Archive for Police

Emily Littlejohn: A Season to Lie

I read many, many, mysteries, in the neighborhood of two a week, enjoying many of them and loving fewer. When I pick up a novel like this one by Emily Littlejohn, I am forcibly and joyfully reminded of the reasons I love this genre so much. This is simply a wonderful mystery, and even better, it reminded me of another series by another favorite writer of mine, Julia Spencer-Fleming.

Littlejohn’s novel is set in a little Colorado town—one that’s on the “B” ski resort list (unlike the “A” list Vail or Aspen), and happy with that status. The setting, as in Spencer-Fleming’s novels set in upstate New York, is practically a character, as Detective Gemma Monroe drives along the treacherous mountain roads, hemmed in by trees and snow.

Gemma is just back from maternity leave when she and her partner (she’s on the graveyard shift) get called out to the local private school on a suspicious prowler call. The Valley Academy, remote and gated, requires the two cops to split up in a raging blizzard and look for anything out of place on the quiet campus. They find something: a dead man, stabbed in the gut, out in a blizzard with no coat. He turns out to be a famous author who has been teaching a few classes at the academy incognito.

Preserving the crime scene as much as possible in a blizzard, the two find a note stuffed in the dead man’s mouth: “This is only the beginning.” They think they may be looking for a serial killer. As they begin to unravel the man’s life, they get drawn into the culture of the school where other things seem to be happening, one of them a form of bullying so cruel and so sneaky that the kids affected are completely traumatized by it.

The underlying theme seems to be fairy tales—the bully at the school is known as “Grimm” and the cottage where the dead man’s best friend lives seems like a witch’s stone house at the edge of the forest. Gemma even encounters a local construction guy, who may have mob ties, quoting Yeats’ poem The Stolen Child to her while she’s at lunch:

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand 

While this all sounds creepily fey, Littlejohn has grounded her clever mystery in the details of ordinary life. While Gemma is delighted to be back at work, she still misses and loves her baby, and her boss has set aside a room for her to pump breast milk. I can’t imagine another genre of writing where such a telling detail of a woman’s life would be included, and that’s just another reason I love mystery novels. They tend to illuminate woman’s lives incredibly well.

Along with fairy tales, Gemma is herself struggling with what it means to be a grown up, embracing what’s beautiful in life along with the other parts of life that aren’t so lovely: distrust, fear, aging relatives, murder. It gives the book a real heft.

With the rich array of believable and interesting, fleshed out characters, a memorable setting, a clever mystery, and an underlying theme that adds a creepy intensity to the whole novel, this book and this new series is a real stand out.

Carrie Smith: Unholy City

With her clear prose and careful gaze, Carrie Smith has quickly become one of my favorite authors. British or American, I love a police procedural, and some of my favorite authors of all time include Lillian O’Donnell, Leslie Glass, Barbara D’Amato, Lynn Hightower and Lee Martin, all authors of the American police procedural. These writers feature a female cop as the central protagonist and from O’Donnell on forward, all have encountered, in their different ways, varieties of sexism and discrimination. Unfortunately, the history line beginning with O’Donnell’s The Phone Calls in 1972 to Carrie Smith’s 2017 Unholy City hasn’t changed all that radically.

Claire Codella, Smith’s main character, is a cancer survivor who is given crap assignments by her boss through a combination of jealousy (she made a name for herself with her first big case) and a tendency to think she’s too “weak” to do her job, thanks to her illness. While the details of Codella’s work environment and relationships give the books a welcome heft, they are not the main attraction. As with all the other writers mentioned, the story is the thing, and Smith is a top-notch storyteller.

With each novel she’s taken a look inside different pockets of Manhattan – schools, the theater, ritzy old age homes – in this novel she tackles the church, in the form of a venerable old Episcopalian outpost, St. Paul’s, complete with its own crematorium, graveyard and back garden. Into every garden, unfortunately, a little rain must fall and in this novel it takes the form of the corpse of one of the parishioners. The body of one of the more outspoken vestry members is found by another parishioner after a vestry meeting, and all hell breaks loose, in the most Episcopalian sense of the word.

Good Episcopalians all, the members of the vestry and even the rector herself are hiding or holding things inside, which unfortunately, results in a spate of deaths. Because of the set-up Smith has created more or less a locked room murder, as the only people who could have done it were all at the vestry meeting or connected to the church in some way. A group of homeless men sleeping at the church for the night are quickly ruled out, and it’s up to Codella and her boyfriend Heggerty (the lead on the case) to sort things out. Smith is a brisk and clear storyteller but she also has a good grasp of character and a deft hand at portraying it. This is a very enjoyable read, both as a police novel and as a detective novel. I continue to look forward to whatever Smith comes up with next.

