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IYCRMM: The many shapes and forms of crime fiction

Book reviews on The Trees, Vine Street, Dinner Guest, The Bullet that Missed, Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone, and Secret Identity

The novels today have the commonality of being categorized as Crime Fiction in most bookstores. But that’s only half the story, as Everett’s is written like a literary fever dream, and is as much a commentary on racism as it is a police procedural. Nolan’s encompasses eighty years of obsessing over unresolved murder cases. The others mix a formal dinner, geriatrics, family, and comic books in unique ways. Happy reading hours guaranteed!

The Trees by Percival Everett

A novel shortlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize, it’s easy to appreciate why it’s been acclaimed—after you’ve consumed three to four quick chapters of this work. Taking inspiration from the real-life lynching of Emmett Till in the 1950’s but set in the present day, the book is both a fast-paced murder mystery, a police procedural, and a wry comedy. It’s all umbrellaed by the scathing social commentary about racism in the USA, its history and continued persistence, and police brutality. Shot full of irony, there is that aspect of how the ones who are tasked to enforce the law, and prevent racism from happening; are often the very ones promoting it, and letting abuses happen.

From the African-American officers of the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation to the African-American FBI female agent assigned to the case, these law enforcers are caught between what passes for racist normalcy in the Southern states. Not to mention the hate crimes that are being perpetuated against white supremacists and their like-minded descendants. There’s a whiff of the supernatural and black magic in these pages, but they’re merely used in propelling the fantasy elements of the plot and how a strident message is being made by Everett. There are moments towards the end of the novel when this fantasy aspect seems to take a life of its own and escapes the confines of the book you hold. If ever, that’s thanks to the immersive nature of the story being told and how effective it all is.

Vine Street by Dominic Nolan

With a vast timeframe and a crime mystery that crosses the line between police procedural, this is a magnificent work that deftly transcends Crime Fiction. Plus a psychological study of sense of duty bordering on obsession. There’s 1935 in Soho, London, post-war London in 1946, a sequence of events that transpire in the early 1960’s, and a coda that takes place in 2002. It is a lot of ground to cover, but with impressive and intricate plotting, Nolan weaves us back and forth over time for a voyage of continuous discovery and one magnificent “reveal.” What is amazing is how he leaves little clues and hints all over the narrative, and it’s only as we reach the final stretch that we look back and appreciate what he’s done.

At the center of the story are three main, well-developed characters. There’s Sgt. Leon Geats, your typical hard-boiled man from the streets—a police officer. There’s his ex-partner Mark Cassar, now seconded to the Flying Squad. And there’s Billie, a female police officer who often finds herself between the two, defending each of them and trying to keep the peace within the team. The case revolves around women of the night ending up dead and mangled in the most gruesome of manners. At first, there’s the notion that they may be collateral damage of Soho gang wars between the Italians and the Jews. But with time, a serial killer seems to surface. While not in writing style or language, but more in terms of scope, this will remind you of James Ellroy. And that’s a good thing!

The Dinner Guest by B P Walter

Here’s a mystery novel that can aptly be described as the proverbial page-turner. It’s that tightly written and plotted so that the skipping between time points beautifully adds to the revelations and suspense that mark effective crime-writing. What we gather from the prologue is that a in the course of a dinner hosted by married gay couple Matthew and Charlie, along with son Titus at their home, a friend named Rachel unexpectedly arrives. Matthew is then murdered, the murder weapon a kitchen knife, and we read about Rachel confessing to the crime – one that she didn’t commit. From that start, we’re then shuttled back in time to first understand how Rachel befriended the upper class West London couple, and both Charlie and Rachel takes turns narrating.

The posh West London milieu is wonderfully explored—this social strata of privilege and snobbery. Rachel, an outsider and considered as below the social strata of Matthew and Charlie, is properly explored and commented on. The adolescent rebellion of Titus and the murky origins of how he came to be Matthew’s son is still another interesting facet of the narrative exposition. And what becomes a thrilling part of the story is that the narrating by both Charlie and Rachel throughout much of the novel allows us to be on our own in deciding on who is the more reliable narrator or the more unreliable. It’s a mystery that unfolds and reveals in strategic increments, and one ends the novel knowing that something beautifully executed has just been read.

