“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.

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“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.

“Dead Man Running” by Steve Hamilton

Dead Man RunningI have written before of my dislike for “inside the mind of a serial killer” books—those with chapters told from the point of view of a mass murderer. It didn’t take me long to realize that Steve Hamilton’s Dead Man Running was such a book, and had it not been for the fact that I’ve read everything he’s ever written, I would have stopped right there. But this is the first new Alex McKnight novel in five years, so of course I was going to finish it.

This book is extremely different from others in the McKnight series (Dead Man Running is #11). For one thing, the cover seems to indicate that it takes place in the snowy Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where McKnight lives; however, most of the action is set in Arizona and a handful of other non-U.P. locations. And as mentioned above, Alex’s first-person chapters alternate with ones about the serial killer he’s chasing.

The book’s premise is great: the killer is caught, and when he’s taken into custody, he says he’ll only talk to one man: McKnight. The thing is, Alex has no idea who this guy is and why on earth he is asking for him. A couple of FBI agents fly to remote Paradise, MI, to get McKnight and bring him to Arizona. There’s a ticking clock, since the killer says he’s left a woman tied up and alive, and he might be willing to reveal where she is before she dies of thirst.

Once Alex comes face to face with the killer, Martin Livermore, it turns out this mystery man knows almost everything about McKnight, down to his minor-league batting average. Their connection is finally revealed well into the book, and I thought it strained credulity a bit.

Hamilton is indisputably a fine writer who knows how to create high-octane suspense, but Dead Man Running is just not the type of book that I personally enjoy; it doesn’t feel like an Alex McKnight mystery. Instead, it reminded me quite a bit of Red Dragon, the Thomas Harris serial killer novel that scared me silly when I read it as a young adult. As I made my way through Dead Man Running, I found myself having to pause every few chapters and look at cute animals on my favorite Instagram accounts in an effort to wipe the images of graphic violence and brutality out of my mind.

Dead Man Running will be published on Aug. 21. Thanks to G.P. Putnam’s Sons for the advance copy (via NetGalley).

“Polis Polis Potatismos” (“Murder at the Savoy”) by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

korvLet’s talk about mashed potatoes. If you are an American, you probably think of them as a delicious side dish served with steak, meatloaf or fried chicken. But in Sweden, a popular combination is korv med mos—hot dogs with mashed potatoes.

Korv is an ubiquitous street food, usually sold from free-standing kiosks instead of carts, as is common in the U.S. The accompaniments on offer would most likely confuse American visitors. Shrimp salad is a thing a lot of Swedes put on their hot dogs. And so are mashed potatoes. As you can see in the illustration, you can get scoops of potatoes on a hot dog in a bun (korv med bröd, or with bread), for the true carb-a-holic; inside a rolled-up flatbread; or on a plate with a couple of bun-less wieners.

Polis Polis PotatismosWhy do I offer you this culinary/cultural lesson? Because it’s important in understanding the original title of Murder at the Savoy, the sixth book in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series of police procedurals. That title is Polis Polis Potatismos, which translates to “Police Police Mashed Potatoes.” (My reviews of the first five books can be found here and here.) This week, I decided to do something different and read the original Swedish novel as well as the English version. I wanted to explore how the translators dealt with something that is essentially un-translatable.

The translation is credited to Amy and Ken Knoespel. This is the only book in the series that they worked on (perhaps they were exhausted after trying to figure out how to get around having to explain the title). Ken is now a professor at Georgia Tech. According to LinkedIn, Amy spent much of her career at accounting firm KPMG. How the two of them came to translate this book is something I was unable to discover online. It appears to be the only novel either of them ever worked on.

Murder at the SavoySo what in the world do mashed potatoes have to do with cops? “Polis polis potatismos” is a take-off on “Polis polis potatisgris” (“Police, police, potato pig”), which was reportedly chanted at anti-police protests in the 1960s. In the novel, the bumbling cops Kristiansson and Kvant are tasked with apprehending a suspect landing at Arlanda airport in Stockholm; however, they fail to get there on time because they felt compelled to deal with “a man riding by on a bicycle [who] shouted insults at us.” Further questioning reveals that the duo were actually taunted by the cyclist’s three-year-old son, who exclaimed “Daddy, this little pig” as Kvant was eating a hot dog.

In the Swedish novel, the child cries “Polis polis potatismos” (“he is just three years old and hasn’t learned to speak properly yet”). Naturally, Kvant was eating korv med mos.

This delightfully absurd twist is much more fun than “this little pig,” but how do you convey that in English without including several paragraphs’ worth of footnotes? It would interfere with the amusement of those just wanting to read a good crime story. But it’s a shame that English-language readers miss out on something so funny and significant to the plot.

I could quibble with a few other minor things, like the way Detective Inspector Per Månsson’s favorite cocktail, the Gripenberger, is described as a mixture of gin and “grape soda”—in the original, he’s drinking gin with grapetonic, which is something very different than the sweet purple drink that the American translation brings to mind. Grapetonic is a grapefruit-flavored carbonated beverage, so the Gripenberger is actually just a variation on the normal gin and tonic.

But on the whole, the translation is fine, and Murder at the Savoy is significant as being the first book in the 10-volume series where the authors’ left-wing political leanings are well and truly on display. The murder victim is Viktor Palmgren, a businessman who is, in the words of Swedish crime writer Arne Dahl’s introduction, “given virtually no redeeming or even human qualities… The extremely predictable depiction of the capitalist circles criticized by the book is unrelenting.” However, as a police procedural, it is very enjoyable, as Martin Beck, Månsson, Lennart Kollberg, and the other by-now-familiar characters on the Malmö and Stockholm forces puzzle through sparse clues in order to discover who shot Palmgren. (Of course, if Kvant hadn’t been eating that hot dog, they would have had a much easier time of it. But as is often the case in the real world, one small human screw-up can have massive ramifications.)