Michael Connelly: The Late Show

Michael Connelly has seamlessly launched a new character and series, introducing Detective Renee Ballard. Ballard works “The Late Show,” or the overnight shift, and she’s in a bit of purgatory as she’s accused her former boss of sexual harassment. When the charges went nowhere (her old partner didn’t back her up), she was booted to the Late Show, where she catches cases but isn’t able to follow them through to a conclusion. She instead turns them over to the pertinent department – homicide, robbery, etc. She’s feeling the lack of follow-through – she’s not as engaged in her job and her partner, who works the late shift to get home and care for a wife with cancer, doesn’t have the same focus she does.

Connelly sets up the character with several unique details – Ballard, a surfer girl, basically lives in her car with her dog and her surfboards, though she calls her Grandmother’s house (a good two hours away), home. This establishes her as the classic outsider/loner that Connelly so prizes in all of his characters – Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller are both rogue outsiders. The police jargon and detail is also familiar to any reader of the Bosch books, but it’s like Connelly has given himself a re-boot with a new character.

The plot centers on a nightclub shooting with the investigation being run by Ballard’s old boss. Ballard follows up on the death of a waitress who was “collateral damage” and it snags her attention. Her follow through and attention to detail draw her into the case despite the fact that she’s just supposed to turn over anything she finds to the day crew. When Ballard’s former partner is killed, it becomes truly impossible for her to keep away. She’s also following up on the brutal beating of a transvestite hooker which leads her into a very bad situation.

It was at that turn of the plot that I almost gave up on this book. A male writer writing a female character whose career is defined by sexual harassment who then puts this character into a classic type of fem-jep situation has to tread pretty carefully. Thankfully, he does, and quickly moves past this particular plot turn. When I thought about it I thought it made sense for the plot, but I still felt it was unnecessary. However, Connelly’s plotting skills and incredible skill with characters had me quickly flipping pages until the end of the novel – as I do with every Connelly novel. This is a great addition to his body of work.

Louise Penny: Glass Houses

Forget retirement. Gamache is now head of the ENTIRE Surete. After the events of the last novel, Gamache has taken on corruption on a larger scale – he’s literally moved on from the academy to the world at large. Penny, as always, skillfully layers her story. In this outing, she jumps between Gamache’s testimony at a trial, a murder in Three Pines, and the Surete’s – and Gamache’s – fear of the drug crisis, specifically the opioid epidemic and how best to fight it. While Julia Keller’s new book (Fast Falls the Night) also focuses on the opioid epidemic, she goes for the personal; Penny goes for the epic. Keller’s view is far more pessimistic than Penny’s ultimately optimistic one.

The murder in Three Pines comes after an especially creepy set-up. I think in an alternate universe, Penny might be a writer of gothic ghost stories, as many of her books have that kind of spooky element. In this one, there’s a figure in a black hood and a mask, standing unmoving on the green in Three Pines. He’s very unsettling, refuses to answer questions, and eventually there’s a kind of cone of silence surrounding him – kids no longer play there, there’s no activity of any kind. There’s just a kind of dreadful silence. As in the best ghost stories, you’re more creeped out by what’s in your own imagination than by what’s on the page, though that’s creepy enough.

It turns out the figure is an early incarnation of what in Spain is known as a Cobrador del Frac, a figure who dresses in top hat and tails and follows someone around who owes a debt. They usually pay up, as public shaming is a very powerful tool. The earlier incarnation was simply a “conscience” – they were out for a karmic debt to be paid, so to speak. So of course in Three Pines, everyone is wondering just whose karmic debt needs attention. The question, of course, is answered by a murder, but that’s all I can say without giving away points of this clever plot.

Penny is very concerned in this novel with conscience – there’s even a chapter (chapter 8, as another avid reader pointed out), detailing conscience and how past deeds affect various Three Pines residents. Conscience, and ultimately, justice – whether inside or outside of law – becomes the overriding theme of the book. I think this is a theme that has concerned mystery writers, with its rogue police officers, amateur sleuths, and knitting old ladies, from time immemorial. Would you work outside the set rule of law to do what adheres to the rules – or do what is just? I think we mystery readers know the answer, and mystery writers have been helping us figure it out with their clever, well told stories, from Wilkie Collins on forward.

