Talented African-American teenagers from a poor LA neighborhood are targeted by a serial killer.
Elouise "Lou" Norton was once one of those aspiring teens, and now she's a homicide detective who still hasn’t won the promotion she deserves. Beneath her tough exterior lurk some inner demons; she's just divorced her wealthy, unfaithful husband, and the long-ago murder of her sister was only recently solved. Now Victor Starr, the father who deserted the family when she was a child, wants to make amends. Lou’s living with a newspaper-reporter friend and starting a tentative romance with DA Sam Seward when she catches the case of a dead African-American teenage girl found in a duffel bag in beautiful Martha Bonner Park. Lou and her white, Colorado-born partner, Colin Taggert, finally bond over the complex case as they find more victims apparently all killed by the same clever killer. Lou’s even more disturbed when they discover that the first victim lived in the same crumbling apartment complex where she herself grew up. Lou's investigation reveals that several other missing black girls went to the same school as her victim, had the same guidance counselor, and were despised and sometimes attacked by their fellow students for being brighter and more talented than the rest. Although the missing girls are all eventually found in duffel bags in the park, they were killed elsewhere, moved several times, and injected with bug repellent. In a neighborhood where tensions between African-Americans and Mexicans are ratcheting up, a Mexican with a long record of child abuse is an obvious suspect, but there are plenty of others. Lou scrambles to find a killer who enjoys using coded messages and leaving statues of Greek muses on her car. Striving to solve her own personal problems while in the midst of her most difficult case will only make her stronger—if she survives.
The third and best of a finely wrought series (Skies of Ash, 2015, etc.) that gives voice to a rare figure in crime fiction: a highly complex, fully imagined black female detective.
Disturbing, sometimes-horrifying story of true crime and justice only partially served.
Seattle journalist Sanders won a Pulitzer Prize for the reporting on which this book is based—and deservedly. He made a complex story comprehensible (“The tributaries that feed a moment are vast,” he quietly notes) without ever losing sight of two fundamental truths. Carried over into this book, those two truths remain. The first is that the lives of two innocent women were irrevocably changed, and one’s ended, by the events of a summer night in 2009, when a young, mentally ill man entered their home and raped and stabbed them. More lives than theirs were changed, of course—as one person close to the case noted, “the victims weren’t the only ones killed.” Sanders interviewed a dozen or so of the principal figures in the case, from law enforcement officers to social workers and family members. The second truth is that the young man in question has not met with justice: he is being punished, to be sure, but mostly by being hidden away in a system in which he may be medicated but is almost certainly not being treated effectively for his illness. “One can see the combined downstream effects of a lack of preventive measures,” writes Sanders of Washington state’s lack of adequate funding and support for mental health care, even though mental illness is implicated in nearly half of all violent crime cases and costs the economy billions of dollars per year. The author’s opening pages are among the most immediate and breathtaking in modern true-crime literature, as evocative as any moment of In Cold Blood or Helter Skelter. That immediacy does not disappear, but the careening quality of the narrative settles into a somber, thoughtful consideration of the huge issues at stake in a single act of murder.
An exceptional story of compelling interest in a time of school shootings, ethnic and class strife, and other unbound expressions of madness and illness.
A haunted, haunting examination of mental illness and murder in a more or less ordinary American city.
The small ghosts of debut author Tillman’s title are those of three young children, innocent of any wrongdoing, who were killed in March 2003 by a drugged, arguably insane young man, the father of one of the victims, and his common-law wife. And not just killed: apparently convinced that the children were possessed, John Allen Rubio stabbed them repeatedly and decapitated them. Not for nothing is one of the chapters titled “Don’t Read This Chapter Before Going to Bed”: the facts of the case are horrific. A journalist working in Brownsville, Texas, when the case occurred, Tillman writes of her initial reluctance to engage the story. “I had never been drawn to tragic crimes,” she writes. “Like many people, I pushed them out of mind when I could. It was easier to box them up and store them on a mental shelf of humanity’s worst moments.” Moreover, the media plays these tragic crimes for a time and then shelves them, moving on to the next atrocity. But what of the actors in the crime? Tillman looks deeply into the life and mind of Rubio, with whom she corresponded as he idled on death row, alternately convinced that he was the hero of the piece and aware of his guilt. The author raises or intimates difficult questions as she hears out Rubio, whose insanity defense was unsuccessful: what is it about our kind that makes us do such awful things? How does a community where an awful crime has been committed work toward healing after the cameras have been packed up and the reporters’ notepads put away? How much compassion does a mentally ill person who has murdered deserve? Tillman’s narrative, mature and thoughtful, eventually forces readers to examine the justice of the death penalty itself.
