“Lake Success” by Gary Shteyngart

Lake SuccessI was such a fan of Gary Shteyngart’s last novel, Super Sad True Love Story, that I decided to read his new Lake Success without looking at any reviews—or even the jacket copy. If I hadn’t gone into Lake Success completely cold, to be honest, I’m not sure I would have picked it up at all. Why? The protagonist is the sort of person I, and many other Americans, most assuredly do not want to read a novel about: a rich white Manhattan hedge fund manager married to a much-younger wife. Even if things do not go well for him, my reserves of empathy for one-percenters who self-identify as Republicans are at rock-bottom levels right now.

And yet, as with last week’s book, I wound up finishing it. I truly hope the next book I pick up is one I am actually enthusiastic about reading all the way to the end.

Shteyngart is such a brilliant writer, and what he’s trying to do with Lake Success—present a portrait of Trump-era America (most of it is set in the run-up to the 2016 election)—ensures that the book will be studied years from now as a document of Manhattan life in the mid-2010s in the same way that Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities is an ur-text of the “greed is good” 1980s. Barry Cohen presides over a hedge fund called This Side of Capital (a nod to F. Scott Fitzgerald), which has recently put him in some legal difficulty (he’s being investigated by the SEC for insider trading). His wife Seema left her law career and now devotes her time to caring for their severely autistic son, albeit with the help of a full-time nanny and plenty of therapists on call. Barry collects very expensive watches and is the type of person who, upon learning that he’s going to be having dinner with a writer, checks both the author’s Amazon ranking and the Zillow Zestimate of his condo.

Eventually, everything gets to be just too much and Barry abandons his wife and child and sets off on a Greyhound bus, mainly to prove a point of what a Man of the People he truly is, to find a long-lost love who now lives in El Paso. So this is mainly a road novel, though every other chapter, we check in with Seema and find out what she’s up to. (She’s a patient, caring mother, thank goodness; her marriage to Barry was on the verge of falling apart, so she doesn’t seem too upset by his unexplained absence.)

The upshot of the novel—and one which definitely separates it from Bonfire—is that the Barrys of the world may be brought low, but they always come out on top in the end. That is a message that seems very of the moment, but it might make for easier reading someday in the distant future, when, I sincerely hope, the horrors of the current era are far behind us.

“Something in the Water” by Catherine Steadman

Something in the WaterA few days ago, I was sitting in a packed movie theater watching the domestic-suspense drama “A Simple Favor” when it became clear that the protagonist, played by Anna Kendrick, was about to do something rather ill-advised. As it became apparent what was going to happen, one woman in the crowd suddenly blurted out, “No!” It broke the tension, and a lot of people in the theater laughed. I couldn’t help but think back to that moment as I was reading Something in the Water, the debut thriller by British author and actress (she played Mabel Lane Fox on “Downton Abbey”) Catherine Steadman; I felt like shouting “No!” about a dozen different times.

When Erin and her husband Mark stumble upon a bag full of money and loose diamonds while on their honeymoon, it is pretty obvious that all sorts of horrible things are about to follow. Mark, an investment banker who had lost his job not long before the wedding, had been having trouble finding a new position; Erin, a documentary filmmaker, is in no position to single-handedly keep up the mortgage payments on their posh London home. So a large sum of money would prove very useful to keeping them in the lifestyle to which they’d become accustomed. They decide to keep the cash and the gemstones, leading to all sorts of craziness, like flying to Geneva to open a Swiss bank account and Erin’s approaching the imprisoned elderly gangster she’s been interviewing for her new film for advice on how to sell the diamonds.

Every step of the way, I felt like I had to read the pages of this book through my fingers, it made me so uncomfortable. I guess that meant it was effective, but did I enjoy it? Not one bit. I’m not quite sure why I decided to finish it; since the novel begins with Mark dead and Erin digging a grave in which to bury him, and the rest of the book is told in flashback, I suppose I was curious to find out how it all came to pass. Now that I know, I plan to move on to something less squick-inducing.

“Last Looks” by Howard Michael Gould and “Snap” by Belinda Bauer

Last LooksCharlie Waldo is an LAPD officer turned hermit who hasn’t spoken to anyone in a year when his ex-lover Lorena, a private eye, turns up at his remote property. She wants his help with a case—”the biggest thing since OJ”—but he’s committed to the simple life, having pared down his possessions to a mere 100 items, and has no interest in returning to L.A.