To those of us familiar with today’s Scandinavia, as opposed to how things were in 1970 when this book was first published, the milieu of the book often seems unrecognizable; there’s a mention of how polluted the water is (this was certainly true back then, but strict environmental laws have made a huge difference over the past 30 years or so) and Stockholm is described as “an asphalt jungle, where drug addiction and sexual perversion ran more rampant than ever.” As someone who’s spent a lot of time there over the years, I can attest to the fact that it is a clean, safe city, albeit one that constantly seems to be under construction and, much like my current home of the San Francisco Bay Area, suffers from a perennial housing shortage and sky-high cost of living.

Some things never change, though, like the national taste for hot dogs accompanied by a few scoops of mashed potatoes.

“Closer Than You Know” by Brad Parks

Closer Than You KnowThis week, I decided to take a break from the Sjöwall and Wahlöö series and read some contemporary mysteries. The first book I read was awful and I’m not going to say any more than that because while I don’t know the author personally, the crime fiction world is a small one (though I was gratified to see a bunch of negative reviews on Goodreads). The second one, though, was a winner: the latest stand-alone novel by Brad Parks, Closer Than You Know.

Parks, best known for his six-novel series about New Jersey investigative reporter Carter Ross, chose to write most of Closer in the first-person voice of his female protagonist, Melanie Barrick. Melanie is also a rape survivor and a new mom. This is tricky territory, but I think Parks did a wonderful job of making her a well-rounded, complex character you want to root for. And oh boy, if the reader wasn’t firmly in Melanie’s corner from the get-go, this book would not work at all, because she goes through some truly horrendous experiences.

Melanie discovered she was pregnant shortly after her rape, but until the baby was born, she wasn’t sure if the biological father was her rapist or her boyfriend Ben. No matter what happened, Ben vowed to raise the child as his own, and the two of them got married. Unfortunately, it was immediately obvious that pale-skinned baby Alex did not share any DNA with African-American Ben Barrick, but the couple worked to get past the trauma and immediately bonded with their newborn—until their nightmare began.

After going to pick up three-month-old Alex from day care after work, Melanie learns that he has been taken by social services. Thanks to a tip from an anonymous source, a large quantity of cocaine and drug paraphernalia were discovered in the Barricks’ home—in Alex’s nursery, no less. That turns out to be just the tip of the iceberg, though, as Melanie, who grew up in foster care and has few resources and little financial stability, gets caught in a Kafkaesque bureaucratic hellscape that seems to presume she’s guilty of all manner of horrible things.

Now, I have to admit that I was pretty certain that Melanie would ultimately be exonerated and get her baby back in the end—it would be too depressing otherwise—so I just kept turning the pages (I did not want to put this book down!), eager to find out what would happen. A couple times, I was pretty certain I had it all figured out, but I turned out to be mistaken. There are a lot of legitimately surprising twists, but none of them seemed gratuitous; if the Gone Girl-inspired domestic suspense craze eventually runs its course, I hope there will always be room on the bookstore shelves for thrillers like Closer Than You Know, which are written with heart and genuinely make you care about the fictional people within their pages.

“The Laughing Policeman” and “The Fire Engine That Disappeared” by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

The Laughing PolicemanThis week, I continued my reread of the Martin Beck series (here’s part one, covering the first three books). My book group had read The Laughing Policeman a few years back, so this was actually my third time reading it. Did that mean I remembered the solution to the crime? I did not. However, it’s a pretty complex case.

A Stockholm city bus is discovered with everyone aboard, including the driver, shot to death (except for one passenger, clinging to life). Among the slaughtered: one of the homicide squad’s own, Åke Stenström. He was found to be holding his service weapon.

What was Åke doing on the bus? No one on the force has a clue whether it’s a coincidence or if he was investigating something unknown to his colleagues. It takes a long time to unravel the solution. Along the way, another case comes to light, involving a murdered woman named Teresa. She was a “strict Catholic… the most moral person imaginable” who was seduced (I believe the 2018 term would be “sexually assaulted”) by a man who wouldn’t take no for an answer; this experience turned her into a nymphomaniac (“[She] started running about like a bitch in heat”) who subsequently got involved with underworld figures. Honestly, I do enjoy this series, but reading them all in a row definitely makes you aware of the retrograde sexual politics.

The Fire Engine That DisappearedI thought perhaps book #5, The Fire Engine That Disappeared, would be refreshingly nympho-free, until late in the novel when a policeman goes to interview a possible witness. He knocks on her door, and before he can start questioning her, she casually asks him, “Do you want to sleep with me? It’ll be easier to talk afterward.” (Naturally, the policeman takes her up on the offer.) But let’s look at the rest of the book, shall we?

Inspector Gunvald Larsson is staking out a small apartment building when it suddenly bursts into flame. Larsson is not the most popular person on the homicide squad among his fellow officers, but in this case, he acts heroically, managing to save the lives of several residents. Among those who didn’t make it out is Göran Malm, the man the police were shadowing. Since he was dead before the blast, it looks like he had intended to commit suicide; did something go horribly wrong? Or was it murder?

There are some cute moments involving the son of a police officer, whose birthday present, a toy fire engine, has mysteriously gone missing; Martin Beck is very much just one of the ensemble here, though we do get some additional glimpses into his rather dysfunctional family life. This time, he begs off of a weekend family trip because of job demands, but he actually just stays home and drinks cognac and works on his model ship. In the evening, he lies in the bathtub reading a Chandler novel. It may be the happiest we’ve ever seen him; but never fear, soon he’s back on the case, complaining about the polluted Stockholm city air and the overcrowded subway.