What he left behind

Bob Moyer takes on a different kind of mystery – not a whodunit, but a look at the strange realm of human love and relationships.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

MONOGAMY. By Sue Miller. Harper. 338 pages. $28.99



In this fine novel, filled with authentic detail of time, place and demographics, the main characters are or have been married — the larger-than-life bookstore owner Graham, his second wife Annie, his first wife Frieda, and their son Lucas. Only Sarah, the daughter of the second marriage, is not married. Late in the book, she muses about what she wants:


             Not marriage — not all the other promises to be made, and then broken. Not the   children, the difficult growing up. The wounds inflicted, back and forth, the inevitable disappointments, the unbridgeable distances. 

            Not that.

           Not monogamy.

By this time in the book, author Sue Miller has manifested in excruciatingly fine detail a litany of the pitfalls (many) and pleasures (few) of Monogamy. It all  begins when Graham unexpectedly dies in his sleep. He leaves Annie with grief, his son with a sense of distance, his ex-wife with resentment and his daughter with her insecurity. He also leaves behind an act of adultery.

Miller takes a page from Anton Chekov’s playbook here. Chekov said that if you hang a gun on the wall in the first act of a play, you have to use it in the second part. Miller loads Graham’s infidelity up in the first few pages and then fires it off in the second part. With finesse that would make Chekov nod in appreciation, she stages a scene in which Annie comes across the mistress weeping at Graham’s desk, and immediately shifts from grief to anger. Miller takes the rest of the book, up to the very last sentence, to resolve that anger.

With an astute eye for detail, she shows how a disturbance like Graham’s resonates through the lives of the other characters. The reader experiences Annie’s anger while she’s in the dentist’s chair, Lucas’ distance from his mother at the dining room table, Sarah’s consternation when she finds a book defaced by her mother. It’s not often that a book about domesticity could be called a page-turner, but Monogamy comes close. There is no mystery here, but there is more drama than one would expect, thanks to Miller’s skill. And many a reader will recognize many of the pitfalls of Monogamy.


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Choosing the words, telling the stories

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE DICTIONARY OF LOST WORDS. By Pip Williams. Ballantine Books. 371 pages. $28.

Pip Williams’ remarkable debut novel is imaginative, original, intelligent and delightful.

The Dictionary of Lost Words is also a book for our times – really, a book for all times. The questions it raises about the power of words, and the importance of who gets to tell the story, are just as relevant today as they were back in the 1880s and into the early decades of the 20th century when a team of men was laboring over the first Oxford English Dictionary.

Those men who eventually produced the “definitive” dictionary of the English language got invaluable assistance from women – volunteers, contributors, family members – who shared none of the credit.

This novel is soundly based on historical fact. If you’ve never read – as I had not – anything about how the OED was put together, you will find that part of the story fascinating. Williams does a marvelous job of making the work of the dictionary integral to the novel’s larger story.

The lexicographers devoted years to the effort, working in the “Scriptorium,” a garden shed in Oxford, England, behind the home of James Murray, the primary editor. Responding to an appeal from Murray, people across England and around the world mailed in slips of paper with suggested words, often just clippings from some publication.

The postcard-size slips of paper would be reviewed and, if accepted, filed in bundles in pigeon-holes in the Scriptorium. Sometimes slips, carelessly handled, could drift astray.

The dictionary, years behind schedule, was published initially in fascicles –  installments, or volumes. Sometimes by the time a fascicle emerged, developments proved that some editorial judgments had been wrong and omitted words should have been included.

In 1901, an inquiry from a reader revealed that the word “bondmaid” had been omitted from the 1888 first volume, A-B, not by editorial decision but because it was somehow, inexplicably, lost.

From that footnote of history, Pip Williams conjures up her story. The word “bondmaid,” in Williams’ fiction, was taken by a girl who spent much of her childhood beneath the sorting table in the Scriptorium.

