Lightning Men, by Thomas Mullen

32895284Thomas Mullen’s sequel to DarktownLightning Men, made for uncomfortable but illuminating reading on the day of and day after the riots in Charlottesville, Virginia. In this novel, Atlanta, Georgia’s first African American police officers get caught in the literal and figurative crossfire of blockbusting, white flight, the Ku Klux Klan, moonshine and marijuana smuggling, police corruption, and their own doubts about their ability to do their jobs in the face of persistent racism. Lightning Men gives readers a close up view of the ugliness of white racism in 1950—while the news gave me a look at the 2017 version.

Lightning Men centers on a trio of officers. Officer Lucius Boggs and Officer Thomas Smith are two of the new African American officers hired two years previously when city hall caved to popular pressure. Officer Denny Rakestraw is a white officer who tries to be progressive, but has faced a lot of social and familial pressure to toe the line in terms of race relations. The narrative bounces back and forth between the three men as a series of violent incidents—a drug drop off gone wrong, two beatings attributed to the Klan, etc.—erupt in rapid succession. At first, it looks like they’re all pursuing separate crimes but, as we learn more from various informants, the crimes start to look more like ripples from one big crime or overlapping circles in a Venn diagram.

I was a little frustrated at first, because I wasn’t sure how everything was going to fit together. I couldn’t make the pieces fit together and I was deeply irritated at the way all three seemed to be barreling on individually, instead of working together once things started to coalesce. But once Lightning Men hit its stride, I started to appreciate the realism of this messy mystery. This novel is not a traditionally structured mystery. Rather, it’s a book that shows readers the deep divisions in mid-century Atlanta and the forces that worked to keep those divisions in place.

Once the players in the various conspiracies are all introduced (which doesn’t happen in full until a third of the way through the book), Boggs, Smith, and Rakestraw are all privately digging into what happened on nights when both black and white men were attacked and beaten or killed. Boggs and Smith are trying to work out what’s going on with two rival smuggling operations in the black parts of town. Smith is also trying to help his brother-in-law and sister, who just moved into a previously all-white neighborhood, after his brother-in-law is almost beaten to death. Rakestraw, meanwhile, is trying to help his own brother-in-law, who gets into serious trouble trying to do favors for a man who says he’s a Klansman. I’m being deliberately vague, because the truth is a lot more devious.

As the novel rolled on, I wanted to yell at all three of the men for not working together. It never occurs to them to share information because the black officers and the white officer are mistrustful of each other. Much of this distrust comes from previous experience but, the longer things go on, the distrust also comes from the way the officers start to take the law into their own hands to either cover up family involvement or because there won’t be consequences for the criminals otherwise.

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Racist sign posted in Detroit, 1942
(Via Wikimedia)

Once I started to understand the sprawling plot of Lightning Men and its characters, I started to appreciate the novel a lot more. Unlike most mysteries, which have a fairly simple arc of detectives tracking down a single criminal or small group of conspirators, Boggs, Smith, and Rakestraw are taking on large, established groups of criminals. Rakestraw also has to deal with the fearful fragility of his white neighbors because, the longer African American families live in their part of the city, the more likely those neighbors are to do something tragically violent.

I can’t say that I enjoyed Lightning Men as such, but I can say that I was very interested in the way the novel builds on itself as the plot expands and the backstory deepens. Perhaps the book resonated with me so much because I was reading it while Nazis, Klansmen, and white supremacists fought with counter protesters this weekend. At any rate, Lightning Men serves as a keen reminder that American racism has a long, ugly, hateful tradition and that we still have a lot of work to do rooting it out and destroying it.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 12 September 2017.

The Unquiet Grave, by Sharyn McCrumb

32620367The Unquiet Grave is another entry in Sharyn McCrumb’s long bibliography in which the author takes an Appalachian folk tale and turns the story into a novel. Here, she shows the depth and breadth of her research in telling the story of Zona Heaster Shue, the Greenbriar Ghost. This book has some very good characterization, but I feel there were missed opportunities, as well as a lot of repetitive text that needed to be edited out.

While The Unquiet Grave opens with James Gardner, an African American lawyer who defended Zona’s husband during his murder trial, the heart of this book is Mary Jane Heaster, Zona’s mother. The way she tells it, Mary Jane always knew Edward Shue was no-good. Unfortunately for her daughter, Zona was so stubborn and in love that she wouldn’t listen to a word of caution. It breaks Mary Jane’s heart when she learns that, only a few months after her wedding, Zona is dead.

