“Lies” by T.M. Logan

Lies by T.M. LoganI feel like I’ve read at least a hundred domestic-suspense thrillers with female protagonists; Lies by T.M. Logan is the rare novel told from a man’s point of view. If it does well, does that mean that we’ll be getting a slew of books with titles like The Man on the Train and Gone Guy?

Logan’s first-person narrator is Joe Lynch, a London teacher who is happily married to Mel and the father of an adorable four-year-old named William. Naturally, he finds out that his perfect life isn’t quite so perfect after all; Mel is having an affair with Ben, her best friend’s husband. Unlike Joe, a relatively unambitious family man, Ben is a relentless go-getter who drives fancy cars (“a pearl-white Porsche Cayenne with the number plate W1NNR”) and is a self-made tech millionaire. Now it seems that Ben wants Mel, and will stop at nothing to make that happen. Getting Joe out of the way appears to be #1 on his to-do list.

After a confrontation between the two men, Ben disappears, and gradually, Joe realizes that Ben is in hiding and trying to frame him for his murder. Ben has plenty of money and tech smarts at his disposal, and while Mel claims that she’s broken it off and is no longer in touch with Ben, Joe isn’t sure whether or not that’s actually true. Now, if you stop and think about it for 30 seconds, the obvious problem with this strategy is that it would require Ben to stay away forever, otherwise it would immediately become clear that Joe could not have killed him. Is he planning to sweep Mel off to a private island?

Meanwhile, it seems to be working, because the police are convinced that Joe is hiding something. He can’t trust his wife, his best friend has deserted him, he’s been put on leave from his job, and even his own lawyer seems to suspect that he’s guilty. He will have to come up with a plan to prove his own innocence.

Naturally, there are twists a-plenty, some of them more plausible than others. I did appreciate the fact that Joe is a nice guy and a reliable narrator (the reader always knows exactly as much as he does). In this genre of novel, a good man is hard to find, making Lies a welcome change of pace in a crowded field.

Lies will be published on Sept. 11. Thanks to St. Martin’s Press for the advance copy (via NetGalley).

“Clock Dance” and “Vinegar Girl” by Anne Tyler

Clock DanceWhen I was in my twenties, I was obsessed with Anne Tyler. At the time, she lived in Baltimore’s Homeland neighborhood, about a mile south of my own house, and I would often take a detour down her quiet street, hoping to see her puttering around in her yard. I never did, though. Nor did I ever run into her at Eddie’s Supermarket on Roland Avenue, where she was said to be a regular customer.

My boss at the time happened to be friends with Tyler and her husband, and he once told me that she would always insist on meeting at some nondescript Asian restaurant in a suburb just north of the city. She kept a low profile, able to skip the usual rounds of book tours and interviews that most authors must accept as one of the costs of being privileged to write for a living. Her novels sold very well regardless, and won lots of awards, including a Pulitzer for Breathing Lessons.

Today, Tyler does do the occasional interview, and while I now live far away from Baltimore, I reflexively found myself poring over these articles for clues. It sounds like she moved to the Village of Cross Keys after her husband’s death (“a high-end Rouse development on the edge of Baltimore’s leafy Roland Park neighborhood”). It seems very much in character that her writing room is “so uncluttered and antiseptic you could safely perform surgery there.”

Clock Dance gives Tyler fans exactly what they want from her: a story with a focus on families (biological as well as ones formed by circumstance), beautifully-rendered prose, and a Baltimore backdrop (though the saguaro on the cover may tip you off to the fact that the novel covers some ground before landing in Charm City about a third of the way in). Willa Drake is in her early sixties and on her second marriage; she and her rather fussy husband Peter live in Tucson. They have two sons, both from Willa’s first marriage, neither of whom are particularly close to her, much to her dismay. Neither son has children of his own. Then one day, Willa receives an unexpected phone call from Baltimore.

The caller, Callie, is Willa’s son Sean’s former next-door neighbor; he broke up with his girlfriend Denise some time ago and moved out of her home, but Willa’s number (“Sean’s mom”) remained on the list above her phone. Denise has been shot in the leg and needs to spend a few days in the hospital, leaving no one to care for her nine-year-old daughter, Cheryl. “I say to myself, ‘Okay, I’m just going to call Sean’s mom and ask her to come get her grandchild,'” says Callie, hanging up before a flustered Willa can reply that Cheryl is not actually her granddaughter. Since Willa’s life is rather lacking in excitement, she books a seat on the next available flight to Baltimore.

Peter insists on coming along, but life in an unfamiliar place taking care of a girl who’s no relation doesn’t suit him: “I hate this city… I hate the heat; I hate the humidity; the accent is atrocious… I don’t know what we’re doing here.” Willa, however, bonds quickly with Cheryl and then with Denise, adoring the feeling of being useful for a change. Peter flies back to Tucson, begrudgingly leaving his wife behind, and she continues to become absorbed in the rhythms of everyday life in the neighborhood of “small, dingy white houses with squat front porches, some of them posted with signs for insurance agencies or podiatry offices.” It’s a real community, with neighbors who all know each other and look out for one another (though the mystery of how Denise wound up with a bullet in her leg continues to perplex the residents of Dorcas Road). As Willa gets more and more settled, absorbed into the rhythms of the neighborhood, her life in Tucson seems to recede into the distance.

There is something so genteel about Tyler’s books; most of Clock Dance takes place in 2017, and while there are references to cell phones and Facebook, it doesn’t feel particularly modern or attempt to break any new literary ground. Tyler, now in her mid-70s, has been writing novels for over 50 years now and knows exactly where her strengths lie, and thank goodness for that.