How great that we as readers also get to enjoy a fabulous story as we ponder right and wrong. To me, that’s what makes mysteries the greatest and most enjoyable of all genres. Louise Penny adds her beautiful words and stories to this canon. The end of the novel, as all Louise Penny novels do, had me dissolved in tears, but a Penny novel offers a good cry. You feel cleansed after reading the book. That explains a great deal of her popularity, I think, but so do Gamache and Three Pines itself. Now to wait a whole other year until the next book…

Theresa Schwegel: The Lies We Tell

Theresa Schwegel is a brilliant and underappreciated writer (despite an Edgar win for her first novel, Officer Down). She is a difficult writer, though, and refuses to sugarcoat anything. She also writes her novels in first person, present tense, which some people find off-putting. That said, she’s one of the more original and vivid writers in mystery fiction. Everything she writes is memorable and worth a look, and this novel, her sixth, is no exception.

Most of her novels concern female police officers, and so does this one, though with the twist that the officer in question, Gina Simonetti, is dealing with the beginnings of MS and hiding it from her employer. Schwegel tackles health care as a central theme and it’s deftly woven through her plot, touching on Gina’s health, the case Gina becomes invested in, and the thread of easy access to and misuse of prescription drugs.

As an opening salvo, Gina chases down one Johnny Marble, who has apparently beaten his elderly mother when he shows up to visit her in the hospital. During the course of the chase, Gina’s MS prevents her from doing anything but falling on top of Marble, who takes her gun and escapes. For this reason, Gina becomes desperate to find him and find a way to neutralize his testimony, so that the “Job” will not discover her debilitating illness.

Gina, along with being a strong, kick-ass woman, is also a stubborn one, who is resisting her new health reality while trying to work full time as well as take care of her brother’s 2-year-old, who has now lived with Gina long enough to call her “mama.” The complex plot weaves together a heartbreaking story of the elderly woman in the hospital, Gina’s struggles managing her single mom status along with her hopes of retaining custody, and her attempt to lead an investigation under the radar as her search for Johnny Marble intensifies.

She has some under the radar helpers, and stubbornly resists that help, but in the end, she’s forced to take it. As the novel is told from Gina’s point of view, the picture of Gina that an outsider might glean is only absorbed slowly. When a story is being related in the first person, the reader sometimes second guesses behaviors and actions the character takes, and has to form their own opinion of that character. That’s the difficult part of Schwegel’s writing, and it’s also the brilliant part as the reader is forced to assume an almost active role in the story she’s telling.

The references and social concerns are up to the minute, and health care, while not a sexy topic, is certainly an important one. The casual use of pills and applications of prescription drugs is troubling, but realistic. Fortunately for the lucky reader, these concerns are wrapped in the package of a hard to put down thriller. I can’t recommend checking out this author more highly.

Jonathan Moore: The Dark Room

I like starting a new year with a new discovery. I read an advance reading copy of this novel, which I plucked from the giant slush pile we have of such books. Sometimes one will call to me, and this one did. It feels very much like a series book though it apparently is not (that would be my one objection). Set in San Francisco, we meet homicide cop Gavin Cain, who is called in by the mayor after the mayor receives some compromising photographs with a request from the anonymous sender that the mayor do the world a favor and kill himself. When Gavin has his initial meeting with him, the mayor denies knowing anything about the photographs, which show a woman handcuffed, then undressed and obviously drugged.

Initially annoyed to be called in, Gavin’s been taken away from the culmination of another case involving the exhumation of a body. He has to dispatch his new, green partner to keep watch in the ME’s office and make sure everything goes as it should.

The FBI is involved with the mayor’s case as well, and the FBI agent in charge and Gavin form a good working partnership. As Gavin makes headway he also meets with the mayor’s disturbing family – a wife who is obviously an alcoholic and a daughter in art school who seems to take off all her clothes every time she’s around Gavin. He makes sure not to be alone with her. At that point, I was strongly reminded of Ross MacDonald’s California stories of wealthy and dysfunctional families.

Telling too much more of the plot would involve massive spoilers, but it’s not giving much away to say that the two cases are connected. There’s also a personal wrinkle for Gavin: he lives with a woman who hasn’t left her home in several years because of a traumatic incident in her past. The book is stuffed with great backstories begging to be revealed, an interesting main character, and good police procedural detail that makes a tricky, well crafted plot move ahead like lightning. As mentioned before, I wish this was a first in a series, but it’s a well told, enjoyable story. I would definitely seek out more titles by this author.

