Scarpetta’s back, in fine form

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

AUTOPSY. By Patricia Cornwell. William Morrow. 398 pages. $28.99, hardback.

I have to admit that my first thought upon hearing that Patricia Cornwell has a new novel out called Autopsywas: “Hasn’t she named one that already?” After all, Cornwell has written lots of popular books starring Dr. Kay Scarpetta, a forensic pathologist who conducts autopsies as she goes about solving murders.

The answer is no, the previous 24 novels in the series have had more creative names, although the debut – Postmortem, in 1989 – came close. I’m guessing she named No. 25 Autopsy to let longtime fans know that she’d resurrected Scarpetta after a 5-year hiatus.

During that time, Cornwell produced two books in the new Captain Chase thriller series, set in outer space and featuring lots of cutting-edge science and technology. She uses some of her experience with those books in this one.

In Autopsy, Scarpetta is back in a way that will likely please those longtime fans. She’s even back in Virginia, once again the state’s chief medical examiner, as she was in those early novels. Familiar characters are back, too. Her husband, Benton Wesley, is now a forensic psychologist with the Secret Service, and they find a place to live in Old Town Alexandria in northern Virginia, near D.C. Lucy, her brilliant but troubled niece, lives in the guesthouse behind their home.

The setting is after the pandemic, which brought changes to the familiar cast of characters. Lucy’s significant other and their adopted son were victim of the virus, and Lucy is not faring well as she battles grief and guilt. And during the pandemic, Scarpetta’s difficult sister Dorothy  – Lucy’s mother – married Scarpetta’s longtime friend and colleague, Pete Marino. They live near Scarpetta and Wesley in an upscale townhome community,

After all that’s happened, Scarpetta is just happy to have them all nearby and safe – until she begins to worry that they aren’t safe after all.

Scarpetta is having a tough time trying to reassert control over the chief medical examiner’s office, which has suffered from neglect, incompetence and, quite likely, outright corruption in recent years. She has at least two strikes against her – an overbearing secretary appears to be working against her, and her predecessor in the job is now the new state health commissioner and therefore her boss, even though she’d been told he was taking a job in the private sector. Realizing she’ll need help, she brings in Marino, the former cop, as a private contractor.

She’s barely had time to get her bearings in her new job when a woman is found brutally murdered, her throat slashed and hands cut off, beside a railroad track near where they live. When the victim’s identity is eventually determined, it’s even more troubling, Then Scarpetta learns that several months earlier a young woman jogger had been found drowned in the same area – and that her predecessor, now boss, had made sure that investigation went nowhere,

Is there a serial killer at work? Is there some kind of coverup?

Meanwhile, Scarpetta gets called to the White House to help with a first-of-its-kind investigation of suspicious deaths of two astronauts in a top-secret laboratory in space. That’s unrelated to the other cases – or is it?

And then there’s the poison in Scarpetta’s bottle of wine…

All that Scarpetta fans enjoyed over the years is here again: surprising plots twists, the latest in science and technology, familiar and interesting characters, Scarpetta’s determination to see that justice is served.

After a complex and sometimes slow-moving buildup, the solutions to the various mysteries and dangers Scarpetta faces are a bit of a letdown. The end of the book comes quickly, leaving  readers feeling a bit let down.

If you like Scarpetta, though, you’ll find this book well worth reading.

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A terrifying and delightful collaboration

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

STATE OF TERROR. By Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny. St. Martin’s Press. 494 pages. $30.

I couldn’t get my hands on this book – a political thriller – fast enough. Louise Penny is one of my favorite all-time crime/mystery writers, and certainly one of my favorites who’s writing currently. Her Inspector Gamache series with its home setting in the Quebec village of Three Pines deftly combines complex crime fiction with wise insights into the human condition. And Hillary Clinton, with decades of experience at the highest levels of U.S. and international politics, has a great deal of insider knowledge and insight.

Plus, they both know the challenges of being a successful woman in today’s world.

I’m happy to report that State of Terror lived up to my hopes and expectations.

As it turns out, I learned from reading the afterword at the end of the book, Penny and Clinton also have a close friendship that predates this collaboration.

