Tag Archives: Thriller

My Dirty California by Jason Mosberg

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I love this state, I really do. Yet, at times, California feels like something hip someone in marketing tried to fit in a bottle to sell. California is the kind of place that can make a person who doesn’t care about flowers care about wildflowers. But there’s a dark history below California’s undeniably beautiful surface. A dark history with how its destiny manifested. Japanese internment. The LA riots. The California Alien Land Law of 1913. The Mexican-American War. Facebook. Sometimes I think California never left the gold rush era. Gold was merely substituted with other treasure to chase. Movies. Fame. Waves. Venture capital. Youth. Wine. Love. Spirituality. Technology. I guess I’m part of the everlasting, ever-changing rush.

When I first moved to LA, I realized no one here goes bowling. There’s too much to do. Marty Morrel did it all. He explored every inch of the city of LA, every crack and crevice of the state of California, and it’s all documented in hundreds of videos, thousands of pictures, and scores of essays and journal entries. Even if there hadn’t been any crimes, I think I would have wanted to make a podcast about Marty. But there were crimes. I thought murders would be the most disturbing part of this podcast, but that was before I learned about Pandora’s House. – from a fictional, unaired podcast

As you can see, My Dirty California opens with a fun, noir narration. The sensibility persists, although there is no troubled detective or PI asking uncomfortable questions, drinking too much, and getting beaten up. After that opening bit, Mosberg leaves the boundless beauty (the clean aspect?) of the state to other writers. This is today’s off-the-tourist-map California, violence, murder, drugs, trafficking, scams, surfer dudes, documentary film-making, outrageous, long-lasting parties, portraits of some Cali subcultures, a bit of mental illness, sleuthing, sex (only a little) and some serious other-worldly notions. There are LOLs to be had here, and even some tears. Jody, Pen, Tish and Renata are all searching for something, and Marty Morrel is at the center of it all.

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Jason Mosberg – from his site

Unfortunately for Marty he is not around, as he becomes late early on. After a ten-year hiatus he returned to his home near Lancaster, PA, where his father and brother, Jody, live. Soon after, a hooded gunman killed him, for reasons unknown, and his father, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But before his demise, he had clued Jody in to a project he had been working on

“I’ve been making this thing. I don’t really know what it is yet. It’s called My Dirty California.”
“What are you talking about?”
“It’s a website. But it’s really just a place I’ve been doing a . . . project. I didn’t even know what it was at first. I wasn’t trying to define it. Eventually it kinda became a video log, about my adventures or whatever. A place to store all the pictures I take. And I kept up with it. Posting these videos online.”
“So it’s a blog.”
“No,” Marty says…“It’s more a place I can store all these photos and videos and essays till I figure out what to do with the project. Maybe at some point I’ll edit them into a documentary or a piece of long-form web video art.”

When Jody decides to heads out to LA to find out what Marty was up to, what got him killed, that collection is his starting point, along with letters and postcards his brother had sent home. Jody is not the only person availing of Marty’s trove.

Penelope Rhodes is a documentary film maker. She’d had some success with an earlier film about a UFO, which gets her several meetings about her new project. The driving force of her life is finding her father, who vanished when she was a kid. However, this is a search with a difference. Pen has a rather peculiar idea of what may have happened to him, involving Matrix-like simulations. Don’t ask. She is fixated on finding a particular place, Pandora’s House, where she believes it might be possible to move from this simulation (the one we are all living in) to another, where her father might be. This obsession has made getting by in this simulation rather a challenge. In her explorations, she comes across Marty’s vast materials, and follows the clues wherever they lead, or wherever she imagines they might lead.

Typhony Carter is young, married, with one son. She works cleaning houses, but cannot get enough work to keep her family afloat. Her husband, Mike, is a dedicated father. But when they go to a rally about cops killing yet another black teen, Mike gets into it with a counter-protester and winds up in jail. Times get even tougher, so when a scheme appears, that involves finding a hoard of art, supposedly secreted away by a recently deceased collector/dealer, she takes on the mission.

Renata, 19, travels from Mexico to the USA hoping for a better life, not, of course, through the legal channels. There is a contact in LA who can help her, a family friend. But things do not go to plan and Renata winds up trying to survive an abduction. Marty had been trying to find out what happened to her. Now there are others looking as well.

The POV alternates among Jody, Pen, Renata, and Typh. Jody is our driving force, where we spend the most time. There are 89 chapters in the book. Jody gets 31, then Pen, 24, Renata, 18, and Typh, 16. The chapters are short, so the four stories move along at a lively clip, clearly a product of a screenwriter’s appreciation of pacing

It also makes it possible to read this whenever you have small bits of available time, if that is something you like to do.

Since this is California, wheeled transportation figures large. Almost all the characters are assigned an auto-trait, like hair or eye color, or age. Jody, for example, drives a gray pickup. Pen drives a Prius. People are tracked, as well as defined, by the cars they drive. There is an Acura, an Accord, an old Lexus sedan, a Ford Focus, even a Tesla, and plenty more. I only started keeping track part way through. It is a small, fun element. There are appealing. surprising cameos by a range of wild creatures. These include a kangaroo, a wobbegong shark, and a jaguar. The notion of moving from one reality to another is given a look beyond Pen’s particular take on it.

Mosberg offers sly commentary on local sub-cultures. He looks a bit at how good intentions are used for dark ends. One thing to be aware of, different characters are on unparallell timelines, although those timelines do intersect. Characters in adjoining chapters could be doing what they do months apart. I found it a wee bit disconcerting at first, as actual dates are not provided, but one soon gets used to it.

Character engagementJody is righteous, on an understandable truth-seeking quest. His motivation makes sense and he is easy to pull for. Pen is also on a quest, although it remains to be seen for us whether there is enough reality basis there for us to go all in with her. Wanting to find your lost father may be a noble ambition, but she may just be nuts. Pandora’s House may be just another conspiracy theory (she nurtures loads of those) Makes it a bit tougher to go all in for her emotionally. Renata is an innocent soul, a pure victim, beset by dark forces, just wanting a better life. But is there enough more about her in here to make us care beyond wanting her to escape? Typh is a decent sort, although, in order to provide for her family, she is willing to go legally and morally rogue. So, depending on what works for ya, you may find one or more of these four worthy of following. I enjoyed the weaving together of the strands, as they all continue to connect through Marty’s storehouse of intel.

There is a considerable cast of supporting actors. Two thuggish sorts were a particular delight, a source of considerable merriment. There are occasional bits in which this character or that is presented in a bit more depth, but that is not what this book is about. It is about the story, and, of course, the state.

Bottom line for me was that I really loved this book. It kept me interested, offered enough characters to care about, gave a peek into places and groups I have never experienced, in short it kept me entertained for the duration. You may or may not ever find your way to Pandora’s House, but you should have no trouble finding your way to a copy of My Dirty California.

“Various rumors exist about Pandora’s House. Some people say the architect Zaha Hadid was paid eight figures to design a top secret underground property in Southern California but she had to sign an NDA, and no one knows where it is. Another rumor suggests the Church of Scientology began building a two-hundred-million-dollar bunker but abandoned the project halfway through and sold the property to a couple millennials whose parents had made billions in the dot-com era, and they use the house to throw elaborate weeklong parties. Some say it’s where the notorious lizard people live underground. Other people say the house was constructed by the US government as a safe house for the top one percent in the case of an apocalyptic event.”
“Has anyone actually seen the house?” asks Matt.
“Lots of people claim to have. It’s difficult to know for sure.

Review posted – September 23, 2022

Publication date – August 30, 2022

I received an DRC (digital review copy) of My Dirty California from Simon & Schuster in return for a fair review, and surrendering certain tapes that had come into my possession. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to Mosberg’s personal and Twitter pages

Profile
Jason Mosberg works as a screenwriter and TV creator in Los Angeles. He is the creator of the CBS All Access series One Dollar

Item of Interest from the author
—–Crime reads – Don’t Turn My Book Into a TV Serieson the fixation in Hollywood these days on Intellectual Property, or IP.

I first wrote My Dirty California as a pilot script and I gave it to a producer I knew—let’s call him Bob—a couple years ago. And at the time, Bob said he read the script and it wasn’t for him. A few days after the announcement of the sale of the book My Dirty California to Simon & Schuster, Bob called and said, “I heard you sold a book, what’s it about?” He was interested. And he had no recollection of the script I sent him because he probably didn’t bother to read it. That was just a script. But this? This is a book. This is IP.

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Filed under California, Fiction, Mystery, Reviews, Thriller

Dirt Creek by Hayley Scrivener

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For every girl child, there seemed to lurk a dead-eyed man, hair receding prematurely, with a car and the offer of a lift and a plan and a knife and a shovel. Did we create the man by imagining him or was he idling there in his car regardless?

None of us can escape who we are when others aren’t looking; we can’t guess what we’re capable of until it’s too late.

Durton, New South Wales, 2001, the hottest November ever. Twelve-year-old Esther Bianchi has gone missing somewhere between school and home. Authorities are alerted, and a search is on. Her bff, Ronnie, believes that Esther has not met a dark end, and is determined to find her.

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Hayley Scrivenor – image from Writer Interviews blogspot

Durton is not exactly a garden spot, although a suggestive apple does put in an appearance. It is a secondary town, to a secondary city, a drive west from Sydney measured in double-digit hours. While there may be some appealing qualities to the place, what comes across about Durton is that it is the back end of nowhere, a physical manifestation of isolation, and thus a fitting image for the isolation experienced by its residents, albeit not quite actual outback. It is a place where there are some who are, wrongfully, ashamed of who they are, and there are some others who should be. The main exports of Durton appear to be fear, pain, abuse, and despair. The local kids call it Dirt Town, which is the title of the book in Australia. The name fits. Not sure why it was retitled Dirt Creek for its North American release.

The action begins on Tuesday, December 4, 2001, with the discovery of a body. Then it goes back to Friday, November 30, tracking the events that led up to that discovery, and continues for a few days beyond. Over the course of these days, we follow Ronnie Thompson and Lewis Kennard, Esther’s mates, Constance Bianchi, Esther’s mother, and Detective Sergeant Sarah Michaels, the detective assigned the case, as they try to figure out where Esther is, and what happened to her, if anything. Ronnie is a first-person narrator, so we get a good close look at her. The Lewis, Constance, and Sarah chapters are in third person, but we still get a pretty good sense of what is going on inside them. The unusual element here is the presence of a first-person Greek chorus, speaking in the voices of children, and offering an omniscient view of the goings on.