A Helter Skelter for our time, though without a hint of sensationalism—unsettling in the extreme but written with confidence and deep empathy.
Morgan follows up her slim, keening debut (All the Living, 2009) with an epic novel steeped in American history and geography.
As a boy, Henry Forge determines to turn the land his aristocratic Kentucky family has planted with corn for generations into a farm for racehorses. Henry grows into an arrogant, hard man, imbued with the unthinking racism and sexism of his haughty father and unnaturally focused on his only child, Henrietta. Before she leaves him, wife Judith loudly voices the novel’s seething strain of bitterness about the lot of women in this world, but her anger is nothing compared to the rage of Allmon Shaughnessy, an African-American man who enters the story in the early 2000s, when Henrietta and he are both in their 20s. Backtracking to trace Allmon’s past, Morgan’s gothic tale of Southern decadence deepens into a searing investigation of racism’s enduring legacy. Allmon’s ailing, hard-pressed mother and her father, a storefront preacher and veteran civil rights activist, are notable among the teeming cast of brilliantly drawn secondary characters who populate the bleak saga of an intelligent, sensitive boy with zero prospects; by the time he’s 17, Allmon is in jail, where he discovers the knack with horses that gets him hired on the Forges’ farm. A few years go by, Henrietta and Allmon become lovers, but there’s little hope of a happy future for such damaged people. A series of five brilliant riffs called Interludes anchor this modern tale in a vast sweep of geological time and the grim particulars of Allmon’s ancestor, a runaway slave named Scipio. The consequences of the Forges’ brutality and pride come home to roost in an apocalyptic climax just after their extraordinary filly Hellsmouth runs the 2006 Kentucky Derby; it’s entirely appropriate to Morgan’s dark vision that it’s not the guiltiest who pay the highest price.
Vaultingly ambitious, thrillingly well-written, charged with moral fervor and rueful compassion. How will this dazzling writer astonish us next time?
A trio of women create, discover, and keep disappearing on each other in this melancholy modern fable.
Despite what the usual comparative literature syllabus tells you, magical realism isn’t limited to the South American masters. In her bizarrely lovely new novel, NDiaye (Three Strong Women, 2012, etc.)—also a playwright, essayist, and screenwriter—offers strong evidence that the particularly French version of elegant, often opaque mystery does as well in fiction as on film. Here’s what we know for sure: Clarisse Rivière, nee Malinka, visits her mother, Ladivine, once a month in Bordeaux. Then Clarisse has a daughter, also Ladivine, whose namesake is barely aware she exists. When Clarisse dies unexpectedly, both mother and child learn about her killer from the press. Here’s what we don’t know: most everything else, even after the final page. Yet NDiaye manages, by dropping tiny hints writ exquisite, to keep those pages turning all the same. Through flashbacks and passing glances—for instance, the lone phrase in which we learn that Ladivine mère is black—she builds a complex story of three desperately sad, searching lives. These scenes don’t tend to end well for the players, but NDiaye’s gift with language (rendered delicately by her translator, Stump) gives them surprising appeal. Clarisse calls her mother “the servant,” accepts her role as “the princess,” and celebrates her daughter as “that marvelous baby.” But as she withdraws further into herself, losing her husband and gaining a dangerous lover in the process, it becomes more and more difficult to get a sense of who this double-named woman really is. The reader’s desire to find out mirrors the longings of the two Ladivines. NDiaye reveals only as much reality as she wants to at any given moment, though—and therein lies her magic.
Come for the promise of a big reveal; stay for the beauty of small moments.
This touching chronicle of love and pain traces half a century in a family of five from the parents’ engagement in 1963 through a father’s and son’s psychological torments and a final crisis.
Something has happened to Michael in the opening pages, which are told in the voice of his brother, Alec. The next chapter is narrated by Margaret, the mother of Michael, 12, Celia, 10, and Alec, 7, and the wife of John, as they prepare for a vacation in Maine. Soon, a flashback reveals that shortly before John and Margaret were to wed, she learned of his periodic mental illness, a “sort of hibernation” in which “the mind closes down.” She marries him anyway and comes to worry about the recurrence of his hibernations—which exacerbate their constant money problems—only to witness Michael bearing the awful legacy. Each chapter is told by one of the family’s five voices, shifting the point of view on shared troubles, showing how they grow away from one another without losing touch, how they cope with the loss of John and the challenge of Michael. Haslett (Union Atlantic, 2009, etc.) shapes these characters with such sympathy, detail, and skill that reading about them is akin to living among them. The portrait of Michael stands out: a clever, winning youth who becomes a kind of scholar of contemporary music with an empathy for black history and a wretched dependence on Klonopin and many other drugs to keep his anxiety at bay, to glimpse a “world unfettered by dread.”