Esme’s mother died in childbirth, so Esme’s father often takes the child with him to work in the shed behind the Murray’s home. Until she grows too big, Esme spends hours quietly beneath the table, soaking up the atmosphere of that room where people devoted their lives to words. Though she may not make much noise, she’s bright and inquisitive. One of the life lessons she learns early – and painfully – is that some words are more important, more powerful, than others.

When the slip with the word “bondmaid” on it floats to the floor one day, young Esme retrieves it. Usually when a slip is dropped, the person working with it picks it up, but not this time. Esme assumes it’s a duplicate or a reject  and not important. She doesn’t  really mean to steal it.

But later it turns out that she is, secretly, responsible for the error. Because she learns that the word means slave-girl or bonded servant, an objectionable idea, she’s glad it didn’t make it into the dictionary. Lizzie, a servant who works for the Murray family and is the closest thing Esme has to a mother or big sister, muses that “bondmaid” is what she, Lizzie, is, and seems glad to have been – almost – mentioned.

From this beginning, Esme resolves to collect words that are left out of the dictionary. Often, the  words relate to the lives of women and those on the margins of society. Esme begins secretly to compile her own “Dictionary of Lost Words,” those rejected because they are considered vulgar or improper, or unimportant, or are only spoken rather than written. They are, she realizes, words that have much to tell us. Toward this end, she ventures beyond her sheltered life in the Scriptorium and at school and learns a great deal more about the world.

One person Esme meets, an actress named Tilda, introduces her to the cause of women’s suffrage. That struggle, the world of the theater and the Great War with its upending of British life all become part of Esme’s quest and of her life, with its ups and downs.

Williams, who was born in London and lives in Australia, beautifully blends the themes of the power of language, the implications of who gets to tell the story and the challenges women face. Wrap that all up into a carefully researched historical novel and a compelling, imaginative story of one woman’s life, and you get a novel that’s sure to please many readers.

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A good story – that raises questions

Bob Moyer, aficionado of mysteries and thrillers, also has an abiding interest in nonfiction books about the Holocaust.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE SPIRAL SHELL: A French Village Reveals Its Secrets of Jewish Resistance in World War II. A Memoir. By Sandell Morse. Schaffer Press. 239 pages. $24.95.

Sandell Morse did not know what she was going to write when she arrived at the artists’ retreat in Auvillar, France. She knew the village was a center for the Resistance in World War II, many Jews  sheltered there, including 70 children, and one family had her surname, Hirsch. When she began searching for landmarks and locations of that period, she was met with denial, feigned ignorance, and frequently, “Je ne sais pas.”  In short, her efforts to uncover the carefully buried history of the village’s Jewish affiliation was met with — well, resistance.

Nevertheless, she persevered. Not a journalist, with only fractured “Duolingo” French, she set off to dig up the story. She pulled on strings that stretched back to events repressed or forgotten, pulling stories into the present. One of those strings was Germaine,  who worked in le colonie, the home that sheltered the Jewish children.  She recounted stories of taking the children into the woods when the Gestapo arrived, of transporting children around the countryside. Germaine offered her another string —Yvonne, one of the 69 children who survived the war. All along the way, Morse encountered systemic anti-Semitism, even amongst the locals she befriended over the years of her research. Each thread led to another revelation. Her namesake family was arrested and transported. The father returned after the war, buying up property in the village where he had sheltered. Over the years, he became an object of scorn and dismay because of his handling of the property, and, Morse surmises, his constant presence as a reminder of the Vichy past.

While researching how Jews were concealed in the village, the author searches for the Jew concealed within herself. Growing up in a family that assiduously sought assimilation, she gave up wearing her Star of David pendant at the age of 8; “Why advertise?” said her father. Now, she encounters Jews who do not present their Jewishness to the public. When she asks Germaine’s daughter, who was born during the war, why she is reticent, she replies, “You cannot do that here.”  Throughout the book,  the author recalls all that she herself did not do, in order to cover her Jewishness.

