The National Book Awards longlist for fiction was released today. The judging panel includes several authors, including Baltimore’s own Laura Lippman. The five finalists will be announced on October 14th. The winner will be announced on November 18th.
What do a car thief, an art teacher, a suspended police officer and multiple missing persons have in common? To find out, Peter Diamond must go Down Among the Dead Men.
A small-time car thief just trying to earn a living snags a BMW. This becomes the worst mistake of his life. Pulled over by suspicious constables, a search of the car finds one very dead body. Convicted as an accessory to murder, he lands in the pokey for a very long stretch.
Superintendent Peter Diamond is coerced by his boss, Assistant Chief Constable Georgina Dallymore, to investigate a colleague’s breach of professional ethics. Ever the self-promoter, Dallymore expects to play a little golf with her superiors while Diamond brings in a result. To his dismay, he discovers the suspended officer in question is Henrietta Mallin, an excellent detective he has worked with in the past. Mallin admits that she received DNA results implicating her niece in a crime and failed to follow up. Diamond discovers the incident occurred three years before and the top brass knew it, yet chose not to pursue the issue at the time.
At the time of her suspension, Mallin was investigating a disturbing number of missing persons in one geographical area. The most difficult part of committing murder is getting rid of the body. What if someone simply disappeared and never reappeared? If all those missing persons turn up dead and the murder rate skyrockets, it would create a catastrophe for the division brass. As Diamond seeks the evidence to exonerate Mallin, he must navigate a minefield of egos — most especially Dallymore’s.
Peter Lovesey, a recipient of the Agatha Lifetime Achievement Award, writes a narrative that is both suspenseful and convincing. If you enjoy Elizabeth George, Stephen Booth and Colin Dexter, you’ll add Peter Lovesey to your list of must-read authors.
Private investigator Bernie Little and his canine companion Chet come to the rescue in Spencer Quinn's newest caper, Scents and Sensibility. Upon returning home from their adventures in our nation’s capital, Chet and Bernie are confronted with two thefts. The first affects their elderly neighbor, Mr. Parsons, the recipient of an illegally procured saguaro cactus. The second affects Bernie directly — his grandfather’s antique watch, Bernie’s prized possession, is stolen. Both of these incidents appear to be related to the neighbor’s son, recently released from prison and looking for fast cash. Bernie, ever the stalwart defender of the underdog, is outraged at the treatment his neighbor receives at the hands of one bureaucrat, who is equally outraged at the threat to the desert environment.
Doggedly determined to dig his neighbor out of trouble, Bernie and Chet head for the desert to investigate. There, they find the unfortunate bureaucrat, dead at the bottom of a hole recently occupied by a saguaro. Obviously, there’s a lot more at stake here than just a few stolen cacti. As they investigate, they discover links to drug smuggling and a long ago kidnapping. They also have their fair share of troubles with the opposite sex. Bernie is maintaining a long-distance relationship, and Chet is introduced to a puppy who looks and even acts an awful lot like him.
The delightful tales of Chet and Bernie are narrated from the dog’s perspective. Chet has limited understanding of his surroundings and he's often distracted by squirrels, cats, flies and the occasional female. Chet’s thought processes are laugh out loud funny, and his absolute devotion to Bernie is deeply touching. Bernie may be the brains of the outfit, but Chet’s deep loyalty often saves the day.
This is the eighth book in the Chet and Bernie mysteries, which started with Dog On It. The plots are original and refreshing, the mysteries are well-plotted and the characters are genuine. Whether you are looking for an engaging read or an audio book for a road trip, you can’t go wrong with this series.
In the beginning of The Forgotten Room by Lincoln Child, Jeremy Logan is headed toward a sprawling mansion in Newport, Rhode Island, to investigate the gruesome suicide of a research scientist. The victim, Dr. Willard Strachey, was a well-respected member of the team at Lux, a preeminent think tank organization. Coincidentally, Logan worked for Lux until he was let go because the scientists there had issues with Logan’s specialty. He is an “enigmalogist,” which is someone who studies and attempts to make sense of phenomena as ghosts, the Loch Ness monster and other such entities.
