The Undiscovered Country is an odd, yet satisfying thriller. It rests partly on a murder nobody knows has occurred. Yet author Mike Nemeth knows the mechanics of this genre and tells it like a master craftsman.
The main character, Randle Marks, has been recently paroled from prison for a crime he did not commit, and is on his way to getting his life back together. When he learns that his mother is seriously ill, he goes back to his Georgia home to help. What he gets in return is being caught in the crossfire of his feuding siblings, each angling for a large chunk of her estate, and questioning the practices of his mother’s care givers. He handles both by searching and researching uncovering secrets about his family and himself.
Nemeth lays a southern family drama over a thriller’s structure and pace. It owes more to Pat Conroy than Patterson. However, his thriller skills show through the pace of reveals and resolutions, to a classic finale with Randle revealing the final major truth to everyone he has called into a room. He often hits the story beats with an emotion that feels real rather than melodramatic.He taps into situations many of us deal with to connect with the suspense he creates.
The Undiscovered Country is that rare thriller where the reader can relate. He uses real frustrations we have with both the health care system and those closest to us to explore themes of identity and secrets that reverberate from the past. The result is a one of a kind story in the best way.
If you want to know more, join us this Saturday at 2pm as Mike Nemeth joins Tim Bryant here in the store for a discussion of their books!
This month’s pick of the month was reviewed by Meike Alana, from the BookPeople event staff and a guest blogger for MysteryPeople.
James Ziskin is a perennial favorite here at MysterPeople, so it’s no surprise his latest Ellie Stone mystery, A Stone’s Throw, is our June Pick of the Month. The Edgar-nominated series is set in the early 1960’s and features twenty-something girl reporter Ellie Stone. She’s one of my favorite characters in the canon—wise beyond her years but at times naïve and impetuous, steady as they come with the occasional flare of irresponsibility, deeply moral but hard-drinking and promiscuous. Ellie is a realistically flawed, equally strong and vulnerable female character—in other words an authentic young woman–and that can be a novelty on the darker side of the genre. The fact that she’s penned by a man who is—well, let’s say his 20’s were a few years ago—is nothing short of incredible and speaks to Ziskin’s tremendous talent.
This time around Ellie becomes entrenched in the world of horse racing, particularly the seedier side populated by gangsters and thugs. On a sleepless night she follows a police scanner call about a fire at an abandoned stud farm outside Saratoga. While investigating a story for her newspaper, Ellie almost literally stumbles over two bodies that have been burned beyond recognition. She sets out to discover the identities of the two victims; when she learns the fire was sent intentionally she becomes determined to find their killer as well.
To do so she has to convincingly enter the world of horse racing, one to which she’s had no exposure. She needs a guide, someone who understands the history of the sport and the ins and outs of placing a bet. It turns out that Ellie’s best friend Fadge Fiorello is just such an expert. He does show her the ropes at the track and educates her about the key players; unfortunately he’s too busy studying the Racing Form to realize that this just could have been his chance to really impress Ellie. (Instead he has her worrying about his gambling habits….) Through old-fashioned, methodical detective work Ellie is able to piece together the story that caused those 2 individuals to lose their lives.
One of the unique things about this series is that each installment deals with a particular social issue of the time—homophobia, misogyny, sexism. Ziskin’s done his research here because he never strikes a false note with his depictions of the past. There’s no nostalgic sugar coating—he’s careful not to cast a rosy glow over what was often a turbulent time. While the world of horse racing can be a glamorous one, it has an unseemly side which Ziskin delves into here.
The Ellie Stone mysteries have been recognized by a slew of awards—winner of the Anthony and Macavity and nominated for the Edgar, Barry, and Lefty awards and all of those accolades are earned. Ziskin is a linguist by training and that shows in the lyricism of his prose. We hope he can come up with many more titles involving the word Stone so we can keep watching Ellie grow.
Backflash is the second outing of Richard Stark’s tough as nails robber Parker after his twenty year hiatus. After the few slightly more involved books before it, we get a bare bones, down and dirty heist novel. The simplicity proves refreshing.
