I’m not sure what it is about Michigan that creates great private eye novelists, but whatever the reason, Stephen Mack Jones has joined the likes of Loren Estleman and Steve Hamilton in creating his Detroit based private eye, August Snow. August is a reluctant millionaire – an ex cop who sued the police department – and he now (mostly) spends his time renovating his neighborhood, Detroit’s Mexicantown, one house at a time. When his godmother, Elena, calls, however, he agrees to meet with a dying man about his Mexicantown business.
This is an excellent suspense novel, so excellent that I devoured it in a single day. It gives a reader plenty to think about – but that’s after you’ve careened through it’s pages. I absolutely could not stop reading.
Set in Michigan’s beautiful upper peninsula, the book alternates narratives between that of Rachel’s, in the present, and that of Jenny’s and Peter’s in the past. It’s not immediately clear how the two connect but when they do, you really can’t look away. Rachel is living in a mental hospital for killing her mother at age 11 and watching as her father then killed himself. She has no memory of these events.
This book came out around the time we closed the store and I didn’t read it at the time, being deep into comfort re-reading of Agatha Christie and Patricia Wentworth. However I thought the first book, August Snow, was wonderful and a great and much needed injection of diversity and vitality to the private eye genre. This second book is even better, more intense and focused. I recently interviewed Stephen who mentioned Robert B. Parker as an influence, and I can sure see it in this tight, funny, fast moving story.
An overview of First in Series books: find them for sale in our online store.
We’re offering these first in series titles for a couple reasons – one, some are hard to find and mystery readers like to read a series in order! And secondly, while many of you may be familiar with these series, you may have only read the later books. These are all incredible starts to great characters and stories. Reading through all of them will give you a great overview of contemporary mystery fiction, in all its many threads – private eye, police, cozy, British procedural, historical. Setting has proven to be key for the modern mystery as has a broader array of character types, ranging from Tony Hillerman’s iconic Joe Leaphorn to James Lee Burke’s P.I. Dave Robichaux to Laura Lippman’s kick-ass Tess Monaghan to Dorthy Gilman’s sweet old lady CIA agent Mrs. Pollifax. If you had walked in to our store, we would have recommended these titles to you depending on your interest. One of our all time bestsellers was Deborah Crombie’s spectacular debut, A Share in Death. We hope you’ll dig in! Here’s a list, and you can find them for sale on the online store page.
Deep into a now 80 book and counting career, and 27 in to his iconic Amos Walker series, what is Loren Estleman going to come up with that might be new? You might be surprised. In this novel Walker crosses paths with one of Estleman’s other characters, Peter Macklin, who hires Walker to look after his ex-wife. She’s being stalked by his son, Roger, who has gone into the family business – contract killing.
Dividing the segments of the novel into “Me” (Walker), “Him” (Macklin), as well as “Her” (the ex-wife) and “Them” (various, but often Roger) has injected a fresh energy into this novel. As always, Estleman writes tight – this book clocks in at 240 pages – and also as always, his prose and expression are absolute treasures. Reading an Estleman novel is almost like eating a too rich slice of chocolate cake – you have to read slowly, because if you don’t you won’t be able to savor the prose and the witty sleight of hand that comprises Estleman’s dialogue. People in an Estleman novel speak like you wish you could and maybe the way you would if you had a long time to come up with the perfect turn of phrase. Alas, I think there are few human brains that actually operate on that elevated scale, but it’s certainly a delight to encounter it in print.
Every once in a while you read a book that’s so good, you can’t look up until you finish, and it’s so clear and specific and moving that you know it’s the book the author was meant to write. This novel, set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, is indelible in every way: setting, story and character. Dionne frames her novel with Hans Christian Anderson’s tale The Marsh King’s Daughter, and opens with a woman named Helena relating, in first person, that she’s a kidnapping survivor.
The scenario seems all too tragically familiar – Jaycee Dugard, Elizabeth Smart, even the movie, Room – but as Dionne fleshes it out it becomes very much her own story. Helena is the product of an abduction. She grew up in a remote area of the UP in a tiny cabin with only her mother and father. As it’s the only life she knows, it takes her a long time to puzzle out quite what’s wrong about it.
As I started this book I have to admit I was a tad suspicious – the author is a poet and a playwright, not always the recipe for creating a down and dirty private eye novel. But as I read this novel set in Detroit’s Mexicantown and featuring half African American, half Mexican ex-cop August Snow, I found instead that the book fitted neatly in with work by Loren Estleman and Steve Hamilton, being a refreshingly straightforward, if gritty, private eye novel and making no bones about it.
Like David Housewright’s Minnesota P.I. Mackenzie, who has a ton of money at his disposal, so does August Snow, who won a settlement against the Detroit Police Department and is using the money in his own way to recreate the warm Mexicantown neighborhood he fondly remembers from his childhood. He’s been on the run – more or less – for a year and is back home, settling into his life in Detroit, when he gets a call from an old client, one who helped cause much of the ruckus that got him on the outs with the Detroit cops. Reluctantly, he makes the trek across town to the woman’s Grosse Pointe mansion to see what he can help her with.
Doug Allyn has long been known as one of the masters of the modern mystery short story—it’s probably harder to find an issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine that doesn’t have an Allyn story in it than to find one that does, and it’s a rare year that he’s not nominated for an Edgar award. But he’s also a fine novelist as well, my personal favorite being the the Mitch Mitchell series, which feature a female Michigan based deepwater diver.
The latest exhibit of his mastery in the longer form is called The Jukebox Kings. It’s not so much a mystery as a crime novel, a story of the rise of a gangster in the Little Caesar tradition. Mick Shannon is a boxer, fresh out of prison, who, after losing a tough fight, finds himself deeply in debt to the mob, in the person of Moishe Abrams, an extremely dangerous relic of the Purple Gang era, who still controls jukeboxes and collections in the black parts of Detroit. Things get rough quickly, and soon Mick finds himself taking the place of Moishe in an extremely fraught environment.
D.E. Johnson’s fourth novel in his dark chronicle of 1912 Detroit and the frequently unlucky life of protagonist Will Anderson is also a look at the Women’s Suffrage movement. These novels are tight and move quickly, with lots of action sequences – this has a notable section set in an actual salt mine – that keep the pages flying even if, as I do, you frequently feel squeamish about what’s happening to Will.
In the last novel, Detroit Breakdown, Will went undercover in the giant Eloise mental hospital where his girlfriend’s brother was a resident. This has left him with some residual issues, and it’s left his girlfriend, Elizabeth, not only with a mother who has dementia at home but her brother Robert and his friend Francis, both of whom seem to suffer from, at the very least, some form of Asperger’s.
P.J. Parrish – or the sisters who write as P.J. Parrish – are paperback writers in the very best sense of the word. They deliver a good story, well told, with reliable characters and settings, asking only that their readers enjoy the journey they deliver. Almost always, they fulfill this promise. With their new novel, set on Mackinac Island, I was holding my opinion in reserve.
Full disclosure: I grew up on Mackinac Island, so I wasn’t so sure they could get it right, having read other novels set on the island that had a misfire or two (or more). I was at first cautious but then more and more delighted as they really seemed to “get” the island (and it may help that one of the sisters lives in nearby Petoskey), but after awhile the story they were telling was simply so good, the island details really didn’t matter.