The Interrogation – Thomas H. Cook

My love affair with Thomas H. Cook goes back several years when I stumbled upon his novel Breakheart Hill in a secondhand bookstore. Since then I have read several of his books including Instruments of Night, The Chatham School Affair, Places in the Dark, Evidence of Blood, The Fate of Katherine Carr, Master of the Delta, Red Leaves and The Cloud of Unknowing. Geesh, that’s a lot of books by one author!  In my reading life perhaps Stephen King is the only author I’ve read more of. (Yes, I am ending that sentence with a preposition; sue me.)

Cook is a prolific writer (he has over 30 novels to his credit) and has won many awards including the Edgar and the Crime Writers’ Association Duncan Laurie Award, yet you’d be lucky to find any of his novels on the shelves at your local bookstore – trust me, I look.  So how come he isn’t as well known as other authors writing in the same genre? Unless you’ve read him, or are a super mystery novel aficionado, you may have never even heard of him. How come? Ali Karim asked the same question for an article in January magazine.

I buy his books whenever I find them and I hang on to them, usually until I can replace the one I am about to read with a new one. I like to have one waiting in the wings for the next time I need a fix.

Albert Jay Smalls is an odd little man who lives in a drain pipe in a local park. He’s been 237180arrested for the murder of a little girl. The problem is there’s no evidence and no witnesses and so the police can only hold him for twelve hours before they have to cut him loose. Thomas Burke, the chief of police ( a man with his own troubles) sends  his two best interrogators into the room to get a confession from Smalls.

The Interrogation is the story of those two cops, Norman Cohen and Jack Pierce. Each man has a heart full of demons (Cohen is haunted by his experiences in war; Pierce’s young daughter was a murder victim), but they are tenacious and accomplished interrogators. Since the story is set in 1952 they have to rely on the evidence they gather the old-fashioned way: visiting crime scenes, talking to people, chasing leads. There’s no Google and everything takes time and time isn’t on their side.

As Cohen and Pierce question Smalls and try to follow a breadcrumb trail, the reader will try to determine Smalls’ guilt or innocence too. Make no mistake, Cook’s novels are mysteries and half the fun is trying to figure out whodunit, but that’s not the only thing Cook’s got going on.

As with every single Cook novel I’ve read – his characters are really dynamic. You believe them from the minute they open their mouths. They have complicated interior lives. His heroes are always men trying to do the right thing – even when they can’t. Minor characters, like garbage collector Eddie Lambrusco, are equally well-drawn. Cook can create empathy with just a few word as he does when we watch Eddie handle his father’s watch and thinks

a laborer’s timepiece with its chinks and scratches and slightly skewed hands that circled turgidly around the yellowing dial. After a lifetime, he thought, this.

There are a lot of father/child motifs in The Interrogation –  dads who are helpless to save their children; dads who do everything for them; dads estranged from their children. It’s a theme Cook visits often and yet he always seems to have fresh things to say about the topic.

And like with virtually every Cook novel (I almost said book there and then thought better of it) I’ve read, the story’s resolution will be a surprise. It won’t feel like a cheat, either…because with Cook the clues always exist.

If you like mysteries that are thoughtful, intelligent and well-written – try to get your hands on Thomas H. Cook. You will not be disappointed.

Pretty Girls – Karin Slaughter

So my son asked me how I liked Karin Slaughter’s novel Pretty Girls and I really had to think about my answer. I couldn’t just say “yes” because that isn’t exactly true. I couldn’t say “not really” because that isn’t true either. I read about 300 pages of it last night, turning the pages to get to the end, my skin crawling and my eyes burning.PrettyGirls_HC

Pretty Girls is the story of  sisters Julia, Lydia and Claire – actually it’s mostly about Lydia and Claire because twenty years back Julia, then 19, went to a bar with friends, and disappeared. Claire is married to Paul, successful architect and doting husband; Lydia is single mom to 17-year-old-Dee. She’s 19 1/2 years sober.  Lydia and Claire have been estranged for twenty years, but when Claire’s husband is brutally murdered in a botched alleyway robbery Claire turns to her sister to help her make sense of her unraveling life. And trust me – Claire’s life is about to go belly up, big time.

That’s pretty much all I can tell you about the plot without giving too much away.

The one other voice we hear in Slaughter’s novel is the girls’ father. He never gives up trying to find Julia and keeps track of his search and his feelings in journals. “When you first disappeared,” he writes, “your mother warned me that finding out exactly what had happened to you would be worse than never knowing…’The details will tear you apart.'” She wasn’t wrong.

