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Whodunit: Reporting the truth from D.C.'s streets
By page nine of Neely Tucker’s debut novel, The Ways of the Dead, I felt an affinity with war-weary reporter Sully Carter, beginning when he launched into a diatribe about his employer-provided mobile phone: “It’s supposed to be like a perk. What it is? It’s like one of those electronic tether anklets they put on parolees.” He further cemented our budding relationship on the following page with his wry observation about filing a news story: “Anybody who can’t file drunk . . . oughta turn in their [expletive deleted] press card.” (Note: I deleted the expletive, not Sully, whose “expletive-delete” function seems to be permanently on the fritz.) And what a story this is: Someone has just killed the daughter of the chief judge of the federal court, leaving the body to be found in a D.C. Dumpster. Three suspects present themselves, neighborhood black kids who hassled the girl in a bodega earlier on, but Sully suspects that the three are guilty of little more than testosterone swagger, not of brutal murder. And so he begins to dig. The Ways of the Dead is a tense and gripping crime novel of race and power, but its true magic lies in the dialogue, which is textured and nuanced in the manner of Elmore Leonard, James Crumley or George Pelecanos. This is a very fine debut indeed, and one that begs for sequel after sequel.
AN AUTHOR TO WATCH
In the opening pages of Charlotte Link’s psychological thriller The Watcher, Carla Roberts is having one of those “don’t unbolt that door” moments that precede the audience’s screams at horror movies; you just know something bad is in store for her. Link doesn’t let readers stew for long, as she addresses the subject in no uncertain terms: “At that point [Carla] did not have long to live, but her powers of imagination could not let her see what would happen to her that night.” With a lesser writer, I might be put off by the author-omniscient foreshadowing of things to come, but Link executes it superbly, trusting her skills as a deft spinner of suspense rather than relying on cinematic shock tactics. Carla’s killing is not the end (well, it is for her), but seemingly just the catalyst for further murders. Samson Segal, the titular voyeuristic “watcher,” ticks all the right boxes as suspect of choice: jobless, check; dweebish, check; obsessive, check; motive/opportunity, check and check again. Thing is, he says he didn’t do it, and he is about to become part of an oddball coalition to unearth the identity of the real killer (be prepared for a surprise). Link has sold some 15 million books in Germany alone, and if The Watcher is any indication, she is poised for the bestseller list on this side of the pond as well.
WHAT WE SAW
Another impressive German import features multiple narrators, ranging in age from 8 to 86. Each of them has only a piece of the story to tell, and it’s left to the reader to assemble those pieces into a plausible whole. Compounding the issue is the fact that none of the narrators are what you would call natural-born storytellers, but are rather like eyewitnesses interviewed for a TV newscast segment. This is the format for Andrea Maria Schenkel’s wildly original tale of homicide most foul, The Murder Farm. There are no cops, no interrogations, no descriptions of clever police work or forensics—just a stark, stripped-down narrative of an unthinkable crime, capped off with a surprising, even shocking, finish. The Murder Farm has broken sales records in the author’s native Germany, and it is easy to see why. I can pretty much guarantee you have never read anything like it.
TOP PICK IN MYSTERY
It’s 1953 in Jo’burg, South Africa. Apartheid is in the ascendant, and nobody is more aware of that fact than Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper, whose identity card classifies him as “European,” but who is in reality “Mixed Race,” a secret that could destroy his career. In his latest adventure, Present Darkness, Cooper is on loan from the Durban police force, and it appears that his primary role is to lend credence to a massive police frame-up of a young man accused of murder. It happens, however, that the accused is the son of a Zulu police officer to whom Cooper owes his life. Cooper harbors another secret, one he holds closer to his vest than his racial identity: He maintains a sporadic but ongoing internal dialogue with the spirit of his old wartime sergeant-major, a dour Scotsman who materializes unbidden inside Cooper’s head during times of stress. This time, the sarcastic Scot minces no words as he explains Cooper’s good-guy role in the murder investigation: “Your presence made the search credible. You killed off any stink of corruption.” Though the stink may be masked for the moment, the underlying causes are well within olfactory range, and Cooper’s the man to expose them. Malla Nunn’s books have it all: fast-paced, intricate storylines; an exotic setting in a dangerous era; a deeply flawed hero; and an Oscar-worthy cast of supporting characters.