddenly doesn’t know how to write him—his presence is positively wooden. Maybe he’s attempting to show how Haller sees and reacts to him instead of putting him across with his usual personality? but it’s weird how unlike himself he is.

In general, this book is the usual entertaining crime thriller from Connelly. I have to say that I found it less than riveting until it gets to the trial, at which point the accelerating discoveries and the vituperative back-and-forth between prosecution and defense enliven things considerably. I wasn’t entirely happy with the ending, but I can see why Connelly went there. It will be interesting to read the next Lincoln Lawyer volume, whenever it comes along, to see how Mickey’s career is impacted, if at all, by the events of this one.

As for the “big controversy” over which people have declared they would never read Connelly again, I didn’t find it in the least unbelievable that someone who was trying to beat a murder rap would want to weed a Trump supporter from his jury. Since they seem unable to discern when he is lying to them, it seems logical that having someone on a jury who can’t distinguish lies from truth would be counter-productive. I didn’t view this as a huge political statement, but merely a way to point up the importance of honesty within our legal system. Of course, my politics apparently fall on the same side as Connelly’s….

Summer reading #1

I noticed this week that several teachers and students who are members of the “What should I read next?” page on Facebook have posted that school is already or is about to be finished for the year, and wanting suggestions for things to read over the summer. While lots of suggestions of popular bestsellers were made in return by all the readers there, some of these requestors are more specific in their wants. One said, “I like mysteries and thrillers, and would love to get socked into a good series, but there are so many out there, I don’t know where to start. Any suggestions?”

Since my mystery list is the longest amongst my genres, only given a contest for first place by fantasy, I put my Goodreads list of “mysteries read” into order by author so I could see those series I have faithfully pursued and make some suggestions, and since I was doing it there, I thought I’d do the same here, with a little bit of summary attached to each.

I will note that I tend to favor procedurals, lone detectives, and partnerships (many of them British), and none of these are light, cosy reads. Perhaps I’ll do a separate blog post including some of those, because everybody likes to read them once in a while; but for a steady diet of mystery, here are the ones I go back to with each new release, in alphabetical order by author:

SHARON J. BOLTON: A host of stand-alones, plus a short series with Detective Constable Lacey Flint, all good. Her stand-alones are more thriller than mystery, and are set in intriguing locations and have unusual plots. The series stars a young iconoclast risk-taker who gets too closely involved with her cases.

MICHAEL CONNELLY: The mystery master. If you haven’t read them, the Harry Bosch series starts with The Black Echo. Harry is a combination of dogged and intuitive that gets the job done, a loner with a commitment that goes above and beyond. If you like them, you can spend the entire summer…

ROBERT CRAIS: He has about five stand-alones and a series. The stand-alones are great, particularly The Two-Minute Rule and Demolition Angel. The series features a smart-aleck private detective named Elvis and his dead-serious and deadly war vet partner, Joe.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: A British duo, Gemma James and Duncan Kincaid. Gemma starts out working for Duncan, and then roles shift and change as the series progresses. Good writing, intricate plotting, and she makes each the lead in alternating books to keep it fresh. I really like these.

DICK FRANCIS: An oldie but goodie. Each book has some peripheral relation to horse-racing. They are a little “formula” and a little old-fashioned in terms of man-woman relationships, but they are some of the greatest escapist reading ever. (Don’t bother with his son’s continuation of the series. They’re not bad; but they’re not good.)

CAZ FREAR: A relatively new series starring a British rookie cop, Cat Kinsella, whose background keeps getting in the way of the job. There are three so far, and quite gripping.

The amazing TANA FRENCH: She has a loosely related Dublin Murder series, with a different protagonist starring in each one (my favorite is Faithful Place), and also several stand-alones. You have to like LOTS of detail and literary language. Quite immersive.

ROBERT GALBRAITH (shhh, it’s J. K. Rowling): The Cormoran Strike series is wonderfully weird, and Cormoran himself is a tough nut with a gooey center, especially when it comes to his new assistant, Robin Ellacott.

