mystery fiction

Karin Slaughter Takes On Family And Other Gruesome Things In ‘Pretty Girls’

pretty girls

Karin Slaughter is legit. I say this having only read one of her huge Will Trent/Grant County series, Criminal, which didn’t totally blow me away. Where I did fall in love with that story was in its portrayal of women on the police force in the 1970’s, which Slaughter so intensely described it kept me up at nights, skipping the present-day, Will Trent sections of the book to get back those flashbacks of his mentor’s times on earlier, much meaner streets.

This means I was definitely a fan of Cop Town, Slaughter’s stand-alone novel focusing on women police in 1970’s Atlanta. And when Slaughter’s newest release, Pretty Girls, was announced as another stand alone, I was excited, just as Will Trent fans everywhere were dismayed.

In Pretty Girls, posh, confident Claire’s successful architect husband, Paul, is murdered in a robbery gone wrong. Immediately after his death, things stop making sense for Claire. She’s left in a stark, excessively large home she never wanted. A robbery takes place at Claire’s home during the funeral, and police and the FBI are a bit too interested in the case, a bit too attentive to Claire’s needs.

Meanwhile, Claire’s sister Lydia, estranged from the family, is revisiting old wounds as another young girl goes missing in the media. Where Claire is classy and sophisticated, Lydia is overweight and runs a pet-grooming service. As different as the sisters are, they both are haunted by the the memory of their third sister Julia, who went missing in their childhood.

The sisters’ stories alternate until they intertwine, as they come together to figure out just what the police could want from Claire, and who Paul really was.

The best part of this book, and maybe all thrillers for me, was its tense beginning. Claire, nervous and in mourning, realizes something isn’t right. But what, exactly? Everyone is acting strangely, the husband she relied on is dead, and she is left entirely on her own to discover his dark secrets. Like Stephen King’s A Good Marriage, the idea that you may not know the person you married, the person you sleep in bed next to each night, is terrifying.

There is quite a bit of gore, with some really ugly stuff presented. These scenes are brief, and play a role in explaining character development.

The story complicated itself as it progressed, and it began to lose a bit of steam for me, raising too many red flags of plausibility. I didn’t need that many twists for the book to be good. Despite feeling a bit bogged by the end, this is a finely-crafted thriller, with well-developed and realistic female characters confronting both family issues and much uglier, darker things. I know Will Trent fans are eagerly awaiting Slaughter’s next book in that series, but I’ll be eagerly awaiting her next stand-alone release.

Pretty Girls on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

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Ottessa Moshfegh’s Wry, Oddball ‘Eileen’

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I looked like a girl you’d expect to see on a city bus, reading some clothbound book from the library about plants or geography, perhaps wearing a net over my light brown hair. You might take me for a nursing student or a typist, note the nervous hands, a foot tapping, bitten lip. I looked like nothing special. — Ottessa Moshfegh, Eileen: A Novel

Thus opens Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen, a narrative which might indicate our title character is just another girl. But Eileen is an odd young woman, obstinate and unaware in her peculiarities, and this novel’s glimpse into her strange world is at once intimate and incredibly uncomfortable, like a stranger standing too close in an elevator.

It is 1964, and Eileen’s life is bleak. Unmarried, single past her prime in a period not kind to women aged out of the dating pool, Eileen lives with her father. Dad is a former police officer with such a drinking problem, Eileen hides his shoes to keep him from bolting, blackout drunk, into the neighborhood to stir up trouble.

Eileen’s combinations of repression and disinhibition read like a roller coaster of the roles our society demands women to fill. She works at a juvenile detention center, called a boys’ home in those days, and fantasizes about one of the guards, while simultaneously fearing and trying to control her own body, its needs and its functions.

As a character study alone, Eileen is a beautiful, bizarre joy to read. But the real fun comes with the arrival of teacher Rebecca Saint John to the prison. The dazzling, poised Rebecca forms an unlikely friendship with Eileen, albeit a relationship unequal on all levels. The reader can see what Eileen is too girl-crushed to notice–what does this charming vixen want from our dowdy, awkward, dark little narrator?

The big reveal, appearing like a band-aid ripped off in a magnificent and unexpected twist, made me guffaw aloud, which I rarely do. I won’t give anything away here. This is a clever and unique read, full of strange things and strong, warped women.

