“Wilde Lake” by Laura Lippman

Wilde Lake by Laura LippmanLu Brant is the ambitious, brand-new state’s attorney of Howard County, Maryland, a position once held by her father, the most beloved lawyer this side of Atticus Finch. Many people imagined Andrew Brant, widowed just a few days after Lu was born, would ultimately go on to hold higher office, but he never did; Lu, on the other hand, is the kind of hard-driving star who seems destined to make it all the way to the Senate or the governor’s mansion.

Unlike nearby Baltimore, affluent Howard County has very few murders, but Lu’s first homicide case comes along near the beginning of her tenure. At first, it seems routine: a woman has been killed in her apartment, in what appears to be a robbery gone wrong. A hit on the fingerprints left behind lead to a vagrant with a history of petty crimes. Of course, this being a Laura Lippman novel, it turns out there is much more to the crime than a simple case of breaking-and-entering.

Lippman rolls out the revelations at such an expert pace that to give too much away would risk spoiling the many delights and surprises that await the reader. Along with the central crime plot and Lu’s complicated present-day relationships, the book contains alternating chapters that flash back to Lu’s youth, when she and her older brother AJ were growing up in then-new Columbia, a planned suburb which the developer imagined would be a sort of inclusive utopia that would welcome people of all races and income levels. (Incidentally, the Wikipedia page for Wilde Lake High School lists one of its notable graduates as… Laura Lippman, along with the actor Edward Norton and NFL linebacker Zach Brown.)

Lu is a flawed but sympathetic character, loyal and strong, and the flashback chapters show how her challenging childhood shaped her. “There was so much unfairness in life,” she muses, “especially when one was the youngest, and a girl. I planned to change that one day. I was going to be an astronaut or a president, maybe an astronaut and then the president. And here we are, more than thirty-five years later, and we have plenty of female astronauts and we’re within spitting distance of a female president. But you know what I consider true progress? The fact that we had a female astronaut disturbed enough to make that famous cross-country trip in adult diapers, intent on killing a romantic rival. When your kind is allowed to be mediocre or crazy—that’s true equality.”

Clever asides like that, along with a solid plot and page-turning suspense, make Wilde Lake one of Lippman’s best novels.

“The Position” by Meg Wolitzer

The Position by Meg WolitzerAlmost every teenager goes through a phase where they find their parents super embarrassing, though generally this is because Mom insists on a 10 PM curfew when everyone else doesn’t have to go home before 11, or Dad sings along tunelessly with the car radio. For the Mellow kids, especially 13-year-old Michael and his older sister Holly, adolescent embarrassment took on a whole new meaning when they discovered their parents’ book.

Paul and Roz Mellow became notorious in the 1970s after they penned a Joy of Sex-style best-selling sex manual called Pleasuring: One Couple’s Journey to Fulfillment. The fact that they wrote such a book was cringe-inducing, but they actually modeled for the illustrations as well. In pen-and-ink drawings, the artist “rendered the parents in all their humanness, and he drew them engaged in sexual practices both common and obscure, Western and Eastern, ancient and modern, freehand and apparatus-aided.”

When the four Mellow kids find the book, “they had all been given orchestra seats to the primal scene, and now the heavy maroon curtain had gone up on the mysteries of love, which no child on earth has the privilege or right to see.”

The Position begins with that 70s-set tableau and then proceeds to follow all the Mellows into old age (the parents) and middle age (the kids), showing how the aftermath of Pleasuring affected each of them. Despite the titillating premise, this is not a book about sex; it’s about family, hopes and dreams, crushing disappointments, relationships which begin and end.

Fairly early on, it’s revealed that Paul and Roz divorced soon after the publication of their book, but exactly what happened remains a mystery for most of the novel. Instead, we follow Michael, who has journeyed to Florida at his mom’s behest to try to persuade his father to allow a publisher to reissue Pleasuring; Holly, now living in California and disconnected from the rest of her family; Dashiell, a gay Republican; and Claudia, a perpetual underachiever now attending film school in her mid-30s, using her Pleasuring trust fund to pay the tuition.

Wolitzer is an empathetic writer who makes you care about all of her characters, even when they do dumb or ill-advised things. (A scene where Michael and his dad go party with some college girls is particularly awkward.) The author captures the nostalgia of returning to a place after many years in a beautiful chapter in which Claudia tours her childhood home, which now belongs to an Indian-American family. Reaching her old bedroom, she realizes “it had rarely occurred to her that one day she’d have to leave it… that one day, she would have to give up the enclosure of her room and go out there into the world, which she, alone among her siblings, was so woefully unprepared.”

