Compact Genius: Laura Lippman’s Sunburn

This book is by far the most delicious book of the year, and not because of all of its vivid descriptions of foods and eateries.  Sunburn is something you enjoy slowly, when you take it in it’s like breathing it in, a delicate treasure to truly ponder over and think about.  I have already read the book three times and it has yet to fail me with its twists and turns and its dramatic conclusion, not to mention the oh-so-human element that makes up most of Lippman’s writing.  Lippman is a master storyteller, but a master at understanding humans, too, and this is clear now more than ever in Sunburn, her return to glory after two years since the fantastic Wilde Lake.

Releasing February 18, 2018, this is a book to be anticipated.  Each Laura Lippman novel is a treasure, something to be pondered over and wondered in, as with a favorite of mine, After I’m Gone (which I’ve admittedly read countless numbers of times).  The story revolves around Polly, who has just deserted her family on a vacation and may have an even darker history than she’s let known.  Her torrid romance and another crime that occurs—that of a house fire, with a solitary victim—puts Polly in the spotlight of the novel, along with several other mysteries revolving around her existence.

This book is not just fun.  It’s a masterwork.  Based around the writings of Anne Tyler and James M. Cain, this is hardboiled noir at its finest.  Ms. Lippman has admitted that this is perhaps her favorite book yet, and it’s easy to see why.  Sunburn is nothing is not a rollercoaster of fun and emotional suspense.  Her language is cutting and sharp, as precise and to-the-point as Cain at his finest, and the book is reminiscent of both Mildred Pierce and The Postman Only Rings Twice.

Don’t let the rollercoaster of fun fool you: this is a heartbreaking (and, simultaneously, heartwarming) novel.  It will rip you apart.  Which is part of the fun of engaging in a reading experience with Laura Lippman.  She always knows how to tug at those heart cords one by one, and she knows exactly when and where to pull the hardest, and for what reason.  There is, like in most of Lippman’s books, a revelation in the final moments of the book which is perhaps the most delicious moment of the entire novel, in which the whole truth of a part of the novel, and a greater truth at that, is revealed in its entirety. This is sure to stick with you well into the night after you stay up reading the novel, desperate for its conclusions.

If you’re anything like me, you will re-read this novel again and again.  There are Easter eggs and clues and twists that you will miss the first time around, and with such a short and compact novel, that is certainly a feat.   Lippman’s newest novel is not a book to be taken lightly, no matter how many Best Beach Read articles she makes this year.  Lippman has redefined what it means to be a noir writer in the twenty-first century—especially a woman writer—and she has done so with ease and precision and love. Here’s hoping you love this book as much as Ms. Lippman does (and as much as I did—again and again).

Mazes of Mystery: Lisa Unger’s The Red Hunter

Lisa Unger’s sixteenth book, The Red Hunter, is a non-stop thrill ride.  This is not an uncommon way of describing Unger’s books, which all almost always feature nonstop twists and turns, dark characters and even darker worlds around them.  The Red Hunter stars two women: Claudia Bishop, who moves into the house where Zoey Drake’s parents were brutally murdered, seemingly in cold blood.  As the novel opens up and unravels, there seems to be a lot left unsaid about these crimes—the crimes that haunt this house are not all that they seem, and may in fact be much more than the reader first guesses.  But that’s for the reader to find out, as Unger masterfully tells the stories of these two women, including one who is eager for blood, and to seek out justice for past wrongs.

I’ll try to say little else about the plot for now.  After all, that’s part of Lisa Unger’s art.  She is great at plotting out a serious suspense-thriller, and is one to unravel the mystery slowly and in a tight labyrinth of twists and turns, always ready to send her readers in for a shock.  Known for her prolific writing and her impeccable style, Unger has written nearly twenty novels that continue to get better and better, novel after novel.

Unger is unafraid to cross genres and dig deep into the darkness of her characters and their situations, exploring the taboo and the uncanny as easily as most writers author sentence after sentence.   Unger is one of America’s leading crime writers because of her ability to truly twist the worlds she creates, both in a dark and fantastical way, but also in a crooked and unassuming way, creating situations and storylines that will leave the reader unable to guess what’s coming next.

With books like Ink and Bone, a mysterious and magical thriller, and In the Blood, a book that came highly recommended to me and did not fail to disappoint, Unger reveals her ability to craft unique and riveting tales that defy the expectations of fans and critics alike.  Indeed, it is a pleasure and a challenge to tackle Unger’s extensive bibliography, and lucky for readers she is prolific enough to provide books for readers to continue to enjoy again and again.  Her books are also complex enough they may need more than one read to fully appreciate all of their intricacies.

