They Said It

The poetry of violence

I walked down the garden path looking through the iron sight. Bullets whizzed all around but I was aiming, they were shooting. I aimed first at the men with the grenade launcher, I hit my target and Death opened their eyes and they fell into his radiance, blood pouring from head wounds, chest wounds, ripped arteries and veins. Eternity revealed to them its mysteries and they tumbled backwards into the van and dropped the RPG launcher at their feet.

— Adrian McKinty, The Cold Cold Ground

‘A Divided Loyalty’

Cold case heats up in latest Inspector Rutledge mystery

When Inspector Ian Rutledge quickly solves the murder of an unknown young woman, he’s just as quickly assigned to follow up on a similar cold case in Avebury, known for its series of standing stones akin to the more famous Stonehenge. The case is tinged with eerie echoes of the prehistoric past, as this unidentified woman is found to have been killed at the base of one of the ancient stones. Was it some sort of ritual sacrifice, or murder with a more modern motive? Could it be connected with Rutledge’s original investigation?

book cover of A Divided Loyalty by Charles ToddThat’s the basic setup for A Divided Loyalty (William Morrow, 2020), the 22nd entry in the police procedural series set in post-World War I England. Rutledge is a classic flawed protagonist, back from serving as an officer in that brutal war with a severe case of what was then called shell shock. It has left him hearing the voice of his dead sergeant Hamish at the most inopportune times. Much of the attraction of this series is observing how Rutledge battles his demons to continue serving as a highly effective Detective Inspector at Scotland Yard. So effective, in fact, that he’s often called on to solve cases that have stymied his superiors, and that’s the situation he faces here. A more senior Inspector was assigned to the initial investigation and came up with nothing, managing neither to identify the victim nor the killer. As Rutledge reluctantly follows in his colleague’s footsteps, he find anomalies in the initial investigation that are hard to explain.

Hard but not impossible, of course, or there would be no book. The author engages in clue-slinging so blatant the reader feels sure the suspect it points to cannot possibly be the true killer. And yet it keeps adding up, and every opportunity to find evidence to counter it is unsuccessful. Ultimately, the case tests Rutledge’s single-minded devotion to speaking for victims and finding the truth, which over the course of the series has been one of the few things helping him maintain a slender hold on his sanity. Will this case be the one that causes him to lose his grip?

I’m a big proponent of starting a series at the beginning, but I will say that if this is your first Ian Rutledge book you won’t feel too disoriented. There aren’t any big spoilers to previous events, and while there are references to things that happened in previous books they are subtle enough not to confuse a new reader. Highly recommended for readers who enjoy reading about flawed but honorable characters and their internal struggles. My only regret is having to wait another year until No. 23.

Currently Reading, 9 March 2020

book cover of Dear Edward by Ann NapolitanoHow does a child recover from a tragedy that takes his entire family away from him? And how can the people around him help him navigate his grief and make a new life on his own? Those are the questions faced by the title character in Dear Edward (2020, Random House), the latest novel by Ann Napolitano. So far I’m finding it compulsively readable. Napolitano uses an unusual construction that despite my initial reservations is working beautifully to both ratchet up and relieve tension in carefully controlled doses.

book cover of Class A by Lucas MannAround this time every year, I try to read at least one baseball book — call it the reader’s version of spring training, a way to re-focus my spectator vision from the hectic action of college basketball to the more stately rhythms of my favorite sport. This year’s selection is a book I’ve had on my shelf for a few years, Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere (Vintage Books, 2014) by Lucas Mann. Mann’s focus is on the Clinton (Iowa) LumberKings, a minor-league baseball team at the Class A (lowest) level. The book seems more relevant than ever as the LumberKings are one of the teams that MLB has proposed eliminating in their radical restructuring of the current minor-league system.

‘Just Mercy’

Author’s note: It’s #ThrowbackThursday here at An American Bluestocking, when I share earlier takes on books I think are worth your time. I originally wrote this review in January 2016; it was published on LibraryThing.