There’s some bad blood between Claire and Lydia, but soon enough they find themselves in a heap of trouble and they have no choice but to put the past aside. The plot catapults along and if you don’t care too much about the quality of the prose (not that there’s anything wrong with it – Slaughter’s writing is more than up to the task at hand) you’ll fly through the pages unhindered by flowery language. What will give you pause are the gruesome crime details – or maybe not. Maybe we have been desensitized to that sort of thing. I’m not easily bothered, but this book bothered me.

There’s nothing pretty about Pretty Girls. If there is redemption to be had, it comes at a high price for Claire and Lydia and readers will have to have a strong stomach to go along.

That Night – Chevy Stevens

I suppose that some fans of psychological suspense might call BC-based Chevy Stevens the Canadian Gillian that nightFlynn – except that, in my opinion, Flynn takes the prose prize and the plotting prize and, well, all the prizes, really. Sorry, Chevy.

This is the second novel I’ve read by Stevens. The first, Still Missing, won the International Thriller Writers Award for Best First Novel in 2011. I liked Still Missing, actually, though – if memory serves – I wasn’t keen on its ending. I didn’t like anything about That Night, although I wanted to. I didn’t abandon it to my Book Graveyard, though,  and I guess that’s saying something. Maybe it’s because Stevens is Canadian.

Toni Murphy and her boyfriend, Ryan Walker,  are in prison for the murder of Toni’s younger sister, Nicole. They maintain their innocence and while the evidence against them is circumstantial at best, they’ve both been locked away for fifteen years. (Not in the same institution, obviously.) The novel weaves between the events leading up to Nicole’s horrific murder, Toni’s incarceration and ultimate release (after serving her full sentence) and her attempts to reintegrate herself into society in her hometown of Campbell River, a town on Vancouver Island.

Toni is the problem child and Ryan is the son of a drunken criminal – so a bad boy by blood. Everyone seems to be waiting for them to get into trouble even though Toni seems more like a victim than a victimizer. She and Ryan are just waiting for high school to be over so they can get on with their lives together. Toni is especially anxious to get out of Dodge because of Shauna McKinney. “Most of the girls in our class either feared her or desperately wanted to be her friend, which I guess was kind of the same thing in the end,” Toni observes. Toni and Shauna used to be friends, but a misunderstanding over a boy changed all that and now Shauna does whatever it takes to make life living hell for Toni. Clearly, Toni is not as bad-ass as people think she is.

Nicole is the golden girl, the  mom’s favoured daughter because of her grades and sunny disposition. Until she starts hanging out with Shauna and her hench-women. Then she’s sneaking out of the house, coming home drunk and acting all weird.

Stevens’ first person narration allows us to see Toni’s journey through her final months in high school and then a sped up fifteen years in the big house where we watch Toni negotiate her way through a system that is bound to fail her. She makes friends; she makes enemies, and finally she is paroled. One of the conditions of her parole is that she has no contact with Ryan, who has also been released and who has also headed back to Campbell River. Despite the no contact rule which, if broken, has the potential to send them back to jail,  Toni and Ryan are determined to find out what really happened to Nicole.

Mostly I didn’t like That Night because I didn’t care about any of the characters. Toni’s parents were particularly irksome. Yes, it’s true that they’ve lost one daughter at, supposedly, the hands of another. But she swears she didn’t do it. How about a little faith, people?

When the true story of what happens is finally revealed, all the pieces click into place with precision, but ultimately this is less a mystery and more a story (sort of) of redemption. I found the writing a bit clunky – lots of exposition – and the characterizations superficial. For me, That Night wasn’t all that.

 

The Husband’s Secret – Liane Moriarty

It’s no secret to the ladies in my book club: I didn’t like Liane Moriarty’s novel The Husband’s Secret. At all. But here’s the thing, the critics loved it. Geesh, even Anne Lamott called it “smart, wise, funny.” husband

The husband in question in The Husband’s Secret is Cecilia’s husband,  John-Paul Fitzpatrick, he of the “deep, warm and comforting” voice; hopeless at the minutiae of daily life, but “he took care of his wife and daughters, in that old-fashioned, responsible I-am-the-man-and-this-is-my-job way.”  One day, while searching in the attic for a little piece of the Berlin Wall (cue metaphor alert) to give to her  daughter, Esther, who has recently shown an interest, Cecilia discovers  (by accident…or is it fate?)  an envelope upon which is written: For my wife Cecilia Fitzpatrick,  To be opened only in the event of my death.

In another part of town is Rachel, a woman whose life has been forever coloured by the death of her teenage daughter, Janie, some twenty-eight years ago. She has a son, Rob, and daughter-in-law, Lauren and a two-year-old grandson, Jacob. Rob and Lauren have just told Rachel that they are moving to New York to take advantage of a terrific job opportunity for Lauren. Jacob is the light of Rachel’s life and the news is devastating to her – never mind that she has discounted Rob and Lauren forever, because – you know – she’s grieving. Still. Always.