Then Zona’s ghost shows up to tell Mary Jane the Edward killed her.

The novel shifts back between James and Mary Jane. From Mary Jane, we get the more emotional side of the story, one of a mother who will not rest until her daughter has justice. From James, we get the more rational side of the story, with dueling lawyers and a stack of circumstantial evidence. We also get a lot of local history from James, so much that I started to get exasperated at the way one anecdote would back into another so that we get a whole capsule biography of one of the lawyers and learn what happened in Greenbriar County, West Virginia, during the Civil War. It’s only towards the end of the novel that we get back to Edward’s trial and (maybe) find out what really happened.

McCrumb did a lot of research for The Unquiet Grave, but there are many sections where I feel she gave into the temptation to show off everything she knew whether it advanced the central story or not. If you are the kind of reader who enjoys listening to older relatives tell stories about the old days and folks they knew, perhaps you will enjoy The Unquiet Grave more than I did.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 12 September 2017.

A Study in Scarlet Women, by Sherry Thomas

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A Study in Scarlet Women

Sherry Thomas’ A Study in Scarlet Women is an unabashedly feminist pastiche of Sherlock Holmes. In this novel—the first one in a series—features Charlotte Holmes. Charlotte and Sherlock share the same sharp observational skills and keen mind. Unlike her male counterpart, however, Charlotte is hemmed in by society’s rules about female behavior. She is also rather fond of sweets and exuberant dresses. Where Sherlock could stick his long nose into any situation that interested him, Charlotte has to plan elaborate ruses for the comfort of her clients. Even with these barriers and restrictions, Charlotte makes a smashing debut as a private consultant.

We meet Charlotte shortly after she deliberately destroys her reputation. Her mother would not let up on trying to get her married and her father failed to follow through on his promise to fund her through school, then help her set up as a headmistress somewhere. The only thing for it, Charlotte reckons, is to take herself permanently off the marriage market and leave home. Her first plans for employment do not go well, so the arrival of Mrs. Watson (a retired actress and widow of a soldier who died in Afghanistan) is a godsend. Before long, she and Mrs. Watson have set up a business for “Sherlock Holmes,” a reclusive invalid who solves mysteries.

This brief summary does little justice to the sheer amount of plot Thomas stuffs into A Study in Scarlet Women. This book also contains a frustrated romance for Charlotte and a fiendishly complex series of suspicious deaths that Charlotte solves (due to her sex and gender) mostly through second had information gathered by Inspector Robert Treadles (a disarming anagram for Lestrade). Charlotte suspects that three seemingly unrelated deaths are really a series of murders. The stories don’t add up for her, but it isn’t until Treadles does a lot of digging and her friend, Lord Ingram, investigates society gossip that the pieces start to fall into place.

It’s clear that a substantial part of this book are set ups for future entries in the series, so we are introduced to a lot of characters who do a little here but will definitely play bigger roles in the future—and we know this mostly because of these characters’ similarities to characters from the Holmes canon. Part of the pleasure of reading A Study in Scarlet Women is spotting the differences and similarities between the characters in this book and their inspiration. A few of the references had me chuckling. Others had me marveling at the way Thomas repurposes and reassigns pieces of the Holmes canon in this pastiche. If the plotting weren’t so intricately constructed and the characters so interesting in themselves, A Study in Scarlet Women would’ve been just a highly detailed and clever in-joke. Since they are, I had a great time reading this book. I’d recommend it to women Holmes fans who want to see the old stories flipped on their heads and gender-swapped.

Ruined Stones, by Eric Reed

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Ruined Stones

If it hadn’t been for the war, Grace Baxter would never have been able to be a police officer or a detective. But since all the abled bodied men are fighting the Germans, Baxter has a chance to follow in her father’s footsteps. In Ruined Stones, by Eric Reed, we see Baxter begin her career as a constable in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne with a tricky case involving Roman ruins, possible occult shenanigans, and a lot of intersecting motives.

Newcastle is an insular place, even though it’s one of Britain’s largest cities—or so Baxter discovers as she starts to walk her beat near the Bedwell ruins. It might be because she’s a woman doing what everyone considers to be a man’s job, but I doubt that many of the people in this little neighborhood would go blabbing to the police anyway when a woman is discovered in the ruins with her body twisted into the shape of a backwards swastika. Meanwhile, she’s getting little help from her sergeant and some surreptitious training from a copper who’s come out of retirement for the duration. Baxter is mostly on her own, however, and this case gets twistier by the chapter.

