International Crime Fiction Pick: POLICE AT THE STATION AND THEY DON’T LOOK FRIENDLY by Adrian McKinty

  • Post by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

9781633882591We read a wide array of international detective fiction here at MysteryPeople, and, of course, we each have our favorites. In honor of St. Patrick’s Day (and even more in honor of the year-round excellence that defines Irish crime fiction) we’re highlighting some work, past and present, from our favorite Irish detective novelists. Last Thursday, Scott Montgomery took us through an underappreciated new classic – Cross, by Ken Bruen. Today, we’re diving into Adrian McKinty’s latest Sean Duffy novel, Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly, released this March, and which just so happens to feature a few words of praise for the author on the back cover from yours truly.

Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy series, set in the 80s in Northern Ireland, weaves real events (such as Margaret Thatcher’s attempted assassination, the closing of the Delorian factory, and Muhammed Ali’s visit to the troubled region) together with fiendishly plotted mysteries. McKinty doesn’t use his crime fiction to paint a black and white portrait of good and evil – his settings are too historically messy, his characters too finely crafted, to devolve into stereotype. In McKinty’s Duffy series, paramilitaries commit petty crimes for personal reasons; corrupt officials occasionally compensate for their fall from grace with a touch of honor; policemen steal drugs from the evidence room…In short, no easy line exists between the personal and the political, and even though most plotlines trace back to MI5  or the IRA, it’s never for the reasons one would think.

His latest, Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendlystarts with Duffy on a late night walk from an IRA assassination squad, then backtracks to an unusual murder for Belfast – death by crossbow. A drug dealer has been shot in the back, and when Duffy arrives at the crime scene, he can already tell this case will not go smoothly. His supervisor and the forensics team have come and gone, just long enough to mess up the crime scene, and his stoic partner’s been stabbed (not fatally) by the dealer’s weeping widow. As Duffy starts to look into the dealer’s death, he has trouble discovering a motive for the man’s demise. After all, he paid up in protection money to the paramilitaries, and vigilante justice outside of the paras would hardly have been welcomed in the hardcore paramilitary-controlled neighborhood in which the dealer was found.

A case starting off in chaos? Duffy can handle that. He’s beset by plenty of other problems, though, and his personal life may combine with his professional life to inspire Duffy once and for all to toss in the towel. A health inspection leads to orders to quit smoking immediately and curtail his drinking as much as possible (those familiar with Duffy’s addictions may chuckle at the idea that he could possibly be expected to give up smoking). His new supervisor has risen to the level of his own incompetence, proof that in an oppressive state, the bureaucrat climbs to power while the talented fail to break through the glass ceiling of mediocrity. His girlfriend’s prosperous Protestant father wants the family to move to the countryside, but Duffy’s happy living on Coronation Road, where he knows his neighbors, he knows which of his neighbors have machine guns, and especially, he knows which of those neighbors might be willing to come to his aid. Adding to Sean’s stress is a resurgence of the Troubles brought on by attacks on civilian attendees at two paramilitary funerals.

As Duffy investigates the dealer’s murder, seemingly a small-time affair in a country consumed by politicized violence, he encounters missing files, escalating threats, and increasing suspicion that this case may connect to the Troubles in a wholly unsuspected manner. Now that Duffy’s got a family, he may have finally given up on his death wish, but others still seek an end to his questions and will do what they can to put the man and his family in danger. Even those readers who’ve gotten used to the dangers faced by a Catholic policeman in 1980s Northern Ireland will experience a few heart-pounding moments of worry.

Like much of the best international crime fiction, McKinty’s Sean Duffy novels overlap with historical fiction, and while reading McKinty’s latest, I got to thinking about one of my favorite literary concepts.  Bakhtin’s literary concept of the chronotope, inspired by Einstein’s theory of relativity, posits that space and time are intertwined and thus must be examined together – not only in science, but in the study of literature and history, and in the study of passage of time and description of place within a contained work. International crime fiction takes place equally in time and space. When we read historical crime fiction set in other countries, at other times, we experience a doubled window into the chronotope of that space, in that time. In crime fiction set now, we experience the geography of setting as a chronotope, where each street holds the weight of its history.