However, Lorena’s visit opens the floodgates, and before long, media reports are falsely stating that the onetime superstar of the force is on the case, working to prove that TV star Alastair Pinch did not kill his wife, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Waldo’s retreat is no longer a secluded haven, and he realizes that “the only way to restore the stillness that had made life bearable again was to go and reclaim it.” So he reluctantly heads back to the big city.

This is a Hollywood satire, and Gould, who has worked on numerous TV shows, writes with an insider’s knowledge of the business. Pinch, a hard-drinking Brit hamming it up as a Southern judge on a terrible courtroom drama, is kind of a bizarro-world version of Hugh Laurie. He swears he didn’t kill his wife, but since he was blackout drunk at the time, even he can’t be completely sure what happened on the night in question.

Gould’s first novel shows a lot of promise, while falling back on a few crime fiction tropes—for instance, Waldo gets seriously beat up about a half-dozen times, which made me think of, well, the Crime Fiction Trope Twitter account:

And of course there’s a lot of build-up until we finally find out why he abruptly quit the force and took up the life of a recluse.

Still, I enjoyed the book and would happily read another one of Waldo’s adventures. Somehow I doubt that Gould will be letting his hero return to his spartan, lonely existence anytime soon.

Snap by Belinda BauerReaders will be hard-pressed to find any well-worn crime novel clichés in Belinda Bauer’s Snap, which is almost startlingly original. I reviewed Bauer’s Rubbernecker last year and while the book started slowly, the sheer audaciousness of the plot (which intertwines the stories of a man with locked-in syndrome and a young medical student with Asperger’s) won me over. Snap is equally bold, and shows that Bauer (who lives in Wales) may be the closest thing we have today to an heir to Ruth Rendell.

Snap introduces us to 11-year-old Jack, the oldest of three young siblings. The book begins in 1998; they are in the car with their mother Eileen, driving down the M5 motorway, when the auto breaks down. (My guess is that Bauer set the book when she did because cell phones weren’t as ubiquitous back then.) Their mom leaves them in the car, making them promise to stay put, while she heads off to walk to the nearest emergency phone. She never comes back, and her body is found a few days later.

Eventually, the siblings’ father gets exhausted having to parent on his own, and when he leaves, they are left to their own devices. Jack, now a young teenager, has begun breaking into houses and stealing things, then selling them to a fence, in order to support his sisters. He is small and lithe and able to creep into the tiniest of windows, and meanwhile, the local police force are stumped as to who could be committing the crimes and how the burglar always seems to know when the houses he hits are vacant. Among the detectives is DCI John Marvel, exiled to “darkest Somerset” from London after “a single unfortunate incident that had resulted in the death of a suspect fleeing custody.” (Unlike Waldo, Marvel is unrepentant about his botched case.) Marvel has no interest in investigating a bunch of boring property crimes. He’s a homicide detective. And then he finds out about Eileen’s unsolved murder…

Bauer isn’t terribly well known in the U.S., but she’s a literary star in the U.K., where Snap was even longlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize (the judges described it as “an acute, stylish, intelligent novel about how we survive trauma”). Interestingly, according to a profile, she hadn’t even read any crime fiction before she wrote her first novel, and maybe that helps explain why her work feels so fresh.

“The Girl With Kaleidoscope Eyes” and “The Man Who Couldn’t Miss” by David Handler

Some nights, I dream that I have discovered a room in my house that I never knew existed. When I wake up, I’m always slightly disappointed to realize that it was only a dream, and my actual home is woefully bereft of secret spaces.

As a mystery reader, I’m kind of surprised I’ve never dreamt that I stumbled upon brand-new books in a beloved old series. You only thought you’d read every single Stewart “Hoagy” Hoag mystery, and that David Handler ended the series 20 years ago. But wait! Here are two Hoagy novels that you didn’t know about!

It’s slightly bonkers to realize that the Hoagy series, which meant so much to me back in the 1990s, had actually been brought back to life in 2017 without my knowing about it. Luckily, however, I recently stumbled across this blog post by the author. “Hoagy and Lulu returned last year in The Girl With Kaleidoscope Eyes and on August 14 will be back in another new mystery, The Man Who Couldn’t Miss,” wrote Handler. “Meanwhile, as I sit here, I’m busy working away on their next adventure.”

Needless to say, I could not get my hands on those two books quickly enough.

For the uninitiated—and, since the series was always, shall we say, a bit more of a cult favorite than a mass-market success, that’s probably most of you—Hoagy is a wisecracking writer who was once hailed by the New York Times Book Review as “the first major new literary voice of the 1980s.” However, when he found himself unable to produce a follow-up to his Great American Novel, he found a niche ghost-writing memoirs for famous folks. Even when he’s on assignment, Hoagy is always accompanied by his anchovy-loving basset hound, Lulu.

