Reviews of Peter James, Dana Stabenow, and more…
Our reviews section examines the latest mystery offerings, covering books, anthologies, audio books, and videos.
NOT DEAD YET
By Peter James
New York: Minotaur Books, 2012. $25.99
In Peter James’s eighth Detective Roy Grace police procedural, one would perhaps feel that treading the well-worn path into the dark heart of Brighton, England, would be somewhat stale, yet the converse is true. The Roy Grace thrillers are becoming a comfort read, and there is nothing better than observing the very worst excesses of human behavior from the safety of your armchair, coupled with the fact that the plot of Not Dead Yet contains elements torn from the author’s former life. Before writing novels, Peter James was a film producer who himself rubbed elbows with the Hollywood types he writes about here.
In this novel, Brighton has become the location for a huge Hollywood blockbuster featuring Gaia Lafayette (a combination of Madonna and Lady Gaga), a US-resident diva who grew up in the more humble origins of Council Estate Brighton. Lafayette’s role in the historical thriller should earn her an Oscar for her mantle and move her into the world of film. Detective Grace is under pressure from the fifth floor to ensure that nothing goes wrong in Brighton while the film crew is in town. This is especially critical when they discover that Lafayette has some obsessive fans, including a stalker. Grace and partner Glenn Branson therefore pay close attention when a dead body (torso only) found on a chicken farm is connected to the diva in question.
Despite the density of the plot, featuring James’s trademark multiple viewpoints and reptilian-like plotlines snaking toward an unexpected finale in Brighton’s Royal Pavilion, the book reads remarkably fast. This is due to nearly 150 “clipped” chapters. Yet brevity should not be confused with levity; though there is humor and tradecraft, Not Dead Yet is indeed another dark excursion for the reader, portraying the underbelly of this seaside town in a troublesome light—no doubt to the continued chagrin of Brighton’s tourism board.
It may be no coincidence that Not Dead Yet has a film backdrop, since the Roy Grace novels are now inching in that direction themselves. And considering James’s experience with cinema, the films will no doubt match the success of the novels.
If you are eagle-eyed, you may even spot The Strand Magazine’s illustrious managing editor, Mr. Andrew Gulli, lurking in the shadows.
RESTLESS IN THE GRAVE
By Dana Stabenow
New York: Minotaur Books, 2012. $12.99
Arguably Dana Stabenow’s most perceptive addition to her popular Alaska-based Kate Shugak series, Restless in the Grave takes the intrepid national park rat and private investigator far away from her village of Niniltna. This time, Kate joins hunky state trooper Liam Campbell (hero of another Alaska-based series by Stabenow) as he investigates the suspicious plane crash death of Finn Grant, a wealthy businessman from the small town of Newenham. Liam Campbell’s wife, an air taxi pilot, is a prime suspect in the crash.
For her part in the investigation, Kate volunteers to go undercover as a barmaid in Newenham and finds that Finn Grant had been running a web of shady deals, questionable hunting and fishing tours, government buyouts, and an airfreight business with dangerous criminal overtones. In the course of this case, Kate and her half-wolf, half-husky named Mutt encounter a brand new cast of compelling characters, all drawn with Stabenow’s signature eye for dark humor, and sensitivity to native mysticism. Disconcertingly, Kate also meets memorable film star Gabe McGuire, whose big-screen looks and velvet-smooth lines remind her of Jack Morgan, four years dead but forever alive in Kate’s memories.
Stabenow’s passion for Alaska and its people animates all her work, but notably so in Restless in the Grave, where deeper insight into character motivation, family secrets, and shared humanity make for an outstanding addition to an already praiseworthy series.
—Mitzi M. Brunsdale
By Mark Sullivan
New York: Minotaur Books, 2012. $24.99
If we’re to believe the marketing campaign for Mark Sullivan’s Rogue, protagonist Robin Monarch is destined to become the next Jason Bourne. This may not be completely off base, since both characters are heroes in fast-paced international thrillers. But a closer cousin would be John Robie in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1955 film To Catch a Thief (based on the novel by David Dodge); Monarch is a cat burglar and jewel thief who makes like Robin Hood, stealing from rich layabouts to help the poor back home in Argentina.
Although raised by a cunning pair of thieves, Monarch hasn’t always followed in their footsteps. When Rogue opens, he is a covert CIA operative, the best in the business. But that quickly goes south and Monarch reverts to his old ways. His past and present collide, however, when a Russian mobster tries to hire him to steal a top-secret new weapon—the same weapon that his old boss at the CIA sent him after a couple years prior. That’s when the plot really gets moving, and the stakes are as high as they can be.
It’s all but inevitable that when an author writes a thriller like this he or she must choose between pacing and depth of characterization. If the goal is a “thrill-a-minute” page-turner, then it’s going to be difficult to really make the characters come alive as three-dimensional beings. Sullivan obviously chose to go with pacing, and it was likely the right decision. Rogue races along like a freight train with a full head of steam. If some of the more nuanced aspects of the plot get lost along the way, it is a fair trade when the story is this entertaining.
