Whodunit: April 2019
You have to wonder why one would bother to initiate a murder investigation immediately after half the world has gone kablooey in a nuclear holocaust. But I suppose there is not a lot else that takes precedence over a murder investigation in the wake of nuclear war. Some bastion of civility remains in a small boutique hotel in the Swiss Alps, where a young girl has just been killed. It matters not that the lead investigator in Hanna Jameson’s The Last has no investigative experience—the list of possible suspects is quite short, and motives and opportunities are severely limited by the world events of the past 60-odd days. There are security videos, but the power has been turned off to preserve energy for the upcoming winter when it will be needed for heat. And the caretaker who controls access to the power is something of an enigmatic character, not to mention a prime suspect in the murder, so there won’t be a lot of help from that quarter. Meanwhile, all communications are down, bands of predatory looters in search of food plague the countryside, and slowly but surely the aforementioned “bastion of civility” degrades into some distinctly uncivil behavior. This genre-bending novel neatly embraces dystopian fiction and murder mystery, with the Omega Man starkness of the former and the requisite twists and turns of the latter.
There’s a lot of history between characters Hap Collins and Leonard Pine, dating back to 1990’s Savage Season. The two have had each other’s backs through adventure after adventure, and they have solved cases and cemented their unlikely brotherhood (by East Texas standards) of a straight white guy and a gay black guy. In The Elephant of Surprise, Joe R. Lansdale’s dynamic duo doesn’t expend a lot of energy developing their relationship further; there simply isn’t time. There isn’t even a moment available for self-reflection or friendship evaluation from the moment they rescue a young albino Asian woman with a nearly severed tongue until the epic storm in which they pilot a prison bus of innocent survivors through deep flood waters in an attempt to escape a killer posse of bad guys. You’d be hard-pressed to find a single one of the book’s 256 pages sans bullets, blood spatter, murder and mayhem, all of which are overlaid with Hap’s dry Texas wit. The Elephant of Surprise is the read of the year thus far for adrenaline junkies, action-hero aficionados and, as is always the case with Lansdale’s novels, fans of clever and unexpected similes and metaphors. “The windshield wipers slaved back and forth like a mean librarian wagging her finger at a loud child. . . .”
I have to confess to strongly preferring first-person narration for suspense novels, perhaps because I cut my teeth on the laconic voice-overs of film noir. That said, I quite like Anne Perry’s third-person omniscient voice in her Daniel Pitt novels, the second of which is Triple Jeopardy. The London-set narrative is delivered in period-correct Victorian dialect and prose, which gives it the feel of having been written in another era entirely. The case centers on the alleged bad acts of a man hitherto protected by diplomatic immunity and on his defense in the English court by newly minted barrister Daniel Pitt. It is the first case of Pitt’s career in which he is lead barrister, and it is both a heady and decidedly frightening proposition for him. His client is on trial for embezzlement, but there is the very real possibility that further crimes, including assault and jewel theft, figure in as well—and perhaps even murder. Enlisting the help of his friend Miriam fforde Croft, an early practitioner of forensic sciences, Pitt divides his energies between defense and investigation, and just about the time you have your “aha!” moment, things take a sharp turn in another direction altogether.
When Anne Hillerman took over the series that made her father, Tony, famous, she gave voice to the female characters in the series, bringing them into the mainstream narrative without taking anything away from the male characters upon whom the series was built. Hillerman wisely left the best parts of her father’s beloved characters’ storylines intact while creating compelling new additions. This time, in The Tale Teller, three parallel tales merge with unexpected results for each of the three protagonists. Retired cop Joe Leaphorn is investigating a case that the local museum director would like to have cleared up before her imminent retirement, that of a priceless traditional Navajo dress that has gone missing. Leaphorn’s former colleague Jim Chee is involved in an investigation of jewelry thefts, largely of Native American antiques. And Bernadette “Bernie” Manuelito must, somewhat reluctantly, share the stage with the FBI in the investigation of a murder on a popular running trail in the Arizona desert. As is always the case with Hillerman novels (either Tony or Anne), the supernatural is never far from the reader’s mind. Witchcraft and Native American lore permeate the narrative in a way that has appealed to readers for nigh on 50 years, with no end in sight.