Logan is surprised to be summoned back to Lux. However, the company’s director, Gregory Olafson, is a friend of Logan’s and feels that the circumstances leading up to Strachey’s death fall under the supernatural. Strachey complained of hearing voices and seeing things no one else could. As Logan investigates both the man’s death and the other bizarre occurrences going on at Lux, he wonders if the reasons are otherworldly, or if something more sinister is going on. It’s a race against time for Logan to solve the mystery surrounding Lux’s culpability in Strachey’s death before he becomes the next victim.
Lincoln Child has written three other entries in the Jeremy Logan series, Deep Storm, Terminal Freeze and The Third Gate. You don’t need to read the others to enjoy The Forgotten Room.
There are some books you just do not want to end. Paula McLain's new historical fiction novel Circling the Sun is just that kind. Richly atmospheric and thick with romantic nostalgia for 1920s British colonial Kenya, this literary treat is like eating a ripe peach over the kitchen sink: satisfying and juicy with just the right amount of messiness.
It is the story of aviator Beryl Markham, who in 1936 became the first woman to fly solo from east to west across the Atlantic. But McLain feels Markham was just as noteworthy for her sometimes scandalous earlier on-ground adventures.. This lesser-known past comes to life in a dialogue-fueled, first-person narrative set magnificently "before Kenya was Kenya."
Irreverent and unsettled, the former Beryl Clutterbuck is a trailblazer. She was one of the first successful racehorse trainers of her era in a time when male trainers dominated. She bucked tradition at every turn, owing her independence to her upbringing. Abandoned early on by her mother, she was reared by her horse-training father and influenced by the local Kipsigis tribe. It is not surprising that this independent and fearless young woman's natural ambitions are at odds with the times. Her relationships were often rollercoaster, unhappy affairs. Even the love of her life, Denys Finch Hatton, is not hers alone. She shares the seductive safari hunter with her friend, the hospitable, aristocratic coffee farmer Karen Blixen, who would go on to write Out of Africa under the pen name Isak Dinesen. It is a perilous love triangle that is the heart of the story.
McLain, whose previous book was the hugely popular The Paris Wife, about Hemingway's first spouse Hadley Richardson, deftly recasts Markham as avant-garde if not ethically suspect. The ability to make us care about this heroine from the other side of the world almost 100 years ago is testament to McLain's richly textured storytelling and smart supply of interesting characters from drunks and expats to tribesmen and royalty. If it makes you want to read Markham's own superb memoir West with the Night or revisit Dinesen's Out of Africa, McLain has done her job.
I got a revolver to protect us…and I soon had a use for it.” –The New York Times, June 3, 1915.
In 1915 suburban New Jersey, women were expected to behave as ladies and rely on the protection of a man. Instead, Constance Kopp and her two sisters go on the offensive in Amy Stewart’s lively novel, Girl Waits with Gun. Stewart was inspired by the true story of Constance, who became one of the first female deputy sheriffs in the United States after her fiery battles with thuggish silk mill owner Henry Kauffman and his gang captured America’s attention.
The sisters are on their way to Paterson for a shopping trip when a speeding motor car upends their horse and buggy, injuring young Fleurette and damaging the buggy. Driver Kauffman and his crew of miscreants take umbrage at Constance’s request for reimbursement for repairs, and begin a campaign of harassment and kidnapping threats aimed at the women, which escalates into violence. Constance refuses to be cowed by Kauffman’s machinations and ends up uncovering a second reprehensible and exploitive deed committed by Kauffman.
Girl Waits with Gun is a colorful piece of historical fiction. Stewart’s droll writing marries perfectly with Constance Kopp’s audacious story. Descriptions of the silk mill industry and its laborers, along with excerpts from the newspaper articles which covered the Kopp vs. Kauffman conflict, ground this narrative in the context of its time. Readers charmed by The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows or Alan Bradley’s Flavia De Luce mysteries will take great pleasure in spending time with the Kopps. To learn more about Constance, Norma and Fleurette, visit AmyStewart.com.
James. R. Benn’s successful Billy Boyle mystery series has captivated readers with its historical accuracy and intriguing plots. Now, Billy returns for his 10th outing in The White Ghost. Get to know James, his research and writing habits, his past as a librarian (including a connection to BCPL!) and enjoy a sneak peek at where Billy’s headed next.
Between the Covers: The Billy Boyle series is set during World War II. Was this a historical time period that always interested you? What is it about this war that remains a historical touchstone for so many? Do you hear from veterans and/or their families?