As the book proceeds, the author becomes more empathetic and passionate about this history, these people denied recognition. With a sharp eye for detail, and a nose for a good story, she ventures into territory that verges upon inappropriate — making up stories from those who have suffered. Since the Holocaust, scholars and many others have questioned the appropriateness of writers and artists to mine that material in their work. As they say in the South, her heart’s in the right place, but there is a fine line between exploration and exploitation. She takes many a moment, both factual and anecdotal, and follows it up with “I imagine…”, “Perhaps…”, and, even further afield, “I fancy…”. The resulting frequently lengthy writing is vivid and imaginative, but just that—imaginative. The reader must be careful to separate fancy from fact:  The story must be honored, but not elaborated.

Morse goes one step further into controversial territory. Her deep engagement with her source, Germaine, leads her to a conflation between their lives:  “We were linked, Germaine and I, by our rebellious spirits and by our struggle, when young, to be both women and mothers.” How uncomfortable that this housewife from suburban New York, barefoot, wearing hippie clothes, equates her experience with that of a post-war, penniless Germaine cycling through Paris streets with her three children on the bike.

Passionate? Yes. Informative? Yes. Well-written? Yes. Questionable? Yes. The journey into Vichy France and the journey into her heritage are interesting; they are not equal.


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The boy is back

Bob Moyer takes a look at the latest book by one of America’s most respected mystery and thriller writers.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

EDDIE’S BOY. By Thomas Perry. Mysterious Press. 274 pages. $26.

Thomas Perry never fails to produce a pager-turner. His protagonists, whether in stand-alone novels or series installments, Native American females or Boston-bred white guys, go about their likable and lethal ways at breakneck speed. Perry fans cheer them on, eagerly awaiting the next clever means of maiming or dispatching the bad guys—and wondering why they enjoy all the mayhem so much.

Eddie’s Boy continues the story of The Butcher’s Boy, one of the early entries in the Perry oeuvre. This is the third installment in The Butcher’s Boy series over a 39-year period. The “boy” was brought up and trained in two trades by Eddie —butcher and hit man. He’s been living in retirement in England until someone wants him dead. When the reader first sees him, he’s driving to the airport with three dead bodies strapped into seat belts, and a fourth one in the trunk. He has to get away, but he doesn’t know from whom. After another half-dozen bodies, he decides to go back to the U.S., where obviously someone wants him gone.

When he gets to the States, he not only returns to his home, but he also takes a trip into the past. As he tracks down who put out the hit on him, he travels through the past with his ersatz parent and protector, Eddie. Besides an entertaining trip into the training methods involved in being an assassin—how to use a garrote, what part of the body to put a knife into, how to shoot with two .45 pistols at once — he comes across a lesson that has kept him alive: “He knew that what Eddie had been teaching him was about living,” not killing. He was an expert at staying alive, and that’s what Perry puts into those pages we turn with avidity. He’s not just knocking people off; he’s working his way back home. That’s what we’re cheering.

And, many machinations and funerals later, he makes it. He’s getting a little long in the tooth, but don’t put it past Perry to bring Eddie’s Boy back one more

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Reacher “Just Happens” to be at it again

Bob Moyer reviews the latest in one of his favorite series (and one of mine, also, once he introduced me to it). But, as he explains, this involves a “new Jack Reacher.”

Reviewed by Robert P Moyer

THE SENTINEL. By Lee Child and Andrew Child. Delacorte Press. 351 pages. $28.99

Jack Reacher is the star of the Just Happens School of Mystery Fiction. For 25 installments, he Just Happens to stop off in a (usually)small town, where he Just Happens to notice someone in trouble. It usually Just Happens that he, traveling man that he is, can spend some time making things right. It Just Happens that gangs of bad guys attack him and he dispatches them with violent elan. It almost goes without saying that it Just Happens that these events frequently have ramifications on a national, sometimes international level, no matter how small the town or how far into the country it may be.

