Samantha Hayes Brings Twists To A Small Town In ‘What You Left Behind’

what you left behindIn the opening scene of Samantha Hayes’s new mystery What You Left Behind, a couple joyrides on a stole motorcycle, with deadly consequences. This scene winds it way through the novel, as DCI Lorraine Fisher goes to visit her sister Jo in the country, and stumbles upon mysterious characters and mysterious crimes. In the fictional village of Radcote, a cluster of teen suicides still haunt the community. Jo’s son, Freddie, is clearly struggling, upset about Jo’s separation from husband, Malcom, and whatever keeps him furiously gazing at his phone day and night. But what exactly is Freddie involved in, and what does it have to do with the family who lives in the manor house, who lost their son in the outbreak of suicides last year?

Samantha Hayes proved herself a master of the red herring with the first book featuring DCI Lorraine Fisher, Until You’re Mine. I recommend it, although you don’t need to read it to pick up What You Left Behind.

One of Hayes’s best tricks seems to be to fall into stereotypical characters, and then pull out of them. There were several times, especially with Gil, an autistic (and suspect) member of the manor family who likes to take long walks alone at night, that I thought to myself,”Is she really stereotyping this character this hard? Am I really falling for this?” But (I’m not a fan of spoilers, so without giving too much away) Hayes manages, as she did with Until You’re Mine, to pull off a twist I totally didn’t see coming, as my attention was directed so many places.

If you are looking for a compulsively readable, spooky and fast-paced series to take to the beach or the pool this summer, look no further, as Samantha Hayes has got you covered.

What You Left Behind on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

The Tragic Tale of Lucie Blackman: A Londoner Disappears In Tokyo

pplwhoeatdarkness

At first the story was a puzzle, which developed over time into a profound mystery. Lucie emerged as a tragic victim, and finally as a cause, the subject of vigorous, bitter contestation in a Japanese court. The story attracted much attention in Japan and Britain, but it was fickle and inconsistent. For months at a time there would be no interest in Lucie’s case, then some fresh development would bring a sudden demand for news and explanation. In its outlines the story was familiar enough— girl missing, body found, man charged— but, on inspection, it became so complicated and confusing, so fraught with bizarre turns and irrational developments that conventional reporting of it was almost inevitably unsatisfactory, provoking more unanswered questions than it could ever quell.

This quality of evasiveness, the sense in which it outstripped familiar categories of news, made the story fascinating. It was like an itch that no four columns of newspaper copy or three-minute television item could ever scratch. The story infected my dreams; even after months had passed, I found it impossible to forget Lucie Blackman. I followed the story from the beginning and through its successive stages, trying to craft something consistent and intelligible out of its kinks and knots and roughness. It took me ten years.

–Richard Lloyd Parry, People Who Eat Darkness

People Who Eat Darkness is an example of true crime being stranger than fiction right from the start. Beautiful, young Londoner Lucie Blackman was a hostess in the Roppongi District of Tokyo, lighting the cigars of Japanese businessmen and flirting with them as they drank. She went for a drive to the seaside with one of the men from the club, and never came back. Her panicked roommate, who immediately suspected something was wrong, received a phone call from a man insisting that Lucie had joined a cult and wouldn’t be coming home. Although roommate Louise begged to speak with Lucie, the man refused to let Louise speak with Lucie. “She’s not feeling well,” he said, “she’s starting a new life now.”

Roppongi - photo by David Fuchs

Roppongi district of Japan, where Lucie Blackman worked as a hostess – photo by David Fuchs

Thus starts the strange and tragic tale of Lucie Blackman’s disappearance. People Who Eat Darkness has popped up on so many best of true crimes lists as of late I took it as a sign to read it, and I wasn’t disappointed. Well-written true crime books are hard to find, as they often get so bogged down with dates and facts that they lose some of their humanity, or at the other end, they pay so little respect to the humans involved that they feel flagrant.

