MysteryPeople’s Pick of the Month for March 2020 is William Boyle’s City of Margins. It hits shelves on March 3rd, but before you purchase it, check out what Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery had to say about Boyle’s latest.
Thirty five years ago, Viv Delaney vanished during the middle of her shift as the night clerk at the Sun Down Motel in Fell, NY. There were hints that she didn’t leave on her own–her car was left behind in the parking lot, her purse (and her money) were left behind in the office. Oddly, no one reported her missing for 4 days. The police made a half-hearted attempt to find out what happened to her, but young girls had a habit of disappearing from Fell in those days.
Her aunt’s mysterious disappearance has always haunted Carly Kirk so she travels to Fell to see if she can come up with any clues. On visiting the run-down motel where Viv worked, Carly sees a notice that the hotel is looking for a night clerk—the same position that her aunt disappeared from—and on a whim she decides to apply, thinking it might give her some insight into what happened to Viv. The seedy motel doesn’t seem to have changed at all since her aunt worked there, and Carly quickly comes to realize that there’s something very wrong with the Sun Down Motel. Lights flicker for no reason, doors fly open all on their own, and there’s a mysterious scent of cigarette smoke even when Carly is sure she is quite alone. Certain the motel holds the key to Viv’s disappearance, Carly goes back every night until she’s thinks she might have figured out what happened all those years ago. But is the motel ready to give up its secrets?
I normally don’t read books that edge toward the paranormal, but the amazing cover on this one pulled me in and once I started I couldn’t put this down. The motel itself is as much a living, breathing character as any of the people in the story. It’s seen bad things over the years, and can sense when bad people come around. St. James does a masterful job revealing the story in alternating time lines, switching back and forth between Carly’s story and that of her aunt Viv. The Sun Down Motel is a captivating and chilling psychological thriller.
S.C. Perkins won the St. Martin’s Malice domestic award for her debut Murder Once Removed. Her amateur sleuth Lucy Lancaster holds the profession of a genealogist, allowing her to touch many of the themes the mystery genre explores. In this first outing, Lucy contends with a murder in the past to solve one in the present and prevent another in the future.
A wealthy senatorial candidate hires her to look into his family’s history. The discovery of a daguerreotype and a journal leads Lucy to the possibility that one of his ancestors was murdered in 1849 by a relative of his opponent. When the friend and former employee of Lucy who was holding the daguerreotype is murdered and the picture is stolen, Lucy uses her skills to find the killer . Her search leads her into a conspiracy of land grabs, political assassination and old ghosts.
Perkins uses Lucy’s profession to every advantage. She gives us great detail in how one traces ancestry and the actual art and science that is in involved. The skill plays beautifully into reoccurring themes of the mystery, such as identity and the effects of the past. Perkins also uses it to have fun with Texas mores and pride in ancestry. Lucy’s bread and butter is a site called “How Texan Are You?”
Murder Once Removed is a debut that promises great potential for an amateur sleuth series. Lucy Lancaster proves to be a smart, believable and resourceful heroine. While far from hard boiled, it avoids steps into being cozy cute. Plus her skill at genealogy allows us to believably take on many different trends in mystery fiction. I look forward to what sordid history Lucy will find in the future.
It is difficult reading Philip Kerr’s Metropolis and not seeing it as a swan song for his series character Bernie Gunther, a pre- and post-war private detective in Berlin, and his creator Philip Kerr. Kerr wrote the novel knowing he had inoperable cancer and this would be his last work. Whether intentional or not, the book becomes a summing up of Bernie and his era by going back to the beginning.
Kerr reintroduces us to Bernie as a police detective in Kripo, just being promoted to the Murder Squad. It is the Wiemar era, 1928. Berlin is both decadent and suffering from reparations from The Great War. A killer roams the streets, taking scalps of prostitutes. When homeless, disabled veterans turn up murdered, Bernie believes it to be the work of the same man.
