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Posts Tagged ‘blackout’

A serial killer is stalking the streets, his gruesome crimes apparently inspired by the works of Dante. Well-known writers team as amateur detectives to solve the case but fear they are hunting one of their own. It sounds like the plot of Matthew Pearl’s best-selling The Dante Club, and it is. But it’s also that of Pearl’s new literary thriller The Dante Chamber (Penguin Press, ARC), with the action shifting from 1865 Boston to 1870 London. A politician’s neck has been crushed by a stone etched with an inscription from the Divine Comedy, and poet Christina Rossetti enlists the help of Robert Browning and Alfred Tennyson to search for her missing brother, famous artist and writer Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It’s not necessary to have read The Dante Club to enjoy Pearl’s atmospheric follow-up, thanks to Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, who is still haunted by the Boston murders and who conveniently arrives in England to lend his expertise. Pearl’s own expertise is seamlessly blending fact with fiction in a fulsome narrative peopled by credible characters real and imagined. Christina Rossetti may present herself to the public as a retiring spinster, but her actions here reveal her spirited nature. Her brother Gabriel fascinates with his extravagant behavior and obsessions; his house is a library/menagerie, where armadillos and raccoons roam among the stacks of books. Browning is dashing, Tennyson is shy. Add a well-read Scotland Yard detective, a mysterious reverend, the “ghost” of a beautiful woman, a few Fenians plotting the overthrow of the government, and an ex-Pinkerton detective looking to capitalize on the lurid events. It’s a Victorian feast. Dig in.

Reading Ruth Ware’s deliciously twisty The Death of Mrs. Westaway (Scout Press, digital galley) is like driving down a country road. You think you know the way, pass some familiar landmarks, remember to turn left at the crossroads. But then you either miss a turn, or the road curves unexpectedly, and you don’t recognize a thing. You’re lost. Ware (In a Dark, Dark Wood, The Lying Game) comes up with Christie-like plots enhanced by Gothic elements. Past secrets, mistaken identities, old diaries and pictures. Harriet “Hal” Westaway is sure the letter from a lawyer announcing her grandmother’s death isn’t meant for her. For starters, her late grandmother wasn’t named Hester. Still, Hal can’t resist going to the funeral in Cornwall and the reading of the will. Ever since her single mother’s death several years ago, Hal has been on her own, forgoing university and eking out a living as a fortune teller on the Brighton pier. She doesn’t really believe in Tarot cards, but she’s good at reading people, and maybe she can pass herself off as a long-lost granddaughter long enough to benefit from the Westaway estate. With a loan shark breathing down her neck, Hal is desperate to escape Brighton. So off she goes to Trepassen House to meet her three new “uncles.” It’s a great premise, and Ware makes the most of it, even adding a creepy housekeeper, an attic bedroom, crumbling stairs and a frozen lake. Brrrr!

Would you willingly invite a serial killer to accompany you on a road trip? Me neither. What about if the serial killer is a senior citizen with dementia? Still no. What if you think your teenage sister was one of his victims? No way — are you kidding?! The unnamed 24-year-old narrator of Julia Heaberlin’s new thriller Paper Ghosts (Ballantine, digital galley) firmly believes that 61-year-old documentary photographer Carl Louis Feldman is behind the disappearance of her sister Rachel a dozen years ago. Armed with a map of Texas and some old photos, she pretends she’s Feldman’s daughter so she can check him out of the halfway house where he’s been living. Feldman, who claims no memory of killing Rachel or any other girls, doesn’t believe the narrator is his daughter but goes along for the ride, so to speak. You should, too, as improbable as it all sounds. Come on, don’t you want to know if Feldman really doesn’t  remember his career as photographer and killer? And what of the obsessive, unreliable narrator? Yes, you’ll keep reading. I did, with only a couple of pit stops to relieve the tension.

Time to catch up with some favorite series. Ann Cleeves has two going; the next entry in the Shetland series is due in the fall, while the fifth in the Vera Stanhope series, The Glass Room (St. Martin’s Press, library hardcover), was recently published in the U.S. for the first time. A formidable police detective and an odd duck, Vera finds herself investigating the murder of a famous writer in which her free-spirited neighbor is the prime suspect. But there are many others attending the writing workshop at the isolated country house with connections to the victim and motives aplenty. As usual, they underestimate Vera’s sharp mind, distracted by her large size and shabby clothes. Ah yes, appearances are deceiving.