One of the greatest aspects of reading a Lisa Unger novel is always thinking one knows what’s happening and finding out later they do not.  Unger is a genius when it comes to creating scenarios the reader thinks will be easily discovered, only to have the reader dive deeper and deeper into a maze there may be no escape from.  The Red Hunter is no exception.

Read Lisa Unger’s latest, and catch up on her brilliant list of books, each more exciting than the next.  She is certainly not an author to be overlooked—and as a best-seller, being overlooked is certainly not a problem for Ms. Unger.  Everyone seems to have a favorite Lisa Unger book—what will be yours?

Top 5 Texas Crime Novels

This year Texas crime fiction had two distinctive elements. One was a deeper look at race relations in our state that serve as a microcosm for our country. the other was the return or the heroic Texas Ranger. Both helped create books that were socially aware, were packed with fun action, or both. Here were what I thought were the five finest.

Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

This book fuses the western with crime fiction with a black Texas Ranger trying to solve a murder involving white supremacists to look at the politics involved in race and and culture. A great entertaining genre read as well as insightful social study.



Rusty Puppy by Joe Lansdale

Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard take a case involving an African American’s murder that puts them up against a corrupt police force in a nearby town and an illegal fight game in an abandoned saw mill. One of Lansdale’s best plotted with all the fun we’ve come to expect from the man.

An Unsettling Case For Samuel Craddock by Terry Shames

Shames takes us back to Samuel Craddock’s first case as  police chief involving an arson and murder that picks at the town’s racial tensions. Shames further proves her talent at delving into the society of a small town and delivering an engaging whodunit.



Hawke’s Prey by Reavis Wortham

If Larry McMurtry wrote Die Hard. The citizens of a small south Texas town are held hostage in the local court house by a cadre of terrorists. Ranger Sonny Hawke and a rag-tag crew of citizens outside are ready to teach the bad guys a lesson in “Don’t Mess With Texas.”

Sierra Blanca by Don M. Patterson

A washed up CIA agent teams up with a ranger in the eighties to take down a soviet plot  involving a drug cartel and stolen plutonium. Full of gun fights, frayed machismo, and the right amount of self awareness, this rollicking action story keeps moving until the final period.

Gifts For The Hard Boiled Crime Aficionado

If you’re shopping for someone who loves reading about guys in fedoras with gats, where the more lurid the cover the better, or you are one of those people and need to make a suggestion, here are three books that will fit the bill.

9780997015034Death Is  A Lovely Dame edited by Jeff Vorzimmer

Vorzimmer has collected hundreds of the great lines from hard boiled crime fiction and puts them in a book along with sharp photos of the lurid covers. This book could put hair on your chest.



Hardboiled, Noir, and Gold Medals by Rick Ollerman

A collection of Rick Ollerman’s essays on the work of crime authors that focus on the paperback period of the fifties and sixties. A great way to discover new books and writers, that definitely deserve a look.



The Big Book Of Continental Op by Dashiell Hammett

Hammett’s biographer and granddaughter put together this complete collection of his stories of the nameless, fat operative for The Continental Detective Agency, including the two serialized novels that became Red Harvest and The Dain Curse as they appeared in Blask Mask before a heavy edit. A must for fans of the godfather of the modern private eye.

Good Crime Fiction Collections, Good Causes

While shopping for your crime fiction fan for the holidays, or wrapping something for yourself, you may feel like giving to a good cause. These anthologies are packed with some of today’s best talent and support some fine causes.

Protectors & Protectors 2 edited by Thomas Pluck

In these two volumes are over 70 writers contributing very short fiction for these anthologies that help fund The National Association To Protect Children and PROTECT, an organization that lobbies for legal rights of abused kids. It is a great way to find new writers to enjoy.

Trouble In The Heartland: Crime Fiction Inspired By The Songs Of Bruce Springsteen edited by Joe Clifford

Dennis Lehane starts the ignition to this baby that moves like a muscle car through over forty stories inspired by song titles from the Boss. Many of the authors like Jordan Harper, Hilary Davidson, and Jen Conley make a stand like a working class Springsteen hero and the proceeds go to The Bob Woodruff Foundation that helps wounded veterans.

Unloaded edited by Eric Beetner

As a way to raise money for the United States Against Gun Violence, Eris Beetner collected authors like Reed Farrel Coleman, Joe Lansdale, and Alison Gaylin to prove they didn’t need a gun to tell a crime fiction story. This is  collection of top talent at the top of their talent.

