Real life regularly provides more mystery and horror than anything an author can dream up. When we find books that seem to predict that reality, or that have subjects that run parallel to it, we discover another element to the novel, one supplied by the reader.
• No Regrets, Coyote by John Dufresne (Norton, 328 pages, $25.95) begins with an unusual crime solver with an even more unusual sidekick. Wylie “Coyote” Melville is a therapist who does psychological forensic work for the police in a small Florida city near the Everglades. When in need of help, he consults Bay, a card player and sleight of hand man who can light his cigarette with his thumb and pull information out of the shady types that are known to frequent casinos and poker games.
Dufresne is traveling along the same Sunshine State highways of kooks and criminals that Carl Hiaasen follows, but this journey is less goofy and more gruesome. It starts with what looks like a murder-suicide, with a restaurateur apparently massacring his wife and three children on Christmas Eve.
The scene is devastating, and bizarrely impersonal. Dufresne uses that to build his case, as Wiley gradually unwraps the family’s secrets while the police are happy to quickly close the case.
All this plays out on a stage of Florida today, still crowded, as least inland, with foreclosed houses and shattered dreams, and the dreamers left behind.
It is with them that Dufresne shines, starting with his hero. Wiley is divorced and has experienced more than one personal tragedy, and he could just kick himself over his constant need to do the right thing. Whenever he starts a conversation with someone, the book practically glows in your hands, it’s so alive. And funny.
When his father, in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, starts crying one evening, Wylie tries to coax out of him what is wrong, even though “I know it takes too damn much effort to try to speak when all your systems have shut down, when death seems like your only hope.” To which Dad responds, “I fell out of bed one night. And a week before that I fell out again.”
If you can handle some gory descriptions of murders and have a deep love of grand writing, this book is for you. As writer Dennis Lehane says in a blurb on the cover, “A novel so good you want to throw a party for it.”
• Koethi Zan had finished writing The Never List (Pamela Dorman Books, Viking; 303 pages; $27.95) before May of this year, when it was discovered that Ariel Castro had been holding three young women as sex slaves in his house for a decade. Just like the women in her book. You can imagine the turn her book tour has taken. Instead of people wondering how she imagined the story, she is now expected to explain what happened in Cleveland.
And in a way, she does that in her novel. The story is told from the viewpoint of the three women, who as the story opens have been free for 10 years since being discovered chained in the basement of an Oregon professor’s house. Zan digs into their personalities and shows how their captivity and, in this book, torture, redefined them as women.
But while Castro received a sentence that will keep him in jail for the rest of his life, Zan’s villain (whom we never meet in person) is coming up for parole. The question is, will the women have the strength to make the case for keeping him in jail?
The Never List refers to a set of rules devised by Sarah, our main character, and her friend Jennifer when, as young teens, they feared the worst of the world. There are more than 30 things on it, like “Never enter parking garages at night,” and “Never open the door unless you know exactly who it is,” and “Never leave your phone at home.”
They have trained themselves not to be predictable, never to run out of gas and not to go into parking garages at night. And to never get in the car.
They get in a car.
The structure of the book, as Sarah and her fellow victims start to track their own case and possibly others, is more “tell” than “show,” with lots of explanations and interviews. It makes it less strong than a more “of the moment” tale might be, but for its timing alone, “The Never List” provides at least one view into what motivates a psychopath, and what such a highly motivated person is capable of doing when people around him can’t or don’t pay attention.
• Until She Comes Home by Lori Roy (Dutton, 338 pages, $26.95), is set in the late 1950s yet couldn’t feel more relevant. She takes us to a quiet street in the thriving city of Detroit, where white working class families are feeling a change coming. The auto industry is booming, and the great migration of Southern blacks is starting to be felt across the North.
As the Trayvon Martin case showed all of the country in the past few months, some homeowners get extremely nervous if they see a person they don’t know who has dark skin walking through their neighborhoods.
And when a young mentally challenged woman goes missing, it is easy – almost effortless – for this snug, smug community to decide where to place the blame.
Roy spares no one in her harsh portrait of a street full of secrets. As the search drags on for the missing woman, old injuries come to light and new crimes get buried.
The big, public tragedy sends shock waves from which some will never recover.
• Death and the Olive Grove by Marco Vichi (Pegasus Crime, 248 pages, $25) harks back to another era of crime fiction, with a fault-filled, chain-smoking detective finding the echoes of history – of a war not yet 20 years ended – still bringing terror to his town. The town is Florence, Italy, most recently the setting for a much higher profile novel, Dan Brown’s “Inferno.”
That Florence, packed with tourists and high-tech intrigue, is a world away from Vichi’s gritty city, where residents take quiet strolls in quiet parks, and little girls still run to the market for their mamas. Buon appetito.
There are multiple mysteries, and multiple murders, facing Inspector Bordelli, and they all seem to somehow lead back to a missing body that had been seen in an olive grove below a secluded villa in the hills.
Vichi is straightforward in taking Bordelli to the solution, avoiding the usual feints at misdirection. Instead, he rounds out his novel by making it as much about his detective and his personal entanglements as it is about solving the case of at least three dead little girls.
The book is translated from Italian but keeps the pacing of the original language and the native country’s taste for food. And, also in keeping with those, it ends with a recipe.
Melinda Miller is a News staff reporter.