THE BEST FACT CRIME WRITING IN 2021: EDGAR NOMINEES FOR NONFICTION

If you’re a mystery reader, you’ve probably heard of the Edgar Awards, which are awarded annually by the Mystery Writers of America.  Books that get Edgar nominations have been vetted and are often (not always; I hit a clunker which was an Edgar nominee not long ago) well worth reading.  You’re probably aware that there are awards for Best Novel, Best Short Story, Best First Novel, Best Y. A. Novel and the like, but are you aware that the Mystery Writers of America also award Edgars for nonfiction that’s crime related?  And are you aware that five of the nominees for Best Fact Crime books are available right here at the Field Library?  If you want to get a hint of what mystery writers consider to be the best nonfiction in their field, you should come on in to The Field Library and check these out.  The winners in all categories will be announced on April 28.

The Confidence Men: How Two Prisoners of War Engineered the Most Remarkable Escape in History, by Margalit Fox, is one of those books you probably wouldn’t believe if it were fiction, which makes it a terrific subject for nonfiction.  During World War II, two British officers imprisoned in a remote Turkish camp figured out a way to bamboozle their captors and ultimately escape the prison using a ouija board, fake seances and a healthy dose of psychology.  What makes this wild story even better is that the two officers in question were utterly different in background and personality, one a sheep farmer from Australia and the other a son of a lord, educated in Oxford.  Nothing short of their shared experience in this hellish camp could have brought them together, let alone got a lawyer and a magician to combine their talents in a brilliant con like this.  The book also made various “Best of the year” lists in 2021.

Turning to the more recent past, there’s Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust and Murder in Queer New York, by Elon Green, which is the story of the Last Call Killer, a serial killer who stalked the New York City gay community in the 1980’s and 1990’s, but, because he only preyed on gay men, and did so when the murder rate in general was extraordinarily high and the death rate among gay men from AIDS was also high, hardly anyone has even heard of him and his crime spree.  Whether you think serial killers are given too much publicity and attention in general or you’re fascinated by them, the story of a community preyed on by a serial killer without the wider world’s so much as noticing has to be intriguing. The book investigates the murders and the decades long efforts to bring the killer to justice, but also focuses on the community he victimized, bringing it and its resilient denizens to life.

If you’re more interested in spies and the Cold War, or perhaps are a fan of the television series, The Americans, you’ll want to check out Sleeper Agent: The Atomic Spy in America who Got Away, by Ann Hagedorn, also nominated for an Edgar.  It tells the incredible story of George Koval, an American born to emigrees from the Soviet Union who was recruited by the KGB and ended up working on the Manhattan Project, both in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Dayton, Ohio (where the polonium was assembled into triggers for the atomic bombs).  He had security clearances and access to some of the most top secret aspects of our atomic program, which he fed back to the Soviet Union.  Even after some of his contacts were exposed after the war, nobody suspected him, and he ended up back in the Soviet Union, never having been caught or charged with espionage. An eye-opener of a look at how someone was able to infiltrate our most secret programs without raising an eyebrow.

The subtitle of Two Truths and A Lie: A Murder, a Private Investigator and Her Search for Justice, by Ellen McGarrahan, makes the book sound like your classic thriller, but sometimes truth is stranger and more interesting than fiction could be.  McGarrahan witnessed the execution of a man for the murder of two police officers, but began to believe that he might have been innocent of the crime, as his co-defendant and supposed partner was released from jail and someone else confessed to the crime.  Haunted by the question, she used her skills as a private investigator to dig into this case for years, trying to get at the truth of the matter, only to discover that truth is slipperier than she ever believed.  More than just your usual true crime story of the crime and the investigation into the criminals, the book shows the emotional cost of delving into the heart of darkness like this.