The third woman to figure in Moriarty’s over-stuffed plot is Tess, who has recently come home with her young son, Liam,  because her husband, Will, and cousin, Felicity, (who are also her business partners) have just revealed that they have fallen in love. Ouch.

Really, there’s enough going on in The Husband’s Secret to fuel three novels, but Moriarty chooses, instead, to tangle the fates of all these three women together and also try to comment on infidelity, love, marriage, family, parenting, friendship, and how to make a million bucks selling Tupperware.

A novel like this, let’s call it domestic drama, depends on one thing and one thing alone and that’s believability. I didn’t believe any of these characters, nor care about them one iota. The book seemed interminable to me, over 400 pages bookended with a prologue and epilogue that asks you to consider the myriad of ways your life might have gone had you only chosen a different path. But as Robert Frost’s misunderstood poem “The Road Not Taken” warns us “the passing there/ Had worn them really about the same.” No matter which path you choose in life,  a belief in fate is also a belief that everything turns out as it should.

The Husband’s Secret is an “everything but the kitchen sink” novel that tries hard to be all things to all readers: mystery (though not so much for careful readers), and family drama, with a little bit of sex thrown in for good measure. When one of my friends joked “just wait until you get to the aliens,” I actually considered she might be telling the truth.

A world of no.

 

Coming Up For Air – Patti Callahan Henry

Patti Callahan Henry’s heroines all have the same problem: they are women of a certain age at a crossroads in their lives. For Amy, the protagonist in my first Henry novel Losing the Moon, it’s the unexpected reunion with her college boyfriend, Nick. In Where the River Runs  it’s the emotions rekindled by revisiting a tragedy from Meridy’s youth.

Then there’s Ellie Calvin, the main character in Coming Up For Air. Ellie realizes at her coming-up-for-airmother’s funeral that she no longer loves her husband, Rusty. Truth be told, he’s a bit of a douche, a passive aggressive clout from the right side of the tracks. What Ellie really longs for is Hutch, her “bad boy” college boyfriend. Of course, she doesn’t know that just yet. It’s not until he’s suddenly standing in front of her and

…I saw his face. Twenty years later, minutes and hours and days rearranged to allow me to see him again as if time hadn’t passed at all. Mostly I saw his eyes: almond shaped and kind, brown with green underneath, as if the eyes had meant to be the color of forest ferns and then at the last minute changed their mind.

As a reader, you pretty much know what’s going to happen about then – all that remains to be seen is just how meandering the journey. In this instance, Hutch is an historian and he’s been working on an exhibit at the Atlanta History Centre, an exhibit honouring some of the South’s great dames – in which Ellie’s mother, Lillian,  figures prominently. Ellie has had a prickly relationship with her mother. Much of the acrimony,  ironically, involved Hutch.

Then Ellie finds a journal her mother kept. The entries, one a year, reveal that Ellie’s mother wasn’t always the proper and stiff woman Ellie had grown up. In fact, she’d had a deep and passionate love affair before she’d married Ellie’s father to a man identified only as Him.(Not sure why it’s capitalized.)  Furthermore, she’d been involved in the Civil Rights Movement.

Obviously, Ellie and Hutch need to find out what all this means and so they head down to the Alabama coast where Lillian’s best friend, Ms. Birdie, lives. Ms. Birdie also happens to be Ellie’s best friend’s mom…so, see how that all works out? Of course, Ms. Birdie is reluctant to tell Ellie anything much. There’s still half a book to get through, after all.

I read the whole thing, of course I did. It’s not because it’s full of hot sex, either. Hutch and Ellie barely exchange a platonic kiss. It’s not because I particularly cared about any of the characters. Even the revelation of who the mysterious Him was is a disappointment. I was hoping Lillian had been really brave.

I guess I didn’t give up on Coming Up For Air because the romantic in me wants to see the potential for love at a certain age. I’m older than Ellie and I don’t have a marriage to walk away from anymore, but I do – sometimes – long for that chemical connection. Of course, I don’t have pots of money allowing me to step away from my life and go live in a magical cottage on the water. I also don’t have a “one-that-got-away” college boyfriend.

If our lives are a story and we are characters in that story, perhaps Ellie’s Uncle Cotton’s question is valid: “What’s the next best thing to happen here?”

Unfortunately, I think Henry took the path most traveled, but I guess if you like happily-ever-after that’s probably okay.

