“Dark Rooms” by Lili Anolik

Dark Rooms by Lili AnolikDark Rooms reminded me of a few other books I’ve read recently, ones I’ve begun to classify as millennial noir: stories of smart but damaged young women who set out to solve crimes. Dear Daughter by Elizabeth Little, In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware and Bittersweet by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore are a few others I’d put into that category, along with Paula Hawkins’ mega-best-selling The Girl on the Train.

The biggest difference in Dark Rooms is that Grace, the narrator/protagonist, is still just a teenager; she’s recently graduated from the exclusive Connecticut prep school where both of her parents are on the faculty. Grace’s younger sister, Nica—strikingly beautiful and sexually adventurous—has just been murdered, and it looks like an open-and-shut case, as a misfit loner at the prep school committed suicide shortly thereafter and left an incriminating note. Soon, however, Grace has reason to believe that the real killer is still at large.

I never believed for a second that Grace was only 18; nothing about her voice seemed teenaged to me. As for Nica, she seemed to be 16 going on 36. Speaking of a teacher, Grace ponders, “Doesn’t he understand that [Nica’s friends] Jamie and Ruben and Maddie—Nica, too, when she was alive—don’t respond well to kindness? That they see it as weakness, something to be made fun of or exploited? It took me a while but I finally learned that lesson. Why hasn’t he?… They like it best if you treat them the way they treat each other: dryly, derisively, cuttingly. That’s how they know you’re one of them.”

The most intriguing aspect of Dark Rooms is the relationship between Nica and her mother, who is a Sally Mann-type photographer on the verge of art-world stardom thanks to her excruciatingly intimate photos of her daughter. (Grace assures us that she did not have Nica’s gift for posing.) Other than that, the book is the usual stew of dark family secrets and rich people with murky pasts. I won’t spoil the most Shocking Twist, but weirdly enough, it happened to be highly reminiscent of one that I had just witnessed in a play (based on a work by Ibsen, no less). Like the jaded Nica and her wealthy pals, I’m starting to feel like I’ve seen it all before.

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“Talking to Strange Men” by Ruth Rendell

Ruth Rendell - Talking to Strange MenSomething very unusual happened in my book group this past week: almost no one finished the book. Despite the fact that we meet every week to discuss a different book, it is actually rather rare that fewer than half of the attendees have not made it to the end; this was our seventh meeting of 2016, and it was the first time I hadn’t finished the assigned title. (According to my Kindle, I stopped at 30%.)

What was it about this book—Talking to Strange Men by Ruth Rendell, an author many of us have enjoyed—that made it so difficult? For me personally, it was the book’s structure, featuring two seemingly unrelated storylines told via alternating chapters. One was about a group of schoolboys who pretend to be spies, complete with code names and secret drops. The other is about a sad-sack, middle-aged man named John who works at a gardening center (named Trowbridge’s!). John’s sister was murdered many years ago, and her killer was never found. In addition, his wife wants a divorce so she can marry an old lover who’s recently come back into her life; John does not want to dissolve the marriage, convinced she’ll eventually realize that she’s making a mistake.

I was more intrigued by the storyline involving John, which seemed like it might develop into a conventional mystery, but the two threads do come together early on, as John finds one of the boys’ encoded messages and attempts to decipher it. (He assumes that it must be the work of a mafia of some sort, never suspecting that it’s just a group of youngsters playing around.) For a few nights, I tried reading the book before bedtime, and the spy chapters would put me right to sleep. I was sure I’d just give up on it, but then the few people in my book group who had read the entire thing urged the rest of us to persevere, and took the rare step of not discussing the ending so as not to spoil it. (As a rule, if you come to group without having read the book, you’re not allowed to complain about spoilers.)

So I went home and finished the remaining 70% of the book, and while I can’t say that I really enjoyed it, I do think Rendell did a fine job of bringing all of the storylines together in a satisfying way. It’s a cleverly plotted book. Even the smallest details, such as John’s co-worker’s infatuation with a mynah bird, pay off down the line.

I do believe I would have enjoyed it more if I’d not been reading it on a Kindle; it’s so cumbersome to flip back and forth in an ebook that I seldom do it, whereas with a paper book, I often find myself skimming earlier chapters to remind myself who’s who. In a book like this one, where half the characters are known by their real names and code names (OK, which one’s Leviathan again…?), that would have made it easier to keep track of everyone.

One member of our group—the one who recommended Talking to Strange Men in the first place—said she once asked Rendell to sign her copy of the book, and the author mentioned that not many people cared for it. So it sounds like she was well aware it wasn’t one of her most beloved titles. Of course, Rendell was a prolific author with over 50 novels to her credit, many of them truly great; Talking to Strange Men is well-constructed, but it’s hardly one of her best.

“Italian Shoes” by Henning Mankell

Italian Shoes by Henning MankellIn approximately 99.9% of mystery novels, a murder occurs—or, perhaps, several murders. But most mysteries aren’t really about death. The fact that a human being is gone forever, the impact that a death has on the survivors, is often downplayed in favor of the whodunit puzzle. (In many crime novels, particularly on the cozy end of the spectrum, the victim is shown to be a horrible person, to lessen our guilt about consuming death as entertainment.)