Murder is a terrible thing at any time, but when it’s done by groups of people with what they believe is social approval, it’s worse.  When Evil Lived in Laurel: the “White Knights” and the Murder of Vernon Dahmer, by Curtis Wilkie, deals with a particularly violent subgroup of the KKK in south Mississippi and its murder of a young black man who was president of the local chapter of the NAACP an an outspoken advocate for voting rights for African Americans. At the time, Tom Landrum joined the Klan as an FBI informant, risking his life as he climbed higher and higher into the inner circles of the organization, taking copious notes about the group’s planning of  the murder.  Those insider notes give Wilkie primary sources for the vivid and detailed portrait of the early period of the Civil Rights movement, and of the KKK in its most heinous and powerful period.

If you’re interested in crime, whether institutionalized by the KKK or high level crimes against the United States, and you want to sample some of the best nonfiction writing on the broad subject, check out these books from The Field Library.

QUIRKY NEW SHORT STORIES: SHIT CASSANDRA SAW

You have a pretty good idea about the kind of book you’re going to read when the title is Shit Cassandra Saw.  Even without opening this book by Gwen E. Kirby, even without seeing the very vivid cover (which guaranteed that this was one book I was not going to lose when I put it down somewhere in between readings), you know this is a book that is not going to pull punches, this is a book that is probably written by someone fairly young (us older people are less likely to put the word “shit” in a title, I believe), and, if you’re someone who doesn’t like to read books in which there are curse words, you’re probably not going to want to read this one.

Which would be too bad, because it’s a fun, if rather odd, read.

There’s just something a little quirky, not to mention off beat, about Kirby’s vision of the world.  Many people have been fascinated by the mythical character of Cassandra, cursed to know the future and to have no one believe her, but I’ve never seen before a take on her in which she sees the real future (our time) and chooses not to share the information with anyone in her own time.  This is the plot of the title story, which comes with a neat little twist at the end that makes it funny as well as clever.

Other stories in the book include “A Few Normal Things that Happen a Lot,” which was one of my favorites (hint: the things that happen are NOT normal and DO NOT happen a lot, at least not in our reality, but that’s what makes the story so much fun), “Here Preached His Last,” in which a woman having an affair is haunted by a somewhat annoying ghost of a fire and brimstone preacher who died in front of her house, “First Woman Hanged for Witchcraft in Wales, 1594”, which offers several alternative versions of a fairy tale about virgins fed to monsters and a couple of alternative versions of how witches get hanged (or don’t), and “Boudicca, Mighty Queen of the Britains, Contact Hitter and Utility Outfielder, AD 61,” which is as twisted historically as the title.  She approaches “normal” life in stories like “The Disneyland of Mexico” and “Casper,” but they’re not as much fun as the stories where she lets her imagination run wild, or where her wicked sense of humor shines through, as in “Midwestern Girl is Tired of Appearing in Your Short Stories,” which basically dances through all the cliches of literary short stories by giving a usually peripheral character a voice and life of her own.

These stories aren’t for everyone, as I hope I’ve made clear by even the short descriptions of some of them, but if you enjoy stories that are a little off the beaten track, that look at our world with a twisted sense of humor and a slightly bizarre perspective, you should definitely give the book a try. 

FAVORITE MYSTERY AUTHORS, PART 2 : JANE HARPER

I started my discussion of favorite authors with Tana French and her excellent Dublin Murder Squad mysteries and her standalones.  She’s excellent, but she’s not the only mystery author whose new books I will immediately grab.  Another of my favorite mystery authors is Jane Harper.

Jane Harper’s books are all set in Australia, and while the three I’ve read are all different from each other in many respects, there are certain themes she keeps coming back to.  In The Dry, The Lost Man and The Survivors, there’s a character carrying guilt for something he was involved in somewhere in the past, and over the course of the mystery he has to face the people who blame him for that past and he has to come to terms with what he actually did and what people think he did.  

