“Since We Fell” by Dennis Lehane

Since We Fell by Dennis LehaneA few years ago, an aspiring mystery author friend of mine was told by an agent that her book was fine, she just needed to move the murder way up so that it happened much earlier in the book. That advice is almost always echoed in articles aimed at wannabe crime authors, like this one by Elizabeth Spann Craig: “Usually the murder needs to occur fairly soon in a book. I know my editors like it that way… If we have a lot of chapters before the body’s discovery, they probably just function as set-up or backstory… which is never popular with editors.”

Now, rules are made to be broken, but I have to wonder if a writer less prominent than Dennis Lehane had turned in Since We Fell that his editor would have gone at it with a machete. A murder is teased in the first sentence of the book, but then the next 200 pages or so are all character development: the story of a young journalist named Rachel who was raised by a single mom who refused to tell her anything about her father. After her mother is killed in an accident, Rachel tries to discover her dad’s identity. She kinda-sorta solves the mystery. Then she travels to Haiti on assignment for the TV station she works for, where she has an on-air meltdown which basically destroys her career, as well as her marriage to an idealistic striver.

Then, about a third of the way through the book, she reconnects by chance with Brian, a private eye who had tried to help find her dad. She happens to run into him in a bar after six months of self-imposed isolation, as she’s heading home from her divorce hearing. They hit it off, and he helps her recover from her agoraphobia and panic attacks. Then, at just about the halfway point, the plot suddenly goes bananas and turns into a high-octane thriller. Apparently, Lehane sold the book to Hollywood a couple years before publication; my guess is that when it becomes a film, the first 50% will be dispensed with in 15 minutes. Heck, maybe even before the opening credits roll.

I don’t want to get into any details of what happens in part two because I usually consider anything that far into the book spoiler territory, but there was just something so disjointed about the way the two halves are fused together. Why include so much about the mysterious missing dad when that storyline had almost zero relevance to the plot that followed? Couldn’t Rachel and Brian have met some other way? (We find out fairly early on that his career as a private eye was short-lived, so his onetime occupation isn’t relevant, either.) Even for a thriller, the second half of Since We Fell requires too much suspension of disbelief. On the plus side, maybe this will turn into that rare book that works better as a film than on the printed page.

“Magpie Murders” by Anthony Horowitz

Magpie MurdersAfter finishing Magpie Murders, it may be a while before I want to read a straight-up whodunit. Anthony Horowitz’s novel puts a fiendishly clever postmodern spin on the traditional mystery format; as a theater fan, I was reminded of musicals like The Drowsy Chaperone and Urinetown, which play with well-worn tropes while also building on them.

The brief opening chapter of Magpie introduces us to Susan Ryeland, an editor at Cloverleaf Books, whose marquee author is the mega-best-selling crime writer Alan Conway. His latest Atticus Pünd mystery, Susan tells us, “changed my life… as I reached out and turned the first page of the typescript, I had no idea of the journey I was about to begin and, quite frankly, I wish I’d never allowed myself to get pulled on board.”

Then the reader is given a couple hundred pages of Magpie Murders, the book-within-a-book, which is a rather traditional English village mystery featuring Pünd in the Hercule Poirot role of genius detective. However, the last pages of the book are missing. Susan’s quest to find them requires her to solve a “real-life” murder mystery, but unfortunately, she doesn’t possess Pünd’s considerable deductive powers, so she has to muddle along the best she can.

Along the way, there are some hilariously pointed observations about whodunits, like this one: “It’s strange when you think about it,” Susan muses. “There are hundreds and hundreds of murders in books and television. It would be hard for narrative fiction to survive without them. And yet there are almost none in real life, unless you happen to live in the wrong area. Why is it that we have such a need for murder mystery and what is it that attracts us—the crime or the solution? Do we have some primal need of bloodshed because our own lives are so safe, so comfortable? I made a mental note to check out Alan’s sales figures in San Pedro Sula in Honduras (the murder capital of the world). It might be that they didn’t read him at all.”

Magpie Murders is about 500 pages long, but thanks to its structure and Horowitz’s breezy writing style, it flies by. In the end, both mysteries are solved in a most satisfying manner, making this book doubly delightful.

“The Secrets She Keeps” by Michael Robotham

The Secrets She Keeps by Michael RobothamLast weekend, I was switching back and forth between three books: George Saunders’ meditation on grief and letting go, Lincoln in the Bardo; Victor Frankl’s classic Holocaust memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning; and Michael Robotham’s thriller The Secrets She Keeps, which was supposed to be the lighter alternative to those two heavy tomes. However, Secrets is pretty heavy in its own right, dealing with serious themes like motherhood and mental illness.

It’s difficult to summarize the plot without getting into spoiler territory; there are some big surprises in this book, though anyone who’s read enough domestic suspense will probably be able to guess at least some of what’s coming. The book is told from the alternating points of view of two pregnant London women: Agatha, who’s single (her ex-lover serves in the Royal Navy, and broke up with her before his current deployment), and Meg, a mommy blogger with a seemingly perfect marriage, home and family. Meg’s third child is an “oops baby,” and her TV sportscaster husband is pretty grumpy about the fact that she’s pregnant. Two kids were enough for him, thanks.