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

Further reading:

In Ava Marsh’s ‘Untouchable,’ ‘Fifty Shades’ Gets A Murderous Makeover

untouchable

Every now and then, I find myself finishing a book and wondering how to review it. Ava Marsh’s Untouchable, featuring Stella, a forensic psychologist-turned-high class call girl (!), is one of those books. It is sexy, it is violent, and it gets down deep into the issues of sex, class, and power controlling our society today. Whether Untouchable handles those issues well or not is subjective, based on the values of the reader. I think much dislike or love of the book will stem from value judgement of it–how it portrays women as call girls, women as sexual beings, women as victims and perpetrators of violence.

Enough analyzation, already. Let’s get to the plot! Stella is a classy call girl, getting down and dirty with men for money. Marsh describes this experience through Stella’s eyes in explicit visuals–from the arousing to the repelling, and everything in between, it’s all there. Get ready to be turned on, then skeeved out. After a party with some high-powered men, one of Stella’s fellow prostitutes ends up dead. The police aren’t too interested in the dead hooker in a hotel room, but Stella thinks there’s a reason for the murder and wants justice. Through her own investigation, utilizing her network of johns and fellow working girls, Stella uncovers what happened to her friend while risking her own life.

The combination of sex and violence make for some heart-pounding, eye-popping, page-turning stuff. Marsh isn’t afraid to build Stella as a fallible character, who makes an occasionally shockingly cruel mistake. If you are looking for a hooker with a heart of gold story, you won’t find it here.

After reading Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery last year, I believe Untouchable did glamorize the profession a bit. This may be a cultural difference–Ava Marsh lives in London, where prostitution is not illegal, although activities surrounding it are. Marsh’s Stella is a high class girl, and her friend is murdered for an elaborate reason not directly related to her profession. But Kolker’s (nonfiction) book described a much bleaker and much more dangerous life, where men who like to kill women specifically seek out prostitutes because they realize so few people notice when prostitutes go missing. Because of this, I have mixed feelings about Untouchable–I applaud Marsh for discussing prostitution at all in a world that often doesn’t, but wonder if she padded the bleaker details surrounding the profession a bit.

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

When The Bachelorette Party Goes Very, Very Wrong: Ruth Ware’s ‘In A Dark, Dark Wood’

in a dark dark wood

Scout Press is a new imprint from Gallery Books “dedicated to being on the lookout for modern storytellers.” They’ve roared onto the scene with two releases, Ruth Ware’s In A Dark, Dark Woods and (now Longlist National Book Award Nominee) Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have A Family. I received a promo e-mail about Scout Press before these two were released, and like a chump I passed them over. Once I heard the endless roaring buzz of praise, I picked up In A Dark, Dark Woods on audio, and listened everywhere, all the time, unable to stop.

Ware’s In A Dark, Dark Wood sounds like many things–don’t confuse it with Into The Woods, the Broadway play adapted into a feature film, or master of mystery Tana French’s novel In The Woods. Ever since the Brothers Grimm put the grim in our fairy tales, the woods have been a nightmarish place to lose yourself and tap into the pulse of a canopied underworld severed from sunlight and all things good. In A Dark, Dark Wood acts as an homage to so much that lives in the dark of our nightmares–ghosts, guns, unrequited loves, strangers prowling, phone lines cut, murders in the midst.

In this mystery, instead of wolves or headless horsemen, the woods brings horrors of a particularly modern variety. Reclusive author Leonora reluctantly agrees to attend a long lost school friend’s hen party (for us unaware Americans, that’s the British equivalent of a bachelorette party). The most majestic and notable part of this novel is the hen party’s setting, a glass house nestled amidst a muddy and isolated woods far out in the English countryside. Each attendee to the soiree feels like a performer, vulnerable and exposed in front of a vast expanse of trees. This is the type of isolated home found at the end of a muddy long drive, where cell reception blips from on bar to none, where the land line in the kitchen feels like a life line to the outside world.

The night turns strange quite quickly. Clare, the bride-to-be, has invited a ragtag bunch, with Leonora and her sarcastic sidekick Nina not necessarily adding to the party atmosphere. There’s new mother Melanie, who struggles to pull her eyes up from her phone, aghast at no reception. There’s flamboyant and coke-touting Tom, the hard partying token gay man at the celebration. And finally, there’s Flo. Flo worships Clare, dresses like Clare, and insists that Clare will have the best hen party ever. No matter what.

The isolated party in a strange glass house, fueled by alcohol and Flo’s intensity, quickly moves past social niceties and into the realm of something else. Leonora wakes up battered and brutalized in a hospital bed, police at her door. No longer in a glass house, no longer at a hen night. She takes us along in her struggle to remember what exactly turned a hen party into a much darker, more dangerous trip into the woods.