If You Like Alison Gaylin…

Alison Gaylin is known for her well-conceived, incredibly intricate and deeply-plotted thrillers.  She is not afraid to steer toward the taboo, and has written everything from books involving incest to pedophilia and rape.  She is one of the rising stars of the mystery genre, a woman whose talents cannot be measured easily or gauged casually.  She is incredibly talented, with praise from Laura Lippman and Megan Abbott to top everything off.  Her novel What Remains of Me remains a favorite at MysteryPeople and was also an Edgar-nominee for Best Novel of the Year.  Her upcoming novel If I Die Tonight is a thriller to be reckoned with, with multiple leading characters and infinite threads that combine in an utter explosion.  Check out below for some suggestions for reads you might enjoy if you enjoy Gaylin’s work.


Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman:   Girls on Fire is a thrilling mystery debut that deals with two girls whose friendship may be too close to comfort.  Like Gaylin, Wasserman is not afraid to steer toward the taboo and her brilliant use of language and thrilling back and forth between characters leads to a surprisingly and ultimately incredibly dark conclusion. This is a book not to be missed.



Claire Dewitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran: Claire Dewitt is a character reminiscent of Gaylin’s series character Brenda Spector.  Equal parts humor and serious, thought-provoking mystery, Gran is a great writer who ropes in the reader and keeps them hooked from beginning to end.  This mystery revolves around the death of a white, wealthy man in New Orleans soon after Hurricane Katrina.  Issues of race and sexuality are prevalent in this narrative that will leave you begging for more (and luckily there is a second book in the series!).


Good as Gone by Amy Gentry: A favorite of MysteryPeople, not to mention a fellow Texan, Gentry is a writer well beyond her years.  Her debut novel is a riddle filled with more riddles—there’s the issue of a kidnapped daughter returned home, only is she really the daughter her parents have been looking for, or an imposter—someone else entirely? This is a book that any mystery lover will enjoy (even though, quick trivia note here, the novel was not intended to be a mystery, so what a wonderful surprise for us all!).

Murder on the Orient Express: A Comparison

One of the measures of a classic could be in its ability to be interpreted in different ways. The reason for a story’s endurance could be from an elasticity for an artist to stage it or convert it to another medium. Each generation has their Tarzan and Macbeth. It can also be seen in how two different directors, Sidney Lumet in 1974 and Kenneth Branagh today, each tackled Agatha Christie’s Murder on The Orient Express.

For those not familiar with the novel, I’ll do my best to give as little away as possible. Christie’s famed detective Hercule Poirot finds himself on the titular train leaving Istanbul, with passengers of various social class and nationalities. He is approached by a shady man, Rachet, who offers him a job to ferret out someone on the train who is leaving death threats to him. Poirot declines. the next morning a snowdrift blocks the train and Rachet is found dead, stabbed twelve times in his room. To keep the matter quiet the director of the train line asks Poirot to investigate. Early on he learns that Rachet was really Lanfranco Cassetti, the man responsible for the Armstrong kidnapping where a three year old heiress was abducted and murdered after the ransom was delivered. Poirot begins to find connections between the passengers and Cassetti to ferret out the culprit.

The reveal is one of the best known in mystery fiction. In fact, I knew it before reading the book. I was curious to discover what Poirot does with the information he has learned. It presents an interesting questions of justice and morality. Christie barely touches the moral quandary, with Poirot making an immediate judgment in the last line of the book, giving it a dark comic finale. The way the ending is treated in both films is where the main difference between them lies.

Sidney Lumet used the story to expand his pallet as a director. Known for gritty urban tales like The Pawnbroker and Serpico, he was looking for a “souffle” as he put it, something light, grand and classic. With Tony Walton’s costume and production design, he created classic look mirroring Hollywood’s golden age. In casting he used many stars associated with that era such as Lauren Bacall and Ingrid Bergman who won an Academy Award for playing against type as the odd missionary. Richard Widmark draws back on his early hoodlum roles, playing Cossetti. Top names of the time Sean Connery, Jacqueline Bisset, and Michael York give more luster to the suspects with several theater pros like John Gielgud adding class. Lumet’s experience in early television comes into play as he brilliantly blocks the actors in he cramped space of the train cars without the use of false walls.

For Poirot, Lumet wanted the finest English actor he could get for the role. After offering the role to the more age appropriate Alec Guiness and Paul Scolfield, he went with Albert Finney. The actor played to the characters absurdities, yet this worked in making the audience believe in his extreme deduction skills.

It is slightly ironic with all the care in casting, Lumet decides not to begin with introducing us to the suspects and future victim like Christie. Instead, we get a depiction of the Armstrong kidnapping and its tragic fall out told in noir-ish flashes with just eerie music for sound. It is the darkest part of the film. In doing so, it allows us to understand both the motives of the suspects and the decision Poirot comes to about the fate of those involved with the murder, a decision that takes about as much time in Christie’s book. Because we have experienced the tragedy in the beginning, we can simply enjoy our favorite actors play out a drawing room style mystery, although, if intended or not there is a feeling of moral ambiguity because Lumet has each suspect toast the mastermind in the way of doing a curtain call.

