The Jury Box

by Steve Steinbock

My taste in mystery fiction has evolved over the years. At one time I exclusively read P.I. novels. Later I found myself reading the very different subgenres of police procedurals and suspense novels. Later still, my tastes veered more toward traditional “fair-play” whodunits. All these labels and categories are useful for mystery reviewers and historians as well as publishers and booksellers. But as this current batch of titles indicates, these subgenres are fluid and flexible. Like people, books don’t like to be pigeonholed.

This month we have a couple of mysteries that make us reexamine art and history, a few of them bend reality, and all of them, in some way or other, are books that resist easy categorization.

***** Jonathan Santlofer, The Last Mona Lisa, Sourcebooks Landmark, $26.99. In 1911, Vincenzo Peruggia committed the most famous art theft of the twentieth century. He kept Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa for two years, but after he was arrested, it was eventually returned to the Louvre. Or was it? An analyst for INTERPOL’s Art Theft Division has been following the e-mail trails of Luke Perrone, the great-grandson of Peruggia. Perrone, an American artist and art professor, travels to Florence to examine the long-forgotten journals of his great-grandfather in order to discover the true motives behind the theft. Along the way, he encounters ruthless art collectors and is called on to examine forgeries, and he meets a beautiful woman and faces murder and betrayal. While a work of fiction, The Last Mona Lisa is a masterpiece thriller based on historical details researched by an accomplished artist and prize-winning suspense writer.

**** Lady Joker, volume one, Kaoru Takamura (translation by Marie Iida and Allison Markin Powell), Soho Crime, $28.95. First published in Japan in 1997, Lady Joker is a profound social commentary loosely based on the 1984 kidnapping of the president of a major Japanese candy manufacturer and the extortion of several other food manufacturers. The book opens with a letter, written in 1947, citing the discriminatory practices of Hinode Beer Company. Decades later, in 1995, five men who have been meeting regularly at the racecourse plot the kidnapping of the beer company’s CEO. The five men have no criminal histories but share a sense of alienation from society and corporate culture. At the center of the story is Seizo Monoi, a drugstore owner who recently lost his grandson and whose son-in-law committed suicide. Monoi is also the younger brother of the writer of the 1947 letter. The book is engaging and expertly translated, but it is not a quick read nor a happy story. At 576 pages, it is the first part of a larger novel (the remainder to be published next year), and the criminal plot line doesn’t begin until more than 260 pages in. Despite the slow pace, I found the book strangely addictive.

***** Stephen Mack Jones, Dead of Winter, Soho Crime, $27.95. Ronaldo Ochoa, owner of a massive food manufacturer in Detroit’s Mexicantown district, reaches out to family friend and former Detroit cop August Octavio Snow. Ochoa is dying of cancer and is concerned about an unscrupulous real-estate investor buying up property in the historic Mexicantown neighborhood. When Ochoa is murdered, Snow tries to track down the elusive investor, only to learn that a much larger international syndicate is involved. Snow finds himself at odds with ruthless financiers, crooked politicians, and international assassins. The story itself—a hardboiled adventure with a unique Midwest Afro-Latino twist—is good. But the standout features are the story’s characters, Jones’s lyrical style, and his sharp sense of humor.

**** Chris McKinney, Midnight, Water City, Soho Crime, $27.95. The unnamed narrator of this work of sci-fi noir is an eighty-year-old cop living in 2142, a time when most of North America is a landfill and most of humanity is living in cities built on or beneath the surface of the ocean. Medical technology has led to organ farming and longer lifespans. The narrator is called to the home of Akira Kimura, the scientist who developed the technology to save Earth from a catastrophic asteroid collision decades earlier. Kimura, revered as Earth’s savior, is also the narrator’s best friend. But when he arrives at Kimura’s home, he finds her body surgically dismembered in a hibernation pod. I found the plot and setting fascinating, as well as the author’s clever use of biblical themes and his unique twist on the senses of sight and smell. My difficulty was with the dark cynicism of the narrator for most of the book.

