melissa ginsburg, sunset city (& non-professional protagonists)

Recently I read and loved Sunset City, the grim, Houston-set tale of twenty-two-year-old Charlotte, whose best friend was brutally murdered in a hotel. While the two were intense childhood friends, she hasn’t seen Danielle in a while, after their lives skewed apart due to adulthood and drugs and the wrong type of friends. But recently she and Danielle had made contact, but then, before they could repair their damaged bonds, Danielle is killed. Charlotte searches for the truth, but she’s no detective (though there is one, and he’s mostly there to be attractive). The book does tie up neatly, but it’s not due to any real, deliberate investigation, as much as Charlotte trying to connect with those who Danielle now loved, and getting ridiculously high and endlessly drunk and having some don’t-read-these-parts-on-public-transport sex.

Sunset City is not a style I’m used to, seeing as such a vast amount of crime writing involves alcoholic, bitterly single police officers who sidestep the law gently but with lots of swearing. There are books where the protagonists aren’t professional detectives in any capacity, but have other training that helps, a field of expertise in medical or science backgrounds. The only real talent Charlotte has here – not that I’m implying she’s stupid, more just unfocused – is that she will throw herself into situations with abandon, and they carry her where she needs to be. It seems like lazy storytelling, but the story itself is a heady read, like a literary trip in the most psychedelic of senses. It’s tight, taut, breathless writing, and I enjoyed it. I felt for the character, her broken past, her unsure future, even as I found her lifestyle totally incompatible with my worldview. (Sure, let’s drink a mountain of booze and then get in your car and go drive around with a stranger, why not?)

I do find non-professional main characters, in general, to be an enjoyable foray into how we everyday folk would deal with any kind of criminal situation. You can’t just strut up to the relatives of the victim and ask questions – but you can try. Doors won’t open for you, so you find another way. Sometimes you stumble into answers. Sometimes they stumble into you. And it turns out that it can work–but you’ve really gotta have everything else down pat first: your immersive writing; your dark, neon landscape; your relatable (or at least readable) characters.

Do you prefer your main characters to have investigative expertise on their side? Or does it not matter to you? I can’t say for sure that I do have a preference – I think a lot of my favourite novels still do involve actual detectives – but I’d love to know your thoughts.

international review: sascha arango, the truth and other lies

Claus Moreany’s publishing house is on the verge of going under when his distractingly beautiful employee Betty discovers a manuscript by an unknown author in a pile and brings it to his desk. Frank Ellis becomes a runaway bestseller, subsequent books sell millions, and the now-famous author Henry Hayden becomes a wealthy man living in a beautiful house with a lovely wife, a sporty-looking dog and the magazine spreads to prove it. All is well until the day that Betty, who is not his wife, tells him that she is pregnant with his child. So Henry vows to himself: it is time to tell my Martha the truth. But Henry has never been a man to care about things like the truth when a skewed version of events will suffice.

The Truth and Other Lies is a marvellous book, the kind that never lets you get comfortable enough to let you think you know what’s happening – author Sascha Arango is always one step ahead of you, and his creation, Henry, is one calculated story away from reality. Being this wrong-footed is quite the delight, as is Hayden, smooth as aged whiskey but with as many secrets as a thirteen-year-old’s diary. I barely want to say more in case I spoil anything for you, but Arango’s icy prose and Germany’s sun-kissed seaside locale make for the perfect read as our own nights get longer, and as dark as Hayden himself.

a version of this appeared previously in the Readings Monthly.

semi-international review: adam sarafis, something is rotten

Something-is-Rotten-263x400Semi-international, huh? Well, the book is set, for the most part, in New Zealand, which, no, is not a part of Australia. But this is the first crime fiction release by local publisher Echo Publishing, so I can’t help but want to drag the review back to our shores. It’s what Australians do.

I was pumped to receive Echo’s book and my expectations were met and exceeded: this is great. It’s complex, intriguing, and political, but not in the way that makes people like me develop a vacant, confused and slightly embarrassed stare whenever international politics comes up excessively in books. I was even pleased by the cover, which, while hewing close to traditional crime covers, has a dramatic thrusting spire in it which completely distracts you from the fact that there’s a shadowy figure which, instead of being poorly photoshopped into an alleyway/forest as per every other damn book out there, is actually mostly hidden within the book’s shadows. This says to me, who is apparently over-analysing things tonight: we are publishing crime, and you better be paying attention.

