Sophomore Triumph: Laura McHugh Strikes Hard in Arrowood

Laura McHugh is a writer to be delighted in—a crime author who both seems old to the genre while creating incredibly new and ambitious works of fiction adored by fans and critics alike.  Her debut novel, The Weight of Blood, won the International Thrillers Writer award, lining up McHugh with the toughest of her competition.  Ms. McHugh is known to be a night writer, and this comes through with many of her scenes in her two novels to date—including her most recent stellar accomplishment, Arrowood.

Arrowood is at once a dark tale of crime and corruption and a vivid family saga.  McHugh incorporates some of the best of her own locale and the history of her characters in creating one of the most vivid and suspenseful reads I’ve come across in quite some time. While The Weight of Blood is frankly flooring, Arrowood takes the idea of memory, family, and the unreliable narrator to such new heights it’s remarkable this novel even exists.

One immediately thinks of fellow-heavyweight Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places when approaching Arrowood’s premise. A young woman returns home after many years—and creating and cultivating many secrets of her own—only to be contacted by the leader of a group of people who try and solve murder mysteries, a man who believes he has solved the mystery of what happened to her sisters decades before. It’s a spicy premise but the similarities between these two great novels pretty much stop here.  Arrowood is a novel not to be defined by comparisons, defying all expectations inside its pages.

Arrowood is at once strikingly brilliant, incredibly frightening (so much it makes one seem vulnerable in the best and worst of ways), intriguing in its mystery and enchanting in its incredibly elaborate setting.  McHugh weaves a nearly perfect narrative, with a pitch perfect voice for the story, around a decades old mystery that seems both impossible and inevitable to be solved.  The reader learns early own how they will be completely satisfied with the conclusion of McHugh’s sophomore effort, if only because of Ms. McHugh’s writing abilities, so all-encompassing and wise-beyond-their-years.

Returning to the comparison between Gillian Flynn and Laura McHugh—and there really is no true comparison, these are two women who write in their own right, in their own way, in their own settings, in their own voices, with stories like loaded pistols ready to be fired right in their readers’ direction—the crossing of ideas and storylines, the telling of two similar stories by two completely different writers seems inevitable here.  Just as Gillian Flynn had to expose the murky, dirty side of one untruth, so Laura McHugh has to expose her own.  If anything is to be learned from McHugh’s novels, it’s that we know nothing, not the novel’s ending, not the novel’s twists and turns, and certainly not ourselves, either as the reader or the narrator.  But what narrator really knows their own story?

As for McHugh’s third book, little is known about the follow-up that can probably only be described as “epic.” Count Laura McHugh with other Lauras (like Ms. Lippman), with the Gillian Flynns and the Megan Abbotts and the Alison Gaylins of the world.  She deserves the credit that’s due to her, and any reader deserves the chance to find themselves lost in the pages of her novels.

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MysteryPeople Pick of the Month: RIGHTEOUS by Joe Ide

Joe Ide’s back with the second installment of his Isaiah Quintabe series, Righteousa perfect follow-up to last year’s IQ. In his latest, Isaiah and Dodson take a trip to Vegas to help a DJ out of a messy situation involving gangsters, gamblers, and gamines. Meanwhile, Isaiah finds new evidence about his brother’s murder. Below, Molly reviews Righteous – keep an eye on the blog for her Q&A session with the author. Righteous comes out October 17th

  • Post by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

9780316267779Many of us here at the store enjoyed Joe Ide’s debut IQthe first in a series featuring his new Holmesian detective Isaiah Quintabe and Quintabe’s hustling sidekick Dodson. In IQ, the two ease into their role as investigators in the present while a past timeline details their previous life of crime. IQ’s heartbreak at his brother’s death in a car accident, while moving, doesn’t set the tone of the novel; instead, the plot is driven by IQ’s clever criminal activities in the past and his present-day investigation of threats made to a rapper unable to handle his success.

In Righteousthe two reunite after Sarita, IQ’s murdered brother’s former fiancée, recruits Isaiah to bail her gambling-addict sister and her goofball of a boyfriend out of trouble. IQ tells himself he’s helping her out as a favor to a family friend, reluctant to admit his true urge to help her stems from his lingering attraction to her, as well as the memories of his dead brother her presence evokes. IQ brings Dodson along, Dodson (at first) happy to avoid his partner’s cravings and anxieties as she nears her due date. IQ’s feeling a bit preoccupied on his trip to Vegas. He’s just found out at the start of Righteous that his brother’s death was no accident – it was a hit all along.

