This year's best crime fiction debuts kept us entertained and on the edges of our seats as if they were authored by seasoned pros.
We had no idea how much we craved a new curmudeonly private detective and his girl Friday until Sidney Grice and March Middleton entered the scene via British author Kasasian's new series. After 21-year-old March's father dies, she moves in with the celebrated and socially inept Grice. March is outspoken and whipsmart—an unlikely even match to Grice. Together they investigate the murder of a young woman, and the result is an enjoyable mystery that relishes the darker elements of Victorian London, a classic setting that can't keep its dirty little secrets from this unlikely sleuthing team. Read our review.
The Ways of the Dead by Neely Tucker
Washington Post staffer Tucker, author of memoir Love in the Driest Season, drew on his own experiences as a reporter to craft an edgy and tense thriller set in 1990s Washington, D.C. When a politically connected judge's daughter turns up dead, three young black men are arrested. This seems a bit suspicious to world-weary reporter Sully Carter, who sees a connection between the girl's murder and several other cold cases. Tucker's debut stands out for its ingenious, multilayered plotting, its juicy depiction of shady journalism and its thoughtful exploration of questions of race and class. Above all, Tucker's dialogue is in a league of its own. Our Whodunit columnist called it "textured and nuanced," and compared it to the work of Elmore Leonard, James Crumley and George Pelecanos. Read our review.
Northeastern Pennsylvania author Bouman perfectly captures the dark and dilapidated milieu of rural PA in his debut thriller, bringing to life all the sadness and—somehow—good humor that permeate a region poisoned by poverty and drug use. Things start to change when corporations begin buying up all the land for fracking and gas drilling, which introduces some wealth to the region as well as a new set of problems. Meanwhile Officer Henry Farrell, already quite busy struggling with his own demons, is trying to track down the killer of an unknown victim. Then Henry's deputy is found dead, and tension in this already-suspicious community begins to rise. It's a sad story, but Bouman's storytelling is so seamless and his prose so poetic, we don't mind a little heartbreak. Read our review.
Ten years after she was convicted of her mother's murder, Janie Jenkins has been released from prison on a technicality. But Janie didn't kill her mother, at least she doesn't think so. She was, however, found covered in her mother's blood, and the two didn't exactly get along. Now a notorious criminal, Janie sets out to prove her innocence, armed with a false identity and the smallest of leads. It's a great thriller based on plot alone, but Little's voice is what makes this one so special. It's been called stylish, sassy and assured; our reviewer called it "one of the cheekiest voices in recent memory." Whatever you call it, it's one of a kind, and we can't wait to see more of it. Read our review.
A one-night stand resulted in Mia Dennett's kidnapping, but her abductor inexplicably takes her to a remote cabin in the woods rather than turn her over to the guy in charge. After Mia returns home, she cannot seem to recall all the details of her experience. Kubica's intricately plotted debut alternates between past and present—before and after Mia's abduction—and multiple perspectives: Mia’s mother, Eve; Mia's abductor, Colin; and Gabe, the detective on the case. This is a puzzler on par with Gone Girl, so expect to be surprised. Read our review and a Q&A with Kubica.
Loyal fans of best-selling author Linwood Barclay will remember the Archer family from No Time for Goodbye (2007). Barclay's new novel, No Safe House, picks up seven years later. Once again, seemingly idyllic neighborhoods hold dark secrets, and the murder of two elderly locals has everyone on edge. The Archers are still recovering—and quite frankly not doing a great job of it. Their little family unit threatens to fall apart, and they soon once again find themselves fighting for their lives.
Barclay certainly has his finger on what makes for a fast-paced, intense tale of suspense and secrets. We wanted to know what books shaped him as a writer.
The Hardy Boys opened the door, but it was Lew Archer who really invited me in.
The first books I ever read—not counting The Cat in the Hat, which is a classic, but not really what we’re talking about here—were crime novels.
The first honest-to-God hardcover crime novel I owned was a Hardy Boy book. It was The Great Airport Mystery, the ninth adventure starring brothers Frank and Joe Hardy. There were bad guys. There was action. There was a mystery to be solved.
I was hooked. I read as many Hardy Boys novels as I could get my hands on. The Tower Treasure, The House on the Cliff, What Happened at Midnight.
