“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.

“Before the Fall” by Noah Hawley

Before the Fall by Noah HawleyMy book group read Before the Fall a few months ago, but I was unable to attend that meeting—and when I saw that the book was about a plane crash, I decided to give it a miss. I can sometimes be a nervous flyer, and it didn’t seem like a good idea to read a novel on the subject shortly before I was due to embark on a 10-hour transatlantic flight.

When the book won this year’s Edgar Award for best novel, however, I figured I should check it out. Unlike every other mystery award, the Edgar is peer-reviewed, and the people on the committee read tons of books. As a result, the winning entry has to be interesting and different enough to captivate a group of readers who are accomplished writers themselves.

Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about Before the Fall is how incredibly timely it feels, despite the fact that it was published a year ago and written well before that. The story deals with  the intersection of a couple of very wealthy families and a Fox News-type network, which is drumming up ratings by exploiting a family tragedy (shades of the Seth Rich story). I was half-expecting a politician with small hands and bad hair to show up.

The mysterious crash of the luxury private jet, which was flying from Martha’s Vineyard to New York City, killed nine people and left two survivors: four-year-old JJ Bateman and painter Scott Burroughs, who had been invited aboard the flight by JJ’s mom Maggie. The wife of David Bateman, head of the Fox-like network ALC News, Maggie had taken an interest in Scott’s art and impulsively asked if he’d like to join them when she found out he was heading to the city for some meetings.

Not quite a starving artist, but not a terribly successful one either, Scott was trying to turn his life around after recovering from alcoholism. He had painted a series of large-scale works depicting disasters—an oncoming tornado, a house on fire, and even a plane crash—before stepping aboard the doomed aircraft. Scott’s unlikely survival, and the motif of his paintings, make him an object of suspicion to ALC News’ O’Reilly-like news anchor, Bill Cunningham (“the angry white man people invited into their living rooms to call bullshit at the world”). Ironically, before he died, David Bateman had made moves to push Bill off the air, because he’d been caught tapping the phone of a rival broadcaster. Before he could get rid of him, David died, and Bill immediately turned his old boss into a martyr, promising every night that he would not rest until he got to the bottom of what had really happened to that flight.

Before the Fall is a dense 400-page novel, and it probably could have been cut by 50 pages if Hawley, writer and showrunner for FX’s acclaimed series “Fargo,” hadn’t spent quite so much time waxing philosophical. A random example: “We believe we have invented our machine world to benefit ourselves, but how do we know we aren’t here to serve it? A camera must be aimed to be a camera. To service a microphone, a question must be asked. Twenty-four hours a day, frame after frame, we feed the hungry beast, locked in perpetual motion as we race to film it all. Does television exist for us to watch, in other words, or do we exist to watch television?”

Because I read a lot of thrillers that are only trying to deliver the purest adrenaline rush possible, I actually appreciated a lot of Hawley’s flowery musings, but after a certain point, I just wanted to find out what had happened to the plane. But I’m guessing that willingness to grapple with The Big Questions is what made the committee select After the Fall for the award. Many years from now, this is the sort of book people will turn to in order to find out what life was like in this peculiar era.

“Rubbernecker” by Belinda Bauer

RubberneckerHave you ever been bored out of your skull by some acclaimed prestige-TV series, wondered what all the fuss is about, and been assured that you just have to keep watching, because it gets really good around episode eight? My response is usually to change the channel, and in the case of Belinda Bauer’s Rubbernecker, it’s very likely I would have given up on the book about a quarter of the way in were it not for the fact that I was reading it for my book group. I hate going to group when I haven’t read the whole book; it makes me feel like a slacker. So I persevered, and ultimately, I’m very glad I did.

Rubbernecker has an absolutely genius concept, but it doesn’t really become clear until about halfway through the book. Before that, we get chapters told from several points of view. There’s Patrick, who has Asperger’s and has been fascinated with death ever since his father was struck by a car and killed right in front of him; Patrick has enrolled in medical school, not because he wants to become a doctor, but because he wants to dissect a cadaver in order to learn more about death. We also meet Patrick’s mom, who doesn’t understand and frankly doesn’t much like her only child. Then there’s Sam, who has awakened in a coma ward after being gravely injured in an accident—he is now suffering from locked-in syndrome, so he is able to think clearly but can’t communicate. He believes he has witnessed the murder of one of his fellow patients, but has no way of letting anyone know. Tracy, a nurse on Sam’s ward, is obsessed with trying to seduce the husband of another coma patient, somewhat to the detriment of the rest of her charges.