The Widow – Fiona Barton

Although I often enter book giveaways on Good Reads, I never win. That is until a couple weeks ago when an ARC of Fiona Barton’s novel The Widow showed up at my door compliments of Penguin Random House Canada. The book was cleverly packaged in an ‘evidence bag’ along with a package of Skittles. Awesome to get a book in the mail, but Skittles, too. Jackpot!

widowI seem to be on a roll these days, reading books I can’t seem to put down. I motored through The Widow in a couple of days.  Although the subject matter (porn) may not appeal to everyone, rest assured that there’s no graphic content in Barton’s book. Your imagination will fill in the gaps, trust me.

Jean and Glen Taylor are an average thirty-something couple living in England. Jean is a hairdresser and Glen, a banker. They are unremarkable  until they come under the scrutiny of the police because of the disappearance of a little girl, Bella, who has gone missing from her front garden.

Told from various viewpoints, The Widow mostly revolves around Jean as she decides whether or not to share her story with the press. Glen has been killed, “knocked down by a bus just outside Sainsbury’s” and now Jean no longer has to keep his secrets or put up with his “nonsense.”

When we are not with Jean, we’re with Kate, the reporter who is trying to convince Jean to tell her side of things or Bob Sparkes, the police detective trying to figure out what happened to little Bella. It’s Bella’s disappearance that drives Kate and Bob, although each of them views the crime from a different perspective. As Sparkes follows a trail of clues, many of which don’t pan out, Jean reveals her own misgivings about Glen and what he does on the computer in the spare room. Slowly she unravels the story of her marriage and while she may seem like a victim, there is something unreliable about her narrative. She admits “I had to keep his secrets as well as mine.”

The Widow delves into the sordid world of online pornography, skeezy Internet clubs where men hide in booths to pay-per-view and magazines sold out of the back of trunks at gas stations on the motorway. When Jean finally learns about her husband’s preferences

he told me it wasn’t his fault. He’d been drawn into online porn by the Internet – they shouldn’t allow these things on the Web. It was a trap for innocent men. He’d become addicted to it – “It’s a medical condition, Jeanie, an addiction.” But he’d never looked at children. Those images just ended up on his computer – like a virus.

Whether or not Jean suspected Glen of anything is one of the key elements that will keep you turning the pages. Barton’s crisp, no-nonsense prose is another. The Widow will keep you turning the pages way past your bedtime.

 

The Winter People – Jennifer McMahon

A few years back I read Jennifer McMahon’s debut novel Promise Not To Tell, and I enjoyed it a great deal. A couple years after that I read McMahon’s novel Dismantled, a book I did not like one bit. Now I’ve just finished reading The Winter People, and I have to say it falls sort of in between.winterThe Winter People is a story which bounces between present day and 1908. In the past, Sara Harrison Shea lives on the farm where she grew up with her husband, Martin, and her little girl, Gertie. West Hall, Vermont is well-known for its mysteries and ghost stories, many of which center around Sara and her family farm, a house filled with secret places and, well, secrets.

In her diary, Sara writes “The first time I saw a sleeper, I was nine years old.”

I had heard about sleepers; there was even a game we played in the schoolyard in which one child  would be laid out dead in a circle of violets and forget-me-nots. Then someone would lean down and whisper magic words in the dead girl’s ear, and she would rise and chase all the other children. The first one she caught would be the next to die.

Turns out, though, there is dark magic and Sara’s Auntie, an Indian woman who cared for Sara’s dying mother before she started sleeping with Sara’s widowed father promises to “write it all down, everything I know about sleepers.” In case it’s not obvious, sleepers are people brought back from the dead, but they only exist for seven days, you, know, unless they shed blood during that time – then they live forever.

In the present, nineteen-year-old Ruthie lives in Sara’s farmhouse with her mother, Alice, and her little sister, Fawn. One morning Ruthie gets up to discover her mother is missing. Cold tea on the table, truck in the barn – vanished into thin air.

Then there’s Katherine. She’s still grieving the loss of her son, Austin, when her husband, Gary, is killed in a car accident. Thing is, he told her he was going to be one place and he was actually in West Hall. Last seen: Lou Lou’s Cafe with Alice.

These disparate threads do come together by novel’s end, but I lost interest about half-way through. The Winter People is clearly meant to be a ghost story, but once crazy Candace shows up, intent on getting the missing pages of Sara’s diary so she can sell the secret of raising the dead so she can fight for custody of her son -yeah, right about then I was…c’mon. Oh, plus there’s a gun. Two guns actually. And other crazy shenanigans. And then, a lot of exposition to tie up those pesky loose ends.

When McMahon stuck to the ghost stuff…there were some creepy moments, but The Winter People is nowhere near as good as Promise Not To Tell.