Somewhere around the fifth or sixth grade, I discovered Agatha Christie. The plots became more intricate, more inventive. I devoured the classics. The A.B.C. Murders, Murder on the Orient Express, And Then There Were None.
About a year after that, I stumbled upon the Nero Wolfe novels by Rex Stout, and loved those even more. The plots were every bit as good as Christie’s, but there was something more. There was humor. Crackling dialogue. As memorable a character as crime fiction has ever had: Nero Wolfe himself. (Apologies to Sherlock Holmes fans. Yes, he’s probably the single most memorable crime solver, but amazingly, at this point in my mystery education, I hadn’t yet discovered him.)
Stout’s books were terrific, and, oh joy, there were so many of them. By the time I’d read all of them, I was about 14 or 15, and looking for something new.
I found it on the squeaky, spinning paperback rack at the IGA grocery store in Bobcaygeon, Ontario. It was the Bantam edition of The Goodbye Look by Ross Macdonald, and what caught my eye was the quote at the top of the cover: “The finest series of detective novels ever written by an American.” (That was from William Goldman’s review in The New York Times, and a few short years later I would be blown away by his novel Marathon Man, which remains one of my favorite thrillers ever.)
No one seems to know whether blurbs work or not, but that one worked on me. I bought that book and was completely drawn in by the detective work of one Lew Archer. I followed him through this case and all the others available at that time, including The Galton Case, The Doomsters, The Zebra-Striped Hearse and, one of the best crime novels of all time, The Chill.
These were the books that changed me. These books showed me how an author could take the conventions of the mystery novel and use them to do more than figure out how someone was murdered in a locked room. Through Archer, Macdonald shined a light on America’s darkness. He explored family dysfunction, alienated and troubled youth, the corruption of wealth and, in later novels, the destruction of our environment.
Macdonald may not have been the first to show the world that a mystery could be a novel, that it could be literature, but he was the first to show me. No writer had a greater impact on me up to that time, nor has any writer since.
Thanks, Linwood! Readers, No Safe House is on sale August 5.
Mystery fans: Was there a mystery you read at an early age that you'll never forget?
Author photo credit Bill Taylor.
If there's one thing that keeps drawing me back to M.J. McGrath's Arctic thrillers, it's the impeccably rendered sense of place. And I'm not just talking about the beautiful and dangerous landscape of the Canadian arctic, but also the historical and cultural details of the Inuit people. In McGrath's third mystery, following White Heat and The Boy in the Snow, half-Inuit and half-outsider Edie Kiglatuk—with the help of Sergeant Derek Palliser—investigates the murder of one of her summer-school students, a young Inuit woman who turns up in the toxic Lake Turngaluk. As this drama unfolds, an environmental conspiracy concerning the toxic lake begins to take shape. The Bone Seeker can certainly be read as a standalone—and should be read, especially by those who crave harsh northern landscapes—but I'd recommend revisiting Kiglatuk's previous adventures as well.
Read on for an excerpt:
She was gazing down at a dip in the land that locals called Lake Turngaluk, the Lake of Bad Spirits, though it was mostly dry now, pitted here and there by windings of briny marsh. Locals said the area was a portal to the underworld and that birds wouldn't fly over it for fear of being sucked under but Derek didn't hold with that kind of nonsense, prefering to believe that the birds didn't bother to visit because what was left of the water was devoid of fish, a fact that had nothing to do with spirits or the underworld and everything to do with contamination from the radar system. So far as Derek understood it, the site should have been cleaned up years ago but it had got mired in political horse-trading until, about a decade ago, Charlie Salliaq had dismissed the old legal team and called on the services of Sonia Gutierrez, a prominent human rights lawyer specializing in aboriginal land claims. They'd finally won their case against the Department of Defence last year. One of Colonel Klinsman's jobs was to organize a working party to begin the necessary decontamination work at the station and on the surrounding land, including the lake.
'How odd,' Edie said. She pointed out of the side window but all he could see were a few thin strings of cirrus.
'What?' Derek undid his belt and twisted his neck around, though it made his head swim to do it.
'A bear. They're usually on their way north to the floe edge by now.'
