“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.

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“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.

“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 Belinda 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 is so startlingly 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.