Ruined Stones follows a lot of the normal trajectory of a detective novel. More evidence appears. Suspects are ruled out or become more suspicious. But I’ll admit I was stumped for most of the book because no simple solution developed to explain everything. Some readers might be frustrated by how this novel turns out, but I was kind of refreshed by how messy the solution was—even if there were a few too many red herrings. It seemed more realistic to me than some mysteries I’ve read where it turns out to be a criminal mastermind who was playing some demented kind of chess game with the protagonist. Ruined Stones is a chaotic novel that I rather enjoyed once I got used to the Geordie accent that so many of the characters used.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. 

This is a Bust, by Ed Lin

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This is a Bust

Robert Chow is not a happy man. When he joined the New York Police Department and was assigned to Chinatown, he thought he would be making a real different for his community. After all, he spoke Cantonese. He grew up there. But as the only officer of Chinese descent in the NYPD, Chow is nothing more than a PR tool. He walks a beat most of the time, except when he is called in to be a Chinese face at some public event. This is a Bust, by Ed Lin, tells Chow’s story as he races for rock bottom in the summer of 1976.

Because Chow is not a detective (though he desperately wants to be), he is stuck walking a beat through Chinatown. Every morning, he fuels up with iced coffee and two or three hot-dog pastries and walks. Some of the inhabitants of Chinatown see him as an outsider because he is a cop. Others, usually older residents, see him as the only policeman they can trust. They tell him things, which annoys and saddens Chow because he’s technically not supposed to do anything with these tips apart from passing them on to the detectives.

The enforced uselessness of his position—and Chow know full well the NYPD is exploiting him for his face—is getting to Chow. He drinks more and more each day. He drinks in the morning. He drinks at night until he passes out watching news from Taiwan and mainland China. He drinks to forget his experiences in Vietnam. He drinks to forget his dreams of making a difference. In spite of all this drinking and Chow’s increasingly bad attitude, people love him and try to help him rescue himself from alcoholism.

The mystery in This is a Bust, involving a trio of older Chinese residents, is a footnote to Chow’s alcoholism. Chow responds when Yip bursts into the barbershop to announce that his wife is dead and he doesn’t know what to do. Chow leaves mid-haircut to take a look and call it in. For the rest of the book, Yip sidles up to Chow for help and to try and make friends with the officer. Evidence and clues about what really happens slowly trickle in. In any other novel about a hardbitten alcoholic cop, the protagonist would have been all over this case. Chow, however, is so angry and disaffected most of the time that he stays warned when his superiors tell him to let the detectives handle the case. It’s almost a surprise when Chow later cracks the case.

This is a Bust reads, to me, like a prologue to explain why Chow is the way he is. In other circumstances, we might have come to know Chow through other mysteries and liked him for his dedication to Chinatown or something similar. Instead, we watch him race towards rock bottom while a case is lackadaisically pursued by others. What I liked most about this book was the setting. Whatever his value as a cop might be, Chow is an excellent guide to the tangle of histories and relationships in New York’s Chinatown during the mid-1970s.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 25 July 2017. 

Arrowood, by Mick Finlay

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Arrowood

William Arrowood hates Sherlock Holmes. The damned man is on everyone’s lips as the best detective of the age. Arrowood would argue (and does, repeatedly) that Holmes is sloppy and relies too much on physical evidence rather than witness statements and lies. In Arrowood, by Mick Finlay, we see a better argument for Arrowood’s superiority (or not) as the detective and his partner, Norman Barnett, track down a missing Frenchman and unravel a criminal conspiracy.

Arrowood begins in classic mystery fashion when a beautiful woman walks into the detective’s consulting room and pursues him to take her case. Miss Cousture’s brother has disappeared. The evidence suggests that he fled back to the sibling’s homeland, France. Arrowood is reluctant, even when she presses him with some much needed coin, but accepts the case only when he learns that the brother works for an old enemy. Mr. Cream was responsible for a death in Arrowood’s last big case. This new case offers the detective a way to take the villain down.

Arrowood is the kind of detective who can read lies in facial expressions and discover clues in omissions. His people skills can get witness and suspects to reveal much more than they meant. He hardly has to stir from his rooms above a bakery to gather information. His style of detecting is enabled by his partner, Barnett. Barnett does all the legwork and is frequently beaten by suspects—which is a useful, if painful way, of learning that they are on the right track. Barnett is also our narrator, so we solve the mystery along with him for the most part. Thankfully, Barnett is not an idiot the way Dr. Watson is portrayed in many of the Holmes’ stories; he just misses tiny clues that Arrowood can pick up on.