'You want me to swing back?' Pol asked Derek.
The policeman nodded and prepared himself for the stomach lurch. Ahead, the rows of tents and prefab units of Camp Nanook stood on the tundra in incongruous straight lines, as though on parade. The plane rose higher then banked sharply and wheeled round, retracing their route through a patch of cloud. Coming through into clear air they caught sight of the bear. Spooked by the sound of the aircraft engine, it was running for the safety of the sea.
The surface of the pool where the bear had been appeared to be bubbling and seething. Derek first supposed it was a trick of the light, but as the slipstream from the plane passed across it, the western bank seemed to expand, as though it had suddenly turned to gas. He realized that he never seen anything like this before. He turned back, leaning over Edie to get a better view.
'What the hell is that?'
She curled around and caught his gaze. There was something wild about the way she was looking at him now, the muscles in her face taut, her black eyes blazing.
He began to speak but she cut him off. 'They're feeding on whatever attracted the bear.'
Readers, what are you reading today?
Ravenous mystery readers know that crime isn't limited to big cities. It's not even limited to Amish farms, charming British villages or too-perfect suburbs. Revenge and murder even finds its way to paradise, such as in Mark Troy's new mystery, The Splintered Paddle. In a guest blog post, Troy shares his insight into the dark side of Hawaii.
Where do most fictional private eyes hang their fedoras? That’s easy: New York City, Boston, Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Far down on the list is Honolulu.
You can name the Honolulu private eye series on one hand. Television gave us Tracey Steele and Tom Lopaka in "Hawaiian Eye," and Thomas Magnum in "Magnum, P.I." The list of Hawaiian private eye novel series begins and ends with Charles Kneif’s John Caine. Some mainland-based eyes, such as Sharon McCone and Adrian Monk, have had adventures in the islands, but none have stayed. The most famous Hawaiian crime fighters are police detectives Charlie Chan and Steve McGarrett (both incarnations), but, even with their inclusion, the list is a short one. One gets the sense that there just isn’t much crime in the islands.
In the minds of most people, Hawaii is a paradise of golden sands, sparkling waters, waving palm trees and gyrating hula girls. Where are the mean streets? They are everywhere, but, like the changes in seasons, they are easily missed until you have spent time there.
Although I love Hawaii, its beaches and mountains, what I love most are its people and culture. By culture, I don’t mean hula dances and ukuleles, but the circumstances of history and geography from which the spirit of the people is formed.
One of the tenets of Hawaiian culture is a long tradition of resisting mistreatment of its citizens and of taking care of the weak and helpless. That tenet is stated in the Law of the Splintered Paddle—Kānāwai Māmalahoe in Hawaiian. The law was the first edict promulgated by Kamehameha I after uniting the islands.
The Law of the Splintered Paddle is basically understood to mean that citizens have a right to defend themselves against mistreatment by the government and that the weaker members of society can expect protection from the more powerful members. The state constitution makes mention of the law and the Honolulu Police badge bears an image of crossed canoe paddles in reference to the law.
Ava Rome, the private eye in my stories, is an outsider. She is not Hawaiian by birth or upbringing, so she brings an outsider's perspective to the culture. In that, she is like many other private eyes. What sets her apart from other private eyes is her mission. Ava believes in the Law of the Splintered Paddle. She believes in protecting the defenseless. She has adopted this basic tenet of Hawaiian culture and made it her mission in life. She doesn't require innocence to take on a client, only defenselessness.
Ava's belief in the Law of the Splintered Paddle is fueled by a burden of guilt over her failure, as a teenager, to protect her brother from bullying. She is determined not to fail anyone else. She takes on a prostitute who is being harassed by a high-ranking police officer and a troubled teenager who has fallen prey to her own bad decisions and to the predations of a marijuana grower. Ava's greatest challenge, however, arrives in the form of an ex-con, whom she had arrested when she was an MP. He is out. He is seeking revenge, and he harbors a secret from her past.
The Splintered Paddle is the story of a private eye, Ava Rome, and her personal foray down the mean streets of Hawaii to protect the defenseless in the dark side of paradise tourists seldom see.
Thanks, Mark! Readers, The Splintered Paddle is now available.