Vinegar GirlA couple of years ago, Tyler contributed a novel to the Hogarth Shakespeare series, in which contemporary authors put their own 21st-century spins on the Bard’s immortal works. Vinegar Girl is Tyler’s take on “The Taming of the Shrew,” a rather… problematic play by current standards. It also has a lot of the disguises and mistaken-identity plot points that I often find rather tedious in Shakespeare.

Vinegar Girl does borrow elements from “Shrew”—main character Kate is, indeed, the elder sister to the softer, prettier Bunny (instead of Bianca)—and people who are familiar with the original will find several homages and nods to the play. (Fortunately, no one attempts to wear a disguise.) It’s a fresh and funny rom-com with plenty of clever surprises and plot twists, not quite what I would have expected from Tyler, but not out of character, either (Kate and Bunny’s father, in particular, leads the strictly regimented life of many of the single men who appear in Tyler’s oeuvre). And refreshingly, while Kate does indeed wind up with a man at the end of the book, it is a partnership of equals and not one in which she vows to place her hands below her husband’s foot.

“The Breakers” by Marcia Muller

The BreakersI’ve griped a bit about recent entries in Marcia Muller’s long-running Sharon McCone private-eye series—The Breakers is, by my count, #34—mainly the emphasis on the once-scrappy detective’s elevation to the one percent, complete with frequent references to her fancy downtown San Francisco office building, her Mercedes, and the “buttery leather furnishings” in her luxurious Marina District home. Plus, Sharon now has so many employees, friends and relations that you practically need a scorecard to keep track of them all.

Well, McCone fans rejoice, because The Breakers is the best novel in the series in years, a real back-to-basics private-eye story. As the book opens, a lot of the usual suspects—husband Hy, computer whiz Mick—are out of town, so Sharon has to do most of the investigating on her own, at least initially.

Regular readers will be familiar with Chelle, Sharon’s former next-door neighbor, cat-sitter and all-around enterprising young businesswoman. Now in her 20s, Chelle has purchased a derelict building called The Breakers in San Francisco’s Outer Sunset and is planning to rehab it. Her worried parents reach out to Sharon because they haven’t been able to get in touch with their daughter, who had moved into the run-down apartment complex while she worked on it.

Another resident of the building, Zach Kaplan, tells Sharon he has no idea where she is, either. When Zach takes her on a tour of The Breakers, McCone finds a horrifying tableau in Chelle’s room, hidden behind a decorative Japanese screen: a collage of newspaper clippings about notorious California killers, from Charles Manson to the Zodiac. The grim discovery adds to her feelings of dread about Chelle’s disappearance.

By coincidence, I had just visited the neighborhood where The Breakers is set a couple weeks before I read it; the novel takes place in August, and I enjoyed Muller’s vivid descriptions of the chilly San Francisco summer, with fog “so heavy that it felt almost like drizzly rain.” Gradually, McCone’s associates and loved ones reenter the picture and offer assistance with the investigation, but the focus is always on the detective herself, as diligent and determined as she was in her 1977 debut, Edwin of the Iron Shoes.

“The Word is Murder” by Anthony Horowitz

The Word is Murder by Anthony HorowitzBy far the most popular review I’ve published on this site in 2018 was that of White Houses by Amy Bloom, a fictionalized retelling of the love story between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok. People who have read the book are obviously Googling Parker Fiske (a gay cousin Bloom invented) to find out whether or not he’s real. I can understand the impulse—I found myself reaching for my phone more than once as I was reading Anthony Horowitz’s The Word is Murder, a work of metafiction which features Horowitz himself playing Watson to an eccentric former police detective-turned-consultant named Hawthorne.

Did Horowitz actually take a meeting with Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson about writing the script for a Tintin movie? (He did.) I already knew that he’d written a Sherlock Holmes novel called The House of Silk, because I had read it. What about his formidable literary agent, Hilda Starke? (She appears to be fictional.) Did he really turn down the chance to work on the “Mamma Mia” musical? (Unknown.)

If I didn’t know better, I might have checked IMDb for Damian Cowper’s filmography, since Horowitz “casts” the character in several real-life TV shows and movies, including “Mad Men,” “Homeland” the 2009 “Star Trek” reboot and “two of the Harry Potter films.” But Cowper’s name will not be found there, since he’s a product of the author’s imagination. Damien is the son of the murder victim, Diana Cowper, who was found strangled with a curtain cord just hours after she’d visited a funeral parlor to plan and prepay for the her own service and burial.

Called in to investigate this puzzling case is Hawthorne, who summons Horowitz to a meeting to pitch a book project. “I want you to write a book about me,” he tells the author. When Horowitz asks why anyone would want to read about him, he responds, “I’m a detective. People like reading about detectives.” And the Cowper case is attractive: “She was rich. She’s got a famous son. And here’s another thing. As far as we can see, she didn’t have an enemy in the world. That’s why I got called in. None of it makes any sense.”

Horowitz isn’t sure if he wants to get involved with the prickly Hawthorne, who is forthcoming about the case but oddly secretive about his own life. Nevertheless, he eventually decides to go ahead with the project, and learns that Diana Cowper wasn’t quite as squeaky-clean as Hawthorne initially thought she was.

I am proud to say that I figured out the identity of the murderer, thanks to one clue that leapt out at me, but it doesn’t really matter, because The Word is Murder is another delightfully twisty treat from Horowitz, whose Magpie Murders was one of  my favorite books of 2017. And what a joy to learn that he’s planning at least nine more books in the series. It sounds like the fictionalized and the real-life Anthony Horowitzes will both be keeping very busy.