review · thriller

My Sister, the Serial Killer, by Oyinkan Braithwaite

I don’t think anyone has tested the proverb, “blood is thicker than water,” as much as Ayoola does in Oyinkan Braithwite’s unsettling novel, My Sister, the Serial Killer. At the beginning of the novel, Ayoola calls our narrator (her older sister) to tell her that “it” has happened again and that she needs Korede’s help. “It” is murder and Ayoola has just killed someone for the third time. She is now officially a serial killer.

Korede is a long suffering sibling. When she was younger, she protected Ayoola from their father’s violent temper. Now, she’s stuck protecting Ayoola’s secrets from everyone. Given that Ayoola has now killed three men, one might think that hiding Ayoola’s secrets would be difficult. But it turns out that Lagos, Nigeria might be good hunting ground for a serial killer. It also helps that Ayoola is so beautiful and captivating (at first) that no one suspects her. It’s only when people get to know her that they realize that Ayoola is missing something vital: empathy.

Because we spend the novel sitting on Korede’s shoulder, we witness her struggles to clean up after her sister, literally and figuratively. We also witness her growing loneliness. This loneliness gets worse when the coworker Korede has a crush on meets Ayoola and the two start dating. Every time Korede tries to get her coworker to reconsider, it backfires spectacularly and painfully. It’s hard to watch, but utterly gripping because we spend every page of this book waiting for the hammer to fall.

I spent a lot of the novel mentally begging Korede to stop covering for her sister and allow the sociopath to face the consequences of her actions. Braithwaite, however, shows all of the reasons why Korede finds it impossible to do so. In other hands, My Sister, the Serial Killer might have been a black comedy. Instead, Braithwaite shows us how the habit of a life time, paired with Ayoola’s camouflage and the incompetence and greed of the Lagos police, make it impossible for Korede to just let Ayoola destroy herself. She is the best of sisters, even if it means that she might be damned too.

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mystery · review · thriller

The Stranger Diaries, by Elly Griffiths

One of the most repeated pieces of anecdata I hear in higher education is that English majors are highly employable in all sorts of fields. I’m sure most of us end up as teachers, librarians, editors, and writers. But, after reading The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths, I’m wondering if English majors might not also make very good detectives. We’re taught to read between the lines of what people are telling us and to recognize that everything is a narrative with an agenda behind it. Plus, it’s sure handy to be able to spot the source of literary quotes left by a multiple murderer.

The Stranger Diaries is narrated by three women who are all keeping secrets from each other and who all, more or less, distrust one another. Clare Cassidy is our first narrator. She teaches English at a comprehensive school in Sussex that also happens to be housed in the same building as a Victorian author (fictional) she loves. Then, after Clare’s friend is brutally murdered, Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur takes over. Kaur doesn’t care much for Clare—not only does Clare strike Kaur as a bit self-centered but Kaur also knows (and so do we) that Clare is hiding useful information. In spite of her initial dislike of Clare, Kaur is a very good detective who remembers her English literature and, more importantly, how to stay suspicious when people tell their stories. Our third narrator is Clare’s daughter, Georgia. Georgia, like all teenagers everywhere, believes that she knows enough about the world that she has to shelter her mother from her burgeoning coven and unsuitably older boyfriend.

The three take turns telling an increasingly complicated—and very well-plotted—mystery. There are plenty of plausible suspects. There are red herrings that may or may not be red herrings, each ratcheting up the tension another notch. Best of all (at least for me and bookish readers) there are metafictional elements and quotes from The Tempest and The Woman in White to enjoy. Plus, Griffiths includes passages from the Victorian writer’s best known story, “The Stranger,” to make things even more spooky.

I really enjoyed The Stranger Diaries. I didn’t mind bouncing around from prickly narrator to prickly narrator. I loved using my English major skills to work out what all of them were doing and thinking as they all followed different agendas and different breadcrumbs of clues: it’s a lot of fun to be the only person with perspective. I would definitely recommend The Stranger Diaries to readers who like literary mysteries with complicated-but-ultimately-logical conclusions.