I started a PhD in creative writing in 2016. It can be dangerous to ask me about collective narration because my research project looked at novels that had Greek chorus-like narration, and I can go on a bit. But I do have a clear sense of where Dirt Town the novel started. I sat down to write a short story from the point of view of the children of a small town, kind of like the one where I had grown up. What I wrote was largely just these kids coming home from school, but there was an energy in it that made me think it could be a novel. That writing is still in the book, pretty much as it was written. It occurred to me that if I was in these kids’ heads, then I needed something for them all to be looking at, thinking about: an experience that was as big as the town. One of the next flashes I had was that a girl had died, and the story grew from there. – from the Books and Publishing interview

Durton is a close-knit community in a way. Shelly McFarlane, for example, is best friends with Constance Bianchi, Esther’s mother. Shelly’s husband, Peter, is brother to Ronnie Thompson’s mother. There are more, but the connections in Durston occupy a place higher than purely communal, but less than purely familial. And yet, there are many ways to be, or to feel, alone. Constance is English-born, but married a local, and feels very out of place, as the cowboy-ish appeal of her handsome husband has faded under the weight of experience. Lewis has a secret that makes him feel very alone and vulnerable. Sarah must contend with her recent, nasty, breakup with her partner. There are abused people here, who are afraid to tell anyone, lest they suffer even more, given how ineffective or feckless law enforcement has been about such things. This includes a long-ago rape that was never brought to justice. As a part of this, people wonder if they have somehow brought their misery down on themselves, which, of course, only adds to their feelings of isolation. What makes them different also makes them feel alone.

The story moves forward in a moistly straight line, after the initial jump back. There is a bit of history on occasion, for backstory, and there is overlap as different POVs occur simultaneously, reporting events Rashomon-style.

The mystery unravels at a comfortable pace, with clues being presented, conversations being had, and determinations being made about whether this or that connects to the missing girl. There is other criminality going on in Durton that may or may not be related, and there is a pair of missing twins not too far away, whose fate may or may not have anything to do with Esther’s.

The characters are sympathetic and appealing, which makes us eager to keep flipping pages to see if they are ok, in addition to wanting to find out what actually happened. There are the usual number of red herrings flopping about in the bucket. The fun of the clues is trying to figure out which are germane to Esther’s disappearance and which are intended to throw us off the scent. There is also a fair bit about life in Australia, this part of it, anyway. The most interesting element of the novel for me was the Greek chorus. It took a while to figure out who comprised it. That puzzle was fun, too. And the chorus offers a tool for exposition, which worked pretty well.

Overall, I found this an enjoyable, well, considering the subject matter, engaging read, with interesting characters and a mystery that Scrivenor draws you in to trying to solve. Dirt Creek is an excellent Summer entertainment, good, clean reading pleasure.

We are not sure if it was our childhood or just childhood in general that has made us the way we are.

Review posted – September 2, 2022

Publication date – August 2, 2022 (USA)

I received an eARE of Dirt Creek from Flatiron Books in return for a fair review. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal and Instagram pages

Profile – from Booktopia

Hayley Scrivenor is a former Director of Wollongong Writers Festival. Originally from a small country town, Hayley now lives and writes on Dharawal country and has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Wollongong on the south coast of New South Wales. Dirt Town (our Book of the Month for June!) is her first novel. An earlier version of the book was shortlisted for the Penguin Literary Prize and won the Kill Your Darlings Unpublished Manuscript Award.

Interviews
—–Booktopia – Ten Terrifying Questions with Hayley Scrivenor
—–Books + Publishing – Hayley Scrivenor on ‘Dirt Town’
—–The Big Thrill – Much More Than a Familiar Whodunnit by Charles Salzberg
—–Crimereads – COLLECTIVE NARRATORS: THE BEST USES OF THE FIRST-PERSON PLURAL IN LITERATURE
—–Mystery Tribune – A Conversation With Australian Mystery Writer Hayley Scrivenor

Item of interest – author
—–Kill Your Darlings – Show Your Working: Hayley Scrivenor

tiny Q/A
I wondered why Scrivenor had set her story in 2001 and if there were any particular significances to her characters’ names, so I asked, on her site. She graciously replied.

The simple answer to the setting question is that the character of Ronnie is twelve in 2001, and so was I – so it helped me keep my timeline straight!

For the names query, she referred me to an interview in which some of the name considerations are addressed. Here is her response from there:

I spent quite a bit of time thinking about the names of characters. Some have been the same almost since the start: Veronica, the missing girl’s best friend, goes by ‘Ronnie’, and that always felt absolutely right for her character. The character of Lewis, a young boy who sees Esther after she’s supposed to have gone missing, gets called ‘Louise’ by his classmates, I had to reverse-engineer a name that kids could play with in that way. Sometimes, names can become a little in-joke with yourself, too. There is a character named ‘Constance’, who is the mother of the missing girl. I called her Constance because she changes her mind a lot, over the course of the story.

—–Author Interviews – Hayley Scrivenor by Marshal Zeringue

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Stay Awake by Megan Goldin

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“Where did you put it?”
“Put what?”
“The knife,” he hisses. “What did you do with the damn knife, Liv? You took the goddamn knife when I was in the bathroom, and you walked off with it.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. This must be a wrong number.” I resist the urge to hang up the phone. I feel compelled to know more.
“Don’t tell me you fell asleep and forgot everything again?” he says.
He frightens me with the accuracy of his comment. “How do you know I woke up with no memory?”
“Because you lose your goddamn memory every time you fall asleep. Listen, here’s what I want you to do…”

“Lack of sleep does horrible things to a person’s mind,” said the social worker. “It can make some people psychotic.”

Liv Reese has a problem with sleep. Whenever she nods off, pop go the last two years, wiped clean. Thus the messages she has written to herself on her body, ( I look like a human graffiti board.) reminding her to remain awake at all costs. Not remembering might be useful for coping with a bad, newly lost relationship, but there is no upside to forgetting for Liv. Coming to in a cab crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, she has no understanding of the world in which she now struggles. On trying to get into her brownstone apartment, she finds it occupied, not by her roomie, but by strangers, who are not exactly eager to let her in, and it looks oddly changed. It was Summer last thing she remembers, but seeing her breath in the air challenges that. She finds a clue on her fingers and heads to what seems likely to be a familiar locale, a bar, Nocturnal. At least someone seems to know her there. “You’re afraid of what you do in your sleep.” he tells her. Should she be? That bloody knife she had been toting around does not ease her concerns.

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Megan Goldin – image from the Sydney Morning Herald

Reese is having a bad day. Over and over and over. Not quite the sort of charming fantasy rom-com-do-over one might see in, say Ground Hog Day or Fifty First Dates. Nope. There are no yucks to be found here. As you no doubt noted from the book quote at the top of this, she is in a bit of trouble. This is much more the Memento vibe, trying to stay alive while also desperate to find out what caused her to go blank two years ago. The same day does not repeat like a video game level. The real world continues on its merry, or not so merry way. It is only Liv who resets.

So what caused her to blank out? That is her quest, the driving force of the novel. All she has to do is figure out what all the writing on her body, and other locales, means, or can lead her to. Prominent among these is an all caps “STAY AWAKE” above her knuckles. “WAKE UP” adorns an arm, coincidentally the very thing painted in blood on the window of a man who had just been murdered.

Goldin must have been driving a Bis Rexx dump truck when she was loading up her protagonist. Being pursued by someone who is probably a psycho-killer, looking like a suspect in the murder, while not being able to recall anything from the past two years, including whether she is or is not, herself, a psycho killer, makes for a wee bit of stress. And then having to cope with all this while completely exhausted from lack of sleep, wired from mass consumption of coffee and anti-sleeping pills, and having no idea who you can trust. On the other hand, loading a character up with such a surfeit of misery makes it almost mandatory to root for her. It’s like Atlas is holding up the world and Zeus decides to toss on a few extra planets for laughs. Awww, c’mon, give the poor thing a break. So, sure, easy peasy. Have a nice day. Sheesh!

We actually get a day and a half with Liv, beginning on Wednesday 2:42 A.M. and ending on Thursday 2:45 P.M. Every chapter begins with a time stamp. It is an intense thirty-six hours. Did she or didn’t she murder that man? Will the cops or won’t they catch her and put her away for the murder? Will she or won’t she find out what caused her memory failure? Will she learn who the psycho is who is pursuing her? Will he catch her? Will she be able to stay awake until answers are found? Is there anyone on her side?

We see two time periods, the present and two years prior. The present is divided pretty much between Liv’s ongoing travails and Detective Darcy Halliday’s investigation of the recent murder. The two-year lookback is a singular third-person telling.

Chapters alternate in the present in groups between Liv’s ongoing travails, and Detective Darcy and her partner working the case. So, a few chaps on Liv, a few on the investigation, and then a lookback. There are sixty-six chapters in the book. Twenty-nine of these consist of Liv’s first-person narrative. Twenty-two follow Detective Halliday and her partner as they investigate. Thirteen look back to the events of two years earlier, as they lead up to the mind-blanking event. (Yes, I know that leaves the total a couple short. There are two that do not fit the major divisions.) All the chapters are short, so you can catch a few pieces of the novel whenever time allows, on the train, at bedtime, while waiting for your next crudité delivery to arrive, and not feel compelled to read on just to finish a long chapter. I mean, you might want to keep on anyway, but because the story had drawn you in, not because of any obsessive need to complete a chapter no matter how lengthy. I don’t know anyone who would do such a thing. Can’t imagine it.

Wait, wait, what is that beeping sound? Oh, no, another load for Liv! Not enough to contend with already, try adding (piling?) on no keys, no purse, no ID, no phone. She is about as isolated as a person can be in a city of eight million. This also counterbalances any hostility we might have toward her for being a food writer for a chichi magazine called Cultura.

Trauma can do terrible things to one’s brain. But wait there’s more. Liv has had that blank spot since her trauma, but was able to have a life anyway. However, that daily reboot problem is of very recent vintage, only a few weeks. Previously, she had been able to form new memories just fine. What changed? I found Goldin’s explanation for this a weak point in the story. I have a few other gripes, which I am marking here as spoilerish, so if you have not read the book, please feel free to skip this. (If the killer had such precise blade work how was that technique not done properly on Liv? The designer clue seemed cheap to me. There is no way a reader could have looked into this and come up with the book’s explanation, which seems not cricket. I managed to correctly figure out who the killer from two years ago, but it was based on totally misreading that clue. Right answer, wrong reason.)