**** Dennis Palumbo, Panic Attack, Poisoned Pen Press, $15.99. The day after delivering the commencement address at Teasdale College, psychologist Daniel Rinaldi is in a VIP box at the fifty-yard line when a sniper’s bullet kills the college mascot in front of 20,000 witnesses. Matters get more complicated when Rinaldi, the police, and the college dean discover that the dead man inside the mascot costume is not that of the student who was supposed to be wearing it. In the following days several more people fall victim to the sniper and the police are unable to find a connection. Rinaldi follows the clues and eventually finds himself face-to-face with the assassin in an explosive climax. Palumbo, himself a psychotherapist, appeared in the Department of First Stories in the April 1978 issue of EQMM.

**** Ellen Crosby, The French Paradox, Severn House, $28.99 HC, $17.95 TPB. Topics as varied as winemaking, eighteenth-century women artists, climate change, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis collide in the eleventh novel of Crosby’s Virginia Wine Country series. As she prepares for her own wedding, winery owner Lucie Montgomery learns of her grandfather’s affair, seventy years earlier, with future first lady Jacqueline Bouvier. Lucie’s grandfather had been with Jackie when, during her junior year abroad in Paris, she bought several paintings by Élisabeth Le Brun, portraitist to Marie Antoinette. Dealing with the revelation of her grandfather’s affair, worrying about her younger sister’s sketchy boyfriend, and preparing for an event where the paintings will be unveiled and Jackie’s private journals exposed to the world, Lucie discovers the body of her horticulturist friend Parker. There are plenty of suspects. Parker had been receiving death threats for his recent book about climate change and had made enemies among his rivals in the horticulture community. To twist a metaphor, Crosby has put old wine in a new skin, filling her novel with interesting and well-researched information, packaged in a story made supple by the book’s warm and likeable heroine.

**** Sarah Zachrich Jeng, The Other Me, Berkley Publishing Group, $26.00. Chicago artist Kelly Holter is celebrating her twenty-ninth birthday at a gallery event for her best friend. But when she steps through the bathroom door, she finds herself in a different world in which she never went to the Art Institute, never left Michigan, and is now married to a boy she knew in high school. She knows something is not right, but has no idea how to get back to her other life. The author’s debut novel, The Other Me is a genre-bending suspense thriller about the choices we make and what happens when others make the choices for us.

**** Lee Goldberg, Gated Prey, Thomas & Mercer, $24.95 HC, $15.95 TPB. Los Angeles County detective Eve Ronin is resented and despised by many of her male colleagues for her quick and politicized promotion as well as the investigation (in last year’s Bone Canyon) which implicated several of her fellow officers in sexual abuse and corruption. This third book in the series opens with Eve and her partner Duncan working undercover in a wealthy gated community to trap a team of violent home invaders. But when the operation falls apart, leaving the three thieves dead, Eve and Duncan suspect that the failure of the sting was orchestrated by her enemies within the sheriff’s department in an attempt to have her killed. A separate story line has Eve and Duncan investigating a grisly theft within the same gated community. The two story lines were not well blended, seeming more like two separate novellas rather than a unified novel. Nevertheless, I’ve enjoyed this series for the affectionate and witty interplay between Eve and her partner and for Goldberg’s crisp dialogue.

**** Tess Gerritsen and Gary Braver, Choose Me, Thomas & Mercer, $24.95 HC, $15.95 TPB. A college student falls from her apartment balcony to her death, apparently a case of suicide. Distraught after the breakup with her boyfriend, Taryn Moore begins stalking her ex and develops an unhealthy relationship with her literature professor. After her death, Detective Frankie Loomis and her partner Mac suspect foul play. The collaboration between Braver and Gerritsen was done in tag-team style with Gerritsen writing from the perspective of the two female characters and Braver telling the story from the professor’s point of view. The collaboration is seamless and cohesive and the story an excellent blend of suspense, social commentary, and whodunit.

**** John Gibson, OJ’s Knife, Stark House Press, $15.95. OJ Simpson was acquitted of criminal charges in the 1994 murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman in part because the murder weapon was never found. Talk-show host and former Fox News commentator John Gibson offers a fictional account of the missing knife’s journey featuring news correspondent Mickey Judge. A stray phone call leads Judge to a small backpack left at LAX by OJ. But Inglewood gang members, OJ’s defense team, and a jumbo-sized crime boss also want the backpack and its contents. Gibson’s narrative style is similar to his newsroom style: sarcastic, derisive, and often bombastic, which is a style that ironically works well with this story. Gibson weaves a thrilling adventure, using historical details to bring it to an explosive climax.

Copyright © 2021 Steve Steinbock

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