ELIZABETH GEORGE: The Inspector Lynley mysteries. He’s a British lord who some say is “slumming” as a cop, while his partner, Barbara Havers, is fiercely proletariat and dresses in clogs and sweatpants. The mysteries are intriguing.

ALEX GRECIAN: The Scotland Yard mysteries, detailing the beginning of forensics. Quite engaging, but sometimes dark.

JANE HARPER: Only a few books, but all solid. A couple of stand-alones, and a series featuring Federal Police Investigator Aaron Falk, set in the wilds of Australia.

CHARLAINE HARRIS: The Harper Connelly quartet. After being hit by lightning at age 16, Harper can tell you how your loved one died by standing on their grave. Yeah, I know…but they’re GOOD.

CYNTHIA HARROD-EAGLES: The Bill Slider mysteries. You have to like procedurals, and it’s a bonus if you “get” British humor. There’s also a lot about Bill’s personal life, which rounds out all the mystery stories. I like them a lot and laugh aloud frequently while sitting alone reading these.

CRAIG JOHNSON: Walt Longmire, Wyoming sheriff. They are like the show, if you have seen it, but the plots on the show went off-script fairly early, so the books are a different experience.

KATE MORTON: I love her books, but consider them more “puzzle” books than mysteries. They are not populated by detectives or police—they center around somebody on a quest to solve a weird thing in their past history. Quite detailed, and character-driven.

LOUISE PENNY: The inimitable Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of Three Pines and the Sûreté du Québec. Start at the beginning with Still Life, and keep going! She releases one every August, and I pre-order them all. Have French pastries on hand, you will need them.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of every mystery series I read—I follow several other historical series, as well as some featuring legal eagles in place of the detectives and private eyes, and some starring people with weird murder-related professions—but these are the most accessible, most immediately engaging, and hopefully with enough variety in their composition to give everyone an idea about an author they’d like to try. Please let me know what you think if you end up assaying one of these.

But IS it a PP?

As I remarked in my previous review (Sam Hell), I wanted to read one of Robert Dugoni’s series to benefit from the skill of his writing without dealing with the religious overtones I found offputting in his latest bestseller. After too many disappointments in that subgenre, I tend to avoid the courtroom drama series now; apart from a few standouts, I have found them to be too cerebral, as well as inevitably repetitive. So when given a choice between his courtroom series and the one described as a “police procedural,” I chose the latter without hesitation.

My Sister’s Grave is the first in the Tracy Crosswhite series. Tracy is a Seattle-based homicide detective, but in her former life she was a schoolteacher (science) living in a small (fictional) town called Cedar Grove. Then her sister Sarah disappeared and was presumed murdered, although her body never came to light, and that shifted Tracy’s trajectory towards police work. She quit teaching, went to the police academy, and became a detective, all the time focusing her skills and attention on solving her sister’s disappearance.

The twist in the story is that a man was convicted of her murder; but it was on purely circumstantial evidence that Tracy has always found highly suspect. Then Sarah’s body is finally discovered, 20 years later, and Tracy is drawn back to Cedar Grove and into the storm of lies and betrayals that are keeping her from learning the truth about what happened to Sarah.

Sounds good, yes? Hm. I set out with high expectations: In Sam Hell, Robert Dugoni painted such a vivid picture of his characters and their lives that I assumed I would be equally drawn to those in this story. But everyone in it had a strangely lackluster quality, with insufficient physical descriptions, clichéd reactions, and such a low-key affect that I just couldn’t get a handle on the book’s atmosphere or bond with anybody.

Also, and this was a bigger problem, about 85 percent of this book isn’t a police procedural at all, it’s a courtroom drama! Although Tracy is assiduous in pursuing certain clues, no one else is interested in helping her and, of those few who do, they keep their results from everyone but Tracy (including the reader), so we are left with nonsense along the lines of “Ah hah! I thought as much,” but with no answers. When the answers finally come out, it is within the context of an appeal by Sarah’s convicted killer, and all plays out through courtroom testimony.

