The Prisoner

By B. A. Paris

I’m not even sure how to review this book, quite frankly. I definitely enjoyed it, but it was listed sort of vaguely as psychological thriller, and while it is that, it also read as decidedly YA. And I don’t mean that as a bad thing!

Well, not all the way, at least. The characters are two-dimensional enough that I kept waiting for a reveal beneath the surface that never came. However, a plot switcheroo halfway through the book reminded me strongly of Gone Girl, only as it would be written for children. It’s not a sophisticated book, so the switch didn’t come as a total shock, but it was still very satisfying, which I think represents the book well.

This would be an amazing book for a young teen or precocious tween, who feels ready for adult books but should still be somewhat eased into them. There are a number of tricks and schemes that weren’t the most subtle, but I still really enjoyed them, just in a sort of bemused way. There is no sex (though some non-specific mention of sexual assault in the past), no drug use, or even much swearing. There is violence, as befits a mystery and psych thriller, but not gruesomely described. I would have loved it and felt so mature if I’d read it at 14 or 15! (I was not a precocious tween.)

Once I had a clearer realization of the proper audience for the book, I enjoyed it even more and stopped looking for hidden meanings or nuance that wasn’t there. That said, I was pleasantly surprised that the author gave serious attention to the protagonist’s trauma response, instead of brushing it aside or romanticizing it, which I’d half expected.

Lavender House

By Lev AC Rosen

This mystery novel had shown up on several recommendation lists over the last few months, and it is well justified! Rosen beautifully takes the noir sensibility, which imbues generalized disenfranchisement, and applies it very directly and acutely to the LGBT community in 1950s San Francisco. It becomes a somewhat pointed critique of noir in general, I think, by contrasting what has typically been a general mental oppressiveness in the great noir writers like Chandler and Hammett, with actual systemic and malicious oppression against specific people.

Traditional noir characters sense a true darkness in the world that the general populace ignores or is blind to. In Lavender House, the gay characters only wish they had the option to ignore the ugliness of the world, instead of having it thrust upon them if they drop their defenses for a second. While San Francisco was just starting to be a budding haven for gay people, so there were more underground clubs and the like, the whole of the United States remained very dangerous.

Our protagonist, Levander “Andy” Mills is as aware of this anyone else. As a (closely closeted) gay cop, he is both threatened and the threat, and straddling that line, can trust no one. Before the start of the novel, however, he was discovered in a club raid, kicked off the force, and all but run out of town. He is getting drunk in a bar before throwing himself into the Bay, when Pearl comes to ask him to investigate the suspicious death of her wife. Pearl is the surviving matriarch of the Lavender House, where the now deceased scion of a wealthy soap family created a home where a handful of gay couples can live freely, while showing a much different face to the outside world.

Andy moves into the house in order to investigate, mostly with the idea that he has nothing left to lose at this point, but it opens his mind to a whole different world. And this is what I really loved about the book: it explores the seductive but false appeal of noir and cynicism. It’s a really interesting play on noir – the detective himself has bought into the ideological grimness, but the novel makes the effort to show that his cynicism, though not unfounded, is a blindness of sorts. He expects the worst from people, and while this protects him to a point, he closes himself off so no one can either hurt him or care for him. And then, worst of all, believes that is all there is to life.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book before that did such of a good job of criticizing its genre so validly, while also perfectly exemplifying it. A very minor spoiler: the end is both satisfying and a poignant summary of the overall themes, with a hopefulness that would feel jarring after a traditional noir but feels like the point of the whole book here.

The Woman in the Library

By Sulari Gentill

Whew, this book is a trip! It starts off with a scream of terror in the Boston Public Library. In the fuss and speculation that follows, our narrator, a young woman named Freddie working on a novel, becomes friendly with the three other people at her table, one of whom, the book tells us, is a murderer! I was just settling in for a good locked-room mystery when it unfolds that the scream-in-the-library is the first chapter of a book being written by a successful novelist named Hannah, who is sending her chapters individually to a fellow author Leo for feedback.

So, we get the chapters of the library mystery, interspersed with letters of commentary from the other author (interestingly, we don’t get any personal description or insight into Hannah). I was initially a little disappointed because the meta-framework prevented me from getting as fully invested in the library mystery, but I was eventually pulled in despite myself. And then even more thrilled when Leo’s letters started to hint at its own mystery!

