Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Outstanding New Thriller Launches New Series from Michael Sears, TOWER OF BABEL

Move over, Brooklyn—the newest New York City borough to get thriller setting status just became Queens, in the fast-paced and delightful launch of a new series from award-winning ex-Wall Street author Michael Sears.

Sears's expertise in financial surprises grounds the livelihood of fallen-from-grace lawyer Ted Molloy. With his not very charming research partner Richie Rubiano, Ted locates forgotten funds left over from real estate foreclosures and takes a finder's share as he helps the rightful owners grab hold. It's legal, but not necessarily attractive ... in fact, Ted's something of a bottom feeder.

But that's no reason for someone to kill his research assistant, is it? Detective Duran brings him the grim news, of course suspecting Ted has a role in the murder:

"Would you be willing to come down and give a statement?" Detective Duran managed to make the request sound casual.

Sirens and flashing lights went off in Ted's head. The shark was inviting him home for dinner. "Only with my lawyer present. And that would cost me money, and you would learn nothing that might be of use to you."

Ted noted the feeble attempt at inducing guilt and ignored it. Bitterness had long replaced guilt as a motivating factor in his life. But people he knew were not murdered. He felt himself being pulled in despite misgivings.

If there was any chance that Richie had stirred up some hornet's nest by looking into the old lady's surplus money, there was also a chance of that trouble leading back to Molloy Partners.

The first few chapters of TOWER OF BABEL read like classic noir: disgraced former law partner type, plenty of drinking, threats and darkness. But that's a feint, an East River tunnel sort of entry into a classic moral jeopardy and friends-at-risk kind of mystery. Besides the vivid portrait Sears provides of Queens, in its gritty multiethnic glory, the characters shape the force of the book:

There's Lester, the conveniently appearing new assistant, ready to pick up where Richie left off, for a share of the money. The Preacher, a street minister as poor as his flock, but with a magnetic appeal and willing to open doors when Ted needs to dodge through them. And Kenzie, fighting against developers to sustain the neighborhood and laying an indefatigable guilt trip on Ted when he tries to slip out of the net of obligations that Richie's widow enforces through death threats and more.

Adding extra layers of stress and motive is the presence of Ted's needy ex-wife, Jill, now married to cutthroat attorney Jacqueline, who hates Ted passionately. And of course there are Jill's family members, still willing to do Ted a bad turn after all this time. 

Ted imagined calling Jacqueline Clavette and begging to dig through her files. "Not gonna happen."

"So, what will you do?"

He weighed the question. He owned no one a thing. Not [Richie's widow] Cheryl, not the cop, and not Richie. He could walk away and feel no responsibility. That was the smart move. But someone had taken a big chance just to hide information. He had a strong urge to kick the hornet's nest.

"We follow the money."

This enjoyable thriller's only weak spot is the use of Russian mobsters as the ultimate threat, a trope that's a tad overused lately. Yet Sears can write a fight scene so vividly and precisely that the stereotypical bad guys are just as caught up in the detailed portrayals, and easy enough to accept (maybe with a wince on the side), as the layers of crime get peeled back.

Sardonic wit, quaint café; high-stakes conspiracy, neighborhood loyalties; TOWER OF BABEL speaks all those dialects, one after another, against an urban setting well worth the visit. Grab a copy, turn off the phone ringer, and settle in for a page-turner that promises lively sequels to follow. From Soho Crime, an imprint of Soho Press.

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

Thursday, March 04, 2021

Berlin in 1933, Great Crime Fiction "Prequel" from David Downing in WEDDING STATION

 [Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

“Wedding Station
is an ideal choice for both Downing fans and newcomers to his fast-paced and intense crime novels.”

DavidDowning’s novels of crime, suspense, and espionage have danced through both world wars. His “Station” series, with six titles before Wedding Station, evoke the relentless terror of life in Berlin during World War II. Now, in a fierce and daring prequel, Downing reveals the back story to the propulsive series.

A British citizen with a “German” son from his first marriage, John Russell has no desire to leave the complex and culturally rich city of Berlin. But Wedding Station opens with the burning of the Reichstag parliament building, a display of political malice that Hitler’s forces deftly blame on “Communists” and utilize as a reason to crack down on liberty. Russell’s a reporter for the Morgenspiegel—it’s his job to dig into any crime aspects to the fire, as well as other events around him.

Since the fire’s an obvious fake, with the expected political posturing—“The German people would be expecting a vigorous response from their government, and harsh new measures would be announced over the next twenty-four hours”—Russell’s free to investigate other ominous shifts in the city. Within limits: The newspaper’s editor is already under enormous pressure to toe the official line, if he wants to keep publishing.

“This was what the seasoned professional journalists lived for, Russell thought. Exciting times. Only this was the sort of excitement that might well prove fatal to some of them.”