And so it goes in the latest installment, The Sentinel. Reacher stops off in a small Tennessee town, and on his way to get coffee always) he Just Happens to notice five people about to attack a clueless man. He adds a few mangled bodies to the pile he’s created over the years, and after a visit to the police station, he goes back for that cup of coffee—and Just Happens to run into the guy he saved. It turns out he’s the disgraced town IT guy, who is blamed for the town’s IT structure being held for ransom. He doesn’t know why anyone would want to kidnap him, but Jack senses he’s in danger.

In the meantime, while Jack and the guy are trying to scope out what anyone could be after, nefarious foreign forces still plan to kidnap him. By this time, it Just Happens that Reacher has decided to stay to protect the guy and his mother. Reacher sets out to set up traps, trying to find out what “they” are after. Shortly, he figures out it’s something on the servers that were held up in the ransom. The IT guy, unfortunately, threw them away. Now they are looking for something they don’t know on something they can’t find. And a bunch of bad guys are after them. Of course it Just Happens that a couple of FBI agents let Reacher know that it all revolves around a threat to national security, a program called The Sentinel. The plot plays out with the usual mangling of bodies, threats to Jack and his cohorts, and, in this case, with Reacher going literally deeper than he’s ever gone.

Two changes about the series must be noted. For the first time in 25 volumes—wait for it—Reacher gets a cell phone. It’s a text-and-talk model, and he gives it back at the end. It’s a temporary change.

The other change is permanent. Lee Child is giving the series over to his brother Andrew. The result here, if any example, reads slower and longer, with more people than it feels like necessary. Time will tell, however. Let’s hope, that like Ace Atkins taking over Robert B. Parker’s Spenser, that Brother Child will master the art  of the Just Happens School of Mystery Fiction.

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Faded dreams and vanished worlds

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE SWEET TASTE OF MUSCADINES. By Pamela Terry. Ballantine Books. 288 pages. $27.

Pamela Terry has a winner in “The Sweet Taste of Muscadines,” her debut novel.

The book is billed as a Southern novel, and it is – in the best sense of that descriptive.

The geography is right: The primary setting is Wesleyan, halfway between Atlanta and Savannah, the sort of sleepy Georgia town where there are churches on every street corner and “proper” behavior is still clearly defined, if sometimes hypocritical and often superficial.

Terry’s portrayal of the dynamics and the undercurrents of a small-town society that’s still largely provincial is also right on the mark. She also brings the Southern landscape to life with her detailed descriptions, right down to the tastes and smells of the muscadines referenced in the title.

A lifelong Southerner, Terry demonstrates a deep understanding of the good and bad in that society, and of how the past affects – even haunts – the present.

And while some of the characters you might expect in a novel about small-town Southern life naturally appear in these pages, Terry avoids, to her credit, the easy stereotyping, cliches and exaggerated dialect that mar so many “Southern” novels.

Two of Terry’s main characters, the narrator, Lila Bruce Breedlove, and her brother, Henry Bruce, fled their home for the North as soon as they were able, demonstrating the tensions between past and present, the gap between societal and family pressures  and individual preferences and aspirations. Having found fulfilling and creative lives, both are glad to be away from a place where they never felt completely at ease.

Lila, widowed at an early age, lives in Maine, and Henry in Rhode Island. As the book opens, they head home after receiving news of the unexpected – and rather bizarre – death of their elderly mother. There they must deal with their younger sister, Abigail, the one sibling who chose to remain close to their formidable mother, who had been on her own since their father was killed in the Vietnam War.

Lila expects to suffer through a traditional Southern funeral, with more casseroles than they could ever eat, hours of visitation and viewing, and an elaborate service suitable for the widow of a pastor of the town’s prominent Baptist church, who herself was a longtime Sunday school teacher and pianist.

Instead, Lila and Henry find lots of questions surrounding the death, plus their mother’s directive that there be no funeral service at all. When they start probing beneath the surface, they uncover secrets that leave them reeling. They are left to question much of what they believed to be true, much of what shaped their young lives, and much of the family story they thought they knew so well.