P.S.: The dog lives.

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

mystery · review · thriller

A Corpse in the Koryo, by James Church

North Korea, as portrayed in James Church’s gripping novel,  A Corpse in the Koryo, is not just a place. It’s also a Kafkaesque nightmare of rigid conformity, alternate histories, and lots of things way above Inspector O’s pay grade. This first novel in the series set up not just Inspector O’s jurisdiction—the hotels, restaurants, and other commercial operations in Pyongyang—but his character. O is an unconventional detective in probably the worst place to be an unconventional detective. He doesn’t wear his pin with the Leader’s portrait. He has a habit of polishing wood that seems to drive everyone nuts. Worst of all, he keeps asking inconvenient questions when he’s repeatedly told to stick to his patch. All of this makes for a great read, with a great character, in a fascinating setting. 

We meet Inspector O in the middle of what seems to be a bureaucratic tangle of the right hand not knowing what the left is up to. He’s been tasked with taking a picture of a car from a certain hill, at a certain time. But the camera batteries are dead and O gets the impression that the driver of the car knows he’s there. This strange incident, paired with scenes obviously set later as O is being debriefed by an agent of British intelligence, tell us that O is operating in deep waters. If we needed any more clues that O had been caught up in someone else’s schemes, his supervisor (and friend) sends him away from the city to a border town. The spy shenanigans kick into high gear, with O (and us) none the wiser about what the hell is going on.

Because this is North Korea, nothing goes the way we might expect. There are bodies at the beginning of the novel, but O isn’t put in charge of an actual murder case until partway through the book. When O’s murder victim does turn up, a man who’s possibly Finnish in a hotel set up for foreign visitors in Pyongyang, he’s almost completely hand-cuffed by people who don’t want him to ask too many questions. Nothing is as it seems in the case, as O slowly starts to piece together clues and conspiracies.

A Corpse in the Koryo had me completely hooked even before the bullets started flying. The mystery had me engagingly puzzled, but I absolutely loved the moments when O reflects on his Revolutionary hero grandfather. This grandfather taught him how to create beautiful things from wood—and how to keep his private thoughts to himself, his doubts, to himself and navigate the place that their country had become. It’s hard to say whether or not O believes in the Revolution as he encounters scam artists, hypocrites, true believers, and fellow travelers. All I can say is that O is still loyal to his country, as strange and dangerous as it is. This is truly a fascinating book.

mystery · review · thriller

Find You in the Dark, by Nathan Ripley

36632316Fiction is a lot tidier than real life. For the most part, anyway. Villains are punished. Heroes are rewarded. Lovers get together and families are reunited. But, every now and then, I’ll read a book that leaves me unsatisfied and unsettled. Find You in the Dark, by Nathan Ripley, is one of those. It left a bad taste in my brain because the protagonist, Martin Reese, does terrible things and nothing happens the way narratives usually dictate. Normally this wouldn’t bother me. After all, I love books that play around with expectations. My problem with Find You in the Dark is that the ending smacks of rich, white, male privilege. The mystery is resolved, but it feels completely unearned.

Find You in the Dark has a fascinating premise. I picked this book up because Martin Reese, a retired dot-com millionaire, spends his time looking for the remains of the victims of serial killers that were never recovered by the police. The reviews made Reese sound like a modern day forensic archaeologist who wants to bring justice and closure to people who never learned what happened to their loved ones. It wasn’t long, however, before the book starts dropping disturbing hints about Reese’s real motivation. Not only does Reese leave taunting messages for the police, sneering at them for their inability to find victims’ remains, he also gets a kind of pleasure from digging up remains that made me feel like I had lifted the lid off of something nasty.