Luckily for my comprehension, we don’t read any of Freddie’s book, though she takes notes of people and events she encounters that will influence her novel, so there’s some blurring of lines there as well. I had to periodically pause to remind myself where any given character existed in the layers of fiction stacked in this novel. Gentill (the real author) does a very good job of creating these overlapping worlds that seem to influence each other across boundaries more permeable than one would expect.

Gentill herself is an acclaimed Australian author of novels across multiple genres; Hannah, the mostly invisible fictional first-level author behind the chapters, is also an acclaimed Australian novelist, writing from Australia about winter in Boston (Leo is her contact in Boston, giving her local flavor in addition to general feedback); and Freddie (protagonist of Hannah’s novel) is an Australian novelist on a writing fellowship in Boston, where she gets tangled in a series of suspicious circumstances stemming from the initial titular scream.

I got a little miffed midway through when Freddie started making some dumb decisions (something I’m getting much less tolerant of in books) when I realized that I might be entering a further level of unreliable narrator, which was very exciting!

In the end, I really enjoyed the layers, and how in addition to double suspense, it allowed the author to write about the process of writing in several different ways without being too heavy handed.

The Maid

By Nita Prose

I’d been on the waiting list for this book for several months, and when it finally came in, the librarian mentioned that it’s been coming in and out constantly. I’d heard it recommended as a mystery in the form of Agatha Christie, which of course sold me on it, but I’m not sure that I get the comparison, other than it is a mystery and a twisty one. Perhaps also that the narrating protagonist is as overlooked as Miss Marple often is?

Molly is a very skilled maid at a high-end hotel, and also very clearly autistic. I have no idea how accurate the author’s portrayal of autism is, but it certainly creates an interesting perspective. Whole scenes told one way in Molly’s perspective are clear to the reader as having entirely different interpretations under the surface that she’d not recognizing. Many of these are fairly unsubtle, but it does create an interesting puzzle for the reader to figure out exactly how is being missed or misinterpreted.

It’s a bit agonizing at times, to be honest. Molly is such a decent person, left on her own after the death of her grandmother and trying so hard, and we as the readers watch people manipulate and use her. Some scenes are vaguely funny, which made me a bit uncomfortable (Molly herself worries about not knowing if people are laughing with her or at her, and I sometimes wasn’t sure if I as the reader was, either), but more are depressing at the ugliness of people who will do anything to get even the slightest edge in life.

Fortunately this is balanced out by the charming handful of people who appreciate Molly and are ready to help when she finds herself in deep trouble. This begins when she finds a guest has died in one of the rooms, a wealthy man who had enough enemies to make his death suspicious. Molly’s unemotional reaction to it quickly attracts the attention of the police, so she and her growing number of friends scramble to discover what really happened before it can be pinned on her. I very much enjoyed the book, and read it within a few days, which is very quick for me, but the occasional lack of subtlety made the story feel somewhat unrefined in places. It has already been optioned for a movie due to come out next year, with the excellent Florence Pugh as the lead, which I think may actually be even better than the book. My sense is that the more obvious parts of the book will read better on screen than on the page, so I’m already eagerly anticipating the movie.

The Angel of the Crows

By Katherine Addison

Someone had recommended The Angel of the Crows as Sherlock fanfic with the serial numbers filed off, and as Rebecca pointed out, they weren’t filed off much. For me, though, this had the benefit of the book feeling immediately comfortable even in the unique setting. Set in an alternative Victorian Era, angels guard most of the public spaces of London, while their fallen numbers rampage in war zones. Doyle has returned from war in Afghanistan (a depressing constant) with incapacitating wounds and a couple of secrets that are slowly revealed over the course of the book, and finds housing with the titular Angel of the Crows, who solves mysteries to pass the time and keep London safe.

Doyle, of course, quickly gets roped into assisting the angel Crow, and both of them are so eminently likeable with their various flaws and idiosyncrasies, and their relationship was so sweet, I could have read twice as many stories of their adventures. Crow’s lack of understanding of many human traits makes much more sense and is much more sympathetic, coming from a literally unearthly being. Addison also builds off of a variety of Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous stories, including the Hound of Baskerville and the Speckled Band, and I really enjoyed seeing the reinterpretations in a world where werewolves and vampires exist openly.

