“The Incomplete Book of Running” by Peter Sagal

The Incomplete Book of RunningI used to be a runner. I am very proud of the fact that I trained for and completed a half-marathon, along with a variety of shorter races, including San Francisco’s iconic Bay to Breakers (which attracts a mixture of serious runners and elderly nude men, people dressed in gorilla suits, and day drunks).

However, one day I just decided that I didn’t want to run anymore, and that was that. I still try to walk at least four miles per day, but I fully realize that’s not real exercise. (A big part of what I didn’t like about running was that I had to change clothes in order to do it, while even brisk walking seldom makes me break a sweat, especially in the chilly climes of the Bay Area.)

So I’m not exactly the target audience for a running memoir. As a longtime fan of NPR’s quiz show “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me,” however, I couldn’t resist picking up host Peter Sagal’s book, which is also a bittersweet meditation on aging and loss. His daily runs helped Sagal escape from his deteriorating marriage; at one point, he accepts an out-of-town speaking engagement, writing that “My absence was wished for so often and so vividly by my wife that the relief of giving in and leaving was greater than the satisfaction of defying her and staying… In the declining years of my marriage, as our fights became more constant, and more frustrating, my runs became the place where I could say the things I was either too weak or wisely cautious to say out loud, condemnations and defenses that were never contradicted or interrupted because I was saying them into the air.”

Sagal volunteers for an organization called Team With a Vision, which pairs sighted runners with blind ones, and travels to Boston in 2013 in order to run the marathon with a man named William Greer. Hoping to set a personal record, Greer instead finds himself beset by cramps a few miles from the finish line. He tells Sagal that he’s going to have to walk the last mile, but instead, he breaks into a sprint, and the two of them are only a hundred yards away from the finish line when they suddenly hear an explosion. If William Greer hadn’t managed to find his second wind, he and Sagal could well have been injured or killed in the Boston marathon bombing.

That dramatic account, plus the heartbreaking misery of his divorce and strained relationship with his children, may make you wonder if this is really the same Peter Sagal who brings laughter to public radio audiences every weekend. And indeed, I wouldn’t exactly call this book a laugh riot, though there are some poop jokes (ever since he was injured in a bike-riding accident, Sagal’s digestive system tends to act up when he’s running) and witty asides. But primarily, this book shows a different, more serious side of Sagal, one that his fans—runners and non-runners alike—will no doubt appreciate getting to know.

“My Sister, the Serial Killer” by Oyinkan Braithwaite

My Sister, The Serial KillerFor some reason, I tend to feel a weird sense of responsibility to finish any book I start. I rarely abandon books even if I’m not enjoying them. But this week, I gave up on not one but two novels. (One of them was an Edgar Best Novel nominee; I hope that one doesn’t win.) Then I picked up My Sister, the Serial Killer, and I was hooked from the very first lines:

Ayoola summons me with these words—Korede, I killed him.

I had hoped I would never hear those words again.

Ayoola is the staggeringly beautiful younger sister of Korede, a nurse (a useful profession, as it means she’s unlikely to panic at the sight of blood). Bonded by traumatic events in their childhood, the two of them make an odd pair: gorgeous, flighty, flirty Ayoola, who has an unfortunate habit of stabbing to death any man who makes the mistake of falling in love with her; and clear-headed, homely, hard-working Korede, ready to tidy up any mess her sister may leave in her wake. (Be sure not to neglect any blood that may have “seeped in between the shower and the caulking. It’s an easy part to forget.”)

Why is Korede always there to help her sister, even in the most dire of circumstances? “I wondered what would happen if Ayoola were caught… I imagine her trying to blag her way out of it and being found guilty… I relish it for a moment, and then I force myself to set the fantasy aside. She is my sister. I don’t want her to rot in jail, and besides, Ayoola being Ayoola, she would probably convince the court that she was innocent. Her actions were the fault of her victims and she had acted as any reasonable, gorgeous person would under the circumstances.”

Then something finally comes between the sisters: a man. Specifically Tade, a doctor at Korede’s hospital, whom she’s had an unrequited crush on for ages. When Ayoola shows up one day to visit Korede at work, Tade spots her and is instantly besotted. It was one thing if Ayoola killed someone who was a stranger to Korede, but she simply can’t let Tade die at the hands of her sister. But how can she convince him that he needs to tread carefully around Ayoola without coming off as a jealous shrew?