What makes the story unique is the target. We begin in vintage mid-action Stark fashion with Parker and his cohort Howell going off the road and crashing down a hill during a police chase. Parker goes against his cold blooded nature and leaves Howell pinned in the car for the police, instead of rubbing him out so he doesn’t talk. He hears of his death, but soon gets a message from Howell, telling him to meet a man named Catham. Catham in a state bureaucrat with inside knowledge of a gambling boat that travels down the Hudson. He can give all the details about the boat for ten percent of the score. For Parker a travelling boat is a “cell”, something hard to get in and out with the money and the small amount Catham is asking for makes him suspicious, yet he’s compelled to bring in some folks from previous jobs and a river rat who knows the Hudson and pull off an elegant plan. A few surprises and some hardened bikers prove to get in the way.
Some readers found Backflash too formulaic, but that was part of the enjoyment for me. It took me back to the earlier books when Stark had just invented the formula. Watching Parker pull off a job like this is like watching a trained athlete pull of a feat with a high degree of difficulty, dealing with both foreseen and unseen circumstances. By sticking to the tried and true, the book moves smooth and fast.
Backflash may not be anything new under the sun, but it still shines bright. Even to this day, no one puts a thief through their paces like Richard Stark. Every bad man (fictional) should be so lucky.
Kristen Lepionka got the attention of peers, critics, and readers with her debut novel, The Last Place You Look. The book introduced Roxane Weary, a trainwreck of a private eye, operating out of Ohio. She skillfully delivered a fresh PI plot with a complex lead. Her follow up What You Want To See, proves that could be her trademark.
Roxane takes a job following a fiance who might be cheating. When the client’s check bounces, she drops the case. Soon the client is the main suspect in murdering the woman, mainly due from an argument they had when he discovered she was bilking him. To clear his name, Roxane searches into the victim’s criminal past, discovering a real estate swindle that literally hits close to home.
Lepionka skillfully weaves plot and character together. An admirable trait of Roxane”s is that she develops a bond with her clients. She isn’t just trying to get justice, but wishes to restore their lives. Part of this is tied to the fear of not wanting to be like her domineering father who passed away. Lepionka has made it a strong part of Roxane’s core, making it believable for her to put her at risk, both physically and emotionally.
Both books deftly weave Roxane’s relationship through both books. In What You Want To See, the plot focuses in on the complex relationship she has with her, driven by the pity Roxane has for her. The understanding she gets out of the situation is slight, but no less profound. If this all sounds touchy-feely, know there are a lot of shots fired.
With two books Kristen Lepionka has established herself as one of the major new voices of private eye fiction. She created a character that we root for not only to find the culprit, but to get a clue about what a decent person she really is. I can’t wait for the next step of her journey.
William Boyle has worked his way into becoming one of crime fiction’s talents. I learned about him through both Ace Atkins and Megan Abbott. Tom Franklin is also a vocal fan. In both his short story collection, Death Have No Mercy, and debut novel Gravesend, he chronicles the battered souls of working class East Coast in a way that hits the heart without being maudlin. His second novel, The Lonely Witness, proves he is taking his skills further.
His main character, Amy, appeared in Gravesend as a lover to the female lead Alyssandra. Here, she has put down her party girl ways behind her, delivering communion for the shut-ins of her Brooklyn neighborhood, living in a basement apartment of a lonely older man who would be like to be her surrogate father. The existence of quiet or possible penance is rocked when one of the elderly women she visits worries about a friend’s son, Vinny, who came into her house and rummaged through her things, looking for something to steal.
Amy follows Vinny one night, only to witness him get stabbed. Instead of going to the police, she picks up the dropped murder weapon and looks into the murder herself. Soon, she feels like she is being stalked by the killer. Between the danger she has placed herself in and the return of both Alyssandra and a father she thought was dead, Amy is compelled to return to her old ways.
Boyle subtly taps into noir’s sense of despair and desperation. His Brooklyn shows the neighborhood which gentrification has either ignored or pushed aside. Anybody over thirty speaks of the old ways and listens to old music, even if it was before their time. Everyone is in search of a life whether in the promise of a future or knowing comfort of the past, and crime seems to be the only way out. Most of the reveals in the book aren’t earth shattering, they are small, precise, and painfully human.
