Trouble is What I do by Walter Mosley
‘That phone number got me a night of bliss, a broken wrist, and, in the end, it cost a man his life. But that’s another story.’
And so it is, a throw away that just gives the reader an idea of Mosley’s ease with a wittily intriguing turn of phrase. Mosley has created two of the most robust and entertaining detectives in modern crime fiction; Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins and Leonid McGill. The Easy novels chronicle a large slice of post WWII American history from the perspective of a black detective on the west coast. Leonid speaks to the modern experience of a black New York gumshoe, sadly illustrating that not enough has changed in the world, as recent events point up all too well. In that, these are very political and very relevant novels. Trouble is What I Do takes a sideswipe at what’s behind the Trumpian demagoguery and the, (still!), deeply racist nature of old American money and privilege.
Politics aside; for all their flaws, Easy and Leonid are likable characters and Mosley is a born storyteller and a veritable ideas factory. He has a way of setting a story running inside the main story that works to illuminate the important theme and later entwines with the heart of the action. It’s a pleasure reading about Leonid McGill, his complicated life and messy family affairs as well as his deadly cases. That said this is the least complex of his tales, a slight story, more a novella than a novel. There aren’t so many strands to pull together and I miss that, even though this is still a pulpy pleasure I would not want to forgo.
It all starts when Mardi Bitterman informs Leonid McGill they have visitors:
‘She’s the detective agency’s secretary-receptionist and also the human barometer that helps maintain my moral bearings in a world where sin is reflex and kindness a quick death.’
A tall young man with a battered guitar case, Lamont Richards and his ninety-two year-old grandfather, Philip Worry, known as Catfish, an old blues man, stand in Leonid’s office with a strange request. Catfish wants Leonid to deliver a letter to a white socialite, daughter of a private bank owner, descended from a family that dates back to the Mayflower. Justine is about to get married, the letter from her grandmother, Lucinda Pitts Sternman, was entrusted to Catfish a long time ago with instructions on when to deliver. It contains secrets about the family history that her father, said banker, would be prepared to kill to avoid her finding out. The case brings Leonid back in touch with his own past, the time he had to face down a deadly assassin and lived to tell the tale, (fortunately this time they might be on the same side). Leonid soon has to put Catfish and the grandson into hiding as they become targets, the links between the respectable city gent, with political connections, and the city’s most feared gangster become apparent.
Never was delivering a letter so complicated but it’s a lot of fun seeing Leonid try to make it happen. Leonid is best in a tight spot and he’s a very smart man when the fists won’t get it done he can figure something out. Mosley’s hardboiled detective stories are stylish and wholly in the best of traditions but with that richly flavoured, often bitter and brutal, black experience. I would like more meat on the bones but this is an exciting and entertaining story and I’m glad I didn’t miss it.
W&N, hardback, ISBN 9781474616522, February, 2020.
If Looks Could Kill by Olivia Kiernan
The third DCS Frankie Sheehan novel
An exciting new Irish crime series was launched when DCS Frankie Sheehan debuted in Too Close to Breathe in 2018. A police procedural/serial killer/psycho drama that put poor Frankie through the wringer – an emotionally wrought and totally gripping story. It had a real feel for its terrain and gave us an intriguing, enigmatic protagonist. Then there was The Killer in Me (2019), featuring a double murder in a Clontarf cemetery and a cold case that placed the original investigation and the Dublin Garda under close scrutiny. This was a more restrained and measured story. Now we have If Looks Could Kill, this for me is a watershed moment, does Frankie Sheehan have longevity? I think she does. Kiernan’s writing has developed, Detective Chief Superintendent Frankie Sheehan is now a fully rounded character. When it comes to the story, less is more, enough complexity to make the case intriguing but delivered in a more settled style, while retaining the earlier passion. Frankie still has an enigmatic edge, but now readers can really identify with her, get where she’s coming from. Whereas, she was difficult to know in the first book because she placed a wall around herself to avoid being mollycoddled or pitied by colleagues after an ‘incident’ in the past from which she was recovering, (although readers had more insight than colleagues she wasn’t an open book). Frankie is still living with the effects of her first traumatic case and she’s in a contemplative mood as this novel opens. Frankie does not suffer fools gladly or put up with the macho Garda crap, and when it comes to a case she is truly fierce.
Dublin, a public garden, children playing. Rory McGrane stands outside the park gates, it’s hot, he’s troubled, distracted. A woman sees the gun in his hand, she’s frozen to the spot, he places the gun to his temple and pulls the trigger. Meanwhile, Frankie is thinking about the past, about her dead father, the warm feeling of security she felt before she knew him better; righteous, a Guard, a hero, a good man. Of course, there were two sides to the man, there always is; the real man and the image he presented to the world. He was one of the good ones at hiding the truth. Frankie has her own secrets, she’s good at hiding the physical and mental scars of the past from the people around her but not so good at letting people in.
Baz Harwood, her partner at the Bureau for Serious Crimes, gives her a lift to the Gardai annual awards, she’s presenting a prize, a much needed boost for the force after recent bad publicity. They run into a traffic jam, an incident of some sort, Frankie steps out to investigate the problem. A man in his mid-twenties is lying on the ground in a pool of his own blood, pleading with another ‘eejit’ who is standing over him, knife in hand. They’ve been squabbling over drugs, Frankie manages to talk the knife wielder down. It’s just Dublin. Next morning a new case comes in from the sticks.