How do all of these stories intersect? I don’t want to spoil the surprise, because once the reader figures out what’s going on, it’s extremely satisfying to see how everything clicks into place. But getting there can be a bit of a chore. The book can also be rather gruesome, since we are dealing with cadavers and the murder of helpless patients. Still, by the time I got into the second half of Rubbernecker, I realized I was in the capable hands of a diabolically clever author, and all of that set-up did indeed serve a purpose. This book isn’t for everybody, but I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to read something a little different, and is willing to stick with it.

“The Forgotten Girls” by Owen Laukkanen

The Forgotten GirlsThis is the sixth book featuring FBI agents Kirk Stevens and Carla Windermere. I’ve been reading this series since the beginning (2012’s The Professionals), and this is probably my least favorite so far. For one thing, it’s a serial killer novel; for another, the killer’s motives are not terribly interesting. Since many chapters are told from his point of view, it’s not a spoiler to reveal that he’s your basic men’s rights type of guy. “He’d been nice to women, smiled, listened to them. Opened doors, held out chairs, paid for countless dinners. Tolerated every annoyance, jumped through every hoop placed before him, and still no woman had ever returned his affection. No woman had ever treated him with anything but cruelty.” May as well slaughter them, am I right?!

Stevens and Windermere are on the trail, as is a young woman whose best friend was murdered and is out for vengeance. The agents are hoping to find her before she becomes a victim herself.

In the author’s note at the end of the book, Laukkanen talks about his motivation for writing the book—the apathetic law enforcement response when a real-life killer in Canada went after women who were primarily prostitutes of Native descent. I did some reading about the actual case, which is a lot more disturbing than the fictional account. One of the police detectives assigned to the case wrote: “There was a mindset that these were disposable women, that these victims chose this life… so we’re not going to put ourselves out in quite the same way that we might if it’s somebody’s daughter from [The University of British Columbia].”

None of those online articles tried to come up with a motivation; Laukkanen’s books always have chapters written from the point of view of the “bad guy” (or gal), so his formula required him to come up with something. I kind of wish he’d skipped it in this case, though. The “women should be nicer to me!” angle almost trivializes the heinous crimes. Serial killers are sick, twisted people; trying to rationalize their actions, even if the writer is well-meaning, makes for a seriously unpleasant reading experience.

“The Long Firm” by Jake Arnott

The Long Firm by Jake ArnottThe Long Firm by Jake Arnott was first published in 1999, and while it’s available as an ebook in the U.K., it’s out of print in the U.S. That is a shame, because The Long Firm is, in my opinion, a masterpiece. I hope it will someday be rediscovered and given its due. (It was turned into a BBC miniseries a dozen years ago; it’s not on any of the streaming services, but parts of it seem to have been uploaded illegally to YouTube.)

This is Arnott’s first novel—he has since published a few others, which I look forward to reading—and what is most striking about this book is its colossal ambition. It is divided into five parts, each of which has a different narrator. The one thing they all have in common is their relationship to the gangster Harry Starks, who is in competition with the notorious Kray twins for the title of king of the London underworld. While Starks is Arnott’s fictional creation, the Krays, and several other characters, from Johnnie Ray to Joe Meek to Judy Garland, are real. One reason it took me almost a week to read The Long Firm is because I kept looking up things online to find out what was based in reality; Arnott was born in 1961, so he obviously has no first-hand knowledge of the period, but he must have done a tremendous amount of research.

The five narrators don’t have a lot in common—one is a member of the House of Lords, a couple are crooks, one’s a criminologist, and one is an actress who became a showgirl when work dried up. They all become sucked into Harry’s orbit, which, unsurprisingly, is not a particularly safe place to be. He may appear to be a generous soul, but the bill always comes due eventually, and being obligated to Harry Starks can be very dangerous indeed.

Besides Harry, another person we get to know through the eyes of the narrators is Detective Chief Inspector Mooney, a bent cop who frequently aids Starks and his compatriots by turning a blind eye to their criminal schemes or, in some cases, actively abetting them. It could be argued that Mooney is more of a villain than Harry, since at least the gangster isn’t making a show of serving and protecting the populace. Some antihero-loving readers may wish for Harry to get away with his crimes, but I doubt anyone will be rooting for Mooney.

As a homosexual and a Jew, Harry is an outsider, albeit one who knows which people to cultivate (Mooney, Lord Thursby) in order to gain access to the corridors of power. “He is fascinated by the world of privilege,” says Thursby. “A patriotic desire to be part of a really big racket, I suppose… He has a great admiration for upper-class men of action like Lawrence of Arabia or Gordon of Khartoum. Empire heroes and explorers he no doubt read of in picture books. And in his own way he sought to emulate them, to find some respectable and gentlemanly way to demand money with menaces. Some way of jumping the counter of middle classness straight into aristocracy.”

This is an exceptional literary thriller. As of this writing, used copies are available for under $4 (including shipping!) at ABEBooks.com—a real steal.