“You Should Have Known” by Jean Hanff Korelitz

You Should Have KnownYou Should Have Known, which I picked up at a library sale for a buck, looks like it was marketed as a novel of suspense: “The thriller we’re obsessed with” (Entertainment Weekly) is printed right there on the cover. However, this is by no means a conventional thriller; it’s divided into three parts, and each is quite different.

First, we have Before, which begins as a comedy of manners set in the world of Manhattan’s wealthy elite. Marriage counselor Grace and her husband Jonathan, a pediatric oncologist, have been granted entrée into this privileged world because (a) they inherited their Upper East Side flat and (b) their son Henry was admitted into his super-exclusive private school as a legacy (Grace was a graduate, back before Manhattan was completely overrun by hedge fund managers). Grace has just penned a self-help manual called You Should Have Known: Why Women Fail to Hear What the Men in Their Lives Are Telling Them. “You know how we always tell ourselves, You never know, when someone does something we don’t see coming? We’re shocked that he turns out to be a womanizer, or an embezzler. He’s an addict. He lies about everything,” she tells an interviewer. “We never hold ourselves accountable for what we bring to the deception. We have to learn to be accountable.”

If you suspect by now that Grace is about to receive the mother of all comeuppances, well, you’d be right. No spoilers here, but During, the second part of the book, is by far the juiciest and most fun, as Grace makes one shocking discovery after another about her husband. It’s hard to believe a Harvard-educated therapist could be so completely fooled—naturally, the friends and in-laws who abruptly disappeared from her life Knew All Along that there was something seriously wrong with the outwardly personable doctor—but the second section is still a heck of a page-turner.

The final third, After, is more of a traditional Woman Rebuilds Her Life After Devastating Setback story, where Grace discovers that people who live in small towns are more soulful and less status-obsessed than wealthy Manhattanites. The paperback edition of You Should Have Known is almost 450 pages long and I feel like it could have been cut by 100 pages or so. But largely due to that middle section, I still devoured the book in three days. It’s the perfect summer read if you’re looking for something that’s suspenseful but also deviates a bit from the standard thriller formula.

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“The Portable Veblen” by Elizabeth McKenzie

The Portable VeblenVeblen Amundsen-Hova is an unusual young woman, and not just because she was named after Norwegian-American economist Thorstein Veblen, best known today for coining the phrase “conspicuous consumption” and his still-relevant 1899 treatise The Theory of the Leisure Class. Veblen Amundsen-Hova can communicate with squirrels. Considering Veblen’s dysfunctional childhood—a distant father she barely knew, a mother who is a narcissistic hypochondriac—it makes perfect sense that she would have found solace and friendship with Sciurus griseus.

As the novel opens, Veblen has just accepted a proposal of marriage from her boyfriend Paul, complete with an enormous diamond ring. Paul is a rising star in the field of medical research, studying brain trauma in war veterans. He has recently invented a device to treat battlefield head injuries that has piqued the interest of the Department of Defense as well as Hutmacher Pharmaceuticals, which believes the invention could be worth millions. Veblen, meanwhile, is a temp who earns just enough money to afford a humble rental and spends her spare time translating documents for the Norwegian Diaspora Project. (“Keeping a low overhead was part of her mind-set… She believed it was important to be fairly compensated for your time and work, but that it was also important not to earn a bunch of money just to play a predetermined role in the marketplace.”) Paul assumes that once he hits it big with his device, they’ll move into a suitably grand house and hobnob with his friends: “doctors, architects, financiers.” However, when he introduces Veblen to his crowd, they quickly lose interest in her: “when they found out she wasn’t on a notable career path, they seemed unable to synthesize her into their social tableau, as if Paul had chosen a mail-order bride.”

Elizabeth McKenzie deftly sets up the conflict between conspicuous consumption and the Veblenesque desire to live simply; Veblen even uses a manual typewriter. However, Paul’s status-seeking is ultimately revealed to be a rejection of his hippie parents’ chaotic, rural lifestyle, which we learn about in flashback. Perhaps an even more challenging obstacle to Paul and Veblen’s relationship is the fact that he hates squirrels. “It’s my stated goal to keep pests out of our lives,” he announces as he sets a trap to catch the critters running around Veblen’s attic and keeping him awake at night. Can true love overcome such seemingly intractable obstacles?

The Portable Veblen is so strange and marvelous and delightful—an off-kilter love story as well as a biting satire of the military-industrial complex—and McKenzie portrays her characters with boundless empathy and compassion, even the least-lovable among them, like Veblen’s difficult mother. This is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year.

