Thrillers & True Crime


Flatiron Books
$26.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: the full five stars, and a possible place as the annual six-stars-of-five read

"I got a line on a job, Bug. A big one. One that can set us up for a long time. A long goddamn time."
Beauregard knew there was no honor among thieves. Boys in the game only respected you in direct proportion to how much they needed you divided by how much they feared you. There was no doubt they needed his skill.

And if they weren't a little bit afraid of him then that was their mistake.
If you drive like you scared, you gonna lose. If you drive like you don't want to rebuild the whole engine, you gonna lose. You gotta drive like nothing else matter except getting to that line. Drive like you fucking stole it.
You caught between a wannabe Pablo Escobar chopping motherfuckers up and putting them in grease buckets and a redneck Walter White. When you fuck up you do it right.
You know this ain't gonna end well. Spoiler alert: It...sort of does...?

Bug Montage, however misguided and frankly desperate he is, doesn't take stupid home with him. In fact, he's a wise and deep thinker.
“Listen, when you’re a black man in America you live with the weight of people’s low expectations on your back every day. They can crush you right down to the goddamn ground. Think about it like it’s a race. Everybody else has a head start and you dragging those low expectations behind you. Choices give you freedom from those expectations. Allows you to cut ’em loose. Because that’s what freedom is. Being able to let things go. And nothing is more important than freedom. Nothing. You hear me, boy?” Beauregard said.

Javon nodded his head.
My daddy was right. You can't be two types of beasts. Eventually one of the beasts gets loose and wrecks shop. Rips shit all to Hell.
I don't know what else to say if the truth of that, and of its antihero main character's clear-as-moonshine voice, don't make you want to dash right out and get the damn thing.

Me? The reason I pre-ordered this book is in this Twitter thread:
I agree with and admire Author Cosby. He calls out racism wherever he finds it.



Penguin Books
$8.57 ebook platforms, available now

Rating: 4* of five

Graceless, gormless Wormold, a British sales agent for an American vacuum cleaner company in barely pre-Revolution Havana, has a problem. His adolescent daughter Milly, a manipulative and materialistic minx, spends well beyond his paltry earnings in her quest to ensnare the Red Vulture. That's a person, not a bird, one Captain Segura, who is the police torturer and possessor of a cigarette case covered in human skin. (An assertion Milly makes but Segura denies.) Wormold is fighting a losing battle, trying to sell a home appliance that's less useful than a broom in a country that's teetering on the brink of collapse. The power goes off too often to make it a sensible purchase, despite Wormold's trips to Cienfuegos (the Cuban Navy's main port) and points east (where the Revolutionary Army is strongest) to drum up business. What he *does* drum up is the interest of the state security apparatus. You see, Wormold is a British spy.

Good heavens, not a real one! He was worrying his way through a daily daiquiri with his German friend Dr. Hasselbacher when a Brit called Hawthorne inveigles him into the bathroom. That sounds, well, louche is I suppose the least offensive term, but it's what happens so have a séance and take it up with Greene if it's too sordid for you. What Hawthorne wants, I suppose, is a reason to visit Havana from his base in more-staid Kingston, Jamaica. (In 1958, when the book takes place, Havana was the Las Vegas of the Caribbean.) It also doesn't hurt his standing with MI6 to have a sub-agent in uneasy, revolution-bound Cuba. Wormold gets the nod, though to be honest I don't see a single reason why...oh wait...Milly the Minx is spending Daddy into bankruptcy (her initial salvo when we meet her is to demand a horse to go with the saddle she's just bought) so of course Wormold is in need of funds. Money always talks to men with debts.

From that match-to-fuse moment, a farce of atomic power begins to whirl from one end of the world to the other. Some sage adivce given to Wormold by WWI veteran Hasselbacher, to make his reports to London out of whole cloth on the principle that no one can disprove a lie, leads to Wormold's entire life being turned upside down. As he hurries from fire to fire atop an ever-increasing reactor fire of anxiety-into-terror, Wormold's lies begin to morph into the truth. Hawthorne's sub-agent becomes London's Agent of the Month, so to speak, as the wildly inventive reports he files bear fruit. As the book was written long before the events of the Missile Crisis, it really seems as though Greene was prescient: He has Wormold invent secret bases where mysterious equipment (drawings attached to his report were actually of a scaled-up vacuum cleaner) was being assembled. MI6 wants photos, of course; Raul the pilot (an invented sub-agent of Wormold's) suddenly dies in a crash. This is evidence that Wormold is onto something, obviously.