Carrie Smith: Forgotten City

Forgotten CityCarrie shared the manuscript of this novel with me – I inhaled it and loved it and then didn’t (or forgot to) write my review. I had to come back to it and re-read it thoughtfully. I still love this book and this author. Carrie is part of a long line of beloved authors (for me at least) that include Lillian O’Donnell, Barbara D’Amato, Leslie Glass, Lynn Hightower, and Lee Martin/Anne Wingate, women who wrote about female police officers or detectives who are juggling family and personal issues along with the day to day sexism they encounter on the job. O’Donnell’s first novel was published in 1972 and the sexism doesn’t seem to have changed much.

While Smith’s main character Claire Codella is not juggling marriage and children along with her job, she is juggling a bout with cancer and her subsequent follow up care along with a new relationship with a fellow detective. She’s cautious, personally (the reasons for that are explicated in this novel) and not so cautious professionally, making the intuitive leaps that a great detective makes, much to the annoyance of her superior officer.

The story centers on an exclusive Alzheimer’s care facility in Manhattan, final home to many of New York’s rich and powerful. The book opens with the death of Broadway legend Lucy Merchant, who suffered from early onset Alzheimer’s and is found dead in her room one morning at the relatively young age of 56. Merchant’s daughter is not satisfied with the “natural causes” explanation, and pushes Codella, who at the moment is without a case, to look into her mother’s death. Codella reluctantly does so, getting more and more invested as each new revelation comes out. It quickly appears that Lucy has died of a drug overdose.

Smith’s storytelling style is both intimate – we get to know Clare, her fellow detectives, and the characters in the case, thoroughly – and epic, as she includes plot lines about a transgender character, sexual assault, the privileges of power, and the care of older people while taking a look at the class divide between cared for and caregiver. None of this is a polemic, but it’s folded neatly into Smith’s brisk story, which is ultimately a great example of the police procedural novel.

Smith’s prose is frequently lovely, as well, which is an added bonus. Two books into this series, I am already a diehard fan.

Michael Connelly: The Wrong Side of Goodbye

the-wrong-side-of-goodbyeIt’s been awhile since I’ve enjoyed a Michael Connelly book as much as I enjoyed this one. I always enjoy them, don’t get me wrong, but some of the fizz was gone for a couple books there. It seems to be back in a big way in this new Harry Bosch novel, where Bosch takes on not one, but two, cases and arrives at a meaningful and satisfying solution for each one.

As the book opens, Bosch is requested to meet with reclusive billionaire Whitney Vance. Vance has made his fortune in steel. As Bosch heads over to meet him in an uncharacteristic jacket and tie, he thinks “he was calling on six billion dollars,” a nice nod to Raymond Chandler, and the plot, as it always does in a Connelly novel, takes off in a rocket powered fashion from there.

Vance is looking for an heir.   He’s 85, knows he doesn’t have long, and wants to see his vast fortune go to family. While Connelly doesn’t have the prose chops that Chandler had, Chandler’s got nothing on Connelly when it comes to pure plot. This many books in (this is the 21st Bosch title) Connelly is a solid pro and he’s comfortable with it. The ease of reading seems to equate with the ease with which Connelly relates a story. Like watching a great athlete, it’s relaxing – you know there won’t be a misstep and it’s always nice to be around perfection in whatever form it takes.

As Bosch gets to looking for an heir, he uncovers a trail of heartbreak that is surprisingly moving. Connelly was able to make me care about the character stories he’s relating as he follows the trail in a remarkably short swath of prose.

Meanwhile, he’s left the police force under something of a shadow, and he’s working as a reserve officer for the San Fernando PD, a small department. He also works as a PI (hence his job for Vance) and is able to set his own hours. This seems like a nice resolution, to me, of what should Harry do after leaving the LAPD? It didn’t work for me so well when he was just a PI, though I enjoyed the last novel, The Crossing, when he teamed up with his defense attorney brother on what he saw as the wrong side of the courtroom.

In any case his reserve status gives him the freedom he always wanted as a tormented homicide cop for the LAPD, and San Fernando is lucky to have a cop of Bosch’s quality ion their side. He and one of the full time detectives are working on the case of a serial rapist they are calling the Screen Cutter, as the rapist cuts the screens of his victims and gets into their homes that way. Both he and his partner, for want of a better word, feel there’s another one coming and they are working to prevent it from happening.

As always, a Bosch novel is a mix of procedure, well delineated characters, a side bar of Harry’s personal life, and the plotting of a master. The two cases race to a side by side conclusion, with Bosch resolving both. While Connelly’s prose is workmanlike, his heart is not, and there are buried nuggets of profound thought interspersed throughout the novel. In 50 years I think mystery writers of the future will be citing Connelly as their major influence just as writers today cite Chandler. Long may he write.