Within hours, life in Berlin shifts from cultural glory to silently witnessing corpses and abuse. And at work, Russell chases scraps of crime stories, like the death of a teenaged male prostitute, that become entangled with the power and sadism of the various Nazi forces and leaders. When his other leads turn up parallel threads, from a genealogist’s death to a celebrity fortune-teller’s disappearance, Russell’s relentless digging puts his personal liberty and safety at risk. Soon a professional beating comes to seem routine, and his choices narrow to what will put his son and his ability to be a father under threat. Or cost him his integrity and self-respect.

“Russell liked fiction as much as the next man, but he couldn’t imagine agreeing to lie for a living. Better to sidestep the issue … He had thought the crime desk might provide a safe haven but most of the stories he’d covered so far had political hazards etched right through them, like the letters in a stick of seaside rock. Which shouldn’t have come as a shock when the forces of law and order were the people committing the crimes.”

As a “foreigner” in a dangerous city, Russell’s becoming a sort of criminal himself, conspiring with the occasional halfway-human police officer to get murderers captured, hiding out for days on end, desperately trying to protect his son while seeing the child inevitably seduced by Germany’s new politics. Downing manages the painful transformations in thoughtful passages that never detract from the threat and tension of the situations that Russell deliberately puts himself into, in the hunt for both honest journalism and a personal stance against Hitler’s imposed regime.

Wedding Station (the title refers to a location in Berlin, Wedding, pronounced with a V sound at the start) is an ideal choice for both Downing fans and newcomers to his fast-paced and intense crime novels. As a “prequel,” it won’t require catch-up time, except perhaps for the alphabet soup of the various German groups menacing Berlin. And as part of the series, it’s a marvelous exploration of how John Russell steps out of ordinary life into endless dangerous choices, and into how the Nazi regime will convince itself of a mission to subdue all of Europe.

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

Monday, March 01, 2021

Guilt Stalks the Sheriff, in NIGHTHAWK'S WING from Charles Fergus

In the second Gideon Stolz mystery, set in Pennsylvania Dutch terrain in 1836, the young sheriff is acutely aware of how different he is from many of the people he's supposed to protect and serve. There's his accent, of course, and his personal legacy of loss and violence, yet equally important are his beliefs about justice and worship, strands that are vital in a community still very much built as a set of frontier settlements.

But as NIGHTHAWK'S WING takes off, Gideon has far more to worry about than just feeling awkward among others. He hasn't recovered from striking his head in a fall from a horse, and the ongoing physical effects and memory loss threaten his job, his reputation, even his marriage and his liberty. As he realizes he's not even keeping up with routine tasks, his questions turn frightening:

Gideon asked himself why he hadn't remembered the horse as soon as he smelled the stench. Or before he went out for his walk. Or maybe he had remembered it and had gone out from the jail to check on whether the horse had been removed, and then forgotten why he'd ventured out in the first place.

Why couldn't he remember such things? ... Why couldn't he remember anything about his own accident, getting thrown off Maude or otherwise falling off her, striking his head on the ground, and (so he'd been told) lying insensible on the road?

He worried about the gap in his memory. He didn't know how far back it went.

Charles Fergus delicately draws out the differences in pioneer culture—the absence of medical knowledge, the fragmented communities from different European roots who knew just enough to be suspicious of each other, the fierce expectations of gender and age—as Gideon investigates a violent death on a farm some distance from the town where he lives. Has there been accidental poisoning? Are there implications of witchcraft, and of punishment for such deviation? Worst of all, he discovers incontrovertible evidence of having played a role in the tensions on the farm, before the death: With no reliable memories of what had taken him there at the time and of what had taken place, must he now suspect himself of abuse or violence?

Even Pastor Nolf in the farming community represents strangeness to Gideon. As sheriff, he needs to grasp how this German offshoot of religion functions here:

Nolf continued, "You asked earlier if I thought that Rebecca Kreidler had a disturbed mind. I told you yes, I did sense that. I also sensed in her a deep anger and a black despair. As Neigeboren, we work to purge from our lives that which would not be pleasing to the One we serve, including anger and despair. One thing I have been considering since her body was found: I think it's very possible that Frau Kreidler took her own life. That she purposely ate a plant she knew would kill her, and in a way that would inflict severe pain."

Meanwhile, Gideon's double distraction—over the dead woman's cause of death, and over his own possible enmeshment in the case—results in his effectively abandoning his gravely depressed young wife. Each of them, Gideon and True, is still in deep pain over the death, from illness, of their small child. And neither seems able to give the other what's needed. There's a chance that the marriage may be damaged beyond repair, despite Gideon's love for True. She reminds him: "You only believe in what's standing in front of you and nothing else. There's other ways of seeing, other ways of knowing. Maybe someday you'll figure that out."

Fergus's measured pace, rich with the feel of the raw, unsettled landscape and its fragile human bonds, provides a depth to the double mystery: the crime, and how to reinvent a marriage after a child's death. Not until the very end of the book will the answers become clear—and the pain and loss along the way are vivid and visceral. In the tradition of Jeffrey Lent's In the Fall, Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, and even Nathaniel Hawthorne's early American novels, NIGHTHAWK'S WING melds human frailty and strength into the very texture of the place and time, creating a mystery that will call for multiple readings that savor its layers and revelations.

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