Our hero, Ellen Adams, is the secretary of state in the new administration that follows the disastrous one of Eric Dunn, whose incompetence and erratic behavior have left the United States with a sadly diminished standing in the world. (Sound familiar?)  Ellen understands that the new president did not choose her because he admires or likes her. After all, she had used the media empire she controlled to support his opponent for his party’s nomination.

She knows that he selected her largely so that he could control her and mute her criticism, and, she quickly begins to suspect, perhaps also to expose her shortcomings in a difficult job. Yet she accepted, turning the media business over to her daughter, Katherine, because she wanted to help her country heal and begin to repair its relationships with the rest of the world.

Things get off to a rocky start, made worse by terrorist attacks in major European cities. Then a young foreign service officer on the Pakistan desk realizes, too late, that the suspicious message she’s received from an anonymous source is a warning about more attacks.

As things quickly develop, Ellen and others in high places begin to understand that the real threat is much bigger, involving international intrigue; the fraught relationships among Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan; the Russian mob, and most frightening of all, nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists.

Everything is complicated by the weakened state of and disarray in the United States after four years of the Dunn mis-administration.

The prospect indeed produces a state of terror, and the novel is made even more gripping by the realization that while it may be fiction, what plays out is frighteningly credible in today’s world.

Realizing the urgency, Ellen assembles a team that includes her daughter; her close friend and trusted advisor; and the young foreign service officer. They take bold take action where and as they believe it’s needed. Meanwhile, Ellen’s son, a journalist, is also deeply involved – and in danger.

It’s a fast-packed thriller, with plenty of red herrings and people who are not what they seem. It can be harder for the reader than it is even for Ellen to figure out who can be trusted and who’s telling the truth. That’s all the more reason to keep reading.

On one level, State of Terror is also a celebration of women – the strength of their friendships, and their ability to get things done by using their brains and intuition rather than brute force.

Some of Ellen’s bold actions may strain credulity a bit – she pursues several lions right into their dens. Urgency trumps vanity as she takes advantage of the tendency of some of these powerful men to write her off as a frazzled 50-something woman who’s in way over her head. By the end of the book, she comes across as something of a superhero traveling the world in Air Force Three, and there are unexpected moments of humor.

The story works beautifully, though. It helps that Clinton obviously knows what she’s writing about. And, like Penny’s Gamache novels, this story is leavened by very human relationships demonstrating the importance of family and of love.

There’s also a strong undercurrent of belief in the rightness of the ideals and principles of the United States, even during the worst of times.

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Up to the challenge

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

CLOUD CUCKOO LAND. By Anthony Doerr. Scribner. 622 pages. $30, hardcover.

In his latest novel, Anthony Doerr has challenged himself with a monumental task: Establish three distinct storylines, set apart from each other by more than 700 years, two continents and millions of miles of outer space, and then draw the storylines tightly together with remnants of an ancient tale that its own author describes as “so ludicrous, so incredible, that you’ll never believe a word of it.” And, to present these storylines in what appears to be random, non-chronological order.

 He meets the challenge wonderfully.

 Cloud Cuckoo Land, Doerr’s first novel since his 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See, is centered on an ancient text of the same name. In it, the protagonist Aethon, a goatherder determined to find paradise in the clouds, employs the help of a witch’s assistant to transform himself into a bird. But things go wrong, and he first becomes a mule and then a fish.

Many years after it was written, portions of the ancient text are discovered by Anna, an orphaned 12-year-old who, along with her sister, is living in Constantinople during a 15th century siege. They are essentially indentured servants working long days sewing and embroidering sacred garments that will, of course, be useless once the Christian city falls to the Sultan. Amid the turmoil, Anna, who is considered unreliable and untalented by her masters, has secretly taught herself to read, and she comforts her dying sister with episodes from the text.

In Lakeport, Idaho, Zeno, a dark-skinned boy orphaned after his father’s death in World War II, is an outcast, much as Anna was. He, too, finds a refuge in books, at the local library. Fast forward to 2020 and Zeno is an octogenarian directing a group of fifth-graders as they prepare to present “Cloud Cuckoo Land” on a makeshift stage in the library’s activity room. They are working from 24 folios of the original tale and are unsure of the order in which those folios are designed to be presented.