Despite the grim subject matter, My Sister is not overly gory, and while Ayoola seems not to have a conscience, that’s definitely not true of Korede. Nigerian author Oyinkan Braithwaite skillfully balances humor, heartbreak and suspense in this audacious debut novel.

“Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens

Where the Crawdads SingI try to keep tabs on the latest hot crime fiction, but I’ll admit that Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing wasn’t on my radar at all until I noticed it had started climbing the New York Times bestseller list. Credit Reese Witherspoon’s book club for making it a hit. I do think Reese has good taste, and it’s wonderful that she’s using her celebrity to spotlight new fiction by a diverse range of mostly-female authors. I’ve reviewed several of her selections, including recent picks The Proposal and One Day in December.

Where the Crawdads Sing has likely continued to sell well because it has all the ingredients of a word-of-mouth hit. It’s a coming-of-age story, always a popular genre; it tells the tale of a poor, neglected young girl conquering difficult circumstances; and there’s a murder mystery, to boot.

I found the book extremely compelling, and whenever I had to put it down to go do something else, I felt its pull—returning to Owens’ lovingly-described North Carolina marshland felt like a reprieve from the hectic modern world. “The wind picked up, and thousands upon thousands of yellow sycamore leaves broke from their life support and streamed across the sky,” goes one lyrical passage. “Autumn leaves don’t fall; they fly. They take their time and wander on this, their only chance to soar.”

Owens, who spent decades living in isolation as a wildlife scientist in Africa, writes with authority about Kya, a young girl whose entire family abandons her, one by one, until she is left alone. Managing to avoid school except for one traumatic day when the kids in town made fun of her for being “marsh trash,” Kya eventually learns to read from a sympathetic young man who begins to pay visits to her remote cabin and slowly gains her trust. Chapters depicting Kya’s childhood and teen years alternate with ones taking place several years later, in the immediate aftermath of the suspicious death of the privileged Chase Andrews, who is everything that Kya is not: popular, well-off, with loving parents. Eventually, the two timelines intersect.

This is definitely not a conventional mystery novel, but it’s a lovely, sometimes heartbreaking work. And I hope the fans who have made this book a bestseller will go on to discover Karen Dionne’s The Marsh King’s Daughter, which also features a young woman growing up in a wild, beautiful and lonely place.

“The Last Act” by Brad Parks

The Last Act by Brad ParksA thriller featuring a protagonist who is a musical-theater star? Are you kidding me?! Since crime fiction and theater are two of my favorite things, I am definitely in the target audience for The Last Act. “I swear, the moment lasted longer than ‘City on Fire’/ ‘Final Sequence’ from Sweeney Todd—and that’s a thirteen-minute song” is a typical Tommy Jump quip. Tommy is the Tony-nominated star of the “short-lived but critically acclaimed” Broadway tuner Cherokee Purples, “a show about a family who had left the rat race in order to farm and sell the ultimate organic heirloom tomato.”

Unfortunately, Tommy, now in his late 20s, finds himself in an awkward stage: too old for kid roles, too short to be a leading man. He has decided that a summer-stock production of Man of La Mancha will be his swan song; he’s going to quit acting, maybe get a gig as assistant managing director of a regional theater in Arkansas. Until he gets an offer for a really big role.

A childhood pal of Tommy’s is now an FBI agent on the trail of a Mexican drug cartel. The one guy who has the evidence to bring down the cartel leader is an inmate in a minimum-security, “Club Fed” prison. Tommy will be given a new identity, then he’ll plead guilty to a crime in order to be sentenced to prison, befriend the inmate, and manage to convince him to reveal the location of a valuable stash of documents. He’ll be behind bars for no more than six months, and he’ll get $150,000 for his trouble, with more cash to follow if the information leads to an indictment.

At this point, I was practically shrieking “TOMMY, THIS IS A TERRIBLE IDEA!” at the book, but of course, the actor—who has a pregnant girlfriend—figures the money would give his new family a great start, and says he’ll do it. Needless to say, complications ensue.

