Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Gone to Dust

Gone to Dust
by Matt Goldman
Recommended Ages: 14+

Matt Goldman is originally from Minnesota, and did stand-up comedy before he became an Emmy-winning writer for such TV sitcoms as Seinfeld and Ellen. In his debut novel, he introduces Nils Shapiro, a wisecracking, unhappily divorced, police trained private eye who lives in a one-bedroom “shitbox” just over the Minneapolis side of Edina city limits.

Edina, which rhymes with China, is here depicted as a peaceful, low-crime suburb where wealthy people live. So, when a socialite is found dead under what appears to be the contents of a hundred vacuum cleaner bags, a sleuth of Shap’s skill is indicated. The dust and whatnot seem to be a forensic countermeasure, as TV crime shows these days like to call a tactic for obscuring hair, fiber, fingerprint and DNA evidence. But not all crimes are solved by CSI. So, the Edina police calls in Shapiro, and he begins to dig for a motive to kill a woman everyone seemed to love.

The late Maggie Somerville had an ex-husband, for example – but that guy wouldn’t hurt a fly. Shap thinks her boyfriend might look good for it – but he has personal history going back to boyhood with Andrew Fine, and that may be coloring his judgment. Maggie had a mysterious relationship with a young woman with Somalian features, who is being stalked by another private eye. At one point, it even seems possible that Islamic terrorism may be a factor. These and other red herrings are dragged across the real killer’s trail, but the big reveal turns out to be so sad it’s almost funny, with a punchline of terrifying danger and healing tragedy.

I’m really interested in this Nils Shapiro character. He’s mouthy. He has attitude. His witticisms make me laugh. His relationship troubles make my heart go out to him. And his brilliance as a detective makes me believe it when, in spite of his mouthiness and attitude, he gets un-fired from the case and closes it. Also, as a former resident of the Twin Cities who actually went to school in Edina for a short time, I appreciate the local color in this book, reviving many fond memories of decades ago. I look forward to reading the sequels – Broken Ice and, due to be released in June 2019, The Shallows.

Monday, March 11, 2019


by Joanne M. Harris
Recommended Ages: 14+

Gods, seers, sorcerers and the serpent that gnaws at the roots of the world tree all appear in this story about a back-country village girl named Maddy who was born with a rune on her hand and an otherworldly power – both of which mark her as an object of suspicion, if not hatred, in the shadow of Red Horse Hill.

Then two men come to town – a grandfatherly, one-eyed, wandering storyteller, and an inquisitor for the monotheistic religion that has dominated the known world since the fall of the old Norse Gods 500 years ago. Between them, the town is soon divided, the hill torn open, and the boundaries between worlds pushed aside for a conflict that could destroy everything.

Maddy meets such mythic characters as Loki, Freyja, Heimdall and the huntress Skadi – beings that can change shape, hurl bolts of blazing death, raise the dead (in a way), and affect the balance between order and chaos that keeps all the worlds intact. She also meets a manipulative piece of rock called the Whisperer, a cowardly goblin named Sugar-and-Sack who has heroism thrust upon him, and many other remarkable creatures. But her biggest discovery is who or what she really is, and the importance of the power she wields.

I found this a pretty exciting story, enlivened by multiple lines of character conflict, a complex weave of agendas and loyalties, adventures on a literally epic scale, humor, love, horror, tragedy, courage, fate and spine-tingling suspense. It has characters who show unexpected dimensions or who grow to a new level of maturity. It has villains and cowards who are fun to despise. It has complex, gray areas in between. And apparently, it has a sequel titled Runelight.

Other titles by this author include The Gospel of Loki and The Testament of Loki, The Blue Salt Road and a short story collection, A Pocketful of Crows. Joanne M. Harris is a rather thin pseudonym for the Anglo-French author Joanne Harris, who wrote the novels Chocolat, The Strawberry Thief, Five Quarters of the Orange, Holy Fools, Blueeyedboy and several more.

This review is based on hearing the audiobook narrated by Sile Bermingham (first name sounds like "Sheila").

