It’s possible that Man Booker Prize winner John Banville is not only a wonderfully accomplished writer, but a literary chameleon as well. As Benjamin Black, he’s written an acclaimed series of mystery fiction set in 1950s Dublin, and now, at the behest of the Chandler estate, he’s channeled Raymond Chandler and brought Philip Marlowe—still a hard-boiled, bruised loner who falls all too easily for beautiful broads—back to life and back to doing his gumshoe grunt work in the sunlight-nourished atmosphere of early 1950s Bay City, aka Los Angeles. The Black-Eyed Blonde opens as said well-heeled, expensively dressed lovely creature, with a sardonic, smoldering smile, walks into Marlowe’s drab office—“Obviously the god of Tuesday afternoon decided I needed a little lift.” She wants Phil to find Nico Peterson, her erstwhile, low-life lover, who may or may not be dead. Her reason for wanting to find Nico is not clear, but it’s not long before Marlowe finds himself in a life-threatening, “Empire State Building of a mess.” Black’s dialogue is spot-on, as is David Boutsikaris’ perfectly paced performance.

TO TELL THE TRUTH
It doesn’t take very long to figure out that Lana Granger is an unreliable narrator. And that makes Lisa Unger’s latest, In the Blood, read by the capable combo of Gretchen Mol and Candace Thaxon, all the more intriguing. Lana, a psych major at a small college in upstate New York, tells us a lot about herself up front. She had a troubled childhood (to put it very mildly); she’s haunted by her mother’s murder; her father is on death row; she’s very smart, still a virgin; and her roommate, Beck, is her only intimate friend. At her advisor’s prompting, Lana takes a job looking after Luke, a brilliant, seriously disturbed 11-year-old with whom she feels an immediate bond. Then Beck disappears, and you begin to wonder about everything Lana’s been telling us. Woven into her first-person narrative are diary entries that you assume, from their tone and the tribulations described, were written by Luke’s mother. But, you’ve got to be careful with all your assumptions, and you have to keep track of the clues carefully tucked into Unger’s deviously complex plot as it hurtles to its dramatic denouement.

TOP PICK IN AUDIO
“In the midst of life we are in death,” says the famed line from the Book of Common Prayer. But for David R. Dow, a well-known death penalty lawyer and founder of the Texas Innocence Network, it’s the opposite—in the midst of death he is in life. Things I’ve Learned from Dying: A Book About Life is his intricately intertwined memoir about a triad of terrible losses—his erudite, adventurous, 60-year-old father-in-law diagnosed with metastasized melanoma; a death-row inmate who had become an empathetic, accommodating person in prison; and the sudden decline of his beloved family dog—and the lessons he learned from living through them. Dow, a polished, affecting writer, is often outspoken and blunt, especially about the Texas criminal justice (or lack thereof) system. Lacing this potent, poignant narrative with intimate back stories about his charming, smart, understanding young son and equally engaging wife, Dow, who reads with professional poise, makes us part of his family and part of his ongoing meditation on life and death and the possibilities of a second chance.

 

This article was originally published in the May 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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