Ware’s building of suspense is magnificent here, especially in the first half of the novel. Unfortunately, amnesia plays a critical plot point near the end, which always tries my patience as a mystery lover. The writing here is so good though, that I’m willing to overlook this. I do hope Ware steers clear of such devices in her next book. The setting and characters build an unbearable, but irresistible paranoia, that makes In A Dark, Dark Wood an ideal mystery, a quick one to flip through then finish.

In A Dark, Dark Wood on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Further Reading:

‘Scream’ Meets Agatha Christie In ‘A Dark, Dark Wood’ (npr.org)

Author Interview: Ruth Ware (auntagathas.com)

Finding thrills in ‘A Dark, Dark Wood’ (usatoday.com) – Finch’s USA Today review is much less tolerant of the amnesia device, and I don’t disagree with his points, I just still enjoyed the book.

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.

Tom Rob Smith’s The Farm Morphs Mom and Dad Into Spy Vs. Spy

The Farm begins with protagonist Daniel’s parents pitted against each other. Daniel feels submersed in a familial spy novel, where he doesn’t know who to trust or what to think.

In Elizabeth Little’s Dear Daughter, Socialite Turns Sleuth

Elizabeth Little’s Dear Daughter has all the thrills of a Gillian Flynn novel, dressed up with the glamour of a jaded Los Angeles socialite.

Review – Cop Town by Karin Slaughter

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If there’s one thing I love in this world, it’s mystery fiction. Sometimes I need a good literary mystery, with headache and nightmare-inducing twists and turns. Sometimes, I crave something more straightforward. I picked up Karin Slaughter’s previous novel Criminal on one of these whims, hoping for an easy, enjoyable read. Criminal was part of Slaughter’s Will Trent series, and the story alternated between Will’s present storyline and the vivid, gritty life of his supervisor, Deputy Director Amanda Wagner, as she joined the police force in the 1970’s. Slaughter’s historical fiction stood out to me, as rookie cop Amanda Wagner dealt with rampant sexism on the police force and navigated some of Atlanta’s worst neighborhoods.

So you can imagine my excitement when I learned about Cop Town, Slaughter’s first stand alone novel, focusing entirely on women of Atlanta’s police force in the 1970’s. Amanda Wagner’s part of the story stood out to me in Criminal, and it definitely left me wanting more from that time period. It seems as if this is the world Slaughter is meant to explore and uncover: an “old boy” network in which the old boys are all haunted by various wars, a culture in which heavy drinking seems required to make it on the job, a police force where male cops aren’t your peers but cat-calling, leering father figures who won’t take you seriously.

In Cop Town, smart, observant Maggie Lawson works in this type of environment, and she reluctantly takes Kate Murphy under her wing as she flails (both literally and figuratively) in a uniform that is much too large for her. Someone is shooting Atlanta cops, killing them execution-style in the back of the head, and Maggie and Kate take it upon themselves to look for what the rest of the force, drunk and stuck in their own ways of thinking, can’t or won’t see.

There’s some discussion of the accuracy of all the racism and sexism portrayed in these books. Could the police force really have been that horrible for the first few women on the force? In both Criminal and Cop Town, Slaughter notes at the end of the novels her attention to accuracy and historical facts in research. But the books are, of course, fiction. I think this is why the work Voice of Witness is doing, and the concept of oral history/personal narrative in general, is so important. I would love to see Karin Slaughter tell the stories of some of the first women on police forces in America, as they relayed those experiences to her.

The larger thing to remember when reading Cop Town, however, is that this isn’t meant to be a textbook. This is a mystery. This will be a book you can’t wait to pick up, a book your heart beats a bit faster when you read, a book you feel a bit disoriented when you look up from because you were so lost inside its pages. Putting these protagonists in an unbelievably hostile work environment heightens the tension from all sides–there is a shooter loose on the streets of Atlanta, yes, but there are enemies everywhere else these young women turn.

Cop Town by Karin Slaughter on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Review – The Burn Palace by Stephen Dobyns

the burn palace

The Burn Palace: A Novel by Stephen Dobyns is an enchanting kind of book, a pick-it-up-at-the-bookstore-because-the-dandelion-yellow-cover-calls-your-name kind of book, a read-the-glowing-blurb-from-Stephen-King-on-the-back-and-you’ve-gotta-get-it-now kind of book, a happy-to-curl-up-with-its-little-towns’-happenings-at-night kind of book, a baby-turns-snake-while-vicious-coyotes-prowl-oh-my! kind of book.

