Category Archives: crime

True crime on page and on air: A fan’s notes

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Dreamland by Sam Quinones showed up on a lot of year-end best lists last year. I still resisted it. I know the opiate epidemic, fueled by pill mills, has transition

ed into a heroin epidemic, especially in the midwest and the Northeast, where I’m from. I know they are related, and have been devastating to families and communities.

But I had a hard time getting past the difference between the societal and governmental reaction to this drug scourge, versus crack in the 1980s — which begot the whole three strikes policy that saw people going away for life for a lousy $30 drug buy. Prescription pain medication abuse wasn’t treated the same way. Plenty of people died from the crack epidemic, too. Plenty of lives, families and communities were destroyed. But now pain meds and heroin are affecting white middle class kids and their parents! So suddenly it’s everybody’s problem.

Still, when I saw Dreamland on the table at our new Books & Books at The Studios of Key West I couldn’t resist picking it up — and I’m so glad I did. This is one of the best works of reported nonfiction I have read in years.

Quinones expertly traces the two streams that converged to create our current opiate epidemic: the over-prescribing of opiate medications, on the (mistaken) assumption that they weren’t terribly addictive and the marketing of black tar heroin by young men from one particular region of Mexico.

The pain pills were the result of doctors who genuinely wanted to help people – and drug companies (and less scrupulous doctors) that wanted to make money. All of them relied to an inordinate extent on a short letter to the New England Journal of Medicine about the addictive qualities of opiates – a letter that was later cited as a “landmark study” in the popular press and pharmaceutical sales pitches.

The Mexican heroin trade looks almost admirable by contrast — because the “Xalisco boys,” as Quinones calls them, created an insanely successful, resilient web of heroin sales that relied on pagers (and later cell phones), moving small amounts and an apparently infinitely sales force. They didn’t carry guns and they only imported small amounts and carried even smaller amounts when they sold. It was far easier to deport them than to prosecute them. And the drugs were delivered to clients in fast food parking lots, not scary street corners.

Quinones assembles an astonishing amount of information and tells the story so well you don’t feel like you’re reading a treatise or a sociology text. And he takes time, when appropriate, to address that beef I have with the way the opiate epidemic has been treated – because now the kids of people in power are getting affected.

Listen to that

The other piece of excellent reporting I’ve come across recently is the second season of Breakdown. That’s the podcast produced by the Atlanta Journal Constitution. They said forthrightly that they were inspired by Serial but in some ways I prefer it. It’s more straight-up reporting, with less introspection. And in the first season, they really addressed the systemic problems facing the defendant — and all poor defendants in Georgia.

Ross Harris left his son in a car and the boy died. Was it murder, or a horrible accident?

Like Serial, the second season is not a question of did-he-or-didn’t-he. It’s a what-crime-did-he-commit (if any). And they’ve picked a doozy — Ross Harris, the young Atlanta father who left his toddler son in the car all day. The son died. Harris, it turns out, was a serial philanderer, making the defense’s case even harder.

Throughout, AJC court reporter Bill Rankin is a terrific guide to the case and to the court system in general. He’s knowledgable and good at explaining proceedings for laypeople, as well as consulting attorneys and other experts who know the system from the inside. It’s all exactly what I want from a journalism podcast — going deeper into a story than you possibly could in a 15-inch newspaper story or a 4 minute radio feature. Bravo.

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Crime fiction, here and there, cozy and not, on page and screen

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Lucy Burdette, aka Roberta Isleib. Photo by Carol Tedesco

I recently interviewed Lucy Burdette, who is really Roberta Isleib, who lives in Key West and writes the Key West Food Critic Mysteries. The seventh installment in the series, Killer Takeout, publishes on April 5.

It’s a “cozy” mystery, which means no blood or sex on the page, as Roberta tells me during the interview. Not my usual thing but I enkiller takeout coverjoyed her book, which is set in the run-up to Fantasy Fest … with a hurricane bearing down. It didn’t even give me too much of a Wilma flashback. I especially admired how she addressed the tensions among Conchs, yearround locals and snowbird socialites. That’s a large — and growing — aspect of life down here, at least from my perspective.