Finally, there is Konstance. In the 22nd century, she is a 10-year-old who was born on a spaceship that for six decades has been traveling to an Earth-like planet light-years away. The ship contains a digitized library that supposedly contains everything known to man when the ship left Earth. She, too, is an outsider because she prefers to wander through the library’s Google Earth-like archives of places on Earth than to studies of the sciences that will be needed on this new planet.

As with Marie-Laure and Werner from All The Light, all of Doerr’s primary characters have their heads in the clouds, so to speak. They are not “like the other kids”; they read, they wonder. And their stories, standing on their own, are worth the read.

In multi-storyline novels such as this, I often find myself enjoying one line more than the others, or one much less than the others. This did not happen here. Doerr had me fully invested in each character and storyline, even as I did find myself asking where it was all headed and how he would tie the lines together.

The good news is that the story does come together, and in a surprising way. The plot twists at the end are as good as any of those in the highly touted mysteries I’ve read this year.

Looking back, it turns out to be a rather simple story with a wonderful theme: That an ancient book filled with wisdom can enlighten people through the centuries.

It is a beautifully complex novel, written with great clarity and grace. No doubt, Cloud Cuckoo Land will be included in the 10-best of 2021 lists that many critics will publish this month; it’s already on mine.



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A frightening, enlightening look at the world of El Chapo

Paul O’Connor, my esteemed colleague from our years with the Winston-Salem Journal’s editorial pages, occasionally still writes a book review for this blog. I’m always happy and enlightened when that happens.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

EL CHAPO: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE WORLD’S MOST INFAMOUS DRUG LORD. By Noah Hurowitz. Atria Books. 333 pages. $30, hardcover.

On the night of July 11, 2015, Joaquin Archivaldo Guzman Loera reinforced his reputation as one of the world’s greatest escape artists when, for the second time in his lifetime, he broke out of a high-security Mexican prison.

Mexico had placed El Chapo, as Guzman is better known, in Altiplano, the country’s highest-security facility, a prison secure enough to be successfully holding most of the country’s other high-profile incarcerated narcos.

But Guzman had been embarrassing the nation’s political and security leadership for decades, escaping first from the Puente Grande prison in 2001 and then, on numerous occasions, during raids of his various homes and safe houses by military, police and security forces, often through tunnels.

After El Chapo’s February 2014 capture, however, President Enrique Pena Nieto was so certain that Guzman’s luck had run out that he boasted that the great escape artist would stay behind Altiplano’s bars for the rest of his life. He escaped 18 months later.

The news of this escape swept across the world, reinforcing El Chapo’s notoriety as maybe the planet’s most recognized criminal.

When Mexican marines stormed the house where El Chapo was sleeping on January 8, 2016, he appeared to have escaped again, this time using a tunnel hidden under his bathtub. His luck ran out 12 miles away, however, at a police roadblock. This time, Mexican authorities were less boastful. They returned him to Altiplano, moved him frequently to confound future escape attempts, and then extradited him to the United States in January 2017.

It is at that point that journalist Noah Hurowitz picked up the story for Rolling Stone. He covered El Chapo’s subsequent federal trial and conviction and then, with exhaustive additional research, produced this gripping history of the drug war. It is marketed as an El Chapo biography, but it is more a one-volume history of the Mexican drug cartels, a nonfiction alternative to Don Winslow’s fictionalized trilogy, a hardcover supplement to Netflix’s narcos series.

Of El Chapo, Hurowitz writes: “He was never the only kingpin in town, nor even the most powerful; he was just one powerful leader in a federation of powerful leaders. … But El Chapo, with his prison break and his decade-plus track record of making fools of the cops and soldiers and gringos chasing him, was the lightning rod, the face of it all.”

The broader story is one of institutionalized corruption in Mexico, of cooperation between the nation’s political and narcotics leaders. El Chapo could have never escaped as many times as he did without the help of high-ranking government officials, nor could illegal drugs have flowed north in the volumes that they did – and do – without government help. But after the cash flowed from American drug consumers back to cartel lords, a good portion of it also landed in the pockets of officials ranging from local police to the very highest officers of the national government.

As Hurowitz sees it, Mexican drug cartels never sought political control in their homeland, unlike drug cartels in other countries. To the contrary, they worked side-by-side, accepting that Caesar deserved his share as long as they got theirs, too. Thus, the cartels did not pose a direct political threat to Mexico’s leaders. They did, however, pose indirect threats, such as anti-drug pressure from the U.S., and from a population that was exhausted by the unending violence. In the end, that pressure landed El Chapo in a U.S. prison bearing life-plus sentences.