The case weaves Bernie through the culture and corruption of his time and place. Angerstien, a major player in one of Berlin’s crime rings whose daughter was murdered by the killer, assists Bernie and offers to give up the arsonist of an infamous fire if he catches the killer. When Bernie decides to disguise himself as a legless vet, he is assisted by Bridgette, an alluring makeup artist working on Kurt Weill’s Three Penny Opera as it debuts. Bernie constantly mocks the show and its music. He even acts as a technical adviser for screenwriter Thea von Harbou, who is developing a thriller with her husband Fritz Lang about the hunt for a murderer. A viewing of M is a must either before or after reading.
Kerr gets to the core of Bernie by looking at him between the wars. He has already developed his cynicism having fought in the trenches of The Great War and working Vice, yet he still believes that justice is not an elusive thing. He has already developed his sardonic sense of humor. Some of his best quips are in here. However, we see what may be his last chance at real love with Bridgette, before he takes on the trope of the lonely private eye.
Angerstein asks a question to Bernie, foreshadowing of things to come. “When you’re the last honest man in Berlin, will anybody care?”
I couldn’t help but think that Kerr knows how we, the readers, have cared about what we know Bernie will go through, even if everyone in his world doesn’t.
Metropolis looks at Bernie and Berlin when both had a lot in common. they’ve been though a lot, think they’ve seen a lot, but have no idea what is in store. By ending at the beginning, we reflect on the dark, harrowing, insightful, yet entertaining journey Bernie’s and his creator took us on.
Thanks for the trip, Phil.
William Ard is an author mainly known to only the most avid genre followers. Dead from cancer by age thirty-seven in 1961, he wrote over forty books in the last ten years of his life. The fact that many of them were under pen names doomed him to further obscurity. Recently Stark House reprinted one of them, You’ll Get Yours in the Black Gat line. It may have originally been under the name Thomas Wills, but the story is pure Ard.
It was the first of two books he wrote about New York private eye, Barney Glines. A publicity agent hires Barney to be the go between to return some stolen jewels from his clients, starlet Kyle Shannon. Barney soon discovers that this is the cover for a blackmail plot and as he gets in deeper he is framed for the murder of a burlesque dancer. There are few people he can trust , including the the ones who hired him.
Barney Glines is very much a detective in the Ard vein. Unlike many writers chasing the popularity of Mike Hammer in the fifties, Ard, like some of his contemporaries, Thomas B Dewey and Ross MacDonald, created a sensitive and more socially aware detective. He could still handle his own in the streets, but he carried sympathy for many he met on them. This liberal empathy allowed the author to tap into the melancholy tone of the genre at a perfect pitch.
His view of women is also more sympathetic to the trials and tribulations of women. Much of what drives the plot is Barney’s love for Kyle and the need to rescue her from the men exploiting her. He also shows a great depth of understanding for the life of the murdered burlesque lady as well. This aspect of his work allows for a heart-breaker of an ending.
You’ll Get Yours is a great way to discover William Ard. I hope Stark House finds a way to publish the other Barney Glines book, Mine To Avenge. Both author and detective prove you can be hard boiled and have heart.
William Boyle is steadily making a name for himself in crime fiction. He looks at the working and criminal class of his native Brooklyn with both an unflinching and sympathetic eye. In his latest, A Friend Is A Gift You Give Yourself, he demonstrates his range with that talent.
Rena Ruggerio, a mob widow of “Gentle” Vic Ruggerio, defends the advances of her elderly neighbor Enzio with an ash tray to the head. When he hits the floor and there’s blood everywhere, she panics and takes off in Enzio’s classic Impala to the Bronx where Angela, the daughter she hasn’t seen since she discovered she was involved with Richie, Vic’s right hand man. Angel turns her away but she meets up with her granddaughter, Lucia, at the house next door occupied by Wolfstein, a retired porn star who supplements her income scamming men. Lucia wants to live with Rena, because her mother is hooking up with Richie. Due to Richie’s slaughter of several crime family members, an old mark showing up at Wolfstein’s house, and a bag packed with mob money they end up with the three ladies hitting the road in the Imapala to Wolfstein’s freind Mo in Florida with Richie and a killer named Crea behind them. Oh, and Enzio is still alive and wants his car back.