The Dry takes place in a dying town, suffering from a years’ long drought.  Most of the people who could have moved out have done so, and the ones who are left in the town are either too stubborn or too poor to be able to leave. Years before, Aaron,the protagonist, and his father left the town in a hurry after the mysterious death of a young woman. The town widely assumed he was responsible for her death, though his best friend, Luke, provided him an alibi. Now Luke apparently killed his wife and children and then himself.  Luke’s father doesn’t believe it and calls on Aaron, now a police officer at the other end of the country, and Aaron, motivated by guilt and duty, returns to try to find out what happened, and discovers that the people who are still in the town hold grudges incredibly long.  The mystery itself is clever, and the clues are there but well hidden.  What’s best about the book is the characters and the vivid setting.

The Lost Man is set in the Outback, an even harsher environment, where one of three brothers is found alone and dead on the border between the brothers’ farms, with no signs of what led him there.  As we find out more about why Nathan, our main character, is seen as a pariah, and we find out more about his extended family, we’re drawn into this terrible world and we see depths to the characters we hadn’t imagined. Once again, Harper’s skill in creating a world and vivid and frighteningly believable characters is on display. The mystery is solved in a jaw-dropping but utterly logical and satisfying way. 

To prove that she’s not limited to writing about droughts and deserts, Harper set her most recent book, The Survivors, is set in a small coastal community, and the forces of the sea are as omnipresent as the dry environment is in her other books.  Again we have a character returning home, plagued with guilt because of a reckless move in his past, and again there’s a mystery in the present that touches on all those secrets the close-knit community has been keeping for years and years.  While the solution to the mystery isn’t as surprising-logical, or as much of a punch to the gut as the ending of The Lost Man, it’s still satisfying and ultimately sensible. 

She’s about due for another mystery, and when she publishes her next one, I’ll be one of the first in line to get my hands on it.  If you like atmospheric mysteries that delve into guilt and longstanding relationships among vividly realized characters, give Jane Harper a chance.

A DANCE WITH DEATH: SMOKE GETS IN YOUR EYES, FEBRUARY’S FIELD NOTES SELECTION

With COVID and especially the Omicron variant raging around us, we had a small group for the January (live) meeting of the Field Notes Book Group, and we spent a lot of the meeting scratching our heads in confusion about our selection for January, No Gods, No Monsters, which none of us present at the meeting could figure out (we had some general ideas but had trouble keeping the characters and the plotlines straight, let alone figuring out what it all meant).

However, we had no difficulty whatsoever deciding what our book for February will be.  It’s Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory, and, while it might seem a bit morbid to focus on a book about crematoria and other aspects of the funeral business, Caitlin Doughty is the best possible guide through this strange world.  She’s funny and bright and observant, and even though there’s a lot of gross stuff she describes in the book (details, for instance, about what a person’s face looks like after their bodies have been autopsied, the smell of decomposition, and the like), she has such a great attitude and a great way of describing things, even the grossest things, that you stay with her throughout. 

Did I mention that she has a You Tube channel?  It’s called “Ask a Mortician” and it’s a hoot. She also wrote a book for young people called (I swear, I am not making this up) Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death.

We’re looking forward to a fascinating (and relatively short) book about something we tend not to think about in our culture, and we’re hoping we’ll be able to have this meeting hybrid style, both live and over zoom, on February 19 from 11 to 12:30.  Hope you can join us for what should be a fun discussion.

MY FAVORITE MYSTERY AUTHORS, PART 1

Now I know that if you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll think my favorite mystery author is Jo Nesbo, and you’re right that he’s high up on the list, but he’s not my ONLY favorite mystery author.  Three others whose books have never disappointed me, and whose new works I always look forward to reading are Tana French, Ruth Ware and Jane Harper.  

I’ll confess at the outset that I have not read all the books any of these authors have written (though I’m only missing one of Jane Harper’s), but I intend to read through their whole catalogs eventually.  I’m basing this description on the works I have read so far, all of which I’ve enjoyed.

