“Beau Death” by Peter Lovesey

Beau Death by Peter LoveseyYou can always count on Peter Lovesey to provide you with a solid, well-written, well-plotted novel. Year after year, Lovesey just keeps publishing fine crime fiction—he’s written over 40 books—and funnily enough, just a few hours after I had been musing, “Is Peter Lovesey taken for granted?” the news broke that he had been awarded Grand Master status by the Mystery Writers of America. I hope the honor will bring more attention to his stellar body of work.

Beau Death is the latest entry in his long-running series about Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond, who works in the historic city of Bath. As the novel opens, a block of run-down townhouses is being demolished, and the wrecking ball reveals a surprise in one of the attics: a skeleton, dressed in an 18th-century costume, sitting in a chair. The police are called in, and when a goofy photo of Diamond with the remains goes viral, people start speculating that the dead man could be Beau Nash.

Nash was known as the “King of Bath,” a local icon who hosted royalty, politicians and famous writers during his tenure as town’s unofficial Master of Ceremonies. Eventually, scandal and debts caused him to survive on a small income from city funds, and when he died, he was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave—but could he somehow have wound up in a townhouse attic in an unfashionable suburb instead?

I will admit that I thought Beau Nash was Lovesey’s own creation, kind of a take-off on Beau Brummel, but he was real. Not real is the book’s Beau Nash Society, a fashionable, invitation-only Bath club whose members are required to attend meetings dressed in period costume. If the corpse isn’t the real Beau, perhaps he was a modern-day member of the Society, and with a little help from his girlfriend Paloma (an expert on historic clothing), Diamond will need to don a wig and breeches in order to discover the dead man’s identity.

Unlike a lot of crime fiction series which overwhelm you with their characters’ back stories, Beau Death can easily be read as a stand-alone. There are some references made to incidents in Diamond’s past, but this really isn’t a series which demands to be read in order. Though mystery fans who are just discovering Lovesey will no doubt be delighted to find that he has such a rich and deep back catalog to enjoy. His Grand Master award is well-deserved indeed.

Advertisements

“The Wife Between Us” by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

The Wife Between UsNow that The Wife Between Us has been written, I kind of feel like there’s no need for any other domestic-suspense-with-unreliable-narrator novel, ever. This book marks the apogee of the genre, featuring a narrator as unreliable as an ’87 Yugo with engine trouble and more misdirection than a Penn & Teller show. It was co-written by two authors, and you can just picture them emptying a bottle of Pinot Grigio together as they gleefully try to one-up each other with crazier and crazier twists.

Like several other novels of its type, such as Michael Robotham’s The Secrets She Keeps and Jane Corry’s My Husband’s Wife, the book tells its story in alternating chapters. We meet Vanessa, the ex-wife of wealthy Manhattan financier Richard Thompson (no relation to the musician, presumably), who has been replaced by a younger, fresher model. Nellie is the adorable blonde preschool teacher who simply can’t wait to have kids (Vanessa never managed to get pregnant) and settle into domestic bliss as the new Mrs. Thompson. Vanessa, reduced to waiting on her former “friends” as a saleswoman at Saks, is determined to stop their impending nuptials. Her chapters are told from a first-person perspective, while Nellie’s are in third, so there’s never a problem keeping them straight.

Is Vanessa delusional (her mother suffered from mental illness)? Jealous? Convinced she has unfinished business with her ex? Did Richard dump her because she’s an alcoholic (there’s a lot of drinking in this book)? Just what is he up to on his frequent business trips? And what skeletons lurk in Nellie’s closet? You can try to guess everyone’s motives, but when everything is finally revealed, you’ll probably be shocked. I was, and I’ve read a ton of these sorts of books. Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen, you got me good.

By now, you probably have an idea of whether or not this book is for you, and I don’t want to risk spoilers (you can download the first four chapters here). It’s completely nuts and more than a little gimmicky, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I had a lot of fun reading it.

Thanks to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for the review copy, and for inviting me to be part of the blog tour! The Wife Between Us will be published on Jan. 9.

The Wife Between Us

“A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles

A Gentleman in MoscowI usually don’t write about books after my book group has discussed them—either I review them beforehand, or not at all—but I didn’t have time to write up A Gentleman in Moscow before our meeting. So I thought I’d try to do something a little different this week.

My book group usually only reads crime fiction, and this is not a work of crime fiction by any stretch of the imagination. Apparently, New York’s Mysterious Bookshop listed it as a staff pick, but they do sell other types of books “for those customers that also like to stray from the field”! However, it is definitely a massive best-seller; it’s been on the New York Times hardcover fiction list for 45 weeks. A Gentleman in Moscow, like All the Light We Cannot See or A Man Called Ove, has become a bona fide phenomenon.

Why are so many people reading and recommending this book? Here are a few possible reasons:

1. The protagonist, Count Alexander Rostov, is a man of honor. Admit it—with all that’s going on in the world, doesn’t reading about a genuinely good, decent and admirable man sound pretty appealing right now? As the book opens, in June 1922, Rostov is sentenced to house arrest at Moscow’s Hotel Metropol. Taken before the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, Rostov is deemed to have “succumbed irrevocably to the corruptions of his class,” and is told, “Our inclination would be to have you taken from this chamber and put against the wall.” However, he has a few well-placed admirers, and thus, he will be allowed to live out his days in the hotel, with the warning that if he ever sets foot outside of it, he will be shot.