Branagh brings more ambiguity and weight to the current version, while retaining the style. With the help of CGI he plays up the exotic nature and breadth of the locations the Orient Express travels through. Michael Green’s screenplay has even more snappy dialogue that hearkens back to the golden age. Unlike Lumet, he uses false walls and ceilings to allow more intricate camera work, such as an overhead shot when Casetti’s body is found. That said, he said he was drawn to the emotional weight that Christie suggests of how one horrible crime effects so many.

It is in the casting where he starts to show his motives. While he uses many name actors like Michelle Pfieffer and Penelope Cruz, they don’t have the wattage of Lumet’s ensemble. Many are known character actors, some of different ethnicities of the original character they are playing. Leslie Odom Jr. plays a composite of two.

All are impeccable. In a close up with a few lines, Willem Dafoe tells you everything you need to know about his heartbreaking motive. Branagh uses his experience as a stage director for great interaction. The best scenes are the ones that all the players share.

However, his main focus is on Poirot, and not simply because he is playing him. The opening scene is a mini-mystery in Istanbul that establishes the detective’s skills as well as his eccentricities by solving a theft that could start a religious war. He deftly apprehends the the fleeing criminal with little exertion, but much humor, with the use of his cane. However, before he gets on the train he explains to a local policeman that his deductive talent comes from wanting to see the world as it should be, allowing him to notice when something is askew. It’s great for being a detective, but a curse on the rest of his life. This sense of absolute challenges and plagues him all while bringing more suspense as to what we we learn at the the view of justice he decides on.

It is interesting that both Lumet and Branagh have adaptations as a major part of the directorial output and “Murder On The Orient Express” shows their different aesthetic and interests that both come out through the plot. Even though he was making his souffle, Lumet’s often used theme of an individual’s fight when institutions and systems fail. He said he could not have made Network if he didn’t do this film first. Branagh taps into his love of classic with heroes carrying emotional weight. Both do justice to Christie’s tale of justice by any means.


Our December Murder In The Afternoon Book Club discussion of Mark Pryor’s The Crypt Thief will be special in two ways. With it being our holiday discussion, we’ll be bringing treats to share. Also, Mark will be joining us in person.

The Crypt Thief is the second book to to feature Hugo Marston, head of security for our embassy in Paris. When the son of a senator is murdered at the Pare Lachaise cemetery along with the theft of some the bones from a famed dancer at the Moulin Rouge, Hugo is asked to investigate. Obvious clues lead to terrorism, but Hugo suspects something else.

The Crypt Thief is one of the creepiest books in the series with one of the best villains. it will give us a lot to talk to Mark about. We will be meeting Monday, December 18th, 1PM on the 3rd floor. Books are 10% off to those planning to attend.


Con Lehane returns with his second mystery featuring crime fiction curator for the New York Public Library, Raymond Ambler. This time it is personal in many ways. A coworker has been killed and a Muslim scholar, who Ray’s possible love Adele may have feelings for, is the main suspect. Also, Raymond takes the files and letters from a former cop-turned-author that are about the decades old murder of a union boss that put a friend on death row. Everything is skillfully woven together with a very human feel and a lived-in look at New York.

472719MysteryPeople Scott: In Murder In the 42nd Street Library Raymond Ambler works with his co-workers as a team. With Murder In The Manuscript Room there is more friction between him and some of them. How did you end up taking that route?

Con Lehane: I never meant for the connections between Ambler and the other recurring characters, including Adele Morgan, Ambler’s fellow worker and attractive female friend, to lack tension. I didn’t know what was going to happen between Ambler and Adele after the first book. I don’t know what’s going to happen to them now after the second book. Both Adele and homicide detective Mike Cosgrove have larger roles in Murder in the Manuscript Room  than they did in Murder at the 42nd Street Library. This is partly because I purposely chose a structure of alternating points of view—Ambler-Adele-Ambler-Cosgrove-Ambler-Adele and so on. Partly, things change between characters because the characters aren’t static. They’re dynamic and I don’t always know what’s going to happen with them until it happens. This might be a dumb way to write a mystery. But it’s how I write, certainly in the first draft. I have to have characters interacting with one another to move the story along. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a general idea of what the story is; more, it means I’m not sure what each character might do until they do it. If they go too far afield, I can get them back on track when I revise. So I don’t know that the friction served a higher purpose; it was what the story called for.

