Gifts: Good story and good advice

Philip Kerr, one of Bob Moyer’s favorite authors has died. Bob reviews his newly published book, amid reports that there may be one more yet to appear.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

GREEKS BEARING GIFTS. By Philip Kerr. Putnam. 511 pages. $27.

During the course of this venerable series, Philip Kerr has given us a tour of that most horrific event in human history, the Thousand Year Reich of Nazi Germany. His protagonist, Bernie Gunther, has served as an expert guide on our journey from the choice position the author has crafted for him.

At the beginning, Bernie was just a talented Berlin detective who avoided politics — until they came to find him. Brilliant at his job, he became, in Kerr’s narrative, the go-to guy to solve fictional mysteries inside the (well-researched) framework of the Third Reich. As the series progressed, the reader was privy to ingenious murders solved in hearing range of historic events, in effect, crime inside crimes. Bernie was perfectly positioned to throw light on the evolving horror.

He is also poised for another perfect perspective — moral ambiguity. Not a Nazi himself, Bernie was tolerated by the hierarchy because of his talent, but his tongue frequently got him in trouble. He was dogged constantly by the dilemma of saving his skin, or saving his soul. Once again, the reader was privy to his inner dialogue, which rendered him the degree of respect afforded the best of hard-boiled detectives.

The war is over in the last few books, and Bernie has been running from his past, and his mortality. When he looks at his watch, he doesn’t see what time it is, he sees “…the time that was.”  After his last escape from the south of France, he took on a new identity in Berlin, and pulls down a job ideally suited to him — insurance investigator. Dispatched to Greece to investigate the claim of a sunken ship, he discovers that the current crime relates directly to a war crime. The past is never past in this narrative, it is always present. Unfortunately for him, he is present with a corpse when the police catch him. The cop who has the case also has an agenda he compels Bernie to work on — a war criminal who apparently has resurfaced — or he will charge Bernie with the crime. Once again, Bernie is forced to apply his talents at the service of an authoritarian agency. He is not happy.

But he is still observant, and he guides us through a countryside where Western values were born, in contrast to the ravages committed by the occupying forces as well as the corruption of the current forces. He of course untangles all the intricacies of past crimes surfacing in the present, and wreaks his own special justice because “…nothing is more compelling to a man nearing the end of his useful days than the sudden realization that he has the chance to do one good thing.”

Philip Kerr passed away in March, and reports say he left one more book. He also left at the conclusion of this book one good thing, the best description of the intuitive process accessible to us all but perfected by Bernie. A criminal asks Bernie how he solved what seemed an unsolvable crime. Bernie answers that he went into his office, shut the door, “…with orders that under no circumstances was I to be disturbed. Only that way did I ever find the time to think. You’re wasting your time if you don’t find time to waste. Letting your mind wander above the clouds like Caspar David Friedrich is what makes a detective any good.”

Thanks for the advice, Bernie. And thanks for Bernie, Philip. We’ll miss both of you.


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Serving up justice

Water Mosley is another one of Bob Moyer’s favorite authors (I like him a lot, too), and here Bob takes a look at one of Mosley’s interesting and crusading detectives.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

DOWN THE RIVER UNTO THE SEA. By Walter Mosley. Mulholland Books. 322 pages. $27.

Walter Mosley writes his best about African-American men just outside society who try to fix society, men who had troubled childhoods, failed relationships and strong relationships with their children. These men, like Easy Rawlins, are detectives, and when they take on a case, they are “…as serious as a slave who said no more to their chains.”

Joe King Oliver is one of those men.

Ten years ago, Joe was framed, jailed and bounced from the NYPD. A private detective now, he gets a letter from the woman who framed him, saying she’s willing to help him clear his name. At the same time, another woman approaches him to help save A Free Man, a journalist who she says was framed in the killing of two crooked cops. He takes on both cases.