Meg patronizes the grocery store where Agatha works, and in Agatha’s mind, Meg has everything she’s ever wanted: a loving husband, a big family, a beautiful house (Agatha has discovered a vantage point where she can spy on the home). Not wanting to be a cash-strapped single mum, Agatha decides she needs to try to get her ex back. Eventually, the two protagonists’ lives become entwined, and Agatha discovers a shocking secret about Meg’s husband.

Prior to this book, the only Robotham novels I’d read were Bleed For Me and Watching You, which were part of his series featuring psychiatrist Joe O’Loughlin. Both of those books showed that Robotham was a master at writing strong and believable female characters, and the stand-alone Secrets takes that even farther, as the author writes about topics like pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood from a first-person perspective. I was pretty impressed, but the author bio at the end of the novel mentions that Robotham is married and the father of three daughters. My guess is that he has some help in making sure that there are no false notes in his depictions of women’s intimate lives.

Note: The Secrets She Keeps will be published on July 11, 2017. Thanks to Scribner and NetGalley for the review copy.

“Watch Me Disappear” by Janelle Brown

Watch Me DisappearJanelle Brown’s Watch Me Disappear is the sort of summer read that’s dishy enough to enjoy at the pool or beach, but is well-written enough that you won’t feel like you wasted your precious vacation time on yet another Gone Girl rehash. This is a thoughtful examination of family and identity, as well as a genuine page-turner.

Berkeley mom Billie Flanagan disappears while she’s on a solo hike, leaving her devastated husband Jonathan and teenage daughter Olive behind to deal with her loss. Despite extensive searching, Billie’s body was never found (some random detritus, like a boot and a phone, were recovered). Not having 100% solid proof that Billie is actually dead makes the situation even more fraught. Jonathan quit his highly demanding job in order to write a book and to be available to his daughter, but financial pressures—Billie’s life insurance policy requires a death certificate, which is difficult to procure without a body—are driving him to drink. Then Olive starts having visions in which her mother is still very much alive.

Both Jonathan and Olive make discoveries about Billie and her mysterious and complicated past, which she had never been particularly open about. Jonathan also has to decide how to handle Olive’s insistence that her mother is not dead and is, indeed, trying to communicate with her. He also falls into a relationship with Billie’s best friend, one of the few people who knew her before she became a wife and mom.

All of the revelations seem true to the characters instead of simply piled on for maximum shock effect, making Watch Me Disappear one of the most compelling thrillers I’ve read in a while.

Note: Watch Me Disappear will be published on July 11, 2017. Thanks to Spiegel & Grau and NetGalley for the review copy.

“Ten Dead Comedians” by Fred Van Lente

Ten Dead ComediansWhen I first read Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None many years ago, I was amazed at how audacious a book published in 1939 could be. (That’s not even taking into consideration the whodunit’s original title, which is not so much audacious as just plain offensive.) On Christie’s island, there were no good guys, no Marple or Poirot… and no survivors.

Writing a contemporary riff on one of Christie’s most famous novels is also a pretty bold move. Fred Van Lente populates his island with stand-up comics, ranging from wannabes and has-beens to huge stars. They have all been summoned by Dustin Walker, an enormously successful comedian who starred in a blockbuster movie called “Help! I Married A Cat” and its many sequels. Ever since the failure of “Help! I Married A Cat: The New Litter” in 2009, Walker has been laying low, but now he’s plotting a comeback, and everyone wants in.

Anyone who follows the comedy scene will have no trouble matching Van Lente’s fictional stand-ups to their real-life counterparts: Billy the Contractor, a Larry the Cable Guy type whose catchphrase is “Fix ‘er up!”; Janet Kahn, an aging insult comic with a yen for plastic surgery a la Joan Rivers; Zoe Schwartz, a foul-mouthed comedian in the Sarah Silverman/Amy Schumer vein; and Oliver Rees, whose act seems to be a sort of hybrid of Gallagher, Carrot Top and the Blue Man Group. It’s plausible that a down-on-his-luck comic like Steve Gordon, reduced to teaching improv at corporate team-building events, would be willing to hightail it to Walker’s island, but would a high-maintenance celeb like Janet really show up sans entourage, even if she does see it as an opportunity to recover from her latest face lift?

If you can suspend your disbelief, this is a fun, quick read, though the solution (while clever) shows just how difficult it is to go toe-to-toe with Dame Agatha, even after almost 80 years.

Note: Ten Dead Comedians will be published on July 11, 2017. Thanks to Quirk Books (via NetGalley) for the review copy.

“Endgame” by Bill Pronzini

Endgame by Bill PronziniIn 2001, it looked like Bill Pronzini was putting a stop to his long-running Nameless Detective mysteries with book #27, Bleeders, which strongly implied that his sleuth was retiring. However, just a year later, Nameless was back in a rebooted version of the series; this time around, he had acquired a first name (Bill) and two associates (computer-savvy Tamara and brooding widower Jake). The new formula continued over the course of another dozen or so books, as Bill’s first-person chapters were interspersed with third-person accounts of the other detectives’ cases.