I'll Be Gone in the Dark

I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer
by Michelle McNamara
Recommended Ages: 14+

Michelle McNamara, the wife of comedian Patton Oswalt, was a screenwriter, blogger and true crime enthusiast who, it is said, had a way of getting people involved to open up to her about cold cases. One of her obsessions was a connected series of rapes and murders, spanning 1976 to 1986 from the Sacramento area to Southern California. She coined the nickname “Golden State Killer” for the guy (previously described as the “Original Night Stalker”), and she died in 2016, only 46 years old, not knowing his real name.

The investigators who, in 2018, pinned the crimes on former cop Joseph DeAngelo, deny that McNamara’s research turned up any evidence that led to his capture, but she does seem to have brought an investigation that had been getting nowhere into the public eye, and perhaps played a role in re-focusing the efforts to catch the creep. The fact bears noting that by the end, law enforcement was using the “Golden State Killer” moniker that Michelle helped coin. And it’s remarkable how little attention the unsolved case got during the three decades after his last known attack, until she started sending stories about it to the Los Angeles Magazine. That’s amazing, considering that he committed some 50 rapes, murdered 10 people and terrorized an entire region for parts of a 10-year period.

The parts of this book that McNamara lived to write are a lyrically personal, compassionate and deeply disturbing examination of police records and witness testimony about the case. They look back on the beginnings of her fascination with true crime – an unsolved murder in the Chicago neighborhood where she grew up. They also poignantly document the toll the case took on the author’s personal life. The autobiographical parts reveal, for example, the emotional peaks and valleys of discovering something buried in the evidence that seems to point to a plausible suspect, and then finding out he couldn’t have been the guy.

Completed by friends and co-workers after McNamara’s death, the book takes the refreshingly non-exploitative approach of not devoting space (even in its afterparts) to the revolting character revealed in Joseph DeAngelo. Rather, it is with the victims and their loved ones that this book sympathizes – as evidenced by the fact that the first time I cried while reading this book was during a passage about the brother-in-law of one of the victims and his fiancee cleaning the scene of her murder. Emotionally, the real ending of the book is a letter McNamara wrote to the killer, imagining the day of his capture, which she would never see, and predicting that the psychopath himself would prove the most boring part of the story.

A Measure of Darkness

A Measure of Darkness
by Jonathan Kellerman & Jesse Kellerman
Recommended Ages: 14+

In the second Clay Edison thriller, the Bay Area coroner’s deputy hears himself likened to a barnacle that just won’t let go. He displays that quality in his pursuit of the identity of a woman whose strangled body turns up at the periphery of a shootout in which several other people were killed. In fact, there turn out to have been four different killers in the incident that started, apparently, as a confrontation about a noisy party that went terribly wrong. But one of the victims – a Jane Doe found hidden in a garden shed – apparently died in circumstances that had nothing to do with the front-yard fracas. Somehow, Clay and a cooperative police detective grow increasingly certain that her fate is tied up with an experimental school up the coast.

I am so leery of giving away the secrets that Clay discovers that I'll confine most of my remaining remarks to singing the praises of this book, co-written by a father-son team who, separately, are responsible for the Alex Delaware thrillers (Jonathan) and such titles as The Golem of Hollywood, Sunstroke, Trouble and Potboiler (Jesse). Edison's character has a dogged tenacity that makes him both a flawed human being and a terrific sleuth, whose talents are wasted on a service devoted to securing the bodies and personal effects of the dead. All he is really supposed to do is find out Jane Doe's name, issue a manner of death (homicide, in her case), and try to connect with her next of kin so they can make burial arrangements. But as he finds in multiple aspects of the shootout case, closure can be elusive. One family doesn't want to acknowledge that their son identifies as a daughter, while the trans community she belonged to is resistant to outsiders. A teen is conflicted about turning in his best friend, who was one of the shooters, even though a third buddy was a victim. A witness whose panicked attempt to flee resulted in another bystander's death also turns out to have a connection with Jane Doe. And the suicide of a teen in another jurisdiction may continue to have deadly consequences today.