Adrian McKinty’s works help fill in the many layered chronotope of Northern Ireland in the 1980s, a time period marked by disillusionment and strife. His distance from his setting – both in time and space – lends a wider perspective to each work in the series, but the problems of the period hit home with small details as much as vast conspiracies. When Duffy checks under his car for mercury tilt bombs, he does it casually, because he’s been living in a state of perpetual violence for decades. If this book were a memoir by a real-life Duffy, he probably wouldn’t even mention such an everyday occurrence. For the reader, this everyday act pushes us past our knowledge of the Troubles’ eventual end, and into the mindset of those experiencing the ever-present violence of a conflict with seemingly no end.

You can find copies of Police at the Station on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

Murder in the Afternoon Book Club to Discuss: THE SYMPATHIZER by Viet Thanh Nguyen

  • Post by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

The Murder in the Afternoon Book Club meets to discuss Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer on Monday, March 20th, at 1 PM. You can find copies of The Sympathizer on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

9780802124944Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer has left me stunned. This hybrid spy-novel-cum-literary-satire won the Edgar Award in 2015 (which is how I convinced the Murder in the Afternoon Book Club to read it) and the Pulitzer the same year, which should begin a long career of appreciation in highbrow and lowbrow circles alike.

At face value, The Sympathizer is a Vietnam War novel from the Vietnamese perspective, ostensibly the perfect place for American readers to immerse themselves in the Vietnamese experience. Yet what Nguyen does best in the novel is expose hypocrisy. Rather than gently guide his readers into unknown waters, he plunges us into confrontation with our own assumptions, our own prejudices, and our own pompous behavior. While reading it, I felt more blown away by observations about the American character than any points about Vietnamese society.

Nguyen’s main character, his father a French priest and his mother a Vietnamese villager, epitomizes the hypocrisy and messiness of colonialism. Unable to find full acceptance in any one faction due to the ill combination of his birth and politics, Nguyen’s protagonist flees North Vietnam early in life, fearful that his French parentage would lead to his demise at the hands of the anti-colonial communists.

He finds South Vietnam to be an exploited puppet of the United States, and determines to aid the revolution as best he can. Despite his new community’s disdain at his bastard status, he uses his quick wits to gain employment in the South Vietnamese army for a wealthy, skilled military leader. Divided between his politics and his professionalism, as a double agent, the narrator can’t help but do a good job for both his employers, even as he cannot help but critique the gaps between each system’s promises and results.

Able to navigate many worlds, the narrator can always see both sides, and is ill at ease identifying wholly with any one philosophy. He understands the faults and the appeals of North and South Vietnam, the indulgence of capitalism and the righteousness of revolution, the flight to safe refuge and the longing to return home, the charisma of one friend and the suffering of another. He understands that with multiple interventions and endless war, the extreme corruption of South Vietnam and spartan purity of North Vietnam only intensified over time. He points out the absurdities of each system, yet reserves his most powerful critique for the most powerful player.

Nguyen’s sardonic pillorying of America’s loose attachment to its self-professed mores echoes Graham Greene’s bitter English reporter in The Quiet American, yet without Greene’s tendency to exoticize the other. Nguyen not only rejects previous portrayals of the conflict – he is in direct conversation with them. He does not indulge in writing stereotypes instead of characters, and his nameless narrator has numerous opportunities to critique representation. Nguyen sketches the lazy, two-tone figures that fill the nightmares and ambitions of soldiers, directors, politicians and academicians, and starkly illustrates the gap between Vietnam in American imaginations and Vietnam in real life.

No where does Nguyen draw this point more clearly  than with his female characters, who refuse to become mistresses ready to lay down their lives for their soldier paramours, lusty hookers prepared to take on the navy, or degendered revolutionaries inhumanly committed to the cause, yet the moment an American creates a Vietnamese character, they immediately revert to stereotype, as in the book’s meta-history of American cinematic representation of the war.

Nguyen points out in The Sympathizer that while history is usually written by the victors, the American defeat in Vietnam was eclipsed by the American dominance in the culture industries. American-produced films, shot in the Philippines, determined how the world would remember the war – with extras given few lines and representing mere foils to the drama between white characters. No need to be sensitive when you control the entire production of culture, and thus have secure control over the production of  your own image.

He also draws attention to how American stories of Vietnamese refugees – whether news or novels – treat the refugee experience in a vacuum, rather than acknowledging that those fleeing to the United States for refuge have had their lives compromised by the United States in  the first place – either by bombs or through collaboration. This struck me as the most relevant point to our current political situation – America creates refugee crises, and refuses to accept responsibility. When people flee their countries for the US, it is for the most part because those nations have been bombed to smithereens and destabilized for decades by trigger-happy war hawks from our own shores.