Debbie Nugent, fifty-five, has gone missing from her cottage outside Ballyallan, Wicklow; last seen by her daughter, Margot, three days ago. Why has this come to the Bureau? There’s enough blood to assume it might be murder. Margot lives with her mother but didn’t spot anything, didn’t even query Debbie’s absence. Frankie liaises with the local cops who show willing but are not really up to the rigours of a murder case. Last seen Debbie was believed to be heading to Dublin on the bus, she moved to Wicklow from the city in 1993, she had no mobile and no one knows who she might have been going to see. Frankie launches a full investigation. Margot is the obvious suspect, living in the crime scene for three days and claiming no knowledge of anything that might have happened. The search is on for the body, but in the rural mountains that’s like looking for a needle in a haystack, there’s little hope of finding Debbie Nugent alive. As the investigation unfolds, a family past comes to light that suggests there’s more going on here than Frankie thought and the case may leads back to Dublin.
DCS Frankie Sheehan is a great character, feisty, brittle, brave, determined, and her inner voice is fascinating, one of the things that really drive the story. Kiernan has an eye for details that make If Looks Could Kill feel authentic and gives it a solid grounding. The prose is tight, pared down, and clean. The case far more complex than it first appears which is very satisfying. Irish crime fiction is in plentiful supply, make room for Frankie Sheehan on your shelves.
Riverrun Books, hardback, 23/7/20, ISBN 9781529401059
Out 23 July from Europa Editions
Riccardino Andrea Camilleri
The final Inspector Montalbano novel was published in Italy yesterday, so the curtain has come down on the great detective’s illustrious career. Did he go quietly into retirement or meet a grizzly end? No spoilers, I promise, I haven’t read the book, and like a lot of British readers I know there are still two more adventures to enjoy before we get to Riccardino. Mantle will be publishing The Sicilian Method in October this year and after that there’s il cuoco dell’Alcyon.
Camilleri, who only began writing Montalbano in his late fifties, wrote Riccardino, the final case for the inspector, way back in 2005 but the novel was then hidden away by the publisher and more books in the series were written and published. Riccardino emerging into the light once more in 2018 for revision before returning to the secret vault. Until now – almost a year on from the author’s death on July 18th last year the story finally gets its airing.
In a typically playful moment for long term fans Camilleri gives himself a cameo in the book berating Montalbano over the phone for not investigating the murder of Riccardino rigourously enough (titbit courtesy of the Guardian). As for any other details, I’m sure we’d all rather wait and look forward to The Sicilian Method in October and then… The Chef at the Alcyon… And then… Riccardino.
The Redemption of Charm Frank Westworth
Killing Sisters Book 3
This is my first venture into the world of the killing sisters and, pleasingly, there’s more to this book than I was anticipating. The violence, and for that matter the sex, is pretty graphic, satisfying for anyone Jonesing for a blood fest, but there are long periods of thoughtful plotting and character exploration here too. This is not just an action thriller, it’s a decent story of broken, villainous and marginalised characters clashing in a violent world.
It took a while to figure out how I felt about The Redemption of Charm and to get comfortable with the style. Chapter one had me torn between the pleasurable anticipation of impending violence and getting to grips with the fragmented writing. Westworth likes word play, which is fun, but he also likes disconcerting the reader. There’s method here though: the anti-anti-hero, JJ Stoner, is a mess, a busted up man, his head’s in pieces, he’s come from hell and even the tranquillity and isolation of rural America retreat can’t patch him up without the natural curative of time. The writing reflects JJ Stoner’s battered mental state, disorientation and loneliness. He’s got a story to tell but it’s scrambled in his own mind, it’s got to be teased out.
So JJ Stoner is damaged and dangerous, ex-black ops, an experienced soldier and killer; but, is he a powder keg or a burn out? His last operation was a cluster-fuck of betrayal. JJ is a bit like another JJ, Joey Jones, (Jason Statham), in The Hummingbird (2013). Of course, JJ here is short for Jean-Jacques an illustrious name handed down from a philosopher via a punk rock legend to a tempestuous killer.
August this year, deepest America; three local guys are soaking up the beer and chewing the fat, it’s a nice evening but for the gunshots that keep cracking in the distance. That’d be JJ who has already worked through twelve magazines. Joshua, the local law, already checked this Brit guy out, the Feebs say hands off, he’s ok, he’s on our side but he’s dangerous, don’t spook him. Next day JJ calls into the sheriff’s office for a chat. JJ tells sheriff Joshua that he’s just here to rest up, if people leave him alone there’ll be no trouble. Rather than put his mind at rest the sheriff is more afraid of JJ and what he might bring by the end of their pleasant little chat. JJ actually arrived the September before, found himself a shack to shack up in, looking to heal. By October Associate Deputy Director Travis turned up, he thinks JJ could be useful to the US, along as he can ditch the Brit loyalty, then he can stay.
So what’s JJ’s story? There’s this guy, Mr Hartmann, known as Hardman, he set up an operation, set JJ to catch an assassin. Only Hardman was controlling the assassin, JJ was the one supposed to die. Then Hardman could forget the past, the link to JJ, and get on with his stellar career. JJ began figuring stuff out though, Hardman was sleeping with his girl, Lissa, (it didn’t end well for her), JJ confronted Hardman, big mistake he didn’t kill him. It’s unfinished business but can JJ get it together well enough to fight the fight.
Liking JJ is tough, he’s totally fucked up and even on his best day he’s got a mean/mad streak in him – an anti-anti-hero. The slow burn element of the novel surprised me but the long set ups and contemplative moments add to the fun. Cross, double cross, revenge, a heavy touch of tongue in cheek humour and sex. If I’m honest this novel is a little overlong but it is entertaining and capable to throwing up a surprise or two.
The Book Guild Ltd, paperback, 2017. ISBN: 9781911320555