As vivid and moving as the novel is, it’s not because Haslett strives to surprise but because he’s so mindful and expressive of how much precious life there is in both normalcy and anguish.
A mother tries to reconcile the voices in her head and an extortionist estranged husband in a peculiar, stirring thriller.
Anna, the narrator of Millet’s 10th novel (Mermaids in Paradise, 2014, etc.), began hearing an inexplicable “stream of chatter” after her daughter, Lena, was born. The voices diminished after a year, and a split from her husband, Ned, prompted her to move from her native Alaska to a coastal Maine motel with a decidedly eerie cast; in time she’ll learn it’s an unwitting magnet for others with similar conditions. But Anna has more pressing problems: Ned is running for the Alaska state Senate and wants Anna and Lena to head back to Anchorage to serve as photo-op props. When Anna demurs, Ned turns threatening; when she tries to hasten a divorce, Lena is kidnapped. Millet has a knack for planting plainspoken, world-weary narrators in otherworldly circumstances, and Anna is one of her sharpest, most intriguingly philosophical creations. Though she considers medical and scientific reasons for the chatter (“filtered particles from the immense cloud of content carried by those millions of waves that pass through us all the time”), her head is also aswim with stories of mysterious symbiotic tree colonies and a “deeper language, an urge that underlies our patterns of survival.” Rather than feeling like two novels on separate tracks—New Age ramble and evil-ex drama—those threads braid effectively, especially when it comes to politics. If Ned’s campaign can stage-manage Anna’s life so effectively, how much of a force is it in everything else? Millet is content to leave the woollier questions unanswered, but the thriller writer in her brings the book to a satisfying climax.
A top-notch tale of domestic paranoia that owes a debt to spooky psychological page-turners like Rosemary’s Baby yet is driven by Millet’s particular offbeat thinking.
A brilliant, introspective, socially awkward software engineer navigates corporate and personal challenges.
Hipps’ classy debut novel bears an epigraph from The Moviegoer—“Businessmen are our only metaphysicians”—and earns comparison to Walker Percy’s classic in its exploration of their shared premise. Here the businessman is Henry Hurt, head of the tech department at a firm called Cyber Systems, located in an office tower in an unnamed Southern city. Though he loves his job and is exceedingly good at it, Henry doesn’t actually give a damn about Internet security software: “What moves me to work is money’s comforts, yes, and also a community of smart, mostly efficient people; the sense of place that a good office gives.” This sense of place has become all the more essential since the death less than a year ago of Henry’s mother, back in Minnesota where he was raised and where he ends up several times on business trips in the course of the story. There, he visits his failing father and younger sister, Gretchen, the closest person in his life. Rocked by his loss at a nearly preconscious level, Henry pours his psychic energies into the “adventures” of the title, one being the need to help save his company from a massive shortfall in sales; the other, a similarly massive crush on a married co-worker. The writing is just about perfect: incisive, eloquent, philosophical, and witty by turns, whether describing a NASCAR race, a hotel lobby, a corporate meeting, the comportment of the slick, devious, hard-drinking sales manager Henry works with, or—most profoundly—what it is like to lose one’s mother. “What were you doing in her closet?” Gretchen asks. “You know perfectly well,” Henry replies. “Yes,” she says. He explains to the reader: “I wanted to have a look at her bedroom slippers. The terry cloth inside is worn to a dark shine. They seemed among the most unlikely things in the world.” Like Richard Ford, Hipps finds illumination about the meaning of life everywhere he looks.
Historical and contemporary, lit with flashes of magic and violence, this intriguing novel offers multifaceted portraits of India and England as seen from the perspective of a clever, burdened misfit.
Released now in the U.S. after the success of his second novel, this prizewinning debut by Mukherjee (The Lives of Others, 2014) impresses with its fluid originality and ambition. Alternating chapters explore parallel narratives, one involving Miss Maud Gilby, an early-20th-century campaigner for women’s education in colonial Bengal, the other devoted to modern-day Ritwik Ghosh, who escapes from Calcutta via a two-year scholarship to a British university and then stays on beyond his visa to live in social limbo in London. Horribly abused by his mother, Ritwik abandoned India after his parents’ deaths but is now unmoored, with no religion or home, and is further marginalized by his homosexuality. Maud Gilby, meanwhile, turns out to be a minor character from fiction borrowed by Ritwik to feature in the story he's writing about India during a time of anti-British ferment, a tale of dislocated experience and exile mirroring Ritwik’s life. In London he descends into the gritty worlds of undocumented labor and prostitution, scenarios intercut with oddly tender episodes spent taking care of his landlady, an 86-year-old with a past in India whom he tends with a concern that he could never show to his own mother. Ritwik’s addiction to casual hookups draws him back repeatedly to the perilous yet thrilling sexual meat market around King’s Cross Station, where he will find an inverted salvation through his relationship with a shady foreigner but will also discover the price of apartness.