MPS: The book has two mysteries that play off one another. How did you deal with that challenge?

vCL: What I knew when I started the book was that Paul Higgins would be a former handler of snitches for the NYPD and a sort of amateur crime writer who wrote thrillers based on his experiences. I also knew there would be an Arab Muslim doing research in the library’s holdings of ancient Oriental manuscript collection and an undercover operative monitoring him and his research. The rest of the story—including a second mystery having to do with the murder of an African-American union leader in New York CIty’s garment trucking industry thirty years earlier—developed as I wrote the book. I can tell you where in my memory a couple of the strains of the story came from. First, I knew a guy—someone I liked a lot when I met him and still do like—who’d worked undercover in a number of capacities as an FBI agent and wrote a book about his experiences, hence Higgins. Next, years ago when I worked as a union organizer, I was offered a job working for an African-American guy, a truck driver, who created a rank-and-file union movement to try to take his union away from the gangsters who’d taken it over. (you can read something about the gangsters in the industry here if you’d like). To clarify, gangster-domination of trucking unions, including the Teamsters union, was an adjunct to gangster control of the industry the truck drivers were part of and the companies they dealt with. You hear a lot about gangster-dominated unions, not so much gangster-run companies. They went hand-in-hand. The third piece of this was an idea of undercover work and the use of informants that bothered me. An informant was usually an acquaintance, often a friend, who was caught at something and offered the choice of spying on you or going to jail himself (there are others who informed strictly for money). Undercover operatives—law enforcement who go undercover—were folks who joined your organization, or gang or whatever, and became your friend for the purpose of betraying you. This was often a dangerous thing for the operative to do and the folks you became friends with often were doing nasty things to other people. Nonetheless, the idea of making friends with someone in order to betray them always struck me as filled with moral ambiguity. The final piece was the growth of private security agencies, which have literally (and I use the term advisedly) become larger than the armies of most countries and what that means to the future. All of this is a kind of underpinning to the story that unfolded as I wrote it.

MPS: You touch on the plight of the working class in the book as in others. What makes that a theme worth returning to for you?

CL: This answer is related to my answer to the last question. If you were a conspiracy theorist, you’d see an unholy connection between the NYPD brass, a private security agency, and Wall Street. At the moment, their enemy is a fringe element of Islam. But the net they cast is wide enough to include anyone who gets in their way. There’s another piece to the murder of the garment truckers union leader. I hint that the reason he was killed had to do with efforts to stop a group that wanted to create a national transportation union—workers in air, rail, truck, anything that moves people or goods in one union. This would be a strong vehicle for workers demanding better wages, shorter hours, health insurance, pensions. It would have changed the power dynamics in politics dramatically. Various groups and persons were in favor of this—including the infamous Jimmy Hoffa. The power structure—Wall Street, the banks, and their elected-official supporters—were very much opposed. The subversive idea lurking in my subconscious was how far would the power structure and the law enforcement arm of the power structure go to stop it. Suffice it to say, any group that remotely threatens the current political-economic power structure is infiltrated and spied on. There’s a little twist at the end of the book that  was inspired by the Whitey Bulger case in Boston where different law enforcement agencies had informers in different gangs working at cross purposes, so in the end the gangsters were handling the law enforcement agents, rather than vice-versa. Again, this is fiction. I’m not writing true crime.

MPS: What is the the biggest asset Raymond has as a sleuth?

CL: I like to think that he sees things that others don’t see, and can draw inferences from what he sees that others aren’t able to draw. I also like to believe what distinguishes Ambler is that which distinguished Georges Simenon and his Detective Chief Inspector Maigret: “My motto, to the extent that I have one, has been noted often enough, and I’ve always conformed to it. It’s the one I’ve given to old Maigret, who resembles me in some points … ‘understand and judge not.’

MPS: One of the things I enjoy about the series is that Raymond works with a group of friends. What does an ensemble cast of amateur sleuths allow you to do?

CL: I really like the idea of the ensemble. If the series continues—the Good Lord willing and the creeks don’t rise—I’m looking forward to each of the recurring characters—Adele, Mike Cosgrove, Ambler’s boss, the defrocked Jesuit, Harry Larkin, Ambler’s son, and certainly McNulty the bartender, perhaps others—having a chance to play larger or smaller roles in different books giving me a chance to develop them, add dimensions. I hadn’t thought of that when I began this series. The fact that each of them has come alive—at least for me—presents an opportunity for the series to go on and on.

MPS: Do you have any idea what is in store next for Raymond Ambler?

I know that in the next book McNulty, I’m sorry to say, is in big trouble. Big big trouble.