“Lethal White” by Robert Galbraith

Lethal WhiteOn many occasions, a book I’m reading has given me nightmares, because the content is gory or disturbing. Lethal White by Robert Galbraith, however, is the first book that has ever provoked an anxiety dream: I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to finish it before it was due back at the library, and that fear must have seeped into my unconscious.

I was looking forward to Lethal White because I’m a big fan of the Cormoran Strike series, and it’s taken three years for it to finally be published. However, I wasn’t expecting it to also be the size of three novels. It is a formidable 650-page tome that could, in a pinch, probably double as a weapon. (The audiobook clocks in at over 23 hours.) Fortunately, however, I did finish it a full two days before its due date.

My husband, who is an avid reader of Stephen King, noted that King’s books are incredibly long because he is so famous and successful that no one at his publishing house feels the need to edit him. (A New York Times article confirms this, noting “publishers often [take] a hands-off editorial approach with stars like [Anne] Rice and Stephen King.”) And I strongly suspect that if Lethal White had been written by anyone other than J.K. Rowling, whose final Harry Potter book tipped the scales at almost 800 pages, someone would have required her to pare it down by a couple hundred pages or so. Because while I enjoyed Lethal White, it would have been a better book if it hadn’t been so damn long.

I did appreciate the fact that Lethal White is a lot less horrifying than the gruesome serial-killer thriller Career of Evil, the previous Strike book. Lethal White is a good old-fashioned dysfunctional-family saga, featuring a Tory minister named Jasper Chiswell, who hires Strike to dig up some dirt on a couple of people he claims are blackmailing him. Jasper is the patriarch of a vast brood of upper-class twits, from his whiny wife Kinvara to the rest of the ludicrously-nicknamed clan, including Izzy, Fizzy and Tinky. One of his perceived enemies is a fellow government minister; the other, a radical socialist named Jimmy Knight, who is trying to extort money from Chiswell due to a mysterious past transgression he does not wish to reveal to the P.I., and one which Jasper “would not wish to see shared with the gentlemen of the fourth estate.”

Helping Strike with the investigation is his fellow detective Robin Ellacott, who was about to walk down the aisle with her loathsome fiancé Matthew at the end of Career of Evil. Lethal White picks up immediately after the ceremony; unfortunately, Cormoran didn’t rush in like Benjamin Braddock at the end of “The Graduate” and save her from marrying such an obvious jerk. However, there’s trouble in paradise even before the reception begins, as Robin discovers that Matthew has been deleting her cell-phone call history. Strike had fired her shortly before the wedding, but it turns out he had overreacted out of fear, due to Robin’s too-close encounter with the serial killer in Career of Evil that left her with an ugly scar and PTSD. He wants her to come back to work. Matthew, however, hates Strike and hates Robin’s job.

There was a bit of “will they or won’t they” tension between Robin and Strike in the first three novels, but Lethal White offers a different kind of love story—the love a woman has for her vocation. Robin, who started off as a temporary secretary/assistant, has developed into a damned good detective, and has obviously found what she was meant to do. Petty Matthew wants to keep her from it, which makes him an obvious villain. Will Robin finally come to her senses and choose career over marriage?

I enjoyed the snarky look at the British upper classes in Lethal White, such as the ridiculously stuffy gentlemen’s club where, “to avoid confusion, all male staff members are called George.” And I would certainly recommend this book to fans of the first three novels who can’t wait to catch up with this beloved pair of protagonists. But I also hope that we won’t have to wait another three years before the publication of the next novel in the series, and that when it comes, it’ll be both briefer and brisker.

“November Road” by Lou Berney

November Road by Lou BerneyThe day John F. Kennedy was assassinated is frequently described as “the day America lost its innocence.” A decade later, Watergate represented the beginning of a new era, one in which many citizens grew deeply mistrustful about whether or not our leaders were telling us the truth. For someone like me, who grew up steeped in that post-Nixon cynicism, it’s hard to believe that after the Warren Commission report was issued, 87% of Americans were convinced that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. 20 years after JFK’s murder, that number was down to 11%.