I enjoyed the character of Detective Darcy Halliday, tough, smart, able to access her softer side to find ways to the truth. I also liked following the procedural investigation, but not so much her interaction with her more experienced male partner, Detective LaVelle. Just did not at all care whether they bonded with each other or not.

There are surely many, many films and books that this might be compared to, in addition to the few noted above. Hitchcock’s Spellbound, Tana French’s In the Woods, the latest iteration, Surface, on Apple TV. The Jason Bourne Series is the most famous. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is another. Many live in the world of fantasy or science-fiction. But few of the real-world-based (not fantasy or sci-fi) amnesia tales outside Memento incorporate a daily reset. It definitely adds to the stress level. (For a book about a real real-world person afflicted with an inability to form new memories, you might want to check out Patient H.M. by Luke Dittrich)

The tempo goes from frantic to OMG!!! So there is no danger of you drifting off while reading. Does it all come back to her? Oh, puh-leez. I am not gonna spoil that one. But you know how these things go. Sometimes it all comes back, often with another knock to the head. Sometimes nothing comes back, and sometimes parts return, but not the entirety. You will just have to see for yourselves. I am spoiling nothing, however, in telling you that we readers find out why she developed her initial amnesia two years back.

Red herrings are allowed to swim freely, which is perfectly ok. They can be delicious. Most of the supporting cast felt a bit thin. Darcy is well done, but most of the actors were not on the page long enough to develop all that much. A killer’s motivation seemed a stretch. NYC was exploited as a setting far less than it might have been. On the plus side, a (probably-deranged) performance artist adds a particularly poignant bit of menace. But the damsel-in-distress with serious memory issues and darkness descending is a pretty killer core, so the scaffolding erected around it is of lesser importance.

Bottom line is that this was a fun read, a page-turning thriller, an excellent (end-of) Summer treat. Best part is that if you fall asleep while reading, it will still be there for you when you wake up.

The white, as yet unpainted, part of the wall, is graffitied with an array of random sentences. Most are written in pen. A couple are in marker. One appears to be written by a finger dipped in black coffee.


Memories lie.
Don’t trust anyone.
He’s coming for me.

Review posted – August 19, 2022

Publication date – August 9, 2022

I received an eARE of Stay Awake from St. Martin’s Press in return for something, but I just cannot remember what. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads. Stop by and say Hi!

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, and Twitter pages

From MacmillanBlockquote>MEGAN GOLDIN, author of THE ESCAPE ROOM and THE NIGHT SWIM, worked as a correspondent for Reuters and other media outlets where she covered war, peace, international terrorism and financial meltdowns in the Middle East and Asia. She is now based in Melbourne, Australia where she raises three sons and is a foster mum to Labrador puppies learning to be guide dogs.

Songs/Music
—–Paul Simon – Insomniac’s Lullaby – referenced in chap 1
—–Eagles – Hotel California – live, acoustic version – chap 37
—–Alicia Keyes – New York – referenced in chap 48

Item of Interest from the author
—–Book Lover Reviews – Does Suspense Have a Place In A Wired World?

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Filed under Action-Adventure, Fiction, Mystery, psycho killer, Suspense, Thriller, Thriller

Project Namahana by John Teschner

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They talk about shareholder value because they need to call it something. But there’s no accountability, not to shareholders, not to anyone. It’s chance. You can do everything right, but if there’s a drought in India and orders drop ten percent, you’ll be blamed. Unless you can get transferred in time for the blame to hit the next guy. And it goes all the way up. No matter what anyone tells you, or what they believe about themselves, all anyone is trying to do is make sure there will always be a chair for him to sit on when the music stops.”

“To quote Dr. Wilson,” said Professor Higa, “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary. Can anyone explain?”

Project Namahana is a book about responsibility. Who accepts it. Who ducks it. How it is spread around so thinly that it ceases to have any substance. Are you responsible if you shoot someone? Sure thing, unless they were shooting at you first. Are you responsible if people are killed because of decisions you made? It begins to get tougher. What if you’d known there was potential for harm? It can be difficult to assign personal blame, particularly when decisions are made by a range of people.

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John Teschner – image from The Big Thrill

Jonah Manokalanipo takes his son and two cousins to a nearby dam for a swim. When he returns for them, after a heavy rain, he finds all three dead. What killed them? Jonah has an idea, and raises a huge fuss.

Micah Bernt is a military veteran, a loner mostly, seriously PTSD’d. He uses this to keep people at a distance, for their safety. He is not completely wrong to do so. Bernt is living on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, working selling outboard motors, renting a small place from a friendly older couple. He finds their comity off-putting, not wanting to get too attached and maybe expose them to his darker side. There is one. He did not get his screaming meanies from spending too much time in a knitting circle. There is plenty of guilt to go along with his unwelcome memories.

Michael Lindstrom is an exec with the Benevoment corporation, producers of GMO seeds and bespoke pesticides. There is a particularly promising project underway on Kauai that could yield major gains in production. But it is not quite ready for prime time, and the upstairs suits are eager to try something else, a different genetic mix, that would be particularly harsh on non-buyers. Lindstrom has been in charge of the older product line since its inception, and wants the company to hang on with it just a bit longer. But when it is implicated in the deaths of several local boys in the Namahana area of Kauai, Lindstrom is sent from the home office in Minnesota to get things sorted. Of course, there are additional complications as there might just be a connection to the several locals who have gone missing or worse.

From the sociologist Robert Jackall I learned corporate managers make directives as vague as possible, forcing those lower down the chain to make ever more concrete decisions. And from Stanley Milgram, I learned it’s human nature to shift our model of morality when following orders, justifying actions we would never do on their own. – from Teschner’s Tor/Forge article

Bernt’s landlord, Clifton Moniz, is one of these. The circumstances of his death are seriously hinky. Moniz’s widow, Momilani, knowing that Bernt has some military police background, asks him to look into the death for her. And we are off to races.

Chapters flip back and forth, mostly between Bernt’s local travails and Michael Lindstom’s coming of conscience, as he begins to really feel responsibility for what his company might have done, recognizing that many of the relevant, bad decisions that had been made by the company had been his. He engages not only in an investigation of the problem at Namahana, but in considerable soul-searching.

[the] novel was inspired by a NYT Magazine story of structural violence: for decades, as told by Nathaniel Rich, DuPont factories dumped toxic chemicals in West Virginia streams, abetted by permissive regulators and a corporate bureaucracy that distributed the action of poisoning other human beings into a chain of indirect decisions carried out by hundreds of employees. – from Teschner’s non-fic piece in the Tor/Forge blog

Both Lindstrom and Bernt are on roads that lead to the same place, literally, as well as figuratively. Micah and Michael (maybe the reason for the similarity in names?) are both in great need of redemption, Michael for his managerial sins, Micah for whatever crimes had gotten him discharged from the military with an honorable discharge but maybe not so honorable a final tour.

There is considerable local color, showing a part of Hawaii that is not on the postcards or tourism brochures. Teschner lived on Kauai for seven years, so, while not a native, he knows a bit about the place. This includes not only elements of the local economy, but the relationships among the residents. There is considerable use of local lingo. I read an EPUB, so do not know if the final version includes a glossary. You might have to do some looking-up, but not at a problematic level.

Literally millions of people visit Hawaii every year, but I venture to say that few will find anything familiar in here except for the landscapes. The tourism industry on Hawaii has been so successful, the unique culture of the island itself is almost completely hidden by the stereotypes and the carefully managed visitor experience. – from the Big Thrill interview

Teschner may have presented us with a purely evil Benevoment ag-biz corporation, but his company exec is much more nuanced. We get that he is a well-meaning sort, who sees his work as helping ease world hunger, even if there might be some collateral damage in getting from place A to place B on that road. Micah Bernt is also a good-hearted soul, even if that soul may have acquired some indelible stains. These internal conflicts give the leads some depth. That said, we do not learn enough about Micah Bernt’s challenges while in the military.

Project Namahana looks at systemic, institutional violence foisted on locals by higher-ups in government, the corporatocracy, or both, looks at how personal responsibility fits into that, and fits his two leads with a need for expiation. It is fast-paced and action-packed, with the requisite twists and turns, and even a complicated love interest for Micah. We get to see both the welcoming aloha tradition and the darker side of a brilliant place. It is a fine first novel, showing some serious talent. I expect that the proper reaction to this book is to say Mahalo.

The newest version was the most effective yet, but the tweak in chemistry had made the volatility worse. Morzipronone wouldn’t stay where it was sprayed: a slight breeze carried it miles. It didn’t matter what they put on the label; no application guidelines could prevent drift onto neighboring fields. Any crop that wasn’t genetically modified to resist it would cup and die after just a few exposures.

Review posted – July 22, 2022

Publication date – June 28, 2022

I received an eARE of Project Namahana from Tor/Forge of Macmillan in return for a fair review, and some of that wonderful Kona coffee. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF
Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter pages

Profile – from the Big Thrill interview

John Teschner was born in Rhode Island and grew up in southern Virginia. He has worked as a newspaper reporter, professional mover, teacher, and nonprofit grant writer. He served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kenya and rode a bike across the United States. He spent seven years living on the island of Kaua’i with his wife and two boys, where he helped lead Hui O Mana Ka Pu’uwai outrigger canoe club and became a competitive canoe racer. He now lives in Duluth, Minnesota, where he is learning how to stay upright on cross-country skis. PROJECT NAMAHANA is his first novel.

Interview
—–The Big Thrill – Project Namahana by John Teschner

Items of Interest from the author
—– The Non-Fiction Pieces That Inspired Project Namahana by John Teschner
—–Tor/Forge – excerpt

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Filed under Fiction, Mystery, Reviews, Thriller

Local Gone Missing by Fiona Barton

book cover

…my childhood was one long nightmare, really. But this is different. Unfinished business—a time bomb ticking quietly like a second heart in my chest.

He’s been up to his old tricks again.

All is not what it seems. Ebbing is a small coastal community, rich with day-trippers, and increasingly, week-enders. We meet a cast of locals, Dave, the owner of a pub, The Neptune, Toby and Saul, who own The Lobster Shack, the postwoman, Pete Diamond, a new arrival eager to run a music festival, the unspeakable Pauline, and plenty more.