More and more of Wormold's fabulous reports are borne out as his "contacts" begin to suffer for his lies. Wormold himself comes in for assassination by the Other Side! He averts his fate, being a devout coward, and then has to do the worst-imaginable thing to escape his fate. (Read it, you'll see.) In the end, Greene can't design a better fate for Wormold and Milly than the one he puts on the page. It's perfect, it flows naturally from what's happened in the story, and it's hilarious. The humor of this book, like most of Greene's work, is dark to black. Be warned that there is little of this sixty-year-old send-up of National Security run amok that isn't viewable as critical of the State from 2019's perspective as well. Is that sad or inevitable, or perhaps both?

My favorite moment in the story comes when Wormold, busily inventing actions for his fictitious sub-agents to get up to, muses on the creative process:
Sometimes he was scared at the way these people grew in the dark without his knowledge.
Beautifully said, Author Greene. Just beautiful. And so very true.



St. Martin's Press
$7.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: When Geniver Loxley lost her daughter at birth eight years ago, her world stopped… and never fully started again. Mothers with strollers still make her flinch; her love of writing has turned into a half-hearted teaching career; and she and her husband, Art, have slipped into the kind of rut that seems inescapable.

But then a stranger shows up on their doorstep, telling Gen the very thing she’s always wanted to hear: that her daughter Beth was not stillborn, but was taken away as a healthy infant and is still out there, somewhere, waiting to be found. It’s insane, unbelievable. But why would anyone make that up? A fissure suddenly opens up in Gen’s carefully reconstructed life, letting in a flood of unanswerable questions. Where is Beth now? Why is Art so reluctant to get involved? To save his wife from further hurt? Or is it something more sinister? And who can she trust to help her?

Ignoring the warnings of her husband and friends, Gen begins to delve into the dark corners of her past, hopeful she’ll find a clue to her daughter’s whereabouts. But hope quickly turns into fear and paranoia, as she realizes that finding the answers might open the door to something even worse than not knowing. A truth that could steal everything she holds close – even her own life.

My Review: I won this book in an email giveaway from St. Martin's/Minotaur Books' e-newsletter, Criminal Element. Whee! Thanks guys!

Sophie McKenzie is one to watch out for. She can tell a story that, when you realize the underlying conceit of it, only makes the story she's crafted more interesting, sharpens the poignancy of it, and makes the ending both inevitable and sharply, horribly shocking.

Oh dear. That doesn't sound like something one would necessarily want to read, does it.


You see, there is a layer of the story that I, Mr. Get-Over-It about spoilers, don't want to give away in advance. The dawning realization about the underpinning of the story McKenzie is telling you is one of the most satisfying pleasures of the novel. There's really no Big Reveal, no Moment of Truth, in this realization. It's a dawning awareness of a resonance, a few details that catch on a thorn of memory, unraveling a strand in the plot that..."OH! I get it now!" And that wonderful moment is what I don't want to deprive you of.

So! How's the weather where you are? I can't review the book too closely, you'll get it and that'll just blow it all. I had curry-toast with sharp cheddar for lunch today. We're out of chutney, though, darn it. I had some olives, luckily, and they were tasty with the curry-cheddar spicytart flavors. Much like the novel I'm not discussing. The narrative's complexity of savor is there, just needs to be experienced.

Hell's bells. Buy the darn thing and read it. Suspense novel readers won't see new ground broken, but a very good and carefully crafted story is a generous reward for your eyeblinks. Even if the underpinning of the story isn't obvious to you until the last page, the reward is a solid, suspenseful story of one woman's path out of the featureless gray fog of depression. Like any journey, it has antagonists and it has guides and it's not always clear who is what to whom.

And that, my friends, is the fun of reading a suspense novel, isn't it? Savor. Enjoy. Smile knowingly early on or slap your forehead and shout "of course!" at the matter, you're in for a treat.



$16.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.8* of five ***LibraryThing Early Reviewers ARC***

The Publisher Says: John Morgan and his wife can barely contain their excitement upon arriving as the new teachers in a Yup'ik Eskimo village on the windswept Alaskan tundra. But their move proves disastrous when a deadly epidemic strikes and the isolated community descends into total chaos. When outside aid fails to arrive, John’s only hope lies in escaping the snow-covered tundra and the hunger of the other survivors—he must make the thousand-mile trek across the Alaskan wilderness for help. He encounters a blind Eskimo girl and an elderly woman who need his protection, and he needs their knowledge of the terrain to survive. The harsh journey pushes him beyond his limits as he discovers a new sense of hope and the possibility of loving again.

My Review: That summary's pretty generic. Here's what I think you should know: Expect to flip pages fast enough to fan yourself cool on a hot day. Expect to invest real interest in the characters. Expect to spend at least one too-late night as the ending draws nigh.