This book broke my heart.

One of the (few) encouraging things that seems to be coming out of our current deeply dysfunctional political process is growing bipartisan agreement that the United States is in desperate need of criminal justice reform. Politicians from both major parties are realizing that “mandatory minimum” sentencing laws, harsh solitary confinement practices, overly punitive punishment for juveniles who commit crimes, racial disparities in sentencing, overzealous prosecutions that ignore exculpatory evidence in order to secure conviction — all of these are having a profoundly negative effect on our society. (A cynic might note that the recent Republican interest in providing treatment instead of prison for drug users only came once the opioid epidemic struck middle-class whites, but I digress).

All of these issues are explored by Bryan Stevenson in Just Mercy (Random House, 2014), subtitled “A Story of Justice and Redemption”. And it’s true, some of the people Stevenson and his organization, the Equal Justice Initiative, try to help do receive justice and some form of redemption, eventually. But it’s hard to feel triumphant about the outcomes when you read about how thoroughly their lives have been shattered before that justice is finally served.

Stevenson’s main focus is on Walter McMillian, a black man who has lived a largely blameless life in Alabama until he is arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of a white teenager despite having been continuously in the company of more than 20 people at the time of the killing. The ways in which justice was mauled in

his initial trial are shocking and infuriating. It’s the sort of tale that would get rejected as completely unbelievable if someone wrote it as an episode of Law and Order. And yes, racism was absolutely a factor in his case, and in many aspects of EJI’s work. More than once, Stevenson himself is spoken to harshly by judges, bailiffs, law enforcement officers who don’t realize they are speaking to a black graduate of Harvard Law School and not just another black defendant. They are unable to see past the color of his skin, even when he is wearing a suit and sitting in a courtroom.

Of course innocent mistakes occur, but the accumulated insults and indignations caused by racial presumptions are destructive in ways that are hard to measure. Constantly being suspected, accused, watched, doubted, distrusted, presumed guilty, and even feared is a burden borne by people of color that can’t be understood or confronted without a deeper conversation about our history of racial injustice.

Interspersed with chapters about Stevenson’s attempts to win Walter a stay of execution, a new trial, or exoneration are explorations of other aspects of the ways in which the criminal justice system has failed. The EJI successfully argued before the Supreme Court that sentencing juveniles to death row or life in prison without parole is unconstitutional, first for non-homicide crimes and eventually for all crimes. They also advocated for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled, many of whom are sentenced to death or life in prison without even understanding what they have done.

Walter’s case is a clear-cut case of wrongful conviction, but not every case that Stevenson and EJI took involved saving the innocent. Many times, the question wasn’t whether the defendant had committed the crime, but whether the sentence received was proportional to the crime, or whether the defendant had received the adequate legal counsel that they are entitled to under the Constitution.

Presenting a mix of cases and circumstances gave the book even more power for me. It’s easy to feel indignant about innocent people being executed or left to rot in jail. It’s harder to feel sympathy — and yes, mercy — for the guilty, but Stevenson’s powerful rhetoric made me understand the need for such compassion in a very personal way.

The power of just mercy is that it belongs to the undeserving. It’s when mercy is least expected that it’s most potent — strong enough to break the cycle of victimization and victimhood, retribution and the psychic harm and injuries that lead to aggression and violence, abuse of power, mass incarceration. I drove home broken and brokenhearted about Jimmy Dill. But I knew I would come back the next day. There was more work to do.

Quotable quotes from favorite books

“So many of us have become afraid and angry. We’ve become so fearful and vengeful that we’ve thrown away children, discarded the disabled, and sanctioned the imprisonment of the sick and the weak — not because they are a threat to public safety or beyond rehabilitation but because we think it makes us seem tough, less broken.”

— Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy

‘Full Throttle’

New collection from Joe Hill is relentless

Joe Hill is one of those rare authors who seems equally adept at short fiction (see the previous 20th Century Ghosts (HarperCollins, 2007) as he is with full-length novels (my favorites being his debut Heart-Shaped Box (William Morrow, 2007) and The Fireman (William Morrow, 2016). He’s also had award-winning success with the Locke & Key comics series and a number of his works have been adapted for movies or television. It’s all rather irritating for those of us who struggle to master even one of these creative art forms. Despite these personal peeves, I always look forward to new work from Hill, and his latest story collection does not disappoint.

The stories in Full Throttle (William Morrow, 2019) run the gamut from thriller to suspense to supernatural to indescribable, and kept me turning pages to the very end. The collection hits the ground running, so to speak, with the opening story, “Throttle” (co-written with the author’s paterfamilias Stephen King) which sees a gang of aging biker thugs being terrorized by a truck driver carrying a grudge. And from there, we’re off to the races. Not all of the stories have supernatural elements (“Throttle” doesn’t, for instance) but the ones that do are very effective. The standout for me in this sub-genre was “Faun”. I thought I knew early on where this hunter-and-the-hunted story was going; I was delighted and horrified to be so wrong. Other stories have a sweetness to them, like “Late Returns,” about a bookmobile driver who keeps encountering patrons from the past. And “You Are Released,” the final story in the collection, offers a high-altitude look at how the world ends — with both a bang and a whimper.

Bonus content comes at the end, where Hill has written notes describing his inspiration and influence for each of the stories. And don’t skip the About the Author section, where you’ll find a bonus micro-story titled “A Little Sorrow.”

The Stories

  • Throttle — See above.
  • Dark Carousel — Four teens carelessly cross paths with a carousel operator, only to find themselves on the run from the ride’s supernatural spirits.

  • Wolverton Station — A wolf of Wall Street meets his match on a British train.

  • By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain — The childhood wonder of discovering a legend is true, and the childhood frustration of not being believed by adults.

  • Faun — See above.

  • Late Returns — See above.

  • All I Care About Is You — Money can’t buy you love? Don’t tell that to this teenager of the future.

  • Thumbprint — The sins of the desert visit an ex-soldier in Maine.

  • The Devil on the Staircase — A poetic fable about the true costs of selling your soul.

  • Twittering From the Circus of the Dead — Predictable but enjoyable modern zombie tale.

  • Mums — A boy digs up dirt on his dad. As I read, I wasn’t sure if this was a tale of the supernatural or mental illness, and I’m not sure it matters. It’s compelling either way (though please note, Mr. Hill, it’s Iowa State University with the ag program, not the UI Hawkeyes).

  • In the Tall Grass — This one gave “Faun” a run for its money as Story Raising the Most Hairs on the Back of My Neck. Forget everything you thought you knew about the children of the corn; here, the Kansas prairie strikes back.

  • You Are Released — See above.

    Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Currently Reading, 2 March 2020

Something Old, Something New

My March reading month is starting out like a lion:

As much as we’d like a 25-year-old book about guns in America to be out of date, Lethal Passage seems as relevant as ever.

Lethal Passage by Erik Larson (1995, Vintage Books) From one of my favorite nonfiction authors, a short but powerful book tracing a handgun from its manufacture through its journey into the hands of a disturbed teenager who uses it in a school shooting. I wondered if a 25-year-old book would seem dated, but sadly the present state of gun control in the United States means the contents here are evergreen, at least as much as I’ve read so far.

The Cold, Cold Ground is moody crime fiction set in 1980s Northern Ireland.

The Cold, Cold Ground by Adrian McKinty (originally published 2012; I’m reading a newer ebook edition). This is the first book in a new-to-me series, recommended by my friend Mamie. Sean Duffy is a Detective Sergeant with the Belfast Police in 1980s Northern Ireland. As a Catholic, he’s viewed with suspicion by both sides in the still-raging Troubles as he tries to solve a murder. Very atmospheric so far.