The investigative path Mosley puts him on is not a primrose one, planted with convenient clues. No, Mosley sends Oliver into the streets “…filled with madmen and redbirds, nameless cops and women who fooled you again and again.”  Out there, Joe thinks, “America was changing at a snail’s pace in a high wind but until that gastropod mollusk reached its destination,” he has a .45 in his pocket and “…eyes on all four corners at once.”  He can’t avoid trouble, however, since he goes looking for it. After a couple of close calls that could have been his demise, Joe does what Mosley makes clear millions of black men do every day—he dons a disguise to survive.

His search leads him into an America of corrupt institutions, such as a Congress who “…have become lackeys to the rich. They all get made, paid and laid out of the picked pockets of men like me.”  Mosley’s America is one where “A man can live his whole life following the rules set down by happenstance and the cash-coated bait of security-cosseted morality; an entire lifetime and in the end he wouldn’t have done one thing to be proud of.”

These are mean streets Raymond Chandler never imagined.

Joe’s search leads him through a gallery of characters as colorful as Mosley has ever created. There’s the woman the journalist saved from the massage parlor whose “…figure … had betrayed her again and again from the age of thirteen.”  Joe talks to a boy named Burn, used by the crooked cops in so many ways, “so high he could see into heaven.” And Mel, the psychopathic clock repairman who says he owes his life to Joe, will do anything for him — and does. With his help, Joe makes it through, and delivers justice everywhere you look — but in the courts and newspapers.

Joe King Oliver is good enough to stand on his own, or join the ranks of Easy Rawlins and Leonid McGill in a series. He’s one for the books.

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When the dream becomes a nightmare

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

ALL WE EVER WANTED. By Emily Giffin. Random House Audio. 10½ hours; 9 CDs. Read by Dorothy Dillingham Blue, Milton Bagby and Catherine Taber. $45. Also available in print from Ballantine Books.

First things first: Emily Giffin’s All We Ever Wanted is a great listen or read for summer or anytime. This novel is as current as today’s headlines. It’s entertaining and suspenseful, with unexpected twists. It tells a good story while tackling important issues. What more could a reader want?

Now for a little background digression: I’m pretty sure I reviewed one of Emily Giffin’s early novels when I was, among my other responsibilities for that newspaper, the book-page editor of the Winston-Salem Journal. Giffin is, after all, a fellow alumna of Wake Forest University. I can’t find my review from back then, but as I recall, I liked her novel and praised her writing, especially her dialogue.

Giffin’s first two or three novels were what’s usually called chick lit, aimed at women readers, and focusing on the lives and loves of young women characters. All eight of her previous novels have done well and been popular, with good reason. Giffin is a fine writer; she’s if anything even better at writing, convincing dialogue now than she was in her debut, and she’s smart – in addition to her Wake Forest degree, she has a law degree from Virginia, and she practiced law for a while before turning to writing full time.

She understands a lot about human nature and the world we live in.

This is her ninth novel, and I haven’t read the more recent ones that preceded it. I don’t know when she made the transition, but with this one, she definitely transcends any effort to pigeonhole her writing as chick lit.

All We Ever Wanted is an ambitious novel that deals candidly with tough issues, and looks at them through three quite different viewpoints: a well-to-do mother of a privileged teenage boy; the single, working-class father of a teenage girl whose mother is from Brazil; and the teenage girl.

The novel is ambitious, indeed, but Giffin is up to the challenge.

Nina Browning is the wealthy mom. She grew up firmly in the middle class, but while in college at Vanderbilt, she met the son of an old-money Nashville family. They married, and before long, he’d made a lot of new money by selling his tech business. Their only child, Finch, lives a very privileged existence, made even more so by his recent acceptance to Princeton. Somehow, though, Nina keeps having this nagging feeling that becoming extraordinarily wealthy has changed her husband, Kirk, and not for the better.

Tom Volpe is the hard-working dad, a carpenter by day who sometimes drives for Uber at night to make extra money. He grew up on the working-class side of the river in Nashville, nurturing a chip on his shoulder that hasn’t gotten any easier to bear during the years since his volatile Brazilian wife left him with their toddler daughter. He’s trying to do his best for Lyla, and part of that effort involved his letting her accept a scholarship for high school at Windsor Academy, the elite private day school Finch Browning has attended since kindergarten.

