Reviews of Stephen King, Alexander McCall Smith and more…
Our reviews section examines the latest mystery offerings, covering books, anthologies, audio books, and videos.
By Stephen King
New York: Scribner, 2011. $35.00
Stephen King’s latest novel, 11/22/1963, takes readers back in time to a turning point in American history. There was huge anticipation and publicity surrounding this magnum opus and the novel does not disappoint.
Jake Epping, a high school teacher in present-day Maine, is asked by local diner owner Al Templeton to complete a task that Al is now too ill to finish. The task is to use a secret “time tunnel” in the diner’s basement to travel back in time and prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963. Yet the tunnel only leads to a specific day in 1958. In order for Jake to blend into late 1950s and early 1960s culture, he adopts the identity of George T. Amberson and brings a wad of 1950s cash provided by his dying friend. Al also explains the rules of the time tunnel, since he has used it many times for “vacations.” No matter how much time one spends in the past, only two minutes elapse in the present reality, and each journey resets the portal to the same date and time in 1958.
On his first trip to the past, Jake travels to the fictional town of Derry, still reeling from events that were outlined in King’s It. Jake aims to track down a man who savagely murdered his wife and family with a hammer, leaving one son seriously injured. That son would grow up to become Harry Dunning, the janitor with the limp at Jake’s school, a man who before retiring finally gets his high school diploma—in part thanks to Jake’s reaction to the essay he penned detailing that tragic night. Jake hopes he can improve Harry’s future.
The period detail of the 1950s, coupled with Jake’s commitment to be over ninety-nine percent certain that it was Lee Harvey Oswald that killed President Kennedy, make the journey as exciting as it is filled with nervous anxiety. King pins his drama firmly on Oswald being the lone gunman, as opposed to the Grassy Knoll theory, and it’s obvious why he does this. As a literary device, the lone gunman theme keeps the narrative focused.
Despite the time travel element and President Kennedy’s assassination being key drivers for the narrative, it is the other themes King explores that are at the center of this work. The novel explores the relationship between love and loss, as well as the idea that we live in an absurd reality—one that allows a lone nut to kill the most important man in the western world—and drives home the point that people must never take anything for granted as it can be taken away in the random sway of reality.
Stephen King’s 11/22/1963 is a mature work that makes you feel the past is always alive and all our actions and inactions ripple through time to create “the present.” The book is a masterpiece in a career that, thanks to the author’s extraordinary imagination, only gets better and better.
THE FORGOTTEN AFFAIRS OF YOUTH
By Alexander McCall Smith
New York: Pantheon, 2011. $24.95
Former Scottish medical law professor and novelist Alexander McCall Smith’s gentle, gracious outlook on the human condition optimistically shines through every page of this slim but significant mystery/meditation on the frailties of human nature.
Philosopher Isabel Dalhousie, comfortably situated professionally, financially, and most of all emotionally with her devoted fiancé Jamie and quirky toddler Charlie, finds herself drawn into fellow philosopher Jane Cooper’s search for her biological parents. Jane’s mother died very young in Scotland, leaving her to be adopted and taken to Australia. Now at age forty, Jane wants to find her father, who she believes was a student in Edinburgh. So begins The Forgotten Affairs of Youth.
As Isabel draws on her own connections and experiences to help Jane, she also faces situations that challenge her personal convictions: When should she and Jamie marry? What should she do, if anything, about her niece Cat’s consistent attraction to the wrong men, not to mention the toxic mushrooms Cat sold to Jamie that he and Isabel ate? How should she deal with her housekeeper Grace’s money problems that Isabel, herself, may have inadvertently caused?
Told with McCall Smith’s trademark wit and wealth of insight into human motives and activities, this small excursion into moral philosophy makes a big contribution to understanding one’s world—and one’s self. As always Alexander McCall Smith has the power to make his readers believe in the best that lies within us all.
——Mitzi M. Brunsdale
By Quentin Bates
New York: Soho Press, 2011. $25.00
In Quentin Bates’ debut novel featuring Sergeant Gunnhildur “Gunna” Gísladóttir, the body of a man is found floating near the docks of a coastal Iceland village. Hvalvik is a place where everyone knows everyone and the most Gunna ever has to do is write a speeding ticket or deal with an unruly drunk. When the medical examiner states that the unidentified man drowned, and was probably too intoxicated to be able to walk very far from wherever he started out, Gunna is puzzled by the fact that the man is neither from the town nor known to anyone in it. And when she learns he is from Reykjavik, more than an hour’s drive away, she suspects foul play—despite pressure from her superiors at the capital to think otherwise.