Ten years later, check out our 2004 Top Picks in Mystery:
January 2004: The Frumious Bandersnatch by Ed McBain
In the 53rd book featuring the cops of the 87th Precinct, McBain (aka Evan Hunter) spun a "hilarious and diabolical"—and topical—web, skewering the music industry, sensationalist cable news coverage, George W and the Patriot Act. Read our review.
February 2004: Hard Revolution by George Pelecanos
Pelecanos fills us in on the backstory of D.C. private investigator Derek Strange, star of such titles as Soul Circus and Hell to Pay, from coming of age in the early '60s to his experience as a cop during the riots following the assassination of Dr. King. "Hard Revolution plants the reader in the middle of a population run amok, where the major difference between the criminals and the cops is possession of a badge." Read our review.
March 2004: Deep Pockets by Linda Barnes
Private investigator Carlotta Carlyle takes on the task of unearthing a blackmailer who threatens a Harvard professor over his illict affair with a student. First the student turns up dead, then the blackmailer, and the professor seems to be the culprit. As might be expected, he claims innocence, and it falls to Carlotta to uncover the truth. This pageturner comes highly recommended for fans of Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series. Read our review.
April 2004: Sleeping Beauty by Phillip Margolin
In Margolin's chilling novel, true-crime author Miles Van Meter's bestseller told the story of the serial killer who killed several people in Miles' life and put his sister in a coma. Flash back six years to the story of high school soccer star Ashley Spencer, who escapes the murderer who kills her mother and father—the same killer who leaves Miles' sister comatose. But back in present-day, Miles reveals that all is not as it seems. "Sleeping Beauty is a must for suspense fans; red herrings abound, and the twists are as convoluted as the whorls of a killer's fingerprint." Read our review.
May 2004: Live Bait by P.J. Tracy
This Minnesota mystery comes from mother-daughter writing team P.J. and Traci Lambrecht. Homicide detectives Leo Magozzi and Gino Rolseth follow up their Monkeewrench (2003) adventure with an investigation into a string of octogenarian murders—and some of the victims were Holocaust survivors. Read our review.
June 2004: Loaded Dice by James Swain
Retired cop and gamesman Tony Valentine makes a living uncovering crooked gamblers. In his fourth appearance, he ravels to Las Vegas to investigate a lovely blackjack amateur who bears an uncanny resemblance to Valentine's deceased wife. "Swain is a master storyteller, often mentioned in the same breath with Elmore Leonard or Carl Hiaasen." Read our review.
July 2004: Little Scarlet by Walter Mosley
In the summer of 1965, the Watts riots rage in L.A., and Easy Rawlins is charged with investigating the murder of a young black woman, one who cared for a white man who narrowly escaped a mob of angry black youths. "Mosley captures the nuance of atmosphere and time better than any mystery author since Raymond Chandler; he is the unchallenged modern master of the craft." Read our review.
August 2004: The Wake-Up by Robert Ferrigno
"Robert Ferrigno is in many ways the consummate author," and in this edgy noir, who proves just that. Mostly-retired black-ops specialist Frank Thorpe comes to the aid of a mistreated vendor in an airport, and with that small act, "the first domino is pushed, the carefully arranged pattern goes awry remarkably quickly." The villains in this one make it a true standout mystery. Read our review.
September 2004: Destination: Morgue! by James Ellroy
This collection, packed to the brim with crime and murder, is composed of 14 pieces including three novellas, a profile of celebrity defendant Robert Blake, several true-crime stories and a wealth of autobiographical material that provide a template for writing a mystery novel. "If you feel that your favorites have gone a bit too soft around the middle, a touch mainstream, give James Ellroy a shot." Read our review.
October 2004: California Girl by T. Jefferson Parker
Part family drama, part murder mystery, this California tale is "first-rate; the true success of the book, though, is how well it captures the time and place, a sun-drenched, orange-scented utopia gone but affectionately remembered." Read our review.
November 2004: The Rottweiler by Ruth Rendell
A serial killer christened "The Rottweiler" starts picking off girls one by one and steals one token from each. When the victims' belongings turn up in an antique shop, the police begin to investigate the many quirky characters who reside in the building. Read our review.