Lyla is a beautiful, spirited girl struggling to find her place in the world, a job made more difficult because her mother’s infrequent contacts are erratic and often disruptive. She’s happy to be at Windsor because of the academics and the opportunities such an education might open for her, but she struggles to fit in as the scholarship student among wealthy, often snobby kids.

One Saturday night near the end of Finch’s senior year, a few woefully bad decisions turn the world upside down not only for the Volpes and the Brownings but also for the greater Windsor Academy community.

Lyla accompanies her best friend to an unauthorized drunken party at the home of another Windsor student. A compromising photo of Lyla, taken with Finch’s cell phone, starts making the rounds via texts.

Finch is in danger of losing his Princeton acceptance. Lyla is humiliated and believes she’s in danger of becoming a pariah at Windsor. Tom Volpe is outraged and struggling to do the right thing for his daughter. Nina Browning finds herself questioning her son, her husband and all that she’s thought she stood for.

Nina, Tom and Lyla find themselves dealing with each other in ways they would not have imagined as they all try to figure what to do. Advancing the story through the – completely believable – words of each of these major characters, Giffin deftly brings up provocative questions about privilege, misogyny, date rape, responsibility, what matters in life and what it means to be a good parent. Don’t think you’ve got things figured out until you finish the book, though. Giffin’s story is anything but predictable, as full of surprises as life itself.

The audio version of “All We Ever Wanted” is especially effective as the three readers bring these quite different characters convincingly to life.

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Battling demons

Bob Moyer reviews the latest in a long-running and outstanding mystery series.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

ROBICHEAUX. By James Lee Burke. Simon and Schuster. 445 pages. $27.99.

Year by year, book by book, Deputy Sherriff Dave Robicheaux sees more of the Confederate ghosts that appear out of the mist around his beloved New Iberia, Louisiana, home. These icons of evil and valor are consigned in death to those swamps that Dave is consigned to in life. One day, he will step into their ranks and march off with them into the ever-present past.  But not yet. Dave has too many demons, both his and society’s, to dispose of here in the present.

Still troubled by the death of his wife, Dave doesn’t just fall off the wagon; he dives into a bottle of whiskey. He surfaces the next day to discover the drunken driver who killed his wife is dead, his handprint is on the car window — and he can’t remember if he did it.

That’s the primary story in the tangled thicket of plotlines James Lee Burke lays out here. Besides trying to figure out if he dunit, Dave gets involved with a famous novelist and his disturbed wife; a thug who abuses his young son; a made mobster who wants to make a movie of the author’s book; a rogue deputy who wants to pin the murder on Dave; and a charismatic politician, a cross between Huey P. Long and Donald Trump, who Dave suspects is behind a string of murders. And who is the funny looking guy who appears just before people start getting shot?

The usual trio stands ready to support and stand by Dave — his daughter Alafair, his buddy Clete Boyer and his boss Helen Soileau. As Burke moves us through the narrative, he regales us in his elegiac prose of the wonders of the natural world, and the darkness of the souls who dwell therein. Dark forces threaten not only his friends, but also our nation, and Dave does battle for all of us.

Burke’s latest lands near the top of this venerable series.

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Challenging the powerful, a reporter’s story

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

REPORTER. By Seymour M. Hersh. Random House Audio. 14 hours; 11 CDs. Read by Arthur Morey. $40. Also available in print from Knopf, 355 pages, $27.95.

“I am a survivor from the golden age of journalism…” begins Seymour M. Hersh in his remarkable memoir, the aptly named Reporter.

On a much more modest scale, I am one of those survivors, too, and that’s one of the many reasons I found this book so interesting and rewarding.

Hersh was already a giant in journalism by the time I was starting my career. He’d won the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in 1970 for his expose of the massacre of Vietnamese civilians by American soldiers at My Lai in 1968. When I, improbably thanks to the vision of a copy desk chief who hired and promoted young journalists, became the assistant national editor of The Sun in Baltimore in the mid-1970s, I had to deal frequently with late-breaking stories from Hersh moving on The New York Times wire.