Don't expect to learn the culture of the Yup'ik, or get inside the heads of any Yup'ik people. Don't expect the plot to do more than propel the real story forward. Don't expect to slip mentally naked into a pool of sweet-scented prose-water. Don't expect to think about these characters for days, weeks, after the deeply satisfying ride is over.

This is chapter 42:
He swore he would keep track. He would record each day forward from the day she died. Never forgetting. Never losing count. That day was the day he awoke with {her} cold in his arms. The day he could not stop trying to imagine being a father. Of {her} finally a mother. He just couldn't do it. He had no images in his mind of what that son or daughter might have looked like. Would he or she have his grandmother's eyes? The eyes he never looked into?
But worse, it would be the day he would have to start trying to keep his word to {her}.
And on that day, he knew in his heart, he couldn't keep it. She had whispered into his ear and asked him to do the unthinkable. And he said he would. He would have told her anything she needed to hear. And he did.
{She} whispered her dying wish into his ear, "Promise me you will love again...Promise me."
"Promise," he replied.
Asking him to promise he would keep on living would have been too much in and of itself, but to love again?
That's it. The entire chapter. So now you know what you're looking at: Short chapters made of short sentences piled atop each other, building thorny defensive walls against loss and loneliness and the icy freezing cold of being irretrievaby, irrevocably left behind. Sometimes you're inside, sometimes you're outside.

If that style fails to appeal, pass on. But Pintail, a Canadian division of Penguin, should find plenty of people happy to visit the amazing, beautiful Alaskan tundra with John and his dependents. I'm very glad I spent the time I did with this promising, exciting debut thriller.



$17.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Seven years in the making, Sacred Games is an epic of exceptional richness and power. Vikram Chandra's novel draws the reader deep into the life of Inspector Sartaj Singh--and into the criminal underworld of Ganesh Gaitonde, the most wanted gangster in India.

Sartaj, one of the very few Sikhs on the Mumbai police force, is used to being identified by his turban, beard and the sharp cut of his trousers. But "the silky Sikh" is now past forty, his marriage is over and his career prospects are on the slide. When Sartaj gets an anonymous tip-off as to the secret hide-out of the legendary boss of G-Company, he's determined that he'll be the one to collect the prize.

Vikram Chandra's keenly anticipated new novel is a magnificent story of friendship and betrayal, of terrible violence, of an astonishing modern city and its dark side. Drawing inspiration from the classics of nineteenth-century fiction, mystery novels, Bollywood movies and Chandra's own life and research on the streets of Mumbai, Sacred Games evokes with devastating realism the way we live now but resonates with the intelligence and emotional depth of the best of literature.

My Review: WOW. What a book! It's over 900pp long! It's as overwhelming and complex and befuddling as Bharat itself is, for an uninitiated Murrikin tourist.

It's also fabuolously, gorgeously wrought, and very much worthy of being a bestseller. It never will be, for several reasons.

First: It has, and needs, a glossary. Second, it needs but has not an organized-by-relationship Cast of Characters. Third, it's a blinkin' wrist-sprainer of a hardcover and would be fatter than the Bible if it was turned into a mass-market paperback. Fourth, it's just as challengingly fragmented as Ulysses, only more fun to read.

Okay, first comes the glossary. Honestly, I don't know what to tell you about this. I think, based on personal experience, that it's best simply to immerse yourself in the sea of the book, experiencing it the way you would Mumbai if you went there without a tour guide. Just wander along behind Vikram, looking over his shoulder and listening to the people he's talking to; he's the author, after all, and we should trust him to lead us not into the temptation to give up, but deliver us to a satisfying conclusion to the stories he's telling us. He won't disappoint. But if you constantly flip back and forth, back and forth, to the glossary, it'll get wearing and make that giving-up option well-nigh irresistable. Just let the language happen, let yourself see the words without having an instant picture of the concrete reality but rather absorbing the ideas behind them. "Chodo" doesn't need to mean something explicit to you for you to realize that it's being used to describe physical intimacy. You'll get that point PDQ. Let it happen naturally! Try to move past your ingrained logic-and-analysis patterns to experience something afresh.

Second, there are a LOT of people in this tale, and a more complete league table of them would have been helpful where a glossary was not especially so. I think it's useful, in books of more than 20 characters, for publishers to offer us the chance to refresh our memories about who's who and what role and relationship they have in the book. I'd make the publisher do this retroactively but that's not practical...Harper Collins isn't taking orders from me, for some strange reason.

