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Posts Tagged ‘Matthew Pearl’

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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bookaneerAhoy, my mateys, here’s a literary thriller worthy of  a bottle of rum. In the swashbuckling The Last Bookaneer (Penguin, digital galley), Matthew Pearl spins the tale of late 19th-century book pirates seeking unpublished manuscripts before worldwide copyright laws put them out of business. Operating in a flourishing literary underworld, Pen Davenport and his sidekick Edgar Fergins set off from England for Samoa, where a sickly Robert Louis Stevenson is penning his final manuscript, worth a fortune in America. Davenport, disguised as a travel writer so as to gain access to the famous author, finds himself pitted against rival bookaneer Belial, disguised as a missionary. He also contends with cannibals, German colonials, prison and an astounding betrayal. Pearl frames the digressive narrative, replete with flashbacks, as an “as told by” story, with Fergins, an aging bookseller in New York, recounting his adventures to a black railway porter, Clover. This makes for a slow beginning but a humdinger of an ending, with Clover sailing the high seas to solve the mystery of the last bookaneer.

fifthheartThe game’s afoot again in Dan Simmons’ lively The Fifth Heart (Little, Brown, library hardcover), in which writer Henry James plays Watson to Sherlock Holmes after the two meet in Paris in 1893. Both men are depressed; James after the death of his sister and a downbeat in sales of his books, and Holmes, on his Great Hiatus after his presumed death at Reichenbach Falls, has discovered he may be a fictional character. That’s just one of the head-spinning conceits that Simmons pulls off with aplomb as Holmes and James set off for Washington, D.C., to delve into the death of Clover Adams, wife of Henry Adams. Although the death was determined to be a suicide, Holmes thinks it might be a murder connected to the Adams’ literary salon known as the Five Hearts. Real-life figures of the Gilded Age, including President Grover Cleveland and Washington hostess Clara Hayes, mingle with characters from the Holmes canon such as Moriarty and Irene Adler in a case with international implications. Readers need to know their Arthur Conan Doyle and Gilded Age history to truly appreciate Simmons’ playful, tongue-in-cheek tale. Anything but elementary.

emmaEmma is still clueless in Alexander McCall Smith’s witty Emma: A Modern Retelling (Knopf/Doubleday, digital galley), which is both the charm and the problem with the third entry in the Austen Project. McCall Smith moves the setting to Scotland (as did Val McDermid in her recent Northanger Abbey) and reimagines Jane Austen’s Regency heroine as a 21st-century recent college grad who fancies herself as matchmaker/ms. fix-it. He updates the plot with cell phones and Mini-Coopers, and appropriately modernizes the original characters. Emma’s poor and pretty friend Harriet is  no longer a love child but the product of a single mother and a sperm donor. Vicar Philip Elton’s new bride is a TV talent show contestant. George Knightley is still the neighbor and family friend who dares to call out bossy Emma when she’s behaving badly. McCall Smith’s social commentary is on point, and his droll humor a good match for Austen’s. Still, his Emma seems overly familiar, not so much from Austen’s tale as Amy Heckerling’s 1995 movie Clueless. Actress Alicia Silverstone set the bar high as a contemporary Emma,  Beverly Hills teen queen Cher Horowitz, and I keep picturing her as McCall Smith’s Emma. Not a bad thing, just been there, done that.

booksellerWith its “what if’?” premise, Cynthia Swanson’s engaging first novel The Bookseller HarperCollins, review copy) reminds me of another movie, the 1998 romantic comedy Sliding Doors. In 1962 Denver, Kitty Miller goes to sleep in her apartment as a 38-year-old single woman who runs a bookstore with her longtime friend Frieda. But when Kitty wakes up, she’s living in a suburban Denver split level as Kathryn Andersson, married to Lars and mother of three. When she wakes up again in her apartment, Kitty is perplexed by her realistic dream of Kathryn’s life, especially when she dreams it again, with more detail, the next night, and the next. Even as Kitty increasingly looks forward to her alternate life as Kathryn, she investigates the intersection with her own — a personal ad she placed several years ago and Lars’ reply. But Lars never showed up for their first date. Visiting the neighborhood where Kathryn lives, Kitty finds only an empty lot, but her life as Kathryn continues to take on a more solid and complicated reality. Swanson makes both lives perfectly plausible with attention to period detail. Books, clothes and hairstyles serve as touchstones in both lives, and their overlap helps Kitty/Kathryn resolve the mystery.

 

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