At the same time, my husband and I have been watching the second season of Bosch on Amazon Prime (no spoilers, please — we’re only halfway through). I liked the first season fine but the second one is much better. The best part is that I haven’t read any of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch books. Most of my crime fiction reading is

Bosch

Titus Welliver plays Harry Bosch.

historical and just about all of my contemporary crime fiction reading has been set in Florida (Carl Hiaasen, James Hall, et. al.). But now I’ve got the first Bosch book, The Black Echo, on order from the library.

And I feel like I’m primed for L.A., not only by watching the TV show — which manages to make L.A. look fairly attractive, probably because nobody on there ever spends time stuck in traffic — but also because I just finished Shaker by Scott Frank. I read a short story about it in Entertainment Weekly and my most exshakercellent local library already had a copy. Frank is a screenwriter and this is a first novel – my opinion has been that screenwriters write excellent thrillers and crime fiction because they know how to move a plot along, as well as how to write dialogue. This one bolsters my theory and is also an excellent option for people who are jonesing for Elmore Leonard now that the master has left us. Frank wrote the screenplays for Out of Sight and Get Shorty and it shows, though he doesn’t really have Leonard’s funny vein. He’s not trying to be funny, though, so that’s cool.

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Girls, Gone and On Trains

I finally got around to reading The Girl On The Train — I feel less obliged to occasionally read hot bestsellers now than I did when I worked at the library. But I still like to keep up with the zeitgeist, at least with a book that I might like anyway.

And I’m a little predisposed to root for books by female crime fiction writers, because feminism and also because I was so impressed with our all-star lineup from the 2014 Key West Literary SeminarGirl on train cover.jpg (Lippman! Flynn! Abbott! Locke! Nunn! Faye! Gerritsen! George!).

It took me two tries to really get into The Girl On The Train and I found it harder to read, generally, than Gone Girl. The two have been frequently compared and not just for the overlap in the titles. Both feature alternating, unreliable narrators and a wife gone MIA. And I must say the finales of both strain plausibility. But these are crime thrillers.

I found Girl On The Train’s narrators are much more difficult — by which I mean uncomfortable — heads to live inside. Rachel is a mess and Megan is a pain in the ass, at least initially. Both of Gillian Flynn’s narrators in Gone Girl, Nick and Amy, had problems but both were attractive or maybe charismatic in some weird way. At least to me.

I stuck with Girl On The Train the second time, though, and I’m glad I did. Both because I got to find out who did it, and because now I’ve read the book before it becomes a big deal with the movie. And I will admit that after I finished it resonated for me a little more than Gone Girl. Not enough for a full blown book hangover, where I can’t really get into another book because my head is still in the last one. But more than I expected.

 

 

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Hits, misses and a couple that went out of the park