In our culture, we often glamorize organized crime – see The Sopranos or The Godfather movies. Read this book, however, and there can be no glamorizing of the Mexican drug cartels. Hurowitz has provided his readers with a horrifying look at a drug-driven dystopia run by sociopaths. It is a frightening but enlightening read.


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Pieces of a life

Bob Moyer takes a look at a biography that gives new life to a 15-year-old Jewish girl in Norway who was killed in the Holocaust.

Reviewed By Robert P. Moyer

KATHE — Always Been in Norway. By Espen Sobye. Krakiel Publishing.
208 pages. $24.95.

Early in his career, writer Espen Sobye was a statistician. He was asked to contribute a paper at a conference on the use of statistics in Norway during the Nazi occupation. While researching the paper, he discovered among the registration cards that all Norwegian Jews filled out in 1942, one filled out by 15-year-old Kathe Lasnik. To the question asking what country she was from — the implication that if you were Jewish you must have come from another country — she answered, “I’ve always been in Norway.” Being born and raised in Norway did not save her. Fourteen days after she filled out the form, she, her father, mother, and sister were put on a boat with 534 other Jews, sent to Germany, put in box cars and shipped to Auschwitz. She, along with all the old, sick and children, was gassed on Dec. 1, 1942.

Sobye kept that card with him, both literally and figuratively, always thinking about a girl with no record of her life, only a record of her death. In 2000, he went looking for the archived box of her belongings supposedly kept in the National Archives, hoping to find some part of her life.

The box was empty, and he had an impulse: “Find out everything you can about Kathe Lasnik.”

This 2003 book is the painstaking product of that impulse. No letters, no diary, no home movies, the author set forth with the methods he was trained in, searching out neighbors, friends, family of tinsmith Elias Lasnik, an immigrant from Vilna. He tracks down the homes they lived in, the new apartment with “…a door leading to the kitchen, which had a window overlooking the back yard.” He discovers the name and model of the stove they bought in another apartment, which room they rented out to help pay the rent, the names of the people who rented the room. He finds the school records for Kathe, the fourth daughter, much younger than her sisters. He locates pictures – her with friends on bicycles, in the country with friends, with family, and a headshot taken in 1942. In class 2a in Mollergata School, teacher Jenny Wiborg “…went up to Kathe Lasnik, laid a hand on her dark hair, and turned to the class: ‘And here you see a little Israelite.’ ” “This is the one single statement from a teacher to or about Kathe Lasnik that has survived in memory to this day.” Usually she was the only Jewish girl in her class, and a number of her classmates recall her asking “Will you play with me?”, reflecting the pervasive anti-Semitism she encountered, which existed in Oslo, long before the Nazi invasion.

The author details that anti-Semitism with the same dispassion with which he records Kathe’s life: newspaper editorials, council communications, all leading inexorably up to the German oppression of Jews, which was met with sympathy in Norway. That response led to an immediate concession to Nazi forces, and the beginning of the end of the 42 percent of Norway’s Jews who perished in the Holocaust. Sobye outlines the meager supervision by the Nazis, and the eager participation of the state and local police, in what was a meticulous collection of the Jews for transport. He also explores how the man who organized that collection, and handed the Jews over to the Germans, escaped any punishment in the post-war trials. His defense? He was ordered to do it. He also returned to his old job in the police.

Kathe left a note for her classmates, its contents debated, but Sobye has left us something more: pieces of a life. He explains it poignantly late in the book: “Memory can be compared to a hollow sphere. Inside it, experiences, like particles of varying sizes, stir. When they hit the sphere’s walls, they vanish leaving behind traces. Memory is formed by the traces left by the particles on the sphere’s walls…The memory of Kathe Lasnik’s deportation and murder are drawn to the smaller traces that Kathe Lasnik left behind earlier, creating with their collision a crater large enough to destroy almost everything that went before it.”

The author has recovered enough of those moments that were Kathe to “…reconstruct her life and in doing so to tear her loose from the embrace of those monuments that could only tie her to the extermination.”