Elise knew that Ebbing wasn’t like its neighbors, Bosham or West Wittering. It didn’t feature in the Bayeux Tapestry or have thousands of visitors surging in like a spring tide on a nice day. An old fish factory with a corrugated roof squatted in the armpit of the curved sea wall guarding the harbor, and the ten thousand inhabitants lived mostly in prefabs, housing estate boxes, and salt-stained bungalows rather than thatched cottages but Elise didn’t mind. It felt a bit more real—and it was all she could afford on her own if she wanted to be by the sea. She’d never really considered it until recently—she was a city girl, through and through—but she’d worked up this fantasy that the sea would be company.

DI Elise King, 43, is on extended leave, still recovering from, and being treated for, a nasty bout of breast cancer. Well, that and a broken heart after the sudden end to a long-term relationship. Being stuck, unable to properly get back to major-crimes work is a hardship of another sort.

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Fiona Barton – image from the Madeline Milburn Agency

Luckily for her, there just happens to be a notable local person missing in Ebbing. Charlie Perry is 73, silver-haired, (I see Bill Nighy) a particularly friendly sort, a local sweetheart, with an adult disabled daughter on whom he dotes. He is involved in many local charities, and has a kind word for everyone. We meet Charlie in the prologue, affixed to a chair, gagged, waiting for his captors to return, desperate to escape.

The second piece that gets Elise moving is Ronnie, her charming, if intrusive, next-door neighbor. A particularly effervescent sort, she bubbles over on learning that Elise is a murder detective, and nudges her to get involved in solving the mystery of Charlie’s disappearance, unofficially of course, and just by following small leads.

But there are other local curiosities that bear looking into as well. Two young people collapse at a local music festival after consuming some tainted drugs, (how did those drugs get there?) and a local barn catches fire mysteriously. There is a fair bit of unfaithfulness, more than a bit of financial distress, and lots and lots of secrets.

Of course, small leads lead to more questions, which lead to more leads which lead to… and on it grows. This offers Elise a way to test out her weakened physical and mental muscles, building her confidence, as long as she stays in the good graces of her colleagues in the local constabulary.

The structure is to alternate current action (in which Elise, with Ronnie, conducts a private investigation and in which sundry characters try to cope with emerging facts) with a recounting of events that led up to the present unwelcome state of affairs. We go back to seventeen days before Saturday, August 24, 2019, and step up to the present, day by day for the most part. Chapters are labeled with when events take place using the metric of the number of days before August 24. Both current and look-back chapters shift POV. Our primary character, Elise King, takes the most (37) but Dee, her house-cleaner takes up a fair number (19). Charlie gets 8 and 9 chapters are distributed among other characters. Barton is a master at presenting diverse POVs. It is always clear who is speaking, whose eyes are providing our witness.

One lovely element of this Fiona Barton novel was the rise in prominence of place. It has not been a major focus in the past, except in The Suspect, which included a lot about Thailand.

We moved here three years ago and it was lovely because we’d never lived by the sea before. So I had all this new material when we moved here. Lots of new people to watch and y’know, take notes about and so I decided that I would set my next book in Ebbing. Fictitious town. Did not want to get weighed down by a real location…I’ve had a lot of fun…describing this small rundown seaside town…It is not one of the chi-chi ones that everybody wants to buy a property in, but it’s full of characters. – from The Poisoned Pen Bookstore interview

She writes about the tension experienced in any gentrifying place, as locals become economically squeezed by more affluent outsiders. Another change for Barton this time is that her main character is a detective. Her prior series featured a journalist, reflecting Barton’s many years as a pro in that field.

In any mystery there are two general things to look at, the story itself (Is it interesting? Does it make sense?) and the appeal of the lead. Do you want to spend 384 pages with this person? Not to worry. We are introduced to Elise King as she is struggling to work her way back to the love of her life, the thing she is best at, the thing that gives her the most satisfaction, her work. The limitations she experiences are the result of her illness, an act of God essentially, and not the product of substance abuse or moral failing. Another element that is crucial to a satisfying mystery, a subset of story I guess, is that it offers surprises. You may need a neck brace to prepare for the whiplash from the many twists that Barton has woven into her plot. There are a couple of particularly good ones near the end.

The supporting cast is a true strength in this one. Dee gets a lot of screen time, so we get to know her second-best. It is a fun challenge trying to figure out what is going on with her. Pauline, Charlie’s wife, is comedically awful. Ronnie is a wonderful support and much-needed nudge for Elise. I was very happy to learn that Barton plans another Ebbing-based tale, and Elise and Ronnie will both be back.

Bottom line is that I found Local Gone Missing to be an entertaining mystery, with engaging characters, a compelling core story, and a string of related events that is tightly woven into a very readable book. If you can locate a copy you will not be sorry.

“You have to remember that monsters don’t look the part, Ronnie,” she said. “They’re not marked out in any way. If only . . . They live among us in plain sight. In their cardigans and sensible shoes. They have library cards, buy a poppy for Remembrance Day. They’re the man or woman next door who picks up a pint of milk for you, asks after your parents, or takes in parcels from deliverymen.” All the while planning their next act of depravity.

Review posted – July 1, 2022

Publication date – June 14, 2022

I received an ARE of Local Gone Missing from Berkley in return for finding it in myself to write a fair review. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

Interview
—–The Poisoned Pen Bookstore – Fiona Barton in conversation with Barbara Peters. Barton discusses Local Gone Missing – video
—–Crime Café – Interview with Crime Writer Fiona Barton: S. 8, Ep. 1

My review of an earlier book by Fiona Barton
—–The Suspect (Kate Waters #3)

Songs/Music
—–Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Theme song to Peaky Blinders – Red Right Hand – referenced in chapter 14

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Aurora by David Koepp

book cover

When nothing works anything goes.

Be Prepared! – Boy Scout Motto

Ever since the Neolithic and the introduction of sedentary farming, we are a species that has evolved to rely on external supports to keep us going, an infrastructure that provides water, transportation routes and means, manufacturing, either by hand or machine, of things we need that we do not or cannot make for ourselves, and means of communication that do not require direct line of sight, or being within proximate hearing distance. So, what happens when one of the absolute necessities undergirding all our infrastructures vanishes? It’s not like the K-Pg asteroid that obliterated vast numbers of species across the planet in a day, 66 million years ago. How might people react when there is a sudden, if not immediately lethal, change in our way of living? Will we devolve to warring tribes? Will we come together for the common good? Some combination? Something else entirely?

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David Koepp – image from his site

This time it is a major solar flare, aka a CME or Coronal Mass Ejection. Which I prefer to think of, because I am twelve, as massive projectile solar vomiting. (Probably had too much to drink at that intergalactic frat party. It likes beer!) We have not seen the likes of such a mass ejection since 1859. (If we do not count the Braves-Padres game of August 12, 1984, when 17 players and coaches were asked to leave, but I digress). When it arrived back then it did not really make that much difference. We were a pre-electrical civilization. Telegraphy had a bad day. A few wires got fried. This and that went wrong. But no big whup, really. This time the solar storm is the same, but the results will be dramatically different. These days we are a species that is reliant on electricity for almost everything. Very big whup this time. The power spike of power spikes. Everything shuts down, or close enough to it.

There are a few scientists who see what is about to happen. They warn the people who need to be warned, or try. Think the film Don’t Look Up, or almost any disaster film. Of course, the reaction of world leaders is not what Koepp is looking at here.

The notion of extraordinary global events that deprive us of power—in ways both literal and figurative—is something I’ve explored in the past. But it was fascinating to shift my focus from the global to the hyperlocal, and the ways in which tiny communities might come together or split apart during hardship. – from the acknowledgments

There was a wonderful series of ads on in 2020 and 2021, for a shingles vaccine. A person would be shown doing something healthful, or telling how they take care of themselves. The sonorous voice-over would interrupt with “Shingles Doesn’t Care,” which was pretty funny, and memorable, getting the advertiser’s message across that people over 50 should get vaccinated. I thought of that while reading this book. No, no one in the book is suffering from that virus-based ailment, but we are reminded over and over that the best laid plans of mice and men…(Actually the original, from the poem To a Mouse by Robert Burns, goes The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men Gang aft agley), which we will translate here into the modern patois of Doomsday Doesn’t Care!

There are the usual suspects who insist that the bad thing is never gonna happen, deniers at full volume. (Sadly, these are all too much a mindless, know-nothing, demagogic trope in real life, so no reaching is required.) Why waste precious government resources (which reminds me of precious bodily fluids from another era) on things like girding for a known, expected emergency, when it can be redirected to building walls, jails, ethnic hatred, religious intolerance, and paranoia, or cutting taxes for the richest. Doomsday Doesn’t Care!

Ok, so a very hard rain is gonna fall, and we need some folks to be our eyes and ears through the experience. Aubrey Wheeler is our primary POV. She is 38 and the default parent of her step-son, Scott, 16. Her ex, Rusty, is a disaster, enough so that when he left, Scott opted to remain with Aubrey.

The guy who impressed Aubrey when they met has taken a nose-dive straight to the bottom, drugs, crime, amorality, and a willingness to use anyone to get what he wants. Rusty was a “shit,” used in the classical sense of “waste matter expelled from the body,” because he had been an enormous misuse of her time, resources, and love.

They reside in Aurora, Illinois, a city of nearly 200,000. But within that, a much tinier slice. Cayuga Lane fit the model of what Aubrey had been trying to build since she was little. Ten minutes from downtown, it was short cul-de-sac with six houses, most of them old builds from the 1920s or ‘30s. Small community number one.

How about if you set up a safe house, a place where you can weather the storm, whether it is months or years, lots of supplies on hand, expertise being shipped there as we speak, lots of nice insulating earth between y’all and the incoming energy burst? Someplace out of the way, say, outside Jericho, Utah. Small community number two.

Thom Banning is an obnoxious billionaire tech sort, brilliant in his way, but maybe not the most gifted person on Earth with people skills. He has reconfigured an old missile site as his personal bug-out retreat in the event of a catastrophe like this one. He even figured in all the professional sorts he might like to have at hand for a long time away from everything. Security, power, comms, food, food-prep, transportation, living space, lots of cash. Excellent Boy Scout work. But then there is that people-person chink. He aspires to reconcile with his wife there. Thom is Aubrey’s big brother. I was in NYC when superstorm Sandy set Con Ed’s Manhattan transformers sparking and popping like slow-sequence firecrackers. Prep all you like. Doomsday Doesn’t Care!