Clay pursues these tenuous threads at the risk of his own career, his safety, and his knee (which hasn't been great). Meantime, he has family issues to deal with, including his ex-con brother's announcement that he is engaged, just when Clay and his girlfriend are about to announce their engagement. His family and work relationships prove an opportunity for the Kellermans to demonstrate an ability to portray a wide variety of people with vividly clashing but lifelike personalities. Meantime, they lay out a vibrant landscape of California scenery, law enforcement procedures, office politics, the grim reality of death and the compassion of dedicated people like Clay Edison, who serve and protect people at their most vulnerable (i.e., dead). It does this all with sexy charisma, dry humor and a bottomless supply of sentences that I want to stop and read out loud.

Rumor has it there's a third novel about Clay Edison due for release sometime in 2020. I won't be caught dead missing it.

The Selling of the President 1968

The Selling of the President 1968
by Joe McGinniss
Recommended Ages: 14+

The title of this book is a bit of a joke, referencing a series of books by Theodore H. White titled The Making of the President, 1960 and ditto 1964, 1968 and 1972. White’s original book won big awards and was credited with revolutionizing the way journalists wrote about politics – which is the kind of buzz this book got. But instead of covering the presidential election of 1968 in general, this book focuses on the way the Richard Nixon campaign used an innovative approach to television advertising as part of its winning strategy. It’s the kind of wryly funny story that a historically ignorant reader might possibly mistake for a novel of satire, or perhaps speculative horror.

An early chapter of this book is a word-for-word transcript of a shooting session for a Nixon TV ad that I thought did a bang-up job of establishing the characters in the drama, including Nixon himself. Fair disclosure: I read this book while visiting my folks, and my father picked up the book when I set it down to deal myself a hand of solitaire, and he found that chapter very dull and concluded that the book would not be entertaining to read. I had to advise him to skip ahead a chapter or two to disabuse him of that opinion.

All this, of course, happened before I was born, and I’m no spring chicken. But if, as McGinniss contends, the people who designed Nixon’s televised campaign ads really were the first to sell us a president based on a profound understanding of how TV can be used to render people suggestible, then the way things are now in presidential politics and have been all my life started here. If what it reveals about Nixon and his supporters is less than creditable, it is just as discreditable to the critical thinking abilities of U.S. voters, and to the likelihood of a really worthy candidate getting elected in this politically fractured country.

Exactly how McGinniss pulled off this feat of journalism, I can scarcely imagine. The way he tells the story, it’s almost as if he was inside the campaign. At the very least, he had intimate access to the men who ran the TV side of it. He includes internal memos and position papers about the theory of what they were doing and how they meant to go about it. He brings it right down to the nerve-wracking final moments of election night, where McGinniss apparently spent time in the same hotel as many campaign staffers. The book is funny and chilling at the same time, revealing a cynical side of modern (or postmodern) American politics that one recognizes as alive, well, and if anything, even more deceptive and mind-controlling today.

Since my extant book reviews do not go back to the previous time I read a book by Joe McGinniss, I just want to take this opportunity to put in a plug for The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, a similar work of journalism-in-the-form-of-a-novel that I read a couple decades ago and found captivating. It’s about a small-town Italian soccer team that made the big time in a system where the top couple of teams at each level of competition go up a league at the end of the season, and the bottom couple go down. Previously ignorant of and indifferent to soccer, McGinniss suddenly became an enthusiast the year Castel di Sangro made it to Italy’s premier league, and he spent the entire next year following them around the boot of Europe, documenting their struggle to keep up with clubs backed by bigger and richer organizations. He got to know them, experienced their ups and downs, sympathized with their (at times tragic) losses and rejoiced with their victories.

Considering that I never before or since cared much about soccer, I think it’s really meaningful when I say that when I read this book, I felt completely invested in the outcome of the club’s campaign for “la salvezza.” It was a really fine book, and based on how much I enjoyed it and this earlier piece of his writing, I really should look into some of the books he wrote in between – including several notable true-crime books.