Like his depiction of refugees and representation,  Nguyen’s take on the truth makes a specific statement about the war and expands to a much larger point about humanity. The Sympathizer is a story of double agents, a archetypal tale of tricksters and despots, a tale of liars and hypocrites. I’d like to draw a distinction between a liar and a hypocrite.

A great liar is one who has been abused, one who has learned to manipulate the truth for their own safety, one who must look to the angry face of a changeable master and know that their next words could determine their entire futures. Lies are the performance of submission, and behind the mask the liar plots for independence. Lies are part and parcel of the asymmetrical warfare that has characterized colonial and domestic conflicts since World War II, with a longer history stretching to the dawn of inequality. They are a weapon to be used, because they are used by those with few weapons in the first place.

Hypocrites are like internet trolls. They feel no attachment to their claims, because they will never have to follow them up with action.They can make a joke about poverty because they are not economically vulnerable, and they can pretend that a prostitute loves her work and a wife loves her place in the home and a mistress loves her soldier because they refuse to accept the economic nature of their most intimate relationships. They can criticize an entire society, because they have never bothered to look at their own.  They can promise, and fail to deliver on their words, because they are too powerful to be beholden to one considered lesser. Better to be a liar, a trickster – be the person you have to be, to survive, and take strength from the ability to hold back a truth and thus, for a little while longer, control your own fate.

In case you hadn’t guessed where I was going with this, the colonizer is the hypocrite – the colonized is the liar. When you’re getting paid to be exploited, like any nanny or therapist can attest to, any intimacy created in such circumstances ends when the money stops, you get a better offer, or you find a way to reject your pittance and pigeon-holed existence in favor of what you really want. In this struggle between the casual hypocrisy of power, and the mask worn by the oppressed, the double agent wins.

The Murder in the Afternoon Book Club meets to discuss Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer on Monday, March 20th, at 1 PM. You can find copies of The Sympathizer on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

MysteryPeople Pick of the Month: THE WEIGHT OF THIS WORLD by David Joy

  • Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

9780399173110David Joy got our attention in 2015 with his debut Where All The Light Tends To Go. The searing rural noir proved there was still a lot to mine from the subgenre. Now Mr. Joy picks up his tools and goes down down even deeper into that dark hole with The Weight Of This World.

Like Where All The Light Tends To Go, this book deals with the double edge sword of friends and family, upping the stakes in complexity of those relationships. A triangle between three people serve as the base for this tale. Thad Broom returns from Afghanistan, finding combat easier to deal with than returning to life in his Appalachian town, even though he struggles to come to terms with his wartime experience. To survive he takes copper from derelict homes and pulls a few petty crimes with his life long buddy Aiden. Soon enough, one of those crimes gets them in the middle of a shoot-out that drops a bunch of drugs in their lap. When Broom’s mother April, who is also Aiden’s lover, hears about this, she tells them to go back to the trailer where it happened, since there should be money. All three see the narcotics and cash as a way to escape their circumstances, but it just puts them all way over their heads.

Joy takes the blueprint for a crime fiction plot done many times and spins something unique and poignant through his damaged characters. Thad may be the one you hope to escape the most, but he seems to be looking for an excuse to go down a dark road. Aiden comes off initially as a charismatic hustler who can’t see life beyond the mountains, proves to have more depth in revealed history and action. April could have simply been an interesting back woods Lady Macbeth, but we see a woman whose choices in youth and the society she born into lead her to be trapped. These characters do feel the weight of the world, yet theirs is a small one in the mountains, pressing on them from every side with one bad opportunity for escape.

The idea of kin and loyalty runs through The Weight Of This World. Each character has each others back, but it only serves to push each other of them closer to the edge. Like most rural noir, it looks at inertia of setting, however it argues it has more to do with people than place.

The Weight of This World comes out March 7th. Pre-order now!

MysteryPeople Review: BEHIND HER EYES by Sarah Pinborough

  • Review by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

Sarah Pinborough comes to BookPeople this Saturday, February 18th, at 3 PM to speak and sign her new genre-bending psychological thriller of suspense, Behind Her Eyesreviewed below. 