The Girl With Kaleidoscope eyesMany of the celebrities in the Hoagy novels are take-offs on real-world stars, which is one of the reasons a diehard pop-culture fan like myself found them so winning: The Boy Who Never Grew Up is a version of Steven Spielberg, The Woman Who Fell From Grace is a riff on Gone With the Wind author Margaret Mitchell, etc. The last book in the series, The Man Who Loved Women To Death, kind of wrapped up Hoagy’s story with a tidy bow, reuniting him with his ex-wife, actress Merilee Nash. So I was curious if The Girl With Kaleidoscope Eyes would take place shortly after the events detailed in that book, or would Handler bring Hoag into the future… 20 years older, and with a new basset hound by his side?

Cleverly, however, Handler set Kaleidoscope in 1992, placing it immediately after The Boy Who Never Grew Up. Hoagy is still estranged from his much-more-successful wife, and needs the money he could earn by writing a book about Richard Aintree, a J.D. Salinger-esque novelist who disappeared shortly after producing one classic and much-beloved book. Even Aintree’s two daughters have no idea where he is, but then one of them, a Martha Stewart-type lifestyle guru named Monette, receives a letter from him out of the blue. It contains information that no one else would know, so it seems legit. At his agent’s behest, Hoagy travels from his Manhattan home to L.A. to meet Monette and possibly start work on a book about the Aintree clan.

Also on the scene is Richard Aintree’s second daughter Reggie, a former flame of Hoagy’s (she’s the girl with kaleidoscope eyes—they dropped acid together back in the 70s). He also has to deal with Monette’s two teenage children and her obnoxious TV-star husband, as well as a variety of Hollywood hangers-on. The murder occurs fairly late in the book, so I won’t spoil it, but I was delighted to note Handler brought back L.A. cop Emil Lamp, a recurring character in several of the Hoagy novels. Honestly, this book fits in so seamlessly with the rest of the series that it’s hard to believe that Handler wrote it in the mid-2010s and didn’t magically produce it from some early-’90s wormhole.

The Man Who Couldn't MissThe Man Who Couldn’t Miss is a bit of an anomaly in the Hoag series in that none of the celebrities are true doppelgängers for real-life stars. The crop of actors in the book are former Yale Drama classmates of Hoagy’s ex-wife Merilee Nash, who has brought them together to perform a one-off benefit performance of “Private Lives” to raise money to repair a cherished old playhouse in Connecticut. Hoagy and Merilee are still broken up, but getting along fairly well; he’s working on a new novel while staying in her guest cottage, escaping the heat of a Manhattan summer. Not surprisingly, some long-simmering tensions between the actors rise up, and one alumni who was not invited to take part is lurking on the sidelines. R.J. Romero is the man of the title, perhaps the most talented actor in the class but the least successful, due to his bad temper and criminal tendencies. Romero gets in touch with Hoagy to tell him that he has some damaging information about an incident in Merilee’s past, and unless Hoagy is willing to pay up, he will go to the tabloid press and it could destroy Merilee’s career.

Like all of the books in the series, The Man Who Couldn’t Miss is a delight, though it’s perhaps a bit darker and more poignant. Fortunately, Lulu (who “has a very menacing growl for someone who once got beat up in Riverside Park by a Pomeranian named Mr. Puffball”) is always around to provide some comic relief, though my guess is that it would make her quite cross to be thought of in that way.

When I first discovered this series, the first Hoagy novel, The Man Who Died Laughing, was long out of print and it took me years before I finally tracked down a used copy at the old San Francisco Mystery Bookstore (this was before you could find everything, no matter how obscure, online). Now all 10 of them can be purchased with the click of a mouse, though naturally I still have my treasured original copies, including a signed paperback of The Man Who Would Be F. Scott Fitzgerald that I bought during Handler’s appearance at Mystery Loves Company in Baltimore. The idea that there will be even more to come is, quite honestly, some of the best news I’ve heard in a while.

“The Abominable Man” and “The Locked Room” by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

The Abominable ManWhy would a pair of Communist Party members choose to write a book with a policeman as protagonist? Maj Sjöwall has explained that she and Per Wahlöö began writing a series of crime novels because “we wanted to describe society from our left point of view. Per had written political books, but they’d only sold 300 copies. We realized that people read crime and through the stories we could show the reader that under the official image of welfare-state Sweden there was another layer of poverty, criminality and brutality.”