Consistently confounding expectations, Mukherjee’s story of the gathering descent of a solitary soul is both poignant and unsentimental, the work of a notably sophisticated writer.
In an alternative universe, John F. Kennedy was not killed in Dealey Plaza, but America is riven by Vietnam nonetheless.
Means has made a career writing deeply rendered short fiction: four collections, including The Spot (2010) and Assorted Fire Events (2000). His work is precise, relentless, unsentimental, an art of missed opportunities and missed connections, tracing, more than anything, the inevitability of loss. These same themes mark his first novel but in a manner we haven’t seen before. It’s not just the difference between long and short, although one of the pleasures of this dark and complex work is to see Means stretch out. Even more, however, it’s the novel’s manic energy, its mix of realism and satire, set in an alternative universe where Kennedy survived Dallas (and several other attempts on his life) to become a public martyr–in-the-making, “driving around in an open limo, with Jackie at his side, doing the hand-wave, the little movement, half-hearted, just a flick of the wrist, all slo-mo, the way the motorcade moved.” Kennedy is an ambiguous figure, architect of a failed Vietnam strategy that has led him to create the Psych Corps, a federal bureaucracy dedicated to wiping out the memories of returning veterans. The novel involves two such vets: Rake, who embarked on a Charlie Starkweather–type killing spree with his young girlfriend, and Singleton, an agent who must track the killer down. That’s the traditional part of the story, but this is not a traditional narrative. Rather, it offers a mélange of reference points—Starkweather, John Kennedy Toole (the novel is constructed as a book within a book, written by a suicide), and even, with its editor’s notes and contextual material, Nabokov—set in a world that has unraveled in its own apocalyptic way. One unintended irony is the role of Flint, Michigan, devastated by fire and environmental degradation, where part of the novel is set. But Means is less interested here in where we are going than where we have been. “Don’t accuse the kid of bending history,” he insists. “Accuse history of bending the kid. And the war, the war bent him, too. Like so many, he came back changed.”
Means' first novel is a compelling portrait of an imagined counterhistory that feels entirely real.
Middle-aged parents and hormone-addled teenagers all have some growing up to do—entertainingly—in the course of one hot Brooklyn summer.
Straub’s last novel, The Vacationers (2014), took place on Mallorca and was a perfect vacation between two covers. Her new book is set in a grittier locale, but in Straub’s fond gaze, it too feels like an enchanted land out of a Shakespearan comedy: “Ditmas Park was great in the summertime. The sycamores and oaks were full and wide, leaving big pools of shade along the sidewalks. Families were on their porches…Neighbors waved.” She takes us inside two of the area’s rambling yet run-down Victorian houses and introduces their owners: Elizabeth, a real estate agent, and Andrew, whose family trust has allowed him to get to his late 40s without much of a career, and their sweet son, Harry; and Zoe and Jane, who own a busy restaurant and live with their daughter, Ruby, who describes herself as having a “bad attitude.” Years ago, Elizabeth, Andrew, and Zoe were in a band together at Oberlin, which would have been completely forgotten except that their fourth band mate, Lydia, had a smash hit as a solo artist with one of Elizabeth’s songs, “Mistress of Myself,” before dying of an overdose. Now Hollywood has come calling, wanting to make a movie about Lydia, but for some reason Andrew doesn’t want to sell their rights to the song. Meanwhile, Zoe thinks she wants a divorce, Harry and Ruby start sleeping together when they’re supposed to be studying for the SAT, Andrew is hanging out at a creepy yoga studio, and Elizabeth frets that their idyllic life might be changing and tries to hold them all together. In chapters whose points of view rotate among the players, Straub pays close and loving attention to what foods her characters eat, what they have hanging on their walls, where their money comes from and goes, and the subtle fluctuations of their varying relationships. She’s a precise and observant writer whose supple prose carries the story along without a snag.
Straub’s characters are a quirky and interesting bunch, well aware of their own good fortune, and it’s a pleasure spending time with them in leafy Ditmas Park.