 

Have dog, will travel

John Steinbeck hits the road in ‘Travels With Charley’

In 1960 at the age of 58, Steinbeck had already published his last novel (although he didn’t know it), and had less than a decade to live (which he also didn’t know but probably suspected). He was restless, a feeling exacerbated by having spent the past 20 years living in New York and traveling widely in Europe, far from his native Northern California. As he says in the opening pages of Travels With Charley in Search of America (1962, Viking Press), he wondered if he really knew his own country after all that time. So he set out in a custom-built pickup-camper to find out.

The real star of the book, of course, is in the title: Charley Dog, a standard poodle, who Steinbeck clearly dotes on. Every anecdote affirms that Steinbeck is a dog person through and through, and his descriptions of his “conversations” with Charley will be familiar to dog companions everywhere.

It is my experience that in some areas Charley is more intelligent than I am, but in others he is abysmally ignorant. He can’t read, can’t drive a car, and has no grasp of mathematics. But in his own field of endeavor, which he was now practicing, the slow, imperial smelling over and anointing of an area, he has no peer. Of course his horizons are limited, but how wide are mine?

John Steinbeck

The consensus among literary scholars is that Steinbeck’s account was heavily fictionalized, with inconsistencies in the timeline of his travels and dialogue that doesn’t quite ring true. Still, he seemed to capture, and brood about, many of the ways that America was changing in those decades after the end of World War II. Cultural homogenization, from music charts to chain stores and restaurants, was accelerating. Cities were sprawling, the environment was being plundered for profit, hard manual labor was being outsourced to immigrants. And of course the fight for racial equality was coming to a boil.

To that last point: Along the way, Steinbeck deals with bouts of illness, both his own and Charley’s, and automotive mishaps. But the only situation for which Steinbeck seems unable to find a wryly amusing observation is the segment of his journey that passes through the Deep South. He stops in New Orleans to witness in person a situation that made national news: The ugly crowds shouting slurs and profanity at a young black girl outside a white school that was being forcibly desegregated. During the rest of his trip through Louisiana and Alabama he presents conversations with a couple of white men and a couple of black men that serve to cover the gamut of emotions and opinions. The tidiness of encountering a prime example of each set of beliefs was one of the least believable bits of the book for me, but his intention to show the variety of viewpoints and the wide gulfs between them rings true.

Really, so many of the observations Steinbeck made over the course of his journey could be written today. In that sense, it’s a little depressing how little has changed. On the other hand, I had fun imagining how different his trip would have been if he had an iPhone in his pocket.

I’ll leave you with Steinbeck’s gentle skewering of the Lone Star State:

Texas is the only state that came into the Union by treaty. It retains the right to secede at will. We have heard them threaten to secede so often that I formed an enthusiastic organization — The American Friends for Texas Succession. This stops the subject. They want to be able to secede but they don’t want anyone to want them to.

John Steinbeck

Delicious murder mystery

‘A Bitter Feast’ serves up delectable meals along with its charming detecting duo

You will be forgiven if your mouth waters uncontrollably while reading Deborah Crombie’s latest entry in the Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James mystery series, A Bitter Feast (HarperCollins, 2019). The action is set in the picturesque Cotswolds and centers around a pub in the village of Lower Slaughter, which boasts a world-class chef serving up the ultimate pub food. Why such a talent is toiling in obscurity after having shone at a Michelin-starred London eatery is just one of the mysteries that is eventually unraveled here. Others are more momentous, involving multiple suspicious deaths and the private lives of various village denizens.

