True Crime at Its Finest: Lost Girls by Robert Kolker

True crime isn’t something we feature often on MysteryPeople, and yet it is a craze and a phenomenon that has been popular much longer than people have acknowledged.  The tradition of the true crime book and its incredible fandom goes back many years, but it’s difficult to place a book that is as popular or widely read as Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls.  Lost Girls is special for many reasons, covering the Long Island Serial Killings of recent years.  It is popular mostly for its ability to portray the real lives of the women (who did mostly work as sex workers) and how real their plights were, and how effective and ultimately destructive their deaths were.

I first read Kolker’s Lost Girls a year or so ago, but returned to it recently when I needed some comfort. Kolker’s writing style provides that, not just through lyrical sentences and beautiful construction of images and ideas, but largely through the compassion Kolker feels toward these women.  If watching movies and tv shows made and developed by men who have turned out to be sexual predators depresses you, you might find solace in Kolker’s brilliant and wonderful understanding of the human mind—and the female mind—in this great book. Kolker does not focus solely on the hunt for the serial killer (or, perhaps, serial killers?). Of course, it is an unsolved mystery to this date, and we may never know the truth about these women’s deaths, as unfortunate as that is for the victims and their families.  But that is where Kolker strikes gold in our hearts: he concentrates on the victims, their lives and their hearts, and what made the veins in their bodies pulse as opposed to what eventually ceased all life in them all together.

Kolker somehow remains both neutral and empathetic, showing how sex work is necessary for many individuals who cannot make ends meet, or may seek out the profession for many other reasons (even, perhaps, enjoying the work).  The author is nonjudgmental and as fair with the story as he can be, acknowledging the fallacies in people’s own stories and arguments, and meanwhile struggling to uncover the truth for these women. There is definitely a sense that Kolker wants to champion these lost girls, as the title states, long after their deaths, and have them remembered for the brilliant but complicated lives they lived.

Of course, there is a twist.  In fact, there may be more than one, but I can’t really tell you that.  Why would I spoil what Megan Abbott has claimed is the greatest book of this decade? (Yes, you heard me correctly, she actually said that.) I have purposefully avoided giving details because you need to pick up a copy of this book and give it a try, and you need to reach out to family members and friends and show them the work of Robert Kolker.  This is not solely to appreciate the life and work of Kolker himself, but also to remember the women lost to brutality and an America that only cares for privileged women who can be viewed as “victims,” not lost girls.

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Scorching Love: Dodging and Burning by John Copenhaver

There are a select group of, usually, female writers I turn to in times of crisis, in times of desire, in times of need, woe, loss, hope.  These authors include Alison Gaylin, Alafair Burke, Alex Marwood, Megan Abbott, Lisa Lutz, and of course, Laura Lippman.  Laura Lippman often stands in a category by herself—she is both the leading writer in transgeneric literary mysteries, but also a powerhouse who generally puts out a book a year—flawless books, beautiful books, books that always end with emotional punches that are eye-opening in startling ways.  Other than perhaps Lou Berney and Daniel Woodrell, I find very few male authors approaching Lippman’s league.  And do not get me wrong, this review is not a love letter to Laura Lippman.  This is a love letter to Dodging and Burning, the brilliant, impeccable debut by John Copenhaver.  John Copenhaver, who may or may not eventually become the male equivalent of the heretofore unmatched Laura Lippman.

Me in hat.jpgI was hesitant in beginning this book.  OK, that may be a lie.  I was eager to start this book, after reading Kristopher Zgorski’s review at the end of 2017 in his year-end review.  The book features strong female characters, complicated homosexual relationships, and as Copenhaver himself has recently pointed out to me, a challenge to the patriarchy.  There are love triangles, or what might be perceived at first as love triangles, but really, just as in real life, love is much more complicated than it first appears.  There is mystery, and intrigue, as one character points out to the two female protagonists that he believes he has found a body (and taken a photograph) of a deceased—really, murdered—woman, somewhere in Virginia.

Whatever your expectations for this novel are, put them aside. You will not be able to predict a single twist or turn to this book. You will also, likewise, not be able to put it down, just as I read it all in one solid sitting—a long sitting, as it’s not a short book, but a delicious, amazing, startling book.  Copenhaver balances both a beautiful, poetic style written in many forms (narrative, epistolary letters, among other forms and styles of writing) but Copenhaver never once sacrifices story for style.  They are balanced perfectly equally, satisfying everything the reader feels he or she needs in this volume that is too slim for my liking.  I wanted more.

This novel has taken Copenhaver years to write, and what an unfortunate note for readers.  We will have to wait years more for another book from Mr. Copenhaver, potentially, but that is O.K. by me. There are enough twists and turns, jaw-dropping shocks and surprises, that I do not believe I will ever, ever get tired of Dodging and Burning.  This is a book that will never cease to surprise you with its turns and revelations, no matter how many times you breeze through it—and there is a danger in this, the ease with which one can breeze through Copenhaver’s writing without really, truly appreciating it.  Copenhaver’s style, his story, his everything is meant to be savored, like a delicious meal—a last meal, on death row, one you might never have again.  It needs to be appreciated as such.