Third, the immensity of the tome! Gadzooks and Godzilla! Had this book sold in the millions, Canada would be devoid of tree-cover. 928pp!! Now, having read the book twice, I can honestly and objectively say that at least 150pp could have come out and left the beauties of the book intact. I think it's a common problem among publishers, though, this inability, or unwillingness, or inexpertise at the art of good editing. I know it's hard. I know because I've done it, and done it very well. But I also know that the end product of a good, collaborative edit is a fabulously improved book.

Fourth, Vikram Chandra's fractured PoV for storytelling. This is the reason an organized Cast of Characters is needed...who's who is provided on p. xi-xii, but it's not complete, and it's not broken into groups by relationship. But the voices are, for third person-limited narrative, beautifully differentiated. The "Inset:" tags are clues to the changes of viewpoint, but we never leave the third person-limited narrative voice; it's challenging to make that not seem flat, like the PoV character suddenly knows things he can't possibly have access to; and for the most part, Vikram Chandra does it well. The last "Inset: Two Deaths, in Cities Far From Home" isn't quite as smooth as others, and in my never-very-humble opinion could be dispensed with whole and entire without damage to the rest of the story.

So why am I so mingy in giving this book a mere 3.5 stars? Because it's too big a commitment to ask a reader to make when it could have been shorter and better told. But folks, India is a huge, huge, huge place that has a lot of English speakers in it. They're going to be producing more and more books in English. I really, strongly advise you to start acclimatizing yourselves to this new reality by picking up works by talented storytellers like Vikram Chandra. Start here, start learning to let Hindi words reveal themselves to you, sink back into the immense, soft seas of India's talented storytellers...unless you want to learn Mandarin, that is.

In 2020, the latest news is that two seasons of Netflix India (distributed internationally) are made; there might not be a third, at least partially because of the COVID-19 plague. I have watched all sixteen episodes, and I will be disappointed if they don't make a third season. I will say this: The dialogue doesn't quite live up to the novel's, being more film-noir cliché witty instead of wearily authentically tired-cop and sleep-deprived criminal. But damn is this not Bollywood! No one's shiny clean, the colors are muddied and flash by fast, the people are just...people.

It is a lovely job of bringing the series to the screen so I urge you to watch it.


M.C. Miller

$10.99 trade paper, FREE on Kindle Unlimited

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: A new explosive packs the punch of a 500lb. bomb at microdot size. Who has the dots and where are they going to use them? Problem is - they could be anywhere. Chinese-American competition to extend the periodic table to the next island of stability yields an unexpected result - a microdot explosive. Whoever achieves stability first will have the upper hand - or will they? Not everyone in China favors its new capitalism. New revolutionaries aim at the core of consumption culture. Export MDOT-E in commercial goods and the resulting chaos and panic will precipitate a revolution. The Defense Intelligence Agency must put the pieces together. Their plan tricks former lovers and ex-DIA agents Mitchell Reid and Cole Taylor into working together again. They are a volatile pair, a gutsy choice for a covert mission rushing from Macau to Tokyo to Shanghai. Only Reid and Cole stand in the way of sinister forces. Even a successful operation might not prevent a world of hurt.

My Review: I'm on record as a thriller reader by choice. I choose these entertainments carefully, because a bad thriller is a worse read than a bad example of almost every other genre. This thriller was a LibraryThing Member Giveaway, as it was self-published by the author.

I liked it very much. I'd even go out and buy one. It's nicely written, plausibly plotted, tautly paced, and--for a wonder--actually edited! Most amateur writer/self-publishers don't pay enough attention to the role of an editor in the creation of a good novel. Mr. Miller did. He got good advice, I can see, because the plot holes are few and far between, but also because the thread of a book, the argument it makes about the world, is so consistent.

The settings...Asia's Muslim parts, different bits of China for the most part...are hot spots in the world, so it makes a lot of sense to set a thriller there. It's nice, and fairly unexpected, to see that the politics of the region are thought through and the conclusions the author posits are well supported by the information presented in the book itself.

The main character, Cole Taylor, is well enough drawn to make me suspect that a series is planned. If so, that's a darn good thing. Off-the-shelf woman heroes as written by men are no more interesting than their off-the-shelf male counterparts. Cole is a woman I could enjoy following around.

I expect that Miller will grow as a writer, blowing past the inevitable infelicities of style and occasional lapses of imagination that *every* writer needs to work out and shake off. That there were as few as exist in Islands of Instability is another reason I hope more self-published writers will hire Miller's editor, whoever s/he may be!

Recommended for thriller readers who are getting jaded, for those interested in China's increasing economic and political and military ascendency, and for adventurous lady readers who want a flawed, real heroine to enjoy.


1 comment:

  1. These both look like books I'd like. Thanks for such good reviews.


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