Dodson and Isaiah’s working vacation will require all their combined street smarts and intellect, as they wade into a tangled mire of sex trafficking, gambling debts, and one hellish mafia enforcer after another. Sarita’s sister hasn’t just accrued a gargantuan debt. She’s also stolen information from her father, a man involved in shadier endeavors than her privileged upbringing could ever have allowed her to discover. She’s on the run from her father’s criminal syndicate and her dry-humored loan shark, and IQ must pit the two organizations against each other in order to extricate the two gambling addicts from their self-made morass.

Woven through the novel is a timeline from the recent past, in which IQ investigates his brother’s death for the first time as a murder. Not content to quietly look into the matter, IQ manages to piss off an entire LA gang and some highly dangerous hitmen in the process. Like Chechov’s gun, every piece of information, no matter how significant, comes to matter by the end, as does every criminal syndicate, minor and major.

The first half of the story is true to its Sherlockian inspiration, diving into plots as intricate as any the Great Detective might have solved. The second half of the novel is pure action. Joe Ide takes us through a stylishly choreographed fight scenes in a Vegas massage parlor to a shootout with a twist in LA for one heck of a crime thriller. Unlike the traditional detective novel, happenstance plays its part as everything falls into place for an outrageously good ending.

Violent content does not equate to a high valuation of violent men. Some characters are destroyed by the guilt of past violent acts, while others use violence as a shortcut to a happiness they have no chance of achieving. Gangsters who’ve worked hard to separate their private and professional lives find their families undone by twisted revelations, while others realize too late that those enforcers they’ve placed in harm’s way may be the closest thing they have to a friend. The relationship between an ex-gang member, his out-of-control younger sister, and his former mentee-turned-fixer makes for poignant reading, as we trace their journey from enjoying their prestige to feeling emotionally crippled by their pasts.

Joe Ide is a versatile, playful and affecting writer. He knows how to have us laughing one page, crying the next, scratching our heads to solve a puzzle the following page, and on the edge of our seats the page after that. His works are a heightened, stylish take on the real struggles and emotions of human experience, and he can just as easily write a dinner party as a fight sequence. We can’t wait to see what IQ and Dodson investigate next.

Righteous comes out October 17th – pre-order now! 

MysteryPeople Review: DOWN CITY by Leah Carroll

Leah Carroll’s Down City is a lyrical and haunting memoir of her mother’s murder by the mafia and her father’s slow death from drinking. Her writing stands alongside James Ellroy’s My Dark Places and Mikal Gilmore’s Shot in the Heart in the true crime/memoir canon, and Carroll’s life is a fitting subject for the bare-bones poetry contained within this slim volume. Below, you’ll find a review of Carroll’s memoir from our contributor Matthew Turbeville; he also interviewed Leah, and we’ll be posting the Q&A later on this week. While we mainly focus on fiction here at MysteryPeople, Carroll’s true crime memoir is about as noir (by which we mean bleak and beautiful) as you can get. 

  • Review by author and blogger Matthew Turbeville

9781455563319When overloaded with fiction, devouring fabricated story after story, sometimes we forget that these all-too-real crimes are based on actual truths.  Leah Carroll’s astonishing debut memoir is here to remind us that crime is real, and its effects are powerful and devastating.  In Down City, Carroll writes about her life up to date, beginning with her mother’s murder and concluding with her father’s suicide and her own (relatively) happy ending.

How does one cope with the brutal murder of one’s mother? Further, how does one begin to comprehend one’s father taking his own life? These don’t seem to be the questions that Carroll is asking, but these are questions we are wondering.  Carroll is interested in something much deeper and profound than simply understanding how tragedy affects one’s life.  Her family’s tragedy is not for our viewing pleasure.  She is here, in Down City, to work through her own problems and we are simply along for the ride.