I didn’t know how much I was longing for some good old South Florida noir until I read Alex Segura’s fourth Pete Fernandez novel Blackout (Polis Books, digital galley). Fernandez, a former reporter turned P.I. and a  recovering alcoholic, initially turns away a Florida politician looking for his missing son because it means returning to his hometown of Miami. Then Pete realizes that the missing man is linked to the cold case of Patty Morales, a high school classmate of Pete’s who disappeared in 1998. He and his former partner, Kathy Bentley, have tried to find Patty’s killer before, but their luck ran out when a crucial witness disappeared. Now with a chance to make amends with his past and old friends, Pete, who has been living in New York, heads for Miami, finding its familiarity both reassuring and overwhelming  Segura makes good use of Miami history — remember the Liberty City cult of Yahweh ben Yahweh? — and the surreality of Florida itself in crafting his hard-boiled tale.

Elly Griffiths takes a convoluted route in The Dark Angel (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, digital galley) to get her series characters from England to Italy to solve mysteries old and new. Forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway and young daughter Kate arrive first when Ruth is asked by an Italian archaeologist to consult on a Roman skeleton at the center of a television documentary. But then the town’s priest is found murdered in a case with secrets going back to World War II. Meanwhile, DCI Harry Nelson, Ruth’s sometimes lover and Kate’s father, hears of earthquakes in the region, and flies to Italy, leaving behind his pregnant wife Michelle. She doesn’t know if Nelson is the father of her baby or if it’s the police officer with whom she had an affair. Fans of the series will find these domestic entanglements as interesting as details  of the Italian crimes. La famiglia!

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cityonfire“Big as life.” That’s the kind of novel that Georgia native Mercer hopes to write when he moves to New York in the mid-1970s to teach at a girls’ prep school. But Mercer is distracted by the bright lights, big city, and especially by his boyfriend, William Hamilton-Sweeney, who prefers art, punk music and heroin to his wealthy uptown family’s financial empire. No wonder Mercer, already struggling with his identity as a gay black Southerner, is overwhelmed by the rich pageant stretching from the East Village to the Upper West Side. “In his head, the book kept growing in length and complexity, almost as if it had taken on the burden of supplanting real life, rather than evoking it.”

Garth Risk Hallberg evokes the heck out of real life in his ambitious doorstop of a novel, City on Fire (Knopf, digital galley). It has length (900 plus pages), complexity (dozens of intersecting characters), extras (photos, documents, coffee-stained manuscript) and a youthful exuberance that doesn’t know when to stop. So, yes, it’s digressive, excessive, over-the-top, and also sort-of-amazing. Hallberg is only 36 and yet he nails the gritty, glittering milieu like a modern-day Dickens with some Richard Price thrown in. His book made me remember what a rush New York was back then. I found myself  humming Patti Smith’s “Because the Night” while I was reading; now it’s an earworm I don’t regret.

Although City on Fire has flashbacks and flash forwards, it begins in December 1976 and continues through mid-July of ’77, culminating in the infamous blackout after a lightning strike brought down the city’s electric grid. The blackout comes across as almost apocalyptic in the novel, but it’s also where Hallberg brings together the many plotlines and characters spiraling out from the shooting of Long Island teenager Samantha in Central Park on New Year’s Eve. Mercer finds her after coming from a ritzy Hamilton-Sweeney party he went to without William and where he meets William’s estranged sister Regan for the first time. She and her husband Keith have recently separated and she’s moved to Brooklyn with their two kids. It turns out that Keith knows Sam, now lying in a coma in a hospital, while a detective grills Mercer at the police station and Sam’s pal, awkward asthmatic Charlie, searches for her friends from a punk band headed by the anarchist Nicky Chaos, who knows William as drummer Billy Three-Sticks.

Got that? Because there are many, many more characters with overlapping stories and lives, like Sam’s father, who oversees a family fireworks business, and the magazine writer, who profiles the father and knows the detective and lives next to the gallery assistant who works for the dealer who was once William’s mentor. And so on. You may remember the old TV drama tagline: “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.” Hallberg would like to tell a million or more with few degrees of separation.

Happily, Hallberg can really write in a take-no-prisoners, eat-my-dust style, and my eyes only glazed while reading some of Nicky Chaos’ rants or trying to decipher Sam’s zine writings. Sure the book could be shorter. Possibly it would be better, and more people would read it. Still, New York, New York. The good old bad old ’70s. Sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll. What a rush.

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