James R. Benn: When I was growing up, nearly every kid in the neighborhood had a dad who was in the war. It was part of the fabric of life. My father served in the China-India-Burma Theater and I was mesmerized by his stories and the souvenirs he brought home. When I finally started writing, the choice was based somewhat on that history, but also on a study of the historical mystery genre. I discovered it was the fastest growing fiction genre, and noted that the Second World War was not well represented. It was then a natural choice.
World War II was a turning point for America; we went into it a somewhat isolated, disparate nation. It was this war that truly created the famous melting pot of America. Men and women from all walks of life and regions were thrown together and sent all over the world. Nothing like that had ever happened, and I think there’s a yearning for that kind of commonality. And clear-cut power, as well.
I frequently hear from the families of veterans. I have interviewed several vets at the invitation of family members, who say that their father, uncle or grandfather has never talked about the war. It often begins with reluctance, and then a stream of stories, mostly about their buddies. Finally, they may talk about combat. Once, a D-Day veteran signaled me to come close as his family chatted on the far side of the room. “They always ask me if I killed anyone,” he whispered. “I tell ’em no. But I did.”
BTC: Billy was a secondary character in your first book. Why did that character stay with you and compel you to flesh him out more fully? As the war progresses, it becomes more complex and morally murky. How have these complications and sometimes harsh realities changed Billy?
JRB: He just plain wouldn’t go away. I liked his attitude, and thought there might be something to his Eisenhower connection which would allow me to visit a wide variety of situations. After completing research for the first book, I sat down to begin writing. I’d planned on using the third person, being somewhat intimidated by first-person narratives. Then I typed the first line:
I wanted to die.
That stunned me, but I stayed with it. I guess Billy lives somewhere in my subconscious.
After the first book, I understood that the war had to take an emotional toll for Billy. I received terrific advice from the novelist Rachel Basch, who told me “remember, the story has to move down as well as forward.” Billy is constantly confronted by terrible choices, navigating the lesser of multiple evils in a horribly evil war. It is taking a toll.
BTC: In The White Ghost, Billy goes back in time to the Pacific where he gets involved with the Kennedy family. Why was it important to you to set Billy in the Pacific? How critical was it that you share the story of John F. Kennedy and PT-109?
JRB: I was surprised at how many readers asked for a book set in the Pacific; perhaps a lot of them had family who served there. I was stumped at how to do that in a way that made sense. Then I thought the Boston Irish connection with Jack Kennedy would be interesting. But, in the timeline of Billy’s world, it was May 1944. By then, JFK was back in the States and out of the service for medical reasons.
In a flash of unplanned genius, I noticed a gap between the third and fourth books; several months which fit exactly into the events surrounding the sinking of PT-109. So…now, the story can be told.
As a baby boomer, I grew up in awe of JFK. I had no idea what a very strange family he came from. The Kennedy children were brought up in a highly competitive and emotionally traumatizing environment. The war was the best thing that ever happened to Jack Kennedy; it got him out from under the thumb of his overbearing father and showed him what regular folks were like. He really had no idea.
BTC: Billy has travelled all over, beginning in England and including Norway, the Mediterranean and Ireland. Is travelling to these locations part of your research? What is your most memorable trip?
JRB: Yes; my wife and I have traveled to England, Sicily, Italy and Ireland for research. Sicily was quite special; we approached a farmer about looking at some bunkers on his land where a battle took place. It turned out to be Easter Monday, which is a big family gathering day in Sicily. We were taken in and treated as honored guests among the 30 or so family members. No one spoke English and we didn’t speak Italian. With the aid of a pocket dictionary and the German I and one of the men spoke, we talked all day. And ate and drank. We left that night loaded with flowers and fruit. It was a wonderful experience, and a perfect example of Sicilian hospitality. They’ve survived centuries of conquest by absorbing newcomers.
BTC: Other than travelling, do you have any research or writing routines?
JRB: My research is built around reading widely about the subject and geographical area I want to explore. I try to immerse myself in the time and place, through contemporary fiction and nonfiction. My goal is not to simply understand the facts of what happened, but how people in the 1940s would have perceived what was happening to them.
BTC: You pay homage to Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie in two of the books. Who are your biggest influences as a mystery writer?