After identifying the dead man by a tattoo on his arm, Gunna tracks his former occupation to a public relations firm run by an extremely unpleasant woman named Sigurjona Huldudottir, who also happens to be married to Bjarni Jon Bjarnason, Iceland’s Minister of Finance. The PR firm represents an aluminum manufacturing company with questionable practices that are potentially dangerous to the environment and further investigation reveals that the dead man was a friend of an environmental activist who died in an unsolved hit-and-run a few weeks earlier. What at first appeared to be a simple drowning in a quiet seacoast village has quickly turned into a complicated scheme involving corrupt politicians and an international contract killer.
Often referred to as the “fat police officer,” Gunna is a middle-aged widow with two teenaged children, indifferent housekeeping practices, and a surreptitious smoking habit. She is aided in her investigation by a large cast of well-drawn characters. As Hvalvik is a tiny village in a small island country, Gunna knows a lot of people there—more than a few are her relatives. In more than one instance, stopping for a quick bite in a café provides her with useful information from one of the patrons. Also particularly helpful is a young reporter from a Reykjavik newspaper charged with writing a story on nearby village police officers. And a blogger with a business sense turns out to be on the same path as Gunna. As the dirt behind the drowning takes on global significance, this kind and friendly cop leads the charge against a sophisticated group of criminals who discover that the Hvalvik police force has been highly underrated. A compelling read.
—Carol S. Chadwick
KISS ME QUICK
By Danny Miller
London: Constable & Robinson, 2011. $11.99
Danny Miller’s excellent debut crime novel, Kiss Me Quick, is set in 1960s England and introduces young Detective Inspector Vince Treadwell. After Treadwell falls foul of a corrupt senior officer in London’s Soho sex industry—sixties Soho was more known for sleaze than for trendy eateries and clubs—he is sent to Brighton on the south coast.
Treadwell is a native of Brighton and all too familiar with the power of gangster Jack Regent, who disappeared after apparently being involved in a knife killing. His new job with the force is to track down Regent in the chaos of organized crime, heroin, and the riots involving gangs of Mods and Rockers that were in fact a feature of south coast seaside resorts in the early 1960s.
Treadwell must walk a fine line between the criminals he is pursuing: Regent himself, Regent’s psychopathic henchman Francis Pearce, his own brother Vaughan—a heroin addict who has in the past worked for Pearce—and Regent’s girlfriend, Bobby, with whom Treadwell becomes romantically involved. Corruption within the police force means that he is unable to trust the people who should be backing him, from his superiors in Brighton all the way back to London.
Miller captures the sleaze and the excitement of sixties Brighton, and the moral ambiguities of a police force that was far less accountable and far less controlled than it is today. One flaw in the narrative is that heroin addiction was comparatively rare in 1964, as doctors were able to prescribe freely up to 1965 and addicts were less dependent on dealers. Heroin trafficking was not the big business it is now, yet the heroin addicts Treadwell encounters are more akin to current users than UK addicts of the period. Also exaggerated in the story, the Mods and Rockers riots, though they occurred, were relatively small scale and blown up by a sensationalist press. Nonetheless, Miller paints a believable and vivid picture of 1960s England. The plot is as crowded as a Brighton beach on a sunny summer Sunday, but the book is a highly enjoyable page-turner. Danny Miller’s second Vince Treadwell book, The Gilded Edge, is due out in May 2012.
By William Kent Krueger
New York: Atria Books, 2011. $24.99
Welcome back to northern Minnesota and the quickest, most exciting read closest to the Canadian border. The Northwest Angle is a place of majestic vistas, pristine forests, and ocean-like waters in the Lake of the Woods. And William Kent Krueger’s love for this sparsely inhabited region generates all possibilities concerning its independent populace of peace seekers and rogues.
In Northwest Angle, Cork O’Connor and family are vacationing on a houseboat when their lives are threatened by a derecho—a monster storm with hurricane-force winds. The storm sets the mood of violence amid spectacular beauty in this twelfth installment of the spirited series. While the family seeks shelter on one of a myriad of islands, Cork’s oldest daughter Jenny finds the tortured corpse of a young Native American woman and her hidden and healthy infant son, giving rise to another of the novel’s themes: children and family.
With his children entering adulthood and his wife deceased—due to an airplane crash two years prior—Cork is dreading the loneliness of an empty home. Yet his children’s choices are awakening new possibilities: Jenny asserts her motherhood as she defends the newfound child from kidnappers; and Stephen, fifteen, wholeheartedly embraces his father’s Ojibwe heritage, learning of the responsibilities and consequences of becoming a Mide (a healer). As the story progresses, we meet another family, the founders of the Church of the Seven Trumpets, who seek seclusion and security for their worshippers and carry rifles when meeting with outsiders. Heavy lies the burden upon the adults guiding their charges.