The journey Boyle takes Amy through may be small in geography, but he makes the possible falls from the sidewalk to the gutter bottomless. His people commit desperate acts they don’t fully understand to escape their community of decay. What makes William Boyle’s work ring with such a strong and true voice is that he realizes for many daily life is a struggle. His writing prays for them.
It is hard for me to resist a heist novel or film. A bunch of sharp professionals with an even sharper plan that somehow goes sideways can always hook a reader or writer no matter how formulaic. Writers Richard Brewer and Gary Phillips found a handful of fellow writers in love with the big score to give it a fresh take with Culprits: The Heist Was Just The Beginning.
Both Gary and Richard write the first chapter together, featuring a unique target. Hard case heist man O’Conner gathers a group of smooth criminals to steal an illegal slush fund off a wealthy right-winger’s Texas ranch. A double cross happens with the pilot who was supposed to fly them out, leaving each member on the run with their split of the take. That’s when the other writers take over.
Each author takes a character and writes about them dealing with the fall out of the heist. Zoe Sharp and Jessica Kaye respectively take the inside players, the power broker’s trophy wife and her penny-ante thief lover, delivering well executed double and triple crosses that ripple through the book. Joe Clifford taps into the hard fatalism of a classic Manhunt magazine story, telling us the fate of “Eel Estevez.” Gar Anthony Haywood gives another side to the turncoat with “I Got You.” David Corbett gives us a slow burn suspense tale featuring the financier of the heist. Brett Battles and Manuel Ramos also deliver great contributions. Richard and Gary come back at the end with the climax.
The movement from each author’s story to the next is fluid. While each works individually as a short story, when placed in sequence each story shows its relationship to the previous. Since each chapter is from the point of one of the criminals, the various author voices never become incongruent.
Like master heist men themselves, Richard Brewer and Gary Phillips gathered their crew together and pulled off a perfect hard boiled job, though nothing went sideways. Most “shared novels,” even the best, come off as little more than an interesting experiment and a fun way to get writers together. This was the first time I felt a seamless story was being told with one. If I was going to join a gang of criminals, I’d want Gary and Richard to be the leaders.
Readers of this blog have likely noticed the diverse tastes reflected by its contributors, so it’s rare that 2 of us will agree on one of our year-end Top 10 selections. Robin Yocum made it happen last year with A Welcome Murder, so there was a bit of a tussle when the ARC for his latest, A Perfect Shot, arrived in our offices. This writer prevailed, and was definitely not disappointed—the ride was just as wild, with twists and turns that made it a blast.
Nicholas “Duke” Ducheski is probably the best-loved citizen of the eastern Ohio steel town of Mingo Junction. Some 20 years earlier, he orchestrated what is remembered to this day as “The Miracle Minute”; in a span of 63 seconds, Duke put up enough points to propel the Mingo Indians’ high school basketball team to the state championship. Hardly a day passes that someone doesn’t want to talk about “the game,” and you can replay the recording on local jukeboxes.
But Duke’s pushing forty and thinks it might be time to leave his high school glory days behind. He decides to capitalize on his popularity by opening a restaurant he christens “Duke’s Place.” Things are popping until disaster strikes—“Little Tony” DeMarco (a known mob enforcer who just happens to be Duke’s brother-in-law) comes into the restaurant and murders Duke’s oldest friend. DeMarco thinks he’s untouchable, but Duke has other plans—he thinks he’s found a way to take DeMarco down, but it would mean leaving Mingo Junction (and his identity as the town hero) behind forever. And if he’s not the Duke of Mingo Junction anymore, then who would he be?
Fans of Yocum’s work will recognize similarities between Mingo Junction, Briliant, and Steubenville (settings of his previous novels). It’s an area Yocum knows well, and the reader senses his deep love and respect for this hard luck region of the country. These towns saw better days when the steel industry was booming; most of its natives have moved off for jobs, and those who stay behind often struggle to get by. For many of them, high school was about as good as it got; in Duke that created a yearning for something more. And when circumstances conspire to keep Duke down, he has to figure out just how far he’ll go and how much he’ll give up to become who we wants to be.