Written in brilliant and simple yet elegant and eloquent prose, Carroll chronicles her life from her time as a child to life as an adult at the closing of the novel.  She explores mental illness, loneliness, loss, and the anxieties of not knowing what is certain in this world with such ease she might have stolen a page or two from Joyce Carol Oates or Joan Didion’s memoirs.  Indeed, Down City is in the same league, a tour de force, a book to be reckoned with on many levels.

Perhaps the most interesting and fulfilling part of the memoir is the way in which Carroll populates her life with characters who are fully fleshed out, including a father who may have problems of his own but still loves Leah. The love is so real, so strong, it’s almost tangible. Her happy ending in the novel’s concluding pages pales in comparison with the bond shared between father and daughter, no matter how destructive and chaotic it may sometimes appear.

Hailed by critics from the New York Times and also Megan Abbott herself, this is not a book you want to skip over, for both true crime and memoir lovers alike.  Deserving of all the praise it has received, Down City is hands down one of the greatest books of the year, a profound examination of grief and love, love that goes on and on and on.

For those who loved (yes, loved) Down City, see memoirs of loss by Joyce Carol Oates (A Widow’s Story) and Joan Didion (Blue Nights, Year of Magical Thinking).  For true crime lovers, perhaps Norman Mailer’s classic The Executioner’s Song, or even in fiction, the story of loss and possible redemption, Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend.

You can find copies of Down City on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. 

MysteryPeople Review: THE DARKEST SECRET by Alex Marwood

  •  Review by Author and Blogger Matthew Turbeville

9780143110514Years ago, I came across a quote from Laura Lippman’s interview in her By the Book.  She was talking about Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry, a book which she said dealt spectacularly with the death of an infant.  This topic, while not necessarily rare, is rarely done well, and this comes back to me when I think of Alex Marwood’s undeniably spectacular novel The Darkest Secret.

Perhaps a year late in acknowledging this novel’s genius, but understanding that it stands side by side with Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me, Alison Gaylin’s What Remains of Me, Laura Lippman’s Wilde Lake, and Lisa Lutz’s The Passenger (all published last year), this is a phenomenal book that deserves—no, better yet, commands your attention.  It is all encompassing, enveloping, consuming, and somehow redemptive despite Ms. Marwood’s dark writing style.

The Darkest Secret deals with multiple viewpoints of the death of a young child named Coco, a twin who goes missing years before the novel begins.  Her half-sister, Mila (short for Camilla), is coping with the death of her and Coco’s father.  When the funeral procession begins, so do the secrets begin to unravel, and in such astonishing and suspenseful fashion that Ms. Marwood will have you glued to the edge of your seat until the very last page.

“Why, oh why, did Coco go missing?”

As a fan of Ms. Marwood’s previous work, I have to admit that she has outdone herself with The Darkest Secret.  Harkening back to terminology Laura Lippman used to describe her books After I’m Gone and Wilde Lake, this is a “quieter” book by Ms. Marwood.  There are less serial killers and cliffhangers grabbing you by the neck and holding on tightly, more subtle character development and quiet unraveling of secrets—both involving murder and the human heart.

Perhaps one of the most compelling aspects of Alex Marwood’s third novel is her ability to occupy the minds and beings of several different characters.  After all, there are fourteen adults in attendance when Coco goes missing, and innumerable people at the funeral for Coco and Mila’s father.  Mila’s reckoning with the truth of the disappearance will keep you reading—and well up into the night wondering about your own life and choices.  

The thrill in The Darkest Seccret does not come with discovering what happened to Coco, but rather why it happened, and the reasoning people kept this secret for years.  What’s most remarkable to me is that on my second read, I found myself even more entranced with Alex Marwood’s writing style and characters.  It is without a doubt that Marwood becomes more and more talented with each book she writes, her biting humor and melancholy characters conspiring to create the absolutely perfect concoction of crime and mystery that brings many readers to why they love crime novels in the first place—not what happened, but why it happened.  

Why, oh, why, did Coco go missing?

If you loved The Darkest Secret, you might want to check out The Cry by Helen Fitzgerald and Every Secret Thing by Laura Lippman.

You can find copies of The Darkest Secret on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

Shotgun Blast from the Past: CLEAN BREAK by Lionel White

  • Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

9781944520199Lionel White is one of those classic hard-boiled authors more people should know about. He was the master of the caper. Well-planned heists, robberies, and kidnappings and the place of fate (or more often human emotion) that unravels the best-laid plans were his specialty. His novel Clean Break is a prime example.