There are smaller looks elsewhere. A city area does not fare well. Reports come in from other places, generally not in a very hopeful way. But the how-are-they-faring focus is primarily on Aurora, and Thom’s redoubt. Koepp wanted to write a ground-level, personal perspective to a disastrous global event, while contrasting someone who was uber-prepared with someone who was not prepared at all.

The story alternates between Aubrey, in Aurora, and Thom, et al, in his tricked-out missile silo, living La Dolce Vita relative to most of humanity, with a few breaks to see through other eyes.

The supporting cast is a mixed lot. Rusty is a baddie from the build-a-loser shop. We have to wonder, even though Koepp offers us a paragraph of explanation, how Aubrey did not see through his act way sooner. He is a powerful presence, but pretty much pure id. There is more going on with Scott, the stepson. A young scientist photobombs the story then vanishes until called on for a cameo later on. An elderly scientist offers a nice touch of deep, zen-like appreciation for the wonders of nature, while shedding bits of goodness and optimism like a seed-stage dandelion on a windy day.

The idea of how different communities might respond to disaster certainly offers us the chance to consider how things might develop in our communities. Would our neighbors come together to forge a way forward, or form armed bands to take whatever they wanted?

The relationship between Aubrey and Thom is a connective thread that sustains a tension level throughout. What is the big secret, often hinted at, which binds them? What level of crazy will Rusty reach? How far will he go?

I would have preferred a bit more on the science and details of how a newly power-free world slows to a stop, with discussion about what would be needed to crank things back up. But that’s just me. The story in no way requires this.

Aurora does not break new ground with its local-eyed view of global phenomena, but it works that approach effectively enough. Aubrey is an appealing lead, disorganized, very human, flawed, but very decent at heart, thus someone we can easily root for. Characters do grow (some better, some worse) over the duration, which is what we look for in good writing. You will want to know what happens next, and next, and next, so should keep flipping the pages. There is not a lot of humor here, but still, I caught a few LOLs sprinkled in. It seems to have been written very much for the screen, with a minimum of internal dialogue, and an absence of florid description. Plot is uber alles here, driving the engine forward.

Movie rights have been sold, which is not at all surprising, given the author’s impressive career as a screenwriter and director. Kathryn Bigelow has been signed to direct it for Netflix.

This is a wonderful Summer read, mostly a thriller to keep the juices flowing. Hopefully, it prompts you to give at least some thought to how your community might react when faced with a comparable crisis. High art it ain’t, but it does not intend to be. No Sleeping Beauty here, this Aurora is a page-turner of a thriller and will keep you wide awake while you read.

…last year, things made sense. Last year, you walked into the grocery store, you paid a fair price, and you came out with your dinner. This year, you beg somebody to sell you a week’s worth of groceries for a thousand dollars. ‘if you’re lucky, they say yes, and you eat. If you’re not. They beat you to death, take your money, and they eat.

Review posted – June 24, 2022

Publication date – June 7, 2022

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, and <Instagram pages

From his site

David Koepp has written or co-written the screenplays for more than thirty films, including Apartment Zero (1989), Bad Influence (1990), Death Becomes Her (1992), Carlito’s Way (1993), Jurassic Park (1993), The Paper (1994), Mission: Impossible (1996), The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), Snake Eyes (1998), Panic Room (2002), Spider-Man (2002), War of the Worlds (2005), Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), Angels & Demons (2009), and Inferno (2016).
As a director, his work includes the films The Trigger Effect (1996), Stir of Echoes (1999), Secret Window (2004), Ghost Town (2007), Premium Rush (2012), and You Should Have Left (2020). Ghost Town and Premium Rush were co-written with the enigmatic John Kamps.
Koepp’s first novel, Cold Storage, was published by Ecco in 2019, and his new story Yard Work is coming from Audible Originals in July.

Interviews
—–Author Stories – David Koepp – a lot on his experience of writing novels and screenplays rather than about this book in particular. But they do get to Aurora in the final third – audio – 43:20
—–The Nerd Daily – Q&A: David Koepp, Author of ‘Aurora’ by Elise Dumpleton

Items of Interest
—–FEMA – Catastrophic Earthquake Planning – New Madrid Seismic Zone
—– Mid-America Earthquake Center – Civil and Environmental Engineering Department University of Illinois – Impact of Earthquakes on the Central USA
—–Deadline – Kathryn Bigelow To Direct Adaptation Of David Koepp Novel ‘Aurora’ For Netflix
—–Doctor Strangelove – Precious Bodily Fluids

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Carolina Moonset by Matt Goldman

book cover

My parents owned dozens of paintings by local artists, but the one in the foyer was the only one that depicted night. And it’s the only painting I remembered from my childhood. It showed the dark marsh in heavy brushstrokes. A sprawling oak in the foreground framed an expanse of reeds. A tidal creek snaked through the reeds. The tide was out, and the creek’s muddy bottom reflected the moonlight. A clump of more oaks in the distance lay dark under the full moon shining above them. And behind those oaks, the dark shadow of an immense home, no light in the windows except for one on the second floor. The marsh is beautiful during the day, changing colors with the angle of the sun. But it’s eerie at night. Too many secrets hiding in its vastness and in its crevices. The sea comes in and the sea goes out. Only it knows what’s hidden in the marsh.

The name of that painting is Carolina Moonset. It always gave him the creeps. Too bad the artist’s signature is smudged.

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Matt Goldman – image from Amazon

Forty-something Joe Green (not mean at all) is visiting Beaufort, South Carolina (lives and works in Chicago) to help mom, Carol, take care of his ailing father. Marshall Green, 75, is a good guy who had passed on having a lucrative medical career to open a free clinic on Chicago’s South Side. When he retired, he returned to his home town. Dad is suffering with Lewy Body Dementia, second most widespread form of dementia, after Alzheimer’s.

My mother sat down next to me and said, “It’s like when a person loses their sight, their hearing improves. Except with Dad, he’s lost his short-term memory, and his long-term memory has improved. He tells stories I’ve never heard before.”

Well, that’s one element. Another is that he sometimes talks to people who are not there, which can be unnerving. One such is long-late friend Trip Patterson, who died very young, under dodgy circumstances. Joey is curious who this guy was and begins looking into some family history.

“Aw, Joey. You were always a good fisherman. Even when you were tiny you were fascinated by what you couldn’t see below the surface. That’s what fishing is all about. Curiosity and the patience to learn.”

Fishing of all sorts will be done. Soon after Joe’s arrival a local bigwig is shot dead in the street. Pops did not have a high opinion of the man or his family.

Those Hammonds are nasty sons a bitches. Every one of ’em. Stole that island from the blacks. When the Union Army came through, they gave black people their own land. Gave ’em a chance. And it worked, too. The people prospered. Until the goddamn Klan took over and redistributed the land.” My father had venom in his voice. “Redistributed the land with guns and knives and ropes and trees. I wouldn’t live on Hammond Island if you paid me a million dollars. Hope a hurricane wipes it off the face of the earth.”

Despite his considerable impairments, Marshall is considered a suspect. Particularly when the gun that did the dark deed sure looks like dad’s old revolver. And when Joey looks for his father’s gun, why is it not the usual place? Did Pop pop Thomas Hammond, whether he remembers doing it or not? Faces from the past re-emerge, whether in person or in memory alone. Questions remains, like what ever happened to Roy Hammond, Thomas’s brother, who vanished under mysterious circumstances? What’s the deal with Thomas’s much younger glam-wife, Gail?

As a forty-something, in town sans kids, Joe is prime matchmaking material for his parents’ set. It seems that their next-door neighbors just happen to have a forty-something divorced daughter, Leela, in town for a holiday visit. The senior circuit angles to get them together. And lo and behold, Joey and Leela hit it off remarkably fast.

I was single in my mid 40’s like Joey, and people in my parents’ generation, including my parents, would often mention single women they knew of. I think some people in that generation are less comfortable with a younger person being single, so they try to play matchmaker. I also wanted Joey to have a partner in his informal investigation—someone in whom he could confide—and adding a romantic element to that felt not only fun but true in that life presents beautiful magic and brutal reality at the same time. And finally, I recently experienced a Joey/Leela like courtship. I met my wife in February of 2018 and we married that same year in October. I wanted to show how a combination of chemistry and life-experience can lead to that kind of relationship in a grounded way. – DAB interview

Joe and Leela team up to see below the surface to what might be swimming in the deeper waters, as they try to land a killer. I found their relationship delightful. And can attest, from personal experience, to the possibility of a quick connection between mid-life divorced/single people. Leads are followed. Murder suspects make their way across the page, along with their theoretical motives. In a book with fishing as an element, there are, of course, red herrings. Bait is employed to good effect. The who and why-dunnit puzzles will keep you casting a line flipping the pages for more.

The story takes place in the present, but there are many references to mid 20th century, when some long-ago crimes are crying out to be solved. At the center of these, the Hammond and Green brothers were young men with diverse world views, and some serious personal conflicts.

In addition to the fun of the mysteries and the investigation, Goldman also offers a look at the racist, classist realities of South Carolina, both the actions that took place in the past and their ripples forward to the present.

GRIPES
The cops are portrayed as soulless dolts, which is common enough in mysteries, but remains a disappointing accession to default settings. There are several mentions of Joey’s sisters, but they manage to remain off screen and out of mind once noted. Why include them at all if they are to serve no role? There are several instances of what seemed trite wisdom being proferred. Here is a sample

as teenagers, girls grow more complicated and difficult and boys more stoic. That is a generalization. A stereotype. But having been a boy who fit the stereotype, I believe stoicism is a mischaracterization of our behavior. We are not more stoic than girls. We are more ashamed. Of our boy-thoughts and risky deeds, mostly revolving around or inspired by sex or at least the idea of sex. That seemingly unattainable nirvana ignited by blossoming bodies and invisible pheromones. That shame sends us underground. Quiets us. Our vortex of shame is so powerful all our thoughts and deeds get sucked into it, so we share nothing.

another

A friend once told me women have face-to-face relationships and men have shoulder-to-shoulder relationships. Men do things like watch football and go fishing.

Ok, it is starting to seem like the Gripes piece is getting large. I do not want to give the impression that I disliked this book at all. In fact, I quite enjoyed it. The gripes are merely what kept me from adding that final star.

