Review Of Culprits edited by Richard Brewer and Gary Phillips

Culprits: The Heist Was Just the Beginning Cover ImageIt 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.

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Pick Of The Month: A Perfect Shot by Robin Yocum

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.

A Perfect Shot Cover ImageNicholas “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.

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.

Pick of the Month: Sunburn by Laura Lippman

Each month we choose one book you absolutely can not miss. This month Meike has reviewed that pick, Laura Lippman’s Sunburn, for the blog. It’s out February 20th and you can pre-order now.

9780062389923Laura Lippman’s latest, Sunburn, just might be the perfect beach read. It takes off gradually, allowing the tension to build slowly, until the story plunges the reader into a roller coaster thrill ride with countless twists and turns before smoothly bringing him or her to a satisfying conclusion.  You can no more put this book down than you can stop the ride from hurtling forward.

But Sunburn is so much more—it’s a masterwork of modern noir, invoking the style of James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice).  Make no mistake—this is a dark tale of secrets and lies with its share of dead bodies.  It’s not the coaster at a shiny clean mega theme park; the tone reflects a slightly more frightening rickety coaster ride at a second-rate theme park that has seen better days.  Lippman masterfully evokes the shadier side of summer with this searing tale of secrets and passion.

The story begins with Polly, a mysterious redhead who is passing through a small town when she stops in at a bar and meets the equally mysterious Adam; the first thing he notices about her is her sunburned shoulders.  We soon learn that Polly has just abruptly left her husband and young daughter in the midst of a family beach vacation.  The reader also learns that Adam is a private investigator who has been hired to find Polly, but we don’t know by whom. They both realize that a relationship between them threatens the secrets they’re trying to keep, yet they succumb to their mutual attraction and a heated affair ensues.  They decide to stay in town for a bit and take jobs in the local diner.  As their relationship unfolds, each is unsure about the other’s motivations; we slowly learn just how many secrets each is keeping from the other.  There are no heroes here—both characters are deeply flawed, and we’re not really sure to what extent each is simply playing the other.  Lippman keeps the reader guessing until the very end.

Laura Lippman  was a reporter for twenty years before turning to writing full time.  She is the critically acclaimed author of the Tess Monaghan series as well as nine standalone crime novels.  Her body of work has received countless awards and Sunburn is sure to receive its share of accolades.

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.

Book Review: Robicheaux by James Lee Burke

After close to five years, James Lee Burke brings back his Iberia Parrish sheriff’s detective, Dave Robicheaux, simply using his last name for the title of the hero’s twenty-first mystery. On the surface, Burke appears to be playing many of the series’ old standards: colorful, knuckle-dragging gangsters, old money families, and ghosts of both the Civil War and Civil Rights south. However, changing times have brought those standards to new light with Burke giving them a more complex examination.

He layers plot upon plot, making Dave’s life even more miserable than usual. We find him grieving Molly, the the third wife he’s buried. He confronts the man who hit her in a car accident that killed her, then slips from his sobriety. Dragged out of his drunken black out, he visits the crime scene of a man beaten to death. He recognizes him as the driver and notices the bruises on his own knuckles.

Since he’s a suspect, he can’t be put on that case and has to look into a rape accusation. The accuser is the wife of his friend, Levon Broussard, a novelist with liberal leanings that only come in second to the romanticism of this family’s confederate past. The accused is another contemporary, Jimmy Nightingale, a charmer from an old money family with ambition going in several directions, a senate seat currently one of them. Before his black out, Dave set up a dinner with all involved to help out his train wreck of a buddy Clete. Jimmy held the mortgage on his Clete’s house, but wanted to option one of Levon’s books for a movie he would do with Tony Nemo, a mobster with movie ambitions. Toss in some unsolved murders, a white supremacist leader, a scary hired killer with a code, and a murdered New Orleans pimp that ties most of it together and you have the makings of a quintessential Robicheaux novel. One could argue that the choice of title comes from a delivery of the elements we expect.

As we are hit with many of the reoccurring tropes and themes of the books, hero, writer, and reader now have more complicated views of them. As in one of the more lauded novels, In The Electric Mist With The Confederate Dead, a movie dealing with the Civil War is being filmed, this time with Robicheaux’s daughter Alifair working on the screenplay. As in that book, Dave sees the ghosts of “boys in butternut”, but Alifair wonders if they can make movie heroes out of the Confederates who are “today’s Nazi’s”. Much like Levon, Dave can’t help but hold onto their gallantry. For Levon, though, it goes deeper. It’s where his demons rest and can be easily awakened to challenge his better angels. Jimmy Nightshade uses that heritage and populism to be one of the scariest power brokers Dave’s gone up against. He has an ability to sweep up the masses into believing him as a savior for the new south, especially the disenfranchised. Dave observes his constituents at a rally.

His adherents wore baseball caps and T-shirts and tennis shoes and dresses made in Thailand. Walmart, a smartphone, a Tundra, and bread and circuses were symbols; they were a culture. The poorest neighborhoods in the state always had a coin-operated car wash. In twenty-four hours, a drop in oil prices could take everything they owned. They were the bravest people on earth, bar none. They got incinerated in oil-well blowouts, crippled by tongs and chains on the drill floor, and hit by lightning laying pipe in a swamp in the middle of an electric storm, and they did it all without complaint. If you wanted to win a revolution, this was the bunch to get on your side. The same could be said if you wanted to throw the Constitution in the trash can.

It’s difficult not to think of another politician and election when reading this passage.

With everything going on, the focus of the story is Dave’s relationship with his former NOPD partner Clete Pucel. Clete, working as a private detective, imbibes in every vice Robicheaux struggles to avoid. He often operates as a violent Falstaff to our hero in the series, yet Dave views him as the noblest man he knows. Their friendship is rooted in the that they each understand the other  better than themselves. Clete is the first to see through Jimmy and makes it a personal mission to be a thorn in his side, while Robicheaux is partially taken in by the southern gentility he pretends to reject. Jimmy and Levon are darker mirrors of Dave, with the reflection of Clete being the way to lead him out of the fun house. It is their friendship and acceptance that leads to any form of justice or grace in the book.

Robicheaux proves that James Lee Burke’s hero can be timeless yet delve deep within his time. He is practically a Greek hero, enduring tragedies, stuck between the wars of petty gods, with the Achilles heel of alcoholism. He may be a step behind the times, but only adds to his complexity and character. He has aged well with his humor and full heart intact. May we be so lucky in our worlds that grow more messy and complicated.