Mark Sullivan is good at this kind of writing, and once you start reading him it’s hard to stop. Rogue contains more than its fair share of wild action, tense situations, and narrative velocity. In Hollywood, they save this kind of story for a summer blockbuster. But in publishing, we get to enjoy a rousing romp year-round. Picking up Rogue is a sure way to brighten your fall.
—David J. Montgomery
By Chris Ewan
New York: Minotaur Books, 2012. $25.99
Chris Ewan established himself as a cult writer with his Good Thief Guide series of comic-crime thrillers set in Amsterdam, Las Vegas, Paris, and Berlin. With Safe House, he leaves comedy to explore something altogether darker, and which no doubt will push him beyond cult readership and into the mainstream. This claustrophobic tale is well suited to its backdrop amid the insular community of the Isle of Man, a small island sandwiched between the British and Irish mainland. And unlike Ewan’s more humorous work, Safe House is permeated by a sense of menace and a plot as fast-paced as the island’s renowned annual Tourist Trophy motorcycle race.
After working on a boiler repair in a remote farmhouse, plumber Rob Hale encounters three mysterious people, obviously not locals. Two are men, but it is the third, a woman named Lena, who catches the plumber’s eye. A few days later, Lena joins Hale for a ride on his motorcycle and they are involved in an accident. Like a character in a Philip K. Dick tale, Hale regains consciousness in a state of confusion. When he asks about Lena’s injuries, he is told that there was no pillion passenger at the scene of the accident. Hale realizes that either he’s lost his mind or conspiracy is afoot. Trusting the latter explanation, he begins to search for the mysterious Lena, recognizing on some level that his circumstances are part of a larger puzzle that is missing a piece or two. Along the way, he befriends a tough Londoner PI, Rebecca Lewis, who is on her own search. She has been hired by Hale’s parents to investigate the recent suicide of their daughter Laura, Hale’s sister.
The narrative, from Hale’s point of view, indicates that Ewan has not lost his flare for humor. Though not broad, such as in the Good Thief Guide books, it is dry and measured, attenuating the absurdity of the situation in which Rob Hale finds himself. The plot zips through the chicanes that litter the narrative, and traverses the conspiracy of the missing Lena and the death of Laura. Like the novel’s setup, little can be taken at face value. Though a couple of the plot twists creak, the strength of the writing lets you ignore the sound and focus on the denouement, because like a motor bike rider turning into an obstructed hairpin bend, you just don’t see it coming.
TURN OF MIND
By Alice LaPlante
New York: Grove Press, 2012. $15.00
Alice LaPlante’s debut novel, Turn of Mind, is the first work of fiction to win the Wellcome Trust Book Prize for medical writing. This may seem a strange niche for a mystery novel, but LaPlante’s book does not slot easily into any genre.
The story is told from the viewpoint of Dr. Jennifer White, a brilliant surgeon sinking into the abyss of Alzheimer’s disease and, as such, the archetype of the unreliable narrator. The reader can trust very little of what Jennifer says in terms of when and where she is, whom she is with, or what she has done. Her perception of reality—and therefore also her narrative—is distorted by the illness. LaPlante leaves it to the reader to navigate Jennifer’s skewed perceptions, just as Jennifer herself tries to do, though she increasingly fails.
The nightmare of Alzheimer’s is depicted with merciless clarity and sometimes with humor. Jennifer White was, and in some ways still is, a highly intelligent woman. She knows when she is being patronized—one of her top ten signs of having Alzheimer’s is, in her words, when “Girl Scouts come over and force you to decorate flower pots with them.” She is also aware of her gradual loss of status, going from “Dr. White” among colleagues at the hospital to “Jen” at the assisted living home. But while Turn of Mind offers a compelling depiction of the slow deterioration of an Alzheimer’s-affected mind, readers must decide for themselves whether it also succeeds as a crime novel.
The crime itself is the murder of Jennifer White’s best and longest-term friend, Amanda, who is found with a fatal head wound and four fingers of her hand surgically removed. The friendship between Jennifer and Amanda was known to be troubled, and as an orthopaedic surgeon specializing in hands, Jennifer has the skill to commit the crime. The police suspect her and posit that her claims of forgetfulness are a blind. The reader knows that Jennifer has no recollection of Amanda’s death—each time she hears of it, it comes as a dreadful shock with fresh bereavement—but this doesn’t mean Jennifer is innocent. At several key points in Jennifer’s life, Amanda breached the trust that should surely exist between close friends. And there is something Jennifer is aware of, even with her damaged mind: a place she doesn’t want to visit. Is this the story of Amanda’s murder?
Turn of Mind is not without its flaws. For example, why does Jennifer remain friends with a woman who tried to steal her daughter and destroy her marriage? The nature of the narrative prohibits this from being convincingly explained. Further, the narrative restrictions created by Jennifer’s illness dictate that the crime is revealed more through exposition than gradual discovery. Nevertheless, this is an intriguing, intelligent mystery. LaPlante joins the ranks of recent authors writing novels that include crimes, rather than traditional mysteries that hinge on them. If you’re looking for serial killer gore, this is not the book for you. The horror does not come from graphic details of the murder, but rather from the slow deterioration of an intelligent, perceptive woman. Turn of Mind is an impressive debut.