“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.

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“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.

“The Lying Game” by Ruth Ware

The Lying GameAfter last year’s blockbuster The Woman in Cabin 10, British author Ruth Ware is back with her third thriller, The Lying Game. The online reviewers who blasted Cabin 10‘s protagonist, Lo, for not being sufficiently likable should be happier with new heroine Isa, a young mum whose main priority is her baby Freya:

“She is mine and my responsibility. Anything could happen—she could choke in her sleep, the house could burn down, a fox could slink into the open bathroom window and maul her. And so I sleep with one ear cocked, ready to leap up, heart pounding, at the least sign that something is wrong.”

As the book begins, Isa is summoned to the village of Salten by her old boarding-school friend Kate. Two other former classmates, Fatima and Thea, are also called. The four women have wound up in very different circumstances in the two decades since they were at school together. Fatima is a married doctor with two children, and she’s also become a practicing Muslim; Thea is a mess, anorexic and alcoholic; Isa is a civil servant living with her partner (and Freya’s dad) Owen. They are all Londoners, while Kate has remained in Salten, where her father once served on the faculty of the school. She is either unwilling or unable to move on with her life.

The book builds slowly, since the reader doesn’t know exactly what’s going on until almost halfway through. We know that Kate’s summons is a very big deal, important enough to make her three former besties drop everything and come running. Something big happened at the school to cause the quartet to get expelled. In the present day, we learn that a human bone recently turned up on Salten’s beach; that is presumably the reason for Kate wanting to get the gang back together, but it takes a while to learn whose bone it is and how and why it may affect the women.

The title of the book implies that no one can truly be trusted—it refers to a game the girls played in school, where they would try to lie convincingly and win points if outsiders fell for it. (They vowed never to lie to each other, though eventually the reader may suspect that perhaps Freya is the only character with nothing to hide.) Unlike Cabin 10, which kept me up late into the night furiously turning the pages, The Lying Game moves at a more leisurely pace; its biggest assets are its diverse, well-rounded quartet of main characters, and Ware’s vivid descriptions of the joys and terrors of motherhood.

Note: The Lying Game will be published on July 25, 2017. Thanks to Gallery Books/Scout Press and NetGalley for the review copy.