While we rarely see Holmes mess up, Arrowood and Barnett make mistake after mistake. Their history with the London Metropolitan Police means that the pair have almost no support as they barge into dangerous situation after dangerous situation. When Holmes does make a mistake, is usually because he’s been temporary outsmarted by a worthy adversary. When Arrowood screws up, its because of bad luck or because the villains are more vicious than anticipated.

I enjoyed the well-constructed mystery at the center of this novel and I particularly enjoyed Arrowood’s soliloquies about Holmes. I’m not sure I’ll follow the series, however. Apart from Arrowood’s potshots at Holmes, I didn’t love this novel. It’s a solid novel, but it didn’t thrill me.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 18 July 2017.

Murder on Black Swan Lane, by Andrea Penrose

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Murder on Black Swan Lane

With Murder on Black Swan Lane, Andrea Penrose launches a new series featuring the satirical cartoonish Charlotte Sloane and the irascible Earl of Wrexford, set in Regency London. In this debut novel, Sloane and Wrexford team up to defeat a criminal mastermind before the villain succeeds in framing the earl for a series of ghastly murders.

Murder on Black Swan Lane kicks off with a prologue featuring two characters meeting in mysterious circumstances before one kills the other with acid and a knife to the throat. The prologue gives way to Wrexford being questioned by a Bow Street Runner about his whereabouts the night before. He and the victim had been trading increasingly angry words in the newspapers. Meanwhile, Charlotte Sloane, in her guise of cartoonist A.J. Quill, reveals in her newest work that she knows far more than anyone should about the details of the murder.

After Wrexford tracks Sloane down with a mix of bribery and curiously talented servants, the two strike a bargain to share information in order to track down the killer. The more I read, the more I was enthralled by the mystery and the characters. It was clear from the prologue that the central crime would involve some flimflammery about alchemy, but I very much enjoyed the way Penrose grounded the weird with the pragmatically criminal as the plot developed. I also appreciated the sparks between the highly independent investigators. I don’t mean romantic sparks (although Penrose laid some groundwork there for future stories). Rather, I mean sparks between clashing world views. Wrexford swears by logic and physical evidence. Sloane is more intuitive and relies on her wide learning and artist’s eye to figure out what’s missing in the gaps between the evidence.

The book has clear hints that there will be more to come (even setting up future plots here and here). The partnership between Sloane and Wrexford is wonderful reading, mostly because of their senses of humor and mutual inability to suffer fools. I definitely plan on reading future entries in this series.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 27 June 2017.

The Long Drop, by Denise Mina

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The Long Drop

How do you write a biography for a liar? Denise Mina found one way with her novel, The Long DropThe events in this book are based on the investigation and trial of Peter Manuel. Mina took what is known about Manuel and his crimes, the investigation, court records, and other documents and stitched together a tale of what might have happened in a series of murders in Glasgow between 1956 and 1958. It makes for chilling reading.

The Long Drop begins in the middle of the story (fitting enough, considering how much is unknown about Manuel). A solicitor and his client meet with an informer who claims to know what happened to the client’s wife, daughter, and sister-in-law. The three women were murdered in September of 1956. The husband and father, William Watts, was the Glasgow police’s first and only suspect. He began to investigate the murders himself, since the police wouldn’t look at any other suspects. As the night goes on, however, Watts and others slowly learn that Peter Manuel—the informer—knows a lot more than he should. The longer anyone knows him, the more they realize that there is something deeply wrong with the man.

The novel then starts moving back and forth in time, revolving around the night Watts and Manuel got profoundly drunk and shared secrets. We never see the murders reconstructed. Mina leaves them ambiguous, making us wonder if Manuel really did commit them. We do see a lot of Manuel’s trial in the second half of the book. We also get to see the last weeks of Manuel’s life before his execution.

Peter Manuel, both in life and in The Long Drop, is a compulsive liar. He has a desperate need to be the hero of his own life. He’s a terrible liar, constantly contradicting himself and spinning completely unbelievable yarns about “what really happened.” Between these lies and the lack of a proper investigation, we can only draw our own conclusions about Manuel’s guilt—which I think makes for a fascinating take on true crime nonfiction. I’ve never read anything quite like The Long Drop before, but I hope to read more from Mina in the future.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 23 May 2017.