Determined to try to find some answers, the two set off on a quest that takes them as far as Scotland and eventually brings them insights and changes the lives of all three siblings.

Before all the secrets begin to emerge, we know that at least on the paternal side, the Bruce family does not date back long generations to antebellum days in the South. Lila’s great-grandfather was a Scotsman who built a successful business of newspaper and radio stations in Ohio before selling out to a media conglomerate and retiring to the coast of South Carolina, where Lila’s Uncle Audie lives now.

That the family is, at least in part, relative newcomers to the South is all a part of this carefully woven plot. In case you don’t get the connection to the quintessential Southern novel and movie, Scarlett O’Hara’s father in Gone With the Wind, Gerald, is no blue-blooded Southerner either, but rather a scrappy Irish immigrant.

When Lila and Henry  come upon a Confederate re-enactment in the town square as they arrive for what they think will be their mother’s funeral, Henry blames Margaret Mitchell for the longevity of the myth of the Lost South.  Remembering Mitchell’s title words as the movie replayed on TV screens of her childhood, Lila thinks: “For every gray-blooded southerner, they encapsulated a yearning for a world that, in truth, had never actually existed.”

Lila and Henry will learn that much of what they believe about, and grieve over, the world of their childhood similarly was only an illusion. By the end of this fine novel, they understand that the real world is much to be preferred.


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Anchored in the dilemma

Bob Moyer, an avid reader, often goes through books at a rapid pace. But those tend to be mysteries. This novel, he says, forced him to slow down.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

JACK. By Marilynne Robinson. Farrah Straus Giroux. 309 pages. $27.

Marilynne Robinson has produced three novels centered on the fictional village of Gilead, Iowa, in the mid-twentieth century. This series has garnered critical acclaim and many fans, including Barack Obama. She manifests major themes in the lives of two families in that small town, Aeschylus by way of Our Town – religion, poverty, racism, love, family, and what she calls “the great sadness that pervades human life.” Now she has added a fourth installment in the series, called Jack, creating what she says is “one enormous novel.”

Each book travels the same territory from different perspectives. The first is Gilead, told in the form of a letter written by Jack’s namesake, the aging Rev. John Ames. The second book, Glory, is narrated by Jack’s sister. And the third comes to us in the voice of Lila, Reverend Ames’ young wife, a friend and fellow traveler of the waif who became a wife. In other words, by the start of Jack, we know a lot about him—a thorn in his father’s side, a conundrum to his family, a “bum” to those who pass him in the street. This book takes place before the others, so we know this story does not end well. He is a liar, a scoundrel, a thief who loves the feeling of “…thine dissolving into mine” in the damp of his hand. He’s a drunk, an ex-con, and, in this book, he is in love.

That’s the engine that drives this story. He meets a woman who is everything he isn’t, a woman who possesses what he does not, “the knowledge of good.” He brings all his baggage to their relationship, and she shoulders it with ease. In the exceptional first 79 pages of the book, the two of them spend a night locked in a St. Louis cemetery, where Robinson demonstrates the connection between them, capturing that unknown thing called love without telling us — the way the woman takes his arm, leans on his shoulder, the lengthy conversation about religion and poetry, all let us know they will become a couple. And that creates the dilemma that then plays out in the rest of the book in Jack’s mind—can he change? Does he dare commit “grand larceny” by taking her from her proud family? He vacillates, drinks, steals pages of poetry he slips into her pocket, tries not to see her, but fails. He tells her he is the Prince of Darkness, Lazarus, the Prodigal Son; she replies “No, you’re a talkative man with holes in his socks.” Robinson packs so much universal into the specific here, because he is indeed all of those things.

The woman is an English teacher, Jack is well-read, so we hear Dickinson, Milton, William Carlos Williams in their conversation. Both are the children of preachers, so we hear the existence or not of God, original sin, the question of afterlife. Then, the biggest complication of all — she is black, he is white, so they face “…as many obstacles as the combined efforts of Missouri and Tennessee could contrive for them.”