Kathe lives, in this book, which is “…an essential act of resistance that is both valiant and vital,” to quote the foreword.


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Madness in paradise

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson


THE MADNESS OF CROWDS. By Louise Penny. Minotaur Books. 436 pages. $28.99.

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is back in Three Pines, the Quebec village faithful readers know and love, for the 17th novel in Louise Penny’s wonderful series. But that does not mean that all is well.

The previous novel, last year’s All the Devils Are Here, had Gamache and his family in Paris, with plenty of evil and intrigue. Now faithful readers who missed the quirky characters back home in Canada see that Penny was laying the groundwork in that book for one of her richest stories yet.

It’s winter, just after Christmas, and COVID has been conquered by vaccines, at least in this fictional world. But the effects linger, in feelings of loss, horror, sadness and fear.

Gamache’s family is all here now, enjoying the snow and the good company. Jean-Guy Beauvoir, his son-in-law, has brought his wife and children back from France and rejoined the Surete du Quebec as Gamache’s second in command to Gamache, the head of homicide.

It seems odd to Gamache that he is asked to head up security at a nearby university when a professor of statistics gives a lecture. Surely there will be hardly anyone there on a late December day.

But as he does his homework, researching the woman who is to speak, he is both horrified and worried. Professor Abigail Robinson has been using statistics to “prove” that the strains on the system during the COVID pandemic make it clear that the best way to secure a prosperous future is to get rid of the weak and vulnerable, the people who are a drag on society.

She looks respectable and sounds reasonable. And across Canada, people are beginning to parrot her message. “All will be well,” she tells them, if they just listen to her. When her followers gather, so do opponents. Tempers flare, and crowds can all too easily become mobs.

Sure enough, there is an attempt on Robinson’s life at the gathering, foiled by Gamache’s quick action. But he is not able to avert a murder that happens soon after that.

The mysteries – whether the two events are related, who committed the murder and why – are the framework on which the novel is built. But as always with Penny, the novel is a great deal more than the mystery. There are questions of morality and ethics, and about how people who seem normal and decent can be caught up in something so wrong and abhorrent. There are questions about how “madness” can take hold of crowds.

And there are also heartening moments, as Penny’s strong message of the importance of family and friends, and of doing the right thing, shines through – and laughter, as the characters who inhabit Three Pines are just as eccentric as ever.

This is a thought-provoking and ultimately satisfying novel, one of the best in a very good series.

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Mastodon, big snakes and lots of laughs in Florida

*This is a review of the hardback novel, published last year. The photo is of the cover of the paperback edition, which has a new epilogue written after last year’s election and some of the events that followed.


Every now and then, Tom Dillon, a friend from long-ago newspaper days, is moved to send a book review. I’m always delighted.

Reviewed by Tom Dillon

SQUEEZE ME.  By Carl Hiaasen. Knopf. 352 pages. $28.95, hardback

I don’t know if Carl Hiaasen voted for Donald Trump last year or not, but if he did, it’s reasonable to say he could be forgiven. Trump has been a real gift to Hiaasen’s satirical fiction over the past few years, and there’s no greater evidence of that than this hilarious Florida spoof-novel.

I read it in no more than a few hours and laughed all the way through it. And so have others, notably novelist James Patterson, who said of it that Hiaasen “remains the undefeated, unscored-upon conscience of Florida, maybe the conscience of the whole country.”

Indeed, some people are saying that Hiaasen has become the new-age version of the late Edward Abbey, with plots just as outlandish and characters just as memorable. One of those is Clinton “Skink” Tyree, a dropped-out former governor of this ungovernable state – a character who has been compared to Abbey’s famous arch-trickster George Hayduke. That’s high praise.

I’m not going to tell you a lot about the plot of this book, but I should post one warning: Don’t read it if you are squeamish in the presence of giant snakes like the Burmese pythons that have taken over some habitats in the Florida Everglades; there are a number of these snakes here, apparently the results of well-meaning people releasing pets into the wild after they grew too big.

I also need to make it clear that our U.S. ex-president is not mentioned in the book. Suffice it to say that the president in this book – code name “Mastodon” – and his wife – code name, “Mockingbird” – have taken up residence in the Sunshine State amid concern about the disappearance of a wealthy socialite, a big fan of Mastodon.