Since it’s likely no one will ever know what really happened, the tragedy in Dallas is ripe for reinterpretation and myth-making. Enter Lou Berney, born the year after JFK’s assassination, who has skillfully spun his own yarn about who ordered the hit on the president: a fictional New Orleans mob boss named Carlos Marcello*. When one of Marcello’s lieutenants, Frank Guidry, hears the news about Kennedy, he immediately realizes he’s in trouble; after all, he just finished running an errand in Dallas for Carlos.

“Maybe it was just a coincidence, he told himself, that he’d stashed a getaway car two blocks from Dealey Plaza. Maybe it was just a coincidence that Carlos despised the Kennedy brothers more than any other two human beings on earth. Jack and Bobby had dragged Carlos in front of the Senate and pissed on his leg in front of the whole country. A couple of years after that, they’d tried to deport him to Guatemala.

“Maybe Carlos had forgiven and forgotten. Sure. And maybe some mope who lugged boxes of books around a warehouse for a living could make a rifle shot like that—six floors up, a moving target, a breeze, trees in the way.”

When Carlos starts getting rid of loose ends, Guidry realizes that he’s probably next in line to be disposed of, so he hits the road, hoping to reconnect with a powerful pal in Las Vegas who holds a grudge against Carlos. Perhaps his friend might be willing to smuggle Guidry out of the country. But first, he needs to get there, knowing that Carlos’s man is hot on his trail.

Then Guidry stumbles upon the perfect cover—no one will be looking for a family man. Enter Charlotte, a small-town Oklahoma housewife. She is on the run from her alcoholic husband with her two daughters and their epileptic dog in tow, making her way to Los Angeles with plans to start her life over. When her car breaks down in New Mexico, and she and Guidry wind up at the same motel, he sees his chance to win her trust and offer her a ride. So Frank Guidry becomes Frank Wainwright, insurance salesman: “If Guidry could pull this off, he’d be practically invisible.”

My main beef with books about mobsters is that they tend to have high body counts, and ruthless, remorseless killers are not generally people I enjoy reading about. However, Berney (whose last book, The Long and Faraway Gone, was one of my favorites of 2015) is such a gifted writer that he is able to bring a lot of depth to Frank Guidry. His journey with Charlotte and the girls changes him in some very significant ways. And Charlotte’s story takes some unpredictable turns as well, as Guidry comes to realize that he has feelings for this woman who was unwittingly dragged into his dangerous road trip. By the end, I found myself caring about and sympathizing with both characters.

* I had the chance to meet Lou Berney at a book signing a few days after this was published, and it turns out Carlos Marcello was not only real, he has a fascinating back story, and yes, he really hated the Kennedys. But of course we’ll never really know if he was the one who ordered the hit on JFK. According to Berney, Marcello’s motto was, “Three can keep a secret if two of them are dead.”

“Mr. Nice Guy” by Jennifer Miller & Jason Feifer

Mr. Nice GuyLooking back, I often wish I had moved to New York when I was younger. I suspect the city would have chewed me up and spat me out, but at least I would have been young and dumb enough to try. So I could immediately relate to Lucas Callahan, a mid-20s native of North Carolina who breaks up with his fiancée and drops out of law school in order to chase his NYC dreams.

Lucas winds up as a fact-checker at Empire magazine, a New YorkVanity Fair-type publication that is ruled by its capricious and social-climbing editor-in-chief, Jay Jacobson. One fateful night, Lucas stops in at a West Village bar called Kettle of Fish where he spots a stunning woman sitting solo and scribbling notes on a bar napkin. Lucas boldly offers her a sheet of paper, and after a couple of drinks, they head to her apartment.

What seems like a one-night stand with a glamorous older woman turns into something much more when the note-taker, Carmen Kelly, writes an unsparing account of her experience with Lucas—in the pages of Empire magazine. It turns out that Carmen is the mag’s dating and sex columnist (she rarely goes into the office, which is why Lucas hadn’t met her), and her vicious takedown of “Mr. Nice Guy” (her nickname for Lucas) becomes a viral sensation. Lucas decides to respond, and sets up an anonymous email address and fires off a rebuttal. Sensing a way to boost Empire‘s web traffic, Jacobson runs Lucas’s column; it is also a hit.