Bill always claimed that he wanted to cut down on his workload at the agency, but he simply couldn’t resist getting drawn back into cases. This time, however, I fear that he truly has retired; I suspected it when I saw the title of the new Nameless book, and Pronzini seems to go out of his way to tie up all the loose ends in his recurring characters’ lives. So perhaps this really and truly is the end of the road for this series. If that’s the case, I’ll be sad, because it’s one of my all-time favorites, but at least it’s ending on a high note.

Pronzini presents us with two “impossible” mysteries: a locked-room puzzle with a man found dead in a closed-up cabin, and the disappearance of an agoraphobic novelist. Jake Runyon heads to the Sierras to investigate the death of Philip Dennison, whose young widow is convinced he was cheating on her, while Bill tackles the case of Alice Cahill. Her husband James swears that Alice never left the house, and that she would not have gone voluntarily. Everyone seems to suspect James of foul play, so he needs Bill to find her and prove his innocence.

“If Runyon or Chavez or anybody else had handled the Cahill investigation, its ultimate outcome might have been different,” states Bill on the first page of Endgame. “One thing for sure: it would not have worked out in the same way, with the same consequences, if I hadn’t been the one to take it on.”

Those consequences don’t become clear until the very end of the book, and by that point, Nameless fans may find themselves getting a bit choked up at the prospect of the beloved series coming to a permanent close. And yet Pronzini, now in his mid-70s, doesn’t appear to be slowing down—Endgame is the second novel he’s published this year, following stand-alone thriller The Violated—so if we’re lucky, maybe Nameless will turn up in the occasional novella or short story. In any event, the Nameless Detective will forever be remembered as one of the true titans in the annals of private-eye fiction.

“Celine” by Peter Heller

CelineI read a lot of good books, but every year, there are a couple that I find myself enthusiastically recommending to people. The latest book added to my “You must read this!” list is Peter Heller’s Celine, a beautifully-written and engrossing novel featuring one of the most memorable protagonists I’ve encountered in a while.

Celine is in her late 60s, an old-money WASP who makes her living as a private eye. The only type of case she takes is reuniting parents and children. At her side is her doting and taciturn second husband, Pete, who adores Celine and yet finds her an endless source of mystery (just how did she become so proficient with firearms?).

Celine’s latest client is a young woman whose father disappeared many years before, leaving her an orphan (her mother drowned when she was very young). Supposedly, the man—a skilled photographer who often worked for National Geographic—had been fatally mauled by a bear, but his body was never found, just some smashed camera equipment, blood on a tree trunk, and a few discarded pieces of clothing. The client is convinced her father faked his own death, and if he is still alive, she wants him to meet his grandchild.

Because Celine’s own father disappeared from her life when she was quite young, after his divorce from her mother, she feels a particular connection to the case. She and Pete head for Yellowstone National Park, site of the alleged grizzly attack. In the meantime, Celine’s son Hank is conducting his own investigation into his mother’s teenage years, a time she does not like to speak about.

In lesser hands, Celine could have been cutesy or too precious, but Heller’s style is always sincere, wise and open-hearted, with a pronounced tinge of melancholy. Early in the book, we learn that Celine’s two sisters have recently passed away, and the book takes place in 2002, when the events of Sept. 11, 2001 (Celine is a New Yorker) have recently left their mark. As she and Pete walk down a street at night in a small town, under a starless sky, she reflects on her chosen career:

It occurred to her as they walked that they were looking for a father who had disappeared more than two decades ago, but that he had truly left his child’s life long before that, that the young woman had grown up for all intents and purposes fatherless. As she did. That finding him now might resolve something in the woman’s heart but would not change the essential sadness. And that was the business she was in. She had had to accept it long ago: that her job was enabling just such reunions. That though they could not change someone’s childhood, still—there was a great raw need in her clients to know their parents and to meet them again. There was something in that resolution that was very important. To the child, and often to the parent. She certainly knew about that. And sometimes they—the parent and the child—started again. Rarely did it work, but sometimes it did. And then a child would have a mother and a mother a daughter.

The saddest part was that parents would keep disappearing, and children would cry themselves to sleep night after night, for months, for years. And that mothers would have their babies taken from them before they had a chance to smell the tuft of soft hair, their ears, before they had a chance to say, “Oh how I love you! Forever and ever.” That the baby was taken before she had a chance to kiss her and wrap her properly in her arms.

There are a great many mysteries in Celine, some of which get resolved and a few of which don’t. It’s hard to imagine anyone finishing this book and not wishing they could spend more time with its fascinating heroine. Indeed, Heller has revealed in interviews that Celine is based on his late mother, Caroline. “When I started writing this book, I wrote with the hope to spend another year with her,” he said. His novel is an extraordinary tribute, and very much worth reading.