I’d call our Washington bureau, which in those golden-age days was large and active, and ask if they could match whatever Hersh had come up with, or if I should just use his story. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein at The Washington Post had owned the Watergate story from the beginning, but when Hersh, in the Times’ Washington bureau, began working on it, his stories ratcheted up the pressure.

I remember Sun reporters talking about Sy Hersh, with grudging admiration and sometimes annoyance.

Those were heady days to be working for a major daily newspaper. As Hersh’s opening sentence goes on to describe, those “golden” days were when newspaper reporters “did not have to compete with the twenty-four-hour cable news cycle, when newspapers were flush with cash from display advertisements and want ads,” and when he was “free to travel anywhere, anytime, for any reason, with company credit cards.” He goes on to mention being able to report thoroughly on a breaking news story without worrying about coming up with something immediately for the web page, and he could have added that he was sometimes given the luxury of spending weeks, even months, pursuing a big story.

Hersh does decry, as he should, what has become of journalism as corporate owners have not responded wisely to the challenges of the Internet age, as TV “experts” offer more opinion than fact, and as “fake news,” incomplete news and hastily reported news swirls around us.

But that’s just an unavoidable observation, not what he really has to offer us in Reporter.

Nor is this the sort of memoir that offers juicy details about the writer’s personal life or soul-searching personal revelations. Hersh titles the book Reporter for good reason. It’s a memoir by a consummate professional about his professional life. In the earliest chapters, he tells us enough about his childhood in a lower-middle-class family in Chicago to understand who he is. His parents were Jewish immigrants; his father owned a dry-cleaning business in the black ghetto on the South Side. He almost didn’t go to college and dropped out of law school. Later, he mentions that he married, but he talks about his wife, and later his children, infrequently, usually not by name, and for the most part, only when family logistics affected his work in some way.

Hersh’s writing evokes the reporter’s training and instinct to keep himself out of the story – even when, as in this case, he IS the story.

The story of how he got into journalism is interesting, but, again, that’s not the heart of the book.

This is mostly a book about how one of the best investigative reporters from that golden age of American journalism got his stories and what he learned in the process, and, because he was close to much of it, it’s a story of many of the events and trends of the latter 20th and early 21st centuries that brought our country to where we are now.

Without belaboring it or preaching, Hersh reveals a deep belief in the importance of a free press in a democracy and the people’s right to know, even when their political leaders – and, sometimes, newspaper or magazine editors – don’t want them to. He was a lone wolf, even when he was on the staff of the Times or regularly contributing to The New Yorker magazine. For much of his career, he worked independently, writing books and finding others to publish his investigative pieces when the publications he usually dealt with declined.

His account is quite the recent history lesson. He was close to the centers of power and pivotal events – Henry Kissinger, the justification for the Iraq war, Abu Ghraib, the CIA and assassinations, Dick Cheney. He has a strong sense of morality and the values on which America is supposed to operate, and his beliefs helped motivate his reporting and decisions. He grew up a Democrat, but he does not hesitate to criticize and challenge Democrats when he has reason to believe they fall short.

Although he gives his account matter-of-factly, even modestly, and makes a point of saying when he believes someone’s criticism or opposition was justified, it is clear that, once on the trail of a story, Hersh was a force to be reckoned with.

Hersh has made some mistakes over his long and productive career, of course, and he mentions some of them.

He also acknowledges criticism of some of his more recent reporting, such as his coverage of the killing of Osama bin Laden. There is also, as he notes, quite a lot of criticism – with some justification – of his extensive reliance on unnamed sources.

Time has proved much of what he wrote earlier, some of which was widely disputed at the time, to have been right, and he seems content to let history judge his more recent work.

This book is well worth reading for those of us who also participated in journalism’s golden age, and for anyone who wants a more thorough understanding of recent American history. Even more important, it should be required reading for those who aspire to be journalists, those often despised guardians of the people’s right – and responsibility – to know what’s going on in their government.