The novel switches between Reese’s perspective and that of Detective Sandra Whittal, who is obsessed with figuring out who the “Finder” is, and a man who becomes Reese’s nemesis. The three come together, so to speak, at the site of Reese’s latest find. He thought he was recovering the remains of his wife’s sister, who was killed by a serial killer who was later caught and executed before the book opens. But when he digs up the body, Reese finds the body of a woman who was killed much more recently. The main action kicks off immediately as Reese panics and his unknown enemy starts escalating his mental torture of Reese.

Unfortunately, Reese remained creepy to me throughout the story. I was unable to completely sympathize with him because of his taunting of the police and the almost sexual pleasure he takes in digging up remains. On top of that, the writing frustrated me. Because Reese and his nemesis are so paranoid about physical evidence, Whittal can only try to Sherlock Holmes her way to a solution. There are some breathtaking leaps of deduction that are close-but-not-quite-right that bothered me. (Whittal’s partner chides her more than once for this.) Whittal’s initial thoughts are on target, only to go wildly off track. Reese does a bit of the same in trying to figure out who is tormentor is the same. Unlike Holmes, whose logic is invariable unassailable, Whittal and Reese’s struck me as flimsy.

What bothered me most about Find You in the Dark is the ending, which offended my sense of justice. I won’t reveal the ending, in case anyone wants to try it for themselves. I kept reading, in spite of the leaps of logic and my dislike of Reese, because I wanted to see how Reese would get himself out of his impossible situation. But while the plot threads are mystery are resolved in a way that ordinarily might have pleased me, Find You in the Dark just left me cold.

historical fiction · review · science fiction · thriller

Noir, by Christopher Moore

35301333At the opening of Noir, by Christopher Moore, Sammy Two-Toes is in deep trouble. He has just found his boss dead on the floor and learned that there’s a black mamba on the loose. Then the book takes us back to the beginning, when a gorgeous woman walks into the bar where Sammy works. Noirs always start with a dame, but in Christopher Moore’s hands, the standard noir setup quickly goes off the rails. Before long, Sammy is dealing with men in black, his hustling boss, his growing romance with Tilly, racist cops, and more. He does a lot more running around than one might expect from someone who’s lacking a few toes.

Sammy’s first problem is that it’s too easy to blackmail. Right around the end of the war, he punched a cop while he was drunk and escaped from a labor detail. Now two years later, in 1947, his boss, Sal, can get Sammy to run little errands for his schemes just by threatening to reveal Sammy’s real last name to the authorities. Sammy’s not a bad guy. He’s actually quite sweet once you get to know him, as Tilly learns and his very loyal friends know. But since Sammy wants to keep his easy, pays-just-enough-money job at the bar, he agrees to help Sal with his little schemes. Sammy’s second problem is that he has a knack for blundering into other people’s schemes without having a clue what’s going on. As things spiral out of control, Sammy barrels through to the other side because there really is no other way out.

Noir is packed with Moore’s trademark humor: plenty of word play; lots of inappropriate jokes, especially about sex; and piles of sheer goofiness. I laughed more than once at the ludicrous scenes Sammy landed in. That said, there’s a lot of ethnic humor, especially about Asians and Asian Americans, which may turn off some readers. I know this book is set in San Francisco in 1947, but it doesn’t have to be wall-to-wall jokes about how Asian people eat weird things and have mysterious and inscrutable ways. For me, Noir was entertaining until it made me cringe.

Even though I enjoyed parts of it, Noir is not Moore’s best. The plot is a great ride, but it lacks some of the heart I saw in Lamb and Coyote Blue. This is a great read for those looking for a screwball noir with a dash of science fiction, with just enough edge to keep the stakes high. Any readers who want a little depth with the humor or who don’t care for kind-of racist jokes about Asians can skip Noir and try some of Moore’s other books.

literary fiction · review · thriller

The Haunted Bookshop, by Christopher Morley

27872533Last year, I read the enchantingly bookish novel Parnassus on Wheels, by Christopher Morley, a book that I had regularly seen on lists of the best books for bibliophiles. I had no idea it had a sequel until I happened to find The Haunted Bookshop in my own library. I may have squealed I was so happy I stumbled across it.