Richard Lloyd Parry, as a London correspondent living in Japan, was witness to the entire investigation surrounding Lucie’s disappearance, and ultimately, became an odd sort of part of the story himself, when the man put on trial for Lucie’s death sued him for libel. He is in the unique position to identify with Lucie, as much as an older man can, as a foreigner living in Japan. He seeks, vigorously, from the book’s introduction onwards, to establish and understand Lucie as a human, rather than as just part of a headline. He takes this compassionate stance with every person involved in the story, from Lucie’s misunderstood father who doesn’t seem to behave correctly in the aftermath of Lucie’s disappearance, to her murderer, whom Parry examines through his history and familial experience as well as his shocking, atrocious acts.

Roppongi - photo by David Fuchs

Roppongi – photo by David Fuchs

Without giving too much of the story away here, I think the story of Lucie’s disappearance also illustrates the difficulty of investigation in general, as police have a bizarre brush with their bad guy before they have all the facts, and they let him off. Tokyo as a city is known for its relative safety, and the police are simply unprepared to handle this sort of dark stuff, once it is exposed. The sad story of Lucie, with all its odd turns and stops, reminds me of how different the real world is from the mystery novels I love to read. If mystery novels are full stories chiseled out of a raw piece of marble by an author, true crime is an author stumbling through a quarry after police and criminals and victims, picking up rocks, trying to hold as many as he can in one basket before they all fall loose. From the confusion surrounding what exactly a hostess does to the odd ruling in the trial, Parry manages to patiently explain the convoluted case and its circumstances, while keeping up the pace.

People Who Eat Darkness on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

The Suppressed Rage, The Suppressed Everything, Of Howard Jacobsen’s ‘J’

129.Howard Jacobson-J coverJ is a novel of omission, a novel of everything unsaid brewing up like an earthquake from under the ground.

Howard Jacobsen has built a world in which something happened. Something bad. This is a dystopian state that chooses not to talk about its dystopia, a world moved on by moving away, and now this holocaust-like massacre of some future group is referred to as “WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED.” Responsibility has been taken by all, or by no one, equally. Everyone apologizes for nothing specific. People’s names have been changed, attempting to wipe the slate clean and start over.

Social media, attributed with a role in WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED, has been replaced with flashing utility phones equipped for making and receiving local calls. Gone is conceptualism in art, as the “benign visual arts” now focus on landscapes. Gone is so much expressing discontent, from rock music to Proust, all blamed in part for the atrocities. And yet, not gone is everyone’s anger, as spouses argue and drivers rage.

So much in J lives in what isn’t known, what is forbidden, the opposing viewpoints never even aired, people privately stewing over their secrets at night, the treasures stored in boxes. I’m typing the letter “J” here, but in the book it is always J with two lines through it, as main character Kevern’s father “puts two fingers across his mouth, like a tramp sucking on a cigarette butt he’d found in a rubbish bin. This he always did to stifle the letter j before it left his lips.” Throughout the book, j is typed as the title’s two-lined, stifled, silenced j.

Amidst this negative backdrop, with its history subtracted and its culture forgotten or denied or disallowed, two people fall in love.

Ailinn identifies with the title’s namesake whale in Moby Dick, always pursued. “But when people describe having the wind at their back it’s a sensation of freedom I don’t recognize. An unthreatening, invigorating space behind me?–no, I don’t ever have the luxury of that.” Raised in an orphanage, unfamiliar with her history but aware of Ahab at her heels just the same, she grows up to shape paper into flowers beautiful and strange, alien to the landscape.

Kevern, in a village full of men not hesitant to beat their wives or each other, is not the type to hit a woman. A few kisses here and there, yes, but he’s a man who drives his car rarely and slowly, who disarrays his slippers and teacup in the hallway just-so as a security system against intruders when he goes out. He is a cautious, kind man.

When Kevern sees Ailinn for the first time, a girl with “black hair–thick and seemingly warm enough to be the next of some fabulous and he liked to think dangerous creature,” he is smitten.

As the book progresses, as Kevern and Ailinn’s love story progresses, less is omitted and more is stated outright. Kevern and Ailinn are both outsiders, that much is clear. But what does it mean to be an outsider, after WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED? Neither one of them know their own history, nor that of their country or its crimes. Gradually, a bit of their history is revealed. Never enough for a full picture. This isn’t that kind of book.

