Whodunit: A mystery tapping at Poe's chamber door
At the outset of Karen Lee Street’s novel Edgar Allan Poe and the Jewel of Peru, the famous author has just received an unexpected package in the post. When he opens it up, he is horror-struck to find that it contains three crows with their heads, legs and wings surgically separated from their bodies. My immediate thought was, “Nevermore,” followed by “a murder of crows,” but Poe waxes rather more, um, Poe-etically: “Several pairs of obsidian eyes stared up at me—demon eyes. I leapt back, hands protecting my face, for crouched in that hatbox were three crows, beaks agape in their desire for flesh.” It takes Poe but a moment to determine that the dead birds are an unwanted gift from his arch-foe, George Rhynwick Williams. Several more packages arrive over the next month, each clearly intended to increase his dread while also suggesting that Poe’s beloved wife and his best friend are additional targets of malevolence. On another front, Poe has been tasked with looking into a pair of murders, and as events unfold, it appears there may be a connection between the two seemingly disparate storylines. Street’s slightly self-deprecating and occasionally darkly humorous narrative echoes Poe’s style and fashions him as the somewhat unwilling hero of his own story.
Boston-based FBI agent Rob Barrett is exceptionally good at his job. He has extracted a confession from Kimmy Crepeaux about her role in a double homicide, and now all that remains is to recover the bodies and round up the main perp. But as any longtime reader of mystery novels will immediately grasp, it ain’t gonna be that simple. Michael Koryta’s How It Happened is the gripping tale of how Barrett gets hoodwinked by a spurious confession, his subsequent fall from grace and his reassignment to a backwoods office on the other side of the country. Like any good investigator, he cannot let go of “the case that got away.” With prodding from Kimmy and the father of one of the victims, he returns to the scene of the crime, and his investigation stirs up some unexpected ghosts from his past and sets the stage for the psychological drama that is Koryta’s forte.
WHAT SHE SAW
William Boyle’s The Lonely Witness was the surprise read of the month for me. The synopsis in no way prepared me for just how quickly the book would lure me in. Amy Falconetti leads a quiet life delivering Holy Communion to Brooklyn shut-ins. It is a marked departure from her old life as an up-all-night party girl and general hell-raiser. One of her favorite clients is an elderly woman named Mrs. Epifanio, who tells Amy about a rather disturbing visit from Vincent Marchetti, the son of her daily caregiver. Amy decides on a whim to follow Vincent and see what he’s up to. She never could have anticipated what she is about to witness, though—the argument on the street, words uttered in anger, the stiletto and Vincent bleeding out on the sidewalk. The killer is in the wind, but Amy cannot shake the nagging suspicion that he has seen her face. For reasons she cannot entirely explain to herself, Amy pockets the murder weapon and embarks on a journey to find the killer before he can find her. Boyle is from Brooklyn, and his easy familiarity with this milieu shows up on virtually every page. If you like the richly nuanced novels of George Pelecanos or Dennis Lehane, be prepared to add Boyle to your regular reading list.
TOP PICK IN MYSTERY
If ever a book could be judged by its cover, Noir is it: buxom blonde in abbreviated outfit; two shady characters in fedoras walking away from the scene of the crime; the Golden Gate Bridge enshrouded in fog; a rather lethal-looking snake slithering off the page, stage right; and the three-fingered green hand of a space alien caressing the title. The year is 1947; the location, San Francisco. The narrative switches back and forth between on-the-lam bartender Sammy “Two-Toes” Tiffin and an unnamed second party (“Don’t worry about who I am, I know things.”). Whichever one is narrating at the moment does a bang-up job of channeling Chandler (or perhaps hammering Hammett), albeit with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Larceny abounds, committed or attempted by pretty much everyone in the book, and there is a laugh-out-loud moment every couple of pages. And possibly a space alien, because, hey, this is a Christopher Moore book, after all.
This article was originally published in the May 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.