Jacobson goads Carmen into meeting up with Lucas again, and having them both write about the experience for Empire: “a regular sexual exchange between [Lucas] and Carmen to be followed by columns penned by each, reviewing the other’s performance.” Since Lucas’s identity is still under wraps (he continues to file his stories via the anonymous email account), he can’t get paid for his work, but at least he’s finally a published writer, one seemingly all of New York is reading and talking about.

This is a surprisingly meaty novel which considers questions of ethics in journalism and what you’d be willing to give up in order to achieve your dreams. It’s also got a terrific sense of place; I read this just a couple weeks after I’d visited New York, and it really captured the city beautifully. The only thing I didn’t quite buy was that a power-mad control freak like Jacobson would allow “Mr. Nice Guy” to remain anonymous—surely he’d have an underling follow Carmen around until he’d sussed out her partner’s identity? But on the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed this very modern romantic comedy.

Mr. Nice Guy will be published on Oct. 16; thanks to St. Martin’s Griffin for the advance copy (via NetGalley).

“The Alice Network” by Kate Quinn and “Transcription” by Kate Atkinson

The Alice NetworkWhen last week’s book proved to be a little too much of-the-moment, I decided to retreat into the past and read a pair of historical novels. Kate Quinn’s The Alice Network offers kind of an “if you think things are bad now…” perspective, since it features two alternating storylines, one set during World War I and the other in the aftermath of World War II.

Charlie St. Clair is a young American from a wealthy family, pregnant and unmarried. Her mother is taking her to a clinic to Switzerland so Charlie can have a discreet abortion. Charlie has other plans, though; when their ocean liner stops in Southampton, she escapes her mother’s watchful eye in order to search for her beloved French cousin Rose, who disappeared during the war. All she has is a name and an address: Evelyn Gardiner, 10 Hampson Street, Pimlico, London. Eve worked in a bureau helping to locate refugees after the war, and Charlie has reason to believe she may know something about what happened to Rose.

The book’s second chapter goes back in time 32 years to May 1915. Eve is twenty-two but looks much younger; a stammer gives the mistaken impression that she’s simple. Her ability to speak fluent French and German gets her recruited to join the Alice Network, a ring of female spies. Her cover story: she’s a French country girl who neither speaks nor understands German. She gets a job as a waitress in German-occupied Lille, working at a posh restaurant owned by the profiteer René Bordelon, who is more than happy to serve the Kommandant and his officers. Her mission is to eavesdrop on the Germans, who have no idea she is absorbing every word they say in order to report it to the brave and resourceful Lili, leader of the network.

From there, we switch between the two stories as Charlie convinces Eve, still deeply scarred by her experiences during World War I, to join her hunt for Rose; and Eve’s adventures behind enemy lines. Both stories are exciting, though not surprisingly, there is a lot of loss, trauma and some descriptions of wartime atrocities that can be painful and difficult to read.

Still, The Alice Network is primarily a story of female bravery and the power of women’s friendship, and isn’t that something we should be celebrating right now? I heartily recommend this book to fans of historical fiction and spy sagas.

TranscriptionMuch of Transcription by Kate Atkinson is set during World War II, but protagonist Juliet Armstrong, a girl of just 18, is not involved in anything as exciting or dangerous as the Alice Network—she is hired by MI5 in 1940 to transcribe recordings of fascist sympathizers’ clandestine meetings. The “fifth column” has been infiltrated by British intelligence, and the London flat in which they meet has microphones hidden in the walls. The conversations, recorded to disc, are dull and often difficult to understand (“‘Oh, do speak clearly,’ Juliet thought crossly.”)

Eventually, Juliet does get to go undercover herself, and things get a bit more intense. It’s a fascinating story, and I enjoyed reading about Juliet’s relationships with her fellow MI5 agents, even though there are so many characters and code names to keep track of that I constantly found myself flipping back and forth in the book. Atkinson must expect her readers to have superhuman memories; for instance, one character begins a sentence on page 10 (“My father was—”), and that thread isn’t picked up again until page 185 (“What was your father, Lester?”).

That wasn’t an insurmountable problem for me, though, but I must admit that I was incredibly disappointed by the ending, which came out of left field and came close to throw-the-book-across-the-room territory. Unfortunately, for that reason alone, I find it hard to wholeheartedly recommend Transcription, despite the interesting characters and compelling subject matter.