The fatal flaw in this book is that it is only one book, one volume.  The fatal flaw is that there is not more to appreciate in Copenhaver’s irresistible story and style.  It is endless, how fascinating his words are, his characters and their actions, their voices and their thoughts and their yearnings.  They come to life on the page.  They come to life like no other author I can think of—other than the grand, remarkable, equally undeniably unmatched Laura Lippman.

Perhaps they should start a club.

Emma Flint Slays in Little Deaths

It took me a while to read Little Deaths by Emma Flint.  Perhaps because of the time period.  I don’t normally read books that aren’t set in the modern day unless they’re by Laura Lippman or Megan Abbott or other authors I trust frequently.  I am so disappointed—not in this book, which was absolutely stunning, but that I waited so long to read this fantastic novel.  This book, loosely based on a true story, is anything but boring, predictable, or dull.  I did, in fact, read it all in one sitting—one very long sitting, staying up all through the night while my partner constantly asked me to go to bed.  It was that haunting.

Little Deaths, like many of Megan Abbott’s books (or all of Megan Abbott’s books, really, and most of Laura Lippman’s standalones as well) is based on a true story—did a woman actually kill her young son and daughter? From the beginning of the novel, we know that things do not bode well for Ruth Malone, and the novel goes on to chronicle the trial she endures for—and I won’t spoil anything—perhaps murdering her own children.

Stories like these are often complicated.  I come from South Carolina, where Susan Smith drowned her own sons in the ‘90s, when I was still a child.  There are many women who experience or commit several crimes, often enduring post-partum depression or other issues that drive them to a point of madness or simply utter confusion and loss.  Flint manages to portray all sides of the situation with such agility and fierceness that the reader is forced to question everyone, and even sympathize with a would-be, might-be child murderer.

Image result for emma flint little deathsThere are so many things incriminating Flint’s protagonist, this woman who has had her own hard life and now must face an even tougher outcome. Yet the book flows effortlessly, never weighing the reader down too much with too much gravity or sadness, always reminding the consumer that this is the woman’s story, not the child’s story, and that the woman at the center of the book is, in many ways, a victim of the times she lives in and her situation.

I do have one problem with this book, and it may seem juvenile. I wish it was longer, and that is purely for selfish reasons. I did not want this book to end. Little Deaths, a play on words, a play on my heart, is a book I wanted to continue on forever, just so I did not have to part with the characters or, even more frankly, the writer Flint’s beautiful style. She can at once be so matter-of-fact and also lyrical it puts many other authors to shame.

If you don’t trust me in regards to Flint’s stunning novel Little Deaths, then perhaps refer to the numerous nominations and praise it has received, the stunning responses of fans from around the globe who truly love this book.  I rarely close an article by saying this—and yet, with so many great debuts coming out this year, this phrase may become a favorite of mine—I cannot wait to see what Emma Flint produces next.  She is a writer of superb talent that is virtually unmatched by beginner writers, someone who should be revered and read widely.  She is a writer who understands women, various time periods, and all of the emotions and contradictions of the human hearts.

Read Little Deaths.  Read it now.

All Too Real: The Power of Voice and Sisterhood in Julie Buntin’s Marlena

Marlena by Julie Buntin made my top ten list for 2017 and with good reason.  Marlena, Buntin’s debut novel, is anything but a beginner’s work.  It is filled with wisdom, finely crafted, and utterly heartbreaking in the best of ways.  This is a book I have read countless times, one of those books I turn to for comfort and solace even if sometimes they hold exactly the opposite of this.  Buntin’s novel is a miracle and a masterwork, and the reasons behind this are both incredibly obvious and entirely elusive.

The novel revolves around a woman named Cat, who now lives and works in New York City, but once lived in a podunk town in Michigan where she was forced to struggle to get along with a dysfunctional mother and a less than satisfactory life.  Eventually—well, almost immediately—Cat meets Marlena, and a beautiful but terrifying friendship begins.  It is known from the beginning that Marlena will die.  It is known from the beginning that her death will be tragic, and that it will haunt Cat for the rest of her life.  It is known from the beginning that this is not a happy story, and perhaps these are the reasons I consider it a genuinely real crime novel: the fact that this book is filled with the inevitable darkness that envelops us all, the ways our mistakes come back to haunt us, and of course, you know, there’s crime in the novel.  So, there’s that.