There is a lot in Carolina Moonset that is lovely, nice bits of craft that reinforced the steady forward movement of the plot with some meaningful imagery. Paintings, for example, stand out. Not just the strong image of the book-title work. Joe’s uncle David has a painting over his desk and there is a framed work in the Hammond residence that offers some food for thought. Even the word painting is used in other contexts to offer a perspective.

So fear not. Carolina Moonset is a fun mystery with an appealing dynamic duo of amateurs slogging through a marsh of information trying to figure out multiple crimes, one now, others back then, without much help, in fact with only interference from the po-po. The addition of historical/cultural payload makes it even richer. If you reel this one in, pretty soon you will be the one who’s been hooked.

From where I’m sitting, Thomas Hammond’s motto must have been Think Globally, Destroy Locally.

Review posted – June 3, 2022

Publication date – May 31, 2022

I received an EPUB of Carolina Moonset from Forge/Macmillan in return for a fair review, and a lovely mint julep. Thanks, folks. And thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personalFB, Instagram, and Twitter pages

From About the Author
New York Times bestselling author MATT GOLDMAN is a playwright and Emmy Award-winning television writer for Seinfeld, Ellen, and other shows. Goldman has been nominated for the Shamus and Nero Wolfe Awards and is a Lariat Award Winner. He lives in Minnesota with his wife, two dogs, two cats, and whichever children happen to be around.

Interview
—–Donnell Ann Bell – Author Interview with Matt Goldman & Carolina Moonset

Items of Interest from the author
—–Macmillan – excerpt

Songs/Music
—–Fiddler on the Roof – Matchmaker
—– James Taylor – Carolina in My Mind

A personal aside – a tiny bit spoilerish, nut not enough to hide.
I understand that some might scoff at the speed at which Joey and Leela bond with each other. I can relate to the notion of finding the right person on the second-go-round fairly quickly. I was around the same age as Joey, first marriage done, when I encountered the woman who would become my second wife. It was not a matter of days, as with Joey and Leela, but it was quick as such things go. (I did suggest marriage after our second or third in-person date, if memory serves. But that might have had something to do with a good friend of hers having season tickets to the Mets.) When you reach a certain point in life, you have a sense, in fairly short order, of whether a relationship is likely to work out or not, or at least whether it might be possible. Turns out it was. We have now been married for twenty-one years. (as of 2022)`

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Secret Identity by Alex Segura

book cover

The comics business was messy—a slapdash sprint to meet immovable deadlines, a blur of pages flowing from production to editorial and back before being jettisoned out the door to the printer. Carmen loved it.

Miami was a city, too, Carmen knew—but New York was something else. A disease that bubbled and expanded and multiplied and morphed, like some kind of magical, mystical being that seemed from another world.

Carmen Valdez, late of Miami, is where she wants to be. She may not be exactly doing what she wants, but she is trying to get there. A New Yorker for the last year, Carmen is 28. She works at Triumph Comics, a third-tier publisher of such things, and is living the dream, if the dream is to be working as a secretary to a boss who cannot see past her gender, cannot even imagine a woman, let alone a Hispanic woman, actually writing stories for his press. But the stories are there, the ideas filling notebooks. She gives him some, but even if he bothers to read them, he dismisses the work out of hand. All she needs is a chance. And then one appears.

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Alex Segura – image from Comicsbeat

Harvey Stern is a junior editor there, young, friendly. They bond over a shared love of the medium (a love she had acquired from her father taking her out for father-daughter bonding that included the buying of comics). They are friendly without being quite friends. The house has a sudden need for a new character; Harvey is given the job of coming up with one, a female hero who will get a rise out of young male Triumph readers. Carmen sees her opportunity and offers to “help.” Their work together goes well. The story is mostly hers, of course, but Harvey has some skills. They produce a pretty good book. It does well. Problem is that no one other than she and Harvey knows the truth about how it came to be. Then Harvey suffers a BLAM! BLAM! leaving him with even less conscious corporeality than an invisible six-foot pooka. Guess who finds the body? And the noir gets dark.

I’ve always been fascinated with Megan Abbott’s work and her ability to bring the tenets of noir to areas where you wouldn’t expect noir to exist—gymnastics, cheerleading, science, and so on. She crafts these narratives that are tense, fraught, and loaded with style outside of the typical noir settings. I remember reading Dare Me and just thinking, huh, wouldn’t it be cool to write a comic book noir? – from The Big Thrill interview

Segura had recently finished writing his Pete Fernandez Miami Mysteries, so has the chops to produce a pretty good whodunit. Carmen sees, in short order, that the police are not up to the task. She also knows that unless she can figure out why Harvey was killed, and by whom, she will never be able to get recognition for her work, or maybe sleep at night. Harvey is not the last person attacked by a mysterious villain.

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The Legendary Lynx – from the book – image from The Firewire Blog

Secret identities abound here. Carmen hides her true author self from the boss because of the sexism of the age. Everyone seems to have a secret. Harvey certainly does did. Are all the names that we are given really the characters’ true names? Might there be an alias or two creeping around, for dark purposes?

she had to become someone else to survive

Segura has been busy in the comic book industry for many years, working on Archie Comics, while living in Miami, then moving to New York to work for DC. He has written detective novels, and a Star Wars book, stand-alone mysteries, short stories, a crime podcast, and probably an encyclopedia. He is married with kids, and I imagine that he must sleep some…time. Maybe he is one of the characters he writes about and his secret power is eternal wakefulness. Captain Insomnia takes on every request for writerly product, and satisfies them all.

He has a particular soft spot for the 1970s in the comics industry, when the industry’s body was laid out on the street, bleeding money and readers. Who would come to its rescue?

Well the comic book industry was really struggling at that time after the glory years of the 50s and 60s. Comics were struggling. It wasn’t like today, where we have shows about Peacemaker or obscure characters – it was considered a dying industry. So I wanted to use her passion for the medium and contrast it with comics at its lowest point, and then show her fighting to control this one thing she loves. – from the Three Rooms Press interview

This was a time when comic books were sold only on newsstands or in small stores, before there were comic book conventions, before the steady drumbeat of blockbuster films based on comic book characters. There was plenty wrong with the industry at the time (there probably still is), with notorious cases of people stealing credit for the work of others. Some of those are noted here. In fact, there are many references made to well-known names in the comic book industry. I am sorry to say that most just slipped past me, as I am not the maven for such things that Segura and no doubt many readers of this book are. I can report, though, that not knowing all the references did not at all detract from my overall enjoyment, and recognizing the ones I did enhanced the fun. He even tosses in a nod to a character of his from another project, as that character’s story was set in the same time period.

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The Legendary Lynx – from the book – image from The Firewire Blog

There was plenty wrong with NYC at the time. I know. I remember. Fun City, originally a tossed-off line by a 1960s mayor facing multiple municipal crises (“It’s still a fun city.”) had not completed the shift to The Big Apple, itself a reconstitution of a city logo from the 1920s. The city, a political creation of the state, was starved by the state for the funds needed to provide the services it was required to offer, then was looked down on for that inability. It was a time when graffiti was ubiquitous, crime was up, and gentrification was beginning, as landlords were torching their properties to drive out residents so they could transform their buildings into co-ops. It was a time of white flight and a time when a local tabloid featured the infamous headline: Ford to City: Drop Dead, after NYC had turned to the federal government for aid. We get a taste with Carmen’s arrival.

the drab, claustrophobic walls of the Port Authority giving her the most honest first impression of New York she could expect. As she wandered the cavernous transport hub, a concrete behemoth at the tail end of the Lincoln Tunnel, she got a heavy dose of what she’d only imagined. A city in disrepair, boiled down into this one sprawling bus terminal. Leaky ceilings, shadowy conversations, blaring horns, and unidentifiable smells all coalesced into an unbridled fear that gripped Carmen as she stepped out into the New York sunlight.

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The Legendary Lynx – from the book – image from The Firewire Blog

Carmen’s mission is to solve the crime of course (When a man’s woman’s partner is killed he’s she’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it.”), but it would not be a noir if Carmen did not have some personal struggles going on as she struggles to figure out whodunit. There are parental issues, which might not be quite noir-ish, but a dark episode from her past stalks her, which certainly is. And there are some romantic bits as well, which definitely fit. She may have been raised Catholic, but Carmen is no nun. All this serves to make for a rounded character, one we can cheer for. Part of that rounding involves some flaws as well, and not the sort we are used to in our primary investigators.

For example, did Carmen really believe that the boss would disbelieve her if she told him the truth about authorship of The Legendary Lynx? There is a scene in which Harvey gets weird and take off after a working-together session. Holy Tunnel Vision, Batman! No freaking out over that? And she lets Harvey take her notebooks, her primary and unbacked up material? Even the Daredevil wasn’t that blind. There was something else, of no real consequence, that really bothered me. There is a scene which entails Carmen walking from the East Side to the West Side of Manhattan without any mention of passing through Central Park, which is directly in the path, or walking around it. That just seemed odd, particularly coming from a guy who lives in New York. Not really a spoiler, just wanted to spare most folks this aside.
I used to live on the West side of Manhattan, for most of the 1970s, West 81st Street, then West 76th Street, and walked across the park to my grad school on the East Side. Walked back, too, so, speaking from experience. Like I said, no consequence.

One thing you will definitely enjoy is the inclusion in the book of seventeen pages from The Legendary Lynx. They presage events in the chapters that follow. It is a perfect addition to the book.

Music permeates, including nods to the venues of the day, The Village Vanguard, CBGBs, The Bottom Line, et al. Her roommate, Molly, is a musician, rubbing shoulders with rising stars, like Springsteen and Patti Smith.

Secret identity covers a fair bit of territory, an homage to a beloved industry in a dire time, a noir mystery, a look at the city where he now lives, when it was on its knees, while saluting the music of the time and the creators of the comic book industry, warts and all. And he tosses in a comic book for good measure. This is a fun read of the first order, even for those, like me, who may not be comic nerds. In producing this very entertaining novel, Alex Segura has revealed his true identity, at least for those who did not already know. Clearly, Seguro really arrived on this planet not in a Miami hospital ward, but probably somewhere in the Everglades, his ship originating in a galaxy far, far away. He may or may not be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but he clearly wields otherworldly power as a writer. POW!

If it got published, I’d be ghostwriting it. . . . I mean, I’d get a shot, and if it did well we’d reveal my involvement, but. . . .”
“You’d be anonymous at first? Like his secret partner?”
Carmen waited a beat, letting her mind skim over what she already knew to be true. She nodded at Molly, hoping her friend couldn’t see her resigned expression in the dark.
“Is that what you want?” Molly asked. “To live your dream—in secret?”
Carmen felt her stomach twist into a painful, aching knot.