JRB: The Sherlock Holmes stories were the first mysteries I ever read, so it was hard to resist a ride down Baker Street. While I also enjoy Agatha Christie, it was the proximity of her home (used as a naval headquarters) to the Slapton Sands tragedy that led me to give her a walk-on in The Rest Is Silence.
BTC: You had a long career as a librarian! Did that influence your writing in any way? What is the thing you miss most about working in a library?
JRB: My first job at age 14 was as a library page. I became a librarian out of an unabashed old-school love of books and reading. I wandered around the library field quite a bit, even getting to know Charlie Robinson at BCPL when I worked for a library automation company. That career wanderlust was probably due to the fact I knew there was something else I wanted to do with my life. It was my wife who steered me in the right direction on my 50th birthday, but that’s another story. Right now what I like best about libraries is inter-library loan, the mainstay of my research!
BTC: Do you have a finite number of books planned for the series? Can you give us a preview of Billy’s next adventure?
JRB: Billy and I have not grown tired of each other yet. I’m about to turn in the manuscript for the 2016 release, The Blue Madonna. That book will bring us to D-Day, with Billy and Kaz behind enemy lines in a strange chateau with ghosts, mysterious tunnels, downed airmen and a certain SOE operative who Billy knows very well. And oh yes, murders.
I also have a vague idea for a book involving USO entertainers at some point. Billy needs to see a good show, don’t you think?
In The Fateful Lightning: A Novel of the Civil War, author Jeff Shaara recounts the events beginning in late 1864 that led to the annihilation of the Confederate Army by General Sherman’s infamous march through Georgia. Told from multiple perspectives, Shaara allows the reader to get a sense of just how desperate both sides were to end the war and how frustrated everyone felt that the conflict had dragged out for so long.
While Shaara switches focus from Union to Confederate, his most compelling narrators are General William T. Sherman and Franklin, a slave on a Georgian plantation. Sherman is portrayed as a determined leader who has to make many difficult decisions in order to secure a Union victory. Shaara carefully crafts Sherman as a man torn between moral rights versus military might. This portrait of Sherman makes him a three-dimensional human being which is very different from many previous incarnations of Sherman, where he is usually either a superhuman hero or the devil incarnate.
Franklin’s character is based on some of the slaves who were liberated as Sherman’s army marched through the South. Having spent his entire life as a slave on the governor of Georgia’s plantation, Franklin’s liberation is an event he has always dreamed of but cannot quite grasp when it occurs. Fortunately, Franklin is literate and becomes a valuable resource to Sherman’s army. As he marches with the Union soldiers, Franklin’s world changes forever, and he bears witness to the double-edged sword that freedom turns out to be.
The final installment in Shaara’s Civil War Western Theater series, The Fateful Lightning stands on its merit. Whether or not you have read any of the other books in this series, this novel is an engrossing recounting of the final brutal months that decided the Union victory over the Confederacy.
What would have happened if novelist Henry James had met detective Sherlock Holmes? Granted, Holmes is a fictional character, but in The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons, the premise of this unlikely meeting is central to the story. Simmons, who is known primarily for sci-fi, fantasy and horror, combines elements of these genres in this narrative with historical events interwoven into his fictitious plot.
The story opens with Holmes saving James’ life by preventing him from jumping into the Seine one night. From that point on, the pair form an odd partnership that is at times akin to that of Holmes and Watson. However, James never fully believes that Holmes is really who he claims to be. Is this man who sometimes goes by the name of Jan Sigerson really THE Sherlock Holmes or is it all an elaborate ruse? What about the supposed suicide of James’ friend Clover Adams? Will Holmes be able to unravel the connection between Clover and the mysterious Irene Adler? For those familiar with the stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, there are references galore to many of the characters and plots of these detective tales.
In addition to Henry James, there are other historical figures making appearances including Samuel Clemens, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Adams and Vice President Adlai Stevenson, to name a few. Simmons enjoys going into great detail about various events (e.g. the crushing of someone’s skull or James’ criticism of Doyle’s stories) which can either add to or sideline the central mystery of the story. For those who either enjoy a complicated mystery full of plot twists or the idea of famous historical figures interacting with famous fictitious ones, The Fifth Heart definitely has plenty of both to offer.