Clean Break concerns the planning, execution, and aftermath of a race track robbery of close to two million dollars. Almost every perpetrator is a “normal citizen” acting as an inside man. Aside from the fresh-from-prison master mind, Johnny Clay, they only know their particular part of the job. One of the men’s wives is seeing a hood on the side, and the two of them hatch a plan to rob the robbers.

The heist is the major character. The planning and execution is shown down to the detail. White uses an innovative technique in rewinding time to follow each participant in their part of the job. Critics often give credit for clarity to Stanley Kubrick in his film adaptation, The Killing, yet White’s clean and lean style allows him to tell a complex tale without the reader without ever being lost. The execution is so sharp, the inevitable unraveling hits you in the gut.

That’s not to say the characters aren’t indelible – Johnny Clay is a stick-up man with ambition. This is his first big-time score, a factor that creates suspense by keeping us in the shadows as to if he can pull it off. Other than his attachment to contacts in the underworld and his honor-among-thieves morality, he makes Stark’s Parker look like Mr. Personality and probably sizes everyone he meets as a partner or a victim. Even the “normal citizens,” including a cop with mafia connections and a degenerate gambler-turned-track-bartender, are morally compromised. Clay says they all have a little larceny in them. Not only did White not bother to make his criminals sympathetic, he offered very little to understand them. He knows you don’t read heist novels for heroes.

i was happy to discover that publisher Stark House has recently brought Clean Break back into print. Clean Break is available in an omnibus edition with White’s novel The Snatcher that also includes a great introduction by crime fiction writer and historian Rick Ollerman. The Snatcher is a kidnapping story with such a detailed crime, a French desperado was able to use the plot to execute a successful kidnapping of his own. Both show White’s expertise in criminal operations. It makes you wonder if Lionel White did something on the side to supplement his writing income.

You can find copies of Clean Break/The Snatcher on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. 

MysteryPeople Review: THE WESTERN STAR by Craig Johnson

Craig Johnson comes to BookPeople to speak and sign his latest on Tuesday, September 12th, at 7 PM. We’ve followed the Longmire series from its incarnation, and we’re happy to announce Johnson’s latest is as good as any in the series! 

  • Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

WARNING: WHILE NOT GIVING ANY SERIOUS PLOT POINTS AWAY, THIS REVIEW MAY HINT AT SOME OF THE NUANCE AND STRUCTURE THE READER MAY LIKE TO DISCOVER THEMSELVES

9780525426950Craig Johnson understands his hero, the way not every series writer does. We’ve witnessed his put-upon Wyoming sheriff Walt Longmire battle depression after his wife’s death, cautiously develop a relationship with his deputy, Victoria Moretti, become a grandfather, and deal with others of life’s challenges, while rounding up the bad guys, all without a false note. This skill is fully apparent in The Western Star where a present day mystery connects to one in Walt’s past, and sets up his future.

The Western Star begins in Cheyenne with Walt and Vic getting re-certified for marksmanship (Obviously, no challenge for Vic). Lucien, the previous Absaroka County sheriff, comes along for the ride, since they are staying with Walt’s daughter and her new baby. Walt and Lucien also have another agenda. A convict has filed for compassionate release, due to a terminal illness. Wanting the man to die in prison, Walt is out to find out about the maneuverings that are making his release possible.

It all goes back to one of his first murder investigations as a deputy. Lucien took him along for a Wyoming Sheriff’s Association meeting that took place on a vintage locomotive traveling across the state, The Western Star. All that can be said without revealing any of the twists or surprises is a murder occurs, leading to a bigger picture when tied to the present.

The Western Star is the novel version of a finely crafted rocking chair – comfortable, sturdy and straight forward, in a way that proves deceptive. It contains a nod or two to Agatha Christie’s Murder On The Orient Express and gives that classic a run for its money. Johnson uses seventies references sparingly, yet in an entertaining fashion, so there’s no show-boating in his research. There are plenty of facts that need to be played close to the vest and Craig deals them out at the perfect plot point in a way that is never contrived.

