Sunday, February 02, 2020

Winter Crime Fiction: Going Dark with Straley, Schneider, Jurjevics

Things have changed.

The very darkest crime fiction used to be a specialty of a handful of smaller publishers, including a number that dealt only in "paperback originals" (PBOs). And the setting option hit Los Angeles a lot -- or any other location where strong drink and addicted private investigators could make sense.

My thought for this evening is that the spread of Norwegian crime fiction acted as a wedge to open American (and American-connected) publishers to the power of grim narrative that sweeps beyond a gritty locale and an unpleasant detective. But that could also be seen more broadly, as some very dark fiction from Mexico, Colombia, Spain, and Australia also began to reach the US, either via translation or by multinational publishing operations.

Let's get to specifics of this winter's dramatic new offerings.

From Soho Press, in the hands of experienced award-winning author John Straley (former writer laureate of Alaska; Shamus winner for The Woman Who Married a Bear) comes a bizarre twist of speculative fiction and cultural haunting in WHAT IS TIME TO A PIG? The title comes from a farming joke told early in the book -- then echoes into the macabre, along with a "ticking clock" effect that spikes the long rounds of philosophy onto a thriller timeline. Long-time readers of Straley's books may see a gradual buildup to this, but ... it's definitely cutting new ground!

Here's the basis of the "speculative" aspect: There's been a War, started with North Korea sending a missile into Straley's invented town of Cold Storage, Alaska. And industry has formally taken over the prison system, turning inmates into employees at such a rate that there's no incentive to release them! Gloomy Knob (his prison nickname) is one of those prisoners -- and gets snatched out of his mostly comfortable rut, with his wife's life under imminent threat and a race to locate a missing warhead.

Straley mingles the return of Jesus with the buffalo and a Ghost Dance Movement, and sends Gloomy stumbling into visions on the highway. Picking out the threads of goodness and potential survival is beyond Gloomy's level of life awareness ... although he's actually pretty good at guilt and remorse. Moments like this one echo: "Gloomy pushed the dog down and it ran off behind him. 'Who are you?' Gloomy asked. He felt as if ice were unclogging in his heart. 'You know who I am,' she said, her voice rising and color coming to her cheeks. 'You know who I am because you came straight to this house. You know who I am. I almost went to jail for you.'" [Release date Feb. 4]

Under its Poisoned Press imprint, Sourcebooks packs a debut police procedural from Joseph Schneider that dips into the grotesque and bizarre, while walking through what at first seems like ordinary Los Angeles life. LAPD Detective Tully Jarsdel, a former academic who's not yet trusted by his colleagues, snags a case that hangs on both a screenplay and some of the most twisted tortures of the past -- the LONG past (think Greek mythos, even). Jarsdel himself, protagonist of a promised series, is a surprisingly sweet guy who tangles in an affectionate way with one of the crime victims along his path -- made miserable and lonely by the work of a serial pet killer who strikes during the weddings of the pet owners. ONE DAY YOU'LL BURN is a grim title and threatens horrendous torture along the way, but includes a lot of pure LA "camp" with a lot of film fun -- and I couldn't put it down. I kept hoping Jarsdel might prove himself and "get the girl" at the same time. There's even a moment when "He now knew, in painstaking detail, how G --- had died." But instead there's a highly satsifying and grim ending ahead. Make room on the bookshelf for the sequels. [Release date Feb. 4]

Latvian-born Juris Jurjevics remains a hero to those who sought powerful international crime fiction for American readers when it was much harder to find. A publisher and co-founder of Soho Press, he retired in 2006 to embrace writing his won books. He completed PLAY THE RED QUEEN only months before his death, and Soho's celebrated editor Juliet Grames saw the manuscript through to publication. Set during the American occupation of South Vietnam (aka the Vietnam War), it opens with two members of the Army's Criminal Investigation Division, Staff Sergeant Ellsworth Miser and Sergeant Clovis Auguste Robeson, assigned to a high-pressure investigation: A Vietnamese woman with astonishing sniper-type firearm skills is killing American officers, and the third incident has taken the bad press over the top. Miser's got his hands full, especially because people often ignore his dark-skinned partner, who's also blocked from tackling some of the investigating.
The captain fixed us with his hombre stare. "Our betters are already in a twist about this Red Queen. If she manages to take out somebody prominent, that will really ratchet their knickers. They want the lady dealt with before she gets that chance ... You're within your rights to shoot the b**** where she stands. Got it?"

Robeson looked uneasy. "We ain't one of Counselor Nhu's death squads, captain."

I put a hand on his shoulder. Times like these, I remembered how many years I had on him, especially the three in Korea.
The writing is a bit uneven, especially in the first half of the book, but Jurjevics paints 'Nam brilliantly and piles great plot twists onto his investigators' shoulders. Keep reading, and chances are you'll feel well rewarded for the journey. At least, I did! [Release date Feb. 11]

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here

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