Buntin is a master at writing.  Her prose is lyrical, and there have been several sentences I have read again and again (having read the book maybe six times now easily since its publication last year) where I have said, aloud, to myself or my partner, “I wish I had written that. I wish I could write that. Write like this.” It’s true. I wish I could write as effortlessly, as flawlessly, as Julie Buntin. There is no doubt this novel was years in the making, but it feels as effortless as a quickly jotted down diary entry (that has been meticulously planned, scrutinized and understood again and again to perfection).  The perfection of the prose is not off-putting or unfortunate in any way.  Instead, it feels like a woman trapped in a past that is imperfect, telling her story in the most brilliant way possible.

How many stories have we read about young women and their friendships gone wrong? Megan Abbott has a novel coming out this year (and Abbott has praised Marlena, if that’s not a reason to purchase it alone) about a friendship turned upside down by a crime.  There are, of course, numerous—maybe innumerable—other novels, including other books coming out this year.  But Marlena stands out to me in a way similar, but different, than Abbott’s Give Me Your Hand.  It is a divine examination of a friendship gone wrong, a love lost—not necessarily a romantic love, not necessarily I say again, but something more profound.  An instant in one’s life that has changed this woman forever, and that she can never get back, and never be unchanged by.

Similarly, I cannot be unchanged now that I have read Julie Buntin’s beautiful book.  Cat’s voice is as alive as the voice in my head.  Buntin’s first novel more than delivers: she excels, she succeeds, she is the Superman of debut novelists.  I do not regret a single time I’ve read Marlena again and again.  The most beautiful part of the novel is how genuine and authentic the novel feels, like this is a true story—and who knows, there may be lots of truth to it.  No, I take this back—any book this real, this alive, leaping from the pages, has to be based on some experience Buntin or any other remarkable writer has felt in his or her life: we are lucky to have Buntin to express this truth for us.

Top of Her Game: Alafair Burke’s The Wife

There comes a time in every prolific author’s career when one has to ask “Is there any way for this author to get better? To improve upon their most recent work? To actually write something better than this?” For some writers, they go downhill after their peak—other authors only rise, never reaching that peak exactly (see wonderful examples like Laura Lippman, Alison Gaylin, Alex Marwood, and Megan Abbott).  The question now is: has Alafair Burke reached her peak? I sincerely doubt it—a writer of her talent can most likely reach unimaginable heights—yet it is incredibly hard to fathom Burke improving upon her most recent masterpiece, The Wife.

Burke kicks off the year in the grandest fashion, with a book that will compel you to the very end, even without a murder in its very beginning.  From the moment the book begins, we know that Burke’s protagonist has committed perhaps the ultimate betrayal—that against herself, lying for her husband’s defense. I have read this book countless times, as I tend to do before beginning a review, and it never ceases to amaze me—the language is fluid and nearly flawless, drawing the reader in.  The narrator, while incredibly deluded and not necessarily the picture-perfect definition of a feminist, is incredibly relatable.  The book speaks to the issues of our times, many of them dealing with women, rape, infidelity, and the permanence of love.

From the very beginning of the novel, I was roped in.  The reader is startled by the way Burke can transform the most mundane scenes into something extraordinary, ripping out incredible portions of her character’s psyches in ways you would never expect.  I was floored again and again as revelation after revelation was revealed, chapter after chapter.  The book is such a quick read that, when finished, I felt compelled to start it over immediately, unsure if I had finished the novel or just begun.

This is not to say the novel is without a conclusion.  Boy, does it have a conclusion.  Alafair Burke is a master at revealing tiny little secrets that are actually big explosions, unraveling and unraveling her characters and plot until, once untangled, the reader is finally able to uncover the truth.  You think you know the truth from the beginning, and then you might change your mind in the middle, and then be completely floored by the end of the book by the smallest, slightest turn of the story: this is how The Wife works.  And I’m not afraid to call it a new masterpiece of the crime genre.

This past award season, Alafair Burke was nominated for the Edgar for The Ex, which works as a sort of companion novel to The Wife.  They feature similar characters, they are placed in similar settings, but these novels are completely different (and equally brilliant).  Here’s the only issue: this is the year of the female crime writer.  So while I would say that Alafair Burke has the Edgar in the bag, with masterpieces like Laura Lippman’s Sunburn and Megan Abbott’s Give Me Your Hand being released soon, it’s hard to tell which author will come out on top.  What’s amazing about the crime community is: no one cares.  Each of these authors are improving daily, each new book proving that the preceding novel was only a precursor to something much more amazing and fantastic than the book that came before.  And Alafair Burke proves this beyond a doubt.  From the very beginning, you are hooked.  From the very beginning, you are roped in.  And it’s all Alafair’s fault.

Burke’s newest novel is mind-blowing, spine-tinglingly good and awe-inspiring in ways that very few authors can aspire to be.  Pick up this book and find yourself lost in it.  Pick up this book and hours later, wonder where you have been, and how you got there.  This is the magic that Alafair Burke works in The Wife, which may very well be the Book of the Year.

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?