The Jury Box

by Steve Steinbock

The hardest part of my job is deciding which books I’m not going to read. The reading part is easy, even if time-consuming. Writing about the books is fun. But looking at a stack of books and deciding which I have to eliminate . . . that’s painful. Again, there were more good books waiting than review space.

***** Mario Giordano, Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24.00. The book’s setting and the author’s name are clearly Italian, so when I saw that the book was translated from German, I was momentarily confused. The author, while of Italian descent, is a native of Munich. But what was really remarkable was how the story, told with eloquence and hilarious panache, flows so well in English. It turns out that John Brownjohn, credited as the translator, has won multiple awards for his more than 160 translations from German. The story is narrated by a struggling Bavarian novelist spending long weekends in Sicily with his eccentric aunt, Isolde Oberreiter. Known to the locals as Donna Poldina and to the narrator as “Auntie Poldi,” the heroine has recently turned sixty, drinks far too much, lives in a dilapidated estate because of its “great vibes” and “positive energy,” and enjoys photographing young policemen. When her handyman goes missing and is later found murdered, Poldi makes it her mission to find out who killed him, if she can stay sober long enough.

***** Kanae Minato, Penance, Mulholland Books, $15.99. Translated from the Japanese and nominated for an Edgar Award, Penance is the story of five women, told through letters and private testimonies, each responding in her own way to the rape and murder of a child fifteen years earlier. When Maki, Yuko, Akiko, and Sae were in fourth grade, they looked on with jealousy as their friend Emily walked off to help a stranger. When questioned after Emily’s strangled body was found, none of the girls could remember the face of the man. Fifteen years later, as the statute of limitations looms, the four surviving girls and the mother, each guilty of their own acts of violence, hope to catch the killer. Compelling characters, a superb translation, and a powerful story told from multiple perspectives make Penance a Rashomon for the 21st century.

**** Michael Connelly, Two Kinds of Truth, Little, Brown, $29.00. The Harry Bosch series has been going on strong for more than twenty-five years. In this newest book, Bosch, now working on cold cases for the San Fernando P.D., has been accused of falsifying evidence against a man now on death row. While he tries to clear his name, with the help of his half-brother, lawyer Mickey Haller, he goes undercover as a drug addict purchasing pain meds for a pill mill. The story is grisly but told with Connelly’s passion and humanity.

**** Craig Johnson, The Western Star, Viking, $28.00. When a killer that Walt Longmire put behind bars nearly fifty years earlier is up for “compassionate release,” Longmire is forced to relive his first case as a Wyoming lawman. The story flashes back to 1972 when Longmire, just back from Vietnam, has begun work as a sheriff’s deputy in Absaroka County. He accompanies his boss, Sheriff Lucian Connelly, on the Western Star, a train taking an annual ride across the state as the Wyoming Sheriff’s Association junket. Past and present storylines converge in a shocking crescendo that leads to a series-changing event that I presume will be the focus of the next Longmire novel.

**** Dave Zeltserman (writing as Jacob Stone), Malicious, Midnight Ink, $15.99. Readers of EQMM are probably familiar with the name Dave Zeltserman, who earned two EQMM Readers Awards for his computer-age Nero Wolfe pastiches. Under the name Jacob Stone he writes thrillers featuring former LAPD homicide detective Morris Brick, an expert in serial killers, now running a Hollywood-based security consulting firm. A killer with a penchant for Rube Goldberg devices has been leaving calling cards for Brick as he slaughters Hollywood actresses once by one, with the goal of destroying all of Los Angeles. Zeltersman’s writing is smart, witty, and edge-of-your-seat thrilling. A fourth title, Cruel, is due out later this fall.

**** Meredith Anthony, Hellmouth, Authorhouse, $19.99. Hellmouth is part moral comedy, part sexy thriller, and part dark suspense. Expanded from an EQMM story, it follows the aptly named Helen Goode, an energetic middle-aged professional and the wife of a Pennsylvania judge. Helen is shocked when she spots her husband patting the rear end of a pretty young staff member. When the staff member is found murdered, Helen begins to suspect her husband. Anthony paints a world filled with bent politicians, crooked unions, and lowlife criminals. The skill with which she maneuvers the plot surprised me at every turn.

*** Michael Scott Cain, Damon Runyon’s Boys, Stark House, $15.95. In 1948, crime reporter Damon Taylor is working on a story about a shootout at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom. Before the war, Taylor had been a protégé of writer Damon Runyan—hence the novel’s title. The plot is sound, but what makes the book remarkable is the way the author weaves in historical events and personalities like popular news commentator Walter Winchell, mob boss Frank Costello, and an awkward young Southern newsman named Truman Capote.

*** Vivien Chien, Dim Sum of all Fears, St. Martin’s Press, $7.99. After her successful debut, Chien is back with a second offbeat cozy featuring reluctant Cleveland noodle-shop heiress Lana Lee. Despite plans to leave the family business, Lana is put in charge of the restaurant while her parents travel to Taiwan. Because of Lana’s reputation as an amateur sleuth, the co-owner of the shop next door confides that she thinks her husband is having an affair. When the young woman and her husband are found dead, Lana looks into their past, drawing negative attention from her current beau, a detective from a nearby town. In the tradition of Les Roberts, Chien writes a witty series set against the background of her character’s Cleveland ethnic community.

*** Melodie Campbell, The B-Team: The Case of the Angry First Wife, Orca, $9.95. The Toronto Sun calls her the Canadian “Queen of Comedy,” but I like to think of her as the Canadian literary heir to Donald Westlake. After five books featuring mafia goddaughter Gina Gallo, Campbell has launched this spin-off series about a bumbling team of vigilante heroes led by Gina’s cousin Del and seventy-something-year-old former cat burglar Great Aunt Kitty. The fast-paced humor is characterized by situations that are simultaneously madcap and bizarrely banal.

**** Leslie S. Klinger, Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, Watchmen Annotated, DC, $49.99. Les Klinger—renowned for his annotations of Dracula, Frankenstein, Sandman, the works of H.P. Lovecraft, and the Sherlock Holmes canon—has compiled detailed commentary for 1987’s epic graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Set in an alternate U.S. in the mid 1980s, it focuses on the investigation of the death of Edward Blake. Unbeknownst to the police, Blake had a secret career as a vigilante superhero with a violent personality. His former teammates set out to uncover what the police failed to find. Watchmen is a gritty story. This annotated edition is reproduced in crisp black and white, which surprised me until I saw how the simpler inkwork enhanced the art. Klinger’s notes point out many of the subtle motifs hidden in the artwork. 

Copyright © 2018 Steve Steinbock