Much of this can be credited to Craig Johnson’s understanding of Walt. Not only does he know Walt, he realizes that after a dozen novels, two novellas, and a short story every Christmas, we have gotten to know him well. He uses it as suspense in the present, given our understanding that our lawman is more interested in justice than punishment, keeping us locked in as we race to discover why he wants to make sure the person dies in prison. With the story on the train, he captures Walt’s hesitancy in emotional manners, less tempered by age, and demonstrates how he started out with the investigative chops we know today, but with a lack of focus he will attain later on.`

It is this understanding of Walt and those around him that make the book work and allow the series to move in a new direction. He picks perfect and believable points to have play against character (try picturing cantankerous Lucien with a baby before reading) and understands the still waters that run dark and deep within them. With The Western Star, Walt’s present and past dovetail beautifully into a satisfying conclusion that sets our hero up for a journey that will define him for books to come.

You can find copies of The Western Star on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Craig Johnson comes to BookPeople to speak and sign his latest on Tuesday, September 12th, at 7 PM.

MysteryPeople Pick of the Month: BLUEBIRD, BLUEBIRD by Attica Locke

  • Post by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

9780316363297Ever since Attica Locke started writing for the hit TV show Empire, I’ve eagerly anticipated her return to crime fiction (while enjoying watching the show, of course.) Her Jay Porter novels, Black Water Rising and Pleasantville, together paint a vivid portrait of African-American life in Houston while continuing the Texas crime writing tradition of featuring lawyers moonlighting as sleuths.

At last, a new Attica Locke book is out! Between the driving plot, the complex characters, and the righteous anger, Locke’s latest, Bluebird, Bluebird, has exceeded my highest expectations. Her latest is also her first to take place in rural East Texas, and her first to be released by Mulholland Books.

When Darren, an African-American Texas Ranger, goes to help out a friend fend off a crazed white supremacist, he faces censure from his department for taking an interest in fighting hate crimes. He’s already disappointed his superiors by attempting to introduce race into the organization’s massive investigation of the Aryan Brotherhood, their tunnel-vision focus on gun-smuggling and drug-dealing a hindrance to any honest reckoning with the powerful prison gang.

After contemplating quitting the force and returning to law school, Darren thinks he’s ready to make his wife happy and retire from his dangerous occupation. When he finds out about two suspicious murders in the small town of Lark, just off of Highway 59, he knows he should move on, but he can’t leave the case alone. A black lawyer and a white waitress have been murdered in a small Texas town within a week of each other, and Darren doesn’t place much trust in local law enforcement’s interest in solving the crimes.

With the reluctant acquiescence of his bosses, under pressure from reporters to appear to be solving the crime, Darren takes on the investigation of both murders. Next thing he knows, he’s treading through muddy bayous and knee-deep in white supremacists and corrupt sheriffs as he tries to solve the two murders before the Aryan Brotherhood succeeds in their mission to assassinate him.

The discovery of the white waitress’ body behind a cafe that doubles as a community space and a safe haven for black travelers puts the entire black population of the town at risk as Aryan Brotherhood thugs try to frame the cafe patrons for the murder. Darren works to protect the cafe and its denizens, while trying to force the town’s authorities to step back from scapegoating and actually solve the crime. Meanwhile, Darren gets closer to proving that an icehouse run by white supremacist meth dealers is most likely the scene of the crime, despite the owners working hard to hinder the investigation.

Bluebird, Bluebird seems to pay tribute to the classic novel and film In the Heat of the Night. Bluebird, Bluebird‘s Northern-educated black professionals (including the murdered lawyer, his grieving photographer wife, and the intellectual Texas Ranger protagonist) all face heightened prejudice from the townspeople inspired by their skin color and their professional status, yet each manages to use that status to fulfill their goals and further the investigation. Darren, like Mr. Tibbs, is a dignified action hero who uses his wits, wiles, and professional skills to shake up a town sick of its own corruption.

As I finished the novel, my mind drew additional parallels to one of the year’s greatest genre films. Like the film Get Out, Bluebird Bluebird uses genre to tackle the horror felt by those who’ve seemingly attained success and safety, but know the difference between life and death is merely the difference between the civilized censorship of the city and the primal hatred of the pines.Believable, timely, and full of outrage – the perfect East Texas crime novel!

Bluebird, Bluebird comes out September 12th – Pre-order now!