“The Boy in the Shadows” by Carl-Johan Vallgren and “Britt-Marie Was Here” by Fredrik Backman

The Boy in the Shadows“Fun fact: there were 87 murders in the entire country of Sweden last year. Or approximately 2.5 million less than in Swedish crime novels,” comedian Greg Poehler (an American expat living in Sweden) wrote on Twitter recently. It turns out that figure is actually for 2014—I was unable to find statistics for 2015, but the point stands. Sweden is a relatively safe country, and Swedish authors love to murder hordes of people.

I was previously unfamiliar with Carl-Johan Vallgren, but when I looked him up online, I noticed that his novel The Boy in the Shadows had been published in Sweden under the pen name Lucifer. (He has written numerous works of literary fiction under his real name.) That devilish pseudonym seemed to promise mayhem and murder, and that’s what Vallgren delivers in his first crime thriller.

The book begins in 1970, when young Kristoffer Klingberg is kidnapped in a Stockholm subway station. Years later, his brother, Joel Klingberg, disappears, and his wife Angela enlists an old friend who served with Joel in the military, Danny Katz, to find her missing husband. Katz is an ex-junkie who now works as a translator, but Angela is convinced Danny is the only man she can trust. Not surprisingly, the modern-day crime has ties to the unsolved disappearance of Joel’s big brother many decades ago.

The Boy in the Shadows has a rich, powerful family at its core that may remind fans of Swedish thrillers of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo‘s Vanger clan. But while Tattoo sent its hero to the fictional Hedeby Island, a couple hours north of Stockholm, Danny Katz winds up looking for answers in the much-further-flung Dominican Republic… though only after a whole lot of people have met their grisly ends in Sweden.

Boy is one of those books where people peripheral to the story die by the score, but the important characters prove diabolically hard to kill. Since a sequel (Svinen, or “The Swine”) has already been published in Sweden, it looks like Lucifer’s diabolical career is just getting started. Fans of antiheroes and pitch-black noir will want to give Vallgren’s series a try, but I found it a little too hardboiled for my tastes.

Britt-Marie Was HereAmerican readers are learning that there’s more to Swedish fiction than mutilated corpses and dysfunctional, damaged sleuths. Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove has become a runaway bestseller (it’s currently in the New York Times top 10), and the follow-up, Britt-Marie Was Here, was just published in the U.S. A Man Called Ove managed the neat trick of being both utterly heartwarming and bracingly unsentimental; Britt-Marie strives for the same tone, but I felt it fell a bit short of Backman’s debut.

Despite the fact that the author is in his 30s, he seems to have carved out a niche as a chronicler of cranky, overly fastidious seniors. Britt-Marie is 63 and has just left her philandering husband following his heart attack (he survived, but the fact that the incident brought his affair, which Britt-Marie seems to have tolerated for years, out into the open was unforgivable). She goes to the unemployment office in search of her first job, but the only thing available for a woman of her age and experience is managing a soon-to-close recreation center in the backwater village of Borg.

Borg is a down-on-its-heels community that has lost its supermarket, drugstore, school, health care center and just about everything else, except for a pizzeria and the doomed rec center. Despite the fact that Britt-Marie seems thoroughly unpleasant—she seems to care more about organized cutlery drawers and clean windows than people—the remaining citizens of Borg gradually rally around her, especially when she gets involved with a youth soccer team. (Soccer is very important in Borg.) If you think this is one of those stories where everything leads up to the Big Game, well, you’d be right, though Backman takes his tale in several unexpected directions along the way.

Britt-Marie is given a rather tragic backstory and it’s obvious she’s lived a sad, wasted life, looking after a pompous ass of a man and two unappreciative stepchildren. By the end of the book, I felt like my heartstrings were being plucked a little too aggressively, and I began to resent it. Or maybe I just felt bad about the fact that Britt-Marie would most certainly disapprove of the state of my cutlery drawer?

The most fascinating thing to me was something that was seldom made explicit in the book: the ethnic makeup of the villagers. With a few exceptions, like Sven the policeman, I got the sense that they were mainly Arabs or Africans—there are references to bearded men in caps and the children have names like Omar and Vega. Are there really Swedish towns in the middle of nowhere (as opposed to suburbs like Husby and Tensta) that are primarily made up of immigrants and refugees, people left behind by economic recessions and written off by government bureaucrats sitting in offices far away? Would this be something so unsurprising that a sheltered woman like Britt-Marie would not even feel the need to comment upon it? Now that would make for an interesting book.

