Moore’s (The Poison Artist, 2016, etc.) complex and often deeply disturbing crime noir set in the City by the Bay delves into dark subjects and the insidious nature of true evil.
Two things happen almost simultaneously to San Francisco Police Inspector Gavin Cain: as he and his newly minted partner, Grassley, stand at the grave of Christopher Hanley, a young boy who died years ago, and watch as the casket is exhumed, following up on a tip, he's summoned to tackle a new challenge. His lieutenant has him flown by helicopter to City Hall to consult with the mayor, Harry Castelli, concerning a series of photographs and a note he received. The photos show a beautiful blonde woman who is clearly terrified, but even more disturbing is the note, which indicates that more photos will come unless Castelli kills himself. Castelli says he doesn't know the woman in the photographs and has no idea why anyone would urge him to commit suicide. Cain and FBI agent Karen Fischer struggle to identify the mysterious and apparently doomed blonde in the black-and-white photos, which they believe were taken 30 years earlier. Meanwhile, Cain, whose personal life is already complicated enough—his girlfriend, Lucy, hasn’t left her home in four years—is stunned to discover that Christopher Hanley's casket contained not only the corpse of the dead teen, but also the desiccated body of a woman who, judging by the evidence, was buried alive. Moore sketches Cain with a spare pen, leaving the reader to fill in most of the blanks, but his knowledge of police procedure and the nature of the job is immaculate. Moody and macabre with an Edgar Allan Poe feel to it, this book leaves an uncomfortable, indelible impression that can’t be shaken by simply putting it down. The featureless Cain and his search for the woman in the casket are irresistible.
An incendiary thriller featuring the return of Birmingham, Alabama, detective Cooper Devereaux (False Positive, 2015).
As Tyler Shaw watches the fire he’s set, he sees the souls of sinners. He considers himself a genius, a Michelangelo of arson. School fires are his current specialty, though he may later expand his repertoire. Cooper is one of the investigators interviewing virtually everyone connected with Birmingham’s school system—so many that “evidently you’re not cool if you’re not a suspect.” There’s even a false confession. “We need to catch this arsonist,” Capt. Emrich helpfully demands, and Cooper is working hard. Orphaned at age 6, he grew up among the “dregs of society" and made a living by ripping off the criminals, which led to a checkered career as a cop—“me and trouble with the job are old friends,” he says. His long-separated ex-girlfriend Alexandra is raising their 7-year-old, Nicole, a “sweet little daughter” who secretly draws disturbing pictures and brutalizes her dolls. Birmingham Tribune reporter Diane McKinzie is also investigating the fires while raising her 15-year-old son, Daniel. The lad is a whining, insulting smartass who says “You’re the worst mother in the world.” He knows his destiny is to become the century’s greatest physicist, and Mom isn’t nearly attentive and supportive enough to suit him. Daniel is just too smart, having been “disqualified from an important science competition because his entry was too advanced for the idiot teachers to comprehend.” Oh, please. Then Diane deliberately burns herself but doesn’t flinch. Tension escalates as investigators find skeletons under the floor of a burned-out middle school. The story zips along, with many chapters only a page or two long. It’s chockablock with disturbed characters and one too many self-described geniuses, but Cooper is solid—decent, flawed, and entertaining.
A collection of stories unified in theme—the struggles of women claiming independence for themselves—but wide-ranging in conception and form.
The women who populate this collection from the novelist and essayist Gay (Bad Feminist, 2014, etc.) are targets for aggressions both micro and macro, from the black scholar in “North Country” who receives constant unwelcome advances and questions of “Are you from Detroit?” to the sisters brutally held in captivity while teenagers in the bracing and subtle “I Will Follow You.” Gay savvily navigates the ways circumstances of gender and class alter the abuses: “Florida” is a cross-section of the women in a wealthy development, from the aimless, neglected white housewives to the Latina fitness trainer who’s misunderstood by them. The men in these stories sometimes come across as caricatures, archetypal violent misogynist-bigots like the wealthy white man playing dress-up with hip-hop culture and stalking the student/stripper in “La Negra Blanca.” But again, Gay isn’t given to uniform indictments: “Bad Priest” is a surprisingly tender story about a priest and the woman he has an affair with, and “Break All the Way Down” is a nuanced study of a woman’s urge for pain in a relationship after the loss of her son. Gay writes in a consistently simple style, but like a longtime bar-band leader, she can do a lot with it: repeating the title phrase in “I Am a Knife” evokes the narrator’s sustained experience with violence, and the title story satirizes snap judgments of women as “loose,” “frigid,” and “crazy” with plainspoken detail. When she applies that style to more allegorical or speculative tales, though, the stories stumble: “Requiem for a Glass Heart” is an overworked metaphorical study of fragility in relationships; “The Sacrifice of Darkness” is ersatz science fiction about the sun’s disappearance; “Noble Things” provocatively imagines a second Civil War but without enough space to effectively explore it.