December 2004: Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders by John Mortimer
Modern-day Rumpole shares with readers the details of his very first case, the defense of a young man accused of killing his war-hero father. "The Rumpole books are equally appealing to fans of British mysteries and aficionados of the bad-boy English authors of the '50s. They are clever, exceptionally relevant and crammed full of the sort of weird and wonderful quotes that stick with you long after you put the book down." Read our review.
Were you reading any of these winners in 2004?
With The Catch, readers find themselves hanging on for dear life as Vanessa Michael Munroe—"the cleverest, fightingest and all-around baddest heroines in contemporary suspense fiction"—takes us to Djibouti for her newest no-holds-barred adventure. Munroe is the unforgettable brainchild of author Taylor Stevens, who has a fascinating backstory of her own: She was born in New York state and into the Children of God, raised in communes across the globe and denied an education beyond sixth grade. Stevens was in her 20s when she broke free, and she now lives in Texas.
It's easy to wonder how much of the inspiration for Munroe came from Stevens' own life. As it turns out, that seems to be the question on everyone's mind. Stevens responds, once and for all:
Whenever I walk into an event—be it a book signing, Q&A or author’s talk—it’s pretty easy to spot the participants who’ve read my biography and at least one book, but haven’t yet interacted with me online or in person. It’s easy because they’re the ones wearing the guarded, concerned looks, subtly checking me out for signs of sanity, as if at worst I might be right on the edge of snapping and at best might need some soothing and comfort.
I suppose, really, this can’t be helped. Unusual characters populate my books, and I’ve led an unusual life. This has resulted in the most frequently asked question: "How much of Vanessa Michael Munroe is based on you?"
At the beginning, this conflation between character and author baffled me. Vanessa Michael Munroe is a hyperpolyglot (someone who speaks more than 12 languages), born and raised in equatorial Africa. She took up with gunrunners at the tender age of 14 and carries the mental and physical scars of a violent adolescence. To plagiarize myself, “the knife became her way to salvation and the missionary’s daughter, made to traverse the valley of the shadow of death, walked out the other side an apex predator.” She’s a chameleon, a hunter, an adrenaline junkie, self-contained, indifferent and shut off from the world—except when she’s not.
Oh that I was so brutally badass. Can you imagine the results I’d get at PTA and HOA meetings? Unfortunately, Munroe and I are nothing alike. Well, except for a hijacked childhood—we do both have wacky backgrounds. Mine had me born and raised in an apocalyptic religious cult, growing up as child labor in cult communes, spending far too much time out begging in the cold, and having my education stopped completely when I was 12.
But I’d made peace with all that long before turning to fiction. I started writing as a way to bring to life a small, paranoid, corrupt country off Africa’s west coast where’d lived for a little over two years. The thought of drawing on my childhood and adolescence for that first tale never even crossed my mind, and if it had, we would have had completely different characters—and probably not very good ones. I’m far too happy and enamored with life to belong in these intense, dark stories. I cry when I see sunsets and hear moving music, smile at everyone, am a total fraidy cat, and am overly empathetic to the point that my heart bleeds out onto my sleeve, which is super embarrassing. In perfect irony, I also hate suspense and violence—can neither watch it on screen nor read it in books—and yet that’s what I write.
Because I’m so opposite the characters that populate these stories, and because Munroe was drawn completely from imagination and snippets of other fictional characters (Jason Bourne and Lara Croft), I couldn’t understand at first how anyone could think she represented a real-life person, much less me. But then it got worse. People I’d never met used my fiction as a way to psychoanalyze the author, going on about my tormented psyche, insisting I was obsessed with violence against women, as if they knew me, as if assuming something about me magically made it true. Offended and insulted, I wondered if they also thought Carrie was based off Stephen King.
Once my skin thickened up a bit, once I realized how completely cool the character and author fusion was, I was able to embrace these assumptions for what they were: the ultimate compliment—proof of good storytelling—because the only way fantasy and reality can blend into such earnest beliefs is if the fiction feels real enough for the reader to assume that it had to have been drawn from real life, somehow.
These days I wear the conflation like a badge of honor, and when people ask me how much of Munroe is based on me, I look them dead in the eye and say, “all of it.”