9781250111173When given an opportunity to read master-of-all-genre-fiction Sarah Pinborough’s shocking new thriller, Behind Her EyesI had no idea what to expect – aside from the cover’s promise of a twist at the end. After finishing the book, staring at nothing for a good half hour thinking “wtf just happened?!?!!!,” and rereading various parts of the book to reinterpret the meaning of significant passages in the light of new information, I felt grateful that I came into the book with no expectations. The reader who thinks they know what to expect should just toss that idea out the window right now. You cannot possibly predict that wonderful horrorshow of an ending.

Pinborough’s latest appears, at first, to tell the story of a love triangle. As the tale continues, sinister agendas arise and reshape our perceptions of characters, plotlines, and reality itself. In the elaborate, many layered nature of its twist, Behind Her Eyes conjures the specter of the films The Sixth SenseThe Spanish Prisoner, or any other tale that can be finished and reconsidered in an entirely new light based on the end.

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MysteryPeople Review: WHAT YOU BREAK by Reed Farrel Coleman

  • Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

9780399173042With Gus Murphy, Reed Farrel Coleman has created one the the most complex and dangerous series heroes of the 21st century. Gus, the divorced ex-Suffolk cop, seeking anonymity as courtesy van driver, bouncer, and house dick for a second rate hotel after the early death of his son, first appeared in the Edgar-nominated Where It Hurts. He chooses to walk on the least solid of ground. We fear for him. He believes that to find his new self, he must destroy his former or current self. This puts his friendships, love life, psyche, and life in jeopardy. In the second book to feature the character, What You Break, we dive further into Gus’ mindset.

Gus finds himself with two cases. He is introduced by his friend, ex-priest Bill Kilkenny, to energy czar, Micah Spears. Spears is willing to to set up a youth sports center in Gus’ sons name, if he can find out why a gang member killed his adopted daughter. The why also plays into the second mystery when a trained killer goes after Gus’s Eastern European friend and co-,worker Slava. Both investigations take Gus to ghosts of past wars and acts of evil no amount of redemption can erase.

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MysteryPeople Pick of the Month: THE GOOD DAUGHTER by Alexandra Burt

  • Post by MysteryPeople Contributor Meike Alana

9780451488114Central Texas author Alexandra Burt thrilled us in 2015 with her debut, Remember Mia.  Her latest, The Good Daughter, is every bit as suspenseful and atmospheric and is not to be missed.

Dahlia Waller’s childhood memories are murky at best.  As a young girl she led a vagabond existence with her eccentric mother Memphis, living in seedy motel rooms which they often fled in the middle of the night.  As an adult, she wants nothing more than to distance herself from those memories, but she finds she can’t move forward until she gets some answers about her early years.  

Dahlia moves back to the small town of Aurora, Texas to push Memphis for information, but her life is turned upside down when she discovers the comatose body of a young woman while jogging through the woods.  She feels a strange connection with the unidentified young woman and begins having visions while being overcome by unusual scents and sensations.  At the same time her mother begins to unravel, acting more and more strangely until the night she disappears from home.  Upon her return, she causes a fire that displaces the two women.  With nowhere to go, Memphis reveals that she is the owner of a farm that was deeded to her years ago by a woman named Quinn Creel and the two women move into the crumbling farmhouse.

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MysteryPeople Review: AN UNSETTLING CRIME FOR SAMUEL CRADDOCK by Terry Shames

  • Post by MysteryPeople Contributor Meike Alana

97816338820961Terry Shames introduced us to aging lawman Samuel Craddock just over 3 years ago in A Killing at Cotton Hill, the first in a Texas-based mystery series that has quickly become one of our favorites at MysteryPeople. Set in the fictional small town of Jarrett Creek, the series features the former Chief of Police; at loose ends in retirement and mourning the death of his beloved wife Jeanne, Samuel steps in as acting police chief until the bankrupt town can afford to hire a replacement.

Macavity Award winner Shames’ latest, An Unsettling Crime for Samuel Craddock, is a prequel that takes us back to Samuel’s early days in the 1960’s as a woefully inexperienced 20-something police chief confronted by his first serious crime. The Jarrett Creek Fire Department is called to extinguish a fire in the outskirts of town (a section the residents refer to as “Darktown”) and makes a horrific discovery—the blaze seems to have been set to obscure the grisly murder of 5 black youths.

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