In The Abominable Man, Sjöwall (who now says she identifies as a Socialist) and the late Wahlöö for the first time in their series present a truly unflinching look at what happens to a society when the police are allowed to basically get away with anything. The novel, which was originally published in 1971, will seem eerily timely to anyone who’s aware of the many well-known cases here in the U.S. where police have not been held accountable for killing civilians. After a police captain is murdered in a particularly grisly fashion, Martin Beck and a colleague sift through a stack of complaints alleging police brutality that had been submitted to Stockholm’s Justice Department Ombudsman. All of them yielded the same results: “Inspector Nyman dismisses the suggestion that he or anyone else mistreated the complainant… No action.”

If one of those complainants decided to take matters into their own hands and enact some vigilante justice, there are a lot of suspects to choose from, since Nyman was known to be a violent bully. Martin Beck’s friend and fellow policeman Kollberg, who knew Nyman when they both served in the army, tells Beck that “he’s probably committed hundreds of outrages of one kind or another. Toward subordinates and toward arrestees. I’ve heard various stories over the years… A man like Nyman always sees to it that there are policemen ready to take an oath that he hasn’t done anything… the kind of men who are already so indoctrinated they figure they’re only doing what loyalty demands.”

Kollberg, who refuses to carry a gun, has already begun to express doubts about continuing to serve on the force, but Martin Beck finds himself confronting certain truths about his job for the first time in this book. A report on the comparative dangers of police work versus other professions revealed that “police work wasn’t a bit more dangerous than any other profession… The number of injured policeman was negligible when compared with the number of people annually mistreated by the police.” (Construction workers, lumberjacks and taxi drivers are all jobs cited by the authors, and almost 50 years later, statistics bear out that people who work in those professions are still in more danger of dying on the job than police.)

Lest you fear that The Abominable Man is a dull bit of leftist anti-police propaganda, be assured that it’s one of the most pulse-pounding entries in the series, climaxing with a thrilling confrontation with an armed and dangerous man intent on revenge. And the authors don’t shy away from describing the loneliness, long hours and threats from hostile members of the public that police officers confront. Sjöwall and Wahlöö always wrote with great compassion about police and civilians alike.

The Locked RoomThe Locked Room continues the authors’ critique of Swedish society and the police force, as well as presenting a pair of “impossible” mysteries that hearken back to the Golden Age: a locked-room murder and a bank robbery where the witnesses’ accounts are all completely different. Martin Beck is back on the job after taking some time off to recover from injuries sustained in The Abominable Man. He now suffers from recurring nightmares and has been told by his doctors to quit smoking (the horror!). The mysterious death of Karl Svärd—“a most interesting case,” says Kollberg—is presented to Beck as something he can mull over in his spare time. Svärd was found dead in his apartment, with the windows shut and numerous bolts and locks secured from the inside; it took overwhelming force for the police to gain access. He had been shot, so one would think it was a suicide, but no gun was found on the premises.

The other case involves a bank robbery where a customer was murdered by the gun-wielding perpetrator during the course of the crime. Witnesses say the robber was definitely a woman—unless it was a man in a wig. And she definitely escaped in a car—unless she got away on foot. The police have very little to go on, and meanwhile, Stockholm banks are under siege. “A year ago there had been a drive against people passing bad checks… The National Police Board objected to checks being accepted as legal tender,” and the resulting influx of cash led to bank robberies, muggings and assaults. (It’s true that Sweden got rid of personal checks many years ago, but now they’ve gotten rid of cash, too.)

The Locked Room is one of the longer books in the series and it’s pretty heavy on the anti-capitalist and anti-police rhetoric. Also, it seems like most of the Martin Beck books contain at least one reference to poor pensioners having to eat cat food to get by. Was this ever really a thing? I don’t doubt that there are still struggling seniors in Sweden, but my research into this (i.e. 10 minutes of Googling variations on pensionärer + kattmat) seems to indicate that it was something of a myth.

As always, things are changing in Stockholm, and not for the better; the new National Police Board building is under construction, and “from this ultramodern colossus… the police would extend their tentacles in every direction and hold the dispirited citizens of Sweden in an iron grip. At least some of them. After all, they couldn’t all emigrate or commit suicide.” But as the two investigations progress, some unexpected rays of sunshine emerge in Martin Beck’s life, providing an unexpected tinge of optimism as we head into the final two books of the series. Will Sjöwall and Wahlöö give their protagonist a few hard-won moments of joy? Considering that the title of the next book is Cop Killer, I’m not holding my breath.