Long Black Veil, by Jennifer Finney Boylan

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Long Black Veil

Jennifer Finney Boylan’s Long Black Veil begins like many other “awful thing happens to a group of friends”stories, but it quickly becomes more complicated—and more affecting. We are told at the beginning that some of the friends will die. What we don’t know until much later is why everything happened the way it did. While we have the mystery to sort out, Finney Boylan also gives us a moving portrait of a trans woman who wrestles with the long shadow of her past.

Long Black Veil moves back and forth in time from 1980, when the awful thing happened, to the later 1980s to 2015. The awful thing is the death of one of the friends when they get locked inside the abandoned Eastern State Penitentiary. No body is found (not until 2015), so the friend is only missing officially. The night at the Penitentiary breaks up the friends, who drift through the next 35 years. The chapters change perspective from one friend to another, so we get to see how the death has arrested their development into adulthood. They can function, but it’s clear that none of them is living the life they wanted—with one exception.

The exception is Judith. Judith was born in a male body before transitioning in the late 1980s. She hasn’t told her husband or her adopted son anything about her past in the sixteen years they’ve been a family; the men have told her they don’t want to know. There are some small marital spats, but Judith is very much content with her life. To be honest, I was much more interested in her character than in some of the others because I wanted to see how Finney Boylan would depict someone who didn’t feel right in the body they were born in.

The mystery part of Long Black Veil gives some added tension to the whole, but I think I might have been happy with just Judith’s story on its own. That said, when the literary and mystery parts of the novel start to converge again at the end of the book, I liked how the narratives asked the same question in two different ways. The question, of course, is how do you make amends for the past? In Judith’s case, it was her initial disappearance and starting her life over without telling anyone. In the case of the rest of the characters, it’s owning up to what really happened to their friend that night at the Penitentiary.

On balance, I enjoyed reading Long Black Veil in spite of some clumsiness with the disparate genre elements. What made this book so engrossing was the psychological portrait of Judith as she becomes the person she always was on the inside.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 11 April 2017.

The Wages of Sin, by Kaite Welsh

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The Wages of Sin

It seems like everything is against Sarah Gilchrist in The Wages of Sin, by Kaite Welsh. She’s enrolled in one of the first classes of women in the University of Edinburgh’s medical school, so she faces harassment by the male students and staff. Because of an incident in her past, she is shunned by several of the female students. Her aunt and uncle—the only members of her family currently speaking to her—are pious, traditional people who want to marry Sarah off as quickly as possible. As if this wasn’t enough to cope with, a patient Sarah sees at the clinic where she volunteers turns up dead in the University’s anatomy lab the next day. Sarah, being the determined young woman she is, dives right into the mystery.

I would have been hooked by The Wages of Sin even if it hadn’t been a mystery. I am a sucker for medical history and this book plunged me right into the thick of it by dropping me into Sarah Gilchrist’s head as she tries to overcome her trepidation in the anatomy lab. We spend a day with Sarah as she braves school and the free clinic—with its testy, unwashed patients—before the main action kicks off. At the clinic, we meet Lucy, a young prostitute who begs the doctor to give her an abortion (which was illegal at the time). The next day, Sarah gets a nasty shock when she recognizes Lucy on the anatomy lab table. Sarah begins to ask questions in places that are entirely unsuitable for a young lady of her status and reputation because she knows that no one else will. In Edinburgh of the 1890s, no one seems to miss one more prostitute.

While Sarah tries to manage school and her relatives, she digs deeper and deeper into Lucy’s life. Unfortunately for her, she often charges down blind alleys and makes enemies along the way. One of those enemies, her very own professor Merchiston, fascinates her in a way that readers of romance novels will recognize—though Sarah resists and the plot doesn’t make it easy for her to get past her first impressions of the man. Sarah’s blunders make the story that much more believable for me; I distrust amateur detectives who are too confident and capable on their first case.

The only thing I did have a problem with in this genuinely engrossing novel was the ending. I felt the solution to the mystery came too soon and didn’t make much sense considering where Sarah had spent her efforts. I can forgive this because I really enjoyed Sarah and Merchiston’s characters. (This is also a debut novel and I expect a few hiccups in a debut.) The ending of The Wages of Sin makes it clear that more adventures are in store for Sarah and the professor. I look forward to seeing them again in future novels.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 7 March 2017.