Editor’s Note: Beginning this first week of April, News staffer Melinda Miller begins a series of monthly reports on Crime, Mystery and Intrigue books of unusual note. Here’s her harvest for April.
By Melinda Miller
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
Mystery readers have proven their affection for ongoing characters in crime and mystery fiction, from Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple to Myron Bolitar and V.I. Warshawski. And mystery writers know that, when a “franchise” takes hold, they are set, even if it’s a gilded cage (as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle discovered when he tried to kill off Mr. Holmes).
Still, they do like to branch off, as Robert Wilson does in “Capital Punishment,” with a new character, or as Phillip Margolin does, after his political trilogy, by giving P.I. Dana Cutler a new criminal sandbox in which to play. Jake Arnott, on the other hand, uses other real writers to make his readers feel at home in his latest novel, while Margaux Froley is exploring a new media (for her) with her first YA mystery.
• Capital Punishment by Robert Wilson; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 406 pages ($28).
British author Robert Wilson leaves Spanish investigator Javier Falcon behind for his latest thriller, and strikes out to create another mystery/action series. New hero Charles Boxer specializes in recovering kidnap victims, and, for the right client, in also killing the kidnappers when it’s all over. In his situational morality, if not in physical power, Boxer finds his literary inspiration in Jack Reacher, the one-man army created by Lee Child, also a Brit. Wilson presents some backstory for Boxer – absent father, defiant teen daughter, messy love life – but any depth will have to wait for future books.
The Byzantine plot for Boxer’s debut links the gangs of London’s East Side with international businessmen, global terrorists and mercenaries with links to various Western intelligence agencies. The estranged daughter of Mumbai billionaire Frank D’Cruz is grabbed off a London street and held in a high-tech isolation room, where she is interrogated by an unseen voice that already seems to know everything about her and her family. Calls are made to her parents alerting them she is being held, but no demands are made. Boxer and the Metropolitan Police, working together, deduce this is a crime for punishment, not a payoff.
Although Boxer will be Wilson’s continuing character, he remains two-dimensional as the story plays out in an uneven mix of inquisitions, oddly placed emotional dialogue and sometimes tedious explanations of D’Cruz’s dark and dirty past. Wilson punctuates this with thug-on-thug violence that brings the bad guy mortality rate to nearly 100 percent – and, unfortunately, eliminating his most interesting characters.
The many threads eventually come together, but not in a neat tapestry of intrigue. Instead, it’s more like a hastily sewn-up sweater with one too many sleeves and a rather large knot where the raison d’être should be.
• The House of Rumourvvvvvvvvby Jake Arnott; New Harvest; 436 pages ($26)
The mystery is history in Jake Arnott’s skillful blend of literary style and science fiction sensibility, for a story that sweeps from the foundations of World War II to present day SoCal. He skillfully combines events real and “possible” involving such figures as Sir Ian Fleming (onetime spy and creator of James Bond), Scientologist L. Ron Hubbard and the Nazi Rudolph Hess.
One chapter starts with Hess in a jail with his Führer: “Hitler has always despised the moon,” Arnott writes. “ ‘You know, Rudi,’ he had told him .... ‘it’s only the moon I hate. For it is something dead, and terrible, and inhuman.’ ” Arnott isn’t just looking for irony; this is a taking off point for Hess’ ill-fated flight to Scotland seeking peace talks, and to his later keen interest – from prison – in the American space program.
Though the chapters are named for Tarot cards, this is no collection of carny kitsch – readers, especially readers who love reading, will find the stories peppered with references to writers and their work. Seen through the filter of (fictional) writer Larry Zagorski, the stories reveal secrets of how the last 70 years went down that society didn’t know that it didn’t know – not exactly an alternate universe, though there is that possibility, but more an alternate version of how the 20th century occurred.
• Escape Theory by Margaux Froley; Soho Teen; 269 pages ($17.99)
Most teens have as much experience with high-end boarding schools as they have with vampires and boy wizards, but other than that TV writer Margaux Froley tries to keep it real in her gossipy first book, named for a term psychologists uses for why people – including teens – may do things that are self-destructive. Froley’s heroine is Devon Mackintosh, a girl whose “Insta-Friend” just-add-water sponge packet was, as she says, a dud. But those on the sidelines get a better view of the whole game, so when Devon, working as a peer counselor, starts talking to schoolmates about a popular student’s suicide – or was it? – a mystery unfolds.
Froley is sensitive to her characters and dialogue, and though they all have very of-the-moment trendy names, their actions and interactions have more substance than what is usually seen on television in similar scenarios. Billed as “A Keaton School Novel,” expect Devon to be back, in print and very possibly onscreen.
• Sleight of Hand by Phillip Margolin; Harper; 312 pages ($26.99)
Margolin has mastered the art of airport-best-seller intrigue, and he follows the numbers with brisk efficiency in “Sleight of Hand.”
Returning to solve the mystery of a socialite’s murder is private investigator Dana Cutler, who was pursuing politicians in the author’s Washington trilogy. Here, her quarry is a particularly shady criminal defense lawyer who also dabbles in magic and murder.
Margolin’s respect for his female protagonist comes through as she maneuvers her way among adulterers, a Russian crime lord and various members of the law enforcement establishment toward a well-plotted resolution.
Melinda Miller is a News staff reporter.