A couple of years ago, William Kent Krueger won every major mystery award (deservedly so, in my opinion) for Ordinary Grace, a novel that dealt frankly and openly with the grief and loss that follow in the aftermath of a sudden, violent death. The affable Krueger is well known for being “Minnesota nice,” and he’s a churchgoing man as well, so Ordinary Grace managed to be somehow uplifting and faith-affirming despite its sober themes. Henning Mankell’s Italian Shoes is like a photo-negative version of Ordinary Grace—instead of young protagonist Frank Drum, we have the retired doctor Fredrik Welin; instead of a supportive, loving family and community, we have a man living alone on a remote island, with only two aged pets keeping him company. Most importantly, the book is suffused with a peculiarly Scandinavian fatalism. If Krueger is Frank Capra in this scenario, Mankell is unabashedly Bergman.

While Mankell is best known for his Wallander series of mysteries, Italian Shoes is a work of straight fiction. There’s death—lots of it!—but it’s all natural, or in one case, self-inflicted. If it sounds depressing, it’s not, because this is a gorgeously-written book (the excellent translation is by Laurie Thompson). It’s harshly beautiful, like a fire-scarred cypress growing out of a craggy rock.

We first meet Welin on his solitary island, which he escaped to after some unnamed tragedy in his past. The only person he sees regularly is the postman who comes three days a week; naturally, Welin despises him. He spends his time writing pointless entries in a logbook and taking a daily jump into the freezing water, a way of proving that he’s still alive. At night, he reads: “A book about how the potato came to Sweden. I had read it several times before. Presumably because it didn’t raise any questions. I could turn page after page and know that I wasn’t going to be faced with something unpleasant and unexpected.”

One day, the fortress of solitude is breached by an ex-lover, Harriet, who shows up on the island on a frigid January day. He hasn’t seen her since he abandoned her nearly 40 years ago. Now she’s dying, and her last wish is that Welin take her to see a certain spot in the north of Sweden that he’d mentioned once before. Thus begins an eventful road trip that takes Welin off his island and far out of his comfort zone; he meets other significant people on the way, and when he eventually returns home, everything has changed. There are moments of searing melancholy and moments of great joy.

“I could still remember the first time I watched a person die,” says Welin (this is the rare Mankell book that is written in first person). “It happened without any movement, in complete silence. The big leap was so tiny. In a split second the living person joined the dead. I recall thinking: This person who is now dead is someone who has in reality never existed. Death wipes out everything that has lived. Death leaves no trace…”

Mankell himself joined the dead last year, but his books will live on for a long time to come. Italian Shoes is a masterwork, a poignant story that serves as a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and to the unbreakable bonds that join people together even after one of them has passed into another realm.

This review is dedicated to the memory of my friend Janet Appel, whose memorial service will be held today.

“All Dressed in White” by Mary Higgins Clark & Alafair Burke

All Dressed in White by Mary Higgins Clark and Alafair BurkeLiterary snobs may huff that they’d never be caught dead reading a book by zillion-selling thriller writer Mary Higgins Clark, but none other than acclaimed novelist David Foster Wallace was a fan, going so far as to include her book Where Are The Children? on the syllabus of a college course he taught. Clark, who is 88, has produced books at a steady rate since Where Are The Children? came out in the mid-70s—All Dressed in White is preceded by at least 40 other books—but now, the name of Alafair Burke appears underneath hers on the cover.

Burke was a highly regarded crime writer in her own right before joining forces with Clark, part of an increasingly common trend in which an older, brand-name author teams up with a younger writer (Janet Evanovich & Lee Goldberg; James Patterson & David Ellis) in order to produce novels at a faster clip. I have no idea which parts of All Dressed in White are Clark’s and which originated with Burke, but I will say that the book reads like an extraordinarily good Mary Higgins Clark novel.

The novel’s protagonist is Laurie Moran, who works on a popular TV show called “Under Suspicion” (a close cousin to the real-life “Unsolved Mysteries”). Laurie is approached by the mother of Amanda Pierce, who disappeared on her wedding day five years earlier. Naturally, people are constantly begging Laurie to look into various cases, but it sounds to her like this tale would make for riveting TV, especially since Sandra is willing to return to the scene of the (possible) crime, a five-star Florida resort. As Sandra says, “It’s a glamorous setting, and people love stories about weddings, and most of them can’t resist a mystery.”

Not only Sandra but the entire wedding party eventually decamps to the Grand Victoria Hotel to film interviews and reenactments. There’s Amanda’s sister Charlotte, forever overshadowed by her more-glamorous sibling prior to the disappearance; brother Henry, the black sheep of the family; father Walter, owner of a successful lingerie company; party-hearty groomsmen Nick & Austin; and bridesmaid Kate, one of the last people to see Amanda alive. Then there’s Jeff, the groom, who is now married to Meghan—Amanda’s other bridesmaid.

There are plenty of suspects and motives, but there’s also the tantalizing possibility that Amanda may have gotten cold feet and run away. A cancer survivor, Amanda’s personality changed after she finished treatment: “She was no longer going to be the good girl. The good daughter. The good friend. The good wife. She wanted freedom, and she wanted power,” Meghan says.

With almost every new chapter, I was convinced I had everything all figured out, only to have my expectations upended by yet another twist or revelation. Naturally, by the end of the book, Laurie and her team’s sleuthing pays off, and everything falls into place.

Clark & Burke are a dynamic duo, and All Dressed in White is a fun, fast-paced, satisfying mystery novel.