John Keyse-Walker: Sun, Sand, Murder

sunsandMr. Keyse-Walker is the winner of the Mystery Writers of America/Minotaur Books First Crime Novel award (the award being publication), so I turned to it with some interest. Past winners of Minotaur/St. Martin’s contests include Steve Hamilton, Michael Koryta and Julia Spencer-Fleming, so the bar is somewhat high. I was at first jarred as I opened a novel set on tiny Anegada, a remote member of the British Virgin Islands. The main character is special constable Teddy Creque, who is a native islander. The author, a lawyer from Ohio, couldn’t seem more removed from his character, but then I decided the guy who wrote Memoirs of a Geisha wasn’t very much like his character either, so I settled in.

Keyse-Walker is a natural storyteller. While some of the tropes are familiar—the small town cop (the “town” just happens to be one of the Virgin Islands, so his beat includes the beach), the sidekick, the mistress and the chaotic and expected family life—Keyse-Walker adds his own sparkle to the proceedings, making reading this novel very enjoyable.

I especially loved the sidekick, De White Rasta, a white English man who spends his days happily stoned, sleeping on the beach, and bothering nobody. When De White Rasta alerts the police that he’s found a body, Teddy isn’t sure whether to believe him, and takes him along on a bumpy jeep ride, only to indeed discover a dead body covered with scavenging tiny crabs. The body, that of a professor studying the island’s iguanas, raises more questions than it answers. Who would want to kill a man studying iguanas who lived in the back of a bar, all his belongings stored in plastic crates?

Teddy gets into a bit of trouble as he moves the body (and throws up next to it) thus destroying the crime scene; he’s put on suspension, to take place later, and ordered not to investigate. This is a mystery novel, however, so of course Teddy investigates, with the help of De White Rasta, perhaps one of my favorite sidekicks in recent memory.

In fact, while this novel was expected in many ways, it was unexpected in many others, including the excellent denouement and surprising solution to the crime. The setting was the icing on the cake, and if you’ve ever visited the Virgin Islands, you’ll realize it’s pretty authentic. I found myself smiling along with Teddy as he attempted to crack his first case. I hope there will be more.

Louise Penny: A Great Reckoning

5192hTW7qxL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_I love Louise Penny, and that’s no secret. There are many, many readers out there who share my adoration. But I was starting to wonder how she could move forward with Gamache being essentially retired in Three Pines… it’s too much like paradise and it’s too settled. There are few reasons to bring him into a case, other than his new son-in-law.

But Ms. Penny has found a way to get Gamache out of the house, so to speak, by making him the new head of the Surete Academy, where new cadets are trained. Of course Gamache being Gamache, he also has an ulterior motive, though it’s clear to no one how he is implementing his plan to clear the academy of rampant corruption. He’s demoted the most recent head of the academy and not fired him, but kept him on staff. He also hires his old frenemy, Michel Brebeuf.

At this point in the series, it certainly adds meaning and emotional resonance to have read all the books (as I suspect most of Penny’s readers have) but coming to this novel uninitiated would not be a bad start. As with all the novels, the story stands well on its own, while also bringing in familiar and well loved characters, like Ruth and Clara.

This novel is truly written on the classic detective story model with a more or less locked room scenario (the Academy), a small circle of suspects, and a healthy scattering of red herrings, not the least of which is a hand drawn map of Three Pines found in an old trunk in the Bistro. Madam Gamache and a group of Three Pines women have been going through the trunk and find this oddity.

A small circle of suspects can either be tedious – if they aren’t well done characters – or fascinating, if the characters are memorable, as they are here. As the story opens Gamache is looking through the files of applicants and deciding on admittance, changing his mind several times on one last cadet, Amelia Choquet. She is accepted, and certainly problematic.

The story focuses on four cadets as well as the fragments of Gamache’s and Brebeuf’s friendship, as well as the traumatic start of Gamache’s young adult life. All fits in with the early on killing of the former head of the academy, a polarizing figure, hated by some, loved by others.

Penny’s chops as a pure mystery writer have never been more in evidence, as each little cog of the story is genuinely mysterious. Why is there a map of Three Pines, which appears on no maps? Why did Gamache choose Amelia Cloquet? What happened in Gamache’s childhood? And, disturbingly, why is Gamache a suspect in the murder of the former head of the academy?

This book was wildly entertaining, one of my favorite recent entries in this wonderful series. I like the new start and new setting for Gamache and I loved the pool of characters. As always, there is a theme: in this novel, I think the theme is what a mistake it is to make judgements based on appearances or outward traits. This is a book to be deservedly savored.