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Truth is stranger than fiction
Our first Whodunit entry, Ace Atkins’ Infamous, isn’t exactly a whodunit, since we know the perpetrator’s identity from early on. It is rather a novelization of a true-life incident, the kidnapping of oilman Charles Urschel by infamous (hence the title) desperado George “Machine Gun” Kelly. Sourced from period documents, newspaper articles, recollections of family members and, in one memorable case, an interview with a now-102-year-old Tupelo bank teller once held up by Kelly, the book brings the Depression-era gangster’s life and times into crisp focus. Infamous chronicles the 56 days between the Urschel kidnapping and Kelly’s eventual capture, an epic road trip of close to 20,000 miles across the South and the Midwest with the Feds in hot pursuit. Subterfuges and betrayals abound on both sides of the law, blurring the distinction between the good guys and the bad guys. Even Kelly’s femme fatale wife is not above the fray, perhaps willing to deal her husband a losing hand in order to save her own skin. Theirs is without a doubt a star-crossed, or more precisely, star-double-crossed love story. Clever and provocative, Infamous will stay with you well beyond the final pages.
FATHER AND SON
Second up is an impressive debut from Maine journalist Paul Doiron, The Poacher’s Son. They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, but in game warden Mike Bowditch’s case, the maxim could not be further from the truth: His father Jack is a notorious poacher and, as such, not pleased with his son’s choice of careers. The two have been more or less estranged for many years when Mike gets a panicky call from Jack, who is wanted for questioning in the death of a Maine policeman. Jack has what he describes as a watertight alibi, but the authorities disagree. He is reluctant to turn himself in, fearing for his life at the hands of vengeful cops mourning the loss of one of their own. So Mike and a semi-retired pilot friend head off into the deep Maine woods, so remote it is accessible only on foot or by floatplane, on a time-sensitive mission to clear Jack’s name. The setting is wildly atmospheric, the pacing swift and the characters well drawn. The Poacher’s Son is easily one of the best debut novels in recent memory.
TERROR IN THE WINDY CITY
Michael Harvey’s The Third Rail has its roots in an actual Chicago event, an elevated train accident in 1977 in which four CTA cars derailed, suspended briefly from the high tracks before crashing down to the street below, killing 11. Fast forward 30-some years, and a spree killer is terrorizing the Windy City, apparently in some misguided retribution for the train incident from so long ago. PI Michael Kelly has strong memories of the accident; as a child, he was in one of the derailed train cars dangling high above the street, a memory that haunts him to this day. Now, seemingly by chance, he is onsite as one of the killings takes place, and he charges after the shooter—only to find out that he has been played, and indeed is the “king’s pawn” in a deadly (and accelerating) game of terror. The Third Rail is the third installment in the Michael Kelly saga (after The Chicago Way and The Fifth Floor), and author Harvey gathers momentum with each new book. I’m looking forward to number four, which, according to Harvey, may well be a riff on one of the central themes from The Third Rail.
MYSTERY OF THE MONTH
South African novelist Malla Nunn is back with the second book in her Emmanuel Cooper series, Let the Dead Lie, set in 1950s Durban. As the book opens, ex-policeman Cooper is suffering from the fallout of his last case (chronicled in Nunn’s debut, A Beautiful Place to Die), in which he lost both his job and his coveted identification labeling him as “white” in South Africa’s oppressively race-conscious society. He is working an undercover dockside assignment for his old boss (and sometime nemesis) Inspector van Niekirk when he discovers the body of a young boy, his throat slit by person or persons unknown. Cooper is quickly identified as the prime suspect in the killing and apprehended by the authorities, who know he didn’t do the deed, but a) they need a quick resolution to the case, and b) Cooper has been a thorn in their side for some time. Van Niekirk is able to secure Cooper’s release for 48 hours, thus beginning a race against time to prove his innocence. Nunn’s depiction of apartheid-era South Africa is atmospheric, and the multifaceted character of Cooper is unique in modern crime fiction. Let the Dead Lie has a list price of just $15; I guarantee it will be the best $15 you will spend on a mystery all year.