I absolutely loved Parks’ last book, Closer Than You Know, and while of course I don’t want to reveal too much about the outcome of The Last Act, one of the reasons I enjoy Parks’ thrillers so much is that it’s obvious that the author really loves his characters. So I always know in the back of my mind that things will turn out OK, and I find that enormously comforting. Parks writes about nice people who go through hell and are able to use their wits to prevail in the end. There are lots of twists along the way, plus an obviously well-researched and engrossing look at day-to-day life in a minimum-security prison. This is a terrifically entertaining book.

Thanks to Dutton/Penguin Random House for sending me a copy of The Last Act! It’ll be published on March 12.

“Shell Game” by Sara Paretsky

Shell GameSara Paretsky’s dauntless sleuth, V.I. Warshawski, is never more fired up than when she’s dealing with a case that hits close to home, and boy, do things ever get personal in Shell Game.

In her 19th adventure, V.I. must try to help exonerate the nephew of her dear friend and mentor Lotty Herschel, who has been accused of murder. On top of that, there’s the disappearance of V.I.’s own niece, Reno—the daughter of V.I.’s ex-husband’s late sister, a young woman the detective hasn’t seen in many years. Reno’s sister Harmony suddenly appears at V.I.’s door, and V.I. learns that Reno had been living in Chicago, working for a payday lending firm, until she went missing.

The fact that Reno was employed in a notoriously sketchy branch of the financial industry should immediately set off alarm bells, considering how often V.I. has gone up against that type of business in past cases. Along with payday lending, Shell Game also deals with pump-and-dump stock schemes, smuggling of precious Syrian artifacts, undocumented immigrants, and sexual exploitation. This novel is a meaty 385 pages long, but it moves along at a rapid clip.

This is not one of those series where the protagonist ages in real time—I think V.I. would be in her late 60s by now if that were the case, a bit too old to run in heels and get attacked by Russian goons. (Paretsky’s first book, Indemnity Only, was published 37 years ago.) Instead, she’s as fresh and fired-up as ever, and Shell Game is classic V.I.: always on the side of the underdog, ready and willing to put everything on the line in pursuit of the truth.

“House Witness” by Mike Lawson

House WitnessThis week, I read another Edgar-nominated book: House Witness by Mike Lawson, part of his Joe DeMarco series. This is book #12, and looking at the covers on his website, it’s not too surprising that I have never read any of these novels before: they all have sort of generic “political thriller” book jackets, and that’s not a genre I tend to seek out. (I’m usually trying to avoid thinking about politics.)

However, I was pleasantly surprised by House Witness. The plot moves at lightning speed; it’s almost impossible to stop turning the pages. (This is another one of those books that kept me up past my bedtime.)

The protagonist, DeMarco, works as a “fixer” for a powerful Democratic Congressman named John Mahoney. As the novel opens, Rep. Mahoney has just learned that his illegitimate son—a man he’d never met—has been killed, shot to death in a Manhattan bar. The man’s mother, Connie DiNunzio, is a career bureaucrat in Albany, who became “a major player in the backstabbing, bare-knuckles world of New York state politics” after her long-ago fling with Mahoney.

The man who pulled the trigger, Toby Rosenthal, happens to be a spoiled rich kid whose dad is willing to spend any amount of money to keep his son out of prison. DeMarco’s assignment: make sure Toby goes to jail for what he did.

At first, it looks like a slam dunk, since there are at least five witnesses who got a good look at Toby shooting Dominic DiNunzio. But Henry Rosenthal, a corporate lawyer, has the means to hire one of the city’s top criminal defense attorneys to defend his son. And when that attorney realizes that keeping Toby out of prison is by no means a sure thing, he decides to get a little extra-legal help from a specialist who has been known to get very rich people out of sticky situations.

So House Witness turns into a story of fixer vs. fixer, with DeMarco trying to discover why the once-airtight case against Toby Rosenthal is going down the drain. Rep. Mahoney is keeping the pressure on, so DeMarco has to figure out how to outsmart a seemingly invincible, invisible opponent.

The only thing I found a little annoying about Lawson’s otherwise unimpeachable prose was his tendency to occasionally drop in little “had-I-but-known” asides, like “Dent had no idea at the time that Rachel Quinn’s owning a dog would turn out to be important,” or “Slade had no way to know then that in the end, everything would almost unravel thanks to a middle-aged secretary.” Still, that’s a small quibble. This is an entertaining and well-crafted thriller.