Jack is a remarkable, but not an easy, read. Robinson has created a narrative unlike any other current writer—she writes the way people think and then speak, “…to simulate the integrative work of a mind perceiving and reflecting,” as she says elsewhere. Shakespeare wrote that way. Her style prohibits skimming, forces the reader to think along with the character, to stay anchored in the deepening of their dilemma. It is rough at times, claustrophobic in the confines of Jack’s mind, but in the end, we feel, like Jack, “…the loyalty that always restored them both, just like grace”—in spite of every obstacle that Jack, Missouri and Tennessee can throw up.



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The ticking bombs…

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE KING’S JUSTICE. By Susan Elia MacNeal. Bantam Books. $17, paperback.

Over the course of eight previous novels, Maggie Hope has been an assistant to Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a code breaker, a spy, a prisoner…. She’s come way too close for comfort to a serial killer trying to emulate Jack the Ripper. She’s traveled from London to Paris and beyond, then to the White House in Washington after Pearl Harbor brings the Americans into World War II. In the process, she’s learned some difficult truths about her family, and she’s gained some insights into herself as well. Yet, as we see in The King’s Justice, she still has dangers to face and lessons to learn. That’s a good thing for all those who love this series.

As the book opens in London at the end of 1942, Maggie has sworn off spying for a while. She does her part for the war effort by working on a squad that defuses the many deadly bombs that remain across London since the Luftwaffe’s Blitz in 1940. Maggie loses herself at least briefly in this intense work that requires absolute concentration. At other times, she smokes, drinks and rides a motorbike dangerously fast through the streets of London to avoid thinking about all that she’s been through and the horrors she’s experienced.

Now, even as the brutal serial murderer she helped to catch and convict is about to be executed, a new serial killer begins an apparent campaign to claim even more victims – and notoriety. This time, people, including the mudlarkers who scavenge in the mud of the River Thames to find items they might be able to sell for a little cash, start finding suitcases filled with human bones. White feathers suggest the victims are men who are conscientious objectors avoiding serving in the military.

Maggie’s fledgling love interest, Detective Chief Inspector James Durgin, wants her to help him track down this new killer, but Maggie is adamant that she wants nothing more of spying or crime solving. Her resolve weakens, however, when Durgin asks her to help in the case of a rare Stradivarius that’s been stolen. And then the murderer who’s about to be executed suggests he has information about the new serial killer, information that he’ll give only to Maggie. Because some of the young men who work with her defusing bombs are conscientious objectors, she has a special interest in the case. Sometimes her personal feelings bring her into conflict with Durgin over the decisions he’s making about how to proceed with the case and how much information to reveal to the public.

Despite her resolve, Maggie gets drawn into these crimes, old and new. The more she learns, the more she suspects that the crimes are linked, and that there might be connections to her past as well.

Susan Elia MacNeal does a wonderful job with this mystery series, and as Maggie matures and experiences ever more, the novels are acquiring more depth. This time, we see more of the effects of war and violence on individuals, especially Maggie.

MacNeal’s attention to detail is a delight for people who like history. We get a real sense of what life was like for ordinary people, Londoners of Italian descent, government officials and even royals during those dark, interminable days of the war.

It’s not necessary to have read all the Maggie Hope mysteries that preceded this one to enjoy The King’s Justice. Those who haven’t had that pleasure, however, will probably want to go back and read more of the series. The rest of us will be eagerly anticipating No. 10.


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The most important client

Bob Moyer has a way of making we want to get a book and start reading right away! This one sounds particularly good.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE LAW OF INNOCENCE. By Michael Connelly. Little, Brown. 42 pages. $29.