Rebecca read it first and warned me that the book has very episodic plotting, with many shorter cases solved within the arc of the longer Jack the Ripper investigation. Knowing what to expect, I read the book somewhat like a collection of short stories, and found that especially accessible, too. None of the mysteries were as complex as one would get in a single dedicated novel, but I could read one each night and then set the book down satisfied. It’s been such a nice end to my day all this week that I’ve got a bit of a book hangover now, even though my to-read stack is towering.

Devil House

By John Darnielle

John Darnielle is the lead singer of The Mountain Goats, who I’d never actually listened to, and also a big supporter of and frequent guest on podcasts, which is where I heard of his new novel, Devil House. The main premise is that a true crime author moves into a house that was the scene of a supposed devil worship sacrifice during the satanic panic of the 80s, in order to immerse himself in the scene while writing about the event. Darnielle explained that he tried to construct the novel itself like a house, which I didn’t fully understand, and still don’t even after reading it. There certainly was a lot of description of the house, if that’s what it means?

This very lukewarm review is likely due to me as a reader, rather than the book itself, though it is also a much different book than I was expecting. This was just not the book for me (I also listened to a couple of Mountain Goats songs out of curiosity, and they were also Not For Me, so I guess that’s something learned all around). On the one hand, I was immersed enough in the entwined stories that at times I struggled to put the book down, and there was never any question in my mind about finishing it. On the other hand, I was viscerally and generally annoyed for pretty much the entire week I was reading it.

As much as I love mysteries, especially murder mysteries, I hate reading true crime. And this is not true crime, in itself, but I think Darnielle probably does a good job of mirroring it, while writing about his author. I had previously thought I didn’t like the sensationalizing of real victims in true crime, but as I read Devil House, I realized instead of any sort of lofty ideals, I really just find the psychological delving to be boring. I’d much rather read about solving the logistical puzzle of a mystery than the thoughts and emotions of the killers and victims, and there’s a lot of the latter in this novel.

The bulk of the book shifts between three time periods, our author in the present day researching his book, the double murder in the 80s, and a separate double murder in the 70s that was featured in the author’s breakout book. I kept waiting for there to be some connection revealed between the three, but I think Darnielle was trying to do something more subtle, and he was giving three ostensibly different examples that come at the same core message from different perspectives.

The book ends with a lengthy treatise on truth, stories, what gets remembered and what doesn’t, and what gets amplified in stories and what doesn’t. Darnielle writes all this with an universality (“we all…”) that captured much of my frustration with the book as a whole. I often felt like I was supposed to be reading something poignant and informative about how humans all relate to memories, but it didn’t match my relationship with my own past or memory at all. So it’s alienating, at the very least, to read what is clearly supposed to be a reflection of humanity overall, and to find it so strange and unfamiliar.

As an aside, I think the cover reflects all of my feelings very well: it is a really striking graphic design, but I realized pretty quickly that the house pictured on the cover doesn’t match the physical description in the book at all, which was a continual irritant.

They Came to Baghdad

By Agatha Christie

I was first intrigued to read a spy adventure novel by Agatha Christie, rather than her more usual English murder mysteries, but it also turned out to be a disconcertingly timely read. Published in 1951, it is all very Cold War, with tensions running high between the United States and the Soviet Union, with a planned global summit in Baghdad in an attempt to ease those tensions and prevent a third world war so soon after the second. It’s been a very odd week to read a book with such similarities and equal disparities to current events! (The Iraq of 1951 is also strangely discordant, since it is both through Christie’s blatantly prejudiced eyes, though she in fact loved the country herself, and before many of the subsequent wars that tanked its economy and culture.)

For all the overarching motivation of preventing war between America and Russia, it is really a story of England and Iraq, with the many English expats converging on Baghdad for a madcap variety of reasons. The whole plot has Christie’s classic clues and twists, but has enough screwball comedy to it that I’m very disappointed that no one has adapted it to film yet. Our main protagonist, Victoria, is a mediocre typist recently fired in London, who impulsively follows an attractive young man to Baghdad. She is more gutsy than intelligent (thus her initial poor decision making), but to the detriment of all the espionage around her, she is unexpectedly observant and also a somewhat compulsive liar. Christie’s mastery really shines in the final denouement, when all the smallest clues, including some that I had chalked up to minor writing flaws, came together very quickly in a very satisfactory way.

A very minor spoiler, the central conflict is explained to Victoria midway through the book, and hit me like a flash of familiarity:

Continue reading

Dreamland

By Nancy Bilyeau

I was positive that Kinsey had recommended this book to me, but when I texted her to tell her how much I was enjoying it, she was like, so, tell me about this book?