The novel’s setting in the Angle Islands engenders a sense of the primitive beauty and natural turmoil that have molded the region’s modest citizenry. In this land of contrasts, all things are possible and best expressed by Amos Powassin, a blind Ojibwe elder: “In all good is the possibility of evil, and in all evil the possibility of good.” Further, the Ojibwe culture emanates from every thread of the story, endowing the thriller with greater meaning. William Kent Krueger allows readers to smell the campfire bacon of deception, but doesn’t let us fully digest the meal until the powerful conclusion.
By Peter James
London: Macmillan UK. $30.00
Peter James is well known as the author of the highly successful Brighton-based police procedurals featuring Detective Roy Grace. However, James’ latest novel, Perfect People, is not a crime novel per se, but a topical international techno-thriller, and a remarkable one to boot.
Filmmaker James started his writing career penning thrillers and horror fiction before he hit his stride as a best-selling crime writer, and he expands his horizons even further with this cautionary tale of genetics and madness. Perfect People opens with Californians Dr. John Klaesson and wife Naomi dealing with the loss of their four-year-old child to a rare genetic condition, and in the midst of planning to have another baby. But both parents carry the faulty gene that caused the fatal condition that resulted in the death of their child and both fear the odds of the rare disease rearing its ugly head again. They turn to the mysterious geneticist Dr. Leo Dettore, who offers a gene-screening process to prevent the unthinkable from happening again. Due to the complexity of laws and ethics that make genetic manipulation a minefield, Dettore performs his technique on a ship in international waters.
Dettore’s method also offers the ability to add “design” to their offspring; and we’re not talking just about sex and hair color here. The debate on the rights and wrongs of “designer babies” provides an interesting dimension to this thriller, and one that attracts the attention of a millennial religious cult. Soon the doctor is killed when his helicopter turns the sky red and, with Naomi pregnant, John realizes that their own lives are at risk. The Klaesson’s flee America and head to Great Britain.
With clipped chapters, the pace ratchets up when the couple discovers that they are expecting twins, a boy and a girl—but once the children arrive, the Klaesson’s problems really begin. With unearthly intelligence, the Klaesson children are “more than human,” and soon the dangers that John and Naomi had been dodging are far closer to home. Perfect People is a surreal journey of ethics, science, and religion. It is as far away from the dark alleyways of Roy Grace’s Brighton as one could get, but a blindingly hot read set at the edges of our reality and indicative that Peter James can carve a thriller as twisty as the DNA Double-Helix. In a word, remarkable.
A RED HERRING WITHOUT MUSTARD
By Alan Bradley
New York: Delacorte Press, 2011. $23.00
Canadian author Alan Bradley created this, his first novel series, when he was seventy years old. His decades of teaching and writing—especially his co-authored work Ms. Holmes of Baker Street: The Truth About Sherlock—creatively anticipated these adventures featuring eleven-year-old sleuth Flavia de Luce. The first book of the series, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, was an international success and winner of the 2010 Macavity Award for Best First Mystery Novel. A Red Herring Without the Mustard is the third installment, and although this is not a book for young children, it will be embraced by young adults (age 15+) and adults who love language and humor.
Flavia lives with her two older sisters and father, Colonel Haviland de Luce, in Buckshaw, a British estate manor in the village of Bishop’s Lacey in the early 1950s. But the family may soon lose their home for lack of money. Harriet, mother and wife, disappeared ten years ago while mountain climbing in Tibet, leaving the family more or less emotionally paralyzed. The Colonel refuses to speak about his beloved wife’s death and is barely present in the lives of his daughters. Because of her father’s stiff upper-lip attitude, Flavia cherishes the least smile or brush of affection from him. Flavia’s sisters are interesting characters in their own right: Daphne (Daffy), thirteen, is a bookworm with a Jeopardy-like mind and Ophelia (Feely), seventeen, is a highly regarded pianist. Flavia, an amateur chemist with her own lab in the southeast corner of Buckshaw, is a loner, separated from her older sisters who “torture” her because of some incomprehensible hurt, origins unknown.
Flavia’s actions always have dramatic consequences. In Red Herring, she accidentally burns a gypsy fortune-teller’s tent and her subsequent act of charity results in the gypsy later being bludgeoned. The mystery of the attack on Gypsy Fanella and the outrageous murder of Brookie Harewood—lout and poacher, whose body is displayed upon Poseidon’s trident in the Buckshaw’s gardens—have their origins in a shadowy religion founded by Nicodemus Flitch in the sixteenth century. Threaded within this tightly woven story is the disappearance of a baby, blamed, of course, on the gypsies.