J starts slow, as Ailinn and Kevern’s love story builds and each of their characters develop, but the last half of the book makes a powerful and shocking statement about the other as necessary for identity. The intentional vagueness of the actual atrocities allow for sweeping, wise statements and tight, tragic glimpses that might lose power with a more fleshed out description of the crimes. The ending is astonishing, beautifully done, and makes the entire book more memorable.

J on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Emily Schultz’s ‘The Blondes:’ Viral “Blonde Fury” Strikes Women and Our Standards of Beauty

blondes-coverEmily Schultz, founder of Joyland Magazine, has written about an epidemic in The Blondes. This is the story of a virus, yes, and about its outbreak. But like Megan Abbott, Schultz’s horror bubbles up from society’s standards for women and their appearances. This is an epidemic that seems to step down off billboards and rock the collective consciousness, as much of the world demands its women trustworthy, both well-coiffed and well-behaved.

We learn of the virus through the memories of Hazel, narrating to her unborn child. Both the child’s existence and the virus’s bloom up around Hazel’s innocent graduate student life, a Canadian visiting New York indefinitely, hoping to clear her head of romantic entanglements. The story alternates between then, Hazel’s life in New York as the virus hits, and now, as Hazel holes up in a cabin alone, pregnant, wondering if the woman she was living with will return or if she’ll be forced to give birth alone.

Hazel explains in the book’s opening, to her unborn daughter:

We are not like men; men shake hands with hate between them all the time and have public arguments that are an obvious jostling for power and position. They compete for dominance— if not over money, then over mating. They know this, each and every one. But women are civilized animals. We have something to prove, too, but we’ll swirl our anger with straws in the bottom of our drinks and suck it up, leaving behind a lipstick stain.

The virus, nicknamed “Blonde Fury,” removes the veil of civilized nature that Hazel refers to here. Although the science behind the virus isn’t explained, and is referred to vaguely, it targets blondes. It targets the image of blondes we are all familiar with–women towering tall in high heels and perfect lipstick. It leaves them snarling and disheveled, animal-like, unable to be subdued by uniformed men. It hits a group of flight attendants, as they storm down the hall of an airline. It turns what we’ve been taught to identify as beautiful into something animal, furious and deadly.

Men are told what to watch out for on the news. Women who have anxiety are quarantined, suspected of having the virus. Suddenly, the female is feared. The story of the outbreak itself, like all virus tales, is strange and surreal, and Hazel’s own lack of direction leaves her adrift in the effects of the virus both in Canada and the U.S., an observer in both her own life and the world. At times hilarious, at times lonely, The Blondes always relays a striking picture of a world quick to adapt to “Gold Fever.”

You can watch the sort of strange, perhaps not representative of the book at all, trailer here:

The Blondes by Emily Schultz on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Important Book of the Day – Jon Krakauer’s ‘Missoula’

missoulaJon Krakauer’s Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a Small Town uncovers the staggering mistreatment of University of Montana rape victims by the Missoula, Montana justice system. Stranger rape is an easy issue to talk about, as the lines between right and wrong are clear. Acquaintance rape, especially when a party is also too inebriated to give consent or consent seems unclear–this is where college rape culture lies, and this is where Jon Krakauer finds himself investigating. Men who can’t recall exactly what happened because they drank so much, women who awoke from a blackout with someone on top of them.

What shocked me most was the varying treatment Krakauer chronicles between victim and assailant by law enforcement. As women are immediately challenged about their claims, the men brought in for questioning are comforted. “You aren’t thinking of committing suicide, are you,” they are asked the men. At one point, a woman with clear bruises around her throat who was drugged with GHB is asked if she could have just fallen down the night before.

Krakauer notes throughout the book that despite the title of Jezebel’s article, ‘My Weekend In America’s So-Called ‘Rape Capital’ (the author is referring to a quote given by a student), Missoula’s seemingly high rape statistics are quite normal. They just aren’t commonly discussed, as rape isn’t commonly discussed.