It’s a murder mystery, sort of: there’s definitely someone killing young women on the Coney Island boardwalk, but it is sort of in the background for most of the book. It’s also got a lot of the earmarks of gothic mystery: a very wealthy family with simmering tensions and a young woman trying to escape the strictures of the family.

The whole book is so delicately written: it is clearly much better to be super rich in New York in 1910 than it is to be super poor, but it still seems to suck pretty badly.  (It is probably by far the best to be comfortably middle class.) I didn’t expect myself to sympathize quite so much with such a wealthy and indulged protagonist, but Bilyeau does a great job of showing how imprisoning and insulating/isolating this level of wealth does. Peggy wants very much to be a good person, but her very existence within the power that her family’s wealth yields is a threat to everyone around her not equally protected by wealth.

After being coerced by her family into attending a summer retreat to Brooklyn shore, she falls into a star-crossed romance with an immigrant artist on the boardwalk. As her naivety with the everyday struggles of the rest of the world threatens his life and livelihood, I did wonder what exactly he saw in her. Peggy is incredibly sympathetic, but not always likeable, and I credit the writing immensely for that. She has such good intentions and tries so hard, but often falls back into arrogance and selfishness in times of stress. It illustrates so well how this type of upbringing can be corrupting despite one’s best intentions. (For me, the artist, Stefan, was the weakest character, sort of an unrealistic ideal that made me grudgingly suspect him of fortune-hunting, agreeing with many of the other characters.)

I did think the ending fell a little short of the suspense leading up. The more I read, the greater appreciation I have for mystery authors – it is really hard to set up a puzzle and then pull off a solution that fits all the pieces while still being a surprise at the end. It’s a rarer skill than I’d realized, and this book doesn’t quite meet it, but it doesn’t negate the beautifully atmospheric pages leading up to it.

Also, I recommend the final author’s note, since her description of which real-life people and places she based characters and settings on is fascinating!

Not Getting Murdered by Johnson & Cooper

Your Guide to Not Getting Murdered in a Quaint English Village
by Maureen Johnson and Jay Cooper
2021

I got this as a Christmas present right before dinner and finished it within a couple of hours, while also eating vast quantities of good food, hanging out with family. This is not a long or dense book. It is hilarious!

It’s clearly inspired by Edward Gorey and also by the whole genre of murder mysteries set in quaint English villages. Especially the long series’ where the amateur detective solves a murder mystery in their home village for each book, and the deaths sure do add up. In a very light-hearted and dark-humored way, this lists all the stereotypical places, peoples, and events of small quaint villages and how murderous they manage to be. (For example: if there are any vats described in the text of a book, it’s almost certainly because someone drowned in it. For safety: stay away from vats!)

The illustrations are frequent and the text is sparse, and it’s hilarious and morbidly adorable. There are also quizes! What do you do in each situation to survive the events? Each of them like a tiny choose-your-own-adventure! Hahahaha! I love this book so much!

Velvet Was the Night

By Silvia Moreno-Garcia

I am a big fan of Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and I love following her across all her genre hopping: Gods of Jade and Shadow was a breathtakingly dreamlike and philosophic fantasy novel, Certain Dark Things an engrossing and gritty vampire/mob suspense novel, and Mexican Gothic a beautifully atmospheric and bizarre gothic (of course). And now, Velvet Was the Night is a picture-perfect noire in every way!

In the acknowledgement, Moreno-Garcia mentions that noir is a proud tradition in Latin America, and she has certainly done it proud with every character, scene, and even the descriptive tone of the writing. Velvet Was the Night centers around two very distinct protagonists: an apolitical, daydreaming woman stuck in a secretarial job she loathes, and a young thug hired to infiltrate and repress (i.e. beat) student and/or communist protests. Moreno-Garcia teases out throughout the book how similar they are to each other, regardless of their wildly different circumstances, as well as how each of them incrementally matures through the events that push them outside the ruts of their daily lives.

Like all good noirs, Velvet Was the Night connects the daily lives of these two individuals and the people around them to the wider scope of politics. In this case, the politics of 1970s Mexico are complicated and literally foreign to me, and yet Moreno-Garcia somehow manages to spin it out in a way that I could understand and follow along to, starting small and generalized and building up the complexity of the different factions along with the plotlines. It felt like some kind of magic trick and I have no idea how she kept me tracking all the twists and turns!