Let’s start with Tana French.  I’ll talk about the others in future posts. Tana French has a couple of stand-alone books (The Witch Elm and The Searcher), but most of her books are in the Dublin Murder Squad series.  Her books are all set in contemporary Ireland (the murder squad ones, obviously, set in Dublin in particular), with the occasional flashback to past events (not too far in the past, though).  

She keeps the Dublin Murder Squad series fresh and interesting by focusing on a different member of the squad in each book, though you’ll see other characters from the squad playing more or less subsidiary roles.  So, for instance, in The Secret Place, we meet Stephen Moran, an ambitious young police officer who, though stuck in the cold cases division, wants to earn a place in the prestigious Murder Squad, and gets a chance when he’s given a clue that might open up one of those cold cases.  He’s paired with Antoinette Conway, a prickly, experienced detective who definitely isn’t interested in becoming his mentor, as they investigate the murder of a young man from a fancy boarding school.  In The Trespasser, a later book, our main character is Antoinette and Stephen is her partner, so we get to see Antoinette from the inside and Stephen from the outside.  The cases they deal with are complex, and French’s talent is to bring a whole world to life, so that you feel you know the inner workings of, for instance, a select girls’ boarding school, or a working class neighborhood in Dublin.  She’s also willing to let her characters be wrong, jump to wrong conclusions, and recover from them. None of the characters is any kind of a Mary Sue, and I appreciate that.

I wasn’t crazy about The Witch Elm, one of her stand-alone books, but that was because the main character was such an obnoxious person that I didn’t like having to spend so much time with him as a point of view character.  The plotting was tight and the resolution surprising but reasonable and set up well.  The Searcher, her other stand-alone, was atmospheric and vivid, with a great main character (a former police officer from the U.S.) and a sense of place that included the kinds of people who would live in a place like that as well as the geography itself.

While her plotting is excellent, I read Tana French for her characters, who are multidimensional and sometimes annoying (sometimes excessively so), and for her ability to create a whole world that feels real and alive, whether it’s a girls’ boarding school, a small town in the west of Ireland,  a nearly haunted house, a police station or a Dublin neighborhood.

I look forward to catching up on the rest of her back catalog, and especially look forward to whatever she’s going to write next.

GOING AFTER VICTORIA: INSPECTOR OF THE DEAD, FEBRUARY’S FIELD OF MYSTERY SELECTION

A book that some people really like and other people dislike is an excellent book group book. I know I’ve said this before, but conflict makes for good discussions, and good discussions are the heart blood of book groups.  So when the Field of Mystery Book Group met to discuss 1222 this past Saturday, we had a divided group and a very lively discussion, including the issue of whether people want to be able to guess the criminal from the clues in the book or whether they just want to be along for the ride (for the record, I’m in the former group), and even some discussion of group dynamics and the extent to which The Lord of the Flies is an accurate depiction of human behavior.

After all that, it was surprisingly easy to choose our book for February, 2022, which is Inspector of the Dead by David Morrell.  Copies of the book will be available at the Field Library Circulation Desk.

Inspector of the Dead is a historical mystery, set in Victorian England, and featuring a real life character (and I mean that in every sense of the word), Thomas de Quincy, as the primary investigator, with help from his daughter, Emily, and two friends of theirs in Scotland Yard.  In 1855, the Crimean War is blazing and English commanders are losing battles due to their incompetence.  Public disaffection with the war and with the government itself is rising, and now there’s a killer going after high ranking members of the British aristocracy.  As if that weren’t bad enough, the killer leaves names of people who have attempted to assassinate Queen Victoria in the past with the bodies of his victims.  It becomes disturbingly clear that his ultimate goal is to kill the queen herself, if de Quincy and his companions don’t stop him.

A historical mystery can be great fun, especially when the author mixes real life people in with the fictional characters.  Join us for what promises to be a fun read and a lively discussion on February 12 at the Field Library.