The Haunted Bookshop takes place some years after the events of Parnassus on Wheels and shortly after World War I. Roger and Helen Mifflin have put down roots in Brooklyn, where they run the Haunted Bookshop. A sign in the shop informs customers that it is haunted by great literature, as advertising man Aubrey Gilbert learns when he stops by to see if the Mifflins are interested in signing on with the firm he works for. Readers who are familiar with Roger Mifflin will know what to expect when anyone asks him a question. Aubrey, however, is astonished at the flood of words that pour out of Roger about the power of words and literature to uplift readers. Aubrey might have wandered away after being buried by Roger’s philosophizing, but he sticks around when he learns that the very attractive Miss Titania Chapman takes a job with the Mifflins.

The first chapter or so, in which Roger and Aubrey get acquainted, led me to think that it would be much like Parnassus on Wheels: a quiet story with a little bit of gentle adventure and a lot of talk about books. I was right about the second half of that. The Haunted Bookshop develops into a pretty cracking thriller from humble origins. The plot kicks off with strange happenings. A copy of The Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell, edited by Thomas Carlyle, appears and then disappears more than once. Then shifty characters start showing up around the store. It’s hard to say whether or not it’s Miss Chapman that keeps Aubrey on the case or the mystery of what on earth is going on with the Cromwell. Whatever it is, he finds himself on a fast track to becoming a hero.

The Haunted Bookshop is a delightful read, almost better than Parnassus on Wheels. This book had a better balance of long, bookish discussions and plot. It’s also full of mirthful little jokes and gags. That said, I wish I had been able to spend a bit more time with the Mifflins, especially Helen. I feel like they’re old friends. Aubrey and Titania are interesting enough, but they’re not as fun as the eccentric Mifflins. This book was a joy.

historical fiction · review · thriller

Safe Houses, by Dan Fesperman

36463975Helen Abell heard something she wasn’t supposed to hear at the beginning of Dan Fesperman’s Safe Houses. In fact, she hears two things she wasn’t supposed to hear. Also, she was taping the people speaking in one of the Berlin safe houses she monitors for the CIA. Even worse: some of the people who were saying things they shouldn’t know she has incriminating tapes. This is the set up for a thrilling mystery that spans almost four decades and two continents.

Helen’s half of Safe Houses follows her as she pisses off the wrong people trying to right a wrong and root out some possible treasons in 1979. Thirty-five years later, Henry Mattick helps Helen’s daughter, Anne, solve the mystery of Helen’s 2014 murder. (This isn’t a spoiler. The murders happen very early in the book.) Henry also works for the government and has special skills, though he’s not as official as Helen was. He’s already in the small Virginia town where Helen lived for decades, keeping track of her visitors, when she and her husband are suddenly and brutally murdered. Anne does not believe the official narrative, that her developmentally disabled brother murdered their parents with a rifle. Someone gives her Henry’s name and she hires him to basically double-down on the job he was already doing.

Once all of this is set up, we’re off to the races with Helen, Henry, and Anne. I loved all the twists on the standard spy and mystery plots. Helen isn’t fighting the Russians or the East Germans; she’s up against the good old boy network of American intelligence. Henry isn’t sure which agency he actually reports to, but it’s clear there are factions and rot. Anne is not as strong a character, but that may be because she’s not a point-of-view character. (There is also a shoe-horned-in romance plot that was unnecessary and kind of irritated me.) I had a great time keeping track of all the double-crosses and sinister henchmen.

Aside from the romance subplot, I liked Safe Houses. It’s got gripping action scenes and original conflicts. Fesperman did a great job creating two settings in which the characters feel like they have no where to turn. Because Helen, Henry, and Anne are pretty much completely on their own, we have to wait and hope that they will find a way to survive with only the slimmest chance of rescue. I’d recommend this for thriller readers who’d like something other than the usual spy v. spy or spy v. terrorist fare.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, fore review consideration. It will be released 3 July 2018.