Taylor Stevens is the award-winning New York Times best-selling author of The Informationist, The Innocent and The Doll. Featuring Vanessa Michael Munroe, the series has received critical acclaim and the books are published in 20 languages. The Informationist has been optioned for film by James Cameron's production company, Lightstorm Entertainment. Her latest novel, The Catch, will be published by Crown on July 15, 2014.
Author photo credit Alyssa Skyes.
John Verdon's brilliant sleuth, NYPD detective Dave Gurney, returns in his fourth adventure, Peter Pan Must Die. Gurney really just wants to live a simple life in the country, but he is dragged back into the crime world when a wealthy real estate developer is shot and the unfaithful wife is convicted of murder. But things don't line up, and Gurney finds himself up against a uniquely sinister villain.
Gurney can piece together a puzzle like no one else in the sleuthing biz. Verdon gives us a peek into his standout character:
Somewhere along the way in my literary education I managed to absorb the simple notion that drama is about conflict. Without conflict there is no dramatic development, no story, no tension—nothing at stake to hold our interest.
There are reasons for this. We have been hardwired by the survival imperatives of evolution to pay close attention to conflict in all its forms, from simple disagreement to outright violence. Conflict attracts our attention, and we want to see what happens next—how it escalates, how it’s resolved.
So if I had one overriding priority in mind when I began writing Think of a Number, the first novel in the Dave Gurney series of mystery-thrillers, it was the need for conflict—in every scene, on every page, even with only one person present. (That last one might sound odd at first, but I’ll come back to it.)
Since the story idea for Think of a Number began with a character who was in an emotional state of near-breakdown over a series of increasingly threatening letters, I wanted to involve him with a detective who was supremely rational. (Conflict comes in many flavors, including contrast between two perceptions of a situation.) That basic storytelling need gave rise to the core personality trait of Dave Gurney, leading some reviewers to compare him to Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot.
But that was just the starting point for the Gurney character. I wanted him to be married, because I believed that would give me opportunities to make him truly three-dimensional and—you guessed it—inject other interesting conflicts into his life.
Gurney’s first approach to every situation is analytical. He’s always thinking, asking why and how about whatever he observes. He’s obsessed with figuring things out. So I gave him a wife who’s just the opposite—who loves the experience of living, the immediate beauty of nature, the fascinating aspects of the thing in front of her. She’s every bit as smart as he is and often more acutely perceptive, but her way of seeing the world always contrasts with his. I’m especially intrigued by the role of personality differences in a close relationship like this, since it’s such a fertile ground for exploring the way persistent disagreements play out in our lives, as well as that ultimate tension between love and selfishness.
I mentioned earlier that I try to put conflict into every scene, even when only one character is present. It’s really easier than it sounds, when you consider all the forms of collision and frustration in our lives—for example, with inanimate objects. I recall a detective whose cigarette lighter never works, whose umbrella never opens, whose cell phone battery is always dead at the very moment that he must make a call. And, of course, a man like Dave Gurney faces an ongoing struggle every day with his own durable demons.
Conflict. It defines character and propels narratives. It’s what’s much of life and all great stories are about.
Thanks, John! Readers, Peter Pan Must Die is now available.
It seems to be the year of the mother-daughter mystery. I'm not talking about cozy mother-daughter sleuthing teams, solving crimes amid witty banter and little squabbles. No, these ladies are about as trustworthy as any Gone Girl character, and it's rare the reader knows what they've got up their sleeves.
It's the multigenerational bad girls club, and it's easily this year's hottest mystery trend.
Mind of Winter by Laura Kasischke
Paranoia reaches new heights in this psychological thriller. Holly Judge wakes up on Christmas morning, suddenly convinced that there's something very wrong with her adopted teenage daughter. "Something followed them home Siberia," she thinks, and starts ticking off all the disturbing evidence. An obsessive and twisted tale where reality threatens to slip away. Read an excerpt.
I Love You More by Jennifer Murphy
Oliver Lane’s murder looks like a simple case of a woman scorned—in this case, his wife, Diana. But investigators soon discover Oliver had two more families as well. So who really killed Oliver? Multiple points of view keep this thrilling mystery from every giving too much away. The most interesting POV comes from Oliver's daughter Picasso, who has seen plenty. Watch out for these ladies, and whatever you do, don't cross them. Read our review.