Review posted – March 11, 2022

Publication date – March 15, 2022

I received an ARE of Secret Identity from, well, I can‘t tell you, in return for a fair review. Thanks, folks. And thanks to NetGalley for facilitating an e-galley copy.

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads. Stop by and say Hi!

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, and Twitter pages

Interviews
—–Crime Reads – SHOP TALK: ALEX SEGURA IS ALWAYS WRITING, EVEN WHEN HE’S NOT by Eli Cranor
Mostly on Segura’s process and insane productivity
—–The Big Thrill – Up Close: Alex Segura by April Snellings
—–Three Rooms Press – Stand Up Comix:> An Interview with Author Alex Segura

Item of Interest from the author
—–Segura’s Sub-stack

Items of Interest
—–When a man’s partner is killed…
—–pooka

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Filed under Fiction, Historical Fiction, Reviews, Suspense, Thriller

The Book of Cold Cases by Simone St. James

book cover

On the lawn, something moved across the surface of the grass. The touch of a footprint. Inside the house, one of the cupboard doors opened in the dark kitchen, groaning softly into the silence.
In a bedroom window a shape appeared, shadowy and indistinct. The blur, perhaps, of a face. A handprint touched the bedroom window, the palm pressing into the glass. For a second, it was there, pale and white, though there was no one to see.
The wind groaned in the eaves. The handprint faded. The figure moved back into the darkness. And the house was still once more.

“Being a girl is the best,” she said, “because no one ever believes you’d do something bad. People think you’ll do nothing, which means you can do anything. I’ll show you.”

1977 – Claire Lake, Oregon. Two men have been brutally murdered in separate incidents, roadside, no obvious motive. But a witness did see someone leaving the scene of one of the crimes. The description matches a local, a young woman generally regarded as odd. Beth Greer is standoffish, young, attractive, and rich. Parents both dead, Mom from an auto accident in a tree, Dad from a close encounter with fired round, in the kitchen. She has a taste for alcohol and keeping human connections ephemeral. When she is not out at bars and clubs, she is mostly at home, Greer House, not the happiest place on Earth. The bullets that did in the two randos just happen to match the one that laid Julian Greer out on the kitchen floor, a murder, BTW, that was never solved. You can see why the police might be a tad suspicious.

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Simone St. James – image from her site – credit: Lauren Perry

2017 – Shea Collins is 29, newly (ok, almost a year) divorced. Has worked reception in a doctor’s office in downtown Claire Lake for five years. But her real self is invested in her website, The Book of Cold Cases. Shea is a true crime blogger, been at it for ten years, is certainly up on local crime legends, so she notices when one walks into the office, Beth Greer, forty years after she was believed to be The Lady Killer of tabloid fame, forty years after she was acquitted of the murders, which were never solved. Most think she was guilty. Beth pursues Greer, who, to her great shock, agrees to be interviewed.

And the game is afoot. There are two timelines at work, contemporary and back-then. In the 2017 line, Shea interviews Beth at Greer House, even though the place creeps her out. The décor is from the era of Beth’s parents, which is off-putting enough, but there is clearly a lot more going on there. Objects move without obvious cause. A mysterious girl appears outside a window. Shea does not feel safe there, but the lure of getting the whole story from Beth is too much to resist so she keeps coming back. Also, she and Beth seem to be forming a friendship. Beth may or may not be a killer, but Shea likes her, is fascinated by her. In the earlier time, we follow Beth’s childhood, stretching back to 1960, as events that lead up to the killings are revealed, bit by bit.

The alternate perspectives, Shea’s in first person and Beth’s in third, are not evenly divided. We get more Shea than Beth (26 chapters to 18, if you must know), with a few Others tossed in. They do not alternate in a steady format, but streak at times for one or the other.

Shea has some dark visions from her own past she has had to deal with for the last twenty years. At age nine she was abducted, but managed to escape with her life. The next girl her abductor took was not so lucky. Helps explain why she takes the bus and is reluctant to get into cars. Helps explain why she is way security conscious. Also, helps explain why she is reluctant to date again.

“Do you know how many serial killers dated lonely women in their everyday lives? Some divorcée who just wants companionship from a nice man? She thinks she’s won the dating lottery, and meanwhile he’s out there on a Sunday afternoon, dumping bodies. And now we’re supposed to use internet apps, where someone’s picture might not even be real. People are lying about their faces.”

It took a long time after we met on Match for me to discover my now wife’s history of serial criminal activity, so I get that.

There are mysteries to be solved and in the best True Crime fashion, Shea, along with her sort-of partner-in-crime-solving, PI Michael De Vos, dig into each of the questions as they arise. Very cozy mystery style. There is even a retired detective who offers a bit of help, continuing the cozy format. Of course, there are other elements that make this less of a cozy, the supernatural, for one, and a little more on-screen violence than might fit in that format. In fact The Book of Cold Cases crosses many genre lines, could be gothic, thriller, horror, suspense, or mystery, with a bit of romance tossed in for good measure. This particular mix of genre-salad was not always the Simone St. James brand.

I wrote five books set in 1920’s England, and while I loved writing them, I never intended to write about one period for the rest of my life. I wanted to flex my writing muscles and write something set in the USA—something that had two timelines, one of them contemporary. Creatively, I wanted a new goal and a new challenge while still writing a Simone St. James book. I got my wish! – from the Criminal Element interview

St James has stuck with that. Her first America-set thriller, The Broken Girls (2018), offers a split timeline, 1950/2014, the story centering on a deserted and reputedly haunted school for girls, and a journalist looking into the death of her sister twenty years before. The Sun Down Motel (2020) takes on a haunted establishment in upstate New York, splits between 1982 and 2017, and includes a 35-years-ago missing aunt, a niece eager to dig up the truth, and a slew of killings and disappearances that really need looking into. Keeping the string going, The Book of Cold Cases splits between 1977 and 2017, includes an amateur investigator (a blogger this time), some contemporary frights, some historical killings, and a haunted house. (I did ask her what she was planning to haunt next, but St. James declined to spill)

Strong primary characters can carry a book if the plot is well-thought out, and that would have been enough here. But St. James’ secondary characters were quite good, although we could have used even more of some of them. Detective Black, retired now, but involved in the 1977 investigations, was a strong presence. Shea’s PI, Michael De Vos, was off screen too much, as he was quite engaging when he was in view. I enjoyed the parallelism of relationships, Beth with Black and Shea with Michael.

Gripes – The only real blogging work we see Shea do (yes, there is a session or two noted, but only very much in passing) is on Beth’s case. Might have been a good thing to get a stronger, more fleshed out, look at how Shea has been spending her nights, which would have included a lot more on-line than live and in person investigations. Claire Lake, the town, did not feel strongly realized. This was more than made up for, however, by the seriously creepy haunted house, and the powerful presence of Beth Greer.

Lest you suspect there is some actual true crime in this true crime tale, I asked SSJ that question on her FB page, and she replied, “the cases in the book were all entirely fictional.” So you True Crime obsessives can stop looking for real-world sparks for this one. And as for ghosts in the real world, she has never had a spectral experience. St. James likes putting literary Easter eggs in her work, so keep an eye out for those.

Bottom line is that The Book of Cold Cases is a fun page-turner that delivers what it promises, murder mysteries, an intrepid investigator, some fascinating characters, a taste of the 70s, and a large dollop of the other-worldly. It is even a bit scary. I have a pretty high bar for such things, but there was one moment in which I got chills and the hair on my arms stood up at attention. That is one more than usually occurs, so, kudos. It sustains tension throughout, making you want to either blast through ASAP, or, my preferred approach, savor the fun in relatively low-dose portions night after night. In either case this is a fun, spooky, engaging read that is well worth your time, and should provide most readers with some chills.

some places hold you so that you can’t get free. They squeeze you like a fist.

Review posted – March 4, 2022

Publication date – March 15, 2022

I received an ARE of The Book of Cold Cases from Berkley in return for a fair review, and keeping quiet about a few things. Thanks, folks. And thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, and Twitter pages

Simone St. James is the nom de plume of Simone Seguin, of Toronto. She worked for many years in TV, for a Canadian sports network, but not as a writer. She worked on budgets. She says she knows nothing about sports, despite the gig. It was only after she had had multiple novels published that she ditched budgeting to become a full-time writer. She had endured six years of rejections before her first book was published. The Book of Cold Cases is her eighth novel.

Interviews
—–Criminal Element – 2018 – Q&A with Simone St. James, Author of The Broken Girls for The Broken Girls by Angie Barry
—–The Inside Flap – 2020 – Ep. 98 How To Spy On People With Simone St. James by Dave Medicus, Andrew Dowd, and Laura Medicus – 1:36:48 – begins about 30:00 – to 58:00

Item of Interest from the author
—–Indigo – Sample – 1st four chapters

Music
—–George Thorogood – Bad to the Bone

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Filed under Fiction, Horror, Mystery, psycho killer, Reviews, Suspense, Thriller

The Fields by Erin Young

book cover

Never tell.
It was an oath she had broken first, many months later, the words heaved from her in sobs, her parents’ expressions frozen, Ethan stumbling from the room, his face ashen. The secret once shared—once detonated—had destroyed them. Not in the first blast, but slowly, inexorably. A sickness in the heart of their family. A poison that lived for years, quietly working in each of them.

It’s not heaven. It’s Iowa.
———-Ray Kinsella in Shoeless Joe

Damn, did he have that right. The Iowa of Erin Young’s The Fields is a hell of a lot closer to The Children of the Corn than it is to any Field of Dreams. After spending some time in Cedar Falls and it’s larger sibling, agro-urban-wasteland town, Waterloo, where the rust-belt meets the corn-belt, you might swear off dreaming altogether. Well, town might be down-playing it a bit. Between the two (both are real places) they total about 100,000 souls (not counting livestock), so maybe small cities rather than towns. Abba may have been on to something when they referred to Waterloo. (Couldn’t escape if I wanted to) Some truly can’t. One of those turns up dead in a cornfield.

If not for the University of Northern Iowa—where she’d majored in criminology—with its annual influx of students and money, Riley guessed Cedar Falls would have slumped into the same depression as Waterloo. There had been some brave attempts at regeneration in recent years—microbreweries sprouting on weed-covered lots, kayaks for hire on the Cedar River and an annual Pride festival, fulminated against by local churches. But they were fighting a strong downward pull.