Part of his house arrest entails moving from his luxurious suite to a cramped space on the hotel’s top floor, with a low ceiling and only the tiniest of windows. How he adapts to, and even thrives in, his new life is the main subject of the book.

2. Readers enjoy historical fiction and getting acquainted with a particular place and time. Set as it is during the first four decades or so of communist rule, you learn a lot about Soviet life even without leaving the Metropol. Party apparatchiks, true believers, foreign press, even Khrushchev himself—they all walk through the doors of the hotel. At any given time, there may be Bolsheviks arguing in the ballroom, or a glamorous movie star walking her borzois through the lobby.

3. The book is sweet without being sappy. At one point, Rostov figures he’s had enough of being confined and decides to commit suicide by jumping off the hotel’s roof. Of course, something happens up there to ultimately make him decide not to leap, but I was kind of relieved that he wasn’t too much of a Pollyanna.

4. It’s really well written. Towles’ prose can be sly, philosophical or dryly witty, but it’s consistently lovely. A couple of examples:

“As long as there have been men on earth, reflected the Count, there have been men in exile. From primitive tribes to the most advanced societies, someone has occasionally been told by his fellow men to pack his bags, cross the border, and never set foot on his native soil again. But perhaps this was to be expected. After all, exile was the punishment that God meted out to Adam in the very first chapter of the human comedy; and that He meted out to Cain a few pages later. Yes, exile was as old as mankind. But the Russians were the first people to master the notion of sending a man into exile at home.”

“But, alas, sleep did not come so easily to our weary friend. Like in a reel in which the dancers form two rows, so that one of their number can come skipping brightly down the aisle, a concern of the Count’s would present itself for his consideration, bow with a flourish, and then take its place at the end of the line so that the next concern could come dancing to the fore.”

Towles doesn’t sugarcoat the often harsh realities of that period of Soviet life, but I have to admit that visiting the book’s Metropol Hotel, with its charming and compelling cast of characters, is something of a welcome respite from our 21st-century world.

“Party of One” by Dave Holmes

Party of OneI picked up Party of One: A Memoir in 21 Songs because I am a fan of Dave Holmes’ comedy podcast “International Waters,” but reading it was like a trip back in time. You see, while I am now a demographically-undesirable Gen X’er, long ago, I was a proud member of the MTV Generation. This was back in the days when the network still devoted the bulk of its programming to videos, presented by a stable of video jockeys (VJs). On-air personalities like Kevin Seal, Martha Quinn, Matt Pinfield and newsman Kurt Loder may have been reading from teleprompters, but they seemed genuinely knowledgeable and enthusiastic about music.

Then came the dark day in the 1990s when MTV held its first “Wanna Be a VJ” contest. One of the entrants was a guy named Jesse Camp. I thought he was the most irritating person I’d ever seen on a TV screen. Seriously, see if you can make it through this 15-second video of Jesse without lunging for the pause button. Camp was born Josiah A. Camp III in Connecticut, where he attended a fancy boarding school, but on MTV, he presented a spacey, burned-out street kid persona. Somehow, Jesse managed to win the competition—later, there were claims that the voting was rigged by a hacker who “did it because everyone else at MTV is just corporate bullshit”—but at the time, the fact that MTV viewers had chosen this teenaged clown made me so angry that I decided I had finally outgrown the channel and I was done with it forever.

The second-place contestant was none other than Dave Holmes. “I looked like Walter Cronkite in cargo pants” next to Jesse, he writes in a chapter called “Notes on (Jesse) Camp.” “If I was a little disappointed to lose the job to him, the Talent Department was straight up confused and frightened. Like, who is this guy, and how exactly do you take care of him? What does he eat? Does he eat? What, if anything, is he on? Who’s going to get him to work? Most pressingly: is he always going to be like this?”

The powers that be wisely decided to hire Holmes as well as Camp, and the runner-up went on to enjoy a successful career at the network (“His MTV career lasted about three years longer than Camp’s,” per Wikipedia). Since his MTV days, Holmes has worked steadily as a TV host, radio personality and actor; he’s currently a writer-at-large for Esquire, and has contributed some pieces I’ve just adored, like his hilarious reviews of “mother!” and “The Emoji Movie.”

Party of One is a fun read for Holmes’ fellow pop-culture obsessives; the book contains one of the best celebrity stories I’ve ever read (about actress Tara Reid and her friend at an MTV spring break shoot in Cancun), along with candid tales about growing up gay and Catholic, experimenting with drugs (only twice! but both incidents were memorable), and getting advice at a critical juncture in his life from the pop duo Indigo Girls, whom he happened to run into at an Applebee’s (“It was as though they had seen some kind of gay distress signal in the Atlanta skies and reported for duty”). And I’ll admit to a teensy bit of schadenfreude over the fact that Holmes has a great, wide-ranging career, whereas Jesse is the topic of occasional where-are-they-now pieces.