Don't Try to Find Me by Holly Brown
It's not initially clear who the victim of Brown's debut is. After 14-year-old Marley runs away from home, her mother launches a public campaign for her return. But people are fickle, and soon Marley's mom finds herself the target of public scrutiny. Why did Marley leave? Who is to blame? Secrets upon secrets. Read our review.
Dear Daughter by Elizabeth Little
This book's victim is pretty black-and-white, as Janie Jenkins was incarcerated 10 years ago for the murder of her mother. She's just been released from prison on a technicality—but she's also innocent and in need of some answers. Debut author Little has a great voice, and I wish her unapologetic heroine was my best friend. Look for a review in our August issue.
The Good Girl by Mary Kubica
This is another high-intensity thriller than unfolds through multiple points of view, but I can promise you'll never see this ending coming. The story jumps between events before and after Mia Dennett's abduction, when she was held in a cabin in the woods by a guy whose motivations don't quite make sense. Mia's mom is in on the investigation, and that's all I'm going to say about it. Look for a Q&A in our August issue.
James Lee Burke is best known for his Dave Robicheaux mystery series, but his new standalone novel has completely blown me away. Historical thriller Wayfaring Stranger follows the life of Weldon Holland, the grandson of Burke's series character Hackberry Holland. From a run-in with Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow in Texas to heroic acts during World War II (rescuing soldiers and concentration camp prisoners alike), the early days of Weldon's life are—in a word—epic. After the war ends in Europe, Weldon returns to Texas, marries and starts an oil pipeline business. But peacetime has its own dangers, as Weldon's success in the oil biz—and marriage to a Jewish woman—creates plenty of enemies.
And of course all of this unfolds with Burke's classic prose, tinged with nostalgia in a way that seems perfect for historical fiction. Read on for an excerpt from when Weldon and his grandfather first encounter Bonnie and Clyde:
The windmill was ginning furiously, the stanchions trembling with energy, a thread of water coming from teh spout, the tank crusted with dirt and dead insects and animal hair along the rimes. "The moon looks like it was dipped in a teacup. I cain't believe how we used to take the rain for granted," he said. "I think this land must be cursed."
The air smelled of ash and dust and creosote and horse and cow manure that feathered in your hand if you picked it up. Dry lightning leaped through the heavens and died, like somebody removing an oil lamp from the window of a darkened house. I thought I felt thunder course through the ground under my shoes. "Feel that?" I said, hoping to change Grandfather's mood and my own.
"Don't get your hopes up. That's the Katy blowing down the line," he replied. "I'm sorry I made fun of your butt, Satch. I won't do it no more. Walk behind me till we know who's in that car."
As we approached the tree line, the driver of teh car walked out of the headlights and stood silhouetted against the glare, the got back in his car and started the engine and clanked the transmission into gear. The trees were so dry they made a sound like paper rustling when the wind blew through the canopy.
"Hold up there," Grandfather said to the man.
I thought the driver would simply motor away. But he didn't. He stuck his elbow out the window and stared straight into our faces, his expression curious rather than alarmed. "You talking to us?" he asked.
"You're on my property," Grandfather said.
"I thought this was public woods," the driver said. "If there's a posted sign that says otherwise, I didn't see it."
The woman next to him was pretty and had strawberry-blonde hair and a beret tilted over one eye. She looked like a happy country girl, the kind who works in a dime store or in a café where the truckers come in to make innocent talk. She leaned forward and grinned up into Grandfather's face. She silently mouthed the words "We're sorry."
"Did you know you have mud on your license tag?" Grandfather asked the driver.
"I'll get right on that," the driver said.
"You also have what appears to be a bullet hole in your back window."
Think you'll check out Burke's newest? What are you reading today?
California native Karen Keskinen follows up her 2012 debut mystery, Blood Orange, with a new adventure for private investigator Jaymie Zarlin. In Black Current, the body of a local teen is found in a tank at the Santa Barbara Aquarium. It's ruled a suicide, but the girl's parents hire Jaymie to prove otherwise.