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Erin Young, nom de plume for Robyn Young, showing off her Thriller-writer pose, or her “You expect me to believe that? Come on now.” face – image from her facebook pages

Riley Fisher is local, mid-thirties, single, grew up in Cedar Falls, her grandfather a former head of the Blackhawk County Sheriff’s Office. She knew early on that she wanted to follow in his footsteps. Now, after a detour or two along the way, she is head of investigations, to the consternation of others who had hoped for the promotion. The new-found body is in a field owned by the Zephyr Farms cooperative.

Cooperatives were how some smaller Iowa farms had been able to survive the relentless advances of Big Ag. By dominating the market in hybrid seeds, fertilizer and pesticides—the holy trinity of crop production—through aggressive trademarking, swallowing up the competition and tactical lobbying at the highest levels of government, giants like Agri-Co had come to control much of the nation’s agricultural wealth.

Been out there for days, been ripped at in an unusual way, was maggoty, ripe, and unsettling. No problems with an ID, though, once Sergeant Fisher arrives on the scene. Chloe Miller (nee Clark) was one of Riley’s besties two decades back, in high school. But they’d gone their separate ways. Seeing Chloe brings back a terrible time from Riley’s youth, a time that had derailed her life, a time she could never forget.

So, we are faced with two mysteries. What happened to Chloe in that field and why, and what is it about Chloe’s death that has brought Riley to such a state of emotional turmoil? Something happened back when they were still friends, something major. And the revived memories are not exactly a source of comfort. Both mysteries are peeled back like leaves on a lovely ear of you-of-what, bit by bit, the present-day crime via procedural investigation; the personal mystery through intermittent, mostly small recollections.

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Blackhawk County – Image from Lands of America

But wait, there’s more. The discovery of Chloe’s body is the spark that starts the action, but Young has a wider field of view in her sites. A writer of very successful (over two million sold) historical novels, she wanted to have a go at writing thrillers, finding inspiration in

an article she read about the menacing power of Big Agriculture. A decision to set the novel in Iowa, corn-capital of the world, led her to make a fascinating journey across the state – from chance encounters with cops and farmers, and an audience with a local mayor, to shooting Glocks and getting caught in supercell storms. – from her website

A voice is given to concerns about the darker implications of increasing concentration in the age of the agro-industrial complex.

A necessary evil, some called them. Progress, said more. But to those whose forefathers had farmed this land since the days of the first families from New York, Philadelphia, and Virginia, who’d settled here after the Black Hawk War when the Ioway had been driven west, these corporations were vultures, polluters and thieves.

(Entirely unlike the settlers who drove out the natives, I presume.) So, not exactly a tension-free relationship between local growers and the bigger side of the farming industry, personified here by the Agri-co corporation. We get a strong oppo position from an activist determined to head off even more governmental pro-corporation actions.

Companies like Agri-Co only care about profit, not the soil and water they infect with their chemicals, or the wildlife they destroy. Cancer rates are rising from pesticides, and, still, their political allies and lobbyists help them sow their poison.

She blames the current governor, up for re-election, for his role in this. Concern with big-Ag concentrating power at the expense of smaller producers and fouling the environment in the process finds an echo in another part of the country.

It was almost a year since Logan joined the department, moving with his folks from Flint. His father, niece, and nephew had been badly affected by the crisis there—when lead seeped into Flint’s water supply after city officials changed the system in an attempt to save money, then tried to cover up the devastating consequences.

It is clearly impossible to run from the national corporation-led degradation of our environment, or from pervasive public corruption.

Riley is an engaging lead, clever in the way we expect our fictional detectives to be. We also expect our lead to carry some personal baggage, challenges at the very least. Her beloved grandfather, Joe, has been in decline for quite a while, coherent and in possession of his memories on an increasingly part-time basis. Her brother Ethan is a bit of a disaster, divorced, a ne’er do well with some substance issues. Riley can usually count on Ethan to step back whenever she needs him to step up. Ethan’s daughter Maddie is a teenager, a decent sort, overall, in a tough situation, but, you know, a teenager, so offering the family their RDA of stress. And Riley still carries the weight of what happened all those years ago. Unfortunately, Riley is saddled with the addition to her team of Officer Cole, an asshole cop straight from central casting, toting the usual bigotries, inflated self-view, and presumptions, with an extra dose of jealousy. Thankfully, Riley’s other partner, Logan, is another good cop.

And then a second body turns up, (not in a field) also not discovered until well past passing, also in very nasty shape, also featuring some remarkable damage. Is there a serial killer on the loose?

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Abandoned meat-packing plant – image from sometimes-interesting.com

Thrillers have tropes like Ruffles have Ridges. Black SUVs put in an appearance. Are they good SUVs or bad SUVs? Ya gotta figure, when Riley spots a large poisonous snake on her property, (Chekov’s snake?) that it will rattle into play at some point. The question is how, when, to whom, and to what effect. News of a coming storm is another one. Usually this signals that the violent final resolution will occur against an atmospherically dramatic background. Young preps us with a mention of eight twisters having touched down in Iowa since April. Will one drop down into the mix here? Now, that would be a real twist. The upcoming Iowa State Fair is also noted, and gave me visions of snakes dropping on fair-goers, transported by a tornado, as everything is revealed in a climactic disaster scene. But Chekov surely does not have to take ownership of all these things. They could also just be foreshadowing images or external representations of the fear and turmoil Riley is experiencing, or the dangers she is facing. (But I sure do like that State Fairground snakenado notion).

So how does the historical novelist fare at the thriller genre? Young ticks off many of the usual boxes that make up the type. The author has to make good with the reader on explaining things at the end, the main things, anyway. Check. A ticking clock? “I’ve had the county attorney on the line already. Less than two months from the state fair and with the gubernatorial coming up? You know how vital this next budget is to the department. I want this case handled quickly. Efficiently.”, so, check. Our hero must face an increasingly perilous set of challenges, no escaping, victory can only be had by overcoming. What’s she gonna do when all those snakes start dropping out of the sky (Ok. I got carried away, again.) But yeah, Riley rolls, doing battle on multiple fronts. An element of suspense? Sure. Got that. Whodunit, why, and who’s next. An appealing hero? Sure. A reliable sidekick with an alternate skill set? Yep. Logan fills the bill. Plot twists? Of course. Red herrings? Bring your fishing pole. There are a few swimming about. Alternate POVs? The story is told in third person, but there is one first person POV that appears a few times. Cliffhangers? That is what made it tough to read only 20-30 pages a night of this book. An exciting climax? Yeah, for sure, even though I was really kinda hoping for the snakenado thing, even though I know it would have been really cool silly.

I quite enjoyed Young’s simple, but dark descriptions.

Waterloo was lifeless in the stagnant air. Smoke seeped from factory chimneys and the Cedar flowed sluggish and brown. Although the roads were clogged with trucks and trailers, there were few people about, just a few vagrants shambling along broken sidewalks, and cleaners and hospital workers trudging to or from shifts…It wasn’t long before she saw the old meatpacking plant on the outskirts of the city…Its twin smokestacks were dark fingers against the pallid sky, old bricks the color of rust. The bottom windows were boarded over, the ones higher up mostly shattered. A chain-link fence surrounded the site, bristling with barbed wire…stepping over heaps of rubbish, she found herself in a cavernous hall. Metal steps ascended to gantries that crisscrossed in between pillars and snaking pipes, conveyor belts and wheels. It all looked like some complex ride at the state fair, only made of metal and rust, fractured glass and hooks. She imagined the steers and hogs shuddering round, the iron spike of blood, steam from spilling guts. Parts of the gantries had collapsed. In places, the floor yawned into darkness.

A good book should teach you something about the world while delivering a good story. You will certainly get a sense of the perils of Big Ag, the history of how such concentration got started, and the impact it has had on the economy and the people of this area (presumed to be comparable in all farming states) You will learn a bit about the potential and potential dangers of genetic research for crops. And will learn some Ag lingo.

Good writing is good writing whether it is for historical novels set across the pond (well, across for us in the Western Hemisphere. For her, living in Brighton, the pond is right there.) or for a gritty thriller set in America’s heartland. Young has made the transition smoothly, with an engaging procedural-cum-political-thriller, featuring a strong lead, a diverse supporting cast, well-paced action, and plenty of mystery to keep one’s curiosity on high alert, all while offering a bit of information about the world, and highlighting very real issues concerning Big Agriculture. I am looking forward to the further fleshing out of Riley’s story and those of her supporting cast. Seeds have been planted. The soil is fertile.

The shoots are emerging for the Riley Fisher series, and look very promising. A bountiful annual harvest is forecast. Volume #2 will be set in Des Moines. I am betting that when she writes it, readers will come.

The lifeblood of rural America was being drained, leaving husks of cities, where poverty and crime rushed in to fill the void. It was a legacy all too visible in the boarded-up factories and processing plants that loomed like broken tombs around the city, haunted by vagrants and hookers, and cruised nightly by the squad cars of Waterloo PD.

Review posted – January 14, 2022

Publication date – January 25, 2022

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads.

I received an ARE of The Fields from Flatiron in return for a review that was not too horribly corny. Well, I tried, ok. Thanks, too to NetGalley for facilitating.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s Erin Young and Robin Young personal,
FB, and Twitter pages

Items of Interest
—–Ruffles have Ridges
—–Master Class – Masterclass: What is the Thriller genre?
—–A bit of silliness
—–Reedsy Blog- Chekhov’s Gun: Don’t Shoot Your Story In the Foot
—–Crop Prophet – Corn production by state
Corn Production Rankings: 2020
Rank State Production (M bu)
1 Iowa 2296.2
2 Illinois 2131.2
3 Nebraska 1790.1
4 Minnesota 1441.9
5 Indiana 981.8
6 Kansas 766.5
7 South Dakota 729.0
8 Ohio 564.3
9 Missouri 560.9
10 Wisconsin 516.8
11 Michigan 306.5

Items of Interest from the author
Young has a few items coming up for publication soon, one in CrimeReads on her research trip to Iowa, and another in The Big Thrill Magazine. There is also an interview upcoming on Jeff Rutherford’s Reading and Writing podcast

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Filed under Action-Adventure, Cops, Fiction, Mystery, Suspense, Thriller, Thriller