This book differs in some ways from Boyle’s first two, Gravesend and The Lonely Witness, that both carried more somber tones. They showed the effect of isolation and how people become trapped in their lives and behavior. This story starts that way, with Rena contemplating how anything past her block is foreign to her. However when circumstances pull her with the brasher and more outgoing Wolfstein, she sees a larger world and place for her in it. Boyle tells a believable story of connection, particularly the female variety, and the give and take that plays out in it.
There are a lot more laugh out loud moments than you may be used to in Boyle’s work, but the humor services the characters instead of the other way around, which often happens in books of this type. In fact there is a touch of melancholy to some of it as is Rena and Wolfstein choose to laugh instead of cry at what is dealt to them. These women refuse to be punchlines and he respects that.
A Friend Is A Gift You Give Yourself is a look at female friendship up against the worst men can produce. It’s funny, thrilling, and scary at times. Boyle may have broadened his canvas, yet keeps that tone grounded and his characters real. If this one won’t get you to love him, I don’t know what will.
When it comes to straight up entertainment, few authors can hold a candle to Joe Lansdale. His working class East Texas voice provides both a perfect and unique bed for action and humor, and few characters are as entertaining as liberal redneck Hap and his gay, black, Republican buddy Leonard. The two have been in more scrapes and exchanged more quips than both the real and fictional Butch and Sundance. Joe’s latest foray with the boys, The Elephant Of Surprise, proves to be one of the most entertaining in the series.
The story is stripped down and simple. Hap and Leonard are trying to get home before a storm hits and comes across an Asian American woman with her tongue sliced halfway through with a short kung-fu expert and a big guy who’s good with guns after her. Since they’re good guys and Texans, they help the lady and soon have more bad men after them. Things escalate from chase, siege, more chases, and a showdown in a bowling alley as the storm builds.
In many ways, this is Joe getting back to basics.With the exception of a couple of calls Hap makes to his wife Brett and their deputy pal Manny helping out, any of the usual supporting characters only appear in the last chapter. Joe keeps the plot simple, although he makes us wonder how the damsel in distress’s story is on the up and up. It allows for a great amount of forward momentum with danger escalating as they get more and more outnumbered. Lansdale taps deeper into the pulp and fifties paperback roots of the earlier books in the series.
The Elephant Of Surprise is like a master blues man’s acoustic set. It’s taking everything to its bad ass bare essentials. Joe Lansdale shows that’s all he needs to rock.
Mark your calendars to join us April 3rd at 7pm when Joe is here to speak and sign copies.
All of us at MysteryPeople are huge fans of Mark Pryor’s Hugo Marston series and we agree that his latest—The Book Artist—is the best one yet.
Hugo Marston is a former FBI profiler who works as head of security at the US Embassy in Paris. The book takes its title from the opening scenes when Hugo’s boss, Ambassador Bradford J. Taylor, strongly encourages Hugo to attend an art exhibition at the Dali Museum. Hugo is initially reluctant–art isn’t really his thing, he’s more of a bibliophile–but he’s drawn to the exhibition when he learns that it involves sculptures created from rare books. (The fact that the artist is an “indescribably beautiful” young woman doesn’t hurt either.) When a museum guest is brutally murdered, Hugo jumps to help the police find the killer. And when they arrest someone Hugo believes is most certainly not the killer, he feels an even deeper urgency to bring the real culprit to justice.
Meanwhile, Hugo’s best friend Tom is getting himself into a spot of trouble in Amsterdam. In their former lives, Hugo and Tom were responsible for sending a man to prison. That man has been released, and Tom believes he may have traveled to Europe to seek revenge. As the pursuit unfolds, the avid Hugo fan finally learns some hidden truths about Hugo and Tom’s shared past.