Sam Hallberg is a mechanic with a juicy dramatic past; he lives alone, plagued by memories of the family he lost. His wife was murdered, possibly because of Sam’s anti-terrorism career, and now his son lives with his in-laws, out of danger, safe, but distant. Sam’s a habitual helper, and when Jade Amaro comes to visit with a request to look into the death of her friend Brent, Sam agrees, because he’s that kind of guy, and he needs the distraction. Along with figuring out if Brent’s death was a suicide or something more sinister (it’s the latter), Sam lends a hand to his journalist pal Lynette, who is researching one of New Zealand’s most prominent businessmen, someone with power and capital and apparently no personal history to speak of. Is he just publicity shy, or is he hiding something? (It’s the latter. Hooray!)

There is a climactic moment I would have liked more of, and the ending is very neatly tied up with a bit too much prettiness in the bow, but this was a powerfully solid read with more than enough of the requisite excitement and intrigue. The characters were vastly appealing, flawed but endearing: Sam brave, focussed, loyal, and scarred; Lynette fun, relatable, relentless but bitterly realistic in her pursuit of truth. I appreciated how the author (authors, if you look them up) discussed Jade’s job with no value judgements or patronising pity, even though it’s not where she wants to be.

I’m looking forward to seeing more books in the Matakana series on the shelves to see where everyone is heading. Though of course, when you’re invested in characters, you kind of feel bad for hoping it’s back into danger, because even though it’s very nice, no one wants to read about a mechanic who spends his days happily at work and his evenings kicking back with Netflix and pizza.

international review: cecilia ekback, wolf winter

Swedish Lapland, June 1717 (note, I virtually never read things set in the past): Finns Maija and Paavo take their children Frederika and Dorotea to Sweden, away from the fear that has beaten Paavo into a shadow of the man he once was. They settle in Lapland, beside the mountain Blackåsen, ill-equipped for living in an isolated and storm-racked area, and have been there only a short time when the two girls take their goats for a walk and stumble upon the body of a man. Wolves, or a bear, Maija tells them. But she knows it is not true. And so their new home becomes not one of hope, but one of fear renewed, atmospheric tension and a landscape as brutal to your home and body as it can be enchanting in a painting.

Maija is a female protagonist so organically heroic it seems not at all out of place in these long past times; things need to get done, and Maija is the one to do them in this land of endless days that in winter turn into eternal nights, and men too trapped by their land, their anxiety and their stoic manner to do anything but shake their heads at a torn-up body in a glade. And so she is the believable midwife turned farmer turned 1700s-era forensic investigator when no one else bothered to try. As those around her say, the mountain is bad, but is it the people on it who are bad, or is it the land itself? The sorcery trials of the past still have their grip on everyone’s lives, but the question is whether Maija’s staunch faith in reality and God is the way, or if it is blocking her ability to see the truth. It doesn’t pass my informal wouldn’t-it-be-nice-if-there-was-never-sexual-assault-in-crime-books test, but I was up until 3am reading this haunting thriller (partly for deadline reasons and partly using deadline reasons as an excuse to tear through it in a terrified way), and by then it was as dark as the book itself. My advice: read it in the sun.

international review: walter kirn, blood will out

In 1998, Walter Kirn is waiting to become a father and up for a noble distraction: driving a paralysed Gordon setter named Shelby from his home state of Montana to New York City. There, Shelby would meet the man who had so desperately wanted to adopt her online: Clark Rockefeller, a name with more pedigree than even the pooch. Kirn, a journalist and writer—later he would publish the novel Up in the Air, which would then be made into a George Clooney movie—handed over the dog and, without quite noticing it, handed himself over alongside her. He had a nose for interesting people and Clark, who had such a relaxed attitude to wealth that he let his dogs lick his original Rothko paintings, was enthralling. He was connected, enigmatic, and any wild speculations he had about the doomed direction the world was heading in seemed alarmingly like they could come true. Because if anyone knew, wouldn’t he?

A decade later, Clark Rockefeller abducted his young daughter during a supervised visit. By the time he was found, so too were his secrets: Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter was no Rockefeller, no pure-blood. And he was also the prime suspect of the 1985 murder of his neighbour, John Sohus, dug up from the ground of the property they both shared.

Having spent the intervening years listening to Clark with mute appreciation, Kirn was well-placed—and humiliated—to tell the story of a fraud who was never short of a lie to tell, and who was so convincing that even his errors would never be brought up by his friends, or his unrealistic tales of classified businesses second-guessed. One memorable moment has Clark hand a frustrated Kirn George Bush’s phone number to help him with a problem; Kirn, of course, never makes the call, despite Clark insisting he “Call George”. It’s this ability that saw Clark sustain his ruse for years, with those he married and those he befriended—but silenced in front of a jury of his peers, he is not the same force.