Moving from one Mellow to another, Wolitzer keeps things humming along in this affecting family saga.

“Zigzag” by Bill Pronzini

Zigzag by Bill PronziniOne of the most pleasurable reading experiences of my life was the summer in which I read all of Bill Pronzini’s Nameless Detective novels. I was underemployed, so while I had a lot of time on my hands, I couldn’t afford to buy all of those long-out-of-print books. But with the help of three different library systems, I managed to borrow every single title, from 1971’s The Snatch to the “final” book in the series (#29!), Bleeders.

Luckily for me (and all the other Nameless fans out there), Pronzini acquired a new publisher and decided to continue his series, though it took a very different turn as his iconic PI entered the 21st century. No longer a lone-wolf detective, Nameless acquired a name (Bill) and a much-younger, ambitious associate named Tamara, a computer whiz who helped modernize her 60-year-old boss’s agency. Soon, Tamara was joined by a couple of other PIs, most notably the brooding, romantically-troubled ex-cop Jake Runyon. As Tamara and Jake took on more work, allowing Bill to semi-retire, the books began to include third-person chapters told from their points of view, interspersed with Bill’s usual first-person narration.

After binging on nearly 30 Nameless books, I now have to content myself with a single novel each year. When it arrives, I know I’m in for a few hours of pure reading entertainment. The latest Nameless, Zigzag, is not a novel but a collection, consisting of two short stories and two novellas. All are written from Bill’s point of view, making it more of a traditional Nameless Detective book than the last few entries in the series.

First we have the title novella, in which Bill is investigating a fairly routine accident; when he goes to interview a potential witness, he stumbles upon the scene of a recent homicide. The widow of one of the dead men hires Bill to investigate further after the cops close the case. Then there are two short stories, the poignant “Grapplin'” and slight-but-fun “Nightscape,” followed by “Revenant,” which has nothing to do with the Leonardo DiCaprio film (no bears!) but does enmesh Bill in a type of crime I don’t believe he’s ever investigated before: one involving the occult. A frail, sickly, very rich woman is convinced she is being stalked by a dead man; she’s convinced she’s seen him lurking in the shadows of her Atherton mansion. “Whatever was going on here had a rational, not supernatural, explanation,” Bill tells himself after speaking with his client. “Soul-stealing evil spirits from beyond the grave… Such things couldn’t possibly exist in the modern world.”

Bill was a World War II vet in his late 40s in the first Nameless book, so realistically, he’d be pushing 90 by now instead of in his mid-60s. However, while the PI has only aged by 17 or 18 years, San Francisco, his home base, continues to change; there’s probably an interesting study to be done of how The City has been depicted in Pronzini’s series, from the gritty early 70s to the tech boom of today. (His agency’s offices are located in the South Park neighborhood, home to numerous start-ups and tech firms.) Pronzini himself now lives in Sonoma County, but he obviously keeps tabs on the ever-changing Bay Area.

Zigzag may be the 45th book in the series, but since it focuses on Bill and his cases, without delving too deeply into the backstories of the PI, his family, or his associates, it would be easy enough to jump in even if you’ve never read any of the other Nameless Detective books. Still, the best way to enjoy the series is to start at #1 and read them in order. (Don’t skip the other books of short stories, especially 1983’s Casefile, which details a crime which turns out to have a huge impact on the PI a few books down the road.) The good news is that the entire series is back in print, available in ebook, paperback and even audio format. The Nameless Detective may be semi-retired, but I hope he continues to solve cases for many years to come.

Thanks to my friend Janet of Mystery Readers International for giving me a review copy of Zigzag. It will be published in May by Forge Books.

“Woman with a Blue Pencil” by Gordon McAlpine

Woman with a Blue PencilMid-December 1941 was probably not the best time for a Nisei (U.S.-born child of Japanese immigrants) author to try to sell a book with a Japanese hero. Takumi Sato’s book proposal about a Nisei college professor trying to solve his wife’s murder had been accepted by Metropolitan Modern Mysteries, but after Pearl Harbor, “its publication is now impossible,” associate editor Maxine Wakefield wrote in a letter to Sato. “While this is doubtless disappointing, I feel you cannot be much surprised. The world has changed.”

However, Wakefield had an idea: revise the book, “which would include cutting and replacing not only your Japanese hero Sumida but also the Caucasian villain… Perhaps you could still employ an Oriental as your protagonist, a Korean or a Chinese.” And, of course, “current events dictate that your new Korean or Chinese hero be far more American/Apple pie than your discarded character.”