FullSizeRender-4Some recent reading that exceeded my expectations The novel I really want other people to read so we can talk about it is Euphoria by Lily King. It’s historical fiction, though set in the early 20th century in New Guinea, not my usual time and place. It’s based on a period from the life of Margaret Mead though heavily fictionalized. And it’s mesmerizing. Also short enough that you can, essentially, read it at one sitting. It was one of those books where I was intentionally making myself slow down so it would last longer. The Trip to Echo Spring is about writers and drinking. It’s a portrait of six alcoholic writers, two of whom are Tennessee Williams and Ernest Hemingway, so it features a Key West visit. But it’s not a clinical or sociological dissection – more of a literary meditation and travelogue as the author travels around the country visiting some of their homes. I first heard about The Mechanical from this NPR review, the good people at the FKCC Library were nice enough to order it at my suggestion and I read it in less than two days. It more than lived up to my admittedly unformed but moderately high expectations. I’m not a huge reader in this genre but I do occasionally enjoy it and this was a good one. Books that lived up to my expectations: I finally got around to Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, which got a lot of praise last year and deserves it. Kind of like The Passage (which it even references) but without such a large cast of characters … or the wait for two more installments. I picked it up looking for distraction during a period of high anxiety over a work project. I’m not recommending dystopian stories as a remedy for anxiety but it did take my attention away from my own silly worries. Because why get all consumed with anxiety about a work project when other people are trying to survive a pandemic and its aftermath? C.J. Sansom’s new book in his excellent Shardlake series, Lamentation, is both a classic crime fiction procedural and a fine helping of Tudor intrigue, all in one nice big book. It’s nice to have him back, even if he goes through the usual trials. Maybe even more so. I tried out another historical series, this one set in Anglo-Saxon Britain, with Shadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell – that was good enough that I’ve got the second volume on request. And I liked The May Bride by Suzannah Dunn, which I found browsing the library’s new books shelf – it’s not exactly Tudor intrigue though it’s told from Jane Seymour’s point of view. It’s about her sister-in-law, her brother Edward’s first wife, who is shipped off to a convent after a sexual scandal. It’s not for everyone though I’d say more for the Hilary Mantel interior psychology fans than those who favor the Philippa Gregory court/sexual power plays. I finally finished The Plantagenets by Dan Jones, a nice meaty nonfiction tome that covers the dynasty from Henry II to Richard II. I am even hopeful I will remember my Edwards and Henrys, at least for a little while. I got through my next work of nonfiction a lot quicker. After a disappointing spy thriller last month, I took a flyer on a thriller based on an ad in Entertainment Weekly. Maybe not the best basis for selecting books but you know what? White Plague was just fine. I was glad the library had it in the collection — I might have regretted spending my own money on it. But I didn’t regret the few hours it took me to read it. Books that didn’t live up to my expectations: I bought The Skull and the Nightingale in hardcover and have had it on my shelf for a couple years. Why? I don’t really remember and when I finally read it — meh. Set in the 18th century but not the sort of romp that, say, Blindspot was. Interred With Their Bones  should have been right in my wheelhouse – a lost Shakespeare play McGuffin! Some scenes set in Shakespearean London. But this one strayed over the Dan Brown line of disbelief suspension. The Marriage Game by Alison Weir. Why does Alison Weir keep writing fiction? And why do I keep trying to read it? She’s such a good popular historian – but her fiction reads like some of the most wooden romance writing ever. Ugh. I didn’t finish this one. And you know I don’t do that very often.

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Stuck In The Past (And I Feel Fine)

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The interior of the Key West Library at the Knights of Columbus Hall, 1021 Duval St., in the 1930s. Photo from the Monroe County Library collection.

My reading so far this year has been almost exclusively historical fiction (with two exceptions, one good and one not-so-much).

I went on a Bernard Cornwell binge, picking up the Saxon Chronicles with the second volume, The Pale Horseman, then gobbling down the the next five after that in fairly short order (The Lords of the North, Sword Song, Death of Kings, The Burning Land, The Pagan Lord). I did this even though I’m not sure this is the best way to read this series. I got a little tired of Uhtred sometimes. But these are fine adventure tales and now I feel a tiny bit more educated about the history of England before it was England and the various Norse incursions. If you like the TV show Vikings, these are definitely worth a read.

I read The Day of Atonement by David Liss, a writer of historical fiction whom I’ve admired since I reviewed his book The Whiskey Rebels for Solares Hill back in the day. This new one is an interesting take on European historical fiction, set in the 18th century with the hero being a Portuguese Jew who is forced to flee to England as a boy and returns to take his revenge. Another fine adventure tale.

Not historical: on the recommendation of Cheryl Tan, I read Man V. Nature by Diane Cook. It’s a book of short stories and the first published work of fiction by a former This American Life Producer (yay, radio!). Dystopian on the rocks from a woman’s perspective. If you like the world of George Saunders, check these out and keep an eye on Cook.