In The Burn Palace, small town life get weird. The quaint community of Brewster begins experiencing bizarre (and possibly supernatural?) occurrences: coyotes turn cruel, and a baby disappears from a bassinet leaving a snake in its place. Characteristics of small town life once considered quaint and sleepy become glaringly inefficient in a crisis, and Dobyns ensures we are privy to each town resident’s struggle to adapt to the odd on-goings and the hysteria surrounding the events.

Dobyns writes in a fantastical tone, boldly dropping into the second point-of-view (that’s right, you heard me) to include the reader as a sort of peeping tom, an unseen witness or incredibly private private investigator, and we are taken flying through the town and into residents’ homes at intimate times, checking out their thoughts as they tuck themselves into beds, asking us to try and put together the puzzle pieces while we also feel the tension bubbling up within the community like a pot ready to overflow.

The one thing (okay, maybe two things) glaringly absent here were a map and a character list. With such a focus on the layout of the town of Brewster, and such a wide array of characters included, I kept flipping back to the beginning of the book seeking an illustrated map of the town that just wasn’t there. Would it have been a bit too cheeky? I think Dobyns already took us there, and it would have felt just right. So many characters were introduced so quickly and briefly, that I had a hard time keeping them straight. I think a map and a list of characters, their relations, and professions at the beginning of the novel would have been a greatly utilized tool to help readers further envision and understand the town we were being invited into.

In many ways, The Burn Palace feels like a light tale when compared with some of the gritty and gruesome mysteries that are popular today. I have a lot of love for darker mysteries, but some can get so graphic that I wonder where authors have left to go. When we’ve all visited our darkest nightmares, where will we go for our thrills? The Burn Palace reminds me that the shock value doesn’t always need to be there for a great mystery. All you need is a great story, one that people would enjoy gathering around a campfire to hear, maybe. One that perhaps starts in a small town, maybe a town named Brewster, on a dark and windy night…

The Burn Palace on Amazon.com/Indiebound.org

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Review – The Salinger Contract by Adam Langer

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I was pleasantly surprised with The Salinger Contract.  This is a theme mystery, focusing on literature, and I’m always skeptical of theme mysteries (cat mystery novels, and now yoga mystery novels?  really?).  However, this book worked.  As I love books and I’m interested in writing, I appreciated the look into the life of the less glamorous authors out there.  The lives and livelihoods of average authors are made charming, if bleak, here. The Salinger Contract is a glimpse into the world of the starving artist, with a literary tilt.

The narrator is a one-time author and journalist, Adam Langer (yes, same as the author), who was forced to adapt to the life of a stay-at-home dad after the literary mag he writes for closes down.  The book is broken up into four parts:  1) Upon Signing, 2) Upon Submission, 3) Upon Acceptance, and 4) Upon Publication.  It is a tricky mystery to explain without giving too much away.  Langer seeks out a favorite author from his former life as a literary journalist, and an odd plot unfolds involving rich old men in limousines, secret and unknown classical mystery novels, guns, accents, theft, and sassy YA writers who lack manners but have huge followings.  What more could you ask for?

This is a very unique book – its pacing is uneven by design, as it goes from a very fast-paced recounting of events to a slower-paced status quo.  In many books that use this style of storytelling within a book, it feels like the present is just unnecessary filler taking up time until you get to the important flashbacks which seem to be the true meat of the story.  In The Salinger Contract, when action isn’t being recounted, we are getting to know Adam Langer.  With no opportunity and no glamour in his life, Adam Langer (narrator) comes across as charming rather than pathetic.  He seems to be an everyman just trying to make it through our tough financial times.

The writing here is clear and simple, and this book is a fast, light read – great for anyone who is craving a creative and fun mystery, or anyone who is big into reading and writing.  Although I don’t think I’d classify this as a cozy, it has a cozy feel – not a lot of grit or gore.

My only complaint is that quite a jump is taken at the end that left me raising an eyebrow.  You’ll know it when you get there, and you’ll also be like, “say whaaat?”

From “The Making Of” the novel on OpenRoadMedia.com, Langer explains:  “It came about through wanting to satirize the idea, so often repeated in interviews, that a book can change your life. It’s a cliché and so rarely true and so I wanted to write a book where that idea is literally true—a writer’s life depends on writing this book. I’ve also been fascinated by this idea of literary recluses—of people like B. Traven and J. D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon who disappear and how these stories develop around them. And I wanted to explore some very compelling reasons as to what would explain an author’s disappearance.”

The Salinger Contract on Amazon.com (release date September 17th)