Crombie often weaves together storylines from the past and present in her mysteries, and A Bitter Feast is no exception. At regular intervals we jump back to chef Viv Holland’s time in London, learning how her culinary career began and why she left it behind. Characters from that past play key roles in the present, drawing the two storylines together in the end. Meanwhile, Detective Superintendent Kincaid and Detective Inspector James find their holiday weekend turned into a busman’s holiday almost at the off, when Duncan is involved in a serious automobile crash that leaves two people dead. His own injuries keep him from fully asserting himself in the subsequent investigations, but fortunately the local constabulary proves to be both up to the task and not afraid to accept help from Scotland Yard when it’s offered. It’s a refreshing change from the usual obstructionism that local law enforcement tends to exhibit in run-of-the-mill murder mysteries.

Devoted fans of the series will be delighted that even though Gemma and Duncan have ventured out of London and away from their Metropolitan Police home base, many of the series’ most prominent secondary characters are along for the ride. Of course the couple’s children are along, and it’s a relief to find that Duncan’s son Kit is starting to outgrow his overly sensitive teenage persona and becoming a more well-rounded character in his own right. But we also get more-than-cameo appearances from Gemma’s detective sergeant, Melody Talbot, and Duncan’s own DS, Doug Cullen, as the quartet are spending the weekend at the country home of Melody’s posh parents.

And then there’s the food. Oh my, the food! Crombie does a fine job of illustrating the chaos of a working commercial kitchen, and an even better job of describing the output of that process in delectable ways. I wasn’t very far into reading before I was tempted to book the next flight to the Cotswolds. Only the knowledge (revealed in Crombie’s author’s note) that the pub and chef are fictional kept me curled up in my reading chair until the end.

For me, the appeal of Crombie’s work is tilted more heavily toward the compelling characters and world that she has created, though there’s nothing wrong with her plotting. I love both Duncan and Gemma, and I enjoy spending time with them, their blended family, and their friends. It was smart of Crombie to give a fresh feel to the series by moving the action outside of London, while retaining the core character set that drives much of the reader’s interest. And as always, even as a mystery is solved, the characters’ lives continue to grow and develop. This time around, I’m eager to read the next entry to find out how Melody’s personal dilemma resolves itself.

If you’re already a fan of Duncan and Gemma et al., you don’t need me to tell you this is worth your time. If you’ve not had the pleasure of meeting them yet, I would suggest starting with the first in the series, A Share in Death, and working your way forward. Some series don’t need to be read in order, but this one is infinitely more rewarding if you experience the characters’ growth and change along the way.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Outside the covers

What I’ve been reading lately besides books

A weekly roundup of long reads you won’t find between the covers of a book.

📰 Nina Martyris serves up a variety of ways that the world’s most popular beverage has made its presence known in fiction in When Tea Reaches Its Boiling Point in Fiction, So Too May the Story. It’s hardly surprising, then, that it’s not just tea drinkers who are addicted to the seductions of hot tea — writers are, too. Across tea-drinking cultures, in China, England, India, Russia, Egypt or the U.S., writers have milked hot tea for all its worth to add a splash of narrative panache to comic or erotic scenes or to build mood, momentum and character. (via NPR’s The Salt)

📰 This one hits home. When I first read Noreen Malone’s The Case — Please Hear Me Out — Against the Em Dash , I got a little defensive. I am an enthusiastic supporter of em dashes, as you’ll know if you’ve read much of this blog. I know the convoluted Unicode to conjure them on a computer running Windows (ALT+0151). I know how to achieve the same mark with much less effort on a Mac (Option+Shift+-). They are useful little marks, more visually appealing and less formal than parentheses. But in the interest of presenting all sides of a contentious issue, I’ll let you read Ms. Malone’s treatise and make up your own minds. (via Slate’s The Good Word)

📰 Living in the rural Midwest as I do, I read and hear a lot about the shrinking small towns in Iowa and the rest of the heartland. Everyone can see the problem, but no one has yet come up with a viable solution. As I learned while reading ‘This Is All We Can Afford’: Shrinking Lives in the English Countryside, England is facing much the same problem. The compelling story by Ceylan Yaginsu is illustrated with achingly poignant photos by Laetitia Vancon. (via The New York Times)