In February, around the time that Fifty Shades of Grey movie hype was reaching full cry, I retreated to much-better works of romance written by another E. James — this is Eloisa James, who writes very good historical romances (and in real life is Mary Bly, a professor of literature at Fordham). The books I read this time were her Duchess Quartet (even though they don’t all feature duchesses, whatever) — not quite as good as some of her more recent titles but enjoyable nonetheless and if you want some enjoyable entertainment with some sex in it and possibly unrealistic romantic scenarios — skip Fifty Shades and read her instead.

I also caught up on a couple of historical crime series in my favorite period — the Tudors! Treachery by S.J. Parris wasn’t published in the U.S., so far as I can tell, so I broke down and ordered a copy from Amazon UK. It’s the fourth in her Giordano Bruno series and it’s as good if not better than the predecessors. I continue to have concerns about her hero’s future prospects, based on the fate that befell the real-life Bruno. But I enjoy these stories anyway.

And finally got around to An Air of Treason, the latest from P.F. Chisholm, aka Patricia Finney when she’s writing her excellent series about Sir Robert Carey, cousin/nephew of Queen Elizabeth. And this one has a couple cameos from QE I herself, along with Carey’s usual entertaining way with the ladies and his enemies.

I got an early look Dennis Lehane’s third novel about the Coughlin family, World Gone By, because I reviewed it for The Miami Herald. If you follow the link you’ll see I liked the book a lot — it continues the story of Joe Coughlin, the center of the previous book, Live By Night. This one is set in the 1940s and while Joe hasn’t left the world of organized crime he’s stepping back from running the show. As you can imagine, though, extricating yourself and protecting those you love isn’t that easy, even for an exceptionally smart guy like Joe. I think this book stands on its own though it would be enriched by having read Live By Night and even the first in the series, The Given Day. Apparently, Lehane’s contemporary crime fiction sells much better, which is a shame if it discourages him or his publishers from more books like this.

The best and worst for last. The best book I’ve read so far this year is another work of historical fiction: All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. This was a National Book Award finalist, for good reason. It’s an immersive novel set during World War II, with the intertwining stories of a blind French girl and a talented German radio operator. The chapters are really short so it has the page-turning propulsion of a thriller but with beautiful writing that makes you simultaneously want to slow down and savor it. Just a great read, on just about every level.

Not so great: I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes. This is disappointing because it came at the recommendation of a reading friend whose tastes are very similar to mine. While I don’t read a lot of thrillers, I enjoy them occasionally (I liked Red Sparrow a lot when I read it last year). This one had promise, coming from a veteran screenwriter — I have come to trust that writers from the world of screens know how to craft stories. But this one, while far better written than, say, the works of Dan Brown, hit my plausibility buttons too many times. I *know* these are not supposed to be realistic. I enjoy James Bond and Jason Bourne movies. But the idea that this one guy would be at the center of all these events that happen to all collide at one place on the Turkish coast? Oh well. I did finish it even though it was annoying me and I didn’t really care how our hero was going to save the world. Since then I’ve been bouncing off a couple different books, which is REALLY annoying. Which has led me to conclude: I’d rather be immersed in a book I don’t like all that much than not immersed at all. Is there a name for that syndrome?

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Highly Recommended Reading: The Silkworm

silkwormEven though I’ve been reading fairly steadily (if not especially voraciously last month), it’s been a long while since something blew me away like my last read: The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith. Galbraith is really J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame, who published the first book in this private detective series under a pseudonym because she didn’t want it to be overwhelmed by Harry Potter hype.

Her identity came out fairly soon after publication anyway and she’s continuing with the series and I’m so glad she is. In fact, after reading this installment, I wish she’d quit messing around with whatever Potter follow-ups I see reference to occasionally and just settle down with Cormoran Strike. Because it is great.

Cormoran Strike is in some ways a classic private eye — smart but isolated, cynical but still generous enough to offer help to people who need it whether it’s his accidental-temp-turned-assistant Robin, or in this book, his hapless client who is her own worst enemy.