It isn’t until the last 15 percent of the book that it actually turns into an action-oriented, exciting narrative, and then it’s pretty straightforward, because you already have nearly everything you need to solve the mystery, it’s just a matter of waiting for it to be confirmed and clearing up the mess. And after a slow, almost sleepy three-quarters, the author provides a whole lot of mess, in graphic detail not telegraphed by the rest of the book. It was kind of disturbing, not because I haven’t read anything like it before but because of the juxtaposition.

I may give Dugoni the benefit of the doubt and try another before I give up, because so many people have raved about the two prequels and the rest of the series; but if the next is as monotone as I found this one, that will be it. At the moment, I’m disappointed.

The new French

The Searcher is a departure for Tana French; and yet it possesses all the attributes that make me want to read her books—a leisurely pace with plenty of detail, a compelling protagonist, a mystery to be solved, ethical questions to ponder…just not in the context or, should I say, formula of
her others. She already left the self-created fold of the Dublin Murder Squad with her last, The Witch Elm, and was chastised for that by many readers; in this book, too, she has ignored many of her reliable “go-to”s, and yet it still reads like
one of hers.

I personally enjoyed this book more than I did The Witch Elm, simply because I found that book needlessly convoluted and complex, and with essentially unlikable characters. This one is, by contrast, rather simple in plot and, though furnished with some moral quandaries, still much more straightforward than almost anything else she has written.

Her other books are all told from a first-person perspective; this is the first in which we get to observe her protagonist from the distance of third person. It is still an intimate portrait, in that Cal’s thoughts and processes are revealed for us through both his shared thoughts and his actions, but it’s a little more observational, less self-involved. Cal is also the first protagonist who isn’t Irish, with the result that we get to see life in Ireland from an outsider’s perspective, without the peculiar insights of a native but with great attention to aspects not previously examined. (Her American voice is relatively flawless, and contrasts nicely with those of the Emerald Isle.) In her other books, the protagonist is strongly tied to whatever mystery there is to be solved; in this case, the mystery revolves almost completely around others, with Cal as a rather helpless observer in some instances.

Cal Hooper is 48 years old, retired after a 25-year career as a police officer in Chicago. His daughter is grown, graduated, and in both a career and a relationship; his wife has divorced him, and although he can see individual reasons why she might do so, he can’t quite put together the big picture, and is floundering a bit without her. The divorce, in combination with some troubling realizations about his identity as a policeman in a time when that role is being reviled for racism and corruption, threw Cal’s sense of self out of whack sufficiently that he decided to leave the force and make a big change. He has bought a run-down property in rural Ireland, a house that hasn’t been occupied for perhaps decades, and has moved there with the intention of putting his energies into fixing it up and creating for himself a quiet life away from the stress of the big city. His daily routine will consist of removing wallpaper, pondering how to make friends with the rooks inhabiting the oak tree in his front yard, making a trip to the local general store for a gossip with its proprietor, or getting a drink in the bar with the fellas.

“One of the things that had caught his attention, when he first started looking into Ireland, was the lack of dangers: no handguns, no snakes, no bears or coyotes, no black widows, not even a mosquito. Cal feels like he’s spent most of his life dealing with feral creatures, one way or another, and he liked the thought of passing his retirement without having to take any of them into account. It seemed to him that Irish people were likely to be at ease with the world in ways they didn’t even notice.”

Cal is making notable progress on this plan when the back of his neck starts to itch in the way it did back in his police days; he feels observed. After a period of wondering if someone has it in for the outsider in their midst, he manages to identify his stalker as a young teenager, Trey Reddy, and after some wariness on the kid’s part, finds out that Trey has sought Cal out because his older brother is missing and neither his mother nor the police seem to care that something may have happened to Brendan. Trey wants Cal to look for Brendan, but Cal realizes he is handicapped by the lack of everything to which he would have had access as a police officer in Chicago: files, databases, records, and material assistance from other officers on the job. But the kid tugs at his feelings for all those who slip through the cracks of the system, and there is also a residual excitement at the thought of being back in the investigation game, so Cal decides to help him.