I genuinely enjoy true crime books where the author places themselves firmly within the events. Yes, it can show bias, but as I’ve always enjoyed fiction more than non-fiction I am much more interested in true crime when there is a personal perspective, and at least you are aware of any skewed opinions as long as the author fulfills the inherent promise of the idea by being honest. I can’t give many examples because I am no expert in the genre, but I have at least read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which this is likened to, and that did the job just beautifully. I did enjoy Kirn’s taut writing and personal honesty about his motives – heck, he likes fame – but this isn’t really the same, though it is probably not Kirn’s fault that people want to connect the two together. I did feel that Kirn talked a lot about his and Clark’s relationship in a kind of abstract way rather than making it feel real and personal, but then, their years-long friendship often did not seem real and personal, just the way not every friend we have is our pinkie-swearing blood-brother best friend forever. Sometimes there was distance in this book where I wanted up-close. But he did not cheapen any of the crimes with overzealous description, which was nice at least for me. I don’t wish to sound overly critical; I just wish I hadn’t listened to those screaming about the new Truman Capote, or relished the Amy Tan quote on the cover I had (I think One Hundred Secret Senses is just glorious), and taken it as it was: a good book, exactly the type of true crime that I liked, and one hell of a story.

international review: nadia dalbuono, the few

I fished through a pile of books on my side table, trying to figure out which one to read. I like to stay savvy with what’s new, but I don’t have the time, in those precious few hours when the Rocket is asleep, to read all the books I want. I picked up James Ellroy’s Perfidia; it would be my first Ellroy, and I found myself slowly falling into it, until it fell on me. Like a temperamental eight-year-old, it takes a lot to convince me to read books that are too thick, at at some seven hundred pages, I couldn’t bring myself to get past thirty pages that day, but I hope to come back to it. I started Lee Child’s Personal (on the back cover: “And this time…it’s PERSONAL”), again, my first Lee Child; I ended up enjoying it far more than I thought though his completely inability to put a comma in everywhere (and as you know, I love me twenty commas per sentence) was a touch distracting. Everything was brief. I guess it works. I mean. Jack Reacher is quite the speedy hero. Still, I put it down and drifted around the house a little before returning to my pile and picking up Nadia Dalbuono’s The Few.

I’m not an enormous fan of Italian fiction; I’m not besotted with the idea of traveling to Italy and crime authors who write about it tend to make it seem even more grim than Sweden. Mafia-type fiction, also, is not really one of the niches of the crime genre that I find myself drawn to. But the first few pages drew me in enough to curl up on the couch properly, and I had it finished by the next day.Detective Leone Scamarcio is a police officer avoiding his own personal history as much as he can. His father was in the mob, and despite being straight, he thinks (probably correctly) that everyone thinks he’s corrupt. Apparently not his chief though, who calls him to a clandestine meeting where some incriminating photos of a foreign minister and some naked young men have come to light. One of those men has been found gruesomely stabbed in his Trastevere apartment, and this whole thing needs to be solved silently and swiftly before the chief has to answer to a friend in the very highest of places. One of the few clues left in the dead man’s apartment points the trail (unpleasantly) towards the abuse of children, and so Scarmarcio heads down it to a town full of secrets, corruption, and the worst kind of people in the most untouchable of places. As the summer heat gets his colleagues sweating and the minutiae of police politics seems unbearable, Scamarcio can’t help but wonder if there was more good to be done by way of the family industry than in a police force trying to do its best amongst Italy’s crooked dealings.
There are a few too many loose ends in this, and while it’s part of a two-book series, these seem so tied to the specific crime of this book that I’m not sure Dalbuono will tie them up later. There was something about the crime, despite being the hideousness of a child abduction (one thing almost guaranteed to make me feel sick about reading), that felt a little…unenthusiastic? For such a heinous crime I wasn’t as invested as I expected to be. The tale told throughout of a childhood friendship turned criminal and sour has a smaller payoff than I was anticipating. Leone was reputed to have sudden outbursts of violence but nothing much came of it beyond one scene. Nevertheless, it had great pacing, a lot of tension, interesting locales (the cliffside prison was a new one), and kept me happily captivated. Nothing outrageously new to see here, but a hearty crime book on a winter night is worth more than an electric blanket.