I don’t read a huge amount of contemporary crime fiction though I am trying to increase the proportion. And my favorite is Kate Atkinson, who has recently taken her attention from her excellent Jackson Brodie series to write more literary fiction (I resisted the quote marks! Praise me!!!). Reading Galbraith/Rowling reminds me a lot of the Brodie series because of what both writers do best — character and sly humor, without spilling over into the over-the-top territory of Carl Hiaasen or Elmore Leonard. In these books the people seem like real people only more interesting. And both stay mostly focused on our heroes, who are not entirely heroic but entirely human, but also offer occasional points of view from other characters — Atkinson more than Galbraith, who sticks just to Robin as an alternative. Anyway if you’re looking for a satisfying relatively quick read and you’ve got a touch of Anglophilia — or you are just sick of waiting for Atkinson to get back to Brodie — give these a try. The first is called The Cuckoo’s Calling and it’s good enough that I kept going to the second, but I’m saying she’s really hit her stride with The Silkworm.

If you’re in the Keys and you have a library card both titles are available in print. The first is also available as an audiobook, the second as an ebook. If you’re in the Keys and you don’t have a library card, head to your nearest library and get a library card.

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After they’re gone

present darknessIt happens every time — I wind up obsessed with the writers who appeared at the Key West Literary Seminar for months after the event. Perhaps it’s just the inevitable effect of spending four days in their company, or thinking about their subjects.

I at least have a valid excuse for reading After I’m Gone by Laura Lippman after the Seminar — because it wasn’t published until February. What a great read it is — an unconventional crime novel in many ways, more of an examination of what happens to a family when its center mysteriously disappears. In this case it was first Felix Brewer, and later his mistress, who disappeared exactly 10 years after her lover. Many assumed she had gone to join him — until her body showed up 12 years after that.

Another decade has passed by the time it gets taken up as a cold case by Sandy Sanchez, a retired homicide detective now working as a consultant for the Baltimore Police Department. But the real pleasure of the book is not just following Sandy’s investigation, but in learning the story through chapters that move fluidly among characters and in different times. It provides a portrait of Baltimore in the second half of the 20th century, for the most part, in a particular upper middle class Jewish circle. And it never flags — while in some books that alternate viewpoints you just can’t wait to get away from some characters and back to others (ahem, George R.R. Martin), in this one every single chapter was interesting in its own right and I was always glad to pick up with whomever Lippman wanted to tell us about next. The whodunit aspect is satisfying, in the end (I hadn’t guessed it) but the real pleasure of this book, for me, was the people.

Speaking of compelling characters, I’ve just caught up to Malla Nunn‘s series of Emmanuel Cooper novels (s0 far) with an advanced copy of Present Darkness, which publishes in June. The books are set in South Africa in the early 1950s, just as apartheid is being instituted, and it’s a fascinating, horrifying, fraught time period especially for a man in Cooper’s position. I don’t want to offer any spoilers but suffice it to say that Cooper’s background and upbringing means he’s in a position to cross a lot of lines. He’s also a World War II vet with a nasty case of PTSD decades before that term would be applied — in his case it manifests as migraines and the voice of his Scottish drill instructor issuing orders and advice inside his head. Start with the first in the series — A Beautiful Place to Die — and read them in order.

I had always considered apartheid the most outrageous social atrocity of my high school and college years, and its ending a miracle of my adulthood — but I had never really sat back and thought about 1) how insanely recent it was 2) its endless complicated consequences for the people who actually had to live with it and 3) how bizarre it was in a country that had just sent soldiers to World War II — fighting against and defeating a regime built on ethnic hatred. Cooper is a classic crime fiction hero in many ways — a flawed but admirable man who seeks to do good in a deeply screwed up world. It’s a tribute to Nunn’s skill that I find myself missing his world when I finish one of her books — because who would really want to live under those conditions? Yet her people and the plots are so compelling that want to know what happens next for Detective Sergeant Cooper. Like Matthew Shardlake (C.J. Sansom’s Tudor series), Gaius Petraeus Ruso (Ruth Downie’s Medicus series) and Jackson Brodie (Kate Atkinson), I am eager to hear how he will get out of his next tight spot and figure out a way to, improbably, do some good.

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