Fans of international crime fiction will be happy to hear that Rome police commissioner Alec Blume is back for his third adventure in The Namesake by Conor Fitzgerald. This time he’s investigating the murder of Matteo Arconti, a salaryman who bears the same name as one of the government’s chief prosecutors of Mafia crimes. When Arconti’s corpse is deposited onto the steps of the court building that houses the office of his namesake, there can be little doubt that the Mafia has left a no-uncertain-terms memo of warning to the magistrate. Blume quickly identifies a suspect, but jurisdictional issues complicate the matter; thus, our hero resorts to a bit of clever subterfuge to reel in his prey. He alters a letter from the suspect’s wife to the magistrate, indicating that she is willing to make a confession of her husband’s misdeeds; the confession, if true, would be an act of treason which cannot go unpunished. All that remains is to plant the letter somewhere it cannot be overlooked, and let things play out as they will. Blume’s stratagem takes on a life of its own, however, with unforeseen (and unforeseeable) consequences. Plot-driven to the nth degree, The Namesake is a one-sitting read, intricately plotted, swiftly paced and resolved in a totally unexpected fashion.
STANDOFF WITH A TWIST
In hostage situations, the perpetrator usually conveys a set of demands to the authorities, typically money and some sort of escape mechanism. Not so in Mark Billingham’s latest thriller, The Demands. London convenience store owner Javed Akhtar has a different idea: He has taken policewoman Helen Weeks hostage to compel her colleague, detective Tom Thorne, to reopen the investigation into the murder of his son. On the surface, the boy’s death seems to be the result of random prison violence, but as Thorne scrambles to find evidence that will satisfy Akhtar, he comes to believe that there is much more to the case. Thorne undergoes intense pressure from two directions: In his shop, Akhtar wields a gun and has demonstrated his willingness to use it; outside, the hostage negotiators champ at the bit to use lethal force to end the standoff. The Thorne novels are high-tension, lightning-paced reads; The Demands is a worthy addition to a fine body of work.
Two debut novels grace the Whodunit column this month, the first a taut political espionage thriller by Matthew Quirk, The 500. The title refers to the 500 most powerful movers and shakers in the country, most of whom are manipulated in some form by a consulting firm called the Davies Group. Harvard Law grad Mike Ford is the rising star of the firm’s newcomers, a onetime con artist gone straight—more or less. As he will come to discover, his skills at identifying a “mark” and the follow-up manipulation will prove useful in his new career, where “legal” and “ethical” can be extremely fluid terms. Ford is an engaging narrator, endowed with a liberal dose of humor, often at his own expense. The plot moves along quickly and credibly, and the resolution is clever and satisfying. It is always a pleasure to read such a well-crafted debut; I’m looking forward to the sequel.
TOP PICK IN MYSTERY
Speaking of sequels, it’s difficult to imagine that there can be many in store for Buck Schatz, the octogenarian hero of Daniel Friedman’s Don’t Ever Get Old. Nevertheless, I hope I am wrong about that, as Friedman’s debut novel is one of the most original and entertaining tales I have read in many a moon. Schatz is a retired cop, a legend in Memphis law enforcement circles. Summoned to the deathbed of a WWII compatriot, Schatz discovers that a man he thought long dead, SS officer Heinrich Ziegler, in fact survived the war, having absconded with a wealth of gold bars stolen from concentration camp internees. Ziegler assumed a false identity and has lived under the radar for the past 60-some years. This does not sit well with the curmudgeonly Schatz, so, with the assistance of his tech-savvy grandson, he sets off in search of his onetime enemy and a small fortune in Nazi gold. Schatz is an anachronism: a chain-smoking Lucky Strike addict; a Luddite to a fault; cranky and crotchety at every juncture. He is also wickedly funny and full of pithy homilies. Don’t Ever Get Old is just about as good as debut mysteries get. It may, in fact, mark the beginning of a new suspense subgenre: Geezer Noir. Long may it live!
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a 7 questions interview with Daniel Friedman.