It’s difficult to delve much further without divulging any spoilers, because there is one twist after another in The Book Artist. Pryor seamlessly weaves the disparate plot lines together, and his voice demonstrates a new level of assuredness.
Pryor’s characters have become old friends to this series devotee, and the long-time friendship between Hugo and Tom is just so much fun to witness. The hard-drinking, womanizing Tom is the perfect foil to the more serious and straight-laced Hugo. Underneath Tom’s relentless teasing one can sense his deep admiration and love for Hugo, and the affection runs both ways. In The Book Artist we finally get a glimpse into their shared past and learn how they ended up leaving their former employers.
And any discussion about the series has to include the setting. Pryor clearly loves Paris, and his detailed descriptions of the neighborhoods, the restaurants, and the people makes the reader feel greatly tempted to hit up Expedia for the next jet to the City of Light. If your budget won’t allow for that, at least pick up a croissant and fix yourself a café au lait to enjoy while you delve into The Book Artist!
The Book Artist by Mark Pryor
Mark Pryor returns with Hugo Marston, head of security for the U.S. embassy in Paris. Hugo has to clear his girlfriend Claudia for the murder of a sculptress he took to dinner. Also, Cofer, the criminal from Tom Green and his FBI past comes back for revenge. Pryor juggles both of these stories with wit, suspense and a seemingly effortless style. Mark will be at BookPeople February 9th at 6PM to discuss The Book Artist.
Brother’s Keeper by Donald Westlake
A monk tries to save his monastery on Park Avenue from being bought out by a greedy land developer, committing several sins in the process. Hard Case Crime brings back this Donald Westlake novel from 1975 that demonstrates his craft for character and humor. A subtle satire of religion, big business, and all our human frailties that the author appears to embrace.
Last Night by Karen Ellis
When a black working class nineteen year old helps a white upper middle class girl find some weed to buy, they take a dark journey through New York. Ellis weaves their story with the the two police detectives each trying to find them after they have been reported missing. Every character you meet is both fully formed and sharply delineated in this story that looks at class, race, and the ways a city divides.
David Swinson’s Frank Marr has become one of my favorite private eyes. A functioning drug addict with a lot of dysfunctional relationships, he is just as likely to go looking for a fix before a suspect. In Trigger, reported to be the end of the Frank Marr trilogy, he takes a case that could lead to redemption or send him spiraling to oblivion.
Marr has quit using, but he doesn’t appear much better. He still raids drug houses, but flushes down the contraband he finds, using the rush as a replacement for the narcotics. The fact that he downs a lot of alcohol throughout the book is also suspect. He walks a razor’s edge asking to get cut.
Leslie Costello, the attorney he works for who is also his ex, gives him a job that hits close. She’s representing his former D.C.P.D. partner Al Luna who is accused of a bad shooting. Al swears he saw a gun, but none can be found at the scene. Frank’s work for the defense has him working with Calvin, a young black man who was at the wrong end of his abuse of authority in his police days. Their search for answers puts them in the middle of a drug war with shifting sides.
Swinson pulls no punches in his depiction of Frank. He follows the hard boiled school of the reader taking the protagonist on his own terms. If you haven’t read the previous books, The Second Girl and Crime Song, you may have difficulty in liking him at first. He is responsible for his own faults and has become a prisoner of them. We root for him to get past his sins and mistakes, allowing the decent man who is in there to fully come to form.
The plot itself also may be challenging to the reader. It almost works inverse to most mysteries, with more understanding, facts, and truth leading to more ambiguity. It reflects the right and wrong of the streets becoming more abstract from what Frank and Calvin learn from one another. It also ties into our concern we have for Frank returning to drugs for the dark confusing world the case leads him through.
If Trigger’s world is dark, it finds light in many of the characters, especially in its lead. His code provides an anchor for his soul on the rough, cold seas. He and others show that an ability to reach out to one another and share perspectives makes the streets easier to navigate. Frank Marr’s life may be harrowing, but there is hope if he can trust others for help.