In a guest blog post for Private Eye July, Keskinen shares what it's like to be the featured author at book club meetings. It's no small job, that's for sure:
I’ve never been a chakra-and-crystals kind of girl. Sometimes I think a New Age is just what we need, but most of the time I find that this age we live in is—you know—good enough. And yet one night a few weeks back, as I walked home in the dark from a book club engagement, one of those New-Agey words popped into my head: shaman.
Yeah. As I walked home from a meeting right here in Santa Barbara, California, that’s what I felt like: a shaman. Maybe I didn’t exactly feel like one, but for the first time, I could sense the power those ancient storytellers wielded through their words.
This little city bristles with book club encounters every night of the week. Readers congregate in highbrow get-togethers and lowbrow get-togethers, well-heeled gatherings and run-down-at-the-heel gatherings, co-ed clubs, single-sex clubs and not-all-that-keen-on-sex clubs. But all these confabs have two characteristics in common.
One is food. Many so-called book clubs are actually misnomered: They are more accurately food and drink clubs. And huzzah to that! I’ve stuffed myself with full-on meals, nibbled at dainty noshes and, as a special tribute to my first book, taken part in a blood-orange-themed spread. You have not lived till you’ve tasted calamondin and blood orange pound cake. Yet, I digress.
Another feature these meetings have in common is that they encourage some feisty conversations, especially among my fellow Santa Barbarians.
Notice, I don’t claim readers think Blood Orange and Black Current are the greatest reads since Ulysses. But here in our town, these books are proving to be provocative, flaring matches put to drought-dried kindling.
When I arrive at a book club meeting, I usually say that I’ll stay for no more than an hour. I warn the members in advance that they might grow tired of me, and also that they might like to have time to say what they honestly think, once I leave. It makes no difference: I always seem to be driving or trotting home around 10:30, my mind roiling from the torrid and intense conversation, in no way ready for sleep.
The questions begin innocently enough. For example: Why is Jaymie Zarlin’s office address, 101 W. Mission, in fact that of the Cat and Bird Clinic? But soon, minutia dispensed with, matters warm up.
Are the rich so awful? Are cops corrupt? Are people that mean? So we talk about the bad in good people, and the good in bad. We talk about the abuse of power and the power money bestows. About corruption, both personal and systemic. And we talk about that corruption right here in River City, not in some theoretical realm.
In every book club I’ve visited, somebody has had her cage rattled. At one recent gathering, people were debating in twos and threes when a young woman said loudly: “Jenny, I’ve never heard you talk like that!” The room fell silent. Flushed, the accused looked away. For maybe the first time in her life, Jenny had publicly dropped the f-bomb.
I’ve thought about shamans over the past few weeks. How did they work their magic? They were conduits, mediums, copper wires. The shaman had her ear to the ground, a nose for the news, she didn’t miss much. And she let all that flow into her, through her, and on out to the ineffable, what we fear and don’t understand. Then all that power, transformed into story, flowed back again.
The face of the fear doesn’t matter: Once upon a time there were broken limbs that turned septic, and mountain lions that could flail open a man. Now we have terrorists, torturers, rapists. The bogeyman changes masks as the centuries pass, but never his nature, which is the ability to evoke dread.
The shaman’s tools never change, either. She has only three, but what a three they are! People, places and things. Waving those three wands, she teases out her listeners’ fears and dreams and heartbreak, then weaves all that chaos to make a map, a guide for survival. A story.
When book club members ask me questions about the settings, characters and special objects in Blood Orange and Black Current, I know their interest is piqued. But when they ignore my answers and insist on supplying their own, that’s when I know I’m their conduit: The readers are redeeming my stories, remaking them into their own.
Recently at one local meeting, an older woman announced she knew the real life people I’d used to create two of my characters, Dr. Bruce and Cynthia Wiederkehr. In fact, Bruce and Cynthia were created from whole cloth, but I had the good sense to keep quiet.
My reader whispered their names to a friend sitting beside her, and the two women raised eyebrows and exchanged knowing smiles. The Sha-Woman reached for a slice of chocolate cheesecake, and felt good. She’d given it over to them, it was their story now.
Thanks, Karen! Readers, Black Current is now available!