Mickey Haller is the Lincoln lawyer. He does most of his business in the back of a chauffeured Lincoln, much of that business with people who are guilty. He is to defense lawyers what his half-brother Harry Bosch is to detectives—the best. Haller thinks of the prosecution as a solid, deep-rooted tree; he thinks of himself as “…the man with the axe. My job is to cut the tree down to the ground and burn its wood to ashes.” In this latest installment, he needs a very sharp axe to save the most important client he has ever had —himself.

A few pages into the book the police arrest Haller for murder, the victim a client who owed him money. It’s a frame, of course, but Haller comes up before a D.A. that he has beat like a drum and a judge whose case he overturned. Mickey Haller goes to jail.

And he stays there most of the book. He and his crack team, which includes Bosch, have to put their case together while navigating the limitations of the prison and court system. Michael Connelly’s skill makes that effort most interesting, as we follow the winding ins and outs of the case inside the courtroom and the investigation outside.

They know whodunit early on, but the danger for the case builds. Will they find him? Can they get him to court?  And can Haller himself stay alive inside the jail?  Connelly always builds edge-of-your-seat suspense, but he ups himself here by adding a danger the reader is well aware of, but the book’s cast isn’t for some time —the pandemic. In this early 2020 setting, hints appear—a rumor about a Chinese virus, an incident in a Washington nursing home, masks. It’s interesting that the addition of something we are so familiar with adds dread to the occasion for the reader, not the characters.

After a finely tuned orchestration of incidents, including surprise discoveries, lying witnesses and, of course, the FBI, Haller finally sees the case coming together, the moment he starts “…to get the visions I got before all my trials. Visions of witnesses on the stand, visions of me telling my story.” After the case plays out in court, the story comes to a trademark Connelly double ending. The book is actually longer than most Connelly books, because of The Law of Innocence—as Haller says, “the only way to prove I didn’t do it is to prove who did.” That takes a little time, and the reader gets to tag along on another Connelly triumph.


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Walter Mosley, the short version

Years ago, a review by Bob Moyer introduced me to the works of Walter Mosley. Since then, I have read many of Mosley’s outstanding  and evocative mysteries, including many  of the early ones I had missed.  Now I’ll have to add this book of stories to my reading list.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE AWKWARD BLACK MAN. By Walter Mosley. Grove Press. 336 pages. $26.

Men. Awkward Black men, plural, populate the pages of these 17 stories. Each one of them, mostly middle-aged, has a problem that complicates his life. The man with a “Pet Fly”  makes pathetic attempts at courting that get him charged with harassment. In therapy for 31 years, the writer in “Cut Cut Cut” just feels “stuck.”   “Leading From the Affair” his wife had, a husband finds himself ”on a flat plane of insurance claims” and searches for a way out.

These stories roll across the pages with the trademark Walter Mosley rhythms. The man knows how to turn a phrase, tap into the vernacular. The overweight young man who sits down next to the “The Black Woman in the Chinese Hat” has by the end of the day found “…the intimacy and the closeness I had always wanted but never suspected until that day.”  A fellow employee tells the same character in another story, “…man forget he’s black for you could say Jackie Robinson.” None of these phrases ask us to stop and appreciate them; they only serve to sharpen the details of each story’s mise en scene.

 And that’s where Mosley flaunts his mastery. In every story, a shift that surprises both the Black man and the reader emerges. Both of his psychiatrists dismiss the man who was “stuck,” he loses his job, but he ends up starting a magazine so successful that “The anxiety this notoriety produces is sublime, and at the same time, almost unbearable.”  The bank teller who has never made a mistake in thousands of transactions but never advanced, attracts the offer of a lifetime when he blows off the one job interview he tries. Every denouement ranges from satisfying to phenomenal. To reveal any more scenarios would detract from the pleasure of these pieces.

Mosley has frequently been called America’s best Black mystery writer. Indeed, every story here in some way throws light on the Black man’s plight in America. But being stuck, socially inept, trapped in a job — Mosley’s stories reflect the human condition. He is much more than a Black mystery writer.  He is flat out one of America’s best writers, and this book shows his hand at the short version of his art.


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