There’s no obvious connection, of course, but in due time one appears, thanks to the work of one Angie Armstrong, a wildlife wrangler whose job includes removing errant skunks, raccoons, possums and even snakes from homes and businesses and releasing them into the wild. She’s really the main character, along with a clued-in lawman and one unfortunate immigrant.

There’s one sobering aside which should be mentioned in this review. That is that Hiaasen dedicated the novel to his younger brother, Rob, who was killed during the Capital Gazette shooting on June 28, 2018, in Annapolis, Md. That’s a reminder of the serious journalism this country is so in need of.

But along with that reminder, we can remember to laugh when it’s called for and to skewer the powerful when they need skewering. That’s what Hiaasen has been so good at in the past. This novel shows he’s still got it.


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Hollywood noir gets a new star

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

A MAN NAMED DOLL. By Jonathan Ames. Mulholland Books. 208 pages. $26.

For some time, the niche of mystery novel called Hollywood noir has been depleted. Not L.A., but Hollywood. The territory was once inhabited by the likes of Stuart Kaminsky’s Toby Peters, who helped Hollywood stars out of trouble, and Moses Wine, the pot-smoking long-haired gumshoe created by Roger L. Simon. Greet the latest, and most welcome, private investigator who lives just below the HOLLYWOOD sign —Happy Doll.

Yes, that’s his real name, though his father called him “Hapless,” and he prefers to be called Hank. He’s “…six two, 190, all lean muscle from eating canned fish the way I do, and in the Navy I was a cop and in the cops I was a cop, so I know how to subdue people.”  He has a dog named George, whom he lives with “…like two old-fashioned closeted bachelors who cohabitate and don’t think the rest of the world knows we’re lovers.”  George has “…mascara-rimmed eyes that break your heart and make you fall in love simultaneously.”

He also has a friend who needs a kidney. Before he can tell him he’ll donate one of his, the guy shows up with a bullet in his stomach and a diamond in his pocket. Just more bad news for Hap, since he’s just been cut up by a bad guy he killed. What does he do? Beat up, cut up, drugged up, he follows the clues cleverly set out by the author, down many a canyon road, straight into the most claustrophobic captivity in recent mysteries.

Part III of the book takes us from the Hollywood landscape into the configurations of Hap’s mind as he is literally pinned down as a captive. Fortunately, the author, creator of the TV series Bored to Death, knows his way around a good interior dialogue. With a little help from a friend, Hap makes it out of captivity, with only part of himself gone. It’s all well-plotted, well-spoken, and will continue next year in The Wheel of Doll, with the opening nine pages addended here.


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A rip-roaring read

When it’s August and too hot to do much outside, Bob Moyer puts his time to good use reading and reviewing books for Briar Patch Books. Let’s all be like Bob.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

AGAINST THE LAW: A Joe the Bouncer Novel. By David Gordon. Mysterious Press. 323 pages. $25.95.

This is a rip-roaring novel. That’s a phrase usually reserved for lively, raucous events like movies or rodeos. Well, David Gordon writes lively, raucous scenes. He turns loose a motorbike in Kabul that can be heard climbing warehouse stairs and sailing across roofs, while a helicopter zeroes in on it. He sets cars, trucks and horseshit flying down a New Jersey highway, the screech of car tires doing a 360 resounding through the narrative. The author has a visceral style that has his characters swirling around in intricate chases. The only thing with more twist and turns is his plot.

That twisty thing centers around White Angel, a high potency heroin imported into New York neighborhoods, along with an organized attack on the existing lords of the streets. At first, the miasma of characters makes a scorecard sound like a good idea, until things settle in. An international corporation in cahoots with the CIA, the Russian government, a Russian hit girl and a turncoat New York mobster, backed by military-trained mercenaries led by an apocalyptic leader, mean to take over the drug business. Arrayed against them are a female FBI agent, the CIA, two New York cops, a Jewish mob leader, a Black mob leader, and Gio, the Italian mafioso who launders money through a chain of ice cream vending trucks. He’s the one who ropes his best friend from childhood into cleaning things up—the only “honest thief” in the group, Joe the Bouncer.