Bradley writes with sophistication, defining the unseen with unique metaphors and similes that allow the reader to see, feel, and hear those ideas: “… the mind loves nothing better than to spook itself with outlandish stories, as if the various coils of the brain were no more than a troop of roly-poly Girl Guides huddled over a campfire in the darkness of the skull.” And flavored with Dickensian spice, the author’s characters—Flavia, the tolerant Inspector Hewitt, de Luce family servant Dogger, and the rest of Bishop’s Lacey—are the kind in which all readers can find a little of themselves.
By Thomas Mullen
London: Mulholland Books, 2011. $19.95
The Revisionists is a disturbing mix of George Orwell’s 1984 and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 with a sprinkling of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine and perhaps hints of Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island or Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly … because nothing in this political espionage thriller can be taken at face value.
We start with an agent from the future named Zed (who uses the alias Leroy Jones), sent back to our time to watch over world events and ensure that all the known disasters occur as history has recorded them. The purpose of Zed and his fellow agents is to protect the “perfect world” of the future from the future’s opposing forces, “the hags.” So Agent Zed finds himself playing cat and mouse with fellow time travelers while trying morally to justify the task with which he has been entrusted—ensuring the death of many innocent people in the upcoming “event,” something that will decimate the population and leave only the small band of future survivors who will craft the perfect world. Added to the mix is Leo, a disgraced ex-CIA agent now working as a private contractor, and the political dissidents that Leo watches over: T. J., the young anarchist; Tasha, a corporate lawyer grieving over her brother who was killed in combat; and Sari, a Korean diplomat’s housekeeper. How their paths cross with Zed is somewhat surreal, as Zed tries to match his mission with what happened to his father-in-law, wife, and young child in his future. There are rumors that Zed/Leroy is not what he seems, as perhaps the future is not as perfect as he has been lead to believe.
In a world where reviewers bemoan books devoid of originality, this is the exception to the rule. The kicker is that the ambiguity of the ending forces the reader to rethink what he was read, since the narrator(s) of the tale appear a tad unreliable—unlike Mullen who delivers a disturbing vision of reality and madness, in a literary style that has you reaching for Valium at the end of each chapter.
13 MILLION DOLLAR POP
By David Levien
New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2011. $24.95
One reason the PI thrillers by screenwriter David Levien have been gathering such strong acclaim—including a recent Shamus Award nomination for Where the Dead Lay—is the strength of his series character Frank Behr, the troubled former cop now scratching a living as a private eye.
In 13 Million Dollar Pop, Behr has been working for the Caro Group, a private investigation and security company that has been hired to protect Bernard “Bernie Cool” Kolodnik, a successful businessman hoping to start a career in politics. While on duty protecting Kolodnik, Behr ends up in the crossfire of a shootout and quickly realizes that the political motivations of his ward are not shared by some on the darker side of the law. He begins investigating what really happened that night, but receives no help from the local officials, and as it becomes more and more apparent that protecting Bernie Cool was not the plum job that it first appeared, Behr finds himself in the middle of a dangerous conspiracy. Added to this are hit man Waddy Dwyer, escort girls, and euro-trash blocking Behr’s path to the economic security he is chasing. As if that weren’t enough, Behr’s girlfriend is pregnant and he’s dealing with the reality of health care costs, which is why he ended up taking the job in the first place.
This third excursion into the seedier side of Indiana is highly recommended, but bring a Kevlar jacket, because when you crack the spine of this book, you have to watch out for the ricochet of gunfire.
By G. M. Malliet
New York: Minotaur, 2011. $23.99
Agatha Award-winner G. M. Malliet—the British author of Death of a Cozy Writer and its two St. Just mystery sequels—sets her new series in Nether Monkslip, an idyllic fictional village seething with barely submerged passions, jealousies, and feuds.
At the center of it all is the universally feared and loathed Wanda Batton-Smythe, self-appointed head of Nether Monkslip’s Women’s Institute. Gingerly circling Wanda like reluctant satellites—drawn by the irresistible force of a tacitly shared desire to murder her—are Awena Owen, owner of the village’s new age shop; Elka Garth, operator of the Cavalier Tea Room and Garden; local knitting maven Lily Iverson; and Suzanna Winship, the willowy and vampy sister of the village physician. Among the basic ingredients for this deliciously plotted homicide, Malliet has cleverly inserted a darkly handsome sleuth with secrets of his own—Max Tudor, a former MI5 agent turned Anglican priest, who as vicar of St. Edwold’s Church is the inevitable object of lascivious fantasies on the part of Nether Monkslip’s womenfolk.
After Wanda is found dead during the Harvest Fayre, Max has to tread a precarious tightrope between the “pure, peaceable, and gentle” wisdom from above and the deplorable but so much more fascinating “earthly, unspiritual, and devilish” motives driving a ruthless killer. Wicked Autumn is the opening of what promises to be a thoroughly delightful cozy series.
—Mitzi M. Brunsdale