“I’ve spent most of my career writing stories that challenge the official narrative, and have been rewarded mightily and suffered only slightly for it. I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Hersh concludes. Well done.

I have both the audio and print versions of the book. Arthur Morey’s reading of the audio version of this first-person account is so convincing, so right, that if I ever have the privilege of meeting Sy Hersh in person, I’ll probably think his voice sounds wrong. The print version has a useful and extensive index.

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Danger, danger everywhere

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE RISING SEA. By Clive Cussler and Graham Brown. Penguin Audio. Read by Scott Brick. 11 ½ hours; 9 CDs. $45. Also available in hardcover from G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

No. 15 in the NUMA files books is everything fans have come to expect from Clive Cussler.

The Rising Sea is a fast-paced thriller, with lots of action and danger. There are some unexpected developments, some evil villains, a plot that strains credulity at least a little – but in an entertaining way. As a bonus, there’s a lot of interesting scientific information, and a bit of ancient legend. That the story is set firmly in the world of today or maybe tomorrow only makes it more credible.

Kurt Austin, Joe Zavala and the rest of the crew at the National Underwater and Marine Agency are studying the alarming pace of sea rise. The rise has accelerated beyond what can be explained by climate change and glacier melt, to the point that many areas of the world and billions of people could face imminent danger.

When their research alerts them to problems associated with a mysterious underwater mining operation in the East China Sea, they set out to investigate.

They quickly run afoul of an international plot to upset the balance of power in the Pacific, and Chinese conspirators who rely on both cutting-edge technology and a ruthless assassin.

Kurt and the NUMA team face grave danger in Japan, Shanghai, on and under the seas and on a secret artificial island as they race to try to save the world.

This is an exciting, interesting and sometimes surprising tale, one of Cussler’s best. Sure, the NUMA books, like all those in his publishing empire, follow something of a formula, but only in the broad sense. Each story is new and laced with fascinating information. If it’s a formula, it’s a formula for successful entertainment.

Scott Brick, as always, reads with the perfect tone and timing, not adding any unnecessary, artificial drama to Cussler’s dashing tale.The Rising Sea makes a fine vacation read, and the audio version would be a great way to enliven a drive to the beach – where, we hope, the sea level won’t have risen too much.

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To have and have not…

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

LOVE AND RUIN. By Paula McLain. Random House Audio. Read by January LaVoy. 11 ½ hours; 9 CDs. $40. Also available in print from Ballantine Books.

Paula McLain is brave, choosing to write historical fiction/memoir about well-known people about whom much has already been written and movies have been made. She’s also very good at what she does, and that’s why her books so captivating.

Her latest novel, “Love and Ruin,” is obviously a labor of love: McLain greatly admires and sympathizes with her protagonist, Martha Gellhorn, who has the rather dubious distinction of having been the third wife of Ernest Hemingway.

If you Google Martha Gellhorn, though, the articles begin not with the Hemingway connection – as is the case with the other three wives – but with her accomplishments as one of the foremost war correspondents of the 20thcentury and one of the first successful female war correspondents.

As McLain makes clear, Gellhorn would have liked that description.

Gellhorn lived to be nearly 90 and trekked the world covering wars for the better part of six decades.

McLain’s book, though it gives a brief account of the rest of Gellhorn’s remarkable life in an Author’s Note, focuses on the stormy years when she was involved with Hemingway, from their meeting in Key West in 1936 through their affair, marriage, separation and divorce in 1945.  She writes about their love, but also their rivalry, ultimate betrayals and the choices Gellhorn had to make to be able to pursue her remarkable career.

McLain has dealt with Hemingway successfully before, in her best-selling “The Paris Wife,” about Hadley Richardson, the first Mrs. Hemingway.

She obviously has done extensive research into both Hemingway and Gellhorn. What makes her novels succeed is that, while staying true to what is known, she lets her imagination fill in the conversations, thoughts and emotions that aren’t a part of the record.