Sato accepted the editor’s proposition, perhaps because he didn’t want to give up the $350 advance. And so Jimmy Park, Korean-American PI, was born. But the “discarded” Sumida didn’t go away so easily; he continued his quest outside the pages of Sato’s new book, The Orchid and the Secret Agent.

Each chapter in Gordon McAlpine’s ingeniously structured novel is divided into three segments. First, there’s an excerpt from The Orchid and the Secret Agent; then there’s a chapter from The Revised, the unpublishable manuscript about Sumida. Following that is a letter from Maxine Wakefield, the “woman” of the title, commenting on Sato’s work in progress, which he’s sending her one chapter at a time. Of course, Wakefield only sees the chapters about the heroic Jimmy Park. In The Revised, Sumida traverses L.A. as a man faced with the realization that not only his wife is gone: his house is now inhabited by somebody else; his friends don’t recognize him; the back issue of the newspaper which once carried a story about his wife’s murder now has different stories on that page. And post-Pearl Harbor, everyone treats him like a pariah.

The most intriguing thing about Woman with a Blue Pencil is how we only come to know Sato, the author, through his novels and what we can glean about him from Wakefield’s letters. We learn that he and his family are sent to the internment camp at Manzanar, for instance. And that he felt conflicted about his new book, which seems logical to us, but perhaps not to Maxine Wakefield. “I understand that for you this project may hold complexities that most authors do not have to face. But I recommend courage!… While I do not for a moment believe you harbor Japanese Imperialist sympathies, I wonder if your hesitation to use Jimmy Park as your hero does not represent the very prejudice that you so eloquently derided in your most recent letter to me?”

In the end, I was never completely sure why Sato continued to write about a one-dimensional, “Jap”-fightin’ PI. Was it simply for the money? Was he trying to prove a point about his “patriotism” by creating the Jimmy Park character? Did he think his connection with Wakefield would ensure that he would be able to write material closer to his heart once the war was over? In the end, Sato remains just out of reach, a heartbreaking figure caught up in terrible circumstances.

“The Long and Faraway Gone” by Lou Berney

The Long and Faraway GoneWyatt Rivers was the boy who lived. The sole survivor of a deadly robbery at the Oklahoma City movie theater where he worked as a teenager, Wyatt faced the loss of his co-workers, his friends—and was left with the question, why? Why did he live while the others died?

Now a Las Vegas-based private eye in his 40s, Wyatt has done his best to put his past behind him, changing his name and staying far from his hometown. Then a case he’s promised to investigate for one of his best clients sends him back to O.C., and he has to face his past.

Meanwhile, Julianna was 12 when her glamorous older sister disappeared without a trace from the Oklahoma State Fair. The separate incidents, hers and Wyatt’s, happened around the same time, and marked them forever. Now a nurse still living in Oklahoma City, Julianna is obsessed with figuring out what happened to her sister.

Their stories are told in alternating sections of the book, with a little more space being given to Wyatt since he has two crimes to solve (the reason for the long-ago theater shooting, and his client’s issue). As is often the case with books with multiple threads, I found myself preferring certain parts—anytime the point of view switched to Julianna, I found myself anxious to get back to Wyatt, because while both characters are trainwrecks, Wyatt’s a more interesting trainwreck. Plus, Julianna does some unbearably stupid things in the name of solving her decades-long cold case.

One of the best things about The Long and Faraway Gone is its Oklahoma City setting. The 1995 bombing of the Murrah building took place long after the crimes Wyatt and Julianna are investigating, but the incident seems to loom over the city, adding an extra layer of melancholy; it’s pointed out that the city is “a small town at heart, and everyone knew someone who had been killed or maimed in the blast or someone who’d descended into hell to help with the rescue.”

In a moving scene, Wyatt visits the Oklahoma City National Memorial, where “there was now an open lawn, filled with row after row of empty chairs. One hundred and sixty-eight chairs, one for each person killed in the blast. Nineteen of the chairs were sized for children. The empty chairs were powerful in a way Wyatt had not expected. They captured something essential about the dead—how they could be so far away and yet at the same time right here, right now, right next to you, close enough that you could still hear them breathing.”

I almost wish the two cold cases had not been tied up so neatly, because it seemed unrealistic to me, but I suppose the genre demands resolution (the one time my book group read a mystery that left one of its central cases unresolved, people went bananas). All in all, The Long and Faraway Gone is a beautifully-written book, full of well-developed characters (even the bit players, from a tattooed bartender to a kilt-clad rock star, are memorable) with a great sense of place.