I remember reading Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, his personal account of an Everest climb gone wrong, in a buzzy good-book-haze, totally unaware of some of the aspects of climbing the highest mountain of the world. I had the same feeling again when I read his Under the Banner of Heaven, a terrifying look at the fundamentalist LDS church. Krakauer never shies from providing riveting accounts on the toughest of topics, attitudes towards acquaintance rape in Missoula are as scary as any of the other material he’s covered.

Missoula on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Further Reading:

Tom Cooper Brings The Bayou To Life In ‘The Marauders’

the maraudersIn 2010, the BP oil spill brings new disaster to the small bayou town of Jeanette, Louisiana, as it still reels from Hurricane Katrina, five years earlier. Tom Cooper’s The Marauders is a cataclysmic caper tale of this time, with the capers here being those of simple Southern men trying to survive when smarter folks have fled their seemingly cursed region.

In Jeanette, men get addicted to the hard stuff early, backbreaking work equating with muscles that call out for whiskey, and later oxycontin. Shrimpers find three-eyed catches in their nets, or no shrimp at all, and wonder if they should take the settlement money BP is offering, and give up trawling for good like so many of their friends and neighbors. Fancy New York restaurants are advertising shrimp from China–it is, perhaps, the worst of times to be a small town shrimper in the Gulf Coast.

The story rounds through a group of out-of-luck men, each character brilliant in their peculiarities, their regional drawls, their singular and often circular big dreams. Circuits cross between plot lines, friends are made, identities mistaken, lives lost.

Gus Lindquist is a one-armed shrimper, he lost his arm stoned in a boating accident and now he’s misplaced his fancy, fake prosthetic arm as well. But never one to be discouraged, Lindquist pops pills from a pez dispenser and tells knock knock jokes almost continuously, and at inopportune moments. He tirelessly scavenges the bayou for pirate treasure in his spare time, metal detector in his one good arm, dreaming of the secret stash he’ll someday find and the riches that will bring back the wife who has left him and the daughter who doesn’t visit.

Wes lost his mom in the hurricane and never quite forgave his father for insisting that the family stay put in the storm. He goes out with his dad on the shrimping boat despite shrinking catches and shrinking pay.

Cosgrove and Hanson are easygoing misfits. They meet on a community service detail, fixing up an old woman’s house so the city can seize it as soon as she dies. They reunite at a sweet gig cleaning birds drenched in oil for $15.

These are all lovable, and deeply flawed, characters, which makes their forward motion towards disaster all the more painful to read. As someone who has never visited this area of the country, Cooper brought the area to life with lush, striking descriptions of a landscape hostile enough that only the craziest of men try to access its bounties.

I often get so caught up in my mystery novel obsessions I forget what a pleasure humor is in novels. This isn’t a light book, but it is incredibly funny. The Marauders is a tragicomedy that managed to dismay me and still end on a triumphant, movingly positive note. And especially for a first novel, this is a big reach towards all the stars in that inky bayou sky. Cooper nailed it, and he’s definitely a name to watch in the future.

The Marauders on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

No Secrets Are Safe In Harlan Coben’s The Stranger

We get mad at someone for cutting us off in traffic or for taking too long to order at Starbucks or for not responding exactly as we see fit, and we have no idea that behind their facade, they may be dealing with some industrial-strength shit. Their lives may be in pieces. They may be in the midst of incalculable tragedy and turmoil, and they may be hanging on to their sanity by a thread.

― Harlan Coben, The Stranger

the strangerHarlen Coben’s newest thriller, The Stranger, is a book about the secrets we keep, and what happens when they get spilled all over our usually well-kept lives.

Adam lives the American dream, settling in the posh but cozy town of Cedarfield, New Jersey, with his two lacrosse-playing boys and beautiful wife Corinne. Adam has it all. Or he had it all, until a stranger walks up to him in the local dive bar, where banker dads are gathering to form teams for sixth grade lacrosse, and reveals a bizarre and life-shattering secret. The stranger walks away, and when Adam steps out of that bar he steps into a new world, where people keep secrets and loved ones have double lives and justice takes strange forms that often get out of hand.