“The Seven Wonders” by Steven Saylor

The Seven Wonders by Steven SaylorI don’t read a ton of historical fiction, a genre that is so popular in the mystery world that it has spawned at least three separate awards. However, when life in the present day starts to get you down—and the newspapers have been full of grim headlines lately—sometimes, escaping into a bygone time period can be just the ticket.

I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent in ancient Rome with Steven Saylor’s detective, Gordianus the Finder. A few years ago, Saylor rebooted the long-running series and started writing “prequels” about Gordianus’ adventures as a younger man. The Seven Wonders takes place just as he’s turned 18. Accompanied by his elderly tutor, Antipater, he sets out to see all of the wonders of the ancient world. The book is a series of linked short stories rather than a longer narrative; at each wonder, Gordianus finds a mystery to solve. There’s also one big arc involving Antipater, who is traveling under an assumed identity after faking his own death. What would make him do such a thing?

One of the most appealing things about The Seven Wonders is that Saylor has done a ton of research into the subject, and describes each of the wonders beautifully. I spent a lot of time looking up the wonders online too, so I could see what they looked like (or historians’ best guesses as to what they looked like) and how long they stood. Who wouldn’t have wanted to catch a glimpse of the Pharos Lighthouse or the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus? Some of the wonders were already in a state of decline by the time Gordianus set out on his journey (92 B.C.); the Colossus of Rhodes had fallen, and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were in ruins.

As a bonus, Gordianus and Antipater attend the Olympic Games, which may have been safer and better-organized back in 92 B.C. than the upcoming Rio games.

Despite the serious scholarship that went into The Seven Wonders, it’s first and foremost a lively collection of mysteries, featuring a likable protagonist and a wide variety of puzzles to solve. This book is pure fun from start to finish.

“Someone Always Knows” by Marcia Muller

Someone Always Knows by Marcia MullerThe three “founding mothers” of the female P.I. genre—Sue Grafton, Marcia Muller and Sara Paretsky—have taken very different approaches to their long-running series after 30-plus years. (Muller’s Sharon McCone was the first to appear, in 1977, while Grafton and Paretsky both made their series debuts in 1982.) Grafton has famously kept Kinsey Millhone stuck in the 1980s; the sleuth was 32 when the series began, and when it finally wraps up with the letter “Z,” she will just have turned 40. Paretsky and Muller have come closer to aging their heroines in something approaching “real time,” though if that were literally true, McCone would probably be around Muller’s age (early 70s) by now. Instead, she seems to be somewhere in her early to mid-50s.

Also, while Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski is still a “lone wolf” private investigator—she seems to be doing OK financially, thanks to some well-paying corporate gigs, but she’s hardly raking in the big bucks—Sharon McCone is now a full-fledged one-percenter, co-owner with her husband Hy Ripinsky of a massively lucrative agency with a fancy office building in San Francisco’s Financial District. On the first page of Someone Always Knows, the 32nd McCone mystery, we learn that the “spacious entrance” to the building is graced by “a sculpture we’d commissioned—at great cost—from the world-renowned artist Flavio St. John.” (A hideously ugly sculpture, as it turns out, but I’ll bet it’s still better-looking than the Vaillancourt Fountain.) McCone and Ripinsky also live in San Francisco’s pricey Marina District (in a home decorated with “soft, buttery leather chairs and sofas”), and Sharon drives a Mercedes roadster. Not only are they rich, but so are many of their friends and associates, like her former assistant Rae, now a best-selling novelist married to a country music star.

I still enjoy these books, and there’s no doubting that McCone is as dogged and dedicated an investigator as ever, but for some reason the lavish descriptions of her material success always bug me. I recognize that probably says more about me than it does about Muller’s books. (I’m never going to have my own building in downtown SF, with or without an ugly sculpture!) As with many of the books in this series, I saved Someone Always Knows to read on an airplane, because they’re easy-reading page-turners that make for perfect reading in flight. (Plus there’s the fact that McCone is a private pilot—yep, the couple has their own plane, too—and there’s usually at least one flying scene in these books.)

As for the plotlines, there are two: one involving an abandoned house beset by squatters that turns into a murder scene, and the other features one of Hy’s former business partners, long thought to be dead, who reemerges to make trouble. It’s a rather slight entry in the series, but it’s still good to see McCone again. And, let’s face it, if she didn’t have a pile of money, she’d probably have had to leave San Francisco behind by now. She may be a one-percenter, but these days, those are the only people who can afford to live in the City by the Bay; even earthquake shacks, like McCone’s former dwelling, are going for big bucks these days.