by Bruce TierneySeptember, 2008
Confronting a haunted past
Some places seem to feed on violence. The currents run barely under the surface, seeking a weak spot at which to break through. Two hundred years ago, Red Knife, Minnesota, was the scene of a bloody battle between warring tribes of Ojibwe and Dakota. Now it is the site of a school, but that will in no way protect it from the centuries-old legacy of bloodshed. Cork O'Connor, ex-police chief, restaurateur and part-time PI, returns for his ninth outing in William Kent Krueger's racially charged and explosive Red Knife. O'Connor is a family man, an all-around good guy and a born conciliator. When a local teenaged girl dies in a drug-related incident, O'Connor is called in to broker the deal that will bring the responsible party—one Lonnie Thunder, an Ojibwe crystal meth dealer—to justice. With luck, O'Connor will be able to douse the glowing embers of racism before they burst into full-fledged flames. When his client and the client's wife are executed—gangland style, a bullet to the back of the head—it becomes clear that no easy solution will be found. Cork O'Connor is a worthy and likable protagonist, reminiscent in some ways of C.J. Box's leading man, Joe Pickett: both live in the hinterlands; both have families with school-age kids; and both are decent and serious guys caught in the unenviable position of having to placate warring factions in their local environs. This is my first time reading Kent Kruger's work; it is an oversight I intend to rectify in short order.
Tales from a modern-day Christie
The prequel to Ann Cleeves' White Nights, Raven Black, won the Duncan Lawrie Dagger Award. Now Inspector Jimmy Perez returns in a disturbing and thought-provoking tale of blackmail and murder spanning several decades, set in the bleak northern reaches of the Shetland Islands. It all begins innocently enough, albeit a bit strangely, when a hysterical man disrupts a show at an art gallery, loudly proclaiming to anyone who will listen that he has lost his memory. It is something of a moot point: he won't be needing it anyway, since the next morning he will be quite dead. It looks at first blush like a suicide, but a closer examination reveals the dreaded Foul Play. The cast of characters/suspects is quirky and diverse: Bella Sinclair, doyenne of the Shetland art set; Roddy Sinclair, Shetland's contribution to the world of folk music and Bella's doting nephew; Peter Wilding, the cagey and obsessive sci-fi fantasy writer who has recently taken up residence in a local council house; Kenny Thomson and his wife Edith, each with a secret that threatens to wreak havoc upon their comfortable existence. Cleeves clearly owes more to the Agatha Christie school of suspense than to, say, Raymond Chandler. White Nights is set up like a parlor mystery in which the clever detective gets all the suspects in one room, then solves the crime; in this case, however, the "parlor" is a tiny island in the far north, where the summer nights are always white.
More from a British bestseller
A couple of months back I had not heard of Meg Gardiner. Although she enjoys a strong following in Europe, she had not secured a stateside publisher. Then, in rapid succession, I read two of her books, and was hooked. So, apparently, was the publishing community: her backlist is finally being released in the U.S. Crosscut finds Evan Delaney back in her hometown of China Lake for her high school reunion, where she makes the startling discovery that an inordinate number of her classmates have died young. The deaths all seem to have some tenuous connection to a long-ago field trip into the desert, in which some class members inadvertently strayed too close to a top-secret military test site. Perhaps it could all be written off as coincidence, but then a classmate is brutally murdered on the night of the reunion, after which there can be no doubt: one by one, the classmates are being murdered. The pressure is on for Evan and her wheelchair-bound boyfriend Jesse to expose the killer before he (or she) can kill again. Crosscut is one of those rare books that demands to be read in one sitting, so don't start it late at night unless you are seriously caffeinated and don't have to get up in the morning.
Mystery of the month
I normally shy away from period mysteries. There have been a number of great ones (Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, etc.), but I generally prefer contemporary suspense. I have a confession to make, though: I so liked the cover art of James R. Benn's Blood Alone, the third novel in his Billy Boyle series, that I decided to sit down and give the book a try. It was immediately engaging. I read it from cover to cover in two sittings, making it this month's Tip of the Ice Pick Award winner.
Set in Sicily during World War II, Blood Alone chronicles the adventures of Lt. Billy Boyle, a Boston cop on assignment with Gen. Eisenhower, who happens to be his uncle. Billy's task is to make contact with the head of the Sicilian mafia, Don Calo, in an attempt to enlist his help in the Allied invasion of Sicily. Billy has in his possession the yellow silk handkerchief of Italian-American gangster Lucky Luciano, who helped the Allies orchestrate the Sicilian theatre of the war from his New York jail cell. The token gives Billy the credentials to seek a favor from Don Calo: that the Sicilians allow the Allies to invade unhindered. In return, the Allies will take extra care not to inflict damage on the Sicilians. It should be a win-win situation; the Sicilians have no love for the mainland Italians, particularly the fascist government, and everybody wants the killing to stop. But it will only work if Billy can make it to Don Calo, and that is a big "if": mobster Vito Genovese desperately wants Billy out of the way, as Billy's mission may throw a monkey wrench into Genovese's lucrative sideline as a counterfeiter.
Much of Blood Alone is based on real-life situations. Vito Genovese did flee the U.S. ahead of a murder charge just before the war, and turned up in Sicily to "help" the Allies (while, of course, helping himself even more). The yellow handkerchief was an actual device employed by Lucky Luciano to get messages to Don Calo. Blood Alone is an intriguing blend of history and fiction, superbly crafted and paced, easily the best period mystery I've read in quite some time.