This sort of opening is Coben’s trademark–he’s a great fisherman and he’ll hook you every time. Although this could be considered a guilty pleasure, this is an example of a guilty pleasure done right. It doesn’t read like a script for a movie, as some fast-paced thrillers do. This type of book is Coben’s jam, and he has totally mastered his craft.

The Stranger on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

If you like Harlen Coben, also try reading:

In Ghettoside, Jill Leovy Reveals The People Behind The Statistics

This is a book about a very simple idea: where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic. African Americans have suffered from just such a lack of effective criminal justice, and this, more than anything, is the reason for the nation’s long-standing plague of black homicides.

–Jill Leovy, Ghettoside

ghettosideGhettoside might be one of the most important books published this year. As the news covers murder so disproportionately, Jill Leovy addresses the issue of high rates of violence within African American urban communities with intelligence and empathy. She embedded with the Los Angeles Police Department, following the homicide detectives, some dedicated, some overwhelmed, many there and then gone, and she kept her own statistics logs.

The statistics themselves are shocking, staggering, unlike anything I’d heard before although I’d lived in Oakland and seen brief news articles covering weekends of violence, summaries of staggering crime statistics that never went national. African American men are “just 6 percent of the country’s population but nearly 40 percent of those murdered.”

Leovy’s answer to this staggering statistic, especially affecting Los Angeles, was a Los Angeles Times blog called The Homicide Report, an attempt to give a story to each victim in LA. The intention here was to honor victims that often went nameless and faceless, when suburban white female victims captured so much of the news cycle.

At the LAPD, Leovy followed one case from the murder itself to its successful prosecution. This case, the murder of yet another young black man, Bryant Tennelle, is notable in that Bryant Tennelle was a respected detective’s son. Walking his bike, wearing the wrong color of hat, he was shot and left for dead. Tennelle’s death isn’t the only chronicled in Ghettoside. Focusing on the Watts area of South Los Angeles, the deaths come continually, providing just a glimpse, the tiniest blink, of what residents and police assigned to the area must feel, a continual wave of death followed by waves of retribution as communities seek their own justice through violence.

Leovy also introduces John Skaggs, a lanky white detective with ADD and a coffee addiction that allows him to work what seems like continuous overtime in an underfunded homicide department. The descriptions of Skaggs often gush, as he is the hero of this story. Never jaded in a department of exhausted officers, able to connect with victim’s mourning families and witnesses alike, Skaggs seems like a character pulled out of a novel. With so many videos released recently of police brutality, so many police gone wrong in current events, I was hesitant to trust this man. But this is part of Leovy’s argument–Skaggs is rare, and we need more like him.

Ultimately, a dedicated investigator like Skaggs is required to solve Tennelle’s murder, as the case is going cold until he takes it over. Solving a case takes good police work. It takes knocking on doors, and interviews, and gathering evidence. Just like any other criminal investigation. And this is the argument of Leovy’s book–there is an epidemic of street justice where the criminal justice system is lacking. The police just aren’t good enough in these high crime areas, she says. By the end of the book, Leovy chronicles a gang banger convincing friends to give the police a chance, knowing one of Skaggs’s team will be on the job. Knowing a good cop might offer justice, she convinces her friends to pause on seeking vengeance themselves.

This book is at times exhausting. It shines light on our country’s bleakest moments, things no one wants to look at and the media chooses not to discuss. It takes a hard look at America’s overtly racist history, from slavery onwards. But this is a book about making black crime into crime like any other–something that can be reported on, talked about, and ultimately solved by the police.

Ghettoside on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Further reading:

A Brain Full Of Crime-Solving Crayons: The Kalireads Interview With Colby Marshall

Today marks the release date for Colby Marshall’s Double Vision, the second book in her Dr. Jenna Ramey series. Colby took some time to answer my questions about sensing colors, women in mysteries, and what she’s reading.

In Until You’re Mine, All That She Wants Is Another Baby

I’m at that age, early thirties, where everyone is getting married and getting pregnant. So are the characters in this thriller, but with much deadlier results than an avalanche of wedding invites and adorable Facebook photos.

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