Gellhorn’s story would be fascinating enough for several books even if she’d never become involved with Hemingway. A well-bred doctor’s daughter from St. Louis, her independent, determined, ambitious nature got her into adventures and predicaments.

Before she met Hemingway, she’d had an unhappy affair with a married man, and that experience left her wary. At first, she tried to convince herself and others that she and Hemingway – who was several years older and called her “daughter” in those early days – were just friends. He was already a famous author, and she was flattered that he noticed her and enjoyed talking with her.

But when they found themselves together in exciting and dangerous circumstances covering the Spanish Civil War, friendship became something more.

Hemingway was still married to his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, the mother of his two younger sons.

McLain takes us into the relationship as Gellhorn and Hemingway become increasingly involved and eventually marry. Though their passion was strong, the relationship was never easy. They were, in many ways, rivals, as Gellhorn fought to make a name for herself both as a fiction writer and as a war correspondent.

When Hemingway published For Whom the Bell Tollsto great acclaim, she struggled with feelings of envy and insecurity. Hemingway loved to party and seemed to have a great need for public acclaim, while Gellhorn often would rather they could just be alone together.

Most of all, she wanted to pursue her own career, but that ambition, too, caused friction, because Hemingway needed the adulation not only of his fans but also of his wife.

The accounts of Gellhorn’s adventures as a war correspondent are well worth reading.

So are the passages where she struggles with decisions about whether and how to balance her life so that she can have both her career and her marriage. Occasionally, the terminology sounds as though it belongs in a feminist debate a few decades later, but for the most part Gellhorn’s dilemma is convincing.

This is a very good book about a remarkable woman, a pioneering and courageous journalist, and the tumultuous years when her life was caught up in the world of a remarkable, complex man. Both were strong personalities, forces of nature, and their coming together makes for a tumultuous story.

That story, with lots of action and adventure as well as emotion, lends itself well to the audio book format. January LaVoy does an outstanding job of narrating this fine historical novel.

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Hold your breath…

Briar Patch Books is the beneficiary when Bob Moyer goes on a reading/reviewing tear. Here’s his latest contribution.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE BOMB MAKER. By Thomas Perry. Mysterious Press. 372 pages. $26.

Thomas Perry usually writes thrillers that, like the standalone The Old Manor the series with Jane Whitefield, take your breath away from turning the pages so fast. The Bomb Makeris different.

This book makes you hold your breath.

He builds intricate bombs with astonishing kill capacity, and then delivers them in an intricate plan that blows up as many of his intended victims as possible. He has only one chosen target — the LAPD Bomb Squad. When 14 of the squad die, the authorities call in Dick Stahl, former commander who runs his own consulting firm. He proves to be a perfect foil for The Bomb Maker: He understands how to put a bomb together, how to take it apart, and how to get inside The Bomb Maker’shead.

Of course, it’s not smooth sailing to the noisy conclusion. Politics forces the police to remove Stahl from his position, with drastic results. Stahl himself complicates the matter by developing a bond with one of his team members, which puts her in harm’s way.

It’s that relationship that brings depth to the characterizations here. It’s quite a deep bond, beyond a one-night stand because of his strength: “She had realized within fifteen minutes that her only chance of making it to the end of watch that night was to do what he asked and to make herself be what he wanted. She had to see with her perfect vision into a dim space and extract the component he wanted out, reach into the hell-made contraption farther because her hands and arms were smaller and thinner… She had concentrated on seeing exactly what he saw and thinking what he thought.”

To bolster his efforts, The Bomb Maker sells his services to an unidentified foreign country, which both bankrolls him and backs up his effort to eliminate Stahl. He’s a formidable foe for Stahl, and Perry details the cold-blooded killer’s exacting process:  “He brought out ammonium nitrate, acetic anhydride, paraformaldehyde, distilled water and boron fluoride. He was going to have to do lots of stirring and heating and cooling for the next part of the process, which had to be done within very narrow temperature ranges…” and so on for another half-page. Passages like those make the reader grateful that Perry, not they, went into The Bomb Maker’smind to get them.