Joe is an Iraq vet with a lot of unsealed mental wounds who works as a bouncer in Gio’s club. He’s trying to lead a simple life, living in Queens with his grandmother, a former grifter. She fixes him meals: they watch JEOPARDY! every night he’s home. Which isn’t often, because over the first two books of this series, he’s earned the name of The Sheriff, since he cleans things up and establishes order when he’s hired. With the help of his homies, including Yelena, a former Russian agent trained by the Russians sent to take out… well, the plot keeps turning, complete with a lot of blood and banter, until the finale. That flying meat circus takes place in a Russian bath, a lengthy scene that plays out like the Marx Brothers directed by Quentin Tarantino.

Since it’s a series, most of the people with the good guys make it through. Joe still has a job with Gio, and before long, The Sheriff’s adventures will rip roar through the streets of New York again.

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A powerful look at how “we” got here

Bob Moyer reviews a book about black performers in America – and a great deal more.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

A LITTLE DEVIL IN AMERICA: Notes in Praise of Black Performance. By Hanif Abdurraqib. Random House. 300 pages. $27.

This book is much greater than the sum of its pages. Hanif Abdurraqib has created an amalgam—a showcase of Black performing artists both known and unknown,  a cultural commentary and a personal memoir. He weaves performers and performances in and out of black and white society with the eye of an astute observer and the voice of a poet, all to show “…how we got here in the first place,” the “we” being America and  a guy who grew up Black in Columbus, Ohio. It’s an amazing book.

The portraits of performers alone make the book worthwhile reading. They range from the well-known Josephine Baker to the unknown blackface dancer Master Juba. Here’s the suave host of Soul Train, Don Cornelius, originally a journalist who suffered congenital brain problems at the end of his life. There’s Dr. Don Shirley of Green Book fame, a successful academic in the field of psychology before his musical career. Patty Labelle, Trayvon Martin, Michael Anderson, Octavia Butler and Sun Ra all show up in a chapter titled “Nine Considerations of Black People in Space.”

That title is emblematic of how performers become springboards for the author’s contextual exegeses on American life. Master Juba is featured in “Sixteen Ways of Looking at Blackface,” a free Black man who danced in saloons and halls for money. He bested the leading white dancer of the time on numerous occasions, both of them performing in black face. He beat him by mimicking the white dancer’s steps, amazing the audience. “How,” says the author, “when the world outside determines worth, it might be vital for the marginalized to find an arena in which they can unmistakably dominate.” Juba doesn’t ultimately win, of course. When he took off his blackface, he was still a black man. He died destitute in London. The author goes on to reference Al Jolson, and the politician who dressed like Michael Jackson in the ’80’s, all leading up to “…the bare bones of it … how blackface … is such a horrifying look.”  Worst of all, in the way people slather the blackface on themselves, he is repulsed:  “That’s the way they think we look like.”  Horrifying, indeed.

In essay after essay, and sometimes in between, the author references the performers and their acts to throw light on systemic racism. Beyoncé’s performance at the Super Bowl half-time featured “…two dozen Black women, each of them dressed all in black, perfectly coiffed afros radiating from beneath their black berets.”  The image of Black Panthers was clear and immediately brought a backlash, explained by the author as when “…Black people who decided to use their platform to not so subtly reclaim that which had been commodified and sanitized in the name of American Comfort, the pushback was often irrational, coming loudest from those who were the most afraid.”

The most effective essays are the ones in which the object of his attention leads to the true subject—himself. Nowhere is that journey clearer than in “I Would Like to Give Merry Clayton Her Roses.”  Merry Clayton was a backup singer famous for the t27 seconds in the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter when she wails “rape, murder.” Although she had a career, she lost the child she was carrying at the time, and never got the recognition she deserved. The author then segues to the death of Meredith Hunter, the black man beaten to death at the Stones’ Altamont concert, ironically while they were singing Gimme Shelter. A song about violence, a beating, the author says:  “There is no reprieve from the machinery of violence and everyone is a tripwire away from setting off the wrong type of explosion.” Hunter is buried in an unmarked grave. The essay ends with the author’s plea, “I want shelter and I don’t even know what that means anymore.”

Bursting with joy, love, pain, bitterness and poignancy,  A Little Devil in America is the prose version of the Soul Train dance line, celebrating “Black people pushing other Black people forward to some boundless and joyful exit.” The book resonates long after its finish.



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