This simple agreement shifts everything in Cal’s fragile idyll. His sleepy retreat, the small village of Ardnakelty where nothing ever happens and everyone has, so far, been “hail fellow well met,” becomes a slightly sinister place where Cal can’t tell if people are looking out for him with their warnings or subtly herding him towards his own destruction. Resistance to his efforts to help Trey discover Brendan’s fate makes him wary but doesn’t deter him, and from this point in Cal’s story things begin to head towards a showdown.

The thing about this book is, it’s not really a crime thriller. It’s more of a literary novel by a writer who chooses to use a mystery as a vehicle to study a character, a community, a locale. It’s atmospheric, well written, and well plotted, but if you go into it expecting French’s usual, you will be disappointed. If you approach it with an open mind, however, you will be gratified by a story that is subtle, lovely, and special.


While my belief is that black history is history and should be taught as such, calling it out for a month a year at least gets some attention, since our school curriculum is still not what it should be. Likewise, calling out some black authors, and some non-black authors who have written effectively about black history and culture, is always a good idea, but the prompt is helpful to remind one. So…

Science fiction is one genre that can definitely usher you through time. Octavia Butler‘s Kindred, which some say is the first science fiction written by an African American woman, is a combination of memoir and time travel that transports 26-year-old Dana from 1976 California to antebellum Maryland, where she arrives just in time to save a white boy from drowning, then jumps back just before the shotgun staring her in the face can go off. Like Henry in The Time Traveler’s Wife, Dana’s jumps are inadvertent, but they serve a purpose in her life history. Butler manages to provide both a conversation about serious issues—slavery, human rights, and racial prejudice—and an exciting and complex story about human nature, love, and loss.

For a glimpse into the future instead of the past, try Parable of the Sower, set in that familiar dystopia known as Los Angeles in the year 2025 (not so far off!), and following the fortunes of Lauren Olamina, an 18-year-old pioneer of a new philosophy known as Earthseed. Parable of the Talents is the sequel.

Since Butler died tragically young (in 2006, at age 58), there will be no more of her seminal works featuring female black heroines, but her contributions to the science fiction world won her both the Hugo and Nebula awards multiple times, and she was the first science fiction writer ever to win the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant.

Like a little mystery with your history? Try Barbara Hambly’s mystery series that begins with A Free Man of Color. Set in New Orleans in the 1830s (right after the Louisiana Territory was acquired by America), the characters are a rich mix of French, Spanish, and American, Creole, African slave, and “free people of color.” Benjamin January (or Janvier, depending on the language you’re speaking) is one of the latter, a Paris-trained surgeon who must earn his living in New Orleans as a piano player. Between his two professions he mingles with all levels of society, and inevitably someone turns to him for his appealing mix of compassion and good sense to help them solve a dilemma, a puzzle, or even a murder. There are 18 books, so if you’re hooked by the first one, you can relish Ben January’s world for a sumptuous long time.

Another book set in the same time period and also on the subject of the gens de couleur libre is Anne Rice’s second novel, The Feast of All Saints. If you thought Rice was only about vampires, think again: She researched this while in New Orleans planning out Interview with the Vampire, and in my opinion it’s the best thing she ever wrote (and I’m a fan of the vamps, and the witches too). Rich with the history of pre-Civil War New Orleans, with truly compelling characters, it is beautifully written, poignant, and emotionally overwhelming.

Some other books to which I’d like to draw your attention, that encompass the history of the present and the recent past:

The Rock and the River (about the Black Panther movement), by Kekla Magoon
How It Went Down (an account of a shooting, from 17 different viewpoints), also by Kekla Magoon
Flygirl, by Sherri L. Smith, about a black girl pilot trying to participate in World War II
Tyrell, by Coe Booth, a young adult novel representative of all too many young black men with few alternatives. A compelling voice and an engaging story.
March, by John Lewis, a series of three graphic novels about the Civil Rights Movement, by the senator who was by the side of Martin Luther King

Please note that this is a short, random, partial list of books that in no way represent the richness of writing available out there, but simply reflects some books I read, enjoyed, and appreciated for their topic and their tone. I hope you find something to enjoy.