The Veronica Speedwell Series by Deanna Raybourn

Each year when the Edgar Award nominations are announced, I quickly skim the list to see which of this year’s nominees I’ve read. Usually, there are at least a few. This year, however, I had not read any of the six Best Novel nominees, and I was only familiar with one of the nominated authors (Walter Mosley). My friend Janet, who reads even more mysteries than I do, was in the same boat, so we decided we should read them and see what we were missing out on.

A Treacherous CurseThe interesting thing about the Edgars is that they are the only mystery award where the nominees and winners are chosen by a panel of peers. The other awards are basically all popularity contests. But for the Edgars, each year, a small panel is selected to judge each award (Best Novel, Best First Novel, Best Fact Crime, etc.), and those folks have to read every single book that is submitted to them. The people on these committees are anonymous (and sign non-disclosure agreements), but they are all active status members of the MWA (Mystery Writers of America). I have known plenty of writers who have served as Edgar judges over the years, and the amount of work they put in is almost overwhelming.

Many years ago, I had the honor of visiting the late Barbara Mertz (better known by her pen name, Elizabeth Peters) at her Maryland home. She was in the midst of her year as an Edgars judge, and there were piles of books everywhere. I asked her how she could possibly read so many books, and she told me that she could generally tell 2-3 chapters in whether or not a novel would be worth reading all the way through.

The first of the Edgar nominees I picked up was Deanna Raybourn’s A Treacherous Curse, third in her Veronica Speedwell series of historical mysteries. After reading the first couple of chapters, not only did I want to keep going, but I realized that I wanted to start at the beginning of the series. There was obviously a ton of backstory there, and while it was smoothly laid out for the first-timer, I had the luxury of not being obligated to plow through stacks and stacks of books by a certain deadline, so I could delve into A Curious Beginning and A Perilous Undertaking.

A Curious BeginningOne of the reasons I mentioned Elizabeth Peters above is that Veronica Speedwell is a true heir to Peters’ beloved Amelia Peabody series, and I’d be shocked if Raybourn didn’t count her as an influence. The Speedwell novels are set during the Victorian era, and like Amelia, 25-year-old Veronica is an unconventional woman, an adventurous soul who does not care to live by society’s strictures of how a “proper” lady should behave. She’s been around the world three times, collecting butterflies for wealthy patrons willing to pay a handsome price for a fine specimen. Orphaned at a young age, Veronica was raised by two guardians she referred to as her aunts; when A Curious Beginning opens, the last surviving one, Nell, has just passed away, and Veronica is planning to leave the little village where they had resided for the past three years.

Before she can depart, however, the Baron von Stauffenbach, a man she has never met, turns up at her cottage, warning her that her life is in danger. He insists on taking her to London, where he leaves her in the care of his old friend Stoker, the black sheep of an aristocratic family who works as a taxidermist in a cavernous warehouse. Despite Veronica’s protestations—”I am the least interesting person in England, I assure you. No one could possibly want to harm me”—she soon learns that the reason her guardians kept moving from town to town during her childhood was to protect her from some dark and possibly life-threatening secrets having to do with her parentage.

The growing bond between Veronica and Stoker is at the heart of this series; they grow to depend on one another, and they have a lot of respect for each other’s unique abilities. Will their friendship eventually turn to love? While Veronica finds him attractive, he has a lot of mysteries in his background, and he’s rather dark, brooding and damaged. Plus, having a romantic relationship would go against Veronica’s personal code of conduct: “Although I permitted myself dalliances during my travels, I never engaged in flirtations in England—or with Englishmen… Foreign bachelors were my trophies.”

A Perilous UndertakingA Curious Beginning deals with Veronica finding out the truth about her parentage, and the ramifications of what she learned in the first book continue to reverberate in A Perilous Undertaking. So far, I’m about a quarter of the way through A Treacherous Curse, which seems to be taking a deep dive into Stoker’s past. As a bonus for fans of Elizabeth Peters, there’s an Egyptology-related mystery as well.

Whoever you are, anonymous Edgar judges responsible for selecting A Treacherous Curse for this year’s shortlist, I am very grateful to you for introducing me to Veronica Speedwell. Happily, her fourth adventure, A Dangerous Collaboration, is due out next month. Whether or not Raybourn wins the Edgar Award, she has written an eminently prize-worthy series.