The Bullet That Missed by Richard Osman

It’s hard to believe that Richard Osman is doing anything else but writing as this is his third in the series of his recently introduced Thursday Murder Club. The first was a beautiful introduction to four pensioners, Elizabeth, Joyce, Ron, and Ibrahim, who reside in one countryside retirement home. The four decide to trawl through cold cases of the local police force and try to solve them. Each of the four were vividly drawn—Elizabeth a former spy, Ron retired a trade union boss, Ibrahim a psychiatrist, and Joyce a plain housewife. Together, there was so much enjoyable chemistry, and the deft crime-solving would be accompanied by hilarious banter, crazy scenarios, and a rich cast of supporting characters.

If anything, this third is the best, as Osman is much more comfortable in the genre. It really knows how to end each chapter with us chuckling to ourselves or being left open-mouthed. It’s so fiendishly plotted, you’ll have to stop every so often to just admire how it’s been constructed. Support cast is still around, and you’ll find you miss them as much as we missed the four main characters. The ex-KGB Russian fixer, Viktor, is one diabolical creation in this novel. You’ll love how he convinces a BPO operator of a streaming service to send an engineer to fix his connection in just 90 minutes. This is literally the novel you can’t put down as you need to know what happens next. From the halfway point, you start slowing down, because you don’t want it to end. Happy to wait for the fourth!

Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone by Benjamin Stevenson

A more intriguing title for a crime novel would be hard to find. And I understand this meta-crime novel has already been picked up by HBO to be turned into a limited series. It’s easy to see the attraction. With Ernest Cunningham as narrator and writer of books on how to write books of crime fiction, you’ll see how this approaches meta. But can it be too smart even for it’s own good? So the premise is Michael Cunningham has spent three years in jail on testimony provided by how own brother Ernest. Set in the rugged mountains of Australia, the family has now planned some kind of reunion. And beyond the matriarch and her lawyer second-husband, we have Michael’s wife and other assorted relatives—all of whom have killed someone in their lives.

It takes place in a ski resort in the dead of winter, inviting possibilities of being secluded and cut off from civilization. All of these are important elements for how the narrative develops. There’s a rich cast of characters and a twisty take on dysfunctional families of how secrets, resentments, and betrayals have happened and festered over the years. And, of course, as this is crime fiction, dead bodies start piling up. Michael’s release from prison is complicated by the fact that he seems to be having an affair with Ernest’s ex-wife. Meanwhile, Michael’s real wife is still in the picture, hoping for some kind of getting back together. It’s all part of the scenario. The only criticism that could be leveled is how there’s a little shade of smugness that creeps in and lacks appeal.

Secret Identity by Alex Segura

A tribute to the comic book world of the mid-1970’s while also delivering a penetrating look into how women had to cope in the comic book industry, this latest from Segura is a labor of passion and love. As one of the celebrated graphic novelists today, it’s nice to see him move away from his known genre/medium and create a traditional novel. Although it must be said that he just couldn’t go all out traditional, as every five chapters or so, we’ll find a comic page or two which you’ll be delighted that he put this little touch. Carmen Valdez, transplanted from Miami to Manhattan, is the central character of this crime narrative. She’s the one who has to take on a “secret identity” in order to make some dent in the comic world as a writer—and not just as the secretary to the Head of Triumph Comics.

That’s where we find her at the start of the novel, harboring a burning desire to write but getting her spec scripts rejected by her boss Carlyle. He just doesn’t believe women play a role as writer or artist in the comic world. So Harvey, a staffer/writer at Triumph, concocts this scheme of collaborating with Carmen., but for the outset, only using his name in the credits. Carmen, in desperation to create, agrees to the deception. Then Harvey gets murdered, and everyone believes he was the sole writer. And, of course, the new comic is a Triumph hit, something rare as they’re always playing catch-up to Marvel and DC. Carmen is stuck a very delicate position. Why was Harvey killed and how can she reveal her role as ghost writer without possibly endangering herself. It’s classic noir mashed up with the comic book world. Fun!

Credit belongs to : www.mb.com.ph

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