Not every story works, but Gay is an admirable risk-taker in her exploration of women’s lives and new ways to tell their stories.
A true-crime account of an Arctic mass murder in the 1940s blends subtly with a prophecy about the dangers of cyberaddiction.
Millman (Giant Polypores and Stoned Reindeer, 2013, etc.) writes about remote places with an ecologist’s conscience, and he has expressed a preference for destinations beyond the reach of Google. So it’s easy to see how this little-known tragedy came to obsess him and to appreciate how he skillfully provides parallels to contemporary times on the dangers of one culture infiltrating another. He quotes George Bernard Shaw on the Bible as “the most dangerous book on earth” and shows how it became so within one isolated Inuit community. A meteor shower convinced some that the end of the world was near, and one man convinced his neighbors that he was Jesus incarnate and that another man was God. What happened next horrified and embarrassed the Inuit culture, and they did their best to forget it, while the Canadian justice system treated it differently than if the crimes were committed outside the culture rather than within it. But as one of the natives the author met suggested, “try to kill the past and it will get stronger and more angry…like a polar bear you’ve shot and only wounded.” Millman’s investigation details how “God” and “Jesus,” along with others, began to see signs of “Satan” among their neighbors and ended up committing or ordering multiple murders of those possessed by the devil. Some were acquitted on temporary insanity, while others were given wrist-slap sentences for lesser offenses such as manslaughter. “By comparison, the Salem witchcraft trials could claim only one Satan,” writes the author. Providing contemporary context, the author chronicles one of his exploratory visits to the Arctic, which coincided with 9/11. Millman sees the internet and the cyberculture surrounding it as the new Bible and its worshippers destroying the culture it has ostensibly improved.
Even those who find the jeremiad too strident should be impressed with the manner by which Millman connects the dots.
A wide-ranging debut collection that spans time, genre, and place.
It isn’t often that readers open a book of literary short stories and find themselves launched from the very first page into a Western, complete with a brothel, saloon, bank robbery, and a narrator who says things like, “Alone, jest us two, in what I had by then guessed was her actual room, tho it had none of the marks of the individual, the whore put the whiskey between my fingers.” The story, “West of the Known,” is one of two Western-style tales in Benz’s book, and it exemplifies what she's best at: trying on voices and settings like costumes and using them as a lens through which to view contemporary life. The variety of these stories is striking. “The Peculiar Narrative of the Remarkable Particulars in the Life of Orrinda Thomas” is an epistolary tale in the voice of a slave who finds notoriety as a poet; “Adela” takes the form of a 19th-century gothic tale with scholarly annotations. This kitchen-sink approach is not without risk. As in any ambitious performance, readers may sometimes feel Benz straining to embody, say, the voice of a 16th-century monk. But when the author finds a fit, she soars, as in “James III,” the story of a young boy running away from an abusive stepfather. Perhaps as impressive is Benz's ability to connect historical experiences of race and gender to the present day with subtlety. As the book ends, its final sentence, set in the 1500s, resonates outward: “Make me a clean heart. Renew a right spirit within me…O God, in the most corrupt of centuries, hear my prayer.”
An ambitious book that marks Benz as a writer to watch.
A biographer debuts with the astonishing story of Comtesse Valtesse de la Bigne (1848-1910), who rose from poverty and prostitution to enormous wealth, influence, and controversy.
Hewitt—who studied French literature and art, pursuits that led her to the woman she calls Valtesse through much of the tale—begins with the serendipitous discovery in 1933 of some of Valtesse’s vast art collection. The author then retreats to the 1840s and tells us the compelling story of Valtesse’s mother, a woman who returns much later on to threaten her daughter’s hard-won status. Born as “Louise,” Valtesse was fortunate with her stunning good looks (lustrous red hair her most striking feature), and although she began as a street prostitute, her looks, good fortune, and insatiable desires to read and learn transformed her quickly into a highly desirable companion for powerful men. She eventually amassed a fortune, educated herself broadly, collected priceless works of art, associated with some of the great artists of her time, including Manet and Édouard Detaille, lived in great opulence, and became a glittering celebrity. Hewitt’s work is nonjudgmental and even, at times, drop-jawed admiring. Every new twist in Valtesse’s life brings surprises. She published books that sold well, created works of art for popular shows (one attended by Buffalo Bill), dazzled the south of France, and survived some potentially damning court cases (two involving her mother). Hewitt shows us Valtesse’s circumspection, as well: her great care to avoid scandal (one episode, sex on a train, threatened and then diminished) and her preparation for retirement. The author’s diction is at times a little conventional and even clichéd. She writes, for example, that Valtesse “had won the heart of Paris.” But her intriguing portrait shines through.