The conclusion features an explosion in which “…the body parts had been thrown too far, or the force and temperature at the center of the explosion had cremated the men and scattered their ashes.”  Then, and only then, can the reader take a breath.



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Not about the bad guys

Bob Moyer is catching up with all the new books he missed while off gallivanting. Here’s the latest, No. 17, in Robert Crais’ long-running  and best-selling Elvis Cole and Joe Pike private-eye series.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE WANTED. By Robert Crais. Putnam. 322 pages. $28.

The dust jacket says it’s an Elvis Cole and Joe Pike novel. Not really. Elvis does the heavy lifting, and Joe drops by to pull his bacon out of the fire from time to time. The book isn’t even about Elvis, either.

It’s about a boy.

A distraught mother hires Elvis to find out just what kind of crime her son has been committing. She has evidence of possessions he can’t possibly afford. Without too much trouble, Elvis finds out the boy is part of a small gang of kids who have been burglarizing upscale homes, and selling the products of their chicanery. Elvis sets out to get the boy and his cohorts a deal if they turn themselves in.

Unfortunately, the two meanest, and likely cleverest bad guys Robert Crais has ever conceived are a couple of steps ahead of Elvis and a dangerous step behind the boy. Obviously, those crazy kids took something that somebody wants back badly, and nothing seems to stop them. A trail of dead bodies turns up behind the two wisecracking, bizzaro versions of Joe and Elvis. Using state of the art surveillance, the villains close in on the last two of the gang, only to be thwarted by a last-minute turn of the plot, and the timely appearance of Joe Pike.

The narrative here is sustained by a growing connection and concern between Elvis and the boy. Elvis almost lost the son of his former lover, and the imminent danger the boy now faces hits home with him. With as much emotional depth as he’s ever put into a book, Crais has made sure this book is not about the bad guys.

It’s about a boy.


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What meets the eye

He’s back! After a couple of months gallivanting to Germany, Massachusetts and elsewhere, plus doing poetry things, the inimitable Bob Moyer is back reviewing books for Briar Patch Books.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE. By Celeste Ng. Penguin Press. 338 pages. $27.

Celeste Ng’s second book has hung near the top of the best-seller lists for seven months now. There’s a good reason —

She’s a magician.

With a sleight of handwriting, she conjures a Shaker Heights, Ohio, of 1997 that may or may not look like the town of the same name where she grew up. It’s a moot point, because her suburb reeks with reality —the facades, the posturing, the biases and underlying tensions that anyone who has lived in such a community can attest to, and people visiting for the first time can learn from. With no little sympathy at the same time, she takes on territory that John Updike staked out years ago, and matches him word for word.

Ng pulls two people out of a Volkswagen Rabbit and drops them into this nirvana, where “… purchase … includes protection forever against depreciation and unwelcome change.”  Their entrance introduces just that — unwelcome change. Artist Mia Warren and her daughter, Pearl, move into this idyllic bubble and rent a house from the Richardsons. Mia makes photo art pieces that sometimes sell, sometimes don’t, through an agent in New York. She has a noted disregard for the status quo. Pearl is literally taken in by the Richardson children.

A master of misdirection, Ng keeps our focus on one of those children, Izzy, for the first part of the book. As part of her literary prestidigitation, the author also starts the story at the end — the Richardson’s house is on fire, Mia and Pearl have already puttered out of town, and Izzy set Little Fires Everywhere before she, too, took off.

As she works her way back to the beginning, the author identifies issues that will upset the well-ordered community — the weight of secrets, racism, abortion and unrequited ambition.

When a custody battle breaks out over a Chinese-American baby, Mia sides with the mother against the community, and Mrs. Richardson makes a choice that will have unexpected results:  She uncovers Mia’s mysterious past.

That poignant backstory takes us into deep questions of identity and art, which play out in small but devastating bursts throughout the final pages of the book. As it turns out, it’s Mia’s presence and the pieces she puts together that set off Little Fires Everywhere, fires that do much more damage than the ones Izzy set.

This book is one for our age, if not the ages. Abracadabra!


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