A thoroughly researched and clearly written account of a determined and talented woman and of an era.
“Once again I had the strong feeling, when flying into the valley, that I was leaving the twenty-first century entirely”: another perilous Preston (The Kraken Project, 2014, etc.) prestidigitation.
The noted novelist and explorer is well-known for two things: going out and doing things that would get most people killed and turning up ways to get killed that might not have occurred to readers beforehand but will certainly be on their minds afterward. Here, the adventure involves finding a lost civilization in the heart of the Honduran rain forest, a steaming-jungle sort of place called La Mosquitia that saw the last gasps of a culture related, by ideas if not blood, to the classic Maya. That connection makes archaeological hearts go pitter-patter, and it sets archaeological blood to boiling when well-funded nonarchaeologists go in search of suchlike things, armed with advanced GPS and other technological advantages. Preston, who blends easily with all camps, braves the bad feelings of the professionals to chart out a well-told, easily digested history of the region, a place sacred to and overrun by jaguars, spider monkeys, and various other deities and tutelary spirits. Finding the great capital known, in the neutral parlance of the scholars, as T1 puts Preston and company square in various cross hairs, not least of them those of the Honduran army, whose soldiers, he divines, are on hand not to protect the place from looters but to do some looting themselves. “I’ve seen this kind of corruption all over the world,” says one member of the expedition, “believe me, that’s what’s going to happen.” Yes, but more than that—and the snakes and spiders and vengeful spirits—there’s the specter of a spectacularly awful, incurable disease called leishmaniasis, on the introduction of which Preston goes all Hot Zone and moves from intrepid explorer to alarmed epidemiologist.
A story that moves from thrilling to sobering, fascinating to downright scary—trademark Preston, in other words, and another winner.
A fictionalized account of events before and after the killing of Osama bin Laden, seen through the eyes of two men on opposite sides of the conflict.
April, 2011. The title character, MI6 officer Ed Malik, has a tense meeting in Kabul with the British ambassador to Afghanistan, who, unlike Malik, favors force over diplomacy in international relations. Malik’s job managing agents to gather intelligence is immensely challenging. Lately he’s been trying out an agent code-named Nightingale, a pretentious and unpredictable man embedded in Pakistan, who wants permission to befriend Noman Butt, a terrorist officer the reader learns is working directly with the hidden bin Laden. Virtually born into the conflict, Noman’s path was set when his mother’s death from oppressive heat consigned him to an orphanage at the tender age of 4. He’s dismayed by American attacks nearing bin Laden’s location. Though there seems no other explanation, Noman is slow to believe that his friend Tariq is the traitor Malik knows as Nightingale. Ed realizes that Nightingale is trapped with little possibility of escape and will probably be sacrificed for the mission. While he’s on the phone with the terrified young man, there’s an ominous gunshot and an unidentified man takes hold of the receiver at the other end. Returning to Britain, Ed is suspended and resolves to make a bold move in order to regain his confidence and reputation, setting himself up against Noman.
Conway (Rock Creek Park, 2012, etc.) finds an offbeat way to recast an iconic piece of recent history through the personal stories of a pair of vastly different characters.
The psychoemotional precision of Maupassant in an elegant new translation by celebrated translator Howard.
Olivier Bertin is the most sought-after portraitist in Paris. Exalted not just for his talent and refined technique, but also the ease with which he blends with Parisian society, he is handsome and charming, but, though he never lacks for admirers, he has never loved—until he's thunderstruck by the sight of a lovely young woman in mourning clothes at a party and contrives to paint her portrait and, with luck, seduce her. Soon Anne, the comtesse de Guilleroy, a canny, resourceful woman, married with a young daughter, comes to sit for him. After minimal resistance or moral questioning, Anne accepts that she returns the painter’s affections and bears no remorse as they embark on a passionate affair that, though Anne remains married to the oblivious count, lasts for many years and settles into the comfort, habit, and thoughtless affection of a contented marriage. Now a young woman herself, Anne’s daughter, Annette, returns to Paris from her childhood spent at her grandmother’s estate in Eure, and, though Anne is pleased to have her home, she is increasingly haunted by her dissipating youth and distressed by comparisons of their beauty: judgments which generally favor the younger woman. Olivier, also realizing the consequences of passing years—on his body and prevailing artistic tastes—feels a surge of renewed passion for his mistress on Annette’s return, seeing in her daughter all he admired in Anne when their love was still new. It’s here that Maupassant best depicts, with meticulous care and nuance, the neuroses and internal struggles of these lovers as they grapple for control over their emotions and the unstoppable onrush of time.
A finely shaded portrait of desire, will, and the complex entanglements of love, set against cutting social commentary from a realist master.